Make It Stretch
As I may have mentioned already, I recently re-entered college. Other than the found-again joy of learning and becoming something more valuable, this life change brought along other things. Things like a tighter budget, or things like absolutely no time to cook and carry 15 units with an average of an A (so far). It took me a bit of figuring, some prior experience and a lot of calculations, but here’s a few of my ideas about how to make food and time stretch even better. A warning note to those who suffer from motion sickness during time travel: this may involve bending the time-space continuum!
1. Prepare ahead. – Like a Boy Scout, be prepared.
When you have more than a sliver of time, and you’re already at the kitchen counter chopping things, think of tomorrow. What do you plan on cooking? Is there any prep work I can do ahead? For example, a lot of vegetables can be chopped or diced ahead of time, then packed in tightly sealed plastic storage boxes, or well wrapped with plastic wrap and stored in the fridge until usage. For making spaghetti, cut up the mushrooms, tomatoes or peppers that go into the sauce; the carrots and parsnips to your soup can also be sliced ahead of time. If you have fresh meat, or if it’s already thawed, cut it up, if needed. For gazing even further into the future, cut up onions in different shapes: slices, fine dice, large dice, rings – whichever you use most commonly – then store them in a zipper or resealable vacuum bag. This way, you can spare the tears from the next time, along with the time it takes to chop the onions! The veggies that generally don’t do well once sliced are eggplant and apples – they have an enzyme that turns them brown as they have contact with the air. Potatoes brown, too, but since they are more resilient to being soaked in water, you can still cut your potatoes ahead of time. Just put them in a bowl of slightly salted water – the salt helps keep the flavor inside the potatoes. You can also prepare things well ahead of time and freeze them: boiled noodles like spaghetti, penne or macaroni can be frozen after cooked and drained, and only needs to be heated to 165 degrees before serving. You can also make a big batch of rice and keep it in smaller pouches in the freezer, or bread a lot of onion rings, and keep the uncooked ones frozen in a zipper bag. The only rule to this preparation is to never refreeze anything that hasn’t been cooked fully. For example, if you thaw a frozen fish fillet, and fully cook it, it is completely fine to put it in the freezer again; however, if you take down a batch of pasta, you will need to use it all after thawing. Freezing does not actually kill bacteria – it only slows them down, so the food would take a lot longer to spoil. Once you thaw it, the bacteria get happy and alive again, and do their best to make up for the time lost. Freezing it again would only slow them down, but now there is a lot bigger concentration of them to help your food spoil – but if you heat the materials to 165 degrees inbetween the two freezes, you sterilize the dish. No bacteria shall pass!
2. Marinate. Everything. – It’s not only for taste.
Marinating meat doesn’t only add delicious flavor to your dishes, it also cuts down on the cooking time by chemically “pre-cooking” the meat for you: it helps loosen up muscle fibers in the meat, which result in a more tender texture and a decreased cooking time. It has an even greater effect if the meat pieces are smaller – this way the marinade can penetrate the tissue better. Small pieces also cook faster, which lets you return to your studying (or other duties) sooner. If you ever felt guilty for “wasting time” with cooking, this is probably the single best culinary advice. In order for the marinade to be effective, it has to be slightly acidic. To increase this acidity, you can add fruit juices, mustard, ranch dressing, or even alcohol (most commonly beer or wine) to the mix. Another way to tenderize the meat is to add natural enzymes to the marinade: soy sauce, milk or buttermilk – in fact, buttermilk does both. Once you have a substance that will help penetrate the meat, add some more flavorings to your liking, submerge the meat in it by either pouring it over the meat in a container, and refrigerating the whole container altogether, or by combining the meat and the marinade in a zipper or vacuum bag. Be careful however that the marinade doesn’t go bad and spoil the meat with it! Milk and buttermilk marinades should not be longer than overnight; alcoholic ones can usually keep well for a day if it’s beer, two if the alcohol used was wine or something even stronger. Fruity marinades can technically keep for up to 4 days, but I don’t recommend it, as the meat may get too sweet from the sugar content in some juices (apple, cranberry, orange). Finally, soy sauce or similar marinades (teriyaki, sukiyaki, etc.) keep pretty much as long as the meat keeps – however, they do speed up the spoilage of the meat, as the bacteria that cause it also have easier access to the tissue they feed on.
3. ”Snacky” Foods – Sometimes a nibble is not so bad
While it’s generally not a good idea to keep specifically “snacky” foods at home, having a healthy snack like nuts, dried fruit or granola bars is always a good thing. They are always on hand, no need for a lot of preparation, and they may just be enough energy to keep you going through that last chapter of revisions. I also consider things like chicken salad, potato salad, sliced cheese or salami, or cocktail olives to be great to have on hand in the fridge. This way, instead of having to prepare a tedious full dish, you can just limit your lunch or dinner to a quick sandwich, a few slices of salami with cheese and olives, or just a small serving of salad, which you can even eat as you read. Just be sure to limit your quantities!
4. Big Batches – Make your own TV dinners
When you do have a chance to cook, cook a huge batch. When the food is ready, serve a few portions into plastic food storage boxes, and place the boxes in an ice bath that does not get into the box itself. Once these dishes have cooled down, freeze them immediately. Every time you grill chicken or fish, grill an extra slice or two, and accompany them with the sides you make in a box, then put them in the freezer. When you’re in a bind for time, just pull one of them out, pop it in the microwave for 3-5 minutes on high while loosely covered, and you have a home-cooked TV dinner in front of you! Not even to mention that if you buy your ingredients in bulk, these dinners may be as low in cost as $1 per serving – and for real flavor, tailored to your personal taste, it’s hard to beat! Soups can be frozen in zipper bags placed in empty milk or cream cartons. Once the soup is frozen solid, just tear off the carton for an easy-to-stack, space-saving cube of soup.
I hope these ideas can help you cut down on cooking time, and feel less guilty for “wasting time” in the kitchen, instead of being “productive” and studying, working, or spending time with anything else you like.
Enjoy your meals!