I love food. I particularly love the trifecta of food: delicious, nutritious and easy to make. I haven’t always done a lot of cooking. Or I should say, I used to be a much lesser cook. I’m not really sure what happened. It’s almost as if I used to think that really delicious meals took hours to cook and required some sort of refined skill. And so I didn’t cook really delicious meals. Instead I stuck with a few very basic meals that took very little effort. They were relatively healthy (back in the day I thought a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce was a healthy meal), and they were definitely easy to make. But they were far from delicious.
I’m not sure when I made the discovery that truly delicious (but still nutritious) food can actually made with little effort and little time. But it’s something that can’t be unlearned. And so now I cook delicious and nutritious meals often; but I am far from a slave to the kitchen. In fact most of the meals shown in the photos scattered throughout this article took about 30 minutes to make. That’s 30 minutes fridge to fork (F2F); not 30 minutes once you’ve already cut and measured everything like you see on most cooking shows.
It recently occurred to me that many fitness gurus and those who live healthy lifestyles don’t really know how to make great food. I’m sorry if I have offended, but it had to be said. I see some truly horrible recipes masquerading as healthy and “delicious”. And on the other side of the coin, a lot of great chefs don’t seem to understand nutrition well. Somehow it is difficult to have taste and health in one recipe. It would sure be nice to see a cookbook collaboration by a great nutritionist and a great chef. Imagine a John Berardi and Jamie Oliver cookbook. That would be awesome!
But in the meantime, I will try to fill a bit of the void by sharing some of what I’ve picked up about cooking over the years, combined with some of what I know about nutrition. I am fortunate to have some truly great cooks among my friends and family, and I’ve learned from all of them. This is actually volume two of this list. Volume 1, Real world tips for healthier eating, has a bigger focus on the nutrition side. The 10 tips below relate more to the delicious cooking side:
1. Just cook already. It’s actually faster than you think. In fact if you really think about it, it’s probably faster to cook something than it is to drive to the nearest fast food outlet, stand in line to order your take out and then drive home. It’s most definitely healthier and tastier. Plus there’s the added bonus that you get leftovers. Delicious, nutritious and quick to reheat leftovers. I had leftovers for lunch today: steak with pasta and salad. How about you?
2. Cut onions with swim goggles. I figured this one out shortly after buying a pair of swim goggles with the intention of swimming several times each week and then realizing that I really don’t like swimming. My eyes are quite sensitive, so cutting onions is typically a cry-fest for me. But no more. Yes, it looks ridiculous. But cutting onions is now an easy and enjoyable task (enjoyable on account of I get a little chuckle over how ridiculous I know they look).
3. For stir-fry, cook the vegetables first. Most people cook the meat first and then add the vegetables. Probably because vegetables tend to take less time to cook. Solid reasoning, but not a good idea. Unless you want your stir-fry to have a runny sauce. Vegetables are largely made up of water, and when you cook them, much of that water leaves the vegetables and enters the pan. Cook the vegetables first, take them out of the pan while you cook the meat, and then add them back at the end, and your meal will live up to its deliciousness potential.
4. Meat goes on sale. I’m curious to see if I’m the only person who is suspicious of sale meat. Anyone else? Until recently (like really recently), I thought that whenever meat was on sale, it was because it was going bad. So obviously, I avoided it like the plague. And of course, I looked with judging eyes at those of you who were smart enough to buy your meat on sale. I was shopping with a close friend when I made a comment about not getting some meat because it was on sale and she looked at me like I had two heads. Then she laughed. And finally she explained to me that I was being ridiculous, and that I should actually give thought to my theory: we live in Canada where there are health laws and selling expired meat is not okay. She picked up one of the packages of sale meat and pointed out that the best before date was in fact in the future. It was a huge “ah-ha” moment for me. Now when I shop, I look to see if any meat is on sale, and often let that guide what I’m going to cook. Some of the sales are unreal: I bought pork tenderloin last week for $2.99/lb!
5. Use a screen. That is, the thing that looks vaguely like a tennis racket but with a metal screen. It’s pretty cool – it keeps stuff from splattering from the pot or pan onto the stove. This is particularly useful when cooking anything in oil (even if it is not much oil), and when making sauces or soups. Much easier to clean the stove later!
6. Frozen vegetables. Fresh rules in summer, but frozen is an amazing option in the winter. You know how annoying the fresh (“fresh”) vegetables are in winter: they don’t taste very good, they are very expensive, and they go bad so fast. In fact I suspect frozen vegetables are healthier than “fresh” in the winter if you live in a winter climate. I just can’t imagine that the truck ride from California makes for great quality produce. And remember that frozen vegetables are much better than they once were. Individual flash freezing has done wonders for them. They are easy to use and quite delicious. And you may even be able to find a brand that were farmed nearby, like the Arctic Gardens ones for me. I love that my winter vegetables are local.
7. Use reputable recipes. It’s really easy to follow a good recipe, and your success rate with cooking good recipes should be very high. To help ensure your recipes work, avoid using recipes from random websites. At least until you get the hang of cooking. There are many recipes online that either don’t work or just don’t taste very good. When you have been cooking for a while, you can recognize recipes that won’t work well. Until then, stick with known quantities. I have three go to recipe books that I’m going to share:
As you can see, I am a fan of America’s Test Kitchen. Once you try their recipes, I suspect you will be too.
There are also a few places on the internet I go to for great recipes:
- allrecipes.com. There is lots of great stuff here. If you decide to get recipes here, look for ones that have hundreds of reviews but still have an average rating in the 4-5 star range.
- thekitchn.com. I don’t worry much about ratings on this one (I can’t recall if they even have them) because the recipes are all good.
- Williams-Sonoma: The Essentials of Roasting (including great recipes)
- The Fanny Farmer Cookbook. This is a must-have in the kitchen. I don’t find the recipes here are amazing . In fact they are a bit boring by my standards. But it is full of the basics, like how to cook corn on the cob, and liquid measurement conversions. Get your copy.
8. Make roasts. I’m guessing your mom and dad never shared how easy they are to make because it would make it seem like they didn’t slave over Sunday dinner. But here’ s a secret: they didn’t slave over Sunday dinner. Roast is delicious, inexpensive, nutritious and easy to make. Try it.
9. If you are cooking beef and plan to have leftovers, lean toward rare for the first cooking, because reheating it will cook it a bit more. That is as long as you are okay with rare.
10. Get a good meat thermometer. People who cook without meat thermometers tend to overcook meat because they worry that they’ll get sick if the undercook it. People who cook with meat thermometers enjoy tender and juicy, perfectly cooked meats. It’s up to you. Now the meat thermometer will only help if you know what temperature the meat should reach. You can google this, or consider getting a reference cookbook like:
11. Grate is far from great. I’m talking about parmesan. I love parmesan. But I’m a bit of a snob about it. And if you’ve tried freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, then you know what I’m talking about. If you use parmesan, please, I beg of you, stop buying the grated stuff, and buy a piece of the good stuff and then grate it yourself just before you use it. I suggest this primarily because the difference in flavour is so extreme that I am having trouble coming up with a comparison that does it justice. Imagine the best meal you’ve ever eaten, and now imagine the worst. It’s like that. The other reason is that the pre-grated stuff doesn’t last well. I suspect it’s due to the air that ends up in the container. Personally I find the pre-grated stuff does not last well in my fridge, but the chunk does. Now if you are thinking that yours doesn’t go bad, it’s probably because you buy the Kraft stuff from the shelf in the middle of the grocery store. Think about that for a minute though. It’s cheese. But it doesn’t require refrigeration. You sure that’s something you want to eat?
Hopefully some of these tips will help get you into the kitchen and creating some delicious and nutritious meals for you and your family. Because the thing is, junk food is much less appealing when it’s up against delicious home cooking. And home cooking really doesn’t have to take long.
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