Cooking Disasters and Ugly Soup

What Not to Do When Cooking

Opportunities for humility are never in short supply.  In a recent class, a participant brought up the perennial problem of cooking failures.  My response began with the reassurance that cooking disasters don’t really happen that often, so don’t let them scare you from the kitchen.   Of course the very next day I enjoyed a full-scale cooking disaster–and got a good reminder of how de-motivating failure can be.

Ugly Soup

It wasn’t that my Ugly Soup tasted so bad, but more that is was so profoundly taste-less–which is about as bad!

My vegetable soup started out the right way:  Making a broth with chicken bones, then using it to cook some leftover broccoli stalks which got pureed in the blender.  But then I decided to throw in a handful of rice to see how it cooks up in a lots of liquid instead of a carefully measured amount.  Next came some of last autumn’s kale from the freezer.  Things were looking very green, so I sautéed and added some onion and then a few marinated sun-dried tomatoes.  Finally, worried that the flavor was on the bland side, I dumped in Herbes de Provence.

For once, I had to force myself to eat the resulting conglomeration.  Despite integrating a little color, it was still an unappetizing shade of green.  The taste was completely uneventful.  Plus, the rice didn’t have time to cook through so it was raw-tasting.  And then there was the far more serious crunch of chicken bones.  Seems I did a halfway job straining my chicken broth and a few got into the blender (which explained the funny noise the blender had been making!)  No surprise that I yearned for something more after forcing my way through a bowl of my Ugly Soup.  Needless to say, the recipe doesn’t follow.

So even after 40 years in the kitchen, disasters still happen.  But as they say in the positive thinking business, mistakes are less important than the response.  After a disaster, do you retreat into the welcoming arms of the processed foods industry (which thrives on making us feel incapable of feeding ourselves)?  Or do you filter out the chicken bones and try again?

If you are interested in transitioning to a healthy eating lifestyle, the second option is the only option.  The reason is simple:  We cannot maintain a healthy eating lifestyle without cooking our own meals from real foods.  A diet of packaged and processed foods cannot yield good health unless chosen with extreme care and eaten with extreme discipline–something that is practically unattainable.

Given that disasters cannot excuse us from the kitchen, what can we learn to help us get back in the saddle again?

  • For starters, always strain your chicken broth.
  • Avoid the last minute approach.  Dashing flavors together in a hurry may be something TV chefs can do, but most of us benefit from a little time for deliberation.  Or stick with a recipe created by someone who took time to figure out good flavorings.
  • Instead, think ahead.  The think-ahead approach always delivers the best results–and takes the stress out of cooking.  Had I thought ahead, I would have cooked the rice the night before when there was plenty of time for it to soften into a nice, fluffy thickener.
  • Herbs and spices, in particular, benefit from forethought.  Dumping spices into a dish at the very end stunts their flavor potential miserably.
  • Mind the colors in a dish  We really do eat with our eyes as well as our stomachs.  So even though I was full after eating my soup, my eyes were still hungry–and they are very close to the brain that sends me foraging for more food!
  • Finally:  Join one of our cooking classes!  We love to share all the confidence-building tricks and tips, new recipes, new flavors and cooking basics that take the overwhelm out of healthful, everyday meal preparation.  See how simple, easy cooking can be fun and engaging.  Check out our schedule.
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Vegetable Exhaustion

Investment Thinking + 4 Days of Meal Ideas Put Ease into a Vegetable Life

I suffered a case of Vegetable Exhaustion last night while driving to a friend’s house, loaded with prepared vegetables.  After a nasty ski accident landed her in bed for three months, she readily accepted my offer for a few vegetable dishes.  So I spent the better part of a day making a roasted beet salad, green salad with sautéed mushrooms and onions, Beef Stew with Tomatoes, Turnips and Leeks, and kale salad with golden raisins and almonds.

Beef Stew with Tomatoes, Turnips and Leeks

Find all sorts of great recipes at VegetableAMonth.com, like this Beef Stew with Tomatoes, Turnips and Leeks

“Dang!” I groused to myself on the drive to her house.  “How could it have take so long to make four vegetable dishes?”

On average, I get sucked into these head debates about once each month.  A tipping point is reached, I get overwhelmed and aggravated, and off I go, demanding to know why vegetables take so long.  I’m guessing I’m not alone in these outbursts.  In fact, the time commitment required for vegetable cooking is undoubtedly a big part of the reason only one in ten of us eats the recommended daily servings.

So is there any hope for a peaceful coexistence with vegetables?  There has to be.  Vegetables are far too important (and delicious) to be squeezed out by the clock.  But how to still the discontent and debate provoked by these hard-to-crack powerhouses?

Here’s what calmed me down yesterday:  “Investment thinking,” or taking the long view.  If I limited my view plane to a single day, then of course I spent way too much time on vegetables yesterday.  But if I instead took a long view of things, what seemed like wasted time was magically transformed into an investment with a payoff.

Remember, I had made four vegetable dishes—some in quadruple batches!  Although several servings were going to my bedridden friend, one day’s effort still left me with enough green stuff for three more days.  And truth be told, I didn’t really spend the entire day cooking vegetables, only about three hours.  So a three-hour investment yielded a total of  four days’ worth of lunches and dinners.  Not a bad return!  In fact, that payoff is a lot better option than driving to, ordering and coming home with fast food multiple times.

But I didn’t stop with taking a long view.  Not wanting any of my payoff to go to waste, I also jotted down a quick plan for using everything up to maximum advantage.  Reproduced below, it also gives a few hints for maximizing prep time.  For instance, I actually started the green salad a night before, taking advantage of the extra meal making time made available by having leftovers for the rest of the meal.  See if any of my efficiency tricks can help lighten your nightly meal making load.

Saturday–Start Making Ahead

Dinner

  • Leftover Coq au Vin (a fancy French name for chicken cooked in wine)
  • Leftover Brown Rice
  • Simple Green Salad with shredded Jerusalem artichokes and red peppers, topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions

Notes:  With the entrée and starch already cooked, this was a good night to

  1. cut and wash enough lettuce for several meals,
  2. make enough sautéed mushrooms and onions for two nights,
  3. roast some beets, and
  4. throw a few potatoes in the oven to bake.  Now I had a few “cooked resources” to work with.

Sunday, the Big Vegetable Prep Day

Breakfast

  • Leftover Coq au Vin

Notes:  Eating leftovers again freed up time to brown the meat for Beef Stew with Tomatoes and Turnips and get it into the crockpot.

Lunch

  • Roasted Beet Salad with Apples, Celery and Nuts

Notes:  Because the beets were roasted the night before, preparing the beet salad was easy.  That, in turn, freed up time to prepare the vegetables for the Beef Stew, make croutons to freshen up the salad, and prep a double batch of kale salad plus two batches of kale for sautéing.

Dinner

Notes:   By the time dinner rolled around, the slow cooker stew smelled and tasted divine and a great salad was had by just reheating the sautéed mushrooms and onions and tossing on some fresh croutons.  The payoff begins.

Monday:  More Payoffs

Breakfast

  • Leftover Beef Stew

Lunch

  • Leftover Salad, Nicoise Style, with canned tuna, some of the leftover baked potatoes, chopped apples and frozen petite green beans

Dinner

  • Thai Coconut Soup (Tested the recipe for previous blog.)
  • Brown Basmati Rice
  • Orange Slices

Notes: No problem making a new vegetable soup since the rest of the day has required no vegetable cooking.

Tuesday

Breakfast

  • Leftover Beet Salad

Lunch

  • More Salad, Nicoise Style

Dinner

  • Leftover Beef Stew
  • Kale Salad

Notes: Again, no problem making the kale salad since I’ve had leftovers the rest of the day and the kale is already cut and washed.

Wednesday–Yet One More Day of Payoffs

Breakfast

  • Leftover Kale Salad pumped up with leftover Brown Basmati Rice

Lunch

  • Tomato Basil Soup (Imagine brand)
  • Leftover frozen green beans from Salad Nicoise

Dinner

  • Sauteed Kale with Onions and Garlic
  • Leftover Baked Potatoes with Miso Gravy
  • Baked Apples

Hopefully this “demo” shows how efficient meal making is a sort of “rolling” procedure.  One day’s leftovers lightens the next day’s load enough to make double or triple batches that, in turn, lighten the next day’s load.  Read more about investment thinking and how to ease into the time-saving plan ahead habit, both covered in Take Control of Your Kitchen.

Ready to start living a vegetable life like this?  Check out VegetableAMonth.com, as well as my Twitter column to the left.

Vegetables for a Vegetable Life

Vegetables for a Vegetable Life

What’s for Dinner on Hot Summer Nights?

Put Some “Summer Style” into Your Meals

When the weather turns hot, deciding what’s for dinner can leave you feeling completely cold and clueless.  All our usual standbys seem to lose their appeal in the heat.

The problem may lie less with the weather and more with our mealtime “wardrobe.”  Nobody dons turtlenecks and wool pants to face the heat of summer.  We switch wardrobes for the season!  Likewise, we need to put a little “summer style” into the mealtime lineup when hot weather rolls in.

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While meats go hand in glove with a grill, don't forget about vegetables. I think of the grill as my "summer oven." Whether it's sweet potatoes, zucchinni or asparagus, whatever I might roast in the winter, I grill in the summer, getting the same, tender browned vegetables with a sweetly concentrated flavor.

Beyond Grilling Grilling is the most obvious option, so common in fact, that in some households the stovetop is basically mothballed for the summer.  If you’re ready to expand your summer style beyond the grill, however, there are plenty of other options.  Think *light, *cool and *fresh.

  • Light Instead of those roasts that are so comforting in December, take advantage of the wonderful fresh fish shipped down from Alaska in the summer, like salmon, halibut and cod.  Serve with a fruit salsa or fresh herb pesto.  Maybe even go meatless some nights and combine a couple vegetable dishes and a grain.
  • Light Instead of heavy stews and casseroles, get imaginative with salads.  A bed of lettuce can be the backdrop for a wide range of “accessories,” from proteins like fish, chicken and steak to beans of every color, nuts of every stripe, cheeses of every flavor, fresh herbs and of course, practically any vegetable, either raw, pan-fried or grilled.  Then play with one of the many uniquely-flavored dressings on the market if you don’t want to make your own.
  • Cool When it comes to grain dishes, serve them salad-style rather than as hot skillets.  Cook grains in the morning, cool in the frig all day, then use as a salad base.  Cooled buckwheat, for instance, tastes sweet and nutty.  Combine it with sliced sugar snap peas, sauteed onions and mushrooms, toasted walnuts and roasted red peppers.  Add a simple dressing of olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon juice and you’ve got a refreshing one-dish meal.
Fruit is another stellar salad addition, especially fresh, but dried will work until flavorful fresh fruits come to market.

Fruit is another stellar salad addition, especially fresh, but dried will work until flavorful fresh fruits come to market.

  • Cool Summer is an ideal opportunity to be lazy.  Blame the heat if “all” you get on the table is a sandwich or wrap.  But don’t be fooled; bread and tortillas can easily pack a completely filling, balanced and tasty meal.  Consider even a simple turkey wrap made with a whole grain tortilla, bursting with shredded carrots, red pepper strips, cucumber slices and lettuce.  With or without cheese, it looks like a full meal to me!  Make it even more special with pesto mayonnaise.
  • Cool Or you could skip the bread and tortillas and simply serve up some “cold cuts,” but not the kind with unpronounceable preservatives and colorings in them.  Many stores now carry deli meats that (imagine this) contain just meat flavored only by salt, spices and plant-derived compounds.  (e.g., Applegate Farms Herbed Turkey Breast).  Serve slices rolled with lettuce and tomato inside.  Or serve tofu slices Japanese style, with green onions, soy sauce and sesame seeds.  Or canned canned tuna fillets with light rye crisps and mustard.  Or cold chicken strips dipped in prepared peanut sauce.
  • Fresh Closely related to the idea of cold cuts, finger foods take advantage of the amazing array of fresh fruits and vegetables available in the hot months.  Imagine lounging on the patio in the shade, nibbling on a plate of simply sliced vine-ripened tomatoes, crisp Asian cucumbers, juicy watermelon, and chili-lime corn on the cob?  That’s one of our favorite summertime meals.  For a little more substance, pair it with cheese and crackers, hummus and pitas, nuts or French bread.
  • Fresh Pasta is perfect for summertime, especially in salads.  Hot pasta can be fine, too, just sans the heavy cream and thick tomato sauces.  Instead, combine with fresh vegetables lightly cooked and tie together with light broth-based sauces featuring fresh herbs and olive oil.  Top with a little fresh Parmesan, feta or chevre.  Check out Lynn’s Super Fast Spinach Pasta Dish in the Vegetable A Month Club for a good example–and starting point.  That dish can be creatively modified to showcase practically any of summer’s luscious vegetables.  P.S. Don’t forget to use whole grain pasta.

One final tip:  Don’t wait until 5:00 when you’re driving home in a hot car to decide on dinner.  All these great ideas will vanish like a heat mirage as you just struggle to get home intact.  Take the time now, with everything fresh in your mind, to plan several meals drawing on these ideas.

Mary Collette Rogers, meal planning master, is the author of Take Control of Your Kitchen, the guide to managing our cooking time like a pro.  Find out more about the “Plan Ahead Habit,” the most important piece of a smooth-running dinner operation.

Portrait of Pantry Meals for a Week

So you’re convinced that the pantry is a smart time investment.  Let’s look at how a real life pantry works, so you can begin to see what kinds of things can be bought, successfully stored, then translated into deliciously quick meals.

Key fact to remember:  the pantry is bigger than just a couple cupboards on the back porch where you store extra boxes of cereal and cans of coffee.  Think of the “pantry” as encompassing the frig, freezer and practically every other cupboard in the kitchen.  All these locations can hold foods that can be bought in advance and stored for at least a couple weeks which, by the way, is the definition of a “pantry staple.”

Viewing the pantry in these more expansive terms presents a lot more opportunities.  For me, discovering the pantry possibilities of the freezer has been especially fun.  Year after year, I discover more and more foods that can be successfully and conveniently stored in the freezer to facilitate fast and efficient mealmaking.  I even adopted a deep freezer that a neighbor was discarding a couple years ago and, as you’ll see this in the following table, I draw on it extensively for winter meals:

Day 1

  • Poached Salmon with Celeriac and Pear Mirepoix
  • Wild Rice with Butter
  • Sauteed Green Beans
  1. From the freezer:  salmon, green beans
  2. From the frig:  celeriac, pears, carrots, green onions preserved in olive oil, butter
  3. From the cupboards:  onions, wild rice blend, spices

Day 2

  • Sun-Dried Tomato Salmon Cakes
  • Peas with Butter
  • Leftover Wild Rice
  1. From the freezer:  sweet green peas
  2. From the frig:  leftover rice and salmon, mustard, ketchup, eggs
  3. From the cupboards:  sun-dried tomatoes, breadcrumbs, spices

Day 3

  • Steak with Moroccan Spices
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Cumin Scented Cabbage Salad
  1. From the freezer:  steak, corn on the cob
  2. From the frig:  cabbage, carrots, apples
  3. From the cupboards:  Italian salad dressing, spices

Day 4

  • Carrot Cashew Soup
  • Roasted Potatoes
  1. From the frig:  carrots, celeriac, cashews, bottled ginger
  2. From the cupboards:  garlic, onion, potatoes, spices, chicken broth

Day 5

  • Fish Tostadas
  • Leftover Cabbage Slaw
  1. From the freezer:  white fish, green peppers, red peppers
  2. From the frig:  leftover cabbage slaw
  3. From the cupboards:  tostada shells, salsa, diced chilies, spices

Day 6

  • Spaghetti Squash Marinara with Pesto Gratin
  • Sauteed Spinach with Lemon and Garlic
  1. From the freezer:  pesto, chopped spinach
  2. From the frig:  lemon
  3. From the cupboards:  spaghetti squash, marinara sauce, breadcrumbs, garlic

Day 7

  • Pumpkin and Black Bean Stew with Green Peppers
  • Brown Rice
  • Carrot Sticks
  1. From the freezer:  green peppers
  2. From the frig:  limes, carrots
  3. From the cupboards:  rice, black beans, onions, pumpkin, chilies, salsa, garlic, canned tomatoes

Surprised at how many meals I can make without having to set foot in a grocery store?  And they aren’t just mac ‘n cheese or spaghetti.  They are real, healthful, balanced and interesting meals that are a delight to eat.

Since I always go a week or two between shopping trips (sometimes more), I shouldn’t be surprised that I can eat so well and long from my pantry.  Nevertheless, every time I write things out as in this exercise, I’m amazed at how bountiful a pantry can be.

Ready to begin experimenting with a pantry.  Build one if you’re pantry-less, or if you’ve got a pantry, find out how to make the most of it.   Check out my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which explains what to buy and how to store and organize it for easy access, or email to set up some individual kitchen coaching where we focus on setting up a helpful and healthful pantry. Also, check out tomorrow’s blog: How to Stock the Pantry, and you might like to read all the articles in this series:

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

Putting the Comfort and Joy Back Into Holiday Meals

Seven Tips to Tone Down the Stress of Holiday Meals

Isn’t it amazing how the holidays bring out the worst in us—especially family gatherings? No wonder they make such perfect fodder for movies!

While there is undoubtedly a whole passel of psychological triggers that set off the fireworks around this time of year, stress surely exaggerates the display. That’s probably why so many articles address this insidious guest, who can quickly make mincemeat of what should be a happy and comforting time of year.

So in the spirit of happier and saner holiday gatherings, this article series offers a few secrets (seven, to be exact) for toning down the stress around one of the biggest stressors of all: holiday meal making.

Stress-Reducing Secret No. 1: Don’t Get Locked in a “Last-Minute Pressure Cooker” There’s nothing like the last minute when it comes to inducing high levels of stress. It’s a horrible time to do anything, whether writing a term paper or deciding what to eat. The pressure of last minute action shuts down the part of the brain that can calmly and creatively deal with a situation. Instead, we go into survival mode, where the brain focuses solely on how to get out of a jam in the fastest way possible.

Decisions do get made, but the process is hardly fun and the results are usually less than inspired—just the opposite of what we crave at this time of year. Who doesn’t want to flip through some holiday magazines and slobber over the gorgeous pictures of inventive sweet potatoes dishes and to-die-for variations on pumpkin pie? So take the time to enjoy doing that, but not two days before Thanksgiving. Do it NOW!

This is a reminder that, before you know it, Thanksgiving week will arrive along with its attendant panic for non-planners.

Here’s another piece of advice so planning doesn’t become stressful in and of itself: Soften your expectations. In other words, go right ahead and slobber over that inventive sweet potato dish, but then honestly assess whether you have the time, skills and energy to pull it off without undue stress.

Bear in mind that planning ahead can make a lot of things possible that might not otherwise be doable. For instance, many more complex dishes can be made over two or three days if you know what you’re making and you’ve done the shopping.

Even with the best time management, however, a dish may be just too much. So skip it and don’t feel badly for a minute! There are hundreds of great Thanksgiving recipes out there. Find one that will be fun to make, but not overwhelming—or stressful. Alternatively, take a familiar recipe and just “dress it up,” Secret No. 4.

Coming up over the next week:

PLUS!  Want to find, learn and practice some great holiday recipes?  Check out my Healthy and Inspired, Holiday Cooking Classes.  Doesn’t matter if you live near or far, the classes are offered over the phone!  If you live in the Denver metro area, you can join in one of the live classes.  Click here for all the details.

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