Those who read this blog regularly will know that for most of its existence I have been freelance, working a maximum of four days per week, generally from home. Which has meant that cooking for both the site, and for myself and friends, has been easily achieved whilst working. I would saunter off to the shops when I needed a break, start some bread in the time it took to boil a kettle, and instead of spending forty minutes on the train home, I’d walk two seconds to my fridge and start deciding what to make.
Since January, though, such a sauntering lifestyle has been a memory because I have been back in an office five days per week, out early, home late. And, my, I’d forgotten what a toll that takes on everything else. Suddenly, there are no impromptu trips to the supermarket or the Turkish shop for a missing ingredient, no leisurely recipe-browsing and choosing over lunch and definitely no baking. Cooking has dropped very low down the league of priorities, behind laundry, getting fresh air to offset the air-conditioning (how quickly we stop going out for lunch…) and sleep. So far, I have always cooked when home, and not resorted to things on toast, but only just. This weekend I decided to be a little more organised. Because, in reality, eating well is less about time, more about planning. If you spend a couple of hours thinking about what you will cook, what you already have and what you need, you can avoid the knee-jerk, and often expensive, trip to whichever branch of ‘Local’ is on your way home. Here are my top five tips.
Keep a good storecupboard
I have no freezer, and very little cupboard space, but the judicious purchase of a few tins of cannellini beans or bags of lentils along with some tinned tomatoes means I can always make a good soup like a ribollita or make something quick with pulses. I have always chosen recipes based on how few steps they have and how many ingredients you need to buy; the perfect recipe requires about five of each and, if you have some spices, tins and grains that number often falls.
Grow a few herbs
You only need a tiny space for this (a window ledge will do) but fresh herbs will make a huge difference. Try chive pesto, add thyme to flatbreads, or make a coriander mojo sauce for grilled meat or fish.
Learn how to make, or buy, low-effort, high-impact ingredients
A few tricks, some careful shopping and there will always be something good to eat at home. Homemade cooking chorizo, which will take you five minutes to prep, will transform scrambled eggs or a quesadilla; dukka is great as a dip, but also lovely on salads and roasted vegetables and, even if you don’t want to make it yourself, a sheet of ready-made shortcrust lends itself to tart after tart.
Review your leftovers (and, no, I don’t mean with stars…)
I now shop at the weekend (which I hate; so many people, so little stock left…) and try only to go once. So, by Wednesday lunchtime, distractedly staring out of the window, I am often trying to remember what I have left and what I need to get. Last week I realised that a quick review the night before would save me a lot of wasted time and money. Leftover cheese and dairy is perfect with gnocchi, leftover greens can be transformed into great soup, and potatoes and chorizo get the princess treatment in patatas riojanas.
Also, deliberately make leftovers: if you make double the rice you need, you can have fried rice the next night; same with couscous or bulgur wheat (have the leftovers in a salad with whatever herb is on the window ledge), potatoes, chicken… I highly recommend this book for finding solutions for all sorts of stuff.
Use your cookbooks
I have over 150 cookbooks, and I fully admit that I am addicted to them, both as a publishing geek and cook, but I often think that you only need three or four. One easy, go-to book full of ideas (my favourites are anything by Nigel Slater, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Every Day, the Riverford books and Nigella Express), a cooking bible to refer to for everything else, especially cooking times and techniques (I learnt from Delia’s Complete Cookery Course; many swear by the Leith’s Bibles and a recent rainy weekend made me realise how good the Good Housekeeping Cookery Course is too) and, third, something that teaches you lots of new and different ideas (my favourites are Meera Sodha, if you like Indian food, Fuchsia Dunlop for Szechuan, Peter Gordon for brilliant, inventive combinations, Bill Granger for sunny, easy Antipodean inspiration).
However, whether you have three or 103, the real trick with cookbooks is to use them. I use mine constantly, and the time I spend browsing, with a Post-It note or two, makes such a difference; suddenly I have a new use for that leftover cheese, or those chicken thighs, and I’m not boring myself with the same dishes. If you make a point of lifting yours off the shelf, not just for the recipes you know but to find something new, you might find your Wednesday night dinners equally lifted.
And, if you have read this far, then you deserve a treat; this recipe comes from Stéphane Reynaud’s 365 Good Reasons to Sit Down and Eat, via The Wine Society‘s great round-up of how to use leftovers and it is so quick that I made it for lunch at the same time as I made eggs for breakfast. Though in some ways it is cheese on toast, it is so, so much better.
Leftover cheese tart
Makes enough for 4ish; I used a rectangular baking sheet but I think it might be better in a smaller, deeper tart tin. Best served hot
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
leftover cheese, 200g
ground nutmeg, a pinch
whipping or double cream, 200ml
store-bought shortcrust pastry, 1 sheet (about 320g)
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan-assisted/Gas 6.
2. Chop the cheese up into small pieces.
3. Beat the eggs with the nutmeg and cream.
4. Lay the pastry sheet in a tin (seal any gaps or splits by tearing off a bit from the edge and pressing it over the split).
5. Cover the pastry with the cheese and walnuts, tip over the eggs and cream then bake until crisp and bubbling (about 20 minutes).