There's never enough time to cook! (In fact, there's never enough time for anything.) A strategy for busy people to tackle that fridge full of food when there's not enough time to cook, with recipes. (And can we all please stop feeling guilty?)
As I sat on Monday morning contemplating what I would cook this week, there were sooo many options.
Which sounds very glamorous and foodie-ish, but the fact is that it was ugly and cluttered. There were sooo many options because my fridge (and pantry and tabletops and every other surface) was filled with sooo much food.
Which now sounds not only glamorous and foodie-ish, but also bountiful, but that's only because you don't understand. I'm still not explaining this well.
Yes, yes, yes, there was gobs of fresh, organic produce from a local farm. I belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), so I get a big box of veggies and a bag of fruit straight from a local farm every other week. (Yes, it's totally awesome.)
Delivery day was last Friday. Ready or not.
Plus, I frequent our local farmer's market so I can chat with the farmers and pick up whatever wasn't in the delivery. Which means more super-fresh fruits and veggies. (Also totally awesome.)
So there was that.
But there were also partially-eaten scraps from meals past, half-frozen half-onions on the top shelf of the fridge, partially-slimy bunches of parsley that hadn't been used quickly enough, greens turning yellow and limp from neglect, defrosted pork chops that were probably going to go bad any minute now. And something (maybe zucchini?) moldering in the bowels of the vegetable drawer.
So, yes, I may be some sort of fancy-pants food-blogger/recipe-writer/cooking-teacher/etcetera (though like any good writer, my pants are actually far from fancy). But I'm also a mom of two who works from home, volunteers at school/scouts/carpool/church, is trying to find time to somehow both work out and wear makeup every day, has occasional house guests and an upcoming party to plan, and can't ever seem to get dinner on the table on time.
There is never enough time to work, and I never spend enough time with my kids or my husband. My house is never as clean or organized as it should be. I never sleep enough. I never read enough. I don't do enough to help out at school or church or anywhere else. I'm always running late to everything.
And I never get to cook enough.
I'm going to share with you my strategy for tackling this challenge, because I'm quite sure you find yourself in this condition from time to time as well. (Yes, it's a first-world problem. Hello, First World.)
And at the end of this post, I'll share the end of my story this week. (Because as I sit typing these words on Friday morning, I still have sooo many things left to cook. Ever the optimist, I'm hoping to squeeze in a couple more things before I have to click PUBLISH at the end of the day. Never. Enough. Time.)
We start by figuring out which fate will befall each thing:
Sometimes things just have to be thrown out, like that moldy zucchini. It kind of breaks my heart when that happens. In my case, I might have actually met this farmer, or this farmer, or this farmer who grew it. I know how much work it takes to pry delicious food from nature, and how hard it is to make a living farming these days, and how precious our small farmers are in a world of industrial agriculture. I've written about the terrible problem with food waste we have in this country. And I'm well aware that there are lots of people who don't have enough to eat.
When I have to throw out things I didn't get around to cooking, I feel like a complete failure.
But honestly (I tell myself), I shouldn't. And neither should you. The fact is that we all have our children/jobs/spouses/etcetera, and if something has to go in the garbage because other important things have taken our attention this week, can we all just agree to be kind to each other (and to ourselves) about it? I promise not to judge you. (Please don't judge me.)
Almost everything can be frozen! In each case, store it in a freezer bag, flattened with all the air squeezed out. You can stack or "file" these in your freezer to conserve space:
Parsley and other herbs - for soups or stocks, or cooked with a roast
Tomatoes - if plum tomatoes or other hearty varieties: use a sharp knife to make a X-shaped slit in the skin at the base, then blanch in boiling water for a minute or so. Peel off the skin and store in a freezer bag flattened with all the air squeezed out. If more delicate tomatoes, just freeze with the skin intact. Use them in any recipe that calls for canned whole plum tomatoes like this one.
Hearty greens - for soup, vegetable stock or smoothies
Mushrooms - for soup or vegetable stock
Fruit - for smoothies
Broccoli/Cauliflower - separate the florets and freeze them in a single layer. Once frozen, you can combine them into a larger bag if desired. Use for soup.
Carrots and celery - use for soup or stock, or in the bottom of your roasting pan to flavor gravies and sauces.
Onions of all kinds - Spanish onions, leeks, scallions, chives, etc. All can be frozen and used in soups or stocks.
Cooking is actually a strategic move here, not just a way to get a meal on the table. Cook strategically and you do two things:
1) Lengthen the life of your food. Those pork chops about to go bad? When you cook them, you kill all the bacteria and stop the clock. Also, salt, lemon/lime juice, sugar and other spices also have a preserving effect in things like Pico de Gallo, ceviche, jams and jellies, etc.
2) Create more useful ingredients than what you started with. Greens like Swiss chard or spinach are a great example of this: when fresh, you can use them for salad, but only if they're still in super-fresh, crisp condition. But when you cook them, you eliminate the fresh greens that are about to go bad in your fridge, and you replace them with cooked greens that have a longer shelf life and can be used in lots of other dishes (pasta, soup, omelettes, etc.). Pico de Gallo is another example of this - you turn fresh tomatoes into a really useful topping with a longer shelf life.
The word "triage" means three, so outlining the three options above worked out perfectly in theory for a writerly gal like me who cares what the word "triage" actually means.
But for everyone living in the real world, there are actually a couple of additional options, of course:
I don't have a compost system set up. (I keep thinking each spring that this is the year, but it never happens, or at least it hasn't yet.) If you do, this is an obvious place to put things you won't be able to use.
Give It Away
Good for you, good for the recipient, and good for the planet! If you catch things in time and have the presence of mind to think about it (I did not this week), put the word out on Facebook or in a group text. Whenever I do this, I am usually flooded with takers. If you don't have cooking friends, another option is to drop it off at your local soup kitchen. (But please check with them first regarding drop-off procedures. They already have enough to deal with - the last thing they need is our rotting food on their doorstep.)
So Here's What I Did This Week:
I pan-braised the pork chops (recipe below). I'll probably chop up the leftovers and stir them into beans I have in the freezer, along with some cilantro and diced serrano chiles, to make a nice Mexican-style soup.
I roasted potatoes. This was actually irresponsible of me, because they weren't about to go bad or anything. I just had a hankerin' for some yummy roasted potatoes to go with those pork chops, so there you are. (Recipe below).
I made smoothies. They are a great way to use up fruit that is bruised or going a little too soft, and you can also throw in a few leaves of kale or other greens. (Just go easy on the greens or else no one will let you make smoothies again.) And please use frozen fruit too, because the key to a great smoothie is cold.
I made Papa Jack Eggs. This is what we call fried eggs that are made the way my dad ("Papa Jack" to the kids) liked them. Here's what you do:
Fry eggs in whatever your favorite fat is (my dad liked bacon fat, I usually use olive oil) with plenty of salt and pepper. Then, add a splash of water and quickly cover the pan. The water will make steam, which is the whole key. When they're finished, the yolks are still very runny, but the whites are totally cooked on top. Then, on your plate, you chop them up into little diced pieces, and mix all the white pieces around with the yolk, so that every bite has both white and yolk. Eat it with a piece of toast to help you scoop everything up. (Every child who visits my house and says they don't like eggs is offered Papa Jack Eggs, and so far, every one of them loves them.)
We ate a lot of salad.
I made these cute little stuffed squashes, partly to use up food and partly because that will be an awesome recipe to have come Thanksgiving time. :) (recipe below)
Everyone had apples and pears every day.
I still have a lot to get through. So this weekend, I'm planning to make pico de gallo, kale salad, possibly some sort of new collard wrap (still in ideation phase) and grape jelly. I plan to make a couple of dips so we can nibble down our supply of carrots and peppers. And I plan to grill up every single summer squash, eggplant and sweet pepper remaining in my house. And the cauliflower. And after we eat all we can, I'll figure out some other use for the leftovers. And maybe make some chicken stock.
And I'll bring something to my friend's party this weekend. And I'll try to make extra to give away to neighbors.
Wish me luck.
Here are links to the things I made, and the things I'm still planning to make (someone help me!):
P. S. I am 100% sure I will look back at this post when I'm fifteen years older and the kids have moved out, and I'll cringe.
You idiot! I will think. You frittered away your time worrying about moldy zucchini and websites, when you should have been spending every single minute with your kids and husband! Get your priorities straight!!
Future Self, you're right. I promise I'm doing the best I can.