Kitchen Gadgets, Pantry Organization and Planning Make for Dinner on a Deadline

8 years ago

Cooking dinnerIn late April, Michael Ruhlman called out Americans who say they don't have time to prepare decent meals. "Maybe you don't like to cook, maybe you're too lazy to cook, maybe you'd rather watch television or garden, I don't know and I don't care, but don't tell me you're too busy to cook," Ruhlman said in his Huffington Post piece. "We all have the same hours every day, and we all choose how to use them. Working 12-hour days is a choice."

Anita of Married With Dinner applauded Ruhlman for stirring the pot and kicked off her own blog series in response: For 12 weeks, Dinner on a Deadline provides weekly quick-preparation recipes of good, wholesome food, coaching very busy cooks who don't think they can make dinner happen on an over-scheduled night. Says Anita in the series' first post:

" ... even though I love nothing more than spending hours in the kitchen, the realities of my job and my life mean it’s a luxury that I can’t have all the time. Cooking on a daily basis requires planning. It also means relying not necessarily on convenience foods, but convenient food."

I sent Anita some questions about the project, and here's what she had to say about how it has been going:

1. What has surprised you the most about the challenge so far?

The biggest surprise was when commenters asked where they should post their homework! I didn't consider Dinner on a Deadline to be a "challenge" (along the lines of Daring Bakers or Dark Days) so much as a recurring feature, so I hadn’t really expected participants to post weekly updates. I'm flattered that other bloggers want to post about their experiences working through the lessons; I love to read everyone's posts and comments.

I'm also surprised at how enthusiastic the response has been from new readers who've never visited our blog before, both experienced cooks and folks who aren't as savvy in the kitchen. We even got a mention in CityPages, the alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis.

2. Where are the participants coming from? Are they mostly U.S.-based, or are you getting any international participation?

Because I'd envisioned Dinner on a Deadline as a feature series, rather than a blog challenge, I didn't ask people to go through a formal sign-up process, so don't really have a good idea about their geography. Most of the people who I see posting and commenting are based in the U.S., but that doesn't surprise me too much; it dovetails with our general readership.

3. During Week 2, you assigned a pantry clean-out exercise. Though I know you keep your pantry extremely organized, what is the most unusual (or absurd, or least useful) item you've found in your pantry during your own decluttering processes? Were you able to use that ingredient in some way, or did it just get pitched?

Well, my pantry isn't always organized; it gets pretty chaotic and I have to do a clean sweep every six months or so. I'd like to be better about keeping it tidy as I go, but that's not something I've been able to master so far.

The last time I de-cluttered, as I was road-testing the homework for Week 2, I got rid of a number of things. Spread across three different cabinets, I discovered four canisters of Mexican chocolate -- two different brands, all of them opened! I took three of them into the office to share. I also got rid of a container of fried taro shreds; they were kind of like those Potato Stix we ate as kids, only Thai. I must've had some brilliant idea about using them as a garnish, but clearly that never materialized. And I had a bottle of hibiscus juice that I'd gotten in a swag bag at a conference; maybe I thought it could make a good cocktail ingredient, somewhere down the line. Luckily those last two were unopened, so I was able to donate them to the food bank.

4. How has running this challenge stretched your own thinking about menu planning and quick-dinner preparation?

On a practical level, we're already doing all of the things we're suggesting: Planning the week's menus ahead, keeping a well-stocked pantry, cooking without hard-and-fast recipes, and so on. Working on the series means I have to plan even further ahead, though, so that I can think through all the angles, plan out the homework, and have photos ready for the sample recipes ... all far enough in advance that I can write the post ahead of time.

Last week, for example, I made three different "no-recipes" meals so I could have options to choose from for this week's post. (Lesson learned: Not every dinner is photogenic, even when it tastes good.) This coming week, we'll be on vacation, so I'll tackle the recipes for an upcoming post about using small-batch prepared foods and other meal-starters from farmers markets and local purveyors. We're renting a house with a kitchen, and we've got a few leads on great products in the city we're visiting.

5. I've noticed that some cooks in the comments have mentioned using a microwave to speed along preparation, but am I right in remembering that you don't have a microwave? How do you get around using that piece of equipment?

You're right! We used to live in a house that had a microwave built into the range hood, so we got rid of our freestanding microwave. When we moved into our current house, we never replaced it. We have a good-sized toaster oven that we use to melt butter and reheat things like pizza. We also do a lot of reheating on the stovetop; it doesn't take much longer than it would in the microwave, when all is said and done.

6. Speaking of equipment, are there three pieces of kitchen equipment that you think are key to making short work of dinner?

You can cook a fabulous dinner with nothing more than a sharp chef's knife, a skillet, and a saucepan. In fact, fancy equipment is often a barrier to quick dinner prep: Save the pasta machine for the weekend, when you have time to play around. For everyday meals, gadgets (especially anything with a plug) almost never give you back the time you spend dealing with the set-up and clean-up.

I use lots of little bowls and ramekins for portioning out mise en place -- they're especially useful for when I tackle some of my meal prep ahead of time. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on that subject.) My Microplane zester lets me grate cheese and citrus zest almost as fast as I can think to add it to a recipe. I'm really stretching to think of three -- maybe a hand-held citrus press or a small ceramic mandolin?

7. How about the three key tools to making short work of stocking one's larder and freezer?

I love our Food Saver vacuum sealer (although I don't like the plastic waste it creates, so I try to use it judiciously); it's a great tool for protecting food from freezer burn.

It sounds funny, but my favorite pantry-organizing tool is the Elfa shelving we installed. Because the shelves themselves are skinnier (top to bottom) than wood shelves, we can fit more staples into our limited space. Also, because the shelves are made of sturdy wire, rather than solid material, we can see through them into the lower levels and the back of the pantry; nothing gets overlooked. And we've got pull-our baskets on the bottom, which we use to store bulky items like specialty sauces and oils for Asian cooking, and bags of chile peppers. We can also easily reconfigure the shelves when our storage needs change, which we love.

I'm also a big fan of cabinet organization hardware like lazy susans, spice-jar risers, and drawer dividers. I've got all my spices in identical jars, all my oils in identical bottles, and all of my flours, sugars, and other bulk goods in the same sort of stackable clear plastic canisters. Much to the amusement of my friends, I label all these bottles, jars, and containers with a label maker. I get a lot of teasing about my geeky storage, but it makes cooking so much more pleasureable for me when I don't have to dig through a mess to find things.

Here are some posts from Dinner on a Deadline readers who have been following along with the assignments:

Are you participating in the challenge? If so, how's it going for you? If not, what are your tried-and-true tips to getting dinner on the table quickly ... without resorting to pre-made or heavily processed food?

Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories. She also tells stories with photos at 5x52.

Photo Credit:
Photo by Eyeliam, shared under an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons License.

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