I’ve mentioned before that I’m a baker at heart, not a cook. My favorite things in the kitchen are caught up in the baking side of things: the feel of warm naan dough in my hands, Pippin and Scout’s help rolling molasses spice cookies in Demerara sugar.
But increasingly people I love can’t eat the things I love to make, and I find myself feeling guilty serving them even to people in the clear. Do we ever really need brownies?
“Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.” –G. K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Thrift”
First, let me say, there is nothing wrong with just having a meal plan rotation. I have recipes I use over and over and even a homemade cookbook of favorites. But I often find I have things to use up, and wanted to share my strategies for avoiding waste in the kitchen.
When we had this newest baby, someone brought us sourdough bread and J raved, and it got me thinking about dabbling in sourdough, at a time in my life when I should really only be thinking about how to manage to get all of us properly dressed in one day.
After Christmas 2016, without a lot of consideration beforehand, I bought myself a magnetic meal planning calendar. I’d done meal planning for a few years at least now, but this was a more visual means of organization — and besides, it was pretty.
I’ve kept most of the pages from this year, and in reviewing them, drawn some helpful conclusions: 2017 was a year of more meat. Lots of meals brought by sweet friends. Heavy reliance on the slow cooker. So often, nearly every week, so many changed plans, but still, in the end, I think the exercise was a good practice.
Here were some greatest hits that featured again and again:Read More »
Remember how we talked about food safety? Let’s go back into the dark underbelly of kitchen horrors. Here’s something I mostly have tried to pretend isn’t a real concern: the sponge situation.
It’s just — sometimes I’m at other people’s houses doing dishes and I use a dishrag because they’re dishrag people, and I just can’t get anything clean. We switched years and years ago to stainless steel from nonstick pans for varioussemi-proven health reasons, and we cook A LOT with eggs and cheese, certifiably the stickiest foods on the planet, right? So I know that sponges carry a bunch of bacteria and also that they often stink (a penalty from which I’m exempt, ha ha!), but I just can’t quit them because hey, they do their job, at least, festering cesspools that they are.
So my solution the last few months? Microfiber kitchen scrubbers. They’re basically sponges you can toss in the wash each evening and use again, and since I have a pretty regular load of rags and cloth napkins going, it doesn’t add to my laundry burden. And when I start up on Scout’s horrible egg yolk high chair tray right after breakfast, I’ve got a sponge new every morning, like the good Lord’s grace.
Caveat: They definitely aren’t as scrubby as the scrubbiest disposable sponge (though scrubbier than a dishrag), but I’ve been using steel scouring pads for the worst messes since switching away from nonstick pans, anyway. Sometimes they get gnarly food bits stuck in them and need a pretty serious rinse, but at least they aren’t a moist, soft environment for breeding the next antibiotic-resistant plague, and they respond satisfyingly to elbow grease. (If you want to get really fancy or need something safe for cast iron, you can try what I always considered The Giant Fingernail but is apparently just a “pan scraper” to civilized folk.)
And this has been more than you ever wanted to think about sponges, dishrags, and washing up.
Do I need to say this isn’t a sponsored post? And that these aren’t affiliate links? I really just want to talk about sponges, because I’m that lame, apparently.
J and I have never been vegetarian (well, I think J was one Lent), but for a very long period of time, we weren’t eating very much meat or many vegetarian dishes.
I’ve heard it called “flexitarian,” but for us it just translated to “can’t afford meat as main dish.”
Recently we celebrated our comparative prosperity and invested in a quarter of a cow. This led to a carnivorous celebration called “Beef Week,” but also made me think about how we used to stretch meat.
Thekitchn.com is historically a good resource for thinking about meat as a condiment, not the main event. Here are some of the techniques we accumulated over our grad school years:
Chicken stock. Our mainstay. If you can’t roast a chicken yourself yet, you can save up a couple rotisserie chickens or ask to take home the turkey carcass at Thanksgiving. (You weirdo.) Then you chuck it in the slow cooker overnight or in a stockpot for a couple hours and you end up with something rich and salty and nourishing with basically no effort. Use it in soups, especially cheap simple ones like this polenta soup where it will really shine. Or make your rice fancy by using it instead of water. (And if you don’t know how to roast a chicken, consider this slow cooker method.) Store leftovers in the freezer in 1- and 2-cup bags or jam jars for easy thawing. (Bonus: the gelatin in a good bone broth is really good for you, though I can’t say the same about bacon grease.)
Bacon grease. People are generally secretly excited about this. Bacon by itself is an excellent way to make an otherwise vegetarian meal special (as with lenticchie con ditalini, baked potatoes, many soups) but you can save the grease (call it “renderings” if it makes you feel better, you foodie) in the fridge and use it for salad dressings, greasing cornbread pans, giant skillet cookies, and sautéing greens with vinegar.
Duck fat. J recently called this an “essential oil.” We like it for roasting vegetables especially. It can be hard to find, though sometimes it’s affordable on Amazon.
We made a choice when we moved into this house to prioritize shared social space and minimize rooms lost to bedrooms. In practice, that meant that at first, J and I took a tiny bedroom upstairs, giving Scout our big, weird closet as a “closery” and assigning Pip the identical bedroom across the hall. It worked well, dealing with nocturnal disturbances, because we are all so close to one another.
We moved Scout in with Pippin sometime in the winter, and things went swimmingly. Despite a friend and mother of four promising kids sleep soundly in shared rooms, I was still shocked and awed every time someone would throw up overnight (my kids are barfers), and the other wouldn’t even wake up.
I never shared a bedroom, and boy, was the adjustment to a dorm a doozy (sorry, Megan!). J shared with his brother till he was a teenager. But some of the children I love the best in this generation are stacked two and three to a room, and seem to be surviving and thriving just fine.
As we enter the third trimester countdown (always a little spooked now that this baby might be a 36-weeker, too), I recently picked up a Ikea Kura bunk bed at a yard sale for $25. I had first read about the beds’ flexibility on Camp Patton, and soon found the Internet is chock full of interesting customizations.
We were on a bit of a budget after our summer of exciting, scary purchases, so I set out to use as many hoarded gift cards as possible to outfit Scout’s big girl setup.
Sheets, waterproof mattress protector, pillow, duvet: $73.62 brought down to $0 by sale, Target gift card and Visa gift card
Duvet cover: $31.05 brought down to $6.05 by Visa gift card
Mattress: $105 minus $25 Amazon gift card, brought down to $80 (I probably could have gone lower with this, offsetting with more gift cards, but it was just too bleak to spend fun money on a mattress of all things)
That brought the whole project down to just over $111, instead of a projected $388.67 — which would have been much higher if I gave into my deep and abiding (though unrequited) love for Land of Nod bed linens.
There is room, now, for Roo’s crib when we banish her from the closery, when she’s sleeping more soundly through the night, and room for books and hijinks, too. Scout has transferred seamlessly into a big kid bed, which flies in the face of all expectation and just goes to show you that you get the kid you get, and can’t claim credit for much. In time, I’m sure we’ll have to experiment with new arrangements as the kids form preferences and alliances and a need for privacy, but for now, I couldn’t be happier.
(And for context, the way the room looked when we moved in:
Ok, so you’ve probably done all these things and you are probably still alive (ghosts, please stop reading this blog), you argue. BUT! Have you ever had a case of food poisoning at the same time as the rest of your family and had to have friends deliver more toilet paper and Gatorade to your house? (Hint: It’s the worst.) Are you at a stage of life where you frequently cook for pregnant or nursing mothers, or adorable but vulnerable small children? Here are some things I feel like I have to tell you. I’m the daughter of a health inspector. I’m sorry in advance.
Slow cooker safety
You shouldn’t put things in the slow cooker still frozen. It doesn’t reach safe temperatures quickly enough. I’m sorry. I didn’t know for a long time, either.
You shouldn’t leave the leftovers in the insert and put it in the fridge. It doesn’t cool down to safe temperatures quickly enough. This sucks. I agree.
If you forget to turn on your slow cooker for an hour or more, you have to throw the stuff out. Go ahead and cry. I just lost some pesto chicken and I’m still mad about it.
Leaving things out to thaw. Don’t do this!!! Let the National Center for Home Preservation school you on safe methods so you can live long and prosper! My speciality is the 30 minute cold water bath, but you may find a different way that works.
What rules do you feel compelled to tell people, or worry about in secret? I have a friend who asked me how often I changed my dish towel if I also used it for hand drying and…I have no idea? But I guess that’s gross?
What are your personal food-related terrors? Stinky sponges? Years-expired salad dressing? Chicken snugglers?
So, what’s in your robot fleet these days? For us, I’d count the bread machine, slow cooker, washer and dryer, dishwasher and now Roomba.*
Do we come out ahead with these innovations? Wendell Berry and co. would argue we lose skill and dignity in outsourcing these jobs, but I’m not sure I agree.
If you use these time savers judiciously, I think you can come out ahead. To be the conductor is not to be unskilled, and you can use that time in pursuing other skills (versus, say, zoning out on TV or Facebook). There is, after all, a place both for making and faking in most of our lives. If you use your robot symphony to free up time for your children or projects, sure (hey, blog). If you use them in ways that still allow for creativity, absolutely (bread machine recipes). If you use them wisely but won’t crowbar all jobs into their domain (as when, once a year, I handwash the wool things with much fear and trembling), then yeah, I think you’re coming out ahead.
The only real danger here, I think, is becoming a slave to privilege so that you find yourself complaining of injustice when your robot fleet is no longer at your disposal. I’ve hand washed my clothes, in Uganda and on a hiking trip and, perhaps insanely, as an adventure in frugality in grad school. I’ve lived without a microwave and understand an oven. I don’t tend to complain on vacation when I leave behind my favorite time savers. (Except a washing machine. I have two kids under five and I’m never going back.)
The other danger, then, is using these devices to ratchet up the pressure. Now that I have a robot vacuum cleaner, I have no excuse not to always have spotless floors! Now that I know my way around a bread machine, there’s no excuse not to have fresh bread all the time! No: there will definitely still be days and weeks when these jobs, even outsourced, fail to get done, sacrificed to more important tasks of the moment or season.
The robot symphony still requires time and effort and know how, even if it does mercifully save my third trimester back a lot of work. But bring on the robot revolution!
* PS- I am still afraid of the Amazon Echo and my Instant Pot. Help.
What do you find worthwhile to make and what would you rather buy? Let’s compare notes:
Stock: I like to roast a chicken whole in the slow cooker and then toss a carcass or two back in to cook on low overnight. Easy peasy.
Fancy bread (mostly ciabatta, 90% of the time): I will occasionally buy stuff, especially at the farmer’s market, but Pip eats almost nothing I make myself except ciabatta, so that’s a pretty strong incentive.
Iced tea: This is new, but J’s gotten into unsweet tea in a big way, and it’s sooooo much cheaper than buying bottles and then I don’t have to lug the bottles inside with my wimpy pregnant upper body (non)strength.
Pizza crust: It took awhile for me to find a bread machine recipe for the dough that I loved, but now I’m never going back.
Cookies, brownies, cake: I am not against a box cake (ok, I love box cake), but I recently suggested we make one and Pip was genuinely perplexed, and I realized maybe I’m doing some small part of this real foods thing right with him, even if he mostly subsists on fruit and Goldfish. He loves to bake, so I bake, and sometimes, he even eats it.
Cream of chicken soup: Use that stock!
Biscuits: These are one of the few things I can make now that are honestly my favorite way to eat them. Not that they’re objectively the world’s best biscuits, just that they’re exactly the way I like them. Do you have anything like that for you?
Granola: I like to mix it into my (storebought! for shame!) Greek yogurt.
Bagels, sandwich bread: although I just ran across a recipe for bagel dough in the bread machine, and my brother-in-law made some beautiful bagels…
Pie crust: My mom makes terrific pie crust and I struggle to even work with frozen crust.
Ice cream (90% of the time): It gets rock salt everywhere to make it!!
Pasta sauce (90% of the time): The only time I’ve routinely made it is when we’ve had a CSA, and that hasn’t been since Pip was born. Might be worth resurrecting, though, because I love the fresh taste when you puree it a bit and don’t cook it forever.
Yogurt: Trying to gather the discipline to do this again, because I have a yogurt maker and it saves a ton of money, but it’s so tedious.
Canned beans (vs cooking from dry): Why can I not make normal beans? This is supposed to be easy!!
I could list thousands of others, especially if I spent a little time looking at DIY tags on Instagram (no, I don’t make my own pickles!). Things are always in flux, of course, based on where we are in the life of our family. Sometimes it’s a struggle to make toast for the kids when I’m really morning sick, and sometimes, when the baby’s pretty old and I’m not pregnant yet and everyone’s napping reliably, I can really branch out and take on new skills and recipes.