If you're experiencing quarantine cooking fatigue, you're not alone. Even Serious Eats managing culinary director Daniel Gritzer acknowledges that spending an hour each night following a recipe isn't sustainable these days: "It's just not manageable on top of work, child care, and more."
In place of taking on individual recipes, Gritzer has developed his own system for preparing meals in quarantine: "Instead of a recipe-forward approach, I'm thinking more about components," he says.
Making a large batch of one component that could be used in various dishes like a whole chicken, or a pot of beans, sets you up for "endless ways to make a meal," he says. It can help you save time and money. Plus, he says, "your meals won't be boring at all."
Gritzer broke down this cooking approach into four easy steps.
Component cooking starts with stocking up on a "well-rounded set of ingredients," says Gritzer. Since your trips to the grocery store may be limited, Gritzer says to keep two things in mind when food shopping. The first is shelf life. "It can't all just be fresh, since our shopping trips are more spaced out and some of that food needs to last."
The second is variety. To avoid making the same thing over and over, categorize your shopping list by food group to help you brainstorm new ingredient alternatives and to ensure you have all of the essentials on hand, Gritzer says.
Here's how he organizes his shopping list and what he suggests stocking up on.
Proteins: For example, meats, seafood, beans, and tofu. "While I'm buying lots of fresh meats ... I'm also making sure to stock up on frozen meats and tinned seafood."
Dairy: In addition to milk, buy "more 'preserved' forms of some foods that have longer shelf life, like yogurt and cheese."
Produce: Get a variety of fresh, frozen, as well as canned fruits and vegetables.
Starches and staple grains: Keep a stockpile of rice, flour, bread, and beans.
Condiments: A variety of condiments can "make meals more interesting."
Cooking essentials: Make sure to have "cooking oils and basic aromatic vegetables like onions, garlic, and ginger" on hand.
"I'm finding that eating home 100% of the time means we're blasting through our food a lot faster than we used to," Gritzer says. So in addition to buying in bulk, Gritzer suggests cooking components for each meal in bulk, too. "Instead of roasting one whole chicken, I might cook two, which will give me enough meat for a couple days and cut down on my overall cooking time. ... Or, instead of cooking one pound of dried beans, I might cook two pounds."
Preparing components ahead of time is also a money-saver. "This approach makes it possible to get a ton of mileage out of a limited set of ingredients," Gritzer says.
After you've stocked your kitchen and cooked large batches of versatile components, you can use what you have in unlimited ways. Here's how Gritzer created a variety of dishes from three components: beans, fennel, and chicken.
Then he got creative: "One night, I ate the fennel-bean stew with the fennel frond pesto spooned on top. Another night, I grated cheddar cheese and melted it on top of the stew," he says. "On both days I toasted the stale bread and put it in the soup bowls, then ladled the fennel stew on top, kind of like French onion soup."
Another night, he sautéed a finely diced onion in olive oil, added the beans and shredded chicken along with some kale, and and cooked it all down "until the kale was supersoft and the beans were turning into a kind of puree." He "tossed in some spices, an extra glug of oil," and dinner was made.
Video by Courtney Stith
These components aren't just good for whipping up dinner, either. "That fennel frond pesto is basically wonderful on anything," he says. "I ate it this morning on a bowl of ricotta cheese. Don't have ricotta? It'd be great on cottage cheese, or swirled into yogurt for a savory snack, or spooned on top of fried or scrambled eggs, or spread on toasts or a sandwich, or even tossed with pasta."
Mixing and matching components made several delicious dishes. But the real point, says Gritzer, is that "it was all totally variable. ... I could have roasted the fennel bulbs and served it with roast chicken instead of poached chicken, and made a bean, bread, and kale stew instead. I could have made cheesy toasts with the bread and cheese, or grilled cheese sandwiches, or whatever."
To enhance his dishes, Gritzer raided his spice rack. He spooned some Calabrian chili paste on top of his meal one day, and some grated Parmesan and fresh olive oil and black pepper another. "It was hearty, healthy, filling, and simple, and the condiments helped change it up enough to keep it from feeling monotonous," he says.
Gritzer uses Dijon mustard, cheese, and spicy sauces like Sriracha to take bland proteins and grains to the next level and maintain a balanced diet. "Add in those condiments, fresh herbs, and other flavor enhancers, and you've got yourself the best of all possible worlds: food that's nutritious, delicious, and that makes the most of everything you've got, reducing waste."
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