Good Things Vol. 5
Cook more, waste less, save money
My children, aren’t they gorgeous?
I’m back living in New York City where it seems like no one cooks. That Sex & the City episode where Carrie uses her oven for shoe storage? It is a little too true. But pretty much everyone I know here wants to cook more — it’s cheaper, it’s healthier, and it feels very satisfying.
But it can also feel like a heavy lift, especially if you have a demanding job. For people who are single or who live in two-person households, cooking can feel wasteful, time consuming, and needlessly expensive. You always extra buy too much produce and wind up with bendy carrots and yellowing kale; recipes always take twice as long as promised; you want to be the kind of person who makes homemade stock, but that means buying everything from carrots to bay leaves to an entire chicken and isn’t it cheaper just to buy the boxed stuff?
Below are some really simple things you can do to cut down on food waste, save money, and make cooking easier for yourself. Below that are my own pantry basics, plus the go-to recipes I make all the time from those basics. I travel a lot for work, which means I’m often coming home to an empty fridge but still need to feed myself, and having a good pantry system is crucial. I also like to be able to use my farm share produce and meat without having to spend extra money at the grocery store buying whatever else I need to make some crazy recipe for kohlrabi or whatever, and so having the right basics at home really helps.
None of this has to be hard, and feeding yourself as an adult on a budget in a small space is entirely doable. It may not be fancy, and it’s not going to change your life or make you a master chef, but if you want to cook more and spend less — or if you just realize winter is coming and are preparing to not leave your house for several months — here are a few ideas that can help.
Cut food waste / make your life easier:
Keep your old parmesan rinds. Have a plastic baggie in your freezer and toss the rinds in there. They are magic when added to soup.
Are your vegetables — carrots, celery, etc — going soft? Have a dedicated freezer bag or container for those, too, and use them for stock later. I make chicken stock pretty regularly and I haven’t bought fresh vegetables for it in… well, years. You can also make vegetable stock if you’re vegetarian, or if chicken stock sounds like just too much.
Are your leafy greens wilting? I had this problem with arugula the other night — I bought waaaay too much for a dinner party, and three days later it was wilting and going yellow around the edges, so I didn’t want to eat it raw. Instead, I thin-sliced a bunch of garlic and sautéed it in olive oil, tossed in a thin-sliced chili as well, and threw in the arugula with a good pinch of salt, and sautéed it all down. It was a lovely, delicious side dish with chicken, and works for many kinds of greens. If your green is a bit tough or bitter, like kale, a splash of apple cider vinegar at the end is good too.
Wilty no-longer-fresh herbs? Blend them with a little bit of olive oil and stick the mix in the refrigerator. You can use it as a base for salsa verde (add in some minced garlic and chili), combine with plain yogurt for a really good dip for roasted vegetables or savory fatty meats, or just drizzle the herb mixture over meat or vegetables. You can also add a lot more olive oil , salt, and lemon, put it all in a glass jar, and bam, salad dressing. Like dijon dressing? Sure, put in some dijon, and maybe grate a clove of garlic in there too. Want it sweeter? Olive oil + herbs + lemon + a touch of honey. Keep the jar in your fridge and it’ll last three weeks or so; just take it out half an hour before you need to use it so the olive oil can liquify, and shake to combine.
This one is an Allison Roman trick: Pour the last half-glass of that wine you didn’t finish into a plastic baggie and put it in the freezer. Next time you need wine for a sauce / to deglaze a pan, it’s there.
If your fruit is getting old, soft and weird (bananas, berries, peaches, etc), freeze them and use ‘em for smoothies later. Make sure you peel the banana before you freeze it; for berries, it’s going to be easier if you freeze them on a tray first and then put them in a baggie or tupperware so they don’t all stick together.
Grow your own chilis. Fresh herbs are not actually that easy to grow on a windowsill in a cold climate (I do it, but I give mine a lot of attention in the winter — I also use a grow light, and so I am also sure my neighbors think I’m growing weed). Chilis, though, are remarkably resilient, even in a New York City apartment. I have two chili plants and they produce more than I can use (and I cook with chilis a lot, and make chili oil with the extras). Plus they’re pretty if you put them in a nice pot.
Extra chilis from your plant or from ordering groceries and there being a quarter-pound minimum? Make your own chili oil. Mince your chilis, and in a sauce pan, add them + a whole lot of neutral oil and a little salt, and keep the heat as low as possible. You could use olive oil too if you want it Italian-style, it doesn’t really matter. Let it sit and warm for an hour — you don’t want anything to fry or sizzle, just let the warm oil extract the spice of the chili. Let it cool, pour it in a glass jar, and you have a simple chili oil.
Day-old take-out rice sitting in your fridge? Make hangover fried rice. Sauté some onions and garlic (and ginger and chilis if you have them) in neutral oil or coconut oil. Do you have a carrot or a leek or some other vegetable that would be good in fried rice? Sure add that too. Are you a weirdo like me who always has gochujang in her fridge? I love to fry rice in it, so add that (or don’t, because really, who has that just sitting around all the time?). Make sure your pan is really really hot and add that weird hard block of rice. Add some soy sauce. If you have sesame oil around, add some of that, why not. Sriracha? Sure! The trick is to let the rice crisp up in the oil, so let it sit for a minute or two, then stir, let sit, then stir, etc etc until it’s as crispy as you like. If you like a scrambled egg in your fried rice, crack an egg over to the side of the pan, scramble it up, and mix it in. I personally prefer a runny egg over the top of my rice, so I fry one in a separate pan and add it. If I have fresh herbs or green onions those get chopped and go on top, along with a drizzle of chili oil or sriracha. Health food? No. Delicious carb-bomb on a Sunday morning? Yes.
Pickle all your extra vegetables. Yeah, this is getting away from “super easy” and into urban homesteader territory, but pickling isn’t as hard as you think, and it’s a good way to use extra almost-anything: cucumbers, radishes, cauliflower, onions, beets, green beans, carrots, etc. Vinegar / water / salt is the basic list of what you need; I sometimes add garlic and chilis, depending on what I’m pickling, and change up the type of vinegar and spices depending on what flavor profile I’m going for. Here are the basics of how you do it. It’s not that hard and it is very satisfying.
Pantry Basics + Pantry Recipes
Stock your pantry with some basics that take a long time to go bad, and that you can use to throw together cheap, simple meals from a stable of go-to recipes. Here is what I always have on hand: Olive oil; butter; coconut oil; various vinegars (rice, sherry, apple cider, white, white wine); dijon mustard; soy sauce; fish sauce; coconut milk; canned whole Italian tomatoes; canned tuna; canned chickpeas; dried chickpeas; canned white beans; jasmine rice; frozen chicken stock (if you don’t want to make your own, buy the boxed stuff); white miso; Thai curry paste; ginger; onions; garlic; parmesan; lemons; eggs; some kind of dried pasta.
What I make on the regular from my own pantry:
Lemony egg and rice soup. I usually have a leafy green laying around to throw in (it’s not usually escarole, but most leafy greens will do), but this recipe is fine without a green, too; it’s also a good place to add extra shredded chicken if you have some. And if I have an old frozen parmesan rind, I’ll cut it into small chunks and put it in when I add the stock. It gets melty and chewy in a very satisfying way.
Tuna and white bean salad (capers are great but not required). You can also put this on a big bed of lettuce, arugula or other salad green, or on crusty bread if you’re fancy, or quarter a boiled egg on the side.
Fried spicy chickpeas with an egg. My absolute laziest go-to is sautéing onions and garlic, and then adding a can of drained chickpeas with some spices and frying it all together (I love it with berbere spice, but smoked paprika + chili is nearly as good; it’s also nice to add some turmeric, cumin and / or cinnamon to your paprika and chili mix). Fry an egg (keep the yolk runny) and put it on top. If you have fresh herbs or greens, add them in, why not — a generous handful of arugula mixed in at the end is great. Have some plain yogurt? Add a big scoop of it. Chili oil? Do it. This is also weirdly good with shrimp thrown in to fry either with or instead of the chickpeas (if you use shrimp, skip the egg and the yogurt).
Tuscan chickpea soup. This is gonna be better if you have good chickpeas, but I honestly make it by quickly rehydrating dried bulk ones in my Instant pot and using those. You can also use canned ones and it’ll be fine. Sauté garlic and some crushed red pepper flakes; add the chickpeas; add in a bunch of stock and a little water; bring to a boil and then simmer it all together until the chickpeas are soft and cooked through, and then put it all in a blender. This is much better if you have some rosemary sitting around and you can chop it up and add it when you pour in your stock. A parmesan rind is also very good here. Make sure it’s watery enough for soup, otherwise you’re gonna get some weird bad hummus. Put it all back in the pot, stir in lemon juice, and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and if you want to go wild even a little grated parmesan on top.
Pasta with chickpeas. You can use the linked recipe, or just cook pasta and toss it with sautéed garlic in olive oil + chickpeas + crushed red pepper + lemon or whatever herbs you have and lots of grated parmesan.
Simple tomato sauce = Sautéed onions + garlic + salt; add canned tomatoes. If you have some basil, even better. Have it over pasta. Add some crushed red pepper and you have a base for shakshuka / eggs in purgatory (just poach an egg in the sauce).
The easiest tomato soup you’ll ever make = butter + onions + canned tomatoes. I make no claim that this will be the best tomato soup you’ll ever make, but simmer it all together for 30-35 minutes or so and it gets creamy and does the job.
Grated garlic + salt + lemon + olive oil = salad dressing (you can also add dijon or swap vinegar for the lemon, and/or substitute a minced shallot for the garlic).
Thai-ish coconut soup. Sauté onions + garlic + ginger + chilis in coconut oil, then add in a little bit of Thai curry paste if you have it and let it toast for 30 seconds, pour in some stock, add in a dash of fish sauce if it’s on hand (if it’s not, whatever, it’s fine), simmer it all together for 15-20 minutes, swirl in a can of coconut milk at the end and you have a Thai-style coconut soup. Grate in some lime zest and add lime juice at the end if you have a lime — that makes it even better. Authentic? Absolutely not. Pretty good when there’s not much else to eat? Absolutely. Make it fancier by adding in mushrooms or sturdy greens or chicken or tofu or shrimp when you pour in the stock; toss a handful of fresh herbs, green onions, and/or fried garlic + chilis on top. Want it carbier? Add that half-container of take-out rice sitting in your fridge. Or simmer pantry rice in the soup when you add the stock until it’s cooked through, then add the coconut milk and whatever else. Or put in some rice noodles if you are fancy enough to have them on hand.
Miso vegetable soup. Miso stock makes any root vegetable soup extra delicious. I’ll put my own recipe for miso vegetable soup in the next newsletter, so stay tuned.
Happy lazy cooking, and always freeze your old vegetables.