Tip of the Week: Well-Planned Workstations

One of the most important aspects of cooking is mise en place, which is the idea of gathering the ingredients and tools needed for cooking and having everything arranged prior to getting to work. I hate to admit that I’m still not perfect at it. I do prep about 75% of my ingredients before I begin cooking, but I’m a complete failure at gathering my tools and cookware ahead of time.

Part of the problem is that I don’t have a proper “workstation” in my kitchen. I tend to spread myself out while I’m cooking: on one counter I do my measuring, on another I do my chopping, and as I work, I make at least half a dozen trips to the trash can on the other side of the room. Clearly, I missed the last call for boarding the efficiency train.

I found a great article on Bon Appetit about building a better kitchen workstation. Based on their suggestions, there are a few major improvements I need to make when it comes to prepping and cooking my meals. I think these tweaks to my setup will greatly improve my ability to adhere to the idea of mise en place.

  1. I need to secure my cutting board to the counter with a damp towel or nonstick pad. I also learned this recently in Sur la Table’s online cooking basics course. It’s a miracle I haven’t chopped off a finger!
  2. I need a trash bowl. The time spent on each trip to the trash can adds up, and we all know mere seconds can make or break a vital step in preparing a dish.
  3. I should keep my salt in a ramekin. I usually pour my salt from the round Morton canister into a measuring spoon or into the palm of my hand. Sure, it works, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to simply dip the measuring spoon into the ramekin or grab a pinch with my fingers?
  4. I need to keep paper towels handy for cleaning debris from knives and cutting boards. My paper towel holder is cheap and lame, and both hands are required to tear off a towel. Again, any time saved is beneficial to my cooking; I should start tearing off a few towels ahead of time and having them at the ready.
  5. I need to keep the essential tools handy. I said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m terrible at gathering the necessary tools before I start cooking. It’s not uncommon for me to realize that the pan I need is dirty and I have to wash it while, meanwhile, the food in another pan is burning because of my lack of preparation. It has to end!

Do you have any tips for a more efficient workstation in your kitchen?

Company Clean

Preparing for visitors in your home is like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time.  Even though I feel like I keep my house pretty clean on a day-to-day basis, getting ready for my in-laws to visit has magnified every speck of dust, every stain on the carpet, and every slightly disorganized closet.  Does it matter that my family is very unlikely to inspect all of my closets for their cleanliness?  No.  No, it doesn’t.  It will bother me if it’s not fixed before they arrive.

I believe I inherited this mentality from my mother.  Before anyone visits her house, it must be what she calls “company clean.”  It’s like a clean house on steroids.  Luckily, since yesterday was the first day of spring, I might be able to get away with calling it “spring cleaning” and look a little less fanatical.

So I’m off to embark on a mass cleaning spree.  Happy Saturday, everyone.

Do you tend to get carried away cleaning before company arrives?

Tip of the Week: Writing in Cookbooks

Sur la Table recently released a series of online cooking classes, and to promote them, they offered a cooking basics course for free.  The course covered topics such as proper knife technique, how to use salt in cooking, how to perfectly cook chicken, and so on.  After watching the first session, I was hooked!  I took notes while watching and practiced in the kitchen over the next several days, and I feel the course was a tremendous help.

Only then did it occur to me:  although I cook almost every single day, and despite my improvements, I’m not continuously learning about cooking.  Yes, I’m getting plenty of hands-on experience; but there is still so much about cooking I don’t know, which means I have an endless amount of growing to do as a cook.  So each week, I will be sharing a tidbit I’ve learned about cooking–whether it is a simple, quick bit of advice, or a major tenet of culinary arts.

I read the following snippet of advice on the Epicurious website:

Write in your cookbooks.

Soup could have used more tomato? Chicken needed ten more minutes in the oven? Make a note of it and you’ll never make that mistake again.

This is something I have never—seriously, never—done. Yet I find myself making comments all the time like, “The vinegar is a little overpowering,” or complaining that the food took twice as long to cook as was stated in the recipe.

On the surface, this seems like a simple tidbit of advice for someone who uses recipes often. But for someone like me, this truly applies to cooking as a whole. Although my culinary skills have improved tenfold since I started this blog three years ago, I find I’m still lacking confidence when it comes to cooking without a recipe to guide me.

If I start jotting notes down in my cookbooks, it will not only help me the next time I cook that particular dish, but it will help me to recognize the things that make or break a meal. It will force me to consider how the different ingredients and their amounts work together and contribute to the final product. Usually I’m so focused on following the steps that I don’t really think about how each thing added really changes the recipe. By making notes in my cookbooks, I’m hoping this forces me to take a step back and analyze what I’ve learned by adjusting the recipe according to how it tasted.

What about you? Do you make notes in your cookbooks?

Freezer Spill Prevention 101

Last week, I sifted through the fruit and veggie compartment in my freezer and grabbed a bag of stir fry veggies—and promptly spilled half the bag all over the inside of the freezer. How did this happen? Because there aren’t enough chip clips in the world for all the frozen fruit and veggies we keep on hand. The stir fry veggies were one of the many bags in our freezer that had been opened, but not clipped to prevent spillage. As I stared down into my freezer and cursed the bits of broccoli, snow peas, and carrots strewn about, I knew something had to change.

Last night, I pulled everything out of my freezer for a mass reorganization. I saved the fruit and veggie compartment for last, because I had more than an organization issue to deal with—I also had a storage issue. I piled all of the bags on the counter, and then I grabbed a Sharpie and two different sizes of freezer storage bags.

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I emptied every single bag of fruits and veggies into freezer storage bags and labeled each one. This was meant to solve the spillage problem, which was half the battle. The other problem was that I’m always having to dig through the drawer in the freezer to find what I need. When I buy new frozen items, I tend to toss them into the freezer and they all end up in a disorganized jumble. After transferring everything into freezer storage bags, I placed them neatly into the compartment in the freezer, arranging them according to how often I usually access them. The fruits I use in my morning smoothies are all at the front, easily accessible. The veggies I use less frequently, such as the corn-carrot-asparagus mix, are stacked up nicely in the back of the compartment, underneath the veggies I use more often, like peas and peppers.

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I’m feeling very optimistic about this new arrangement in my freezer. Already this morning, I felt so much more relaxed as I prepped my smoothie ingredients in my blender. It goes to show that even the seemingly small changes in a kitchen can make a big impact on cooking and food preparation.

Do you have any tips and tricks for freezer organization at home?

Chasers: Or, How to Conquer a Dose of DayQuil

I’ve always been that person who absolutely MUST have a chaser to follow a shot of liquor.  It makes no difference if it’s top shelf, root beer-flavored, or paired with a cute little lime wedge and a dollop of salt; a chaser is an absolute necessity.  Soda, orange juice, V8 juice…I don’t care what it is, as long as it masks the taste of the alcohol.

After spending the week with a nasty head cold, I can say with certainty that the same applies to liquid cold medicine.  I’ve always been more of a pill girl, but this time around I decided to give the syrup a try.  Not only does the liquid require a chaser, but it also involves a lengthy pre-swallow pep talk and a post-chaser handful of cereal for good measure.  It’s too bad the liquid works a million* times better than the pills do.

*Rough estimate.

Go Go Gadget Wish List!

I have a problem with kitchen gadgets: it’s that I don’t have enough of them! I love kitchen gadgets, but my collection isn’t very impressive. Part of the problem is that I can’t seem to prioritize my wish list. Would I rather have a rubber tube garlic peeler or a spiralizer? Can’t decide…guess I’ll just buy some shoes instead.

Yes, I’ve certainly slacked off in the kitchen gadget department. So I put together a list of ten gadgets that are not only nifty and convenient, but that I truly believe would help me to be more efficient and reliable in the kitchen. The goal is to actually buy ALL of these (gradually, of course), and I’m going to hold myself to it by posting reviews here after I try out each one!

Stainless Steel Finger Guard:
So I don’t chop off my fingers, which surprisingly hasn’t happened yet.

 Stainless Steel Meat Baller:
Because I’d rather not make a hobby out of rubbing sticky raw meat between my hands.

Egg Perfect Timer:
For even the simplest of cooking tasks I can’t seem to perfect.

Hands-Free Storage Bag Holder:
Because I’m tired of cleaning spilled soup off of the counter/stove/floor.

Quirky Stem Fruit Juice Spritzer:
Because why not?

Spaghetti Measure:
So I’ll stop making enough spaghetti to feed my entire neighborhood.

One Stop Chop Cutting Board with Storage Containers:
So I’ll stop dropping veggies on the kitchen floor while trying to scrape them into a bowl.

The Ultimate Garlic Peeler:
Because it’s like magic, and I like magic.

Seasoning Sticks:
Because I’m bored with my meat being flavored only on the outside.

And finally, Multi Blade Herb Scissors:
For those of us who hate spending an hour working for one teaspoon of fresh cilantro.

Chicken Wins

I cooked chicken breasts in a frying pan and I DIDN’T BURN THEM! [Cue confetti, balloons, and blowout noisemakers.]

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That beautiful picture is the result of a Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets with Maple-Mustard Dill Sauce recipe. I’ve never cooked chicken this way without burning it on the outside. And the sauce was delicious! I was a little weary of combining maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and dill, but somehow it worked really well. I wish I was talented enough to know how to mix weird condiments and herbs to make such brilliant flavors. Le sigh…

Not that I can’t make up my own great flavors. The other night I made pesto-stuffed chicken with a side of seasoned brown rice. I didn’t use a recipe for any of it, and I’m rather proud of that. I stuffed the chicken with pesto, rolled it in a bread crumb-Italian herb mixture, and topped it with Parmesan cheese. I cooked the rice in chicken broth mixed with two teaspoons of onion and herb Mrs. Dash, and then added about half a teaspoon of salt and a handful of Parmesan.   It’s nothing complicated, but it was tasty! Chopped, here I come!!!

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Wooooahhhhh. I got a little carried away there. No Chopped. I’m lucky if I’m familiar with even one mystery basket ingredient each episode.

I am feeling pretty good about my cooking skills this week, though. I’m making pork tenderloin for the first time ever on Thursday, so let’s hope this good mojo continues!