I am often asked, “So who cooks at home - you or your wife?” I suppose the question arises as people wonder if someone like me, who spends long hours coordinating food service for thousands, would be even remotely interested in cooking when they finally get home. It’s a fair question. Many of my peers spend very little time cooking at home. I can’t say I blame them. They are simply unmotivated (“fried” is sometimes how we often characterize our physical and mental state after particularly busy times cheffing) to cook at home, given the demands of the job. I, however, love to cook at home. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. Some like to work out, some like to run, some like to read, I like to cook. Dinner party for 10 on my day off? Perfect; no problem. Here are a few “make it at home” ideas and recipes I frequently use.
Not only does making as much of the meal as possible at home rather than purchasing storebought items save you money, it can lead to more flavourful meals. While there is a little time investment, you’ll find it minimal if you recognize that organization is key. Cooking at home is enjoyable and can be even more enjoyable when you are well organized. Here are some tips and tricks I use so I am able to whip up a tasty dinner for two to ten people without buying pre-made items.
Homemade herb blends and flavour pastes
Much of what can slow down the preparation of a meal is the chopping, dicing and mincing of various ingredients. To speed up this process I usually have a few key preparations on hand to help ease this burden and enhance the flavour.
1. Fresh Herbs: How many times have you had to discard half a bunch of a fresh, tender herb you purchased for a recipe? I finely chop left over herbs and flash freeze them on baking trays. Once frozen I package them individually in ziplock bags, or sometimes I will combine them (rosemary and thyme are a great blend) and they keep for many months in the freezer. I typically have on hand in my freezer fresh-frozen finely chopped thyme, rosemary, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, sage, basil and parsley. While they are not quite as flavourful as their fresh cousins, they are far superior to store bought dried herbs.
2. Flavour Pastes: I will make and freeze a number of different ingredient pastes so that I can draw on them when I’m a little tight for time. Some examples are roasted garlic paste. Simply roast a dozen garlic bulbs. Squeeze out the roasted pulp, blend with olive oil and freeze in an ice cube tray (half full if they are large ice cubes). Same can go for freshly pureed ginger or shallots. Once frozen, pop the cubes out and store in ziplock bag. When needed, add them to your favourite soups, sauces or ragouts.
Homemade Salad Dressings
Homemade salad dressings are another item which I make at home rather than using a premade one. Homemade dressings can elevate the calibre of your meal, be prepared well in advance, and be far more flavourful than store-bought. Homemade dressings make fantastic marinades for grilled meats, fish and vegetables as well. For someone new to making dressings I recommend purchasing a high quality home dressing maker/emulsifier. These are handy gadgets which can greatly assist you when making a dressing at home, and they also double as a convenient vessel to store and serve your dressing.
Homemade spice rubs and mixes
Homemade spice blends are great way to enhance the flavour of your meal while avoiding overly salty store bought pre-mixed spice blends. Various curry spice blends, Asian blends, taco, chili and fajita blends are all easy to make at home and will last for months if stored correctly. A small investment in a high quality coffee bean grinder and a variety of key spices are all you will need to start blending and creating a host of custom spice mixes. A few personal favourites of mine are homemade chili spice for chili con carne and homemade curry powder. Chili spice is as simple as dried oregano, smoked garlic flakes, toasted cumin seeds, toasted coriander seeds, black peppercorns, smoked paprika, and dried red chili. Pulse all this together in your spice grinder until ground fine and add to your favourite chili recipe. All-purpose curry seasoning is equally simple, consisting of toasted cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, fenugreek leaves, black peppercorns, toasted coriander seeds, dried red chili peppers, green cardamom pods, ground turmeric. Blended this to a fine powder and you now have a very handy curry powder which can be used for many different types of curries.
Salsas and Chutneys
These are another easy category of food items you can make at home. Homemade salsas and chutneys are a great way to elevate the flavour meal and will provide a much fresher, bolder flavour than typical store bought salsas and chutneys. Homemade salsas and chutneys require a bit more preparation than the herbs, spices and dressings, but with a little planning they can be made in advance and stored until you are ready to use them. Another benefit is that by making your own you can control the spiciness, tartness and sweetness. Here is a great recipe for a quick easy Tomato Chutney. I hope you enjoy.
Homemade Sweet and Spicy Tomato Chutney
4 ripe tomatoes cored, small dice
1 medium onion, small dice
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed chilies
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Ground black pepper to taste
In a 4 quart sauce pan add all ingredients. Bring to a gentle simmer. Cover with a lid but leave the lid off a little to let some steam escape. Turn heat down to low and allow to simmer for 45-60 minutes depending on how quickly the liquid evaporates. Allow to cool. Remove cinnamon stick. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Serve. The chutney will keep refrigerated for two weeks or can be canned/preserved.
Stay tuned for more make at home ideas in my next post.