August 31, 2023
Talk about produce ready ... This is the bottom drawer of my fridge. It's ready for the week and for fall, the perfect time to cook from my new book, Instant Pot Indian. This is the only way I managed to write my book and not lose my mind last year. I really urge you to continue reading and incorporate at least some of my tips into your daily kitchen routine. I think it's especially key to get your kitchen space, namely your fridge, organized as we head into the busy fall. Kids are getting back to school, routines are being reinstated, and weeknights are getting busier with sports and such. There was a time when my girls were playing club soccer and I was literally living out of my car scrambling to get home and get them dinner. This scramble would dissolve my healthy-eating resolve and we'd end up grabbing something on the way home. It was always just 'okay' and never that great. So at some point I resolved never ever to stop and grab something if it was because I was just too lazy to prep. Yep. I said it. Though I was busy, I also got a little lazy about it. There is truly always time to do a little something. So, even if it was just corn tortillas with black beans at home, I'd have them ready to go and would pull out some pre-sliced veggies. So that when we did go out it was actually special and worth it. I cannot tell you how much we cut out the random eating out and cut down our credit card bills. Use what you got, folks. And part of this is by simple planning and prepping.
Now that my girls are older, this prep habit is still at the core of my kitchen routine. I'm not going to lie. This morning was pure bliss largely because it was so weirdly normal. There was flow. My older daughter is home from Northwestern as she waits for school to start. We needed that as we dropped our younger one off to college a few weeks ago. And as my kids have always asked since they were young she asked me what she could take for lunch. Normally, that question would send me into a tailspin because even though I know it's coming, I always tend to go to bed in denial. No, I am not a natural planner. I would scramble in the morning to get something together. Sound familiar? Recently, things have been very different. I have a plan for meals that is spurred by really good prep. So, I grabbed the chicken kebab mix I'd already pulled together, threw it into the air fryer for 15 minutes, and then grabbed the diced potatoes soaking in water from a week ago and made hash browns again in the air fryer. Toasted an english muffin, and presto lunch was made! And, she was thrilled. A gourmet touch in minutes.
I know you've heard of the term mise en place, which is French for putting everything in its rightful place. Often we use this term ahead of a recipe - to ensure that you read the recipe through, gather the ingredients needed, and slice and dice them ahead of cooking. It's true, the work is in the prep.
But, I want to take you a few steps even further back. For me, prep always starts as soon as my groceries hit my kitchen. In our house we go through a TON of produce. And ever since my girls were tiny I always washed and prepped all of my produce for them. It was just the little thing that I did for my family because I truly enjoy knowing that they can head to the fridge and just grab whatever they need. It also meant that things rarely went bad. If I left unwashed produce in the fridge everyone (including myself) would simply get too lazy and would bypass it to something easier. I still remember the look on friends' faces when my toddler girls would open the fridge themselves and grab whole carrots to munch on in front of the tv watching cartoons. And then the look when their own daughter did the same after watching my girls. Prep became such a ritual in our house that now my entire family realizes the value and always does the same as soon as groceries come in.
We often buy produce from Costco and Devon Ave, our little India in Chicago and when we do it's a virtual mess. It takes time - sometimes an hour or two on the weekend to get through it all. But, the time spent upfront means really easy meal preps later in the week. See the shiitake mushrooms in the top left of the photo above? I'll slice them up along with some shallots, red chiles, and other veggies to make into a quick Vietnamese-inspired soup. Or, I'll grab the celery and cucumber for my green juice. Or, I'll grab an already peeled onion for aloo gobi like I did last night for dinner. Once you have your veggie drawer ready to go, the sky is the limit in terms of how much more you'll enjoy actually cooking. Most of the work is already done! Here are my tips and answers to questions:
IS THAT ACTUALLY YOUR FRIDGE? Yes, we have a nice-sized fridge - now. We didn't always. My tips will work for any size space. The key is to get your produce out of bags, clean it up, dry it, and store it in containers that you can see through you so can grab it more easily. If you even just a have a shelf for storage in your fridge, no worries. Use smaller containers and/or use lids and stack them. Believe me, my first house had a kitchen that was super tiny - it was all we could afford. The only way I managed in that space was to be even more organized and go through items more frequently. I would also suggest that if you have a smaller fridge, purchase less. There is no need to overstock your space because the stuff you can't access or see often gets overlooked and goes bad.
STORAGE CONTAINERS. I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to divide up my produce so that it did not stack or pile up. Often when that happens, things on the bottom get overlooked. I'm not a fan of storing in plastic - it's always better to use glass or metal because no matter how food safe your plastic it can always leeching into your food - and no, I never drank water out of a plastic bottle because of this. Trust me. While some products can be stored in plastic temporarily, the key is to pull them out and transfer them into glass or metal whenever possible. I happened to have a large number of these square and tall containers that have a snap lid and thought, wow, they actually work to naturally keep my produce separated. It's brilliant. Because whenever I have a larger recipe that I'm prepping for, I can pull out the entire container to my kitchen counter as I did this week with the mushrooms for soup. I like to store in containers without lids so we can get in there and grab as needed. So now when my husband wants to make his famous chicken noodle soup on the weekend, he can reach in and grab the onion, garlic, celery quickly and easily. The larger items like onions, shallots, giner, jalapenos, and corn I keep loose as they don't get lost and can be easily stacked. I cannot find these containers anymore to link to, but I got them at the Container Store and here's the line that I used. You may have to ask around and hunt for something that works best for you.
TOMATOES. Yes, I put tomatoes in the fridge. Let's just address this one because I always get emails about it. Maybe it's an immigrant thing. My mom always did that. We also in Indian cooking do not want over sweet tomatoes. So, this works for us. If I am using tomatoes for Italian cooking or have gorgeous, juicy Jersey tomatoes, those get washed, dried, and kept in a bowl on the counter.
WASHING PRODUCE. When I wash my produce, I keep a very large container in the sink filled with water and sliced lemons. Lemon juice is a great natural way to clean your produce. Squeeze them into the water, leave them in with the rind to float around. Use that rind to scrub produce down. My absolute favorite tool is this bamboo colander. I have it in the tomato color and it's perfect for cleaning produce. I just let my produce soak, then pull the insert out, drain, and lay that produce on a dish rag to dry off. Then I reuse that water maybe once or twice, and then change it out as needed. This contraption is perfect for draining pasta as well because it has a spout and then you can use the cooking water more easily.
JUST SCRUB. Use a clean scrub brush. Any will do. I am obsessed with these from Dot & Army for all of my dishes as well. Instead of throwing them away, I wash them with my dishrags. I get nothing from them for promoting them - I just love their products and that they are a small business. So, head to their site and support them! I also have a huge drawer of dishrags from them. The last time I used paper towels in my kitchen was about three years ago - no lie!
DRY, DRY, DRY. One of the biggest reasons that produce goes bad is moisture. I've learned the hard way. As soon as I get my produce home - even if I am not ready to deal with it immediately - I pull out large baking sheets, line them with dishtowels, and dump my produce out of the plastic grocery bags onto the trays to breathe. I cannot tell you how many times I've forgotten this small step, left something in a bag and come down the next day to find it in the bag starting to go bad. After washing my produce I leave it out to dry on a dishrag. And, I'll take another rag and wipe it down one more time before putting it away.
PRODUCE BAGGIES? Do I use those baggies that keep my produce fresher. No way. My policy is - just eat it! If I need a baggie in the fridge to prevent my produce from going bad, that just tells me that I'm buying too much on the front end, and that I'm not eating enough produce. I use none of that stuff. And if something looks like it's going bad, freeze it.
FREEZE SOME PRODUCE. I always wash, dry, cut up, and freeze some produce like bitter melon (karela), green apples, and clementines. Usually I use these in my green smoothie and karela can go bad fast in the fridge. Freezing is a great option also for green chiles, garlic, and ginger, especially if you are going to use them in a curry later and you think some of it may go bad in the fridge. I often do this ahead of a trip so nothing goes bad. I promise I'm not as perfect as this makes me sound. I've learned the hard way to just throw stuff in the freezer to use later.
ONIONS/SHALLOTS. Peel. Don't chop onions. Onions are a big deal in an Indian household. Such a big deal that during my cookbook testing phase we would purchase a huge 50-pound bag from the Indian grocery store and actually get through it! Even if you are not using that many, it's painful even thinking about peeling onions for a meal. So, instead, I will peel a half dozen at a time, soak them whole in water, drain and dry them, and then store them in the fridge. Because they are whole they won't smell up the fridge. And because they are already peeled, I can grab one quickly for dinner or a salad. I will keep one or two small glass containers of diced and sliced onions, but that is always covered with a lid. It does help with salads and meal prep, but chop too much and that can spoil as well.
BERRIES. There is a gourmand attitude out there that berries and some other ingredients don't hold up to washing and simply are not as fresh if they are washed and stored. Maybe. But, for me as the anti gourmand - a busy mom who needs to get food on the table fast, I'd rather wash them, have them drop a point or two in taste, and have them gobbled up rather than need to throw them away because no one would take the time to wash and prep them. On berries, if I have a larger box, I simply wash a small amount and keep them in glass containers in the fridge. Another key is to make sure after washing them you leave them out to dry completely. I also take a dishrag and dry, dry dry. It's the extra moisture that often leads to spoilage especially if they are stored stacked and touching one another. Again, eating your produce in a timely manner is key.
CORN. I was asked if I wash my corn? Indeed I do. I get rid of the husk, wash it, and then dry it as well. Then, I'm more inclined to grab it to roast whole or slice off kernels for soups. I will often also break it up and boil it for 3 minutes in my Instant Pot for no fuss corn on the cob.
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