In these unusual times many of us are being reacquainted with our kitchen, and indeed there are probably many that are experiencing cooking regularly for themselves or others for the first time. With all this extra time and planning required it can be overwhelming at times but with a little bit of organization your kitchen should become a place of ease, and hopefully harbor more efficiency and a little less waste too.
Make Your Own Chicken Stock
Stock may seem like a laborious home endeavour, one that appears to verge into the territory of restaurant kitchen wizardry but I guarantee you that that is not entirely true. Some stocks may involve long, slow, drawn out processes but chicken stock can so very easily be done at home with incredible results. All you need is the stripped of meat carcass of a roast chicken that you’ve already eaten. Pop this into a slow cooker and add some root vegetables and herbs. Here is where you can even add some pre-preparedness magic. The tops and ends of leeks freeze well, as do the cleaned peels of carrots. Using fresh parsley for a dish? Reserve and freeze the stalks in a freezer bag. All of this and more is discussed in my recipe for slow cooker chicken stock here. Use in risottos, add to soups and stews, reduce wildly for a succulent sauce. When prepared, pour into washed out milk cartons and refrigerate or freeze for future use.
Organise Your Produce By Category
If, like me, you are tight on kitchen cupboard space the use of plastic containers to categorise spaces really helps in the organisation and control in not only what you have available (and needs replenishing) but also the ability and speed in which to attain it. Organise your non-perishables in plastic containers according to the categories that best suit your cooking habits, family situation and interests, for example; Tinned Foods, Home Baking, Pasta, Rice, Flour, Sugars, Stocks and Sauces, Confectionary, Herbs and Spices etc.
Herbs and Spices
Speaking of which there are many ways in which you can elongate the lifespan of your herbs and spices at home; the lifeblood of flavour in your food. Whole spices keep indefinitely longer than pre-ground ones and add superior flavour to your dishes at home. All you need is a coffee grinder (but just for spices) or a pestle and mortar. Toast your spices in a dry frying pan until aromatic and grind for a fuller and fresher flavour. Asian food stores are a wonderful resource for sourcing larger quantities of whole spices, and often at significantly cheaper prices than pre-ground supermarket options.
Herbs are a little more difficult to deal with but again there are many options. To elongate the life of fresh herbs like parsley and basil, wrap in damp kitchen towel, place in zip lock bag and refrigerate for a longer life. Soft herbs like parsley, coriander, and basil can keep well when chopped up and frozen in ice cube trays. Bear in mind that any frozen herbs are useful for adding to the cooking process of a dish and are not so good as a garnish. More woody, or “harder” herbs like rosemary and thyme actually grow really easily in pots outside.
Properly seasoning your food is essential for bringing out its flavour and a good quality sea salt really aids in your kitchen endeavours. Even a pinch added to a chocolate cake helps intensify the “chocolateyness”. Sea salt flakes (like Maldon or Achill Island) are excellent for finishing food and keep a regular fine sea salt for seasoning water for pasta or boiling vegetables.
Beware Kitchen Gadgetry
There is a lot of inessential kitchen equipment floating about, many of which provide a function that is just as easily done with basic elements. My advice for a starter kitchen (though this is not an exhaustive list) is as follows:
A chef’s knife – there are many knives available and some do provide various supports in your culinary endeavours but all boiled down to one, a good quality chef’s knife will fulfil most functions in the kitchen. A quality carving knife is another, as is a good bread knife but a reliable chef’s knife is an invaluable resource. Remember to keep it sharp. There are often more kitchen accidents with a blunt blade than a sharp one.
Electronic Scales – Any weights or measurements, for baking or otherwise, can be accurately provided by this simple inexpensive kitchen gadget. It is an essential in any kitchen. There are any amount available to buy online.
A Good Non-Stick Frying Pan – I guarantee you that if you invest in a heavy based non stick frying pan you’re culinary life will be immeasurably less stressful. Everything from panfrying fish to cooking your favourite steak at home will be made easier. See tips for cooking the perfect steak here.
A Rubber Spatula – Just an ideal kitchen utensil for scraping every last bit out of a saucepan or bowl or indeed for the technique of “folding” in baking.
A Box Grater – Simply put just buy your cheese in blocks and grate as you need it. You can also freeze bags of grated cheese (like cheddar). See Freezing below. For zesting citrus fruits a Microplane (or other similar brand of fine grater) does a perfect job.
A Balloon Whisk – For whipping cream, beating eggs, whisking egg whites for meringues (though requires some elbow grease), making sauces. In the absence of a food mixer with a whisk attachment a balloon whisk will see you through many kitchen tasks.
Measuring spoons – Maybe a little precise but particularly for baking accuracy is vitally important and this little set of spoons will take the guesswork out of your teaspoon to your tablespoon.
A Digital Thermometer – This might seem a little more “cheffy” than some of the other items on here but it is an excellent tool for taking the guess work out of knowing when particularly roasted meats, and other foods, are properly cooked and safe to eat. Thermapen is a good brand, compact and accurate. This is the one I have in my kitchen but there are plenty of other brands and makes out there so do a little research.
Become Familiar With Your Freezer
Most homes have one but in the recent crisis, the home freezer has become an invaluable resource for keeping our food longer. But how can you get the best out of it? It’s important to know and remember that there are many items suitable for freezing at home. However some may need a little work and preparation first.
What can I freeze?
Most meats and cooked meats can be used but you can also freeze items such as cheese (hard cheeses like parmesan and cheddar, whole or grated). Butter (salted or unsalted) also freezes really well and you can even make your own roasted garlic butter (Recipe here) wrap in baking parchment and freeze, using what you need as you need it. Also milk (though low fat works better) is suitable for home freezing. With milk it’s important to remember that liquids expand when frozen so pour a little out before replacing the lid before you freeze. It’s also important to remember that the shelf life of the milk tends to be a little shorter when defrosted. Bread is handy put into freezer bags and can be defrosted by the slice or indeed toasted from frozen.
Many vegetables like carrots, parsnips, potatoes, broccoli, chopped onions etc. can be frozen it’s important to blanch them first. This is the process of par cooking them. Prepare the vegetables as you normally would and bring a pot of water to the boil. Cook your veg of choice for approx. 2 minutes before plunging into a large boil or container of iced water. This stops the cooking process. When cool, place in a suitable reusable plastic container and store.
The high water content in many fruits makes them unsuitable for home freezing as it affects the texture of the fruit when defrosted. However, berries freeze very well and can be added straight to the blender for smoothies or for fruit fillings in crumbles. Overripe bananas can be stored in the freezer and when defrosted are ideal for use in banana bread. See recipe here.
Other Ingredients Ginger (and galangal) can be frozen and grated straight from the freezer as can whole chillis. Other, perhaps not every day, ingredients such as fresh curry or lime leaves can also be stored in reusable containers or freezer bags. The rinds of a block of parmesan should be frozen and added to soups or stews for extra flavour