Time frequently seems to be of the essence when cooking–for one or for many. There are some things that I discovered that save me lots of time–and that means that I’m much more likely to cook a meal, rather than do carry-in, or reach for the peanut butter jar!
When you see “convenience” food, I dare say your first thought is processed, open-heat-and-eat food. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m thinking of things you prepare yourself with choice ingredients, and freeze, or otherwise “put by” for later uses that can shave time off of recipes.
How many recipes do you have that start with a “flavor base” like sofrito (Spanish), soffrito (Italian), mirepoix or mirepois (French)? Lots, probably. How many times have you passed on that recipe because you don’t have those, you did not want to spend the time mincing, dicing, or you pulled that bag of celery out of the crisper, and–yuck–it’s no longer fit to use! Cooking for one, I find celery a particularly frustrating ingredient. I like celery–but it always seems to go bad in the crisper.
Many flavor bases to start soups, stews, et cetera begin with carrots, celery, onion, diced or minced and sautéed in olive oil (or maybe butter). True it’s only a few minutes work to do this–if you have the ingredients. My solution to this has been to take celery, carrots, onions, and use the food processor to chop a large batch of this useful mixture, sauté in a mild olive oil with just a touch of salt, and then pack it into small containers in lots of a couple tablespoons (or freeze in ice-cube trays and transfer to zipper-lock bag), and put it in the freezer so that when I need it, I have the basic prepared carrots, celery and onions, to which I can add garlic and herbs as needed for a particular recipe, and I’m off to a running start.
I do keep canned beans around as a “convenience” food, but I much prefer to cook my own dried legumes (pulses). Since that is a time consuming thing, I have found a way to make those into “convenience” ingredients: cook a large batch until almost fully cooked, and then freeze with some of the liquid in small quantities–a cup or so, whatever you would most likely use. I’ve found that they hold well in the freezer, and can finish cooking quickly, so that you have the advantage of home-cooked quality, without the time investment. I’ve done this with lentils (my favorites being the French LePuy) of all sorts. True, lentils cook quickly and do not require soaking, but I can still save time with these. I particularly like to do this “precook” with beans since that means that I can have lots of variety and have the convenience of canned, with specialty beans that are very tasty.
Grains can also be done this way too. That left-over serving of rice that I’m sure I’m not going to use this week gets labeled, dated, and put into the freezer for a quick serving when I don’t want to take the time of cook rice from scratch.
Risotto is another favorite main dish for me–right in my category of comfort food with mac ‘n’ cheese, and tomato soup; I don’t find cooking it to be difficult–in fact it’s rather relaxing, but time consuming. I’ve tried some of the “quick” recipes (see Risotto post) and have not been too dissatisfied with them, but I’ve also found that I can make a big batch of risotto to the point where it’s ready for the addition of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then freeze it is serving-size batches. It will thaw quickly, and lets me have risotto fairly frequently. It’s easy to add vegetables or seafood or other quick-cooking things as you finish this preparation.
Another “convenience” ingredient is homemade broth or stock. While I will admit to keeping canned/boxed broth/stock on hand, I much prefer to have the real homemade thing, and that is not hard to do: make a large batch on a cold rainy day when it’s good to be indoors; freeze it in small quantities for future use. I’ve found a very quick way to make chicken broth too. More about that later.
All these little conveniences can add up to much better small-time cooking with big-time flavor even when cooking just for one.