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Make It Easy
120 Mix-and-Match Recipes to Cook from Scratch -- with Smart Store-Bought Shortcuts When You Need Them
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- ebook $15.99 $20.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $24.99 $32.50 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 10, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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When you’re juggling a job, kids, pet, house, spouse, you-name-it — it can be tough to resist the urge to toss a frozen meal in the oven and call it a day. Stacie Billis knows the challenge of feeding your family well, without stress. Make It Easy‘s 120 recipes prove that you don’t have to be only a scratch cook or convenience cook. You can be both, and there’s no shame in using store-bought ingredients when you’re in a pinch. Stacie’s got a guide to the healthiest shortcuts in the supermarket and three big tips for making it easy:
1. Go between scratch and homemade with her handy shopping guide.
2. Mix and match recipes that build on the same ingredients.
3. Break any rule that makes you want to bolt from your kitchen.
With recipes for: Blueberry Almond Polenta, Country-Style Greek Salad, Slow Cooker Hoisin Pulled Pork, No-Fuss Roasted Paprika Chicken, Chili-Rubbed Steak Tacos, Salmon Rice Bowl, Parmesan Roasted Broccoli, Easy Food Processor Pizza Dough, Gingered Peach Crisp, Hummingbird Muffins, Bacon Cheddar Waffles . . . and many more!
The Three MAKE IT EASY Basics
MAKE IT EASY On Yourself
There are a few ways that you can set yourself up so that cooking—even on a tight schedule, for picky eaters, when you don’t particularly like cooking—can be easier. Just telling yourself to relax is not one of them, but feeling relaxed should happen if you follow these simple rules.
DETERMINE YOUR REAL-LIFE COOKING STYLE
It’s not a complicated equation; the best place to start is simply to be honest with yourself about how you cook best in real life and how much effort you’re able to put into changing that. (Spoiler alert: for most people, the answer is zero effort. And that’s okay—we can still do this.)
When I worked with clients, busy home cooks just like you, I was amazed at how many said in one breath that they hated cooking and, in the next, that they wanted to cook amazing, elaborate meals for their family. Whenever they had some time and cooking inspiration struck, they took on big cooking projects that matched up with some fantasy of the domestic god or goddess they wanted to be. In reality, they were so overwhelmed that they wanted to quit halfway through cooking. The bad experience made them dread going into kitchen even more. Stop, rinse, repeat: the same thing would happen again a month later.
The trick is to set reasonable goals. Sure, stretch goals are great. But really think about yours—do you want them to be in the kitchen? If you do, are they realistic? Remember to go slow. Start by taking a brisk walk, not by trying to run a marathon.
The more your cooking expectations match your realistic cooking capacity, the more likely you are to enjoy the process and want to take things further. To get a sense of your realistic cooking capacity, answer these questions:
• Even when everything goes right, how much do I enjoy being in the kitchen?
• How much time do I really have to cook, start to finish? Is it different on some days than on others?
• How stressed out do I get by working under time constraints?
• Is it easy for me to be creative in the kitchen? Can I easily riff off recipes, or is it easier for me to follow them verbatim?
• How much do I care about having a spectacularly delicious meal at the end of every day? Are fresh, simple meals satisfying?
• Do I meal plan? (Have I ever meal planned?) Am I able to come up with meal ideas on the fly?
As you consider your answers, chase out of your head Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson or whichever domestic icon you wish you could be. Don’t be your ideal kitchen self when answering. You have to start with your real cooking self to successfully build your kitchen skills, if you decide that’s what you want to do. And no worries if it’s not.
TAKE STOCK OF WHAT YOU AND YOUR CREW LIKE TO EAT
In addition to answering the questions above, take ten minutes (or fewer!) to list the meals that make you and your entire family happy. Look at them with an eye toward finding patterns: Are they all simple? Do they all have sauce? Are they easily deconstructed so that some people are enjoying the same meal in completely different ways than others? Are they all Mexican or Italian? Do you guys like leftovers?
All of this information is already in your head, but taking time to lay it all out so that you can make meaningful connections is shockingly helpful. You only have to do it once (or, at least, once every year or two) and it doesn’t take long. Then you have a sense of what you can and should take on in the kitchen.
LEARN HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT RECIPES
The recipes in this book are simple. They’re designed to be family-friendly and adaptable. If you’re not an experienced home cook, they are easy to make, fresh, and delicious. If you’re a foodie with kitchen skills, you’ll be able to riff off these recipes like crazy. They leave a lot of room to play. And, no matter what kind of cook you are, the recipes in this book can be deconstructed and mix-and-matched so that one meal can feed people with several tastes (and every recipe comes with mix-and-match suggestions).
I designed this book to be a go-to resource for making cooking easy, with a handful of easy recipes that work for special occasions, too. (Because the fact that it’s Junior’s birthday doesn’t magically clear your schedule.) But, of course, you’ll look to other resources, too. When you do, you should either look for the same types of recipes or have a clear idea of how the recipes you’re looking for should be different.
What are they for: Have you cleared your schedule to cook something more elaborate for a dinner party? Do you want to take on a challenging baking project to pass time on a rainy day? Are you craving a more sophisticated Sunday night meal, kids be damned?
This all goes back to knowing your real-life cooking style and understanding that it’s fluid as circumstances change. You’ll cook differently for that dinner party if you’ve set aside time to cook and have arranged for the kids to be out of the house than you will if you’ve got forty-five minutes to pull together a dinner for ten. It’s the difference between an elegant meal and a big pot of meat sauce. Both can be great, as long as you’re honest about what you can pull off and choose the right recipes.
Here are some quick guidelines to choosing the right recipe for the circumstance:
Choose recipes based on your cooking skill, as much as on appeal. Don’t get attached to the idea of a recipe. There are millions of recipes out there and plenty will fit your style, skill, and crew’s taste.
Look at the number of ingredients. When you need to go fast, choose recipes with fewer ingredients. Period.
Survey the number of fresh versus pantry ingredients. You can make fresh, nutritious meals using pantry ingredients, especially if you start thinking about your freezer as a part of your pantry. When you shop for a specific meal that you’re sure you’re going to cook, such as for a special occasion, go all out on the fresh ingredients. Otherwise, consider looking for recipes that pair a handful of fresh ingredients with affordable pantry ingredients that don’t go bad, including canned chickpeas, frozen spinach or peas, tomato sauce, and rice and other dried grains.
Consider the active cooking time. Unless you have very good knife skills, recipes will always take longer than they say.
Determine how much chopping you’ll need to do. Quickly scan recipes to assess the amount of chopping you’ll need to do, keeping in mind that some aren’t written in a way where you can tell how much chopping will be required just by looking at the ingredients. If you need to go fast, less chopping is better.
SET YOURSELF UP TO ENJOY THE KITCHEN
Once you know how you cook best, what everyone likes to eat, and what kind of recipes you should be choosing, it’s time to hit the kitchen. That’s where the temperature rises, even if you’ve set yourself up well. The most perfect plan can fall apart with a kid meltdown, a phone call, an emergency e-mail from work, or, of course, a recipe gone wrong. It happens. Making sure that your kitchen is set up so that things are easy and comfortable will help those moments roll off your back. Well, as much as they can.
Think about the things that drive you crazy every single time you cook. Do you hate rummaging for pots? Do you get annoyed every time you have to reach to the back of the pantry to grab the oil (which you use every day)? Take time to fix anything that’s a constant annoyance. Including the kids.
I’m not kidding about the kids part. If the kids drive you mad while you’re cooking, think of ways that you might keep them busy so that you can fit in thirty minutes of focused cooking time. Can your cooking time double as a dedicated drawing, reading, or homework time? Do you not mind having them cook alongside you? Maybe your cooking time becomes their TV time. Hey, no judgments here. If it helps you make a fresh, healthy meal, it may be a net value.
Last, but not least, do your best to turn cooking into an enjoyable moment. You have to do it one way or another, so why not pour a glass of wine and turn on your favorite album. Cooking dinner in a rush will never be a Calgon moment, but it also doesn’t have to be completely hellish.
STOP FEELING GUILTY ABOUT USING SHORTCUTS
Using healthy, store-bought shortcuts—and not feeling bad about them—freed me from a tremendous amount of pressure, self-imposed of course, because how could a professional food writer not make everything from scratch? (She can be a busy working mom of two young kids, is how.) And, yes, there are store-bought shortcuts that are healthy, or at least healthy enough without nasty ingredients, that their convenience outweighs the small sacrifice in taste or quality (see my Supermarket Guide, pages 237–255).
On the other side of the spectrum, being discerning about shortcuts has been a revelatory change in the cooking style of my clients who once relied primarily on store-bought ingredients. With mastery of a few very easy scratch recipes for go-to staples (Everyday Pancakes, page 85; Everyday Waffles, page 87; Pizza Dough, page 191; and Peanut Butter, page 53, for example) they could let go of some of the expensive store-bought items—and also let go of the guilt that came with those purchases. And it doesn’t even cost them that much extra time in the kitchen.
Determining your threshold for store-bought shortcuts is a very personal matter. What one busy cook considers a good compromise may feel like a sacrifice to another. While there are some foods and ingredients that we should all try to avoid as much as possible (check out my list on page 15), many fall in a gray area that should be considered in the context of your specific diet and budget.
Following are a few things to think about as you figure out where you want to draw the line between cooking from scratch and buying from the store.
DETERMINE WHAT YOU WANT TO BUY ORGANIC AND WHEN YOU WANT TO SAVE MONEY
The research is complicated, but I’ve dug though it and can tell you with confidence that organically grown produce is better for us overall and undeniably better for the planet, too. It’s honestly a clear-cut issue for me, but I understand that it may not be for you. Here is a simple overview of how and why I buy organic. I hope that it helps you make buying decisions for your family that you can feel good about.
Some crops require more pesticides than others and some fruits and veggies have more permeable skin. When you cross-reference these factors, you can figure out which foods are “dirtier” than others. Every year, the Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org) publishes its findings in two superuseful lists: the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.
As a rule of thumb, I buy the organic version of any produce on the Dirty Dozen list and save my dollars by going conventional with produce on the Clean Fifteen. (See how easy we’re making this?)
There’s just one more thing that I want the parents of babies to consider. Beginner eaters and toddlers consume a much greater volume of fruits and vegetables compared to their body weight than do big kids and adults. For this reason, studies have shown that beginner eaters tend to have a much higher level of pesticides in their bloodstream. Babies seem to benefit most from a wholly organic diet so, whenever possible, with the exception of the Clean Fifteen, consider buying as much organic as you’re able for your beginner eater.
So much of the conversation about organic versus conventional food has centered on produce but, if you ask me, dairy is what we should be talking about. First off, in the same way that our babies and toddlers eat more produce relative to their body weight compared to older children and adults, American school-aged children eat a diet very high in dairy. Also, the labels for dairy products can be confusing.
Let’s start with milk. Organic milk has been shown to contain higher levels of omega-3 fats due to the fact that cows that produce organic milk are usually fed a diet higher in omega-3 fats, including more grass. Some studies claim that the level is marginally higher (i.e., it doesn’t make a difference), while a 2013 study that looked closely at four hundred samples of organic and conventional milk over eighteen months showed that the difference was quite significant. A small sample, but perhaps still food for thought.
While the omega-3 issue may be inconclusive, there are two things about dairy that are not. One is that milk does not contain antibiotics. By law, all of the milk produced for commercial consumption is tested for antibiotics and other veterinary drugs. Milk found to be contaminated is immediately pulled out of our food supply, even at conventional dairies.
The other indisputable thing about dairy is that industrially raised dairy cows are regularly injected with growth hormones (BGH, rBGH, and rBST) to increase their milk production. While some research suggest that these hormones don’t survive pasteurization, other studies claim that the research is inconclusive.
Either way, whether you buy conventional or organic, the absolute latest research suggests that whole milk is best. All those good fatty acids that milk offers are carried in the fat that is removed when making 2%, 1%, and fat-free milk. And since whole-fat dairy is best, you’ll want to make sure that you’re not eating too much of it overall. It’s been long established that a diet high in fruits and vegetables with moderate dairy intake is best for us all.
Deciding whether to buy organic packaged foods is a whole separate process. I know: nothing seems easy with food anymore, but we’re going to break this down and make it a cinch.
In the United States, a product made with entirely organic ingredients—from the wheat to the vanilla extract—can be labeled “100% organic.” A product made with 95 percent organic ingredients can be labeled “organic,” while products made with a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients can say “made with organic ingredients.”
The thing with packaged foods, organic or not, is that they are processed. So, while it may feel better to buy cookies that are “made with organic ingredients,” it’s important to know that they may be packed with sugar. In other words, the word organic is not synonymous with healthy.
When it comes to packaged foods, unless the product includes ingredients on the Dirty Dozen list (e.g., strawberry snack bars made with real strawberries), it’s best to go back to our packaged food basics: read the nutrition and ingredients labels, stay away from foods packed with sugar, fat, and/or salt, and avoid products with ingredients that you don’t like or can’t pronounce. Even if the product is organic.
DECIDE WHETHER LOCAL FOOD MATTERS TO YOU
The local food movement complicates an already inscrutable food landscape, but it’s also a good thing, and not just for farmers and the earth and all those other things that you wish you had more time to care about. It’s also a good thing for busy home cooks, especially parents.
Local food gets from the farm to our kitchens quickly, which means fresher, better-tasting produce. Try getting a kid to fall in love with a hard peach that has been overrefrigerated to make it through the eight-day trip to your supermarket from a farm across the country. Fresh, just-picked ones, though? It takes zero effort to create a fruit—or at least a peach—lover out of your little one.
Just because food is local, does not mean that it’s also organic. And just because it’s not officially labeled “organic” doesn’t meant that it’s heavily laden with pesticides. A lot of local produce that is available direct to consumer is grown on small farms, often by struggling farmers. They may not be able to afford organic certification even if they are using organic growing processes.
If you’re interested in buying local, speak to the farmers directly. Ask questions about their farming practices and decide from there. You can also consult the Dirty Dozen list. When I was still making baby food, I chose to buy organic any items on the Dirty Dozen list, even if it meant getting less tasty strawberries that had been shipped to New York from California. As my kids grew up, I decided that superfresh, local produce was just fine, even if grown conventionally, given that the rest of our diet was largely organic. You can do the same. Or not. Just learn about your options and decide what’s right for your family.
KEEP IN MIND THE INGREDIENTS YOU WANT TO AVOID AT ALL COSTS
In the next chapter, we’ll talk about how to read packaged food and nutrition labels. I share a list of ingredients that most experts think we should avoid as much as possible and tips on how to figure out how much salt, sugar, and fat your family should be eating. Take it all in as you’re able and maybe even speak to your doctor (definitely speak to your doctor if anyone in your family has health challenges). Then, set guidelines for what you’re willing to buy and stick to them, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you want to consider a new store-bought shortcut that will save you time and stress.
The key to letting go of the guilt so often associated with buying store-bought foods is to align how you actually feed your family with how you want to feed your family. Whether you realized it or not, all of the questions and considerations I’ve thrown your way in this chapter have been designed to help you create a flexible set of values about how you want to feed your crew. These food values will give you something to check your food decisions against.
If you see a new product that will help you make dinner easier and it fits your values, go ahead and grab it without guilt. If it doesn’t fit your values, skip it. Or if it’s really great or a special occasion, make an exception. The point isn’t to be rigid, but to help you feel like you’re doing a good job overall. Because you are.
MAKE IT EASY On Your Schedule
Time is the factor that seems to stress home cooks out more than any other. There never seems to be enough of it for us to make the kinds of meals that we want to make. In the last chapter we talked about being honest about what you can easily whip up within your schedule constraints. That’s a critical part of making it easy, but there are a few other simple ways to make it easy on your schedule: meal plan, master the market, make smart use of store-bought short-cuts, and learn a few kitchen tricks.
MEAL PLAN. I KNOW, BUT SERIOUSLY.
Yup, the dreaded meal plan suggestion. You’ve heard it before and, though I’ve promised you a new approach, here I am saying it again. The truth is, if you can get into the habit of meal planning, it will totally and completely change your life as a busy home cook. I’m not exaggerating and I’ve seen it help clients even more than I could have ever predicted.
I’ve also seen that some busy cooks just can’t, don’t, won’t meal plan. If you’ve tried and just can’t make meal planning work, forgive yourself and move on. If you haven’t given it the old college try, though, and think that you might be ready to commit, I encourage you to give it a go (another go?).
Here are some practical meal-planning tips that have helped even the most resistant of my clients. In fact, even if you’re ready to accept that you’re not the meal-planning type, give these tips a scan. Some can be incorporated into your routine even if you can’t, don’t, won’t formally meal plan.
Set aside no more than ten minutes to think about meals for the week. If you allow meal planning to take twenty, thirty, or forty minutes or longer, it will become an unsustainable practice. Instead, force yourself to do it in ten minutes. Be focused, go to recipe resources you trust, and make thoughtful but quick decisions. You might even set a timer to keep you on track. Once you see what a big difference only ten minutes a week can make, you’ll be motivated to continue.
Keep track of meals that work. Keeping notes on recipes that are easy to cook and meals that are a hit with the family help you from having to re-create the wheel every week. Put favorites on regular rotation so that you don’t have to plan all-new meals every week.
Have other members of your crew help. Ask the rest of the people in your crew about what they want to eat. Maybe each kid gets a day of the week or every Friday is Mom’s choice. Having a few meals that you don’t have to think about makes meal planning easier. Plus, serving your family their favorites increases their food happiness quotient, which reduces complaining and, in turn, increases your food happiness quotient, too.
Plan a few meals around what’s already in the refrigerator. Food waste can be a big source of guilt and, worse, a huge waste of money. When taking your ten minutes to make a meal plan, start with what’s in the fridge. If you’re not great at dreaming up meals based on one or two available ingredients, flip to the index here or in one of your other favorite cookbooks. You can also use a recipe search engine that scans by ingredient, such as www.foodily.com.
Once you get good at planning around what you have in your fridge, you can also incorporate the foods in your pantry and freezer. This will help keep you from finding four-year-old freezer burned meat or who-knows-how-old cans of beans buried in the way back.
Cook once, eat twice. While meal planning, try to double up on side dishes, veggies, or even main proteins in a week so that you can cook them once and serve them twice. So, for example, if you’re making steak tacos with rice and beans one night, also plan on serving grilled chicken with a side of rice and roasted broccoli and an Asian steak salad that week, too. Then, on taco night, cook double the steak and double the rice—it takes no extra effort—and your cooking on two subsequent nights that week is significantly reduced.
I admit that doing this masterfully is an advanced meal-planning skill, but just having the thought in your head can help, especially with sides like rice or quinoa and simple proteins like roasted chicken or pork loin.
LEARN HOW TO NAVIGATE THE SUPERMARKET LIKE A NINJA
Sometimes, making my way through the supermarket feels like trying to hack through the jungle. There are an overwhelming number of choices to begin with and, now, with brand-name companies increasingly aware of consumer desire for more natural and eco-friendly products, it’s harder than ever to tell which choices are actually good for us.
Navigating the supermarket aisles so that you don’t get overwhelmed requires you to know where to look for the healthiest options and to have a system for scanning food labels just enough to know whether a product fits your food values.
Supermarket design is fairly prescribed and has been for a long time. Perhaps you’ve noticed that nearly every supermarket—from the one near your house to the one by your cousin’s house across the country—has a similar layout. This is good news for us busy shoppers, since we can use the same plan of attack in any store we visit.
Shop the perimeter Start by shopping the perimeter. This is where you’ll find the fresh and refrigerated food, including veggies, fruit, meat, and dairy. Once you start weaving your way through the labyrinth of aisles, make sure to look high and low. Big brands, many of which are notorious for pushing unhealthy processed foods, pay for the sweet spot at your eye level. They often pay even more for the space at your little one’s eye level, so be aware of that if you’ve got little kids in tow.
One thing that will vary from store to store is whether it offers an organic food section and, if it does, where it is. You don’t have to be a diehard organic food buyer to start your packaged food shopping in the organic section; it’s a great place for anyone who’s looking for healthier options to start browsing, since all of the organic brands are concentrated in a small area instead of dispersed throughout. If you’re interested, save time by asking for the organic section as soon as you walk into a new supermarket.
Speed-read food labels Even in the organic section of the market, trying to decipher labels for new food products that catch my eye is a major time suck. It’s not something that I want to abandon, since reading labels is, hands down, the best way to make smarter, healthier choices.
So, I came up with a system for reading labels that makes it quick and easy. I swear: if you follow these tips you’ll be speed reading labels and zeroing in on what counts most in no time.
Make It Easy will help you get an appealing and relatively healthy dinner on the table without breaking a sweat.”
Library Journal, 7/1/16, starred review
[An] intelligent guide .The book will enable every aspiring cook to create healthy meals from scratch and provides advice on how to best stock your pantry with quality shortcuts that can make a cook's life easier The recipes are practical, easy to follow, and delicious Thoughtful, forthright prose and creative cooking ideas that will appeal to a range of cooks makes this ideal for the beginner who seeks inspiration and confidence.”
- On Sale
- May 10, 2016
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books