Summer is here, and there’s one last way to save yourself from a kitchen sweat-fest. Brace yourself: It’s time for a big cook—one that might not even entail turning on the oven.
Summer is shortcut season. Shortcuts on your bike that happen to swing by the ice cream spot. Shortcuts off the main road to get to the lake faster. Shortcuts to beat (or try to beat!) traffic.
As a cook, I struggle in the summertime. Although I’d love to tell you I’m sitting around making crudos and ceviches, smashed cucumber salads and stone fruit crumbles, the cold hard truth is that I do as little work as I can. Lasagna and pizza are on hold till fall, thanks very much.
This head-in-the-sand approach can result in expensive prepared-food and restaurant bills, of course, so even though I’m not baking bread or French pastries, I know I have to do some kitchen labor. And to take the edge off it, I employ the obvious trick most home cooks know: Double or triple up.
How does that manifest? Well, I chop up enough shallots for today’s pasta salad, tomorrow’s vinaigrette, and tonight’s marinade. I mince enough garlic to rub all over that lamb chop but also throw in with the chicken for tomorrow’s meal. And I take advantage of my already-messy kitchen to start thinking about breakfast: Could I be blitzing together a yogurt smoothie to get through the first few work mornings this week, setting them aside in cups covered with tinfoil? Usually, yes.
Even if it’s something as simple as salting your chicken the night before to draw out the moisture and get a crisper skin when you cook it up tomorrow, or setting aside half your homemade green goddess salad dressing to marinate a hunk of pork, it’s freakishly satisfying to get a jump a couple meals out.
Just keep in mind what will wilt—don’t slice avocados in advance, and don’t dress salads—but plot out family member meals. Somehow it’s less demoralizing to make your partner’s turkey sandwiches when you know yours is also going to be ready to grab tomorrow. (Plus, your dinner is almost done on the stovetop, and everyone has a healthy breakfast ready to roll.) Overachievers can also set aside snack packs for the hangry—apples, bags of peanuts and raisins, etc.
This is old hat for most moms and dads, who spend half their time doing the laundry, a quarter in traffic shuttling children around, and the rest in the kitchen cooking. But by doing a “big cook”—even if it doesn’t entail turning on the oven—you’ll minimize dishes. The cutting board can be cleaned once, if you do things right. You can wipe out a just-used dish and toss a marinade in it.
Best of all, you’ll find ways to use and re-use ingredients in creative new patterns, because you’ll see them all in front of you like an artist with her palette: Could you throw some Pecorino Romano on your kale and into tomorrow’s vegetable pasta salad? Sure you could. Could pretty much everything you’re making benefit from a flurry of scallions? I reckon so.
Last tip: If you get stuck, think in terms of cuisine. If you’re dicing up mangos to toss with salt, lime, and cayenne, Mexican-style, think about whether you could make a fresh mango salsa, too—or layer mangos with avocado, watercress and Champagne vinegar for a light, bright salad.
In that we’re all trying to reduce food waste—both for our wallets and the environment—big cooks can be time-savers and planet-savers alike.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.