Chop, chop, chop. February's here, so let's pay homage to this abbreviated month with a practical primer on time-saving and cost-cutting tips from shopping and prepping to menu planning and cooking.
Speedy Shopping: At the market act like a racehorse; stay the course with a fully-loaded shopping list, galloping through aisles at a steady clip with those blinders securely fastened to put the skids on temptation, especially at the attractive end-caps.
Heading to the homestretch, have all coupons (paper and digital) organized, along with a good supply of eco-friendly bags in the cart. While one-stop shopping is difficult, trot to secondary markets in close proximity, and have thermal bags or an ice chest in your trunk to keep perishables safe.
Wallet Watchers: As a rule, seasonal fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper than out-of-season produce (and fresher, too, with fewer carbon footprint miles). So load up on winter's best crops — apples of all manners from sweet and crunchy Honeycrisp to tart and juicy Granny Smith, pears, tangerines, avocados, cauliflower, and winter squashes. And where possible buy local (within 100 miles of your home).
Many chefs believe that protein, no longer the star attraction on the plate, should share the spotlight with plant-based foods like grains, whether farro, buckwheat, couscous, rice or barley, along with assorted greens. Smaller protein portions of beef, chicken or fish will also help trim costs, and provide a better dietary balance.
All frugal-minded cooks agree; waste not, want not. Use day-old bread for croutons, breadcrumbs, or panzanella salad (see recipe). Salvage turkey or chicken bones for immune-boosting bone broths, and seafood shells and fish bones for hearty stocks.
Sassy Shortcuts: Cut corners (but not flavor) with the use of spice blends like French Herbes de Provence (rosemary, lavender, marjoram, thyme, oregano), Garam Masala with warming cinnamon and cardamom for Indian dishes, Ras el Hanout combining turmeric, ginger, coriander, cayenne and cloves to give an oomph to Moroccan recipes, Chinese Five Spice with a mix of sweet, sour, savory and bitter, and Chili Powder of ancho chile, cumin and smoked paprika to jazz up southwest fare.
Grains with long cooking times like quinoa and brown rice can be bought pre-boiled in individual freezer packs. Frozen de-veined shrimp, vegetables including assorted roots, crucifers, snap peas, mushrooms, beets, carrots, along with beans and legumes are prewashed, peeled, trimmed, cut, and some even cooked — lickety-split ready to steam, braise, roast or toss in salads, stews, risottos, soups and sauces.
Proficient Prepping: Buy all produce in a single shopping trip, and process in one fell swoop. Prepare a sudsy bath with castile soap and warm water, then rinse in cool, clear water, and pat dry with a terry dishcloth. Fresh berries are the exception, and should not be washed until ready to eat to prevent spoilage. Trim green tops (and reserve for other dishes), then store all parts in airtight zip bags in crisper drawers of the refrigerator ready when you are.
It's also a good idea to have a few peeled hard-boiled eggs on hand to add to salads in a pinch, while chicken breasts and fish can be portioned in individual servings before freezing.
Swift Suppers: Whether you're a carnivore, pescavore or vegetarian choose a lean, wild-caught, grass-fed, organic protein (cod, deep-sea scallops, turkey or chicken breast, lamb loin or silky tofu) and combine with a pasta, noodle, spud or grain, along with a green vegetable, root, fungus, tomato or crucifer with a handful of herbs. Toss in a bowl (poke), wok (stir-fry), tagine (slow-braised Moroccan stew), on a sheet pan, or in a cast iron skillet (ragus, gumbos, risottos, curries, goulashes, stews or chilis).
Recipe: Panzanella Salad A-Go-Go
• Ingredients: 1 crusty baguette, cut in chunks; 4 Persian cucumbers, sliced in coins; 2 sweet red peppers, sliced in rings; 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved; 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced; 1/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted; 2 tablespoons olive or walnut oil.
• For garnish: 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled; 1 handful fresh basil, chopped.
• For the dressing: 1/2 cup olive or walnut oil; 1 tablespoon white balsamic or red wine vinegar; 2 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 garlic clove, minced; 1/3 teaspoon honey; salt and pepper to taste. Whisk dressing ingredients in glass bowl. Set aside.
• Method: In large skillet heat oil (2 tablespoons) on medium. Add bread. Sprinkle with salt, and toast until golden. Combine toast and remaining salad ingredients in large salad bowl. Toss with dressing. Let sit for one hour. Top with basil and cheese. (Serves 4)