Author Topic: All About Food: How To Easily and Cheaply Shop, Cook, and Eat for Health  (Read 28916 times)

Offline Alissa J. Bratz

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How To Shop, Cook, and Eat for Health on Limited Time, a Limited Budget, and Limited Cooking Experience

Many people think that eating well requires lots of money or lots of time, and that cooking to eat well requires lots of training and talent. While money and time can make eating well easier, they are not required. And cooking can be boiled down to a few simple techniques that anyone can master with a little practice. The hardest part about cooking and eating well is a commitment to do so. Sadly, our society makes it easier for people to eat poorly: food in boxes and "kits," instant meals, sodium- and fat-packed microwave dinners. In essence, we have been duped into believing that cooking things from scratch, using fresh ingredients, is a time-consuming, difficult hassle. This leads to countless people saying to themselves, "I would eat better, but...I don't have time/I can't cook/I can't afford to." As mentioned, these attitudes are based on false premises and also on a lack of commitment to eating well.

This article will not dictate any particular diet or eating plan. The techniques and ideas in this article are designed to work for a variety of diets, and it's up to the reader to modify as needed to fit with his or her eating plan. That said, this article is rooted in a few rules of thumb that are generally applicable to good health, regardless of diet philosophy:

1. Variety is the best way to a healthy diet. The more varied colors, textures, shapes and tastes in your grocery cart and on your plate, the better you'll eat, and the happier and healthier you'll be. So stay out of a rut!

2. Every meal should consist of lean protein, unprocessed carbohydrates, and healthy unprocessed fats.

3. Limit or completely eliminate all sugar intake, except for what is naturally occurring in unprocessed fruits.

4. Eat when you are hungry, and stop when you are full. Do not eat simply because it is "time to eat." However you should eat when your body is giving you hunger signals.

5. Drink plenty of water. The best thing for the body that there is to drink is plain, clean water.

6. All foods should resemble as closely as possible the way they appeared in nature. In other words, there should be very few "steps" the food has to go through between the farm, the store, and your plate.

7. Use herbs, spices, and natural flavoring agents such as stocks/broths, vinegars, and mustards to flavor your foods.

8. Where possible, eat organic and local foods. In general, you will get more nutrition for your dollar if you spend money on organic animal products as opposed to organic vegetables. Toxins and chemicals tend to be stored in animals' fat, whereas with vegetables the toxins can generally be washed off. Eggs and milk are an easy and reasonable place to spend your "organic dollar" if you're on a budget.

9. Take time to savor your food. Do not multi-task while eating. Be mindful of the nutrition you are taking into your body, even if you only have 15 minutes to eat. Do not eat standing up, or walking, or watching TV. Keep your meal time devoted to the meal.

10. Check labels on processed foods, if you must buy them. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, and hydrogenated oils like the plague. Any ingredient with "-ose" at the end is a type of sugar, so be wary of that. In general, the ingredient list should all sound like things that are food (ideally they should all be things that you can recognize as growing in nature), and ingredient lists should be short.

Meal Planning

Eating well, on a limited time schedule, requires planning. I find it's easier to plan all of my meals for the week in advance, or at least the dinners. Very often I cook twice as much food as I will need for a dinner, and then eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. This streamlines planning, shopping, and preparation.

In general, each meal, even snacks, should follow guidelines 1-5, above. Quantities, percentages/ratios, and portion sizes differ depending on your body, your fitness goals, and your preferred diet; however in general, if you plan each meal with the following "order" in mind, you should be all right:

1. Visualize a dinner plate and place setting
2. Choose a protein (meat, eggs, fish, etc.), as prepared in a favorite recipe, and place one serving of it on the plate
3. Choose a vegetable or two and place them on the plate
4. Add a salad
5. If meat + vegetables + salad is insufficient for you, add a bit of cheese, either at the end of your meal or as part of a recipe for one of the items on your plate
6. You may enjoy a bit of fruit or a bit of dark chocolate for dessert if you prefer
7. Keep sugars and processed carbs limited or absent

Try to plan your weekly menus in a way that will facilitate shopping and meal preparation. For example, be willing to cook large dinners so that you might have leftovers for lunch the next day. It is also helpful to plan menus that use recipes with a lot of common ingredients, to streamline shopping. If you choose a lot of recipes that use broccoli, for example, you will save time in the produce section at the store because you will be able to get lots of meals out of one vegetable. Be sure you don't take this too far, though; remember the importance of variety in eating well.

A Word On Recipes

Recipes can be a great way to explore food and cooking. They provide a road map for how to navigate flavors, and for novice cooks they can feel like a lifeline. However the more recipes you read, and the more you cook, the more you will start to recognize patterns in flavorings and techniques. As you learn the techniques and become comfortable with them, you should feel more comfortable straying from recipes to adapt things to your own situation, or possibly even abandoning recipes altogether.

It is easier to eat well and on a budget without recipes, in my view; because often a recipe takes a lot of time to prepare, or requires ingredients that you may not use often in other things, thereby costing money. Recipes can also unnecessarily constrain you; however if you understand technique and have sufficient practice, then a recipe can be fun and liberating.

Therefore, most of what I will describe in this guide is more in the realm of technique than recipe. I encourage you to practice cooking for yourself using the techniques described here, and the foods and seasonings you prefer, to create your own recipes. Then, you can always go back to familiar or new recipes and make decisions/adaptations to them based on your newfound knowledge and technique.

(There is a parkour metaphor in there, I just know it!) ;)

If you must have a recipe, most of the recipes I've posted in the Recipe thread will work with these techniques. If you read those recipes (or any other recipes you come across) after reading this article, you will likely recognize the techniques I've described. I recommend using those recipes (or others you find) in conjunction with the "game-plans" I've provided, to prepare your meals and allow your culinary learning process to develop.


Shopping

If you are shopping for health, you will be surprised at how much time you'll save. This is because most of the food you will want is on the outer ring of most grocery stores: produce, meat, and dairy. There is no need to go up and down each aisle searching because you have no need for processed or "convenience" foods.

Some foods will be minimally processed, but will still be packaged for "convenience," for example a jar of minced broccoli, or a package of baby carrots or broccoli florets, or a package of sliced real cheese (NOT Kraft singles!). These will be more expensive, but will save you time when prepping. And since they still look the way they looked in nature, but they are just washed and chopped, they are okay. You will have to decide for yourself if the higher cost of these items is worth the time you will save during the week or not. That depends on your budget and lifestyle.

Here is a sample shopping list for two people (or one very active young person--i.e. a serious traceur in his late teens/early twenties) for about 2 weeks:

Produce
1 lb. green beans
1 lb. broccoli
1 bunch asparagus
salad greens (go for red leaf lettuce, if not a mix of "baby greens". Iceberg and romaine are essentially nutritionally useless)
1-2 bell peppers
1 onion
1 bunch scallions
1 ginger root
tomatoes
baby spinach
mushrooms
1 head red cabbage and/or bok choy
carrots
1 head cauliflower
1-2 types of fruit or berries
1 avocado
1-2 cucumbers
nuts of any kind, in bulk (for snacking and use in salads, steamed vegetables)

Meat/Deli
2 pkgs boneless/skinless chicken breasts (4-packs)
2 lb. ground beef, divided
1 pkg frozen fish filets (not breaded; you can get packages of unbattered/unbreaded orange roughy or tilapia)
1-2lbs. deli meat (turkey or chicken breast are good choices)
1-2 pkgs fake crab pieces
several packets of tuna

Dairy
milk
eggs
cheese (NOT processed "singles"!)--for sandwiches and in recipes, also for snacks (the mozzarella string cheese sticks make good snacks)
1 large tub plain yogurt (can double as sour cream in recipes, and can be sweetened with fruit; you control the sugar that way)
1 large tub cottage cheese
butter (NOT margarine!)

Other
whole-grain bread (check labels carefully here! "whole wheat" is NOT the same thing as "whole grain"!)
old-fashioned or steel-cut oats (NOT instant or "minute")
buckwheat soba noodles
soy sauce
1-2 cans each of chicken, beef, and vegetable broth
real mayonnaise (the more natural, the better)
vegetable or tomato juice
olive oil
canola oil
all-natural nut butter (your choice: peanut, almond, cashew, etc. Ingredient list should basically be nuts and oil, maybe some salt)

Basic seasonings and flavor agents you should have on hand (not exhaustive)
Herbs: thyme, sage, rosemary, dill, tarragon, herbes de provence, bay leaves, oregano
Spices: chili flakes, paprika, dried mustard, curry powder
Flavor agents: cooking wine (red and white), balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, salt, pepper

Obviously this is a sample and is not intended to be "gospel." Your preferences and eating habits will dictate what your shopping list looks like. However there are some things worth noting:

1. The bulk of the list is lean proteins and vegetables. Fruits are present, but make only a small portion of the list

2. The most processed items on the list are bread, cheese, and soba noodles. Compared to most items in a supermarket, these things are "minimally processed." Overall the shopping list is still quite natural

3. There are very few bread/grain products on the list. Considering this list is for a two-week span, very little bread/grain items will be consumed with each meal.

Prepping

By now you have your grocery items at home and are ready to start eating well! If you have purchased all of your vegetables pre-washed and pre-cut, you have saved some time at the expense of a greater cost. This is fine if it works for you. However if it doesn't, you will have to do some prep for yourself. This is best accomplished all at once, after the groceries are home and being put away. A bit of time invested now, to wash, chop, and package your goodies into useable portions will save you a lot of time during the week.

Here are some ideas:

-Wash and chop all vegetables, putting them in serving-size containers, or in containers in the quantities you will need for recipes/cooking

-Divide meat packages into smaller portions for individual days/meals

-Slice the pork tenderloin, or any other larger cut of meat, into "medallions" so they will be appropriate for quick preparation techniques. This is also more cost-effective than purchasing chops or steaks.

-Store meats in the freezer. Take out only what you will eat the next day, to thaw in the fridge, the night before (this gets you thinking about tomorrow's dinner tonight, which is a huge time-saver).

-Blanch any vegetables you intend to eat steamed during the week, to speed cooking (although steaming is pretty fast)

-If you eat boiled eggs for snacks or as part of salads, buy two dozen eggs, and boil one dozen of them on your "prep day" to have on hand for the rest of the week. Be sure to mark them somehow to avoid confusion with your unboiled dozen!

-pre-mix any marinades you plan to use during the week, and store in screw-top jars

-make your own salad dressing (it's easier than you think! and way better for you!)


Kitchen Equipment

You don't need a lot of fancy stuff to make tasty, healthy, homemade meals. Your best friends for fast and healthy meals will be a broiler pan and a steamer insert with a lidded saucepan. A good set of knives, some measuring cups/spoons, a skillet, a stockpot or Dutch oven, a whisk, a turner/spatula, and a wooden spoon or two are pretty much all you'll need besides that to round it out.

A Note About Seasoning

This never occurred to me, being a confident cook, until I married my husband and started to teach him how to cook. He pointed out that most novice cooks either don't even think about seasoning their food, or they are hesitant to do so due to lack of knowledge. So I wanted to mention it here even though it may seem obvious.

Seasoned food tastes better! Use seasonings to your advantage. No mater what you cook, whether it's a simple sandwich or a fancy pan-roasted sea bass in a champagne beurre blanc, you should use herbs and spices. There are no rules, go with what you like, and use your sense of smell to guide you. Experiment and have fun.

Your kitchen should at least have the basic seasonings outlined above in my sample shopping list (for most Western/European style cooking). Try them out on your meat before and during cooking. Add a little butter and a sprinkling of salt & herbs to your steamed vegetables when they come off the stove. Infuse stir-fry oils with garlic, onion, and ginger in the pan before adding vegetables for stir-frying. Curry powder works great too.

Until you get used to cooking, and get comfortable with using seasonings, I'm going to ask you to be sure to consciously use at least one seasoning (in addition to salt and pepper) on each cooked item in your menu. (And yes, marinade counts as one seasoning).

She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
--excerpt from Going Blind, Rainer Maria Rilke

www.madisonparkour.com

Offline Alissa J. Bratz

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Basic Cooking Techniques

Like anything else, cooking requires practice. It is a skill, so you will have to learn to cook by cooking. There will be trial-and-error periods, mistakes, and burned food, but don't give up! The skills come quickly enough, and the best part is it's totally creative. You learn what works and what doesn't by using your five senses, especially taste, smell, and touch. And besides, no one needs to know the roast fell on the floor except you. :)

Don't be intimidated by these techniques. Once you have them down, you are limited only by your imagination and what's in your fridge. They are widely applicable to almost any kind of food, just like the vaults and other techniques we learn can get us through almost any environment, if we have practiced enough.

We'll cover several basic cooking techniques here. All are fast and simple, but with the right ingredients they can produce some fantastic results. The techniques are:

-Marinating (Meat and/or vegetables)
-Broiling/grilling (Meat and/or vegetables)
-Pan roasting (Meat)
-Sauteing (Meat and/or vegetables)
-Deglazing (Meat)
-Making a reduction (Meat)
-Stir-fry (Meat and/or vegetables)
-Steaming (Vegetables)

Be aware that all the cooking times for these techniques will vary based on what you are cooking. I have also ordered them to correspond to how you would compose a meal: preparing the meat (non-meat proteins, such as eggs and dairy products, require a totally different set of techniques which will not be included in this article), followed by preparation of the vegetables.

Vegetables generally take far less time to cook than meats or other proteins, which is why for most meals you will start your meat, and then prepare the vegetables while the meat cooks.

Marinating
Best for: any meats or vegetables; used to soak foods in a "flavor bath" for a period of time prior to cooking

Prep notes: food needs at least an hour to marinate; best to prepare in the morning or the night before

Other notes: Always marinate meat and vegetables in separate containers. It is generally advisable to discard excess meat marinade. Large-size Ziploc bags are ideal marinating containers.

Marinades are flavoring liquids. They can include any seasonings and spices you can imagine, as well as flavoring agents such as mustards or sauces. In addition, every marinade should have an acid (vinegar, citrus juice, wine, etc.) to tenderize the meat and infuse the flavors. Often it is helpful to have a bit of oil in the marinade to help the marinade "cling" to the meat when you remove it from the marinade to cook it. Just be sure you whisk it well to get a complete emulsion.

Most marinades require at least an hour to sit in the fridge. It is often helpful to whip up a marinade the night before, or in the morning, to let it sit for sufficient time before cooking. Prepare marinades in a bowl, then pour over meat that's been placed in a large plastic zipper bag. Zip closed, and shake it around to coat the meat. Place in fridge for at least one hour.

When it's time to cook, remove the meat from the marinade, and cook until done. Marinades generally work best for meats and vegetables that are broiled, grilled, or baked.


Broiling/grilling
Best for: any meats or vegetables, and fatty fish (tuna steaks, salmon); used to cook foods quickly, using indirect heat. Not recommended for delicate fish or thin cuts of meat

Prep notes: Be sure to preheat the broiler pan or grill. If broiling, broiler should be 2-4" from heat source. Oil-based marinades can cause foods to "flame" when broiling or grilling, so take care.

Broiling is a good way to cook meats very quickly. Preheating the broiler pan will help facilitate this process. Be sure you are using a broiler pan so that excess fat can drip away into the pan and not into the oven. Most meats will cook fully in a broiler in 12 minutes or less. I find it's easier to line the bottom tray of the broiler pan with foil before putting the meat on it to cook. It reflects heat back towards the meat, and makes clean-up easier.

Some experts recommend keeping the oven door open slightly during broiling to keep the cooking "dry." I do not have much experience with this so I can't judge. Electric ranges sometimes have a vent for the broiler (usually on the back right-hand burner), which serves the same purpose as leaving the oven door open. Be sure your vent is not blocked by a pot or pan. Not only will this create steam and affect your meat's cooking time, but the intense heat from the broiler will certainly affect whatever is cooking in the pan atop the stove that's blocking the vent.

Be sure to turn the food halfway through cooking. Cut meat open to be sure it's done all the way through (for chicken and pork), or to your preferred doneness (for beef). Fish will be done when it flakes easily with a fork, and when it's cooked almost all the way through.

It is easy to overcook foods when broiling, because the intense heat can often sear the outside, insulating the inside from the heat. So you have to watch carefully. If you feel this is happening, pull the meat out and slice several deep slits into each piece. It can be helpful to do this before putting the food under the broiler, if you wish. Be aware also that residual heat will continue the cooking process even after you've pulled the meat from the broiler, if you leave it on the pan. This can be helpful to know when cooking things like fish, which require a lot of attention to get cooked "just right."

Broiling is all about the timing.

Pan Roasting
Best for: single-servings of any meats, and thicker cuts of fish

Prep notes: needs a pre-heated oven (usually 450*F)and an ovenproof, heavy-bottomed skillet (non-stick coated is NOT recommended, also no plastic handles). You may choose to cover the skillet handle with foil. Also, have a very durable flame-proof mitt handy. Use canola oil or another stable oil. Olive oil NOT recommended.

Other notes: Don't crowd your food in the skillet: this works best with only one or two servings at a time. Foods can go from good to extraordinary when this technique is used with sauteing and deglazing techniques to make a sauce.

This technique involves searing a piece of meat in a very hot, heavy-bottomed oven-proof skillet (cast-iron is great), and then finishing the cooking in a very hot oven. You will need a couple of tablespoons of a very stable oil (one with a high smoking point), such as canola. Olive oil is a BAD choice, as it has a very low smoking point.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Heat the oil on a medium-high burner. Let it get good and hot, just before it smokes. It will be runny and bubbly. Add the meat (be careful not to splash the oil; slide the meat in carefully) and leave it untouched for a few minutes (cooking time will vary based on the food, but 2-3 minutes is a good starting point), and then flip, searing for a bit less time than the first side.

Transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking, usually about 3-9 minutes, depending on the type and cut of your meat.

See the notes under "Broiling" about checking for doneness, and an over-seared outside preventing the inside from cooking.

Sauteing/Deglazing/Making a Reduction
Best for: most meats, some fish, most vegetables

Prep notes: Use a combination of butter and oil to saute. Preheat your saute pan on low before adding the fat. Have deglazing liquid (generally a wine or a vinegar) and sauce liquid (generally a stock/broth, or a tomato-based sauce) on hand. Be prepared to make changes to burner temperature throughout the process.

Other notes: This is one of the quickest and simplest ways to make a "gourmet" meal. Once you can saute, deglaze, and reduce, you can apply this technique to pretty much any ingredients and come up with something impressive.

This series of techniques involves cooking meat and/or vegetables in fat quickly over high heat (sauteing), then using the pan drippings to make a sauce base (deglazing), and then using the prepared sauce base with another liquid that cooks down to make a thick sauce (reducing).

You can saute something without deglazing or making a reduction. You can make a reduction without sauteing or deglazing, but deglazing requires a saute (or other techniques which are not covered in this article). Often just the deglaze can be a delicious sauce for a meat, but a reduction offers more creative license.

Heat a pan over low heat. When it is hot, add a combination of butter and oil. Turn heat to medium-high or high. Let the fat heat until bubbles subside and it's just beginning to brown. Add meat and cook evenly on all sides. This is your saute. If your meat is cooked thoroughly you could serve it as-is. But a deglaze and a reduction will make it more flavorful.

Remove the meat from the pan and set it aside. Your pan should by this time be very hot. Pour the deglazing liquid into the pan (careful! It will spatter and steam and, if alcoholic, may flame for a moment. Keep your face back from the pan). Use a turner or flat-edged spoon to scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan as the liquid cooks down. Add some chopped onion, garlic, or shallots if you like. Don't let it get away from you. Timing is everything here. You should be left with a somewhat syrupy brown goo at the bottom of your pan. This is your deglaze. You can pour this over your meat and serve, but turning your deglaze into a reduction is a quick-and-dirty way to make a nice sauce for your meat, and opens doors for lots of creative possibilities. If you are continuing on to the reduction, start immediately. Don't let your deglaze burn.

Pour your sauce liquid into the pan. This can be a broth or stock, or it can be a can of tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes with their liquid. Stir this liquid around with your deglaze to incorporate it. Keep the heat high. Keep stirring until enough of the liquid boils away that it thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Season with herbs and spices towards the end of the cooking time. You will have to watch carefully to get a feel for the timing until you are used to how long it takes to thicken to your preference.

You may want to add your meat back to the pan as the reduction gets close to completion, to infuse its flavors into the meat and re-warm the meat a bit.

It is often preferable to add a bit of fat to the reduction right at the end of cooking time. This is called "mounting," and is usually done with a pat of butter right at the end, just to make the sauce a bit richer. However you can also stir in heavy cream or sour cream to make a creamier sauce. A little goes a long way. Do it right at the end so the dairy product doesn't separate. It will still taste okay but the look and texture will be off.

If your reduction isn't thickening, you can make a roux with melted butter and a bit of flour, and whisk this in to your reduction before re-introducing the meat. Continue whisking to break up any lumps and allow the flour to thicken the sauce. Next time, use less liquid. :)

Stir-fry
Best for: meats and vegetables; ideal for getting rid of lots of vegetables that need to be eaten fast before going bad!

Prep notes: timing is everything for stir-fry. Have everything chopped and ready to go before you even get the pan out. You will need to pre-heat your wok, then add the oil, and let it get to a high temperature before adding the food. Use a stable oil with a high smoking point (canola, peanut, etc.) Have aromatics (ginger, onion, garlic, chili flakes, etc.) ready to go as well

Other notes: Good for quickly cooking vegetables as a side dish, or for stir-frying meat and vegetables with a little bit of seasoning liquid (soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, etc.) to make a meal. A wok is ideal as you can use its shape to control the temperature (it's hotter in the middle than on the sides so you can move the food around to where it needs to be for proper cooking). You can use a skillet but it will be less effective and make the veggies a bit soggy.

Prepare a marinade using any combination of seasoning liquids you prefer. Cut the meat into strips and let soak in marinade at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop/julienne all vegetables and prepare all aromatics. Hardier vegetables (green beans, asparagus, broccoli) take longer to cook than more fragile vegetables (pea pods, tomatoes, etc.) so be prepared to put the hardier vegetables in first when you're ready to cook.

Heat the wok over high heat. When it is hot, add the oil and meat. Stir constantly until meat is cooked. Remove and set aside.

Add aromatics and stir-fry a few seconds until fragrant. Add vegetables from hardiest to most fragile, stirring constantly 3-4 minutes until crisp-tender.

Return meat to pan, with marinade, and cook, stirring frequently, until incorporated and sauce thickens.


Steaming
Best for: vegetables

Prep notes: use a steamer insert and a shallow pan with a tight-fitting lid. Wash and chop vegetables into bite-size pieces.

Other notes: You can use a bamboo steamer or a stainless-steel steamer. Either way, be sure the water in the pan doesn't touch the bottom of the steamer insert.

Place vegetables in the steamer insert and put water in the bottom of a pan. Put the steamer insert into the pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid.

Bring the water to a boil. The amount of time to steam vegetables depends on the vegetable, but for most vegetables it doesn't take long. I tend to use the color and texture of the vegetables to determine when they are done. If they are a very vibrant shade of their natural color, and are tender but not squishy, then they are done. Remove them from the heat immediately so as not to continue the cooking time. You may need to "shock" them by plunging them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking, and then gently steam them for a few moments to reheat them before serving, if your timing is off when preparing a meal.

Here is a decent chart for determining approximate cooking times, so you know when to start your veggies steaming in a meal: http://www.ochef.com/596.htm

Applying the techniques to a meal

All of this theory is useless if you are still struggling with how to apply it to cook for yourself. Here are some tips to help you bring this information into real-world application.

-A few rules of thumb.
Season raw meat with salt and pepper before you do anything to it. This rule of course does not apply to meat that is marinating.

In general, fresh herbs taste better than dried, and should be added only in the last few moments of cooking. Dried herbs will work, but you will need to add them a bit earlier than you would if they were fresh. (Dried herbs also tend to be less expensive)

-Meal planning, revisited.
Choose a protein and a vegetable. Decide how you will season them (according to your taste), and how you will prepare them (according to your time constraints and preferences, using one of the techniques described above). Take care of any prep work (chopping, marinating, measuring, etc.) before you start to cook. This is called mise en place (pronounced "meez ahn plahss") and it's what professional/experienced chefs do. It may seem like a hassle at first, but it will save you a lot of time and stress in the long run. When you watch a chef on the Food Network, and he/she has all the ingredients pre-measured and pre-chopped, sitting out in a nice order in prep bowls, that's mise en place. It's what you want in your kitchen. Trust me.

-Timing is everything.
When your menu is planned and your mise is set for all items on your menu, decide on your cooking order so that everything gets done at around the same time. Start with the things that take the longest to cook. If something needs to simmer for a long while, you can use that time for other tasks like making a salad or cleaning up the prep dishes. On the other hand, if you are preparing things that will cook very quickly, you may want to do the the more labor-intensive tasks (such as making a salad) long before you start anything else, so the salad is made up and ready in advance.

Your mise will save your bacon here, in the timing department.

Go into any meal preparation with a full game-plan from start to finish visualized in your head before you start cooking, rather than just reacting to the next step as it becomes apparent to you. Being proactive rather than reactive protects you from panic moments when you are behind and having to watch several cooking processes at once.

Below I have some sample game-plans for preparing a complete dinner with meat, vegetable, and salad. I have laid out an approximate order for the tasks, and also rated them according to difficulty (difficulty in terms of how much "panicked juggling" or multi-tasking you will have to do). All of these game-plans assume that you have done your mise. If you haven't, well, heaven help you. ;)

-A couple of sample game plans (for dinner):

1. Marinating, broiling, and steaming (Difficulty=Easy)

Your meal=broiled meat, steamed vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of cheese, fruit or a small bit of whole-grain bread with butter or oil, as desired.

Prepare a marinade the night before, or in the morning before heading to work/school. Place your meat in a zipper bag with the marinade, and set it in the fridge for the day.

In the evening, prepare the broiler: preheat the broiler and get the pan ready. Prepare your mise by washing and chopping vegetables for steaming, and getting the steamer insert and pan ready. Don;t forget the water! Make a salad.

Place the marinating meat on the broiler pan. Start the burner under the vegetables. Put the meat under the broiler. (Cooking times will vary based on type and thickness)

Turn meat halfway through cooking. Check vegetables for steaming, and turn off heat if done. Transfer meat and vegetables to a plate when done, and serve.


2. Pan-roasting (no sauce) + steaming (Difficulty=Easy)

Your meal=pan-roasted meat, steamed vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of cheese, fruit or a small bit of whole-grain bread with butter or oil, as desired.

Prepare your mise by setting the oven to 450. Wash/chop your steaming vegetables and set them in the steamer insert in a pan with water. Lay out salt, pepper, and any other seasonings for your meat. Do all of this while the oven preheats. Make a salad as well.

When the oven is ready, begin heating your skillet with the oil. Season your meat, and start the burner under the steamer to begin cooking the vegetables.

When the oil is hot, sear your meat until it's ready to flip (according to your recipe/the cut of meat). Flip the meat and let sit until it's ready to transfer to the oven. Check the vegetables in the steamer. If they are done, remove from heat.

Place meat in oven to finish. Keep an eye on the vegetables. Transfer meat and vegetables to a plate when done, and serve.

3. Pan-roasting (with reduction sauce) + steaming (Difficulty=Medium)

Your meal=pan-roasted meat with a light sauce, steamed vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of cheese, fruit or a small bit of whole-grain bread with butter or oil, as desired.

Prepare your mise by setting the oven to 450. Wash/chop your steaming vegetables and set them in the steamer insert in a pan with water. Lay out salt, pepper, and any other seasonings for your meat. Do all of this while the oven preheats. Make a salad as well. Mince some garlic and onion, and  measure out about 1/2 cup of broth.

Melt some butter in a saucepan over low heat and "sweat" the onion and garlic for about 7-10 minutes. Add your broth and increase heat to medium. Let simmer in the background, allowing the liquid to reduce.

When the oven is ready, begin heating your skillet with the oil. Season your meat, and start the burner under the steamer to begin cooking the vegetables.

When the oil is hot, sear your meat until it's ready to flip (according to your recipe/the cut of meat). Flip the meat and let sit until it's ready to transfer to the oven. Check the vegetables in the steamer. If they are done, remove from heat.

Place meat in oven to finish. Add some herbs to the sauce and stir, allowing flavors to incorporate. Keep an eye on the vegetables. Transfer meat and vegetables to a plate when done. Pour sauce over meat, and serve.

4. Pan-roasting (with sauce #2, deglazing + reduction) + steaming (Difficulty=Medium)

Your meal=pan-roasted meat with a richer sauce, steamed vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of cheese, fruit or a small bit of whole-grain bread with butter or oil, as desired.

Prepare your mise by setting the oven to 450. Wash/chop your steaming vegetables and set them in the steamer insert in a pan with water. Lay out salt, pepper, and any other seasonings for your meat. Do all of this while the oven preheats. Make a salad as well. Mince some garlic and onion, slice some mushrooms, and measure out about 1/2 cup of broth and about 1/4 cup of wine.

Melt some butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat and saute the onion and garlic for a few minutes until onion is translucent. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, letting most of the wine cook off. Add the mushrooms and butter and saute until tender. Add your broth and let simmer to reduce.

When the oven is ready, begin heating your skillet with the oil. Season your meat, and start the burner under the steamer to begin cooking the vegetables.

When the oil is hot, sear your meat until it's ready to flip (according to your recipe/the cut of meat). Flip the meat and let sit until it's ready to transfer to the oven. Check the vegetables in the steamer. If they are done, remove from heat. Check the sauce to make sure it is reducing to your liking. Adjust temperature or add broth as necessary.

Place meat in oven to finish. Add some herbs to the sauce and stir, allowing flavors to incorporate. Keep an eye on the vegetables. Transfer meat and vegetables to a plate when done. Pour sauce over meat, and serve.

5. Stir-fry (Difficulty=Easy)

Your meal=stir-fried meat and vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of brown rice, fruit, or nuts as desired

Cook rice, if desired.

While rice is cooking, prepare your mise by mixing a marinade, cutting the meat into strips, and placing the meat in the marinade. Wash your hands thoroughly and chop all of your vegetables into bite-size pieces. Place the vegetables in individual containers, organizing them in order of cooking time. Lay out your seasonings and your oil. Have a bit of broth handy. Make a salad (some simple sliced cucumbers with chopped scallions in rice vinegar would be good here, and easy).

Continue to watch rice, removing from heat when it gets done.

Heat the oil in your wok. When it is ready, remove the meat from the marinade and cook meat, stirring constantly, until done. Remove meat from wok and set aside.

Add seasonings to oil in wok and stir until aromatic. Add vegetables, in order of most hardy to most fragile, and cook, stirring constantly.

Return meat to pan with reserved marinade and cook, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens, and serve.

6. Pan-roasting (no sauce) + stir-fry (Difficulty=Medium/Hard)

Your meal=pan-roasted meat, stir-fried vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of cheese, fruit or a small bit of whole-grain bread with butter or oil, as desired.

Prepare your mise by setting the oven to 450. Wash/chop your stir-fry vegetables and set nearby. Lay out salt, pepper, and any other seasonings for your meat. Chop onion and garlic, and grate some ginger for the stir-fry. Measure out some broth, rice vinegar, soy sauce or other stir-fry seasoning liquids. Do all of this while the oven preheats. Make a salad as well. Begin heating the oil in your wok.

When the oven is ready, begin heating your skillet. Season your meat.

When the wok oil is hot, add onion, garlic, and ginger and saute quickly to infuse the oil. Add vegetables, from most hardy to most fragile, and continue sauteing to coat evenly.

When the oil is hot in skillet, sear your meat in one until it's ready to flip (according to your recipe/the cut of meat). Flip the meat and let sit until it's ready to transfer to the oven. Check the vegetables in the wok. If they are ready for liquid, add it and stir quickly to coat while the liquid evaporates.

Place meat in oven to finish. Keep an eye on the vegetables, removing from heat when done. Transfer meat and vegetables to a plate when done, and serve.

7. Saute/deglaze/reduction + steam (Difficulty=Easy)

Your meal=sauted meat with a reduction sauce, steamed vegetables, and salad. Add small amounts of cheese, fruit or a small bit of whole-grain bread with butter or oil, as desired.

Prepare your mise: wash/chop your steaming vegetables and set them in the steamer insert in a pan with water. Lay out the liquid for deglazing, and the liquid and herbs for your reduction. Season your meat. Make a salad.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the meat until browned on all sides. Remove meat from pan and set aside, keep warm.

Start burner to steam vegetables.

Increase heat and pour deglazing liquid into pan. Deglaze. Reduce heat and add reduction liquid. Return meat to pan and let simmer until sauce is reduced and meat is cooked through. Add herbs and seasonings towards end of cooking time.

Transfer meat, vegetables, and sauce to plate when done, and serve.

Extraordinary salads

Salads are easy: Cut up vegetables, and put 'em in a bowl. However you can get a lot of nutritional and gustatory (that's taste) return with your salads, for not a lot of time.

Variety is the buzzword here. Lettuces like iceberg and romaine are pretty nutritionally empty, and they don't taste like much. Try basing your salads on a variety of different greens. You can learn about all sorts of greens here.

Pack your salad with as many different kinds of fresh vegetables as you care to. The more colorful your salad is, the better it is.

Include nuts, seeds, and grated or crumbled cheeses to add flavor and satisfying fats. Avocado is a rich, delicious choice as well.

You can make your salad spectacular (and more nutritious, and save money) by making your own dressing. Homemade dressing is simple. All it takes is a fat (most often oil) and an acid (most often vinegar), and any seasonings you want. The ratio of fat to vinegar is usually 3:1. Shake them up in a screw-top jar to emulsify, and enjoy!

Some popular options (fats): olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, walnut oil

Some popular options (acids): white vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, raspberry vinegar, lemon juice

Some popular options (seasonings): minced shallots, thyme, herbes de Provence, tarragon, bay leaf, mustard (dry or prepared), horseradish, salt, pepper, finely grated cheese (choose a variety such as parmesan or asiago)

You may need to sweeten your dressing a bit with a small amount of honey or sugar to cut the acidity a bit. Be aware that bay leaf is used in cooking to cut acidity, and that "sweeter" herbs like tarragon can also cut acidity, thereby reducing your need for sugar.

Experiment to see what works, and make it in small batches. You can find some inspiration here.

General cooking times/temperatures for various meats/cuts

http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FactSheets/Meat_Preparation_Fact_Sheets/index.asp

(Will post in more detail after I have lunch) :)

.................................................................


Bon appetit! :)

Other resources:
http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/technic.htm
http://www.ochef.com/index.html
http://www.epicurious.com/
http://allrecipes.com/
http://www.cookinglight.com/cooking/
http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/ck_dm_cooking_techniques

She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
--excerpt from Going Blind, Rainer Maria Rilke

www.madisonparkour.com

Offline Kevin Williams

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You rock Muse, great guide, I'll make sure to make use of it. Thanks :)

Offline Chris Salvato

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i'm glad you wrote this...

my guide wouldnt have been anywhere near as comprehensive :P

Good for people totally unfamiliar with cooking and dieting and looking to generally improve body comp :)

Offline Charles Moreland

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<3 <3 <3 <3

Offline Travis Graves

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Sticky-ed

You're awesome, Muse.

Don't step to me with your stats and your date smarts

You know your neighborhood by street signs or landmarks?

Offline gadget23

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i am SO printing this.

Offline Steve Low

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43865743509863495 thumbs up.
Posts NOT medical, training or nutrition advice
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Offline Yixin (pronounced ee-shin)

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You have just won at life. Congratulations.
"Madness.  (Sparta, etc.)"-Graham Hughes

Offline Alissa J. Bratz

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Thank you very much, everyone. Your comments are very kind. I am flattered and honored that this is stickied. Thank you. :)

My biggest hope is that this is helpful to people, so if you have feedback or questions or anything, please let me know. I appreciate it!

I'd also be interested in hearing from people who've tried some of these techniques (maybe for the first time, maybe with a new recipe, maybe on an adventurous grocery shopping trip) to hear how things went. This whole article is pretty much based on my own personal experience and philosophy towards food; so it's kinda how I shop and cook during the school year, when I have very little free time. In other words, it's not based on any research except my own "what works for me" approach. If people are trying some of these strategies and techniques to eat better, I'd be interested in hearing how they're working out. So post here or PM me if you'd care to share or if you have questions.

Happy eating!
--MoF
She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
--excerpt from Going Blind, Rainer Maria Rilke

www.madisonparkour.com

Offline Oliver N

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"Countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis, such as the United States, England, and Sweden, consume the most milk. China and Japan, where people eat much less protein and dairy food, have low rates of osteoporosis."

Nutrition Action Healthletter, June, 1993

http://www.notmilk.com/o.html

Avoid too much salt (and other spices). Think about it. How much salt did humans eat long time ago? Very little. Most people are eating too much salt.


Offline Alissa J. Bratz

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Although your post is not quite in line with the point of this thread, and I'm worried that a protracted discussion will derail things, I'll bite:

The milk thing I'm not touching; there are a ton of threads on that (although a 15-year-old newsletter article is an interesting choice to cite as evidence for your claim).

Avoid too much salt (and other spices). Think about it. How much salt did humans eat long time ago? Very little. Most people are eating too much salt.

The milk thing aside, I'm confused about your point on salt (and other spices).

1. Yes, there are plenty of studies about salt consumption and health. As I understand it, the conclusions from these studies are varied. If you are making a claim about salt being bad, please cite where you got your information from. The amount of salt humans ate a long time ago depended very much on where they lived geographically. It can be assumed that cultures evolving along coastlines (with diets heavy in seafood) or in areas where there are salty mineral deposits, consumed much more salt than those living in other areas. So I don't think your claim has much merit.

2. The argument that "humans ate this way a long time ago" doesn't hold much weight with me unless supported by other evidence. Humans did a lot of things "a long time ago" that weren't necessarily optimal for good health (eating raw or undercooked meat, or not washing their hands that often, for example). Bear in mind that the life expectancy "a long time ago" was also significantly shorter than it is now.

3. You mention "other spices." What other spices are you referring to, specifically? I know of no evidence that any kind of herb or spice is detrimental to health (besides salt, which is up for debate, and we've already discussed). I know that many herbs and spices are being researched as being beneficial to health. The health benefits of garlic and ginger, for example, are well-documented. Incidentally, a lot of this research is being motivated by the fact that humans used herbs and spices medicinally "a long time ago." :) That said, if you know of any evidence to support the claim that spices are bad for you, please share it. I'd be interested in reading that.
She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
--excerpt from Going Blind, Rainer Maria Rilke

www.madisonparkour.com

Offline Oliver N

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I´m not saying that salt is bad, but too much off it is (like everything else).

"# Healthy 19- to 50-year-old adults should consume 1.5 grams of sodium and 2.3 grams of chloride each day -- or 3.8 grams of salt -- to replace the amount lost daily on average through sweat and to achieve a diet that provides sufficient amounts of other essential nutrients.
# The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for salt is set at 5.8 grams per day. More than 95 percent of American men and 90 percent of Canadian men ages 31 to 50, and 75 percent of American women and 50 percent of Canadian women in this age range regularly consume salt in excess of the UL. "

http://www.iom.edu/?id=18495&redirect=0

I was mostly talking about salt. But lots of people are using too much spices in general. Herbes is fine, but you should be albe to feel more taste from the food than from the spices. Here is some examples of negative effects of eating too much chilli pepper http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chili_pepper. You can use spices, but not too much.

But your article was good.

Excuse me if my English is bad.

Offline Chris Salvato

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uhm...yeah...

salt studies are kind of misleading...

realistically, if you consume enough water, you may retain some causing minor (very minor) increases in blood volume and thereby minorly increasing pressure.

If you dont consume enough water, you become more hypertensive.

Also, like everything else, certain people are more sensitive to salt than others.  Some people have a really hard time excreting salts and it is retained therefore amplifying its effects of hypertension.  This is mostly a problem with older folks, also, not the younger general parkour public.  Since we are all active, as well, we lose a lot of our salts to excretory processes like sweating.

Eating an exorbitant amount of anything will have negative effects.  Your correlation studies do little to convince me.  Also, saying a 19 year old and 50 year old have the same requirements is silly -- come on, think about it.  The administrator of said study was horribly misguided, imho.  What the hell does "healthy" mean according to the researcher, anyway?

I think that this is much ado about nothing -- spice your food as much as you want.  You will clearly know when you are overdoing it.

everything has its place but worrying new cooks who are getting on the right track to watch their salt consumption is kind of counterproductive.  You just threw a wrench into the gears of someone trying to pick up cooking for the first time.



Offline Andy Animus Tran

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In Asian nations, you tend to get very salty foods.  And very spicy foods.  The reason for spicy food is taht it makes you sweat, thereby reducing your body temperature in the extreme heat of the area...  The salt also needs to be taken in because you're sweating so much that you're rather sodium-deficient.

An athlete, or any traceur who trains regularly, is going to experience that "normal" levels of salt intake for modern society aren't as bad as people try to make it out to be.  Perhaps for the sedentary, but that's about it.

Spicy peppers are not the only form of spices.  Cumin, coriander, and a whole slew of other spices come to mind that are certainly not peppers in the least.  And... in my experience, even as far as spicy food goes...  Modern Americans are pussies about it.  :p

I think this is a little absurd, though..

Thanks a ton for posting that up, Muse.  Great resource for a lot of people.
Andy Tran, C.S.C.S.
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Offline Charles Moreland

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In Asian nations, you tend to get very salty foods.  And very spicy foods.  The reason for spicy food is taht it makes you sweat, thereby reducing your body temperature in the extreme heat of the area...  The salt also needs to be taken in because you're sweating so much that you're rather sodium-deficient.

I've never heard that reasoning before for spicy foods so I find that intriguing. I do know however that these are completely different cultures than our own. You should also note that refrigerators are extremely new inventions and many in these regions still may not have one. Spices were used originally by these cultures to keep their meat for longer periods. These cultures now have a certain taste for these spices as their ancestors have been using them for many many many generations and continue to use them even though in most cases it is not necessary anymore for the preservation of the food.

Offline Andy Animus Tran

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I don't htink it's an intentional thing, really.  My family eats spicy food because we enjoy it.  However, spicy foods all grew in climates of extreme heat, and the hotter the area, the spicier the food.  It just so happened that this does actually lower your body temperature.
Andy Tran, C.S.C.S.
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Parkour Virginia

Offline Andy Animus Tran

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I've been slowly teaching myself how to cook over the last two months and if there is one thing I've learned, it's don't cook without a shirt on.  :)

Or wearing a white gold necklace that is dangling into the oven as you try to baste your turkey on Christmas, making you ultimately jump back ten feet when it SUDDENLY heats up, creating a ring of fire around your neck, spilling turkey grease everywhere, including the faces and bodies of your relatives in the kitchen helping you cook, leaving everyone burned and angry.

>_>...
Andy Tran, C.S.C.S.
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Parkour Virginia

Offline John Conway

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This is just what I needed!  :o
Thanks.

Offline Ashley McCauley

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Thank you Muse. This is exactly what I needed.
“Run your fingers through my soul. For once, just once, feel exactly what I feel, believe what I believe, perceive as I perceive, look, experience, examine, and for once; just once, understand."