Let me start by saying, I don’t usually count myself as a cook. I don’t often have time to cook a full meal, and historically speaking I was pretty picky eater. There are, however, a few staple ingredients I like to keep in the apartment that make it easier to throw a meal together, which especially comes in handy as I meal prep each week’s lunches. Most of the meals I whip up follow the same formula: starch + veggie + protein, as you can tell by my recommendations below:
Throw in some cornstarch
I’ve tweeted it before and I’ll say it again – cornstarch is the duck tape of the sauce world. Stir a small amount into cold water or milk and cook that slurry to your favorite sauce and it will immediately begin thickening, making your dish richer and creamier. You can use this method for any type of sauce, but I most often find it helpful when I’m making cheesy alfredo or spicy stir fry. It’s an affordable ingredient that will vastly improve the quality of whatever you’re cooking, allowing your sauce to bind to the other ingredients in your dish.
HELPFUL HINT: If you’re making a cheese-based sauce, cornstarch mocks the creaminess of expensive cheeses, saving you money.
Build a strong foundation
Starches like basmati rice or penne pasta are great because they’re cheap, easy to cook and very filling. You can have them going on the back burner of the stove while you prepare the rest of your ingredients that will eventually go over top of the starch of your choice. I enjoy basmati rice because it is very versatile, though it has taken me a while to learn how to cook it exactly right (patience is key). Although continuously eating starchy meals is obviously not the healthiest, it’s good to have these things on hand. You can also opt for protein-rich or wheat-based pasta, which are better for you.
HELPFUL HINT: Alter the texture of your rice by adding a small amount of oil to it. Olive oil leaves the rice a light, fluffy texture, while coconut oil makes rice denser and stickier.
Fill up on frozen veggies
While nothing quite beats fresh produce, microwaveable bags of frozen veggies are the next best thing. When you’re not home very often, buying fresh produce can often lead to food waste. As we all know, that’s not only bad for the environment but also for your budget. I like to keep at least one frozen bag of my vegetables in the freezer to be able to throw into a dish. I use microwaveable steam veggie bags a lot when I am prepping meals on Sundays. Broccoli is my favorite thing to have on hand, but we will also buy pre-packaged stir fry veggies when I want to do an Asian-style meal for the week.
HELPFUL HINT: I recommend microwaving your veggies for one minute less than the bag says and then finishing them off by cooking them into the dish’s sauce so they absorb the flavor without getting mushy.
Vegetable and/or meat stock isn’t just for soups. It can significantly enrich the flavor of just about any savory dish. We don’t cook any meat in our household, so we keep veggie stock on hand rather than chicken or beef. It’s up to you! Stock is not the cheapest ingredient if you’re planning to make a large quantity of food, but if a recipe calls for water I usually try to substitute at least half of the water the recipe calls for with stock for a deeper flavor. This is especially helpful if you’re making food in a hurry and don’t have a long time for the water to absorb the flavors of your other ingredients.
HELPFUL HINT: Cook your cornstarch slurry down into stock for a rich, thick sauce based you can customize the flavors of.
Sugar & spice make everything nice
To some degree or another, every dish is a balance of sweet and savory flavors. Which cooking main dishes, I lean much more heavily on savory and spicy flavor – I am not a huge fan of mixing sweet and savory (Keep the sausage separate from the pancakes, please). There are of course a whole myriad of spices, sweeteners and herbs that can infuse your food with flavor but I have a few favorites.
When I am looking to add sweet notes to a sauce or marinade, I prefer to use a nice, thick honey over granulated sugars. Honey is not a cheap commodity, so if it doesn’t make sense for you to spend the money on it, do not. However, one bottle and/or jar usually lasts our household quite a while so I feel we get our money’s worth.
The type of spice you want to add to an entree for heat can vary based on the genre of food you’re making (American BBQ, Italian pasta or Asian-style stir fry?). My spicy best friends are crushed red pepper and fresh ginger. Red pepper can either provide an instant kick if thrown in towards the end of cooking, or a nice even heat throughout the food if you take the time to infuse its flavor in the pan. Ginger is unique for providing a light, refreshing flavor with a sneaky heat – perfect for the orange stir fry sauce I like to make.
HELPFUL HINT: Do not under estimate the power of citrus when building your flavor profile. It can make a dish seem lighter and fresher. Keep an orange, lemon or lime in the fridge if you can.