It happens all the time–I walk into the kitchen with every intention of making potato leek soup (or something delicious), but then I see the potatoes are dirty and unpeeled and the leeks are still bunched up in the fridge with their roots on. I look at the clock and realize that I don’t have enough time to go on a veggie prepping spree and ultimately leave the kitchen with a snack and put the cooking off till later.
My recurrent planning mistake is that I somehow don’t factor in all the prep time that comes with cooking with fresh vegetables. Half the work in potato leek soup, for instance, is scrubbing the potatoes, peeling them, chopping them, prepping the leeks and dicing them, etc. It’s not like on the cooking shows where the host effortlessly reaches for a bowl of diced tomatoes and onions and, voila! the salsa is ready.
As a CSA member, you’ve been dealing with the same seasonal abundances that we have as farmers. Here are some tips that we’ve found helpful in making sure the produce we work so hard to grow (or that we’ve paid for) doesn’t go to waste!
1. Make sure you’re using a sharp knife
I can’t even express how much a sharp, decent quality knife improves the prep experience. It’s faster, less frustrating, and believe it or not, you’re actually more likely to hurt yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one. A dull knife often slips and leaves you using more elbow grease to saw into food. A sharp knife blade slices and dices with more precision and doesn’t slip. A good way to test your knife’s sharpness is how it cuts a ripe tomato. Does it mash the tomato before it breaks the skin? A properly sharpened knife will slice into a ripe tomato with very little effort on your part without bruising the insides of the fruit.
- Sharpen your knife as soon as you notice it’s not cutting clean and crisply like it should (I sharpen mine about twice a month).
- It’s easy to sharpen your kitchen knives. Files are inexpensive and can be found at hardware stores, kitchen departments, outdoors stores, etc. There are all types of files. If you’re unsure about the best way to sharpen your knife, there are some pretty good how-ho resources out there on YouTube, and Google is good at fishing up these DIY info.
2. Use the right tools (utensils, appliances)
There are a few things in my kitchen that I can’t imagine going through a growing season without. Aside from sharp prep knives, I use:
- A sharp veggie peeler
- A vegetable brush — Yes, they make those but sometimes I use a clean scrubbing brush from the hardware store. Use these with a bit of water to clean up root crops.
- A large cutting board (preferably wooden as to not dull the knife blade) — Some smaller boards don’t hold all the diced produce and it awkwardly spills off the edge.
- A four-sided hand grater — Because sometimes you’ll want to grate something other than cheese. I grate kohlrabi and cabbage for quick slaws. =)
- A food processor with multiple blades–a regular blade for purees, hummus, and pestos, but also a slicing blade and a grating blade. I only use a food processor for slicing or grating when I am cooking a huge meal or when I am preserving large quantities. If I just needed to grate one carrot for a sauce, I would use a hand grater. You have to factor in the time it takes to clean the machine and decide if it’s worth it. I use the food processor all the time and make all sorts of pestos. I even made swiss chard pesto and it was delicious. This machine allows for all types of adventures in food.
- A blender — Food processors are great until you try to blend or puree liquids. Talk about a mess! Blenders are best for soups and smoothies. When I first started cooking I thought it was superfluous to have both, but after enough stubborn hummus episodes with me poking down the thick paste to get it back to the blade, or spilled/spattered liquid soups in the food processor, I learned this lesson: solids are for food processors. Liquids are for blenders. I learn the hard way, but you don’t have to.
- Anything else? Of course, other musts are good pots and pans and other basic utensils, but the above are the shining stars in my kitchen. What about you? Share your ideas and tips.
3. Prep ahead of time
I keep using potatoes as an example because they are my least favorite to prep. Here are a few tips for planning ahead.
- We don’t wash potatoes too much in advance because leaving some soil on the skin aids in the storage of root crops. It keeping them from getting that spongey, tired feel. But if you know you are going to be using the potatoes within 3 or so days, scrub them off with a vegetable scrubber and water ahead of time and store them in a humid place until you are ready to peel them or prep them how you wish.
- You can prep vegetables that don’t get brown with exposure to air a day or two in advance. For instance, a diced onion or diced squash can sit just fine in a tupperware in the fridge for a few days until you’re ready to get cooking. I diced up three leeks and two peppers and garlic after I did the dishes tonight and put them in a tupperware because I know tomorrow I’ll only have a half hour of cooking time and I’d rather just get to cooking than be daunted by prep work and end up eating toast and jam instead.
- With cherry tomatoes, I take off the stems when I have time and so when I am rushing up a salsa, the stems aren’t the bottle neck. You could even do this with kale or other greens: chop it up and then store it is a humid part of your fridge so when you get hungry you’ll be able to put dressing on it or wilt it quickly and less tempted to skip it altogether.
Hope these tips were helpful. What do you do to manage prep time? Please share. It’s harvest season and we’re all in the same boat, that is, we’re all trying to find creative, time efficient ways to eat the farm’s abundance!