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Ten Inexpensive (and Quick) Ways to Liven Up Cooking at Home
One of the biggest money savers that Sarah and I have ever incorporated into our lives is to make cooking at home normal. By “cooking at home,” I don’t just mean throwing a prepackaged meal in the oven, either. I mean pulling ingredients out of the pantry and fridge and putting together a meal, usually out of fresh ingredients and other basic items.
Of course, at the same time, we’re incredibly busy. Our monthly calendar often looks like an explosion of overlapping tasks and events. Our evenings can sometimes feel like a well oiled machine as everyone hops from one task to another, finding small windows in which to enjoy a family dinner together.
When you try to combine a desire to have a home-cooked family meal each night with a very busy schedule, what ends up happening is that Sarah and I fall back on some very familiar meals and recipes to keep up this pattern, things we can fix without skipping a beat. Homemade pasta. Grilled burritos. A really simple stir fry or curry. Grilled burgers and vegetables. A simple soup or casserole. Those kinds of things become the backbone of our diet because we can fix them so automatically.
Over time, however, it can become a little stale and boring. It can feel like we’re eating the same ten or so meals in an endless cycle, and that kind of meal boredom can often turn into a nudge in the direction of just eating out or getting takeout, which turns into an expensive proposition.
To head off that expense, we have a number of tools that we use to keep our meals fresh and simple. Here are ten things that we do to keep our home cooking varied and flavorful without breaking the bank and without spending a ton of money.
Visit an international/ethnic grocery store
We shop at the same discount grocer virtually every time we buy groceries. This is a good thing, on one level – we know that the prices are good and they have all of the staples we need for a lot of the meals we make. However, there’s not a lot of variety at that discount grocer – it sells a pretty basic selection of many foods and doesn’t offer much in the way of exotic.
Sarah and I solve this problem by shopping occasionally at an ethnic grocer that’s about twenty minutes from home. We’ll go there once a month or once every other month and buy a bunch of spices and other items that are substantially outside what we would normally cook. We’ll buy containers of spices, jars of sauces, and other unusual items under the assumption that we’ll find fast recipes for them. Often, we’re using our phones to look up what these things are and how to use them in a quickly prepared meal.
After we visit this shop, our normal pasta sauces take on different flavors that are distinct to other parts of the Mediterranean. Our curries taste quite different. Our simple burrito recipe takes on more of an El Salvadoran flavor due to the seasoning choices. We’ve wound up making things like atakilt wat in the slow cooker because we found a seasoning packet for it and then just made it in the slow cooker ourselves without that kit, discovering something we would have never otherwise tried. A trip to an ethnic grocer ended up with us making shawarma sandwiches with pita bread, lettuce, tomato, and seasoned batches of chicken and mushrooms.
We often leave with bags of spices and other things, along with a bunch of new ideas drawn through our filter of “must be quick.” Many of these are just variations on things we’ve made before, but we almost always leave with some idea for something completely new from a cuisine we’re unfamiliar with.
Just go to an international/ethnic grocery store and wander through the aisles. Look at the items for sale there. If you don’t have any idea what they are, look them up and give them a try. You might be surprised to find something completely new to you or a new variation on something you love.
Make some stock
There’s almost no savory dish that uses water as an ingredient that isn’t made better by using stock instead of the water. Soups, stews, casseroles – all of it. The catch, of course, is that simply buying stock is a pretty expensive proposition, one that we often skip just because we don’t want to spend $8 on the liquid in a meal.
So, we make our own. We keep it in pint Ziploc bags in the freezer, each containing a premeasured pint of stock, and we just pull one or two out whenever we need some for a soup or a stew or a casserole to really amp up that flavor.
Making stock is simple. Just save all of your raw vegetable scraps and your cooked but unseasoned (salt and pepper seasoning is fine) vegetables in a bag in the freezer. When you have a gallon or so of scraps, you’re ready. You can also make stock whenever you have a few beef bones or a chicken carcass, though I’d supplement it with a smaller amount of leftover vegetables.
Just put the bones (if you’re making a meat-based stock) and/or the vegetables in a slow cooker and add enough water so that it’s covering the contents of the pot by about three inches. I’d also suggest adding some salt and some whole peppercorns. Then, just turn on the slow cooker to the “low” setting and let it run for a long time – 12 to 24 hours. When you’re done, strain the contents of the slow cooker and save the liquid. As noted above, I recommend freezing it by the pint in pint-sized Ziploc freezer bags.
I actually prefer the vegetable stock rather than the beef or chicken stock because the vegetable stock works in almost any kind of dish, whereas there are situations where you just don’t want to have beef or chicken flavor.
Anyway, when a recipe calls for two cups of a liquid, just replace that with a pint of your stock if the flavor seems remotely appropriate. You’ve just added a gigantic flavor boost to that recipe for very little effort.
Make a large batch of quick finger foods you like
I love pickled things. Pickled cucumbers, pickled peppers, pickled hard-boiled eggs – I’ll eat any of them. They’re easy to make, too – you basically just put the item in question in a mix of 1 cup of water, 1 cup of vinegar, and 1 cup of kosher salt, with maybe a few peppercorns tossed in, too. Close the container loosely, then let it sit in the fridge for several days and you have pickled items.
You may like different finger foods and quick snacks. Sliced fruit is one that many people enjoy, including my kids – just slice up pretty much any fruit, put it in a container with a little bit of lemon juice evenly spread around, and put it in the fridge. Keep your favorite vegetable sliced up in a container in the fridge. Sometimes, I’ll even make huge batches of particular finger foods, like little wontons, and just keep a big container in the fridge for a while.
The thing is, if you have some of those bite-sized items on hand and you like them, put one or two on your dinner plate. It doesn’t have to perfectly accompany the meal – it just adds something that you’re guaranteed to like to your meal, which will raise your feelings about the meal.
I’ll often snag a pickled egg or a couple pickled cucumber or onion slices to put on my plate for many meals. I love their taste and simply having them on my plate makes the rest of the meal more enjoyable.
Clean out the fridge
One of my favorite methods for livening up home cooking is to simply clean out the refrigerator. This takes a bit of time, of course, and is probably a good weekend task, but it almost always results in some food creativity, for several reasons.
One, I almost always find an item or two that’s still good that I want to cook with quite soon. I’ll find a piece of cheese or a ginger root or something that just slipped my mind and when I see it I’ll want to use it.
Two, having a fridge that’s cleaned out gives you space that, for me, is a motivation to try something new. I’ll want to make some pickled eggs or start marinating some vegetables or something like that.
Three, I’ll have several ingredients out that are needed for a particular meal, so I’ll just leave them out and immediately start making that meal, saving me the effort of loading the fridge back up just to unload it again.
Plus, the fridge is clean and there’s no longer anything mysterious in an opaque container or a bag sitting in the back any more.
Clean out the pantry, too
I get the same kind of inspiration from cleaning out and organizing the pantry. Going through dry and nonperishable items often offers the same benefits as going through the fridge.
In the pantry, however, I often find a lot of things that make me want to try a new meal or make an older one again. In fact, I usually make a meal plan while I’m cleaning out the pantry, with meals that utilize the things I find in there.
The big thing for me is spices. I’ll almost always find bags or small containers of spices that were purchased for a particular meal and then put aside, but when I find it again, I immediately want to use it for a new meal so that I get value out of it before it gets old.
Go through your pantry and make a meal plan based on what you find in there. Not only will it make for some inexpensive meals for the week, you’ll likely find the ingredients for meals you intended to make (and can thus make now) or ingredients that you partially used for a meal last month and forgot about the remnants, opening the door to a meal right now.
Use a slow cooker
There are many food ideas we have that we really like to make that just aren’t feasible on a weeknight. Soups and stews that require hours to simmer, casseroles that have to bake for long periods, and so on – those things are normally off the table on a weeknight.
Unless you use a slow cooker, that is.
A slow cooker enables you to start a meal just before you leave for work and come home to a meal that’s basically ready to eat when you get home. It’s basically a small cooking crock inside of a heating element (like a toaster), often with a timer and a heat adjustment dial on it. That’s it.
It is a great way to make a soup or a stew or a casserole or to slowly cook a roast – basically anything that would cook at a relatively low temperature for a long time in your oven or on your stovetop will probably work in some way in a slow cooker. If you have a particular item you want to make and you think it might work in a slow cooker, just Google it and see how to modify it to make it work in a slow cooker.
Most of the time, you just put ingredients in the slow cooker, set the timer and temperature appropriately, and then just leave for the day. You’ll come home to a mostly- or entirely finished meal.
Cook things that have a strong aroma that’s pleasing to you
One of my favorite things to do is to take very ordinary pasta sauce and, while the pasta is boiling, sauté some diced onions and green peppers to go in the pasta sauce.
Why go to that extra effort? Well, for one, it means I can buy a cheaper pasta sauce and still have something amazing, but the real reason is the aroma.
When I’m sautéing onions and peppers and garlic, the whole house smells amazing – it’s just mouth-watering. It convinces you that what’s going to be on the table is going to be delicious.
I use every chance I have to cook things that have a strong aroma, like aromatic vegetables, curries, and other things. In the fall, I love to cook apples and pears in the slow cooker with a bunch of cinnamon (to make cider) and the whole house just smells unbelievably good.
It’s pretty easy to do this. Just fire up the skillet and cook some pre-diced onions and green peppers (you can buy them flash-frozen in your grocer’s freezer section at a great price) when there’s an opportunity, or cook anything else that puts off a great aroma.
Make deglazing your pan a routine action.
Another trick I love to use when I’m cooking onions or green peppers or garlic or mushrooms or meat in a skillet is that I deglaze the pan when I’m finished. I simply add a little bit of liquid to the hot skillet after I remove whatever I’m cooking and let that liquid run around and sizzle, then I add a little more, then a little more until it’s not immediately boiling off. I then pour that liquid right into the dish – and it tastes amazing.
It’s such a simple trick! I do it with all kinds of dishes that involve ingredients cooked in a skillet. It’s a great way to boost the flavor of anything you make.
My mother’s favorite trick? She’ll make a simple gravy while something is cooking in the skillet, then deglaze the skillet right at the end and add it to the gravy, which is then poured over mashed potatoes or the meat itself for an incredible and easy flavor.
Another advantage? It makes the pan easier to clean later on because most of the stuff that would otherwise be dried onto the pan is gone. It actually saves time to do this.
Learn what different herbs and spices actually do to foods instead of just following a recipe
One thing I’ve done over the years is simply learn what the flavor of each and every spice is on its own so that I have a good sense as to what to add to things.
I start off with something really basic, like a scrambled egg or some plain tomato sauce, and I’ll add a single herb or spice to it and see what that tastes like. The next time, I’ll add something different. And then the next time, add something different.
At first, this doesn’t result in amazing flavors, but what starts happening after a while is that you start recognizing the taste of particular herbs and spices. You begin to understand what they each do, and then you can start combining them to bring out all kinds of flavors.
Once you really know what different herbs and spices and seasonings actually do, it becomes a whole lot easier to make almost any dish amazing without having to follow a recipe. You just have to start from scratch and really figure out what they all taste like on their own. This might result in some dull meals, but it pays off big time.
Add a splash of something acidic, like lemon, vinegar, or tomato juice, to bland things
If you taste something and it’s just bland for reasons you can’t figure out, try adding something acidic to it. My usual go-tos for this are lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, or tomato juice, depending on what I’m trying to improve.
With many soups, I’ll just add some tomato juice to it. With fish, I’ll splash a lot of lime juice or lemon juice on it and cook it just a bit more. With salads, I usually turn to vinegar of some kind to amp up the flavor.
An acidic addition to a dish almost always adds a new level of zing on the tongue that sharpens and brings out all of the other flavors along with it. It’s like a secret magic trick for bland foods.
These strategies all work in concert to ensure that there’s more variety in our meals prepared at home than one might initially think.
In our home, we do rely on “framework meals” – basic recipes that Sarah and I can make almost blindfolded – but by incorporating lots of these tricks, we add tons of variety and flavor to these framework meals by changing up the seasoning, changing up the ingredients, and adding little side elements to the basic meals.
Something as simple as a basic noodle soup becomes something intensely flavorful with the zing of some added vinegar and some deglaze from the vegetables. Even things like scrambled eggs transform into something interesting and delicious with salt added early and tarragon added while it’s cooking, with some sautéed onions and peppers added.
You just need to know some basic recipes and have a little repertoire of tricks to amp them up.