Earlier this year, I offered to teach a reader how to cook. The catch was I would write about the experience. I got so many responses that I decided to do a series of stories.
The reader whose request for help caught my attention for the first lesson was Kathy Lundy, 46, of Garner.
Here’s what she wrote: “I have a HUGE pantry and it is FULL of food – overflowing onto the floor. The pantry has double doors and is big enough for 3 adults to stand in it and close the door. People joke that I could feed the neighborhood for a month with all the food I have in there. I need to learn how to use that food. I need to cook with it and not let it just sit in there and go out to eat at night because that’s ‘easier.’”
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Lundy’s weekday challenge was this: She and her husband, Ken, leave their Southern Wake County home at 6 a.m. to get to work in North Raleigh and Durham, respectively. She gets home at 5 p.m. Her husband’s work schedule is unpredictable and so he may not get home until after 8 p.m. On those nights, Lundy is left making dinner for herself and her 10-year-old son, Jason.
“When it’s just Jason and I, it’s so much easier to stop at Snoopy’s,” Lundy lamented.
Beyond the pantry challenge, Lundy described being in a cooking rut. She had a handful of go-to dishes that she was tired of cooking: spaghetti, hamburgers and boneless, skinless chicken breasts cooked in a Pampered Chef bakeware in the microwave.
She wanted to learn how to cook some new things, like pork tenderloin and restaurant dishes they loved, such as stir fries and steamed dumplings.
The first thing I did was assign homework: I asked Lundy to take an inventory of the pantry as well as the freezer. My reasoning: You cannot cook out of the pantry if you don’t know what’s in it.
Lundy said the exercise was helpful. “I didn’t realize what I had,” she said. It made her think about possible meals, she said, adding: “I could have put this and this together and made a side dish.”
In the kitchen
I went to the Lundy home three times to help cook dinners. In between my visits, I sent cookbooks and recipes for Lundy to peruse.
The first night, Lundy and I made pork tenderloin, seared on the stovetop, then roasted in the oven. After dinner, we made chicken burritos and a creamy chicken and spinach casserole to stash in the freezer. These freezer meals used items commonly found in her home: cream of mushroom soup, chicken breasts, pasta and chicken broth.
I returned a second time to teach Lundy how to make fried rice. She didn’t have a wok or a cast-iron skillet, but her deep-sided nonstick pan worked beautifully.
On my third visit, I opted for a quick chicken dish at her husband’s request: Mark Bittman’s Fastest Chicken Parmesan. (You stack the ingredients and broil for a lighter, fresher version.) After dinner, we made a batch of pork dumplings and tested steaming a handful. The rest were stashed in the freezer for a future weeknight meal.
Not every dish was a success. They all loved the pork tenderloin but weren’t fans of the creamy chicken casserole. We discussed tweaks to other dishes to make them more to their taste, such as using less ginger and adding water chestnuts to the fried rice.
The main transformation in the Lundy household was mindset. Her husband was inspired to make a chicken stir fry. She made potstickers, a chicken enchilada recipe from Trisha Yearwood’s cookbook and a chicken pot pie dish she hadn’t made in years.
“This whole experience has made me think about cooking more,” Lundy said.
And the other result: The family had only dined out a couple times on a weeknight in the 21/2 months since we started the cooking lessons.
How to tackle a pantry challenge
1. Take an inventory. You can’t cook what’s in your pantry unless you know what’s there. Write down every item that could be used to make a meal. Take this opportunity to pitch any items past their expiration date. Do the same for your freezer and refrigerator. Post the list where it makes sense for you: on a piece of paper or wipe-off board hung on a cupboard, the refrigerator or freezer, or in a notebook you will reference before planning meals, or create a spreadsheet on your computer.
2. Find inspiration for new meals. Home cooks are often stumped with what to do with the food in their pantry because they are tired of cooking the same meals. Look for new recipes: scan food magazines; borrow cookbooks from the library; scour websites, like epicurious.com, food52.com and nando.com/therecipe or try supercook.com, a website that allows you to search for recipes based on ingredients in your pantry.
3. Set aside time to plan meals. Take 30 minutes to sketch out a week’s worth of meals. Take note of any evenings when family members may be absent. Fill in with easy recipes in your regular rotation and then add one or two new recipes to the schedule. Use this plan to develop a shopping list.
4. Get in the kitchen. Figure out what is the key for you to cook more. Is it easier for you to pull a home-cooked meal out of the freezer? Is it easier for you to prep ingredients in the morning or the night before? Is it helpful to set out pots, pans and nonperishable items on the stove and counter in the morning? Is it helpful to recruit family members to help in the kitchen? Whatever helps, do it.
Fastest Chicken Parm
From “How to Cook Everything Fast,” by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium ripe tomatoes
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
Salt and pepper
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
2 ounces Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup grated)
1 bunch fresh basil
1 cup bread crumbs
Turn the broiler to high; put the rack 6 inches from the heat. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet and spread it around; put the baking sheet in the broiler.
Core and slice the tomatoes. Cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally to make 2 thin cutlets for each breast. Press down on each with the heel of your hand to flatten.
Carefully remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Put the chicken cutlets on the sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with the tomatoes, and broil on one side only until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, rotating the pan if necessary for even cooking, 5 to 10 minutes.
Grate the mozzarella and Parmesan. Strip 16 to 20 basil leaves from the stems. Combine the bread crumbs, mozzarella and Parmesan in a small bowl.
When the chicken is cooked through, remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Lay the basil leaves on top of the tomatoes, sprinkle with the bread crumb and cheese mixture, and drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil.
Return to the broiler, and cook until the bread crumbs and cheese are browned and bubbly, 2 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings
Seared, Roasted Pork Tenderloin
1 pork tenderloin
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
One end of tenderloin will be thinner than the other. Fold that end toward the center and secure it with butcher’s string. This way, the loin will be all the same thickness and cook more evenly.
The morning before you want to cook this for dinner or several hours ahead at least, place the tenderloin, garlic, rosemary, oil, salt and pepper in a zip-top plastic bag. Seal and refrigerate.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Turn heat to medium high in a cast-iron or ovenproof skillet. Add tenderloin and turn to sear on all sides. When done, place skillet in oven and roast for 15-20 minutes or until heated to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Remove from heat and let stand for 5-10 minutes. Slice and serve.
Yield: 4-6 servings.
Ham and Egg Stir-Fry
From “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, With Authentic Recipes and Stories, ” by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
1 cup long-grain rice
2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 cup 1/4-inch diced carrots
4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, cut into 1/4-inch dice (2 1/3 cups)
1/2 cup diced ham steak
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
Put rice in a 1-quart saucepan and add 2 cups cold water. Bring water to a boil uncovered over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer the rice until most of the water has evaporated and little craters appear on the surface, about 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 10 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. Turn off the heat and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff rice, cover and cool completely before refrigerating. (This is best done the day before.)
Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat when ready to stir-fry the rice. When a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact, swirl in 2 teaspoons of oil, making sure the bottom of the wok is completely coated in oil. Add eggs and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, tilting the pan so the egg covers the surface as thinly as possible to make a pancake. When the bottom is just beginning to brown and the pancake is just set, use a metal spatula to flip the pancake and allow it to set, about 5 seconds. Transfer to a cutting board. Cool, then cut the pancake into bite-sized pieces.
Swirl 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil into the wok, add ginger, and then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the ginger is fragrant. Add carrots and mushrooms and stir-fry 30 seconds or until the oil is absorbed. Swirl the broth into the wok and stir-fry 1 minute or until almost all the broth has evaporated. Add ham and stir-fry until heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, add the scallions and rice, and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes, breaking up the rice with the spatula until it is heated through. Add pine nuts and soy sauce, sprinkle on the salt and the reserved egg pieces, and toss to combine.
Yield: 3-4 servings