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Ten years of learning how to cook

imageA few of my friends want to learn more about cooking, going beyond eating out or occasionally making a bowl of pasta at home. It’s a welcome change, and I’m looking forward to more and more people making that shift.

For some people, it seems a point of pride to not know how to cook: they’re too busy to sit down and do that, or there are so many good restaurants out there, or cooking is just plain not enjoyable. For us, cooking is part of our way of life. We can cook most meals for much cheaper than we can buy them, and our weekday meals are more convenient than eating out. I love being able to have my favourite foods at any time of day. Despite the occasional drudgery, I’ve grown to enjoy cooking – especially when W- and I spend a few hours putting together something delicious.

I thought I’d reflect on past 10 years of learning how to cook to see what I learned and how I learned it. When I started, I struggled with the basics: burning pancakes, trying to figure out how to use ground beef in different recipes. Now we can make lists based on the grocery fliers, adjust our plans based on what’s marked down for quick sale, and stock our freezer with meals to last us through the week.

B.C. – Before Cooking

Growing up, I hadn’t imagined being this comfortable with cooking. My sister was the cook in the family, the one with an intuitive sense of what went with what. She took whatever was in the fridge and made something delicious with it, no recipe required. We enjoyed the occasional meal she prepared for us, and she told us stories of how cooking helped her make friends while travelling. The rest of the time, we were spoiled by the fact that family business–advertising photography–retained a cook to feed clients, staff, and us.

I wasn’t totally hopeless. I helped in the kitchen, and I loved making lasagna together with my mom. I took cooking lessons one summer. I mainly learned that following recipes produced reasonable results. At home, I occasionally made myself instant noodles or reheated pork and beans, but I didn’t really have the motivation to cook.

Cook or Die

That changed a few months after I graduated from university. I had just turned twenty, and I was teaching computer science at my alma mater. To cut down on the commuting time, we found an apartment-style dormitory near the campus. Each unit was shared by two people, and there was an unfurnished kitchen. My parents outfitted it with a hot plate (a single electric burner, which was all the dormitory allowed), a toaster oven, a microwave, and a compact fridge. There were a number of fast food restaurants in walking distance that I’d frequented as a student, but I resolved that my grown-up life shouldn’t involve KFC every lunch and dinner. There was a supermarket a bit of the way up the street. To force myself to learn how to cook, I decided that I would eat out for at most one meal a day. If I didn’t cook, I’d go hungry. Cook or die. (Well, that was an exaggeration, but it was a good project name.)

Did I mention that my apartment didn’t have Internet access? I know. Boggle.

It was… interesting. I loaded up on kid- and singles- and microwave-oriented cookbooks, and occasionally made things up just as an experiment. You may find my blog posts from that time amusing. Here’s a summary of the first two weeks:

As you can see, I was a bit of a slow learner. ;)

Eventually I graduated to being confident enough in a few recipes that were ready for company. I was living in an exclusive girls’ domitory, so no guys were allowed inside the units. That meant my friends could help me with groceries and give me tips, but they couldn’t actually help me learn how to cook unless I was home for the weekend. The dormitory did have a garden with picnic tables and some shelter, though, and both male and female guests were welcome there. We worked out this weekly rotation, and I had dinner with someone practically every day. I particularly enjoyed being able to prepare individual-sized portions of lasagna rolls using the recipe in one of my microwave cookbooks. Even in pouring storms, friends would come and join me. It was wonderful.

I enjoyed teaching, but I left that to take advantage of a technical internship that the Japanese government was offering. In the in-between months, I stayed at home. In Japan, I stayed at a hotel-type dormitory with a cafeteria. There was hardly any cooking, although I did develop an appreciation for the sheer variety of ramen (instant or otherwise) available in Japan.

Graduate student life

When I moved to Canada for graduate school, I made sure I was in an apartment-style residence with a kitchen and a small shared living room. I shared my unit with three other people, and the mix changed each semester or so. There was a 24-hour supermarket within walking distance (somewhat expensive, but convenient) and other markets available a long walk or a short streetcar ride down the street.

I made friends: some students who lived in the building, and other people I met in my studies or research. I often invited a couple of friends over for dinner, usually something experimental – a stir-fry, or chicken breast and sauce, or whatever recipe intrigued me. From time to time, I took advantage of the large common outdoor party/barbeque area. At some point, I decided I was grown-up enough to want my own set of plates instead of the mismatched hand-me-downs, so I headed over to Walmart and splurged on a set of Corelle, a rice cooker, a teapot, and other essentials.

There were occasional group cooking lessons in the residence, open to whoever signed up. I liked them. We split up into small groups and prepared different recipes such as roasted red pepper soup, and then we got to enjoy the tastes of all the recipes together.

The administration decided on the mix of roommates based on the questionnaires we submitted. I didn’t always get along with my room-mates, one of whom tended to abscond with my dishes without returning them. (I lost a couple of cereal bowls this way.) When I had finished most of my research and lined up a job at IBM, I decided it was time to look for my own apartment. Of all the ones I looked at, my favourite was a one-bedroom apartment across the street. The rent was a little high and the kitchen was tiny, but I was looking forward to cooking without squabbling over fridge space or dishes in the sink.

Cooking with W-

I was a relative newcomer to Canada, so the building management didn’t want to prepare a lease without a co-signer. Of all my friends, W- was probably the stablest and most respectable. He knew I managed my finances well and had the year’s rent set aside, so he didn’t have to worry about being on the hook for it. In preparation for the move, I’d boxed up my kitchen tools and resolved to live on peanut butter sandwiches like my mom had done in university. W- took pity on me and invited me over for dinner. These scrumptious home-made meals became a regular occurrence.

We signed the paperwork and moved my stuff (easy across the street, especially with a skateboard), I feathered my nest and set up my tiny kitchen. As a housewarming present, W- gave me Happy Bunny socks with witty slogans, since I’d mentioned my sister’s trick of happy socks. As a kitchen-warming present, he gave me a basic set of Wusthof Classic knives. (Embarrassed by the generosity of the gift, I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted that good tools make all the difference.)

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Apparently, this is true for women too. Even though the paperwork was done, W- kept inviting me for delicious meals: crushing basil in a mortar and pestle for pesto, pinakbet (which he had learned how to make long before meeting me, so it was fun to encounter this familiar dish), a comparison of two lasagna recipes. I assisted, of course: chopping, stirring, learning more about cooking. Sometimes I invited W- or other people over to my place for whatever simple dishes I could prepare with my minimal kitchen setup; the knives made preparation a joy even in the cramped space.

Eventually we realized we were in love. I sublet my apartment and moved in. I brought my cherished knives and selected kitchen tools, leaving the rest for my tenant.

After my tiny kitchen, W-‘s kitchen was a real treat. Cast-iron skillets, a decent-sized wok, two rice cookers (large and small), a low-cost supermarket up the street, a garden to grow herbs in, a large kitchen table that we ended up spending most of our time at… I volunteered to be the sous chef as often as I could. Over time, I took the lead in making more meals. I learned family favourites and we discovered new ones together. Cooking with W- made learning fun – we could celebrate successes and gamely finish anything that wasn’t an absolute failure.

Cooking was part of W-‘s way of life, and I was delighted to make it part of mine too. We rarely ate out. It just wasn’t convenient during schooldays, and cooking was more frugal anyway. From March 2007 to August 2009 (30 months), I logged $145/month for groceries for 2.5 people (85%) and $25/month for dining out (15%). The actual numbers are different because W- picked up some groceries and usually treated me when dining out, although we set up this system where I contributed a fixed amount to household expenses so it worked out anyway.

We periodically tweaked the kitchen to improve the way we worked. We moved the canned goods from the basement into an industrial-style shelving unit. We moved the microwave to a custom shelf and freed up the rolling table it had been on, which turned out to have an excellent cutting surface on top of it – more counter space! Little tweaks like that made cooking more efficient and more fun.

I’d been reading about the benefits of a chest freezer on frugality blogs. We weren’t sure if we had the space or if we could make it part of our lifestyle, so we dithered. In 2009, W- and I finally decided to take the plunge. We bought a 5.3 cu-ft freezer and started stocking it with sale items, filling the extra space with water jugs to improve efficiency. Eventually we learned the basics of bulk cooking, discovered which of our favourites froze well, and standardized our food containers for easier organization.

We also experimented with community-supported agriculture. It was a good way to get through lots of vegetables, and Internet recipes were really helpful. (All that zucchini! All that cabbage!) We eventually decided to buy our own vegetables, but it was a good experience.

Now I’ve gotten to the point where a 30% markdown on pork tenderloin makes me think of tonkatsu, I can make a stir-fry with whatever vegetables look okay, and cooking is more like fun than a chore.

What I learned along the way

People make cooking much more fun

Cooking by myself was a drag. Cooking for other people was better, because we could enjoy the good stuff and laugh about the dishes that didn’t go as well. (You can tell who your friends are – if they eat your experimental cooking, they’re good friends!) Cooking with other people was the best, because then you can chat while chopping (carefully) and watch out for each other (looks like the eggs are done!). W- helped me learn so much more about cooking than I probably would have on my own.

Good tools really do matter

A sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one because a sharp knife won’t slip. W- periodically sharpens the knives, and I try to remember to use the steel before I use the chef’s knife. I’ve also come to really appreciate the convenience of a dough scraper, Microplane graters, and other little kitchen things. That said, we try to minimize the number of unitaskers we have: no egg poachers, no slot toasters, no corn cob holders… This means our drawers are easier to organize and keep uncluttered.

The Internet is awesome

The Internet has a gazillion recipes. I used to feel a little intimidated by the variety, but I realized that it meant that recipes are (mostly) just guidelines. Can I skip a spice that I don’t normally stock? Can I substitute an ingredient for something I don’t have? Do I want to adjust the temperature so that I can bake two different things at the same time? Chances are that someone has a recipe that calls for that, so it should be fine. It might not be amazing, but it will be okay.

Absolute failures are very rare

There was the time I put the yeast in water that was too hot. My lump of pizza dough didn’t rise, and I had to throw it out and start over. Sometimes I burn things and have to scrape off bits. One time I was learning about seasoning cast-iron pans and I heated one for so long that the season flaked off. I broke a rice cooker and repaired it by replacing the thermal fuse. Most of my cooking failures were salvageable, though. It turns out that it’s difficult to Completely Mess Things Up, so you should worry less and just go ahead and try it.

Chest freezers and bulk cooking make everything easier

Cooking in bulk lets us minimize the number of left-over ingredients, especially if we adjust the recipes. Having meals in the freezer is an amazing way to reduce the risk of cooking experimental recipes: if it’s an absolute failure, well, there’s a guaranteed meal all ready to go. Freezing is also great for dealing with leftovers. If I don’t feel like eating the same thing for the rest of the week, I can package it as individual lunches in the freezer for when I feel like having it again.

Next steps for me

There’s plenty more to learn, and I look forward to getting even better at this over the next ten years. Here are some of the skills that would be fun to improve:

Regular menu planning and a broader repertoire of recipes

You know how some households run on predictable patterns? We do a little of this: soups and baking on the weekends because of time-of-use electricity charges; stir-fries to take advantage of fresh vegetables from our grocery shopping; maybe a vegetarian meal sometime during the week… It would be good to get even better at planning what we’re going to have, perhaps based on a two-week cycle of themes that’s adjusted by what’s on sale, and to introduce new recipes within that framework.

Recycling leftovers into new dishes

I tend to be pretty happy eating the same thing again and again (or freezing the leftovers if they’ve been around a while), but recycling left-overs into new dishes would extend their fridge-life and encourage people to eat them. There are books that focus on cascading one recipe into another, and it seems like a good skill to learn. It’s also a quick way to get more variety out of the same cooking effort.

Working with different spices and sauces

We have a lot of spices in the cabinet. I should make an inventory of them and organize them for easy reach. Sauces are also good ways to give the same basic dish different tastes. If I learn more about flavour, I can stock the freezer and fridge with a wider range of tastes.

So that’s my cooking story

I’ve written a lot about bulk cooking and other things I’ve learned, so check out those blog posts for more tips. You can also read the posts in chronological order if you want to see all the steps along the way. If you’re learning how to cook, I hope my story helps – hang in there and keep practising, and you’ll probably come to enjoy cooking too. Good luck and have fun!

Making bulk cooking easier

Jenn Turliuk’s thinking of organizing a bulk cooking lesson/party. Whee! I thought I’d pass on some things W- and I have been learning about bulk cooking:

Standardize your food containers! The importance of this cannot be overstated. You’ll thank me later when you don’t have to shuffle around for matching lids, and when your containers stack beautifully in the shelf. Consider the maximum capacity of your freezer and how much of it will likely be taken up by other things like ice cream. Get as many sets of food containers as you think you need, and then get some more for replacements or fridge leftovers. We like the Rubbermaid TakeAlong containers, which are just the right size for us. Note: tomato-based sauces and fat/oil will etch plastic if heated, so transfer pasta and similar things to bowls before heating.

imageMake a shopping list, but be flexible. This will save you from having to run back to the store frequently. We make our list based on the sales, but we also keep an eye out for things that have discount stickers. Meat at 30% off on the last day of sale is just fine cooked, frozen, and turned into delicious lunches or dinners. (I recently bought five pounds of ground beef on sale so that I can turn it into meatballs.) Sort your shopping list by rough location so that you can check things off easily. We write our shopping lists on the back of envelopes, and we usually organize it like this: produce, bread, meat, dairy, other.

imageRice and frozen veggies are good fillers. Most of our frozen meals are rice/some other starch + frozen veggies + some kind of meat. If people don’t like rice, you can substitute other things like potatoes instead. Frozen veggies help cool the meal down quickly, so you can store it in the freezer faster. Also, they give you more variety. (Don’t add too much hot food to the freezer at one time.)

imageWe like storing individual portions of cooked meals so that they’re super-easy to microwave at work. Most once-a-month cookbooks focus on preparing casseroles and other things that you can freeze uncooked for later "fresh meals", but they might have good ideas. (We tend to not do the usual once-a-month-cooking strategies because we don’t like going through that many freezer bags, even if we wash and reuse them.) For more inspiration, take a look at the frozen dinners aisle. Chances are that you’ll be able to duplicate some of those at home. You can also look at those batch cooking places like Supper Solved. Another way to increase your freezer cooking repertoire – freeze a portion of leftovers from the meals you make to see if they survive the freeze-thaw process.

Try to store cooked meals rather than raw ingredients. Raw ingredients take up too much space and can get forgotten in the freezer. Ready-to-go meals are much more convenient.

imageLabel. Always. Skip the fancy labeller. Masking/painter’s tape + Sharpie marker works fine. Label it before steam, condensation or freezing makes the lid un-stickable. We usually write down the initials of the item and the number of the month we made it, so chicken curry made in August is CC8. If you have time and space, you can write down the name of the food for easier recall. Labeling makes eating a variety of things much easier and avoids freezer fatigue.

imageRotate your stock. If possible, put freshly-prepared containers at the bottom of the stack, or in a separate stack. That way, you can go through the old stuff before it gets freezer burn. This may involve taking everything out of the freezer and then stacking everything up neatly again. Gloves can help.

If you have a kitchen scale, you can use it to make your meals more consistent. Figure out what makes you just the right level of full at lunch.

If you can make room for a chest freezer, it is a totally awesome buy. It saves us lots of time. (Plus it will save you from fighting over fridge/freezer space.)

imageGood knives make a difference. Sharp knives are less dangerous and less frustrating than dull ones. Take good care of your tools: no throwing them in the dishwasher, no sticking them in a drawer without at least a knife guard.

imageAprons make you feel more official and less worried about messing up your clothes. Ponytails are great for keeping hair out of the way. It may make sense to give your hair a good brushing before you start cooking, or even do the hairnet thing.

Plan your groceries so that you can cook lots of food on that day. Hard-core once-a-month cooks usually stock up on groceries on one day, then cook on the second day. If you cook in smaller batches (say, a week or two at a time), you can fit it into one day without getting too tired. This means not having to cram all that stuff in your fridge.

Batch your ingredients and parallelize your recipes. Review your recipes to see where you can combine ingredient preparation, or when you can do something while stuff marinates. Chop all the garlic together, etc. I don’t like chopping onions, so if I can chop everything else and then do four or five onions all together at the end, I’m all for that. Especially if I can get W- or a food processor to chop them instead.

An easy way to fill up your freezer is to double or triple your recipe whenever you cook. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing too much extra work, since you’ve got the chopping board and the pots out anyway.

Frozen sauces and soups are easier to transport than defrosted ones. Allow for expansion when freezing. Don’t fill your containers to the brim, because liquid expands when freezing. Allow plenty of space. If you’re taking these to work, don’t defrost these the night before unless you trust your food container and lunch bag well, although you can defrost them in the morning.

When reheating, you may have to microwave in two steps. Microwave it for a couple of minutes, then stir it and microwave it some more. Check for a cold centre – not fun to eat! It’s usually a good idea to let things defrost overnight (in the fridge) or all morning.

imageIt’s encouraging to calculate the cost-per-portion. You can make lots of great meals for much much less than they would cost at a restaurant or even as take-out. For example, I think our cost per portion for chicken curry was around $2.50, and our cost per portion for lasagna or lamb korma was around $4-5. If you enjoy cooking (especially if you’re cooking with people you like, which turns it into a bonding activity instead of a chore), you might even consider the labour a benefit instead of a cost.

Assembly lines are good for packaging the meals. We usually pack each meal with rice (sometimes we measure this). Then we add the main part of the meal. Then we pour frozen vegetables. We secure the lids, add all the tape (for labeling it), then write all the labels. If the meal is too hot, we stick it in the fridge to cool down. When it’s ready, we clear out space in the freezer and stack things up properly.

Here are our favourite bulk meals:

  • Chicken curry: three bags of chicken quarters, two packs of curry sauce; fuss-free and frugal – pot
  • Shake-and-bake chicken: the no-name powder works just fine; easy to do this with two club packs of chicken drumsticks. – oven
  • Pasta with sausages – pot
  • Pasta with meatballs – oven
  • Lasagna: two pans are just as easy to make as one pan of lasagna, and can cook simultaneously – oven
  • Japanese croquettes: a little soggy after microwaving, but still yummy; if you have time to fry, freeze uncooked to make it crisper – skillet
  • Lamb korma: pricy, but yummy – pot, food processor
  • Bubble and squeak: great way to get rid of cabbage – skillet
  • Okonomiyaki: freeze before topping with sauce; take sauce and bonito flakes separately – skillet (small is okay)
  • Chicken tikka masala: watch out for the tomato in the sauce; heat in a bowl – pot
  • Tonkatsu: a little soggy after microwaving, but yummy – skillet
  • Rice and lentils: simple and frugal – rice cooker
  • Rice and beans – pot
  • Pinakbet: W- loves bitter melon – pot
  • Beef stew – pot
  • Japanese curry – pot
  • Souvlaki – grill
  • Barbecue chicken – grill
  • Ham steaks – skillet or raw
  • Hamburger steak – skillet
  • Roast chicken – oven
  • Yakisoba / yakiudon – wok
  • Pad thai – wok
  • Stir fry – wok
  • Fried rice – wok, needs cold rice
  • Congee – pot, can probably do this in a rice cooker
  • Beef bulgogi: can be a lot of effort especially if you make plenty of appetizers (banchan) as well, but it feels totally indulgent to dig into a 10-course meal at work – skillet
  • Wontons: movie marathons are a great time to wrap hundreds of wontons. Cook and freeze each batch instead of waiting until you finish them all, so that they don’t dry out or get soggy. Control portions – we find that 15 wontons is just about right for us (measure a decent portion, then use the scale to make this consistent by weight). This is important because if you stuff 30 wontons into the container just because they fit, people will eat 30 wontons per serving. – pot

There are probably lots of great vegetarian freezer meals out there, but I haven’t looked into them.

What a bulk cooking party could look like:

  • A. Bulk cooking swap
  • People choose recipes (keeping dietary restrictions in mind) and then bring stacks of cooked meals on the day itself (possibly already frozen).
  • Swap 1:1, to increase variety and try different tastes.
  • B. Bulk cooking together
    • People choose recipes, keeping dietary restrictions and cooking methods in mind. Ex: one large skillet, one or two large pot meals, one quick oven recipe (~20 minutes), one long oven recipe (~ 60 minutes or more)
    • Bring extra knives and chopping boards, or prepared ingredients.
  • C. One big recipe with lots and lots of appetizers
    • Bulgogi is great for this: one or two people in charge of cooking all the meat, and then lots and lots of people making little appetizers. Try to marinate the meat overnight. Ex: seaweed, soy potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, green onion pancakes, meatballs, noodles… May require coordination.

    Ideal bulk cooking party space:

    • plenty of counter space for lots of people preparing ingredients while chatting
    • multiple sets of knives, measuring cups, liquid measures, and chopping boards
    • food processor
    • one or two large pots
    • a couple of 9×12 pans (foil is probably okay too) or other oven things
    • dishwasher, so it’s not such a chore afterwards
    • snacks
    • mixing bowls and lots of regular bowls for prep (we use rice bowls, cereal bowls, and soup bowls)

    Bulk cooking is fun and a great time/sanity-saver. We use this to make work lunches frugal and hassle-free. Since W- and I enjoy cooking, we often make dinners from scratch, but it’s nice to know that lunch is in the freezer. Hope this helps!

    Wontonomics: Dumpling numbers

    Summary: Cost per serving: CAD 1.25-1.50, time per serving: ~30 minutes(!)

    Since people were curious, here’s the rough recipe we used for the last batch of wontons:

    Amount Ingredient Cost / source
    generous knob ginger, peeled and finely chopped left over from previous
    6+ cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped pantry
    small handful cilantro, finely chopped from the garden
    two bunches green onions, finely chopped CAD 1.14
    1 large bag small shrimp, raw, unpeeled, 70/90 – peel and chop CAD 10.00
    ~2.5kg ground pork CAD 15.61
    6 packages wonton wrappers CAD 8.94
    soy sauce pantry
    sesame oil pantry
    salt and pepper pantry

    Sauté the ginger and garlic, then mix everything together (except the wonton wrappers, of course). Set out a small bowl of water, a plate, and a teaspoon.

    For each package do:

    • For each wrapper do:
      • Hold the wrapper in the shape of a diamond.
      • Place a teaspoon of filling a little above the middle of the wrapper.
      • Wet the top two edges, then fold the bottom half up to meet the top half. Press out air bubbles.
      • Wet one of the outside corners, and fold the two outside corners together.
      • Place the wonton on the plate.
    • Boil the wontons for about a minute and a half, then cool in a bowl of water. Sample a few for quality control. Drain and pack into small containers, 250-265g per container (15-17 wontons, average of 16.8g per wonton). Label and freeze.

    If you want to quantify your wonton production, the easiest way is to count them as you’re about to boil them.

    Each package contained an average of 70 wrappers (stdev: 5, mode: 74) and took the two of us roughly an hour to process and boil (~1.5-2 person-minutes per wonton). The cost per wonton worked out to $0.08 per wonton (maybe $0.09 considering the pantry ingredients), which means each serving costs about 30 minutes of labour (not including grocery-shopping) and less than $1.50 in raw ingredients.

    Thirty minutes seems like a lot for a serving that disappears pretty quickly, but the time is both relationship-time and movie-watching time for us, so it works out. And the wontons are yuuuummy – much better than the frozen ones you can get in the store. (Texture! Flavour! Smug satisfaction!) We like them even more than the ones you can get in a restaurant. =) We usually have the wontons with udon noodles and soup, although we occasionally snack on plain wontons seasoned with soy sauce.

    Lots of the freezer recipes we come across are geared to Western tastes, so we like collecting Asian recipes that freeze well too: wontons, Japanese croquettes, okonomiyaki, beef bulgogi… So nice to be able to pull something out of the freezer and enjoy it any time!

    Wonton movie marathon

    imageJuly 1 is Canada Day, so we have a three-day weekend. No big plans, aside from cooking enough to fill our freezer and spending some time hanging out with W-‘s family.

    Yesterday, we biked to three libraries to see what they had in stock, picking up books and movies to help us pass the time during the long weekend. The haul included eight movies and one TV series, a bucketload of business books, and a number of comic books.

    As the librarian scanned the last item in my pile (the 40th anniversary edition of Mary Poppins), she told me: “That’s going to put you over the 50-item limit.”

    I puppy-dog-eyed my husband, who dutifully handed over his library card so that the remaining item could be checked out under his name. (Technically, we have access to each other’s account, so I could’ve checked it out without him. It’s easier to use his physical card, though.)

    We unloaded the books, then headed over to stock up on groceries. Our favourite wonton wrappers were back, so it was settled: a wonton-making marathon.

    We moved the dining table into the living room. We had to disassemble the table in order to fit it through the narrow door, but it was worth it. Last time we made a ton of wontons, we sat on the couch and leaned forward to work on the coffee table. The dining table was much better, ergonomically speaking. No back aches or neck aches.

    The packages of wonton wrappers we get usually contain 74 wrappers each, although some have as few as 62 usable ones. We filled each wrapper with a teaspoon of the meat mix (pork, shrimp, green onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, pepper), sealed it with a dab of water, and folded it into the characteristic wonton shape. We boiled each set in two batches, cooled the wontons in water, and then scooped the wontons into our standard food containers: 15-16 wontons, roughly 260 grams. Naturally, we had to test some from each batch for quality control.

    We used to cram the containers full before, but our consumption rate was way too high. (No one ever leaves extra wontons in the container.)

    This is what we do with our long weekends. =) Fun!

    Cooking: Warm lentil salad with sausages

    “Eat more healthily” is a popular New Year’s resolution. It’s on our list too – a push towards eating more vegetables and less meat, exploring more variety, and developing kitchen skills.

    Last Monday’s new recipe: warm lentil salad with sausages, which I found while looking for warm salads to enjoy this winter. Lentils have become one of our kitchen staples. W- makes rice and lentils in the rice cooker for a simple, filling weekday or post-gym meal. I wanted to find other ways we could prepare lentils so that we could play around with different tastes. I looked for a non-dairy salad that I could put together mostly with ingredients we usually have around, and the warm lentil salad with sausages on Epicurious fit the bill.

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    Ingredients:

    • 2 cups French green lentils (13 oz), picked over and rinsed – replaced with 1 cup brown lentils and 1 cup green lentils, since that’s what we had
    • 6 cups water
    • 1 California bay leaf or 2 Turkish – 2 bay leaves of unknown provenance
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
    • 2 carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup) – turned out to be more than a cup of carrots, but no big deal
    • 2 celery ribs, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
    • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic – Yeah, right. I put in five cloves of garlic.
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled – Didn’t want to get fresh thyme (it’s buried under snow), so I sprinkled some of the Italian seasoning we’re trying to use up
      1/4 teaspoon black pepper
    • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil – didn’t measure, just drizzled into the dressing
    • 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar – substituted apple cider vinegar, because that’s what we had
    • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard – substituted regular mustard
    • 3/4 lb smoked kielbasa or other smoked sausage (not low-fat), cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices – substituted mild Italian sausages roasted at 400F, not sliced
    • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

    How I did it (although you should probably check out the real instructions if you want to try this):

    1. In a medium saucepan (after having gone through several options from the cabinet), combine the water, lentils, and bay leaves, bring the water to a boil, and lower the heat to a simmer. Chop the other ingredients, checking the saucepan occasionally.
    2. In a 12” skillet, drizzle some oil and sauté the onions and garlic for about a minute. Add the carrots and celery. Cook until slightly softened. Realize you’ve forgotten to add Italian seasoning / thyme, salt, and pepper; season the vegetables, mix them up, and cook them until softer.
    3. Check on the lentils and salt them too.
    4. After a few more minutes, the lentils should be tender. Worry about overcooking the lentils. Drain them and pick out the bay leaves as you see them. Mix the lentils and vegetables in the saucepan.
    5. Contemplate whether to make this a vegetarian dish or to put in the sausages as well. Decide to go with the sausages. Look up how to roast sausages; put them in a 400F oven, turning them when you remember.
    6. In a small bowl, whisk apple cider vinegar (or red wine vinegar, if you have it), mustard (or Dijon mustard, if you have it), and salt and pepper. Add olive oil, whisking constantly, until it looks about right.
    7. Pour the dressing into the saucepan. Mix it in and taste it. Realize that it doesn’t quite taste sharp enough, so make up another batch of dressing and put that in too.
    8. Keep the lentils on low heat while waiting for the sausages to finish. Try it out before announcing the availability of dinner to others in the household.

    I’m getting better at trying new recipes out. I can decide: I don’t have that, so let’s use this instead; hmm, this needs a little more bite; okay, this needs to be put on hold while I finish this. (Hooray for the Internet, though!)

    My next steps in lentil awesomeness: buy lentils in bulk from Kensington Market or a good bulk food store, and experiment with growing them in our backyard. (Did you know that Canada is the world’s largest export producer of lentils, according to Wikipedia?) Buying lentils in bulk should work out cheaper than the fancy 500g organic lentil packages we get from The Sweet Potato. We’ve had fun growing peas and beans, so lentils might work out well in our garden too. Exciting!

    Epicurious: Warm lentil salad with sausage

    Stocking up on chicken stock stock stock

    We save the bones from chicken quarters, turkey drumsticks, and other pieces of poultry that pass through our kitchen. They get tossed into the freezer, and when two freezer bags or so get full, it’s time to make a pot of chicken stock.

    I joke about renaming winter to “baking season.” It’s soup season, too. Chicken soup to ward off the cold, leek and potato soup for variety, split pea soup with its pork cracklings… Chicken stock goes into stir fries and sauces too. Very useful to have around.

    Since we’re trying to eat more vegetables and less meat, we don’t have that many bones to cook with—not as many as we would want if we’re having soup weekly. Fortunately, a large bag of chicken bones costs $1. The largest stock pot we have can fit two bags of bones initially, with a third squeezed in once the chicken bones settle.

    2012-12-30 20.28.35

    This is what all that stock looks like: three layers of containers, probably around 40 cups. There’s no room in the fridge (there’s a turkey defrosting) and the stock has to cool before we can freeze it, so W- took the containers to the shed, where they’ll cool (and most likely freeze, too). Side benefit of winter: free cold storage. Not quite a walk-in freezer (at least until it hits -18C), but decent at chilling things quickly.

    I want to learn how to make vegetable stock as well. That’ll give me another use for all these vegetable odds and ends, and it might lead to other interesting soups along the way.