In these hot summer temperatures, home cooking can seem like an unpleasant chore. But before you head for your favorite restaurant to let someone else do the cooking, stop and reconsider. Too many restaurant meals can put a strain on both your wallet and your waistline!
Summer cooking may present more of a challenge, but with a little planning and creativity, it can be bearable — or even enjoyable — to prepare healthy, low-cost family meals.
Rethink grocery purchases as the first step in keeping your cool. Purchase ingredients for cool meals that can be prepared quickly and easily. Choose meats that can be barbecued and fresh fruits and vegetables for cool salads and side dishes. Individual portions are attractive for the "grab-and-go" summer crowd. Stock up on boxes of 100 percent fruit juices, cartons of low-fat yogurt, string cheese and snack bags of mini-carrots. Salad in a bag can be a summer staple, providing the basis for simple side dishes and cool, delicious main dish salads. Summer cooks can benefit from "speed-scratch cooking" — a compromise between home cooking and meals prepared by others. For example, combine cut vegetables from the produce section or grocery store salad bar with sliced or cubed cheese from the deli counter, home-cooked pasta and bottled salad dressing to make a hearty pasta salad in a hurry.
Use alternatives to oven cooking. When temperatures soar, change cooking methods so both the kitchen and the cook can remain cool. Fire up the backyard barbecue to keep the heat outside, or use the microwave oven for cool cooking. When cooking on the stove top, choose cooking methods requiring the least amount of time, such as stir-frying or pan-broiling.
Dust off those small appliances. A slow cooker is an ideal way to cook all components of your meal at once. In addition to keeping the kitchen cooler, these pots enable you to use less-costly cuts of meat. (You can even prepare baked potatoes in the slow cooker — check your recipe booklet for instructions or give me a call!) Don't be afraid to revive the pressure cooker. This appliance can reduce cooking time by as much as one-half. When cooking for one or two, try using smaller appliances such as a toaster oven or electric skillet to conserve heat. Electric woks, rice steamers and bread machines also are helpful in accomplishing cooking tasks without adding heat to the kitchen.
Plan ahead to cook once, eat twice (or more!). Foods which can be prepared ahead or which refrigerate well are a warm-weather cook's best friends. Cooked rice and pasta can be refrigerated up to a week and can be a filling addition to cold vegetable salads or the basis for casseroles or main-dish meals. For quick quesadillas, casseroles and salads, cook extra chicken breasts or crumbled ground beef and freeze in meal-size portions. Even extra grilled steaks, pork chops or chicken breasts can become tomorrow's wrap sandwiches, fajitas or gourmet salads.
If you must use the oven — fill it up! If you've got to turn the oven on, make the most of it! Bake several foods at once to maximize cooking time and prevent heating the oven a second or third time. Maybe your oven meal could include a meatloaf, baked potatoes, baked beans and corn bread. You could even throw in extra potatoes for potato salad or hash browns later. Even if you're just baking a frozen pizza, consider sliding in a pan of slice-and-bake cookies or a tray of biscuits so the extra oven space (and heat) isn't wasted.
The good news about warm-weather cooking is that appetites tend to dwindle at the same time the cook's enthusiasm is lagging. This time of year, everyone will appreciate and enjoy simple, light, healthy meals prepared with a minimum of fuss.
See my blog at SWKTalk.com/livingwell for ideas on how to bake ahead and freeze for summer baked goods or county fair entries.