Every week my kitchen gets taken over by what I call “a big cook.” That is, I turn on some music, pour a glass of wine, and make a whole bunch of dishes at the same time. The concept occurred to me about seven years ago when my husband and I found ourselves buying more restaurant lunches and dinners as our workdays grew longer at the advertising agency, which got expensive and unhealthy pretty quickly. I’d rush home late from work to try and make dinner and the next day’s lunches, then find myself sitting down to dinner at 10 p.m.
One night, I sliced some onion for a dinner salad, then put it back in the fridge. Then I got it out again, sliced some more to go in a turkey wrap for a brown bag lunch, then put it back again. I thought to myself, how much time would I save myself if I cut up a week’s worth of onion – for soup, salads, sandwiches, roasted veg, pasta salad, etc. – all at once? What about carrots? Garlic? Other stuff that’s used in multiple dishes? How many times a week do I have to wash a cutting board and knife between cutting an onion and slicing something that shouldn’t pick up the onion flavor, and what if I only did that once? Not only would I save a ton of time and money, I’d fill my fridge with lunches and dinners for the week in just one cooking session.
The next weekend, I did my first big cook on Sunday afternoon. I got out all my produce, pantry stuff, mixing bowls, and pots, cracked open a beer, cranked some country tunes (Kevin must not have been home), and started chopping. The menu included a big pot of soup, vegetables & dip, pre-cut veggies for fast weeknight dinner salads, a pasta dish, and a fritatta. I cut enough onion for four of the dishes, carrot for three, red pepper for all five, ham for two, garlic for four, a can of tomatoes split between two, and so on. In less than two hours and two cutting board washings, I had a bunch of healthy, inexpensive breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks.
The big cooks have gotten more involved over the years as I tried to knock off the entire week’s meals in one shot. I got a second stock pot so I could cook two larger-volume things at once (a soup and pasta, for instance), a second cutting board (meat one, veggie one), and painted a chalk board on the back of the laundry room door so I could exceed my mental capacity for only being able to keep track of six dishes at once; writing it down helps me do eight or ten at a time. The other welcome addition to the big cook is my husband, who has become a pretty good cook himself and (I think) finds rocking out in the kitchen to be pretty fun. We make a big, fat mess, dance around, toss each other ingredients, tuck into some wine, sing, and have a damn good time.
These now four-hour sessions aren’t just for us, either. I’ve done big cooks to fill a friend’s freezer with small portions of nutritious foods he might find appealing during chemotherapy. I made 27 freezer containers full of seven different dishes like chili, a few soups, quinoa salad, and stew to help take the cooking burden off my mom last spring when Grandma was in and out of the hospital with back surgeries. I’ve used the big cook method to prep for the catering gigs I manage to sign myself up for, like a three-day writers’ retreat for six people or my sister’s bachelorette weekend last spring for nine girls (which happened on the same weekend I delivered the soups to my mom, making that kitchen session more of an epic cook rather than just a big one).
To build up to a big cook, start small. Maybe two or three dishes with common ingredients but distinctly different flavors, like a stir-fry, a pasta salad, and a soup. All three share things like carrot, onion, red pepper, broccoli, green beans, and a noodle, but the seasoning and prep methods set them apart. Once that feels good, add in other things that don’t contain a whole slew of crazy ingredients and are good eaten cold or re-heated, like stew, chicken salad, roasted vegetables, Asian slaw, flatbreads, and baked egg dishes. If the first cook is too big, it won’t be fun. And as humans, if it isn’t fun, we tend to avoid it. Then you’re back to dropping a wad of cash on fatty restaurant food, which is completely enjoyable and appropriate sometimes, but more so when it’s a want-do rather than a have-to.