What if you had a prep cook in your kitchen? A sous chef who made sure that all of the slicing and dicing and mincing and zesting was done for you, so that when it came time to make dinner, all you had to do was wash your hands and start cooking?
Most of us aren’t going to get this in our lifetimes. But what if we took an hour on Sunday evening to be our own prep cooks, and make life easier all week long?
Yes, you can buy many of these items pre-cut — but since they’ve been cut days before, even as you take them from their bags, you can see some browning or dryness or aging. When you prep the ingredients yourself, you have a better shot at a longer shelf life, and you know exactly how fresh they are.
If you are a meal planner, already aware of which recipes you plan to make for the week, then identify the ingredients that can be prepped ahead of time, add them to your shopping list and get them into recipe-ready shape.
But if you aren’t quite sure what you are making, then you can still be your own best friend by prepping a bunch of ingredients you likely will call into duty.
If you have a food processor, this task just got easier, as you can pulse everything up, small batches of one ingredient at a time, and have yourself an arsenal of prepped ingredients at the ready. Keep all of your prepped items in tightly sealed containers in the fridge.
Here are some suggestions — ingredients that make frequent appearances in my kitchen. But you’ll determine the ingredients you most often use.
This will last for up to a week in the fridge, and mincing it yourself is much better than buying a jar of pre-minced.
If you don’t cook with shallots, please reconsider. They are a bit of a cross between onions and garlic, but they have a mild sweetness as well. Use about half the amount in any recipe that calls for onions, and twice as much if you are subbing them for garlic. Shallots are perfect in vinaigrettes.
CHOPPED OR SLIVERED ONIONS
How nice to get any onion-induced crying out of the way in one fell swoop. I usually sliver one onion and chop a couple.
BIG CARROTS PEELED AND CUT INTO STICKS
Keeping them as sticks means you can munch on them throughout the week, or if you need them chopped for a recipe later, you are halfway there.
CITRUS ZEST AND JUICE
Use a grater (a Microplane is good) to remove the brightly colored outer layer of your citrus fruit (lemon, lime and/or orange) and store that in a tiny bag or container. Then juice the fruit and strain the juice into a container. Both items will lend a welcome bit of brightness and freshness to recipes of all kinds, from soups to sauces to salad dressings.
BROCCOLI OR CAULIFLOWER FLORETS
You might simply roast or saute these later in the week, or use them in stir-fries or soups, or lightly steam them and use in pastas and salads.
Useful in dishes and as a finishing bit of fresh herbiness on all sorts of foods, especially hearty stewed and braised ones. Other fresh herbs are less sturdy, and to get a head start on those just pull the leaves off, fold them into a slightly damp paper towel and store them whole. If you chop them they will blacken in a day or two.
COOKED CRUMBLED BACON (DON’T JUDGE ME)
A little container of this is like gold, perfect to top off a soup, add to potato or pasta salads, stir into a frittata — there are more ways to use cooked, crumbled bacon than can be mentioned in a few sentences!
Yes, you can buy some pre-grated cheese, and you should definitely do that, but sometimes you want to grate your own Parmesan, or you need a grated cheese that’s not as easy to find, like fontina.
Week to week, your list of pre-cut foods will vary. Sometimes it might be sliced radishes or cubed butternut squash or chopped celery. It depends what recipes are in the forecast, and also what ingredients are in the fridge and begging to be used.
So, next Sunday, pour yourself a glass of wine or make a mug of tea, put on some music and pay it forward. Your Wednesday self will thank your Sunday self shortly.