February 04, 2021 at 12:00AM
Alfia Muziois is an alum from Bon Appetit and the beloved Prune in NYC. Now at the helm of her very own Vestal, a personalized kitchen coaching service, Alfia is ready to be your home cooking sherpa. Start with these infinitely useful tips to help you cook harder, better, faster, stronger…
There are many overlaps between being a restaurant cook and a parent, and one inescapable truth is that even though your menu might be set well in advance, picky customers and unforeseen mishaps will likely disregard your careful planning.
I’ve never worked a shift (as a parent or a professional chef!) that worked out exactly as I’d planned. Has anyone?
The key to success in the kitchen is to be flexible but prepared. That’s why at Vestal, I coach my clients to build their skills, their confidence, and their pantries rather than create specific meal plans. Plans can always go awry, but with the right resources, you don’t need much of a plan at all. Here are a few of my top tips to get started in any kitchen…
Start where you are. Take a real, honest look at your kitchen exactly as it stands today. What kinds of foods are on your shelves? What kind of equipment? What are your current habits?
Whatever kind of shape you’re in is ok! Start slowly by removing everything that you’re NOT using or eating. Once you do that you can focus on what you have and make the most of it without anything else getting in the way.
Be kind to yourself in the process! By focusing on what you really eat and use, you’ll free up space (literally) to get creative AND stay flexible so putting together pre-caffeinated breakfasts and post-work dinners won’t feel quite so overwhelming.
Identify your workhorses. We all have our go-to meals. I know I can always count on the whole family to eat some kind of pasta. No carb-averse people in my house! Because I know it’s a win, I keep a lot of pasta accoutrements around to keep it fresh and interesting (and nutritious) — think quick sauce ingredients, plenty of good olive oil, already cooked veggies, chicken meatballs I make in batches and can defrost for quick dinners…
Other staples you could build a meal around might be rice and beans, or tofu, or chicken… You get the idea! Whatever your family preferences are, focus on that one shining star and start to build meals around that by changing up the sauces, sides, or veggies so that you’re not re-inventing the wheel every time.
Keep some herbs on the counter! You can treat your herbs like any other plant by putting fresh cut stems in a vase of water – you don’t have to hide them in the fridge.
While I was working at Prune we always kept a big pot of fresh herbs front and center – and it wasn’t just for show. They smell great, are visually invigorating, and are a reminder to keep it fresh in the kitchen. Such a simple and effective pick me up! Adding a handful of something green and freshly chopped can really liven up even staple meals or leftovers. Keeping a variety (think parsley, cilantro, chives, basil) can transform the whole flavor of a dish based on which you choose to use.
Get some sheet pans. Seriously? This is my number one tip for everyone everywhere. It makes putting together a complete meal so much easier. Meat, beans, tofu, veg, aromatics… All of it goes right on the same pan.
Think different cooking times are a problem? Maybe in a restaurant, but definitely not at home! Different cooking times (e.g. your chicken might take longer than your Brussels sprouts) mean different textures and flavors. You’ll get crispy bits and crunchy bits along with tender or creamy textures and flavors too.
Sheet pan dinners are endlessly adaptable and they’re easy to clean (just ONE pan!), they keep your stovetop clean (because they go in the oven!), they keep your hands free (because they go in the oven!), and require very little babysitting because… yup, they go in the oven! Pop them in, and off you go.
Mix up your grains. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught in the quinoa trap — it’s fast cooking and super nutritious. But if you tend toward grain bowls (I do!), you can keep it interesting by experimenting and mixing a bunch together. A lot of grains can be cooked the same way — with 1:2 grain to water ratio and “a bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover for 15 minutes” method. Just mixing up quinoa and rice can be interesting enough and will diversify the nutritional profile, but lots of grains work! Buckwheat, millet, bulgur, freekeh…there are so many to mix and match. You could even throw in a handful of canned beans or some quicker cooking lentils for a nearly complete meal.
Chill out and put a cold dinner together. Honestly, part of building a great pantry means stocking up on some super-low maintenance and long-lasting components.
Lovely stone-ground wheat crackers, nice grainy mustard, and a jar of your favorite pickles are a good place to start. Hard cheeses keep exceptionally well, and for meat-eaters dried salamis can be part of the plan. Hard boiled eggs are easy to add, as are olives, and even dried fruit. Crunchy radishes are never out of place and the latest farmer’s market haul (even if it’s a wintry bunch of kohlrabi) makes for instant crudités. A little strained yogurt can turn into a dip stirred with a little salt and lemon juice. A tin of fancy fish does nicely (most are sustainable) and feels almost special.
Photo credit: Jon Von Pamer | Grab the recipe
You can really take the pressure off for those nights where “there’s nothing to eat” and you really don’t have any time but can’t bear the thought of takeout. (P.S. these things make for pretty epic lunchbox specials.)
Clean out your fridge …before you do your big shop. I usually end up doing the big shop once a week – with two kids in school and now with grandparents in the same house, it’s hard to avoid shopping less than that.
However often you do it, clean out the fridge before you do! Anything hiding in the back? Any veggies languishing in the crisper? What did you eat? What never got touched? Run out of anything too quickly? Did the kids suddenly decide they’re no longer into cucumbers (it happens!)? All the answers are right there in your fridge and pantry. Every family has trends – figure out what yours are and shop accordingly. Plus when you get home, now there’s plenty of space to stay organized and unpack smartly.
FIFO! Never heard of it? Let me explain. First In, First Out. Sounds like an accounting term because it is! It’s also how every restaurant organizes ingredients. It means that you use what you bought first, first. In order to do that, you’ve got to organize your shelves that way too. So when you put the new carton of milk in the fridge and you’ve still got a glass or two left in the old one, go ahead and put the old one IN FRONT of the new one — reaching hands will grab whatever’s in front or on top. You’ll avoid the confusion of having two open at the same time, and no one will end up with spoilt milk or stale cereal.
Food waste is expensive (for your house and for the planet), and a little FIFO will really cut down on that.
Buffet is ok. Sometimes mealtime can feel a little chaotic and the thought of doing the dishes later may be just enough to make you order a pizza instead of cooking a little simple something.
On nights where just putting a chicken in the oven seems like plenty of work already, just make your family meal buffet style!
My kids especially love this because it gives them a little more control and lets them participate alongside the grown-ups.
Take the food out of the oven, keep the pots/pans on the stove top, and let everyone grab a plate and help themselves. No extra servingware to wash, no plating, no convincing your three year old to eat the thing you’ve put on his plate without advanced warning. It feels a little more casual but also a little fun, and it’s definitely less work.
Make it nice! My former chef and fellow Prune alum Ned Baldwin, author of How to Dress an Egg and chef/owner of Houseman restaurant in New York, has a saying engraved on his knife block at home. It reads “Daddy makes it nice!” I love it because it’s right on.
Sometimes taking a little extra care in the kitchen can be a real tribute to your family. Cooking, at its heart, is an act of love, and feeding those around you can actually become a source of joy rather than a chore. Keeping that mantra, “make it nice” in mind can sometimes transform the most everyday act into a special moment — something I think we could all use right now!
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