The secret to quick and easy weekday meals
In my kitchen, it only takes one pot and three steps to make quick weekday meals. Quick and delicious, that is.
While I do limit myself on the number of pots and steps when I want a no-fuss simple meal I don't limit myself on the number of ingredients. On the contrary, I always think about what else I can add while I'm cooking. Another spice, another bit of veg, another colour, another layer of flavour. This isn't about a long shopping list or complicated recipes; it's simply about a cupboard always stocked with some basics and using up whatever needs using up from the fridge.
I know I'm off trend here - a lot of chefs out there churning out the 'less ingredients' idea. But even Jamie Oliver, arguably the champion of the 'less ingredients' movement, is well aware of the potentially absurd conclusion to the trend (check out his hilarious video, if in any doubt, note the release date).
Using less pots and less steps saves time and effort, for obvious reasons. Using less ingredients, however, creates food waste for all but the most organised and disciplined shoppers amongst us, and usually also results in less taste (unless you have the absolutely best quality ingredients at your disposal). Using more ingredients, on the other hand, gives you an opportunity to use up what you have, to build more flavour, and to add diversity to your diet, which your body as well as your gut bugs will love (unless you have specific intolerances, of course).
My 3-step method provides a clear template to know your actions (what to put in the pot when) and to build your taste (no more boring food). It may seem deceptively simple, but this is how I cook everyday 80% of the time.
STEP 1: the flavour base
Start with a base of background flavour that will add depth of taste to anything you are making. It's no coincidence that most culinary traditions have their 'own' base as a starting point to a vast range of dishes: in France you have mirepoix, in Italy soffritto, and in Spain sofrito, while the South Asian 'curry' base of onions and spices goes by many regional names.
The concept is the same everywhere, only the ingredients differ slightly. It boils down to this:
chopped onion/leek/spring onion
aromatics (garlic, carrot, celery, fennel, celeriac, etc)
Chop it all up and cook gently in a fat of your choice until soft and translucent. The longer you allow the mix to cook, the softer and darker your onions become, the more caramelisation you have achieved and the deeper the taste, so adjust the time as accordingly (keep the heat gentle or you might burn the onions).
STEP 2: the body
All the 'main ingredients of the meal go in here: veggies & protein, as well as liquids if you are making a 'wet' dish (stew or soup).
Start with chopped 'dry' ingredients, then add juicier ones (e.g. tomatoes, courgettes), and add delicate greens at the end.
Add extra liquid at this step too.
Add dried herbs earlier, fresh herbs later.
If using meat or fish, or a plant protein, add depending on how quickly it will cook (chunks of red meat need longer cooking than minced meat, chicken or seafood).
Pulses need to be precooked so for quick meals I tend to use tins - add towards the end as they are already cooked (you could also freeze precooked pulses in portions and just chuck in as needed - I'm not that organised!).
Don't forget to season to taste! (remember, salt enhances flavour)
STEP 3: the accents
At this last step you are tweaking flavours, adding contrast and highlights. This can make a huge difference to the final taste experience.
Tweaks: Taste and taste again: add what might be missing from your flavour layers.
Contrast: Adding contrast will lift your flavour. Think of contrast in terms of taste (e.g. a touch of bright or sweet) or texture (adding crunch or creaminess).
Tip: often, the missing part is a layer of acidity which adds instant brightness to anything flat or cloying. Examples of accent ingredients: herbs, toasted seeds or nuts, soy sauce, fish sauce, a squeeze of lemon, a dash of vinegar, a dollop of honey or maple syrup, etc etc.
You can apply this 3-step template to most stove-top one-pot dishes (e.g. stir-fries, sautés, stews, hotpots, curries, chillies, soups). For stews or soups use the same process, just but add more liquid as needed (water/stock/wine/coconut milk, etc) at the body step. That's a lot of different dishes just there at your fingertips!
Does this all make sense? If yes, great, try it out tonight!
If you think you need more help before you can try this and/or have questions you'd like to ask me directly, I will be running a workshop on this exact 3-steps-to-dinner method in a few weeks. Make sure you are on the mailing list (you can sign up below) to get all the details!