Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Week of Healthy Meals with 2 Hours' Work!

I like food. I like being healthy. I like cooking, and sometimes I really enjoy spending hours in the kitchen making a big extravagant feast.

But I like other things too, like sleep. Exercise. Work. Living life outside the kitchen.

A lot of people say they don't have time to eat healthy food every day, instead condemning themselves to fast food, processed microwave dinners, vending machines, expensive restaurant meals. But everyone on this planet has the same amount of time: 24 hours a day. No one has "more time" than anyone else. It's just a matter of utilizing your time efficiently.

Enter Prep Day.

I do mine on Sundays, since the farmers' market is Sunday morning and that's when I shop. You can do yours whenever you want. Just make sure that when you buy your weekly food supply, you've budgeted about two hours of the same day to do the prep. Trust me on this - if you buy the food and stick it in the fridge, expecting to prep it later, then the prep will not get done and your veggies will rot in there and you'll be on the phone with the pizza guy again. I know this from experience. Shop, prep, bam. This is how you do it.

A note before I begin: This is really variable, and only one week's example. While the general process is the same every week, the foods themselves vary by season, taste, and mood. Just take the practice here and fill in the blanks with the foods you actually like.

Today's haul from the farmers' market is in the pic atop this post. We bought:

  • 2 dozen eggs
  • raw kimchi and pickled garlic
  • loose-leaf black cherry-hibiscus tea
  • 10 lemons, a bag of limes, & 3 lbs tangerines
  • 4 avocados
  • 1 lb baby potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Celery
  • Eggplant
  • Green Onions
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • ¾ lb ready-to-eat baby salad mix
  • alfalfa and radish sprouts
  • 5 sweet potatoes
  • Pint of blackberries
  • 3 pints strawberries
  • 6 peaches, 2 grapefruits
We also got a six-pack of hard cider at Trader Joe's; feel free to substitute beer or wine if you like them better, or whatever you drink. I do not recommend liquor for this because there are big knives involved.
Also, two days ago I pulled about five pounds of steak out of the freezer to thaw. We bought half a grass-fed cow all at once back in February and are gradually eating our way through it, so we eat beef every day. Feel free to sub in chicken or fish or whatever meat you like. It doesn't all have to be steak. We usually eat about 6 lbs of meat per week between the two of us (we're paleo weightlifters, and Keith eats more meat than I do), but I still have a little over a pound of cooked ground beef left over from the weekend since we ate some meals out last week.

You will also need storage containers. I really swear by these 7"x7"x3" Pyrex containers but use whatever works for you.

All right! Your drink is chilled, you rested a bit from your shopping trip, and you're ready to rock. Crack open a beverage, put on some music (today we rocked Al Green, Billie Holiday, and the Black Keys) and let's all get our prep on.

Take the meat out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature, or close to it. If you put it on the grill cold it won't cook right. 

Get out a cookie sheet and preheat the oven to 400ยบ F. Fill the kettle with water and set it over high heat to boil. Put away everything you're not going to do anything with right now; in this case, that's the eggs, kimchi and garlic, lemons, limes, tangerines, avocados, salad mix, sprouts, peaches, and grapefruits. (If you like cold boiled eggs, you can leave them out and add boiling them to the prep list and make your breakfast that much faster. I wish I liked boiled eggs. I just don't. So I scramble them in the mornings.)

Stab your sweet potatoes all over with a very sharp knife. Don't be afraid to stab deep. Cook as many sweet potatoes as you want - we do five because Keith takes one in his lunch every day. I love sweet potatoes, but I like fruit more and I eat so much fruit I really don't need additional starchy carbs, so I usually don't get any for myself right now. I've crammed as many as eleven sweet potatoes on that cookie sheet though. Make sure you buy tubers that are approximately the same size and thickness so they're all done in the same cook time.

If the oven's preheated, slide 'em on in and set the timer for 45 minutes.

By now your kettle should be boiling. Put your tea in a glass half-gallon jar. I use about 25 grams of loose-leaf. You can use teabags if you like, and make whatever kind of iced tea you're into. Pour the boiling water over the tea and push it to the side to steep for about 20 minutes.

While I've been doing all this, Keith has fired up the grill. If you're not where you can grill outside, you can bake your meat along with the sweet potatoes or after they come out, or fry up ground meat in a skillet, or make crockpot roasts during the week. This prep day is more about the veggies for us, but since we do enjoy our cold rare steak during the week and we live in a mild climate, we grill a lot.

Keith usually just opens up all the meat and seasons it with salt and pepper. He likes to let it sit for a few minutes to let the seasoning work. 

While he preps the steak, I prep whatever veggies are going on the grill. Today it's eggplant and baby potatoes. I peel and cut the eggplant, and toss it with olive oil and a little salt. For the potatoes, I put a glop of duck fat (butter works, but I was feeling fancy) in a bowl and set it on top of the stove. Don't turn any burners on, but the heat from the oven is enough to melt the fat while you cut the potatoes in half. 

Throw them in with the fat, toss with a little salt, and wrap in foil. I like to make a little foil tray and then cover that with another sheet, so all the potatoes stay in a single layer. You want to hold the steam in while they grill.

When the grill is hot, throw the veggies on. Other good veggies for grilling: asparagus, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, summer squash, peppers, corn, mushrooms, etc. Sky's the limit. Go nuts. You can grill the meat whenever you're ready, too. The potatoes are going to take awhile - probably an hour or so, depending on how hot the grill is and how close to the flame you put them. Today Keith did them low & slow on the top rack and they took about 90 minutes. The eggplant was done sooner, and the meat was super fast because we like our steak still mooing.

So, Keith's doing the grill thing. Meanwhile I'm soaking the berries. You know how you buy some gorgeous berries and then the next day they're all covered in mold? The answer to that is kill the mold spores before you put them away. The best way to do that is to put the berries in a bowl, splash in a little vinegar (you don't need much), cover with cold water, and let them soak about five minutes.

While they soak, you can strain the tea, which should be ready now. If you're using teabags, just fish them out. If you like your tea sweet, add sugar or honey now while it's still hot. Since I use loose leaf, I put a strainer over another half-gallon jar and pour the tea from one jar into the other. 

You can set aside the first jar to clean once it cools off. Screw a lid on the jar of tea, wipe it off, and stick it in the fridge. DO NOT try and rinse tea off the outside of the jar, since the hot jar will break in half when the cold water hits it. I learned this the hard way.

Now your berries are done soaking, so get a wide shallow container and line it with a couple layers of paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Transfer the clean berries to that container and stick it in the fridge. Don't put a lid on it - you want water to evaporate, not collect and rot your berries. You don't need to rinse the vinegar water off unless you're going to eat them right away (like I did with these blackberries); the vinegar evaporates quickly and you'll never know it was there.

Now, the veg! We eat a lot of raw veggies during the week because they're easy and healthy. I actually love celery. You can eat it plain, drizzle it with olive oil, spread it with peanut butter (or your favorite nut butter), or have it with your favorite dip. Cut the bottom off, wash the stalks really well, discard the little immature stalks in the middle, and trim the good stuff.

Chop it up. Line a container with a folded paper towel - do this for any raw vegetables you want to stay crispy; the paper towel absorbs excess moisture and keeps the cut veggies fresh longer. Dump the celery in, put the lid on it, and stick it in the fridge.

Do the same thing with your green onions: wash, trim, chop, store on a folded paper towel.

And the carrots. I was going to steam or roast them, but Keith said he prefers them raw. Fine with me; less work. I forgot to get a picture of the carrots but I trust you know what carrot sticks look like. You can peel them if you want, but I don't mess with it since it takes too much time and there are a lot of nutrients in the peel. Just scrub 'em, cut 'em up, and throw them in there on their paper towel.

Hey whoa! Look what's ready!

Set the meat aside to rest. But if you're like me, and you really love drippy melt-in-your-mouth steak fat fresh off the grill, slice some off and have a little moment. Steak fat isn't delicious once it's cold, so enjoy it while you can.

At this point Keith could jump in and take over some of the rest of this if we were really rushed, but he's had a long week and wants to curl up with a book while keeping an eye on the potatoes and eggplant. And I'm having a nice time, chopping stuff and drinking cider and listening to music. So I move along with the kitchen prep on my own. It's almost done and I'm that kind of wife.

Oh hey, the sweet potatoes are done now too. Touch them to see if they're soft or if they need another 10-15 minutes. If they're done, pull them out. You can shut the oven off if you don't have anything else to bake this week, or stick in roast veggies or chicken or whatever else you need the oven for. Today I'm turning it off now. Leave the pan of sweet potatoes on the stovetop to cool and put them away when you have a second. They don't need a sealed container while they're in their skins.

Now it's cucumber salad time. I make cucumber salad pretty much every week because we love it and it gets better and better as it sits in the fridge for a few days. Wash your cucumbers and tomatoes, and trim the ends off the cukes.

You can peel them if you want, or leave the skins on, or peel about half the skin off in four even strips so you get that pretty daisy effect and a little bit of the nutrition and crunch of the skin without too much of it. Slice the cukes, throw them in a bowl, add the cherry tomatoes, and toss in a handful or two of green onion.

I use cherry tomatoes because they hold up better in the salad if you don't cut them. If you use cut-up tomatoes, know they'll get a bit mushy toward the end of the week so eat them up quickly. 

For the dressing, get a little bowl and whisk together 2 Tbsp lime juice and 4 Tbsp apple cider vinegar, and season to taste with garlic powder, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and a little squirt of mustard. If it's too tart for you, you can add a teaspoon or so of honey. I also like to add fish sauce or coconut aminos. Whisk up the dressing, pour it over the salad, and toss well. This makes more than will fit in the container so I pack some for our lunches tomorrow too.

Now I've just gotta steam that broccoli. I save whatever veggies I'm steaming for last because I have the teeniest kitchen in the history of teeny apartment kitchens, and the steamer takes up space. I have this awesome little stacking steamer I'm in love with. If you have a microwave, you can use that too. However you want to get those veggies lightly cooked.

By now the steak has rested, so slice it up. You want to eat the fatty meat first, while it's warm, because the fat gets unpleasant when it's cold. You also want to have the rarest meat first because it won't store as well as the more cooked kind. I don't bother to keep the different cuts separate and I don't bother with nice fine even slices. I just hack it all up and put it in a container (except for what we're going to eat in a few minutes, because seriously, I'm getting hungry just looking at this).

Once that's done, I pack tomorrow's lunches. I already put some salad greens, sprouts, and cucumber salad in a container for myself, so I throw some steak on top. Keith's cucumber salad on the side is already packed, so I get another container and put in some of the grilled eggplant, a peeled sweet potato (once they're baked, the skins slip right off), and some steak. Now we can skip off to work tomorrow with our healthy lunches. (I usually also give us each a piece of fruit and a little container of nuts for snacks).

By now the broccoli is ready. Sometimes I season it with salt and pepper, and/or squeeze a little lemon juice on it. Sometimes I leave it plain. Sometimes I drizzle it with olive oil. Whatever you feel like. Just put it away (no paper towel necessary for cooked foods) and holy hottie your food for the week is DONE.

Seriously, look at that. It's beautiful. For the rest of the week, almost everything is grab-and-go.

The duck-fat potatoes are ready now too. I've been popping them into my mouth for the last few minutes while I finish.

I put a few of them away for breakfast tomorrow, but now we're both hungry. So I make us each a plate with some grilled eggplant, the potatoes, and the fattier bits of steak. We kick back with a fresh cider and our books and eat with our fingers.

All that leaves is the dishes. If you rinse your cutting board, knife, and bowls, and use them again and again for everything, you won't have much for a dish situation. We wash up quickly and I kick back in an Epsom salts bath to relax and enjoy the rest of my Sunday. 

For the rest of the week, making meals is as easy as assembling ready-to-eat goodness and chowing down in five or ten minutes. I'll do daily posts all this week with what we're eating so you can see how we use all this preppage. 

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