Batch to the future

Posted by to The Blog on June 16th

The No Recipe Man: Tom Wheeler 

As you read through this special edition of the Leither, you’ll no doubt reach the wise decision to spend much of early June exploring the delights of Leith’s splendid festivals. But with so much going on in the space of ten days, that may leave precious little time to feed yourself. And because we cannot live by Best Kebab House alone – I tried it for a while but it didn’t end well – this is a fine opportunity to plan ahead and set aside a day for some leisurely batch cooking. Here’s how you might go about it.

The author skimming stock in his improbably large kitchen

The Shopping

Buying ingredients for a single meal generally involves a choice between two flawed options. The planned approach, based around recipes and shopping lists, might produce reliable results but offers little scope for inspiration, bargain hunting or joy. I’d always rather make it up as I go along; but this brings the risks of forgotten ingredients, wasted time and weird combinations. But when batch cooking, it’s possible to enjoy the best of both worlds. Versatile staple ingredients can be bought in bulk and dutifully ticked off a list; but beyond these, to borrow from the peerless Fergus Henderson, it’s Liberty Hall. Follow your instincts, snap up bargains and enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about what form your finished dishes will take – that can come later.

To make your task immeasurably easier, buy some sticky labels and loads of identical takeaway-style plastic containers. I stress again the word “identical”, because every brand of these containers differs fractionally in size and shape from every other, making their lids entirely non-interchangeable. So recycle or give away your existing hotchpotch of plastic tubs, and never again waste time and energy on an endless, fruitless lid hunt.

The Prep

For anyone who knows me even slightly, the next sentence will prompt two questions: who is writing this, and how did they dispose of Tom’s body? But I’ll say it anyway: before you start, tidy and clean your kitchen completely, so that everything is where you’d expect to find it and there’s no unnecessary clutter on the worktops. You’ll need the space. Half-fill your biggest stockpot with water and, if you’re a both a meat-eater and a forward planner, add any bones and meat scraps you’ve been gathering in your freezer. Fill another largish saucepan with water, salt it and bring to the boil – this is your blanching water. Line up some excellent music, and you’re good to go.

Peel and chop your onions, carrots and garlic, adding the (clean) peelings to the stockpot, which can now go on a gentle heat. Pick your herbs and add the stems to the stock. As you prepare each vegetable into smallish pieces, cook these in the blanching water then lift out and cool completely under running water. Potatoes, rice and pulses can be boiled, strained and laid out in thin layers to cool quickly. If you can bear the thought of reheated pasta, this can be cooked, cooled under running water and tossed in olive oil. If you can’t bear that thought, cook something else instead.

For anyone who knows me even slightly, the next sentence prompts two questions: who is writing this, and how did they dispose of Tom’s body?

Larger or tougher pieces of meat can go straight into the stockpot. If they’re on the bone, better still: once cooked, leave them to cool a little, pick off the meat and return any skin and bones to the stock. Lean, tender meats such as poultry breasts or pork fillet can be cut into strips and briefly poached in the stock – though do use a colander to lift them in and out so you don’t sacrifice your meat strips to the depths of the pot. And with every morsel of meat that takes a dip within it, the stock will become that bit more sumptuous.

The Assembly

Before too long you’ll be left with various containers of cooked ingredients and chopped base vegetables, along with a pot of rich stock. Strain the stock and return to the hob to reduce, then start making your various sauces to a standard method: soften your chopped onions, carrots and aromatics, add some appropriate spices and flavourings, then add your chosen sauce base to each. Purely by way of example, you might use tomato passata in one, coconut milk in another, red wine in a third. Add some reduced stock for flavour, then season, taste and adjust. Cornflour dissolved in water will act as an easy across-the-board last minute thickener; it’ll dull the flavours of the sauce a little, but the added stock will more than offset that.

Leave everything to cool then assemble your individual ready meals in their takeaway containers. For instance, the poached pork fillet should go admirably with the spiced coconut sauce, a little blanched kale and a few baby potatoes. As you use up your prepared ingredients and cut down your remaining options, subsequent decisions will begin to make themselves, but anything that doesn’t immediately find a home can be frozen for future use. Put on your lids – wow, they all fit! – label and date each container and fill your freezer, fridge and indeed boots. Bon appetit, and enjoy the festivals!

Twitter: @norecipeman

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