Cooking from scratch to delight and nourish herself and her family is the joy of many a well-bred woman. Just how to go about cooking from scratch varies across a range of solutions. Since getting married, I have tried the following, often simultaneously:
planning a menu and buying the ingredients for it,
following exactly the menus constructed by others,
not having a menu at all and just buying things I thought would work for meals,
running out multiple times per week to pick up items I forgot,
cooking for one day in order to make ahead and freeze for a month or two’s worth of meals,
shopping in bulk,
shopping from farmer’s markets, and
shopping from co-ops that required ordering ahead.
I also considered joining a meal planning website such as eMeals but balked at the price. Overall, I never felt content with any of the above methods. The main problem I experienced in following meal plans was my innate urge to not follow rules or do what I am told. It seems strange for a person writing a blog about etiquette and refined behavior, but perhaps it is because I am mostly writing for my own benefit as someone who honors, respects, and endeavors to preserve conventional conduct and manners. I would plan meals or begin following another person’s meal plans with the best intentions, only to find myself wanting Thursday’s chicken on Monday and Sunday’s spaghetti on Tuesday; once the whole plan got messed up, I felt ill-prepared to recover from it. Best, I thought, to toss out the plan. Besides, I believe that one’s body craves the food that contains the nutrients it needs for that day, and I am confident that my food choices are healthy enough to trust my cravings. The problem I experienced with shopping in bulk was that I did not use up my purchases fast enough to make it worth the extra $50 up front for 50 lb of flour or so. At open farmer’s markets I felt that there were too many stands for me to shop efficiently and compare prices, and my local order-ahead farmer’s market was just out of my budget. The cooking for a whole day to freeze ahead was a bust because standing in one spot cooking for a whole day? No. Reheating frozen stuff every single day forever? No. And of course, eMeals sounded promising because I would not have to think so much…but it all still depended on a set meal plan. Too much structure for me. What if I didn’t like the meals? What if I didn’t “feel like” eating the proscribed meal? I know that many of these solutions have worked for many women, whom I do not attempt to dissuade from their decisions. But for those like me who may have found themselves still searching for a solution, I wanted to share what I have adopted. I call it my capsule pantry.
The capsule pantry cooking approach is best suited for a cook who makes all or most items from scratch; can devote at least 30 minutes a day to meal prep; owns a few small appliances such as a blender, microwave, hand or stand mixer, or bread machine; knows enough about nutrition to be able to construct balanced meals with minimal instruction; can cook many things without a recipe; is confident in substituting and improvising ingredients; and enjoys cooking creatively. It is not for someone who always uses recipes, is not creative, is short on time, or cannot decide what to make each night.
To begin with, I shop once a week at my local grocery store. I gave up searching circulars across multiple stores for best prices, because I have found my preferred store to have the highest standard of quality overall. I shop smart by purchasing the fruit, vegetables, and meat that is on sale, while buying a few extras of staples when they are on sale or just buying one if it is regular price. I try to always keep the following staples on hand as they are the building blocks for dozens of satisfying meals.
Dried beans – pinto, kidney, navy
Coarse sea salt for the grinder
Peppercorns for the grinder
Potatoes (I only use red)
Onions (yellow and/or red)
Flour – white and whole
Salad greens – spinach, kale, and/or lettuce
Fruit – buy what’s in season for best price and quality
Yogurt – plain
Dark chocolate bars
In addition, I keep a cupboard full of dried spices, most commonly using basil, parsley, paprika, thyme, sage, dill, ginger, and cinnamon.
I intend to phase out my use of white sugar but many of the recipes below still call for it. Brown sugar may be substituted although it will alter the flavor and texture somewhat; also, honey may be substituted, using roughly half of the sugar called for in the recipe.
The following are examples of how I utilize my capsule pantry:
The simplest bread is made from flour, salt, water, yeast, and sometimes sugar or oil. Hand-making bread requires a mixer to combine, about ten minutes to knead by hand or five minutes to knead with a mixer and dough hooks, and several hours rest and rising time before shaping and baking. Once one gets the hang of it, it is not complicated but does require being at home for several hours. A couple of alternate options are to use a bread machine—mine is indispensable—or to make no-knead bread, which involves mixing ingredients in a big bowl, letting them ferment at room temperature for up to a day, then shaping and baking. One of my favorite recipes for a no-knead bread can be found at the blog formerly known as Cooking For Seven.
For a twist on bread, Granny’s Dinner Rolls, a recipe given to me by my mom, is simple and satisfying with no kneading required. The recipe calls for mixing with a hand mixer but I have often beat the ingredients together with a wooden spoon and had good results, so this would work for someone with minimal kitchen tools. To shape the rolls I just use a large scoop like this one and plop them into the greased cake pans, but one could also use a spoon or floured fingers.
Granny’s Dinner Rolls
In small bowl, combine and set aside 2 ¼ tsp yeast, ¼ cup water, 1 tsp. sugar. In medium bowl combine 1 cup warm water, 1 egg, ½ cup olive oil, 1 tsp salt, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 cups flour. Stir or use mixer to combine. Stir in yeast mixture. Stir in 2 more cups flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double. Stir down; let rise again. Section individual rolls by using a cookie scoop, spoon, or floured fingers and place into 2 greased round cake pans. Let rise until tops reach the top of the pan. Bake at 375 deg. F until done, about 20 minutes.
Oatmeal: A simple warm breakfast can be made by boiling water, pouring in dry oats just until they touch the surface of the water, simmering on low for 4-5 minutes, and stirring in brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt to taste. One could also add dried or fresh fruit or nuts.
Granola takes more time to make up front, but making two pans of it should last a family of 4 at least a week. For each greased 9″ x 13″ pan, combine 6 cups of oats, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and (opt.) ¾ cup dried milk. I usually leave that out since I pour fresh milk on my granola to eat it. Heat ½ cup honey and 3/8 cup oil, stir and pour over oats mixture. Toss to coat and bake at 325 deg. F for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes and occasionally as it cools after baking. Again, one could add dried fruit, nuts, or chocolate chips (after baking). I have also added sunflower and flax seeds before.
Yogurt and fruit is the simplest of breakfasts. One can mix in berries for sweetness or eat sliced apple on the side, depending on what is in season. A sprinkle of dried oats on top boosts the fiber content and adds texture, while a dash of cinnamon or ginger aids circulation, can assist with weight loss, and stimulates digestion.
From the ingredients in the capsule pantry one needs to buy only a few additional items for main meals. Some ideas to consider include the following:
Any kind of meat or fish with rice, vegetables, and / or salad on the side
Bean dip – refried beans with cheese, salsa, sour cream, and vegetables of your choosing such as tomatoes, green onions, lettuce, avocados or guacamole, olives, served with corn tortilla chips (I recommend organic blue tortilla chips) or soft tortillas or taco shells. If you are avoiding corn you can simply eat the beans and toppings with a spoon.
Simplest refried beans: Sort and rinse 1 cup dried pinto beans; cover with 1″ water in pan; bring to boil for 2 minutes; remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 1 hour. Drain and rinse. Return to pot with chopped onion (1 small) and a few peeled garlic cloves (opt.). Cover with two inches water, bring to boil, simmer 1 ½ hours or until tender. Drain, reserving liquid; mash with potato masher or mixer, adding reserved liquid as needed to reach desired consistency. Add ¼ cup olive oil or to taste, ¾ to 1 tsp salt or to taste.
Simplest guacamole: for each mashed avocado, stir in 1 TBSP diced red onion, 1 TBSP finely diced tomatoes or salsa, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 tsp olive oil, and a few turns of the salt and pepper grinders.
Soup – make a fine soup out of any leftover vegetables at the end of the week. A good soup base can be made by sautéing any of the following in olive oil—onions, garlic, celery, salt and pepper, thyme, basil, bay leaf—and adding 8 cups of water with anything that seems like it would go together, such as carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, cabbage, peas, beans (not refried), rice, or leftover meat or bones. Boil until soft and refrigerate; the flavors are best if the soup is served the next day. Freeze any leftovers for a quick re-heated meal later. If you prefer creamed soup, strain the veggies reserving the liquid, remove any bones or bay leaves, and blend until mushy, adding soup liquid as needed to blend smoothly. Then add enough soup liquid to get to the desired consistency. Reserve and freeze the remaining soup liquid for broth in a future recipe. You can blend cream, milk, and/or prepared mustard into the soup to alter the flavor, and/or serve the soup in bowls topped with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt.
Pasta with tomatoes and / or vegetable sauce, garlic, and hard cheese such as Romano, Asiago, or Parmesan. The protein and fat in parmesan balance out the carbohydrates of a pasta meal. And whole wheat pasta tastes delicious while being better for one’s health than white pasta.
Pizza – make a simple pizza crust like this one, top with fresh or canned tomatoes if desired, and vegetables and cheese of your choice. The pizza bakes at 425 deg. F for 10-15 minutes depending on how thick it is and how many toppings are on it. Oven baked fries from red or sweet potatoes and a tossed green salad complete this family friendly meal. To bake red potato fries I cut potatoes into slices then strips, toss with a little olive oil and salt, spread in a baking sheet and bake at 425 for 20-25 minutes, tossing a few times during baking. Sweet potato fries are similar (although harder to cut, so be careful with the knife), but I add cumin, mint, and curry to the salt and oil.
Egg omelets or southwestern scrambled eggs made with cheese, onions, garlic, tomatoes, salsa, sausage, or whatever else you think would go together makes a dinner that, while lighter than a meat dish, still contains plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to be balanced. When you have more time, such as on the weekends, dressy eggs make a lovely breakfast or brunch. But for the most part I stick to quick and easy breakfasts to ensure that the burden of making breakfast does not overshadow the importance of making sure I eat it.
I mostly stick to hard cheese, fruit, or dark chocolate for dessert. Just a small amount is satisfying and delicious!
Fresh or dried fruit, hard cheese, nuts, or popcorn are my preferred snacks.
In closing, here is a funny story of bad manners for your consideration: When I was shopping for a bread machine a few years back, I stopped in at my local Macy’s department store and asked a clerk in the kitchen department if they carried any bread machines. She replied immediately, “You know what my friend says? That people who use bread machines are too lazy to make bread by hand!” I was so shocked that I still have not thought of what I could have or should have said to this day. I think I just stood there with my mouth open! And no, I did not buy one from them. I was too lazy.