Tips for Faster Meal Preparation and Cooking

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by Marlene Condon

September is a marvelous month in which to be outside. Comfortable temperatures and humidity levels coincide with the semi-annual migrations of numerous species of wildlife (see sidebar). Therefore, in order to help you to spend less time in the kitchen this month and more time outside, I want to share some tips to make meal preparation and cooking go faster than usual.

First of all, if you are harvesting lots of sweet and/or hot peppers from your own garden, you can quickly prepare these veggies for use in future recipes when you might not have a lot of time for meal preparation. Wash and dry the peppers, then slice or chop them and place the pieces into pint- or quart-sized freezer bags on which you have marked the date. Peppers will keep well for at least 6-8 months in a stand-alone freezer and somewhat less in a refrigerator freezer, depending upon how often the door is opened.

If you aren’t growing your own peppers, watch for good quality and prices on these veggies whenever you visit the grocery store or farmer’s market. You can buy them when they are extremely fresh and on sale and prepare them as above for use in future recipes on harried or lazy days.

Another time saver is to ignore instructions to sift all-purpose flour when measuring it for cakes, brownies, muffins, and pie crusts. If you have dumped a bag of flour into a container for storage, the flour has been aerated a bit and should no longer be as tightly packed as it was in its original bag. Although it may settle, and cook books will tell you that not sifting may add a significant amount of extra flour to a recipe, I have never had a recipe come out too heavy as if there were too much flour. (And having a serious sweet tooth, I can tell you that I’ve made many, many yummy sweets of all kinds through the years, without ever having employed a sifter for flour.)

Lastly, you might want to try serving instant mashed potatoes to shorten meal prep time instead of preparing the real deal this month. I’m sharing my tip for quality mashed potatoes from instant.

“Real” Mashed Potatoes from Instant

Many folks wouldn’t dream of eating instant mashed potatoes. Although the mixes on the market are composed of real potatoes, but in dried flake form, the final product of flakes, water, milk, and perhaps margarine or butter tends to be of a thin consistency. It lacks a good potato flavor and, more importantly, the right texture.

The funny thing about this situation is that you can actually make instant mashed potatoes that closely resemble real mashed potatoes made from fresh spuds. It puzzles me as to why the manufacturers don’t do what I do: include more potato flakes per the suggested amount of liquid (and fat, if you choose to use it). To increase the amount of flakes, I buy a box of unflavored potato flakes to use with the flavored kind.

The following instructions are for Betty Crocker flavored instant mashed potatoes. You may need to experiment with the amount of extra flakes to add for the best consistency if you use a flavored mix other than Betty Crocker. And you might want to try different brands of unflavored instant potato flakes to see which brand provides the most likeable flavor for your taste buds.

To make one packet of BC potatoes, you can measure the recommended amount of milk and water (and margarine or butter, if you wish) together in a microwaveable measuring cup. Place the cup into a microwave oven and heat for 1½ to 2 minutes on high. Remove the cup from the oven very carefully as the liquid will be quite hot.

Meanwhile, pour a packet of potato flakes into an 8x8x2-inch microwaveable casserole dish and add an extra cup of unflavored potato flakes to the flavored flakes, mixing them together well.

Stir the heated liquid into the flake mixture (it may seem a bit dry; be sure to incorporate all of the flakes), cover the dish with a glass lid, and place the casserole dish into the microwave oven for a few minutes to heat the mixture up.

After you remove the dish from the oven, stir the potatoes, re-cover them, and allow them to stand on the counter for a few minutes to reach the proper consistency. Voila! In about 10 minutes, “real” mashed potatoes.