The past year has been transformative for many of our home cooking journeys. I did things I swore I would never do and you know what? It's OK. I learned to take it easy on myself and just do the best I could do and I hope you have too.
I also hope that if nothing else, the past few months have taught us what a luxury it is to be able to go to a restaurant where someone else buys all the ingredients, decides what's for dinner, cooks it, serves it and does all the cleaning up afterwards.
I actually love cooking at home but since becoming a chef, I don't think I have ever had to cook for myself for more than one to two nights in a week so thinking about this seven days a week? Even I was feeling the fatigue.
Here are a few things I discovered along the way that made it more bearable:
A good "shop" is everything
"What's for dinner?" is the question we sometimes don't have the energy to think about.
Inspiration can come in many forms or sometimes not at all. Takeaway is a lifesaver but it's not always the answer: look to your cupboard or freezer.
In the depths of lockdown, I was doing grocery shopping once a week. I buy what's in season, what looks good, always organic chicken, mince and eggs but I also focus on pantry staples like salt, olive oil, anchovies, olives, nuts, grains, beans, vinegar and dried pasta.
I keep a well-stocked spice cabinet and all the important Asian condiments – soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sambal oelek, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil.
I put meat straight into the freezer unless I know I'm cooking it that day or the next.
When it is time to think about dinner, I look at my vegetable drawer first. This will usually inform what comes next. I look to my vegies first because I like to use them while they are still fresh, and certain ingredients will decide what flavours I am going to cook.
Broccoli could make its way into a pasta with anchovies or could be roasted and served with a poached egg, parmesan and chilli. Any chopped vegetables with ginger, spring onion, a stir-fried egg, rice and some condiments adds up to delicious fried rice.
Starchy vegetables like pumpkin or beans plus a few onions and herbs can be made into soups within minutes.
I also look to my ultimate pantry pasta of spaghetti with dried chilli, tinned tomato, anchovies, capers and olives.
To make this, I fry diced onion and garlic in an abundant amount of olive oil until soft then melt in some anchovy fillets and add a tin of whole, crushed tinned tomatoes. I let that bubble for 5-7 minutes.
Capers and chopped black olives go in at the end. I fold through some cooked rigatoni or spaghetti and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and toasted breadcrumbs instead of parmesan.
Moral of the story is: do a good "shop" and even when you feel uninspired, you will still know you can make something.
You don't need to pre-soak beans
Tinned beans are a lifesaver in a pinch so I always keep them handy. They are nutritious and one of the few items where organic is widely available and virtually the same price as conventional.
But, if you happen to have a pantry stocked with dried beans and now have no idea what to do with them, here's a tip: put them in a pot, cover them with water, bring to a boil, turn the heat off, put a lid on and leave to sit for 30 minutes and voila! Quick soaked beans.
From there, add chopped vegetables, some seasoning and olive oil and proceed to cook as normal until they are tender.
Oh and let them cool in their liquid. You never want to drain cooked beans until they are cooled or they will explode.
Cabbage makes an excellent salad
I love to have a salad at every dinner but I get frustrated with salad greens at the shops. All those plastic bags and greens that usually halfway to wilted by the time I get them home.
So, what else is there? Cabbage. Sliced thinly and tossed with an Italian salad dressing and shaved parmesan is heaven, likewise, sliced thinly and tossed with yuzu-infused vinegar and sesame seeds is so simple and delicious you won't believe it.
A mandolin helps make this quick work but a sharp knife also does the trick. The key thing here is that cabbage keeps in the fridge 10 times as long as lettuce.
Yoghurt flatbreads are simple to make. Photo: William Meppem
Milk goes off, yoghurt lasts a while
Unless you use milk in your daily coffee or cereal, chances are you might buy milk for a specific recipe and then be left with half a bottle in the fridge.
You can easily turn that remaining milk into yoghurt (I have a recipe in my book) to give it more longevity.
Yoghurt is better to have in the fridge than milk. It lasts longer and can be used to marinate poultry and meat.
I will put a dollop onto cooked salmon. I make a harissa oil flavoured with crushed toasted coriander and cumin seeds and chilli flakes and I love to serve salmon with a spoonful of this and a dollop of yoghurt to tame the heat.
I have also used it so much over the past few months to replace milk in baked recipes and they were perfect.
Another fabulous use for yoghurt? Yoghurt flatbreads, one of my most popular lockdown recipes. Made by mixing flour with yoghurt, salt and baking powder, they are unbelievably good for being only four ingredients and taking 30 minutes from mixing to cooking (try Adam Liaw's recipe (pictured) or go to @daniellemariealvarez on Instagram to see her flatbread story).
Organise those spice pouches
A good spice cabinet is a game changer but dozens of little spice bags will drive you crazy.
Invest in some good-looking little glass spice jars, a few labels and one of those spice caddies and you'll thank yourself later.
Being able to see what you have and get to it easier makes cooking more fun.
Cake makes people happy
I, like everyone else on the planet, turned to baking in the past few months. Maybe it's the fact that it is formulaic and requires little to no thinking as long as you can follow a recipe (and are following a good trusted recipe!). It's therapy.
Once I realised that eating cake every day was probably not doing me any favours, I kept baking but I started giving it away. Leaving slabs in neighbours' mailboxes and dropping off whole cakes for friends and colleagues nearby was a sure-fire was to lift spirits – not just for them but for me also. It's amazing how simple it is to show someone you are thinking of them.
Good salt, olive oil and vinegar are worth the money
Not all ingredients require shelling out top dollar but these are my big three. You won't realise what a difference they make until you start using them. Good doesn't always mean most expensive either, by the way; probably just not the cheapest.
I love Alto olive oil (robust) and Forum white or red wine vinegar. For salt I use Olsson's or Murray River Salt. There is no need to cook with expensive olive oil: use it for finishing dishes and in salad dressings. I do use nice salt for everything (except for salting blanching or pasta water) because I think it makes a difference.
Alvarez's Lemony chicken and orzo stew. Photo: William Meppem
Lemons make everything brighter
Yes, my cookbook is called Always Add Lemon so I can't neglect putting this as one of my top tips. Citrus or even vinegar work brilliantly to brighten up almost anything.
When you've already added enough salt and something still tastes flat, a few drops of lemon juice will make it pop.
Leftovers can make an entirely new meal
I hate to throw food away so I take it as a personal challenge to not let anything go to waste.
One of my favourite moves is a bit of reheated dinner with an egg on top, which obviously makes it breakfast but also a good lunch.
You would be surprised how this works with virtually anything! Lentils or beans, pasta bolognese, vegetable soup, rice, fried or otherwise (plus a little spicy sriracha or sambal), check, check and check.
Beyond that, turning yesterday's soft polenta into today's fried polenta or leftover stir-fry into lettuce cups are also expert moves. I will often over-cater just to be able to repurpose the leftovers.
Once you figure this out, you will never be unhappy with leftovers again.
Condiments make it interesting
I've always been obsessed with condiments. A good sharp mustard, a punchy chilli oil, Kewpie mayonnaise, pickles, salsas: you name it and chances are I've got a jar of it somewhere in my fridge or cupboard.
Here are a few of my favourite concoctions over the past few months:
- My favourite chilli oil is fried garlic and shallot mixed with dried, crushed chillies, sesame seeds and star anise all warmed together in a neutral oil and finally seasoned with soy sauce and a little sugar (star anise removed). It is good on virtually everything.
- Any sad looking herbs can be blended with olive oil and mustard to form a delicious marinade, salad dressing or salsa verde for fish or meat.
- Kewpie mayonnaise blended with tinned chipotle chillies makes an excellent topping for fish tacos.
- I make a killer curry mayonnaise by mixing Keen's curry powder with Kewpie mayonnaise, a scraping of microplaned garlic, a spoonful of Dijon mustard and lemon juice. This is so good with grilled chicken and rice or in a salad sandwich. (This one-pan chicken and rice, pictured, uses Keen's curry powder, too.)
Click here for an extract from Always Add Lemon by Danielle Alvarez published by Hardie Grant Books $50.