Why You Should Strive to Be a 'Continuous Cook'

Meals should not be standalone projects, but part of a greater culinary journey.

roasted vegetables
Roasting vegetables.

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Cooking is a skill that's constantly evolving for anyone who does it on a regular basis—but I'm not talking about just learning new recipes or techniques. As you get better at cooking, there's an ease of effort that goes along with it, a fluidity of sorts that makes meal prep smoother and more streamlined.

I used to think it was all about the meal-planning and having a detailed plan laid out in advance, but now I'm realizing that ease of cooking happens when you start thinking of it as a continuous process—the "cooking continuum," if you will. Bear with me here as I explain. 

The most efficient home cooks never really stop cooking. It's not a one-and-done deal, where you start a recipe from scratch, finish it, put everything away, and then move on to something totally different the next night. The "continuous cook" is always preparing foundational ingredients that are multi-purpose, thinking ahead to the next dish that can use aspects of the previous one, and figuring out how to incorporate leftovers into new meals. The continuous cook does not think of meals as standalone projects, but rather little stops along a greater culinary journey.

Cooking in this way might sound complicated at first, but it creates a sort of flow that makes preparing meals easier than when you start from zero every single night. There's usually something partially ready to go, and you're able to build up or out from bases that you already have, which jumpstarts your cooking.

I have been doing this in practice for a long time, but I hadn't really articulated it or heard someone else describe it until I read Anne Marie Bonneau's new cookbook, "The Zero Waste Chef." In a chapter called "Cooking Like Grandma," she explained the importance of thinking ahead to the next recipe and using everything all the time. 

"It's meal-planning lite; you don't need to plan for every little morsel of food you'll eat over the next week and enter it into a complicated spreadsheet (unless you want to!). Using what you find in your pantry in step one, drawing on your repertoire of adaptable recipes in step two, and getting creative with leftover ingredients and meals in step three, you plan your next two or three meals. Like all things zero waste, a bit of planning stops waste before it happens."

Bonneau's top priority is, of course, to reduce waste, and while that matters to me, it isn't as important as efficiency in feeding my three hungry kids at the end of a full workday. Despite having different priorities, however, the same technique serves us both well. Here are some examples of this cooking continuum in action.

Last week I found a kabocha squash in the pantry that really needed to be eaten, so I threw it in the Instant Pot before taking my kids for a hike. I later served a few pieces with dinner but stashed the rest in the fridge. Two days later it was transformed into a delicious curried squash soup using a jar of vegetable stock that I'd made the previous week using vegetable scraps saved from a chickpea-veggie curry I had cooked in order to use up a bunch of wilting produce and chickpeas that were nearing end-of-life. We ate the soup with homemade pita chips that I made by broiling stale pitas brushed with olive oil and za'atar. So you can see how that soup was more than just soup: it was the culmination of several separate cooking projects.

As for the foundational recipes I mentioned earlier, these are mini-projects like pickled red onions, garlic aioli, vinaigrettes for salad, a pesto or chermoula sauce that uses leftover herb stalks or limp greens, refrigerated cooked beans or grains, roasted vegetables, caramelized nuts, toasted breadcrumbs or croutons, and other items that can be expanded into a bigger meal at short notice.

If I see sour milk or moldy yogurt in the fridge, I immediately think to make cornbread or biscuits that could accompany a bean soup. If I have multiple half-used packages of dried pasta, it's a good time to make a pan of macaroni and cheese for the kids. If there are too many bunches of wilting greens—spinach, chard, kale, and more—it's time to make a savory galette or phyllo pie. If the potatoes are starting to get soft or sprout, I plan for a Spanish tortilla that night, which makes a great breakfast the next day, or turn a lone sweet potato into hummus. If there's old rice in the fridge that won't revive with reheating, it gets fried or turned into a hearty salad with chopped vegetables, herbs, beans, and vinaigrette.

It does take time and practice to see the potential in all these different ingredients—and to keep them in mind when figuring out what to cook next—but it eventually becomes a habit. It also starts to feel like a security net, something to fall back on when you're not sure what to make or eat. 

So, perhaps, make this your new goal: Instead of planning a full week's worth of meals, look ahead just a few days. See what you can make today that will make tomorrow's dinner easier to prep, and how those leftovers could be incorporated into the following day's meal. Always be roasting, pickling, soaking, simmering, and freezing surplus ingredients because you never know when they'll come in handy.

See how it feels. You may be pleasantly surprised at the sense of convenience and capability that "continuous cooking" offers.