Is it possible to cook for a day and make enough meals for a month? I wasn't sure, but I was intrigued. I decided to narrow the question. For a family of four, is it possible to cook a month's worth of dinners in a day? What if it's just a month of weekdays?
Now I was hooked. But what would I cook?
Knowing that I would live with, and eat, my choices for a month, I decided to fix dishes that we normally eat. There had to be a blend of comforting, sophisticated and ethnic dishes. Dinners had to be balanced, with a mixture of meatless, chicken, pork, seafood and meat dishes.
There had to be enough variety from week to week so that dinner didn't become predictable or boring. And finally, there couldn't be too many dishes, otherwise it would be impossible to make them all in a day. I selected nine recipes for 20 dinners.
Did it work? The answer is yes. But get ready for a long day.
I started at 8:02 a.m. and finished cooking at 6:30 p.m., including two 15-minute breaks. For some people, one long day in exchange for a less hectic month may be a fair trade; it might even be a bargain.
The trip to the grocery store was a learning experience. It took me 1 1/2 hours to gather the groceries, which totaled $235.75, not including pantry items and spices. Dinner averages $11.79 per meal or $2.95 per person per meal, not including a salad or side dish.
For cost-minded cooks, there are several ways to reduce the grocery bill:
* Instead of buying two bottles of red wine (or one large) for the boeuf bourguignon recipe, which requires four cups of wine, buy just one bottle. One bottle has about 3 cups of wine in it; use water to make up the difference. That will save about $5. Do the same for the white wine and that will be about $10 in savings.
* Buy a 5-pound bone-in pork loin instead of a 4-pound boneless one for the Pork Loin With Mushroom Sauce recipe. That will save about $5.
* Omit the red currant jelly from the boeuf bourguignon recipe for a savings of about $3.50.
* Omit the tequila from the White Chili With Tequila recipe. Not having to buy two mini-bottles of tequila will save about $3.
* Substitute Swiss cheese instead of Gruyere eese for the French Onion Soup. That will save about $2.
In addition, shop for items on sale, particularly for canned diced tomatoes, broth, fresh mushrooms, chicken thighs, boneless chicken breasts, pork loin and cubed beef. With these substitutions and suggestions, getting the grocery bill down to $200, or dinner for $10 a night, is easily achievable.
With so many convenience products on the market today, there are a couple of ways to shave time in the kitchen:
* Buy 4 pounds of sliced mushrooms and 2 pounds of small, button mushrooms. Not having to slice, halve or quarter them will save about 20 minutes.
* Gain 15 minutes by buying skinless chicken thighs.
* Buy 3 pounds of cooked, boneless chicken for the Quick Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches recipe and 12 corn muffins for the White Chili With Tequila. That will save about seven minutes (while cooking chicken and baking the muffins requires about 25 minutes, most of that time is spent prepping other ingredients, so the actual time savings is less).
The biggest timesaver is also a money saver. Omit the pearl onions from the boeufbourguignon recipe. Besides costing $7.50, the onions required an hour just to be peeled. Add another sliced onion to the stew to make up for the loss in flavor.
Making 20 entrees for four people in a single day is not an easy feat. Forethought and organization are key. Here are some tips based on my day in the kitchen:
* Wear comfortable shoes.
* Work from a "to do" list. As the day progressed and my mind became fuzzy, having a list kept me focused.
* Before going grocery shopping, make space in the fridge and freezer. Six pounds of mushrooms and meat for a month will occupy some space in the refrigerator. And, once you're done cooking, you'll have more than 20 freezer bags of food to freeze.
* Sit down with the recipes and read them. The recipes typically serve 4. To cook for a month, many of these recipes have to be doubled or tripled -- the "scale factor" is listed with the recipe. So, before starting, multiply the recipe ingredient amounts by its scale factor and write down the new amounts in the margin. It'll make cooking a lot easier.
* Decide which pots, pans and baking dishes you'll use for each dish. Borrow extras if needed.
* Try to convince a friend, spouse or child to help with the dishes. Dirty dishes pile up fast; you'll have more room to work if those dishes are cleaned and put away.