You might have noticed our fantastic new columnist, Jill Marie Denton, who has been dishing out terrific advice for easier meals, faster prep and cheaper grocery runs. If you haven’t, check out her past columns here, here, and here. Now, Jill’s back answering some of the questions she gets asked most frequently as a chef. Read her tips below on cooking for a dinner party, serving sizes and more, and don’t forget to leave all the questions you’ve been saving up in the comments or on social media using #askjillmarie.
Do you have any tips on cooking for a small group–just one or two people?
So many are daunted by the idea of cooking for smaller crowds, but in truth, it’s easier to be creative this way. Never fear the result or you’ll never try the experiment. (That should be on a shirt or bumper sticker or something…) The best way to cook for two is to take a recipe for four and cut it in half. I know it seems trivial and a little over-simplified, but it works. Unfortunately for most cooks, pans and pots are designed for bigger families, so you’ll have to work with that. Because it’s just me and my “sous chef” Ed in my household, all my meals at home are for two. I’ve bought small, six-inch paella pans, Pyrex dishes and baking pans for easier portioning and prep. You can also make a full recipe and enjoy the spoils the next day. I especially recommend this for people who work opposite schedules.
Can you share some meal ideas that don’t create a ton of leftovers?
For a meal without a ton of leftovers, consider portion size. In meal planning for one-night meals, use a standard protein, veg, starch and sauce arrangement, thawing and preparing just two portions at a time.
Make sure your foods are recipe-ready, as my mise en place articles recommend. Plan to have the same starches and veggies twice in a week, and portion those items out into two separate containers, one for each night. Frozen also works, and you can use what you need without waste.
Meal ideas I resort to include stir-fries, fried rice, pasta tosses, breakfast for dinner (yes!), stuffed chops or chicken, pizzas made on twelve-inch tortillas, stromboli made with frozen dough and portioned fish from the seafood counter on a bed of fresh corn and tomato salsa.
Serving sizes–how do we know how many servings of veggies are on our plate? When they say limit something to X number of servings, is there an easy way to estimate how much that actually is?
Use your hands! A few years ago, a viral video circulated, detailing an easy way to estimate portions without carrying measuring cups around or investing in a scale. It involved using your hands to “measure,” and it works as a metric because your hand size correlates to your portion needs. Here’s the overview:
- Lean protein (fish, chicken, etc.) portion = size and width of your palm (without fingers).
- Leafy greens = 2 palms’ full, with hands together
- Cut/prepared veggies = 1 palm full, with hand cupped
- Berries/whole fruit = comfortable fit in one cupped palm
- Starch/pasta/ice cream = the size of your closed fist
- Cheese = 2 fingers’ length and width
- Nuts/seeds = 1 palm full
- Peanut Butter/nut butters = 2 thumbs’ worth
- Fat/unhealthy = 1 fingertip (from last crease to fingertip, not nail length)
- Fat/healthy = pour into cupped palm, enough to not overflow
In your mise en place article you talk about meal prepping for the week and putting all of your ingredients together. What are some sample meals that work really well being prepped ahead of time?
Most recipes, if made from scratch, must be prepared ahead at least a little, unless dinner can take a full hour to prepare. Realistically, families are short on time between arriving home and dinner service, so consider prepping most things ahead. I’ll give you MOP (method of production) below for a few I use. Sample meals that “prepare” well are slow-cooker dinners, grilling dinners, pasta nights and casseroles.
For slow-cooker meals, grab a gallon-sized resealable bag. Drop in a few golf-ball sized, uncut red potatoes, 4 cloves of garlic sliced in half, an onion peeled and cut in quarters, fresh bell peppers cut in half, stem removed and seeded, plus a few baby carrots. Add raw country-style pork ribs or stew beef cut in cubes. Dash in some dry parsley, thyme and whatever other herbs your family likes. Add a can of condensed French onion soup or golden mushroom soup, plus 1 can-full of water. Seal the bag well, label/date it and freeze until the night before you plan to use it. The night before you want it, place the bag in the fridge to thaw. Pour into a cold slow-cooker in the morning. Eight hours on low, plus a little salt and pepper when you get home, and dinner’s served.
For grilling dinners, place your portioned proteins in a resealable bag, already rubbed or with marinade poured in. Seal well, label/date and freeze until the night before you plan to use. Defrost in fridge overnight, and then grill to your liking. Remember to throw extra marinade away! I also “prep” potatoes by poking them a few times, dampening them, wrapping them in a paper towel and microwaving for a few minutes. Once they’re softened, spray them with cooking spray and salt and pepper their skins. On the top shelf of your grill, they warm perfectly.
Cooked al dente pasta freezes well, but remember to oil it lightly before placing it in the bag for freezing. Add sauce in that bag by freezing it into ice cube trays and popping them out. I “boil-in-bag” my cooked pastas, which already have sauce cubes and frozen veggies enclosed. Rice dishes do well this way, too.
Casseroles can be done ahead and frozen that way in bake-ready pans. Remember, if you’re cooking with acidic ingredients like tomato sauce or vinegary sauces, layer some plastic wrap over it before covering it with foil. Acid + aluminum = corrosion. Make sure to reheat your casseroles completely, and insert a thermometer to ensure it’s hot all the way through before serving.
What are your top go-to kitchen gadgets that make your life easier?
My education taught me that your knife is the only “necessary” tool, but I certainly do appreciate having a good-quality peeler around. Buy a nice one; they last awhile if you keep them clean and dry. Invest in a quality plastic cutting board. Wood can foster mold and bacteria, so use plastic, especially if you or household members are immune-compromised. A good silicone whisk is also essential, as is a knife sharpener and steel. The steel is the long, rounded tool; a sharpener is a stone or utensil that looks like a credit card swipe-machine. You need both, because a steel only straightens a blade. Otherwise, you’ll replace knives often. Other than that, buy a decent silicone spatula, turner and pasta fork and keep your tools in good condition.
Do you have tips for hosting a dinner party and mastering the “dinner” part? Like timing, prepping ahead, etc.?
Prepping is key, and do yourself a favor by planning with as much torturous detail as you can. If you plan to make a lot of the meal from scratch, consider prepping ahead and freezing, reheating just before guests arrive. If you plan on cooking to order when the guests arrive, you need a sidekick, someone to entertain them while you’re finishing your last-minute meals, unless you’re grilling and they can stand around and kibitz while you work. For me, I do as much as possible in the 2-3 days prior, and I use recipes that hold well, meaning they’ll reheat without much loss in quality. I start my plan 5-7 days ahead of the event, when I’m buying my supplies and planning my menu. Section out tasks so no one day is more overwhelming than the next, especially if these days are filled with work or family obligations. My desserts are either the type that guests can make themselves, or are done ahead of time. À là minute (made just before serving) meals and desserts are too stressful so work ahead. I par-cook proteins and starches and have my veggies prepped the night before. Typically my sauces are made ahead, too. I can finish everything in the oven as guests are coming in, which gives me that well-appreciated mingling time. In case the meal takes a little longer to finish, consider having appetizers on hand. And as always, if you’re not sure if something “holds” or what meals work best, please ask!
Jill Marie is a classically-trained French chef, certified by Le Cordon Bleu and possessing both a Grand Diplôme in culinary arts and Pastry Certification. She’s been cooking professionally in hotel,restaurant and catering kitchens for fifteen years, and specializes in comfortable, everyday food. She also earned a Master’s degree in Human Resources and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance. In addition to running Delivery Dinners of Delaware, she works full-time in Human Resources. Jill is also a published author of women’s fiction/romance, and her current series, Second Saga, is in print. Visit her site jillmariedenton.com for book info and writing samples.