Help cooking meals

Bento-ing from: Manchester › New Hampshire › USA
Joined: 18 Aug 2009
User offline. Last seen 9 years 14 weeks ago.

I'm a pretty standard 30's guy who can follow a recipe. I would really like to start cooking Japanese food as well as making bento boxes. The bento box books that I've seen are look pretty complete as far as making a complete meal. It would be great if there were similar resources for making breakfast and dinner meals. I'm trying to make the distinction of cooking a dish from a recipe and putting together a meal. I can follow a recipe, but I break down when trying to combine things. So if you have any good recommendations on books or threads about putting together meals I would appreciate it.


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Bento-ing from: Dunedin › New Zealand
Joined: 12 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 5 years 37 weeks ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

Goodness. That reminds me of me 35 years ago trying to get the potatoes and the green veges and the meat to be all ready at the same time!

I think I'd start by only making one "recipe" per meal. I'm taking it that you do know what a balanced meal consists of, and you just need to work out the practicalities? Start with meals that have a salad or other raw or cold vegetable as one component. You can make that in advance and it doesn't matter when you eat it. Then perhaps as another component something that requires long cooking and little attention - rice in a rice cooker perhaps. Then you can give your entire concentration to the "recipe" part of the meal.

This applies to all types of cooking, not just Japanese. You can't just leap in and cook three or four complicated dishes at once. You need to get a bit of practice, it's a bit like driving a car, a lot of it gets to be second nature after a decent amount of practice.

A western version of this might be to put a casserole in the oven or slow cooker and forget about it while you make a fiddly vegetable dish.

If you want to know what sort of dishes to combine to make a meal, I'm afraid I can't help you - I'm very much of the "eat something with all major food groups and tastes good to you" school of meal assembler.



My blog is Food and Shoes

Bento-ing from: London › UK
Joined: 4 Mar 2009
User offline. Last seen 5 years 17 weeks ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

Hello forcefeed

In your post you mention that you want to start preparing (non-bento) Japanese meals. I presume this is for yourself.

I don't know if this will reassure you or not, but I also find this to be very hard to manage when using a 'typical' Japanese kitchen. Space can be really limited with few cooking or preparation surfaces so getting everything ready together would be a huge challenge (and not one I can easily master).

Thankfully, unlike with Western dinners, there isn't the expectation to bring food out all at the same temperature. Quite a few of the vegetable dishes are served tepid or cold. Maki describes this very well here:

As you know, rice (generally) forms the central focus of the meal. Even if you don't have a rice cooker, you can make this first and leave it for anything between 10 minutes and 30 minutes (or longer) whilst you concentrate on the rest of the meal. The great part about 'okazu' dishes is that so many of them can be prepared in advance with many of them lasting for several days in the refrigerator.
In effect, cooking a meal can be as simple as getting the rice ready and preparing one main dish from a recipe. Then you go into the fridge and pick out one or two okazu options (you can always blitz these in the microwave if you want them hot).

There's not that many books in English using 'Western-friendly' ingredients that are better than Maki's sites. Here are some example okazu dishes that should last for 2 (perhaps even 3) days in the fridge (which can be made with green beans instead)
Any salad dish would work well too, and the okazu don't have to be Japanese either. You might find that a portion of antipasto from a local deli, or a Korean side dish (eg kimchi, seasoned beansprouts, kosari fernbrake) will work just as well. Any single person in Japan may well grab a couple of prepared vegetable okazu dishes from a local deli to supplement their meals finding it just as hard to get everything prepared as you do.

And there are tsukemono which gets translated as "pickles" but are often only lightly preserved. The great thing about these is that they will last that bit longer in the refrigerator. Maki also has published a few recipes, but she also recommends this book (which I think is wonderful!)
Many of these will work as okazu dishes also.

Miso soup can be extremely easy if you're prepared to 'cheat'. There are varieties of miso that can be purchased which already incorporate the 'dashi' broth. To make a bowl of this you only need to spoon some into a bowl, pour on some hot water and stir. To this you can add a sprinkle of dried wakame and some dried tofu pieces. It's as simple as making tea. There's also 'hondashi' in powder or liquid form - this is dashi concentrate you can make for yourself separately and you just add the regular miso of your choice to this. So the soup element of a Japanese meal can be very simple to prepare.

Naturally, you could stick to dishes that incorporate all the elements of a meal. During the summer I'd recommend Hiyashi Chuka which you can load up with as much protein and salad/vegetable items as you want.
For winter, the obvious example might be nabe

And breakfast can be a miniature version of a Japanese dinner.
The classic simple and cheap breakfast would be a portion of natto (there's often a selection of condiments that are packed with it) whisked up with hot rice. But this isn't to everybody's taste.
For myself, a Japanese breakfast is more likely to consist of something like these salmon flakes
a very lightly poached egg beaten into a portion of rice and any tsukemono or vegetable okazu dish that's left over from the day before.
And miso soup.
Apart from the rice (and egg), it's more a question of assembling food together than actually cooking it. When I'm absolutely certain of an egg's freshness I don't even poach it, just whisk it in thoroughly with piping hot rice.

Bento-ing from: › USA
Joined: 12 Aug 2009
User offline. Last seen 7 years 9 weeks ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

For cooking Western-style meals, I usually divide the meal into 3 parts: protein (usually meat), starch/carbs, and vegetables. My recommendations:

1. Cook a one-pot meal with all of these ingredients. Many stews are like this. Many curries call for meat and veg cooked together with rice on the side, so that's only 2 components to plan.

2. Cook with a timer. For example, baked chicken with plain rice and steamed broccoli. Chicken breasts take about 35 minutes to bake when I make them. Set the timer when the chicken goes in the oven. Once it's in, begin on the rice. About 5 minutes before the timer is finished, steam the broccoli (I use microwave). With a rough idea how many minutes each dishtakes to cook, going from long to short assures everything is done on time. It helps to do all the chopping/peeling or measuring of spices before the timer goes on.

3. Keep a record of dishes that taste good with many main courses. For example, mashed potatoes or canned vegetables can accompany many Western foods, rice can go with many Asian foods, and steamed broccoli with salt/pepper/oil can go with just about anything. That way, all you have to plan is a main course, and you can easily pull in two "goes with anything" sides.

Many cookbooks have full, detailed recipes for main courses, vegetables, and other sides. I would not recommend planning an entire meal with these. Choose a main course with simple side dishes, then trying more complicated side dishes along with a simple main course.

I hope that I answered the question properly. I find it easiest to work with 3 meal components for everyday cooking. Practice is the best for making sure everything is done on time. Most cookbooks will also recommend side dishes for a main course. Or, for ethnic foods, the introduction may list simple sides that can go with any main course.

Bento-ing from: Manchester › New Hampshire › USA
Joined: 18 Aug 2009
User offline. Last seen 9 years 14 weeks ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

Thanks for the good ideas. I currently cook Western style with a protein, starch, and vegetable dishes. My biggest problem is coming up with variety and combinations that work well. A lot of the Japanese food that I've had a restaurants seem to be almost one dish with a few small sides. So I am looking to see which ones fit together best.

I realize this is a great site (thanks for all the links!), I just work better flipping through cookbooks and picking out recipes that appeal to me visually. Maybe I'll have to take a look at the flickr pool and pick out some things that look good.

Bento-ing from: somewhere › France
Joined: 24 Jan 2007
User offline. Last seen 3 weeks 2 days ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

That is true ForceFeed...many food blogs, mine included, don't really talk about meal combinations much. Maybe we should! As far as Japanese meals go, the format you have seen at restaurants, with one or two main dishes and little side dishes, is the way it's usually done, even at home. The general idea is to try to balance flavors and textures - so for instance if you have a meaty main dish, you might balance that with a refreshing vegetable dish, or something a bit sweet (e.g. cooked beans) and so on. And miso or clear soup is usually served at every meal. And rice too of course! I should do more suggest meal combos on Just Hungry...thanks for reminding me to do so!


The Big Onigiri.

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Bento-ing from: Manchester › New Hampshire › USA
Joined: 18 Aug 2009
User offline. Last seen 9 years 14 weeks ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

Thanks for the great site. My biggest problem with it is trying to figure out how and what to search for. I think that is why I like cookbooks so much. I don't have to know what I'm searching for in particular, I can just flip through it until something catches my eye. There is so much information here I'm a bit overwhelmed.

I don't have great taste buds and have a hard time of knowing intuitively what mixes well together. Hopefully from practice I can get better.

Bento-ing from: San Lorenzo › California › USA
Joined: 15 Jan 2009
User offline. Last seen 8 years 23 weeks ago.
Re: Help cooking meals

I think the most helpful thing for having some variety is making a batch of something new every day or two, what I make usually varies based on season.

In the warmer months I will make different salads, making a new one pretty much everyday so after a couple of days I have 2 or three salads (just replacing one with another when I finish it). I also keep fruit cut up for snack, desserts or filler for meals. In the cooler months I make a lot of soup and stew, which again I rotate. Plus I also make sure the fridge is stocked with vegetable dished that I can reheat from the fridge.

In addition to making sure I have a constant supply of easy sides, I usually make one big dish of something as a main course, usually a protein and a carb (or a combination of the two).

I found that having a few different things all ready cooked works really, then you can just pick from what you feel like and you don't get stuck eating the same one dish meal after meal. Starting from scratch for every meal, just seems like too much especially when we all have our off days when you just want to nuke something and sit down.

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