(What) to HACSI or (What) not to HACSI?

I will admit right off the bat that I have an ambivalent relationship to HACSI.  I don’t actually self-identify as ‘half-assed’ most of the time.  I like doing things thoughtfully, if not always slowly.  I’m more likely to find small repetitive tasks soothing than boring.  I’m pretty fond of measuring in the kitchen – especially with baking – and was thrilled to have received a kitchen scale as a recent holiday gift.  All in all, I’m a journey rather than destination sort of guy.  I’ll also note, for full accountability, that in the years I’ve been co-oping, with the exception of a four month span last spring, I’ve worked from home at least 2 days a week, and this affords me more flexibility than most people to prep ahead and space things out and squeeze cooking time into the nooks and crannies of my schedule, even when I don’t have lots of spare time overall.

On the one hand, it’s really true that lots of types of cooking just don’t always work well with the economy of scale that we go for here.  And it’s also  true that some weeks are busier than others and so you need some easy, go-to sorts of meals to fall back on for when the regular four hour cooking shift needs to squeeze into two and a half hours, or you’re getting home late and so need to prep all your vegetables the night before, or you have plans that evening and need to make a meal ahead of time in the crock pot that can keep well for several hours, or the only produce left in the house is a bunch of radishes and turnips that you have to cook, even though it’s already April and that’s depressing.  So, HACSI.

But, on the other hand, the huge advantage to food cooping is that you only have to cook once a week, so you might as well go all out about it.  And if we each cook things we ourselves are really excited to eat and enthusiastic about having in our food repertoire, there’s a good chance that most of the other coop members will be happy with most of our meals most of the time.   Even cooking the most half-assed meals for myself when I was not living in a co-op, and even when I ate the same meal as leftovers for several days in a row, I surely spent way more than four hours a week preparing my lunches and dinners, so one afternoon and evening of cooking and cleaning a week is a serious time-and-money bargain to get four other nights when someone else makes dinner for me with leftovers I can use the next day(s).  So, even if the four hours turns into four and a half or five every now and again, I’m still winning out.   Beyond that, cooking is a way – sometimes the primary way – that I show people I care about them.  So, there are lots of little things that I want to do that don’t take too much extra effort but go a little out of the way to show love and respect for the people that eat the meals I prepare. Not so HACSI.

So to that end, ‘to HACSI or not to HACSI?’: Shayn’s personal list.  The obvious disclaimer being that this heavily reflects both my food preferences – especially preferences for strong textural variety  – and what kinds of work in the kitchen I do and don’t tend to find tedious.  Any of these could be their own posts, and might well be in the future.

To HACSI:

  • greens for salads – if i’m cooking for the house or any larger scale situation, greens that can be served raw like spinach and kale are done up as salads; otherwise they cook down too much and you have to prep so so so many of them.  Last month I tried to make enough braised collards to feed the house with ample for leftovers, and though I spent most of my cooking shift time (upwards of two hours) de-stemming, washing, parboiling, and then braising six huge bunches of collards, they still weren’t enough to make leftovers for all, even bulked up with some onions and golden raisins in the mix. So, I’ve officially given up on cooked greens as anything other than a condiment or as one element in a big mix.

The 'took-way-too-long and still didn't turn out hugely abundant' collard greens. They were tasty, though.

  • anything that’s supposed to be wet and squishy already – soups, rice and beans, stir frys, grains and/or vegetables that will get mixed with other things – just throw it all in the crock pot or pressure cooker, no need to fret over proportions too much or measure too exactly
  • peeling – don’t peel vegetables that you could just get away with scrubbing vigorously
  • veggie burgers, etc. – this is one of my go-to ways to salvage misc leftovers – toss whatever beans and veggies into the food processor with some eggs and a little flour or grated cheese and season in some way complimentary to whatever the pre-existing flavors are, and you’ve got veggie burgers or veggie ‘meatballs’ or veggie ‘patties’ – i suppose you could make a loaf out of it too.  these are, admittedly, often not as good as veggie or bean burgers that are made from new fresh, carefully chosen things, but, to me, it’s better than letting food go to waste, and I try to make up for it with interesting side dishes and homemade accoutrements like fresh buns or aioli and pickled red onions
  • make more for later – if it scales up well and stores well, make some extra for another week.  We do this a lot for things like beans in the pressure cooker; soups and freezable sauces; and unadorned grains.
  • don’t DIY things that aren’t appreciably better for your having made them at home. (for me this means things like butter, cheese,  phylo dough, puff pastry, and dumpling wrappers)
  • bake rather than fry anything you can get away with (veggie burgers, tofu, tough veggies that need breaking down, even stuff that is breaded or lightly battered will do okay) – it means way less standing at the stove and more ability to multitask.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some fried foods, and this is not some ‘for your health’ food policing measure,  but I save my home-frying impulses for smaller-scale operations than house dinner.
  • think ahead to cleanup time – bake things that might be sticky in well-seasoned cast iron or on parchment paper.  I also do a lot of planning around how to create the least dishes to have to wash later. (sometimes to my own detriment…like when I insist on using a box grater because washing the food processor involves at least three additional pieces).
  • pay attention to seasoning – taste for acid, salt, and sweetness – and don’t be stingy with the fat.  seasoning something thoughtfully and throwing on slightly more butter than you think is a good idea at the end make up for many shortcomings.
  • cook to the lowest common denominator – if you’ve got food restrictions and allergies, don’t make a million separate things for each person’s needs, but use condiments and last-minute add-ins to compensate. for instance, we have a coop member who is allergic to peppers, another one with that genetic aversion to cilantro, and a third who is sensative to coconuts.  Hence, our fridge is stocked with many kinds of hot sauces; when we have cilantro it’s chopped in a bowl on the side; and coconut milk gets added to curries at the very end, after a coconut-free portion is set aside.
  • don’t forget dessert – we’re not talking fussy layer cakes here, but simple baked goods, crumbles or cobblers, pudding or custards, the ubiquitous vegan “cowboy cake”, the effort to gratification ratio is seriously in your favor.  what can I say?  people really, really like treats.

chocolate truffles for dessert - created around ganache that was made to use up the last of our holiday season chocolat

  • make good use of tools – the aforementioned pressure cooker and crock pot, but also an immersion blender, food processesor, and standing mixer really can be time-saving devices if you use them wisely.  We’ll have more to say about this in upcoming posts.

Not to HACSI:

  • greens for cooking – take the stems out of cooking greens.  there is some disagreement on the part of the coop members on this one, but my strong preference is to have no stems in my cooked greens, or if there must be stems, to have them cooked first until they’re relatively soft, and then add the leafy parts at the very end.  I freely admit that it is way more annoying and time-consuming to cut or tear the stems out of your kale, chard, or collards, rather than just chop straight through the whole thing, but if I’m running short on time I’d personally rather just not cook greens than serve people overcooked leaves and undercooked stems.
  • DIY what you can, while you can, when it’s appreciably cheaper and/or better than the store bought version (for me this means things like kraut/pickles, bread and pizza dough, yogurt, stock, jam, citrus curds, croutons, and pie crust)

DIY burger buns - it took a few trials to get them suitably fluffy.

  • knife skills – do your best to chop things into relatively even sized pieces;  keep the texture variety up by not always slicing round veggies like carrots, cucumbers, zucchinis, parsnips, etc. into round coin shapes, just because that’s the easiest thing to do – try a julienne or some small cubes or mandolining thin strips or grinding it in the food processer to make a puree, etc. etc.  it’s not all that much harder but is way less boring and shows that you put a nice bit of thought into things.
  • caramelization – if it benefits from being golden brown and delicious, do whatever is in your power to make that happen – even if it means having to parboil first and then roast or saute or having to carefully manage the heat and time in the oven – this is especially true for root vegetables and the whole cruciferous family.  my motto for vegetables is: if it’s not going to get caramelized, I might as well have just boiled or steamed it.
  • moisture content – I think that soggy things suck, so I  take pains to get wet things less wet, unless they’re truly supposed to be moist.  this means such things as: squeezing the moisture out of grated potatoes before frying into hashbrowns or latkes; slowly cooking down summer squash and zucchini into a paste; adding ample cheese into veggie quiches or frittatas to balance out the moisture in the vegetables that can make the eggs sort of ‘weepy’ especially when they’re reheated the next day; scooping the seeds out of cucumbers before tossing them into a salad; refering to some kind of ratios chart for cooking grains.
  • surface-to-volume ratio– yeah, it’s way easier to make two or three giant omellets or calzones or pies than twelve small ones, but it really throws off the proportions of their insides to their outsides in ways that, at the very least, i feel should be intentional.  sometimes I will HACSI in this manner if I really don’t have time/energy for smaller things in greater quantity and i can’t think of anything else to make instead, but I do try not to.  it’s easy for scaled-up co-op cooking in general to lean heavily on the side of big ‘family-style’ dishes like casseroles, soups, stews, braises, etc.,  so I find it to be an extra nice treat, when I can swing the added time and effort,  to have some smaller, individually sized items now and again.

    grilled eggplant, radish, cream cheese, scallion canapes - from when a bunch of fiddly rolling of things felt worth it

  • miscellaneous not-so-hard stuff that has a good tastiness pay off for relatively little effort: rinsing or toasting quinoa to get that weird metalic taste out of it, instead of just boiling it straight away; salting eggplant overnight to get out some of the bitterness; straining some of our homemade yogurt so it gets thicker and creamier; pressing tofu and/or marinating it ahead of time, etc., etc.

I’m sure everyone has their own personal list of what to HACSI and what not to, that varies by their own tastes and work preferences.  There are things that I almost never do that I know some of my co-op-mates are more fastidious and enthused about – making salad dressings, for instance – but, no matter where the HACSI/no HACSI line is drawn for any given person, if they make things they’re excited about with some forethought and care (for the food and the people who will be eating it), it’ll probably work out pretty great more often than not.

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