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Had fun watching the British version of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares last night, which is available via streaming on Netflix. The British show is unbleeped, so there is a steady stream of colorful curse words, but Ramsay seems so much gentler and muted in this original version of the show. Before the competitors got unbearably stupid and overly tattooed, I enjoyed watching Ramsay’s other vehicle, Hell’s Kitchen. For me, watching HK validated my sometime intensity in the kitchen when I am losing my grip on getting  several dishes ready to serve at once; but more importantly it reinforced the concept that cooking is what happens after you do the prep work. The losing team on the show that has to prep the whole kitchen always gripes bitterly about their lot, but to me it was somewhat revelatory about how to approach taking control of putting a meal together.

More and more during the colder months I will make a soup for dinner. The price tag for ingredients is low enough that I don’t feel bad spending four plus bucks on a fancy loaf of bread to go with it and a pot of soup usually provides me with a good lunch for the next day, or a ziplock bag of soup to freeze for lunch at a later date. Serving soup is also a healthy part of our repertoire because I can push those vegetables, skip meat for a night or give it a lower status as a garnish in the meal, and also dramatically lower the sodium content compared with a commercially prepared can of soup.

People seem to be impressed with homemade soup and I’m glad of that, but soup is the ultimate example of the ‘prep it and it shall be done’ rationale I’ve been learning. It’s really not much more difficult to make potato leek soup than it is to make mashed potatoes. You just have to account for the time needed for peeling and cooking potatoes until they’re tender before you puree them with a little milk. This works for carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, and mixed veggies with a little leftover meat and/or noodles. Butternut squash takes a while to peel and chunk, so I am less inclined to make that one, but for the most part these vegetable soups are easy and rewarding when you know how.

Everybody has different things that they choose as their “rules” of progress in improving their eating and cooking habits and as I’ve mentioned, grinding my own beef for hamburger is just something I’ve been doing for at least a year now and that I won’t turn back on. I’m contemplating getting rid of paper products in the kitchen as another thing to work on, but haven’t gotten there yet – maybe for my next New Year’s resolution. But one of my newer thresholds of ‘doing better’ that I am crossing, especially as it seems to be working, is to get my daughter away from any canned soups. On a night when I cook us grown ups a soup she won’t go near, I make her up a simple soup with fresh sliced carrots and chicken broth and pasta stars using Swanson’s low sodium broth or Kirkland’s organic stock, or from homemade stock if I have some in the freezer. How hard is that to put together? Not at all. I am happy to report that she now prefers this soup to the Campbell’s equivalent. By doing this I am giving her a soup that is about 500mg of sodium a cup instead of 960 mg. (Campbell’s is sneaky. They call a serving a half cup on the can, at 480 mg of sodium. Progresso’s soups are very high in sodium too.) And the good old-fashioned chicken noodle soup with onions, celery and carrots is a soup all three of us will eat for dinner and is a meal that she looks forward to.

So nowadays I am more mindful about figuring in prep time when I start to make dinner. If I’m doing it right, I know I’m going to have to start by cutting and chopping some veggies and it might take a good twenty minutes to do that and get my other ingredients set up properly. Otherwise I will be lost in the weeds like some of Hell’s Kitchens clueless cooks that are so easy to jeer at. The prep time can be a nice opportunity for decompressing too. I find it helps me clear my mind for planning the timing of what dishes should come out when. Also, it pays respect to the cooking process and the ingredients.

In work life, I’ve been an office administrator and worked in cutting rooms as part of a film editing crew. For either of these enterprises, you need your desk or bench to be well-equipped, ready to attack the sea of details and have handy places to hang the trims or disparate bits of paper. I refuse to fly by the seat of my pants at work, and learned that I’m much happier in the kitchen when I give it similar consideration as I do the workplace, relying on my tools and some sort of regular system of organization. Then making two soups at once doesn’t seem any harder than one and putting out fresh veggie side dishes for each dinner, be they raw or cooked, just becomes second nature.

And just having those lovely ingredients laid out and ready to go before it’s time to put things together helps me to be more ambitious in what I plan – it makes me feel more like I’m actually cooking. And I do a lot less cursing.