The idea is to use your hob and oven to the max. Then cool down the dishes as quickly as possible, cover them, and put them in the fridge or freezer. Some might be one-pots, others ‘almost-ready-meals’ – just add pasta, rice, or salad leaves on the day you eat them.
The cook-once-a-week approach is energy-efficient too. When I put the oven on I try to fill it up to make the most of the heat, and I use a microwave to reheat the food. Remember timings for recipes will change a bit when you’ve loaded up the oven, as this brings down the temperature slightly and dishes take longer to cook.
Pans on the hob
On the hob, I often make a grain-based dish, such as barley cooked with stock and meat or veggie sausages. Rice dishes such as risotto or a pilau need to be refrigerated quickly after cooking, consumed within 24 hours, and, as with all these cook-ahead dishes, reheated until piping hot.
Alongside is a hearty stew – I add lentils or a can of beans to a meat stew to bulk it out, increase fibre, or I make a rich bean-based stew such as a veggie chilli, or simple lentils braised with onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. Then I steam a mixture of greens, such as leeks, cabbage, and peas – enough for up to four meals.
Start by chopping a double quantity of onions, celery, and carrots. Then divide this into two pans and continue with your recipes (many grain-based dishes can be adapted to use this base). Sometimes I do a triple quantity and use the extra to make soup. Add chopped bacon or chorizo for a stronger flavour, or vary this base according to your cuisine, for example frying onions, garlic, chilli and spices.
Load up the oven
Into the oven, I might put a root-vegetable gratin, which can be eaten as a main course one day and a side-dish another. My warming winter gratin includes slices of celeriac cooked with cream, mustard, and capers. This is a classic flexitarian dish – add ham or a tin of anchovies if you want.
Or use a traybake recipe. These are ideal for the time-pressed cook and lots of them are well suited to cooking ahead.
On the top rack of the oven, roast a tray of chopped veg, which you can eat as a side during the week. Everything you roast improves in the oven – especially vegetables because their flavors concentrate as they lose water. The trick is to chop each type of veg to the same size so they cook evenly and to give it all a good stir halfway through as veg at the edges of the tray will cook more quickly. And know your oven – some are much hotter at the front than the back. Turn the tray around halfway through and use a big spoon to move the veg on the edges into the center and those in the center to the edges.
What you roast depends on the season and what needs using up. It might be butternut squash, chopped into 3cm/1in cubes, with quartered red onions and some garlic cloves or sprigs of rosemary, or potato wedges flavored with quartered lemons and smoked paprika, or carrot wedges and fat slices of fennel. Courgettes are transformed by being into matchsticks or thin slices and roasted with lemon juice and zest until brown and tasty. In the summer, cubed aubergines, quartered tomatoes, and thin wedges of courgette make a traybake ratatouille – stir in torn basil at the end. Whatever you make, toss it with olive oil and season well before it goes in the oven.
It’s handy to cook a pud too, especially if you’re cooking at the weekend and want a Saturday or Sunday treat. A crumble can go into the oven at the same time as your veg and gratin, or afterward if space is tight.