#KitchenistaDiaries - Meal Prep for Tacos

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


Despite the ongoing pandemic lockdown, my part-time private chef work is thankfully still intact. I am not taking on any parties or events for obvious reasons, but I still cook for my client three times a week. Prior to quarantine, he was already comfortable with me cooking from home so I didn't have to make many adjustments to my workflow. The biggest change is that I used to do my own grocery shopping, but now he shops for the main ingredients himself, and I supplement from my pantry as needed. As long as I'm specific on quantities, it's not really an issue that I can't grocery shop myself, but I do miss my morning trips to the store. We keep things flexible for meal planning - sometimes he has specific requests and other days I'll suggest ideas. We use my porch for no-contact dropoffs and pickups. I haven't shared about a lot of my day to day work that happens outside of content for this blog, so I thought it would be fun to share what a typical workday is like. Even if you aren't a private chef, I believe there's plenty to takeaway here to help you with ideas for your own meal prep at home!


Monday 5/11/20

9:30 am
These days, I generally wake up around 9ish. When we first went into quarantine my sleep cycle was completely thrown off, but now I'm back to more of a consistent schedule. I definitely enjoy not having to wake up at the crack of dawn to get the kids to school. Raven sleeps in like a teenager, so I usually have an hour to myself in the mornings. It's just enough time for coffee, a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, and Pinterest. I've been excited to plan some reorganization projects in the kitchen and dining room. 
 
10:30 am
My little hurricane is awake. She's moody in the morning, like her mama, so I let her be until she's ready to socialize. Raven is very much in "I can do it myself" mode these days, so she's happy fixing a bowl of cereal. I haven't heard from my client yet, so I spend some time checking email and following up on outstanding invoices in between watching the news. A notification on my phone pops up to remind me to place my weekly order for a CSA box at the farmer's market, so I take a few minutes to secure grocery pickups for the weekend.

11:30 am
Raven wants to play a game of Go Fish, so we do that, and then she's off to get dressed for the day. Distance learning was a massive headache and I couldn't justify the cost of tuition, so I withdrew her from school a few weeks ago. For now, we're supplementing with flashcards, kindergarten workbooks, math lessons I can work into household activities, and random science experiments she likes to try from YouTube. On days that I need to work a full schedule, she has been pretty good about staying busy with crafts, puzzles, or playing in the backyard, where I can keep an eye on her from the window. It's not ideal, but as a single parent, there weren't many options.

12:00 noon 
I get a text from my client - tacos are on the menu! Ron asks for stuff to make chicken and fish tacos that he can eat for a few days, so I reply with a quick shopping list and head to the kitchen to prep my space. I've got about an hour until he'll drop off groceries. I empty the dishwasher, sanitize my counters and jot down a loose plan for his menu to keep myself organized. I always need music on when I work, so I use a Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen. I'm in the mood for neo-soul and 90's hip hop today, still swooning from Erykah Badu and Jill Scott's live show over the weekend.

I know that I'll be using a Mexican flavor profile, so the one thing I can do ahead of getting ingredients is to mix my spices. I don't measure - a lot of smoked paprika, a lot of Guajillo and New Mexican chile powder, a lot of cumin. Healthy amounts of coriander, onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, and a little bit of cayenne for heat. It's similar to the Mexican Chile Rub in my last ebook.



1:30 pm
When the food gets here, my work "officially" begins. I double-check that I've got all the groceries requested, making a couple adjustments to my notes based on what he picked up. The menu will be grilled chicken, grilled snapper, cilantro-lime slaw, corn salsa, guacamole, and black beans. I'll add some rice from the pantry too. He picked up tortillas, but I don't need to do anything with them. I decide that my grill pan will cover most everything and pull out a small pot for the rice and beans. I try to plan meal prep around as few pieces of cookware as possible because there's only so much room in my kitchen to do a lot of things at once. 



1:45 pm
The first thing I get out of the way is brining, which will help both the lean chicken and the fish retain moisture when cooked. A brine also seasons the flesh all the way through versus just hitting the surface. A simple saltwater solution is all you need - by default, I dissolve a tablespoon of Kosher salt for every cup of water. I make it more or less salty depending on how long of a brine I plan to do. Fish is quick, just 15 minutes, but I let the chicken breasts brine for a total of 30 minutes. I always set a timer, because it's easy to lose track of time when I'm multi-tasking. Meanwhile, I start getting the other ingredients washed and prepped.


2:30 pm
Mise en place is key - everything in its place. I've got a gigantic onion, plenty to cover all of the recipes for today. Thin onion slices for the slaw, diced onion for corn salsa, and more diced onion for the beans. The red bell pepper is diced, half for the beans and half for the corn. Cilantro, chopped. (I was expecting a whole bunch of cilantro so I make a mental note to use it sparingly.) Garlic peeled to grate later. I use prep bowls to divvy up ingredients that will be used for each dish. 



After the chicken and fish brined, I drain the saltwater and pat dry with paper towels. I season both with the chile rub, toss with oil and add just a pinch of salt since the meat was already brined. I'm using canola oil because I'll be working with high heat on the grill so I need an oil that won't burn. I keep it in a squeeze bottle for quick access - easy to use for oiling the grill grates too. Tongs are my second set of hands. 


3:15 pm
Raven's hungry, so I take a minute to heat up some leftovers. She's a grazer. Lots of small snacks throughout the day. She's in and out of the kitchen asking for things while I work, so I keep fruit chopped up in the fridge that she can grab when my hands are tied. I don't like to stop and eat until I'm done working, but I drink coconut water to stay hydrated. 

Once my grill pan is hot, I start with the corn. I could have just shaved raw corn for the salsa, but grilling it for a few minutes adds much more flavor. I'm using my Lodge grill pan. It's big enough to cover both burners, so I use it for meal prep because I can cook much more at once than my smaller square grill pan. The other side is a flat griddle, which is also convenient. I char the huge jalapenos right on my gas burner. Two will be for guacamole, one for the corn salsa, and the other for beans.
 


3:30 pm
Because it's a cast iron grill pan, it gets crazy hot and retains heat for a while. Great for the food, but this means it's not practical to scrub in between each food. So I always work in order - veggies, then chicken, then fish. Fish last because I wouldn't want everything else to taste like fish. I use a damp towel in between batches to keep excess burnt bits from building up. Unfortunately, it still smokes up my kitchen and entire first floor, so I run to get every window opened!

Chicken breasts are fairly easy on the grill. They weren't huge, so I didn't need to pound them out first. A couple minutes on each side to get grill marks, then flipped back and forth until done. Same for the snapper, except I only flip once. I cook it mostly on the skin side since that protects the fish better. I rely on an instant-read thermometer to monitor progress and to be sure that things are safely cooked. As things are done, I move them to small sheet pans. Quarter sheet pans are the perfect size for most of the prep I do and don't take up a ton of counter space. Once the chicken and fish cool, I will slide the pans into the fridge.

4:00 pm
Things are running smoothly until I open up the pack of beans. They are quick-cook black beans, which means they've been par-cooked. You can sometimes find beans like this in the refrigerated produce section of your store. It's a smart shortcut because they make a better broth than you'd get from canned beans but only take 20 minutes or so to cook, much less than dry beans. I'd planned to cook them off towards the end of my day for this reason. But the beans were rancid! Yikes. I text my client to let him know and see if he's okay with the type of dried beans I had on hand to swap.

This hiccup was definitely about to add more time to my day, but my Instant Pot can help salvage things. I have a bag of dried Peruvian beans - also known as canary or Mayocoba beans. I'd never cooked them before so I do my googles to get a feel for how much time they might take to cook. A post at Thai Caliente seemed legit, so I settled on 30 minutes, high pressure. Since I already have my garlic, onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno prepped for beans, I sauté the veggies in the Instant Pot first before adding some of the chile rub, the dried beans, and then chicken stock and water to cover. I say a prayer, close the Instant Pot, and hope for the best.


4:30 pm
While the beans cook, I get the rice going. One cup of washed Jasmine rice, a pinch of salt, 1.5 cups of water. I let it cook uncovered until most of the water is absorbed, then turn off the heat and cover the pot to finish steaming. It comes out perfect every time.

The slaw is very simple. I squirt a bit of canola oil into my mixing bowl and whisk with the zest and juice of a lime, a spoonful of honey, and a splash of seasoned rice vinegar. Then I throw in the shredded cabbage, sliced onions, and about half the chopped cilantro. I give that a good toss and season to taste with salt and pepper. The key is not to overdress it. Since the slaw might sit in Ron's fridge for a couple days, it keeps better if it's not too soggy from the beginning.

For the salsa, I shave the corn kernels and combine with the diced onion, diced red pepper, some of the charred jalapeno, a squeeze of lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste. I use up the rest of the cilantro here too, which I felt needed it more than the guac. I usually do pico de gallo for Ron's taco nights, but the corn and bell pepper will hold up better in the fridge. After a drizzle of olive oil, the corn salsa is ready to be packed up.

I use the same mixing bowl for all of the veggie sides, just washing in between. I hate piling up a ton of extra bowls unnecessarily which would be more to clean later. When I started working in other people's homes, I got a lot better about cleaning up as I cook.




5:00 pm
The moment of truth...will the beans work out? I am afraid to let them continue cooking past the thirty minutes, so I do a manual steam release. I breathe a sigh of relief as I open the Instant Pot to find that the beans are okay! They're a bit al dente, so I let them continue simmering, but all they needed was salt and some vinegar to finish. I always add a splash of vinegar at the end of cooking dried beans, it just wakes up all the flavors. The Peruvian beans had a nice smooth, creamy texture that was really appealing. Since I cooked the whole bag, I have enough to save myself some for the fridge too.


5:30 pm
I'm running a bit behind at this point, but I calmly work on the guacamole. The avocados Ron found are a little too firm so I swap two of them out for my own, which had already been ripening for a few days. I'm adapting the guacamole recipe from my ebook, which is my fave. I use my mortar and pestle to crush coriander seeds, garlic, lime zest, olive oil, and mint leaves into a paste. Mint works really well in a lot of cases as an alternative to cilantro. 



Some of the avocado was still a little too firm to mash easily. At this moment, I remember that I was supposed to buy a potato masher weeks ago. Oops. I grab a wire whisk instead, which worked surprisingly well. The texture ends up being a perfect hybrid of smooth and chunky, so this will be a tool that I might go ahead and use from now on. (I googled this later, only to find that I'm just super late in learning this trick!)

I fold the charred jalapenos into the mashed avocado, along with the garlicky paste and a squeeze of lime. It doesn't need anything more than a little salt to finish.


6:00 pm
At the finish line! The chicken gets chopped up, then I break up the snapper into large flakes and discard the skin. Both the chicken and fish get a squeeze of lime before packing into containers. I pour off all the juices from the chicken pan into the container too.


6:15 pm
Last thing to do is hook up the sour cream. A little bit of lime, a teaspoon of the chile rub, pinch of salt. I mix it all up in the original container and then transfer to a clean one. I also slice the rest of the limes up. I did a good job on guesstimating my spice blend - only a couple teaspoons left, which I will use for something tomorrow. I also have several ears of corn left so I mentally brainstorm what might work for Ron's menu later this week.


I text Ron to let him know that the food's ready, and work quickly to pack things up for the porch. I label and date all the containers to help him keep track of what's in his fridge. I usually use freezer tape for labels, but surprise - Raven used it up for crafts. So I just use my sharpie to write on the lids, no big deal. Deli containers make my life easier. I use them for everything - work, leftovers, storage elsewhere in the house. 


6:30 pm
My day in the kitchen still isn't over. Thankfully there's not a huge mess to clean, and most of what I used can go in the dishwasher. Sweep, sanitize, take out the trash, mop. Now I'm done. I hate cleaning, but I love waking up to a clean kitchen.


7:15 pm
Raven's not ready to eat yet, but I'm starving. I heat up some leftover rice, those Peruvian beans, and top it off with pickled onions. I'll make a salad for myself later when Raven's ready for dinner. While I eat, I check emails and start working on editing photos. Some days I'll do full photoshoots thinking everything looks great, but when I get to my computer I'm not happy with the pictures. I knew my light wasn't the best today so I expected these to come out a little grainy. Not a huge deal for this kind of blog post, but I would have needed to redo them if this was for ebook content.



8:00 pm
Raven insists on cereal again for dinner. I'm not fighting her, so the kitchen's closed for the night. After bath time, she cuddles up next to me on the couch to watch Nailed It, her favorite show as of late. I take advantage of a calm evening and start writing my blog post. I won't get to finish it until after she's in bed, but I get a good head start. Today felt productive. Tomorrow I'm on my own time, so there will be less structure to the day - I like that balance. Remembering that I promised Raven we'd bake cookies this week, I take a couple sticks of butter out of the freezer and set them on the counter before heading to bed around midnight.


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