'Make it taste good': Vivian Howard has prep tips for people utterly sick of the kitchen

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Lingering in the kitchen seems so 2020.

With kids back in school and some offices slowly reopening, many have found their energy for cooking waning, if not utterly extinguished.

That's where Vivian Howard's new book, This Will Make It Taste Good: A New Path to Simple Cooking, comes in.

The chef/owner of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, is also the star of the PBS shows A Chef's Life and Somewhere South. This is her second cookbook after Deep Run Roots.

Here, Howard invites you to open her pantry and see how a chef with two kids and a busy schedule makes family cooking work. 

Chef Vivian Howard recommends creating flavorful meal building blocks, which she calls flavor heroes, to make cooking weekday meals easier.

Howard offers 10 recipes for "flavor heroes," or building blocks to help make easy meals taste better. There's the Little Green Dress, for example, an herbaceous sauce for splashing on grilled meat or to use as the base of vinaigrette.

Howard's arsenal of condiments and components, which she categorizes as a "pep talk" can lift any basic dish to delectable complexity. 

This is “next-level meal prep,” Howard writes.

"When I think of 'meal prep,' I think of someone on keto roasting a bunch of Brussels sprouts and boiling asparagus and grilling boneless chicken breast to put together in some way over the week," she said. 

This is not spending your precious Sundays roasting vegetables that will only taste like sadness during the workweek.

Stop doing that, Howard suggests.

Instead, spend a day preserving lemons, which is easier than you think. It just takes salt, citrus and patience. 

"I think that we use these words that make things sound complicated, but they're just lemons salted and cured for a particular amount of time," Howard said. 

Preservation renders citrus peels velvety smooth while somehow punching up the flavor. 

"It's very flavor-forward, and you can add it to anything you'd normally add lemon to," she said. "It's something I always have in my kitchen because they literally keep forever."

You can see Howard's method for making "Citrus Shrine" here. Be forewarned: the curing process takes four weeks, but only a sliver of that is active time. 

Preserved citrus makes a lively addition to Howard's one-dish pilaf and a punched-up collard curry. You can find the recipes here and here.

Should you find all that overwhelming, don't fret. Here are more tips to help cooking feel less like a chore — even though it is.

Vivian Howard's tips for meal prep

Buy grocery store condiments: Some chefs will tell you to make your own everything, but Howard is not most chefs. She's busy and has twins. So just buy the jarred tapenade if you want, OK?

"Think about condiments in the grocery store as a quick way to build flavor," she said. Chili crisp, olive tapenade or store-bought pesto can transform leftovers into something more enjoyable. 

Plan ahead, but don't shoot for the stars: "Have a basic repertoire you live within and do something exciting and different maybe once a week," Howard advised. "Being comfortable in what you know and building on that, and working the same ingredient over and over, prevents us from wasting food and wasting time."

Shop for what you know, too: "Most people operate in a way that they have to have a recipe to go to the grocery store," Howard said. Instead, buy what you know your family loves, then learn how to make better dishes with that. You'll save money and waste less.

Howard's go-tos include whole chickens, ground turkey, bagged salad greens and long-lasting produce like cabbages. 

Think about the whole family when planning meal components: Now that Howard's twins are tweens, parenting them is easier, she said. Feeding them is not. 

To make everyone happy, Howard boils a whole chicken and uses part of it to make chicken and rice. "For the adults, I'll throw flavor heroes in there, which makes it more grown-up, more exciting and allows us to all eat the same thing but still speak to our specific tastes," she said. Leftover chicken also makes great tacos, chicken salad and pasta. 

Stock your pantry, but keep it simple: Howard likes rice wine vinegar for its unobtrusive flavor. White wine vinegar can work in nearly any recipe that calls for a type of vinegar you don't have. Red wine vinegar is another essential. "And those are the only ones I really ever mess with," she said.

  • OIL : Choose a neutral olive one for cooking and a more floral olive oil for salad dressings and call it good. 
  • SALT : Kosher salt works well for general purposes and that fancy flaky Maldon is perfect for sprinkling on finished food. 
  • SPICE : Howard has a few favorites, particularly cumin and coriander seed, which pair well together. Whole spices have a longer shelf life. Toast them to bring out the flavor and then grind.
  • HEAT : Having something on hand for heat is key. "I always have red chili flakes and black peppercorns," Howard said. "It's also important to have a hot sauce you love."

Grow your own: Howard claims she doesn't have a green thumb, but she loves growing herbs like mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano, which are hardy and more like taking care of shrubs than growing produce.

It's a great addition to the flavor pantry, she said. "They're so expensive in the grocery stores and often low-quality," she said. "Planting perennial herbs, in particular, is one of the best things you can do to meal prep year-round." 

Relax! "We all know way more than we think we do, and if we make something and it's not so great, then we learn something from that and apply it to our cooking the next time," Howard said. "Cooking without recipes, cooking to taste and not beating ourselves up over our knife work is really the point of what cooking is — it should better feed us and our souls."

Cook the book

Coconut Green Curry Collards

'New Leaf' Pilaf

Citrus Shrine

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com