(With apologies to Peg Bracken.)
I'll say it now, in public, I hate to cook.
Every night when I stare at that empty stove, despair settles in my growling stomach and I decide I'm not really hungry. What can I cook that we didn't already eat this week? Is anything identifiable in the freezer? Anything in the fridge that isn't fuzzy? The cabinet holds so many Asian sauces, pastes, and noodles that something should just spring forth nearly complete therefrom, and yet this miracle does not happen.
I'll read a recipe that sounds delicious, and will get all fired up to make it. I have cookbooks and magazines full of delicious recipes, so many it's easier to measure them in linear feet than count them. But when it comes time to cook, I'm tired, and facing an hour of cooking. The realization finally dawned that the recipes really make me want to eat the dish, but not cook it.
I would much rather be baking. Or eating take out.
I'm not picky. No really, I'm not picky about dinners. Cakes, cookies, breads, breakfast, brunch, dessert, kaffeklatsch — my standards are high. Lunch and dinner? I could (and do) eat the same $3 burrito two or three times a week for lunch (I'm also cheap). Other people may complain of eating Chinese food twice a week, but I figure if over a billion people can eat Chinese food all day every day, I can eat it for lunch and dinner. I'm not picky at all, especially if I'm cooking.
Part of the dread comes from our tight family schedule. As soon as I walk in the door, the clock starts counting down to "get the dinner on the table" time. With two kids asleep by 8:30 (one is four, the other is 16 and up at 4:30 for swim practice), deadline is 6:30, 7:00 if they snack on cashews.
When foodies (and foodiots, the new term for the must document everything in my mouth — ew!) sneer that anyone can whip up a nice vinaigrette, why would anyone buy dressing, it's so awful or that no-one who truly cares about food/their family would serve ... whatever, all I can think is, Get a grip. I am serving a salad, a vegetable, a major portion of which may be home grown or local or organic or at least not going to kill anyone. Some of us had to start by drowning our salads in bleu cheese dressing before we could face a bare lettuce leaf. And I will forgo the five minutes to whip up a nice vinaigrette so that I can spend the time with my kids, playing an extra hand of crazy eights, or reading one more book, or discussing Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.
One hard-learned wisdom is to cook the same ten things over and over for weeknights. (I might be up to 15 or 20 dishes now.) You'll memorize the recipes and hone the skills for that dish (like slicing or chopping); the preparation will go that much faster. You'll know what you need for those dishes, and won't forget to write one ingredient on the grocery list. Some of those ingredients might become staples, so that you can almost always make that dish. Of course, the recipes must be food you like, with luck something even the rest of the family will eat.
Most food magazines have section on quick and easy cooking. I especially like BBC Good Food, and Gourmet's section was attractive (although I never cooked from it). Good Food magazine's whole focus is quick every day cooking, and mostly delivers on this promise. The editors compiled their favorite recipes into Good Food Fast, which I turn to when I tire of those same ten or fifteen recipes. Shortcuts are taken and ethnic recipes are Americanized, but the food is tasty and the preparation times are accurate.
My own inclination is for single dishes that have both protein and vegetables (fajitas, pork with peppers, chili) and need only rice, or dishes that need only a salad (penne a la vodka, penne puttanesca, Spätzle with lentil soup).
Two of my favorite go-to recipes, both serving six people:
Everything but the garlic comes from the pantry in this recipe, and garlic lasts a long, long time. We make sure to have everything for penne puttanesca on hand, just in case. Everything is really "to taste," and this is my taste. You won't taste the anchovies, but they give the sauce some extra oomph. This freezes well, but be sure to label it, as it looks a lot like chili.
- 1 lb. penne (or as much as you will eat that night)
- 1 can crushed or chopped tomatoes
- 7 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed or chopped, divided
- 1 Tbs dried basil
- 7 anchovy filets or 1 Tbs. anchovy paste
- 1/2 Tbs hot pepper flakes
- 24 Kalamata or other brined olives, pitted if desired
- 1/4 c. capers (the small ones)
Remember to start boiling salted water for the penne.
Open the can of tomatoes and stir in 3 crushed cloves of garlic and the basil.
In a 10-inch frying pan (non-reactive, not cast iron), heat 2 to 4 Tbs olive oil over medium high heat. Add the anchovies; if whole break up with the back of a spoon or spatula. When the anchovies are heated, add the hot pepper flakes and garlic; cook until fragrant and golden. Add the olives and capers; cook until heated through. Reduce heat and carefully add tomatoes to avoid splattering. Simmer until the penne is done, at least five minutes.
Penne a la Vodka
Again, we usually have most items on hand, even the cream, which makes pretty swirls when stirred into the tomatoes. Also freezes well.
- 1 lb. penne
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 can crushed tomatoes (not chopped)
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 cup heavy cream (or light if you prefer)
- 1/3 cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes.
- 2 Tbs vodka
Remember to start boiling salted water for the penne.
In a 10-inch frying pan (non-reactive, no cast iron), heat 2 to 4 Tbs olive oil and the garlic over medium high heat until the garlic is golden. Carefully add the crushed tomatoes and basil; stir and reduce slightly. If the tomatoes are spattering, reduce the heat. Add the cream and sun-dried tomatoes; stir and reduce slightly. The sauce should be a bit thick. Stir in vodka. Serve.