“Lack of time is not the issue. It’s a question of priorities. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I worth 30 minutes? Is my family worth 30 minutes?” That’s what it takes to make a good meal.”
Joyce Goldstein, author, teacher, chef, restauranteur, and home cook
“When I was raising my kids, cooking dinner was the worst part. The question, “What’s for dinner?” still makes me shudder.”
Becky Howe, weight lifter, teacher, and personal trainer
On those occasions when she’s home alone, Joyce Goldstein not only makes herself a tasty dinner, she’s written a book about it (Solo Suppers: Simple Delicious Meals to Cook for Yourself.)
Becky Howe’s idea of a fine solo dinner is a protein bar, a banana, and a good book.
Well, friends, there’s a middle road.
Jessica Glenn, who happens to be my daughter, cooks for a growing family on a daily basis and has this to say:
“With a tight budget, cooking at home is the only choice and I’ve found it gets easier with practice. I can come up with 30 minute meals and also, 15 and 20 minute ones. Everything in my refrigerator is spoken for because I buy only what I need. I think we eat well and lots of times, I get cheers from the crowd, which feels good. But many of my friends don’t cook and for them, the whole process seems horrible.”
Cooking does get easier with practice and easier still once it becomes a routine. If you’re ready to rattle the pots and pans, summer is a great time to get started. There’s a lot less cooking and more salad making. The fruits and vegetables available now make for quick suppers without a lot of kitchen time.
When the first dog days of summer rolled around in Washington, D.C. (often in May), my sister-in-law Debbie Giese would announce, “That’s it! No more cooking for the summer.” Twenty years ago, what this meant was “I’m not going to use the oven.” Dinner still made it to the table on a nightly basis but there were salads rather than stews and we used the charcoal grill rather than the stove.
Even as recently as fifteen years ago, most people I knew made dinner every night and worked full-time. We used processed convenience foods but more often than not, they constituted a small part of the meal, such as bottled salad dressing or a can of soup. Slowly but surely, what was an insignificant part of a home-cooked meal began to take over and from there, it was a quick road to take-out or going out.
I mention all this not to wag my finger at the current state of dining culture but simply to point out that home cooking didn’t go into decline all that long ago and for thousands, it never went away at all.
In other words, the system is not broken or antiquated; it just needs a little dusting off.
So even though we all know that day’s end can be especially chaotic, let’s creep into the kitchen and cook dinner.
Consider the evening meal a set part of every day. Put another way, identify the after-work routine as the reverse of the morning routine. Does it take an hour to dress, have breakfast, and leave the house? Morning activity in most households is focused. In the same way, allow for focused time when you get home. Perhaps you need 15 to 20 minutes when you come in the door to do some or all of the following: check the mail, change clothes, listen to messages, supervise homework and baths, walk the dog, or water the garden.
After that, head for the kitchen. Here are 6 steps, 7 tips and A Week of Menus to ease your way. Bonus section: Equipment and 4 How-Tos.
A Weekly Menu circa 1980 with Shopping List and 5 year old daughter’s additions
Step 1: The Preliminaries. Write up a Week’s Menus and do your Shopping in advance.
When you get home after a long day, dinner can be quickly put together if you have your ingredients and know what you’re making. Son-in-law JB says:
“On Sundays, I write down menus and Rachael helps with the list. Since I’m the cook, I do the shopping. We usually have one take-out meal and one with leftovers and end up making a stop at the store once during the week.”
Not so different from my 1980 menu (see photo above) which is a little hard to read but Sunday is “Out” and Thursday is called “Potluck” (i.e. leftovers.) Hmm, that week we had roast chicken, steak, and hold on! Is that Ranch Dressing on my shopping list?
For inspiration, there are websites to help with the menu planning: At Epicurious.com, go to Articles and Guides and under that Everyday Food. Select ‘Weekly Dinner Planners.’ There’s a different seasonal menu every week plus a shopping list. At This Week For Dinner (www.thisweekfordinner.com) , the author of this blog posts a menu every Sunday and invites anyone to comment or post their own menus. The New York Times now has a cooking newsletter than shoots rapid encouraging recipes to your inbox a few times a week. They are usually quick to make and very tasty.
If you know in advance what’s for dinner, that question doesn’t seem so bad.
Step 2: In the Morning, check the Menu and locate the Ingredients. Defrost any food you will use later.
Run the dishwasher at night and empty it in the morning. That way, everything will be clean for the evening rush. If you have a delay button on your dishwasher, program it for after midnight (you’ll save $$ on energy bills.)
If you have even 5 minutes to spare in the morning, do one small job to make the dinner preparation go faster. This might be peeling some potatoes (leave them in a bowl of cold water), or hard-boiling a couple of eggs. Some advance preparation can be done days in advance such as washing and spin-drying the lettuce.
Step 3: When You Come in the Door, put a large pot of water onto boil and/or light the grill.
In other words, don’t waste time waiting for the grill to heat or water to boil. Start in right away and you’ll save time. If speed is your goal, the week-night meal is not the time to try a new recipe. In fact, don’t use a recipe at all. Use techniques such as grilling, boiling, steaming, chopping, sauteeing, and tossing. Season well, add a little butter or a dash of olive oil, and your food, while perhaps a bit plain, will taste very good.
Step 4: Set the Table (or enlist a member of your household to do this task every night.)
Put out everything you need including salt and pepper, water, plates, glasses, drinks, and condiments. This means that when dinner is ready, the table will be ready too, and the food won’t get cold.
Step 5: Triage or Who gets attention first?
If you have a screaming toddler, this question doesn’t need asking. But don’t be sidetracked. Throw your offspring a piece of fruit, a cracker, or a carrot, and carry on. Believe me, children are impressed by a show of fierce concentration. Likewise, once you begin the cooking, don’t answer the phone, do the laundry, or check your e-mail. We’re only talking about a half hour of concentration.
Step 6: Multi-tasking or How to Cook Everything at Once
It takes practice, but several operations can be done nearly simultaneously in the kitchen. If you’re having something grilled and a salad, get the cooking started first. For example, slap the chicken on the grill, dash back into the kitchen and put the lettuce in the salad bowl. Drizzle with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, find the salad servers, and put it on the table. Turn the chicken. Slice some tomatoes, arrange on a plate and onto the table. Yell at everyone to come to dinner. (Time: 15 minutes, give or take a few.)
For a cold dinner of salads and cold meat or fish, do all the prep work first. Arrange everything on a platter or in bowls, putting the dressing on last. Vinaigrettes and dressings keep very well refrigerated. Make double portions and save the extra for the next meal.
Now to fine tune the process, here are 7 tips.
Don’t get discouraged. If nightly cooking seems like a terrible chore, keep in mind that repetition and practice will reward you.
Don’t get bogged down by recipes. Start with some dishes that you can cook without running back and forth to check what to do next. “if I use a cookbook, dinner takes 5 times as long.” again from Jessica.
Memorize how to cook rice, how to bake and boil potatoes and how to hardboil eggs. See below *.
Don’t buy too much food. You’ll use what you buy, your refrigerator won’t be bursting, and you’ll save money.
Clear the decks. Try to get some room on the counter to work. Get rid of the mail, your backpack, and anything else that is cluttering up that space.
Trust your own common sense. Don’t be a slave to timing instructions. Pasta is a good example: the box may instruct you to cook the pasta 9 minutes but don’t stand around waiting for it. At about that time, taste a strand. If it’s done, drain it. Otherwise, hold off a minute or two and taste again.
Learn to use high heat when you cook. It is one of the hardest things to convince newer cooks to do but turning up the heat on the stovetop will improve your cooking. Without a hot pan, you can’t sear, stir-fry, saute, or brown foods successfully. Foods will absorb less fat if sauteed in very hot oil.
Use salt and pepper. Plenty of it. Butter, olive oil, and herbs as well. Season your food and taste it before serving.
A Week’s Menus
Jessica says this dinner take 20 minutes tops! And no complaining from the young ‘uns either.
Preheat oven to 400. Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Salt and pepper thin sliced pork chops (1 per person, maybe 2 for Dad), sprinkle with rosemary, and put in a baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes turning once.
Chop up a couple of tomatoes and a cucumber, season, and drizzle with olive oil and vinegar.
Meanwhile, shuck corn (1/person, maybe 2 for really hungry folks.) Cook in boiling water 2 minutes only. Have butter and salt on the table.
Salade Nicoise is a composed salad which means lettuce is the bed, the other ingredients are arranged on top in clumps, and the dressing goes on last.
- Salade Nicoise for 4 or 5 people
- French bread
Ingredients: 1 head romaine lettuce, a can of tuna, 2 hardboiled eggs, a big handful of fresh string beans, 4-6 small potatoes, some cherry tomatoes, a can of anchovies, if you like them.
In the morning, boil the eggs and peel the potatoes.
As a first step, boil or steam the potatoes for about 6 minutes. Add the beans to the same pot and cook 5 more minutes. Check the potatoes for doneness. Drain, cool down, and cut the potatoes into halves or wedges. Quarter the eggs. Put the lettuce in a big bowl and strew all the ingredients over the top.
Make a vinaigrette with garlic, olive oil, and vinegar or lemon and drizzle over the salad.
- Pasta with Pesto
- Zucchini salad
For the salad, use raw zucchini, very thinly sliced or in little cubes. Drizzle with basalmic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Fast pesto: Can be made in advance! 2 packed cup of basil leaves, 3 tablespoons of pine nuts (or walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds – whatever you have on hand), 1/2 cup olive oil, pinch salt, a garlic clove, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons butter. Puree all these ingredients in a blender or food processor. At serving time, stir in a few spoonfuls of the hot pasta cooking water.
This can also be frozen in small containers for super quick suppers!
Use the grill or a hot oven to roast chicken. I like skin-on chicken with bones; it’s so tasty! It should take about 20 minutes. Mash a few tablespoons of butter with a minced garlic clove. Slice partway through a baguette and drop in some of the butter mixture. Wrap in foil and put to the side of the hot grill (or in the oven) until hot (about 10 minutes or so.)
- Grilled Chicken
- Green Salad
- Garlic Bread
- Blueberries with ice cream
You made it through the week! Don’t cook – just put this on a big plate and enjoy your dinner!
- Hummus, olives, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, pita bread
- Green yogurt with honey and walnuts
Fast hummus that’s cheap too: 1 can chickpeas, 2 tablespoons (or more if you like it) sesame tahini, 1 small garlic clove, salt, pepper, juice of 1 lemon, 2 – 4 tablespoons of water. In the food processor or blender, add all the ingredients and puree. Taste for seasoning. Put in a bowl and drizzle olive oil over the top.
I’ll write the recipe below but this takes only a few minutes of concentration and the rest is nearly automatic. Relax! It’s the weekend.
To make quick fish tacos: Make the slaw and dressing first. Cook fish right before serving.
Slaw: 1 small green cabbage, shredded finely; bunch of cilantro, chopped; a shredded carrot, and a bunch of radishes (optional), chopped. Mix this together, add salt and some squeezes of lime juice.
Sauce: Mix together juice of 1 lime, a couple of tablespoons each of yogurt (or sour cream) and mayonnaise. Pinch salt. Pinch sugar. Garlic clove minced. Hot sauce or a minced chipotle chile.
Fish: Cut 1 pound of white fish filets (I use frozen) in strips. Toss in a bowl containing 2 tablespoons flour and 4 tablespoons cornmeal, several big pinches of cumin, pepper, and salt. Heat a thin layer of vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook until light brown on both sides (about 5 minutes.)
Corn tortillas (flour is ok): Spread with dressing, top with slaw and fish. Put on plates or a big platter. Serve hot sauce on the side. 4 – 5 servings.
Mango (or peach) Floats: slice up the fruit, put in tall glasses with ice cream and club soda. Eat with a spoon.
I knew a surgeon who used to save leftover salad, add some tomatoes and presto! he had gazpacho. I don’t often have leftover salad but I still think it’s an original idea.
Soup (from leftovers) – Gazpacho!
- Crackers and cheese
Fast gazpacho: use any leftover salad vegetables for this soup or gather up the ingredients in the recipe below.
- 6 ripe tomatoes
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 small onion
- 1 cucumber, peeled
- 1 green or red pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- salt, pepper
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups water or tomato juice or V-8, approximately
In a blender or food processor, blend the vegetables until they are in small chunks. Add enough water or juice to thin slightly. Season with salt, pepper, cumin and vinegar. Add a few spoonfuls of olive oil. Let the soup sit a while to develop more flavor. Taste for seasoning before serving.
Knives and Chopping Board
Knives: Equip yourself with 3 good knives. In the photo above are the knives I use nearly exclusively. They are (from top to bottom) a small paring knife (serrated, in this case), an all-purpose chef’s knife, a bread knife (used for slicing meat and tomatoes too) and my new favorite a santoku knife. This last replaces my chef’s knife for most purposes and is a reasonable purchase (between $30 and $60). The serrated bread knife and paring knife are dirt cheap but when they get dull (and they will!), you must replace them. The key here is sharp. If you know how to sharpen knives, you are way ahead of the game. It’s easy to chop when you have a sharp knife. I can’t emphasize this enough.
Cutting Board: The knives in the photo are sitting on my cutting board which measures 15 by 20 inches and is made of rubber that is pleasant to chop on and easy to keep clean. No, I can’t fit it in my dishwasher but it is indispensable. Not easy to find in stores but restaurant supply stores have them. These stores are open to the public) and you can find sources on line.
When using a cutting board, anchor it to the counter by setting it on a damp towel or wet paper towel. Small boards that slip around as you chop are an invitation to the First Aid station.
The Everyday Useful Tools
Salad spinner, sieve, metal bowls, tongs, and box grater: I use these all the time. The bowls are very thin and light. I get them in several sizes at my local restaurant supplier for next to nothing. They are so much easier to use than heavy glass bowls and if one drops, so what?
A big pasta pot, a big heavy stew pot, a big frying pan and a medium-sized frying pan: I have assorted other pots and pans but the four mentioned are the ones I use all the time. I’m not too crazy about non-stick or otherwise coated pans but I do have a big one that comes in handy now and then. I like heavy duty stainless steel frying pans because you can really heat them up without damaging them.
2 baking sheets with rims, a roasting pan and a couple of baking dishes:Baking sheets (cookie sheets) can be used for all sorts of baking and lined with non-stick paper, they are a snap to clean. An 8 inch square and a 9 x 13 inch glass pan is a kitchen standard. A heavy duty ceramic or enamelled cast iron baking dish is very useful for roast chicken, potatoes au gratin, and all kinds of baked dishes from leftovers.
Food Processor: In the world of small electronic gadgets, a heavy duty food processor is my favorite. Small one or two cup processors are a waste of money, in my opinion, because they are usually not sturdy and don’t chop well. If you hate chopping onions, this will be a godsend. Likewise, if you have a lots of chopping, slicing, or grating to do (coleslaw, as an example), it will take seconds using a food processor. It’s great for soups sauces; fantastic for pie crusts and currently, I use it to make ground beef. I’ve used a Cusinart model with a lot of success. Ask for one for Christmas. It is so much better than a blender.
Bake potatoes: Scrub a russet or other baking potato (yes, there’s a difference! Ask your vegetable person at the store). Bake at 425 (you don’t need to preheat the oven) for an hour. For extra crispy skin, take out the potatoes after about 50 minutes of baking and let them sit a few minutes until the skins are soft and wrinkly). Put them back in the oven for an additional 5- 10 minutes.
Boil potatoes:Scrub boiling potatoes. Peel if desired and cut in halves, quarters, or leave whole. Put in a pan with cold water to cover and a spoonful of salt. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until done – which will take about 15 minutes or so depending on how many potatoes you have. Test for doneness by plunging a knife into the side. Drain.
Make rice: Here it depends on the rice. Again, don’t be a slave to the timing – check your rice and taste a grain or two; when the water is absorbed, it’s done.
For long grain: 1 cup rice, 2 cups water, 1 tsp. salt. Bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the rice, stir once, cover and cook at low heat for 20 minutes.
For basmati, jasmine or Thai: 1 cup rice, 1 1/2 cups water, 1 tsp. salt. Rinse off the rice thoroughly in a strainer. Cook as for long grain but only about 10 minutes.
Hardboil eggs: Put eggs in a pan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, lower heat and cook for about 8 minutes. Drain and cover with cold water (I use ice cubes too sometimes). If an egg cracks during the boiling process, add salt – it will seal the crack.
Have fun in the kitchen!!