Monday, May 31, 2010

Making Dinner Fast

I know that a lot of you are concerned with getting dinner on the table as quickly as you can. I applaud your desire to prepare food for your family or your sweet self and to sit down to eat it. You’ve already had a full day of work, and now there is yet another task to be done. Dinner. Yikes. Years ago when I was working full-time (or more) at Duke University, I too felt the pressure to fix food fast. Getting home a little after 6:30, I learned to move quickly. I wanted to have dinner on the table within an hour. Being organized was the only way to do it.

Three things helped me out:
(1) On the weekend I would plan what we would eat for the week. I would choose three or four main dishes, doubling the recipes so there would be plenty for leftover dinners. I would prepare two of the dishes on the weekend—usually the two that took longer to prep or to cook. The other two dishes I chose were super speedy, like a stir-fry or sauté, easy to do within an hour. I would write down my plan on the store list and then shop so I would have everything I needed on hand.

(2) I had a couple of go-to recipes which could always be hauled out in emergencies. Most of them called for ingredients I usually had in my cupboard or fridge. Remember Cheese Soufflé (November 25, 2009) and Tuesday Pancakes (February 16, 2010)? Speed was uppermost in my mind; clearly cholesterol wasn’t.

(3) The boys learned to fix themselves something to eat after school so they weren’t “starving” by the time I got home. Popcorn, instant ramen, macaroni and cheese from a box, and the old stand-by, cereal. It wasn’t exactly health food. But the experience gave them some independence and confidence that they could fend for themselves in the kitchen.

All these strategies worked for me. But they required planning, shopping and cooking on the weekends. And it required a husband and kids who didn’t mind waiting to eat until 7:30 or so. That sort of a schedule doesn’t work for everyone. Because I value eating home-cooked meals as a family at a table, I was willing to do whatever it took. And going out to dinner every night wasn’t a viable financial option.

In the past few years a million cookbooks have come out with some combination of quick, fast, or simple in the title. Rachel Ray is making a fortune whipping up her 30-minute meals on the Food Channel and selling her books. I’ve tried more than 30 of these cookbooks and find them infuriating, disappointing and surprisingly helpful. Infuriating because they lead you to believe that you’ll have your dinner done in a blink but then the author says “Oh yes, the time assumes that you will have done all the prep ahead.” Like you have a sous chef chopping for you in your kitchen. And they always underestimate the amount of time it takes to prepare a dish for the first time. Disappointing because in 30 minutes you can’t make a stew or bake a meatloaf, or anything which requires long slow cooking which I love. Helpful because there are an astonishing number of really good recipes which can be put together pretty quickly.

Recently I have had good luck with these books:
The Illustrated Quick Cook by Heather Whinney. Check out Beef with Soy and Lime with Grapefruit and Ginger Salsa or Chicken with Cinnamon and Peppers. Over 700 recipes.
Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson. Check out the Red Shrimp and Mango Curry. She is a pleasure to have in your kitchen.
Great Food Fast by Martha Stewart Living. Check out Thai-Style Steak Salad. A really pretty cookbook.
And thank God for canned diced tomatoes, frozen spinach, fish, shrimp, steak, red or brown lentils, canned black beans or chickpeas—all of which help you cook really quickly. I’m not much of a fan of the pre-chopped veggies available in the supermarket. But they can help in a pinch.

If you are looking for speedy dishes on this blog, check out the following:
Picadillo (Mexican Meat Hash) (September 26, 2009), pictured
Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (February 2, 2010), pictured
Spicy Soba with Tofu (March 7, 2010)
Bistro-Style Steak with Sauce Marchand (March 13, 2010)
Catfish with Cherry Tomatoes and Lemon Sauce (March 21, 2010)
Grilled Cheese (November 11, 2009)
as well as the delicious recipes given below.


Shelly Dieterle said...

This is exactly what I am looking for! Thanks for your tips, cookbook recommendations and recipes. I'll be trying these soon :)

cynthia wh said...

I love my husband who is a great cook. We often sit down to eat too!