Contemplating the perennial question of what to make for dinner, I pulled Pierre Franey’s book The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet off the shelf. Flipping through its pages, I had to laugh at the distance we’ve traveled since 1979, when the book was first published. By today’s standards, “60 minutes” might be called an eternity, or slow death in the kitchen. Who has 60 minutes to make dinner?
To judge from the popular media, the average American has maybe 15 minutes to make a meal. And given other options — prepared food, frozen entrées, fast food, restaurants — why should anyone dirty their hands in the kitchen?
Newspaper food sections and most major food magazines run regular features on quick cooking: limited ingredients, cooking with prepared items, and meals made, supposedly, in the wink of an eye.
Gourmet’s department “In Short Order” has morphed into “Quick Kitchen,” featuring “Ten-Minute Mains.” Search for “quick and easy cooking” on Amazon, and more than 1,200 titles surface, including Busy People's Super Simple 30-Minute Menus: 137 Complete Meals Timed for Success.
Say that three times fast.
Chicken or egg, I wonder. Are we in the food media responding to what people want, or feeding the fire? Forty years ago, the New York Times ran Franey’s column on streamlining “gourmet,” and now the paper publishes Mark Bittman, the minimalist. It’s the same idea: an expert translates his kitchen knowledge for the home cook. Only back then it was 60 minutes, and now it’s 30 or less. French is out; minimalism is in.
I, too, am a sponge for suggestions to make my life in the kitchen easier. In our family of four, there are three soccer schedules, violin lessons, rowing (at least temporarily), school, volunteering, and work. I can use all the help I can get.
That said, I hate gimmicks. Nancy Silverton’s book A Twist of the Wrist promises quick meals made from “jars, cans, bags, and boxes.” Cooking from the pantry is a great idea, and I love Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s Friday-Night Spaghetti with Tuna and Black Olives, which uses canned tuna, anchovies, and capers. But when Silverton recommends draining the lentils from lentil soup and using canned potatoes for a quick meal, I have to wonder: How much longer does it really take to cook lentils or boil potatoes?
At the store the other day, I flipped through Meals Made Easy, from the editors of Real Simple magazine. Such pretty pictures! But when I got to French Fry Pie — a recipe that calls for ground beef, a jar of prepared pasta sauce, and frozen French fries — I lost my appetite. If this is cooking, you’re better off not doing it. Slap together a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread instead and call it a meal.
Not only do I find the gimmicks distasteful, I also dislike the myths they perpetuate. Myth One: All it takes to cook is the right (choose one) cookbook/recipe/equipment. Myth Two: Cooking is onerous, a task best done quickly to get it over with. The message that prevails in a lot of these cookbooks (not to mention food advertising) is, “You work hard. You shouldn’t have to cook, too.”
The truth is, things of value take time, cooking included. People don’t cook, we’re told, because they don’t have time and don’t know how. I don’t discredit either of these, but I think there might be another reason: people are simply choosing to do other things.
Food has become an afterthought.
We live in a time when we can choose whether or not to cook our own food. Our grandparents didn’t hunt, fish, farm, preserve, and cook for the fun of it; they did it to put food on the table. It’s baffling, in an age when domestic tasks have been made easier by appliances (dishwashers, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves) and the incredible convenience of grocery stores, that we have less time than ever to cook. All we have to do is buy food and cook it, but even that can seem like too much.
Part of the problem is that when we fill up our days with other activities, there isn’t sufficient time to cook a meal, too. If cooking becomes the thing that gets squeezed in, it begins to feel like a chore. If adequate time is made to both cook and eat dinner, the potential for pleasure is that much greater.
So here’s where I advocate for choosing fresh food. Choosing cooking. Making dinner a ritual, rather than a pit stop.
Here’s how you might start: At least once a week, make a meal that follows the meat + starch + vegetable formula. If I’m making fish, I place it on a piece of foil, squeeze some lemon juice over it, and sprinkle it with salt, then wrap it up and put it in a 425-degree oven. If it’s chicken, I borrow a trick I’ve learned from working in restaurants: start it on the stove and finish it in the oven. I warm a cast-iron skillet, toss in a knob of butter and a splash of olive oil along with several garlic cloves and a sprig each of rosemary and sage, then brown several greater thighs (legs with the thigh attached). I then put this pan into a 425-degree oven, and turn my attention to the rest of the meal.
To go with it, I’ll either roast or bake potatoes, or put on a pot of rice or farro. While the meat cooks and the grain boils, I’ll prep and steam broccoli, green beans, or asparagus. Prepping this entire meal takes 15, maybe 20 minutes. While dinner cooks, I do the dishes, help with homework, rally the forces to set the table, and pour myself a glass of wine. If I feel like it, I’ll make a simple lemon-butter sauce — melted butter and lemon juice with a spoonful of capers — for the fish.
When you start with fresh, good-tasting ingredients, you don’t have to do a lot to make them taste delicious.
For every night I clock in over an hour to make a soup or pasta sauce — things that yield leftovers — there are as many nights that I simplify, making burritos, sandwiches, or eggs. To make burritos, I spread refried beans on flour tortillas, sprinkle cheese and leftover rice on top, then roll these up in foil and pop them in a 350-degree oven. While they’re warming, I set out the condiments: lettuce, salsa, and sour cream. It doesn’t get much quicker or easier than that.
None of these meals take much time or effort, but it’s time spent at home, combined with other things I like — listening to the radio or music, being with the kids.
Cooking like this allows me to save money and eat food that I like. Furthermore, when I make a meal I control the amount of salt, sugar, and fat, which results in food far healthier than anything prepackaged. And I cook — hear me roar! — because I want my family to eat well, too.
Messages about not having time to cook flood us every day, and it’s not easy staying afloat. But whether it’s 60 minutes or 20 minutes, it’s worth making time for dinner. Because even a simple meal — grilled cheese sandwiches or a salad with bread and cheese — feeds more than just your belly.
Carrie Floyd is Culinate’s food editor.
Carrie Floyd, Culinate’s recipe editor, bends over backward to keep everything balanced in the home kitchen.
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