Since having kids I’ve stopped treating cooking as entertainment and started treating it more like a job. I’m short-order Dad and the goal is to get something edible on the table, rapidly and reliably. A bit of diversity is important too, since people get tired of things quickly.
Most of the “30-minute” cookbooks suck. First, they lie. Oh how they lie. Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way and America’s Test Kitchen 30 Minute Suppers are both perfectly good cookbooks containing many tasty recipes. But you cannot, no matter how hard you try, make most of these recipes in half an hour or less. Clearly, timed testing by actual end-users is not a criterion for putting a recipe into this kind of book. The second problem with this category of cookbook is that they advocate unacceptable shortcuts (the two examples above don’t do this, but many do). Ketchup is not an ingredient, ever — what’s so hard about that? Other things that are unacceptable include anything frozen after being fried and anything that resembles cheese, but is not (the kids demand boxed mac and cheese sometimes, so we do make exceptions).
A fantastic example of a short order cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food; I’ve read every page probably twice. The difference is that instead of relying on extensive ingredient lists and gimmicky shortcuts, his recipes are based on a small number of basic ingredients. The fact is, you can rapidly make a large number of good things out of onions, canned tomatoes, eggs, butter/oil, cheese, pasta, rice, basic spices, potatoes, and at most a dozen other staples. Sometimes advance prep work is needed — this does not need to be a big deal. To make fried rice, you need cold rice from that morning or the night before. Many recipes benefit from home-made meat stock or tomato sauce; these can be time consuming but are a perfect thing to make on a bad-weather weekend afternoon. Tabouli tastes much better if made in advance. A big batch of polenta gives three meals: one hot and two out of cold, sliced polenta. In fact it is often possible to work ahead with minimal effort by just making large batches of food, when the extras can be refrigerated or frozen. All of these kinds of advance planning are pretty easy and pay off well. Then, when things get hectic and planning fails, we order out pizzas or get Thai food, no big deal. But I prefer eating out to be a fun thing, not a last resort.
One way to make it easy to cook at home is to have single-dish meals. Life is too short for thinking about salads or other side dishes, although we do have these occasionally. A bowl of cut-up cherry tomatoes, olive oil, pepper and a bit of cheese is perfect in my opinion. Appetizers are never necessary. Dessert can be fruit, a chocolate bar, cookies out of the freezer, or whatever.
So what do we actually eat on a day to day basis? Here are some of our common fast meals:
- baked pasta, covered with home-made tomato sauce (either Nigel Slater’s quick recipe, or frozen), maybe some pork sausage, then grated mozzarella and parmesan cheese
- fried rice
- rice pilaf
- sweet potato and black bean burgers
- salad nicoise
- frittata or omelet
- fried pastrami, egg, and cheese sandwiches
- white chicken chili
- chicken noodle soup
- tuna salad or tuna melts
- Greek salad
- fried vegetables and pasta, maybe with tomato sauce, topped with cheese
- pasta salad with steamed peas, grilled chicken, browned onions and garlic, and crumbled bacon
- sautéed scallops
- risotto (really very easy, but lots of stirring required)
- pizza bagels
- crab cakes
- salmon cakes
- grilled Alaskan salmon
- grilled sausage
- baked sausage and potatoes
- pancakes or crepes
- tacos, burritos, quesadillas
- stir fry
- potato pancakes or potato kugel
- lentils (Jamie Oliver has an awesome recipe)
Some of these don’t quite make a meal, so they’re combined with leftovers, a can of sardines, or whatever.
I’m making it sound like I’m the only cook in my house; that isn’t the case at all. However, I do enjoy it more than Sarah does and she’s happy to do the dishes if I make the food, so that’s what often happens.
To maintain at least a veneer of civility, we have a rule that you do not criticize Dad’s cooking. It is fine to turn green, choke, gag, leave the table, make funny faces behind my back, or whatever. But we do not criticize. This is a helpful guide to behavior for children whose first impulse, on hearing that dinner is anything besides baked ziti, is to scream “but I HATE that!” Another simple thing that makes cooking work is to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine before even starting to figure out what to make. This just makes the rest of the process go more smoothly, especially when the little food critics learn what is about to be served. It also helps to have hungry kids. When I’m running the show snacking is forbidden under pain of death (or at least serious tickling) starting around 4:30.