Against the Clock
a worthy gourmet meal be prepared in 30 minutes or less?
7 PM, and I’ve got a half-hour before picking up the boys
from soccer practice. I add boiling broth to some whole-wheat
couscous, and while that comes together in a covered bowl,
I melt butter in a saucepan, add cumin and sautée for about
a minute, before combining this with the couscous. My green
beans are trimmed, and will be added, just before serving,
with a handful of fresh herbs and some lemon wedges, to a
saucepan into which I’ve poured about a half a can of broth.
Then, disaster strikes: The sirloin steak that I thought I
had removed from the freezer to thaw, and which I am planning
to grill simply with olive oil and fresh garlic, is, in fact,
scanning the pantry, I realize I have no hamburger rolls.
Last week, on another soccer night, we had done a sort of
skillet chili with ground beef, so I don’t want to repeat
that. Besides, it won’t go with the couscous. Then, inspiration—in
the form of last night’s bread basket, which still contains
a few pieces of sourdough bread, slightly stale. Using the
food processor, I make bread crumbs, and add them to the ground
beef, along with finely minced onions and dried apricots,
some sage, salt and pepper, and two eggs. I mold this mélange
into a sort of loaf, preheat the oven to 425, and go to pick
up the kids. Upon reentering the house, I pop the meat loaf
into the oven and turn the stove on to heat the broth. In
10 minutes, just enough time for the kids to wash their hands
and set the table, we have a pretty tasty, if unusual, meat
loaf, savory couscous and steamed, herbed beans.
to cook, and I firmly believe it doesn’t take much time or
effort to prepare delicious meals even on a busy weeknight.
Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who either
share that sentiment or are anxious to find out if it’s really
true, as evidenced by emergent “quick cook” movement. Recently,
William Grimes wrote a great piece in The New York Times
in which he tried to break down the traditional “dinner in
under an hour” time frame to—gasp!—under 30 minutes. And he
was talking about home cooking, not microwavable feasts.
my point that anybody with a kitchen and a brain can make
dinner in 30 minutes or less, I decided to try to work within
that time frame for each night’s dinner during the course
of one week. A few rules of thumb: Always use good quality
broth, preferably cans with flip caps (saves time over using
can openers), in place of water when making, say, rice or
pasta or even steaming vegetables; keep fresh herbs, either
in a window garden or stored in the fridge, and, above all,
plan ahead. By that I mean try to sketch out what you want
to do each night, and make the best use of your time. For
instance, you can roast peppers by putting them in a baking
pan, covered with foil, under the broiler for about 10 minutes,
something that could easily done while you pack lunches or
shower. Remove, wrap tightly in the foil, and let sit all
day. When you get home, peel and place the peppers, along
with any juices, in a bowl. Voilà. With a little olive oil,
salt, pepper and herbs, you’ve got a lovely side dish whose
active prep time was mere minutes. Similarly, you can parboil
potatoes while making morning coffee, or pop some meat, olive
oil, garlic and herbs into a sealable bag for marinating.
The key today was not just speed, but comfort. The day before,
I took a few minutes to prep tonight’s meal by melting a little
butter and olive oil in a pan, then sautéing first onions
with a little salt, then adding some diced butternut squash
and garlic. After about five minutes total, I added a can
of pinto beans, a can of diced tomatoes, some red wine, chipotle
chile, and fresh pepper, and simmered for about 15 minutes.
Immediately upon getting home that night, I popped some leftover
wild rice, reconstituted somewhat with broth, into the oven,
reheated the stew and, using prewashed greens, mixed up a
salad. Dinner was on within 15 minutes of returning home.
Really, how simple is pasta? The only thing that takes more
than a few minutes is boiling the water, but while that’s
happening, you can be dicing, slicing or mixing whatever you’re
going to add to the noodles once they’re done. In this instance
I decided to challenge myself by attempting pad thai. While
the water was boiling, I mixed together a sauce of soy, rice
vinegar, Tabasco, mirin and maple syrup. Once I put the rice
noodles in to boil, I sautéed chopped mushrooms, carrots,
scallion and garlic. Four minutes later, I drained the noodles
and chilled them under cold water. Then I finished up by adding
the sauce and some smoked tofu to the pan with the vegetables,
added some coconut milk, and about five minutes later I had
a lovely sauce. At table, we garnished our plates with roasted
peanuts, cilantro and lime wedges.
We lucked out by dint of receiving a surprise package of freshly
caught mahi from a family friend. I sliced baby potatoes in
half, drizzled them with olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary
and salt and pepper, and baked them for 15 minutes. While
this was baking, I sprinkled rosemary, salt, pepper, bread
crumbs and olive oil over the mahi, and also began boiling
some broth in a sauce pan. After 15 minutes, I added the mahi
to the middle of the baking sheet with the potatoes, and baked
for about 10 minutes, during which time I simmered green beans
in the sauce pan. Thirty minutes tops, and a truly succulent
dinner was ready.
The surprise meatloaf dinner described above.
While the kids ate breakfast, I oven-roasted red peppers as
described above. Later, while they did their homework, I peeled
the peppers and dressed them. Earlier in the day, while the
coffee was brewing, I whisked together some broth, soy, brown
sugar, ketchup, fresh ginger, garlic and cider vinegar, and
added this marinade to a large sealable plastic bag along
with a pork tenderloin. This went into the fridge for the
day. When I got home, I took the bag out, preheated the oven,
and cut a few parsnips and a pre-peeled and sliced butternut
squash into smaller pieces. I browned the pork, then transferred
it in its skillet to the oven where it cooked for about 15
minutes. While it cooked, I poured the liquid portion of the
marinade into a saucepan and boiled it down a bit, to make
a sauce for the tenderloin. During this same 15-minute time
period, the parsnips and squash were roasting in the oven,
drizzled with olive oil, garlic and herbs. With five minutes
to go on my 30-minute timetable, I took the pork out to rest,
placed the root vegetables in a serving bowl, and quickly
sautéed some kale in olive oil and garlic. Again, if you combine
the prep time and the marinade time to the active time, this
is the kind of dinner that seems more daunting than it actually
is. By recognizing that you can add new dimensions of flavor
to, say, a meat by marinating it throughout the day, you cut
down on active time, needing only to brown and bake, so to
above all else, cooking is about comfort—that of both the
recipients of your effots and your own as the chef. Sometimes,
this does mean allowing yourself the opportunity to take more
time to prepare a feast or to learn new techniques. Cooking
really good, healthy food in a matter of minutes, however,
doesn’t mean having to take Cooking 101. But practice makes
perfect, and preparation—in the form of, say, reading a recipe
before you set out to make it—is half the battle. Making it
even easier to prepare a dinner in short order is the wealth
of great ingredients and high-quality convenience foods available
at your local market or co-op: prewashed greens, or packaged
pastas, for instance, not to mention the time-saving appliances
you likely already have, such as microwaves and pressure cookers.
Your hectic weekdays shouldn’t have to conclude with a dinner
in a box. They could instead give you a brief respite in which
to combine creativity with practicality, and come up with
something that really works for you and your family—without
spending half the evening in the kitchen.
No—What’s the Hurry?
of my favorite memories are the night-before-Christmas marathons
my mother used to hold as she prepped for a relatives-intensive
holiday feast. I think I inherited my own penchant for staying
up late from her, as it’s usually a time of relative peace
and quiet and, if your brain doesn’t complain, you can get
a lot of work done then.
case, it was a chance to attend to the cooking unimpeded by
the well-meant but never-helpful help of others, and I’d sit
and watch—provided I didn’t get in the way myself. And this
time was needed because there were no shortcuts she was willing
to take. Even in the antediluvian days of my boyhood, many
supposed worksaver products were flooding the foodstores,
with accompanying ads that characterized the time spent in
lengthy food preparation as an evil, selfish thing wrenching
you from the much more important time you could spend at work
or with family.
Postman and others have observed, TV commercials are mini-sermons
that offer promises of redemption gained merely by purchasing
a product. The appalling by-product of the
convenience-food mentality, which now includes a never-ending
flood of cookbooks and TV shows, is that the most wonderful
aspects of cooking and dining are being lost to the misguided
notion that mealtime is an interruption of family (and work)
it another way, there’s no such thing as a 30-minute gourmet.
A true gourmet can easily prepare a meal in half an hour,
but nobody whose time is thus restricted can be considered
a true gourmet.
is an art, and it’s the most sensual of the arts. Whether
you’re grilling burgers in the yard or crafting a multi-course
formal meal, you have the potential to engage everything—all
five of your perceptual devices, not to mention the delightful
interface of each to each. But if your main purpose is to
do it in a hurry, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
like making love,” says chef Ric Orlando, owner of New World
Home Cooking Co. in Saugerties. “A quickie is good every once
in a while, but if that’s all you’re having, there’s no passion.”
is a member of the Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy in
1986 (in response to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome)
and now a worldwide network of enthusiasts who share the belief
that the fast-food mentality that has overtaken our lives
is both physically and spiritually unhealthy. As the group’s
manifesto notes, “In the name of productivity, Fast Life has
changed our way of being and threatens our environment and
our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive
complaint I hear from those who would hasten their food preparation
and consumption is that there’s not enough time in the day
to allow anything more leisurely. A few questions later I
usually learn that those complainers, like far too many people,
are intimidated by the prospect of actually cooking—or
have tried to reduce the process to a set of cookbook-assisted
steps, not unlike the construction of a plastic model.
home from work. You’re tired. The last thing you want to do,
you insist, is that much more work, the work, you fear, that
some fancy-assed meal would demand. But food preparation isn’t
work the way your job is work. It’s a comparatively small
effort that offers a cornucopia of rewards.
loose from preconceptions. Lay in some staples and don’t even
plan a meal. Start with an onion. Peel it and savor the sensations.
Chop it into small pieces. Do the same thing with a carrot
and a stalk of celery.
Lonely Guy’s Book of Life, Bruce Jay Friedman suggests
that you get some onions and peppers and garlic sautéeing
in some olive oil. That’s your Big Three, and from there you
can go anywhere. Add the carrots and celery as well and you’re
halfway to soup, at least.
main point is to savor the ingredients and let your senses
tell you where to go next. Casserole? Stew? Some kind of pasta
dish? Add something, season it and taste it. You’re starting
now helps out with dinner ideas. “Chicken,” she’ll suggest,
“in some kind of sauce with lemon in it, not too spicy.” And
she knows that it’ll probably begin with an onion and some
garlic. It becomes a family event. We’re in no hurry, we’re
used to dining somewhat later than our neighbors. But when
we sit at the table, it’s truly a family event.
no surprise that Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, long an
advocate of locally grown produce and careful preparation,
should become a Slow Food enthusiast. “It was everything that
we’d been trying to do at Chez Panisse—what we believe in,”
Waters told Mother Jones magazine in a May 2003 interview.
“Slow Food takes very seriously the relationship between food
and agriculture, and food and culture, and the choices that
we make everyday about what we eat. Our choices either support
the cultural richness of our lives and conserve natural resources
for the future or they have the reverse effect: preserving
the values of a fast food nation, depleting the cultural richness
of our lives.”
food is like television in that it inhabits a physically diminutive
space but grabs a huge part of your consciousness—if you allow
it to do so. And when you let yourself succumb to its oh-so-alluring
spell, it’s hard to see any alternatives.
that you can skip the fast-food window and prepare and enjoy
your food in a hurry is just another manifestation of that
misguided belief. It means you’ve allowed yourself to give
up precious time and conviviality to unhealthy pursuits.
suggested, there’s also a communitywide benefit to reprioritizing
the way you cook and the way you eat. Farmer’s markets become
more appealing, and from there community-supported agriculture
might beckon. We find it much more reassuring to buy our meats
from local sources where there’s far less health risk.
most wonderful benefit is in the kitchen, at the prep table,
as your mise en place takes form. You’re in complete
creative control of a meal that’s going to nourish yourself
and your dining companions, and long before you serve it you’re
already enjoying the aroma and the feel of your food. It’s
more involving than any form of entertainment, because you’re
no longer in the audience. It’s therapy. It’s comfort. It’s
the only way to live.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, authors of The
Book Club Cookbook, will be at the Schenectady
County Public Library (Clinton and Liberty Streets,
Schenectady) from noon-5 PM Sunday, Oct. 17, to
discuss and sign their book. The event is a fund-raiser
for the Capital Campaign to expand the downtown
library to include a new children’s center, gallery
and performance space. Samples of food made by
area restaurants from The Book Club Cookbook
recipes will be offered for sale. Gelman and
Krupp interviewed book-club members all over the
country to see what they were reading and eating;
the result is a collection of 100 entries, each
focusing on a literary masterpiece. . . . The
Hudson Valley Council of Girl Scouts will
hold its third annual Cookie Cuisine event from
6-9 PM Tue, Oct. 26 at the Italian-American Community
Center (Washington Ave. Ext., Albany). Honorary
Chair Carmine Sprio, Ric Orlando and a host of
talented culinary teams take on the challenge
of preparing gourmet entrées and desserts using
Girl Scout cookies. This year’s participants include
the Arlington House, Aromi D’Italia, Capital District
EOC, Carmine’s, Crowne Plaza, Magnolia’s, New
World Home Cooking, Real Seafood, SUNY Cobleskill
and 333 Café. Tickets are $35; pony up $75 and
you’ll be part of the honorary committee. For
reservations, call Sharon Smith 489-8110, ext.
105. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland
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very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..