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Cooking Against the Clock

Can a worthy gourmet meal be prepared in 30 minutes or less?

Yes—With Proper Planning
By Laura Leon

It’s 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, ground sirloin.

Quickly 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.

I love 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.

To prove 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.

Monday: 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.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: The surprise meatloaf dinner described above.

Friday: 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 speak.

Perhaps 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?

By B.A. Nilsson

Some 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.

In her 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.

As Neil 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) life.

To put 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.

Cooking 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.

“It’s 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.”

Orlando 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 answer.”

The chief 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.

You come 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.

Cut yourself 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.

In The 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.

But the 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 to cook.

My daughter 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.

It’s 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.”

Fast 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.

The belief 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.

As Waters 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.

But the 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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


Judy 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 (e-mail

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What you're saying...

I 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.

Mary Kurtz

First, 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 the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I 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!

Peggy Van Deloo

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore


Elaine Snowdon

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale

Your 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..

Barry Uznitsky

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