I’ve really enjoyed Megan McArdle, Mollie Hemingway, and Rod Dreher’s comments on the “tyranny of the home-cooked meal” article that Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate. All three had some great thoughts about cooking, its benefits and simplicities, and they got me thinking: why do I love home cooking so much? Why does it not feel like a “tyranny” to me?
There are a variety of reasons I love it, and several shortcuts I’ve picked up with time. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned—cooking is a lot like writing. There’s the KISS principle: “Keep it simple, stupid.” If I don’t have a lot of time, I can’t plan anything fancy. And oftentimes, simple taste better, anyway. So I’ve practiced a few simple meals that we rotate through the week. I’m learning when to be “artistic,” and when to just get it done: just as I shouldn’t launch into a huge philosophical blog post 30 minutes before my deadline, I shouldn’t start a big batch of croissants when I need to have dinner ready in an hour. You have to pay attention to your “deadline,” and plan accordingly. Some of our favorite simple meals:
- Breakfast for dinner. During the week, this often means omelets or quiche (it’s really easy to make!) with potatoes or a salad, and bacon. Shakshuka is good, too. On Friday nights or the weekend, we’ll splurge a bit: bacon buttermilk pancakes (husband’s favorite), blueberry coffee cake, and other sweet treats.
- A simple spread that people can mix-and-match, with things like bread, cheese, olives, grapes or apples, dried fruit, and various charcuterie. If I have time, I’ll mix up some hummus, and slice up cucumbers and carrots to go with. Everyone can sample their favorites and mix the various flavors they enjoy. I like to keep containers of pesto and fig jam in the fridge, for the bread and cheese—but a good olive oil and balsamic are fantastic on their own.
- Mix up a huge bowl of pasta, rice, or garbanzo bean salad on Sunday. Add in Mediterranean flavors (cherry tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, kale or spinach, and feta). Season with things like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, pesto, salt and pepper. We keep it refrigerated and pull out bowlfuls for packed lunches, or for dinner. It’s easy to pair with chicken and a salad.
- We love paninis. They’re so simple, and people can make what they like. Pair with oven-roasted potatoes and/or a salad. My favorites are prosciutto with fig jam, sliced pears, and white cheddar, and smoked turkey with Gouda and stone-ground mustard.
- Make slow cooker soups, or chilled blender soups. In both cases, you get to dump a bunch of random ingredients into a container that does all the work for you. There are tons of easy stew recipes available online, as well as chili recipes, and they’re both easy to freeze for future meals. Chilled soups are easy, and wonderful in the summer. Try gazpacho or a chilled cucumber (really good with croissant sandwiches).
Sometimes, I try to get too fancy, or to experiment with too many different cuisines. I’ll attempt a time-intensive dish with too many steps, or get halfway through a recipe only to realize I don’t have all the ingredients. So here are some thoughts.
- Save new or complicated recipes for the weekend. This is my opportunity to try new things without running out of time—because there’s nothing more miserable than realizing you’ve made a disaster and a mess, and it’s 9 p.m., and you have nothing in the cupboard but trail mix and canned tuna.
- Choose one style of cuisine to be your staple, and stick to it. Not everyone would agree with me on this, but I’m finding it just makes sense. I used to try to plan one night a week for Mexican food, one for Thai or Vietnamese, one for Italian, etc. And it was fun—but that’s a lot of spices and ingredients to have on-hand all the time. Nowadays, I’m sticking to a more Mediterranean style, and keep a lot of the accompanying herbs, spices, and ingredients on hand. About one night a week, I’ll make Mexican, Thai, etc. This just eliminates stress over having tons of random ingredients in the fridge, and not knowing what to do with them all.
- Cook seasonally. This may sound counterintuitive—it seems it would be harder, and add cooking complications. But it’s actually helpful, because it limits my options. This summer, I’ve made a lot of tomato and peach dishes, chilled soups, burgers and grilled chicken, refrigerated pickles, ratatouille, cobblers and pies. I feel like I’ve started to master some of these summer dishes. But now, autumn is coming, and I can’t wait to cook with some of the season’s staples: squash, apples, broccoli, brussels, cauliflower, pears, potatoes, pumpkins, etc. I’ll have several months to work with each of these ingredients, to get to know their textures and tastes better.
These are just things I’m learning, things that make home cooking enjoyable and interesting from day to day. It’s a creative challenge, something that takes both artistry and practicality. Cooking doesn’t make me feel abused or annoyed or frustrated, as a woman—it’s one of the greatest joys of my weekly life. After a long day of writing and staring at a computer screen, there’s something cathartic about chopping vegetables. It gives me the opportunity to experiment with tastes, textures, and flavors. I can make things that remind me of home, of my heritage—things like peach pie, baked beans, chicken and noodles. It gives me the opportunity to learn the traditions of the people around me, to learn how to make dishes that are important to them. People who discount cooking because it takes time forget the joy that can come from doing something creative and communal with our days: something that requires energy and service and love.