Cooked and cooking fast

425893026_e1dbad47e7_zI recently read — and mostly enjoyed — Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked. It’s more in the mold of The Omnivore’s Dilemma than his preachy Food Rules, and involves actual storytelling and research. He divides food transformations into four categories: fire, water, air, and earth — which in more recognizable terms, involves grilling, pot cooking, baking, and fermenting. For each, he studies with experts, from the pit masters cooking whole hogs in North Carolina to a nun obstinately making raw milk cheese (whatever the health inspector might have wanted).

While Cooked is about many things, some of the press has focused, inevitably, on Pollan’s urging people to spend more time cooking. He’s sensitive about saying this as a man, since women continue to do the lion’s share of every day family cooking, and so he writes multiple times in Cooked that he’s not saying women need to get back into the kitchen. He’s saying men and children need to pick up the slack. “By now it should be possible to make a case for the importance of cooking without defending the traditional division of domestic labor.” He notes that prepared meals don’t always save time. One night he cooks three dinners from the freezer case, and finds it takes almost an hour to get everyone’s meal on the table when you only have one microwave.

I agree that most people have time to cook — in many cases, they just don’t want to do it as Pollan describes it. Why is that?

Pollan seems to think the food industry has sold women a load of goods about how busy they are and the industry’s ability to solve this problem. At one point he writes of the ridiculousness of people eating cereal bars with fake frosted milk for breakfast. “Tell me: Why can’t these hassled families set their alarm clocks, like, ten minutes earlier?!”

That’s part of it, though I think there is lots of room for debate in this area. Driving to a fast food restaurant and ordering food is not quicker than cooking simple meals. It takes very little time to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so it’s kind of funny that anyone thinks they can save time with frozen, pre-made versions of such things. I’ve been feeling this way, lately, about smoothies, too. It’s one thing to buy one in the mall when you don’t have a blender. It’s another thing to buy a packaged smoothie in a store that still requires you to use your own blender when all that’s in there is frozen yogurt and frozen fruit, which you have to keep in the freezer until you use. Presumably, you could just keep yogurt and fruit in that freezer, too, for far less mark-up, and no change in consumption of time.

On the other hand, I assume many home cooks do what I do — incorporating some prepared elements into meals that we mostly cook ourselves. Last night my husband and I had lamb chops, some leftover corn-on-the-cob, and pasta with a bit of tomato sauce. The sauce was out of a jar. In a mostly home-cooked meal, it was a big time savings not to have to make sauce which, I’ll add, was virtuously composed of no unpronounceable ingredients. The whole dinner was on the table in less than 30 minutes.

But what’s so wrong with that? Pollan muddles his thoughts on this. During his microwave experiment, he points out that you could have cooked a great home meal in the time it took to heat up three entrees. On the other hand, he’s been dismissive of the whole 20-minute meal concept (see here for one example). Cooking, he says, is best done with presence and patience. But why? What virtue is there in the consumption of time that is separate from the health or freshness of the ingredients? I can cook a piece of salmon and some green beans and boil-in-a-bag rice in 20 minutes. There are lots of great dishes that take 30 minutes or less. Why would it be better to chop onions and carrots very very fine — sweating the onions for 20 minutes or so — as he waxes on about? I’m sure it’s tasty, but that’s a preference. There is a world of space between buying every meal at McDonald’s and making everything from scratch, and it is quite possible to enjoy cooking and eating and care about your health and inhabit a wide range of that space. He states that this is possible, that we might “sort of” cook, but then goes on, often at great length, on the virtues of doing things slowly.

I, for one, am willing to spend some time cooking, but it’s not a priority for me, at this stage in life, to spend vast hours cooking. This is why I kept getting annoyed as Pollan described how relaxing it was for him to spend his weekends cooking and baking– activities we might all enjoy in our overworked, computer-screen-centric lives! Pollan has one son who’s now a grown-up. I could spend hours on a Saturday baking, but that would be hours spent with a 1-year-old tugging on my leg and creating a safety hazard as I moved dishes around. Perhaps my husband could take her — but then I wouldn’t be hanging out with her. Perhaps I could take her while my husband commandeered the kitchen — but then he wouldn’t be hanging out with her. I suppose either of us could cook and bake while she slept instead of other pursuits, but for Pollan such activities aren’t true leisure either. This is his work. He writes about food. He spent hours chopping and sweating onions with a chef friend so he could write about it. While I certainly believe he enjoyed baking bread and brewing beer, that’s part of his professional life. I sometimes like to work on weekends too. I just do it differently. Maybe other people do too.

Anyway, despite all that, Cooked brings up interesting topics, from exactly how salting meat changes its flavor to what we are just now learning about the bacteria living inside us, and how they establish an eco-system we disrupt at our peril. If you like food writing, it’s definitely worth a read as long as you keep everything in perspective. 

Have you read Pollan’s works? What do you think?

Photo courtesy flickr user surlygirl

39 thoughts on “Cooked and cooking fast

  1. I haven’t read Cooked but it’s on my list. I am one that does like to spend some of my weekend time cooking and baking – and my husband likes to spend some of his downtime brewing beer and tending to his garden. That said, I think that there is absolutely a balance, as you say, between eating fast food every day and cooking Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon (which I have done, I might add, and it took four hours, and while it was cooling I sat on the couch for a minute and fell asleep since the whole production was exhausting). Women have been doing their best to get healthy meals on the table for centuries, and I think we make it too complicated these days – eat fat, but the “right” kinds and not too much, each proteins, but only grass fed animals, etc.

    I actually really like Mark Bittman’s approach – he says the quickest way (and most effective way) to make a difference in our food system *and* our health is to eat fewer animal products and eat more plants, period. He claims that where you buy the plants (warehouse store, grocery store, local-organic farmers’ market) matters much less than the simple action of buying much less meat and more plants. He makes a pretty compelling case for that in Food Matters, and he points out that it doesn’t have to be complicated – you can make quinoa in about 15 minutes and then mix it during the week with all kinds of tasty vegetables, for example, or have a veggie sandwich and a cup of soup for lunch.

    I do think that cooking should be a life skill that everyone is proficient in (adults and children), but I don’t think we need to expect people to make artisan, food-network style meals every night, either. There’s nothing wrong with basic good food that our great grandmothers would recognize, and I think we’ve lost sight of that.

  2. Odd. He must be against egg dishes, which is one of our quick go-tos. And then there’s plenty of good crock-pot stews… or does that count since they’re technically cooking a long time?
    I’m down with fresh when appropriate and local when available. I’m good with mostly whole ingredients. But slaving for the sake of spending time in the kitchen, not so much. I’m pro efficiency. (And yes, we keep fruit in the freezer for smoothies.)
    Pollan is on my “I mean to read this some time when I get around to checking it out from the library” list. So far I haven’t been motivated enough.
    Our kitchen is currently a disaster area because our almost 11 mo old loves to take things out and put other things away in their place. That’s how we get cooking done. She’s just now gotten tall enough that we’re going to have to lock the silverware drawer again.

  3. I’m a third into the Omnivore’s Dilemma, and already started paying double for the grass-fed beef at the store instead of grain-fed. I’d better not finish the book or I’ll go broke. His story of corn was fascinating. We just did a college tour to Minnesota, and it was amazing how much corn is grown on every spare inch.

    I may not read Cooked, we are definitely already real-food folks around here but I don’t want to spend more than an hour at it (crock-pot doesn’t count, just the prep); when you work and/or have kids there just isn’t time. I am enjoying Pollan’s writing, though.

    1. @Barbara – to be fair, he mentions the crock pot as an option to recreate the long slow cooking he’s extolling. But curiously, that mention is frequently put as parenthetical. It’s like he wrote the section and then an editor reminded him that a crock pot can do what he’s talking about.

  4. I haven’t read any of his books—also on my “someday when I get the chance” list. We cook the vast majority of our meals, using mostly whole foods, and probably less meat than the average (though more than I would like, to please the big & little men in our house). But we also use a LOT of convenience products, like pasta sauce (and the pasta itself), store-brought bread, store-brought yogurt, etc… that we COULD make at home, but come on, that kind of cooking would qualify as a hobby—not a necessity. There is indeed a HUGE difference between take-out every night and “slow cooked” meals three times a day. I’m concerned about that kind of advice hitting the mainstream and scaring people off from the idea of cooking. It really does not have to be complicated or time consuming.

  5. Michael Pollan has influenced my grocery/ingredient purchases. He hasn’t, to date, influenced, what I do with them once they get home.

    Why people eat convenience food is really interesting, though. There is the false sense of time savings as you and MP both mentioned. Off the top of my head, I wonder about the influence of two things:

    (1) loss of a cooking or home-based culture, of sorts. Perhaps it’s the 20-something’s focus on life outside the home, and then it feels too difficult to start later? No one is passing down cooking tips generation to generation anymore? (Or they are and no one is listening?) I started cooking in earnest at 36, and it felt like an overwhelming waste of time until that point. Now that my life revolves much more around my house, I care about cooking a lot more and it’s worth the effort to me. (I bulk cook on the weekend, so dinner takes minutes on weekdays).

    (2) the emphasis of the service culture. Why would we do something when we can get someone else to do it for us? Plus, doesn’t food taste better when someone else made it?

    As for your weekend cooking narrative, it’s fine that it’s not important to you. No sweat, but I might challenge the narrative a bit. Your older kids (who are similarly aged to mine) are noticeably absent. Mine have been “helping” me cook and, in particular, bake for a while. Sure, it goes much slower, but it’s good time together. Also, we put in a kid’s sized table into the kitchen, which helps focus their play and keeps us talking to one another, even if they are not helping at the time.

    1. I don’t think the time savings are false. One *can* cook from scratch as fast as heating something prepared up in the microwave, if one has the recipe memorized and/or knows how to do whatever it is off the top of one’s head. But I don’t. I find for certain things–for example, some Chinese won-tons from Trader Joe’s that several people in our house love to eat–it’s much quicker to heat up frozen ones than it would have been to make them from scratch. That might not be true for a real Chinese cook for whom those won-tons are part of their food culture, but it is for me. That also goes for a lot of food I like: Thai, Indian, Mexican, even Italian. None of this is what I grew up with and I don’t have any of it at the tips of my fingers or on the top of my head. I’m happy the frozen version is available and I can get it on the table in 20-30 minutes.

  6. I’ve read a couple of criticisms online of his latest book, and I think he’s writing it from the POV of someone who views cooking as a fun hobby/leisure activity. A lot of people I know think so too and spend lots of time (and take lots of photos for Facebook/Instagram to prove it) slow cooking/baking/etc.

    He’s not on my to-read list because I just don’t find it that interesting 🙂 It’s not how I want to spend time, so we eat frozen things from Trader Joe’s, or pasta, or Larabars, and I cook a “real” meal maybe once or twice a week.

  7. You know, I probably cook a lot more than average for someone in my situation, and I do get help from my kids on some things- although it is the younger one who is primarily interested. I don’t dislike cooking, and I downright enjoy baking. But I dislike cooking the way I have to do it right now- with a time constraint that is not going anywhere (sorry- the kids have to get to bed by a certain time or they won’t get up in time the next day, and I’ve already shifted my schedule as early as I can in my current industry), and with young kids who are not particularly adventurous eaters and whom I am not prepared to cook another meal for, starve, or tell to eat cold cereal every night). I am a good optimizer and I’ve worked and worked on the weeknight dinner routine, and it just can’t be how people like Michael Pollan imagine it should be right now. And that is fine. But until he works a less flexible job while also handling two kids who, due to their ages, are at two different places during the day, and still comes home and happily spends ages cooking dinner… his advice is useless to me and his opinion of how I feed myself and my family is irrelevant.
    I did enjoy reading the Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though.

    1. I can’t take these (Pollan’s) kinds of criticisms seriously unless they come from a strong research base. And while I’m convinced it’s good to eat locally when there’s local produce (but, of course, not just locally! trade is why my mom’s generation reached their height potential), I can’t imagine that research has definitively shown that time spent in the kitchen itself improves health outcomes. Eating fresh healthy food, sure, maybe even going for raw things or that have stewed rather than fried, (and–his main point in interviews– eating fewer calories, of course) but does it really matter who does the stewing?

      Of course, I’m just theorizing without having actually read the book because I guess I spend too much time in the kitchen cooking to read it.

  8. I haven’t read the whole book–actually I haven’t *read* any of it, I’ve been listening to it on CD while I putter around my own kitchen–but a lot of these criticisms of Pollan seem to be based on, well, nothing that he actually says. They’re responses to Laura’s comments on what she thinks he says.

    From what I see, the book is more cultural criticism than it is a how-to guide on how to live. And I don’t see him saying anywhere that cooking needs to be an all-day gourmet enterprise, just that culturally and individually we would be better off spending more time in the kitchen than we (a generalized we, not everyone obviously) do.

    Like I said, I might see something different once I finish the book…but so far the general observations seem right on the mark to me.

    1. You are right- I should have made it clear that my opinions on Pollan and his views on cooking are based on other statements he has made, not this particular book. I haven’t read the book and I don’t intend to read the book. Based on his other recent statements, I think the book is not for me. I’ve declared a moratorium on reading books that tell me I’m doing things all wrong, even when the couch it in a general cultural criticism. After all, how is the culture supposed to change except by having us all change how we live? Perhaps I am being unfair to the book, but Pollan lives a life completely unlike mine and in his other recent writings, he doesn’t really acknowledge how things like having a less flexible job than his and having to feed kids who are not enthusiastic adventurous eaters change the dynamic in the kitchen. That is a shame, because he has some interesting things to say- and he has written about how his own son was a picky eater, so he presumably understands at least part of this dynamic. I found Omnivore’s Dilemma to be really interesting and thought-provoking. But he seems to have evolved to a preachier place, and I am not inclined to listen anymore.

      1. @Cloud – I have plenty of time to cook gourmet meals if I choose to. After all, I have time to run 20 miles a week, to read books like Cooked, to watch the Daily Show on occasion, and to keep this blog. But I prefer to do those things. I’ll put intense cooking through the same rubric as anything else: it’s not that I don’t have time for X, Y, or Z, it’s that X, Y, or Z is not a priority. As NicoleandMaggie said, there are a lot of good things that come from not relying on extremely local food chains, too. My brilliant grandfather dropped out of high school to work on the family farm. I also don’t share the view that our information work can make us feel soulless and like we need to do something with our hands. Whether I make my own ravioli or not has nothing to do with my self-actualization.

        In general it was a good book, and I enjoyed reading it. But I’m not going to do much baking or cheese making for a few years.

        1. Oh, I technically have the time to cook gourmet meals, too. It just doesn’t generally coincide with the times at which I need to feed my kids! That is the bit I think people like Pollan miss- he has far more control over his schedule than even someone like me, and I have far more control over my schedule than most working people. I cook 20 minute meals during the week because I need to get dinner on the table no more than 30 minutes after walking in the door so that we can have bath on time so that we can get the kids to bed on time so that they can get up on time the next day. I suppose I could do more cook ahead work, but that takes a lot of planning, too, and not all recipes are conducive to cooking ahead.
          But to be fair, I am planning to spend roughly 2 hours tomorrow (a weekend day!) making New Zealand steak and cheese pies from scratch, because we like them and can’t really buy them here.

    2. @gwinne – I just checked some of the American Time Use files, and saw that in couples where both parents work full time, they total up to 1.11 hours of food prep and clean up per day (66 minutes, roughly). That doesn’t sound like a scandalously low number to me, considering that in many cases people are probably purchasing lunch out somewhere.

      1. Do you have data on the time non-parents spend on meal prep? I’m curious. My cooking time is much higher as a parent, than not. (Both of us working in both cases).

        1. @WG- there’s data on people overall, which is 0.53 hours per day. However, this is a split number, in the sense that some people do zero food prep/clean up. Of the 52.5% of the population that did any food prep and cleanup, they average 1.00 hours.

          If people have no kids under age 18, it’s 0.48 hours per day. If people have kids 0-6, it’s 0.70 (average of men and women). If people have kids 6-17, it’s 0.64.

          To me, it sounds like the mom numbers are still pretty high. For all mothers with kids under age 6, it comes out to 1.00 hours a day, which is not a small chunk of the day (in my opinion! Apparently other people think it should be higher – hence, Cooked).

          1. Laura, this number is for prep AND clean up? I could guess that I average that hour a day, too, and that’s with what I consider to be absolute minimum prep (we use the crock pot frequently; most days I have the table within 30 minutes of coming home, sometimes much sooner). But there’s still lunches to make (the 9-y-o makes her own) and breakfasts to assemble and dishes to do…

  9. I ran out of time to read Cooked before it was due, so I only got partway into it. I liked In Defense of Food better than Cooked or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though. I got pretty bogged down in the seemingly endless sections of theorizing about the evolution of man and his cooking and eating habits in those books, whereas In Defense of Food had much less of that.

    On the smoothie topic, I actually wrote a whole post about that:

    And I came to the same conclusion as you…the stuff in a bag saved me no time, tasted worse, and was expensive. Not exactly convenient in my book!

  10. I am late to the Pollan party–only recently finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma–but plan to catch up. I enjoyed the Omnivore’s Dilemma. A lot of what I saw there made sense to me from the Hartwigs’ It Starts with Food. We completed a “Whole30” in April, and that was pretty helpful on resetting our cooking habits and reminding us that it can be fast, easy, and tasty to cook some meat and veggies in a pan. We do try to cook more at home, and key for us has been advance planning. I agree that pre-made versions of things are not very helpful, but I have to make sure we have something at home, even if it is frozen fish and vegetables, for us to actually cook.

  11. I don’t like to cook, don’t enjoy food prep, and am not particularly into baking. If my life required me to prepare two family dinners a month, I’d be good with that and put careful thought and effort into it. Current setup, not so much (though in fact I do only ~3 family dinners per week, plus 2 for just me + DS, and we keep lunches and breakfasts really simple. Some variation of fruit, yogurt, oatmeal (rolled, a minute in the microwave, good to go), or — gasp — Cheerios).

    I haven’t read Pollan’s latest book (but did catch his NYT piece on germs). I did read, and enjoy, Omnivore’s Dilemma, but more, as I recall, as a spectator (of Pollan’s journey) than an enthusiast (seeing it as how-to).

    Mostly I just lean toward really simple food prep. Plenty of frozen (but undoctored, though pre-sliced veggies) go to edible in 2 minutes in a microwave, slosh some (depending) olive oil, butter, or vinegar on them (plus a few spices, maybe), and, good to go. Roast up a big batch of veggies and they’ll last a week and can be rotated into various meals in various ways; some can be bought sliced up at Trader Joe’s (e.g.) without having also been doctored (it’s the doctoring I try to avoid). Rice (including brown) can be cooked (by me, at home) in large quantities, frozen in small bags, and then thawed out and tastes just fine.

    Except for family dinners, a lot of my and my son’s meals are some combination of these things, straight from the store and just decanted/washed/sliced (if required): fruit, cheese, yogurt, smoked fish, veggies, bread, nuts. I do not make the cheese or yogurt, smoke the fish, or bake the bread and have no interest in starting to do so.

    I’ve never consumed a smoothie in my life and have to admit I don’t understand the advantage of one over yogurt + sliced fruit? Is it sneaking more stuff in there, or ease-of-consumption? My go-to convenience food is the banana. I often plunk some plain fruit or nuts in a small plastic bowl and hand it to DS in the car, that way, he’ll eat it if he’s hungry and has no option to negotiate for something different (more processed/salty/sweet).

    DS (age 6) enjoys baking and is interested in how cooking works. I have signed up for a Coursera course on Science and Food (I think that’s what it’s called) and am planning to see if we can “take” it (do the exercises, and perhaps watch some parts of it, or I will read it to him) together.

    1. @bogart – so the smoothie thing is kind of about putting more good-for-you stuff in there. At least for me. And it’s a way to use up old fruit that wouldn’t be tremendously palatable in non-blended form. This week we had some leftover lemon gelato from the dinner party, and I put a ton of frozen fruit and going-bad-fruit in there. It’s like 3 servings in something that tastes good!

      1. We don’t put yogurt in our smoothies, just frozen fruit and juice (no ice either). And we consume them for the same reason we consume ice cream! They’re cold and yummy!
        (We would eat them even if they weren’t good for us… I know this because we occasionally eat milkshakes, which is just a smoothie with milk and ice cream.) Smoothies make a good refreshing summer dinner out here in the land of heat.
        And yes, a good use of over-ripe frozen bananas without the baking heat of banana bread.

    2. I made a few smoothies from scratch last summer, and I realized that this summer I had just stopped eating smoothies at all because cleaning the blender was too much of a PITA. I also tried throwing the frozen fruit directly into the cuisinart without thawing it first, and can now verify that it is possible to put too much frozen fruit into a cuisinart. So, I kind of agree about the smoothies, don’t really see the point, especially if cuisinart cleaning is included in the process.

      And even with yogurt, I’d much rather get the kind that has the fruit already included than have to chop and put the fruit in myself.

      1. Smoothies are very easy to make and to clean up after if you have an immersion blender– you can make them in the cup. Cup goes in the dishwasher and you can just rinse off the immersion blender.

        1. Actually, I do have an immersion blender now that you mention it. I used that too last summer and then I forgot about it. I guess I just really don’t like smoothies that much. There was also a scary article in the NYT last year about people lacerating their fingers with immersion blenders. While I didn’t hurt myself when I was using it last summer, that is just the kind of thing that would happen to me 🙁

      2. @Karen – I bought this individual serve size type blender. I think it’s the kind of thing you’d see on QVC. I make a smoothie for me, and then stick it in the dishwasher.

        1. Then you still have to load it into the dishwasher and you can’t use it again until you run and unload the dishwasher. I like dishwashers and I think they are good time-saving devices and all that, but they are not time-free either. I think the savings for prepared foods come from when you really don’t have to do *any* of the processing yourself. So the real smoothie comparison is not fruit/yogurt vs. a package of fruit and yogurt, but fruit/yogurt vs. a ready-to-drink plastic recyclable bottle of already-blended-and-pre-smoothed fruit and yogurt. You can deplore the waste of the plastic bottle and the fuel required to transport the liquid to the grocery store and then to my home (which I basically agree with), and the amount of sugar that goes into a lot of those smoothies (which I also agree with), but they are significantly faster and less hassle. It bugs me that “processed” is tossed around as a catch-all negative descriptor for food, because unless you eat only raw, whole foods that you dig out of the ground yourself, someone has to process the food. I don’t really see why it’s so evil if that someone is a factory or farm worker who has a job and makes a living wage doing it, instead of me.

          1. I think there’s a conflation of all kinds of “processed” foods here: buying organic meat that’s in a package is “processed” in a general sense, sure, but that’s not the same thing as eating mac and cheese from a box, which is generally the kind of food one talks about (I think) when one talks about “processed” foods being unhealthy.

            I don’t butcher my own meat. I don’t milk my own cow. I don’t own chickens and gather meat. I do buy precut veggies on occasion. And “fresh” premade salsa and bread and a whole host of things that are in a very general way “processed.” But generally we steer clear of processed foods that come in boxes and have a zillion and one ingredients because they’re unhealthy. The exception is I’ve been buying a lot in the way of cereal/protein bars as snacks for my kids…

          2. gwinne, that’s exactly what I mean! The way the word “processed” is used in popular foodie culture is vague and uninformative and conflates all different forms of processing.

  12. I haven’t read Pollan, but I believe I have gathered the gist of his sentiment. I think I’d agree with the majority of the commenters that the message is reasonable, but a little preachy. Also, I don’t know if I agree with the “mostly plants” message (I believe in eating meat and saturated fat), nor the “not too much” message (I do think it’s probably good ultimately to limit calories, but right now I weightlift and play sports and hike, etc, so I’m in a phase of life where I eat a lot to fuel performance). I sort of agree with the lifestyle message, though side more with Laura and the above commenters. In terms of the cooking time issue, I fall somewhere in the middle, but probably closer to the spend-time-cooking-food end.

    I am a busy person (research professor, have two elementary age stepkids, workout 5+ times a week, part time CrossFit coach… my husband is also a professor and travels a reasonable amount… and we try and have some hobbies/do some activities here and there… and sleep). So time-wise – I get it. However, I have become a food snob. Not just about food quality, but even more about food taste (they are related). Once I learned how to cook good food, I’ve found it difficult to go back. Plain meat and reheated frozen veggies just wouldn’t cut it (though will do in a pinch). So my goal is to cook the tastiest food possible in the most efficient way possible. If I can skip a step, I do, but I will incorporate a lot of the steps that gourmet cooks include if it does make a difference. So, while I might transform a “twice-baked potato” recipe into a “potato casserole” recipe so I don’t have to deal with the tedium of stuffing potatoes and can just dump it into a pan, I will also “sweat” my onions, or roast my almonds, or whatever I need for flavor.

    To meet my simultaneous goals of taste + efficiency, I’ve slowly implemented a vast system of organization to make cooking manageable (and vaguely affordable, though granted still not cheap), and still eat good (tasty and high quality) food. Here are some examples: (1) Last summer we purchased a full cow and full pig, had them butchered, and now have a freezer full of meat. This took some initial work – finding a farmer, arranging the order, purchasing a used stand up freezer for $250 and cleaning it out, learning how to place an order with the butcher (what do all the different cuts mean and how could I cook them?), and then picking everything up and sorting it/loading it. But now, we’ve saved hundreds of dollars on meat, and all we have to do is grab something out of the freezer to thaw every morning. And now that we have a system in place, the next order is that much easier. (2) I write down all my recipes that I like in a recipe book, with notes/comments. This takes a little time, but then I can go back and find all my go-to recipes in one place, and all the little details I forget about regarding how to prepare the dish. (3) I *TRY* to make a meal plan every week, do some prep work on the weekend, and generally be organized enough to whip together or reheat meals for the weekdays when things are hectic. Some weekends I will spend hours cooking, but usually, just 2-3 hours (this includes the actual making of dinner on Saturday or Sunday, which we will sometimes make huge batches of) is enough. Sometimes this is exhausting and there are weeks where I sort of drop the ball and have to wing it. But 3 out of 4 are pretty organized. (4) I’ve learned where to shop and buy a lot in bulk (e.g., nuts and peeled garlic at Costco) so that we have ingredients on hand. (5) This year I finally got my herb garden started, which is awesome for having fresh herbs on hand for flavor and not having to spend a ton on them whenever I want them for a recipe, while having half the bunch constantly go bad.

    Last night I had 25 minutes to get dinner on the table. Here’s how it worked out. We had grilled several pounds of boneless/skinless chicken thighs (plain w/ olive oil and S&P) on Sunday while we were grilling our main meal for Sunday. Reheated those in the microwave. I went to the garden and picked and washed a ton of basil. Prepared a pesto in the food processor with basil, walnuts, parmesan, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. Meanwhile, sautéed a lb of baby spinach (from a jumbo container) with olive oil and crushed garlic, then topped with squeezed lemon juice. Meanwhile, husband chopped some ingredients for a salad, which we added to baby greens (from jumbo container), and I turned a bit of the pesto into a salad dressing with extra lemon juice + olive oil. So, chicken with fresh pesto, fresh salad with pesto dressing, and sautéed spinach – pretty gourmet… 25 minutes. If I were working alone… I probably could’ve done it in 30. In a typical week, I might have dinner ready in 10-15 minutes two nights a week, in 20-30 minutes two nights a week, and in 45-60 minutes one night a week. So, things are really rolling for us in terms of efficiency, but it has taken me a long time to build the cooking skills and recipe base that allow me to plan and prep meals this way. This of course required some love for cooking (and food!) in the first place. I appreciate that some people just hate to cook. But if one sort of likes to cook but is just busy, I think they can slowly work up the repertoire of recipes, ingredient knowledge, etc, to cook efficiently and quasi-gourmet at the same time (and enjoy the cooking they do engage in).

    1. How do you keep pesto from being a PITA to clean up after? The reason we don’t do it more often is because our food processor doesn’t go in the dishwasher. (So we do big batches and freeze.)

      1. I used to have a great mini-food processor that I used for stuff like this—it held about a cup. Went into the dishwasher no prob. It was my mom’s before I was born; it just recently wore out and we haven’t bothered replacing. Now we also freeze big batches from the big food processor (because my basil grows crazy in summer and we can’t eat enough to keep up).
        But you bring up an important point—20-25 minutes to COOK, yes. But if a few pans, food processor, etc.. are dirty, the clean-up can be add up.

  13. I just don’t like cooking very much, or especially food shopping and preparation. I’ve tried to read Michael Pollan but get stuck and don’t get very far because there are just so many other topics that interest me more than food. Some of us have other hobbies. I agree with you about speed, and I think there are judicious ways that one can use prepared foods along with other things to speed it up. This is another great 20-minute menus book:

  14. Also, I have 2 microwaves. They are often both going at once. Plenty of people wax poetic about having two standard ovens–so why not 2 microwaves?

  15. So what does he say about cooking a couple of times a week, and then being able to nuke it on the other nights?

    For instance, last night I cooked mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and chicken francais (chicken with wine and lemon juice). The potatoes were mostly passive (as in I just let them simmer on the stove, and spent about 5-10 minutes mashing them and adding butter, milk, cheese, etc). However, the chicken was different story, since I never made it and I chopped up some veggies. It also required a sauce to reduce, which took some time. The carrots were a little labor intensive too, with the chopping and a sauce reduction. I would say it took about 1.5 hours (with me doing some clean up along the way).

    However, this time I invested will ensure we get another two meals out of it. Allow for one frozen pizza night and one take out night (its been subs lately, which is sort of healthy) and I only have to worry about making one more meal during the week (and my husband usually grills on Saturday, at his insistence). So I feel I’m really saving time (not having to worry about cooking when I get home, don’t have to go to the takeout line, etc). Plus its a lot healthier than convenience food or excessive takeout.

    1. @Leah- He’s in favor of cooking once and reheating. That’s what he said he wound up doing — cooking a lot on weekends, then reheating during the week. It’s not a bad approach, but it does require investing weekend time in doing it.

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