Like many of you, I am often drained after getting home at the end of a busy day, exhausted from fulfilling my role as the least-productive member of my team at work, and find myself facing the challenge of preparing a nutritious and appealing dinner for the family. Selecting a recipe, scouring the refrigerator and cupboards for all the ingredients, sharpening the knives, peeling the potatoes, butchering the hog… sometimes everyone else has headed off to bed before I am ready to serve the evening meal at 10:45 P.M. Then the next challenge is waking everyone up and dragging them back to the table to eat.
There are numerous videos online purporting to show easy-peasy recipes, with the illusion heightened by time-lapse photography. “Here are red and green bell peppers / (chop-chop-chop) / And now they’re seeded and diced into identical bite-sized sections.” “Pop open a can of prepared bread dough / (smoosh-smoosh-smoosh) / Ta-da! Beef Wellington!” If you slow any of these videos down to real-time, you’ll find they take 20 times more effort than the hyper-speed version you were just suckered by.
Even the cooking shows on TV are misleading. They are all hosted by professional chefs, using top-notch tools, boundless resources, and possessing a certain savoir-faire in the kitchen. What about those of us who are working with dull knives, a gouged cutting board, and the only spices found on the lazy susan are a three-year-old shaker of oregano and a half-bottle of Gravy Master passed down from your grandmother? What tips are there for the home cook who is only faire-enough?
I, and I alone, can help you separate the white from the yolk. Let me disabuse you of some common fallacies around simplifying dinnertime:
“Many hands make light work.” This proverb may be true, but it applies to the kitchen only when you are demolishing it as part of a home renovation project. If you try to get your family — especially any children age 12 or younger — involved with meal preparation, it will take you three times as long to complete and a sticky mess will be spread out to the virtual horizon. Your kitchen is too small for an army of amateur sous-chefs to be milling about. The key to success here is to usher everyone out of your way by sitting them down to watch reruns of 2 Broke Girls with a package of rice cakes and bowls of raw pinto beans as snacks to tide them over until suppertime. After an hour or so spent sampling these unpalatable choices (both food and program), they’ll be thankful for nearly anything you serve for dinner, including sautéed liver and even Brussels sprouts.
Make use of your crock pot. Again, a common misconception; there is nothing task- or time-saving about using a crock pot. Everyone thinks you can just dump a can of cream of mushroom soup on top of a whole chicken, splash it with some of the zinfandel left over from the cheap bottle your cousin brought to guzzle from last Easter, set the timer, and come home to an incredible coq au vin. Nothing could be further from the truth; you’ll return to find stringy chicken drowning in a pool of murky slime, and now you have to order a pizza. The only useful thing to do with that appliance is donate it to your local Goodwill — you can take a tax write-off while clearing up valuable counter space. You think I’m kidding? Head over to Goodwill and see how many like-new crock pots they have on display.
Go vegetarian or (even worse) vegan. “Gee,” you think to yourself one day, “if I had to shop only for vegetables, it would save me time in the store, and all I’d have to do is sauté a pan of hacked-up zucchini for dinner every night. What could be better?” Practically anything, that’s what. If you’ve ever read a vegetarian or vegan cookbook, then you know that every other recipe calls for something called “tempeh.” Tempeh is a fermented soy product offering protein and false promise. If you can even find it at your local supermarket, it’s often more expensive per pound than beef, chicken or fish — but, in fairness, it goes much farther. Often as far as the garbage can.
A strictly vegan diet is even more ridiculous; now your pantry will be filled with ingredients like chickpea flour, coconut oil, flax seeds, agave nectar, quinoa (pronounced, “ugh”), edamame and cashew milk. Want to know something tasty you can make from these ingredients? NOTHING. THERE IS NOTHING REMOTELY TASTY TO BE MADE FROM THESE INGREDIENTS. Your hunger will have to be satiated by the sense of smug satisfaction you derive from conferring the rights of personhood on chickens, cows, and bees.
So what to do? Don’t ask me; I’m weary from another trying day of failure at work. If one more person asks me, “What’s for dinner?” I’m going to lose my tempeh.