The Real Deal about 30-Minute Meals
You can’t turn a page or flip a channel these days without being bombarded by a barrage of ever-decreasing cooking times for whole meals. Dinner in under an hour has turned to the thirty-minute meal. Soon we’ll be cooking for eight in under eight.
For starters, let’s be honest. Are these meals, these feasts for the senses thirty minutes? Or more ambiguous? We’ll call them thirtysomething meals. Maybe forty. Okay, stop.
It doesn’t sound crazy. In fact, in concept I have no problem with the idea of the 30-minute meal. I admit to doing most of my television-watching at the gym, and most of that is Food Network-focused (lack of cable at home – and that rather sick pleasure of working out while salivating over The Barefoot Contessa’s latest). Rosemary Chicken Breasts, Brown Butter and Balsamic Ravioli, Warm Spinach Salad with Pancetta and Sweet Vinaigrette sounds fine – sounds feasible. Except when the endorphins fade. “The thing is,” I say to my husband at one of our family dinners while our four kids take turns annoying one another, “There’s washing the vegetables, and cutting, and all that prep time.” “Not to mention wondering if the kids’ll even like it,” he adds.
I’ve often held the suspicion that these condensed cookery sessions are not only a tribute to our crazed society, our time-hustled week, but also that if we, as parents particularly, can’t manage to finish work, pick up the kids, and fling together something as meager as a 30-minute meal, then we are basically useless. Nothing like a supposed time-saver/helper 30-minute meal to make one feel inadequate. Or guilt-ridden that the last thing we might want to do – or even be able to do for logistical reasons (think: 18-month-old, back to school forms, and a certain lack of mango/milk/wasabi that’s called for in the “simple” recipe) – is combine and saute and come to know the difference between garbanzo beans and chick peas (none) or that hoisin sauce is also called suckling pig sauce. Or, God forbid, we slave for the 30-minutes we have while our kids are awake and alert (and really hungry) making anything that involves calvados (as in Gordon Ramsay’s “Fast Foods”). My kids are adventurous eaters, but they might blanche at having me “throw together” blood sausage.
But again, the concept has merits. Thirty minutes is certainly enough time to do many things – buy a house, break a leg, conceive a baby, begin to reconcile tax receipts, burn about 370 calories pushing a stroller to keep said baby you conceived from screaming. So it is possible – likely even – that a meal could be assembled or cooked in a half an hour. As someone who has four kids ages 9 and under, I know it can happen. But often the ideas are bogged down by lengthy lists of ingredients (do we really need slivered almonds and tahini AND organic artichokes?), unusual ingredients we might not have on hand (think venison), and unrealistic focus (do I have to mince? Can’t I just roughly chop?) which I know I don’t have at the end of the day. So the first step is to admit not what we can’t do – this isn’t us having a deficiency – but rather what we simply don’t want to do. We have to ask ourselves – even as devoted, nurturing parents – do we want to prepare Gordon Ramsey’s Blood sausage and Quail’s Egg Salad? The poached duck egg with anchovy fingers? Do we want to spend more time making the “quick meal” than eating it? And furthermore, who exactly is cooking these ever-visible 30-minute meals? I don’t see parents, toddler clinging to their back pockets, fourth grader demanding vocab testing, young daughter covered head-to-toe in marker needing washing, seven-year-old screeching with hunger trying to whip up the Venison with sweet and sour peppers, or even the more pedestrian Rachel Ray’s Seafood Pasta with sherry tomato cream sauce.
So is all hope dashed for the parent who discards the take-out menu in order to – gasp – put together a meal that actually looks as though it a) required cooking and b) is healthy and nice-enough for the entire family and c) can be made with children literally afoot?
Let’s get this straight: there should be no use of a mortar and pestle in these 30-minute meals. No instructions such as “hull the bean” or “ferment the liquid.” No faux-encouraging words of “even first-timers can easily manage the frothing process.” Macédoine, molecular gastronomy, stir constantly. These are not words that go hand in hand with kids present. Mandolines do not make for fun times with a toddler or their fingers.
“Fantasy has always played a big part in beat-the-clock cookbooks,” Slate magazine said upon reviewing Gordon Ramsay’s ode to the quick meal, “Fast Food.” High-end photography in the cookbooks ensures dishes turn out just right, never slopped onto plates nor undercooked or served to kids who have whined for so long they wouldn’t know how to stop. Daydreaming is a natural part of cooking. It’s how I, as a mother, a former chef, an eater, figure out what I want to eat. But the fantasy element of any of the celebrity chefs and their quick fixes is just another version of reality. The staff has washed the lettuces, they have rinsed, patted dry and repackaged the raw poultry so it doesn’t need fussing over, they have pushed the relevant spices to the forefront of the pantry shelves. All this saves time. But even as we watch these shows, gush over the coffee table cookbooks, we enjoy the dreaming. Wouldn’t it be lovely to produce these high-end meals at the drop of a hat? Why yes, it would. And yet to cook for thirty minutes straight, solely focused on this one task, might be foreign to us now, but it wasn’t always so. My grandmother devoted afternoons to baking, to prepping chicken and serving dinners for the whole family back when parents routinely arrived home at five-thirty and children had no homework and had practiced piano already. Aside from the all the help Rachel Ray receives before she sets out to make Hazelnut Encrusted Chicken with Gorgonzola Sauce or Gordon Ramsay has prior to slinging a perfect quail into the oven, these chefs have one big up on us all. One thing that doesn’t get in their way. Life. Never do you see Rachel Ray, with raw chicken in one hand, try to answer the phone while trying to deal with her first-grader’s complete meltdown that now isn’t the best time to try the exploding Mentos-in-Coke project he got for his birthday. Never is the 30-minute meal interrupted by that phone call – from your oldest’s teacher saying that your son has certainly mastered the sign language alphabet but is now signing swears across the room to his friends and perhaps this isn’t what was meant for the class unit on learning about deaf culture. Emotions, logistics, diapers, homework, sibling wars, and every day forgetfulness (“Um, Mom? Isn’t the oven supposed to be on to cook something?) all get in the way.
Besides, so much is in a name. Growing up we didn’t have “pastas”. We had macaroni. Nothing was “encrusted”, it was just a little crunchy. Menu (and cooking show) writers are modern day poets. There’s nothing like a fancy name to make one feel that recipe is a) complicated and when told it can be cooked in sit-com time it seems b) unbelievable. Certain dishes don’t take long – pasta with things in it, fish, eggs, many vegetables. So while it’s tempting to be swayed by “Salmon poached in a Court Bouillon with slivered leeks on a bed of wild greens”, it’s really a hunk of salmon on some spinach. It’s not magic. What is magic, meaning what we don’t see, is that cooking, like going to the gym (and watching cooking while at said gym) gets easier the more you do it. And these tv folks do it all the time. Many are professionally trained. The rest cook for a living. And it is a skill – knowing how to dice a red onion, knowing which dishes can tolerate a few extra minutes in the oven and which can’t, how to fix a sauce it it’s too watery or correct for over-salting.
But all this is not to say it’s impossible. Improbable? Maybe. But even as an experienced cook, I want to give it a go. Turn my gym fantasies into dinner realities.
So I give it a try.
I buckle toddler Will into his seat, and Julia whines today that she just can’t can’t can’t do the buckle over her various layers so nine-year-old Daniel kindly undoes his seatbelt and clicks her in, only to realize he has left the house without his Green Day cd and his older brother Jamie “just cannot survive with a book.” Why did I teach him to read? Oh, right, I didn’t. He just magically learned one day. Daniel sings “Basket Case” while Jamie goes inside to grab a novel (because who doesn’t bring a literary tome to the market?). I referee the fighting over the airwaves and finally we’re off. Something tells me Rachel Ray didn’t factor in the shopping time to the meal, but I don’t happen to have pancetta lying around. But it adds up. We trek the aisles, grabbing poultry, rosemary, and spinach, and avoid complete toddler meltdown by allowing him to munch on an apple and by the 9-year-old having a screaming fit instead. “Rosemary on the chicken? Gross. Rosemary’s, like, someone’s name!” But we press on. Have you ever gotten to the checkout only to find you don’t have your wallet? It’s not as bad as finding you don’t have your pants. Luckily, today I have both and manage to pay for the goods. Total time elapsed: 28 minutes.
Personally, I think recipes should be amended to reflect the number of children who are in the room while you are cooking. For example, when it states the total time, we should create a mathematical equation that takes into account the fact that I have four children in various stages of need and undress (“I can’t spell antidisestablishmentarianism yet” “I’m literally going to eat my hands if I can’t have dinner” “How come you aren’t coloring with me?” “Mummy, what’s the difference between a backhoe loader and an aerial bucket truck? How can a recipe list “active time” when my entire life appears to be active time?
What I’m getting at here is that there is no way I can dredge or chop for minutes in a row. Every action is punctuated by needing to help someone spell, or draw, or nurse, or not eat their own limbs. So the total time it takes to cut up the pancetta (and wash my hands because I can’t sign a permission slip with raw bacony hands) is 6 minutes when it should be two, tops.
My first mistake comes from following the instructions. As per the recipe, I coat the chicken in balsamic and olive oil, and take a few minutes to find the rosemary and chop it up. Then I sprinkle it on and feel very accomplished. I check back with the recipe only to find that the chicken has to “stand for 10 minutes”, which is all fine and well but the next step to creating our complete meal is to “bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.” Well, I don’t know how fast Rachel Ray’s stove boils water, but mine takes 10 minutes or so at least, so I’ve wasted valuable time. The water finally boils and I throw in the fresh ravioli, but they only take 6 minutes to cook, so they’ll be complete while the chicken has just started cooking in the pan. The recipe says the poultry needs 12 minutes or more to cook. With the standing time, that’s 22 minutes just for the chicken. Meanwhile, the ravioli are limp and turning cold but the chicken is still raw inside despite the 12 minutes. I break from the recipe and throw the chicken into the oven to keep it cooking without burning, and take too long to mince the shallot required for the spinach salad. Somewhere in the recipe Ray calls for a “warm platter”. We don’t happen to have one of those, so I have to skip that step and brown the pancetta in yet another frying pan (just how long is the clean-up to the 30-minute meal? 40 minutes?). Then the pancetta has to drain and the kids are about to turn on me, so I grab the chicken, slosh the butter and shallots onto the spinach and find the ravioli and serve it all up to everyone.
Daniel says, “Wow, this looks nice…too bad it doesn’t taste it. No offense, Mom.” No offense. The reactions were mixed, and that’s okay with me. I don’t expect them all to love everything I make, no matter how much time I spent dicing and mincing. The good news is that there were leftovers and my husband used the chicken on a salad the next day. And the kids cleared the table as a team. That saved a few minutes right there.
While I won’t be making Rosemary Chicken Breasts, brown Butter and Balsamic ravioli, and Warm Spinach Salad with Pancetta and Sweet Vinaigrette again, I will be making semi-quick meals for my family for well beyond the next decade. So while we might not want to create the fantasy meals we see on tv, we can. It is possible.
Here are a couple of thirty-minute meals. And the point, after all, isn’t to rush. Remember the difference between frantic and fast. Rather, it is to know we’ve made a good, tasty dinner that we can all enjoy (for even ten minutes) together.
Some key points to remember:
Look for dishes without tons of pre-prepared ingredients (meaning chopped, diced, sautéed, minced) – or, if there are a few (as in the first recipe below), make sure it’s a dish that basically cooks itself after you’ve done the chopping.
Switch around protein sources, fish takes far less time than meat.
Keep in mind that smaller pieces take less time (meat loaf takes a while – meat balls, less than half the time).
Read the recipe all the way through and boil water first, if needed, or preheat oven to save time.
Keep a pantry stocked with items such as chicken stock, a few cans of beans, a jar of roasted peppers, soy sauce, etc – many dishes can be made from throwing a few things together
Be flexible – throw the chicken into the oven if it’s taking too long, or disregard the recipe and wing it the best you can.
Go for “rustic” or “country style” dishes in which vegetables can be roughly chopped or thrown together rather than expertly minced or carefully cut.