This is one of the great questions in cooking: is it better to get it done, or get it done right?
I remember this debate raging among the staff at Fine Cooking as they struggled to find a balance between fussy (though some would argue “fun”) project recipes and weeknight (some would argue “cheaters”) cooking.
This question continues to trouble our kitchen, too. Mom, after many years of doing it right, has admittedly moved into a kind of get-it-done mentality, Maggy is up for the occasional project but loves a good shortcut, and I tend to be the staunch purist among us. I would rather make my own pie dough, use slow cooking polenta, boil old school lasagna noodles, bake an elaborate cake, and stir up my own pudding. I recognize, however, that I am in that romantic phase of cooking—an idealistic, near-obsessive attitude that pushes me to four different stores to find the perfect ingredients and costs me many (wonderful) hours in front of the stove. I want to keep living in this place for as long as I can.
I still love the sound and feel of a sharp knife chopping through an onion. I love taking a pile of whole ingredients and turning them into a sauce that tastes nothing like any one of those ingredients, but something like all of them. I like running my fingers through a bag of Arborio rice, and stirring risotto until my arm is about to fall off.
I truly believe that, like almost everything else, cooking is something that some people are born to love, but that everyone can at least come to like. Not everyone wants to spend a whole weekend making homemade croissants, or Chinese dumplings from scratch (I am starting to pencil these things into my calendar). But I think we tend to avoid things that we’re afraid we’re not good at. Much like the Nike Company, my motto in the kitchen has become—for God’s sake, Just Do It. Find a recipe, find a friend, find a bottle of wine, and just go for it. Tony and I made Osso Buco this weekend, and last weekend we cooked a whole leg of lamb. Did I have any idea what I was doing? No. Did it turn out well? Absolutely.
The more I cook, the more comfortable I am in the kitchen. And the more comfortable I am, the more I actually want to be there—the more I want to challenge myself.
That said, cooking on weeknights is an art form in itself. But prepared ingredients still sometimes make me cringe. I think there is a simplicity to it that needs to be respected: I wouldn’t try to make a pie on a Wednesday evening, because that would mean buying Pillsbury dough. Though I’d venture a guess that I’ll feel differently about all of this if I ever have more than one mouth to feed every single night of the week.
Mike V @ DadCooksDinner says
I am both! I’m a weeknight realist. When you’ve got three kids, and have to deal with things like soccer practice and violin lessons, you have to cut corners sometimes. But on weekends, watch out. I always have a big project lined up for my kitchen.
As I’ve become a more experienced cook, my weeknight meals have moved away from shortcuts and prepared food. I’m much more conscious about real food nowadays, so my weeknight meals tend towards just being simple meals.
Of course, the kids would riot if I ever cut out hot dogs and baked beans night, so there’s only so far I can go on weeknights…
I agree… I think you can, and sometimes have to be both… or at least I do. I used to try to cook a full (weekend-type) meal every night of the week (call it over-ambitious newlywed) but realized eating well past 9pm wasn’t worth it. A few years later, I’ve found a happy medium… squeezing in a “project” here and there on a weeknight but mostly just focused on churning out a well-rounded, healthy meal (before 9pm).
Lisa S. says
It is a lucky thing that I still love a good hot dog. Makes a quicky crunch meal possible on weeknights.
Not particularly healthy, but yummy.
Mike has a good point about hot dog night – my husband and son have (cringe) frozen pizza night (cringe again yuck) on Wednesdays but the other 6 nights of the week are my time! There is something so satisfying about slaving in the kitchen then being able to enjoy the fruits of your labors. It makes my heart sing!
Linda J-H says
Once the kids are grown and gone, the kitchen becomes a place to try the challenging meals again. Of course, when they come back on Sundays, the request will usually be for some quick-fix meal they loved when they were living at home.
Great topic Sharon! I think this identifies one of the interesting and difficult challenges for all of us who love food and cooking. In my mind, there’s always been a distinction between the act of cooking and those of us who love to “cook”. Weeknight meals, frozen, jarred or refrigerated shortcuts, all have a place in today’s kitchen. But cooking for efficiency or fuel is very different than cooking for the love of food and the inherent pleasures it brings to the table. Can the two intersect? Absolutely – some of the best “cooks” do this with suspicious ease. Your mom, my mom, my dad…helped show me the way.
It’s not the time you put into making the meal that makes it a “real” vs a shortcut meal. A 20 or 30-minute meal can still be just as delicious and worthy as an all-afternoon affair. I make a pretty mean spagehtti with shrimp + rapini in 15 minutes. It’s what you do with the “shortcuts”, that help define it a meal.
The meal may change, but the cook is always a cook.
With two boys, both parents working full-time, and each of us having outside activites, I have to plan and prep for the week ahead. At least one day of the weekend is filled with cooking for that day and for the week. Preparing meals that will get us through two nights is a key. Leftovers are mandatory, but we usually mix it up. Starting a soup or stew on the weekend and using it one night in the week. We like to eat real food and avoid the fast food trap of busy families! And yes, we still have hotdog night about once a month, with homemade chili (make a big batch and freeze in small batches).
Linda, GirlCook says
What a great post. I believe we can be purists AND be quick–this is how I’ve turned our college-aged kids on to cooking with us in the kitchen almost every night after our long work days. We make fresh, healthy, non-processed meals together –in a quest to find infinite possibilities for 15-minute meals!
P.S. Of course, my kids know I also love to spend a full day meticulously creating the perfect brioche or whatever!…but isn’t this the beauty of cooking—infinite choices, infinite possibility!–we can be and explore all things! Go GirlCooks!
Michele Albert says
I agree with Kelly, it is possible, it just takes planning and a bit of time of the weekend.
I check out the sale ad’s on Saturday, shop either Saturday afternoon or very early Sunday, then I prep, label and store for the rest of the week. I can have dinner on the table in under an hour during the week just by prepping on Sunday.
great post as usual!