In my 10 rules for meal preparation success, Rule #1 was “be realistic, but brave.” That post emphasized the bravery part. Now I’d like to concentrate on how to be realistic when planning a menu. Like learning to drive a car, getting comfortable as a cook is about taking in information coming from many directions and not getting too focused on any one direction to the exclusion of the others.
My husband was accidentally my best "recipe realism" teacher. When we were newlyweds, he decided to make me a 3-course birthday dinner: Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops in cream sauce) as an appetizer, a stew for a main course, and a spectacular dessert. He bought all the ingredients and earnestly began his preparations. We sat down to a beautifully set table as he thought he was putting the finishing touches on the appetizer – around 8 pm. He had the main dish ingredients ready but not cooked. By 10 pm the main course was nowhere near ready and we decided to make the rest of the meal together the following evening.
No worries on the relationship front – I’m still happily married. But that dinner emblazoned in my memory the lesson that ambition and the best intentions aren’t enough to move the most luscious meal from cookbook (or even ingredients on the counter) to table.
Needless to say, most of us plan weekday dinners that are much less elaborate. But preparing even a one-dish meal or a simple meat, starch, and vegetable, can be time consuming. Assuming that you’ve got the ingredients or could easily obtain them, how do you know if a recipe is a good one for a weekday dinner?
3 Keys for Weekday Dinner Recipe Realism:
- The number of steps required,
- How much you could do ahead of time, and
- How long each step will take.
How many steps to the recipe? If you can read the recipe twice and then basically recite how to make the dish, it’s probably a good one for a weekday dinner. Every rule has exceptions, of course and for this one, my exception is stir-frying. There may be multiple steps in a stir-fry dish, but they are often simple and quick, so even if you can’t recite them, you’re still on safe ground. I’m a big fan of cheat sheets for stir-fries, as you’ll see in this post about stir-fried shrimp. (The cheat sheet is the second picture.) I set the ingredients up in order before I start, using the “mise en place” (everything in place) concept rigorously because stir-fries typically have short cooking times for each component added to the wok in a given order. I keep the cheat sheet next to the ingredients and close to the wok so I don’t have to hunt through the recipe for how to do the next step as I’m working. The other “secret” to stir-fries that makes them great weekday dinners is that you can do much of the preparation ahead of time, which leads nicely into…
Can you prepare some (or all) ingredients ahead of time? If you can and you don’t mind doing that the evening before, you can do a more involved recipe on a weekday than if you have to start from scratch when you walk in the door. Don’t forget that leftovers already in your refrigerator can be a treasure trove; whether it is pieces of roast chicken, cooked vegetables, or leftover rice, think about how last night’s dinner can work as an element for tonight too.
How long will each step take? Whether it’s driving time or cutting carrots, I find it difficult to be realistic about how much time an activity will take. But to stay sane, you have to be practical. If a recipe requires one hour of cooking that can't be done ahead of time and you want dinner to be on the table within an hour of arriving home, that’s not happening. Likewise, if a recipe is complicated or requires a technique you’ve never done before, it’s not a good weekday dinner pick. Instead, look for a simpler dish, like this sautéed chicken with vegetables. Also, consider how you might do several steps simultaneously, so the total time is manageable and you get two dishes done at once. For example, if you’ve planned a soup and sandwich or salad dinner, simmer the soup (allowing grains, noodles, vegetables, etc. to cook within it), while you make the salad dressing and wash lettuce, or assemble sandwiches.
I’ve been caught up short and so will you, on occasion. But if you want to keep weekday dinners realistic, you’ll keep the 3 keys in mind and reserve the lobster soufflé dinner for a relaxed weekend. Bon Appétit!
I contribute a bi-monthly column, It's Just Dinner, to the Whole Foods Market Cooking site. This post is a modified version of one of those columns.