The dream of an easy weeknight dinner

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Most afternoons, around 4:30 p.m. PM, a pair of words, separated by a comma and followed by an exclamation point, come to mind; sometimes I say them out loud. The first, four profane letters beginning with “F”, is not worth printing here. The second is “dinner”. It has not always been so. In my twenties, dinner was the reason I got up in the morning: if I hadn’t planned to go out, I would spend hours fantasizing about what to cook for the biggest meal of the day. Often I had enough time for an after-work trip to the grocery store, to gather the ingredients for a complicated recipe I had never made before; sometimes I even entertained.

In my thirties, I had children, two of them about two years apart. They get up at dawn. I am extremely lucky to have full time child care, and at 9 A M I start a race against time to manage professional and household affairs without having the feet. When they were newborns, dinner was just food: mediocre take-out from the nearest place possible; supermarket ready-made food eaten while I was standing in front of the refrigerator, with a baby strapped to my chest. But when the youngest started eating solids and going to bed at the same time as her older brother, a new ritual emerged. We started eating a real family dinner, the four of us seated at a table around 5:30 p.m. PM, not out of moral panic (although the purported perks are an added bonus) but because it made the most logistical sense. The only thing that seems harder than cooking a meal for a group of four is cooking separate meals for two groups of two.

I really wouldn’t mind my kids eating chicken nuggets and frozen broccoli (both drenched in copious amounts of ketchup) at every meal, but that’s not what I care about eating more once in a while. I wanted a wide variety of dinners that were quick and easy to prepare, consisting mostly of pantry or freezer staples and requiring minimal advance planning and preparation. I wanted them to be deconstructed enough that I could separate their components, in case little dictators reject one or two particular ingredients, as they usually do. And I wanted them to be exceptionally delicious, even exciting. I fought. And then a cookbook came out, written by a young recipe developer named Ali Slagle. It was called “I’m dreaming about having dinner (so you don’t have to)”, which, speaking of dreaming, I felt I could have manifested.

The idea that cooking dinner can be a huge hassle for hard-working Americans, especially those with young children, is retro — it’s the conundrum that brought us dinner TV — but timeless. “Home Cooking,” a 1988 collection of essays and recipes by writer Laurie Colwin that has become a cult classic over the past decade, includes a thought piece titled “Easy Cooking for Exhausted People.” In it, Colwin writes, “Some time ago I was a person who liked to have friends over for dinner, and now that I have a child, I am someone who is responsible for three meals a day. more snacks. . . . Even if you like to cook, [it’s] enough to discourage a person, especially if the person has other things to do, such as picking up a child from school, writing a novel, having time for necessities such as shopping, not to mention hanging out with friends and casual conversation with his companion. She suggests having “a few really easy things on your hands that practically cook themselves”: boiled beef, veggie chili, baked pears.

With no disrespect to any of Colwin’s recipes, an essay from his second collection, “More Home Cooking,” from 1993, is more relevant to my current situation. In “Why I Love Cookbooks,” adapted from a speech she once gave to a corporate cook, she wrote, “There’s nothing like a cookbook to tell you how we used to live. If you want to know what real life was like before, that is, domestic life, there is no place you can go that gives you a better idea than a cookbook. ‘I Dream of Dinner’ is one of many easy dinner-themed cookbooks published in recent years, joined by others this fall: This month, Melissa Clark followed her excellent ‘Dinner : Changing the Game” (2017) – the title of which carries a whiff of that era’s obsession with disruptions and hacks, though it’s actually quite moving – along with “Dinner in One: Exceptional & Easy One- Pan Meals”. Ina Garten’s “Go-To Dinners” comes out in October. In 2016, the founders of Food52 published “A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead”; earlier this year Lukas Volger released “Snacks for Dinner: Small Bites, Full Plates, Can’t Lose”. From America’s Test Kitchen, recently: “Illustrated Dinner: 175 Meals Ready in 1 Hour or Less” and “Five-Ingredient Dinners: Over 100 Quick and Tasty Meals.” I was somewhat horrified to learn the term “dump dinners”, for Crock-Pot meals, as evidenced by books such as “Dump Dinners: 50 Easiest Crockpot Dump Meal Recipes for Busy People”.

More than any other, Slagle’s “I Dream of Dinner” seems to tell me how I live, right now, positioning myself and my cohort as young, urban professionals with unlimited access to specialty stores such as Sahadi’s and H Mart, or at least a willingness to buy global pantry items online – the guy who does his best to eat local ingredients, in season, but also sources organic frozen vegetables from Trader Joe’s. Some of Slagle’s recipes assume some worldliness on the reader’s part, but then dress it up: there’s a Croque Monday (a simplified, open-ended sir) and a French Onion White Bean Bake (made with cannellini canned). A dish of blistered peppers with mozzarella and croutons is “as if romesco sauce” – a staple of Spanish cuisine – “has never been blitzed”. Other recipes draw on more humble concepts without seeking to elevate as much as to celebrate and reinvent: fish with sour cream and onion; bison salad with blue cheese toast.

The index of the book is an encyclopedia of popular ingredients of the time (beans and farro, gochujang and tahini, cauliflower and chicken thighs) and an invitation to experiment with the perhaps untapped potential of others (pre-packaged gnocchi, rice sushi, tempeh). If I buy a vegetable or protein on a whim at my local Saturday green market just because it looks good – frozen lamb kielbasa from the merino farm, or a crimson head of radicchio from Treviso – I can almost guarantee I’ll find a use for it in “I Dream of Dinner” on a Wednesday, as I begin to realize that the end of the day is approaching and the panic is setting in. I came to look at my pantry drawer full of overlooked grains – a two-pound bag of bulgur bought for a now-forgotten and very specific recipe, for example, in a new light.

Slagle is generous with permission to break the rules in the service of minimizing effort or maximizing pleasure, ideally both. Lentil soup goes “over spring break,” lightened up with snow peas or snow peas; baked pasta is prepared in a baking sheet so that each square is as crispy as a corner piece; the eggs for the salad are fried hard instead of hard. She plays with words: Chickpeas braised in olive oil can “fall on the pasta” and the “shake vegetables” are crushed with a rolling pin before being tossed with feta and dill. Each recipe is titled much like a magazine article, with a verbose subtitle: “Charred Vegetables with Turmeric Peanuts: To keep sugary vegetables from being cloying, burn them.” Kinda.” I used this lamb kielbasa (plus prepared farro and horseradish mixed with sour cream) to absolutely spectacular effect in his “Crispy Grains with Kielbasa & Cabbage.” reads: “Scandal: Stew ingredients spill out of pot, flee for heat ripple under broiler.”)

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