What I Learned in a Year of Weeknight Cooking

The New York Times Lifestyle 1 month ago

In August, my husband and I rented a cottage in the woods near a beach for a week, a place where our toddler could barrel around and where we would cook most of our meals. The road up to the house was full of magic, as was the house itself, which dated to the 1700s. We roamed through it like the tourists we were, awed by the charm in its bones.

The kitchen appeared to have been renovated recently, with new appliances and an empty refrigerator that gleamed. This I liked. The pantry was nearly empty, too: just some sugar, salt, pepper, vanilla and a sticky bottle of olive oil of indeterminate age. I had brought a few staples with us, so this wouldn’t be a big issue.

And then I opened the drawers.

There I found a smallish wooden spoon, a tiny rolling pin, an ice cream scoop and a can opener that was clearly hanging in to pop open that one last can. There was only one knife, a serrated number that may also have dated to the 1700s. The cabinets held a few pots and a skillet.

I knew before I arrived that I wouldn’t be cooking anything elaborate: I wanted to be stationed on a beach chair, not toiling in the kitchen. But the empty pantry, coupled with that sad drawer of equipment and the lack of kitchen lighting I discovered upon nightfall (it really was the 1700s), pushed me to an even simpler place in my cooking than I normally go — and that is already a pretty simple spot, since I write a newsletter for The Times called Five Weeknight Dishes that is devoted to fast, easy cooking, and mirrors the kind of meals I actually make.

I made spaghetti with clam sauce, using canned clams, parsley and white wine. I sliced countless tomatoes for sandwiches. I pan-fried sausages to eat with salad and toast, carrying the pan full of sputtering fat across the room so I could see under the good light whether the meat was done. (This is safe and fun and not at all risky for your security deposit.)

We did eat a few meals out, and friends nearby invited us over for dinner. (I was dazzled by all the electric light in their kitchen.) But mostly we ate at our little cottage. I thought about how far a can of clams, a box of pasta and a package of sausage can take you when the goal is just to gather your people and feed them something good.

Sausage is a gift to weeknight cooks. Here they are quickly cooked on a sheet pan with peppers and tomatoes.

We sent out the first official edition of Five Weeknight Dishes a year ago, and I’ve learned many things in the course of cooking more weeknight meals at home, writing the newsletter and hearing from readers.

Chief among those lessons is that most home cooks want weeknight meals to be fast and simple — and by that I mean really, really fast, and really, really simple, much more so than I’d ever imagined. This is true even for people who love to cook. The pace of modern life demands it.

When I first started developing the newsletter with our team, I’d assumed the NYT Cooking archive was full of weeknight gems to feature. I had edited some of those recipes myself in my role as one of the editors of the Food section and NYT Cooking. This would be easy!

And yes, we had published some great weeknight recipes. But there were also many recipes we billed as “weeknight” that took far longer than an hour; or that required multiple cutting boards, pans or other pieces of equipment; or that had several flourishes or distinct subrecipes. (Think elaborate salad dressings, toasted and hand-ground spices, gremolatas.)

To be sure, this made the dishes more delicious, and for an experienced cook, some of the extras add only a few minutes. But those minutes compound over the course of an evening, as the counter gets cluttered, the sink gets more full; the next thing you know it’s 9:50 p.m. and you’re still sweeping gremolata scraps up off the floor.

It was clear that NYT Cooking needed to embrace weeknight cooking in a more radically simple fashion. It needed to be deliberately easy, blessedly fast.

Enter our heroic recipe writers, who treat weeknight cooking as the Rubik’s Cube they are itching to solve in as few moves as possible, conjuring the most flavor with the fewest ingredients and steps. Their strongest work often relies on pantry staples like those canned clams, and power ingredients like those sausages, which are already spiced and need absolutely nothing to make them delicious (and make everything around them delicious, too). This, I learned, is the best weeknight cooking of all.

Good weeknight ingredients to keep on hand: mustard, stock, pasta, tomatoes and various types of beans. 

I’ve found that what weeknight cooks really want isn’t ingenious ways to use trendy or previously obscure ingredients, but new ways to use staples like pasta, beans and chicken. This is especially true of chicken, which is generally comforting, unchallenging and amenable to many different pairings — including ketchup, the skeleton key for getting children to eat whatever you put in front of them.

These same cooks also embrace recipes they already know and love — but a little different, with a twist. So you can imagine my delight when a cookbook called “Food You Love but Different” recently landed on my desk. Published by Page Street in August, the book is filled with recipes like cacio e pepe, but made with Gorgonzola and gnocchi, and chicken soup made with hominy, poblano chile and a generous garnish of avocado and Cheez-Its.

I called the author, Danielle Oron, a chef who lives in Atlanta with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. “I found that over those past two years I really wanted to simplify my cooking just to get it done so I could see my family,” she said, “and also do it in a way that was a little more exciting.” She did it by taking the dishes she already made in her routine and tweaking them, cross-pollinating ingredients from different parts of the world, as is the modern way.

For busy cooks, it’s a way to change their routine while still remaining routine-adjacent.

Dawn Perry, the food director for Real Simple magazine, described it as “I’m going to try the animal-print trend, but just with a belt” — a way to dip a toe in. “Most people don’t want to try a whole new recipe every single night,” she added.

Ms. Perry, who has worked in magazine test kitchens and for a meal kit delivery service, has deep experience in the weeknight-cooking game. She’s also on maternity leave with her second child. “It’s a total hustle to get dinner on the table,” she said.

She is writing a cookbook on pantry cooking, which brings to me to something else I’ve learned: how essential it is to stock your pantry well. Boxed and canned ingredients like rice, pasta, rice noodles, chickpeas, black beans, coconut milk, tomatoes and tuna make it possible to cook fast and flexibly. (Read Melissa Clark’s love letter to canned foods if you need more persuading, or ideas.)

Ms. Perry, who lives in Brooklyn, described her weeknight cooking as a “pantry-based program”: She keeps her standard pantry items in stock, and augments them with a rotating cast of animal proteins and seasonal produce, combining them in different ways each night. (Cooking pasta with one kind of vegetable is not terribly different from cooking it with another.)

This enables her to avoid doing something she dislikes: meal planning.

“I don’t believe in meal planning, and I think it’s kind of mean to suggest that people do it,” she said. “I think it takes a certain kind of super-organized person.”

Ms. Perry is far from alone in loathing meal planning (too regimented, too unlikely to yield something you might actually want to eat that night). And I’ve become convinced, despite all the meal-planning literature on the internet and in cookbooks, that it’s too difficult to manage and not really how most people put dinner on the table: The plan falls apart by Thursday, if you even last that long. Disciplined, long-term, die-hard meal planners must exist out there, but I’m not sure I know any of them personally.

I think it’s far saner to loosely pick a few recipes for the week ahead, shop accordingly and keep your pantry stocked as a backup. Inevitably you will not make at least one of those recipes, and that is no big deal; just be sure to find a way to use up or freeze anything perishable.

Very few readers have actually asked me for meal plans. What they really want, if you go by the volume of email I receive, are more vegetarian recipes. These requests come from vegetarians and omnivores alike. I have been amazed and heartened by how many.

But back to the chicken for a minute. (Is there an ingredient more closely identified with weeknight cooking in America?)

The last thing I’ve learned is that people will try anything if there is chicken in it. Assuming they eat chicken. And assuming it’s not chicken liver.

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