A friend asked me recently how long I spend making dinner. I think that most nights the answer would be 30-45 minutes. As you know, my pantry is usually hurricane-ready and I do a lot of farm stand shopping during the weekend, so I can usually pull something together in that amount of time. Most of my go-to weeknight recipes are ones that are simple and rely in great part on ingredients I normally have. I might have to pick up some fish or shellfish or a rotisserie chicken day to day, but I try to keep kitchen time on a weeknight to a minimum. I know Rachael Ray says that her 30 minute meals are quicker than ordering take out, and I guess that's true to some extent, but it is still more effort to cook and to plan ahead to have the right ingredients. The reality is that it is easier to order in Thai food or pizza than it is to make even a basic meal at home.
However, for me, because of the need to eat healthier - watch sodium, calories, fat, etc. - and my desire for my family to eat healthier as well, I find the effort is unavoidable. It is just too hard to to know what is really lurking in the delicious carry out, for me to eat that way more than a couple of times a week. Since I do tend to eat lunch out several times a week, I try to prepare most dinners at home. Planning ahead and only choosing recipes that can be accomplished in that amount of time is how I make it work. I read many, many recipes each week. The only ones I try on a weeknight are those that I think I can squeeze in between pickup from tennis practice and delivery to drama class. Of course there are weeks when even this level of home cooking is just not going to fit into the schedule. I look at the cooking at home as a moving target.
As I don't have a demanding career now, this is a possiblility for me. I think if I didn't have this amount of time, I'd hire a family chef to do for us what I couldn't do myself. Although it seems expensive and a luxury to hire someone to prepare your meals, at least they'd be to your family's specifications. Some cook right in your own kitchen and leave your meals ready to go right in your refrigerator. It's like convenience food, but without all the additives, extra sugar, fat and sodium.
Michael Pollan recently wrote in the Sunday New York Times magazine (August 2, 2009) about how Americans, depite their love of cooking shows on TV, have given up cooking and have relegated it to a hobby akin to camping, hunting, gardening and riding horseback. His basic point is that in contrast to this trend, cooking at home is directly connected to a more healthful diet, and, therefore, to better health. It's a touchy subject, though, as the call for a large scale return to home cooking seems to some like a reversion to the 1950's for women. While Pollan opines that men can cook too, it seems to me that it does fall on women a little more heavily in many homes. In opposition to the argument that a return to more home cooking is a regression in rights for women, Pollan suggests that the move from home cooking to industrial cooking and farming was not spurred by woman entering the workforce so much as by effective marketing by corporations and the economics of the large supply of available convenience foods.
Regardless, as the evidence mounts suggesting that we can improve our health by eating fewer prepackaged and mass produced convenience foods, I feel I have no choice but to try to make this cooking at home work. So my goal is to make it as painless as possible. Full disclosure - I love to cook. But I do not love weeknight meal preparation. That is almost a different animal all together, what with all of our busy schedules. In support of cooking, take this one example from Michael Pollan's article with you: not only has mass production driven down the price of many junk foods, but items like French fries didn't become so popular until industry made it so easy for us to purchase and eat. Likewise, he notes that the mass production of cream-filled cakes, taquitos, chips and cheese puffs has made them all everyday items. He says "the fact that we no longer have to plan or even wait to enjoy these items, as we would if we were making them ourselves, makes us that much more likely to indulge impulsively." It's really hard for a home cooked meal to compete.
To makes things easier for myself, when I see grass fed ground lamb, I buy a package or two to keep in the freezer. They are often sold already frozen, are really fine to freeze, and are very versatile in cooking. If I can remember to defrost it, I can be a rock star around this house with one dish in particular that my family loves. This is my version of Melissa Clark's deconstructed Turkish dumplings from the New York Times food section. Even though Paul does not like eggplant, he doesn't seem to care that this dish is filled with it. And really, so what if he pushes it to the side of his plate - more eggplant for me! This time I've got grass fed lamb from Jamison Farm in Latrobe, PA. They've been coming to the new Bethesda Farm Market, which is located in the parking lot behind Jaleo on Sunday mornings. There is also a Thursday market on Bethesda Lane from 3 - 7 pm. Check it out at bethesdacentralfarmmarket.com. There is also a great fish guy there!
Pasta with Turkish-Style Lamb, Eggplant and Yogurt Sauce
Adapted from Melissa Clark, New York Times
(serves 4 - 6)
1 large eggplant
olive oil cooking spray
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced, and kept separate
1 large shallot, minced
1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta, a multi grain might work here though we use regular pasta
1 pound ground lamb, preferably grass fed
Aleppo pepper flakes, if you have it, to taste, or ground chili powder.
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2/3 cup plain fat free Greek yogurt
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Put up water for the pasta.3. Cube the eggplant into a 1/2 inch dice.
4. Spray a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil with olive oil cooking spray and spread the cubed eggplant out in a single layer. Spray tops of cubes with the cooking spray. Sprinkle the eggplant with a little salt. Roast about 20 minutes or until the eggplant is getting brown and some bits are crispy.
5. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and one of the cloves of minced garlic. Saute a few minutes until the shallot has softened and become slightly translucent.
6. Cook pasta according to package directions.
7. Add the gound lamb to the skillet with the shallots and garlic. Sprinkle the Aleppo pepper flakes or chili powder over the lamb. Several good pinches should do. Mix well and cook until the lamb is uniformly brown and no pink spots remain (If you are not using grass fed, you might even want to do this in a separate pan so that you can drain the meat from the fat. The grass fed lamb will not produce so much fat).
8. Add dill to skillet and sprinkle a pinch of salt. Stir eggplant into the mixture in the skillet. Taste and add salt and Aleppo pepper as needed.
9. In a small bowl, mix the yogurt with the reserved minced clove of garlic.
10. Drain pasta and add to the skillet to mix if your skillet is large enough. Otherwise, place pasta on serving platter and cover with the lamb/eggplant mixture. Top with the yogurt sauce. Sprinkle a little Aleppo pepper on top of the yogurt. Garnish with a little chopped dill.