I believe in cooking. It’s a skill that demands some attention to the quality of the ingredients, the origin of the recipe, and your own proficiency with certain techniques. Yet, once you are comfortable in the kitchen, life suddenly becomes better. Your family will be a lot happier, too, as they enjoy one home-cooked meal after another.
When I wrote my most recent book, The Dinnertime Survival Cookbook, I made a point of choosing good family recipes. Some were easy and quick, others were easy but not so quick. I don’t think “quick” is the hallmark of a great recipe. I think “good” is.
The food you buy makes a big difference in the taste of any dish. You don’t have to buy expensive or nothing but “organic-and-locally-grown” food, but you should think “fresh” and “not overly processed.”
I suggest shopping the perimeter of the supermarket, where the fresh produce, dairy, meat and fish are displayed. The interior aisles hold the packaged and canned foods with the longest shelf lives. Some items in those aisles are great: canned tomatoes, prepared chicken broth, baking chocolate, steel-cut oatmeal, and frozen vegetables. Others are not so good.
For the most satisfaction in the kitchen, I also suggest you pay attention to the integrity of a recipe. Is it from a trusted source? A published book or established web site? Do the instructions include cooking times and visual cues for doneness? Look how carefully the ingredients are listed. If the recipe says “1 can of tomato sauce,” for instance, beware. The writer didn’t take the time to tell you what size can. What else did he leave out?
I am not a fan of books that promise excellence “in less than 20 minutes.” For one thing, my 45 minutes might be your 20. So that’s not fair. I don’t find cooking particularly relaxing but I don’t find it stressful, either. I like to do a job well and I love to eat the result of that care—and see others enjoy it, too. I have friends who look forward to the hour or so they know they will spend in the kitchen most evenings. They find it a nice respite from the rest of the day; a time to listen to music or the news, chat with the kids or spouse, or simply check out for a little while. I understand this. (In fact, I wrote an entire book called The Family Kitchen about how to include your kids in the kitchen as a way to spend time with them and teach them to cook along the way.)
As my kids have grown up and I have cooked countless weekday dinners, I have learned to like shortcuts, as long as they don’t compromise the recipe. This wasn’t always true. I trained at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and worked as a chef in New York City for a number of years. I was taught to do things “right.” At the CIA, we didn’t cook from scratch; we cooked from the ground up. Want pasta? Get out the flour and eggs. Feel like a croissant? Start making that puff pastry dough.
Nowadays, I buy pasta and frozen puff pastry. I also use canned beans rather than soak dry ones. And I have become a vocal fan of pre-cooked lasagna noodles (hint: cover the noodles completely with sauce before baking).
I have made pie crust so many times, I barely think about it (you may feel the same), but I know a lot of folks are frightened by it. I don’t wince when someone uses store-bought pie crust, but I urge you to try your hand at making it from a good recipe instead. It tastes much, much better and is surprisingly easy. But I would rather someone buy a pie crust and fill it with fresh orchard apples than buy a frozen pie.
Time in the kitchen is rewarding in so many ways. In the short term, home-cooked food tastes better than pre-cooked or delivered meals. In the long term, it is much more healthful to eat food you cook yourself mainly because it’s not overprocessed, over sweetened, over salted, or otherwise tampered with. And you will feel good about yourself and what you are doing for your family.
Asparagus, Leek, and Feta Frittata
Frittatas can be eaten warm or at room temperature. They are easy to make your own by varying the ingredients, and I find them simpler than quiches (no crust required!). A nonstick pan guarantees a perfect turnout every time.
Serves 6 to 8
10 stalks asparagus, thick or woody ends removed
1 large leek, root end trimmed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground pepper
10 large eggs
1 cup half-and-half
4 ounces feta cheese, broken into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Remove the top inch of the asparagus tips and split them lengthwise. Cut the remaining stalks crosswise into very thin slices.
Split the leek in half lengthwise and slice the white end and the light green part of the stalk it into half-moon-shaped slices about 1/4 inch thick. (You will have about 11/2 cups.) Put the leek slices in a large bowl of water and swish them around to rinse well, changing the water until it runs clear. Lift from the water with your hands or a slotted spoon and set aside.
Melt the butter in a 10-inch, oven-safe, nonstick sauté pan over medium heat until it begins to bubble. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the asparagus and leeks for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. Season with salt and pepper and spread the vegetables evenly in the pan. Whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Season lightly with pepper. Pour into the pan with the asparagus and leeks and sprinkle the feta over the top of the frittata. Cook over medium heat for about 1 minute before transferring the pan to the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until set in the center.
Debra Ponzek is the owner of Aux Delices Foods in Connecticut, and the author of four cookbooks. Her web sites are auxdelicesfoods.com and dinnertimesurvival.wordpress.com. Follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DebraPonzekCookbooks and on Twitter @debponzek.