“Quick cooking rarely comes from a recipe so much as it does from intuition built over the course of hours and hours mucking around in a kitchen.”
Elizabeth G Dunn, ‘The Myth of Easy Cooking’, The Atlantic, Nov 2015
Last year, a piece appeared in the Atlantic called ‘The Myth of Easy Cooking‘. I recognised a lot of the emotions in the article, and the idea that ‘easy’ recipes are often anything but. It was thinking about how to make weeknight meals easier and yet more interesting that led me to try out ‘Hello Fresh’ a couple of weeks ago.
I have been curious about this model of cooking for a while. Some time back, I tried out the Riverford recipe boxes, which are based on a similar idea: deliver recipes, along with all the ingredients to cook them, in the exact sizes needed, so there is no wasted food. Hello Fresh have been conducting a very intensive marketing campaign, so that I can’t seem to open a magazine, a parcel, a newspaper or a browser tab without seeing a promotion from them. Finally, I succumbed and redeemed one of their vouchers to see what it was all about.
The three recipes I chose for this week (with their Classic box, you can choose three from five recipes – the others have no choice, but you can change boxes or pause a box) were Firecracker prawns with chinese leaf, butterflied chicken with leeks and feta, and a Jamie Oliver recipe for stir-fried steak with broccoli and noodles.
My experience with the recipes themselves was not bad. The cooking times given were generally accurate, and the results were mostly good, although not that interesting. It was useful to have things like chili bean paste premeasured and in a small portion, when normally that’s the sort of thing that ends up with yet another jar taking up space in the fridge.
However, far from making cooking easier, I feel like these sorts of meals are more effort than I normally make on a weeknight. They generally involved 25-30 minutes of continuous cooking. I think that if you bought these as a novice cook, and followed along, it might give you confidence that you could follow other recipes. But it also might give the impression that an ‘easy’ evening meal should involve 25 minutes of non-stop work. And I don’t think that’s fair.
Most of my evening meals require much less intensive effort than that. Perhaps it’s the same amount of preparation and cooking time, but with long periods of things being left unattended in the slow cooker or the oven.
I don’t think that cooking has to be this hard. As a way of trying out new ingredients and cuisines, without having to invest in lots of new bottles and jars, it seems like a good approach. But for someone who cooks fairly regularly, this just makes my dinner preparation more frantic, not less, and gives me lots of individually portioned things that I generally already have in the kitchen.
So if recipe boxes might not be the answer, what are some other strategies for weeknight meals?
Batch cooking at the weekends
There is no shortage of advice on this tactic, especially from American food blogs, where giant freezers seem to invite this sort of approach. Take a look at pinterest, and you will see lots of examples of recipes you can make in advance. More generally, this approach works well for any soups, stews and pasta sauces, especially those that you can dress up in different ways with different side dishes and accompaniments. I tend to find a degree of boredom sets in if I stash too much of the same thing away, making me reluctant to get it back out again. What does work well is to freeze curry, bolognese, meatballs and soup.
Weekly ingredients prep
This is what Tracy at Shutterbean calls ‘meal prep’. Not quite preparing all the meals, but doing a lot of the chopping, cooking some grains or pulses, and boxing up snacks and salads for the week ahead. This gives a lot more flexibility than traditional meal planning, and boxing up snacks is a good move for kids. Some things that are easy to prepare in advance in this way: burrito bowls, big salads, soup and roasted vegetables.
The thing about slow cooker food is that it doesn’t often look pretty…
When I bought my slow cooker, I thought there was a risk it wouldn’t earn its place on the worktop. I am very happy to have been proved wrong here. It is invaluable for hands-off cooking, and the ability to have hot food ready as soon as I get in from picking up E at nursery is brilliant. Things that work best are large pieces of slow-cooking meat: pork shoulder, beef shin – and pulses. I’ve found it’s not necessary to brown things in advance in most cases. Depending on the amount of liquid you add, you can get some browning in the pot, and things like mince or bolognese don’t seem to suffer much from not having the meat browned, especially if you use pre-caramelised onions (which can also be prepared in the slow cooker!). I do sometimes chop onions, and get out ingredients the night before, to minimise the time needed in the morning. Even having a few cans and tins set out on the chopping board can remind me of what I need to do before leaving the house.
You don’t have to do a lot of preparation in advance to cook a hands-off dinner. One easy strategy is to put everything onto a large baking tray and cook it all together in the oven. Start with the protein if you’re using meat – a couple of chicken breasts or thighs, maybe sausages. Then add vegetables, tossed with some oil and vinegar and seasoning. Add leafy vegetables towards the end, and fish or prawns will just take a short time. Some variations on this theme: broccoli and prawns; fish and sliced potatoes; chicken with potatoes, rocket and yoghurt sauce; sweet roasted courgettes with crispy chickpeas.
One pan pasta
By the same token, you can cook vegetables and pasta in the same water and drain it all together. This works spectacularly well with broccoli, but you can also use an absorption method of cooking to put all the pasta sauce ingredients into a pan with the pasta and just enough water to cook it, and heat the whole thing until the water is absorbed and the pasta cooked through. This requires more attention than the other methods, as you need to keep stirring as the water reduces, to stop it sticking. Martha Stewart’s One Pan Pasta is the most famous/pinned version. Food52 have a range of variations, as well as the story behind the Martha Stewart version.