It’s 6am Sunday morning and the house is blissfully quiet. Andrew is still sleeping; and Forrest is doing that thing where he sits on various window sills of the apartment for long stretches of time watching the birds and the squirrels with the kind of rapt attention usually reserved for very important things. We call it “morning cat office hours”, because he takes his job very seriously. When the squirrels make it dangerously close to the window, you can see Forrest pacing back and forth behind the curtains, clearly unnerved by what he clearly believes is them taunting him.
I’m finally writing in our new-ish office where we hung the Elfa shelving from the Container Store. We didn’t need that expense making a dent in our bank account, but we had no choice. The home office is a tiny room hardly the size of a closet, and the way our desks were set up, things were piling up everywhere. To let the Container Store guy do its job (aka hang shelves in the home of two home-improvement illiterate Jews), we had to move all the furniture and detritus out, which of course, meant that we could no longer find things like staples and tape, notebooks and printing paper, post-its and paperclips, and most importantly – bills.
Yesterday, was the first day we had of no plans, no extended stay visiting family or friends, no obligations, no books to edit (me), no breaking stories to cover (Andrew) – and I, in my crazy nesting stage, demanded we put our home office in order. The chaos of it all, loose papers everywhere, was clouding up my mind and affecting everything else; it was even making it hard to breathe. And that’s what we did pretty much all day. Five loads of laundry, a trip to the post office, and the organization of our home office. I made sour milk waffles for breakfast, the ones I tend to make the most around here given my inability to plan such things, and swapped in a third of buckwheat flour for the all-purpose. Andrew declared them even better than the original, and I think a new family favorite is born. At the end of the evening, we rewarded ourselves with some excellent Indian take-out which we ate while watching SNL reruns.
Outside of organizing the home office, not much happened. I vowed that today I’d make pie crust for Thanksgiving and the secret soup which I’m surprising our families with. We’re hosting again, but this time, our holiday will be a bit more modest given that I’m operating with a larger belly and am not making a dozen sides to go with our turkey. A handful will be plenty and good enough. Plus cooking ahead, in stages, is making it easier for me.
It’s been a funny thing cooking at home since I started work in September. I love my job, love the work, and I love each new challenge. I don’t so much love having to edit two books in addition to the job despite my love of both books. It’s hard: weeknights and weekends spent poring over books line by line, and being pregnant is a bit draining especially at night.
And I’ve had a harder time, than I’d expected, adjusting to the demands of working full-time in an office, the daily commute, plus dinner prep. If you had talked to me last month, I’d tell you that I’m kind of failing on the home cooking front. There’s been a lot of takeout and not a whole lot of cooking. But in the last month or so, I’ve come to be gentler on myself – I’m doing the best I can.
Curiously enough, there must be something in the air about cooking at home, because there’s been a flurry of articles and blog posts about it, with some pieces charged and maybe a touch incendiary, and others calmer and more neutral.
Cooking at home, especially for an adult who commutes daily to a full-time job, but most certainly for all, is another logistical piece of the time management puzzle. How often is often enough; how does one feel about nightly weeknight cooking; is there guilt involved when it’s not frequent enough (whatever “enough” means)?
Whatever your thoughts are on home cooking, I think we need to remember to keep one thing in mind: shaming others for something that’s different from your routine doesn’t really accomplish anything outside of resentment and hurt feelings. In these articles/posts, some people boasted their deep dislike of cooking and even prided themselves on it – fine. But then they went to shame others for liking to cook weeknight dinners, linking it to a gender bias of sorts (not an invalid argument but one that we should probably explore on its own).
If you don’t like cooking; if you’re fine ordering takeout; if you view that cooking is a gender-biased activity (and it still very much is – but that’s a whole other can of worms) – then don’t cook. Whatever your time, resources, and other factors allow, feed yourself (and others) in a manner that works for you. I know of a family where finances are plentiful, and they order healthy home-cooked meals every night. No one in the family cooks, but they like to eat whole foods especially because they have a voracious toddler. They’re lucky to have the means, and I’m glad that my friend, a former colleague, feels no guilt over not cooking.
I, personally, oscillate between feeling guilty in not cooking enough, resenting the fact that I have to cook, and accepting it for what it is. Writing a food blog and having written cookbooks (and working as an editor of cookbooks), creates an illusion that I serve three course dinners every night. Or that I’m, somehow, more proficient as an efficient home cook. Ha! Far from it, friends! You want an elaborate meal that takes a day to prepare replete with obscure techniques? I’m your girl. But if you throw a challenge of a bona fide fast, weeknight home-cooked meal, you’ll find me scratching my head more. Home cooks everywhere, who plan ahead or are just resourceful enough not to plan and wing it, I bow down to you.
Because of this expectation, I have some, perhaps unfounded, that run through my head: the “why am I not this resourceful and look inside my fridge and just make something?” or the “why can’t I plan meals every weekend?” or the “other people put dinner on the table in half an hour-why can’t I?”
There are days when I make all that noise in my head stop: I’m doing the best I can. With a “Look, I made this bolognese, and we froze it and ate it over several weeks!” And a “How about some spicy cabbage with a fried egg, Andrew?”
There’s also the issue of feeling the pressure to cook and the resentment that builds up with it. On the other hand, I get it. I am the primary cook in the family. Correction: at this juncture I am the sole cook in the family, unless you count an occasional egg that Andrew will fry for me, all the meals in this house are made by yours truly. I’m not, however, the sole dishwasher in the house as Andrew has taken on this role–and does it with gusto. But in anticipation of the arrival of the baby, he’s trying to learn a few dishes—a few easy dishes—to get us through the first few weeks or months. He’s been introduced to the slow-cooker, and he is now beginning to realize its magical powers. We made the Santa Fe Chicken last week, thanks to Jenny of Dinner, a Love Story, and he was all, “You just dump everything in there and walk away for ten hours?!?”
I have a feeling, friends, that the slow-cooker will save us.
For me, reading Molly and Luisa’s posts on cooking at home, clarified one thing: what you do in your kitchen is something that you should never feel badly about. If you can make fresh dinner every night – great; and if you can’t – that’s okay too. If you hate cooking – you’re allowed to hate it and not feel guilty about it. I was getting a manicure the other day (I have the misfortune of inheriting of the sort of cuticles that need dire professional help–and if you saw them you’d agree!) and this lady who was sitting next to me–who looked 60 and turned out to be 85!–said to me, “I’ve never much liked cooking, but I made damn sure all the men I was ever with could cook.” She made it work for her in her own way.
I know that feeling obligated to cook—that there’s no one in the household who’d do it instead of me—makes me somewhat resentful. I dislike the feeling of obligation, and while I envision myself cooking a quick meal nightly, it’s the prep and the clean-up that always get me. By the time we’re done eating, it’s nine o’clock, and we have to clean the kitchen, and I start my pregnant lady bed prep. And then I think to myself, What happens to expectant commuting moms with one small child? There’s bath time and putting them to bed, and then, just then, it’s dinner and clean-up!
I knew a woman once who would pride herself on cooking a home-cooked dinner every night. She’d boast how easy it was and cast an eye of consternation on those who couldn’t keep up, deeming them as not trying hard enough. But she worked from home, and part time too, so it was not a fair comparison to moms who spent two-hours-plus-a-day going to and from work.
And what I loved so much about Molly’s post is that she said simply, I cook twice or three times a week or so, and that’s good enough for me. She didn’t make apologies; didn’t ask for permission. She simply found a place where she’s happy. Cooking any more, and it’s a chore; any less—and she misses it.
My own happy medium is evolving. I find that Sunday food prep and my slow-cooker are making a huge difference. That double batch of bolognese I made, I have two more meals worth’ sitting in the freezer. The tomato and pepper soup from our weekend in the North Fork – half is sitting frozen awaiting a rainy night when grilled cheese sandwiches are just the thing. That Santa Fe chicken was a revelation – and will be on regular rotation these fall and winter months. I’m trying Asian style slow-cooker ribs today and will let you know how it goes.
As for weeknight meals from scratch, one of our favorites is this lentils, sausage, kale number we do once every couple of weeks. Here’s how it goes, though I’ll include a tight writeup below as well so you can print just that in case you need to: brown a pound of spicy Italian sausage in grapeseed oil (we’ve tried it with kielbasa, turkey sausage, and merguez – all excellent), add a splash of sherry vinegar to deglaze. Add cooked lentils (how much is up to you, but we cook about 1 1/2 cups and add all of that in), and about 4 cups of shredded kale. If your kale is prepackaged, add a splash of water to help it wilt. If you washed and cut the leaves, the residual water will help the kale do its wilty thing. Season to taste with salt, bearing in mind that sausage is salty — and serve. The whole thing takes about 15-20 minutes to make and dirties up one (1!) pot. If you need to cook your lentils, you can do that immediately upon getting home – and then spend the next 20-30 minutes organizing your home, and prepping the remaining ingredients. If you have a Trader Joe’s nearby, they sell pre-cooked, vacuum-sealed lentils AND pre-cut kale, so, really, your whole meal is minutes away. Anything you don’t finish that evening makes for stunning leftovers the morning after with a… you guessed it… fried egg on top. Or lunch at work if you’re anything like us and trying to save some money. Either way this might make its way into your regular weeknight rotation – it’s definitely a keeper here.
Lentils with Sausage and Kale
The guidelines and proportions I give below are just a loose structure. You may find you want a lot more kale and a lot less sausage or vice versa. There’s really no messing up this dish. And if you’re a Trader Joe’s regular, they sell precooked, vacuum-packed lentils which are fantastic and a huge time save – as well as cut up kale. Sometimes, weeknights can be a total bind and you have 15 minutes to make dinner. If you have these short-cuts in your pantry, this is possible – and I doubt any take-out can deliver that fast.
1 1/2 cups lentils de Puy
Stock or water to cover the lentils (see below)
¼ cup olive oil
2 fresh sage leaves
1 pound spicy Italian sausage (turkey sausage, merguez, kielbasa, etc. also great here)
6 to 8 cups shredded lacinato or regular kale (see below for whole kale leaves)
1. If cooking lentils: Pick and wash the lentils and place in a medium sized pot. Add enough stock or water to cover the lentils by 2 inches. Add olive oil, sage, and a generous pinch of salt (if using stock, make sure it’s not salted), stir, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the lentils come to a boil, reduce heat enough so the liquid is at a moderate simmer, and cook lentils, stirring and tasting for doneness from time to time, until the lentils are soft and chewable but still have a pleasant bite/toothsomeness to them, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking liquid. [I like to add the liquid to the pan in later stages, or if there’s enough, it makes for a satisfying soup with a few spoons of lentils for lunch the following day.]
2. While your lentils cook, cut the sausage into 1-inch pieces and, if your kale comes whole, thinly slice the kale into ribbons. If you like to remove the spine of the kale, do so, but I always like a bit of crunch and heft, and on a weeknight, I’m too rushed and lazy to remove the spine. I do, however, trim quite a bit of the dry stems on the bottom.
3. In a large skillet set over medium-high heat, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan and heat until the oil shimmers. Add the sausage, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the sausage is well-browned and there’s no pink inside, about 7 to 9 minutes. Add the cooked lentils, reduce heat to medium, and stir to combine; cook until the lentils are warmed through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add a splash of vinegar and deglaze the pan, scraping the brown bits off the bottom. Add the kale and toss to combine. Cook, stirring, until the kale is wilted approximately 3 to 4 minutes. While the kale cooks, to help it wilt and if the pan seems dry, add a generous splash of the lentils cooking liquid or water. Remove from heat and serves immediately.