Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What's for dinner?

Most of you can make an educated guess that I am a bit of a kitchen nazi.  As Jason would put it, a really cute kitchen nazi, but still...  I love making dinner and don't relinquish that responsibility easily, that's why Jason barely gets to cook.  But in the last couple of weeks, Jason has been the king of the kitchen since I've been spending most of my time feeding our freshly baked second kiddo (now 2 and 1/2 weeks old).  I have to say, it's an incredible feeling to walk into the dining room and find the table all set and a wonderful meal waiting for me.  The trouble is now Jason knows that putting dinner on the table every day is actually quite easy, while I still have no idea how to do taxes, take care of the yard, or do any of his chores.

So what have we been eating?  All the usual: protein + vegetable + bread.  That's our dinner formula, and it has served us well through late nights in the office, hosting guests, and now having a toddler and a baby to take care off.  Here are some sample dinners:
  • Bluefish and green beans
  • Rack of lamb and beets
  • Steak and spinach
The only seasoning we use is salt and pepper.  Even our preparation method is almost always the same: sear the protein, and if it's over 1 inch thick, start it or finish it in the oven.  It's the same meal every night, so we can get it on the table with our eyes closed in about 20 minutes of active time.  The beautiful thing is that a rack of lamb will never taste like bluefish, and beets will never taste like green beans.  So even though our seasoning and preparations are the same, every dinner tastes different.  Did I forget to mention the starch?  No.  That's what bread is for.  If it's a good loaf, it's the best starch in the world, requires no prep, no dishes, and is perfect for mopping up the sauces and juices from the fish and meat.

I am sure someone will point out that my 20 minute meals are not particularly egalitarian.  Not everyone has access to fresh fish, not everyone can afford a rack of lamb and halibut for dinner on regular basis, not everyone's kids are willing to eat spinach, and not everyone wants to get their floor splattered every night while searing.  Let me save you the trouble and accuse myself of being an elitist snob.  There.  Now everyone feels better.  If Gourmet magazine was accused of such snobbery, I am in good company.  Despite what Rachel Ray wants you to think, there is no one-size-fits-all quickie meal.  Everyone has their concerns and limitations.  But if the following applies to you, I think my quickie meals might fit you better than Rachel Ray's:
  • you have access to decent fishmongers and butchers (or even Whole Foods)
  • you have a good bit of money to spend on food
  • you are concerned with tastiness and healthiness of your meals rather than calorie per dollar ratio
  • you don't mind getting the kitchen a little messy
  • you like to learn basic cooking principles rather than follow the recipe
A quick word about the cost.  Say, you buy a relatively pricey protein at $20/Lb, spend $5 on a vegetable, $3 on bread and another $2 on basics (butter, oil, salt, pepper).  That's $30 for a meal for 2.  Can you think of a dinner out that would be $30 for a meal for 2 with tax and tip?  I bet it's not likely to include a prime rib-eye or halibut.

If you want to give this a shot, here are some tips:
  • Bread freezes very well.  To avoid going to the store every day to buy fresh bread, but a ton, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze.  Take it out in the morning before going to work and you'll have bread ready for dinner.
  • If you are very concerned with your floor getting greasy, buy a drop cloth (like the ones you use when painting a room) at home depot and put it in front of your stove when searing.
  • Learn to test proteins for doneness.  This makes or breaks your meal.  If your protein is 1/2 inch thick or thinner, it will be done by the time you brown both sides.  If your protein is 1 inch or thicker, you'll need to start or finish it in the oven.  Here are some tips on doneness and basic cooking principles for fish, chicken breasts, chicken legs, tender cuts of meat (this applies to beef, lamb and veal).  For tender cuts of pork, use the same principles as for beef, but slow roast to a slightly higher temperature of 115F before searing.
  • You will need good cookware and a meat thermometer, but I warned you -- this is for people who love to cook.
  • What proteins go with what veggies?  In my opinion, all proteins go with all veggies.  So I could reshuffle the above ingredients and serve green beans with lamb, and beets with bluefish, and nothing terrible would happen.  Of course, some combinations work particularly well, but it's not worth worrying about when trying to put dinner on the table on a Tuesday night.  
That's pretty much all there is to it.  Luckily, you have an opportunity to practice this stuff on daily basis -- you have to eat, right?  Substitute your food TV watching with dinner making and you'll be amazed how much your cooking skills will improve.

P.S. The plate in the picture was one of our dinners last week.  It's a salad of watermelon radish (sliced on a madoline), honey crisp apples and parsley.  We dressed it with lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper; then topped it with leftover salmon.


Alex M said...

Great Article!

Anonymous said...

You make it sound so easy!

Molly - Dinnerware said...

Great stuff! I keep learning new things every time I come back to your blog.