My Secret Cooking Life

How You Can Turn Out Great Meals in Less Time

Actually, I don’t think that my cooking tip fits into the category of dirty little secrets—no, I like to think of it as a good idea, or at least, an idea that works for me—but it does happen to be one that I’ve never shared before.

It’s widely known that Baby Boomers love to go out to eat—we have the time and the discretionary funds to do so. But there has been a movement afoot to do more cooking at home. It’s better for our waistlines, our general health, and definitely, our pocketbooks. When you prepare food at home, you have control over the method of cooking and the quantity and the quality of the ingredients. I love farmers’ markets, so my house is stocked with organic fresh produce and farm fresh eggs and preserves. Of course, there is also a sense of satisfaction that comes from having prepared a healthful, delicious meal for yourself and your loved ones.

I do enjoy cooking…the cleaning up afterwards… not so much. So I try to avoid recipes with lots of steps that use several pots, pans, mixing bowls and utensils. And I am slow…always have been. I don’t mean mentally, and my husband might not say I am slow-tempered, and I am a whiz at Scramble with Friends, racking up a ton of words in two minutes. But when a recipe stipulates a 20-minute prep time, I have to double it, because it will take me 40 minutes. If I try to shave any time off of that, I feel anxious and forget if I left something out or added it twice and what time did I put something in and why didn’t I set the timer—you get the picture. I am looking for a sensual, calm cooking experience—more Barefoot Contessa and less Chopped. And coordinating several complicated dishes, so they’re all ready at the same time? I’ve decided that’s overrated, ever since I ate at a lovely Manhattan restaurant that simply brought dishes out when they were ready, and everyone remarked how innovative that was.

Years ago—before my nest emptied— I discovered that I could find great recipes in children’s cookbooks— books written either for those cooking with or for children. By great, I mean recipes that require little time, effort and experience. By great, I mean that I don’t have to struggle with mastering any complicated cooking techniques—no children’s cookbook will ask you to debone a chicken or make demi-glace. Nothing too messy or dangerous either—I don’t have to worry about my shaky knife skills; I’m not going to be called upon to produce classic tournés. By great, I mean that children’s recipes need to be appealing, tasty and nutritious (you don’t need a recipe to boil hot dogs or read the instructions on the back of a Kraft mac’n cheese box). By great, I mean that my husband has no complaints—of course, it helps that I am married to a big kid (by his own admission), who is a picky selective eater. By great, I mean I do not have to buy super expensive spices (no saffron required) that I will never use again or herbs that I actually dislike, like cilantro.

Before you judge me, let me remind you that the proof is in the pudding (by the way, chocolate pudding is just as scrumptious as pot de crème); first, you’ll need to sample dishes such as cucumber-yogurt salad, orange chicken, pasta with vegetables and pine nuts, zucchini bread and baked apples. Believe me, I’ve gotten compliments and recipe requests for these dishes—and others—on many occasions.

You don’t have to worry about hiding these cookbooks and shoving them behind more sophisticated books by chefs like Jacques Pépin or Patricia Wells—though you could; if anyone asks, you can just say that the books are left over from when you had kids underfoot or that you use them when your grands are visiting. Once, in a pinch, I said I was considering writing a children’s cookbook, myself, and was doing some research.

Anyway, next time you’re in a bookstore or online, check out some of the cookbooks designed for children. I think you’ll look at them in a whole new light, and you’ll be glad you did when dinnertime rolls around. Bon Appétit!

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