How to Cook Fast and Spend Less: Forget the Recipes

Dollars & Sense on 08.23.12
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Zucchini, onions, and cherry tomatoes awaiting an oven roast. Photo: Amy Suardi/Frugal Mama

Dinner doesn't have to be extraordinary. It just needs to be good and nourishing, says Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.

It took me about eight years, one Italian husband, and three kids to believe this. That I can just cook food simply and it's OK.  

After years of going through stacks of cookbooks, recipe-fueled cooking frenzies, and multiple subscriptions to Cook's Illustrated, I have finally figured out that cooking is just not that hard. I'm not talking about extraordinary, inspirational cooking. I mean, just getting a protein and a vegetable and a starch on the table every night. 

No complicated breading necessary. No layers of cheese alternating with sauce, and not even any spices. And the time it takes me to sauté a filet of fish in a little butter is much less than it would take to cook a tray of frozen fish sticks.

It took me a long time to get to this point. I married an Italian and, on my honeymoon, I broke down in tears at the thought of starting our new life. It wasn't because I was having cold feet. I didn't know how to cook.

"That's okay," Enrico tried to reassure, as tears rolled down my face. "Most pasta sauces are really simple. All you need is butter and parmesan. Or a can of tuna, or some sautéed tomatoes."

I didn't believe him, of course. Italian cuisine would not be so celebrated if it were that simple.

Back in Milan and on my first grocery trip with his retired father, I had no idea what to buy. I tossed a few random things in the cart, as if fixing dinner for an Italian man were like packing a weekend bag. I then proceeded home with my chicken breasts and mustard, closed the door behind me, and crumpled.

In those first weeks of needing and wanting to cook for someone else, I spent morning hours reading Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and in the afternoon, looking for her Pecorino, tomatoes, and basil at the outdoor market.

With lots of concentration, I was able to pull off recipes from another guru, Mark Bittman, like Pork Chops with Sherry Garlic Sauce. Once again, Enrico pointed out that, even though the fancy sauce was delicious, cooking didn't have to be this complicated.

I guess recipes finally got left by the wayside when we had our third child and I started to work part-time. It was just easier to cook things that I knew, and I began to realize that the same techniques -- like oven-roasting, sautéing, and blanching -- worked with basically every vegetable. Pan-searing worked with any meat.  And the only other ingredients I needed were butter or oil, salt and pepper. Even onions and garlic are extraneous. 

What I love most about using techniques, not recipes, is that I can deal with most anything the grocery store sales or the farm share throws at me. No buying food at full price or adding a bunch of exotic ingredients to the list.

Dinner is not spectacular. It's food. And -- it still amazes me -- my family thinks whatever I whip up is pretty darn good.  

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