The Principles of Beat the Clock Cooking:
Flavor, Organization, Focus and Creativity
Everyone wants dinner ready in a hurry, yet one that is good tasting and reasonably healthful too. Take-out food has its limitations—how much pizza and kung pao chicken can you eat? And dining out can be expensive.
In a study commissioned by Land O’ Lakes, fewer than 10 percent of those polled thought it was possible to make a successful meal in 30 minutes or less. Thirty minutes? That’s a lifetime as far as I’m concerned. I know it’s possible to beat the clock with a flavorful, nutritious dinner in 15 minutes.
Cooking to Beat the Clock is based on four principles, which will enable you not just to pick out a recipe here and there, but to develop a lifelong strategy for fast meals, regardless of how long they take.
Flavor means a pantry—which in this book also includes the refrigerator and freezer—well stocked with ingredients that, whenever possible, “do double duty in flavor and texture. That’s what shrinks time,” says Andrew Schloss, author of Cooking with Three Ingredients and an old classmate of mine at the Restaurant School in Philadelphia.
For example, with a richly flavored extra virgin olive oil and an equally intense balsamic or red wine vinegar, you don’t need much more than salt and pepper for a first-rate vinaigrette. Yes, you may have to pay more for these ingredients, but don’t we always pay a little extra for convenience? And isn’t a superior-tasting final product worth it?
In addition to packing as much flavor and texture as possible, a well-stocked pantry means you’re less likely to run out for last-minute ingredients, a double whammy if you’re in a rush. Substitutions can also be made more easily with a full arsenal of foodstuffs. Don’t have pinto beans? Kidney beans will probably do. Chicken stock can sometimes be used in place of clam juice and arrowroot for cornstarch.
Included on this site are some pantry suggestions from the extensive list in the book. All relate to the recipes in the book, though some have much broader uses. Use them as a guide, adding or subtracting items to suit your own needs. For example, if you do a lot of Asian cooking, you may want to include ingredients such as hoisin or oyster sauce. Conversely, if you hate sardines, why keep them around?
Organization means a well-equipped batterie de cuisine, the right equipment to simplify and speed up meal preparation. You don’t need anything fancy or expensive, but I recommend several items, some of which you may already have.
Focus means being single-minded about getting the meal out in a hurry. It begins soon as you walk in the door and put a pot of water on to boil and turn the oven to broil. Focus means the question “How was your day, dear?” has to be asked and answered while eating dinner, not cooking it. No sipping of wine, listening to the news on the radio or sifting through the mail. Get in there and get it done, then be as leisurely as you want afterwards.
When I was ready to test each of the recipes for this book, my wife went into her office and closed the door. Then I set the timer and didn’t look up until the meal was ready, 15 minutes or fewer later. I prepared all of the meals myself, and having done so ,I honestly think it’s easier for one person to handle the task, especially in a small kitchen. Two people can get in each other’s way. Let the person who isn’t cooking do everything else for the meal, from setting the table to opening the wine.
Though just about every cookbook tells readers to scan the entire recipe before cooking a dish it, they don’t always do so. (I’ve been guilty myself more often than I care do admit.) Well, this time we really mean it. To make the recipes in this book work as quickly and efficiently as possible, you should read them through first. Most people know enough to get out the ingredients because they’re listed, but they often fail to read the method for what equipment is needed. You don’t want to be in the middle of a recipe and then go searching for a vegetable peeler or saucepan, only to find it is dirty in the dishwasher—or not find it at all. Remember that the timing of these recipes begins when all ingredients and equipment are laid out and ready to go.
Having equipment within easy reach is important. Because I often use the food processor I keep it almost at arm’s length. I suggest you do the same. That avoids rattling around in the cupboards. The same philosophy holds true for other equipment that you use often. Pots, pans, dishes, and utensils should be quickly available and not require a foot stool or deep knee bends to find. Put the dim sum molds, spaetzle mills, and other seldom-used items in the back of a drawer or in the far recesses of a cabinet.
Give yourself as much counter space as possible, even if it means putting a few things on the floor temporarily. My kitchen when I wrote this book was so small that I routinely used the top of the refrigerator and the top of the microwave oven as holding areas.
Focus provides something even more important than speed—safety. Looking one way while performing a task in another direction is a recipe for injury. By being single-minded on the task at hand, you’ll get it done quickly, enabling you to move on to the next one.
You’ll notice that recipes will frequently say, “Meanwhile…” or “While the meat cooks…” This is simply a way of letting you know that at the same time you are actively performing a task, something else is taking care of itself. For example, in the Pan Fried Snapper with Tomato Salsa and Basmati Rice, three things are going on at once. The salsa is being made while the rice cooks and the snapper sautés. You may be unaccustomed to managing such simultaneous tasks, but soon you’ll feel comfortable with the rhythm.
Creativity involves strategies for preparing meals in minutes, thinking beyond recipes so you don’t always have to follow a specific formula.
I realize that there is a certain comfort in following recipes. And I’m confident that my recipes are good enough to be prepared again and again. Nevertheless, it’s also my hope that you’ll use the recipes as a springboard, a blueprint if you will, to create many more 15-minute meals on your own.
To do this you need to think about concepts, rather than specific formulas. For example, Beef and Asparagus Stir Fry is a meat and vegetable stir-fry when you break it down. If the meat isn’t beef, it could be pork or lamb. Or it could be poultry, either turkey or chicken. Seafood might be shrimp, scallops, or cubes of tuna or swordfish. Vegetables might include string beans, broccoli, or several varieties of summer squash in lieu of asparagus. Obviously cooking times will vary, but you get the picture.
Chicken Fajitas with Mango Salsa is a stir-fry wrap sandwich with a sauce or salsa. The filling could be beef, lamb, or pork accompanied by onions or bell peppers in colors other than the red ones called for in the original recipe. The salsa could be one made with tomatillos, jicama, or avocados, and the tortillas could be corn or whole wheat instead of white flour tortillas.
Add an ingredient here and there if it happens to be in the fridge or you just feel like putting okra in the Jambalaya. Maybe you want some red in the Beef and Asparagus Stir-Fry. So you add some sliced red bell pepper. Of course, spices can change or vary in intensity to suit your particular taste.
Sometimes you might follow an ethnic bent. Say you’re doing a pasta and you have fresh tomatoes around. Basil, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese are natural accompaniments. But you could just as easily go Greek with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and oregano. An Asian marinade for chicken breasts might be soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and fresh ginger. A Middle Eastern twist could include cumin, garlic, coriander, lemon juice, and olive oil.
Once you feel confident, you might want to try some cross-cultural flavors, like Greek-style fajitas with the cucumber salad from the Middle Eastern Lamb with Cucumber Salad. But go easy in the beginning. Don’t just throw feta cheese and kalamata olives together with soy sauce and ginger. Even 15-minute meals have to have some logic and order.