Today is the first day of October Unprocessed. If you’re not on board yet, you can still take the pledge (or simply follow along). While I’ve been getting excited during the lead-up to this year’s challenge, I’ve also been involved with a separate project that’s had me talking to people about the barriers to cooking-what is it that is keeping people who want to cook from doing it? I’ve had some interesting discussions, and so far, the one thing I’ve heard most often (perhaps predictably) is that people want to skip straight to the eating-often even those who say they enjoy cooking. As my neighbor put it recently, “I get off work and I just want to eat; I don’t want to spend time cooking.”
One way to keep weeknight dinner prep quick is to do batch cooking whenever you have the opportunity (which can be as simple as doubling the recipe whenever you do have time for cooking and freezing some portions for later). But no matter how much you plan, there are still going to be nights when, for whatever reason, you need a virtually instant meal. That’s what I’ve been looking into this week: very quick dinners that you can whip up in less time than you would spend in a drive-thru or assembling the packets in a box of convenience food.
The key is to be prepared by keeping your kitchen properly stocked. I looked at the challenge’s own quick meal strategies (10 Ways to Get Dinner Done in 10 Minutes), and the very first 10-minute recipe on that page is for pasta and pesto, which makes a great example. It calls for pasta, spinach, walnuts or pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and olive oil-all good things to make sure you keep on hand when you’re doing your regular shopping, as they’re common ingredients in a lot of dishes.
Nuts and cheese can be expensive, so I buy them in quantity and put whatever I might be using soon in the refrigerator (while freezing the rest for later). If you don’t want to keep up with fresh garlic or lemons, then by all means, get the minced garlic in jars or bottles of lemon juice (just watch the labels to make sure no questionable ingredients have been added). You might pay a little more or trade a bit of flavor for the convenience, but it will definitely speed things along. In this pesto recipe, you could also skip the garlic and lemon juice entirely because both ingredients are completely optional-in pesto, pretty much everything but the oil is at your discretion, since everything else can either be substituted or left out.
The spinach is the trickiest ingredient. It only lasts for a few days before it starts to get sad and wilty, so unless you just did your shopping yesterday, you’re not likely to just have some around (the same goes for basil, which is the classic pesto leaf, but it is also delicate and has a short shelf life, so unless you happen to have some growing out in the yard, that’s probably out, too). The whole idea here is to make a quick meal, with no popping out to the store for ingredients, so when you’re doing your regular shopping, it might be better to skip the spinach in favor of greens that will last longer and therefore can be kept on hand.
Heartier greens work just as well as spinach in pesto (or better, even), so feel free to stock up on whatever ones look fresh when you’re shopping. I’ve made some delicious pestos using thicker greens, such as kale and the tops of radishes and turnips. I’ve also improvised batches with a mixture of different greens that needed to be used up, and they all turned out great (pesto is very forgiving). Further, keep in mind that if you have stocked up on greens and they’re starting to get old, you can make this meal (or just a batch of pesto) to clear them out before they go to waste.
So there you have it. Keep the kitchen stocked with a few useful and frequently used ingredients, and you’ll be ready with at least one idea the next time you need dinner quick. Walk in the door and put on a pot of water for cooking the pasta-which can be any size, shape or color you want (or make a batch of zoodles, which might be even quicker). While the pasta is cooking, throw the greens, nuts, aromatics, cheese, seasoning and olive oil into a food processor for a brief spin, and by the time the pasta is done, the pesto topping will be ready!
Good luck to those who are doing the challenge this month! Whether or not you are participating, feel free to contact me if you’d like me to cover a particular topic (or if you’d like to participate in the continuing discussion on the barriers to cooking).
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.