An eager cook, I used to dash around convenience stores after work trying to think of something for supper, envying those who could spend more time in their kitchens. I'm not an aficionado of the frozen dinner. Even after a tough day I prefer to spend 15 minutes cooking spaghetti and tossing it with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes than the same amount of time waiting to eat the contents of an aluminum foil pan that will feed only one person when it says it will do two.
But when I had a baby, my cooking changed. "Quick" cooking was no longer the answer; I couldn't stir a risotto for 25 minutes with a baby on my hip. I needed effortless cooking. I had to find simple ways to turn the building blocks of meals -- chicken thighs, chops, a few bell peppers -- into something that would make me salivate as well as sustain me.
The first thing I did was throw nearly everything in the oven, which takes less time than you'd think. A jointed chicken cooks in 40 minutes, a small leg of lamb in 50, and fillets of fish in 12. An ever-growing range of marinades kept me roasting and baking vegetables and meat for months. When I got tired of marinating, I served roasted meat and fish with pestos, salsas, and savory butters that could be whirled in the blender. I plundered the cuisines of every country I could think of for ways to accessorize simple offerings.
Even desserts got the oven treatment. Baked fruit might sound boring, but try it doused in red wine and cassis, cooked very slowly and served with a big bowl of cream -- better than any slaved-over bit of pastry. One-dish cooking also became vital: vegetables were stuck in with the meat, and I acquired winning ways with little potatoes, roasting them with spices, glazed with balsamic vinegar, or drizzled with pesto. Green salad became ubiquitous.
There are plenty of faster dishes in this book too. Lots of them are quite restaurant-y and ideal for last-minute supper parties. Seared tuna or chicken can be dressed up with the same sauces as roast beef. A bag of greens can be tossed with other ingredients -- figs, prosciutto, and pomegranate seeds, for instance -- which require only a bit of shopping.
Finding ways of cooking that involve spending no more than 15 minutes at the kitchen counter (though the meal might take longer to cook) has made me more creative: I have looked again at what I can do with a jar of tahini, a can of anchovies, or a bag of pears. It has also made me more sociable. These days I can have friends for supper midweek (even with a job and two children) and not end up frazzled.
Whether you have a punishing job, are juggling kids, or are single and just want ideas for no-hassle entertaining, if you like your food simple, this book will help you to make it better.
A recipe, from a café in Hawaii, which I have been making for years. There's practically no cooking, but everyone loves this dish -- it's always hard to resist sweet, honey-glazed meat. Serve with rice and stir-fried greens, or in good weather, a salad of greens, shredded scallions, and julienned (fine strips) cucumber and carrot.
pacific lime chicken
5 tbsp honey
5 tbsp dark soy sauce
juice of 4 limes
1 tbsp light brown sugar
3 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
leaves from 5 sprigs thyme
8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
wedges or halves of lime, to serve
1 Mix all the marinade ingredients together. Make incisions in the underside of the chicken and pour the marinade over it. Cover with plastic wrap. If you have time, leave the chicken to marinate -- from 15 minutes to the whole afternoon -- in the refrigerator, turning the chicken pieces every so often.
2 Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Lift the chicken out of the marinade and put it in a small roasting pan or shallow gratin dish; it needs to lie in a single layer. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, basting every so often with the cooking juices until cooked through. If it gets too dark in color, cover the dish with aluminum foil. The finished dish will be sticky and glossy. Serve with the limes.
roast catalan chicken
Cook in the same way as above but make the marinade from 1⁄4 cup olive oil, 1⁄2 cup honey, the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tbsp ground cumin, 6 crushed garlic cloves, salt, and pepper. Serve with little roasted potatoes and a big green salad.
Excerpted from Pure Simple Cooking by Diana Henry. Copyright © 2009 by Diana Henry. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.