Recently two New York Times food columns have ended- The Minimalist, after 13 years in the Wednesday section, and Cooking With Dexter, after two years in the magazine. I was surprised that while I loved the Minimalist about as passionately as I hated Dexter for the duration of their runs to find that the farewell Cooking With Dexter column struck a real chord with me. Bittman’s song has moved over the years from “Everyone can cook and almost everyone should” to “Eat Real Food,” and while I learned to cook from his columns (particularly Ten Minute Stir Fry, Spaghetti with Zucchini and Mint, and Short Ribs with Chinese Flavors– the first two were published the year I graduated from college and became the cornerstones of my menu repertoire), over the years I found him a little omnipresent (the man Tweets ninetytwo million times a day, it seems, and it doesn’t matter WHAT magazine I open at the gym or doctor’s office- Parents, Runner’s World, a five year old Architectural Digest- there he will be with a column) and also sometimes annoying. I found myself relating less to the “everyone can cook” philosophy. See, what done happened was, I had kids. And I found that I- someone who ENJOYS cooking, and someone who is home all day most days- I had trouble cooking dinner every night. How, exactly, was everyone else supposed to do it? Which is also why I hated Cooking With Dexter- it seemed like one smug dad in Brooklyn with his precious kid fixing quinoa and broccoli like everyone should.
So while I miss the Minimalist, I know Bittman will still be out there, fighting the good fight to get us all to stir fry brown rice and eggs for breakfast. But the final Cooking With Dexter nailed the problem Bittman struggles against:
In some circles, it has become kind of cool lately to talk about those of us who don’t manage to cook for our families as an abstract but urgent societal problem. We are the people who don’t have time to cook or — I particularly enjoy this phrasing — the people who say they don’t have time to cook. Because of us, society is coming unglued. Our children are eating processed foods and fast foods, and it’s making them fat and sick.Those who worry about this problem have a number of proposed solutions to “get people cooking again.” I’ve got one of my own: a federal law that requires everybody to leave work at 5, as my father did. I’d vote for that. But then because somebody has to put dinner on the table by 5:30 or 6, you’d need another law that would prohibit more than one parent per family from working full time. I wouldn’t vote for that, even if it did get Americans back in the kitchen.
What I’ve learned in the past two years is that when people say they’re too busy to cook, it isn’t like when they tell their doctors they exercise three, maybe four times a week. They mean it: they’re too busy to cook, or at least too busy to cook dinner every night of the week before the children go to bed.
Right? Pete Wells even has a solution: “what I probably needed was something edible that I could transfer from the freezer to the microwave to the table quickly.” Which is pretty much the whole reason for this blog- don’t we all? I thought, “Pete Wells, you don’t need Dino Nuggets- you need to add some casseroles to your repertoire! And, why didn’t you let this side of yourself show more the past two years?” Because, really, when my kids’ dinner time rolls around my children turn into squalling maniacs, not sweet hipster kids who want to help wash and grate vegetables. I don’t have time to prep a real meal for them, so they get whatever Jeff and I had the night before reheated. (Or, not going to lie, Trader Joe’s surprisingly tasty individual frozen pizzas.) But a lot of nights I’m still too busy or tired to cook after they’re in bed- hence my belief in a well stocked freezer. I’ve got a few other tricks up my sleeve- my other mainstays are very quick meals (hello, Ten Minute Stirfry, and also my current favorite thing, this Tex-Mex pork) and crockpot meals (can be prepared during naptime and only take a few minutes of precious naptime to prepare). My fourth trick for the busy at home parent/cook is seemingly fussy, multistep meals that can be prepared in small stages. Like this Manicotti:
Manicotti With Ricotta Cheese
(adapted from the New York Times Cookbook)
For the Filling/Sauce:
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1 c plus 2 tbsp grated Parmesan
- 2 cups tomato sauce (homemade if you have some in your freezer, otherwise jarred)
- 2 tbsp butter (melted)
For the crepes (Note: You can omit the parmesan and double or triple this part and then freeze the leftovers by placing sheets of parchment or wax paper between them. Once you get in the crepe flipping groove, it’s easy to keep going, and they freeze beautifully.)
- 3/4 c flour
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 c whole milk
- 2 tbsp butter, melted
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
So, early in the evening- let’s say you’re me and your kids eat at 5 and you’re planning to serve this to your spouse around 7:30 or 8, so start this while they are playing around 4- get your crepe ingredients out and set them on the counter so they are at room temperature. (This is what my French friend who makes crepes all the time and acts like they are as easy as microwave pancakes says is her trick. I don’t know that it makes it any easier, but I do it- it does seem to prevent lumps.) Also, set your ricotta in a strainer over a bowl to drain.
Go off an play with your kids and then fix/heat them their dinner. While they are eating, or after they have eaten if they seem like they are in the mood where they want to help in the kitchen without dumping all your rice on the floor, fix the crepe batter. Put the flour in a bowl and add the egg and salt. Then slowly whisk in the milk. Finally, add the parmesan and melted butter. This has to stand for at least 30 minutes, so you can leave it while you go bathe and put your kids to bed.
After they are in bed come back and make the crepes. Heat an 8 inch skillet or crepe pan if you’re fancy over fairly high heat. Butter the pan. Pour 1/4 cup batter in the pan and swirl to coat the bottom. Cook until it’s pretty brown on the bottom and then flip and cook til brown on the other side. The first few crepes can be practice ones. Place cooked crepes on a baking sheet or other clean, flat surface. The recipe says not to stack them but I do- just put a sheet of waxed paper or parchment between them to keep them from sticking. (Remove the parchment before filling!)
After you cook the crepes, it takes about five minutes to fill and assemble the dish and another 20 minutes to bake them. So depending on how long it took the boys to get to bed I’ll cook the crepes and then go do some work/email and then come back and fill them, or vice versa. When you are ready go, heat the oven to 400 and stir the filling ingredients (ricotta through pepper, but using only 1 cup of the Parmesan) together. Then spoon 3 tbsp tomato sauce on the bottom of an 8X14 casserole. Spoon equal portions of the filling down the center of each crepe and roll the crepe up. Place each crepe seam side down in the casserole. Pour the remaining sauce over and sprinkle with the leftover 2 tbsp Parmesan and melted butter.
Bake for about 20 minutes.
Serves 4. Leftovers reheat beautifully the next day, so you can serve it to your kids in less time than it would take you to prep a frozen pizza. (Also, my almost four year old said, “It tastes like pizza! But it’s soft! I love it!” so, you know, bonus.)