Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Dinner in 20 Minutes, and a Blog Birthday

I make dinner in 20 minutes- that is what I claimed in this post. I got several comments and e-mails asking me- Really? How? Is it true or am I exaggerating?

Dinner prep in my home starts at 6 PM and we eat at 7 PM. 20 minutes is my average hands-on time in the kitchen when the burners are turned on and there is a hum of chopping and stirring; by 6:20 I am out of the kitchen, flipping through magazines on the couch or browsing through my favorite blogs. The stove or oven is off sometime between then and 6:45. The food rests for 15 minutes and then we eat.

These are some of my favorite tips for putting a quick meal together. There are no surprises here but these little things do matter:
  1. The need for speed. I work very fast in the kitchen. Some of it has to do with practice- I have been cooking quick dinners on a daily basis for almost 10 years. A lot of it has to do with my innate personality- I am not a perfectionist but I tend to do almost everything very fast. If you tend to be overly slow and methodical, it might be worthwhile to practice your chopping skills by using cooking classes or videos, or to invest in a better knife. Chopping tends to be the most time consuming step in a recipe.
  2. Controlled multi-tasking. I multi-task to some extent. There's no time to measure and lay out all the ingredients in little bowls. So the pan is already heating with oil as I start chopping onions and garlic. As a dish is simmering, I am already putting away things and cleaning the counters.
  3. Simplicity. We eat simple meals with one or two dishes. There are no multi-course dinners in my home- all I can promise is that everything will be fresh and tasty. 
  4. Plan the menu. As my tea brews in the morning (a full 12 hours before dinner prep), I look through the fridge, freezer and pantry and decide what to make for dinner that night. This is because my creativity is at an all-time low in the evenings. I can also soak lentils/beans, thaw something in the refrigerator if required, and cut down on cooking time in the evening. 
  5. Don't overcook food. I never bother with long simmering for weekday meals. Rather, I tend to cook with fairly high heat, then turn the heat off and let the food rest for a few minutes to bring the flavors together. Crunchy vegetables taste much better in any case. 
  6. Set the stage for a peaceful cooking session. I set the stage for the evening cooking event by doing the breakfast dishes and wiping down the counters before I leave for work in the morning. It only takes 10 minutes at most but it is soothing to walk into a beautifully tidy and clean kitchen in the evening. In the same way, it pays to toss out all the clutter from the kitchen and only keep what is really necessary to cook efficiently. 
  7. Use time-saving appliances. Like most Indian cooks, I cannot live without my pressure cooker- a magical appliance when it comes to speedy cooking. I bought a rice cooker earlier this year and again, it has been saving us time on a daily basis. I also use my immersion blender for quick soups and curries, food processor for quick shredding and dough kneading and the microwave for quickly thawing food and cooking certain vegetables like winter squash.
  8. Accept help from family members. Although you are hearing the word "I" a lot in this list, the fact is that V is an equal partner in making dinner. We love to cook together as we chat about the day. Dinner prep can be quality family time and not a chore.
  9. Make extra dinner and pack lunches. I think of time spent making dinner as an investment and it makes sense to get two meals out of it. We make 4 portions of each dish for dinner, then pack lunches for the next day. Cooking once a day is far less exhausting than if every meal has to be cooked at separate times. 
  10. Be kind to yourself. Every few days, we take a planned break from the cooking routine and order take-out from our favorite Thai restaurant or Chinese restaurant or pizza place. It is hard to cook when you are hungry and tired. I always treat myself to a cup of tea and a snack before cooking dinner. 
Over the years, I have come up with a long list of dishes that V and I (and visiting friends and family) enjoy eating for dinner. The general strategy is to mix and match: Usually I pick one thing from the list of main dishes and another from the list of sides. When you do the math, the possibilities are truly endless. 

Main dishes, with a few examples from each category:

1. Dal: We have dozens of dal recipes in the dinner rotation, from the amtis, usal and pithale that I grew up with to regional specialties from other parts of India. Many of the dals I make already contain vegetables, like this radish dal.

2. Curry: This includes bean-based curries like chana masala and rajma, yogurt-based kadhi, Thai inspired curries with a peanut or coconut base, and other curry dishes like mock kheema. I sometimes serve curries with bread instead of rice as a variation. Pav bhaji is quick enough to be a weeknight meal. Stews like chilis are yet another version of curries. 

3. Sandwiches: Vegetable cheese sandwiches are a perennial favorite in my home.

4. Pulao, khichdi and fried rice: These are easy way to combine all kinds of ingredients into one dish.

5. Pasta and noodles: In winter, it is often pasta with cheese sauces, and in summer, pesto pasta salad and pad thai. Every few months, we enjoy maggi with vegetables.

6. Tortilla-based dishes: These include kidney bean wraps, burritos and quesadillas. We also eat whole wheat tortillas with subzi as a quick Indian meal. 

7. Egg dishes: Egg curry, burji, and egg pulao all come together in less than 20 minutes. 

8. Idli and dosa: Breakfast for dinner is very popular in my home. Every two weeks, I make a big batch of dosa batter. When there's no batter on hand, there are always instant dosas like rawa dosa and tomato omelet.


1. Subzi (bhaaji in Marathi): Indian-style spiced stir-fried vegetables; there are a million variations of these, either using a single vegetable in the subzi or combinations of vegetables. Subzis work equally well as a side to dal-rice or yogurt-rice and as a stuffing for tortillas or sandwiches.

2. Roasted vegetables: A great option for chopping vegetables into chunks, tossing with olive oil and seasonings, and letting them roast unsupervised in the oven. We love sweet potato fries, roasted cauliflower and roasted green beans. 

3. Soup: If the main dish contains legumes or eggs, I often make a vegetable soup. If the main dish does not have a lot of protein, I tend to make soups with beans or dairy, like broccoli-cheese or black bean pumpkin. Rasam is a wonderful soup for winter.

4. Salads: This is a general term for all kinds of dishes with raw vegetables, whether it is salad greens from the store or shredded vegetables like cabbage, cucumber, carrots, beets, simply dressed with peanut powder and lemon juice or yogurt.

None of these dishes I have mentioned take me longer than 15 to 20 minutes of active prep time or 30 to 45 minutes of total time. By keeping a well-stocked kitchen, borrowing heavily from all cuisines and rotating the dishes we enjoy eating, dinner time is something we look forward to every night.

Do you agree with my list? If you any tips or ideas to add, please leave a comment. We could all use some fresh ideas for putting delicious dinners on the table. 

* * *
One Hot Stove turns 6 years old this week! This blog has given me so much: a platform to hone my cooking skills and writing skills, real life opportunities and friends from all over the world. Most of all, it has taught me a very important life lesson, that if you have a passion for something and work on it just a little bit every day, over the years it can build into quite a large body of work.

This birthday celebration calls for some cake. Here is a bundt cake I made last weekend to share with my soup swapping friends. The recipe is Lemon Bliss Cake from the King Arthur blog and website. It makes a huge cake as you can see but by the end of the evening, there were only a few crumbs left on this cake stand- it is absolutely delicious in a classic timeless way. This is a cake that I will make again and again, especially since I splurged and bought the lemon oil that the recipe calls for.

Going forward with One Hot Stove, I intend to keep writing new posts as often as I can, but without stressing out about how frequently I post. The blog is a hobby and a joy and not a second job, and I intend to keep it that way. When I have something to say, when there is an exciting new recipe to be shared, I will certainly share it. But my goal for this new blog year is to focus on quality rather than quantity.

After all, the poor blog has to compete with a dozen other things that I also enjoy doing in my free time- reading and knitting and dancing, and now, a new toy that came home with me last week:

To everyone who takes the time to read my blog: Thank you for being a cherished part of my life, and for letting me and One Hot Stove be a tiny part of yours.