Growing up, I spent many summers with my family at a cabin whose bookshelves were filled with old paperbacks abandoned by previous guests. That’s where I first discovered popular feminist texts like The Second Sex at a ridiculously early age (I was maybe 12).
From these books, I quickly concluded that if — by some odd turn of events — I was ever to become a “woman,” I would bypass all existential misery by simply choosing to have a career, thus preventing my soul from being crushed by the need to put dinner on the table for children.
So at 13, I nabbed a summer job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, and I’ve been working ever since. Today, I’m a restaurant reviewer, an editor, a television chatterer — a career woman! Which makes it sort of ironic that I spend many hours every week rushing through my days wondering, “What can we put on the table for dinner for the children?”
These days, I don’t particularly see this as a feminist problem, partly because my husband does much of the heavy lifting, and partly because I have some historical perspective. I’ve witnessed plenty of Utopian dinner solutions over the years — frozen meals, fast food, grocery-store take-out — and found them all lacking.
“What to feed the children” is no longer a feminist question, but rather a central human one. Do I overstate it? No doubt. But when I received my copy of The Bon Appétit Fast Easy Fresh Cookbook: 1,200 Quick Dishes for Everynight Cooking, I realized just how healthy and delicious even simple dishes could be.
Turkey and pinto bean chili flavored with a bit of chocolate — genius! Canned pinto beans are an obvious choice for someone looking to eat healthy and fast, but I never know what to do with them. Steamed tilapia with ginger, lime and cilantro — brilliant! It’s widely regarded as one of the most eco-friendly fish you can eat, but again, I’m never sure how to prepare it. Nearly every one of this book’s 770 pages seemed to speak directly to me.
So I tried to call up the author, Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, to talk about it. She was at a conference, her public relations director told me, but she would call me from the airport. Nope. Then she was crunching to put out an issue and would call me as soon as she could. Nope. Then she was at another conference and would . . . but the phone never rang.
After a month of phone calls, I had become rather friendly with her PR flack. “I think you should just take care of yourself,” she told me. “You need to move on.” The irony of one stressed-out career gal mediating between two other stressed-out career gals on their quest to help still more stressed-out career gals was not lost on me.
Later that day, I realized my favorite big-box store carried wild-caught Alaskan salmon, a delicious fish from one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries. I had just been admiring the Fast Easy Fresh recipe for seared salmon on baby spinach, so I threw some in the cart, and then grabbed a bag of the greens. I called my husband and put him — and our 3-year-old son, who delights in measuring ingredients — in charge of a side of brown rice. After grabbing our daughter from daycare, I went home to prepare dinner. In no time flat, we had a delicious, nutritious meal.
As I tucked the kids into bed, I thought of the questions I had planned to ask Fairchild: “How do you and your staff manage to come up with fresh perspectives on all these common ingredients?” And, “Isn’t it astonishing how much mental freedom we can reclaim by outsourcing some of our everyday worries (like what to make for dinner) to professionals who perceive these angst-provoking chores as fun, interesting and creative challenges?”
Though I never got to ask Fairchild these questions, I found that I was grateful for her work and insight anyway. And as I considered the many challenges that busy women and men face, I concluded that what I’d already gotten was good enough. How oddly lucky: I set out looking for new ideas for dinner and got fresh perspectives on so much more.
Thai Tofu Stew With Zucchini, Red Bell Pepper and Lime
- 2 tbs. peanut oil, divided
- 1 12-ounce package extra-firm tofu, drained, patted dry, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 pound yellow and/or green zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 large red bell pepper
- 1 tbs. minced peeled fresh ginger
- 1 1/3 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk
- 3 tbs. (or more) fresh lime juice
- 1 1/2 tbs. soy sauce
- 3/4 tsp. Thai red curry paste
- 1/2 cup sliced fresh basil, divided
- Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tofu; sauté until golden, about four minutes.
- Transfer tofu to bowl.
- Add remaining tablespoon of oil, then zucchini and bell pepper to skillet; sauté until beginning to soften, about four minutes.
- Return tofu to skillet. Add ginger; stir 30 seconds.
- Add coconut milk, 3 tablespoons lime juice, soy sauce and curry paste; stir to dissolve curry paste.
- Simmer until sauce thickens, about six minutes. Season to taste with salt and more lime juice, if desired. Stir in half of basil. Sprinkle with remaining basil.
Curried Quinoa Salad With Mango
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 cup quinoa (about 6 ounces, rinsed)
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 2 tbs. white wine vinegar
- 1 tbs. mango chutney (such as Major Grey), chopped if chunky
- 1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
- 1/4 tsp. dry mustard
- 1 cup chopped, peeled mango, plus mango spears for garnish
- 1 cup chopped, unpeeled English hothouse cucumber
- 5 tbs. chopped green onions, divided
- 2 cups (packed) baby spinach
- Bring 2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to boil in medium saucepan. Add quinoa, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, about 12 minutes.
- Transfer to medium bowl; cool.
- Meanwhile, whisk oil and next four ingredients in small bowl to blend. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.
- Add chopped mango, cucumber, 4 tablespoons green onions and 1/4 cup dressing to quinoa; toss to coat.
- Divide spinach between two plates. Spoon quinoa salad over spinach. Garnish with mango spears and 1 tablespoon green onions. Drizzle with remaining dressing.
Steamed Tilapia With Ginger, Lime and Cilantro
- 5 tbs. chopped fresh cilantro, divided
- 1/4 cup bottled clam juice
- 2 tbs. fresh lime juice
- 2 tbs. chopped green onion
- 1 tbs. grated peeled fresh ginger
- 1 tbs. soy sauce
- 1 tbs. Asian sesame oil
- 1 tsp. fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
- 4 4-to-5-ounce tilapia fillets or two 6-to-7-ounce halibut fillets
- Mix 3 tablespoons cilantro and next seven ingredients in small bowl to blend. Set aside.
- Pour enough water into large pot to reach depth of 1 inch. Add steamer rack or basket. Top with 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish.
- Bring water to boil. Place fish in pie dish. Pour cilantro sauce over. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Cover pot; steam fish just until opaque in center, about four to five minutes for tilapia and eight minutes for halibut.
- Serve with sauce; garnish with remaining 2 tablespoons cilantro.
Curried Couscous and Garbanzo Bean Salad
- 2 tbs. curry powder
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 6 cups small pieces assorted fresh vegetables (such as 2 cups each broccoli florets, cauliflower florets and thinly sliced carrots)
- 1 10-ounce box couscous
- 1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 5 tbs. white wine vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbs. grated peeled fresh ginger
- 1 1/4 cups crumbled feta cheese (about 7 ounces)
- 1 cup thinly sliced green onions
- Stir curry powder in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat until fragrant and toasted, about one minute. Mix in 2 1/4 cups water and salt. Add vegetables. Bring to boil; cover and cook one minute. Remove from heat. Mix in couscous. Cover and let stand until couscous softens, about five minutes.
- Transfer couscous mixture to large bowl. Mix in garbanzo beans, oil, vinegar and ginger. Cool to room temperature. Add feta and green onions; toss. Season with salt and pepper.
Recipes excerpted from The Bon Appétit Fast Easy Fresh Cookbook: 1,200 Quick Dishes for Everynight Cooking by Barbara Fairchild (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).
This article originally appeared as “Fast Food for Career Women (and Men).”