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There are nights when I really wonder who’s in charge around my house: me or the food.

I’ll never forget, for example, the night I had a formal event to attend. I did my makeup and my hair, and then left the house to pick up the baby from daycare and the CSA box of local vegetables from the neighborhood drop-off site. I retrieved both my charges, and sat down with the baby to unpack the vegetables.

“Use these fresh cranberry beans TONIGHT!” read a helpful note attached to the beans. “They will be past prime tomorrow.”

So I dutifully began shelling beans, all dressed up with the baby on my hip, until my husband walked in: “We are going to be late. What are you doing?”  he asked, bewildered.

“Why, well, it was the beans,” I stammered. “The beans said . . . the beans said I had to!”

The bean incident says nothing of the sudden, work-driven necessities that sometimes capture my evenings: But these Portuguese red table wines needed a pimentón stew! Why, son, the reason we’re having six rotisserie grocery-store chickens for dinner tonight is that mommy has to write an article about the best grocery-store rotisserie chicken . . . 

Worse is the sense of competitiveness and virtue that has sprung up around the importance of cooking with fresh vegetables, the sense that much of my life is wildly inadequate, because good and virtuous people spend their afternoons making a potage of turnips, when I’m helling around in marketing meetings. It’s enough to make a working mom fall in love with a dinner of cold leftover Chinese takeout, eaten leaning over the kitchen sink.

If this ever happens to you, don’t despair. Relax your standards a bit and get creative instead. Here are a few of my favorite quick-and-dirty strategies for coping with kitchen duty — even when you’re at your most anti-foodie depths of not wanting to cook at all.

1. Plating and Garnishing

There’s a whole station in most haute-cuisine kitchens devoted to arranging cold things on plates, including salads and antipasto, and adding attractive garnishes. And while, for home cooks, this might seem like the least necessary of all kitchen skills, I swear by it.

No matter how simple the fare, putting something good on top of something already made (known as garnishing) or just putting things attractively on a plate (known as plating) are great skills for bad days. Here are a few tips to try:

  • Spruce up canned bean soups with halved cherry tomatoes and a few feta cheese crumbles, or a dollop of yogurt and any fresh herb you can lay your hands on. Or add cubes of ham cut from a ham steak, or slices of precooked seasoned poultry sausage, and a sprinkling of chopped herbs or dark greens.
  • Roughly chop a large handful of cherry tomatoes, then toss them into a bowl with a little salt and pepper, and olive oil. Then slice some bread into thick pieces, brush it with olive oil and toast it beneath the broiler. Rub some garlic over the toasted bread, and top with the tomatoes. Suddenly, you’ve got something fragrant and fancy looking — lovely with a simple salad, or all by itself.
  • Buy a rotisserie chicken, cut a piece for yourself, put it on a plate, top with salsa or pico de gallo, and serve with a lime wedge.
  • Open a package of smoked salmon, put it on a rye crisp, and garnish with capers, chopped red onions, and a chopped hard-boiled egg.
  • Put store-bought hummus on a plate next to slices of feta cheese, kalamata olives, pickled pepperoncini peppers, and tomato and onion slices. Cut a slice of pita bread into quarters, and make tiny, wildly overstuffed, very satisfying sandwiches.
  • Put a smoked rainbow trout (or any other hot-smoked fish, such as chubs, lake trout or white fish) on a plate, add sliced pears, toasted hazelnuts or pecans, and serve with lettuce in a vinaigrette, or on toast.
  • Arrange slices of Italian salami, cheese, nuts, olives, and jarred vegetables like roasted or fresh peppers, marinated or roasted mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli rabe, grilled chicory, or endive, and have antipasti for dinner. It’s surprisingly delightful.

2. Dumping and Stirring

Cooking snobs look down on TV cooking shows for their constant revisiting of the dump-and-stir technique: That’s when you take a couple of things, dump them into a single pot, and call it cooking. Well, it is cooking, in my book. In any event, sometimes it’s all you’ve got time or brainpower for. So make the best of it:

  • Find your can opener, and use it to open a can of oil-packed tuna and a can of white beans. Dump together,
  • and stir. Add some lemon juice, capers, salt, pepper, pressed garlic, chopped onion if you’ve got it, and any chopped-up green thing you can lay your hands on, like arugula, spinach, scallions or parsley. Serve on bread or pasta, or something green, like more arugula or spinach.
  • Pre-made Indian curries are notoriously dull, but if you heat up a packet of saag paneer or vegetable curry and then throw in a whole bag of fresh spinach, stirring just until the spinach wilts, that’s not the worst thing that could happen on a Thursday night.
  • Dump a large can of chickpeas and their liquid into a pan. Add a splash of white wine or sherry, olive oil, lots of minced garlic, smoked paprika, and either a bag of frozen shrimp or chunks of dried Spanish chorizo sausage. Serve on a bed of whole grains, lentils or greens.
  • Sauté one chopped onion and some garlic in a pan until translucent; add a jar of green salsa, a can of white beans (cannellini or northern) and, if you like, cooked chicken. Look, it’s green chili! Serve with fresh limes and optional sour cream or yogurt.
  • A small can of coconut milk and a few teaspoons of store-bought Thai curry paste make a fine base for a Thai vegetable curry. The basic recipe: Sauté some garlic and onion together until translucent, add the coconut milk and curry paste, and stir until dissolved. Dump in whatever veggies you’re going to use (I like combining frozen squash cubes with something else — broccoli rabe is nice) and simmer until fully cooked.

3. Ridiculously Easy Recipes

Every year or so I’ll meet someone at a party who is breathless with pride and newfound excitement about life: They’ve learned to roast a chicken! This makes me very happy, even though the next thing I know they’re asking me probing questions about whether to use lemons, 20 cloves of garlic or less, and whether to rinse the chicken first (some do, some don’t — it seems to me like whether or not you use the emergency brake when you park). All in all, learning to roast a chicken is about the best thing you can do to go from being irritated by your kitchen to rejoicing in it. But there are other stupefyingly easy recipes to master!

  • Have you baked a potato lately? If not, you may have forgotten how amazingly good they can be. Revisit this: Top with broccoli, or smoked, flaked fish, a crumbled slice of bacon, and a spoonful of yogurt or crème fraîche. That’s living.
  • Bake a sweet potato, or half an acorn squash. Sprinkle with cinnamon and a spoonful of marmalade or ginger conserve.
  • Take a fish fillet, like sole or tilapia, dredge in seasoned flour (salt and pepper, dry herbs), and fry in olive oil. Once the fish is cooked, combine capers, lemon juice and a spoonful of butter in the pan, and stir until they make a sauce.
  • Irish lamb stew. Beef bourguignon. Chicken cacciatore. Learn any one of these surprisingly easy classics, good recipes for which are widely available on the Internet, and your life will be better forevermore.

So, is any of this going to win you a cooking prize? No. Is the antidote to being bossed around by your food really this lowest-common-denominator sort of food prep? In a sense, yes, because the greatest tragedy of your food life would be to fall victim to a bad case of cooking-block, or worse, a total cooking-blockade.

Just as the best exercise strategy on a bad day can be to just do the absolute minimum and be satisfied that you did something, so too can the best cooking strategy on a busy night be to feed yourself and your family with whatever close-to-whole foods you have on hand, and to be satisfied that you really are still in charge after all.

Illustration by: Tom Kaczynski

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