Hit the Kitchen Running
(When You Have No Time to Plan)

by Anne B. Thistle

"We like to cook," my friends said. "We even have time to cook, barely, but we always make the same old things because we have no time to plan." That's how the project started, over pizza one Friday night in 1996, while the kids played hide-and-seek under the table. "You're the one with the huge recipe database and no children at home" they said, "so you must have time on your hands. You should be planning our menus for us, making up shopping lists, expanding our culinary horizons!"

They were only half serious, but I could see their point. All three are college professors married to college professors and have school-age children. Parents and children all get home at the same time, and they want dinner on the table within the hour. That's plenty of time for Mom's Standard Casserole or another microwave pizza but not enough to rummage through a cookbook for something new, study the ingredients, figure out how long it will take (and whether everything called for is on hand, and what to serve with it), and still have any time left over to cook.

A few days after that conversation, I surprised my friends (Alice Winn, Laura Keller, and Carolyn Teragawa) with a preplanned menu, complete with a shopping list, shopping advice, and an already-thought-out "game plan" listing the cooking steps in order. I included a list of basic staples that I would assume were always on hand (the real basics, like salt and pepper, flour, sugar, and vanilla extract), and thereafter, for the next year, I added a menu each week to the collection. Each menu includes a main course, two side dishes, and a dessert--all of which can be on the table in one hour, start to finish. The project has been deemed highly successful by the original participants (one keeps a copy in her car, so that she can choose a menu and shop on the way home).

In compiling these menus, I tried to avoid the annoying set of shortcomings that most "quick and easy" cookbooks share. For example, the recipes are carefully chosen to use a nearly closed set of staples. That is, no recipe asks the reader to buy a jar of some herb or spice that is never used again, and I have included a table that lists the possibilities for using staples in other recipes within the book. Perishables are treated similarly--the other half of the cabbage, the rest of the ricotta, and the single left-over egg white can all be used up in other recipes, listed in the cross-reference table.

The shopping notes that accompany each menu suggest alternatives to unavailable ingredients, recommend the best cuts of meat for the cooking method at hand, and provide tips on minimizing waste. Notes at the end of each menu tell which left-overs freeze or reheat well and which can be used as ingredients in other recipes. Low-fat alternatives are mentioned wherever applicable.

I also include the list of basic staples, lists of main courses by main ingredient and the best dishes dishes for pot-luck dinners, and notes for those outside the United States.

I hope you have as much fun preparing and eating these menus as I had planning them for you!

Anne Burnham Thistle
August 2002

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