Dinner in Half an Hour

Ok. It turned out to be more like 45 minutes or a little longer. But that was only because I messed up in the middle. But first, the background.

I was annoyed this weekend to listen to an insufferably smug interview with Michael Pollan, who has written several enjoyable books about food and cooking. The interview was on NPR, and appeared to be a trial balloon for an upcoming book tour, since a longer version of his main thesis also appeared recently in the New York Times.

In his piece Pollan laments the death of cooking in America. This is nothing new. Cooking has been dying in America for the last fifty years. Even as a certain elite becomes more and more fascinated with its own particular ideologies, for the most part cooking in this country has turned into the mindless defrosting of frozen dinners or going to the mall to get takeout from the Cheesecake Factory or maybe the Whole Foods prepared food deli.

Pollan takes us through this same old sorry story, but with a new angle and a new scapegoat: TV, specifically the Food Network, is to blame. In particular, he likes to trot out the following meaningless statistic: on average we cook only half an hour per day. I’m going to leave the Food Network alone for now. All you really have to know about the Food Network is that while it talks about fancy food in its editorial content, all the commercials are always about diet shakes. ‘Nuff said.

No, what interests me is what you can cook in half an hour. In college, I used to make spaghetti with sauce out of a jar in half an hour. So tonight I sat down to see if I could do better.

Start with a whole chicken. Salt and pepper it all over and rub it with butter. Stuff the middle with garlic and herbs. Total time: 5 minutes.

Peel and cube 4 medium sized gold potatoes. Total time: 9 minutes. I suck at peeling.

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Put the chicken in a cast iron pan. Total time: 1 minute.

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So we’re up to 15 minutes. Dinner is mostly made.

When the oven is hot, put the pan in the oven with the back of the chicken up. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Go watch TV. Total time: 1 minute.

After 15 minutes, take the pan out of the oven. Stick the potatoes in.

After another 15 minutes, take the pan out of the oven and turn the chicken over.

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Now let the chicken roast for about 45 more minutes while you watch Anthony Bourdain on the travel channel. You should check the temperature starting at 30 minutes in to make sure you don’t take it out too soon or too late.

This is where my story goes off the rails because I took the chicken out too soon. This is because I suck with a meat thermometer. My internal clock said the chicken was not done yet. But my badly placed thermometer disagreed.

I took it out and started making the pan sauce, but I should have known it was wrong because everything was the wrong color in the pan:

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Don’t let this happen to you. Leave the bird in longer.

Assuming you get the bird out of the oven at the right time, put the chicken on a plate and the potatoes on another pan. While you make the sauce let the chicken rest on the plate and put the potatoes back in the oven to crisp them up.

First, dump the chicken juices back into the pan. The pan should now be full of juices and yummy browned burned stuff. If it’s not nice and browny, put the pan back in the oven for a while until it gets nice. Then deglaze the pan with white wine and chicken stock. Add salt and pepper to taste and reduce the pan sauce until it is thick. Strain into another smaller pan and toss in a bit of butter to make it rich and yummy. Total time: 10 maybe 15 minutes. It should look like this when you are done.

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If you want to get even fancier, make some demi- glace or a heavily reduced chicken stock ahead of time and use that as the base for the sauce. That’ll be full of awesome. Sure it takes longer, but one batch of demi-glace is good for ten dinners, so the time cost is amortized.

Anyway, if you were keeping score: you now have a roast chicken and potatoes and you only did about half an hour of total work:

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It’s not quite as fancy as something like this, but with practice it will be almost as yummy.

I myself had to make the sauce twice, and put the chicken back in the oven where it never really got done because it had already cooled off a bit while I was making the sauce the first time.

So because I completely botched it, I had to do an hour of work to get the same chicken that you will have in 30 minutes.

So here are the keys to fast dinner:

1. Make food you’ve made a lot before. I don’t roast chicken much. I always mess it up.

2. Know how to do the simple things quickly. Things like cubing potatoes, getting the chicken ready for the oven, making pan sauce after the chicken is done, and so on.

3. Trust the courage of your convictions. If you know the bird is not done, don’t let the thermometer bully you into taking it out of the oven.

4. Have leftovers for the rest of the meal. I had a leftover soup to round things out, along with frozen peas and rice for the kid. This gives you the rest of the food you need without much extra work.

Finally, don’t get stressed out about mishaps. Unless you set the food on fire, there is very little you can’t recover from. And, if you do set the food on fire, you can always just get pizza. So go ahead, cook with speed and confidence. Always remember that most of the food you eat in fancy restaurants is made from scratch from when you order it. If they can do it so can you.