Peg Bracken’s chapter 5, in The I Hate to Housekeep Book, is actually a text that could have been pulled from The I Hate to Cook Book. It’s about providing a decent evening meal in a time of crisis or indecision or apathy. The chapter’s title is “Dinner Will be Ready as Soon as I Decide What We’re Having.” The question, obviously, was “What’s for Dinner?” And while it’s almost impossible (unless you’re talking about microwave meals) to produce a meal as quickly as “now that I’ve decided what we’re having,” it IS possible to have no clue whatsoever as to what dinner will be, and yet produce a not-bad meal within twenty or thirty minutes.
Bracken points out that the thing to do is have a few tricks up your sleeve that you can pull out using the kind of stuff you’d be likely to have stashed away in the fridge or the cabinet anyhow. Eggs. Cheese. Canned beans. Pasta. Cans of tuna (some normal in water, and one nice tin packed in olive oil). These are all things you have to have on hand in order to be able to create the evening miracle so many times in a year.
Then there are things that you can’t exactly keep around all the time, because they have a finite life-span, but you can buy them very easily and use them to produce an impressive-seeming meal that makes people happy: parsley; in the summer, a really good big fat tomato; cheeses that don’t last forever but are rich-tasting, like goat cheese. The number of times I have boiled water for pasta and made a raw pasta sauce using parsley, tomato, and goat cheese is impossible to calculate. In the height of summer, we probably eat this twice a week and no one ever gets sick of it. It’s something Peg Bracken wouldn’t have recommended — too much fresh food involved, plus no one talked about goat cheese in her day — but I think she’d admire how little effort it requires to pull this together, and the short time frame involved.
A favorite desperation side dish of mine is one that makes everyone happy and which I can almost always make because I almost always have frozen peas in the freezer and a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge. Green pea salad — which I guess is a kind of Southern classic for potlucks and church dinners — is very flexible and can be assembled in about five minutes at its most pared-down. Thaw your peas, crush a clove of garlic over the peas in a bowl, mix in some mayonnaise until it looks like a salad. You could chop up a hardboiled egg or two if you had them, to add a little more heft to it, or shred some cheese in. Sometimes I add pickle relish, or capers. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that thawing frozen peas is a cinch and then you just dress them up with whatever’s on hand that seems nice at the time.
Last year I figured out that I could make a noodle salad version of elotes (Mexican street corn) that no one ever got sick of eating, and I’ve since made about 50 pots of it, even in the dead of winter, because frozen corn is about as handy as frozen peas are. This is a matter of taking the cooked corn and mixing it with mayonnaise, grated Parmesan cheese (assuming you don’t have access to a proper hard Mexican cheese like cotija), some chili powder, and then combining that with cooked noodles (not long noodles like spaghetti — I find medium shells perfect for this). Sometimes I add parsley. Sometimes I add basil, cut into ribbons. Sometimes I had both parsley and basil. One time I had some leftover chimichurri sauce and I threw that into the mayonnaise sauce and there were no complaints at all.
Bracken’s point, and mine, is that desperations dinners don’t actually have to be near-inedible slop if a tiny amount of effort is taken to make sure that there are a few basic things always in the house. This is something that I talk about a lot, and I probably got it from Bracken originally, to be honest, but it’s really, really important. Even a half-assed hausfrau should be able to keep the basic pantry maintained, because none of its components have to be super-pricey.
The other day a man I know mused that, tasked with making dinner, he’d gone out to the store and bought a ribeye steak, wild rice, and fresh peas. He didn’t say how well the meal had turned out, but volunteered that the ingredients had probably cost him as much as it would have cost to have a nice meal out. My own feeling is, It shouldn’t be this way, or at least, it shouldn’t HAVE to be this way. A grownup ought to be able to open the fridge at any given moment and be able to come up with something — a protein, a vegetable, SOMETHING — that can be combined with a starch (rice or noodles) to be a decent meal. Ideally, a grownup can produce that meal, from the time he takes off his coat until the time he sits down, in 30 minutes.
Once you’re good at this kind of thing, these even become meals you wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve to company. At least, I’m not. Though it is true that not once has my husband ever invited a boss home for dinner. (Does anyone still do that?)