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Equifinality and the 30 minute meal

First, since I can't put the link in the title, and I was recently at a writing workshop where it was pointed out that you shouldn't throw out obscure words without enough context to make it fairly clear what you meant: equifinality

While I have been know to snark about Rachael Ray (hereafter known as RR) from time to time, she does have a good idea from time to time. I even laud some of her goals: if 30 minute meals (hereafter known as 30mm) got people "into the kitchen" (whatever that means; is there some study somewhere?) and if CAKE helps get people thinking about some of the problems we've got with kids (and adults) and food in the US (and elsewhere), then brava!

I've not bothered to write about her good ideas so much, probably because much written about her is less about her cooking and more about other, ahem, attributes and I really get tired of talking with guys who think the most important part of a woman is ~4 feet off the ground. And RR's choice of media exposure has, to be fair, encouraged the "woman is the sum of her cup size" crowd.

Also, I also am not much of a fan of nose-wrinkling cute from anyone older than about 10. Maybe it makes me un-something, but the only time I like Meg Ryan's public persona is when she's played by Nicole Sullivan — and who knows, Meg is probably perfectly lovely in person, celebrity seems to highlight not the best aspect of a person, just the most marketable, and nose-wrinkling cute women sell because they are so cute and non-threatening — and I find I like Meg more now that she's not as ubiquitous as she was in the 1990s. I used to like Martha before she was really famous, and I am liking her more post the stock-trading debacle, so maybe when the foodverse stops orbiting 'round RR, I'll finally see past the brand that is RR to the true RR underneath. Maybe once Rachael isn't quite so everywhere I look, I'll like her more. (Seriously, I just flipped through the TV schedule for this evening: It's mid-afternoon and of the 10 hours remaining before FoodTV rolls to permaCommercial, she's got 3.5! And that's not counting her yell, err, I mean, talk show.) (Did I mention that it'd also help if she didn't do this again. Really.) And if it turns out that I still don't like her that much, well, she's still the bazillionaire queen of her own empire with throngs of adoring fans. I just wish she would spend use of that money and fame promoting other "cooks not chefs" instead of herself. There are many voices and they aren't all quite so loud.

But I digress.

What I truly object to about RR is her approach to cooking. I mean dinner in 30 minutes is nice and all, but can you take a few more minutes, buy whole vegetables and teach some knife skills? Stop piling up foam trays and plastic? (she just said pre-cut vegetables are the best thing in that sort of "since sliced bread" tone) Don't assume that everyone can afford the 50-200% premium for pre-sliced vegetables; In fact, your primary audience of busy parents isn't the demographic with the most disposable cash. I know you don't have kids, but they cost. A lot.

I offer herewith an alternative to the RR 30mm:

Let's pretend I just got home from work. Which I suppose I did, except that, in my case that means something more like "finished the chapter" from right here. When I poked my head out the door to round up kittens from their twilight hunt, there was a steady splash of water off the roof and most of the snow is gone. But the thermometer says it's barely above freezing, which is what it feels like. Chili weather! (see, winter... today is salad weather... but i digress...)

Much as I would love to go play in the kitchen this evening, I've got other things to do — at least other things to do first. So the 30mm approach sounds rather appealing. I've got half an hour to spend on cooking dinner. (See how insidious it is? If you agree to the premise, the rest is simple. I'm thinking that if I'd first encountered RR when I was a parent living in the city with convenient shopping and working loooong days at softwareBehemoth...nah, probably not even then...) Anyway, lacking a handy grocery store at which to buy an assortment of "fresh" precut vegetables, I'm clearly not the targeted demographic for the widely marketed approach to the 30mm. Not that I will let that get in my way or anything.

Back to my 30 minute meal, (time for each task noted:

  • (3 min) Turn on tea water (for me) and the oven (to heat bread). Go to the freezer and dig out frozen homemade chili and a homemade baguette. Put chili in microwave. Wrap bread in foil (it'll get pulled out to crisp for a few minutes at the end.) Pour tea.
  •   ~  5 min later  ~
  • (3 min) Put chili in pan to finish heating. Wash salad greens (as well as reds, oranges and other colors).
  •   ~  10 min later  ~
  • (5 min) Unwrap bread and put back in the oven. Make salad. Grate cheese for topping chili. Serve.

And there's your 30 minute meal. Well, mine at least.

counts on fingers I get 11 minutes on my feet, and 15 additional minutes while I drank tea and wrote parts of this. But let's round up and call it 15 minutes of activity (I am not calling that "work") from freezer to table. Note that if you live with other people, it is possible to get them into the kitchen with you; this will both get dinner on the table more quickly and maybe give you a minute to talk...or teach knife skills...or something.

I'll even cop to spending the other 15 minutes doing actual work making the bread and chili; if a dozen baguettes and a vat of chili takes about 3 hours of work over an 8 hour day, that's 15 minutes per meal. But that's part of the beauty of this. RR has an expensive grocery store with pre-packaged stuff; I have a not-expensive freezer with homemade stuff. She spends time in the car and extra money every single day, I buy on sale and spend a day cooking like a mage possessed every now and then.

I've usually got an assortment of homemade food in the freezer: soup, bread, cookies, and other basics like pizza dough and marinara sauce. I find that it's not that hard to keep the frozen larder well-stocked; I pick a day every 2-4 weeks and spend it hanging out in the kitchen in a blur of cooking: 2-3 kinds of bread, a double batch of cookies, and whatever else is running low. Plus, I seldom make a single batch when a double batch will freeze.

When my freezer is full, I feel like I can take on the world...or at least the world's empty stomachs! (seriously, a friend of theKid's called one day from the road and asked "Do you have any food at your house?" You could hear the answering laughter in the next room. That was most of a decade and we still give her a hard time, because, really, it's the kitchenMage's place. Of course, there's food! Pay no attention to the freezer behind the curtain.) In practical terms, this makes me damned near capable of 30 minute meals to order.

What's that you say? Your freezer isn't that big? You would never use enough of any one thing to make it worth cooking a vat of it? How about a soup swap party? Alanna's also got an interesting roundup of dishes that each use only a few ingredients and a bit of time. The one that has me wondering is this Chocolate Chantilly over at the Kitchen Exhibitionist. I've even got several bars of good chocolate, courtesy of theKid and this very tasty looking elk steak for a dinner with friends.

My point is that you can spend thirty minutes in many ways: drive to McDonald's, open the individually shrinkwrapped vegetables, walk to your garden and pick a salad, or pull something healthy, homemade and tasty out of your own pantry. I vote for the latter options. How about you?

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