It's a universal experience, falling into a rut. None of us know quite how it happens, or even how long we've been in such an uninspired groove. But there we are settling in to the same old-same old because it was easy or because we just weren't paying attention. Then, one day, you realize that the only reason you know it is Thursday night is because it happens to be spaghetti night, again, and this week you got a little wild and wooly with it and switched out the meatballs for Italian sausage. Woo-hoo! Now, you're living on the culinary cutting edge, my friend.
It happens to the best of us, quite easily, because time and energy are always in short supply. As we juggle our busy schedules, some things, like weeknight meals, eventually get put on autopilot. Let's face it, in the grand scheme of things, serving the same chicken casserole every Monday for dinner doesn't raise the same eyebrows as every Monday being "blue shirt and red polka dot tie day" at the office.
Our friends and co-workers don't follow us home and discover the dirty little secret that we've switched from home cooked meals using seasonal ingredients to "Soylent Green" because they don't want us to find out that they've been rationing MREs to their families.
Once you hit rock bottom – about the time you find yourself staring into the microwave at the frozen burritos for the umpteenth Wednesday night in a row and pondering the likelihood of Star Trek's replicator technology in your lifetime – your first course of action should be to seek professional help immediately.
Just make sure that you don't fall for the current, perfectly coiffed, snake oil salesman that promises to change your life by teaching you 101 ways to spice up dinner time with a can of refrigerated biscuits. For real food, you need a real guru with some serious chops (both lamb and pork), with techniques, not tricks, to inspire and instruct you in the mystical realm of weeknight cooking that is as efficient as it is exciting.
This is exactly why Sara Moulton's cook book, Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals, is perfect for breaking the vicious cycle of weeknight monotony when life leaves you too brain-dead to think outside the box of Rice-a-Roni.
Sara Moulton is not just another pretty face, prepackaged by television producers and shrink-wrapped for freshness, peddling time saving meals that rely heavily on cans of condensed soup and cheese food products. No, Sara is far more than a charismatic TV personality. Her professional accomplishments make her one of the food industry's heaviest hitters.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America with honors, and time spent studying in France, she went on to a successful restaurant career in Boston and New York---where she co-founded the New York Women's Culinary Alliance. She followed that up with time spent as an instructor at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School and became one of Gourmet Magazine's food editors, eventually becoming their executive chef.
From restaurants and print she went on to conquer the television arena. Starting out working behind the camera on PBS's Julia Child & More Company she eventually landed on air herself becoming one of Food Network's most widely recognized bona fide celebrity chefs on Cooking Live and Sara's Secrets.
Not one to rest on her laurels, her new PBS show, Sara's Weeknight Meals, is based on the book. As you can see, Sara's a busy girl. Add a private life to that and its easy to see why Sara knows a few things about juggling work, family and dinner.
With more than 200 recipes provided and encouragement to recast what is given (either by addition, omission or substitution), with Sara by your side there is no excuse for weeknight fare to be boring or repetitive. Furthermore, with advice on stocking a pantry and a chapter devoted to "Basics" (like homemade Creole Spice Mix and Garam Masala, All-purpose Vinaigrette along with several versions of homemade bread crumbs and chicken stock), Sara gives even the busiest and inexperienced home cook the ability to prepare in advance for a host of appetizing meals that don't harbor a faint undertone of cardboard or aluminum can packaging.
The vibrant array of recipes, with estimated hands-on time and total preparation time given, comes through for Sara's intention to "internationalize the thinking of the home cook" in a way that can fit into just about anyone's schedule. She doesn't just take us to all those familiar places around the Mediterranean. She also brings us to parts of the culinary world that have traditionally been out of the comfort zone of most American home cooks, with recipes like Asian Turkey Burgers with Wasabi Sauce, Charred Tomato, Chicken and Tortilla Soup, Todd's Keema Matar (an Indian lamb dish that can be accomplished in under a half-an-hour) and Steamed Mussels in Curried Coconut Broth.
Before you jump the gun and decide that all of this sounds far too complicated to be easy or way too far out of your hard to please family's palate preferences, Sara has your back. Her easy to follow directions take something that sounds like you need her credentials to pull off (like her Baked Risotto with Red Wine, Sweet Potatoes, and Duck Confit) and gets it on your table in under an hour, even if you had to go with the chicken substitution she suggests because that's what you had in the fridge. Remove the green chilies from the Green Chile and Zucchini Quiche and with under a half an hour of hands-on work you're serving the kids a healthy dinner, complete with green vegetables, and everyone wants more.
Possibly my favorite aspect of the book is the reminder that categories of food that aren't always called on for a weeknight dinner aren't just perfectly acceptable for an evening meal, but also quite a substantial treat in and of themselves.
Soups aren't just starters; they are stand alone delicious meals when they take the form of Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Chorizo and Greens or Split-Pea Soup with Ham and Johnny Cakes.
Breakfast isn't just for the crack-of-dawn anymore with my personal favorite: Brie, Bacon and Spaghetti Frittata. This is a dish that works exceptionally well with my philosophy that everything is made better with brie and everything is made even better with bacon and any dish that contains both deserves to be venerated as a world class masterpiece.
And please don't forget that sandwiches and salad aren't only for lunch. Entrée salads like Ham, Potato, and Black-eyed Pea Salad with Creamy Garlic Dressing or Two-Melon, Prosciutto and Feta Salad, perfect for hot summer nights, are enough to satisfy anyone after a long day of office work or an even longer day of chasing toddlers and doing laundry.
In her "Substantial Sandwiches" chapter, the Fried Green Tomato Sandwiches with Goat Cheese had me plotting a midnight sortie into my neighbor's garden to capture a few fresh green tomatoes. No worries, no trespassing or looting was committed. I had to go to the market to get the Vidalia onions to go with it anyway. This Southerner has to give proper kudos to the self-proclaimed "ignorant Northerner" on this particular sandwich and hope that the rest of ya'll can get a hold of green tomatoes as easily as I can.
As if all that wasn't enough, Sara finishes up with a chapter of easy and tasty desserts—puddings, pies and bar cookies that will make all those with a sweet tooth happy any night of the week.
The only drawback of the book is the fact that it is so attractive with its glossy pages and the photography of Dana Gallagher that some part of you will want to leave it on the coffee table instead of bringing it into the kitchen, where it might get splattered with grease while you make up a batch of onion rings using Sara's Beer Batter recipe.
No matter what your skill level, no matter what style of cooking your taste buds prefer, Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals is a great addition to anyone's culinary arsenal. Combining a variety of flavors and cooking methods with an eye on the clock without sacrificing quality, and doing so in a clear and concise manner, is a testament to just how many plates Sara Moulton can juggle in the air at once. So, don't just take a page out of her book, take the entire thing.