What is Quick? (Illusions, Part 1)

November 14th, 2011 · 19 Comments · Dinner, Posts by Andy, Quick, Vegetarian

I want to talk a little bit, today and tomorrow, about time. More specifically, about our lack of it when it comes to dinner. About that moment when you come home from work at 7 pm and the dog is begging for a walk and your fourth grader really needs you to drill her on her social studies definitions (quick: what’s wampum mean?) for her big test tomorrow and your third grader is asking you to watch — no, Daddy, watch! — her stand on one leg and you’re still in your jacket, staring into a mostly empty refrigerator, and wondering what you’re going to make for dinner tonight. Or, more likely: what you have time to make for dinner. Jenny seems to be more resourceful than I am in these situations, but when it’s a weeknight and I’m on Dinner Duty, and I couldn’t quite get on the earlier train, and the kids are hungry, and I need to make something fast…. why is it, in moments like this, that the human mind — my human mind, at least — automatically goes to pasta with a jarred sauce? My best guess: because it’s quick, it’s healthy, and it’s convenient.

But what does convenient mean, anyway? And what exactly is quick?

This weekend, I finally decided to conduct an experiment. I say finally because I’ve been meaning to write this post for about two months now, and I could just never seem to find the… time. What I wanted to do was to time myself, from a standing start, and see what took longer: a weeknight dinner made mostly with pre-made ingredients, or a dinner made with all real stuff. For the pre-made dinner, I would make spaghetti with Old World Style Ragu, and a pre-washed mesclun salad with Ken’s Light Ranch Dressing. For the homemade dinner, I would make an old stand-by, cacio e pepe, with sliced kumato tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sea salt. I want to stress: I have nothing against jarred sauces. I spent the first three years after college, living in Brooklyn with very little money and an arrested culinary imagination: I know from jarred sauces. Had I opened a vein when I was 24 years old, Ragu Garden Style and Heineken would have poured out. The goal here is not to make some kind of Michael Pollan-y political statement or to suggest that one of these dinners is evil while the other is righteous and pure. Anyone who’s ever had Rao’s or Cucina Antica or even T. Joe’s marinara knows that’s baloney (which I also enjoy, by the way, on white bread with yellow mustard). The goal is only to suggest that, often, what we have been conditioned to think of as quick and healthy is not, in fact, any quicker or healthier (or cheaper, for that matter) than the real deal. The most important thing is to have a few of what Jenny calls “back-pocket recipes” in my repertoire, things I can go to when I’m feeling paralyzed and time is tight. Cacio e pepe is one of those recipes. And the inconvenient truth is, it tastes better, too.

Below, the results of the test. Note: I used the same amount of cold water (4 cups) and started the timer the minute the burners were turned on. No prep work was allowed. – Andy

Coming up tomorrow: What is Easy? And maybe after that: What is Cheap?

PRE-MADE DINNER: Spaghetti with Old World Style Ragu Pasta Sauce, Bagged Mesclun and Ken’s Light Ranch Dressing

21 minutes, 15.8 seconds

Pasta: Trader Joe’s spaghetti, boiled in salted water.

Sauce: Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Soybean Oil, Salt, Sugar, Dehydrated Onions, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Spices, Romano Cheese (Part-Skim Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Natural Flavor.

Salad: Pre-washed mesclun (though I washed it again because we’re paranoid like that).

Dressing: Water, Vegetable Oil (Soybean and/or Canol), Buttermilk, Distilled Vinegar, Sugar, Maltodextrin, Egg Yolk, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Contains less than 2% of Omega-3 [Fish Oil and Fish Gelatin (contains Tilapia, Sardine, and Anchovy)], Salt, Modified Food Starch, Phosphoric Acid, Garlic (Dried), Natural Flavor (Milk), Vegetable Base [Salt, Sugar, Corn Oil, Potato Flour, Onion Powder, Natural Flavor, Carrot Powder, Garlic Powder], Monosodium Glutamate, Disodium Phosphate, Titanium Dioxide, Xanthum Gum, Sorbic Acid, Spice, Carrageenan, Disodium Innosinate and Disodium Guanylate Calcium Disodium EDTA to protect flavor.

HOMEMADE DINNER: Cacio e Pepe with Kumato Tomato Salad

20 minutes, 28.6 seconds


Pasta: Trader Joe’s spaghetti, boiled in salted water.

Sauce: Olive oil, pasta water, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper.

Salad: Tomatoes, olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, sea salt.

Cacio e Pepe

Boil one package of spaghetti in salted water. In a large bowl, put 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup grated parmesan, a few pinches of salt, and lots and lots of freshly ground pepper (thus, the pepe part of cacio e pepe). I usually do about 15 or so grinds. When the pasta is done, reserve 1/3 cup of the water, and drain the rest. Take the reserved pasta water and pour into the bowl, whisking it into the ingredients as you do, until it is emulsified. Add pasta to bowl, and toss thoroughly. When you plate it, top with more ground pepper and parmesan cheese.

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