What is Quick? (Illusions, Part 1)

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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I love a good dinner challenge and you are so right, it is easy to fall prey to the pre-packaged stuff in the freezer or pantry when rushed. In the Bay Area, we’ve been dealing with commutes getting wrecked due to protests in the East Bay so I’ve had to re-work my dinner plans this week to accommodate train stations being shut down and stalled trains blocked by protestors (sp?). It’s a p.i.t.a., but it’s nice to know there are other options other than jarred sauce and frozen TJ’s orange chicken.


Good point. Pasta is so great b/c you feel like you giving your family a real, warm, comforting meal (as opposed to “let’s just have cereal for dinner”), and unless you are making something like bolognese, it just CAN’T take that long, even making a sauce yourself.


Thank you! I fell into the trap of convenience meals once, rushing home from work, with the kids in tow. I thought it would be a bright idea to stop by the grocery store for something premade. More than an hour later (way longer than I could have had a decent dinner on the table), we were staring at greasy lasagna and grumping at each other. Never again.

Pasta is a great quick meal — carbonara, with pesto, with home-canned tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes. I also like very thin cuts of meat — chicken, beef, lamb — pounded out flat. They cook in two minutes on a side and with a lemon pan sauce they feel fancy.

Grace @Eatdinner

I love this! I think committing to family dinner is a bit of a psych game. You have to commit to it on some level or it can just seem overwhelming. Nice data to show that “dinner” of either variety is possible in less than 30 minutes!

I often think it takes longer to decide what to make for dinner then to actually cook the dinner (though I admit I’m not that disciplined about planning).


This is a very nice post. We use jarred sauces a lot of the time, but one of our favorite pasta meals is when we saute mushrooms, shredded squash and chopped tomatoes for “sauce.” It really doesn’t take long and as long as we have ingredients, it’s our go-to.

Melissa@Julia's Bookbag

What a great experiment! I’m surprised, but I shouldn’t be. I adore this kind of pasta and we make a variation of it often — we toss a fried egg on top for a little kick of extra protein (just for me and my husband — my daughter shuns eggs!).


So good to know that homemade really can be quick! On a totally unrelated topic, what would DALS recommend to serve with Porcupine Meatballs? I am making them on Weds.


Who knew?!! Every few months we spend a Sunday afternoon making a GIANT batch of homemade tomato sauce (“gravy” as my Italian husband would say.) We freeze it in single meal portions for the best of both worlds. We would be lost without it!


This summer I finally figured out that the best way to preserve pesto is frozen in ice cube trays. Now when a sauce is needed, it only takes about 30 seconds in the microwave to make pesto. Also a great addition to salad dressings, grilled cheeses, panini, eggs. Thanks, Andy, for doing the math on “easy” dinners for us.


love this post! thank you for running this experiment! ‘michael pollen-y’ or not, you made a great point! (and what is up with the MSG and the titanium dioxide in the Ken’s dressing – yuck!)


I made this recipe tonight (meatless mondays!) and my daughter cleaned her plate. For once, she did not complain about the frozen spinach I threw in with the pasta. I think my husband would’ve finished off the whole pot if I hadn’t cut him off after his 3rd helping…definitely beats the jarred sauce. Thanks!


Even a simple tomato & tuna sauce (skip the onion and just put in crushed garlic to speed things up) can usually be made in the time it takes to bring a large pot of water to boil and cook pasta (on gas that is, perhaps not convection).


I printed this in November and stuck it in a drawer for future use. I finally got around to making it this weekend and it was so good! And very quick and easy:-) I just had to report back and say thanks for sharing.


Thank you so very much for this unbelievably delicious and simple recipe I will definitely be making again and again! I just made it for the first time and it was so scrumptious.

I love to cook, but have many many health issues that make me very weak and unable to cook, but this one was simple and quick enough, I was able to get it done before getting too exhausted or ill feeling. So a huge thank you for that from all my heart!

Please keep recipes like these coming along with your other amazing ones! Love what you guys do and stand for!


This non-cook says thank you for the Cacio e Pepe recipe, which I was able to quickly throw together and serve to my family who agreed that it was super delicious. You’re the best, thanks!!