Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fast Food

When I started grad school is August, I planned to blog about quick, easy meals. A month later, after a dozen quick dinners of pastas, eggs and sandwiches, my enthusiasm waned. That’s not to say that fast meals weren’t good—they were—but after a while they were unsatisfying. When I came home from long day of work and school, I looked forward to eating a sandwich about as much as I looked forward to reading 80+ pages of dated communication theory. Fast food*--even good fast food--is tiring after a while. Why is slow(er) food, which can be as simple of a soup or a stew—so much more filling and satiating?

For me, hot food that takes a bit of effort to prepare is almost always superior to a sandwich. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up—until my parents moved to America, real food was a three-course meal consisting of soup (such as borsht), a main dish (meat & starch), and a dessert (fruit-based). Sandwiches and quickies like eggs were considered food for bachelors, students and the lazy. My mom still wrinkles her nose at the thought of sandwiches as a meal. “That’s not food,” she says. “You eat a sandwich and you’re hungry an hour later!” These days, of course, my mom hardly ever serves the Old-World three-course meal. Sandwiches, however, are still frowned on at her table.

I myself have nothing against sandwiches, but I do prefer to cook something when I’m short on time. ( I could get so much more done if I just ate some yogurt while getting a head start on my reading.) I present the following quick meals, which range from perfectly acceptable when you're hungry to totally satiating and satisfying.

*Pasta with roasted cherry tomatoes, leeks and a poached egg. Roast some tomatoes and leeks for this tart. Realize that you will not be making a tart anytime soon. Cook some pasta while gently heating up the veggies in a skillet. Poach an egg, keeping in mind that you want a runny yolk. Drain the cooked pasta, add it to the vegetables, put the egg on top, mix the whole thing up with a fork, and eat. Time: 15 minutes, not including roasting.

*Tilapia roasted with Asian-style vegetables. Stir-fry some vegetables. I used green beans, red peppers, julienned carrots, mushrooms and garlic. Add some Asian sauces--soy sauce, hoisin, sweet and sour sauce, etc. Put the veggies in a baking pan. Sear a couple of tilapia fillets on both sides; then place the fish over the vegetables and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Roast until the fish is done. Eat with rice. Time: 30 minutes, tops.

*Creamy tomato soup, based on this recipe. This is the closest I’ve gotten to slow food in a while, but this soup is delicious and satisfying. It sates hunger; it fulfills the desire to cook. I warmed up a hodge-podge of aromatics—a chopped onion, half a leek, a couple of shallots, a small carrot, a couple of garlic cloves--in olive oil in a dutch oven. I added salt, thyme, dried basil and some red pepper flakes. Then I added a splash of white wine, two chopped, peeled fresh tomatoes and a 15-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes, as well as the chicken stock—2 cups, maybe. I brought the soup to a boil and then reduced it to a simmer .

The above recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, but my soup needed about 2 tablespoons of sugar to cut the acidity. I added the sugar bit by bit, simmering and tasting. When the soup was almost done, I pureed half of it in a blender, then added it back to the soup pot along with 1/3 cup of half and half and a couple of tablespoons of sour cream. Time: 1 hour, including prep time.

*When I pick up lunch at work I always get suckered in by the “fast-casual” places. I’ve got no axe to grind against McDonald’s, that affable grease pit. It’s the Paneras of the world that get me down. The earth tone decor and promises of “fresh” and “natural” cleverly obscure the mediocre food served in these places. After two lunches of artificial-tasting, scalding hot soups from Bruegger’s Bagels and a $7+ Panera chicken Caesar salad that included some greens and a couple of chicken chunks coated in what tasted like dry Italian dressing, I’ve stopped eating lunch out. My fast-casual food is so much better.
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