I’m striving for more peace and elegance in my life. And there are days when I have the time to craft an incredible meal that takes hours to prepare, when I’ve carefully selected each ingredient by hand with purpose, when I revel in the chopping and stirring as a meditative practice, when I sit down to a beautifully laid table and enjoy the meal slowly and peacefully with my family.
And then there are days when I am at my computer for 8 hours, when the mercury is well above 90 and my swamp cooler just isn’t cutting it, when my daughter proclaims she is “BORED!” at 10am, when it’s already after 6pm and I have to get people fed…
And those kinds of days are much less conducive to elegance and peace.
I suspect (do correct me if I’m wrong) that a lot of you may resonate more with the second scenario than the first.
And that’s OK. Life isn’t supposed to be perfect, and neither are we, as I keep telling my five-year-old. But there are things we can do that can make a little elegance, a little more peace possible.
That’s what I’ve been exploring lately in my own life. I don’t want to call them “hacks” because “hack” is not a very elegant word. I think maybe they’re secrets instead… Secrets that those people who seem to have effortlessly elegant lives know that the rest of us don’t know.
I’m going to be posting these secrets as I discover or uncover them, and today is the secret of the four-course meal — in half an hour.
A four-course meal in 30 minutes or less:
A while back, I learned about the French secret of serving even the simplest meals in four courses from the blog French Foodie Baby.
(I suspect many of the secrets of elegance may be held by the French…)
The idea is a simple one: break the meal into courses, eat slowly, eat together, savor your food — instead of piling everything onto a single plate the way we Americans so often do. Probably the same amount of food to cook and serve, just doled out more slowly. Another benefit I discovered is that by having a vegetable as the first course — when everyone is most hungry — more vegetables are naturally consumed.
It may sound, at first, like more work, but it’s really not. If you were brought up with the American style of “meat and three” meals as I was — that is, a main course plus 2 vegetables and a starch — you’re preparing the same number of dishes, you’re just serving them in a different order.
And yes, I often use my tidbit plates (above) for the first course, which does add to the amount of dishes — but when you’re just putting everything in the dishwasher after, it doesn’t really impact the cleanup. And it’s totally optional.
Can such a thing be accomplished in 30 minutes or so (which is the amount of time the average family is willing to devote to cooking dinner)? Absolutely. I proved it to myself just last week, albeit a bit inadvertently.
Devyn and I had a full day. I worked in the morning, did laundry, and picked up the house while she played. Then we had lunch, and right after, we had two friends over for a playdate.
I love having my girlfriends and their girls over to play, because it’s such a wonderful way to just… stop. We sit, and talk, and maybe drink water or tea, but we know each other so well now that there’s no pressure. And the girls entertain themselves for a couple of hours, which is fantastic.
I did sit and shell fava beans at the table while we talked — my only concession to prep work for this fast weeknight dinner.
After the playdate, I had another work call. And suddenly it was after 5pm, with no dinner in sight. Time to get cracking.
I already knew what I was cooking because I do my menu planning ahead for the week. We’d found fresh fava beans at the farmer’s market on Saturday, and I was planning to cook them up with shrimp and bacon. (I can’t find where I first discovered this recipe, so apologies to the original creator; if anyone knows is providence, please let me know so I can properly attribute it.)
This is a brilliantly easy recipe, made even easier by the fact that I discovered that you don’t have to peel each individual fava bean. The British don’t; the Greeks don’t; the Italians don’t. Only the French do.
I used frozen, peeled shrimp (because I hate peeling shrimp). And because I couldn’t find pre-diced pancetta when I did my shopping I also used pre-cooked bacon crumbles I discovered at Costco. Horror of horrors: they were delicious and so easy.
While the shrimp and favas were cooking (which takes all of about 10 minutes), I set the table and put together our cheese plate. I routinely raid the “odds and ends” basket at my Whole Foods for small hunks of interesting cheeses that are usually under $5. Pictured we have (clockwise) an espresso coated goat’s milk cheese, a smoked gouda, a mild hard cheese I can’t remember the name of, a mild French cheese with herbs de Provence, and, in the middle, the piece de resistance, a truffle gouda. (YUM.)
(Notice how fancy I am about my cheese board — not even remembering what half of them are!) I put some pink currants on the board for visual interest — mainly for your benefit for the photo! But it did make things look pretty. I keep all the cheeses in a glass storage container between meals, so it’s fast and easy to arrange them on a cutting board to serve.
Then I tossed some leftover, cold green beans and halved cherry tomatoes together with a vinaigrette for our starter. I also sliced some strawberries in half for dessert, which I served with a pre-flavored Vermont Creamery vanilla creme fraîche I found at Whole Foods.
In under half an hour, I had a four-course meal on the table, ready to enjoy.
And how does my family react to this way of eating? Well, the first few times, they were confused about eating one thing at a time. But now, my daughter gets very excited whenever she sees the cheese board come out!
We don’t eat like this every night, but I find that on nights we do take the extra time, I enjoy myself so much more. I feel more relaxed and, strangely, more accomplished. I’m proud of my four-course meals, even when they don’t take any more time or effort to produce than the one-course meal we’re all accustomed to.
With a little forethought, it becomes ridiculously simple. Cooking a big batch of vegetables one night and serving some hot, then having them cold as a starter later in the week. Cooking a big pot of soup on the weekend (when it’s not so bloody hot) and only having to warm it for weeknights. Keeping dessert ridiculously simple. Adding a cheese course.
Even if you decide that eating in courses isn’t for you (or your family) this meal comes together quickly, feels incredibly elegant, and most importantly, is stupid easy for those busy weeknights when we could all use a little dose of elegance to counteract the weekday blahs.