I was bragging on Facebook the other day that one of my superpowers is cooking dinner and making it all come out at the same time, and promised some tips about that, so here they are! It’s not magic, and it’s not a superpower, it takes some planning but it also takes some of the tips I will outline below, from easiest to more difficult.
General Principles & Tips
My goal when serving a meal is for everything to come to the table warm and properly cooked, not for everything to finish at exactly the same time. That is not necessary. The main key is knowing not only how long everything takes, but how long different steps take and when dishes can be held while other dishes catch up to them. A lot of this is trial and error, but here are some tips:
- Have a good idea of how long each thing you’re making takes over all, and how long major steps take
- Chopping ingredients takes longer than you think. If there are a lot to be chopped do it first.
- Boiling water takes longer than you think, do it first or at least early
- Preheating an oven takes longer than you think
- Potatoes and other root vegetables retain heat very well, so you have about 10 minutes of leeway after they are done cooking before they start to get cold
- Rice is better if it sits for 10-20 minutes. Boil rice early.
- Any dish that starts with sauteing onions and garlic can be held after that step is done. Leave the burner on the lowest setting or turn it off.
- Any hot dish on the stove-top that does not involve vegetables or pasta that are going to get overcooked can be held at a very low burner setting when they’re done
- I love roasting because you stick your vegetables or whatever in the oven and set a timer. Toss once, set another time, done. Super easy.
- Roasting temperatures can be variable, much more than for baking. If you have something that needs to be roasted at 375 and something else at 425, consider roasting them both at 400.
- You can hold a roasted vegetable in the oven for 5-10 minutes by turning off the oven but not opening it
- If anything takes cream as a finisher, don’t add it until the very end
- Things that are fast or touchy should get priority at any moment
- MOST IMPORTANT: If you’re making one fast and touchy dish, or a new dish, choose other dishes you know well that are easy and easy to hold
Difficulty Level 0: Cold dinner
Have a picnic food where everything is cold, and don’t worry about it.
Difficulty Level 1: One hot dish, the rest cold
Still very easy. Just make sure you finish the cold dishes before finishing the hot dish. For example, say your meal is a stew, salad, and (store-bought) bread. This one is nice and easy because a stew can be held on simmer forever. If it’s something more time-sensitive than a stew, and has a cooking phase that’s long enough to make your cold dishes, make them while your hot dish is cooking. Otherwise make the cold dishes first, then the hot dishes.
Difficulty Level 2: Two hot components, the rest cold
This can make up most of your meals. Let’s say you’re making a fast-paced pasta sauce, like all’amatriciana, over pantry (not fresh) pasta, with a side salad. This is where you have to understand what takes up the most amount of time. If I were making this meal I would:
- Start boiling the pasta water–this will take the longest
- Chop everything for the sauce
- Start sauteing bacon, onions, garlic for the sauce
- If the water is taking a long time, you can hold the onion mixture here
- Pasta probably cooks for 10 minutes. Put it in when the water is boiling
- Add the tomatoes to the sauce
- Make up the salad (I make very simple salads)
- Keep an eye on the sauce and when it’s done cooking, turn the burner to its lowest setting
- Drain the pasta
- Add cream to the sauce, if using
Voila, dinner is ready.
Difficulty Level 3: Three easy hot dishes, maybe some of them use the oven
Sunday night I made roast chicken with potatoes and onions, roast broccoli rabe, and heating up some frozen sourdough rolls. It’s not a hard 3-dish meal, but everything is hot and in the oven.
- A whole roast chicken can be a challenge because the cooking time is variable, so you have to be flexible.
- The chicken cooks for 90 minutes or so, so that’s most of the cooking time. The potatoes and onions cook in the roasting pan under the chicken, so that’s two dishes for the price of one.
- Chicken is better if it sits a little before carving, giving me a buffer.
- The broccoli rabe only takes 10 min in a 400-425 oven
- The rolls warm up at 400 for 12-14 min
- So the chicken comes out at 7pm, then then I throw the rolls in while the oven goes from 350 to 400.
- Once it gets to 400, the broccoli rabe goes in
- Carve the chicken in the last few minutes of cooking the rolls and broccoli rabe
Difficulty Level 4: Everything is cooked hot and fast and can’t be held
One of my favorite meals, which is easy and fast but requires good timing is: Duck breast, red wine pan sauce, store bought pumpkin ravioli, roasted broccoli rabe (I have an obssession). Here are the steps I would go through:
- Start boiling water for the ravioli
- Preheat the oven for the duck
- Score the duck breast, salt and pepper
- Heat up the pan and start stove-top cooking the duck
- Cut up the broccoli rabe and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper
- Put the broccoli rabe on its roasting pan
- Probably pour off some fat from the duck breast
- Prep the pan for the oven for the duck breast
- Put the broccoli rabe in the oven
- Take the duck breast off the stove-top and onto its roasting pan, put it on the other shelf in the oven
- Make the pan sauce for the duck in the same pan (I do a very easy pan sauce with red wine, honey, a little Beef Better Than Bullion, and maybe some jam or a cinnamon stick)
- You have maybe 2 minutes left on everything now. Boil the pumpkin ravioli.
- Take out the duck and tent it with foil to let it rest
- Take out the broccoli rabe, and add lemon juice and crumbled goat cheese
- Drain the ravioli
- Carve the duck breast
- Put everything on a plate and serve
The above takes about 30 minutes and I’m moving the whole time.
A Side Note
I read an article the other day that says Americans are eating fewer leftovers and throwing more food away. Leftovers are the best way to make sure everything is ready at the same time, especially on a weekday after work. And it doesn’t have to be cooking one thing and eating it all week. I made two whole roast chickens on Sunday. I made stock from the bones. I stirred some meat into soup I already had made for lunch yesterday, and made some of the meat and stock into Avgolemono Soup on Monday evening, which is a very fast soup and also used up some leftover rice I had sitting around. I will probably make some more of the chicken into Chicken Tikka Masala tomorrow. Often I’ll make side dishes that can stretch for more than one meal so I can have meals that are different combinations of leftovers.
Trial and error is very important. If the timing didn’t work out, figure out why not and try to do it differently next time. That’s true of all of cooking, and all of life, really. Experience, and learning from that experience, makes all of this much easier.
Let me know if you have any questions! I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have probably forgotten to mention important things that I now take for granted.