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Cookbooks or recipes for jaded, time-constrained mom

So I'm a semi-stay-at-home mom to two young children and wife to a very busy, very hungry, very culinarily sophisticated overworked professional. In the next few months circumstances are about to take me out of the house much more than was the case in the past.

Over the past 7 years or so I have worked my way through what feels like everything Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Waters' The Art of Simple Food, and Faith Willinger's Red White and Greens. I am well-versed in the art (or whatever you call it) of shopping at the farmers' market, buying good olive oil, and thereby making a fairly low-effort dinner. I enjoy that, and my husband enjoys eating the fruits (my kids are hit or miss), but I'm sick of it.

Can anyone recommend either fantastic cookbooks, or great recipes, that work for families on the go who are interested in Pollanist "eating real food" AND a bit bored with the whole roast-some-turnips-in-goose-fat-in-winter, make-an-heirloom-tomato-salad-in-summer scene? I've googled "make-ahead casseroles," and many of the results don't quite seem to fit with my sensibility. But things in the make-ahead casserole, slow cooker, and/or super-quick-meal (Rachael Ray I guess) genre are all what I need at this point.

I realize this call for help is annoyingly complex, but maybe someone out there gets it and is willing to spar some time to help. Thank you if so. :)

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  1. I am a skilled home cook. Did catering prep jobs during and after college for money. Had my brooklyn jewish dad teach me how to make pot stickers and their wrappers, from scratch, way before most of America even knew what potstickers WERE.

    That said, I work at home and sometimes it's relaxed, and sometimes - it's NUTTY. And I need easy food that is also good. This website has been such a help because yes, it's a crock pot - which means easy. But her daughter can't eat any gluten, which means she has everything from scratch. Which keeps it a lot purer.

    Have I made everything in there? No. But her split pea soup (I don't use the potato), the sloppy joe using turkey and there's a chicken cranberry mustard thing… They have become easy go to's that are tasty, real and good food.

    And sadly for my hips, her crock pot cheesecake rocks. Better than baking it in a water bath.


    2 Replies
    1. re: happybaker

      I'm also a fan of this website. I'm not interested in gluten free cooking (not opposed, just not a factor in my life), but she certainly keeps things interesting and tries things in a crock pot that would never even occur to me.

      1. re: happybaker

        I agree. There is a thai coconut soup on that site that is really good and other things I've tried have been tasty too.

      2. I'm surprised that Marcella's recipes aren't giving you all you're looking for. I could cook from them all the time.

        1. Maybe Ina Garten's books would fit. Here's a link to look at her titles

          1 Reply
          1. re: blue room

            I was going to suggest Ina as well. Back-to-Basics, Foolproof, At Home, Parties to name a few are great for inspiration and her recipes are all pretty solid.

            I am partial to her roasted veggie orzo. Its is endlessly adaptable and is great in any season.

            Her roasted shrimp cocktail has replaced my more traditional one.

          2. Not exactly what you need and definitely lacking in casserole/ slow cooker recipes but I'm still a big fan of Ina Garten. Her old book "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" is one of my favorites because her approach is so simple and it's easily (effortlessly?) adapted into Pollanist friendly food. Unfussy cooking, quality ingredients, and no long lists of obscure ingredients. As a vegetarian I skip everything except the vegetable dishes so I can't vouch for many of her mains but I love that almost everything is ready lightening fast. And the few things that take longer are usually roasted dishes that require minimal attention.

            Her recipe (do 3 ingredients and no cooking even constitute a recipe?) for sugar snap peas rocked my world and changed the way I approach food.

            Still, not what you're looking for I know but I recommend dusting off this old book and seeing if you can pull anything useful from it.

            And no one makes heirloom tomato salads in the summer anymore. You have to make heirloom tomato tarts instead. With bee pollen. Served on black slate. Geez.

            2 Replies
            1. re: PinkLynx

              May I ask the name of Ina Garten's sugar snap pea recipe so I can search for it? Or would you share the method? Thank you!

              1. re: Tara57

                Absolutely, it couldn't be easier. It's called "sugar snap peas with sesame". Three ingredients:

                1 lb. fresh sugar snap peas
                dark sesame oil
                black sesame seeds

                Remove stem and string from snap peas (depending on the peas sometimes I skip this) and toss with sesame oil and sesame seeds to taste. Serve room temp. (I like them cold too, and every now and then ever so lightly steamed.) That's it!

                I love sesame seeds so I usually have a few tablespoons of toasted seeds (black, or black and white mixed) in a jar in my refrigerator- they're perfect for this.

            2. They aren't fancy, but the Cooks Country magazines and books are generally pretty good and family friendly. They aren't as complicated and labor-intensive as Cooks Illustrated, and most recipes have make-ahead tips, let you know what can freeze or keep, and are pretty honest about what sort of time goes into the meal. They're also easy to use with "real" food - I don't recall any cream-of-something soups in there. If they use the odd "fake" food ingredient it sounds like you have enough experience to adjust to your own preferences. They might seem a little pedestrian after Hazan and Waters, but you can get some ideas at least. I also love CI's Slow Cooker Revolution - it's not all soups and stews. (I realize this post sounds like I may work for the ATK empire, but I'm just a true fan and use their books and magazines all the time. Stay off their mailing lists though - they are persistent.)

              1. Another fan of the Barefoot Contessa here. Back to Basics is good. I like Foodily as a site to come up with an easy meal using two or three ingredients I have on hand.
                Sometimes I find short cuts for sides really help. Trader Joe's sells a variety of frozen rice that is not the instant stuff. Ready in three minutes. They also have the best variety of bagged lettuces and greens that are ready to go in minutes. I was shocked at how good a pre-wrapped ready to microwave baked potato from the produce section of the supermarket was.
                I also find a good rotisserie chicken, ready made pie crusts, packaged rice and bean mixes and a jar of Rao's can make everyday cooking easier.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Berheenia

                  Second Barefoot Contessa, but work from her website before buying any of her books. I much prefer her early books to her 3 most re resent ones.

                2. I'd strongly suggest you take a look at Donna Hay's cookbooks. Off The Shelf is one of my favourites however it is very hard to choose. I have all her books and can always count on them for quick, tasty meals that aren't blasé. She's an Aussie so many of her dishes have an Asian influence.

                  She has a wonderful website with lots of terrific recipes as well so if you're interested, this may be a good "no investment" way to start out.

                  Also, we have a thread devoted to cooking from her books here on CH. Here's a link that may be of assistance in determining whether these dishes would be a fit with your family/lifestyle choices:


                  1. Take a look at Martha Stewart Everyday Food. The recipes are easy and interesting.



                    1. Jacques Pepin's Fast Food My Way and More Fast Food My Way might be a good one. It's pretty casual, though.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: thymetobake

                        His lavash pizza is a fav at our house!

                      2. I would suggest Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. Her recipes are quite doable. Not to go on in the French vein but I did take out from my library yesterday French Comfort Food by Hillary Davis. After sitting down and paging through it I found at least 10 dishes I would make so I ordered it immediately. Long Nights and Log Fires is another good book to have. It is a compendium of winter recipes collected from many chefs.

                        I would also suggest that you look into getting a pressure cooker and any of Lorna Sass' books on the subject. PCs are safe and also cuts down of a lot of time. Pea Soup takes about 15 minutes without soaking the split peas. I bought my niece, a mother of 4, one a few years ago and now she would not be with out one. Getting a pot roast done in 25 mins is a treasure for her. I have a slow cooker but have not used it in years. When I was working it took too much time in the AMs when I needed every minute to get out the door and too work. Maybe now with retirement I may get it out. In The French Comfort Food there are a number or recipes for a slow cooker.

                        1. Several years ago Nancy Silverton came out with a book called "A Twist of the Wrist", the premise of which is to put together quick meals from pantry ingredients. She keeps a pretty sophisticated pantry, so the book is useful for both recipe ideas and also ideas for specialty items to keep in stock.

                          While the recipes are simple, those high quality ingredients take them up a level.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: pamf

                            I remember when that book came out and, there was such a fuss that she used canned CANNED! products. But as you say, it's which canned products and, how she uses them.

                            1. re: pamf

                              I have and love A Twist of the Wrist. Lots of great ideas. My favorite dish out of this book is the Chicken and Potato Lentil Curry. I am a big fan of Nancy's books in general, but this one is especially user friendly.

                            2. Try Beef in Beer: Put 1/2 cup flour in a dry crock-pot, add salt to taste, stir in an 8-oz can of tomato sauce, then stir in 2 bottles of good beer that's not too opinionated (I use Amstel), then add about 2 lb beef (I cut up a sirloin tip roast), a couple of onions, and a pound of Portobello mushrooms (they make a darker gravy than ordinary mushrooms). Cook this until the beef is falling-apart tender and serve it with Spaetzel (German noodles that come in a package---don't bother to make your own). Very intense and Teutonic and once you set up the crock-pot you don't have to think about it for 8-10 hours.

                              1. There's a great thread on here, which unfortunately I can't link to at the moment, collecting tried and true weeknight recipes from books previously selected as Cookbook of the Month, which chowhounds have liked enough to make at least three times. About two thirds of the way down the page you'll find a consolidated list of the recipes plus links to those that are available online. I would highly recommend checking out that thread for lots of great weeknight cooking ideas that are just a bit out of the ordinary. Maybe some kind hound can find it for you.

                                Some of my favorite sources for weeknight friendly meals are Melissa Clark (especially Cook this Now) and Diana Henry (especially pure simple cooking). Radically Simple is another great book with many a weeknight option. All of these books have been Cookbooks of the Month, so you may want to read through the threads and maybe check them out of the library before you buy to see what feels best to you. If you're used to cooking seasonally, Melissa Clark's book is organized that way, which is helpful!

                                2 Replies
                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    About halfway through that thread I listed out recipes that had been suggested thus far. Here's that summary: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9700...

                                    And here's the same list but with links to recipes if I could find one: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9700...

                                    I need to summarize the second half of the thread one of these days! So many more recipes have been suggested.


                                1. You might look more to Asian cuisines for variety.

                                  One slowcooker recipe I love, that's definitely different, is Okinawan pork belly.

                                  A couple of strips of pork belly
                                  1 cup sake
                                  1/2 cup soy sauce
                                  1/2 cup dashi
                                  1/2 cup dark brown sugar
                                  2 green onions, whole
                                  2 inch piece of ginger, thickly sliced (you don't need to peel).

                                  Put everything in the slow cooker, add enough water to cover the meat, and cook on low for 8-10 hours. I finish it by cutting the pork into chopstick size pieces and removing the skin, and then cooking in a pan with some of the marinade to get a nice glaze.

                                  Serve with steamed rice, a side of blanched green beans or spinach with roasted sesame dressing, and salad with a sesame and rice vinegar based dressing.

                                  It's possible to get really good Thai curry pastes, which makes doing a curry very simple. Vegetables and meat of your choice, curry paste, coconut milk, and you've got a good one pot main course. Add steamed rice and a salad, and you've got a good meal.

                                  A lot of Indian curries are well suited to being made ahead, either the night before, or when you have time, and then frozen for later.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                    This was going to be my other suggestion. If you feel you're in a bit of a Californian/Italian rut, trying mixing it up by making something with a different flavor profile. Lots of great tried and true suggestions on the COTM weeknight thread C Oliver linked above!

                                  2. Maybe a book like John Besh's "My Family Table" would fit your sensibilities? He talks about how his wife cooks for their family on busy school nights (she does all of the weeknight cooking because he's always working on weeknights). There's definitely no dumbing or talking down. He says, "Too often simplicity means dumbing down recipes; instead, I prefer to smarten up strategies."

                                    Here's a list of recipes in the book: http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/9...
                                    (Note, this is a mere list of recipes so you can get a sense of what's in the book recipe-wise; it's not a link to the recipes themselves). Basically, their family's approach relies on having a slow Sunday supper once a week that his wife leverages into quick meals throughout the rest of the week. Here's his philosophy in a nutshell: "Sunday is our day to sit up straight, eat with utensils, and act like gentleman [he has four boys]; weeknights are for soups to be reheated and simple sandwiches and wraps full of good things." (But, also, per the recipes in the book, risottos, ragus, vietnamese noodle soups and noodle bowls, baked pastas, couscous, curries, noodle pan fries, jambalaya, sloppy joes, etc.)

                                    Stir frying is super fast. How about Grace Young's "Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge" cookbook?

                                    For Italian specifically, perhaps try the River Cafe Books, Italian Easy and Italian Two Easy.

                                    Finally, for an all around "quick" recipes kind of book that is a step up from Rachel Ray and calls for only "real food" as ingredients, how about "Everyday Food: Great Food Fast" by Martha Stewart Living magazine. Here's a list of all of the recipes that are in the book: http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/r... (Again, this is a mere list of recipes; it's not a link to the recipes themselves).

                                    Good luck! If you get it all figured out, please let us know! :)


                                    1. Great suggestions by many and i have most on the shelf and agree.

                                      Another one to look through is "How to Cook Everything" which i consider the modern day version of "The Joy of Cooking" which was a life changing read for me when i was 13.

                                      1. I highly recommend the classic 90's book, Desperation Dinners by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross. The recipes are quick, easy, delicious, and healthful. It's not high and mighty, just friendly and good. There are several go-to recipes I haven't found elsewhere, and it's easy to switch out a convenience item to DIY when you have the time (for example, boiling my own potatoes vs. purchasing pre-cooked potatoes.)


                                        1. I like Marcy Goldman's book when Bakers Cook. The recipes are simple.

                                          1. I can SO identify with you! I work full time and love cooking almost as much as my family loves eating. I alternate between gourmet home cooked meals and fish sticks.

                                            There is an in-between!

                                            Jenny Rosentrach blogs at http://www.dinneralovestory.com and has a book by the same name. (Dinner, A Love Story.) She is also coming out with a new book soon. Her food is easy and family oriented.

                                            I also like Mark Bittman's book titled Minimalist Cooks at Home.

                                            There are some great food blogs out there written by women like you - busy moms! Here are some:

                                            http://www.healthyeatingforordinarype... (disclaimer: this is my blog)

                                            Good luck!!

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Rlocker

                                              Her new book is already out. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9844...

                                              As Savour said, the recipes are useful and likely solid (I've not cooked from them yet), but not especially inspiring.


                                              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                Jenny Rosenstrach is doing a "weeknight dinner bootcamp" for the Motherlode Column in the NYT this week. Here's a link to the 5-day menu and shopping list (pdf):

                                                The NYT series:

                                                Another 5 day menu of hers (no shopping list, sadly):http://www.dinneralovestory.com/wp-co...

                                                And another (no shopping list):

                                                A little overlap between the three, but not egregious. You'd have a decent amount of variety if you did these three meal plans in a row.


                                            2. Take a look at Buvette. I've only had it for a week, but I've already made 4 things out if it with excellent results. The real appeal of this book is that (1) it is geared to the home cook, and (2) it features both Italian and French bistro style dishes. I think it will meet all your requirements: real food, quick prep, inspirational, and consistent results.