Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What’s For Dinner? (And Who’s Cooking?)

Review: The Working Stiff Cookbook, Bob Sloan


It’s 8 PM and you just got home from work. What’s for dinner?

Far from the halcyon Fifties, when a working stiff walked in the door, shouted, “Honey, I’m home!” and sat down to a meal cooked by a stay-at-home spouse, the responsibility for making evening meals has devolved upon Swanson, Dominos, and the food court at the mall. In The Working Stiff Cookbook, Bob Sloan shows us how to take back control over the family dinner.

This cookbook is like a Joy of Cooking for the new age. Like that older cookbook, this one doesn’t assume that we know how to stock a pantry or select a good skillet. Sloan tells us, with several quick essays at the beginning. From the 33 items found in every well-stocked pantry, to the 11 pots and pans and four knives no kitchen should be without, he sets us straight on the basics.

Then he launches into the (mostly) simple, quick-to-prepare recipes. He focuses on main dishes, because “as a Working Stiff myself, I realize you’re pushing yourself to the max just getting the entrée together.” Having said that, though, he provides some staging tips for side dishes, and includes recipes for complimentary starches, vegetables and even a few desserts.

The cookbook, wire-bound underneath a strong cover, is divided into four encouragingly-titled tabbed sections: Instant, One-Pot, Pasta, and Soups, etc. A typical recipe page under the Instant tab, for example, is “Sole in Foil” for two. The three-ingredient recipe for the sole is supported by a side-bar that explains cooking in foil, a footnote that suggests variations in seasoning, and a recipe for Rice Pilaf that can be made while the sole is in the oven. The whole meal takes about 20 minutes to make, including prep time.

One-Pot recipes can be as pedestrian as a tuna casserole, or as sophisticated as Sloan’s “Paella Rapido.” Despite a slightly-daunting list of ingredients (compared with “Sole in Foil,” anyway), I was encouraged to try this recipe by the frequent repetition of my favorite recipe phrase: “Open a can of…” The author acknowledges in the sidebar that this will not be exactly like the classic Mediterranean dish made with just-caught fish and shrimp, but I can testify from my own trials that it comes close enough! Prep time is less than 15 minutes, but cooking time after the paella is prepared is 45 minutes.

The Pasta tab covers more than just the starch, of course—although I found Sloan’s tips on cooking pasta very helpful. This section shows us some quick and tasty ways to use pasta as an ingredient in such one-dish meals as the vegetarian “Thai Vegetable Noodles.” I liked the looks of this recipe because it gave me a more-creative way to use the other half of a red pepper, once it’s been sliced open. (This dish would also make a good destination for left-over broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. If we should ever have any, that is.)

The tab isn’t big enough for the full title of the final section. Under Soups, etc. we find recipes for soups, salads, and sandwiches. Nothing is too simple for Sloan to include; “Grilled Cheese Sandwich” has a page, and so does “Eggs for Dinner.” My favorite, though, is the “Sausage, Escarole & White Bean Soup.” Since this recipe uses canned white beans, it takes very little time to make, but it tastes as if it’s been simmering all day.

This isn’t a large cookbook. It really doesn’t need to be; its best use is to break us of the flop-into-an-armchair, dial-Dominos-for-dinner habit. Over 50 entrée recipes give plenty of options for a month’s worth of meals with no repeats, even if you don’t like all the menu options Sloan offers. A complete Index makes it easy to find recipes to match the contents of your refrigerator.

The cute 50s-cookbook-style illustrations by Michael Klein are great seasoning for the no-nonsense recipe writing. Sloan understands, 
...this may not be the cookbook you curl up with at night. I don’t describe the aromas emanating from rustic soup pots simmering on Tuscan farmhouse stoves.

That is true—he just makes it possible for us working stiffs to smell them first-hand! The author knows that most of us are too busy to cook the way our grandparents (or even our parents) did. We don’t even shop the way our forebears did, why would we prepare meals that way?

Like my other favorite cookbook, Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes, this cookbook takes a simple approach that makes it easy to give up the bucket from KFC or bag from Burger King as your default dinner option.