I had always maintained that I’d be the kind of person who makes time for cooking, regardless of how busy I became. It is, after all, my job, my hobby, my creative outlet and how I connect with people.
Fast forward to 2018, and it became painfully clear that while that was a nice thought and all, it was also highly and incredibly unrealistic. The general idea that Life Is Overwhelming and There’s No Time for Anything is hardly new, but my reaction to it has adjusted from resistance to acceptance.
The way my friends and I spend our time has changed as families grow and careers take off and life gets more delightfully cluttered, and to me that has shown itself most obviously in the kitchen. Sure, I still enjoy the occasional elaborate, multihour cooking affair, but these days, there’s a lot more “come over for cheese and crackers because it’s all I have energy for” than there used to be.
This is also partly because of a realization I had: When I did invite people over for a meal, I would spend all my time alone in the kitchen working, without really focusing on what anyone was saying, or engaging in any meaningful way. (I am a lot of things, but a multitasker is not one of them.) Eventually, we would all sit down, quickly eat whatever it was I’d prepared, and then the evening would come to a close.
Nearly every time, I’d think, “But we all just got here!” I mean, sure, I just got there, but everyone else had been there for hours.
A large piece of fish like salmon, cod or halibut can be cooked in olive oil, then put on the table with with spicy cucumbers and other crunchy, lightly pickled vegetables. Jammy eggs add sauciness.CreditJulia Gartland for The New York Times. Prop Stylist: Kristine Trevino.
Several weeks ago, one of my dear friends invited another close friend and me over for lunch. Her husband was out of town, and she had a 1-year-old to take care of, so my other friend and I offered to bake or make, bring ingredients or shop — basically cater the entire affair — concerned about the burden of preparing a meal when you have a toddler learning to walk. She declined, assuring us that it really “wasn’t a big deal,” and not to worry.
We showed up to a spread that looked like it was, well, kind of a big deal. There was smoked fish from the legendary shop Barney Greengrass in Manhattan, simply cooked rice, jammy eggs, vegetables tossed with scallions, a bowl of greens dressed with lemon, and a creamy yogurt dip for spreading on crackers. Blown away by how beautiful and thoughtfully done everything looked, I felt guilty knowing she had taken the time to treat us to such an incredible afternoon when her every free minute is so valuable. (She could have been napping, maybe?)
Sensing this, she mentioned that it had taken all of 15 minutes to throw together, and that the secret to the impressive look was having several tiny bowls filled with things that didn’t require cooking. We spent the next few hours not in the kitchen but at the table, snacking and grazing, talking and catching up. The whole afternoon was truly novel to me, someone who could not imagine “having it all” — as in, a delicious, well-chosen, satisfying meal and the time to linger over it.
It dawned on me that I could lessen that burden of feeling so busy and actually get more out of cooking for friends if I flipped the ratio of time spent working to time spent eating.
I began making sure my kitchen has the ingredients that allow me to effortlessly — and at a moment’s notice, if need be — put together a meal that feels like an actual meal, rather than unwrapped nubs of leftover cheese masquerading as one. I pick one very simply prepared star of the show, and dress it up with more than a few tiny bowls (I own close to a million tiny bowls) filled with low-cook or no-cook items.
My spreads are mostly composed of whatever I’m trying to use up in the refrigerator (any rogue vegetable that can be sliced and quickly pickled is a popular choice) and the freezer (a whole, cut up chicken), food from my pantry (tinned fish and hot pickled peppers are big in my house), and something that I actually purchased for the occasion — a nice piece of fish, a whole chicken or some good pasta or noodles I happened across.
In the magical tiny bowls, there’s something salty, something tangy, something spicy. Herbs, lettuces or both are nearly always present. There’s probably a dish of something creamy, like seasoned sour cream, or maybe a tahini dressing. A crunchy element like bread crumbs or fried shallots is nonnegotiable. Nothing takes more than a minute or two to throw together.
Essentially it’s all the things I want to eat, sometimes served on their own, sometimes piled on top of one another, all on my table for a very casual and customizable eating experience.
Below you’ll find three ideas for relaxed meals that follow that basic template, rather than formal recipes for dinner: bowls of spicy, simply dressed spicy cold noodles with citrusy cabbage and garlicky tahini; slow-roasted salt-and-pepper salmon with just-set eggs and salty salmon roe; and a six-ingredient chicken to be served over buttered toast and crunchy lettuces.
Feel free to take just one cue from these ideas, improvising with what you have and what you like. Or replicate them fully. You won’t be sorry, I promise.
Through this combination of unfussy centerpieces and relaxed, snacky sides and condiments, you’ll find yourself spending less time in the kitchen and more time at the table. Life may not actually get less busy. But for a few glorious hours, it can feel that way.