Today, I’m taking a break from the now! new! next! mode of the internet to talk about a cookbook that was published six years ago. No Time to Cook, by Australian lifestyle guru Donna Hay, is by no means hot off the press, but the recipes couldn’t be more relevant to the timeless struggle of what to have for dinner. The struggle has been particularly brutal for me this winter. For a time, the effort of fending against all of this polar-arctic-vortex-blasting froze me into a rut where nothing seemed easy enough or delicious enough to warrant the effort. Lured in by the sunny pictures of perfect food, I forced myself to give Hay’s book a try. Like a light therapy box, No Time to Cook proved to be a mid-winter lifesaver.
Despite the dullness outside, the book has made my kitchen bright (she uses lots of lemons), tart (olives are a favorite), and hot (red pepper flakes at every turn). On these cold, dark days, when all I want to do is come home and watch my cold, dark shows (e.g., “House of Cards,” “True Detective,” “The Bachelor”), Hay has inspired me to spend just a little bit of time in the kitchen. The reward has been genuinely simple, flavorful meals that I’m never too tired to make.
The collection of recipes defy neat categorization into a single cuisine, in much the same way most popular chefs’ recipes do. Occasionally, there is Mediterranean influence, shown in dishes like lemon-feta chicken, there are a number of Asian dishes, including pork potsticker dumplings with soy greens, and there are Middle Eastern flavors, such as the eggplant salad with yogurt dressing. There are risottos, curries, soups, sandwiches, and mixed grills. The book has a melting pot style that I’d call American if I didn’t know Hay was Australian. No Time To Cook brims with such a variety of delicious-looking dinners that I can always find something appetizing, no matter my mood.
Like many who’ve been down the disappointing road of 30-Minute Meals, I’m skeptical of too-good-to-be-true claims about quick and delicious dinners. The reality is usually that the recipes aren’t quick and/or they aren’t delicious. For the most part, Hay manages to beat those odds. Her recipes are surprisingly simple. With almost every dinner I made, I found myself muttering it, “that’s it?” Hay takes a few steps that trade flavor for efficiency, but she makes up for it by maximizing taste with ingredients like fresh herbs, soy sauce, chorizo, and curry paste. For example, in the spiced chicken and chorizo couscous, she saves time by calling for tossing many things in the pan at once (with a result that the meat doesn’t have a chance to get good and browned), but there’s so much flavor from the garlic, kalamata olives, spicy sausage, and chicken broth, that perfectly browned meat is barely missed.
The book itself is gorgeous. Photographer Con Poulos captured every recipe in a color photo that is as artful as it is delectable. As firm as I’ve been in my stance that Alice Water’s The Art of Simple Food is my desert-island cookbook, those sporadic line drawings have not been igniting my deeply chilled imagination. If my desert island happens to be in the Arctic, my mittens will be clutching Hay’s book and I’ll draw inspiration by pawing through Poulos’ over-sized, full-page color photos of herb-grilled steak with pickled onions or baked haloumi & sourdough salad or lemon salmon pasta or anything else in those 200+ pages.
The book relies on a few shortcuts that are to be expected in a book about fast and easy dinners: rotisserie chicken, canned beans, etc. Hay’s shortcuts are completely reasonable given the purpose of the book and she never suggests using highly processed foods, such as jars of alfredo or boxes of instant mashed potatoes. Even with “helpers” like instant couscous and store-bought harissa, Hay’s recipes taste homemade and very often feel healthful, too. She also saves time by limiting the amount of prose in the book. The recipes are short enough (5 or 6 lines each) that I could scan them quickly to get a sense of how the dish was prepared and whether it would be something I’d like and could execute easily. The techniques are straightforward and don’t need a lot of instruction or description.
Of course, not every recipe has been a winner, but of the ten I’ve tried, only two were duds. Many more are now favorites and I still have recipes left to try. The feature of No Time To Cook that continues to inspire me is that the recipes are really, truly simple. When I walk in the door at 7:15 and I know that I only need to muster about a half hour of energy to get a worthwhile, satisfying dinner ready, I can find the strength. I highly recommend this book if you find yourself searching for unfussy keeper recipes for weeknight meals.
Below is a list of the dishes I sampled and at the bottom of the post is a recipe for one of my favorite meals from No Time To Cook, lemon-feta chicken.
Lemon-Feta Chicken: baked chicken with lemon, olive oil, oregano, and feta. Juicy and packed with flavor. (Definite keeper)
Spiced Chicken and Chorizo Couscous: a hearty one-pan dish with slices of spicy chorizo, pieces of chicken breast, garlic, olives, and spinach cooked with instant couscous in chicken broth. (Definite keeper)
Ginger & Soy-Infused Tofu: a fresh and light meatless main of marinated tofu topped with a stack of fresh vegetables in a tangy Asian sauce. This dish involved more chopping than most of the recipes, but once the chopping is finished, the dish is basically done. (Very good)
Chicken Salad with Coconut Dressing: shredded rotisserie chicken tossed with herbs and salad vegetables served with a sweet and tangy coconut salad dressing. (Very good)
Harissa Chicken & Sweet Potato: slathering the chicken with harissa before grilling made for a spicy, exciting improvement over most grilled chicken. The sweet potatoes are sliced into thin slivers so that they fully cook in the same time it takes to grill the chicken. (Very good)
Chorizo Salad with Paprika Dressing: grilled spicy chorizo, blistered red pepper, and simply cooked potatoes served over spinach with a smoky, hot dressing. (Definite keeper)
Smoky Baked Beans: hot dogs and beans for grown-ups. Smoky sausage and white beans simmered in a tomato sauce that gets a depth boost from the addition of beef broth. (Definite keeper)
Pork and Sweet Potato Red Curry: one of the few duds. Pork was a strange meat to use here; we found it too tough and dry. The homemade curry sauce had a weak flavor that would surely lose in a taste test against the take-out variety. (Dud)
Pancetta, Sage & Ricotta Pasta: This basic combination of pasta, herbs, pancetta, lemon, and ricotta had a lot of potential, but called for too much lemon. (Needs work)
Baked Three-Cheese Risotto: Oh, how I wanted this to be awesome. It just wasn’t. There’s not enough flavor, despite the obscene amount of cheese. (Dud)
adapted from No Time To Cook, by Donna Hay
I was convinced this dish would be bland, but the chicken stays very juicy and it’s irresistible when eaten with the lemony, herby, melty feta (and that’s the best way to eat this – spear a piece of chicken and a piece of feta on your fork at the same time).
Serves 2 to 3. Pairs well with a green salad.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about a pound)
200 grams of block feta, sliced into thick slabs (don’t buy crumbled feta)
5 sprigs of oregano
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 355°F.
Trim the chicken breasts and pound slightly, if necessary, to ensure an even width (the breasts should still be about an inch thick). Salt and pepper both sides of the chicken.
Arrange the chicken breasts and feta slabs in a single layer in a baking dish, nestling the feta between the chicken (see photo above). Top with the oregano sprigs, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Sprinkle with olive oil and pepper.
Bake for approximately 18 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.