Q300: Quick Meals

When we're eating fast food, we're not just eating the food, we're eating a set of values that comes with the food. [. . .]
food should be cheap.
food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet.
advertising confers value.
OK to eat 24 hours a day.
there are unlimited resources.
the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant—in fact we don't even need to know.
And all of those values are informing what's happening in the world around us. We're ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in. Alice Waters

So let me explain that the title does not mean fast food. I have had a kind of pet peeve with this the idea of fast food for even quick meals for a long time. Frankly, even complex recipes taking a long time often don’t require one’s undivided attention. For instance a recipe might say preparation time is 2 hours, but fail to mention that most of that time is time the food is in the oven, and the cook is free to be doing something else.

I believe Fast Food is a misnomer in another way (besides often not being particularly fast and the food content is dubious). No, I believe the key motivation for buying fast food is to be free of any planning or thinking about food in advance of a meal. It is virtually mindless to have no plan at all and simply show up at the drive-up window and order off the top of your head. As with my previous post, Pay Attention, the message is that you can pay money or pay attention. (Similarly, you can pay the price with your health and the planet’s resources or pay attention and respect.) We all know that one can spend less money and minimal time to prepare a tasty, healthy meal - a superior meal. The tough part comes when people don’t know how to prepare food from scratch or how to budget planning, shopping, preparation time.

Though I had planned on this concept as I was contemplating my blog last year, I was happy to see a post by Sharon of Casaubon’s Book, The Future of the Quick ‘N Easy Meal.

“. . . my job now is to think about food. That is no hardship – regular readers of this blog will know that the question of how we will go on eating is my great passion. So much so that I’m now working on book #2, co-authored with Aaron Newton, titled A Nation of Farmers and coming out from New Society in spring ’09. The subject of the book is all of the agricultural acts we will need to undertake to survive and thrive in the coming decades – and on how reclaiming food – growing it and cooking it – might preserve or maybe remake our democracy. The title is drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s claim that it was a nation of independent farmers who were best able to create and sustain democracy, because personal independence made it possible for us to make moral and just choices.”

“Someone once observed that you can tell what decade you are in by how long the “quick and easy” meals take. In the 1970s, a good portion took as much as an hour. By the 80s and early 90s 30 minutes was it. Amazon now counts 23 cookbooks advertising meals in 20 minutes or 15 minutes or less, and a number of them are best sellers.” [snip]

“Aaron and I probably won’t change the title of the book, or at most we’ll add “A Nation of Cooks” to the title somehow. But the truth is this – a nation reared on instant and quick and easy is about to make a very hard transition – one that transforms the question of what to have for dinner to “how shall we transform our very society down to its deepest roots." Now the good thing is that I suspect that much of this transition will improve our lives, our health and a whole host of other things. But it will be hard, and harder still until we recognize that as challenging as getting 100 million farmers and gardeners will be the creation of 200 million home cooks.”

Sharon makes some penetrating points in this post. Her usual in-depth perspective takes the concept of quick a step farther than most I have ever read. But, she too makes the point I did about the thoughtlessness factor of fast food buying.

This week’s food post is dedicated to this concept of a quick meal. My choice is to return to quinoa because it contains needed protein and it is a food I have on hand at all times. Similarly I have onions around almost always. As I wrote, onions are a versatile and hearty vegetable, a complex carbohydrate that stores well during the winter months. Both of these recipes I would be happy to fix. I might not have the cheese or pine nuts on hand, but it wouldn’t stop me from fixing these. I also would be crazy not to use the solar oven if the sun was shining.

Quinoa With Fried Onions

Get a Real Food Life | June 2003
by Janine Whiteson
Rodale Press

Pronounced "keen-wah," this grain, native to South America, has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. In fact, it is not a true grain at all, but a relative of spinach and Swiss Chard. Over the past 20 years, it has enjoyed a resurgence on plates across America. This might have to do with its nutty flavor or maybe the fact that it has more iron than other grain around and is a great source of vitamins, minerals, and protein.
Servings: Makes 4 servings.


  • 1/2 cup quinoa
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated Parmesan cheese
  • Ground black pepper


  1. Rinse the quinoa under cold running water until the water turns clear.
  2. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the quinoa and water. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the quinoa begins to soften. Remove from the heat and drain.
  3. Meanwhile, peel the onions and cut into 1/8" to 1/4" slices. Warm the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook for about 10 minutes, or until they soften and brown. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, as necessary to prevent burning.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine the quinoa, onions, parsley, cheese, and pepper to taste. Toss well. Serve as a side dish.

Herbed Quinoa Pilaf

Bon App├ętit | June 2003
Adapted from B. Smith


  • 4 cups quinoa (about 18 ounces)
  • 4 1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cups pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh basil


  1. Place quinoa in large strainer. Rinse under cold running water until water is clear.
  2. Transfer quinoa to large saucepan; add 4 1/2 cups water and salt. Bring to boil.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until water is absorbed and quinoa is tender, about 20 minutes.
  4. Transfer quinoa to large bowl; fluff with fork. Stir in oil and lemon juice. Cool to room temperature.
  5. Mix in pine nuts and red onion. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 6 hours ahead. Cover and chill.) Mix in basil.

Quinoa images from Tor Tor Tor and St_Gleam.

Update 11/1/08 - I read thisgreat article on this theme of quick meals. Author takes on Kentucky Fried Chicken's challenge (read: marketing) to fix the same meal for less than $10. Not surprising that it can be done (of course), but reading the details is entertaining.


Rosa said...

Those both sound good. I don't keep quinoa around, but I bet either one could be made with millet. I'd add that a haybox would probably change he 20 minute simmer time to 20 minute sit-in-the-haybox time.

We have a pressure cooker, have had for about a year now, and it's made rice into a fast food for us -a white rice risotto takes about half an hour, including chopping & washing veggies (it's like 10 minutes heating/processing/depressurizing).

Ditto beans, lentils, and split peas - my dal recipe now takes about 15 minutes if I'm using canned tomatos, and I'm eating red lentil & dried apricot soup for lunch today that took about half an hour to make, counting cutting up the onions & apricots.

katecontinued said...

What is a haybox? Talk to me.

The pressure cooker is a really good point. I thought about this a long time ago and forgot about it again.

My son has one and I need to use it more.

Rosa said...

I can't believe how evangelical I have gotten about the pressure cooker. We use it all the time, it's amazing. (I think the real difference is Lorna Sass's cookbook - we had a pressure cooker before but all we did with it was cook beans sometimes.) I wonder if it would be possible to have a tempered-glass pressure cooiker for a solar oven, to speed up cooking times and get higher (safer) temperatures on foods that need it.

I don't have a haybox - I've used hayboxes camping or visiting people, but I don't cook with one at home.

All it is, is an insulated container for putting a hot cookpot in. It replaces simmering time for most foods. When we go camping, we make a haybox for rice or oatmeal by heating up the pot to boiling, wrapping it in an old towel, and setting it into a cooler. Permanent hayboxes I've seen have usually been a small cardboard box lined with tinfoil, inside a larger cardboard box, with old blankets or styrofoam in between the two boxes for insulation, and a styrofoam lid.

Lost Valley has a good primer here:

katecontinued said...

Very neat idea. Just saying the old blankets made me think of how my MIL used to make yogurt by bringing the milk to a the boiling point, turning off the heat, waiting until she could put a finger in and count to 10 before adding the starter and finally placing the covered pot in quilts to complete the process of getting firm.

I think the solar pressure cooker is possible as long as one could create the vacuum seal. Right? Damn, get that patent.