ONE OF THE hardest things about cooking every day is simply the act of cooking every day.
“It gets harder,” Alyssa Brantley, Seattle-based blogger at “Everyday Maven” and author of the new “ ‘I Don’t Want to Cook’ Book,” says with a laugh.
In addition to breakfast and dinner, Brantley’s also making lunches daily during the school year, because her two kids attend a school without a cafeteria. As summer flexibility gives way to fall routines, it’s always around the middle of September that she realizes that when it comes to meal planning and cooking, “This is actually not ending.”
Even if you don’t have kids, spending every evening putting together an elaborate meal seems impossible. We inevitably fall into patterns and routines, relying on the same handful of recipes to keep us fed with minimal effort. But what happens when those recipes start to feel tired, and we moan to ourselves and our loved ones something along the lines of “I just don’t want to cook!”?
One answer is to turn to Brantley’s book.
She’s been thinking for the past eight years about how to set people up for success when they don’t feel like cooking, asking herself, “How can I still eat delicious food, and what steps can I take out?” She thinks there are too many recipes that are overwritten, leaving her wondering, “Do I really need that extra scallion?” when looking over a recipe for dinner.
“We need to move away from that; we’re all burnt out,” she says.
There’s a fine line for her. The book isn’t about opening a lot of canned goods or jars of sauce — however, she does recognize there’s a time and place for that style of cooking and eating. Instead, it’s about how to focus on foods that are fresh but don’t take up a lot of time.
“I think that there’s a default setting to convenience foods, but I’m saying, you know what’s actually a convenience food? Baby spinach. It cooks in 30 seconds. Grape tomatoes. You don’t need to do anything with them. I don’t think that canned soup mixes are convenience foods,” she says.
The book opens with a few timesaving tips and instructions before diving into 100 recipes she calls “simple, but real.” There’s a focus on using crossover ingredients that are easy to find no matter where you shop — like baby spinach, grape tomatoes and shredded cabbage.
There’s also an emphasis on building flavor in simple yet effective ways. There is no 30-ingredient chili in this book; instead most recipes have a dozen ingredients or fewer, and each ingredient does a specific job to make the dish fully flavored.
Things such as lasagna soup, which takes everything there is to love about lasagna and cuts the massive prep time down to 30 minutes without taking away any of the rich, cheesy, comfort of the dish.
Some of these recipes feel like no-brainers. There’s a fried egg sandwich and black bean sheet pan nachos — both things that at first glance don’t seem to need dedicated recipes. But part of the charm of this book is how it helps your brain along when it feels stuck — such is the case with the recipe for pasta with shrimp, peas and pesto.
It all cooks in one pot — the shrimp and peas added during the last minute the pasta cooks. After draining the water, the whole dish is tossed with pesto sauce. The end of the recipe offers substitutions or ideas for next time. Sub grape tomatoes for peas, squeeze some lemon for more acid, throw in a can of white beans for more protein. Once you start thinking about how things can cook together, your brain starts subbing ingredients and unlocking new ideas.
There also are recipes for breakfasts, lunches, salads, soups, desserts and even sides, to cover just about any time when you look in your cupboards and think, “Nope! Nothing edible in here.”
I am very into the whipped feta dip that mixes the salty cheese with Greek yogurt, lemon, salt, oregano and red pepper flakes, whirred together with olive oil in a food processor. It’s rich and tangy, a perfect dip for raw vegetables or crackers, or spread on top of shredded rotisserie chicken in a wrap.
Brantley says her goal for readers is that they “have another three to five new weapons in their arsenal for dinner or a snack.” It’s a small goal, but sometimes that’s all we need.
Whipped Feta Dip
Use your food processor to whip up a healthy and flavor-loaded vegetable dip in 5 minutes, start to finish (including cleanup time!). This zesty feta cheese-based dip can be made ahead of time and served chilled. It’s a fantastic partner for any fresh vegetables, like cucumber rounds, carrots, peppers, broccoli, celery, cauliflower, snap peas and more. For crunch, serve with pita chips.
Prep time: 5 minutes
8 ounces Greek feta cheese, broken into chunks
3⁄4 cup full-fat plain Greek yogurt
Zest from 1 medium lemon
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
1⁄4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1. Add feta, yogurt, lemon zest and salt to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the “S” or chopping blade.
2. Turn on, and slowly drizzle in 2½ tablespoons oil while the food processor is running.
3. Use a spatula to transfer mixture to a serving platter, and top with remaining ½ tablespoon oil, oregano and red pepper flakes.
Per serving: Calories: 140 | Fat: 12g | Sodium: 340mg | Carbohydrates: 2g | Fiber: 0g | Sugar: 2g | Protein: 6g
— Excerpted from “The ‘I Don’t Want to Cook’ Book” by Alyssa Brantley. Copyright ©2022 by Simon & Schuster Inc. Photographs by Kelly Smith. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Lasagna Soup with Italian Sausage, Fresh Basil and Grated Parmesan
Homemade lasagna is a true labor of love. With this easy lasagna soup, you will get all the flavor and goodness of homemade lasagna but without all the work. Whip up a batch about 30 minutes ahead of time, and impress your family with a dinner they will absolutely love.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Active cook time: 10 minutes
Hands-off cook time: 15 minutes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound bulk uncooked mild Italian sausage
1 (28-ounce) can unsalted crushed tomatoes, including juice
1 (14.5-ounce) can unsalted diced tomatoes, including juice
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
½ pound uncooked lasagna noodles, broken into small pieces
16 ounces full-fat ricotta cheese
8 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
8 teaspoons thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
1. Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Once hot, add oil, onion, garlic and spices. Sauté 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Add sausage to pot and continue cooking 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up sausage with a wooden spoon or spatula, until most of the pink is gone.
3. Add crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes and broth. Raise heat to high, and bring to a boil.
4. Once boiling, add lasagna noodles. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook uncovered 15 minutes. Gently stir in ricotta until well incorporated.
5. Serve topped with Parmesan and basil.
Per serving: Calories: 532 | Fat: 3g | Sodium: 1,730mg | Carbohydrates: 37g | Fiber: 5g | Sugar: 6g | Protein: 24g
— Recipes excerpted from “The ‘I Don’t Want to Cook’ Book” by Alyssa Brantley. Copyright ©2022 by Simon & Schuster Inc. Photographs by Kelly Smith. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.