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Book Review: Meals in Minutes, by Jamie Oliver

January 9, 2012

My wife and I peg my transition to “family chef” at around the time our first son was born. Until then, we’d mostly shared cooking duties, but with her tied up in a strict baby schedule, it made sense for me take over. Cooking soon went from household responsibility to serious hobby.

The Secret Ingredient is Improv

For the family chef, the key to cooking is improvisation. Home cooks need to learn enough to work with what’s around the kitchen when we haven’t had time to shop. This isn’t an Iron Chef kind of thing: I haven’t been forced to cook with squid ink and styrofoam. But the family cook needs to know whether he can get away with making Meal A when he’s missing ingredients X, Y, and Z.

While the Best Recipe series has been a staple of our kitchen for more than a decade, Bittman’s “How to Cook” cookbooks were eye-opening. His approach is entirely modular, going beyond 1-2 variations for most recipes. He also lists ways to extend recipes and includes tables showing how to incorporate different ingredients. For me, Bittman’s books helped escalate my skills by giving me a broader platform for improvisation.

Enter Jamie

Meals in Minutes (book cover)Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes: A Revolutionary Approach to Cooking Good Food Fast
is quite the opposite. Each page is a self-contained meal, including three or four courses including dessert. The ingredients list at the top of the page covers all the dishes and the method intersperses instructions for each one. In short, you follow directions to prepare a meal, not to prepare each individual dish.

Jamie Oliver is not the kind of person I’d want to go have a cup of coffee with. He strikes me as a bit of a goofball. (Not that I’m not a goofball, just a different sort. To be fair, I’m not sure I’d want to coffee with Bittman, either.) But we see eye to eye philosophically, and Meals in Minutes culminates many of his ideas. In short, Americans should be cooking more. (Not eating more, mind you, cooking more.) Our cultural dependence on convenience and consumerism has made us–as a whole–lose perspective on what it means to invest time in our food. Beyond this, his message is one of encouragement: You can do this. For Americans who are stymied by the kitchen, he seeks to make cooking not just accessible, but meaningful.

To that end Meals in Minutes is a mixed bag. There are some things I love about this book:

  • The design is beautiful. The method is easy to follow visually, and not having to turn pages is, surprisingly, one of the best things ever to come to my kitchen.
  • The meals depart nicely from family cook staples like “chicken, rice, and steamed vegetable”. I’m making things I didn’t think would be easy to do.
  • The recipes have a nice mix of fresh ingredients and pantry items.
  • The method is efficient. Both recipes I’ve prepared in well under an hour.
  • For more experienced cooks, Jamie’s recipes have some nice techniques you can borrow.

What Kind of Chilis?

Some reviews have criticized the format, since it’s not easy to make just one recipe. These reviewers, I think, miss the point of the book. Instead, the main drawback of Meals in Minutes is in the ingredients. There are some pretty obscure ingredients, and Oliver offers no guidance on substitutes.

I’m reluctant to experiment with substitutions since the balance of the method seems to depend so much on the ingredients. That said, I used jalapeno chilis instead of scotch bonnet in the Jerk Chicken. And when Sarah couldn’t find mixed organic mushrooms, we just used shitake in the Mushroom Risotto. (I know, I know, First World problems.) With the success of these meals, I’ll definitely use the book again.

What’s Next: Chicken Pie and Asian Salmon

There are at least half a dozen other meals in the book I want to try. (About a third of the meals involve red meat, and I only eat fish and fowl, so getting 8-10 meals out of the book is actually a really good ratio.) I’m a sucker for chicken pie, and Oliver’s meal includes that with some nice vegetable sides. He also has a chicken peri-peri meal with dressed potatoes and arugula salad. I’m eager to find a way to use frozen salmon in a recipe without it tasting like it was frozen. Meals in Minutes has two–asian salmon and crispy salmon–that look worth trying.

Bearing in mind that Meals in Minutes may send you on a wild good chase in your grocery store, it’s a worthy addition to the family cook’s bookshelf. It will inspire me to add new meals to the rotation and expose my cooking to some new ingredients. It will teach me to be more efficient in the kitchen, and add some new techniques to my repertoire.

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