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Sick of cooking weeknight dinners? The Wavermans are here to help

The Six O'Clock Challenge

Deliver us from dinner

It's been a long workday, there's one hour until soccer practice and the refrigerator is empty: You need help, and the Wavermans are here for you. Introducing a new monthly column, in which Emma (a 40-something working parent) seeks solutions to her supper-table stresses from her mom, Lucy (an award-winning cook)

Photo illustration: The Globe and Mail

Photo illustration: The Globe and Mail

Everyone gets sick of cooking weeknight dinners. No matter how skilled you are in the kitchen, everyone tires of the daily grind, from that mom with the great hair who serves nightly from-scratch meals to that tattooed guy who always shops at the farmers' market. Eating well is often just another task on a huge to-do list, an obstacle between work, extracurriculars and your latest binge-watching on Netflix.

That's true even for me, Emma, and I know my way around a kitchen. I come from a family that's been obsessed with food for at least four generations and I co-authored a family cookbook. I also have the best resource at my fingertips: When I'm really stuck, I can ask for help from my mother, Lucy, a cooking teacher, food writer, cookbook author and true foodie.

I grew up in the midst of a cooking school, which meant that for a few Thursdays every year – desserts class day, when our fridge was piled high with leftover chocolate mousse and crème brûlée – I was the most popular girl in school.

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In those days, my mother taught in the kitchen of our midtown Toronto home. When she started in 1973, she mostly taught French basics, but as the school (and the city's palates) matured, the courses diversified, covering barbecue, Chinese cooking and lots more.

My mother trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London, but her fascination with food started years earlier at her grandmother Sophie Geneen's kosher restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland. Sophie was a legendary cook, and Geneen's Hotel was a second home for the local Jewish community. Decades later, my grandmother Pearl Geneen taught cooking in her new home, Toronto, where she opened the Compleat Kitchen store in the city's Yorkville neighbourhood.

The idea that food is love and that love is expressed through food is even more intense when food is not just a hobby but a multigenerational occupation.

My mother has been part of the growing interest in food that has elevated home cooking. But the pendulum has swung so far that many of us just feel stressed when it comes to cooking dinner after a long workday. There is a lot of pressure to constantly come up with meals containing superfoods and micronutrients and with plating charming enough to make the homepage of Pinterest. The reality is often a lot closer to the contents of a Kraft Dinner box tossed with frozen peas. Guilt rivals cheese as the most common ingredient in many home-cooked meals.

As of today, my secret resource will also be yours. In this new column, I will challenge my mother to suggest some solutions to a common cooking problem. We'll have ideas for everyone – from family cooks to singles to emptynesters – who wants to add speed, spice and knowledge to their kitchen experiences.

As a start, I'm often caught at 6 p.m. with very little consumable food in my kitchen, no time to defrost that piece of chicken hiding in the freezer and no idea what to make. So the first challenge is to make something from nothing on those days that you meant to get to the grocery store but never quite made it there.

Since we all know that the saying "a watched pot never boils" is consistently true, this recipe for Pasta with Tangy Tomato Sauce is an innovative way to cook pasta starting in cold water. It cuts the cooking time down and leaves some starchy goodness to add to a quick tomato sauce.

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And Couscous with Chickpeas is on the table in no time.

To launch our new column, we'll be doing a Facebook Live event at noon on Wednesday, at www.facebook.com/theglobeandmail. We'll be taking audience questions, so let us know your challenges there or any time on Twitter at @lucywaverman and @emmawaverman. Maybe we can help solve them – or at least commiserate.

Five secret ingredients

When I told my mom this week's challenge, she of course thought that perhaps I should have planned better (easy for her to say). Here's what to keep on hand so that you can still make a good meal when you haven't made a grocery run in a while. Emma Waverman

Fish sauce:

Lucy: I use fish sauce in everything: to enhance soup, rub on a steak or throw into a pot of beans. It is a salt replacer with much more flavour.

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Emma: Use fish sauce in fried rice, chili, meat sauce, meatloaf. It gives an umami kick, like a more powerful Worcestershire sauce. I should probably try it in a Caesar.

Mayonnaise:

Lucy: I use mayonnaise for all kinds of cooking – it makes a good marinade or the basis of a creamy salad dressing. But always and only Hellman's, as Miracle Whip reminds me of the tasteless, sweet boiled dressing that was popular decades ago. Miracle Whip has outlived its usefulness.

Emma: Miracle Whip is not mayonnaise, it's sugar in a spreadable form.

Soup stock:

Lucy: Not everyone can make stock and some good substitutes are available. My current favourite is a paste called Better Than Bouillon, which has minimal salt. The first ingredient is chicken and it tastes like the real thing.

Golden syrup:

Lucy: I love Lyle's golden syrup as a substitute for corn syrup – its high fructose content is part of the huge problem of overuse of sugar in processed foods. Caramel-like golden syrup is also fantastic drizzled on bread or as a topping for French toast, really anything you can imagine using syrup for.

Cake mix:

Emma: I like the President's Choice organic brownie mix. It is not full of nasty ingredients and is perfect for last minute bake sales or class parties that your child demands you make a treat for, with zero notice.

Lucy: I have self-raising flour on hand because it has the salt and baking powder already in it. Add cocoa and sugar and finish the recipe. It is like an instant mix.

A stocked pantry

Here's the full list of what Lucy keeps in her pantry. Each store cupboard is an indication of how we eat at home and yours should reflect your own style.

Seasonings and condiments:

Dijon mustard. Ketchup, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Sriacha, hoisin sauce, salt and peppercorns (ground pepper loses its potency almost immediately), dry mustard.

Oil and vinegar:

Vegetable oil, olive oil, sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil (a good one for special recipes and a mid-range one for salad dressings), red and white wine vinegar, rice vinegar, balsamic, fish sauce (goes in everything, don't tell the kids), barbecue sauce, Hoisin sauce.

Pasta, rice and grains:

Long grain white rice, arborio rice for risottos, brown rice, dried pasta in various long and short shapes, cornmeal, lentils, barley, couscous, bulgur, buckwheat, dried beans such as kidney, great Northern and black beans (stored airtight, they last for years). Taco or tortilla shells. Instant ramen noodles.

Canned goods:

Salmon, tuna in water, jams, peanut butter, low salt canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano), tomato paste in tubes (,much less wasteful than cans), roasted red peppers, salsa, olives, marinated artichokes, canned kidney beans, white and black beans, chickpeas and lentils.

Dried things:

Dried mushrooms. Dried fruits and nuts.

Herbs and spices including basil, tarragon, rosemary, oregano, cumin, paprika, ground coriander, ground ginger, cayenne, chili flakes, Mexican seasoning.

Baking ingredients:

Baking powder, baking soda, all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, bran, rolled oats, cornstarch, pure vanilla extract, almond extract, icing sugar, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cocoa, molasses, chocolate, maple syrup, honey.

Refrigerator:

Milk, favourite cheeses, yogurt, butter, eggs.

Shelves:

Garlic and Onions should be stored at room temperature as the dampness inside a refrigerator will spoil them quickly.

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