Reality’s Bites

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My humble, home-cooked meals are not the stuff of Food Channel fantasy. But they sure beat eating a bag of pretzels for dinner.

As I write this, my giant 10-cup rice cooker is filled with a pound of chickpeas bubbling away in broth enhanced with garlic, a whole branch of sage from the garden and bay leaves. It’s making the house smell heavenly — warm and herbal, chestnut-like. I’m cooking chickpeas this way for the same reason I do everything: Because I live a perfect life.

While my chickpeas are cooking, I’ll use eco-bamboo fibers to tat some lace dresses for my 2-year-old’s hand-whittled figurines of dodo birds (so the extinct creatures may live on in our hearts!), and then I’ll probably float to pick up my kid from school, because, after careful consideration, I’ve realized that floating is the most environmentally sound manner of transport, as walking rubs away microscopic bits of the soles of my shoes upon the ground, subtly polluting.

OK, I guess the soles-of-the-shoes thing gave me away. But really, I do have a rice cooker full of bubbling, nutritious chickpeas. The real reason I have them cooking is not because I have it all figured out, but because, if I didn’t, I’d probably eat a bag of salty, carb-laden pretzels for dinner tonight, and to be perfectly honest, I’d probably eat a bag of pretzels for dinner every night.

I feel reasonably certain that if a dozen Nobel Prize–winning scientists were lassoed together, they could still not succeed in engineering a lifestyle more perfectly designed to make me eat poorly. Here’s a typical weeknight: I break from the office at 6, mindful that my husband picked up both kids from school and has had them since 3 o’clock. I walk in the door, and the kids need dinner the way a crowd of holiday shoppers needs a store full of transportable electronics. Meanwhile, my husband vanishes to send the emails he didn’t get to send all afternoon.

I set out cheese, fruit and veggies (thank heavens my 2-year-old likes her peas still-frozen and straight from the bag; it’s a time saver). As the kids tuck into their appetizers, I have exactly one to five minutes to find dinner for myself.

I reheat whatever is reheatable, make a salad, and embark on the complicated, touch-football-like game of trying to keep a 2- and 4-year-old in their chairs and eating their dinners. My next task is herding them up the steps and into the bath by 7; then we read bedtime stories, and if I’m lucky, they’re both safe asleep in their beds by 8.

I try not to fall asleep reading those bedtime stories, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Then, I pull myself up half an hour later, stagger downstairs, and notice an odd feeling in my midsection — like two wolves tearing themselves to bits. Oh, yes, that’s hunger. Shall I shove pretzels into my face using one hand, or two?

And this is why I’m a mad devotee of my rice cooker. I came to it sort of by chance, after describing my life to a cookbook writer I know, someone who has made her living putting together recipes for the things I know I should eat — vegetables, whole grains, legumes and so on. I told her I need something that is going to require nothing of me. Something that can just take care of itself through head wounds, toddler tantrums, traffic delays and other crises du jour. It needs to never burn, never require my attention — essentially, it needs to make dinner on its own.

While many people use a Crock-Pot to meet these criteria, I had one fancy Crock-Pot that used to burn and boil everything, so I don’t like them. Lots of people I respect swear by pressure cookers, but their need to sit on the stovetop disqualified them for me. I guess, in the end, I’ve come to think of myself not as a lazy gourmet, but rather as someone who needs to make dinner without breaking stride in the middle of a 5K race.

Here’s how my rice cooker and I do it. I fill it the night before with legumes like split peas, lentils or any number of beans. I add salt and seasonings like garlic, bay leaves or herbs from the garden. Or, as an alternative to legumes, I sometimes use brown or wild rice. (I learned about how good lake-harvested wild rice tastes when I interviewed the political activist Winona LaDuke, and after buying some rice from her tribe’s Web site, NativeHarvest.com, I’ve become a real wild-rice evangelist. It’s just so toasty, roasty, smoky and satisfying.)

Anyway, if I’m using beans, like dried chickpeas, that require long, slow cooking, I cover them with water, boil once rapidly, and let them simmer (overnight or during the day), till they’re ready. If I’m making something like wild rice, I rinse, soak and season the rice the night before, and either program my rice cooker to begin cooking it in the afternoon or get my husband to push the “cook” button when he gets home with the kids.

Everything cooks for an unspecified number of hours while I go about my busy life. Then, just before serving, I add some other ingredients — whatever I’ve got on hand. And that’s dinner.

If you’re more ambitious than me, you can also sauté onion and celery in a pan on the stovetop and either add them that night or refrigerate them and add them the next day. But me? I’m not above making a one-minute cassoulet (see below).

Is it ridiculous to talk about making cassoulet in one minute? (Well, one minute plus 18 hours unattended?) Yes, it’s completely ridiculous. It’s nowhere near as good as the cassoulet you’ll lovingly tend for a whole weekend. But it’s healthy and filling, and it’s a lot less ridiculous than the crazy, time-compressed reality most of us live in — a reality most of the food press and media don’t really seem to remotely understand.

I don’t know a single working mom who doesn’t put in a midnight shift just to finish the day’s undone tasks; I don’t know a single working dad who gets to sit down with his pipe and newspaper while dinner magically appears on the table. So, if my alternative is eating pretzels for dinner, I’ll take the ridiculous (but realistic) good over the sublime (but impossible) any night of the week.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic.

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By Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl