When I was in my early twenties and had the dual luxuries of copious time and disposable income, I loved to cook. I cooked different things all the time, experimented with various styles of cooking and ingredients, and wasn't afraid to take a chance on something exotic. “What's the worst that could happen?” I thought. “I'll just make something different if this doesn't work out.”
Then I got married and had kids. My days got longer, my responsibilities grew exponentially, and the whole concept of free time became a memory so distant, I wondered if it had ever really existed at all.
I still cooked, but I had a new set of priorities. Instead of grabbing a cookbook and picking out a recipe that looked interesting, I had to ask myself: How long would this take to prepare? How much is it going to cost to feed two growing boys in addition to two adults? How likely is it that the kids I'm working so hard to feed are going to complain about the uniqueness of the meal I've prepared? Wouldn't it just be easier to order take out or throw something in the microwave?
It happened so slowly, I didn't realize it until it was too late: I'd lost my passion for cooking, and I didn't care about creating something wonderful in the kitchen. I wanted something done as quickly, inexpensively, and with as little complaining from my kids as possible. There were occasional breaks in the routine, thanks to the Whole Foods Market Cookbook, but most of the ingredients those recipes called for were just too expensive to use on a daily basis. For the most part, cooking wasn't fun, and I frequently wished that we could all just photosynthesize nutrition.
I had resigned myself to a lifetime of culinary boredom until last month, when my wife and I came across a cookbook that singlehandedly made cooking fun, easy, and affordable again. It's called Cooking with All Things Trader Joe's, and it is exactly what it sounds like: choose a recipe, head into your local Trader Joe's to pick up the ingredients, and make your friends and family think you're a hell of a chef.
The philosophy behind the cookbook is simple, and it sets it apart from all the other cookbooks I've ever owned. Authors Deana Gunn and Wona Miniati tell us that restaurants have these cleverly-named prep kitchens where all the things that go into making your meal are prepared ahead of time: the tapenades, the marinated vegetables, the sauces and fillings, things like that. Trader Joe's, they say, has all these wonderful, affordable, gourmet components sitting on their shelves and in their coolers, and that makes it a terrific prep kitchen.
I'm sure a lot of you are thinking, “Well, duh,” but after a mind-numbing decade spent preparing the same nine stupid things over and over again, realizing that it was this simple to enjoy cooking and create awesome meals was a real gift for me. And going to Trader Joe's to get everything? Sure, I can do that. I've been going to Trader Joe's as long as I can remember. It's one of those awesome Los Angeles institutions that we exported to the rest of the country, like In-N-Out Burger and Oingo Boingo. You're welcome, America.
The book contains recipes for everything from appetizers to desserts. Many of them have simple variations and some include suggested wine pairings. There are various cocktails, and a section just for breakfast, too. There is also a section of heat-n-serve menus specifically designed for bachelors who want to impress their date with great food but don't know their way around a pot of boiling water. The recipes are all incredibly easy to prepare, and most of them take less than an hour (in some cases considerably less) from when you start preparing them until you're congratulating yourself on being a gourmet and wondering how long it would take to track down Gordon Ramsay and punch him in the back of the head. You know, just to make a point. Come to think of it, I've wanted to punch him in the back of the head for years, but that's unrelated to anything I'm writing about today.
There are also a surprisingly large number of vegetarian recipes, or recipes that can easily be converted to vegetarian, which is something I rarely find in a cookbook these days which isn't specifically designated for crazytarians like me.
I rarely endorse things (and at the risk of overstating the obvious, this is an entirely unpaid and unsolicited endorsement) but I genuinely love this cookbook, and I think a lot of people who are like me (mid-30s, married, not a lot of time, kids) will love it as well. We had some friends over for New Year's Eve last week, and they wanted to order take out, just to keep things simple. Anne and I made some recipes in the cookbook and fed six people – including two teenagers – for about $60 … and the food was sensational.
One last thing: Cooking with All Things Trader Joe's isn't officially endorsed by or affiliated with the Trader Joe's markets. I'm not sure why, maybe TJs' corporate overlords wanted a dump truck full of money or something, or they're working on their own version of the book, or maybe the authors wanted to remain truly independent. The bottom line for consumers is that Trader Joe's has no incentive to keep every ingredient that each recipe requires in stock. The authors have anticipated this, though, and offer substitutions for various items throughout the book. If you have internet access (and I'm guessing that you do, champ) the authors have a website where they publish substitutions for things that have gone out of stock. This makes my inner geek squeal with delight, as it combines the time-tested reliability of the printed book with current technology to ensure the cookbook remains relevant and useful, and isn't threatened by obsolescence a year after publication.
The authors also have a blog that is filled with tons of recipes (many of them aren't in the book, so bonus there) as well as product reviews and healthy cooking tips. Whether you buy their book or not, it's worth adding to your RSS reader if you enjoy food at all.
We got our copy at Borders, but if you're interested in picking up a copy of this awesome cookbook for yourself, it's available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and directly from the publisher. It's listed at $29.99, weighs in at 272 pages, and is filled with full-color pictures of the various things you'll be creating.
I don't have a ton of free time or a ton of disposable income, but thanks to this book, I can once again head into my kitchen and cook like I do. Tonight, I'm making Peanutty Sesame Noodles. Awesome.