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Culinary answers for the crucial hour

Jan 05, 2015 07:38PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

Photo by Christopher Testani Hockessin resident Kathy Brennan is the co-author of Keepers, a cookbook filled with 137 weeknight recipes the entire family can enjoy.

Gallery: Culinary answers for the crucial hour [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Winter 2013 edition.)

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

There is no time.

That's what your voice tells you, every morning of your life. It is your oldest companion, so well-worn over time that it can finish your sentences and read every truth there is about you, so when you kick off the family vehicle at a little after eight in the morning and make your way along either Route 41 or Route 52 into an office park or a building in downtown Wilmington, the voice repeats itself again and again, and oh, by the way, it also asks, What's for dinner tonight?  

More than eight hours later, you pull back into the driveway, mentally drained from that three-hour teleconference meeting that took all afternoon, and the obligations of your life rattle themselves off in bugle-horn revery. Your oldest has soccer practice this evening and your youngest needs help with her science project and when you walk into the kitchen, they're opening and closing the door to the refrigerator, hazily staring into the abyss. Meanwhile, the clock ticks and the voice begins again.  

Something pops in your mind. It is the cooking show that you saw the night before, the one with the French chef who was making the duck confit.  The dish looked amazing, but then you imagine that Jacque has no kids. No practices to drive to. There are no dishes for him to clean.  The ingredients you saw before him? They were all purchased by someone else, and all prepped for him. The duck confit? You can't remember the recipe because it was the length of a football field, and besides, who in your neighborhood makes duck confit on a Tuesday? Suddenly, out of nowhere, solutions appear like saviors: full-color brochures announcing take-out pizza, Chinese, Thai, fried chicken and sub sandwiches.  Do it, they tell you. Call us. We're quick and easy, and we're 30 minutes from putting tonight's dinner on your table. All we ask for is sixty bucks, just like we did last night and the night before. Just hand it over to the kid in the baseball cap that's driving the Gremlin.     

As you pick and panic your way through your cupboards throughout the hour, the words you hear in your mind happen again. your mind. Their arrival comes from a place in your head that tells you that you have no ideas, that you have no inspiration, that there is no possible solution to getting healthy food onto your table for your family.  As the clock ticks, the voice in your head has gone from merely loud to deafening. There is no time, your voice repeats. Forty-five minutes later, the kid with the Gremlin rings your doorbell.   

Now there is a book that finds you the time you need to get everything done – especially during the dinner prep hours between five and six p.m., Monday to Friday.

Published this past August by Rodale Press, "Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen," a cookbook of 137 easy-to-make recipes co-written by Hockessin resident and food writer Kathy Brennan, is quickly becoming a culinary and creative life jacket for busy parents who are looking to create healthy, cost-conscious and inspirational meals in not a lot of time.

Co-written with Caroline Campion, Brennan's former colleague and co-editor at Saveur magazine, "Keepers" is a beautifully-designed book intended to be the guiding hand for the millions of parents who face the weeknight dinner challenge five nights a week. Rather than sorting through a morass of websites, food magazines, blogs and outdated cookbooks written by the world's greatest chefs used to cooking at the best restaurants in the world, "Keepers" is by two mothers who know what it's like to come home from work and have children wanting to know what's for dinner.

Throughout its pages, filled with stunning photography of prepared dishes, "Keepers" not only gives chapters of easy-to-make recipes for fish, poultry, beef and pork, pizza and pasta, soups and vegetables and salads, it doesn't sound authoritarian. Rather, the book reads as if Brennan and Campion are in the kitchen helping out, and their clever recipes abound, like Clean-Out-the-Vegetable-Drawer Chopped Salad, As-You-Go Tomato Soup with Quinoa, One-Bowl Summer Spaghetti and Our Favorite Meatloaf.  

A common criticism of many cookbooks is that because many are written by executive chefs and culinary masters, their recipes are often complicated concoctions of hard-to-find, expensive ingredients that require hours of preparation. In contrast, Brennan and Campion have based "Keepers" on the foundation that all ingredients listed are easy to find a grocery store; that they are affordable to every day budgets; that they don't require hours of preparation and cooking time; and that the recipes are "kid friendly."

For instance, the only utility requirement for "Skillet Lasagna" is a large saute pan; its ingredients are very easy to find in a grocery store; and its preparation time is no more than about a half hour from kitchen to dining table. Throughout the book, Brennan and Campion offer cooks a few tips, such as a suggestion to leave a little water on Swiss chard after rinsing creates steam when it hits the pan that allows for better cooking.   

"I was reading recently that a food writer said that the average person should carve out time in his or her day in order to cook," said Brennan, the mother of two children, who is married to food writer Michael Steinberger. "He said that the average person watches two hours of television a night, so if they can find time to watch TV, they can also find time to cook. I don't know how many kids he has, but with all these demands on our time like working and parenting,  it's often unrealistic that we're also expected to plan that night's dinner, but before that, we need  to go to the grocery store, and there's soccer practice later that evening for one of your kids."

Born to a Japanese mother and an Irish father, Brennan was exposed to both her father's meat-and-potatoes leanings as well as to her mother's expanded palate. From the time she was old enough to hold a fork and knife, food had become an workshop of continuing tastes and discovery. Brennan gravitated to her mother's kitchen, where she was often asked to slice and dice ingredients for a recipe. New foods she'd try led to a greater appreciation of them and a wish to know more.

"I rode my bike to a local grocery store when I was 8 years old, for the sole purpose of being able to see what gruyere cheese tasted like," she said. "I emptied my piggy bank to get the money to pay for a chunk of it. I remember asking someone in the store to help me find it, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I came home empty-handed."

By the time she was a teenager (she graduated from McKean High School in 1985), the food bug had hit Brennan in a big way, and over time, she pursued her life's calling. She attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City, now the International Culinary Center, while honing her skills as a chef in restaurants. Later, she became a freelance journalist and still found time to work in the restaurant industry, and segued her career as a food journalist, working for Saveur, Food Arts and Gourmet magazines.

When Brennan moved to Delaware and became a mother of  boy and a girl, she realized that preparing meals for 200 restaurant-goers was easier than deciding what to make for dinner at her Hockessin home. One night a few years ago, Brennan was at the stove, and thought she would make buttermilk fried chicken created by Chef Thomas Keller that appears in his book "Ad Hoc at Home" (Artisan 2009). Two days later, after the brining and preparation, and over a dozen dirty pots and pans, she was exhausted.

"I thought, 'This is crazy. How is this even approachable for most people Mondays through Fridays?' I had seen several cookbooks, but good intentions aside, they are written form a chef's perspective, and they're not the best resource for people who need to prepare food for their families every night. Because of my background, people had approached me about having my own cookbook and I said, 'I will write one when I have something to say.'"

She called Campion and told her about the idea to write a cookbook that would provide solutions to the very same rut she was facing. She suggested that the title would be "Keepers," and contain recipes that were easy to make, didn't cost a lot, and could be enjoyed by everyone in the family. The response to her idea was simple. Campion said she loved it. "Let's do it," she said.

Over the next few years, Brennan and Campion, a mother herself, taste-tested several recipes. They conducted focus groups. They randomly approached people in grocery stores, and asked them what their biggest issues were with meal preparation. They decided early on that rather than just lump one recipe after another, the book should include advice on how to shop and organize a chicken, how to stock a pantry, what foods can be made ahead of time, and what ingredients can easily kick up a dish a few notches on the taste scale.

The results of their research and writing have drawn the attention of some of America's most well-known foodies. "'Keepers' is one of the smartest cookbooks to come out in recent years," wrote Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and chief executive officer of The International Culinary Center. "Brennan and Campion hit the nail on the head, speaking in an honest and helpful way while guiding readers through realistic expectations of weeknight planning and cooking."

"Kathy and Caroline have assembled a weeknight arsenal for home cooks that's inspiring, relatable and infused with a deep understanding of the realities of family life," wrote Merrill Stubbs, co-founder of Food52.

The first step in one's creativity in preparing "M-F" meals is to think of it as another job, Brennan said. "For most people, Monday through Friday at 6 p.m. is not romantic, but mostly just another thing that we all have to get through," she said. "You have to think of family cooking during the week as a profession, if you want to make a point of doing it effectively.

"The key is that you cannot be too hard on yourself," Brennan added. "You have to remember that every effort is a good effort, and as long you're trying, that's what counts."

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.


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