She flips on the lights and checks the clock above the fireplace. The rain outside makes the room darker than usual at this hour. She tries to let go of the work day. She didn’t get done all she’d wanted to, but now it’s time to figure out what to make for dinner. She takes her apron from the hook on the wall and puts it on, silently vowing to buy at least some ready-made food at the grocery store next time.
The vegetable drawer holds a couple of carrots, one cucumber, half a bunch of celery, and a head of sad lettuce. There’s a bowl of red radishes in water above. Lots of condiments, but not much to put them on. Plenty of fruit. Why doesn’t her family eat more fruit? A salad seems like the obvious choice, but no one wants a salad during a rainstorm.
Three of summer’s last tomatoes are on the windowsill above the sink. There’s a basket of onions. Lots of good dishes begin with an onion. Why doesn’t she take a few minutes on the weekend and plan?
Sometimes she wishes she could come home to a nice evening dinner without having to make it. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy cooking or planning a nice meal. For holidays and special evenings with friends, she does. Perhaps because it’s about more than a few hours’ sustenance. It’s about creating a mood, an event, and a time to be remembered.
No one remembers every meal of an average weeknight. Why should they?
She searches the shelves of the pantry. Cans of coconut milk, hearts of palm, artichokes… There’s some brown rice that will take too long to cook. Lasagna noodles. Too many jars of dried beans that need to soak for hours before cooking. Three jars of mustard. Does she have a fear of running out? Her husband complains when they do.
She spies a bag of green lentils and grabs them. Soup. She hasn’t made any in months. No one wants hot soup when it’s hot outside. But now it’s almost time to turn on the heat at night.
She puts the heavy blue enamel pot on the stove, lights the burner, and selects a large yellow onion from the basket before quickly dicing it on a wooden cutting board. A drizzle of oil in the pot sizzles, telling her it’s ready. She scrapes the onions into the pot with the back of the knife and gives them a quick stir before salting them generously.
She takes two carrots and the celery from the fridge and quickly washes them under the running water of the faucet. She looks out the window at the thick grey clouds covering the sky like a heavy quilt. It looks strangely inviting.
Quickly drying them off, she thinly slices the carrots. Keeping the large knife’s tip down, the only sound besides the raindrops hitting the window is a quiet crunch, crunch of the blade cutting through the orange root in rapid succession. She scrapes the carrot slices into the pot and mixes them with the onions before returning to the cutting board and repeating the process with the celery. One stalk is longer than the others. She pops its leftover end into her mouth and slowly chews it. Her daughter has finished her math test by now. She hopes she did well.
The bread basket’s empty. She looks in the freezer and is relieved to find a bag of rolls. She grabs half a bag of frozen spinach too. The kids will complain less about soup for dinner if there are rolls on the side.
In the pot, the onions, carrots, and celery have softened. The French call this combination mirepoix, at least they would if they were uniformly diced. But there’s no time for that. She dices one of the tomatoes from the windowsill and adds a bit more salt and minced garlic from a jar. Jarred garlic is a tiny time-saving purchase. At least she got that right.
When she can smell the aroma of the garlic, she pours in the lentils and water, then adds a bay leaf and a generous dash of dried thyme before putting the cover on, and turning up the heat. Thunder rumbles outside. She unlocks the front door, so they don’t have to ring the bell, then turns on the oven and places the rolls on the rack to warm.
Someone once told her that flower arrangements should always contain an odd number of flowers. Meals seem to be the same to her. Even on weeknights like this, she likes to offer three items, ideally of different textures and temperatures. She needs a third item.
She looks into the refrigerator again. What is she even looking for? Nothing different is there than the last time she looked, of course.
As the soup comes to a boil, she puts together a radish plate: a small dish of salt, another of butter, and the halved radishes drained of water and ready for dipping. Somehow this seems more palatable than a salad tonight. The peppery radishes will be a good contrast to the creamy lentils.
She adds the spinach to the pot, lowers the heat, and covers the pot partway with the lid. There’s something a tiny bit satisfying about making a complete meal when it initially didn’t seem possible. A dinner pulled together at the last minute utilizes the same strategy as creating a good life: Look around and make the most of what you have. Let experience be your guide.
With the time left, she empties the dishwasher and sets the table. The house is so quiet. It’s tempting to lie down for a few minutes, but she resists. The day is far from over. She will get a second wind like she always does. There’s laundry to do and homework to oversee. She tastes the soup. It’s almost ready. She grinds some black pepper over the pot.
She takes a basket out of the closet and lines it with a clean kitchen towel for the rolls. Using a pair of tongs, she’s taking the warm rolls out of the oven when she hears the front door open and slam shut. Her daughters laugh and stomp their feet to shake off the rain in the foyer. They are no doubt soaked. She’d better get them a towel.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Jennifer Haubrich[Writer; Colgate University; The University of Pennsylvania; English & Art History]
Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team
‘Flow of Cooking a Weeknight Meal’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on January 27, 2023