Bare Minimum Dinners, by Jenna Helwig****

What a good idea! Helwig’s approachable, practical guide is one of the most useful cookbooks I’ve seen in recent years. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

One of the drawbacks to growing up with easily available readymade meals, as most Americans have done, is that nobody has to learn to cook anymore. It’s optional, the way that baking elaborate meals and desserts used to be. But it’s always more expensive to order take-out food than to make it yourself; it has to be, since you are essentially paying them for not just ingredients, but also the labor costs, utility and rent, and other expenses associated with producing it. The meal that you pull out of your freezer is a bit cheaper, and so is the ubiquitous ramen, but neither is useful nutritionally. A lot of people have become born-again cooks over the course of the pandemic, and after all we have been through, it’s nice that at least some of us have benefited in small ways.

Most cookbooks—and I love the things, even the useless ones—aren’t especially helpful. They call for elaborate preparation; tools you probably don’t own; unusual ingredients that have to be hunted down; and then in some cases, produce far more food than a single person or couple can make use of. Helwig’s is different. Her recipes call for ordinary, inexpensive ingredients, and most of them require only basic kitchen equipment. Right up front she explains what pans, machinery, cutlery and other tools she recommends we buy, and although this chapter looks like the one that a lot of people will skip on their way to find a recipe for tonight’s dinner, I recommend you read it when you purchase the book. This reviewer is a Boomer, and I was thirty before I had a microwave oven. I know how to cook and am fairly good at it. Nevertheless, reading this chapter persuaded me to add one more item to my collection. Her practicality is undeniable.

The recipes that look the most tempting to me also require the largest number of dishes to be washed. That’s the way it goes, right? Chilaquiles; Apple Dutch Baby; Mushroom and Gruyere Quesadillas; yum! But she also has an entire chapter titled “Bare Minimum Cleanup” which faithfully adheres to a rule of one pot or pan, period. Because some nights we don’t care to be creative. We just want to grab the food, fix it, and get dinner out of the way so we can move forward with our evening. Helwig gets that.

The sole complaint that prevents my fifth star for jumping on board is that there are certain ingredients and flavors that appear too frequently. Not everybody loves cabbage, for example. Helwig rhapsodizes about its taste, low price, and versatility, and whereas the latter two claims are obviously true, the first is subject to the cook’s preferences. As for me, I do like cabbage once in awhile, but I don’t want it all the time. There are also a few other places where I would have preferred some more versatility.

Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and every recipe in this cookbook has more appeal than that freezer-burnt burrito you bought last March. If you are a newbie with a limited income and not much kitchen experience, you should get this book now. If you are more seasoned, you might want it anyway. And as a bonus feature, I notice that although almost every cookbook is frustrating to read digitally, this one is better than most. If you can get it in print, I still advise doing so, but if your budget only runs to digital versions, that shouldn’t stop you. Someday you’ll wonder how you got by without it.