I used to associate cooking ahead with eating spaghetti with the same frozen ragu for weeks on end or the sort of depressing magazine article that tells you how to get six different meals out of a single pot roast, where by the end you are finding slivers of brisket in your lasagna.
But in fact the cultures of Earth have conspired to create any number of foods that are excellent or even at their best when cooked ahead. Indian food is well suited for this concept (this is why everyone loves their reheated leftovers from the Indian restaurant even better than the original meal itself). So too are the kind of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern recipes where you serve bits and pieces of several dishes together at a single meal in infinite permutations.
"Small dishes" are very chic right now, and to a harried weeknight cook they seem like the world's most exhausting proposition. Why would you want to substitute six little things for one simple big thing with something else on the side? And it is certainly true that one of the most disheartening things for a cook to hear from a non-cook is "It's late and you're tired -- why don't we just have something cold?" because it is a fact of life that most foods that are nice to eat cold for dinner must first be made hot, and usually require a number of other steps as well.
But I find that cooking a bunch of things all in a row on a Sunday is quicker (no waiting for the oven to heat up for each dish; no pulling out the cutting board anew for every thing you need to chop) than doing them one by one later in the week. There is the matter of momentum.
This is of course a lifestyle best suited to those who can carve out a sizable lump of time altogether at one end of the week or the other. Still, there is something very pleasing about opening the refrigerator when you are tired and wan on a Wednesday and wish for nothing so much as a nice 1950s housewife to appear with a cocktail and a dinner for you, and seeing several enticing items just waiting to be mixed and matched into a lovely dinner with the mere judicious application of heat -- or not, depending on the item. (Not to mention the fact that this approach seems to make it much more likely that I will not go out and eat something greasy and depressing for lunch.) Best of all are things that are good at room temperature.
Plus, this is the only way those of us with jobs will ever get to eat things that take three hours to cook. Three hours is nothing if it is just going along minding its own business while you are getting things done nearby anyhow. And if you are in a position to let your vegetables cook for three hours, let me recommend
LONG-COOKED GREEN BEANS
Limp, long-cooked vegetables have a bad reputation, but while I wouldn't like my green beans to be steamed to the point of mush, there are plenty of lovely preparations that do not aim for crispness. This is a Paula Wolfert recipe, following a method for slowly cooking vegetables in olive oil with a piece of crumpled parchment over top to prevent them from drying out during their long simmer.
The beans are not glamorous, but as she says, they have a certain integrity. She points out, too, that the main nutritional value of green beans is their fiber, which is in no way depleted by the long cooking. They are best at room temperature, with a piece of bread for sopping up the juices. I like them alongside a frittata or in an assortment of little plates for a mezze sort of presentation.
1. Trim one and a half pounds of green beans (even rather old, tough ones) and put them into a heavy, oven-safe pot with a tight-fitting lid. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.
2. Add a quarter cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of sugar, a third of a cup of chopped tomatoes (good ones from a can are a fine choice), one cup of minced onion, and salt.
3. Put the kettle on and pour a cup of boiling water over the contents of your pot. Turn on the heat under your pot to high and let things come to a boil. Let it boil hard for a minute.
4. Crumple up a square of parchment paper and run it under the tap. Now you have wet, crumpled parchment. Uncrumple it and fit it over the vegetables. You'll find that you can easily shape it into a circle that covers things very nicely.
5. Put the lid on the pot and put it into the oven. Let it cook for two to three hours (yep), until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the beans are limp and putty-colored. Adjust salt. Let sit at least until they've cooled to room temperature before eating; they'll also keep well in the fridge.