You know the drill. You got stuck in traffic or slowed down at the gym and arrive home after 7 p.m. — maybe a lot later. You walk in and find ravenous family members sniffing around the kitchen. Under pressure, you turn to a box of macaroni and cheese or a frozen pizza, or you call for delivery or make a quick run for takeout.
Thank goodness not every evening unfolds this way, but even on our best days the prospect of cooking dinner — a real dinner, from real food — can seem like too much to factor into an already-packed schedule. Besides, is it even possible to cook a decent meal in less than half an hour?
We took this question to five celebrated, down-to-earth chefs — Ellie Krieger, Sara Moulton, Lucia Watson, Nathan Lyon and Myra Kornfeld — who are known for their work with quality, whole-food ingredients. Here’s how and what they cook when they’re in a hurry.
Ellie Krieger: Keep It Simple
Between maintaining her practice as a nutritionist, hosting her Food Network show (Healthy Appetite With Ellie Krieger), and writing her cookbooks — not to mention raising a daughter — Ellie Krieger knows a thing or two about putting meals together quickly. The recipes in her forthcoming cookbook, So Easy(Wiley, 2010), prove that tasty meals made with quality ingredients can also be mercifully quick.
“A good meal doesn’t have to be complex if you have nice ingredients,” Krieger says. She also points out that quality foods don’t all have to be fresh from the field, especially when it comes to go-to items for busy nights. She prefers frozen, raw, cleaned shrimp because it’s so versatile, and she likes keeping a variety of veggies, such as spinach, broccoli and peas, in the freezer. A few cans of diced tomatoes (which make a great base for minestrone or impromptu sauce for chicken) and a variety of quick-cooking whole grains are staples in her cupboards. (For more on how to create a healthy and flexible pantry, see “The Clean-Eats Pantry” in the May 2008 archives.)
This quick meal of shrimp fried rice, adapted from So Easy, is among her favorites for making good use of leftover brown rice. “Everything in it is stuff you can keep around awhile,” she says. Frozen shrimp keeps in the freezer for months; cabbage keeps for two weeks in the crisper and makes a great veggie addition to stir-fries, salads and soups. For extra protein and flavor, you can scramble in a couple of eggs during the last minute of stir-frying the rice.
Sesame Shrimp Fried Rice With Cabbage (pictured above)
- 1 tbs. peanut oil
- 1 pound peeled, cleaned small shrimp
- 4 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
- 1 tbs. grated ginger
- 5 cups green cabbage, thinly sliced and cut crosswise into 3-inch pieces
- 2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced
- 1 tbs. toasted sesame oil
- 4 cups very cold cooked brown rice
- 3 tbs. low-sodium soy sauce
- 2 tbs. sesame seeds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat for about one minute — until golden
Heat the peanut oil in a very large nonstick skillet or wok over high heat. Add the shrimp, scallions and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until shrimp turn pink, about one-and-a-half minutes. Add the cabbage and red pepper and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften but are still somewhat crisp, about two minutes more. Transfer this mixture into a bowl.
Heat the sesame oil in the same skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, until heated through, about three minutes.
Add the shrimp, cabbage and red-pepper mixture back to the skillet, stir in the soy sauce and sesame seeds,
Sara Moulton: Kitchen Tricks
Master multitasker Sara Moulton was the executive chef at Gourmet magazine for 23 years, all the while hosting numerous shows on the Food Network and, most recently, Sara’s Weeknight Meals on public television. She also serves as food editor for ABC’s Good Morning America, has authored several cookbooks and cofounded the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance. Moulton is someone who makes things happen — including small miracles like fast, nourishing dinners.
“I generally do some homework on the weekend,” Moulton says, which means she’ll cook grains like rice and wheat berries and freeze them for the coming week. She always has onions, garlic and potatoes on hand, as well as basic pantry items like canned beans, pasta, olives, fire-roasted canned tomatoes and chicken broth. A favorite prep trick? Using the grating disk on the food processor to cut long-cooking root vegetables like beets, carrots and potatoes for a quick side dish. She also likes to use thinner varieties of pasta when she’s in a rush because they take less time to cook. The angel-hair pasta in this recipe, which is adapted from her upcoming cookbook, Sara’s Everyday Family Dinners (Simon & Schuster, 2010), cooks in three minutes. It’s available in whole-grain and wheat-free varieties, too.
Peppery Broccoli With Feta and Angel-Hair Pasta
- 3/4 pound angel hair pasta
- 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 bunch broccoli (about 11/2 pounds)
- 1/2 to 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 11/3 cups)
- Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Sea salt
Bring a large covered pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Break the broccoli tops into bite-sized florets; trim and peel the stems and slice them 1/2-inch thick (about 7 cups). When the pot of water comes to a boil, add the broccoli. Cook three minutes; using a slotted spoon, remove the broccoli and place in a bowl.
Add the pasta to the boiling water. Stir and boil until al dente, following package directions. Drain well and return to the pot.
Meanwhile, combine the stock and pepper flakes to taste in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
Add the broccoli, stock and feta to the drained pasta. Heat until hot; add Parmesan-Reggiano cheese and freshly ground black pepper to taste and serve.
Lucia Watson: The “One-Pot” Solution
Time is in short supply for Lucia Watson, owner of the venerable Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar in Minneapolis, one of the first restaurants in the Midwest to cultivate an ongoing relationship with local farmers. In addition to running the cafe, Watson has coauthored two cookbooks and sits on the board of Youth Farm, a nonprofit organization that teaches urban farming to kids.
When Watson’s in a rush, she’ll often cook all her vegetables in one pot, adding the faster-cooking ones at the end. “This kind of thing would shock some people, like my mom,” she laughs, but the one-pot meal saves her prep time and cleanup. She also freezes leftover portions that might seem too small for a meal — a piece of chicken, some rice — and later combines them with stock to make a thick soup. She keeps an assortment of high-flavor items in her pantry — various oils and vinegars as well as olives, nuts and oil-cured tomatoes — that make it easy to “wake up” simple dishes like pasta.
One of her favorite quick meals, adapted from her cookbook Cooking Freshwater Fish (In-Fisherman, 2006), is this delicate fish baked in parchment paper (or aluminum foil) — essentially a “one-pot” meal. It works fine with frozen fillets, just thaw them in cold water first.
Parchment looks fancy, but it’s cheap, incredibly easy to work with, and cuts way down on cleanup time. Want to make dinner even easier? Watson often prepares the parchment packages earlier in the day and then stashes them in the fridge until an hour before her guests arrive for dinner.
Fish With Vegetables and Herbed Butter in Parchment (or Aluminum Foil)
Ingredients per person:
- 1 walleye fillet (or fish of your choice)
- 1 small pat of butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tbs. minced fresh herbs or 1 tsp. dried herbs and/or spices (such as dill, basil, mint, paprika, cumin, coriander, etc.)
- Splash of white wine
- Assorted colorful cut vegetables — your choice
- Parchment paper (or aluminum foil)
- Baking sheet
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Tear off a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil about 12 inches long. Spread one entire side thinly with butter.
Place the fillet on the butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place vegetables on top and around the fillet. Sprinkle with wine and herbs and/or spices.
Fold the parchment paper (or foil) in half over the walleye. Overlap the edges, holding down the creased edges with one index finger, using the other thumb and index finger to pinch and fold. Tuck the excess underneath and place on a baking sheet.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
Nathan Lyon: Strategic Planning
Cooking with fresh seasonal foods doesn’t have to be complicated, says Nathan Lyon, host of A Lyon in the Kitchen, on the Discovery Health Channel and FitTV, where he often takes viewers to the source of their food: the farm. “Everyone has to eat,” he says cheerfully. “I just want people to eat well.”
When it comes to making real meals in less time, Lyon suggests a little strategic planning. “You’d plan ahead for a meeting at work,” he says. “Why not dinner?”
He recommends keeping homemade stock in the freezer — “stock adds flavor to everything,” Lyon says, and, as he points out, it’s no harder to make than simmering the vegetables you’ve left wilting in the fridge. But aseptically packed boxed stocks work just fine, too. He keeps a good, fruity olive oil on hand for sautéing and finishing dishes, as well as lemons and high-quality vinegars, since acids make flavors pop. “Vinegars can really dress up a dish and make it come alive,” says Lyon. “Red-wine vinegar is great drizzled on sautéed greens, sherry vinegar is a classic addition to a hearty lentil stew, and a good balsamic vinegar can go well with savory dishes, like Italian tomato-based dishes, as well as sweet ones, like fruit tarts.”
In his freezer, Lyon keeps a supply of fruits and vegetables that he bought and froze in season, when they’re least expensive and their flavor is at their peak. Apples keep well and are available year-round, which makes them a handy addition for recipes like the one below.
Don’t be scared by the fancy name for this chicken dish: “Chicken paillard” simply means you pound the chicken flat before you cook it — a simple tip for fast, evenly cooked chicken, every time.
Chicken Paillard With Apple-Walnut Salad
- 4 small skinless chicken breasts
- 1 large crisp apple, diced
- 6-ounce bag baby arugula
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tsp. whole-grain Dijon mustard
- Juice of 1/2 lemon (1 tbs.)
- 2 tbs. freshly chopped rosemary (optional)
- 1 small shallot, diced
- 3 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, not pre-grated
- 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, crushed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Plastic wrap
- Nonstick olive-oil spray
In a small bowl, make the vinaigrette by combining the mustard plus the lemon juice. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.
Turn the oven to broil. Place one piece of plastic wrap on a cutting board and top with two chicken breasts, then cover with a second piece of plastic wrap. Using the bottom of a heavy skillet or pan, evenly pound the breasts until approximately 1/3-inch thick. Repeat with the other breasts. Remove the top layers of plastic.
Season the chicken lightly with salt, pepper and half of the chopped rosemary (if using). Flip the breasts, and again season lightly with salt, pepper, plus the remaining rosemary. Transfer the breasts to a sprayed, foil-lined sheet pan and evenly drizzle over the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Transfer to the oven and broil for four minutes. Flip the breasts and continue to cook for an additional four minutes, or until the juices run clear when pierced with the tip of a knife. Transfer the breasts to a clean cutting board.
In a large bowl, toss to combine the arugula, shallot, apple, walnuts and parsley. Dress with vinaigrette, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide salad evenly among the plates. Then, using a vegetable peeler (or a sharp knife), shave a few long strips of Parmesan onto each salad. Thinly slice the breasts and evenly divide among the salads. Serve immediately.
Myra Kornfeld: Spice It Up
New York City–based chef and natural-cooking instructor Myra Kornfeld doesn’t compromise on flavor when she’s pressed for time, as is evident from the titles of two of her excellent cookbooks, The Healthy Hedonist (Simon & Schuster, 2005) and The Healthy Hedonist Holidays (Simon & Schuster, 2007). “Nourishment is not only what we eat, but how we eat,” she says, suggesting that we slow down and taste our food once we get to the table.
Because flavor is a high priority, she keeps a variety of spice mixes on hand and likes to keep a few high-quality homemade dressings and sauces in the fridge as a quick way to add flavor to fish or salads. She keeps frozen homemade veggie burgers and stock in her freezer, and (like virtually all the chefs we’ve quizzed) she keeps her pantry well stocked with a variety of oils and vinegars, capers, olives, and a selection of whole grains. Some are quick cooking, like quinoa; others she’ll make in a pressure cooker.
Kornfeld describes the following meal as one of her favorites when she has only minutes to put something together. These lemony chickpeas and greens make a satisfying meal, especially when paired with brown rice or lightly toasted whole-wheat pitas and some yogurt.
Lemony Spiced Chickpeas With Spinach
- 3 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cups thinly sliced onions (2 medium onions)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (or 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas)
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. paprika
- 1/8 tsp. cayenne
- 3 tbs. fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3/4 pound baby spinach
- Freshly ground black pepper
Warm the oil over low heat in a large skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are juicy and tender.
Add the chickpeas, spices, lemon juice and salt. Cook five minutes uncovered, stirring from time to time.
Stir in the spinach; cover and cook until the spinach has wilted, about four minutes. Uncover and sprinkle with black pepper. Taste and add a pinch more salt if necessary.
These recipes are just a start, of course, but they illustrate that it’s possible to cook a decent meal relatively quickly in a wide variety of ways. For more options, invest in a few good cookbooks geared to weeknight cooking or simple meals, or consult a trusted Web resource that lets you search by prep time and ingredients you have on hand (see Resources, page 40, for recommendations).
There will always be evenings when takeout or delivery is the most practical way to get dinner on the table. But the more often you can whip your own whole-food staples into fresh, nutritious meals, the healthier and happier you and your entire household will be. And the more confident you’ll become about your own ability to produce satisfying meals, fast.
Courtney Helgoe is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.