- Nutrition -

The Clever Cook

Cookbook author Robin Miller shares her tips and tricks for preparing wholesome, delicious meals that leave plenty of time for goofing around and hanging out.

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When you’re a working mom, problems arise from the strangest corners. For instance, when I caught up with cookbook author Robin Miller by phone recently, she was facing the dilemma of “too-large kites.”

Her son’s kindergarten class was celebrating Kite Day, and all the parents had been instructed to provide their tyke with a kite — preferably a very small one, so the children could handle them by themselves. When Miller took her son shopping, though, there had been a run on small kites in the stores near her Arizona home, and the only remaining kite was not small at all. “It’s a big purple diamond, 6 feet wide,” Miller told me. “You can’t even see him under it. He’s going to get all tangled up with the other kids. But what could I do?”

To many people, Miller is the super-competent star of the Food Network’s Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller and the author of various stylish cookbooks. But she’s also a working parent, and she explained to me that the secret behind her success simply involves devising solutions to her own typically hectic life that also work for other people: “I’d rather just play with my kids than be stuck in the kitchen doing prep work,” she explained.

This desire to play, not prep, is what inspired Miller’s signature methods of making do-ahead “meal kits,” preparing and freezing doubled recipes (which she calls “banking a batch”), or using one recipe as the base for a second meal (a.k.a. “morphing it”). These techniques are all displayed on nearly every page of Miller’s newest cookbook, Robin to the Rescue: Quick & Simple Recipes for Delicious Home Cooking (Taunton Press, 2008). What’s Robin rescuing? Playtime and family time, mostly.

“Any minute I have, I’ll use it so I can have quality time with my kids,” Miller explained. “But pizza pockets and that kind of thing? That’s what I’m trying to avoid. My kids certainly have their share of junk food, but that kind of food is so highly processed I feel bad about it.

“When you think about their little bodies trying to break down those chemicals,” she continues, “you wonder how it could be affecting their energy levels or health. On top of that, you’re not opening their world to new flavors. So I cook. The question for me always becomes: What kind of planning can I do? What cooking in advance can I do so I can get a real dinner for the family on the table as fast as I can?

“The solution for me is usually a weekend morning, but for other people it’s a Friday afternoon,” Miller said. “On a weekend morning, I’ll usually be making something for that night anyway, and while I’m waiting for water to boil, I’ll just chop, chop, chop — and suddenly I’ll have five little bags of caramelized onions in my freezer. Later in the week, or later in the month, I take one of those bags of onions out of the freezer, thaw it, and add it to a soup, or a sauce for chicken or pork.”

Miller, who was formally trained as a nutritionist, actually traces her whole career back to those bags of caramelized onions: “I’ve always had a passion for cooking, and when I first met my husband, we were living in different cities, but we’d spend weekends together. Well, I didn’t want to spend all our time together cooking — I wanted to have a drink and talk. He loved chicken-cheese steaks, so I’d caramelize the onions in advance, so we could just hang out.”

Freezing caramelized onions led to precooking pasta and rice, to banking and freezing batches, and eventually to a whole career, as busy moms everywhere realized that Miller was really onto something — namely, a way to get healthy food on the table, fast.

The idea of healthy has always been uppermost in Miller’s mind, even when she’s thinking quick and easy. She notes that if a major food conglomerate came out with cans of caramelized onions tomorrow, she’d still keep making her own. “I’ll always still be a nutritionist,” she says, “and while some convenience foods like canned tomatoes, canned beans and bags of washed spinach are wonderful, most of the rest of it makes it too hard to control the fat, sugar and salt that you’re eating — in terms of both the quality and the quantity. I don’t buy salad dressings; I figure it doesn’t take much time to put oil, vinegar and seasonings in a jar and shake it when you’re already in the kitchen making dinner.”

And if you make your own salad dressings, at least you know that the problems plaguing your 5-year-old during Kite Day have nothing to do with funny salad-dressing additives, but are just the stuff of ordinary, hectic American family life.

WEB EXTRA!

Sauteed Carrots and Parsnips

  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2-cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, parsnips and scallions, and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Add the oregano and cook for one minute, until fragrant. Add the broth and simmer until it is absorbed and the vegetables are fork-tender, about another three minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Recipe excerpted from Robin to the Rescue: Quick & Simple Recipes for Delicious Home Cooking by Robin Miller (Taunton Press, 2008)

WEB EXTRA!

Orange-Poached Pears With Fudge Sauce

Serves four

  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 orange, left unpeeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 pears, peeled with stems intact
  • 1 cup prepared fudge topping or fudge sauce

In a medium saucepan, combine the orange juice, sugar, cloves and vanilla. Set the pan over high heat and bring to a simmer. Add the pears, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer until the liquid thickens and reduces, and the pears are tender, about another 20 minutes. Warm the fudge in a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave for one minute on high, until warm. Remove the pears from the liquid and transfer to shallow dessert bowls. Remove the cloves from the poaching liquid and spoon the liquid over the pears. Spoon the fudge sauce over the top and serve immediately.

Recipe excerpted from Robin to the Rescue: Quick & Simple Recipes for Delicious Home Cooking by Robin Miller (Taunton Press, 2008).

WEB EXTRA!

Turkey Tenderloin With Olives, Parsley and Lemon

Serves four

  • Cooking spray
  • One 1 1/2 lb. turkey tenderloin
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tbs. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped kalamata olives
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Coat a roasting pan with cooking spray. Season the turkey all over with salt and pepper and place in the prepared pan. Brush the mustard all over the top and sides of the turkey. Press the olives and parsley into the turkey, allowing the mustard to act as glue. Squeeze the lemon juice and sprinkle the lemon zest over the turkey. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers at 160 degrees F, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the turkey rest for 10 minutes before cutting it crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices.

book cover

Recipe excerpted from Robin to the Rescue: Quick & Simple Recipes for Delicious Home Cooking by Robin Miller (Taunton Press, 2008).

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.

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