Saturday, November 7, 2009

Weeknight Dinners: Planning So You Don't Have to Plan...

Let's face it. We'd all like to be Rachel Ray and whip-out dinner on the weeknights in 30 minutes. We'd all like to have the forethought and the time to plan ahead for 3-4 meals and do the main cooking on Sunday like Robin Miller. The reality is that most of us manage weeknight eating more like Gordon Elliot's Doorknock Dinners, opening the cabinets minutes before it's time to eat and trying to cobble-together a somewhat nutritious meal.

What I do is expect this behavior and play to it rather than try to change it. While we don't all have time to plan a menu out every week and go shopping for specific recipes, we do have the ability to put a few great meals into our toolbox that can be made with ingredients we keep in our pantries, fridges, and freezers. We can also take steps when we come home from the grocery store or when we're cooking other things to make weeknight cooking less of a chore and as quick as possible.

Make Prep a Part of Your Grocery Store Trip
Most of us do our weekly grocery shopping and then take the time to put things away. If you can squeeze in just a few more minutes to do some basic cooking prep as part of that process, you'll do yourself a big favor later in the week. For example:
  • Veggie Prep - Know those pre-washed bags of veggies that are so expensive? Save your money and do it yourself. When you get home from the store, immediately wash your veggies, herbs, and salad greens, peel and cut them up, and place them into zip-top bags. For greens and leafy herbs, place a paper-towel into the bag and squeeze out as much air as you can without crushing the greens. Later in the week, a salad, vegetable side dish, a snack, or a stir-fry are just a zip-top bag away and no chopping!
  • Divvy-up the Meat - Everyone knows you can save lots of money by buying the "family sized" packages of chicken, beef, or pork. When it's on sale, I buy 3 or 4. However, freezing the entire package rock solid makes it pretty much useless on a weeknight. Instead, when you get home from the store, break these packages up into two-person or four-person servings in quart or sandwich-sized zip-top bags before freezing. Trim any gristle or fat off while you're at it. If you like meat chunked or sliced for certain recipes, do that too while you're at it. Not only are you portioning and pre-cleaning the meat, but you're making it possible to defrost it in the microwave on a moment's notice when you forgot to take dinner out of the freezer that morning. Three to five minutes at half power should do it for a quart-sized or sandwich-sized bag.
  • Season or Marinate In the Freezer Bag - Once you have all of your meat broken-up into portions, add 1/4 to 1/2 of a cup of your favorite marinade or sauce right to the bag before freezing. If you can remember to take it out of the freezer the morning you plan to serve it, it'll marinate itself as it defrosts! Note that this won't work with microwave defrosting. The microwave will cook the meat because of the oil in most marinades.
Make One Meal Work For the Next
Very often, a meal contains an ingredient that we can use later for another meal. When that happens, try to cook extra and store it in the freezer, even if you have no idea what you'll need it for. For example:
  • Grilled or Baked Chicken - Chicken can be added to just about anything, including pasta dishes, stir-fries, and salads. If tonight's meal consists of grilled or baked chicken, throw an extra few pounds on. If you're roasting a whole chicken, buy a larger one or buy two. Put a portion aside before serving and after dinner, pack it into zip-top bags and freeze it. I like to cut it into pieces before freezing and, if you have the space, freeze it on a flat tray and toss into a bag once frozen. This allows you to take-out only as much as you need.
  • Pasta - Whenever I'm making shaped pasta (penne, elbows, farfalle, etc.), I always cook the whole box or an extra box if time permits. Pasta freezes exceptionally well and reheats from a frozen state in 1-2 minutes in the microwave. Just put it in a gallonsized zip-top bag and place it in the freezer. When you want a bowl, take it out, crack it on the counter to loosen the pieces, and take-out as many handfuls as you need. Reheat for 1-3 minutes in the microwave. You can even put jarred sauce right on the frozen pasta before reheating or toss it frozen into sauce that's simmering on the stove. This works with spaghetti too but you'll need to pre-portion it in smaller bags because you can't break it apart into portions while frozen.
  • Rice & Grains - Rice and grains are great for meals but the healthier varieties, like brown rice, take up to an hour to cook. Thankfully, they freeze and reheat just as well as pasta. When you're making rice, cook extra and portion it into serving-sized bags for the freezer. Defrost and reheat in the microwave. A stir-fry or fried rice is now never more than three minutes away.
Subscribe to the "Rule of Three"
Instead of planning-ahead for each meal, I have a "rule of three" when making dinner. A balanced dinner should have a protein, a starch, and one or more vegetables. While this would never pass muster with the FDA's food pyramid, it does discourage a steady diet of pasta and cereal, something most of us are guilty of when we just don't feel like cooking.

The rule of three can mean either three separate items like seasoned chicken or fish, roasted potatoes, and steamed fresh broccoli or a one-pot meal like a casserole with chicken, noodles, and green peas. When shopping, you don't have to plan each meal out, but make sure your cart has a nice variety of veggies (fresh and frozen), starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, and other grains), and protein (chicken, fish, pork, beef, even tofu if you like it). If your cart is heavy on the cookies, pasta, and potato chips, something's wrong.

Frozen Veggies
Frozen Veggies are a great thing to have around because they keep well, cook quickly, and can be added to dishes by the handful. In particular, I keep broccoli, corn, and green beans around at all times. When I need a quick veggie side dish, I doctor them up, usually by reheating in a frying pan with some butter (the real thing), salt, and a fresh or dried herb. Fresh sage leaves pair great with sweet corn, for example.

Keep Sauces & Seasonings Around

There are a lot of great and helpful sauces and seasonings at the supermarket and some of them are even reasonably healthy. Why not let them help you out when you have no time?
  • Cream Soups - I always have a can of Campbell's Cream of Celery Soup in my pantry. It can be used as a base for everything from chicken pot-pie to a quick veggie and meat blend in a cream sauce over rice. Plus, it's low-sodium and nearly fat-free if you use low-fat milk or water. The same goes for cream of mushroom, golden mushroom, and broccoli cheddar soup (try making mac and cheese out of the cheddar soup). Vary the amount of added liquid to get the consistency you want for a particular dish.
  • Good Marinara - Keep a jar of good Marinara around. It's good for mini pizzas, pasta dishes, or even doctoring-up veggies like zucchini. If you can't afford JM Creative's (shameless plug), I recommend Newman's Own Organic Marinara. It has the least amount of "other stuff" in it and is the closest I've been able to find to "just tomatoes".
  • Marinades - Marinades make quick work of adding a kick to flavorless white meats like chicken and pork. Add it to the meat in the morning and you'll have a great grillable meal in the evening with no effort. Try Teriyaki, Citrus, and others.
  • Seasonings - There are some great mixed seasonings and dry rubs out there that you can sprinkle on a piece of meat with a little olive oil and salt moments before throwing it onto the grill or into a hot pan. Check out Penzy's Spices and The Spice and Tea Exchange for ideas. Allow me to recommend the Tuscan seasoning from Spice & Tea Exchange. It's out of this world.
"Let the Oven Be Your Sous Chef"
The oven is a wonderful cooking tool because it cooks evenly, slowly, and doesn't require much tending to, leaving you to do other things. Chef Michael Chiarello says, "Let the oven be your sous chef!" I couldn't agree more.
  • Roasts and Chickens - Want a nice roasted chicken or pot roast for dinner? Prep and season it the night before or in the morning for work (if you're one of those early riser types) and put the entire pot into the fridge. When you get home, put the whole thing into the oven and walk away. Or, better yet, instruct a spouse or kid to put it in at a certain time and a certain temperature before you get home.
  • Two Dishes in One - I love to cook veggies and meat all in one dish. For example, place two to four split chicken breasts in a large ceramic or glass baking dish. Toss cubed root veggies (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, squash, sweet potatoes, etc.) around them. Bake the whole thing for 45 minutes to an hour until the chicken and veggies are done, checking every 15 minutes to turn the veggies. If one finishes before the other, take it out and cover with foil. You won't believe the rich, intense flavor the veggies pick-up from the meat juices.
Let's say your weeknight dinner happens to involve a good friend as a guest. You can still impress them with your "mad cooking skillz" by whipping out a dessert at a moment's notice!
  • Cookies - When I make cookie dough, I usually portion the entire batch and freeze half of the dough balls on a sheet in the freezer. Among other things, it keeps me from eating the entire batch at once. Once frozen, I put them into a container or zip-top bag. When you want fresh cookies, take them out, plop them onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake for the original time plus one minute (usually less than 10 minutes). This is just like the frozen dough cubes you can buy at the store, except fresh and you know what went into them.
  • Quicker Quick Breads - Quick breads like Banana Bread, Zucchini Bread, Pumpkin Bread, and Corn Bread all freeze well and defrost quickly in the microwave or on the countertop if you remember to slice them first and wrap tightly in a few layers of plastic wrap. The same goes for brownies and cakes. I try to make extra to freeze whenever I can. Doctor up a slice for dessert with ice cream, whipped topping, fruit, or cream cheese.
  • Streussal Topping - Streussal or "crumble topping," usually made from sugar, flour, butter, and sometimes oats, is essentially a cookie dough and freezes just as well. Find a recipe for fruit crisp and make a batch of the topping to keep in the freezer and freeze it loosely like sand. Next time you need a quick dessert, toss some berries or sliced fruit into a baking dish, add some of your frozen topping, and bake in the oven for a delicious, warm, fruit crisp. Ask your guest to pick-up some vanilla ice cream on their way over (they usually insist on bringing something anyway) and make it even better.

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