Two weeks ago we asked Food readers to give us their tips, strategies and recipes for putting weeknight meals on the table. Here are some of the many secrets they shared, with plenty more to come in future weeks. Do you have comments or suggestions for quick and convenient weeknight meals? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org:
I use packaged/frozen whole meals in one package -- like Pasta Primavera With Shrimp in Scampi Sauce. I prefer using the stove-top directions, and I "enhance" the meal by adding more "fresh" minced garlic (the packaged meals are so tame when it comes to spices like garlic and/or onions) in extra-virgin olive oil as the starter for the meal.
Other prepared foods can "wake up" or perk up with a pat of butter and/or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. I remember Julia Child mentioning in one of her shows that butter can correct most any mistakes. Even canned Campbell's mushroom or tomato soup tastes great with a pat of butter and a fresh grind of black pepper and, if you have them, some fresh herbs -- tarragon for the mushroom and cilantro or basil for the tomato.
If I pick up Chinese soup -- Hot and Sour or Dumplings with Noodles -- I will add fresh chopped scallions and a dash of sesame seed oil to the individual bowls before I ladle the heated soup into them.
Sesame oil and scallions are also added liberally on top of takeout lo mein or chow mein. And instead of pouring on the soy sauce packets that come with the order, try a squeeze of lemon or lime -- less salt and zestier!
Of course, my husband thinks everything tastes better with Tabasco sauce -- even takeout hot and sour soup!
-- Vicky Go
I do nearly all the cooking in our two-person household of just my wife and me. Here are a few of the strategies I use to cook decent meals for us during the week, using a minimum of prepared food:
* Crock-Pot Salvadoran Red Beans. Get the good small Salvadoran red beans (available at any Giant that has a Hispanic foods section). Soak a pound or so overnight with a chopped onion. In the morning make sure the beans are covered with about 3/4 inch of water. Add hot sauce, olive oil (fatback is good too) and salt. Cook on high in the Crock-Pot all day. The beans go well with grilled chicken, rice or in burritos. I make a lot each time and freeze containers for later use, which thaw overnight in the fridge.
* Crock-Pot Chicken Mole. Get the mole sauce that's sold in little juice glasses in the Hispanic section of the grocery store. Chip it out of the glass and mix with three parts hot water. Put 11/2 pounds of skinned chicken thighs in the Crock-Pot, cover with mole sauce. This can be done at night and the removable Crock-Pot liner refrigerated overnight. Cook on low all day. Serve with rice. This is good stuff.
* Moo-Shoo Chicken. Cut up a chicken breast or two (leftover pork roast is good too). Saute in wok, add shredded cabbage, sliced onion, mushrooms, garlic. Add some of that Chinese black bean sauce sold in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Serve with warm tortillas, rice and plum sauce.
* Pizza. Make pizza dough in the bread machine as soon as you get home. Use regular pasta sauce, pre-shredded mozzarella or Italian blend cheese and whatever vegetables you have. Bake. From start-to-finish takes a little over 2 hours, but it's better than delivery. Mexican "pizza," made with pizza dough, mashed black beans, salsa and cheddar cheese also turns out pretty well.
Not necessarily a new concept, but as an example on a spaghetti night, as I am doing the cleanup, I always assemble the leftover pasta, sauce, hunks of longhorn cheddar cheese, adjust the sauce if there isn't quite enough with a can of tomato sauce and seasoning (pepper, Italian spices) into a casserole dish. The next night, a "Baked Spaghetti Casserole" is ready to be popped in the oven with zero prep time.
It's a dual concept of using leftovers, but also creating a time-saver dish with no prep.
-- Bill Carpenter
Even though I love to cook from scratch, and I mean real scratch, I'm always on the lookout for quick weeknight meals. I use many countertop appliances such as slow-cookers, steamers. I mix fresh and packaged ingredients and have two quick chicken dishes that I make and my family loves.
For a quick chicken cacciatore: I cut 3-4 boneless chicken breasts into bite-size pieces and brown them in vegetable oil. Then cut up a green pepper, onion and mushrooms and add them to the pan with a jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce. (My favorite is Barilla's Spicy Pepper. It adds a little zip without being too spicy.) Cook until chicken is done. Serve over spaghetti.
For chicken cordon bleu: Brown 4 boneless, skinless beasts in a little vegetable oil. Mix one envelope chicken gravy mix with 3/4 cup water and 1/4 cup white wine (I skip the wine and use all water). Pour over chicken. Simmer until chicken is done. Slice 1/4 pound ham and 1/4 pound Swiss cheese. Sprinkle over chicken and melt cheese. Serve with hot, cooked rice.
I hope these are a help to all the working parents looking for new dinner ideas!
-- Lori Rudolph
I recommend Cooking Light's 5 Ingredient, 15 Minute Cookbook [edited by Anne Chapelle Cain, Oxmoor House, $34.95]. The title pretty much says it all, though I have ended up exceeding the 15 minutes on occasion. I've only made it through about a third of the recipes, but I've only been moderately disappointed by a couple.
Cooking Light is a great magazine, but sometimes seems aimed at semi-gourmets who have two hours and 25 ingredients on hand. The cookbook condenses things to a much more convenient number of ingredients, uses prepackaged ingredients where feasible and keeps everything to their standards of healthy (pretty much guided by no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and moderate sodium content). They also include complete meal suggestions and nutritional info.
Just my two cents.
-- Stacey Reubush
I loathe the idea of prepackaged meals loaded with everything you don't need and nothing you do need, nutritionally speaking. Therefore, I've begun cooking simply. When I get home at 6:15, if I'm lucky -- lugging two kids in the door who are starving -- I think in three terms: fast, nutritious, simple.
* Meat ingredient -- grilled, broiled, or pan-fried (gotta love that George Foreman grill for cooking small portions).
* Vegetable -- usually canned or frozen, most often microwaved, sometimes fresh cut red pepper strips or other salad fixings suffice and are served cold on the plate alongside the hot ingredients.
* Starch -- either noodles or rice, the latter often thrown directly in the skillet with the aforementioned meat ingredient, in the spirit of the old Rice-a-Roni instructions. Add fresh herbs from my garden or dried if necessary, other seasonings pulled from the fridge (Worcestershire or Italian dressing are great for instant flavor) or spice cupboard.
My children participate in the process as well, thereby learning, discussing and creating that sense of family responsibility, which is extremely important to us.
For special treats on the weekends, I make soups and sauces from scratch and use my breadmaker to get bread dough going. But I always finish it traditionally on a stone or in a bread pan in the oven.
Finally, yes, there are always the old staples on hand: Cream of mushroom or celery soup, vegetarian veggie soup, cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches, nachos, salsa and tuna fish and crackers. There's at least one night a week when the crew has to fend for itself. For those nights, they depend on the old staples.
-- Shyla Kennedy
Rotisserie chicken: Pull the meat off the bones and save in packages sized for your family or individual packages. Then use them in one of the following:
* Roasted chicken salad: Add mayo and celery/onion from salad bar. If the salad bar has raisins, add curry powder to taste.
* Fast chicken fajitas: get the peppers and onions from the salad bar.
* Chicken fettuccini: use premade refrigerated sauce and refrigerated pasta or use a red sauce.
Premade refrigerated sauces:
* Fettuccini: Make sauce and refrigerated pasta by directions and top with a few pieces smoked trout (gourmet deli section) and a slice or two of crumbled precooked bacon (you can throw in a few mushrooms from the salad bar).
* Chicken fettuccini: Use chicken from above. Add some mushrooms from the salad bar.
* Chicken cacciatore: Use chicken from above. Use a red sauce, add bell peppers and onions from salad bar. This works well with fresh chicken when using a Crock-Pot.
Salad bar: From the salad bar get a few pieces each (1-11/2 cups total) mushrooms, onions, cabbage, shredded carrots, Chinese bean sprouts, green onions for garnish/parsley and or cilantro (may have to buy in produce and chop). Use them to make Chinese dumpling and vegetable soup: Per person, 1 can of chicken broth. 4-6 bagged frozen pot stickers. Cook dumplings in broth instead of water. When cooked, pour in bowl and add veggies and a shot of sesame oil. Top with green onions/parsley/cilantro.
-- Cathy Alphin