Recently a friend asked for help in eating better. The problem was, she works and goes to school. So her time in the kitchen is limited. I figured if I was going to write thing down for her, I might as well make a post of it. Fortunately quick cooking is not as hard as it sounds.
While it is true that I love to cook, most days I don’t have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen. Most of my original recipe creations are pretty quick. And like everyone else, I take short cuts. Shortcuts that easy my cooking tasks. Being me however, these shortcuts mean natural ingredients with nothing on the label that I can’t pronounce. I would say spell but some days I have trouble spelling my own name.
The following is a short list of what I keep on hand to make my life easier and why.
Chicken Stock – There is nothing more useful in my kitchen then chicken stock. It can be used as a base for or sauces. It can thin too thick sauces. It can flavor potatoes, cook pasta and make dinner a snap. It is also low fat and makes a great substitute for butter in mashed potatoes. I like Swanson’s organic or Pacifica brand.
Frozen Veggies – Frozen veggies are a kitchen girl’s best friend. Picked at the height of ripeness and flash frozen, they look and taste much better than canned. And since they are not pre-cooked they still have some crunch to them. They can be added to soups and sauces for a quick nutritious pick up. And they add a lot of heft to an otherwise not so filling dish. The frozen veggies available now are astounding!
Smoked Chicken Sausage - This is a kitchen staple because it’s the easiest way to give a smoky boost to any dish. Since I can’t cook with pork which means I can’t cook with bacon, this is a great way to flavor dishes. This is especially wonderful to start off a soup. I keep some in the freezer. Then when I need it I chip one or two off, slice them frozen and pan fry them before starting the dish.
Frozen Lemon/Lime Juice/Zest – Lots of dishes benefit from an extra boost of acidic citrus fruit. Juicing and measuring and zesting on the spot is annoying. So every once in a while I get a much of lemons or limes at one time, juice and zest them all. I then freeze the juice in ice cube trays and the zest in regular old pastic wrap. I think pop the ice cubes and put them in a freezer bag. Then any time I want, I have what I need.
Frozen Herbs – Fresh herbs always taste better than dried. This is a fundamental law of the universe. But fresh herbs are hard to keep on hand. They spoil quickly and you certainly can’t have a whole heck of a lot of them on hand for spontaneous moments. Or can you? Get some nice fresh herbs; what ever you like to use. Wash them, remove the stems and freeze them. This will affect the texture of the herb and it will affect the look. They won’t be vivid bright green any more. But they will taste fresh and that’s all that really matters. Freeze herbs flat in a single layer. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag. Or if you really can’t manage that, Trader Joe’s has some minced herbs (and garlic) in little pre-frozen cubes.
Grains and Pasta – Lets face it, most of use don’t consider a meal a meal unless it contains some sort of starch. And more to the point there is nothing better for a quick cook meal than a starchy base. Cooked rice will keep for a few days. Make it once use it for a week of meals. Or if you are really desperate go to any Chinese takeout and order some. Rice can also be added to soup or stew and cook with it. Small pasta shapes cook very quickly. Cook their sauce at the same time , drain them and add them back into the sauce and finish cooking.
Frozen Fruit – Nothing turns into a dessert faster than frozen fruit. Marinate in lemon/lime juice add some sugar and a cookie or two and you’re done. Or layer the fruit on top of pound cake, juices and all. Or puree and strain for a colorful sauce. Or throw into oatmeal for a healthy anti-oxidant boost!
Canned Beans – Want to boost protein and fiber in something? Make a dish more filling? Few things do this better than beans. Canned beans are easy to deal too, just rinse and go. Kidney beans are great in salads. Garbanzo beans are great in soups and can be pureed into a very quick dip. Black beans are great in soups and salads.
Canned Tomatoes – While I admit to being a tomato fiend, I find them indispensable in quick cooking. They can be made into soups and stews terrifyingly quickly. Open the can and dump and you are half way there. I keep regular and fire roasted. Fire roasted give a nice flavor.
Canned Coconut Milk – Milk spoils. Coconut milk in a can stays forever. It can be used for desserts or for savory dishes and gives and unmistakable, delectable flavor to dishes. I love to add it to soups to give them just that extra bit of richness and creaminess. Doesn’t take a whole lot either.
Shelf Staples – Nothing but nothing kills a quick cooking plan faster than not having the right spice or not having just a bit of corn starch. These are shelf staples that should ALWAYS be around. Have a good selection of spice. White, brown, and powdered sugars are an absolute must. All purpose flour. Corn starch. Oatmeal. Kosher salt. Bread crumbs. Garlic! Oils (vegetable and olive). Jarred Pesto Having just these basics goes a whole long way towards making cooking easier.
Refrigerator Staples – These are things that spoil slowly but are necessary for quick cooking. Eggs. Butter (if you MUST have margarine then please use one that does not have ANY hydrogenated fat like Earth Balance). Cheese (Parmesan and Cheddar or Mozzarella). Salsa. Plain yogurt or Sour cream.
Meat/Fish – Frozen and canned, ready to eat meat and fish are your friend. Pre-cooked, drained and frozen ground beef. Shredded cooked chicken. Canned salmon. Canned tuna. Canned crab. Frozen shrimp. These are all great way to start or fill out a meal. It is easy in a one pot meal to get stuck with what to do for the protein. Or worse, get stuck cooking the protein for way too long. A little effort on the front end, or a little ingenuity when you have ingredients available can help later on down the road. Buying a roast chicken? Buy two. Shred the other one and freeze it. Browning ground beef? Brown extra and freeze it. Frozen shrimp (even frozen raw shrimp) cook in no time flat and are very tasty!
I know… this is one heck of a long short list. But the key is to build up your pantry over time. Grab an extra of what ever is on sale. Get a couple of pantry staples with each weeks groceries. You will quickly see which staples you use the most and need the most of. And you can rotate out old stock before replenishing.
Lists are all well and good, but how do you make a quick cook staple into a meal?
The standard formula I use is this: 1 or 2 parts veggies + 1 part starch + ½ part protein.
From there the combinations are nearly endless. This simple formula my basis for dishes like:
Once you get the basics down the rest is easy.
Almost anything can be stir-fried, stewed, or made into soup. And none of those have to take a lot of time. Slow cooked stews and soups are great but who has the time? Pan frying your veggies and meat before adding them to the broth adds the layers of flavor that slow cooking develops in no time flat. Pre-cooked meats soak up flavor really well and can be added frozen. So can veggies. No need to bother thawing. If they are cut small enough they will defrost and cook right in the pot and gain flavor in the process.
Pasta sauces can hide a multitude of sins. Canned tomatoes can be transformed into a pasta sauce in 20 minutes by simply adding garlic, oregano, basil, and a pinch of cayenne. It is then easy to add veggies and protien. Even picky eaters like spaghetti sauce. And if they don’t like veggies, a few minutes in the blender will erase any trace of the dreaded icky chunks. This is also a great way to introduce vegan crumbles to soy substitute haters. Vegan crumbles absorb sauce beautifully and are almost completely indistinguishable from ground beef.
But not everything quick cooking has to come from a frozen or canned state. Salads make wonderful bases for quick cooking. And chicken breast pounded paper thin, spiced and dredged in a little flour cooks in three minutes per side. Slice it think and drop it on top of a mixture of baby spinach and your favorite salad fixings. Dinner in 15!
How easy is that?