A busy reader requested quick and easy meal ideas for weeknights. Great idea—especially if you plan ahead, by a week of even by only a day or two. Have basics in the pantry: pasta (1 long like spaghetti, 1 small like rotini), canned tomatoes, rice, a couple of “cubes” of beef, chicken &/or vegetable stock, onions, potatoes, canned beans, canned tuna, plus the basic basics-flour, sugar, etc..
Have basics in the refrigerator: milk, eggs, salad dressing, a few raw vegetables like lettuce, radishes, cukes—whatever’s in season that you can throw together for a quick salad, fresh vegetables that can be cooked for meals—again, keep it seasonal and they will taste better and be cheaper.
Have basics in freezer: two packages (whatever size will feed your family a meal) of chicken parts of your liking, two packages of beef cuts, two packages of pork cuts, two of fish. Buy what is on sale and tuck it in the freezer—but use a system that allows you to pull older items first.
Every Sunday take twenty minutes to outline the week: jot down a quick menu—it doesn’t have to be super-specific, just say “Monday: pasta, tomato sauce*, Italian sausages” “Tuesday: tuna pasta salad, crackers”, etc. The beauty of a tentative menu is that you can PLAN to double task—on Monday, cook enough pasta to have enough for the pasta salad on Tuesday—when you drain the pasta, put half away before serving so no-one is tempted to eat Tuesday night’s dinner—toss it with just a teaspoon or two of olive oil, not enough to even see, but enough to keep it from sticking together. On Tuesday, add chopped vegetables—onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli cooked leftover vegetables like peas, green beans, or carrots raw or cooked, olives, capers—pasta salad is great “refrigerator Velcro”-a place to stick a lot of bits and pieces and make them over into something delicious. Add canned tuna or chicken or ham and either mayonnaise and lemon juice or Italian salad dressing. If you don’t like canned meat, plan ahead and have a slab-1 inch thick-of turkey breast or chicken from the deli, in the refrigerator—cube that for the salad.
Every night, take one minute to plan—what do you need thawed for the next day? Get it out and put it in frig. Make that one minute part of your routine so you’re not caught without any chicken thawed the next day.
Do you need to put stuff into a crock-pot? Make that part of the menu planning—know that on Tuesday evening, after your easiest workday, you will take twenty minutes to load the crockpot, cover it and put it in refrigerator, to be put on low before you leave in the morning on Wednesday—your busiest workday.
But—just in case, having a backup plan is always a good idea: A great failsafe is a frittata. It’s a baked omelet and is, again, refrigerator Velcro—but this time with cheese. Preheat oven to 325. Beat two eggs per person with 1 tablespoon (or less) of milk per 2 eggs. Film a skillet, oven safe and large enough to hold the eggs and the ingredients you will add, with butter or olive oil. Have all the additional ingredients ready—cooked vegetables and mushrooms, cooked meats, grated cheese. Pour the eggs into the skillet and stir gently for the first couple of minutes—you want some of the eggs to be starting to set, but enough to still be liquid so that the whole pan will continue to hold together as one flat “cake”. Add the additions, spreading them out evenly over the whole top (this will NOT be folded) and place in oven to finish. The frittata is ready when the eggs are just set-test by sticking the tip of a butter knife straight down into the middle and pulling it back—if there is runny egg (not gooey cheese) coating it, give it a few more minutes. Timing is highly dependent on the size of the frittata. Serve cut in wedges, accompanied by buttered toast and a salad.
Quick and easy is best accomplished by having a stock of basics and a plan. We will give more ideas in future columns.
* Quick and easy tomato sauce: sauté ½ a chopped onion in olive oil, add a clove or two of minced garlic, add some chopped bell pepper if desired (or other vegetables—zucchini or eggplant cut in small cubes, mushrooms, etc,) add a handful of fresh herbs, chopped—basil, oregano, Italian parsley—or a teaspoon or so of dried, and salt and pepper. Add a sprinkle of red pepper flakes or fennel seed if you like. Add a large can of tomatoes—diced, whole, or sauce depending on the consistency you like. Add a splash of broth, water or red wine (add the red wine to the sautéed vegetables and cook a moment before adding the herbs and tomatoes). Cook, stirring occasionally, as little as ten minutes or as long as an hour. Taste and adjust seasoning–salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes were very acidic. This recipe can be decreased, increased and changed infinitely and is much cheaper and better for you than bottled sauce. And depending on what you add can be ready in twenty minutes or less…