Faster Food

Feeling contrary and sick, I don’t want to talk about the election or Osama bin Laden today, so I’m going to talk about food instead.

Here is my strategy for using convenience foods that don’t have extra ingredients to put dinner on the table in under half an hour. These are not gourmet meals, but they are faster, healthier, and cheaper than take out.

Choose one from column A, one from column B, and one or more from column C. Seasoning variations to follow.

Column A: Proteins Column B: Starches Column C: Veggies
Red lentils
Tofu
Eggs
Cheese
Canned beans
Frozen shrimp
Salmon
Chicken legs
White rice
Whole grain pasta
Quinoa
Barley
Millet
Potatoes
Whole grain tortillas
Bagels
Already made bread
Already made brown rice
Biscuits, if you are feeling daring!
Broccoli
Cauliflower
Pepper strips
Baby carrots
Cucumber
The veggie your kids will eat
Frozen mixed veggies
Frozen stir-fry veggies
(best convenience food of all time!)

Apart from the chicken legs, the starch almost always takes the longest to cook, so my process goes:

1. Decide which protein and how you are going to cook it.

The oven tends to be the slowest, but salmon will be done in about 12 – 15 minutes at 350. Extra firm tofu, cubed and seasoned with soy, garlic, ginger, and whatever else you like also takes about 10 – 15 minutes. However, unless you are baking chicken legs, move on to step 2 after you make this decision. The chicken legs are the only thing on this list that takes the whole 30 minutes (or even 40 if they are very large), so season them and put them in the oven before moving on.

2. Pick starch and get it going.

Potatoes can go in the microwave and will be done in under 10 minutes. If you have the time, or want them mashed, you can peel or wash and chop them, and put them on to bring them to a boil. Turns out that you can turn off the heat when they come to the boil and leave them on the burner. They’ll be done in about 10 minutes with no more heat. This might be useful when camping, or if you have to run the A/C to take away your extra kitchen heat.

Rice, millet, quinoa and barley all take about 20 minutes, so put the water on for them first.

3. Now that the starch is cooking away, deal with the protein

Chop and season tofu, or crack and beat eggs (for omelette, scrambled eggs, or frittata). Put the lentils on to boil (5 -1/2 cups water to 2 cups of lentils). Season the salmon. Grate the cheese. For quesadillas, mash the beans. Don’t take more than about 2 minutes on the prep work! Keep moving, we’re on a deadline, here!

4. Move on to the vegetable almost as soon as you are done with the protein.

In case this is all too much to take in at once, let me give you a couple of examples. I managed to put together a complete meal of rice, dahl, and steamed broccoli in 22 minutes the other day. I know ’cause I live-tweeted it. It looked like this:

  1. Put on water for rice and lentils at the same time. (2 pots of water!)
  2. While those are coming to a boil, chop an onion.
  3. Put rice and lentils into the boiling water. Cover the rice, don’t cover the lentils, because they always boil over.
  4. Chop broccoli and place directly into steamer
  5. Put steamer over another pot of water, although you might be able to get away with putting it over the lentils.
  6. Fry the onion with curry powder over a medium heat while everything else finishes cooking. After the lentils are cooked, put the seasoned onions into the cooked lentils.
  7. Voila!

Another version: Black bean quesadillas with raw veggies

  1. Oh! Tortillas don’t need any prep unless you want to heat them. Yay!
  2. Mash beans with salsa that you already have and add grated cheese to taste
  3. For each quesadilla, spread bean and cheese mixture over a tortilla and cover with another one (or fold in half). We used to fry these in a pan, but discovered that they only take about 3 minutes under the broiler, flipped once. The only delay here is that you can only do one cookie sheet at a time. Make liberal use of the timer, because you are going to be multi-tasking to chop veggies while you are tending the quesadillas.
  4. Serve with baby carrots, sliced cucumbers etc.

Third option: The time-consuming one

  1. Slather the chicken with soy sauce, rub on a large quantity of grated ginger and put it in the oven at 375. It’s a little hotter than normal, but you’re going to add baking, so the higher temperature is a compromise.
  2. Mix up biscuits and cut them into rectangles. You can have a pre-made biscuit mix if you really want to, but you can make biscuits completely from scratch in about 3 minutes. Skip the fussy cookie cutter and you’ll save re-rolling and picky cutting out time.
  3. Throw the biscuits in the oven on the other rack. Probably the lower one, since they want a slightly higher temperature.
  4. Stir fry the frozen veggies on top of the stove and add whatever your preferred seasoning is. OK. The biscuits aren’t quite aligned with the rest of the meal… rice would be more normal. Really, the biscuits are just showing off, because I have discovered that you can cook almost anything at 375 if you are desperate. 🙂

This approach gives nigh-infinite variations, and for picky eaters, it can also be tailored by adding the seasonings (soy sauce, salsa, garam masala, dips and sauces) at the last minute, or to half of two trays in the oven. Using this strategy, (and having had a fair amount of practice), I generally can make dinner in less time than it would take me to argue with the kids to get them into the car in the first place.

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6 thoughts on “Faster Food

  1. I will definitely try a couple of those approaches but what has helped me through this longer-than-I’d-like winter was the week-at-a-time meal plan. Enough advance notice to find cool recipes and buy ahead and enough give for some last minute changes of heart.

    • When I do a meal plan, I no longer pretend that I’ll do it day-by-day. I just come up with “the seven meals we’ll have this week.” But honestly, I’ve pretty much come down to what is in this post, b/c then I can buy whatever is on sale or has pink stickers on it at the grocery store, and I know as long as I have 7 protein batches I’m set.

    • Glad to hear it. We just lost the country to a climate change denier. I am going to add a step involving scotch and drinking heavily.

  2. Pingback: On My Mind: 05.09.11

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