Getting a good dinner on the table by 6PM or so every night sometimes feels like an Iron Chef – level challenge. Most days, I rise to the occasion without breaking too much of sweat. And then there are those moments when 5PM hits and the kids are begging me for appetizers when I desperately need to be making dinner and I have NO idea what to cook. That is exactly when my patience runs thin and everything breaks down.
So over time, I’ve come up with a small arsenal of shortcuts to make my cooking life more enjoyable, and I thought I’d share. PLEASE feel free to add yours to the list – I can’t wait to see what great ideas you have up your sleeve!
The Top Five
1. Plan meals ahead. This is not a radical concept and has been recommended by countless others, but you see, I loathe to plan meals, I much prefer to fly by the seat of my pants so to speak. Yet time and time again, the failure of my spontaneity has won me over to the more organized approach. Take a few minutes to poll the family about their dinner preferences for the upcoming week on Saturday morning, when everyone is in a happy, beginning-of-the-weekend mood. Or take it upon yourself. Either way, if you have a general plan you’ll feel much better equipped – actually buying necessary ingredients in advance is a bonus but not crucial. Its the ideas that count in my book!
2) Deal with garlic in advance. It always seems to take forever to peel and chop garlic when you can least afford to spend the time yet I love love love cooking with it and seem to need it frequently. Now, admittedly, I’m not a garlic press person and if you are, ignore this. But the rest of us, here’s my tip: peel and store cloves from 1-2 heads of garlic (however you are likely to use in 5-7 days time) and store in a glass or stainless steel container in the refrigerator. Chopping will seem like a breeze when you eliminate the peeling step.
3) Prep your “mirepoix.” Mirepoix is French for the crucial combination of diced carrots, celery and onions that form the basis for so many soups, stews, braises, etc. Store 1-2 cups of diced celery and carrots in one bag, and the same of onion in a glass container – they will be on hand for whatever you are cooking in the next 3-4 days.
4) The frozen food section. I do occasionally rely on store-bought frozen food items (see below for a case in point). But I prefer to create our own frozen food section in the fridge. I’ll freeze pizza dough, leftover soups and stews, ground beef and small steaks, sausages, fruit, butter, etc. Our freezer is unimpressive in size yet when I properly use the space, I’m always impressed with what I’ve got on hand. Ice cream is also a very important addition to this list, by the way.
5) Trader Joe’s potstickers. When in doubt, I bust these out. Pan-fried with sticky brown rice and green vegetables for a quick dinner, potsticker soup if you have chicken broth around, these work great for lunch or dinner (or breakfast, if you are Talia). I’m pretty sure I’ve been eating these on a regular basis since my early college years. And they still manage to satisfy.
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I like to buy (or harvest) a large quantity of greens, have my
husband wash and trim it, then blanche and shock; put in ziplock bags and freeze. Then I have it ready to use in a quick saute with garlic,
chili flakes and a splash of balsamic vinegar. This can be eaten as
is or added to soups, pizza before baking, pasta, bruschetta~you get the picture.
Hi Lena- great blog. Your recipes remind me of Martha Rose Schulman’s. Anyways, I’m lucky my kids love gazpacho (which is in the fridge pretty much from April to October) and is great for a starter while I’m preparing the rest of the meal. They also love (tinned) sardines so I always have a stack in the cupboard.
Thanks Sandra! And yes, I also stash sardine tins in our pantry – personally, I love them on a salad for lunch. But they are a great backup for the kids too. I’d love your gazpacho recipe if you feel like sharing! Maybe a guest post?
My garlic quick tip is to use the Trader Joe’s frozen cubes of crushed garlic (they also have basil and cilantro). This garlic does not have that oily imitation flavor that you typically find with crushed garlic that comes in the jar. One cube is the equivalent of one clove of garlic.
I, too, keep TJ’s potstickers on hand. Have you ever tried their chicken and cilantro mini wonton? I use those when I make the soup.
Love this post! Amazing how I have some of the same tricks in my arsenal. Love the TJ’s potstickers as well. Unfortunately, my hubby is the fanciest/fussiest eater of all of us and we eat that kind of food when he is out of town. He’s all about fresh, 100% home-cooked meals…which is great but not always do-able.
I try to keep already prepared brown rice and quinoa in the fridge – if all else fails these are a great base for a bunch of things:
– sushi bowl with nori and julienned veggies and a dressing of soy sauce and rice vinegar, add your own protein, or not.
– cheesy rice, rice mixed with cream cheese, cottage cheese and/or whatever shredded cheese is lying around, chopped veggies and baked. An egg mixed in will hold it together for slices if you like.
I love the thought of having brown rice and quinoa always on hand – I recall doing that when the kids were babies, but not lately. And I can’t wait to incorporate the sushi bowl into our routine. And now, its time for lunch.
Beat me to the bunch Arin…I was going to post the same strategy of brown rice and quinoa ready to go! Especially good on CSA days because I know I can count on some fresh veggies but half the work is done! Our fall-back is always a whole wheat tortilla, beans, etc. Kids roll their eyes at times, but everyone seems to finish dinner happy!