Save the Nancys With Your 30-Minute Specials

This one’s dedicated to my editor, Nancy, who loves to cook but recently lamented rarely having time to do more than carry out sushi for supper. And it’s dedicated to another Nancy, my dear friend and a full-time mom in the Midwest who confessed to me she’d like Santa to bring her a kitchen genie this year. Short of that miracle, she’ll take a handful of quickie dinner ideas to keep hope (and the domestic peace) alive.

Time. We always seem to be running out of it or looking for more, except when it comes to dinner, for which there is none. By sundown, we’re either wrung out, beaten down or just too tired to lift a spatula. You know what happens next -- dinner in a bag or a box.

For a while, dinner on the run can be fun, but it gets tired, salty and expensive real fast. Just ask the Nancys. They’re so over dinner that the Jetsons-style meal-in-a-pill is beginning to sound tantalizing.

But before they place their Internet orders for capsulated cuisine, I’d love to have a word.

Whaddya say we give dinner another chance, and we do it the old-fashioned way, with plates, cutlery and at least 10 minutes of chewing? Here’s what I’m thinking: I set you up with 10 quickie meal ideas that take about 30 minutes, start to finish, and you’ll pick one to humor me. By dinner time, I’m pretty sure my very resourceful band of MA readers will have contributed a plethora of ideas to keep dinner interesting for week, maybe months, and who knows, you just might be overwhelmed with choices. And then, imagine, dinner will no longer be a four-letter word. It’ll be a reason to wake up in the morning.

Pasta Puttanesca: Because plain ole red sauce is, well, plain. This one gets a briny zip from anchovies and olives (even capers if you like), and plenty of chili flakes for heat. Hate the little fishies? Leave ’em out.

Canned tuna or salmon with extra five minutes of your time: Take the canned fish to another level with a few teaspoons of sesame oil, and soy sauce, a teaspoon of Dijon and a small red onion, diced. Terrific with a few boiled potatoes and your favorite salad greens, or on a few pieces of toasted crusty bread.

Joe’s Special: So much better than his Sloppy cousin. Ground beef gets seasoned with garlic and onion in a skillet, then joins forces with chopped spinach and a couple of beaten eggs. The whole thing turns into a makeshift pie without the crust, a cozy one-skillet number that needs little attention.

Savory purees: A less daunting word than soup, particularly if you own a stick immersion blender, which makes pureeing a breeze. Two of my favorites are sweet potato (Boil three peeled sweet potatoes, quartered, until fork tender. Puree, using cooking liquid, until smooth, add a chipotle chile in adobo sauce, smidge of honey, a squeeze of ½ lime.) and the self-pureeing red lentils.

Caesar salad, sans bottle: Once you try this at home, you’ll never want to order a Caesar at a carry-out shop ever again.

Grilled cheese, a little greened and fibered up: I’m thinking a black bean quesadilla, enriched with a cool weather green such as spinach, kale or chard. Warm up a can of beans, seasoned with a chopped onion, some garlic and if you like, the heat of a chile. Reduce beans a bit to eliminate liquid. Spoon onto a tortilla or roti skin, add meltable cheese of choice and plenty of chopped greens. Cover with another tortilla, then place on a baking sheet and into a 400-degree oven. Bake until somewhat crisp and cheese is melted, about 8 minutes. Brown under broiler for 1-2 minutes if that’s an option. Cut into wedges and serve with your favorite salsa.

Ad hoc noodle bowl
: I prefer Asian noodles, but spaghetti will do in a pinch. While noodles are boiling, stir fry any of the following: chopped bok choy, carrots, peppers, snow peas, seasoned with garlic, ginger, chiles, shallots, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Do-ahead weekend projects that will come in handy during the week:
Make a pot of rice, refrigerate, then fry it in a wok with veggies and a fried egg for another rice bowl option.

Roast a bunch of peppers
, peel and cover with a shallow layer of olive oil and use to dress up a bowl of penne, canned white beans, rosemary and goat cheese, an omelet, pizza dough or a bunch of wilted spinach.

And when all else fails, make hummus. It takes seven minutes, teams up with practically any raw veggie in the crisper (apples and pears, too!) and is cheaper than that box of cereal you had your eye on.

Now it's your turn; share your tried-and-true quickies and save the Nancys.

And while you're at it, talk to me today at 1 ET for this week's What's Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 28, 2008; 8:13 AM ET Dinner Tonight
Previous: Meatless Monday: Hooray, Tempeh! | Next: Chat Leftovers: Polenta, Baked Apple Woes, Winning Chili


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One thing I do is use the crockpot more often. I'll throw in a whole chicken with lemon, onion, and S&P or throw some beans in the pot and serve burritos or beans on rice.
Then there's always the thing of making a meal on one night and serving that for dinner the next night. So you're always making dinner one night in advance and just warming it up the next day, kind of like leftovers but not since you haven't eaten it yet.

Posted by: Librasmoon | October 28, 2008 9:23 AM

Quick scrambled eggs or omelet with spinach and feta in a tortilla. (add whatever you like, mushrooms, tomatoes, smoked salmon etc.)

Basmati rice with a touch of coconut milk, cook sweet potatoes in microwave (or steam them on the stove) and add a bit of jarred chutney. Yum!

Posted by: chiquita2 | October 28, 2008 9:33 AM

Stir Fry!
Protein (meat or non), veggies (exotic, plain, packaged, left-in-the-fridge -- including lettuce!), throw it over rice or pasta.

Make a little, make a lot. Get teens in on chopping veggies!

Marinate the protein or veggies in marinades made of anything:
Honey, soy sauce, ginger, garlic
Italian salad dressing
Bottled sauce
Homemade sauce

Cook meat first, followed by harder veggies, followed by soft, so that everything is ready at the same time.

Posted by: capecodner424 | October 28, 2008 9:41 AM

Nachos!! I use Guiltless Gourmet baked blue corn tortilla chips as a base. Top with canned or homecooked black beans or pinto beans. Then lowfat shredded Mexican mix cheese, jalapenos if you like them. Microwave for two minutes to heat the beans and melt the cheese. Then, salsa, lettuce, tomatoes, fat free sour cream, guacamole or anything else you like. A five minute, healthy, lowfat meal that even kids love.

Also, if you're like me and you don't like meat or meat substitute on your stir fry, try topping the veggies and rice with cashews. BTW, I use a steamer to do the rice. It takes an hour to do brown rice, but it's almost totally work-free, and since the steamer turns itself off when the rice is done, it comes out perfectly even if ignored or forgotten.

Posted by: lsgc | October 28, 2008 9:52 AM

I 2nd the nachos idea, but have my own method.

Spray a cookie sheet with nonstick spray. Put one layer of your favorite chips on sheet. Top with slices of longhorn cheddar, one piece per chip, and mild banana peppers.

Bake at 425 for 10 or 15 minutes.

For added protein, brown some low fat ground beef with chili powder, cumin, and pepper. Or boneless chicken breast (I use tenderloins for easier shredding) with the same spices. Put the meat on the chip before the cheese.

Hey, Kim, I'm surprised your carbonara wasn't on the list. I made that last night in under 30 minutes.


Posted by: ArlingtonGay | October 28, 2008 10:22 AM

I agree about crockpots - love 'em! But I also cook a lot with frozen shrimp during the week because it's so easy and quick. I make my shrimp really spicy - lots of black pepper and crushed red pepper, but for my son, I just boil it and serve it with some angel hair pasta. You can add lots of veggies, too.

Posted by: kathycoulnj | October 28, 2008 10:24 AM

A little preparation time and creative use of leftovers goes a long way.

This weekend I made a pot of white beans (cannelini type). They are now sitting in the fridge, with their liquid, in a few 2 cup containers. Yesterday I made squash, bean, and pasta soup. Prep time was probably 20 minutes since the squash takes time to dice, and the soup had to cook 30, but fairly unattended. If you make enough for leftovers, it's good again in a few days with only the time needed to reheat. If I make white bean salad (beans, red onion, parsley, olive oil, balsamic vingegar, salt/pepper)tonight, it'll only be 10 minutes. Serve with a grilled cheese or slices of fresh mozzarella for a full meal. I will sometimes make pickled veggies on the weekend (beets recently) for use as a side during the week.

For leftovers, I'm a big fan of the frittata, especially spaghetti frittata. But when I make rice, I make a big batch to use in rice salads, burrito fillings, and stir fry.

Lastly, I have a good idea of how fast I can chop and prep things so that I can put something on the stove to cook while I'm getting the next ingredients ready. If you get good at this you'll reduce your kitchen time over prepping everything and then cooking.

Mind you, I like being in the kitchen. It serves as decompression time from work for me. But when I have after work plans I frequently have to make meals in 30 minutes or less and these plans work for me.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | October 28, 2008 10:30 AM

Big pot of soup on Sundays! I freeze half and refrigerate half so I don't have to eat it all at once. Usually I forget about the portion in the freezer and end up pulling it out for dinners a few weeks later. Also, my staple is sauteed zucchini and onions, though I guess I need to find a more seasonally appropriate substitute... any suggestions for the quick sautee?

Posted by: jules8172 | October 28, 2008 10:53 AM

Great post, expecially for everyone who works and cooks-
Almost any kind of fish cooks very quickly, 10 minutes or so and requires little prep time. Steamed mussels can be done with just a splash of liquid such as wine, vermouth, broth, lemon etc, some chopped onions and garlic, served with a sald or veg and good bread for sopping up juices.
Am also a fan of making beans over the weekend and using them during the week for soup, burgers, sautes. Ditto for making any kind of soup and having it around.
I also try to keep sauteed onions on hand made over the weeekend to speed things up during the week.

Posted by: NewtonMom | October 28, 2008 11:14 AM

Penne Pasta with a yummy cream sauce!

For the sauce: gorgonzola cheese and half-and-half.

For the pasta: cook the noodles, drain them, and set them aside. Add garlic, sundried tomatoes, some crushed red pepper, and spinach to a skillet. Wilt the spinach, add the gorgonzola cheese and half-and-half and noodles to the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes and then it's done. Very simple, very delicious!

Posted by: Merdi | October 28, 2008 11:46 AM

In addition to the great ideas above, we have two quick meals that seem like we've slaved away in the kitchen. First is a bread and cheese casserole from Martha Rose Shulman's recipe. It only takes about 10 minutes to throw the ingredients together and you can catch up with kids, news, or make a salad while it's baking. I'm working from memory, but I generally saute about 4 oz mushrooms and 4 sliced green onions in butter or olive oil. Mix 5 eggs with 2 cups of milk (or 1/2 cup of white wine and the remainder milk), 1 tsp each of dried mustard and thyme, and a little ground pepper. Grate about 4 oz of sharp cheddar. Make two layers of cheese and mushrooms with 6 slices whole wheat bread (we've used all kinds of leftover bread and the sturdy ones all work. The biggest flop was leftover hamburger buns - yeech) and bake at 375 for about 30 minutes.

The other quick thing takes about 30 minutes start to finish - pressure cooker risotto. We use 2 cups of arborio rice and 4 cups wine and stock, and cook under pressure for 7 minutes (timing from when the pot has reached full pressure). When we've released the pressure we add vegetables and cheese and it's a meal. Under pressure the rice releases starches similarly to traditionally cooked risotto and makes a labor intensive dish quick and easy.

I have made every conceivable variation of risotto using this method and they turn out great. To start, saute a small yellow onion in oil or butter, then add the rice. Add about 1/3 cup of wine and when that's been absorbed add 3 1/2 cups of broth all at once and bring to pressure. Our favorite uses dried mushrooms (use the water from reconstituting the mushrooms as part of the broth) and manchego and pecorino romano cheeses (let calories be your guide to the amount of cheese). We often throw in arugula, spinach or swiss chard. My partner's favorite includes roasted beets (those can go in the pot prior to pressure cooking) and is a brilliant magenta meal. We've used finely chopped shrimp for a very delicate risotto, or various spring vegetables (baby squash, peas, pea shoots, artichokes). We often add toasted pine nuts as well.

Posted by: esleigh | October 28, 2008 11:56 AM

Oops, for the bread and cheese casserole above, pour the egg/milk mixture over the layers prior to baking.

Posted by: esleigh | October 28, 2008 12:00 PM

Pasta, peas and prosciutto: It's simple, quick and delicious. While cooking pasta, dice the prosciutto and saute in olive oil. Put frozen peas into collander and warm them as you drain the pasta. Place in serving bowl, pour on the olive oil and prosciutto top with parmesan cheese.

Posted by: capitolhillmom | October 28, 2008 12:23 PM

Grown-up Franks and Beans

Saute one shallot, minced (or one small onion, minced and a glove of garlic, minced), add 1 c. white wine and reduce for five minutes. Add two drained and rinsed 15 oz. cans of white beans, 3/4 c. chicken broth, and fresh or dried thyme. Let mixure simmer uncovered. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper, as needed. Meanwhile, saute smoked or fresh sausage until heated through or cooked through. Serve sausage with beans, good mustard, and a green salad.

Posted by: nac1975 | October 28, 2008 1:17 PM

As a young professional who loves to cook but often logs late hours this is an issue I face almost every night in my kitchen. I have tons of tricks for shortening meal prep time during the week, but one of my favorite go-tos is the frozen shrimp an earlier poster mentioned. With about 10 mins you can season shrimp w/ salt and lemon pepper and saute in garlic with a little white wine cooked down to make a sauce. For sides I'll then use the same pan to saute spinach (w/ lots more garlic and oil) and do a box of Near East couscous. It's a wonderful healthful meal for me in 10 (ok maybe 15) mins that can also just be made in larger portions and served with white wine to guests.

Posted by: UStreet | October 28, 2008 2:51 PM

Another time saver for prepping is to chop "the holy trinity" all at once, and freeze in 1/4 portions (or whatever fits your family size. On a Saturday or Sunday when I have time, and have just done the grocery shopping, I make a big batch --put the carrots, celery and onion into the Cuisinart and pulse a couple times to chop coarsely. Portion it out, freeze in zipper bags, with the individual bags thrown into a Papa bag. Easy to toss into a soup, or saute from frozen on a weeknight. Saves chopping time and washing time (cutting board/knives or Cuisinart). It would also work with peppers thrown into the mix.

Posted by: Agathist | October 28, 2008 3:05 PM

I forgot one of my favorite time savers! The salad bar at most supermarkets can be a great source for soups or stir fries. Yes, I realize the cost per pound is more than fresh produce BUT there's little to no waste. And for me, my time is worth a few dollars extra from time to time.

Posted by: ArlingtonGay | October 28, 2008 3:39 PM

Nancys should get a copy of the book DESPERATION DINNERS by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross. Good basic foods, easy techniques, reasonable ingredients and FAST! Try the black bean soup first.

Posted by: bosoxgal | October 28, 2008 4:19 PM

Much like the omelette in a tortilla idea: Huevos Rancheros

Spray your pan with non-stick spray. put a tortilla on it, cook one side until it starts to get golden, and flip. Sprinkle a little cheese on it, and as the cheese melts, crack an egg onto the tortilla (don't be afraid to let the white run off the edges). When the egg sets up a little, flip the whole thing over to finish cooking. Garnish two of those with some salsa (fresh or canned), some black beans, and a little more cheese. MMMM

Posted by: tiffanyjoy | October 28, 2008 4:41 PM

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