The Quick Fix Way
Got an hour on the weekend? If you're like me, that's about all you have. But get this-spend that hour in the kitchen having fun and prepping meals and you can enjoy weeknight meals in a flash. What's "a flash" in "Robin-speak"? How does 15 to 20 minutes grab you? I bet that sounds pretty good after a long, hard day. Plus, since you're only spending an hour in the kitchen, the rest of the weekend is wide open! I'm thinking zoo, bike riding, playground, reading, shopping, maybe a little laundry.
Like you, I've got a crazy life, so I make cooking my outlet, the UNcrazy part of my routine. Have you ever thought this: "I want my family to enjoy a healthy, home-cooked meal, but today was so hectic I can't imagine pulling it all together"? I know I have. Here's the good news. I've developed a host of ways to take the stress out of making dinner. The icing on the cake? Dinner is fast and delicious and nutritious. Follow my simple strategies for meal-planning and healthful, mouthwatering weeknight meals will be a breeze (as for the rest of your crazy life, you're on your own!). Here's the deal: spend an hour on the weekend (or less in some cases) and you can enjoy scrumptious weeknight meals in a fraction of the time it would take to start from scratch. Some recipes take under 20 minutes, thanks to a little advance planning. But there are also recipes with somewhat longer cooking times (I'll always keep your prep time to the bare minimum), simmering on the stove-top or baking in the oven, which will allow you to get a few errands done, put in a load of laundry, or just kick back and take a breath for the first time that day.
Until now, quick and healthful were mutually exclusive mealtime goals. Not anymore. I'm a nutritionist, so I always include a healthy spin in my cooking. If you follow my recipes, you'll not only enjoy fantastic meals fast, you can savor them without guilt. When cooking and writing recipes, I try to stick to whole grains, lean meats, skinless turkey and chicken, fish and shellfish, and beans and legumes, and try to include vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds whenever I can. As well, I like my meals to have a healthy balance of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats, while keeping saturated fat and sodium in check. Throughout the book, I give you the choice to use low-fat or non-fat ingredients so you can keep calories and fat within reason. As far as I'm concerned, your palate, not your arteries, should be doing backflips when you eat. Follow my lead and I'll make it easy for you to get delicious, nutritious meals on the weeknight table, from family classics to new creations inspired by a world of mouthwatering flavors.
I've also written these recipes to help you in your meal planning. Each recipe tells you the total cooking time, prep time, active cooking time, and walk-away time. When appropriate, you'll also find a "resting" time (for some meats, casseroles, and desserts that need to settle a bit before being cut into). That way, when planning your meals, side dishes, and desserts, you won't be confronted with any unexpected delays! The total cooking time is the time from kitchen arrival to fork-in-mouth. That time is broken out into prep time, the time it takes to get your ingredients ready (shortened by stocking your Quick Fix Pantry and Freezer!) and active cooking time, or the amount of time you'll actually be needed in the kitchen for hands-on things like stirring, flipping, and seasoning. In many cases, I've also provided walk-away time, which is your ticket to freedom. For example, if a dish gets baked for 20 minutes, that's your chance to go read a magazine, throw a ball to your kids, or take a shower! Armed with all this information, you can make mealtime decisions with ease.
THE QUICK FIX KITCHEN
I'm no magician. My trick for getting weeknight meals on the table in a flash is my strategically stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Notice I didn't say "well-stocked." In the Quick Fix Kitchen it's not the quantity but the quality that matters. In this chapter you'll find my list of ten pantry items I can't live without, as well as other ingredients that help.
Your freezer is an important tool in the Quick Fix Kitchen and the section Freezer Magic is filled with useful tips and suggestions for using it to the max. For example, when roasting vegetables, roast a bunch of them, then freeze the leftovers in separate plastic bags or resealable containers. Do the same thing when you're grilling-if you're going to the effort to grill pork or steak, why not throw extras on the barbie? Then you can enjoy steak fajitas or pulled pork sandwiches later that week or month! I'll also give you five quick-simmer sauces that freeze beautifully and can be defrosted at a moment's notice and paired with your choice of meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, rice, or pasta.
IN THE BAG: MEAL KITS FOR MEALS IN MOMENTS
My number one strategy? Prepping meals in advance. I'm the queen of prepping. When I've got time on the weekend, I grab a bunch of ingredients and get them ready for weeknight meals. Come dinnertime on a hectic weekday, I'm able to assemble a complete meal in minutes. I chop vegetables; precook chicken, turkey, and beef; wash and chop herbs; and precook pasta and rice so I don't have to do it at 5 pm on Wednesday. I even prep my sons' preschool lunches so I'm not crazed on school mornings (until that first cup of coffee, I'm a little slow around the stove!). Let's face it, at the end of a long day, who feels like slaving over a cutting board? Knowing you've prepped ingredients in advance takes the pressure off dinner and, trust me, you'll have fun putting everything together with ease.
Once the prep work is done, I make meals "In the Bag," meaning I prepare ingredients for complete meals, then place them in separate plastic bags. For example, when making Seafood Pomodoro with Linguine (page 26), I put the marinara sauce in one bag and the cooked linguine in another, then I refrigerate the bags until later in the week. Just before dinner, I simply unzip the bags and reheat the linguine in the sauce. Dinner is served in less than 10 minutes! Some nights dinner's ready so fast, I hardly have time to change into "comfy" clothes! I call these "Meal Kits" because, since all the prep work is done in advance, weeknights' meals just need assembly. Add a simple side dish and dinner is "In the Bag."
MORPH IT: ONE RECIPE, MANY MEALS
My "morph" strategy means to take one ingredient and turn it into several different dishes during the week. I don't mean a roasted chicken that turns into chicken soup and chicken salad (OK, I do mean that and I'll give you a recipe for the best darn roasted chicken you've ever tasted). But I explore beyond your basic chicken with delicious dishes that transform into completely different meals the second (or third) time around. For example, my Grilled Chicken with Tangy Tomato Ragout and Melted Swiss on the weekend turns into Turkey Bolognese over Rigatoni one night, Shrimp Fra Diavolo over Linguine another night, then Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Tomato Chutney at the end of the week. Thanks to a little time spent on the weekend, your weeknight meals will be ready in just minutes.
OK, Jeff Gordon, if the previous chapters weren't fast enough to inspire you, read on. This chapter promises meals on the table in about 20 minutes with no cheating involved. It is possible to create homemade meals during the week in just minutes. I rely heavily on my Quick Fix Kitchen to pull ingredients from the pantry at will. You might want to make sure you've got your pantry stocked and ready to race to the finish line during the week.
Thanks to convenience items at the grocery store, side dishes can be ready in less time than it takes to preheat the oven. Prechopped and shredded fresh vegetables, frozen vegetable combinations (beyond peas and carrots), bagged lettuce mixes, sliced and chopped fruits, and prepared salsas, sauces, chutneys, and marinades are a Quick Fix cook's best friend. If you think I don't regularly purchase these convenience products because I'm a "food writer," think again. I guarantee you'd find at least ten convenience items in my fridge or pantry right now.
If you're thinking, "Some nights, I'm lucky to get the main course on the table, now you want me to make a side dish?" read on. I take vegetables, fruits, grains, and other ingredients and create unique combinations of flavors and colors that will jazz up any weeknight meal. Since the ingredients are widely available and super convenient, these recipes will make it to the dinner table with ease.
SWEETS IN A HURRY
Everyone who knows me knows I have a sweet tooth. Just because it's Tuesday doesn't mean I don't want cake! That's why my dessert strategy is two-fold: either it comes together fast using a few simple ingredients, or I prep ingredients in advance so I can put everything together quickly during the week. For example, to make my super-moist Banana-Raspberry Bread, I mix the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, bag them, and then just mix and bake during the week. It's a wonderful strategy for all kinds of cakes, muffins, quick breads, and cookies. While you're enjoying dinner, you know something sweet and wonderful is just around the corner!
MIX AND MATCH
Now that you know my strategies, take advantage of the information and mix and match them to fit your lifestyle. For example, make a big batch of chili or your favorite tomato sauce and save leftovers to use in the Dinner Express chapter. This gives you a head start on meals that are already a snap to prepare. Turn Simple Sides into complete meals by adding a protein (chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, pork tenderloin, lean steak, or tofu). Freeze leftover Morph It ingredients in separate plastic bags and containers and use them as Meal Kits down the road. Double your favorite Dinner Express recipes and freeze leftovers for super-fast dinners months away. Or create dessert Meal Kits by prepping the ingredients and refrigerating or freezing them until you're ready to assemble the sweet treat.
All these strategies work incredibly well together and once you've got the whole system down, your meal planning will become a fine-tuned, delicious machine.
What's left to do now? Get cooking!