- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

If Einstein can come up with a theory for relativity, then surely we can simmer up a weeknight dinner formula for occasions when we’re too tired to chop onions and too crabby to think. That would be most nights for me.

I’m not the only one. In an effort to survive 21st-century warp-speed life — necessary because (among other things) customer service no longer exists and computers have crammed twice as many tasks into our work lives as we had before — I contacted cooking teachers, cookbook authors and other food professionals, and asked if anyone else is, like me, serving odd combinations to get them through the week.

The answer, surprisingly, is that everyone is, and many have come up with creative last-minute meals that are much better than the ones I am serving. Makes me wonder why I didn’t ask sooner.

You will note that the recipes at the end of the story — my recipes, at least — seem a little fussy. You should know that those recipes are actually what I do on nights when I have a modicum of energy. On no-energy (particularly crabby) nights, we dine on a variety of foods including:

• Rotisserie chicken from Costco Wholesale Corp. with black beans and rice and frozen vegetables. (Two 15-ounce cans black beans simmered, lid off, with 1 teaspoons chili powder, 1 teaspoons cumin and a few dashes of salt until much of the liquid has evaporated.)

• Sandwiches. My current favorite is brie and store-bought tapanade on toasted olive bread with arugula or fresh spinach. Since I don’t have a panini press, I spray the sandwiches with canola oil and toast and squash them in the George Foreman grill. It works just fine. Hold the tapenade and the arugula for children under 21. This, come to think of it, is actually good enough for a noncrabby night.

• Trader Joe’s (15-ounce) Indian Masala Simmer Sauce heated with a drained (15-ounce) can of sliced potatoes, or 1 to 2 cups frozen veggies, such as cauliflower or green beans, or a drained 15-ounce can of garbanzo beans plus a handful of frozen peas. Serve this with rice and any leftover protein source (see Costco rotisserie chicken, above) or maybe chunks of extra-firm tofu.

That’s how it works at our house. Here’s how a few of the experts are better handling dinner:

Marie Simmons, a Richmond, Calif., cooking teacher, newspaper columnist and author of more than 18 cookbooks: “The oven is my refuge. I turn it to 400 degrees. Then I toss chunks of onion, two potatoes cut in chunks (skins on, no time to peel), a handful of cherry tomatoes and a smashed garlic clove (I buy the peeled ones these days; they’re pretty good) into a baking dish.

“Drizzle with olive oil and add salt and pepper and roast about 30 minutes, stirring once. Then I push the veggies aside and add a piece or two of fish fillet (halibut, salmon, cod, whatever looks good and isn’t ridiculously expensive) and spoon the golden veggies on top.

“Roast for 10 minutes [or until fish is done] and dinner is ready. Serve from the baking dish. Top of stove is left clean. No pots to wash. Dinner is ready in about 45 minutes, prep only takes about 10 minutes. That’s it. Vary the veggies with whatever is on hand. I’ve even added leftover cooked broccoli or green beans.”

Jennifer Rubell, New York and Miami freelance writer and new mom with little time for cooking. Her first book, “Real Life Entertaining” (Morrow), will be published in spring: “I love wrapping strips of seasoned toasted seaweed (prepackaged; it’s called ‘kim’ in Korean) around cubes of cold tofu. It’s sort of like no-time, no-carb sushi.

“Also, I make breakfast mess, which is basically scrambled eggs with the kitchen sink thrown in, sometimes called Meigas in Spanish. It’s great with black beans, sour cream, tomatoes and crumbled stale tortilla chips. I like to do an Italian version, too, with Parmesan, gobs of pesto, some spoonfuls of ricotta and whatever grilled or roasted veggies I have around.

Kate Lowery, public relations director for Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas: “Wok cooking. I pull out frozen shrimp that have been peeled and thaw under water and toss into the wok with any veggies, fresh or frozen, that I have. I always have good sesame oil, tamari or soy and chili sauces on hand to whip up something with plenty of flavor. (Can easily be done with tofu, too.) Rice noodles can be added easily, as well.

“I keep individual servings of fish in the freezer as well as chicken breasts, which I thaw in water and pan sear or saute and serve with steamed broccoli or cauliflower. All can be done in less than 10 minutes. Another yummy option is to throw a bag of spinach in the pan that the fish or chicken was cooked in and saute for a few minutes with some minced garlic.

“I make big pots of beans and soups and set some aside to freeze. I heat and serve in minutes, and eat with a tortilla or a piece of buttered toast.”

Beverly Mills of Minneapolis, co-author of “Desperation Dinners” (Workman) and “Cheap. Fast. Good.” (Workman): “The key is keeping a few lifesavers in your pantry, fridge and freezer. Some of my favorites are a can of black beans, a can of spiced-up tomatoes (with garlic, onions and maybe even chilies) and some turkey kielbasa sausage. This will live in the fridge for weeks or up to a couple of months. Check the expiration date.

“Want dinner in 15 minutes? Here’s one way I do it. Put on a pot of rice to cook. (1 cup raw for 4 will do.) Saute 1 onion in a skillet in a bit of oil until it softens. Add 2 teaspoons of minced garlic (from a jar or fresh), add the black beans with juice, tomatoes with juice and crank up the heat. Cut the turkey sausage into 4 pieces, prick them with a fork and place atop the veggie mixture.

“Cover the skillet and cook at a moderate boil for 10 minutes or until the rice [in another pot] is done. Serve it up: a bed of rice with veggies and juice on top and a piece of sausage on top of that. Finish it off with a sprinkle of any Mexican-friendly cheese, and you’ve got an instant dinner to die for. It saves my life about once a week. You can put a salad on the side, or, in a real emergency, fruit slices are nice. Sometimes all we get is the bean dish and nobody complains.

“Some tips illustrated by this dinner:

• “Go for shelf life. Always check dates on your “emergency” ingredients … the new items are put behind older items on the shelf at the supermarket. Reach to the back for fresher meats, dairy and bagged salads. Shelf life can save your life.

• “Sausage can be frozen. Shredded cheeses in the bags freeze great. Just whack the bag on the counter so you can get sprinkles. You don’t even need to defrost; the beans will melt the sprinkles.

m “‘Flavored’ tomatoes are great because the seasonings take away the acidic ‘raw’ taste of canned tomatoes so you can get a long-simmered flavor in just minutes.

Lisa Ekus, food publicist and agent, Lisa Ekus Public Relations Co., Hatfield, Mass.: “I usually make chicken quesadillas. I keep all ingredients in my pantry and at least a few frozen chicken breasts on hand. It’s my daughter’s favorite meal. When I really don’t cook and it’s just me, I always have good cheese on hand and just eat cheese and sip wine.”

Diane Morgan, author of “Midnight Munchies” (Chronicle), “Salmon: A Cookbook by Diane Morgan,” (Chronicle), and nine other books, mother of two and cooking teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.: “Slow-roasting salmon is a brilliant technique. Set the oven to 250 degrees, place individual fillets of salmon on a rimmed baking sheet (preferably parchment-lined), rub with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with a pinch of cayenne, salt and pepper.

“Roast for 20 minutes and you have a perfectly cooked piece of salmon moist and tender throughout. You can serve it with a drizzle of bottled fig balsamic, or thin a little pesto and make a basil sauce, or use a flavored olive oil (say, extra-virgin lemon-infused olive oil), and chop some chives and parsley over the top. Even mayo mixed with a little minced chipotle chili in adobo sauce is good. Any vegetable served alongside works well. With the lemon olive oil, I like to put the salmon on a bed of arugula with a little shaved fennel all done while the salmon roasts.”

Here are a few of my last-minute thoughts on last-minute dinners:

• Brown rice takes too long to cook on a weeknight (40 minutes). Make it in advance, cool it and package it in portions in resealable plastic bags. It defrosts in the microwave in a minute or so, depending upon bag size.

• Keep an interesting sauce around to perk up otherwise less-than-intriguing ingredients. Our friend Dorothy Nguyen-Graff, a university science teacher who is good at problem solving, stirs up a batch of Vietnamese nuoc cham sauce (recipe follows) and stores it in an emptied water bottle in her refrigerator for up to a week.

When she gets home from work late, she simmers some rice noodles or vermicelli, drains and then places them in bowls. These she tops with whatever is in her refrigerator, including chopped lettuce, cucumber, coriander and grilled meat or cooked fish of any kind. The nuoc cham sauce is then splashed over to taste. She likes lots; her husband a very little; so they each do their own splashing.

• Buy frozen food to keep around for nights when you can’t even face opening a can. At our house it’s bean, chicken and cheese burritos. Trader Joe is our sous chef.

• If possible, do some cooking over the weekend. In the winter, I usually make a soup that will yield leftovers. In summer, I grill something that will yield leftovers (chicken or turkey sausage, plain chicken pieces, salmon). Or, if you don’t like store-bought rotisserie chicken, try roasting beef or fish or vegetables. Or bake up something like muffins, corn bread or biscuits that will make dinner more amusing during the week. Forget dessert. As a nation, we’re too fat, anyway.

Pizza with fresh mozzarella

Cornmeal

1 pound commercially-made pizza dough

3/4 cup pasta sauce

1/4 cup chunky salsa

1 7-ounce fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 teaspoons dried basil, marjoram or parsley

Sprinkle cornmeal on a 12-inch pizza pan. Stretch pizza dough out to fit and pat into pan. Place pizza pan in preheated 500-degree oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until crisp and just starting to brown. Remove crust from oven and reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees.

Spread pasta sauce over crust and sprinkle with salsa. Top with slices of mozzarella and sprinkle with herbs. Return to oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until cheese is slightly melted.

Makes 4 servings.

Nuoc cham sauce

1 to 2 cloves garlic

1 red chili, stem and seeds removed

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 lime

2 tablespoons Vietnamese nuoc mam fish sauce

Rice noodles or vermicelli

Vegetables of your choice

With a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, chili and sugar to a pulp. With a paring knife, remove pulp from lime and pound it into the paste. Add 2 tablespoons water and nuoc mam, and mix well. Sprinkle over cooked rice noodles or vermicelli, chopped lettuce, cucumber, coriander, chopped peanuts and cooked meat or fish. Makes about 1/3 cup but can easily be doubled, tripled, etc.

Last-minute burritos

2 14.5-ounce cans tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground garlic (from a jar)

Salt

to 1 4-ounce can green chilies

2 cups cooked brown or white rice

1 15-ounce can beans of choice, drained

2 cups grated Mexican blend cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack and Queso Blanco cheese)

4 9-inch whole wheat tortillas

Cucumber or other salad

Combine tomatoes, garlic, salt to taste and chilies in an uncovered saucepan and heat through, breaking up the tomato pieces with a spoon and allowing juices to boil off. (This takes 5 to 10 minutes.) Re-heat rice and then beans in the microwave. Spread one quarter of tomato mixture down middle of each tortilla.

Top with one quarter of rice and beans, and then cheese. Fold tortilla over to cover tomato/rice mixture. Then turn burrito over so that seam is on the bottom. Place in microwave and heat through in 45 seconds or so. Cut in half before serving. Serve with cucumber or other salad on the side. Makes 4 servings.

Rotini with frizzled basil and bacon

3 slices bacon

Salt

1 pound rotini pasta

cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon ground garlic (from a jar)

2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese

Place bacon on double layers of paper towels on a microwave-safe plate. Cover with another double layer of paper towel. Microwave for three minutes, or until bacon is very crisp. Or fry in a pan until crisp, if desired. Crumble into small bits.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in saucepan over medium heat for about 1 minute, or until warmed. Turn off heat.

When pasta is done, drain and place in large pasta dish. Turn heat back on oil, add garlic and saute, stirring with a wooden spoon, for about 1 minute.

Add basil leaves and hot red pepper flakes and saute, stirring, for 30 seconds, or until basil is wilted.

Pour oil and basil over pasta and toss. Sprinkle with bacon. Serve grated cheese on the side for sprinkling over.

Makes 4 servings.

Kim Upton is editor of Tribune Media Services FoodStyles feature service. To share a meal suggestion, contact her at [email protected]Tribune.com.


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