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Good Weeknight Family Fare in 30 minutes or Less


Chris Amirault
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Back in 2006, when we were preparing to have the wonderful Sara Moulton around for a chat, I wrote a review of her (then) new cookbook, Sara's Secrets for Weeknight Meals (click here for a Society-friendly Amazon link to the book). In a sidebar to that review, Fat Guy makes some snarky jokes about the preponderance of cookbooks whittling the time down from Pierre Franey's 60 minutes to 30, 5, and so on.

Well, I ain't laughing no more. We just moved out to the suburbs, meaning two 30 minute commutes that extend already long days, and our kid just started full-day kindergarten, meaning very early mornings. The dinner upshot is that most weeknights I've got 15-30 minutes to make meals for myself, my wife, and my two daughters. We're usually all pooped, take-out is not a regular option, and everyone's sick by Wednesday of the stream of leftovers that flows from the fridge after my weekend kitchen projects.

This cannot hold. Either they're gonna kill me, or I'm gonna kill them.

Instead of turning to Rocco, Pierre, Sara, et al, I'm turning to you. How in the world can I maintain my commitment to making genuine, tasty food for my family and at the same time get the kids to bed, all the while retain my sanity? Your tips appreciated!

Chris Amirault

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Now I start with the whining.

I don't have a crock pot, can't justify buying one, and worry about prep time. I barely make it out of the house with the kids on time getting up at 6a, and I'm not waking up at 530 to dice carrots.

Stir fry, on the other hand, might be workable: set the Zojirushi to make some rice, have chicken stock and other sauces on hand, do some quick vegetable prep....

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Hey Chris,

I've got one recently-promoted-to first grader (yes, this is unpardonable bragging) and a very demanding 16 month old. I feel your pain.

Today I've got stock on the stove. Impling #1 is on harvest break, so she is here for the week. Simmering stock (apart from skimming) lets me play with my girls. It will also give me at least 8 nights of pho for the horde.

I make a big vat of chili on the weekends to reheat during the week. I also make pulled pork, which keeps very well for quick meals. I've done vats of split pea soup, lentils, scotch broth (hmm, Fall is here...time for more soup).

Peanut noodles are a godsend for the Implings, and also keep well. Thai Cucumber salad is a quick fix at the last minute.

As you can see, my way of dealing is to cook in advance things that can be reheated easily. Dr. Science has a pretty erratic schedule at times, so some days there's no knowing when he'll get home. Cooking ahead preserves my sanity and let's me have more time with the girls.

Not that it happens to work out all the time. When I'm in a fix, I break out the bahmi goreng or butter chicken paste and cheat! And you can always sear a steak and throw it on a bed of arugula pretty easily.

And don't forget to breathe.

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Noodle soup or wonton/dumpling soup. I usually make a quick base with stock, miso, soy or fish sauce, and a blob of korean chili paste. I've even done it with water. Thrown in some asian vegetables (I like baby bok choy), leftover chicken or pork, and noodles or dumplings, bring to a boil, and you're basically done. I also keep frozen bamboo shoots and fish/shrimp balls in the freezer to add to soups.

Sometimes I cut up vegetables for the next day when cleaning up from dinner the night before. Chopped carrot, celery, onion, or other veg will last in the fridge overnight pretty well. It saves a lot of prep time when you've just gotten home and are hungry and cranky.

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Crock pots are cheap. Prep ahead of time and pull the whole thing out in the morning and plug in. Done.

We do lots of cooking on the weekend to have reheats during the week. A pork roast on the weekend becomes carnitas one night (just assemble), bbq sandwiches another night (assemble), twice cooked pork (10 minutes) and brunswick stew another (easy in 30 minutes).

Edited by Doodad (log)
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I could see this being a case where the SVS comes in handy. Whole turkey breasts, chicken breasts, pork tenderloins, whatever...cooked and then frozen..move 'em to the fridge the night before and they should be ready to go by dinner the next day.

Then, for instance, open-faced turkey sandwiches while you're microwaving a few potatoes and/or other veg. This is probably a good time to get acquainted with a few high-quality frozen vegetables or mixes thereof. When my wife is cooking for herself, she'll throw a bag of Bird's Eye in the microwave and it's just fine with rice or even tossed with some pesto.

Pastas with cheese and butter, or cheese and pepper, or garlic and oil take very little time.

Couscous. 2 minutes.

And you would be remiss if you didn't hew to Fat Guys's egg suggestions in various other topics.

The biggest issue with stir-frying is, of course, the prep. But I always have a bag of frozen peeled and deveined shrimp in the freezer. They take minutes to defrost under cold running water and are great for the wok.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Below I've listed some weeknight staples from our house (I think they can all be done in 30 min or less--my wife might disagree based on empirical results). I've realized a lot of them rely on a simple-to-cook protein with either pasta or rice as the starch (both of which require minimum attention while cooking). But we love pasta and white rice.

I think a lot of it depends on what you guys like to cook and eat. It's probably easier to adapt what you like to cook and eat than it is to create a whole new repertoire. If you can coral a sous-chef to help you with a task (making a salad, chopping some herbs, stirring the pasta), it'll help a lot, at least mentally.

Anyway, on with the suggestions:

Many Chinese-style dishes can be prepared in 30 minutes start-to-finish, especially if you prep and freeze your meat ahead of time. We make a lot of "kung pao chicken" and "ma po tofu." The quotes are there because the recipes we use we copied from my father's index cards and bear little resemblance to those dishes in a real Chinese restaurant (e.g., the ma po tofu is garlic, ginger, scallions, fermented black bean, chile paste with garlic, and soy sauce).

Hamburgers, a can of baked beans, and some vegetable (could be cole slaw, could be a salad, could be steamed green beans, etc) should clock in a no more than 30 minutes.

Sausage, sauerkraut, and rye bread. Or sausage, polenta, and a little tomato sauce.

Curries--whether Japanese, Thai, or Indian, you can usually find decent pre-made sauce bases that only require you to throw stuff in and cook it till it's done. We make Japanese curry pretty frequently, and have recently started making prik king using the little cans of Thai red curry paste (and sometimes adding a little coconut milk, or even better, creamed coconut.

Lots of pasta dishes could be done in under 30 minutes--you just have to put the sauce together while the water is boiling. Some weekday favorites include carbonara, butternut squash and italian sausage (can be sped up by buying the pre-peeled halves of squash if necessary), and "tuna fish pasta" (olive oil, garlic, hot pepper, canned tuna, capers, parsley--almost no cooking necessary). Homemade tomato-based sauces are made in bulk on weekends and frozen--just finish them with the appropriate fresh herbs and no one will know the difference. You could maybe put together a simple tomato sauce or puttanesca in 30 minutes, but you'd probably need a helper to do so.

Rick Bayless' Cowboy Beans are a good weeknight accompaniment. It's just canned beans livened up with a little garlic, canned tomato, and pickled jalapeno (and bacon/chorizo, if you want to take the time to brown it).

Fish is good. If you don't get to go shopping much during the week and are concerned about leaving fish aging in the fridge, you can turn lemons into lemonade by making sweet miso marinated fish. Great on black cod, also good on salmon. Just make a batch of the miso on the weekend, throw a little into a ziplock with the fish, freeze the extra marinade for the next week, and broil the fish on Wednesday.

Winter squash can be cooked really fast in the microwave.

Buy boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or breasts, if you prefer them), sprinkle generously with your favorite rub-like-condiment, and throw them in the freezer. If you freeze them flat, they defrost quickly. You can grill them or cook them on the stove. Jerk and Greek seasons are good and require no additional sauce.

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These are terrific. Keep 'em coming.

Peanut butter noodles are a great example of something that has one time-consuming step we often forget: heating up the pasta water. Throwing a pot of water onto the stove is often the first thing I do when I get into the house...

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I second using quality frozen veggies. I also use "baby" carrots. Don't feel too much shame at using canned beans when you need them.

For the last 26 years (until I got laid off) Ive had a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hour each way commute. I can tell you that you can make yourself crazy if you don't adopt some short-cuts.

I strongly suggest you get a crockpot. I have a 5 qt crock pot, an 8 qt electric chicken roaster that I use like a crock pot, and an 18 qt electric turkey roaster that I also use for slow-cooking.

Now for a specific suggestion: I put a corned beef into a crockpot, pour a bottle of guinness over it, add baby carrots and some small potatoes and let it go all day. It takes all of five minutes to do and my family always loves it.

Sausage has already been suggested. We keep kielbasa in the freezer at all times. Don't shoot me but I also keep Costco's turkey patties around. They might not be gourmet but with some judicious seasoning they work well for a quick weeknight meal. Boneless skinless chicken thighs have already been suggested. I buy them by the 6 1/2 bag at Costco. Couldn't live without them.

Porthos Potwatcher
The Once and Future Cook

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Mine is less a set of suggested dishes and more of a method: I always prep the next night's dinner the day before. With everything ready to go, I can slam dinner on the table in no time flat. Then when we have eaten and there is no stress, I assemble myself the next night's kit in a leisurely fashion. Veggies get chopped, sauces made, etc.

I always plan for one night of leftovers from each weeknight meal (starting with Sunday), which cuts my total cooking way down.

This of course only works if you have the energy to cook after dinner - I know some people don't, but I find it very pleasant to unwind that way with a nice full belly.

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Although I don't face the same problem, I've developed some strategies for dealing with leftovers that might help you out.

I'm not a fan of eating the same thing (chili, stew, curry, etc.) all week long, but I find that if I make a big batch of these sorts of things and freeze all but one serving in one-serving sized portions, then it's like a new meal a few weeks later, instead of seeming like leftovers.

I've also started freezing portions of various sauces and marinades -- things like satay (peanut) sauce, jerk grilling sauce, pesto, salsa, various tomato sauces. With a fast-cooking protein, you've got a more complex dinner than you could make in 30 minutes.

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Yes, smaller servings: I have to be better about that. I have too many two pound FoodSaver bags of whatever in the freezer.

I strongly suggest you get a crockpot.

As Mitch mentioned, I have a Sous Vide Supreme, which can do what a crockpot can do and more. I just gotta figure out the temps & timing for the all-day stuff.

Mine is less a set of suggested dishes and more of a method: I always prep the next night's dinner the day before.

That is my ideal. As I've probably already indicated, I'm very far from my ideals....

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I have 3 things that allow me to slap a meal on the plate the second I get home.

1) The Sous Vide Supreme. You know about that, you just have to get the right thickness of meat for your projected cook time. And you have to do side dishes separately, generally.

2) The Crock Pot. Do not hate it because it is beautiful. Meat, vegetables, everything is done and delicious when you drag your tired butt in the door.

3) The Big Green Egg and the BBQ Guru. This is what God cooks with the days he has to work late. Prep your meat the night before and slap it on the Egg in the morning. You stick a BBQ Guru probe into the meat and another probe is hanging free inside the Egg. One measures meat temp, the other BBQ temp. You set the BBQ Guru cooking temperature and then also tell it your target internal temperature of the meat. As the target temp for the meat gets close, the BBQ Guru ramps down the Egg temp until they both arrive at the same place.

If you set the Guru to cook your pork roast at 225F until it's 150F internally, at the end the pork and the Big Green Egg temp will be 150F and it will hold it there until you get home.

The BGE is closed enough that it holds moisture so the meat doesn't dry out in this process. So, you can have BBQ spare ribs or brisket midweek.

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I think you've got about three directions you can go.

  1. Long, slow crock-pot meals that cook while you're away.
  2. Heat and Eat meals. Make ahead when you have the time, freeze in appropriate portions, thaw in fridge 24 or so hours before you need them then heat (nuke/oven whatever) and eat.
  3. A La Minute cooking options.

Crock Pot: Mentioned previously ad nausium and you've already said you aren't planning on going this route.

Heat and Eat: I love this option for certain meals and have some experience here. They can be simple or quite elaborate, if you want. My wife and I did some traveling for a while in a very small RV. For weeks before a trip I would freeze 2-person portions of the full meals we were eating so we could have real food on the road without suffering the indignities of trying to cook in the pathetic 1-burner galley. Think self-made TV dinners. I doubt too many of our fellow road warriors were having duck l'orange with wild rice and sweet potato puree, or swiss steak with mashed potatoes and vegetable gravy, or Zucchini Lasagna with spicy meatballs. Combine any of them with a salad (from a pre-mix if you must) and you've got a serious good meal. I no longer do any traveling but I still make up our "RV Meals" from time to time. There's nothing better for me after working a 14-hour day to run down to the freezer, pull out a couple of full turkey dinners with all the trimmings (frozen shortly after last Thanksgiving), popping them into the nuker and having a holiday feast 30 minutes later. No muss, no fuss.

A La Minute (ie short order) cooking: 80% of the meals I make are a la minute. Stir frys or throw something on the grill or a fast sauté of a chicken breast or other small cut of meat, maybe a quick stroganoff. And "breakfast". Just about everything we normally associate with breakfast foods are a la minute foods and require very little in the way of prep. Anything you can picture your favorite diner cook whipping out on a busy Sunday morning is fair game. Sides? Rice, pasta, cous-cous etc all cook in about the time it takes to cook the entrée. I can't think of a vegetable that, once cleaned and cut, doesn't take more than about 7 minutes to actually cook. I've always got a bag of cleaned salad greens ready and a pan of boiled red potatoes in the fridge I can cut up and roast/fry/sauté for as easy side.

As a last thought... Mise en place, mise en place, mise en place!

The Big Cheese

BlackMesaRanch.com

My Blog: "The Kitchen Chronicles"

BMR on FaceBook

"The Flavor of the White Mountains"

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Stir fry, on the other hand, might be workable: set the Zojirushi to make some rice, have chicken stock and other sauces on hand, do some quick vegetable prep....

Yep, that's a good plan.

I used to find myself in a similar situation, and in addition to the wok I relied heavily on my grill. Put something(s) grill-friendly in a marinade in the morning or the night before, start the grill when you get home, make simple side dishes while the grill preheats, grill, serve. Vietnamese pork chops with rice, carne asada for burritos, chicken parts any number of ways... lots of possibilities your kids might like.

John Rosevear

"Brown food tastes better." - Chris Schlesinger

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15-30 from start to table - yup. Been there, live that.

capellini cook much faster than spaghetti.

red sauce

alfredo

carbonara

pesto

brown butter and sage

pomodoro

macaroni and cheese by some stovetop recipe

Any of the above w steamed veg. the microwave does a good job of steaming veg.

chicken breasts sautee or stirfry very quickly, as does thinly sliced mammal of your choice

asian style

lemon and garlic

etc

serve w rice (2o min from time water starts boiling) - precooked rice freezes ok

and thaws fast in the microwave.

salads - on bed of lettuce, or stuffed into tomatoes

chinese chicken

curried whatever

tuna

beef

lasagna compiled & cooked the night before, reheated.

Enchiladas - compile in advance, cook night of eating

Nachos (used canned refried beans), w tomato, avocado, salsa

winter - grilled cheese and tomato soup

baked potatos w toppings - 'build your own'

fried rice every couple of weeks - its never the same twice anyway.

scrambled eggs w bacon and corn

frittata

reheated potroasts, chili etc.

Little things that help are grating cheese in bulk in advance, frozen veg of your choice (broccoli and spinach are especially useful), canned beans

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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More a la minute info...

Here's fun web site for men who are trying to cook. I kid you not.

http://www.menshealth.com/shortordercook/

It's got a cute ap where you click on a picture of a food you have on-hand and it gives you an easy recipe you can prepare with it in under 30 minutes :wink:

The Big Cheese

BlackMesaRanch.com

My Blog: "The Kitchen Chronicles"

BMR on FaceBook

"The Flavor of the White Mountains"

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Also think about ways in which you could use your oven's time-bake function... potatoes, roasted root vegetables, a casserole or lasagna that you've made previously, frozen, and taken from the freezer to the oven right before leaving for work...

John Rosevear

"Brown food tastes better." - Chris Schlesinger

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Those years when I worked full time AND had a smallish kid at home are a blur, actually, and I can't really imagine our meals were super exciting. I am sure there were plenty of leftovers, such as lasagne or mac and cheese or other casseroles made over the weekend. There was a lot of red sauce made and frozen in pint containers for pasta, and there were a lot of green salads rather than cooked veggies.

The most versatile meal was burritos. That used up leftover meats of various kinds and beans. I discovered that leftover rice keeps really poorly in the fridge if it is unsauced, but is passably useful the next day if put away with a small amount of sauce mixed into it. If you have a source of good tortillas on hand (shame on me, I never made my own, but Trader Joe's "homemade" ones are not bad) and a variety of potential fillings it allows small kids to play with their food and everyone to customize. Chicken breasts cut into thinnish fillets saute quickly in butter and make tender shreds if you have no leftover roasted or grilled chicken. Fresh fish or shrimp can be sauteed in a few minutes and make great burritos with a cabbage slaw and plain white rice (Maybe it's just me, but I never liked seafood and beans together.) My husband and daughter preferred to load on the condiments: cheese of various kinds, avocado, crema or an approximation, salsas of different types, shredded romaine, whatever. Fresh salsa is pretty easy to whip up, and keeps for a few days, with or without a hot element, and Tapatio is always an excellent back-up. Those picky eaters can simply omit the vegetables or whatever. And I discovered that if I wrapped my daughter's burrito half-way up in foil, she found it more attractive and much easier to manage when younger. And burritos can usually be put together in the time it takes to cook fresh rice and quick-saute the protein source--20-25 minutes.

Since we don't buy bacon very often, everyone was thrilled to have BLT's for dinner once in a blue moon.

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I looked up the Sous Vide Supreme on-line since I am not familiar with Sous Vide cooking equipment. I can see that it can do what a crock-pot can do. I would be interested to know how much effort and time are required to vacuum seal the bag and if the machine always has water in the water bath or do you have to fill it each time you use it?

Porthos Potwatcher
The Once and Future Cook

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When I need quick and satisfying I usually turn to soups + bread or a light salad... My favorite red lentil and carrot soup from Melissa Clark is hearty and satisfying... I have a super quick black bean soup recipe that is dynamite served with a simple quesadilla or with cornbread... I have a tomato and white bean soup that is also good served with something simple like biscuits... All of those whip up in about half an hour...

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One of the coolest frozen food products I've ever tried was a frozen fettuccine alfredo from Trader Joes. It's a bag with frozen cooked pasta nests and bits of frozen sauce. The sauce bits look like the sort of thing you'd do for butter by piping it with a fluted tip onto a bread plate and chilled to serve on a bread plate.

To prepare, you heat a skillet, throw in a few tablespoons of water, your desired amount of pasta and an appropriate number of sauce bits. You're just needing to heat everything through without drying anything out. It happens in about 5 minutes. This could be used with a variety of pasta dishes.

But for continued and consistent long term success, I think it's about planning and prior preparation. For example, you can do well to buy frozen loaves of unbaked white bread dough - and putting one in a greased bread pan in the morning (with another pan on top) is quick and easy - with the goal to have freshly baked bread in the evening. Freshly baked bread cannot be beat. But it doesn't keep. So you then let that leftover half loaf go slightly stale overnight - which then makes it perfect for French toast in the morning.

I must admit that I don't do this sort of planning as much as I should, and tend, I think like many others here, to be more whim-based. But real professional chefs do this all the time. They do their prep beforehand, and really, most have far less than 30 minutes to go from uncooked to plate. It's the prep that's usually key. We just need to find acceptable ways of doing it beforehand or buying it already prepped.

Come to think of it, why couldn't the traditions that developed the now generally highly regarded peasant foods, not be applied to a cuisine not so much limited by dollars, but by the clever use of time?

Edited by IndyRob (log)
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When I make pizza, I always freeze a couple balls of dough for later. In the morning, I set the dough out so that it's thawed by the time I get home. As others have said, I chop up veggies over the weekend so that I can just toss them in what ever I'm making. Pre-heat the oven, top it and you've got a homemade pizza in 30.

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