A reader writes: “I have an idea for a future column, for either the magazine or your blog. As a fairly new mom (my son is 11 months old) who works full-time, I’m wondering if you could do a story along the lines of ‘Simple Meals Ready in 15 Minutes or Less’ or something like that. I think this would be invaluable to the busy readers who are strapped for time (but who would rather make a healthy dinner than hit the drive-thru).
I hear you. Eating a healthy dinner that takes less than fifteen minutes to prepare is pretty much the Holy Grail of parents with infants or toddlers. My first best idea involves shameless self-promotion: How about you pick up Real Food? It’s a recipe magazine that’s free in all the Lunds and Byerly’s, and part of my job here involves editing it. (It’s available nationally as well, write to me if you need to know where in your area.)
Anyhoo, there are a couple of recipes in there that meet your needs, I’m especially thinking of Martin Yan’s Shangri-la beef and carrot rice. I talked to Yan (of Yan Can Cook fame) for that story, and he told me that one of his habits as a working dad was this: He’d fill up his rice cooker, and everything else had to be ready by the time the rice cooker popped.
Weirdly enough, even before I talked to Yan a rice cooker had become one of my family’s default solutions to healthy eating on hectic weeknights. We got the cheapest one at Target (it’s red, and cost $15) to see if we’d really use a rice cooker at all, and it works quite well: Put in your rice. When the rice has fifteen minutes or so left to cook, load up the steamer tray with veggies, tofu, or whatnot. Sometimes we put leftover chicken up there to warm up. If you wanted to be strategic about it you could cook a bunch of chicken on the weekends in preparation. We get what we call rice shakers’, rice seasonings from Japan, available at Shuang Hur on Nicollet and 27th or United Noodles (www.unitednoodles.com). We use those to season the rice and whatever’s on top of it. Then we add some soy sauce, plum vinegar, and so on. It’s pretty good. I wouldn’t call it cuisine, but it makes an acceptable dinner, and is more or less identical to something they serve at at least one restaurant, Uptown’s Tao Natural Foods. I’m now thinking of investing in a big, fuzzy logic rice-cooker in hopes that the whole rice-cooker thing takes weeknight dinners to the next fast-easy level.
Speaking of rice, another tip I got once—I think from Scott Uehlein, the author of Canyon Ranch Cooks—was to make a giant pot of brown rice on the weekends, and reheat that for weeknight meals. We’ve actually managed to do this a number of times, and somehow it removes a psychological barrier to getting dinner on the table; I make brown rice a pound at a time now, I thinly slice a few cloves of garlic, sauté them in a couple tablespoons of butter until they start to become golden brown, add three cups of rice, sauté that around until various grains start to brown, grind some pepper in there, then dump in six cups of water and some salt, bring it to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and wait an hour: Voila! Rice. (You can freeze it too; it reheats in the microwave in a jiff. I know some people buy frozen brown rice from Trader Joe’s, but I just can’t get my head around that.) You can do brown rice in the rice cooker too (we do) except since we got the cheapest, smallest one, it seems sort of silly to go through the bother of sautéing garlic in there (though I’ve done it, and it works.)
My other weeknight fail-safe is to basically just sauté a chicken breast or pork chop in some butter with lots more thinly sliced garlic, and squirt a little lemon juice on it: There’s a more accomplished version of this dish on the menu at the Modern Café, and also, I think, at the Loring Pasta Bar.
So, those are my tips: Get Real Food (my magazine!), brown rice, and garlic chicken. But I’m sure other readers have better ideas. So, anyone? Weeknight super-quick desperation dinners that leave you with your culinary dignity intact?