On busy nights — those evenings when ordering takeout sounds a little stale, but you're not in the mood to set forth on a full-scale cooking operation — you may look to your favorite quick-and-easy meals for inspiration. They're the answer for getting a simple dinner on the table with a few ingredients that are high on flavor and low on effort, letting you move on to your next task of the day.
Amanda Nelson Varner once owned a catering company/cooking school, Dish 'T Pass, that involved wearing many hats — those of a mom and full-time businesswoman — rushing from one job to another, fitting two to three days' worth of work into one, she says. It was then that she began appreciating the beauty of meals that required a minimum of ingredients.
Now, though, the kids are grown and she's closed her business, and her new career as marketing director for Alchemy Spice Co., where she is charged with creating recipes, video content and live cooking events, gives her a little flexibility and regular working hours. It's also renewed her appreciation for those meals that don't involve a lot of fuss, enabling her to spend less time in the kitchen and more pursuing her new-found freedom.
"Those meals with just a few ingredients usually rely on quality ingredients," she says. "They're typically fresh, in season and full of flavor, which means they are nutrient-dense, making them so much better for you, too."
Robin Derryberry, on the other hand, says her days as owner of Derryberry Public Relations can get quite long. However, she strives to maintain a goal of having dinner on the table for her and husband, Andy, no later than 7:30 most evenings.
"So anything with a short list of ingredients helps with timing," she says. "Also, if I snag some time on Sunday afternoons, I'll put together several meals that can go from freezer to oven. Having a short list of ingredients is super helpful."
One of her favorite go-to quick dinners?
"I love the apples, walnuts and bleu cheese salad mix that Publix has. Match it with baked chicken and a gratin from the freezer and — voila! — dinner."
Brian Franklin, communications director at America's Test Kitchen, says the media company's latest cookbook, "Five Ingredient Dinners: 100-Plus Fast, Flavorful Meals," is the kind of book that will get you in and out of the kitchen in record time with a memorable meal on the table.
"We know that people want a delicious meal, but are often short on both time and ingredients," Franklin says."We wanted to create a book with recipes that are both efficient and tasty and one that would make mealtime more manageable. The concept of more-efficient cooking is something that many have asked for."
The book should be of special interest to weeknight warriors — those cooks who want to learn how to be more efficient in the kitchen so that dinner goes from prep to the table faster. But it also offers something for seasoned foodies who want to make impressive, inventive dinners with fewer ingredients.
Varner says she maintains a list of essentials so that her pantry is always filled with nonperishable foods — beans, pasta, canned items and whole grains — that can be added to fresh ingredients.
"I keep a great loaf of sliced bread in my freezer — currently Niedlov's sourdough — as well as key proteins such as fish, chicken, tofu and beef," she says. "And I always have butter, eggs and cheeses on hand."
Here are some recipes from "Five Ingredient Dinners" that will get you in and out of the kitchen in a flash with just five basic ingredients — not counting pantry staples such as salt, pepper and oil.
"A busy family on the go doesn't mean dinnertime has to suffer," Varner notes.
Stir-Fried Chicken and Vegetables
1/2 cup store-bought black bean garlic sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 pound frozen stir-fry vegetable blend, thawed
6 scallions, whites sliced thin and greens cut into 1-inch slices
Whisk black bean sauce with 1/4 cup water and soy sauce together in a bowl. Measure 3 tablespoons of the sauce into a medium bowl, then stir in the chicken and let it sit for 10 minutes. Set remaining sauce aside.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat just until smoking. Add half of the chicken, breaking up any clumps, and cook until cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer to a bowl. Repeat with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and remaining chicken.
Heat 2 teaspoons oil in the now-empty skillet over high heat until shimmering. Add stir-fry vegetables, and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in 2 tablespoons water, cover skillet, reduce heat to medium and cook until vegetables are crisp-tender, 1 to 3 minutes. Push vegetables to the side of the skillet, add scallion whites and 1 teaspoon oil to center, mashing scallion whites into the skillet until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir scallions into vegetables.
Stir chicken and any accumulated juices into skillet with vegetables. Whisk remaining sauce mixture to recombine, then add to skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Stir in scallion greens and serve. Makes 4 servings.
Rigatoni With Swiss Chard, Bell Peppers and Pancetta
8 ounces pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 pound rigatoni or penne pasta
8 ounces Swiss chard, stemmed and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (1 cup), plus more for serving
1 cup jarred roasted peppers, rinsed, patted dry and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
Heat pancetta and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until fat is rendered and pancetta is a deep golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to a bowl, and set aside. Pour fat from pot into a measuring cup. You should have 1/4 to 1/3 cup fat. If you don't have enough, add some oil to equal 1/4 cup. Return fat to Dutch oven.
Meanwhile, bring 2 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta, and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve 3 cups cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to the pot.
Add 1 teaspoon pepper and 2 cups reserved cooking water to reserved fat in Dutch oven, and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil mixture rapidly, scraping up any browned bits, until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 5 minutes. (If you've reduced too much, add more reserved cooking water to equal 1 1/2 cups. Reduce heat to medium, stir in chard and simmer until chard begins to wilt, 1 to 3 minutes. Add cheese, red peppers, pasta and pancetta, stirring until cheese is melted and sauce is slightly thickened, about 1 minute.
Adjust consistency with any remaining cooking water, as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately, passing extra cheese separately. Makes 4 servings.
Shrimp With Warm Barley Salad
1 cup quick-cooking barley
1 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 cup cider vinegar
4 ounces marinated feta cheese, crumbled, plus 1/4 cup of marinated feta oil
1 apple, cored, halved and thinly sliced
Bring 1 1/2 cups water and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add barley, cover, reduce heat to low and cook until tender and most of water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet to cool.
Meanwhile, pat shrimp dry with paper towels, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add shrimp, and cook, stirring occasionally, until opaque throughout, 3 to 6 minutes.
Whisk vinegar, feta oil, 3/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt together in a large bowl. Add barley, apple and feta cheese; toss to coat and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Top with shrimp, and serve. Makes 4 servings.