Quick and Simple Dinners - Ideas for Pulling Meals Together from Next to Nothing
How many times have you arrived home from work, only to realize you
forgot to go to the store? Or even worse for your waistline, realized it on the way home and grabbed fast food or takeout? Or maybe you have
plenty of food in the house, but it needs to be thawed for 2 or 3
hours before you can make use of it. For parents, this problem is
exacerbated by the demands of hungry kids.
So what do you do when all you have are leftovers, random scraps and
frozen foods? You improvise! Open up a vein of creativity and try
these tips for working with what you have.
Running on an Empty Refrigerator
After roughly 2 weeks, all the good stuff in our freezer or refrigerator is gone. For our family this would be the ground beef, fish, roasts, fresh fruits and fresh or frozen vegetables. After about
2-3 months, all our favored cooking oils, spices and items like soy sauce, oyster sauce and balsamic vinegar, even regular vinegar, are also gone.
The other day these two phenomena combined forces to leave
me with frozen chicken legs, chicken nuggets, leftover rice, breaded,
chicken, macaroni salad and a bed of shredded cabbage. All but the
nuggets and chicken legs were from takeout the day before. I also
found the remains of a roast chicken which was still edible. With only
twenty minutes to spare, here is what I made:
Chicken Katsu fried rice with scrambled eggs, Napa cabbage and Sauteed Pulled Roasted Chicken
This turned out great, even though I was sans the usual ingredients
for my favorite fried rice and I had never made this before.
A quick recipe:
- Approximately 2 cups cooked day old white rice
- Shredded chicken katsu (this is Japanese breaded and fried chicken.
You can get away with slicing up chicken nuggets or using any other chicken.)
- 2-3 tablespoons Katsu sauce (This is a sweet smoky sauce that comes with the Katsu. It was part of the leftovers. If you don't have it try substituting barbecue sauce. Add it slowly so it doesn't overpower the dish.)
- 2 eggs lightly scrambled
- 1/4-1/2 cup shredded Napa cabbage.
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil and 2 tablespoons butter (The butter helps brown the rice when soy sauce is absent. It also adds flavor.)
*If you prefer, you can also add bits of vegetables, bacon, sausage, whatever you like or have on hand. However, be conscious of the flavors being contributed. You don't want your improvised masterpiece to turn into a waste of food.
- Warm 1 tablespoon of oil in the pan, scramble the eggs gently and remove when just done.
- Saute' your meat and vegetable choices until heated thoroughly. If using raw vegetables, be sure to give them time to cook to taste.
- Add the rice, crumbling in your fingers to break down any clumps.
- Add another tablespoon of oil and the butter. Stir until incorporated.
- Sprinkle garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste. *Note, when using soy sauce I don't put any additional salt in.
- Stir in Katsu sauce
- Sprinkle 1-2 teaspoons sugar over the rice and mix well.
- *If you have other spices you would like to add, such as ginger and chili flakes, toss them in!
- Add the eggs back in and break up throughout the rice.
- Continue stirring and cooking until rice is lightly browned and allingredients are mixed together. Approximatley 5 minutes.
- Transfer the rice to a large plate or bowl to avoid overcooking and making crusty, hard fried rice.
The Sauteed Roast Chicken
For this quick side dish, I tore off every scrap of meat left on those
chicken bones and coated it in a bowl with:
- Balsamic vinegarette
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (You can also use lemonade or orange juice if that is all there is.)
*No citrus? Forget it! Use balsamic or white vinegar and whatever oil you have on hand.
- In the pan I added garlic powder, salt and pepper. Saute' until heated thoroughly. Approximately 3-4 minutes.
The entire meal was a success, and I found a package of frozen edamame
(soy beans in the pod) for some color that was ready in three minutes.
The Poor Student Diet
When I was still in college and money was always short, I needed a break from top ramen or saltines and peanut butter (a luxury at the time!)
I got a reprieve from this processed junk when I discovered a 5-pound bag of potatoes cost about five bucks, it became the new 'go-to' meal. For some reason, we always had garlic powder, salt, and red chili flakes in the apartment. Black pepper, too, and a big bottle of cooking oil.
Here were two of our favorite recipes with these ingredients, plus the occasional package of pasta, a beer and some butter: Keep in mind, we were 20 something's doing what we could to survive. There was no such thing as 'too many carbs' back then!
Boiled and Sauteed Spicy Potatoes:
- Boil 2-3 pounds of potatoes (the amount depends on the size of the taters and the number of people being fed. Think 1 medium sized potato per person.)
- Chop into large 1 1/2" chunks.
*Do not overcook, unless you want to make mashed potatoes, which we
are not doing here.
- When fork tender but still firm, drain and transfer to a pan with heated oil and (if available) butter.
- Add your choice of spices. My personal staples are salt, garlic powder, pepper and chili flakes. Herbs such as rosemary are great if you have them.
- Cook on medium high heat until browned on all sides. Reduce heat and cook until soft. Ideally, they should be slightly crisped on the outside and tender inside.
Simple right? Now if you have eggs, scramble or fry a couple to go along with the potatoes and add some protein to the dish. Done in about twenty minutes!
Fried Potato Wedges
- Pre-heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil
- Chop the potatoes into 4-6 wedges. (Slice the potato in half lengthwise, then do it again on each half. Again if the wedges are still too large.)
Place the wedges in the heated cooking oil and fry until browned and fork tender on all sides.
*Note: If your wedges are large, boil them first until fork tender. Otherwise they will burn in the oil before they are cooked through.
Dry in a colander lined with paper towels, then toss in a bowl with:
- Salt (Kosher or sea salt if available)
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Pepper and chili powder are other options. Raid the pantry and see what you can find!
- Serve with your choice of condiments.
The potato recipes above can be added to any meat dish to make it complete, and it sure is a cheap meal. But what if you are a parent of persnickety kids who are difficult to feed? For that matter, what if you have a picky spouse? Sure you could throw those nuggets in the oven or slip out to pick up Chinese food for your honey, but there are other options.
Three Meals for Picky Eaters
1. Hot Dog Stir Fry:
One night my daughter was hell-bent on hot dogs for dinner. Never mind that I had made the kids' favorite dish the day before, fully
expecting they would eat it the next day (it happens to taste better when it sits overnight.)
Never mind she had already had a hot dog for lunch.
Luckily for me, she doesn't mind a medley of vegetables she can pick at. So I opened the freezer with an idea in mind, and there they were; frozen stir-fry vegetables. The only meat I had were the hot dogs. Bingo! The choice was obvious, hot dog stir-fry!
The recipe: (per person)
- 1 hot dog (2?) chopped into recognizable chunks, about 1/2" thick.
- 1 cup of stir-fry vegetables (carrots, onions, peppers, mushrooms.Obviously this works just as well if all you have fresh vegetables.)
- 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
- Garlic powder, sugar and pepper, ~1 teaspoon each.
*No soy sauce? Leave it out, or try substituting 1-2 tablespoons of orange juice. Another great sub is oyster sauce, 2 teaspoons is plenty.
- Saute' on medium high heat for about 5 minutes, or until everything is heated through. Serve over white rice if you like, or hey, how about potatoes?!?
2. Macaroni and Cheese
This is a great substitute for when you run out of the Kraft brand boxes of Mac n Cheese. You know, "It's the Cheesiest." Sure is, it also happens to be the only brand my kids would eat, until I rolled the dice one night and came up with the following from what we had in the pantry and the 'fridge. As it turned out, the wife loved it too.
- 1-2 cups elbow macaroni or small pasta shells (I recommend the shells.)4-6 slices of processed cheese, such as Kraft slices, or grated fresh cheddar/swiss/jack. Choose your favorites.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Milk or cream as needed; start with ~2 tablespoons, add a little bit at a time to get the right consistency.
- Cook the pasta according to the instructions. Drain and set aside.
- On medium-low heat, melt the butter in the milk.
- Tear the cheese into strips or grate and add a little at a time, mixing it in as it melts.
- Keep adding milk as needed, stirring the sauce gently. Remove from heat and continue stirring if it starts to boil.
- When the sauce is smooth and creamy, not to mention looking like cheese sauce, pour it over the cooked pasta. Or you can add the pasta to the cheese sauce, my preferred method.
- Serve while hot.
This may sound like glorified Kraft in a box, but it actually tastes more wholesome. You can add some complexity by adding white pepper to the sauce, and spreading crushed croutons or bread
> crumbs on top. Bake it in the oven at 450 for five minutes and Bon Apetit.
3. Spaghetti with Vegetables-The Hard Way
Dang my kids love it when I make spaghetti, unless it's one of those days when they suddenly 'don't eat that anymore.' So when I promise to make it and realize I have no spaghetti sauce, it puts a damper on my mood. And no, heading back out to the grocery store for a jar is not going to happen.
Fortunately, we keep frozen tomatoes in the, er, freezer, for a particular dish we make about once a month or less. Bottom line, we always have a bunch of frozen tomatoes in there, doing nothing but freezing.
I also wanted to add some vegetables to this sauce to add some much needed nutrients. Pasta was not a problem. Here is what I did:
- Boil tomatoes to thaw and break down. Approximately 9 small tomatoes and 1 large. Just enough to give it a good tangy tomato flavor. When finished, remove any skin and pulse in food processor or blender to puree. Don't overdo it or you'll end up with a frothy sea of pink juice. *If you don't have a blender or food processor, chopchopchop.
- Microwave or steam 1 cup of broccoli (and a 1/4 cup of carrots if you like) until mushy.
- Puree or chop until they are small enough to hide in the ground meat and tomatoes (If you're kids are vegetarians this is obviously a moot point.) *Carrots don't need to be mushy, just chop them as fine as possible.
- When the veggies are prepped, heat a medium skillet with olive or vegetable oil.
- Add a clove or two of chopped garlic and sauté for 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned.
- Add ground beef, ground turkey or other.
- Pour in about a 1/4 cup of red wine, Cook until liquid evaporates and meat is done.
- Lower the heat to medium low and add tomatoes and vegetables.
- Mix until sauce is uniform and flavors are incorporated, about 10-15 minutes.
- Serve over pasta and enjoy!
The examples above represent a handful of times I have had to improvise in my house. You have no doubt done the same in yours, and the possibilities are endless. Consider these points when you're choices are limited and so is your time:
- Are there leftovers that can be transformed into something entirely different?
- Do you have frozen 'fast' foods that can be broken down to make them part of a healthier dish?
- Consider the ingredients of favorite dishes and double check the cupboards, you might just be able to make it from scratch (i.e. mac n' cheese.)
When faced with the simplest of ingredients, add a little something to make it special. For instance:
- Add cinnamon to canned peaches, or cinnamon and brown sugar.
- Add cinnamon and confectioner's sugar to sliced, skinned apples, a little goes a long way. Toss together in a bowl and serve on a plate garnished with the apple skins.
- Add a colorful garnish or sauce to make a better presentation. This works for kids and adults. For example, don't just throw the chicken nuggets on your kid's plate. Julienne some carrots and place them around the plate. Get some small containers and put ranch or thousand island in one, ketchup or barbecue sauce in the other. Add some celery or carrot sticks.
- Serving rice and chicken breasts? Drizzle some sauce around the perimeter of the plate like many restaurants do, and place the chicken on a bed of chopped lettuce or purple cabbage.
Try different ideas out and see what works for your family. Some ideas will fail, but the more you improvise, the better the results will be. So the next time you hit the wall when it comes time to cook dinner, stop and take a second look. You just might have the fixings for an epic meal!