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Plan, prep dinner ahead of time on busy weeknights

By Greg Summers

For many of us, balancing family, family life and career responsibilities, can be a high wire act.
Sometimes, I wonder how we get everything done that has to be.
Take Tuesday, for example. I was at Shiloh Unity ARP Church at 6 p.m. for an upcoming work-related article, and my wife, Jo, had to leave for her job at Springs Memorial Hospital about that same time.
Before the night was up, our daughter, Betty Jo, had a basketball game.
Those kinds of challenges don’t always allow very much wiggle room for a nutritious, well-balanced evening meal.   
Sometimes it seems easier to go through the drive-thru window of the nearest fast-food restaurant than to spend time in the kitchen.
However, making dinner doesn’t have to be time-consuming, difficult or leave us stressed out. Creating healthy meals the entire family will enjoy is a matter of proper planning and smart time management in the kitchen.
Here are a few shortcuts that can make mealtime a snap:
u Plan ahead – Planning two weeks ahead of time can alleviate the toughest component of meal creation because it eliminates the, “OK, it’s 6:30, what are we going to have for supper?” mind set.  
Planning ahead is how the Lancaster County School District pulls it off, says food services director Mary Thompson.
On Dec. 10, its combined cafeterias served breakfast to 86 adults and 2,748 students and lunch to 288 adults and 7,709 students.
“We plan things out at least a month ahead of time,” Thompson said. “We have to make sure all the food comes in and there are commodities from the USDA we try to work in.”
Planning ahead enables you to shop for all the ingredients and fill the pantry and refrigerator. When mealtime arrives, it’s a matter of grab and cook.
Prep ahead – Most days, the most time spent on meals is the prep work. Spend a little free time on Sunday afternoon pre-cooking items that will be used during the week. Baked chicken can be used for a variety of ways. It can be sliced, diced or shredded and packaged into individual sandwich bags, resealable plastic containers or bowls to be used later.
Take shortcuts – Every meal doesn’t have to be cooked entirely from scratch. You can use bagged salads and shredded lettuce from the produce aisle, along with breads and some sauces.
Have breakfast for dinner – Breakfast foods cook faster and have much less prep work. Serve pancakes, French toast or omelettes with homemade hash browns one night a week.
Buy a slow cooker – If you don’t have a slow cooker, invest in a good one.
They cook food on very low heat for several hours with a “set it and forget it” mentality. New models have programmable features that automatically set cooking time, temperature and shut off when done. Nothing beats having a one-pot meal ready to eat as soon as you walk through the door.  
Try stir-fry – Meats and poultry cut into smaller strips and pieces will cook much faster than an entire steak. Pair this with favorite flavors, such as ginger and teriyaki and seasonal vegetables (fresh or frozen) and serve over rice or noodles. You can also experiment with your own stir-fry recipes based on individual tastes.
Get the kids to help – Children enjoy helping, especially when meals feature tacos, personal pizzas and low-fat chicken nuggets with sauces.  
Boil a pot of pasta – Pasta can be boiled in 7 to 10 minutes. While it’s cooking, you can prepare an oil and garlic, tomato or cream-based sauce to go with it. Most pastas are especially good because they are low in fat and  high in complex carbohydrates. Many athletes eat pasta dishes before games and workouts because of the energy boost they provide.  
Have leftover night – Set aside one night a week for leftovers. Clean out the refrigerator, reheat and serve so each family member can create their own tailor-made buffet-style meal.
Come up with novel ways to use leftovers as a main course.
Tasty, Hot-Legged Chicken & Rice is one of those ways. Made from a cooked, leftover rotisserie chicken, it gives a second meal from one entrée.
The sauce for Baja Popcorn Fish Tacos can be made ahead of time and refrigerated. The slaw can be prepared in a snap while the fish is baking.
Glazed Pineapple Chops can be prepared in about 30 minutes.

Hot Legged Chicken & Rice
Leftover, bone-in rotisserie chicken (including skin)
1 packet onion soup mix
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups rice
1 tablespoon corn starch

– Place chicken in a stew pot, cover with water (at least 6 cups), add kosher salt and onion soup mix. Boil until chicken starts falling off the bone. Remove chicken from pot and set aside to cool.
– Leave broth in pot and continue to boil. Add rice stir, reduce heat, cover and let simmer for 20 minutes with lid on.
– While rice is cooking, remove meat and skin from chicken and shred. Once rice is done, add chicken to pot and let simmer.
– Mix corn starch with a small amount of water and whisk until smooth. Add to chicken and rice and simmer until broth thickens.

– Recipe from Gregory A. Summers

Baja Popcorn Fish Tacos
1 (22 ounce) package SeaPak Popcorn Fish, frozen
10 soft flour tortillas, heated according to package directions  
1 (16 ounce) bag of fresh slaw or shredded cabbage
1 (11 ounce) can mandarin oranges, drained
1 (15 ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 avocado, diced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
Taco sauce ingredients
8 ounces sour cream
1 (1 ounce) packet ranch dressing mix
1 (1.25-ounce) packet taco seasoning

– Preheat oven to 425 degrees and bake popcorn fish according to package instructions.
– Mix sour cream, ranch dressing and taco seasoning (use a little milk to thin the sauce if desired). Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
– Place slaw (or shredded cabbage), mandarin oranges, black beans, avocado and cilantro in a large bowl.
– Place lime juice and honey in a small bowl and stir together. Pour over slaw mixture and toss until well mixed and coated.
– Assemble tacos. Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of taco sauce onto a tortilla. Add slaw mixture and top with a hot popcorn fish. Serve immediately.

– Recipe from SeaPak

Glazed Pineapple Chops

3/4 cup Bull’s-eye Brown Sugar & Hickory Barbecue Sauce
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple in juice, undrained
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
4 bone-in pork chops about 1/2 inch thick
Pineapple rings, optional

– Heat skillet to medium heat.
– Mix barbecue sauce, crushed pineapple, ground cinnamon and dry mustard until well blended. Reserve about half the sauce for later use.    
– Brown pork chops about 5 minutes on each side. Add half the sauce to skillet and saute until pork chops are done (160 degrees), turning
occasionally. Remove from skillet, brush with remaining sauce and serve.
– To serve with pineapple rings, drain rings, reserve juice and add to barbecue sauce mixture in skillet. Add pineapple rings and heat through (about 4 minutes on each side). Garnish pork chops with pineapple rings.

– Kraft Foods recipe adapted by Gregory A. Summers