By Dennis Weaver, The Prepared Pantry
Dinner is a challenge. It’s not that we don’t know how to cook but after a long day at work and with a dozen things to do at home, it just takes time and energy.
What do we fix for dinner? We could put something in the crock-pot before we leave for work. We’re not that organized (I’m not that organized) and the crock-pot is utilized for Sunday duty. I love stir-fries but Merri Ann doesn’t like them. There are other choices like casseroles (they usually take too long), tacos, and soups, but what to fix for dinner usually centers on four basic decisions.
Just make four decisions!
Choose a meat for the main dish.
I’m looking for a meat to fry. The oven takes too long, I rarely deep fry, and the grill is a good choice but a summer choice. So I choose:
- Burger (either patties or crumbled).
- Steak (either whole or sliced—lesser cuts lend to slicing)
- Pork chops or other thin cuts of pork
- Chicken (Usually, it’s chicken breasts)
Choose one of these four, and you’re well on your way to dinner.
Choose a seasoning or sauce.
Once you’ve done it a couple times, gravy is easy. I keep a bulk gravy mix on hand so that I can mix up as much as I want even if I’m cooking on the grill. I keep a half dozen sauces in the refrigerator: a barbecue sauce or two, an Asian sauce or two, marinara (spaghetti sauce), and salsa. Thai Sweet Chili is an essential.
Fried meat lends itself to seasoning blends. Several nights ago, I fried a pork chop seasoned with Ras el Hanout. I used two tablespoons of bulk gravy mix to make the gravy in the frying pan. The spices left in the pan after frying the pork chop were perfect to make the gravy special.
Do yourself and your family a favor and invest in a half dozen blends. You’ll create a whole new vista of possibilities for dinner. These are my cupboard basics:
- A steak and burger seasoning. My favorite is Colorado Cattle Company Original.
- A taco and Mexican seasoning.
- An Italian seasoning blend, one with basil and oregano that I can use on pizzas and pasta.
- A barbecue rub. I use it mostly on chicken. My favorite is no longer available. We’re looking for a replacement to carry in our store.
- Vindaloo. This is my first choice for beef though it’s really more versatile than that.
- Ras el Hanout, my first choice for pork.
- Persian Adwiya. This is my first choice for chicken and fish.
- A lemon pepper blend.
- A poultry seasoning blend. I use this for soups and dressings (stuffing). I recently discovered Zaatar which reminds me of poultry seasoning but has no sage.
There are other seasonings in my cupboard. I’m getting to know the marvelous choices of our Teeny Tiny Spice Company spice blends.
Choose a starch.
For us, that means choosing one of these:
We live in potato country, Eastern Idaho. Most nights, I’m not going to take the time to peel potatoes. I’ll boil red potatoes; that doesn’t take long and they are better not peeled. You can eat them as a vegetable with butter and seasoning or add a gravy. You can make garlic mashed potatoes with the skins on. You can also oven roast them. (See Oven Roasted Rosemary Potatoes.)
Increasingly, I choose seasoned and flavored dried potatoes. This is the quickest starch. They’re incredible, much better than I remember growing up. I love the flavors like garlic mashed and four cheese. I stick them in the microwave for just a few minutes.
Pasta and rice do not have to be boring. We have a great selection: 14 different kinds of rice and rice blends and 12 choices of orzo and couscous.
You can use a microwave rice steamer but I don’t bother. I set the rice to going in my Krona Multi Pot while I cook the meat and side dish. Here’s how:
- Measure two cups of hot water, one cup of rice, and half teaspoon of salt into a saucepan for which you have a lid.
- Bring the water to a boil. I set the heat to medium high and set the timer for five minutes. (I wear an Everywhere Timer around my neck while I’m cooking or baking.) The timer keeps me from forgetting my rice and burning it. There is nothing magic about five minutes; it just works on my stove with my pan.
- After the rice comes to a boil, turn the heat to very low and set the timer for 15 minutes. Do not lift the lid.
- After fifteen minutes, fluff the rice with fork and set the lid back on the rice until you are ready to serve.
Choose a side dish or two.
Typically, this is where I invest the least time. Frozen vegetables work well in my house. So do bagged salads. But it doesn’t take long to steam fresh vegetables and I like them.
Putting It All Together
- For the meat, keep a stock in the freezer. We prefer to choose the meat the night before and put it in the refrigerator to defrost. When we forget, we have to thaw it in the microwave.
- For the seasoning, keep a selection in the cupboard. Keep several sauces on hand. Consider a bulk gravy mix.
- For the starches, keep a selection of pastas and rice on hand. If you like baked potatoes, invest in a set of potato nails. Buy some red potatoes from time to time. Keep a stock of seasoned and flavored dried potatoes on hand.
- For side dishes, pick up a bag of pre-made salad once a week and a couple fresh vegetables from the produce aisle. Stock the freezer with a selection of frozen vegetables.
For us, it’s easier to plan meals if we break them down to these four basic choices and if we have the ingredients on hand to make what we choose.