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5 Uncomplicated Dinners for When You're Too Tired to Think

Working Mother logo Working Mother 10/4/2018 Claire Tansey

I'm a chef, but I'm also a busy working mom. I know how to make classic dishes by the traditional method, but after years of working, I figured out a better way of cooking that doesn’t take more time than it needs to. Because who wants to do 40 minutes of prep work or purchase 20-plus ingredients at the grocery store? Below, you'll find five delicious and deliciously-easy dinner recipes that call for ingredients you probably already have on hand. They come from my new cookbook, UNCOMPLICATED: Taking the Stress Out of Home Cooking, and I hope they will get you excited about cooking and take the headache out of homemade.

1. Fried Rice with Chicken and Vegetables

a bowl of food: Serves 4 © Photo: Penguin Canada Serves 4
I never gave fried rice the time of day until I discovered world-famous French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s version. Chef Vongerichten shallow-fries ginger, garlic, leeks and other ingredients separately before carefully combining everything in one bowl. It is exceptionally delicious ... and a little too complicated for my everyday life. Since we often have leftover rice, either from a previous supper or a Thai delivery, I simplified Jean-Georges’s concept and came up with this shortcut. Now this is a fast weeknight one-pot wonder meal that you can adjust to suit your tastes and what’s in the fridge.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Ready: In about ½ hour

2 tablespoons canola oil

5 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger

2 to 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 cup small-chopped broccoli

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 sweet red or yellow pepper, chopped

3 cups cold day-old white rice

2 eggs

1½ cups shredded cooked chicken

2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

  1. Heat the canola oil in a large non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes or until softened. Add the onion and cook another 2 minutes, increasing the heat if the onion isn’t sizzling gently. Add the broccoli and salt and cook another 2 minutes. Add the peppers and cook 1 minute.

  2. Stir in the rice and cook, stirring often, 2 to 3 minutes or until rice is very hot.

  3. Make a little space in the centre of the pan and crack in the eggs. Using a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, mix up the eggs. They will start to cook, so start incorporating quickly into the rice, stirring constantly until the egg cooks and the pan looks dry.

  4. Stir in the chicken and cook until everything is piping hot. Remove from the heat and stir in the soy sauce and sesame oil. Serve immediately. Tip: Day-old rice works best, but if you’re desperate for fried rice now, cook the rice, spread it out on a baking sheet and pop it in the fridge to cool completely before using it.

Switch it up: You can use almost any vegetable in this dish, from frozen edamame to canned corn to zucchini. The same goes for the protein: use cooked shrimp or beef or tofu.

2. One-Pot Pasta Alfredo

a plate of food on a table: Serves 2 to 3 © Photo: Penguin Canada Serves 2 to 3

Pasta Alfredo is luxury on a plate. It works perfectly next to roast chicken for a fancy dinner party, and it’s comfort exemplified on its own, eaten straight out of the pot after a bad day. I didn’t grow up with Alfredo sauce but was introduced to it while working in a terrific gourmet shop in Nova Scotia. We made vats of sauce and sold it in one-cup containers to be taken home. I always tried to find a crust of bread so I could scrape out the dregs of the sauce from the pot.This trick using the garlic clove to stir the sauce is an oldie but a goodie. It adds depth of flavor without making the sauce garlicky. It’s critical to use 35 percent whipping cream here; otherwise the sauce will split. I like to serve this with a simple vegetable like lemony broiled asparagus, roasted broccoli with lemon and parmesan or celery and fennel salad.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Ready: In about 20 minutes

8 ounces (225 g) gemelli or penne

1 clove garlic, peeled and poked several times with a fork

¼ cup butter

½ cup whipping (35%) cream

1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Fresh black pepper

  1. Boil gemelli in a large pot of well-salted water until almost tender, about 9 minutes or 1 minute less than package directions (the pasta will keep cooking in the sauce). Drain the pasta and immediately put the empty pot back on the stove over medium heat.

  2. Spear the poked garlic securely onto a fork and rub it all around the inside of the pot. (Set aside, keeping the garlic on the fork.) Add the butter. Once it melts, add the cream, stirring with the fork-speared garlic as vigorously as you like—the more you stir, the more garlicky the flavor. After about 1 minute, add ¾ cup of the Parmesan and the salt, and stir until the sauce starts to simmer.

  3. Add the pasta and nutmeg (if using) and cook, stirring well, about 30 seconds or until the sauce coats the pasta well. Serve with the remaining ¼ cup Parmesan and lots of pepper.

Tip: Freshly grated nutmeg is a world apart from the dried powder. The next time you pass a bulk food store, pick up a couple (they look like little brown balls). They keep for several years. Grate as needed on a microplane.

3. Crunchy Fish Tacos

a bunch of food sitting on a table: Serves 4 © Photo: Penguin Canada Serves 4

Fish tacos are such a fun way to eat fish. Most restaurants batter and fry their fish, but since I’m not a fan of deep-frying at home, I like this baked version even better. The crushed cracker crust gives the fish great texture. You can use frozen fish for this recipe, but thaw it completely, and dry it really well before adding the crust. Coleslaw mix speeds up prep time enough to make these a good weeknight supper. This is a one-dish meal for us, since it’s protein, starch and lots of veggies all at once.

Prep Time: 20 minutes or less

Ready: In about 40 minutes

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Fresh black pepper

1 egg

1½ cups crushed salted saltine crackers (¾ sleeve)

1 pound (450 g) tilapia fillets (or another skinless white fish, such as catfish or haddock)

4 teaspoons canola oil

3 cups coleslaw mix (about half a 14-ounce/397 g bag)

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

¼ teaspoon salt

8 small soft tortillas

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 avocado, pitted and sliced

Sliced fresh jalapeño pepper (optional)

Sour cream (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

  2. Place the flour in a shallow bowl and season with pepper. Beat the egg lightly in a second shallow bowl. Place crushed saltines in a third bowl. Pat the fish dry with paper towel, then dip it into the flour, coating it all over. Shake off the excess, then dip the fish into the egg. Let the excess drip off, then place the fish in the crushed saltines and press the crumbs into both sides of the fish.

  3. Transfer the fish to the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle each fillet with 1 teaspoon canola oil. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until bubbly at the edges and cooked through.

  4. Meanwhile, stir the coleslaw mix with cilantro, lime juice and salt in a large bowl. Warm the tortillas according to package directions.

  5. Gently break the cooked fish into large flakes. Divide among tortillas and top with coleslaw, tomatoes, avocado, and jalapeño and sour cream, if using.

Tip: To crush the saltines easily, put them in a resealable plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin or other heavy implement.

Make ahead: The coleslaw mixture can sit for up to three hours in the fridge. It’s also tasty on its own, or served with slow-cooker sweet and spicy ribs or lemon and spice grilled chicken.

4. One-Pan Roast Sausage Supper

a close up of food: Serves 3 to 4 © Photo: Penguin Canada Serves 3 to 4

Whenever I make this dish, I wonder why we don’t have it more often. It’s so easy and delicious—and clean-up is such a snap—that it really is a perfect weeknight meal. As soon as you walk into the kitchen, turn on the oven. By the time it’s preheated, your pan of ingredients will be ready to cook, leaving you a little over half an hour to unload the dishwasher, make tomorrow’s lunch or just stare off into space with a glass of wine. Serve this as is or with good bread.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Ready: In about 1 hour

1 sweet red pepper, thinly sliced

1 small acorn squash, scrubbed, seeded and cut into ¼-inch wedges

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

6 sprigs fresh thyme

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

4 to 6 Italian sausages

¼ teaspoon salt, divided

Fresh black pepper

6 kale leaves, roughly torn

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet or shallow roasting pan with parchment paper.

  2. Put the red pepper, squash, onion and thyme sprigs on the pan and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. Toss well and spread out in a single layer. Nestle the sausages in between the vegetables. Sprinkle with 1/8teaspoon of the salt and season with pepper. Roast 25 to 30 minutes.

  3. Toss the kale with the remaining 1 tablespoon canola oil and remaining 1/8teaspoon salt. Turn the sausages, then sprinkle torn kale evenly over the pan. Roast another 7 minutes or until the kale wilts and the other vegetables are tender and golden. Serve immediately.

5. Fresh Vegetable Chili

a pizza sitting on top of a table: Serves 4 © Photo: Penguin Canada Serves 4

This is a recipe I often make on a Monday so my family and I can enjoy it for lunches all week long. Because the recipe focuses on vegetables (instead of beans or meat substitutes), it has a freshness that keeps it from getting boring, and I love the different colors and textures. When chopping the vegetables, I try to make them all about the same size. This makes the chili more visually appealing and somehow more delicious. Whole canned tomatoes, crushed up a bit, are much more flavorful than the pre-diced ones.This dish doesn’t need anything extra, but to make it a little heartier, serve it spooned over jacket potatoes or rice.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Ready: In about 45 minutes

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

½ teaspoon salt

1 carrot, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 sweet red pepper, chopped

1 zucchini, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

4 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 can (28 ounces/796 mL) whole tomatoes, crushed up a bit

1 can (5.5 ounces/156 mL) tomato paste

1 can (19 ounces/540 mL) kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup frozen or canned corn kernels½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

For garnish:

Sour cream

Grated Cheddar cheese

Sliced avocado

  1. Heat the canola oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 4 minutes or until softened and slightly golden. Add the carrot and celery and cook 2 minutes or until starting to soften. Stir in the red pepper, zucchini and garlic and cook 1 minute or so. Stir in chili powder and cumin and cook 30 seconds.

  2. Add tomatoes with their juices and tomato paste and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes or until the zucchini and peppers are just tender.

  3. Stir in beans, corn, white wine and parsley and simmer another 5 minutes.

  4. Serve garnished with sour cream, Cheddar and avocado.

Tip: There are two easy ways to crush whole tomatoes. Use a pair of kitchen scissors to snip them up in the can, or pour some of the juice out into the pot and then use your hand to crush each tomato before adding to the pot.

Make ahead: This keeps well in the fridge for up to 3 days. I find it doesn’t freeze well—the vegetables get too mushy.

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