As much as we enjoy our time spent in the kitchen, there are times when, just like everyone else, we need to be able to get dinner on the table in a hurry. For times like these, there is no substitute for an adequately stocked pantry – and freezer, come to that.
Because groceries are so expensive here in Fairbanks, Sam’s Club is indispensable. Even though there are only 2 of us, saving money often means buying in bulk. The keys to making that work for us, of course, are proper planning – and taking the time to separate our bulk purchases into meal-sized portions that are easy to store and easy to thaw.
The proper planning piece means that you can’t allow that bulk item to become what fellow blogger Katie @ DramalessFood calls a “Shelf Hog.” We’ve all done it. Purchased that huge vat of something because the price was so amazing, only to find it perched on the shelf months later taking up much-needed pantry space. If you can’t figure out what you’re going to do with all of those noodles, better to buy the smaller bag and let the bargain pass you by.
When it comes to meat, poultry, fish and seafood, we package them in 2-portion packs before loading them in the freezer so that we can thaw them out at a moments notice. In an ideal world, I would plan ahead a little more often, but real life, like reality, tends to intercede. Those smaller packages, when sealed in water-tight Ziploc(R) bags, can be thawed pretty quickly using warm tap water. Things like fish and chicken can be thawed in less than 15 minutes in a bowl of warm water in the kitchen sink. Beef and Pork (and I’m not talking roasts here, obviously, but single serving pieces) take a bit longer, but if you package the pieces side-by-side instead or stacking them they’ll thaw in less than 25 minutes using the same method. Just remember to use a deep enough bowl, replenish the warm water as it cools and use another bowl or pan on top to weigh the meat down so that it stays submerged beneath the surface of the warm water.
There is no reason to give up eating great meals – or, heaven forbid, head for the nearest drive-thru – just because you don’t have a lot of time for meal prep. Keep a few things on hand that you know you can have ready quickly, and you’ll always be prepared for those last minute scrambles. My Spicy Chicken and Rice, for instance, can be ready from in under an hour, even if the chicken is in the freezer when I get home from work. Tuna steaks or sautéed shrimp with salad and a side of rice, is another extremely simple meal to get on the table quickly. Vegetarian pasta dishes lend themselves readily to the cause, because there is no need to thaw a protein, and they’ll even help you use up some of the veggies that may be languishing in your fridge’s vegetable bin. Speaking of scrambles, having breakfast for dinner is often a popular option – fried egg sandwiches or omelets, for example, or even a fritatta.
Some other time saving items that we discovered while shopping at Sam’s were some really nice organic rice and quinoa blends from Seeds of Change(R) that make great side dishes. They are remarkably tasty, contain natural ingredients and you can have them ready in under 2 minutes. Serve one of those up with a nice Caprese salad and some sautéed shrimp and you have an amazing, healthy dinner in less than half an hour.
Taking the time to adequately season food, and the better you get at it, the less time and thought you’ll have to put into it, can elevate even the most mundane meal. A perfect example is grilled chicken. Whether you’re grilling indoors or out, grilled chicken can either be a dry, boring protein, or a juicy, inspired dish. It’s all in your seasoning choices and your preparation method.
If you find something that works – something you like and that you enjoy making – write it down. I have a list of the myriad of things that we enjoy preparing, and I’m constantly adding to it. On those “I don’t know” nights when nothing is coming to mind, and the jumble of items in my refrigerator just seems to stare back at me without offering even the tiniest wisp of inspiration I can pull out that little cheat sheet. Whether I’m searching for a quick weeknight meal or something fancier for a special Valentine’s dinner, I’m bound to find what I’m looking for on that handy little list.
One final suggestion. When things are just a little too crazy, or your creativity has taken a hiatus, you can always take something you have in the freezer or pantry and make it your own. Last week, for instance, I had no idea what to make for dinner, so I decided to clean out the pantry. I used a couple of tins of chicken soup, added extra chicken, some diced tomatoes, chicken broth, frozen vegetables, the remnants of a package of noodles, some seasoning, et voila! We had a really nice, thick, hearty soup with some of my homemade bread. It made a nice meal on short notice, used up some odds and ends and made some space in the pantry as well. Win-win-win!