The Busy Weeknight Chef

The Busy Weeknight Chef: Ideas for healthful eating By Linda Corey If you’re like me, the last thing you want to do after a long day of work is spend a lot of time cooking dinner and washing dishes. And while it’s easier to heat up a frozen dinner or order take-out, these foods are likely to be high in fat and sodium, and low in fiber. The good news is that it is possible to make fast, healthy and tasty dinners if you plan your menu and do prep work on the weekend. I invite you to follow me through a weekend of preparation and five weeknight dinners. I will also add ways to vary the recipes to use during subsequent weeks. On Saturday, I shop for my groceries. On my list this week is a whole chicken, low-salt chicken broth, white wine, couscous, apples, onions, carrots, celery, parsley, a lemon, basil and fresh mint. If I need dried fruit, nuts, brown rice, pasta, oil, soy sauce or other foods that I regard as staples in my kitchen, I will add those to the list. But it is not until Sunday that the real work begins. I am going to start by chopping vegetables in ample quantities since I will be using each type in more than one meal. When I refer to an ingredient such as a pepper or onion, it can be any variety you prefer. Improvisation and thrift are an intrinsic part of my cooking style. I get started by preparing ingredients that require longer cooking times. A rinsed chicken is placed in a pot filled with a few sprigs of parsley and enough chicken broth and white wine to cover at least two thirds of the bird. Simmer over low heat for about 45 minutes turning the chicken over once during this process. As I prepare the celery, onions, parsley and green beans, I will add the trimmings to the broth. I cook a pot of brown rice. Any shape of pasta is boiled, drained and tossed with olive oil. Next, I wash the vegetables and dice celery, carrots, peppers and green beans. I mince an onion, garlic, mint, basal and parsley. The onion is stored in a thick zippered plastic bag and placed in the freezer. The broccoli and cauliflower are cut into bite-sized pieces. Wash, dry and shred the lettuce. Dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, currents or whatever you like) are placed in a cup of boiling water, briefly soaked and drained. I lightly toast and chop both almonds and walnuts. If I have run out of the candied walnuts or almonds I like to add to salads, I prepare some of those by placing a cup of nuts in a frying pan with six tablespoons of sugar over medium heat. Stir constantly and remove from heat as soon as you see a brown spot on the sugar. If making the walnuts, add a little cinnamon. Cool on waxed paper, coarsely chop, and store in airtight containers. Remove the chicken from the pot to cool and then strain and reserve the broth. Skim the fat from the surface and discard. Remove the meat from the bones and chop into bite-size pieces. The final step in ingredient preparation is making the dressings. This week, I will make one with three parts oil to one part each of apple cider vinegar, honey and Dijon mustard with a little salt and fresh pepper. It’s Monday night and I’m going to prepare chicken soup with rice. I grab a handful each of frozen chopped onion, carrots and celery and sauté in a little olive oil in a pot over low heat. Add some broth, chicken, rice and parsley and cook long enough to heat the ingredients. Prepare a salad by assembling the lettuce, chopped vegetables of any variety, dried fruit if desired, mint and dressing. Sprinkle with nuts if desired. Variations: Use candied nuts instead of toasted nuts, replace the mint with basil, add orange or apple pieces, marinated mushrooms or tomatoes, and try different dressings. For soup variation, add fresh or frozen corn, replace the rice with pasta, or add garlic . . . This Tuesday I’m having a heart-healthy version of Waldorf salad for dinner. I assemble celery, dried fruit, rice, diced chicken and walnuts in a bowl. I chop up apple, add honey mustard dressing, toss and eat. Variations: Add shredded coconut or carrots, minced onion, pineapple, grilled pork, or anything else you have on hand that sounds tasty. Be adventurous! Wednesday night’s dinner is stir fried rice. I start by heating canola oil in a wok to which I add onions, carrots, celery and then garlic. To that I add a raw egg and stir well. Then I throw in some of the prepared vegetables. If I have frozen corn or peas, that goes in as well. Finally, I add some chicken, cooked rice and tamari or soy sauce and have a quick and wonderful dinner. For variety, I can add minced ginger, scallions, toasted sesame oil; replace the chicken with pork and the soy sauce with peanut sauce. The vegetables can be varied by using water chestnuts, mushrooms, bean sprouts, spinach, cabbage and snap peas. I’ll be eating pasta primavera on Thursday. Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil over low heat. Add a few handfuls of the previously chopped vegetables and sauté until tender. Add some chicken and cook until heated. Sprinkle parsley and a generous amount of basal on top, stir one more time, toss with the warmed pasta and serve. Variations: Use zucchini, squash, mushrooms or fresh peas. Preparing it with matchsticks of red, green, orange and yellow peppers is both beautiful and delicious. Fresh parmesan cheese can be grated over the top, and the olive oil can be replaced with pesto. Friday night I’m having a refreshing couscous salad. Place dried couscous in a bowl and pour an equal amount of boiling water or chicken broth over it. Lightly steam any firm vegetables you may be adding such as carrots, string beans, peppers or cauliflower. Toss those ingredients together along with mint, parsley, almonds, dressing with two parts of oil to one part of fresh lemon juice seasoned with salt and pepper. So there you have it – five healthy, tasty and economical dinners that can be prepared in half an hour or less with minimal clean-up. Bon appetite!

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