What Dinners Can I Make in Less Than 20 Minutes, and Other Burning Questions

What Easy Dinners Can I Make in Less Than 20 Minutes and Other Burning Questions

Greetings everyone and happy fall! As days get shorter, apples get riper, and we start spending more time in the kitchen, I wanted to address three reader questions that I am guessing are on our collective minds…

Q: Full-time working mother with insane job. Three kids: 7, 5 and 3. No joke: 20 min from walking in the door to serving. Just links, don’t even need recipes. HELP! (Zero dietary requirements, other than: FOOD.) — Kathryn

This question cracked me up. Kathryn! I think we can all feel your pain. Without knowing the particulars of your kids likes and dislikes, here are two things to keep in mind when it comes to quick weeknight dinners. I hope you have time to read them!

1) Pick a Rotation of Recipes You Can Make on Auto-Pilot. Remember, at family dinnertime, no one is grading you on your dinner-making prowess or how innovative your food is. I remember posting a recipe for breakfast burritos on my blog and many people commented things like “Thanks for keeping it real!” and “Thank you for posting recipes that other bloggers wouldn’t.” I was a little perplexed. Why was eating a breakfast burrito (a wing-it recipe made with fresh eggs, refried beans, salsa, cheese and sliced avocado) for dinner so surprising and, if I’m reading between the lines correctly, kinda considered subpar? Easy, healthy, deLISHous recipes like this are the reason I’ve been able to keep up the family dinner ritual for as long as I have. We wouldn’t have survived without falling back on the kinds of recipes that you don’t need recipes for: French bread pizzas, smashed avocados on toast with a fried egg, spaghetti tossed with any roast vegetable (broccoli, butternut squash, cauliflower, onions), beans on toast, salad pizzas, super simple white bean soup (sauté onions, carrots, celery, canned white beans, then add broth and puree); plus a few recipes that are super easy to memorize: Avgolemeno (a Joanna favorite) and Pasta Con Ceci, notable in that it doesn’t ask you to chop a single ingredient.

2) Choose Vegetables Strategically. “Keeping things interesting” can be reserved for the weekends or for five years from now when you can catch your breath a bit. (It’s coming, don’t worry!) For now, cook with vegetables that require minimal washing and prepping: Toss carrots and broccoli in olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 15 minutes at 400°F; slice tomatoes, top with crumbled feta, and drizzle vinegar and olive oil on top. You hereby have permission to think of leafy greens that require you to break out a salad spinner, or green beans that require you to trim their ends, as strictly Saturday food until you get to the phase in parenting where removing the stem from the kale isn’t going to send you into a tailspin.

Q: I like to try new recipes, but I often find myself buying herbs, cheese, etc. and having so much left over that I don’t use and end up wasting. Any advice for cutting down food waste? Any recommendations for how to use those one-off ingredients purchased for a particular recipe? — Alison

I love this question because it’s something I’m trying to be better about myself. I hadn’t realized until fairly recently how directly food waste contributed to climate change. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, one third of food is wasted globally, contributing eight percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. I decided to turn to Adam Kaye for advice. He’s the former culinary director at Westchester’s revered Blue Hill and co-founder of The Spare Food Co., a company dedicated to addressing the food waste crisis.

For leftover herbs and greens — whether that’s parsley, tarragon, chard or arugula — Kaye recommends pesto. “There’s pretty much no herb or green that hasn’t ended up in one of my pestos,” he says. “Plus, they freeze beautifully — and can be something to have on hand for a last-minute pasta.” In a small food processor, whirl your herbs with any random nuts and seeds, add olive oil, a smashed garlic clove, and maybe some acid (lemon juice, vinegars) and see what you come up with.

One of Adam’s most versatile solutions for the extra-ingredient problem is a frittata. “Master the art of frittata making and you’ll find a home for just about anything,” he says. “Those two lone scallions wilting in the back of your fridge? The single potato starting to sprout? Random cheese ends? Half a can of black beans… you name it. Just make sure you have some eggs on hand and you’ll be fine.”

Thank you so much, Adam. (For more practical advice and an intro to food waste issues, he also recommends Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders.)

Q: What are some ways to make a dinner party feel carefree? I feel confident in my cooking but sometimes feel my efforts come across forced or stiff. I love a challenge and worry it looks like I’m trying too hard when I really just want people to enjoy themselves and the food! — Sarah

I used to worry about this, too, and would end up picking a menu that could be made entirely in advance (spaghetti and meatballs, braised short ribs, stews, soups, grain salads, shredded pork for tacos, etc), setting the table, filling water pitchers, even smearing the insides of Solo cups with peanut butter in anticipation of my two Boston Terriers acting really loud and annoying. (Licking the peanut butter cups distracts them for up to an hour and is the single most life-changing tip I’ve ever received.) The older I get, though, the more I realize that no one is paying attention to my dinner-party-induced stresses except me. Pick a recipe you feel comfortable making (even if it means you have to finish it up in the kitchen while a friend hangs out with you), ask your guests to fill in the holes (dessert and wine are always good things to outsource) and repeat this to yourself: My friends are so happy I’m cooking for them.

What other questions do you have? Please share in the comments!

P.S. More burning questions, three weeks of family dinners and nine easy meals we’ve loved to death.

(Photo illustration by Maud Passini.)

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