Monday, September 6, 2010

UnRecipe: Dinnertime Weeknight Boogie

We all have those weeks. The ones where we bury our heads in a computer or a stack of documents and after what feels like a nuclear half-life, we raise our eyes to the horizon, see that the evening dusk has fallen and realize: Holy Craptown, it's dinnertime; what am I going to cook? OK, so not everyone says that, nor do they always make most of their meals at home, but seeing as how my day is split up into half-professional/half-Suzy Homemaker, I forget to clock out from the business end of the day and segway properly into the process of preparing something to banish the day's hunger. This is not a unique problem and I'm willing to bet everyone runs into this on a daily basis, so here are some examples of fast MacGyver Meals I've had to throw together over the recent months.

The thrill of the grill - Photo by Wasabi Prime

During the intermittent heatwave days of summer, I definitely take advantage of the grill. I know some people grill in the dead of winter, when it's pouring outside, taking on the Post Office "Neither rain, sleet, nor snow" attitude for cooking outdoors. I should adopt this attitude, given the BA-Barracus-grill that Mr. Wasabi chose for our household, but most times, I'm lazy and don't feel like rousting the family of spiders who have inevitably taken residence around the grill, nor do I relish trying to wrestle the awkwardly large cover back onto the grill when it's time to put it away. It's not a lot of effort, I realize, but in a post-dinner food coma, even the slightest bit of chores makes me cringe. But laziness be damned, I'll fire up the grill now and then, however instead of cooking one meal at a time, I choose to load up every square inch of those cast-iron grill plates and make something that will last the week.

The easiest, minimal-prep item is, of course, the ubiquitous chicken breast. Light on taste, low on fat and somewhat boring, the grill brings out flavors from the lowly chicken breast unseen in most cooking methods. A bit of salt, pepper, a light toss in oil, and the char of the direct flame helps produce some much needed flavor out of the paltry poultry. Plus it's the only way I've been able to really keep the meat juicy, since the quick and intense heat locks in both flavor and moisture. The rest of the grill is taken up by vegetables like zucchini sliced lengthwise, seasoned similarly, and this simple supply of meat and vegetables carries us through several meals, from eating it as-is or sliced up and tossed in salads.

Pseudo saltimbocca, done casserole style - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Another last-minute prep meal is anything that doesn't require a lot of messy prep. Who loves doing dishes? I don't see many hands going up. A recent night of frantic meal prep found the Prime throwing open the refrigerator and having an Iron Chef moment. Except that it wasn't so much what Chairman Kaga presented, it was more like, this is what's sitting on the shelves. Without the flourish of a man dressed like Liberace or even a dramatic unveil, I had before me: several defrosted chicken breasts, leftover slices of prosciutto, sweet potatoes, the last bits of pesto, and plain yogurt. Sounds unappetizing at first, but I made a saltimbocca-inspired dinner, using seasoned, lightly seared chicken breasts wrapped in prosciutto, layered with some fresh sage plucked from the garden, laid upon a bed of oven-baked diced sweet potatoes, with a sauce of pesto and yogurt, watered down with a little milk. Sounds a bit crazy, I know, but it turned out fine. The fatty cured pork kept the chicken moist as the oven did its work, cooking the chicken all the way through. Juices from the cooking meat mixed with the yogurt sauce and helped further flavor and cook the bed of sweet potatoes which had a head-start, roasting in the oven while I seared the chicken breasts in a pan.

Pork tenderloin and lots of colorful veggies - Photos by Wasabi Prime

My third MacGyver/Pan-to-Oven quick dinner is with the Other White Meat, using pork tenderloin. It's a good thing to make on a cool night, especially now that we're starting to see the evenings chill down a bit more. I toss some root vegetables in oil with some salt and pepper and let them roast in the oven for a bit. Then I'll season up a pork tenderloin with whatever favorite seasonings I have on hand and sear it on all sides in a pan. I'm not looking to get it fully cooked, just get a nice crust, and then move it into the oven, sitting atop the vegetables that have already started roasting. I deglaze the pan with a bit of beer and then toss in some thinly sliced red cabbage, which is one of my favorite inexpensive go-to side dish veggies. It holds up nicely to the cooking process, just wilting but not totally falling apart, plus the color remains incredibly vibrant. If I have shallots, a bit of onion or even apples, I throw those in as well. A bit of cider vinegar and either sugar or honey to balance the sweet to sour, and the remainder of the beer helps cook everything down. Pork tenderloin, roasted vegetables, and a side of bright purple-red braised cabbage -- again, not fancy, but it can be done as a weeknight meal with plenty of leftovers for the next day's lunch and dinner.

I always talk about the magic of leftovers, and maybe it's too gauche a thing for the art of fine cuisine, but most of our meals are basic out of necessity and the lack of time. I end up spending more time figuring out ways to take shortcuts, but also not rely on a lot of processed things for those shortcuts. And yes, it results in a lot of UnRecipes where exact amounts and increments don't exist, but I think like most home cooks, we get inspired by seeing what others do, and just make up the recipes on our own while we tinker in the kitchen on our own last-minute meal prep -- wouldn't you agree?
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  1. I love your MacGyver cooking style! I'm with you on the grilling, and the the laziness of it all, especially the cleaning part.

    But like you I do give in once and awhile and do it.

    Love the pan to oven recipes in this post.


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