When The Boston Globe first asked me to develop quick recipes for its Wednesday food section, I jumped at the opportunity. For me, it was like killing two birds with one stone. I had to make dinner for my family most weeknights anyway, and cooking it in under an hour is always my goal. Now all I had to do was write down what I did. As I’ve cooked for my family and my newspaper audience, I’ve learned some effective strategies for creating delicious meals that have wide appeal and can be put on the table quickly to accommodate our hectic schedules.
I developed a set of guidelines you can follow at home, too. I call them my “four Cs”: Start with a center food, such as poultry, fish, meat, pasta, or a grain; choose an appropriate quick cooking method; add a few key flavor complements; and take advantage of a few well-chosen convenience foods. If you consider these four guidelines, you’ll find creating your own quick recipes to be quite simple. It also helps to be an avid recipe reader—you’ll develop a good sense for cutting out extraneous ingredients and for taking shortcuts.
Choose tender cuts and small shapes for your “center” food
When thinking about your main ingredient, you can eliminate certain foods from the start because they take too long to cook, such as large cuts of meat like roast beef, pork loin, a whole chicken, even meatloaf. Instead, choose small, tender cuts like pork chops or chicken breasts, or cut larger cuts into smaller pieces. Just be sure that whatever you choose can cook in a short amount of time and remain tender.
You can’t roast a leg of lamb in under an hour, but you can grill or broil skewered cubes of lamb (rubbed with garlic and rosemary) in 15 to 20 minutes. A butterflied leg of lamb can be grilled in less than 30 minutes. Roasting a whole chicken is better saved for a night when you have more time, but sautéing boneless chicken breasts (and making a quick pan sauce) or stir-frying small chunks of chicken with vegetables (and adding store-bought hoisin sauce) are simple, flavorful quick dishes. Just remember that while small pieces of food cook more quickly, they also overcook quickly, so watch them closely. Pasta is easy and fast, and your own quick homemade tomato sauce or toppings of sautéed vegetables are tastier than most prepared sauces.
Four steps to designing a quick recipe
The quickest cooking methods use high heat
Sautéing, stir-frying, high-heat roasting, or broiling are all fast cooking methods. Grilling can be fast, too, if you have a gas grill. What you want to avoid is baking, braising, or stewing. These techniques produce tender and delicious foods, but they perform their magic slowly. Once you choose your cooking method, think about side dishes and get them started. Since your main dish will cook quickly, you’ll want your side dishes well under way before you start the entrée. Put the water on to boil for pasta, or get a rice pilaf started. Start boiling, steaming, or roasting potatoes or vegetables.
For flavor “complements,” limit yourself to the few and the bold
A few vivid flavors speak volumes. Take the recipe for chicken with gremolata; it’s a perfect example of “less is more.” Just three bold flavors—lemon zest, garlic, and parsley—liven up a simple sauté of chicken. Don’t be tempted to layer on a lot of ingredients to a recipe, since the goal is to minimize preparation and cooking time.
Stock your kitchen with plenty of aromatic vegetables (onions, shallots, scallions, fresh ginger, and garlic), herbs (good keepers like parsley, rosemary, and thyme), and spices (like cumin, coriander, fennel seed, chile flakes, and curry powder), and you’ll be able to add bold flavors to main dishes with just a few ingredients. Here are some easy ways to add flavor fast:
To brighten a dish quickly, fresh herbs can be sprinkled onto soups, pastas, or sauces at the end of cooking, instead of using more subtle ingredients that require lengthy cooking to coax out their flavors.
For a touch of acidity, a last-minute drizzle of vinegar or lemon or lime juice often works better than wine; the latter requires reduction (which takes time) before tasting just right.
To make sweet and savory combinations, you rarely need more than two or three ingredients. In the recipe for chicken brochettes with apricot glaze, apricot preserves provides just the right amount of fruity sweetness when mixed with garlic and balsamic vinegar in a marinade (and glaze) for chicken.
If you like salty flavors, ingredients that especially complement chicken, fish, and tomato-based sauces include feta cheese (creamy-salty), Parmigano (nutty-salty), bacon or pancetta (smoky-salty) and olives (earthy-salty).
If it’s heat—as in spice—you’re seeking, there are many quick options, including chili or cayenne powder, a small amount of canned chipotle chiles (one of my favorites), crushed red chile flakes, wasabi, or horseradish. Each lends its particular nuance along with fiery heat.
Good-quality convenience products aren’t taboo
There’s nothing wrong with using products like oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, bottled roasted red peppers, canned beans, canned tomatoes, or frozen vegetables like peas and corn. Find the brands you like best and keep them on hand as part of your quick pantry (see the sidebar below). Keep plenty of dried pasta, a variety of grains, different kinds of oils and vinegars, and condiments like mustards and preserves on hand. They’ll all help you save time (in both preparation and cooking) and add flavor. Once you start developing your own quick recipes, don’t forget to write them down. In the meantime, I’ve provided some sample recipes to get you started. Using the same main ingredient—chicken breasts—I’ve shown how a few quick cooking methods and a few carefully chosen flavors can make three different quick meals.
Stock your kitchen with “quick” ingredients and you’ll always have tomorrow’s meal in the making.
In the pantry:
artichoke hearts (canned or frozen)
broth or stock
chipotles (canned in adobo sauce)
oils: olive, canola, vegetable, peanut, toasted sesame
roasted red peppers
spices and dried herbs
tomatoes (canned: whole, diced, crushed, sauce, paste)
vinegars: balsamic, sherry, rice, white and red-wine
In the fridge
bacon or pancetta
mustards: Dijon and grainy