chop, chop

It seems that everyone is always in a hurry, so cooking needs to be done in a flash. I understand this, although to me, the fastest foods are ones that take minimal preparation, but need oven or stove top cooking time, like a roast or a stew. Normally I either prepare in this either a day or two beforehand. But when that doesn't work out, I start getting things together the minute I get home, then I leave it for an hour to get on with work, or whatever else needs to be done around the house. Just leave the timer on, so you don't get distracted altogether! ;-)

However, here are a few foods that you can prepare if you need something even quicker. Seafood, chops and stir-fry can give you a plethora of meals in the same time it would take to preheat the oven and heat up chicken nuggets or order take-out. And, of course, the quickest way for an easy meal is to have leftovers on-hand. We sometimes have Leftover Night, where everyone gets a little something. Or utilize leftovers to make a fried rice, which is always a favorite.

Start with any of the the carbs (noodles, potatoes, rice), which usually takes the longest cooking time, about 15-20 minutes. Although, of course, a fresh loaf of bread will also work. While these are on the go, cook the meat next and while the meat is resting, the vegetables. Ideally, you want to time it so everything is finished at the same time. 

If you can do these basics, you can put together a plethora of meals to mix and match. If you're vegetarian, skip the meat, if you're on some no-carb diet, skip that. The important thing is to have a balance – equal amounts of everything. The recipes are the really simple, so add herbs and spices, add cream, make it work for you. 

NOODLES – Pasta, egg noodles, rice noodles, udon. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt, then add noodles. Bring to a boil again, turn the heat down slightly so that it still continues to boil. Cook according to timing instructions on packaging until "al dente" or just right. TIP: If using frozen vegetables such as peas or corn, throw a few handfuls of these into the boiling water in the last 2-3 minutes of cooking time.

POTATOES  – Larger ones, peeled and diced, or smaller Fingerling/new potatoes with skins on) Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt, then add potatoes. Bring to a boil again, turn the heat down slightly so that it still continues to boil, but not violently so. Cook for 10-15 minutes until soft, test this by poking a piece with a knife, it should pierce easily. Potatoes cut into smaller pieces take a shorter amount of time to cook. Drain and simply add a pat of butter, a sprinkle of salt, and maybe some chopped up fresh parsley. Or mash it all up with a splash of milk and  a pat of butter.

RICE  – jasmine, Japanese short grain, wild, brown*
If you don't have a rice cooker, here's how. Pour 1½ cups rice into a small saucepan that has a tight-fitting lid. Rinse grains with cold water, taking care not to lose any rice when draining. Add 2½ cups cold water (*+ ½ cup more for  brown rice). Bring to a boil, uncovered, on high heat. Once boiling, give it a stir to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. Then, immediately turn the heat all the way down to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. If you’re using an electric stove, you can turn the heat off altogether as there is still a lot of heat still in the burner. After 20 minutes, check on the rice, fluffing it up with a wooden spoon or rice paddle; if too soft, bring the heat up and cook for a further 5 minutes without the lid.

FISH  – recommended 4 oz. portions per person
For whole fish, see Healthy Oven-Roasted Fish
Salmon, black cod, seabass. Place an oven rack on the second tier from the top. Set the oven broiler to high ("HI"). Put the cleaned fish skin side up (if there is skin) on a baking tray. Broil for 7-9 minutes. until skin is browned and blistering. Season lightly with salt and pepper and serve with lemon wedges. Also great with Cucumber Dip.
Sole, snapper. Preheat oven to 400°F. Lay the fish fillets down in a single layer on a large baking tray lined with a large sheet of aluminum foil. You can also use parchment paper to wrap up individual portions. Lightly season both sides of the fillets with salt and pepper. Cut 2 Tbsp unsalted butter into small dice and distribute throughout the pieces of fish. You can also add fresh chopped herbs, lemon slices or capers, for a variation. Wrap the fish securely so any liquid will not seep out from the edges. Bake for 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

CHOPS & CUTLETS – Steak, Chicken, duck breast, lamb, pork*, about 1" thick, one per person. Lightly season the meat with salt and pepper, and pan-fry on high heat in 2 Tbsp olive oil for 4 minutes, turn over and cook for a further 3-4 minutes. Remove from pan and let rest in a chopping board, loosely covered with foil, for 5 minutes before slicing or serving. To play around with flavors, rub on some spices or finely chopped fresh herbs, or check out more sauces and marinades. * Pork needs to be thoroughly cooked, so after the 7 minutes of browning both sides, and searing the thick edges for a few minutes, remove them from the pan briefly to drain the fat, add a splash of water, return the meat to the pan and keep the lid on for another 7 minutes, turning once. 

VEGETABLES – Spinach, bok choy, green beans, sugar snaps, snow peas, broccoli, okra (whole), asparagus, zucchini, etc.  Almost every green vegetable can be cooked quite simply by coating a frying pan with olive oil and sautéing for 3-5 minutes or so. If necessary, a splash of water, cover and let the steam permeate through for a further few minutes. Test for doneness. Spinach cooks quickly. Remove when leaves have wilted from the heat. Bok choy leaves take a little longer, the stalk in the middle should be soft. Green beans, broccoli, sugar snaps and snow peas should still be crisp and brilliantly green. Okra, asparagus, zucchini should be soft, but not mushy. Add a sprinkling of salt, to taste. For added flavor, first sauté a shallot or a clove of garlic, finely chopped. Alternatively, of course, a fresh salad can be served in a snap!

STIR-FRY – Chop, chop, chop everything up into thin strips or small bite-sized pieces. This is the key to quick cooking. This seems to be Jamie Oliver's favorite first-time cook recipe. And it's no wonder, you've got your meat, your vegetables, anything goes! Chicken, beef, mushrooms, celery, carrots, bean sprouts, broccoli, snow peas... just have a look at a Chinese takeout menu and you can get the idea. Marinate the meat for 5-15 minutes in teriyaki sauce. Heat oil in a large heavy-based pan. When really hot, add onions infuse into the oil, fry for a minute. Add the meat, reserving the marinade, and cook evenly for 3-4 minutes. Scoop everything out and set aside on a plate to rest. Add a little more oil and fry the vegetables for 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally. Again, scoop everything out and set aside. In a small cup, dissolve 1 Tbsp cornstarch with 2 Tbsp cold water. Add the reserved marinade to the hot pan, bringing to a boil. Pour in the dissolved cornstarch and let the sauce thicken up for a minute or so. Add more water to the pan if it all starts to look clumpy and too pasty. Return all the cooked meat and veg back into the pan to reheat and coat with the sauce. Serve with a nice bowl of plain rice, or incorporate some just-boiled Chinese noodles (add some more oil or sesame oil to prevent the noodles from sticking together). Look in Asian supermarkets for thinly sliced beef, it's the best!


To bring a pot of water to a boil:
Fill a little water into the saucepan, put the lid on and use and electric kettle to boil more water fast.

To soften butter for baking:
Place stick of butter in the microwave for 20-25 seconds, turning the bar every 5 seconds so it softens all the sides evenly.

To melt a tablespoon of butter: (without a saucepan)
Put pat of butter in a small heatproof (not plastic!) bowl. Microwave for 20-30 seconds.

To bring eggs to room temperature:
Some recipes need eggs to be at room temperature to prevent them from curdling when mixed with something hot. Place the eggs in a bowl and fill with hot tap water for a few minutes.

To cut pizza, devein shrimp, trim beans, chop up herbs:
Use a good pair of kitchen scissors. Can't live without them. Actually, Chinese moms carry a pair of scissors out to restaurants to cut up veggies and meat into tiny pieces for their toddlers.

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