Cooking on Short Notice – Cooking for People Who Don’t (Beltane Edition) – How to use convenience foods to cut down on prep-time and energy-expences

Hey there!

So, back in February, Commodorified hosted a blog carnival about food security, for which I wrote about Cooking in the Dead of Winter. She’s doing another one (I think they’re going to be a quarterly thing).

The theme, this quarter, is “half home-made” — the idea is to provide recipes (and such?) that start with boxed ingredients and go from there. I think a good example of “half home-made” are the recipes you find on the backs of tinned-soup lables: Take one tin of cream-of-thingy soup, add half the required amount of liquid, and pour it – possibly with a tin of diced tomatoes – over a mix of protein and carbs. Bake. Serve. Nom! 😀

That said, I… don’t tend to do half home-made.
It’s either All Home-Made (although not hardcore – I don’t make my own pasta or cure my own sausage, or whatever) or it’s All Convenience Foods (like frozen lasagna, or pre-fab alfredo sauce + pasta/perogies + a handful of baby tomatoes and pre-sliced mushrooms).

As such: My plan for this is to talk about convenience foods – pre-chopped veggies, frozen veggies, tinned beans (and/or tuna), pre-cooked chicken from the grocery store, and similar – that, by and large, let you do “all home-made” with a lot less Aargh, when you’re running short on time, energy, or – as is the case with me occassionally – notice.

So. Onwards!

Easy Veggies
Cherry/grape tomatoes, snow peas, and fresh baby spinach can just be rinsed and chucked into a dish.
Similarly, if I’m buying peppers or broccoli, I sometimes pick it up from the “mix and match” bar where they sell dips and fruit trays and stuff. That way, it’s pre-sliced (and you aren’t paying for the weight of the pepper core, which is significant).
I also love pre-cubed squash, rutabaga, and sweet potatoes and – even more-so – pre-sliced mushrooms, for the same reason. There’s up to about half an hour less prep to deal with – sometimes quite a lot more than that (if – just for example – you’re making Sunshine in a Roasting Pan, which I do every year for Winter Solstice). They go bad really fast (which is probably why they wound up in the pre-sliced section to begin with, if I think about it), but they’re great for when you already know what you’re going to make and just need the help of a sous-chef-inna-box.

Stuff like this – along with couscous, potato gnocchi, perogies, short (or long) pasta, and other FAST-COOKING carbs – makes throwing a meal together (when you have little time and/or little energy) so much easier.

Pantry Suggestions
Similarly, from the perspective of no time, no energy and, oh yeah, no notice (but, I should point out, wrists that can manage the can opener)… if you can keep stuff along the following lines on hand in your pantry, you can do fast meals for Many when you’ve got unexpected company:

Pasta (this includes couscous and gnocchi, fyi)
Rice (white rice, as it only takes 20 minutes to cook – I like basmati, myself, but whatever works)
Perogies (handily combining potatoes with bacon and/or some kind of cheese – I tend to go for No Name potato-and-cheddar, myself)

PLUS

TINNED: diced tomatoes, water chestnuts and/or bamboo shoots, mushrooms
TINNED: tuna, chick peas, romano/kidney beans
DRIED: seaweed (nori is delicious), mushrooms (shiitake, inoke, morel… I just get the cheap wood-ear ones at the Kowloon Market up the street, but whatever you like), + possibly TVP
FROZEN: spinach, peas, broccoli

…plus oil-based salad dressing (like “Italian” or “Sesame Ginger”) or cooking oil, garlic powder (or fresh garlic, and/or fresh onion, since those tend to keep really well), basil, black pepper, and maybe a box of pre-grated parmajan cheese… You can throw together a tasty meal on short notice without having to run the grocery store.

For example:

Super Simple Pasta = Pasta shells with: tinned tuna + tinned tomatoes + garlic powder, black pepper, basil

Instant Tagine (which is possibly an oxymoron) = Couscous with: tinned chick peas + tinned tomatoes + frozen spinach + garlic powder + black pepper (you can also throw dried apricots into this for extra tastiness)

Pasta Not-Actually-Primavera = Linguini with: frozen peas + frozen spinach + dried/tinned mushrooms + Italian salad dressing + parmajan cheese

Short-Notice Stirfry = Rice with: Dried mushrooms + dried seaweed + tinned water chestnuts (and/or tinned bamboo shoots) + (optional) tinned tuna + frozen peas + garlic powder + sesame ginger salad dressing

Winter Comfort Food = Ravioli/Frozen Perogies with: tinned mushrooms + tinned tomatoes + garlic powder + black pepper + (optional) parmajan cheese

Mushroom Stew = Egg noodles with: tinned romano beans + tinned mushrooms + dried mushrooms + frozen spinach + (optional) tinned tomatoes + garlic powder + black pepper + (optional) basil

You can also use left-over grocery-roasted chicken (a favourite for potlucks, fyi) – or any other left-over critter/tofu/seitan/tempeh you have in the fridge – in place of the tinned tuna OR the tinned beans in any of the above combinations (but they’re less likely to be Just Lying Around in the event of sudden company).

Similarly, if you have no time and no energy, but you do have money (or a good eye for when stuff goes on deep discount) you can go to town with:
bags of frozen shrimp
boxes of “hors d’oeuvres” meatballs
boneless tinned salmon (or, heck, frozen smoked salmon, if we’re really getting spiffy)
jars of artichoke hearts, garlic-stuffed olives, roasted red (and/or hot) peppers
pre-fab alfredo sauces and salsas
tins of smoked oysters or anchovies
containers of sun dried tomatoes, pine nuts, (immitation or real) bacon bits, etc…

…and so on. These goodies are used the same way, but give you more flavours to work with and, because they tend to be a little fanicer (looking), can really trick your “what have I got in the fridge” meal out a treat.
For further suggestions, you might try this post, from the last carnival, about cooking when you have no time or energy (but you do have money).

TTFN,
Meliad the Birch Maiden.

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