Fresh out of college, I spent a couple of years working at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.
At one point, I lived in a one-room cabin, and it was there that I began honing my skills in the area of fast-but-fresh cooking. These days, the major limitations most cooks deal with isn’t space, it’s time and money, which is why recipes that can be prepared in minutes and be gentle on your budget are so appealing.
Here are a few tips for time- and money-saving cooking:
1. Limit time-consuming procedures: This means putting the accent on fresh ingredients and handy seasonings rather than elaborate techniques. Fancy multiple-step dishes don’t fit into a busy cook’s schedule. Go for meals with no-cook or barely-cook ingredients just tossed together and dressed with a memorable hint of ethnic flavor.
2. Simplify meals: One-dish meals are time-savers. Concentrate on one recipe that combines your protein, vegetable and starch, for example. Stir-fries; pasta and rice dishes cooked together with vegetables and meat/fish/tofu/chicken/beans and sprinkled with nuts; entree salads; stews and boiled dinners are all creative and fast.
3. Assembly required: At the table, that is, by each diner. Tacos, fajitas and quesadillas are examples of build-your-own cuisine. You and a helpful child or two concentrate on a bit of chopping, then bring everything to the table for a do-it-yourself assembly line.
4. Organize three work centers: This is something I learned in my tiny cooking space in Yosemite. Store utensils near where you’ll use them. Have pots and pans near the stove top. Have small appliances stored below a clear counter with an electrical outlet nearby. Store dishes in cabinets near the dishwasher. Organize the refrigerator so you can see what’s there, and like items, such as dairy, deli and fresh produce, are together.
5. Make your kitchen more cook-friendly by reducing the clutter: Countertops can make or break your kitchen’s functionality. Remove everything, then place items back only if you use them at least a few times a week. Even your canisters can probably be just as useful inside a kitchen cabinet if you aren’t a daily baker.
6. Chop once, cook twice: If you’re already chopping up vegetables for the night’s soup or stir-fry, chop double amounts and refrigerate the extra for the next night’s meal. One less step tomorrow.
7. Marinate meat on your schedule. You’ve got to think ahead if you want to grill a marinated batch of chicken or chops. Instead, make up a large batch of your favorite marinade, then place several meals’ worth of chicken or chops in freezer bags, pour on the marinade, seal and freeze. The night before you want to use one of those marinated meals, remove it from the freezer and place in the refrigerator.
8. Keep your pantry stocked with building blocks for speedy cooking: pastas, instant cous cous, rice, canned tomatoes, canned or concentrated broths (or homemade broths in the freezer), lots of dried herbs.
9. Slow cookers are real time-savers: Throw everything in the pot in the morning, set on low or high and walk away. Or prep the night before and store the ingredients in the fridge, then pour the contents into the slow-cooker in the morning.
10. Store zip-close bags of rice in your freezer. The night after you’ve served your pork loin roast, simply combine the cooked rice with chunks of the left-over pork (or chicken or beef), along with seasonings of choice, then heat in a wok or a casserole, along with some Parmesan and sauteed onions.
Jan’s Amazing Vinaigrette Base
The biggest problem with homemade vinaigrette is that we store it in the refrigerator to keep all the herbs and garlic fresh, but when you go to use them, if you haven’t thought ahead and removed the vinaigrette from the fridge, the olive oil is thick and gunky until it gets up to room temperature. This vinaigrette base is made from red wine vinegar with gobs of minced garlic, lots of fresh-ground peppercorns, salt and a pinch of sugar. Store it in the refrigerator and keep the olive oil in the pantry at room temperature. Then, when you’re ready to toss the evening salad, whisk together some of the zesty vinaigrette base with the desired amount of your room-temp olive oil.
Makes 3 cups, enough to create at least 6 cups of vinaigrette. If you prefer an oilier vinaigrette, your vinaigrette base will make considerably more vinaigrette.
3 cups red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic (6 large cloves)
1¾ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Whisk together all of the ingredients in a bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout). Select a 3- to 4-cup capacity bottle or jar with a screw-top lid (consider using empty liquor or water bottles). Pour the prepared vinegar mixture through a funnel into the bottle and store in the refrigerator.
To prepare vinaigrette as needed, whisk together desired amounts of the vinegar base with quality olive oil. You can either do this in the salad bowl and toss with the salad ingredients, or you can whisk a small amount in a separate cup then drizzle over your salad before tossing.
Dijon/soy alternative: To ½ cup of my Vinaigrette Base, whisk in 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard and 2 teaspoons of soy sauce or tempura sauce before whisking in the olive oil.
Jan’s Golden Quesadillas
A quick and tasty meal that comes with a great boost of flavor thanks to the baked-on toasted cheese that browns right in the skillet underneath the tortilla. Once you’ve made a batch, the filling is entirely up to you and the contents of your refrigerator and pantry.
For each quesadilla, you will need:
A nonstick skillet large enough to accommodate the width of your flour tortillas
About 1/3 cup of shredded Sharp Cheddar (or Monterey Jack, or medium-sharp cheddar)
1 8- or 10-inch flour tortilla
Desired fillings, (see recipe that follows, or assemble an array of the traditional fillings, such as diced tomato, salsa, guacamole, cooked chicken or ground meat, chopped steak, sour cream, taco sauce
Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until it becomes very warm to the touch. Sprinkle the shredded cheese directly onto the surface of the pan, spreading it out to cover the approximate diameter of the tortilla. Lay the tortilla on top of the cheese and press it gently into the melting cheese (this helps the cheese adhere to the tortilla). Let the tortilla sit, undisturbed, in the pan for about 30 seconds, to give the cheese a chance to brown, then gently test it around the edges by sliding your spatula under the tortilla and lifting slightly to see if the cheese has turned golden and is adhering to the tortilla. Once this has happened, go ahead and slide your spatula completely under the tortilla and flip it over to brown the plain side of the tortilla, then slide the tortilla onto a plate.
Arrange the desired fillings down one side (if you only want to fold the tortilla in half), or down the middle (if you’re planning on a burrito-style wrap).
To feed several folks, have two pans going at the same time.
Savory Mushroom Quesadilla filling
Makes enough filling for 4 generous quesadillas.
½ pound sliced mushrooms
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
½ sweet onion, chopped
¼ cup dry white wine
1½ tablespoons black bean garlic sauce
1 tablespoon chile garlic sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
4 Golden Quesadillas (see recipe)
In skillet, saute the mushrooms in the oil and butter over medium heat until the mushrooms soften. In small cup, whisk together the wine, black bean garlic sauce, chile garlic sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Stir this mixture into the mushrooms, then add the onions and continue to saute, turning the vegetables (tossing the skillet), to brown the mushrooms on both sides and cook down the sauce.
Spoon on a generous portion of the mushroom mixture onto half of the prepared Golden Quesadilla, then fold the other half over onto the vegetables and slide the tortilla from the pan.
Repeat with additional tortillas and filling. This recipe makes enough mushroom filling for 4 large tortillas.
— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.