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Published: 8/28/2012

School-night dinners in a jiffy

BY LISA ABRAHAM
AKRON BEACON JOURNAL

Between the school bells, the practice whistles, the music lessons and all of the other activities that are about to kick into high gear, it's no wonder that family dinner often becomes a crazy rush hour at this time of year.

It's not just about putting dinner on the table; it's about doing it quickly.

But it doesn't mean relying on packaged meals, a drive-through window or a pound of ground beef (even though sloppy joes, tacos, and burgers are in every busy parent's quick-meal stable).

Plenty of foods can be prepared quickly -- some even faster then their packaged alternatives. For example, commercially prepared breaded fish fillets typically need 18 to 20 minutes to bake. However, fresh fish can be breaded and pan-fried with a crispy cornmeal coating in less than 10 minutes.

The best fast dinners don't happen by accident; they require planning.

First, make a mealtime plan of attack after surveying the family's weekly schedule and figuring out the time constraints on the dinner hour. Then shop with that schedule in mind.

Half the battle of getting dinner on the table fast is knowing what you will be preparing, so you don't waste time staring into the cupboards or refrigerator praying for inspiration.

Select cuts of meat that cook quickly. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or tenders are ready in minutes. Save the whole chicken or bone-in pieces for the weekend. The same goes for pork. Select tenderloins or boneless chops that cook quickly and save larger cuts for when you aren't in a hurry (unless, of course, you are making use of a slow cooker).

Get prepped over the weekend, or work a night ahead for the following day. Sure, you can buy bagged lettuce, but you'll save lots of money and have better salads if you buy loose greens and take a few minutes to wash, spin dry and tear them in advance, so they are ready to toss at 5:30 p.m.

Don't sacrifice healthful eating for convenience. If you need to rely on frozen foods to fill the plates, select items like frozen vegetables and rice that cook in microwave steam packs. Typically, they contain no added salt or fat.

Here are five quick dinners (Monday through Friday) to help you beat the rush this school year. We have fish, chicken, pork, pasta and meatless, and not an ounce of ground beef among them. With the right amount of planning, each dinner can be on the table in about 30 minutes.

1 pound fresh cod, 4 small fillets or 2 large, cut in half (see cook's note)

1/4 cup flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

Canola oil for frying

Salt and pepper, to taste

Paprika, to taste

4 whole-wheat hoagie rolls

Lettuce and tomatoes, optional

Prepared tartar sauce, optional

Cook's note: Feel free to substitute other fish in the recipe, including catfish or tilapia.

Pat fish dry with paper towels. Dredge fillets in flour, then in cornmeal, pressing cornmeal onto the fish. Season fish with salt, pepper and paprika.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan, and heat until bubbling, but not smoking. If skillet is small, fry the fish two fillets at a time.

Add fish to pan and fry until fillets are well-browned on one side. Flip and fry until second side is well-browned. If oil is properly heated, cooking time is 2 to 3 minutes per side, depending on thickness of fillets.

Serve fish on whole-wheat hoagie rolls. Top with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce, if desired.

Serve with cabbage slaw (recipe follows) or top sandwiches with slaw instead of lettuce.

Yield: 4 hoagies.

Cabbage Slaw

1 medium head cabbage, sliced finely or shredded (about 12 cups)

2 carrots, grated

1/2 cup canola oil

1/4 cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

Place shredded cabbage and grated carrot in a large bowl.

In a glass jar or plastic container with a very tight-fitting lid, pour vinegar. Add sugar, salt, pepper, and onion powder. Shake well to combine. Add oil and shake vigorously until dressing is well-combined and sugar has dissolved.

Pour over cabbage and mix well to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 15 minutes (or up to 2 days) until ready to eat.

Yield: 12 servings.

1/4 cup bottled barbecue sauce

2 tablespoons chopped onion (fresh or frozen)

1 teaspoon chili powder, divided

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

2 ( 1/2-inch thick) boneless pork loin chops

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Prepared rice

Stir together barbecue sauce, onion, 2 tablespoons water, and 1/2 teaspoon chili powder in a bowl. Set aside,

Combine flour, salt, pepper, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon chili powder in a shallow dish; dredge pork chops in flour mixture.

Cook pork chops in hot oil in a medium-size nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 2 minutes on each side, or until golden.

Pour barbecue sauce mixture over chops. Cover, reduce heat to medium and simmer 8 minutes or until chops are done. Remove chops from pan and keep warm.

Stir together cornstarch and 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl, stirring until smooth. Add cornstarch mixture to sauce in pan, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, 1 minute or until thickened.

Divide rice between 2 plates; place chops over rice, and spoon sauce over chops.

Yield: 2 servings.

Source: Adapted from Southern Living What's for Supper: 30-Minute Meals Everyone Will Love

1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 1/2 cups fresh or thawed frozen corn kernels

1 medium jalapeno, seeded and thinly sliced

1 large clove garlic, minced

3 tablepsoons lime juice (from 1-2 limes)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 lime, cut into wedges

Position a rack 4 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler to high. Toss the chicken with the chili powder, cumin, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Lightly dredge the chicken in the flour and shake off any excess.

Melt 2 1/2 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, corn, jalapeno, garlic, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring until the corn begins to brown lightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken, lime juice, oregano and 1/2 cup water. Cook, stirring, until the chicken is just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the cheddar cheese and transfer the skillet to the broiler. Broil until the cheese melts and browns on top, about 3 minutes. Serve with lime wedges.

Serve with rice or wrap the chicken in warm corn tortillas.

Yield: 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Fine Cooking: Make It Tonight, by Tony Rosenfeld

1 (9-ounce) package refrigerated fettuccine

1 tablespoon butter

3/4 cup frozen baby sweet peas

⅔ cup half-and-half

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Prepare pasta according to package directions. Keep warm.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add peas and all remaining ingredients. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. Stir in pasta and serve immediately. Garnish, if desired, with additional shaved Parmesan and fresh mint sprigs.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Southern Living What's for Supper: 30-Minute Meals Everyone Will Love

4 cups wide or dumpling egg noodles

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 pound mixed fresh mushrooms (such as crimini, portobello and regular white), cut into 1/4-inch slices

2 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups fresh spinach leaves

8 ounces sour cream

3/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Cook noodles as directed on package; drain. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the parsley; place in serving dish. Cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and mushrooms; cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic; cook 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium. Stir in tomato paste. Stir in spinach; cook 1 to 2 minutes or until spinach is wilted. Gently fold in sour cream, milk, and salt and pepper. Cook just until hot, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Pour mushroom-spinach mixture over noodles. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon parsley.

Yield: 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Betty Crocker Vegetarian Cooking



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