Working Mom Gourmet: Weeknight Dinner Solutions

Now that the school supplies are purchased and orientations under our belts, it’s time to settle into to this school year’s weekday routine. And for most people that means juggling carpools, sports practices and games, piano lessons and lots of homework. Oh yeah, you gotta squeeze in dinner somewhere too.

Resist the urge to hit the drive thru, order take out or give in to expensive pre-made or frozen dinners. We almost never do any of those things in my house and I am a pretty busy gal. My friends are convinced I’m a vampire because of all I manage to get accomplished.

A couple of followers have asked for my suggestions for easy weeknight meals with little prep or cook time.  Happy to share!

pesto.jpg

Presto, pesto!  Make a batch now, while the basil is abundant and fresh. Freeze it in ice cube trays or small containers for use when you need it.

Pasta is the obvious pairing with pesto. Choose a quick cooking pasta like angel hair to get dinner on the table faster.  Add the pesto to cooked pasta with olive oil, and toss, and you’re in business.

Grill some chicken ahead of time, or add in some quick cooking shrimp for a protein add-in for the pasta. For a creamy option, add a tablespoon or cream cheese or goat cheese to the pesto mixture. So delish!   If you’re over (or off) pasta, pesto is GREAT on zucchini noodles. Or you can also spread it or chicken, fish or shrimp too, for an herbaceous baked protein.

See below for my go-to basil pesto recipe (I use almonds instead of pine nuts because those are too expensive, plus I always have this super food around). I also like to mix it up and use walnuts for a variety, and I often make parsley, mint or cilantro pesto which is incredible on fish.

For a dinner that’s super kid friendly and fun for both them and adults, try my walking turkey Frito pie. (see previous post, A Portable Picnic, for this recipe)  You can always chop your veggies and cook the rice for build-your-own stir fry bowls the night before. 

Or mix up fresh pizza dough in the morning or the night before (so cheap to make and uses so few ingredients). The dough will be perfect by dinner time.  I use Leanne Brown’s recipe from her book, Good and Cheap.  Getting the kids involved in topping their own pizza always ensures they’re more likely to eat it!  It’s not rocket science, but it is science.  It’s proven!!  Crank up your oven to 500 and that ‘za will be ready in 10 minutes.

pizza

Cut down on cook time for family-friendly favorites like meatloaf, tuna noodle and broccoli, cheese and rice casseroles, pot pie or baked mac n cheese, by portioning them out into ramekins, or cupcake tins. Adults can control their portions better and cook time is cut in half! My kids always get a kick out of eating things “just their size” too.

For tonight’s dinner, I sneaked in some finely chopped zucchini and kale into mini meatloaves for a helping of greens that my children (and husband) won’t even know they are eating. Pillsbury has a really easy crescent roll mini pot pie recipe that I like, too.

Another favorite among my kids is carrot soup. It’s colorful, sweet and savory. Plus it keeps well so you can make all, or portions of it, ahead of time. I usually make it on the stove top with lots of fresh shaved ginger. But I had a bunch of HUGE carrots and some red/yellow peppers from the farmers market so I decided to roast them!  (recipe follows)

If you’re a fan of Mexican food, make baked taquitos.  I like to mix up shredded leftover chicken, cheese, rice and/or beans, and any veggies I have hanging around.  Put a spoonful of the mixture in a tortilla and roll them up tightly.  Place them in a baking pan seam side down and bake at 350 until they’re just barely browned. It’ll take no time at all!  You can dip them in salsa, guac or sour cream. Great way to use leftovers and not repeat taco night!

I always feel better when we have dinner together, especially one that I made myself.  And when it doesn’t take me all night, I’m happy.  We all know, when mama’s happy….

Roasted Carrot and Pepper Soup:

3 large carrots, peeled
1/4 of a red onion
1/2 a red or yellow pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
3-4 sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Salt/pepper
1 1/2 c. vegetable or chicken stock
Heavy cream or half and half (optional)

Cut the veggies into similar sized pieces, about one inch chunks so they will roar evenly.
Line a baking sheet with foil and preheat oven to 400*.
Drizzle veggies, and garlic in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss to coat. Spread evenly on the baking sheet and roast for 30 min.

This can be done ahead of time. And if you double the portion, use the half roasted veggies for a side dish today, use the rest for soup tomorrow!

Place the roasted veggies in a blender with 1 1/2 c. broth (chicle or vegetable). Blend until smooth.

Put the soup in a sauce pot and cook a little longer to thicken. Add salt and pepper if needed. Add a tablespoon of heavy cream or half and half of you want a more creamy consistency.

Basil Pesto:

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)

“Shhhepherds Pie” As in “shhh, don’t tell anybody it’s made with leftovers,” Shepherd’s Pie

This is about the time of the holiday season when I’m just not in the mood to make much of anything for weekday meals.  My kitchen creativity is tapped out on Christmas cookies and multiple rounds holiday party appetizers I have to prepare.  During this spell, meatloaf is one of the go-to dinners I make and have ready for a work night meal.  With only two adults in our house who sit down to eat a proper portion, that means leftovers.  I took a long look at the hunk of meatloaf remaining, and the potatoes I found still lingering from a crock pot meal I’d made earlier in the week…and I decided to try something I’d never made before….Shepherd’s Pie.    

leftover meatloaf

I started by locating and chopping some veggies I’d use to supplement the meat: carrots, onions, and some baby bella mushrooms.

chopped veggies

I also grabbed some frozen peas, something I always have around (see my Pantry Must-Haves post)  I sauteed those, then added the meatloaf and broke it up in the pan, only adding a little seasoning to the veggies as the meat had already been seasoned.

sauteed veggies and meat

From there I went to work on the topping, a mashed potato of sorts.  Now, because I have never made shepherd’s pie before, I did consult a couple of recipes to make sure I was on the right track, and I was.  So I took the leftover cooked potatoes from my previous dish, and mixed those up with some sour cream and heavy cream (also leftover from a recipe.  It seems that recipes always call for half a cup of the stuff, when the smallest carton usually contains about a cup)  I suppose you could use milk here too.  I used a hand mixer to get it nice and smooth and seasoned it with salt and pepper.

shepherds pie potatoes

The last component I needed to figure out was the gravy.  So I went with what I know.  Start with some butter, whisk in some flour, then I added beef broth and, after consulting with some other shepherd’s pie recipes, I added a little bit of Worcestershire sauce and some pepper.  I let all those elements hang out until I like the consistency, took a taste….and I was satisfied.  I mixed the meat and veggies with the gravy and poured portions into some medium sized ramekins.  Since I was dealing with leftover portions of both the meat and the potatoes, there wasn’t enough for the traditional portion in a baking dish.  But I’ve found these ramekins I bought recently have been very useful in situations like this.

shepherds pie set up

I spread the whipped potatoes on top of the meat/veggies/gravy and sprinkled a little paprika on there for color.  Since everything was cooked already and the portions were not terribly big, I decided to broil them on high until the top looked golden brown.  But if you were making these ahead and were refrigerating them, I would bring them up to room temp, or throw them in the oven first before broiling so it’s warm throughout.

I got four portions of “Shhhheperd’s Pie” from only about a 3-4 inch slice of meatloaf and a handful of leftover potatoes.  This will surely become a new “go-to” meal with any sort of leftover ground meat.  

Please share some of your short-cuts and secrets to getting dinner on the table during the busiest time of year.  I could use them!