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Quick Cuisine Don’t Have Time To Cook? Put Some Convenience Foods On Your Kitchen Assembly Line And Serve Up A Feast

Kim Upton Los Angeles Times Service

Lately my life feels like the squeeze is on and I’m the orange. No matter how I plan, no matter how early I rise, there is not enough time to raise my son, keep my house clean, work a full-time job and have a good time.

That doesn’t even factor in the strange recurrence of an additional task called dinner, which seems to arrive at our house each night - invited or not. It’s because time is scarce that I’ve begun experimenting with shortcuts.

Sure, some of those shortcuts have been inspired by cans with attractive labels and cute little boxes with sometimes hefty price tags. But to those who would criticize me for my current fascination with convenience products, I say: “Get real!” Sometimes dinner is an assembly process - and I’m the factory worker.

I still have respectable standards, however. The trick is to search out products that save time without being insanely expensive, contrived or unhealthy.

Yes, we can all heat a frozen pizza in the oven. But my quest is to find recipes that begin with commercially prepared foods or mixes and blend them with other, often fresh ingredients to make meals that are interesting and good.

Among convenience products that keep finding their way into my menus are canned red and black beans; pizza crusts or Boboli breads onto which I can load a freezer-full of cheeses, meats, seafood or vegetables; grated cheese that costs too much, but trims minutes off meal preparation; frozen bread dough that can be fashioned into delicious herb breads or individual pizza crusts, and little packages of corn bread mix that are transformed for company into corn bread waffles with sauteed apples and raisins.

Packaged tortillas make all kinds of quesadillas (cheese, smoked turkey and mango chutney is currently the favorite combination at my house). Packaged vanilla cake is doused with creme de cassis (black currant liqueur) and fresh berries for dessert. Fresh fruit is sprinkled with commercially made granola and butter and baked until bubbly.

I have also employed won ton wrappers as noodles that are filled with ricotta, mint and Parmesan cheese, cooked and served with a commercially made spaghetti sauce.

For company, I splurge on commercially prepared tostada shells, which are filled with scrambled eggs or chilaquiles (eggs blended with chile peppers, cheese and tortilla strips), plus guacamole, salsa and nonfat refried black beans. Or I make sugar cookies with tube dough sprinkled with sugar, ground cardamom and pistachios.

As a special treat, moo shu duck pizza can be made by topping pizza dough with bottled hoisin sauce, expensive roast duck, grated cheese and green onions. (I save this one for friends I really like.)

Perhaps another advantage to weaving convenience products into meals is that many of these items store well since they’re canned, packaged or frozen. That means they can be purchased on sale or with discount coupons when good prices are offered.

And having them around offers flexibility on nights when I’m too late to shop, too broke for carry-out and too tired to care much what’s on the table.

Here are a few recipes and menu ideas that add up to a week’s worth of reasonable dinners (and one brunch) at assembly-line speed.

SUNDAY

Sunday brunch with friends: Scrambled or fried eggs served in a commercially made tostada shell with nonfat refried beans, guacamole and orange salsa. For this I buy commercially made beans, guacamole and salsa, into which I grate a little bit of orange peel.

Sunday night dinner: Grilled Orange Chicken served with brown and wild rice with stir-fried almonds and a citrus salad. I place the chicken in the marinade first thing on Sunday morning and it’s ready to grill by evening.

Grilled Orange Chicken

1 (12-ounce) can orange juice concentrate, defrosted

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup oil

8 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

Combine orange juice concentrate, cinnamon, cloves and oil in nonreactive dish. Add chicken and turn to coat all sides. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight, turning chicken occasionally.

Remove chicken from marinade. Grill or broil until cooked through but not dry, turning once, 5 to 8 minutes (time depends upon intensity of heat).

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Leftovers can be used to make Southwestern Salad on Wednesday.

MONDAY

Pizza with Goat Cheese and Peppers, tossed greens, raspberry ice for dessert. Do any slicing and chopping before work in the morning and toss together in minutes at night.

Pizza with Goat Cheese and Peppers

1 (12- to 14-inch) baked pizza crust or Boboli bread

5 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese

1-1/2 cups sliced frozen or fresh sweet red, green and yellow peppers

1 cup crumbled mild goat cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano and/or parsley)

Freshly ground pepper

Top pizza crust with mozzarella cheese, sliced peppers and goat cheese. Sprinkle with herbs and lots of freshly ground pepper. Bake at 400 degrees until mozzarella is melted and goat cheese is heated through, about 10 minutes.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

TUESDAY

Stir-fried beef and vegetables with white rice, Cappuccino Pudding for dessert. I use fresh and canned chopped Asian veggies along with beef that has been sliced by the supermarket for stir-frying.

Cappuccino Pudding

1 (3.4-ounce) package (cook-and-serve) chocolate pudding

2 cups milk

4 teaspoons decaffeinated instant coffee crystals or powder

2 ounces milk chocolate, chopped

Whipped cream

Ground cinnamon

Combine pudding mix, milk and instant coffee crystals in nonstick pan. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until pudding thickens (following package directions).

Allow to cool 1 to 2 minutes until steam no longer rises when pudding is stirred. Fold in chocolate. Pour into 4 serving dishes. Cover and chill. Serve topped with whipped cream and sprinkling of cinnamon.

Yield: 4 servings.

WEDNESDAY

Southwestern Salad can be served with good bread and cold iced tea for a satisfying meal. The salad can be assembled in minutes. If you’re using the croutons, bake them in the morning before going to work.

Southwestern Salad

1 cup warmed red beans

1 cup mild or medium hot salsa

1 cup cooked corn kernels

1 (1-1/2-ounce) can sliced black olives

1 cup shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

6 cups mixed greens

Leftover Grilled Orange Chicken, sliced, or 4 slices cooked bacon

1 cup whole wheat pita or regular croutons (see note), optional

Freshly ground pepper

Nonfat blue cheese dressing

In flat pasta bowl, layer beans, salsa, corn, olives, cheese, greens, chicken and croutons. Sprinkle with pepper. Serve with dressing on side.

Yield: 4 servings.

Note: To make pita croutons, cut leftover pita bread into 2-inch triangles. Bake at 250 degrees, stirring frequently, until croutons are lightly toasted, about 10 minutes. Watch carefully or croutons may burn.

THURSDAY

Halibut in Tomato-Basil Sauce, tiny red potatoes (boiled or microwaved), steamed broccoli. I make this sauce in minutes in the morning before work. It actually improves by refrigerating all day.

Halibut in Tomato-Basil Sauce

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 (14-1/2-ounce) can chunky tomatoes (I like Del Monte pasta-style)

Salt, freshly ground pepper

1 pound grilled, sauteed or baked halibut or other mild white fish fillets (see note)

Heat oil in skillet. Add garlic and saute until softened. Add basil, tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste and heat through. Add fish and simmer few minutes until fish is heated through.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

Note: Instead of halibut, you can substitute 12 ounces bow tie pasta, cooked al dente, or 1 pound steamed green beans.

FRIDAY

Curried Corn Soup with good crusty bread. This takes only a few minutes to assemble, which is about all the energy I have on a Friday night.

Curried Corn Soup

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 (15-ounce) can cream-style corn

1 cup frozen corn kernels

1 cup nonfat milk

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Melt butter in skillet, Add curry powder and saute, stirring, 1 minute. Add cream-style corn, corn kernels and milk and cook, stirring, until heated through. Just before serving, stir in cheese and cook about 30 seconds until cheese is melted.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

SATURDAY

Black Bean and Salsa Lasagna with mixed greens, fresh fruit and granola cobbler for dessert. The lasagna only takes 15 minutes to assemble, since there is no advance sauteing and noodles are not precooked.

Black Bean and Salsa Lasagna

2 (14-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes with juice

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Lots of freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Olive oil

11 lasagna noodles (about 9 ounces)

15 ounces ricotta cheese

12 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

1-1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

1 (15-1/2-ounce) can black beans, drained

1 (14-1/2-ounce) can medium salsa

Combine tomatoes, tomato sauce, mushrooms, oregano, pepper and salt in large bowl. Set aside.

Grease 8- by 12- by 2-inch pan with olive oil. Place half of tomato mixture on bottom of pan. Top with 4 lasagna noodles to cover pan. Top with half of ricotta cheese, half of mozzarella, 3/4 cup Parmesan, half of black beans and 4 lasagna noodles.

Then, continuing in layers, top with remaining tomato mixture, ricotta, black beans and noodles. End with salsa, remaining Parmesan and mozzarella.

Cover tightly with foil. Place foil underneath pan (it may bubble over). Bake at 350 degrees until noodles are tender, about 1 hour.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

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