Thursday, December 1, 2011

One Dish Wonder Saves the Day

Thanksgiving 2011 is now but a memory, the highlights of which we can always revisit through pictures and conversational exchanges next time around.  Now we move into the most bustling season of all.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or any other holiday that strikes around the turn of the winter solstice, life gets hectic.  No matter how much we insist that we are not going to overextend our time, our wallets and our energy each year, we just can't help ourselves.  We want to make every holiday the best one ever for our loved ones, and family is what the holidays really are about, right?

Let's examine a typical day of the average individual during the month of December.  You may have just stealthily crept out in participation of the end of day jail break from that daily grind called work.  All that's on your mind these days is that ever-growing to-do list of the season as you rush to your awaiting car to make every second count: got to get a tree, oh now you've got to trim the tree.  What's the weather forecast for this weekend? Can you put up the outdoor Christmas lights without being whisked off of the ladder by blustering winds; and shall you skip a shower that morning because you will likely be the recipient of a cold shower as you disentangle strings of lights out in the pelting rain?  Oh, better stop at the post office on the way home for stamps for all of those cards you haven't yet addressed.  Got to get the kids, the dogs, the cat, the hamster or the iguana in for pictures with Santa.  Oh, and you'd better get hubby or wifey's gifts wrapped up quickly, before your loving spouse starts snooping around!  Just when you thought you were done with gift shopping, yet another trek to the mall has been delegated your way for a last-minute recipient who decided that now would be an opportune time to pop back into your life after an eleven month hiatus.  The kids want to bake cookies this weekend - HOW many different kinds??  And the family wants WHAT tonight?  DINNER??! Who's got time for dinner?

Whoa, stop.  Stop right there.  You do have time to make a decent dinner.  The is where a culinary superhero, called one dish wonder, comes to the rescue.  One dish meals, in which most of your nutritional requirements cook together all in one pot, are the perfect dinners for a busy month such as this one.  Some which take a bit more time, such as a beef stew or a pan of lasagna, can be made ahead of time and heated through for serving later in the week.   Many others, from the first ingredient being chopped to the dish's final trek to the table, can be made in an hour or less.  All you need to make the meal complete is a salad and perhaps some warmed, crusty bread in the quest to fill up those with heartier appetites.

Pasta dishes in particular can be made in record time, especially if you have sauce on hand.  Whenever you make a pot of red sauce, or when making pesto, plan to end up with much more than you need for one meal.  Divide the rest into food storage containers and stash them into your freezer.  This is absolutely the best time saving advice I can offer anyone, it will save your hurried dinner plans every time.  Next time you need to throw together a quick meal, boil some pasta.  When it's al dente, throw in some shrimp and some broccoli flowerettes.  As soon as the shrimp has turned bright pink, drain it all and toss with some halved grape tomatoes and some pesto.  The tomatoes can be halved and a salad can be tossed together while the pasta cooks, you can buy the shrimp already peeled and cleaned and you can even purchase the broccoli already cut up.  This meal can be on your table in twenty minutes.  How's that for fast food?

Plan ahead for one dish dinners.  If you are making boneless chicken breasts on Sunday, roast a few extra ones and save them to cut into bite sized pieces for that pasta or rice dish, or to shred and stir into a pot of soup you might cook up later in the week.  Soups and chilis are also quick one dish meals when they contain a meat, a starch such as noodles, rice or beans, and vegetables.  Another great idea for the one dish dinner is the pizza.  Make some pizza sauce and, once again, make enough to freeze a few containers for future use.  Balls of pizza dough can now be purchased in many supermarkets.  All you need from there is some cheese, whether traditionally simple mozzarella or an interesting combination of other cheeses, a couple of other toppings, ten minutes in the oven and you are ready to dine.  Asian stir fries are also quick to leap from the pan to the plate.  The preparation of cutting the meat and vegetables takes a bit of time, but once that task is complete and your sauce ingredients are measured out and rounded up stove side, the actual cooking process is, to quote all of the nation's Chinese takeout owners, 'about ten minutes'.

There are a few small appliances in my kitchen which have seen very little use.  There is one item, however, which has been put to task on many an occasion and which I could no longer do without: the indoor grill/panini press.  Paninis are heaven-sent sandwiches in my humble opinion, basically grilled cheese sandwiches with some additional filling, pressed together for a cohesive, crisp, melted indulgence.  One of my favorite combinations for a panini is that of mozzarella, pesto and tomato.  Again, a quick dinner whose only necessary pairing might be a salad to round out the meal.

Heartier one dish dinners include stews, made with chicken or beef or even seafood.  There is probably an infinite number of recipes for chicken and rice combinations, which reflect a number of ethnic flavors to satisfy whatever you're craving.   One of the first dishes I ever prepared for Brian was a one dish Cajun entree called jambalaya.  I have tweaked the recipe several times over the years, and here is my own final variation; and yes, this is my final answer!

Jambalaya (4 servings)
4 chicken thighs
1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced into ½-inch thick slices
1 onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1 cup white rice
2 cups chicken stock
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 pound large shrimp, peeled
Bottled hot sauce to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat.  Sprinkle chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then add to skillet.  Brown the chicken on all sides, then remove from the skillet and set aside.  Place sliced sausage into the same skillet and brown on both sides, then remove and set aside.  Add onions and garlic to the skillet, stir until onion is translucent.  Stir in the thyme and Cajun seasoning.  Add tomatoes and rice.  Stir to combine.  Add the chicken stock, stir to combine.  Return chicken to skillet.   Bring to boiling.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  After 40 minutes, stir in the shrimp, the peppers, and the sausage, adding a little more chicken broth only if all the liquid has been absorbed.  Replace cover and cook until shrimp have turned pink, chicken is cooked through, the rice is very tender and all broth has been absorbed.  Serve, passing hot sauce as a condiment for added heat.

I love this dish, it reminds me of two happy incidences in my life: one of the the first dishes I ever cooked for my future husband, and of our vacation spent in New Orleans where we dined on some of the best food we ever ate on any of our trips.  Start to finish, I can execute this dinner in forty-five minutes to an hour; and while it simmers?  Well that opens up a nice window of opportunity to wrap a gift, address a couple of holiday cards, and thus cross yet another task off of my to-do list.  Remember, it may have to be fast food for a few weeks, but it doesn't have to be corporate drive-through nutritionally devoid fast food.  You can make a warming, comforting and satisfying dish of fast food in the same amount of time as it takes to wait on that drive through line, and you won't have to check your order as you drive away.

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