Weeknight Cooking: The Standby List

Cooking good food nightly can be an overwhelming task, especially for cooks just starting out. But where to start? After a long day it’s important to get food on the table, but there are a hundred chores that need to be done before you can even sit down. With little time to stop and figure out what you’re in the mood to eat, most people will fall back on buying food, or heating up frozen or boxed meals. In many cases, this is either expensive or less healthy than being able to cook from scratch.

For this reason, I have a short list of “standby” meals that I fall back on when I need to cook on the weeknight. These meals are generally healthier fare, quick to prepare and easy to clean up. A standby list is a must have for anyone who cooks regularly, or anyone who endeavors to. Maintaining a regular list will help you keep a certain ingredients on hand, so if you need to whip something up on the fly with no time to run to the store, something can always be put together with what you already have in your pantry.

My list evolves as my household’s tastes evolve. This doesn’t happen often; it’s a gradual process. Periodically recipes will get put into the back of my card file and replaced with newer ones. If you’re someone who is endeavoring to cook home more or change eating habits for a healthier fare, I would highly recommend creating a standby list of weeknight meals.

Here’s a peek at a few things currently on my standby list; everything I make regularly is on the site.

MM's Weeknight Cooking Montage

Peanut Chicken with Jasmine Rice
My spouse loves anything with peanut sauce. When we eat out at a Thai restaurant, he orders something with peanut sauce plus extra sauce on the side. Then he pours the sauce on something bizarre and asks me if I want a bite. (In case you’re wondering, the answer is no.) This lovely little weeknight meal has become a staple that I serve about once a week.

Indian Chicken Curry with Golden Raisins
A fast and healthy one-dish meal. Adding golden raisins and plain, nonfat yogurt help balance out the spice.

Sweet & Sour Tangerine Chicken Stir Fry
Another healthy one-dish meal. (Are you starting to see the pattern yet?) Vegetables and chicken with a tangy tangerine sauce… Love it.

Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto and Lemon
By far, the fastest meal in my repertoire. Peas and prosciutto mingling together in a cream and white wine sauce. There’s never a complaint in my house when I put this on the table.

Arroz con Pollo

Sometimes I just want something really packed with flavor that sticks to my ribs. This gets cooked up in a single pan, then simmers until the rice is done. Spice is determined by how much red pepper flakes you add, if any. My threshold for spice isn’t that high, so I add very little. Served with warm flour tortillas, cheese and a little sour cream, it’s a great weeknight meal. It’s also great heated up in the microwave as leftovers.

Pork Tenderloin Medallions with Cherry Sauce
Sometimes I want something other than chicken. Cherries and balsamic vinegar with tender pork medallions… meow.

Wolfgang Puck’s Chicken Bolognese with Penne
It’s got a zippy sauce, meat and vegetables. Recently I recommended this to my mom for a potluck, and she had a lot of raves about it.

Updated Chicken Chow Mein
This is one of the newest additions to my list. If you recall, this came from our January 2009 Magazine of the Month, Food & Wine. I switched it up a little bit to accommodate my own tastes. Rather than using rounded breakfast sausages, I upped the overall flavor and texture ante by using sweet Italian sausage patties. Tearing them into small, bite-sized pieces eliminates the mess of cutting them up, and I toss them right into the skillet to cook. The snow peas are cut into thirds, and I still use regular egg noodles. The hoisin and orange juice are fantastic together as a sauce. This dish is fast and delicious. Highly recommend.

Chicken Breasts with Potatoes and Mashed Peas
Another Magazine of the Month find. Despite the debacle I had by trying to use drumsticks, I recreated this using boneless, skinless chicken breasts which are cooked in the frying pan for a few minutes, then transferred to the oven with chicken broth to bake. Right before everything is done and ready to come out of the oven, I finish the pan gravy, substituting the chicken fat with a bit of cornstarch for thickening and low-sodium chicken broth. I’m still working on the final formula and once I get it down, I’ll bring this back as a redux!

The trick is, once you find something you like, hang on to it and keep ingredients on hand so you can refer to it often. Other things that help are finding other recipes that utilize the same ingredients. For example, the Creamy Penne I reviewed the other day uses a little bit of prosciutto and tomato paste. Instead of letting the rest of those ingredients spoil, it’s important to find other things that will use the rest of the ingredients — for the tomato paste, I can use it to make Chicken Curry with Golden Raisins and for the rest of the prosciutto I can make Angel Hair Pasta with Peas, Prosciutto and Lemon. If you have any suggestions for weeknight meals, let us know — if you haven’t noticed, they’re pretty much my staple!

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