More taste than time Busy cooks without moments to spare offer mealtime tips

June 09, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Busy doesn't mean hungry to the time-stressed cooks of Maryland. It means planning, organization, smart shopping, big-batch cooking, convenience ingredients, and -- in one case -- a crock-pot named Mom.

A few weeks ago we asked the busy cooks of the Baltimore area to tell us how they coped with mealtimes. These days, when all adults in a household may work outside the home and when everyone in the family from parents to kids to cats is scheduled to the minute, meals no longer get the top priority and lavish

attention of years gone by.

But there are ways around mealtime madness. And they don't have to involve stopping for Chinese or phoning out for a pizza.

"I am against fast food, carry-out meals and frozen dinners," writes Laureen Rengel, of Glenelg. "Besides the high fat and salt content, the dollar factor comes into play."

Mrs. Rengel advocates "planning ahead" in shopping and in cooking. "For example, buy twice as much, or cook twice as much for at least one night a week. . . . Cook a large steak and have leftover steak without lighting the grill again. Freeze extra rice or spaghetti in plastic bags, reheat in microwave. It saves washing those pots another night."

Mrs. Rengel also has a fail-safe "cupboards bare" strategy: "I declare the evening a 'pick-your-own-dinner night.' My daughter, age 6, loves these nights." Mrs. Rengel offers a choice of a couple of items that create minimal mess and are a snap to fix, such as microwaved scrambled eggs or oatmeal.

The crock-pot is just one device Brenda Sands uses to streamline meal preparation. A full-time paralegal and the mother of two boys, 8 years old and 4 months, and a girl, age 3 1/2 , Ms. Sands writes, "My problem is making quick meals the kids will eat. I have three regular tricks I use to keep my sanity in the kitchen:

"1. I have a crock-pot named 'Mom.' When we all arrive home at 6 p.m., 'Mom' has been home cooking all day for us. I organize my ingredients the night before, dump everything in at breakfast.

"2. My 12-inch skillet in which I cook 'one-pot' meals.

"3. I make many items ahead or make double batches and freeze half for nuking on another night. . . . I also keep items such as chopped onion and chopped green pepper in baggies in the freezer. . . . I have a well-stocked pantry -- especially soups for use as sauces and canned and frozen veggies."

Ms. Sands says she enjoys cooking -- "It's one of my hobbies" -- which she learned by watching her mother. "I'm not a gourmet cook," she says. "I like things plain and simple, that fill you up and taste good."

"Be prepared," is the advice from E. Meredith Reid of Baltimore, who also suggests using fresh vegetables as much as possible, because they can be steamed, stir-fried, broiled or sauteed in very little time; and using boned fowl, fish fillets, seafood, chops and ground meat instead of things such as roasts, which take a long time to cook.

Kathleen McRoberts of Baltimore, who has both full-time and part-time jobs, writes, "On the weekend, I prepare a big meal or make a pot of soup of stew, or a large salad. I then have enough for some lunches and dinners during the week. I also freeze individual servings, when possible, for a quick meal a few weeks later." Ms. McRoberts uses a number of techniques to minimize thawing and washing up -- two time-consuming activities that can impede meal preparation and preclude a quick exit from the kitchen when the meal's over.

"If I bake or broil chicken or other non-fatty meat," she says, "I line the pan with aluminum foil. The meat will not stick to the foil and cleanup is easy. . . . When I buy ground meat. . . . I make up patties with seasoning and freeze them in a plastic bag using waxed paper to separate the patties. . . . they can be cooked even while still frozen."

Another cook with a strategy for frozen items is Ellen Booker of Crofton. "I buy chicken breasts in bulk," she writes, "and freeze them in individual pouches which contain either a low-fat Italian marinade or mustard/honey sauce."

Ms. Booker had another tip for improving even the quickest of meals. "My husband and I never sit down to dinner without a glass of wine. It makes even the simplest meal seem like a special occasion."

Not all quick meals are family dinners. Ilene Roberts of Baltimore writes, "I love to cook and entertain, but after a long day at work rarely have much energy. One of my solutions is to do as much work as possible over the weekend. Here are some of the things I do:

"*Blanch vegetables (for salads, vegetable trays, stir-fry or [to] saute)

"*Make salad dressing

"*Make rice to reheat

"*Wash greens, dry thoroughly, and place in zip-lock bag with one section of paper towel (lettuce, spinach, parsley, cilantro, etc.)

"*Mince onions in food processor and store in covered container."

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