Lately, my life feels as if 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. This is not even factoring 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 spare that I've begun experimenting with shortcuts.
And when it comes to dinner, 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.
Another advantage to weaving convenience products into meals is that many of these items store well, since they're canned, packaged or frozen. Therefore, they can be bought on sale or with discount coupons when good prices are offered. In addition, having them around offers flexibility on nights when I'm too late to shop, too broke for carryout 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 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 Sunday morning, and it's ready to grill by evening.
Grilled orange chicken
Makes 6 to 8 servings
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 over hot coals until cooked through but not dry, 5 to 8 minutes (time depends on intensity of heat).
Note: Leftovers can be used to make Southwestern salad on Wednesday.
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
Makes 3 to 4 servings
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.
Stir-fried beef and vegetables with white rice, cappuccino pudding for dessert. I use fresh and canned chopped Asian vegetables along with beef that has been sliced by the supermarket for stir-frying.
Makes 4 servings
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
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.
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.
Makes 4 servings
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