I’ve been working a lot of late hours lately. (Yay for international business! Boo for 13 hour time-differences between offices!) Anyhow, what this intercultural employment melee translates to is a very pooped person who has zero ambition when she gets home. (Trust me, we’ve measured. Zero.) Which means I don’t want to do anything, including cooking dinner.
Normally I scorn “box” dinners. Actually, I detest “box” dinners. If you try to feed me Hamburger Helper (or god forbid, Tuna Helper), I’ll politely starve till I can get my hands on some actual food. I’m quite sure I ate my lifetime quota of that stuff growing up (it’s a small quota, folks…it didn’t happen often, but when it did, well, it was memorable, lets just say). So I’ve had my fill and don’t need to eat those artificial boxes of junk. Maybe it’s that I don’t trust them if I can’t see what happens to the constituent ingredients from the get-go, or maybe it’s the ungodly amount of salt they usually contain. I don’t know for sure, but I do know I dislike them.
But every so often, you just need a convenient meal. Something that can cook relatively unattended, something you can’t ruin along the way, something that pratically puts itself together. The secret here, my friends, is the sauce. You can take endless combinations of simple proteins, basic carbs (rice, grains, etc.) and combine them with a sauce and presto! Dinner is served. And there are LOTS of sauces available that aren’t full of weird chemicals or dyes or ingredients I can’t pronounce!
Don’t believe me? What about spaghetti and meatballs? Anything curried? Sloppy joes? All convenient, and if you watch the ingredients lists, none are intrinsically evil (unlike those “helpers” which shall henceforth remain nameless). I submit that you can have a “convenient” meal on the table in under 30 minutes with just four simple steps. Just four!!
So I make a point of having a few solid sauces in my pantry for evenings where I can’t be bothered to do much cooking. Some of my usual suspects are the usual brigade of marinara/alfredo sauces, but I think my favorites are Indian-inspired ones (Korma for non-spicy simmering, Vindaloo when you need some punch). And salsas. They make great simmer sauces. Pick whichever sauce sounds tastiest in the moment.
So once you pick your sauce, then you pick your pan. It must be big enough to accommodate your protein and veggies in a fairly cozy arrangement, and small enough that it will give you a good half-inch to an inch of liquid to simmer away with. And it must have a tight-fitting lid.
Then pick your protein. Eggs, perhaps? (Excellent either hard-boiled, or crack fresh eggs in and poach them!) Meat/Fish/Poultry? (Do go boneless if possible, but don’t pre-cook it, you’ll just poach it in your sauce). Nuts? (These can’t simmer long or they go mooshy, so add them at the end just to warm them up). Beans? (Straight out of the can and into the sauce!).
Then pick your veggies. Any small or pre-prepped veggie will do nicely. I love cherry tomatoes, brussies, florets of cauliflower, romanesco, or broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, etc. Pick at least two. If you’re going with root veggies, either go with pre-cooked cubes, or be aware that you’ll need to simmer at least 25 minutes to soften them up.
So those four steps I yammered on about? Here they are:
Step 1: Dump 1/2 to 1 cup sauce in pan per person (depends on your preference). If the sauce is a bit shallow, add 1/2 cup water to pan (remember, you want at least a half an inch to work with). Stir to combine (and don’t worry, as you simmer, the sauce will evaporate a bit, so you can cook it down to avoid making soup!).
Step 2: Heat sauce up to a low simmer. As sauce heats, add veggies, spreading them evenly around the pan into the sauce. Decide if you need to cook your veggies for a bit before adding protein (figure on 15-20 minutes simmer-time for beef, lamb, chicken, or similar; 4-5 minutes for eggs; 1-2 mintues for nuts and beans). If your veggies will not be cooked to your liking in that amount of time, let them simmer solo for a bit. Cover tightly with lid. Make sure the sauce is at a full simmer before proceeding.
Step 3: Add your protein. Nestle it into the veggies and sauce, spreading it evenly around the pan. If you’re using fresh eggs, make a “dent” with the back of a ladle and crack the egg into the dent so it doesn’t run all over. If your sauce is too liquidy for your taste, simmer lid-free. If it’s about right, loosely cover.
Step 4: Set a timer for when your protein will be done. If you want carbs with your dinner, cook or prep them now (i.e. throw a pot of rice on the stove, or whip out some bread). Then sit back, relax, and ignore your pan. When you hear beeping or buzzing or whatever your timer sounds like, scoop dinner out of the pan and onto plates.
See?! Four steps to dinner. Super convenient. It’s all in the sauce!