It’s 5:30 p.m. You’re exhausted from a day at the office. Both you and the kids are hungry, but you are too crunched for time (not to mention low on energy) to prepare a home-cooked meal. Sound familiar?
In a last-ditch effort for food, some families might pick up the phone and call in pizza or Chinese for delivery, ditching their intentions of serving up a nutritious, home-cooked meal. Others throw in the towel completely and head out to a nearby restaurant, where the kids do their homework at the table in between spoonfuls of spaghetti.
Making a wholesome meal at home doesn’t have to take more than 15 minutes of prep or require cabinets full of ingredients, says Tara Brennan, the author of Scoop It Chop It Cook It. So how does she feed her family in just minutes without resorting to something from a box or can? She heads to her supermarket’s Mediterranean bar (others call it an antipasto bar) and deli case.
The assortment of already seasoned, fresh, ready-to-eat ingredients are not just for snacking or appetizers. According to Brennan, “The magic happens when we consider these products as more than what they appear to be. What if we start to think about them as the bases for sauces or salads? Pasta toppings?” It takes just minutes for her to toss the roasted tomatoes with artichoke quarters in a sauté pan with shrimp, or even with cooked pasta. Make a nutritious and inexpensive family meal in mere minutes with Brennan’s ideas below.
In the Pantry
To make mealtime prep easy, Brennan relies on a couple of staple items from her pantry, no matter what she’s making. They include extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, coarse sea salt, peppercorns, hot pepper flakes, brown sugar, and herbs (she likes thyme and rosemary). “I also like to have a jar of fig jam around, as well as ketchup and Dijon mustard. If your cabinets looks like this, your guests will not go hungry.”
When using antipasto bar ingredients, Brennan begins with what she likes. Paired with the basic cooking techniques most know (grilling a steak, roasting chicken, making pasta), and a bit of creativity, there are an endless number of meals you can serve the family. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Shaub)
• Quesadillas: Chop up two scoops of vegetables, like roasted tomatoes and kalamata olives. Use these along with Cheddar cheese for delicious quesadillas that are good for lunch or a light dinner.
• Salads: Toss roasted peppers and mixed olives together with a box of washed greens for an instant salad you can serve with dinner. Add chunks of your favorite cheese, if desired, for something a bit heartier.
• Pizza: With a ball of pre-made pizza dough, a make-your-own pizza night once a week is easy. Simply top the rolled out dough with bruschetta topping, and cheese or other garnishes as you wish, and bake at 450 degrees for about 12-15 minutes.
• Pasta: The options are limitless. Toss cooked pasta in a sauté pan with roasted red peppers and roasted tomatoes, or use the roasted garlic along with just-browned bacon and grated cheese for an alternative to classic pasta carbonara.
• Chicken: Instead of chopping vegetables for a roast chicken, combine some cipollini onions with marinated mushrooms and mushroom bruschetta topping and use the mixture both to stuff the bird and as a seasoning to scatter around the pan. Then roast as usual.
The same ingredients that are good for last-minute homemade meals are great for low-prep party appetizers. “I don’t have enough time” isn't an excuse for not having friends over at the end of the week. Here are four ways to turn the cool veggies into hot, tasty appetizers.
• Roasted Red Tomatoes: Warm these up in a pan, and then place on top of toasted bread. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil on top, then a curl of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
• Red Peppers Stuffed with Feta: Drop these on a grill for five minutes, until the cheese starts to melt. Pop in mouth, close eyes, and sip champagne.
• Pitted Olives: Chop mixed olives into small pieces then warm in a pan. Place mixture onto a flat pizza crust (like Boboli) and top with a hard Italian cheese, like asiago. Bake for a few minutes then feast!
• Long Stem Artichokes: Cover with breadcrumbs and place baking dish in a piping hot oven for eight minutes. Splash with lemon and serve with toothpicks.