Tips for the Big Day + Week Night Dinner Series: Chicken (or Tofu) Stirfry with Spicy Peanut Sauce

imagesI can’t believe another year has passed and I’m talking about Thanksgiving again! Wasn’t it just a month or so ago I was making black-eyed peas for good luck for the coming year? (Which, by the way, has been pretty good, so I’m going to continue the tradition!).

We are coming upon the biggest cooking day of the year (and since the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving Day this year, this makes it doubly so!), and as has been my custom, I’m going to give you my tips for making it relatively stress-free and fun. Some of these tips may seem elementary, although to me they make the actual battle of getting everything ready all at once easier. Some of these tips are mine and some are other cook’s tips I’ve collected through the years that work for me. Whether you’re cooking Thanksgiving for ten or having a dinner party at another time of the year, I find these tips are good to have in your back pocket.

My Vermont Kitchen’s Thanksgiving Cooking Tips
• This goes without saying, but prepare some items the day before or even two or three days before. Make this weekend your friend; rolls can be made and frozen until Thursday morning. Squash can be made Monday or Tuesday, make and bake your pies late Wednesday evening, that way you’re not trying to jockey for space in the oven with your turkey the next day.

• Make sure your knives are sharp! I made this tip last year when my dad found my knives were less than sharp when he was carving the turkey. (He has since given me a hand-held knife sharpener.) If you don’t have one, find a kitchen shop that does sharpening and take them in this weekend. This will make carving the turkey all that much easier–and everything else for months to come!

• On Wednesday, take out all serving bowls and utensils and assign dishes to each one. This saves a lot on the “what bowl is the stuffing going into?” questions when you have some ravenous people hovering at your elbow in the kitchen. I put the assignments on scraps of paper and place them inside each bowl or plate, which I find helps my memory immensely the next day. Make sure all china, glasses, and linens also are cleaned and ready to go, so all I have to do Thursday morning is set the table. If necessary, do the wash this weekend so it’s not a last-minute chore during the week.

• For me, the most important piece of paper in the kitchen will be my timeline. I take my menu, figured out how long the turkey was going to cook and what I have to do when it comes out of the oven. So I have everything down to the time, “10 a.m., turkey in the oven; at 12:45 see if it’s almost done and start the potatoes” etc. This allows me to easily whisk around the kitchen and for everything to be done pretty much at the same time (fingers crossed!). This method also is good for any meal you’re cooking while entertaining, as I have a habit of forgetting things once the door opens and the guests arrive!

• Since almost all of us have one oven, prime real estate in the kitchen is small. Last year, at the suggestion of “America’s Test Kitchen,” I pulled out my crock pot for an additional burner! Set to low, it warmed my squash wonderfully and freed up an extra burner.

• A small, old-fashioned relish plate as an appetizer. So many times I’ve made a couple of appetizers, which fill up your guests before the meal. How about some carrots and celery sticks, a bowl of black olives, and cornchicons? Just a little something light to tide everyone over before dinner. Sliced fennel with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper is another tasty treat. Serve with toothpicks

• Instead of putting all the dishes on the table, finding room among the arms and elbows, I set up the kitchen table as a buffet, so people can fill their plates and return to an uncluttered table. While it doesn’t paint the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving feast, I find this to be a much nicer way to eat, so you aren’t surrounded by people plus dishes!

• If you want some additional quick recipes, check out Mark Bittman’s fantastic “101 Tips for the Big Day” from the New York Times. This is well worth reading and printing out; I always refer to it this time of year; Bittman is the king of quick tips and simplicity and is always so helpful.

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Week Night Dinner Series #5: Chicken (or Tofu) Stir Fry with Spicy Peanut Sauce
You can serve this over rice or another grain, but I like the simpleness of just veggies and meat.

I know I’ve mentioned before, but Monday dinners have to be pronto, with a capital P; I get home from the gym long after 7 p.m. and I’m famished. So dinner has to be made quickly or I may find myself stopping at the grocery store before I leave town for something unhealthy to eat. Stir fry is my go-to meal, but lately I’ve getting bored with my usual hoisen sauce mixture. This is my latest creation, a delicious spicy, peanutty sauce that makes you want to lick the plate and go back for seconds!

If you chop your chicken the night before, one step is already done. I chop the veggies when I get home, everything tossed into a hot skillet, and the sauce whisked together while everything is cooking. In actuality, everything can be prepped ahead of time, making this an even quicker meal!

Veggies are whatever are in the vegetable bin, but my favorite combination these days are red peppers, zucchini, onions, broccoli (can this possibly be becoming a favorite vegetable?), and carrots. A small chicken breast or some tofu are what I use as protein. I don’t measure, but I’d say the ratio is 3:1, veggies to protein.

Instructions

1. Warm a couple of teaspoons of oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the vegetables and cook until barely done. Remove from heat and put the mixture in a large bowl.

2. Return the skillet to the stove, add a little bit more oil, and add your chicken or tofu and cook until done. While this is cooking, mix up the peanut sauce.

3. When the chicken or tofu is done cooking, mix in the vegetables. Add the peanut sauce, make sure everything is covered evenly, and serve!

Spicy Peanut Sauce
2 Tablespoons peanut butter
2-3 Tablespoons hot water
1 teaspoon soy sauce (or tamari)
1 generous teaspoon sambal oelek (or less if you like things less spicy)

In a small bowl, add the peanut butter and hot water. Whisk together until it make a thin paste (the amount of water you add will depend on the oilness of your peanut butter). Whisk in the soy sauce and sambal oelek. Taste test to make sure all the flavors meld well together and adjust accordingly.

Cook’s Note: Sambal oelek is a garlicky chili sauce you can find in the supermarket in the ethnic foods section. But if you can’t find it, you can substitute red chili pepper flakes; start with 1/2 teaspoon and work your way up to the desired heat.

Week Night Dinner Series: Shrimp and Bean Salad

DSCN0419This is one of those delicious dinners that doesn’t take a lot of time to make and is what my nutritionist would call a “balanced” meal: a good protein, good fat, and good carbs.

I had been thinking for some time of creating a salad including the shrimp I had in the freezer and a can of beans I had in the cupboard. So one lazy Friday night when I didn’t feel like cooking, this came together nicely and actually fits into the “Speedy Gonzales” category of last week’s blog and the Work Night Dinner series I began in the spring!

Don’t worry if you have frozen shrimp; when I got home from work, I pulled some out and put them in a bowl of cold water and went about doing stuff around the house. When it was time to make dinner, they were defrosted. Of course, you can buy fresh or frozen cooked shrimp, and that would make it even easier and quicker! This recipe is a cut, chop, throw everything into a bowl, and stir. Dishes like these are the best because they’re so easy!

Helpful Kitchen Tip: I always buy my frozen shrimp raw, because I think the frozen, cooked shrimp can sometimes be tough, even though for convenience sake they’re great. But if you have raw shrimp, they are super simple to cook. Warm a little bit of olive oil in a skillet, add the shrimp, and any seasonings you’d like (wine, garlic, onion) or nothing at all, and let it simmer for about three minutes. When they turn pink, they are done!

This is a perfect summertime dish to share with friends, so make it soon before the coolness of fall is upon us!

Shrimp and Bean Salad
A lot of this recipe is based on how you would like the dish; if you want more beans, more shrimp, more lime juice, let your own creative dishes flow with this! My recipe is just a baseline, go crazy and add other veggies or spices to this!

2-3 cups cooked shrimp
1 can Great Northern or cannellini beans (or another white bean), drained and rinsed
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
About one cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
About ½ avocado, diced
Some scallions, to taste
½ jalapeno pepper chopped, if desired
A little bit of cilantro, if desired
The juice of about ½ lime, or to taste

In a large mixing bowl, add the shrimp, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, avocado, scallions, pepper and cilantro, if using, and stir gently. Add the lime juice. Serve!

Week Night Dinner Series: Bean Burritos

Sometimes, just sometimes, you are rewarded for waking before dawn.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you are rewarded for waking before dawn.

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding dinner is coming later and later with the terrific weather we’ve been having these days. So when I get in the house, I want to eat–STAT!

I created this one evening after mowing the lawn and was home alone for dinner. It’s quick and easy to make, and is basically cobbling together ingredients together, putting it in the oven, and eating! Just open up a can of black beans, drain and rinse, and in a large bowl add the beans and a dash or two of dried cumin for flavor. You can also add a little spritz of fresh lime juice if you have it. Take a flour tortilla shell, add a couple of tablespoons of grated sharp cheese (or slice off thin slices instead), add ½ cup of the beans, ¼ cup of frozen corn, roll, and place in a baking pan. Add a little more cheese on the outside, cover with foil, and heat at 350 for roughly 20 minutes or so.

I try to make these work night dinner recipes just five ingredients, but with this recipe there are lots of additions that could make this even more fabulous: avocado, lettuce, green scallions, salsa, and sour cream. If you want to bypass the beans and have leftover meat in the fridge, this would be terrific with leftover chicken, pork, or steak.

My recipe makes one burrito, so you can either whip up a batch for leftovers, or you can add some scallions and grape tomatoes to the remaining beans and have it for a  later meal as a side salad!

This photo doesn't really do the dish justice, but trust me, it's delicious!

This photo doesn’t really do the dish justice, but trust me, it’s delicious!

Bean Burrito for One
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
A dash or two of cumin
Fresh lime juice, optional
5 Tablespoons grated sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup frozen corn
1 flour tortilla

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Take the drained and rinsed black beans and place in a mixing bowl. Add the cumin and lime juice, if using.

3. Place the tortilla shell on a baking pan. Add 2-3 tablespoons of cheese, ½ cup of black beans, and the corn. Roll and place seam-side down. Top with the remaining cheese.

4. Bake for about 20 minutes. Serve atop a bed of lettuce, with avocado, salsa, and sour cream on the side. Add green scallions if desired.

Week Night Dinner Series: Late-Night Supper Salad

This is an occasional series on healthy, quick-to-make, late-night dinners.

I usually get home from work anywhere from 5:30 to 6 p.m. If I go to the gym or for a walk, dinner gets started after 7 and we eat after 8. So I know all about late-night dinners. I came up with this recipe (a word I use very loosely) on a late Saturday night when we were on our way home, tired and hungry. It is so easy, and with just a few ingredients, it literally takes minutes. So quickly in fact that the eater of the house had just barely settled down with some chips and salsa to tide him over until we ate when I said dinner was ready!

This dish  has the perfect combination of what nutritionists say you need in each meal–protein, carbohydrates, and good fat–and it’s all wrapped up on one salad plate. Flavorful greens, some sweet grape tomatoes, heart-healthy olive oil, and protein from steak (or another kind of meat if you prefer). And it’s a perfect meal if you are running late and not sure what to make; you can grab the ingredients at the supermarket on the way home.

I don’t usually go for ready-made ingredients, but sometimes I splurge on crumbled cheese. It’s a great addition to the salad, I love gorgonzola, but you can substitute feta, goat, parmesan, or leave it out if you prefer. For the meat, you can broil it, grill it, or pan sear it. Vegetarians can use beans in place of the meat; I’ve done that too. You can add extra veggies if you like, and if you want some zing, add a splash or two of lemon juice or a tangy vinegar!

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Late-Night Supper Salad

1 salad bowl or plate of greens (baby spinach, spring mix, et. al)
A few grape tomatoes, halved
About 4 ounces of cooked protein (steak, chicken, fish, pork)
Extra virgin olive oil
A couple teaspoons of crumbled cheese (gorgonzola, goat, feta, parmesan, etc.) (optional)

Take a salad plate or bowl and add the greens and tomatoes. Add the meat, and top with the olive oil and cheese, if using.

Week Night Dinner Series: Beef and Lentil Hash

A cold and foggy morning.

A cold and foggy morning.

As I was lamenting what to make for dinner the other evening, I started pondering the fact that so many of my articles and recipes are for special evenings or weekend cooking. But what about work nights? Believe me, I certainly am one for opening up a jar of spaghetti sauce and boiling up some pasta. Or tossing some chicken sausages together with some veggies. Or a big salad with some added chicken. Work night dinners need to be quick, easy, and healthy, so I thought I’d start this series where I occasionally will pass along a recipe that fits this description perfectly.

One of the big things these days in the nutrition world is to have a good fat, a healthy protein, and a complex carbohydrate in one meal. This dinner brings together all three, healthy olive oil for the fat, some lean beef, and lentil beans. Add some spices and it is dinner! The only thing that really takes any time is cooking the lentils, but you can either make them in advance, or put them on to cook when you get in the door. Once you put them in boiling water, it takes about 30 minutes for them to get soft, so you don’t need to hover around the stove, you can go off and do other things.

From beginning to end, once the lentils are cooked this takes about 15 minutes at the most to put together. And this can be versatile too; I thought some mushrooms might be a great addition, or if you have some leftover rice or another grain, you could toss those in too. Add a simple green salad and you have dinner for a work night!

Beef and Lentil Hash
Serves 2

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
½ of a large onion, finely chopped
½ pound beef
About 1 1/2 cups cooked brown lentils
A few dashes of curry powder
A dash of cayenne pepper (optional for those who aren’t chili heads!)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Warm the olive oil in a medium-sized skillet. Add the onion and cook until soft.
2. Add the beef and cook until done.
3. Add the lentils and spices. Dinner is ready!

Cook’s Notes:
• To cook the lentils, take a medium-sized saucepan, fill with water, and bring to a boil. Stir in ½ cup of lentils and simmer until soft, about 30 minutes or so.
• If your beef is rather fatty and gives off a lot of grease, just drain it in a colander before adding the lentils and spices.
• I didn’t measure the spices, I just tossed in enough to flavor the dish. You can do the same; experiment by adding as much or as little as you would like!