images by Suzi Q. Varin
If I had a nickel for every time someone whined that they didn’t have the time to throw together a simple dinner from scratch, I’d have two, maybe even three bucks by now.
Truth is, with a little forethought and creativity, you can enjoy life-affirming meals in less time than it takes to make mac & cheese from the box - literally - without breaking the bank. Talent in the kitchen isn’t even a prerequisite. If your basic culinary skill is at, say, the Paris Hilton level, these tips will improve the quality of your chow and leave you with plenty of time to do whatever it is that’s keeping you hipsters so damn busy.
GO BIG, OR GO HOME
Fast, flavorful meals are the product of inspired shopping (that’s where Paris excels). Buy ingredients at the top of the flavor and freshness chain. Not only will this heighten the flavor quotient of everything you make, but also do a lot of the hard work for you. One ounce of tangy cheese on a plain hamburger, a chopped up fennel bulb in (or as) a salad, or some sprigs of fresh rosemary cooked with a simple chicken breast can make all the difference. (Note: Louis Vuitton totes need to marinate for hours, even when bought seasonally.)
The aforementioned inspired shopping is half produce and half determination. Make the butcher your friend. He or she can do lots for you. Just by asking (nicely), butchers will give you special cuts, repackage portions and do some of the prep for you, such as trimming meats and filleting fish. That goes for the produce people as well, who are under strict orders to blow out their existing stock before replenishing the fruit and veggie displays with the latest shipments. If the Swiss chard is limp, chances are there’s a pristine bunch behind the swinging doors that’s yours for the asking. Bat those lashes.
The key to spontaneous cooking is a well-stocked artillery of non-perishables. The more you have on hand, the more options you have. Here’s your pantry primer: toasted sesame oil, hot chili oil, safflower oil, olive oil (a cheap one for basic uses and a fancy one for drizzling), balsamic vinegar, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, kalamata olives, anchovies, canned black beans, capers, dried oregano, dried thyme, ground cumin, ground cayenne pepper, flour, dried pasta, rice, sugar and honey (which tastes sweeter when served from a honey bear). Massage oil...for dessert.
PIMP YOUR TONGUE
Never let it be said that you can’t afford to cook exotic-tasting food. Fifty cents’ worth of fresh garlic, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, chilies, parsley, lime or lemon - and a few seconds of squeezing, zesting or chopping - can instantly transform any ho-hum dish into a techno-flavored party in your mouth that’d make Snoop proud. By developing the confidence to add them in bold quantities, you can knock out simple meals that’re as impressive as they are inexpensive. Fah shizzle.
KEEP YOUR NOODLE FRESH
Fresh pasta cooks in about one-fourth the time of dried pasta.
ROLL WITH IT
A rustic baguette or dinner roll is a perfect accompaniment to almost any meal (except one attended by an Atkins freak). Even at artisanal prices, crusty bread is still one of the ultimate affordable luxuries. Stock up and store it in your freezer, then crisp in your oven just before serving.
DINE AND DASH
Life and manicures are too short to scour! Non-stick pans save time at the sink.
To prove my thesis, I’m dropping my Aglio Olio recipe on you. Put on your Iron Chef hat and find a challenger willing to stir up some mac & cheese. If your pasta doesn’t kick its butt, I’ll give you your nickel back.
Six Minute Aglio Olio
(Serves two hungry, impatient diners)
2 servings fresh angel hair pasta (or dried if you have an extra 2 or 3 minutes to spare)
1 T salt
3 T olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 1 t chili pepper flakes (depending on your heat tolerance)
1 lemon, zested
1/2 cup fresh parsley (regular or Italian), chopped finely
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 t freshly grated black pepper
Bring a pot of water to a boil (then start the clock if you’re taking the challenge).
Add salt to the water, then add pasta. Cook according to directions.
In a sauté pan over medium high heat, add oil, minced garlic and chili flakes. Sauté for 1 minute, or until garlic just begins to turn golden. Remove from heat until pasta is cooked. Drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Add pasta and reserved pasta water to sauté pan. Add zest, parsley and black pepper. Toss thoroughly and top with cheese.