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The secret to quick, tasty meals

A well-run kitchen is the answer to saving time without sacrificing flavor.

By George ErdoshCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2008

Quick in the oven: Breaded fish is easy to prepare using only a few ingredients and baking for 10 minutes in a very hot oven.

Joanne Ciccarello

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While hiking through the Colorado Rockies on a beautiful summer day, I decided to take a shortcut on the way down from the mountain. I knew the trail reasonably well and wasn't worried about losing it. But I did. It took me the better part of an hour to get back to the trail. That shortcut gave me plenty of extra hiking.

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Kitchen shortcuts are somewhat similar. They save time, but there is a sacrifice somewhere, usually in the quality of the end product. Instead, running an efficient, well-organized kitchen with a fully stocked pantry assures minimal kitchen work without any sacrifice in food quality. There are many shortcuts most home cooks rely on, such as using a commercial chicken broth instead of the far-better homemade stock. Or opening a can of stewed tomatoes as an alternative to chopped fresh tomatoes. Some shortcuts, however, such as not browning meat or poultry, causes the end result to suffer.

In my many years in the catering business, absolute efficiency and total organization proved to be as necessary as sharp knives and measuring cups. I still adhere to these rules in my home kitchen.

If you are a naturally well-organized and efficient person, chances are, so is your kitchen. If you are not one, efficient cooking takes learning and discipline. Here are a few professional tips on how to prepare a meal reasonably quickly without sacrificing an ounce of quality or flavor.

Keep a fully stocked pantry

As soon as an item runs low, add it to your shopping list. Nothing slows you down more than a missing ingredient. When planning to make a recipe, double-check that every single item called for is on hand.

Check your spice and herb collection: Everything should be reasonably fresh and well-stocked. Make sure you have concentrated or canned chicken and beef stock.

Frozen and dried essentials

Running out of garlic and onion – so essential in most recipes – is almost akin to running out of water or salt. In fact, I keep garlic and also ginger in ample supply in my freezer. When running low, I peel the cloves from two or three heads of garlic and finely dice them in a food processor. Then I package about three tablespoons of garlic in plastic wraps and keep the packages in a freezer bag. When cooking, frozen garlic is as good as fresh.

Ginger goes through a similar process. After washing a handful of ginger root, I cut it into small chunks without peeling and chop it with a food processor. Like the garlic, I wrap the ginger in small packets of two or three tablespoons with plastic, then store in a freezer bag.

A good pantry contains a nice supply of the essential staples: salt, sugar, flour (all-purpose and whole-wheat), rice (white and brown), pasta (one or two long and three or four short pasta products), and at least half a dozen dried legumes (lentils, split peas, and a variety of other beans). Eggs and milk are also essential – two items no cook should be without. To guard against emergencies, I keep dehydrated eggs and dried milk on hand.

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