The secret to quick, tasty meals

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

Joanne Ciccarello
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.

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.

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.

Don't be concerned about storing most of these staples longer than many books recommend. Most keep indefinitely without loss of quality. Even cooked rice and cooked pasta freeze well. When needed, just drop them into boiling water for a few seconds, drain, and voilà.

Mind your knives

A good pantry and judiciously stocked freezer help in putting a good meal on the table quickly. Yet without competence in the kitchen, the meal preparation will still be slow. Having quality equipment – kitchen tools and razor-sharp knives that you know how to use efficiently – are all part of the equation.

Efficient cooks have a good knife sharpener and a steel or ceramic honer in their kitchen drawer. Good cooks use the honer daily and any time before cutting, dicing, mincing, cubing, or trimming a pile of ingredients. When your knife has to struggle to cut through tomato skin and even honing fails, that's when it's time to sharpen your knives. A few seconds of sharpening or honing make the kitchen chore so much easier to do. And hand work with a knife can be speedier than using small appliances that need cleanup time.

Compile a list of a dozen recipes that take very little work but result in a good meal. Keep them handy for times when you are totally out of time but don't want a commercially prepared dinner. For example, here are two recipes to try and keep in your own kitchen.

Baked, breaded fish

Baking in a very hot oven is a quick and very easy cooking method that works on steaks and fillets cut from any fish. The US Bureau of Fisheries developed this high-heat baking method in 1934. Set your oven to the highest possible temperature, 500 degrees F. on most ovens.

Cover the fish with flour, dip into well-mixed egg to cover all surfaces, sprinkle with salt, then dip into bread crumbs. Place this breaded fish on a lightly oiled baking sheet and drizzle it with a small amount of vegetable oil to help browning. Bake in a preheated hot oven until golden, about 10 minutes. The result is delicious – tender and juicy inside, caramel- colored and crisp outside.

German Sauerkraut and Sausage

This German-style recipe is one of the easiest dishes to prepare though it takes an hour to simmer. Provided that you use good-quality sausages and sauerkraut, it is delicious.

2 lbs. sauerkraut, well rinsed, drained

1 1/2 lbs. good-quality whole smoked German or Polish sausages

1 cup beef broth

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons fresh-ground black pepper

1 piece of smoked ham hock or ham bone

1 1/2 lbs. potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cut into large chunks

Combine sauerkraut, smoked sausage, beef broth, garlic, black pepper, and ham hock or ham bone in a two- to three-quart pot. Mix well, bring to a slow simmer, and simmer gently for one hour. Stir occasionally making sure sausages and ham hock or ham bone are covered by the liquid. Replenish liquid if needed.

A quarter of an hour before serving, boil potatoes in salted water until tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

To serve, mound the sauerkraut in center of a warm serving plate, top with sausages, surround with chunks of boiled potatoes. Serve mustard and pickles on the side and a loaf of hearty rye or potato bread.

Serves 4.

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