Quick Meals for Busy Days

For most of my life, I ignored the daily task of cooking. It seemed like a dull job, and one that I didn’t care to spend much of my time on. Other people threw pasta into boiling water, broke ground beef into bits, and baked potatoes, and I was fine with eating whatever resulted.

This sounds a little snooty, I guess, but the truth is that cooking wasn’t something to which I gave any thought. Food happened, I ate it, and that was that. When I needed to make food, I usually dumped it out of a can and threw it into the microwave. I went a long time surviving on ramen noodles, peanut butter sandwiches, spaghetti, and Campbell’s soup.

This is a radical change from the way I eat, now. Right this very moment, the smell of baking bread is wafting through my house, a loaf that I made from scratch. I can roast whole chickens; make my own broth; whip up cookies, cupcakes, and ice-cream; and even serve up fresh, home-made pasta noodles. If I have a recipe for it, I can make it, and sometimes I can make it even if I don’t have a recipe.

It turns out I love delicious, complicated food.

Of course, as much as I would love to have hours every day to work on cooking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, the reality is that I don’t. There are diapers to change, books to read, walks to take, letters to learn, laundry to do, a job to prepare for, and stories to write. Sometimes I look at the clock, and I can’t believe that dinner time is fast approaching. And if I’m in the middle of an intense writing sprint, then I definitely have to cut down the time that dinner takes.

When life gets busy, though, I have built up a list of recipes that I turn to that are super quick while still satisfying my foodie needs. And now, I will share those recipes with you. Also, so I can look at this page when I’m trying to remember all these amazing meals.

First up are a few recipes from the site Half Baked Harvest. This is my go-to site when I want a recipe that is rich and flavorful, and Tieghan Gerard has never let me down. I’m eagerly anticipating the upcoming cookbook, which is guaranteed to be packed with delicious food.

A lot of recipes here are longer and complicated, but a few of them are so ridiculously fast, and these are the ones I go to when I’m busy.

15 minute Bangkok Peanut Mango Pasta is low in ingredients, really fast to throw together, and also delicious. I’ve even substituted soba noodles for the pasta, which makes it even faster, and it came out great.

Fast Recipes for Busy Writers - Peanut Mango Pasta
Oh so tasty.

If hearty Italian fare is what you’re craving, then Crockpot Tuscan Sausage and White Bean Ragu with Buttered Gnocci just cannot be beat. It takes a little planning to get everything in the slow cooker in the morning, but then in the evening you just need to cook up some gnocci (or if your family hates gnocci like my very strange family, any other kind of pasta) and scoop the sauce on top. This meal is ridiculously decadent, good enough for guests, hearty enough to serve a crowd, and just plain delicious.

Then, there’s Crockpot Salsa Verde Chicken Pozole, which is not only fast, it’s also fun to make. You need a food processor for this one, or you can cheat and buy canned salsa verde. I do recommend trying it as written at least once, though, because that fresh-roasted salsa verde is awesome.

If you want to explore some more, then here’s a whole listing of all the quick recipes from Half Baked Harvest. Just try not to drool all over your keyboard as you scroll through.

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Okay, I’m back from scrolling through all that beautiful food photography.

If you’re looking for something even faster that you also want to eat on a hot summer day, then the Greek Tortellini Salad from Two Peas and Their Pod is great. It is also a huge hit with my kids, once Little Dude has picked out the tomatoes. The Hubs picks out the cucumbers. He says the smell reminds him of copperhead snakes, which I say is weird.

Some other basic recipes that come together super fast, but are still satisfying include baked potatoes with toppings (I always follow Alton Brown’s method, and my potatoes come out great every time), veggie and cheese frittatas, and lentil beans over rice with naan on the side. All of these recipes are incredibly versatile, adaptable to a wide range of flavors and ingredients, and are also satisfying. When I’m cooking for my family, these are all necessary qualities.

As for that bread I talked about earlier, I often follow standard recipes because my stand mixer does such a great job taking care of the kneading that I don’t expend much effort. But, when time is lacking, I love using the recipes in the book The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. The theory is that one can stir together a huge batch of very wet dough, let the yeast go to work for a couple of hours, and then throw the dough into the refrigerator to use at any time in the next two weeks. I’ll admit that I was skeptical of how bread would come out without at least a little bit of kneading, but the results so far have been great. In the last week I’ve used a rye recipe to make a loaf of plain rye, a loaf of muesli bread, a loaf of granola bread, and a loaf with cranberries. Being able to pull some dough out of the refrigerator, add in a few extra ingredients, and then throw it in the oven is addictive.

Oh, and using the dough for a pizza crust resulted in the best pizza I’ve ever made at home.

fast meals for writers
This pizza was ridiculously fast and easy.

And finally, my number one resource for fast, gourmet-tasting recipes is Sheet Pan Suppers. This is the cookbook on my shelf that sees the most use. I pull it off the shelf at least once a week, which is a ton for me. Most of the recipes are incredibly quick, and the flavor they pack for the time they take is on a whole other level. Some of my favorites include the Curried Chicken with Califlower, Apricots & Olives; Warm Tuna Nicoise Salad; Soy-Mustard Salmon & Broccoli; Cilantro-Lime Steamed Halibut & Spicy Coconut Rice; Fancy Tuna Melts; Thick-Cut Pork Chops With Warm Apple-Cabbage Slaw; Pepperoni French Bread Pizza; Hearty Ratatouille with Goat Cheese; and Smoked Cheddar & Apple Grilled Cheese.

Yes, I love this book. It introduces some really great techniques that make for delicious results. Seriously, you can’t beat making six grilled-cheese sandwiches at a time in the oven.

When I’m busy and hungry, then these are the recipes that I turn to. They all satisfy my desire for flavorful food, fit my family’s tastes as well, and come together fast. They are basically the perfect NaNoWriMo recipes for my fellow foodies. To say the least, I’ve tested all of them extensively, and they’ve never let me down. So, if you’re looking for some satisfying meals during your next writing sprint, then I recommend you try some of these.

Plus, I’m always on the lookout for more recipes. Do you have a list of favorite meals for busy evenings? If so, I’d love to hear about them!

 

 

 

Green Goddess Sandwiches & Musings on Writing

Some people like to get a manicure now and then. Some people go to Yoga class a few nights a week. Some like to buy really nice shoes, and some fly remote-control quad-coptors. There are, I’m sure, a million other little luxuries that people indulge in that I know nothing about.

As for me, I like to cook. It’s chopping, stirring, baking, and the drizzling of olive oil that soothes me, that feels like a special treat. And then, of course, the eating! I have always loved to eat delicious food, and then I learned how to make food, and I became obsessed.

Cooking is such a strange thing to consider a luxury. After all, anyone who has to eat must prepare food, or find someone willing to prepare it for them. And yet, there’s a certain type of meal preparation that seems to be gaining value and appreciation. Creating meals from raw ingredients, from scratch, is a cultural movement, and one that I gladly consider myself a part of.

Whole Sandwich
Food – I’m pretty sure this is as close to magic as most of us get.

 

I found this recipe for Green Goddess Sandwiches. Not only are the photos gorgeous, the ingredients are also just the sort of thing I like. Crunchy cucumbers, smooth avocado, crisp lettuce, and wheat bread – I’m sold. I added the ingredients to my grocery list, knowing that the sandwich would take a lot of extra time to make, but knowing that it would be worth it.

The day when I made them was warm, and the sun shone on our back porch. The kids spent most of their time out on the back porch, or down in the yard. There is nothing like a day nice enough for Little Dude and Little Miss to go out and get dirty, maybe sample a few insects, move rocks around, and stomp all over the strawberries. All the extra space minimizes fighting, and pulling up grass can entertain them for a good thirty minutes. That morning I particularly needed the mental rest this provided, since I’d had a job interview the day before, and I was preoccupied with wondering whether or not I’d get it, as well as what all our lives would be like if I did.

Definitely not so many mornings of drinking coffee and writing in my notebook when my household tasks allowed.

Just before lunch, I pulled out the ingredients. I’ll admit, I hadn’t bought quite everything, and I wasn’t going to make up the excellent-looking aioli used in the recipe. The kids wouldn’t eat it, and I didn’t want to have to wash out the blender after I made aioli for one person’s sandwich.

So, I made my sandwiches with cucumbers, avocado, mayo, a crunchy lettuce mix, and fresh basil leaves.

I made thin, thin slices of cucumber. I just love the way light shines through them when their cut, that magical pale green jelly around the seeds. Plus, the kids love cucumber. Little Miss always calls them pickles, even when they’re fresh.

Ingredients
Food in bowls makes me weirdly happy. Just look at all that potential!

It always amazes me how many different things my knife can do. It’s taken years to learn how to cut up different types of veggies for different types of recipes. But this one thing, depending on how I use it, can slice cucumber, and also break down an avocado. A slice around that giant seed in the middle, a twist to separate the halves, and then a whack to drive the edge into the seed. Another twist to pull it out.

I scooped the fatty innards of the avocado out with a spoon, and then sliced it. It was just ripe enough, which is such a tricky thing with avocados. I’ve learned how to pick them, for the most part, but sometimes I cut one open before it’s quite ready, and the flesh is the texture of watery plastic.

I sliced some circles of mozzarella, too, knowing that would probably be the kids’ favorite part. Little Miss and Little Dude can eat their body-weight in cheese, especially fresh mozzarella.

I love the part of cooking where all the ingredients are ready, and then it’s time to assemble the food. Ah, look, here before me is all this stuff. Now, watch as I turn it into a thing!

For the kids, I put mozzarella and cucumber slices between two pieces of bread. Even that seemed like it might not go over great, so I made it even more attractive by cutting it into a heart shape with a giant cookie-cutter. Then I hoped Little Dude wouldn’t throw all the cucumbers on the floor.

For my sandwich, I added everything, piled up in all these lovely green layers between some lovely, hearty wheat.

The kids, amazingly, ate their whole sandwiches. Not a single cucumber fell on the ground.

And I consider myself very fortunate that I could sit and eat my sandwich with a book in my hand. It was as tasty as it looks, and the textures were just exactly right. I felt like, for a few minutes, I sat in a little cafe, with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris in my hand.

I’ll take some time with a perfect sandwich and a book over a manicure any day, but that’s just me.

Cut Sandwich
Perfect lunch.

 

Speaking of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris, what a great book! I don’t understand how I didn’t know about this novel before, because it is everything that I like. It’s as if Jane Austen had decided to write a book about wizards.

It is also a gigantic book, rivalling even the last few Harry Potter books in thickness, and with dense paragraphs. It might take me weeks to read it, and then I probably ought to get back to modern-day science fiction.

I’m still looking for a published book that I can use as comparison to the book I’ve written. Supposedly the industry very much likes when an author can do this, because it helps narrow down the market where the book will succeed, and it also indicates that the author has read a lot and knows what he or she is talking about. Either I’ve written a really oddball book, or I just haven’t read enough yet to be able to find its place in the literary world.

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Last week, I didn’t write much, but I cooked a lot. It doesn’t satisfy my need to make things in exactly the same way, but it’s sufficient, and it has the bonus of being something necessary. The family has to eat, and I can make them food.

Little Miss and Little Dude don’t get much from the writing I do, except perhaps a calmer, more centered parent.

In all the preparations for my new job, writing was definitely pushed clear off the stove. There was paperwork to fill out, meetings to attend, and clothing to buy. And if there’s one thing that crushes all the energy out of me, it’s shopping for clothes. Trying on twenty different pairs of pants, none of which fit, and none of which I even like, drains the inspiration right out of my body. Several days this week I returned home from the stores exhausted, and unable to write a word.

Those days, I was glad to make dinner. I savored the roasting of chicken and the rising of pizza dough. After a few good meals, I found my energies recharged. Today, I’ve been able to write again, to further my story while crunching on granola and drinking coffee.

I still haven’t found a pair of pants, though.

Sandwich and book
Can’t complain.

Writer Fuel – Pumpkin Muffins Edition

Writer Fuel – Pumpkin Muffins Edition

Do you know what every writer needs? Food. And while I’m all for sitting down with a spoonful of Nutella, sometimes what’s really (really) needed for those long writing sessions is something fresh out of the oven.

I’m way, way more likely to stick to my word goal if I have some delicious, home-made sustenance.

I know there are tons of pumpkin muffin recipes out there, but these are perfect. And I know that because I’ve made them almost once a week since the first of September, tweaking the batches until they came out totally, absolutely perfect. Perfect, I say.

They are soft, with a nice firm crust, plenty of pumpkin flavor, Maple syrup, and chai-inspired spices. These are all-out, gourmet, top-shelf pumpkin muffins. Plus, they are super quick to make.

As if that wasn’t enough, they’re also pretty healthy. These delicious little guys have it all.

pumpkin-muffins
I can smell them now. Mmmm.

Do you want to know what the key is to really fabulous muffins? It’s not super precise measuring, although that helps. It’s not some fancy pan. With muffins, the secret is all in how you stir.

I know this, because it’s what my grandma taught me. And my grandma could make an incredible muffin. It didn’t matter if it was from a box mix or from scratch, her muffins were perfect. Because she knew how to stir them.

First of all, the wet and the dry ingredients have to be combined in separate bowls. Don’t skip this step. All the flour, spices, and baking soda/powder to one side; all the milk, eggs, wet sweeteners, and oils to the other side. You want those ingredients combined before you put everything together.

Don’t skip it. Don’t make my grandma mad.

Then, the wet and the dry go together, but carefully. I don’t even really stir them. I use more of a folding action to get them combined. And then, before you think it’s mixed, stop folding. I leave a few hunks and lumps of flour in the batter. Most of the time those lumps bake out. Very occasionally I’ll get a little bit of flour in a muffin, but it’s totally worth the incredibly soft texture.

As long as you are careful with your stirring, you will have an incredibly soft muffin. Promise.

Now that you’ve tolerated my lecture on proper muffin stirring, here is the recipe for my Maple Spiced Pumpkin Muffin.

pumpkin-muffins-2
Writer fuel at it’s very best.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 cup wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup neutral-flavored oil (like safflower or canola)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup milk (you may not need it all, depending on how moist the pumpkin puree is)
  • pumpkin seeds (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease or line a 12-muffin pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: both flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Then add the pumpkin, oil, maple syrup, and vanilla. (save the last wet ingredient, milk, for later) Mix well.

Alternate adding the dry ingredients and the milk to the wet ingredients. As in, add in half the flour mixture, then half the milk, stir together. Then add in the last half of the flour mixture and the last half of the milk, and stir together. Remember to fold gently, and don’t overmix. You may not need all the milk, depending on how moist the pumpkin puree is. I find different brands are, well, different. You want your batter to be pretty thick for these muffins.

Using a large spoon, or if you are very fancy, an ice cream scoop, fill your muffin pan. Each divot should be about 3/4 full. I’m a rebel, though, so I usually go a little higher.

If you are very fancy, you can sprinkle on some pumpkin seeds.

Put them in the oven and bake for twenty minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let them cool about five minutes, and then pop them out of the pan onto a cooling rack. I use a fork to loosen around the edge. Grandma always went with a butter knife, and she was really careful not to scrape the bottom of the tin.

Enjoy!

Alternate Options

Bonus! I also make these muffins with chocolate chips. When I do, I reduce the maple syrup to 1/2 cup, add a little more milk, and stir in 1/2 cup of chocolate chips to the batter. This is my husband’s favorite way to have a pumpkin muffin.