30-minute Meals
Quick and healthy dinners using ready-made ingredients

By Andrew Schloss
Photos by Quentin Bacon

Americans have been spending less time preparing dinner for decades now, but most cookbooks haven’t kept up with the trend. Directions still call for chopping carrots, mincing garlic, and tearing heads of lettuce, even when these products come conveniently prepackaged at the store.

Is ready-made really more expensive? You might notice that ready-to-use products seem more expensive at first glance. For example, a 10-ounce bag of washed and torn romaine leaves sells for the same price as an unwashed head of romaine weighing twice as much. However, after you wash the romaine and discard its core, larger ribs, and any damaged leaves, you’re left with about 12 ounces of servable lettuce. Not much of a price difference after all. Many of today’s ready-made foods are healthy, convenient, and multipurpose, helping time-pressured home cooks to make fabulous, “from scratch” meals in minutes. Most of these items fall into one of two groups: familiar ingredients packaged for instant use (torn and washed lettuce, shredded carrots, minced garlic) and exotic condiments available in jars or cans (think curry paste, basil pesto, Thai peanut sauce). The second group offers especially rich options for cooks who want to experiment with exciting flavors and ethnic cuisines but are daunted by the time it takes to prepare fresh tapenade or demi-glace.

By stocking your pantry with well-chosen convenience foods, you’ll enjoy the same tools used by professional chefs to create healthy, elaborate-sounding dishes in a fraction of the time. Give these 30-minute menus a try and learn a few choice shortcuts that will revolutionize the way you cook.

Menu 1
Mexican Monkfish Stew
Hominy Nachos
Serve with: Premade coleslaw Mexican Monkfish Stew

Serves 6 / Premade red tomato salsa is the base for this simple broth, with green tomatillo salsa added for tartness and color. Monkfish is a firm white-flesh fish; any firm seafood, such as shrimp, scallops, or salmon, can take its place. Ask your fishmonger to remove the monkfish membranes for you.

1-1/2 pounds monkfish fillets, cut in 8 chunks
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, jarred or fresh
1 16-ounce jar tomato salsa, medium hot
1 cup water
1 large (9 grams) fish-flavored bouillon cube
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup salsa verde, any heat level
1 avocado, peeled and diced

1. Place fish chunks in a large bowl and season with lemon juice, salt, pepper, and garlic.

2. Heat salsa and water until boiling in a large saucepan. Stir in bouillon until dissolved. Stir in oil. Add monkfish with juices and simmer for 10 minutes, until fish is firm and opaque.

3. Just before serving, swirl salsa verde into the stew, but do not mix too thoroughly. (The green and red salsas should form a marble pattern.) Garnish with diced avocado.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 174 calories % fat calories: 47 Fat: 9g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 29mg Carbohydrate: 5g Protein: 19g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 699mg

Hominy Nachos

Serves 6 / A laid-back presentation and vibrant flavors make this vegetable side dish a perfect accompaniment for the stew or for a casual meal of sandwiches.

1 19-ounce can whole hominy (corn kernels, hulls removed), drained and rinsed
1 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, preferably yellow
1 cup green or red salsa, or a mixture

1. Arrange hominy, beans, and cheese in even layers on a microwave-safe platter. Microwave at full power for 21/2 minutes or until cheese is melted. Spoon salsa over top.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 144 calories % fat calories: 23 Fat: 4g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 10mg Carbohydrate: 21g Protein: 7g Fiber: 7g Sodium: 515mg

Menu 2
Farfalle with Feta and Cracked Olives
Sautéed Grape Tomatoes with Pesto
Serve with: Romaine tossed with walnuts, oranges, and garlic vinaigrette Farfalle with Feta and Cracked Olives

Serves 6 / Chunky sauces need nooks in which to nestle. Farfalle—pasta that’s pinched in the center, like tiny bow ties—is just right for trapping bits of olive tapenade and crumbled feta that are the beginning and end of this simple sauce. Add garbanzos for extra fiber and protein.

1 12-ounce package large farfalle (bow tie) noodles
1 8-ounce jar olive tapenade, excess oil drained
1 15-ounce can garbanzos (chickpeas), drained and rinsed (optional)
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Heat a large pot of lightly salted water until boiling. Add pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.

2. Drain and toss with the olive tapenade, garbanzos (if using), feta, salt, and pepper in a serving bowl.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 396 calories % fat calories: 46 Fat: 19g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 25mg Carbohydrate: 45g Protein: 12g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 1059mg

Sautéed Grape Tomatoes with Pesto

Serves 4–6 / Grape tomatoes are sweeter than cherry tomatoes, and they’re easier to eat in a single bite. They’ve become the darling of crudités platters and the poster veggie for healthy snacks. Here, they are sautéed for a few minutes and tossed with flavorful pesto and Parmesan.

1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion, fresh or frozen
1 pint (12 ounces) grape tomatoes
1 teaspoon minced garlic, jarred or fresh
2 tablespoons basil pesto, jarred or fresh, excess oil drained
1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Heat oil in a large skillet and sauté onion until tender. Add tomatoes and sauté until they blister and burst, about 3 minutes.

2. Stir in garlic. Remove from heat and stir in pesto, cheese, salt, and pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 30 calories % fat calories: 22 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 1mg Carbohydrate: 5g Protein: 1g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 47mg

Menu 3
Spicy Vanilla Chicken
Mint Couscous with Tart Cherries
Serve with: Grilled asparagus Spicy Vanilla Chicken

Serves 4 / “Vanilla” may be shorthand for ordinary or dull, but that’s because we need to rethink how we use it. Taste this spice out of context, and its true character blossoms. Vanilla is the fruit of a jungle orchid, and that’s the exotic flower you taste in this spicy, fruity chicken glaze, enlivened with tropical fruit.

Nonstick cooking spray
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 6 ounces each)
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 cup mango or peach salsa
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1. Spray grill rack with cooking spray and preheat grill or broiler. Spray chicken breasts with oil, and season with lemon pepper.

2. Grill chicken 2–3 inches from a high flame, about 4 minutes per side.

3. Meanwhile, combine salsa, vanilla extract, and hot pepper sauce. Spoon half of salsa mixture on top of chicken and grill 2 minutes more, or until chicken is no longer pink in the center. Serve with remaining salsa mixture.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 246 calories % fat calories: 17 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 94mg Carbohydrate: 11g Protein: 39g Fiber: 0g Sodium: 729mg

Mint Couscous with Tart Cherries

Serves 4 / In Morocco, mint and couscous are bon amis. And in my house, mint and cherries, especially tart cherries (also called pie cherries), are a favorite combination. So it was inevitable all three would meet, and I am pleased to report the triumvirate is triumphant.

1 cup water
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup packed dried tart cherries (such as Montmorency), coarsely chopped
1 cup couscous
1 teaspoon crumbled dried mint leaves, or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
Salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Boil water in a 2-quart saucepan. Remove pot from heat and add oil, cherries, couscous, mint, salt, and pepper. Cover and let rest 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and adjust seasoning.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 241 calories % fat calories: 5 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 52g Protein: 7g Fiber: 4g Sodium: 9mg Recipes adapted and reprinted with permission from Almost From Scratch by Andrew Schloss (Simon & Schuster, 2003).