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Dinner in 15 minutes

Date

Sometimes life’s too short to prise seeds from a pomegranate to put in a tajine - especially on weeknights. There are some evenings when time and energy to spend in the kitchen are in short supply - that’s why supermarkets have freezers and chillers packed with ready meals and there’s a queue at the local takeaway. But somewhere between the frozen pizza and the home-cooked pork belly with parsnip remoulade, there’s a middle ground – fast food made from cupboard staples that deliver healthy dinners in minutes. 

With the right ingredients – plus can opener - cupboard cuisine can be surprisingly good, like the speedy version of Italian chickpea soup that was our last minute dinner for two last week.

"These rescue recipes trump generic flavoured ready meals, save a bundle on takeaway and give you more control over the ingredients – easy on the salt, no dodgy fats and a good hit of fibre.  

The traditional recipe for pasta e ceci calls for slow cooked chick peas that have been soaked beforehand. Instead I emptied a 400g can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, into a saucepan with sautéed onions (the kind that come pre-chopped from a supermarket freezer), along with crushed garlic, chilli flakes, a can of tomatoes, two cups of stock and a cup of risoni (that tiny rice like pasta that cooks quickly in hot liquid), and half a teaspoon of sugar to smooth out the tomato. Lots of white pepper and a handful of fresh basil (optional) finished it off and we had dinner for two, including a green salad in about 15 minutes. That’s less than the time it takes to stand in line at the takeaway and much cheaper.

There are two keys to making cupboard cuisine work. The first is a stash of versatile ingredients with a long shelf life. In the pantry that means plenty of cans - canned tuna, canned tomatoes, canned legumes like black beans, borlotti beans, cannellini beans, chick peas and lentils, tomato paste, faster cooking pastas (like spaghettini and angel hair), wholegrain or kamut cous cous (gutsier and more filling than regular cous cous), stick soba noodles, and nuts – pine nuts, pistachios, pecans and cashews are good for adding protein to mains), plus olive oil and vinegars. In the freezer there’s frozen chopped onion and  frozen peas along with frozen stir fry mix – not in the same league as fresh broccoli and snow peas, but still  nutritious and the basis of an instant dinner - stir-fried veg with a little fish sauce, chilli, fresh ginger  and cashew nuts.

Note the fresh ginger: that’s where the second key to cupboard cuisine comes in. You need ingredients that add good flavours and it's best if some of these are fresh. Fresh garlic, ginger and even galangal (for grating into stir fried veg) all keep for a long time in the fridge, as do fresh chillies although chilli flakes are fine if you’re pushed. Fresh herbs give big flavour boosts too – use them generously and there’s no waste.  Olives, capers and anchovies, are other good keepers in the fridge – just remember they’re high in salt, so go easy.

With these ingredients, you’ve the makings of a few 15-minute dinners, like tuna or cannellini beans tossed with warm pasta, garlic, chilli, olives, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts, or any number of quick one pot dishes based on a can or two of legumes. Think soups with borlotti beans, mega salads with fat butter beans and pistachios or a spicy mix of canned black beans, tomatoes, sweet corn chilli and cumin on wholegrain cous cous, with an avocado salad on the side.

None of these dishes will make it to MasterChef or the menu at Rockpool. But when time is short these rescue recipes trump generic flavoured ready meals, save a bundle on takeaway and give you more control over the ingredients – easy on the salt, no dodgy fats and a good hit of fibre.  

What's your tip for making dinner in minutes?

75 comments so far

  • Frozen onions? Really? Fresh onions keep for ages.

    Commenter
    mpm
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 23, 2012, 10:09AM
    • I agree - fresh onions keep well, but  at times when I want to produce a meal in minutes, pre-chopped onion from the freezer  speeds things up

      Commenter
      Paula
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 10:23AM
    • Yeah, this boggles my mind too. It takes all of 20 seconds to dice an onion. The only vegetable that has an excuse to be in your freezer should be peas

      Commenter
      cygirl
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 11:12AM
    • There's nothing wrong with frozen vegetables. Actually, research has consistently found fresh and frozen vegetables to have similar nutritional value. Some frozen vegetables often have higher nutrient values, particularly vitamin C.

      Commenter
      JR
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 1:10PM
    • I'm wirth cygirl.

      Frozen veg may be the same or better nutritionally, but its soggy and tastes like .....

      Commenter
      Jack
      Location
      Brisbane - High and Dry
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 1:28PM
    • @cygirl - frozen vegetables outweigh most fresh vegetables when it comes to nutrient content. I am always fully stocked with frozen vegetables, crisply snap frozen immediatley after picking. Full of goodness. Yummo.

      Commenter
      Frozen girl
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 4:19PM
    • it's not about nutritional value. That you're willing to consume so much energy to buy prepackaged and frozen an onion when you could simply buy them once a week is incredible. Onions are a base ingredient in easily half the meals most people cook so you'll need to buy them. There's no excuse for not buying fresh. As for speed: learn to chop.

      Commenter
      mpm
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 5:06PM
    • Wow. There's NO excuse, mpm? Really? Do you feed fresh onions to your high horse?

      Commenter
      J
      Date and time
      May 24, 2012, 6:40AM
    • @mpm.I have been cooking for well over 20 years and I still chop almost as slowly as I did at the beginning. Rapid motor skills are simply something my body doesn't do well. I am sure there are things you still can't do well after many years of trying. I don't use frozen chopped onion myself, or any frozen veg for that matter, but I am not going to get sniffy at those who do. The point of this piece was to point out alternatives to junk food, not get on one's high horse.

      Commenter
      photondancer
      Date and time
      May 24, 2012, 10:48AM
    • No wonder Australians burn so much energy per capita.

      Commenter
      mpm
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 24, 2012, 2:37PM

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