Food & Drink

Dinner, improvised: Cook up a quick, delicious meal without all of the work

No dough to roll out, nothing to wait to thaw. Making french bread pizza for a weeknight couldn’t be simpler.
No dough to roll out, nothing to wait to thaw. Making french bread pizza for a weeknight couldn’t be simpler. Special to the Star-Telegram

After putting in a long day, the last thing anyone wants to do is go back to work. Endless chopping and prepping doesn’t have to bookend the last part of your day. Dinner should be delicious, but it doesn’t need to be a big deal.

How to get dinner on the table quickly?

Improvise. Use what you’ve got.

With a few basics in your pantry, you can turn leftovers into Glamour-worthy makeovers, or a speedy overnight marinade into a winner of a chicken dinner the next day. Open a can, add a handful of fresh herbs, and boom – you’ve got a pasta sauce on the way. Slice your day-old baguette lengthwise and it becomes the crust for a French bread pizza, just like that. The idea is to take something that you already have and push it to go a little bit further, into a new direction.

And do it with speed.

With all of these new recipes, I’ve used something store-bought to save time on the prep – roasted peppers from a jar on top of the French bread pizzas, made with baguette that I already had and cauliflower, already turned into rice meant one less step (and a lot less mess). I found already cooked and marinated beets in the bulk section at the grocery store, but you can also find them canned; and tuna in olive oil is worth seeking out and paying a little bit more for because it makes all the difference in the world.

Not boring recipes that take you from spring into summer. Light, easy, fast.

Pantry Basics

Being nimble with dinner is simple when you keep your pantry stocked. Then all you have to do is pick up one or two items to pull dinner together. Easy. For these recipes, I used these things that were already in my pantry:

Canned tuna

Tomatoes

Pasta

Capers

Chicken stock

Quinoa

Jarred roasted bell peppers

Cornmeal

Ellise Pierce is the author of "Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent" (Running Press). Read her blog (www.cowgirlchef.com), and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef)

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Penne with tuna and tomatoes

Makes 4 servings

If you still think canned tuna is boring, then you’ve not mixed it with pasta. Buy the best tuna you can find and it’ll make all the difference here — tuna packed in olive oil actually becomes like a sauce, evenly distributing itself all over the pasta. It’ll go both ways — I love this warm and cold, too.

  • 2 eggs

  • 8 ounces penne pasta

  • 1 (3.24 ounce) can tuna in olive oil (I like Bonito del Norte)

  • ½ of 1 (15.5 ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

  • 10 cherry tomatoes, chopped

  • sea salt and pepper to taste

  • a small handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped

  • zest of 1 lemon

1. Put the eggs in a saucepan and cover with water by a couple of inches. Put this onto boil. When it boils, reduce the heat to a simmer and set a timer for 10 minutes. Drain and put the eggs under cool running water to stop the cooking. Roughly chop the eggs.

2. At the same time you’re cooking the eggs, put a pot of salty water onto boil, too. Add the pasta to the water, reduce the heat, and cook until al dente, usually about 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the pasta. Drain.

3. Put the pasta in a medium bowl. Add the chopped eggs, tuna, beans, capers, chopped tomatoes and sea salt and pepper to taste. This is great served right away, while it’s still warm, or you can pop it in the fridge and serve it later cold. Right before serving, add the flat-leaf parsley and lemon zest.

Piri Piri chicken with cauliflower rice

Makes 4 to 6 servings

I first tried the Portuguese dish, Piri Piri chicken in Paris, at the rotisserie counter at Marks & Spencer, the British department store with a terrific food court — which just goes to show you, everyone likes a hot spicy chicken. You can use as many chiles as you like — but the more you use, and the longer you let the chicken rest in the marinade, the hotter this will be.

  • 3 serrano chiles

  • 3 large cloves of garlic, skins left on

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

  • 1 teaspoon smoky Spanish paprika

  • ⅓ cup olive oil

  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar

  • 1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Cauliflower-quinoa rice

  • 16 ounces store-bought cauliflower rice

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • sea salt and pepper to taste

  • 1 cup tri-color quinoa

  • 2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water

  • a big pinch sea salt

  • 1 tablespoon chopped mint, plus more for serving

  • 1 tablespoon chopped dill, plus more for serving

1. Make your marinade. Put the serranos and garlic in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until they brown and blister, about 10 minutes. Remove the stems from the chiles and the peel from the garlic and put in a small food processor or blender along with the sea salt, paprika, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Blend until well mixed.

2. Put the chicken thighs in a bowl or plastic bag and pour in the marinade. Make sure all of the chicken is covered in the liquid. Let rest in the fridge for at least 4 hours or overnight (easiest).

3. Preheat the oven to 425°F.

4. Spread the cauliflower rice on a large baking sheet and add the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Roast for 40 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring and turning once or twice.

5. While the cauliflower rice is cooking, make the quinoa by putting the 2 cups of stock or water onto boil. Add the quinoa, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Fluff. Mix the quinoa with the cauliflower rice and stir in the herbs. Set aside.

6. Pull the chicken pieces out of the marinade and lay them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Cook for 20 minutes or until the internal temperature reads 165°F. Serve right away with the Cauliflower rice. Add additional herbs on top.

Old-school french bread pizza

Makes 4 servings

Remember those frozen French bread pizzas? They were one of my favorite things years ago, before I started making my own. I loved the crunch of an old toasted baguette then, and turns out it’s still a good idea — even better when you make your own sauce like this one from sweet cherry tomatoes, but if you can’t find these, regular chopped tomatoes will do.

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1 (14-ounce) can cherry tomatoes

  • 4 basil leaves + more for serving

  • ½ teaspoon sea salt

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1 large French baguette

  • 1 roasted bell pepper (from a jar)

  • 10 Kalamata olives, pitted

  • 1 cup grated mozzarella

  • Parmigiano Reggiano for serving

1. Make a quick tomato sauce. Put the olive oil in a small saucepan with the torn basil leaves over medium-low heat. Let this cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until you can smell the basil. Add the tomatoes, sea salt and sugar and let cook for 20 minutes or until it reduces by about one-third.

2. Slice the baguette lengthwise, then cut each half in two. You should have 4 nice-sized pieces. Put these on a foil-lined baking sheet. Lightly spread some of the tomato sauce on top of each baguette half. Slice or tear the roasted bell pepper and divide this among the four baguette pieces. Slice the olives and divide them between the four pieces, too. Sprinkle cheese on top of each and put them in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the bread is crispy on the bottom and the cheese is melted on top. To serve, add more fresh basil and pass the Parmigiano.

Cornmeal waffles with beet and gorgonzola salad

Makes 2

This recipe makes more waffles than you’ll need, but you can never have too many waffles. Great thing is, they freeze well, and work as nicely for savory dishes like this one as they will for breakfast — to reheat, just pop them in the toaster.

Waffle recipe adapted from King Arthur Flour

Cornmeal waffles

  • 1 ¾ cups buttermilk

  • 2 large eggs

  • 5 tablespoons butter, melted

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup fine yellow cornmeal

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Balsamic vinaigrette

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot

  • sea salt and pepper to taste

  • ⅓ cup balsamic vinegar

  • ⅔ cup olive oil

Salad

  • 2 large handfuls mixed greens

  • about 6 ounces marinated beets

  • 2 ounces Gorgonzola, cut into small cubes

1. Make the waffles. Whisk together the wet ingredients — the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter — in a small bowl. Put the dry ingredients in a larger bowl, whisk together, then add the wet to the dry, stirring gently. Let this rest for 10 minutes. My waffle-maker makes 7-inch round ones, and this recipe made 6, using a half-cup measure for each one. Make your waffles and set them aside.

Save time: Make the waffles a day in advance and keep them in the freezer or fridge and simply pop them in the toaster when you’re ready to assemble the salads.

2. To make the vinaigrette, put the first 4 ingredients in a jam jar and give it a shake. Add the olive oil and shake again.

3. Assemble your salads. Put a layer of greens on two plates, then add 1 waffle, cut into smaller pieces. Put the beets in a bowl with a spoonful or two of the vinaigrette, toss, and place on top of the waffles, dividing between the two plates. Add the Gorgonzola to each salad and additional vinaigrette if necessary. I love how the vinaigrette pools in the waffle like syrup.

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