Plan ahead for weeknight meals

Parents with kids in school prepare for the coming weeks as though training for a full-contact sport. Between returning to the exhausting routine of car pools, ballet/band/football practice and mountains of homework, figuring out the homemade dinner seems impossible.

If that's you, perhaps you just need a chef to guide you through the first couple of weeks. Caterer Jennifer Brightman-Moschel, former executive chef at the Classic Café in Roanoke, is a Colleyville mom who says you can put together a gratifying supper without loads of fuss.

With some planning and a bit of time management, Jenny prepares simple but rewarding dinners for herself, husband Jeff Moschel and their 6-year-old son, Matthew. Her examples show you how to put flavor and nutritional balance into your weeknight dinners.

Do your shopping on Sunday and whatever do-ahead steps your dishes allow, Jenny says. That leaves you time for the rest of your back-to-school rush.

Try Jenny's family favorites, like these.

Warm chicken chipotle panini

"Use rotisserie chicken in place of grilled chicken breasts to save time," Jenny says. These sandwiches are great with gazpacho.

Serves 4

4 (4-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin

Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing

2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons each ground cumin, ground coriander and ground cayenne

Kosher salt and cracked pepper to taste

8 slices country French bread (sandwich style or sourdough)

Chipotle mayo (recipe follows)

8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated

4 small bunches fresh baby spinach or arugula

2 avocados, peeled, sliced and seasoned with lime juice and kosher salt

1. Drizzle chicken with a little olive oil.

2. Mix cumin, coriander and cayenne pepper together in a small bowl, then rub into the chicken. Season with salt and pepper (if you like it a bit hotter). Cook chicken on a medium-hot grill, in a grill pan or in a panini press until the chicken is cooked through. Once cooked, set aside.

3. Dress the bread slices with chipotle mayonnaise. Spread a layer of cheese on 4 of the slices.

4. Slice the chicken into thin, diagonal pieces and place on top of the cheese. Add the spinach or arugula on top of the chicken, and the avocado slices on the greens.

5. Top the avocado with more of the cheese and put the other bread slice on top.

6. Brush both sides of the bread with olive oil and griddle in a cast-iron skillet, grill pan, panini press or electric skillet. Grill the sandwich as you would a grilled cheese sandwich, until all the cheese is melting and oozing out. Remove from the pan and slice. Serve with chilled gazpacho.

2 cups mayonnaise

1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish

3 1/2 tablespoons liquid from canned chipotle chiles (see note)

1/2 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon cilantro

Juice of half a lime

Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste.

Combine all ingredients except salt and pepper. Once combined, season with the salt and pepper. Transfer to appropriate container with a lid to store in refrigerator until ready to use. Serve chilled.

Note: If you want a really spicy mayo, use the chiles and the sauce.

Chipotle mayonnaise

Mom's gazpacho

"This is great with the hot panini sandwich," Jenny says. "And the gazpacho is best if you make it a day ahead."

4 large, very ripe beefsteak tomatoes, core removed, coarsely chopped

1 medium yellow onion, quartered

1/2 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, fresh

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup canola oil

1 generous slice of day-old French bread

1/2 cup of ice-cold water

About 3 tablespoons kosher salt

About 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper


1/4 cup diced white onion

1/4 cup diced, peeled cucumber

1/4 cup diced green bell pepper

1/4 cup toasted croutons

1. In a blender, combine tomatoes, onion, pepper, cucumber and garlic. Blend.

2. Add vinegar, oil, bread and water. Blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning as needed with salt and pepper. Add more vinegar if it's not acidic enough, or more bread if it's too acidic. Place in a plastic or glass container, cover and chill for at least one hour. Serve in chilled bowls with garnishes scattered on top.

Spaghetti casserole

Jenny likes to serve this with garlic bread and a green salad. "You can make this the day before and store in the refrigerator until ready to bake, or you can make it ahead and freeze without the evaporated milk," Jenny adds. "Add other cheeses, like Parmesan or pecorino. You can also make this vegetarian, adding more vegetables and leaving out the meat."

1 pound dry pasta, such as spaghetti noodles or penne

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 medium-size yellow onion, diced

Salt and pepper

1 (8-ounce) package of button or portobello mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 pound ground beef or turkey

1 (1.5-ounce) package of spaghetti sauce mix, such as McCormick

1 3/4 cups water or low-sodium chicken broth

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1/2 pound grated or shredded Cheddar cheese

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk

1. Cook pasta according to package directions or until al dente; drain, toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and set aside.

2. In large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil to medium-high heat, add onions and saute, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Once onions are translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes, add mushrooms and garlic and saute, seasoning lightly again with salt and pepper, about 4 to 5 minutes.

3. Add ground meat and break up in pan, stirring to brown and mixing with vegetables. Stir frequently until all of the meat is cooked through, about 5 to 6 minutes. Drain excess fat if needed.

4. Add sauce mix and stir well. Add water or broth and tomato paste, mixing until incorporated. Turn the heat down and allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes. Check seasonings and adjust as needed.

5. While the meat sauce is simmering, grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch glass dish. Spread the pasta evenly in the dish (the pasta should go halfway up the pan sides). Once the meat has cooked, evenly spread the meat mixture over the noodles. Top the meat with cheese. Pour evaporated milk over entire casserole.

6. Place casserole on the middle shelf of a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until bubbly. Remove from oven and serve.