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Make-ahead grain products simplify meals

Making "healthier" cooking easier is one of the challenges many of us stumble over. Face it: America's fast-food culture simply makes it far easier to eat poorly than to eat well.

It's up to us to find ways to simplify, simplify.

So when you hear almost every major health organization tell you to eat more grain products (after all, grains, breads and legumes make up the base of the Food Pyramid, with upwards of eight servings per day of Americans' recommended intake) you're apt to reply "Yeah, right . . ." It's tough persuading time-pressed cooks to rush into their kitchens, bring a saucepan of water to a full boil, then wait the 45 minutes or more it takes to properly steam a batch of brown rice.

Yet there are a number of ways to make it a lot easier to bring more of these vitamin-, mineral- and fiber-rich foods into your diet.

Rice

Cooking a potful of white rice is easy enough. You bring 2\ cups of water to a full boil, salt to taste, stir in 1 cup of rice and, after the water resumes boiling, just give another stir and reduce heat to a gentle simmer for 15 to 17 minutes.

You can prepare countless entrees or vegetables during that concise period of time.

If you live or often eat alone, that may seem like too much rice, but think again! I usually double-batch rice for the great convenience it affords. Transferred to one or more resealable containers, cooked rice refrigerates perfectly for 3 to 5 days if you store it away from the door.

Use make-aheads to:

Serve alongside entrees.

Combine with sauteed chopped veggies and flavorings for easy pilaf.

Stir into soups.

Blend with cheese sauce.

Fold into burritos.

Accompany leftovers from a Chinese restaurant (I always order extra rice to have it handy).

Top with a quick stir-fry.

Stretch that last half-portion of stew or a dab of sauce to for a light luncheon.

Brown rice does take longer to cook. When cooked al dente, however, it also seems to hold its shape a bit longer in the fridge, so that, while I will often let white rice simmer while a quick weeknight meal comes together, I usually cook a little extra to have it handy later.

Beans

Where it comes to building more of these foods into your daily diet, nothing is quicker than opening a can of beans. Once you have drained and rinsed them (some folks prefer to include that rich, full-bodied stock) you can stir them into soups (an easy fortifier for canned products), make easy bean burritos, add them to chili, top them with stir-fry or just dress them with shredded cheese and chopped onion for a protein-rich meatless entree. Include cornbread to create the complete protein equivalent to animal products.

If you're annoyed by the comparatively high price for a can of beans, those of us who batch-cook one day a week factor in this procedure:

Follow the quick-soak recipe on most packages of dried beans. Typically that means you will rinse beans and discard foreign matter, cover with two extra inches of hot water, bring to a full boil then boil for 2 minutes, let stand, covered, for 1 hour, drain and rinse.

Cook according to package directions. (If you cook with salt _ and bear in mind that the dishes in which you will use the beans may contain sufficient sodium _ remember not to add it or any high-sodium ingredients until the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking. Salt tends to inhibit the tenderizing effect of cooking.)

Cool beans and transfer usably sized portions into freezer containers (include some cooking liquid; allow {- to 1-inch headspace for expansion).

Save one portion to refrigerate for use within two to three days of cooking.

To reheat, transfer to an oven-safe container for conventional or microwave heating. You may wish to add additional liquid (water, stock, soup) before warming beans in a 325- to 350-degree oven or in microwave (give a half-turn and a stir every 2 to 3 minutes to heat-through evenly).

Pasta

You will always find a box of capellini (angel hair pasta) in our cupboard. Not only do my wife and I dote on its delicate texture and the way it takes to many exquisite sauces, but there is a bonus _ once the water is boiled, it cooks in five minutes.

That is why I always tell harried cooks to choose the finer noodles such as capelli, vermicelli, spaghettini and spaghetti for busiest mealtimes and reserve thicker and longer-cooking linguine, fettucine and elbows for when you're at your leisure.

Now, here's a valuable trick I learned during my restaurant years. There is an easy way to have precooked pasta at the ready with minimal hassle.

Choose "sturdier" pastas.

Using a large quantity of water (don't skimp here) cook the pasta until just al dente. Al dente _ just tender "to the tooth," with a bit of bite still remaining _ is always preferable, but, if you plan to reheat, you will want to avoid flaccid, flabby macaroni.

Rinse the noodles under cool running water. Drain thoroughly.

Transfer pasta to a lightly oiled, sealable container, drizzle with a small amount of vegetable or olive oil and toss to coat evenly. Refrigerate.

Reheat, either in the microwave (stir and check doneness every minute or so), in a saucepan with a little added liquid (over low heat, stirring often) or by tossing with bubbling hot sauce, soup or stir-fry. Assuming that you're adding a modest amount of pasta to a lion's share of hot stuff, your pasta will warm sufficiently.

Otherwise, plunge the precooked pasta into boiling water just long enough to heat through, then drain.

Your oil-coated macaroni won't absorb sauces in quite the same way as freshly cooked pasta, but you will save valuable time and have better, home-cooked meals in the bargain.

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