Melissa Clark's Quick and Simple Weeknight Dinner Ideas

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Asparagus at Donaldson Farms (Katie Donaldson)

Sometimes it can be hard to summon the energy to cook dinner after a long day at work. Melissa Clark tells us to put down the takeout menu and offers some quick and easy weeknight dinner ideas. Clark is a New York Times Dining Section columnist and cookbook writer, and her most recent cookbook is Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make.

A Few Tips:

Doing all of your shopping for the week at once saves time, but it depends how big your fridge is and how big your family is.

It's a mistake to go to the store without knowing what you want to have for dinner. Take a minute to think about what you want to buy before you go in so you don't waste time wandering around getting overwhelmed by all the options.

It's a good idea to always have a few fresh things in the refrigerator that you can use in many different ways (like bagged greens and fresh herbs), and to always have some staples like pasta, quick-cooking grains like rice and quinoa, and some protein like anchovies or good tuna.

It's good to have a few go-to simple weeknight recipes—when you make them over and over, you get familiar with them and you can make them quickly.

Some quick pasta dishes that take very little time to throw together:

  • Pasta with lemon, olive oil, tuna, capers. You can throw in parsley, basil, arugula, or other greens.
  • Pasta with browned garlic in olive oil, chile flakes, herbs  or greens mixed in, topped with Parmesan.

A fast soup to make on a weeknight: Sauté onion, throw in asparagus, sugar snap peas, peas, add some stock. Then puree it. You can serve it with chopped up preserved lemons, or chive oil.

A frittata is another great, easy weeknight meal. You can throw basically anything in it—any leftovers you might have, or just some cheese. 

Another quick cooking grain is faro—it cooks in 20 minutes and is a great  base for a meal. You can mix it with vegetables and other greens—arugula is really good with it.

Pizza is a  great, easy option. You can buy frozen dough and take it out of freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw before you leave for work in the morning. Or make (or buy) dough ahead of time and keep it in fridge. The best pizzas are simplest, so you don't need a lot of toppings. Come home, turn on the oven, take a cast iron pan and preheat it on the stove, put your dough in the pan, put the toppings on it, cook it 3-4 minutes, put it in the oven to finish cooking (about 10-15 minutes). 

If you're trying to get your child to eat more vegetables, keep the vegetables that your kid will eat and in the refrigerator at all times and stick with those, but maybe once a week, make something new and see if they'll try it. It usually takes about 10 attempts before a kid will accept something new, so stick with it for a while and they'll start picking up new things little by little.

If you find your carrots and celery or greens are limp after having been in the fridge a while, you can refresh them by putting them in a big bowl of ice water for 10-15 minutes. If they perk up, you can use them, but if they stay limp, you should probably throw them away.

Remember that any protein off the bone cooks more quickly. Boneless skinless chick thighs will cook in about 15 min. If you want meat to cook faster, cut it into smaller pieces and sauté it.

If you hate anchovies, you can substitute with another canned fish, like tuna. Or marinated tofu sliced thin. Or olives, capers, preserved lemon, just a little bit of chile. 

Quick tofu: Brush it (or marinate it a little while) with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar or lime juice, a little sesame oil. Put that on the tofu, broil it quickly or brown it in a pan.  You can throw it on a salad, on kale, on spinach or any soft green. You can heat up the tofu in the pan, then remove it and toss the vegetable in the hot pan until they wilt.  

Any minute now we'll be getting asparagus, sugar snap peas, and spring greens. All these green things cook very quickly—in under 10 minutes. Ramps are also in season in the early spring. To use ramps: slice the them thinly like you would slice scallions. Can cut a little into the green, or you can slice up the whole green too—it wilts and tastes like garlic. 

Make chile butter, scallion butter or ramp butter: mix together chile flakes or powder (or finely diced scallions or ramps) with salt and butter. You can freeze it and microwave it quickly before you use it. You can throw this butter on vegetables, eggs, toast, anything.

For people with nut allergies, you can substitute seeds for nuts (as long as they're not allergic to them too)—toasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds work well on salads.


Melissa Clark

Comments [28]

Parker Hamlin

I wanted to say that I am a huge fan of your NYT videos and insight. I connect with the rabbits, seafood as well as your view and personality to guide viewers. Just a quick high-five. Ten years as a NYC Manhattan/Brooklyn dweller has let me to immediately respond to your very engaging content based on the "I lived there" factor. You are a special, talented person.

May. 02 2014 08:49 PM
Glo Elliott from Bradley Beach, Nj

Thank you for the great segment with Meilssa Clark. She is truly a treasure for older cooks like me and for the young ones coming up.
Warm regards,
Glo E

May. 02 2014 06:57 PM
Suzie Fromer from Tarrytown, NY

I know one caller asked for a substitute for mustard due to mustard seed allergy and Melissa Clark didn't have a ready one; my son also has mustard seed allergy and we have sometimes replaced the nasal spiciness of mustard (as opposed to hot in the back of your throat chili pepper hotness or black pepper spice) with powdered horseradish in a dressing or to make him a faux mustard to go with a hot dog; I got mine from Penzey's spices.

Suzie Fromer

May. 01 2014 01:34 PM

Dinner in a flash. Tonight was a steak burrito. Just about everything came out of the pantry and/or Trader Joes.

TJ'S - Flank steak, "Mexican" style cheese, flour tortillas, basmati rice, canned refried beans.

Other- Frontera tomatillo salsa, canned diced tomato

Market - Cilantro, Jalapenos

May. 01 2014 12:34 AM
M Rogers from NJ

Quicker and way cheaper than takeout dishes:
1. Ramen noodles with frozen or fresh veg and left over meat or a beaten egg. Never met a child who disliked this.
2. Pigs in a Blanket made with any refrigerated roll or bread stick dough with baked beans and raw carrots etc.
3. Tuna, cannellini (white beans), green onions, olive oil, pepper
I'm also a fan of putting the tea kettle on immediately. If not used for rice etc., then a cup of tea can alleviate the crazies.
4. Soft tortillas with chili from the freezer or rotisserie chicken from a store and salad bar fillings.

Apr. 30 2014 08:14 PM
Jaime Weisberg from Astoria

Another tip I learned from a friend - roast up a bunch of veggies and have them on hand for a quick meal. Saute onions, garlic, add herbs, veggies, - mix with grains and a dressing of balsamic, olive oil, and lemon juice - can throw in cranberries, chickpeas, nuts - lots of ingredients, but quick, easy, yummy

Always have homemade veggie broth in the freezer - cooked from scraps also stored there.

Apr. 30 2014 02:46 PM
Ruth Shalom from Great Neck NY

It is ridiculous for someone to come home from a full day at work, and start running around like a dervish to prepare dinner, while worrying if she has the necessary ingredients on hand.

Hello? Didn't anyone ever hear of takeout?

Surprise, surprise: you can order a pizza exactly the way you like, pick it up on the way home, and, when you get home, you can kick off your shoes, pour a glass of wine, and sit down to a ready-made meal.

Ditto for Indian, Chinese, Thai, you name it. All this rushing and cooking after work is silly; it must make the people who do it feel virtuous, or something.

Apr. 30 2014 02:41 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I didn't think of this till someone mentioned pressure cookers. In terms of the time you actually put in, slow cookers can save a lot of time. You just have to start ahead of time. Soak beans in it the night before, cut up veggies (& fish or meat if you eat them), & have whole (i.e., unground) grains & your seasonings ready. The next morning, turn the cooker on & add the grains & other ingredients. It'll be ready to eat when you get home for dinner. This is how I got through a year of working full-time & taking courses years ago.

Apr. 30 2014 12:53 PM
Peg from Finger Lakes

To Mia from Manhattan: White asparagus is the same as green asparagus except that the stalks, as they grow, are prevented from getting any sunlight. This process prevents the stalks from making chlorophyll (what makes plants green, providing energy for the plant from sunlight). These "bleached" stalks are supposed to be more tender than stalks exposed to light. You might be able to get it in America in an upscale grocery or farmers market - I've seen it at my fantastic local grocery store in Ithaca NY - but growing it this way (mounding up dirt around the stalks and then gently uncovering them and then washing the dirt off is a lot of extra work for a little extra tenderness, so most practical American farmers don't bother AND the white stalks have less nutritional value.

Apr. 30 2014 12:51 PM
Tom from NJ

Thanks for the great advice in this segment!

We eat very low carb at home due to some health issues. What can we do to replace things like pasta or pizza crust in a quick, convenient meal?

Apr. 30 2014 12:34 PM
Mia from Manhattan

Does Melissa know why we can't get the wonderful white asparagus like you find in Europe in spring?

Does she have any recipes for white asparagus?

Thank you.

Apr. 30 2014 12:33 PM
Amy from Manhattan

The thinner pastas, like angel hair & especially couscous, cook faster. They can be ready in 5 minutes or less. (I told Mark Bittman this on Leonard's show--the "10-minute meals" segment--when he said he hadn't included whole wheat pastas in those recipes because they took too long to cook.)

Apr. 30 2014 12:32 PM
Jane from lower manhattan

I recommend this charming book "French Cooking in Ten Minutes" by Edouard de Pomiane. It was written in 1930. Pomaine also recommends putting a pot of water on to boil as soon as you get home, before you take off your hat.

Apr. 30 2014 12:27 PM
Joanne from Westchester, NY

Avocados -- buy a bunch over the weekend and leave them on the counter to ripen - then by Wednesday or Thursday you can slice them up -- - mash them with salt and lemon juice some corn tortilla chips and you have a yummy meal! Or avocado toast and a fried egg! Yum!

Long time admirer of Ms. Clark!

Apr. 30 2014 12:27 PM
laura Szapiro from Brooklyn

One of my go-to quick dinners is salmon croquettes. A can of salmon, an egg, dill, bread crumbs, maybe some frozen corn or peas. Mush it together, shape in to patties and pan fry., a side of fresh veggies, and dinner is done.

Apr. 30 2014 12:26 PM
Alyce from Centerport

How can I store minced garlic for the week? I'm so slow that it takes as much time to chop the garlic as it does to cook the entire meal. It would be delightful to get this done ahead of time. Thanks very much!

Apr. 30 2014 12:26 PM
Molly from Brooklyn

If you don't have time to make pizza dough you can go to most pizzarias and buy a ball of dough!

Apr. 30 2014 12:24 PM
Laurie from Chicago

I love Melissa Clark's recipes in the NYT and I appreciate her dinner ideas on the show today but would like to point out to her that her repeated use of the word "starving" is offensive to some. She is not starving - surely she has eaten breakfast, lunch and maybe even a snack or 2. Hungry is not starving! Thank you.

Apr. 30 2014 12:23 PM
Betty Arce from Bronx, NY

For all the years I was a working mom and even after the boys left home, I would devote a day to seasoning meats, cutting up vegetables such as onions, peppers, carrots and celery, and placing them in ziploc bags. I also keep crackers, cheese, and crudites to serve while the main meal is cooking to stave off the hunger, and while the boys washed up and finished their homework.

Apr. 30 2014 12:22 PM
JJ from NYC

Frozen veggies are also great. I stock organic even.

Apr. 30 2014 12:16 PM
try this site

There's another very good website for cooks at all levels.

It's a cook/blogger/photographer in California.

Apr. 30 2014 11:50 AM

[[Matt B from Hoboken, NJ
We are trying to eat a much more healthy family diet and would like to decrease the amount of meat / poultry that we eat.
Thank you. Apr. 29 2014 11:43 PM]]

Start by inverting the proportions of meat and vegetables. Use meat to flavor the dish and not as a main ingredient.

Also, eat more Kale and broccoli which sweep out the gunk from your guts.

Apr. 30 2014 11:29 AM
Annie Clyne from Fairfield CT

I know anchovies add a ton of flavor quickly but they have no appeal at my house. It's a deal breaker --no one will eat it and they detect it IMMEDIATELY!! Substitutes?

Apr. 30 2014 07:26 AM
Matt B from Hoboken, NJ

Question for Melissa Clark

Melissa i am a fan of your recipes and always enjoy them. Could you please suggest favorite vegetarian week night recipes for a good, healthy and filling dinner that appeal to kids?

We are trying to eat a much more healthy family diet and would like to decrease the amount of meat / poultry that we eat.

Do you have favorite recipes that Kids will eat that are vegetarian?

Thank you.

Apr. 29 2014 11:43 PM
Glo Elliott from Bradley Beach, NJ

Thank you for so many great recipes.
What are some of your resources for baking equipment that is made in the USA ?

Apr. 29 2014 11:36 PM
m stein

What is the right combination of chuck and lean beef for a good tasting hamburger?

Apr. 29 2014 09:15 PM
Tema from East Northport, NY

Melissa, I have made many of your recipes and they are always wonderful.
Can't wait to buy your book.

Apr. 29 2014 09:12 PM
Linda Friedman

Question for Melissa Clark
In baking where nuts are called for as an ingredient, what can successfully be substituted for nuts? Many of us have nut allergies and would like to make the recipes but cannot use nuts.
Thank you.
Linda Friedman

Apr. 29 2014 08:07 PM

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