Melissa Clark's Quick and Simple Weeknight Dinner Ideas

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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.