30-minute meals to kick start a healthy new year


As a new year begins, cooking thoughts always turn to that unicorn of the kitchen: the wholesome, tasty meal that requires little time and hassle to put together.

There is no magic switch that makes creating healthy food habits easy, but you can start them -- or pick up where you left off before the holidays -- simply enough by committing to cooking at least one of your meals from scratch at home each day. 

For many of us, that would be dinner. So I thought about the post-work meals I make most often when I don't feel like cooking much of anything. They all had a couple of things in common: small, simple ingredient lists and cook times that rarely exceeded a half-hour. In the spirit of doing our best in the new year, here is a practical guide for putting together a solid meal, fast: three recipes that take 30 minutes or less to cook, and ideas for how to stretch them from Monday through Friday.

Notably, these are not meals that cut out flavor and fats. We're cooking with butter here, and seasoning generously. The point isn't to deprive or to eat a certain number of calories, but to cook nourishing meals that you actually want to eat. By making a meal at home, you're already ahead of the game: It's far less likely you'll add as much butter and oil to your home-cooked dish as restaurants do. 

I spent a recent afternoon cooking through the three meals, testing their simplicity and the amount of time they actually take. Here are the recipes, noted with thoughts from my cooking process and a timeline, in the hopes that you'll get a realistic glimpse at how a clean, delicious dinner can come together during the length of a Friends rerun. 

Parchment Chicken With Mushroom Farro Risotto

Ingredients

Parchment paper

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 1 to 2 pounds

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

2 carrots

½ white onion

1 lemon

1 cup quick-cooking farro

2 cups water or chicken/vegetable broth

1 cup mushrooms

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup grated or shaved Parmesan cheese

Steps

0 to 5 minutes

For this dish, chicken is cooked in parchment packets, a simple method that requires minimal prep and cleanup. Our first step is to create those packets in which the chicken will bake. 

Cut 4 pieces of parchment paper, about 12 inches by 12 inches, into 4 heart shapes. Move chicken, one breast at a time, from its package to the center of the parchment. Repeat with all of the breasts. (Bonus arts and crafts time: If you're working with kids or other cooks who like to be entertained, you can cut the parchment into fun shapes before wrapping it around the chicken.)

At this point, I pause to place a small saucepan filled with the water or chicken/vegetable broth on the stove, and turn the heat on high. This needs to boil while you prepare the chicken.

5 to 10 minutes

Now, do the following for all four chicken breasts: After the chicken is on the prepared parchment paper, fold over one side of paper and gently pound the chicken with a meat mallet until it is 3/4-inch thick. (I like this method because it doesn't require too much poultry handling. I am a total wimp when it comes to working with raw meat. Excessive handling can also cause meat to become tough.) Unfold the paper so chicken is exposed. 

Using a vegetable peeler or spiralizer, peel carrots into curls and divide among packets, placing on top of chicken. Slice both onion and lemon into thin pieces, and also place atop the meat. (I use 2 lemon slices per breast.) Drizzle olive oil on top of each, and season with salt and pepper. Seal the packets by folding one side over again and crimping all edges. Place all four a baking sheet and slide into a 375-degree oven. Don't dilly-dally on this: The chicken takes a solid 20 minutes to cook.

10 to 20 minutes

With the chicken cooking, turn to the saucepan on the stove, which is hopefully close to boiling by now. Add the farro, and allow that to cook for about 10 minutes. I marvel at how quickly farro cooks; it's a painless alternative to traditional rice in that sense. This isn't a classic risotto since we are not adding the liquid little by little, but the flavors and texture are similar. Once the farro has cooked for about 7 minutes, add the mushrooms, ripping with your hands to break them up into smaller pieces and save yourself a cutting board. (I used baby portobellos because they were on sale at the grocery store.) Let those cook for a few minutes, then taste the farro and a mushroom to make sure they are done. The farro should be chewy and soft. 

20 to 30 minutes

Add the butter and Parmesan cheese, stirring to combine. Turn burner to low and allow ingredients to ooze together. Remove the chicken from the oven after it has been cooking for about 20 minutes and check the temperature. If it's not done, cook for another 5 minutes and check again. Beware that it will continue to cook slightly in the packet. Serve the chicken in the packet on a plate, with the risotto in a bowl alongside it.

Serves 4. 

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Pork Chops With Apple Compote and Oven Fries

Ingredients

4 medium sweet potatoes, about 1 to 2 pounds

2 purple or gold potatoes, about 1 pound

½ red onion

4 cloves garlic

Olive oil

Salt 

Pepper

4 lean pork chops, about 1 to 2 pounds

2 apples

½ white onion

½ teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter

Fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)

Steps

0 to 5 minutes

Step 1: potatoes. It's important to get these going immediately, because they can take a while to roast. Start by preheating your oven to 425 degrees, then place the potatoes on a cutting board and cut into wedges. I am not normally great about cutting my produce the same size so that it cooks evenly, but undercooked potatoes can ruin an otherwise great meal, so I took special note of it here. (Also, I intended to just use sweet potatoes, but threw in purple ones at the last minute because they looked gorgeous. You can use whichever kind you prefer.)

Once you've got about 4 cups of wedges, place them in a bowl (I use a large glass one), splash with water and microwave 2 minutes to soften just a bit. While they are in the microwave, thinly slice the red onion and smash each garlic clove (do not mince). Spread potatoes and onion onto a baking sheet coated with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and place in the oven.

5 to 15 minutes

Heat a cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet on medium-high heat, then add a swirl of olive oil and let that heat up. Remove pork chops from their package and place them on a plate or a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil then season with salt and pepper, to taste. Place pork chops in the skillet and cook for 3-5 minutes on each side. While the chops are cooking, jostle the baking sheet a bit so that the potatoes don't burn on one side. Add garlic to the pan. (You don't want to add this at the very beginning because it will cook quicker than everything else and could burn.) Dice apple and ½ white onion. 

15 to 25 minutes

Remove pork chops from skillet, and place on a clean plate. Wipe out the skillet you were using (don't burn yourself like I almost did) and add apple, onions, cinnamon, butter and rosemary if using. I never seem to have fresh herbs on hand when I need them most, so I made the rosemary optional. But if you plan ahead, this apple-mixture really benefits from the fragrant herb. Season with salt and pepper, and let cook for 5 to 7 minutes until softened. I stirred pretty frequently, to make sure the mixture didn't dry out. Mine did just slightly, so I added some water to the pan and kept stirring. 

25 to 30 minutes

Check the potatoes for doneness, and if done, remove from oven and divide among 4 plates. Thanks to the microwave, my potatoes were fork tender and just right. Place pork chops on each plate, then top with apple compote and any remaining pork chop juice. 

Serves 4. 

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Black Bean Quesadillas

Ingredients

1 (15.5-ounce) can black beans

1 clove garlic

1 jalapeno

8 small corn tortillas

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

2 cups shredded cheese, like cheddar or pepper jack

4 eggs

Salsa, for serving

Avocado, for serving

Sour cream, for serving

Cilantro, for serving

Steps

0 to 5 minutes

These quesadillas get an added boost from freshly mashed beans, plus the requisite cheese. You could sub canned refried beans if you're desperate, but I like the texture the mashed ones lend to this dish. 

First, make that bean filling. Pour black beans into a strainer, and rinse well. Place into a bowl or a food processor. On a cutting board, mince garlic and jalapeno. Add to the black beans, then whiz with the food processor or mash by hand until mashed but still chunky. Season with salt and pepper. 

5 to 10 minutes

Preheat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place 4 corn tortillas on the counter, then spread about ¼ cup black bean mixture onto each tortilla. This should be enough to create a substantial layer of beans without spilling out over the tortilla. Press bean mixture slightly so it adheres to tortilla.

10 to 20 minutes

Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, let it heat up, then place tortillas topped with bean mixture in the skillet, and cook for about 3 minutes until tortillas are starting to brown on the bottom. When tortillas are browned, top each with ½ cup cheese, then top with a second tortilla. Cook for another minute or so, then flip and let the quesadilla cook on the other side for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and the tortillas are crispy. I like to cook mine until some of the cheese and melted out and into the pan, turning into a crusty cheese garnish. Remove from pan and set on serving plate. 

20 to 30 minutes

Wipe out pan, then return to heat. Crack eggs into pan and cook for 2 to 5 minutes until the yolk is set, or desired doneness. When done, transfer one egg on top of each quesadilla. Garnish with sliced avocado, salsa, sour cream and cilantro. Serve with a side salad of spinach with your choice of dressing. 

Serves 4. 

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

TIPS FOR QUICK MEALS

There are a couple of cookbooks I keep handy when I need inspiration for quick dinners. Here are some tips I turn to frequently, and a few of my own. 

• In Good Cheap Eats, Jessica Fisher has this great advice: "I lean on items like bagged shredded cabbage or jarred minced ginger or garlic to help save me time in the kitchen. Spooning out the ginger instead of peeling and grating it buys me and extra five minutes (plus cleanup time)."

• Timers are your friend in the kitchen: Setting a timer every time something goes on the stove or in the oven will eliminate having to constantly check if an item is cooked. Plus, it will keep you focused. Sometimes I'll set timers to keep track of when certain tasks needs to be completed by. If chicken needs to be in the oven by 6:10 p.m. to have dinner on the table by 6:30, make that 6:10 deadline apparent to yourself with a timer. 

• From 20-minute Suppers by Julian Metcalfe and Blanche Vaughan: "Use a large, sharp kitchen knife and a big chopping board to make preparation much quicker and easier, and you will be cutting up ingredients like a pro in next to no time."

• We all know weekend planning is essential to making weeknight cooking less painless: But if you only have time to do one thing on the weekend, make it taking any meats out of the freezer. Allowing them to defrost in the fridge a few days before you are ready to use them is a big time saver.

SHOPPING LIST

Meats

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 1 to 2 pounds

Lean pork chops, about 1 to 2 pounds

Produce

Sweet potatoes, about 2 pounds

Purple or gold potatoes, about 1 pound

Carrots, 2

Red onion, 1

White onion, 2

Mushrooms, 1 cup

Avocado, for serving

Apples, 2

Lemons, 2

Garlic, 1 bulb

Jalapeno, 1

Fresh rosemary, 1 tablespoon

Fresh cilantro, for serving

Refrigerated items

Parmesan cheese, 1 cup plus more for garnish

Cheddar or Pepper Jack cheese, 2 cups

Eggs, 4

Sour cream, for serving

Dry goods

Corn tortillas, 8

Black beans, 1 (15-ounce) can

Salsa, for garnish

Farro, 1 cup

Chicken or vegetable broth, 2 cups

From your pantry

Olive oil

Butter

Salt

Pepper

WEEKNIGHT PLANNING

The three full recipes on this page can be turned into dinner Monday through Friday. Here's how.

Monday: Parchment Chicken With Mushroom Farro Risotto

If serving four, make two extra chicken breasts for Tuesday's meal; if serving two, reserve the other two cooked breasts.

Tuesday: Nutty Chicken Sandwiches

Shred reserved chicken used in Parchment Chicken With Mushroom Farro Risotto, and place in a bowl with ½ cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard, 1 tablespoon mayonnaise (optional), ¼ cup chopped walnuts or pecans, 2 tablespoons each chopped shallot and chives, and lots of salt and pepper. Scoop a handful onto toasted hamburger buns. Serve with a salad.

Wednesday: Pork Chops With Apple Compote and Oven Fries

Thursday: Black Bean Quesadillas

Reserve any leftover black bean mixture for Friday's meal.

Friday: Nacho Night

Turn your leftover corn tortillas into the base for hearty nachos by cutting them into triangles then placing on a greased baking sheet. Cook at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes, until crispy. Stack chips on the same baking sheet or another ovenproof serving platter, then sprinkle with leftover cheese and salsa. Add reserved beans from Thursday; if needed, crack open another can of beans -- black or pinto work best -- and add those, too. Place chips back in the oven for a few more minutes, until cheese has melted. Top with avocado and sour cream, and serve.


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