Last night I was reading an article on a popular parenting blog written by a mother who boasts about feeding her kids fast-food meals five days a week. She writes,” I don’t cook beyond microwaving and scrambling eggs. I could dish up a nutritious meal, if I knew how, so fruit salad and fries it is.” Reading her words made me both sad and mad. Trying to withhold judgement (and not doing a very good job at it), I wondered why this person never learned to cook, especially since there are so many great resources available today such as Stacie Billis’ new cookbook, “Make It Easy : 120 Mix-And-Match Recipes To Cook From Scratch with Smart, Store-Bought Shortcuts When You Need Them (DaCapo Life Long, May 2016).
Today she shares some timely advice for parents who are short on time but have the desire to cook for their families using practical short-cuts that will help families spend less time in the drive-thru and more time enjoying meals together.
Alice: In your newly released cookbook, you write about cooking from scratch on a tight schedule. In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle parents face when cooking for their families with limited time constraints?
Stacie: The combination of walking into a kitchen with only 15- to 30-minutes to spare, no plan, and a recipe chosen because it sounds good, as opposed to knowing that it can be executed quickly, is a recipe for stress. This book was largely inspired by the families I worked with in person; I found with my clients, over and over, that when they learned how to choose recipes strategically—which I go over in the book—and went into the kitchen knowing the plan, whether set days before or in the car on the ride home from work, things went surprisingly better. Music and a glass of wine or cup of tea help overcome obstacles in the kitchen, too!
Alice: I love how the recipes in your cookbook have suggested mix-and-match recipes to go along with each dish. It takes the guess work out of having to think about what dishes go well with others. Is it truly that easy?
Stacie: Even as a professional recipe developer and food editor, I’d be halfway through making dinner and think,”Oh my, what’s the vegetable tonight?” or “There’s no carb!” I wanted the book to be a one-stop shop for planning easy dinners. If you’re an advanced home cook, you can pick and choose as you please, but if making dinner night-after-night is a difficult chore for you, this mix-and-match element can help you figure out a whole meal even if you haven’t done meal planning.
Alice: Lastly, what is one tip you can share about incorporating store-bought shortcuts in meal planning?
Stacie: Honestly: To not feel guilty about doing so! I’m beyond thrilled that we’re starting to become more aware of where our food comes from and that some companies are responding to parents’ concerns by making their products better. While I hope that the trend continues and we eventually make a full shift to accommodate more time for good, healthy living—including more time to cook and be with family—busy parents today need help and it is possible to get it from the supermarket without sacrificing our and our children’s well-being. You just have to be a mindful and informed shopper who knows what to look for, which is why I was determined to include a supermarket buying guide in the book. It’s my favorite part.
Alice: Thank you Stacie for imparting practical tips families can use to help them in the kitchen today!
Today’s recipe for Panzanella Salad is from Stacie’s cookbook and republished by permission from DeCapo Lifelong.
Recipe: PANZANELLA SALAD
Panzanella is a popular Tuscan salad made with chunks of stale bread and tomatoes. Although the bread remains crunchy, it soaks up the vinegary dressing in that perfect way that you try to achieve when you drag a piece of crusty bread along the bottom of your salad bowl. Imagine: a whole salad of that goodness. With such easy fundamentals—tomato, bread, and vinaigrette—and satisfying flavor, it’s hard not to riff off the traditional recipe. There are endless ways to vary panzanella, and why not when the result is a light, but totally satisfying meal? All three of these versions call for chicken to make this a one-bowl meal that’s especially perfect in the summer months or whenever you’re craving a light, refreshing dinner. You can easily adapt any of these to be made without meat or with just a touch of bacon if you prefer to serve this as a side salad. Just keep in mind that it’s filling, with plenty of bread; when you serve this, take it easy on yourself and skip a carb side, since this serves as both your carb and veggie.
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups cubed French or Italian bread, cut into 1-inch pieces (from about 1⁄2 large loaf, though this will vary greatly depending on exact size)
1⁄8 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound chicken tenders or breast cut into strips
4 medium-size tomatoes, seeded and cut into wedges
2 cups sliced cucumber (from about 1 large English cucumber)
1⁄2 cup thinly sliced red onion (from about 1⁄2 small onion)
4 fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade (see Make It Easier)
½ cup crumbled feta
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup Everyday Vinaigrette (See Recipe Below)
-Everyday Vinaigrette Ingredients
2 teaspoons minced shallot, or 1 teaspoon minced garlic (from about 1 clove) (optional, but highly recommended)
1⁄4 cup white wine or Champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 1⁄2 juicy lemon)
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon or grainy mustard
1⁄2 teaspoon honey
1⁄4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- If you have time, place the shallot or garlic in a jar, top with the vinegar and lemon juice, and allow to sit 5 to 10 minutes. If you don’t have time, combine the garlic or shallots, vinegar, and lemon juice in a jar and skip to step 2.
- Add the oil, mustard, honey, and salt to the vinegar mixture. Seal the jar and shake until the dressing emulsifies. Season with pepper and more salt to taste, if desired. Use immediately or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Make It Easier:
To measure honey smoothly, pour a small amount of oil into your measuring spoon, swirl, and discard it. Now pour in the honey, which will slip right off the spoon.
- Toast the bread: heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the bread in a single layer and sprinkle with the 1⁄8 teaspoon of salt and black pepper to taste.
- Cook chicken: carefully wipe out the hot pan and return it to stove, this time over medium heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and garlic. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and black pepper and, once the oil and garlic are fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds, add chicken and cook, untouched, until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip and cook until the other side browns and the chicken is cooked through, another 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and allow to cool to the touch before cutting into bite-size pieces.
- In the meantime, place the tomatoes, cucumber, onion, basil, and crumbled bacon in a large serving bowl.
- Add the chopped chicken and cubed bread to the bowl as well and toss with dressing. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or leave at room temperature and serve within the hour.
Toast until dark golden brown all around, 8 to 10 minutes, tossing every 2 minutes or so. Transfer the toasted bread to a plate and set aside.
Make It Easier: How to chiffonade
As you’ve figured out by now, I’m not one for thinking that busy home cooks need to be schooled in proper culinary technique. There are a few useful technical approaches, though, that help you get a better result. And by better, I don’t mean proper, but more flavorful.
Cutting an herb, such as basil, into chiffonade produces long, very thin strips (it means “ribbons” in French) that allow you distribute the flavor of the herb throughout without anyone getting stuck with a big, leafy piece.
It’s an easy thing to do: stack the basil leaves (or any leaves, such as sage or even spinach), one on top of the other, and roll them tightly into a log. Using a sharp knife, slice the leaves perpendicular to the roll. That’s it. Or, you know, just tear the herb into pieces instead!