By Anna Brooks
It’s that time of year again. Time to go back to school, back to work or if you never left work, time to mourn the loss of summer Fridays at the office. Whatever the case may be, it seems when September hits, there’s a lot less time to do anything — especially cook. And there’s no worse feeling arriving home after a long day to an empty fridge. To avoid the ire of hungry offspring or a salivating spouse, we teamed up with Alberta’s top culinary teachers and students this month to get some tips on delicious, healthy weekday meals you can make in 30 minutes or less!
“You get home at 4:30, have a soccer game at 6:00 — which is very frequent in my house — and I need to feed my kids,” says Nigel Webber, a long-time chef instructor at NAIT in Edmonton.
Even for a chef, it’s tough to pull a meal out of your hat when you have a ravenous rug rat hanging off each arm. But it is easy to pull one out of a well-stocked pantry. Webber says he always has grains like quinoa and brown rice on hand, as well as ingredients like canned pumpkin for an expedited squash soup.
“I hate to say it as a chef, but I also keep some of those very basic, pantry-type sauces like spicy Thai sauce around,” he says. “In the 30-minute realm of things you want quality, but need to substitute a few ingredients here and there to allow for that speed.”
If you’re making a grain bowl or stir-fry for dinner, you can save a lot of time by cooking grains and chopping vegetables the night before. With your prep steps out of the way, Webber says all you need to do is add a protein to the mix. He recommends something easy to fry or grill, like boneless chicken thighs, or super speedy seafood like prawns, which only take a few minutes to cook.
For every fancy dish, there’s a 30-minute version. Try making Webber’s bourguignon-inspired meatballs!
Catherine Auger is one of Webber’s culinary students at NAIT, and adheres to his practice of prepping ahead of time. It’s easy to feel discouraged and succumb to grabbing fast food or ordering in, but that’s usually because you don’t have the right (or any) ingredients in the house.
Auger says something as simple as frozen peas can be transformed into a satisfying pea and cream soup, and she always has her pantry stocked with preserved pulses like canned beans and chickpeas for salads and soups.
“Mise-en-place (having “everything in its place” in terms of prep) is everything when I’m on a time crunch to make dinner,” she says. “If you have grains in fridge all ready to go, when you come home you don’t have to start from scratch. You can make something very tasty and delicious just using minimal ingredients.”
For a savoury (and healthy) weeknight dinner, try Auger’s roasted squash and lentil salad!
If you’re a starving student or parent with five mouths to feed, you can never go wrong with a classic. Michael Dekker, chef instructor at SAIT in Calgary, says one his of favourite — and most reliable — weeknight meals is spaghetti Bolognese.
His trick is making big batches of sauce ahead of time and freezing them—that way if there’s a day (probably a Monday) when dinner plans A – Z fall through, you have a comforting classic to fall back on.
“Planning ahead is key, I always have a lot of frozen bases,” he says. “And always think about ingredients with lower cook times. Pasta is a 15-minute cook compared to something like thick potatoes, which take much longer.”
Tacos make another great 30-minute meal, and also serve as a dependable backup. With corn tortillas in the freezer and salsa in the pantry, Dekker can always cobble together a satisfying last minute dish with a Mexican kick.
Try something delicious and surprisingly quick to make, like Dekker’s melt-in-your-mouth crab cake burgers!
Darian Pestell is a culinary student of Dekker’s, and runs a nutrition blog stocked full of tasty recipes perfect for weeknight meals. SAIT has also taught her the art of prioritization, and she says prepping meals a day or two in advance is a huge time saver.
“After getting groceries, I’ll cut up my veggies, roast them and they’re good to go for whole week in the fridge,” Pestell says.
“If you have a good stock on hand, you can make a soup really quickly. Just heat up some onions, garlic and your roasted veggies, puree, and you have a nice, healthy soup.”
Pestell has a soft spot for tacos, and so do we. Try her zesty cauliflower and avocado tacos!