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Chef Secrets for Best Weeknight Meals

Fall is a busy time of year for sports, fundraisers, galas and festivals, and time is of the essence. Surprisingly, the simplest meals can feel quite elegant with the right ingredients. While fresh ingredients are important, having the essentials on-hand when you have to prep on the fly makes it quicker to pull together a nutritious meal. Grains, beans, onions, dried herbs, canned tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, high quality chicken stocks and a drinkable not-to-expensive wine are all important to have in your pantry. We called on a few culinary experts to share with us their best advice on how to pull a simple and nutritious meal together when your schedule is jam packed with events.

Grains

Whether you like rice, farro, barley, pasta or risotto, having a few quick-cooking grains in the pantry is convenient and makes for a hearty starting point to any meal. “If I’m in need of a super quick and delicious weeknight meal, I pair Dozen Cousins Rice with Fillos black beans—another fantastic par-cooked product) and that’s my baseline,” says Mike Geller, owner of Greenwich, CT-based Mike’s Organic, a market and delivery service that brings fresh and local groceries to the local community. The Dozen Cousins rice he sells is par-cooked with high quality bone broth and can be heated in a pan with water for one minute. “From there I can add chicken sausage, peppers, onions, broccoli, cheddar cheese. It’s a one-pot meal that’s healthy and easy to prepare. It’s perfect for a Tuesday night!”

Debra Ponzek, chef and owner of Aux Delices Foods in Darien, Greenwich and Westport, CT, recommends farro. “It’s high in protein, magnesium and fiber,” says Ponzek, who has also authored four cookbooks. To make a healthier risotto, Ponzek suggests to simmer farro with some high quality chicken stock (a pantry staple for Ponzek) and when it begins to tenderize, finish cooking with some premade butternut squash soup (she like Pacific Foods). “When the farro is completely tender, I finish with a bit of butter and freshly chopped sage,” she adds.

Content creator and author of Danny Loves Pasta, Danny Freeman says he uses a variety of grains from his pantry as the base for a quick dinner, from pasta to quinoa to rice. “Whenever I’m not sure what to make for my toddler, I’ll cook one of these,” says Freeman. “I add on vegetables, chicken, cheese, or whatever I have in the fridge for an easy meal I know she’ll like.”

Beans

“Gigante or cannellini beans are a great source of protein and fiber,” says Ponzek. She recommends simmering the canned beans with a good dose of olive oil, cherry tomatoes, rosemary and thyme. “When the tomatoes are soft and juicy I either serve it as a vegetarian meal or add some roasted chicken or shrimp to make a more complete meal.” 

Heat them and mash them with delicata squash or butternut squash for weeknight tacos. Add avocado and cilantro for serving. Or pull out a can of beans for weeknight chili. “I like kidney, black and white beans,” says Ponzek. Sauté diced onion and a few cloves of garlic until soft, add the beans, diced tomatoes, chili powder, paprika and chicken stock and simmer for half an hour. She recommends serving with tortilla chips, sour cream, lime and avocado to dress it up.

Oil, Vinegar and Spice

If your pantry staples are of the best quality, the taste will be too, advise the experts. “For my caprese sauce I will often use a pre-made balsamic glaze and mini mozzarella balls to save a few steps,” says Freeman, who suggests a weeknight caprese sauce with roasted tomatoes and balsamic glaze for an easy and delicious weeknight dish. “It’s quick to make,” he adds. “Most of the time is spent roasting the tomatoes in the oven. Once they are sweet and shriveled, you mix them with the mozzarella, pasta, basil and balsamic glaze.”

“Keep Balducci’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the pantry to drizzle over a quick pasta dish or your favorite salad,” recommends Maral Banks, research and development manager at Balducci’s, which has locations in Greenwich, CT, and Scarsdale, NY. “We use it to finish our Italian Seafood Cioppino for an aromatic burst of fruity, peppery flavor.” Cooking seafood is surprisingly quick when you pick up prepared lobster tails or deveined and peeled shrimp. Dried herbs, onions, which store well in the pantry, and olive oil are simmered with a high-quality fish stock, and your favorite inexpensive wine, with juicy tomatoes and fresh fennel.

The new NAYA Middle Eastern Counter and Grill in Darien, CT, has a market right in the restaurant that sells prepared foods, seasonings, Middle Eastern olive oils and more. Chef Charbel Hayek, chef ambassador of NAYA and Top Chef finalist and culinary consultant, says keeping the Za’atar Road or Ayadina Za’atar Mix on hand, which they sell in the market, makes it easy to whip up his phyllo za’atar with labne. The ready-to-use blend of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and salt can be mixed with olive oil and used as a spread. He combines Phyllo dough, za’atar seasoning, olive oil, salt and labne, which is a Greek or Lebanese yogurt cheese, when he wants to make a baklava-inspired snack or a dish served with roasted vegetables. “It will add a delicious aroma,” says Hayek. “You will quickly understand why it’s a favorite ingredient to have on hand any day of the week.” 

Seasonal Fresh Ingredients

The key to elevating your pantry staples to company worthy dishes is incorporating a few fresh ingredients, too. “Fresh vegetables are a must for me, but I try to keep them seasonal” advises Geller. “Zucchini and tomatoes are still in season but on the way out so now it will be more about winter squash, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and some of the heartier vegetables that pair well with not only rice and pasta but also different grains I try to incorporate into my diet like farro, barley and rye.”

Keeping herbs fresh is easy and adds much more flavor than dried, says Freeman, who recommends buying a few pre-chopped fresh herbs in the grocery store, and freezing them with some fresh basil and olive oil in an ice cube tray. “When it’s time to cook, you can take out the cube and throw it in your soup or sauce for a quick addition.”

Prep and Save

No matter what ingredients you opt for, do the prep work ahead and you’ll cut down on the time it takes to make any meal, advises social media cooking sensation Remi Cruz. The YouTube personality, who has been posting recipes at cookingwithremi.com, says she roasts veggies, washes fruits and cooks and chops her proteins the day she brings them home from the store. “By doing this, I’ve found that my meals take a quarter of the time they normally would, and also creates way less dishes to clean!”

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