I like to cook. But I’m a busy person. For most of my meals, I try to come up with something that’s made from scratch, with ingredients that were grown, and/or raised humanely. I stay away from overly processed foods about 90% of the time. Some exceptions in my cupboard: Bisquick, canned soups (for the kids) and chicken/beef stock. Even on super busy nights, I can cook from scratch with a minimum of processed foods if I keep the meal plan simple: Quesadillas with a side of refried beans and a salad is an example. Or I grab a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store, pull the chicken off and make a big salad and pile that bird on top. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not scalloped potatoes from a box. Beware the box. Anything is better than meals from a box.
Meals from scratch are not terribly laborious when you know what you’re doing with ingredients. I am sure there is a longer way to do it, but I make my own carnitas, for example, and it’s a snap. I brown a pork shoulder roast in olive oil on the stove; while that’s happening, I cut up a few onions and peel some garlic. Then, I throw it all in the Dutch oven, add spices (not a Lawry’s envelope labeled “Carnitas,” which is probably mostly sugar and salt), a little beef stock, and toss it into the oven. In 2.5 hours (while I’ve run to appointments or gotten a chunk of work done in my home office), it’s tender, and ready to shred and pile into warm corn tortillas or roll up in a big flour tortilla. The prep time was ten minutes.
Alas, there are the days when all I have time for is “homemade-ish.” I call these meals, “half-scratch.”
Half-scratch meals typically include some pre-made base or leftover component, but with creative twists, either in the preparation techniques or ingredients. Other shortcuts, along the same lines, include grabbing side dishes from local establishments that turn a quick meal at home into a unique and satisfying grub down.
Here are a few examples of most popular half-scratch meals I’ve made that include some leftovers, but serve up like the real deal and have kept my people happy.
I invented this when I had leftover linguini (with fresh, homemade marinara). Here’s what I did: I bought a Krusteaz garlic-herb flatbread mix, spread it onto a cookie sheet and baked it. While that was cooking (about ten minutes), I reheated the leftover pasta on the stove. When the flatbread was done, I poured the pasta onto the baked flatbread, topped it with a little shredded cheddar cheese and popped it under the broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese. I cut it into pie-shaped slices (hence the name) and served it with a green salad.
Mix up a batch of pancake batter, throw in some fresh blueberries, chopped bananas, and bacon that’s been cooked and chopped. For a topping treat, toss one cup of heavy whipping cream and ½ cup of maple syrup into a blender and voila: maple whipped cream sauce is born. To make savory loaded pancakes, sprinkle chopped green onion, pine nuts and shredded cheese into the batter instead of the fruit.
Chop up left-over tri-tip or other pork or beef roast, and boil a few potatoes. Cut the potatoes into bite-sized pieces. Sauté chopped onion until it’s browned, then throw in the tri-tip and potatoes. Brown until a nice crust forms on both sides. Serve with fried eggs for another breakfast-for-dinner meal, or with a salad.
Take out Side Dishes
Get the “feel” of your favorite restaurant without the cost of taking everyone out. In the summer, when we’re grilling burgers at home, I’ll grab a couple of large orders of French fries and onion rings from our local favorite mom & pop drive-in. If I’m making a quick weeknight dinner of homemade quesadillas, I’ll pick-up a pint of salsa and a bag of chips from my favorite local Mexican restaurant to go along with them. You can do the same with soup from the local bistro or café. Soups are great ways to dress up that homemade grilled cheese. Speaking of boring ol’ grill cheese…
Gourmet Grilled Cheese
The possibilities are endless: Add cooked bacon (make ahead of time in the oven on a cookie sheet), avocado, sliced tomatoes, jalapenos, goat cheese crumbles, roasted red peppers, or sliced red onion, etc. Go a step further and use sour dough or even ciabatta rolls. Yes, you can put some butter in a pan and fry a ciabatta roll. It’s delicious.
Have a half-scratch meal idea of your own to share? Leave a comment!
All photos by Lisa Lucke – All Rights Reserved