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The 5:30 Challenge5 Ingredients, 30 Minutes, Dinner on the Table
By Jeanne Besser
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Jeanne Besser
All right reserved.
The 5:30 Challenge and How It Works
It's 5:30. Do you know what's for dinner?
If you haven't got a clue, join the club. Recent surveys show that nearly three-fourths of all cooks don't know what they're going to prepare for dinner on any given day. And more than one-third don't decide until right before.
The Food & Drink staff at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution thinks about this a lot. How do we help our readers get a home-cooked meal on the table when we often feel stymied by the same obstacles they face? We too work long, erratic hours followed by horrendous commutes. Some of us shuttle kids back and forth to extracurricular activities on top of that. And those of us who only have to worry about ourselves dread dealing with the leftover ingredients we know are destined for the garbage disposal.
While many of the so-called "quick" recipes we see in magazines and cookbooks tease us with short cooking times, just look at those lists of ingredients! What many of these recipes don't take into account is the time it takes to check your shelves and make a grocery list, decide on the side dishes, shop, put groceries away, take them back out, measure, chop, process, whip, dirty up a mountain of dishes, load up the dishwasher, put groceries away again...No wonder so many of us just throw up our hands and say, "Let's order in," or "Let's eat out!" Or else settle for that sad pre-fab dinner lurking in the back of the freezer.
Several years ago, we came up with a better idea: simplify our favorite recipes. Declutter the ingredient lists. Minimize kitchen tools. Streamline shopping trips. Reduce recipe steps. Conserve as much energy and time as possible in the execution -- without sacrificing our standards of good taste and nutrition.
We decided to limit the ingredient lists to five ingredients, allowing for a few freebies: salt, pepper, water, and a neutral oil used only to prevent sticking or drying out; if a specific amount or type of oil was essential to the recipe then it would have to count as an ingredient.
These recipes would require no advance planning, (which rules out extended marination, chilling, and slow-cooking) or complicated side dishes to make a meal. The ingredients had to be available at the local supermarket. Our goal was to make it possible for the person sitting in 5:30 rush hour traffic to make a quick run through the express lane and still have dinner on the table within 30 minutes of arriving home.
Was that too much to ask?
For some chefs around Atlanta who were asked to come up with recipes that met these criteria, it seemed to be. Several had to go back to the drawing board more than once and a few gave up in exasperation. But we did come up with a few winners, and featured them in a cover story in the Food & Drink section.
And thus the 5:30 Challenge was born. We began taking the challenge ourselves, and invited readers to participate. Many of Atlanta's good home cooks, accustomed to getting dinner ready within the realities of everyday life, often proved more adept at meeting the challenge than the hot-shot chefs. It has been our most popular weekly feature ever since.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution food writer Marcia Langhenry and food stylist Mary Ann Clayton helped get the column off to a successful start. After its first year, Jeanne Besser, a cookbook author and member of the food staff, stepped in. She is responsible for sorting through and refining the best reader contributions, and supplementing them with many of her own.
We have come to embrace the 5:30 concept in our own kitchens, and take great pride in finding delicious ways to maximize the flavors of fresh, quality ingredients with limited embellishments. We also like discovering convenience products that will get us to the table a little faster -- but we're picky about them. We read labels scrupulously and try to avoid products with long lists of artificial ingredients, and we're not wild about canned soups or bottled dressings (although we're not above using either on occasion).
We're far more enthusiastic about the advances in the produce aisle -- bagged and washed salads, pre-chopped fruits and veggies -- that are more expensive but so worth it when we barely have the energy to lift a knife. When time is precious, cooked and shelled shrimp, rotisserie chicken, pre-shredded cheese, and "ready rice" in a pouch are worthy of a few hosannas from us. It's also fun to check out new condiments and spice blends in the ethnic foods section, which can do wonders for breathing new life into a bland sautéed chicken breast.
Here's another unexpected benefit: with only five ingredients, there is no need for a shopping list. Speaking from experience, even those of us who are prone to forgetfulness can easily commit five ingredients to memory. No fumbling through pockets and purses for that scrap of paper with illegible scribbles.
In compiling this book, we chose to organize it by technique, because once you get the hang of these simple methods, you will easily be able to adapt them to your own tastes and to the ingredients you happen to have on hand.
Use the recipes that follow as a starting point, and we believe you will find as we have that cooking with five ingredients can feel expansively satisfying.
How To Use This Book
To qualify as a 5:30 Challenge recipe, a dish must be prepared from start to finish in 30 minutes or less. Although not part of the recipe, the suggested side dishes can also be prepared in 30 minutes. All of these recipes have five ingredients. Water, salt, pepper, and oil used for greasing the pan or the food to prevent sticking do not count. Any neutral oil is fine; in some instances where we think using a more flavorful oil will make a difference, we will suggest it. Generally, we like to use a flavorless oil high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, such as canola, when we want the other ingredients in the dish to shine through. For the nutritional information, we calculated 1 tablespoon for "lightly oiled," and 2 tablespoons for "well-oiled," but you're in charge here. If you use a nonstick skillet, you can probably get by using less, or none at all. Or you can use a nonstick cooking spray. When there is a range of servings, the nutritional analysis is based on the larger serving.
The 5:30 Kitchen
As in our recipes, we abide by the less-is-more principle when it comes to stocking our kitchens. So we're not going to try to sell you on every new gadget and gizmo to hit the housewares department.
A clean, uncluttered kitchen is so much more inviting after a grueling day. The same goes for pantries and refrigerators. Yes, it's good to have a healthy stash of staples -- but don't overdo it. If there is an item that's been sitting on your shelf for more than a year, chances are it will be there a year from now too. If it's opened, pitch it. If it's good as new, donate it. Soon you will realize why you just bought that fourth bottle of soy sauce; the other three were hiding behind that giant jar of mincemeat for those holiday pies you never made! Once you're able to see at a glance what you've got to work with, you can make better and quicker meal-planning decisions.
With the following tools, you can make all the recipes in this book with ease. Chances are, you already own most if not all of them.
For these recipes, we've tried to eliminate the need for any major appliance beyond a stove, a grill, and a microwave. A toaster oven is handy for saving energy and preheating time. Only a handful of recipes here call for a food processor, but we'd be reluctant to give ours up for slicing large amounts of vegetables and for pureeing soups.
While nonstick cookware makes cleanup easier and cuts down on the amount of fat needed, unless noted, it's not essential. Here's what we recommend.
- 8-quart stockpot for soups and pasta
- 12- to 13-inch sauté pan with a lid and an oven-safe handle
- 10-inch heavy skillet with a lid and an oven-safe handle
- 1- and 2-quart microwave-safe glass or porcelain casserole dishes
- Baking pans: 9 x 13-inch rectangle, 8 x 12-inch rectangle, 10 x 15-inch jelly-roll pan, 8- or 9-inch square, 9-inch pie pan
- Roasting pan
- Broiler pan and rack
- 3 saucepans with tight-fitting lids: small (1- to 11/2-quart), medium (2- to 21/2-quart) and large (3- to 4-quart)
To round out the kitchen, here are a few of our favorite tools and gadgets.
- Knives: a sharp 8- to 10-inch chef's knife and sharp 3- to 4-inch paring knife for multipurpose chopping
- A good vegetable peeler: we like OXO brand.
- A Microplane: this super-sharp thin, hand-held fine grater is a lifesaver for grating small amounts of cheese and lemon zest.
- A steamer basket: for healthfully cooking veggie side dishes
- A flat-sided meat pounder: for evening out irregular cuts of meat and speeding cooking
- A hanging mercury thermometer for your oven: if your oven temperature isn't accurate, your baking won't be either.
- An instant-read meat thermometer: it takes the guesswork out of whether something is done.
- Parchment paper: once you discover the joy and ease of pouch-cooking (see Zap Happy) and stick-free baking (see Short and Sweet), you'll never want to go without it again.
Stocking the 5:30 Kitchen
The secret to quick cooking, contrary to what many food manufacturers would have you believe, does not lie in a pantry full of processed mixes. As often as possible, we go for fresh, high-quality ingredients that don't need a lot of doctoring. Which is not to say we're above using prepared products if we don't have to sacrifice taste and nutrition; we just try to be discriminating.
Here are some of our favorite building blocks for time-saving meals.
- Coarse sea salt, or kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper: it's amazing the difference in taste high-quality seasonings make -- especially when the focus is on a simply prepared fresh cut of meat or fish, or peak-season vegetables. In many cases, there's no need for any other seasoning.
- Bagged, pre-washed spinach and salad blends: yes, you pay more -- but when you consider the time and waste saved it's often well worth it. Note the "sell-by" date; you do need to take care to choose greens that aren't past their prime.
- Pre-cut fruits and vegetables: the options here continue to grow. We're most thrilled that we no longer have to dice onions if we choose not to. Plastic containers of cored pineapple, washed and hulled strawberries, and diced melon are also a boon to the busy cook, as are bottled grapefruit sections and sliced mangoes and other tropical fruits.
- "Ready rice": Uncle Ben's now offers a wide variety of pre-cooked rices in plastic pouches that can be microwaved and ready to serve in 90 seconds. They taste better than many of the quick-cooking rices available, particularly the brown rice.
- Refrigerated mashed potatoes: in a pinch, they can pass remarkably well for freshly made -- infinitely superior to the freeze-dried kind.
- Polenta in a tube: found in the refrigerated produce section in original and flavors such as sun-dried tomato and porcini mushroom, this earthy Italian grain is cooked and ready to transform into a stovetop side dish, a casserole base, or crispy pan-fried cakes.
- Full-flavored oils: it's well worth paying extra for fruity extra virgin olive oil when you want to elevate the taste of a dish without adding a lot of superfluous ingredients. But reserve it for uncooked and lightly cooked dishes; heat breaks down its flavor and in longer-cooking dishes you might as well go with a less expensive oil. There are many good infused oils that are also fun to experiment with, flavored with everything from herbs to citrus. We've recently become converts to garlic-infused oil. When we don't feel like chopping garlic, this is what we turn to. Use within 2 days. Asian sesame oil is also worth having on hand; just a few shakes add a toasty, nutty dimension to any Asian-flavored dish.
- Bottled Asian sauces (stir-fry, baste & glaze, hoisin, black bean, oyster): read the labels and look for those with the fewest additives, and experiment to find the ones you like.
- Vinegars: since we eat so many salads, we like to keep a variety on hand. We are especially fond of aged balsamic, which adds a depth of flavor to dishes well beyond salads. Quality varies widely; we recommend spending a little more and using it sparingly. We've also grown addicted to seasoned rice vinegar. This Asian condiment has a slightly sweet, delicate taste that's perfect for dressing salads that contain fruit.
- Ready-made pasta sauces and spreads: besides bottled marinara, the options now include Alfredo and pesto sauces (choose the refrigerated varieties for freshest flavor). Pesto is especially versatile for tossing with noodles, spreading on pizza crusts and sandwiches, topping chicken, and tossing with hot cooked new potatoes. Hummus is also widely available in a variety of flavors not only for dipping but for filling pitas, wraps, and sandwiches.
- Prepared salsa: perhaps no condiment so skillfully pulls together bland ingredients into something exciting. Bottled salsas are fine for mixing into chilis, casseroles, and soups; fresh ones are excellent for topping off a fresh piece of fish or tucking into a taco.
- Our own salad dressing: we'd much rather spend the extra two minutes it takes to whisk together our own (1/2 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup balsamic or other vinegar, pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard.) The next best thing: Annie's Naturals, such as her Organic Red Wine & Olive Oil Vinaigrette, which is free of both gluten and added sweeteners, is among the best brands we've ever tried. Look for it in the natural foods section of your supermarket. We've also been won over by Asian-style ginger salad dressing. There are several brands in the refrigerated section of the produce department that taste just like the kind you find in Japanese restaurants: one by Makoto, the other by Naturally Fresh.
- Fresh cooked chicken: it wasn't so long ago that the only pre-cooked chicken you could buy at the supermarket was either in a can or in pressed slices from the deli. So we're as enthused as the rest of America over rotisserie chicken, as a stand-alone entree and as an ingredient in soups, stews, and other dishes that would normally take hours to cook. Even easier are packages of pre-carved cooked chicken slices, available in the meat section.
- Pre-cooked bacon: now you can crumble crispy strips directly onto your pasta or salad, or tuck them into a sandwich for a BLT. Reheat for a few seconds in the microwave, if necessary.
- Shredded cheeses: we especially like the Mexican cheese blend and the Italian cheese blend. We can quickly take a casserole in one ethnic direction or the other depending on what we feel like.
- Bottled cubed feta and blue cheese in oil and spices: these are especially handy for salads; spoon the cheese onto the greens with some of the oil and all you need is a sprinkle of vinegar to complete the dressing.
In addition to these items, these are a few of the staples we try to have on hand at all times.
Spice rack: dried herbs and spices: basil, cayenne pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, curry powder, crushed red pepper, dry mustard, ginger, Italian seasoning, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
Pantry: canned tomatoes (whole, diced, pureed), canned beans (black, white, kidney, pinto), canned chiles, bottled artichoke hearts, bottled roasted red peppers, olives, broth (reduced-sodium chicken, beef, vegetable), condiments (mayonnaise, Dijon and yellow mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, fruit preserves or jelly, honey, hot pepper sauce, soy sauce), all-purpose flour, sugar (granulated and brown), corn bread mix, breadcrumbs, multipurpose cooking oil, pasta (spaghetti, spiral, macaroni, couscous), onions (yellow, white, or red), garlic, potatoes (new, baking, sweet), peanut butter, nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds), raisins (and/or other dried fruit), rice, salsa, sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, tuna (canned or pouch), and vanilla.
Refrigerator: carrots, eggs, dairy (butter, milk, cream), fresh fruit (at least two kinds: apples, oranges, pears, grapes, berries, pineapple, melon), Parmesan cheese, fruit juice, lemons, limes, mixed fresh vegetables (bagged broccoli and cauliflower, coleslaw mix), and tortillas.
Freezer: frozen vegetables (corn, peas), frozen fruit (berries, cherries, peaches), chicken breasts (boneless and skinless), ground beef or turkey, and bread (sliced whole-wheat and French).
Copyright © 2005 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Excerpted from The 5:30 Challenge by Jeanne Besser Copyright © 2005 by Jeanne Besser. Excerpted by permission.
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