Sybil Kapoor on cooking quick, simple weeknight meals
February is a difficult time of year for many cooks. After what feels like a very long four weeks in January, many New Year resolutions fall by the wayside. Don’t be discouraged. Instead, take heart and start afresh—you’ll feel fabulous!
If, like me, you want to eat simply and healthily throughout the week, there are lots of wonderful quick meals that you can cook. Some may even make you feel a little bit spoilt. There is something rather decadent about eating crunchy homemade oven chips on a Monday night or dipping into a mango and passion fruit salad when it’s dark and wet outside.
Supper can be the hardest meal to keep simple and healthy, mainly because we all feel tired on a winter’s night. This is when the lure of a takeaway is at its strongest! I try and keep such temptations as an extra-special treat, rather than a regular occurrence, although I have to admit that the nearer I get to my holidays, the harder I find it to resist.
Maximum taste for minimum effort
The key is to ensure that your supper dishes have maximum taste for minimum effort. Thus, instead of making complex puddings, choose flavoursome fruit that needs little preparation. Sweet blood oranges, for example, can be finely sliced and sprinkled with sugar and orange flower water. Ripe pineapple can be diced and flavoured with a hint of kirsch and a rough grating of orange zest. In one stroke, you’ve eliminated excess fat and sugar, time and effort to create quick, delicious dishes that make you feel better.
Finding good ingredients is essential for simple cooking. If your potatoes taste wonderful, little work is needed to prepare them. Mayan golds, for instance, make irresistible oven chips and king edward potatoes make the fluffiest jacket potatoes. Add a griddled well-aged steak topped with some chive and blue cheese butter along with a pretty green salad with avocado and everyone will be happy.
The aim is to restrict how much preparation is needed. Choose your main ingredients carefully, planning how and what you might serve with them. Meat can be bought ahead and frozen. Allow 24 hours for it defrost slowly in the fridge. Fish and shellfish taste best cooked on the day of purchase. Fruit, vegetables and herbs can be topped up during the week.
Thus, I might serve seared dive-caught scallops with a chilli garlic spaghetti or homemade veal burgers (flavoured with lemon zest, chilli and sautéed onions) with spiced black beans, sliced avocado and red onion. Both take less than 30 minutes to prepare and cook.
A few choice seasonings will add greater variety to this simplified approach to cooking. I love the warm spicy flavour of La Chinata sweet smoked paprika (Brindisa), for example, in spicy coatings and marinades. It only takes seconds to dip some steak, salmon or white fish fillet in sunflower oil and coat in a mixture of paprika powder, dried garlic granules, salt and freshly ground pepper, before frying in a hot pan. The ‘blackened’ results taste wonderful, especially if eaten with an avocado or pineapple salsa.
Parmesan, smooth Dijon mustard, naturally brewed soy sauce, mirin and different types of miso paste are equally useful, as is fresh ginger, spring onions, shallots, chilli, garlic and lemon. Try coating veal or pork escalopes in finely grated parmesan and paprika with a tiny bit of flour, for example, before frying. It’s very addictive.
Cheat’s cauliflower gratin
However, half the battle is thinking of equally easy accompaniments. Roasted tomatoes with garlic and thyme taste wonderful, but another favourite of mine is to make a cheat’s cauliflower gratin. Instead of making a cheese sauce, I top the blanched cauliflower (mixed with halved cherry tomatoes and sautéed onions) with diced taleggio cheese and grill or bake it until bubbling hot.
Stir-fries can be accompanied by an extra stir-fried vegetable, which has the added benefit of filling you up and lessening the desire to eat lots of rice. I can’t resist stir-fried lettuce, cabbage or broccoli—all they need is a hint of ginger, salt and some sunflower oil.
I also keep a bag full of frozen breadcrumbs in the freezer. These are made from the off-cuts or stale remnants of white bread. Sourdough bread is also good, but remember that it forms coarser crumbs. Either type can be used to coat haddock or cod fillets and veal or chicken escalopes.
A chunky salad
Dust the fish in seasoned plain flour, dip it in a beaten egg and press into a bowl of crumbs before frying. Serve accompanied by (dare I write it) a few petit pois and some oven chips. The meat can be dusted in flour and then coated in a mixture of mustard, cream and egg before being crumbed and fried. It’s so filling, all you need as an accompaniment is a chunky salad such as cauliflower, tomato, cucumber and button mushroom.
Before long, you’ll find yourself slipping into groove and developing all sorts of wonderful, simple dishes. Your New Year resolutions will dissolve into an enjoyable way of life.