Fast food that's healthy for you
too tired to cook? here are some quick, nutritious meals – from freezer to plate – that take less time than ordering in food
Do you ever find yourself daunted by the task of making dinner in the evening? Are there days when you cannot even face peeling another carrot? Do you often feel seriously tempted to stop off at the takeaway on the way home, particularly on Fridays?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, then you are not alone. I am frequently asked to suggest quick, nutritious and delicious meals that suit one or more for dinner with minimal effort, ideally no effort at all. I always get people to start to think about what it is their freezer could do for them. Short of putting an apron on it and asking it to cook you a meal, you can come to rely on your freezer as a godsend for that busy, overwrought, hungry day. I call it the PMT day, with respect to the moods and hormonal balance of men as well as women.
It's that antsy, irritated day, the day that can go from bad to worse at work, and still expects to have a dinner on the table by 6.30pm. You know the one.
I would argue that we do not need to be gourmet chefs in order to cook a nutritious meal in minutes. We, quite often, would much rather sit watching someone else do the cooking, in the form of a television chef, while eating our own salt-laden takeaway, if we thought we could get away with it. While we all fall prey to this thinking on occasion, I draw the line at takeaways.
If nutrition, balance and weight maintenance are goals you currently strive towards, then you need to do a lot better than takeaway for dinner. Takeaway meals come at a price; the price being hundreds of calories in excess of requirement, phenomenal amounts of salt (or MSG) and the worst type of fat, the partially hydrogenated type. I cannot recommend them, ever.
I have a five-minute solution, however, that involves making double (or triple) quantities of your favourite meals when you are in the mood to cook, when you have the time, or simply because you went out and bought the necessary ingredients.
Some meals freeze fabulously well. I would go as far as to say that many meals are even tastier after they have had time in either the fridge or even the freezer. These are the kinds of meals in which the sauce develops more complexity of flavour as it rests.
These are curries, tagines, chillies, stews and casseroles. These are not steak dinners or baked fish. A steak needs to be cooked quickly and on the day of eating, a piece of fish, similarly. A tagine (North African mild curry type of dish) works beautifully to develop its flavours over time.
If you have it for dinner on, say, Sunday, then put it in the fridge and have it again on, say Wednesday. It will taste even better for it. Put some in the freezer for that tired day and you have an instant rich and tasty dinner that needs three-minute couscous and greens to complete (the freezer is also a great place to stash the greens).
Lamb tagine and red onion with couscous (right)
> 1 onion, sliced
> 1tbsp olive oil
> 1 level tsp cinnamon, 1tsp turmeric, 1tsp ground ginger, 1tsp cumin, 1tsp allspice (these are gathering dust in your cupboards)
> 300g diced lean lamb (neck or leg)
> 1 cup of hot water
> A few dates, chopped (say 8)
> Pinch of salt
> 1 red onion, thinly sliced
> Small splash lime juice (fresh or bottled)
> Coriander (fresh)
> Dried couscous
Soften the onion in the oil in a large casserole dish. Add all the spices and fry for about three minutes. Next, add the meat and brown with the lid off. When browned, add enough hot water to cover the meat. Add the dates and a little salt.
Then, place in a low oven (120°C) for approximately two hours.
(This will also keep, covered in the fridge)
Meanwhile, place the sliced red onion in some lime juice, with a little salt and plenty of coriander. To serve, drain the juice.
Place a small cup of couscous in enough boiling water to cover by 1/2 inch and leave to stand for 3mins. Fluff with a fork to serve.
To serve: Serve the lamb on a bed of couscous with a side of green vegetables (broccoli or frozen green beans), with plenty of red onion and coriander on top.
AS for curries, these are an all-time stand-by in my house. Make beef, lamb, vegetarian and chicken curries when the mood strikes you. I always have a couple of portions in the freezer. I can look forward to one even when I know there is nothing else for dinner in the house.
Chicken and chickpea curry (right)
> 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
> 1 red or green pepper, roughly chopped
> 2 tbsp vegetable oil
> 3 chicken breasts, chopped into bite-sized pieces
> 2 tsp curry powder
> 1 tin chopped tomatoes
> Handful of frozen or fresh cauliflower
> Handful of frozen peas
> 1 small tin of chickpeas
> Small bunch of coriander
> Basmati rice to serve
Fry the onion and pepper in a wide-bottomed non-stick pan in the oil for five minutes until softened but not browned. Add the chicken pieces and with the lid off, sprinkle on the curry powder and stir to coat the chicken.
Cook, uncovered, for about five more minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes, the cauliflower and put the lid on to simmer for ten minutes over a low heat.
After this time add the peas and drained chickpeas and simmer for another five minutes. Serve with chopped coriander sprinkled on top and basmati rice (done in lots of boiling water for eight minutes, then drained and fluffed with a fork).
Allow to cool completely and put any leftover portions in airtight containers into the freezer. I cook extra rice and freeze the entire meal (minus the coriander). To thaw, simply take out on the morning or night before eating and allow to thaw in the fridge, or in case of emergency, place directly from frozen into your microwave on 'thaw' initially and then on full heat for two or so minutes.
AN absolute freezer essential, for me, is home-made tomato sauce. You may never buy another jar of pasta sauce again. My own recipe, evolved from about half a dozen I have tried is so lovely, so fool-proof, so satisfying, that you will find yourself having it on chicken, white fish, home-made pizza, a quick cheese toastie and, of course, on pasta for the quickest of suppers.
Tasty tomato sauce (above)
> 1tbsp olive oil
> 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
> 1 clove garlic, chopped
> 1 tin chopped tomatoes (or passata – sieved tomatoes)
> 1 tbsp tomato puree > I tsp dried oregano > Pinch salt > Good pinch of sugar > 1 egg – optional, to serve > Grated Parmesan cheese – optional
Put the olive oil at the bottom of a non-stick saucepan. Add the onion and fry gently for three minutes. Next add the garlic and fry for one minute. Then add the tomatoes, the puree, oregano, salt and sugar.
Simmer gently for 10 minutes. The sauce is ready.
To serve this sauce with pasta, you can add an egg at this final stage. Beat an egg into the heated mixture. The egg scrambles slightly and the sauce turns pink.
It is then ready to serve with a little wholemeal pasta and grated Parmesan on top, accompanied by a simple green salad with dressing (olive oil and lemon juice will do).
If you wish to serve this sauce with chicken; simply fry a chicken breast in two teaspoons of olive oil for 10 minutes.
Boil (or microwave) a potato and some greens (such as long-stem broccoli, asparagus, green beans) and serve.
Other freezer essentials I rely greatly on, include salmon darnes, which come trimmed, skinned and in individual bags; they do everything except eat it for you these days. Pop one in the microwave, from frozen and it is poached in just two minutes (allow to stand for another two).
Fish cakes are another variation on this theme. I make mine with equal amounts of fish and potato, some paprika, salt and pepper. I fry them in olive oil and freeze extra (flat on a tray) to have as a quick lunch, served with sweet chilli sauce and salad.
Finally, never underestimate the value of frozen vegetables, in terms of nutrientsas well as in terms of convenience. You may be a zealot who claims only to eat the freshest of vegetables at their peak of ripeness.
In fact, on the day when you have stayed late at work, forgotten to shop in your lunch break and generally lost the will to live, the humble frozen vegetable mixture you find buried beneath the ice-cream, can give you the fibre, the nutrients and the satisfaction you require to complete your evening meal. Perhaps with a piece of salmon, formerly frozen and a micro-waved spud.