Take advantage of the range of ready-prepared foods that are available today. The quality and convenience mean you can put together fast, easy meals in less time than it takes to order a takeaway.
There is nothing wrong with taking shortcuts in the kitchen, even though you might have promised yourself that you will cook from scratch from now on. Sometimes, you need food on the table – fast. Maybe you’ve had a tough day at work or your journey home has taken longer than usual and you’re tired and hungry.
We’re all aware of the enormous range of convenience food available to us, from ready meals to ready-made things like pastry, pasta sauce, ready-chopped vegetables, grated cheese and curry pastes. These items are often full of additives and shouldn’t be used every day. But they do have their uses.
There is no comparison between a jar of mass-produced tomato pasta sauce and the one you make yourself with onions, garlic and ripe tomatoes. But it takes time to make it from scratch. Using a jar of good quality tomato sauce means that you can have dinner ready in around 20 minutes.
Sometimes, you have neither the time nor the inclination to stand and chop onions, slice different vegetables or grate half a block of cheese. So these convenience foods do have their place and can work to your advantage. And they’re still better and healthier than a takeaway.
One ingredient I have recently started using is frozen mashed potato. I wasn’t sure whether or not to try it at first, but then I tried it and it was delicious. The ingredients were the same as if I were making mashed potato from scratch (well, apart from a small amount of preservative) but someone else had already done the hard work for me.
Suddenly, a midweek fish pie or shepherd’s pie was much more doable; no peeling, boiling and mashing potatoes required. I just tipped the pieces of potato into a bowl and popped them into the microwave for 3 minutes. And once I had added some extra butter the taste was delicious.
Frozen vegetables of all varieties are a cook’s best friend. You can now get ready prepared and frozen chopped onions, sliced mixed peppers, sliced cabbage, chopped spinach, roasted Mediterranean vegetables and butternut squash, which will save an awful lot of preparation. If you’ve ever tried to peel a butternut squash you will know how hard it is to get the skin off. But now it comes in chunks ready to use in a soup, or as a low carb alternative to mashed potatoes. See below for a delicious, warming recipe for butternut squash soup.
Now that you’re aware of the range of time-saving foods available, you can try a few quick recipes. You can even serve them to your friends and family and if you don’t tell them that they’re made from frozen or ready-prepared ingredients, I promise you they won’t be able to tell the difference.
All recipes serve 4 unless stated otherwise.
Spiced Butternut Squash Soup
This is a lovely warming soup, ideal for cold winter evenings. The spices take it to another level.
750g of frozen diced butternut squash
150g of frozen chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
A small piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
Generous pinch of dried red chilli flakes
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
1 can of full fat coconut milk
500 ml of chicken or vegetable stock
Juice of half a lime
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Coconut milk and pumpkin seeds to garnish
Heat the oil in a large saucepan. When hot add the onions and fry over a medium heat until softened. Add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes. Tip in the frozen butternut squash (no need to defrost it first) ginger, spices and chilli flakes. Stir well. Pour in the coconut milk (keeping back 4 tablespoons to garnish the soup) and stock, season with salt and pepper, add the lime juice and cook, covered with a lid, for about 20 – 25 minutes, until the vegetables are very soft.
The fastest way to puree the soup is to use a stick blender, in the pan. Whizz the soup to a smooth puree. If it seems a bit too thick add a little more stock. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Serve in warmed bowls, garnished with swirls of coconut milk and some pumpkin seeds for a nice crunch.
This is very satisfying on its own but to make it even more filling, serve with fresh, crusty bread and butter.
This easy, quick recipe for a savoury tart makes use of ready-rolled puff pastry, bacon lardons and frozen onions. So easy and so good. You can prepare this in advance and finish cooking it when you’re ready to eat, but give it 25 – 30 minutes to ensure it’s piping hot.
1 tablespoon olive oil
150g diced smoked bacon (lardons)
250g of sliced frozen red onions
1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed
375g ready-rolled puff pastry
250g full-fat creme fraiche
1 teaspoon of fresh chopped thyme or half a teaspoon of dried thyme
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200C/400F. Place a large, solid baking tray on the middle shelf to heat up. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the bacon until the fat starts to run out of it. Add the onions to the pan and fry over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened. Add the garlic and fry for 2 minutes. Season and add the thyme.
Take another baking sheet the same size as the one in the oven and unroll the pastry onto it. Press the edges to make sure the pastry is lying flat then use a sharp knife to cut a line all around the edge, about 2.5 cm in. (Just cut half way through the pastry, not all the way through.) This will create a ‘frame’ for the tart. Prick the pastry sheet all over with a fork to stop it from rising too much and pop it into the oven on top of the hot baking tray. This will help to cook the base of the tart and give it a nice crisp finish. Cook for 7 – 8 minutes until lightly golden brown.
Season the creme fraiche with salt and pepper and spread half of it over the base of the tart, inside the risen edges. Spread the onions in an even layer and top with the bacon. Dollop the remaining creme fraiche over the top and return it to the oven for a further 20 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is hot and bubbling.
All this needs is a simple salad to go with it, dressed with a sharp vinaigrette dressing.
The tart can also be cut into small squares or triangles and served with drinks as an appetizer.
Marinara sauce is usually made with fresh tomatoes, garlic and onions and simmered slowly to create a rich, thick sauce with an intense flavour. Here I’m using a jar of good-quality tomato pasta sauce and frozen chopped onions. The result is pretty good. Serves 4.
2 tablespoons of olive oil
100g frozen chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
350g jar tomato and basil pasta sauce
A large pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a non-stick pan and fry the onion over a medium heat for about 8 – 10 minutes, until softened and lightly browned. Add the garlic and fry for 1 – 2 minutes, then pour in the pasta sauce. Fill up the jar with water to about the half way mark, swirl it around and add to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and add the sugar. Simmer for about 25 minutes, until thickened and a deep red colour.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a pan of boiling, salted water for 8 – 10 minutes. Drain in a colander, but not too thoroughly. Tip the cooked pasta in with the sauce and stir together so that all the strands are coated in the sauce. Serve on warmed plates with fresh Parmesan cheese grated over.
Cod and Spinach Bake
Another quick recipe using frozen fish (much cheaper than fresh fish) frozen spinach and ready grated cheese. A meal in itself and very satisfying.
4 frozen cod steaks
250g of frozen chopped spinach
50g of butter
A good pinch of grated nutmeg
25g of butter
25g of plain flour
400 ml of cold milk
100g of ready grated cheddar cheese
Remove the spinach and the cod steaks from the freezer and allow them to defrost thoroughly. Place the spinach in a sieve and press firmly with the back of a spoon. A lot of water will run out of it and you don’t want this water in your sauce. Season the spinach with salt, pepper and nutmeg and dot over half the butter then tip into the base of an ovenproof dish. Spread out to form an even layer.
Fry the cod steaks in the remaining 25g of butter, turning them once, until golden on the outside (about 2 -3 minutes per side) then carefully place on top of the spinach.
Place all the ingredients for the cheese sauce in a non-stick pan and put on a low heat. Whisk continuously until you have a smooth, thickened sauce. (It’s important to use cold milk as hot milk will cause the sauce to go lumpy.) Season with salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add 50g of the grated cheese. Stir well until the cheese has melted.
Pour the cheese sauce evenly over the fish and spinach, sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese and bake at gas mark 5/190C/375F/ for about 20 minutes until the cheese is browned on top.
This is a meal in itself but you can serve extra vegetables with it if you like.
Home Made Pizza
Strictly speaking, this is not exactly a home made pizza as you are using a ready-made pizza base but it tastes pretty good anyway.
1 ready-to-cook pizza base, about 25cm (10 inches) in diameter
Half a jar of good quality tomato pasta sauce with basil
A handful of frozen chopped onions
A handful of frozen sliced mixed peppers
4 mushrooms, wiped clean and thinly sliced
8 – 10 slices of pepperoni
A dozen pitted black olives, sliced in half
Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds
100g of ready grated mozzarella cheese
Put a sturdy, non-stick baking tray in the oven and preheat it to gas mark 7/220C/425F. Spread the tomato sauce evenly over the pizza base, leaving the edges clear. Sprinkle over half the grated mozzarella. Scatter over the onions, peppers, mushrooms and fennel seeds and arrange the pepperoni evenly on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and slide the pizza onto the hot baking tray. Cook for about 10 – 12 minutes until the cheese has melted and turned a light golden brown and the edges of the pizza base are crisp. Serve with garlic bread.
*For a vegetarian pizza replace the pepperoni with extra mushrooms or some artichokes preserved in oil.
There are endless possibilities for pizza toppings; you can add jalapeno chillies, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, ham, cooked chicken, ground beef, sausages, capers, artichokes or peppers preserved in oil. The only limit is your imagination.
Fresh Strawberry Tart
This is my favourite summer recipe, quick to make but very impressive to look at. And it tastes sensational! Serves 6 – 8.
1 ready-cooked sweet shortcrust pastry case
100 ml of double cream
200g of mascarpone
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (not essence)
30g of caster sugar
400g of strawberries, stalks removed and cut in half
2 tablespoons of strawberry or apricot jam
Place the pastry case on a serving plate. In a bowl, whisk the cream, mascarpone, caster sugar and vanilla extract with an electric whisk until smooth. Spread the mixture over the base of the pastry case and level with the back of a spoon. Place one large strawberry in the centre then arrange the remaining halved strawberries over the top of the cream, keeping them as close together as possible.
Warm the jam in the microwave for 20 seconds to melt it then use a pastry brush to paint the strawberries with the jam. This will give them a lovely shine and enhance the flavour. Chill for an hour in the fridge. Serves 6 – 8 people.
This is one of those easy desserts that you can whip up in minutes. A fool is an old English dessert made from fruit and cream. Here, I’ve lightened the recipe with the addition of yoghurt without sacrificing the creamy texture. This is ideal to have as a dessert after a spicy meal.
375g can of mango slices
150 ml of double cream
150 ml of natural or Greek-style yoghurt
4 sprigs of fresh mint to garnish (optional)
Drain the juice or syrup from the can of mangoes. Tip them into a bowl and mash with a fork to give a rough puree. In a separate bowl, whisk the cream with an electric hand whisk until it starts to thicken. Then add the yoghurt a tablespoon at a time, whisking continuously, until the cream has thickened. Fold in the mango puree gently with a large spoon to create a rippled effect.
Spoon the fool into serving glasses or dishes and decorate with a sprig of fresh mint.
I hope that you enjoy trying these recipes. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.
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