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Everyday dinner help for a brand new "grown-up"

I've lived on my own for a while, and cooked since I was small, but the work schedule I've had for the past few years has meant that I basically scrounged or got takeout during the week, and did big deal (read: too expensive and labor intensive for every day) cooking projects for fun on the weekend. This means I have some amazing recipes for things like polpettine stuffed with goat cheese and scallops in citrus buerre blanc, but I have no idea how to plan a week's worth of normal dinner menus. As of this past weekend I am now living in my first real grown-up apartment with someone (we decorated! we have a dining room table! and a dishwasher!) and working hours that give me plenty of time in the evening to cook, and having a real dinner together is something that is important to me. I would love to hear some mid-week go-to dinner menus/ideas that I can shamelessly steal and pass off as my own to impress my boyfriend. :)

I'd also love cookbook recommendations that fit the bill, as I've tended to gravitate towards ones that are pretty, fancy and impractical.

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  1. It all depends on what you are interested in making, for example, Chicken, Pasta, Roast, etc. My favorite go to dinner is Smoked Gouda Stuffed Shrimp Wrapped in Bacon. Its easy with only three ingredients and if I show up for family holiday dinners without it, I'm in trouble!
    Others include Ancho Orange Glazed Chicken with Sweet Potato Hash (I won a national contest prize with this one), Pan Seared Pork Tenderloin with Peach BBQ sauce and corn Pudding and also a Roasted Asparagus & Red Grape Salad with Crispy Prosciutto, Cornbread Croutons & Red Grape Vinaigrette. Again, depends on your interests. I don't own many cookbooks and prefer cooking related magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.

    1. Jacques Pepin's cookbooks, "Fast Food My Way" (there are two or three of them) may be just the thing. You can also find some of his PBS shows online or buy the DVDs as well. Everything can be cooked in 30 minutes or less (although prep time can push it up by 15 minutes or so). I always get hungry and inspired watching the shows.

      3 Replies
      1. re: weezycom

        Second Pepin's recipes, and also Everyday Food magazine/show, which is part of Martha Stewart's plan to conquer the world. The recipes are simple and either quick or low-fuss. and the magazine includes shopping lists both for specific meals and for a general well-stocked pantry.

        1. re: weezycom

          Jacque's Fast Food My Way, The Complete Pepin Books and DVDs are great recommendations.

          Here is a link to his shows http://www.kqed.org/food/jacquespepin/

          1. re: weezycom

            Fantastic suggestion, thanks! Between him, Lidia, America's Test Kitchen etc, PBS has definitely replaced Food Network as my food TV resource!

          2. For dinner this week, the girlfriend and I will be having salmon with asparagus (had that tonight).

            Wed. we're having quesadillas, might make mexican rice and some black beans if feel up to it.

            Then we're going to have either chili or split pea soup, both of which we have have leftovers of in the freezer.

            Other common after work dinners are buffalo burgers, pork chops, fish and shellfish is very easy, paella is always fun, stuffed banana peppers, tacos, fish tacos, steak salad, meatloaf and mashed potatos, grilled pizza. I have recipes for most if you'd like any.

            1. I have a few general tips to offer. First, look first to things you already eat but maybe don't often make at home. When you were getting takeout, what were you getting? Possbily things you can instead be making - look for recipes for those things to start, since at least you know they are things you like to eat. For us, this means Indian curry, Thai food, etc. Not that I need an entire Indian food cookbook, for example, just to make the few things we typically like. Doesn't have to be exotic either - maybe your fav takeout is chicken parm or meatloaf or something. Also - this may give you a better idea, once you start cooking, of seeing what to look for in a cookbook.

              Second would be don't overlook the value of the weekend for planning and possible useful cooking ahead. For example, this past weekend I roasted 2 whole chickens (there are just 2 adults in our household). That yielded the traditional roast chicken dinner with sides over the weekend. I picked all the meat off the (cooled) cooked chicken and will use that later in the week. Tonight it went into chicken enchiladas, which are pretty quick if you've already got the cooked chicken on hand. That cooked chicken could go into a pasta dish too. And, I'll freeze some of it to pull out in another few days to a week for even more meals.

              1. I work full time and have 2 small kids. Since I refuse to have my kids eat chicken fingers or "kid food" every night, I am always cooking and/or planning. My husband is actually the most finicky of the bunch. A few things that come to mind that are in our rotation and are good weeknight dinners are:

                chicken marsala
                pasta with chicken, broccoli, and sun dried tomatoes
                "easy" paella
                arroz con pollo

                What I do is I keep a running list (just a long list in Excel) with dishes that sound good, relatively easy and everyone in my family will eat. I also list where I found the recipe, whether it be Chowhound or a blog or website. I just keep adding to the list when I find something that is of interest. If I make something and it's not so good, I delete it. Then when I sit down at some point on the weekend or whenever I am ready to make a shopping list, I peruse my list and pick out a few recipes that I feel like making that week. I often will look at my list and remember that I haven't made a particular dish in a while and everyone really likes it. It helps me in that I don't keep making the same things over and over again.

                1. Off the top of my head, here are a few weekday meal ideas:

                  -shortcut paella or jambalaya, using a rice mix as a base (http://culinspiration.wordpress.com/2...
                  )-pasta bolognese (sauce usually made over the weekend and reheated)
                  -fajitas (peppers, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, and chicken sauteed with lots of cumin, smoked paprika or chipotle powder, garlic, splash of soy sauce)
                  -broccoli soup (sauteed onions and garlic, lots of potatoes cooked in chicken broth, ground coriander, 2 crowns of broccoli simmered just until done, all pureed together)
                  -quiche (prepared or homemade pie crust filled with 4-5 eggs whisked with 1 c. whole milk, 3/4 c. grated cheese, salt, pepper, and your choice of sauteed veggies, baked at 425F just until set). Par-cook the crust if you have time.
                  -teriyaki chicken (soy sauce, lots of brown sugar, pineapple juice, minced garlic and ginger reduced on a stovetop, then spooned over chicken breasts and baked)
                  -chopped salad with leftover cooked chicken breast or steak, romaine lettuce, dried cherries or cranberries, walnuts or toasted almonds, clementine segments/sliced pears/apples, dressing of choice
                  -marinated grilled protein of choice and sweet potato oven fries
                  -boxed red beans and rice mix cooked with sliced keilbasa or andouille
                  -grilled or baked bbq chicken and homemade cole slaw (shredded cabbage and carrots, minced onion, mayo, sugar, splash of milk, vinegar, salt, pepper. variations: 1) add honey mustard, dried cranberries, chopped apples, and toasted almonds; 2) vinegar-based in a vinaigrette of rice wine vinegar, oil, toasted sesame oil, toasted sesame seed, grated ginger, sriracha chili-garlic sauce)
                  -meatloaf (take leftovers in sandwiches for lunch)
                  -variety of homemade soups: lentil; creamy potato; beef vegetable; chicken noodle; cannelini bean, sausage, and kale (http://culinspiration.wordpress.com/2...
                  )-Thai curry: sauteed veggies of choice (we like onions, eggplant, potatoes/sweet potatoes, firm tofu/chicken/beef, zucchini, carrots....be creative), coconut milk, a few tablespoons of green or red curry paste, fresh Thai basil if you can find it. Serve with coconut or basmati rice.
                  -pasta in fennel-sausage ragout: http://culinspiration.wordpress.com/2...
                  -I hear very good things about Martha Rose Shulman's black bean soup: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/13/hea...
                  -breakfast for dinner--omelets, waffles, pancakes, chipped beef gravy (aka SOS), French toast
                  -pork chops or tenderloin marinated in jerk paste and grilled (I like Walkerswood
                  )-quinoa salad (lots of recipes online)
                  -penne with vodka sauce (I think Rachel Ray has a decent one)
                  -Jamie Oliver's tagliatelle with spinach and mascarpone: http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/ve...
                  -Ina Garten's Roasted Vegetable and Orzo salad

                  Hope those help!

                  1. Some of my easy/quick go-to meals:

                    - Chicken fajitas with black beans and mexican rice
                    - ground beef tacos
                    - enchiladas
                    - Chichen cordon bleu with asparagus
                    - Shrimp stir-fry with brown rice
                    - recently started making big batches of soup on Sunday for the week (lentil, butternut squash, split pea)
                    - broiled, mustard crusted steak with sauteed green beans
                    - grilled, thick cut, bone in pork chops with grilled zucchini
                    - baked sweet potato fries with just about anything
                    - I also make big batches of meatballs and sauce to freeze in individual portions, reheat for a quick dinner

                    1. Another excellent resource is the Epicurious.com website. You can input the name of a dish -- say chicken enchiladas or fish tacos -- and find a recipe, or just the name of some ingredients if you are looking for inspiration on what to make. There is a review link where users include information about how they varied the recipe, as well as comment on how the dish tasted, which can be very helpful.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: masha

                        I'm a big fan of Epicurious, but since I've tended to use it a lot as a resource for my fancy cooking projects it didn't occur to me to look at it for more basic recipes. Thanks!

                      2. Most of the people I know will plan their menus around the grocery sale ads. Just look at the ads and think of things you could make with the ingredients that are on sale.

                        For instance, I just happen to be perusing an ad for an ethnic (Mexican) market. I see that boneless chuck steak is on sale for 2.49 per pound, corn tortillas for .99 (for a large pack), and red onions for .49 per pound. I can toss the roast in a crock with some mexican style seasonings, take the onion and some peppers and saute, and serve over the tortillas, with some rice and beans on the side.

                        They also have chicken breasts, eggs, and chicken bouillon on sale. Hey that's most of a nice garlic chicken egg drop soup! Or chicken pot pie, or chicken fritatas (they have some fresh cheese on sale too)

                        Sometimes I am more inspired by seeing the ingredients than recipes.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Popkin

                          I cook dinner almost every day. One big piece of advice: when yo make anything that can be frozen, like soups or pasta sauces or stews, make a big pot and freeze the leftovers. That way, for the days you don't have time to cook you can heat up a soup or stew, make a green salad, and you're done.

                          I like this fast dinner: place salmon fillets or steaks in a glass baking dish, skin side down. Spread over the top: prepared pesto without added cheese (I make my own but you can buy it), add a few capers, some salt and pepper, throw in the oven for 10-15 minutes. You can also use a mixture of olive oil, dijon mustard, some salt, and honey if you like it sweet. This type of meal is easy, healthy (use Alaskan salmon if you can), and delicious.

                          1. re: Popkin

                            I feel the same! Flexibility and frugality are a big draw to this method. If you need to plan, though, you can plan around a starch (potatoes Mon, pasta Tues, rice Weds, etc.), because those staple-type foods don't fluctuate in price very often. Meat and produce, on the other hand, vary wildly in price per pound depending on sales and seasons. If you're tied to a recipe, you can easily end up overspending.

                          2. Don't forget whole fish, either. One of my favorite easy meals is whole dressed trout, seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs d' Provence, brushed with lemon butter, and stuffed with rosemary sprigs. Roast uncovered at 375F just until done (the flesh is white and firm).

                            So good, so easy. You can roast some par-cooked potatoes alongside.

                            1. Shells stuffed with a blend of ricotta/parm/parsley/egg, topped with marinara, and baked are another idea. And don't forget the possibility of layering a lasagna with lots of veggies (eggplant, zucchini, spinach). You can eat leftover for several days or freeze for later.

                              1. Many people are nervous to cook fish but it really is very fast. Broiled salmon, filets of flounder/sole, seared tuna, poached fish, can all be prepared lightening fast. Seared scallops take literally 5 minutes to cook. you may want to check out the book Fish without a doubt. I got it recently and made the sole stuffed with crab. So good.
                                I agree with the suggestions for Pepins books. great ideas in there.