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I need Level 2 Recipes...

Recently, I've been discussing my cooking and eating habits with a nutritionist, and we've come to the conclusion that one of the issues with how I cook and eat is that my recipe repertoire consists of either:

"Let me take this frozen dinner out of a box."

OR

"Let me take these two things out of boxes and cook them together."

OR

"Okay, lasagna. Where did I leave the type 00 flour to make the pasta?"

We described it as Level 0, Level 1 and Level 47. And nothing in between. Either I'm just throwing crap together from packaged goods with no real expectation that it will be tasty or nutritious, or I'm doing this: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/720049

I'm trying to find dishes -- not necessarily even complete recipes, but techniques and concepts -- that are relatively fast, use ingredients that I'm likely to own or can easily acquire and that seem like cooking and result in things that are tasty, but which require slightly less than an entire weekend to prepare. Slightly less than an entire hour would be best.

I'm only one person, so things that can be made a couple of portions at a time, or which freeze well would be best. I don't eat a ton of vegetables since I find them annoying to prepare and don't tend to like them anyway, but recipes that include some super-easy inclusion of vegetables within the main dish would be good.

Most of the 'easy weeknight dinner' types of recipes I find are geared towards working moms feeding an entire family, and some of them can be cut down to fit a single person, but not all of them can.

I'm sure I'm not the only hound who mostly cooks for one person, so I'm curious what other hounds are doing just to get themselves fed every night. Apparently 'maintain a well curated set of take-out menus' is not the only possible answer to that question. But when it's half an hour past dinnertime, and all I'm doing is standing in front of my fridge thinking 'I wonder what I should have for dinner?' take-out or frozen dinners end up seeming like the only viable option.

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  1. Though there have been many posts over the years like yours, my personal favorite is here:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/813263

    This thread is filled with strategies that others have used and some wonderful compassion to boot. Perhaps you can get some ideas.

    p.s. If there were no frozen "meals" in the freezer, it would not be an option. ;-)

    1. I usually try to have a protein, at least one vegetable and one starch. If i don't have a starch, I will remain hungry and snack. I found having a rice cooker made making rice so easy, I can just turn it on, go do other stuff and not have to worry about it at all.

      Once a week I try to have fish. I will sometimes change the fish, but I usually get a filet of what looks fresh and yet not too expensive. I almost always just pan sear it as I love a nice crust on my fish. I will try various things such as throwing a few cherry tomatoes in one week, some olives the next, maybe a little panko crust one week, just lemon juice and butter, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, etc. If I am feeling lazy, I will just do a simple pan seared fish which takes 30 seconds to prep, 3-5 minutes to cook, and I'll throw together a salad, and maybe throw some rice in the rice cooker before hand. If I am more adventurous, I will do the same fish, maybe sautee some green beans or spinach or chard or anything in the same fish pan after its cooked, that way I don't create many dishes. Or I will just use a new pot or whatever and cook any number of vegetables I want, whatever looks fresh and inexpensive. I will boil potatoes, roast potatoes, steam potatoes, anything with potatoes or sweet potatoes or squash or any starch. Or as I said before, just rice. I feel eating fish once a week has made me healthier, its pretty inexpensive, and I can make it very fresh and delicious and its extremely fast to cook.

      I always have pasta on hand as well. I will create many different sauces based on whats in the fridge, be it just tomatoes and basil, mushrooms, spinach/chard and olives, leeks and radicchio, the possibilities are endless.

      As I have a Japanese fiancee, I find myself eating rice much much more now. As I said, it is so easy, and I always have it on hand now in the cupboard. I can throw it in the rice cooker, it usually takes 15-20 minutes, in that time I can get whatever vegetables out of the fridge, cut them, sautee them and have a nice stir fry and rice in 20-30 minutes. I usually always use pork, just a thin asian style sliced pork belly, I will start by sauteeing carrots, then onions, and then the pork, then I will throw in any asian green, and then finish with a splash of soy sauce and lemon, or could use ponzu, if I am feeling especially fancy I'll top with some sesame oil.

      My go to meals are whatever is in the fridge either in the form of pasta or stir fry on rice. And once a week I make the effort to have a fish dish.

      Another convenient thing is I will cook a full bowl of rice in my rice cooker, and then I can freeze individual portions of rice, that way if I am very lazy, I can throw a portion of rice in the microwave and it is ready in 5 minutes, then I can either pan sear a fish, or make a quick stir fry of mushrooms or spinach or anything for on the rice.

      All the rice cookers I used in Canada and Australia cost between $11-15, so it was a very worthwhile investment for me. The rice cooker I am using in Japan is significantly more advanced.

      11 Replies
      1. re: TeRReT

        Interesting that you mentioned rice cookers specifically. I've been contemplating getting one. I like rice, but don't eat a lot of it right now, just because it takes so much longer to cook than pasta and I almost inevitably burn half of it to the bottom of the pot, because I lack the attention span to spend half an hour in my kitchen actually attending to a boiling pot.

        1. re: Jacquilynne

          I never ate rice at home before my fiancee, and a rice cooker came as a package deal with her. Its beyond convenient for me. When we traveled Australia, we had a small 4 cup one, it cost $11 and did its job well. It couldn't make too much rice, just enough for the two of us, and maybe a little more, but was perfect. Even in that situation, being able to put the rice in, and have it cooking while I prep the rest of the meal, or if I wanted to take a shower or watch tv while it cooked it was convenient enough not having to touch the rice (aside from rinsing it before cooking, but that doesn't take long). Now that I am in Japan, the rice cooker we have is more like an 8 cup rice cooker, which means I can cook so many portions of rice. And freezing the rice has no noticeable effect on it. It still tastes delicious after being in the microwave for 5 minutes.

          The ricer cooker itself was beyond convenient *for me*, but having 6 portions of rice frozen at any given time is crazy. Dinner I don't mind cooking rice and taking 30 minutes to make, but lunch I want immediately. Being able to have rice ready fast makes me so happy.

          I stress this works well for me and my fiancee, but I have seen people that say they don't use their rice cookers. For us, I couldn't live without it now.

          1. re: Jacquilynne

            Perhaps you spending 30 minutes "attending to a boiling pot" is your downfall. For rice, rinse it with cool water, add it to boiling water, stir once and cover, turn the heat down immediately to simmer. Check for doneness in 15 minutes. Should not take more than 20 minutes for white rice. Do NOT stir until it is done.

            1. re: Jacquilynne

              I too cook for one. Do you have a pressure-cooker? If not, I think this would be a better investment than a rice cooker. It will speed your meal-prep time for a wider range of foods than a rice cooker. For rice, I put a rack (an arrangement of jar lids would suffice) in the bottom, with a half inch of water. Atop that, a pyrex or metal bowl/dish containing rice and the amount of water/broth it needs. That will halve the cooking time to 20 minutes and there is NO clean-up. Just dump the still-clean water in the bottom of the pressure cooker. Serve the rice from the bowl.

              I do the same with dry beans, soaked or un. You'll get slow cooker recommendations too, I'm sure. Before I retired, I usually cooked a lot on weekends, froze meals in single portions.
              Then I could reheat something quickly for a workday dinner. AFTER that dinner, I might cook a few portions of something else. Dinner for the following day, and more for the freezer or following days. I don't mind having the same thing for dinner 2-3 days in a row, if it's something I really like.

              1. re: greygarious

                I agree 100% about the pressure cooker. A 6 qt. would be a good size for 1-2 people. You never fill them more than 2/3's full. Get a copy of Lorna Sass' Pressure Perfect. You will be putting risottos on your table in no time. It takes 7.5 mins (not counting a little prep), soups even things like split pea take about 15 mins. You will be amazed at the variety of good foods you can turn out in no time at all. Last night I made a lamb tagine from Paula Wolfort's new book, The Foods of Morocco. The recipe called for cooking the lamb for 3 hours. Out came the pressure cooker and a half hour that dish was ready.

                Once you get some experience under your belt with a PC you will be able to convert many regular recipes to pressure cooker cooking. Beef Burgundy is another that is almost mindless to do. And BTW, they are safe. They cannot blow up as earlier versions did. If you opt for an electric, Fagor makes one that is a PC, Slow Cooker, and Rice cooker. It costs around $100. The only drawback on it is that the PC only gets up to 8PSI where a cooktop model will get up to 15 PSI. And yes, you can cook rice in a PC and lots of other good for you grains.

              2. re: Jacquilynne

                Even though I'm cooking more rice these days, I can't justify a fancy rice cooker.
                I'm sticking with my easy-to-use, easy-to-clean and cheap microwave cooker.
                Basically just a plastic bowl with a vented lid - pretty much foolproof. I haven't used it on brown rice due to the extended cooking time.
                http://www.amazon.com/Progressive-Int...

                I'm with the other posters who can't go carb-less. In smaller percentages, rice adds a uniquely satifying texture combined with meat, beans and/or veggies.
                For example, try a Costco-chicken + rice + salsa bowl.

                1. re: DiveFan

                  I can cook a small portion of rice so easily in my little Le Creuset sauce pot that I don't really feel the need for a rice cooker. What I think it would be good for is cooking brown rice--that can be challenging on the stovetop in my experience. So much better at a restaurant, and I put that down to their commercial rice cooker.

                2. re: Jacquilynne

                  If you use converted rice (aka Uncle Ben's or parboiled or "golden rice") you can cook a large potful in the rice cooker then package it in plastic sandwich bags and freeze individual portions to be zapped when needed. I haven't found that other types of rice freeze well---they clump and smoosh---but the converted rice grains keep to themselves. This is a very great convenience for the solo cook.

                  1. re: Querencia

                    Japanese short grain rice freezes fine, thats all I use and it freezes as well as when eaten fresh

                    1. re: Querencia

                      Great suggestion! Is there a brown rice version of Uncle Ben's parboiled or Japanese short grain rice that freezes well?

                      Wild rice also freezes well, though it's not technically a rice. (It's a grass). It's also high in protein and fiber, so, super healthful.

                      Also, to the OP, if you finding that freezing food in individual portions works for you, a foodsaver is a pretty nifty machine.

                      Finally, this might not be very chowhoundy, but we like to fry up a big batch of ground beef or bison (lower in fat!) with garlic and chopped onion (you can buy frozen chopped onion and even chopped garlic if you want) and then freeze it in small quantities. It's easy later to pull out and add to marinara sauce for a quick pasta, make tacos, whateever. You can also make soup, make chili and so on, though those are things you might just bake in big batches and freeze anyway. Martha Stewart has a "taco filling" version of this. We like to keep the flavors more generic though for better versatility http://www.marthastewart.com/portal/s...

                      These mini meatballs are freezer friendly and cook quickly (without needing to be pre-thawed) http://www.marthastewart.com/portal/s...

                      ~TDQ

                    2. re: Jacquilynne

                      We live near quite a few universities and this is the time, April and May, when graduate students move on and sell things like high end rice cookers cheap. I got my neuro fuzzy rice cooker for less than1/2 the retail price a few years ago from Craig's list and we use it a lot- it makes foolproof rice in no time and keeps it warm until you're ready to eat.

                  2. Jacquilynne, I hear ya on the veg. If the budget allows, the pre-cut stuff on the friendly local grocery salad bar (or produce section) can be your best friend, if turnover is high. You can make some rice in advance, and re-steam in the microwave, and do the world's fastest stir-frying stint; just cut up your chicken or peel a few prawns, good to go.
                    One thing I want to mention is that it would be a great idea for you to slice some cheeses and veg. in advance of need, and have a plateful in the fridge. That'll forestall your need to get something into you immediately. Walk in the door, pour a glass of wine and have a few crackers and cheese.
                    Chicken cutlets, pounded and floured in advance, can be stored in the fridge for several days and then sauteed as needed with a squeeze of lemon and a tot of butter to finish. Maybe a splash of wine in there.
                    Lasagna freezes beautifully. Can you make some and portion it out to freeze?
                    A pot of "pasta sauce base" has been a real friend to me.....thawed, you've got spaghetti with meat sauce (or any other pasta, for that matter) and a base for delicious minestrone soup: add tinned or boxed decent broth, cooked beans (canned are fine, of course), some cooked pasta that was just sitting and waiting for this, some shredded spinach and Parmesan.
                    Myself, I'm eating a LOT of cutlets, lotta chops, lotta small steaks. But I'm a serious carnivore at the end of the day and I MUST have MEATY goodness.
                    Nothing wrong with a great grilled tuna and cheese, either.....
                    And when I get busy cleaning out the fridge, I make a HUGE wokful of fried rice, using every odd/end I can find. Somehow it all works out. Great with a fried egg on top.

                    1. Jacquilynne, check out recent threads on planning and meal prep (on general topics board, I think). I cook for just two people, and for the last decade or so have been conscientious about avoiding frozen and processed foods. It is a challenge, and it is really more a lifestyle change than a mere cooking challenge. It is necessary to commit to planning ahead and staying motivated and disciplined to avoid falling into the frozen box of dinner/take-out trap.

                      I know the feeling of standing in front of the fridge wondering what to have for dinner, and I try very hard to avoid that by planning ahead. I plan out dinners for a number of days, grocery shop with those dinner plans in mind, and make sure I always have salad greens, dressings, eggs, cheeses, fruit and yogurt on hand. We stick with a meat and veg, meat and green salad, or meat/veg/salad meal plan. That may mean grilled or sauteed steak, chicken or fish, or omelettes, always served with something green and fresh, or a "keeping" salad made ahead, like a lentil salad. Roasted asparagus, broccoli, or cauliflower are easy to prepare and while they're in the oven or on the grill you can saute a fish fillet or grill a steak or chicken breast. My local market has great frozen fish, packaged with two individually sealed fish cuts to a bag. I have lately discovered trimmed and washed green beans in a bag (can't recall the brand) that you just pop into the microwave for four to five minutes - they were very good and sure beat doing the washing and trimming yourself.

                      Broccoli and cauliflower keeps for a long time once washed and separated into florets and stored in a glass container in the fridge. Clean a head all at once and it will be ready for your come meal time. Asparagus when in season is so simple to prepare, and you can oven roast for 15 minutes or pan roast in even less time. Carrots can be peeled ahead and stored ready for boiling or roasting. All these vegetables cook well and quickly in the microwave with no loss of quality.

                      In summary, it takes a bit of effort and the motivation to change but it can be done.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: janniecooks

                        Meal planning is definitely a problem for me, for sure. I sometimes buy groceries with good intentions and then they rot in my fridge because they aren't what I feel like eating (or, more likely, seem like too much effort to cook). And other times, there's just not much there.

                      2. I've been into roasting things lately, specifically chicken. One package of boneless skinless chicken thighs (8-9 pieces at WF), a can of artichoke hearts in water (drained), and potatoes can take you a long way. Put them all in a foil-lined baking pan (less to wash!), toss with a little olive oil (or vinaigrette etc), lemon slices (or oranges or not at all), salt and pepper, and garlic cloves (can leave them whole or leave them out). Roast at 400 for 45 min. or so. The nice thing about this is that you can vary it in all different directions, with different vegetables (roasted red pepers work well, for ex.) and flavors (smoked paprika ... yum). Or you can leave out the potoatoes and serve it over rice or pasta. And you can relax, w/or w/o a glass of wine, while it's cooking.