The chef, cookbook author, entrepreneur, and mom shares her go-to strategies and make-ahead tips for getting dinner on the table. Plus, she reveals what's in her pantry.

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For Brooklyn-based chef and cookbook author Chitra Agrawal, weeknight dinner often calls for a generous helping of sauce. And for good reason, too—Agrawal is the founder of Brooklyn Delhi, a brand of Indian-inspired condiments and sauces. Since 2014, she's launched several lines of delicious products, from curry ketchup to tomato achaar, an Indian tomato-chili sauce featuring locally-grown produce. It's not surprising, then, that when she needs a quick meal from scratch, Agrawal will reach for her own simmer sauces and pairs them with protein or vegetables and rice. What's more, the culinary inspiration seems to be a two-way street, as much of what she eats with her family inspires new Brooklyn Delhi products. "I also test out new recipes on my kids," adds Agrawal. "For good or [for] bad, they always tell me what they think."

On some nights, Agrawal reaches for odds and ends in the fridge. The result might be a grain bowl featuring quinoa or brown rice, leftover roasted vegetables, avocado, herbs, and nuts or seeds. She'll also add a sauce to round it out, with her go-to pick being a simple combination of hummus, yogurt, and a bit of Brooklyn Delhi's spicy-savory-sweet Roasted Garlic Achaar ($7.49, amazon.com). Another family-favorite is her husband's walnut pesto with spinach and basil, which he freezes in separate portions. When they're in a pinch, they'll mix the pesto with pasta and sautéed mushrooms, peppers, and onions for an easy weeknight dinner. And while she no longer has the time to enjoy leisurely cooking sessions like she did when she was single (or when it was just her and her husband), "once a week we all make pizza together, which is super fun," she says.

chitra agrawal cooking in kitchen
Credit: Courtesy of Chitra Agrawal / Liz Clayman

What's in Her Pantry?

Of course, we wonder what a condiment creator keeps in her kitchen—aside from her own delicious products, that is. In Agrawal's case, the pantry is home to a range of simple yet versatile ingredients. This includes plenty of grains, like "rice, quinoa, farro, whole wheat and chickpea pasta, edamame, and soba noodles." There are also dried lentils and a variety of beans, including chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans. Meanwhile, her cupboard contains canned coconut milk and diced tomatoes, and her refrigerator usually has a box of spinach. After all, "I can quickly throw [the spinach] into a dish without having to chop anything," she notes. "I also have plain yogurt, hummus, tortillas, tofu, [and] tomato paste in a tube."

As for the fresh staple ingredients that she consistently keeps on hand? "I always have cilantro, ginger, lemons or limes, onions, and garlic," says Agrawal, which ensures she's never without the building blocks of a tasty weeknight meal.

How She Gets Ahead

When it comes to actually preparing dinner, Agrawal has mastered the art of saving time. During the day, she might cook dried beans in an Instant Pot while she works so that they're ready before dinner. Agrawal also frequently leans on her rice cooker, which has a steaming basket, allowing her to prepare potatoes while the rice is cooking. But her meals aren't all about planning; she's also discovered new family favorites by creating dinner on a whim. A perfect example is her black bean tikka masala tacos: "One day, we had leftover black beans I had flavored with my Tikka Masala Simmer Sauce ($15.69 for six, walmart.com). I put them into a warm tortilla with grated cheddar, avocado, and a little yogurt, [and] my son asks for them all the time now." (It's worth noting her kitchen staples were used in these tacos, proving how a solid stash of basic ingredients can elevate your dinner game.)

Expert Advice

When asked for tips for making weeknight dinner, Agrawal offered sage advice: "Start with a base, [then] mix and match the toppings so you don't end up eating the same thing over and over again." For example, if she wants to make a dal during the week, she'll start with a base—like red lentils—which she'll cook over the weekend or day before. "When it's time to make dinner, I can pull it together in minutes by sautéing a few spices and aromatics in oil or butter and adding the cooked lentils." From there, she might add diced tomatoes or baby spinach, or she'll finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and chopped cilantro. Needless to say, Agrawal's base-plus-toppings approach can be applied to a wide range of dinners (like pasta dishes and stir-fry recipes), so you can be sure that we'll be adding this tip to our repertoire.

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