Keep Weeknight Dinner Prep to a Bare Minimum with These Tips from Cookbook Author Jenna Helwig
If there's anyone who knows how to streamline dinner prep, it's Jenna Helwig. So much so that her newest book, Bare Minimum Dinners: Recipes and Strategies for Doing Less in the Kitchen ($18.99, amazon.com), features more than 200 pages on the topic. She's also the food director of Real Simple and founder of Rosaberry, a culinary services company that helps families explore their culinary potential. All of this is to say that you know Helwig has had plenty of experience navigating the world of weeknight dinner.
How She Gets Ahead
As her book title suggests, Helwig's approach to dinner is all about saving time in the kitchen. To make this happen, she likes to "have vegetables clean and at the ready in the fridge," she says. For example, Helwig might wash greens in a salad spinner, dry them well, then store them in a zip-top bag with a paper towel. She also likes to pre-wash and chop broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. This way, she'll always have vegetables prepped and ready, which can be a game-changer on those extra-busy weeknights. From there, she might use the vegetables in one-pot, one-skillet, or sheet-pan meals, which she tries to make as often as possible. After all, "clean-up time is just a real as cooking time," she points out.
Helwig also relies on her trusty Instant Pot for chilis and stews. It's less about cooking meals quickly—though that's certainly a pro—and more about the hands-off nature, as there's no stirring or checking required. Helwig especially loves making risotto in her Instant Pot. "The texture is perfect and the whole meal comes together in about a half hour, including the appliance coming up to pressure," she says.
What's in Her Pantry?
In the name of efficiency, Helwig's kitchen is home to myriad ready-made products. "I am an unabashed enthusiast of store-bought shortcuts," she says. "I always look for brands with high-quality ingredients." Some of her favorites are pasta and pizza sauces from Rao's, enchilada sauces from Frontera, and Indian simmer sauces from Maya Kaimal. She makes sure to always have at least a few different varieties of pasta on hand, as she can fall back on the combo of pasta, vegetables, and Parmesan cheese to make something satisfying and tasty. "Shelf-stable gnocchi is [another] staple," adds Helwig. "My favorite way to prepare it is [to roast] it—no boiling required."
In her refrigerator, eggs are an essential item. Helwig frequently relies on them to make frittatas or—on really busy nights—to top miso avocado toast. She's also a fan of Parmesan cheese. "A flurry of Parmesan cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt [can] make virtually anything taste special and delicious," she says. Meanwhile, her freezer MVP is frozen spinach, as it doesn't require washing and cooking. "It's so easy to fold into meatloaf, meatballs, calzones, or baked pasta dishes," she notes. Other freezer staples include store-bought pizza dough and fish sticks, which she used in the fish tacos on the cover of Bare Minimum.
Keep It Simple
Helwig's approach to dinner proves that simple is best. After all, "simplifying meals doesn't mean you have to sacrifice flavor," she says. The key is to focus on ingredients that have a big bang for their buck, like seasonal vegetables, good olive oil, your favorite hot sauces, cheese, and several bold spices. "With these ingredients in your arsenal, you don't need to do much to have a delicious meal." This simplified approach isn't limited to the ingredients, though. It can also be applied to one's expectations, along with the pressure to make picture-perfect meals. Helwig believes that, if we lower our expectations in the kitchen, we'll actually enjoy cooking more.
When asked for tips on saving time in the kitchen, Helwig points to one of the most basic kitchen tools: the cutting board. "Make sure you're working on a large cutting board, at least 18 by 12 inches," she suggests. "It will help you feel more organized since food won't be falling off as you chop." This, along with a sharp chef's knife, will get you far, she says. Also, "use every minute of time," Helwig adds. "If the recipe takes 25 minutes from start to finish, and there's five minutes of down time while the sauce is simmering, [then] fill the water glasses, set the table, clear the dish rack, wash the cutting board…anything that will give you a head start on eating and cleaning up."
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