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Dinnertime dash: Recipes, tips for speedy school-night meals

With the older of her two sons just off to kindergarten, Robin Miller may be new to the school-year drill, but she's more than ready for the daily challenge of fitting healthful, home-cooked dinners into a busier-than-ever schedule.

When her boys were still in diapers, she was developing "Quick Fix Meals With Robin Miller," a wonderfully practical and appealing cooking show that debuted two years ago on The Food Network. This spring, Taunton Press published a companion cookbook.

If you find Rachael Ray's hyper-perkiness grating and Paula Dean's butter-intensive recipes too rich, Miller may be just the ticket. She has a relaxed, upbeat manner that manages to convey both encouragement and calm. And with a master's degree in nutrition, she puts health front and center.

"Fast is first," Miller has learned from viewers and readers. "If it can be healthy, that's awesome. Fast, delicious, healthy _ that's what people want," she said in a telephone interview.

As for delicious, Miller's sophisticated palate comes through in recipes like Pan-Seared Chicken With Porcini-Chestnut Sauce or Rotelle With Broiled Feta, Snow Peas and Yellow Bell Pepper.

The 43-year-old is a contributing editor for Health and Cooking Light magazines. She has written six other cookbooks including a "with Robin Vitetta Miller" credit on "Verdure" (Random, 2001), Gioietta Vitale's paean to Italian vegetable cookery.

The "Quick Fix" book offers 200 recipes and three main strategies: "In the Bag," prepping and refrigerating the components for dishes like Bow-Ties With Warm Blue Cheese Sauce for fast assembly; "Morph It," making a big batch of a dish like Roasted Chicken With Smoky Apricot Sauce, then turning the leftovers into three disparate meals (in this case, quesadillas, a Thai-inspired chicken salad and a curry); and "Dinner Express," shortcut dishes like a white pizza made with purchased dough, jarred pesto and shredded mozzarella.

The TV show is dedicated to the proposition that with smart planning and about 45 minutes of prep work on the weekend, a cook can produce a home-cooked meal in 20 minutes or less three times a week.

Watching Miller's practiced hands fly through the recipes, you may doubt that you can match her pace. But the dishes look so good you'll want to try.

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HEAT & SERVE SOLUTIONS

Having a healthful, heat-and-serve entree stashed in the refrigerator or freezer is a lifesaver on nights when turning on the microwave is about as much as you can manage. We tried nearly a dozen warehouse-store products and found five worth recommending:

_ Michael Angelo's Tuscan-Style Garlic Chicken With Spinach, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Gemelli Pasta: We hit the trifecta with this dish: rich flavor, a solid nutritional profile (300 calories, 10 grams fat, 420 mg sodium per serving) and a fair price _ less than $1.50 per serving. It's frozen, but takes less than 20 minutes to heat. Add a green salad or sliced tomatoes. (Two 36-ounce, 4.5-serving trays, $11.46 at Sam's Club.)

_ Ventera Ranch Stuffed Chicken Breasts With Asian Stuffing and Hawaiian Glaze Sauce: This elegant entree is about twice as pricey per serving, but just as delicious. The rice-stuffed chicken has good nutritionals (140 calories, 2 grams fat, 470 mg sodium), but be sparing with the high-salt sauce. It reheats in about 10 minutes _ enough time to cook instant brown rice. Zap frozen green beans in the microwave while the chicken rests. (2 ½ -3-pound, 4-6-serving carton $13-$15 _ $5.15 per pound _ at Costco.)

_ Tradition 44 Tomato and Basil Pork Roast: The meat is nicely flavored and quite lean (180 calories, 8 grams fat), though saltier than we like (550 mg sodium). It's sold refrigerated, and takes 12 minutes to heat. We cooked angel hair pasta, immersed it in the abundant sauce and completed the meal with broccoli. (35-ounce, 7-serving carton $8.89 at Costco.)

_ Seafest Fully Cooked Alaskan Salmon: Unlike most fresh supermarket salmon, these frozen fillets come from wild-caught, not farm-raised, fish, which means more heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Microwave reheating overcooked them. Heating the individual, vacuum-sealed packets in boiling water yielded better results, but we liked them best thawed overnight in the refrigerator and served on a salad. (24-ounce, 6-serving bag $9.43 at Sam's Club.)

_ Taverna Classic Spinach Pie: Sold as a side dish, this tasty spanakopita makes a nice vegetarian entree. It has fine nutritionals (190 calories, 6 grams fat, 508 mg sodium, 5 grams fiber), though you may want to serve hummus, along with whole-wheat pita, for a protein boost. Brighten the plate with sliced tomatoes or diced cantaloupe. Sold frozen, it needs nearly an hour in the oven (no microwave option), so save it for a busy, at-home evening. (Two 24-ounce, 5-serving cartons $7.39 at Costco.)

_ Pot Roast Postscript: We tried two brands _ Morton's of Omaha from Costco and Burnett from Sam's Club _ but neither measured up. Both had an overly salty, packaged-food flavor that wouldn't pass for homemade.

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TOOLS & TECHNIQUES

Robin Miller's favorites include:

_ Chef's knife: "I use it for almost everything."

_ Guesstimated measurements: Except for baking, where it's crucial, Miller speeds along without measuring spoons and cups, relying on her practiced eye.

_ Pasta pot with strainer insert: It saves a trip to the sink with a heavy pot of scalding water. "I worry about that with these little boys running around," she said.

_ Tongs: They carry her from prep (moving seasoned chicken breasts from package to pan) to presentation (using clean tongs to plate the finished dish).

Speaking of prep, Miller notes that it's no longer considered advisable _ or even safe _ to rinse poultry and other raw protein before cooking. Rather than cleansing the flesh, it spreads potential pathogens to your sink.

_ Stove-top grill pan: She uses a big, two-burner one to cook batches of chicken or meat for multiple meals. It's nonstick, "so it cleans very easily, but you do get the char marks and added caramelization for an extra layer of flavor."

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MAC AND CHEESE WITH PARMESAN CRUST

The cheesy, stove-top crumbs create a crunchy top without time-consuming baking.

1 pound elbow macaroni, preferably whole-grain

½ cup fat-free or low-fat sour cream

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated skim milk

4 ounces grated, reduced-fat sharp Cheddar (about ½ cup)

4 ounces grated, reduced-fat Monterey jack (about ½ cup)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 to 2 drops hot sauce (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ cup plain dry bread crumbs

¼ cup grated Parmesan

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. While pasta is still hot, stir in sour cream and set aside.

Scald milk by heating in a small saucepan over medium heat just until tiny bubbles appear around the edges. Stir in Cheddar and jack cheeses, mustard, nutmeg, hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Heat, stirring constantly, just until cheese melts.

Fold cheese mixture into pasta and transfer mixture to a serving bowl.

Combine bread crumbs and Parmesan in a skillet over medium heat. Toast 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown. crumble mixture over macaroni and cheese. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Source: Adapted from The Food Network's "Quick Fix Meals With Robin Miller."

Per serving (based on 6, with whole-grain pasta): 485 calories (16 percent from fat), 8.8 g fat (4.8 g saturated, 2.3 g monounsaturated), 26.3 mg cholesterol, 30.3 g protein, 75 g carbohydrates, 6.6 g fiber, 491.7 mg sodium.

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ROTELLE WITH BROILED FETA, SNOW PEAS, AND YELLOW BELL PEPPER

Next time we'll dice the cooled, broiled feta so it incorporates better into this delicious meal in a bowl. Toasted pine nuts _ ¼ to 1/3 cup _ are a great addition.

12 ounces rotelle or any spiral shaped pasta, preferably whole-grain

8 ounces feta cheese, cut crosswise into -½-inch-thick slices

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

½ red onion, sliced into half moons

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ cups snow peas (fresh or frozen)

1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 ½ cups cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

¼ cup chopped fresh basil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, heat the broiler. Arrange the feta slices on a foil-lined baking sheet and place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic, stirring, 1 minute. Add snow peas and bell pepper; cook, stirring, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until just softened, about 1 minute. Add to pasta.

Add remaining oil and the vinegar, tossing to combine. Stir in basil, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with feta and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: Adapted from "Robin Miller Quick Fix Meals."

Per serving (with whole-grain pasta): 363 calories (32 percent from fat), 13.6 g fat (6.4 g saturated, 5.2 g monounsaturated), 33.6 mg cholesterol, 14.9 g protein, 49.8 g carbohydrates, 6.2 g fiber, 431.7 mg sodium.

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STIR-FRIED STEAK WITH ARTICHOKE HEARTS, CAPERS AND OLIVES

Do the chopping and measuring in the morning, refrigerate the components, and this flavorful Med-Asian fusion dish comes together in minutes. Serve it over couscous, preferably whole-wheat.

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 scallions (white and tender green parts), chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 pound lean sirloin or strip steak, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 (14-ounce) can water-packed artichoke hearts, drained and quartered

½ cup drained, pitted Kalamata olives

2 tablespoons drained capers

2 tablespoons marsala wine

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2/3 cup low-sodium beef broth

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and garlic; stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the steak and stir-fry until browned, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle on the oregano. Add the bell pepper, artichokes, olives and capers; stir-fry 2 minutes. Add the marsala; simmer 2 minutes.

Dissolve the cornstarch in the broth and add to the pan. Cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens, about 3 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from "Robin Miller Quick Fix Meals."

Per serving: 367 calories, (48 percent from fat), 20.1 g fat (6.6 g saturated, 8.8 g monounsaturated), 53.3 mg cholesterol, 28.2 g protein, 19.2 g carbohydrates, 6.9 g fiber, 454.9 mg sodium.

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PARMESAN-CRUSTED CHICKEN WITH SWEET-N-HOT MUSTARD DIP

The tasty crust mimics the flavor of fried chicken. You can wrap or bag the coated chicken in plastic and refrigerate it up to 3 days before baking. For our money, packaged, pregrated cheese is fine here.

Vegetable oil spray

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon salt, divided

¾ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon water

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup quick-cooking oats

2 teaspoons salt-free garlic and herb seasoning

Sweet-N-Hot Mustard Dip (see note)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and spray it with vegetable oil.

In a shallow dish or plastic bag, combine the flour and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Add the chicken and turn or shake to coat completely.

Whisk the egg and water in a separate shallow dish. In a third shallow dish, combine the Parmesan, oats, garlic seasoning and remaining salt and pepper.

Dip the flour-coated chicken into the egg, then transfer to the Parmesan mixture, turning and pressing to coat completely. Place on the prepared pan and spray with vegetable oil.

Bake until crust is golden brown and chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes. Serve with dipping sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To make sauce, stir together ¼ cup Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon hot mustard powder (or ½ teaspoon plain mustard powder and ¼ teaspoon cayenne) and ¼ teaspoon garlic powder.

Source: Adapted from "Robin Miller Quick Fix Meals."

Per serving: 263 calories (21 percent from fat), 6.2 g fat (2.3 g saturated, 2.1 g monounsaturated), 128.6 mg cholesterol, 34 g protein, 16.8 g carbohydrates, 1.2 g fiber, 852.9 mg sodium.

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Here are two terrific, toss-together meals adapted from other cookbooks:

TEX-MEX POT PIE

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Brown and crumble 12 ounces lean ground beef or pork. (Or use an equivalent amount of soy crumbles.)

Stir in 1 drained (15-ounce) can red beans and 1 (16-ounce) jar salsa. (Add 1 cup frozen corn kernels if you wish.)

Transfer to a lightly greased, 8-inch-square baking pan.

Slice a 16-ounce roll of refrigerated polenta into ½-inch rounds.

Arrange the slices over the meat mixture, overlapping if necessary, to cover the surface.

Sprinkle with 1 cup shredded, reduced-fat Cheddar or Monterey jack cheese.

Bake about 25 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

_ Adapted from "The Spaghetti Sauce Gourmet" by David Joachim (Fair Winds, $19.95).

PENNE WITH ROASTED CHICKEN AND SPINACH

Remove the skin and bones from a rotisserie chicken; chop the meat. (Do this in the morning if possible and refrigerate.)

Cook 12 ounces whole-grain penne pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, place two 6-ounce packages prewashed baby spinach in a large colander in the sink.

Measure 2 tablespoons olive oil and -¼ cup balsamic vinegar into a small lidded jar.

Pour the cooked pasta into the colander, letting the hot water wilt the spinach.

Return the drained pasta and spinach to the pasta pot.

Add the reserved meat and -¼ cup grated Parmesan to the pot; stir to mix.

Shake the oil-vinegar mixture; stir it into the pasta.

Transfer the pasta to a large serving dish.

Sprinkle with another -¼ cup grated Parmesan and -¼ cup pine nuts (toasted if you have time).

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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