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Don't stress in the kitchen: Try these 3 make-ahead recipes for a care-free dinnertime

A year and a half ago, many of us started working full-time from home. Kids were going to school a few days a week or not at all. Zoom and other video services became offices. Back then we would bake sourdough bread, learn how to cook daily and order groceries online.

But now in the fall of 2021, many of us are headed back to the office or school. Activities outside the house have ramped up. And like a cry from long ago, I hear a lot of people grumbling about how they have “no time to cook” or find the time to get a healthy dinner on the table.

Life can be hectic. But with a bit of planning, you don’t need to scramble to get a week’s worth of meals on the table.

These three dishes can all be made ahead at least a day or two (or even three) before serving. Or you can prepare the dish in the morning, pop it in the oven when you come home from a long day and dinner is ready! And, these dishes are all ideal for this time of year when we crave a bit more comfort and sustenance.

First is a Moroccan-style chicken dish, with carrots, leeks, olives, apricots and raisins in a spiced broth. Served on top of quick-cooked couscous or rice, it’s a perfect weekday feast. Next up: a vegetarian pasta dish combining your favorite shaped pasta tossed with sauteed spinach, mushrooms and ricotta cheese. And the third dish is a Mexican-inspired pork stew in a slightly spicy green sauce with black beans. Served over rice and accompanied by warm tortillas, a collection of hot sauce, fresh cilantro and sour cream, it’s a hearty, satisfying fall meal.

These three dishes don’t require much else besides cooked greens or your favorite salad. And, they can all be easily doubled.

Put aside a Sunday afternoon or Tuesday night and cook up one or all of these dishes, and your weeknight meals just got a whole lot easier.

Moroccan-style chicken with green olives, apricots and raisins served over couscous

Chicken thighs are seasoned with cinnamon, turmeric and cumin and browned before going into a simple sauce with carrots, leeks, raisins and dried apricots. You can make the dish a day or two ahead of time. Just before serving, heat the chicken on the stovetop while you boil water and cook the couscous. (You can omit the couscous and serve with crusty bread instead if you like.) You may want to add a green salad or an orange-green olive and arugula salad.

Serves 2 to 4.

Ingredients

The chicken and vegetables:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 chicken thighs, boneless or bone in, about 2 ¼ pounds
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped or thinly sliced
  • 2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, washed and cut into 1 inch pieces, white and pale green sections (discard dark green section)
  • About 2 to 3 medium-large carrots, about 6 bounces, peeled, and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup golden or regular raisins
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, thinly sliced
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup pitted green olives, very coarsely chopped


The couscous:

  • Salt
  • 1 cup instant couscous


Instructions

  1. In a large 12-inch skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over high heat.
  2. Rub the chicken thighs on both sides with salt, pepper and half the cumin and turmeric and all the cinnamon. Add the chicken to the hot skillet skin-side down and cook for about 4 minutes until golden brown. Flip the chicken over and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes until golden brown on the other side. Remove to a plate. Remove all but 1 teaspoon of the fat in the skillet.
  3. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the same skillet and place over low heat. Add the garlic and leek and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add the carrots and half the parsley and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring. Add salt and pepper and the remaining cumin and turmeric. Place the chicken back into the skillet, distributing the vegetables evenly around it. Raise the heat to high and add the stock; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to moderate and simmer for 5 minutes. Partially cover the skillet with a lid or foil and simmer over moderately low heat for 20 minutes. Add the raisins, apricots, and olives and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. The dish can be made 1 to 2 days before serving. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley and cover and refrigerate.
  4. To serve: Place the chicken partially covered over medium heat for 15 minutes or until the sauce is simmering and the chicken is warm.
  5. Meanwhile, make the couscous: In a medium saucepan, bring 1 ½ cups of lightly salted water to a boil. Stir in the couscous and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir, and cover for 10 minutes. Once the water is fully absorbed, stir the couscous with a fork to fluff it up.
  6. Serve the hot chicken, vegetables, and sauce on top of the couscous.


Note: The chicken dish can be frozen for up to two months. Cover in a layer of plastic wrap and then foil before freezing.

Baked ricotta penne with sauteed spinach and mushrooms

For this quick weeknight pasta dish, you simply saute baby spinach and mushrooms in a hot skillet. Penne or your favorite shaped pasta is boiled and tossed with ricotta cheese and some of the pasta water. Then, mix the pasta with the vegetables. The mixture is placed in a shallow casserole or ovenproof skillet and topped with grated Parmesan cheese. The next night you simply pop the casserole in the oven for 15 minutes or so and dinner is ready.

Serves 2 to 4.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 9 ounces baby spinach
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 ounces portobello or cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ pound penne or your favorite shaped pasta
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • ¼ to ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese


Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat.
  2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the spinach in batches, stirring, and season with salt and pepper. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove to a plate and drain off any excess liquid that forms on the bottom of the plate.
  3. In the same skillet add another tablespoon of oil and heat over high heat. Add the mushrooms, salt, pepper, and half the chives and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  4. Cook the pasta for 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the shape, or until al dente, or almost soft. Drain the pasta, but make sure to keep ¼ cup of the pasta water; reserve.
  5. In a shallow casserole or ovenproof skillet, mix the remaining tablespoon of oil with salt, pepper and the remaining chives. Add the hot drained pasta and toss with the ricotta cheese and the ¼ cup reserved pasta water. Stir until the cheese is fully incorporated with the pasta. Add the spinach and mushrooms and toss well. If you want to eat the pasta right away simply proceed to the next paragraph. Otherwise, cover the casserole and refrigerate overnight.
  6. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven and turn on the broiler. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese on top of the pasta and broil for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the pasta is hot.

Mexican-inspired pork stew in green sauce with black beans

A simple stew that combines chunks of pork (I used boneless pork butt roast, but you can use shoulder or any cut of pork, cut into 1 to 1 ½ inch cubes), onion, garlic, cilantro, black beans and a green enchilada sauce (or green salsa). It simmers for about 45 minutes and then can be refrigerated for a day or two ahead of time.

Reheat the stew over low heat or in a 300 degree oven until bubbling and serve with sour cream, fresh cilantro, hot sauce and warm tortillas or rice if you like.

Serves 3 to 4.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup flour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork butt roast, pork shoulder, or pork roast, cut into 1 to 1 1/2- inch cubes
  • 1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 scallions, white and green sections, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 15 ounces jar green enchilada sauce or green salsa or tomatillo salsa
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped with stems
  • One 15.5 ounce can black or kidney beans, drained, washed and drained again
  • 1 cup water
  • Garnishes: sour cream, hot sauce, fresh cilantro leaves, white rice and/or warm corn or flour tortillas


Instructions

  1. In a medium bowl mix the flour, a generous amount of salt and pepper and 1 teaspoon of the cumin. Dredge the pork pieces in the seasoned flour making sure to coat all sides.
  2. In a medium-sized casserole dish heat the oil over high heat. Working in batches, brown the pork about 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove and place on a plate.
  3. When all the pork is browned, reduce the temperature to low and add the onions, scallions and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add the browned pork back into the pot, and stir in the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cumin. Raise the heat to high and add the enchilada sauce or salsa, cilantro, beans, and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the pork is tender when tested with a small, sharp knife.
  4. The stew can be cooled, covered, and then refrigerated for up to 2 to 3 days.
  5. To reheat and serve: Simmer the stew over low heat or in a 300-degree oven for about 10 to 15 minutes or until bubbling hot. Heat tortillas in the hot oven for about 2 minutes until warm if using. Serve hot with garnishes on the side alongside rice and or warm tortillas.


Note: The pork stew can also be frozen for up to two months. Cover in a layer of plastic wrap and then foil before freezing.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Moroccan-style chicken with green olives, apricots and raisins served over couscous. (Kathy Gunst)
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Moroccan-style chicken with green olives, apricots and raisins served over couscous. (Kathy Gunst)