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Published on December 03, 2019

Holiday hassle keeping you out of the kitchen?

Chef Solo Holiday Hassle

As the holiday season approaches, we tapped in to our local culinary expert for some helpful winter season tips.

If there were ever a season for convenience foods, it’s the holidays.

I’m not thinking of holiday dinners – although there’s no shame in serving instant mashed potatoes if that lets you spend more time with family. I’m thinking of all those other nights during the holidays when you’ve been working or shopping or wrapping and you just don’t have the energy to walk into the kitchen and, as my husband used to say, ‘start making it with the pots and pans.’

Those are the holiday nights when we are thinking easy, not healthy.

“Usually when we’re stressed or really busy, we grab the most convenient thing, which is not always the healthiest thing,” said Rachel Songer, RDN LDN, a clinical dietician at Cape Cod Hospital. “And people tend to do a lot of takeout. It’s easy, it’s quick, it tastes good, so it’s comforting.”

But takeout and convenience foods are less than ideal, especially for anyone on low-sodium, low-sugar or heart-healthy diets, Songer said. For example, one eighth of a 14-inch Domino’s deluxe pizza has 320 calories, 28 percent of recommended daily sodium, and 25 percent of the recommended daily serving of saturated fat. And who eats just one piece of pizza? Even “low-sodium” boxed or canned soups may be too high in sodium for those on low-sodium diets, Songer said.

She recommends two holiday eating strategies: planning ahead and being creative. For example, she said, make a big batch of something that you can keep in single servings in the freezer. Or, cook ahead things that can be used in various ways.

“Say you made some chicken, you can have it in a stir fry one night, or put it in a quesadilla, or make a casserole with it,” she said.

Consider more plant-based foods, like beans, she said. She recommends websites such as Rainbow Plantlife and Delish Knowledge for recipes.

“I’m not a vegan myself, but a predominantly plant-based diet is what research is showing is the healthiest,” she said. “And I find it a lot easier and faster if you don’t have to cook meat.”

Songer also recommends keeping things on hand that are healthy but require little or no cooking, like peanut butter or the makings of avocado toast.

“You know, you can’t go wrong with fruits and vegetables and some hummus,” she said.

Chef Solo

My almost no-cook go-to is black beans: Open a can of beans, stir in a bit of salsa or chopped onion or chili powder or whatever you like and heat. Serve over rice, which I buy frozen in a resealable bag that allows me to cook small amounts in 90 seconds. You can dress it up with whatever you happen to have: cheese, green onion, salsa, avocado, sour cream or plain yogurt. Dinner in five minutes, tops. Recently, I found a black bean chili recipe based on dried beans and mushrooms (recipe below) that freezes well in small portions and has a bit more panache. And making it myself allows me to control ingredients like salt.

To gather other ideas for holiday sanity, I polled pals on social media about their go-to convenience foods. Remember these are for the occasional night, not every night. If you’re counting calories, fat or sodium, look for nutritional information on the label or the company’s website. That’s even true for Dominos, which lets you see the calories for a pizza as you create the order. Might want to just keep that in your back pocket.

Handy to Have On Hand

So, with best wishes for a stress-free holiday season, here are some great ideas to use or keep on hand, as well as a couple of recipes to make now and keep in the freezer.

  • Couscous (cooks in 5 minutes).
  • Frozen cooked shrimp.
  • Chopped salad in a bag. Either dilute the commercial dressing with oil and vinegar or use your own to reduce fat and sodium. Add nuts, fresh vegetables, pumpkin seeds, a bit of cheese, even nutritional yeast to make it heartier or more nutritious.
  • A box of spinach. Add a handful to almost anything, or sauté, creating a nest where you can poach an egg. Serve with grated cheese on toast.
  • Frozen crab or salmon cakes.
  • Packages of smoked salmon.
  • Frozen entrees such as pasta in a bag – Trader’s Joe’s brands were favorite suggestions.
  • Vegan sausages from Field Roast.
  • Frozen cauliflower pizza.
  • Eggs, because it’s always the perfect time for breakfast.
  • Uncured salami, cheese, crackers, grapes and chocolate on a platter. (The chocolate seems key here.)
  • Sweet potatoes – you can microwave one in five minutes, then top with cheese, yogurt, or whatever you like.
  • Pre-breaded and cooked eggplant slices that can be put on pre-made pizza crust or tossed with pasta.
  • Frozen potstickers.
  • Pre-packaged soups like tomato bisque that works with add-ins (frozen meatballs, corn, mushrooms, frozen tortellini or a handful of fresh spinach).
  • And when all else fails, peanut or almond butter on toast. Serve with a smoothie made from frozen fruit.

BEEF STEW WITH ONIONS AND BEER

I don’t eat much beef but this stew is worth a splurge. It’s the perfect thing for a cold night and, since there are no potatoes to get mushy, freezes well. You can eat it straight or over noodles, potatoes or any grain. It’s adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, “The Yachting Cookbook.” Heck, if you can cook it on a boat, it must be easy.

3 pounds chuck steak, sliced about ¼-inch thick (or cut into chunks)

Salt and pepper

¼ cup vegetable oil

5 large onions, thinly sliced

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 12-ounce cans or bottles of beer (dark is best)

Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, deep pan over moderately high heat. Quickly brown the beef in batches, removing the slices or chunks as they are done.

Add the onions to the pan and reduce the heat to medium. Cover and cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaf, thyme and flour. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the sugar and slowly add the beer, stirring constantly.

Return the beef to the pan and cook, partially covered, about 1 hour, or until the beef is tender. If you like, remove the beef and cook down the sauce to thicken it.

VEGETARIAN BLACK BEAN CHILI

This recipe is adapted from “Slow Cooker Revolution,” from America’s Test Kitchen. There are lots of ways to streamline or personalize it. For example, you could use more chili powder if you don’t want to bother with some of the other spices. I skipped the adobo sauce because I forgot to buy it, and it was still delicious. This freezes well and is good over rice or any grain with accoutrements such as fresh cilantro, cheese or whatever you have. Or, wrap some in a tortilla for burritos. Time Saver: Buy frozen chopped peppers and/or onions.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 onions minced

2 red bell peppers, or whatever color you like, stemmed, seeded and minced.

2 jalapeno chiles, stemmed (or leave these out if you don’t want the kick)

9 garlic cloves (or to taste)

3 tablespoons chili powder (or to taste)

4 teaspoons mustard seeds

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 ½ cups vegetable broth

2 ½ cups water

1 pound dried black beans, picked over and rinsed

10 ounces white mushrooms, trimmed and halved

1 tablespoon minced canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce

2 bay leaves

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and cut into ½ inch pieces

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, bell peppers, jalapenos, garlic, chili powder, mustard seeds, cumin and oregano and cook until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in 1 cup broth, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer to your slow cooker.

Stir water, beans, mushrooms, remaining 1 ½ cups broth, chipotles, and bay leaves into the slow cooker. Cover and cook until beans are tender, about 9 to 11 hours on low, or 5 to 7 hours on high.

Discard the bay leaves. Transfer 1 cup beans to a bowl and mash smooth. Stir the mashed beans into the chili and let it sit until it’s heated through. Stir in cilantro and season with salt and pepper to taste.