The only thing I’m faster at than cooking is eating. My childhood gustatory habits meant my five siblings, when faced with sharing a meal with me, simply had to eat fast or they didn’t eat.
I’ve since taken up mindful dining but have retained the ability to rustle up a meal at speed after picking up skills from various cookery jobs and watching my mum cook like a lightning bolt. She tells me reasoning with six ravenous kids at tea time was as useless as trying to eat soup with chopsticks, so it was best to feed us on first sight, like a culinary sniper.
I’m not Nonna. Speed things up with time-saving tricks even if the Italians will get the Culinary Polizia on you for putting cream in your Carbonara
But today almost a quarter of mums don’t have the time to cook an evening meal from scratch because of the exhausting responsibilities of work and parenting. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with popping a ready meal in the microwave when you’re pooped but there’s also something wholesome about sharing a freshly prepared dinner that isn’t wrapped in cellophane or smells like a robot factory.
Here are my tips for cooking quicker at home:
Don’t disrobe at the door
Put the kettle on, get your pans out and switch on the oven before you change out of your work clothes. This time-saving habit sounds rubbish but it means all your kit and appliances will be ready to roll upon your return to the kitchen. Similarly, use pans with a wide base to speed up frying, sharpen your knives regularly and keep seasonings and oils on the countertop for easy reach – these tiny changes make a big difference. Also, take a moment to plan; meat/chicken will always need starting off first, followed by your carbs and veg.
When I was as a confectioner I’d have to make toffee sauce, shortbread and 15 chocolate fudge cakes in the same 20 minutes. Cooking many dishes simultaneously, instead of completing one before moving to the next, saves tonnes of time. Utilise all your hobs to make tomorrow’s dinner with tonight’s, halving your weekly cooking times. For example, while your pasta is boiling get some lentils bubbling in another pan for a dhal later in the week.
Carb up and overcook
Make extra rice, prep double the quinoa and mash more potatoes than you’ll need for tonight’s meal so your accompaniments will be ready to be pinged in the microwave for another day.
Ditch authenticity and use shortcuts
Full disclosure – my Spaghetti Bolognese cooks in 20 minutes, features ketchup and sometimes I switch the beef for minced chicken because it cooks faster; definitely not how Nonna used to make it. But guess what? I’m not Nonna. Speed things up with time-saving tricks even if the Italians will get the Culinary Polizia on you for putting cream in your Carbonara, like they did with Nigella.
Plus avoid chopping at all costs. Keep a bag of sliced onions in the freezer and jars of minced garlic and ginger in the fridge. Frozen veg is fab because it’s prepped into bite-size pieces and pre-cooked rice is perfect for frying up with eggs, soy sauce and scissor-cut spring onions. Buy boneless chicken that’s already in small chunks or beat it thinly with a rolling pin to reduce cooking times.
Slice, dice and microwave
Prick and slice your potatoes in half, bung them in cling-film-topped a bowl and microwave for a quick mash. Slice veggies or zap up pre-cooked options, like corn on the cob, while your burgers fry; put bread rolls, salad and condiments on the table so everyone can assemble their own dish.
Repurpose and assemble
Virtually any form of leftover, from cold potatoes and cooked veggies to shredded chicken or mushrooms, can be tossed into a pan with a sprinkling of cheese to form the centrepiece of a frittata or used to bulk up a salad. Also, vive le ready-prepped salad – add interest with jarred stuff, like pitted olives, sun-blushed tomatoes, pickles, jalapenos, beetroot and feta cheese. Throw on croutons, tortilla chips, seeds or crisps for crunch.
Clean as you go
Jamie Oliver might make a three course meal in 15 minutes but he doesn’t give a shit about the clean-up afterwards does he? Who’s going to wash up that blender, griddle pan, baking tray and ramekin Jamie, WHO? This upsets me so much that I’ve even considered writing a letter of complaint to Channel 4.
Clean up during minutes of downtime when everything is sizzling away. Stack the dishwasher, get the sink ready for your dirty pans, wipe the countertops and sweep up so you can chill out after your dinner.
Finally, a weekday meal doesn’t have to be a work of art. Dishes that feature simple ingredients are often the quickest to cook and the most delicious. Eggs on toast count just as much as Chicken Parmigiana.
My two favourite quick to cook recipes
The following recipes are taken from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour. Both are simple and ready in under 30 mins.
Ras el Hanout Chicken Wraps
- 2 heaped tbsp ras el hanout
- Olive oil
- 4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chunkier side sliced and spread open for even cooking
- Sea salt
- 4–6 flour tortilla wraps
- 1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
- into half moons
- Pomegranate molasses
- Rocket leaves and pomegranate seeds to garnish
For the Yogurt Sauce:
- 1 small bunch of mint, leaves picked and finely chopped
- 400g (14oz) Greek yogurt
- 2 tbsp sumac
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Mix the ras el hanout with about 4–5 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl to create a paste. Smear this over the chicken breasts, ensuring they are well coated. Season each chicken breast with a pinch of sea salt and, if you have time, cover with clingfilm and leave the chicken in a refrigerator to marinate for as long as needed (but maximum overnight).
- To make the yogurt sauce, put the mint into a bowl along with the yogurt, sumac, a generous pinch of sea salt and some black pepper and mix well until the sumac and mint are evenly incorporated.
- Preheat a large frying pan over a medium heat if using gas, or a medium-high heat if cooking on electric (you may want to use 2 pans at a time if doing all 4 chicken breasts at once), then drizzle in a good amount of olive oil. Put in the chicken breasts and fry them for 8–10 minutes or so on one side and 6–8 minutes on the other side. To check if it is cooked, prod the fattest part of each chicken breast with your finger. If it feels very springy, it needs to cook for a bit longer, but if it feels firm, your chicken is cooked.
- Place the chicken on a chopping board and allow it to rest for a few minutes so that the juices can flow back through the meat, ensuring it remains moist and tender.
- Slice into strips and put several into each wrap with some onion slices. Dollop some of the yogurt on top (about 3 teaspoons per wrap), drizzle with pomegranate molasses, garnish with rocket and serve.
Tray-Roasted Baby Courgettes with Garlic & Tomato
- Serves 6–8 as a side dish
- 600g (1lb 5oz) baby courgettes
- 1 garlic bulb, cloves peeled and thinly sliced
- 6 large ripe tomatoes, each cored and cut into 8 pieces
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- Olive oil
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/ gas mark 6. Line a baking sheet with nonstick baking paper.
- Place the baby courgettes on to the prepared baking sheet, scatter over the garlic slices, then squeeze the tomato pieces a little as you scatter them over the courgettes, too. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle over the cumin and a good seasoning of sea salt and black pepper.
- Roast the courgettes for 15 minutes, or until they are cooked through. Serve immediately.
Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour, is published by Mitchell Beazley £25 www.octopusbooks.co.uk