Bored with the same old ground beef and chicken breast? Here’s help

For chicken with lemon sauce, chop together parsley with lemon zest and use half of that mixture in the sauce. The other half gets sprinkled on top.
For chicken with lemon sauce, chop together parsley with lemon zest and use half of that mixture in the sauce. The other half gets sprinkled on top. TNS

You’ve cooked a big pile of ground beef. Or maybe a small mountain of chicken breasts. Or perhaps an entire pork butt (and stop giggling; it’s the shoulder).

Now what?

It’s so easy to fall into cooking habits. If you have cooked ground beef, you make spaghetti, or maybe tacos. If you have a chicken breast, you make a stir fry, or maybe tacos. If you have pulled pork, you make barbecue. Or maybe tacos.

But surely there is more to life than these old standbys, or whatever your standbys happen to be. Surely there are ways to enliven your dinner table, to awaken your senses and to rejuvenate your palate.

We set out to find four different ways to beef up ground beef, to add spice to chicken breasts and to give zest to pulled pork.

Ground beef

For beef, I started with a fast and easy one, sloppy Joes. It’s a great favorite of childhood, but a lot of us (OK, me) have forgotten about it as adults. One small addition makes it stand out. I added a can of diced tomatoes, which gives the sloppy Joes an additional, bright flavor and a complementary texture.

Chicken breasts

Cold noodles with chicken and peanuts has everything you could want in a noodle dish. It has an unexpected temperature (it’s chilled) and the surprisingly complex combination of peanut butter, peanut oil, soy sauce and vinegar. A sprinkling of chopped scallions is an absolute necessity, and chopped peanuts add a delightful crunch.

Chicken and lemons go together like mushrooms and cream, especially when you throw a little garlic into the mix.

The version I made of chicken in lemon sauce throws in an extra flourish. You simply chop together parsley with lemon zest and use half of that mixture in the sauce. The other half gets sprinkled on top as it is served for added emphasis.

Pulled pork

For this recipe, I thought to combine Chinese five-spice powder with pulled pork. The spice mix has a heady, almost exotic aroma that is a perfect match for the sweetness of the pork.

Shiitake mushrooms add an earthy umami kick, while a sprinkling of chopped scallions brings a lovely hint of sharpness to the sweet and mellow sauce.

Five-spice pulled pork

1 tablespoon oil

 1/2 cup onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons minced ginger

Pinch red pepper flakes, optional

4 shiitake mushrooms (stems removed), sliced

1 teaspoon five-spice powder, see note

1 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 pound cooked pulled pork

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 teaspoons water

Hot rice or cooked Chinese noodles

1 scallion, sliced

Note: Five-spice powder is available in the spice aisle at well-stocked grocery stores and international food stores.

Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet or wok. Saute onion for 3 minutes, then add garlic, ginger, optional pepper flakes, sliced mushrooms and five-spice powder. Saute 1 to 2 minutes. Add broth, soy sauce and pork, and bring to a boil.

In a small bowl, mix together cornstarch and water until smooth. Add to skillet or wok and stir until thickened.

Serve over hot rice or Chinese noodles, with sliced scallions scattered on top. Yield: 4 servings.

Easy sloppy Joes

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1  1/4 cups ketchup

 1/2 cup barbecue sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 pound cooked ground beef

6 hamburger buns

In a large pan, bring tomatoes, ketchup, barbecue sauce and Worcestershire sauce to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes, or until thickened. Add beef and cook until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve on hamburger buns. Yield: 6 servings.

Recipe by Richard Coleman via Southern Living

Cold noodles with chicken and peanuts

 1/4 cup water

3 tablespoons peanut butter or sesame-seed paste (such as tahini)

3 tablespoons peanut oil

3 tablespoons red rice vinegar or red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

3 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon toasted (dark) sesame oil

1 pound fresh egg noodles or 8-ounce package dried Chinese noodles, cooked and chilled 2 hours

1 large cooked chicken breast, shredded or diced

 1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

 1/4 cup chopped green onions or chives

In a small bowl, thoroughly combine the water, peanut butter, peanut oil, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil. Set aside.

Place the chilled noodles on a serving dish and top with chicken, peanuts, sesame seeds and green onions. Drizzle dressing over the top and serve. Yield: 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from “Regional Cooking of China,” by Maggie Gin

Chicken in lemon sauce

1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves

3 teaspoons grated lemon zest, divided

2 tablespoons butter

1 shallot, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

4 teaspoons all-purpose flour

1 cup chicken broth

 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 to 2 lemons)

2 cooked chicken breasts, sliced

Chop the parsley and 1 teaspoon of the lemon zest together until finely minced and well-combined. Set aside.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallot and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 to 45 seconds. Sprinkle with flour and stir constantly until flour is lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes.

While stirring, slowly add the broth and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of the lemon zest, half of the zest-parsley mixture and the chicken. Cook until the chicken is reheated, 2 to 3 minutes. Add salt to taste.

To serve, sprinkle with the remaining zest-parsley mixture. Yield: 2 to 4 servings.

Adapted from a recipe by