Food & Drink

With the kids back in school, a lesson in dinner planning

Beer-Braised Pork and Carrot Stew. Illustrates FOOD-FAMILY (category d), by Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Tracy A. Woodward.)
Beer-Braised Pork and Carrot Stew. Illustrates FOOD-FAMILY (category d), by Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Tracy A. Woodward.) The Washington Post

With the new school year come practices, games, tutoring sessions, music lessons and other obligations that mess with the calendar and can make dinner preparation a race. But by relying on a bag of tricks, I've learned to manage.

Here are some of them that could make your meal planning easier, too.

■ I keep the refrigerator stocked with vegetables, some essential basics and a trick or two. With those vegetables, I can manage a stir-fry as long I also stock a bottle of soy sauce and have some chicken, pork or beef around. Or I can roast the vegetables for a quick and easy side dish. And if I need to stretch that into a main course, I'll add rice, pasta or couscous, and maybe some packaged diced pancetta that has a relatively long shelf life.

■ I make two of anything that can be frozen. A pork-and-carrot stew can be eaten now, with half stowed in the freezer for a night when I need something ready to go. Ditto homemade spaghetti sauces, which can do triple duty as a filling for l asagna and as a hearty sauce for pizza.

As the days get colder, you'll find soup in my freezer: a Sunday afternoon project that pays off when a youth basketball game goes into overtime and messes up our evening.

■ I prep early. I'm more likely to make a one-pot chicken-and-rice dish if I've spent 20 minutes in the morning chopping the onions and peppers. I'll use the time between the early and later school buses to cut up everything I need for my stir-fry so it'll take 20 minutes once I walk in the door and hang up my coat.

I also can make sauces ahead of time. The cheese sauce for mac and cheese is easily cooked in the morning and stashed in the fridge so it's ready to go as soon as I get home. Even pasta can be cooked earlier in the day, as long as I cool it fast and refrigerate it.

■ I stock the freezer with quick-defrosting chicken breasts, thin steaks, pork chops, fish fillets and hamburgers I've formed ahead of time. As I'm running out the door in the morning, I'll throw them into the fridge to defrost slowly.

■ Finally, I'll remember that no matter how tired I am, almost anything I make at home will be quicker, better and less expensive than takeout

For quick cooking, chicken tenderloins are a great choice. But they require a good bit of seasoning. This dish can be assembled in no time if you dice the vegetables in advance.

Mexican chicken tenders and rice

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus 1 pinch of it

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon mild chili powder, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed

11/2 pounds chicken tenderloins

2 large limes

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed

1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)

1 medium bell pepper, green, red, orange or yellow, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)

1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste or 2 tablespoons regular tomato paste

11/2 cups (uncooked) long-grain rice

31/4 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, for serving

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lay a large piece of aluminum foil on the counter.

Combine salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder and oregano in a small bowl.

Arrange the chicken on the foil in a single layer. Use half the seasoning mixture to sprinkle the tenderloins evenly on both sides. Squeeze the juice of half a lime evenly over the chicken. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of oil. Rub the chicken on both sides to evenly distribute the spices, juice and oil. Let sit for 10 minutes.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a 4-quart shallow non-stick Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add half the spice-rubbed chicken; cook until lightly browned on both sides. Transfer to a plate; repeat with the remaining chicken.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add onion, bell pepper and a pinch of salt to the pan; cook, stirring, for 4 minutes or until the vegetables have softened. Add tomato paste and the remaining spice mixture; cook, stirring to combine, for 1 minute. Add the rice and stir to incorporate. Add the broth; increase the heat to medium-high and stir to combine; cook until the broth begins to boil.

Cover and transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and arrange the cooked chicken over the rice. Cover and bake until all the broth has been absorbed, about 10 minutes.

Sprinkle with cilantro and serve from the cooking vessel. Cut the remaining lime into wedges to serve on the side. Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 370 calories, 32 g. protein, 41 g. carbohydrates, 8 g. fat, 80 mg. cholesterol, 350 mg. sodium, 3 g. dietary fiber, 3 g. sugar,

Serve this sauce over spaghetti or polenta or a baked potato, or with grilled vegetables.

Sweet sausage spaghetti sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound fresh sweet Italian sausage links, casings discarded

2 medium onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice (2 cups)

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)

2 medium ribs celery (leaves removed), cut into 1/4-inch dice

Kosher salt

2⁄3 cup dry red wine

3 cups strained tomatoes; may substitute tomato purée

1 cup water, plus more if needed

2 teaspoons mixed dried Italian herbs (any one or a combination of oregano, basil, marjoram and or crushed rosemary)

2 teaspoons sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add half the sausage, breaking it into small pieces. Cook until the sausage starts to brown. Transfer it to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining sausage.

Discard all but a film of fat from the saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium and add onions, carrots, celery and a pinch of salt. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes until the vegetables soften but do not brown.

Return all of the sausage to the saucepan. Add the wine and stir to combine. Cook for 2 minutes, then add strained tomatoes. Add dried herbs and sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste, stirring to combine. Once the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover with a lid and cook for 25 minutes, stirring a few times and adding a little water if it becomes too thick. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Serve immediately, or cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 3 months. Makes 7 cups.

Nutrition information per serving (2 cups): 90 calories, 6 g. protein, 8 g. carbohydrates, 3 g. fat, 10 mg. cholesterol, 220 mg. sodium, 2 g. dietary fiber, 4 g. sugar.