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April 2000 Issue
Simple Full Meals for People on the Go
by Michael Fick
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One-dish meals are a great way to combine healthy foods, great taste, and preparation and cleanup simplicity. Simplicity is merely time-saving at home, but during the months I spend in my converted van/RV chasing wind each year, using and dirtying and washing just one dish is a great housekeeping advantage.

Even with using only one or two significant pots or pans most days in my van, I usually eat very well and often. My meals emphasize taste, low sat fat and trans fat, nutritional balance over each day or three, and deliberate simplicity. I'll save one of my simplest favorites for last, and start with an obvious large class of one-dish meals: stir-fry.

At its simplest, stir-fry starts with a complete stir-fry package from the supermarket freezer. It has meat, a variety of vegetables, and some type of stir-fry sauce. I usually add more bell peppers, some chile peppers, maybe some garlic and freshly scraped ginger root shavings, and probably some extra seasonings. When sweet onions (Walla Wallas, Maui, or Vidalia) are in season, they go in in big chopped piles.

Pour a little peanut oil (it survives the heat much better than olive oil) into a big, deep stir-fry pan, heat it up, toss in the meat slivers and onions, and stir-fry until the meat is about cooked. Add the stir-fry sauce (try many types to see which appeal to you. I like most Kikkoman brand sauces), stir, add the veggie package, stir and fry for a couple of minutes until it's all hot, and dig in. If I'm extra hungry or need the energy of extra carbohydrates because I'm especially active, I serve the stir-fry over rice (a pan of boiling water hardly qualifies as a second dirty dish). Now, that's my kind of breakfast!

But although the veggies and a few ounces of meat are a very healthy meal, there are some caveats. Stir-fry sauces are very high in sodium (aka salt), so use very little sauce if you have high blood pressure. (You do have your BP checked a few times each year, don't you?) If you are calorically challenged, skimp on the peanut oil. It's healthy stuff, but is pure calories. (My calorie challenge is getting enough of them to fuel my work and play.)

And some of the stir-fry packages produce a two-pound meal. If you're a couch or desk jockey, you'll want to eat less or play more (guess which is more rewarding). The stir-fry keeps and reheats just fine, or you can cook just half of it. Rice gets hard when reheated; fix more fresh when you reheat the leftover stir-fry.

Supermarket stir-fry packages vary widely in their mix of veggies, the type of meat, and the sauce. Many packages skip the meat, so you could buy your own meat or go vegan. And there are well over a dozen varieties of vegetable mixes alone, just waiting for a hot skillet and the optional meat and stir-fry sauce. An even quicker, simpler, cleaner (no salmonella or e-coli risk) meat choice is pre-cooked packaged chicken or beef strips.

Once you've learned which veggies you like best, skip the packages. Graze down the produce section, chop up your prizes, and start frying. (Those flexible plastic food cutting sheets really simplify chopping the veggies and pouring them into the pan.) For meat, pick up or have the butcher slice up some chicken breast (skinless and boneless, of course) or lean steak or pork, or some shelled shrimp. Cut pre-packaged stir-fry meat strips into shorter strips so your few ounces of meat get into more bites of stir-fry.

The stir-fry options are so endless you can never get tired of flavors, only of the stir-fry concept. And cleanup just requires washing the stir-fry pan (it's Teflon-coated unless you're a gourmet stir-fry cook), the nylon spatula, and a plate and fork.

There are also a variety of stir-fry breakfast options in the freezer section. The ones I've tried are quite good, especially with the extra bell and chile peppers and Walla Walla onions and a few eggs stir-fried right in and some hot salsa splashed on top. Go easy on the eggs if your cholesterol is off the charts (you do have your blood lipids checked a few times each year, don't you?). These breakfast stir-frys might taste even better with added sausage and bacon, but I just don't eat that stuff. (Dr. Atkins' high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diet is detrimental to our health, as we'll discuss soon.)

Another one-dish option is soup or stew. Boil some water, dump in a hearty packaged soup mix, add other good stuff like veggies, beans, pasta, more beans, and maybe a little meat, then feast when it's done. Many soup mixes cook for about half an hour, so time the addition of other ingredients according to their cooking time. Add the crunchiest veggies first (potatoes need to be partially precooked), followed by pasta that cooks in a few minutes, followed by any canned veggies that need merely to be heated. Such canned items as fancy seasoned stewed tomatoes, Mexicorn, beans or peas, or chicken quickly add variety, substance, flavor, protein, and/or fiber to soups. Leftovers reheat just fine. Especially with whole grain breads, this is a delicious and healthy one-dish meal and a great head-clearer for the cold or allergy seasons.

And here's one of my favorite one-dish meals, both at home and in my van. I can just pop it in the microwave, rig up my windsurfing gear while the food nukes, eat a delicious meal, and hit the water before the morning crowd of sailors arrives. It can easily be tailored to the day's nutritional needs by selecting the vegetables according to whether I need extra energy, fiber, and/or green veggies. It dirties only one dish, without the baked-on crust of casseroles.

    Set a cooked chicken breast (buy Tyson's, or grille fresh ones in advance and freeze or refrigerate them) across the center of a rectangular baking dish.

    Nuke the chicken for a half minute to warm the skin, and peel and discard the skin. Pour one can of veggies on one side of the chicken, another can on the other side of the chicken. Nuke and eat. Rinse the dish and rush off to work or school. Next time use a different meat if you tire of chicken, but emphasize poultry over red (mammal) meat.

    Choose your mix of veggies according to taste, flavor compatibility (their juices will run together), and today's nutritional needs. If you expect to be (or were) especially active that day, one veggie might be canned sweet potatoes (S&W brand is vastly superior to any other brand of sweet potatoes, in my opinion) for extra carbos. The other veggie might be black-eyed peas for additional energy, extra fiber, and flavor compatibility with the potatoes. Or Mexicorn on one side and just about any veggie on the other side. If either of the veggies you choose comes in too much water, pour or drink most of it off first. You could even use fresh vegetables, but that requires precooking that violates the one-dish premise. My favorite combination of flavors, nutrition, fiber, and antioxidants (especially lycopene) is S&W or Del Monte stewed tomatoes (they come in many varieties, from mild to spicy) on one side and black-eyed peas with jalapenos on the other.

You might even try some one-can lunches. Both Denison and Stagg make delicious, canned, nutritionally balanced stews, chilis, and bean dishes with extremely low fat. They're great hot or cold. But read the labels; the versions that don't boast of low fat are extremely high in fat ... fat grams up in the teens.

One-dish meals can be delicious, adjustable, quick, simple, reheatable, free of baked-on crust, and healthy (or decadent if you choose to ignore the whole health thing). My main meal (breakfast) can dirty the only big dish of the whole day. My other meals are mostly such things as sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, beans, hot or cold cereal, salads, juices and milk, and similar simple foods that taste great, take minimal preparation and cleanup, and contribute to my health and energy.

The primary difference between my home and RV diets is the primary difference in appliances between my home and my RV: my home kitchen has a dishwasher.

That difference makes the one-dish concept especially appealing in my van, and is good for a running gag. Windsurfers from other states and continents often ask to see the inside of my custom windsurfing van, which has most of the comforts of home. When women ask, "Where's the dishwasher?", I love to watch their reaction when I reply, "She had to stay home this trip."



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