Sometimes, the best thing a cook can do is turn to a mental database of quick-cooking, no-thinking dishes — good food you can put together in a hurry without a lot of pondering and preparation.
Maybe it's frittata time. Shred some zucchini and cook it with onion, add it to beaten eggs with Parmesan and torn basil leaves, then let it cook until it is almost set. A quick trip under the broiler to puff and brown the top and dinner is ready.
Some of the dishes are so simple you don't even need a recipe. Take spaghetti with butter and Parmesan, a terrific go-to. Boil spaghetti, then toss with butter, Parmesan and LOTS of black pepper.
This is delicious served with a green salad and dead-simple — as long as you remember to toss with butter first so the noodles are well-coated, which keeps the Parmesan from clumping.
One key is keeping a familiar set of staples in your pantry and refrigerator that you can turn comfortably to when you're in a rush. Eggs? Rice? Cheese? Fresh vegetables in season? Maybe some leftover grilled meat? You've got a feast all ready to go.
The easiest way to manage these last-minute dinners is by focusing on dish structures rather than recipes. If you have a rough outline for a dish, you can adapt it to fit whatever ingredients you have on hand.
For example, if you know how to grill flank steak and accent it with a simple chopped sauce, you can do the same with swordfish. Once you're comfortable building a salad with cooked grains, even stale bread can be the basis for a great dinner. Frittatas are an almost endless source of last-minute solutions and once you've made one, you can make them all.
Master a few basic recipes, and you'll never be stuck for a quick dinner again.
Total time: 30 minutes | Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup best-quality olive oil, divided
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3/4 pound zucchini (about 1 large), shredded
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 basil leaves, torn into pieces
Heat the broiler. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook until it's no longer moist and begins to clump together, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
While the zucchini is cooking, beat the eggs with a fork until they are ropy and well-mixed but not foamy. (They should be somewhat light in color.) Stir the cheese, salt and basil leaves into the egg mixture and then add the cooked zucchini. Stir for a minute after you've added the zucchini in order to cool it slightly.
Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is hot, pour in the egg mixture and immediately reduce the flame to medium low. The bottom of the egg mixture should set very quickly. Gently lift the sides with a fork and pull them toward the center, allowing the loose egg mixture to run underneath. Cook this way until the eggs are almost set, about 5 minutes. The mixture should look like very loose scrambled eggs, with a little liquid remaining.
Place the pan under the broiler until the eggs are puffed and lightly browned, about 45 seconds. Cool slightly before carefully sliding the frittata onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Each of 6 servings:
205 calories; 10 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 17 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 285 mg. cholesterol; 344 mg. sodium.