1. Beef Stroganoff, Deli-Style
Sautéed strips of beef with mushrooms in a sour-cream sauce over buttered noodles is a traditional winter dish, but it can take all afternoon to make. The speed version uses a pound of deli roast beef and the consummate cheater's secret weapon, cream of mushroom soup. Sauté a small onion in butter, stir in the beef (cut it into a 1/2-inch dice first) and a handful of sliced mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper, then add the soup and a half can of water. Let it bubble away for 10 or so minutes, then mix in a cup of sour cream. Serve over buttered egg noodles.
2. Pad Thai Minus an Extra Trip to the Supermarket
The sauce for this salty-sweet noodle dish can call for tamarind pulp, fish sauce, palm sugar and Thai chili powder, but you can approximate the flavor with a mixture of more common staples. Mix 2 Tbsp. each soy sauce and warm water, and 1 Tbsp. each smooth peanut butter and chili sauce (such as sriracha). Sprinkle in garlic powder and ground ginger to taste. Pour over cooked rice noodles, chicken, shrimp or tofu and heat, stirring, to coat evenly.
3. Baked Ziti with Two Wonder Workers
Prepared alfredo sauce isn't just the key to making the world's fastest creamy fettuccine dish. If you mix it with tomato sauce and al dente ziti, pour it into a casserole and bake at 350° for 30 minutes, you'll end up with an oozy, bubbly pasta casserole that bears more than a passing resemblance to baked ziti.
4. Roasted Chicken, Carved and Ready to Eat
A perfectly cooked bird—golden and crisp on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside—is classic French comfort food. You can shave at least 20 minutes off the cooking time (and save yourself the mess of carving the bird) by using already cut-up chicken parts. Another smooth maneuver is to lightly coat the breasts, wings, thighs and drumsticks with bottled Italian salad dressing before roasting; its premixed combo of oil, vinegar and seasonings complements chicken well.
5. Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, Streamlined
Many recipes call for sautéeing apples in butter and using them as the stuffing for pork tenderloin. You can skip a step by using chunky applesauce. Cut a slit down the center of a pork tenderloin, spoon the sauce in the middle and fold up the tenderloin, securing with toothpicks or string. Roast at 425° for 20 to 30 minutes (until a thermometer reads 145°).
6. Hot Chocolate with Your Choice of Genius Mix-Ins
Thick and rich homemade hot chocolate does more than just warm you up—it's a dessert in and of itself. But it often requires Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, cornstarch, milk, vanilla and even more ingredients. You can fast-track the process by preparing a package of instant hot-cocoa mix with whole milk. Once the powder is fully dissolved, stir in broken pieces of whatever chocolate you have on hand, or—hold onto your marshmallows, kids—a spoonful of Nutella.
Next: How to turn convenience foods into gourmet meals