A woman with a who-has-time-to-cook job...a couple trying to shake some bad eating habits...and a family of six with wildly varying tastes and schedules. What's for dinner? That's the question. Chef Nina Simonds diagnoses the problems and dishes up some easy, delicious solutions.
Meals to Come Home to for a Single Professional Ellie Berlin: Marketing and special events manager for designer Tory Burch The Challenge: Ellie, 27, works long hours and is seldom in the mood to cook at night. "By the time I get home, especially after working out at the gym, I am so exhausted that I just want to zone out," she says. "Since I live in New York City, it's really easy to order takeout." Ellie, whose dad is a great cook, admits that she would love to learn how to prepare dinners for herself and gain the confidence to entertain friends.
The Strategy: If Ellie takes some time on weekends to plan her weeknight meals and prepare a handful of dishes, she can come home to leftovers that she can reheat, eat cold, or add to other dishes—such as a room temperature salad or a store-bought soup. And she'd be wise to make extra of things like dressings and marinades, since they'll allow her to quickly cook flavorful meals later in the week. The garlicky hoisin marinade, for example, is used here with chicken, but is also delicious with pork loin, lamb chops, and shrimp. The lemon-soy dressing complements most vegetables, and she can add chopped garlic or fresh herbs (such as dill, cilantro, basil, or tarragon) to alter the flavor. Instant couscous, a grainlike pasta, takes mere minutes to cook and makes a satisfying side dish. With a single midweek grocery run for fresh meat and vegetables, Ellie can restock her leftover supply in under half an hour. And with the addition of a bottle of wine and a store-bought dessert, she has a menu suitable for entertaining.
Margarita and Erasmo Sturla: Potter and housewife, Endocrinologist
The Challenge: The Sturlas are aware of the growing health threats they face as they age. Indeed, Erasmo, 63, sees the long-term effects of a poor diet every day in his work. Yet like most of us, Margarita and Erasmo, both Dominican by birth, are creatures of culinary habit. Margarita, 58, often cooks beans, rice, and occasionally potatoes for their evening meal. "My husband likes to return to his roots," she says. "But he has come a long way since the '70s; back then he was a very picky eater." Although Margarita is an accomplished cook, she needs help creating lighter versions of traditional dishes, and is intimidated by all the unfamiliar products in the supermarket—things like quinoa, bok choy, and lemongrass. She also confesses that, although she and her husband love fish, she seldom cooks it, since frying (the method she's most comfortable with) creates a smell that lingers in their apartment.
The Strategy: A simmered, one-pot meal, like this updated version of traditional Spanish paella, is a great choice for the couple. Its rich, savory flavor comes from a multitude of ingredients that are simmered together, and not from an excess of fat or salt. Moreover, it's truly versatile, so Margarita can tap into her culinary experience to create endless variations—with poultry, rabbit, sausage, shellfish, chicken livers, and any number of vegetables, from sweet potato to fennel. On busy days, she can prepare it in steps, washing and cutting the vegetables ahead of time, for example. And the Sturlas can eat fish without having to smell it in their apartment for days afterward.
Open to Change: Variety is one of the keys to a healthful diet; this new take on the Spanish classic gives the Sturlas plenty of room to improvise. Traditional paella recipes call for short-grain white rice, similar to Arborio, to be simmered with all the other ingredients. Brown basmati rice contains more nutrients and fiber; preparing it in a separate pot allows it to cook thoroughly without overcooking the fish, since it needs more time than white rice. And as a variation on the traditional saffron, which is expensive, we've suggested smoked paprika instead.
Dinner in Shifts for a High-Energy Family The Taylor-Jackson Family: Janet and Stuart, Lauren, Erin, Taylor, and Yanna; Psychiatrist and consumer health consultant; Executive vice president of basketball operations at the National Basketball Association
The Challenge: "I tend to make the same dishes over and over again," says Janet, 46, whose four athletic daughters and husband, 52, have schedules that are seldom in sync. "I really need some creative input. My family will kill me if I put another dish of broccoli in front of them."
Like many working mothers, Janet wants to prepare dinners for her family that are nutritious and creative yet broadly appealing—her twins, Erin and Taylor, 17, and her youngest daughter, Yanna, 14, don't always like the same foods. (Oldest daughter Lauren, 19, is away at college.) "I feel guilty that I am shortchanging my family by not cooking more healthful foods," she admitted.
The Strategy: Janet needs dishes that keep and reheat well, since the girls often have different practice and game schedules. Roasted vegetables are a good choice, as is quinoa, a nutrient-packed grain—both taste fine even if they have to sit out for an hour or so at room temperature. A meaty fish like salmon is substantial enough to be served twice (a more delicate fish might not stand up to reheating). And all these dishes can be served together or paired with others—the vegetables would be perfect alongside a roast chicken, for example.
The ginger-honey marinade, used for the salmon, is also delicious with haddock, halibut, or scallops. If Janet doubles the marinade recipe she (like Ellie) can easily prepare additional suppers at the last minute; she can also alter the basic recipe, experimenting with garlic, herbs, and spices. Likewise, the vegetable glaze can be adapted to suit whatever vegetables are in season. With summer zucchini and peppers, for example, fresh herbs could replace the spicy curry powder, and lemon could be substituted for the orange.