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Get dinner on the table quickly with expert strategies

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 5:57 p.m.
"The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook"
Creamy Balsamic Skillet Chicken from 'The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook'
“Dinner Solved”
Spanish Pork Chops from “Dinner Solved”
Prosciutto-Wrapped Halibut Piccata from “Dinner Solved.”
“The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook”
Sweet and Spicy Salmon With Broccoli from “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook”
'The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook' by Mary Younkin
"The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook"
Pan-Fried Pork Medallions with Creamy Wine Sauce from “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook.”
'Dinner Solved!' by Katie Workman
Chicken Vegetable Potpie Casserole from 'Dinner Solved!'

Cooking a special Sunday supper or a fancy celebration dinner is all well and good.

But the true feat for the home cook is preparing interesting, creative meals on a daily basis. They face drudgery, boredom — and a rush in the door from work, plus a rush out the door for basketball practice and school concerts.

With Christmas less than month away, this most wonderful time of the year contributes even more time challenges.

Mary Younkin, author of “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook” (Page Street Publishing, $21.99) and blogger at Barefeet in the Kitchen, has a strategy for organizing meals for her family of five.

“I do a meal plan every week,” she says. “I plan Monday through Sunday and I match that to my calendar. I know we have football practice on Tuesday and Thursday. I know my other kid has jiu-jitsu late one night a week and Friday is a football game. So, our nights are going to be crazy all week.”

Her plan on those nights might include 15-minute dinners, or a hands-off slow cooker meal or hot sandwiches that can be carried out the door.

“Those are the nights to make the super-easy, fast dinners,” Younkin says.

Katie Workman agrees planning is essential. But the author of “Dinner Solved!” (Workman, $17.95) and “The Mom 100 Cookbook” (Workman, $16.95) makes a slightly more casual effort.

“Know at least three meals you're going to make for the week ahead,” she says. “You don't have to know every night. But if you know what you're making Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then the rest of the week falls in place.”

Workman's favorite recommendation is prepping your week.

“Take the time on the weekend or during the week to mince up some onions, mince up some shallots, mince up some garlic, squeeze some lemons, chop some parsley. Just prep the ingredients that you know you're going to use during the week.”

The rise of meal-kit delivery is a great indicator of the value people put on a home-cooked meal. By planning your meals, knowing your recipes, buying the groceries and prepping the ingredients, you are, in essence, creating your own meal kit that's ready to be put together quickly.

Another drain on a home cook's enthusiasm is that picky eater who seems to appear at every family table. “Dinner Solved!” addresses the issue with a recipe feature called “Fork in the Road.” It is a stopping point where the cook can change direction to make a dish vegetarian or less spicy, for example. Fork in the Road allows the cook to easily adjust to two different tastes without becoming a short-order cook.

And, Workman says, the more you get your kids involved in cooking, the more likely they are to try something new. Take them to the supermarket and let them choose the vegetable for dinner. Let them look through recipes or cookbooks and choose dinner one night.

“It would be unusual for a kid who picked that taco recipe to say I am not going to eat it,” Workman says. “It's very empowering.”

Both cookbooks offer tricks to kick up flavor and revive and brighten ordinary dishes. A squeeze of lime, a splash of balsamic vinegar or adding a new spice go a long way.

“I think of it as simple cooking with a lot of flavor,” Younkin says. “Cooking from scratch doesn't have to be intimidating, and it doesn't take a culinary degree to put great food on the table for your family.”

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Prosciutto-Wrapped Halibut Piccata

What the kids can do: Wrap the fish in the prosciutto, juice the lemon, measure the ingredients.

Make ahead: Not such a great make-ahead dish, but you can wrap the fish in prosciutto a day ahead and keep it covered in the refrigerator.

Recipe from “Dinner Solved”

Olive oil or nonstick cooking spray, for coating the baking sheet

1 pound halibut fillets, cut into 6 to 8 pieces, each piece about 2 inches by 3 inches

Kosher or coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

6 to 8 very thin slices prosciutto (about 2 ounces)

1 tablespoon olive oil

12 teaspoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced shallots or ¼ cup minced onion

12 cup dry white wine

12 cup chicken broth, preferably low-sodium

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped, drained capers (optional)

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Season the fish with salt (very lightly, the prosciutto is salty) and black pepper and wrap a slice of prosciutto around each piece, making sure the prosciutto goes all the way around and trimming it as needed. Place the fish prosciutto-seam side down on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until the prosciutto is crisp, for about 12 minutes.

As the fish bakes, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots and saute until translucent and tender, for about 2 minutes. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken broth, return to a simmer, and cook until the liquid reduces by half, for 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add the lemon juice, capers, if using, and butter and stir until the butter is melted. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Place the cooked fish on a serving platter and spoon the sauce over.

Fork in the Road: Are some people a little less interested in sauce? That's just fine. After baking the fish, stop right there and call it a day if you like. This is still a lovely main course, and a fish dish that may well win over the pesca-phobic people in your house.

Makes 4 servings.

Spanish Pork Chops

What the kids can do: Measure and blend up the spice paste and rub it on the chops.

Make ahead: You can make the paste up to 2 days ahead and store it, covered, in the refrigerator. You can also smear the chops with the paste and refrigerate them, covered, for a day before cooking.

Recipe from “Dinner Solved”

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon paprika or pimenton, sweet, spicy or smoked

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme (optional)

Pinch of cayenne pepper

12 teaspoon kosher or coarse salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the chops

1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

4 pork chops (each 1-inch thick, about 2½ pounds total)

4 thin slices lemon (optional)

Chopped fresh flatleaf parsley, extra paprika and/or lemon wedges, for garnish

Combine the garlic, paprika, cumin, coriander, oregano, thyme, if using, cayenne, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Add the olive oil and vinegar and stir to make a paste. Smear the paste on both sides of the pork chops and place a lemon slice on top of each (see the Fork in the Road if you'd like milder chops). Let the chops sit in the fridge for 30 to 45 minutes, or longer (or skip the fridge if you don't have the time).

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, and when the oil just starts to smoke, add the pork chops, lemon-slice side down. You may have to do this in 2 batches, using a bit more olive oil if the pan is crowded. Let the chops sear without moving them until nicely browned on the bottom, for about 4 minutes. Turn the chops, keep the lemon slices in place, and sear the other side, again without moving them, for another 4 minutes or so, until nicely browned on the underside and a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of a chop registers 150 degrees. (The meat will continue to cook after it leaves the pan.)

Transfer the chops to a serving plate or cutting board and let sit for 4 or 5 minutes before serving whole or in slices. Sprinkle with parsley or additional paprika if desired, and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over the pork.

Fork in the Road: This is the ideal trick for introducing new flavors to kids in manageable doses — use a more restrained amount of the rub on their chops. The recipe makes a shy ¼ cup of rub, and if you divide it evenly among all of the pork chops, you'll have 4 robustly flavored chops. But if you think a more delicately seasoned chop will hold more allure for some of your brood, then simply rub 1 or 2 of the chops with only 1 teaspoon of the rub each. Great flavor? Yes. Too much flavor? Nope. If you end up with leftover rub, toss it with some cubed Yukon Gold potatoes and some olive oil and roast the potatoes at 425 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes to go with your pork.

Makes 4 servings.

Creamy Balsamic Skillet Chicken

This simple skillet meal is made with chicken, mushrooms and sweet onions in a creamy balsamic sauce.

While the actual cooking time for this recipe is barely 15 minutes, allow yourself at least 20 minutes for preparing the onion, mushrooms and chicken before cooking.

Recipe from “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook”

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small yellow onion, very thinly sliced, about 1 cup

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

8 ounces white button mushrooms, quartered (about 3 cups)

1½ pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces

2 tablespoons all-purpose or brown rice flour

¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

½ cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

¼ cup heavy cream

1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Warm the oil and butter in a large stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and toss to coat. Cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the garlic and continue cooking for 1 minute, until the onions are tender and lightly browned.

While the onions are cooking, prep the mushrooms and chicken. Place the chicken pieces in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with the flour, ½ teaspoon of the salt and ¼ teaspoon of the pepper. Toss to coat. Alternately, place the ingredients in a large zip-top bag, seal and shake to coat.

Push the onions to the side of the skillet. Add the chicken in a single layer, leaving the onions at the side or on top of the chicken as it cooks. Cook the chicken for 3 minutes on each side, using a metal spatula to lift and turn the pieces. The chicken shouldn't be fully cooked yet, but it will be white or lightly browned all over. Transfer the chicken and onions to a plate.

Place the skillet back on the stove over medium-high heat. Add the chicken broth, balsamic vinegar, mushrooms, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and remaining ¼ teaspoon pepper to the pan and bring to a simmer. Use a metal spatula to scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan as the mushrooms cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cream, stir and transfer the chicken and onions back to the skillet. Simmer for about 3 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the fresh thyme.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Pan-Fried Pork Medallions with Creamy Wine Sauce

The greatness of pork medallions is seen in both how quickly the pork cooks and how juicy the results are. A simple pork tenderloin is sliced into 1-inch-thick pieces (aka medallions) and then pan-fried for just a few minutes. Use the drippings in the skillet to make a creamy pan sauce and you're done. Roast some vegetables while cooking the pork or boil some baby potatoes and you'll have dinner on the table in less than 20 minutes.

Recipe from “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook”

1½ pounds pork tenderloin

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

13 cup white wine

½ teaspoon chicken base

½ teaspoon cornstarch

Dash of paprika

½ cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Slice the pork tenderloin into 1-inch medallions and lightly sprinkle each side with salt and pepper. Warm a large stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and, when it is shimmering, add the pork to the skillet — it is fine if the sides of the pieces touch in the skillet. Let the pork cook without touching it for 3 minutes. Set a plate next to the stove along with a piece of foil to cover the pork.

Use a metal spatula to get underneath each one and flip them over. Don't worry if they stick a bit. Cover with a lid and cook for 3 minutes. Lift each medallion with the spatula and transfer to the waiting plate; as you lift the pork, you'll see that it has browned on the edges. Cover lightly with foil to keep warm.

Place the empty skillet back on the stove over medium heat. Add the wine to the hot skillet and use a spatula to scrape up the little browned bits of meat and deglaze the pan. Add the chicken base, whisk to combine and cook for about 2 minutes. In a small cup, whisk the cornstarch and paprika into the cream until smooth. Add the cream to the saucepan slowly, whisking until combined. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly, for about 1 minute. Pour the sauce over the pork, sprinkle with the parsley and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Sweet and Spicy Salmon With Broccoli

Salmon topped with a sweet, tangy and slightly spicy glaze is broiled for just a few minutes, resulting in a fish dinner that just might have your non-fish lovers coming back for one more bite. Drizzle a bit of glaze over the vegetables in the same pan and you'll have sweet and spicy vegetables along with the glazed salmon. If you start a pan of rice cooking on the stove as you heat the oven, everything should be ready to eat at the same time.

Recipe from “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook”

1½ pounds salmon, cut into 4-5 fillets

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

1½ tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

3 tablespoons apricot jam

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

18- 14 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 pound broccoli

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to broil on high and place a rack in the center of the oven. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, if you'd like, to make cleanup a breeze. Pat the salmon dry and place the salmon in the center of the rimmed baking sheet. Whisk together 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and the soy sauce, vinegar, jam, garlic, crushed red pepper and cayenne pepper until mostly smooth. Set aside.

Trim the broccoli into bite-size pieces. Place the broccoli in a large mixing bowl, drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Toss with your hands to coat well. Arrange the vegetables around the salmon on the baking tray.

Generously spoon 1 tablespoon of the glaze over each piece of fish. Broil for 5 minutes, remove from the oven and drizzle an additional 1 to 2 teaspoons glaze over each piece of salmon and lightly drizzle the broccoli with the remaining glaze. Broil for an additional 4 to 5 minutes, until the fish barely flakes apart.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Chicken Vegetable Potpie Casserole

This recipe isn't made as a pie, but as a casserole, says Katie Workman, “because I like to make everything in copious amounts.” Cut the recipe in half and make it in a deep-dish pie pan if you don't have a big crowd or a desire for leftovers. Advance prep work makes for an easy dinner to put together.

Recipe from “Dinner Solved.”

Fork in the Road option: A big happy pan of old-fashioned comfort food and a meatless optional as well.

What the Kids Can Do: Help choose the vegetables; peel the carrots and slice the mushrooms; measure ingredients; unroll the refrigerated pie crust, brush it with egg, and cut slits in it.

Make Ahead: The unbaked casserole can be refrigerated for up to a day. Put the crust on just before baking. The baked casserole can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and reheated in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes until hot. Bring it to room temperature for about 30 minutes before reheating.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

8 scallions or 1 large leek, white and light green parts, chopped

2 cups diced red or white potatoes

1 cup sliced carrots

12 cup thinly sliced celery

4 cups roughly chopped broccoli florets and stems

Kosher or coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, preferably low-sodium

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels (optional)

1 12 cups (an 8-ounce package) sliced mushrooms

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

23 cup all-purpose flour

12 cup heavy (whipping) cream or half-and-half

12 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

4 cups cubed raw chicken or turkey, or see the Vegetarian Fork in the Road for a tofu substitute

1 refrigerated pie crust (half of a 15-ounce package)

1 large egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a very large skillet, Dutch oven, or wok over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, scallions, potatoes, carrots, and celery and sauté to soften for 4 minutes. Add the broccoli, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until the vegetables are coated with the onion mixture, 1 minute. Add ½ cup of the broth, stir, and cover. Simmer until all of the vegetables are crisp-tender and the liquid is mostly evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in the peas and the corn if using. Transfer the entire mixture to a shallow 4-quart casserole or a second very large deep, ovenproof skillet and set aside. Return the first skillet to the stove.

Heat another 1 tablespoon olive oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and rosemary and sauté until the mushrooms are golden brown, 5 minutes. Add them to the vegetable mixture and return the pan to the stove.

Melt the butter in the pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and whisk occasionally until it turns blond in color, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining 3 12 cups broth and bring to a simmer over high heat. Lower the heat back to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the sauce has thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the cream and the parsley, if using, and cook for 3 minutes more. Pour the sauce over the vegetable mixture and stir.

Wipe out the skillet, add the remaining tablespoon of oil, and heat it over medium-high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and sauté until the insides are still a little pink, 4 minutes. Toss with the vegetables.

Center the pie crust over the filling. Brush the top of the pastry with the egg and use a sharp knife to make several slits in the crust. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbly, about 30 minutes. Spoon the casserole onto plates, making sure each serving has a piece of crust.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Fork in the Road Vegetable Potpie option: Use vegetable broth, and 2 or 3 cups of diced extra-firm tofu in place of the chicken, or just increase the amount of vegetables by a few cups.

If you want to make two smaller pies — one with chicken and one without, use two 9- or 10-inch deep-dish pie pans. You'll need both crusts that come in a 15-ounce pie crust package. Make the vegetable mixture using only vegetable broth, then divide it between the two pans. Stir 1 12 cups of cubed chicken into the vegetables in one pan and 1 12 cups diced tofu into the other, then place one pie crust on top of each pan, brush with egg, and make slits as instructed. The baking time for both should be about 25 minutes

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