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How to Pull Off a Fast Dinner Fake-Out

Hereby I confess my sneakiest time-saving tricks in the kitchen.

Published Sept. 13, 2018.

Sometimes I am perfect. I plan my family's dinner for the whole week ahead, carefully prepping everything on the weekend, so I can just sail in after a long day of work to put the finishing touches on a gorgeous, nourishing supper within minutes.

But I am often not that perfect.

Fake it 'til you make it.

Usually, I've been in the test kitchen working all day, and I get home wiped out. Much as I love puttering in the kitchen, I kind of don't want to spend the whole evening cooking. Everybody in my family's starving and asking when's dinner? I need to get it on the table five minutes ago. Takeout is not an option.

Here's my sneaky strategy.

This Zojirushi rice cooker not only does an excellent job cooking grains, but it's also super cute! It's pricy, but I love it. Our top-rated rice cooker by Aroma is inexpensive and does the job as well.

I start rice in my trusty rice cooker, buying me about 40 minutes to make something to put on it. A rice bowl? A stir fry? (If that's too long, I swap rice for farro, or Israeli couscous; they're even faster.)

With the rice cooker underway, I grab my 12" All-Clad skillet, add a tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil, and quickly dice an onion. I toss that on medium-low, just to get some dinner-like fragrance wafting through the house. Alternatively, I chop up some bacon—I always keep some of the good stuff in the freezer—and get that into the skillet and smelling good.

I set the table. (All this gives the family the impression they're going to eat soon.)

I throw together a big green salad—mixing the dressing first, right in the bottom of the bowl, piling the greens lightly on top—and set it on the table, to toss later, when it's time to serve.

I love to spin washed lettuce leaves extra dry in my OXO salad spinner and then store them in a large zipper-lock bag with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture. It'll keep crisp all week, ready to go.

Here is where my one good habit pays off. I always use a salad spinner to clean and bag the greens when I first bring them home, so I can pull out what I need. Voila, instant salad.

I put a cutting board and bread knife on the table, and a baguette, and put out the yummy salted butter. (I know we already have rice, but mine is a carb-loving family.)

Now what? A quick protein (and maybe a vegetable or two) is all I need to focus on. I have about 15-20 minutes until the rice is done.

If I have any leftover cooked vegetables in the fridge, that's a lifesaver. If not, I chop and wash fresh broccoli, carrots, or whatever I have, put it in a bowl, add a bit of water and a sprinkle of salt, and use my beloved Japanese Piggy Steamer to steam it in the microwave—just enough to get it softened, so it will stir-fry in a flash.

My other time-saving trick: I don't stand over the food watching it cook. I run around and clean up as I go. This also keeps me from my worst habit, peeking under things as they brown, preventing said browning.

I own two piggy steamers, since I use them constantly to reheat or steam food in the microwave, as a lid on my teacup when I'm not going to bother brewing a whole pot, even as a jar opener. The ears stay cool for grabbing.

One of my favorite cookbooks for weeknights like this is Dinner Illustrated. I use it when I plan ahead, but also as a last-minute idea book. Bonus: Delicious stuff like Nepali-Style Chicken Curry with Basmati Rice actually begin with that rice and the onion I've wisely started softening in the skillet to fake out my family.

This book was written for me. Crispy Chicken with Sauteed Radishes, Spinach, and Bacon browns the chicken in that lovely fragrant bacon-laced pan I happened to have started. Other recipes get you sizzling something else fragrant in seconds, and all the recipes have you serving dinner within 45 minutes to an hour. 

The rice cooker beeps, and we're ready to sit down to a good, fresh meal.

Who needs perfect?

Do you have any sneaky weeknight meal strategies? Tweet me @lisamcmanus with your questions and comments, or just a hello!

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