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Weeknight Cooking

Weeknight Cooking Tips From the Test Cooks Behind Our 30-Minute Recipe Cards

How do you get creative, quick meals on the table on a busy weeknight? We went straight to the experts to find out.

By Ashley Delma | April 18, 2018

IN ADDITION TO THE regional recipes, seasonal side dishes, information-packed sidebars, and in-depth tastings and testings, each issue of Cook’s Country magazine features eight “30-Minute Suppers” recipe cards—detachable, recipe box-style cards with recipes that can be prepared in a half hour or less from the point you start cooking. These quick meals are some of the most popular recipes in the magazine and on our website—and with a few tricks in your toolbox, super easy to produce.

Most recipes featured in Cook’s Country magazine get a full page or two in layout, but these 30-minute supper cards only get a quarter of the page. Grab our latest issue, flip to pages 10 and 11, and you’ll find Alli Berkey’s recipe for Chicken Shawarma. Then turn the page and you’ll find a two-page spread for Matthew Fairman’s Fried Chicken Tenders—a recipe inspired by a recent visit to Puritan Backroom in Manchester, New Hampshire. In addition to developing these popular feature recipes, Alli and Matthew also comprise the test cook duo tasked with creating the recipe cards.

Alli Berkey of Cook's Country
Alli and Matthew, the pair of test cooks behind our 30-minute recipe cards.
Matthew Fairman of Cook's Country

In addition to having to create short, succinct recipes that take up less room in the magazine, Alli and Matthew must make sure every card contains no more than 10 ingredients and three steps. They also have to be cooked in 30 minutes (or less!) and considered a full meal (unless it’s a sandwich). Not to mention they must be creative and—most importantly—foolproof and downright tasty.

Whether it’s limited time or ingredients, or the desire to shake up your weeknight repertoire, these recipe cards solve challenges that are posed to home cooks every night. I sat down with Alli and Matthew to learn more about their experience developing these weeknight recipes, plus the discoveries and tips they’ve learned that can help you serve a well-balanced meal—packed with just as much flavor as our feature recipes— in just 30 minutes.

Where to Find Inspiration for Weeknight Meals

Alli and Matthew find inspiration in many places, but here are their top two: existing Cook’s Country recipes and the supermarket.

They start by looking at our own recipes and trying to figure out ways to alter them. For example, take one of our pork tenderloin and jelly glaze recipes—they’ll keep the method to cook the tenderloin because they know our methods are foolproof, but they’ll alter what we’re flavoring the pork with or switch around the side option.

The supermarket is useful for inspiration because they’re able to see the top products everyone has access to nationwide. “When I'm at the grocery store, I look at the convenience products and condiment aisles. I’ll look for something that has a flavor profile—like a jar of salsa that can replace five separate ingredients,” Matthew says.

Takeaway: If you have a favorite recipe, put a slight spin on it—change the sauce or side dish—to help avoid falling into a recipe rut and make a familiar recipe feel new. And to expedite prep time, look for convenience products that can play the role of several ingredients.

The Best Ingredients to Use for Weeknight Meals

There are a few ingredients Alli and Matthew always come back to when creating these 30-minute meals. Some ingredients, like lemon, help add flavor to the dish. Other ingredients, like spice blends, help replace multiple ingredients that you normally don’t have the time to “freshly” put together when preparing a weeknight meal. Here’s a list of other ingredients you’ll see repeated in our weeknight recipes—and ones you should work into your weeknight cooking.

  • Pickled Jalapeno Peppers

    Anytime you can get two to three ingredients from one with weeknight cooking, you’re in luck. In our Chicken Tostadas with Spicy Cabbage Slaw recipe, you have the spicy pepper and the brine, which can be used just like a vinegar. Same goes for capers, olives, and most jarred items.  

  • Salsas

    When cooking a quick weeknight meal like our Kielbasa with Hot Rice recipe, salsa has the ability to substitute for many other ingredients you may need in a dish. Plus, “it’s always something someone has half a jar of left in their fridge,” Alli says.

  • Lemons

    Cooking with acid can really change the profile of food. We use lemons in a lot of recipe cards, like our Filet Mignon with Pecorino Potatoes and Escarole recipe, to give our food flavor and brightness. Lemon zest served with lemon juice spritzed on a steak can change the flavors of meat more than you think it would.

  • Rotisserie Chicken

    Some of our weeknight recipes, including our Lemon Chicken and Orzo Soup, call for rotisserie chicken. This saves time by not going through the process of poaching and roasting your own chicken breast, and it’s cheaper than buying a whole uncooked chicken at most grocery stores. (Though we do recommend cooking chicken yourself when you have time!)

  • Spice Blends

    Spice blends like creole seasoning, blackened spice, and Italian seasoning are already working in your favor because they have four to five spices packed into one bottle. Check out our Swordfish Kebabs with Zucchini Ribbon Salad recipe to see how we use Italian seasoning to help enhance this easy, weeknight dish.

  • Jarred Red Peppers

    These are great to make sauces with because they’re already pre-roasted. Plus, the watery brine the red peppers sit in can be pureed into a red pepper sauce for pasta or chopped up into a quick romesco sauce or salad.

  • Curly Parsley

    Fresh Herbs

    Our dishes are almost always finished with fresh herbs. They add color, freshness, and in many cases vitamin C.  

  • Canned Beans

    It’s an easy way to add protein to a meal, and they’re cooked already so you’re just warming them through. “We know what’s good canned and we know what’s not good canned," Alli said. "We’re not going to use canned corn, especially in the summer, but we’ll always go back to something like canned beans, which cook much quicker than dried." 

Weeknight Cooking Discoveries

Since every minute matters when you’re designing a recipe that can be prepared in only 30 minutes, Alli and Matthew are always looking for ways to streamline recipe steps. This has resulted in some time-saving, flavor-boosting discoveries.

1. Use the Pasta Method for Rice: Boil the rice like you would with pasta and dump off the water when the rice is cooked. Instead of taking 45 minutes, this is done in 12 to 15 minutes. It also gives you a more versatile rice than something like sticky rice.

2. A Better Way To Cook Pork Tenderloin: Simply pound it into a much thinner piece of meat with a meat pounder. Pork tenderloin is so lean that it easily dries out when cooked. Pounding it flat allows for it to cook quickly and evenly without sacrificing the meat’s juiciness, and it allows you to get a much better crust on the outside. Cook it on each side for a total of four minutes, let the meat rest, and you’re ready to eat.

3. Just Toss It In A Bag: When developing his recipe for Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwiches recipe, Matthew wanted to bypass the traditional (and fussy) three-step breading process that often precedes frying. He discovered that we could do it in two steps by dipping the chicken in a small amount of seasoned mayonnaise and then transferring the pieces to a zipper-lock bag with flour and cornstarch. Seal the bag, shake it vigorously to coat, and voilà, you have breaded chicken in far less time.

175 Meals Ready in 1 Hour or Less Dinner Illustrated

With our book, Dinner Illustrated, we show you that it is possible to get dinner ready in 1 hour or less for easy weeknight cooking. Every recipe has seven photos that take you from start to serve with no advance prep required. 

The Best Tips for Weeknight Cooking

After developing dozens of weeknight recipes, Alli and Matthew have a handle on what it takes to put together meals that are quick and delicious. Here are their six best tips for weeknight cooking.

1. Grilling Is Your Best Friend: If you’re someone that wants to get a quick meal out to friends and family, grilling is your go-to method. The grill adds a lot of flavor to food that you just can’t get on the stovetop. Whether you’re making our Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Summer Squash with Chimichurri or grilled veggies that you toss into a salad, the grill is always going to be your quickest and easiest way to get a dish with great flavor.

2. Streamline Batch Cooking: Most of the time, we're proponents of batch cooking—that is, cooking food in small batches because it avoids having too much moisture in the pan and helps verify that every little piece of meat gets perfectly browned. But for weeknight cooking, we've found that you can get similar browning in less time by coating the meat in two key ingredients: sugar and cornstarch, both of which expedite caramelization. This allows you to cook everything in the pan at once without having to do it in time-consuming batches.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Use High Heat: Get comfortable with using high heat, especially when it’s something that’s quick-cooking, like thinly cut steak or pork. The high heat creates flavorful browning and you can get dinner on the table in minutes, like with our Steak and Broccoli Stir-Fry.

4. Shop For Convenience Items: Keep your eye out for things that combine ingredients you already need in the grocery store, such as salsa or pickled peppers.

5. Add Glutamate-Rich Ingredients To Boost Flavors In Your Dish: Ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen—such as tomato paste, Parmesan cheese, and soy sauce—will help add more complexity than you can imagine to a dish. For instance, if you’re going to use store-bought broth in a soup, use one of these flavor boosters to make it taste like the broth has been simmering on the stove for hours.

6. Add Fresh Herbs: They do a lot for a dish. For instance, marjoram, a member of the mint family, pairs well with poultry, lamb, or vegetables and is best used as a finishing herb to these dishes. Or take tarragon, a slender-leafed herb called “little dragon” because of its fiery quality. It also complements fish, egg, and chicken dishes—but make sure to use it sparingly. (See “Getting to Know: Fresh Herbs” to learn more about how to use fresh herbs in your weeknight meals.)

Test Cook Favorites

30-Minute Meal Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup

"It's an unusual dish because it uses egg yolks to thicken it instead of flour, but that's what makes this dish so rich. Everyone was surprised by the fact that this recipe is so quick and delicious." — Alli Berkey

30-Minute Meal Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich

"I cooked the boneless, skinless chicken thighs in only a quarter cup of oil and the chicken still came out crispy, like normal fried chicken. I didn't think I could get this recipe done in 30 minutes but I did and it taste so good." — Matthew Fairman

Any discoveries you’ve gathered over the years that come in handy with weeknight cooking? Let us know in the comments! View all of our 30-minute recipe cards here and if you’re looking for more weeknight tips, check out this article:

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