Here’s What to Eat When You Aren’t Preparing a Holiday Feast

The end of the year is centered around a number of big family meals—but that doesn't mean you can’t eat well on other days too.
Pasta with broccoli and pine nuts. (Photo: Facebook)
Dec 16, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Most of what you’ll read about holiday cooking is geared toward entertaining—important, festive food for important, festive occasions. That’s all well and good, but what really interests me is the bigger challenge of consistently putting healthy, sustaining, economical weeknight meals on the table during a month when no one has much time, let alone energy, to cook from scratch, and the normal routine is thrown off kilter by parties and too much richness. Take-out is an option, obviously, but it can get old (pad Thai again?) and expensive fast. Besides, as a rule, I like having more control over what I eat, and I’ll bet you do too.

In a perfect world, of course, our freezers would brim with quarts of homemade chicken and/or vegetable broth and already-cooked whole grains, which can be added directly to a simmering soup or stew. I admit, I spent a couple of recent Sundays up to my elbows in big batches of minestrone and meatless soup beans and froze much of what I made. They’re like money in the bank, though, and I don’t want to use them up just yet.

Thinking ahead just the tiniest bit, though, is a real game-changer. It’s easy enough to roast two chickens instead of one—or simply a tray of meaty, flavorful chicken thighs—on a Saturday evening, and without any extra effort at all you have the wherewithal for a weeknight hearty salad over Asian greens (stir some miso into the viniagrette) or for an Indian-style one-pot meal using a store-bought simmer sauce such as Maya Kaimal brand. Pull the cooked meat off the bone and shred it coarsely; simmer it in the sauce with a handful of roughly chopped spinach and sweet potatoes or winter squash, cut into smallish cubes; serve over rice.

You could also use that leftover chicken, along with chopped carrots or winter squash (kabocha doesn’t need to be peeled) and rice or a small pasta to make soup that will be far more delicious than anything you could ever buy. Cover the makings with water or a mixture of water and store-bought low-sodium chicken broth, season with salt and pepper, and simmer until the vegetables are tender. If you have some fresh spinach or leftover braised greens on hand, by all means swirl those in at the end of cooking, along with a squeeze of lemon. Before serving, embellish with a drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkling of grated Parmesan.

In addition to good-quality Parm and lemons, two other staples that will make your life easier on weeknights are coarse mustard and bread crumbs (I swear by the blender method created by my former Gourmet colleague Kemp Minifie). Deborah Madison’s Spaghettini with Cauliflower, Butter, and Pepper relies on both of those humble ingredients, and the result is far more than the sum of its parts. (As is Pasta with Broccoli and Pine Nuts, from another Gourmet pal.)

While you’re bringing a large part of salted water to a boil and toasting a generous handful or two of fresh bread crumbs in the oven, cut a cauliflower (a member of the nutrient-rich brassica family) into small florets and chop the stems. Sweep the cauliflower off the cutting board into the boiling water and cook 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cauliflower into a large bowl and stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons butter, about 1 teaspoon coarse mustard, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and some chopped parsley, if you happen to have some around. Bring the water back to a boil and cook 1 pound of spaghettini or other pasta until it’s al dente, or however you like it. Drain it in a colander and add it to the cauliflower. Add a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper, then toss with freshly grated Parm and the toasted bread crumbs.

If you happen to have any cooked cauliflower left, look to that too as an opportunity. Stir it into a quick lentil soup—simmer a cup of lentils (no need to soak), a bay leaf, a quart of water or veg or chicken broth, a sliced carrot, a little minced garlic, and half an onion, minced—and serve with toasted slices of baguette, or cheese toasts if you’re in the mood.

I would be extremely hampered at mealtime if I didn’t have a supply of good-quality eggs in the refrigerator. As I wrote back in the spring of 2014, they are the key to many a scratch meal at our house. Stracciatella, a simple Italian chicken soup with egg and Parmesan, can be made more substantial by adding spinach; even if you use store-bought broth, the soup is one of the world’s stellar comfort foods, and the weary people sitting around your table will feel nourished and loved. Garlic soup with poached eggs is a little more involved, but you can still dish up this Mexican coffee-shop classic in about 30 minutes, and if you feel as though you just may be coming down with a cold, it is just what you need.

When it comes to omelets, they are simpler than you think, and a real boon for the harried cook. “Modern life is so hectic that sometimes we feel as if time is going up in smoke,” wrote Édouard Pomiane in 1930. “But we don’t want that to happen to our steak or omelet. Ten minutes is enough.”

Pomiane would put many of today’s humble-braggy multitaskers to shame: He was a Pasteur Institute scientist, a nutrition expert, a radio-show host, and the author of some 22 cookbooks, including French Cooking in Ten Minutes. His recipe makes one cheese omelet, and halved, it feeds two people. With a glass of wine, it makes a light yet satisfying supper after a night out. If you’re of a mind to gild the lily, you can add a few tablespoons of chopped fresh chives or scallions, sautéed mushrooms, chopped deli ham, or diced leftover vegetables such as broccoli or potatoes. By the time someone else has laid the table and poured the wine, supper will be ready.

Cheese Omelet à la Édouard Pomiane

Serves 2

1½ tablespoons butter
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coarsely grated Gruyere or Cheddar

Directions

Heat the butter in a 10-inch skillet (preferably nonstick) over moderately high heat until the foam subsides. While the butter is working, whisk the eggs and salt together in a bowl.

Pour the eggs into the skillet and cook, stirring gently, until they start to set. Make sure they’re evenly distributed in the pan, and sprinkle with the cheese. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the eggs are just set.

Holding the skillet above a plate, tilt it until the omelet starts to slide out and about half of it is touching the plate. Immediately invert the skillet to make the omelet fold over on itself. Cut in half and serve immediately.