Five fast family dinner ideas

The thing about having a food blog is that people always think you are having something exciting for dinner. People often ask me what I’m planning to eat and until very recently I would admit that I had no idea because my beloved was in charge of dinner. Sure, I was mostly in charge of shopping and thinking ahead, but he did the leg work on the nights I was working. It was great.

Things have changed and now I’m home first and it’s not the cushy number I thought it was. Among other things it means – oh no! – that I’m now in charge of dinner all the time.

If you have a similar role at your place, here are five fast family dinner ideas to make your after-work life more balanced. Don’t forget to pour yourself a G&T when you get in, you deserve it.

Chicken Salad And Crunchy Noodles Photo Credit: Lucy Corry/The Kitchenmaid

1. Chicken and crunchy noodle salad
This was our favourite fast dinner this summer. The noodles – I pretend to myself that they aren’t deep-fried – turn a salad and some protein into something exciting and fun. You can do it with any kind of protein you like – I do it most often with chicken thighs or pork schnitzel, but fish or even pan-fried tofu are good too.
To make this when you get home from work, marinate about 600g sliced chicken thighs in a splash of soy sauce, a spoonful of marmalade or apricot jam, a clove or two of smashed garlic and a teaspoon of sesame oil (if you are really organised you can do this before you go to work). Turn the oven on to 180C and line a small baking tray with foil, then baking paper. The foil keeps the tray clean (less washing-up) and the baking paper stops the chicken sticking to the foil. I favour using the oven, rather than the stove-top, because it offers more hands-free time. However, if your oven is slow to heat up, or you get home very late, then by all means shelve my oven-cooking instructions below for your own stovetop methods.
So – stick the chicken in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked. Meanwhile, assemble a collection of salad fixings (leaves, shredded seasonal vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, whatever) on a large platter. Toss through a little vinaigrette. When the chicken is cooked, scatter it on top, then sprinkle over the crunchy noodles. Serves four.

2. Rhi’s sausages: This is an idea that the lovely Rhi left in a comment once. Throw some roughly chopped good sausages, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, garlic, rosemary and onions into a roasting dish and drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 200C for 30 minutes, then toss in some chunks of oil-drizzled baguette and bake for another 10 minutes until the bread is golden and crusty. You can extend or shrink this to suit however many mouths you have to feed – though be warned, they will all eat more of it than you think.

3. Homemade fish and chips:  Turn the oven to 200C. Scrub some potatoes and cut into thin wedges. Put in a plastic bag with a couple of tablespoons of oil and smoosh about until the wedges are coated. Tip onto a lined baking tray, sprinkle over some salt and pepper. Bake for 35 minutes, shaking occasionally. Meanwhile, line a small baking tray with foil. Lay some fresh fish fillets on top, then drizzle over some olive oil, a bit of lemon juice and grind over some salt and pepper. Switch the oven to grill and put the fish in to cook for about five minutes (leave the potatoes in the bottom of the oven, they will be fine). Serve with steamed beans, cherry tomatoes and lots of lemon wedges.

4. Bacon and egg pie: This easy bacon and egg pie takes five minutes to make and – if you use really good bought pastry, like this one – it feels like a real treat. If you’re really lucky, there will be some leftover for lunchboxes the next day.

Fish And Flatbreads Or Wraps Photo Credit Lucy Corry

5. Fish ‘n flats: Not to be confused with style for harried mothers website Fox in Flats, fish ‘n flats is another insta-dinner. Grill or fry fish as above (I prefer oven grilling, as it saves on smell and washing a frying pan; my beloved says frying gives you more crunchy bits, which is also true). Serve with flatbreads (homemade or bought), hummus (ditto), crunchy salad stuff. In my experience small children will eat all sorts of things if they can wrap them up in a flatbread.

What do you eat on busy days?

Good things: February 2014

Ice creams. Fish and chips. Sand castles. Sand in everything. February has turned out to be the month that January should have been. And boy, am I glad about it.

Fish And Chips From The Waimarama Store, Hawkes Bay

Very early readers of this blog might recall the summer holiday we took three (THREE!) years ago. We had such rose-tinted memories of that stay (despite the fact that it rained a lot) that we went back for a few days at the beginning of the month.

Waimarama Beach Hawkes Bay

We shopped at New Zealand’s best Farmer’s Market, ate New Zealand’s best fish and chips, went for swims and made a lot of sandcastles. It was a proper, old-fashioned summer holiday.

Even better, my sister came to stay and brought with her a shiny new ice cream machine and a batch of this ice cream. I’ve thought about it often ever since.

Emma Galloway's Dairy Free Chocolate Ice Cream

Back home, we harvested our own tomatoes, which have thrived despite inclement weather and neglect. I listened to this completely charming interview with Wellington’s best French patissier and made a mental note to visit his little shop more often.

Homegrown Tomatoes

The pantry is in – and filled – but I’ve decided to wait for the big reveal until the painters have finished, because the rest of the kitchen is such a tip I can’t bear to show it. I’m sure you can wait a little longer.
In the meantime I have more cupboards to clean, more dust to vacuum, and an urgent appointment with a glass of wine in my garden while the cicadas chorus around me.

What have you been up to this month?

Spicy fish and soba noodles

On the rare occasions when the man of the house has a day off during the week, he takes himself out for lunch. This is just one of the ways in which we are very different, because I’d never, ever do that. Or maybe it’s because I never have the chance to lunch alone (cue violins and the Martyr Mother choir, please). Anyway, I do encourage him to do this because a) normally he eats two meals a day hunched over a keyboard, and b) he often comes home with good ideas. This lovely dish is vaguely inspired by something he ate a few weeks ago at one of his favourite lunch spots.

Spicy fish and soba noodles
We went through a big soba noodle phase a few years ago, then stopped when we got sick of picking them up off the floor. The Small Girl is a bit more adept now, so they’ve come back on the menu. This is a great family-friendly dish as you can omit the spicy sauce, or tone it down, for young eaters. Everything sort of happens at once, but stay focused and you’ll find this a very easy after-work dinner.

270g soba noodles
2 Tbsp sesame oil (for the noodles)
3 Tbsp oil (for frying the fish)
500-600g white fish fillets – gurnard, snapper, blue cod
greens – two to three handfuls of green beans and/or bok choy
6 spring onions, finely chopped
2 Tbsp dried shrimps, optional

For the sauce:

100ml lemon juice (use a bit of lime juice if you can find good limes)
100ml fish sauce
2Tbsp brown sugar
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
a good grating of fresh ginger – about a tablespoon or so

Put all the sauce ingredients in a jar and shake until well blended. Set aside.
Cook the soba noodles in boiling water according to packet directions (they cook in about three minutes). Throw the greens in for the last minute of cooking, then drain everything and toss through the sesame oil.
Cut the fish into manageable pieces. Heat a large cast iron frying pan over medium heat and add the oil, then add the fish and fry until it flakes when pressed with the point of a knife. Remove from the heat.
Divide the noodles and greens between four bowls, then top with the fish. Pour over the dressing, then garnish with the finely chopped spring onions and dried shrimps. Serves four.

Are you a lady – or gentleman – who lunches? Where do you like to go?

Smoked salmon and wasabi pate

The man of the house is currently brushing up on his French skills and this means getting me to help him with his homework. Once upon a time, this would have been easy, but the passing of time means my brain doesn’t operate in French as well as it used to (or, indeed, as I imagined it once did). I’ve been feeling quite depressed about this, but am consoling myself with the fact that my menu French is still better than his. And when I looked up the Larousse to get a proper dictionary definition of ‘pate’, I didn’t need another dictionary to explain the answer. So I can’t be too badly off, can I?

Smoked Salmon And Wasabi Dip

Smoked salmon and wasabi pate
For the record, Larousse defines ‘pate’ as ‘preparation de charcuterie de texture tres variable et composee de viandes et d’abats en morceaux ou en pate fine et de differents ingredients’ and you don’t need to know much French to figure out that there are (mercifully) no ‘viandes’ (or ‘abats’ – organs) in a smoked salmon version. But I had to call it something other than ‘a sort of spread-y thing you can have on toast or crackers or on little bits of cucumber like an 80s canape’, didn’t I?
This is inspired by something in Jamie Oliver’s book on British food – he makes something similar with smoked trout and horseradish and serves it with baby Yorkshire puddings. And cor blimey, guv’nor, it is bloomin’ lovely. Or c’est absolument delicieux, as our French friends would say.

150g cream cheese, softened
1/4 – 1 tsp wasabi paste
150g hot smoked salmon
finely grated zest of a lemon, plus its juice
a couple of teaspoons of finely chopped dill or mint

Put the cream cheese, lemon zest and 1/4 teaspoon of wasabi in a small bowl and beat with a fork until smooth. Taste it for hotness – the wasabi should be present, but not overpowering. Keep adding it until you think it’s about right. Flake in the hot smoked salmon and dill or mint. Fold it into the cream cheese, adding a little lemon juice if it seems a bit stiff. Taste again for seasoning – add some salt and freshly cracked black pepper until the balance is right. Scrape into a little bowl and cover, then store in the fridge. Makes enough for six people as a canape, with enough for one lucky person to have on toast the next morning.

Bonne semaine, tout le monde!

Calamari panzanella

One of the Small Girl’s favourite things is the Colossal Squid at Te Papa. Have you seen it? It’s the only colossal squid specimen on display in the world and once you’ve gazed at all 495kg of it in the tank you can watch the strangely compelling video footage of it being caught, then transferred to the museum. There’s a 3D movie as well, but I’ve never managed to watch it because “no Mummy, it’s too scary”. One day, I’m going to go to Te Papa by myself and watch the whole thing.

Anyway, we talk about colossal squids a lot at our place. A couple of weeks ago I bought some baby octopus to sizzle on the barbecue and watching them wriggle around on the hotplate was so disturbing that it nearly put me off eating them. Thankfully, scored squid tubes don’t look nearly as lively during the cooking process and they taste just as good.

Calamari Panzanella
Apart from being so good to eat, squid is incredibly cheap. Make sure the ones you are buying have come from waters close by – the frozen Chinese stuff for sale in most New Zealand supermarkets isn’t fit for bait.
This started out as a classic squid and chorizo salad but soon morphed into something else. It’s not really panzanella, but it’s not far off.

400g squid tubes
200g chorizo sausage, sliced into coins
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 red peppers, sliced
a punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved
lots of fresh parsley, finely chopped
4-5 slices of good, rustic bread (slightly stale is ok), cut into 2cm cubes
olive oil
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

Heat the oven to 200C. Toss the cubed bread with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and put in a roasting dish. Bake for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden. Set aside.
Rinse the squid tubes, then dry with kitchen paper and lie on a board. Cut each one open so it lies flat, then score carefully with a sharp knife in a criss-cross pattern. Cut into 2cm x 5cm strips, then put in a bowl with the soy sauce, garlic, 2 Tbsp of olive oil, and some salt and pepper. Set aside.
Toss the toasted bread, tomatoes, peppers and parsley together in a serving dish.
Heat the barbecue or a large frying pan and fry the chorizo for a few minutes, until it is crisp. Scatter over the tomatoes and bread. Fry the squid for about 2 minutes, over very high heat, until it is opaque and curled up. Toss it through the tomato, chorizo and bread, then drizzle over the red wine vinegar and a little olive oil.
Serves four as a main course.