Quick Weeknight Dinners with 3 Make-Ahead Food Parts

31 Aug

Weekdays are busy times for many of us who come back from work late evening and then fix a meal. We want weeknight dinners to be easy to put together, taking little time to move from kitchen to plate. [Not counting the blessed few like Rohit’s boss with the gusto to whip up a fancy meal at that hour]

One could cook loads on Sunday and freeze for the week. But that’s not so exciting, is it? So how does one reach that elusive balance between easy+quick (pre-cooked) and tasty+interesting (freshly cooked)?

Here’s a middle ground.

Make-ahead food parts. Mix and match. Embellish.

Use the Pareto Principle to your advantage: identify the steps in cooking that consume a majority time and labor, and do them beforehand. The chopping of greens. The slow-frying of spices. The boiling of dal. When the time comes to make your weeknight dinner, all that remains to be done is the remaining 20% of cooking that produces 80% of the result.

This post demonstrates three very useful and versatile food parts that you can make ahead and deploy in different weeknight dinner recipes. 

Quick Weeknight Dinners with 3 Make-Ahead Food Parts

Exhibit 1: Boiled Moong Dal

Washing, soaking, and boiling dal takes a lot longer than tempering it. So we pre-boil dal, refrigerate, and take it out in batches to dress and serve at mealtimes.

You Need:

(scale up or down proportionately)

  • Moong dal – 2 cups
  • Water – 3 cups
  • Turmeric powder – a pinch
How To Cook:

Dry roast moong dal. After it cools to room temperature, wash and pressure cook with a pinch of turmeric and three cups of water. Cook for one whistle on high heat, then 1-2 whistles on low heat (depending on how soft you want the dal). Take the cooker off the heat and let the pressure release naturally.

Once the dal is cool, transfer to airtight storage containers and refrigerate.

How To Use:
  • Combine it with vegetables: say, in recipes like ridge gourd moong dal or spinach moong dal.

  • Use it to make fortified chapatis or parathas: Knead atta using boiled moong dal instead of water.

  • Churn and thin it to make a base for rasam or osaman.

  • Heat cooked moong dal with a pinch of salt, add a blob of ghee and serve as a side dish with any Indian meal.

Notes On Boiled Moong Dal:

You could refrigerate other dals like masoor dal (red lentils) in the same way, but I’ve found moong to be the most malleable of dals for a range of recipes. 

Exhibit 2: Tomato Masala

Stop buying those exorbitant packaged preservative-laden curry pastes from the store. Make-ahead your own tomato curry paste when you have time, use it in comfort later when you don’t.

You Need:

(scale up or down proportionately)

  • Tomatoes – 4
  • Onion – 1 (optional)
  • Pepper corns – 10
  • Red chili flakes – 1/2 teaspoon
  • Salt – to taste
  • Coriander powder – 1 teaspoon
  • Cumin powder – 1 teaspoon
  • Turmeric powder – a pinch
  • Oil or ghee – 2 teaspoons

Tomato Masala Ingredients

How To Cook:

Puree the tomatoes. Chop the onions finely.

Tomato Masala, Cooking Heat oil or ghee in a (preferably non-stick) pan. Add onions (if using) and fry till translucent. Add tomato puree, crushed peppercorns, red chili flakes, turmeric, coriander, cumin powders, and salt. Cook on high heat, stirring regularly till the tomato puree bubbles. Reduce heat to low, and let it simmer till the masala thickens. Stir occasionally to ensure that it cooks evenly and does not char at the base.

After a good 30-40 mins, the tomato masala would have reached a spread-like consistency. Take it off the heat, let cool. Place in airtight storage containers and refrigerate.

Tomato Masala

How To Use:
  • Make tomato toor dal: Bring cooked toor dal to a rolling boil, stir in some tomato masala. Top with tadka and serve.

  • Use it as a base for vegetable curries, such as paneer capsicum curry.

  • Thin the tomato masala and boil. Garnish with finely chopped coriander leaves, and serve as tomato shorba.

Notes On Tomato Masala:

As I often cook without onion, I do not usually add onions to make-ahead tomato masala. I also find that, without onions, the masala stays good longer. Onions can go in at the time of cooking if you want – to some hot oil in a pan, add chopped/ground onions, fry till golden and follow with pre-cooked tomato masala.

Plan ahead a few recipes that you’ll cook with the tomato masala. Tweak the ingredients so that they’re compatible with the planned recipes.

So if you are planning to make Bihar-style curries, you could use mustard oil as the base for tomato masala. With vegetables like bell peppers or mushrooms, butter would be a good substitute for oil. If channa masala or koftas are on your week’s menu, think of adding ground ginger-garlic too in the tomato paste.

Coming soon on the blog: Recipe for capsicum and cherry tomato curry using tomato masala. 

Exhibit 3: Boiled Spinach

Vegetable vendors in my neighborhood sell fresh spinach with mud-caked roots. I love spinach, but the effort of picking and cleaning at night is a deterrent for weekday cooking. Besides, buying spinach during the week is difficult as vendors shut shop by the time I leave office. Try storing fresh spinach leaves in the fridge, and they start to shrivel and turn yellow in 2-3 days.

Many problems, one solution: boiled spinach. Buy fresh spinach, cook and store, use through the week.

You Need:
  • Spinach – large bunch
  • Asafoetida – a pinch (optional)
  • Salt – a pinch
  • Water – 2 cups
How To Cook:

De-stem and wash the spinach leaves thoroughly. Chop into small pieces.

Place water in a large pan. Add a pinch of salt and asafoetida, and bring to a rolling boil. Add chopped spinach to the water and continue to boil on medium heat.

Spinach, Boiling

When the spinach leaves are soft enough to your liking (7-8 minutes, give or take some), take the pan off the heat.

boiled-spinach-waterStrain to separate out the water from the boiled spinach leaves. Do not throw away the water – it contains plenty of nutrients. Use this water in curries, to knead chapati atta. Better still, pour the water straight from the pan into a cup, add pepper and drink it steaming – clear spinach soup.

How To Use:
  • Combine boiled spinach leaves with moong dal for a healthy meal accompaniment.

  • Grind and use in palak paneer.

  • Grind and put together a green pasta sauce. (skip asafoetida for this one)

  • Serve as plain palak saag, with tempering if you like: heat a teaspoon of oil, fry in it mustard seeds and torn dry red chilies for a few seconds. Pour over microwaved boiled spinach.

  • Make palak parathas.

  • Serve with corn and cheese.

  • Make a variant of spinach raita.

Spinach Raita Dip

Notes On Boiled Spinach:

Draining the spinach of water helps it stay good longer.

One could freeze instead of refrigerate, I guess. For some reason, freezing isn’t as popular in India as overseas. Is it because of frequent power cuts, which make freezing not so reliable? Maybe. I don’t have much reason for it except habit. Feel free to try freezing if that’s your thing, tell me how it worked out.

In Closing

I’ve shared my ways of using three make-ahead food parts for quick weeknight dinners: boiled moong dal, tomato masala and boiled spinach. What do you do for express cooking?

Finally, a picture of spinach tomato moong dal, made by microwaving portions of all the three food parts: boiled moong dal, tomato masala and boiled spinach.

Moong Dal Palak Tamatar

2 Responses to “Quick Weeknight Dinners with 3 Make-Ahead Food Parts”

  1. Howie Fox April 19, 2015 at 1:49 PM #

    Oh wow, I’d love to make my own masala! Looks doable as well. Do you think store bought curry pastes are unhealthy? I always wondered why they never go bad, but I found it quite convenient ;-)

    • S April 19, 2015 at 4:19 PM #

      Hi Howie,

      I’m wary of food that *should* go bad but doesn’t for months in its packaged avatar. That includes stuff like readymade fruit juice, microwavable packaged food – and store-bought curry pastes! It’s actually simple to make your own, and you have more control when you do as you can create different flavors. I buy dry masalas (turmeric powder etc.) from the store, but never wet curry paste.

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