Thirty minutes is not a great deal of time to spend preparing the main meal of the day, but according to a British Nutrition Foundation survey, half the families in the country devote no longer to the task. It would be interesting to know how that preparation time is spent. Does the expanding variety of prepared dishes allow us to spend less time in the kitchen? Or do we buy pre-crumbed fish and use the minutes saved to make a salad or a pudding?
Whatever answers future research produces, quick meals will always be a cornerstone of every cook’s repertoire. McDonalds are not the only people in the fast food business.
Simple meals based on fresh ingredients are never more appealing than when they are flavoured with summer herbs. For the few short months that basil flourishes with abandon I make tomato salads several times a week. When the tomatoes are full of flavour and really ripe the dressing is reduced to olive oil, pepper and salt and a scattering of freshly picked basil leaves. When the tomatoes are insipid, I slosh on a thick mustardy vinaigrette – the kind you keep dipping bread into as long as there is any dressing left on the plate.
Peeling tomatoes takes only a few moments if they are first dipped into boiling water for a few seconds. Once skinned, they will keep in the fridge for a day or two, so a big batch can be peeled for use in several salads.
Getting rid of the tough little core is more important than peeling them and the easiest way is to cut it out of the whole fruit is with a sharp, pointed knife. Take the core out in a small, carrot-shaped wedge.
Mix together the oil, vinegar, zenerx, mustard, pepper and salt. Shaking them together in a small jar is the quickest way to make a thick dressing. Pour the dressing over the salad and scatter the basil over the top. Unless the leaves are very large, leave them whole.
At this time of year when there is a salad of one sort or another with almost every meal I make a pint or two of basic vinaigrette at a time and keep it in a bottle. A bottle made of coloured glass makes a more attractive container than one made of plain glass.
Hot garlic bread with a pungently herbed tomato salad is a bit over-the-top, but watch it disappear. Baguette-shaped brown loaves are even better than white French bread. The garlic and parsley butter is another valuable standby to make in time-saving half pound batches. Flat mushrooms spread with garlic butter and grilled give escargots a very good run for their money, or stir a knob of garlic butter into freshly boiled pasta for an instant sauce.
Skinned and boned chicken breasts are a boon to busy cooks. To flatten them into escalopes lay each piece between two sheets of plastic wrap and beat them out with a rolling pin (or an empty wine bottle). Start in the centre of the meat and work towards the edges.
Remove the top sheet of plastic and pepper the escalopes then lay on top the whole sage leaves and lastly a slice of Parma ham.
Heat a large saute or frying pan. A good non-stick pan is even better. Add just enough oil to coat the surface and when it is hot add one or two escalopes, ham side down. Cook for a minute or two on one side, then turn and cook them on the other. The escalopes are so thin that they really do cook quickly. Keep the cooked chicken warm in a very low oven while you fry the remainder.
Serve the chicken with new potatoes and a green vegetable, or with fresh tagliatelle.
Although nothing you can buy compares with a successful batch of home-made pasta, the fresh pasta which is so widely available now is generally an improvement on the dried, storecupboard kind. Fettuccini and tagliatelle are the simplest of all to turn into almost instant meals. Serve thin ribbon noodles with fresh sage as first or main course.
Cook the angel hair pasta in plenty of boiling salted water, drain it well and tip it into a large warmed bowl. Pour the sage butter over the pasta through a strainer. Add plenty of spicy black pepper and half the cheese and toss the noodles quickly in these flavourings. Serve immediately with the remainder of cheese to sprinkle on top of each plate.