Cooking on the Clock: 5 tips for speeding up meal prep


When it comes to creating a savory, amazing meal on a weeknight, most people think you have to stay home from work to cook for a few hours, but it's more than possible to put together sumptuous dishes in the same amount of time it would take to heat up a frozen pizza. You just have to put the right strategies in place. Here are five tips on getting speedy without sacrificing taste:


1. Create a real pantry. Most of us don't do long-term menu planning, and that's fine, but being aware of what's available in your house and stocking your cupboards with go-to items can be a boon for quick meals. Think about dry goods that will serve you well and that will store for weeks, if not months: instant polenta, cous cous, dried fruits, nuts, spices, flavored oils, etc. I like jarred items like pesto, anchovy paste, and olives, that you can throw into a dish easily but don't need refrigeration until you open them.


2. Find recipes with minimal ingredients. Look through recipes with an eye toward finding ones with simple steps and fewer ingredients. The aim is to cut down on shopping trips for only one or two items, and to pick recipes that don't have elaborate steps like making a sauce that takes hours to prepare before you even begin the main dish. 


3. Skip the "Mise en Place." The traditional tactic in cooking is Mise en Place, a French phrase that means putting things in place — basically, getting all the ingredients cut and prepped before you begin. But that can take longer because you're doing everything ahead; instead, you can chop as other ingredients are browning, or you can measure something else as a pot comes to a boil. 


4. Chop, chop, chop. The smaller you chop your vegetables, the faster they'll cook. That's how I sauté a butternut squash and still get it to the table quickly. In the classes I teach, I continually tell people to cut smaller pieces, and then smaller pieces than that. You'll be surprised at how fast you can make items that traditionally take longer to cook, like squash or potatoes.


5. Think ahead for desserts. Many times, I make desserts (like the one featured below) for the next night. There are so many dessert options that are amazing, but need time to chill, so take advantage of that strategy by throwing them together after dinner, or when you have free moments during dinner prep, and then popping them into the fridge. 


This is one of my favorite desserts, which takes a surprisingly short amount of time to prepare, and can be chilled overnight for your dessert the next day:


Peppered Pears in Red Wine with Ginger Cream

Serves 4-8



4 medium pears (2 lbs) 

1 tsp vanilla 

1/3 cup sugar

1 tbsp black peppercorns 

5 whole cloves 

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick 

1 (750-milliliter) bottle dry red wine 


Ginger Whipped Cream

3/4 cups well-chilled heavy cream

1 1/2 tbsp confectioners' sugar, or to taste 

1/4 tsp ground ginger 

1/4 cup finely chopped candied ginger divided



Peel and core pears. Cut each pear in half lengthwise; set aside.


Scrape seeds from vanilla bean, and place seeds in a large nonaluminum skillet. Add sugar, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, and wine to skillet, and bring to a boil over medium heat. 


Arrange pears, cut sides down, in a single layer in skillet; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Turn pears over; cover and simmer an additional 10 minutes or until pears are tender. Remove pears with a slotted spoon. Place in a large shallow dish and set aside. 


Bring wine mixture to a boil; cook 20 minutes or until reduced to 3/4 cup. Strain wine mixture through a sieve into the dish of pears; discard spices. Cover and chill 8 hours, turning pears occasionally. Remove pears with a slotted spoon, reserving wine mixture.


In a bowl with an electric mixer beat the cream until it just holds soft peaks, add the sugar and the ground ginger, and beat the mixture until it holds stiff peaks. Fold in 1/8 cup candied ginger, transfer the whipped cream to a serving bowl. 


Arrange 1-2 pears halves on each of 4-8 dessert plates. Drizzle 3 tbsp wine mixture over each serving and top pears with gingered whipped cream and garnish it with the remaining candied ginger.


Looking for more fresh insight from Suzanne? Join her this Saturday, Oct. 18th at Cooks of Crocus Hill in Stillwater as she leads an afternoon class on speedy fall dishes. The menu includes pan-roasted duck breast and the pear recipe featured above. Sign up here.