I love the long, arduous process of making things from scratch – bread, pasta, you name it, but it needs to be the right time and working from home during lockdown ain't it. Now is the time to take shortcuts, cheat a little and minimise the number of times we risk exposure at the supermarket. Stocking up on these easy "cheat" products during your next unavoidable supermarket stop will make dinner time faster and lot less stressful.
Even with a rice cooker, waiting for your rice to be done takes time, which most of us really don't have during lockdown. Enter one of the best kitchen short cuts around, the pre-cooked 90-second rice pouch. Uncle Ben's and Sun Rice offer a range of rice types in their speedy products and there are also pre-flavoured options to make life even easier. In addition to being quick the pouch also means one less pot (or rice cooker) to wash afterwards as you cook them in their own pouch. In addition to using them to accompany a curry or stir fry, I love to make a blink-and-you'll-miss-it fried rice with a plain basmatic pouch, simply adding egg, frozen mixed vege, soy and sesame oil. Dinner in a flash, no shopping required.
Even the most pedestrian piece of protein can be brought to life with the right marinade. A go-to in our house is chicken legs baked with a store-bought marinade. You can use any cut of meat you like, not to mention tofu. Some really good marinades to try include the Nandos Peri Peri which is wonderful on chicken or Masterfoods Soy, Honey & Garlic which is great with tofu, chicken or pork. Simply pour over the marinade and bake in the oven – ideal for chicken legs or wings – or if you are doing tofu or a pork fillet, apply the marinade the night before and refrigerate.
Steam fresh vegetables
There are many great things about having frozen vegetables on hand. The first is that they don't wilt or rot and the second is that they hold just as much nutritional value as their fresh counterparts. Wattie's SteamFresh vegetables pouches are ideal as they come in tasty combinations, in just the right portion size and they steam in the microwave in three minutes. Some also come with sauces or carbs like rice, couscous or quinoa. A great one to have stashed in the freezer is the Wattie's Steamfresh Potatoes with Broccoli and Carrots: a winning combination that goes with everything.
Jar pasta sauces
I have traditionally avoided pre-made pasta sauces as I found them equal parts too sweet and rather bland (how they achieve both I don't know), but a recent mission to find good ones led to some tasty finds. The great thing about tomato-based pasta sauces is you can use them as a base for all sorts of things, not just pasta. Try pouring a jar over browned chicken breast and bake for a quick chicken dinner or add to the slow cooker with chuck steak and root vegetables for an easy casserole. My picks for great flavour are the Chantal Organics Organic Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce, Mutti Parmigiano Reggiano Pasta Sauce, or Barilla Arrabbiata Pasta Sauce.
Jar curry sauces
Once again, the gauntlet of ready-made curry sauces is one littered with overly sweet and bland disappointment. Recently the team at Barkers took things up a notch in this area. Known for excellent cordials, chutneys and jams the new Barker's family meal sauce range is of equally high standard and comes in a diverse range of flavours. Available at most supermarkets, there are some great options to try, including coconut curry, spinach saagwala, green curry and butter chicken. The sauces are ready to go, all you need to do is add your choice of vegetables and protein.
Producing depth of flavour in meals takes time, which is not something many of us have in abundance at the moment, so flavour bases should be your best friend. You can get everything from taco seasoning to chilli con carne, but two that I rate very highly are the Maggi Beef Stroganoff recipe base which is equally delightful as a vegetarian option with just mushrooms and the old-school favourite - curried sausages - which are great served with rice or mash.
Pasta and sauce packet mixes
I have loved the Continental pasta and sauce packet mixes since I was a kid, they were my go-to after a busy day at school. If I am being honest, I still love them and often have them in the back of the pantry in case hunger hits at home. My kids also love these, especially the macaroni cheese flavour and, by adding frozen vegetables at the end I feel like an okay mum serving this up to my little guys. The great thing about these is they last for ages, take very little time to cook and you only need milk and butter to make it happen. These also work well as a side to your protein of choice at dinner time. Everyone has their own tastes but in my house we love the macaroni cheese and the four cheese flavours.
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I have made falafel from scratch on a few occasions and, man, is it a lot of work. That's why I was so excited to find Danny's Falafel in the frozen section of the supermarket. You can bake it in the oven for ten minutes or even microwave it and get great results. Simply heat up three or four falafel and wrap them in pita bread with hummus, tomato and lettuce for a great lunch or light dinner that takes minutes.
Frozen mashed potato
Whip up a cottage pie or fish pie without the hassle of actually having to mash potato. A family member recently put me on to the goodness that is Pam's frozen herb mashed potato. Available in one kilogram bags from New World and Pak'nSave supermarkets, it is surprisingly tasty. Simply defrost the mash and serve on the side of your sausages, smothered in gravy, or layer it atop a pie, with a smattering of cheese, then bake. No mess, no fuss.
In our house meatballs are always a hit but, man, do they take a while. You have to mix, roll and pan fry them before you even get to the sauce part. With the state of play at the moment I just don't have the energy, do you? If you can get your hands on them, Angel Bay does wonderful frozen beef meatballs (I have found them at Gilmours) and Hellers now have meatballs in sauce available from the meat department. Simply heat and eat.
With no take-away to be had we all need to get creative when it comes to dinner. I have tried every store-bought pizza base known to man and my pick are Romano's Italian Pizza Bases Honey & Olive Oil. They have great density, with the right amount of chewiness, they also freeze well so it is worth stocking up and then simply defrosting them when you have a hankering for pizza and no one is around to deliver it to you.