On every show, Curtis Stone, host of TLC's Take Home Chef, surprises a grocery shopper and helps her prepare a fantastic spread for a guest. This time he changed the plan and brought two busy, cooking-averse women to an organic farm in upstate New York to show them that making healthy meals isn't hard. "Once you see how fast and flavorful cooking with fresh produce can be," he says, "you'll have a lot more confidence and enjoy being in the kitchen."
It's been 15 years since Jackie Feldman and Deb Baum met as college freshmen, and while they've stayed close, their lives have gone in different directions. Jackie, a New York City–based clinical psychologist, is single and just opened a new practice on Long Island; she divides her week between her two offices. Deb, who works as a university media relations specialist in Providence, Rhode Island, recently learned that she and her husband, Matt, are expecting their second child.
The one thing Deb and Jackie do have in common: Neither feels she has enough time to prepare healthy, energizing, nutrient-rich meals. As a result, both women resort to shortcuts. Put off by complicated recipes in cookbooks, Deb relies on prepackaged convenience items, like taco shells and cans of soup. "And there are plenty of nights when we just get Chinese or pizza because it's easier and faster," she says. Jackie doesn't even bother to cook; she eats out or microwaves whatever's in the freezer for dinner, even if it's a bag of peas. Both women say they're willing to tackle the challenges that prevent them from cooking more often. And that's where Curtis' strategies come in. He'll help them—and you—feel at home in the kitchen.
1. "I DON'T WANT TO FUSS AT THE STOVE"
"I need to make fast, simple meals that my whole family will eat," says Deb. According to Curtis, outdoors or in, grilling is the answer. "It's quick, and it brings out the flavor in foods," he says. Plus, you can adjust the amount of seasoning or sauce on each plate to make everyone happy. The perfect example is the Asian beef skewers with cilantro gremolata, right. Marinate the meat ahead of time and dinner can be on the table in 10 minutes. (And if your kids don't like spicy foods, serve theirs without the gremolata.) For a vegetarian option, Curtis suggests tossing veggies with olive oil and herbs and grilling them until tender. Mix them into pasta or serve them as a side dish.
2. "I RARELY SIT DOWN TO PLAN MY MEALS"
Some women create a master grocery list and stock up at the supermarket—but Deb isn't one of them. "I end up running to the store four times a week because I don't think about dinner until 4 p.m.," she says. "I never know what I want, so I grab something basic, like spaghetti and sauce, just to get out quickly."
"Frequent shopping trips aren't such a bad thing," says Curtis, but he does have a time-saving suggestion: "Do a big shop every other week for nonperishables, like whole grains, beans, and pasta, so you have the flexibility to create healthy meals," he says. That way you can do a 10-minute grocery run a few days a week to grab fresh produce and meat or fish—whatever looks appealing that day. "When you cook with foods at the peak of flavor, you can get away with using just three or four ingredients in a dish," he says. Case in point: At the farm, Curtis saw that beets were ready to be harvested, so he developed a simple impromptu dish. He sliced the beets into 1/2-inch pieces and tossed them with fresh thyme, garlic, and a little olive oil, then grilled them for 25 minutes, turning occasionally. Next, he brushed the beet greens with olive oil and put them on the grill for a minute or so, until just wilted. Once everything was done, he tossed the beets and greens with lettuce and crumbled blue cheese. "It can be a side dish or a starter" he says. "Add grilled chicken and it becomes the main course."
3. "PRODUCE GOES BAD BEFORE I HAVE THE CHANCE TO USE IT"
Both Deb and Jackie suffer from vegophobia, mostly because they hate to see things go to waste. "Fruits and vegetables die a slow death in my fridge," says Jackie. "To prevent that, I buy only what I know I'll eat, like apples, bagged salad, and veggies I can cut up and take to work with me." Deb also avoids experimenting with vegetables and herbs. "I don't try recipes that call for half a zucchini or a few basil leaves— what would I do with the leftovers?"
Curtis' fix: "Make two different dishes that build on the same fruit or vegetable; just vary the type of meat and seasonings. That way you'll use all the produce you buy." At the farm, he showed the women how easy it can be. He used cherry tomatoes and basil to make both pesto-glazed chicken breast and crispy-skin salmon salad. "In the chicken dish, you top the grilled meat with a pesto made by puréeing basil, a little Parmesan, roasted pine nuts, and garlic, then serve it with a side of roasted tomatoes," says Curtis. "For the salmon, you toss mixed greens and basil with fresh cherry tomatoes, dress the whole thing with vinaigrette, then top it with the grilled fish seasoned with lime juice."
4. "I'M NOT SURE HOW TO TELL WHAT'S REALLY FRESH"
Jackie says she sometimes feels overwhelmed when shopping in the produce aisle. And she rarely—if ever—stops at the meat or fish counter. "I've been eating canned and frozen meals for so long, I'm not sure I could pick out a ripe melon or a fresh piece of salmon if I tried," she says. The solution is simple: Ask the people who work at the market for their help. "Most of us don't realize that the clerks in the produce, meat, and fish departments have a lot of knowledge," says Curtis. They can tell you whether that avocado will ever ripen (put it in a paper bag with a banana for a day or two and it will become perfectly soft) or how to cook a lean cut of beef, like top round, so it stays tender and juicy. If there's a store you like in your area, try to shop there often so you can establish a relationship with one or two employees. "The idea is to utilize the clerks' experience to become a savvier shopper, so the next time, you'll feel confident enough to try something new," says Curtis. He also suggests tapping into the knowledge base at your local farmers' market. "The vendors there are so connected to the land and the food they're selling—it's their livelihood," says Curtis. "They can tell you exactly how to prepare something for the best flavor or what to do with an unusual vegetable."
5. "WHO WANTS TO COOK FOR ONE? I'D RATHER EAT OUT"
Curtis realizes it's unrealistic for someone like Jackie, who rarely gets home before 8 p.m., to prepare elaborate dishes—but she doesn't have to turn to frozen peas. Anyone can make a fast dinner from fresh ingredients. Research from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that people who make meals with "convenience items," like ground beef helpers and rice mixes, spend as much time in the kitchen as those who cook from scratch. Because Jackie doesn't have a grill, Curtis suggests another quick method: stir-frying. "Jackie already cuts up fresh veggies for snacks," he says. "She can toss them into a wok with a little sesame oil, add pre-cleaned shrimp, and finish with a little teriyaki sauce. There's dinner— in 15 minutes."