After all the festivities of the Festival of Freedom, for many people it’s liberating to be able to spend less time in the kitchen.

Even for a simple meal, there are shortcuts that make preparation easier.

One of our favorites is to make use of good-quality pantry ingredients. If you have a jar of a sauce or flavoring paste that you like, use it to flavor cooked foods instead of opening several spice jars and chopping and sautéing onions and garlic. We keep jars of curry paste and pesto on hand to add zip to simply cooked vegetables, main-course soups and rice and pasta dishes.

Many people say that it’s hard to fit vegetables into a busy schedule, but Nava Atlas, author of Wild about Greens, shows how easy it can be. Her colorful spring greens sauté with carrots, mint and chives is ready in minutes.

She sautés quartered baby carrots and garlic in extra virgin olive oil, adds baby spinach and arugula leaves and cooks them only until the greens are wilted, about two or three minutes.

Packaged, cut, ready-to-eat fresh vegetables like spinach and shredded cabbage make it possible to add vegetables to meals when you don’t have the time or the inclination to wash and cut vegetables.

Canned ingredients can also be useful additions to all sorts of dishes.

We especially like canned beans, corn and tomatoes, and oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in jars. Paula Hamilton, author of The 5 in 10 Cookbook: 5 Ingredients in 10 Minutes or Less, recommends roasted, peeled sweet red peppers, marinara (tomato) sauce and, for quick appetizers and pasta sauces, canned sardines.

To shorten cooking times, Hamilton advocates using the microwave: “Using it as a tool, in tandem with other appliances, to heat vegetables and to melt butter and chocolate saves precious time.”

We also use the microwave to quickly cook whole potatoes and sweet potatoes and to “sauté” shredded cabbage and chopped onion by microwaving them with a little oil.

THE FOOD processor is another great time-saver. To make cold cucumber and walnut soup, Greg Patent, author of Food Processor Cooking Quick and Easy, does not need a knife at all. He uses the food processor to chop garlic and parsley, shred walnuts, slice cucumbers and tomatoes, and blend yogurt with olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper; then all that’s needed is to mix the ingredients together.

For his flavorful, satisfying Venetian soup, no board chopping is needed, either; the Parmesan cheese, parsley and onion are chopped in the processor. Patent cooks the onion lightly in butter, adds rice and after stirring it briefly with the onion, cooks it with stock, parsley, salt, pepper and fresh or frozen peas. Just before serving the soup, he stirs in the Parmesan.

Obviously, choosing recipes with a short list of ingredients makes cooking simpler. Hamilton prepares hearty Italian winter soup by cooking macaroni in beef broth and combining it with sautéed ground beef, chunky spaghetti sauce and canned red beans – some added whole, and some pureed with their liquid to thicken the soup. Her minute minestrone is even easier. She cooks macaroni in broth, adds packaged spinach, canned white beans and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, and serves the soup with grated Parmesan.

With a few flavorings, you can have a savory entree ready in a flash. Hamilton’s colorful chicken breasts picante calls for sautéing boneless chicken breasts in oil, and making a quick pan sauce by adding dry white wine, capers and strips of roasted red peppers from a jar. Her Caribbean chicken curry is made of boneless chicken cubes sautéed in oil with curry powder, then cooked briefly with coconut milk and seasoned with salt and lime juice.

For a quick vegetarian main course, Atlas makes southwestern-style greens with beans. She adds briefly steamed spinach and canned beans to a pan of sautéed garlic, hot peppers and green onions. All that’s needed to complete the flavorful dish is cumin, salt and freshly ground pepper (see recipe).

Faye Levy is the author of
30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes.

SOUTHWESTERN-STYLE GREENS WITH PINTO BEANS

This recipe is from Wild about Greens. Author Nava Atlas writes: “This simple, traditional preparation of pinto beans originally called for any wild greens that grew locally. Contemporary recipes for this combo call for spinach or chard instead. The dark greens in this dish look very appealing, mixed with the pink beans, and the more garlicky you make them the better.”

Atlas uses pinto beans, but you can use white, red, pink, brown or any beans you like. Make this with spinach or chard, whichever is convenient. If using packaged, cleaned spinach leaves to save time, you can use 350 grams (3⁄4 pound).

Makes 4 to 6 servings
450 gr. (1 lb.) spinach or chard
11⁄2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 to 2 small fresh hot chili peppers, minced (optional)
3 green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
2 cups cooked or a 400- to 450-gr. (15- to 16-oz.) can beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp. ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Stem and wash the greens and coarsely chop the leaves. If you’re using chard, trim away the thicker midribs from the leaves and thinly slice them. Steam the greens with a very small amount of water in a large, tightly covered soup pot until they’re wilted. The spinach will be done as soon as it wilts, but the chard needs to steam a bit longer; you’ll know it’s done when the leaves turn a deep green.

Drain the greens and finely chop them.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic and sauté over low heat until it just begins to turn golden. Add the green onions and sauté until they soften just a bit. Stir in the greens, beans and seasonings. Cook the mixture, covered, over low heat for 5 minutes, or just until everything is heated through.

PENNE WITH PEAS AND PARMESAN

For this dish, from Sensational Pasta by Faye Levy, the cooked peas and the penne, or diagonal-cut macaroni, are spooned onto a platter, sprinkled with cheese and doused with hot butter, which melts the cheese. We like penne with peas as a lunch or supper main course, accompanied by a tomato salad. For a quick and easy dish, use frozen peas. When fresh peas are available, this is a good way to enjoy them.

Makes 4 to 6 first-course or 3 main-course servings
900 gr. (2 lbs.) fresh peas, shelled, or 2 cups frozen
225 gr. (8 oz.) penne or mostaccioli (diagonal-cut macaroni) (about 2 3⁄4 cups)
6 Tbsp. butter
2 medium shallots or green onions, minced
11⁄2 tsp. chopped fresh marjoram or thyme leaves or 1⁄2 tsp. dried
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 70 gr. or 21⁄4 oz.)

Add peas to a saucepan of enough boiling salted water to cover them and cook uncovered over high heat about 5 minutes for fresh peas or 2 minutes for frozen, or until just tender but still bright green. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well.

Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well.

Meanwhile, melt 2 Tbsp. butter in the saucepan used to cook the peas over low heat. Add shallots and cook 2 minutes, stirring, until softened but not brown. Add peas, marjoram or thyme, salt and pepper and heat gently for 1 minute. Melt remaining 4 Tbsp. butter in a small saucepan.

Transfer pasta to a large heated bowl, add pea mixture and toss well. Transfer to a large heated platter. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Heat melted butter over medium heat until sizzling and pour evenly over the pasta mixture. Serve immediately.

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