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10 Tips to Throw Dinner Together Like a Pro

06/03/2015 08:32 EDT | Updated 06/03/2016 05:59 EDT
Chris Gramly

Last week a client came over for dinner with her family. She is a law firm partner, a graduate student, a mother and totally clueless in the kitchen. This post is for her and for those of you who also want some kitchen literacy, if only to be able to use it in a pinch. I promise this is all easier than you think, takes less time, and like everything else from Curated Wellness, is cherry-picked to give you maximum impact with minimal effort.

The day of the dinner had been a hectic one for us, topped off with a teething toddler who didn't sleep much during the previous night. Work was busy, the house was a mess and I didn't think twice about putting a gorgeous dinner on the table in under 30 minutes. I'm not Martha Stewart, but I know how to make dining a nearly effortless pleasure. In about five minutes from now, you will too.

There are no recipes here but my top 10 tips for being able to make a healthy beautiful meal easily and without going for a big shop, because who needs to add that to a busy day...

  1. Fresh herbs. Always buy them, or plant them in your garden if you have one. Anything except rosemary is easy to add to most dishes. Rosemary can taste like spicy twigs, so unless you have a specific plan for them, chose something else. With a little salt and olive oil, you can add instant flavor, colour and phytonutrients to anything from plain pasta to a sprinkling over any dish. You don't have to fuss about which one -- tarragon, basil, mint, chives -- no idea which they are when you see them? Assume that the trend of combining unusual flavors applies in your home as it does in a fine restaurant and go to town. Instant upgrade.
  2. Fish filets. You can choose whatever kind of fish you like, but high quality organic salmon and rainbow trout freeze well because of their high fat content and cook under the broiler in less than eight minutes (once thawed). An easy sprinkling of herbs mixed with butter or oil and salt and you have a restaurant quality dish in under 10 minutes. Add pressed garlic and you're in the Mediterranean.
  3. Condiments. Pick them wisely and use them freely. I always have three key condiments in the fridge that make everything tastier. A good pesto or tapenade, like the ones from Sunflower Kitchen in Toronto. Put this on fish or pasta and it looks like you can cook. A good mustard, like the ones from Kozlik's. Spread this on meat or fish with some fresh dill or other unidentifiable herb, or mix it with olive oil and balsamic for an easy delicious homemade dressing. I always have a wild card preserved food on hand -- preserved lemons or caper berries are current favorites. They keep forever in the fridge and can be added to cooked grains, salads, or even an appetizer plate (imagine if you had time to make an appetizer plate...).
  4. Pre-cut veggies. We live in a time and place where beautiful organic produce is available washed and prepped for you. No need to let that squash sit on the counter until it's time to throw it out! Have whatever veggies you like on hand in the fridge and freezer so you can grab them and steam them or roast them with any of the above for instant plant-based perfection.
  5. The oven! I have a secret. You don't have to cook anything; the oven does it for you. You just need a wee bit of planning because it takes some time. Fish takes under 10 minutes, root veggies take about an hour and all other veggies are ready for you in 30 minutes. Add five more minutes to preheat the oven, and always make the oven thing the first thing you start when making a meal. This means that if you're making a meal with roasted root veggies, you can put them in the oven, make a salad in about five minutes, prepare fish to broil in another five and have 40 minutes to do something else while your "assistant" makes the rest of dinner.
  6. Salad. I'm a staunch salad liberal, a wild woman, really. You can put anything on salad and it can be your main course or a great way to fill up half of a plate. As a basic, always have greens you like that you don't have to do anything to -- no cutting, no washing -- on your shopping list. Then see above -- add herbs, your wild card preserved food and one other fresh fruit or vegetable or cheese. You are now a gourmet salad maven.
  7. Home-made dressing. Bottled dressing is full of preservatives and tastes like it. It is the one condiment that is out of bounds. For a versatile basic dressing, mix equal parts olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a spoonful of honey and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Shake it up in a little jar and keep it in the fridge for up to two weeks. It makes your roasted veggies, salads and even cooked grains into "dishes."
  8. One exotic seasoning. Eating should be a pleasure. Trying one new spice from time to time keeps your meals creative and, if you're a foodie (in which case you're likely not reading this anymore) -- exciting. I love Middle Eastern food and currently have sumac and zatar in the cupboard. They go on salads, grains, meat and cooked vegetables. You can sprinkle some on store bought hummus and transform it into a different, and much better, snack. They are readily available in the "ethnic" aisle of many mainstream grocery stores.
  9. Nice olive oil and salt. You don't need to break the bank, but having good quality extra virgin olive oil and sea salt or Himalayan salt adds wonderful depth and flavor (and some great fats) to everything.
  10. The found object meal. This is better than it sounds. This is what happens when there is "nothing to eat" in your fridge or cupboards -- that grain you have never tried cooking, half a block of feta, an endive, a can of beans. If you have those herbs, condiments and olive oil listed above -- you have potential. Before opting for toast or take-out, consider yourself on a private episode of Top Chef and put the unexpected together. Some of our favorite staples have been born this way. As with everything, confidence will take you a very long way.

You've got this. Bon appetit!

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