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Convenience food with a fresh twist


Lately, my life feels as if the squeeze is on and I'm the orange. No matter how I plan, no matter how early I rise, there is not enough time to raise my son, keep my house clean, work a full-time job and have a good time. This is not even factoring in the strange recurrence of an additional task called dinner, which seems to arrive at our house each night -- invited or not. It's because time is spare that I've begun experimenting with shortcuts.

And when it comes to dinner, some of those shortcuts have been inspired by cans with attractive labels and cute little boxes with sometimes hefty price tags. But to those who would criticize me for my current fascination with convenience products, I say, "Get real!" Sometimes dinner is an assembly process -- and I'm the factory worker.

I still have respectable standards, however. The trick is to search out products that save time without being insanely expensive, contrived or unhealthy. Yes, we can all heat a frozen pizza in the oven. But my quest is to find recipes that begin with commercially prepared foods or mixes and blend them with other, often fresh ingredients to make meals that are interesting and good.

Another advantage to weaving convenience products into meals is that many of these items store well, since they're canned, packaged or frozen. Therefore, they can be bought on sale or with discount coupons when good prices are offered. In addition, having them around offers flexibility on nights when I'm too late to shop, too broke for carryout and too tired to care much what's on the table.

Here are a few recipes and menu ideas that add up to a week's worth of reasonable dinners (and one brunch) at assembly-line speed.


Sunday brunch with friends -- scrambled or fried eggs served in a commercially made tostada shell with nonfat refried beans, guacamole and orange salsa. For this I buy commercially made beans, guacamole and salsa, into which I grate a little bit of orange peel.

Sunday night dinner -- grilled orange chicken served with brown and wild rice with stir-fried almonds and a citrus salad. I place the chicken in the marinade first thing Sunday morning, and it's ready to grill by evening.

Grilled orange chicken

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 (12-ounce) can orange juice concentrate, defrosted

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup oil

8 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

Combine orange juice concentrate, cinnamon, cloves and oil in nonreactive dish. Add chicken and turn to coat all sides. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight, turning chicken occasionally.

Remove chicken from marinade. Grill over hot coals until cooked through but not dry, 5 to 8 minutes (time depends on intensity of heat).

Note: Leftovers can be used to make Southwestern salad on Wednesday.


Pizza with goat cheese and peppers, tossed greens, raspberry ice for dessert. Do any slicing and chopping before work in the morning and toss together in minutes at night.

Pizza with goat cheese and peppers

Makes 3 to 4 servings

1 (12- to 14-inch) baked pizza crust or Boboli bread

5 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese

1 1/2 cups sliced frozen or fresh sweet red, green and yellow peppers

1 cup crumbled mild goat cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano and/or parsley)

freshly ground pepper

Top pizza crust with mozzarella cheese, sliced peppers and goat cheese. Sprinkle with herbs and lots of freshly ground pepper. Bake at 400 degrees until mozzarella is melted and goat cheese is heated through, about 10 minutes.


Stir-fried beef and vegetables with white rice, cappuccino pudding for dessert. I use fresh and canned chopped Asian vegetables along with beef that has been sliced by the supermarket for stir-frying.

Cappuccino pudding

Makes 4 servings

1 (3.4-ounce) package (cook and serve) chocolate pudding

2 cups milk

4 teaspoons decaffeinated instant coffee crystals or powder

2 ounces milk chocolate, chopped

whipped cream

ground cinnamon

Combine pudding mix, milk and instant coffee crystals in nonstick pan. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until pudding thickens (following package directions).

Allow to cool 1 to 2 minutes until steam no longer rises when pudding is stirred. Fold in chocolate. Pour into 4 serving dishes. Cover and chill. Serve topped with whipped cream and sprinkling of cinnamon.


Southwestern salad can be served with good bread and cold iced tea for a satisfying meal. The salad can be assembled in minutes.

If you're using the croutons, bake them in the morning before going to work.

Southwestern salad

Makes 4 servings

1 cup warmed red beans

1 cup mild or medium hot salsa

1 cup cooked corn kernels

1 (1 1/2 -ounce) can sliced black olives

1 cup shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

6 cups mixed greens

leftover grilled orange chicken, sliced, or 4 slices cooked bacon

1 cup whole wheat pita or regular croutons (see note), optional

freshly ground pepper

nonfat blue cheese dressing

In flat pasta bowl, layer beans, salsa, corn, olives, cheese, greens, chicken and croutons. Sprinkle with pepper. Serve with dressing on side. Note: To make pita croutons, cut leftover pita bread into 2-inch triangles. Bake at 250 degrees, stirring frequently, until croutons are lightly toasted, about 10 minutes. Watch carefully or croutons may burn.


Halibut in tomato-basil sauce, tiny red potatoes (boiled or microwaved), steamed broccoli. I make this sauce before work. It improves by refrigerating all day.

Halibut in tomato-basil sauce

Makes 3 to 4 servings

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 (14 1/2 -ounce) can chunky tomatoes (I like Del Monte pasta-style)

salt, freshly ground pepper

1 pound grilled, sauteed or baked halibut or other mild white fish fillets (see note)

Heat oil in skillet. Add garlic and saute until softened. Add basil, tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste and heat through. Add fish and simmer a few minutes, until fish is heated through.

Note: Instead of halibut, you can substitute 12 ounces bow tie pasta, cooked al dente, or 1 pound steamed green beans.


Curried corn soup with good crusty bread. This takes only a few minutes to assemble, which is about all the energy I have on a Friday night.

Curried corn soup

Makes 3 to 4 servings

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 (15-ounce) can cream-style corn

1 cup frozen corn kernels

1 cup nonfat milk

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Melt butter in skillet, add curry powder and saute, stirring, 1 minute. Add cream-style corn, corn kernels and milk, and cook, stirring, until heated through. Just before serving, stir in cheese and cook about 30 seconds until cheese is melted.


Black bean and salsa lasagna with mixed greens and fresh fruit and granola cobbler for dessert. The lasagna takes only 15 minutes to assemble, since there is no advance sauteing and noodles are not precooked.

Black bean and salsa lasagna

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 (14-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes with juice

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 tablespoon dried oregano

lots of freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon salt

olive oil

11 lasagna noodles (about 9 ounces)

15 ounces ricotta cheese

12 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

1 (15 1/2 -ounce) can black beans, drained

1 (14 1/2 -ounce) can medium salsa

Combine tomatoes, tomato sauce, mushrooms, oregano, pepper and salt in large bowl. Set aside.

Grease an 8-by-12-by-2-inch pan with olive oil. Place half of tomato mixture on bottom of pan. Top with 4 lasagna noodles to cover. Top with half of ricotta cheese, half of mozzarella, 3/4 cup Parmesan, half of black beans and 4 lasagna noodles.

Then, continuing in layers, top with remaining tomato mixture, ricotta, black beans and noodles. End with salsa, remaining Parmesan and mozzarella. Cover tightly with foil. Place foil underneath pan (it may bubble over). Bake at 350 degrees until noodles are tender, about 1 hour.

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