Though I have never been a Boy Scout, I've always been fond of their motto: "Be prepared." Nearly everything goes faster if I've thought about my plan in advance. A shopping list organized by aisle makes it easy to zip through the store. A weekly meal calendar with lunches plotted out means no one stands in front of the fridge wondering what to take (and leftovers actually get eaten). And preparing ingredients ahead of time gets dinner on the table in a flash when I get home from work.
In our recipes, we often include storage information, but what may not be immediately obvious is that lots of our recipes have "holding points" -- prep that can be done in advance -- and with a little critical thinking, you can break everything down into smaller, make-ahead chunks. With Fast-Forward, I hope to share with you some of my favorite Everyday Food recipes while providing some tips on how to use your time effectively, so you'll be eating sooner rather than later.
First up is this delicious Spinach Manicotti in Creamy Tomato Sauce. I've made this on the weekend and I love it, but when I get home around 7 (or later) on a weeknight, an hour-plus gap before we eat is not ideal. Rather than relegate this recipe to the weekends-only file, I wake up a few minutes earlier and do some prep before I even get dressed. Here's how I tackle this one:
THE NIGHT BEFORE:
- Transfer frozen spinach to the fridge to thaw.
THE MORNING OF:
- Put a pot of water on to boil; salt it and cook the pasta. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on a rimmed baking sheet and spray it with cooking spray. Drain and rinse pasta with cool water, then spread in an even layer on sheet. Cover with another layer of plastic wrap, pressing edges to loosely seal, and refrigerate.
- Meanwhile, shred the Parmesan and store half in an airtight container.
- Stir together sauce ingredients and store in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Make the filling (using the rest of that Parm) and store in an airtight container in the fridge. (Bonus points if you store it in the zip-top bag you'll use for piping later tonight.)
All that should take no more than 30 minutes, and you can probably squeeze in a little sandwich-making or breakfast prep if you're good at multitasking. Now, when you come home, what was once a three-step recipe now looks like this:
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Fill shells, arrange in pan, and cover with sauce and Parmesan. Bake 30 minutes. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.
By taking half an hour to prep before your day really begins, you cut your kitchen time almost in half in the evening. Further, while the pasta dish is baking, you can wash the rest of your dishes, whip up a quick salad, or just kick back and relax.
So what do you think? Would you be willing to wake up half an hour early in order to get a lush dinner on the table in a snap, or would you rather do prep the night before (or just eat late)?
PS - I can tell you from experience that this particular dish makes great leftovers!