Three Courses in Two Hours

Collage of a three course meal.
A spontaneous dinner done on the fly.

Improvising Dinner with Minimal Time

That’s easy.  The ring o’ shrimp, a can of ravioli and a box of pudding.  I’m done in 20 minutes. 

Let’s approach this from another angle.  Suppose you’d like to put together an elegant meal on short notice. 

Maybe your Senator is personally delivering some hand-knitted mittens and you’d like return the favor with a sophisticated, homemade dinner. Moreover, serving three courses allows you to distinguish tastes and layer flavors.  Here are a few suggestions for putting together an improvised, straightforward yet refined meal. 

Keep It Simple

Coconut panna cotta, pistachios and raspberries.
Coconut Panna Cotta with Pistachios and Raspberries.

First things first.  Keeping dinner simple minimizes dish washing.  Let’s move on.

Now, consider dessert.  A homemade dessert is the coda, the climax to a great meal.  And a grand dessert usually involves baking.  However, baking involves a lot of measuring, weighing, greasing pans and finger crossing.  Even the humble sponge cake requires commitment and precision. 

Furthermore, to get really elaborate, templates and piping bags come into the picture.  Festive? Check.  Decorative?  Double check.  Time consuming?  Check. Mate. 

Removing the complexity from dessert eases the stress and increases the likelihood for a showstopper.  And, panna cotta resolves the intricacy issue.  It’s essentially cream jello and comes together in minutes.

Let’s say the Senator is lactose intolerant.  How do we get around that issue?  This version uses coconut milk instead of the traditional heavy cream.  As a result, it’s dairy free.    

First, add one teaspoon of unflavored gelatin to three tablespoons of cold water.  Then, bring a cup of coconut milk to a simmer in a small sauce pot along with two or three tablespoons of sugar.  We’re just heating the coconut milk to dissolve the sugar and gelatin.   When the milk is warm, add the gelatin and stir. 

Stirring coconut milk over a bowl of ice water.

Then, pour the coconut milk into a bowl or measuring cup and place in a bowl of ice water.  Add a teaspoon of vanilla extract and stir until the milk is cool.

Next, pour about four ounces of the mixture into a sleek serving vessel like a martini glass.  Cover the glasses with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  The panna cotta will set up in about an hour. 

When you’re ready to serve, chop or grind some nuts and sprinkle them on the custard.  Center a few berries on the nuts and nestle a mint sprig in the berries.

Total hands on time: fifteen minutes.  Dishes to wash:  One pot and a mixing bowl.

Freshness Counts

To keep things simple, buying the freshest ingredients available plays a vital role.

We all know the advantages of eating fresh food.  The health benefits-fresh food has gobs of nutrients, it may lower the risk of disease, it contains antioxidants.  It helps the environment by reducing waste.  It’s cost efficient.  And, fresh food tastes better than canned or processed food.

In addition to these assets, fresh produce offers a variety of textures.  For example, the first course in this dinner is a shrimp salad with mango, red bell pepper and chives.  The mango has the smooth sugariness while the bell pepper contrasts with a crunchy sweetness.  And, the chives add that bite of freshness that ties everything together.

The “sauce” is merely carrot juice infused with coriander seeds.  Moreover, any combination of vegetable juice and spice will work. 

If you have a juicer, run four or five carrots through the machine.  If not, store-bought juice works fine.  Pour a cup of juice in a small sauce pot and toss in some coriander seeds.  Bring the juice and spice to a simmer and prepare the other ingredients.  Taste the infused juice after a while.  If you like it, strain out the seeds and chill the juice. 

Next peel some shrimp, add slight glug of olive oil and salt and pepper.  Grill or sautée the shrimp until they turn pink.  Set aside to cool and prep the fruit and vegetables. 

What if the Senator has a shellfish allergy?  Salmon, tuna or any quick cooking fish with a high fat content will work fabulously.

Chop the shrimp, mango, bell pepper and chives really small to create an elegant, colorful dish. Squeeze in some lemon juice for an acidic kick.  No need to measure.  No “a tablespoon of chives.”  None of the “1/4 cup chopped mango.”  Just eyeball the ingredients and if they appear balanced, chill the salad.      

When you’re ready to serve, place some of the salad on a plate.  A ring mold makes a more precise plate but it’s not that critical.  Spoon some of the carrot juice around the salad and it’s ready to go.

Total hands on time:  twenty-five minutes.  Dishes to wash:  A grill pan and a mixing bowl.

Make It Quick

Rigatoni with Hedgehog Mushroom Ragout and Tarragon

Braising is cooking at its finest.  The slow cooking process transforms cheap cuts of meat into something glorious.  Likewise, a stir fry is a study in artistic precision.  Adding the ingredients to the pan at the exact time creates a magical combination of flavors and textures.

However, a good braise takes hours and a decent stir fry requires extensive prep work.  And, the goal for this dinner is putting food on the table in a speedy fashion.  As a result, a pasta dish worked extraordinarily well.

In this case, the main course was rigatoni with a Hedgehog mushroom ragout. 

Hedgehog mushrooms.

To make the dish quickly, the fresh and simple suggestions work in your favor.  For example, the farmer’s market had some exquisite hedgehog mushrooms on this day.

Mushrooms cook fairly quickly and their meatiness substitutes well for a steak or pork chop.  Moreover, high quality mushrooms only need a few things to heighten their flavor-some shallots, lemon juice and some tarragon take the fungi to another level. 

Waiting for the water to boil allows for the sauce prep work.  What about the Senator?  Does he just watch CNN while I cook?  The Senator works for you.  Make him your sous chef and do some bipartisan cooking.

Finely chop a shallot and then chop the larger mushrooms so they’re the same size as the smaller shrooms.  Then, pull some tarragon leaves from the stems and halve a lemon.

After adding the pasta to the water, heat a skillet over medium heat and add some butter.  When the butter has melted, add the mushrooms and a little salt.  The salt and heat will extract the water from the mushrooms.  Let it evaporate, add the shallot and let it cook for a minute.  Squeeze in some lemon juice and let it evaporate as well.  Add a few glugs of chicken stock and bring it to a simmer. 

Drain the pasta a few minutes before its ready.  Add the pasta to the mushroom ragout, stir and let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce.  Spoon the pasta into bowls and throw some tarragon leaves on top.  Yes, throw.  The randomness contributes to the presentation. 

Done in about 30 minutes.  Dishes to wash:  One pot, one pan.

Everything’s ready.  You put the first course on the table. The Senator takes off his mittens and says, “Oh wow.  We’re eating in layers.  Nice.”

Rating: 1 out of 5.

2 thoughts on “Three Courses in Two Hours

  1. Liked the dessert idea 😋

    Liked by 1 person

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