6 Shortcuts for 6 Summer Recipes

You don’t want to be stuck in a steamy kitchen on a hot summer day.

So how can you get dinner on the patio table faster?

“It can take less than 30 minutes, even as little as 10 minutes, to pull a meal together,” says Marnie Swedberg, author of Marnie’s Kitchen Shortcuts. “With just a little advanced planning and know-how, you can show up in the kitchen and pull it off.” Here, Swedberg offers tips for slashing your cooking time on six all-American summer foods.

1. Make double-decker burgers
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Take a cue from fast food restaurants and grill up slimmer patties. Craft the slim patties yourself from ground beef or turkey, or slice the store-bought, pre-shaped kind horizontally. While the burgers are still hot, add a slice of cheese or lettuce and tomato, and place another patty on top to create a zippier version of the monster burger that would have taken twice as long to cook.

2. Stir-fry kebabs.

Many markets sell pre-assembled kebabs -- meat or fish with vegetables on wooden skewers -- that you can literally just toss on the grill. But buying prepackaged food is more expensive. Instead, ask the butcher to chop your chicken, beef or lamb into 2-inch cubes; most butchers will do it free of charge. Then, instead of threading them onto skewers, which takes time, throw the meat and veggies into a grilling basket sprayed with cooking spray and treat it like a stir-fry on your grill.

3. Make faster fajitas.

Put a fun summer twist on leftovers by using any combination of meat and vegetables you have on hand to make fajitas. Simply season them with this quick mix: 3 teaspoons of seasoned salt, plus 1 teaspoon each of garlic powder, chili powder and onion powder. Saute with 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Toss into toasted tortillas and serve.

4. Nuke corn on the cob
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Peel off all but a few layers of husk. Microwave on high for three to four minutes per ear (or 10 to 11 minutes for four ears). Slip off the remaining husk and silk -- and serve! If you’re grilling other foods, it’s easy to throw partially husked corn on the grill at the same time. Or take your nuked and shucked corn, place it on a sheet of tinfoil and pop it on the grill for a quick minute or two to add that smoky taste.

5. Easier than pie
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There are many shortcuts for pie. For the crust, you can use the store-bought kind or make your own in a flash by putting graham crackers or cookies in a blender with 1/4 cup butter and 1 tablespoon sugar and pressing them into a pie tin. You can also skip the crust entirely and just bake the filling by itself in ramekins. Add a dollop of frozen whipped topping or ice cream as garnish. If you have an hour or more before dessert time, make your own delicious fruit filling: Toss 3 to 4 cups of fresh or frozen berries with 3/4 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons flour, pour into pie shell and bake 45 minutes, or until it bubbles.

6. Make cleanup easy.

A fun party can quickly turn into a big mess. Avoid spending hours cleaning afterward, by buying enough paper products before the party. This way, you eliminate the need to use and wash dishes, glasses and real utensils. Designate two large, easy-to-spot garbage bags -- one for trash and one for cans and bottles -- so you don’t need to separate recyclable items. Toss any food that’s been out for a few hours, particularly if it’s been sitting in the sun.

Grill for Less This Memorial Day

The backyard picnic table, an icy cold something to drink, smoke rising from the grill. Grilling is one of this season's greatest pleasures, and there are plenty of reasons to indulge (besides the food). Plus, less kitchen cleanup and less heat in the house also means you save on dish liquid, water and air conditioning bills. And if you shop well, you can expand your culinary repertoire without blowing your budget. Here, some things to think about before you head to market and fire up the grill.

1. Go veggie
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Corn, asparagus, summer squash, zucchini and peppers: They’re all great on the grill. All you need is salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil. “No need for the pricier extra virgin when you grill, as you’re unlikely to taste the difference over the charcoal flavor,” says Ann Taylor Pittman, food editor at Cooking Light magazine. Buying locally grown produce saves you money too, especially if you shop at farm stands. And if you load up on veggies at dinner, you can buy less meat or fish.

2. Kebab it. 
Grilling kebabs is not only a healthier way to cook meat (less time and less heat mean fewer potentially dangerous cancer-causing compounds), but you’ll also get more servings for your buck. Skewered between vegetables and mushrooms, the meat is just a part of the meal, not the main attraction, so you don’t need to have as much of it. Plus, people often take less when food is already cut up into smaller portions.

3. Slice and dice it.
Think of your beef, chicken or pork not as a main dish but as an ingredient in other dishes -- so that less serves more. After you grill, slice your meat into thin pieces and toss over salads or pastas.

4. Choose cheaper cuts.
Grilling brings out the best in some of the less expensive meats. Pittman recommends chuck-eye steak: “It’s cut from the chuck-eye roast and tastes similar to rib eye but costs less.” Flank steak is another good alternative, because “it absorbs moisture quickly so you can marinate it in 10 minutes, and it stays tender on the grill,” explains Pittman.

5. Ditch the meat altogether.
Vegetarian burgers are healthier, less expensive and taste good with or without the fixings. Boca and Morningstar brands both recently won kudos in a Good Housekeeping taste test. Portobello mushrooms also provide some non-meaty bulk inside the bun.

6. Get spud-happy.
Potatoes are easy on the budget, grill wonderfully and are very filling. For health bonus points, go for the nutrient-rich sweet potato instead of classic Idaho.

7. Fill the grill.
For maximum fuel efficiency, put every square inch of the grill to good use. Cook two types of meat at once and save one for the next day. Slice the meat cold and serve over salad, or reheat it in the microwave, which uses very little energy.

8. Top it with leftovers.
Grilled pizza is the perfect base for food from the fridge that you might otherwise toss out. You can buy dough from the freezer section of your grocery store or at your local pizzeria. Roll it out and then plop it directly on the grill. “Pizza’s great for using up all your leftover veggies -- that half bell pepper or handful of arugula -- or even little pieces of meat,” says Pittman.

9. Heat up dessert.
Skip the premium ice cream or the artisanal gelato. Get whatever brand of vanilla ice cream is on sale and top it with warm slices of grilled peaches or plums. 

Sunday Supper…or Any Other Time

For Nancy Richmond, Sunday dinners are something to treasure. While her family sits down to eat together in the dining room practically every night (with candles and tablecloths no less), these meals are special. “My husband cooks the same kind of wonderful meals he makes all week long, but it’s different. We’re all more relaxed,” says Richmond. “Sunday night is the evening we’re most likely to invite company and the night my kids invite their friends.”

Mealtime traditions -- whether it’s Sunday supper, Saturday morning bagels or Tuesday night pizza -- are more than just good food and fun times. They are the glue that holds families together. “These traditions are the things that make us feel we belong somewhere and that we’re special -- that our family is different from other families,” says Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a researcher in the way routines knit families together.

It isn’t easy to pull off a family dinner every night of the week, which is why designating one day for a special meal is so important. “The average meal gets eaten in anywhere from 18 to 20 minutes,” says Fiese. “The average kid watches four to six hours of TV a day. There’s room in there somewhere. Just turn off cell phones, computers and the TV and sit down together.”

Here’s how to keep everyone at the table…and happy to be there:

Tweak your tradition… Sooner or later, most kids will groan and snort at the idea of spending any more time at the table than they have to. “As kids grow up, expect plenty of eye-rolling but don’t give up,” says Fiese. “Teens may act like they want you to drop the routines entirely, but they don’t.” Ask if they’d like to try a little cooking instead of always getting stuck with the dishes, for example. For Richmond, allowing kids to invite friends has made a huge difference: “Sometimes we get 10 kids here -- there’s always something we can fix in the kitchen to feed them.”

…Or borrow someone else’s For anyone who grew up in a traditional Italian home, the scent of slow-simmering sauce (known as gravy, to some) is a cherished memory. Many Southerners feel the same way about chicken-after-church dinners. If you love your Sunday dinner tradition, but are tired of your traditional Sunday food, take a page from someone else’s cookbook. Vary the menu on your typical Sunday meals and see what happens.

Make It Extra Special
Tere Estorino and her 3-year-old son, Max, live seven houses away from her parents, so they share many meals together. But her favorite occasion is the monthly brunch her parents host, when her siblings and their kids all converge for an hours-long Sunday brunch -- Cuban style. “I love that my son is getting to know his aunts, uncles and cousins this way. I know it’s good for Max, but it’s also good for me,” says the 31-year-old Miami mom. “I so look forward to a Sunday spent talking and laughing with my family. I need that connection, too.”

7 Secrets to Trim Thanksgiving Costs

Every year, the American Farm Bureau Federation announces how much the average cook will spend on a Thanksgiving feast for 10. And every year, many of us just roll our eyes: “Last year they said it would cost $42.91 for everything,” says veteran Thanksgiving host Carol Reiman of Mountain Lakes, N.J. “I easily spend that much on the turkey alone.”

You, like Reiman, might never quite match the AFBF’s low Thanksgiving price tag, “but if you get creative with simple substitutions, use coupons and plan ahead, you may find that number to be pretty realistic,” says Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com.

Here, some tips to help you trim Thanksgiving costs -- without skimping on your celebration. 

1. Start saving Sunday circulars now.
Stores start issuing coupons for Thanksgiving staples like cranberry sauce and stuffing mix weeks in advance. “No need to actually clip the coupons,” says Nelson. “Just write the date on the front of each circular and keep them all together.” A week or so before Thanksgiving, log on at CouponMom.com or a similar coupon website. You’ll learn which stores near you have sales on the Thanksgiving foods you need. Then compare the listings with the coupon circulars you saved for a double discount.

2. Organize and inventory before you shop.
“Pull out all the recipes you plan to use and make a list, along with specific amounts of what’s needed,” advises Nelson. Then inventory your cabinets: Knowing now there’s only 1/8 teaspoon of baking powder in the can helps you avoid a last-minute dash to the pricey market around the corner. Discovering you still have two cans of cranberry sauce from last Thanksgiving helps you avoid redundancies.

3. Cut back on how much you cook.
Families across the country waste nearly 25 percent of the food they prepare for Thanksgiving, because they simply prepare way too much. Try reducing overall quantities. Do you really need to triple grandma’s candied yam recipe, or would doubling do? Or just reduce the number of options: Make one kind of potato instead of two and do away with traditional warhorses (like that green gelatin) that nobody seems to eat anyway.

4. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions.
When that sweet potato recipe calls for chopped pecans on top, don’t shell out $5 for a 16-ounce bag. Use whatever nuts you have on hand -- or get creative. “I use a crumble topping with oatmeal, butter and brown sugar that comes from an apple crisp recipe. It costs just pennies to make,” says Nelson. For recipes with small doses of specific spices or flavorings, you can usually make a substitution (swap an onion for a shallot, for example) or just skip it altogether.

5. Warehouse wisely.
Bulk prices aren’t a bargain if you have to buy more than you need. Since you’re cooking similar menus, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to shop with a buddy and split those monster bags of potatoes, vats of grapes and buckets of onion dip.

6. Trim the trimmings.
Instead of paying big bucks for flower arrangements, work with what you’ve got. Ferry in your potted mums from outside. Fill clear glass bowls with lemons, oranges or apples from the fridge. Or clip evergreen stalks from trees in the yard and arrange them in tall vases: They’ll smell great and be right in tune with the season.

7. Delegate, delegate, delegate.
If guests offer to bring something, take them up on it! Granted, the turkey is your gig. (Frozen store brands are your best bargain; many stores even give out free frozen turkeys once you spend a certain amount.) But everything else -- dessert, appetizers, side dishes, wine -- is fair game. Just be sure you don’t put perennially late Aunt Sally on hors d’oeuvres duty. And if you’re not crazy about Uncle Fred’s kitchen flair, ask him to bring ice cream. Remember, Thanksgiving is all about sharing the harvest’s bounty. And most people are more than happy to contribute to the table.

Eat Summer Food All Year Long

If you rush out to the farmers’ market or grocery store right now, you may still be able to buy summer squash for $1.25 a pound. Wait another month or two and you’ll be shelling out nearly twice that amount … until next summer rolls around. Depending on the crop, the growing conditions that year and the cost of transportation, the price of produce can jump by as much as $2 per pound off-season. So how can you can you continue to enjoy your favorite summer foods at their low summer prices?

Freeze Before Cooking
Many summer fruits and vegetables can be frozen raw for use later and still maintain their nutritional value. Along with berries and peaches, peppers, squash and even tomatoes can go into the deep freeze and stay there for up to eight months -- a lot longer than many cooked dishes you make and freeze. The National Center for Home Food Preservation and the West Virginia University Extension Service offer these tips for freezing specific veggies:

Peppers
Wash, remove stems, cut in half and remove seeds. (You can also cut into smaller slices.) Place on a baking sheet and freeze, then transfer to a freezer bag, removing as much air as possible.

Tomatoes
Wash and dip them in boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen the skin. Core and peel. (You can freeze them whole or in pieces.) Pack into containers, leaving an inch of headspace, and freeze. They’ll be mushy when thawed, so use only for cooking.

Squash
Cut out any blemishes. Wash and cut into half-inch slices. Put 6 cups of squash into 1 gallon of boiling water, and leave for 3 minutes after water returns to boil. Drain and immediately place in bowl of ice water, with cold water running over it. Pack into freezer containers, leaving a half-inch of headspace.

Go Slow
Another way to preserve the taste of summer tomatoes is to slow-roast them. Here’s how: Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Cut tomatoes (any variety) in half, and place cut-side-up on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with 4 cloves of chopped garlic and fresh thyme, season with sea salt and ground pepper, and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Bake for 10 to 12 hours (less than half that time for smaller tomatoes). They’ll collapse, but they won’t dry out. Pack into freezer bags or containers, and cover with oil from the pan.

Relish the Taste

When it comes to canning summer foods, don’t stop with jam. There are many sweet and savory ways to preserve the flavors you love. Search for the recipes online, and give these creative concoctions a shot:

  • Peach barbecue sauce
  • Blueberry syrup
  • Bruschetta
  • Roasted red pepper spread
  • Dill pickles
  • Corn-and-tomato salsa