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
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
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
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.

Get Your Kitchen Cleaner Quicker

Most of us are cooking more to save money. Unfortunately, that means that the kitchen can get dirtier than ever faster than ever. But you can easily bring it back to its former sparkle with a little prep. And once you do, your regular cleaning routine will be a snap.

Looking to also be green while you clean? Here, Linda Mason Hunter, co-author of Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home, provides her best tips for your dirtiest spots.

1. De-clutter before cleaning.

Is your counter covered with knickknacks, canisters or small appliances that rarely get used? Such objects eat up valuable workspace, attract dust and dirt, and make it harder to clean your counters quickly. Make space in your cabinets for all canisters of food and appliances (or consider getting rid of them altogether if you haven’t used them in a year), and you’ll make the rest of your job a lot easier. “A de-cluttered kitchen feels cleaner and stays cleaner,” says Hunter.

2. Clean toaster crumbs.

A buildup of crumbs can create more than just a mess: It can start a fire in your toaster oven. Stay safe -- and clean -- by lining the toaster oven tray with foil and replacing it weekly. To dislodge crumbs from a traditional toaster, turn it upside down and shake it over a garbage can.

3. Freshen the refrigerator.

Food can easily spill in your refrigerator, so it’s important to regularly wipe it down -- inside and out -- to remove spills and grease, and keep it smelling fresh. An open box of baking soda should do the trick and can then be used to make a baking soda paste to clean the refrigerator. “It’s especially important to use a natural cleaner in the space where you store your food,” says Hunter.

4. Banish burnt-on spills.

You can get rid of stubborn spots in your oven or on your stovetop with this nifty natural nonabrasive scrubber: Simply make a paste of baking soda and castile soap, apply it with a sponge and rub. This also works on dirty grout. If spills are especially stubborn, sprinkle with baking soda, lightly spray with water and let it sit overnight. Then, rinse with cold water. Next time you cook, sprinkle fresh spills with salt as soon as your stove cools. This will absorb the food, and you should be able to scrape it off easily.

Wipe it up when it happens:
Want to make your next kitchen-cleaning job easier? Be proactive and zap spills and other dirty mishaps as soon as they occur. “The longer that dirt and grease sit on a surface, the longer it takes to remove them -- and the harder you’ll have to work,” says Hunter. In addition, giving your kitchen a little TLC each day (wipe down the counters and sink, wipe smudges off appliances, sweep the floor) will help make bigger cleanups (almost) a breeze. 

The Cleaning Cheat Sheet

Feel like you never stop cleaning? A 2008 University of Michigan survey found that American women scrub their houses an astonishing average of 17 hours a week, and (no surprise) their spouses spend a lot less time with a sponge. The good news: “Such drudgery is totally unnecessary,” says Jeff Bredenberg, author of How to Cheat at Cleaning: Time-Slashing Techniques to Cut Corners and Restore Your Sanity. Follow his tips to make short work of your housework.

Keep Dirt Outside
Establish a no-shoe rule inside your home, and you’ll prevent all kinds of muck from ever touching your floors. Place a basket by the front door and ask everyone to deposit footwear there.

Cover up
Using washable slipcovers on couches and upholstered chairs won’t prevent spills, but it will keep them from becoming a permanent stain. If you can’t bear to cover up all the time, use the slipcovers on high-risk occasions, such as kids’ parties (think: drippy chocolate ice cream and sticky lollipops) or holiday gatherings (red wine and salsa). So many colors and styles are available that you don’t even need to spring for custom-made ones. Just make sure you can pop them in the washing machine.

Get a Disposable Countertop
Next time you cook something messy, cover the counter with wax paper. It will keep your space clean when you grate cheese, set down a sauce-covered spoon or bake cupcakes. Afterward, just crumple up the paper -- and the mess.

Make Appliances Clean Themselves

  • Food processor or blender Fill half with water, add a squirt of dishwashing liquid, close lid and turn on. The food will spin off the blades. Then just rinse.
  • Garbage disposal Empty a tray of ice cubes into the disposal, throw in some orange peels, then grind until ice disappears. Any bad smells will go with it.
  • Microwave Heat two cups of water in a microwave-safe bowl on high for five minutes. The steam will loosen cooked-on splatters. Then simply wipe away with a paper towel.

Buy Denture Tablets
Throw one into your toilet bowl to make stains vanish overnight. The next morning, just brush a tiny bit and flush. Denture tablets also remove coffee and tea stains from mugs and get rid of crusty buildup in the bottom of flower vases. Just fill with hot water and drop one in. 

Get Rid of Pet Hair
If you have a dog or cat, you probably also have a couch or drapes covered with clingy pet hair. To remove it easily, warm a dryer sheet and rub it over the material. This zaps the static cling, allowing the hair to fall off so it can be vacuumed up quickly.

Can It
Don’t waste time trying to dust the crannies of computer keyboards or piano keys. Instead, just give the dust a fast blast with a can of compressed air -- sold at office supply stores. This also works on pleated lampshades and chandeliers.

Know When to Stop
No matter how much you scrub, certain household items, such as door mats, stovetop drip pans and shower curtains, will never come completely clean. So when they get too soiled, bite the bullet and replace them. 

Secrets to Speed Cooking

With all the washing, chopping, slicing, dicing, simmering and stirring that goes into making a home-cooked meal, it’s no wonder people give up and order takeout. But with a couple of insider strategies and some helpful kitchen tools, you can whip up delicious, nutritious fare in half the time it’s taken you until now.

“Time is not the only thing you’ll save -- you’ll also improve your health, save money and nurture your family,” says clinical psychologist and blogger Alma Schneider, who helps people overcome obstacles to cooking at takebackthekitchen.blogspot.com. Schneider’s four-pronged approach can help you crank out great meals in no time.

1. Shop smart and fast.
Speed cooking begins with speed food shopping: Take the guesswork out of nightly dinners by spending only 20 minutes devising a menu for the whole week. Then shop for all the ingredients at once. Schneider has streamlined the shopping process by typing up a list of items she frequently buys. Before she hits the supermarket, she simply prints the list and circles the items she wants. Planning meals in advance also allows you to defrost foods in plenty of time or marinate them overnight as needed.

2. Streamline prep time.
“You don’t need to do your prep right before dinner -- that’s a rookie mistake,” says Schneider. Instead, look for little pockets of time in your day. For example, while the kids eat breakfast, wash and chop vegetables, or rinse fish or meat and put them in a container. Or take out all the ingredients (spices, flour, canned goods) and tools (zester, cutting board) you’ll need for later.

“Imagine you’re the sous-chef of your own cooking show,” says Schneider. “By the time you’re ready to make dinner, you’ll have everything laid out before you.”

Cut back prep time further by buying pre-washed and chopped fruits and vegetables -- fresh or frozen -- and asking the butcher at the meat counter to chop or slice your meats.

3. Get the right tools.
Schneider swears by the time-saving power of a slow cooker. “You can throw ingredients into it and let it cook all day,” she says. “I make great chilies, soups, stews -- even lasagna.” Use a rice cooker to cook rice and other healthy grains to perfection and have them ready at the same time as your other dishes. Last, a food processor can do the hard work of slicing, grating and heavy mixing for you -- and in a fraction of the time. “None of these items are a huge investment,” says Schneider, “but they’ll save you tons of time.”

4. Recycle ingredients.
Repurpose your dinner ingredients so you can cook once and eat twice -- or even three times. You might grill meat or fish one night and then use the leftovers in a soup, salad, sandwich or pilaf the next day. Shred last night’s grilled chicken for tacos tonight. Use yesterday’s meatballs to make gyro sandwiches today. The same strategy works for sauces, marinades, salad dressings and spice rubs. Simply prepare double the amount the first time so you can enjoy it again without any extra work.

Cut a Three-Hour Clean to 30 Minutes

If you had two or three hours to spare, you could easily spend it cleaning your kitchen, bathroom and family room. They are the most heavily used rooms in your home, and they get dirty fast. Or you could spend 10 minutes cleaning each one and use the rest of the time for something a lot more fun.

The trick to speedy cleanups is to reduce the amount of products you use and to clean only what needs to be cleaned. Unless you’re fanatical about removing dust bunnies from under the couch, make that a monthly chore. Mop the kitchen floor twice a month instead of every week, and allot an extra 10 minutes for that task. Meanwhile, you can do a quick and effective cleanup -- either all at once or a little each day -- in no time at all.

Kitchen: Get Gleaming
The secret to a speedy kitchen cleanup is one of the cheapest products around: plain old vinegar. Either white or cider vinegar on a paper towel can clean and shine the sink, counter and appliances -- including stainless steel. (Don’t use on marble, however. It can damage the surface.) Before you start, clear off countertop clutter, and load dirty dishes into the dishwasher.

Dirty floor? You should have time for a quick sweep. But if you want to mop up too, cleaning expert Donna Smallin, author of Cleaning Plain and Simple and the One-Minute Cleaner (Storey Publishing), suggests checking out the new Bissell Steam and Sweep: “It leaves the floor clean and dry in a few minutes.”

Bathroom: Spray, Wipe and Go

Step 1: Pour 1/2 cup of bleach into the toilet, and let it sit.

Step 2: Spray the shower walls and door with daily shower cleaner.

Step 3: In the meantime, focus on the countertop, sink and mirror. You’ll only need one product for all three, according to Smallin: glass cleaner. For the mirror, use a rag, not paper towel, to avoid scratches.

Step 4: Return to the toilet. Scrub the bowl and under the rim with a toilet brush, and flush.

Step 5: Use disinfectant wipes for the outside and the seat.

You’re done!

Family/Living Room: Swipe and Sweep
Quickly vacuum the floor and sofa cushions wherever you see crumbs or pet hair. (If you can’t see it, don’t sweat it. You can do a proper sweep-up later on).

Clear off the coffee table, but don’t bother with furniture polish or oil soap. Just dampen a microfiber cloth with water and swipe it over tables, lamps and any other surfaces.

And for easy clutter reduction, Smallin suggests tossing items that belong elsewhere into a laundry basket -- and taking it somewhere else to put away!