Quick(er) Meals for the Holiday Season

Photos by  Zachary Cross

Photos by Zachary Cross

December is a busy time for many people. If you have children in school there are the extra holiday school activities, exams, and projects. Those without children may find themselves attending more get-togethers, shopping, and having extra time with extended family, traveling or hosting guests. So I’m planning on presenting meals that are quicker but still use whole foods from the market. I will provide gluten-free and vegetarian options with each meal and suggestions with some on how to use holiday leftovers.

Three of December’s meals will be one-skillet meals, so that at the very least, you will only have one pot to wash at the end of the meal. They’re taken from Real Simple’s October issue which has six recipes for “Skillet Dinners.” I highly recommend Real Simple for recipes that are quicker to make but still use real and seasonal ingredients. The easiest way to search for recipes is to Google the recipe and/or ingredient(s) plus “Real Simple recipes.” Real Simple’s own search engine on their site is not that great. For example Googling “real simple recipes brussels sprouts,” brings up a page of results, the first being “11 Easy Recipes for Brussels Sprouts” (this includes a variation on last week’s roasted Brussels and grapes). 

Real Simple’s recipes often serve four. If you are serving more people and/or hungry teens or athletes there are simple ways to round out the meal. Salad or bread are obvious choices. Adding a steamed vegetable, while also adding another pot to wash, takes little time (made while the main dish finishes in the oven) and doesn’t dirty the pot much. With this meal I served fresh, raw, snap peas I bought at market. They were a nice green contrast to the pot pie. And super easy! 

The first meal I’m presenting this month is probably the longest one to make, depending on the options you choose. The time it takes is more about the prep time which in the original recipe includes cutting up a chuck roast, rolling pastry dough, peeling and chopping butternut squash, and prepping leeks. You can save time by choosing meat already cut up (e.g., CoLyCo Farms often has “stew meat” at market), using onions instead of leeks (though I love leeks and think they are usually worth the prep time), choosing root veggies instead of butternut squash, and by using a different topping for the pie. 

I made two pies to accommodate my semi-vegetarian family and my own wheat allergy. I could have made one vegetarian pie with a wheat-free topping but I really wanted to try the beef. It’s just as well; there were no leftovers of the vegetarian pie and few of the beef! This recipe was well rated by my family overall. 

To make the beef pie wheat-free I used leftover Thanksgiving mashed potatoes for the topping. And, yes, the color in the photo is correct: they are pink. Jeffrey nearly always includes roasted beet puree in his mashed potatoes, at least for special occasions. I think this started as a way to use up the abundant beets in our CSA share (we like beets, but not in the quantity we received that year) but was so well received that he’s made it a tradition. I used the same water/egg mixture to brush on top of the mashed potatoes before baking. I divided the egg mixture into two cups and used one on each pie. I’m not sure it helped the browning like it did on the pastry but perhaps it would have with a longer cooking time. I was ready to eat it rather than wait and find out!

I also replaced the flour with arrowroot flour for thickening. I’ve read both that arrowroot holds up well to long cooking but also that it does not. I decided to play it safe and add it last, just before adding the topping. I used a proportion of 1 teaspoon arrowroot for every tablespoon of flour called for total (I did not coat the beef with any at the beginning of the cooking process). I mixed it well with a little cold water, then stirred it into the meat and veggie mixture. The arrowroot held up fine with the final cooking time in the oven. 

For the vegetarian version I replaced the meat with a pound of mushrooms cut in cubes and used a couple of tablespoons of palm oil to make up for the lost beef fat (more olive oil should be fine, too).  The beef stock I replaced with homemade veggie stock . I used arrowroot powder in this version, also, so I could enjoy a little of the filling, too. Otherwise I made it according to the original recipe, including the puff pastry on top. I used a purchased, frozen puff pastry, though there is a recipe on the blog that is supposed to be simple to make, and can be made ahead of time.

If you are making this gluten-free you will want to make sure your beer is gluten-free or otherwise replace it. One option is to include more broth. Tasty homemade broth is easily made from scraps you might otherwise discard. My favorites are mushroom stems, leek and celery trimmings, carrot ends, and parmesan rinds. Bones, cooked or raw, add flavor and gelatin to meat stocks. If I’m not ready to use them right away I save my scraps in small bags stored together in a larger, labeled bag in the freezer. These scraps defrost quickly when I want them for a stock. 

Another alternative to the beer is cola. I’ve not tried it and it sounds awfully sweet but the soda is supposed to tenderize the meat and I can see how the dark flavor would work well. Reeds and Blue Sky offer naturally flavor, cane sugar-sweetened options (as opposed to corn syrup based). Other options include red wine vinegar (perhaps use ¼ cup vinegar and ¼ cup extra broth) or red wine. I tolerate wheat-free beer so I used Chattanooga Brewing’s Chestnut Street Brown Ale. It’s not a stout but it’s dark enough, it’s yummy, and it’s local!

If you are feeling adventurous (or, more likely for me, lazy) use leftovers to replace the original recipe ingredients. This could range from a whole pie made from leftovers, such as in the pot pie recipe the puff pastry recipe came from, one ingredient replacement as I used, or somewhere in between. Adjust the cooking times as necessary.

Beef and Beer Potpie

From Real Simple 
INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound boneless chuck roast, fat trimmed, cut into ¾-in. pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1½ cups chopped leeks 
 (from 2 medium leeks)
1 cup chopped carrots (from 2 large carrots)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, divided
½ cup stout beer (such as Guinness)
2½ cups beef stock
1 cup chopped butternut squash
½ (17.3-oz.) package of frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Heat the oil in 
a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Toss together the beef, salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the flour in a medium bowl. Add to skillet; cook, stirring often, until the pieces are browned on all sides, about 8 minutes. Add the leeks, carrots, and 1½ tablespoons of the thyme. Cook until the vegetables begin to soften, about 4 minutes. Add the beer; cook 1 minute, stirring to loosen any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Whisk together the stock and the remaining flour; add to the skillet and bring to a 
simmer, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to medium; cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is tender and the sauce thickens, 30 to 35 minutes, adding the squash after 15 minutes.

  2. Roll out the puff pastry gently into a 12-inch square. Place the pastry over 
the simmering beef mixture. Whisk together the egg and water; brush over the pastry. Cut several slits in the center of the pastry. Bake in oven until the 
pastry is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining thyme.

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