Healthy, flavorful and fast weeknight dinners

WASHINGTON — By the time you tackle all of life’s daily demands — an eight-hour workday, a congested commute home, help with homework, a 30-minute workout (wishful thinking) — it can be difficult, or downright impossible, to find the time to make a healthy, homemade meal.

But if you have a stocked pantry and about 30 minutes, it can be done.

Bonnie Benwick, deputy food and recipe editor at The Washington Post, shared some of her go-to cooking techniques and healthy, comforting recipes — perfect for winter weeknights.

Don’t dismiss steaming

If you’re looking to cut down on fat, but don’t want to compromise flavor, Benwick suggests steaming as a quick-cooking option — no fancy gadgets or appliances required.

Everything from steak, to squash, to scallops can be cooked with steam — and especially rice. In fact, Benwick said steaming is one of the best ways to prepare the grain.

“You can put it in a metal or heatproof fine-mesh strainer, suspend it over a pot of water, cover it and you get these wonderfully, separate grains,” Benwick said.

To amp up the flavor, add aromatics to the steaming liquid, such as garlic, ginger or lemon grass. This is an especially great way to enhance a pot of steamed vegetables, without piling on loads of salt, butter or oil. Plus, steaming helps the produce retain all of its vitamins and minerals.

“When you steam [vegetables], you’re keeping all the nutrients in. Sometimes the nutrients will actually leach out if you’re cooking it in water. So that’s one of the really good reasons why you should do it,” Benwick said.

Ready to give it a try? Benwick recommends steamed eggplant with garlicky dressing (recipe below), which can be served warm or at room temperature, and pairs well with grilled foods, rice or a bowl of noodles.

“It’s a really different way of cooking eggplant,” Benwick said.

“You don’t have to roast it; you don’t have to worry about it being bitter or salting it or doing whatever. It steams to a really nice tenderness, and then you’ve got this garlicky vinaigrette that you toss it with, and it’s delicious.”

Check out Benwick’s guide to steaming in Voraciously via The Washington Post.

Make penne with tomato cream sauce using pantry staples

If the fridge is bare and you’re short on time, all hope is not lost.

Benwick points to a comforting pasta dish that draws on pantry staples, including tomato paste, a can of crushed tomatoes and a box of dried penne. (Butter, onion, garlic, a little sour cream and some grated pecorino Romano cheese are the “fresh” ingredients required.)

A bowl of it will leave you feeling warm and full, with minimal damage to the bank account.

“These days, people are paying attention to what they’re spending in the grocery store, so it’s nice to be able to reach into the pantry and come up with something that everybody, I mean everybody, likes,” she said.

A make-ahead soup

For a plant-based dinner that won’t leave you feeling deprived, Benwick recommends Ellie Krieger’s pasta fagioli, filled with zucchini, beans, tomatoes, pasta and plenty of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

The best part? If the week is packed, you can make it on the weekend and pull it out as needed.

A party-ready pita sandwich

Whether you’re in the market for a Wednesday-night meal, or a gameday crowd-pleaser, Benwick said flank steak gyros with quick-pickled carrots will fit the bill.

The thinly sliced flank steak cooks in about 10 minutes under the broiler, and the carrots get pickled while the meat is resting.

“[The carrots] provide this nice acid, a little bit of crunch, and then you put the stuff in a pita,” Benwick said.

The final product is relatively guilt free, with 380 calories and 31 grams of protein per serving.

“Low and behold, when we ran the nutritional analysis, it came up healthy,” Benwick added.

Recipe: Cool steamed eggplant with a garlicky dressing (Liang Ban Qie Zi)
Reprint courtesy The Washington Post

Tested size: 4 servings


1 large eggplant (1 pound total; may substitute the same weight of slender Asian eggplants)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinkiang (black) vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced, peeled fresh ginger root
1 1/2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallion (green parts only)
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil


Fill a wok or saute pan with several inches of water, then place your steamer basket inside and heat over medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch slices, then cut the slices into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Cut the strips into bite-size pieces and place them in a heatproof bowl, then seat that bowl in the steamer basket once the water has just begun boiling. Cover tightly and steam for 20 minutes, monitoring the water level as needed, until the eggplant is tender.

Whisk together the light soy sauce, black vinegar and sugar in a bowl until the sugar has dissolved.

Just before serving, pile the steamed eggplant in a serving dish. Top with the garlic, ginger and scallion.

Heat the oil in a wok or saute pan over high heat. Once the oil is very hot (shimmering for a few minutes), remove it from the heat and carefully pour it over the dish, which should produce a dramatic sizzle.

Pour the soy sauce mixture over the top. Gently stir it in, then serve.

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