It’s inevitable that some days you haven’t planned dinner and the day sneaks up on you, which leads to the “Shit! What’s for dinner?” response. We have a few suggestions, whether it’s a spin on one of my favorites, something seasonal, something super fast and delicious, or a weeknight project worth the time.
This week’s picks start with a baked pasta: rich and gooey and always good for leftovers. And yes, baked ziti is comforting (something we’ll need more of in these days before the election and with the Covid uptick across the country). Be sure not to overcook the pasta; it should be too tough to actually eat when you mix it with the sauce, which will make it perfect after baking.
We also have a dependable, rich, and rather elegant chicken cutlet with a quick pan sauce, which, really, you can do with any cutlet — turkey, pork, veal, or fish. And the third is a lentil dish, which comes with some advice: Yes, follow the recipe — but trust your teeth, not the clock, to tell you when the lentils are ready.
Baked Ziti With Mushrooms
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: About 1 hour
- Salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter, plus more for the baking dish
- 1 pound any mushrooms, preferably mixed with about 1 cup reconstituted dried porcini
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
- 1 pound ziti or other large-cut pasta
- 8 ounces mozzarella (preferably fresh) chopped
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. If you’ll be baking the pasta right away, heat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 13x9 inch baking dish.
- Put the oil or butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot or the butter foams, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, release their water, and begin to dry, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lower the heat and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, about 2 minutes.
- Break up the tomatoes with a fork or your hands, add them to the skillet, and stir. Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat so the sauce bubbles gently and cook, stirring occasionally and mashing the tomatoes more, until the sauce thickens slightly but is still a little watery, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Cook the pasta until it’s just starting to soften but is still too hard to heat. Drain, but don’t shake the colander; allow some water to cling to the noodles.
- Toss the pasta with the sauce and about half the mozzarella. Spoon the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish. Top with the remaining mozzarella and the parmesan.
- You can prepare the pasta to this point, wrap it tightly, and refrigerate for up to a couple days; take it out about an hour before proceeding. Or freeze for up to a month; put it in the cold oven and figure the pasta will take about 90 minutes to thaw and reheat. Transfer to the oven and bake until the top is browned and the cheese is bubbly, 20 to 30 minutes.
Spanish-Style Lentils With Spinach
Time: 40 to 60 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ pound smoked chorizo
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika or ½ teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
- 1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup fruity red wine
- 2 cups water or chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, or more as needed
- 1 pound spinach, roughly chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Put the oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the chorizo and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft and the sausage begins to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. add the garlic and paprika and continue to stir and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
- Stir in the lentils, bay leaves, wine and water; raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles gently. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary to keep the beans submerged, until the lentils are no longer crunchy but are still a little too firm to eat, 20 to 30 minutes. You can make the dish to this point up to 2 days ahead. Gently reheat the lentils before continuing. Fish out the bay leaves.
- Stir in the spinach, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and keep cooking until the lentils are fully tender, the spinach is wilted, and the mixture is saucy and thick, another 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot or warm.
Chicken Cutlets With Quick Pan Sauce
Time: 20 to 30 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1½ pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thighs, or tenders
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ cup water, chicken stock, or vegetable stock
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
- 1 lemon, quartered, for serving
- Heat the oven to 200°F. Put the flour on a plate or in a shallow bowl next to the stove. If necessary, put each cutlet between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and pound to uniform thickness; blot the chicken dry with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Put the oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, turn a piece of the chicken in the flour to coat it on all sides; shake off any excess. Add the floured chicken to the pan, then repeat with the next piece; work in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan.
- Cook, adjusting the heat as needed so the fat is always bubbling but the chicken doesn’t burn. After 2 minutes, rotate the chicken so the outside edges are moved toward the center and vice versa. Don’t flip them; you want the same side in contact with the fat. When the bottom of each piece is brown, after 3 to 4 minutes, turn them over.
- Cook on the second side, adjusting the heat as described in step 3, until the chicken is firm to the touch but still a bit pink inside, another 3 to 4 minutes. To check for doneness, cut into a piece with a thin-bladed knife and take a peek. Transfer the chicken to an ovenproof platter and put it in the oven.
- Add the wine to the skillet, keeping the heat at medium-high. Let it bubble away as you stir and scrape the bottom of the pan, until about half the wine has evaporated, a minute or two. Pour in the water and continue to stir until the liquid has thickened slightly and reduced to ¼ cup, another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the skillet and swirl the pan around until the butter melts; turn off the heat.
- Remove the chicken from the oven, and if any juices have accumulated on the platter, add them to the skilled along with ¼ cup parsley. Stir, taste the sauce, and adjust the seasoning. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, garnish with the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley, and serve with lemon quarters.