Cuisine – Simple seasonal dinners

We’re always in a hurry to get dinner out on the table for hungry appetites. Weekday meals seem to be the problem, as along with others, I always seem to enjoy cooking slightly more thoughtful and complicated food on the weekend. That’s the time to make complex soups, slow cooked casseroles and layered pasta dishes that need intricate preparation. But fast food for those busy worknights shouldn’t be just grab-and-gobble type food, which can become a real habit. Too often great flavours are lost in the rush to get dinner ready.

Our pantries and refrigerators are often filled with odd bottles and jars of sauces and condiments that can elevate a simple stir fry or a steamed dinner with a jolt of extra flavour. Like most people, I have soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, black-bean sauce, sweet chilli sauce and numerous packets of spices and dried herbs just sitting there waiting to jazz up my food. Those sauces and ingredients, when added during the cooking process, add far more flavour than simply tossing a little over the finished pates at serving time. Good old Thai sweet chilli sauce is probably the most overused sauce ever sold in the supermarket.

It only takes an extra minute or two to sizzle a little ginger, garlic and some spice with a good splash of oil in the pan before adding vegetables or meat and fish. What a difference that will make to lift the dish.

The other products that sit on the shelves that are really useful are ready prepared pestos – jars of intensively flavoured nut based sauces that can so easily be stirred through near the end of cooking time for a real wallop of flavour.

I confess that onions don’t sit well with me, but my husband adores anything in the allium family. So I have started making sweet and sour onions by the jarful, and a real dollop of that on top of his dinner makes him (and me) happy.

I have loads of broccoli in the garden to gather each night. It has been a family favourite vegetable, even to the point where we he had a cat, Mozart, who lived with us for 20 years and the only time he ever jumped on the kitchen bench was to steal broccoli, either raw or cooked! The trick to serving broccoli is to cook it so it’s tender but still a bright green colour. I like to steam it, even for a stir-fry like this week’s recipe, and then add it merely to reheat very quickly before serving. The other pantry staple often overlooked is packets of rice stick noodles, with a lovely soft texture that’s really appealing. They are also inexpensive. Try them, they’re so easy to use, but you could also use any other dried noodles on hand.

Ginger beef and broccoli on rice noodles

4 slices thin cut beef (schnitzel cut) sliced into strips
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 small carrots, peeled and cut into thin diagonals
2 tbsp olive or sunflower oil
2 bundles rice stick noodles
6cm piece of ginger, cut into matchsticks

For the onions:
2 red onions
4 tbsp honey
1 tsp whole allspice
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 cup red wine or cider vinegar

For a garnish:
mint or parsley leaves

Make the onions first or well ahead of time by slicing them thinly. Put the vinegar in a pan with the honey, allspice and pepper and bring to a simmer. Add the sliced onions and simmer for 3 minutes. Allow to cool. Store in a jar.

To marinate the beef, put the sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce and garlic together in a bowl and add the beef until you’re ready to cook it.

Meanwhile, steam the broccoli for 3 minutes until it softens but remains bright green. Keep aside. Put the olive oil in a large frying pan or wok and toss in the carrots over high heat. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, scoop them out and keep aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the rice noodles, cooking them for 4 minutes, strain, toss an extra tablespoon sesame oil through them and keep the warm.

Add a little extra oil to the pan the carrots were cooked in (if needed) and return the pan to high heat.

Add the ginger and some extra garlic and sizzle for a minute before adding the beef and tossing vigorously until it browns. Add any marinade, with the broccoli and carrots to reheat quickly. Finally add the cooked noodles with about ¼ cup boiling water to keep it all moist, and toss well.

Serve on heated plates, garnished with some sweet and sour onions and a few mint sprigs.

Serves 2, but can be doubled.