Weeknight Comfort Food: Real, Fast

comfortIf you’re like me, you are probably knee-deep in holiday baking, party spreads laden with gooey, cheesy dips, and family dinners with more side dishes than you eat all year. All of this celebr(eat)ing leaves me feeling more sluggish than festive and in need of some “real food” that is still comforting enough to serve on a cold Iowa night. The following are some of my favorite go-to basics that fit the comfort food bill. Most are also healthier versions of store-bought or take-out versions. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be to serve comfort food even on a busy night during the holiday season!

Easy Marinara Sauce
I found this marinara sauce recipe a few years back in Joy Bauer’s Slim and Scrumptious cookbook. Bauer is a dietitian and this cookbook is full of recipe makeovers of some of our favorite comfort foods. With little more effort than it takes to open a few cans of no-salt tomatoes, you can make a homemade marinara that is healthier than the store-bought jars, most of which can have up to 500 mg. of sodium. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to feel bloated during the holidays, I want it to be from sugar cookies, not marinara! I make a batch of this in the morning before work, let the flavors meld all day in the fridge, and by dinner time it is a rich tomato sauce ready for your pasta. Better yet, make a double batch and freeze half to make weeknights even easier.

1 lg. onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 (28 oz.) cans no-salt added crushed tomatoes (this is key, allowing you to add your own salt to taste)
2 t. dried oregano
2 t. dried basil
½ t. crushed red pepper flakes
salt and pepper

Liberally coat a large pan with oil spray and preheat it over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, just until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and balsamic vinegar and cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes, oregano, basil, and red pepper flakes, and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Makes 14 ½ c. servings with 51 cal., 9 carbs, 2 g. fiber, and 20 mg. of sodium per serving.
Perfect Roast Chicken
Roasting a whole chicken seems like one of those things that you should know how to do, but supermarket rotisserie chickens have stolen the home-roasted chicken’s thunder. Trust me on this one. Thomas Keller’s Simple Roast Chicken is like Peggy on Mad Men—seemingly plain on the outside, but oh so complex when you really dig into the character. The simple salt and pepper rub before roasting creates this perfectly crispy-crackly skin and then basting at the last minute and topping with a sprinkle of thyme before serving puts it over the top. Good luck getting your hubby to stop picking at it before it hits the table.

Thai Noodles
from Our Best Bites
Ever have those busy weeknights where you realize on the way home that you haven’t thought about dinner? Yeah, me either. But, I’ve heard it happens. When it does, instead of getting take-out, make these Thai Noodles with Peanut Sauce. This recipe takes minutes and that squeeze of fresh lime and cilantro topping makes it a bright and fresh dinner on the darkest Iowa winter night.

1/2 c. chicken or vegetable broth
3 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter
1-2 tsp. Sriracha chili sauce (1 is mild with a bite, 1.5 is medium, 2 is hot)
1 1/2 Tbsp. honey
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh minced ginger
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
8 oz. Udon or linguine noodles
Chopped green onions
Chopped cilantro
2 limes, cut into quarters
Chopped peanuts

Cook noodles in salted water. In the meantime, combine chicken broth, peanut butter, chili sauce, honey, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk until smooth and remove from heat. Toss cooked noodles with sauce and divide among 4 bowls. Sprinkle with green onions, cilantro, chopped peanuts, and garnish each serving with 2 lime quarters. Before eating, squeeze lime juice over noodles and stir to combine.

Turkey Tacos
from America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook

I always keep ground turkey in my freezer and fresh tortillas and crispy shells on hand so I can make this healthy go-to dinner on a busy night. No mystery-ingredient packaged taco seasoning here–this version is so much better!

2 tsp canola oil
1 small onions, minced
3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt

1 pound ground turkey
4 oz. tomato sauce
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tsp vinegar, preferably cider vinegar
1 tsp brown sugar
salt and black pepper

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the onion and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, all spices and salt, cook and stir constantly, for about 30 seconds. Add meat and cook until no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and brown sugar; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered, stirring frequently, continuing to break up the meat. Cook about 10 minutes, until liquid has cooked down but not completely dry. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Divide mixture into tacos and add toppings.

Makes 8 1/4 cup servings. At just 106 calories and 11 grams of protein per ¼ cup, it’s a great way to get the most bang for your calorie buck!

imageIna Garten’s Meatloaf
Oh, Ina. You and your shiny hair and perfect Hamptons life. We’re never gonna be Ina, but thanks to this recipe, we can pretend for just one meal. Forget everything you remember about dry, bland meatloaf. This centerpiece to your Sunday dinner is baked free-form and full of flavor! Oh, and this recipe is neither healthy nor quick, but after a long week of cooking healthy, fast dinners you deserve a good ole comfort meal with those you love.


Do you have any good ol’ comfort-food recipes to add to the list?  Please share!

Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.



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