Taco night - Tuesday night.
The tip I'll focus on in this blog entry is how and what to make in advance.
Wife usually comes home around 6:00 these days, so I'd like to have dinner on the table, ideally, around 6:10 or 6:15. Though I'm not perfect at that, I'm getting better. The major barriers to that are having the kids awake. Fortunately, yesterday they took rock-star naps, so I was able to have almost everything ready to go.
To successfully make food well in advance of the meal, you have to think about what you're making, even if it means making a list. You have to consider if things have to go into the oven and what things will keep well versus having to serve right from the stove/oven/grill.
Sauces, side dishes, and garnish are usually the best to make in advance. For taco night, my side dishes included Rice-a-Roni Mexican Rice and homemade refried beans. I would also prepare the garnish: chopped lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, cebollas y cilantro (onions with cilantro and jalapenos), and salsa.
The garnish is almost all out-of-the-jar, so it can be done intermittently while cooking the beans and the rice.
Since I'd never made refried beans before, I decided to tackle that first. It turns out, it was very easy. The recipe used was out of Mexican family favorites Cook Book by Maria Teresa Bermudez (2004 Golden West Publishers). I used a 16oz can of pinto beans, 1 T vegetable oil, 1 clove of garlic, 1 T chopped onion, and 1 pinch of salt, while keeping a reserve of water in a measuring cup to put into the beans in small doses to thin and puree the beans. Overall, about 5 minutes of prep (10 if you don't have onion chopped in your refrigerator already), 10 minutes of hands-on cooking, and 5 minutes hands-off cooking.
The Mexican Rice was easy, as it was Rice-a-Roni. Nothing complicated about that. 2 minutes of prep, 5 minutes hands-on cooking, 15-20 minutes hands-off cooking. I added about 1/4 c. each of frozen corn and frozen peas after 15 minutes of covered simmering (I know that 1/4 c. is a palmfull.)
While the rice was cooking, I made the cebollas y cilantro by taking about 1/4 c. chopped onion, about a 1T pinch of fresh cilantro, and about 1 t. diced japalenos out of the jar. (By the way, I bought Mt. Olive jalapenos and was pissed to find that they'd put Yellow #5 in there. I mean, really, do they need to enhance the color of jalapenos? Hopefully, my liver won't hate me...) Chopped the onion into finer pieces, minced the cilantro, and combined them with the jalapenos in a small serving dish.
Then I chopped, rinsed, and salad-spun iceberg lettuce.
Next was dicing the 1/4 tomato I had left over from the other day. (By the way, if you don't know the RIGHT way to dice an onion - and most other round fruit and vegetables - you must learn. It will save you time and make you more confident as a cook. And, yes, there is a RIGHT WAY.)
Put about 1/4 c. shredded cheddar and sour cream in serving dishes. Put back into the fridge.
I did all of that at around 3pm. When the beans and rice were done, I just left them on the stove with the stove off. They're not meat or dairy, so they won't go bad after just a couple of hours. Covering them is not a bad idea to keep them moist and ease re-heating.
At 5:30, Wife called to say she was leaving. I started the meat. Today, just ground beef, though getting skirt steak from the Mexican grocery store would be preferred. The ground beef took about 15 minutes to make. Unfortunately, Toodles woke up during the most delicate time, simmering the meat in water and seasoning. It was on a couple of minutes long resulting in dryness. Still edible.
When I could, I reheated the rice, beans, and beef. Then I set the table. Having already plated the garnish made everything easier - rather than having to scoop things into dishes, then put them on the table, I just set everything on to the table. Tortillas were placed into a tortilla warmer and into the microwave on High for 1 minute. The reheated main dishes and sides were put on serving dishes and onto the table.
What could have been done better? When Toodles woke up, I should have turned the heat under the meat waaaay down and that would have slowed the cooking process. I also should have used more water in the beans. Otherwise, pretty good all around.
Remember, the key to this was knowing what could be done ahead of time. Say your kids aren't rock-star nappers like mine and there's no way you'll have 2-3 hours in one shot. You can do the rice in the morning during nap. Remember: you only have about 5 minutes of actual work for that, then it simmers covered on low heat for 15-20 minutes, then you take it off the heat to let it cool, stir it up, put it in the fridge. The beans only took about 15 minutes and I'm sure there's a cartoon that the kid(s) watch at some point. You can put sour cream, cheese, and whatever other garnishes on a plate while making lunch, throw some plastic wrap over and back into the fridge. The meat takes all of 10 minutes, about 5 of which are letting it cook by itself and that can be done just before serving. Planning is the key to success.