How to Cook Fast

By Sandy Hu
The latest from Inside Special Fork

Recently, I was a guest on a Kansas City radio food show, LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen, hosted by Chef Jasper Mirabile and Kimberly Stern. Invited to talk about the story of Special Fork, ten minutes flew by and there was hardly time to get to some practical cooking tips.

Having put some thought to it for the show, I’m sharing some of our best quick cooking tips with you, as an extension of the radio interview. I’d love to hear your best tips, too!

Top Ten 30-Minute Recipes

I culled through many hundreds of recipes in our recipe database to come up with my top ten quick favorites. While all Special Fork recipes take no more than 30 minutes to prep, cooking time may be extra. These ten I’ve identified can each be made, start to finish, in about a half hour total.

My Go-To Appliances for Quicker Cooking

I have a fully equipped kitchen with stand mixer, electric hand mixer, blender, food processor (large and mini)—even a sous vide machine. But here are two simple appliances that are the most well-used in my kitchen.

  • A watched pot, as the saying goes, never boils. So instead putting a full pot of water on the stove when cooking pasta, I use an inexpensive electric kettle. The water in the electric kettle boils in a flash; then I transfer the boiling water to my pasta pot and keep the pot simmering while I refill the kettle and boil more. It will shave many precious minutes from your cooking time.
  • A rice cooker is a set-and-forget appliance that will give you perfect hot rice in about 30 minutes. While the rice is making itself, you have more than enough time to cook up a soupy main dish, like Thai Stir Fry Curry Ground Beef (six ingredients, 15 minutes), one of my Top Ten Recipes. That’s how you get a complete dinner together in a half hour. A no-frills rice cooker can be had for under $20 on Amazon.

What to Keep in a Well-Stocked Pantry

If you have staples on hand, you can always make something for dinner. For ways to use any of the ingredients below, go to Special Fork’s recipe database and input the name of the ingredient(s) using the the “On Hand” search function, then click on the “View Recipes” button at the bottom of the page.

Here’s what I keep in quantity on shelves in my garage:

  • All types and shapes of dried pasta—linguine, rigatoni, penne, macaroni, spaghetti; fusilli.
  • Couscous and quinoa to use as a side dish or in salads.
  • Various kinds of rice—short-grain, long-grain, brown, jasmine, basmati, Arborio.
  • Chicken and beef stock.
  • Canned tuna in olive oil—you can use it in casseroles, tossed with greens for a main dish salad, as a sandwich filling and more.
  • Canned beans—cannellini, kidney and black beans. They can be used to bulk up soups, in chilies, in salads or in burritos.
  • Canned tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste.
Here’s what I always have in my fridge and freezer:


  • Cheeses—a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano, Cheddar (I buy the kind in 7-ounce vacuum-sealed packages like Kerrygold, that keeps for months if unopened), and I usually have some goat cheese, feta or other specialty cheeses. When I don’t have an idea for dinner, I make mac and cheese using pantry staples: macaroni, milk and several types of cheeses.
  • Vegetable bin—celery, carrots, fresh ginger, prewashed greens.
  • Condiments—the usual ketchup, mayo, several kinds of mustard, sriracha, harissa and other hot sauces.
  • Seasoning sauces—naturally brewed soy sauce, fish sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce are my staples.
  • Eggs, milk and butter (salted and unsalted); I keep extra butter sealed in a heavy-duty plastic zipper bag and stored in the freezer, so I never run out.
  • Corn and flour tortillas for tacos, quesadillas, burritos and wraps; and naan and pita bread as a base for pizza.
  • Lemon and lime juices and grated peel in 3 tablespoon portions.
  • All kinds of nuts—walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, pecans, peanuts, hazelnuts—for salad toppings, in pilafs, for making pesto and for baking. They keep indefinitely in the freezer without going rancid.
  • Thai red chiles—so many Thai recipes call for them and they always end up going bad in the fridge. Freezing will change their texture, but in most cases, it doesn’t affect the quality of the finished dish.
Here’s what I store in my cupboards:
  • A collection of spices—my spice rack goes floor to ceiling. My most used spices? Ground cumin (for Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian and North African dishes) and thyme.
  • Oils and vinegars—Balsamic, rice wine, sherry, red and white vinegars; several types of olive oil (I buy extra-virgin olive oils, using the less expensive ones for cooking and the higher quality for salads and finishing dishes.)
  • Sake, mirin and dashi granules for Japanese cooking.
  • Onion, garlic and shallots in a basket storage container—one or more are essential in just about everything I make.
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms, porcini mushrooms (you can rehydrate and use a handful of them in place of fresh mushrooms in many dishes) and dried fruits like raisins, currants, cranberries and dried plums to add tangy sweetness to main dishes and baked goods.
Strategies for a Quick Dinner

Here are some of the things I do when I need dinner in a hurry.

  • Serve breakfast for dinner—pancakes, bacon and eggs are easy to whip up and are always welcome as favorite comfort foods.
  • Make sandwich dinners—panini, grilled cheese, BLT, croquet monsieur—and serve with soup or a salad.
  • Use proteins that don’t require much prep and that cook quickly, such as ground beef, pork or poultry; tofu or cheese. You’ll find lots of easy recipes for these ingredients in the Special Fork database.
  • Instead of a cooked vegetable side dish, serve a salad made with prewashed greens and dress with 3 parts olive oil and 1 part vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. I use my salad spoon to measure out the oil and vinegar directly into the salad bowl and toss to combine.
  • Repurpose leftovers. Leftover rotisserie chicken can be shredded, mixed with barbecue sauce and served on rolls; sliced and served with greens for a main dish salad; chopped up and added to mac and cheese or made into sandwich filling. Other bits of leftovers can get tossed into fried rice. I’m always looking for ways to disguise leftovers in a new dish.
  • When all else fails, make an omelet or a frittata with eggs and whatever you can scrounge from the fridge.

Pictured: Sausage and Grapes recipe by Ben Mims; photo by Ben Mims.

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Posted: Mar 26th by Sandy_Hu