Summertime — the best time of year to spend hours toiling in a hot kitchen, right?
Not so much?
When the weather is sweltering and everyone is over-committed to summer fun, one option for mealtime is of course to just eat out every night. But that's not really sustainable, or the greatest of ideas (though I've been known to do it for too-long of stretches myself).
Happily, you have options. And we can count on the sweetheart grocery of America to step in with goodies that don't take a toll when the temperature's rising. Trader Joe's is my favorite place to shop anytime of year (I will always wonder how they manage to hire such amazingly nice people that make the dreaded chore of grocery shopping actually fun!) but they're downright lifesavers come summer.
To find out some of the best buys for easy summer mealtimes, I talked with Deana Gunn, co-author of 10 Trader Joe's cookbooks, and such a longtime fan that she shopped at their first store. She shared some of her top Trader Joe's picks for her family with NBC News BETTER.
Pre-cooked beets (and mozzarella and basil) for easy summer salads
Gunn likes to grab the ruby red veggies to sub in for another red veg in the summer classic Caprese salad. Instead of tomato, mozzarella, and basil, she layers sliced beets with Trader Joe's “great fresh mozzarella” and leaves from a basil plant also available at the store. “They have the little plastic containers of basil,” she said, “but they also have the big plants. They have those nice thick leaves — pick off half and take the rest and stick in your garden. I have had like shrubs come up by August!”
She tops it off with a drizzle of olive oil (Trader Joe's, who else!), balsamic and black pepper, and serves it with crunchy Trader Joe's bread.
Steamed lentils and pre-cooked rice provide almost-ready-made meals
Gunn is a huge fan of the packs of pre-cooked lentils. Taking advantage of the time of year that you can get good, fragrant tomatoes and parsley, she said, she tosses the lentils with chopped tomatoes and parsley, then mixes in some olive oil, lemon juice, and freshly ground pepper.
A family favorite at her house is a grilled lentil wrap. “I'm always surprised my kids love it so much,” she said (but it sounds delicious!). “Saute some chopped onion, then add the pre-cooked brown rice and lentils, stirring in little yogurt and shredded mozzarella,” she explained. Then she warms up a Trader Joe's flour tortillas in a skillet and assembles the wraps with the filling down the center, and the tortillas folded inward. Just like with making panini, she suggests putting something heavy on the wrap as it heats up. “It makes this yummy cheesy toasted lentil and rice wrap,” she said. “I have four teenagers and they all love it.”
The brown rice, by the way, may be her number one go-to, cooking up in the microwave in just a few minutes. “In the summer who wants to cook steamy rice for an hour?” she said.
Pre-marinated meats (and marinade) for easy Korean tacos
“If you like grilling, Trader Joe's has all those pre-marinated meats like Bool Kogi,” Gunn said.
“It's a little bit on pricey side but really tasty and really easy.” The boneless beef ribs are marinated in a Korean style sweet, sesame-soy-garlic sauce. You can go simple with the frozen brown rice and a vegetable, she said, or, follow her lead to make fusion street tacos.
“We call it Korean carne,” she said. After the grilling the meat, she chops it and puts it in corn tortillas with guacamole and tomatoes. “It goes together so well!”
Gunn also likes the Trader Joe's Soyaki sauce as a marinade. “That one's great if you want to take chicken thighs and marinate a couple hours and grill them.” She also adds grilled bell peppers, and serves it with, yep, that frozen brown rice. “And you haven't cooked anything inside!” she said. The Soyaki is also good with salmon on the grill, she added.
Mini quiche make an easy mid-week dinner
The workhorse of Gunn's kitchen in the summer is the toaster oven. And a meal can be as easy as popping in a Trader Joe's frozen mini quiche, and tossing together a pre-bagged salad while it heats. Dinner, done. (Pro tip: if you still want to get your baking on you can buy a pre-made Trader Joe's pie crust and make your own quiche filling, she said — and still bake it in the toaster oven!)
Frozen mango for smoothies
Before you read further, know that nobody's judging if you suddenly want a smoothie for dinner. Gunn puts bagged frozen mango cubes from Trader Joe's to a pretty dreamy use … in orange creamsicle smoothies. Blending vanilla yogurt, ice, OJ, and the frozen mangoes, she whirs together a treat that she calls a breakfast smoothie, but I think I'd like right now, actually.