My mom could have been the original queen of 30-minute meals. At 5:30 every night, she made her way to the kitchen and by 6:00, dinner was served. Of course, this was long before the Food Network and a handful of celebrity-chef cookbooks coined the phrase and made meals that cook in less than a half hour all the rage.
Dinnertime, however, has always been busy. For generations, this time slot has been synonymous with carpools, meetings, homework help, tired babies, and hungry kids. My mom’s weeknight meals weren’t especially fancy, but they were hearty, healthy, and—with the exception of the occasional liver and onions curveball—kid-friendly. Personal favorites included her chicken and rice, chili mac, and a Santa Fe chicken dinner that she served over buttered fettuccini.
The following meal is my twist on that southwestern meal, which includes corn, bell peppers, black beans and a sprinkle of Tex-Mex spices. Instead of preparing it in a skillet like she did, I wrap the ingredients in individual foil packets that offer built-in portion control and easy cleanup.
The finished packets can be served over rice—or noodles if you prefer—but they’re also filling enough to be the whole meal. As an option, they can be customized with a variety of toppings like chopped avocado or guacamole, crumbled tortilla chips, salsa, or almost anything that would complement your favorite taco.
After baking, there will be some natural juices in the packets. If you choose to serve over rice, the juices will flavor it nicely. To avoid excessive liquid, make sure to drain the beans and tomatoes well.
I keep the ingredients for this recipe on hand for a convenient, well-rounded meal whenever needed. For extra ease, freeze one or two packages of chicken, already chopped, so you can truly have everything on hand and ready to go. (If you’re a Central Market shopper, Roger and the rest of the crew at Shenk’s Poultry will chop the chicken for you!) I like the chicken pieces to be truly bite-size so you get a little with each bite and they cook quickly.
Though she never set the timer, it’s fun to realize that my mom was an early master of the 30-minute meal. In the process she showed me that quick and easy could, in fact, be delicious and well rounded. So in honor of Mother’s Day, this quick-cooking meal is my gift to everyone who longs for a few extra minutes every night. Speedy cleanup is a bonus!
For added ease, these flavorful packets can be prepared several hours in advance and stored on a baking sheet in the fridge.
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1-1/2 pounds total or 6 ounces each)
- 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and well drained*
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can fire roasted tomatoes or diced tomatoes with green chilies, well drained
- 2 cups corn, frozen (no need to thaw; may use fresh in season)
- 1 packet taco seasoning mix**
- 1/2 cup shredded Mexican blend or sharp cheddar cheese
- Optional for serving: cooked rice; chopped avocado or guacamole; fresh cilantro or parsley; sliced scallions or snipped chives; crumbled tortilla chips, hot sauce; salsa; and/or sour cream
- Preheat the oven to 425°F, and tear 4 pieces of foil that are roughly 12” x 18”. Spray or lightly oil them, and set aside.
- Mix the drained beans, tomatoes, and corn in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the taco seasoning, and toss to evenly distribute.
- Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces, and evenly distribute the pieces in an even layer in the center of the four pieces of prepared foil (on the side you sprayed).
- Spoon 1/4 of the bean mixture over each pile of chicken. Bring the long sides of the foil together, and fold them at the top. Then bring the short sides together and fold again. Avoid folding the packets too tightly; you want a little air space at the top of each packet. You do, however, want a tight seal to keep in the juices.
- Place the packets on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through. (I cut the chicken pieces fairly small and the packets take exactly 15 minutes in my oven. Feel free to carefully open one packet, check a piece of chicken for doneness, and reseal the packet and return to the oven if a few more minutes are needed until you know how long this takes in your oven.) Carefully open the packets so the steam doesn’t burn you. Place about 2 tablespoons of shredded cheese over the mixture in each packet, and then reclose the packets for a minute or two to allow the cheese to melt.
- Open the packets and turn onto a plate or enjoy right out of the foil with or without a scoop of rice and/or toppings of choice.
- *Try placing the beans in the colander and letting them drain while you are prepping the foil. Then give them a good shake and dump them into your mixing bowl. Follow suit with the tomatoes (but don’t rinse the tomatoes), allowing them to drain as you prep the chicken. This will give these ingredients time to drain well.
- **Before I sped up the recipe by flavoring it with taco seasoning (store-bought is fine; or you can try this homemade recipe), I used the following combination of spices, which you can try if you are without the taco seasoning: 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon each paprika, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder (not onion and garlic salt), 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper.