Posts tagged dinner
Posts tagged dinner
I was watching the Gordon Ramsey show with the home cooks and relatively less yelling a while back (don’t judge me). It involves a group of contestants going through a whole bunch of challenges to test their mettle in high-stress cooking situations (feeding 101 cowboys in an outdoor setting! Reproducing a restaurant sushi dish in 60 minutes!) and a fair amount of crying.
It’s a fine show, but it reminds me of this thing that makes me kind of crazy, which is the chef-ification of home cooking.
Home cooks are not restaurant chefs. We don’t have to be restaurant chefs. Those are two different things. Why do people need restaurant-quality appliances in their kitchens? You are not cooking for hundreds of people every evening. Knife skills are great, but really, a lot less important when you’re cutting up 3 carrots versus a 30 pound bucket of carrots. I get my knives sharpened once a year if I’m feeling pretty on top of things. I don’t know that my Grandma ever sharpened her knives, she just bludgeoned her carrots. And she still made dinner!
And the measures of success are totally different in home cooking than restaurant cooking. Home cooking requires making one reasonably tasty, reasonably healthy meal for at most a handful of people most nights in the amount of time that you can manage or deem appropriate for cooking dinner. Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? An hour? Whatever. If you’re discussing the merits of Viking ranges, I’m guessing the amount you spend per pound on arugula doesn’t really matter. Meanwhile, it takes me forever to supreme an orange. Of course it does, I’ve supremed maybe 15 oranges in my entire life. And I pretty rarely get the timing just right so all the dishes are done at the same moment. Profit margins, speed, volume are all basically irrelevant as compared to restaurant cooking.
Which is not to say that there aren’t challenges in cooking dinner at home night after night. I certainly struggle with it these days, and even before the kid it could be a slog (“What do you want to have for dinner?” “I don’t know, what do we have?” “Some salad greens we have to eat, but I don’t feel like salad” “Are they even still good?” “I don’t know, is there anything else?” ad nauseum). But let’s not pretend that the challenges of cooking dinner would be solved by a fancy oven or familiarity with yuzu or incrementally better knife skills.
So…I have been a touch critical of the new Bon Appetit tone* in the past, but the past few issues have been surprisingly good. There was a cooking school feature in January, I think, and then the dinner feature this month.
In fact, I was looking for poetry material the other day and found surprisingly little. Kudos, Bon Appetit!
* I would describe it as self-satisfied-Brooklyn-hipster-dad.
(shot by Gentl & Hyers, Bon Appétit, March 2013)
When I first started cooking, I was afraid of high heat. And if I can extrapolate out from my own experience (of course I can, it’s my tumblr, n=1 in these here parts), I think that’s not uncommon.
High heat means that things go from undercooked to charred much, much faster. And there’s greater potential for smoke, and the smoke detector going off, and things catching on fire, and burning myself (not really, but it felt that way). And those are all really stressful when you’re already unsure of yourself in the kitchen.
But my fear of high heat translated into a fear of the broiler, and that is ridiculous. The broiler is your friend! Be religious about setting a timer (leaving something broiling for an extra minute can make the difference between perfectly done and dried out), understand that there might be smoke, and watch your hands. Otherwise, broil with abandon! Why? It cooks food really fast! And it makes the outside of things nice and brown without drying out the inside!
You could start with this recipe. The salmon takes almost no time to cook and the outside gets crispy and browned while the inside stays moist. If you cheat like I did and buy pre-sliced pineapple* and microwave instant rice** it’s even faster.
This photo is from Real Simple, but is basically what my finished dish looked like (except I think my salmon might have been more browned on the outside and a little less well-done on the inside).
Maple Glazed Salmon with Pineapple
Recipe from Real Simple. This serves four, but I halved it, kind of. I halved the glaze, and probably halved the pineapple (I bought the small container of pre-cut pineapple, which I think works out to about a quarter of a pineapple). I used the whole jalapeno, and I used the full amount of salmon. I intended to only spread the glaze over two of the salmon pieces and broil and save the two non-glazed pieces for salads later, but it seemed like there was enough glaze to go over all the salmon, so I glazed everything and just had extra tasty salmon in my salad the next day.
* On the one hand: crazy expensive. On the other hand: it means I don’t have to spend precious minutes that could be spent showering or going to the bathroom or just sitting quietly and reading my email breaking down a whole pineapple, and I don’t have to carefully strategize about when to break down the pineapple during the day in advance of dinner. And there weren’t whole pineapples for sale at the grocery store.
** I really didn’t want to tell you guys about the microwave instant rice, because I am embarrassed about it, but I felt like I should be honest. It turns out that the difference between cooking real rice and microwaving rice translates to the difference between not having rice with dinner and having rice with dinner some nights.
Thus far I’ve made baked beans; lamb, apricot, and olive tagine; spiced chicken stew with carrots; and this chicken curry recipe in our new slow cooker. I wouldn’t say any of those have been failures (far from it), but the chicken curry is definitely the most successful:
The chicken curry, though, was amazing. And super easy.
See that picture above? That is more or less the prep involved, and I did that, again, with my beast of a kid strapped to me.*
Step 1, pre-cooking.
Slow Cooker Chicken Curry
From marthastewart.com, my notes in italics.
Photo of the completed dish from marthastewart.com. It did not look so lovely when I made it.
* Somehow we’ve made a baby that is freakishly large. The checkout clerk at Target gave me a tiny bit of side-eye when I said he was only seven weeks old.
I’ve recently found myself in the weird position of re-learning how to cook, particularly dinner.
The part that’s weird is that I know how to cook dinner. I’ve been cooking dinner nearly every night for nearly 10 years. I made more or less complicated recipes, but the process of putting a homemade meal on the table is not foreign to me.
Then we had our kid. Things may change in the coming months, but suddenly I have to figure out how to make a homemade meal all over again. Between nursing, and changing diapers, and soothing the kid during the witching hours (do not google that if you think you want to have children anytime soon— it’s better not to know), and walking the dog, and sleeping, the time available to cook is…gone. It reminds me again that cooking is not just about knowing how to cut up an onion, or brown meat, or make a roux, although those things are important. It’s about how to do those things within the context of your life.
And when your life changes, the way you cook changes, too.
Recipes that I used to consider easy now seem like impossibilities. I used to make souffles for dinner! Ha!
After a long while of being kind of dismissive of Real Simple magazine and their recipes, I am happy to report that the past three dishes I have successfully created are from Real Simple.
The first is their Tortellini with Radicchio and Peas from the March 2013 issue. I would not have made this before. I would have been doubtful about the raw radicchio, and how basic it seemed, and I tend to skim the “weeknight meals” section of the magazine anyway. All that said, it was incredibly fast and simple to make, and it was really good. The fact that it included vegetables meant that I didn’t have to make a side dish in order to feel like I was eating an actual full meal.
And it’s a great dish if you’re learning to cook, because it’s fast, and tasty, and doesn’t involve a ton of dishes, and can help build confidence, which is honestly half the battle.
Tortellini with Radicchio and Peas
From Real Simple, March 2013
1. Cook the tortellini according to package directions (note on timing: fresh pasta cooks really quickly. So you might want to start the pot of water, then prep the radicchio and scallions, and then start cooking the pasta once the water is boiling). Add the peas during the last minute of cooking. Reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking water; drain the tortellini and peas and return them to the pot.
2. Add the radicchio, scallions, butter, 1/2 cup of the cooking water, and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper to the tortellini and peas and toss to combine. Add a bit more cooking water if needed. Serve with the Parmesan.
Your brain does crazy things when you’re hungry. It decides that even though you have food in the fridge, you should get takeout from down the street. Or have cereal for dinner. Or mix the white cheddar and kettle corn popcorn flavors into a gigantic bowl and eat it while watching tv.*
There are two things that keep your (my?) crazy reptile brain from taking the shortest possible path to the most calories every night. The first is to start making dinner before you’re hungry. The second is to have a contingency plan.
The plan is important because there are nights when you have stuff going on after work, or you got caught up in work, or something else and there you are, STARVING, already leafing through takeout menus. What you need on those nights are a set of simple recipes that can be made quickly and without a lot of effort. It’s better if you have the ingredients at home most of the time. I’ve written about these before, they’re my “instead of mac & cheese” recipes.
If you haven’t committed yours to memory, brainstorm a list and post it on your fridge, or the inside of the cabinet door where you keep the popcorn.
Here’s a selection from my list:
- Pasta Puttanesca. I made this last night and hand-to-God, I made it in the time it took to boil the pasta. I put the hot water on, prepped the ingredients (rough chopping of a few handfuls of things), got the sauce started, and let it simmer as the pasta cooked. This depends on being the kind of person who keeps anchovies, garlic, olives, and capers at home, which I am, and I am not ashamed. Except weirdly, tonight we were out of anchovies. I did have two cans of sardines, though, because GOD FORBID WE EVER BE OUT OF TINY CANNED FISHES. You can find the recipe here (scroll down).
- Sautéed spinach and scrambled eggs. I know there are ways to make scrambled eggs in which you cook them slowly for 20 minutes and the curds are tiny and perfect and this is not that situation. This is the kind of deal in which you throw some butter and garlic in a pan, add some spinach and cook it til it’s wilted (5 minutes?), scoop it out, add some more butter, scramble some eggs, add some cheese, and have dinner in 15 minutes, max.
- Sausages baked with a mixture of honey and mustard, plus some kind of vegetable, whatever’s easiest. This takes a little bit longer than the other two, but there’s basically no hands-on cooking. (Recipe here)
- A salad with greens, tuna, olives, and any of these vegetables if you’ve got them kicking around: roasted baby potatoes, steamed green beans, sliced tomatoes. I top it with this lemony salad dressing, or a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil.
- Sweet potato, cooked in a microwave, topped with cheese. I know, it’s not elegant, but there can be great pleasure in a sweet potato with chevre.
- Pasta with Lemon Cream and Proscuitto. I don’t think proscuitto has ever lasted in our house for longer than two hours, so unless I buy it for a recipe, we don’t have it. Happily, the recipe is still fine without it. I’ve also (frequently) made it without the orange zest. It’s still perfectly good.
- This is arguably not much different than mac & cheese in terms of homemade-ness, but I find it much more satisfying: Trader Joe’s ravioli with some kind of side vegetable or salad. You can swap out other packages of the pre-made ravioli, but I like the Trader Joe’s varieties and think they’re reasonably priced. Don’t buy the Trader Joe’s butternut squash, it’s terrible.
My point is, you don’t grow up and suddenly not get ravenously hungry any more. That still happens. But part of being an adult that cooks dinner regularly is understanding that the Ideal Dinner Cooking Situation does not come around all the time, or even very often. I am constantly out of an ingredient that I thought I had, or I’m tired, or the chicken went bad, or I had to work late, or something or another. If I went out to dinner every time this happened, I would eat out all the time.**
* What? No. I have never done this. Don’t look at me.
** There is nothing wrong with eating out, and sometimes I just really don’t feel like cooking. But I don’t want eating out to be the default because I’m feeling lazy. I want to eat out because there’s someplace I want to go.
A funny thing happens when I’m traveling (especially for work): I start to ache for home-cooked food, and yet when I get home, I feel like I have to learn to cook dinner all over again. And I’m not talking about learning to cut up onions, I’m talking about getting over the enormous hump of inertia. It’s just so haaaaaaaaaaard.
I feel the same way about waking up in the morning when I’m getting back from a work trip: oh SERIOUSLY? I have to do this again? I JUST GOT USED TO PACIFIC TIME.*
I finally decided last night that I couldn’t justify eating out again, so I made salmon with lentils and mustard-herb butter. It’s a marvelous recipe, in that you cook two otherwise healthy ingredients in an ungodly amount of butter and then top them with more butter.
Salmon with Lentils and Mustard-Herb Butter
For mustard-herb butter
For the butter:
The recipe tells you to stir together the ingredients with a bit of salt and pepper, which is ridiculous. Those ingredients are not going to stir together. I mash them together with the back of my fork, or chop them together, depending on how cold the butter is. Set aside.
For the lentils:
Chop the leeks (wash them really well!) and cook them in butter over medium-low heat a non-stick skillet large enough to eventually hold the salmon.
Meanwhile, bring the lentils, water, and nearly a teaspoon of salt to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid, and drain.
Return the lentils to their pot, along with the leeks, and 3 tablespoons of the compound butter. Cook, stirring, until the butter is melted and lentils are heated through. Remove from heat, add lemon juice, and salt & pepper to taste. Cover to keep warm and set aside.
For the salmon:
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat butter over medium heat in the skillet you used for the leeks. Wait until the foaming subsides, then add the salmon. Cook for 3 - 4 minutes per side, until just cooked through. I like to err on the side of undercooked for salmon, so I take it off the heat when the middle is still just losing that raw texture but still quite red.
Serve the salmon on top of the lentils and top the whole shebang with more compound butter. Save any leftover butter to use on lentils, or chicken, or steamed vegetables.
* Inevitably it is the last day of a trip that my body finally adjusts to pacific time, after days of waking up at 4:00 am and wandering the streets for a breakfast place that’s open before 6.
Poster encouraging healthy eating habits from the Work Projects Administration Poster Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Between 1941 and 1943.
Somehow over the years that I’ve been doing this tumblr, I have developed an Imaginary Reader to whom I often find myself writing. Imaginary Reader is young person out there in the world, new to cooking, and looks to me for sage advice and recipes and reminiscences upon my youth.*
(It’s okay if you are an actual reader and don’t match my Imaginary Reader. I embrace you.)
That said, last night I made ginger carrots, and I was thinking about telling Imaginary Reader about it, and realized that I think I may have skipped some really important pieces of sage advice. Imaginary Reader! I really want you to feel comfortable and confident in the kitchen! Cooking dinner!
Here is the most important thing, the underlying principle, if you will:
Cooking Dinner is Not Like Dinner Party Cooking
Dinner Party Cooking involves courses and things that are coordinated, and you go shopping in advance to make sure you have all the ingredients, and you follow your recipes carefully. This is wonderful, and it is totally fine to do Dinner Party Cooking on weeknights by yourself.
Cooking dinner, though, sometimes means standing in the kitchen at 7:00 pm, hungry, and trying to figure out what you might make with the ingredients you have to get yourself fed. It is about putting food on the table.
Sometimes I post recipes that come out of cooking dinner and it might seem like they’re dinner party cooking recipes. But no. I got there by standing in front of the fridge thinking “What about risotto? No, we don’t have any mushrooms. What about polenta with greens on top? I don’t feel like greens. Do we have ravioli in the freezer? Do I feel like a souffle? So many dishes. What about scrambled eggs? I like scrambled eggs. What else can I make to have with scrambled eggs?”
There’s a certain amount of half-assing that happens with cooking dinner. But there’s also improvisation and a bit of creativity and relaxing of expectations. I can’t prove it, but I think that if you don’t master cooking dinner, you will always end up eating frozen foods or eating out when you find yourself a little bit stuck in the kitchen. Imaginary Reader, I want you to feel like cooking from scratch can be easy. It does not always mean slaving away in the kitchen. There is a huge big space between cooking a three-course dinner from recipes you just cut out of a magazine and ordering in pizza. This is a space inhabited by rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods with sauteed spinach, scrambled eggs with a side of ginger carrots, that pasta dish I like but with frozen peas instead of broccoli and without the proscuitto and with lemon zest instead of orange zest, polenta with the leftover chicken and roast vegetables, baked potatoes with caramelized onions, a grilled cheese sandwich with a salad.
I can think of a few things that have helped me be able to pull dinner together at the last minute, and I will tell you about them, but I think the first step is accepting a certain amount of imperfection. It doesn’t all have to be perfectly coordinated or plated. I feel strongly that dinner has to have a vegetable, and Dave feels strongly that it can’t just be vegetables. But that leaves us a lot of room to work, you know?
For instance: scrambled eggs and ginger carrots.
Combine carrots, ginger, brown sugar, and butter in a large sauté pan with a lid. Add water to halfway cover the carrots (you can add some salt now, too, and any additional spices that you want to use). Bring to a boil, stir, and then reduce heat so that the carrots are simmering and cover. Set a timer for about 8 or so minutes.
Take the lid off and continue to simmer for another 5 or so minutes, depending on the size of your carrot slices, and the amount of water you added, and the size of your burner, and probably other things as well. The carrots should be tender at the same time you run out of water. Let the carrots sizzle and brown slightly in the pan, then serve. (If you run out of water and the carrots aren’t tender yet just add a bit more water. If you think the carrots are getting mushy, you can always take them out, boil the liquid down into a glaze, and then add the carrots back in to coat.) If you have parsley mouldering in your crisper drawer, feel free to add a few sprigs as a festive gesture.
* I understand that even Imaginary Reader is probably not all that interested in reminiscences upon my youth.
Illustration from Joy of Cooking. It depicts “preparing an undrawn bird for roasting” which is not the same as loosening the skin from the meat, but I couldn’t resist including it anyway.
In any relationship, there is one person who is less revolted by the idea of shoving their hand up underneath the skin of a raw chicken. I did not think I was that person, but apparently I find it less objectionable than Dave does. Are you that person in your relationship? Congratulations, you are now the person who stuffs seasonings into pockets in the chicken skin. This is part of your life now. You may add it to your resume.
I bring this up because stuffing seasonings under the skin of chicken allows the skin to crisp better and infuses the meat with more flavor than just coating the skin. It’s incredibly effective.
And I would highly recommend trying it with this recipe from A Bird in the Oven and Then Some by Mindy Fox, which I totally bastardized when I was trying to put together dinner without resorting to lemon mustard chicken AGAIN but was still revelatory.
Roast Chicken with Saffron, Ginger, and Golden Raisins
Preheat oven to 425.
Prepare the seasoning: Cut the butter up into pieces and put in a bowl. Zest the orange into the bowl. Add the raisins, ginger, garlic, saffron, and coriander. Mix together. My butter was pretty cold, so I used one of those pastry cutter dealies to mix things together.
Pull of excess fat around the cavities of the chicken and discard. From the edge of the cavity, wriggle your fingers up under the skin of the chicken and loosen the skin from the meat. You may have to get in here with some kitchen shears or a knife if you have a hard time getting around the membranes that attach the skin to the meat. This is basically terrible, but you get more used to it the more you do it.
Using your hands, work the butter into the spaces between the chicken skin and meat. You can rub your hand over the outside of the skin to smooth the mixture out and push it farther down between the skin and meat.
Season with salt and pepper.
What I did: I put the chicken thighs on a roasting pan with some cut up root vegetables and cooked the whole thing until done.
The recipe directions: Roast for 15 minutes, then pour the wine over the chicken, reduce the heat to 350, and continue to roast, basting every 15 minutes until the juices run clear when the thigh is pierced with a fork, or an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes, then carve.
This is so wonderfully good, even my bastardized version.
I have a categorization system that I use for filing recipes in binders, and then I have my own categorization system in my head for recipes. That filing system includes categories of recipes that remind me of fall, recipes that my mum used to make us when we were kids, recipes for when I am sick, recipes to make when it is raining and I don’t feel like going out, recipes for fancy dinners, and more. This meal above falls into a very special category that I think of as “instead of mac & cheese.” Boxed mac & cheese is pretty easy and pretty fast, but actually there are a lot of simple dinners that you can make that are more substantial and just as easy and/or fast.
I present to you: Sausage and Cauliflower. This is a variation on Sausage and Sauerkraut that we ate more or less weekly when we had a 10 gallon bucket of sauerkraut sitting in the corner of the kitchen.
This takes slightly longer than mac & cheese, but I believe it to be easier.
Wash your cauliflower, then cut into quarters. Cut out the core. Break off the florets into mostly bite sized pieces. Toss with olive oil and salt and pepper. Spread onto a baking sheet and stick in a 400 degree or so oven.
We generally use Niman Ranch bratwurst or apple and gouda pork sausages, which are already cooked. You’ll want to adjust cooking times if you’re using uncooked sausage. Mix about equal amounts of whole grain mustard and either honey or maple syrup. Spread over the sausages and stick them into a baking dish (I use a small square casserole dish that I have, they fit perfectly).
Sausages & Cauliflower
Once it has cooked for 15 or 20 minutes, toss the cauliflower so it browns sort of evenly and add the sausages to the oven. Cook for another 15 minutes or so. The cauliflower should be done and the sausages should be heated through and the glaze should be sticky and glaze-like.