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quick cooking

Improvised pasta with Greenmarket vegetable saute

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August, the month of summer vacations and relaxation. We here at Chez 107 will have some vacation time soon, but for now I’m still in the throes of long work hours and business travel and failing to keep up with the housework. Summer has not particularly brought leisure, though it has brought humidity. And this evening it brought a crazy thunderstorm, which has tempered the heat only a little.

EggplantAndGarlic

With my heavy travel and work schedule I’ve been neglecting the kitchen, even as I’ve added some toys to it. We replaced our skillets, which were chewed-up nonstick — not an especially safe arrangement, but now we have Calphalon. Also nonstick; I must have misread the product description, but we can be more gingerly with them than we were with the old ones, since we didn’t buy them with grocery receipts. We bought a a SodaStream, which we adore. Last week I hauled home a new kitchen garbage can, a robust (and kind of expensive) one with a foot pedal, which so far is performing wonderfully. But cooking? I have been a bit lazy. I did a little baking in June and July, and have made a few pasta dishes. Still, we’ve had more than our fair share of delivery.

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This weekend I did better. I cooked dinner both last night and tonight. Given how hot it’s been I feel like I deserve a freakin’ medal for standing in front of the stove, even if only long enough to saute vegetables and cook pasta.

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Tonight’s dish was improvised, using vegetables I’d gotten at the Greenmarket without a very definite plan for how to use them. I sliced and salted some baby eggplant, then rinsed away the salt and blotted them dry. I threw them into a skillet (one of the new ones) with some olive oil and let them cook a bit, then gradually added garlic; green peppers; a few pinches of oregano, paprika and thyme; about two tablespoons’ worth of basil chiffonade; some chopped tomatoes; about 3/4 cup of red wine; and some baby spinach.

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I kept cooking and stirring around until the eggplant was breaking down nicely and everything seemed to be blending together well.

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In the meantime I cooked a pound of dried rotini, then drained it and tossed the pasta together with the vegetables in the pot, adding a little bit of the pasta water to help the consistency.

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I dished it up and grated on some Romano. The mixture was delicious. The flavor of the vegetables blended wonderfully, and the wine gave a nice tone without overwhelming the other ingredients.

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Best of all? Leftovers. This is going to be really good cold.

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Recipe tool and random thoughts

I didn’t do a big cooking project this weekend, but I have decided to try to get back to a regular publishing schedule. So I will aim to post every Monday, regardless of how intensive my cooking efforts have been, and to post more if I can manage it.

This isn’t to say that I have not done any cooking. I’ve made a few pasta dishes, and froze some pesto for the winter. (I haven’t actually done that before, but I understand one is supposed to omit the parmesan before freezing because the consistency doesn’t work out so well upon thawing. I’ll report how that worked when the time comes.) The night of my canning I made a basic pasta-tomato-basil dish to accompany sauteed chicken breast, but I didn’t photograph it. I’ve been out of the habit of photographing if it’s not a special recipe. I may have to rethink this so I can show off a few nifty-looking but not difficult dishes.

Here’s a pasta dish I cobbled together a while back, for example:
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I boiled pasta and combined it with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, chickpeas, lemon zest, salt and pepper, parmesan, and asparagus. I tossed the asparagus bits into the pasta water a few minutes before the end of the boiling and drained it all together.

That’s typical of a lot of the cooking I do: I like to improvise. Or sometimes I have little choice but to improvise, if the hour is late and my foot is sore (that flipping plantar fasciitis) and I can’t find it in me to make a run to the store. I could just sigh and lament the long-lost days of living above a Zupan’s, or spend even more of our disposable income on delivery, but far better to rummage the shelves and figure out a clever combination.

A recent Techlicious article spotlights several sites that help you do this kind of improvisation more easily. I’ve signed up for SuperCook.com, which lets you store pantry items and add other ingredients on hand to see what you might be able to throw together. I’ve populated most of my staples, and before adding anything from the fridge or freezer I was already seeing a lot of pasta and garlic dishes; adding mint and lemon significantly expanded the options. Unsurprisingly, I seem to be able to make just about any kind of cake or cookie if I’m so inclined.

Though as it happens, I have not been willing to turn on the oven. We’ve had a hot summer. Yesterday was the first relatively cool day in weeks, as my electric bill can attest, and if we had stayed home I’d have thought about making chili and maybe baking a batch of cookies. But instead we went out to a tavern where our neighbor works; at his insistence we tried the fried dill pickles, and now I am going to have to make some for myself. But not tonight. Today was my first day back at work, and frying will have to wait.

The Whole Soy Cookbook: Speedy Sloppy Joes

soy sloppy joes

SloppyJoeOnBuns3We’re in the dog days of August, and I’ve been falling behind on the cooking. There are a few reasons for this. It’s too hot to cook, for one thing. We’ve been making salad and pasta, or eating leftovers. And we had a few leftovers from Lidia’s Italy to take care of too. So it’s been a challenge to get it together for the blog.

SloppyJoeIngreds2I thought that soy sloppy joes might be pretty easy, though. The Whole Soy Cookbook has a lot of quick recipes, but many of them are similar to things I’ve done before. I’m not sure I’ve made sloppy joes since high school, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

This is a very easy recipe to prepare. The only chopping required is one onion. I heated PouringTomatoJuicesome oil in a skillet and sauteed the chopped onion with some soy ground-beef-style crumbles (3 12-ounce packets), letting them cook for about 5 minutes until the onions were soft and translucent. Then I added a cup of ketchup, 2 cups of tomato juice, 2 tablespoons of mustard, and some salt and pepper. I stirred the mixture together and let it simmer for about 20 minutes, BrowningOnionsSoySausagestirring fairly often.

Then I scooped the mixture onto toasted hamburger buns. I began with my husband’s plate, spooning soy beef mixture onto the bottom half of each sandwich.

“That’s only half,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

AddingSauceIngreds“We always had it on the top of the bun, too,” he said.

“Really?” I looked at his plate. In my family we had sloppy joes as sandwiches. And they inevitably fell apart, hence the name. Why not serve them open-faced? I spread the filling across both halves of the bun and dished up some corn on the side.

MixtureCookedThe sloppy joes were good; the soy ground beef had a good texture, and the sauce was tomatoey and satisfying. It would have been better with a fresh tomato sauce instead of the combination of ketchup and tomato juice, but it was all right as it was.

Verdict: Success. Easy and simple.

Eat More, Weigh Less: The Joy of Eggplant

pita chips with roasted eggplant dip

EggplantAtPicnic2Lately it seems to be taking an act of God to get me to cook much. I’m cooking dinner most evenings, but I’ve been doing easy lazy things. Pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and chickpeas. Stir-fry. Hot dogs. Things that don’t require measuring or even really counting. I feel like I haven’t quite caught up with my domestic life yet, what with travel and Eggplantsome fairly mentally demanding projects at work.

But this past Friday was the office picnic, in Central Park no less, and I knew I had to get my act together. By the time I signed the contribution sheet the dessert and entree categories were pretty full, so I turned my attention to appetizers, and chose two: a spicy roasted eggplant dip, and a EggplantRoastedgoat cheese spread with roasted garlic (next post).

I’ve made roasted eggplant dip before, about a year ago. This one is a little bit different, with the inclusion of a minced jalapeno pepper and a slightly different blend of spices. Spices are a key element in Eat More, Weigh Less, the first of two healthy lifestyle cookbooks by Dr. Dean Ornish (I ShallotChileSpicescooked from the second, Everyday Cooking With Dr. Dean Ornish, in November). Dr. Ornish’s recipes are drastically low in fat, so strong flavor elements are featured to help counteract the popular notion that low-fat food isn’t flavorful.

This dip was definitely flavorful. I began by halving two eggplants lengthwise and putting them in a EggplantRoasted3350-degree oven to roast. While they cooked, I minced a jalapeno pepper and a shallot, juiced a lemon and a lime to get a teaspoon of juice from each, and mixed that in a bowl with some cumin, cinnamon and salt. Once the eggplants were out of the oven and cool enough to handle, I put them into a food processor with the shallot-pepper mixture and processed it all until it was EggplantInProcessorsmooth.

I did push the eggplant halves into the processor bowl without cutting them up (come on, you try neatly slicing a roasted eggplant! It kind of falls apart on you), and this meant that there were some oversized pieces of the skin that I had to pluck out for aesthetic reasons. I think if I did this again I’d scoop the EggplantDip3eggplant flesh out of the skins, even though I favor eating the skins of vegetables on principle.

I also cut up some pitas into single-layer slices and toasted them. Dr. Ornish’s recipe said to brush them with an egg white wash, which I didn’t bother to do. That might have made them stiffer and better able to scoop up dip, but I wasn’t convinced the MorePicnicSpread2extra effort would have been worth it. I cut up some additional pitas and left them uncooked, and they seemed robust enough.

The next day I hauled my dips, pitas and bread to the park, where our crew found a picnic spot that was very close to, but not exactly, the spot we had chosen ahead of time. We laid out blankets and massive quantities MorePicnicSpreadof food, and began to dish up a welcome late lunch. People seemed to enjoy the eggplant dip. There was a fair amount of it left at the end of the day, but that was because we had managed to bring enough to feed at least twice our number. And it was a little too warm out to overstuff ourselves.

Verdict: Success. Easy, tasty, and low in fat. I’ll want to make this one again.

Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook: Pasta Salad for a Warm Evening

asparagus and carrots with pasta; chickpea saute with garlic and olives

PastaSaladDressedYou’ll have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. You know how it feels when you’re busy all the time but if you stop and look back it’s hard to point to anything specific that quite accounts for all the time that passed? Yes, I did the AIDS Walk last Sunday, but that’s only one day. OK, we went to a movie the day before that and had dinner out. I worked quite a bit, but not exceptionally ChickpeaOliveSaute2late. No single thing that explains such neglect.

Cooking for yourself, even from scratch, doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Most of the recipes I’ve chosen (especially recent ones) are not in and of themselves time-consuming. Where this blog project takes time is in going through the cookbooks and choosing what to AsparagusSlivers2try. That’s what I have balked at doing when work runs late and the weekend starts to fill up.

For last night I knew I had to make time for a blog project, because we’re about to take a trip and I won’t be able to cook during it. (I suppose that theoretically I could find something that requires no cooking or chopping, or mixing in KalamataOliveHalves3bowls I won’t have available, and that won’t produce leftovers we can’t store…it doesn’t seem that likely now that I examine it in detail.) I promise to get back in the swing of things when we return. Heck, I’ll have to.

It’s been warm the past few days, so I chose a couple of light and easy dishes from the Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook. I’ve RedOnionused this book before. My chief memory is that dishes that claim to be hot or spicy aren’t really; this is true of the magazine as well. But the dishes generally taste good. I made my way through the salad chapter and lit on a pasta salad with carrots and asparagus, and then added a chickpea saute for good measure.

I began with the prep for both BlanchedAsparCarrdishes. The trickiest thing is to quarter the asparagus spears lengthwise. The recipe says to do that before cutting them into shorter pieces (about an inch and a half), but I found it easier to cut the shorter pieces and quarter those lengthwise. I cut up a couple of carrots to similar proportions, and minced some parsley, and that was it for prep for the pasta salad. For the CookedPastachickpeas I minced some garlic and red onion.

The pasta salad is a breeze. I cooked some whole-wheat spirals according to the package directions, drained the pasta, tossed it with some olive oil to help prevent the noodles from sticking together, and let them cool. In the meantime I blanched the carrot and asparagus slivers. PastaSaladBeforeDressingWhen the pasta was cool I mixed the vegetables and parsley in (yes, I know parsley is a vegetable, I’m just trying to be specific). I could have added capers as well, but didn’t have any. They’re optional. I then whisked together a dressing of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and poured it over the salad, mixing well so it would be evenly distributed.

ChickpeasPlusOlivesThe chickpea dish is easy too. I sauteed the red onion and garlic in olive oil for a couple of minutes, then added a can of chickpeas (rinsed and drained) and some dried thyme, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I added salt, pepper, and a bit of water, plus some kalamata olives (pitted and halved), and cooked that all together for a few minutes more.

ChickpeaOliveSauteThe recipes say both dishes are best at room temperature. This was convenient, because it meant I could cook ahead and then get the kitchen cleaned up and get some other things done before dinner. It also meant that when our dinner guests were running late, we could assure them it didn’t make a difference.

The pasta salad was really tasty, and the vegetables were still crisp enough to have a good bite to them. The chickpea dish was also good, with a rich, savory flavor.

Verdict: Success. And that will have to hold until we’re back from our travels next week.

Twofer: How to Cook Everything and The Chicken Parts Cookbook

rice with fresh herbs, How to Cook Everything
drumsticks gremolata, The Chicken Parts Cookbook

DinnerPlateStill careening around my life without managing to quite get back on track with the blog, I’m afraid. In theory the weekend would have been a fine time to get caught up, but on Friday night I was out, on Saturday I was out for most of the day and in no state to cook from scratch (not least because I had not bought groceries), and on Sunday we had pizza out for a low-key Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t been planning to cook last night because I thought Scott had an evening engagement, but he did not, so after some dithering we got sandwiches. This is how these things go.

DrumsticksToCookI hadn’t planned to cook tonight either, because I’m on call for work and can’t usually count on having time. But then, I also hadn’t planned to work from home; I’d brought home my laptop just in case the snow got heavy, but the weather seemed perfectly reasonable to me when I left for the train. Evidently the signaling system a few stops away disagreed, and after waiting on the platform and watching train after train go past too full to board, I thought, forget this, I’m going back inside. So at lunchtime I found myself with time to make a grocery run, and to make a quick riffle through a cookbook before it. I wanted something that would require me to turn on the oven, because it can get kind of chilly in here; also, I wanted something that would require minimal prep.

GremolataMixtureI noticed The Chicken Parts Cookbook on the shelf. I got this book years ago when we tried the protein diet, and although I cannot recommend the diet I can strongly recommend the cookbook. It’s organized by part, so that you can quickly find a recipe for what you have on hand (as the cover notes, “The best part of the chicken is the part that’s on sale”). Within those sections there are two kinds of recipes, Quick and Easy and a shorter list of Simply Sophisticated — which are a little more elaborate, but not much. An introductory section also helps you with conversions (e.g., if I planned to make a dish calling for breasts but the thighs were on sale, how do I adjust the cooking time?). I leafed through and found drumsticks gremolata, which could hardly be easier: oven-roast drumsticks, chop together garlic and parsley and lemon zest, put it on the nearly-done chicken, cook a bit longer. I figured I’d make that plus some Swiss chard that I already had on hand and needed to use, and that would be dinner.

GremolataOnDrumsticksWhen it actually came time to cook, though, I realized I was going to want a little something more, some kind of starchy accompaniment. Since we had plenty of rice, I thought I might be able to take care of another blog cookbook while I was thinking about it, so I interrupted my (minimal) prep to scan the shelves for something new to do with rice. This brought me to How to Cook Everything, of which I am a passionate fan. I adore the book and its clear, excellent recipes. I’m a regular reader of Mark Bittman’s blog on the New York Times site. I don’t cook from scratch as often as he does (despite possibly having a larger kitchen), but I endorse his philosophy of doing so as much as possible.

MeltingButterWhen I set up the blog, and in all the re-jiggerings of the schedule since, I firmly believed that I would use How to Cook Everything to experiment with something big and elaborate: a crown roast, or a cream soup, or an elegant dessert. But as I scanned the shelves this evening I realized that I have a lot of books that can help me make a crown roast but can’t give me the first idea what to do when I have a hankering for rice and no time for a second run to FoodTown. This book, however, has given me not just a recipe but a formula: Melt butter, sautee herbs, add rice grains and cook briefly, add water and bring to boil, cover and cook. Endless permutations possible, endless flavors to explore.

RiceButterHerbsMy prep was a bit disorganized since I had chosen the rice rather late. But it was not difficult: chop half a cup of fresh herbs for the rice (I mixed thyme, mint and parsley), chop a bit more parsley for the chicken, stem and chop the chard, mince two cloves of garlic separately, zest a lemon. I buttered a baking pan, seasoned the drumsticks and set them to bake, 20 minutes before turning and 20 minutes after; while they cooked (and once I had the other dishes under control) I mixed the parsley, lemon zest and garlic. When the timer went off I pulled the chicken out of the oven, topped it with the parsley mixture, and slid the pan back in to bake about 6 minutes longer. Voila.

RiceCooked2For the rice I melted butter, sauteed herbs and then grains of rice plus some salt and pepper, added water, brought the pan to a boil, covered it and let it cook for 15 minutes; at that point I turned off the heat but left the pan alone and untouched for another 10 minutes. Then I stirred in more of the herbs and fluffed up the rice a bit before serving. To make the chard I heated olive oil, sauteed some garlic and the chopped stems of the chard, then added the leaves and a bit of water, tossed them to coat them with the oil, covered the pan and lowered the heat, and let it steam roughly 10-12 minutes.

The rice was wonderful, buttery and rich but with a strong herb flavor. The chicken was delicious too, with the edge just taken off the garlic by cooking and the lemon taste permeating the meat. And the chard was awfully good, and virtuous to boot.

Verdict: Success. Both of these recipes go on the list. The rice should be especially fun when fresh herbs really start coming into the Greenmarket.

Food & Wine Fast: Quick and Elegant Dishes

Swiss chard with chickpeas and feta

ChardPlatedWithBread2Food & Wine Fast is another of those special stand-alone editions of a magazine. This one offers elegant dishes of the quality often found in Food & Wine, all of which can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. I do like Food & Wine; the recipes all feature real, high-quality ingredients, and the photo spreads are glorious.

I designated this recipe for SwissChardLeavestonight simply because I hadn’t been able to pick up Swiss chard any earlier in the week, but it turned out to be a good choice because I spent a big chunk of time in the kitchen baking cookies for tomorrow’s knitting night, and I didn’t want to spend more time on dinner than I had to.

I began by rinsing and stemming some Swiss chard and putting the ChardInPotstill-dripping leaves into a pot (in fact, the new Calphalon pot I got with a gift certificate recently). I covered the pot and cooked the leaves until they were wilted, which took less than five minutes; then I drained the chard and rinsed it in cold water, and pressed out as much liquid as I could. I chopped the leaves coarsely and put them into a bowl. To this I added sliced ChardAndChickpeaPanscallions, chopped fresh dill, minced garlic, chickpeas, salt and pepper, and some olive oil. I mixed the ingredients well and put them into a square baking dish that I’d coated with a bit more olive oil. Atop all this I crumbled some feta cheese and pressed it down a bit, then put the dish into a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, which gave ChardWithFetame some time to clean up the kitchen.

The cheese had browned a bit at the edges when I pulled out the pan, and the mixture was hot through. I dished it up and accompanied it with some bread left over from Sunday. The dish was terrific; the dill gave it an unusual savory flavor, and the slight tang of the chard balanced nicely with the richness of the feta.

Verdict: Success. The dish was fast, as promised, and tasted great.