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Posts Tagged ‘Quick-and-Easy’

Not much cooking tonight thanks for a dinner invitation from the upstairs neighbor/landlord. My contribution was a simple salad. Mixed greens, cherry tomatoes (the only kind that have any texture/flavor at all this time of year) and a few dried cherries dressed with this quick and easy mustard vinaigrette. Put a teaspoon or so of your favorite mustard (smooth is probably better than whole-grain) in a small bowl (cup, measuring cup, or whatever is convenient). Add a little salt and fresh ground pepper. Squeeze a clove of garlic through a garlic press into the bowl (if you don’t have a garlic press just chop it fine). Add a few tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar. Use a small whisk to blend the ingredients then slowly stream in 1/4-1/2 cup of good olive oil, beating steadily. Your dressing should emulsify (turn into a smooth-ish brown goo). Taste it and add more of whatever you think it needs. If it doesn’t emulsify, don’t worry about it, just give it a good stir before you put it on the salad. Et voila (as our hosts might say).

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My dad was the cook in the family when I was growing up.  My mom did some baking, but she cooked dinner only on my dad’s birthday or when he was out of town.  Invariably the first night a parent (either one) was out of town we’d go out for pizza.  When mom was out of town we’d then proceed to have all sorts of things she didn’t especially care for – hamburgers, tacos, etc.  When dad was out of town we’d eat spaghetti (with sauce dad had made and put in the freezer) or whatever he’d cooked for us and left in the fridge.  If he was out of town for long enough (4 or more nights) then one night would be mom’s piquant chicken.  I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.  Here’s how I do it these days:

Recipe

1 whole boneless, skinless chicken breast (i.e. the breast from one chicken, you can buy it as two halves)
1/2 c. flour
salt & pepper
3-4 tbs. butter
1/4 c. white wine
1/2 c. chicken stock (preferably homemade)
2-3 tbs. fresh lemon juice (1/2 – 1 lemon’s worth)

This is best served with rice cooked European style (with a little butter and salt).  Start the rice first because the chicken will cook in the time it takes the rice to cook.

Your chicken may be good to go straight from the store, or it may need a tiny bit of preparation, depending on how your butcher sells it (I’m assuming you buy it boneless and skinless – I do).  Assuming you buy the breast as one piece here’s what you need to do to get it ready to cook.  First, split the whole breast into two halves by cutting through the thinnest part in the center.  You’ll see a thin line of connective tissue there (it’s whitish).  Try to make your first cut all on the same side of the connective tissue because the next step is to cut that little strip of connective tissue off and throw it out.  Lay the halves smooth side down.  On the not-so-smooth side of each half you should see a flap of meat (although some butchers remove these and sell them separately).  Cut these flaps off and save them – they’re good to eat.  Remove any remaining bits of fat (the yellowish-white, opaque stuff) from all 4 pieces.  You’ll notice a vein down the middle of each flap.  If you want (but it’s certainly not necessary), you can cut these out (easiest to just slice through the flaps on either side of the veins leaving you with 4 half-flaps).  That’s it – you’re done.  It sounds like a lot, but it will take you about 3 minutes total.

Now that your chicken is ready to go, prep your flour coating.  There are two methods that work.  The one that’s slightly neater and slightly faster, but a little less environmentally conscientious is to use a large ziploc bag.  Put the flour in the bag along with about a teaspoon of salt and 1/2-1 teaspoon of ground pepper.  Shake the bag to mix the contents up (preferably with the top sealed).  One at a time put the chicken pieces in the bag, shake to coat, then shake off the excess flour.  Note that it’s best to wait to coat the chicken until the pan is ready to go so you can put the coated chicken right in to cook.

Melt the butter in a large skillet (preferably not non-stick) over medium heat.  Lay the flour-coated pieces of chicken in a single layer in the pan (put the thick pieces in first).  Cook the chicken until it is golden brown (about five minutes for the thicker pieces and a bit less for the thinner ones), then turn it over and do the same for the other side.  Take the chicken out of the pan and set it aside.  Add the wine to the pan.  As it boils, scrape up all the yummy brown bits from the pan.  Once the liquid in the pan has started to thicken a bit (it will both look thicken and should turn brownish and slightly opaque) add the chicken stock.  Let it cook down for a couple of minutes then add the lemon juice.  Cook for another minute or so more, then taste.  Add more lemon juice and salt if you want.  Put the chicken back in the pan and turn the heat down.  After a minute or two turn the chicken over.  Just keep the chicken in the sauce over low heat until your rice is done (or for at least 5 minutes).

Eat up (and don’t forget to use the tasty liquid in the pan as your sauce)!

Notes

Serves: 2
Start-to-finish: 30 minutes
Active: 30 minutes

Cooking rice: Use 1 c. of regular, long-grain rice (serves 2). In a medium saucepan, melt 1 tbs. butter over medium heat. When melted add the rice and stir with a fork for a minute or so. When the butter is mixed into the rice the grains will all look a bit translucent. When you start to see opaque grains add 1 3/4 – 2 c. hot water (less water will result in dryer, firmer rice, more in moister, softer rice) and 1/2-1 tsp. salt. Cover and bring to a boil. As soon as the water starts to boil turn down to the lowest possible heat. Leave undisturbed for 20 minutes then turn off the heat. Just before serving, stir the rice with a fork to fluff it up.

Homemade chicken stock: I like to make huge quantities in my giant, 24 qt. stock pot.  Since most people don’t have one of those, though, I’ll give quantities that will work in a more normal 8 qt. stock pot.  Put about 3 lbs. of chicken spare-parts (e.g. backs, necks, wing-tips, feet but NOT organs) into your pot.  If the store where you buy your chicken cuts up its own they will usually sell you (or sometimes give you) these parts at minimal cost.  Stores that don’t butcher their own chicken probably won’t have scrap parts but maybe able to get them for you with a few days notice.  If not, though, don’t worry, wings work great (preferably whole wings, not the ones that have had the bonier parts removed – bones are what this is all about).  You can also use the carcass from a whole roasted chicken after you’ve finished with it, although I wouldn’t recommend using one from one of those heavily-seasoned, store-roasted, rotisserie chickens – that will add a lot of odd flavors you don’t necessarily want in your stock.  To the chicken in the pot add a couple of stalks of celery (washed and snapped in half, you can leave the ends on), a carrot also snapped in half (washed but you don’t need to peel), a peeled yellow onion (cut in half vertically if you want), a small parsnip, 6-8 sprigs of Italian (flat-leaf) parsley (stems and all), 3 -4 dried bay leaves (you can use fresh if you have them), a small handful of whole peppercorns and a couple of teaspoons of salt.  Fill the pot with water and bring to a boil.  When the water starts to boil turn down the heat.  You want to keep the stock at a gentle simmer (probably medium-low will work, but you’ll need to experiment with your equipment).  If you want you can skim the foam that comes to the top in the early part of the cooking, but I never bother.  Simmer gently for 2-3 hours (or more).  Taste occasionally.  You can add more salt if you want.  When the stock tastes good it’s done.  Pour it through a very fine strainer (or a not-so-fine strainer lined with cheese cloth) into a large bowl.  Allow it to cool in the bowl for a while.  Once it is no longer boiling-hot cover the bowl with plastic wrap such that the plastic wrap sits on the surface of the stock.  Put the bowl of stock in the fridge over night.  Once the stock has cooled fully you may see a layer of congealed fat on the top of the stock.  Without taking the bowl out of the fridge (you’re going for minimal disturbance here), gently peel back the plastic wrap.  If everything goes according to plan, most of the fat will come off with the plastic wrap and you can just toss it.  You can take the bowl out of the fridge and use a spoon to skim any remaining fat off (although leaving a little bit won’t hurt you and will add richness).  Now you’re ready to use or freeze your stock.  When using stock from the freezer, make sure to thaw the whole container completely, even if you don’t need all of it.  You can refreeze it with no difficulty but the flavor and water components thaw at different rates so if you only partially thaw the container you may find that some of the stock from the container is under-flavored and some is too strong.

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Dinner time crept up out of nowhere and grocery shopping never happened.  Not many leftovers in the fridge and I didn’t feel like pasta so those sauces in the freezer didn’t help.  I contemplated the empty fridge and bare cupboards and concluded that pancakes were perfect for dinner.  I didn’t have much but milk, flour, eggs, butter and, of course, maple syrup were all on hand.  Besides, what could be more fun than the occasional breakfast for dinner.  And it doesn’t get much easier than pancakes.

Recipe

Source: Time Life Foods of the World, American Cooking

2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
3 eggs
2 c. milk
1/4 c. melted butter

Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together into a large mixing bowl.  Beat the eggs with a whisk then add the milk to them.  Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir.  It’s important to stir just enough to incorporate the wet ingredients.  Your mixture will be quite lumpy.  That’s fine.  You don’t want to over mix or your pancakes will be tough.  Fry the pancakes in butter over moderate heat.  You’ll probably need about a tablespoon of butter to start and then a bit more between batches.  Use a large spoon, ladle or pitcher to pour batter into approximately 4 inch rounds in the pan.  Let the pancakes cook until little bubbles appear all over the surface and when you use peek underneath the pancakes look a yummy golden-brown color.  Use a spatula to flip the pancakes over.  When the pancakes fill springy (not soft) when you prod them with the edge of the spatula and the undersides are also a nice golden-brown the pancakes are done.  If you want to cook a bunch of batches before serving you can put them on a warm platter in a 200° oven to keep them warm.  I like to eat them with melted butter and (real!) maple syrup.  Of course, you can eat them how you like.

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It’s Taco Time!

When I’m tired of pasta and am looking for something quick and for which I can obtain all the necessary ingredients at the little market across the street, tacos are a go-to choice.  They’re easy to prepare, easy to eat, infinitely customizable and thoroughly satisfying.  I normally never use prepared foods – why eat someone else’s when you can make your own?  Tacos are an exception.  This is almost certainly the only time I’ll recommend incorporating a prepared food (assuming you don’t include dried pasta which, with some sauces is really better than fresh) into a recipe.

Recipe

1.5 lbs lean ground beef
1 jar of your favorite salsa (the one and only prepared ingredient)
taco shells and/or tortillas (about 2 dozen taco shells or somewhat fewer tortillas depending on size and how much filling you like to use)
fixings (I like shredded cheese, shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes, my husband also like chopped onions and sour cream – the great thing is we can each have them just how we like them and so can you!)
salt, cayenne pepper, chili powder (all optional)

Put the meat in a skillet.  Cook stirring frequently and breaking up chunks until no pink remains.  Pour in the salsa (you may want to start with 1/2 – 3/4 of the jar on the theory that you can add more, but it’s not so easy to take excess out).  Simmer over moderate heat until the mixture is pretty thick.  Basically, you want to be able to eat it without a lot of liquid dripping out and getting all over you.  If you think you can do that, it’s thick enough.  It usually takes 15-30 minutes depending on the consistency of your salsa and how much you used.  Taste it.  If it’s not tasty enough, add a bit more salsa.  I find some kinds of salsa result in a weaker flavor in the meat.  You’ll often want a little more salt.  If you want a little more heat you can add some cayenne pepper.  If you want a little bit more depth of flavor, try adding some chili powder.

While the meat is cooking, prepare your fixings: shred cheese (you’ll probably want about 1 tbs. shredded cheese/taco), shred lettuce, dice tomatoes and onions, etc.  If you want to warm up your shells or tortillas, do that now, as well (follow the heating instructions on the package).

I like to just put the meat and all the fixings out and let everyone assemble their own tacos just how they like them.

Notes

Total time: 30-45 minutes
Active time: 30-45 minutes
Shopping/ingredients:

  • I find I prefer cooked salsas to uncooked and I prefer fairly strongly flavored salsas.  I’d recommend using a red salsa over a green salsa, and you’ll probably find more traditional tomato & chili salsas are better than some of the fruitier concoctions (I think that mango-pomegranate-black bean salsa with roasted garlic and lime that you’ve been eying might taste a little weird).
  • I actually like iceberg over other lettuces for this purpose.  It stays more crisp than other lettuces and provides a nice cool complement.
  • If you don’t eat red meat, you could certainly experiment with using ground turkey or chicken.  With chicken I might actually try a tomatillo-based (green) salsa.

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It’s snowy and cold outside and I’m getting over a couple of days not feeling so good.  It’s a perfect day for easy comfort food and pasta is my favorite.  I always have at least a couple of kinds of homemade sauce in the freezer, but tonight I’m in the mood for something quasi-fresh.  This super-easy tomato sauce is quick, tasty and I always have the ingredients on hand.  I originally found the recipe in Naples at Table by Arthur Schwarz.  Here’s how I make it:

Recipe

3 large cloves garlic
1/4 c. olive oil
1 large can tomatoes (I like to use strained for a smooth sauce, but if you prefer your sauce chunkier use chopped or whole)
2-3 tbs. coarsely chopped fresh basil or parsley or 1-2 tsp. dried basil (don’t use dried parsley – it has no flavor)
salt and crushed red pepper to taste
1 1/2 lb. spaghetti or other long pasta
freshly grated Parmesan to taste

Start plenty of water heating to cook the pasta (I use an 8 qt. stock pot to cook 1 lb. of pasta).  Use the flat of a knife to lightly crush the garlic.  Remove the peel and place cloves in a large skillet with the olive oil.  Heat over medium-low.  Turn the garlic cloves occasionally.  When the start to color remove them.  Add the tomatoes and turn the heat up to somewhere between medium and medium-high.  If you are using whole tomatoes crush them some with the back of a spoon or a potato masher.  Add some salt (start with about 1/2 tsp.) and crushed red pepper.  If you’re using dried basil add it now, too.  Let the tomatoes simmer uncovered while you finish cooking the pasta.  You’ll need to stir the tomatoes now and then to prevent burning.  Also, be aware that they may splatter.  I like to use a mesh splatter screen to help reduce clean up problems.  Don’t cover them with a solid lid, though, or they won’t concentrate enough.  Once the sauce has started thickening taste it and add additional seasonings as you wish.  Add fresh basil in the last minute or so of cooking.  When the pasta water is hot add plenty of salt (I usually use about 3 tbs. if I’m cooking in an 8 qt. pot).  Don’t skimp on the salt because this is the only way you get seasoning in the pasta itself.  If you have a big enough skillet to toss the sauce and pasta together in the skillet, then remove the pasta 1-2 minutes before it is done, drain it and add it to the sauce in the skillet.  If your skillet isn’t big enough, cook the pasta until it is just done, then add the sauce to the pasta in the serving bowl.  Never, never run your pasta under cold water after straining it.  You won’t have any trouble with it sticking together if you add the sauce promptly.  If you think the sauce isn’t quite ready when the pasta is done, add a little olive oil or butter to your pasta to help prevent sticking while you finish up the sauce.  If you want to, you can garnish the pasta with a little more chopped fresh herbs.  Allow diners to add their own freshly grated Parmesan to taste (I like to just put a block of Parmesan and a grater on the table and let everyone grate their own).

Notes

Total time: 3o minutes
Active time: 15 minutes
Special equipment: mesh splatter-screen (optional)
Shopping/ingredient tips:

  • Use good quality Italian boxed pasta (DeCecco is fine and widely available although I like Del Verde and some of the smaller brands a little better), preferably a long, round shape (spaghetti, spaghettini or buccatini).
  • Use a good brand of tomatoes.  I like the Parmalat ones that come in the box or the San Marzano ones that have the old-fashioned white labels.
  • There is no need to use expensive olive oil here.  The cooking will break down a lot of the flavor elements anyway.  Do use extra virgin, but a regular grocery store variety will be fine.

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