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2017 Recipe Scrapbook

On this frigid New Year’s Eve, I thought it would be fun to document some of the recipes and corresponding occasions that warmed my kitchen (and my belly!) throughout the year 2017.

This year has been challenging, rich, full… then again, I suppose those are some pretty accurate descriptors for LIFE in general and not specific to any calendar year. I’m grateful that cooking has made the year fuller and richer (I think there’s a double entendre in there)!

I hope that this list serves useful to you if you’re looking for some inspiration for the coming year, and please do share your favorite recipes of 2017 in the comments section!

XO,
Ginger

Celebration Meals

mom and me smitten kitchenMy mom and I both gave each other Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites this year for Xmas. (I credit my mom with teaching me how to cook, and she can thank me for introducing her to Deb Perelman 🙂 ) After driving back from Xmas celebrations in Chicago, I was eager to create a festive mood at home (and make the most of my week off from work) by trying the book’s spiced carrot and pepper soup with couscous swirl, paired with a kale caesar [salad] with broken eggs and crushed croutons:

soup and salad smitten kitchen

Go figure that in my anticipation of the cookbook, I borrowed my mom’s cast iron skillet to make Cacio e Pepe Potatoes Anna from Perelman’s site. Potatoes wrapped with a bow, in my opinion:

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Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 1.36.44 PMIn August, my husband Padraic and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. I made a Jeffrey out of him with Ina Garten’s recipe for Real Meat Balls and and Spaghetti. (I love how Ina is always calling for food to be “real” — “real mayo,” for example. And I love her mixture of snobbery and warmth). You can read elsewhere on this blog about my first attempt with this dish.

When Padraic and I had my parents over for a celebratory dinner, I tried a recipe for sweet and spicy pineapple pork from Rachel Ray’s Book of 10: More Than 300 Recipes to Cook Every Day.

Today, on New Year’s Eve, I’m experimenting with another recipe from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook: artichoke and parmesan galette. I tasted it for you… surprisingly lemon-y 🙂

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Weeknight Suppers

Quick and Easy Chinese: 70 Everyday Recipes is just plain awesome for weeknight, aka, work night, cooking, because the meals are not only quick and easy, but flavorful and special-feeling. For some reason I lean towards chicken when making chinese food. Perhaps I need to get more adventurous. For now, here are two keepers:

Kung Pao Chicken

Kung Pao Chicken

Lemon Chicken

Lemon Chicken

Back in September, I tried slow cooker pesto mozzarella chicken pasta:

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Here’s are two more gems from Smitten Kitchen:

Tomato and Sausage Risotto

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Quick Pasta and Chickpeas

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And… two recipes from Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook Cravings: Recipes for All the Food You Want to Eat  that make for simple, special weeknight suppers:

Lemony Arugula Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
Thai Beef Salad 

The Pioneer Woman’s Migas is filling AND cheap:

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I happened upon this yummy recipe for cauliflower-cheddar soup while waiting for a prescription to be filled 🙂

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And finally, lentils! The theme of the new chapter in my life in which I’m paying out of pocket for health insurance AND paying grad school tuition. Thank God they’re so delicious!!

Fridge-Clearing Lentil Soup
Brown Lentils and Rice with Caramelized OnionsScreen Shot 2017-12-31 at 2.56.11 PM

 

STUFF I MADE THIS SUMMER

I spent the summer querying a lot of magazines, writing a long-ass article about teaching gifted students that was finally published this month, for which I still haven’t gotten paid :/ getting accepted into an MFA program, hemming and hawing over whether to quit my teaching job and then writing what turned out to be a novella-length short story about a comically inept teacher for my workshop class, digging into my role as Aunt G, and cooking like a good ole southern Grandma for large family get-togethers…

Here is some of the STUFF I MADE:

The Pioneer Woman’s Chicken Spaghetti

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Orange Pound Cake

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Cristina Ferrare’s Strawberry Shortcake

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My Great-Grandmother’s Baked Beans 🙂

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Salty Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies

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Tomato Feta Pasta Salad

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Shrimp & Sausage Paleo Skillet Meal

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And a few more for good measure:

Mentoring on Sunday Afternoons

This last category is bittersweet… My mentee, a former resident of Epworth Children and Family Services, is currently “on run” and so we are no longer able to meet. For a few months, though, we filled our Sunday afternoons with cooking and scrapbooking about what we had cooked. When she told me that cooking — and documenting it — was how she wanted to spend our time together, I thought, girl after my own heart!

We did a bit of a tour through Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Cooks:

Recently, when I received a one-line e-mail from her therapist saying that she was gone, I was tempted to view our time together as “a waste,” thinking back on the volunteer coordinator’s lofty words about how it “only takes one person” to make a difference in the life of a child. What difference could I possibly have made?? I lamented.

Today, and in the new year, if there are any resolutions to be made, I believe it is to withhold judgment about any of my pursuits (or relationships) and do my best to be present in them, living one day at a time. I am grateful for my brief time with a young, resilient 14-year-old young woman. It is enough for me that we had a good time together on a few Sunday afternoons in 2017. And yet… I’m glad that we documented our time together, so that some Sunday afternoon in 2018, I can return to this page, and remember her… and the food 🙂

Cheers to the New Year, to cooking, and to treating time with a little bit of reverence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chicken with Coconut Curry

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All right, food lovers… I have a confession to make… I’m on Day 12 of the Whole30 program. I’m working on a more substantive post about the documentary Fed Up which finally lit a fire under me to swap out The Things They Carried with Fast Food Nation for my American Lit II class, as well as the big ideas I gleaned in Whole30 founders Melissa and Dallas Hartwig’s manifesto of sorts, It All Starts with Food, plus the dilemma I now find myself in when it comes to Ina Garten, whom I love, adore, and cook from, butter, SUGAR, and all.

But for now… a REALLY good recipe from the cookbook The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to TOTAL HEALTH and FOOD FREEDOM. 

And I’ll say this… one benefit of taking the Whole30 challenge is learning to cook with new ingredients and discovering that you love them. I am developing quite an affection for coconut milk, which I confess I had never used before this “total health” endeavor.

I’m also finding ghee butter handy — clarified butter (milk solids, aka sugar, removed) in a jar. If you’ve ever made clarified butter you can appreciate buying it in a jar. It’s a process. Clarified, or ghee butter can be used to cook at higher temperatures, imparting delicious butter flavor to a wider variety of dishes. Ghee butter runs for about $6.99 a jar at my local grocery store, so make of that what you will. Some grocery stores don’t have it…

I’ve made this chicken recipe twice now, once on the grill and once baked in the oven. If you have the means, the texture and flavor of grilled chicken is just better, in my opinion. But the curry sauce is so decadent, baked chicken is convenient and tasty too. I’ve made it with thighs and breasts — both are good — but bone-in, skin-on is key. (And cheaper!)

Serves 4

  1. First things first: put 2 cans of coconut milk in the fridge for at least an hour. The cream will rise to the top of the can, which is what you’re using, and what makes this curry sauce so decadent.
  2. Make the curry sauce: melt some ghee butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and…swirl to coat… of course 🙂 Add diced onion (half a medium onion) and cook, stirring, until translucent. Add 2 minced garlic cloves and let the garlic cook for about 30 seconds. Throw in 1 tablespoon of curry powder and stir for a good 15 to 20 seconds, then add 1 cup of crushed tomatoes (or tomato sauce) and simmer to thicken, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer to another bowl, and let everything cool. (The cookbook calls for you to blend the sauce in a blender at this point. I didn’t bother with this step and let the onions and garlic provide a little texture). Use your can opener to measure 1/2 cup of coconut cream out of your can of coconut milk. Measure out 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper  and once the mixture has cooled, stir in the coconut cream, salt, and pepper. (If don’t let the mixture cool, the coconut cream will curdle).
  3. Pour some of the curry sauce into a separate bowl and brush it on your chicken breasts or thighs. (Pat the chicken dry first). (This way if you end up with extra curry sauce, you’re not contaminating the entire bowl as you prepare the chicken. I ended up with extra curry sauce both times. You can re-use the sauce for other things… more meat, a fried egg…)
  4. Grill or bake your chicken and then serve with extra warmed curry sauce. (I baked the chicken at 375 Fahrenheit for 35-40 minutes and then cut into it to see if it needed more time).

Now, in advance — I’ll quote Kathleen O’Toole, a relative I recently met on my travels in Ireland, after she served me carrot cake and apple pie around midnight, seized my hands with a twinkle in her eye, and declared, I’m delighted you liked it!!!!

Goat Cheese and Onions Part 2

I recently read an article (in Epicurous, I think) about the oft-neglected merits of something certain foodies consider super uncool: boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Unexciting, perhaps, but I’m a firm believer that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are indispensable. See this recipe for chicken and veggie quesadillas by Ree Drummond that has sustained the two of us for at least a week’s worth of dinners… a sprinkle of taco seasoning lends the diced chicken a bit of kick, and you can prepare it ahead, along with the sautéed onions and bell peppers, and throw together a quesadilla whenever you’re feeling hungry. Then, mix the extra diced chicken with romaine lettuce, shredded Mexican cheese, tomato slices, and this rich, basil and scallion-loaded green goddess dressing, and you’ve got lunch. Or (I digress) the dressing is so rich you may just want a plateful of lettuce and tomato, like so:

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But anyway. Boneless skinless chicken breasts. Yes.

That being said, I’m also aboard the bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh trend. Which brings me to goat cheese and onions. Here’s how I adapted Ina Garten’s Chicken with Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato a few weeks ago:

  • Chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. In my experience, thigh meat tends to be fattier and more succulent than breast meat, and I feel I can justify the treat because thighs are smaller than breasts.
  • Her recipe calls for herbed goat cheese – I had plain in my fridge, from my aforementioned experiment with goat cheese caramelized onion bruschetta, so I added a fresh basil leaf under the skin instead. (If you have an herb garden, you could always mash in your own fresh herbs and an improvise your own herbed goat cheese. Right now my chives are out of control, so maybe I should have done that. Aw shucks, I suppose I’ll have to buy another log of goat cheese and start all over again… 🙂 )
  • I also did not have sun-dried tomatoes on hand, so I put a roasted red pepper (that came in a jar) under the skin. (Another reason to buy these jarred, roasted red peppers is that they layer sweetly on your standard, homemade grilled cheese sandwich and add nice, vinegary notes to salads. If you happen to have fresh bell peppers lying around, plus olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and a little fresh garlic (optional), you can make your own. See another, goat-cheese centric Ina Garten recipe (this one I haven’t made) for more specific instructions on how to pickle peppers.

Onions, you say?

I’ve made this Ina Garten recipe for herb roasted onions a few times, say, if I’m cooking meat and I have no vegetables or salad ingredients on hand to go with. It’s something of a revelation to me that onions are a vegetable that can be roasted like anything else, and stand on their own. Quarter and separate a few onions – mix them with olive oil, mustard, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper – roast them on a sheet pan, and voila: a cheap and surprisingly delicious side dish. (This time I made the recipe with yellow onions only, because that’s what I had – but I think adding a red onion to the mix is really worth it. Adds extra sweetness).

I rounded out the roasted chicken and roasted onions with some roasted carrots – really simple — olive oil, salt and pepper, and in my case, copious amounts of fresh dill.

Here’s how dinner ended up (I forgot to mention that crisp (cheap) white wine is always an important factor in the goat cheese and onion equation, but perhaps that just goes unsaid…)

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To goat cheese, to onions, to alfresco dining, to life, to life, l’chaim….

What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’

Jake Bellucci Le Creuset CC BY-NC-ND 2.0One of the things I love about winter is that it’s a season conducive to cooking in bulk — think soups, stews, casseroles, gratins, the list goes on. I have gotten into the habit of preparing one to two soups for the week on Sunday afternoons, and boy, has it been scrumptious, not to mention economical and time-saving. I thought I’d compile a list of my recent soup pursuits, with some of my forays into baking, fish, and why not, mashed potatoes thrown in for good measure. One of the pleasures of blogging for me is documenting what I cook throughout the year, so as I give into that, I hope that you find something posted here that you might consider trying. (Also, if you don’t already have one, I hope you’ll consider busying yourself an immersion blender… the one I recently acquired has been a godsend this winter, as evidenced by the list below. If not, a regular blender works too. Just a thought 🙂 ) Bon appetit!

tracy benjamin tortilla strips CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I first tasted this chicken tortilla soup recipe from Food and Wine at the home of my friend, Allison, on a much-needed getaway trip to Nashville, Tennessee. (The trip ended with the discovery of frozen pipes in our frigid condo, due to my flakiness in leaving the heat off just as Chicago morphed into Chiberia. Even our jar of olive oil was frozen solid, but that’s another story!) This soup makes clever use of the aforementioned immersion blender, thickening up the tomato/onion/garlic/five spice/chicken broth/cilantro base with fried tortilla strips, purĂ©ed. The cubed chicken is added raw and cooked conveniently in the broth, and chunks of avocado are mixed in at the end. It’s hearty, zingy, and deeply satisfying when topped with the usual Southwestern suspects: grated cheddar, homemade fried tortilla strips, sour cream, cilantro, scallions, and lime wedges.

Steven Lilley Broccoli CC BY-SA 2.0Padraic told me he felt like he was dining at Panera after eating Ree Drummond’s broccoli cheddar soup, and I took that as effusive praise! I used 2% milk instead of whole, and things turned out quite creamy nonetheless. The recipe starts with preparations for a roasted broccoli garnish, and proceeds with sautĂ©ing onions in butter, then simmering pieces of raw broccoli in a mixture of milk, half-and-half, flour, and nutmeg. Three cups of cheddar cheese are added, with the option of purĂ©eing the mixture or breaking up the broccoli with a potato masher. I think this might be the most indulgent broccoli dish there is, but January/February is certainly a fitting time for it.

nick mote Lentil Macro CC BY 2.0Surprise, surprise, this recipe does not use a blender — no, instead, Ina Garten’s lentil sausage soup, from her cookbook Barefoot in Paris, is richly textured with softened vegetables, lentils, and chunks of sausage. In my unsuccessful search for the recommended French green lentils, I learned that French lentils are simply smaller in size, so I just bought the most petit ones they had in the store, which worked fine. The process starts by cooking onions, leeks, and garlic flavored with cumin, thyme, salt, and pepper; then celery and carrots are added. This mixture plus pre-soaked lentils, chicken stock, and tomato paste simmers for an hour, then pre-cooked sausage is added and warmed through. You finish it off with a drizzle of red wine vinegar or red wine, take your pick.

cookbookman17 White Beans CC BY 2.0Cristina Ferrare’s minestrone soup from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love is another hearty, one-meal wonder. It’s basically a compilation of fresh vegetables, beans, and tomatoes, purĂ©ed thick and served with freshly grated Parmesan and a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I couldn’t find an exact reproduction of the cookbook’s recipe on the inter tubes, so I’ve posted the recipe at the bottom of this entry.

PINKÉ Pyrex Casserole CC BY-NC 2.0Then, of course, there comes a time when enough soup has been had and a casserole — what else? — beckons. The notion of chicken tetrazinni was so delightfully retro to me that I felt compelled to whip up a behemoth batch of it. Who else but Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman, to guide me through layers of spaghetti, mushrooms, melted cream/Monterey Jack/Parmesan cheese, bacon, peas, and toasted bread crumbs? Hers is technically a turkey tetrazinni, which sounds delicious, but the only time I have cooked turkey on hand is the day after Thanksgiving. So I turned to The Kitchn for advice on poaching chicken breasts. Ree suggests adding up to two extra cups of chicken broth to the cheese/veggie/pasta mixture before baking it, even if it’s a little soupy. I second this — I added this amount and the consistency of the finished product was just right — cheesy but not overwhelmingly so, and moist. I skipped the chopped olives, but hey, that’s just me.

essgee51 Dill and Lemon 2 (20/365) CC BY-NC 2.0 Sometimes soup and casseroles don’t carry you through the entire week, which makes room for minimalist dishes like… salmon, roasted with lemon, butter, and dill. This is my go-to recipe for salmon — it’s as easy as melting butter with lemon juice and seasoning the fish with dill, minced garlic (or garlic powder), salt, and pepper. Comes out moist and flaky every time.

Anne White Yukon Gold Potatoes CC BY-NC 2.0I made a batch of these super easy, quick, and straightforward mashed potatoes to go with the salmon. It’s another find from Cristina Ferrare’s cookbook, Big Bowl of Love. I love this recipe because it turns what you normally think of as a special occasion, holiday side into a week night staple. The most work and time intensive part is peeling, boiling, and mashing the potatoes — after that’s done, you just add butter, milk, and salt, but in proportions that consistently produce a creamy, fluffy, apporiately-salted mash. The addition of lemon zest may sound strange, but I find that it brightens and freshens the dish in a beautiful way. Then again, I’ll add lemon to anything. A handful of chopped scallions add a peppery bite to the creamy potato canvas. I find that making mashed potatoes during the week is really quite practical — the leftovers can bulk up another quick-cooking protein a few days later or be packed in a lunch.

Tom Gill Apples CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Speaking of packing lunches, the discovery of a homemade scone in my lunch bag is worth the effort, I think. Lately I’ve been on a scone kick, as mentioned here. It’s the byproduct of my newly acquired “mini scone pan,” allowing you to just drop the dough into a greased pan, and the fact that scones are so versatile — good for breakfast, lunch, dessert… These apple and cheddar scones combine roasted chunks of tart fruit with a salty, cheesy bite, and the dough is non-fussily brought together in the bowl of an electric stand mixer — no messy wielding of a pastry cutter or hauling out of a food processor. The pre-roasted apples, grated cheese, dry ingredients (flour/sugar/baking powder/salt), and wet ingredients (butter/cream/egg) are simply combined in a single bowl and mixed together on low.

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 9.01.41 PMWith regard to other baked goods, this Valentine’s Day I was in the mood to make something chocolate, but I wanted to bypass some of the more decadent, ultra-sweet chocolate desserts. I still wanted to make something special, something I don’t normally make. I landed on Love and Olive Oil’s Orange and Dark Chocolate Biscotti, featuring my favorite chocolate-fruit flavor combination. The orange notes come through strongly, and the chunks of dark chocolate impart a subtle richness and decadence of flavor. I love the hearty crunch and mild sweetness of biscotti — making it at home transports you to your favorite cafĂ© and gets the coffee pot percolating.

zoyachubby Basil CC BY-ND 2.0A second Valentine’s Day experiment, this time for the main course, was seared scallops with basil olive oil pistou. Somehow seafood is romantic to me, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I imagine a Valentine’s Day dinner. I’m somewhat shy to say that this was my first time cooking scallops at home, but searing them proved quick and easy. Pistou (pronounced pee-stew) is a French term, and it’s similar to pesto: a mixture of herbs, garlic, and olive oil (in this version the herbs, parsley and basil, are blanched first. I’d never thought to blanche herbs before — aside from the nuisance of repeatedly hand wringing them dry, the blanching did make the sauce more delicate.) The pistou is spooned under each scallop and fresh herbs are sprinkled on top for a simple but slightly elevated presentation. The pistou certainly distinguishes this scallop dish and imparts lots of fresh flavor, but I have to say, it’s oily. I doubled the recipe, and even leaving out about 1/3 cup, the oil still saturated the plate. You might consider scaling back on it by paying closer attention than I did to the food processor.

John Robinson Lemon and lime CC BY 2.0Two final dinner recipes — last night I tried this fish taco recipe in lieu of Lent. It’s refreshing and light all around, a much-needed break from all these hearty, thickly purĂ©ed soups I’ve been making. You can use any white fish, I used cod — flavored with a marinade of lime juice, minced garlic, cumin, chili powder, and vegetable oil. For a healthier meal, the fish is grilled, not fried. The tacos are dressed with a cabbage slaw combining shredded cabbage, sliced red onion, cilantro, and more lime juice and veggie oil. Additional toppings include salsa, sour cream, and sliced avocado. (I opted against bottled salsa for an easy-to-make salsa fresca, containing chopped tomatoes, a squeeze of lime juice, some diced red onion, and a pinch of salt.) Last but not least, what could be easier than this lemon spaghetti recipe, authored by the one and only  Giada Di Laurentiis. You literally whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, and boil noodles, then make a few tweaks with pasta water, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and fresh basil (or in my case, dried). Couldn’t be simpler, and couldn’t be more delicious.

So there you go… a kitchen sink’s worth of good food links. Hopefully it stimulates some upcoming cooking adventures in your own kitchen. Thanks for reading, and please let me know if there’s a better recipe out there for salmon, mashed potatoes, soup, fish tacos, etc. etc. Happy hunkering down this winter!

Hearty Vegetable Minestrone Soup
From Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 small zucchini, diced
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, cut small
  • 1/2 small cabbage, shredded
  • 1 cup cauliflower cut into small pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 (28-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans white navy beans or cannellini
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked small tube, shell-shaped pasta, or orzo
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • fresh basil
  • red pepper flakes
  • balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

Instructions

  • Heat a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and heat until hot. Quickly add the onion, and sautĂ© for 5 minutes, until the onion starts to caramelize. Add the garlic and sautĂ© for 30 seconds.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute; then add the water and stir. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add carrots, celery, zucchini, broccoli florets, cabbage, cauliflower, and salt. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to release their juices.
  • Add the canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the beans and stir. Cover and gently simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.
  • In a blender, (or with an immersion blender), purĂ©e three-quarters of the soup until semi-smooth. Pour back into the stockpot and stir well. This will thicken your soup.
  • Adjust the seasoning (taste for salt; you will probably need to add more — 1/4 teaspoon at a time, so you don’t oversalt). Bring the soup back up to a gentle boil. Add the pasta and stir well so the pasta doesn’t stick. Cook the pasta for about 5 minutes or until al dente. You don’t want to overcook the pasta. Ladle into heated bowls. Garnish with 2 tablespoons freshly grated cheese per serving, fresh basil, and red pepper flakes to taste. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top.

A Resolution for the New Year

Kevin Dooley Christmas from the present's perspective CC BY 2.0I just started reading Daniel G. Amen’s book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. In it Amen argues that women’s brains are hardwired for the following strengths: empathy, intuition, self-control, collaboration, and a little worry. In turn, each of these strengths corresponds to a vulnerability of sorts: respectively, a tendency to feel responsible for everything and everyone, knee-jerk feelings of anxiety without having amassed the full facts, futile and frustrating attempts to control others, excessive approval seeking, and unhealthy doses of worry that lead to chronic stress. I especially identify with the positive and negative attributes of the intuition and worry piece — self-control, not so much, to which anyone who has spent any time with me and a jar of nutella can attest.

I remember, when I was probably grumbling about some aspect of my perceived incompetence, a friend saying to me that I had to stop assessing my self-worth on such a day-to-day basis. Similarly, a former boyfriend used to call me out on my incessant tendency to “analyze.” I don’t know what worry is if not a nagging impulse to analyze, scrutinize, to tease apart events and issues in one’ life that are really quite small, making up a fraction of the whole, that, like threads in a loosely woven tapestry, need room to breathe. A healthy new year’s resolution for me this year might be to hit pause on all of the assessing and reassessing that I am so stubbornly prone to and measure my own failures and successes within the context, the arch, of my life as a whole. Along with that comes a clearer, more impactful and present vision of what I want my life to look like, otherwise known as perspective. Anyone care to join me, come December 31st, when the clock strikes midnight, in toasting the revelation that life is marathon, not a sprint, that taking things slow and steady with a lot of deep breaths is in fact the wisest way to win the race?

In the meantime, there’s dinner to worry about. But I’ve got a resolution for that, too: earlier this week I suggested the merits of cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook, and for me, that would be Quick and Easy Chinese, loosely inspired by author Nancy McDermott’s stint in the Peace Corps. Talk about perspective — what I love most about homemade Chinese food is that mise en place is an imperative. Mise en place is the chopping and measuring of all ingredients prior to cooking so that the cooking process is essentially reduced to combining everything over a flame. Literally, “putting in place” all the ingredients gives the cook a clear sense of where the recipe is going and certainly appeals to the control freak lurking in your female (or male) brain. For example:

Chicken Stir-Fry
Adapted from Almond Chicken, 
Quick and Easy Chinese

Ingredients

12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion

Tools

Mixing bowls
Measuring spoons/cups
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Spatula
Whisk or fork
Large skillet

  •  Cube the raw chicken breast. Place it in a large mixing bowl with the soy sauce. Stir to evenly coat the chicken.
  • In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, and sugar. Stir well.
  • Mince the ginger and chop the onion, green onions, and bell pepper. Have these ingredients ready to go in mixing bowls.
  • Heat the skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and ginger. Add the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Cook undisturbed until the edges turn white, about 1 minute, and then toss well.
  • Add the onion and green pepper. Cook, tossing now and then, until all the chicken is cooked through and the onions and peppers are fragrant and beginning to wilt.
  • Add the chicken stock mixture. Toss well to mix everything together. As soon as the sauce thickens, remove the pan from the heat and add the green onions. Serve with white or brown rice.

Reading With Tongue in Cheek

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I read cookbooks cover to cover. They are my preferred form of “chick lit.” I prefer a bellowing, copper-pot-whapping Julia Child to a shoe-addicted Carrie Bradshaw. I am a sucker for the neat and tidy fantasy of a day that begins with “tri-berry muffins” and closes with a single portion cheese soufflĂ©. I’m a sucker for glossy images of heirloom tomatoes or, for goodness’ sake, a large oven-baked pancake that can be sliced like a pie!

Recently I plucked Judith Jones’s The Pleasures of Cooking For One off the bookshelf. As the senior editor and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, she worked with Julia Child and James Beard on their legendary cookbooks.  She also co-authored several cookbooks with her late husband, Evan Jones, and after he passed away, wrote a memoir called The Tenth Muse. The Pleasures of Cooking For One was published in 2009.

When Jones’s husband died, she encountered new challenges inherent in solo cooking, and the possibility of giving up home cooking altogether. Soon, she realized the relevance of her situation to unprecedented numbers of Americans living alone today:

“Fifty-one percent of the population in the New York metropolitan area lives alone. Yet no one seems to cater to their needs. Supermarkets do everything they can to make us buy more than we need, and the food industry has for more than a century been selling the idea that it is demeaning for women to cook and a waste of time when they can buy ready-made products instead” (vii).

And… voilĂ  — the inspiration for recipes catering to a developing nation of loners. She gets us pampered urbanites as excited about being resourceful with food as we are about dining out for brunch! And she appeals to our sense of creativity, which, you know, we like — spreading the philosophy that home cooking is not about individual meals, but about using our creativity to plan, save, and repurpose. Recipes for modest portion sizes are accompanied by tips on how to avoid buying gargantuan quantities of raw ingredients, how to think about cooking as “one dish leading to another” (4). It almost sounds like recycling! Pretty hip.  She has a whimsical, savvy, and hearty approach to cooking that is actually focused on eating what you cook — all of it — with equal emphasis on creativity and frugality. This is the mark of an authentic, experienced cook, and I have to say, her groundedness cramps the style of celebrity chefs and their carefully crafted branding.

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 9.50.21 PMNotwithstanding the occasional name drop (such as “Potatoes for Julia”) practical food is the focus (Child, that is, to the left is a replica of her kitchen on display at the American History Museum in Washington, D.C.) But the chick lit aspect is there — in the first chapter “On Cooking Through The Week,” I’m transported to a cosy kitchen with a New England, cottage feel. It’s a far cry from Manhattan, Jimmy Choos, or Prada bags, but you can’t help but feel modern, enlightened, resourceful, dare I say, classy, when you improvise chicken breast with herbed butter for dinner, broiled over a bed of root vegetables. On day two, you’ll just shred the leftovers, steam some vegetables, throw together a light cream sauce, grate some cheese, pull out your individual sized gratin dish, and make “Chicken Divan.” On day three, maybe you’ll throw it back to 19th century New England with some “Minced Chicken on Toast.”

Frugal, whimsical, high-low, yes. Is it sexy? Eh. In a section on “The Nine Lives of a Turkey,” Jones refers to the maxim, “having a good country ham in the refrigerator is like owning a good black dress — you are ready for anything” (22).

Whatever it lacks in glamour it makes up for in practicality. The concept speaks to huge segments of the population — young, urban professionals, older people who find themselves newly accustomed to the single life, or families who have trouble navigating the huge quantities of food at the store. We are encouraged to go all out with cooking, but in a responsible way.

Jones’s passion for cooking implies her tenacious desire to keep on keepin’ it classy, despite life’s changes or challenges. This zest for life, represented by Jones’s willingness to dig deep in her kitchen cabinets, is what makes this book so charming and spirited. I think the chapter titled “The Magic of Eggs — And the Seduction of Cheese” says it all. Well, I’m up to the challenge, Ms. Jones (two people here, but still large quantities of food), thank you for the inspiration. If you are reading this entry, thanks for stopping by, and I hope you’ll check out the book for yourself. It’s worth it, no matter the size of your household. In the meantime, I’d like to pay a tribute “the magic of eggs” when it comes to making resourceful meals at home:

Omelet For Two

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Oven proof sauté pan
Bacon
Butter
1 potato, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
5 Eggs
Milk or cream
Salt and pepper
Scallions
Cheddar cheese

Fry Up The Filling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and chop bacon. Sauté bacon until brown and crispy; drain. Wipe the sauté pan clean. Add a dab of butter, the diced potato and onion and cook until the onion starts to brown and the potato starts to tenderize but still has some firmness (about 10 minutes).

Whisk The Eggs

While this is happening, beat together eggs, 2 tablespoons of milk or cream, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup scallions and 4 oz of grated cheddar.

Let The Magic Happen

When the onion and potato are ready, add the bacon back to the sauté pan and pour in the egg mixture. Put the pan in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. You want the eggs to puff up and be almost fully cooked in the center. Sprinkle the top with extra cheddar if you want. It’s magic.

[Images: cover of book,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child, nathanmac87’s photostream; recipe adapted from Ina Garten.]

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