The new reality of weeknight cooking

Korean tofu with Brussels sprouts and pickled carrots

 

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from this blog, and from food writing in general. While it wasn’t entirely planned, it has been a much needed change.

In November, I started a new job, at New York Mouth, an on-line food retailer that sources the best small batch foods from around the country. The start-up is only about a year old, and this was its first holiday season.

In some ways, it wasn’t so different than the crush of Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hanukkah/New Years at the newspaper. Only this time, I was on the other side of things, sending e-mails to journalists hoping to be included in gift guides, rather than frantically putting together my own list.

In the spirit of keeping one’s options open, I plan to continue to blog, at least occasionally. I’d like to see what I choose to write about when I’m not motivated by deadlines, trends, or even paychecks.

roasting carrots

I became a food writer, because my life was already immersed in mealtimes. But the second that cooking and eating dinner became a requirement of my job, rather than just a requirement of being human, the context changed. I wasn’t cooking and eating like a “regular person.” When I was testing recipes, I had to follow them meticulously, even if that meant trips to two or three different grocery stores. If I had a lot of recipe testing, I might spend all weekend cooking, or leave work several hours early.

Now, I work in a place where food is the focus, but my hours must be spent in the office, and there are weeks where I might never be home before 7:30 or 8 p.m.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: Most nights of the week, I come home and make dinner.

While my husband also loves to cook (and is very good at it), his longer commute means that weekday cooking usually falls to me. Typically, we limit meals out to twice a week – once on a weekday and once on a weekend – and we also try to bring our lunches from home most days.

We’ve mostly managed to make it work. There have been weeks when I’ve bought my lunch far more often than I’d like, nights where we’ve scrapped the plan and gone out to dinner, or where dinner didn’t make it on to the table until 9:30 p.m.

There have also been victories. Newly discovered recipes that are truly, stupendously fast without compromising taste, health or interest. I’ve become neater and faster, a reminder that the pressures of eating at a reasonable hour are not so different from the ticking clock that used to govern culinary school exams.

Over the last two months, I think I’ve learned more about real-life cooking and eating than I learned in five years as a full-time food writer.

In the next few months, I’ll write more about what we’ve learned. For now, I’ll just leave you with a great recipe that is certain to be repeated in our house many times in the future.

Paella with squid for two

Paella with squid for two

Squid is healthy, cheap and cooks quickly. It’s also delicious and one of my favorite weeknight dinner proteins. But, if you’re not a fan you could easily substitute shrimp or bay scallops. Just be careful not to overcook them on that first saute.

2 cups seafood stock

Pinch crumbled saffron

½ teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika

¾ lb cleaned, sliced squid (either just body or body and tentacles)

Kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

2 T extra-virgin olive oil

4 scallions thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

2/3 cup Bomba rice (or other short grain rice)

10-12 grape tomatoes, halved

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit.

Combine the seafood stock, saffron and pimenton in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then turn down to low and cover.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in a 10-inch skillet (cast iron is ideal) over medium-high heat. Saute the squid, seasoning with salt and pepper, just until the squid become opaque. Transfer the squid to a plate and set aside.

Add the other tablespoon of olive oil to the cast iron skillet. Once it shimmers, add the scallions, garlic and red pepper flakes. Saute for a couple of minutes until the scallions are nicely wilted, turning down the heat if they begin to brown or dry up. Add the rice and mix thoroughly, continuing to saute for another minute or two. Pour the hot seafood broth into the rice and turn up the heat.

Once the broth comes up to a boil, turn the heat down and let it simmer until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, about 10 to 15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.

Add the tomatoes and squid, stir to combine and carefully move the pan to the preheated oven. Bake for 15 minutes, until the rice is just al dente. Remove the pan from the oven and cover with a lid. Cover the handle with something so you remember it’s hot. Let it sit for five minutes.

If you like, you can return it to the stove over medium heat and cook for another 2 to 5 minutes, to crisp up the bottom of the pan. If you’re starving, however, go ahead and skip that step. Serve with roasted broccoli or a lightly dressed spinach salad.

Serves 2

Adapted from “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” by Joe Yonan

 

 

 

Well-Provisioned: Duck Confit and Apple Butter

Fall leavesIt’s been a while since fall meant back-to-school for me. Yet every year, September still feels like a new beginning, one that comes with an extra burst of energy.

Michael and I started dating in September (more than nine years ago) and married in November (our fourth anniversary is coming up in just a few weeks). And of course, the season culminates in Thanksgiving, a high holy day on our personal calendar.

It’s an important season in our family, and invariably a busy one. Despite the cluttered calendar (and the beautiful weather calling me outdoors), I’ve been trying to carve out time to cook. Not just day-to-day lunches and dinners, but also lengthier projects, the kinds of things that I know from experience will make the winter that much easier.

A well-stocked kitchen is my salve against those dark, cold days. Every necessary errand makes dinner seem a little more daunting, but when the freezer is filled with the building blocks for great meals, like home-made broth, torn pieces of stale bread for ribollita (I’m crazy about this one) and blanched kale, I’m immune to the temptations of take-out. Call it my version of extreme coupon-ing. I buy ingredients when they’re cheaper, so I can save them for later in the season, when they’re more expensive, or just harder to come by. But I also place a similar value on my time — just a little bit of advance work pays off in easy, delicious meals.

Recently, I took advantage of a discount on duck legs at the Union Square farmer’s market. Hudson Valley farm was selling them for a dollar off each. They weren’t cheap (about $6 per pound), but I knew from experience that if I confited them, I would get a lot of meals out of those duck legs.

I used Melissa Clark’s fool-proof recipe, which requires nothing but salt, pepper dried thyme and a couple of tablespoons olive oil. The best part about this recipe is that at the end I was left with not just four beautifully confited duck legs, but also plenty of rendered duck fat to use throughout the autumn. This time, I got nearly three full cups.

duck confit

Duck confit keeps in the fridge for several weeks, but I like to remove them from the fat, wrap them in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and freeze them, to enjoy one at a time throughout the next few months. I’ll make at least one batch of cassoulet, shred one into pasta, and serve another bistro style with duck-fat fried potatoes and a green salad.

 

 

The apple butter I made a few weeks later is equally versatile. I’ll spread it on on toast or pancakes or stir it into yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast; spread it on a ham or cheddar sandwich at lunch; or thin it into a glaze for roast pork loin at dinner.

I’m a huge fan of Thomas Keller’s slow-cooker apple butter. I love the sweet-tart balance of this recipe, which incorporates a lot of vinegar to balance out the apples and added sugar. This time, I decided to can some of it, to give away as holiday gifts (and open up in January). I filled four half-pint jars, and still had about two quarts for the fridge, where it will stay good for a month.

Apples in the slow-cooker   apples ready for the food-millapple puree

Thomas Keller’s Slow-Cooker Apple Butter

The only tricky thing about this apple butter is that it’s best started in the evening, and takes until the following afternoon; so usually I make it on a Friday or Saturday night. The recipe calls for a food-mill, but if you don’t have one and can’t barrow one, you could simple peel and core your apples, then blend them with an immersion blender or even just a potato masher (they get really, really soft). However, apple skins add a lot of flavor, so if you can beg, borrow or buy a food-mill, it might be worth it.

Also, if you don’t have a scale at home, be sure to weigh your apples at the store or farmers’ market. You’ll want to know how many pounds you’re starting with.

4 pounds apples (some combination of Pink Lady, Gavenstein, Honey Crisp, Fugi, Jonagold, Courtland or other good sweet-tart apples)

1 cup champagne vinegar

2 cups water

4 cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Set a slow-cooker to high. Cut apples into 6 to 8 wedges. Add to slow cooker, along with the vinegar and the water. Cover and cook for 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours, until the apples are very soft and mash easily with a fork.

Puree the apples with a food-mill’s medium screen (if your food mill doesn’t have more than one insert, the standard size should be fine). Discard the seeds and skin in the food mill, return the pureed apples to the slow cooker. Add 4 cups of sugar to the puree (if you started out with more or less than 4 pounds of apples, adjust the sugar accordingly).

Stir in the spices, lemon zest and juice. Set the slow cooker to low, cover and cook for another 8 hours (best done overnight).

Remove the, turn the slow cooker up to high and continue to cook uncovered for 3 to 4 hours stirring ocassionally, until the “apple butter is thicker than apple sauce but not as thick as jam.” The best way to tell if your apple butter is done is to put a spoonful on a plate and stick it in the fridge for a few minutes. If the edges are spread thin and watery, keep cooking it until it mostly holds its shape on the plate.

To can, fill clean half-pint jars with apple butter, leaving 1/4″ head room, and process in a water bath for 10 minutes. Alternatively, place in clean, seal-able containers and refrigerate up to 1 month.

Makes 10 to 12 cups apple butter

 

Savory Oatmeal: Steel cut oats with parmesan, black pepper and walnuts

Oatmeal. For something so ordinary it’s surprisingly divisive. Some consider it loathsome – stodgy and gluey, more punishment than breakfast. Others (like me) would happily eat it every day, for months at a time. Personally, I think the former group has just never had good oatmeal. Toppings matter, of course, but so does technique.

It may surprise you to know that they actually teach you how to make oatmeal in culinary school. Sure, it’s just one recipe on one day of breakfast cookery, but it’s a useful one. They had us cook rolled oats, the kind that come in big flakes, essential for a great oatmeal cookie.The big secret? Stir as little as possible.

Stirring, my instructor explained, breaks up the oats and can lead to a gluey texture. If you gently simmer the oats until they’re done and just stir them once or twice to make sure they’re not sticking, they’ll stay intact and creamy. The ratio of oats to liquid is important too. I like Quaker rolled oats made with ½ cup oats to 1 ½ cups water. You may like them a little thicker or a little looser.

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Shakshouka: Fun to make and to say

chopped tomatoesWednesday morning, I got a little nostalgic at the farmer’s market. I’ll be out of town this weekend, so this was officially my last market of the summer. Next week, there may still be tomatoes, corn, peaches and basil, but their peak season has undoubtedly passed.

 

 

 

Sauce simmering away

That’s not such a bad thing, though. When the tomatoes are less than perfect, I no longer feel required to let the ingredient steal the show. The nights are suddenly cold enough to crave warmer dinners — saucy pastas, brightly spiced stews. When I picture a kitchen in September, I see a pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove.

It’s the perfect time of year to make one of my very favorite dishes: Shakshouka.

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Necessity and a Lentil Salad

 

lentil salad with parsley, preserved lemon and scallions

There are days when my fridge is full to bursting. Usually, it means that I’m either having a dinner party, or it’s the week leading up to Thanksgiving.

The rest of the time, not so much. Partly, this is a habit left over from a restaurant critic’s schedule, when ingredients without an immediate destination were likely to go bad before they got used. But it’s also a sort of frugal crutch to creativity. I like my thin margin of error, even if it gets a little patchy at times.

On one recent afternoon, just as the idea of lunch began to glimmer in the corner of my mind, it occurred to me that there was very little in the house to eat. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but I was stuck at home until 3 p.m., waiting for a package to be delivered, one which I really didn’t want to miss.

My anxiety was a little dis-proportionate to the situation. While my pantry hasn’t quite recovered from our move, between dry-goods, spices and some canned essentials, a family of four could probably live for a month on the contents of my larder.

They might get scurvy, but they wouldn’t be calorie deprived.

Still, I was short on vegetables and entirely out of canned chickpeas, my emergency lunch of choice (in my humble opinion, if you have a can of chickpeas, good olive oil, lemons and lots of parmigiano-reggiano, you have very little to complain about).

pot of lentils What did I have? Lots of dried beans, but that would take way too long. Lentils, it would have to be, the little green puy kind that are so delicious when cooked just until tender.

I didn’t have lettuce, carrots or tomatoes, all of which might have been a delicious addition, but I did have a bunch of scallions and parsley, as well as preserved lemons.

Scallions, a recent obsessions, should be on everyone’s list of staples. They keep well in the crisper for a surprisingly long time, they are delicious both raw and cooked, and they lend dishes some of an onions sweetness, without it’s sharp edge.

lentil salad prepThe secret to this salad, and other kinds of things made with the humblest of ingredients, is to be generous, even luxurious, where you can.

Don’t skimp on flavor. Use the best olive oil you have, and be sure to use enough. The same goes for lemon — you could easily substitute vinegar for an even more pantry-friendly dish. Treat parsley more like a lettuce than an herb. Also, don’t overcook your lentils. Treat them like pasta, tasting them carefully and taking them off the heat when they are just on the edge of perfectly cooked.

lentil salad with parsley, preserved lemon and scallions

Lentil Salad with Parsley, Scallions and Preserved Lemon

To cook lentils, place in a saucepan and cover with lots of cold water. If you’d like, you can add a piece of onion, a smashed garlic clove and bay leaf, but even plain, puy lentils are quite tasty. Hold off on salting them until they are mostly cooked. About 1 cup of dried lentils will make enough for this recipe, but it’s always a good idea to make extra lentils. They will keep for up to a week in the fridge, and are delicious added to grain or green salads, pasta dishes or soups.

1 ½ cups cooked puy lentils, cold or warm, but not hot

3 scallions, green and white parts thinly sliced

Heaping ¼ cup parsley leaves, picked, rinsed well and patted dry

¼ preserved lemon, thinly sliced (or the zest of one lemon)

2 to 3 tablespoons best quality olive oil

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and pepper

Generous pinch of Aleppo pepper or smoked paprika (optional)

Combine lentils, scallions, parsley and preserved lemon in a small mixing bowl. Gently fold together. Add olive oil, lemon juice, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Fold together one more time. If using, sprinkle evenly with Aleppo pepper or smoked paprika.

Serves 1, generously