Tuesday, July 19, 2005
The Society for Getting Dinner on the Table
I used to resort to take-out and plain (butter and cheese, or store-bought pesto sauce) pasta a lot, but have expanded my weeknight horizons considerably thanks to the concept of moving beyond the idea of recipes to concentrate on technique and principles. I love reading, but if I have to stop and do more than cursory research, dinner isn't going to happen.
The book I got that really opened my eyes in this direction was Pam Anderson's How to Cook without a Book. (Yeah, it is a book, but bear with me here.) In it, Pam (who used to run the test kitchen at Cook's Illustrated) gives basic formulae for Suppers in Under 30 (except for the chicken, which in my wimpy oven really does take 45-50 ... but the others come in to time in my experience, unlike someone else who publishes "30 minute meals").
Three Things I Learned From Pam Anderson:
1. Searing meat and making a very simple and quick pan sauce makes "plain" meat seem special. I particularly like the red wine-Dijon sauce with steak or burgers because it reminds me of my mom's Bordelaise. (1/4 cup red wine, 1/4 cup chicken broth, teaspoon mustard, tablespoon butter to finish after it's reduced to about half). I will, however, state that I will never sear salmon in my kitchen again.
2. Cutting the back out of a chicken and roasting it flat at high heat (450 F) knocks considerable time off the process. Seasoning it UNDER the skin makes it really tasty. A chicken makes leftovers for me, but if you have a bigger household, cook two at once and make something with cooked chicken in a couple of nights.
3. Keeping high-quality crushed tomatoes in the pantry makes it possible to put together a tasty tomato sauce in less time than it would take me to drive to the store or to Genova Deli, park, purchase some tomato-mushroom sauce, and drive home.
Pam also has some worthwhile tips on other weeknight dishes - stir-fry, frittata, and soups - that are worth checking out. I have a personal repertory of sauces for stir-fry (this peanut sesame one would be very good for a weeknight as it goes together FAST) and can make certain dinner-worthy soups (especially minestrone and curried lentil) on autopilot, so I haven't played with them as much.
This has been supplemented by Fine Cooking's occasional "Cooking without Recipes" series, where a formula for a particular type of dish is given, parameters are set, and then the cook is pretty much free to go. If you do these often enough, it becomes second nature. Two of these articles that I can do on autopilot now are the pasta-with-LIGHT-cream-sauce and fruit crisps. (I forget which issues ... sorry!)
The pasta sauce is especially good for those of us who like non-tomato pasta dishes - boil up the noodles separately, cook the vegetables and aromatics in "order", add some broth and something like Marsala to simmer, put the pasta and quick-cook veggies like frozen peas in, reduce the liquid some, and add the cream last, coat, and serve. I like bacon/pancetta-onion-mushroom-peas with marsala.
For extra speedy, if not exactly fancy, food I make tacos (which I find a great use for leftovers of various descriptions - if you hate canned beans make up some on a weekend, or while other stuff is cooking, and fridge the results - and save up for a pressure cooker) and my other big Last Minute Standbys, Cheese on Toast - goat cheese or cheddar on sourdough, with whatever else I feel like having with it, and Cheese in a Tortilla (quesadillas!).
I also, since I have a small household, do the "cook in quantity" thing; I'll cheerfully spend much of the evening making enchiladas (although the food processor with its cheese grater cuts down the time!) because I'll eat them for more than one meal.
Somedays I still want take-out. And a fair number of days are the really simple options. But I've really increased my options by moving beyond recipes and into the autopilot zone.
I have been blabbing about this book online for something like three years (I think) or it could even be four.
Stopped doing the recipes for a while - somehow I thought searing meat & making a pan sauce would be too much trouble - with children underfoot, it is, and I tend to go with roasting or stewing.
But just Sunday I sauteed boneless chicken breasts and made a pan sauce with the tail end of some red wine, a bit of balsamic vinegar, and peaches and plums. Plus a little honey to cut all that acidity. Golly was it good! None of her pan sauce recipes include peaches and plums, but I just read her ideas and went with what I had in the pantry.
Love her spatchcocked chickens.
I also love her braise/sauteed veggies - I cook butternut squash that way now, cubed. Butter goes a long way in this recipe, and although the prep time is longer than the old split-n-bake routine, the cook time is much, much, shorter: 8-10 minutes stovetop vs. an hour in the oven.
Also those supper soups are a standby.
I learned to do a decent stir fry from her.
I would make her pad thai but Hubbie persists in being low carb.
How 'bout them frittatas? And I used to make the pasta with veg boiled in until a) hubbie went Atkins and b) kids rebelled against "things mixed into pasta." I have kids who will eat tabbouli but not green peas in pasta.
This book rewards repeat reads. I've been looking at it again, after a hiatus of at least a year but maybe longer. There are so many great ideas that I'd forgotten. She's a queen, and I've convinced several friends to buy it (and use it). I should get a commission.
My household dynamic is a bit different, since I'm sharing a home with my elderly mother. Mom was always a terrific cook, and for awhile we'd have turf rumbles in the kitchen;-)...but it's gotten to the point where she no longer considers it a threat to her autonomy or a criticism of her cooking if I make dinner. But she gets really, really nervous if I wait until I get home from work to make it. (I think this must be a product of being married for decades to someone who insisted on having dinner ready and on the table as soon as he stepped in the door in the evening.) So I am fond of recipes I can make the night before, that may even taste better reheated, or that I can do all the prep for, so that all Mom has to do is pop it in the oven or on the stove.
They grow up to 15in long and 2in wide.