Weeknight basics.

From Lapsed Chef, 4 December 2009, Getting back in the game?

Q: I love cooks, cooking, good eating, and good reading about food. However, despite all my cookbooks, and despite all my equipment, I haven’t made much more in my kitchen than a peanut butter sandwich in the last half-decade. What simple thing could I make (or do) to get back in the swing before all my cooking muscles completely atrophy? Any advice appreciated!

A: Hey, Lapsed Chef. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a job that keeps you long hours, maybe a nasty commute, and lots of other things you either need or want to be doing. Under the circumstances, it can seem impossible to find the time to cook. I commute almost three hours a day to my (non-cooking) job, and I know how it feels.

You’re not alone. In his controversial article in the New York Times Magazine this summer, entitled “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” Michael Pollan noted that Americans today spend an average of 27 minutes a day on food preparation – less than half the time we spent forty years ago. No doubt much of this is down to the availability of convenience foods, but it seems equally likely a function of our long commutes, work schedules, and social lives. Which came first?

It’s never too late to get back in the kitchen. I recommend starting out simple, with a few dishes that you can turn into other dishes with ease, and salads. These will remind you that it’s possible to turn out healthful meals quickly and at low cost. And it’s nice to eat something you cooked yourself.

Here’s an example. You can make this recipe for red sauce for pasta in about twenty minutes, from start to finish. Most of that time is simmering time. If you double or even triple it, you can freeze it in small plastic containers and reheat portions as needed for dinner. You can vary it by adding canned oil packed tuna, capers, and olives. You can layer it with sliced eggplant, mozzarella, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake it. You can add it to a sauteed onion, thin it with chicken stock, put it in the blender, and enjoy it as a soup (maybe with a grilled cheese sandwich).

One basic sauce, three easy weekday recipes. Try these out and write back for more dishes that you can turn into other dishes.

Puttanesca sauce with tuna

This is best with oil packed tuna, which stays moist and chunky. In fact, if you don’t mind the extra cost, use the Spanish oil-packed bonito del norte – Ortiz provides a widely available jarred variety.

2c red sauce, from preceding recipe
1 tbsp salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed, chopped, or 1 1/2 tbsp nonpareil capers, rinsed of brine
about a dozen kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
4-5 oz canned or jarred tuna, preferably oil packed
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
salt and black pepper
small handful flat-leaf parsley, washed, dried, and chopped
1/2 lb spaghetti (dry weight)

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When the water boils, add the spaghetti.

As the spaghetti cooks (usually 8-10 minutes depending on variety and the strength of your stove), cook the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer and add the olives and capers. Simmer 5 minutes and gently stir in the tuna, retaining large chunks if possible. Add crushed red pepper flakes, salt, and black pepper to taste.

Drain the pasta and add to the sauce. Toss the pasta with the sauce and the parsley. Serve immediately.

linguine alla puttanesca, with bonito del norte

Eggplant Parmesan

Most people don’t think to make eggplant parmesan at home because the traditional dish is a production – it involves making the sauce and frying the eggplant, and in the end, the eggplant absorbs a great deal of oil, making the whole dish greasy.

We have addressed the sauce problem by making it in advance. As for the greasy eggplant problem, the great Harold McGee, food scientist extraordinaire, provides an excellent and quick solution. Eggplant is a notorious sponge for oil because of its cellular structure. Collapse that structure, and the eggplant absorbs less oil. While many cooks salt eggplant (and other spongy vegetable-fruits like summer squash), McGee presents a more effective and more healthful alternative – a quick trip in the microwave.

In addition, you need not fry the eggplant. The dish may not be classic, but it is more healthful without the flour/egg/breadcrumb crust, which becomes soggy after baking in the sauce anyway. The panko crust on top evokes the crispy breadiness of the original fried eggplant.

2c red sauce, from preceding recipe
1 medium eggplant, about 1 lb
8 oz mozzarella cheese, grated coarsely or sliced thinly
2 oz grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 c panko
salt and black pepper
small handful flat-leaf parsley, washed, dried, and chopped

Oven 375F

Slice the eggplant 1/2″. Place a double layer of paper toweling on a microwave safe plate and place one layer of eggplant on the towels. Microwave for two minutes (rotating once if your microwave lacks a turntable). Repeat, using new towels, until you have cooked all the eggplant. Set aside.

Combine the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the panko. Set aside.

Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9″ square baking pan. Add a layer of eggplant and grind some pepper over the top, and sprinkle a small amount of kosher salt over the eggplant layer. Follow with tomato sauce, and a layer of mozzarella cheese. Repeat until you have used all the sauce, eggplant, and cheese. Finish with the panko mixture. Bake until the sauce bubbles, the eggplant is hot in the center, and the panko is brown. If necessary, cover with foil early in the process to prevent burning.

Allow to rest about 10 minutes before slicing.

Smoky tomato soup

I have all these cans of San Marzano DOP tomatoes in the pantry. They are totally delicious. In summer, I grow San Marzanos in the backyard, where they are the only tomato variety yet to have survived the intense oven-like heat of the asphalt. I always use San Marzanos to make the sauce, and the flavor comes through in this soup. Pimentón, or smoked Spanish paprika from Extremadura, gives the soup a complex, smoky flavor with a slightly bitter note. You can buy it at WholeFoods – even Giant and Safeway seem to be carrying it these days.

I originally conceived of this soup not using the sauce. If you opt to make the soup without using the sauce, substitute one 28-ounce can of tomatoes and 4 cloves garlic confit.

Smoky Tomato Soup

1 small onion, diced
1 leek, white only, thinly sliced
1 tsp pimentón de la vera
bay leaf
fresh thyme branches
celery stalk with leaves
3c red sauce, from preceding recipe
2c water or chicken stock
salt and pepper

Tie together the celery stalk, thyme branches, and bay leaves to form a bouquet garni.

Place a saucepot over medium heat. When hot, add a small amount of olive oil. Add the onions and leeks, lower the heat, and sauté until the vegetables are thoroughly tender. Add the pimentón and raise the heat slightly. Add the bouquet garni to the vegetables. Add the tomato sauce and water, or chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and simmer about 20 minutes or so. Remove bouquet garni and be sure all thyme branches and bay leaf have been removed from soup.

Puree in a blender. Reduce again to desired thickness if necessary (not too thick). Taste and add salt and pepper.

From Starvin., 29 November 2009, Salads: Making them tasty?

Q: I need a salad. All this thanksgiving fattening has me in an eater’s remorse. So I’ve been thinking of foraging and eating a salad (or 2) but can never figure how to make mixed greens alone appetizing. Any thoughts?

A: I know a lot of people are feeling that way after the holidays!

You’re right – mixed greens alone aren’t that appetizing. You need to bulk them up without bulking yourself up in the process. I hated salads growing up, because they always came to me drowned in gloppy creamy dressing, and loaded with vegetables that didn’t make sense in salad. When I started making salads myself, I really started enjoying the opportunities to eat tons of fresh vegetables and fruit. They’re also a good way to use up small quantities of leftover protein.

When I need a hearty salad, I add more fruits and vegetables and a little protein. To avoid the trap of high calorie salads, avoid these three pitfalls:

* Don’t add more than 3 oz of protein to your salad (2 if it is not lean protein). That’s a deck of cards of lean meat.

So, what’s a protein? That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Protein is meat, like steak, roasted or grilled chicken, or roasted duck or duck confit, but it also includes eggs, tuna – fresh or canned – and vegetarian items like grilled tofu, beans, and lentils. To a lesser extent, it includes cooked dry pasta, like orzo.

* Don’t use a high calorie salad dressing. That’s anything creamy. Use a vinaigrette, because you won’t be tempted to overdress your salad.

* No more than 1/2 oz of cheese, and if you’re really counting calories, avoid it altogether. If you use it, that’s only about half a domino of full-fat Cheddar-type, so you have to make it count with something flavorful like a strong blue cheese or Parmesan.

How do you build a meal-type salad? Ideally, you want to get some bitter, sweet, salty, pungent, and tart in each bite.

1. Bitter/refreshing: Arugula, watercress, frisee, cucumber

2. Sweet: Apple, pear, Asian pear, carrot, onion, fennel, roasted peppers, olive oil, nut oil

3. Salty: Walnut (also bitter), hazelnut, almond, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Cheddar cheese

4. Pungent/savory: Blue cheese (also salty), mushrooms, onion (also sweet), meat, olives

5. Tart: lemon, vinegar, yoghurt. Make a vinaigrette the easy way by combining acid and oil in a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio in a jar in the refrigerator, and shaking well before each use. For example, 2 tbsp lemon juice or red wine/sherry vinegar and 8 tbsp (1/2 c) olive oil. For added flavor, add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. That’s not the real way to make a vinaigrette, but it enables you to keep it in a jar in the refrigerator, and is convenient.

You also want some crunch and some not-crunchy texture to add substance to the salad.

A. Crunch: Iceberg lettuce, carrots, apples, Asian pear, fennel, nuts, croutons, raw onion, asparagus, green beans, cucumber

B. Not crunchy: Romaine lettuce, butter lettuce, pears, mushrooms, roasted red pepper, cheese, proteins – meat, beans, eggs – pasta, olives

Here are some good salad combinations to try:

* Arugula, prosciutto, cooked orzo or Israeli couscous, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, red wine or sherry vinaigrette (as described above)

* Frisee, green beans, asparagus, canned white beans (cannellini), hard boiled egg, lemon vinaigrette

* Frisee, apple, cooked chicken, blue cheese, walnut, sherry vinaigrette

* Arugula, fennel, white mushroom, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lemon vinaigrette

* Romaine, cucumber, walnut, onion, feta cheese, yogurt and lemon dressing.

* Butter lettuce, olives, oil-packed tuna, green beans, potato, cherry tomato, lemon juice.

* Arugula, steak, red onion, Asian pear, sriracha sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinaigrette (1 part rice wine vinegar to 1 part sesame oil to 3 parts neutral vegetable oil)

Don’t be afraid to experiment! You can combine greens, and put together fruits and vegetables in any way that makes sense to you. Salads are a great and healthful way to keep your eating under control during the holidays – or any time.


frisee, Granny Smith, fennel, lemon vinaigrette.

4 thoughts on “Weeknight basics.

  1. Pingback: Getting back in the game. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Annie says:

    Wow, thanks for your quick response and so many helpful suggestions. A twenty-minute red sauce sounds like just the place to start. I’ll give it a try and let you know how mine turns out . . and hope that one good dish quickly leads to another! Thanks again Upstart Kitchen, I love your site!

  3. Lapsed Chef says:

    Whoops, I meant to sign myself “Lapsed Chef!”
    I guess you already have me feeling like “Chef Annie” again!

  4. Pingback: Gratin. « The Upstart Kitchen

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