Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In The Kitchen

I have a hard time figuring out what to cook for dinner. If it were only me, there would be a lot more meals consisting solely of chewy grains and chewy greens (except for collards, which are OK but for some reason taste to me the way gasoline smells.) 

Here are some of my obstacles...or shall I say...challenges?... to meal planning:

-I find it very boring to repeat a recipe. Unless it's something I love, I am totally unmotivated to make it more than once.

-I am trying to lose weight (lost a quick 8 pounds at the start of the year and have stalled ever since.  I'm sure it has NOTHING to do with the spectacular meals I've enjoyed in the past few months.) I try to stick with recipes that are accompanied by nutrition information so I can keep track of my calories. Yawn.

-I have two young children.  They are willing to TRY anything.  They are NOT willing to fill up their bellies with any old thing.  Sans kids I would eat a lot more soup (they like it but it takes FOREVER to eat) and I would try every wacky vegetable stew recipe that comes my way.

-Fun ingredients are expensive.  (Duh. I know I am WAY too indulgent in the kinds of foods I'm willing to pony up for. Honestly, the "me" of five years ago would be appalled at the contents of my shopping cart.)

-I am sadly lacking in knowledge of basic cooking technique.  I have to rely more than I'd care to on recipes. True, some of my tastiest dishes are the result of me winging it, scrounging for a meal after not having been to the grocery store in two weeks. But that's just me getting lucky.

As I've told you before, in a moment of desperation I subscribed to The Six O'Clock Scramble. And I have to say that a few of my favorite go-to recipes have come from there.  And it is a super convenient way to plan one's meals. But, really, I find about 1 stellar recipe for every 30 duds and ho-hums.  Every time we have a mediocre meal, Shaun looks at me with resigned eyes and asks, "Aviva?"  

A few weeks ago I decided to relieve the tedium and branch out a bit.  As I absolutely love tahini, I decided to try this recipe for Warm Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad from one of my favorite food blogs, smitten kitchen.  It was good, and I absolutely recommend it to those of you who like these flavors (and I know there are some of you out there.)  

A few caveats: I made my squash chunks too small, so they were overcooked and lost their chunkiness, imparting an unwanted baby-food taste and texture to the finished salad. Also, I like red onion, but I found it to be overpowering, even after cutting back on the quantity.  Next time I would soak it first. Finally, the raw garlic in the dressing was a little strong for me as well.  It tasted fine the first night, but made me not want to eat the leftover dressing.  I'd put in a little less than the recipe calls for. Unless you're a big fan of raw garlic.

It was an adventurous week for me.  I also decided to try out a recipe from one of my Spanish cookbooks; primarily because it looked really simple and inexpensive.  It is called Arroz con Acelgas or Rice, Bean, and Greens Soup.  It wasn't until I got to adding the sole seasoning in this soup (apart from salt) that I realized I had never before made a soup that contained none of the following: carrot, celery, onion, or garlic.

The secret weapon in this soup?  Saffron.  That, plus the inclusion of a turnip, had sold me on the recipe.  I love saffron, and I now that I have discovered that Cost Plus World Market sells it for $3.99, I no longer rule out dishes calling for it.  But I am a neophyte in its use.  People like me (meaning folks uncomfortable with ambiguity) should really not be given recipes that call for "a pinch" of anything.  I always find myself adding just a bit more than my first instinct (ESPECIALLY when it's the only seasoning in the recipe!) because it would be a shame to have used some and then not be able to taste it.  Then I add a bit more. Then the dish ends up tasting a little bit like dirt.

So, I ended up with a giant pot of not particularly tasty soup.  But I hate to waste healthy food, so I dutifully ate my share and froze the rest.  I defrosted it this week, and it has been greatly improved by the addition of leftover Easter ham.

Speaking of Easter, I had an even more successful smitten kitchen experience with this Almond Cake with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote.  Particularly the compote.  It was delicious and would be good with almost anything.  And holy smokes, peeling the strings off the outside of the rhubarb stalks released a smell that was the very essence of spring.  I could hardly get over it.

Those are my latest culinary adventures.  I would love to hear what some of your latest successes have been (preferably accompanied by recipes :)

And I'm curious for folks to weigh in on this as well: is it just me, or are garlic cloves WAY bigger than they used to be?  Maybe it's just a western thing, but I feel like a clove of garlic these days yields at least twice as much as it used to when I was a kid.  Therefore I'm always second-guessing how much garlic to use in a recipe if it only gives an amount in cloves. Anyone? Or have I completely lost my mind?


DaveShack said...

Mmmm. Ok. Stop.

Here's something tasty I want to try soon:

Unknown said...

I can definitely sympathize with the dinner-making drudgery! Once a week I make chicken stock, then we have chicken soup with vegetables and lentils about three times. Of course, all of the food allergies in my family squelch creativity-- it is a feat to make something that everyone can eat. We had people over for brunch on Sunday, so I made a quiche with leeks, wild mushrooms and greens that I found at a farmer's market. It was really nice, but probably not diet-friendly, and I rarely use recipes so I'm afraid that's not much help. I'll be checking back to see what other people may offer.

Hillary said...

Well, of course I can't resist commenting on this one.

I am, as I write, munching on a avocado/cheese sandwich with tomato soup. Sometimes the simplest techniques (ie sandwich making) can go a long way when the ingredients are right.

The key to my simple dinner is that I didn't plan it. To find good tomatoes, make chicken stock, time it with my avocado ripening, have fresh bread on hand and find the write kind of gruyere at TJs would be...difficult. In fact, if I planned the meal, it probably wouldn't be as good, due to some fudging to get all of the elements in place at the same time.

I don't generally cook from recipes, but I am always reading cookbooks. It's impossible to stay creative if you're not cooking with other people or reading about what other people make (which is why this post is such a good idea). So, tonight I happened upon a sage pesto recipe from the Zuni Cafe cookbook. Something I NEVER would think of making. Except that I just happen to have a bunch of sage .

The pesto is amazing. I plopped it into my soup and then couldn't resist smearing it onto my sandwich as well:

Chop 3 tablespoons sage leaves and heat in 1 tablespoon olive oil for one minute. Smash one clove garlic in a mortar and pestle add a pinch of salt and keep mashing until it is a paste. Add the sage and mash until it is pulverized. Add 1/2 cup chopped walnuts and mash to a paste. Stir in 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 oz grated parmesan, and freshly cracked black pepper.

I'm going to try it on shrimp tomorrow.

Regarding garlic: It is very possibly on steroids these days, but more likely than the amount being too much is that the flavor is too strong. If you get green garlic (in markets here now, but it's a short season) it is so mild you can add the whole head to a two-person serving of tomato sauce. As the garlic dries out, it gets stronger and starts to develop that weird taste you get toward the back of your throat when you close your lips, press your toungue down, and exhale through your nose. Once the cloves have that little green sprout in the middle, it's completely gross and will overpower anything you put it in no matter how small of an amount. Just throw it out. I'm sure you know this, but if you don't have the option of buying fresh garlic from the growers, try to find very tightly packed and wrapped heads (the ones that look really hard to get to get the cloves off of.)

EMILY said...

Hello, this is Emily in Philadelphia. I made the squash and chick pea moroccan stew from smitten kitchen (calls for saffron) a million times and never got sick of it. I guess it's kind of too late for that now. To be honest, I'm a little nervous about spring/summer cooking as last year I was so busy that we ate breakfast burritos almost every night. Or just cheese. Sometimes I just go to epicurious, hit vegetarian, quick and easy, then pick something reasonable within 5 minutes and then go food shopping. I'm growing some of my food this year so I'm hoping that will help inform my meal planning even though I don't really mind eating raw radishes for dinner while sitting in front of the t.v. watching Access Hollywood. I'm not helping, am I?

Gypmar said...

Au contraire, Emily. You are indeed a help. Because the next time my family looks at me with those sad, sad eyes, I can tell them, "Hey. At least it's not a plate of raw radishes."

AND, every time someone admits in public to watching Access Hollywood, an angel gets his wings. So you can feel good about that.

Gypmar said...

Dave, thanks for the link. I hadn't encountered that blog before, and it's fun to have the European spin on things.

That pasta does look good, but I will admit fear of Scotch Bonnet peppers.

Amy said...

I loath (abhor really) deciding what to make for dinner. Ruins my days sometimes. And I try to ask for help from my dear sweet hubby and he gives me helpful solutions - such as: "food", or, the same list of boring food, or "mac and cheese" (which I truly do love - but c'mon! - really?). Yet, I have found a workable solution, at least for now. I subscribe to "Everyday Food" and if I haven't planned something to eat I flip back to the index on the current months issue and find the very first recipe I have both the time and ingredients for and voila - dinner. There have been many just fine meals and a few winners, but I like that I have tried meals I normally wouldn't.

Gypmar said...

Hillary, that pesto sounds really, really good.

I love those happy accidents like your good dinner. They happened more frequently when I only had myself to feed :)

I'll have to venture farther afield than my normal circle of grocery stores to try to find some fresher garlic. Grrr.

Unknown said...

Jeff reminded me of a fairly easy dinner I make regularly (a little break from all the soup.) If you can, get some zataar spice mixture (from a Middle Eastern market, or maybe costplus even carries it).
In a small pot I put some onions, frozen chicken thighs, butter, lemon juice (better yet, chopped preserved lemons) a little stock or water and zataar. I cover it and let it simmer until it shreds easily-- half an hour or so. I usually make rice and sautee some greens to go with it. Of course some dolmas from TJ's are easier than rice even, and olives and any pickled vegetables you may have make it feel like an extravagant-for-a-weeknight meal. The fun thing about Middle Eastern food is that you can add on so many things-- pita, tahini sauce (you can make your own easily, but TJ's also carries a good one,) hummus, feta, fresh herbs to wrap with the feta and pita, and on and on...