Posts tagged dinners

Meal Planning

fridge3

Take a look at my refrigerator doors. Sure, I’ve attached all sorts of clutter to them—photos of friends and family, invitations to future events, gym schedules, goofy magnets—but I’ve also made a simple, recent addition that has changed my life. Can you see it? I’ll give you a hint: It’s in the lower left corner.

Let me back up a bit. Before the beginning of this year, I’d often run out of dinner ideas during the work week. If I hadn’t planned ahead, by Wednesday I’d be struggling for inspiration and probably preparing something I’d made a million times before. Then, once the weekend rolled around and I’d had time to peruse my cookbooks and magazines, I’d come across new recipes I wanted to try, older recipes I’d been holding onto for years and never prepared, and favorite recipes I’d forgotten about and wanted to make again.

Because I didn’t have a system in place, this cycle of finding recipes and then forgetting about them occurred more often than not. Putting flags in my cookbooks and folding pages over in magazines didn’t work for me either, as I always failed to remember them as well. So back in January I decided to adopt a different approach. I spent a few hours paging through my books and magazines, and I compiled a list of winter dishes I wanted to make this year. When I was done I attached the list to my refrigerator door. I even added a nerdy little box next to each item, so that I could check off the meal once I had prepared it. I’ve always enjoyed checking finished items off of lists—I used to organize my homework in high school and college with this method—and I still feel a small twinge of satisfaction when I complete an item on my meal planning list.

list_detail

As you can see, I am a total dork. But since I’ve adopted this system, not only have Jim and I enjoyed several new recipes, but we’re adding more variety to our diets as I don’t make the same dishes repeatedly. We’re also cooking with more enthusiasm, as almost every meal is a new adventure and something we haven’t tried before. If you look closely at my list, you’ll even see some recipes from my recent blog posts, such as my sweet potato and butternut squash soup and those pork and ricotta meatballs.  That delicious swiss chard, bean, and barley soup? The recipe had been languishing in my recipe binder for years before I added it to my informal kitchen memo. I recently wrote Food & Wine’s green chicken masala on the list, and I am looking forward to making it later in the week.

So, if you are anything like me and need some help organizing your daily meals, I highly recommend my newfound method. I plan on compiling a similar list once spring and summer start. Or, if you don’t have any problems planning your dinners, I hope I’ve given you a good laugh at my food-related nerdiness.

Comments (5) »

One More Soup, In Case We Need It

soup

I’m afraid to say that spring is in the air because I don’t want to jinx it. But I’m starting to make some adjustments: I’ve put the puffy winter jacket away in favor of my lighter wool coat. I don’t know where my hat is. And I’m thinking about dishes with ingredients like asparagus and peas. I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I can’t help it.

So before I get carried away by the warm air and chirping birds outside, I’m going to tell you about another soup, this time a lovely, rustic combination of Swiss chard, barley, and cannellini beans. It’s hearty, healthy, and totally appropriate for fall or winter. Let’s think of it as the final chapter in my cold weather soup series, and perhaps it will be useful when that last gasp of winter rolls around in a week or two. (Come on, you know it will. I’m sure it’s getting ready to pounce.) 

There’s another interesting aspect to this soup, besides its ability to keep the cold weather at arm’s length: It marks the first time I cooked with pearl barley. I’m always looking for ways to increase the amount of grains in my diet, and I have often read that barley works well in soups and stews. Pearl barley is not the most nutritious grain out there—it is polished so that both the outer hull and the nutritious layer of bran are removed. But many people like working with it because it cooks faster and is said to be less chewy than other unprocessed forms of barley.

Mixed with the mild Swiss chard and hearty beans, the pearl barley added a light, spongy element to the soup to create a gentle, satisfying meal from start to finish. The next time I make this soup, I think I will shift some of the steps around and add the Swiss chard at the end instead of cooking it for 40 minutes as suggested in the recipe. Not only would this reduce the cooking time a bit, but I think the greens would retain more nutrients if they were cooked for a shorter period of time. So that’s my only advice for you regarding this soup. But you know what? I hope that spring sticks around and you don’t need it anytime soon.

Recipe for Swiss Chard, Barley, and Cannellini Bean Soup (Adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan that appeared in Food & Wine magazine many years ago. It has been in my collection for a long time, but I cannot find it online.)

  • 1 bunch of Swiss chard, washed
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 celery ribs, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/3 cup chopped canned tomatoes in their juice
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 15-ounce can of cannellini beans, drained
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Cut the leaves of the Swiss chard away from the stalks. Slice the stalks crosswise into small pieces. Slice the leaves into strips about 1/4 inch wide.

Heat the olive oil and onion in a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Stir occasionally, until onion is slightly softer, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the Swiss chard and season with a bit of salt. Cover and cook over very low heat for about 40 minutes. Stir once or twice.

At the same time you start cooking the onion in the large soup pot, bring 5 cups of water to boil in a medium pot. Add the barley and simmer over low heat, partly covered, until tender. This will take about 35 minutes. Drain the barley but reserve the cooking water.

Add the beans and barley to the chard, stir, and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of the barley water, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat. Serve in bowls with freshly grated Parmesan. You can thin any leftovers with water if it seems too thick. Serves 4 to 6. Enjoy!

Comments (6) »

Artichokes for the Choke

When a fruit or vegetable is in season in Italy, you know it. It takes center stage in every type of dish, from the simplest antipasto to the richest, boldest entree. Depending on the time of year, I could be talking about zucchini, tomatoes, or mushrooms. I just happened to get lucky last week. I was visiting Florence during artichoke season.

chokes

Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The sun was shining, the air smelled of springtime, and my favorite vegetable—carciofo in Italian—was absolutely everywhere. From fried artichoke hearts to whole globes stuffed with breadcrumbs, I have never encountered one I didn’t adore.

I started noticing the ubiquitous choke at my hotel’s restaurant. As I perused the menu on the first night, I realized that almost every other dish contained some sort of artichoke option. Among the appetizers were listed both an artichoke tart and grilled octopus with artichokes and citrus fruit. The secondi included a beef tagliata with an artichoke salad, and sea bass with artichokes, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Although they all sounded amazing, I felt like having pasta. I turned to the primi and chose the spaghetti al “macco” di carciofi, which translates to spaghetti with a sort of pureed artichoke sauce.

macco_adjusted

A perfectly cooked mound of al dente pasta coated with a creamy, smooth sauce of concentrated artichoke delight was placed in front of me. Rich yet light at the same time, this was possibly the best dish I encountered during my trip. I ate it two nights in a row before I forced myself to consider other items on the menu.

risotto_adjusted

At lunch one day I was confronted with another choke-based meal, this time in a risotto. For a few moments I wondered if I was going too crazy for carciofi, but I couldn’t resist them. Whole, tender artichoke hearts cooked with firm Arborio rice created a simple and satisfying mid-day treat. It wasn’t perfect—in fact, it was slightly too salty—but the creamy chokes still did themselves proud.

tagliata_adjusted

For my last meal in Florence I seriously considered getting that amazing spaghetti for the third time. In the end I decided to branch out to the secondi and try the beef tagliata with the artichoke salad. This time, the chokes were served raw and dressed simply with vinegar, acting as a crisp, refreshing accent to the rather rare fillet of beef that I received. 

I’m still thinking back to the intense artichoke-related joy I experienced last week. As has been said before and seen here, Italians know the true meaning of eating locally and seasonally. It’s kind of ironic that I had to fly to Italy to experience it, but I was more than up to the task. For my carciofi I’d do almost anything.

Comments (9) »

On My Own for Dinner

lentil-salad

This past week was insane, with Jim out of town for business and me working like crazy. My dear husband finally staggered back home yesterday on the red-eye, just in time for me to leave for Italy today. I’m bleary-eyed, run-down, and can’t remember anything beyond what I ate for dinner during the past few days, so this will be a quick post before the blog goes on hiatus for a week. 

When Jim’s away I usually indulge in some of my favorite quick comfort foods for dinner. Spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, hot pepper flakes, and copious amounts of grated parmesan is a must. So is steamed broccoli, drizzled with freshly squeezed lemon juice and sprinkled lightly with salt. I try to cook dishes that involve a minimum of effort, using ingredients that Jim wouldn’t normally eat (unless I force him to, of course). 

During this past week on my own I focused on two of his least favorite foods: lentils and brussels sprouts. While lentils have been a staple in my pantry for years, I’m a recent convert to the wonders of brussels sprouts. I finally bought into the hype about a year ago, when my friends were eating them all the time and certain restaurants were earning raves for their treatments of this vegetable.

On Tuesday I cooked some green lentils with carrots, celery, onion, and garlic. Then I threw in some sautéed brussels sprouts leaves and raw cherry tomatoes for a warm winter salad. Lentils are so versatile; I love tossing them with a jumble of cooked and raw vegetables, just to see if the contrast of textures and flavors will work. This one wasn’t perfect—next time I’ll forgo cooking the lentils with vegetables and use plain water as I usually do—but I thoroughly enjoyed it on two nights this week. A few days later I halved the remaining brussels sprouts and roasted them in the oven, pairing them with some brown rice for a simple and comforting dinner for one. 

While I always prefer to eat dinner with Jim, I bet he’s happy he missed my week of lentils and brussels sprouts. I wonder what foods he’ll enjoy while I’m gone this week. (Actually, maybe I’m better off not knowing.) What are some of your favorite comfort foods, things you cook only when you’re on your own? 

Comments (5) »

Valentine’s Day Hits and Misses

Poor Jim. February deals him a double whammy each year: First comes my birthday on the 9th, then Valentine’s Day less than a week later. To take some pressure off this celebratory one-two punch, instead of going out we cook dinner at home on Valentine’s Day. Some meals turn out wonderfully, like last year’s rack of lamb and chocolate pots-de-crème. This year was, well…okay. Let’s start with not-so-great and save the best for last:

lambshanks

The Miss: Greek-Style Braised Lambs Shanks
I knew I wanted to make some sort of braised meat for the main course. Doesn’t a slow-cooked, rich piece of red meat sound like the perfect foundation for a romantic meal? (Sorry, vegetarians.) I stubbornly thought so. Lamb shank, a tough cut that responds well to braising, had been on my to-cook list for a long time. I sent Jim off to the butcher with a wave and a smile while I looked for a recipe.

To my surprise, my cookbooks were no help, providing not a single recipe for my desired meal. I turned to the trusty Internet and came across these Greek-style braised lamb shanks. (I still don’t really understand what is so Greek about this recipe; there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Greek about the dish apart from the lamb. Whatever, I’m not here to argue with Epicurious.)

I’ll cut to the chase: I halved the recipe from 6 shanks to 3, and in a dumb move I decided to reduce the braising liquid without reducing the cooking time. So, after 2 hours in the oven, my extravagant, Merlot-based sauce reduced down to almost nothing, resulting more in a roasted lamb shank dinner instead of the braised-meat-falling-off-the-bone-and-swimming-in-a-deep-romantic-sauce type meal I was hoping for.

Now I am also wondering if there was a mistake in the recipe, which instructed me to cook the shanks in the oven uncovered. Aren’t most braised dishes cooked with the cover firmly in place in order to prevent evaporation of the cooking liquid? The shanks tasted fine, but I have learned my braising lesson. Oh, we also made some lemon orzo and a spinach salad on the side. sorbet2Meh.

The Hit: Blood Orange Sorbet
Jim gave me a copy of Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook for my birthday, and we decided to break it in with the recipe for blood orange sorbet. Making this frosty treat gave me the opportunity to try yet another birthday gift I received, this time from my sister: the ice cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid mixer.

As always, simple recipes yield the best results. After squeezing the juice from several crimson blood oranges, we mixed it with some (a lot of) sugar and threw the entire mixture in the fridge to cool. About half an hour later we put the ice cream attachment to work on the mixer. We didn’t have to lift a finger. The KitchenAid simply twirled away for about 20 minutes, and suddenly our fresh, sparkling dessert was ready. We placed it in the freezer for the end of our meal. 

And as I mentioned above, we truly saved the best for last. Cool, sweet, and simply pretty to look at, this refreshing sorbet cheered me up after my braising adventure gone bad. I can’t wait to see what other kind of sorbets and ice creams we come up with. Maybe I should start planning for next year. Jim, are you ready yet?

Recipe for Blood Orange Sorbet (adapted from Jack Bishop’s Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook)

  • 6 medium blood oranges
  • 1 regular medium orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • fresh mint, for garnish

Wash 1 or 2 of the blood oranges and grate 2 tablespoons of zest from them. Halve and juice all of the oranges, discarding any seeds that fall in along the way. This will leave you with about 1 cup of juice. Put the orange juice and the zest in medium bowl. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Refrigerate the mixture until it is very cold, around 40 degrees. Add the mixture to the ice-cream churner or machine. Churn the mixture until it starts crystallizing, about 15 to 30 minutes. You can stop churning it once it has reached your desired consistency. Transfer the sorbet to an airtight container and place it in the freezer until firm. When ready, scoop the sorbet into 2 bowls and garnish with fresh mint. (The sorbet can be stored in the freezer for 2 days.) Serves 2. Enjoy!

Comments (2) »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.