Tag Archives: Dinner

Happy-as-Possible Meal

“Oh, and I also vacuum-sealed the Dino-Bites,” I said when she came down to collect kitchen towels for the next load of laundry.

“The what?”

“Dino-bites. Little dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Organic chicken. The kids left them.”

(“The kids” was what we’d taken to call the pair of my beloved former students who’d been our house-and-cat sitters while we were away. Upon our earlier-than-expected return home, and the news that the university wasn’t going to re-open for on-campus classes, they had decided to decamp to stay with relatives in Florida. They’d bought groceries while they were here, and I guess hadn’t had room for the Dino-Bites in their cooler for the trip to Florida.)

“Dino-Bites,” she said, amused.

“Organic Dino-Bites,” I clarified, and she went back to the laundry.


Fast-forward a couple of weeks, to my first-day of on-line teaching, which had also included a two-hour on-line writing workshop and a bunch of other projects that involved staring at the screens in my office, not least of which was getting the tech working properly so I could do all this remote stuff; while, upstairs in her office she was dealing with work problems of her own. We were both in a mood, is what I’m trying to say. It was the sort of day when we’d have stopped at the burrito place for take-out on the way home; or, if she’d been on her own for dinner she would have visited the drive-through for some chicken nuggets and fries. Because however much meal planning you do and how careful you are about choosing only the best, sometimes you have to do that. It was definitely that sort of day, but we weren’t going out yet, not even to pick up something quick.

“Go take a shower,” I said. “I have a plan.”

She came back a while later, with damp hair and fresh jammies, and I presented dinner. Some vegetables, sure–we’re grown-ups most of the time–along with a pile of French fries and some dinosaur-shaped organic chicken nuggets.

Dinnerasaurus Rex

Closest thing to a Happy Meal I could provide. Some days close is good enough.

Don’t Stew About It

One day it’s sunny and bright, the next grey and chill—in other words, March. While we were in Antigua a couple of weeks ago, it seemed to rain every night, overnight, leaving everything fresh and clear in the morning. I like that idea but don’t know how to get our climate to adopt it. These days it’s hard to be sure we know anything.

I am pretty sure, though, that on a damp, cool day we’re going to want something comforting and warm for dinner. With two hours of video that I needed to screen for work playing in the background, I could come up with something.


Don’t-Stew-About-It Stew

Put a film of oil in the Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Set the oven to 350F. Open the window a crack so the smoke detector doesn’t get fussy. Sprinkle cubes of beef chuck with salt and pepper. Working in batches so the pot doesn’t get crowded, brown the beef on all sides.

Deglaze the pot with a little stock. Roughly chop lots of vegetables: lots of carrots; a couple big, fat onions; plenty of celery; a few cloves of garlic. Add a bit more oil to the pot and lightly brown the vegetables; give them a little salt to help draw out moisture from the onions. Make a little well in the middle of the pot and sauté a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, then stir to distribute it among the vegetables.

Add the beef back to the pot, atop the veg. Sprinkle with a couple tablespoons of flour. Put the pot in the oven for 10 minutes or so to lightly brown the flour.

Remove the pot from the oven and stir in a couple cups of stock and a cup of red wine, salt and pepper, some thyme, a little paprika, a couple bay leaves. Put the lid on the pot, return the pot to the oven, and walk away.

Finish watching the stupid video. Take the quiz, passing it a perfect score and the knowledge that you would have scored just as well without watching the video. Don’t stew about it. The house is starting to smell wonderful. Go for a run and shower afterwards; there’s plenty of time.

After a few hours, check the beef. When it’s just shy of falling-apart tender, lower the oven temperature a bit and put the pot back in without its lid so the sauce can thicken a bit. At the last minute, warm a couple of serving bowls in the oven. Serve the stew in warm bowls, topped with a little chopped parsley, along with some nice, crusty bread.


No need for a cookbook, no need for exact amounts or fretting over lacking ingredients. Just a cutting board, a Dutch oven, a sharp knife, and little confidence that, though there’s a lot I can’t control and even more I can’t predict, there will be dinner.

And probably some leftovers. It’ll probably rain again tomorrow.

Does Not Follow Directions Well

Painted in Waterlogue

I was a pretty good student. I don’t ever remember seeing “Does Not Follow Directions Well” written on my report card. Of course, I was also not the kind of kid who waited until the night before the book report was due to start writing, but I most certainly have become that sort of writer now.

Nonetheless, if the instruction is “Stay away from other people for 14 days after returning from a foreign country,” or “Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching anything someone else may have touched,” I will get at least an A-minus. I mean, I’m gonna go out for a run every day the weather permits, and I’ll take a route that is not crowded with other pedestrians, but I won’t get closer than 6 feet to anyone I do encounter.

While we were on vacation recently She said often, “I miss your cooking.” I guess that’s gonna work out well for her, now that we’re home (and staying home) and getting groceries is going to be a challenge. She scheduled a delivery from our favorite market, but several things in the order didn’t show up.

I looked at the lovely piece of salmon that arrived, thought long and hard about it, and realized we hadn’t had Thai food for quite a while. There had been “Pan-Asian” night at the resort we visited; I think in that particular case “pan” was meant as the opposite of “rave.” (I didn’t miss my cooking generally, but that meal was a pretty big disappointment.)

I Googled “Thai salmon.” I scanned the first page of hits. I Googled “Thai Salmon Peanut Sauce.” I saw a pretty promising title. I clicked through and, while the page loaded, headed to the kitchen.

Oh. I’m gonna need coconut milk. And chili paste. Maybe I’d better do something else.

Nah. What I read was enough to get started. Bakers need recipes. Cooks need ideas.

Not At All the Recipe I Looked for Salmon with Peanut Sauce and Coconut Cilantro Rice
Serves 2, with some leftovers to repurpose for lunch

Salmon filet, about 1/3 lb. per serving
1 cup rice
2 cups water (or 1 cup water, 1 cup fish stock)
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
1/2 cup flaked coconut (unsweetened if possible)
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp peanut butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp soy sauce (more to taste)
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp each curry powder and paprika
Juice and zest of one lime

Cut the salmon into serving pieces.  Pat dry and set aside.

Toast 1 cup of rice in a little butter. Add 2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt (or, if you have it as I did, 1 cup water, 1 cup stock), reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, still covered.

While the rice cooks, in a dry skillet, toast the coconut and remove; then toast the sesame seeds and remove. (Take care—neither one takes very long to toast!)

Make the sauce:
Warm the peanut butter in the microwave to make it easier to stir. Add the soy sauce, hot sauce, garlic, and lime juice.
Add a little oil to the hot skillet; add the peanuts, paprika, and curry powder and stir. When they’re hot and fragrant, add the spice/oil mixture and sesame seeds to the sauce, along with another 1 tbsp of oil. Stir until well combined and set aside.

Put 1 tbsp of oil in the skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the salmon, skin side down.   Cook for 2 minutes without touching, then top with a little of the peanut sauce. Place skillet in a 350F oven for 5 minutes.

Use a fork to fluff the rice. Stir in the lime zest, toasted coconut, and cilantro. Put the lid back on.

Remove the salmon from the oven and turn the filets over, now sauce-side down. Return to the oven for 5 minutes more.

In serving bowls, place the salmon over the rice, topped with a little more sauce. Serve with sautéed spinach (or whatever green thing you like).

Feel free to read this recipe and riff off it any way you want to–as I did with the ones I saw to come up with our dinner. Just wash your hands first, and afterward.

I hope whoever got the pastrami we ordered enjoys it.

Thai Salmo

 

Not Quite Breakfast for Not Quite Dinner

Painted in Waterlogue

There was a package of smoked salmon in the fridge. I guess that’s not tremendously unusual; it’s the sort of thing we have from time, not quite a staple and not quite a splurge. She bought it, I guess, when her mom came to visit, and they hadn’t eaten it. I didn’t have a lot of time to cook, so a protein I didn’t have to defrost had pretty strong appeal. What did not appeal, however, was serving it for breakfast with bagels and cream cheese. I like the idea of bagels and cream cheese and smoked salmon, but smoked fish is just too fishy for me in the morning.

But it was 4 in the afternoon, I had to leave for rehearsal shortly, and breakfast had been a long time ago.

While I cooked some linguine, I flaked the salmon into a bowl. I chopped a bunch of cilantro and a bunch of dill and added them. I chopped some capers and added them. Thinking I might be on the verge of too-salty, I saw some appealing-looking grape tomatoes on the counter; I halved and added them to the bowl.I very lightly steamed a few spears of asparagus, sliced them into quarter-inch rounds, and added them, too. We had cream cheese, but I left it in the fridge in favor of some mozzarella I roughly cubed.  I made a quick vinaigrette from a teaspoon of dijon mustard, a bit of the caper brine, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil, gave the bowl a generous grind of black pepper, and tossed everything to coat. When the noodles reached al dente, I scooped them into the bowl; some of their starchy cooking water came along, as intended. I tossed the pasta with its fishy-cheesy-herby condiment–too chunky to call it “sauce,” I think.

The heat of the noodles softened the cheese and tomatoes and warmed the salmon and herbs without cooking them. But the dressing wasn’t so cold as to turn the pasta into a salad. It was like a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon, but in a bowl. Fresh, bright herbs; sweet tomatoes; soft, creamy cheese; briny, hearty, yet delicate fish; this dish had a little of everything.

I called down to the office. “Dinner is served,” I said. “Or lunch, or whatever this is.”

Whatever it was, we enjoyed it a lot.

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The Refrigerator Down the Hall

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View outside my front door. I’m a city boy, but I enjoy it here.

I’m in Wisconsin while rehearsing a musical I’ve co-written. I have a lovely one-bedroom suite in a charming lodge. Outdoors it’s rustic—we’re across the street from a state park! but indoors it’s very pleasant indeed. If you write musicals, and you don’t get a place at least this nice, you should complain to your producers. I’ve got plenty of counter space, a microwave, a coffee maker, a four-burner stove with oven…and a teeny-tiny refrigerator.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care about the size of a hotel room’s refrigerator; I’d usually only use it to store some leftover take-out food and maybe a soda or two. But I’m here for six weeks. It’s a vacation town, in the off-season; businesses close early—if they’re open at all on weekdays. Rehearsals run late into the evening. And even if none of that were true, six weeks is a long time to survive on restaurant food. And I like to cook.

My pint-sized refrigerator has a decent enough freezer compartment, but its vegetable drawer is laughably small. A quart of milk fits in a holder in the door, and there’s a rack for a six-pack of soda, but it’s just not meant for someone who needs to cook most of his own meals and who can’t get to the market every day. (The irony that She is learning to improvise while I have to meal-plan is not lost on me.)

I mentioned my predicament to the night manager, hoping he might offer me the mini-fridge from a vacant room. “Sure, we can take care of that,” he said. He led the way past my suite to a break room used by the housekeeping staff, which contained a full-sized fridge. “We’re not all staffed up for the summer yet. You can use this.”

Of course, he couldn’t move the fridge into my suite, but it’s got plenty of space, and nobody else is using it. It’s a little like having an extra freezer in the garage.

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So, today, zipping my little mini-cart around the Piggly Wiggly, I shopped for the week—or maybe more than the week. There’s a steak in my freezer (packaged in meal-sized pieces), along with some ground turkey that will become chili sometime soon, and some chicken thighs for which there isn’t yet a definite plan. A dozen eggs. Some bacon, because why not. Plenty of salad greens. Spinach. Other fruit and veg. Hummus. I’ve got this. I will not need to eat pasta or peanut butter sandwiches every night.

I’d made a pot of overnight oats for weekday breakfasts, and, before leaving on the shopping excursion and figuring this would be a busy day, today had a mushroom and asparagus omelet. (The mushrooms and asparagus were taking up most of my tiny vegetable drawer anyway.)

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I diced an onion, some carrots, and celery and simmered them with a quart of chicken stock, a little crumbled bacon, and some herbs. (I brought from home a bin of dry goods, so I wouldn’t have to buy everything here, along with some decent spare knives, and a cast-iron skillet.) When the stock was deeply flavored, I added a half-cup of brown rice and left it to simmer for another hour. The rice didn’t completely lose its structural integrity, but it thickened and fortified the soup—and, truth told, absorbed enough of the broth that the soup is much more like a stew, which is what I was hoping for in the first place. I sautéed some radish greens in the pan I’d used to cook the bacon and had those for a light lunch.

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The store didn’t have any “regular” pork shoulder, but I found a small pre-seasoned package that is in my slow-cooker now (along with more carrot and onion, a little mustard and a little red wine. It’ll do its slow-cooker thing all night, and I’ll cool it and package it up at breakfast time.

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After all the shopping and chopping and stowing and stewing, I went for a run, changed, and took myself out for dinner. I expect that the Coyote Roadhouse gets rowdier on a Saturday night during the high season, but on a late Sunday afternoon this out-of-the-way place was populated by gentle folks enjoying their barbecue and beers and the eclectic mix of music from Johnny Cash to Elton John that played in the background. The burger was good, the service was terrific, but the fried green beans were worth driving a thousand miles for. I brought home the leftovers and stored them in the fridge down the hall. They’re worth walking that far, too.

 

 

Stuffed

img_8192After you’ve driven in the rain for five hours and reached a vacation site so fog-shrouded it’s hard to tell if you might sail off the edge of the world, you order take-out.

You might do this even if the drive is completely sunny and the beach looks perfect, but I wouldn’t know. I’m new to this seaside-vacation thing.

Either way, you order too much take-out. Not that there really is such a thing as “too much,” but certainly too much for dinner on a driving day. So there are leftovers. And, aside from pizza (which can be perfectly good eaten cold on the beach with chocolate milk), leftovers are meant to be transformed.

This is especially the case if one of your party has dietary restrictions and what was ordered can best be described as Sometime Food.

Thus it was that, as Improviser-in-Chief, I removed packages from the fridge and found partial orders of boneless spare ribs, teriyaki beef kebabs, bourbon chicken, and way more fried rice than should be served to anybody with diabetes and cardiac concerns. So I also removed four bell peppers, a couple of carrots (with their greens still attached), a couple ribs of celery, and a bunch of chard. From the basket in the kitchen’s bay window, I took a handful of grape tomatoes, a red onion, and a head of garlic. I set the oven to 350F, put a big saute pan on the stove, a big cutting board on the counter, and got to work.

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I sliced off the tops of the bell peppers and set the bodies in a baking dish. I discarded the seeds, ribs, and stems, and chopped the tops. The chopped bits, along with the celery (diced), red onion (diced), garlic (2 cloves, minced), and chard (stemmed and chopped) were salted and sauteed briefly in olive oil, then put in a big mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, I scooped the chicken, ribs, and beef out of their containers and scraped off as much sauce as I could without making a full day’s project of it, then diced them all, and then gave them a turn in the saute pan, then added them to the big bowl.

Finally, the fried rice and tomatoes went in; when the rice started to get a little sticky, I added a little balsamic vinegar and a glug of the red wine I’d opened to serve with dinner; the object here was just to say “Hey, this isn’t Chinese food any more.” Into the bowl it went with everything else.

My smart leggy brunette sous-chef stirred everything together and then spooned the stuffing into the peppers. And, I might add, she did so far more neatly than I would have managed. I crushed some cracked-wheat crackers and topped the peppers with them. (She also swept up the cracker-crushings that went all over the kitchen floor.) I added some aluminum foil bolsters so the peppers wouldn’t fall over, covered the dish with foil, and set it in the oven.

While the peppers baked, I minced the carrot tops with some savory from the CSA box (I would have used parsley if we’d had any), and sprinkled them with a few drops of vinegar.

After 15 minutes, I removed the foil from the peppers, and after 15 more minutes realized the peppers needed another five. When the peppers were mostly tender, I plated the peppers, ringed with the stuffing that hadn’t fit inside, and garnished with the greens.

My sainted grandmother made stuffed peppers for dinner pretty regularly: bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and rice, topped with stewed tomatoes and seasoned with nothing more than a little salt. Bless her soul, they were bland and mushy. These were crisp, full of vegetables, and, well, interesting. They weren’t candy-sweet, they weren’t OMG-the-MSG salty, and if I hadn’t known their origins as Chinese takeout I’m not sure I would have guessed.

I would not suggest that this meal was worth driving five hours in the rain for, but let’s put it this way: there were no leftovers.

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How to Make Vegetable Lasagna

When I think “vegetable lasagna”, I imagine a rich, hearty noodle dish bursting with the flavor of fresh vegetables. When I search for recipes for “vegetable lasagna”, I most often find thin, watery-sounding meals that substitute thin layers of squash for noodles and skimp out on the chunky fillings that make lasagna such a stand-out meal.

For our Easter celebration this year, I created a mash-up of lasagna and pasta primavera that was a beautiful, fresh, spring-flavor-filled dish, and it works equally as well for our summer CSA veggies.

Since Clay and I cook for only two, I generally make lasagna in a small loaf pan; it provides 6 average-sized portions, so there’s plenty for a second helping, or to share with friends, or to pack for work-day lunches.

Recipe for Vegetable Lasagna

Start with the Bechamel sauce.

  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 3 TBSP flour
  • 2 cups Whole Milk (the more flavorful your milk, the more flavorful your sauce. This is a dish where organic milk from grass-fed cows really shines)
  • Salt, Pepper, and Nutmeg – to taste

Melt and brown the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, until it is aromatic and a rich golden brown color. Whisk in the flour to make a roux; then continue cooking for three to four minutes until the roux takes on additional color. Whisk continuously while slowly streaming in the milk, to avoid lumps.

Turn the heat to medium-low and continue cooking while stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens. Once thickened, season to taste with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg, then pour into a small glass container and set aside.

Once the sauce is made, prepare your other ingredients.

  • Half of a package of lasagna noodles, prepared according to package instructions (or fresh, if you’re fancy like that!)
  • One-and-a-half cups of fresh mozzarella cheese, diced and divided into three equal portions
  • One cup of freshly grated pecorino-romano cheese, divided into three equal portions
  • One-and-a-half cups of pesto, divided into three equal portions
    This week we used two parts roasted tomato and one part traditional basil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • An 8-ounce bunch of leafy greens (think chard, kale, or spinach), torn into bite-sized pieces, washed, blanched, and drained
    This week we used kale.
  • Approximately one-and-a-half cups of vegetables (think artichoke, asparagus, beets, green or wax beans, snap or snow peas, or summer squashes), diced and well seasoned with salt and pepper
    This week we used peas in their pods and zucchini.
  • Approximately half of one cup of alliums (think beyond onions to leeks, scallions, chives, or garlic), chopped very finely
    This week we used green onions, scallions, and garlic scapes.

Once your ingredients are assembled, pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, grab a loaf pan, and begin assembly.

  1. Spread a spoonful of bechamel sauce into the bottom of the pan.
  2. Arrange the first layer of noodles over the bechamel, with the edges overlapping slightly. Spread the noodles with one-third of the pesto then one-third of the mozzarella, then a drizzle of bechamel.
  3. Arrange a second layer of noodles over the first, and top them with your greens. Don’t be afraid to really pack the greens into your pan, since they will cook down significantly in the oven. Top with one-third of the pecorino-romano cheese and a generous spoonful of bechamel.
  4. Arrange a third layer of noodles, spread with a second third of pesto and a second third of mozzarella. Scatter your alliums here, and then add a drizzle of bechamel over the top.
  5. Arrange a fourth layer of noodles, spread with the last third of pesto. Scatter your chopped vegetables over the pesto with the second third of pecorino-romano, then drizzle with bechamel.
  6. Arrange your fifth and final layer of noodles, and spread the remaining bechamel sauce over the top. Scatter your remaining cheeses over the top, and grind fresh black pepper generously over the whole.

Cover your pan with aluminum foil, and place on a tray in the center of the oven; bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until the lasagna is browned and bubbling; remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

This dish is absolutely satisfying as a one-dish meal, though at Easter we served it alongside kefta and pickled root vegetables. If you make it, I’d love to know what vegetables you choose, and how you present it!