Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In a perfect world (Spaghetti with sausage and vodka rosé)

In a perfect world, I'd print a recipe from the web (or find it in a recipe book), pull the ingredients out of my well-stocked pantry, and have dinner ready within 30 minutes. And the dishes would be magically done while we sat down at the table to enjoy a perfectly rounded meal at our leisure.


In reality however, you come home hoping you remembered to pull something from the freezer, struggle to find the recipe you planned to use and follow it. Get something on the table in under an hour (if you're good and/or lucky or both), and eat it in front of the TV while ignoring the dirty dishes until there's so many that you have to do them just to remember you have counter space. (No, we don't have a dish washer. Thank you. We'll rush right out and get one on your recommendation. And if you believe that ... ).

Last night had an added complication: I didn't want to cook.
I didn't want beans and I didn't want chicken. Having anything else in my kitchen right now requires some work. And I didn't want to work. It was 6:30 and I was hungry but the only thing that appealed was take-out.

I dug about in the freezer and found a package of bratwhurst. They're good sausages, but not too tasty. In the pantry I found an older bottle of vodka rosé spaghetti sauce. We have a ton of straight spaghetti (OK, ok, ... 2 1/2 packs ... slightly less than a ton.), but less than 1/2 a box of whole wheat rigatoni. (NOTE to self: Buy more whole wheat rigatoni, use up what I have for a lunch later this week. Hrm Vodka rosé on gnocchi with some kind of vegetable might be good too... nope. Not in the mood for gnocchi. Save the idea for a later lunch.)

I boiled the frozen sausages until they were thawed and barely cooked. I took them out and wiped the pan dry. I sliced the sausages into small rounds and tossed them back into the heating pan with a bit of olive oil. I thought about adding herbs at this point, but decided it was too much work.

I boiled water for the pasta.

Once the sausages got some color, it was my intention to add the sauce and scrape up all the wonderful brown stuff on the bottom of the pan. But I waited too long and the brown stuff went black. The sausage weren't stuck, so I poured them out and into a shallow pot with the pasta sauce.

I added the pasta (breaking the strands in half), and set the timer for 8 minutes.

Digging about in the rotter (... I mean the crisper...), I pulled out a box of spinach and 1/2 a head of romaine. A little rinsing, a little dicing, and we had salad. The dressing was an italian bottle of Wellness.

When the timer went off for the pasta, I rinsed it in the sink in warm water and returned it to the pot for a moment. As it sizzled, I turned off the heat on the stove top, and added the pasta and sausage mix to the pasta and stirred.

I served it in bowls brought into the front room where we watched back-to-back old episodes of Stargate SG-1.

Not a perfect world - but at least, a good dinner.

1/2 bottle of spaghetti sauce (store-bought Vodka Rosé in my case)
6 bratwurst sausages
1/2 tsp olive oil
2 servings of straight spaghetti
1/2 head romaine lettuce, washed and spun
2 cups spinach, washed and spun

  1. Place the sausages in boiling water and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until gray and mostly thawed.
  2. Remove from the boiling water and cut into slices. Dump the water and wipe out the pan.
  3. Add the olive oil to the pan and bring up to a medium heat.
  4. Add the sliced sausages to the pan and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the sausages gain some color.
  5. Boil the water for the pasta.
  6. Dice the romaine lettuce and spinach, add into a bowl for salad.
  7. Set the timer for 8 minutes. Start it. Add the pasta to the water.
  8. Drain the sausages of any build up of oil.
  9. Add the pasta sauce to the pan and scrape the bottom of the pan to incorporate.
  10. When the timer expires, drain the pasta into a colander.
  11. Rinse the pasta well.
  12. Add it back to the pot.
  13. Add the sauce and sausage. Mix to incorporate.
  14. Serve.

Menu for the week of July 26, 2009

Every week I try to make a weekly plan for what I'm going to eat, and then shop accordingly for those ingredients. Most weeks I make it until Wednesday before my plan fails utterly. If I'm really lucky, I am able to use up what's in the fridge before it goes bad. Once in a while I get upset at the amount of food in the fridge/freezer/pantry and try to plan most of my meals around it.

Here's this week's attempt:

Breakfast: Egg sandwich with bacon, lettuce & mayo
Lunch: Chicken grilled cheese sandwich & cup of tomato soup
Dinner: Out
Breakfast: Whole wheat bagel, peanut butter, skim milk
Snacks: 2 Apples, Yogurt
Lunch: Chicken soup with raman noodles and mixed vegetables
Dinner: Pasta with sausage and vodka rose sauce
Breakfast: Whole wheat bagel, peanut butter, skim milk
Lunch: Mixed green salad with crab, tomatoes, spinach, romaine, chicken & cheese; Italian herb dressing,
Snacks: yogurt, apple, celery
Dinner: BBQ salmon, chicken rice and steamed green beans
Make: Protein bars
Breakfast: Yogurt with granola & blueberries
Snacks: Crackers & goat cheese, apple, celery
Lunch: BBQ salmon over chicken rice with edamame
Dinner: Chicken Gyros
Make: Ice cream!
Breakfast: Yogurt with granola & blueberries
Lunch: Chicken Gyros, side of edamame & broccoli, apple
Snacks: Crackers & goat cheese, apple, celery
Dinner: Bean chili with beef over rice or hamburgers
Breakfast: Cereal, skim milk, blueberries
Lunch: Gnocchi with vodka sauce & chicken, side of broccoli
Dinner: Chicken salad & crackers, apple, protein bar
Breakfast: Egg on toast
Lunch: Fridge-fixings
Dinner: TBD

  • Apples.
  • Crackers & cheese (goat, emmental or cheddar).
  • Yogurt (with flax, or granola, or blueberries).
  • Celery, Carrots, Bell pepper (with Labneh & spices, peanut butter, sour cream onion dip).
  • Tinned tuna, mayo & crackers.
  • Diced chicken, mayo & crackers.
  • Dill pickles.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Menu for the week of July 19, 2009

My desire to cook weakens over the summer.

Breakfast: Egg sandwich with sausage patties on whole grain bread
Lunch: Minestrone soup (leftovers), scones & devonshire cream
Dinner: hamburgers, all dressed
Breakfast: Minestrone soup (leftovers), crackers
Snack: cottage cheese, apple
Lunch: Roast chicken & mixed vegetables
Snack: snack bar, apple
Dinner: The best and simplest green salad (Bittman)
Basic sauteéd chicken cutlet (Bittman)
Make: Roasted chicken stock for use later in the week.
Breakfast: Minestrone soup (leftovers), crackers
Snack: cottage cheese, apple
Lunch: Last night's leftovers.
Snack: snack bar, apple
Dinner: Grilled tiliapa with lemon, rice and steamed vegetables
Breakfast: Granola, skim milk, banana
Snack: apple, Yogurt & flax seed
Lunch: Grilled tiliapa with lemon, rice and steamed vegetables
Dinner: Chicken Cesar salad
Lunch: Chicken cesar salad
Dinner: Steak sandwiches
Lunch: Steak sandwiches
Breakfast: Out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stir-fry chicken with vegetables

This recipe is taken from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, p386 ISBN: 0-4717-8918-6, published March 2006.

I chose this recipe because I was looking for a nice, quick, chicken recipe. Following the advice in the book, I decided that stir-fried chicken and vegetables would fit the bill. The recipe is simple, and since I cook in a mise-en-place fashion, comes together very quickly.

Mise-en-place has its detractors, namely the one in my life who does my dishes, but I find it helps me organize my thoughts and keep on track with a recipe. While most of my experiments don't fail (too badly) I was having guests tonight and wanted something warm and pleasant to ward off the chilly rainy weather without having to steam up the kitchen. I opted to serve the meal with a blue-cheese and argulara salad rather than rice. The stir-fry didn't promise to have much sauce, and we all need more salad in our lives (if not the blue cheese, but more on that later).

I don't have a wok. I do, however, have a very heavy-bottomed skillet that works very well for meals like this. The trick is to get your oil hot before you start. The oil should cause anything that touches it to sizzle. A slight shimmer of heat should rise off the pan before you drop anything into it. Not only does this greatly reduce the time it takes to cook something; but it improves the flavour (or at least, that's my belief-- your mileage may vary).

So I put the oil into the pan and brought it up to temperature. I dropped some garlic and ginger into the pan and cooked it quickly, moving it all over the oil so that their flavours mingle. I removed it once the spices stopped snapping and were browning. I took them out of the pan and back into their bowl. Then I put in the onion and cooked it quickly in the flavoured oil. The onion is cooked when it becomes translucent; I cooked it just a little longer so that there were brown spots on the bottom of my pan. This process sounds wasteful (don't worry - I reincorporate the cooked spices and vegetables at the end), but it's an important step. The garlic and ginger add a depth of flavour to the onion like nothing else can. It also adds brown bits to the bottom of your pan. This is very important.

The onion was removed and I dropped the diced chicken breasts and a bit more oil into the pan. I kept the chicken moving so it wouldn't stick; but even so the browning on the bottom of the pan continued. When the chicken was opaque, I added a handful of diced scallions, and a whole lot of mixed frozen vegetables.

These I stirred quickly and then covered to allow the steam to work its magic. I stirred up the sauce (a combination of soy sauce, chicken stock, pepper, and sesame oil), took off the cover, and added it to the mix. I scraped the bottom of the pan then. Thanks to the few minutes of steam and the sauce, there wasn't much to scrape, but the little bit that did come up was caramalized nicely. Turning everything over to coat it in the sauce and incorporate the brown bits. I added the onion, garlic and ginger (see? told you I'd use them), then recovered the pan for a few minutes, to allow the frozen vegetables to soften.

The recipe actually calls for fresh vegetables; but it's not quite harvest season here -- and frozen vegetables are still a lot cheaper than fresh. The frozen vegetables need a slightly more gentle hand, and can never come out warm and crisp in the same way as fresh; but we'll survive.

The mix came out a lot darker than I'd thought it would. The chicken and lighter vegetables It was fairly dry and tasted really good, especially when topped with some toasted sesame seeds and diced scallions for garnish.

All in all - delicious.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Spicy Coleslaw

This recipe is taken from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, p104 ISBN: 0-4717-8918-6, published March 2006.

I love coleslaw. I love mayonnaise. But I don't like the two of them together. Flipping through the book, How to Cook Everything, I came across this strange recipe that called for dijon and balsamic vinegar in the dressing. It sounded curious, so I decided to try it. The recipe title, spicy coleslaw, didn't quite match the listing of ingredients. Spicy, to me, invokes the concept of heat - from spice or from temperature, but heat none the less. There is no heat to this recipe; but there is a whole lot of flavour.

The dressing is an oil-and vinegar mix, flavoured with dijon, scallions and parsley. It is sweetened with sugar and the vinegar of choice (either sherry or balsamic). When made with balsamic the color of the dressing is a darkening brown that thickens as you whisk in the oil. I found it off-putting.

When mixed in with the mostly white mix of cabbages and red bell peppers, it almost resembled a pourable chocolate. The taste, however, was amazing. The tartness of the my old balsamic mixed with the more classical notes of dijon made this a unique salad. The coleslaw mix was crunchy and the sweetness of the peppers made me wonder just how necessary the sugar really was.

The recipe is a very quick cold salad that will last 24 hours sealed in the fridge. The dressing, however, coagulates in the cold and makes the coldslaw clump in a most unattractive manner. It is best if made fresh and eaten at room temperature, or just below. Fortunately, there was not a lot of it left to experiment with leftovers.

Quickest chicken stock by Marc Bittman

This recipe is taken from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, p46 ISBN: 0-4717-8918-6, published March 2006.

The recipe promises to be the quickest and simplest yet tastiest stock ever made. High praise for something so very simple. The complex notes of browned bones & cooked meets are not present, but the stock is very light in color and flavour--perfect for heavily spiced dishes and most soups, but probably not my favourite to use when cooking rice or polenta; where I'm more use to the complex notes of a roasted stock.

The recipe starts simple enough - wash a chicken, pat it dry and put it in a stock pot. My chicken had spent about a day too long in the fridge, so it definitely needed a bath. It was, however, completely thawed, and once washed free of the blood and inner organs - smelled much better. I patted it dry and dutifully put it in my largest stock pot. Note to self: I need a bigger stock pot.

I put the inner organs (lungs and livers) into a bag, labeled it, and put them in the freezer. The labeling is most important when freezing organ meats that, once frozen, may be mistaken for other foods (like, say hamburger). The whole oh-my-goodness-what-did-I-thaw-and-how-can-I-now-make-this-work scenario is just bad and should be avoided at all costs (especially when the cost to avoid it is about $2.43 - 1 permanent marker and 1 roll masking tape). Trust me on this. I speak from experience here.

The ingredients are what you'd expect for a stock (celery, carrots and onions). The spices (thyme, bay, salt, and parsley) are kept very light. I was surprised at the absence of pepper, but as tempted as I was to put it in, I didn't. I am so very proud.

As is my habit, I gathered all the ingredients together, prepped them according to the directions, then added them along with the water to the stock pot. I skinned the onions, even though you don't need to do this -- I decided I wanted to see how pale this stock was going to get. Adding onions skins to your stock will darken it (sometimes significantly). I just chopped the vegetables -- since they were not for serving, I wasn't careful in regards to regularity or shape. This, in part, is what makes this recipe so quick to make.

My pot wouldn't quite hold 14 cups of water; so I settled for 10 and was ready to add more water when/if the level reduced. I have three stock pots - all of which are about the same size. I've been told I already have too many pots and pans (and dishes, and kitchen gegaws, and kitchen appliances, and so on and so forth) so I strongly doubt bringing a *bigger* pot into the kitchen would garner any kind of approval. As I was preparing this I did wonder if I could make this in the crockpot instead of on the stove top (as my crock pot would easily hold the 14 cups of water + ingredients)... but my goal was to prepare the recipe as closely to as written as possible. So...

I put it on the stove, brought it to a very gentle boil, then covered it and reduced the heat. After a few minutes I realized why the instructions say cover but not completely. Once I got the over-boil cleaned up, I moved it to a new burner and started again. I am happy to say that there was no scum to remove from the top of the pot. Maybe because it was so croweded, or maybe it all came out in the overboil; I don't know. I've always hated skimming scum off the top of stock. It feels very wasteful, somehow.

The chicken boiled gently for about an hour. It made the house smell great. Because my pot was small, I flipped the chicken over at about the 1/2 hour mark and added some more water to the pot. The level of water didn't reduce as much as I thought it would; but then the gentle boil didn't produce a lot of steam.

There's lots of blog posts out there about how to make great stock. A common trend seems to be to really squeeze the vegetables when they're strained from the liquid. Following this advice, I set up three bowls. One for the stock (once strained), one for the chicken, and one for the vegetables.

I turned the left-over vegetables into a near puree inside my strainer; working them over until my hands ached and the remains were nearly bone-dry. While not very appetizing to look at, it did make discarding the vegetables easier, as by the time I was done there was very little liquid left to leak out into the trash and, eventually, onto my stocking feet; where, if there is any trash liquid, it is inevitably drawn.

I put the whole chicken in another bowl to sit and cool before skinning and deboning it. Note to self: patience is a lesson easily learned when the alternative is burnt fingers.

The chicken is still very tasty and moist and cooked through. I'll be using it throughout the week in other dishes and trying to remember to get the bits I don't use into the freezer before the week's end. Note to self: Waste not, want not.

I then covered the stock and placed in the fridge, where it quickly formed a skin. The stock is a pale golden color (I love my clear Pyrex bowls, ... and my blue Pyrex bowls, ... and well - I have a lot of bowls in my kitchen).

This recipe was indeed the simplest recipe I've ever followed to make chicken stock on the stove; but it doesn't differ very much from my method of making chicken stock in the crock pot (except there I use mostly cooked bones, necks, backs, and organ meats with a few choice vegetables and some seasonings... in other words - whatever's wilted in the fridge). For this recipe none of the vegetables were wilted--I even went out and bought fresh. For me this is pretty revolutionary.

I like having stock in my fridge/freezer. I love making soups and using it as a base for grain dishes (like the rice and polenta I mentioned previously), and in stir-frys or to deglaze a pan. Note to self: If freezing it in ice-cube trays again, this time remember to label the ice cube tray. Chicken stock in soda is ... unappealing.

Menu for the week of July 13, 2009

This week my recipes are pulled from Mark Bittman's How to Cook everything (softcover, yellow cover). I've owned this book for well over two years, but never really tried to cook regularly from it. I like most of the recipes I've tried; and yet I seem completely unable to cook the recipes as written. I'm always changing something -- adding an ingredient, replacing, etc.

Breakfast: Egg sandwich with bacon, lettuce & mayo
Lunch: Montreal smoked meat sandwiches on brown bread.
Dinner: Caribou burgers, all dressed
Breakfast: Cereal, skim milk, fruit
Lunch: Chopped Mediterranean salad with chicken
Dinner: Quesadillas (with chicken & navy beans) with Spicy coleslaw (Bittman)
Make: Quickest chicken stock (Bittman) for use later in the week.
Breakfast: McDonalds
Lunch: Quesadillas with spaghetti sauce, yogurt, fruit
Dinner: Stir fried chicken with vegetables, Angulara salad with blue cheese (Bittman) for 3 1/2.
Breakfast: Oatmeal, skim milk, fruit
Lunch: Stir fried chicken with black bean (Leftovers)
Dinner: Take-out (Lebanese)
Breakfast: Oatmeal, skim milk, fruit
Lunch: Store-bought frozen meal
Breakfast: Oatmeal, skim milk, fruit
Lunch: Salmon & rice & vegetables (left overs from last week)
Dinner: Dinner out
Breakfast: Out.
Lunch: Montreal smoked meat sandwiches on crusty brown bread.
Dinner: Minestrone soup (Bittman) for 6