HOME COOKING I: A Hard Sell or a Sweet Deal?

Much as I like to cook, I’ve got to admit home cooking today is a hard sell.  With so many restaurants and take-out options, rattling those pots and pans in your own kitchen is way down on the list of options.  And did I mention clean up?  Despite all kinds of gloomy news about diet, health, and mass-produced foods, home cooking will not seem like a sweet deal unless it feels convenient and easy. 

So here are some Persuasive Tips:

  • Enjoy being the Boss of your table.  Cooking at home means you control the taste, the portions and the ingredients.  Even if you aren’t in love with your own cooking now, you know what you like to eat and with a little practice, that will translate into tasty meals.

Overheard: “I love pear, spinach and gorgonzola salad but I hate the candied pecans and cranberries”.   The Home Cook thinks: “Hmmm, make it at home with salty pecans, no cranberries and save about 6 bucks.”

  •  Avoid huge weekly shopping trips.  Buy less and you’ll have less to haul in the house, put away and feel guilty about when you throw it away 10 days later.  A young professional woman I know told me this: 

 “Almost by accident, I started picking up a few things for dinner on my way home from work.  It has become a habit because I found that I could put a meal together quickly and everything was so fresh.  And here’s a bonus: I do very little impulse shopping when I’m in a hurry to get home!” 

  • Keep some ingredients on hand and have a couple of ‘pantry’ recipes so you’re never stuck without something for a meal.  What should be ‘on hand’? One or two types of pasta, some rice, canned beans, tomatoes, tuna fish, some frozen vegetables – those are staples.  Also have a small stash of  the slightly exotic (you know what you like) such as: hearts of palm, olives, capers, pine nuts and Parmesan (these last two can be frozen).

  • Instead of no time … more time.  While you’re stirring the pot, the kids can do homework, set the table or take the dog for a walk.  The thirty minutes your meal is in the oven is time for you to read the mail, call a friend or watch the news.  All of which beats sitting at a table, waiting for the pizza to arrive.

“Alex hates eating out!” my daughter-in-law told me about her 12 year old.  Not all children feel that way but for many people, regular meals at restaurants are time-consuming, stressful and so, public. 

  • Save $…. for a really nice restaurant (or a vacation or lots of other stuff)  rather than twenty trips to the ‘family friendly’ joint down the street.  Bottom line: it’s cheaper to eat at home.

So, strap on an apron and try these fast ‘n easy menus.

The Roast Chicken Meal

The Pantry Pasta Meal

The Cozy Casserole Meal

The Roast Chicken Meal

Roasting a cut-up chicken takes half the time of a whole chicken and is just as juicy and crisp. Omit the mustard to make things even simpler.  Serve this with French bread (you can keep some in the freezer), a green salad or the following green bean salad.  A simple dessert: baked bananas.

Roasted Chicken

Serves 4, generously

4 chicken leg quarters or 1 cut-up chicken

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat the over to 450 degrees.

Place the chicken in a  baking dish or roasting pan and smear each piece with a little mustard. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

Roast for 30 minutes. The chicken skin will be well browned and crackly. Lightly salt the chicken, remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes.

Green Bean salad with Walnuts and Red Onion

When I cook vegetables like green beans or broccoli, I think it’s very important to test them as they cook rather than rely on specific timing.  I like beans well cooked but a lot of people like them crunchy.  Suit yourself!

1 pound green beans, fresh or frozen

2 tablespoons walnuts, broken up

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced  (or 2 Tablespoons minced shallot or regular onion)

Vinaigrette:

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

If using fresh green beans, wash them and snip off the tips.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the beans for about 6 minutes.  Fish one out and check for doneness.  When done, drain the beans in a colander and run cold water over them.  If using frozen beans, follow package instructions cooking for the least recommended time and let cool a few minutes.

Toast the walnuts quickly  in the microwave for about 40 seconds.

In a bowl large enough for the beans, make the vinaigrette by stirring the olive oil into the vinegar in a thin stream.  Add a couple of good sized pinches of salt and pepper.  Add the beans, walnuts and onion and toss to coat.  Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.

Baked Bananas

for each serving: (children and light eaters will eat 1/2 a banana)

1 banana

Brown sugar

Butter

Preheat oven to 375. Slice the bananas lengthwise and then cut each half crossways into one inch sections without going through the peel.  Arrange in a baking dish, sprinkle a little brown sugar (about 1 teaspoon) on each half and dot with a little butter.  Bake about 15 minutes or until the surfaces are bubbling.  The peel will turn black.   Serve the bananas in their peel with a spoon, pouring over any of the accumulated syrup.

The Pasta Pantry Meal

The challenge? A meal in 30 minutes with what you’ve got on hand.  Guess what?  It’s no sweat!  The menu: Pasta with tomato sauce, spinach and dried fruit compote.

Pasta with Tomato Herb Sauce

This is about as simple as it gets but you end up with a tasty sauce.  Adding the extra olive oil at the end is very important for the flavor.   If you have an onion, sauté it for a few minutes before adding the tomatoes.  If you can unearth some Parmesan cheese, by all means, pass that around.

1 pound pasta (whatever you’ve got but spaghetti or linguine is a good choice)

Olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed or ½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)

1 can tomatoes

1 teaspoon dried herbs: oregano, basil, rosemary or marjoram (or a few pinches of each)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and if using fresh garlic, sauté it for a minute and then add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking them up with a spoon.  Add the dried herbs of your choice and garlic powder if desired. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Cook the pasta according to package directions but be sure to taste it for doneness rather than rely slavishly on the instruction time.  Drain and put in a large bowl or on individual plates.

Add 2 additional tablespoons of olive oil to the sauce, stir and pour over the pasta.

Spinach

For a pantry meal, I always try to have some kind of frozen vegetable on hand and spinach is a favorite.  I cook it as little as possible, drain it and serve with a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of vinegar and a pinch of dry red pepper flakes.

Dried Fruit Compote

This can simmer alongside your tomato sauce and be ready in time for dessert.

2 cups dried fruits: apricots, apples, pears, prunes

1 fresh apple or pear (optional), peeled, cored and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped almonds, walnuts or pecans

A piece of cinnamon stick, orange peel or vanilla bean

Juice, wine or water

Put the fruits (a mix of your choice), the optional fresh fruit and flavorings in a saucepan.  Cover barely with water, juice (diluted by half with water) or wine.  Simmer gently until softened.  Serve warm or cold.  A dollop of ice cream or yogurt is good on top.

The Cozy Casserole Meal

It takes several minutes of sauteeing to put this together, but it’s still a speedy dinner.  Serve with a green salad and chocolate pudding.

Sausage Gratin*

A cozy winter or autumn meal.  This is another recipe can be adapted for what you have on hand. The mushrooms, leeks and apples give the dish a very smooth texture and good taste but you can substitute 2 onions for the leeks and omit the mushrooms if you wish.

Serves 4 

1 pound Italian sausages (pork or turkey)

¼ pound mushrooms, quartered

4 medium leeks

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped roughly

½ cup grated cheese (Gruyère or Swiss are good choices) 

In a skillet, brown the sausages briefly and set aside.  Sauté mushrooms lightly in the same pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary. Set aside.

Wash off the leeks, cut off the green ends and slice the white and pale green parts into thin rounds.  Put the sliced leeks in a big bowl of water and stir them around with your hands. Let soak a minute or two so that any remaining sand will fall to the bottom of the bowl.  Scoop the leeks up and out of the water.

Using the same pan as for the mushrooms and sausages,  heat the olive oil and cook the leeks covered on low/medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

In a baking or gratin dish, place a layer of cooked leeks followed by the sautéed mushrooms, the chopped apple, the sausages and the cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbling.  

* French Lesson! ‘Gratin’ in French means crust.  A dish that is ‘au gratin’ often has melted cheese or breadcrumbs on top.  In English, we have an expression ‘the upper crust’ for rich people.  In French, it is similar: high society folks are referred to as the ‘gratin’. 

 Chocolate Pudding: Homemade and Speedy The famous chef, Michel Richard, has a recipe called ‘Happy Kid Pudding’ in his recent book Happy in the Kitchen and my recipe closely follows his.  It is simple and delicious.Serves 4 

2 cups milk

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup honey

4 ounces dark chocolate, cut in small pieces

In a big bowl (microwaveable), mix the milk, egg yolks, cornstarch and honey together, stirring with a whisk until well-blended.  Add the chocolate and microwave on high for 2 minutes.  Whisk up the mixture and microwave again for 2 minutes.  Stir again well and by now, the chocolate should be melted.  Microwave again for 2 minutes.

At this point, the mixture should be boiling and thick but if not, microwave again for about a minute.  Cool for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Enjoy your home-cooking and write with any questions!

Cheers, and xoxo, Mary

One comment on “HOME COOKING I: A Hard Sell or a Sweet Deal?

  1. Pretty! This was an incredibly wonderful post.
    Thanks for supplying this info.

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