An Easy Weeknight Dinner Party

Justin and I were invited to contribute recipes to the April/May issue of Ottawa Parenting Times, so it was back to the drawing board.  This time I devised an easy-prep “dinner party” menu that you can even manage after work: Greek Chicken and Rice with Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding for dessert.  See the recipes here.

Greek Chicken and Rice.jpg

Review: Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix

I ordered Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix right after it was published as a “Happy Birthday to Me” present.  We own three Bittman books, and reference How to Cook Everything on a weekly basis, if not more.  Early reviews of Kitchen Matrix suggested it would be an improviser’s go-to, and the Amazon preview showed me a ton of glossy photos.  I’m a sucker for glossy photos in cookbooks.

First of all, this is a gorgeous book.  The photography is so appealing you’ll try to eat right off the page, and if you don’t want to rush to the store with a list after reading one or two of these, I’d be shocked. There are 2-page spreads on things like beets or cabbages that are as drool-worthy as anything I’ve seen.  This is a cookbook that makes celery look sumptuous.

The basic format is this: Bittman presents a common ingredient, like bell peppers or brown rice, or a dish like paella or ceviche.  Within a couple of pages, he tweaks that ingredient or dish to wind up with a variety of recipes, sometimes as many as 16.  Many of these are beautifully photographed; all are explained step-by-step with Bittman’s candor and encyclopedic knowledge.

The book is broken into sections: Appetizers; Soups and Sandwiches; Vegetables; Pasta, Grains, and Beans; Fish and Seafood; Poultry and Eggs; Meat; Condiments and Seasonings; Fruit; Desserts and Baking.  The emphasis is less on categorizing by ingredient or course and more on creating a quick-reference guide for home cooking.  Bittman maintains in his introduction that an improvisational style to home cooking will expand your repertoire and improve the variety of dishes you are serving; he strives in this book to provide home cooks with a tool that will promote experimentation and creativity.  The book is also designed to serve well for building weeknight meals; its off-the-cuff, use what you have style and quick-reference ingredient index make it a useful tool for making magic with the pantry staples.

Mark Bittman is a big proponent of eating fresh, and cooking fast and at home.  He creates recipes designed to use practical ingredients that are not usually too hard to find and that will maximize flavor while cutting down on prep time.  Whenever you’re cooking at home, there’s some prep work, but I feel like Bittman understands that just because you want to eat well doesn’t mean you want to spend your life in the kitchen.  Also, he gives a lot of options for getting more exotic flavors into your meals without having a huge pantry or spending a lot of money.  I think if you were to make everything in Kitchen Matrix it would be a lot of ingredients, but I feel the point is more to find the flavors you like best and use those ones in a lot of different ways than to buy and use every different flavor.

In the Counter kitchen, we are already fairly improvisational.  Our meal planning often includes the words, “What if we…”  Kitchen Matrix is already inspiring us, however.  The Slow Cooker Beans Recipe Generator is a marvel of possibilities; we’ve already devoured a pot.  We’ve been poring over this book to find the next wonderful idea and improvising more in the kitchen since it found its way in the house.  I know it’s going to be a new reference for us whenever we’re trying to find ideas, inspiration, and something to spice up our everyday (without spending all day in the kitchen).  I highly recommend this book to active at home cooks trying to prepare meals 5-7 days weekly, as it will give you lots of food for thought.

In Defense of Food Ruts

It’s Meal Planning Day in the Counter kitchen, and we hem and haw about what to eat over the next week. Do we try a new recipe? Use up frozen leftovers? Cook old standbys?

Our weeks are not simple; like many families we work, we parent, and we socialize while fitting in couple time and home time and time for hobbies. Although we love cooking together and choosing fun new things to make, there just isn’t always time to be inventive. So when one of us mumbles something about, “Maybe we should just make [insert regular staple meal here],” it is rarely met with dissent.

We have some fallbacks; I bet you have yours. We never quite sink to the level of Kraft Dinner (that’s what Canadian chefs call Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, for all you Yanks) or noodles from a can, but we certainly make almost-convenient foods like grilled sandwiches, eggs for dinner, and pasta. Our real standards, though, keep us coming back for more, and are made with the same principles as the showstoppers we make when we have more time: fresh ingredients, simple preparations, and lotsa love. Here’s a quick list of our favorites:

  • Shepherd’s Pie – Ground beef (lamb if we’re flush), gravy made from scratch, frozen vegetables, and mashed potatoes made with real butter…c’mon, this is not too bad
  • Chili – My secret recipe involves the opening of many, many cans, but we use fresh ingredients and spices, too.
  • Roast Dinner – Pork loin most often, but sometimes other cuts of pork or beef, with potatoes, carrots, other root vegetables, and herbs. This literally takes me minutes to prepare, with so much reward.
  • Fried Chicken – I can’t take credit for this amazing but less than healthy staple in our rotation; Justin says it’s why I married him.
  • Chicken and Dumplings – Chicken thighs or breasts stewed in gravy with dumplings, served with potatoes and vegetables. Another blessing from my Southern husband.
  • Homemade Mac N Cheese, sometimes with Bacon – a favorite of the Little Man

I’d love to say it’s all exotic dishes and chopped salads here, but really one of these pops up on our weekly meal plan at least twice a month. Why? These meals are easy–we can make them on autopilot–and last into leftovers so we can eat them for work lunches.

Tasty

Fried Chicken and Mashed Potatoes. I have mastered the country gravy, despite being a Northerner.

We build our variety around our standards, which shift slightly with the seasons (more smoothies, flatbreads, and salads in summer; more casseroles and stews in winter), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the same dishes over and over.

You may have a vision of a 1950’s housewife (“Meatloaf again? Aw, Mom!”) when you think of having a stable of dishes that you march out on schedule, but it definitely reduces stress in the kitchen. We know if we are busy or can’t think of anything new and exciting we want to cook, we will cook one or two of our standards and fill in the extra days with something light, like a salad meal or sandwiches. There is absolutely no pressure in the Counter kitchen to be unique all the time; quite the opposite, in fact, because we have warm associations with our favorites, which seem only to get better in repeating.

Food ruts are really a matter of attitude. Maybe you feel like avocado on everything for a month: so eat it! Maybe fresh spinach or salmon goes on sale and you overbuy and have to put it in everything: so enjoy it! If you dread repeat meals, leftovers, or similar ingredients you are making a choice to put yourself into a rut; instead, put creative spins on your excess, enjoy the luxury of getting more of something delicious, and think of “food rut” days as days to relax and enjoy the time off from worrying about that eternal question: What should we have for dinner?

Gourmet Lunch for Supper – Two Masters at Work

Is warm chicken salad the most comforting food?  Look at this.

Chicken Salad MeltI am a chicken salad virtuoso, and I’m  here to tell you my secrets.  Take any chicken meat: breast, thigh, leftover rotisserie from the deli, and chop it up smaller than bite size.  Add your favorite mayo or salad dressing with a fairly mild flavor profile: ranch, Italian, French, Miracle Whip, balsamic vinaigrette…just enough to moisten the chicken and make it spread .  Finely chop something crunchy and something sweet and stir in.  Place cheese on two slices of good bread (or one for a delicious open-face), layer with chicken salad, and toast in oven until warm and melted.  Just look at this.

Chicken Salad Melt

Chicken breast, olive oil mayo, finely chopped celery, cranberries, and creamy havarti on mini foccacias, served with butternut squash soup.

Dive in to those delicious pixels.  Dinner is just a sandwich, you say?
Perhaps “just a sandwich” could be so much more… (and yet so easy!)

Dinner Doesn’t Have to be a Production – Chicken & Leek Couscous Edition

Dinner doesn’t have to be a production.  We cook almost every day, and rarely does it take longer than a half hour to get supper on the table.

Yesterday and the day before, we made excellent homemade pizza.  We used prepared pizza dough, but we sliced our toppings and grated our cheese, and dinner was on the table in 30 minutes.  Devoured by everyone, and much healthier than delivery.

Today I was meant to cook a pork roast, but changed my plan at the last minute.  Justin sometimes says my superpower is conjuring dinner from whatever is lying around.  Today is a good one.

I’d already planned to cook couscous with leeks.  If you’ve never had leeks before, you’re in for a treat.  Just peel off outer leaves, slice the lighter colored end in quarter-inch circles, and rinse the sand from the slices in a colander before using.  Couscous is my favorite grain.  It cooks so fast I call it inflatable.  When I decided to skip the roast, it occurred to me that if I just added some chicken thighs to the pot I could have dinner, so…

Chicken & Leek Couscous

The photographer wasn't home when this came out of the oven, so an iPhone photo will have to do.

The photographer wasn’t home when this came out of the oven, so an iPhone photo will have to do.

Use an oven-safe pot to make this a one-pot meal that’s so simple it might just become one of your go-tos.

INGREDIENTS

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 leeks, sliced and washed
1.5 cups dry couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar or white wine (optional)
1 cup dried cranberries
1/8 tsp harissa, to taste
salt to taste
olive oil

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Add couscous, leeks, and cranberries to oven-safe lidded pot or dutch oven. Pour chicken stock and apple cider vinegar over the couscous and allow it to soak.
Saute chicken in 1-2 tbsp olive oil, just to brown. Sprinkle harissa on chicken while cooking.
Using tongs, place chicken on top of other ingredients.
Place in oven, covered, for 18 minutes.

When your timer goes off, remove from oven. Move chicken to fluff couscous, taste for seasoning, and replace chicken on top for a prettier dish.

Mine went right into the fridge, since it’s a working evening for me.  Easy-peasy, and no doubt everyone will be pleased.  Another supper done.