I love food. I love to eat it, make it, think about it, read about it, and talk about it with other people. I’m one of those people who believes that a good dinner party with family or friends is akin to a religious experience and who craves the ambiance and vibe of my favorite, noisy and bustling restaurants. For years, I have been the primary person in my home who buys the food, prepares the food and serves the food. Sometimes this can be a chore, as you might know if you are also this person, and often I am less than inspired when it comes to thinking up something to make, but I would be lying if I said that these meals weren’t the moments that punctuate the passage of each and every one of my days.
Once upon a time, I got more than a couple of those recipe swap chain letters in the mail. I participated in one or two but I don’t think I ever got the 24 recipes that I was promised for playing along and I’m sure that I don’t remember loving and using all the recipes that I did receive. I’ll admit that now, when I get those recipe swap chain emails, I delete them. Sorry, guys. I prepare a homemade meal nearly every single night but, for the most part, I have a serious problem with recipes–even though I love to watch cooking shows, and even though I am an avid reader of cooking columns and a surfer of food web sites. I think of myself as more a gatherer of food ideas and, when I prepare a meal, I use ingredients I have on hand, I don’t measure things out exactly, and I try to keep things simple. I’m also a rather frugal cook when it comes to the day to day–my ideal price point for a weeknight dinner is to average $10-15 for four people with some nights, like pasta or bean nights coming in at much less and others coming in at more. I buy meats and fish that are on sale and I always look for ways to turn leftovers into future meals.
A couple of weeks ago, the Times reviewed a new book by Tamar Adler called An Everlasting Meal. Adler took her own experience of a war time cookbook from 1942 called, How To Cook A Wolf, and translated it into a 21st century guide to cooking instinctively within a budget. Her belief is that many of us don’t cook because we’ve been lead to believe that cooking has to complicated to be good. If you go to her book’s Amazon page, you can scroll down to a wonderful little video about her philosophy of food and cooking. I also ran across a great little section in the fitness & nutrition section of the Times called Recipes For Health that breaks down cooking ideas into an index of individual ingredients so that you can get ideas for the things you actually have in your refrigerator right now.
A good friend of mine who is trying to eat healthier and save money by preparing more meals at home recently asked me for some of my food ideas. I have found that it’s actually a little difficult to approach this in a how-to fashion because so much of what I do is simply intuitive for me by now. Years of working in restaurants during college and a collection of foodie friends has turned me into someone who feels at ease in the kitchen with just the fewest ingredients but that’s not always easy to deliver in a how-to way. My tastes lean toward Mediterranean and I frequently employ a tomato, onion and garlic combination with just about everything. I also rely heavily on beans and like a Mexican flair with lots of spicy heat. I will happily take on a simple stir-fry but I do not cook traditional Asian and I do not generally make complicated desserts (I stick to pies and “rustic” fruit tarts or basic cookies) because there are too many steps and too many things that can go wrong. By no means do I always get it all right and I have been presented, on many occasions, with the mom-you-didn’t-quite-hit-the-mark-tonight look. But, when working in my comfort zone of ingredients, I can usually pull off a great meal without having to take an extra trip to the supermarket.
So, I thought it would be fun to share pantry staples and food ideas! Because, while I plan to go out and buy Adler’s book, I feel the same way about cooking as I do about teaching–often the best ideas are the ones next door to you. What are the items could you not be without in your refrigerator or pantry and how do you make the most out of your meals? Even if you have just one idea, please share it here!
Here are some of my favorite food ideas:
- Tomatoes: Fresh are wonderful for salads, salsas and sandwiches but I always keep several cans of diced tomatoes, no salt added, to use in sauces for roasted meats or to stir into a vegetable sautee. Recently I made a tapenade out of black olives, capers, garlic, red wine, olive oil, and 4 anchovy filets–you whir this all up in a small food processor or a “Magic Bullet” gadget which you can pick up at a place like Walmart for very little money and which will make cooking all kinds of things so much better. I laid out boneless, skinless chicken thighs (you could also use bone in, or breasts, or whatever you want) in an oven dish, poured the tapenade over the chicken and then topped it with a can of diced tomatoes and baked, covered, on 375F for 45 minutes. The chicken was delicious and I used the leftover sauce to marinade another batch of chicken the next night, which was even tastier after all the flavors melded. Canned tomatoes can create a simple and delicious sauce for pasta with just garlic, salt, pepper and a little parmesan cheese and are an easy go-to when your cupboard is bare.
- Eggs: I love anything that you can do with an egg and my crew loves basic breakfast for dinner, but I find omlettes to be one of the most elegant things to prepare for a simple and healthy dinner because you can take any leftover you have–meat, legume or vegetable–and add cheese (or not) to create a hearty, inexpensive meal from scrambled eggs. Serve with rice, pasta or a nice slice of bread and you have perfection. The other thing I like to do with eggs is to plop them (fried, over easy) onto a salad for a lunch or a light dinner. If you prepare your salad with all your ingredients on a plate, sprinkle with dried herbs (I like an “Italian” blend) a nice balsamic vinegar or squeeze lemon all over it, you can fry an egg in olive oil and slide the whole thing onto your salad so that the hot oil drizzles right in.
- Dried Beans: I make beans about once a week, usually black beans. You soak them overnight and then commit to watch them for about two hours while they cook on low-medium heat, not allowing them to burn. My standard seasoning to the water is lots of cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, oregano and some red pepper flakes. That’s it. I serve them with brown rice, salsa and cheese, I put them on corn tortillas with grilled chicken or shrimp and fresh tomatoes, cilantro and lime, and then I use them the next day for a soup by adding chopped onion, celery and carrots with low sodium chicken broth.
- Veggies: My favorite veggies to have on hand are spaghetti squash (cut in half, scoop out middle, bake skin side up on an oiled baking sheet for 45 min. on 375F), greens for sauteeing (broccoli rabe is my favorite… dunk into boiling water bath for 2 minutes and then transfer to sautee pan with olive oil and garlic… I also like kale and spinach), broccoli and cauliflower (wash and chop, drizzle with oil, like a prepared “basting oil,” and put in a hot oven at 425F for about 15 minutes, top with parmesan cheese for extra yumminess), and eggplant (skin, chop and sautee with olive oil, garlic and any other veggies, particularly zucchini and tomatoes). If you make big batches of roasted or sauteed vegetables, leftovers can be added to omlettes, soups or pasta sauces the next day. White and red wine are a standard in my sauteed foods for deglazing the pan, vegetables or meats. Cooking wines are OK but inexpensive table wine is even better… all the Yellow Tail varieties, for example, are just fine and you can enjoy a glass while you are cooking!
- Brown Rice: I like to have a batch of brown rice for the week. I serve it as a side to my mains, sprinkle it on a salad for extra heft, add it to soups, toss it into a pan of scrambled eggs for a fritatta effect or, recently, create “rice bowls” out of leftover cooked meats, chopped lettuce or greens, sliced vegetables and cheese. Squeeze with a lemon and drizzle with oil. My kids even like brown rice reheated in a microwave with margarine, salt & pepper and parmesan cheese for an afternoon snack.
- Polenta: Buy the kind in a box that you make with water, not the formed tubes. I sometimes use polenta under the black beans instead of rice, or pat out into little patties that are baked with vegetables and cheese like little polenta pizzas. You can even oil these patties and put them on a grill to serve as a starchy side.
My refrigerator and pantry always have pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, capers, olives, jarred garlic, black beans, red/white cooking wines, chicken broth, onions, lemons, olive oil, a good vinegar (red wine or balsamic), dried oregano and basil, onion powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, bread crumbs (for sprinkling on baked meats and fish), a basic cheese like provolone or cheddar, parmesan cheese, lettuce and greens, in season fruits and vegetables and a nice loaf of bread. Gadgets I can’t be without are my mini food processor, my baking stone and a veggie chopper I got from Pampered Chef. I also like having a panini press because it makes any sandwich into a hot, grilled delicious meal. I am a huge soup maker and will take just about anything and throw it into a soup kettle and serve with a nice loaf of bread for dinner. I buy meats on sale and then freeze them and I purchase sale fish once a week or more and generally broil or bake with a basic olive oil/lemon/white wine baste. In the heat of the summer, I will serve a dinner of fruit salad topped with vanilla yogurt and a salad or even a nice cheese and bread with a salad. I always make more than what the meal calls for so that leftovers can be eaten the next day for lunch or dinner and then stretched into new combinations after that.
Preparing good food is a wonderful way to be creative and I’d love to hear what you do in your kitchen, friends! Leave a comment so that we can all share FOOD IDEAS!
TRY THIS WEEK: Make up something new for dinner!