ZEN & THE ART OF COOKING
There is a certain Zen to making a tasty, satisfying meal with few ingredients. I like to challenge myself to five. This comes from my tendency to be intimidated by complicated recipes, the limitations of what’s in my kitchen, the time I have and budgetary constraints. I’m not a purist, so salt & pepper don’t count.
In 5th grade I gave Peggy, a friend of my older sister’s, “my” recipe for Banana Nut Bread (which I probably got off the back of a Betty Crocker box). When she saw my detailed measurements (“1/8 tsp. cinnamon”), she let out a laugh while rolling her eyes. I wouldn’t understand why for many more years - that cooking is more a “feeling” than an absolute (especially a 1/8 tsp. absolute).
Cooking is like life – you have to be ready to react to and rise gracefully above unexpected challenges. YOU CAN’T LET THE PASTA BEAT YOU!
It wasn’t until I cooked along side my mother-in-law that I understood touch, taste, smell and intuition were just as important as exact measurements provided in a recipe. Quite frankly, I enjoyed her Pollo con Arroz, Pico de Gallo, Carne Asado, Tripe, Red Chili Enchiladas, Albondigas, Carnitas, Carne Guisada and Chili Rellenos much more than I ever enjoyed being married to her youngest child (ex-husband #1).
The one positive thing I took away from that disastrous marriage was the understanding of intuitive cooking. And that parting gift set me on a happier course in life. YOU CAN’T LET THE BAD MARRIAGE BEAT YOU!
But, as any great creation demands, the need for a good foundation is imperative. The basics of cooking (using those 1/8 tsp. of cinnamon) must be learned from the ground up. And when you’ve got a few of those under your apron -- let the culinary games begin!
Cabbage Soup with Vegetables and Meatballs
Houston can rarely be counted on to produce a "winter season". So when it gets cold (or snows...it has happened!) having a go-to, easy and inexpensive soup to serve is a great treat.
I asked Gary to bring home sausage, but he forgot. I happened to have made meatballs earlier in the week (See below for my Meatball recipe), so that's what I added instead. Obviously, you can skip the meat entirely & make it pure vegetarian.
Remember to save your scraps to make a vegetable broth. You can freeze the veggies until you're ready to make it.
Soup's like life - put in what you want to get out, spice things up & embellish!
- Onions & Shallots
- Leeks (clean well)
- Potatoes (Russet or other)
- 1/2 to 1 Cabbage (sliced in long strips with core removed)
- Salt & Pepper
- Fresh Bay Leaves
- Herbs of your choice
- 8-10 C Chicken Stock + Water if needed
- Olive Oil
SLICE veggies (cabbage should be in long strips)
HEAT OLIVE OIL in pot (you can use the same pot soup will cook in)
SAUTE veggies until soft (about 8-10 minutes)
ADD cabbage the last two minutes so it "wilts" a bit
ADD chicken stock
BRING to boil
SIMMER for about 20 minutes
SEASON (add water if needed)
SLOW SIMMER until meatballs are cooked through (about 20 minutes)
SERVE with crackers or (garlic) bread. Top with fresh parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and a dollop of cream or plain yogurt for some extra creaminess.
(Makes about 6 bowls)
Fresh Cranberries with Port, Ginger and Orange
This recipe uses few ingredients, is simple to execute, has depth of flavor and those whole cranberries look impressive on the plate. It is a great go-to side dish for the holidays!
Yes, every holiday season my mom opened up that can of Cranberry Sauce and with a loud PLOP, it fell out and onto a festively-decorated platter. Not very yummy sounding. I never cared for the taste of it – or the look of those rings the aluminum can imprinted on the side of that jelly log.
WHY SETTLE FOR CANNED ANYTHING WHEN YOU CAN GET FRESH SOMETHING?
Here is a SIMPLE recipe for the holidays. It gets better with age, looks beautiful, your vegetarians will love it and it goes well with turkey, ham or chicken – try some on scrambled eggs. An added bonus is as it cooks – the cranberries POP!
What could be better than that? It's a dish for all senses AND all seasons!
- 2 Bags/12 oz each fresh rinsed cranberries (use frozen only if fresh unavailable)
- 1/2 - 1 Cup sugar
- 1/2 Cup port
- 1/2 Cup orange juice (fresh squeezed is nice)
- 2-3 TB chopped crystalized ginger (or fresh ginger chopped finely)
- Zest of 1 orange
COMBINE all ingredients in a heavy pan
BRING to boil
REDUCE to a simmer and cook until most of the cranberries POP open (15-20 minutes)
DON'T break the cranberries as you gently mix
ADJUST ingredients for sweetness and tartness. Like ginger? Add more!
SKIM any foam off the surface
Cool to room temperature and serve
Can be refrigerated until all your holiday left overs have been eaten!
(Makes about 3 1/2 Cups)
Carrot and Almond Torte
This recipe is credited to Harry Astley & Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow
Adapted by Aleksandra Crapanzano of The Wall Street Journal, “Eating & Drinking,” February 13-14 2016
I’m always looking for ways to cook up a less sugary desert with veggies. Even Bugs Bunny would agree that this one fits the bill.
There’s a hardiness to almond flour. I buy it in bulk (buy & use as needed so it’s always fresh). When I can’t find almond flour, I’ll use almond meal instead. Both make such delicious things!
- 4 large eggs (separate yolks from whites)
- 1 Cup sugar
- Zest from 1 orange
- ¼ tsp vanilla
- ½ pound of carrots (6-7 large)
- 2 Cups almond flour + 1 heaping TB self-rising flour
- Confectioners’ sugar (for dusting)
- Crème fraiche to serve on top
BEAT with electric mixer: Egg yolks, sugar, orange zest & vanilla until thick & creamy (about 5 minutes)
STIR into yolk mixture until fully incorporated: Carrots, both flours
BEAT with electric mixer in CLEAN BOWL: Egg whites until stiff (about 5 minutes)
FOLD Whites into yolk/flour mixture until no streaks remain
POUR Batter into pan
BAKE 35-45 minutes until toothpick comes out clean from center
REMOVE From oven. Let cool in pan. Turn out onto a platter
DUST: With confectioner’s sugar & serve with a dollop of crème fraiche atop.
CRÈME FRAICH (1 Cup):
- 1 Cup Whipping Cream
- 2TB buttermilk
COMBINE both in glass container.
Cover & let stand at room temperature from 8-24 hours until very thick.
Stir well before covering. Refrigerate up to 7 days.
Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
(Makes 24-36 depending on size of meatballs)
The first time I served my mother’s meat sauce over spaghetti, my young son pushed it away and asked, “Mama, where are the meatballs?” I knew then mom’s dish wouldn’t make it to the third generation.
Meatballs take a bit more time to make as does the sauce (compared to opening up a store-bought jar), but both are worth it. The meatballs are versatile and the sauce is flavorful and only gets better with time (both when cooking & serving). Sauces out of a jar now taste sweet to me. This sauce is as real & basic as you can get.Fool around with seasonings, cheeses, tomatoes and other veggies.
KEEP THE RINDS of cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino-Romano, Parmesan) in the fridge or freeze for later use. ADD to the sauce (remove any labels!) for extra flavor. (Rind is great in soups, too).
BUY BULK HERBS in small amounts. Better to use very fresh and replace as needed. (Inexpensive, too!)
INGREDIENTS / TOMATO SAUCE:
Mix ingredients below in a large pot. Let simmer for an hour (or longer), before adding the meatballs
- Roasted Tomatoes OR Crushed Tomatoes OR both (3) large cans
- Tomato Paste (1-2) small cans
- Mushrooms (bite sized slices)
- Garlic minced
- Red wine (sweet or dry depending on your taste) - splash or two - allow time for it to "cook off"
- Salt / Pepper / Dried Oregano / Red Pepper Flakes / Cheese Rind
INGREDIENTS / MEATBALLS:
- Ground Beef 1.5 lb (Ground pork can make up half the mixture)
- Onion minced (I like sweet yellow)
- Parmesan cheese (grated)
- 1 egg (beaten)
- Bread slice – no crusts (cubed)
- Milk (just enough to cover bread)
Pour milk over cubed bread to soften & set aside. Drain before adding to meat mixture
Combine onions with beef / pork
Throw in the egg & (drained) bread – mixture should not be soggy
Mix with hands just enough to combine all ingredients well
Roll into equal-sized balls
Brown meatballs in olive oil – turning on all sides (may have to do in batches)
Add browned meatballs to tomato sauce
Let simmer for 60 minutes. Adjust seasoning.
SERVE over spinach pasta. Or in a hard roll with provolone and mozzarella cheese. Broil until gooey and hot.
Carnitas with Pineapple Salsa
This savory dish uses a "cheap" cut of meat (pork shoulder) which means it's a great dish to cook on a lazy Sunday afternoon for dinner that night.
It's even tastier the next day, served over rice.
BUY BULK HERBS. They are fresher & cost less than those off a grocer's shelf. You may replace more often, but once you've cooked with FRESH cumin...you'll never go back to bottled spices again.
- Pork shoulder, cubed (2-3 pounds)
- Marinade (1/2-1C Pineapple, Orange or Lime Juice)
- Cumin, salt and pepper
- Garlic (minced in a jar)
- Salsa (can be made & refrigerated the day before):
- Pineapple, Onion (red or white), Serrano peppers, Cilantro - cut all in bite-sized pieces. Toss. Adjust for your taste & heat
- Flour tortillas
- Feta cheese
Put pork in a large Dutch oven or pot & rub well with cumin, garlic, salt & pepper.
Pour marinade over cubed pork & marinate (overnight if possible & let come to room temperature).
Add water just enough to cover meat. Bring to boil. Then turn down heat & simmer for about 2 hours. (Add more cumin if you'd like).
Turn up heat & stir. Cook another 30-45 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning.
Fold pork into warm tortillas. Top with salsa & cheese.
Pasta with Sausage in a Tomato Mint Olive Oil Marinade
(topped with grilled feta)
This is a delicious, filling pasta dish that works well for a large gathering or as left overs just for your little self.
Grilling the feta cheese brings out a deep flavor. And the longer you can let the olive oil marinade sit, the better.
This marinade is also good on pizza, scrambled eggs or toasted bread.
- Pasta (like a penne to hold up against the sausage)
- Italian sausage (mix ground Italian sweet with Italian hot)
- Feta cheese (buy in a block in water)
- Olive oil
- Tomatoes (cherry) – halved (remove seeds)
- Mint (fresh) chopped
- Garlic (minced)
- Thyme (dried)
- Salt & Pepper to taste
Mix ingredients in a bowl (keep at room temperature) until ready to use:
Cook the sausage & drain the fat.
Cook the pasta & drain (keep some of the pasta water to add to the dish if pasta is sticking together & needs a little moisture)
- Throw the drained pasta in a big bowl
- Add the cooked Italian sausage
- Mix in the marinade
- Cut the feta in slices, brush with olive oil, sprinkle dry (thyme) herbs on top
- Broil (about 2 minutes) – don’t let it burn
- Dish pasta into individual bowls
- Throw a slice of grilled feta cheese on top of each serving
- Salt & pepper to taste & enjoy!