Oh, I can't wait to see what search engine queries wash people up on this particular shore. I really should can it with the cutesy wordmaking, I guess. (sigh)
This is the last of the three memes with which I was tagged in the space of about ten days, and it's a doozy! It comes to me from the lovely and talented Goldfish, who claims that it is not her fault, that it just grew spontaneously out of another meme she only just barely touched -- honest! -- while passing it on to someone else. And you know what? I believe her, because I have read what happened over at Andrea's
lab blog, and yes, that all sounds very plausible to me. (You should go to Andrea's site anyway just to read her recipe for Cricket Crunch made with real crickets. No, she does not also have a recipe for Girl Scout Cookies -- er, as far as I know.)
Here are the rules:
1. Let others know who tagged you.
2. Players start with 4 recipes they especially like (ethnic or regional recipes and quick meals are especially nice).
3. Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 4 recipes.
4. Players should tag 4 other people and notify them they have been tagged.
(As usual, the Last Rule of Memery -- ha! that word again! -- also applies, and this does come directly from Goldfish, who put it very well: "[T]here are no Meme police, this is entirely optional.")
I come from a not very ethnic Jewish family, so about the only truly ethnic thing I make (besides hamentaschen, which I only make very rarely because my true love honestly prefers chocolate chip) is chicken soup. But I've written about that already, and besides, every ethnicity with chicken has chicken soup. There's even vegetarian "chicken" soup. A science fiction program I used to watch said that across the galaxy, no matter where you go, everybody has a recipe for meatballs, and that's probably true. I also think everybody probably has a recipe for chicken soup, although the definition of what is a chicken, precisely, might vary wildly.
I expect most people who read this blog are only concerned with recipes for ingredients that can be obtained here on this planet, so I'm sure it will come as a big relief for everyone that I do not plan to take this opportunity to explore more far-flung ethnic traditions. Unfortunately, though, I don't really have much to offer in the way of specific ethnicity. Lots of my recipes are just things I make up on the spot, and many of them mix gifts of various cultures, whether I'm aware I'm doing it or not. If you want really good ethnic recipes that won't kill you (unlike traditional European/American Jewish ones, the ones with all the fat and salt), please visit my friend Aura the vegetarian, kosher supermom's Kitchen. (Check out the soofganiot, for example, a traditional Israeli Chanukah yummy, or the Yemenite zhug, or the vegan blintzes.) Instead, in response to the request for "quick" recipes, what I'm going to focus on here today will be dishes that use organic/all-natural convenience foods.
A word about convenience foods. First, I'm going to show and mention a lot of products by name. This is because these are products I really use, that we really like. I do not own stock in these companies. These are not paid endorsements.
There are products like these products which are not exactly the same as these products. It will not bother me in the slightest if you prefer to use them. I choose these again and again because of nutritional value, taste, and also politics, and because they are for sale locally at prices my true love can afford. You should choose the best of what is available to you.
If you are really poor but have access to a full kitchen, you are probably best off not using this kind of product at all, because you might as well light dollar bills (or pound notes, or euros, or whatever) on fire. A 7 oz. box of couscous you can make in the microwave costs between $1.50 and $3.00. A pound of organic couscous that you must cook on a stovetop costs less than a dollar, maybe just around a dollar with a pinch of this and that added to each cupful as you use it. The microwaveable version might not be significantly more convenient, anyway; in a professional quality pot that distributes heat efficiently, the excellent, organic Casbah brand, for example, takes almost the same amount of time to cook whether you make it on the stove or in the microwave because the only variable is the amount of time it takes you to boil water. What you are paying extra for is the packaging and shipping, and the precious little bag of premeasured, premixed seasoning, etc. that comes in the box. So convenience foods are for tired people who have more money than physical and/or mental strength to spend on feeding themselves. If your strength and cash budgets are running neck-and-neck in your life, neither of them particularly robustly, my advice is to skip the convenience foods if you can, or only use them occasionally.
As I mentioned, convenience foods are not always all that convenient. You can save anywhere between two minutes and five hours, depending on what we are talking about. When I use a couscous packet, I'm saving about two minutes, because seriously the difference between me measuring and Nile Spice brand's factory measuring is not much, and it's only slightly faster to boil water in the microwave than it is on the stove. When I used to buy marinara sauce in a bottle, though, back before my stomach started rebelling against that kind of acidity, once I found one that tasted exactly like mine (the Whole Foods organic brand, the one without added sugar), it was an enormous time saver and flexibility granter, because my recipe (my paternal grandmother Hilda Sonnenschein's recipe) takes hours and steams up the whole house.
Convenience foods are also rarely your most nutritious choices. Buying the all-natural ones often does give you more options for doctoring in such a way as to end up with a more healthful dish, as will become clear when you read my mushroom mac recipe, but most of them are still packed with sodium, many have extra sugar, and all of them have been processed, which means that some nutritional value that only comes in really fresh food has been lost. "Enriching" with vitamins is not the same, and your body knows it.
Also, even buying conscientiously organically and recycling all containers, these products are not as environmentally sound as things you cut and mix yourself, especially from locally grown ingredients. Transport and production do cost the planet something, and this is just one more reason to use convenience foods, even the good ones, sparingly.
So why use them at all? Well, two big reasons are storage and reliability.
A pantry full of boxes, cans and bottles is a pantry full of different options, no matter what is in season. You want to try a new dish? You don't have to go shopping for individual exotic ingredients. You just pull out the organic porcini risotto from Lundberg Family Farms, the Mumbai curry sauce from Geeta (who also makes a mean orange papaya chutney), maybe a tom yum soup kit from the magnificent Bali Spice, or perhaps the Falafel mix from Fantastic Foods.
Also, convenience foods have been tested thoroughly before they ever reach your store, and people with not terribly adventurous palates, children, for example, but also any people who just like what they like and want what they like, tend to love them, right on marketing target. My true love falls into this category. He likes my cooking just fine, but he also likes it to be just a little bit predictable at heart. So I use convenience foods as a sure-fire base on which to build mostly fresh cuisine. When Casbah makes the currant-nut couscous, there won't be too much cinnamon. When Annie Chun makes the garlic-scallion noodles, there won't be too much star anise. True Love is happy; I'm happy; and I might even be able to trick him into eating raw corn and peas in season at the same time.
We still keep ramen in the house, side by side with the expensive little natural, vegetarian soup cups, and when I was young and terrifyingly poor, I would often eat the 6-for-$1 generically branded mac 'n' cheese boxes without benefit of butter or milk and feel myself lucky to have them. Now, though, I use convenience foods that I think taste particularly good and which (except for the ramen, which I think has MSG in it, not to mention the unidentifiable multi-syllabics) have no scary ingredients, no artificial anything, nothing partially hydrogenated, etc. I do not serve them by themselves; I serve them in such a way that there is no way to eat so much as a mouthful of them without also getting a mouthful of fresh vegetables and sometimes meat. There's no dish of couscous or unadulterated mac 'n' cheese sitting on the table with a ladle like an invitation to unbalanced gluttony. By the time they reach the plate, there is no way these are junk food.
RECIPE 1: Lazy, Entitled Person's Salad
Convenience foods don't just come in boxes and jars. I realized as I was writing that I even use some when I make salad, as pictured above. Again, these things are for people with a little money to burn in order to save time and effort. If you are deeply broke, buy a head of lettuce, a bunch of carrots, and some ordinary-sized tomatoes that don't come in a box, then wash them and cut them up yourself. Also, you can get a very nice, inexpensive bottle (or gigantic can!) of extra virgin olive oil and another of just about any kind of vinegar you can think of just about anywhere, and continue enjoying both long after any bottle of pre-made dressing has passed into memory and the sewer system of your town.
Using products like those pictured above, however, not to mention bottled dressing, really does save a lot of time, and can result in far yummier results. Those tiny tomatoes, for example, are like crack. So sweet! So addictive! Also, have you ever tried to prepare your own raw baby greens leaves, especially spinach? And how long did it take you to get a whole bowlful? And just how thoroughly were you able to clean them? Case closed.
There are two basic ways I use these products. The first is when I make something like a piece of fish for each diner and also want to put a little individual salad on each plate. I will take a pinch of this and a pinch of that out of each box. I may or may not cut up the ingredients further; I may or may not add pepper or dressing. Depends on whom I'm serving and exactly what.
The second way is the big ol' bowl o' salad. We like salad with almost every meal. There are nutritional reasons for this as well as taste. Sometimes to save time, I will make a giant bowl of salad, and then just use it with every meal until it's gone. It is important when doing this not to make more than you can eat before it will spoil. Greens spoil very quickly.
I take a giant bowl and throw an entire package of prewashed greens into it first. Then I layer on whatever fresh, raw goodies we have on hand, in liberal amounts. Half a box of those grape tomatoes. Half a cucumber diced. Handfuls of baby carrots. Garlic greens snipped into tiny tubelets. An entire raw kohlrabi root, peeled and julienned.
If it's going to be side salad, I stop at the vegetables. If it's supposed to be a meal unto itself, then all I have to do is add protein: one to three drained cans of tuna, a grilled, sliced half chicken breast per diner or two, a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and/or a diced block of well-drained extra firm tofu. I might also include a handful of walnuts or pecans and a light grating of cheese.
If I am only making enough to be eaten today, I may take the liberty of pre-dressing the salad. I don't like to make my own dressing, because bottled dressing frankly stores and keeps better than my own and for some reason always proves far less messy. Also sometimes I want vinaigrette, but my true love wants ranch.
Annie's Naturals to the rescue!
I won't lie to you. Bottled dressing is not innately economical, especially if you guzzle it or drown your food in it. Also, even all-natural, all-organic salad dressing like this is not good for you, not inherently. It's got fat; it's got salt; it's even got some kind of sugar, lots of the time. What it also has is flavor. So the trick is to use it sparingly.
In a salad that takes a whole pound of greens, if I'm pre-dressing it, I will use no more than two to three tablespoons of dressing. What I do is make the salad by dumping various yummy raw things into the bowl, then I drizzle the dressing a tablespoon at a time (yes, do measure as you go) over as wide a surface area as possible, then I cover the bowl tightly, and then I roll it around gently until everything in the bowl is completely mixed up, and every item has become very, very lightly enrobed with dressing. It's just enough dressing flavor to tie all the flavors in the salad together, but you can still taste each individual ingredient, and you aren't dumping a load of nastiness into your bloodstream.
You may have to rearrange the ingredients slightly after doing this. Heavier items like small tomatoes and carrots tend to wind up on the bottom of the bowl with all the leaves on top, and what you want is for everyone who takes some salad to take a little of everything in each clump.
Now assuming you have made a side salad, not a salad meal, here are some things you can serve it on the side of:
RECIPE 2: Mushroom Mac/Hamburger Mushroom Mac (depending on your affinity for meat or lack thereof):
This is a very typical main course which I serve with salad on the side. It is hearty and will serve at least four people.
The use of portabella mushrooms was actually inspired by Season 1 of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Top Chef, in which [Tiffani was robbed by jealous, petty men, or so it appeared from my pale yellow, chintz-covered loveseat, and] emotional Dave presented a homemade macaroni and cheese dish with a big fat Perigord truffle at the bottom. Mmm! Genius! Before that, there were no mushrooms in my hamburger mac, but everything else was the same. There's something really great about the combination of beef, shallot and cream, something cozy and rich and irresistible. Adding earthiness through truffles (if you can afford them) or even humble mushrooms just takes it all to a whole other level.
The thing about Dave's version is that it uses 14 oz. of cheese (8 oz. fatty, creamy fontina!) and a quart of cream. If you ate that as often as we eat my version, your liver, not to mention your heart, would hate you. So I do it a little differently. (I can do this because I am not a top chef, and I neither charge nor compete with anyone.)
1 6 oz. box Annie's Homegrown organic white shells & cheddar
approx. ½ C plain, nonfat, gelatin-free yogurt (the more you use, the saucier the dish will be)
liberal sprinkling of garlic powder
liberal grinding of black pepper
1 lb. 95% (or more) fat free ground sirloin (which you can skip if you're a vegetarian)
1-2 shallots, minced or thinly sliced
extra virgin olive oil, preferably spray form to prevent excess greasiness
6-8 oz. organic, sliced and washed portabella mushrooms, which I cut one more time into mirror halves
½ C raw, shelled peas in season or defrosted frozen peas in winter
½ C raw cut corn in season or defrosted frozen supersweet corn in winter
[whatever other veggies I feel like a the moment, including but not limited to defrosted frozen cauliflower florets cut small or chopped fresh basil]
1. Cook pasta from box according to directions, drain, and set aside in covered bowl; do not mix sauce at this time. (You can cook the pasta while you are cooking the meat and/or mushrooms, and doing this will save you time and result in a better texture.)
2. Spray olive oil into large sauté or fry pan. Heat the oil slightly, then throw in minced shallots and portabella pieces. Let them cook on a med.-high heat until the shallot pieces have gotten a little translucent; you may have to stir them once or twice to keep them from burning, but it's not a tragedy if they do burn ever so slightly.
3. If you are making this without meat, continue cooking until the mushrooms are tender and the shallots are lightly caramelized. Then skip to the next step. If you are using beef, however, don't let the mushrooms and shallots cook all the way before you dump the meat into the pan. Break the meat up into smaller-than-bite-size globs, and stir everything together a bit. Let the meat brown, then scramble everything around so that the parts that aren't brown have the opportunity to cook. Don't let the meat dry out, but do make sure every bit of it is cooked through before you do anything else with it. This may require you to turn down the heat and cover the pan for a little while, but just a few minutes, maybe five.
4. Pour the yogurt into the bottom of the still-warm pan in which you cooked the pasta. Sprinkle the contents of the cheese packet which came with the pasta over the yogurt. Sprinkle garlic powder over that. Grate pepper over that. Using a plastic fork, blend all this together very thoroughly until pepper specks are evenly visible throughout and all lumps are gone.
5. Mix drained pasta into sauce. Add vegetables. Add meat and as much pan drippings as you can get. Mix it all together until everything is evenly but lightly coated with sauce.
6. Serve with salad and, if you like, red wine or really cold stout.
Note: The plain, nonfat yogurt adds extra tang, and it also greatly reduces the amount of saturated fat in this dish. If you want something creamier, less tart, and don't mind a few more grams of saturated fat, use the same amount of reduced-fat sour cream instead. If neither of these appeals to you, if both sound too heavy or too much, try 2-4 T lowfat or nonfat milk.
RECIPE III: Not Especially Mediterranean Chicken or Fish Couscous
This one takes as long as it takes to pan sear fish or to pan sear and then cook through chicken breasts (20 min. max.). The broccoli and couscous are cooked while the meat is cooking. It's incredibly simple to prepare and serves 2-4 people very well when accompanied by salad.
1 7 oz. box Casbah CousCous ("wild forest mushroom" and "nutted with currants and spice" are my favorites, but they're all good; I also like Nile Spice Toasted Pine Nut couscous a lot but can't find anything but soup cups to show you at the Nile Spice website)
1-1½ lb. skinless, boneless chicken breast meat or boneless, skinless individual fresh fish fillets; neither should be sliced or chopped
extra virgin olive oil, preferably spray form to prevent excess greasiness
½ C ever-so-lightly steamed or defrosted from frozen broccoli florets
sea salt for light sprinkling
pepper for liberal grinding
other seasonings you think will go well with whichever flavor couscous box you have chosen (e.g., garam masala, yellow curry powder, garlic powder, rubbed sage, etc.)
1. Prepare couscous according to instructions on box. Mix in broccoli and set aside in covered casserole dish (same dish you cooked couscous in if you used a microwave). The heat of the couscous will cook previously frozen broccoli a little more, so make sure you have NOT overcooked it, especially if you defrosted it in the microwave, but also do make sure it is completely defrosted. Cold is okay. Ice crystals are not, because that level of cold will cool off your couscous unacceptably.
2. Spray-coat the insides of a large, covered sauté or fry pan. Turn on stove and heat the oil slightly. Set flame to medium-high. Plop your chicken breasts or fish fillets into the pan. Sprinkle each one lightly, sparingly with salt. Grind pepper over each one according to your level of pepper love; I usually do 25 turns of the grinder per breast or fillet so that each is liberally spiced but not coated. Sprinkle other seasonings evenly over each breast or fillet. If this takes you long enough, by the time you are finished each breast or fillet will be seared on one side. You will be able to smell this, and you will be able to see the chicken juice (yes, gross to call it that, I know) browning in the pan.
3. Turn over each chicken breast or fish fillet. Sear this side, then turn the heat down to medium-low or even low. Splash a little water into the pan, a tablespoon or two. Cover the pan and walk away.
4. Check your meat or fish after 5 min. If it's chicken, cut each piece in two lengthwise. If it is drying out but still not cooked through, turn down the heat and sprinkle in a little more water, then cover and go away for another five minutes. If it is almost cooked, just turn the raw middles so that they are touching the pan and stand there for a couple of minutes, then cut into the biggest piece to see how it's coming along. When the pieces are completely cooked but not dry, turn off the heat.
5. Arrange your chicken or fish over the top of the couscous in the casserole dish. Pour/scrape as much of the pan drippings out on top of them as you can. Let any liquid soak right into the couscous.
6. You're done! Serve it with salad and white wine or chilled lager.
RECIPE 4: Tofu, Poultry, or Lean Meat and Vegetable Stir-Fry with Noodles
1 box Annie Chun meal kit or Bali Spice noodle kit; note that this recipe works best with lighter sauced options, not pad thai, for example, with the thick, sweet, peanut sauce (though that's really good with tofu and no additional seasoning)
1 lb. of cubed extra firm tofu, or poultry or lean meat of your choice cut into ½" thick strips (also good with tuna steak)
¼-½ C each of whatever of the following you have on hand, for example:
- sliced, raw carrots (no more than 1/8" thick)
- julienned raw, peeled kohlrabi
- julienned raw, peeled celeriac
- zucchini or other summer squash cut into bite-sized pieces
- whole, edible pea pods, snap or flat
- sliced mushrooms
- sliced leek (paper thin disks) or chopped green onion
- raw or defrosted broccoli florets
- bean sprouts
a couple of pinches of very thinly sliced raw cucumber
a pinch of julienned raw carrot for garnish
1 T max. toasted sesame oil
(optional) dash of Asian hot pepper oil
(optional) pinch of ground ginger or 1 t freshly grated ginger
(optional) pinch of garlic powder or 1 finely minced clove fresh garlic
(optional) pinch of Chinese five spice
(optional) pinch of Eden Shake (furikake) or sesame seeds
1. Prepare noodles -- but only the noodles -- as instructed on box. Drain, return to pot, cover, and set aside. You can boil the water and cook the noodles while you are doing other things; as with the couscous dish above, don't feel like you have to complete this before you cook anything else.
2. Very lightly, oil a large sauté or fry pan by coating the bottom with just a paper's thickness of sesame oil. Splash in a little hot pepper oil if desired. Sprinkle in ginger, garlic, and/or five spice. Heat the oil a little. Do not burn the spices.
3. You're going to sauté all the bulleted ingredients above plus your chosen protein. You are going to have to strategize this a little bit, putting in things that take the longest to cook first, and things that take the least amount of time to cook last. Figuring this out may be a matter of experience, so I recommend you start with just a couple of vegetables the first time you make this, carrots, pea pods, broccoli, and onion. Over a medium to medium-high flame, sauté onion or leek, mushrooms, and carrots or other hard, root vegetables first. Keep things moving so they don't burn. When the carrots are about a third tender, put in your protein. Let the outsides of the protein (meat, poultry, tofu, or fish) sear, but don't let any of the pieces burn. If they are cooking too fast on the outside but not fast enough on the inside, reduce the heat. When the protein and all the long-cooking veggies are almost cooked -- and you want things to be just barely cooked at the end, still crunchy (except the mushrooms), NOT mushy, so we are not talking about very much time at all -- add quicker cooking vegetables, and then quicker cooking ones. Summer squash cooks very fast. Bean sprouts cook very, very fast.
4. When everything is cooked (onions caramelized, mushrooms very tender, carrots and other vegetables tender but not soft, pea pods brilliant green but still crunchy, protein brown on the outside, tender on the inside, cooked all the way through unless it's tuna, which is best rare), turn off the heat. Open the sauce packet that came in the box. Mix the contents into the pan until everything is very, very lightly coated. You do not have to use the whole sauce packet, but you can if you like; figuring out how much you like may be a matter of experience, but the same thing that happens with dressing in a salad applies here. The sauce is yummy, but large amounts of it are not especially good for you. The sauce can contain the most concentrated, least digestible portions of salt, sugar, and fat in this dish.
5. You now have a choice. You can serve this just the way it is, without the noodles. You can serve this with the noodles on the side, or on top of the noodles. You can mix the noodles in. Follow your mood, the tastes of your diners, and your nutritional aims. Regardless, I like to garnish with shredded carrot and sliced cucumber and sprinkle very, very lightly with Eden Shake, or even just a pinch of sesame seeds.
6. You are now done! This dish has so many fresh veggies that a green salad might be sort of gratuitous, but it works very nicely with fruit salad. Serves two by itself; up to four with fruit salad. Very nice with unsweetened, very cold iced tea.
And now, the next generation of
I have to tag Sognatrice of Bleeding Espresso, 'cause she's a cooking, meming fool (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, really), and her recipes are awesome. I'm also going to tag Miss (Dr.) Laetitia Prism of A Somewhat Old, But Capacious Handbag and also the very exciting new blog Below Stairs, "a transcription of two handwritten recipe books that belonged to [her] great-grandmother, who was head cook to a wealthy family in the 1890s." Just to make myself a new friend (ha ha ha, yeah; this always works), I think I shall also tag the Retired Waif, just in case she's still gestating and needs something to take her mind off the wait. (I have no idea if she even cooks; I haven't been reading her blog that long.) Finally, I tag Jeanne of The Assertive Cancer Patient, because she's a vegetarian who gardens, and it's summer so she has a lot of riches right now from which to choose in concocting her dishes, and I think that will make for excellent food porn, and I am greedy for food porn.
If I have tagged you, please do not feel obliged to go all didactic like I have. In fact, remember that Last Rule of Memery (aka "The Goldfish Variation") spelled out above, and don't feel obliged to play at all if it doesn't sound like fun. Also, if you'd rather do one of the other fine memes I've played this week, hey, don't let me stop you!
This concludes my latest spate of memetion. It was fun, but now I have other things to talk about, so watch this space next week for more flowers, of course, but also more on other topics I've long promised to address.
Will I get a good insurance plan? Will my true love's engineering brain have a solution for Oscar Pistorius and the Olympic Committee? Just what does a prosthetic leg look like all blinged up? Stay tuned to find out!