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Though food safety fears have driven us to put food in the fridge ASAP if we’re not planning to eat in the next ten seconds, my own observations of chefs and serious home cooks reveal that not everybody follows USDA guidelines to the letter–which, by the way, allows commercial chefs to leave cooked food out for four hours (home cooks, for whatever reasons, only get two).

When entertaining, dishes that can be left, worry-free, at room temperature are obviously a boon to the host’s organization. Less known is the fact that the best brown bag lunches are equal candidates for short-term room temperature storage. Here’s why.

Eating food cold kills a lot of flavor. Reheating lunches in the office microwave is depressing, plus the microwave leaves all those vexing cold spots in a dish. Since I adore bringing my own lunch–the mid-day journey to find a bad, expensive sandwich just about does me in–I’m always looking for ways to make even a humble packed meal more delicious. And a safe two-to-four hour (aka all morning) marination at room temperature does just that, giving flavors in grain bowls or chicken salads time to mesh in the best way. The bread on your sandwich stays crusty, and last night’s leftovers morph from congealed to inviting. Even soup, which you’ll still want to microwave, will warm up faster if it starts from room temperature. Plus, the texture of room temperature food is better.

Still, when you have a debate in which food scientist Harold McGee chides cooking expert Michael Ruhlman about his food storage habits, you do want to be careful. Refrigerate lunches that spoil easily, like fish and fresh cheese. The USDA’s tips for college students are surprisingly readable, if you want to know more.

P.S. 11 Low-Carb Lunches (so you’ll stay awake this afternoon).

Lentil & Barley Soup with Mushrooms

Posted by on Thursday Oct 9th, 2014

Phew. I found the soup. I didn’t want to lose this one. I think it shows so well how you can make a good dish out of very little, which became my hobby, more or less, in the hours before dinner during the last weeks at our old apartment.

These days, I store all my beans and grains in glass jars, the leftovers from five years of canning fruits and vegetables with mom and from a few wedding favors. The glass jar storage system looks a little hippie dippy, or maybe just trendy, but it works really well, especially for open shelving. Lentils, especially, are pretty, which might explain why I permit myself to own six kinds.

There was supposed to be soup for you yesterday, a really nice, hearty fall soup with barley and mushrooms and lentils. The dish was one of the last notable recipes I tested back in the old apartment. But then I packed the recipe notes in a box that’s as yet unopened in our new place. I can’t complain though, both because I love our new place so much and because I have this great sandwich in the repository, and my organizational disabilities give me a chance to share it.

Back when Carly and I were figuring out the scope of five-ingredient sandwich series, we split up the recipes. She suggested a few of her favorites, and I developed a couple simple sandwiches whose tasty sums were greater than their relatively humble, pantry-staple parts. This fresh, open-faced sandwich is Carly’s, and I’m so happy to be sharing it with you on this fall day when the weather seems particularly hospitable to nutty pecorino and bright mushrooms.

Here’s what Carly says:

I always keep a wedge of pecorino in my fridge to go with the many pasta dishes I love to make. Inevitably I can’t resist nibbling on the cheese at other times as well. This sandwich became a lunchtime favorite as an open-face sandwich. Allowing the butter to melt into the warm bread keeps it soft and moist, and brings out the sharp flavor of the cheese and the mellow taste of the creminis.

Have a sandwich you love? Tell me in the comments and I’ll try it as soon as I can.

Sweet & Spicy Cocktail Popcorn for Emeril

Posted by on Friday Oct 3rd, 2014

Last week, I got to film a web show with Emeril Lagasse–whose reality series “On the Menu” premieres tonight on TNT–himself.

Natalie of Good Girl Style is on today to show you that there’s more to fruit and chocolate than chocolate-covered strawberries. Natalie joins us each month to share incredible desserts with Big Girls, Small Kitchen readers–desserts that are entirely gluten-free, but not like obviously gluten-free. That means no specialty flours or hard-to-find ingredients, just good old-fashioned berries and ice cream. Don’t miss her recent recipe for these gorgeous Cheesecake-Stuffed Baked Peaches.

The last berries of a now-faded summer melt into this garnet-colored, spiced fruit sauce. The compote comes together quickly with basic ingredients but manages to taste ultra-luxurious. It feels like something you’d order on stuffed French toast in Paris in the fall, or over pound cake at a five-star Southern country hotel. Get creative: Anything you would serve for breakfast or dessert could be elevated with a scoop of this compote.

I’m particularly fond of the sweet-spicy sauce over chocolate ice cream, a delicious and easy gluten-free dessert base. The cinnamon and chocolate combination give the dish a bit of that Mexican hot chocolate taste with a fall-berry-apple-ish flair. Use the best-quality chocolate ice cream you can find for deep chocolate flavor that stands up to the spices and fruit. I like Talenti gelato or Haagen Dazs (shown here). You won’t be disappointed.

We could call dinner-time resourcefulness the act of placing tonight’s take-out order from the one subway stop with reliable cell phone service in order to time your homecoming with your spicy salmon roll and miso soup’s arrival.

Or we could, you know, step it up a notch and embrace the home-cooking version of ultimate efficiency.

It’s a simple step: Start something.

As soon as you’ve walked in the door, but before you’ve changed into sweats, checked your email to see what you missed during your commute, or collapsed on the couch, do one easy thing to get dinner going. It should be a task you can then step away from, because once you’ve started your thing, you’re going to take a break. Now is when you shed your work outfit, greet your roommates or significant other, and rifle through the pantry for inspiration. After that is when you’ll make the rest of dinner, which isn’t so hard anymore, because you’re already halfway there.

Here are four things you can start the second you’re home, long before you lose motivation.

Boil some water. Fill a big pot, cover it, and place it on the stove. This is for pasta, most likely, but maybe it’s for the potatoes you discovered in the bottom of the vegetable drawer, or even for poached eggs. You can also make rice and quinoa this way if it fits in better with the rest of your meal prep.

Sauté onions. Set a skillet over medium low heat. Chop or even slice an onion. Pour in some oil and add the onions. Mix once to coat the onions. Adjust the heat to low so they don’t burn while you’re doing other stuff. When you come back, you could add tomatoes for sauce, beans for refried beans, or vegetables and eggs for a Persian omelet.

Turn on the oven (& roast some chicken). Turn on the oven to 425°F. While it preheats, change your clothes. You can put anything in there (roasted vegetables with pomegranate vinaigrette, maybe?), but I especially recommend selecting two skin-on chicken breasts, patting them dry, placing them on a baking sheet, drizzling them with olive oil, and sprinkling well with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, til the chicken’s cooked through and the skin is crispy. Serve with rice or bread and a simple sauté or salad.

Cook rice. What’s not good on top of rice? Curry, stir-fry, black beans: you name a simple dish, and I bet I’ll love it with rice. To make: rinse the rice til the water runs clean, then combine with water as per package directions. When the pot boils, turn the heat to low, set a timer, and be off on your business (of relaxing and/or cooking the rest of dinner).

P.S. 9 of the easiest dinners you can possibly make.

We’re moving to a new apartment. Since we signed the lease last month, I’ve tried to minimize trips to the market and make do instead with the contents of our freezer, shelves, and pantry, a clear-out-the-clutter challenge that would not have been all that hard or even that blog-worthy, to be honest, because our freezer, shelves, and pantry are stocked. There are a dozen kinds of beans back there, still a few jars of last summer’s canned tomatoes, and a lot of some little ring-shaped noodles that I once took home from a shoot.

Still, I had visions of us subsisting for at least a few weeks on progressively humbler stews of beans and tomatoes, served over a finally dwindling supply of petite pasta.

What I didn’t account for was the continuing abundance. In the weeks that followed the signing, a recipe development project magicked a box of brie onto my doorstep, I tested eggplant and chicken parm recipes, and upstate New York’s bumper crops kept ripening, so the CSA shares kept overflowing, and we had more corn, tomatoes, and peppers on the counter than ever before.

But at least I could finish my cornmeal. Both kinds.