Cooking For Two

Well, if you’re going to be a type, you might as well commit to it, is the kind of thing I think a little hesitantly to myself some nights in my Brooklyn kitchen as I turn on the latest This American Life and get down to work turning that jar of kimchi into dinner so that we can eat and I can blog about it.

Other nights, the pairing angles lower on the culture grid: I press grilled cheese sandwiches into browning butter as I catch up on “The Good Wife,” or pretend that nachos are dinner as accompanied by the drama of “The Bachelor.” Because to peel and julienne a whole host of beets and radishes and apples in the name of treating your body to a well-balanced meal even in the middle of the winter, you might like the carrot of some good entertainment, rather than the stick of utter silence. (Carrot would be good in this lettuce-less salad, too.)

Caramelized Onion & Kale Soup au Gratin

Posted by on Wednesday Feb 11th, 2015

This is the soup that needs no introduction. The dish that launched (maybe?) the soup and grilled cheese pairing. Plus kale.

The best thing you can do for onion soup is decide yesterday you’ll probably crave a bite today. If you make broth, caramelized onions, and, for this particular rendition, kale when you have that realization, then when you–surprise!–want the soup, you can actually have it in almost no time and with almost no work. Now this is cooking.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t love onion soup. The sweetness of the onions and the richness of homemade broth (usually: beef; here: chicken) is perfect together from the start.

Even more perfect? The way that good bakery sourdough bread absorbs some of that goodness right from its toasty underside. On its crispy top, the final flavor note is rich, nutty alpine-style cheese–I use the aged Wisconsin cheese, Roth Grand Cru. I didn’t invent the combination, but I could easily celebrate it weekly.

Though I’m accustomed to serving a rich, whole-meal soup like this with a green salad alongside, here I added garlicky kale right into the soup, turning classic French Onion Soup into a truly current one-pot/four-crock meal.

I got it in my head to do some kitchen travel, to Texas for chili.

I got prematurely sick of roasted vegetables this season. Every food lover lauds the almost-black, crispy exterior and sweet interior of roasted broccoli and roasted sweet potatoes, all while not-so-quietly demeaning the taste and texture of vegetables boiled or steamed. I’m back on the roasted ones by now, don’t worry, it was a temporary case of over-it-ness, but in the couple weeks when I didn’t want to turn on the oven and arrange little pieces in one layer on a baking sheet, I rediscovered two techniques that I’d pushed to the side: steaming and stir-frying. In today’s dish, we’re going to do both.

First, steaming, the happiest and longest lost rediscovery. Vegetables get sweeter and somehow become more themselves after some time in the sauna. If you’re aching for a post-Thanksgiving healthy snack, I’d say look no further than a cup of steamed broccoli, cooked 5 minutes past the point of crunch, and maybe dressed with some thinned-out tahini. For squash, steaming makes cooking time quicker, and especially with delicata–which you don’t have to peel–sets you up for a fast stir-fry after, because the squash is already almost done.

You even get to do the rest of the prep work while the squash steams. Then comes the stir-fry action, when the thin slices of squash absorb the warmth of garlic, ginger, hot pepper, and scallions, becoming a sweet and spicy mess of vegetables that turns into a seriously good bowl lunch or dinner with some help from brown rice and toasted cashews.

Just so you know, this dish isn’t a super saucy one, because I wanted to taste the squash and the ginger and the heat, rather than the soy sauce. So this is a dry fry. Feel free to add much more wine or drizzle soy sauce at the end if you want something to moisten your rice.

Did you catch this Bittman article? It’s about how, when cooking at home, you can make a trade off between energy and time. Slow-cooked dishes often don’t demand much work–the garlic cloves soften on their own, no need for chopping–but you have to start early and stay around to check on them. Fast-to-make dinners require less overall time, but the pace of cooking is furious and the action nonstop: You can’t step away from the stove for a minute. My reaction to all this was: yes, what an observation! And how true that we consider all cooking time the same, when we definitely shouldn’t.

The fast and furious stuff would seem to mean stir-frying and pan-frying, poaching and blanching, quick-cooking techniques that nonetheless produce good flavor, though requiring your full attention. It does. But in fact, the single most time-consuming act of quick cooking is the chopping, I think. You know this if you’ve ever made fried rice or beef and broccoli. That chicken and string bean dish cooked up ridiculously fast, sure–but after 40 minutes of mincing.

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.

My Family’s Pepper Steak

Posted by on Friday Sep 5th, 2014

From the start, homemade food figured in my parents’ relationship. This pepper steak was, I just learned from my mom when she told me the proportions for the recipe, the first dish my dad cooked for her. She’s told me more often about the cooking projects they loved to take on, like a mushroom soup whose steps somehow occupied an entire day.

“There is nothing like a home-cooked dinner,” was a refrain, in actions and words, in our house. Sure, restaurants weren’t quite as good then as they are now, neither were prepared foods, and for most dishes there was no competition. We kids sometimes begged for pizza, and sometimes we got McDonald’s hash browns for breakfast, but the homemade pizza and homemade French fries beat them both. For a change, it wasn’t a stretch to think that parents were right. The homemade food was best.

That mindset, more than our passed-down recipes for matzoh ball soup, oil-based plum cake, or fried Cheerios, is my culinary inheritance.

Pepper steak’s actual culinary heritage is in the increasing American affection with Chinese food in the 19th and 20th centuries, brought about by Chinese restaurant cooks who danced around American’s tastes for adventure in their meals, simultaneously expanding eaters’ palates with dishes from across the world and tweaking those dishes to be sweeter and saucier than they were back in China. Today, you might think a dish like pepper steak would seem a throwback to those chop suey days. But really, this one stands the test of time: the sauce is minimal and not gloppy, and the vegetables are plentiful.

What’s more, because your pepper steak shopping list includes only steak and three peppers (if you have a pantry stocked with onions, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch), this Chinese-American dish is a home-cooking habit enforcer, the kind of dinner you can easily make on a weeknight, then take one bite of and say, “There’s nothing like a home-cooked dinner.”

In a series of videos called “The Butcher, The Baker, and The Belgian Beer Maker,” Stella Artois–this post’s sponsor–has explored three women in craft embracing their own heritage and tradition in their work today. I really loved “The Butcher” video – it’s about Cara Nicoletti (great name!), a butcher at Brooklyn’s The Meat Hook, and a third generation butcher. You can watch the whole series, starting with “The Butcher,” here.

This post is sponsored by Stella Artois. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep Big Girls, Small Kitchen delicious!