Cooking For Two

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!

How to Cook a Lobster Feast at Home

Posted by on Friday Aug 22nd, 2014

For many years of my life, every summer brought a trip to Maine. Beginning way back in 1992, when I visited my older sister, Jill, who was spending all summer at sleep-away camp (the all-girls, electricity-free enclave in Poland, Maine, where my mom had gone) and ending in 2010ish, when the last of my best-friends-forever camp buddies finally gave up their counselor positions to get “real jobs,” I made the drive, and occasionally, the flight, to the best state in the union. The cold mornings, calm lakes perfectly suited for waterskiing, and goofy camp antics are what comprise the bulk of my memories.

As for the food? Well, camp cuisine isn’t all that enticing, but every Wednesday we went out for homemade ice cream, and at the end of each summer, the camp treated us to an enormous lobster feast, and those two eating events were awesome enough to make up for the rest. Years when I wasn’t a camper bound to campus, we always made a point of heading off site, to Harraseeket, in Freeport, where we ordered lobster feasts: fries, corn, fried clams, and just-cooked local lobsters. We put on bibs, cracked the shells to reach the meat, and dipped every bite in drawn butter.

Imagine, then, what it’s like to be a person who adores Maine, who makes up for days of brown bag lunching by breaking the budget at Ed’s Lobster Bar on a regular Wednesday, and who has never cooked her own lobster. That’s a stretch, eh? But that’s me. Or, that was me.

That’s why it’s something of an epiphany to find out that lobsters are more affordable than they used to be, and that they can be shipped, live, across the country by FreshDirect, the sponsor of this post. (Check them out here. They’re hosting a Lobster Party and have launched the first-ever Lobster Hotline [1-844-4LOBSTA] to help answer your lobster prep questions, provide recipes, and tell lobster jokes.) To eat a really great lobster, it turns out, you don’t have to be on the coast of Maine. You can be in your kitchen in New York City or wherever. Only difference: you are now responsible for sticking a live Homarus lobster (that’s the substantial kind we get here on the East Coast in summer, with sweet meat and easy-to-crack shells, which FreshDirect sends straight from the Maine docks where they’re brought in) into boiling water. This, however, was nowhere near as frightening as I thought it would be. Water boiling, lobster in, lobster out, and done. I shuddered for maybe a second when I grabbed those poor doomed crustaceans, but I got over it long before I made a much more comfortable plunge, of sweet lobster tail meat into melted butter.

Which is all to say that the result–truly fresh lobsters paired with corn, salad, steamers, and butter–made for a jovial and kind of epic weeknight dinner that took me both back to childhood evenings in Maine and forward to new planes of seafood deliciousness.

This post is sponsored by FreshDirect, who provided lobsters and compensation. Check out their sale on Homarus lobsters from Maine, and don’t miss tips for prepping lobster and recipes from Chef Anne Burrell at freshdirect.com/lobsterparty – also, follow along with #FDLobsterParty. Rirst time customers can get $25 off a $75 with the code FDLobster.* Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep Big Girls, Small Kitchen delicious!

There should be a single word for the anxiety you feel when you know your CSA or farmers’ market vegetables might go bad in their picturesque bowl on the counter before you get a chance to cook something delicious with them. There are two possible upshots of this feeling: one, that the vegetables do go bad, which stinks; and two, that you force yourself to cook everything up into some hodgepodge hash or curry that’s good but possibly not as off-the-charts good as that perfect eggplant/herbs/tomato would have been had you had the time to treat each vegetable like a star.

And then, when my sister’s neighbor dropped off so much fresh produce from his garden that she sent me a desperate text, and when my mother-in-law’s small garden yielded pounds of string beans just in the time we were visiting, from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, I realized that our urban what-do-I-do-with-this-produce anxiety (see, we need a single word), is a faint facsimile of what people with gardens or farms must experience.

If you’re a pro at this, let us know what you make to prevent any veggies from going to waste!

In the city, we choose to live on the edge, with respect to potentially rotting vegetables, by joining a CSA or allowing ourselves to overspend at the market. In the country, on the other hand, you might be the innocent victim of  a neighbor’s overzealous springtime planting.So I don’t come from a place of total vegetable-overload expertise. My apologies. Still, I can’t help but think that this soup, which turns a half dozen ears of corn into a delicate cream that you can ladle into your mouth, is an awesome solution to the problem of too much corn. Besides corn, there are just two ingredients in the soup, potatoes and Unsweetened Original Almond Breeze Almond Milk, both of which complement the corn with their sweetness and their substance. Add bacon on top and a chunk of buttered baguette on the side, and you’ve got a dinner so delicious I can promise you one thing: that you will never learn not to over-buy or over-plant. If this silky substance represents the untold third upshot of the the too-much-vegetable anxiety, I think the whole dance is worth it.

Pizza Bianca with Anchovies & Kale

Posted by on Wednesday Aug 13th, 2014

If, as you go about becoming a better and better cook, you find yourself looking for ways to increase the satisfaction factor of salad dressings and sautéd greens, beef stews and olive tapenades, I bet you’ll become incrementally more obsessed with a tiny sliver that delivers unbelievable flavor: the anchovy. I am here to tell you that this is what has happened to me. Paired with this confession? A homemade pizza that appreciates anchovies as much as I do.

Please, don’t shirk away if the brilliance of the anchovy has yet to glare brightly at you, grabbing your culinary attention. By modifying the amount of anchovies here, you can use this recipe–a simple white pizza–as a gateway for wannabe anchovy lovers (like yourself), as a celebration of brine, salt, and umami for those who already adore the little fish, or as something in between.

It’s funny, because the first time I made a version of this pizza, I was desperate for lunch and had almost no ingredients around. With some pre-shredded mozzarella I had stowed in the freezer so long ago I actually couldn’t remember the occasion and a pre-made pizza crust, I whipped up a pizza just like this in almost no time at all. Long story short, that pizza–sad ingredients aside–tasted delicious. That meant that an intentional pizza, with a similarly minimalistic number of ingredients, would taste even better.

Recently, I was exploring the realm of at-home pizza-making for First We Feast. This is a fanatical world, a place where ovens are turned, through hacks, into pizza ovens, and the moisture content of dough is serious business. I came back from that brink only to discover that Deb of Smitten Kitchen had pretty much figured out homemade pizza crust, that is, how to make Jim Lahey’s no-knead recipe even more accessible than ever, and that’s where I landed on the homemade dough for this delectable shrine to anchovies, also known as Pizza Bianca with Anchovies & Kale.

Eggy Zucchini Bake

Posted by on Monday Jul 21st, 2014

Well, look what we have here. An old Pyrex pan. A brownish green square. The most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten (or so says Alex).

A few years ago, I got into the habit of turning leftover rice into this gratin, a recipe saved from an old Splendid Table newsletter. I wouldn’t say this was a frequent habit, but every six months, when there was leftover rice and not much else, I’d whip up a few eggs, shred some cheese, sauté whatever was green that I could find, and scrape the batter into a baking pan. Each time, I’d scoff: “Well, this is a humble one.” And each time, Alex would take his first bite and tell me: “You could make this every night.” He loves that dish.

By the third or fourth instance of our evenings playing out exactly like the above, I realized that the leftover had risen above leftover status. I’d have to figure out how to make the eggy, cheesy vegetable-laden (four whole zucchini go in!) dish intentionally.

Four odd years later, I got around to it, and I owe this welcome update to the the jar of fresh breadcrumbs caught my eye. I more or less collect heels and nubs and stale crusts of bread in the back of the fridge, and one day, fed up with all the separately wrapped and very hard pieces, I made a lifetime’s worth of breadcrumbs in my blender. Now I have a jar of fresh breadcrumbs that’s a lot less painful to behold–and the inspiration for this simple dinner.

With vegetable-rice gratin in mind and breadcrumbs in the jar, I updated that old gratin recipe into this easy, healthful bake. Besides making Alex a really happy guy, there are a lot of uses for this. You can cut small squares and pack them as protein-rich snacks. A bigger piece, cold, would be excellent between two slices of focaccia, like a frittata sandwich. And because this has eggs, bread, vegetables, and cheese, I think you could make the argument that it is viable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner–or all three.

Crazy Spring Veggie Cheesy Toasts

Posted by on Wednesday Apr 23rd, 2014

I miss a lot of things. Epic YouTube videos that everyone saw six years ago. Anchorman references. Jokes. Despite loving food more than videos, for the last several years, I’ve also missed favas, peas, and fiddleheads. Too busy eating ramps, I guess. Those I never miss.

This year is different. I ate all my spring produce at once, on these cheesy toasts. If there was a quota, I’ve filled it.

Around here, a lot of the produce is fleeting. We check the farmers’ market  bins for ramps week in and week out, only for them to appear once or twice, then disappear again. Do we like them more because they’re so transitory? Maybe. I do also like radishes and asparagus, though, both of which appear for longer stretches.

Anyway, I filled my quota by cheating. See, I wound up with this yield after a photoshoot for work. I don’t know if any of these have been sighted at local vendors yet, but at least I got a jump on the vegetables and am getting this chance to show you what I do when I cook with fleeting, tender, spring-like veggies: not much. My go-to prep is a flash in the pan with some sautéed onion (or shallot) and garlic. None of the vegetables need much cooking time, and a sauté allows you to monitor cooking so you don’t go overboard and turned the prized veggies into mush. 

Arroz Con Pollo with Tons of Vegetables

Posted by on Monday Mar 31st, 2014

Given that it’s all kale, all the time now, I hope you won’t chide me for bringing up the lovable green again here. Maybe part of kale’s longevity has to do with the fact that the veggie keeps on surprising: just the other day, I had a kale salad that surpassed every kale salad yet ingested or read about, by me, in New York City, circa 2012-2014.

Or, kale’s staying power has more to do with having become a mainstay in our fridges, rather than a complicated restaurant-only thing. Bunches keep well, meaning you can tear off a leaf here and there when dinners need more green.

Right now, one-pot dinners strike me as the only type of dinners. Two pots needed? No thanks. The thing about one pot dinners, though, is that you have to make an effort to vegetabalize your meal. That’s why there’s half a clamshell of baby spinach in Lentils & Sausage Braised in Red Wine and a whole zucchini plus three types of green pepper in Healthy Chicken Chili with Barley. When you choose one pot, you better fill it with a lot of different elements. Small pot, big promise–or something like that.

For a long time, I’d been wanting to put my own vegetable-rich spin on Arroz Con Pollo, perhaps the ultimate in one-pot meals. Protein: check. Carbs: check. Vegetables: sort of check. And that’s where the kale came back in.