Cooking For Two

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!

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.