A few months ago a walking buddy mentioned that she’d just checked out my blog for the first time and enjoyed poking around it a bit. “You sure make cooking sound fun,” she said. Thoroughly unconvinced.
After a few minutes of chatting with her about cooking at home, it became clear she’s simply one of the non-cooks who roam the planet amongst us who live to cook. With holidays having just passed, it became clear to me again how purely happy it makes me to putter around the kitchen. I approached most of our Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s meals with a general plan of action, a menu of sorts. But in all cases I ended up tweaking things as I went, amending plans, adding a new dish or two. I never tire of that creative process, the satisfaction of producing tasty food, the pleasure of the hands-on craft of cooking.
So I may have a hard time relating to folks who really just can’t stand to be in the kitchen. But I try not to forget that the non-cooks are out there. I’ve taken my friend’s admission as a motivation, of sorts, to share more often the quickie dinners I make many nights here at home. Just because I’m a cookbook author, recipe developer, food writer — doesn’t mean it’s all stuffed veal roasts and cassoulet every day. I’m a working stiff like the rest of you. And while I do benefit from working at home–which means I can toss a few ingredients together mid-afternoon and set it on the stove to simmer while I keep working–it doesn’t mean I devote a whole lot more to weeknight cooking than do most others.
The first few paragraphs of this post describe a very quick braising option for lamb shoulder steaks that is a new personal favorite. It can be varied by using different herbs and spices, maybe orange instead of the lemon. A nice staple to fall back on frequently. And this post with its description of a yogurt-marinated chicken I do quite often has become one of the most-viewed posts in the lifetime of this blog! Clearly everyone’s on the lookout for easy, quick-to-assemble, delicious food that’s still made from scratch.
I’ve got nothing at all against canned and frozen foods. As ingredients. I go through plenty of canned tomatoes (extra-delicious San Marzano, for a splurge). We love chickpeas so I always have a can or two of them on hand (good for everything from hummus to stews). Chicken broth (old-school canned Swanson’s or more flavorful organic Pacific, depending) is a standard. I might toss frozen green beans into a stir-fry. A rare “just add water” meal might be falafel, in a pinch. But we don’t have anything on hand that includes instructions like “peel back the plastic and ….” I don’t even own a microwave!!
I realize the non-cooks out there, like my pal Judy, may not believe me when I say this, but it is easier than you think to serve a tasty, easy, quick dinner that you’ve made from scratch. This does presume that you have basics. Pots and
pans. Staples like oil, butter, garlic, onions, maybe a lemon and a bunch of parsley? A few good spices on the shelf (salt and pepper of course; I also love cumin, dried thyme, coriander, red chile flakes, herbes de provence). Just a few fresh things to pick up at the store. You’ll get in the swing. And the flavor’s outstanding. More vibrant. More distinct.
Here’s what’s on the stove tonight. A simplified version of the Basque pipérade, a condiment/side dish that usually involves onions, fresh bell peppers and tomatoes. (A) I’m not a huge fan of fresh bell peppers and (b) I didn’t have any on hand. Plus, (c) a few days ago I’d received in the mail a jar of pickled Calabrian peppers from chef Dustin Clark at Wildwood restaurant down in Portland. He uses them on slow-cooked pork belly with fresh shell beans, and tossed with ricotta cheese gnocchi. Those weren’t on the menu tonight at my house, but I knew the peppers would add some zip to an otherwise standard cut of meat.
I had a pork tenderloin on tap for tonight, a longtime favorite quick-dinner choice for me. Many nights I just slather it with Dijon mustard and pressed garlic (or rub it with equal parts ground cumin and coriander) and pop it in the oven to roast. Which would make this a 2-minute prep dinner instead of the maybe 15 minutes it’ll take you to work on this before it goes in the oven.
First I took stock of what’s on hand. Onions (it’s a dark day when I look down and don’t see onions in their basket). Garlic (ditto). Celery (nice fresh flavor and crunch). Those aforementioned peppers. Reliable can of diced tomatoes on the kitchen shelf. Good to go.
Slice 1 onion and 2 to 3 stalks of celery. Crush and coarsely chop 4 to 5 cloves garlic. Open can of tomatoes. Have a sip of martini, if you have one handy.
Salt and pepper on the tenderloin, quickly brown it in olive oil on all sides in a deep skillet. Set aside on a plate.
Add onion, celery, garlic to skillet. Sauté a few minutes until partly browned and beginning to soften. Add tomatoes with all their juices and cook a few minutes more . Scatter 1/2 cup or so of some variety of pickled peppers in the pan. Chef Clark doesn’t (yet) make his available outside the restaurant, but I’m also a huge fan of Mama Lil’s peppers, they’d be an awesome choice here too. (And a local Washington company, to boot!)
Return the pork tenderloin to the pan, nestle it down into the vegetables and spoon some of them over to cover the pork. Add the pan’s lid and put it in a 275°F oven for about 35 minutes. This is a lean cut of meat and doesn’t hold up well to the extended braising time of other meats. It should be only barely pink in the center of the thickest part. Transfer the meat to a clean plate, cover with foil to keep warm and just set that skillet on medium-high heat to boil away much of the excess liquid, creating a wonderful topping for the meat. (Hey, remember that the skillet was just in the oven, be sure to use a hot pad to handle it!! this is experience talking.)
Slice the meat, arrange it on 2 plates, spoon the onion/tomato/pepper mixture over and that’s quite a meal you have! I’m serving it tonight with simple steamed rice and a salad of sliced cucumber tossed with plain yogurt and minced garlic.
If anything coming out of the freezer section tastes as good as that, I’ll eat my hat. Which is made with hand-spun alpaca and merino wools, with a bit of milk fiber tossed in, so I might survive if it comes to that.