Tag Archives: quick meals

Dinner in a Flash: Swordfish en Papillote

Don’t let that fancy name scare you away. Cooking “en papillote,” or in a paper pouch, is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to cook fish. You’re essentially creating simple little steam ovens made of paper: the moisture stays fully enclosed in the packet and all the flavor of both the fish and the added seasonings is trapped inside. Otherwise the technique’s as convenient as baking, you just pop the packets in the oven and let the magic happen. Which is exactly what I did last night for dinner.

It may look like an intimidating prospect, but wrapping up in paper isn’t tough. I first learned this curved version of folding the paper, but you can just as well fold in the sides in even straight lines. Though the curved method does seem to hold itself together better. I always start on the right side and fold over at shifting angles to work around toward the other side; than when done, twist the last bit of paper  to secure it, creating a little tail. If you need a couple strategically placed staples to hold things together the first couple of tries, no worries. You’ll get the hang of it! You can even do this with foil instead of paper; a bit less aesthetically pleasing but it holds those folds like a dream.

The technique works best for lean, quick-cooking foods like fish and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I haven’t ventured very far outside that spectrum. When looking at the meat or seafood case, ask yourself “would I want [fill in the blank] steamed?” and it might help guide your choices. 

I like to keep the seasonings simple when I go the papillote route. In my Wild Mushrooms cookbook, I chose to showcase the beguiling matsutake mushroom in a papillote recipe with chicken breast. The thinly sliced mushroom covers the chicken breast, then a little splash of sake and soy is added before wrapping up to bake. The simple, earthly flavors coalesced beautifully.

But back to last night. The basic combo I chose then was swordfish, herbs and garlic. Thanks to our early spring weather here in Seattle, I was able to pluck tender tarragon, bronze fennel and thyme from the garden. Then I thinly sliced a big fat clove of garlic on my handy little mandoline slicer. I laid the frond of fennel down on the paper first. It’s good to place the food just below the center point of a large piece of the parchment paper. (Don’t scrimp on the paper, it should be about 2 feet long; you’ll thank me later.) I like setting the fish on a little bed of something just to add a bit more flavor from the bottom up. It could be thinly sliced yellow or red onion, leeks, green onions, other herbs. But just a thin layer; this is a quick cooking method and you don’t want a volume of leeks to impede the packet being cooked evenly in 8 to 10 minutes.

With the swordfish steak sitting on its bed of fennel, I topped the fish with whole leaves of tarragon and plucked leaves from the thyme sprigs. A pinch of salt and pepper. A tiny splash (maybe 1 teaspoon) of dry vermouth. Then on with the folding! I made these a couple of hours in advance, set them on the baking sheeting and popped it in the fridge until we were ready to eat. A nice do-ahead option, though I wouldn’t prep it too much in advance or the liquid risks softening the paper too much, impeding the effectiveness of the mini-steam-oven effect.

I baked these packets for about 9 minutes at 400°F. One thing about papillote is that the visual-cue-of-doneness factor is eliminated. So you have to gain some comfort with cooking to doneness based on time, adjusting for the thickness and density of the food you’re cooking. Those chicken breasts, for example, I cooked for about 18 minutes. These fish steaks were about 1 inch thick. I’d say in general a minimum time might be 7 to 8 minutes for a thinner piece of fish, up to 20 max for chicken, but I’d recommend staying within that range.

One of the benefits of papillote cooking is that when you first tear open the packet there’s a lovely waft of aromatic steam that rises to entice you. It’s fun to transfer the whole packets to the dinner plates and allow your guests to enjoy that for themselves, warning them of course that the steam’s hot, so not TOO close! Just a simple tear in the top of the packet reveals the juicy, flavorful treat inside. A little drama to go with dinner. And it was, if I do say so myself, pretty scrumptious.

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On Cooking Quick: Pork Piperade

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 

Before......

 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. 

... and after. Tasty! And easy.

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.

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Dinner at Home: Yogurt-Marinated Chicken

This is one of the easiest, tastiest dinners that has become a reliable favorite on nights when I don’t have inspiration for much more. Like last night. Just three things to buy at the store: chicken thighs, yogurt (and no, you can’t use nonfat yogurt for this, not allowed) and a bunch of cilantro. Maybe fresh ginger if I remember, which I didn’t yesterday. Everything else is at home on the shelf.

The only caveat is to plan ahead at least a few hours so the chicken has time to marinate and take on the delicious flavors. A couple hours will do in a pinch.

For starters, I shake lots of ground cumin and coriander into a bowl just large enough to hold the chicken thighs (I typically cook 4 thighs for the 2 of us). In goes a pinch of something spicy, whether dried red pepper flakes, cayenne or (as last night) controne hot pepper. Garlic, and keep it coming; sometimes pressed but I usually Microplane it to get the most of its garlicky juiciness (sometimes finely grated ginger as well). A good dose of salt and freshly ground black pepper too. Then I add a few big spoonfuls of plain yogurt (about half of a 32 oz container) and a generous handful of chopped cilantro, and stir all the deliciousness together.

Before....

Before....

I’ll usually take just a moment to trim the thighs of any excess skin and fat from around the edges, but keeping the skin on for cooking is paramount in my opinion. The thighs get tossed around a bit in the marinade to be sure all are thoroughly coated, then covered and into the fridge for a spell.

You’ll see I line my baking sheet with foil, also paramount when it comes time to clean up. Cut a generous piece, fold up the edges and crimp the corners, since the yogurt and juices will spread and brown to a sticky delicious mess as things cook. You’ll thank me later.

The baking portion I do at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or so. Then I crank up the broiler and let it work to brown the skin for a few minutes before serving. The yogurt adds wonderful tang and juiciness to the chicken

...and after

...and after

meat, but the skin can be bland and flabby without that extra step to brown and crisp it. In truth, the skin ends up being one of the best things about this dish.

While constructing the marinade, I was echoing the ingredients in a smaller bowl, with a higher yogurt-to-seasoning ratio for a side salad. In goes a peeled, seeded and sliced cucumber, the salad chilled to serve alongside the easy entree. Not a bad dinner–with some simple steamed broccoli alongside–for a no-energy Monday.

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Dinner in a Flash: Sausages

A few days ago it was Just One Of Those Days. Never catching a break, feeling always behind the 8-ball, a sense that if I just grasp my head firmly enough alongside each ear I can hopefully keep my head from exploding. You know those days, right? Couldn’t even muster any enthusiasm for going out to dinner to get away from it all. And while I love most everything about my West Seattle neighborhood, we live in some odd dead-zone when it comes to caulisaus1delivery options. It seems Domino’s is the only one who can find us (and we’re by no means in the boonies of the neighborhood).

So boy, was I glad I had these simple things on hand: a package of good sausages (Bruce Aidell’s brand, this version spinach with feta), half an onion and a head of cauliflower (a delicious and versatile vegetable that I don’t think gets nearly the attention it deserves). To the rescue! It took  maybe 10 minutes to throw this all together and pop in the oven. A welcome brief reprieve from my desk.

caulisaus2First I browned the sausages in a big oven-going skillet (I know, they’re already cooked, but just for some added layers of flavor). While that’s going on, I cored and coarsely chopped the cauliflower and diced up some onion.

Sausages get set aside, in goes a bit more olive oil and onions brown for a few minutes over medium-high heat. Add the cauliflower and saute for another minute or two. Nestle the sausages on top, sprinkle everything with salt and pepper, and I added a generous splash of Noilly Prat dry vermouth (one of my secret weapon ingredients). Into a 350 degree oven until I make it through the next pressingly urgent bit of writing caulisaus3I need to get done (or the cauliflower is tender and lightly browned around the edges, whichever comes first).

I already can’t remember if we had anything else, I think that may have been the extent of dinner. But it was really delicious, really easy and stands up to any quick-food options on One Of Those Days.

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Cooking at Home: Pork with Arugula Pesto

It was just one of those nights, last night. A night to fall back on a tried-and-true friend to make dinner in a flash: a simple pork tenderloin. For this two-person household, it’s just the right portion size, usually around 1 pound, 2 good servings with some possible leftovers. And it’s easy to cook 2 or 3 at the time time for a larger group. Lean, quick to cook, incredibly versatile, easier to keep tender and juicy than pork chops — what’s not to love?

When totally devoid of time, I’ll just slather the tenderloin with Dijon mustard, season with salt and pepper and bake. A 400 degree oven for about 25 minutes usually does the trick, letting it sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.porkarugula

Last night, I skipped the mustard, cooking the tenderloin with just salt and pepper. And took an extra 5 minutes to make what amounted to a really delicious accompaniment: arugula pesto.  How easy? this easy:

Toss 1 handful of walnuts and 1 or 2 crushed garlic cloves (per your taste) into the food processor, pulse until finely chopped but not to a paste

Add 2 or 3 handfuls of arugula with 1 handful of grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese and pulse until finely chopped

With the blades running, drizzle in olive oil until the mixture has a nice consistent texture, not too smooth, not too chunky. 1/2 cup perhaps? see how it goes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ta-da!!

It’s been a flurry of recipe testing around here lately. Last night was just “dinner for us” and my husband really appreciated that. Steamed rice, green salad, we ate pretty well with just 10 minutes of kitchen time.

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