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It’s one of the biggest challenges and conundrums of my cooking, blogging, writing, and teaching life.  Folks are so very interested in food, love to chat about it, are crazy about eating, and seem to know lots about ingredients and technique (Food Network and “Top Chef”, I guess).  But somehow they often have an awesome amount of trouble getting into the kitchen and actually cooking. There are myriad reasons and I needn’t name them.

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So I truly do try and take all of my experience and blog meals that are simple (Ok, not always), but are also tasty and accessible.  My best advice is to avoid at all costs the inevitable worst cooking troubles of, “What am I cooking for dinner?” or “We eat the same things over and over.”  And to do that, you must –wait for it — plan your meals. I know, I know.  But figuring out at least a couple of dishes a week ahead of time plus quick standbys will make all the difference in your life and your health.  Keeping a useful pantry is the other side of the coin.

Below:  My extra garage pantry.  Note 1970’s kitchen cabinets repurposed.

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This is as neat as it gets.

Interested in more meal planning ideas or pantry info?

Scroll down past today’s recipe for a few ideas and links. After you’ve got your meal planning under control (and this is always on-going), you can check out the many quick or even nearly instant meals on the blog. Please do snoop around; I’ve been at this nearly ten years. And the inevitable growth is obvious!  I also blogged for a long time at dinnerplace.blogspot.com, which was a homespun blog about cooking for one or two (or occasionally more.) Lots of good stuff there, too.

Here are a few quick standbys to get you started:

Fish Tacos in Five Minutes   (Keep tortillas and tilapia in the freezer.)

 Tunacado   (Store canned tuna and canned beans in the cupboard.)

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Fast Chicken and Tortellini Soup with Parmesan and Basil (Keep tortellini and a rotisserie chicken in fridge or tortellini and frozen chicken in freezer.)

Chicken-Tortellini Soup

Bacon and Granola Pancakes with Fried Egg (No need for pancake mix; easy homemade pancake instructions included and make good use of tasty granola.)

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Make Your Own Salad Platter from Leftovers and Fresh Vegetables (no recipe)  (Here, you’ll need a fridge full of fresh veggies, sliced leftover roasted meat –skip deli meat–, and ranch +/or blue cheese dressing.)

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Spinach Omelet with Great Garnishes (also many other egg dishes here)

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Avocado and Peach Salad with Basil  (Summer pick up meal.)

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Big Zuke Caprese Salad (includes other caprese ideas) (Keep fresh mozzarella in fridge, plant a garden or hit the farm stands or markets when you can.)

If you have had time to plan a little cooking this week, that could score you a simple and quick winner-winner chicken sheet pan dinner. Ingredients are easily varied (skip potatoes or make rice, use green beans instead of asparagus, toss in cherry tomatoes, add a sauce) and the oven is forgiving.  Try this:

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Above:  Before

Below:  After
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SHEET PAN DINNER: SPICY LEMON-TARRAGON CHICKEN AND POTATOES WITH ASPARAGUS

serves 4 (2 boneless thighs each)

An easy to cook and clean up 2-sheet pan meal features the old school flavor of tarragon with chicken.  After the chicken and potatoes are nearly done, you add the pan of asparagus to the oven to roast for the last 10 minutes or so. Not a fan of spicy? Skip the crushed red pepper and cut back on the fresh ground black pepper.

  • 1/3 cup each: fresh lemon juice (2-3 lemons) and extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper (1/4 teaspoon for heat lovers)
  • 2 teaspoons dried tarragon —  can sub thyme or basil
  • 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, about 1 1/2 pounds (24 ounces)
  • 1 1/4 pounds (20 ounces) baby -2-inch- potatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 large onion, cut into wedges and separated
  • 1/2 red bell pepper (1/2 cup), diced
  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
  • 1/4 cup each: chopped fresh parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (1 ounce) for garnish
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place one oven rack at center and the other in top third of oven.
  2. Make the quick marinade: In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper, crushed red pepper and dried tarragon.
  3. In a large bowl, toss chicken thighs, potatoes, onion, and bell pepper. Pour 1/2 of the marinade over all and toss well. Turn out onto a parchment paper or foil-lined sheet pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Roast 40-45 minutes on the center oven rack until chicken registers 160* degrees F and vegetables are nearly tender. Turn chicken and vegetables over once half-way through. (Set timer for 30 minutes to add pan of asparagus to oven while the chicken and potatoes finish cooking.)
  4. Meanwhile, on a second parchment paper or foil-lined sheet pan, arrange asparagus in an even single layer. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of the marinade and toss well. Roast 10-12 minutes on upper oven rack or until a bit crispy at edges and tender.
  5. Turn oven off. Remove both sheet pans from oven and place ovenproof shallow bowls or plates in oven to warm. Cover pans with foil to rest and keep warm 2-3 minutes. For each serving, scoop a few potatoes into a warm shallow bowl or onto a plate, place two chicken thighs on top, and add 2-3 spears of asparagus to each side.  Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, drizzle evenly with remaining marinade or pan juices. Garnish with parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve hot.

*FDA indicates 165 degrees F for poultry; thighs should rise in temperature as they rest.

{printable recipe}

Leftover thoughts:  1. Easy Thing (There are only two of us, so I had half leftover.) I threw all my leftovers in a 2-quart Pyrex rectangular casserole, covered it with foil, and heated it in a 350 degree F oven for 25 minutes or so until it was piping hot. I had time and ingredients and so made a little mushroom and shallot sauce similar to this one to top the dish off and change it up a bit. 2. Make a Salad Whisk up extra lemon marinade and use it as a vinaigrette for a salad. Layer greens, sliced green onions and radishes on a big platter. Chop leftover cold chicken, potatoes, and asparagus and place at center or evenly over the top. Perhaps add small balls of fresh mozzarella or tiny tomatoes or other colorful vegetables.  Season with salt and pepper; dress with lemon vinaigrette.

WINE:  Sauvignon Blanc/Fumé Blanc

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MEAL PLANNING AND A FEW PANTRY IDEAS

PLANNING MEALS…. doesn’t mean we cooks have to be obsessive and make sure every meal of the entire week is laid out by Sunday afternoon’s shopping–though we could. Lots of people adhere to something like a set Monday-Vegetarian, Tuesday-Tacos, Wednesday-Poultry, etc. Even two or three planned meals a week would help a lot. Those, plus leftovers and pick-up meals like “Breakfast for Dinner Night” might do the trick. (I always make at least one big pot of something like soup, stew, or pork green chile–below in bowl or serve in tacos.) While I’m not the best at this, many people count on at least one slow cooker meal each week.  For free and tasty slow cooker ideas, check out my friend Kalyn Denny’s Slow Cooker from Scratch blog.

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Cook once, eat twice or thrice is solid gold for me–even if the other meals are put into the freezer for a month from now.  Could you have four basic weeks laid out that rotate? Perhaps even four sets of four basic weeks that could change seasonally all set out in a notebook with grocery lists?  Or subscribe to a weekly menu-planning service? For sure. There are plenty online; look around for the best deal. One free idea from REAL SIMPLE provides ideas, recipes and shopping lists for a month here: A Month of Easy Dinners.  Another is taking on something like Rachael Rae’s Make-Ahead meals; you cook five meals in one day and freeze them.  That’s not my idea of fun, but it might be yours. A method to your madness is essential–whichever one you choose. Naturally that all goes out the window if you arrive at the market finding chicken on sale, your kids really want pizza, or get a last minute invitation to the neighbors’.

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pantry thoughts and a pantry list you can download

Need a pantry list? Click here for Jamie Oliver’s. In addition to many of the basics in Jamie’s cupboard, I also almost always have…              

{printable copy of Alyce’s list here}

FREEZER:  Along with peel and tail-on shrimp, chicken thighs, pork chops and pork tenderloin, individually-frozen salmon fillets, sausage ( a couple of varieties), bacon, frozen homemade egg noodles, ice cream, foil-wrapped 1/2 and whole baguettes, 3-4 kinds of nuts, I store quarts and pints of stock, broth, soup, chili, pulled pork, etc. that I’ve made earlier. (To heat frozen homemade food quickly: Place container under running hot water until the food “pops,” add to a covered pot first on low and later on medium-high and heat until hot.) I sometimes have a purchased frozen meal like Eggplant Parmesan for emergencies. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I have a small freezer in the bottom my kitchen fridge, another small one in the top of my garage fridge, as well as a large freezer with four big shelves and door storage–also in the garage. They each have their own purpose. I use them all.

FRIDGE: I keep great olives, marinated artichoke hearts, bacon, lots of eggs, a variety of cheeses, several mustards, cold white wine, sparkling wine, tonic, sparkling  flavored soda water, a few kinds of beer, tons of vegetables, at least two kinds of greens, lemons, limes, oranges, leftovers for lunches or to be repurposed for dinners, and really good bread in my fridge. (I live in dry Colorado and we don’t eat a lot of bread; you might be able to leave yours on the counter.) I’ll admit here that I have, after many years, collected a fairly-new kitchen fridge, an old garage fridge (cheapest Costco variety), a wine/beer fridge in the dining area, and a last wine fridge in our wine cellar in the basement. 

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LARDER: My counter and cabinets usually hold two kinds of potatoes, at least two kinds of onions, shallots, garlic, avocado, tomatoes, bananas, a lemon and lime at room temp, and some sort of winter squash. Canned tuna, several sorts of beans/lentils/grains (canned and dry), microwavable brown rice, wild rice, dark chocolate, snacking nuts and dried fruit, oatmeal, broth (chicken, beef, and vegetable), canned tomatoes, tomato paste, many spices and fewer herbs, extra oils, vinegars, and mustards, shelf-life red cooking wine, and low-sodium whole wheat crackers fill pantry shelves. I make my own healthy low-fat and low-sugar granola monthly and rarely have packaged cereal on hand. I like to give granola for gifts, too.  

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Pan or plan a new meal and stay tuned for upcoming Friday Fish meals now through mid-April,

Alyce