Posts tagged dinner

Improv night: Broccoli penne with lentils

Welcome to Improv Night, when I feature a thrown-together meal from my kitchen.

Here’s the thing: As much as I love my cookbooks, and my dog-eared food magazine collection, and the wide, wide world of worldly recipes on the web, sometimes dinner is less about following someone else’s very specific instructions and more about catering to my of-the-moment whims.

Allow me to continue: Sometimes dinner is about that fresh bundle of asparagus that looked too promising to resist, or about those languishing greens or leftover salmon. Put together with some grains or legumes from the pantry, whatever herbs or spices beg to be used, and we’re one fed and happy family. No recipe required, just a little hard-won experience and well-practiced intuition.

It’s not the timid way I used to do things, back when separate ingredients like flour and baking soda were suspect time-suckers, when I thought making muffins from a mix was the modern way to do things.

These days I care less about modernity and more about scratch cooking (and aren’t we glad that cooking is the new take-out, anyway?).  Now when I use a recipe it’s because I want to learn a new technique, or get a feel for an unusual ingredient. More often than not, I’ll take a recipe as a suggestion rather than as a set-in-stone way to prepare a dish.

The keys to improv dinners are a well-stocked pantry and freezer, a few fresh herbs, a well-honed trick or two, and a willingness to experiment.

This time there was a waiting head of organic broccoli from my produce basket and a Tupperware of leftover lentils. Once I discovered some caramelized onions in the fridge as well, things really got moving.

Prep went something like this: I washed and thinly sliced the broccoli (it cooks better that way) while my medium frying pan, with a bit of olive oil, was heating. I sauteed the broccoli with a fat pinch of red pepper flakes for several minutes until it was just tender, but nowhere near mushy. I added a few cloves of minced garlic part way through the saute.

Then I poured in a can of whole tomatoes (Muir Glen’s Fire-Roasted are my favorite) and broke them up with a wooden spoon as they simmered. I threw in the caramelized onions and about a cup of black lentils, got generous with the salt and pepper, and let it bubble gently away while I cooked the penne.

I boiled the penne until it was just barely al dente, then, using a large slotted pasta ladle, transferred it to the pan with the sauce to let it finish cooking there.

Of course I topped it all with shavings of Parmesan, and of course I served it with a bit of crusty bread and a simple crunchy salad. Like I said: Fed and happy.


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Baked pasta and cheese

Doing a little menu planning for the week? Might I offer a suggestion, a go-to recipe around here that I’m sure you’ll love as much as I do?

My baked pasta and cheese is a favorite of mine because a) it’s easy; b) it’s amenable to whatever fiddling I want to do with it (rotini or macaroni? Fontina or cheddar? You get the idea); c) it’s what I make when I’m not in the mood to hear Quinn whine/pout/protest about what’s for dinner.

And, finally, it’s a favorite because it’s featured at Raising Arizona Kids magazine this week. Check it out.


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Pick and choose

Here’s my problem: I can’t do everything. Yes, that’s a superfluous-by-virtue-of-its-obviousness statement, but it’s a fact, and facts demand to be faced now and then.

I can’t keep my pinky toe in my writing career and volunteer to run the craft at my first grader’s class party and stay on top of watering the basil and remember that my sixth grader needs new shorts and train for a 200-mile cycle race and mop the kitchen tile after every meal preparation.

As moms (or as parents, or just busy people, for that matter) we’re in the business of picking and choosing. Do we do this or do we do that, because when we choose this instead of that, that is going to go undone.

And so I’m not obsessed with whatever sticky thing may be on the kitchen floor at the moment.

Instead, what I’m choosing to be awfully dang-good at is feeding my family well, at keeping my pantry stocked and the fruit bowl filled. I’m a pro at making sure there’s a constant supply of grape tomatoes and baby carrots, that we always have frozen berries for after-school smoothies and enough whole grains and beans for nights upon nights of rushed throw-together suppers.

The inside of my toilets may not have seen a scrubber all week, but I could care less because tonight — after I supervise the first graders’ craft, that is — I’m making some chargrilled asparagus and zucchini with strange cheese that’s a byproduct of feta. I’ve cleaned those toilets a zillion times over, but I’ve never made this recipe before.

No, I don’t get it all done, but never say I don’t have my priorities.


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I’m no meat eater. But hearing Nigella Lawson wax on about eating Irish lamb stew almost makes me wonder if I’m missing some essential aspect of the human experience:

“I mean it doesn’t make for dainty eating. But it’s such sort of wonderful robust, sort of rapturously robust stew, really, that I think it’s okay to take out each little chop as you eat it, and gnaw away and fling the bones away into the fireplace.”

Rather, this is what an evening of delectably messy protein looks like to us: fish fingers produced by Emmie over spring break on her night to cook. Soy sauce dribbles indelicately over our chins and we lick errant sesame seeds from our lips. Breading slips from the tender cod in shards, and we immediately pluck it between our fingers to pop into our mouths.

Our Alaskan cod doesn’t quite conjure the nourishing, lusty warmth of a brawny stew. There are no bones, but that’s just as well since there is no fireplace close enough to be within flinging proximity.

Still, it’s satisfying in a different sort of way. We are eating it together and as we are thoroughly staining our napkins with soy and a little grease, it’s hardly dainty. It may not be rapturous, but it’s wonderful enough.


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[Recipe: Tilapia with Bulgur Stuffing & Sardines]

These days I have three goals for dinner:

1. Have it on the table early enough that we can spend a reasonable amount of time en famille eating a more-or-less dignified meal (i.e., not shoving food down throats with five minutes to eat) before Emmie has to run off to soccer practice.

2. Incorporate more superpower protein. I sold my family on the virtues of salmon long ago. Now it’s time for my dear ones to gain an affinity for things like sardines. If you’ve been in the vicinity of any print media lately (New York Times, Sunset magazine, and on and on), you’ll have noticed that sardines are having a so-healthy-you’re-a-darn-fool-not-to-eat-them-moment.

3. Find novel ways of using my worldly ingredients — the ones I bought rightfully, but nevertheless impulsively, that give a well-traveled air to my pantry, but that I don’t always know off-hand what to do with. Like my bottle of pomegranate molasses.

Tonight, it was Ottolenghi that leaped to my cause. The cookbook’s recipe for bulgur-stuffed sardines was made to meet all three of my goals, and allowed me to serve up the kind of bold flavor that always tastes so comforting at the end of a busy day.

I modified the original recipe to use the ingredients I had on hand, but intact are the most necessary ones, like those sardines and pomegranate molasses. And the spirit of the dish remains Ottolenghi all the way.

Tilapia with Bulgur Stuffing and Sardines

adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

1/2 C medium bulgur
1/4 C golden raisins, chopped
1/4 C toasted pistachios, chopped
zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tbsp dried mint
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
kosher salt and black pepper
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 can boneless, skinless sardines, flaked
4 tilapia filets
lemon wedges, to serve

Put the bulgur in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes, until soft. Drain bulgur and return it to the bowl. To the bulgur, add the raisins, pistachios, zest, juice and parsley. Stir in the spices, mint, molasses, olive oil and sardines, then season with salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 475 degrees and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the tilapia filets on the baking sheet, then spoon the bulgur mixture evenly among the filets, making a pile in the center of each filet. Grab both ends of one of the filets and bring the ends together, securing them to each other with a short wooden skewer. If any of the bulgur spills out the sides, gently press it back into the tilapia roll. Continue with the remaining filets. Place baking sheet in the oven and roast fish for 8 to 10 minutes, until just cooked through.


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Sights: A bowl of just-plucked grapefruit, stems and leaves intact; a tangle of onions shimmering bronze and soft

Sounds: The clatter of rain on the roof; the hiss of moisture in a hot saucepan; the piano undergoing practice, and the recitation of French devoirs

Smells: Woody rosemary; bright lemon; necessary garlic; and rain, when the door is opened

Touch: The light heft of a wooden spoon; the tenderness of an avocado; the grooved, cold handle of a pan

Tastes: Creamy cannellini; hint of bay; crush of orange

Menu: Rosemary white bean soup; grilled cheese with aged Kingston cheddar; salad of baby greens, orange segments, avocado and a smattering of walnuts, chopped

This is my winter.


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Squash pusher

[Recipe: Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash & Kale over Farfalle]

I admit it: When it comes to the story of dinner, I’m prone to burying the lede where squash is involved.


The question comes, inevitably, from my girls somewhere around 4:30 p.m., and they want all five ‘Ws’: “Mom, what’s for dinner?” I hype the least-offensive ingredients: The “butterfly” pasta part (farfalle, for you purists), the Parmesan cheesy part, whatever other parts won’t push their noses up into disapproving wrinkles. I put off mentioning the squash part somewhere toward the end, because I know what protests will ensue. And I don’t want to hear it.

Maybe I should just get it over with, bad news first, good news second style. Start with a shrug, end with a song.

Yes, squash can be bad news around here. I may love it, heart and soul, for its versatility and color, for its long list of nutrients, but my girls are rightly skeptical: I remember how much I disliked squash as a kid. So much that ‘disliked’ is a pretty rich euphemism.


This winter, though, I issued myself a challenge: Find new ways to prepare squash that my girls will actually enjoy. I wanted to work a little motherly magic (is there such a thing?) in favor of getting them hooked on squash.

Winter’s nearly over and while they’re not quite hooked, their feelings about squash are now more reserved than skeptical. That, for me, is a triumph, one that followed the path of maple-soy glazed acorn squash and spaghetti squash pancakes.

This recipe, though, was the hands-down winner. This is the one that sealed the deal.

Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash and Kale over Farfalle

adapted from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper & Sally Swift

While plenty of squash varieties would work here, so would other greens. The original recipe calls for escarole or curly endive. It also calls for half-and-half, but I didn’t have that on hand and so saved about a half cup of the pasta water to coat the pasta with instead. The result was still full and plenty rich.

For the vegetables:

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 bunch kale, washed, dried and torn into small pieces
1/3 C tightly packed fresh basil leaves, torn
16 large fresh sage leaves, torn
5 garlic cloves, coarse chopped
1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
1 packed tbsp brown sugar (I’m using Billington’s)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:
1 lb farfalle (bow-tie pasta)
1 C shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese

Place a large sheet pan in the oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large bowl, toss together all ingredients for the vegetables (butternut squash through salt and pepper). (Lynne says be generous with the S&P — I agree.) Carefully turn the squash blend onto the pre-heated sheet pan and spread it out. Roast for 25 minutes, or until squash is tender, turning two or three times during roasting.

During the last 15 minutes or so of roasting time, cook pasta until tender but not soft, reserving about a half a cup of the pasta water.

When the squash is tender, turn on the broiler. Watch the vegetables closely and turn pieces often with a spatula, removing them from the oven when the squash is dark golden brown and the greens are near crisp.

Scrape vegetables into a serving bowl. Add some of the pasta water, the cooked pasta, and cheese. Stir to blend, adding more pasta water or salt and pepper as needed.

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