Monthly Archives: June 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Steak Salad with Roasted Potatoes and Shallots

When feeling guilty, some people buy their significant others flowers.  I buy steak.

If Nick had his way, every dinner would include red meat.  So after subjecting him to a particularly stressful morning of pre-wedding drama, I proposed a peace offering: steak salad for dinner.

Medium-rare steak on top of a bed of greens and other vegetables- the perfect way to make red meat seem healthy.  I mean, yes, it’s still saturated fat and cholesterol, but at least you’re getting lots of vitamins at the same time.

Our version of steak salad includes the following: roasted potatoes and shallots, asparagus, tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and pan-seared steak, all topped on the leafy greens of your choice (I like a mix of various greens; Nick is a baby spinach purist).  Tonight we passed on cheese, but crumbled blue cheese or goat cheese goes quite nicely with this (yes, I’m an advocate for adding goat cheese to everything).

To start, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Then make the vinaigrette, which is based on the dressing from this recipe: Flank Steak Salad with Roasted Shallots and Goat Cheese.  I don’t mess with throwing things in the blender; I avoid using appliances for weeknight cooking as much as I can.  In our tiny kitchen with limited counter space, it means digging the blender out of the cabinets, and who wants to wash all those extra parts?  Instead, I pressed two cloves of garlic, and whisked them together with about 1 cup of olive oil, somewhere around 5 tbsp of red wine vinegar, and a couple sprigs-worth of chopped fresh thyme, then added salt and pepper.

My potato options at the grocery store today were limited, so I had to settle for baby red potatoes, but if you can get them, buy fingerling potatoes.  They have this great sweetness and hold their own when tossed with all the other salad components, plus they seem to cook faster than other potatoes.  For fingerlings, cut them in half, lengthwise; or for baby reds (or extra-large fingerlings), quarter them.  As far as shallots go, use more than you think you want.  I think I used two small ones the first time I made this salad; last night I quartered three large shallots, and still wished I had some more.  When they’re roasted, shallots get a little caramelized, and trust me, you’ll want them with every bite of the salad!

Toss the potatoes and shallots with a couple tablespoons of the dressing, and place in a roasting pan.  I think at 400 degrees it takes about 20-25 minutes to roast the vegetables, but use your judgment (and a fork, if needed).  This time I messed up at roasted them at 375 and it took a bit longer.  A higher temperature not only speeds things up, but also gives you a nice crust on the ‘taters, and that caramelization on the shallots that I was talking about.  (I think I might have just invented the word caramelization– spell check does not approve.)  When the vegetables are close to being done, throw a handful of asparagus spears in the pan and let it all cook for another 5 minutes or so.

In the meantime, Nick took over, partially because he has mastered cooking the steak and mushrooms, and partially because I managed to burn my hand on the oven.  So I’m going to ice my knuckles and turn things over to him, from the time he got home:

“What are you listening to?”

“Peter, Bjorn & John…”

“You’re just as bad as me. I’m just gonna put 10cc on…”

“I’m fine with that…”

“Cool.”

Hi. I’m the soon to be Mr. But Academia. Or Mr. Butt Academia. That’s probably a more appropriate title. The nice lady who types the good stuff puts a lot of thought and care into her cooking. I’m her counterpart. That’s the antithesis of what I do. I just put the tunes on, get a drink going, and “feel it”. That’s my contribution. I have a wonderful time making food. But let’s face it, I don’t have a remote clue what I’m doing. I get real lucky, and revel in the luck I seem to have in the kitchen. The soon to be Mrs. But Academia is far more careful, has a grand plan, and tries to execute each plan with exacting precision.

I’m not that guy.

Each and every meal we collaborate on is much like most of our relationship is from day to day, and how much of our wedding planning is. Use your own imagination as to how it might roll out to you. You’re probably correct in your thinking.

If you’re looking for the next few sentences to shed some “grand view” as to how I made a piece of steak and some toadstools for our steak salad, then you’re terribly mistaken. I showed up, on the phone… she asked me if I could make the steak pretty soon, I hung up the phone and made it.

Heat the cast iron skillet up. Not too hot, or you’re in shitville. Put some butter in there. Not too much, or you’re gonna get yelled at by someone who cares more about your health and hers than you do. Dry the steak, apply salt and pepper. Then pour a little Worcestershire sauce in the pan with the butter. Cook it. Pour a little brandy in there too, right? What the hell. Meanwhile , to your left, take a little pot and add some butter and toadstools and some white wine. Put it on high, get ‘em boilin’ and let it rip. Add a little salt and pepper, and reduce that stuff. Once it gets to where it seems there’s no more liquid, let it burn a second, then add some more white wine. Turn off the stove. Put stuff on plates. Eat.

It’s just food. It’s way smaller than you. You tell IT what to do. Do whatever makes you and your significant person/persons  enjoy consuming. Food is great. You get three or more chances to get it right a day. Those are pretty forgiving odds. Have a great time, and don’t worry about it.

Yep, that’s my almost-husband.  And now you know I was not making anything up when I talked about our relationship in the kitchen.

So yes, he cooked the steak and sliced it up.  Then I assembled the salads.  Because that’s the part that is about making things pretty, and that happens to be one of my favorite parts of cooking.

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Last Night’s Dinner: Grilled Fennel and Asparagus with Whole Wheat Penne and Spinach

I haven’t been doing a ton of creative cooking for the last week or so.  Realizing there are about two weeks left until your at-home, self-catered wedding will do that.  (By the way, when I say self-catered, I don’t mean me, personally.  It’s family-catered, really.  But I have spent hours shopping for groceries and supplies, and last night I folded 140+ empanadas by hand.)

Back to everyday cooking (or, meals that don’t require eight pounds of pork)…  After a fairly laid back Saturday afternoon, I finally felt like cooking.  Or, at least, I was motivated by the fact that I had fennel, asparagus, and spinach in the fridge eagerly waiting to be used.  Nick was out for the evening, so I was on my own.  I resisted my initial instinct to order eggrolls or mozzarella sticks by reminding myself of the day’s earlier events: swimsuit shopping and wedding dress fitting.  (Dress fitting was fine; swimsuit shopping was not traumatic, but didn’t exactly send my self-esteem sky-rocketing either.)

As I’ve mentioned, vegetables and pasta are a typical go-to meal for me, but I upped it tonight by grilling the vegetables before mixing them with the pasta.  (Also, the veggies are headlined in the title because they made up the majority of the meal; I only cooked a handful of pasta for myself.)  After the whole wheat penne started cooking, I lightly oiled my grill pan and heated it on medium-high heat, and grilled about 8 asparagus spears and one fennel bulb, cut vertically into eighths, keeping the core intact.  Drizzled some oil and seasoned the vegetables with salt and pepper.

(Oh, I don’t have any pictures of the fennel cooking… turns out fennel is not very photogenic.)  I turned the vegetables every 3 minutes or so, until they looked cooked.  I know this is kind of vague… I am so bad at describing what asparagus “look” like they’re done.  Just stab them with a fork until the tenderness is to your liking.  The fennel is easier- it starts to get golden and a tiny bit translucent.   I cut the asparagus spears into two inch pieces and trimmed the core off the fennel wedges.

Once the pasta was cooked, I drained it in a colander, then returned to the pot with the asparagus and fennel, plus a little olive oil.  Then I stirred in a few handfuls of spinach until it wilted and squeezed lemon juice over it.  Seasoned with a bit more salt and pepper, and topped with a little grated Parmesan.  I think goat cheese would be amazing with this, but again, I’m gonna be on a beach in Mexico in a couple weeks, so a sprinkling of Parmesan seemed like a better idea, and was still quite tasty.

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Having a Kitten Means Hiding Your Toilet Paper

I’ve had cats all my life.  My mom insists that our cats were the first thing I laughed at as a baby.  I had to get a cat within the first month of moving out of my parents’ house.  And even though Nick and I had decided (until a couple weeks ago) that we would wait to get a second cat, we had talked about it enough that I had a game plan of what to do when the day did come.

There were the usual preparations for having a kitten in the house.  Kitten-proofing is harder than baby-proofing.  With babies, you don’t have to worry about breakable things that are four feet off the ground because most babies are not capable of leaping four feet in the air.  You also don’t have to make sure they haven’t sneaked in a drawer before you close it, or jumped into the refrigerator when you went to pour yourself a glass of water (which is exactly why Bailey wears a collar with a bell).

We also had to take some precautions to help Bailey adjust to the new sibling.  Again, I think it’s less complicated with kids.  You don’t have to keep them separated and let them sniff each other under the door for a few days before they actually meet.  And you don’t have to give the new baby her food first because otherwise she will wiggle her way in front of her brother to eat his food.

I’d also worked hard to prep Nick, a first-time kitten father.  Normally, I have no problem with him leaving the toilet seat up (I figure it’s just as inconvenient for him to have to lift it up after I’ve used it), but I was a little concerned about Matilda knocking my hairbrush in, or deciding to go swimming.  So I’ve gotten pretty obnoxious about that.

So, despite the seven years that have passed since I last had a kitten, I felt confident that we were fully prepared.

But I forgot about the toilet paper.

The kitty equivalent to trashing a hotel room:

And then several days later:

The good news is that Bailey and Matilda are getting along pretty well.  There’s more playful batting and wrestling, and less one-sided chasing.  Just like an annoying little sister, Matilda always wants to follow B.

She’s even gradually sneaking closer and closer to snuggling with him.

So, that’s all for now as far as the cats go.  Bailey is adjusting to having a new wannabe snuggle buddy, and Nick and I are adjusting to needing to remember to secure the toilet paper in the linen closet when not in use.

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How to Base a Meal Around Wegman’s Olive Bar

More specifically, the basil pesto from Wegman’s olive bar.  Nick and I buy it to spread on pizza, mix into pasta, eat from a spoon.  And last Friday, when I just happened to be at Wegman’s, I figured I should pick some up for our dinner.  To give you a bit of background, I would say that about 95% of our Friday evenings fall into one of these three categories:

1. Nick works until 8, gets home by 9, and we go out for Fancy Date Night (which usually means burgers, duck fat fries, and beer at Victoria Gastropub).

2. Nick has a gig, and I’m left to my own devices (which usually means cooking pasta at 10:30 pm when I realize I haven’t eaten anything).

3. Nick works until 8, gets home by 9, and we stay in, drink, and listen to records or watch silly videos of cats on YouTube.

If it’s the third category, it is likely that our dinner will consist primarily of bread and cheese.  I don’t know what it is about Fridays…. Despite the fact that I usually stay home on Fridays (it’s supposed to be my day for reading, homework, and catching up on errands), I often have no energy and no inspiration to cook dinner.  On more than one occasion I’ve walked out of Trader Joe’s with some asparagus, three different cheeses, bread, and sea salt brownies. (And if it was one of the Fridays Nick is not at home, I’d be satisfied with that.)

Last Friday was no exception.  I went from the produce section to the bakery, the olive bar, and the seafood counter before returning back to produce and repeating the cycle.  At least three times.

There was a moment of inspiration for making a pizza: pesto (of course), fresh tomatoes, more basil, goat cheese…  Then I realized we had pizza earlier in the week (not that this would ever be a problem for Nick).  I ended up with some tomatoes and mozzarella and plans to make a caprese salad.  A loaf of bread had also managed to find its way to my basket, but I didn’t really want more cheese, so I wandered over to the olive bar to get some pesto.  (Yes, I realize pesto has cheese in it, but if you saw the amounts of brie and – my favorite – Cambozola that Nick and I can consume in one sitting, you’d understand that the grated Parmesan in the pesto is fairly trivial.)

I limited myself to three items at the olive bar- pesto, a mix of Greek olives and feta (oops, more cheese), and marinated artichoke hearts.

The best part?  An excuse to use the rectangular dishes I recently received as a shower gift.

Grilled turkey kielbasa rounded out the meal (I figure our placemats compensate for the lack of green vegetables on our plates).

A lot of caprese salad recipes only call for a drizzle of olive oil, but I love adding some balsamic vinegar.  Including both orange and red tomatoes added some extra color (and consequently made me quite happy):

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Happy Father’s Day!

Some things about my dad:

He, along with my mom, exposed me to a wide range of music from a very young age.  I have memories of singing Porgy & Bess in the bathtub, rocking out to James Brown in the car in a Roy Rogers’ parking lot, and requesting that my dad play Beatles albums.  We both agree that the definition of a good song is one that provokes a physiological reaction – particularly when you get goosebumps – but these days we don’t always share that reaction to the same songs.

My dad is also responsible for my viewing of classic movies.  For a while, we regularly got together to watch films like Midnight Cowboy, Chinatown, The Hustler, and High Noon.  There were a strange number of movies with the word “Last” in the title; The Last Detail, The Last Waltz, The Last Picture Show.  We saw Nashville together and then unknowingly purchased the soundtrack for each other for Christmas.  While we don’t do this as much anymore, it’s certainly the reason I’ve continued to watch things like All About Eve and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on my own.

Dad could not be more proud or more supportive of my sister and me.  His constant enthusiasm for all of our accomplishments and talents is amazing, although he always keeps us grounded: Recently when I told him about the A I got in a statistics class, his responses was, “BFD.”  (As in “big f***ing deal.”) “Of course you got an A in stats.”  I guarantee you that within the first five conversations you have with my dad he will somehow manage to mention my extraordinary “aptitude for math.”  He likes to brag about us.

Sometimes his regard for his daughters leads to overestimating our capabilities, such as trying to explain algebra to me in 3rd grade, or introducing me to King Crimson at the age of 11.  Best example: At age three, when Mom and Dad told me I was going to have a little sister, he thought my intellect was great enough that he could explain to me how a home pregnancy test works.  This resulted in my informing an elderly neighbor that, “Dad stuck something in Mom and it turned blue and now she’s going to have a baby.”  This is one of his favorite stories to tell.

Growing up, he was always a great companion for jumping waves or riding roller coasters.  Playgrounds were a different story.  He once sent me flying into the air by jumping onto the same spring platform that I was already standing on.

It looked a bit like this, but it was wooden, and I was not smiling:

I think he also feels bad about the time he forgot to fasten my car seat and it fell over while he was zooming through some winding back road.  He looked in the rearview mirror and all of a sudden, I wasn’t there.  I don’t remember this as being upsetting; I just remember being sideways.  If I’d had the vocabulary, I probably would have said, “WTF?”  Because my dad loves that term.  In fact he was proud to tell me that he taught it to two women at a bank last week.

He’s into technology.  His computer is surrounded by four monitors.  The entertainment center has a remote control that is so complicated he had to leave me instructions to use it.  Instructions which were in the form of a video he recorded of himself, saved on a flash drive for me to watch on my choice of the four monitors.  He loves to report his mileage and speed from walking/jogging with his GPS-enabled watch.   He also loves cars, but that’s an interest he shares with Emily, not me.  (Although I do like zooming down twisty roads with him, since I no longer rely on him to secure my car seat.)

Despite the trivial parental errors like launching me off playground equipment or locking Emily’s finger in a car door (which are often rehashed at family dinners), Dad has been a great father.  He is a big reason for the range of interests that I have, the confidence that I have in myself, and my understanding of confounding variables in experimental design.  He genuinely enjoys having adult daughters with whom he can joke, and we get together often to share food, conversation, and drinks.  Which is exactly how we’ll be celebrating Father’s Day this year: cooking on the grill, drinking (perhaps Bota Box wine, which I introduced him to, or Scorpion Mezcal, which he introduced me to), and conversing.

Last Father’s Day, with the daughters and son-in-laws-to-be.  (I think he’s probably instructing Mom on using the digital camera.):

I am truly thankful to have a dad who is so present and supportive, but at the same time never indulged us and certainly did not raise “Daddy’s little girls.”  I’m glad that as I’ve gotten older our relationship has developed so that when I’m having a rough day, I feel just as comfortable talking to him as I do with Mom.  He’s one of my favorite people and certainly someone I’d like to have coffee with.


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Veggie Tales

A couple years ago, I adopted an easy way of preparing fresh vegetables from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.  (Great, comprehensive resource for basic cooking, by the way.)  Instead of waiting for a pot full of water to boil in order to steam some broccoli, I put about a half-inch of water in the bottom of a skillet filled with broccoli.  With the lid on, heat the water/broccoli over medium-high heat, until the broccoli turns bright green (usually seems to take about 3-5 minutes but I base it more on what it looks like than how much time has gone by).  If the water hasn’t completely evaporated, drain the water, and then add a little olive oil to the pan (and red pepper flakes if you like) with the broccoli.  Saute broccoli in oil for another minute or so, mix in some lemon juice and a little salt, and you’re done.   It’s a great way to get bright, crisp broccoli, and I use basically the same technique for asparagus, broccolini, and brussels sprouts.

While this is my go-to approach for vegetables, it’s nice to change up the routine a bit, while still maintaining light, fresh ways for preparing the veggie portion of dinner.  One recent favorite is grilled zucchini and squash.  We don’t have an actual grill, but my sister and Mike gave us a Le Creuset grill pan for an early wedding gift, and it’s perfect for this.  Over medium heat, I just brush the zucchini/squash with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Turn over after about 4-5 minutes, but this depends a lot of how thick you cut the squash and how well-cooked you like it.  I’ve tried marinating the zucchini first with olive oil, some white balsamic vinegar, and herbs, but honestly, the simplicity of grilling with just oil, salt and pepper is quite flavorful.

I also was excited to try this recipe for Shaved Asparagus with Parmesan Vinaigrette.  I’ve never cooked (or, not cooked) raw asparagus, and the idea of transforming it by shaving it into ribbons (with a vegetable peeler) was appealing.   The recipe calls for large asparagus spears, and I can see why.  The bunch that I had were of varying sizes (seriously, they ranged from like 1/4 inch to 1 inch thick!) and the larger spears definitely had a nicer texture and sweeter taste.  And as reviewers on Epicurious suggested, laying the spears flat on a cutting board and shaving with a vegetable peeler worked well.

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Last Night’s Dinner: Quinoa with Vegetables and Turkey Kielbasa

Inspiration for this meal:  Wanting something with a lot of vegetables, but not a variation of my reliable pasta with green veggies, lemon, and goat cheese formula.  And I also had a random craving for turkey kielbasa.  (Please, no sausage jokes- my mom reads this.  Although she’d probably be the first to jump on the opportunity for some meat-products-as-a-metaphor-for-male-genitalia humor.)

So what veggies were involved?  Spinach, zucchini, asparagus, and garlic scapes.  What are garlic scapes?  That’s exactly what I asked my sister when she handed me these long, grass-green rope-looking things.  It’s basically the shoot that grows out of a garlic bulb.  Here’s a nice explanation: My Friend the Garlic Scape.

I sauteed diced turkey kielbasa, diced zucchini, and chopped garlic scapes in a skillet with oil.  What kind of oil?  Well, I used safflower.  Why?  There’s really no particular reason… I happen to have some because I purchased it for a specific recipe and I figure it needs to be used at some point.  I’ve read things about it having some health benefits, but couldn’t find any good sources to really support that (not that I did a lot of research into it).  But I honestly would probably use olive oil next time- I just like it better.

I sauteed the kielbasa, zucchini and garlic scapes until the kielbasa was slightly browned.  Then I added chopped asparagus and some chopped cherry tomatoes and sauteed for a few more minutes.  Finally I threw in several handfuls of baby spinach and stirred until the spinach was wilted.  Added juice from 1/2 of a lemon and some salt and pepper.

Served over quinoa.  One suggestion based on my mistake- start the quinoa first.  I was eager to start sauteing vegetables and consequently they had to sit in the skillet while I waited for the quinoa to finish.  So the zucchini and the asparagus were a little more cooked that I like.  Still, delicious and easy.

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