Weeknight Dinners

This past Friday was “Beer Friday” at our favorite local brewery, Devil’s Canyon, in Belmont, CA. We discovered this local gem through our friend Lora, who was one of the students in the last Advanced Massage Class where we were fortunate enough to be Teacher’s Assistants. Lora’s husband Dan is the Assistant Brew Master, she works some of the concessions or simply mingles and lends her friendly demeanor to the event. But it’s a very fun monthly event and in fact draws a fairly substantial crowd, all eager to partake in the incredibly delicious array of locally brewed artisan beverages, and a decent selection of BBQ’d goodies to compliment the liquid libations.

So, while hanging with Lora and two other “massage school friends,” the conversation prompted a curiously interesting thought. Essentially, I mentioned that we should probably head home because I still had to cook dinner for us (it was about 8:00). This produced a combination of odd looks and serious questions from them … along the lines of “why are you cooking tonight?” and “why not just open a can of something” or go out, or get something to go, or whatever. This is why God gave us fast food, right?

I cook. My blog is called LSCooks. I’ve always cooked. Better lately than 20 years ago, but I’ve always cooked. Although I will admit to maybe twice a year visits to Mickey Dee’s, and I can’t go more than two weeks without a Toto’s pizza … my idea of “fast food” is something I can do in my wok. I suppose it’s just a paradigm shift in thought process about preparing the evening meal. I cook. If I don’t, we’re not going to eat. So I cook.

But this was actually the third time this conversation came up over the past week. Our friend Dave drove up from Morro Bay last week and I (amazingly) cooked a nice mid-week meal. And my sister was totally blown away! “Do you guys eat like this every night?” “Why don’t you do something easy?” I guess people who don’t cook, or don’t prepare “normal” meals during the week are fascinated by those of us that do.

So this is where this is going. You can put together anything from simple to semi-fancy, in under an hour, during the week. I have a very demanding job as a Telecom Manager for a major international company. And I come home and cook every night. I don’t spend hours at it, but it’s a regular fresh meal, every night.

This trend actually started about 25 years ago. I worked in grocery stores in my college years and a couple years after that, and I got in the habit of shopping every day based on what caught my fancy that day at work. I could be stocking shelves and see an interesting rice or pasta. Perhaps working the produce section and have some new or particularly fresh item catch my attention. Or maybe wandering through the meat department and spot an incredibly nice looking steak, chop, piece of fish or poultry, or pile of ground beef. Or simply salivating over the ingredients to what was surely to become an amazing stew, drifting down the conveyer in front of my register, and into those old fashioned brown paper bags (we called them #50’s or “barrel bags” in the grocery business.)

So the root of “good” daily cooking is to either shop daily, or buy the freshest items you possibly can, and store them correcly for the upcoming week. I shop every day, but I realize I’m a little weird in that regard. I have a fully stocked pantry at any given moment, and there’s plenty of “ingredients” in my refrigerator, but the main makings of my dinners are up for grabs on a daily basis.

I’ll sometimes call my wife and ask what she wants, and will generally make something resembling her request. But more often than not, it’s a walk through the store that produces my ideas for “what’s for dinner.” What looks good? What’s fresh today? As badly as you want asparagus tonight, is it worth $4.99 a pound? That package of corn probably came half way around the world, and it shows (it’s February). Buy what’s fresh and affordable. It pays off.

And of course there’s the very real time factor when you cook during the week. A nice risotto or tri-tip on the BBQ is about the limit. Stir fry is great, even a decent pasta sauce is within my self-imposed hour from start to finish rule. A stew that takes 3 1/2 hours to simmer is not. A Paul Prudhomme inspired jambalaya with no less than 15 spices, is not. But a good soup, even a gumbo, is within reason. And there are so many more things you can do during the week which are not necessarily costly, and will please friends and family enormously.

A sampling from last week’s “gourmet” meals included:

Monday night (Angela came over for a massage)
Burritos with Spanish rice (from scratch) and Rosarita vegetarian refried beans, ground round, two kinds of tortillas to pick from, garnishes of salsas, onions, cilantro, jalapenos, and cheese. Sour cream and sliced avocado on the side. Topped with a simple enchilada sauce which looks very impressive when you make squiggles from a plastic bottle. 30 minutes start to finish.

Thursday night (Dave’s visit).
Salad of field greens tossed with some radishes, green onions, and some home made balsamic vinaigrette which I always have in the fridge.
Risotto with shallots, garlic, arborio rice, chicken stock, brown Italian mushrooms, fresh arugula leaves, white wine, and a parmesan cheese finish.
Simple NY strip steaks that take 8 minutes on the BBQ (this is a splurge, admittedly). Total cooking time was about 40 minutes.

Friday night (Beer Friday, so my cooking didn’t start ’til about 8:00).
Low fat pork tenderloin, which I seared in a pan on the stove, then finished in the oven. Marinated with some of my “Rubbit” dry rub, slathered some Leon’s BBQ sauce toward the end. Red beans and rice mix from a package (ok, this may be borderline cheating, but it’s not fast food, and I COOK it!). And either a mix (Marie Callendar’s is best) or from scratch cornbread completes the meal. Total cooking time, 30 minutes.

Pasta is an easy under-an-hour meal. Heat some olive oil over medium heat, chop an onion, crush a couple cloves of garlic, sweat them in a pan covered for about 10 minutes. Sautee some sliced mushrooms for another couple of minutes. Add fresh or canned diced tomatoes, herbs of your choice (fresh is best, Italian Seasoning works in a pinch … it is a weeknight). Options include some red wine, sherry or marsala, a pinch of cinnamon, a diced green pepper, some browned hamburger meat, sweet or hot Italian sausages (turkey, if you’re counting calories) … bring it to a boil, simmer for 45 minutes. Boil water for the pasta, which averages about 10 minutes for al dente. Thinly slice some fresh basil for your garnish (chiffonade, is what the cut is called … pile several leaves, roll them up, slice as thin as you can). Garlic French bread takes 10 minutes, a salad takes about the same.

Good cooks know how to pace themselves and ideally have everything ready to serve at the same time. The pasta meal above is a coordinated dance around your kitchen in order to have everything done in 45 minutes, but you can do it!

Stir frys are great. Keep them simple, meaning 2-3 vegetables is perfect … 7 or 8 doesn’t make it better, just more fussy and more prep work. Try a chopped baby bok choy, a couple scallions done in angled cuts, a peeled sliced carrot and a couple pork chops cut into 1/2″ chunks. Marinate the pork (beef or chicken both work great too) in some soy sauce, cornstarch, Mirin rice cooking wine if you have some, white wine if you don’t. Cook them in the order they’ll cook, meaning 2-3 minutes for the meat in a very hot oiled wok (peanut oil burns at the highest temp … good for this type of cooking), add the carrots for a couple minutes, the onions, the bok choy, a pinch of powdered ginger, a little additional soy sauce, and you’ve got a great meal in about 10 minutes … assuming you thought ahead and put your rice on before you started your prep work!

En Papillote is something magical. Fish or chicken cooked in parchment paper (or a double sheet of aluminum foil is a perfectly good substitute), thin layer of butter on the bottom, simple garnishes of thinly sliced leeks and carrots, some fresh or dried tarragon, a sprinkling of wine or vermouth, salt and pepper, seal the edges, 20 minutes at 350 and it’s dinner.

Economic times are difficult, most of us work long hours during the day, whether it’s physically away at a job, or tending to the many duties a stay-at-home mom or dad has to do on a daily basis, and I realize that putting together something “fancy” at the end of your work day, isn’t always your first choice. But the satisfaction you’ll feel, and the looks and comments from family and invited guests, makes it all worth it. Plus, it’s real cooking, real food, real prep work, and it can’t help but inspire your creativity in the kitchen.

You’ll make some less-than-perfect concoctions. Maybe the broccoli shouldn’t have been smothered in cheese. Lamb probably wasn’t the right choice for the pasta sauce. Wine in your foods is probably best done in moderation and only in the foods that should have wine in them. Salt and pepper? Be careful. Dozens of spices? Best start with something proven that comes from a book that says Paul Prudhomme on the cover before you start tackling this kind of dish. Much safer.

I encourage people to cook. Trader Joe’s has great frozen foods … buy and use them in moderation. The very best canned soups are just that … canned. Play in your kitchen. Treat it like a dance, with very specific steps and coordinated movements. You’ll be a happier person in the long term. Probably not ready to tackle the tango yet, but you’re on your way.

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