...or: DINNER 911!
The three big excuses for not cooking dinner are:
We've dealt with the first two, so now let's deal with the third. Follow me across the overcooked corn spaghetti.
This is part three in a series on beginning cooking, emphasis on beginning. My purpose is to encourage reluctant cooks to rely more on their kitchens and less on prepared foods and take-out. Thus, I am talking in these diaries not about the authentic or gourmet, but the simplest and fastest--while still being good-tasting and affordable. I am not a professional chef, merely a homemaker/writer and proprietor of a longtime homemaking website.
In the last episode, I said I like to plan dinners ahead if at all possible. I encourage you in this as well. But there are times when I just don't have it together, and if you're just weaning yourself off boxes, microwave dinners and fast food, planning can be overwhelming. It's really easy to go through your cookbooks and pick something overly ambitious when you're first learning.
So let's make this simple. We have a stocked pantry, we'll assume (or at least partially stocked). Let's see what we can pull together last minute.
This is my biggest fall-back, the one I know I can always make out of SOMETHING. If you keep ground beef/chicken/pork/bulk sausage/tofu around, or have some leftover protein, all the better. For the purposes of cooking from our stash, we'll rely on eggs. Here is a sample supper that you can use as a template. I'll give variations at the end.
Ingredients you will need:
Go to your fridge and pull out carrots, celery, green onions and eggs.
From your freezer, pull out corn and/or peas.
From your potato bin, pull out a yellow onion and either a white or sweet potato.
From your cabinet, get the olive oil--not the EVOO, since we'll be using it to cook with, not to top-dress. You can also use coconut oil or fat you've saved from a roasted chicken or from frying bacon. (I highly encourage this practice. It's delicious and essentially free.)
Have your salt and pepper nearby.
Note that I'm not giving you measurements. You are a smart person. You will know how much is too much or not enough, i'm betting. Just see how full your skillet is, and if you need more, throw more in. But if you insist:
For a single person, two eggs or the equivalent of a quarter pound of protein is probably enough. You don't necessarily have to double that with each person you add to the dinner party, though I use about a pound of ground beef for our family of four. I don't do the egg version of this very often any more because one of us will only eat eggs hard boiled. ~eyes teenager sitting next to me~ But since the eggs go in last, I can pull everything else out for her and THEN add the eggs for the rest of us. Then I give her a stupid ugly hard boiled egg for her protein. :)
For a single person, half an onion, one small-medium potato, two ribs of celery, a carrot, and small handfuls of corn and/or peas should do. Don't necessarily double for each additional person; use that Kossack common sense of yours.
Equipment you will need:
A skillet, smaller for one person, larger for more people. I use our big cast iron skillet, but then I use it for everything.
A sharp chef's knife or cleaver
A peeler if you want your carrots and potato peeled--I don't bother but you might want to
A bowl bog enough to hold your chopped veg.
A gallon freezer bag
Slice the ends off your carrots, celery and onion; peel the onion until you get to the softer white part, peel the carrots if you want. SAVE THESE BITS IN THE GALLON FREEZER BAG AND CHUCK IN THE FREEZER. (Save all your non-cruciferous veggie scraps in this bag as you cook throughout the week. You'll find out why later. Cruciferous veggies are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale. In a separate bag, save all your bones--chicken, pork, beef, whatever. Yes, I know there are no bones in this recipe. I'm talking about from other dinners, including doggie bags--but don't put in bones from fried stuff, or fish bones. Onward.)
If your carrots are really thick at one end, cut that end off from the rest and split it down the middle. Slice the carrots and celery. If you need a measurement, how about 1/8th-1/4" thick. Set all of it aside in the bowl.
Peel your potato if you want. Either way, dig out the eyes. If the white potato is green under the skin or has seriously sprouted, it is no longer good eats; get another or do without. Chop your potato into cubes, as roughly or fine as you like them. The way I do it: I cut the potato in half widthwise. I cut those pieces lengthwise, and then those pieces lengthwise again. I cut those pieces widthwise at about 1/4" intervals. You can put this in another bowl or just leave it to the side.
Chop your yellow onion into pieces roughly the size of the potato or smaller. Leave ready on the cutting board.
Put your skillet on medium heat (set the burner control to about 12 o'clock--on my stove, that's 5 or 6); put enough fat to cover the bottom of the skillet. Again, I'm a dibby-dab cook--a couple tablespoons? As you learn, you'll get a feel for how much is enough--or too much. I err on the side of too much, but with practice I've ended up about right. When it shimmers, add the onion. Stir it around with the spatula until it's translucent.
Add the potatoes. Stir around until they're almost done. They're done when they're soft, ie, edible. :)
While you're waiting, chop the green onions into thin rounds. I use almost the whole green onion, everything except the root and the fibrous bits at the top. If it looks like you'd eat it, chop it up. Set to one side, and put the trimmings into your freezer bag.
Add the celery and carrots. Stir around until the carrots are almost done (same thing as the potatoes). I like carrots al dente--still a little firm to the tooth--but my family doesn't, alas. So cook to just before your level of doneness.
While THESE are cooking, break your eggs into the bowl that had the veggies in it. With your fork, scramble them unti the yolks and white are well-combined.
Once your carrots are cooked, add your handfuls of frozens peas/corn, stir, and then it's time for the egg. Two ways of cooking the egg: you can sorta push the veggies off to the side and clear a spot, or you can dump them right over the top. Either way, get the eggs in the pan and keep stirring (either the eggs themselves or the whole mess, depending) until they're cooked through. Don't stop stirring; scrambled eggs cook fast and burned eggs ain't good eats. Take off the heat as soon as they're done, actually, a little before. You know how you like your eggs.
Immediately throw into individual bowls and top with the chopped green onion. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with any combination of butter, salsa, hot sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, ngoc mam or sour cream you please.
This takes about 20 minutes start to finish. NO EXCUSES.
Bacon--fry a few pieces of bacon in the pan (no other fat needed), set the bacon slices aside. Make sure you fry an extra piece to snack on whilst cooking. That's called the cook's prerogative. (A glass of the wine you're cooking with is another example of this charming custom.) Use the bacon fat to cook the rest, crumble the bacon over the top or add it with the frozens to heat through, or use in place of the eggs. If the latter, make more of it than less.
Meat--if raw, cook before the onions. Just cook it till brown. If it's ground, just drop it into the pan in small chunks; if not, slice thin. I really suggest ground for these kind of skillet meals. Leave the eggs out. If you're using leftovers, chop it roughly and add before the frozens to heat it through.
Spam--YES SPAM DON'T BE A HATER. :) Cube it, fry it in a little bit of fat, add the onions and off you go. It's good--like the husband in the sketch, I love it--and a great emergency protein since it's shelf-stable.
Tofu: My own One True Diet does not include unfermented soy except in very small amounts, so take this with a grain of Celtic sea salt. Use firm tofu and squeeze out the water; put it on a plate with another plate atop it, and then put a weight on the topmost plate--a large, full peanut butter jar, a big jar or bowl full of water, or if all else fails a bottle of wine (before the cook's prerogative). Break into chunks and scramble it like the eggs.
Rice--substitute leftove rice for potatoes and you've essentially got fried rice. If you eat out at an Asian restaurant, take the rice home! You can do all kinds of stuff with it. Actually, I'm a big advocate of taking everything even remotely edible home.
Other veggies--What I have listed in the staples section are not our only vegetables. We try to eat in season; those are the ones we always keep on hand. Other veggies that also work in meals like this are chard and other leafy pot greens, summer squashes (zucchini, crookneck, patty pan--the kind that look like little UFOs), broccoli either fresh or frozen (peel the stems, they're tough otherwise), cauliflower florets fresh or frozen, green beans fresh or frozen, and mushrooms. The more delicate and/or frozen a veggie is, the later to put it in the pan. Except mushrooms. Put those in with the onions. When dealing with pot greens, put things like shredded cabbage or kale in earlier, chard in later.
Beans--break out a can of kidney, garbanzo or black beans and add just before the frozens. I'd skip the eggs in this case. You'll only need part of a can for a single person; save the rest in the fridge.
Canned diced tomatoes or fresh/canned salsa--especially good with beans and/or cabbage. Either heat in a non-reactive (stainless, enamel or Pyrex) pan and add in the serving bowls, use a non-reactive skillet and add just before the frozens, or do what I do and ignore the prohibition against cast iron and tomatoes. I am anemic, so take that into consideration.
Noodles--since we're talking emergency here, I'm talking emergency noodles: Asian-style rice noodles and RAMEN. I said, emergency noodles! If you use noodles, leave out the potatoes and go Asian in your seasoning: ngoc mam, soy sauce, sesame oil etc. Put that packet of ramen powder in your food and I will track you down and smack you with a wooden spoon, I swear. Cook the ramen, and I know you know how; follow the instructions for the rice noodles on the package, which usually just means boiling water and soaking--not boiling--the rice noodles in it. That's why my youngest calls them "tea noodles." Add either at the end. You probably want to break up the ramen before cooking it, unless you like slurping. If you like ramen uncooked, crumble it over the top of individual servings.
Nuts--we like sunflower seeds sprinkled on top of the individual servings for crunch. You can also use chopped almond, pine nuts or raw celery sliced thin.
Seasonings--For a Euro-flair, use my favorite cheat, herbes de Provence--a pinch crumbled between the fingers. If you've got the tomato/bean thing going, sprinkle cumin, garlic powder or finely minced garlic (fresh is better but don't let lack of time or fresh stop you from cooking), and a pinch of oregano crumbled between your fingers for a vaguely Mexican flavor. If you're using ground pork, try a pinch of crumbled sage. Ground or leftover turkey or chicken, another favorite cheat, poultry seasoning (or small amounts thyme, sage and rosemary). Poultry seasoning is also great on sweet potatoes. Another for poultry: tarragon, but taste it first; not everyone likes it. I really encourage experimentation. Taste an herb, imagine what it might be like with an ingredient, and try it.
Gravy--we're going to learn gravy in another installment, but if you have any leftover, it's gooood.
Fried egg--don't scramble the eggs. Fry them in another skillet and put them on top.
Simple, fast, good, variable to the point that no two skillet suppers will be the same. We don't eat it every night--nor should you. But it's still better than just about anything you can get at a fast food joint or from the microwave section at the supermarket.
Note: I am not going to discuss diet as opposed to cooking in these diaries nor will I engage in such discussions in the comments. If you are paleo, or vegan, or whatever, I'm sure you can take what you need from these diaries and leave the rest. No one needs anyone else's permission to eat as they see fit--including me. Please, whatever your preferred eating regimen is, don't argue about the One True Diet in the comments. I can't stop you, but I'd consider it a great courtesy. Thank you.
Also: if you like these diaries, please help me make a living as a writer. Check out The New Homemaker for more homemaking info on everything from cooking to parenting to cleaning and more. And if you like fantasy, check out my fiction site; I write epic fantasy family sagas, and have had reviewers say I'm the Victorian George R.R. Martin--I don't say that, they do. :)