Dinner on a Deadline: Week 3 – Ditch the recipe

Posted by Anita on 05.26.10 11:28 AM

This post is the third of 12 installments in the Dinner on a Deadline series, a project designed to help you get thoughtful meals on the table quickly without resorting to processed convenience foods. Each week features homework to help you put the lessons into action, plus a sample recipe to show how we use the week’s tips in real life.

(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*There are entire books (and at least one blog) devoted to the idea that recipes are the problem, not the solution. Rather than cheerful assistants, the theory goes, recipes can be tyrannical oppressors, stifling creativity and causing culinary heartache.

Though I’d never go that far myself — my cookbooks and recipe binders are a source of wonderful inspiration, and a great resource for those rare days when I have plenty of time to spend in the kitchen — I definitely see the value of dispensing with recipes for many everyday meals.

When it comes to no-recipes meals, there are plenty of old standbys. On Twitter, I asked what readers like to make when they cook without recipes. Nearly everyone named at least one dish that falls into the category our friends Sean and DPaul call leftovers velcro: Omelettes and frittatas filled with bits of cheese and herbs, a chef’s salad with cold roast chicken and a few crumbles of bleu cheese, hearty soups made from stock and the assorted contents of the vegetable bin.

All of these are good, simple meals, and I love them because creative re-use is both easy on the wallet and environmentally fabulous. But cooking without recipes can be much more than just a way to clear out your fridge. It’s a way of thinking about ingredients that gives you basic formulas for easy suppers, and a platform for improvising even as you plan. If you stock your pantry well, you can combine protein, starch, and seasonal vegetables in dozens of ways.

DinneronaDeadline-logoHere’s one example that makes use of our favorite pasta + pork + greens trinity: Simmer pasta of your choice. Meanwhile, sauté sausage, bacon, ham, or ground pork; remove the cooked meat with a slotted spoon. Using the same skillet, sauté a clove or two of minced garlic in the rendered fat from the meat; add legumes or greens (examples: shredded kale, chopped broccoli raab, sliced sugar-snap peas, cooked cannellini) and sauté until tender, adding a little stock or water to steam the firmer items. When the pasta’s done, toss everything together, adding a splash of stock or cream. Sprinkle with herbs and/or Parmesan cheese and you’re good to go. (Two favorite variations on this theme include Orecchiete with Broccoli di Ciccio and Italian sausage, and Pasta e Fagioli with ‘Nduja.)

This method also works great with international flavors. For an Asian-style meal, sauté a quick-marinated protein (sliced meat, shrimp, or tofu tossed with soy sauce, sherry, sesame oil, and a bit of cornstarch) in peanut oil; remove with a slotted spoon. Sauté garlic and greens (such as long beans, bok choy, spinach) until tender. Stir in a regionally appropriate flavor enhancer (like curry paste, oyster sauce, chili-garlic sauce), then add the meat back into the pan and heat through; serve over rice or noodles. If you prefer a Tex-Mex variation, you can make fajitas: Grill or sauté chicken or steak strips, add sauteed peppers and onions, and serve with tortillas. Once you have the basics down, the variations are only limited by your imagination and the depth of your pantry.

This week’s homework

No-recipe novices: Plan at least two meals for the upcoming week, including at least one no-recipe dinner. Make use of your newly organized pantry staples.

Extra for experts: Take one of your existing no-recipe meals and adapt it into something new. For example: If you usually use pasta as the base, turn it into a stir-fry over rice. Or, add an ethnic twist, use a different protein, or make some other modification that will push your creativity.

(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*

This week’s recipe

I realize that this goes entirely against the spirit of the lesson, giving you a real recipe with measurements and timing. But for anyone new to the no-recipes concept, it’s useful to see how it works. After you’ve done it a few times, you’ll be able to come up with your own variations, judging quantities and timing by eye.

We made this dish — a Food 52 category winner — for a midweek supper with our friend Meriko; we liked it so much we had it again this week. (The fact that we’ve got a bumper crop of sugar-snap peas helps, too.) The second time around, we were out of mint and low on cream, so we swapped in some parsley and chicken stock; we liked the fresher end result even better. Feel free to make your own substitutions depending on what you have on hand or what strikes your fancy.

Creamy Pasta with Prosciutto and Snap Peas
- adapted from Food 52

For each 3 servings; multiply as needed
6 to 8oz dry shaped pasta (preferrably shells, orechiette, or other cup-shaped pasta)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 T olive oil
2oz prosciutto, lonza, or country ham, thickly sliced (1/4-inch minimum) then minced
2 small shallots, minced
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup unsalted stock
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for the table
1/4 pound fresh sugar-snap peas, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
2T to 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large saucepan, bring salted pasta water to a boil while prepping the various ingredients. (If it comes to a boil before you’re ready, cover and reduce heat to low.) When everything is ready to go, add the pasta to the boiling water.

In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When shimmering, add the garlic and cook until just softened. Add the minced prosciutto and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Add the shallots; continue cooking until softened. If at any point the garlic or shallots start to brown, add a splash of water and/or turn down the heat. When cooked through, season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Amounts will vary greatly depending on how salty your pork is.) If there are more than 3 minutes left on the pasta timer, reduce the skillet heat to low, or remove the pan from heat, depending on how long you have left.

When your pasta is about 3 minutes away from being done, add the peas to the proscuitto mixture and cook for 2 minutes over medium heat, until just tender. With one minute remaining, raise the heat to high; add the cream and stock, and bring to a boil while stirring. Add the Parmesan, stir to combine, and reduce the heat to low.

Drain the pasta, and add to the sauce; toss to coat. If the sauce is loose, simmer over medium-high heat until it coats the pasta. Sprinkle liberally with fresh herbs, and serve with black pepper and extra Parmesan.

cooking, Dinner on a Deadline, recipes



Comment by Livin Local

Pasta + Pork + Greens trinity? Bravo!

Posted on 05.26.10 at 11:38AM

Comment by touched by sun

Hi Anita,

I like your series and your approach—I volunteer as a learn-to-cook-guide, and while most of the folks I work with are low-income and have different challenges, such as access to produce, lack of consistent and safe food storage (vermin in their apartments, electricity turn-offs, fridges/stoves that don’t always work) I think that much of what you are sharing is quite valuable and accessible to them and I am pointing folks to this series on your blog.

I wanted to add some thoughts: If you are new to cooking–-especially without a recipe–-the most helpful thing is to write down what you did after you’ve finished eating, along with some notes about what you think you did right and what you would do differently or at least, what you think NEEDS to be done differently, even if you don;t exactly know what that might be.

I often compare cooking to having a good sense of what one likes to wear and having a sense of personal style–we’ve each accumulated a lifetime of ideas about what colors we like, what we think looks good together, what looks good on us vs. others, how to make decisions=–that are often invisible until we start to reflect on it, often by helping someone else who feels challenged by their own style. Writing down what we are aiming for and how close we get leaves a trail that otherwise might escape us the next time we attempt to cook.

I’ve also found that when I have helped friends learn a cooking skill/approach, it also helps them to make a commitment to practicing the skill several times in a short period of time so that they can make sense of the lessons learned by comparing what they’ve actually accomplished to what they actually enjoy eating. A good challenge is to make the “same” dish three or four times within a week keeping all ingredients the same, except for the vegetables; or everything the same except for the shape of the pasta; or everything the same but using butter rather than oil or using different types of oils; everything the same except for the seasonings.

I think of it as pre-novice tasks, and it also helps to develop what one likes and wants to eat, as that is often the issue with non-cooks, that they are clear about what they want and it’s easier to know how to buy that because that’s what they’ve practiced rather than to articulate what it is that they like about what they buy to eat and thereby figure out how to recreate it. The biggest hurdle for folks who don’t cook who want to cook is that we all want to have the comfort of a good meal especially at the end of the day, and key to that is figuring out what “good” means to each of us.

Again, love the work you are doing, and excited to use your thoughts to push my own thinking.

Posted on 05.27.10 at 3:25PM

Comment by Charlotte

For folks more comfortable going off the beaten path, I can’t recommend The Flavor Bible highly enough. When I’m stuck, looking at a pantry, or hankering for something Greek, or Turkish or Thai, it’s the guide I turn to for flavor profiles.
And then there are those nights when it’s “leftover velcro” — a phrase I’m going to take to heart.

Posted on 05.27.10 at 5:09PM

Comment by Mrs. L

Cooking without a recipe? Pretty scary to me. I’ll have to go check out lesson one.

Posted on 05.28.10 at 3:56PM

Comment by Eleanor

Don’t get me wrong I cook without a recipe all the time. Tonights dinner was beef rissoles (beef, carrot, zuchinni, onion) with mashed potato (potato, milk, butter, cheese) and I didn’t use a recipe for any of it. Tasted delicious.

I do however think that recipes are a good thing to start from. If you’ve never made mac and cheese before then a recipe is essential. I still need it. It’s taken me 3 years to work it out and now I use PW’s recipe and it never fails.

I’m currently an intermediate meal planner. I can do it but, it then requires me being home to actually implement it. You have reminded me that my pantry needs a clean out.

Love this series!

Posted on 05.30.10 at 1:57AM

Comment by Dana

I love my stack of cookbooks, and my pile of recipe clippings too, but you are so right. Sometimes it just does the trick to venture without a recipe, and see what you can make!

I like the sound of your trinity.

Posted on 06.02.10 at 6:52PM

Comment by MarocMama

Love the post! Added up my non-recipe, recipe haha http://www.marocmama.com/2010/06/chicken-piccata-maroc-style.html

Posted on 06.08.10 at 8:00PM

Pingback by The First CSA Pickup: Gotta Love ‘Em Greens « Family Foodie Survival Guide

[...] think this falls into the Ditch the Recipe category – I knew that I wanted some protein (the chicken), wanted to add some crispy vegetables, [...]

Posted on 06.09.10 at 6:41PM

Comment by Alisa

Great post, I love reading about your project. I love my recipes and for a newbie in the kitchen,I initially follow a recipe, then get creative the next time I make it.

Posted on 06.20.10 at 10:42AM

Comment by Stephanie

I just happen to have these exact ingredients on hand. Thanks for the recipe!

Posted on 06.26.10 at 11:11AM

Comment by catering berlin

Your ingredients look very fresh and nice. And good ingredients are always important for a nice meal. I guess you menaged that. I definetly have to try this recipe…

Posted on 07.28.10 at 4:49AM

Comment by Scrumptious

This is such a wonderful project and such a huge gift! I just discovered it today and was saddened to see it ends at Week 3. Are you planning to continue it at any point? I encourage you to do so because it is fabulous.

I am teaching a friend to cook and I will be pointing him towards all of your lessons and recipes. I think they will be so helpful in helping him quickly learn the underpinnings of what makes a comfortable home cook.

Posted on 08.10.10 at 12:23AM

Comment by Jennifer Cohen Katz RD

Ahhh, this project is a much needed resource in light of the current battle with obesity. As a nutritionist, I am always trying to offer ways to get my clients in the kitchen instead of relying on processed foods and take-out. If we stop focusing so hard on the gory details for a minute (grams of this, calories in that . . .) and redirect our attention to fresh fruits and vegetables + a preferably whole grain starch + some local source of lean protein + seasoning profile of choice = a tasty, healthy meal. After stirring in the produce, it’s reasonable to claim that the dish has a good dose of fiber, vitamins and minerals, protein, and acceptable amounts of salt and fat. Flow with these Dinner on a Deadline meals and learn to love food again.

Posted on 08.11.10 at 2:44PM

Comment by Sophia

Oh wow, this is like a dream. I really want to try this recipe. I actually just tried prosciutto for the first time a couple months ago, and fell in love with it. Thanks for sharing this recipe.

Posted on 08.25.10 at 9:29AM

Comment by Jean Johnson

Did you know we only got formulaic recipes 100 years ago? We’d all cook more healthy, thrifty food if we lightened up in the kitchen–and left the paint-by-numbers rote directions behind :)

Posted on 09.03.10 at 8:27AM

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