I had one of my worst weeks recently as a working mom trying to get dinner on the table.
Monday was grocery store fried chicken. Tuesday was pizza delivery. Wednesday was leftover pizza. While I cannot clearly remember what I served Thursday, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was peanut butter sandwiches – my fall-back position since it is my 5-year-old daughter’s favorite meal.
You could say I was in a cooking rut – if I was actually cooking. And so, before I ordered takeout again, I dug into the latest crop of cookbooks trying to help home cooks like me get dinner on the table.
I soon found solace in Food52’s latest cookbook, “A New Way to Dinner.” One of my biggest challenges is that I cook the same meals (tacos, sausage, pasta) over and over again. I need to be inspired to try new recipes at the end of a busy work day and apparently I’m not alone.
Food52 co-founder Amanda Hesser described in the introduction how she climbed out of her own “roasting everything” dinner rut: “What saved me were recipes – I turned the clock back two decades and started following people’s recipes again. Recipes are a relief when you’re busy and not feeling inspired to create. Follow directions and a destination is yours.”
To help us all, here’s a rundown of some new cookbooks that might offer inspiration:
▪ “100 Days of Real Food Fast & Fabulous,” by Lisa Leake. Leake is a Charlotte food writer whose blog, 100 Days of Real Food, spawned a best-selling cookbook by the same name. This is her follow-up with 100 quick and easy recipes. This book is best for home cooks trying to eliminate processed foods from their diets. The first chapter lays out a glossary, primer and Leake’s “real-food rules” to help home cooks navigate the aisles of the grocery store with that in mind.
▪ “Dinner A.S.A.P.: 150 Recipes Made as Simple as Possible,” by editors of Cooking Light. Fans of the magazine will appreciate the easy-to-follow tested recipes. Many of the recipes make use of the prepped ingredients and prepared foods now available in most grocery stores; think olive bar condiments becoming a pasta sauce or topping for roasted fish, refrigerated mashed potatoes being used to make shepherd’s pie, and salad bar items being used as a short cut for any number of dishes.
▪ “Fast to the Table: Freezer Cookbook,” by Becky Rosenthal. If you want to make better use of your freezer to help get dinner on the table, this book from a Salt Lake City blogger is a good place to start. Rosenthal offers recipes for a mix of homemade frozen ingredients that can be used to build a meal, and complete homemade meals that can be pulled from the freezer. I cannot wait to have her frozen Thai peanut sauce stashed in my freezer.
▪ “Food 52: A New Way to Dinner,” by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. The Food52 co-founders offer a cookbook designed to help busy people do the bulk of the cooking on the weekends for a week’s worth of meals. By season, Hesser and Stubbs each offer a weekly game plan with recipes, a shopping list and detailed instructions on how to pull it all off. They also chime in on each other’s recipes to offer variations.
Weeknight Mushroom and Kale Pasta
1 ounce dried wild mushrooms, such as porcini or shiitake
2 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 cups loosely packed kale (thick ribs removed, leaves cut into strips)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
8 ounces uncooked whole wheat pasta, cooked according to the package directions
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Combine the dried mushrooms and 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the mushrooms have softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Reserving the cooking liquid, drain the mushrooms in a fine-mesh sieve. Measure the cooking liquid and if it’s less than 1 cup, add some water. Dice the mushrooms and set aside.
Melt butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic and cook, stirring, until the shallots begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes.
Pour in the wine, increase the heat, and bring mixture to a boil. Cook until the wine almost completely boils off and is reduced down to a couple tablespoons, 3 to 4 minutes (if you are doubling this recipe, it will take longer.)
Pour in the reserved mushroom cooking liquid and cook for several minutes until reduced by half. Reduce the heat to medium and add the cream, kale, salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the sauce thickens, 2 to 3 minutes.
Fold in the pasta and serve garnished with the Parmesan.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Spiced Chicken and Apricot Skewers
Here’s how to make this recipe work for a weeknight meal: Make marinade and cut the chicken in the morning before work and let marinate all day. Also prep the onions and apricots in the morning. The kebabs will be easy to assemble after work. From “Dinner A.S.A.P.: 150 Recipes Made as Simple as Possible,” by editors of Cooking Light magazine (Oxmoor House, 2016).
1/3 cup apricot preserves
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon chile paste with garlic (such as sambal oelek)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 3), cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
1 cup boiling water
12 to 16 dried apricots
1/2 large red onion, cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
Place apricot preserves, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, canola oil, chile paste, coriander and crushed red pepper in a blender or a food processor; process until smooth. Pour marinade into a large heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag. Add chicken; seal bag and marinate in refrigerator for at least 3 hours, turning bag occasionally. Remove chicken from bag, reserving marinade.
Combine boiling water and apricots in a bowl. Cover and let stand 15 minutes. Drain.
Bring reserved marinade to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat; boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat; cool for 10 minutes or until room temperature.
Preheat grill to medium-high heat.
Thread chicken, apricots and red onions alternately onto 4 (10-inch) metal skewers. Place kebabs on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 12 minutes or until a thermometer registers 165 degrees, turning kebabs occasionally and brushing frequently with marinade after 6 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro.
Yield: 4 servings
Tuscan White Bean Soup with Sausage and Kale
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound loose Italian sausage
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans (6 cups), drained and rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes with their juices, or 2 medium-size tomatoes, diced
6 cups chicken stock
1 zucchini, diced (optional)
1 yellow squash, diced (optional)
2 cups kale, stemmed, leaves roughly chopped
Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add sausage to the pot, brown, not overstirring (so you can get some caramelization and browning on the meat). Add the onion and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the carrots, celery and seasonings. Cook for 5 more minutes. Add the beans and tomatoes. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken stock and simmer for 15 minutes or until carrots are tender. Add the zucchini and squash, if using, and then stir in the kale. Cook the kale for just about 1 minute, or until slightly wilted, then remove the pot from the heat. Serve hot with crusty bread or let cool and freeze.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Overnight Roast Pork
This pork can be served as a main protein on the first night and be used to make sandwiches, pizza, tacos or lettuce wraps for other meals. From “Food 52: A New Way to Dinner,” by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (Ten Speed Press, 2016).
1 (5-pound) boneless pork butt
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle (or use chili powder in a pinch)
Tie the pork with twine in several places so that it’s nice and compact. Place it on a plate or small baking sheet and season liberally with salt. Let sit at room temperature for about an hour.
Combine the brown sugar, maple syrup, mustard, thyme, garlic and ground chipotle in a small bowl. Add a couple pinches of salt and several grinds of pepper. Set aside.
Heat the oven to 475 degrees. Smear the sugar, mustard and garlic mixture all over the pork, concentrating a good amount on the top of the roast, where the fat is. Nestle the pork (fat side up) into a roasting pan or cast iron baking dish just big enough to hold it. Put it in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until you start to smell garlic and sugar. Remove the pork from the oven and cover the pan tightly with foil. Return the pork to the oven and turn the heat down to 200 degrees.
Leave the pork in the oven overnight to cook for at least 8 hours and up to 10 hours. When you wake up, your house will smell amazing and the pork will be tender. Cover the roast with foil and keep it in the fridge for up to 5 days. Slice or shred what you think you’ll need and put it in a covered baking dish, and reheat in a 200 degree oven.
Yield: 4 servings for 2 dinners, with lots of leftovers