If you give me an assortment of ingredients and tell me to make dinner, you’ll likely be eating one of two cuisines, broadly interpreted. I’ll cook greens in tons of olive oil, with lightly sautéed garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes (let’s call that Italian) and serve them with pasta or eggs or bread. Or, I’ll stir-fry beef or chicken or tofu in a mixture of sugar, fish sauce, and soy sauce (let’s deem that Thai) and put it on top of rice. Standard stuff, easy, and delicious – but hardly experimental.
So, I’m grateful to my cookbook shelf, where chefs and home cooks take these ingredients I already use and put them together in ways beyond these two fallbacks.
These miso-balsamic tofu rice bowls owe their tastiness to Anna Jones, author of A Modern Way to Cook to Anna. She take soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, which I never would have mixed together, and turns them into a marinade. Mixed together in equal parts, with olive oil for richness and maple syrup for sweetness, the sauces turn into a zippy but simple seasoning for chicken or tofu. The balsamic is sweet and just a little tangy; the soy is full of umami. And since the marinade doesn’t have garlic or onion, it’s even simpler to throw together, and it has the kind of staying power where you can eat the resulting tofu or chicken again and again without the flavors becoming cloying, which sometimes happens when a marinade is really strong.
This time, I poured the marinade on tofu. I’ve been cooking under the broiler recently, and here I use it to get crispy brown edges on the tofu.
With steamed string beans, thinly cut carrots, a handful of washed lettuce from the CSA, a tahini sauce that’s as quick to whisk together as the marinade (and also includes a touch of balsamic vinegar!), and a handful of rice: the tofu becomes a filling, healthful, and colorful bowl.
Though this looks like any pretty fruity, fizzy, cool summer drink, there’s a lot more to it. This organic apple cider vinegar-blueberry soda is made with Pompeian’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar – a bottle that includes the “mother.” Not all vinegars do.
Vinegar is a fermented product made from wine, fruit, grain, or cider. When you expose alcoholic drinks to air, they pretty much always attract a bacteria called acetobacter, which turns the sugars into alcohol into a tangier liquid–vinegar. You already know this if you’ve ever left a bottle of wine uncorked on the counter for a few days and found a glass tasted tangier than before. Vinegars don’t need a starter – or mother – to ferment, but adding some live vinegar to some wine or cider you’d like to ferment is a foolproof way to get things started. Once they’ve become tangy, most commercial vinegars are then pasteurized to remove the bacteria meaning they no longer contain the acetobacter itself. They’re no longer alive.
Yet many people believe that raw vinegar, a.k.a. vinegar that is still alive, or still contains the mother, is incredibly healthful, especially when swallowed daily. That’s why you see health-conscious types swearing by their kombucha, and weirdos like me nurturing sourdough starter to make bread, pizza, and savory sourdough pancakes. In the case of vinegar, the community of bacteria and metabolic by-products of fermentation have been thought for millennia to help with digestion, boost the immune system, and even keep skin healthy. To drink vinegar every day, though, it helps to have something delicious to help it go down–in this case blueberries, honey, and Thai basil. I blended the fruit, sweetener and herb together with a few tablespoons of the organic vinegar together to make a thick, blueberry skin-speckled tonic. Then, to turn the tangy elixir into a cooling, drinkable glassful, I topped a few spoonfuls off with super cold seltzer. Is this really truly a soda? Not exactly? But it is, for sure, a potentially cure-all drink.
My sourdough starter is nine months old. During the week, it lives in the fridge, but on Thursday nights I move the jar to the counter so I can feed the goo twice to revitalize it so that the natural yeast can leaven the crust on our Friday night pizza.
I won’t bore you with the details of what it takes to take care of a starter (go read this if you think it sounds intimidating), but I will tell you that to keep your starter healthy, you have to discard half of its quantity at each feeding. But by discard, I don’t mean put in the trash. Most sourdough owners find a way to use up the excess starter, and one of the post popular receptacles is pancakes. That’s why you see recipes for sourdough pancakes and sourdough waffles so often: sourdough starter plus egg and milk makes wonderful, slightly tangy pancakes. These pancakes are also easier to digest than your typical batch, because one of the features of a sourdough starter is that it works on the grains, sort of pre-digesting them, and making it easier for your body to absorb its nutrients. According to Sarah Owens, author of Sourdough, that’s why many of her customers can eat her loaves but can’t tolerate gluten in other forms.
In spring and summer, I don’t always want to weigh down my weekend mornings with huge pours of maple syrup, though, and I’ve recently started using my starter in savory pancakes. The form is easily adaptable, and I’ve found myself adding all sorts of green and root vegetables to the simple batter, then frying them up. Here, sliced spring onions add a dose of green, and cubes of cheddar melt and crisp up when you cook the cakes. Instead of butter, as I’d put in sweet cakes, I pour in a quarter cup of Pompeian Organic Olive Oil. After they’re cooked and piled up high, a dollop of yogurt on top completes the dish, making these elegant enough to serve as an appetizer when you have friends over one early evening this weekend – maybe an unexpected moment for breakfast for dinner, but why not?
To avoid the pre-spring dinner rut, I’ve put our meals on a rotation. It’s not the most creative I’ve ever been in the kitchen. But sometimes it’s more useful to have two weeks’ worth of regulars than to improvise and invent every single night, particularly when winter meals are past their prime but spring produce hasn’t yet arrived.
Here’s what’s keeping us fed and happy on a nightly basis this month:
- Linguine with Broccoli (pictured)
The best way to get your serving of green veggies: slowly cooked in olive oil, with garlic, pasta, and parm.
- Smitten Kitchen Meatballs
You cook these easy meatballs right in the sauce, and not only is the end result delicious, but the pacing of the recipe is just right (you make meatballs, chill them while sauce simmers, do something else while meatballs and sauce cook in unison). I sometimes double the recipe and freeze two-thirds.
- Aziz Ansari’s Mom’s Chicken Korma
Sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Again, the pacing really works: marinate the chicken in the morning. Later, just fry onions and hot peppers and simmer the marinated chicken. I use a hand coffee grinder to grind the spices. Best of all, this yields enough for at least two nights and gets better the next day.
Do you know what happens when you put a frozen banana in a high-powered blender with cocoa powder, peanut butter, a little sweetener, and some milk?
You make a smoothie that’s as creamy and rich as a chocolate milkshake, satisfying and filling but not indulgent.
In general, I abhor fake-y substitutions. If you want a chocolate milkshake, have a chocolate milkshake. I just have no patience for the endless list of unsatisfying trade-offs. The point of this smoothie is that it’s a solid, nutritious, and filling snack. So much the better if it’s thick, creamy, and delicious, yet won’t send you off onto a sugar high and then low.
For the last year or so I have made this smoothie so many times that I couldn’t post about it because each smoothie was different from the previous day’s. I never measured, and I used what I had, whether that was a dash of cream leftover from a dinner party’s whipped cream dessert, or a pour of oozy blackstrap molasses which boosted my calcium and iron intake when I was pregnant.
I finally tested and measured my favorite variation so that you, too, could know the filling wonder of a frozen banana-peanut butter-chocolate smoothie. I’m sharing the absolute simplest version, but I’ve made a list of possible add-ins in case you want to try the bulked-up super-nutritious one.
- If you want to make it richer, add a tablespoon or two of cream.
- If you want to make it dairy free, use homemade cashew or coconut milk.
- If you want sweeter, add another date. Or some turbinado sugar. Or some honey. Or some blackstrap molasses (see below).
- If you don’t have a frozen banana, use a ripe banana and a handful of ice cubes (but it won’t be as thick).
- If you want iron, calcium, and deep brown sugar flavor, add a little blackstrap molasses.
- If you want a taste that reminds you of candy, substitute toasted almond butter for the peanut butter.
- If you want a little tang, add a spoonful of yogurt.
- If you like chia seeds, add 1 teaspoon.
Whatever path you take, taste your smoothie directly from the blender before you pour into your glass. Depending on the ripeness and size of the banana, the sweetness and softness of your dates, and your ability to measure rather than eyeball, the smoothie will taste a little different each time. But if you’re like me, you’ll never get sick of it.
At the end of winter, food seems to need extra flavor. I’ve got lots of tricks for adding that flavor: plenty of aromatics, spoonfuls of spices, intense dried fruit, salty olives, or rich olive oil. In this chicken tagine, a hearty end-of-winter stew, I use them all. The best part is that the ingredients are all healthful, even while the standalone dish they create is hearty and satisfying. With sweet potatoes and chickpeas right in the pot, the tagine doesn’t need rice or couscous on the side.