Strained relations with your kitchen? Try a cooking challenge


Cooking at home isn’t an Olympic feat, but even dedicated home cooks have to admit: Eating convenience and restaurant foods is easy. A little too easy.

Frozen and prepared meals are getting healthier and more artisan by the minute, and so are the grab-and-go meals from the market by your office. Tacos on every corner can feel irresistible. For $5, you can buy ingredients and cook food for yourself, or you can pay to not think about making your own food. No wonder many of us are increasingly choosing the latter.

But what happens when we make that choice so often that we forget to think to make a frittata, or a pasta sauce, or a soup, or a loaf of homemade bread? I fall into culinary ruts as often as the next mom of two elementary school students. The kids come home from school and are ready for dinner by 4:30 p.m. I’m often trying to work and make them food at the same time, and there’s little guarantee that they’ll be willing to try that new recipe I recently flagged in a magazine.

These are the conditions that brought me to take on this month’s #30atHome challenge, a grassroots movement started by my friend Martha Pincoffs to encourage people to find new solutions to whatever home cooking hurdles they face. For most of the people who participated, it wasn’t about cooking 90 meals in a month but rather trying new techniques and recipes or new shopping strategies, using up leftovers, making time to cook and eat with others or establishing a better meal planning routine.

I dabbled in each of those over the past 30 days. I enjoyed the freshest, brightest tasting broccolini and cauliflower from East Austin farms. I attended a food swap to make new friends with fellow cooks who were also taking the challenge. I made lists of leftovers, freezer supplies, recipes I wanted to make and ingredients I needed from shopping trips to specific stores.

I spent one Sunday morning in the Central Market bulk section, measuring hard-to-find and new-to-me spices to add to my spice cabinet and smelling teas I knew I’d enjoy while baking yet another loaf of no-knead bread. I pulled cookbooks off the shelf that I hadn’t used in years and made a concerted effort to not only flag recipes but actually buy the ingredients to make them.

There were a few cheat days. Frozen pizzas, a trio of work lunches and one day of office breakfast tacos provided a little relief from the weight of all those dishes. But I also found myself baking desserts almost once a week, dishes be darned.

Each week, this process of picking recipes and realistically planning when I’d want to make and eat them got easier. I wrote the dishes I wanted to make on little sticky notes that could be moved to another day on the calendar if needed, and each week, I took stock of the leftovers and how the week went. It’s amazing what sitting down for 15 minutes at the kitchen table with a stack of cookbooks by your side can do for your creativity.

In the end, those moments of joy are what I knew would await me if I took a few weeks to make a commitment to work on my relationship with cooking. I think it worked.

Street Cart-Style Chicken and Rice

Deb Perelman’s new book, “Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites” (Knopf, $35), was at the top of a stack of books I brought home from work when I started this #30atHome challenge. I spent New Year’s Day making a rough guesstimate of what I wanted to make that week and the following. I made this street cart-style chicken and rice right away, but the Marsala meatballs kept getting pushed back. Because of the sticky notes I was using, I could simply push the dish to another week rather than forget about it altogether.

I followed Perelman’s marinade recipe closely but used a few shortcuts in the rest of the dish, such as a bag of Dole coleslaw salad and a less-cumin-y rice cooked with a (new-to-me) Trader Joe’s turmeric ghee. Instead of making a yogurt sauce, I thinned out a store-bought tzatziki with a little White Mountain Bulgarian yogurt. Two slices of Trader Joe’s naan later, and we had the very best homemade dinner I’ve prepared in a while.

For the marinade:

Juice of 1 lemon

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon paprika (sweet, hot or smoked)

3/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

Pinch of ground cloves

1 teaspoon oregano

2 pounds (about 6) boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 tablespoon olive oil

For the rice:

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1 cup basmati or another long-grain white rice

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine lemon juice, garlic, salt and spices for the marinade in a large plastic zip-top bag. Squeeze the plastic to combine, and then add the chicken thighs. Squish the bag so the spice and olive oil mixture coats the meat. Refrigerate and marinate for 30 minutes or up to two days.

When ready to cook, heat a heavy-bottom skillet over medium-high heat. Add a thin layer of oil and cook three thighs at a time, letting the chicken brown for about 5 minutes before flipping. Cook on the other side for another 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the first batch of chicken from the pan and repeat with remaining chicken. Wipe out the pan.

Slice all the chicken into long strips and add back to the pan to finish cooking. Meantime, heat the olive oil for the rice in a medium saucepan. Add the spices and rice, stirring to coat. (I used a teaspoon of Trader Joe’s turmeric ghee and 1/4 teaspoon cumin.)

Cook for about 3 minutes, and then add the water and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook on low for 15 minutes.

Serve chicken and rice with naan and a salad, topped with any yogurt sauce of your liking, cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.

— Adapted from a recipe by Deb Perelmen in “Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites” (Knopf, $35)

Meatballs Marsala with Egg Noodles and Chives

I usually bake my homemade Swedish meatballs, but after making Perelman’s chicken Marsala meatballs, I might not use another meatball ever — not even IKEA frozen meatballs. That’s a mighty statement, but these chicken meatballs were moist, gently seasoned and a perfect fit for that creamy Marsala sauce. I didn’t even mince the onions finely enough, and they still had a better texture than most homemade meatballs I’ve made. Don’t feel like meatballs? The pan gravy in this recipe would be excellent after making pan-fried or breaded chicken cutlets or seared chicken thighs. You could also replace the egg noodles with rice or mashed potatoes.

For the meatballs:

1 pound ground chicken

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small yellow onion, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the onion

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 large egg

1/4 cup milk or water

Freshly ground pepper

For the sauce:

1/4 cup dry Marsala, sherry or Madeira

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 3/4 cup chicken or beef stock

1/4 cup heavy cream or milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

12 ounces wide egg noodles

1 tablespoon butter

4 teaspoons minced fresh chives (optional)

To make the meatballs:

Place the chicken in a large bowl. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon each olive oil and butter, and once they are hot, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are a deep golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Cool slightly, then add to the bowl with the chicken, along with the panko, egg, milk or water, 1 teaspoon salt and many grinds of fresh black pepper. Stir with a fork to combine evenly. Wet your palms and scoop up about 2 tablespoons of the meatball mixture at a time. Roll back and forth briefly to form a sphere, and then place on a plate. Repeat with remaining meat mixture.

Reheat that large saute pan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon each olive oil and butter and arrange the meatballs in a single layer. Depending on the size of your pan, you might have to work in two batches. Nudge the meatballs after they’ve had a chance to brown on the bottom, and then continue to evenly cook the meatballs, rolling them around the pan, until the meatballs are evenly browned. (They don’t have to be cooked all the way through yet.)

Finish browning the meatballs, and then set them aside to make the sauce and pasta. Heat a large pot of salted water over medium-high heat and cook the pasta according to the package directions, about 6 to 8 minutes. While the pasta water heats, reheat the meatball pan over medium-high heat and pour in the Marsala.

Simmer until the wine has almost completely cooked off, scraping any browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the butter to the pan, and then whisk in the flour. Cook the roux for 1 minute, and then slowly add the broth, whisking the whole time.

Add the cream or milk and season to taste; bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the meatballs back to the pan, turn to coat them in the sauce, cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes to finish cooking the meatballs.

Place the noodles in a bowl and toss with a little bit of the final tablespoon of butter. Add meatballs and pan sauce on top. Garnish with chives, if using.

— Adapted from a recipe in “Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites” by Deb Perelman (Knopf, $35)

Harissa Roasted Potatoes

These harissa-roasted potatoes from Milk Street Kitchen find the right ratio of oil-spice-potatoes. Harissa is roasted red pepper paste that can be difficult to find in everyday supermarkets. Some stores carry a powdered version in the spice section, but for the best stuff, go to a Middle Eastern market and look for a tube of the brightly flavored paste. When making these potatoes, don’t forget to crisp them up again in the oven after you’ve tossed with the spice or paste. This gives the potatoes the right texture and a spicy crust.

3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

5 tablespoons harissa paste, plus more to serve (can substitute 2 tablespoons harissa spice mix)

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Lemon wedges, to serve

Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes and 4 tablespoons olive oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. With a slotted spoon, place the potatoes on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, but reserve the bowl and remaining oil. The potatoes should only be in one layer, so use another pan if needed. Roast the potatoes for about 45 to 50 minutes, until well browned, turning halfway through.

Pour the potatoes back in the bowl with the oil and add the harissa. Toss with remaining tablespoon oil and place back on the baking sheet. Cook for another 10 minutes, place back in bowl and toss with parsley. Serve with lemon wedges.

— Adapted from a recipe in Milk Street Kitchen, January-February 2018

Ginger Beef with Rice Noodles and Herbs

The mixture won’t look like much marinade, but it’s strongly flavored and can season the beef (or tofu or chicken) quickly.

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger, divided

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 pound sirloin tips, pounded to 1/2-inch thick

12 ounces thin rice noodles

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1/4 cup lime juice

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce

1 cup cilantro, chopped

1 cup mint, chopped

1/2 cup chopped peanuts, toasted lightly

In medium bowl, combine 1 tablespoon fish sauce, 1 tablespoon ginger, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, salt and pepper. Coat the meat in the marinade and let rest in the bowl for 15 minutes, or put in a plastic zip-top bag in the fridge for up to 2 hours.

In a large pot of boiling water, add rice noodles and turn off heat. Stir and soak until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water.

In a heavy-bottom pan over high heat, heat peanut oil. Add the meat and brown both sides, about 6 minutes. Let rest on a plate for 5 minutes, then thinly slice against the grain. Whisk the remaining fish sauce, brown sugar and ginger with the lime juice, water and chili-garlic sauce.

Toss the noodles with the fish sauce-lime juice mixture, cilantro, mint and chopped toasted peanuts. Serve with the sliced beef.

— Adapted from a recipe in Milk Street Kitchen, January-February 2018



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