About sa.fifer

Lover of good, wholesome food and wine. Cooks for one and the cat. Likes to paint-- a frustrated botanical illustrator and amateur (photographer) and fledgling birdwatcher, beekeeper, and Kindle addict. Works as a freelance indexer.

Where do I find recipes?

While one of the secrets of cooking for one easily is learning to improvise, I can understand some hesitancy to throw thing into the pot without some guidance–it is a learned skill.  If you are not one of us who avidly reads cookbooks, and owns a few dozen or more, and you are not up to just improvising, where do you find recipes to start with?  I’ve mentioned a few cookbooks that I think are good to get you started on improvising dishes and meals, but I can understand that you might not want to go out and buy cookbooks, so I’m going to suggest some places where you can find recipes.

First, check some of  the blogs that I have listed on my blog roll: Former Chef and Closet Cooking both have some delightful recipes.  Another source that I recommend is Mark Bittman’s column The Minimalist in the New York Times.  The author stresses a few good ingredients for great flavor rather than complicated dishes, so that makes it particularly good if you are trying to work into improvisations of your own.

A neighbor and friend just introduced me to another website that might well be worth exploring:  All Recipes.com.  A neighbor (who also cooks for one) has shared some of the dishes that she has made following recipes from this site, and they have been excellent:  a braised cabbage with keilbasa, and a chicken soup using adzuki beans and kale. This website does require registration, but it is free.  A feature of this website that might be most useful to you if you are just starting with improvisations and changing recipe sizes is a calculator that will do this for you–you do not even have to do the math.  This should help you get a feel for doing this with other recipes.  There are lots of recipes here, ranging from some that use canned ingredients (for example, condensed soup and mixed vegetables) to those using fresh ingredients–you get to choose.

Since I’m a soup lover, and soup usually keeps well, and lends itself to “re-seasoning” and adding additional ingredients to change it, I have found the Swanson Broth website to be useful.  Obviously, I prefer homemade stocks and broths, but there are times when it just isn’t possible; you need some “convenience” ingredients like canned broth in the pantry.  I’ve found Swanson broth to be acceptable.  They have some great, quick recipes which, while they tout Swanson broth and stocks, are very usually use no other processed/prepared ingredients, and can be flexible in quantity.  One of my favorites is the corn and red pepper chowder.  This is quick, easy, and very easy to “refresh” for a different taste from the leftovers.  You might want to change the seasoning:  add one of those chipotle peppers that you froze after you opened the last can.  I particularly like to drop in a few shrimp to poach while I gently reheat the left over soup.  A really quick make-over can be done with a favorite seasoning such as Penzeys Southwest Seasoning.

Other places to look for recipes are purveyors of specialty foods (doesn’t mean you have to buy anything) or cookware.  Cooking.com, Williams-Sonoma, and Penzeys Spices all have recipes on their websites.  Sure, they are touting their wares, but the recipes are good and reliable.

Other sources of recipes are from websites of cooking magazines (and the magazines, too) like Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country, Fine Cooking, and America’s Test Kitchen. Another worthwhile site for those of use looking for single-serving meals is Judith Jones’ Meals for One (at Ophra.com). Her cookbook, The Joys of Cooking for One, is one that’s great for promoting improvisation while cooking for one and eating well.  You’ll find recipes for one on that website.

As you cook more, you’ll find that there are particular chefs whose recipes just seem to click with your style and flavors that you like.  Always check for blogs by these chefs.  One of the latest that I’ve added is Jamie Oliver’s website.  His recipes just “click” for me.  Many websites and/or blogs allow you to register (free) for newsletters or e-mail updates.  If you really like the style of that particular chef, that is a good thing to do.    If there are several, you might consider Google Alerts, or other tools like that.

There are lots of recipes out there–they may not be single-serving recipes, but they will give you ideas for things to try as you learn to improvise.

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The Petit Brasier

I do get excited about kitchen things.  One that you’ve already heard me rave about is the All-Clad saucier pan. While I was browsing the Cooking.com website shortly before Christmas, I found what was listed as a 2-quart “petit brasier” by All-Clad.  Since one of the cooking methods that I employ frequently is braising, I thought that sounded like something very useful for small-time cooking.

I have had a Calphalon “everyday pan” for some time, that gets frequent use; it a similar shape–but it’s really too big when I’m doing single-serving cooking.  This had all the advantages of that bigger pan: two short handles that make getting it in and out of the oven easy; sloped sides that make it useful as a skillet, and it goes easily from stove-top to oven since the handles are metal, plus one more:  it’s size–small!

the petit brasier

I just could not resist, so by way of rationalization, it was considered a gift from my housemate, Keiko the cat. It arrived and looked just as fine as it had on the Cooking.com website.   Here it is–fresh out of the box, just waiting for me to cook something.  It had a good heft when I picked it up–just like all my other All-Clad cookware.  It has had a thorough inspection by Keiko, so it’s now ready to used.

Needless to say, I’m like a kid with a new toy.  I spent a good deal of time mulling over what would be the most appropriate “test drive” for this new pan.  I thought of the most traditional braised dish–pot roast, and not a fancy dish either.  This will be just plain, down-home, country-style pot roast, with brown gravy.  The recipe will be posted next week.   I’m sure there will be something else braised on the menu soon.  I’m sure this will be the usual All-Clad quality; it may turn out to be one of the most used pans in my kitchen, given how often I used the “every day” pan, even thought it was not the right size for solo cooking.  You’ll get a further report in a short time, as well as recipes for braising for one.

This is Keiko, the “fur person” to whom this gift is attributed; that was necessary as I had already decided what I was giving myself for Christmas–and it was not food-related.  I’m sure she will be happy to check out what gets cooked in “her” pan. 

She’s only been with me since April, but she is turning into a very attentive kitchen cat–she comes and miaows at me immediately when a timer goes off  and I’m slow to attend to it.  So, thanks, Keiko, for a petit brasier for some small-time cooking while enjoying big-time taste!

Making stock quickly.

Despite occasionally using the microwave to make stock or broth quickly or in hot weather, I’m a fan of the long, slow, stove-top or oven method so that I can luxuriate in the wonderful smells when it’s cold and/or rainy outside.  It’s such a comforting activity and, though it takes time, it does not require a lot of close attention.  However, there are times when I need stock or broth and I need it quickly.  I gave the basic recipe for chicken broth in an earlier post (See The Microwave in my Kitchen), but I want to show you it can be used for other stock, not chicken.

Cooking some chicken give enough good strong broth for a bowl or two of soup.  There are times when I need more than that because I’ve run out of what I had stashed in the freezer.  That’s likely to happen in the winter when I’m a real soup-hound.

I was happy to find a quick method that does produce good stock–using the microwave.  This might also be a reasonable solution for those of you who don’t have the chest freezer on the back porch or a good-size freezer with the fridge.

I own only one microwave cookbook:  Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet. She was a reluctant convert to the microwave–as well as a traditionally trained chef.  I read her introduction to the book while standing in the Regulator Bookshop; her initial reluctance to hop on the microwave bandwagon made me thing that this might be a different kind of microwave cookbook; I was right.  I still do not cook a lot of things in the microwave, but I have found some very useful things in this book.  I like the fact that she gives single-serving amounts for some of the recipes–as well as doubling some.

Getting bones for making stock is getting harder, with so much meat coming into the store already cut and boned,  but if you can find a butcher shop, it’s well worth exploring the possibility of having them save bones for you.  You should check your farmers’ market as you might be able to get “stewing” hens there, or if there is a vendor selling beef, they might have soup bones (necks, tails, etc.) and that is a real delight.  I’ve found “marrow bones” in the freezer case at the supermarket, but they were so clean that they really did not make good stock (the marrow was excellent spread on toast, though).  For chicken broth, you can always buy a whole bird, and take off the breast and leg/thigh meat and use the rest of the carcass for making broth.

I want to give you an adaptation of her stock/broth recipe (p.314):

Meat Broths

  • 2 pounds meat (chicken, duck, veal, beef marrow, or other beef or lamb bones cut into small pieces–maybe by the butcher)
  • 4 cups water
  1. Place the bones and water in a 2-quart microwave-safe container.  (Personally, I have a large 2-quart Pyrex measuring “cup” that I use for this; it has pouring spout and a handle which I like when working with this much liquid.)  Cook at 100% for 30 minutes, or 40 minutes for a broth that will jell.
  2. Remove from the microwave oven and let stand until it stops bubbling. Strain the broth through a fine sieve.  If you want it clear, you need to do the clarifying procedure, which I’m not including here.  You can find that in her book (p.314).
  3. Cool and refrigerate, tightly covered (See Storage Containers) if not using immediately. (Usually don’t store it–my reason for making it in the microwave was either that it was sweltering summer weather, or I needed it NOW!)

If you have “soup bones” that include lots of meat, as do the ones that I get at the Durham Farmers’ market, then you have a hearty meal that’s beyond just soup. The beef can taken off the bones and added to some of the broth with vegetables for a really hearty meal of serious comfort food.  That’s a bonus.

That’s it!  As is mentioned in another post, I have not  done a side-by-side taste test of the broth make the traditional (long, slow way) with that made this quick way,  I am pleased with the results of  this method.  I will freely admit to keeping canned broth and stock on my pantry shelf, but these are usually a last resort, or to be used when the broth will be a background flavor as in chili con carne–not when it up front really good soup like a winter favorite, beef-barley-mushroom soup.

If you want a “brown” broth, you can always roast the bones in the oven before putting them into the microwave to cook.  The recipe in the book gives lots of variations that are useful, including adjustments for more meat, adding vegetables, clarifying, and making fish broth as well.  If you’re a microwave user, you might find this a great book to have on your shelf, or you might want to check it out of the library and see what else is in it.  There is a large “dictionary” in which she lists lots of different ingredients and gives cooking times, or sometimes recommends not cooking that in the microwave.  I do refer to the dictionary frequently.  If you are a novice with the microwave (think it’s for popping popcorn, or heating water) she does a good review of the types and the shapes of containers that work best for cooking in the microwave and the information on cooking times is useful.

Storage containers

One of the perennial problems with liking to improvise, and wanting to have a well-stocked pantry is that one person uses things more slowly than you would cooking for a family of four.  I think that it’s important to store supplies carefully in closed containers rather than bags or boxes which can let some interesting beasties into your staple supplies.  For years, I carefully cleaned and saved glass jars and their lids.  Great solution?  Well–until the lid loses its seal.

Then what do you do?  My solution was to buy some Mason  canning jars (Ball or Kerr) with wide mouths, in the pint and quart sizes.  They are inexpensive, and lids are  no longer a problem.  The same lids fit all the jars, so I’m not standing around with a jar full of something and trying to find a lid to fit.  The rings last, and last–a bit like the Energizer bunny–and you can replace the seals as needed!  I think that my kitchen shelves even look rather nice…but then I kind of like a homey look.

If your pantry space is cramped,  the wide-mouth jars stack well!  Another advantage of the wide-mouth jars is that a 1/4-cup dry measuring cup will fit through the mouth of the jar easily–so you can dip and measure from the easily. Got to store that 10-pounds of rice that was such a great price?  Well the same lids will fit the half-gallon jars.

With some minimal additional equipment you can even put food by in these same jars–just be sure that you have new lids  if you’re going to use them for long-term preserving of foods.

An awesome lentil soup!

Being both a cookbook/food addict and a Kindle addict, it’s probably no big surprise that I’d have to have a cookbook on my Kindle.  My first one was the Cook’s Illustrated, special Kindle edition (only for Kindle, I believe) which is a great book to have available.  But you can’t expect a cookbook addict to stop at one can you?  Certainly not!

The second one that I downloaded was Kitchen Express. Having the instant gratification of looking, trying a sample, and viola, there it is,  just naturally leads to an I-must-cook-something-out-of-it-now frenzy in the kitchen.  Now I have to say that I love the way that book is organized (aside from the thrill of being able to search using the Kindle).

The weather probably contributed to my choice of a first recipe to try–rainy, but certainly not cold–but the kind of weather to make you want something like comfort food.  I’ve always liked lentils–the cook quickly, freeze well, and all sorts of things.  Given the rain, I searched for lentils and found a recipe for which I had all the ingredients except one: a lemon!  I looked at the description of the recipe, and decided that I had to have a lemon.  Not wanting to go to the grocery store in the rain, I called my closest neighbor to see if she had a lemon I could borrow.  Luck was with me–she had several.

Now having all the ingredients, I made lentil soup (and returned the lemon in a large bowl of soup). Both of us have subsequently done a lot of improvisation around this basic recipe, so I’d like to share it with you, and hope it will inspire you to do some variations.  Here is the recipe reproduced from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express. *

Lemony Red Lentil Soup with Cilantro

Red lentils cook very quickly, but allow more time if you substitute and other type.

Cook a copped onion in olive oil in a saucepan until soft; add one cup of red lentils and four cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil; continue simmering until the lentils are soft.  Puree a handful of cilantro with a few tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt; set aside. If you like, puree half the lentils until almost smooth; return them to the pan. Add about two tablespoons of lemon juice or more to taste.  Stir in the cilantro puree, adjust the seasonings, and serve with crusty bread or a mound of rice in the center.”

I’ve done lots of variations on this one: used lime instead of lemon, added some rice, pureed it or not; there are so many ways to improvise with a recipe like this.  I’ve had the same basic soup with garbonzo beans.  There’s something about the combination of the citrus and the cilantro that just makes this kind of sparkle.  I like to add a bit of the citrus zest to brighten this even more that just the juice.  The pureed cilantro keeps very well in the fridge if the surface is covered with oil (and it’s a great addition to chili con carne to add some fresh contrast).

Well, it’s a few months later, and now we have cold weather, real serious soup weather!  I just finished making another half recipe of this with the chicken broth from cooking some chicken thighs.  Now that it’s colder I wanted to “hearty” the soup up a bit, so I used some French (green) DePuy lentils (which I prefer to red, even though they take a bit longer to cook) and added the chicken meat from one of the thighs that I cooked in the microwave to get both meat and broth.

The only complication that I’ve found with this recipe for one is that bunches of cilantro from the grocery store are huge.  As much as I like cilantro I can never use it all.  In the summer I plant successive pots of cilantro so that there is always some to pick.  In the winter, it’s a different story: want to make this but don’t have cilantro.  I’ve found a great stand-in for the fresh cilantro in the frozen foods department at the grocery store: Dorot Chopped Cilantro (www.dorotfoods.com).  It’s frozen, fresh cilantro in cubes equivalent to 1 teaspoon each.  Nothing is quite like the fresh, but I’ve been rather pleased with this as a stand-in, so it has become a freezer staple for my kitchen.

I’ve just finished a supper of a first course of steam-sautéed vegetables–a medley of carrots, broccoli, and red bell pepper, followed by a hearty bowl of the lentil soup with the chicken meat added.   Since I made a half recipe, I’ll have enough for another bowl in a day or two.  I’ll add another splash of lemon and a bit of cilantro to perk it up, and perhaps have it with (as the recipe suggested) a mound of rice–another satisfying, healthy, and easy meal.

This recipe lends itself so easily to improvisation.  Try it–you’ll find something to please your palate.

A son goût!

* I’ve been searching on how to cite a Kindle reference properly since I don’t have the hard copy.  According to Amazon discussions, the font size does NOT affect the location: so here that is: 1187-98.  Since I’ve given you the exact recipe title, I’m sure you’ll have no difficulty locating it in the book.


Cooking vegetables quickly

No matter how much you like to cook, sometimes you just want to prepare veggies quickly, but still want them to taste good.  One of my favorite ways to quick-cook vegetables is a technique that I learned from How to Cook without a Book by Pam Anderson, who really stresses improvisation and good food.

One of her techniques that I’ve found useful for vegetables is the “steam/sautéed” method.  It’s a very simple technique, using both “wet” and “dry” cooking in a single pan, without boiling or blanching and draining.  You can facilitate speed by how you cut the vegetables–smaller pieces cook more quickly than larger chunks.  This book is an excellent resource to help you learn to improvise and adjust quantities for single servings, doing away with leftovers. Recipes are simple, and presented in a manner that makes them very easy to adjust serving sizes, giving the necessary ingredients and there are variations given so that you get the feel of improvising.

To cook vegetables this way, you need vegetable, some fat, and flavorings.  The recipes in the book are presented starting with one pound of vegetables, but are easily down-sized to a single serving.  The basic ratio of these recipes is (p. 204):

  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon fat
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound prepared vegetable
  • optional aromatics (1/2 small onion, sliced thin, or 2 medium garlic cloves, minced)
  • optional spices (dried or fresh herbs and or flavorings)
  1. Bring the water, fat, salt, and vegetable, along with the optional aromatics, spices, dried herbs and/or other flavorings to a boil in a Dutch oven or a large deep skillet. Cover and steam over medium-high heat until the vegetable is brightly colored and must tender, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the vegetable size.
  2. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the liquid evaporates, 1-2 minutes longer, adding optional fresh herbs and/or other flavoring at this point. Sauté to intensify flavors, 1-2 minutes longer.  Adjust seasonings, including pepper to taste and serve.

The cooking instructions are simple. I’ll give you an example of a recipe from this book, and of the technique (above):

Steam/Sautéed Carrots with Cumin (p.209)

  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch coins
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley or cilantro leaves

Follow the Steam/Sautéed Vegetables recipe (p. 204), adding the cumin with the carrots and the parsley once the carrots start to sauté.

One pound of carrots is approximately 5-6 medium or 4 large, so it’s easy to adjust the proportions here for two medium carrots.  For me, 1 large carrot is about the right amount for a serving of vegetable.  The amounts of fat, spices, and water are easily adjusted (see Measurement Conversions), and they do not have to be exact–you can add a bit more water if the vegetable is not quite tender enough, and a bit extra will evaporate once the pan is uncovered.  You’ll adjust the seasonings to taste, as well.

You will need to consider whether your vegetable is “soft” (vegetables which normally give off water as they cook) may not need the steaming before the sauté step), but  vegetables that do not give off moisture as they cook, like the carrots, green beans, cabbage or broccoli, do need this step.  The amount of water will vary with the density of the vegetable–you will learn to judge that, always remembering that you can add more water a tablespoon or so at a time as needed.

Dried herbs and spices (except black pepper) should be added with the vegetable in order to have the flavors develop.  Because fresh herbs can lose volatile oils with heat exposure, these need to be added at the end so that the freshness is retained.  With this technique is easy to prepare vegetables for small-time cooking, keeping the big-time taste.

Cannellini & Italian sausage supper

One Italian sausage provides seasoning and a bit of meat for two meals.  The starting point gives enough for two servings.  When I’m using the Italian sausage for two separate meals like this, I usually buy sweet instead of hot, since I can readily add the heat I’d like with crushed red pepper flakes at the time I’m preparing the meal.

  • 1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 sweet Italian sausage, meat removed from the casing and crumbled
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups cooked, drained white beans (cannellini or great northern) or 15-ounce can rinsed and drained
  • 2 tablespoon water

In a 12 inch skillet with a tight-fitting cover, add the olive oil; when the skillet is heated add the sliced onion, and cook until it is beginning to brown. Add the sausage and brown.  Add minced garlic and cook about 2 minutes.  Add the rinsed beans, and cook covered about 5 minutes.

Remove half the bean/onion/sausage mixture to be used for a second meal.  Cool and refrigerate.

Meal 1:

  • Half the bean/onion/sausage mixture
  • about 15 grape/cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/4 cup antipasto salad mix (pitted olives, peppers, carrots) from the salad bar, chopped finely.
  • several sprinkles of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2-3 teaspoons chopped fresh sweet marjoram or Turkish/Greek oregano, or 1/2 teaspoon dried herbs.
  • a single-serving size handful of haricots verts
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste (the antipasto salad is salty so taste before you add additional salt.

Add the herbs, the chopped antipasto salad, crushed red pepper flakes and mix well.  Over medium low heat, add the tomatoes, lay the haricots verts on top of the cannellini beans, add the water, cover tightly and continue to cook until  the haricots verts are tender.  Serve with shavings of Pecorino Romano over the canellinni beans, and the haricots verts on the side, drizzled with a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil.

Meal 2:

  • the reserved cannellini bean/onion/sausage mixture
  • about 15 grape/cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 3 generous handfuls baby spinach
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste

Place the cannellini bean/onion/sausage in sauté pan, add the water, halved tomatoes, and cover.  Heat gently for about 5 minutes (until starts to steam).  Add the spinach, cover, and allow spinach to wilt.  Toss to combine with the bean mixture.

I had this with some steam-sautéed carrots as an additional vegetable.  Add a glass of good friendly red wine and its a very satisfying meal that’s easy and economical.