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.

Take four chicken thighs…

If you are going to cook for one, you need to get away from recipes that specify exact quantities–it’s a step toward learning to improvise as you cook.  I’d urge you to take a look at Kitchen Express by Mark Bittman–you don’t have to buy it, thought it’s a great book to have; go to the library and check it out. (It’s also available for Kindle, too)  Other simple, and simply good recipes can be found at The New York Times, and at Mark Bittman.com.  You will find recipes that are easy to do for one because they are “quantity-less” in the sense of the typical recipes.  They don’t call him “minimalist” without a reason–a very few ingredients can make some wonderful eating.

Now for those four chicken thighs, cooked as described in “The Microwave in my Kitchen”, here’s what has been done with some, and what is intended for that fourth one:

1.  Chicken salad for a sandwich, quickly made by adding some minced red onion, a bit of cutting celery (See Herbs page) leaves and stems, salt, fresh-ground black pepper, a squeeze of lime juice (or lemon juice), and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

2.  A warm meal of chicken with  part of a can of chickpeas left from a previous use.  Sautéed a handful of onion in olive oil until softened, added a big clove of garlic, the chicken cut into bite-sized pieces, added some halved grape tomatoes, about a tablespoon of chopped sun-dried tomatoes, a dash of Syrian oregano (still growing on my deck); finish with salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste.   Add a  single-serving salad of mixed greens and had a quick, satisfying meal.

3.   The third piece went to make some quick chicken hash for Sunday breakfast as follows:  In a 12-inch nonstick skillet sauté a handful of diced onion  in olive oil until just starting to brown.  Add two minced garlic cloves (I like lots of garlic),  and cook for two or three minutes.   Meanwhile, open a can of diced potatoes (I told you this was quick–obviously you can start with raw potatoes and sauté them until tender) and brown them lightly. Rinse and drain the potatoes, add to the skillet and sauté until they start to brown.

Remove half the potato mixture–this is destined for another use.  Remove the meat from the chicken thigh if it was bone-in and dice the meat.  Add this to the potato mixture in the skillet, along with some (about 1/2 teaspoon) fresh thyme (again still growing on my deck) and continue to sauté.  When the potatoes and chicken are slightly browned, remove to a plate and keep warm.  Cook one egg (or two if you are really hungry) to medium, and serve over the chicken hash.

The portion of potatoes that you removed from the skillet can be used in different ways: the are likely to become a kind of quick version of a Spanish tortilla by just  warming and adding a couple of eggs and serving with a salad or vegetable.

4.  With the broth obtained from cooking the thighs in the microwave, I plan make a meaty chicken soup using that fourth chicken thigh, using that bit of  rice left  from another meal.  I’ll add more veggies, perhaps a bay leaf, and some of my “lazy” favorite (and only) herb mix, herbs de Provence. I’ll see when the time comes–since I don’t do leftovers, I probably shouldn’t do predictions either.

There will be a follow-up on that fourth piece of chicken to let you know where my improvisation lead me.  I’ll give you another example, using a recipe from Kitchen Express for a lentil soup that just blew my mind (See An Awesome Lentil Soup).  It was such an unexpected combination of flavors, and it is one that I keep using to improvise with other ingredients, as well as coming back to the original.  It’s a recipe where I could also make use of the last piece of chicken.

The microwave in my kitchen

I guess I’m not really fond of many small appliances or kitchen gadgets.  There seem to be a lot that just take up drawer space or counter space and don’t work that well.   In many ways the microwave has mostly been just a “gadget” in my kitchen.  Most of the microwave recipes that I found were just not that good: edible, but that’s about it. Many of the early cookbooks that I looked at seemed to suggest that anything could be cooked well in the microwave.  Admittedly, I’ve not looked at a lot of newer ones because they seemed so uncritical about what does or does not cook well in the microwave.  So for me it was for melting chocolate, making popcorn, heating a cup of water….

I’ve revised my opinion slightly after finding the Microwave Gourmet cookbook by Barbara Kafka.  This author is a traditionally trained chef, and approached the microwave in a very skeptical frame of mind, and that has produced a useful microwave cookbook.  There is no hesitation in saying what NOT to cook in the microwave.

One of the really useful features of this book  is a dictionary where you can look things you might want to know about cooking in the microwave, and find times, suggested container sizes in which to cook it.  I’ve use this more than almost any other part of the book, except possibly the information on how to arrange foods in containers in order to have them cook properly.

I’ve tried the microwave risotto, and it’s not bad for times when you don’t want to spend the time standing by the stove stirring for 25 minutes or so.  (I’m anxious to compare the results of this with the Cook’s Illustrated simplified risotto.)

The most-used recipe in that book for me is the one for quick chicken broth or stock.  I’m mostly a stove-top or oven stock maker, but this is great when you don’t have canned stock or want some really good broth for soup.  Here is the recipe:

Use bones (carcass from the roast chicken, or necks, backs, wings, or giblets (except liver).  You can collect these in the freezer until you have enough, or if you’re lucky, you can buy backs cheaply and make this whenever you need to.

  • 2 pounds chicken
  • 4 cups water

For 4 cups, place the bones and water in a 2-quart dish and cover tightly with microwave plastic wrap.  Cook at 100% for 30 minutes.  (Cook 40 minutes for broth that will jell.)

For 2 cups, use 1 pound bones, and 2 cups water.  Cook for 20 minutes.

This cookbook has directions for making  the classic stocks and broths in the microwave–including vegetable and fish/seafood broths.  Although I’m sure I will not give up the stove-top or oven long, slow preparation of stock I think that I’ll turn to the microwave more frequently, especially in hot weather.  I’ve not done a side-by-side tasting of each method, but this is certainly better than canned!

I’ve also cooked chicken in the microwave according to instructions in this book and been pleased with the results.  I use chicken thighs instead of breasts, but instructions/times can be found in the Dictionary section of this cookbook.  An unexpected benefit of cooking the chicken this way  is some very good strong broth; just enough to make one good  serving of chicken soup.  To me the texture of the chicken is a bit different when done in the microwave– more chewy, but not tough, or disagreeable at all (I actually like that “chew”).  I expect that I’ll be using the microwave more often to cook chicken now.

“Convenience” foods for cooking for one

Time frequently seems to be of the essence when cooking–for one or for many.  There are some things that I discovered that save me lots of time–and that means that I’m much more likely to cook a meal, rather than do carry-in, or reach for the peanut butter jar!

When you see “convenience” food, I dare say your first thought is processed, open-heat-and-eat food.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m thinking of things you prepare yourself with choice ingredients, and freeze, or otherwise “put by” for later uses that can shave time off of recipes.

How many recipes do you have that start with  a “flavor base” like  sofrito (Spanish), soffrito (Italian), mirepoix or mirepois (French)?    Lots, probably.  How many times have you passed on that recipe because you don’t have those, you did not want to spend the time mincing, dicing, or you pulled that bag of celery out of the crisper, and–yuck–it’s no longer fit to use!   Cooking for one, I find celery a particularly frustrating ingredient.  I like celery–but it always seems to go bad in the crisper.

Many flavor bases to start soups, stews, et cetera begin with carrots, celery, onion, diced or minced and sautéed  in olive oil (or maybe butter).  True it’s only a few minutes work to do this–if you have the ingredients.  My solution to this has been to take celery, carrots, onions, and use the food processor to chop a large batch of this useful mixture, sauté in a mild olive oil with just a touch of salt, and then pack it into small containers in lots of a couple tablespoons (or freeze in ice-cube trays and transfer to zipper-lock bag), and put it in the freezer so that when I need it, I have the basic prepared carrots, celery and onions, to which I can add garlic and herbs as needed for a particular recipe, and I’m off to a running start.

I do keep canned beans around as a “convenience” food, but I much prefer to cook my own dried legumes (pulses).  Since that is a time consuming thing, I have found a way to make those into “convenience” ingredients:  cook a large batch until almost fully cooked, and then freeze with some of the liquid in small quantities–a cup or so, whatever you would most likely use.  I’ve found that they hold well in the freezer, and can finish cooking quickly, so that you have the advantage of home-cooked quality, without the time investment.  I’ve done this with lentils (my favorites being the French LePuy) of all sorts.  True, lentils cook quickly and do not require soaking, but I can still save time with these.   I particularly like to do this “precook” with beans since that means that I can have lots of variety and have the convenience of canned, with specialty beans that are very tasty.

Grains can also be done this way too.  That left-over serving of rice that I’m sure I’m not going to use this week gets labeled, dated, and put into the freezer for a quick serving when I don’t want to take the time of cook rice from scratch.

Risotto is another favorite main dish for me–right in my category of comfort food with mac ‘n’ cheese, and tomato soup; I don’t find cooking it to be difficult–in fact it’s rather relaxing, but time consuming.  I’ve tried some of the “quick” recipes (see Risotto post) and have not been too dissatisfied with them, but I’ve also found that I can make a big batch of risotto to the point where it’s ready for the addition of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then freeze it is serving-size batches.   It will thaw quickly, and lets me have risotto fairly frequently.   It’s easy to add vegetables or seafood or other quick-cooking things as you finish this preparation.

Another “convenience” ingredient is homemade broth or stock.  While I will admit to keeping canned/boxed broth/stock on hand, I much prefer to have the real homemade thing, and that is not hard to do:  make a large batch on a cold rainy day when it’s good to be indoors; freeze it in small quantities for future use.   I’ve found a very quick way to make chicken broth too.  More about that later.

All these little conveniences can add up to much better small-time cooking with big-time flavor even when cooking just for one.

Chilli con carne

I love weather where I can get up want to put on clothes and  warm food like oatmeal for breakfast!  This morning I turned on the space heater in the office for a bit.  This means it’s time to cook things that will give me quick comfort food during the colder weather.

One of my favorites  for winter is chilli con carne–a version that I learned from a cook who spoke no English,  by watching it being made.  I’ve only made one modification to that original “recipe”–and that has been to add some sun-dried tomatoes; otherwise, it’s as I saw it made originally.

This is not a recipe that has fixed amounts–you’re going to have to taste and season it to suit yourself.  It’s a bit time consuming, but since it’s a large quantity and freezes well, it’s well worth the time and effort.

You can manipulate the “heat” by leaving in some seeds from the chile peppers, or by adding cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes to achieve the desired hotness.  I usually leave the seeds in about half the chile peppers–I’d consider it mild to moderate in heat, depending on the particular batch of chile peppers.

Ingredients:

  • 4 slices bacon or fatback minced, browned and reserved
  • 6 to 8 medium yellow onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 3 pounds beef, diced or coarsely ground
  • 3 pounds pork, diced or coarsely ground (shoulder preferred to loin)
  • 4-5 chipotle peppers in adobo (1 small can)
  • 2-3 dried ancho chilli peppers, toasted and crumbled (seeds removed)
  • 2-3 dried guajillo or pasilla  negro chilli peppers, toasted and crumbled (seeds removed)
  • 1/2 cup minced garlic
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup masa harina, toasted; cornmeal can be substituted if you don’t have masa harina)
  • 32 ounces of beef broth/stock
  • kosher salt to taste (approximately 3 teaspoons)

Assembling the chili:

  1. In a large dutch oven, sauté bacon until brown and crisp; remove and reserve.
  2. Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of fat, reserving excess, and add the chopped onions; cooking slowly until caramelized.
  3. Meanwhile, toast the dried chilli peppers by holding in the flame of a burner until aromatic.  Remove seeds and crumble.
  4. Toast the masa harina in a small skillet and set aside.
  5. Add cumin and coriander to the onions and sauté until aromatic.
  6. Add garlic and sauté for about 1 minute.  Remove to a bowl and set aside.
  7. Add additional bacon fat if needed, and brown meats in small batches, transferring to the bowl with other ingredients.
  8. Remove excess fat from dutch oven, and deglaze by adding beef stock.
  9. Transfer meats and other ingredients from the bowl to dutch oven, add chipotle peppers and adobo sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, and salt.  Stir in the toasted masa harina.
  10. Cover tightly and place the dutch oven in a very low (275 ° to 295 ° F) oven and allow to cook for approximately 4-6 hours, tasting and adjusting seasoning as needed.  Add water or more stock if it becomes too dry, but I prefer this to be a thick chili.

I’ve tried this once in a crock-pot or slow cooker, and just not been happy with the final result.  I think that the oven cooking allows just enough evaporation and concentration to do good things with the flavor that just cannot be gotten with a crock-pot.  It was certainly edible when done in the crock-pot, but just lacked a little something.  Were I doing this in hot weather, I’d certainly use the crock-pot, but since the weather is cooler now, the oven heat is not a problem, and I get to savor the aroma as it cooks.

Eat Your Books to find recipes!

I have  found a resource that I have to rave about: a website called Eat Your Books. For those of us who have LOTS of cookbooks it’s a real treasure.  How many times have you stood, staring at the bookshelves, wondering where  you saw that recipe for beef tongue?  (Okay, maybe not many for tongue, but how about that overflow of tomatoes in the summer and the zucchini and eggplant?)  Well, there’s caponata, ratatouille….but where are the recipes. This site does not provide recipes–it provides the means for you to find them in your own books!

Eat Your Books is a site that has indexes of cookbooks (over 1,200 now and growing).  You put those virtual books on your virtual bookshelf on the website, and you can then search the indexes for recipes.  A friend discovered this and told me about it.  It’s not free, but is definitely worth the price.  I signed up for a trial membership and spent the time adding some of the titles that I own, and took it for a test drive.  I tried some common things (eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini), and some rather esoteric things (beef tongue, beef heart). Worked like a charm.  (Of course, I did have several cookbooks that had  beef tongue recipes.)  The tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant were there too.  The search is not quite Google so it made a difference if I searched for tomato-zucchini, or tomatoes and zucchini, but once you get the hang of it, it’s like having the world at your fingertips.

Another great thing that the site does is list the major ingredients with each recipe so that you can evaluate the potential from the list of recipes.  So, though I had tomatoes and zucchini, I did not have peppers, so I could rule out some recipes right at the search point.

Needless to say my test drive was a short one.  I was preparing food for the time when I was having a house guest, so I really gave the “trial” a good workout, and decided this was a must-have for me.  Because it was still in “beta” testing, there  was a special rate for a lifetime membership and I opted for lifetime rather than annual. The beta testing is over now and the “real” version is up and working but I think there may still be a special lifetime membership offer.   I have only entered about 40 of my titles so far, but it’s well worth the effort to do this.  I cannot imagine being without this website now. There is a blog and community pages as well.

At the present time, there are rarer books that are not included, but the numbers are growing all the time, and new features are being added.  You can also suggest books to be indexed.

A favorite herb or spice?

I was recently faced with answering a question on an application for employment that really made me think about herbs and spices.  The question:  What is your favorite spice or seasoning, on what do you use it?  My first inclination was  herbs and spices, and I use them on everything, but I decided that was inappropriate, and gave some thought to the matter.

Well, I’ve decided that I cannot say that I have a favorite herb or spice!  My difficulty in answering this question is that I  love most herbs and spices (not really sure about asafoetida yet), and that my preferences change seasonally, and even with the weather within any particular season.   I likely will not season haricots verts in the middle of the winter as I might with the first fresh ones off the bush in the spring. Crisp autumn weather leads me to use “warmer” herbs and spices than during the heavy, humid summer heat, when I want cool and refreshing seasoning.

As a person who cooks for one and sometimes has several servings of the same vegetable, fruit or meat in a relatively short period of time, I find that one of the best ways not to get that “leftover” flavor is to use different herbs and spices with the same vegetable or meat at different times.  When I come home from the farmers’ market with a huge bunch of greens, I may prep them so that I can use them in multiple ways: first, I may sauté some simply seasoned with good extra-virgin olive oil salt and fresh-ground black pepper.  The second time I use them,  I may add onion, or sweet peppers, and if there is a third use, maybe more robust seasonings like garlic, crushed red pepper flakes.  Sometimes I open up the drawer where my herbs and spices live and just open jars and sniff to determine what I’ll use.  I suppose that I have to admit that even mood affects how I season things!  (I have the same difficulty answering the similar question about what is my favorite color, and to me herbs and spices are very much like painting with a palette of colors.)

There are classic pairings, such as basil with tomatoes, which are wonderful, but fresh sweet marjoram is also wonderful with those luscious summer tomatoes; so is Greek oregano and Syrian oregano, though I suppose I tend to use those even more in the winter or at least cooler weather. Classic combinations not withstanding, I love the process of seasoning my food–of smelling the individual components and blending, and tasting the results, and that is a large part of  cooking for me to fit my taste for a particular ingredient, or season, or mood.  Seasoning can make cooking for one a delight–a son goût!

I’m left without an answer to the question that started all this!  In looking at my selection of herbs (dried in the drawer, or fresh in the pots on my deck) I simply cannot say that there is a favorite.  I have very few prepared mixes of herbs or spices, usually choosing to do my own blends.

I’m not intending to denigrate pre-mixed seasonings, at all, if they are made with quality ingredients and are not mostly salt or sugar.  There is one  mixture of herbs that I do purchase blended, and that I do use when I find myself unable to make up my mind or am really in a rush:  herbs de Provence.   But I’m not willing to say that is my favorite–it’s a regular potpourri of herbs that is useful for meats, vegetables, soups, and stews.  My favorite herbs de Provence I order, as I do almost all of my herbs and spices, from Penzeys Spices. It reflects an admixture of French and Italian herbs that must hark back to Roman influences:  rosemary, fennel, thyme, savory, basil, tarragon, dill weed, Turkish oregano, lavender, chervil, and marjoram.    What’s not to love in that mixture!

I’m sure that good seasoning mixes do fill a niche for many home cooks who don’t love the seasoning process as much as I do, and have a definite place in their kitchens.  I just love the sniffing and tasting part of food preparation.  Penzeys Spices has a great selection to browse if you are finding your way and learning about herbs and spices outside the basics.  You will find lots of salt-free seasoning mixes to try.  That’s one of the good things about cooking for one, it’s definitely a son goût!

More on duck with fresh fig sauce

This duck with fresh fig sauce is such wonderful treat that I’m experimenting with ways to do this for one, or maybe two people.  I’ve always made stock from the leftover duck carcass and put that in the freezer.

I have also made the duck-fig bouillon to just short of the final reduction and put some in the freezer, with the figs (no idea how they will fare) to see if I can adapt this recipe to be done with pan-seared duck breasts, which seem to be readily available from the supermarket.  I want to be able to taste the bouillon from the freezer with some made with just the frozen duck stock and fresh figs to see how it has held up to the freezing.

I have enough friends who like duck that I can do a whole roast duck occasionally, and have the carcass to make stock so it’s always on hand from the freezer; however, if you don’t want to do the whole duck or the two-duck recipe, you can obtain duck-veal demi-glace from D’Artagnan and that would certainly be a good starting point from which to begin.  I have used this  product before in making cassoulet and was very pleased with it.

I’ll be reporting on the results of this experiment soon as the weather is cooling off and more robust food begins to appeal–and the last of the figs on the tree are ripening.