15 July 2007

Pan to Plate

Eating home cooked food is important to me; I might even go so far as to call it a value. Equally important is a meal that does not use overly-processed food; while one can buy just about any kind of food already prepped and ready to cook, for me part of the enjoyment of food is in the preparation itself. I wouldn’t call myself a slow foodie (or even any kind of foodie), but if I’m going to make fish (for example) I would prefer to buy and bread a filet myself than use something pre-prepared: that way, I know what’s in it, how it got there, and why. This is a matter of taste as much as of health.

That said, for most of my cooking life I have had a pan-to-plate existence: cooked food has largely gone straight from cooking to eating. Uncooked or slow-cooked courses – salads, soups, etc. – have been used to break up a meal and balance the timing needed for the stove-top components, which are then plated and served quickly. I’m no restaurateur, it’s just been easier that way, easier both to manage the cooking and to think about how to keep hot food hot. Growing up in a family that generally ate salad as a second course made it even easier to do (to say nothing of the logic of serving hot food first).

Now, with a newborn around, the whole situation has changed. Moving rapidly from pan to plate is still easy – but getting both parents to the plate on time can be a real challenge. The timing of a stove-top meal can (and will; a variation on Murphy’s Law prevails) get interrupted by baby-related events: a diaper to be changed, a pacifier to seek out under a table, a feeding that’s taking just a little extra time. So, I changed my tactics and pulled out the heavy artillery.

Making food that can stay warm and reasonably fresh for an extra half-hour is not that hard; in fact, it isn’t so different from the food I make already. But tactically, it meant changing the actual cooking process a little bit, and deploying some kitchen items that had long lingered in the back of the cabinets. Pyrex, for instance, is my new best friend, and three casserole dishes I inherited – but seldom used – are now seeing a lot of action. All three (two round American ones, and one ovular English one) have glass lids that fit well, and are big enough to hold a good meal but still fit in the microwave. A combined dish of sautéed vegetables, garbanzo beans, and quinoa will stay both hot and fresh mixed together in a casserole, using the microwave’s “Keep Warm” setting, if each component is just slightly undercooked. (Put the quinoa on the bottom, vegetables and beans on top.) Moreover, because the glass lids fit but are not airtight, they keep enough moisture in without creating the moisture-lock that plastic wrap provides, and which can, therefore, overcook the food.

Three ovular porcelain casseroles, sans lids, do the trick for slow-bake foods like potatoes au gratin. This is a classic dish, of course, but its value increases a hundred-fold in a household with other priorities than constant shopping: because it tastes just as good with a mixture of whatever cheeses are available and with slightly-aged potatoes, as it would if made by the book; and because the cooking time can be adjusted to accommodate delays without affecting the food too much. (Add thinly-sliced Vidalia onions and ripe tomatoes in between the potatoes, and this becomes a little bit more than just a side dish. I know there’s a very American version that adds peas, but that has worked for me in style or taste.)

Finally, no essay on home cooking by me would be complete without a nod to my favorite kitchen appliance: my Vita-Mix blender. I splurged on this four or five years ago, but it has definitely been worth it! Soups in a snap, like my favorite summer gazpacho – for us, more of a fresh vegetable soup than the typical, tomato-based fare most places serve – make for healthy and easy meals, and definitely filling when accompanied by a good bread and selection of cheeses. When I first got my Vita-Mix, I used to joke that it was like attaching a blender container to a set of lawnmower blades: just as noisy but just as effective. This is no ordinary blender, and thank goodness. What other appliance can make both instant-freeze sorbet or soft ice cream and bring a soup to a boil and cook the ingredients while chopping them? (Not at the same time, of course.) Our dear baby is only a month old, but I look forward to moving from the fruit smoothies I make for myself to the pureed vegetables and fruits she will start to eat in a few months.

It does sometimes seem as if there’s a universal conspiracy to interfere with making and eating dinner, although this predates the arrival of the baby; telemarketers were and are a more annoying interruption. With a little planning and ingenuity, though, all of this can be overcome. Of course, as my wife would no doubt rush to remind me: it helps if you like to cook in the first place.


Recently, a few people have asked me for my gazpacho recipe, so I thought I’d post it here. Enjoy!


- 4 medium-sized ripe tomatoes (preferably the "vine ripe" kind, not hothouse)
- 1 hydro / English cucumber or 2 regular cucumbers
- 1 small-medium Vidalia onion
- 1 orange or yellow pepper
- 1-2 cups fresh baby spinach, washed well
- 1 clove of garlic
- 2 pinches of sea salt
- A little pepper
- A little herbes de Provence
- A little olive oil (about 1-2 teaspoons)
- A little lemon juice (about ¼ - ½ teaspoon)

Cutting the veggies into quarters and blending well; blending can take a few minutes, especially to cut through the skin of the cucumber and pepper, so don't be afraid to give it more time if you think it needs it. And if you're making this with veggies from the fridge, it should stay cold enough to serve quickly without further chilling.

A couple of variations:

- This can be a very green gazpacho, esp. with the spinach. For a more tomato-y soup … add more tomatoes.

- I sometimes roast my peppers to remove the skin before adding them – which also adds a nice flavor, because you've roasted the pepper.

- The onion can overpower, but onions vary. Depending on your tastebuds, if the onion smells stronger than you expect once quartered, cut back a little. I like my onions, but some people don't…

- Ditto for the garlic. In this context it can take on a much more subtle, undercurrent flavor; some like it, some don't.


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