Last Week I Cooked….No Recipe Experiment

Meals this week were an experiment. Usually I spend time on Sunday planning out meals for the week. I flip through the cookbooks that are speaking to me at the moment, scroll through my extensive Pinterest boards, or search for recipes to make with the vegetables of the season. I almost always have a plan, and also follow recipes to learn new techniques and dishes. At breakfast and the rare times I cook for lunch I rely on my intuition and whatever is around far more, but dinner is usually when I have more time to play around in the kitchen. May though, is easily the busiest month at work and last weekend there was no way I was fitting in an hour of meal planning. So instead was born a new challenge: what could I cook without a recipe? I didn’t even allow myself to look up proportions/portion sizes for cooking polenta. All had to be based on my own cooking senses. And guess what? We ate dinner (and leftovers for lunch) every night this week. My carbonara turned out a bit too eggy, but I can make a mean salad and dressing with my eyes closed. Not following recipes made for far simpler meals, which certainly reduced my stress level. I will always love the thrill of learning something new from someone else’s instruction, but it’s good to remember I can feed my people without outside assistance.

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersPolenta with Spanish chorizo, kale, and a fried egg. I can’t really take credit for how good this was, because I was working with the best sausage in the world. I cooked up 2 cups of polenta with half milk/half water (very low heat, lots of stirring). I diced the sausage and cooked it through, then added a mountain of kale to the pan and tossed it so it was thoroughly coated in sausage fat. Covered the pan so it would all wilt down, and then fried eggs over easy to put on top. I would eat this for breakfast, lunch, or dinner any day of the week.

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersAsparagus carbonara. I cooked up a full pound of bacon cut into lardons but reserved half for tomorrow night’s dinner. While the bacon was cooking I boiled the pasta. I cut a bunch of asparagus into angled pieces the same size as my penne and then cooked them in some bacon fat. Four eggs were whisked (but I should have done 3) with about half a cup of sour cream (because I forgot to buy heavy cream…), some grated parm, and a pinch of salt. When the pasta was done I reserved about 1/4 of a cup of cooking water, then tossed the pasta, bacon, asparagus, egg mixture, and reserved water in the same pan off the heat. Served with lots of cracked black pepper and red pepper flakes.

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersBig ranch BLT salads. These started with a head of romaine and some cabbage leftover from last week’s lo mein (have you made that lo mein yet? I’m gearing up to make it again). Then on went diced cucumber, halved cherry tomatoes, sprouts (unearthed in the crisper drawer, leftover from veg sandwiches a couple weeks ago). I defrosted some chickpeas from the freezer, dried them, then tossed them in some bacon fat, smoked paprika, and salt. They went into a hot cast iron pan and toasted for about 10 minutes. The ranch was made from buttermilk, a bit of sour cream and mayo, lemon juice, salt, pepper, Dijon mustard, and chopped chives. All that plus a bit extra bacon from yesterday made for a stellar salad.

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersYogurt chicken skewers, asparagus, potato salad, salad with beets and daikon, and lemon yogurt dressing. I marinated cut up chicken breasts in lemon juice, Greek yogurt, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper (basically what I could remember from Dinner: A Love Story) for a couple hours. The asparagus was super basic and just broiled with oil, salt, and pepper. The potato salad was dressed with mayo, Dijon, champagne vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried dill, plus a couple hard-boiled eggs. The dressing was almost identical to the marinade, but minus the garlic plus some honey. I broiled the beets in slices before chopping them, and soaked the chopped daikon in some ice water and drained before topping the salad. As a little experiment I chopped up some of the beet stems and quick pickled them with 1:1 champagne vinegar:water, salt, and honey.

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Last Week I Cooked….

Last Week I Cooked 5.22 - Vegetal MattersTomato soup and grilled cheese. It took me too long to try out this super fast, barely cooked miracle soup. It lived up to all claims of deliciousness and is vegan. I made 1.5x the recipe for 8 servings and future me is going to be very happy to have them in the freezer. While we were grocery shopping it was Will’s job to pick out the bread and cheese for grilled cheese. He found a wheat sandwich bread and smoked gouda with bacon, and there were no complaints in the house.

Last Week I Cooked 5.22 - Vegetal MattersStuffed and sauced sweet potatoes. These are really all about the sauce. I found a whole sweet potato plus the chickpeas to be too big for a single portion. 3/4 of a sweet potato was more like it. Next time I think I would make 1/2 a sweet potato per person and sometime green to go alongside. The dish as is was sweet to me, but extra chili garlic sauce evened everything out.

Last Week I Cooked 5.22 - Vegetal MattersPizza with asparagus, leeks, feta, and lemon zest (inspired by Shutterbean and Dinner: A Love Story). I sauteed the leeks in some olive oil and roasted the asparagus for 5 minutes while the oven was heating up. Besides the feta I put some cream cheese on the pizza because it needed to be used and it didn’t seem like the worst idea ever. It didn’t really melt at all and I think would have been too sweet if there wasn’t salty feta to balance it, but it was fine (and not wasted!).

Last Week I Cooked 5.22 - Vegetal MattersStir-fried lo mein with charred cabbage, shiitake, and chives. This lo mein is cabbage’s highest calling. It is a bit charred but still sweet with a vegetal crunch. I used dry noodles instead of fresh and I think that may have thrown off the proportions a bit because there wasn’t enough sauce. The sauce ingredients were all pantry staples though so it was an easy remedy. I came home seriously considering collapsing into bed instead of making dinner, but this came together mercifully fast and the flavor far surpassed the effort required.

Last Week I Cooked 5.22 - Vegetal MattersButtermilk pancakes with strawberries. When berry season comes around I find myself craving a sweet breakfast more often (also, I fell behind on my bread making so there was no toast to be had). I subbed half the flour for whole wheat and they were great as always.

Last Week I Cooked 5.22 - Vegetal MattersPimentón fried eggs. These were much fancier than our usual fried eggs for just a modicum more effort. The flavor of the paprika didn’t come through that strongly, but maybe mine is on it’s way out or it was overshadowed by the avocado. Next time I am going to try them with chili powder.

Last Week I Cooked….

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersChicken parm meatballs with garlic bread and salad. These won’t ever replace meatballs or chicken parm, but as a fast meal they earn their own place. I’m not going to go so far to say this is my “perfect” garlic bread. It didn’t quite have the punch of garlic I wanted, but I think that could have been because I didn’t cook the garlic in the butter long enough so I’ll give it another try. The salad was essentially everything leftover from the previous weeks veg sandwiches, chopped up with a lemon vinaigrette.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersQuinoa cauliflower patties with za’atar roasted carrots (from Bowl + Spoon) and kale and cabbage salad. I’ve made these patties many times before. I love eating them, but never look forward to cooking them because it takes so long to fry the patties and they do not stay together well. Somehow it took me until now to realize I could just bake the whole lot. They weren’t as pretty as the pan-fried version, but the taste was all there. I roasted them for about 20 minutes at 400F (which is how long and hot the carrots needed to be in). It was the first time I made these carrots (also one of Sara’s recipes) and loved the feta and tahini topping. The salad was just tossed in lemon juice and olive oil.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersSalad with hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and Dijon vinaigrette. The base of this salad is all of the green things that were in the fridge: kale, cabbage, and pea shoots. I added in a bit of red onion, tossed it in a vinaigrette with lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, grated garlic, and a tiny bit of honey. Egg and tuna made this into dinner, and it was a great one.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersBurgers with bleu cheese, grilled onions and tomato, and grilled sweet potato fries. Classic and delightful. The burgers were seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. I grilled the tomato halves then sliced them for the burgers. The sweet potatoes I punctured and then cooked in the microwave before slicing and seasoning them to grill.

Breakfasts this week included many iterations of tacos and burritos. Basically last weekend’s taco dinner leftovers, but with less of the traditional fillings and plus eggs. 

Pasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto

Pasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto - Vegetal MattersIt’s a good thing my sausage order didn’t come in this week. I planned on making this orecchiette with sausage and pesto, or maybe my eternal favorite, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. Without good sausage, neither seemed appealing, so instead I turned to the half a cauliflower in the fridge. Pesto still seemed like a good idea, but I used the perfectly serviceable greens already in the house (kale and parsley) in place of basil.

What resulted was the fastest dinner I’ve made all week (exactly 45 minutes). Pasta with nicely charred cauliflower and pesto that hits all the right notes of salt, grassy herbs, and richness from the pine nuts and olive oil. I keep pine nuts in my freezer for when pesto cravings strike (and to make this salad topping – so good!), and throw them straight from there into the food processor.

Pasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto - Vegetal MattersPasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto

Serves 6. Inspired by Two Red Bowls, pesto recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food.

  • ½ a large cauliflower, or 1 whole smaller one (I used half a giant one, that clocked in at 26 oz worth after the stem was removed)
  • 1 lb pasta (I used orecchiette, because it was either that or lasagna noodles from the pantry. Another short pasta like penne, zitti, or fusilli would be great.)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped kale
  • 1 tablespoon parsley (or more if you want)
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon (divided)

Preheat the oven to 425F. Cut the cauliflower into small florets about the size of your pasta. Toss in 1 tablespoon olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper, and spread out on 2 baking sheets. This may seem like one extra pan to clean (and it is), but it is needed for truly crisped and not just steamed cauliflower. Roast the cauliflower for 10 minutes, and then toss it. If your pieces are very small check again after 5 minutes. Mine were about an inch long and done after 10 more minutes.

When you put the cauliflower in the over, put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

While your water is coming up to temp, make your pesto. Using a food processor start the blade running and drop in the garlic. When you stop hearing it bounce around it will be fully chopped. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the salt, kale, parsley, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. Pulse until they are uniformly combined, then run the machine and stream in the olive oil. Taste and adjust if needed.

When your water boils add the pasta and cook according to the directions for your particular shape (or, set the timer for 7 minutes and taste every minute after for done-ness). Before draining the pasta reserve a small cup-full of the water. Drain, then return the pasta to the pot. Add in the roasted cauliflower, pesto, and two tablespoons of the cooking water. Stir to combine, and if it seems a little dry add another tablespoon of water.

Serve with a bit of extra parm grated on top and a sprinkle of parsley.

Last Week I Cooked….

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal Matters Make your own veg sandwich. I get home later on Mondays so the winter meal plan was to make a soup while I cooked dinner on Sunday to eat leftover (which worked out perfectly). But, we are starting to transition out of soup season. This week I tried a new approach and prepped every vegetable in the fridge that could go in a sandwich, including radicchio, cucumbers, sprouts, carrots, avocado, and red onion. There were a variety of spreads (hummus, herby goat cheese, whipped feta) and bread (pita, wheat, rolls). Everyone got to make something they liked and there was no actual cooking involved. I can see this being a regular summer meal.

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersBarley risotto with beans and greens. This tragically used the last of the stock in the freezer, but came together under an hour, packed in a lot of vegetables (I added in carrots and celery with the onions, and used kale for the greens), and ended up being the perfect meal for a rainy spring day when you want something warming but not more soup.

DSC01853Roast chicken with lemon, roasted potatoes with dill, and roasted asparagus. I used the basic roast chicken recipe from The Homemade Kitchen (rub chicken with oil, squeeze lemon over, roast at 425). The real revelation was in the pan gravy which I made with cream at Alana’s suggestion since I was out of stock (see: the previous night’s dinner) and it was incredible. So rich and luxurious. I finished the roasted potatoes with dill (inspired by this recipe, but I didn’t use the rest of the fun bits) and just made basic roasted asparagus. I was feeling ambitious and made an aioli to go with the asparagus, but it tasted off. I used 2 garlic cloves but one was big, and it tasted way too strongly of garlic. I added more lemon to tone down the garlic, but I think the olive oil just was too flavorful or maybe going off because it still didn’t taste right. Next time!

Beef tacos with tortillas, salsa de arbol, rice, refried beans, guacamole, lime crema, and quick pickled cabbage (taco filling and rice recipes from Mexico: The Cookbook, refried beans from How to Cook Everything: The Basics, and quick pickled cabbage from The Homemade Kitchen). This is the second time in two weeks I’ve made tacos for a dinner party and it should happen even more often. These were a bit more elaborate since I made the tortillas (with help rolling), but the rest of the components were fairly simple. The salsa takes a bit more work, but it was my favorite thing on the table (and will be making its way on to my eggs this week!).

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersThe breakfast burritos were a little less traditional this week, but still easy as anything. I used scrambled eggs, red beans (which I cooked to use in the barley risotto), cooked broccoli, and avocado. (And easy breakfasts don’t have to be pretty breakfasts.)

Easy Breakfast Ideas

I make breakfast almost every day. Yet, it seems to be the meal I most often panic before as if it if my first time cracking an egg. Probably because it’s not a meal I really plan for. I make sure there are eggs and some kind of base for them in the house (bread, tortillas, potatoes, polenta), plus leftover vegetables from dinner.

On a weekday I spend 10-15 minutes making breakfast for two, usually more than that on the weekends. Weekdays are never fancy, and often just repeats of the same items in slightly different iterations (toast + veg + egg + hot sauce). More than anything this is a reminder to myself of just how many options I have, for the next time I’m staring at an open carton of eggs at 8:15am. Meat doesn’t usually make it into the meal, but I do always save the fat from cooking bacon to use for sauteing veg or frying eggs.

Reliable Weekday Rotations

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersToast with butter, honey, and flaky salt. This is one of the most delightfully simple combinations, but it is relatively new to me. I’ve found the key is to go heavy on the butter and honey so they really soak into the bread. This is also the time to bring out your fanciest salt.

It is barely worth mentioning, but a lot of toast with a vegetable topped with a fried egg happens around here. Avocado or tomatoes heated in the pan are definite favorites. Green scrambled eggs with mustard toast are a little fancier. Egg in a hole is somehow so much better than toast with a fried egg, and also so much more fun.

Toast with whipped feta, kale, and scrambled eggs. This was inspired by the best bakery in central MA, which just does toast with whipped feta, olive oil, and parsley. I took it a step further and added sauteed kale and scrambled eggs for an explosion of my favorite things.

Last Week I Cooked - Vegetal MattersHuevos rancheros. Flipping these takes a bit of skill, but the crispy tortilla and runny egg make an excellent base for other accouterments (I don’t usually use cheese). Chopped avocado, sauteed vegetables (whatever is around), beans, cilantro, leftover green sauce, and hot sauce work in any combination (or ideally all together).

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersBreakfast burritos. My version of these look miniature compared to a normal burrito. I use 10″ flour tortillas, and warm them in a large pan while I scramble the eggs (1 per person). At minimum I put in beans and eggs, often a sauteed vegetable, sometimes cheese, salsa, and always hot sauce. I leave the pan I heated the tortillas in on the heat while I fill them, and then once rolled return them to the pan, seam side down, to crisp. This step is absolutely key in achieving perfect tortilla texture.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersPolenta with veg and an egg. I don’t usually make the polenta on a weekday morning, but I make extra when I make some for dinner or for a weekend breakfast. This past weekend I whisked in some cream cheese at the end, but I’ve used just about every cheese that’s been in the fridge (or even none at all). Greens and an egg are my favorite toppings (do I even have to mention the hot sauce?), but this spicy polenta breakfast bowl is an excellent version as well.

When I have to be at work extra early to run camp programming, I buy a tub of Greek yogurt, some fruit, make a batch of granola, and then just have to assemble them all in a bowl with an extra drizzle of honey or maple syrup each morning. The earlier I eat breakfast the earlier I get hungry again, so I make a batch of whole wheat chocolate coffee banana muffins for a mid morning snack.

Weekend Breakfast Extravaganza

Hash browns with kale and eggs. This is usually a weekend meal since the potatoes take a bit longer. Sometimes I make them more like a giant latke, sometime I cube them and cook them in a pan, other times I roast them. The potato-egg-kale combo never fails me.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersShakshuka. I think of this more as tomato sauce with whatever beans or veg you have around, plus eggs and bread. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook has an excellent Mexican inspired version with black beans in the sauce and topped with crispy tortilla bits.

The best buttermilk pancakes. I’ve been making these for years. The batter is simple as pie (cake?) to put together, but the cooking does take a good 15 minutes. Sometimes I try to squeeze these in on a weekday, but that is when I’m feeling my most ambitious. These whole wheat raspberry yogurt pancakes are a more healthful version, which are also making me desperately crave raspberry season.

Multigrain waffles. These have worked flawlessly for me every time…except for that one occasion I forgot to add the baking powder (they were very flat, and it took me far too long to figure out why). I’ve only made them once as pictured (with yogurt and pomegranate), because this born and bred New Englander much prefers maple syrup.

The most decadent item in my repertoire (which also requires prep the day before)…buns. Most recently cashew morning buns and this standby chai version.

In case you need even more morning inspiration, I have an entire Pinterest board of breakfast ideas. What am I missing?

Last Week I Cooked….

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersFish and chips with tartar sauce (oh, and salad). I made this recipe about five years ago, but since returning from Ireland have had some serious fish and chips cravings so it was time to revisit it. The fish is thoroughly seasoned, which is my usual complaint about fish and chips which rely too heavily on vinegar and ketchup to flavor the fish after the fact. This is my dream tartar sauce, with a quadruple zing from capers, pickles, lemon, and vinegar. The batter is easy to put together and sticks nicely to the fish. The one problem with this recipe is it appears to be written to mimic portion sizes from takeout places, which always serve an absurd amount of fish. This calls for 1.5 lbs of fish for 2 people, but I used 1 lb for 3 people and it was more than enough. There were no leftovers, because leftover fish and chips are just not worth having.

Fresh rolls. These didn’t end up being quite enough dinner, but they were a good use of a leftover mish-mash of vegetables in the fridge. I just shredded carrots and cabbage, added in some leftover roasted asparagus and snap peas from the week before, and finished them with roasted tofu and cilantro. For the dipping sauce I found a quick recipe in How to Cook Everything that was just rice vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilis.

Chipotle black bean soup. I’m so happy I revisited this recipe, and won’t wait so long to make it again.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersLentil chickpea salad. I love the mix of legumes in this salad, and you can never go wrong with a tahini dressing. I also roasted a head to cauliflower to have alongside, and the leftovers made their way into pitas with hummus later in the week.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersBig salads with kale, roasted asparagus, snap peas, radishes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, olives, and mustard vinaigrette. I rushed to throw these together before trivia and should have given them a bit more love, but they were still thoroughly satisfying. I almost forgot the tuna and olives, which is why they didn’t make it into the photo. Any big pile of vegetables with some protein and a nice dressing can turn into a stellar meal.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersToast with whipped feta, sauteed kale, and scrambled eggs. I’ve deviated from my original recipe a bit here and kept the kale separate from the scrambled eggs. I’ve found I like a very high kale to egg ratio, and when you try to put that much kale into the scramble the eggs get lost in all the wrinkles and take much longer to cook. Whole grain toast, briny feta, hearty kale, and creamy eggs remain on of my favorite combinations.

Last Week I Cooked... - Vegetal MattersCream cheese polenta with sauteed spinach and eggs. The leftover cream cheese from making whipped feta made for delightfully rich polenta topped with sauteed spinach and eggs. I had the spinach leftover from some tasting activities with kids this week, but if given my choice of green I would have obviously picked kale. I doubled the polenta and spinach so the following day’s breakfast was as easy as reheating them and frying up a couple more eggs.