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.

Last week I cooked…

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal MattersI didn’t plan any dinners for this week and I didn’t go grocery shopping. But yes, amazingly, we still ate. Because of the long weekend my shopping trip happened later last week and I had squash to make soup on Sunday night, plus a bunches of kale and celery in the fridge. Normally I would not think these would make a week of meals, but as a personal challenge to waste less and be more creative with my cooking I set off for the week, no plan in hand.

Winter squash soup with curry and coconut milk. I’ve gushed about this soup before, and it really is magical. The coconut milk makes for a velvety texture far superior to the normal graininess in squash soup. Warm curry spices, hot sauce, and the finishing sour notes of fish sauce and

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal MattersCarbonara with kale and bacon. I think I am ready to declare carbonara my favorite pasta dish. Though the sauce is rich and creamy, it is not overwhelming. Bacon provides a bit of fat and saltiness, and a strategically added vegetable make for a full meal. I mostly followed the zucchini carbonara recipe, but in place of the summer squash used 5 big leaves of curly kale that was thinly sliced, added to the pan with the bacon fat, tossed, covered, and cooked for 4-5 minutes until bright green.

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal MattersSichuanese chopped celery with chicken. This may be the only recipe in my repertoire that I would go out of my way to buy celery for. In fact I think this recipe is celery’s highest calling. In my challenge to not grocery shop this week I substituted the beef for two chicken thighs from the freezer which I cut up into ½ inch pieces and cooked in the wok before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. The ingredient list is short but a bit specialized. If you can get to an Asian or Chinese grocery store the chili bean paste and chinkiang vinegar are absolutely worth having in your pantry if you like Chinese cuisine. They make for a dish that comes together very quickly with a surprisingly complex sauce that is spicy and a tiny bit sour. That paired with the meat, crunchy celery and rice make for a dish far beyond standard takeout. I’ve made this with the beef as called for, but I’d also try this with turkey, pork, or tofu and I bet the result would be just as good at sending down the rice.

Butternut squash ravioli with brown butter balsamic sauce and fried sage (pictured at top). I had a vision of this ravioli. I couldn’t find a recipe that matched exactly what I wanted so I pieced one together from a few. I think my pasta making needs a bit of work as it wasn’t as soft as other fresh pasta I’ve had (I also don’t have a pasta maker, so I rolled the sheets out by hand which was not ideal). The filling was a mix of roasted butternut and marscapone, but next time I want to use goat cheese for a little more tang to balance the sweetness of the squash. I used this recipe for the sauce (but I think I would have preferred 1:1 butter:balsamic) and followed basic instructions for fried sage. It’s a work in progress.

Polenta with sauteed kale and an egg. The morning after I had this for breakfast I saw the NYT Food section posted almost the same recipe (except I used some marscapone and feta in my polenta). Melissa Clark, did you bug my kitchen? This is an excellent option for breakfast when you forget to buy bread. I made a bigger batch of polenta and then reheated it for breakfast the next couple days. About a cup of kale sauteed makes for a nice vegetal addition, but most anything else would work too (tomato sauce? sauteed mushrooms?). And as the NYT suggested, this would also make an easy dinner.

Zucchini Carbonara

Zucchini Carbonara - Vegetal MattersJamie at Home has been on my cookbook shelf for close to five years now. It moved to Seattle and back, and has survived multiple collection cullings. I can’t say I like the cover much, but it does have a nice feel to it both in texture and heft. As it should be with any book, the real joy is inside. The photography is incredible, with so many garden and produce beauty shots in addition to the recipe photos. The book is arranged by season, and within each season section are chapters on specific fruit, veg, or meats available during that time (so the spring section is asparagus, eggs, lamb, and rhubarb). At the end of each chapter there are tips for growing the produce or acquiring the meat sustainably. I like that there are whole chapters focusing on humble ingredients like lettuce or onions. So many of the recipes I’ve made from this have become yearly staples, like the sweet cherry tomato and sausage bake and steak, Guinness, and cheese pie, both recipes that create almost unbelievable flavor out of very simple ingredients.

Zucchini Carbonara - Vegetal Matters

The zucchini chapter has three recipes in it, and I’m sure the others are very nice but I have’t gotten around to making them since I just repeat the zucchini carbonara. Yes, bacon, egg, and cheese with pasta is a bit indulgent, but there is also a lot of squash piled in there as well. Oliver’s directions are usually a bit vague (a handful of this, pinch of that), but every time I make it I think this recipe needs a little more guidance. Maybe my personal zucchini scale is off, but if I used the 6 medium he calls for I would have ended up using almost 5 pounds worth. And while 12 slices of pancetta would probably be appropriate, 12 slices of regular American (streaky) bacon was going to be about a full pound for me, which was just too indulgent. What follows is still a lush recipe (it is cabonara after all, and if it’s not rich you’re not doing it right), with just the right balance of herbs and veg in a creamy sauce. I hope there are still zucchini and summer squash around you, they are on their way out in MA but I’ve still seen some around this past week.

Zucchini and Summer Squash Carbonara

Adapted from Jamie Oliver

  • 2 pounds mixed summer squash like zucchini, yellow summer squash, and pattypan
  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • ½ pound of bacon
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

Fill a large pot with water and set to boil. Whisk the cream with the 2 eggs and shredded parmesan, season with salt and pepper, and set aside. Remove the leaves from the thyme sprigs.

Slice the bacon into ¼ pieces and put in a very large pan over medium heat. While the bacon starts to render chop the squash into quarters lengthwise and then into ¼ slices. When the bacon is almost to your crispness liking, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon (it will keep cooking a bit more). Drain all but a tablespoon of fat from the pan, reserving the rest in a bowl separate from the bacon. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and add enough sliced zucchini to cover the bottom of the pan, but don’t crowd them. Season with salt and pepper and allow the squash to cook for about 7 minutes total, allowing them to start browning. When that batch is done remove the squash from the pan into a bowl, return the pan to the heat, add another tablespoon of bacon fat, squash to fill the pan, salt, and pepper, and cook until they start to brown. Repeat until all the squash is cooked.

When the pasta water boils, salt it liberally and then add the pasta. I start checking for doneness around 7 minutes by tasting for al dente. Reserve a ladle-full of the pasta cooking water and then drain.

When the last batch of squash is finished, turn off the heat and add the rest of the cooked squash back to the pan along with the bacon and thyme leaves.  Add the pasta to the pan as well and stir everything to combine. Add about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid and your egg-cream-cheese mixture to the pan. Toss everything to coat in the sauce. It is really important to do this off the heat once the squash has cooked for a minute, so you don’t end up with scrambled egg sauce (though it’s really not the end of the world if you do, just not the prettiest sauce). If you like the sauce a little looser, add more of the reserved pasta water. Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like.