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... - Vegetal MattersRoasted eggplant and summer squash salad with tangy miso dressing. I think I would eat a rock if it was coated with miso dressing. I would not have thought to put such a dressing on these vegetables, and I liked this for steering me otherwise, but this Smitten Kitchen miso dressing is still my favorite (I think it was the scallions in this one that made for a rough texture I didn’t like as much). I didn’t have any quinoa, so I made this with barley but I think most any grain would work.

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal Matters

Deborah Madison’s ribboned cucumber salad with chile & roasted peanuts. I think next time I would salt the cucumbers to draw some moisture out so the dressing wouldn’t be as watered down (maybe my cucumbers were especially watery), but I love cucumbers thinly sliced with a zingy dressing.

Roasted corn and zucchini enchiladas. A summer favorite, that is less work than you think.

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal Matters

Fuchsia Dunlop’s fish fragrant eggplant from Every Grain of Rice. I love eggplant too much to provide an objective view of this recipe. If you love eggplant too, it is your duty to make this before the end of eggplant season. It does contain some obscure ingredients, but once you have them they become indispensable.

Along with the fish fragrant eggplant we had some tatsoi simply sautéed with ginger and garlic, brown rice, and a cucumber salad dressed with a 1:1 mix of garlic chili sauce and soy sauce.

Crispy peach cobbler. Dessert?! You betcha. I threw about a cup of raspberries in with the peaches (because I stopped at the farm stand to buy corn and they had PYO fall raspberries and I couldn’t resist) and DAMN this was good. I halved the recipe to make a single 9″ x 9″ pan and it was perfect for 4. I also used the reduced sugar Deb suggested, so 150g total. It also was a good reminder that I should always make crisps/cobblers instead of pies, because they take a tiny fraction of the effort and I like the output so much better.

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal MattersMediterranean potato salad. Mustardy shallot dressing, potatoes, green beans, cherry tomatoes, olives, and hard-boiled eggs. Comes together quickly, travels well, and an excellent summer version of potato salad. My only change would be to add more hard-boiled eggs next time, or perhaps chop them smaller so they are more evenly distributed.

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal MattersSweet cherry tomato and sausage bake. This is how cherry tomatoes were destined to be cooked. It is their highest calling. I’m always amazed by the ease of preparation with this recipe and the incredible output. The tomato/sausage ratio as written is off to me, I used almost the amount of cherry tomatoes called for, and only 4 sausages for 2 people (but I also REALLY LIKE these tomatoes). Serve with the best loaf of crusty bread you can find. If you’re not into sausages leave them out, the tomatoes are the star. If you are into sausages, I’ve use this baking method regularly because it makes for uniformly cooked sausages with no monitoring. Cherry tomato days are numbered, act quickly.

Gazpacho. While the cherry tomatoes and sausages baked I blended up a batch of gazpacho. It comes together in minutes if you have a food processor, but does benefit from a resting period for the flavors to develop.

Last week I cooked... - Vegetal Matters

Breakfasts this week were various combinations of kale, eggs, tomatoes, and toast. Sometimes scrambled with goat cheese.

RAMP IT UP

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I AM rAMPED. About ramps of course. Because what is more exciting than perennial wild onions?!?!?! Ramps are making their way onto more and more plates, and have a fleeting season since most of them are foraged. I started looking for them around Worcester at the beginning of May, but they were no where to be found at any grocery stores or farm stands in the area. Luckily I have some Vermont connections who were not only willing to buy me ramps, but transport them all the way down here (don’t worry, the trip was already planned, the ramps just jumped on for the ride). I was inspired by this Ramp Carbonara, but adapted it to reflect my fridge contents. The ramps were all I hoped for, the bulbs had a nice garlicky sweetness, but they softened far faster than leeks. The tops tasted a lot like garlic scapes, but had a texture more like spinach than scallions. Hopefully by this time next year I’ll have found a local spot to forage my own.

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Spaghetti with Ramps, Mushrooms, and Spicy Sausage

  • 1 lb ramps
  • 1/2 lb mushrooms (I used winecap, grown by a friend!), thinly sliced
  • 1/2 lb spicy Italian sausage
  • 1 lb spaghetti or other pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmegiano Reggiano, or other hard cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Put a pot of water on to boil. Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Remove the hairy ends from the ramps. Separate the bulbs from the leafy tops and thinly slice them. Then slice the leafy tops into 1″ strips.

If the sausage is in casings remove them and add to the frying pan. Break up the larger chunks and cook through, about 7 minutes. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat. Add in the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes until they are browned, then remove from the pan and put with the sausage.

Salt the pasta water and add the spaghetti to cook.

The mushrooms likely absorbed the fat left in the pan, so heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add in just the ramp bulbs and saute for 7-8 minutes, until they are soft and start to take on a bit of color. Add the ramp tops to the pan and saute a few minutes more until they are wilted.

Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add in the sausage and mushrooms along with the ramps, cheese, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Taste, and adjust for salt, pepper, and red pepper as needed. If the pasta seems dry, add a bit more olive oil.

Further reading (updated 6/5/14): Why There’s A Black Market For Ramps In Quebec