Moroccan-style braised pork with couscous and grapes | Recipe report card

6 May

A couple of weeks ago, Dave said, “Why don’t you make that pork thing with the couscous? That was really good” “What pork thing with couscous?” I had no memory of it. “It had grapes and Middle Eastern spices…” Apparently this was a hit, but I had no recollection of it. Dave kept talking about it for a few days and then finally, a vague memory started to resurface. (That’s why I’m doing this series on my blog. It’s really just because I have an atrocious memory.)

Moroccan-style braised pork with couscous and grapes, How to Cook Everything Fast p. 786

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes.
  • Keeper?: Yes.
  • Cook’s grade: A-. Although it is definitely a 45-minute recipe, this is a fairly easy dish to make: brown some pork, cut thin, with spices, add more flavorings (harissa and tomato paste), then liquid (white wine), then some more flavorings (onion, grapes, etc.). Bring to a boil, let cook for 20 minutes or so, add the couscous, and wait another 5 minutes. This one does pass my “dash out to daycare” test (you can either braise it for up to 2 hours or follow the recipe through adding the couscous and then dash out), and it’s pretty easy to assemble. I like that a lot of the ingredients are pantry staples (yes, grapes are a pantry staple when you have a toddler), so it’s a good end-of-the-week, what-do-I-do-with-this-pork-we-have-in-the-freezer meal. I downgraded it because cutting 1.5 lbs. of pork shoulder (I used tenderloin because that’s what we had) into 1/2-inch pieces takes a while. Though, to be fair, I need to get our knives sharpened. I also downgraded it because I don’t love it as much as Dave does, though it is a pretty tasty dish. I used Israeli couscous, which we like so much better than regular couscous.
  • Kid’s grade: B+. It’s always interesting to see which ingredient in a stew the Bug shows interest in. She wasn’t interested in the pork or the grapes (which I thought were a shoo-in). She LOVED the couscous. “More cooscoos?” I like finding those “gateway ingredients” to help me figure out other things that she’ll like.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • I bet, though I have not put this to a test, it would be a good slow cooker dish. I base that on my discovery of Bittman’s ode to the slow cooker, which I recently discovered, in which he says you can use the slow cooker for many braised dishes.

I served it with Bittman’s tomato salad with olive oil and yogurt, which I and the Bug liked but didn’t love and Dave didn’t touch (as I suspected). I probably wouldn’t make it again unless I had tomatoes lying around, waiting to be used, so I’m not doing a report card on it.


Jambalaya des herbes with shrimp | Recipe report card

6 May

Our pediatrician is very interested in getting the Bug (and, presumably, all her patients) to eat fish once a week. I am interested in getting out of my cooking/eating ruts and eating more seafood once again. I am also interested in using the Bug’s love of rice, pasta, and anything in noodle form to help her expand her palate.

I tried to take a shortcut and make the rice in the rice cooker, thinking this would buy me my much-needed 30-minute round trip break to pick the Bug up at daycare. Unfortunately, it became very clear that everything would not fit in our rice cooker, so I ended up dumping it all into a pot, adding some water, turning the heat too high, and letting it cook. Next time I will follow the recipe.

Once again, I did not take a picture, but the link to the recipe has a much nicer one than I could have ever taken.

Jambalaya des herbs with shrimpHow to Cook Everything Fast p. 380

  • Meal: dinner, tonight
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: Yes
  • Cook’s grade: A. You have to chop an onion, two celery stalks, two green peppers, and two tomatoes, so there’s a fair bit of chopping. Fortunately, the onion cooks while you chop the celery; they both cook while you chop the peppers, etc. So it’s not wasted time, but it does push this up to a 45-minute meal as opposed to a 30-minute meal. Also, there’s only about ten or fifteen minutes when the dish cooks unattended, so it’s not a great “start it now, then dash off to daycare, and serve it when we get home” dish. The spices were right in between adult and kid tastes, probably a bit mild for us and a bit too spicy for Bug, but I would probably just dial back the cayenne next time. Still it was easy, really flavorful, and a good way to get some seafood in our diets. Dave loved it. And it was really good with a beer.
  • Kid’s grade: B. I cut the shrimp into small pieces for the Bug’s bowl, thinking I would hide it in the rice. She ate every bite of shrimp and even ate two or three more “big shimp.” She was fascinated with the Creole seasoning Dave put on his and left on the table (nothing is ever spicy or flavorful enough for him), so she added some to her bowl, then decided her food was too spicy. So this goes down in history as the first time she didn’t finish all her rice.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • Don’t try to make the rice in a rice cooker, thinking you’ll add the veggies and finish it off there, unless your rice cooker is very large or you’ve halved the recipe.
  • To cut down on the chopping, you could probably use a can of diced tomatoes.
  • You could cook all the veggies in advance, throw them in a bowl with the tomatoes and bay leaves the night before. Just add them to the rice as you make it.


Lea & Perrin’s pulled pork | Recipe report card

20 Apr

I’m gradually catching up on my posts from my recent bout of cooking. I have two brownie recipes to add after this, and then I think I’m done. In my cooking revamp comeback post, my friend Lindsay shared her pulled pork recipe, which she uses to make pulled pork sandwiches with Sriracha mayo as well as pork tacos. Lindsay is not only an awesome cook, but she is the person who introduced me to Mark Bittman’s cookbooks and the Minimalist column, so she’s indirectly responsible for everything good that I cook these days. Long story short, I trust her recommendations, so I made this as soon as I could.

Lea & Perrin’s pulled pork

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: Yes
  • Cook’s grade: A. FINALLY! A tasty and easy slow cooker recipe that doesn’t require browning the meat. I followed Lindsay’s suggestion of using pork tenderloin instead of pork shoulder and was glad to have less fat to cut off. The sauce was a little too tangy right after the pork finished cooking, but it evened out after I let it sit for a bit.
  • Kid’s grade: A (?). For the first time, the Bug ate a “big burrito” (with the pork and my corn salad, see below, wrapped tightly in a flour tortilla) and did a pretty good job holding on to it so it wouldn’t fall apart. Not sure if it was the novelty of it or the taste that kept her eating it, but who’s counting?

Browned corn, avocado, tomato, and queso fresco salad

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: Yes
  • Cook’s grade: A. I made this up on the fly because I so enjoyed the browned corn side I had made earlier that week. We had an avocado that only had a few more days of life to it, a few tomatoes in the same condition, and the rest of the wheel of queso fresco in the fridge. I squeezed some lemon on it as a dressing/non-browning agent and called it done.
  • Kid’s grade: A (?). Hard to tell because she ate it in the burrito. Even though I put it on the plates as sides, my husband put it inside the burritos as he made them. (I was feeding the Lil Guy, so he pitched in.) It was tasty in the burrito, but even tastier outside of it.

Seared steak with mustard spinach | Recipe report card

19 Apr

One reason I am liking How to Cook Everything Fast so far is that the recipes are for near-complete meals. Half the planning is done! In fact, if I was single, they would be complete meals, but since I’m cooking for two other people with opinions about food and also trying to make sure that the Bug eats at least one serving of veggies at dinner, I like to add one more thing to them. Fortunately, each recipe comes with a list of sides you can make, from the crazy easy (like warmed tortillas) to something a little more involved, like mashed potatoes.

Seared steak with mustard spinach, How to Cook Everything Fast, p. 708

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes.
  • Keeper?: Yes. But mix the mustard in better next time.
  • Cook’s grade: A. The steak was easy and tasty–a great way to add some red meat to our weekly meals. (I find it’s easy to cook chicken and pork, but I don’t have that many go-to recipes for beef.) I didn’t pay close enough attention when I added the mustard to the spinach, so some bites had no mustard and some had waaaaaaay too much. But with a tiny bit more care, this would be a great recipe to add to the repertoire.
  • Kid’s grade: A-. The Bug was not interested in her own steak, but could not stop eating mine. This was the first time she really showed interest in beef. Or non-chicken meat, for that matter. (Or, if I’m being perfectly frank, non-chicken-finger-meat.) Cut up into small enough pieces, it was easy enough for her to chew (except the two pieces that most decidedly weren’t, which reminded me why I hated steak growing up). I think she even tried the spinach, too, but one bite had too much mustard on it, which turned her off.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • Use bagged spinach. I know, it’s easy enough to use a salad spinner (and Bug LOVES helping by agitating the greens in water and pressing the salad spinner button). But bagged spinach gets this dish on the table just that much faster and with one fewer dirty dish.

Skin-on mashed potatoes, How to Cook Everything Fast, p. 961

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: No.
  • Keeper?: Yes.
  • Cook’s grade: A. It’s mashed potatoes. How can you go wrong? Before I left to get the Bug at daycare, I cooked the potatoes with our pressure cooker, which sped things up. All I had to do when I got home was mash the potatoes and add the milk, etc. Which, to be fair, my husband did. I threw in some rosemary from our garden to make it fancier.
  • Kid’s grade: Incomplete. The Bug used to love mashed potatoes but isn’t into them right now. Like any kid, I’m sure she’ll be back on them before long.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • Use a potato masher, rather than a ricer. I generally prefer the ricer for mashed potatoes, but the skins will get caught up in the ricer and add to the post-cooking prep time.
  • Do what you do on Thanksgiving: cook this beforehand and reheat it just before dinner.


Chile-rubbed chicken with corn | Recipe report card

19 Apr

The Lil Guy arrived March 19, and we have been fortunate enough to have my in-laws in town, keeping us well fed pretty much ever since. The Lil Guy has been such a good baby so far, so I figured I should try to get back in the habit of cooking while I still had backup. I finally busted open my How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food and picked out a few recipes, incorporating some of the techniques I learned from Dinner: The Playbook.

When I was cooking the Dinner: The Playbook recipes, I went astray by choosing recipes that were meat dredged in flour and fried. I am not a big fan of that. I can never quite brown the meat properly, and when I eat it, I can’t really see the benefit of all that work. Why not just roast it? This recipe was chicken dredged in a cornmeal mixture and pan fried. But as I made it, I realized that it’s basically chicken fingers, which, at the time, was the only meat the Bug was reliably eating, so I had a good feeling about it. OH BOY, was this a hit!

Also, I really should have taken a photo because this dinner was just as pretty as it was tasty.

Chile-rubbed chicken with corn (and scallions), How to Cook Everything Fast, p. 640

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes.
  • Keeper?: Hell yes.
  • Cook’s grade: A. I had dinner on the table within about 20 minutes of getting home with the Bug from daycare. I made the cornmeal coating and cut up the chicken a few hours before I made dinner, which sped things up. Since cornmeal doesn’t absorb water the way that flour does, I think I could have tossed the chicken in the coating then, too, and it would probably stand up to a few hours in the fridge. After you pan-fry the coated chicken, you brown corn in the same pan, adding scallions (which I forgot to buy, hence the parenthetical above), and then queso fresco once you take it out of the pan. I used frozen corn because we had several bags of it in our freezer and I am trying to cook more from our pantry (I defrosted it in the microwave while the chicken was cooking).
  • Kid’s grade: A. Bug ate all of her meat and said, “My like chicken!” (She is still sorting out her pronouns.) Yes, it’s chicken fingers, but it’s really good chicken fingers. The spice from the chili pepper wasn’t too much for her (she has a very low tolerance for spice), but it added enough interest for us.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • It’s tough to make this recipe much faster. But, you can mix the cornmeal coating before, cut the chicken, dredge (and even freeze) the chicken, and defrost the corn (if using frozen). But doing most of that as you go works, too.

Chile-cumin baked beans, How to Cook Everything, p. 937

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: I think so…
  • Keeper?: Yes.
  • Cook’s grade: A. I have been looking for a good, basic black bean recipe for a while, and this one is basically what I throw into beans when I’m trying to add some flavor: cumin, garlic, a fresh chile pepper, and salt and pepper. But this had the right balance of all those elements, instead of the too-spiced or not-spiced-enough versions I consistently came up with on my own. Except for chopping the chile, this recipe takes just as long to make as it takes to heat up beans.
  • Kid’s grade: B+. Bug eats beans, and I think she ate some of these. I only added half the jalapeno to the beans to keep the heat low (see note above about Bug’s tolerance for spice).

A note on leftovers: If you, like me, don’t often use queso fresco and are left with a big chunk of it after you make this recipe, add it to any meat on a heated tortilla with salsa for a quick taco lunch or make a quick salad of browned corn, avocado, tomato, and queso fresco. Both are pretty yummy.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

My new approach to cooking: Filling in the holes

15 Mar

At my high school, we were allowed to bring in cheat sheets for all our chem, physics, and even religion tests. Those cheat sheets had limitations, of course: a periodic table with anything written on the front side, one sheet of formulas, or a bible, annotated however we saw fit. But as my husband and I were talking about this the other day, I realized that those cheat sheets helped teach me how to develop effective systems.

As a result, systems generally work for me. I’ve created systems around many of the nuisance things in life, like where I put my keys (in the same pocket in my purse every time or on the same table in our house) and how I take care of bills (unpaid bills sticking up in a folder on my desk, paid bills tucked inside the folder). Efficient systems help me deal better with odious or annoying tasks because I can get them done faster and with less thought.

That’s why I was kind of surprised that the Dinner: The Plan system was not working for me. But after my mild crisis, described in self-pitying detail in my last post, I realized that I needed to adapt the system to me. Trying random recipes was kind of stressful. My brain likes categories. I realized I needed to fill certain buckets of recipes, rather than just build new repertoire generally.

What I really needed were two to three tried-and-true ways to prepare all of the things we regularly eat. I also needed some recipes that were fast from start to finish and some recipes that I could put in the oven for at least 30 minutes so I’d have time to leave, get the Bug at daycare, and have dinner be ready when I got home. When I thought about it this way, I was much, much closer to my goal than I thought I was.

So here’s my (in progress) list of go-to recipes. I still have many holes to fill, but you get the picture:

Chicken parts

  1. Apricot-dijon glazed chicken
  2. Cornflake-crusted chicken

Whole chicken

  1. Roast splatchcocked lemon chicken
  2. Bittman’s simplest whole roast chicken, with variations (I actually roast mine according to the recipe in the original How to Cook Everything, but I am going to try the cast-iron skillet approach)

Pork: tenderloin or chops

  1. Spicy pork with parsnips and sweet potatoes. You can use cayenne or any rub.

[Some sort of beef]

  1. Oat-based meatloaf

Fish (especially salmon, trout, and shrimp)

  1. Shrimp and vegetable tempura
  2. Miso-glazed salmon


  1. Roasted veggies, especially sweet potatoes (or other root vegetables), broccoli and cauliflower, and Brussels spouts.
  2. Green beans with ginger and garlic
  3. Braised and glazed Brussels sprouts
  4. Brussels sprouts, apple, and bacon hash
  5. Lemon-garlic Brussels sprouts
  6. Greens with double-garlic


  1. Any pasta with Dave’s homemade red sauce and meatballs
  2. Penne with butternut squash, kale, and pecorino

Slow-cooker or other make-in-the-morning, eat-at-night dishes

I could use some help here.


  1. Roasted chickpeas (easy to make, and a big hit with the Bug)
  2. Perfect chocolate chip cookies (labor intensive, but they live up to the name)
  3. Any stir-fry or fried rice (great way to use up leftovers)
  4. Jim Lahey’s no knead bread (not fast, but very little hands-on time and good for when you’re spending a lot of time at home, say, with a newborn)
  5. Yogurt (like the no-knead bread, it’s not fast but good for when you have a lot of partially occupied time)
  6. Pizza with this sauce and this dough.

Not all of these are super fast, but they are reliable, tasty recipes that I can cook while only glancing at the recipe. I clearly need to fill out some of the categories, but it’s much more encouraging to think that I only need one more chicken parts recipe than that I need A BILLION NEW, EASIER RECIPES TO COMMIT TO MEMORY OR ELSE OUR FAMILY WILL BE EATING MAC AND CHEESE AND PEAS FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES! (Which, I am embarrassed to admit, is kind of how I’d been thinking.)

Do you have a favorite recipe that fits in these categories? Share it in the comments below.

Actually, there is quite a lot of room for failure

17 Feb

I have utterly failed in my 30-day cooking plan. I am not afraid to admit it. After December’s run of illnesses that took down Dave and the Bug, my finals, and the holidays, I came down with a cold that lasted most of January and have had no voice for the past three weeks. Then Dave got sick again about a week ago, the Bug caught another cold (fortunately, just sniffles and a cough), and one of our dogs even had to make an emergency trip to the vet for some scrapes he got on a hike last week. I am looking forward to the day when we are all healthy again.

With all of this, we pretty much completely abandoned cooking for ourselves. Dave made pasta with red sauce and meatballs (the red sauce and meatballs were, at least, homemade in a large batch and frozen for emergency meals) and mac and cheese with peas the past two nights. Tonight, the Bug and I ate from the Whole Foods prepared foods section. She picked out a citrus salmon, which, after insisting that it was chicken, she gamely tried, then spit out onto the table. I picked out a broccoli salad, which I must have left in the basket. Go team.

That all said, I have learned quite a few things from my experiment:

  • It kind of sucks to plan every home-cooked meal. It sucks in many ways, but mostly it sucks because you are the one responsible for pleasing everyone. That said, a lot of this was an experiment in trying to find some new recipes and expand our recently limited palate. But key to achieving this goal–and Rosenstrach addresses this right up front–is getting buy-in from the rest of your family. If you don’t have buy-in from at least the adults that this will be a month of trying new things, seeing what works, and moving on from what doesn’t, this will be a thankless endeavor.
  • It works if you work it. The good ol’ AA slogan applies to many things, including Rosenstrach’s smart strategies to get dinner on the table more efficiently and easily. Specifically, I’ve been pretty good about the end-of-week tasks: cleaning out the fridge before going grocery shopping, using up leftover veggies in recipes like stir fry and fried rice, and cutting up week-old fruit for snacks. The ones I had a harder time keeping up with were the beginning of week tasks: menu planning, shopping on Sundays (or any regular day of the week), and prepping the week’s meals on Sundays. These tasks would have greatly improved my success rate with getting meals on the table. I utterly failed to follow her meal-planning guidelines, such as having fish early in the week, cooking easy meals early in the week, etc.
  • I don’t like the recipes in Rosenstrach’s book. Or rather, my entire family doesn’t like them (except for the veggie tempura, which is a winner). Almost all of our misses were recipes from her book–although the rest of the disasters were from Martha Stewart Living or Everyday Food, which used to be two of my go-to sources. I even went back through old issues, since they had better recipes than the current ones, but…no. I bought Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast, but nothing has really jumped out at me from that, either. Which leads me to the saddest conclusion…
  • I just don’t enjoy cooking right now. Maybe it’s my ambivalence about unwillingly falling into this role of being a stay-at-home mom; maybe it’s just that, after two years, I’m sick of doing the vast majority of the meal planning, food shopping, and moderately healthy cooking (see mac and cheese and peas dinner above); maybe it’s that being sick for a month, in my third trimester, and trying to please my family has left me exhausted.

It’s this last one that I really need to sort out. I don’t know why, but this is the first time in my adult life that something that has given me so much joy for so long has become an absolute chore. Which is a bummer, because part of the goal of this project was to rediscover a love of cooking. I don’t have any answers on this one, but…to be continued, I’m sure.