Living Without . . .

A lot of us have been cutting back in the last few months. Everywhere you turn there are tips on saving money - how to stretch a chicken to feed your family for a week, where to find good deals on wine, how to cook with dried beans, etc. It's almost become sort of chic not to spend a lot of money. And certainly loosing a good chunk of my income has meant I've had to learn to live without certain things and how to be smarter with the funds I do have. For Jon and I, this has meant we eat out less and try to stick to more affordable restaurants; I've become very serious about shopping for sales at the grocery and have spread my shopping out between 3 stores to get the best deals on things like beer and wine, produce, frozen and packaged foods; and I've tried to be better about timing both my shopping trips and eating out so that any leftovers don't go to waste. But perhaps our single most significant strategy to save money was our decision to cohabitate and combine our two homes into one. Since Jon owns and I didn't, this meant I moved into his place. Which, I'll note, is currently being renovated. Jon's been working on it pretty much since he moved in 2 1/2 years ago, and I've been helping atleast with the stuff that doesn't involve heavy lifting. He's painstakingly smoothed out the 1970's textured plaster on the walls and ceilings, repainted (multiple times), installed beautiful woven bamboo floors in place of the institutional looking carpet that came with the place, gutted and reconfigured the master suite so that the sink is now inside the bathroom, built out and tiled the fireplace, installed new lighting throughout. It's been both very trying and a lot of fun.

And after a year of browsing showrooms, home design magazines, and emailing photos and products to one another, we finally took the plunge and started demolition on the kitchen in late January. Which at the time seemed like a fine time to do it- we mostly cooked at my place anyway. Since we're doing the renovation ourselves at nights and on weekends, projects that would take professionals a few weeks drag on for months. And so in moving in I'm facing the reality of living without a kitchen, and probably for quite some time. A lot of people do it, I remember my sister teaching me how to make nacho cheese dip when she was renovating the kitchen in her first house - basically you dump some salsa into a microwave safe bowl with 2 kraft singles, microwave briefly and stir. It's surprisingly good.

We do have a make shift prep area with a microwave, coffee maker, and toaster, a closet that protects our pantry items from the overwhelming coating of drywall dust, and a beautiful new fridge that's actually plugged in and working (we have the range too, but umm, no power cord yet). I'd have to say the hard part of living without a kitchen is not the cooking, it's the cleaning. Not that I'm a huge fan of cleaning up in general, but having to wash dishes in a teeny bathroom sink definitely proves challenging. On the other hand, we're sacrificing a few short months of hardship for what I think will end up being a really beautiful and fun to cook in kitchen!

Our final (fingers crossed) materials pallet - Ikea cabinets in Nexus Brown (not to be confused with brown black, yellow brown, or medium brown) and a high gloss Abstrakt White, a backsplash of cottonwood Savoy mosaics from Ann Sacks (we're actually leaning toward the penny rounds, but they were out of the samples), caesarstone counters in nougat, and deep blue grey walls. We'll be using formica with metal trim to line the base of the garden window, and will continue the woven bamboo floors throughout.


Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote

My first recollection of strawberry and rhubarb was at table full of handmade pies I spied while visiting Middlebury, Vermont with my grandmother and great aunt as a child. And each spring, the site of the first stalks of rhubarb take me back to the coolness of dewy grass across collegiate lawns, the soft warmth of the sun, and the delicious smell of newly baked fruit pies with their buttery crusts.

I love baking pies with their sweet-tart fruit fillings and crisp flavorful crust domed up above. But baking a pie and preparing a pie crust from scratch is a rather time consuming affair. While some turn to the ease of frozen pie crust, I just can't bring myself to stoop there. When you're accustomed to the buttery, flaky, flavorful homemade variety, grocery store crust just comes off tasting like chemicals. But I don't always have the time, and so there are 2 alternatives I often turn to. The first is to make a fruit crumble - it is simpler and faster than making a pie but still results in a crisp buttery crust that compliments the fruit perfectly. And the second, is even simpler, but does forgo the crust altogether. Though, paired with a scoop of ice cream or a crisp cookie, a fruit compote can be the perfect weeknight dessert.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote

Serves 4

2 cups chopped rhubarb
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
2 cups hulled strawberries (frozen will work)

Combine rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice in a medium sauce pan. Warm over low heat until juices begin to release, then raise to a medium heat until juices begin to thicken and rhubarb is tender. Add strawberries and warm until heated through. If you like more distinct chunks of fruit you can take it off earlier, or if you'd prefer a more preserve like consistency continue to cook over a medium low heat until fruit begins to flake apart. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.


Chicken Breast Rolls with Prosciutto and Taleggio

A lot of people are surprised that (a) I'm not offended by meat eaters, (b) I'm not opposed to cooking meat, and (c) I'm actually capable of seasoning and cooking meat properly without tasting it. The thing is, I consider my choice to be vegetarian a personal decision based on what I enjoy eating and while I want others to be respectful of my choice not to eat meat, I try to respect their dietary choices in return. And since I love cooking for my friends and family, and most of those people enjoy eating meat atleast once in a while, I very much wanted to learn to cook meat, atleast once in a while. And while I definitely taste as I cook while preparing a soup, sauce or similar dishes, even meat eaters don't actually slice off a hunk of meat while it's cooking to test for seasoning or doneness. Both are things that can very much be learned by reading and watching experienced cooks.

That said, I tend to prefer recipes that involve meat in a way that is quick to prepare and easy to swap out - a chicken breast, steak, pork chop, or burger all cook in a few minutes and can be paired with a variety of sides that go equally well with a tofu steak, veggie patties, or seitan, whereas something like beef stew or barbecue ribs involve a rather lengthy process that tends to overshadow the other items on the menu.

For this dinner, I served the chicken breast with pureed cauliflower (simply cook cauliflower until tender, puree in a food processor, add butter, herb, salt and pepper to taste and heat just before serving) and braised greens with shallots and white wine. And for my entree, I subbed a couple marinated tofu steaks.

Jon is a huge fan of chicken breast stuffed with cheese. This version has an italian influence with the basil, oregano, tallegio, and proscuitto, but feel free to vary the combination to suit your tastes.

Chicken Breast Rolls with Prosciutto and Taleggio

Makes one chicken breast

1 6-8 ounce chicken breast
1/2 tsp chopped oregano
1/2 tsp chopped basil
3 slices prosciutto
1 ounce taleggio, sliced into 1/8" pieces
1 tsp flour
1 tbsp olive oil

1 small shallot, finely minced
1 tsp chopped mixed herbs (such as basil and oregano)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 tsp butter
salt and pepper to taste

Butterfly chicken breast by slicing in half lengthwise and opening like a book. Place between two sheets of heavy duty plastic wrap (or in a large plastic baggy). Pound out with a mallet, or in my case a wine bottle and metal coffee pot (anything heavy and flat bottomed will work), until about 1/4" thick.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Unwrap chicken and season both sides liberally with salt and pepper, then sprinkle one side with chopped herbs. Lay out prosciutto slices to cover chicken evenly. Then distribute cheese slices evenly over surface. Wrap tightly tucking in end pieces and secure with toothpicks. Lightly coat in flour.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Place chicken breast in skillet with toothpicks out to the side, allow to brown on one side and then the other, when somewhat firm, remove toothpicks and continue to brown on final side. Transfer to oven on a lined baking sheet and bake for approximately 15 minutes. Meanwhile, add shallot and butter to skillet and allow to brown slightly on medium heat. Add wine and reduce to a thickened pan sauce. When chicken is cooked through, remove from oven and top with pan sauce, serve immediately.


Three Bean Salad with Asian Dressing

The inspiration for this salad was an unusual combination of edamame, green beans, black beans and apricot jam I first saw on Ellie Krieger's Healthy Appetite. It's quite good, but her version is somewhat more appropriate for a side dish, as it's very simple and the dressing is somewhat one noted. My adaptation moves toward a full on lunch.

Three Bean Salad with Asian Dressing

Serves 1 for lunch, or 2 as a side salad

1/2 cup black beans
1/4 cut edamame (shelled and frozen)
1/4 cup green beans, cut into 1 in pieces
1/4 cup red bell pepper, finely diced
2 tbsp finely chopped red onion
1 tsp minced or grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp apricot jam
1/2 tsp sesame oil

Combine ginger, garlic, onion, soy sauce, vinegar, jam, and sesame oil in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for approximately 30 seconds - this is just to get the flavors to come out and can be skipped if you're preparing the dressing at least an hour in advance. Meanwhile, blanch the green beans and edamame until just tender and bright green. Combine all ingredients and serve.


Olive and Onion Flatbread and Roasted Winter Vegetable Salad

Packed with roasted vegetables, white beans, and walnuts, this salad is warming and substantial enough to serve for dinner even in the middle of winter. I've paired it with some salty and sweet flatbread with caramelized onions and pungent olives - using leftover frozen dough to make it easy and fast to prepare for dinner. Or serve the flatbread without the salad as hors d'oeuvres.

Olive and Onion Flatbread

Makes 2 8" rounds

1/3 focaccia recipe, (or substitute defrosted pizza dough
1/4 cup olives, halved
1/4 large onion, thinly sliced
2 tsp olive oil, plus more for breads
2 tbsp grated Parmesan (optional)

Lightly flour counter, divide dough in half, and roll out to form 2 8" rounds. Place on baking sheet and lightly brush olive oil to cover surface. Saute onions over medium-low heat until light brown (if they start to brown quickly turn down the heat, they should cook very slowly). Evenly spread olives, caramelized onions, and Parmesan on rounds, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 40 minutes. Bake in a 425 oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown and puffed.

Roasted Winter Vegetable Salad

Serves 2

1 cup cauliflower, cut into bite sized pieces
3/4 cup green beans, trimmed and halved
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into bite sized pieces
1 medium fennel bulb, core removed and cut into 1/8" slices
6 crimini mushrooms, washed and halved
olive oil
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp fennel seed
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups mixed lettuce (such as arugula, spinach, romaine, or heirloom lettuces)
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup roasted walnuts
Parmesan, thinly slice with a vegetable pealer (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425. Cover a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Group cauliflower, green beans, bell pepper, fennel, and mushrooms individually on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil, toss to coat evenly. Season all with salt and pepper. Season fennel with fennel seed, cauliflower with paprika, and red pepper with red pepper flakes. Roast for 15 minutes, remove green beans, red pepper, and mushrooms. Toss in a large salad bowl with cannellini beans. Return cauliflower and fennel to oven, place under broiler until golden and crispy on edges. When roasted vegetables have cooled slightly, combine all with salad greens, balsamic vinegar, and walnuts. Top with Parmesan curls if desired.


Southwest Quinoa Salad

For a vegetarian, dining at a good vegetarian restaurant is rather liberating. At most restaurants, you're confined to the less interesting salads, the kind that the chef doesn't feel could be improved upon with the addition of prosciutto, or anchovies, or smokey bacon, or duck confit. And the inevitable vegetarian-overly-rich-creamy-cheesy-starch-based main course - ravioli, risotto, etc (which is always served with truffles when it's meant to be extra fancy). And while these are usually pretty tasty, they don't offer that much in the way of nutrition, or variety. But when you dine at a vegetarian restaurant, there's a whole menu available to you. Which is pretty exciting if you've spent most of your life skimming menus for meaty words and hidden meaty foods lurking behind the menu (chicken stock in the rice at a Cuban restaurant, lard in 'authentic' refried beans, fish sauce in anything Asian that doesn't expressly say it's vegetarian, and half of what does). And what's even more fun is dining with another vegetarian who shares your enthusiasm for dishes with tofu and seitan and whole grains.

And so, a few years back I had the pleasure of sharing such a meal with my friend Anna at the Candle Cafe in New York. I had a salad that sounded delicious and proved to be quite good. There was a bed of spinach, then quinoa, grilled chipotle marinated tofu, and a plump avocado half spilling over with black beans and a creamy dressing. And when I asked for a wine pairing, our waitress turned me toward something I'd never seen, an organic torrontes. Torrontes - a white, unique to Argentina, is fruity and floral and still somewhat dry and delicious with spicy and smoky foods - which paired perfectly with my salad, quickly became one of my favorites. And the combination of quinoa, tofu, black beans and avocado inspired this salad that I think has evolved into something even more fun to eat that the original.

Southwest Quinoa Salad
Makes 2 servings

1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup vegetable stock

2 cups mixed greens, washed dried and torn into bite sized pieces
1 avocado, peeled cored and diced
1 mango, peeled cored and diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (oven roasted if out of season)
1/4 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 (15 oz) can of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tbsp roasted salted sunflower seeds or pepitas

4 1/2 inch slices firm tofu, pressed in a paper towel to removed excess water
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
salt to taste
2 tsp honey
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tsp soy sauce

2 tbsp chipotle ranch dressing, or substitute any southwest dressing

Combine quinoa and vegetable stock in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for 15 minutes, then turn off heat and let cool slightly. Fluff with a fork before serving.

Meanwhile, prepare fruits and vegetables. Heat a small skillet to medium high (without oil). Toss in frozen corn kernels along with a pinch of chili powder and allow to blacken in spots, one or two kernels may pop out of pan. Turn out onto cutting board and allow to cool.

Lay tofu slices out in a single layer. Season liberally with chili powder and lightly with salt, press seasoning into surface, flip and repeat on other side. Heat a very small amount of vegetable oil - just enough to lightly coat the bottom - in a small frying pan on medium high. (This technique for cooking tofu is easy in a nonstick skillet, can be done in a well seasoned cast iron pan with a flexible spatula, and proves very difficult in a stainless steel pan.) Lay tofu slices in pan shaking pan after they're in place to make sure they do not stick. Allow to cook on medium high heat for about 2 minutes per side until a slight crust has formed. Quickly add orange juice, soy sauce, and honey to pan (they may spit at you, but it's worth it) allow to bubble away and reduce into a glaze, flip tofu slices, turn off heat and allow to cool slightly in pan.

To assemble salad, lay out a ring of mixed greens, pile quinoa in center, then sprinkle on black beans, corn, avocado, mango, and tomatoes. Then top with tofu slices drizzle on dressing and top with sunflower seeds.

Note: When discussing my post for this salad Jon suggested that I have an awesome scale on my blog because "you wouldn't know just by looking at it how awesome [this] is" and he went on to say that everyone should try this at least once in their life. Just a word of advice.

Warm Parsley-Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad

This recipe solves 2 problems. (1) If you ever go to the grocery store in search fresh parsley because you just need a bit for some recipe, you're forced to buy a gigantic clump of it. And while it's much cheaper than other herbs, and you can understand why they don't sell miniature 30 cent bunches, that leaves you with a lot of extra parsley once you're done with whatever it is you bought it for. And (2), I really love pasta when it's first made, but I really hate the consistency of microwaved saucy pasta when I'm eating my leftovers at lunch the next day. It soaks up all the moisture from the sauce so that it's both mushy and dry - gross! So if I'm going to bring it in to work for lunch, I prefer pastas that are good served cold, or barely warmed through like pasta salad.

But pasta salad is something you eat in the summer when picnicking or barbecuing, and is well, kinda boring and not very satisfying as a meal. This recipe for Warm Parsley-Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad is both satisfying and a complete and balanced meal. And it's an easy and quick one bowl kind of meal at that. And even better, it will hold up well in the fridge for a few days so it makes a perfect packed lunch.

Warm Parsley-Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad
Makes 2-4 servings

Parsley-Walnut Pesto

Adapted from Everyday Food, March 2009

1 cup packed fresh parsley, washed and dried
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp water
salt to taste

Toast walnut pieces in a small skillet on medium heat, until fragrant. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth and paste-like.

Pasta Salad
1 cup dry shaped whole-wheat/multi-grain pasta, such as rotini
2 tbsp cured black olives, roughly chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, oven roasted
2 tbsp chopped walnut pieces, toasted
1/2 (14.5 oz) can garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups baby arugula, washed and dried
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta in salted water to al dente. Meanwhile, toss arugula, beans, walnuts, tomatoes, and olives in a large bowl. When pasta is cooked, drain and toss with pesto into arugula mixture adding a ladle of pasta cooking water to thin as necessary. Allow for arugula to wilt slightly.

Serve immediately or allow to cool before packing in resealable containers for lunch.