On missing the farm stand and the benefits of keeping a cooking log.
I started the month with a lament. Berberian’s, the local food stand, closed in November and will not re-open until May. Three months out of the growing season I’ve finally realized how spoiled I was. My plan was to find workarounds for the lack of fresh (local) produce. I worked on this only a little, though with one good result.
I ended the month by reviewing my cooking log. I increased the detail of my records only to improve upon last month’s post. (To remind, my motive for posting lists of dinners is transparency. I want readers to be able to compare my blog posts with my actual home cooking. A measure of how useful my ideas are — especially for time-constrained home cooks — is how often they show up in these logs.) I didn’t anticipate I’d actually learn from what I wrote down! I think this is because I’m not one to keep a journal.
February was a competent month of cooking.
- I limited us to four take-out meals and a single pre-made serving of pasta from Wegmans.
- On average, quality was good. For convenience I’ll grade meals on the A through F scale. (Obviously an A to me is a C to others and an A this month may not be an A in the future.):
- I cooked one F. I give the dinner on the 26th an F. If it had tasted good, I would still have been hungry. I failed due to lack of imagination and carelessness with ingredients. The latter was especially stupid. The sugar snap peas I used tasted off. Lesson learned: test all your ingredients. Based on past experience I didn’t question their freshness.
- On the bright side, I only cooked one F.
- Almost all the dinners were a solid B. I consider a dinner a B or better if I served it on time, cooked all the ingredients properly, and my wife liked the meal. For my money, these practical standards are the relevant standards for a home cook.
- Three dinners deserve an A. An A is B dinner my wife and I really enjoyed. The common thread between the A dinners is that each belongs to a specific cuisine. I put B dinners together based on techniques; I drew from specific dishes in cooking the A dinners.
- I spent a lot of meals experimenting with basic low-temperature cooking. This was time well spent, but the fact that none of those dinners were memorable shows that improving technique will only get me so far.
The bottom line is that I need to cook more from recipes in March. I started flipping through my Italian, Mexican, Thai, and Sichuan cookbooks last night.
February cooking log
Better records. Probably worse writing.
Super Bowl weekend
- Restaurant-bought meal (2/1): Not memorable. I probably got caught up in errands.
- Wife-cooked meal (2/2): Shrimp with scallion sauce and roasted carrots. This was light and satisfying, representative of my wife’s cooking style.
- Super Bowl Sunday (2/3): National Junk Food Day.
Recovery week from Super Bowl weekend
- Ziti with meat sauce, spinach salad (2/4): Sweated onion, carrot, and celery in olive oil over medium heat. Defrosted ground beef in the microwave, added it to the pan, and turned the heat to high. Added one 28 oz can tomato. Finished with cream and butter. Certainly not a true bolognese, but certainly satisfying.
- Roasted chicken legs, buttered peas, and rice (2/5): Broke down a whole chicken, keeping the legs intact. I slit each leg at the joint, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then seared hard in a pan. Finished in the oven at 425 degrees F. The peas I defrosted quickly in boiling, salted water, shocked in an ice bath, and then finished in a pan with butter. My wife cooked brown rice in the rice cooker. Dinner was simple and brainless since I tried to do two things on the side: bake a sourdough boule and cook-chill chicken cutlets at 59 degrees C.
- Low-temp chicken cutlets, brussels sprouts with thyme salt, herbed rice (2/6): I cook-chilled the cutlets on 2/5. All that was left was to season and sear them. I need to figure out how to make the cutlets flatter for better searing. The brussels sprouts I quartered, dusted with thyme salt, and pan roasted. I mixed minced parsley into some leftover rice and heated it with olive oil, adding some salt at the end.
- Sirloin steak, sauteed kale, and couscous (2/7): Another cook-chill night. Kept things simple due to the impending noreaster. Kale my wife helped on and couscous I cooked in a small saucepan.
- Chicken adobo, braised cabbage, and white rice (2/8): I’m starting to get the hang of this low-temp cooking thing. Deboned chicken legs. Coconut milk, soy sauce, distilled vinegar, garlic, and bay. Cook-chill. I would have graded this an A dinner if I had made a culturally appropriate vegetable.
- Lost meal (2/9): Didn’t write this down. Must not have been exceptional in any way.
- Rotini in a spinach, ham, and ricotta sauce (2/10): Finally! A frozen vegetable dish that tastes good. (I thought I’d do more of these for a follow-up post on pasta sauces. Better luck this month.)
First week of Lent: After giving it some thought, I decided to leave out all animals on days of abstinence. Maybe one day I’ll be a good enough cook to go vegetarian for all of Lent (like Kevin Gillespie of Top Chef fame):
- Fried chicken, collard greens, and white rice (2/11): Seasoned the chicken in a gradient brine of salt, brown sugar, lemon, allspice, clove, and cayenne. Dredging flour was seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika. The dredge was flour, then egg, then flour. Collard greens were cooked down in a combination of olive oil and bacon fat.
- Store-bought meal (2/12): Too much cleaning to do. Take-out from Thai Place in Shrewsbury. The red curry beef was good, worth ordering again. The steamed seafood dish was okay but tasted more European than Thai. The Pad Thai was good. The chicken dish was unremarkable.
- Sirloin steak, braised cabbage with thyme, and white rice (2/13): It was Ash Wednesday, so I abstained from the beef. But my wife isn’t Catholic and my daughter’s too young to appreciate Lent. I cooked the beef for them. I reheated the leftover cabbage in a sauce pan and seasoned with dried thyme ground into salt. In retrospect I would have held off on the salt. The white rice was left over from the previous night.
- Roasted chicken legs with rosemary butter and lemon, buttered noodles (2/14): I made a compound butter with rosemary and stuffed it between the legs and the skin of the chicken. I sliced lemons and placed them in the pan to brown with the roasting chicken. I tossed the noodles in the deglazed pan.
- Garlicky navy beans, leeks braised in a tomato sauce with cream, and white rice (2/15): I really love cooking beans. Each type of bean brings its own surprises. I used navy beans to make room for other white beans in my pantry, but ended up really enjoying their texture. I overshot on the garlic, thinking like a Filipino instead of an Italian. Choosing leeks was a weird choice, though I don’t think I had a better vegetable in the refrigerator.
- In-law cooking (2/16): Pad thai.
- In-law cooking (2/17): Chicken dumpling soup. I made some Filipino-tasting chicken stock (my in-laws approved). I’m making it a point to cook Asian stocks in March as well.
Second week of Lent:
- Sirloin steak, Wegmans tortelloni, and spinach (2/18): I cooked the steak low-temp, cooked the tortelloni because it was taking up space, and the spinach I thawed and cooked in a saucepan.
- Chicken breast, buttered egg noodles, and broccoli (2/19): This low-temp chicken breast came out really nice. The cutlets were on the smaller side and I was able to keep them relatively flat in the ice bath. The result is that I got a nice even, broad sear on the top side of each cutlet.
- Curried chicken with red peppers (2/20): Curry sauce needs chicken flavor. Either keep chicken in pan or add chicken stock.
- Restaurant night (2/21): Assorted Thai food.
- Black beans, red peppers, shredded leeks, spinach, cilantro rice, tortillas (2/22): These beans were memorable. I seasoned these beans with salt in the pressure cooker and then flavored them with a vegetable oil infused with garlic and whole cumin and coriander seeds. The oil carried the spices through the beans and the seeds provided surprises while we ate. The leeks were inappropriate, but the beans made up for them. It was taco night for me and beans and rice night for my wife. My toddler ate the plain beans.
- Pork chop with cranberry chutney, sauteed chard, and garlic mashed potatoes (2/23): My wife received a can of cranberry chutney as a holiday gift. I decided to build a meal around it. That was a good decision, as the chutney was terrific. I cooked the pork chops low-temp. I sliced the chard stems across the grain and roughly chopped the leaves before tossing them in my saucepan. I prepared the mashed potatoes the way I prepare my beans: cook the potatoes, infuse a fat, and then mix together. The potatoes were fluffy and delicious.
- Hot wings, “wedge salad,” and white rice (2/24): I finally cashed in on my chicken wings stash. This version was okay, but not great. Had a little fun with the vegetables in making a “wedge salad” from Romaine hearts. My wife didn’t think it was so fun and ate some fresh baby spinach instead.
Third week of Lent. Friday belongs to March.
- Rotini and meatballs, carrot soup (2/25): Had a lot of cleaning to do before I could start dinner, so my wife started the sauce and pasta. I cooked the soup after I finished cleaning. The meatballs were pre-cooked frozen from Wegmans. We browned them in the oven and then let them sit in the sauce.
- Low-temp chicken cutlets with balsamic and tomato sauce, sugar snap peas, and seasoned white rice (2/26): As above, I really didn’t have any ideas tonight. The peas tasted off (not rotten, but to my taste not good). I should have checked on them before I used them, even if they’d been very good every other time I’d bought them. On the plus side I also broke down a chicken, froze the wings, brined the legs, made a mild chicken stock, cooked cracklings, and baked a Pullman loaf.
- Low-temp chicken legs, creamed spinach, and egg noodles dressed with an infused oil (2/27): These were the brined legs. Everything was cooked simply. Herbs and spices made the difference: nutmeg in the spinach and parsley, thyme, garlic, and bay in an infused oil for the pasta.
- Pizza, rotisserie chicken, and roasted vegetables from Wegmans (2/28): Our toddler woke up in the middle of the night and I was out of it all day. Didn’t get things together for dinner. But we’ve made it to March!