Sunday, September 09, 2007
Everyone has one or two favorite fallback meals that you make as a reflex when you've got to cook something. Since I am single, my reflex meals are probably more eccentric than most. Peg Bracken, my favorite cookbook writer, did a great chapter in her Appendix to the I Hate To Cook Book on singles cooking; see also Laurie Colwin's chapter "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant" in her book Home Cooking, about her single years cooking on a hot plate in a tiny New York City apartment. At that time she apparently lived on eggplant (which I can't stand).
I can't hide behind Colwin's impediment: I have a house with a functional whole kitchen and an intimidating family heritage as a daughter of Southern cooks behind me. I just simply don't have time to cook, other than on weekends. I work too many hours. The number of times I have eaten cold cereal or potato chips for dinner would stun you, or maybe it wouldn't - I get the feeling that more and more people are eating like this when they can get away with it. But now I am trying to eat better and more cheaply. The only way to do this, I realized, is to cook for yourself.
My next realization was that whatever I cook has to be simple, tasty and fast, or I won't continue to do it. For many years in my twenties my fallback meal was vegetable stir-fry; back in medical school when I was doing a clinical rotation in Oxford, England I lived on this for an entire month. I had somehow forgotten about it until a few months ago when I dusted off my nonstick wok and took it for a spin. The results were as good as I remembered.
This weekend I had some chicken tenders in the fridge that had to be used up, so I decided to do a stir-fry. I usually don't use meat in stir-fry if it's a true emergency meal, since by definition this is a last-minute sort of thing and most of the time I don't have meat sitting around waiting to be used up; however, if you do, try this approach with it. I chopped the chicken into eating size chunks, threw some soy sauce and powdered ginger over it and tossed in a crushed garlic clove, then left it to meditate while I put the water on to cook for the rice.
Next and most crucial is the vegetable selection. The really nice thing about stir-fry is that you don't have to use expensive ingredients. If you have, say, bean sprouts, fancy mushrooms or red bell peppers, you certainly can use them in your stir-fry but you don't have to. I used chopped onion, cabbage and celery because that is what I had. As a general rule I would say use onion (green onion is great, but now I use regular because I always have it around and it keeps better than green onion) and garlic or garlic powder. For a "base vegetable" I use either broccoli or cabbage and then I throw in whatever else there is. Carrots, snow peas, whatever - it almost doesn't matter.
If you have meat, cook that first (to sear all surfaces) and then take it out of the pan and keep it warm while you start to cook the veg. Do the heavier ones, such as onion and celery, first and then add the mushroom/cabbage types later. Do the bean sprout and snow pea sort of thing last. By the way, I do think that using peanut oil makes a difference as it takes the heat better and leaves less of an aftertaste; if you're allergic to peanuts, though, canola or sunflower is fine.
So that's your emergency dinner Number One. Here is another one that I think is good if you are in the mood for pasta. It requires that you find a jarred or bottled tomato sauce that you like (it should be tasty but doesn't have to be really expensive). Cook pasta, heat sauce. Toss together in a warmed bowl and add a few tablespoons of ricotta cheese; mix, but not enough to fully blend ricotta in with the sauce. Serve with Parmesan on the top. Yummy, and will make any jarred sauce taste better.