A Dinner Surprise

by Lisa

This is another fast, easy, intensely flavorful recipe that’s great for a weeknight change. It’s also really affordable & relies on things that you can easily keep in your pantry &/or freezer.  It saved me over the last month, when I needed to get dinner on table with a minimum of prep work.  For the kids, it has the added bonus of being sort of fun and surprising. They get their own, individually wrapped entry on their plates, and they get to unpack it by themselves, which of course makes them feel sort of important .   And like most everything  I cook, it can be varied depending on your taste  and what you happen to have on hand.  The basic recipe is from Food and Wine and you can find it here.

Basically, it’s a pork chop topped with mustard, cured meat, & herbs en papillote (a fancy way for saying wrapped in foil or parchment) and baked for about 20 minutes. It produces a deeply flavored, tender chop surrounded by a few tablespoons of delicious juice. Pair it with some quick sauteed greens, a salad, and a side of white beans with garlic and olive oil.  You’re kids should be delighted when you serve them a plate with their own packet to open, even happier when they cut into it, and you’ll be surprised at how good and easy it is. Every time.

My strategies are below. See the original recipe for a lovely picture.  I only got the taste tester’s verdict:

Pork Chops With Mustard and Bacon

For each packet you’ll need:

  • One bone-in pork chop (the bone is ideal for tenderness and flavor, also you want chops with some fat)
  • 2 t Dijon mustard
  • 1 Slice Canadian bacon, prosciutto, or thinly sliced pancetta
  • Fresh or dried thyme, or other herbs to your taste
  • Foil square

Place the pork chop in the center of the foil square. Top with a teaspoon (or more or less, to your taste) of mustard. Layer the sliced bacon/pancetta/prosciutto on top, then top with another teaspoon or so of mustard and sprinkle with herbs.  Tightly crimp the foil packet closed all around the pork chop. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Let rest. Serve with or without packet, reserving juices.

Nuoc Chom

by Lisa

This is one of those things that can save your day, and it may be my new favorite thing to keep in the refrigerator. It’s not a dish, per se, but a basic recipe for a Vietnamese dipping sauce that is incredibly versatile and fantastically delicious.  The kids go nuts for it.

Composed of garlic, chilis, fish sauce, Nuco Cham is sweet and savory and light.  You can vary the proportions for your family’s taste, and then use it as a cooking sauce, a dipping sauce, a light dressing.   It works on poultry, beef, pork, tofu, crisp vegetables like cucumbers, cabbage, robust lettuces, bean sprouts, even fresh tomatoes.  It works with rice or noodles.  And the bonus is that you can make a double recipe, keep it in the refrigerator, and pull it out when you only have 20 minutes to get dinner on the table.   It’s especially delicious and easy if you have a countertop grill and want to make some quick grilled meat.  I buy whole, boneless breasts, and cut them into slim fingers, use a bit of fajita meat, or a pork tenderloin, which I also slice very thinly. These small bits are kid friendly, and easily handled by children with chopsticks, or threaded onto skewers (making utensils unnecessary), and most important, they literally grill (or stir fry) in a matter of minutes.  If you have your rice ready, or use glass noodles, which also cook in minutes, you can get a healthy, really delicious dinner on the table in a flash.

There are many recipes for Nuoc Chom, but the one I start with is from an old Food and Wine Cookbook, reproduced below.  Double it, use half, and save the other half in a glass jar in the refrigerator for a night when you really need it.  You can use the herbs or leave them out if you don’t have them on hand, and you can add the vegetables that your family likes. You can also use rice, or rice noodles instead of the pasta. Think of this as a general guide and technique. The possibilities are endless.

Vermicelli with Chicken Skewers and Nuoc Cham

serves 4

  • 5 T Asian fish sauce
  • 2 T sugar
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 T cooking oil
  • 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut lengthwise into 12 strips (or an equivalent portion of beef, pork, or tofu)
  • 1/2 t dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 t red wine vinegar
  • 2 T  + 1 t lime juice
  • 2 T water
  • 1/2 lb vermicelli, or rice noodles, or enough rice to feed your family
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into thin slices
  • 2/3 cuup fresh mint or cilantro or basil–or any combination of these three
  • 1/3 cup chopped peanuts–also optional, but delicious if you have them on hand
  • Special equipment if you have it:  bamboo skewers, soaked in water so they don’t combust when you grill the meat
  1. Heat the broiler or light the grill. In a medium bowl, combine 1 T of the fish sauce, 1 T sugar, 2 cloves garlic, and oil.  Add the chicken(0r other meat/protein) and toss. You can let this marinate in the refrigerator for several hours if need be, or you can thread the meat directly onto wooden skewers.  Broil or grill the chicken until just done, about 2 minutes per side. Seriously.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining fish sauce (4T), 1 T sugar, 1 clove of garlic, and the red pepper flakes, vinegar, lime juice,and water. Set this nuoc cham aside.You can also make this very early in the day.
  3. Cook the vermicelli in a pot of boiling, salted water until done.
  4. Put the pasta or other noodles on a platter and top with the cucumber, herbs, and chicken skewers. Pour the nuoc cham over all and sprinkle with peanuts.  Alternatively, use the nuoc cham to dress the chicken and cucumbers separately, have a large dish of herbs for sprinkling, and serve with individual rice bowls.

Pan Roasted Chicken

by Lisa

This is one of the easiest & fastest ways to prepare chicken in the winter, and it has the added virtue of being really adaptable.  It’s not a recipe, but a technique, so you can use whatever cuts of chicken your family likes best, whatever fresh or dried herbs you prefer, and add a few root vegetables, or not.  It’s also virtually fool proof-the technique makes it pretty much impossible to dry out the chicken.  You can serve it with rice, made in your rice cooker, or baked potatoes, or just some good fresh bread, and a side salad, or if you’re feeling ambitious, a simple sautee of greens or steamed broccoli.  For a busy family, this dinner is a godsend.

The Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • Bone-in chicken parts: legs, thighs, breasts, or a combination–enough to feed your family
  • 2-3 springs fresh thyme, rosemary, oregano, or a combination, or a teaspoon or so dried
  • 1/2 cup white wine or chicken broth
  • Optional:  whole, unpeeled garlic cloves; carrots, sliced in half lengthwise; whole baby leeks or green onions; quartered onions; 2-3 canned plum tomatoes….be imaginative, use what you have…
  • Equipment: heavy bottomed, oven proof sauce or saute pan w/lid

The Technique:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

On the stove, brown the chicken in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. The parts won’t be cooked through–you just want them to acquire a nice, rich color.

Deglaze the pan with the white wine or broth, scraping up all the bits that cling to the bottom. Simmer until most, but not all of the liquid is evaporated. You’ll want about 1/4 cup of liquid to remain in the pan.

Add your herbs and any vegetables (or not) you are choosing to add.

COVER the pan and set it in the oven to finish cooking.  Depending on the size of your parts, this will take about 20-25 minutes.  The chicken cooks pretty quickly, so make sure any vegetables are chopped small enough to finish cooking in that time.  The roast should produce a lovely, rich sauce, which you can spoon over the chicken and/or rice.

Homemade Marshmallows

by Lisa

The Valentine’s Day lollipops were a disaster. Two recipes, three flavors, three batches, nearly 150 suckers later, and not a single one came out right. They were pretty, but not so tasty, and didn’t harden. They’re not a good activity for kids because well, candy is really hot.

So, on February 13 we were stuck.  We had valentines, but no treats, and nearly 5 dozen kids to take care of.  And so we made something starts out very sticky which saved the day and which I suspect will not only be our Valentine’s Day go-to treat but which will grace our table regularly over the coming year.

Homemade marshmallows are really easy and fun to make and really delicious–and versatile. Once you get the basic recipe down you can add any flavoring you like:  think beyond peppermint, which is certainly a good choice: to lavender, coffee, orange blossom, lemon or zest, coconut, almond, rosemary…if you can find the extract or steep the herb in the sugar syrup, you can make a marshmallow flavor with it.

I used  this recipe on Epicurious, added red food coloring, and used only confectioner’s sugar for the final dusting.  I heated the sugar syrup, but with careful pouring, Finn manned the hand mixer for quite a while.  You should beat the mixture until it’s really, really thick, probably longer than you think you need to. Then you spread it in the pan, wait and cut. I used a pizza cutter sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.  The actual “baking” takes maybe 20 minutes, so while it will take several hours from start to finish, the active time is minimal.

The kids filled the bags assembly-line style, and we had enough left over to bring to a party on Sunday, where the adults probably ate as many as the kids. They’re that good.

Winter Citrus Pasta

by Lisa

This recipe is an adaptation from my favorite cooking magazine:  La Cucina Italiana.  Sometimes the recipes are complicated and not friendly for weeknights or busy families, but the articles and pictures are terrific, and the recipes often astonishing.

Our orange tree is reaching its peak, and on a very rainy Saturday afternoon, this dish looked like just the warm, rich dish we needed on a very rainy Saturday night. I could make it with what I had in my pantry (& on my tree).  It’s simple enough for a weeknight, elegant and rich enough for a weekend.  Think of it as a kind of fancy variation on a Fettucine Alfredo (with an egg), which I’ll write about tomorrow. It’s another example of how seasonal eating can be serendiptious, spontaneous, and fulfilling. If you keep your kitchen stocked with ingredients available in and appropriate to the season, you can almost always whip up something great.  (Unlike, say, keeping around a zucchini in Februrary January (apparently I just lost a month…), which is what I saw an unnamed Food Network “star” cook with last night….and I nearly gagged on my cauliflower broiled w/emmenthal and cream….).

Also, in keeping with the gastronomic education of the kids, this is interesting because it pairs the familiar with a new taste.  It looks like something they’d love; it looks a little boring, maybe, but the flavors are a sunny surprise and a comfort.  More: the kids aren’t used to seeing zest in their pasta, but they loved the flavor so, as we say, they got over it quickly. It’s also more filling, so they chose to eat less of it which was fine for me. (I had a couple of warm lunches.)

This is a rich and filling dish, so adapt your side dishes or first courses accordingly.

Winter Citrus Pasta

  • 1 lb pasta
  • zest of one orange
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 T butter
  • about a tablespoon of fresh chopped sage OR thyme
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1/2 cup grana; parmesan, or pecorino, or more to taste
  • salt & pepper
  1. Put orange zest in cream and heat (in microwave if you like) to near boiling. Let steep.
  2. Cook pasta and drain.
  3. In pasta cooking pot, sautee sage or thyme for a minute or so to release fragrance.
  4. Lower heat and add pasta to pot. Toss with cream/zest mixture.
  5. Quickly stir in the egg and the cheese; this will make a thick and creamy sauce.
  6. Serve immediately.


The following was appended on Jan. 12, 2010

And for those of you suitably excited about this, and not afraid of the extra eggs and cream, the recipe as originally published is below. Read it, read my quicker version, and adapt to your kitchen, time frame, your taste and tolerance for cream.  Both recipes are satisfying and delicious, as long as you  don’t leave out the egg or cream. Or, um, the zest.

  • zest of 2 oranges
  • 1 1/2 T butter
  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup chervil
  • 1/2 cup parmesan
  • 3 large egg yolks
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Warm serving plates in a low oven.
  3. Melt butter in a medium skillet until foam subsides. Add zest and a pnich of salt, reduce heat, and cook until zest is soft and golden.  Set aside.
  4. Bring cream, chervil, salt to a boil in a small saucepan.  Simmer for 4 minutes.
  5. Cook pasta until al dente.
  6. Just before pasta is served, spoon 3 T of cream onto serving plates. Using the back of spoon, spread the cream to cover plates.
  7. Darain pasta and toss with remaining cream, zest and egg yolks until fully incorporated.
  8. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Garnish with zest and chervil.
  10. Serve immediately.