Thursday, April 17, 2008

Please pass the sodium metabisulphite

The subject of my first real post might not actually qualify as being a tip, but it is something that's important to me. So much for keeping to a theme...

Possibly more than the US, the UK is full of what they call 'ready meals'; in the US these are known as 'TV dinners'. Now I've eaten my share of Stouffer's lasagna and M&S chicken tikka masala, and I'm a sucker for the grocery store brand 'fresh' tortellini and soups. I also eat out a lot (well, not so much now that I have a baby, but the guys at the pizza place up the street are now concerned if we haven't ordered take-out in a while). And sometimes you just need a Big Mac and fries washed down with a McFlurry...

I'm not knocking any of these things, but I am starting to appreciate the value of a home-cooked meal, in which the ingredients do not include sodium metabisulphite, autolyzed yeast extract and 2 tablespoons of salt per serving. Perhaps this has something to do with my mother, who pretty much made home-cooked dinner every night while I was growing up (more about that will come in a future post, I think). Maybe it's because I like cooking, or because the older I get the more I need to be careful about what I'm eating (interesting aside - in high school I typically ate seasoned curly fries, a Coke and Little Debbie snack cakes for lunch, either Swiss Cake Rolls or Nutty Bars).

The point of all this is that although you really cannot make a homemade dinner in the same time as it takes to order take-out or heat up jarred soup in the microwave like some of those TV chefs would like you to believe (don't you just hate Rachael Ray and her "In the time you've just wasted sitting on your butt on the couch eating Cheetos and watching TV, I'll have made a delicious and healthy meal"?), you really can cook food at home fairly easily. Now is where the 'tips' for today come in - some of my standby 'recipes' for easy/fast cooking at home.

First, two pasta dishes that aren't spaghetti with meat sauce or boxed mac-n-cheese.

Clear Out the Fridge/Pantry Pasta

Cook some pasta-spaghetti, ziti, whatever.

While that's cooking, sautee some cut up bacon or pancetta cubes with some chopped onion (yellow, green, shallots - whatever you have) and garlic.
Alternatively, you can chop up some ham and add that after sauteeing the onion/garlic in some olive oil. If you don't want the meat, leave it out (duh). Toss in some red pepper flakes (careful with these; a little goes a long way) and some dried Italian herbs (oregano, basil, etc; in the UK I use Sainsbury's Mediterranean style mixed herbs, which contains oregano, basil, bay, sage and thyme).

Then throw in whatever veggies you want. I typically use frozen peas (no need to thaw, they'll heat up in the pan) and chopped fresh tomato (add this towards the end to prevent it from dissolving into nothing). Mushrooms also work great, as does asparagus or spinach. Tip: Frozen peas are almost always better than fresh because they are frozen so soon after being picked and 'fresh' peas usually aren't all that fresh.

Toss everything with the cooked pasta (you can add a little pasta-cooking water to help bring things together), add some fresh herbs if you want (parsley, basil), grind some black pepper and grate some fresh parmesan over. A tip about the cheese - freshly grated parmesan really tastes better than the alternatives. Please, NEVER buy parmesan cheese in a can. Also, it really is better (and I think cheaper) to buy a block and grate it yourself rather than buying it pre-grated from the store. Bon appetit!

The second pasta dish I just made up last weekend after we bought a ginormous bag of cherry tomatoes at Borough Market.

Margherita Pasta

First, roast the cherry tomatoes. Turn the oven to 200C/400F. Toss tomatoes in a baking dish with olive oil, dried Italian herbs (see above), 8 or so garlic cloves (don't peel-just throw in whole), salt, pepper and a few red pepper flakes. Basically you need enough tomatoes to create sauce for pasta for 2 people; I just put enough to make a single layer in my 9x13 Pyrex dish and that was enough. Bake for 10-15 minutes. They should be starting to burst open.

While the tomatoes are roasting, cook enough pasta (I used penne) for two hungry people. When the pasta's done (make the tomatoes wait for the pasta, not vice versa), toss with the tomatoes, garlic and all the pan juices.

Throw in some chopped fresh mozzarella (I used one large ball) and chopped fresh basil and parsley. Add some freshly ground pepper and freshly grated parmesan, and you're good to go. Oh, and be sure to take the garlic cloves out of the peel before eating them (I kind of like them smeared on bread more than in the pasta itself).

I was also going to write about my easy pizzas and quesadillas/guacamole, but that can wait for another time, as the baby's waking up from his nap now...

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