A KISS for the cook: Keep-it-simple suppers

From Melissa Clark's "Cook This Now" cookbook: Skillet Chicken with Green Garlic Lemon Thyme.
From Melissa Clark's "Cook This Now" cookbook: Skillet Chicken with Green Garlic Lemon Thyme.
Posted: October 06, 2011

Tired after a hectic day? Wondering what to serve for dinner? A new crop of cookbooks provide a fresh collection of quick and easy recipes for weeknight cooking.

James Peterson, author of the recently released Kitchen Simple: Essential Recipes for Everyday Cooking (Ten Speed Press), favors "simplicity in style and presentation."

Melissa Clark offers a trove of her favorites in Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make (Hyperion).

And Cat Cora, of Food Network fame, presents her view of home cooking with Cat Cora's Classics With a Twist: Fresh Takes on Favorite Dishes, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

All three advocate keeping your pantry stocked and keeping it simple.

Chef, food writer, cooking instructor, and food photographer Peterson has written 15 other cookbooks. But the 200 recipes in this new book are "really the food I cook," he says. Most recipes can be executed in a half-hour or less (though some require longer cooking time).

"All ingredients are supermarket accessible," he says, as the book was designed for people who have worked all day and don't want to spend hours in the kitchen.

He is not opposed to convenience foods or anything that works. Frozen peas are almost always better than fresh, he says. For pasta, he uses dried (his favorite brand is Cipriani) and fresh store-bought.

Some of his tricks for quick fare include serving baked halibut with beurre blanc or braised flounder with a little sherry and a bit of cream. He includes instructions on how to bone salmon steaks and bake in parchment with a little fresh tarragon, butter, and a sprinkling of white wine.

"I also do tuna steaks, grilled or sauteed, with saffron aioli." He suggests people make their own aioli, by adding a clove or two of crushed garlic to mayonnaise.

His recipe for the ultimate mac and cheese or gratin? Take leftover or cooked pasta, spread in a baking dish with heavy cream, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt and pepper, then bake. "It's fabulous - no white sauce required."

Soy sauce, thyme (fresh or dried, chopped to release flavor), garlic, and a little white wine is his fallback marinade for flank steak.

In Clark's new book, the Brooklyn resident encourages cooking seasonally "because the food tastes better."

If you can't get to a farmer's market, follow the seasons with supermarket ingredients, advises the self-taught cook, who has authored and coauthored 32 cookbooks and is a freelance food columnist for the New York Times.

"Use great ingredients and take care when you cook them," she says. "Be present in the moment of cooking."

This book "is a glimpse into my kitchen in a personal way - it's really the way I cook at home."

Chapters are organized by months - with 10 recipes, including some starters, entrees, sides, and desserts, in each.

To get fresh fare on the table quickly, she advises limiting the number of ingredients and "using a few intensely flavored ingredients - olives, capers, lemons, roasted tomatoes."

One of her favorite secret ingredients is Turkish chile pepper or the similar aleppo pepper from Syria. "When something comes out bland, sprinkle on a little along with a little sea salt - and it comes out great."

Sometimes, instead, she uses strong-flavored olive oil and crunchy salt (Maldon salt or fleur de sel) to make everything taste good.

Skillet Chicken With Green Garlic and Lemon Thyme is a great, basic recipe adaptable to every season, she says. "You can flavor with almost any herbs [she likes tarragon], vegetables [ripe tomatoes, mushroom, Swiss chard, shredded cabbage], and aromatics that you have around."

Her 3-year-old daughter enjoys the Carroty Mac and Cheese, roasted cauliflower with cumin, grilled sausages with celery root salad, brussels sprouts with pancetta, and anything sweet.

"I'm big into garnishes. You should add something visually appealing that will lift up the flavor of the dish. It should be something planned ahead and meant to be there, but doesn't necessarily have to be in the dish."

For all three of these cooks, the key to success is planning and organization.

"Prepping ahead always makes life easier," says Cora, the Jackson, Miss., native who grew up on a Mediterranean diet in a Greek American home.

When the first female chef on Iron Chef America, who has been on the Food Network show since 2005, is at home in Santa Barbara, you'll find her cooking for her four boys, ages 2 to 7, and her partner.

"I make really easy things such as fish tacos, baked fried chicken, Greek nachos, soup and grilled cheese, roasted chicken, crispy baked fish sticks.

"I cook healthy gourmet food. I think quality first and seasonal foods," she says.

Many of the book's 100 recipes, featuring spins and flavor variations on classics, take 20 minutes or less.

For instance, Cora has taken her mother's beef stroganoff recipe and freshened it by substituting chicken for the beef and adding marsala, Dijon mustard, and fresh tarragon. "Instead of boring burgers, I make mine with ground salmon mixed with fresh basil and top them with an easy-to-make herbed sherry mayonnaise." For tacos, skip the fried, stiff shells and tomato salsa and serve chopped-up grilled flank steak in warm tortillas embellished with pineapple salsa.

"Whenever possible, I sneak out a few calories by going easy on the butter, substituting low-fat sour cream and reduced-fat cheeses for regular, and using buttermilk - but only when doing so actually improves the taste."


Pasta and Peas

Makes 6 first-course or 4 main-course servings

Salt

4 tablespoons butter

1 (4-ounce) slice prosciutto (1/4-inch thick), cut into 1/4-inch dice

1 small onion, chopped

1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas or 10 ounces fresh baby peas

1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

1 pound dried pasta, such as spaghetti or linguine, or 1 1/2 pounds fresh pasta

Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to serve

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. In a large saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add prosciutto and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion turns translucent, about 10 minutes. Add peas and cook just long enough to heat them through and, if they're fresh, lightly cook them, from 5 to 10 minutes (taste one to determine doneness). Add parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Meanwhile, boil dried pasta according to instructions on the package, or if fresh, 30 to 60 seconds, until soft, with slightest resistance to the tooth.

4. Drain pasta and transfer to a heated bowl. Toss it with pea mixture. Serve in heated pasta or soup plates. Pass Parmesan cheese at the table.

- From Kitchen Simple: Essential Recipes for Everyday Cooking, by James Peterson (Ten Speed Press)

Per serving (based on 6): 375 calories, 17 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 89 milligrams cholesterol, 468 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Skillet Chicken With Green Garlic and Lemon Thyme

Makes 4 servings

1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 bunch fresh thyme (preferably lemon thyme)

1 head green garlic, thickly sliced, or 4 regular garlic cloves, peeled, smashed

3/4 cup dry white wine

2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Cooked quinoa mixed with black pepper, brown butter and baby arugula, or a crusty loaf of bread, for serving

1. In a large shallow dish, place chicken, oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic, and mix to coat chicken. Cover dish and chill in refrigerator 2 hours or up to overnight. If you're pressed for time, let the dish stand, covered, at room temperature 30 minutes.

2. In a large skillet over medium heat, place chicken and seasoning mixture. Cook, without moving the chicken, 10 minutes. Use a spatula to press lightly on wings to brown. Flip chicken pieces, cover pan, and continue cooking, without moving, 15 to 20 minutes more.

3. Check breasts by piercing with a fork to see if they are cooked through. If they are, transfer them to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm. If not, allow to cook 5 minutes more or so, until done. After removing breasts, use a spoon to remove some of the excess fat. Pour in wine. Simmer, scraping up brown bits at bottom of skillet, until sauce reduces and remaining chicken parts are cooked through, about 5 minutes more.

4. Transfer chicken to a plate and whisk butter into pan, whisking until sauce thickens.

5. Serve with sauce on top of chicken and don't forget to eat the garlic. Serve with hot quinoa or crusty bread (spread with mashed garlic).

- From Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable DishesYou Can't Wait to Make, by Melissa Clark (Hyperion)

Per serving (without quinoa or bread): 531 calories, 69 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 22 grams fat, 213 milligrams cholesterol, 808 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Halibut With Pepitas, Capers, Cherry Tomatoes, and Basil

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

4 (6-ounce) halibut fillets

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

11/2 tablespoons drained and rinsed capers

1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes (quartered if large)

1/4 cup torn fresh basil, plus a handful of small leaves for garnish

1. In a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast pepitas lightly (don't allow to brown). As soon as you begin to smell them, remove pan from heat and transfer to a large plate. Set aside.

2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sprinkle halibut on both sides with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet with an ovenproof handle over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer but is not smoking. Place fillets, skin side up, in hot oil and sear until fish begins to turn color, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn fillets and add lemon juice, wine, and butter to pan. As soon as butter melts and becomes foamy, add capers and tomatoes and simmer until tomatoes release some juices, about 1 minute.

3. Place pan in oven and bake 7 to 10 minutes, until fish is cooked through. Baste fish with some of the juices and transfer to serving plates. Add 1/4 cup torn basil, pepitas, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt to pan juices and stir until basil is slightly wilted. Spoon mixture over fish, garnish with fresh basil leaves, and serve.

- From Cat Cora's Classics With a Twist: Fresh Takes

on Favorite Dishes, by Cat Cora with Ann Krueger Spivack (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Per serving: 428 calories, 47 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 20 grams fat, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 1,131 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Chicken or Turkey Enchiladas With Tomatillo Sauce

Makes 4 servings

3 cups shredded cooked chicken or turkey

Salt

Pepper

8 corn tortillas

1/4 cup corn oil

Sour cream, for serving

For the tomatillo sauce:

3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

1 large onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced and then crushed into a paste

2 1/2 pounds tomatillos, sheaths removed and halved across their equators

2 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, rinsed, stemmed, and chopped

1/2 cup water (optional)

1 small bunch cilantro,  chopped

Salt

Pepper

1. To prepare the tomatillo sauce, warm oil over medium heat in a small heavy-bottomed pot. Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until they turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add tomatillos and chiles and cover pot. Cook over medium heat, about 20 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes to prevent burning, or until tomatillos are mushy. If the mixture is too dry and tomatillos stick to the pot, add 1/2 cup water.

2. Puree the mixture with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. Be careful using a blender as the hot sauce tries to shoot out the top. (Hold the lid on securely with a kitchen towel.) Add cilantro to sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Use immediately or store in covered container in refrigerator up to 3 days or freeze for a month or two.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season chicken with salt and pepper. In a skillet over medium heat, warm corn oil. One at a time, warm tortillas in oil about 30 seconds on each side, or just until they smell fragrant. (If you heat them too long, the tortillas lose their flexibility.) Reserve on a baking sheet or plate.

3. Divide chicken evenly among tortillas and roll up tortillas. Arrange enchiladas in a baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Pour over Tomatillo Sauce.

4. Bake about 25 minutes, or until sauce is bubbly. Serve immediately, passing sour cream at table.

- From Kitchen Simple: Essential Recipes for Everyday Cooking, by James Peterson (Ten Speed Press)

Per serving (without sour cream): 531 calories, 37 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 81 milligrams cholesterol, 242 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.


Carroty Mac and Cheese

Makes 6 servings

2 cups whole wheat macaroni

2 1/2 cups coarsely grated carrot (about 8 small)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

3 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese

3/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup whole milk

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon mustard powder 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. Cook macaroni according to package instructions in a large pot of salted boiling water; add carrot 3 minutes before pasta is finished cooking; drain well. While pasta is hot, stir in butter and all but 1/2 cup Cheddar.

2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, whisk together sour cream, milk, eggs, salt, mustard powder, and pepper. Fold mixture into pasta. Scrape mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle remaining Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses over top.

3. Bake on rack in top third of the oven about 30 minutes, until casserole is firm to touch and golden brown.

- From Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make, by Melissa Clark (Hyperion)

Note: Vary the cheese to give this rather plain (if tasty) dish more personality. Gruyere, aged Cheddar, pecorino, and aged Gouda will all add a sophisticated allure that will raise it above mere kids' food. Also, add a dash of hot sauce, such as sriracha, if desired.

Per serving: 533 calories, 23 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 36 grams fat, 159 milligrams cholesterol, 940 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Grilled Avocado Cobb Salad With Apricot Dressing

Makes 6-8 servings

For the grilled avocados:

3 large, firm avocados, halved, pitted and peeled 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

For the apricot dressing:

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar

1/4 cup apricot preserves

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped fresh  thyme

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:

8 cups chopped iceberg, romaine, or butter leaf lettuce

1 cup diced fresh tomatoes

1 cup drained, diced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

2 large eggs, hard-cooked and peeled, whites and yolks coarsely chopped separately

6 slices turkey bacon, cooked and crumbled

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

1. To grill avocados, preheat a gas grill on medium-high heat or light a charcoal grill. Brush or spray avocados evenly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Grill avocado halves just until grill marks form, 2 to 3 minutes. With a spatula, carefully turn halves and cook a few minutes more, until marks appear on other side. Remove to a side dish and sprinkle lime juice over each half. Cool avocados to room temperature or refrigerate until ready to assemble salad.

2. For Apricot Dressing, in a large bowl, whisk together vinegar, apricot preserves, olive oil, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.

3. To assemble the salad, in a large bowl, toss lettuce with Apricot Dressing. Transfer dressed lettuce to a large platter. Carefully cut grilled avocados on the bias into thick slices and place down center of salad. In a small bowl, mix fresh and sun-dried tomatoes together. Spoon yolks, whites, bacon, tomatoes, and cheese around avocado. Serve.

- From Cat Cora's Classics With a Twist: Fresh Takes on Favorite Dishes, by Cat Cora with Ann Krueger Spivack (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Per serving (based on 8): 336 calories, 8 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 60 milligrams cholesterol, 315 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.

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