Real talk: I live in food-delivery central. Thanks to all the tech folks around here, we’ve got a thriving on-demand economy, including multiple services that will bring a restaurant order straight to your door. I don’t even have to step outside my apartment to get my favorite Thai fried rice, delivered warm and spicy and exactly how I like it. And unfortunately, that makes it really easy to fall off the cooking wagon.
Lately, with work ramping up its stress levels and the summer drought-heat sapping my energy, I’ve been spending way too much money on greasy takeout. It’s not like there’s no food in the house; the freezer is stocked with my favorite meal building-blocks, like sweet potato filling and tomato sauce and egg rolls. But it’s the instant gratification that gets me, the siren song of something filling and unhealthy that requires no effort on my part. No chopping, no stirring, no dishes–just a delivery fee and some wasted plastic containers. It’s a terrible habit to fall into, and a terribly easy one too.
This week, I’ve committed to breaking the habit. I’ve been allowing myself to cook stuff on a whim, to run to the grocery store every day if I want to. I’ve also been leaving myself with leftover ingredients, so that I’m forced to find ways to put them to use.
This is my latest leftover use-up, and a really delicious one. It started with some smoked mozzarella, which I bought because it was the cheapest mozzarella option at Trader Joe’s. I snacked on some of it, crumbled some of it onto pizza, and then was left with a nubbin of cheese and no plan for it. I had an unused bell pepper, along with some leftover steamed rice (from, uh, Thai takeout). Mixed up with a few pantry staples and some scallions, the rice and cheese became a rich, smoky, slightly spicy stuffing for the bell peppers. It was indulgent without being greasy, which was exactly what I was craving. Suddenly I had a Sunday night dinner that was fresh, nourishing, and totally impossible to call up through an app.
I used to not “get” zucchini bread. Out of all the baked goods in this world, why would you choose zucchini bread? It’s a vegetable dessert. It’s a sugary-sweet cake with something green snuck in. It’s what you resort to when you’ve got bushels of zucchini to use up and you’re sick of zucchini. I wasn’t into it.
Of course, then I found myself with zucchini to use up, and I was sick of zucchini. So I decided to cry uncle and do some baking. And it occurred to me that, after all, zucchini bread is just a hop, skip and a jump from carrot cake, which I adore. Carrot cake isn’t really about the carrots; they’re there for texture and moisture, maybe a bit of color, but not so much for their intrinsic carrot-ness. But the best carrot cakes, in my opinion, are unmistakable for what they are; they’re not spice cakes, or raisin-and-nut loaves. You wouldn’t think of removing the carrots, or replacing them with something else. They’re essential to the cake itself. So why not think of zucchini bread the same way?
I tinkered with a pretty standard recipe I found online, and came up with something that–to my surprise–I liked quite a lot. It’s a zucchini bread that almost walks the line between sweet and savory. It’s definitely a cake, but with half the sugar, a bit of whole wheat flour, and a perk of olive oil. The zucchini flavor is clear–not pronounced, just a hint of grassiness in the background. A few of us ate half the loaf for dessert after a light Sunday lunch, and it was perfect; the rest got bundled along for breakfast on the go the next morning, and it was great for that too.
One note: even though I’m calling this an “olive oil” bread, I actually use 1 part extra virgin olive oil to 2 parts canola oil. I’m not crazy about using all extra virgin olive oil in baked goods like this, since I think the flavor overwhelms. But I do like a bit more oomph than you’d get with just regular olive oil, and this ratio does it for me. Feel free to adjust the proportion of olive to canola oil as you like–you’ll need 3/4 cup oil in total.
A few weeks ago, I impulse-bought a couple tubs of Thai curry paste. Since then, it’s been curry central in this household. I love how these pastes provide deep flavor and powerful heat, without any work involved: no chopping, no mashing, no nothing. If you have Thai curry paste in the fridge, coconut milk and rice in the pantry, maybe some fish sauce and limes, you can follow the recipe on the label and turn pretty much any combination of protein and veggies into a quick and powerful meal. But even beyond that, I’ve found these pastes are terrific for everything from dumplings to lentil soup to a simple coconut sauce for fish or chicken (which I’ll get around to posting sometime soon).
I bought two kinds of curry paste: red and green. The red curry is a bit sharper and tangier, while the green curry is rich and deep and slightly sweet. I actually like the green better for straight-up curry, but the red has proven to be a bit more versatile overall. When I learned that red curry paste is a key ingredient in Thai fish cakes, it was only a matter of time before I tried it in one of my favorite seafood dishes of all time: crab cakes.
This is a total mash-up recipe, in the best way. These little nibbles have all the flavors of Thai fish cakes–red curry, green beans, scallions, fish sauce, lime–with the texture of an all-American crab cake. Unlike the Thai version, which requires a food processor and deep-frying, these can be made in a matter of minutes in just one bowl, with minimal mess and less fuss. The crab mixture benefits from a little time in the fridge before cooking, but it’s really not necessary. I can–and have–made these on a whim for Sunday lunch, in 20 minutes or less. They’re terrific that way.
How big or small you make these is totally up to you. I go for a sort of middle ground and make 8 smallish cakes, which I think are ideal for an at-home appetizer or light lunch. You could make 4 giant cakes, or 16 itty-bitty cakes to serve as a party snack. If you go bigger, I’d suggest covering the skillet while the cakes cook, so that they heat through by the time they’ve browned.
It’s a good thing my pie crust mojo came back when it did. It is fruit season, and I am psyched. The produce section at my local supermarket smells like peaches. Sam and I have been eating cherries like candy. The strawberries actually taste like strawberries now. It’s fun enough to just eat all this fruit out of hand, but when we want to actually do something with it, there’s nothing quite like a pie.
Sam’s mom was the one who first introduced me to nectarine-blueberry pie. She’s an avid pie baker all year round–pecan and custard pies when it’s cool out, and fruit pies when it’s warm. Nectarine-blueberry is her signature fruit pie, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. The two fruits work so harmoniously together: the nectarine is heady and sweet, the blueberries lush and jammy. The texture is gorgeous, with chunks of stone fruit and wilted nubbins of berry.
Recently I decided to try my own spin on the recipe. I adore spices and fruit together, so I spiked the filling with a bit of ginger and cardamom for warmth. Other than that, this is a fairly classic recipe, a bit elaborate to put together but lovely and homey when it’s baked. Like other stone fruit pies, it’s pretty juicy; I’ve found that the filling starts bubbling over well before the pie itself is done baking. After one particularly nasty mess on the floor of a friend’s oven, I’ve learned to bake this pie on a foil-lined baking sheet. It’ll still make a glorious mess, but at least it’ll be easier to clean up.
In testing this recipe, I’ve learned a couple nifty pie tricks. First, for a better crust, add an egg in two stages: the white gets brushed on the bottom crust to prevent sogginess, and the yolk gets brushed on the top crust to help it go golden. Second, a drinking glass makes a great lazy person’s pie crust cutter. Placing rounds of pastry on top of the pie is just as pretty and functional as weaving a lattice, with about half the effort. I’ll be making a lot of pies this way this summer.
This. This pie crust right here is what convinced me to start baking by weight.
For a long while, I thought I had pie crust down. I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s rye pie crust recipe, and fiddled with it to make it my own. It was a consistent winner, something I could throw together in minutes and stick in the fridge for a pie-less day. I was the queen of the Sunday-lunch galette and the party pie. It was wonderful.
Until I ran out of light rye flour, and couldn’t find it at any of my local stores. So I bought some dark rye flour instead, and immediately the crust recipe I relied on started failing on me. The dark rye flour added a terrific depth of flavor that I loved, but crust after crust came out sticky and impossible to roll. My theory is that the light rye flour, which has gluten added, was covering up my lazy baking decisions–measuring things imprecisely, using too much water, letting the butter get too warm. I realized I needed to re-teach myself the recipe.
So I did. I got myself a kitchen scale and started using the weight measurements in the original 101 Cookbooks post. And wouldn’t you know it, things started improving almost immediately. It wasn’t a magic bullet, but getting my ingredients in the exact right ratios meant that the crusts were consistently easier to handle. Plus, it turns out that baking by weight is actually easier and less messy than faffing around with cups–just scoop the flour directly into the bowl, no sweeping or leveling required. I’m totally sold, and will be baking things by weight from now on.
But even the scale didn’t totally fix the problem. I’ve also realized that something more old-fashioned is at play: patience and experience. I wasn’t really paying attention to what a well-made crust feels like in the bowl–slightly crumbly, just moist enough to stick together–and so I was guessing and throwing off my aim. I’ve started to slow down when making pie crust, crumbling the butter in more gently, mashing it less with my fingers. I’ve also started adding water by feel rather than by measurement, since I’ve found that the flour takes up different amounts of liquid on different days. And I’ve been making sure to chill the dough long enough, and to handle it as little as possible to keep it from getting sticky. I’m still learning, still practicing, and I think that’s really the point. A good, precise recipe will get you part of the way; the rest is up to practice.
When I was a kid, one of my mom’s go-to dinners was salmon patties. They were one of those genius feed-a-family-in-minutes recipes, made entirely with pantry and fridge staples: canned salmon for substance, crushed-up cornflakes for bulk, and egg for binder. I loved those patties–loved them!–except for one thing: the canned salmon always had bones in it. My parents tried to convince me they were edible, but I would have none of it. I remember the ritual, every time, of carefully dissecting my salmon patties and removing the tiny white vertebrae. It was a meticulous operation, but necessary before I could chow down on my delicious dinner.
Now that I’m an adult, I get to put my own spin on my mom’s recipes. That means taking things I’m not crazy about–like bony canned salmon–and finding alternatives I do like. Where my mother always had canned salmon in the pantry, I find I usually have smoked salmon in my fridge. So here’s a posher, slightly fresher take on those beloved salmon patties: my smoked salmon version. These would be lovely for a brunch party, or a light summer lunch. And best of all, no bones!
These patties are firm and slightly crisp on the outside, then dense and almost crab-cakey within. The texture of these is almost Proustian for me–it really does take me back to those childhood dinners. For me the key is to break the salmon meat down until it’s about the consistency of lump crab meat. You could leave the smoked salmon in quite large flakes, I suppose, for a more sophisticated result, but I’ll have it no other way than this. (By the way, this also means you don’t need to use fancy or expensive smoked salmon here, since the texture would be lost. Anything you can get your hands on will work, as long as it’s the firm, hot-smoked kind of salmon.)
The cakes are flavored with many of the usual accompaniments: mustard, onion, lemon, and dill. I’ve already played with this flavor combination once before, and it remains a favorite in my household. I could have added some drained capers too–and feel free to, if you want–but I didn’t want their damp crunch to ruin the familiar texture of my salmon patties. In fact, this is one of those recipes that stands as a canvas for anything you want to do with it. I never make these the same way twice, and that’s part of the fun.
When it comes to a fridge cleanout, there’s nothing like a frittata. As long as you have eggs and maybe some cheese on hand, you can turn just about any leftovers, cured meats, or surplus produce into a lovely meal. This is also handy if, like me, you sometimes forget about that mostly-unused carton of eggs in the back of the fridge until it’s a few days past the sell-by date.
On my most recent fridge raid, I found the aforementioned forgotten eggs, an onion, the greens from a bunch of kohlrabi, and a handful of blue cheese crumbles. I had a hunch that the bitter greens would go nicely with the salty-funky cheese, and the eggs needed using, so a frittata it was. I threw it together while taking a lunch break from work and ate a wedge of it out of hand while catching up on email. It was the perfect quick, nourishing desk lunch, but also something I could easily see serving guests or packing along on a picnic. I wrapped and fridged the leftover wedges and ate them for lunch the rest of the week.
The texture of the greens really made this. I could have cooked them down to a frozen-spinach consistency and squeezed them dry. But I decided to risk some extra moisture, and just barely wilted them in a skillet. It was the right call. The greens kept a lovely supple almost-crunch, and the pieces closest to the top crisped in the oven and turned kale-chip-like. The moisture from the greens made the underside of the frittata a little damp, but a quick swipe with a paper towel fixed that problem.
The one drawback of making frittata is that it often requires specific equipment. To make it the way I make it, you need a 10-inch skillet that is both oven-safe and nonstick enough for eggs. Regular nonstick would work, as would very well-seasoned cast iron (which is what I use). If you don’t have a pan that works, you can pre-cook the vegetables in any old skillet, then transfer them to a greased and parchment-lined 9-inch cake pan. Add the cheese and eggs as directed in the recipe, and keep an eye on the frittata as it bakes–it may need another minute or two to compensate for the different pan size.