Tag Archives: Five Ingredients or Less

Baked salmon for a crowd

Whole lemon-roasted side of salmon. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Fancy? It sure is–and also the easiest dinner party main course I’ve ever made. Full stop.

I got the idea from a Bon Appetit video, and it’s stunning in its simplicity. Oil a baking sheet, and lay down a handful of lemon slices. Plop the salmon on top and scatter over more lemon slices. Pile a big bunch of chard or beet greens around the fish. Season everything with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes. Rest. Eat.

Other hunks of roast beast tend to get all the attention for an at-home feast: beef, pork, lamb, even chicken. But cooking an entire side of salmon is far faster and just as impressive. Unlike small fillets, which are prone to overcooking, a big piece of fish stays moist and flaky even if you let it linger in the oven a minute too long. And roasting greens along with the fish is the really genius bit. The top layer of greens gets crisp, the bottom layer gets tender, and you’ve got yourself a no-effort side dish.

I can’t think of another centerpiece meat dish that’s so easy to make, yet delivers such a big wow. The flavors are clean, fresh, and so, so lovely. (It’s hard to be mad at salmon, lemon, and olive oil together.) This is also a visually stunning presentation: the coral cushion of salmon with its lemon-slice buttons, wreathed with dark crispy-soft greens. I’m the world’s most inept food stylist, and yet I still draw “oohs” and “aahs” every time I bring the baking sheet to the table.

baked salmon chard 1

Salmon and greens, ready for the oven

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Pasta with mizithra and garlic

This is the story of the oddest pasta dish I’ve ever made.

Over the summer, Sam and I took a trip up to Portland and Seattle. While we were in Seattle, we went out to dinner with some friends at a Greek restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, called Plaka Estiatorio. It was a stunning meal–perfectly plump dolmas, crisp and sprightly Greek salad, crunchy fried smelts with their fishy little heads still on, fat orange mussels as big as my thumb. But the dish that really blew us all away was something the menu called Yannis Makaronia.

It arrived piled high in a bowl, with little fuss and less explanation: a tangled mass of spaghetti, each strand lightly coated with crisp brown flecks. The flavors were quite subtle–it was as if the pasta itself were somehow caramelized–but whatever was clinging to the pasta gave it texture, a kind of prickly resistance that felt wonderful on the tongue. It was, as Sam said, “dusted” instead of sauced. We ate and ate until the bowl was empty, and then chattered at each other, trying to figure out exactly we’d just eaten.

As we finished eating, the owner–a twinkly-eyed, gray-haired fellow named Yannis–came over to our table. He sat with us, told jokes, explained where the ingredients in our meal had come from, gave us straws and passed around the mussel bowl so we could drink the aromatic broth. Finally one of us–I think it was our friend Hilary–got up the nerve to ask just what was in that extraordinary pasta. He grinned proudly, sat down, and told us a story.

mizithra pasta 2

He’d first eaten this pasta, he told us, at a restaurant in Athens. He was so impressed that he walked straight into the kitchen and persuaded the chef to show him how to make it. Once he returned to Seattle, he began making it for himself, for lunch, to eat while he was working. One day he brought his lunch out into the dining area and sat down at the bar to eat. A customer asked him about it, and then another, and then another, and before long he was offering tastes to all and sundry. It was a huge hit, and that day he added it to the menu as a special. He had no idea what to call it, so he immodestly named it after himself: Yannis Makaronia. Before long, it became so popular that he promoted it to the regular dinner menu.

Wow, we said. That’s amazing. But how on earth do you make it? He sighed indulgently, leaned forward in his chair as if preparing to give a lesson, and explained:

“You take olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and burn it. Then you take mizithra–you know mizithra? It is a cheese, a Greek cheese. You take it, and you grate it very small. You put that in the pan, with garlic, and you cook it until it turns brown. Then you mix with pasta. That’s it.”

We hung on his every word. Somewhere in that beautifully odd description was the secret to Yannis Makaronia. It seemed to violate every basic cooking principle I knew–burn olive oil? brown garlic? cook grated cheese directly in a hot pan?–and yet he explained it so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. I had no idea how I might replicate his signature dish at home, but I suspected that it all hinged on the cheese: mizithra. And, as it turns out, I was right.


As soon as I got home, I started researching. Mizithra (sometimes spelled myzithra) is an unpasteurized goat or sheep cheese. It’s made from whey and then aged with salt, becoming hard, white, and nearly as solid as styrofoam. The flavor is very similar to feta, sharp and salty and animal-funky. And mizithra also shares another quality with feta, a quality that makes Yannis Makaronia possible: it doesn’t melt. It browns. It caramelizes.

After a little searching, I found mizithra at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty cheese shop. I brought home a hunk of cheese, and set about making the pasta just the way Yannis explained. I minced the garlic and grated the cheese, boiled water and cooked the spaghetti. I heated the oil just until the faintest plumes of smoke came off the surface, then dumped in the garlic and cheese and stirred like crazy. It felt so wrong. So weird. So completely counterintuitive. But it worked. It browned like he said it would. It coated the pasta like he said it would. The whole thing came together in less time than it took to grate the cheese. Doggone it, it worked.

In fact, that first time, I was too timid. I didn’t scorch the cheese enough, and the flavor was anemic. The next time I tried it, I made sure to cook the cheese to an even caramel-brown before adding the spaghetti. In less than 15 minutes, I had a bowl of glistening dark-flecked pasta, eerily reminiscent of the one we demolished in Seattle.

Sam says he could eat nothing but this pasta, all day long. I actually like it better as a side dish, served with an assortment of brightly-flavored Greek dishes, the way we ate it in Seattle. And here’s another unexpected and un-pasta-like thing about it: it tastes better at room temperature than it does warm. Every time I make it, I taste it straight from the pan, and am underwhelmed; but after 5 or 10 minutes on a plate, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

So if you’re in Seattle, go visit Yannis and eat his Makaronia. If you’re not, get some mizithra and make it at home. Either way, you’ll never look at a bag of spaghetti the same way again.

mizithra pasta

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Country omelet

So far, it’s been an omelets-for-dinner kinda year.

Shortly before Christmas, I came home one day to a mass of ants hustling their way across my kitchen floor. They were fully fanned out, an ever-moving black army, and every time I blocked one point of access, they found another way in. I went on a cleaning spree, jarred and hid all my baking supplies, hid my honey bear in the fridge, laid down ant traps in every corner of my apartment. But in the middle of the night, when the mercury dropped near freezing, the ants would march right around the traps and back into my nice warm kitchen. It took over a month and a half to get rid of the infestation; I finally resorted to blanketing every flat surface in the kitchen with diatomaceous earth and leaving it untouched for two weeks.

Thus, for much of 2013 so far, my kitchen has been unusable–first swarming with ants, then blanketed with dead ants and dust. I could cook at Sam’s apartment on weekends, but not at all during the week. So I gave up on trying to feed myself well, reaching instead for crackers and frozen hot dogs and chicken tenders from the supermarket deli counter. And as it turns out, even when you’ve finally scrubbed and swept and vinegar-sprayed your kitchen back into service, the lure of processed foods is strong. I kept snacking instead of eating dinner, feeling increasingly salt-bloated and sugar-weighted and sick. Finally, about two weeks ago, I snapped myself out of it, marched myself down to the grocery store, and picked up a heavy bag’s worth of nourishing meal ingredients, to force myself to find something to do with them.

Of course, now that I’m back in the cooking swing, the holiday lull has worn off and I’m back to longer workdays and grumpier commutes. So the order of the day is stupid-simple meals. Sriracha shrimp with steamed broccoli. Veggie fried quinoa. And omelets. Lots and lots of omelets.

I’m picky about my omelets. I don’t like the fancy French ones, those piles of tiny fluffy egg-curds wrapped around themselves just so–they set off my scrambled-egg aversion something fierce. What I like is a good country-style omelet, hardly scrambled at all, a single springy egg-pillow with just a kiss of brown on the outside. Make a country omelet right, and you get a gorgeous progression of textures, from spongy outside to soft middle to creamy inside. You can fill an omelet with just about anything–it’s a great use-up for leftovers–but lately I’ve been on a straight-up cheddar cheese kick, with lots of black pepper on the eggs. Something about a mouthful of peppery egg and stringy-melted cheese is really hitting my comfort food spot these days. I suspect I’m not alone.

cheese omelet

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I had never heard of a popover until I went to college. There was a restaurant in town, just off-campus–the kind of place visiting parents would take their kids, usually with a small posse of friends tagging along for a free meal. The food was spiffed-up American, burgers and sandwiches and pastas and seafood. And every single item on the menu came with a mysterious side called a “popover,” a crusty brown breadlike balloon-thing, as big as my face, served on its own white plate with a little dish of apple butter.

Breaking into my popover was always the best part of the meal. The tickling anticipation as I picked it up, crisp and shaggy and light; the tiny crackle as I broke the surface and pulled it apart; the golden hollow inside, draped here and there with wattles of soft, stretchy dough. The best way to eat the thing, of course, was with a generous spread of sweet apple butter. It’s one of the things I miss most about college–that, and having four or five equally blissed-out friends to share the experience with.

I had always assumed that popovers were elaborate and time-consuming to make. But, as I’ve recently learned, they’re dangerously easy. Four ingredients, a well-greased muffin pan, and just a tick or two over 30 minutes. That’s it. The popovers go into the oven as unremarkable pools of batter, and come out as great golden puffs, rising crazily out of the pan. Anywhere bread lives, these airy morsels are welcome–though, of course, I’m still partial to a dollop of apple butter.

These are quicker than quickbread, easier than dinner rolls, lighter and less guilt-inducing than almost any other kind of bread I can think of. They don’t even need a preheated oven. I can now go from zero to popover in just over 30 minutes–nostalgia be damned.

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Fiddlehead ferns with prosciutto

I tried something new today.

With various comings and goings over the past few weeks, I haven’t had much chance to take in the local farmer’s markets. I feel like I’ve been missing a bunch of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it produce. So when I stopped by Trader Joe’s on the way home from work and noticed they were selling fiddlehead ferns–at $4 for a generous half-pound, a relative bargain–it felt like a nudge from the kitchen gods. Cook something seasonal. Try something you’ve never made before.

Fiddlehead ferns–so named because they’re shaped like the scroll of a violin–are ultra-seasonal, showing up for about three weeks in the middle of spring. They’re also ultra-expensive–at the Ferry Building, I’ve never seen them for less than $18 a pound. So I’d never bothered to give them a go before. Now that I had a bag of them, I had to figure out what to do with them. On a weeknight, ambitious and overly fussy preparations were out–I needed something simple and filling. So I decided to swap them into my favorite preparation for broccoli or brussels sprouts: sauteed with ribbons of prosciutto and finished with a sprinkling of crispy garlic. It’s the kind of foolproof saute I absolutely adore, because it’s decadent, nutritious and lightning-fast to prepare.

Having now tried fiddlehead ferns for the first time, the best way I can describe their flavor is…green. They taste exactly the way I imagine the color green to taste. I’m not entirely sold on whether that’s a good thing. The texture reminded me of asparagus, which I wasn’t thrilled about; after they were cooked, they developed a briny aftertaste and a mustardy tang, which I wasn’t expecting. Next time I’m not sure I’d use them as a starring vegetable; I might relegate them to the background, as a subtle flavor player and a pretty visual flourish. That said, I can definitely understand the fuss–fiddlehead ferns are romantic-looking, available only briefly each year, and delicately flavored in a way that screams spring.

So did I fall head over heels for fiddlehead ferns? No. Will I go out of my way to cook with them again? Probably not. Did they make a perfectly serviceable weeknight dinner, glazed with olive oil and tangled up with crisp prosciutto and golden garlic nuggets? Yes indeedy.

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Grilled soft-shell crab

Boy, do I have a treat for you.

This past weekend’s Supermoon–the first full moon in May–marked the beginning of soft-shell crab season. And I have discovered the very best way to eat soft-shell crabs: grilled and slathered with barbeque butter. I’m almost reluctant to share, this is so good.

Soft-shell crabs are in season from May to September, mostly from the waters of the central Atlantic coast. This is the time of year that blue crabs molt, leaving them with nothing but a paper-thin proto-shell for a few hours at a time. If these crabs are caught before their new shells have a chance to grow, they are completely edible–exoskeleton and all.

The thin shell of a soft-shell crab is crackly, almost like the crisp skin on a roast chicken; the inside is juicy, gooey, sweet and unmistakably crabby. If you can get your hands on these bizarre little beasties, you are in for a treat.

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Pan-fried lamb sausage and oyster mushrooms

I wasn’t planning on showing you this one.

It started with a Sunday farmer’s market jaunt with some out-of-town friends.  Somebody suggested making pesto pasta with sausage and mushrooms for lunch.  The best bargain at the mushroom stand that day was oyster mushrooms; the most appealing option at the sausage stand was lamb.  So we bought a little of each, brought them back to a kitchen and dumped them in a frying pan.  You know, like you do.

I only took one halfway-decent photo.  That’s how unremarkable I thought this was going to be.  Boy howdy was I wrong.

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