Project Weeknight: Pumpkin & Black Bean Soup

Wow, I have been slack this week, haven't I?

This Pumpkin & Black Bean Soup from Epicurious definitely meets the criteria for a Project Weeknight dish, with a few caveats. Earlier this week we made it pretty much as written, sans cilantro (bleck!), and we had to use full-fat coconut milk instead of light. The result was w-a-a-y too thick, under-beaned, and under-seasoned, but it had potential. I do blame the wrong coconut milk for some of the problems, but not all.

Also, we ended up having to make a double batch (long story involving a gigantic can of pumpkin) so we had tons of it left over. Last night I took a couple of cups of it and modified it into something that got big thumbs up.

Taking hints from the comments on the original recipe, I sauteed half an onion and a clove of crushed garlic until mostly done. I added another can of black beans (drained), a good tablespoon of cumin, a few teaspoons of a mild chile powder, and a splash of stock and simmered for a few minutes. Since I was adding it to an already-cooked soup, I wanted it to be mostly done.

Then I added a couple of cups of the leftover soup and enough stock to thin it to where I wanted it. Simmered that for awhile and added some salt, and that was that.

It came out pretty darned good, even more so with chopped avocado on top. Got a thumbs up from the kid and the SO, too.

It'll be awhile before I can recreate this version from scratch and write up the recipe - I still have two more 'soup base' portions in the freezer to use up. Hope we don't get sick of it!


Project Weeknight: Seven-P Pasta

Another smashing success from the blog of my culinary guru, Mark Bittman. OK, so it's not his recipe. But he posted it, so he approved it, as did we.

I made this 'Seven-P Pasta' one evening for an out-of-town guest. I am a lousy host -- I have a very short attention span and am easily distracted (and I'd much rather play with my guests than cook) -- so I know that if I'm feeding friends I need to stick with recipes that are quick and easy yet rewarding. This fits the bill. I cooked it on the weekend but it definitely qualifies for Project Weeknight status.

OK, here's the ingredients list. Hold on - it's really, really complicated... not!


That's it, except for salt. Just a little.

I made it (almost) as written; I subbed bacon (call it 'Pork, smoked' if you must) for pancetta. I used two strips of bacon for half a lb of pasta. I did salt the water for my pasta a little because I always do. I chose farfalle for the pasta, even though it wasn't whole grain, because I just had a hankering for them little bowties.

Next time I'll hold back some of the pasta water to add at the end as needed. Otherwise, it was wonderful as it.

One caveat: I'm not an ingredients nazi by any means, but since this is a very simple recipe, it is important that you use good ingredients. Real Parmesan Reggiano, real Pecorino Romano, frozen peas, fresh parsley, fresh ground black pepper, please. This is not the time to be bringing our the green cardboard tube of 'parmesan' and the can of LeSeur peas.

Trust me on this. You will be rewarded.



Discovery of the day: I need a plan

It's a known fact: my mood drops in the winter and my motivation goes right along with it. It's that time of year when I look at the clock at work, notice it's 4:30pm, and wonder "Gee, I wonder what we should have for dinner?"

That, my friends, is dangerous thinking.

I know better than to declare that I am going to completely plan out the entire week's menus. Ain't gonna happen. What does work - or at least has worked in the past - is to come up with 5 or 6 entrees and ensure I have all of the ingredients on hand. With frozen leftovers factored in, I usually only end up cooking three or four weeknights max, so that gives us options.

And by making my son participate, that increases the odds that he'll be at least partially pleased with some of the choices.

Now all I have to do is... do it!



Discovery of the day: When the going gets tough...

... the tough go out to dinner.

I had an MRI this morning and my shoulder is killing me. I drove myself into work afterward, but have since decided I need to go home.

What do I do when I'm stressed? I eat. If I can make it home without a side-trip through the Burger King drive-thru, I'll be lucky.




Discovery of the day: Good news, bad news

Good news: Since my last whiny post I've done much better with the cooking. I actually have at least two more Project Weeknight posts lined up but I want to spread them out just a wee bit. Also, while I haven't lost weight, I haven't gained any either. And I've cut my decaf consumption by at least a third, maybe even by half.

Bad news: Oops - I feel another whiny post coming on, sorry. Dark Days are still getting to me and February is traditionally my worst month; 'darkest before the dawn' and all that. Still haven't started serious walking, much less running. I do have an almost valid excuse for that, but regardless of the excuse's validity, the exercise hasn't happened and probably won't for awhile.

And I'm still not eating enough salad.

I know this isn't inspirational writing, but I just wanted to let those who are struggling know that I'm right there with ya.



Project Weeknight: Tomato & Bread Soup

We had company last weekend. We'd had a large, late lunch on Saturday so when we finally did decide it was time to eat again, we weren't looking for anything intricate or bulky. It wasn't a weeknight but my energy level definitely dictated a Project Weeknight-type dish.

I rifled through my Recipe Purgatory and decided to test-drive this version of a Tomato and Bread Soup. I'd found it on Cheap Healthy Good, where it was slightly modified from this version on Serious Eats, where it was attributed to Jamie Oliver.

Got that? Hope so; there may be a quiz later.

I followed the CHG version, although in hindsight it's not significantly different from the SE version.

The verdict? Oh yeah, baby! I had a very crusty artisan bread that I tore up and threw in, crust and all, and it was wonderful. I also put some chevre on the table for a garnish - a few small blobs of that added a whole 'nother dimension.

As my SO isn't overly fond of the texture of cooked tomatoes, next time I may puree the base before adding the roasted cherry tomatoes, basil leaves, and bread. Other than that, it stands as written.

Man, I love it when that happens.



Discovery of the day: Authentic California Cuisine

(Hmmm... not sure what happened to Friday.)

Here's a recipe for a quick-n-easy breakfast treat from my SO's youth. He grew up in Northern California (OK, Northeastern California). Avocados, asparagus, artichokes, and almonds were part of his native culture.

(I grew up in Indiana. I'm pretty sure I didn't taste any of those, excepting almonds, until I was in my twenties and living on the East Coast. Strange but true.)

He learned about this treat many years ago during that special time in a young man's life between college graduation and meaningful employment. A friend scored a paper grocery bag-full of avocados after the Santa Ana winds savagely attacked his aunt's avocado ranch. Yes, apparently they're called 'ranches', not 'farms'. Who knew?

Anyway, being young and poor and hungry and with the lack of self-control common to young men everywhere, mass quantities were consumed... until they discovered a condition they dubbed 'guaca-flatul-itus'. Apparently avocado farts are not to be suffered lightly. But rest easy; it won't be much of an issue unless you have a grocery bag-full of ripe avocados and the appetite of a 24 year old bachelor.

Avocado Toast

1 ripe avocado
2-4 slices buttered, toasted bread of your choice.
Salt & pepper

Mash the avocado. Spread a reasonable* amount on the toast. Sprinkle with salt & pepper to taste. Enjoy.

* 'Reasonable' will depend on your age, metabolism, and affinity for avocado. They are rather calorically dense, but so is peanut butter.
Another variation is avocado and cheese; use something sharp, like cheddar or monterey jack.

My son tried avocado toast (sans pepper) this morning for the first time and gave it a big thumb's up. Give it a try, you'll like it.


Project Weeknight: Fast Santa Fe Rice & Beans

Hey, look at me! Two Project Weeknight posts in one week!

I've had my eyes on this recipe from Karina's Kitchen for awhile and finally got around to trying it.

I knew I'd have to rely on pre-cooked rice to make the time deadline. I usually have some in the freezer. In fact, I had all of the ingredients on hand except for red pepper which is ironic since I almost always have those. Since peppers were so expensive last year I started buying bags of frozen pepper strips and picking out the green ones, which I despise dislike. I figure half a bag is close to one pepper. So I stopped on the way home and picked up a couple of bags of peppers which put me home about 15 minutes later than usual. Crap! I resigned myself to eating late and got to cooking.

I did make some changes. Here is my take with my changes starred:
Fast Sante Fe Rice & Beans
My version of Santa Fe Rice Bake from Karina's Kitchen. Be sure to check out the original recipe.

*3 cups cooked brown rice, reheated
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 onion, diced
1 sweet bell pepper- red, yellow, or orange
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
2-3 tablespoons lime juice
Sea salt, to taste
1-2 teaspoons chili powder
*2-3 teaspoons ground cumin (I like a lot of cumin)
A pinch of cinnamon (Karina's secret ingredient)
*1 can whole tomatillos, drained and chopped
*1 small can chopped green chiles
*1 - 14oz can regular tomatoes (I used whole and chopped them up)
*1 - 15oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
A splash of extra virgin olive oil

Sauté the garlic, onion, peppers, and corn. Cook until everything looks thoroughly sautéed. Add the dry spices, stir for a minute, then add the canned goods.

Simmer for 5-10 minutes, but don't let it dry out. There should be a fair amount of sauce to flavor the rice. Add the warm rice, combine thoroughly, adding a splash of oil and the parsley. Simmer gently (covered if you can) for another 5 minutes or so.
I added the black beans so I could call it an entree. Could even try two can's worth, if you're feeling bean-y.

I also condensed the cooking instructions because I'm lazy. I decided up front that I was not going to heat it in the oven. A crunchy brown top did not seem to be an integral part of the dish so heating it through in the skillet was good enough. I think pre-heating the rice in the microwave was a good idea - the mixture stayed hot and started simmering almost right away.

I served it in big bowls with queso cotija crumbled on top. I looked up at the clock and it was 6:30! I'd made the deadline!

And you know what? It was pretty good. Young Son ate it, although it might have been too tangy for him. The tomatillos were pretty tart so I think we could have cut back on the lime juice. The cotija probably wasn't a good choice - it's like a salty feta. I'd use something milder and meltier next time. And a diced avocado wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

Now my canned-goods version is decidedly less elegant than Katrina's. With the fresh tomato and chiles, hers would definitely have a fresher flavor profile. But mine can be on the table in just over half an hour.

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout.



Discovery of the day: Losing time

Are you sure I didn't post yesterday? I was sure I did. I think the problem is that I write all sorts of blog posts in my mind while I'm out and about, and sometimes I think I've actually posted them. Then, of course when I sit down to actually write, I forget them all.

I'm still struggling through the Dark Days. My motivation for cooking and eating properly waxes and wanes, usually waning when I actually have to plan or cook something, waxing when I'm away from home.

The scale is still not my friend. I'm still carrying around my holiday weight and can't seem to get it to budge, even though I've (mostly) stopped eating bad things. But that's the price paid for decades of chronic yo-yo dieting: These days it takes a hell of a kick to get my metabolism going again.

Speaking of that, I've gotten the green light to start getting back into running but the motivation just isn't there and it probably won't show up again until the days get a little longer. That shouldn't be long, really. I just looked it up and it should only be another week or so before the Dark Days start winding down - I can see daylight before and/or after work. That would be good.

In the meantime, I can only try to follow the mantra my sister and I cling to this time of year: Do no harm. Try to keep my weight steady until I'm ready to attack with vigor.

And I really need to get fired up about cooking again.


Project Weeknight: Potato & Leek Soup w/Kale

I'm trying to get back on the wagon here and do one Project Weeknight post per week. I'm still in hibernation mode so it's a hard climb. Even though last night wasn't a weeknight, this recipe might qualify for 45-min status, with a qualifier.

This recipe from Jaime at Cheap Healthy Good (one of my go-to blogs) was my inspiration, and I cracked open my brand new Christmas-gift copy of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for confirmation.

I made it pretty much as written. I was concerned that my 'bunch' of leeks (three chunky buddies) would overwhelm 2 cups of potatoes, so I used four small-side-of-medium Yukon Golds. Originally I was going to fry a strip of bacon and saute the leeks in the fat but I forgot. :( And oh yeah, I used chicken stock.

Here's the qualifier: I had a 2 cup portion of chopped, blanched kale in the freezer, and that's what gave this recipe its Potential Weeknight designation. I've learned the hard way that cleaning and chopping a bunch of kale after work puts me over my time (and patience) limit.

I peeled and diced the potatoes pretty small, maybe 1/2" cubes? I took a cue from Bittman's directions and threw the potatoes and leeks in together, sauteed for 4 or 5 minutes, then added the stock and simmered until the potatoes were completely done. I then hit the pot with the stick blender a few times and added the thawed chopped kale. I let it simmer just another minute or two and that was it.

I love me some potato soup. My favorite is the traditional cream and/or cheese-based type but my hips disagree. I didn't miss the cream... much, although next time I may try stirring in a little full-fat yogurt or sour cream at service.

Other than that, it hit the spot. I'm guessing it will be even better when reheated. Potatoes don't freeze for crap so the rest will have to be eaten this week.


The ingredients list reminds me a lot of Colcannon. I'm thinking next time I could remember to start with the bacon and use regular onion instead of leeks, and call it Colcannon soup!



Discovery of the day: Back at it!

I'm back! The meals at both vegetarian restaurants we went to in SF were amazing. They were easily better than most of the 'regular' restaurant meals I've had lately. I didn't do too badly on the trip, overall, but the scale is definitely up a good 5 lbs from mid-November.

That's actually not bad compared to other holiday seasons, but as a life-long member of the Yo-Yo Society, that 5 lbs represents the first step that can easily result in 15-20 lbs gained without warning.

This must cease, and pronto.

Like most bold proclamations, it's easier said than done. I'm still having a hard time focusing on cooking for various reasons; some seasonal, some more 'big picture' things. But I need to pull it together, and quick.

I'm starting off slowly by setting a couple of small goals for the year.
1. Cut back on my decaf consumption. I'm figuring a quart+ a day might be too much, especially when loaded with vanilla (sweetened) soymilk and sugar. Current plan is to drink my usual morning travel cup, then switch to tea if I need something hot and liquid-y.

2. Cut back on sugar. Some of this is coffee-related, some is just because. Reducing (I refuse to say 'eliminating') sugar automatically reduces the amount of generally not-helpful things I shove in my face.

3. Put grains back in their place. Grains are a lot easier to cook than veggies, and my grain consumption has risen pretty dramatically. I've gotten pretty loose with my bread consumption, too.

So we'll see where that all leads. Fingers crossed!