Friday, February 29, 2008

Comfort Foods for a Busy Work Week

WOW! Check it! I placed my book order to Amazon on Monday when I got back from the weekend in NYC, and these arrived yesterday...all the way up to the boonies where I live in only four days! Very impressive, Amazon, very impressive! I haven't even had a chance to look through the books yet--or even take the wrapper off of the Ferber volume--but I am excited about crawling into a hot tub with them over the weekend.

Until I have recipes to share from my new cookbooks, allow me to offer some ideas from recent dinners that I've made. After being gone all weekend, and not being able to do any big cooking or baking projects like I do, I was itchin' to get back in the kitchen. Plus, when you're road-tripping, you tend to eat too much crappy food, and I wanted something good and homemade. So I was quite proud of myself this week for taking more initiative in proper meal planning. I work long, late hours, and sometimes, I admit, I succumb to the siren's song of the pizzeria or make do with just a sandwich eaten off of the kitchen island. :-( But this time, I actually shopped like the Frenchies do, choosing things that looked good in the market that day and selecting recipes accordingly. Please celebrate this week's menus with me:

Sherried Cream of Tomato Soup with Buttery Thyme Bread
Cubed Pork Steaks with Golden Mushroom Gravy over Egg Noodles
Spicy Szechuan Noodles with Carrot-Cucumber Relish
Carne Picada Burritos (Steak Ranchero)
Macaroni and Cheese with Smoked Sausages

I know, right? I am greatly to be praised as a fully self-actualized weekday cook! And the secret is that most of these dishes use a few pre-fab, shortcut ingredients (i.e. a can of golden mushroom soup to enrich a pan gravy or some Emeril-brand "Kicked-Up" smoked sausages to go alongside homemade mac and cheese), but there is still a sufficent homemade quotient, enough to satisfy your need for "real food" during the busy work week. For instance, we got home very late Monday night after my choir rehearsal, but I still managed to pull off a freshly-made pot of soup and some indecently scrumptious bread to go with it. These are dishes from the delightful Pioneer Woman, and though they may come off like "cheater" recipes made with canned goods and French bread from the grocery store, they are quite delicious and very satisfying, especially on these still-frigid days. Besides, as Nigella says, there's something very satisfying about cooking with cans. ;-)

I made a few adaptations to this soup recipe, so here's my take on it:

Sherried Cream of Tomato Soup
(Source: adapted from
The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)

6 tablespoons melted butter
1 medium onion, diced (I would use one very large onion or two smaller ones myself)
*I would also throw in 4-6 cloves of minced garlic, as is my way
1 46-ounce bottle or can tomato juice (Instead of tomato juice, I swapped out a can of tomato paste and 4-6 cups of chicken stock, depending on how thick or thin you want your soup)
2 14 ounce cans diced tomatoes (I used one 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes)
2 tablespoons chicken soup base
3 to 6 tablespoons sugar (I used 4--but taste to see how much you need to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes)
pinch of salt
black pepper to taste
1 cup cooking sherry (ACK! Never use cooking sherry--'tis an abomination. I used a drinkable dry sherry but only 1/2 cup of it, personal preference)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
chopped fresh parsley**
chopped fresh basil**
**fresh herbs would better, of course, but I substituted one tablespoon dried parsley, one teaspoon dried basil, plus one teaspoon dried oregano and a good pinch of red pepper flakes
Saute diced onions in butter until transluscent. (Add minced garlic and the herbs if using dried, and saute another minute or two.) Add canned tomatoes. Add tomato juice, sugar, pinch of salt, and lots of black pepper and stir. Bring to a near boil, then turn off heat. Add in sherry and cream and stir. Add in herbs (if using fresh), adjust other seasonings, and serve with crusty bread, or ideally, the buttery thyme bread linked to above. (Though, as with most of the Pioneer Woman's recipes, you may want to clear it with your cardiologist first!)

This soup is also delicious with cheese. For dinner, I sprinkled some pecorino romano over each bowl, though parmesan or asiago would do just as well. And then the next day for lunch, I dropped a handful of cheese curds into my hot bowl o' soup, and it was amazing! The little blobs of cheese didn't fully melt, but became soft and squooshy and dee-licious floating around in there!

Before I wrap this up, I want to highlight one other recipe above, the Spicy Szechuan Noodles with Carrot-Cucumber Relish. I spied this one on another blog that I read faithfully, Culinary in the Country, though the original source is Cooking Light (May 2007). GOOD HEAVENS! I LOVED this stuff! Most of the time, when I make Asian cuisine at home, it's never as good as going out for it. But this is truly fabulous! The only fussy thing about the recipe is making the relish, as you have to salt-cure your cucumber first and let it drain for an hour, then add the carrots and other ingredients and let it chill for yet another hour. So I decided to shred and salt the cucumber in the morning, let it drain in the fridge while I was at work, then finish the relish when I got home, letting it chill while I got on with the rest of the dish. I originally thought, why not just throw those veggies in with the rest of the stir-fry and save yourself some hassle? But I came to realize that the dish is pretty much all tan in hue, and the relish adds nice colors on top, not to mention a freshness and crispness since it's not cooked. And the sugar and rice vinegar add a wonderful tangy compliment to the gentle heat of the noodles. I won't reprint the recipe (the link is above), but I used whole-grain spaghetti instead of udon noodles (the store I went to didn't carry them), and the only other change I made to the dish was adding some chopped peanuts to garnish, as I thought that it could use something crunchy. SO YUMMY! You have to try it!

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