This is the first of several postings on quick, simple, tasty, and reasonably healthy meals.
I grew up in a restaurant family, cooking since I was 4 years old. Both my Mother and Father were “short order cooks” some of their working lives. We owned a restaurant and I worked in it from about age 7 to 12. This was an “American Food” restaurant in a small farming town. Things like steak & potatoes, fried chicken, roast turkey – dinner, then hot turkey sandwiches, then turkey ala king, then soup…
A “short order cook” means someone who cooks many meals at the same time, each one taking very little effort or attention. Things like putting a basket of already floured chicken into a deep fat fryer while at the same time laying a steak on the grill, while at the same time putting some 1/2 cooked noodles prepared in advance into hot water to finish. Then having them all come up on the pick-up window at the same time. All inside 10 minutes.
This is NOT being a fancy chef. There isn’t a lot of fancy sauces. Complicated processes are avoided. Long ingredient lists and rare or unusual ingredients are avoided. Just plain old cooking.
With that preamble out of the way, here’s a few easy meals I’ve made many times and showed to my friend who doesn’t like to cook, but wants to eat!
This uses a “rice cooker” with a steamer basket in the top. You can do this with regular pots and steamer baskets, but at all of $15 to $20 for an automatic rice cooker, why?
Put cup (or scoop) of rice in the bottom. For white rice add 2 cups (or scoops) of water. For brown rice add 2 2/3 cups (or scoops) of water. That’s it for the rice.
Sidebar: For reasons known only in Asia, the Aroma rice cooker I bought for my friend includes a measuring scoop that they call a cup that is in reality about 200 ml. Go figure. Thus my saying cups or scoops. At home I use 250 ml cups…
Take a salmon filet of the size you like, and lay it in the steamer tray. Pour vegetable mix in the tray next to it. (I typically use a frozen mix of carrots, broccoli, pea pods, whatever).
For white rice, place the tray on top, close the cooker and turn it on. Come back in about 25 minutes when it is done.
For brown rice, close the cooker with only the rice in it. Turn it on. In 20 to 25 minutes, come back and open it, put the steamer tray in place, close it. Come back at about the 45 minute mark when it is done.
I’ve used fresh or frozen fish steaks. For frozen put it in 20 minutes after starting so it gets 5 extra minutes to defrost, for fresh, I put it in 25 minutes after the start.
Change-ups: (These are ways you can change the meal).
Most fish steaks or fillets will work. Watch out for thin very tender fish like Dover Sole as it will tend to fall apart when you try to take it out of the basket. Thicker fish works better.
I’ve used frozen California Blend, Asian Mix, Steamer Mix and more bag-o-vegetables. You can also use fresh vegetables where broccoli and cauliflower work well. Asparagus works very nicely too, but purists will want to add it when there’s about 5 minutes to go ( I’m OK with limp asparagus so just do the usual 20…)
A mix of 1/2 lentils and 1/2 rice (brown or white) makes for a nice pilaf and the rice cooker works just fine.
Other grains can be used too, as you like it. From quinoa to rye and kashi mixes. I’m partial to whole oats in a mix. The rice cooker pretty much cooks them all just fine. I generally just use the 1 : 2 grain : water ratio, but some grains are better / softer with a bit more. Barley takes a long time to get soft, so I usually do not use it unless partly pre-cooked. “Variety grains” can take some experimenting to work out the timing and water for the rice cooker, so make small batch of just grain before you commit the whole meal timing to it ;-)
Roast Bird & Squash
For this one, I used Turkey Thighs but any cut of bird that’s big enough to take an hour to roast would be fine. I’ve even used a whole chicken. I just like the taste of dark meat better.
Take a cookie sheet. Lay the amount of turkey thighs, chicken thighs, legs or whatever on it that you want to eat. For leftovers, add some more. (They come in handy for the Chef’s Salad below, for sandwiches, or for the Fried Rice).
Get a small squash, like an Acorn / Danish or a Delicata. Cut it in half the long ways. Scoop out the seed mass ( I just use my hand) and lay it face down on the cookie sheet. (Then rinse you hands ;-)
Place the tray in a medium oven for about an hour.
What’s a medium oven? How fast you want it cooked?… Anywhere from about 300 F to 375 F works (150 C – 190 C), just the speed changes and how brown the thin bits get like wing tips. I typically use 350 F / 175 C. Bigger chunks will take closer to 1 hour and 15 minutes (like a large whole chicken) while wings are faster.
IF you cook small parts and the squash isn’t quite done yet, put the chicken on a plate and the squash back in the oven. (Stick a fork in it and if it is soft and the fork goes in easily, the squash is done). For very thick bird parts, like Turkey Thighs, using a very sharp knife, cut to the bone and take a look. If the bone is pink or there’s blood visible, it needs longer; so set the squash on a plate and put the bird back in the oven.
For acorn squash and thighs, they finish at about the same time. The reason for giving the “how to check” directions above is that how long it takes to cook depends on the size of the parts, the particular kind of squash (how thick it is), the starting temperature (room temp or from the fridge?) and your particular oven. In my friends convection oven, we had to use 45 minutes as they cook faster. Unless those variables are specified, anyone who says “cook exactly this long” is going to be wrong sometimes. So about 90% of the “time to done”, take a look at it. Does the bird LOOK done? Nicely brown with crisp skin? Is the squash fork soft? Remember that you lose about 5 minutes every time the oven is opened, but if it isn’t done, check again 10 minutes later. Once you know how long your oven takes with the bird parts you like, you can skip the checking early.
When it is done:
Plating – I place the bird on a cutting board for big parts or whole birds and cut off meat to arrange on each plate. The squash is turned over and a large spoon used to scoop and scrape out the yellow meat of it. If you like, a bit of salt and butter can be added. Sometimes I’ll use brown sugar for a more desert like effect. Put scoops of it on the plate, make a depression in the middle with the back of the spoon, and add a dab of butter. A simple bag-o-salad side salad is a nice companion.
That’s it. Takes longer to describe it than to do it.
Carrot sticks about the size of your little finger can be piled on the cookie sheet / baking dish.
Yams or sweet potatoes can be roasted by just putting them on the pan, rinsed, but whole. Poke some holes in them (any potato) so they don’t explode in the oven. They take about 45 minutes so you might need to put them on the pan after the bird has had 10 or 15 minutes of lead time in the oven. (Depends on how thick the sweet potato is – big ones take about an hour, little ones less. It doesn’t hurt if you are off by 10 or 15 minutes anyway).
Almost any bird will do. I’ve used Cornish Game Hens for a high end effect. Duck is a bit too fatty to work well, though. Duck takes a different kind of cooking, though duck parts might work if some of the thick fat is removed. The bird can be “from the package” or various rubs and marinades can be used to change the flavor. One of my favorites is when I finish a jar of Bread And Butter Pickles, the liquid and spices in the jar are a great marinade. I’ll add about 25% soy sauce sometimes for a different flavor profile. Just let the chicken parts or turkey parts soak in it for anywhere from an hour or 2 on the counter, to overnight in the fridge.
Small potatoes will bake in an hour if started from room temperature. Larger potatoes or those stored in the fridge will take about 1.25 hours so start them first, then add the rest. Sometimes I will “jump start” a large or cold baker in the microwave with 3 minutes on high, then put it on the tray and it all goes into the oven.
Chicken Slow Cooker Pot
For this, obviously, you need a slow cooker. I’ve used this “on the road” in a one person sized slow cooker. I’ve also made it sized for a family of 4 with lots of leftovers in a very large slow cooker. Keep the ratio of ingredients about the same and it’s fine. For the one person size, I used a Cornish game hen and either 1/2 can of soup or no soup at all. For a medium size, I’ll put 3 or 4 chicken thighs in the pot. I cut the meat off one, or both, sides of the bone so that the heat easily reaches the bone to cook it (otherwise sometimes it is a bit pink).
Chop up an onion and put it in the pot. Scrape off the skin and chop some carrots. Take a bunch of celery, chop off any dry / ugly end bits where it’s oxidized. I do NOT trim it back to the stalks behind the leaves. All those leaves and little stems are just as edible as the rest. I chop off about the same amount of celery as there is carrot or onion. I do this until the pot is about 1/2 full. Just sort of mix it together in the pot with your hand. Make the chunks whatever size you like on your fork. Then I lay the chicken pieces in as a layer. (They can be mixed in if you like). I’ll lay some with the skin against the sides (where the heat will render it more). You can remove the skin if you want a less rich less fat meal. Finally, on top, I’ll put some potato cubes about an inch or two across. Thicker than the other vegetables as they cook faster. Nice big fork sized chunks ;-)
OK, on top of this the typical thing to add is a can of Cream Of Mushroom or Cream Of Chicken condensed soup. Use a rubber spatula to get it all out of the can (or work a lot with a spoon ;-) There are “heart healthy” versions of this that use 1/2 salt 1/2 potassium chloride. DO NOT ADD THE CAN OF WATER. In theory, you can just be done now. I usually add about 2 shot glasses of water (60 ml or 2 ounces).
Liquid cooks out of the chicken and vegetables to make a nice gravy. I usually end up with it a bit thin from the added water, but I think a spoon of water to make steam gets things going faster in the middle of the filling.
Plug it in and turn it on. On low, it’s done in about 8 to 10 hours. On high, about 4 to 6. Sometimes at about the 2/3 point, I’ll use a big spoon to stir it and mix the ingredients / move the colder center to the hotter outside. That isn’t necessary, but it lets me feel like I’ve done something and “made it better” – even if mostly just a feel good thing.
A Roux & bouillon cube can replace the “cream of soup”. Mix flour and butter to the consistency of a paste. About a tablespoon (varies with the size of your cooker but not critical). Number of bouillon cubes too. One for the personal sized, 2 for medium or to your preference. Mix the roux, add the crumbled cubes, add about 2 ounces hot water and stir into a slurry. Pour in spreading it around the pot.
Sometimes I’ll add 1/2 a can of peas (or leftover peas). Various other vegetables can be added as you like it. Realized that things from the cabbage / kale family get strong flavors that can be unpleasant in slow cookers.
Added garlic can make a more interesting meal for folks who like garlic ( I’m one ;-) but it too strengthens in the slow cooker, so moderation at first. Or add it at the end.
For this, you need some roasted bird to cut into cubes. You can buy it at the deli section of your grocer, or just cook some extra in the roast bird meal above.
Get a “bag-of-salad” of the kind you like. My spouse likes butter lettuce, I like mixed iceberg with vegetables (carrot bits, purple cabbage strips, radish slices). It doesn’t matter much as long as it has a lot of lettuce.
You also need to have some hard boiled eggs you made in advance. Hard boiled eggs are one of those “regular things” to keep in the fridge. When I shop each week, I buy eggs. The old eggs that didn’t get used the prior week get boiled. Older eggs don’t have the shells stick when boiled. ( 10 minutes at the boil, then 12 minutes in ice water to avoid dark rings on your eggs).
I also always keep a package of “sandwich ham slices” in the fridge. It’s also possible to use left over ham steaks or baked ham, but we get to those meals in a future posting. For now, a couple of slices of sandwich ham it is.
Assembly is trivial once you have “the stuff” on hand.
Pour the bag-o-salad you want on the plate. Peel and halve the egg. Place the two halves on opposite sides of the plate. Roll or fold the sandwich slices into a smaller shape and cut into bits the size you like (about the size of a thumb nail is nice). Place it on one side between the egg halves. Take some left over bird and cube it (about the same amount as the ham) and place it on the side opposite. From a bag of shredded cheese (another always-in-the-fridge item) take a grab of cheese shreds and plop them in the middle. Spoon a few olives round between the cheese and the meat / eggs. Pour on the dressing of your choice ( I like ranch or blue cheese ).
That’s it. Serve and eat!
Add some crackers around the edge of the salad, or croutons work too.
Any sandwich meat will work. Salami or even SPAM work nicely
I’ve used avocado slices instead of the eggs, or in addition. Depends on what’s on hand.
The cheese can be any cheese you like (or none at all). Blue cheese crumbles, cheddar chunks. A miniature Gouda round cut into wedges. Monterrey Jack cubes or strips. Etc.
Canned or sauteed shrimp make it a bit more of a seafood salad. Shrimp instead of ham and canned crab instead of chicken makes it all the way to a seafood salad. (Or use leftover baked or steam salmon! Yum!)
This one is the most complicated in some ways, but still easy. Some of the best foods in the world are based on “left overs”. This is one of them. It is, in essence, Chinese Leftovers. That’s part of why it comes in so many varieties.
First off, it works best with day old rice from the fridge. So you need to either make that ahead, or have lots left over from the simple steamed salmon meal above. Second, you will be putting a “protein” into it. This is a ‘left over’ so already cooked or you can use a canned meat. I’ve made this with SPAM and it’s good. I’ve also used canned shrimp. This is another one where some leftover baked chicken from above is handy.
OK, the procedure:
I like making this in a wok. I’ve used electric or simple steel over heat. I’ve also used an electric skillet and a large stainless steel chefs pan on the stove. It does need room, so some wide big pan.
Coat the bottom with oil ( I use olive oil) about 1/8 inch or 2 mm deep. Start it warming up on a medium heat. I then chop up an onion. How much? How much old rice to you have? I use about 1/4 to 1/3 the volume of rice for the onions, and celery. Chop to the size you like, smaller cooks faster, larger is non-traditional but I like chunky. I will then scrape a carrot and using a potato peeler, slice off thin wafers of that into the mix. Stir as needed to prevent burning.
About now I’ll turn it up to a little higher to assure some caramelization happens. As the onions get translucent and some caramelization starts to form, be chopping up your “leftover” meat. Add it and stir.Y ou need to add some other vegetables too. I’ve used yellow summer squash in thin sticks or small cubes, leftover peas, broccoli, sugar or snow peas, even pre-packaged stir fry vegetable mix. You can used bean sprouts if you have them. Dump the old rice on top and break it up into a smooth layer (it warms from the steam of the cooking vegetables). Then stir it in. Finally, of course, add something from the cabbage family. I just use a few leaves or a chunk from regular cabbage heads (traditional is a “choy” like bok choy) cut into shreds; but Napa Cabbage works nicely too. Stir that all together and keep it moving enough to prevent burning.
Now it’s time to add some flavor. I’ll drizzle over the whole thing some soy sauce. This also makes some steam to help cook the greens and it de-glazes the pan a bit. There’s a spice sold just about everywhere called “Chinese 5 Spice” a bit about the size of your little finger tip gets dusted over the top and it all gets mixed in.
Sizzle a bit then set it off the heat. At this point, traditionally, a scrambled egg or two is made in a well in the center of the wok. All the “stuff” is pushed aside and the egg mix poured in the middle and rapidly stirred over the heat, then when cooked, mixed into the rest. I find it easier to just scramble the egg in frying pan, chop with the spatula and then mix it in. Less of it gets soaked into the fried rice that way ;-)
That’s it! Serve and enjoy.
Change-ups? The whole thing is a change up. Use canned shrimp if you like, or SPAM slivers, or leftover chicken in small cubes or pork shreds, or “whatever”!