When you're married, especially if you weren't a particularly social single, you get used to doing things for two. Buying clothes, going to the movies, cooking dinner. So when, say, you start a new school program and meet a bunch of people without your husband as a social crutch, you're baffled. And when you get home from meeting these people and cook yourself a solo dinner, you're bound to end up with two servings.
On Saturday, Ian and I decided to purchase some locally-grown, organic fruits and veggies. We headed toward the edge of town to the WSU fruit sale, where we were greeted by at least a dozen varieties of apples, three or four types of pears, and several breeds of potatoes. We bought four Bartlett pears, two golden-something-or-other apples (for Ian) and three large (gee, I wish my memory was better) potatoes. So this week, a themed Sunday-night dinner: locally grown.
The potatoes went into a lovely au gratin with Monterey Jack and Mozzarella cheese. It was delicious and so easy to make--butter, onion, flour, milk, cheese; layer potatoes; pour on cheese; bake; done. The pears were meant for lovely individual pear tarts with a butter crust and artfully laid-out pears. I've made these before and they're delicious, but such a pain in the butt to make. So I took the lazy way out. I made a crust (a slightly mushy one--never get so proud that you don't consult your cookbook in baking matters) and tossed the pear slices with brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and a teensy bit of salt. Let them macerate for a while, baked off the crust, threw the pears in, baked some more. The pear filling was delicious. The crust...well, I'll do better next time.
Of course, we couldn't just have potatoes and pears for dinner. Where's the protein (besides in the ample amounts of cheese in the au gratin...)? So Ian suggested pork chops. Here we deviated from our locally-grown theme. We didn't go to Vandal Meats. We just went to WinCo. Cheap but lovely pork, two servings for just over three dollars.
Right now, if my mom is reading this, she's probably wondering, when did she start liking pork chops? Because let's face it, my family never heard more whining from me than they did on pork chop nights. (Here, Mom, forgive any commentary on your cooking). Pork chops, to me, were always dry and horrible, they tasted like wet cardboard and salt, and they were accompanied by the most horrible of all side dishes, applesauce. It took me a long time to come back around to pork chops--strangely enough (here's where I vindicate you, Mom) it was my mother who showed me a better recipe. Instead of thin, bone-in chops, these were pork loin chops, very thick, cooked with a mushroom and wine reduction she had learned from the chef at the restaurant where she worked on the business end. There was no suggestion of applesauce, and the chops were more likely to be undercooked than dry. It was yummy stuff, though I often worried about under-cooking the meat. So later, I saw Nigella Lawson cook some nice thin chops on her show Nigella Feasts and I was intrigued. Would they be like rubber? Some people liked that sort of thing. My brother and father would go nuts over Mom's pork chops, the very same ones that I dreaded. Either way, I trusted Nigella's judgment and I tried it. And you know what? Pan-seared, oven-finished pork chops are one of my new favorite things. Here's how I cooked them last night:
Marinate pork chops (2 medium, approx 1 lb) in a few tbsp olive oil, white wine vinegar, one crushed garlic clove, 1 tsp sage, 1 tsp rosemary, 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp parsley, salt and pepper for two to four hours. Sear on an oiled grill pan, about 5 min each side, then place in 35o oven for about three to five minutes more. If you don't want to use the oven, pound your chops thinner before marinading.
There are certain dishes that I consider to be Ian's. Shredded Mexican chicken. Fajitas. Anything on the grill. These are all things that he found the recipe for, that he originally cooked for me (and not the other way around). There are so many recipes that he pulls off the internet that I end up cooking, but sweetheart that he is, he sometimes takes on the cooking responsibilities, too. So when we plan meals like last night's "Skinnier Chicken Stroganoff" there's a part of me that clasps my hands and sighs romantically. Remember when he first made this? Oh, that was a nice evening...
Of course, Ian has no recollection of this at all. Even if he's made the dish for me several times. Each time he closes the cookbook, it's like his memory is erased. He retains nothing of the romance or the recipe. Of course, he was the one cooking so it probably wasn't as romantic for him. And recipes often seem to stress him out--he has such a fear of messing up. And, to be fair, he has messed things up in the past. So has any cook. I'd argue that even the Barefoot Contessa has burnt a chicken or turned out lumpy pudding. And I don't think she'd argue back.
Anyhow--last night, being that it was one of "his dishes" on the menu, I made the mistake of assuming that Ian would cook. Which freaked him out. Because he didn't remember. Oh well. I came to his aid, and an interesting thing occurred. Usually, I am in charge of the real cooking, boiling and sauteing things, etc. while Ian is in charge of chopping carrots and pulling things out of the pantry. This time our roles reversed. It seemed to tickle him, having me as his sous chef. And I realized, trying to chop quickly enough and fumble back and forth with ingredients, that being the sous is not such an easy job. We only have so much cutting board space. Sour cream and flour make strange bowl-fellows (but turn out a delightful sauce). Whole wheat fettucine takes forever to cook. Of course, I knew these things before--maybe not about the sour cream, but the rest of it--and yet, it was more stressful than being in charge of cooking the chicken through or making sure the spices go in at just the right time. Not in a bad way. Last night's cooking was fun (Ian and I were extra glad to see each other because I'd been away at school the night before and our cooking was punctuated with kisses) and the meal was delicious. I guess it was just fun to cook one of "his dishes" together.
I apologize for being a delinquent blogger. At least this post is only a day late...it could be worse! My excuse (or at least my explanation) is this: I've been getting ready to start grad school (first class tomorrow!) and I've been freaking out. Because, as I've said, grad school involves being away from Ian. So I've had other things on my mind.
That is not to say that Ian and I did not cook this Sunday. We did. Well, I did. Um...I think he helped with a few things, but it was one of those utilitarian, I'm-hungry-so-let's-get-this-over-with kind of nights. We made minestrone (lovely, by the way--here's the recipe) and parmesan croutons. The food was delicious, but it didn't feel like it was supposed to. We ate very early in the evening (when dieting, I always feel like dinner can't come soon enough, especially when I get a free pass for a meal) and then had the traditional argument over whether to open a bottle of wine (this makes me sound like a wino, I know--I am always pro and Ian is always con. I just think that a nice meal should have a nice beverage to go along with it and Crystal Light fruit punch just doesn't cut it. Maybe we should switch our cooking days to Saturday since Ian's main argument is not to drink on school nights).
But here's what I really want to talk about: why is it that when two people diet together, there is inevitably a good dieter and a bad dieter? For a long time I was the good dieter, counting my calories and thoroughly planning our meals while Ian went to work and ate junk at staff meetings. It would frustrate me, but since I was the good dieter, I felt OK. I would help him, give him guidelines, etc. But now--the tables have turned. He goes to work with his low-calorie soup and doesn't snack all day (he never was much of a snacker anyway) and eats his low-calorie dinner and is good. But me--I snack. I'm bad, I know. And sometimes it adds up to more than I'm supposed to have. So now Ian is giving me diet tips, and it doesn't feel OK. I know better than to open a can of sweetened condensed milk to see what it tastes like and then turn it into a cookie-cake type thing (it was already open, I didn't want to waste it, what was I supposed to do, blah blah blah).
I guess dieting is, whether we like it or not, a competitive thing. I used to only compete with myself. Now, I compete with my husband. Not for the number of pounds lost or calories consumed--I know that our needs and thus our results will be different. It's like riding a mechanical bull, and lately I haven't been able to hang on. I guess instead of begrudging Ian his success, I should be happy for him. And instead of grumbling in the dirt, I should stand up and get back on the bull.
This week, during Ian's and my attempt at cooking "together", I learned the wonders of being a supervisor. You just pour yourself a drink, sit down on the couch, and holler instructions during the commercials of Everybody Loves Raymond reruns. Or at least, that's what I did. And I chopped a few vegetables. But mostly I sat on the couch.
Forgive me, if you will, for impeding the progress of this culinary experiment. You see, we had just returned from a "picnic" at Bear Lake, where I was supposed to meet all the lovely people with whom I will be going to school for the next two years. The picnic started at two and we high-tailed it out of there at exactly 4:15. This is not because it was horrible. In fact, it was rather bland. The part that made it scary was entirely inside my mind. I am not a social person. Nor is Ian. I have not had to meet large groups of new people in...four years? I have been so surrounded by Ian's friends, most of whom are entirely left-brained and socially awkward themselves, that I was intimidated by the large group of beautiful people (who knew that 80% of the writers present would not only be social butterflies, but brightly colored ones at that?).
This is not to say I didn't talk to anyone. I did. But I didn't talk to very many of them, and I found I had little to say. Then again, who expects writers to be so chatty? When I think of writers, I think of hermits, social outcasts, disfigured visages in bell towers. I know that's extreme. But think of Emily Dickinson. The woman was a shut-in. Think of Emily Bronte. It's not exactly a broad sample of writers on which to base an opinion, but I did. Because I am one of them, in my way. I like people, but not en masse. I don't like forced social events. I don't (despite my love of food) like eating in front of strangers, and though I brought a lovely corn and bean salad, I never approached the food table or took credit for my cooking.
So of course, when we got home, I polished off a few handfuls of corn chips, made a drink, and parked myself in front of the TV. I was disappointed in myself for being such a chicken and for not getting into character on the drive up--if I had played the part of Chatty Cathy, I would have been fine. But I wouldn't have been me. I would have been someone who would inevitably disappear a few weeks into the program and my classmates might find that the girl they liked so much was only an illusion.
Ian (with my supervision) made a Thai dish--Green Curry Chicken. It sucked. Through no fault of Ian's, of course. He followed the recipe precisely. It was just...unimpressive. Maybe it was missing the love.
This week, for our Sunday cookery, Ian and I made lamb cassoulet. The recipe came from our Better Homes & Gardens cookbook (the red and white checkered one that just about every American cook has lying around somewhere) and, man! was it good. And relatively good for us, too, which jives well with our diet--unlike the movie popcorn and ice cream sundae we indulged in earlier in the day...
You see, Ian's and my lives have been complicated lately. Stressful. He has, as usual, a daunting amount of work to do at his day job plus this semester's graduate school course to keep him more than busy (he's been chipping away at his MS for a couple of years now...three more to go!). On top of that, I (usually only beleaguered by household chores and imaginary blogging deadlines) have been set on the track towards grad school, too--only my school is an hour and a half away. We've been moving me into my part-time apartment with my part-time roommate, though I'll still technically "live" with Ian, I've been inundated with school-related emails both professional and social, and have been desperately trying to figure out how I might end up juggling my two worlds. That, on top of our attempts at dieting, has meant that many meals have been spent apart, and those that have been more complicated than buzzing up a Slim Fast shake in the blender have not been cooked together.
I guess the reason I'm telling you all this is to justify the breaking of our diet. Also, it might give you a better picture of how happy I was to cook with my husband last night.
We chopped the veggies and browned the meat, and when I needed a skillet from the cupboard by Ian's knees I didn't push him out of the way but kindly asked that he scoot to the side for a moment. We had a couple of beers (another diet faux-pas...oh well) and waited for the meal to cook...several hours, actually, of beans soaking and stew bubbling. There was a strange sense of patience in the air. Maybe it was the movie popcorn keeping our bellies full, belaying the need for a quick dinner. Maybe it was the three-day weekend. Or maybe we were just glad to have a calm moment together, without worrying, without anything to accomplish but a lovely dinner and an evening in front of the TV. Dinner was served around 10:00 pm. We usually eat at 6:00.
So I guess absence--or maybe it's just stress--does make the heart grow fonder. More patient. I know the next year or two will bring many nights apart from my dear husband, and I know that our meals will be rarely eaten or prepared together, but that's actually why I started this blog, this idea of cooking together every Sunday (I know I write a lot of other junk, too, but that was the original point)--I knew this time would come when Ian and I would be torn apart by our schedules and I wanted something we could do together every week; something we could bond over. Forgive my corniness but I think we'll find the recipe for togetherness.
Every dieter--or at least, every meat-eating dieter--knows that grilled chicken breast is one of the best things for you. It's lean, low-calorie, high-protein, and it fills your stomach. The problem is, there are only so many ways to grill a chicken. You have to be creative. It's tempting to make a nice healthy chicken breast and then douse it with high-calorie, high-sugar, high-sodium sauce or add a fattening side, or just burn yourself out on chicken breast and salad, day in, day out. To remedy those chicken breast doldrums, here's a sauce I whipped up last night. It's sort of like Chicken Milanese, except the chicken is not coated with bread crumbs and/or fried, and I lightened the sauce.
Tomato and Fennel Sauce
1 cup thinly sliced fennel 3 roma tomatoes, diced (you can peel them, too, but I hate peeling tomatoes) 1 clove garlic, minced 1 tsp dried thyme cooking spray 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese
Spray your pan with the cooking spray and put the pan over medium heat. When it's hot, throw in the fennel and saute for about 2 minutes, until it starts to soften. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook until the tomatoes start to get mushy. Add the thyme and cook a minute or two more. The sauce should still look fairly fresh--not cooked down like marinara sauce, but not so crunchy as, say, salsa fresca. Add the Parmesan cheese (or, if you're making huge cuts to your calories, omit it) and serve.
This is about two servings of sauce, and you won't be disappointed with the size of the servings. It's light, healthy, and delicious. It works well with the chicken and whole wheat pasta (I served it with rotini).
Fat equals flavor. Flavor doesn't necessarily equal fat. That's fortunate, because Ian and I are going on a diet. Actually, we're already on it. It began yesterday, and should run through October. You see, we both made New Year's resolutions regarding weight, and we've both made a good amount of progress, but our recent kitchen exploits have sent us sliding backward. With the holidays coming up, it's more important than ever for us to work on our waistlines and, more importantly, develop healthy eating habits. So be prepared for lots of low-cal recipes. Don't worry--there are a lot of delicious foods out there that are healthy and figure-friendly.