Monday, July 23, 2012

Grilled Summer Vegetable Couscous Salad

 A tasty summery salad!
In my last post, I wrote about a little bit about my eating habits over the course of the day. I've been trying to focus my lunches on vegetables as much as possible, so I've been making a lot of different salad combinations. This is my most recent. It's certainly good as-is, but don't be afraid to shake it up! Substitute orzo, quinoa, or even rice for the couscous, and use whatever veggies and/or dressing you have on hand. Toss in some diced chicken, canned tuna, or beans for a protein kick. It's a great way to eat seasonal veggies and clean out your fridge at the same time.

Grape tomatoes, zucchini, and red bell pepper are the stars here.

Grilled Summer Vegetable Couscous Salad
Serves 2 as a main dish

  • 1 cup dry pearled couscous (I cheated and used a box of Near East Roasted Garlic & Olive Oil couscous)
  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 2 red bell peppers, cleaned and cut in half
  • 8 grape tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 1-2 tablespoons salad dressing (I used homemade balsamic--recipe follows)
  • Fresh basil, salt and pepper, and/or other seasonings as desired

1. Cook couscous as directed on the package. When finished, remove from the burner and cover to keep warm.

2.  Prepare vegetables. Brush a grill pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. When it's hot, place peppers skin side down and the zucchini cut side down on the surface. (You can also use a real grill--brush the veggies with oil in that case--or a Foreman grill for this.)

Start with zucchini cut-side down and peppers skin-side down.

The zucchini will develop grill lines after a few minutes. Turn it over and cook one or two minutes more skin-side down.

Lovely grill lines.

Cook the peppers until they begin to blister and char on the outside. Flip and cook a few minutes more on the other side. I wasn't going for the blackened skin of a roasted pepper here, just a slightly softened pepper with a nice grilled flavor. I still wanted them to have a bit of crunch.

Still a few steps away from roasted peppers.

Set the grilled vegetables aside to cool. Place the tomatoes and spinach in a large mixing bowl.

3.  When the grilled vegetables are cool enough to handle, slice the zucchini into half moons and the peppers into strips. Toss the warm vegetables on top of the spinach and tomatoes in the mixing bowl.

The warm vegetables will wilt the spinach just slightly.

4.  Fluff the warm couscous and pour it over the vegetables in the bowl. Drizzle with the dressing and toss everything together.

Now is the time to add seasonings. I used the packet
that came with the couscous, and didn't feel that it
needed anything more after the dressing was mixed in.

I originally intended this to be a cold salad, like a pasta salad. But of course I had to taste it right away, and it's pretty good served warm too! It's joining my lunch tomorrow with some cherries and Greek yogurt.

And, as promised, here is the "recipe" for my balsamic dressing. I apologize for the lack of specificity--this is something I just sort of throw together every couple of days. It works well with a savory dish like this one, but it's also delicious on a simple salad of spinach and berries.

Homemade Balsamic Vinaigrette
Enough for 2 or 3 salads

Ingredients (amounts are approximate)
  • 1-1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (you may not want this much)
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 tsp lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper 
Steps (just one!)

1. Combine all ingredients in a shake-able container with a lid. Shake well until blended. Taste and adjust as needed. The dressing will keep in the fridge for at least a week (at which point I'm usually all out and need to make more).

A tip on salad dressings: If you can't figure out what it's missing, think through the five tastes. With this recipe you have bitterness (vinegar and mustard), sourness (lemon and vinegar), sweetness (honey), saltiness (salt), and umami (olive oil). If I think about that while I'm taste-testing, I can usually figure out what I need to add to balance the flavor. Works for other dishes too! Read more about the five tastes here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Some Tips on Cooking for One

Most of the recipes I've shared on this blog are meant for one person. I moved here to Cincinnati by myself back in August, and even though I live in a house full of roommates we mostly cook for ourselves. But, on Sunday we'll have a new roommate: Paul. Which means I'll be doing a lot more cooking for two!

But, I don't want to forget all the helpful things I learned while cooking just for myself. One of the reasons I really started to focus this blog on recipes is because I found a serious lack of "cooking for one" resources. Like a lot of solo diners, I cooked too much at first. And then I tried to hack four- and six-serving recipes down to one serving.

Finally, I realized I had to change the way I was thinking about food and cooking. "Serves one" doesn't have to mean "frozen" or "take-out" or "boring" or "complicated ingredient divisions" or even "eat-the-same-thing-five-days-in-a-row-because-you-made-too-much." You can still cook and eat fresh, delicious food--it just may take some adjustments if you're used to cooking for a bigger crowd. So, here are some tips and thoughts.

1.  Cook what you really want. One of the greatest parts of cooking just for yourself is that you can eat exactly what appeals to you. No joke, one night my dinner consisted of two scrambled eggs, a piece of toast, and a side of peas. Because that's exactly what I felt like eating--so I did. The flip side of this is that you have to/get to learn how to make what you really want!

Exactly how and why the sweet potato fry recipe came to be.

2.  Try new things. Being on my own has allowed me to try new foods and test out recipes without worrying if other people will like what I buy or make. Some things are duds, while others--pomegranates, Swiss chard, chicken and bread soup--become staples of my pantry and repertoire. Other examples:

Savory oatmeal: culinary fail.

Ricotta gnocchi: culinary epic win!

3.  Cook just enough. Cooking for one can be a great way to cut down on how much you eat. If you tend to overeat a certain food (ahem, pasta) just measure out one serving, cook that one serving, and eat it. You're less likely to go back for seconds if it's not sitting on the stove already made!

4.  Or, cook more than enough. It's hard to cut a recipe for four down to a recipe for one. It's a bit easier to cut it in half to a recipe for two, though. I often make two servings of whatever I'm having for dinner, then box up half of it right away and save it for lunch the next day.

5.  Re-imagine leftovers. Let's say you took the advice in Number 4 and made extra food, but now that food just doesn't look so exciting. Come up with ways of eating it differently. Leftover risotto can be mixed with an egg and fried in olive oil as a risotto cake. Cooked pasta, rice, couscous, or quinoa can bulk up a soup or become the basis for a cold salad. Cooled polenta can be fried or baked. Cooked veggies can become an omelet filling, pasta mix-in, sandwich topping, quesadilla get the picture.

Risotto cake: mix leftover risotto with beaten egg and pan fry in olive oil.

Another one of my best re-imaginings (sadly photo-less) was mixing leftover shredded chicken with mashed avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to create a "chicken salad" which I wrapped in a wheat tortilla and packed for lunch. The possibilities are endless.

6.  Use your freezer. Sometimes you just need to make more than one or two servings--and that's ok. Stick it in a freezer bag or container, label it, and pop it in. Personally I'm a lot more likely to reach for a homemade calzone or cup of chili than a Lean Cuisine when I'm digging around in the freezer. Plus, the homemade meal is usually cheaper than stocking up on frozen entrees.

 The freezer is also great for baked goods like cookies and muffins; bake up a batch, eat one straight from the oven, and save the rest for later. For muffins and breads, I recommend a 30-second zap in the microwave followed by a visit to the toaster oven--your food will warm through, and you'll revive the crispy-crusty-toasty exterior.

I ate one of these fresh ciabatta rolls and stashed the rest in the
freezer. Now, whenever I have a craving for crusty, delicious bread,
I can have some!

7.  Along with Number 6, portion your food. You don't have to use up a whole pound of ground beef in two days just because you were dying for a hamburger. Instead, open the package when you get home from the store, divide it into an appropriate number of portions, wrap it, bag it, and freeze it. I do this with ground beef, bacon, breads, and just about anything else that's freeze-able. Also works for things you don't need to freeze, like snack foods and other things that come in large packages.

8.  Think about your nutrition every once in a while. It might be tempting to eat Ramen noodles or mac and cheese or whatever for every meal, but eventually a one-note diet will catch up with you. I try to combine a couple of food groups at each meal. Breakfast is usually a grain (oatmeal or cereal), fruit, and dairy (yogurt or milk). Lunch is vegetables, some form of protein, a grain and/or dairy. And dinner is where I try to round it all out.

All five food groups: toast (grain), asparagus (veggies),
banana (fruit), egg (protein), and Parmesan cheese (dairy).

There are many days when I decide what to make for dinner based on what I've eaten for breakfast and lunch. If I had a muffin and pizza, I'll probably compensate with a salad or veggie soup for dinner. But if I've been good all day, I might go for that mac and cheese.

9.  Decide what to splurge on, and where you can compromise. I don't have a problem buying generic cereal or store-brand pasta, and I buy my produce based on what's in season and therefore cheapest. However, there are some items I let myself spend a little more on.

An example: milk. I like to have it around for coffee and cereal, and for a while I was buying the store brand. The problem was that a quart of milk wasn't quite enough for a whole week, and a half-gallon ALWAYS went bad before I could finish it. One of my housemates tipped me off to a solution: buy organic. A half-gallon of organic milk is twice as much as the store brand, but it lasts twice as long after it's opened--so I can finish my milk every time instead of always throwing away the last cup or so.

10.  Find resources by people who think--and cook--like you do. Maybe you're a vegetarian. Maybe you're trying to eat low carb. Maybe you never want to spend more than 30 minutes in the kitchen preparing a meal. Whatever it is, seek out websites, blogs, cookbooks, cooking shows, etc. that have what you're looking for. Even if the resources you find aren't for single chefs, they can still be great places to look for ideas when you're stuck.

I love cooking from scratch and occasionally like to challenge myself with a complex dish, so I like chefs who use classic techniques that I can learn from. So I can chiffonade basil and know what it means to deglaze a pan. Look around, experiment, and see what works for you.

I don't know how many readers of this blog are single cooks--but if you are, I hope some of these tips are helpful.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Balsamic Strawberries & Greek Yogurt

Long time, no recipes. I know, I know. My only excuse is that my life is full right now, and I haven't had much time to cook anyway--and the recipe I'm about to share reflects that. I was craving something sweet and summery, and this was the perfect ending to my dinner tonight.

Berries and balsamic vinegar may seem unusual, but trust me--it's the perfect sweet and tart combination, perfect over a creamy scoop of Greek yogurt. You can use regular yogurt too, of course. A word of advice if you go the Greek route: don't buy 0%. It'll be thick, yes, but every brand I've tried has been too sour for my taste. The 2% variety solves that problem (with fewer calories than full-fat versions) and fills you up better too.

Use any kind of berries or swap in mint for the basil
if you want to mix it up!

Balsamic Strawberries & Greek Yogurt
Serves one

  • 4 medium strawberries
  • 3-5 fresh basil leaves, or fresh mint
  • 1 tsp honey or brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt (I like Trader Joe's or Fage 2%)

1.  Hull and slice the strawberries. In a bowl, combine the berries, honey, and vinegar. Mix well and set aside.

2.  Chiffonade the basil: Stack all the basil leaves on top of the largest and roll them up, then slice the log into thin slivers.

3.  Add the yogurt to a bowl. Sweeten with honey, if desired. Top with strawberries and garnish with basil. 

Wash your dishes and then get out of the kitchen and eat this on the porch!