I haven’t felt much like cooking for several months now. Fogged in ennui. It happens. Problem is, I’m the one who cooks in this house. So if I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
When recently I cleaned out the car after a week’s worth of dreary commuting and discovered several discarded Burger King bags, I realized Something must be Done. It may be true, as mi compenara once said, that Chicken Tenders are well nigh irresistible, even to a vegetarian, but you can’t live on them. Or shouldn’t, anyway. Not unless you’re acting out a death wish. Apparently I had been eating these things on a fairly regular basis without really thinking about it. Wrong.
So slowly I’ve been reacquainting myself with the stove. Preparing meals that, unlike industrial fast-food fare, are not cheerily intent on killing me. But also meals that don’t require a lot of time or energy. Cooking For The Weak, as it were.
On the jump I share seven recipes for those similarly enervated. Or for those who just like good food.
Of these seven recipes, two are vegetarian (Linguine with Pesto, Spaghetti with Olives and Capers), three feature chicken (Lazy Man Chicken with Nam Pla Prik, Kung Pao Chicken, and Dijon Chicken), and two are infested with evil beef (Red-Hot Beef with Cashews, Cheater Burritos). Several are definitely on the spicy side—I like to eat fire—but I try to present alternative mixes for those who go bland.
Lazy Man Chicken With Nam Pla Prik
I came up with this dish for a woman who is terrified of fading into Alzheimer’s, as her mother did. To ward off the dread disease, she had begun consuming spinach at each meal, because spinach contains the sort of antioxidants believed to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. To me, a diet that commands consumption of spinach at every meal sounds like something imposed on those interned in Hell. So I asked why she didn’t vary the Popeye thing with Indian dishes heavy on the turmeric, an Al’s-buster even more potent that spinach. Glumly she replied that her husband, the house cook, was determined to eschew Indian food until such time as he could purchase and install an authentic tandoori oven.
So I just made up the dish detailed below, lied that it was some old Thai recipe, and thereby sidestepped the purist foodie goofiness.
Part of it is Thai because of the nam pla prik, which is a staple of Thai cuisine, and has been for centuries. In its simplest form, nam pla prik consists of nothing more than diced fresh Thai chili peppers suspended in fish sauce; fish sauce itself is but the juice extracted from the bodies of salted anchovies. (An interesting piece on how fish sauce is made may be found here.) There are endless variations on basic nam pla prik: mine adds only garlic.
There are many varieties of fish sauce out there, and a lot of them are foul. (The article linked above helps explain why.) I am satisfied with the Thai Kitchen brand, which comes from a first pressing, is not spiked with any artificial enhancers, offers the requisite whiskey color, and is widely available even in culinary-Deliverance regions of the country, which describes the place where I live.
1.5 pounds chicken breast
1 heaping teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon white pepper
4-5 fresh red thai chilis, minced
2 cloves minced garlic
fish sauce to cover
Cut the chicken breast into pieces about the size of the first joint of your thumb. Toss into a bowl. Add the turmeric and white pepper. Mix well.
Mince the chilis. Thai red chilis are pictured above and to the right; if those are unavailable, substitute one large green serrano chili and one of those fat red chilis that are sold in supermarkets generically as “red chilis.”
Mince the garlic. Place the minced garlic and chilis in a small bowl and cover both with the fish sauce. Stir.
Turn on a burner to medium heat, and place a wok atop it. When the wok is hot, add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken. Sir-fry until the chicken loses its pink. Cook a little longer. When the chicken seems a minute or two from doneness, add the dark soy sauce and deglaze. Reduce heat to low and keep stirring. Generally the entire chicken-cooking process consumes about 5-7 minutes.
Spoon some chicken into a bowl and pour some of the nam pla prik atop it. Mix well. Eat.
The Lady loves the taste of this chicken but doesn’t much like the nam pla, so you can, as she does, eat it without the sauce if you wish. When I go on long runs of eating this dish three or four times a week, I tire of the prik myself, and sometimes substitute this volcanic Thai fried chili paste I purchased from a local hole-in-the-wall Asian bookmaking operation masquerading as a specialty-foods store. The stuff is fantastic: chili, garlic, red onion, and vegetable oil, so hot and fiery that it continually sweats through the jar. Mine bears the name “Sun Fat” but otherwise looks pretty similar—size, label color and design, and so forth—to the product in the photo over to the left there.
Red-Hot Beef With Cashew Nuts
This dish is Thai. It cooks even quicker than Lazy-Man Chicken, though there’s a 3-hour marinade step. That’s fine, though, because it’s one of those marinades that, if you suddenly become too weak to cook, you can leave in the refrigerator overnight, to get back at it the next day.
1.2 pounds eye steak
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
.5 cup unsalted cashews
1 green onion, diced
Eye steak is the best cut of beef for this recipe, as it’s of the perfect width. If eye steak isn’t available, you can substitute top round. Slice the meat into strips about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Place in a bowl.
Even though you’re weak, you’re now going to have to work out with the mortar and pestle a little bit. Dump the sesame seeds and the minced garlic, ginger, and chili into the mortar and grind with the pestle to a smooth paste. Or give up before you achieve a smooth paste, and pour over the goop the dark soy sauce and Thai red curry paste, which will successfully conceal your failure. Spoon whatever sort of paste you have achieved onto the beef strips. Toss thoroughly to coat evenly. Cover, and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet or ridged grill pan until very hot. Brush with the olive oil. Dump the beef strips into the skillet and cook quickly, turning frequently, until the beef browns and cooks through. Remove the beef and place on a hot serving dish (or, if that’s too much work, put the beef on a room-temperature plate and cover with a clean towel).
Heat the sesame oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the cashews and quickly cook until golden. Add the green onion and stir-fry an additional 30 seconds. Sprinkle the nuts and onion atop the beef strips. Eat.
Kung Pao Chicken
On the theory that one can never eat too many nuts, here’s another Asian recipe, this one an excuse to eat at least 1 cup of dry-roasted peanuts. It’s a quick and fairly fiery version of that Szechwan favorite, which was allegedly named after the fellow pictured there to the right.
1 tablespoon amontillado
1 tablespoon cornstarch
.5 teaspoon white pepper
1.5 pounds chicken breast
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
30 dried African birdseye chilis
1 cup dry-roasted peanuts
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
4 green onions, diced
Most times when a recipe calls for sherry, I use amontillado. There are two reasons for this: (1) I find it cooks better than the other sherrys, and (2) whenever I use it, I can fleetingly imagine grimly bricking up whoever might be annoying me at the moment, a la Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” This serves as a stress-reliever, keeping my blood pressure down, and the rest of me out of jail.
Anyway. Here you want to mix together in a bowl a tablespoon of amontillado, a tablespoon of cornstarch, and a half teaspoon of white pepper. Then toss into the bowl chunks of chicken breast, which you have cut up to roughly the size of the first joint of your thumb. Stir to coat the chicken, then add a tablespoon of olive oil; stir again to coat again. Set aside and let marinate for about 15 minutes.
In another bowl, mix together your “cooking sauce”: the 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon amontillado, 1 scant teaspoon of sugar (maybe even just 1/2 teaspoon), and 2 teaspoons cornstarch. Because we are presuming here that you are too weak to have previously made your own chicken stock, add 3 tablespoons water. If you happen to have chicken stock about, use that instead. Also, make sure you use some decent white wine vinegar. The people at Cook’s recently reported with horror that most white wine vinegars on the supermarket shelves are akin to nail-polish remover. Maille, imported from France and pictured above, is a safe choice, relatively inexpensive, and available in even most culinary-Deliverance regions of our land.
Mince the garlic and the ginger, and dice the green onions.
I like my Kung Pao fiery, which is why I use 30 of the small hot dried African peppers pictured up there in the ingredients-list. As will be seen, the peppers go into the wok first, thereby imparting their heat to the oil in which the rest of the ingredients are later stir-fried. In the completed dish they present delightful little bursts of smoky heat when you encounter them amongst the other ingredients.
Of course, some people, for whatever reason, don’t like firecrackers going off in their mouths. These people can fish the chilis out before eating. When cooking for chili-fishers, it’s probably best to substitute 10 or 15 dried cayennes or de arbols, as these are easier for the chili-wary to spot and remove. It’s also possible to make the dish with fewer chilis, or with no chilis at all.
Okay then. Heat your wok over medium heat. When hot, add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the 30 dried African birdseye chilis and the cup of dry-roasted peanuts. Stir continuously, letting the peanuts get a nice tan, while roasting the chilis until they’re just this side of dark black. Then scoop the nuts and chilis out with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the wok and crank the heat to high. Add the garlic and ginger. Stir a couple times, then dump in the chicken. Stir-fry until the chicken is opaque, about 3-4 minutes. Return the peppers and the peanuts to the wok, together with the green onions. Stir. Add finally the cooking sauce. Cook, stirring, until the sauce bubbles and thickens. Remove from heat. Eat.
Kung Pao Chicken is traditionally served atop rice, but that’s not necessary, unless you’re trying to get fat.
Poulet a la Dijonnaise (Dijon Chicken)
This is a particular favorite of both my daughter and our cat Black (I think he likes the butter). It’s the mustard that makes this dish, so you want to make sure you use the right stuff. I suggest Roland Dijon Mustard, imported from France, and tasting like the actual mustards you consume in the Dijon region of France, rather than the slop that passes for “dijon” on most American supermarket or even specialty-shore shelves. Yes, it comes in a mammoth 9+ pound tin, and yes it must be purchased at some Cash and Carry-type wholesaler, or a scarifying barn like CostCo. But it’s the real thing, as the local chef who directed me to it stresses. After you open the tin, you can scoop most of it into a large tight-lidded plastic container to be stored at the back of the refrigerator; keep your “at-hand” Roland in an emptied large peanut-butter jar. We find that we generally go through one of these tins every nine months or so. You could too.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2.5 tablespoons dijon mustard
one 5-ounce bag garlic & cheese seasoned croutons
4 large boneless skinless chicken half-breasts
In a small pan over medium heat melt the butter. Stir in the mustard until well-blended. Remove from heat.
You can make your own croutons, but because these recipes presume weakness, we’ll instead just open a bag of seasoned croutons, press the air out, reseal it, then run the rolling pin over the thing until the croutons inside are sufficiently crushed—nay, pulverized.
Roll the chicken half-breasts, one at a time, through the butter/mustard mix, let the liquid drain briefly, then roll in the pulverized croutons. Place on a roasting pan—a.k.a, the broiler pan.
Bake uncovered in an oven preheated to 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Remove, turn the breasts over, and heat for another 20 to 25 minutes. You want to make sure the chicken is cooked through—no pink—but you also want to make sure the breasts are still plenty moist.
Remove from oven. Eat. Share with cat.
These burritos are cheats because I shamefully resort to McCormick Taco Seasoning, rather than making my own. I am at least picky enough to demand the “original” version, which is nice: the “mild” and “hot” variations are inedible.
1 pound lean ground beef
9 cloves garlic, minced
1 8-ounce can El Pato hot tomato sauce
1 8-ounce can gringo tomato sauce
1 can water
12-15 dried cayenne peppers
1.5 packets McCormick Original Taco Seasoning
7 ounces Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated
6 green onions, diced
6-8 flour tortillas
Brown the beef in a skillet over medium heat. When the pink is gone from the beef, drain the grease from the skillet. Add 1 can El Pato hot tomato sauce, and 1 can gringo tomato sauce to the beef in the skillet. Run tap water into each can until half-full, swirl around to capture the recalcitrant bits of tomato sauce clinging to the sides of the cans, then add this water to the skillet. Toss in the minced garlic; crush the chili peppers into the mix. Add the 1.5 packets of Taco Seasoning. Stir to mix well. Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. You are now basically braising the beef. After 20 to 30 minutes, most of the liquid will have receded, having imparted its various flavors to the meat.
Going in the other direction, towards greater heat, when I make this for myself, I eschew the gringo tomato sauce and use 2 cans of El Pato, a truly divine substance made by brujos somewhere in northern Mexico, which is currently known as southern California.
By the time the liquid has receded sufficiently from the beef, you will have diced the green onions and grated the cheese. You will also have preheated your oven to 350 degrees. Heat the flour tortillas in the oven 2 at a time; warm for one minute, flip the tortillas over, warm for another minute. Scoop generous portions of beef, cheese, and onions into each tortilla. Roll into burritos. Eat.
To reheat, wrap in foil and warm in a preheated 350-degree for about 15 minutes. Burritos reheated in a microwave should only be served to people you truly hate.
Linguine With Pesto Sauce
This is a quick and relatively painless pesto preparation. The pesto flavor here is subtle, rather than overwhelming. Although pesto is traditionally prepared with a mortar and pestle, we are again presuming weakness, and so this recipe allows you to pulse it in a blender.
.5 cup fresh-grated parmigiano-reggiano
4 tablespoons fresh-grated pecorino with peppercorns
1 pound linguine
4 tablespoons hot cooking water
Put the basil leaves, minced garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil in a blender. Pulse to get as close as possible to a smooth paste. Scrape into a bowl. Add the cheese. (If you can’t find pecorino with peppercorns, cheat by going with regular pecorino and adding fresh-ground black pepper.) Mix well.
Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the linguine, and cook to package directions. Just before the linguine is done, remove 4 tablespoons of the cooking water and mix with the pesto.
Drain the linguine and return it to the pot. Add pesto. Mix well. Eat.
Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Olives And Capers)
This dish originated in Naples, and is named for the city’s saucy street women. It is renowned for its ease and swiftness in preparation; presumably, the women for which it is named couldn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen before getting back to “work.”
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
small piece dried chili, crumbled
2 ounces anchovy fillets, chopped
14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
.75 cup pitted black olives
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Dump in the spaghetti and cook to package directions.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic and dried chili, and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the garlic is golden. Add the anchovies, mashing them with a fork. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, and tomato paste. (If you prefer your sauce smooth, blenderize the diced tomatoes before pouring them into the pan. Muir Glen Organic Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes, pictured above, are my current fave for dishes such as this one.) Stir well, and let cook over medium-low heat.
When the spaghetti is done, drain and add to the sauce. Raise the heat, and cook for 1-2 minutes, turning the pasta continuously. Remove from heat, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve. Eat.
Heat non-believers can ignore the dried chili that is supposed to be crumbled into this dish. Although this dish is traditionally served without grated cheese (Street Women Don’t Get Fat), if you feel the need you can ignore that rule, too.