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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Tag Archives: My Own Recipe

Lazarus was dead four whole days until Jesus brought him back. I only made it two.

It’s just that the pine nuts and tomatoes and mozzarella looked so pretty in the bowl I had to take a picture…And then it seemed a shame not to use the picture. And then it occurred to me that when I made up a new recipe I’d want to write it down. And then I though – why not just put it on the blog?

So here it is. Tonight’s dinner was Pasta w/Pesto, Cherry Tomatoes, Toasted Pine Nuts, Sauteed Red Onion and Mozzarella. It was actually inspired by an attempt to use up leftovers in the fridge (pesto & red onion) before they went bad. And it was so good I decided that in addition to leaving one night blank on the meal plan to be inspired while shopping, I was going to plan one meal around using up leftovers before I shop. Nifty, huh?

So I don’t know what this means. I’m going to try to avoid any more grand pronouncements since the last one went so poorly. Let’s just say I hope it ends better for me than it did for the guy who brought Lazarus back. Luckily I have a much smaller following.


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Look closely at those peas. They are almost the only vegetables my family ate this week. The first thing to go when the meal plan goes is the vegetables. This is my sausage pink sauce from the freezer with pasta and peas. There should have been enough sauce for two meals but instead I ate all the sauce after I finished my pasta. Oops.



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By Thursday I gave up and went out for Thai Food with the kids. I was three days behind on the dishes and it was a busy week; I was tired. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the kids woke up twice at the ungodly hour of 5:50 in the morning because they important things to do, like get into Dutch settler costumes and make zucchini bread.

That’s how Thursday’s dinner, a spinach, leek & bacon frittata, turned into Friday’s lunch for the car ride to Vermont. I finally, finally managed to follow my own advice and cooked the bacon and the leeks in separate pans. Surprisingly it felt like less work.  Having to clean the extra pan took less time than negotiating the stress of putting two things  that cook at different rates in the same pan. (As I write that I have to admit I’m pretty sure it was my husband that cleaned the extra pan, but still….)

The frittata made a great on the road meal and I was quite pleased with my made up combination of spinach and leeks, inspired by the giant leeks found at the store.

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Making the beans tonight and thinking about the corn avocado and mango salsa I was going to make up myself, got me thinking about memorizing. I basically know how to make the beans because I’ve memorized the steps. Lately I’ve begun trying to memorize recipes because it dawned on me when I memorize a recipe it teaches me not only how to make that dish, but how to cook. Memorization is a form of internalizing knowledge so that it becomes part of you in a way that you don’t really realize until, say, you go to grad school and someone points it out.

Last week in my literature seminar, the instructor was horrified to learn how few of us (myself absolutely included) had any prose at all memorized. When forced, I could come up only with the opening lines to Dante’s Inferno, in italian, which I misquoted horribly. The correct lines would have been: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, or, In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood. We won’t go into what I actually said, we will settle for the fact that it was a fitting two lines of poetry for a middle-aged woman feeling out of her depth.

But my instructor was not appeased. “What will you do if you’re thrown in jail?” he inquired of us with genuine concern. He was right. What would I do? But more importantly, how could any self-respecting grad student such as myself not have made it a point to internalize the very best of the language I purported to write in? And so he set us the task of memorizing an entire page of prose which is much harder than it sounds. Easier, were the two lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d wished I’d remembered in class: Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand / come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.

I am still working on the prose, the opening to Man in the Holocene, by Max Frisch. “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread…” I am hooked now, on memorizing prose, hoping that it will do for me creatively on the page what memorizing recipes is doing for me creatively in the kitchen.

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Meal Planning is getting easier, which is funny, because the blog is a lot of work.

I do wonder what the hell I’m doing spending so much time photographing and writing about food, but the problem is, I keep learning stuff so I can’t stop. One of the things I’m learning is that as I wean myself from total dependence on recipes I plan much faster. I haven’t quite figured this out yet. Is it because there’s more information about food stored in my brain now? Is it because it’s easier to imagine a meal than find a meal in a notebook? Leaving one day blank to be inspired by ingredients at the store certainly helps.

Or perhaps, like tonight, it’s because I didn’t come up with the meal at all – my son did! He requested sausage and mushroom pizza which required no thought whatsoever on my part.

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Ever since I came up with the pink sausage sauce for one of my surprise nights, we’ve been wanting to eat it again. It’s funny to have to look up your own recipe but I couldn’t quite remember what I’d done. The only thing I modified was that I added some red wine because we had just a splash left, and I added red pepper flakes to the sauce. Despite all my writing about not cooking bacon and onions together anymore, I went ahead, ignored my own advice and cooked them together which almost killed the onions. Next time I really, really must cook the sausage first!



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I made up my own Thai Green Curry dish. Me. The Unnatural Cook.

It was inspired by the whole making Chicken Indienne is the same thing as making Tortilla Soup thing from last Tuesday. I really owe it to my daughter who convinced me a mere two months ago to challenge myself to make something up from what was in the pantry. Now there’s no stopping me.

The curry came out pretty well – it smelled fabulous but didn’t taste quite as good as it smelled. Not that the flavor wasn’t good, it was just weaker than I expected. I think next time I’ll add a third tablespoon of green curry paste. Here’s how I did it: I cut an eggplant into cubes and roasted it at 450° for one hour. Meanwhile, I browned 2 packages of boneless chicken thighs in olive oil. I removed them from the pot and sauteed one small diced onion. (Not too long, because I learned my lesson from Carbonara Night). Then I added 2 T. of green curry paste. I cooked the onion with the curry paste for one or two minutes and added chicken stock and coconut milk and returned the chicken to the pot. Then I simmered the chicken for about 40 minutes, uncovered. While the chicken was simmering I cut up one red pepper, one green pepper and trimmed a large bunch of string beans. I added them to the chicken for the last 10 minutes of cooking and put the lid on to steam them. Oh, and stirred in the roasted eggplant too. At the very end I tore up some fresh basil leaves and mixed them into the curry.

I think I cooked the chicken a bit too high because I was trying to get the sauce, which was very thin, to thicken. It never got any thicker, but the chicken did get a bit stringy which means it was overcooked. (Don’t think I knew this – it was my husband who explained it.) Next time I’ll simmer it lower, for less time & keep it covered like I do with the Indienne. I served it with Jasmine rice which, disappointingly, tasted exactly like regular rice. I expected something all fragrant and flowery. But that’s just quibbling. All in all it was an extraordinary success.

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Last night was another first. It was my first planned, unplanned meal. It was the day I left intentionally blank on the meal plan to be inspired while shopping. I have to admit I didn’t stray too far from what I know but I was in a very specific mood: I wanted to make a pink sauce, like vodka sauce, but with sausage.

It came out exactly the way I wanted it to; I was so pleased. I sauteed onions in olive oil, then removed the skin from five Italian sausages. Four of them I broke up with my fingers into small pieces. I wanted it to be like that great sausage you get on some pizza – not perfect slices of cardboardy tasting meat, but irregularly shaped, heavenly little morsels. The fifth sausage I crumbled, like ground meat, to thicken the sauce. I browned the sausage with the onions and then added vodka, cooked it down, and added more. After the vodka was mostly cooked off, I added one can of crushed tomatoes and some kosher salt. I served the sauce over fusilli with parmesan & hot red pepper flakes.

Lately I’ve been adding spices, not with a measuring spoon, but with my fingers. I’ve been getting a feel for how much I put in. Yesterday, when I wrote about the idea of using my senses when I cook, I left out the sense of touch. I think feeling the ingredients is as important as tasting, seeing and smelling them. Ripping sausage, pinching and sprinkling salt, helps me, somehow, to know instinctively how much to use. I honestly can’t believe how much my cooking practices have changed in two months, just by writing about them. Never has being wrong been so pleasurable.

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Taxes trump blog. It’s the governments fault I’m behind on my posting.

Wednesday night was a bit of a watershed evening for a few reasons:

1) I successfully used a mandolin. I once took a one night cooking class in which the teacher tried to teach me to use a mandolin. “It’s so easy! I love my mandolin!” she exclaimed. It’s so dangerous, I’m going to slice my fingers off, I thought. I was unable to keep the thing steady or make the even slices the tool insists upon. The instructor had never met a student who couldn’t work a mandolin. But then we bought one of our own. And it has a nifty little notch that keeps it firm across the top of a bowl. Using a mandolin horizontally instead of vertically is all I needed. “It’s so easy! I love my mandolin!”

2) The dough rolled out in less than a minute. I don’t know if using whole wheat dough makes the process smoother but I didn’t even need a rolling pin; I was able to spread it with knuckles & fingertips alone.

3) About half way through preparing the meal I realized I’d made it up. I wasn’t following a recipe. I just had the idea that whole wheat pizza with potatoes, rosemary, goat cheese & spinach would be good. That, my friends is the way a natural cook thinks. Who knew?

4) I took the pizza out of the oven when I smelled the crust burning. I know, you think this is very obvious. But I am the type of cook who used to think, “It says 20 minutes, it’s only been 10, it can’t be burning.” I would ignore the smell, even to some extent the smoke, until it was unsalvageable. This time I checked it, saw the one on the bottom was cooking too fast, took it out & finished cooking the pizzas on the top rack, one at a time. When I said at the outset this cooking thing did not come naturally to me, I was really, really not kidding.

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My experiments with vegetables continue. I was able to make a two vegetable meal because the main course was so easy. Two ingredients: ribs & bbq sauce. The country rib recipe came from my friend Judy via Real Simple. She follows the technique but substitutes Bone Suckin’ BBQ sauce instead of making her own which is just what I did. The ribs go from the crockpot to the broiler and can be served whole or pulled apart with two forks to make pulled pork sandwiches.

As sides I made spinach and garlic and oven roasted sweet potato fries. The fries were an experiment in natural cookdom. I tried to recreate a dish we used to get at a restaurant called Beso. I spiced them with chili powder, cinnamon, cumin and salt. They would have been delicious had I been paying more attention while I was cooking them. By coincidence Judy of Judy’s Ribs was visiting and I was so busy talking I missed the fact that they were burning. Enough were salvaged to declare them a hit and next time I’m going to try and add a bit of cayenne. I sort of winged the spinach too, remembering my husband’s technique: Saute copious amounts of garlic in olive oil. Add spinach. Stir for a bit. Add chicken stock and salt. Cover pan and cook for a couple of minutes. Uncover pan and cook for a couple of minutes more. Now it’s a matter of doing the dishes so I can make tonight’s dinner!

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I improvised! I took the basic recipe I used earlier for the frittata w/ bratworst & onion and devised my own filling. The result was  frittata w/Potato, Asparagus & Bacon. I roasted the potatoes, cooked the bacon in the oven while the potatoes were roasting and blanched the asparagus. It was delicious.

And…my fancy-shmancy new cutting technique (holding the knife straight) worked very well on the potatoes.

I think the blog is making me a better cook. Being forced to pay attention to what I make and how I make it is changing what I make and how I make it. After six weeks I’m less afraid of that change and more intrigued by it. I still burnt myself twice. That’s not changing anytime soon.

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Couchiflower Pasta. This is the name we gave the pasta dish I made up the day after we got our new couch. It has cauliflower in it and cauliflower became couchiflower and it took. We were very excited about our new couch at the time.

This was a great food for teaching the kids to mix flavors. The ingredients: pasta, olive oil, roasted cauliflower, sausage, sauteed onions, toasted pine nuts and parmesan are all prepared separately and thrown together. When they were younger we all mixed and matched as we pleased. Over time everyone has come to like everything and it’s become a one dish dinner. The recipe hasn’t changed at all through the years and I wish I could say the same for the couch; it’s covered in stains now, but we still love it.

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A quick and easy dinner from the freezer for a school night. Only it wasn’t quick, and I always forget that. This is the fourth or fifth meal we’ve managed to get out of two sausage lasagnas I made in December and every time I reheat the lasagna I forget how long it takes, so dinner is both late & lukewarm. Why is that? Why is it so hard to learn from mistakes?

The sausage lasagna is a recipe I made up which makes it a source of pride. I used the idea of bolognese technique (simmer in milk, simmer in wine) but used sausage instead of ground beef. It also leaves out the ricotta cheese. My daughter doesn’t like ricotta and by bending the lasagna rules a bit I managed to create something that everybody would eat, thereby adding a new meal to our repertoire. A lesson I suppose in the joy of rule breaking for a rule following lass.

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Meatballs and spaghetti is the first dish I learned to cook. It was my favorite meal as a child and is my children’s favorite meal now. My mother always made a huge pot for the two of us and left it in the fridge. We ate it night after night with pleasure. I still make a huge pot although I freeze the leftovers. I try to get three meals out of it but we always eat so much it’s hard to make it stretch. I rarely serve anything with it. Don’t want any distractions.

There is nothing fancy about this recipe. I make it by heart and will try to give instructions but you’ll have to wing it and have faith that the plain ingredients will cook down to something wonderful.

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My favorite time to make dinner is in the morning. The idea that it’s all over by 10:00 am! (Well, the hard part anyway)

I am very attached to my crockpot. I bought one when the kids were little and there was no question of being able to stay inside for four straight hours while a pot of beef stew simmered. This morning I used it to make something I call Simon & Garfunkel Soup. It is actually a recipe I made up. I’m unnaturally proud of it because it goes against every idea I have of myself as a rule-following recipe slave.

Here’s how I did it: I looked online at other white bean crock pot soups. I got the gist of them and added my own touch. Namely, I threw in some parmesan cheese rinds that I was storing in my cheese drawer because I have a hard time throwing anything out and because I kept thinking, “I can still get some cheese off that….” After I put in all the basic ingredients, beans, ham, vegetables, stock, I didn’t know how to season it. So I looked in my spice rack and that old Simon & Garfunkel song, “Scarborough Fair,” came to mind. It has that line, “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” and I figured there must be some reason those spices were together so I added them and Simon & Garfunkel soup was born.

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