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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: Pasta

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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All right, last night was a first. My 9 year old twins planned, cooked and cleaned up the entire meal!

Because they are on spring break they were forced to do the grocery shopping with me this week and when I asked if they had any ideas for the “surprise” meal, they volunteered to make it themselves. Here’s the menu they came up with: pasta with chicken apple sausage and garlic broccoli in red sauce & a salad with romaine, red peppers, sliced mushrooms & cherry tomatoes in a lemon vinaigrette.

Here’s what they have to say about making dinner:

Clem: “It was really fun, but it was hard to get the tomato paste out of the tomato can and Finn thought it was disgusting when he cleaned out the can.”

Finn: “I can’t believe you have to do that much work every night.”

The food was delicious and the Unnatural Cook is looking forward to many, many meals cooked (and dishes cleaned) by her very natural little cooks.

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The pasta I made last night could not rightly be called carbonara because it had cream and because I browned the bacon and onions together for so long, that when I added the cream to the pan the sauce turned brown and looked more like stroganoff.

Every time I make this I tell myself I shouldn’t brown the bacon and onions at the same time because I can’t control the rate they cook at but then every time I just go ahead and put them in the same pan anyway to save myself the trouble of washing two pans. I can’t seem to break the habit. But since I got a rare complaint (read helpful suggestion) from my husband that next time I should brown the onions less (so they’d be less sweet) maybe I’ll finally change my ways.

I never really considered that the longer you sauté onions, the sweeter they get. I just always thought of browner as better. But sweet is not the right flavor for every dish. Once again, my cooking life seems to parallel my writing life. My husband gave me a neat little lesson in constructive criticism. Because he explained the relationship between cooking time and flavor I can use the information to improve my cooking instead of taking it personally. Cause that would just be silly.

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Well, it was going to be another night off but everyone came home hungry from their long drive home so we had to improvise. We being me with a lot of help from my beloved. We had porcini ravioli in the freezer and some cherry tomatoes at the end of their life in the fridge. So I melted butter & olive oil, threw in the halved cherry tomatoes, and when they softened, added three huge minced cloves of garlic (it was the order of garlic/tomatoes I needed help with). I added salt, pepper and crushed red pepper and served with grated parmesan; it was quite satisfying. Thanks to being forced to write it down for the damned blog, I may even remember how to do it again.

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It’s hard to let go. I’ve been resisting posting Sunday’s meal because I don’t want to say goodbye to Porkfest.

I planned a light meal for Sunday night knowing Porkfest would leave us slightly stupefied. We slept at my sister’s house on Saturday and the next morning the inevitable conversation, ‘What are we having for dinner tonight?’ took place. My brother-in-law announced his plans: chili. My sister groaned. It’s the traditional Super Bowl meal, he countered. Super Bowl? I had no idea it was Super Bowl Sunday. I also had no idea the Giants were in the Super Bowl. I’m a New Yorker. This may put me in the company of about six other people who did not have this information. It did explain why the entire center aisle of my supermarket was dedicated to a Giant’s display. And the Giant’s win last night may explain the noticeably charitable mood on the subway this morning – at the crowded Dekalb stop the masses parted like the waves of the Red Sea to let the passengers off the train.

But dinner. It was a pasta recipe from Real Simple, Orecchiette with Roasted Broccoli and Walnuts. The Real Simple recipe as it exists doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The first time I made it according to the recipe the broccoli wasn’t cooked enough and it didn’t have enough garlic. So I futzed with it. This time I doubled the amount of walnuts, doubled the broccoli and blanched it first for one minute. I also added at least twice the garlic. It still wasn’t enough garlic. Next time I’m going to try and go back to just roasting the broccoli (less work, more intense flavor) but roast for longer. It ain’t a touchdown yet, but I’ve got faith in the play.

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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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My daughter doesn’t accept the idea that I am an unnatural cook. She keeps trying to prove me wrong. When she is a teenager this desire to prove me wrong will be very annoying, but right now it is incredibly sweet. She refuses to allow me to speak ill of my talents and she thinks “unnatural” is an insult. Yesterday, she gave me a challenge: make dinner from what was in the house. At first I refused. No way. It made me incredibly nervous. Then she gave my husband a challenge – he should make a meal plan! He balked too! I realized how much I’d love it if he did make a meal plan and so I reconsidered the challenge. Why not?

Turns out that making dinner from what’s in the house is a great way to clear out the fridge. Duh. I know lots of people do this I’m just not those people. I made pasta with pink sauce. It should have been pinker than it was but one of the creams wandering around in the fridge turned out to be rock solid. I used bacon, leftover shallot, parsley and 1/2 a red onion, sun dried tomatoes (which must have been at least a year old), garlic, chicken stock, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. It tasted good and was on the table fast.

So I have a confession: I think it might be more relaxing to cook without a recipe. Now what am I supposed to do? I didn’t start this thing so I could change my habits. I started it to…well, I don’t know why the hell I started it. I certainly did not mean give up my recipe following ways. But what did I expect? The blog is a way to make the daily habit of cooking into a creative endeavor. A decent artist allows herself to be changed by the process of art making, doesn’t she? Otherwise, what’s the point?

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Yoga. It’s another thing, like meal planning, that I like the benefits of but don’t enjoy while I’m doing it. I like yoga because it makes me strong, and I dropped ten pounds and I get sick less. I also like it because I’m a beginner, and in yoga its always okay to be a beginner. Yoga is a way to practice being okay with being uncomfortable. I need that kind of practice. I’m a 44 year old woman, back in school, trying to start a new career writing in mid-life. I’m scared out of my mind.

Every week that I make it to yoga once, that I write another meal plan, is proof to myself that I can change.  That I can find a way, within my own limitations, to do something I want to do but don’t consider myself good at. I need the constant reminder of the little things (yoga and meal planning) to build courage for the big thing (writing). Every time a new meal plan gets tacked on the blackboard I think to myself, you’ve been doing this for five years, you didn’t think you could do it, what else can you do that didn’t think was possible? Holding uncomfortable poses and making a list of what to eat once a week seem a ridiculous way to go about changing careers, but I know in my heart they’re related.

The blog seems to be adding a new level of detail to my perception that I can change. Tonight’s dinner, pesto, was made from basil that I bought for another meal but only used a few leaves of. I actually thought ahead to use the rest for pesto before it went bad. I said at the outset I never remember to check the refrigerator for produce to see if it can get used up before it rots. But just saying it, writing it, made it seem stupid – so I didn’t let the basil rot. And the side dish, Candy’s Vegetables, I said I never get inspired by ingredients at the grocery store. But then I was wandering around trying to figure out what vegetable to serve with the pesto, wondering how much green I could take in one meal, and I saw a lady holding an eggplant and got inspired. Yes, inspired by an eggplant to try an old recipe I hadn’t made in years. And it was so good! The pesto and the vegetables were a perfect combination. And so it seems that the blog itself a vehicle for change. I had no idea what the purpose of it was, but by doing it, I’m finding benefits I wasn’t expecting.

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I was going to write a really nice post about the romantic associations I have with tonight’s meal, Pepperoncini Pasta  – and then I burnt it. Playing scrabble. There was an incident over an ‘x’ that involved crying. There are so many ways to get distracted in the kitchen. I like to blame my children and they are a constant distraction, but really, I’m so easily distracted by my own thoughts that I can’t blame them for most of my mistakes in the kitchen. I think cooking well, like anything else, takes focus and I find the kitchen an incredibly difficult place to do that. My mind is always on the next thing I want to do, or the thing I stopped doing in order to cook, or what I wish I was doing instead of cooking. It is rarely completely on the task at hand and this evening was no exception: my beautiful bacon and onions turned black. Not all of them, not irretrievably black, but annoyingly so. I am curious if writing about cooking will help the problem or exacerbate it. Yesterday I didn’t hear the timer buzz for the zucchini bread – I have a sneaking suspicion it was because I was writing about it…

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I didn’t feel like posting tonight, but I did anyway. That’s how I feel every time I sit down to write a meal plan. I don’t feel like it, but I do it anyway. In fact, the whole act of creating meal plans taught me that I possessed this discipline. It took me three years before I was confident I wouldn’t give up. I decided that three years was the time it takes to form a new habit.

The blessing of forming a new habit, a good habit, is that it suggests that other new habits can be formed. Like, writing shall we say? It seems unrelated but it’s not, quite. In order to write successfully, I have to be able to sit at the computer, every day, whether I want to or not. A few years ago I would not have believed myself capable. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that I can sit down, write this post without a clear understanding of what the hell it’s all for, but with the faith that given enough time, I’ll figure it out. Well, it’s only week two. That’s the working premise anyway.

Tonight I tried something new, mac and cheese from the Barefoot Contessa. I’ve had good luck with her recipes: gazpacho, penne vodka, pecan shortbread cookies. This one had a video of her making it so I could watch it before I tried it. I definitely like to learn that way. The comments of people who’d tried it led me to make some adjustments: switching the amounts of the cheddar (cheaper cheese) and gruyere to save money and decreasing the amount of nutmeg and salt. We all liked it but I have some questions. Like, is it really necessary to dirty an extra pot by heating the milk before it gets added to the butter and flour? And, how am I supposed to know how many quarts a baking dish holds? I got myself into some trouble trying to split the recipe into two dishes so I could put half in the freezer to save for another night.

Next time I think I’ll skip the gruyere altogether and opt for something less fancy, like jack cheese to go with the cheddar. And maybe even use a less sharp cheddar. My mac and cheese tastes tend toward old-fashioned comfort food versions. I don’t really want a grown up version. I still don’t think I’ve found the perfect recipe but at least I’ve learned a little bit about what I’m looking for.

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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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I never do more than friend people on Facebook. My cellphone is not smart. I only found out what Angry Birds was last week. But last night my kids found their way to the comment section of the blog and sent me messages. It was possibly the best “I love you” I’ve ever received.

It never occurred to me that the blog would be a new way to communicate with my own children. It makes me think of one of my favorite Adam Gopnik stories of all time. He discovers IM is a way to communicate with his adolescent son and then gets himself into some trouble with the language of his new found technology. Here’s the MOTH video of Gopnik telling the story. You will LOL:

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I made Thursday’s dinner tonight: Spaghetti with Toasted Breadcrumbs and Oregano. I realized the herbs and the beans didn’t need to sit around in the fridge for an extra day. It was a dish from Mario Batali’s new book, Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals. It wasn’t so simple. He must have a cleaning crew. It called for two 14″ pans, plus the pasta pot, plus a heated serving bowl. Needless to say I didn’t heat the bowl. I also tried to get by with only one big pan which sort of worked. I’m not someone who should be trying out restaurant technique at home. Everyone seemed to love it. I’m not sure. I think I liked it but it seemed harder than a simple meal should. Maybe because it was a new recipe? All new endeavors take some effort, no?

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