nothing exciting here, folks–just cauliflower

Fellow readers, I will warn you up front that the following post is quite average. I go on about a (healthy) side dish using a simple “recipe.” No fancy ingredients, no new and exciting cooking methods.

But in full disclosure, this is how I cook for my family. The marshmallows? Lava cakes? Crème fraîche and buttermilk ice creams? These are projects and making them is the equivalent of my playtime.

What happens, though, when lunchtime rolls around? I dig in my refrigerator for salad greens, a carrot, feta or blue cheese, Greek olives, and a vinaigrette and throw together a salad. Suppertime for the fam? I hunt down a protein (pork chops? scrambled eggs? steak? chicken? all contenders); carb–which I try to make a whole grain (brown rice, millet, quinoa, barley, etc) though sweet potatoes work, too; and one or two veggies–frozen or fresh. We dig into one of the aforementioned “projects” for dessert, but mealtime rarely allows the luxury of finding and following a recipe. I use what I have to whip up something that (usually) works.

Last night’s cauliflower side dish is a fine example and its simplicity made it a good candidate for a blog post. We’re running low on veggies, but I did have a nice-looking head of cauliflower in the crisper. My plan was to boil and mash it, just as you would potatoes. Mixed with sour cream or a bit of half-and-half and a handful of dried parsley, mashed cauliflower makes a fun veggie side. But as I cut the cauliflower into florets, roasting seemed a better option.

A quick chop into smallish florets and tossed with just a bit of olive oil, the cauliflower went onto a baking sheet. I gave it a generous sprinkle of cumin seed, smaller sprinkle of curry powder, and dusting of coarse salt. The cauliflower roasted at 425°F for 20 or so minutes, after which I tossed the roasted florets with a touch of chopped fresh basil–as much as for color as flavor.

The side went well with our oven-fried chicken drumsticks and reheated leftover rice pilaf. Gourmet it was not. (And I’ll note that my kids preferred cutting up their own carrot sticks to eating the fragrant and “exotic” curry-scented cauliflower.) But it took little time to pull together, was inexpensive as I’m using what’s already in my kitchen, and it’s as healthy a meal as they come. Maybe someday I’ll have the time (and energy) to pull off more ambitious mealtime menus. But this works well for now and leaves me time and energy for those playtime projects I love so much.

roasted curry cauliflower

roasted curry cauliflower

not-too-unhealthy cheese, bacon potato wedges

Not a football fan. If the Vikings hit the Super Bowl (unlikely), I’d root for the home team, but still don’t think I’d care overly much. Even the commercials often disappoint after all the hype. I hear you could even catch this year’s Super Bowl commercials online BEFORE the Super Bowl. Whas’ uuuuuup indeed.

But we talk food here, right? And since having kids, it’s been our family’s Super Bowl tradition to spread a plastic tablecloth on the living room floor and watch the game while we eat (relatively) unhealthy fare.

After hosting a big event Saturday night, I didn’t have much get-up-and-go as far as meal ideas for Super Bowl supper. Knowing I wanted to lean toward the carb/cheese/bacon end of the spectrum (tradition must be respected:-)), I microwaved two very large baking potatoes for about 6 minutes, then cut them into wedges. Spritzed with olive-oil cooking spray, they roasted at 425°F just until they started browning (8 minutes?). Next, they were sprinkled generously with shredded cheese and chopped bacon strips. (While heating the potato, I’d baked six or so bacon strips on a wire rack over a baking sheet, again at 425°F. This is The Best Way to Make Bacon–grease drips off onto the baking sheet and you pull the bacon at your preferred doneness, whether its just cooked through, deeply browned and crispy, any point in between.) I also microwaved frozen broccoli florets, which went over the potato wedges along with a handful of leftover caramelized onions. They roasted another 7ish minutes, then were served on a bed of shredded lettuce and topped with grated Parmesan cheese (the kind from a can! only on Super Bowl Sunday;-)), a spoonful of full-fat sour cream, and toss of sliced ripe olives.

I’ll admit to being impressed with my hastily thought through and thrown together meal. It had the bacon, cheese, sour cream bit–potatoes, too–but I managed to get the greens in there as well. Served with root beer floats, we watched the game and helped the girls with eleventh-hour Sunday evening homework. Unstructured, casual, and just plain fun. Tomorrow we’ll sit at the dinner table and eat our well-balanced meal–no TV, no homework. But tonight we enjoyed breaking (multiple) family rules and it tasted good.

almost-potato skins

almost-potato skins

roasted squash photo shoot

This morning, a friend and I joined up for a photo shoot for my new website. (Stay tuned!) I had brought a box of assorted produce in hopes of having plenty on hand for whatever happened once the camera started shooting.

With Rachel snapping shots, I chopped red bell pepper, carrot, and asparagus and tossed them into a bowl of couscous, then drizzled all with a bit of olive oil for a colorful salad. A loaf of pumpkin-pecan bread was sliced alongside a lovely fan of thinly sliced apple. Winter squash soup sat next to a tossed green salad and a small bowl of braised Brussels sprouts.

The most fun was finding a photo from Seven Fires, a cookbook I’d flipped through while posing. The charred and stuffed squash was a stunner, and I was lucky enough to have most of the ingredients on hand. We filled the squash cavity with braised Brussels spouts (easy to make–sauté sprouts in olive oil, add a bit of salt and a smaller bit of sugar; cook, stirring, until browned), arugula, and crumbled feta cheese. (Reveal: we had to dab the filling with a bit of yogurt to get a similar effect as I hadn’t brought feta.) The squash looked good on camera and served as a tasty (and healthy!) lunch later on.

roasted squash stuffed with arugula, Brussels spouts, and “feta”

I’m hoping we get some great shots for my site, though there’s a lesson in what we were able to pull together. With a handful of ingredients, we assembled attractive, healthy, and tasty meals ON THE FLY. Neither one of us came to the session with recipes. We hadn’t mulled over how to assemble what we’d be shooting. Yet between the two of us, we created good-looking meal options.

This brings me to my Kitchen Philosophy. Putting together healthy and tasty meals is possible, even on the busiest of nights. There’s so much emphasis put on recipes–my career, in fact, is devoted to recipe developing, testing, and editing. And recipes absolutely serve a purpose even if they’re used solely for inspiration.

But anyone putting meals on the table night after night doesn’t always have the luxury of following recipes. A better plan is to have a pantry full of amazing foods (fresh produce, fantastic cheese, great spices, good breads and grains–whatever you and yours like to eat most) and a good sense of how to throw things together. This “good sense” comes only with practice. Which means you’ll have to take some chances and make some mistakes. But even the chances and mistakes can be fun And the reward–amazing meals that you pulled together solo–is well worth it.