Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Spaghetti with Chickpeas and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Currently, there are two major issues that are affecting my cooking. The first is time, or more specifically, the lack there of, and the second issue is the rising cost of food. Let me tackle these one at a time.

My wife and I had our first child (a lovely daughter) in Fall 2006. By Spring 2007 we had adjusted nicely to having a little person in our midst. I was planning meals and shopping and prepping on the weekend and with little to no real change on my part (other than moving dinnertime up an hour to 5:00). I estimated that I had about 1 hour less to cook and blog on a daily basis, so naturally, I felt that when we had a second child, I could expect a similar reduction in time. Naively, I expected the relationship between children and time to cook to be a linear one.

My wife and I had our second child (a handsome son) two weeks ago, and I've already reassessed my graph (I'm a science teacher, so naturally I love graphs). Unfortunately for my cooking and blogging, the relationship seems to be more of the exponential variety.

So instead of 2 less hours per day to cook and blog, It now seems it will be more like 4 hours less. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I need 4 hours to cook dinner on a daily basis, but I enjoy a leisurely pace when I cook. What does this all mean? Well, since I won't have quite as much time to spend preparing meals, I need to get faster, or find some quicker recipes for those especially tricky nights, or a little bit of both.

That brings me to food prices, which are increasing all over the world. Some basic population ecology applies here. In regards to populations, food is what we call a density dependent resource. Since food production is relatively constant at this point in human history and most arable land is in use, competition for food increases as population increases. In other words, the more members of the population, the harder it is to feed everybody. Well, take a look at what has happened to the world human population over the last 58 years (and projected over the next 42). More people means more food, and with most of our productive land maxed out, and things like the unpredictability of climate affecting farm yields, our world food supply is perilously thin.

Food prices would naturally increase as the population growth out paces production anyway, but it looks even worse due to the relatively recent phenomenon of cheap food. The Green Revolution allowed humans to produce more food than ever before, which drove down prices, enabling rapid population growth. Unfortunately, many of the advances of the Green Revolution (such as heavy use of pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers) are unsustainable. What does it all mean? Basically, the methods by which we cheaply produce mass quantities of food are totally unsustainable and as we revert/convert to other methods of production, there will be inevitable price increases. Yet the world has gotten used to cheap food over the last 60 years, and now access to cheap food is viewed as a natural born right by most, especially Americans (along with cheap energy, cheap water, cheap products, etc.). Well, it appears that the long era of cheap food is over. A major shift in thought along with a deep examination of needs versus wants seems to be in the cards for the human species.

So I have been trying to stock my pantry and come up with some new, quicker meals that might save me a little money as well. An excellent choice to address both of these issues is beans. Beans are a relatively cheap source of protein (especially if you buy them dried, and the soaking is all hands off time) that can be combined with whole grains to provide extremely healthy, fast meals that feature complete proteins. We really like chick peas at my house, so this recipe for linguine with chickpeas and parmesan, with just 5 ingredients and 5 minutes of prep time is a real winner.

Put a pot of water on to boil. When the water is boiling, add some salt and heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Toss the spaghetti in the boiling water and cook until al dente. When the oil is shimmering, add the chickpeas and the crushed red pepper, and toss frequently.

Before you drain the spaghetti, reserve 1/3 cup of the pasta water and add it to the chickpeas. Simmer until the water is just about all evaporated then add the drained pasta and toss to combine everything.

Stir in the Parmigiano and remove the pan from the heat. I like to use Parmigiano-Reggiano (the undisputed king of cheese according to Mario Batali), but it is pretty expensive, so a domestic parmesan cheese is an acceptable alternative in the spirit of thrift (and reducing food miles). Add some black pepper, a little salt, and a little more olive oil. Toss everything together and serve.

Increase the amount of crushed red pepper for a little more kick, or maybe add a minced garlic clove or two with the chick peas for a slightly different take. This dish comes together extremely quickly, and is composed entirely of pantry items, so stock up when the sales are good, and cut back on the weekly grocery bill.

Spaghetti with Chick Peas and Parmigiano-Reggiano (adapted from
5 minutes prep - 30 minutes total - Makes 2 large portions
  • 1/2 pound whole wheat spaghetti
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil plus more for drizzling
  • 1 15 ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • extra cheese for grating at the table (Parm, Romano, Grana Padano, etc)
  1. Fill a large pot with water, bring to a boil, add 2 teaspoons of salt
  2. Heat the oil in a large skilled over medium-high heat
  3. Add the spaghetti to the water and cook until al dente
  4. Add the chickpeas to the skillet with the red pepper and saute tossing frequently for 4 to 6 minutes
  5. Before draining the spaghetti, reserve 1/3 cup of the pasta water, add it to the skillet and simmer until it is just about evaporated
  6. Drain the spaghetti
  7. Add the spaghetti to the skillet, toss to combine everything
  8. Mix in the grated cheese and remove the pan from the heat
  9. Add about 1/4 teaspoon salt and ground black pepper plus a little more olive oil (no more than a tablespoon) to coat the spaghetti, toss to combine everything and serve with extra cheese to grate over the top

This dish is my second submission to Presto Pasta Nights, a site originally dreamed up by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast, who is again playing host this week. Be sure to check the site on Friday, July 4th for this week's roundup!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pan-Glazed Chicken with Basil

Looking for quick, easy, and healthy? Look no further than the Weight Watchers 5 Ingredient 15 Minute Cookbook. Weight Watcher's emphasis on portion control means you can cook the recipe for the desired number of persons (and this recipe is easy to scale up or down depending on your need), and as long as your eating the recommended serving, there's no way you can overdo it. Even if you eat two servings, you're still in pretty good shape. I've tried a few recipes out of this book, and they are all easy (although 15 minutes is a stretch if you're a slow, take-your-time to make sure everything is perfect cook - like me) but this one is my favorite so far. It's amazing how the right combination of ingredients can provide amazing flavor, and this recipe marries balsamic vinegar, honey and basil with outstanding results. The only other things you need are some boneless, skinless, chicken parts, some salt and pepper, and a little olive oil.

Start with four boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 6 ounces each (this is pretty small, so you might have to slice 2 large breast pieces in half). I'm sure boneless thighs would be excellent as well, if you don't mind the dark meat, a few extra calories, and a lot more flavor.

I've have to digress a bit here and relate a quick story. Last week when I was shopping for this recipe, I was contemplating my chicken purchase in the store. There was a package of organic boneless, skinless breasts which was a little over 1 1/2 pounds for about $8 and then right next to it there was a 5 lb organic roaster for roughly the same price. Now, the week before when I made barbecued chicken, I bought the parts already cut up to save time since I was making a whole bunch of other stuff (and I felt sufficiently guilty for doing so), but this time I bought the whole bird (much more economical and much less wasteful). I used the breasts to make the pan-glazed chicken, froze the legs and thighs for later use, made 2 quarts of stock from the carcass, and was able to pick enough meat off the boiled carcass to make 3 days worth of chicken salad for my daughter. You hear a lot these days about food prices, and everybody should be concerned about the underlying causes of these problems, but it is possible to get a lot more for your money (and to help the environment too) if you're willing to do a little extra work, and cutting up a whole chicken really isn't THAT hard. Just do it like this:

Okay, digression over (I could go on for another hundred pages about what we're doing to the environment for the sake of "convenience," but I won't - I will show you this though). So where was I? Oh yes, the chicken. In addition to your chicken, you'll need to chop some fresh basil, and mix together the balsamic vinegar and honey in a small bowl.

Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the chicken on one side with a little salt and pepper. When the oil is good and hot, it should be shimmering, but not smoking, add the chicken pieces placing the side you salted down in the pan. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the other side of the chicken.

Cook the chicken without moving it for a few minutes, until it begins to become nice and golden brown. Turn the chicken over and cook for a few more minutes. Add the vinegar/honey mixture and the basil, stir it around, and cook for 1 minute, turning the chicken once to coat it in the glaze.

Serve the chicken with some of the glaze drizzled over the top. This chicken goes great over rice, as the glaze mingles nicely with the rice and imparts it's deliciously sweet yet tangy flavor. Bu I'd bet you can serve this chicken with any starch/vegetable combo you can imagine, and you don't really have to worry about flavoring the sides beyond a little seasoning, because the pan glaze from the chicken will do the work for you. This time I served it with some oven-roasted potatoes and some plain steamed broccoli, and it was quite a hit. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go cut up another chicken, because I'm making these for dinner.

Pan-Glazed Chicken with Basil (adapted from Weight Watchers 5 Ingredient 15 Minute Cookbook)
20 to 30 minutes - makes 4 servings for a light dinner or 2 servings if you're really hungry
  • About 1 1/2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into 4 pieces about 6 ounces each
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of olive oil
  1. Pat your chicken pieces dry (slice them in half if they are really thick) and place them on a plate
  2. Combine the honey and vinegar in a small bowl, stir well to dissolve the honey
  3. Heat the oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat
  4. Sprinkle the top side of the chicken with salt and pepper
  5. When the oil is hot, place the chicken in the pan salted-side down, sprinkle the other side with salt and pepper
  6. Cook without moving for 5 minutes, or until the chicken is nice and golden brown*
  7. Turn the chicken and cook for 5 additional minutes*
  8. Add the honey/vinegar mixture to the pan along with the basil, stir to combine all ingredients
  9. Cook for 1 minute, turning the chicken to coat it in the glaze
  10. Serve the chicken immediately drizzled with extra glaze
*The cooking time in this recipe is an estimate based on boneless breast pieces about 1/2 to 3/4 inches in thickness and may need to be adjusted for slightly thinner or thicker cuts

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Bretzel Rolls (or Bavarian Pretzel Sandwich Rolls)

Since Memorial Day has become the de facto start of the "summer grilling season," I decided to go with the flow and make barbecued chicken. Almost immediately my mouth began watering as I thought about delicious sandwiches of tangy, warm chicken topped by cool, creamy cole slaw on a nice soft roll. I really love Stop & Shop's Nature's Promise brand whole wheat sandwich rolls for something like this. They're nice and soft, not loaded with all the crap you find in many brands of soft rolls (like high fructose corn syrup, miscellaneous binders, and artificial colors), and are slightly larger than normal burger buns so you can make a nice size sandwich. Unfortunately, many people must not share my love, because the Stop & Shop I regularly shop at usually has only 3 to 4 bags of them at any given time. Sunday morning when I went shopping, they were nowhere to be found in the entire store. Not wanting to settle, I left roll-less with the idea that I'd come back Monday morning and see if some had miraculously appeared overnight.

I guess I should have known that there was no way I'd feel like going back to the store on Monday just to get rolls (when technically, sandwiches were not absolutely essential to the meal, we'd still have the chicken and all the sides), but I really wanted a barbecue sandwich. I believe it was Plato who first described necessity as "the mother of invention" about 2400 years ago, and he was right on the money. Since I was basically too lazy to drive to the store (which is literally 2 miles from my house and takes about 5 minutes to get to), I decided I would bake some rolls. After a few minutes searching on the internet, I settled on an adapted version of this recipe for bretzel rolls, which are basically soft pretzel-like sandwich rolls. I'm not sure what it is that makes somebody too lazy to drive 5 minutes, but willing to enter into a 2 hour roll making process instead, but I'm glad I have that trait because it led to some great rolls (and some great sandwiches too).

Let me start off by saying that even if you don't bake bread, this recipe is worth a shot. It's not very difficult, doesn't take tons of time, the dough is easy to work with, and you'll be amazed at how deliciously soft and pretzel-ly these rolls come out. You'll be hard pressed not to just keep eating them one after another, trust me. I made my rolls using my Kitchen Aid, but it is by no means necessary, as the mixing and kneading for this recipe is minimal.

Start off by mixing the flour with the yeast (make sure you are using instant yeast, which you can find in the store labeled fast rising, rapid rise, or bread machine yeast, if you use active dry yeast instead you'll have to use a little more than the recipe calls for and proof it first). Combine the melted butter, warmed milk, warm water, and sugar in a bowl and mix until the sugar is dissolved. The recipe calls for 4 cups of all purpose flour, but I substituted 2 cups of bread flour and 1 cup of white whole wheat. I'm sure you could experiment with different types and ratios of flours, but I wouldn't recommend going more than 50 percent whole wheat at first.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until you have a nice, shaggy dough ball.

Using the dough hook, knead for 2 minutes, or alternately, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for 2 minutes. The dough should be smooth, soft, and pliable but not sticky. If it is very sticky, you should knead in some more flour to achieve the proper consistency. Round the dough into a ball.

Using a bench scraper, or a sharp chef knife, cut the dough ball into 2 even pieces. When cutting dough, you want to use downward pressure to cut through the dough, not a back and forth sawing motion. Round the pieces and cut them again. Repeat this process until you have 8 even size dough balls. Cover the balls with a damp towel and allow them to rest for 10 minutes.

Pat the balls into slightly flat rolls about 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Place the rolls on a lightly floured counter, cover them with plastic wrap that has been sprayed lightly with oil, and let them rest for 30 minutes. They will rise a little bit during this time.

While the rolls are resting, preheat the oven, get the baking pans ready, and bring the water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the baking soda. My advice is to use a deep pan and add the baking soda a little at a time (I used a shallow pan and added it all at once, resulting in an eruption of water all over my stove top and down into my oven, not fun). Boil the rolls two at a time for 30 seconds, turning once. Drain the rolls and place them on the prepared baking sheet (the original recipe said to place them on a lightly oiled baking sheet, but when I make this recipe again, I will use parchment paper sprayed with a bit of oil, as I think this will prevent the bottoms from getting overly browned - I almost burned mine but caught them just in time). Sprinkle the rolls with a bit of kosher salt.

Bake the rolls for 8 to 10 minutes, until they are nicely browned all over. Remove the rolls to a rack and allow them to cool. These rolls are absolutely delicious. They are chewy and slightly sweet, perfect for a sandwich or eating by themselves. I didn't have any leftover, but I've read that you should store them uncovered, for no more than 2 days. If you place them in a covered container, they apparently get soggy (I doubt you'll have leftovers).

You could easily scale this recipe up or down to make more or less, cut the rolls into smaller pieces and use them as dinner rolls, roll the dough into long strips and shape them into pretzels, or anything else you can think of. I bet they would be a huge hit at a children's party. I can't wait to try these out for burgers.

Bretzel Rolls (adapted from
2 hours start to finish - Makes 8 sandwich size rolls
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast (or 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast which will need proofing)
  • 1 1/3 cups warm water
  • 2 tablespoons warm milk
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 quarts of water
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • kosher salt
  • spray oil (I really like this stuff, the high heat canola is great)
  1. Mix the flour and yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer (or a large bowl)
  2. Melt the butter and warm the milk
  3. Combine the butter, milk, water, and brown sugar in a separate bowl and stir until the sugar is dissolved
  4. Add the butter mixture to the flour and stir until all the flour is hydrated and you have a firm, pliable dough ball
  5. Using the dough hook, knead the dough for 2 minutes, or if you're kneading by hand, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 2 minutes
  6. Round the dough into a ball and cut it in half with a bench scraper or chef knife
  7. Continue rounding and cutting 2 more times until you have 8 even dough balls
  8. Arrange the balls on a lightly floured surface, cover with a damp cloth, and allow them to rest for 10 minutes
  9. Pat the dough balls into rolls by slightly flattening them (you should have a semi-flat disc about3 to 4 inches in diameter)
  10. Arrange the rolls on a lightly floured surface about 1 inch apart, cover them with lightly oiled plastic wrap, and allow them to rest for 30 minutes
  11. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, line one large 3/4 sheet pan, or two 1/2 sheets with parchment paper, spray the paper lightly with oil
  12. In a large stockpot, bring the water to a rolling boil and add the baking soda (make sure the pot is deep enough that it doesn't boil over when you add the baking soda, you may also want to add the baking soda slowly to lessen the chance of boil over)
  13. Drop 2 rolls into the boiling water and boil for 30 seconds, turning once
  14. Remove the rolls from the water with a slotted spoon, drain them, place them on the prepared sheet pans, and sprinkle lightly with salt
  15. Once all the rolls have been boiled, bake on the upper and middle rack of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the rolls are nicely browned all over, shifting the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through cooking
  16. Remove the rolls and transfer them to a wire rack
  17. Serve warm or at room temperature