By Marla Martin
You know those wonderful, luxurious days when you wake up thinking “All I want to do is spend the whole day in the kitchen, making something deliciously complex, with lots of depth and layers of flavor…something low and slow and old school, that fills the house with sexy, enticing aromas and uses plenty of different cooking techniques and every pot/pan/bowl and beater in the kitchen”? Yeah, those are really good days. I love those days. They are to be treasured, for the soul-soothing meditations and meals that they produce, and also for their extreme rarity. During quarantine, I had many such lovely, languid, days. And I’m suddenly back at work now (sadly? gladly? who actually knows?!) with limited time for kitchen adventures, but no fewer cravings for satisfying eats.
So, I’m trying to remember all those wonderfully simple little methods, tricks, recipes and hacks that shear off a step here, an ingredient there, can be magically assembled from mostly pantry/freezer items and still provide that intense satisfaction that only actual hands-on cooking can produce; yay for Trader Joe’s EVERYTHING and yay for great take-out, but I still need to get my hands into the prepping and cooking for the whole experience to resonate for me. Eating yummy stuff is glorious, but I still want in on the process as well. I just don’t have all day for it anymore.
Last century when my kids were little, we had lots of adventures, both in and out of the kitchen. Some days, dinner was the last thing on our minds after the beach or the pumpkin patch or the pick-your-own-apple orchard, and I wanted to throw something hot and delicious together in no time flat. Those were the One-Bowl Pasta nights. Where you toss the ingredients for the sauce into the biggest, prettiest bowl you can find, cook the pasta, and pour the hot pasta over the sauce ingredients in the bowl and the heat of the pasta does all the cooking for you. IT’S MAGIC! Here’s my fave: Caprese Brie Pasta.
Boil the salted water and cook the pasta. You pick the pasta. While it’s cooking, cut up a wedge of Brie into small chunks (about 1/2 inch is good) and yes, with the rind! Throw that into the big, pretty bowl, and follow it with some chopped tomatoes (about 4 Romas works), 2-3 cloves of chopped fresh garlic and a giant handful of chopped fresh basil. Salt and fresh cracked pepper. Now the good olive oil; about 1/4 cup. Give it a stir. Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl. One good stir. Cover it up and let it sit about 15 minutes, while you set the table and heat up some bread and make a cocktail. The heat from the pasta is melting the brie, barely cooking the garlic and sort of blanching the tomatoes……oh boy, and it smells fresh and grassy from the basil, and it’s getting all creamy and juicy. NOW! Give it a gentle toss to mix all those intense flavors up. You want some great Parm on top? OK!!!! The dish is best warm (not hot) while the brie is all oozy and the basil is still vibrant green. The flavors are assertive, yes, you can really taste the garlic, but my kids LOVED this combination, and I think you will, too. Super easy, Mac-And-Cheezy.
This One-Bowl method also works for another quickie family fave, Fresh Lemon Pasta.
Into the bowl goes the juice and rind of 2 lemons, 2 T butter, 2 T cream, 1-2 cloves chopped fresh garlic, s & p, and some chopped fresh parsley or basil. I like this one with linguine, but you decide. Parm? Up to you! Here’s a cool lemon hack - I have a Meyer lemon tree that makes a zillion fine, fat lemons, way more than we can use when they are ripe. I squeeze the juice and freeze it in ice cube trays, then bag them up in a zippy bag and pack them away in the freezer for fresh lemon juice goodness anytime, summer or winter.
Got lemons? Here’s my go-to dessert tray bake (I love how they say “Tray Bake” on the Great British Baking Show! It’s so…British!!) Tart and Lucious Lemon Bars. This recipe is my fave because I almost always have all the ingredients on hand (God Bless the pantry/freezer) so I don’t have to run to the store (and find a mask and decontaminate everything and myself and my car and and AND) to bake up some pretty special sweet treats. Also, you make the crust in the food processor, then the filling in the food processor, and you don’t have to wash the thing out in between, so, WINNING! Yes, it’s a whole cup of butter (2 sticks) so buy butter when it’s on sale and FREEZE it (yes, you can freeze butter!) so that it’s always there for baking emergencies.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine 1 cup butter, 2 cups flour, 1/4 t salt, 1/2 t baking powder and 1/2 cup sugar. Process until blended, about 15 seconds. Pat dough in an even layer into the bottom of a lightly greased 13 X 9 inch pan. Bake crust about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.
In the same bowl of the food processor (don’t even bother to wash the thing out first, YAY) combine 5 eggs, 2 T flour, 2 cups sugar, rind and juice of 3 lemons. Pour lemon mixture over hot crust. Bake another 20-25 minutes or until just firm. Cool pan on a rack, dust with powdered sugar, cut into squares, makes about 24, depending on how you cut them. #LemonyShortCrustJOY
And speaking of tray bakes, I am a big Blondies fan, because they are all about the brown sugar, Baby. And now presenting my One-Bowl, Skip-A-Step Blondies recipe that mixes up in a flash and bakes 9 perfect, caramel and butterscotch squares of heaven with a minimum of fuss and dirty dishes. You melt the butter (!) instead of bringing it to room temp and creaming it (that’s the skipped step, actually TWO skipped steps) which sounds like nothing, but makes a huge difference when your patience is stretched as thin as filo dough and no amount of Pinot Noir can remove that stubborn crease between your furrowed brows. Also, you are going to WHISK it all together, so no washing the beaters from the mixer, huzzah!
1 cup butter, melted
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1/2 t baking powder
1/8 t baking soda
pinch of salt
1 cup flour
1/3 cup butterscotch chips
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the over to 350, lightly grease the 8 x 8 baking pan. Whisk together the melted butter and brown sugar. Whisk in the egg and vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and get it all combined. Add the butterscotch chips and walnuts. Bake 18-25 minutes, cool, cut, enjoy. VOILA! One bowl, one whisk, one pan. These are rich, sweet, crunchy and very brown sugary. And while we have the baking supplies out on the counter……….
Sometimes, you just want cake. You don’t want to BAKE a whole cake, you just want to eat cake, because, you know, you deserve your own, personal, warm, gooey chocolate cake, all to yourself, no sharing. And, with a cry of great joy and surprise, you suddenly remember that you almost always have everything you need for a Magic Microwave Mug Cake in your kitchen, so why are you still sitting there scrolling? In your nice, big mug, mix together 3 T flour, 2 T brown sugar, 2 t cocoa powder, 1/4 t baking powder, a tiny pinch of salt, 3 T milk, 1 T oil, 1 drop vanilla. If you want, add a few chocolate chips, or some chopped nuts, or stick a little ball of Nutella down into the center, or if you have a stray Baci, you could add that (oy vey, how I love those). Nuke it for 45-60 seconds, then let it stand for 5 minutes. Yes, don’t touch it for 5. Whole. Minutes. Got ice cream or whipped cream or a little creme fraiche?? Ok, that goes on top. Now, spoon it up, Buttercup. It’s a little 6 minute miracle. You’re welcome.
You know what’s really wonderful on plain old chicken or pork roast or meatballs or garlic sausage? Fresh Cranberry Sauce! It’s not just for turkey anymore. It’s cool and sweet, but not too sweet, and a little acidic, and the COLOR! That fabulous Ruby Woo Red, like sparkling garnet earrings or the perfect lipstick. Really jazzes up a plate and it’s particularly divine in that it takes only 3 ingredients and 10 minutes to make. One bag of fresh cranberries (buy 5 during the holidays and freeze them for Cranberry Sauce JOY all year long), 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water, bring to a boil and gently simmer as the cranberries *POP* festively and the sauce begins to thicken. Pour it into one of those Pintrest-worthy mason jars and keep it in the fridge. For extra pizazz, add the zest of an orange or tangerine and a teaspoon of Grand Marnier after you take it off the heat. I secretly like the canned cranberry sauce, too, but that is an unfortunate remnant of a Nixon-era childhood, spent in the yawning gloom of the American midwest.
Don’t you love breakfast? I love breakfast. I love big, hearty breakfasts that involve salty pork products, potato anything, big, buttery, grainy toasts and runny egg yolk all over everything. And let’s do that on the weekend, please, just NOT NOW, when I am trying to get to work in Hollywood before the sun rises with at least a minimal semblance of make up on my tired, tired face. So, who’s up for some lightning fast 2 Ingredient Banana Pancakes? I knew you’d say yes. Now, grab that ripe banana and smoosh it all up in a bowl (did you just catch me smooshing with my impeccably clean hands? Yeah, you did) and add 2 eggs, whisk it up. Now, grease up the pan, drop them in, cook and flip. Keep them on the smaller side, that works best. That’s it. Banana and eggs. And it works. I don’t really understand the chemistry here, but somehow the banana provides some kind of sweet, starchy structure and also some moisture, and the egg does the magic egg thing of binding and puffing and generally being an all around kitchen wizard. I enjoy real, legit maple syrup on these things (and many other things), but agave or honey would make no enemies here. Also, fruit, if you are making these because they contain no flour or sugar and you are virtuous and disciplined. I doff my hat to you, may you remain carb free and always slip effortlessly into your skinniest jeans.
Also, Steel Cut Oatmeal. In the Instant Pot. It’s the bee’s knees, I’m telling you. Creamy and chewy, the texture is insanely satisfying, it’s a blank canvas for any/all the fixins (cinnamon, brown sugar, peanut butter, fruit, nuts, seeds, partridge, pear tree) and it cooks in 5 minutes. Yup, the Instant Pot pressure cooks these hard, gnarly little grains into Goldilocks Approved porridge in less time than it takes to apply the aforementioned semblance of make up. Into the iPot, measure out 1 cup of steel cut oats. Not the instant oatmeal, not the quick cook oatmeal, not rolled oats, even. Get the steel cut, you’ll be amazed at how good this stuff is. I could never get behind oatmeal before this trick, the appeal completely eluded me. It took FOREVER to cook, and you had to babysit it, and then it just looked and tasted like wallpaper paste. I’m a complete convert. Add 2.5 cups of liquid (water, milk, almond milk, soy milk, rice milk… get the picture), add a little salt, close the lid, close the vent and set it to cook for 5 minutes. Do a quick pressure release and stir the liquid into the creamy, dreamy oatmeal. Oh, and BTW, it keeps really well in the fridge, so you can make a batch, refrigerate it, then scoop out a serving anytime, nuke it with a little added liquid, dress her up and take her for an instant breakfast spin. Warm, filling, comforting, healthy, fiber-rich and easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
Since you have already schlepped the Instant Pot onto the counter, let’s make some Hard Boiled Eggs. I know, it doesn’t sound sexy or magic or transformative, but OMG have I got a hack for you! In my opinion, the two biggest problems with hard boiling eggs are 1) the yolk. It just needs to be perfect: golden yellow, just a little bit custardy, with a smooth, seductive texture and NO WEIRD GREEN LINE around the outside. And 2) the shell. Peeling the eggs (especially when you are peeling a ton of them, like for Deviled Eggs for an Easter party of 30) is a thankless chore, and no matter how careful you are, gently tap-tap-tapping them in all the right places and running them under the cool water and getting your thumb under the thin little membrane between the shell and the white part, you always have a certain percentage of hopelessly mangled specimens that you just can’t present because they look sad and damaged. And sad. Well, the Instant Pot reliably and consistently makes PERFECT hard boiled eggs, with that creamy, goldenrod yellow yolk, and the shells basically WIPE right off! Put the little metal trivet or a steamer basket into the iPot. Add 6 eggs (older eggs hard boil better, who knows why) and a cup of water. Close the lid, close the vent, and pressure cook those little beauties for 7 minutes. Do a quick release, run them under cool water. You can cook more eggs with more minutes (like 9 eggs for 9 minutes) or fewer. Up to you. Chill them down. When you are ready for your perfect, portable little protein-bomb snack, gently tap one on the counter all the way around the equator, and on the top and bottom. The shell will pretty much SLIDE right off, revealing a pristine, flawless, perfectly hard cooked egg, no gouges, no battle scars, no crying. Sprinkle with good salt and enjoy one of life’s simplest pleasures.
Recently, I discovered that you can make 12 really bitchin’ sliders in an amazingly efficient way that allows you to do 90% of the prep in advance, then finish them up in the oven right before service, so you can hang out with your fam instead of manning the griddle full of teeny, tiny, uncooperative patties and 24 slippery little bun halves. I call them Slab Sliders (!) because you create a single, solid rectangle of meat, dress it up, slit the rolls and make one giant burger construction, then cut them into individual sliders with your wickedly sharp serrated knife. Preheat the oven to 350. In the big bowl, mix together 1.5 - 2 lbs. of ground beef (I do 1/2 80-20, and 1/2 ground Wagyu, because DELICIOUS!) with 1 T soy sauce, 1 t garlic powder, 1 t onion powder, 1 t salt, 1/2 t pepper. Use your impeccably clean hands, or glove up, but you need your hands for this for sure. Now, press the meat into a lightly greased 13 X 9 baking dish. Bake until the meat rectangle is medium rare, about 15-20 minutes. Don’t cook it all the way through, you are going to bake it again later. If you are doing this in advance, let the meat cool, then dress it up however you like (I like caramelized onions, bacon and sharp cheddar, but that’s just me). When you are ready to eat, slit a package of Hawaiian rolls right through the center. Spread the bottom half with mustard and place into a lightly buttered baking dish just slightly bigger than the rolls. Using 2 spatulas, place your beautifully dressed meat monolith onto the bottom buns. Place the top buns atop the meat and press down lightly. Brush the buns with 2 T butter melted with 1/2 t garlic powder, and sprinkle that whole thing with sesame seeds. Oh, yaaassssss. Now bake for 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is all melty and the tops are golden, fragrant and delicious. Spear each slider with a decorative toothpick and slice into 12 individual portions (use the good knife) and serve immediately. Everyone loves sliders, it’s the law. They are small and square and all sesame goodness on top, and easy to produce with a bare minimum of last minute fuss.
And when that lazy, lovely Sunday does come around, and you can feel your kitchen beckoning you before you even roll out of bed, consider one of those beloved long, low, slow cooks to fill your day; Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, with the lardons and the tiny white onions….or Suzanne Goin’s Short Ribs with Potato Puree, Swiss Chard and Horseradish Cream (actually, this one takes two days)…..or bake a glorious, golden Challah, roast a chicken, or make home-made Ravioli…or whatever your palate and soul are clamoring for. Enjoy the quiet sacrament of time well spent creating food to savor and remember. Just don’t forget to freeze some for those other kinds of days, when all you want is a quick, simple route to deep satisfaction, and something deliciously satisfying on the plate. Right now.
Marla Martin is a professional Bellydance performer and instructor in Southern California. When she is not shimmying, she will drop everything for a field trip to a local Farmer’s Market, a new neighborhood joint for great food and drink, or a day in the kitchen, crafting nifty new spins on old classics.