Like my favorite pair of straight-cut, dark, snug — but not too tight — Rock & Republic jeans, the dishes I want to have around when I’m feeling insecure, sad, rushed or frazzled are simple, utilitarian and just slightly luxe. Sitting down at home to a nice, quiet dish that I know is going to be fantastic, in my well-worn, creased jeans that I know make my butt look good, is a pure, unsullied pleasure that never fails to re-stiffen my upper lip after it has been crushed into a pleated, crumpled sneer by various insidious and grim villains.
The key to success in my go-to comfort recipes is using fresh, seasonal, organic and / or quality ingredients that can sing alone and, together, create a symphony. I am infamous for my cost-cutting ways; I was mocked mercilessly for schlepping around Queens to buy 10-pound bags of lentils when Stephen was in law school and we were broke; my bulk-buying obsession is legion and if organic butter or good oatmeal goes on sale, watch your back because I will cut you if you think for one second that you’re getting your grubby paw on that last, gleaming tub.
However: I loosen the purse strings when I’m buying dairy and proteins. Organic, well-sourced dairy and meat not only tastes better, it helps my insomnia. On my list of late-night obsessions that stymie my REM — 401(k)s vs. IRAs, spiking oil prices, Wikileaks, climate change, the relative merits of poutine vs. disco fries, whether or not Lindsay Lohan and her latest antics signal the stomach-lurching apotheosis of American society’s vertiginous downward spiral, etc, I can tick “my contribution to the death of the local, small farmer in America” off the list of sleep-slashing thoughts. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
But even the best organic, artisanal food will be a flop if you don’t know how to cook it.
Through countless, painful, gruesome recipe-testing sessions, I have gathered a few dozen killer recipes that are relatively cheap to make (even while using the best stuff available), are a snap to execute and please even the staunchest, pickiest critics. (And they’re relatively healthy.)
A few quick notes on techniques:
The best way to boil an egg: Cover egg(s) in cold water. Put over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a rolling boil, cover it, and turn the burner off. After 10 minutes, run cold water over the egg(s) and shake the pot to crack the shells a bit. Dump in a tray of ice. Leave for at least 10 minutes and peel. The ice water bath sounds fussy and annoying, but it’s essential if you don’t want to spend 10 minutes picking teensy egg shell bits off a clammy, studded egg. The swift temperature change causes the egg to contract, creating a little air pocket between the cooked egg and the shell. Easy!
The best way to coat goat cheese: Make sure the log is cold. Stick it in the freezer for five minutes before you cut it — it will be so much easier that way. Working quickly, dip it in the egg wash, then the bread crumbs, and using an offset spatula, move it to the baking sheet.
Click below for my favorite Waldorf Egg Salad Sandwich, Gourmet 20-Minute Pasta (Lidia Bastianich’s recipe!) and Salad for Salad-Haters.
Waldorf Egg Salad
Makes 2-3 sandwiches
- Three hard-boiled eggs
- 2 large radishes, diced fine
- 2 TBSP dried cranberries, diced
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp prepared horseradish
- 2 TBSP mayo (not fat free or low-fat)
- 1-2 TBSP Greek yogurt (not fat free or low-fat)
- Optional: 2 TBSP walnuts, crushed
- Optional: romaine lettuce to pad sandwiches, for extra crunch
- Salt, pepper, Old Bay seasoning, chili powder, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika to taste
- 2-3 sandwich buns
- Put peeled eggs, radishes, cranberries, walnuts if using, spices in small bowl. Mash with fork. Add mustard, horseradish, mayo and yogurt and mix until desired consistency is achieved. Taste, adjust seasoning. Serve with or without lettuce on your favorite soft sandwich buns, toasted or not.
Nutritional breakdown for the Waldorf Egg Salad Sandwich: About 300 calories and 16 grams of fat. Do not, under any circumstances, skimp on mayo or attempt to use that unholy amalgamation known as low-fat mayo. This sammie is still perfectly healthful and you’ll feel pampered and cosseted for hours after eating it: it’s full of protein, vitamin B12, selenium, Vitamin A and iron.
Cost breakdown for the Waldorf Egg Salad Sandwich: Fancy bread and farmer’s market eggs ain’t cheap, but this sandwich still is — about $2.00 per serving.
Verdict for the Waldorf Egg Salad Sandwich: The cranberries replace the grapes in the classic Waldorf version and the Greek yogurt adds tang, while cutting some of the fat, but not losing the overall pleasurable umami and mouth-feel you get from a pure mayo egg salad. Stephen and I have tried cutting the mayo completely and it makes the salad taste oddly sharp yet flat with just yogurt. We found that 1-2 TBSP of yogurt, as long as we use a few TBSP of mayo, actually improves and rounds out the sandwich when compared with the all-mayo version. Sometimes cheating a bit on fat is possible, after all. The walnuts add another pleasant textural element, but the cranberries — which Stephen resisted initially — were the surprise stars of this recipe.
Salad for Salad-Haters
Makes 4 servings
Ingredients for vinaigrette:
- 1 TBSP good balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 4 TBSP best extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 TBSP oregano, chopped
Ingredients for the salad:
- 5 or so cups baby arugula
- 4 oz. goat cheese
- 1 egg
- 1 TBSP water
- 3 TBSP pistachios
- ¾ cup fresh bread crumbs
- Vegetable oil spray
Method for vinaigrette:
- Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper. Add olive oil, a few drops at first, whisking vigorously until the sauce emulsifies or binds. Once it’s emulsified successfully, you can add the oil in great glugs. Add oregano, stir and set aside.
Method for salad:
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease a baking sheet with vegetable oil spray.
- Clean and dry the arugula well. If it’s not dried properly, the dressing will not adhere to the leaves. Set aside.
- Whisk egg and water together. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Process one piece of lightly toasted bread and 3 TBSP of pistachios in a grinder; make sure the nuts are a fine crumb.
- Cut ½ oz. portions of goat cheese from the grim little soft log, dredge in egg wash, dredge in bread crumb/pistachio mix, place on greased baking sheet. Cook for about 5-7 minutes.
- Dress the salad, add two pieces of warm goat cheese (remove from baking sheet with an offset spatula) to each salad and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Salad for Salad-Haters: About 250 calories and 20 grams of fat. But good-for-you, free radical slaying, skin-plumping, hair-shining fat, not artery-clogging, stroke-causing, cholesterol-spiking fat.
Cost breakdown for Salad for Salad-Haters: Good quality greens cost green. So does sweet, tangy, pasture-y goat cheese. But we’re not talking caviar and diamond prices. It’s still just about $2.50 a serving.
Verdict for Salad for Salad-Haters: Stephen, who eschews fruits and veggies with the same degree of passion and lack of rationale generally reserved for spinach-throwing toddlers, loves this salad. OK, loves may be an exaggeration. But he eats it with gusto, which is all I can ask for. I think my misguided attempts to get him to love veggies have been waylaid by thus far by two major errors in judgment. 1) Using unusual ingredients he hasn’t ever tried. From his persepective, he probably couldn’t pronounce jicama, so why would he want to put it in his mouth? 2) Trying to do too much: adding bacon, blue cheese, butter and croutons to green things sounds like a great way to get a man to eat spinach, but really … the result is often overwrought, soggy and unpleasant. Keep it simple.
Easy Gourmet Pear, Mascarpone and Pecorino Pasta a la Lidia
Recipe adapted from Lidia Bastianich
Makes 6-8 servings
- 16 ounces Racchette pasta (or your favorite)
- 1/4 cup pecans, toasted in 1 tsp butter in skillet for about 5 minutes, with plenty of salt
- 2 TBSP good organic butter
- 2 large, firm pears, cored
- salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 4 oz. mascarpone cheese
- 3 oz. Pecorino Romano, freshly grated
- 3 TBSP fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Boil pasta in large pot of heavily salted water. Cook until al dente, or to taste. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid. (This is important — pasta cooking liquid is starchier, saltier and yummier than regular water, and it also helps bind sauces better). Drain, but don’t rinse. (The starch will cling to the pasta, helping the sauce adhere later).
- Meanwhile, slice the pears on a mandoline, or by hand. I leave the peel on because I think it’s tastier, but feel free to peel if you like. If you do peel or slice the pears ahead of time, spritz them with lemon juice to prevent browning.
- Warm and melt butter in dutch oven over medium heat for a minute or two. When foaming subsides, and the butter is starting to turn slightly golden, but not brown, add the pears and salt. Cook until pears are soft, but don’t let them brown. Taste and add more salt and pepper, to taste.
- Add drained pasta, nuts, cheeses and about 1/2 cup of the pasta water to the pears and stir, until everything is coated in the creamy sauce. Add more water as necessary to thin it out. Season with salt and pepper, add the chopped parsley and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Easy Gourmet Pasta a la Lidia: About 380 calories and 14.5 grams of fat per serving. So-so source of calcium, protein and fiber. Eating a whopping bucket of this every day would do horrible things to your gut n’ butt, but a nice bowl a few times a week will help you control your urge to open a can of whoop-ass on that tiresome bleach-blond with the bleeding hot pink lipstick who refuses to move her three giant leather totes off the seat next to her, who pretends not to hear or see you as she taps away on her iPad while talking on her cell phone and loudly slurping her Starbucks coffee, forcing you to stand on your commute from White Plains to New York City, when really, all you’d like to do is sit down and read the New Yorker for Christ’s sake.