Here’s one for you: simple meals for busy people. Sound familiar? You’ve seen the weekly rundowns online. It’s Monday, or Tuesday, and a blogger offers up THE solution to your meal prep hassles by offering up “seven easy-to-make dinners” that won’t break the budget (or your diet). We appreciate the idea of easy meals and we’ve come up with plenty of our own. J. seems to have a real knack for pulling a rabbit out of a hat come dinnertime, even without a plan. Some of the most extraordinary dishes served at our humble dinner table come as last-minute strokes of genius. They’re inspired and satisfying and usually more than we can eat in one sitting – leftovers for lunches the next day.
S. suffers from choice paralysis any time he has to cook something up for himself. Imagine walking into your kitchen. You open the cupboards and the refrigerator to see what’s there. Ancient condiments line the door rails. The crispers hold a few odds and ends from last week’s veggie run. You may see “leftovers” that have become unidentifiable and the memory of what they once were has long faded. Staples like eggs, milk and bread sit on their cold racks … but what to eat? Crackers and cheese? A fried egg sandwich? Cocktail olives? These are easy options to be sure and we’ve had breakfast for dinner many, many times. S. has been struggling to figure out how to put the beautiful produce we receive each week to good use. He has to cook solo a few nights a week and inspiration doesn’t come easily. The obvious choice? Pasta. It only takes 10 minutes to cook once the water comes to a boil and it’s always satisfying. Dressing the pasta poses the real conundrum – what’s healthy, tasty and easy to assemble?
This pasta dish works because of the brilliance of the individual ingredients. Simple doesn’t mean dull or mediocre. Great foods come from fresh ingredients. We have a new farmer’s market in our neighborhood and lately we’ve been buying fresh pasta from Il Pastaio Fresh Pasta Company. It’s as easy to pick up well-made fresh product from your local specialist as it is to buy a dry, inexpensive import at the grocery. If you poke around, you’ll be surprised by how many towns across the country offer outlets for good fresh pasta. Better yet, learn to make your own (we know, it’s still on our “To Do” list).
The rest of the ingredients are simple – summer squash, vine ripened heirloom tomatoes, shallots, a crumble of bacon, a chiffonade of basil and shaved Parmesan cheese. The squash and tomatoes come from the farm box and beg to be eaten as soon as you unpack them. Delicate summer squash, unlike their tough skinned autumn cousins, don’t last long off the vine. The same is true of the tomatoes if they’re picked when they’re ready to be eaten. Refrigeration will preserve the squash for a few days, but refrigeration is a cardinal sin in tomato storage. It has something to do with a chemical in tomatoes (Z-3-hexenal) that gives them their fragrance and flavor. The temperature in our refrigerators chemically changes the tomatoes by suppressing the flavor compounds that make vine ripened tomatoes the marvel that they are.
The shallots we use are organic and come from the produce section of Rainbow Grocery. Shallots are mild-flavored aromatics that work perfectly in a dish that could be overpowered by more pungent yellow or white onions. They’re terrific raw in vinaigrettes or added to creamy salads. We love them sautéed, as here, because of the warm sweet nutty flavors they develop as they caramelize.
Of course this dish has to have some sort of bacon-y, meaty, salty “something” going on to make our mouths water. Remember, this is just one iteration of endless combinations of fresh ingredients. We’re sure omitting the beast will yield perfectly fine suppers for our vegetarian friends. We’ve used prosciutto that has been crisped in olive oil then crumbled into the final assemblage many times before. Bacon, pancetta and prosciutto are interchangeable and any one of them would be great with the rest of these ingredients. Each brings a slight flavor twist to the dish.
We have a sweet basil plant growing in our dining nook window that has been producing broad tender leaves for weeks. We’ve been lucky to find a spot in our kitchen where a summer herb like basil may thrive. J. does a great job of pinching back the flowers to keep leaf production at its most productive. As I write, I can see the healthy tender stalks and leaves lapping up the sunlight that keeps it alive. Chopping, or better yet tearing, the leaves just before serving guarantees a fresh herbaceous zing in every bite. With a drizzle of olive oil and a few cranks on the pepper grinder, dinner is ready.
Of course, as with almost all preparations, this is only one of an endless number of possibilities. Next week, when S. is “home alone, left to fend for himself” and J. is at work, it might be pasta again and who knows what will be in the next veggie box to add to the dish. Peppers and onions, more tomatoes, larger zuchunni? Whatever it is we’re cooking-up and eating next, we’ll let you know.
S. & J.