Tip #18: Make it a boat


Eggplant. Winter squash. Summer squash. Zucchini. Russet potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Tomatoes.

Fill’em, bake’em, and serve’em.

I am not always interested in a meal that has a bunch of separate components sitting next to each other on the plate. Sometimes, I want my food in one tidy package. (Not the plastic kind, of course.)  When I do not want soup or a casserole, which also fit this craving, I like to stuff and bake (although not necessarily) vegetables. One of the great things about “boats” for dinner is that they are a great way to clean out the refrigerator and use up those odds and ends of nuts, seeds, and grains in the cabinet. In my experience, kids like the whimsy of stuffed vegetables, too.

I grow Carnival Squash–which is shaped like Acorn Squash and prepared the same way, but has a prettier skin and slightly sweeter taste–mainly so that I can fill it. Most often, my go-to filling is a chopped, cooked green, quinoa, scallions, dried fruit, pistachios, and feta. A little crunch and a little chew, a little sweet and a little savory; we love it.

This week, I had sweet potatoes to use. They last forever…until they don’t. We were at that point. There was also a cup of chopped cauliflower, two cups of blanched Swiss chard, the heel of a local nutty-tasting cheese, a cup of a cooked wild rice blend, and some leftover ham in the refrigerator. I not-quite-caramelized an onion, added a clove of garlic and the greens, and cooked them until they were tender. After baking the sweet potatoes, I halved them and hollowed them out (leave about a 1/4″ border of the flesh, so they don’t collapse) and mixed the flesh with the greens and ham. I sprinkled a little cheese in the bottom of each sweet potato half, over-filled them with the mixture, and topped them with the remaining cheese. Back into the oven they went, and dinner was done. The fridge was a little less crowded, too. I call that a win-win.

This method works with any vegetable (or fruit) that has a skin that will hold up after hollowing out. Some of them (most of them) will need to be baked and then hollowed, but tomatoes, zucchini, and summer squash (even cucumbers, filled with a cold salad) can be hollowed out without baking first. A metal spoon is your friend here.

I would not necessarily say that serving dinner in one contained package is less work than the separate components on a plate, (unless you’re combining leftovers) but it is a fun way to mix up what you put on the table each evening.

Tip #17: (Do not) just add salt (or Herbs and spices are your friends)

Potato Sarladaise, with a shower of chopped parsley and finely sliced raw garlic.

“Fat is flavor.”

“Salt brings out the flavors in food.”

If you watch(ed) Food Network when there were how-to-cook shows on, you heard those two statements often. They are true, but they are also only part of the story.

Fortunately, fat is not the demon we spent the 80s and 90s thinking it was; yes, we have to watch our saturated fat intake, but we need fat to function properly and the “eat this, not that” world is finally admitting that fat may not have been quite the problem they thought it was. (We are blaming sugar now, in case you missed it. There are grounds for this, but I get a little tired of the game of pin-the-single-tail-on-the-fat-donkey game we play in this country.)

There is a lot out there about fats: avocado oil, nut oils, and olive oil are all high on the happy list. Depending on which study you read, canola, grapeseed, sunflower, and vegetable oils are great or awful. Ditto for animal fats.

Sauteéd kale, red onion, and sweet potato with a fried egg, a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper, and parsley.

One consistent fact about fat is that it is high in calories. The nutritional breakdown of those calories, particularly in saturated versus mono-or-poly-unsaturated fats, varies depending on the source, but interestingly, they all clock in between 115 and 125 calories per tablespoon. Suprisingly, butter is the calorie winner at around 102 calories per tablespoon.

Along with fat and sugar, we are advised to keep an eye on our salt intake. As with fat, we need sodium to function but we do not need the amount we tend to consume in America.

So if we have to watch fat and salt, and they are both contributing partners to the flavors in our foods, what do we do?

Load up on the fresh and dried herbs and spices. Acidity helps, too.

I tend to season as I cook, instead of waiting until the end. I also tend to use far less salt than a recipe calls for; if the food needs more, I’ll get plenty of impact from adding a little on top of the finished dish. What I do use pretty liberally are citrus juices and fresh herbs. A shower of lemon juice, parsley, basil, cilantro, chervil, tarragon, or chives/scallions (not herbs, but often used that way) at the end of cooking can spark the flavor of a recipe in ways that salt absolutely cannot.  Too much salt is just salty.

Next time you taste a finished dish and think, “This needs something…,” don’t reach for the salt. Grab complimentary herbs or an acid like citrus juice or vinegars and watch your dish sing.

There’s a pork chop there, but the most interesting thing on the plate is the Fruited Wild Rice with Carnival Squash, Kale, and, you guessed it, parsley. Scallions are used as an herb in this dish.

Fruited Wild Rice with Carnival Squash and Kale (serves 4-6)

1 carnival squash, cut in half, seeds and stringy pulp scooped out
1 cup wild rice
2 cups chopped kale
2 cups water
1/2-3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup chopped dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped dried cherries
2 tbsp crumbled fresh goat cheese
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 scallions, sliced
black pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 375. Line a small baking tray with parchment and place the squash cut-side down on the tray. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Let cool and then peel the skin away from the flesh and chop the flesh into 1/2″ pieces. Set aside.
  2. Bring wild rice, kale, 1/2 tsp salt, and water to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the cranberries and cherries to the wild rice mixture, stir, and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes more, or until the wild rice still has some bite but is tender. (I usually err on the side of underdone, because I like chewy wild rice.)
  4. When wild rice is cooked, drain off any remaining water, if necessary, and add to a large bowl. Stir in the squash, goat cheese, 1 1/2 tablespoons each of the scallions and parsley, and black pepper. Taste, and add up to 1/4 tsp more salt if desired. Top with the remaining scallions and parsley and serve.

Tip #16: Figure out your triggers


Like what seems like the majority of Americans, I have struggled with my perception of my weight for what feels like all of my life. Regardless of how I look at any given time, in my head I am that roundly shaped sixth grader with pimply skin and hair parted down the middle. She was a nice kid, but she got a lot of grief about her appearance, mostly dealing with her weight. These days I don’t think too much about my appearance–one of the benefits of being in my mid-40s is that I am far more interested in what I am accomplishing with my brain and my hands than to be too concerned with how I look.

But I am also now of an age when my weight can cause problems in my health in other ways than whether or not I injure myself trying to wedge into a pair of jeans that I should just get rid of already. If I have learned anything, it is that I want to be as healthy as possible as I grow older, because I have no intention of stopping the activities I enjoy, which are largely physical: hiking, gardening, growing most of my produce, walking two errant Siberian huskies, touring new places, etc.

I do not diet. Period. I do not follow food fads, either. I have been reading Cooking Light and Eating Well long enough to know that there is one ratio that matters: the number of calories I burn needs to be more than the number of calories I consume. For the healthiest me, those consumed calories should be from the kinds of foods that will support my overall health, and when I listen to my body, it tells me that Michael Pollan was right: for me, following the mantra, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much,” makes me feel my best.

If only my brain always cared only about feeling my healthy best.

Sometimes, it cares more about that pint of peanut butter and chocolate gelato in the freezer, or about the boneless, fried, garlic wings at a local restaurant. Or nachos. It always cares about nachos.

There are a lot of “experts” out there who will tell us that we should be tricking our brains into thinking they are eating the high-fat, super-sweet things that so many of us love. I don’t know about you, but my brain is not fooled. Spaghetti squash is not pasta. I do not care how much marinara you put on it, my brain is not going to think it is eating linguine. I am not saying that spaghetti squash marinara is bad–I actually really like it–but trying to “fool ourselves” into eating healthier seems like a recipe for a late-night dive into that gelato.

What works for me? I don’t care how healthy it is; it has to be utterly delicious. If it is not, then my brain is going to tell me it wants more food, even if I already ate a full meal’s worth of calories. Aside from portion control, which is my biggest problem, I have to carefully consider my triggers and make sure that what I am eating is going to meet all of my, “This meal makes me happy!” criteria. I tend toward a more savory, umami-bent in my cravings, while my husband has more of a sweet tooth. And I have to have crunch: my toast and bacon are almost always way more well-done than my long-suffering husband would prefer. I constantly have to rethink the ways I can cook so that I am getting what I want from plants and whole grains, rather than simply covering things with cheese and eating too much meat.

I think this is key for all of us: figure out what you most love in your favorite less-healthy meals, and learn how to create it with lower-calorie, higher nutrient-density foods. Because here’s the thing: it is totally possible.

Do I veer off course? Do you really have to ask? But when I do, I call it what it is and get back on track as soon as possible. I just had a bad few days. (Let’s call it what it is, shall we? PMS reared its ugly head. I had the gelato, the nachos, the wings, and an assortment of other high-calorie delights. It happens.) Today, though, I am correcting my course. Tonight’s dinner is an example of considering my triggers: the salad gave me the crunch I want, there was butter and honey–just a bit of each–on the peas and carrots, and there was a little bit of cheese in and on the baked Broccoli, Cheddar, and Rice Cakes, along with more crunch from the rice on the outer edges. I had a plate full of vegetables and grains, (really full, because it takes a lot of veggies to equal a steak, calorie-wise…which was not the goal…hopefully you know what I mean)  but because I catered to what I most want in my meals, I am not feeling deprived*. In fact, I’m full. Not I-need-to-go-get-stretchy-pants-full, but comfortably so. Combined with the hour-long power-walk the dogs and I took today (there is no other kind with these two), I am feeling better about my chances of finishing the week with a healthier spin.

Link to the Broccoli, Cheddar, and Brown Rice Cakes. They are delicious, and easy to make.
I used 8.8 ounces of brown rice that I cooked myself (Tip #16.5: kitchen scales are awesome) and it worked well.

My rice cakes do not look like the picture on the recipe, because I baked them longer to get the crunchy rice bits I wanted. And I put the cheese on from the beginning, because sometimes I can’t follow directions.

*That we “should” feel deprived after eating a plate full of plants is a whole ‘nother post.

Tip #15: Butternut squash is super-versatile


The time of year is approaching when cooking can feel a bit more like a chore than usual for me. I choose to eat as seasonally as possible, and from the garden as much as possible, which means that fresh ingredients are scarce, unless I cave and buy them.  (I do. Especially things like lettuce and escarole.) The freezers are stocked: blanched chard, kale, broccoli rabe, beet greens, and mustard greens wait to be added to sautés, stews, and soups. Green beans wait to be dropped in boiling water, squeezed a little dry, and cooked in a screaming hot skillet so they get a little brown in spots. There are peppers. There are frozen, canned, and dried tomatoes in a variety of preparations. There are strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and rhubarb, and canned peaches. There is corn. In the refrigerator, there are beets, carrots, rutabagas, and cabbage. There are potatoes (sprouting like mad, but still edible). And there is winter squash. We are definitely not lacking for food. Delicious food.

Don’t get me wrong: I am incredibly grateful for the bounty the garden provides even in the winter.

But I am really ready to be pulling some of it out of the ground instead of the freezer. Given the fact that yesterday the high was 10 degrees, today is 18 degrees, and on Tuesday and Wednesday we’re looking at about a foot of snow, I’m doing a lot of sighing. Spring does not arrive easily, that’s for sure. I won’t be pulling anything fresh out of the ground until the asparagus arrives around the beginning of May.

The winter squashes are a little tired these days, too. The butternut squash did well last summer, and though we have eaten lots and given plenty away, there are still six or so left. At this point in the winter, they are old and drying up a little (my skin sympathizes…). I eyeball them every time I throw a log on the fire in the room where they live, and they stare back accusingly. “Use us or lose us,” they are saying. So this week I have decided to get busy with that.

Prep for older butternut is the same as for fresh, with the added step of cutting out the stringy middle bits. Unless I am roasting it for puree, in which case I don’t bother. A y-peeler, like the one in the top photo, is your friend for speedily peeling the squash. (Which you do not really have to do if you are roasting it. Scrub it well and proceed.)

IMG_3134                                  IMG_3135

Butternut squash has a million uses. Slice it thinly, roast it until tender, and top a pizza with the squash, caramelized onions, and gruyere. Add it to a chili with beef and black beans. Make a savory oatmeal. Halve it, scoop out the seeds, and roast it cut-side down until it starts to collapse, and then puree it in the food processor. The resulting puree needs little more than broth to turn it into a velvety soup, and it can be used anywhere you might use canned pumpkin (put it in a fine-mesh sieve to drain some of the water out before using it in baked goods).

A recipe I plan to make later in the week turns the puree into an Alfredo sauce for pasta. Yes, please.

A friend recently made a squash, apple, and cheddar calzone for her take-out food business, and it got me thinking about those flavors. I combined them with maple syrup, thyme, Swiss chard, and a splash of balsamic vinegar and piled everything into a pie crust for a galette. The leftover filling and crust trimmings turned into a cute little turnover that will make a perfect lunch. (A bonus of the freezing weather is that I just placed the baking sheet on the picnic table outside to let the crust set before popping it in the oven. There was no room for it in the freezer…)

With all of the variety available, maybe cooking this week won’t be so bad, after all.



Tip #14:Cauliflower is a magic vegetable

Bear with me here.


Cauliflower can be steamed and served with cheese sauce.
It can be cut into slabs or florets and roasted until it is deeply browned and nutty. With a squeeze of lemon juice and some grated zest, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and some chopped capers, it is heaven on a plate.
Cauliflower can be boiled in broth and some seasonings and then puréed to make an easy, creamy soup with no cream.
It can be riced, and used as a substitute for actual rice for those who are cutting carbohydrates in their diet.

It is this last use that I want to focus on here. Full disclosure: I was skeptical. Rice has a flavor and consistency all its own. There is no way cauliflower is going to hit the flavor and texture notes.

I had a wedge of cauliflower, the neck of a butternut squash, the end of a bottle of Thai red curry paste, and some odds and ends of broccoli in the refrigerator. There was an eight ounce cube of tofu, an ingredient I am learning to enjoy. I also had the majority of an opened can of coconut milk. (See leftover containers’ graveyard. This gathering of bits and bobs is not an infrequent occurrence.) Most importantly, sitting on the counter I had the Eating Well recipe for Cauliflower Rice Pilaf that had kicked the skepticism into high gear. And I was hungry.

The results? No, cauliflower rice does not exactly taste or feel like rice. It does not look like rice either; I think it looks more like couscous. But it is nutty and savory all in its own way, helps soak up any sauce it is paired with, and is worth eating even if you are not trying to cut carbohydrates from your diet. The only thing I added to my cauliflower rice was salt, since I wanted to use it as a rice substitute with the curry I was making, but I think the pilaf recipe would be delicious as a side dish.

An added benefit is that cauliflower rice could not be easier to make, if you have a food processor. If you do not, or if you need it to be even easier, most grocery stores are carrying it in their freezer cases.

How do I know it is something I will eat again (and again, and again…)?  I did not feel the slightest bit virtuous eating it, meaning I did not feel like anything was missing in the name of “doing better things for my body.” Because let’s face it: no matter how healthy something is, if it is not absolutely delicious, I am not interested.


Thai Coconut Vegetable Curry with Cauliflower Rice

2 tbsp peeled, minced ginger

2 tbsp peeled, minced garlic

½ cup sliced scallion, divided

1 tbsp sesame oil

3 cups broccoli (I used florets and peeled stems, cut into matchsticks)

3 cups peeled, diced butternut squash OR sweet potato (1/2-3/4-inch dice)

½ cup vegetable broth

1-2 tbsp Thai red curry paste

2 tbsp reduced-sodium tamari

1 tbsp rice vinegar

1 can coconut milk, well-stirred

8 oz tofu, cut into ¾-1 inch cubes (I had firm, so it is what I used. Extra-firm would work, too.)

¼ cup cilantro leaves (optional)

4 cups cauliflower rice (see link above for recipe)

  1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the sesame oil. When it shimmers and/or you can just smell it, add the ginger, garlic, and half of the scallions. Stir-fry for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant.
  2. Add broccoli and butternut squash to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, for 4-5 minutes. Add the vegetable broth, curry paste, tamari, and rice vinegar and stir well. Lower the heat to medium-low and stir in the coconut milk. Nestle in the tofu, being careful not to break it up.
  3. Let the mix simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, or until the butternut squash is cooked through.
  4. Ladle ¼ of the curry mixture into an individual serving bowl, and make a well in the vegetables. Scoop 1 cup of cauliflower rice into the well, and sprinkle with 1 tbsp remaining scallions and cilantro, if using. Repeat with three more bowls.

Adapted from a recipe by Kris Carr

Tip #13: Buy a cabbage and make extra mashed potatoes


It’s March. The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are in three weeks, and the first day of Spring is just a few days after that. I am not sure where I first got the idea that the change in seasons instantly meant pastel colors, warmer sunshine, and a world awash in flowers, but let me tell you what a reality check my first spring in the Northeast was…  While it is true that the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis X Intermedia Diane) is blooming, with its scraggly, squiggly, absolutely marvelous red flowers, and a single snowdrop (Galanthus) has bloomed outside my kitchen window, even the crocus, daffodil, and tulip bulbs are still hibernating. We had a 60-degree day yesterday, and a 24-degree day today.

I think I will keep my winter jacket handy for a while longer.

All this is to say that potatoes and cabbage are definitely still in season. I had a quarter of a Deadon F1 Cabbage (an amazing keeper; this one was from my garden, harvested in late-October) sitting in the crisper, after making a Tex-Mex slaw and an Asian salad with the rest. There were also leftover mashed potatoes from a dinner last weekend (that does not happen often, as we are happy to overindulge in that comfort food). Wedged in between the two were two egg whites from a curd that only needed yolks, a slice of prosciutto and 2 tablespoons of caramelized onions. The refrigerator was starting to look like a leftover containers’ graveyard, so I pulled all of that out and turned them into potato pancakes.

In the past, I have sautéed cabbage and mixed it with mashed potatoes for an Irish dish called Colcannon, which may be one of the great comfort foods of the world. Sometimes, instead of boiled potatoes, I like my corned beef with the mashed version. And I have never been above stirring leftover mashed potatoes into a cabbage soup. The potatoes thicken the soup, making it almost creamy. If I was lucky enough to have bacon around, the onions, carrots and cabbage were sautéed in the bacon fat before adding the broth. Sprinkled with crispy bacon just before serving, the soup is almost enough to make me stop wishing so hard for spring.


Cabbage and Potato Pancakes (serves 4, 2 pancakes each…or however you want to shake that out)

4 tbsp olive oil, divided
3-4 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
1 slice prosciutto or bacon, chopped (optional)
2 1/2-3 cups leftover mashed potatoes
2 tbsp caramelized onions (optional; you could also use fresh sliced scallions or chives for a more pronounced onion flavor)
2 egg whites plus one whole egg OR 2 whole eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper to taste (go easy on the salt, since the mashed potatoes are already salted; you can always sprinkle a little on top of the cooked pancakes if they need more)1/4 cup sour cream, optional

  1. Preheat the oven to 200.  Place a cooking rack inside a baking sheet, and place in the oven. In a skillet large enough to cook four pancakes at once, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the cabbage and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage starts to become translucent and is browning a little on some strands. Push the cabbage over to the side of the pan and add the prosciutto or bacon, if using.  Cook, stirring, until the meat begins to crisp up a bit. Turn off the heat.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the mashed potatoes, cabbage mixture, caramelized onions, if using, and the beaten eggs. Add a pinch of salt and some black pepper. Stir well to combine completely.
  3. In the same skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium. When it shimmers, add a scant 1/3 of a cup of the potato mixture, pressing the top down lightly to form a pancake. Repeat with three other scoops.  Cook, undisturbed, for 3-4 minutes, or until the pancake releases easily with a spatula and is browned on the bottom.  Gently flip and cook another 3-4 minutes. Transfer the pancakes to the baking sheet in the oven. Repeat until all of the mixture is cooked, adding more oil if the pan becomes too dry in between batches. Top each serving with chopped chives and a tablespoon of sour cream, if using.

Tip #12: Get to know an ingredient


Before I started growing most of the vegetables we eat, it was easy to pigeon-hole an ingredient: this goes with breakfast, that goes with dinner, etc. But with a store of food I have grown myself, a loathing of letting things go to waste, and a pathological aversion to boredom, I am often looking for different ways to use the same ingredient. The internet is a great source for finding a multitude of recipes that use a specific ingredient, and thereby exploring all of the different ways it can be featured.

This weekend’s featured ingredient was beets. They did fairly well in my garden last season, so I have a few pounds of them to use. This month’s Martha Stewart Living magazine has a chocolate cake made with beets, and it was that recipe that made me start looking for other ways to use this vibrantly colored vegetable. I chose three different preparations: chocolate cake, a smørrebrød-type recipe with gravlax, and a beet salad (also from the Martha Stewart collection, this time from the now-defunct magazine Everyday Food).


In the cake, the beets add an earthiness that marries well with the cocoa powder (you do not taste the beets as a separate flavor), and they provide a moist, dense crumb. In the salad, that sweet earthiness marries well with the spicy, earthy taste of ginger, and the two of them are balanced by the brightness of the balsamic vinegar. Pistachios add a welcome crunch. Finally, in the open-faced sandwich, the flavor of the beets contrasts with the green, fresh tastes of the lettuce and dill, and together they balance with the rich fattiness of the salmon. These recipes highlight ways to utilize the unique flavor of beets, which are also good boiled, peeled, and tossed with butter and salt, or peeled and shredded to use raw in a salad. Another favorite is to cut peeled roasted or boiled beets into wedges and combine them with orange segments, chopped parsley, chopped pistachios, and an orange vinaigrette.

Another vegetable I am always looking for a variety of uses for is butternut squash. One squash is usually a few meals for the two of us, so there are often sections of the squash waiting to be cooked up. A velvety pureed soup is always welcome, and I also like to use it in risottos (see Tip #11) or chili.  A less expected and slightly sweet option is a squash muffin recipe by Jamie Oliver.

Looking for a variety of ways to use an ingredient helps you get to know the attributes of it. Once you have a repertoire of ingredients in your head, you are better able to cook on the fly, based on what you receive in your CSA or find in your refrigerator and cupboard.


The smørrebrød is more a method than a recipe. I used a Danish-style rye bread, spread it with butter, added a layer of thinly sliced, peeled, roasted beets, a layer of gravlax, a layer of thinly sliced cucumber, a layer of shredded green leaf lettuce, and a topping of small diced beets. A sprinkle of Maldon sea salt finished it off.

Beet Salad with Ginger Dressinghttp://www.marthastewart.com/947113/beet-salad-ginger-dressing
Chocolate Cake with Beetshttp://www.marthastewart.com/857644/chocolate-beet-cake (I used a chocolate ganache to ice the cake.)

Butternut Bisquehttp://www.marthastewart.com/312603/butternut-bisque
Butternut (or Pumpkin) Chilihttp://www.thekitchn.com/vegetarian-recipe-pumpkin-chili-recipes-from-the-kitchn-196046
Butternut Squash muffinshttp://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/butternut-squash-muffins-with-a-frosty-top/(You’ll want a kitchen scale handy to measure out grams; or you can use the internet to help with converting the measurements. I’m pretty sure I did not frost the tops, and we loved them just the same.)

Tip #11: See foods in a different way




This is a companion to Tip #10. I usually think of oatmeal as a sweet breakfast food. It is quick, healthy, and tasty, especially with the addition of maple syrup, dried fruit, and chopped nuts. But sometimes I do not want a sweet start to the day, preferring instead to head the savory route. This morning’s breakfast did just that, and while it took a little longer than the usual bowl of oatmeal (about 20-30 minutes total, including frying the egg) the results were delicious and a hearty start to the day. I know I have made something good when I am eating it and already thinking, “I can’t wait to have the leftovers tomorrow!”

There are a number of outstanding cookbooks published on using grains in a variety of ways, which is where I got the general idea for this meal. I knew I wanted oatmeal, but I also wanted bacon and eggs, and there was a small butternut squash sitting on the counter. Breakfast was born. A bit like a risotto made with oatmeal instead of rice, it could have just as easily been my lunch or a side dish for dinner. Toasting the oatmeal made it a little roasty-nutty tasting, the bacon added a very light smoky note, and the squash was a hint of sweet (bumped up by substituting maple sap* for half of the water…sometimes, ya gotta gild the lily…). The egg on top was a perfect companion, but it was not necessary to make the dish delicious.

For other ideas, check out Maria Speck’s books Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and Simply Ancient Grains. Another good one is Liana Krissoff’s book Whole Grains for a New Generation. All three of them have me thinking about grains in new ways.

Butternut Squash and Bacon Oatmeal
(serves two, but can easily be doubled)
2 slices of thicker-cut bacon, chopped
1/4 cup diced onion
1-1 1/2 cups butternut squash, diced small (peeled or not is up to you; just scrub it well if you do not peel it)
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups water, plus more if necessary
1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional, but it added a nice spark of freshness)
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Place bacon in a 2 to 4 quart saucepan over medium heat and cook until the first side is starting to brown. Spoon off half of whatever fat has rendered. (I used this to fry the egg in.) Add the onions and a tiny pinch of salt, stir, and cook 2-3 minutes.  Add the butternut squash and cook, stirring, for 5-7 minutes.
  2. While the squash cooks, toast the oats in a skillet over medium heat. Watch them carefully and stir often as they can go from nothing to burnt quickly. You want the color to deepen on the oats, but not necessarily become totally browned. Add the toasted oats to the bacon mixture and stir.
  3. Add two cups of water and the thyme into the oat mixture, stir, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook, stirring, for 5-7  minutes or until the oats have absorbed the water and the butternut squash is tender. If the mixture is drying too quickly, add a splash of water as needed. Stir in 1 1/2 tbsp parsley and ground black pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with remaining parsley sprinkled on top.

*I would not buy maple water for this recipe, since it is a bit spendy. My neighbor taps his trees and brought me a gallon of sap to play with, so I have been trying it in different things. So far I have had a glass of it straight and made coffee with it instead of plain water, in addition to making the oatmeal with a cup. It could be habit-forming…



Tip #10: Make a hash of it


One of the best things about cooking at home? You can eat what you want, when you want it. Though we often think of certain foods as only eaten at specific times of the day, we can break those rules with abandon in our own kitchens. My favorite expression of this is “hash,” which I make on a regular basis, though rarely the same way twice. We eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I suspect it would be near-impossible to trace the origins of this dish, though Wikipedia states that the word is from the French verb hacher, which means to chop. Most cultures have a version of it, and my husband had the Danish version, biksemad, for dinner one night when we were there visiting friends last week. (As an aside, Denmark is beautiful.) Similar to those served in America, this biksemad consisted of diced meat, potatoes, and onions and was topped with fried eggs. As per tradition, on the side were pickled beets, which added a nice zing of flavor to the richness of the combo.

This morning’s hash, which served one, was whipped up in response to the snow and wind outside. It was a burst of color on the plate and an energizing way to start the day. It looked nothing like the photo above, which is from last September and is there to illustrate how many different directions you can go in with this dish. Meat or no meat, greens or no greens, winter or summer squash, sweet or red or white or yellow potatoes, smoked salmon or tofu: there are no limits. Our friend referred to biksemad as a “clean-out the refrigerator” recipe, and I have to agree. You can put almost anything in there.

Sweet Potato Hash for One (can easily be multiplied)

2 tsp olive oil
1 cup peeled (or just well-scrubbed), diced sweet potato
2 tbsp chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped escarole
salt and pepper
1 tsp salted butter
1 large egg

  1. Heat the oil in a small skillet with a lid over medium heat. Add the sweet potato and a small pinch of salt, stir, cover, and let cook for 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add the onion to the sweet potato, stir, cover, and let cook for 3-4 minutes. Uncover and test the texture of the sweet potatoes. If your dice were small, they may already be tender. If not, cook, uncovered, for 3-5 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender.
  3. Stir in escarole and another small pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until the escarole is wilted.
  4. Slide the sweet potato mixture to the side of the pan, or onto a small plate which you can keep warm. Add the butter to the pan and crack the egg into the butter. Sprinkle with black pepper (and add some to the sweet potatoes while you’re at it). Cook egg to desired doneness, and serve on top of the hash.

Tip #9: Consider the Pantry

I come from that population of people who have pantries that can kill you if you do not open them carefully enough. I am interested in trying all kinds of foods; couple that with always wanting to have “x” on hand in case I want to make “y” and you have sliding shelf-drawers that will give out long before the warranty. Every so often I do a tidy-up and move things around so they are more easily seen, but mostly it is a delicious wreck in there. I am envious of people who have butler’s pantries, but I imagine I would easily (over)fill that space, too, and not with tableware.

There are many “build a pantry” guides out there. I read my first one in Cooking Light Magazine,  and watching Rachael Ray’s “Thirty-Minute Meals” on Food Network gave me a visual, moving pantry-in-action. (True confessions: I totally miss that show.) Since then, I have seen countless other versions: vegetarian, clean eating, Paleo. There is a pantry for every eating style.

I have considered what my pantry might look like if I could curb my enthusiasm, and here is my addition to the conversation. Depending on your household size, using bulk bins to stock up means you can get smaller quantities, which you can use more quickly and will take up less space.

Why keep all of this on hand? Because sometimes you do not want to go to the store after work, or think too much about what you are going to eat. Your pantry (with a little help from regulars in the refrigerator and freezer) can keep you covered. At the end, there are some ideas for what to make if you are cooking from what you have. If you have time and the desire to pick up meat or fresh seafood, your possibilities increase even further. But you do not need it to still make flavorful, healthy, and filling meals.

Dry/Canned Goods:
Pasta (regular or gluten-free): 1 box each of linguine, spaghetti, elbows and a short cut (ziti, penne, rotini)
1 box rice noodles (I like a wider, flatter fettucine-style noodle for keeping around; get what you prefer)
Rice: brown, Basmati, and Arborio (If I had to ditch one, it would be the Basmati.)
Other Grains: quinoa, sorghum, millet, farro, barley (Keep two on hand, and rotate through them if you like variety. The first three are gluten-free.)
Beans: black, red kidney(I would drop this one if space was an issue), chickpeas, white (something like Navy or Cannellini)
To buy dried or canned depends on you. When I first switched from canned to dried, I found I used beans less often. Now that I have an Instant Pot and making beans is so fast, we eat them more often. But I will not make just enough for one meal, which means they take up space in the freezer. Pantry space or freezer space: your call.
Other Legumes: lentils, at least one kind
My favorite are French lentils, and I keep green lentils on hand, too. Right now there are also tiny Beluga lentils taking up space; I could not resist the cuteness. I like to keep red or yellow lentils around because they cook faster and have a different texture than the others.
Coconut Milk
Tomatoes: whole, diced, sauce, paste (I love the Amore brand tubes.)
Seafood: salmon, tuna in water and in oil
Broth: chicken and vegetable
Oil and Vinegar: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Canola or Grapeseed oil, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, Balsamic vinegar (If I had to drop a vinegar, it would be the red wine.)
Flours and Sweeteners: all-purpose flour (regular or a gluten-free blend), white-whole wheat flour, corn meal, cornstarch, baking powder, black pepper, baking soda, table salt, coarse salt, natural cane sugar, maple syrup, honey
Herbs and Spices (all dried): cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, bay leaves, thyme, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, fennel seed, chili powder, cumin, coriander, turmeric, curry powder
This list is based on the ones I reach for most often, but a wide variety of herbs and spices is the key to mixing up what I can make for dinner at any given moment.
Vegetables: potatoes (all-purpose yellow if you only have room for one, otherwise I would keep red, yellow, and baking on hand), onions, garlic
Freezer (an extension of the pantry): spinach, peas
Not the pantry, but good for building meals from what you have:
Refrigerator: butter, buttermilk, milk, (or the dairy-free substitutes) lemons, fresh ginger, (which can also go in the freezer and be grated when you need it) carrots, celery, leafy greens, (a rotation of collards, kale, escarole, spinach, Swiss Chard, beet greens) eggs, parmigiano reggiano, cheddar, feta, goat cheese (cheeses are optional…unless you live in my house)

Meals you can build from the above:
Bean Chili with Cornbread (beans–one of each, oil, onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, broth, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper, flour, corn meal, baking powder and soda, salt, buttermilk, honey, egg)
Pasta with Beans and Greens (pasta, garlic, onion, olive oil, beans, a leafy green, red pepper flakes, parmigiano),
Grain Bowl: quinoa; black beans with garlic, diced tomatoes, chili powder, and cumin; flaked salmon; leafy green–cooked or not, depending on the green
Soup: onion, garlic, oil, broth, potatoes, carrots, celery, thyme, bay, peas, leafy green
Baked Potatoes, two ways: yellow or baking potato, oil, garlic, onion, (One: turmeric, spinach, coconut milk, fresh ginger, chickpeas, peas; Two: kale, white beans, fennel seed, broth, a spritz of lemon juice, feta or parmigiano)
Beans and Greens with Eggs: the beans and greens from above, minus the pasta and topped with a fried egg
Pasta with Tomato, Chickpeas, and Tuna: olive oil, red pepper flakes, oregano, onion, garlic, tomatoes, (any except paste, though you can add that, too) chickpeas, tuna in oil (drained; you can use this oil in place of the olive oil if desired)