Semester is about to start again, and that means long working days, some working weekends, being busy, being tired. And that often means eating on the run, or throwing together something at the last minute.
I love food and I love cooking, but if I’m home at 8pm, honestly, I don’t have time for something that involves shopping or puttering about in a kitchen… or the brain space for a recipe. Instead we all have those standby recipes we reach for that we can throw together in our sleep from stuff that lurks in the pantry or at the bottom of the fridge.
In this post I’m going to talk about some of my favourite throw-together foods, less as a set of recipes and more as an encouragement for you to think about your standbys and how you love yourself and look after yourself when you make them.
An omlette and a glass of wine
The eponymous essay in Elizabeth David’s collection, this is also a divine standby dinner.
Good stale bread (let’s be honest, that sourdough is nice but it isn’t fresh) properly toasted (under the grill, not in a toaster), with an omlette made from organic eggs (for the hen’s sake, and eggs keep for nearly ever so there’s always two in the fridge), a bit of butter or sour cream if I have it (it feels extravagant and luxurious, but a scraping from the bottom of the pot is enough) or a grating of parmesan otherwise (there’s always a dry pebble of cheese left somewhere behind the pickles), perhaps some fancy salt or some freshly ground black pepper. A glass of crisp white wine (and yes, this is a dinner where it is perfectly acceptable to drink alone).
Now some people make good omlettes (I think they’re easy), but some people find them difficult. If you find omelettes tricky, just make scrambled eggs. They are just as good.
Seared steak on a bed of wilted greens
This is a dinner for when you have five minutes to stop off at the shop. If I were a cookbook writer, I’d claim this was a 10 minute meal, but it’s really 15 (from the moment you open the fridge door to the moment you put a fork in your mouth). But deeply easy, and satisfying to eat.
This doesn’t have to be beef steak (though that is excellent): salmon steak, eggplants sliced thickly and doused in tamari or miso, fat meaty portabello mushrooms are all delicious.
The only thing that matters is that your pan or griddle is hot (preheat for 2 minutes for a good heavy frypan or 5 minutes for a cast iron griddle), there’s a sprinkling of salt and a smear of olive oil over both sides of your steak, and that you cook it counting carefully, 3 minutes either side. [No, there is no value in bringing your steak to room temperature, or more extensive salting–see Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab for the experiments, or save yourself the time and trust me.] Remove from the heat and let it rest (saving the juices). Throw your packet of rocket / kale / spinach at the pan, with the juices, and throw in a bit of extra wine from your glass, or maybe some lemon juice. Slice the steak on the diagonal. Plop the greens on the plate and the steak over it. Pour over any leftover juices. Done.
Everyone should have a version of this soup. I know friends with a Mexican chicken version, a spicy Thai version, an Arabic version, a couple of Chinese versions. In our family it comes in two varieties: a German-Jewish one that comes through my partner’s father, and a Japanese-ingredients version that I made up from our local organic grocery store. What’s important about these isn’t that they are authentic, but that they comfort you when all else is cold, and cold-ridden.
There are 4 essential parts to this soup, but they are endlessly interchangeable: some kind of protein, some kind of green, some kind of carb, some kind of stock.
- Poached chicken breast, handfuls of flat-leafed parsley, rice noodles, home-made chicken stock. (This is made with roast chicken and rice by my Arabic friend, and with chicken-matzo dumplings by my Jewish friends. )
- Silken-tofu, bok choi, green tea soba noodles, vegetable Swiss Bouillon powder.
- Prawns from frozen, peas from frozen, egg noodles, canned lobster consomme.
- Tinned cannelini beans, chopped kale, macaroni, ‘minestrone’ from a package (that’s the picture at the beginning of this post!)
When I make the chicken soup, I add little sliced coins of carrot. When I make the soup with sliced beefsteak and green tea noodles, I add ponzu sauce and a sprinkling of black nigella seeds. If I were making the prawn soup, I would probably throw in a teaspoon of tong yum curry paste. Ginger can be good. Sherry can be fino. Make sure there is enough salt–taste it and see!
So that’s it. Three things I make regularly, that are fast and easy and not too bad for you.
These are recipes for one or two adults–you will have your own family and your own soul-food. You’ll also have your own rhythms and food options. It’s often easier for me to grab a healthy lunch at work to make sure I have a balanced diet (sushi and a green smoothie, or a calamari salad, or a burrito with beans and vegetables) than it is to prepare a full meal for dinner.
Self-care and eating and taking a break are essential for thesis writing, for research thinking, for career longevity. Make sure you are finding time for it, at the same time as finding time to read and think and write.
Extra recipe, Soul-Soup stock
When I make soup, I include a home-made stock which I freeze in advance, the recipe is below. Before you go ‘who has 9 hours to simmer stock?’ let me just tell you it’s a court bouillon (quick stock). It’s relatively quick, just not ‘make on the night when it’s already 8pm’ quick. But, frankly, a tablespoon of Swiss Bouillon powder and a litre of water from the kettle will do fine.
I sometimes make this with vegetable ends that sit around in my crisper drawer, and sometimes make it when I’ve just been to the market and the kitchen is overflowing with fresh goodness. My partner and I have allergies that make it worth the extra effort not to get sick, and I like the sense of putting away something full of health that will nourish me when things are tougher, but you don’t get brownie points for making this.
If you’d like to, though, here’s what I do.
To make the stock:
Preheat the oven to 180C (this is the secret to great, low effort stock–you get a lovely caramelised roasted base first).
Cut up in big rough chunks:
Carrots, onions, celery, garlic
If you have leeks, celeriac or parsnip, they are great.
Add a bay leaf, parsley, thyme (dried is fine, fresh is fine)
If it’s a meat stock, I add the bones here.
1 tablespoon olive oil.
Place everything in a pan that goes in the oven and on the stove.
Roast for 20-40 minutes, until the veg is nicely browned.
Remove from oven and place on the stove over a high heat. Add cold water until all the ingredients are covered. You should already have a nice golden liquid.
Bring it to the boil.
Turn off the heat, and let it sit there until cooled.
Strain out the stock through a sieve or colander. (If I’m being fancy, I strain it throgh a J cloth (Chux) or clean teatowel, but I can’t always be bothered and it’s fine if you don’t).
Portion out and freeze.
When you use it for soup, dilute the stock 1:2 or 1:1 with boiling water. (You don’t reduce it as much as a traditional stock, so you don’t have to dilute it as much on the other end).