I recently did a presentation for the North Shore Hunger Network, a collection of organizations working with feeding the hungry from Boston to Amesbury, on preparing low-fat, low-sodium meals from a Food Pantry. I’ll write more about this organization soon, but I thought I’d post my tips – some basic, some a little out there – and some recipes: Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce made with THREE ingredients. A Raw Kale and Carrot Salad, adapted from Barton Seaver, as proof that kale really can be considered a salad. And Chicken Piccata. The last recipe is a little fussy, but it’s an amazing dish made with the simplest ingredients, particularly when you make your own breadcrumbs. Food Pantries have a LOT of bread.
If you’re coming home from work, and feeling overwhelmed by dinner, always, always go to the stove and start a large pot of water boiling. Don’t take your coat off; just go right to the sink, fill that pot and put some heat under it. Then go take off your coat, get the kids settled, and take a breath. If you are tired, and have no idea what to make for dinner, you can always have pasta, and you won’t have to wait for the water to boil. You can tell the children suddenly begging for dinner that it will be done in the time it takes to cook the pasta.
Thyme: own dried thyme, and replace it when you run out. Don’t worry about any other herb (they’re expensive), but a good bag of dried thyme will change so many dishes – from soups to eggs to salad dressings – and makes them taste like something very special.
The Peanut Butter Sandwich: try to have your child be brave about bread, meaning try grains. Try to use less peanut butter on the sandwich, and always add a second ingredient, but not necessarily jam or jelly. A banana simply has more vitamins and fiber than jam. Jam and jelly is processed, albeit minimally, so choose the less processed food over the more – the banana over the jelly – and you’ll be adding more nutrition.
Try these sandwiches:
Peanut butter and apple
Peanut butter and raisins
Peanut butter and banana
Anchovies: learn to like them. Use 1 or 2 anchovies as a replacement for salt in tomato sauces. They have sodium, but they also add a bit of protein and “umami” flavor. 1 – 2 anchovies, sauteed with garlic and mashed a bit, won’t add a fishy taste, if anchovies scare you. They’ll just add a little depth.
Use escarole instead of romaine lettuce, particularly in the winter. It’s much cheaper than packaged lettuces, much more flavorful, much more nutritious, and lasts longer. A salad made with escarole, even dressed, will stay crisp enough for you to take for lunch the next day. Also, try using chopped kale in a salad. Just cut out the inner stem. Both escarole and kale are a little tougher than regular lettuces, and it’s fine to cut them finely with a knife, but they taste delicious. It’s just a matter of getting used to a sturdier green in your salad.
Rinse all canned beans very well. Just dump them into a strainer, and run water over them. Canned beans are fine to use, but they have much less sodium when rinsed.
Save plastic containers. You will be much more apt to take leftovers for lunch if you have the right container. Otherwise, you wake up in the morning, look at last night’s pasta and realize it would make a great lunch, but you have nothing to carry it in. So, you don’t take it, and you have chips and a coke for lunch.
My standard: Put poached eggs on top of everything from salads, to pasta, to soup.
For most people in the world – of all economic situations – life is hard, and most days the only good thing about it will be a decent dinner at the end. But, isn’t that pretty good? If your day ends with a poached egg on top of a bowl of garlic and thyme fettucini – a dish that is hot, flavorful, restorative, and costs under a dollar a person – isn’t that a pretty good? If it ends in this Chicken Piccata, it’s even better.
Food has emotional nutrition, too; The U.S.D.A. should include comfort in its list of daily requirements.
Marcella Hazan’s Basic Tomato Sauce
enough for 1 pound of pasta
One 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes roughly chopped with their juices
5 tablespoons salted butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
Heat a heavy, medium saucepan over medium heat. Add all of the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low to keep a steady simmer. Cook for 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally. Discard the onion. Serve over cooked pasta.
To cook the pasta, bring four quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt to the water, and then add 1 pound of pasta. If cooking more than 1 pound of pasta, add another quart for each additional half pound.
Cook the pasta for the time allowed on the box. Drain the pasta in a colander, immediately return it to either a warm serving bowl (pour some hot water in it and then pour it out.) or the same pot you cooked it in.
Pour the sauce over the pasta, and toss very well: Take two wooden spoons, or two forks, reach down into the pasta and lift it up again so the sauce settles over all. Keep doing this for at least a minute. The sauce and pasta merge in a way that never happens when the sauce is just plopped on top of the pasta, and the whole dish becomes much more elegant and delicious.
Raw Kale and Carrot Salad
serves 4 as a side dish
1 bunch kale
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup seedless grapes
1/2 cup slivered almonds or any nut available (optional)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or even white vinegar is ok
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
more salt and pepper to taste
Wash the kale thoroughly. Fold each leaf in half along the stem, and make one long slice down it to cut out the stem. Take the pile of now stem-less leaves, hold them together, and slice into shreds, so you get fine pieces of kale, almost like confetti.
Peel the carrots, discarding the outer skin. Then take the peeler and continue to peel off carrot, collecting these pieces into a bowl, so you have a pile of carrot shards.
Add to the bowl the grapes, nuts, and kale. Sprinkle in the salt.
To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the garlic, oil and vinegar, and then add in the mayonnaise, and stir well to combine. Taste for salt and pepper.
2 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts (four halves)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons), lemon halves reserved
1/2 cup chicken broth
Sliced lemon, for serving
Chopped fresh parsley leaves, for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with tin foil.
Place each chicken breast between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and pound out to 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper.
Mix the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper in a shallow plate. In a second plate, beat the egg and the water together. Place the bread crumbs on a third plate. Dip each chicken breast first in the flour, shake off the excess, and then dip in the egg and bread crumb mixtures.
Heat 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saute pan over medium to medium-low heat. Add the 2 chicken breasts and cook for 2 minutes on each side, until browned. Place them on the sheet pan , and cook the rest of the chicken the same way. Put all on the sheet pan and allow them to bake for 5 to 10 minutes while you make the sauce.
For the sauce, wipe out the saute pan with a dry paper towel. Over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and then add the lemon juice, chicken broth, the reserved lemon halves, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Boil over high heat until reduced in half, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and swirl to combine. Discard the lemon halves and serve 1 chicken breast on each plate. Spoon on the sauce and serve with a slice of lemon and a sprinkling of fresh parsley if available.
Homemade Dried Bread Crumbs
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Take old bread and rip it into the smallest pieces you can – small crumbles. If you have a food processor, you can process to crumbs.
Spread the crumbs onto a baking sheet and bake for 15- 20 minutes, until very lightly browned.
Allow to cool completely on the pan before storing. Again, if available, return to the food processor to grind into a finer crumb.