Taking on Real Simple: Week One

I have been really uninspired lately—in the kitchen, at work, in my day-to-day dealings with Mr. Moo. I’m mostly stressed out and it just feels like I’m running in circles not getting anywhere. I’m sure none of you can relate as your lives are all princesses and glitter, rock stars and whiskey.

When I’m stressed out, I tend toward the blah. I don’t want to do anything… especially not cooking. Obviously, the blah feeling leads to a very sad state of dinner. Night after night of cobbled together meals that would make you weep. In fact, they did make me weep.

When I tried thumbing through my cache of old cookbooks, and couldn’t even get excited about jellied meats, I knew I was in trouble. Then like a beacon in the darkness, my October issue of Real Simple arrived. (Cue the angelic music from up on high.) Starting on page 191, is a section called “What’s for Dinner?” What follows is a month of weekday meals. Four weeks of five dinners, each serving four people. AND, there’s a weekly shopping list broken down into staples and what I’ll probably need.

I took to this whole not thinking about cooking thing like a moth to a flame. Not have to stress about dinner for an entire month? Game on. I now present Week One of the Real Simple challenge.

Monday: Beef and Mushroom Ragú with Pappardelle

  • ½ lb pappardelle or fettuccine (I only had spaghetti, so that’s what I used.)
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 10 oz button mushrooms, quartered
  • ½  medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • ½ lb ground beef
  • 2 T tomato paste
  • ¼ C dry white wine
  • 1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
  • grated Parmesan, for serving

Cook the pasta according to the package directions; drain and return it to the pot.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, ½ t salt, and ¼ t pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft, 5-7 minutes.

Add the beef to the skillet and cook, breaking it up with a spoon, until browned, 3-5 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until slightly darkened, about 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until nearly evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes (and their juices) and simmer until the liquid is slightly thickened, 4-5 minutes.

Add the sauce to the pasta and toss to combine. Serve sprinkled with the Parmesan.

Results

Oh dear. Not a good way to get rid of my blahs. This is perhaps one of the most uninspired dishes I’ve ever had the bad fortune to make. Please note that there are no herbs in this sauce, and the only spices are garlic, salt, and pepper. And, hamburger in a pasta sauce? Ugh. What a bland mess.

Beef and Mushroom Ragu

Even Mr. Moo thumbed his nose at this one.

In addition, the mushrooms aren’t really cooked down enough to elicit any sort of taste above squishy mushrooms. This is a Monday night recipe, so I get that the magazine folks wanted something quick and easy, but a better bet would be to sauté the mushrooms and onion until much of the moisture has been drained from the mushrooms. Then, instead of adding ground beef, add two mild Italian sausages. (Basically, take the raw sausage and squeeze out the meat from the casing.) Cook the sausage and then add a half a jar of your favorite marinara sauce. I can guarantee it will take as much time and taste 100% better than this recipe.

Tuesday: Eggplant and Tofu Stir-Fry

  • 1 C long-grain white rice
  • ½ C hoisin sauce
  • 3 T rice vinegar
  • 1 t cornstarch
  • 4 T canola oil
  • 1 lb firm tofu—drained, patted dry, and cut into 1” cubes
  • 1 small eggplant (about 1¾ lbs), cut into ½” pieces
  • 4 scallions, sliced, white and green parts separated
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 red serrano or jalapeño chili, sliced
  • kosher salt
  • ¼ C fresh basil leaves, torn (I used purple basil from our yard.)

Cook the rice according to the package directions. In a small bowl, whisk together the hoisin, vinegar, and cornstarch.

Meanwhile, heat 1 T of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tofu; cook, turning occasionally, until browned, 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add the remaining 3 T of oil to the skillet. Add the eggplant, scallion whites, garlic, chili, and ¼ t salt. Cook, tossing frequently, until the eggplant is tender, 8-10 minutes. Add the hoisin mixture, tofu, and scallion greens and cook, tossing gently, until the sauce is thickened, 1-2 minutes. Serve with the rice and sprinkle with the basil.

Results

Gads, I hate cooking tofu. I am so not good at it.

First issue: Get extra firm tofu instead of just firm. It will hold up a bit better when you start mixing all the other ingredients.

Second issue: It took way longer than 10 minutes to get the tofu browned. Either my pan wasn’t hot enough or my tofu had too much liquid… I don’t know. It took a while.

My final issue is one of taste: Everything is drowning in hoisen sauce. Sooo very salty and hoisen-y. And, because it’s eggplant and tofu, it doesn’t reheat that well. (Remember four servings… so there will be lunch leftovers if you only have two adults.) I hate the mouth feel of squishy eggplant and slimy tofu.

Tofu Eggplant Stir-Fry

But, this recipe did bring out the best response from Mr. Moo. I tried to give him a plate. And, he looked at it and said, “Hmmm. Chicken?” I replied, “No, dear. It’s tofu.” He took another look and said, “Ew tofu ew.” And, that was the end of that dinner experiment.

Wednesday: Roasted Chicken with Collards

  • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 2½ lbs)
  • 2 pints grape tomatoes
  • 3 T olive oil
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 bunch collard greens, stems discarded and leaves cut into 1″ strips

Heat oven to 450°. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the chicken and tomatoes with 2 T of the oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ t pepper. Roast until the chicken is cooked through, 30-35 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and ¼ t each salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 4-6 minutes. Add the collard greens and cook, tossing frequently, until tender, 5-7 minutes. Serve with the chicken.

Results

Finally, a recipe worth eating—with a few additions. I cut half of the grape tomatoes in half and left the other half whole… this way, some came out super squishy and some just came out regular-style squishy.

This year, my sister decided to grow rainbow Swiss chard in our garden. So, rather than collard greens, I used the Swiss chard. Because how can you not, when it looks like this…

Rainbow Swiss Chard

I also added ½ t red pepper flakes to the oil when cooking the chard. I just like my greens a bit spicy, that’s all.

Yes, this is a very basic recipe, but it comes out nicely and the leftovers reheat well.

Chicken and Greens

Thursday: Tuna, Fennel, and Bean Salad

  • ¼ C olive oil
  • 3 T fresh lemon juice
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 small head radicchio, leaves torn (about 3 C)
  • 1 small bulb fennel, thinly sliced, plus ¼ C chopped fennel fronds
  • 2 6-oz cans oil-packed light tuna, drained
  • 1 15.5-oz can cannellini beans, rinsed
  • 1 small shallot, thinly sliced

In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, and ¼ t each salt and pepper.

Add the radicchio, fennel, fennel fronds, tuna, beans, and shallot and toss to combine.

Results

Ridiculously easy. A few thoughts though: You don’t need to use tuna in cans packed in oil. When I first skimmed the recipe, I thought that the oil from the tuna was going to act as a bit of dressing. Then, I re-read it and you drain off that oil and add the olive oil. So, go with the better tasting tuna pouches… the ones not packed in oil. Also, I feel with the tuna and canned beans, you really don’t need any additional salt.

Tuna Fennel Salad

Paul loved this one. I agree it has a decent taste and texture. I feel that it’s a better lunch recipe. (Mostly because it tasted that much better the next day.) And, you’ll notice that I got a bit crazy with the radicchio… rather than tearing it, I just sliced it. Still tasted fine.

Friday: Chorizo-Stuffed Acorn Squash

  • 2 acorn squashes (about 1½ lbs each), halved and seeded
  • ½ C bulgur
  • 4 oz manchego or Cheddar, grated (about 1 C)
  • 3 oz cured chorizo, chopped
  • ¼ C chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 T olive oil
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 T red wine vinegar
  • 1 head red leaf lettuce, leaves torn (about 6 C)

Heat oven to 450°. Place the squash halves cut-side down in a baking dish, add ¼ inch water, cover with foil, and bake until tender, 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the bulgur according to the package directions. In a medium bowl, combine the bulgur, manchego, chorizo, parsley, 1 T of the oil, and ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper.

Turn the squash halves cut-side up and, dividing evenly, fill with the bulgur mixture. Bake until the filling is warmed through and the manchego is melted, 8-10 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar, the remaining 2 T of oil, and ¼ t each salt and pepper. Add the lettuce and toss to combine. Serve with the squash.

Results

I hate stuffed squash. There is just something icky about that texture. But, this wasn’t bad. The chorizo really sold it for me. The other selling point? The fact that Paul assembled it. Rock on, husband!

Chorizo Stuffed Squash

Overall Review of Week One

A mixed bag as far as the recipes were concerned. We didn’t starve, but we certainly didn’t enjoy the beginning of the week.

Since I had groceries and meals for the entire week, there wasn’t the temptation to order in. With the exception of the tofu, the magazine times for preparation were pretty spot on… no recipe took longer than an hour to make. Especially nice for weekday meals.

The flip side, of course, is that you’re cooking every night. And, unless your partner is comfortable following a recipe, you might be screwed if you’re having a busy night.

The other bonus is a budgetary one. I think this week, I spent $74 on everything I needed for these recipes. Granted, I had the ground beef for Monday and the greens for Wednesday. And, since we had leftovers, we’re really talking spending less than $100 for five dinners and three lunches for two people. (Mr. Moo and my sister had some of the food as well.)

So, am I continuing this self-imposed challenge? Yes, yes, I am… Read more about Week Two with Real Simple.

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  1. #1 by thecookingchook on 10.9.2012 - 4:45 pm

    I came across a really cool recipe for when you’re in a ‘meh’ mood and feel like pasta. It was a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs, but rather than making the meatballs from scratch you use sausage meat. I buy about 500g of pork or beef sausages that I know taste reasonably good, remove the casing and roll the meat into meatballs. Brown off the meatballs, then pour a bottle of tomato puree/sugo/passata in with the meatballs and cook together for about 15 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through. Because the sausage meat is already seasoned, the sauce will end up taking on the flavour of the meatballs so you won’t need to add any other seasonings to it. Easy, quick and reasonably priced – what more could you ask for?

    • #2 by e.marie on 10.11.2012 - 9:34 pm

      that is genius… absolutely genius… thanks for sharing!

  2. #3 by kerna2 on 10.16.2012 - 1:22 pm

    I’m so glad you’re trying these recipes so I don’t have to. I definitely might have to try the last one as we are fans of acorn squash around here.

  3. #4 by biggsis on 10.19.2012 - 7:16 am

    It is a wonderful concept to plan a week of meals and the shopping list from them. Sometimes I manage to do it with tried and true recipes – but that is definitely the hardest part, deciding what to make night after night. I hope the second week yields you more winning recipes – but at least you don’t have to think about it! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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