In the Times test kitchen, a clear plastic shelf perches over the longest counter. On it sit, in alphabetical order, 74 bottles and tins filled with a variety of spices and herbs...
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In the Times test kitchen, a clear plastic shelf perches over the longest counter. On it sit, in alphabetical order, 74 bottles and tins filled with a variety of spices and herbs, both whole and ground. All of the basic dried herbs dill, basil, oregano, thyme are represented. Fragrant star anise and anise seed stand beside seeds of other sorts fennel and cumin and coriander, caraway and celery. Six varieties of pepper, tiny cheesecloth bags of dried bouquet garni, yellow and black mustard seeds. This is a candy store of savory treats.
A corner cupboard is stocked with dry goods five kinds of lentils, pastas of different shapes and lengths, dried beans in white, pink, red and black, bags of rice and quinoa, boxes of couscous and cornmeal. Squeezed into the mix are various oils and vinegars.
Another cupboard houses rows of sugars and syrups and honey, extracts and dried fruit.
Although we have a loosely set time when recipes are tested, tasters know that between 10:30 and 11 a.m. the kitchen door is a line that one doesn’t easily cross. It’s crunch time, when dishes are tasted and adjusted, and tasted and adjusted once again. Recording exact measurements and accurate cooking times for published recipes requires a lot of concentration.
But at home, you may not have the luxury of this vacuum-sealed, well-stocked environment. A recent food survey discovered that few find the time to round out meals with side dishes. My own informal survey of co-workers and friends uncovers a few other truths about weeknight meals: Monday and Tuesday are the easier nights to prepare dinners. On Wednesday, we’re beginning to drag, by Thursday we’ve sagged completely. Friday night we may just give up and give in to take-out pizza or Thai food.
My personal weeknight reality often relies on leftovers from a Sunday night casserole or soup. I depend on foods that multi-task, such as seasoned canned tomatoes and pasta sauces. I avoid chopping parsley or snipping fresh herbs, using dried herbs instead. Frozen spinach is cut into blocks and wrapped separately in freezer bags. Individual chunks can be stirred into soups, sauces, pasta or rice, adding flavor and color, as well as nutrients. Tortillas and packages of shredded cheese are frozen for quickly layered quesadillas. There are so many great breads on the market, they are often my carb of choice to round out a meal. And my own Thursday night dilemma is resolved with a wedge of cheese, a few crackers and a salad or piece of fruit.
So, for one week in the Times kitchen, I wanted to challenge myself to the same limitations we all share at home. I would cook with just six seasonings, in addition to salt and pepper. Dried basil and oregano marry well with other flavors. Cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes add heat, sweet paprika another layer of spice. Curry powder or the more complex garam masala, the classic curry blend of northern India, are flavors that blend with many different foods. And ground cumin is the one spice I cannot live without.
Even though I always shop with a well-organized list, separating categories by vegetables, meat, dairy and extras, inevitably there are one or two forgotten ingredients. In this week’s plan, there was no time for extra trips to the grocery store.
So here’s how the week played out as I made recipes that provided about four servings each.
Monday may be a night when your batteries are still charged from the weekend, so take advantage of this reserve of energy and roast a large pan of vegetables seasoned with oregano and basil. Steamed or boiled vegetables can be overdone easily, but when roasted, the cooking times are more flexible. Baked at a high heat, sugars in the vegetables become concentrated, leaving them sweet, soft and savory.
Tonight some of the roasted vegetables will be tossed with pasta for a light main dish. The rest can be refrigerated and used as the base for a quick soup later in the week or as a side dish to chicken, fish or meat.
While the vegetables are roasting, bring a large pot of water to the boil for the pasta. Although we used mini penne pasta, you may have another tube or spiral shape on hand. Rigatoni, large penne, macaroni or fusilli are easily substituted. (A little extra pasta is boiled at the same time to be refrigerated and used to bulk up Thursday night’s vegetable soup.)
I was going to use some broth as a sauce in this dish, but I miscalculated what I would need for the week, so some of the pasta cooking water had to be used in its place. Water is often overlooked as an ingredient, but it’s invaluable when extra moisture is needed. Bump up the seasonings to compensate.
On Tuesday, skinless chicken breasts, marinated overnight in yogurt infused with spices, are baked with a drizzle of lemon juice. An additional, unseasoned chicken breast can also be baked for the next evening’s rice dish.
Spinach is a classic pairing with masala chicken. Our version is a flash-in-the-pan side dish with just a hint of garlic. Another side, Lemon Rice, is optional. A rice mix can take its place, or again, a piece of bread. (There’s a good reason it’s known as the staff of life.)
Wednesday’s dinner relies on basic food stuffs. Seasoned canned tomatoes with celery, green peppers and onions omit extra chopping. Rice and canned black beans supply protein, and the chicken breast baked the preceding night is shredded and added to the mix with frozen spinach. A simple salad or even sliced fruit adds some crunch.
A bowl of soup may be just the thing to replenish body and soul on a Thursday night. A portion of Monday’s roasted vegetables and the reserved cup of pasta are quickly simmered with Italian-seasoned canned tomatoes and some canned white beans. Dinner will be on the table in about 35 minutes.
How much do you have left on a Friday night? Order up an easy grilled sandwich of white cheddar cheese layered with pickled peppers or capers and tomatoes. Or order out. It’s certainly deserved.