Originally published June 25, 1997
By Kathy Casey, former Taste contributor
EVERYONE THINKS THAT, because I’m a chef, we have a fabulous gourmet meal at our house every night. Well, I’m like many of you: The last thing I feel like doing after a long day at work is cooking all evening, especially after I’ve been cooking all day.
The real trick to serving delicious meals at home is keeping a well-stocked pantry and cooking up lots of tasty elements when you have the time. The best habit for cooking efficiently is having your mise en place ready. This is a restaurant term that means having everything in its place. How do you think all those restaurant meals are put out so fast? Everything is somewhat prepped in advance: Stocks are made, some sauces are made ahead and finished right at the end, dry pasta is blanched, meats are marinated, vegetables cut and herbs chopped.
You can do this at home, too. Make a detailed list of what you’ll need for the recipes you’re preparing (so you don’t have to go to the store 50 times), then take a few hours some weekend and cook up a lot — and I mean a lot — of sauces and stocks and maybe make a marinade or two. Then, once a week, after grocery shopping, cut up the basics to have in your refrigerator, ready to go. And don’t limit your produce selection to just cutting up a few broccoli or cauliflower florets and slicing some carrots. Try something different, like quartered baby bok choy, some sliced Napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, along with a few snap peas.
I really like oven-roasted vegetables for their versatility — to toss in pastas, soups or even a bread salad. Everyone knows how to grill vegetables, but when you don’t want the hassle of firing up the grill, or it’s pouring rain outside, try tossing together some mushrooms, sliced Japanese eggplant and fennel bulb, cut-up red peppers and onion with a light drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkle on kosher salt. Roast them in a superhot, 550-degree oven until just tender. Cooled and refrigerated, they’ll keep for several days, ready for your next culinary concoctions.
So now, how about getting a big pot of what I call Toss in the Pot Tomato Sauce going on the stove, and letting it simmer while you’re doing other work at home? Throw a few cloves of garlic, a chopped onion and a red pepper in a big pot. Sauté them in olive oil with a pinch of red chili flakes, deglaze with a big splash of red wine and then throw in a couple pounds of Roma tomatoes. (I like Roma tomatoes for their year-round good flavor. Always ripen them at room temperature for a couple of days.) Slowly simmer this for one hour, then throw it in a blender, and you have a delicious and simple basic red sauce. Tuck away a little of it in the fridge, the rest in the freezer. You’re now ready for a great meal any time.
OK. Now what to do with this sauce? Well, what could be easier than cooking up some pasta? Don’t grab the cheapest pasta on the shelf; my choice is a high-quality, dry Italian pasta, like DeCecco, for its consistency and toothsome cooked texture.
Toss in some of your fabulous red sauce and a few of those handy roasted vegetables that you did a few days ago. I add chopped Kalamata olives that I always have in the fridge, and a pinch of pesto out of the freezer. (If you didn’t get to making a big batch of pesto last summer, then check out Armanino brand basil and sundried-tomato garlic pestos — you can find them in the freezer section of some grocers.) Voilà!
Now, just shave a little Reggiano Parmesan over the top, and you have a delicious, pain-free dish. Pair with a salad of baby greens trimmed with some citrusy balsamic vinaigrette, and a loaf of rustic bread from one of Seattle’s wonderful bakeries. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and you’re all set.
Remember to make a lot of this sauce, because tomorrow you can top grilled, Greek-seasoned chicken breasts with it, sprinkle a little feta cheese and serve up with herbed orzo. You can use it as a rich base for a quickie minestrone … or how about a spinach-ricotta lasagna? (Yes; you can buy the no-cook noodles and the flavored ricotta and use frozen spinach — because you have a great foundation for the dish: your rich tomato sauce.)