A couple weeks ago, I roasted a chicken and made some gravy to go with it and the mashed potatoes I'd prepared, and it was so good I had to restrain myself from drinking it. Seriously. My friend Tippi used to make fun of how country his coworkers were by saying they thought gravy was a vegetable. Many a hard-pressed Southern mama has fed her brood on rice and gravy for dinner every night. Biscuits and sausage gravy are pure heaven for breakfast. And it's so easy! All you need is a little fat, flour, salt and pepper, and liquid. It takes a little practice and you know I don't have any exact measurements, but once you get the hang of it, you have a valuable cullinary skill and a tasty meal in a pinch. There are two basic types of gravy: brown gravy and milk gravy.
Brown (or Chicken) Gravy
After roasting or searing meat or chicken, remove from pan. If the remaining liquid is especially fatty, tip the pan and spoon off some of the fat that rises to the top. You need at least a thin sheen of fat covering the bottom of the pan or skillet, though. You may need to add a little oil or butter if your meat was lean. Now sprinkle flour over the hot oil/fat, stirring constantly. Start with a scant 1/4 cup or even less. You are making a roux. You want the flour to absorb the oil and brown a little. Too much flour to too little fat and it will ball up, making for lumpy gravy. (If that happens, you can salvage the finished product with an immersion blender.) Once your roux has cooked and browned for a minute, add liquid, still stirring or whisking steadily. I used boxed chicken broth for the chicken gravy that was so drinkable. You can add a little red wine to beef gravy to add depth and make it fancier. Any broth will do. You want to add broth until it's too thin, then cook and stir for a couple minutes until it thickens, seasoning with salt and pepper. The longer it cooks, the more it will thicken. You can do this several times, adding more broth and cooking it down again, to concentrate the flavors.
Milk Gravy (preferably with sausage)
I do not like milk gravy much, unless it's sausage gravy. Milk gravy is typically served at breakfast, with biscuits, but it also comes on country fried or chicken fried steak. It involves the exact same process as above, except you use milk in place of the broth. If it's breakfast, you can use the fat from frying bacon or sausage, or you can use butter.
In a large skillet, brown and crumble one roll of breakfast sausage (instead of making patties, just slice open the whole roll and break it up as you brown it). I like Jimmy Dean's reduced fat sausage. If you have a lot of fat once the meat has browned, drain off all but a couple tablespoons. Sprinkle flour over the sausage and stir until you have what look like little sausage balls. You won't have a roux so much as you will have little browned, flour-coated balls of sausage. Now add about a cup of milk, then cook and stir over medium heat. The flour will melt into the milk and thicken the gravy. If it looks too thick after a few minutes, add more milk. Serve over split biscuits. Breakfast heaven!
As I was thumbing through my overstuffed but mostly unconsulted recipe book looking for party foods this week, I happened upon the Chicken Mareno recipe I made for a "bring food day" in high school French class. It was large and complicated, involving two whole chickens and several steps. Too much for a weeknight dinner, but I got a craving for the flavors it involved. Inspired by the chance to put a dent in my dinner rut, I decided to shoot for the same effect in a quick, easy, staple-using version. The result was colorful, tasty, and the kids who actually eat real food ate it all up, much to my surprise. I wish I'd taken a picture! I served it over brown rice, so it was also a pretty healthy, low-fat dinner. Yeah, yeah, I know you think you don't like brown rice, but it's good! Just try it. It tastes great with this recipe.
This made 4 good-sized servings plus two kid-sized, but you could easily increase that by adding another chicken breast and can of tomatoes and adjusting the seasonings a little. Oh! This also gave me a chance to use some of the fresh herbs growing in my new courtyard herb garden, but you can easily use dried or whatever you have on hand.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into about 1-inch cubes 2 cans diced tomatoes 1 cup garbonzo beans (I used half a can because I'm skittish, but you could use more or less) 1/2 cup green olives, coarsely chopped 2 Tbsp capers, optional 3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced dash white wine or vermouth if you have it 1/2 cup to a cup chicken broth (I'm telling you, keep a box in the fridge to use as needed) sea salt, red pepper, dash of turmeric if you have it (gives it a pretty and authentic-looking yellow sheen), fresh herbs like parsley, oregano, thyme, or a little dried of whatever similar you have on hand.
Start your rice cooking. I used 2 cups uncooked brown rice in a rice cooker, which took about 45 minutes.
In a large, deep-sided skillet or Dutch oven, heat a Tbsp or two of olive oil and brown the chicken. Add garlic and sautee for about 30 seconds. Add wine or vermouth if using (vermouth is just shelf-stable, fortified wine--you didn't know that, did you?) and/or chicken broth and stir a minute until slightly reduced. Add tomatoes, chickpeas, and all remaining ingredients EXCEPT fresh herbs if using. Simmer, covered, over medium heat for 20 minutes or until rice is done. If using fresh herbs, you should always wait to add them in the last 5 minutes or so of cooking, because high heat destroys their flavor. Serve over rice (pasta would work too).
I have only developed a taste, or even tolerance, for Asian food in the past couple of years. The problem is that a lot of Asian food, especially the Americanized kind, hits on two of my biggest food issues: sweet and savory together, and random bits of crunchy unknown veggies in my food. I realize this make me a freak, but I do not find the idea of sugared meat to be even slightly appealing. This means I don't like anything called "glazed" that is not a doughnut (and even then, eh), or anything called "sweet and sour" or "hot and sweet." If it's not dessert, I don't want it to be in any way sweet. So you see how that could be a problem with the Chinese takeout.
However, with a bit of experimenting, I've found a few things that I enjoy, and recently I've ventured into cooking some Asian-inspired dinners. Now, let's be clear. I do not in any way think these dishes are authentic, but they're generally quick, easy, and tasty. I made this a week or so and it was a hit. I've since made a version with chicken instead of the beef, and it was also good but slightly less flavorful.
1 lb (or more) beef stew meat marinade of some sort fresh garlic, minced 2-3 cups frozen broccoli florets *other veggies like onions and sliced red peppers if desired chicken broth (I buy the boxed kind that can stay in the fridge so you use as much as you need) corn starch Hoisin sauce 2 cups uncooked white rice Soy sauce
I cut my stew meat into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Into a gallon-sized zip-lock bag, I put a little olive oil, a little dale's (beef marinade that is too salty and strong to use straight, but great if you add just a little to other stuff), some Asian five-spice powder, soy sauce, a dash of rice vinegar, and a little water, mixed it all up, tossed in the beef, and let it all sit for a while.
At cooking time, I put my rice on to cook. I recently read that adding a tbsp or two of rice vinegar to the cooking water significantly lowers the glycemic index rating of the rice, and I was all proud since I was already doing that because Warren told me to, and he knows how to make sushi. You can make more rice if your kids will eat a lot of it. Meanwhile, heat a little oil of some sort in a large skillet or wok. I don't own a wok yet, so I just used my big deep skillet. Mince your garlic and throw it into the oil, then about 30 seconds later, add your beef. When beef is browned on all sides, add some chicken broth, (we'll say a cup? I do not actually ever use a recipe and I don't measure anything, so...), about 1 tbsp Hoisin sauce, and the broccoli. Season as desired and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until meat is cooked through and broccoli is hot but not too soggy. Thicken broth with a little corn starch (follow the directions on the box for thickening liquids). That's it! Serve over rice with soy sauce and Rooster sauce on the side if you like it spicy.
Calzones can be an easy, tasty dinner, and are easily customizable for different family members and their tastes. I use refrigerated dough because I usually don't have time to deal with yeast and such, but if you like to make your own crust, you can certainly do that. I'd say that one roll of refrigerated store-bought dough makes a calzone large enough to be dinner for three or four adults or 4 kids, depending on what else you serve with it and how hungry your people are. You can also cut the dough in half and make two smaller ones with different fillings. Here's a filling I really like, but you can put pretty much anything you want in there. Oddly, I tend to shy away from ricotta in a calzone, even though I generally like it.
1 roll refrigerated pizza dough, or homemade crust enough for one pizza 1 lb Italian sausage, (no casings) 1 carton fresh mushrooms, sliced 1 10-oz box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry. 1 to 2 cups shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese
In a large, deep skillet, brown Italian sausage, breaking it up as it cooks. Drain fat and return to skillet. Add sliced mushrooms and saute a few minutes, until soft. Add spinach and stir to combine mixture and heat spinach through.
On baking stone or cookie sheet, unroll and spread out the dough. Place filling along one half, leaving a couple inches around the margin to seal. Sprinkle with cheese. Fold the empty half of dough over the filling and press edges together to seal the dough. Crimp sealed edge with a fork if desired. Cut a few small slits in top crust so steam can escape. If you want to be fancy, you can brush the top with an egg wash and sprinkle with parmesan, but you don't have to. Bake in a 375 oven for 15 or 20 minutes, or until the crust looks done. (Be careful of the top crust over-browning before the bottom one is quite done. If you think this is happening, tent a piece of foil over it.) Let stand at least 5 minutes before serving. Serve with marinara sauce over the the top or on the side of each portion.