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Creating the Perfect Hearty Dinner
By Kirk Leins
December has arrived, and it's brought along some unfortunate baggage. It's freezing outside, our social calendars are booked solid, work is busier than ever, and our to-do lists are overwhelming. And, as if the cold and the chaos weren't enough to deal with, there's yet another challenge we face. I'm talking about the harsh demands of preparing weeknight dinners.
The dark and cold of winter creates a desire for warm, hearty meals, slow-cooked to a comforting perfection. You know what I'm talking about. Dishes such as a rich stew or an oven-baked lasagna seem to fit the bill. But, while these types of meals are delicious, we must also acknowledge the issues prohibiting them from assimilating into your weeknight dinner repertoire.
Time is probably the biggest obstacle, especially during the holiday season. At this time of the year, even full-time homemakers have difficulty getting dinner on the table. If each spouse has a job outside the home, the task of dinner-making can become even more challenging. The worst part – the aforementioned meals can take a while to prepare. Unfortunately for most of us, we don't have "a while" to devote to them.
Another issue with many slow-cooked, hearty dishes is their propensity for being highly caloric. While I'm not one to shy away from a decadent meal, I really don't like to eat this way consistently throughout the week. Like everyone else, I'm not getting any younger and that translates into working harder to maintain my weight, as well as mind my cholesterol levels.
The issue of calorie intake is one we face on a daily basis, but it is magnified in the month of December. We've just come off of Thanksgiving, and we're headed toward Hanukkah, Christmas, etc., and then New Year's – celebrations that are all known for their gigantic feasts. And of course the weeks that fall between these events are filled with parties.
So here's our objective for the next month or so. We want meals that are hearty and satisfying, but at the same time, wholesome and fairly easy on the waistline. These dinners need to be prepared quickly (let's say in under an hour), and they shouldn't include expensive or overly hard-to-find ingredients. Well, my friends, I'm here to say that this multi-faceted objective is entirely possible. Here are three recipes that will prove just that.
Pasta y Fagioli
Heat olive oil in a soup pot. Add onion, celery, carrot, and garlic, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, dried herbs, chicken stock, water, and cheese rind. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add beans and pasta, and continue to simmer until pasta is cooked – about another 8 minutes. Remove and discard cheese rind, and season soup with salt and pepper. Serve in bowls garnished with basil…and maybe another drizzle of olive oil.
Before we move on, I would like to quickly address one of the above ingredients. I'm talking about the rind of Parmesano Reggiano. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Reggiano is the best Parmesan cheese you can buy. It's available at most higher-end supermarkets, and it should always be your first choice when buying Parmesan. Anything else is pretty much second rate.
After you've grated off every last bit of cheese, save the rinds in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer, as they are great for flavoring soups or stews as they cook. The resulting taste is nothing short of unbelievable. But, don't worry. You can still make this soup even if you don't have a cheese rind on hand. It's still delicious.
The Butcher's Meal
The name of this dish is derived from its simple beginnings. It seems that English butchers from days of yore needed a way to use up the sausages that went unsold. Instead of reducing the price, or eventually throwing them away, they brought the sausages home and made the following meal.
In a deep skillet, boil water and blanch greens. Drain the greens in a colander, and wipe the skillet dry. In the same skillet, heat the olive oil and fry the sausage meat. Using a wooden spoon, break up the meat into small pieces. Add onion and garlic, and cook for approximately 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, beans, blanched greens, and herbs. Cover with a lid, and cook on low for 5 more minutes. If mixture is "tight", add a touch of tomato liquid. Season with salt and pepper, and serve in bowls with crusty bread.
It's really hard to describe this Butcher's Meal. It's not really a stew, a soup, or a chili, but rather a combination of all three. The best part is that it's very adaptable. Aside from substituting Italian turkey sausage for the pork version, a slew of vegetables can be added to this dish. Carrots, celery, bell peppers, mushrooms, leeks, corn; the list goes on.
In a large pot, heat oil until hot. Add onion and leeks, and sauté for 3 minutes. Add chicken stock and potatoes. Bring the stock to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Cover and allow the mixture to simmer for 20 minutes. Take the pot off the stove and, using an immersion blender, process until smooth. (You may also use either a blender or a food processor to process your soup. When doing so, simply allow the soup to cool slightly and work in batches.) Return the pot to the stovetop, and place over a low heat. Add the cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and allow the soup to simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Ladle into soup bowls and serve.
For a low-fat version of this soup, simply omit the cream and substitute extra chicken stock. Once again, almost anything you'd put atop your baked potato would work as a topping for this soup; sour cream, chives, cheese, bacon, crispy shallots, and minced scallions are all tremendous additions. Serve your soup alongside a green salad, and you've got a complete meal.
I think it's safe to say that we've taken a very positive step towards ridding December of its dinner-making baggage. Make no mistake, you can have the best of all worlds: a hearty yet healthy dinner that doesn't require any exotic ingredients or a lot of time to prepare. Making it a reality lies in your hands.
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at EGcuisine@gmail.com.
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