You’ve got the in-laws coming for the first time – and you’re cooking. Or it’s the first time you’ve cooked for a new amour. Or you just want to be able to cook for yourself, but this time, make something that’s a tiny bit sophisticated, but still a little bit economical. And you want to take leftovers to work that will impress your friends and wow your enemies.
Your first go-to cuisine would be Italian – of course. You could look up virtually anything Marcella Hazan has ever written, in any of her seven-plus cookbooks – or you could start with two simple dishes, one with chicken and one with fish. Then you might venture into curry – a good mild green version that goes with any kind of protein and any kind of rice or vegetables, to please those diners who have restrictions on dairy or additives or alcohol.
Finally, a real macaroni and cheese, one that begins with a classic béchamel. You can change it up with bacon or lobster or broccoli or poblanos and bake it in zucchini boats or individual ramekins.
All of these dishes serve 4 and microwave or reheat easily.
Get a bottle of real Marsala from the liquor store for this dish; it’s not the same with other fortified wines or the grocery-store variety, no matter what the Internet tells you. Pair this Italian classic with tiny roasted red potatoes. Serves 4.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast tenders, pounded to ¼ inch thick
- 1 mild yellow onion or three shallots, sliced in thin half-moons
- 1 pound cremini mushrooms, chopped into quarters
- 1 cup Marsala
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons butter
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly salt and pepper each pounded chicken tender. Saute the breasts, a few at a time, for a few minutes on each side until no longer pink; remove to a plate and cover with foil.
Add the onions or shallots and mushrooms to the pan, with a little more oil if necessary. Saute, scraping up any browned bits, until all the oil is absorbed, about 7 minutes. Add the Marsala and flame it if you can to burn off the alcohol. If the mushrooms have released too much water to flame the wine, no worries; just continue to simmer until the alcohol has cooked off. Add the chicken broth and continue to simmer until reduced by half; add the butter. Return the chicken tenders to the pan and heat through for about a minute each side. Serve at once.
Salmon, wine, butter, lemon – what’s not to love? Thin salmon filets will cook very quickly, so have the artichokes and peppers diced first, and the rice or pasta or vegetable pasta (zucchini noodles work well) that you’ll serve it with ready to go. Serves 4.
- 4 4-ounce salmon fillets, skin off
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed or avocado oil
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 4 tablespoons lemon juice (about two large lemons or three small)
- 4 grilled piquillo peppers, diced small
- 7- to 8-ounce jar of artichokes in water, sliced into ribbons
- 3 tablespoons capers
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
Warm 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sear the salmon about 3 minutes on each side, until barely flaky. Remove to a plate and cover with a second plate to keep warm. Add the second tablespoon of oil if necessary; sear the second pair of filets and keep warm as well.
Add the wine and lemon juice to the same skillet, scraping up any bits of salmon. Boil to reduce to half the volume. Add peppers, artichokes, capers and butter; stir to heat through, until the butter is melted.
Plate the salmon fillets on a bed of cooked pasta, rice or vegetable noodles; ladle the sauce over each filet, dividing the capers, peppers and artichokes among the portions. Serve immediately.
Smoky Mac and Cheese
This is a dish that lets you enjoy your company (or put them to work tossing a salad) while the casserole heats up. There are a million variations on the internet, so if you want to add lobster or pancetta to make it fancy, go for it. But this simple version is plenty special and can star as the centerpiece of a homey, welcoming meal. You can easily make it gluten free by using your favorite gluten-free flour blend, glutinous rice flour or sweet white sorghum flour instead of wheat flour. Serves 4.
- 12 ounces pasta
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 3 cups milk, at room temperature
- 6 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
- 6 ounces smoked gouda, shredded
- 1 ounce Parmesan, shredded
- 1 teaspoon smoked, regular, or truffle salt
- Fresh ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
Cook the pasta according to package directions with the following exception: Check on it starting about 4 minutes before it is supposed to be done to avoid overcooking it. You want the pasta al dente. Drain (if using gluten-free pasta, strain into a mixing bowl and reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid in case the cheese sauce is too thick.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the three shredded cheeses together until evenly combined; set aside. In a skillet over medium heat (medium low if using gluten-free flour), melt the butter; don’t let it become brown. Whisk in the flour, keeping it moving until the mixture is well blended and just begins to change color, about 5 minutes (1 minute if gluten-free flour is used), making sure the mixture has no lumps. Add the milk slowly, whisking constantly as the mixture thickens, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat; add ¾ of the grated cheeses, about a scant handful at a time, stirring constandly. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
Stir in the cooked pasta; if needed for the gluten-free version, add some of the reserved water to thin the mixture to thin it slightly. Pour into an 8-by-8-inch casserole. Top with the remaining cheese; sprinkle with the paprika. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the top is brown and melted.
Green Curry with Vegetables
Curry takes some specialty ingredients, but once you’ve got those, it’s relatively fast and easy. You can make it an all-vegetable dish or add your favorite protein – shrimp, chicken, strips of flatiron steak, or seared tofu. Serves 4.
- 1 tablespoon avocado or coconut oil
- ¼ cup green curry paste (available in Asian sections of larger grocers)
- 2 teaspoons peeled, grated fresh ginger (or 1 teaspoon powdered)
- Pinch of dried chile flakes or Thai chiles, optional
- 4 cups of mixed vegetables: Bell pepper strips, carrot slices, green beens, broccoli or cauliflower florets, onion half-slices, snow peas, zucchini or summer squash. Include bamboo shoots or baby corn if you like.
- 2 cups of cooked protein: strips of steak leftovers, seared tempeh, cooked shrimp, leftover rotisserie chicken or pork loin
- 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, preferably homemade
- 1 can coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- Lime wedges (at least two per person)
- Cilantro sprigs (optional)
In a large saucepot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the curry paste, ginger and chiles, if desired. Cook about 1 minute, until the ginger begins to give off its scent. Add broth; then add the vegetables, with the onions first, then the densest (broccoli and cauliflower) first; if using, hold the snow peas out. Add protein, then the coconut milk and fish sauce; simmer until heated through and vegetables are slightly tender. Add the snow peas at the very last; simmer for only a few minutes. Taste to correct seasoning. Garnish with lime wedges and cilantro, if desired; serve over jasmine rice or rice noodles.