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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, August 8

Gapers Block

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I found myself at the grocery store with a slight headache from being hungry and without a list. To make it worse, I found myself at a large chain grocery store with thousands of options and acres of shelving while feeling very hungry.

I knew I needed soy milk and sandwich fixings. I also wanted a box of cereal to go with the soy milk. I told myself I would get these things and get out. But as I walked in, the smell of fried chicken wafting from the deli counter made me salivate and I was honestly tempted to get a piece to eat while I walked around the store. I convinced myself that I wasn't that desperately hungry and got the few things I needed when I remembered that I wanted frozen veggies.

I know it is harvest season and I should be stocking up on fresh veggies, but the fresh veggies at this store looked mighty sad. And I knew that there would be several nights over the next two weeks where I'd be rushed for making dinner so I figured a few bags of frozen veggies would be better for me than giving in to the potato chip sale on the aisle endcap.

But as I walked down the freezer section to find the veggies, I started reading the labels on the frozen dinner packaging. And darn if some of them didn't sound good. There were new varieties since I'd last browsed this aisle a few months back. And as I found myself reaching for a package that "sounded great," I stopped myself. I understood just how tempting these dishes were, with their beautiful pictures of tasty food and ingredient lists that are far shorter on the front of the package than the back. Most people go to the grocery store after work when they're hungry and brain-dead, or on a weekend when the screaming kids and the blaring TVs and the PA system's series of beeps and whistles are enough to make you grab anything you can and just get out.

So, I decided that instead of giving in to my hungered impulses, I would find ways to recreate those meals that I knew sounded better than they would actually end up tasting. Penne Pasta with Vegetables in a Vodka Cream Sauce, Picante Chicken and Pasta with Black Beans, and Salmon with Basil and Orzo almost ended up in my shopping cart, but now they can end up on your dinner table.

Penne Pasta with Chicken, Peas and Tomatoes in a Vodka Cream Sauce
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1/2 pound of chicken breast tenderloins
1 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons of freshly chopped basil
1/4 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1/4 cup of vodka
1 pound of whole wheat penne pasta
1/2 cup of frozen peas
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup of sour cream (fat free or lowfat is OK)

Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat. Increase the heat to medium-high. Trim off any bits of bone or cartilage from the chicken and place the breasts in the skillet. Let them cook on each side for about 3 minutes. You may have to do this in two batches. Remove the chicken from the skillet and let it rest on a plate. (The chicken isn't cooked through at this point. Partially cooking the chicken will permit us to bring it back to the skillet to warm up later without overcooking the chicken and making it chewy.)

Add the garlic slices to the oil and let it cook for a minute or two until it becomes fragrant. Pour the can of tomatoes into the skillet and stir. Let this cook for about 10 minutes, which will cause some of the liquid to evaporate. Add the basil, sugar, red pepper flakes and a large pinch of salt. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. While that boils, reduce the heat to low and stir in the vodka. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta to the water and the peas to the sauce. Once the peas have cooked for about 3-4 minutes, stir in the sour cream and add the chicken. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper as needed. Once the pasta is done cooking, drain it and add it to the skillet. Stir to coat the pasta and then serve.
Makes four servings as a main dish or six to eight as a side.

Picante Chicken and Black Beans with Pasta in an Ancho Chile Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 dried ancho chiles
1/2 of a small chopped onion
1/2 of a yellow or green bell pepper cut into thin strips
1/2 pound of chicken breast tenderloins
2 small chopped tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 cup of chicken or vegetable broth
1 can of black beans
1 pound of whole wheat farfalle pasta
(If you don't normally like whole wheat pasta, you may find that the sweetness of the pasta matches well with the spicy sauce.)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Place the peppers on a small bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them soak for about 15 minutes to soften. Reserve one cup of the water. Remove the stems and the seeds and chop them finely. Bring a heavy skillet to a medium-high heat. Add the oil, chiles, onion, bell pepper and the chicken breast and cook for about 4-5 minutes, or until the onions are tender and translucent. Add the tomatoes, cumin, chicken broth and 1 cup of the reserved water. Stir to combine. Add the black beans and let this simmer uncovered while the pasta cooks. Once the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to the plates. Serve the chicken and sauce over the pasta and enjoy.
Makes four servings as a main dish or six to eight as a side.

Salmon and Spinach in a Lemon, Basil Sauce
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/2 of a small onion sliced thinly
1 carrot cut into juliened strips (to look like the package, or thin half-moons to save sanity and time)
1 pound of whole wheat orzo pasta
1/2 pound of salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch squares
3 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander (optional)
1 pound of spinach leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Place one tablespoon of olive oil into a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot and let them cook for about 5-7 minutes or until the onions have gone from translucent to just starting to brown. Reduce the heat to low and let this cook until the water is boiling. Add the pasta to the water, stir and let it cook while you add the salmon, basil, spinach and lemon juice to the skillet. Stir to combine and then cover and let it cook for about 3 minutes. The skillet will be packed full, but the spinach will reduce significantly in mass. Stir it every few minutes while the pasta cooks. Once the pasta is ready, increase the heat on the skillet to medium high and drain the pasta. Stir in 1/2 cup of the pasta water and the pasta into the skillet. Let it cook for just another minute or two until the water steams off before serving.
Makes four servings as a main dish or six to eight as a side.

These are all quick dishes that can be ready to feed a family, a couple with leftovers, or to prepare a collection of your own homemade, frozen dinners to take to work. They all cook in 20 minutes or less, which is a small time investment and one that most brain-dead wage slaves can manage. The important thing is to have your shopping list ready before you get to the store. Plan a few meals out ahead of time and shop so you have all the ingredients you need. In fact, I'll even provide you with the shopping list you need to make all three of these meals to get you started. I'll even organize them to make it easier as you travel blindly around the store. You may have some of these ingredients, but every ingredient used above is listed below.

olive oil
small onion
1 carrot
fresh basil
1 lemon
yellow or green bell pepper
2 small tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
1 pound of fresh spinach leaves
1/2 pound of salmon fillet or chunks
1 pound of chicken breast tenderloins
1 pound of whole wheat farfalle pasta
1 pound of whole wheat orzo pasta
1 pound of whole wheat penne pasta
8 ounces of chicken or vegetable broth
1 can of black beans
1 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes
ground coriander (optional)
2 dried ancho chiles
red pepper flakes
frozen peas
sour cream

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kate / August 28, 2007 3:04 PM

This is great. Could you do more weeknight meals with shopping lists? You're not alone in your grocery store paralysis.

And I'll give you a million dollars if you could do a week of single-person meals with shopping list.

Cinnamon / August 29, 2007 10:07 PM

Thanks, Kate. I don't know why I didn't think of this earlier so expect to see shopping lists more often. I like the idea of people printing the list and going to the store.

And a million dollars, eh? How about a beer at a Gapers Block Get Together? (There happens to be one on Friday.)

ataraxy / September 3, 2007 5:45 PM

These are great! My fiancé and I are moving in to a new place in a month, and we have a lovely kitchen with water pressure (neither of us has that now) AND among the other new appliances, a dishwasher. I'm going to take your list around the corner to HarvesTime and make some yummy dinners! Or teach him how to do it.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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