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Column Mon Jan 11 2010

Cook Your New Resolutions

Roasted lamb shanks

Braised Lamb Shanks with Chard

Ah, New Year. Hangovers abound, gym membership purchases and attendance are up, lists of resolutions are long and well-intentioned, mine included. And after talking to a few people I know that several folks have mentioned that they want to cook more at home, learn to cook better, and they want to save money. And since part of my list of resolutions is to write more columns about cooking for this site that I love and miss, I figured if I could help other people keep their resolutions while keeping mine, then it would be a win-win.

Eating more at home and learning to cook better go hand in hand. Every time you do something, you get better at it for the next time. You make homemade spaghetti sauce one time, the next time you find you don't have to look at the recipe as frequently, the third time maybe you get the courage to substitute oregano for basil, the forth time you've got the basics understood enough that you only glance at the recipe briefly, and by the fifth time you're able to say "Oh, it's so easy. All you do is . . ."

Saving money can begin at the grocery store and if you plan on cooking more then you'll make both of these goals happen at the same time. If you're cooking more, then you're going to the grocery store more, if you go to the grocery store more you buy more food, but you're likely to have the ability to buy things when they're cheap more often.

Right now, while your intentions are strong and your motivation is high, create a list of 10 dishes you like to eat that you don't think are too hard to cook during the week. Stick with dishes that you've made before or that you know you can make without too much fear. You're trying to fill your belly and enjoy your time cooking, not win an award. For example my list would be:

Spaghetti with red sauce
Simple Baked fish
Sam Giancana's Last Supper
Chicken and Broccoli Stir-Fry
Saag Paneer
Kielbasa and Potatoes
Sauteed Shrimp with Mushrooms over Rice
Grilled Pork Tenderloin and vegetables
Chicken Soup
Cauliflower with Chickpeas and Mustard Seeds

All of these dishes can be made in 40 minutes or less, none of them require a great deal of work, and they're all things where the ingredients will last for several days in the refrigerator, just in case I just can't bear to cook one evening and pick up something on my way home instead. Now that you've got a list of dishes, decide that you're going to cook these all this month. That's 10 dishes over 30 days, or if you're extra-sure about yourself, make them over the next two weeks. Just remember that you're going for improvement, not perfection. And you can make these dishes in amounts that are larger than you need so you have leftovers for lunch or for other dinners.

Now pick out four dishes that you know are going to take a longer time, but that you want to cook. You'll want more brain power for these dishes so step outside your comfort zone for some of them, but maybe not all of them. Mine are:

Braised Lamb Shanks with Chard
Boston Baked Beans
Chile Relleno

These are things that require longer cooking times and in a few cases a little more hands on time than the average weeknight dish. But they seem doable, they sound appealing for cold weather eating, and they're things that seem worth the extra time involved to make them. If you make all 14 of these dishes this month, I promise that you'll be a better cook at the end of the month than you were at the beginning. Just cooking regularly will make you better able to cook.

Now, how do you go about saving money while you cook more? Cause if you're cooking more, you're going to have to buy more food, right? Yes, but you'll be buying ingredients which tend to be cheaper than pre-packaged food (unless you're buying beef tenderloin). But if you're usually buying ramen noodles at 5 for a dollar, you're going to spend more than you're used to. But your enjoyment of food should increase.

My first suggestion on how to spend less on your grocery bill while resisting the temptation of buying pre-packaged food, is to stop shopping at chain grocery stores. Look for independent grocers and butchers that usually tend to cater to one type of ethnicity. If you live in the Loop or in Lakeview or Lincoln Park, this may not be as easy. But in most neighborhoods in Chicago, you should be able to wander down a major thoroughfare and see businesses that advertise groceries in the window, even if you can't understand what the signs say.

When you walk in the store, wander the perimeter first. Look at the produce and their meat counter. You may be very surprised to find that these prices are cheaper than you're used to. Now go look at the prices of the boxes of cereal and frozen dinners and if they have them, I bet they're more expensive than what you're used to spending.

Determine what the ethnicity is of the average shopper. This may help you plan future menus. For example, since I live near Devon Avenue I can get super-cheap lamb shanks from a variety of places that are honestly better than those of what I can get at the German butcher not too away from my neighborhood. But it also means that getting pork is darned near impossible.

Write down the names of the cuts of meat you don't recognize, the produce you're not used to seeing, the names of dried beans, the pasta types, the variety of flours, etc. Spend a little time with Google and you'll be able to find recipes and cooking techniques for these items that will broaden the boundaries of your comfort zone while saving you money, getting you to cook more, and getting you to eat food that is most likely better for you, too. It's seriously a total win.

And to get you started, here are two easy recipes for dishes that you should be able to find the ingredients for easily and that are quicker to make, and one recipe that will take a bit more work but that will be worth the payoff in the end.

Saag Paneer
1 pound frozen spinach
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)
1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small tomato, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 can of chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup plain yogurt
8 ounces of paneer (or any other firm white cheese you can find)

Thaw the spinach. Grab handfuls of it and squeeze as much of the water out of it as you can. Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, chopped onion and spices. Cook while while stirring frequently until the onion is translucent but not yet brown. Toss in the jalapeño, garlic, tomato, and salt. Stir constantly for 1 minute. Stir in the broth and the frozen spinach. Let the contents cook until almost all of the water has evaporated. Stir frequently to keep it from sticking. Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the yogurt and the cheese. Let it cook for just a minute or two, or until the cheese is warm. Serve immediately over basmati rice. Makes 2 servings

Weeknight Chicken Soup
This may not be the most authentic way to make chicken soup, but as a quick dinner, it's not bad.

1 tablespoon oil or butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 clove minced garlic
1 tablespoon fresh herb (or 1 teaspoon dried basil, parsely, or oregano)
2 cans chicken broth
1/2 pound raw chicken breast, chopped (leftover chicken pieces)
1/4 cup small pasta, or 1/2 cup large pasta
salt and pepper to taste

Chop all the vegetables, Place a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the oil to the pan with the onion, celery, and carrot. Let it cook for 9 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft and the onion is starting to brown. Stir frequently to prevent sticking. Once the vegetables are stirred through, add the garlic and herbs. Lower the meat to medium and pour in the chicken broth with the chicken. Stir frequently and let the mixture simmer for 5-7 minutes, or until the chicken is barely pink in the center. Add in the pasta (you can vary the amount of pasta based on how filling you want the soup to be), and cook according to the package directions or until the pasta is cooked. Taste before seasoning with salt and pepper. Makes 2-3 servings

Braised Lamb Shanks with Chard
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 lamb shanks
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
2 carrots, thinly sliced
2 cups of red or white wine
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 bay leaves
2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
1 pound chard, stems cut out of the leaves

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F. Use a Dutch oven or other pan with an oven proof lid. Or you can begin the dish in a skillet and transfer to a large baking vessel with a lid. Place the Dutch oven or skillet over medium high heat. Use paper towels to pat the meat dry and then sprinkle them liberally with the salt and pepper. Add the oil to the pan and place a few in the pan. Let them cook for 3-4 minutes on each side so they're browned evenly. You may have to do this in batches so don't try crowding them all in the pan.

Place the shanks on a plate to rest and add the onion, celery and carrot to the pan. Cook it for 7-9 minutes, or just until the onion is starting to soften. Pour the wine into the pan and stir so you detach anything stuck to the bottom of the pan. Remove it from the heat and place the lamb in the pan. Add the chicken broth and sprinkle the rosemary and bay leaves over the top. Try to keep all of the meat covered by water. Place the pan in the middle of the oven and bake for 3 hours. Turn the meat over every half hour so it cooks evenly.

Once the meat is starting to fall off the bone, remove the shanks from the pan and cover them to keep them warm. Skim off as much of the fat as you can and place the Dutch oven over high heat. You may have to pour the liquid back into the skillet if you used a different baking dish. Let the sauce come to a boil and let it cook until it is reduced and starting to thicken. Turn the heat to low. Tear the leaves into large pieces and place it in the pan. Return the lamb to the pan, cover it and let it cook for 2-3 minutes. The chard shall be wilted. You can serve one shank per person, or you can remove the meat from the bones, break it into smaller pieces, and serve. This will go great over mashed potatoes, rice, or noodles.

Tip on bone marrow The shanks will have an ounce or two of bone marrow in them. This may sound gross, and the texture is something that may not be pleasant for everyone, but you can use a chopstick or a thinner long handle to poke the marrow out of the bone and into the pan after you've removed the meat and fat. If you stir this into the remaining liquid, it will improve the texture and thickness of the sauce. It can also be served as is, spread over toasted bread. Serves 4.

So here are two fairly easy and quick dishes, and one dish that is still fairly easy but will take a bit more work to prepare. Hopefully you'll be able to find that making these dishes makes your tummy and budget happy, and helps you make good on one of those resolutions you've got kicking around. If you've got questions related to food, don't hesitate to send them to

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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