What a busy vegan I have been! Not a day off from work in two weeks!
Of course, this has killed a little bit of the drive to tackle four hour baking adventures or start every meal from scratch endeavors, but have faith, Food-Romance, like real romance, wanes and grows. It's a phase.
With such a time crunch, the extent of my cooking has been cooking up beans and rice for dinner and toasting a bagel to dip into dense soups. It would all be pretty awesome, if the beans and soup didn't come from a can and the bagels were end of day leftovers from Starbucks. My life has been pretty darn Food-Tolerate lately
So, amidst all of the chaos, I found myself in a food bind. I have a little bit of a reputation among my friends. They know that when they come over to my house, odds are I'll come up with some little creative meal which I will lovingly present to them, complete with crudites and dessert. Unfortunately, in the hustle and bustle of life and work (maybe I should flip those, I've been working alot more than living lately), I forgot that I had invited another couple over for dinner one night this past week after work.
I came through with a lovely mushroom stew that was just perfect for a drizzly April evening complemented by a simple spinach salad with walnutes and cranberries and a light red wine vinaigrette. We passed on dessert in leiu of just enjoying a mellow cup of coffee and conversation. And I did it all with about 45 minutes of prep.
There are a few good rules to follow if you are the type of person who likes to cook for others. You should probably know them if you like to cook for yourself, too:
1) Be realistic about your time frame and capabilities. I almost always short change myself and wind up running around like a madman in the last few minutes before guests arrive.
2) Have a few quality convenience foods in your pantry and be willing to think outside of the box (and the directions on it). Many people probably had mothers who would doctor up a Betty Crocker cake mix. I'm asking that you be adventurous with soups, pastas, and other insta-dinners, but only the tasty ones that are reasonably heathful (avoid unidentifiable chemical ingredients when possible, high sodium content, etc).
3) Keep your kitchen stocked with good staples. Keep a nice selection of spices (make sure they aren't stale) and quality oils and vinegars. Always have a variety of beans and rice on hand. We get a weekly organic delivery of fruits and veggies (although the selection varies), and we supplement it at the store. You can do so much if you only have some great basics on hand.
4) Know your outs. Is there a well-stocked grocery store on your commute path? A local bakery with a few blocks of your home? Where is the closest farmer's market and what days/hours is it available to you? On a short notice (think ten minutes), where would you go to make sure that you have the best ingredients and odds and ends in case of a food emergency (such as running out of garlic--o no!)?
5) Have a few bottles of wine on hand. Keep the selection diverse (reds, whites, sweet, dry, heavy, light) so that you will be able to find something suitable on the fly. A word of advice: Don't break the bank on wine if your friends can't tell the difference in quality of wine. I keep several cheap, but acceptable bottles of wine on hand, a few fairly nice, well ranked bottles, and strive to have one or two I wouldn't be ashamed to share with my father-in-law. I think that's a good balance. No need to waste great wine on great friends who couldn't care less.
6. Even if you bomb as a cook, be flexible and keep the ambiance pleasant. Music, lighting, company, and conversation will make up for a great deal of error. And just in case, keep a few local takeout menus on hand. That way if you destroy dinner, everyone can sit around with chinese food and laugh about it
So I've laid down some easy entertaining guidelines, now I'll funnel it down to my plans. I was willing to get up about a half hour early to do some prep and I knew that I'd have about twenty minutes after work (during which, my lovely husband would be on hand to help). I needed a plan.
I started with Imagine Portobello Mushroom bisque, which is a thick, earthy mushroom soup that I really enjoy with a good crusty bread for dipping. It served as a wonderful base for the thick mushroom stew that I prepared for my friends that evening.
That morning, I started out by cooking a cup of rice. We happened to have a lovely blend of wild and brown rices that are "fast cook." Convenience rice is great to have on hand, particularly for these moments of limited time, but avoid the bland boil-in-a-bags. They have absolutely NO flavor. While the rice was cooking, I diced up some organic carrots and yellow onion that I just happened to have on hand. Additionally, I had over-purchased mushrooms for last week's hazelnut mushroom burgers, so I had both shitake and baby bellas to chop up. I pressed in three cloves of garlic and sauted the carrots, onions, mushrooms, and garlic with a gentle drizzle of EVOO. Everything smelled absolutely phenomenal!
Next, I dumped a can of butter beans, my cooked rice, sauteed veggies, and one 8 oz package of vegtable base into my crockpot and gave it a quick stir. The final step was to pour in the box of Imagine Portobello Mushroom soup and give the crockpot one final stir. I set it to low and proceeded to get ready for work and leave.
I returned a few hours later to do the final preparation. I stopped at the grocery store to pick up organic baby spinach and loaf of some crusty Italian bread.
A lovely vinaigrette is simple to make by just combining olive oil and your choice of vinegar (remembering that the final product will only ever be as delicious as the quality of ingredients that you use). Add a bit of salt & pepper. I threw in a touch of sugar and dijon mustard and shook it up! I tossed a bit (start light, let people add more table-side if they prefer) with my baby spinach, plated the greens and added a few crushed walnuts and dried cranberries. I'll admit, this salad used to be my favorite with a little bit of crumbled goat cheese, but I did without and it was still delicious.
By the time the guests arrived, the table was set, we had a lovely salad before us, and we dove in. The soup was equally enjoyable. Was it a meal that required hours of prep and sweat in the kitchen? No. Did they know that? Only because I was still wearing my work clothes and clearly hadn't the time to prep for hours.
A note on the crock pot: I've used it for all imaginable things. I've made cakes, dips, roasts (back when I ate them), soups, and more. I have three different sizes! Nowadays, I stick to mostly soups and stews, with a damn good chili being one of the favorites. I find that the crock pot is especially good for chilis and stews (think of the types of things that people claim taste better as leftovers), because all the flavors really develop together over time. Some of the liquid will cook down over time, so it is best to always have a little veggie broth on hand, in case your soupd gets to thick or dry.
Do I think the world's top chefs are embracing their crock pots? Probably not. But hell, for a person without an entire day to devote to their kitchen, it's a great way to put a hearty dinner on the table with minimal hands on time. Even my cats love the crock pot!
How's that for something to food-love?