Free at last! While the pandemic is not yet a distant memory, many of us have emerged from isolation ready to resume life as we knew it BP (before pandemic). And that means getting together with family and friends. It’s summertime, and the living is easy, “easy” being the operative word. While we all love watching Martha Stewart create puff pastry from scratch for her artful hors d’ouevres, when it comes to throwing one’s own party, easy does it.
Some of us are back in the office suffering the long commute as if nothing has happened, our children are once again over-scheduled, our lives are hectic again, and especially after a year of anxiety, less is certainly more. Looking for some easy recipes, I consulted some old favorites that encourage us to supplement our menus with prepared foods and feel good about it, most notably Sandra Lee’s “Semi-Homemade Cooking” (Miramax Books). Even the cover tells us: “Quick Marvelous Meals and Nothing is Made from Scratch” and boasts an introduction by Wolfgang Puck, no less. Lee, whose “Cooking with Sandra Lee” show ran for 15 seasons on the Food Network, turned convenience food shopping, rather than searing and sautéing, into an art form. Her concept of using 70 percent pre-packaged products and 30 percent fresh items must have resounded with viewers, because she went on to write 26 more books and even won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host for Semi-Homemade Cooking. While she took a lot of criticism, notable from Anthony Bourdain and Amanda Hesser of the New York Times, she, as the saying goes, cried all the way to the bank. Redemption came at the beginning of the pandemic when both Jessica Bennett in the New York Times and Jaya Saxena in Eater reported that food scarcity brought new relevance to her “semi-homemade” concept. “Her show, Semi-Homemade Cooking,” might be the perfect way to cook through quarantine,” wrote Saxena.
Here’s an appetizer idea the next time you have friends in, Lee’s Goat Cheese Pizza. Place a fully baked thin store-bought pizza crust on a cookie sheet. Spread with marinara sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese (of course you buy the shredded variety), then with crumbled goat cheese, and bake in a preheated 425°F oven until bubbly, 12 minutes. (Okay, she does have you chop two tablespoons of fresh basil to sprinkle on top. Whew! A woman’s work is never done!)
Then there’s the phenomenon known as Rachael Ray, with her immensely popular shows on the Food Network and talk show on CBS. Her cookbooks routinely head the best-sellers list, and what is she doing? Teaching you how to throw together dinner in 30 minutes or less. She is as unMartha as she can be. Everything she does is a no-brainer, and America is eating her up. She fixes dinner in real time. No pre-cut veggies or pre-sliced anything. We even see her walk over to the refrigerator to get out the ingredients, and at the end of the show, poof, there’s dinner.
If ever there was a Jewish Rachael Ray, it’s got to be Jamie Geller, who calls herself “The Bride who Knew Nothing” and whose cookbook “Quick and Kosher” (Feldheim) is the busy kosher cook’s answer to a prayer.
Although Geller’s grandparents were gourmet chef/owners of a restaurant in the Philadelphia suburbs, her mother worked and rarely stepped into the kitchen. Geller, a former high-powered producer at a major cable network, married “without knowing a spatula from a saucepan,” she says. “To say I had a lot to learn is the understatement of the century.”
With a little help from her mother-in-law, Geller learned to cook, sticking to her mantra of a 15-minute time limit on preparation for any dish. In the chapter entitled “Secrets of the 15-Minute Chef” Geller reveals her timesaving strategies for serving beautifully presented dishes without breaking a sweat. “Be a cubist,” she instructs, for example. Buy pre-cubed meat and pre-skinned and cubed butternut squash and save time.
Like Rachael Ray, Geller’s style is homey and conversational. The book contains enough interesting ideas for the experienced homemaker who is just looking for some shortcuts without intimidating the novice cook and with dozens of luscious photographs to whet any palate. Geller, author of seven cookbooks and founder and CEO of Kosher Network International, offers 30-minute dinner ideas on her website, jamiegeller.com, including beef and green bean stir-fry, chicken shawarma, pesto chicken, Thai beef salad, quick one-pan paella pasta, and stir-fried peanut butter chicken.
Lesser known, but no less snappy is the Rush Hour Cook series (Champion Press) by Brook Noel. The book called “Weekly Wonders” even notes on the cover: “She’s everything that Martha isn’t!” The idea was born over Noel’s need to “find some sanity in my crazy life” and create a strategy for the family to get together at mealtimes with “a simple and sane dinner hour during which we can connect and enjoy one another.”
Never know what to make for dinner? The weekly meal plans and shopping lists will remove the guesswork and, more importantly, save you time. Noel, whom a friend once called the “Absolute Queen of Incapable Cooking,” bursts with an “if I can do it, you can do it” attitude and flair. If she can make tasty, wholesome meals with her 12- to 14-hour work schedule, then we can too.
All the recipes in the book have to meet the following criteria: The ingredients have to be pronounceable and easy to find “without engaging in a full-scale scavenger hunt.” The ingredient list can’t be longer than the instructions, and each recipe has to elicit a compliment and be edible, at least in part, to the finicky child. Other books in the series – “Presto Pasta,” ”One-Pot Wonders,” “Effortless Entertaining” and ”Family Favorites” – all sport the tag line: “Conquer kitchen chaos and create a sane and simple dinner hour with the help of The Rush Hour Cook.”
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups assorted frozen berries such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries
4 teaspoons fruit liqueur
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup prepared vanilla custard or pudding
½ cup turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
1. Preheat broiler.
2. Divide berries evenly among four 7-ounce ramekins.
3. In a small bowl mix together liqueur, heavy cream and custard, and spoon over berries. 4. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over each serving. Broil 2 to 4 minutes until sugar melts and caramelizes, turning brown and bubbly. Serve while still hot
Source: “Quick and Kosher” by Jamie Geller
Grilled Honey Chicken
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon orange juice
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Combine all ingredients except chicken and whisk until well blended. Add chicken breasts to mixture, turning several times to coat. Cover dish with plastic wrap and marinate 15 to 60 minutes in refrigerator.
- Meanwhile, prepare grill. Grill 4 to 5 minutes per side or until chicken is no longer pink. Alternatively, bake in preheated 350°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink.
Source: “Weekly Wonders” by Brook Noel
Sesame Crusted Yellow Fin Tuna with Wasabi Sauce
Yield: 6 servings
6 yellow fin tuna steaks, 2 inches thick, about 3 pounds
½ cup low-sodium soy sauce
4 tablespoons sesame oil
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 cup wasabi sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup Dijon-style mustard
1. Preheat oven to 400˚F. Lightly grease 9 x 13-inch pan with non-stick cooking spray.
2. Place soy sauce in deep bowl.
3. Rinse tuna and pat dry. Dip in soy sauce. Remove tuna and place in prepared pan. Brush or drizzle with sesame oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
4. Bake, uncovered, for 8 to 10 minutes for medium, or until desired doneness.
5. Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients in small bowl. Arrange tuna on individual plates and drizzle with about half the sauce. Serve remaining sauce on the side for dipping. Garnish with pickled ginger, if desired.
Source: “Quick and Kosher” by Jamie Geller
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.