I had a friend in town this week and just when we were at the point in the conversation when we’d usually pick a place to meet for lunch, something terrible happened. Caught up in a moment where I forgot that I am me and not, say, Ina Garten, I suggested he come over and I’d make lunch for us instead. I realized I’d lost my ever-loving mind. Sure, I’d like to be the kind of person who makes “just lunch, nothing fancy!” for friends on a whim but I am not. I don’t really do “whim” cooking, as a website with nearly 918 intricately detailed recipes in its archives might evidence. Plus, I had so many recipes I was overdue to test out — a lemonade, a salad, a tart and I’d been promising my son I’d make chocolate pudding for weeks, not to mention the daily grind of breakfast, lunchbox and dinner — that I felt like I had no time to cook anything extra.
There’s nothing worth eating in Texas that Lisa Fain can’t teach you to make better in your own kitchen, from perfect, simple carnitas, kolaches, and chicken-fried steak to breakfast tacos, frito pie and peach buttermilk ice cream, plus two cookbooks worth of wonders (drool break for the buttermilk and bacon fat flour tortillas from her latest) but my favorite recipe of hers uses only three ingredients and is addictive enough to put on everything.
When it comes to meal salads, I feel pretty much everything you need to know is summed up by one of my favorite commercials of all time, which assures you that no matter what’s in your bowl (deep-fried taco shell, ground beef, guacamole, sour cream and cheese), as long as it vaguely resembles a salad, it must be good for you. [“Is it healthy? Of course it is! It’s a salad, isn’t it?”]
Guys, we should definitely, definitely talk about these. Here, I’ll go first: I think it’s essential that you not let another tomato season pass without making them. I realize that you might imagine rice-stuffed tomatoes to be something unappealing. Maybe you had a cold, stomach-turning one at a buffet wedding too many years ago that its squidgy horror should still be fresh in your mind, and yet. Maybe you cannot imagine why anyone would consider rice stuffed inside a tomato to be something noteworthy, being just rice and tomatoes, possibly two of the most generic foods out there. Maybe you’re waiting to hear what I dolled these up with to make them interesting — was there bacon or cheese or caramelized onions? Did I amp it up with whole grains or kale? Maybe I cooked an egg inside, like that one time? And maybe you’re going to be disappointed when I tell you that I added nothing, just about nothing at all, and that’s the best thing about them.
I have a long history of spectacular tomato tart failures. There was the one that enchanted me on TV a decade ago, with a parmesan crust, bacon, fine breadcrumbs and roasted garlic, that — several hours of work later — ended up tasting metallic and clashy against the acidic tomatoes. There was the tomato tarte tatin flop from a fancy French chef, for which I have only myself to blame. And two summers ago, there was an heirloom tomato galette, with colors like a rainbow, that fell apart before we ate it. The problem more often than not is a basic one: tomatoes are very wet and tart crusts need to stay fairly dry. But this has never stopped me from trying again, and I’m glad, because it led me to this.
I was not, in fact, looking for a new farro dish. It rarely occurs to me over the summer, when there’s more eggplant/zucchini/tomatoes/peaches/plums/berries than anyone could fathom going through in the scant weeks they’re available, to wish I had more whole grains in my diet. And since we’re being honest, only occasionally in times that it probably should, such as in February, when refined flours and pasta are used to fill the endless gap in growing seasons. But, as it happens, because I’m terrible at timely meal-planning, I was attempting to make this chicken for dinner a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t ready on time, or even close to it, and I remembered a one-pan linguine dish I’d read about in Martha Stewart Living last month that sounded fascinating. Realizing I had almost all the ingredients on hand, I rustled it up instead and felt like such a domestic diva, I nearly took a bow when I brought it out, but resisted, as I prefer to only drop one dish a season. In the dish, pasta, only enough water to cook it, an onion, garlic cloves, some cherry tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt and red pepper flakes are combined cold, brought up to a boil and cooked until the pasta is al dente and everything else becomes the dish’s saucy servant, all in a single saucepan, all at once. I realize you’re all leaving me right now to make it this very moment, and I don’t blame you. At the very least, you need to bookmark the recipe for when you’re in a pinch, and really, when is anyone not?
Recently, I attempted to roughly outline the parameters of the gap between the recipes you see here on this site and what I might have made for dinner last night. In the first category, we’ve got words like aspirational and exceptional or unusual and best in category or just seriously we all need to make this right now. It’s fun, noteworthy stuff. Sure, it’s also our dinner, you know, on the days such exciting things come to pass in my kitchen, but it’s the second category — staples, comforts and easy wins, things that miraculously make all three people around the table happy at the same time — that dominate our table the rest of the time.