There comes a time in most every home cook’s life when the thought of setting foot in the kitchen seems abominable. The feeling may strike at any time; it bears no correlation to the home cook's love or loathing of assembling a meal. It can last a few hours, a few days or several weeks and will arrive suddenly, without warning, like a case of flu or your husband's college roommate, looking for a place to crash for a few weeks. It can also come slowly, creeping up until even the most mundane tasks, like operating a can opener, seem daunting, dreary or both.
I have several solutions. One is to “hrrumph” loudly and curl up on the sofa with a bowl of cereal. Falling asleep works well, too, as does complaining until someone else orders a pizza. Or I can stock the cupboard with a few cans and jars of quick-fix meal ingredients. If I were to limit yourself to one such ingredient, it would be a jar of salsa.
In an age of slow food and cooking snottiness, foods from cans and jars rank low on lists of desirable cooking ingredients. Salsa defies such snobbery, delivering a fresh punch of flavor and spice to snacks and suppers.
But salsas are more than south-of-the-border concoctions that give tortilla chips a reason to exist. The potent tomato, onion, pepper and chile combination is familiar in multiple ethnic cuisines (think Italy, Greece, Cajun, Morocco, & all-American) and, if you are willing to think outside of the box, is an ideal quick base for a host of streamlined meals when the “no-way-am-I-going-to-cook” mood occurs.
I discovered salsa’s potential versatility by accident after helping a friend pack up and clean out her kitchen before a big move. As we reached the end of our chore, we realized we were famished, too tired to drive to the store, and void of any imagination to create something from her meager but eclectic assortment of packaged foods.
Then I remembered a jar of salsa we had packed. We fished it out, boiled and drained the remains of three near-empty pasta boxes, added the salsa and a drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkled it all with the grated vestiges of a nub of Parmesan cheese. It was delicious.
Since then, I have purposely stowed at least one jar of salsa in my cupboard for cooking angst emergencies. My pasta with toasted chickpeas, feta & mint is one of my favorite salsa solutions. It has the double benefit of being scrumptious and nutritious. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, they will taste even better the next day for lunch or dinner. The canned chickpeas in the dish are another excellent pantry staple; they are one of the few vegetables whose flavor and integrity are not compromised by commercial canning.
The quick-fix couscous paella and black bean soup will likewise restore your faith in the kitchen. Making each is a snap. By the time you finish eating, you will wonder where your earlier cooking anxiety came from, as well as where it went.
Couscous Paella with Shrimp
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 and 1/3 cups thick and chunky style salsa
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika OR 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 and 2/3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
1 and 1/4 cups frozen peas (no need to thaw)
1 pound frozen shelled and deveined large shrimp, thawed
1 10-ounce box couscous
1/2 cup pimento stuffed green olives, sliced
Heat oil, salt, salt, black pepper, thyme, hot paprika (or pepper flakes) and turmeric in a large skillet; cook 1 minute. Add broth, water, peas and shrimp. Simmer, covered, 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in couscous; cover; let stand 5 minutes. Serve, garnished with olives. Makes 6 servings.
Pasta with Toasted Chickpeas, Tomatoes, Feta & Mint
3/4 pound orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) or small shells
1 16-ounce jar thick and chunk style salsa
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint plus sprigs for garnish
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro plus sprigs for garnish
1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained, patted dry
4 ounces feta cheese, coarsely crumbled
Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Meanwhile, combine salsa, 2 tablespoons olive oil, chopped mint, green onions and chopped cilantro in large bowl. Season to taste with salt .
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add chickpeas and sauté until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Toss chickpeas and pasta in with salsa mixture in bowl. Toss in feta & season with salt and pepper. Makes 6 servings.
Lightening Fast Black Bean Boup
2 15-ounce cans lack beans, undrained
1 16-ounce jar thick and chunky salsa
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon limes juice
2 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (more or less to desired thickness)
Optional toppings: chopped cilantro, more salsa, sour cream, avocado slices,
Puree the beans and their liquid in a food processor or blender; transfer to medium saucepan. Puree salsa in blender until smooth; transfer to saucepan. Stir in the cumin and lime juice. Slowly whisk in the broth until mixture is desired thickness. Heat over medium heat until hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper and, if desired, top with any of the options. Makes 4 generous servings.
(NUTRITION INFO IS ON ITS WAY--WILL CALCULATE THIS EVENING)