Cooking Simply


There is a certain Zen to making a tasty, satisfying meal with few ingredients. I like to challenge myself to five. This comes from my tendency to be intimidated by complicated recipes, the limitations of what’s in my kitchen, the time I have and budgetary constraints. I’m not a purist, so salt & pepper don’t count.

In 5th grade I gave Peggy, a friend of my older sister’s, “my” recipe for Banana Nut Bread (which I probably got off the back of a Betty Crocker box). When she saw my detailed measurements (“1/8 tsp. cinnamon”), she let out a laugh while rolling her eyes. I wouldn’t understand why for many more years - that cooking is more a “feeling” than an absolute (especially a 1/8 tsp. absolute).

Cooking is like life – you have to be ready to react to and rise gracefully above unexpected challenges. YOU CAN’T LET THE PASTA BEAT YOU!

It wasn’t until I cooked along side my mother-in-law that I understood touch, taste, smell and intuition were just as important as exact measurements provided in a recipe. Quite frankly, I enjoyed her Pollo con Arroz, Pico de Gallo, Carne Asado, Tripe, Red Chili Enchiladas, Albondigas, Carnitas, Carne Guisada and Chili Rellenos much more than I ever enjoyed being married to her youngest child (ex-husband #1).

The one positive thing I took away from that disastrous marriage was the understanding of intuitive cooking. And that parting gift set me on a happier course in life. YOU CAN’T LET THE BAD MARRIAGE BEAT YOU!

But, as any great creation demands, the need for a good foundation is imperative. The basics of cooking (using those 1/8 tsp. of cinnamon) must be learned from the ground up. And when you’ve got a few of those under your apron -- let the culinary games begin!

Challah Bread

Tucker celebrated his first Shavout by making Challah Bread. We did it together, making it even more special. The simple braiding brings an added beauty to the table. This recipe is from The kitchn (by Emma Christensen)

Making Challah bread Challah braiding Challah Braided loaves Challah Braided loaves

Give yourself plenty of time as this bread needs to rise twice. One 2-strainded Challah braid made about 15 yummy slices. We stored it tightly in a brown paper bread bag for 5 days on the counter. Enjoy with honey or preserves toppings.

Dissolve the yeast in water in small bowl. Add a healthy pinch of sugar. Stir to combine. Let stand 5-10 minutes (when you see a thin frothy layer, it means the yeast is active & ready to use)

Mix dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt) in mixer with whisk (we kneaded by hand in large bowl)

Make a "well" in the center of the flour and add eggs, yolk, oil. Pull in a little of the flour at a time from the sides of the bowl

Pour yeast mixture over the egg "slurry". Mix yeast, eggs, flour with wooden spoon or spatula until "shaggy" dough that is difficult to mix forms

Knead the dough 6-8 minutes in mixer with hook attachment (we turned dough onto a floured work surface/counter & kneaded by hand)

If dough sticks to counter, add tsp at a time of flour until dough feels tacky (but no longer sticky like bubble gum). We had to add quite a bit of flour while kneading

Finish kneading when dough is soft, smooth & holds a ball shape. Took about 6-8 minutes of kneading by hand

Place dough ball in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave somewhere warm. LET THE DOUGH RISE until doubled, about 1 to 1/2 hours

When doubled, use sharp knife or dough scraper to divide dough into 3 equal pieces (for braiding)

Roll each piece into a long rope (14-16" in length) with rolling pin

Gather the ropes & squeeze together at the very top. Braid the 2 pieces of dough to form 1 loaf. Squeeze the bottom ends together when done

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place loaf on top &sprinkle with a little flour. Cover with clean kitchen towel. LET THE DOUGH RISE in warm place until puffed & pillowy for about 1 hour

20 minutes before baking, arrange middle rack & preheat over to 350 degrees.

When ready to bake, whisk reserved egg white with 1 TB of warm water & completely over the challah, including cracks and down the sides of the loaf

Add poppy seeds to the top of the loaf (optional)

Bake 30-35 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through the cooking time

After cooling on rack, enjoy with a dollop of honey!

Roasted Mushroom Grilled Cheese Sandwich

This is a wonderful opportunity to try out a variety of mushrooms...even those costing $25/lb! If you use several different varieties, you'll need just a small amount of each. So buy those expensive ones and try those you've never had before when making this really yummy sandwich. (Makes 1 Sandwich...but you'll want to make more)

Equally important to the yumminess of this sandwich is the cheese used. Again use a variety that melt well and complement the sandwich, like a sharp cheddar, gruyere, mozzarella & ricotta.

This recipe is from The Splendid Table (by Nisha Patel & Nishma Chauhan). Image by Haus & Hues Mushroom Trippy Poster
Cooking Mushrooms Haus and Hues Mushroom Trippy Poster Mushroom and cheese sandwich

You must roast the mushrooms to bring out their flavors. From the white button to the black trumpet and all mushrooms in between (cremini, portobello, chantarelle, porcini, white & black morel, oyster...maybe even the weirdly named carnival candy slime mold).

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. In a roasting pan, mix quartered mushrooms with olive oil, garlic & season with salt & pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove from oven & let cool.

Place one buttered bread slice face down & sprinkle the cheese mixture on top, followed by mushrooms, parsley & sprouts.

Spread ricotta cheese on second bread slice.

Place (ricotta side) on top of mushrooms (butter side out)

Grill (both buttered sides) in a pan with butter until crisp & cheese has melted

Nectarine Olive Oil Cake

Bring back the sweetness of summer during the gloom of winter. (8 servings)

When in season, I use fresh nectarines (peaches will do in a pinch). Check for both in your grocer's freezer section when you just can't wait for summer to come around.

This recipe is from Real Simple Magazine
Nectarine Cake Nectarine Cake with Creme Fraiche Nectarine Cake

Don't skimp on this cake's magic ingredient: olive oil. Real Simple recommends one with grassy or peppery undertones. I recommend topping with a scoop of creme fraiche (or vanilla ice cream if your sweet tooth needs more than this cake offers), but it is delicious served solo with just the fruit puree on top. Can be made up to 2 days in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9" round cake pan with olive oil & line bottom with parchment paper. Brush parchment with olive oil & sprinkle bottom of pan with the sugar

Whisk flour, salt, baking powder & baking soda in a large bowl

Pit & roughly chop 2 nectarines

Puree in a blender or food processor until smooth

Whisk sugar, eggs & vanilla in a large bowl

While whisking constantly, gradually add 1/2 C olive oil

Add flour mixture in 2 batches, whisking until evenly incorporated. Batter will be thick

Fold in nectarine puree & pour batter into prepared pan

Bake 25-30 minutes until cake is golden & pulls away from sides of pan

Remove cake from pan & transfer to a rack to cool completely

Plate & dust cake with powdered sugar

Slice remaining nectarines & toss with flaky salt & remaining 1/4 C olive oil. Drizzle over cake.

Harissa Chicken with Leeks, Potatoes and Yogurt

Savory, healthy, easy. Cook and serve in one baking sheet. (Makes 11 servings)

This recipe was adapted from the one by Melissa Clark, author of the "Dinner" cookbook. Also available through American Public Radio's show, The Splendid Table.

Roasted Vegetables Harissa Chicken with Roasted Vegetables Harissa Chicken with Roasted Vegetables

Leave space between ingredients on pan so they brown and crisp rather than steam. As always, adjust seasoning to your liking. That also goes for the garlic and tomatoes. Use enough harissa & olive oil to coat as listed below.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees (after chicken is done marinating)

Line rimmed baking sheet with foil

Combine the chicken, potatoes, salt & pepper in a bowl

Whisk together the harissa, cumin, (3 TB) olive oil. Pour over chicken & combine, using hands, until covered

Let this mixture stand at room temperature for 30 minutes

Combine in bowl: leeks, tomatoes, garlic cloves, lemon zest, salt, (2) TB olive oil

Arrange chicken & potatoes in a single layer on baking sheet. COOK FOR 20 MINUTES

Toss potatoes a bit & scatter leek, garlic, tomatoe mixture on top

COOK 20 to 25 minutes longer until golden & crispy

When done, top with yogurt & lemon slices, salt & pepper to taste

SERVE with a green salad, couscous, tabouli or orzo

Enjoy leftovers the next day!

Spinach Puff Pastry Rolls with Ricotta and Feta Cheeses

Tasty vegetarian pastry for breakfast or after school snack. Using just a few ingredients. (Makes 8-10 slices)

Puff Pastry with Spinach Spinach Puff Pastry Spinach Puffed Pastry on cutting board

Most puff pastry comes with 2 sheets that can be cut into 3 separate pieces

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Heat oil in pan. Saute diced shallots until translucent & add minced garlic. Saute another minute

Add chopped spinach. Cover pan. Heat on low (stirring often) until wilted. Set aside to cool

Mix ricotta cheese with salt & pepper to season well

Add cooked spinach mixture

Add feta cheese

Slice sheets of puff pastry evenly (most pkgs will contain 6 separate sheets)

Roll puff pastry sheets out on board with flour to widen them a bit

Spoon spinach cheese mixture on one puff pastry (leave clear about 1/2" each side)

NOTE: Don't overstuff the rolls with mixture. Left over mixture can be added to your next pasta dish

Top puff pastry with another sheet & flatten it down a bit

Crimp all edges with a fork

Do this to all rolls.

Brush the top of each roll with the egg wash

Liberally sprinkle sesame seeds on top of each roll

Slash the rolls with sharp knife to let steam escape

BAKE 15 minutes until golden brown & puffy

Cut in slices & enjoy!

Yummy, Healthy Take-to-Work Lunch (Roasted Veggies over Lemon Couscous)

I'm crazy for this dish. It just feels good to eat, looks pretty and is simple to make. What more can you ask for from a lunch?

I've eaten this dish for breakfast, lunch & dinner. I usually add a protein (grilled chicken, steak or shrimp). In my lunchbox, I bring along a small container of lemon infused olive oil and fresh grated parmesean cheese to add after heating up. This is a most satisfying meal!

Roasted Vegetables Couscous with Roasted Vegetables

The sky's the limit - choose "like" veggies so they cook evenly. Cut them in like sizes for the same reason.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Line rimmed baking sheet with Silpat OR aluminum foil

Put all vegetables in large bowl. Toss with olive oil, salt & pepper until covered

Spread veggies evenly over cookie/baking sheet

Cook for about 15 minutes

Remove from oven & give them a toss to ensure even roasting

Put back in oven & check again in about 10 minutes

Veggies should be tender, but not overly cooked - it's nice to have a crunch when eating with couscous

Cool. Serve over couscous. Add protein if desired. Drizzle with olive oil, squeeze of fresh lemon, salt & pepper to taste. Add fresh parmesean if desired.

INGREDIENTS - COUSCOUS (makes 6-8 servings)

Try buying couscous in bulk - you get & pay only for what you need & want.

In medium to large saucepan over medium heat, bring broth to boil

Add Couscous. Cover with lid. Remove from heat

Let sit for 10minutes. Then fluff with a fork

Add oilive oil, lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt & pepper

NOTE: For a richer tasting couscous, add 1-2 TB of butter with olive oil

SERVE: Roasted veggies over couscous. Add protein if desired. Toss almonds on top. Optional parmesean cheese. Adjust olive oil, lemon, salt & pepper to taste.

Skinny Elvis (Peanut Butter Banana Cookies)

It's great to pack a lunch for Tucker that includes something yummy, but not filled with lots of sugar.

I like these cookies for the flavor combo and because they're more on the shortening bread side. I guess that's because the recipe calls for no butter. It didn't call for chocolate chips either, but I threw those in anyway. You can't go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter.

Be prepared to clean off the mixer blades. And if forming balls by hand, you'll need to keep your hands moist in between each cookie. This is a sticky recipe!

Adapted from The Dash of Sanity website

Old Fashioned Cocktail
INGREDIENTS (makes 36 small cookies):

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. (2-3) cookie sheets (line with Silpat) will eventually be used

Whisk together flour, baking soda & salt. (Will add later)

Smash Bananas & cream it together with peanut butter and all sugar

Use mixer to beat until smooth & creamy

Add the egg & vanilla. Continue to mix until well combined

Add flour mixture to wet ingredients a little at a time. Continue mixing until well combined

Mix in chocolate chips by hand

Make 1" balls (with hands or cookie dough scooper)

Roll each ball in the granulated sugar

Place dough balls on baking sheet. Press down with fork to make criss-cross pattern

Bake 7-9 minutes. When cool, transfer to wire rack (Will store for several days in airtight container)

Call me Old Fashioned

Holidays were usually on the rocks at my house growing up. Although the drink of choice was Whiskey Sours, there's something about bitters and a twist to quench the thirst of even the most discerning palette.

This Memorial Day cocktail is for you, daddy. Hope you & mom are taking a fun ride as you pilot your WWII plane named after her, Itty Bitty.

Old Fashioned Cocktail

COMBINE syrup, bitters & liquor in shaker filled with (crushed) ice. Shake vigorously.

Swipe rim of glass with orange twist

Pour ingredients into whisky glass filled with ice cubes

Top with a Maraschino Cherry

Asian Short Ribs

This is a stout dish made flavorful with the assistance of sweet, sour and hot ingredients. Cooking this long and slow (crockpot works great) results in a fall-off-the-bone rib meat bathed in a rich sauce.

I know, it's a recipe calling for much more than five ingredients, but I figure once it's put together, the crockpot does the rest & I'm free from cooking. And the meat is not an expensive cut for the delicous, hearty result.

Switching up the ingredients (replace Asian spices with thyme, rosemary sprigs, oregano, parsley & dry red wine & serving over parmesean risotta (instead of brown rice) turns the dish from SE Asian to Italian.

Short ribs resemble a good life -- build a sure foundation, then switch things up so it's never boring!

Short ribs with spice rub Short ribs in flour Short ribs with vegetables Braised short ribs



MIX marinade in bowl & set aside

COVER ribs well with rub mixture

DREDGE ribs through flour

SAUTE veggies medium heat (carrots, onions, celery, garlic) in vegetable oil (add some chili oil for an extra heat kick)

REMOVE from pan after about 10 minutes (not keeping the oil)

WIPE pan clean with paper towel

ADD more oil to pan - medium heat

ADD ribs & brown on all sides (browning meat & veggies gives them a nice color & locks in flavor)

REMOVE ribs from pan & place in crockpot

COVER ribs with sauteed veggies

POUR marinade on top

Cook on low approximately 5 hours (until bone falls off meat)

Serve over brown rice. Top with sliced scallions (white & green parts) & sesame seeds.

Steel Oats (slow cooked overnight)

Lovingly called "gruel" in our household. Chock full of warmth and goodness. And you can personalize yours...brown sugar, honey, nuts, dried fruit, butter, with or without milk.

This meal really fits my "5 ingredient" recipe. Put it in a slow cooker at night before bed and wake up in the morning to a bowl of deliciousness. Goes without saying, Steel Oats is an easy, filling and nutritious way to start the day.

Steel Oats with Cherries Steel Oats Uncooked Steel Oats Steel Oats with Honey

THROW ingredients in crockpot & stir (rub crockpot with oil if you think it will stick)

COOK on low overnight (6-7 hours)

TOP before serving with ingredients you love: peeled apples, dried cherries, raisins, brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, nuts, butter, milk

The varieties are endless!

(Makes about 4-6 servings)

Cabbage Soup with Vegetables and Meatballs

Houston can rarely be counted on to produce a "winter season". So when it gets cold (or has happened!) having a go-to, easy and inexpensive soup to serve is a great treat.

I asked Gary to bring home sausage, but he forgot. I happened to have made meatballs earlier in the week (See below for my Meatball recipe), so that's what I added instead. Obviously, you can skip the meat entirely & make it pure vegetarian.

Remember to save your scraps to make a vegetable broth. You can freeze the veggies until you're ready to make it.

Soup's like life - put in what you want to get out, spice things up & embellish!

Sauteed Vegetables Cabbage Soup Vegetable Meatball Caggage Soup Soup

SLICE veggies (cabbage should be in long strips)

HEAT OLIVE OIL in pot (you can use the same pot soup will cook in)

SAUTE veggies until soft (about 8-10 minutes)

ADD cabbage the last two minutes so it "wilts" a bit

ADD chicken stock

BRING to boil

SIMMER for about 20 minutes

SEASON (add water if needed)

ADD meatballs

SLOW SIMMER until meatballs are cooked through (about 20 minutes)

SERVE with crackers or (garlic) bread. Top with fresh parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and a dollop of cream or plain yogurt for some extra creaminess.

(Makes about 6 bowls)

Fresh Cranberries with Port, Ginger and Orange

This recipe uses few ingredients, is simple to execute, has depth of flavor and those whole cranberries look impressive on the plate. It is a great go-to side dish for the holidays!

Yes, every holiday season my mom opened up that can of Cranberry Sauce and with a loud PLOP, it fell out and onto a festively-decorated platter. Not very yummy sounding. I never cared for the taste of it – or the look of those rings the aluminum can imprinted on the side of that jelly log.


Here is a SIMPLE recipe for the holidays. It gets better with age, looks beautiful, your vegetarians will love it and it goes well with turkey, ham or chicken – try some on scrambled eggs. An added bonus is as it cooks – the cranberries POP!

What could be better than that? It's a dish for all senses AND all seasons!

Cranberries Recipe Cranberries in Port Recipe Holiday Cranberry dish Cranberries in Ginger and Orange

COMBINE all ingredients in a heavy pan

BRING to boil

REDUCE to a simmer and cook until most of the cranberries POP open (15-20 minutes)

DON'T break the cranberries as you gently mix

ADJUST ingredients for sweetness and tartness. Like ginger? Add more!

SKIM any foam off the surface

Cool to room temperature and serve

Can be refrigerated until all your holiday left overs have been eaten!

(Makes about 3 1/2 Cups)

Carrot and Almond Torte

This recipe is credited to Harry Astley & Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow

Adapted by Aleksandra Crapanzano of The Wall Street Journal, “Eating & Drinking,” February 13-14 2016

I’m always looking for ways to cook up a less sugary desert with veggies. Even Bugs Bunny would agree that this one fits the bill.

There’s a hardiness to almond flour. I buy it in bulk (buy & use as needed so it’s always fresh). When I can’t find almond flour, I’ll use almond meal instead. Both make such delicious things!

Carrot Cake Carrot Torte Carrot Almond Torte Low calorie carrot torte

BEAT with electric mixer: Egg yolks, sugar, orange zest & vanilla until thick & creamy (about 5 minutes)

STIR into yolk mixture until fully incorporated: Carrots, both flours

BEAT with electric mixer in CLEAN BOWL: Egg whites until stiff (about 5 minutes)

FOLD Whites into yolk/flour mixture until no streaks remain

POUR Batter into pan

BAKE 35-45 minutes until toothpick comes out clean from center

REMOVE From oven. Let cool in pan. Turn out onto a platter

DUST: With confectioner’s sugar & serve with a dollop of crème fraiche atop.


COMBINE both in glass container.

Cover & let stand at room temperature from 8-24 hours until very thick.

Stir well before covering. Refrigerate up to 7 days.

Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (Makes 24-36 depending on size of meatballs)

The first time I served my mother’s meat sauce over spaghetti, my young son pushed it away and asked, “Mama, where are the meatballs?” I knew then mom’s dish wouldn’t make it to the third generation.

Meatballs take a bit more time to make as does the sauce (compared to opening up a store-bought jar), but both are worth it. The meatballs are versatile and the sauce is flavorful and only gets better with time (both when cooking & serving). Sauces out of a jar now taste sweet to me. This sauce is as real & basic as you can get.Fool around with seasonings, cheeses, tomatoes and other veggies.

KEEP THE RINDS of cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino-Romano, Parmesan) in the fridge or freeze for later use. ADD to the sauce (remove any labels!) for extra flavor. (Rind is great in soups, too).

BUY BULK HERBS in small amounts. Better to use very fresh and replace as needed. (Inexpensive, too!)

Parmesan Cheese Making Meatballs Pasta and Meatballs Meatball Sandwiches

Mix ingredients below in a large pot. Let simmer for an hour (or longer), before adding the meatballs


Pour milk over cubed bread to soften & set aside. Drain before adding to meat mixture

Combine onions with beef / pork

Add parmesan

Throw in the egg & (drained) bread – mixture should not be soggy

Mix with hands just enough to combine all ingredients well

Roll into equal-sized balls

Brown meatballs in olive oil – turning on all sides (may have to do in batches)


Add browned meatballs to tomato sauce

Let simmer for 60 minutes. Adjust seasoning.

SERVE over spinach pasta. Or in a hard roll with provolone and mozzarella cheese. Broil until gooey and hot.


Carnitas with Pineapple Salsa

This savory dish uses a "cheap" cut of meat (pork shoulder) which means it's a great dish to cook on a lazy Sunday afternoon for dinner that night.

It's even tastier the next day, served over rice.

BUY BULK HERBS. They are fresher & cost less than those off a grocer's shelf. You may replace more often, but once you've cooked with FRESH'll never go back to bottled spices again.

Fresh Herbs Pork Dishes Tacos Carnitas

Put pork in a large Dutch oven or pot & rub well with cumin, garlic, salt & pepper.

Pour marinade over cubed pork & marinate (overnight if possible & let come to room temperature).

Add water just enough to cover meat. Bring to boil. Then turn down heat & simmer for about 2 hours. (Add more cumin if you'd like).

Turn up heat & stir. Cook another 30-45 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning.

Fold pork into warm tortillas. Top with salsa & cheese.


Pasta with Sausage in a Tomato Mint Olive Oil Marinade (topped with grilled feta)

This is a delicious, filling pasta dish that works well for a large gathering or as left overs just for your little self.

Grilling the feta cheese brings out a deep flavor. And the longer you can let the olive oil marinade sit, the better.

This marinade is also good on pizza, scrambled eggs or toasted bread.


Mix ingredients in a bowl (keep at room temperature) until ready to use:

Cook the sausage & drain the fat.

Cook the pasta & drain (keep some of the pasta water to add to the dish if pasta is sticking together & needs a little moisture)