As we eagerly, cautiously, finally ease back into having friends over for dinner, the cost of groceries can make the idea of a gathering feel cost prohibitive. This could be grounds to bring back the potluck, but it’s nice to be able to cook something impressive without stressing over cost. Fortunately, making something delicious, and even fancy-ish, doesn’t need to be an extravagant or expensive undertaking. These simple pleasures are soul-satisfying because you can serve plenty without worrying over your bottom line. They make use of surplus ingredients in your fridge, stretch small quantities of pricier ingredients further, and make use of summer vegetables at their peak – both in quality and affordability. And each recipe can easily be scaled up or down according to how many you have around your table.
Stirring together a pot of creamy, luxurious risotto is more technique than recipe; aim for a ratio of about 1:4 rice to stock (or even salted water – truly) and add anything you like – sautéed mushrooms, bits of leftover sausage, goat cheese, grated beet (and beet greens), chopped or halved cherry tomatoes, torn spinach, basil or other greens. Risotto is perfect for accommodating a wide range of dietary requirements – it’s already gluten-free, and can easily be made vegetarian or vegan. It also makes a gentle cooking environment that’s ideal for cooking seafood – add a few raw shrimp or scallops as the rice is on the verge of done; cover and give it a few minutes, just until the seafood is opaque.
Did you know? Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need to stand at the stove and stir constantly when making a pot of risotto – stirring often is enough, though stirring constantly can be a meditative break between your workday and dinner, and a way to multitask while chatting on the phone or scrolling Instagram.
- 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 onion or 1 shallot, finely chopped
- salt, to taste 1 cup short-grain rice (such as Arborio)
- 1/2 cup (approximately) dry white wine or vermouth (optional)
- 4 cups stock or water (if you’re using water, stir in 1 teaspoon salt)
- 1/2-1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat. When the butter foams, add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook until soft and translucent, 4-5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until it’s translucent on the edges. If you like, add a splash (about 1/2 cup) of wine and cook for about a minute, until it evaporates.
Add about a half cup (about a ladle full) of the stock and cook, stirring often, until your spoon starts leaving a trail through the bottom of the pan. Continue adding the stock about half a cup at a time, stirring frequently and adding any ingredients you’d like to cook for a while, such as grated beet or halved cherry tomatoes, until the rice is al dente and the mixture is thick but fluid – it should take around 25 minutes, but start tasting the rice at least five minutes before. You may not use all the stock, particularly if you add juicy ingredients such as tomatoes. Finished risotto should flow like lava, though some like theirs firmer or looser.
Remove the pot from the heat and finish by stirring in any torn herbs or greens you like, along with another tablespoon or two of butter and the Parmesan cheese, or any other grated or crumbled cheese you’d like to swirl in. Serve immediately, topped with more Parmesan, freshly ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, if you like. This quantity of rice serves 3-4.
Grilled Mussels with Garlic, Butter & Lemon
Mussels are easy to toss directly on the grill to cook, and will take on a slightly smoky flavour that tastes like summer. Garlicky butter can be warmed in a small skillet on the grill beside the mussels. Crusty bread is also a good idea, and it can be grilled (or just warmed) while you’re at it.)
Shopping tip: Choose a reputable fishmonger or grocery store with a good seafood section; mussels should be wet, shiny and clean-smelling, and be mostly tightly closed. Transport them on ice in a cooler if you have a long way to travel.
- 1 1/2 lb fresh mussels
- lemon wedges or halves
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- a big pinch of chili flakes or spoonful of chili oil
- chopped fresh parsley
While you preheat your grill to medium-high, rinse your mussels, discarding any that are already open and won’t close when you tap them against the counter. Cut the lemons into thick wedges or halve them crosswise.
Scatter the mussels directly on the grill and put the lemons cut-side down beside them. Close the lid and cook for about 5 minutes, until the mussels open and the lemons are grill-marked. (If you’d rather steam the mussels, pile them onto a double thickness of foil, gather up the edges and seal into a package, and grill for 8-10 minutes. This is a great way to do it over a campfire.)
Meanwhile, heat the butter, garlic and chili flakes or oil in a small saucepan or in a small cast iron skillet right on the grill.
Remove the mussels from the grill (discard any that don’t open) transfer to a bowl or platter and drizzle with the garlicky butter. Scatter with parsley and serve with the grilled lemon. Serves 4-6.
Homemade pasta with seasonal vegetables
The ability to make pasta from flour and eggs is a wonderful (and therapeutic) skill to have, and something you can enlist any kids hanging around to join in on. There are plenty of recipes out there, made with varying ratios of flour to eggs and/or egg yolks, or even just water. Semolina flour is optional, but nice – made from durum wheat, it’s higher in protein, giving the pasta a more bouncy texture. Loosely roll your hand-rolled and cut pasta (no machine necessary) into loose nests, ready to simmer when your friends are around the table. As fresh pasta cooks quickly, you could toss shelled peas or inch-long pieces of asparagus into the water to cook along with it, and dress it up however you like. With good pasta, even just butter and Parmesan cheese is sublime. If you have lots of greens in your garden, try tossing in some baby spinach or tender lettuce leaves to wilt with the heat of the pasta.
Maker’s tip: Homemade pasta is something you get a feel for, that gets better each time you make it, and once you know how to do it, you’re on the fresh pasta train forever. I like this method because it’s a simple, memorable ratio, and it utilizes whole eggs so there are no surplus whites.
- 2 cups all-purpose or semolina flour, or half and half
- a big pinch of salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons olive or canola oil
Put your flour(s) in a pile on the countertop or a large cutting board, add a pinch of salt and make a big well in the middle with high-ish sides, and enough room for the eggs.
Crack the eggs into the well, add the oil and mix them up with a fork. Once the eggs are more uniform, start incorporating some of the flour from the sides, until you have a rough, shaggy dough. If you have a bench scraper, use it to gather and fold the dough over itself. If you have flour left over, don’t worry – you might not need it all. Knead the dough for several minutes, until smooth and elastic, and a bit tacky. (If your dough is too stiff and dry, wet your hands and flick some water over the dough to incorporate more moisture.) Wrap in plastic or put into a plastic bag and let rest for at least 30 minutes. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to several days, or even frozen.)
Cut the dough into thirds or quarters and roll each piece very thin on an unfloured surface – it should be almost leathery, and not stick together. If it’s too soft and sticky, flour the countertop so that it absorbs a bit more.
Trim the sheets to use for lasagna, or loosely fold each piece lengthwise in thirds or quarters and slice into ribbons 1/4-1 inch thick. Cook in salted water for 2-3 minutes (add some shelled peas and/or 1-inch pieces of asparagus to the pot too, if you like), until the pasta is al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water to help with saucing, if you need it, and dress however you like. I like adding a knob of butter, a squeeze of lemon, handfuls of baby lettuce from the garden, and lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This quantity of pasta will serve 4-6.
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