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If You Can Boil Water, You Can Make Dinner

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With a few additions and smart timing, a simple pot of boiling water can become a complete meal.

The next time you’re boiling a pot of water for beans or pasta, think about what you can add to make it a complete meal.  The next time you’re boiling a pot of water for beans or pasta, think about what you can add to make it a complete meal. Credit…Ali Slagle for The New York Times

By Ali Slagle

  • May 12, 2020

Everyone knows the beauty of a whole dinner cooked on a single sheet-pan, but not everyone realizes that you can also make a whole, well-rounded meal with just a boiling pot of salted water. The next time you’re waiting for a pot of water to boil, ask yourself: How can I make this a meal? Here are a few places to start.

  • Add lemon slices, garlic or thinly sliced ginger, which will soften enough to eat. (The garlic in these mashed potatoes is a good example.)

  • Add dried herbs or any whole spices that you might normally bloom in oil, like coriander, cumin or fennel seeds. Once boiled, they add a pleasant crunch.

  • Instead of rehydrating dried mushrooms in a bowl of hot water, add them to your boiling grains or lentils. They’ll be tender in 25 to 30 minutes and provide a kick of umami.

  • Add dried chiles, Parmesan rinds, herb sprigs or bay leaves to your pot for more flavor. Save the rehydrated dried chiles, and blend them with some cooking liquid for a sauce.

  • Add apple cider, stock or the dregs from a bottle of wine.

  • Once your cooking water is vibrantly flavored, you use it as the basis for soup, polenta or porridge. Or simply drain it away as you would pasta water.

Grains, pasta, beans and other legumes, eggs, vegetables, meat or fish: Most ingredients can be boiled successfully. The key is knowing how long each item takes to cook. Add ingredients to the pot from longest to shortest cook time, so that everything is ready at once. The combinations below are suggestions, so feel free to experiment.

  • Drop fresh or frozen vegetables into pasta — like in this white bean piccata or this Alfredo with broccoli rabe — to bolster that weeknight workhorse.

  • If you’re boiling off some eggs for the week, add torn hearty greens to the water to blanch and keep them on hand for future meals. You can add the greens to an egg salad, or sauté them for a meal-worthy egg toast.

  • Add shrimp to your pot of potatoes for a classic pairing. Then toss the mixture with a seasoned butter, cool for a salad or go the shrimp boil route, and add corn and seasonings.

  • Throw frozen dumplings into a pot of ramen to make a noodle soup all the more filling.

  • Add a can of drained chickpeas to pasta, rice or grains. The chickpeas’ tinny flavor will wick away, and they will end up softer and creamier (as if you cooked them from dried). This works especially well in dishes where the beans might not be otherwise cooked, such as in pasta or grain salads.

  • Boil two grains, or a legume and a grain, in one pot for a more blend of textures and flavors. For example, boil farro with orzo, green or brown lentils or brown and black sticky rice.

Use a bigger pot and more water than you think you need. Giving ingredients room means that they’ll cook evenly.

Salt the water generously. The precise amount depends on many factors, but, as a start, try ¼ cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt to 4 quarts water. Taste the water. If it tastes like seawater, that’s the right amount.

With the exception of hard- or soft-boiled eggs, don’t bother with an ice bath to cool down ingredients. Instead, slightly undercook them, assuming that the residual heat will cook further. Spread them out on a baking sheet to cool and dry quickly.

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