Every now and then our group takes on a title that hits a certain sweet spot: the recipes are familiar enough, but with some unexpected twists; the resulting dishes are high on the flavor meter and low on the effort scale; ingredients are easily located in your favorite supermarket; and most telling, you enjoy the book so much that you’re going to buy it. The last title to showcase all of these desirable attributes was Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple (reviewed in April 2022). But according to our group, we now have a worthy successor in February’s Once Upon a Chef: Weeknight/Weekend by Jennifer Segal. The conversation was fast and furious as we shared our tales of yumminess; my note-taking during our discussion was seriously impaired by the speed of our conversation. Mostly I wound up writing down “really good” way too many times; hence the title of this post!
As you might guess from the book’s title, Ms. Segal covers quicker, simpler recipes for weeknights, as well as some projects you might want to try on a weekend, or whenever you have more time. There are chapters on desserts and sides, but the bulk of the book is focused on what’s for dinner. Accordingly, most of us made main dishes. One of the first “weeknight” chapters covers soup, always a popular choice in winter. Six people made smoky chickpea, red lentil, and vegetable soup. This soup was a big hit for most; hearty red lentils played deliciously with smoked paprika, while chickpeas and veggies rounded out the bowl. Pumpkin leek soup was a quick and tasty combination of mostly pantry ingredients, starring canned pumpkin. Apples and leeks added complexity, while cayenne provided a welcome touch of heat. Creamy potato soup was “great for a cold night” with its loaded baked potato garnishes of sour cream, chives, and cheddar. Lasagna soup also riffed on a classic, though not quite as successfully; it was only “pretty good” though “I would make again.” In the “weekend” section of the book, Italian wedding soup turned out to be a keeper; the meatballs in particular were “so good!” The whole soup was deemed “really good!” And since it was winter, we only made one main-dish salad: soba chicken noodle salad. Though it didn’t make a great leftover, “I would definitely recommend.” The dressing oozed umami with notes of soy, sesame, ginger, and peanut, which perfectly complemented the salad ingredients.
Moving on to all things fishy, chipotle shrimp and poblano quesadillas scored points for using mostly ingredients you’d likely have on hand; the result was cheesy and nicely spicy with “…a bit of a kick!” Drunken style noodles also featured shrimp; this classic Thai noodle dish was fragrant with Thai basil (sourced at an Asian market) and loaded with veggies and shrimp. It “made a ton,” but didn’t make a good leftover, “the noodles don’t hold up well.” Another shrimpy hit, Greek-style shrimp with tomatoes and feta (“love it!”), showcased bold flavors and a refreshing accent of mint. Bonus: if you have an ovenproof skillet, it’s a one-pot meal. Linguine with shellfish, tomatoes, and saffron was “delicious!” If you love mussels, this one’s for you, with plenty of flavor from the briny shellfish, garlic, saffron, and anchovies. In finfish territory, salmon got a workout: two people made everyday spice crusted salmon, a solid if not outstanding choice. The spice crust was a version of everything bagel seasoning, which lately seems to be showing up on….everything! Baked salmon with honey mustard and pecan-panko crust was deemed “excellent” by the three who made it. The mustard came in for high praise, as did the pecans, “loved everything about it!” Miso and soy marinated black cod sounded enticing, but the “balance [of the marinade] was off….the sesame was too strong.” But if you love sesame, this could be the fish dish for you. A more delicate fish recipe, pan-seared halibut with beurre blanc was “yummy!” though it had “too much sauce.” Is that possible? And classic blackened fish tacos delivered with a nice combo of spice and toppers. This dish, while easy enough, had several components, so maybe not the best choice for a frazzled weeknight!
On to meaty doings: oddly, we didn’t seem to make as much chicken as usual, though all of the recipes we did try were definite winners. Barbecued soy and ginger chicken thighs were super on the grill (taking advantage of an unusually warm day); the accompanying cucumber salad was “awesome!” Two chicken dishes on the richer side were equally delicious, creamy dijon chicken and butter-style chicken. Both used chicken tenders, so everything came together quickly. Sheet pan roast chicken with artichokes, potatoes, carrots, and peas was a true one-pan meal, with herbes de Provence as the dominant seasoning. This dish was easy to put together, and it made an excellent leftover. A keeper! Staying with poultry, there’s a whole chapter on meatballs; three people made turkey, spinach, and cheese meatballs. Our cooks liked the spinach in them, and that they “made a lot….[and were] nice and moist!” However, they “needed more sauce.” Sheet pan chicken and pancetta meatballs kicked it up a notch with salty, porky pancetta in the meatballs, and a tomato-balsamic glaze on top. Baking all the meatballs in one go kept it easy. We made a few beef dishes, too: both bulgogi-style flank steak skewers and flat iron carne asada were solid choices, and were deemed (see title of post, above) “really good!” Three people tried out “blog fave” five-star beef stew. This “weekend” recipe made the grade, “easy and very good….gravy so nice and thick,” though one person thought it was “good– but no better than most.” Like most classic beef stews, this recipe used plenty of red wine and lots of simmering time to build flavor. And, as you might expect, it aged well in the fridge.
And last, we arrive at dessert; at our meeting we sampled French apple cake, which three of us made! This simple cake was addictive, with a few tablespoons of rum in the batter that added a certain je ne sais quoi. It didn’t taste alcoholic at all, but the liquor was the perfect accent for the apples and tender cake. We also liked that it made only one small layer, and was a one-bowl cake. A keeper! Brownie pudding was another keeper. This first cousin of chocolate lava cake was rich and buttery, yet light and delicate. Since there’s only one-third cup of flour in the recipe, the chocolate and butter really sing. And it’s easy to turn into a gluten-free dessert. At our meeting we also sampled another chocolate treat, sour cream chocolate loaf cake. This was “really easy” and “really good” (there’s that phrase again!). The cake was pleasantly dense in that poundcake-y way, and instant espresso in the batter added oomph.
Phew! Along with discussing our massive amounts of cooking, group members praised the book itself. The plentiful full-page photos made the food look incredibly enticing; and even better, our efforts usually looked just like the photo. That, to us, indicated that the recipes had been thoroughly tested. This consistency made us feel more confident that our efforts would be rewarded with deliciousness, and they almost always were. Though (amazingly) no one complained about it, there are fairly copious headnotes, and the recipe instructions are printed in a small and thin gray font. But perhaps no one even noticed these petty flaws because they were too busy cooking, eating, and enjoying the author’s food. So, as you might expect, this book was highly rated by our group: we averaged out to 4.39 (out of 5). Three people planned to buy the book!
Please join us for our next meeting on Friday, March 31 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. This month, it’s Food Network Festival! Choose a book from a selected cart of titles at the main circulation desk, all featuring well-known TV chefs. See you on the 31st!