Cooking with a Friend: Cooking on a Weeknight

Jennifer Maiser writes about locally and sustainably grown food. The Cooking with a Friend series chronicles her cooking and menu planning adventures with her neighbor, J.


Calabacitas, a great summer dish.

It's been a few weeks since J. and I have been able to cook together but we eased back into it together pretty comfortably. We met on a weeknight this time, which means that we needed to be more careful about our time and doing complicated, long recipes. Since both of our freezers are quite full, we went through them to see what should be cooked, and what could free up space.

We had baked a large sheet of ziti during one of our first weeks together—it was before we'd gotten a good handle on amounts and had cooked for an army. There was plenty of ziti leftover so we defrosted it this week and divvied it up.

After buying half of a cow, a friend had given me a two-pound beef top round steak, so we looked for a recipe to work with that. J. and I fondly talk about the Bun Cha we made in week seven, so I looked for a Vietnamese recipe that would utilize rice noodles and lots of fresh greens. We settled on Lemongrass Beef Salad (similar to this recipe), which looked like it would be a great summer-y dish.

The farmer from Phan Farms at the Civic Center Farmers Market nodded approvingly as I explained to an inquiring customer what I would be doing with the lemongrass.

"That's a recipe that we make at home," she said. I asked her for some tips, and she told me to cut the lemongrass "like you see them do on the Food Network." I loaded my bag with other greens for the salad: shiso, Chinese basil, cilantro, and mint and headed home.

Setting the menu in advance was helpful this week. I marinated the meat the day before and to speed up the process, set the beans to soak the morning we cooked. Putting together this menu took a relatively short time (less than two hours), partially because of the prep the day before.

Summertime is a great time to start pickling, preserving, and putting food up for the rest of the year. I grappled with how to make this work within the premise of cooking with J. I wanted to put food up with this project in mind, but still have the flexibility to use the food myself as needed. I think I came up with a good solution: I'll price out the cost of the serving, and put it on the jar or bag so I can "charge it back" to this project as needed.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I made and froze pesto for the year. I figured out the price- per plastic bag to be $3. I labeled this on each bag so that we could pull it out later in the year for the project and still include the price for that week. This will keep prices fair between the two of us and allow me ultimate flexibility throughout the year.

The photo you see above is of calabacitas, which I first mentioned a few weeks ago. It's a great summer dish, and I make it by layering the ingredients. You first sautée onion for a couple minutes (just to soften, not to caramelize), then add diced zucchini on top of the onion, tomato on top of the zucchini, and cover for about fifteen minutes. I don't stir it, and just allow each layer of the calabacitas to cook alone before stirring it together at the end. You can also use corn.

Final Menu, Week 13

  • Lemongrass beef salad with rice noodles
  • Baked ziti
  • Vaquero beans with smoked turkey thighs
  • Sauteed zuchinni with tomato and onion
  • Steamed green beans

Cost: $13 each.
Note: Beef top round was a gift, and baked ziti was paid for in a previous week.