By Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
It can be one of the most annoying things about recipes.
Most recipes make enough food to feed a family of four — or sometimes six. Or sometimes more.
But what if, as is so often the case, there are only two of you? Or only one?
Two obvious answers come to mind: Make half of the recipe — or sometimes one-third of the recipe — or make the full recipe and enjoy delicious leftovers the next day.
But math is hard, and sometimes cutting the recipe in half doesn’t work. Sauces, especially, tend to burn or evaporate when you cut back on a recipe’s ingredients. Besides, variety is the spice cabinet of life. So this week, we are looking at recipes that are specifically meant for two.
Admittedly, although there are only two of us in my house, when we try a recipe we almost always cook the full amount. We save the rest for leftovers, or, as is too often the case, I just eat the rest of it myself.
So for guidance I turned to “The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook,” by America’s Test Kitchen. They typically know what they’re doing, so I let them work out the details and the proportions.
And they certainly got it right with the first dish I made, Chilled Fresh Tomato Soup. This is the perfect time of year for it: Tomatoes are coming into season and are bold and red and beautifully flavored, and it is hot enough that a chilled soup is a delightful addition to any meal.
Although the soup is served cold, you begin by roasting half of the tomatoes, along with shallots and garlic. The cooked tomatoes are then pureed (along with the shallots and garlic) with fresh tomatoes — that’s what gives the soup its signature fresh taste — and a smattering of spices.
A dash or two of sherry vinegar provides the proper finishing touch, an extra splash of elegance to an already impressive soup. And don’t forget the chopped basil or mint at the end; it’s not just a garnish, it provides a culinary counterpoint that brings the entire dish into focus.
I was still thinking about a light meal for the summer, so I next made a salad. But not just any salad. I made a Steak, Mushroom and Blue Cheese Salad.
Let’s start on the bottom and work our way up. The first layer consists of baby spinach that has been tossed in a simple homemade vinaigrette and minced capers. On top of that are thin slices of strip steak, cooked a perfect medium rare (or any way you like your steak, as long as it is medium rare). Those layers are topped with mushrooms that have been sautéed in that same vinaigrette, and it is all sprinkled with crumbles of blue cheese.
This entree salad has many things going for it, and among them is the speed with which it is made. If you’re good, you can whip out the whole thing, start to finish, in about 10 minutes.
For an easy meal time, I next turned to my slow cooker and made Slow-Cooker Chicken Provençal. This is another dish that is fast to make, and then you let it cook slowly for three or four hours while you go on to other things.
The secret of traditional Chicken Provençal is that it is cooked in a tomato-and-garlic sauce. This version makes it easy with canned tomatoes (and a bit of tomato paste) plus a whole lot of garlic. It uses chicken thighs, which don’t dry out during the extended cooking time, and it first removes the skin from them, which cuts way back on the grease.
Once the dish has been thoroughly cooked, it needs a little something extra, a hint of brightness to cut through the meal’s earthy flavors. A handful of chopped niçoise olives does the trick. But my local Schnuckbergs doesn’t carry niçoise olives, so I just chopped up some kalamata olives. I promise you, no one knew the difference.
My last dish was the one that excited me the most: Simple Drop Biscuits. I love biscuits — I’m fairly certain I am not alone in that — but I never get the chance to make them because, as I mentioned, there are only two of us in the house and every recipe I have found seems to make at least a dozen of them.
But this recipe only makes four, the perfect amount for two people, or one if you’re stuffing yourself. They are ridiculously easy to make, they bake up fluffy and light and are very buttery.
The recipe includes a neat trick I had never seen before. After combining the dry ingredients, you add a mixture of melted butter and cold buttermilk that have been stirred together until little clumps of butter form. These clumps don’t just give the biscuits their buttery taste, they also work to steam the biscuits from the inside and create that wonderful flaky texture.
The biscuits are almost too good to share with just one other person.
CHILLED FRESH TOMATO SOUP
Yield: 2 servings
2 pounds tomatoes, cored
1 shallot, sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika, optional
Pinch cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, plus extra for seasoning
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or mint
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and lightly spray with nonstick spray.
2. Cut 1 pound of the tomatoes in half horizontally and arrange cut side up on prepared sheet. Arrange shallot and garlic in single layer over 1 area of the sheet. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove shallot and garlic. Return sheet to oven and continue to roast tomatoes until softened but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
3. Peel garlic cloves and place in blender with roasted shallot and roasted tomatoes. Cut remaining 1 pound tomatoes into eighths and add to blender along with tomato paste, paprika, if using, cayenne and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Process until smooth, about 30 seconds. With blender running, slowly add oil until incorporated.
4. Pour puree through fine-mesh strainer into nonreactive bowl, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard solids. Stir in vinegar. Cover and refrigerate until well-chilled and flavors meld, at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
5. To serve, stir soup to recombine and season with salt and extra vinegar to taste. Ladle soup into individual chilled serving bowls and sprinkle with basil. Season with pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
STEAK, MUSHROOM AND BLEU CHEESE SALAD
Yield: 2 servings
1 (8-ounce) boneless strip steak, 3/4-inch thick, trimmed
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
8 ounces white or cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
4 ounces (4 cups) baby spinach
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and minced
1 ounce blue cheese, crumbled (1/4 cup)
1. Pat steak dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Lay steak in skillet and cook until well-browned on first side, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip steak, reduce heat to medium, and continue to cook until meat registers 120 to 125 degrees (for medium rare), 1 to 4 minutes. Transfer steak to cutting board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest while finishing salad. Pour off fat from skillet but do not wipe clean.
2. Whisk remaining 3 tablespoons oil, vinegar, shallot and mustard together in a large bowl.
3. Add mushrooms and 1 tablespoon vinaigrette to now-empty skillet and cook over medium heat until mushrooms are golden, 6 to 8 minutes; let cool slightly.
4. Add spinach and capers to remaining vinaigrette and gently toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide spinach among individual plates or transfer to serving platter and top with mushrooms. Slice steak thin and arrange over salad. Sprinkle with blue cheese and serve.
SLOW-COOKER CHICKEN PROVENÇAL
Yield: 2 servings
1 onion, chopped fine
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1/8 teaspoon dried
1 (14.5-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
3 tablespoons dry white wine
4 (5- to 7-ounce) bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed, trimmed
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted niçoise olives
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1. Lightly spray inside of slow cooker with vegetable oil spray. Microwave onion, garlic, oil, tomato paste and oregano in bowl, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to prepared slow cooker.
2. Pulse tomatoes and their juice in a food processor until almost smooth, about 10 pulses. Stir tomatoes and wine into slow cooker. Season chicken with salt and pepper and nestle into slow cooker. Cover and cook until chicken is tender, 3 to 4 hours on low.
3. Transfer chicken to serving platter. Stir olives and parsley into sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.
Per serving: 389 calories; 19 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 173 mg cholesterol; 34 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 424 mg sodium; 126 mg calcium
Recipe from “The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook,” by America’s Test Kitchen
SIMPLE DROP BISCUITS
Yield: 4 biscuits
2/3 cup (31/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk, chilled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and hot, plus extra for brushing
Note: To make savory biscuits, whisk 2 teaspoons minced fresh mild herbs (such as tarragon, cilantro, chives, parsley or dill) or 1 teaspoon fresh hearty herbs (such as thyme, sage or rosemary) into the flour mixture in step 2.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, stir chilled buttermilk and melted butter together until butter forms small clumps. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture with a rubber spatula until just incorporated and dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
3. Using greased 1/4-cup dry measure or No. 16 ice cream scoop, scoop out and drop 4 mounds of dough onto prepared sheet, spacing them about 11/2 inches apart. Bake until biscuit tops are golden brown and crisp, 12 to 15 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking.
4. Brush baked biscuits with extra melted butter, transfer to wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Serve warm.
Per serving: 139 calories; 7 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 18 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 273 mg sodium; 82 mg calcium
Recipe from “The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen