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One-dish dinners a salve for the winter-weary soul

Jan 23, 2017

Black bean soup dusted with cilantro, served with tortilla chips on the side.

If there is a month that tests the soul, itís January.

The holiday bills are arriving in the mail. The caloric over-indulgences of the season have sparked resolutions that, in the gray light of a winter day, are difficult to maintain. The adrenaline that kept us moving through November and December has been spent. We are tired.

Itís time for the one-dish dinner. Whether it is a soup or stew that simmers on the stovetop or a casserole that bakes low and slow in the oven, it emits aromas that perfume the house with the promise of tasty sustenance and the need to wash just one pot at dinnerís end.

Iím not alone in my passion for one-pot meals. In 2014, 4.4 million Crock-Pots ó the consummate "one-pot" ó were sold compared with 3.2 million in 2005. The study (by the international consumer product market research firm Euromonitor) coincided with the 75th anniversary in 2015 of Crock-Potís invention. To boot, Food Technology magazine reported in an April 2015 article that over a five-year period, one-pot meals were up 29 percent nationally.

Andrea Chesman, a Vermont-based cookbook writer and editor, caught the wave. In late 2016, she updated her 2005 book titled "Momís Best One-Dish Suppers." The new edition, released by Storey Publishing in September 2016, is titled "101 One Dish Dinners, Hearty Recipes for the Dutch Oven, Skillet & Casserole Pan."

The book is well organized, written with no-fuss instructions like "just throw (the frozen veggies) into the pasta water" and begins each recipe with an introduction that ranges from cultural insight to opinions about the mix of spices in the recipe.

The three recipes that follow, as a package, work on several levels. The meals will hit wildly different palate-points. They are healthy. And they are, when taken in a threesome, particularly economical. Together, the cost of the ingredients ó including spices ó was less than $100. Note: Chesmanís recipes do not contain the usual number of servings, but each easily serves four hungry people, and the leftovers will stretch through most of a week.

The first recipe, Quick Black Bean Soup, is indeed quick and costs about $10 for a large pot. As is typical, the author suggests the no-fuss way: using canned black beans so the dish can be made at a momentís notice. With the smoky spice of a chipotle chili and the warmth of ground cumin, this soup is perfect for a snowy day.

The second recipe features sauerkraut. Sauerkraut and January just seem to go together. (Sauerkraut on New Yearís Day is supposed to guarantee good luck for the new year.) Skillet Choucroute Garni (choucroute is French for sauerkraut) would feature, if being prepared the traditional Alsatian way, goose fat and juniper berries, and a considerable helping of goose meat, pork and ham. Chesmanís version goes lighter on the calorie count, and I went even lighter, using a "lite" version of kielbasa and ham. This meal is delightfully tasty, easy to make and costs about $15 for a huge skillet-full. A slice of pumpernickel bread with butter is a perfect complement.

I was sold on the third recipe as soon as I saw that it involved lamb and that the preparation was described as osso bucco-style. Usually made of a veal shank and braised in wine and stock, osso bucco is the definition of decadence. Using lamb, the meal was less expensive than veal shank but just as delicious. This dish is the most expensive of the three: The lamb, four one-pound-plus-change shanks, cost about $30. Considering that only about $25 was spent on the other two meals, it seemed an acceptable splurge.

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QUICK BLACK BEAN SOUP

PG tested

With this recipe, I took every short cut possible, including jarred minced garlic and canned minced chipotle chilies in adobo sauce and, instead of using my blender to mash a portion of the beans, I used my immersion blender after I poured the first can of black beans into the soup. This dish came together literally in about 15 minutes and got better by the time I pulled it from the fridge for a second go-round. I put a bowl of tortilla chips on the table and crumbled some into the bowl.

1 chipotle chili (I used half of a small can of minced chipotle in adobo sauce)

1 cup boiling water (I just used hot water from the tap)

2 garlic cloves (I used already jarred minced garlic)

3 cans (19 ounces each) black beans, rinsed and drained (my cans were 12 ounces each so I used 4)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, diced

1 green chili, seeded and diced (optional) (I used a small can of already diced green chilies)

1 to 1.5 teaspoons ground cumin (I used 1.5 teaspoons)

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish if desired

Combine the chipotle and water in a blender. Let soak for 15 minutes.

Add the garlic and one-third of the beans to blender. Process until pureed. (I used my immersion blender on the stovetop.)

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large soup pot. Saute the onion, bell pepper, fresh chili if using, and cumin in the oil until the vegetables are limp, 3 to 4 minutes. (I added these items to the pureed bean mixture that already was in my soup pot.) Add the tomatoes, the remaining beans and the pureed mixture (if youíre following the blender method). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes to blend the flavors. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, and cumin, if desired.

Serve hot, garnishing each bowl with a little cilantro.

SKILLET CHOUCROUTE GARNI

PG tested

The peppercorns in this dish should not be replaced by ground black pepper. When one of the peppercorns lands in your mouth, itís like a little gift. The bay leaf added a depth of flavor and aroma that canít be overstated.

1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, sliced 11/2 inches thick

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound smoked turkey or pork sausage, such as kielbasa, sliced (I used a "lite" kielbassa)

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 cups chicken broth (you can make homemade or use store-bought. I used store-bought.)

1 1/2 pounds sauerkraut, drained and rinsed

1/2 pound smoked ham or turkey breast, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (I used ham)

4 carrots, sliced 1/2-inch thick

3 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon peppercorns

Cover the potatoes with salted water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Let boil for 1 minute, then drain. (I boiled my potatoes in the skillet that I used for the next step so that I could really make this a one-dish delight.)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the sausage and onion in the oil until the sausage is browned, about 8 minutes. Add the broth, sauerkraut, ham, carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns and potatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until the carrots and potatoes are tender. Remove the bay leaves and let stand for about 5 minutes before serving.

BRAISED LAMB SHANKS WITH VEGETABLES

PG tested

This dish is guest-worthy. Hearty and rich, what a meal to serve friends in mid-winter. I presented the pot with a platter of bruschetta, topped by roasted red peppers, roasted tomatoes, and goat-cheese mozzarella.

1 pound white pearl or boiling onions (I used frozen pearl onions)

4 lamb shanks, 3/4 to 1 pound each

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup beef or chicken broth (homemade or store-bought. I used store-bought beef broth.)

1/2 cup white or red wine (I used white.)

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

4 garlic cloves (I used jarred minced garlic)

2 bay leaves

2 pounds new potatoes, quartered or cut into eighths (I used fingerlings)

2 carrots, sliced 1/2-inch thick

Cover the onions with boiling water and set aside to cool. This will make the onions easy to peel. (I skipped this step because I bought frozen pearl onions.)

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Set out a large roasting pan.

Preheat a dry skillet over high heat. Place the lamb shanks in the skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the lamb to the roasting pan. (Again, in my determination to use only one dish for each of these one-dish meals, I used the insert to my All-Clad slow-cooker, which allows for stovetop browning as well as in-oven baking.)

Pour the broth and wine into the skillet and bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up any browned bits. (I simply set the shanks on a plate and commenced with this process in my All-Clad roaster.) Pour the liquid into the roasting pan. Add the tomatoes, rosemary, thyme, garlic, and bay leaves.

Peel the onions. (I didnít need to because I bought frozen peeled pearl onions.) Add to the roasting pan, along with the potatoes and carrots. Mix gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Tightly cover the pan with foil.

Bake for about 2 hours until the meat is almost falling off the bone. Remove the bay leaves and serve. (Please note: I found that after 2 hours, the meat was not about to fall from the bone. I tested after 3 hours, and it was perfect.)

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