I admit to spending hours in my kitchen. I truly enjoy julienning raw vegetables and meticulously rolling them in rice paper to form my favorite Vietnamese spring rolls. Or waiting for a water and sugar mixture to reach 350 degrees before carefully adding fresh cream to make the perfect caramel sauce. Or hand-trimming and butterflying a leg of lamb and then marinating it in olive oil, lemon and fresh chopped herbs before grilling.

But I also admit that, like the rest of us, I don’t always – or even often – have hours to spend in the kitchen. But fortunately, foods that taste great do not necessarily take a long time to prepare. Indeed, some of my favorite treats take less than 15 minutes to create. With the arrival of the New Year, this is a good time to think about quick and easy gourmet foods.


We tend to associate the term “gourmet” with high quality and elaborate preparation. For example, oven-roasted short ribs braised for hours in wine, spices and ground Mexican peppers would qualify as classic gourmet, but so does a plate of ripe sliced peaches.

Tomatoes, in season, can be a key ingredient in a complex recipe or the centerpiece of a simple one. For example, a platter of sliced tomatoes, picked locally or homegrown, seasoned with salt and drizzled with good olive oil or balsamic vinegar, takes just minutes to prepare. Served alongside a slice of good bread – well, it just doesn’t get much simpler, or better, than that.

Take those ripe tomato slices one step further, as my sons Josh and Zack love to do, and layer them with fresh mozzarella and a chiffonade of basil for the traditional summer favorite, Caprese salad. My husband Mike enjoys his tomatoes on whole-grain toast topped with two or three sardines and sprinkled with Tabasco sauce, a lunch he looks forward to every summer weekend.

Great tasting food begins with quality ingredients. Some of these are seasonal and others are available year-round at your local grocer, fishmonger, or specialty cheese shop.

Since we will have to wait until summer to enjoy those ripe homegrown tomatoes, file the above tomato ideas away for then. In the meantime, however, there are plenty of luscious gourmet pleasures to satisfy your yearnings.

So where to start? It’s important to think of food as more than just fuel for our bodies. Fuel it is, but it’s also one of life’s greatest pleasures. The award-winning writer Michael Pollan shares his food wisdom in his books “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” In the latter, he identifies these seven profound rules for enjoying food:

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

2. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.

3. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.

4. Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot.

5. It is not just what you eat but how you eat.

6. Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It’s a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love.

7. Don’t buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20 percent of food is eaten in the car.

Good advice, don’t you think?

Keeping Pollan’s rules in mind, we can easily gather the ingredients for a wide variety of epicurean delights, all easy to prepare in 15 minutes or less.

A good place to start is by stocking your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer with quality staples that are minimally processed. My suggested lists are by no means, absolute. For this to work for you, your lists must reflect your tastes. You will note that the lists do not include produce, bread, most dairy products, or other items that should be purchased fresh, as needed.

Below are directions for a few of my family’s favorite quick and easy “gourmet” treats. If you have a special recipe you would like to share, mail it to the Jewish Light or e-mail it to me at the address below. I hope to share some of your treats in a follow-up column.

Best wishes for a delicious and healthy New Year.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]

Cheese, Fruit and Nut Platter

Alternate slices of crisp, Granny Smith or Pippin apples and ripe Bosc pears around the perimeter of a platter. Overlap 1×2- inch slices of aged sharp cheddar cheese just inside the circle of fruit. Place a handful of mixed nuts and dried fruit in the center of the plate. Serve with glasses of fresh apple cider or dry white or light-bodied red wine.

Serve as an appetizer or as a light lunch or dinner when accompanied by good fresh bread.

Italian Tuna

Moderately drain one 5-ounce can of Italian tuna and place in a bowl. Gently fold in 2 tablespoons capers and 1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion. In a small bowl, whisk together 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice and salt and pepper. Gently mix into the tuna mixture. Mound tuna salad on an attractive plate.

Serve as an appetizer or lunch, accompanied with peeled and quartered fresh avocados or Belgian endive leaves. For a more substantial meal, offer sliced whole-grain bread or pitas.

For salad option, place prepared tuna onto a bed of arugula or field greens that have been tossed with mixture of 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Garnish with toasted walnuts.

Ambrosial Scrambled Egg

Whisk two eggs together in a small bowl. Add 2-3 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small pan over moderate heat. Turn eggs into pan and let cook, without mixing, until medium-sized bubbles begin to form. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, gently turn and break-up eggs. Cook until just barely done, 15-30 seconds. Spoon eggs onto a plate, sprinkle with salt and fresh ground black pepper, and garnish with fresh- snipped thyme, chives, or dill, or dried thyme.

Accompany with toast.

Makes 1 serving.

Baked Eggs

(18-20 minutes)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Butter the insides of 2, 6-ounce ramekins or oven proof cups. Place 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt or sour cream in bottom of each dish. Top yogurt or sour cream with a handful of fresh spinach leaves or sliced mushrooms followed by a teaspoon of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Break an egg over cheese. Arrange dishes in an oven-proof bowl, fill bowl halfway with hot water, and place in heated oven for 15-17 minutes.

Carefully remove dishes from water in bowl and set onto a lunch plate. Sprinkle with salt and fresh ground black pepper or top with 1/8 teaspoon mashed Chipolte pepper in Adobo sauce. Accompany with toasted baguette slices.

Serves 2 for breakfast, brunch, or a light lunch.

Bagel Melt

Preheat broiler. Cut bagel into 2 slices and place each on a foil-lined pan. Set pan under broiler for 30 seconds.

Remove pan to a cooling rack and lightly spread Dijon mustard onto each bagel half. Arrange sliced avocado over mustard, followed by sliced cheddar, Fontina, Havarti, or Swiss cheese.

Place pan under broiler until cheese is melted and golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Accompany with sliced apples.

Makes 2 breakfast or lunch servings.

Dessert Bagel Melt

Preheat broiler. Cut bagel into 2 slices and place each on a foil-lined pan. Set pan under broiler for 30 seconds.

Transfer pan to cooling rack and top each bagel with chopped bittersweet chocolate. Arrange thin apple slices over chocolate and top with slices of Brie cheese. Set pan under broiler and cook until cheese is bubbling, about 1-2 minutes. Accompany with seasonal fruit salad.

Makes 2 dessert servings.

Kitchen essentials for the gournet cook

Pantry essentials

* Oil, including extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, and canola oil

* Assorted vinegars, including aged balsamic, red-wine, rice-wine, and champagne

* Boxed Pomi or canned San Marzano tomatoes

* Italian light tuna, anchovies, and sardines packed in olive oil

* Canned Poblano peppers packed in Adobo sauce

* Small capers packed in vinegar

* Bulk whole grains such as oats, cracked wheat, red lentils, quinoa, and couscous

* Whole grain pastas

* Jars of roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts

* Assorted mustards including Dijon

* Honey

* Dried spices that pass the “smell like something” test. (E.g. black pepper, coarse kosher salt, thyme, rosemary, oregano, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, turmeric, smoked paprika, and assorted ground chili peppers.

* Red and yellow onions

* Bulbs and more bulbs of fresh garlic

* Assorted nuts

* Assorted dried fruits

* Good bittersweet chocolate

Refrigerator essentials

* Eggs

* Unsalted butter

* Raw tahini (sesame seed paste)

* Fresh almond and peanut butters

* Plain fat-free yogurt and/or Greek yogurt

* Lemons and limes

* Fresh ginger

* Real maple syrup

* Quality assorted cheeses which could include sharp cheddar, Swiss Emmental or Gruy ére, Fontina, Goat, Aged Parmesan, and Feta

* Whole grain tortillas

Freezer essentials

* Cubes of stock (make them in large batches, freeze them in ice cube trays, and transfer them to freezer bags) such as vegetable and chicken

* Whole grain pitas

* Whole grain bagels