Sunday, January 10, 2010

Assembling Dinner: Food On Bread

Let's start at the very beginning.  A very good place to start.  When you read, you begin with A, B, C.  When you cook, you begin with . . .  "assembling dinners!"

(Sorry . . . The Sound of Music was on over Christmas and I can't get Maria out of my head!)

Welcome to the first installment of our "Learn to Cook" series.  Your New Year's Resolution to learn to cook begins with a true baby step this month, as all I'm asking you to do is to commit to assembling dinner a few times a week.  Break the habit of feeding yourself with fast food, take-out, pre-packaged meals, pizzas, and restaurants.  Instead, get used to nourishing yourself with a homemade dinner.  No need to worry, yet, about cooking up a dinner "from scratch."  This month, let's just get used to putting easy dinners together out of ready-to-go ingredients that you can keep in your pantry or fridge. 

In thinking about meals that can be assembled simply, I came up with two broad categories:  (1)  Dinner On Bread;  and (2)  Salads.  I'll give you a few recipes to try out this month, and a few other ideas for ways to change those recipes so that you have more variety.  Today, I'll post the Dinner On Bread ideas;  next week, I'll post the salads. 

By the way, these dinner ideas, although rudimentary, will still be useful after you've graduated to more complex recipes.  Life doesn't allow us to cook an involved main dish, separate side dish, and dessert every night of the week.  So it is a wonderful thing to have a few assembly-only dinners in your back pocket, ready to be whipped up at a moment's notice.  I plan an assembly-only dinner at least once a week, to give myself a little freedom.  Having the supplies ready for that "emergency dinner" allows me to avoid calling the pizza man just because we didn't get back into the house until 5:00 and the kids are both whining that they are starving. 


One of my favorite assembly-only dinners is soup-and-sandwich night.  I usually have a few servings of homemade soup in my freezer, but for now, serve a soup you've brought home from a grocery store or restaurant.  But let's make your sandwich feel more luxurious than the brown-bag special of turkey on whole wheat.  One ground rule:  For every sandwich, start with good bread.  (I buy at least one nice loaf of bread each week, cut it into halves or thirds, wrap in foil and a freezer bag, and freeze.  Then you just defrost -- at room temp or in a 350 degree oven -- as much as you need for your sandwich or to have with dinner.  No waste.)  Here are some sandwich ideas, starting with the simplest and moving up in complexity:

Italian Paninis
Start with Italian bread, focaccia, or ciabatta, sliced not too thick.   Layer Genoa salami, provolone, and some jarred, roasted, red bell peppers in between two slices of bread.  Press it together.  Heat a bit of olive oil in a frying pan.  Place your sandwich in the pan and press it down a bit with a spatula while the bread browns.  Flip it over to toast the second side.  Alternative ideas to mix and match:  fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, fresh basil leaves, pepperoni, arugula, prosciutto, olives.  Note:  If you don't have an ingredient that contains some moisture (like the peppers), I'd drizzle a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the inside of the top piece of bread.  Serve with Italian wedding, a cream of vegetable, or minestrone soup.

Grown-Up Grilled Cheeses

Whenever I stayed home sick from school as a child, my grandma would make me Campbell's Tomato Soup and a grilled, American-cheese sandwich.  The ultimate childhood comfort food.  That version still provides a nostaligc satisfaction, but sometimes you want to raise the bar a bit.  Here's how (adapted from Cheap. Fast. Good., Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross). 

Start with nice white or whole wheat bread -- I like French bread.  Spread one slice of bread with a little mayo and the other with a little Dijon mustard. Layer three slices of cheese on one piece of bread.  I like a mix of Cheddar and Swiss, but go with what pleases you. Melt some butter in a frying pan and add the cheese-topped bread.  Cover the pan and cook until the bread turns golden.  Now layer on some slices of avocado, bacon, and/or tomato and top with the other piece of bread.  Press it together and flip it over.  Cook until that side is golden, pressing every now and again with your spatula.  Go classic and serve this with tomato soup, of course.  But it's also awesome with just about any vegetable-based soup.  (BTW, the soup pictured above is Molly Wizenberg's Tomato Soup with Two Fennels, from her A Homemade Life book.  The recipe is on another blog here.)

Vary this one by switching up the types of cheese, omitting the avocado, tomato, and/or bacon, adding already-cooked chicken or turkey, changing the type of bread, adding some salad greens, etc., etc.  Another awesome and unique variation is to use Brie and layer on prosciutto, thinly sliced pears, and arugula.  Drizzle the inside of one piece of bread with balsamic vinegar, for that one.  (I haven't tried it, but I'd bet that sliced apples, Black Forest ham, and a nice Parmigiano-Reggiano or Comte would also be awesome.)

Monte Cristos

The classic Parisian ham-and-cheese sandwich goes well with both vegetable soups and mixed green salads.  Start with a sturdy, sandwich-style bread.  (Nothing too airy, as it has to hold up after being dipped in egg.) Spread some mayo on one slice of bread and some Dijon on the other.  Layer some ham and Swiss on one slice of bread and top with the other.  Beat an egg in a shallow, wide bowl.  Melt some butter in a frying pan.  Dip the entire sandwich into the egg (first one side, then the other) and then place it into the pan.  Cook until golden brown and then flip to do the other side.  Traditionally, Monte Cristos are served with raspberry jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar -- but we skip the sweet additions. 

Varation:  For a Southwestern Monte Cristo, skip the mustard and mayo and smear some salsa (or hot pepper jelly or taco, enchilada, or chili sauce) on one piece of bread.  Use pepper jack cheese instead of Swiss.  Beat a dash of hot sauce into the egg.  Goes great with black bean soup or a bean-based tortilla soup. (Adapted from Rachel Ray's 365:  No Repeats.)

Source:  Adapted from Cheap. Fast. Good., Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross.
Time:  5 mins. prep, 7 mins. baking

We have quesadillas more than I care to admit.  My kids love them. We eat them for lunch, dinner, snack, etc. To make an entire meal out of it, I serve it with roasted corn, Billy's version of guacamole (avocado, mayo, Greek yogurt, lime, salt, and garlic powder pureed), and sometimes a little salad of shredded lettuce and tomatoes with salsa on top.
  • 1 large, flour tortilla per person
  • 2-4 TBSP per person canned refried beans (regular or black bean) OR canned whole kidney, pinto, or black beans, mashed with the back of a fork 
  • 2-4 TBSP per person shredded Mexican-blend cheese
  • Optional add-ins:  frozen corn (defrosted); salsa; guacamole; cumin (sprinkle in a pinch in your beans); already-cooked chicken, turkey, beef or pork; steamed, pureed sweet potato or butternut squash (a way to sneak in a veg for my kids)
  • Optional toppings:  salsa, sour cream, guacamole
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Spray a baking sheet with Pam. (NOTE:  If just serving yourself, it's not worth turning on the oven!  Just heat your quesadilla in a frying pan, like the grilled sandwiches above.)
  2.  Lay out a tortilla on a work surface.  Spread beans on half.  Sprinkle cheese on top.  Layer in any other items you want (meat, corn, etc.).  If you want a little salsa or guacamole inside, smear some on the empty side of the tortilla.
  3. Fold the tortillas in half and place on baking sheet.  (You can fit three on one large tray.)  Bake for about 7 mins., until the tortillas are crisp and the cheese has melted.  Cut each quesadilla into three wedges, using a pizza cutter. 

Have fun "assembling" in your kitchen this month!  Experienced cooks out there, let us know your go-to "assembly-only" dinners.  New cooks, let us know how you're doing!



  1. Well I actually do cook most nights (rarely do prepackaged or take-out), but I am still going to "take" your cooking class. It is fun to have new things to try as I am getting tired of all my old standards and any time-saving dinners like these are much appreciated. My biggest issue will be modifying everything to be dairy-free so Simon can eat it (our meals have gotten a bit dull with his allergies--no dairy, nuts, and eggs makes meal planning a bit limited--right now I am making lots of chili and stew).

  2. Oh and our common assembly dinner is just a platter of yummy bits: cheese, lots of fresh fruit, avocado, turkey or chicken sausage, tomato, crackers/bread, etc. Then we just serve ourselves--really it is probably one of our favorite meals and so easy (and since we all eat off the platter--little clean-up), but admittedly very low key and not really what most would consider an actual cooked dinner.

  3. Wonderful food and even more wonderful sandwiches here. So happy to happen upon your terrific blog. I am now your loyal follower. If you have a minute, come see my blog at I'd be honored to have you visit and/or follow or both. Thanks a Million, Keri (a.k.a. Sam)

  4. oh yum. how I wish for my fave grilled cheese sandwich right now- cheese, mancini's bread, roasted red peppers and artichokes! YUM!

    Soon to be posting a new Tomato Soup recipe I tried this weekend. It was packed full of veggies and they ALL loved it!

    great post, Megan!

  5. Marci, I LOVE hearing that you still eat tomatoes and sausage! I will always associate you with a plate of summer sausage, tomatoes, cheese, crackers, wonderful conversation . . . and, as we got older, a glass of wine. Maybe 2010 will be the year we get to do that together again.

    Keri, Thanks for the kind words! On my way over to check out your samwich365 blog after this!

    Chris, No matter how far I roam and how much bread I taste, my all-time favorite is Mancini's. My mom has loads of treats lined up when we arrive in Pgh., and every time, I head straight to the bread drawer for a thick slice of Mancini's with salted butter. Good lord, there is nothing better than that.

  6. Hey Megan! Everything on here looks soooo good! I'm willing to try to cook or make or bake anything at least once. My problem lies more in the execution of the first try. Like tonight, I had the pizza too close to the bottom of the oven, so the bottom burned. Or I didn't drain enough water for the zucchini fritters, so they were kinda soggy...things like that. I am so adding you to my blog roll, woman! Go forth and cook!

  7. Thanks for the kind words, Rachel! I still have lots of first-try issues, too. I think it just goes with the territory of being adventurous. Or at least, that's what I tell myself when it doesn't go as planned! ;-)