Seasons by the Sea: Meal Hacks for Couch Season

Get off your behind so you can get back on the couch
This version of Michelle Obama’s favorite spinach pie is easy, fast, and foolproof. Laura Donnelly

I am most expert at lounging around, especially this time of year. I’d like to think we all are, but I’m willing to bet I’ve binge-watched more documentaries, Brit flicks, biographies, and unspeakable trash on Bravo than you have.

Are you all caught up on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”? I am. Did you give “The Kominsky Method” a glance? I did. There are five books backed up on the runway of my reading. “A Day Like Any Other” by Genie Chipps Henderson, a historical novel about the 1938 Hurricane, is almost finished. Next will be Eric Idle’s autobiography, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” and “The Only Girl” by Robin Green, about her years being the only female on the masthead of Rolling Stone magazine. I dip into Bob Woodward’s “Fear” when a visit to the dentist just isn’t enough to light up my day. So as you can see, I am well prepared for the long winter nights ahead.

In spite of all this braggadocio about my slothfulness, I do cook meals from scratch every day. Because, number one, I love to, and number two, it’s economical. I also tend to shop every day, European style, because I don’t know what I’ll be in the mood for, and it’s fresher “à la minute.” 

But I found myself pondering what to make the other evening, and there was very little in the house. “Get off your behind so you can get back on the couch,” I muttered to myself, trying to tear myself away from “Escape From Dannemora” and create a dinner out of nothing. I looked in the fridge. Meh. In the pantry.

Boring. In the freezer. Eureka! There was a package of Sukhi’s brand chicken tikka masala, a remnant from a friend’s end-of-summer cleanout before moving to warmer pastures for the winter. Back to the fridge for yogurt and fig jam to make a raita, basmati rice (ready in 20 minutes), cilantro chutney, mango chutney, and lime pickle. I had a feast with minimal effort. You can get Sukhi’s Indian foods online or at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Get chutneys at the Hampton Chutney Company and keep a variety in your freezer.

A lot of refrigerated items keep for a long time, so it’s a good idea to always have eggs, cheeses like Parmesan, Boursin, cheddar, and Gruyere, meats like bacon, pancetta, and prosciutto, various yogurts, chutneys, and relishes. If you like Asian cooking, you should have soy sauce, hoisin, oyster sauce, sesame oil, wasabi powder, sweet chili sauce, and mirin. A company called Organic People makes jars of minced ginger, so much easier than keeping a knob of fresh ginger that won’t last and has to be peeled and grated every time you want some. I also buy the small containers of peeled garlic and actually manage to use most of them before they get funky. Also keep Vidalia onions and shallots in your refrigerator, they last a long time. 

If you’re fond of Mexican food, keep tortilla chips, canned black beans, salsas, and Monterey Jack cheese on hand for instant nachos. Indian dishes can be whipped up with various spices, canned chickpeas, and the aforementioned chutneys and yogurt. Keep lemons, limes, oranges, and apples at all times, too; they will always come in handy.

Besides the ginger and garlic, the other half-prepped vegetables I go for are cubed butternut squash and a brand of organic string beans from Pero Family Farms. I wouldn’t recommend pre-chopped onions, tomatoes, or peppers, they just won’t taste fresh and you pay dearly for the service. 

Keep a variety of frozen vegetables in the freezer, like baby peas, white corn, and chopped spinach. Freeze a baguette and a healthy, whole grain, sliced loaf of bread like the Bread Alone brand. I’m not big on freezing meat or fish, but if you are, have at it. Just be sure to wrap well, label, and defrost safely.

Your pantry should always be stocked with your favorite pastas. I like orecchiette to pair with broccoli rabe with lots of garlic and chili flakes, spaghetti for a year-round fresh cherry tomato sauce with shallots, parsley, and bread crumbs, angel hair to combine with hot-smoked salmon and lemon zest, and penne for a more ambitious Bolognese. Bolognese hack: Get the Vine Street Cafe’s famous sauce at the Milk Pail in Water Mill. Dinner’s ready!

If you go to a little effort to save money and time, you can justify “splurging” on prepared foods. Make your own salad dressing and make enough to last a week. The cheapo, awful tasting commercial brands cost generally between $2.49 and $4.29. You can make a superb homemade dressing for about 30 to 50 cents.

Villa Italian Specialties makes a wonderful eggplant Parmesan. Treat yourself and get some of the garlic bread to go with it, but make your own Caesar salad. Don’t feel like going to the trouble of buying, washing, cubing, boiling, draining, mashing, and seasoning mashed potatoes? Get Citarella’s mashed potatoes, add some wasabi powder for a little kick, and serve with fish or chicken.

I have tried several brands of pre-baked pizza crusts and frozen pizzas and they are all severely disappointing. It is not a lot of work to get fresh pizza dough and mush it out yourself on a cookie sheet. The best I have found so far is the entire pizza fixings kit from Sag Pizza. You get dough, sauce, two kinds of cheese, and fresh basil. This “homemade” pizza is reminiscent of my favorite, Sam’s — thin and very crisp.

For those of you who must go without Round Swamp Farm and Loaves and Fishes Food Shop every winter, your savior could be L&W Market in Bridgehampton. You can get a “rotisserie” chicken at most grocery stores out here, but they are dry and tasteless. The whole roast chicken at L&W Market will be from Iacono Farm or Murray’s or another reputable source. The market also makes duck confit, marinated steaks and short ribs, kimchi, and many other items to make your life easier. When I stopped in to chat with the co-owner-puppy-dog-dreamboat-angel-face Eric Lemonides and told him about this story, he blurted out excitedly, “I am your customer! Sometimes I am too tired to think about what to make!” He then told me about his latest kitchen hack, which he declared “Estia-worthy,” a high compliment indeed. It was L&W’s Carmen’s kimchi tamales, topped with a fried egg, store-bought guacamole, and tomatillo salsa. Get it? All he had to do was fry an egg.

Here’s a cheat that’s good all year as a very hearty hors d’oeuvre. Get any old brie, any kind of cracker (or toast some baguette slices), some fig jam, and cooked bacon. Layer the cracker with thin wedges of brie, then jam, then bacon. It’s a party in your mouth. If you have family and company coming and going through the holiday season or anytime, quiche is good for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner. My hack is Pillsbury pre-made pie dough; it’s not bad if you bake the heck out of it. I recommend using a glass pie pan so you can see the bottom. I do a riff on Michelle Obama’s favorite spinach pie and make mine with arugula, Vidalia onions, and Gruyere and/or Parmesan cheese.

Get off your behind so you can get back on the couch. “Billions,” “Veep,” and “Grace and Frankie” will be back in 2019. Give yourself a break and take some cooking shortcuts. Don’t work harder, stock your larder. Here are some easy recipes and half-hacks to help.

Click for recipes

Greens dressed with a shallot dressing accompany a wedge of a recipe inspired by Michelle Obama's spinach pie. Laura Donnelly