Learning to cook smaller meals, until the family can be together again

By JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

For our Sunday dinner this week, it’ll be just the two of us. Again. It’s been more than a month of dinners for two.

I prefer to cook for 10. Seriously. I look forward to a house full of happy eaters. We are ready. Soon, we hope.

Until then, I keep working on my skills, challenging myself to cook more efficiently with ingredients on hand. Be more flexible with substitutions. Make fewer dirty dishes and waste. Cook less food.

Fond memories of partying with extended family members and out-of-town guests in Chicago’s Greektown inspires this menu. No flaming saganaki, the famous cheese appetizer invented there, but plenty of delicious vegetable-based side dishes to accompany lemon and oregano marinated pork chops.

A ridged grill pan or the outdoor grill adds char to the meat and the delicious taste of better days ahead. When I can find them, I use fancy loin chops with the bones cleaned (frenched, is the term) for a beautiful presentation. However, this bright, herbaceous marinade works just as well with boneless chops, chicken breasts, lamb chops and thick fish steaks. If you have frozen raw shrimp, thaw it before marinating for 30 minutes and then stir-fry the shrimp right in the marinade over high heat.

But what really calls me to the kitchen is the dips and spreads we order at local restaurants. Mounds of creamy fish roe dip, roasted eggplant spread and red pepper blended with feta, mopped up with slabs of sesame seed-crusted bread, and washed down with rosé wine, fill us to the brim before the main course arrives.

Melitzanosalata, a chunky and garlicky eggplant concoction, single-handedly turned our family into eggplant fans. Likewise, feta lovers emerged from orders of tirokafteri, a slightly spicy dip enlivened with rich red peppers and olive oil. Tzatziki, that creamy yogurt and cucumber dip served with gyros, comes together quickly and adds freshness to meats and salads.

Supermarkets may not have all the ingredients in stock during these difficult times. Feel free to fill in with one of the substitutions.

I intentionally cook enough of these favorites to have leftovers for other meals. Stir either relish into warm cooked pasta or rice. Scrambled eggs topped with the red pepper dip prove amazing; try it as a bread spread for grilled cheese sandwiches. Make open face toast with a thick spread of the eggplant mixture and top it with sliced avocado or shreds of roast chicken. Pile leftover pork, thinly sliced, on a salad or tucked in a pita drizzled with tzatziki.

Save the recipes. They all double nicely for the entertaining days surely coming in the near future.

Greek-influenced roasted eggplant chutney, melitzanasalata, as a side dish for Greek-styled pork chops.


Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: about 2 1/2 cups

1 large eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds

Olive oil, about 6 tablespoons total

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling

2 small cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or to taste

1/4 of a yellow, orange or green pepper, finely diced

8 cherry tomatoes, quartered

Chopped fresh parsley

1. Heat broiler to low. If possible, position rack so eggplant will be at least 8 inches below the heat source.

2. Cut eggplant lengthwise in half. Place cut side up on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet. Brush each cut side with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt. Broil until cut side of eggplant is richly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Flip and broil to soften the skin side, about 5 minutes. (If you can’t adjust oven racks to be 8 inches below the broiler, then reduce cooking time and watch so eggplant doesn’t burn.)

3. Let eggplant cool until you can handle it — but work with it warm. Decide if you want the skin — it is delicious to me, especially when finely chopped. Cut eggplant into large chunks and transfer to a food processor. Use on/off pulses to make a coarse mash. (Alternatively, use a large knife on a cutting board and finely chop the eggplant.) Add garlic, 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil, the vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pulse once or twice to mix gently.

4. Transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with the diced pepper, the tomato quarters and the parsley. Drizzle top with 1 tablespoon oil. Let sit 20 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per 1/4 cup serving: 90 calories, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 1 g protein, 118 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

The pork chops are marinated with olive oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and thyme.


Prep: 15 minutes

Marinate: 1 hour or more

Cook: 12 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

This recipe calls for 4 chops, so you’ll have leftovers for subsequent meals. You could use 1/2 cup Italian salad dressing here in place of the marinade ingredients, but select one that has very little sugar. You can grill the chops on a grill directly over the heat source for 7 minutes; then flip and finish grilling until nearly firm when pressed, 4 to 5 more minutes.

4 frenched, bone-in, center-cut pork loin chops, each about 1 inch thick and weighing 8 to 10 ounces each

1/3 cup olive oil

Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon each: black pepper, thyme

Red pepper and cheese relish, see recipe

Parsley sprigs, lemon wedges

1. Pat chops dry. Mix oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and thyme in a shallow dish large enough to hold the chops in a single layer. Add chops and turn to coat all sides with marinade. Cover and refrigerate for several hours (or up to 8 hours).

2. Heat oven to 400 degrees convection or 425 degrees conventional. Meanwhile, let chops come to room temperature, about 20 minutes.

3. Heat a well-seasoned ridged grill pan, large nonstick skillet or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Use tongs to add chops (with the oil that clings to them) in a single, uncrowded layer. Let cook, without turning, until deeply golden on the bottom, about 4 minutes. Flip chops and slide the pan into the hot oven. Cook, without turning, until center of chop is slightly firm (but not hard) when pressed, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from oven.

4. Serve chops topped with a generous dollop of the red pepper relish. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.

Nutrition information per serving: 378 calories, 29 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 89 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 28 g protein, 135 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Pork chops are served with a roasted red pepper and feta cheese relish, plus a side of sauteed greens.


Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: about 2 cups

3 red bell peppers, about 1 1/4 pounds total (you can use a combination of red, orange and yellow)

1 medium red or yellow onion, halved, each half cut into 3 pieces

3 large cloves garlic, unpeeled

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 package (8 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled (or 3/4 cup ricotta, or crumbled goat cheese, farmer’s cheese or queso fresco)

Chopped fresh parsley

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the peppers in half; cut out the stem and seed pods. Put bell pepper pieces, onion and garlic on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with the oil to coat well. Roast, turning everything once or twice, until vegetables are soft and a bit golden, about 30 minutes. Cool.

2. Peel the garlic. Turn on the food processor and drop the garlic into it to chop finely. Add the onion pieces and pulse 2 or 3 times to chop roughly. Add pepper pieces, vinegar and salt; pulse a few times to roughly chop peppers. Do not puree.

3. Transfer to a bowl. Add the feta cheese and mix gently. Serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with parsley.

For a speedy version: Substitute 2 jars (15 ounces each) roasted red peppers, drained and rinsed, in place of the fresh peppers. Slice the onion, crush the garlic and saute both in a skillet in 1 tablespoon oil until golden and soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the finely chopped peppers, vinegar and cheese. Season with salt.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 29 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein, 102 mg sodium, 0 g fiber


Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 2 to 3 servings

If dandelion greens are not available, use baby kale, spinach, chard leaves (and stems diced) or lacinato kale leaves. For variety, add a few radish leaves, carrot tops and beet greens if fresh and unblemished.

2 bunches dandelion greens, 12 ounces total

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Coarse (kosher) salt

Red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice

Crushed red pepper flakes

1. Trim tough ends from greens. Put into a bowl of cold water and swish around. Use your hands to lift the greens from the water. Place on clean towel or spin dry in a salad spinner.

2. Heat a large skillet until hot. Add oil and onion; saute until onion is soft, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic, the greens and a generous sprinkle of salt. The skillet will be very full, but keep gently turning the greens with tongs as they wilt and collapse (but leaving some greens slightly undercooked), about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat. Season with a splash of vinegar and pepper flakes. Serve right away.

Nutrition information per serving (for 3 servings): 148 calories, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 4 g protein, 88 mg sodium, 5 g fiber


Use the large holes on a four-sided grater to shred 1 large seedless cucumber (peeled if you wish) into a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt and mix in 2 cloves garlic, crushed. Let stand a few minutes, then squeeze the mixture with clean hands to release some of the juices. Stir drained cucumber into 1 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or green onion tops if you have them.