Words by Nancy Baggett, Special To The Washington Post
The idea of a “fast and fabulous” microwave mug recipe is irresistible: There’s little waiting or washing up, you don’t heat up the kitchen, and the mug is the perfect size when you’re cooking for one. It’s also an easy way to eat more homemade and less takeout without spending a lot of extra time. But up until recently, almost every mug recipe I tried was a letdown. The reason: Microwave ovens typically cook by steaming – energy waves heat up the water in foods and steam them from the inside out. And steaming doesn’t develop much flavour.
I decided to try to think outside (or would it be inside?) the box and figure out how to make something better. It took an “aha” moment and lots of follow-up experimentation, but I eventually came up with some quick breakfast, lunch, supper and dessert mugs (including individual berry cobblers) that passed my taste tests.
Here’s the how-to behind tastier mug recipes: Microwave ovens cannot only steam food, but in some situations can toast, fry and even caramelize. And that makes all the difference. All sorts of dry or low-moisture ingredients – flour, sugar, nuts, uncooked rice, onions, celery, bacon and many more – can go from raw-tasting to mellow, aromatic and even crisp with a minute or two of “micro-toasting” or “micro-frying.” Just as slow-cooker recipes turn out better when you add a searing or sauteing step, microwaves produce better food when you do a little bit more than just dump in the ingredients and walk away until you hear that ping.
With this in mind, I tried revamping traditional microwave recipes to include more toasting and frying. The first candidate was a healthful brown rice, corn and bean salsa bowl that had previously flunked my flavor test. Instead of microwaving everything together as usual, I first sizzled the uncooked rice and chopped onion in a little oil for 1 minute. This one change transformed the dish from yawn to yum. I tried the same approach with a berry cobbler, zapping the flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon mixture until fragrant and toasty, then folding it into the berries and finishing the cooking. Again, eureka!: an individual, crispy-topped cobbler in the same league as ones that need an hour in the oven.
For a potato soup, I “zap fried” the bacon and celery until browned and crisp before mixing them into the broth. I also quickly “baked” the potato and mashed it with butter and salt to boost its taste. Likewise, for a fruit-and-yogurt breakfast mug, I briefly “baked” the fruit and honey, which melded their flavors and instantly released the juices needed for making the sauce.
Now for some caveats and tips. All four of these recipes were tested in a standard 1250-watt microwave oven. If yours has a lower wattage, dishes may need more zapping time; if it’s more powerful, they will probably require less. Pay attention to the size of the cooking bowls and mugs called for. Otherwise, ingredients may boil over or take longer to cook than they should. Also, because these recipes aren’t just being reheated but are cooked, containers tend to get really hot. Be sure to use potholders or mitts just as you would with conventional oven fare.
If you’re now yearning for one of these mugs in a hurry, you know what it takes: just a little zapping, stirring and pinging.
Baggett is an author of nearly 20 cookbooks, including “The Art of Cooking With Lavender.”
Super-Quick ‘Baked’ Fruit and Yogurt Mug
If your mornings are haunted by maternal warnings about always eating a good breakfast, here’s a tasty, fast (and healthful) mug meal alternative to the boring, “practical shoes” bowl of cereal. The hot “baked” fruit drizzled with a simple room-temperature fruity yogurt sauce is homey, and the granola on top crunchy and satisfying – a nice, nearly effortless way to start the day.
To serve this as dessert, the variation, below.
From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.
1 cup fresh or frozen mixed fruit, such as a combination of peach, nectarine, plum, orange, or pear slices with halved hulled strawberries or whole raspberries, blueberries or blackberries
2 to 3 teaspoons clover honey, maple syrup or light brown sugar, or as needed
One 5-ounce container regular or low-fat vanilla Greek yogurt
2 to 4 tablespoons granola or gluten-free granola (may substitute toasted nuts)
If the fruit is frozen, rinse it in fine-mesh strainer under warm water until partially defrosted. Drain well.
Stir together the fruit mixture and honey, maple syrup or brown sugar in a large (1 1/4-cup minimum) microwave-safe mug.
Microwave on HIGH for 1 1/2 minutes, then stir. If the fruit is not cooked and bubbly, microwave on HIGH for another 30 to 60 seconds.
Gradually drain off and stir the fruit juice from the mug into the carton of yogurt, continuing until thoroughly blended.
Pour as much yogurt-juice mixture as you like over the hot fruit; reserve the remaining yogurt for another use.
Sprinkle granola over the fruit top, as desired. Serve right away.
VARIATION: The fruit and honey can be “baked” as directed, then simply topped with a scoop of ice cream for a quick and tempting, yet healthful dessert.
6-minute Berry Cobbler Mugs
2 servings (makes 2 1/3 cups total)
This recipe produces two bubbling, fruity, crumb-topped mini-cobblers with crispy-buttery topping. The technique is unusual yet simple: “Micro-bake” the crumble first for several minutes until cooked through and toasty, then combine it with the berries and finish the baking.
For quickest prep, use berries from a frozen unsweetened, loose-pack berry medley bag. Rinse them under warm water and drain lightly, then immediately transfer them to the mugs to save all the juices along with the fruit.
You’ll need two microwave-safe mugs that each hold about 1 1/4 cups when filled to the brim.
If you are saving the second mug to be served later, cover and refrigerate, then microwave on 50 percent power for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes or until warmed through before serving.
From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.
2/3 cup flour
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
Generous 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 or 3 pinches sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups fresh or frozen (partially defrosted, undrained) mixed berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries or blackberries (halve any large berries)
1 tablespoon clover honey or maple syrup
Scoops of ice cream or dollops of whipped cream for serving (optional)
Stir together the flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a 2 1/2-to-3-cup microwave-safe bowl, then add the butter.
Cover with waxed paper. Microwave on HIGH for 40 seconds, or until the butter melts. Stir thoroughly, then re-cover; microwave on HIGH for 45 seconds. Stop and stir well, then re-cover and microwave on HIGH for 45 seconds. Stir again. (Don’t worry about any small lumps; they are okay.)
Divide the berries and honey between the microwave-safe mugs, stirring to incorporate. Divide all but a generous 1/3 cup of the crumble between the two portions, lightly folding it in. Sprinkle the remaining crumble over each portion. Loosely cover and microwave on HIGH, for 1 1/2 minutes. If the berries aren’t cooked through and bubbling, microwave on HIGH for 30 to 50 seconds more.
Let stand to cool slightly. Top with ice cream or whipped cream, if desired, and serve.
Zesty Rice, Corn, Bean and Green Chile Salsa Bowls
1 to 2 servings (makes 2 1/2 cups total)
One secret to the remarkably savory taste of this wholesome meal-in-a-bowl is simply zapping the uncooked rice and onion in the oil before adding the broth. This step not only toasts the rice but tames its tendency to foam up and boil over later.
The recipe makes one very generous soup bowl or wide-mouthed mug meal. Or, divide it between mugs for two smaller, snack-size servings. You can serve it slightly thick for a stewlike salsa-rice bowl or thin it with broth to create a soup.
The optional toppings add texture, color, nutrients and substance, but the recipe is good “plain,” too.
Use an oven mitt when handling the cooking bowl, which gets quite hot during microwaving.
From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup instant brown rice (uncooked; may substitute instant white rice)
2 tablespoons finely chopped yellow or red onion
1 cup flavorful, low-sodium vegetable broth, or more as needed
1/3 cup frozen corn kernels, succotash or medley of corn and sweet pepper, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup canned, no-salt-added black beans, pinto beans or red beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup canned chopped mild green chiles (with juices)
2 tablespoons mild or medium-hot chunky tomato salsa, plus more for optional garnish
1/4 cup crumbled or chopped queso fresco, shredded colby or grated Fontina cheese (may substitute another semi-soft mild cheese), for garnish (optional)
Chopped fresh tomatoes for garnish (optional)
Chopped sweet peppers, for garnish (optional)
Shredded lettuce, for garnish (optional)
Cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)
Thoroughly stir together the oil, instant rice and onion in a 1-quart or larger microwave-safe measuring cup or bowl. Cover with a paper plate; microwave on HIGH for 1 minute.
Stir in the broth. Re-cover and microwave on HIGH for 6 1/2 minutes (4 1/2 minutes if using instant white rice). Stir well; if the rice looks dry, stir in a little more broth.
Sprinkle the corn, beans, chiles and salsa over the rice; do not stir them in. Cover and microwave on HIGH for 3 minutes, or until cooked through and piping hot; be careful handling once it’s done. Taste, and stir in salt and pepper, if desired. For a soupy consistency, stir in more broth.
Turn out the rice mixture into a large wide-mouthed microwave-safe mug or soup bowl; for smaller servings, divide it between two microwave-safe mugs. If desired, sprinkle the cheese over top. Microwave on HIGH for 30 seconds, or until the mixture is reheated to piping hot.
Let stand for 3 to 4 minutes so the rice can finish cooking. Serve as is, or topped with any of the other optional garnishes.
Microwave-Baked Potato, Bacon, Chive and Cheese Soup Mugs
1 to 2 servings (makes 2 1/4 cups)
Give this hearty short-cut recipe a try when you’re craving warm comfort food. Your reward will be a classic home-style soup made fairly quickly and with almost no muss or fuss.
The microwave oven dramatically cuts traditional potato baking time, and it also “micro-fries” bacon strips in 2 1/2 minutes (with no skillet cleanup afterward).
The ingredients and bowl will get hot during cooking, so have a mitt handy for lifting them in and out of the microwave oven.
From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.
1 large (5 1/2- to 6-inch, about 12-ounce) baking potato, punctured through the middle with a thin knife
2 generous tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
2 slices bacon (do not use low-fat or turkey bacon)
3 tablespoons chopped celery or onion
1 1/2 cups flavorful low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon mustard, preferably Dijon
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish
2 to 4 tablespoons shredded mild cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, for garnish
Place the potato on a paper plate. Microwave on HIGH for 8 minutes, then pierce it with the tines of a fork to check doneness. If it’s not quite done, microwave on HIGH for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes more. Cool slightly, then cut open the potato lengthwise. Add the butter; use a fork thoroughly mash it into the hot potato flesh. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Line a plate with a double layer of paper towels. Place the bacon on it, then scatter the celery or onion on top. Cover with a double thickness of paper towels. Microwave on HIGH 2 for minutes, then turn over the bacon; re-cover with the paper towels. Microwave on HIGH for 30 to 60 seconds; stopping to check frequently, until the bacon is browned and crisped. Let cool, then crumble the bacon on its paper towel.
Thoroughly stir together the broth, cornstarch, mustard and chives in a 1-quart glass measuring cup or microwave-safe bowl. Stir in the bacon and celery or onion.
Scrape the baked potato flesh from its skin (discard the skin); stir that into the bowl, to form a soup.
Microwave (uncovered) on HIGH for 2 1/2 minutes. Stir, then microwave for 1 minute more, or until the soup has thickened and is bubbling hot. Use an oven mitt to transfer the soup to a large (2 1/3-cup) mug or divide between two 1 1/4-cup mugs.
Scatter the cheese on top (to taste). Garnish with more chives, and serve.
Images: Stacy Zarin Goldberg — For The Washington Post
Food Styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.