Dinner by the book

Since Scott Murphy got organized, the evening meal has been a culinary adventure for him and his wife, Maureen.

Scott and Maureen Murphy prepare to enjoy a Chinese Hoisin Stir-Fry that Scott prepared. After they married, he took on dinner duty because he gets home from work earlier. A spreadsheet enables him to try tempting recipes that had been scattered.

New-age Irish singer Enya's music played softly in the background, as the freshly lit candles sent a soft glow over a table graced with fine china and generous glasses of wine on a table covered with a crisp linen cloth.

Yup, it's Wednesday night dinner at Scott and Maureen Murphy's modest townhouse in Chesterbrook - and that's how it is every night.

But it wasn't always so.

Scott Murphy was happy to take on the task of making dinner every night after he and Maureen got married. It made sense, since he got home earlier from work.

But soon, he was frustrated: "We were getting in a rut. We were having the same thing every week," he lamented. "By the time you'd get home and try to go through the cookbooks and see something and then realize, 'Oh I don't have that ingredient, or that ingredient.' It wasn't working."

Meanwhile, in the Murphys' house, as in the homes of most avid cooks, recipes from newspapers and magazines were piling up - and so were the cookbooks, hardly used.

So one day last summer, Scott culled the cookbooks and clippings and made a long list of everything he'd like to try.

Falling back on the organization from a career in the military, he entered all the recipes and ingredients onto a computerized spreadsheet. That allowed him to create a carefully organized shopping list, so that he can do a mammoth monthly shopping trip and then fill in with supplemental trips for fresh ingredients.

"This was a way to get a little more variety and to not be sitting in work wondering what I was going to need to make dinner," he said.

Said his wife: "He doesn't know any other way to do it except organized, so he doesn't think it's weird. He thinks it's normal."

(Maureen is not necessarily a reliable judge of normal. She irons her sheets, pillowcases and underwear.)

The couple met in 1996 when they both worked at the American Society for Testing Materials, a professional organization that creates quality-control standards. They were drawn together because they both like to watch the Food Network. It is a second marriage for both; he has three grown children who have made her a grandmother of three by marriage.

He, 60, was an Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam for a year and then finished out a military career mostly at McGuire Air Force Base. Now he runs a continuing education program at the American Society for Testing Materials.

She, 47, has a master's degree in nonprofit management and now works as a fund-raiser for the World Affairs Council.

Scott preps and cooks the entire meal six nights a week, saving time for them to sit and relax with a glass of wine before dinner, and choosing vegetarian meals to please his wife.

Their dinner lists are organized by books such as the Vegetarian Times Cooks Mediterranean and the Vegetarian Meat and Potatoes Cookbook.

So tonight, for example, it's Quinoa and Black Bean Salad. Last night it was BBQ Tofu.

"I don't know if I adapted to the military because I was organized or if the military made me more organized," Scott said. But military pilots are trained to work their cockpits blindfolded and to memorize an exact pattern of procedures "because you don't want to have to think about it in an emergency."

Even the cabinets have order: The sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves are on the top shelf of the spice cabinet; the savory herbs such as basil and oregano are on the middle; many varieties of canned beans are on the lazy Susan cupboard on the left, while the spaghetti and penne are stored on the right.

Since he started the system in July, Scott has made improvements. On the first sheet, he wrote the names of recipes, but neglected to note book and page. The caramelized linguini was noted on the spreadsheet with the code VTM, for Vegetarian Times Cooks Mediterranean.

Inspired, Maureen organized the clipped recipes into a binder by category.

Yes, they've got a plan, but they aren't glued to it, they say.

"Remember when there was that really good deal on parsley?" Maureen said, over her pre-dinner glass of wine. "Then we had to figure out what to do with all of it."

There are some patterns. Friday is pizza night. Maureen brings home pizza dough from the Reading Terminal Market and Scott creates the topping following the plan on his spreadsheet. Often on Wednesdays, he prepares salmon for himself, and warms leftovers for Maureen.

On Saturday, Maureen cooks, but plans her menu in the morning, buys the food in the afternoon and prepares it in the evening, making a full-course vegetarian meal including appetizers.

"I just sit on the couch," Scott said. She's been trying to follow his example of cleaning up as she goes. Otherwise, he said, "it's like a tornado in the kitchen."

Scott's kitchen prowess isn't entirely influenced by the military, unless you count General Mom. When he was a youngster, his mother, a stay-at-home homemaker with five children, always put on lipstick and changed into a nice dress for dinner, which was ready when his father came home from work. "We always had dinner in the dining room. It was Leave It to Beaver, that's what it was," he said.

The couple take their meals and their relationship seriously.

"We always joke that when there's a snowstorm, people go out and get milk and bread. We go out and buy capers and olives," Maureen laughed.

This is a couple that never eats in front of the television - in fact won't even have a television in the living room because that's where they have their pre-dinner wine and chitchat.

"I'm out a lot of nights," Maureen said, "and so when we are home, we both like being at home and we both like to have nice things."

Scott had a simpler explanation: "We're in love."

Chinese Hoisin Stir-Fry (Vegan)

Makes about 4 servings

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

3 tablespoons sesame oil, divided use

4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided use

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar or liquid sweetener

3/4 cup vegetable broth

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 cup diced seitan or tofu (1/2- to 1-inch cubes)

3 or 4 green onions, chopped

1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

2 cups chopped broccoli florets

1. In a small saucepan, over medium heat, whisk together the hoisin sauce, 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil, 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce, the rice vinegar, sugar, vegetable broth, garlic, ginger and cornstarch. Let simmer until the mixture thickens, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. In a large wok or skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil and 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Stir-fry the seitan until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the onions, bell pepper and broccoli, stir-fry another 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add the reserved sauce mixture to the stir-fry; combine and cook until broccoli is tender, 2 to 3 minutes more.

4. Serve, as desired, over cooked rice or noodles.

Per serving: 233 calories, 8 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, trace cholesterol, 785 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Ghana Pasta

Makes 4 entree or 8 side-dish servings

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

2 tablespoons dark sesame oil

1/2 cup chopped broccoli

1/2 cup chopped cauliflower

1/2 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped fine

1 pound dry pasta (any kind)

1/2 cup vegetable broth

1/4 cup white wine

1/2 cup peanut butter

Soy sauce, to taste

Crushed red pepper flakes

1. Saute the garlic and ginger in the oil for 1 minute.

2. Add the broccoli, cauliflower, onion and carrots. Cover and cook on medium-low heat until fork-tender.

3. Meanwhile, boil water and cook the pasta as directed on package. While the vegetables and pasta are cooking, in another saucepan, combine the vegetable broth, wine and peanut butter. Cook on medium-high heat until creamy.

4. When ready to serve, divide the pasta on serving plates, top with the vegetables and pour sauce over all.

5. When served, or at the table, sprinkle with soy sauce and crushed red pepper to taste.

Per serving (based on 8): 365 calories, 12 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, no cholesterol, 403 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Quinoa and Black Bean Salad

Makes 6 servings

2 cups uncooked quinoa, rinsed

1 can chipotle chile in adobo sauce

2 oil-packed sun-dried


1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup olive oil

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

1. In a saucepan, combine the quinoa, 4 cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Reduce the heat, cover and cook until most of the water has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let cool.

2. Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, combine the chipotle chile, 1 tablespoon adobo sauce, the sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, cumin, cinnamon and salt; puree smooth.

3. With the processor running, slowly add the oil through the feed tube and process until well blended.

4. In a salad or serving bowl, mix the beans and quinoa, the sunflower seeds and cilantro. Add the dressing. Toss to mix. Serve cold as a salad or warm as a pilaf.

- From "The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook."

Per serving: 422 calories, 14 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 18 grams fat, no cholesterol, 614 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.