Guess what? Chicken butt. Guess why? Chicken thigh.

I cook a LOT of chicken. I spend more money on chicken than on any other kind of meat. I still remember the day my husband (then-boyfriend) taught me how to cube and cook chicken. Yes, I realize how pathetic that sounds. And sometimes I worry that he regrets teaching me, because from that day forward I’ve been a chicken-cooking machine.

However…I’ve only ever cooked chicken breasts. No legs, no thighs, no wings. Why? Because I don’t even know what you do with them. I love white meat and have never understood why you’d work with dark meat when you don’t have to.

Last week I picked out a recipe that called for chicken thighs. It’s not the first time, but I usually substitute chicken breasts. For some reason, I decided to stick to the recipe this time.

To my dismay, I discovered the smallest pack the grocery store offered still contained seven thighs. I only needed three; what the hell was I going to do with seven? Fine, I thought. They’re cheap, and I guess I can find a use for the rest of them.

The first time was going to be easy. All that was required was removing the fat and dropping the thighs into the crockpot. Piece of cake, assuming I could figure out how to remove the fat.

Let me tell you about the happy dance I did when I discovered the fat peels cleanly off in one big slab, like the thigh was simply wearing a little jacket! I had envisioned the fat clinging to the meat for dear life and my hacking away for a frustrating chunk of time.

chicken

My celebration was short-lived. Peeling the fat away revealed what I couldn’t see beforehand: this chicken still had its bones. BONES! I’ve never cooked meat with bones before!

I had (and still have) no idea how bones impact cooking. I should Google it, but I haven’t yet. Furthermore, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of chickens having bones. When I look at a chicken, I sort of imagine it as a squishy blob with no real skeletal structure…kind of like a giant marshmallow with feathers. Don’t get me wrong, I know chickens have bones. I just seem to…forget…until I peel the fat off a chicken thigh and see a bone sticking out of its center.

Anyway, I crossed my fingers and dropped the thighs into the crockpot, bones and all. That evening when I got home from work, I was relieved when I removed the chicken and the meat simply slid right off the bones and shredded beautifully.

So I had one successful chicken thigh meal under my belt, but I still had four thighs. Thighs with bones. Unless I wanted to embark on a shredded chicken frenzy, I was going to have to find another use for them.

I settled on homemade burrito bowls. (Yes, I really like burrito bowls. Don’t judge.) This one was tricky because I planned to cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and fry it up in some seasonings. Not usually a challenge, but what to do about that damn bone?!

Well, I managed to cut up the meat, but it was a real hack job. The bone was about 80% of the problem, but the fat was also another thorn in my side. Even after removing the little fat jackets, those stupid thighs were full of white rubber! Grrrrr.

Off-topic confession: when prepping my burrito bowls, this teaspoon of cilantro took me roughly three entire freaking minutes to chop. *sob*

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So, will I ever cook with chicken thighs again? Let’s just say, no promises. I don’t exactly feel a twinge of joy when I consider it.

Freezer FAILS

To a less-than-impressive cook, the internet is both a blessing and a curse. This past week it’s been a seriously awful, horrible, wretched curse.

Exhibit A: Bananas

I drink a smoothie every morning with my breakfast. Bananas are a staple of my smoothies. The problem is, bananas tend to ripen a little too quickly and I’m not a fan of overripe bananas. My solution in the past has been to slice them at the perfect ripeness and freeze them in big freezer bags. It’s easy to grab a handful in the morning and toss them in the blender.

Recently I read on the internet that as long as the peels are intact with no rips or openings, whole bananas can be frozen and the peel will naturally protect the fruit from freezer burn.

Somehow it seemed worth it to save the five minutes it takes to slice a bunch of bananas. I grabbed several bananas on the verge of becoming too ripe and arranged them neatly in the freezer.

The next morning, I extracted a frozen banana. Not sure what I expected, but the rock-solidness of the fruit took me by surprise. Stupidly, I tried to peel it; the stem snapped right off.

At a loss and on the verge of running late for work, I tossed the banana in the microwave for about 15 seconds. It softened the peel just enough that I was able to remove a small piece just at the top. To my horror, the rest of the peel might as well have been super glued to the fruit. I ended up having to slice off the peel little bits at a time with a knife. This was the hideous result:

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So, I thought of a genius idea. I retrieved another banana from the freezer and placed it in the refrigerator. My hope was that it would thaw before the next morning and I wouldn’t go through this ridiculous little battle again.

The next morning:

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Not only was the damn thing solid black, but inside of it was practically liquid banana. It was revolting!

So, no more freezing whole bananas for this girl. It’s well worth the five minutes to peel and slice them first. Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: Potatoes

To pair with my smoothies, I also make a little egg-white and potato scramble in the mornings. I’ve been purchasing a bag of frozen Ore-Ida cubed potatoes each week just for this, but they’re almost four bucks a pop. For 98 cents I could buy ten pounds of fresh potatoes. Money-saving powers, activate!

Again, I turned to my friend Google. I found a Taste of Home article on freezing potatoes for hash browns. Taste of Home is a pretty credible cooking source, right?

I peeled quite a few potatoes—although I didn’t count them—and shredded each one in the food processor. As instructed by Taste of Home, I blanched them in boiling water for exactly three minutes, drained them and rinsed them in cold water, and then patted them dry before tossing them into a gallon-sized freezer bag.  Start to finish, it was about 45 minutes of work.  Not to mention the time it took to clean up the mess it made in my kitchen.  Mind you, this is just one section of the affected counter space:

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The next day when I opened my freezer, 50% of the shredded potatoes had turned dark brown. Google tried to tell me this was due to oxidization and they are still probably okay to eat, but I just don’t know that I can stomach eating something that looks like stringy poop. Anyhow, the potatoes all froze into a single, solid block. I’m going to cut my losses and consider it 49 wasted cents.

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I think I’ve had my fair share of freezer experiments as of late. For now I’m going to leave it to the professionals.

 

 

 

 

Mango Madness

A couple of years ago, I purchased my first fresh mango.  I’d heard they were a little tricky to slice, and BOY was that rumor true.  Despite following a set of written instructions online, I mangled that mango.  It was a mangle-o.

Because I’ve learned a lot in the kitchen since then, I decided to give it another go.  Mangoes were a great price at the grocery store, so I thought I’d add some fresh mango to my morning smoothies.

The first thing I did was pull up this YouTube tutorial.  Then I washed my fruit and centered it on the cutting board.  It was go time.

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The nice man in the video warned of the seed in the middle of the fruit, and he instructed to cut just off to the side of the center of the mango.  I paused the video, thinking I am gonna OWN this mango!

But of course, my mango was thinking, Challenge accepted.  I pushed the knife into the fruit in the same spot shown in the video, and halfway down, it hit the seed.  A rocky start, but not a “doomed” status quite yet.  I moved the knife slightly further away from the center of the fruit and tried again.  And hit the seed.  Again.  When I finally cut into the mango and didn’t hit the seed with the knife, I’d sliced off roughly a centimeter-thick piece of fruit.

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I attempted to cut the slice o’ mango as demonstrated in the video.  I’m practically a pro at the method when it comes to avocados.  Alas, I’m less than skilled at this same method where mangoes are concerned.

Getting that first slice pretty much blew my opportunity to follow Mr. Nice-Bearded-Man’s guidance on cutting the rest of the mango.  Ten minutes later, I had butchered the stupid thing and I was left with a pile of assorted sizes of mango chunks and a pile of scraps from the skin and the core.  All I can say is, good thing these were intended to be tossed into a blender!

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If you have any good tips for cutting mangoes, PLEASE share them with me!  I still have more to slice and I plan on making an update post when I’m finished.  Help a girl out with your best pointers!

Dad’s Day

Yesterday I succeeded in helping my fiance’s son make some Father’s Day cheesecake brownies.  Today, I once again wore my baker’s hat so I could make my dad some of his own yummy treats.  My dad loves Heath candy bars and as luck would have it, my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (damn it, there I am plugging it again!) contains a recipe for chocolate toffee bars.

I’d like to say things went off without a hitch, but I did have a knock-down, drag-out fight with the crust.  I had originally lined the pan with aluminum foil, but when I scraped the batter dough into the pan, the foil slid and turned every time I tried to spread any of the dough.  I ended up taking out the foil and chiseling away the dough that was clinging on for dear life.  Once I had all of the dough in the unlined pan, things went a little more smoothly.  I let it bake for 15 minutes and then sprinkled it with chocolate chips.

The recipe advised leaving the chocolate chips for two minutes and then spreading the chocolate over the entirety of the crust.  At two minutes, they looked like they’d hardly softened at all.  But as soon as the spatula touched the chips, they magically transformed into chocolate frosting that spread beautifully over the crust.

All that was left was the pièce de résistance:  the chocolate-covered toffee pieces.  My dad’s lucky these survived the 20-minute drive to his house!

When we cut into them for dessert after the AMAZING ribs my mom cooked, something miraculous happened:  they didn’t stick to the pan…AT ALL!  For me, this is huge.  Also, slightly off topic, but–tonight I learned how to turn on a grill!  (Making fun of me is not allowed.)  I also learned why and how wood chips are used in grilling.  Now I just need to actually cook something on a grill.  That will be a squealing moment for sure.

To wrap up this post, I’ll share with you my other feat of the day.  I made some spicy red bean and corn soup that calls for a cup of chopped carrots.  Following the advice of the video I watched after my last carrot-chopping attempt, I managed to chop a carrot somewhat decently.  I still need practice, as chopping three small carrots took me at least a good five minutes–but things are looking up!

Carrot Chopping 101

Well.  I can roast a Cornish game hen, but I can’t dice a carrot.  This all ties back to the fact that when it comes to learning to cook, I’m doing crap in the wrong order.  I’m pretty sure I should have started with chopping carrots, moved on to bacon, and then tackled the Cornish game hens.  But that’s too much “logic” for this girl’s brain to handle.

Before we get to my carrot-chopping skills (or lack thereof), it’s important that you watch a video of a carrot being diced properly:

Beautiful, no?  But in the absence of culinary logic, I spent months chopping (if you can really call it chopping) carrots in a very poor manner before I thought to watch this video.  Behold, carrot-dicing a la Hope:

Note that within five seconds, I have nearly cut off my own hand.  (Yes, I still have all of my fingers.)  Not only have I been taking the dangerous route by not making a flat surface on the carrot, but my attempts at dicing carrots have always ended up in many unevenly-sized pieces:

I honestly can’t wait for the next time I have to dice a carrot.  I’m sure I can do so much better!

Too-crunchy taters and a disgracefully dull knife

On the menu tonight:  honey-balsamic chicken and Parmesan hash brown cups.  I was really excited about these hash brown cups.  While I nearly broke my arm trying to shred the potatoes with my mandolin (we fight more often than we get along), I thought to myself: It will all be worth it when my mouth is full of cheesy, potatoey goodness!  I drooled just thinking about the moment I would pull them out of the oven.

If you’ve learned anything about me, you must know by now that the recipes I most anticipate are the recipes that are the least successful for me.  Here’s what the pan looked like just before it went into the oven:

In almost every muffin tin, shredded potatoes stick up out of the top like snakes on Medusa’s head.  No matter how many times I pushed them down, they popped right back up, desperate to escape the tins that would become their scorching potato graves.  Now is where I admit that I may have shredded the potatoes lengthwise, resulting in long strings of potato (as opposed to the short little matchsticks usually used to make hash browns).

When they’d finished baking and I flipped them upside down onto the plate as the recipe instructed, I didn’t think they looked too bad.

But where the strings of potato kept creeping up out of the muffin tins, they burnt to a crisp so badly that my fiance and his son wouldn’t eat them.  Luckily, the insides were still ooey and gooey, so the boys ate the innards.

While the hash brown cups baked, I worked on a simple honey-balsamic chicken.  I’ve noticed lately that my go-to knife hasn’t been cutting so well.  It’s a really good quality knife and I use it almost every day.  But in the six months I’ve owned it, not once have I “honed” it (a new term I learned today).  I may as well have been using a spatula to do my cutting.  So before I started on the chicken tonight, I allowed Chef Ramsay to show me how to properly hone a knife.  It made a WORLD of a difference!

Backtracking

A few nights ago, I attempted a bechamel sauce for the second time and (gasp) didn’t destroy it!  I used a different recipe than the one I used the first go-around.  Though the recipes were very similar, there were a few slight differences between the two:

Recipe 1 Recipe 2
1.  Melt butter over medium-low heat 1.  Melt butter over medium heat
2.  Whisk in flour to creat a roux 2.  Whisk in flour to create a roux
3.  Add warm milk to roux and stir 3.  Add cold milk to roux and stir
4.  Stir frequently over medium-low heat for 5 minutes 4.  Stir frequently over medium heat until thick and bubbly

Once I had the “thick, bubbly” consistency the recipe called for, I added a boatload of mozzarella and turned the bechamel into a cream sauce that I poured over a bed of spaghetti, turkey kielbasa, and peas.  Hooray for a decent meal!

Bechamel failure no more.

Now that I know I can pull off a bechamel sauce, I’ve realized the doors that are open for me.  When I couldn’t even make a simple white sauce, I felt limited by anything that involved sauces in general.  I can only imagine what would become possible if I learned the other cooking “basics” that have always eluded my skills.  I’ve done some reading and come up with a master list of the things I MUST learn about cooking before I continue down my experimental path of culinary destruction:

-Blanching
-Braising
-Roasting
-Pan Roasting
-Poaching
-Clarifying Butter
-Bread
-Lasagna
-Marinades
-Risotto

Of course, the list of things I can (eventually) learn is endless.  But from what I understand, being able to do these things is a sure sign that a cook is ready to move on to things more complex.  Two days ago, I had never even heard of “blanching.”  Now, it’s a goal.  A milestone.

Naturally, I am not entirely free of blonde moments in the kitchen this week.  Just tonight, I chopped a jalapeno and, with the juices still on my hands, I licked my fingers and burnt the shiznit out of my lips.  Rather than heading to the sink to wash my hands, I whined about it and proceeded to rub an itch in my eye.  Nobody’s perfect, I guess…

Amateur chicken pounder: Part 2

First things first:  exciting news!  Heeding the advice of blog commenters and a couple of friends, I successfully sliced an avocado.  It wasn’t entirely mess-free, but a huge improvement over my first attempt.

So far, so good...

No more diarrhea-like avocado innards!

Then came last night’s dinner.  I purchased some Gorgonzola, another cheese I’d never tasted, and thought I’d try my hand at some Gorgonzola chicken roll-ups.  Following my first chicken-flattening endeavor, I bought a meat tenderizer mallet so I didn’t hurt myself trying to flatten meat with a pot.  I read that to use a meat tenderizer, you first use the side with the teeth to break up the meat fibers, and the smooth side is used to do the flattening.

I began by laying a chicken breast on the cutting board and covering it with plastic wrap.  I held up the mallet, tooth-side down, and took a big whack at the chicken in front of me.  Now…I remember how hard it was to flatten the chicken using a really heavy pot.  So I could only imagine that the meat tenderizer, which feels no heavier than my pizza cutter, would need some serious force in order to do its job.  I hit the toothed side of the mallet to the chicken as hard as I could, over and over, before realizing that I had turned that side of the chicken breast into a pink, pulpy mess.  The chicken breast looked as if it had been drenched in applesauce.  Though the slab of chicken no longer belonged to a living creature, I felt like a slaughterer.  It was that disgusting.

I had three chicken breasts and three people to feed, so I made the best of my pulverized meat.  I breaded it and sprinkled it with Gorgonzola before rolling it up and securing it with toothpicks.  (Quick note:  if you have a box of 1,000 toothpicks and you need just two of them, remove two toothpicks before your hands are coated in mushy, raw meat.  Trust me, it’s good advice.)  It wasn’t pretty, but I just hoped it would still be edible.

Not my best work.

While the chicken baked, I worked on some pasta and homemade tomato topping for the side dish.  I was working off of a recipe, which called for six tomatoes to be chopped and cooked on the stove with some onion and spinach.  My fiance doesn’t like big pieces of tomato, so I threw the tomatoes and the spinach in the blender and thought I’d make it more edible for him.  Unfortunately, my blender has 16 settings and I don’t know what the difference is between any of them.  Not a one.  What’s the difference between blend and puree?  Between stir and beat?  Between chop and mix?  Hell if I know!  (Methinks it’s time to get out the user manual.)  I couldn’t even tell you what I pushed; several buttons later, I had a red-tinged watery substance to mix with my onions on the stove.  I added some tomato sauce to try and thicken it, but it did nothing other than change the color to a deeper shade of red.

Also noteworthy is the mess all of this caused in my kitchen.

Yikes!

The results of the meal:  I loved the chicken.  Gorgonzola is officially my new favorite cheese.  My fiance and his son, however, felt quite differently.  Guess that means I don’t have to fight anyone over the leftover Gorgonzola in the fridge.  And the pasta?  Well, the sauce would have been better served with tortilla chips (i.e., it tasted exactly like salsa).  It never did thicken enough and it just didn’t work as a pasta sauce.

This meal also brought about a new realization for me.  As I embark on this journey to be a better cook, I have difficulty distinguishing between peoples’ personal tastes and my ability to cook something that tastes good.  I thought the chicken and Gorgonzola tasted fabulous, but when the people I served claimed the cheese was odd and that they didn’t care for it, I had to wonder:  is it really the cheese, or did I take a terribly wrong turn somewhere?  To those of you who cook (well), can any of you share your thoughts?

Brought to you by the letter “O”

The “O” stands for organization and onion dip.

Today was a GOOD day in the kitchen.  I’ve been frustrated lately because I had a flimsy, wooden spice rack that was too small for most of my spice bottles.  Not only did some of the bottles not fit, but I had more bottles than it would hold.  If you remember the pictures of my kitchen I posted recently, I have very minimal counter space.  Lately, my counter was being hogged by homeless spice bottles.  They were getting in my way and pissing me off.  I finally set out to find a solution.  This is what I came up with:

Super space saver!

This was an organizer I found in the craft section at the store–it’s meant for beads, but I gave it an even better purpose.  These little stackable jars are perfect for spices!

Spice cupboards, now in travel size.

The only drawback is that I’ve now realized how puny my spice collection is (above is the extent of the spices I own).  At the same time, it’s motivation to hit up the bulk spices at the grocery store!  😀

Also on my list of proud moments today is the fantabulous caramelized onion dip I made for a small barbecue my fiance and I hosted.  The word “caramelized” has always intimidated me; somehow, I can’t seem to kick the image that caramelizing involves making caramels.  But I worked on this dip while simultaneously filling my new spice jars and it was GREAT.  My mom couldn’t stop eating it–in fact, she threatened to eat the bowl of dip in place of her dinner.  Direct quote:  “It was like eating a hug.”  Mission accomplished, I’d say.

Onions and butter. Mmmmmmmm.

Sensational when paired with Wheat Thins.

Burnt eggs and savory chicken

What you need to know prior to reading the following post:  I can cook scrambled eggs.  I’ve been doing it for years.  I could do it with my eyes closed.  Which is an interesting thing to say, considering my eyes were open when this fiasco occurred.

I’d also like to throw out there that I had not yet had any coffee to drink.  Just sayin’.

I don’t normally cook breakfast.  I just toast an English muffin and smother it in peanut butter.  But I’ve had a recent hankering for oatmeal and scrambled eggs, so that was what I opted for this morning.  I had turned on the burner to warm the frying pan while I readied my eggs.  It turns out that at 6 a.m., I have little patience for cooking.  In my zombified, coffeeless state of mind, I broke a golden rule:  I cracked an egg straight into the pan rather than into a bowl.  Of course, what happens?  The shell breaks and spills the gooey insides not into the pan, but on to the burner.  Immediately the air was filled with the nauseating odor of burnt egg.  In a panic, I grabbed (of all things) a paper towel to sop up the mess.  By then, the egg had begun to scramble on the burner while I nearly caught a paper towel on fire trying to wipe it up.

Meeeeeanwhile, I had moved the pan to the next burner over and turned the heat on.  Did it occur to me that the bottom of the pan was sticky with egg whites?  No, of course not.  I cracked a new egg into the pan and as I measured out my oatmeal, I heard a crackling and realized what I’d done.  I snatched up the pan to find the burner coated in crusty brown burnt egg.

Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn.

I grabbed a rag and vigorously wiped the bottom of the pan, which I then moved to a third burner.  Even then, I didn’t manage to clean the pan well enough because it still left some crusty egg residue on the burner.  Needless to say, my morning didn’t get off to a great start.

Fortunately, it was not a sign of things to come.  Come dinnertime, I do feel I redeemed myself.  About freaking time.

I made Pecan Parmesan Maple Crusted Chicken with a side of green beans and roasted sliced sweet potatoes.  The chicken was actually pretty simple–it was just breaded in a mixture of a beautiful combination of ingredients–but my goal tonight was to pull off the roasted sweet potatoes.  A couple of months ago, I tried to make homemade sweet potato fries and I failed miserably.  They were burnt on the ends and not cooked enough in the middle, and I’d used way too much oil so they were slippery and greasy-feeling.  Tonight I tried again, only I opted to simply slice them.  I also brushed them very lightly with oil–last time, I had dumped the fries and the oil into a bowl and tossed them (lesson learned).

The chicken was delectable and the sweet potatoes did turn out much better than they had in my first attempt.  A few of them still crisped along the edges because of uneven cuts, but I’m working on it.  I feel I’m making progress.  Except from now on, no more cracking eggs directly into the frying pan.

A proud moment for the bad chef.