Last Week’s Eats

I’m a little afraid of admitting it—I’d hate to jinx myself—but last week was a really successful week in the kitchen! A little sampling of the things I whipped up…

Black Bean Burgers:

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Sweet and Sour Chicken:

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Lasagna Rollups (without using a recipe!):

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Side note on the lasagna rollups: Toothpicks are a MUST. In every Pinterest post I’ve ever seen about lasagna rollups, there are NEVER toothpicks holding them together. Well, those people must have magical powers because if I wouldn’t have had toothpicks, these suckers just wouldn’t have happened.  Also, the curvy sides of lasagna noodles fall off MUCH too easily.  Someone should invent lasagna noodles that don’t do this.  It’s 2015, I’m sure it can be done.

Skinny Honey Lemon Chicken:

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The skinny honey lemon chicken was decent, but the sauce was more congealed and gel-like than I would have preferred. What bothers me more, however, is the fact that yet again, my final product looked nothing like the picture in the original recipe.

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It reminds me of this comparison of a marketing photo of a Big Mac, versus the actual product you get at McDonald’s. Of course the Skinny Honey Lemon Chicken looks like one of the best things I’ll ever eat, until I actually cook it and it looks like I stirred some chicken into a jar of Vaseline.  I realize blogs like Gimme Some Oven use professional photography and I use a non-fancy Canon with horrible lighting in my kitchen, but COME ON…

For the record, I did totally garnish mine with sesame seeds. You can’t even see them. Elusive, they are!

Also this week, I was going to make some oven-fried chicken until I spilled meatball casserole all over my oven and didn’t get around to cleaning it for several days.  So instead, I improvised a creamy noodle dish with seasoned sauteed chicken, and it was actually quite tasty!  I made the sauce from scratch, and it was by far the most flavorful sauce I’ve ever made without a recipe!

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This week I’ll be tackling squash browns (hash browns made out of spaghetti squash). It’s one of those things that will either go really well, or really terribly! Wish me luck!

Let’s Salsa

Does anyone else always have at least one jar of salsa in the house at all times?  We do, although my husband is really particular (aka “picky”) about his salsa.  It can’t be too hot and it needs to have a sauce-like consistency–not too runny and not too chunky.

It seems lately we’ve tried a few too many salsas that just don’t make the cut.  When I planned to try out a recipe for Texas Cowboy Pie that called for a cup of salsa, I took matters into my own hands.

Now, I’ve made salsa before and I wasn’t exactly pleased with it.  But that was in the days before my Ninja.  Hell, that was in the days when I still made Hamburger Helper and had to ask my husband to cube my chicken breasts for me.  I’ve come a long way; it was time to try homemade salsa again.

The recipe I used was for a blender salsa on the Family Fresh Meals website.  I tossed the ingredients together…

IMG_0737 And turned on the blender.

IMG_0738Of course, before I trusted the salsa in my dinner, I HAD to taste test.  Using one of my husband’s beloved tortilla chips, I scooped up a glob of salsa and couldn’t believe how delicious it tasted!  And lucky for the hubby, it had a perfect sauce-like consistency.  I think the only thing I’ll do a little differently next time is add another half teaspoon of sugar.  This recipe does call for a tiny bit of sugar, but I like my salsa to be a little sweeter.

Now that I’d found the holy grail of salsa recipes, I finished building my Texas Cowboy Pie.  It was fabulous, by the way.

IMG_0739IMG_0740So good!What is your favorite homemade salsa recipe?  Are you picky about your salsa?

Pan sauce, take one: steak

In the process of learning to cook, I’ve seen a recipe or two…or eighty-nine…for various meats cooked with pan sauce.  All along, I’ve steered clear of pan sauce.  I mean, have you seen the terminology used in relation to pan sauce?  FondDeglazeCaramelizeNape.  I don’t like words I can’t define!

Ah, but hasn’t the progress I’ve made all resulted from my learning things unfamiliar to me?  Crap.  I hate it when that thing called logic interferes with my resistance to change.

Having said that, my next Two Week Technique is—you guessed it—pan sauce!

I haven’t had a rendezvous with steak in quite some time, so for my first stab at pan sauce I chose a recipe for Steak with Pan Sauce (such a creative name, isn’t it?) that I found in my BH&G cookbook.

The first step was to heat a tablespoon of butter in a pan and cook the steaks for three minutes on each side.  The first three minutes went according to plan.

But then the stupid bleepity-bleeping steaks started to char on the outside…

At this point, they’d cooked for three minutes on one side and one and a half on the other.  Surely there was a problem.  I cut into one of them just to be sure.  Though the exterior of the steak was black and stiff, the interior was still entirely dark red and oozing blood.  [Insert frustrated cry here.]

I cooked the steaks for several more minutes before I was satisfied that they wouldn’t “moo” as I bit into the meat.  What resulted was two ugly steaks, and I hadn’t even started the “challenging” part of dinner yet!

The steps for making the pan sauce were simple:  add apple juice and broth, stir, add whipping cream, stir, add butter, stir, add more butter, stir, add more butter, stir, add evenmorefreakingbutter, stir.  But of course, I handled this all about as gracefully as a one-armed juggler.  By the time the sauce was finished, I’d worked up a decent sweat.

Thirty minutes of stress and cussing paid off when I tasted the food.  The sauce had a great flavor and texture and, despite the charcoal briquette-like appearance of the steaks, the insides were cooked to perfection.  HAHAHA, steak—IN YO FACE!

On a more serious note:  I do hope things go just a wee bit more smoothly when I make chicken with pan sauce…

Stir fry from scratch

I LOVE stir fry.  My parents made a lot of it when I was growing up and it was, hands down, one of my favorite things to eat.

I’ve made my own stir fry a handful of times, but it has always been as easy as a package of frozen stir-fry vegetables, a jar of chicken gravy, some rice, and a splash of soy sauce.

Yesterday, while everyone else in America was grilling it up, I got the most random hankering for some chicken stir fry.  But given the effort I’ve put into my cooking skills these past few months, pouring pre-made gravy over frozen veggies seemed too elementary.

So, last night I made a quick trip to the grocery store to buy a red bell pepper and some ginger root.  Everything else in my stir fry was made using things I already had on hand in my kitchen.  The best part is, I did this all without a recipe.

I started some rice while I cooked the chicken in a little bit of vegetable oil.  Once the chicken was no longer pink on the outside, I added chopped onion, chopped red bell pepper, broccoli florets (okay, I confess, these were frozen…but it was what I had on hand!), minced garlic, and some freshly grated ginger.  Fun fact:  this was my first time purchasing and using fresh ginger.  Could that stuff smell any better?!

Meanwhile, in another pan I made a roux with some butter and flour and added a mixture of chicken broth and soy sauce.  The sauce took a little longer to thicken than it has when I’ve used milk, so I started to get a little nervous.  But about ten minutes later, the sauce was thick and bubbly and it was the perfect amount to mix in with the chicken and veggies.  I made sure to give it several taste tests as it thickened, so there was no doubt in my mind that it would be yummy!

…..which it was.  SO yummy.  I have to give myself a pat on the back for this stir fry!

Weak sauce

I can’t decide which is worse:  food that tastes bad, or food that tastes like nothing.  Last night marked my second meal in a row that was as bland as a glass of water.

Earlier in the week, I whipped up some simple pork meatballs:  ground pork, egg, bread crumbs, garlic, and onions.  While they baked in the oven, I combined butter, maple syrup, and soy sauce for a glaze.  I didn’t follow a recipe, although I had used several maple glaze recipes for inspiration.  I did make sure to taste test along the way and it truly was pretty tasty.  When the meatballs came out of the oven, I dumped them in the pot of glaze and let them simmer in the sticky mixture for a bit before I spooned the finished product over a bed of white rice.  The glaze was pretty good by itself, but once it was on the meatballs and the meatballs were on the rice, you could hardly taste it.  It was like eating plain meatballs and plain white rice.  *Pout*

So I tried again last night.  I didn’t have anything planned for dinner and wasn’t up for a trip to the grocery store.  Using what I had in my kitchen, I made up a pasta dish.  I sauteed chicken breast pieces in a ridiculous amount of garlic, and then I added butter to the remaining juices and made a simple white sauce.  To the white sauce, I added corn, black pepper, and two strips of chopped bacon.  I stirred the chicken into the sauce and poured it all over a serving of egg noodles.

On the bright side, I have finally mastered the thick, creamy texture of your basic white sauce.  The downside:  the sauce tasted like liquid flour.  Even with the garlic, the chicken juices, the pepper, and the bacon, it tasted like a whole lot of nothin’.  How could I have been so stupid to not taste it before I served it?  After my first bite, I made a face at my fiance and reached for the salt shaker.  I’d assumed that since I was adding bacon, the sauce wouldn’t need any salt.  My fiance laughed when I said this, informing me that it would take WAY more than two strips of bacon to flavor a sauce to that extent.  Guess I’m not a bacon expert quite yet…

I’m really struggling with the concept of flavor.  I try to keep it simple because I’m still learning which flavors work well together and which flavors don’t, but simple is equating to bland, bland, bland.  What’s the best way to learn how to combine flavors when cooking?

Sauce master

Okay, maybe I’m not at “master” status quite yet.  But I think I’m actually getting the hang of making sauces!  Tonight I made Chicken with Sun-Dried Tomato Basil Sauce, which made me nervous from the start because the “sauce” is so important it’s in the name of the recipe.  Against my nature, I took my time when getting the ingredients together.  I situated them neatly next to the stove and double, triple, and quadruple-checked them before I even thought about turning on the burner.  Another noteworthy feat:  I read the recipe close to ten times between preparing my mise en place and starting to cook.  I’ve never felt so prepared to cook a meal!

Saucy sun-dried goodness.

Tonight also marked my first time cooking with sun-dried tomatoes.  I love sun-dried tomatoes, but I’ve never cooked with them because I felt they were–silly as it sounds–out of my league.  They have always seemed to me an ingredient that only appears in “real” dishes prepared by “real” cooks.  I don’t know why.  Though I haven’t come far, I do feel I’ve come far enough in my cooking journey to use sun-dried tomatoes without feeling like a fraud.

Voila!

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?

Pasta water, sauteed spinach, and more things that once baffled me

The theme of tonight’s dinner was “new.”  New new new new new!

I’ve been seeing quite a few recipes that call for “pasta water.”  At first, seeing this on a list of ingredients was an automatic pass on a recipe.  I envisioned something along the lines of cooking pasta and then mixing it with water and pureeing it.  Gross?  Absolutely.  But I’ve seen stranger things in my culinary adventures thus far.

After learning that pasta water is simply the water in which pasta is cooked, I let out a huge sigh of relief.  The recipe I’d been eying calls for a cup of pasta water and I was thrilled to discover that it would not require filling my blender with cooked pasta.  Not only that, but this particular recipe uses mascarpone cheese–something I recently purchased for the first time, despite having no idea what it tastes like.  Also, an optional step in this recipe is to cook fresh spinach.  I’ve cooked plenty of frozen spinach–well, I’ve dumped plenty of frozen spinach in a pot of boiling water–but the only handling of fresh spinach I’ve done is toss it in a bowl and drench it in salad dressing.

So, the recipe is for Lemon Pasta with Mascarpone, Prosciutto di Parma, and Spinach.  However, I did make some slight alterations.  First, I eliminated the lemon.  Not because I didn’t want it, but because I didn’t have a lemon and didn’t much feel like going to the store for only a lemon.  I find myself in this predicament a lot.  Why can’t I just live in the grocery store?  Anyway.  I also added a couple of ingredients:  chicken and broccoli.

I’m not sure why I can’t seem to master mise en place, but I SUCK AT IT!  The recipe even contains a warning that it’s important to have everything prepped and ready, because once you get going the process is quick.  I gathered about half of the ingredients and thought, Welllll, I can do the rest while the pasta boils and the chicken cooks.  My plan failed and I once again found myself scrambling to wash measuring cups and utensils that I hadn’t cleaned beforehand.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as my recent bechamel disaster, but it was still a wake-up call telling me to get my freaking shit together.  Good cooks are organized cooks.

When it came time to whisk together the pasta water and mascarpone, I gave myself a good scare.  At first, it was so watery you couldn’t even tell the mixture was mostly cheese.  I stared regretfully at the skillet, positive I had ruined dinner again with another runny sauce.  But I let it sit a few minutes and it thickened up quite a bit.  It was actually quite delicious!

Nom nom.

So, silly confession:  before I purchased the mascarpone used in tonight’s dinner, I had pictured its texture being more like that of Gouda.  When I saw it came in a cream-cheese-like container, I was a little disappointed.  But when I scooped it out and realized how gooey it is, and when I tasted it and discovered how yummy it is, it became clear to me that I will be incorporating more mascarpone into my cooking.  I love it!

Another day, another mess in the kitchen

With Cooking for Dummies as my guide, I set out to prepare a delicious meal tonight.  Unfortunately, it turns out I may need a copy of Cooking for Dumber Dummies.  Let’s just say tonight was chock-full of lessons.

On the menu tonight was baked chicken breasts with a bechamel sauce, paired with a broccoli-potato mash.  There was a plethora of errors in this decision.  First, I chose to try two new things in one meal (the sauce and the broccoli-potato mash).  Second, I chose to cook a meal that requires an extraordinary amount of multitasking.  In every other aspect of life, I’m a master multitasker; in the kitchen, I’m lucky if I can boil water and open a package of pasta at the same time.  Thirdly, I give myself a big, fat F for tonight’s mise-en-place.  In fact, let me give you a rundown of the order in which I prepared everything for this meal:

1.  Peeled and sliced potatoes and set them on the burner to boil.  (Good.)
2.  Put chicken in the oven.  (Good.)
3.  Checked the recipe for the broccoli-potato mash and discovered, to my surprise, I needed 1/4 cup chopped onion.  (Not so good.)
4.  Chopped onion.  (Good.)
5.  Realized I had no clean pots and pans in which to cook said onion; cleaned one small kettle.  (Bad.)
6.  Realized I forgot to gather the ingredients for the sauce.  Quickly gathered ingredients and tossed in an unorganized pile on the counter next to the stove.  (Really bad.)
7.  Sauteed onion and butter for broccoli-potato mash.  Noticed that, for the sauce, I needed to heat the milk in one kettle and melt butter in another.  Like my butt was on fire, rushed to the dishwasher and retrieved two more dirty kettles to wash.  Meanwhile, the onion on the stove was getting zero percent of my attention.  (Terribly bad.)
8.  Alternated stirring the contents of all four burners on my stove top.  Forgot about the onions for several minutes because I was too busy measuring flour and nutmeg for the bechamel sauce.  (Really terribly bad.)
9.  Realized my whisk, necessary for the sauce, was also dirty.  Used a fork in its place, which was about 5% as effective as a whisk would have been.  (Bad enough to consider ordering pizza.)

Somehow, I managed to catch the onions before they burned and the broccoli-potato mash wasn’t a complete failure.  I also must give myself credit for not overcooking the chicken.  But the bechamel sauce…that stupid, stupid sauce…

Side note:  flour is my sworn enemy.  I get a sick feeling in my stomach just looking at my canister of flour.  Every time I cook with flour, something goes wrong.  Self-fulfilling prophecy?  Maybe so.  But I have never been particularly successful cooking with flour, thus making tonight’s bechamel bomb no surprise whatsoever.  It was thin and runny and tasted like watered-down nutmeg.  As much as I’d wanted it to work out, I did serve the chicken alongside a bottle of barbecue sauce.

What makes me particularly bitter about this meal is that it took 45 minutes to prepare and I dirtied half the dishes I own in the process, yet it still wasn’t a meal I can be proud of.  Basically, I have to take pride in the little victories:  like how the chicken was tender and juicy rather than dry and tasteless.  It counts for something, right?  And now I have to take what I learned tonight and use it to my advantage.  In the past, I would have let the sauce incident cripple me.  Never again would I have attempted bechamel sauce, because I’d have lost all faith in myself.  But now, I’m going to show that sauce who’s boss.  I refuse to be taken down by two tablespoons of flour.  I will master that sauce, someday, somehow…and until then, I’ll always have a bottle of barbecue sauce on hand.

Yep.

[Disclaimer:  I did not create the above meme, I simply found it hilarious.  I say this because there is a spelling error in it, and for anyone who also follows my grammar blog, I don’t want any misconceptions that I made a mistake.  😉 ]