Chicken Wins

I cooked chicken breasts in a frying pan and I DIDN’T BURN THEM! [Cue confetti, balloons, and blowout noisemakers.]

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That beautiful picture is the result of a Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets with Maple-Mustard Dill Sauce recipe. I’ve never cooked chicken this way without burning it on the outside. And the sauce was delicious! I was a little weary of combining maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and dill, but somehow it worked really well. I wish I was talented enough to know how to mix weird condiments and herbs to make such brilliant flavors. Le sigh…

Not that I can’t make up my own great flavors. The other night I made pesto-stuffed chicken with a side of seasoned brown rice. I didn’t use a recipe for any of it, and I’m rather proud of that. I stuffed the chicken with pesto, rolled it in a bread crumb-Italian herb mixture, and topped it with Parmesan cheese. I cooked the rice in chicken broth mixed with two teaspoons of onion and herb Mrs. Dash, and then added about half a teaspoon of salt and a handful of Parmesan.   It’s nothing complicated, but it was tasty! Chopped, here I come!!!

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Wooooahhhhh. I got a little carried away there. No Chopped. I’m lucky if I’m familiar with even one mystery basket ingredient each episode.

I am feeling pretty good about my cooking skills this week, though. I’m making pork tenderloin for the first time ever on Thursday, so let’s hope this good mojo continues!

And the Award for Biggest Moron Goes To…

Let’s play a game called, Can You Spot the Difference? The rules are simple: you study the photo below and tell me the differences between the top two and bottom two packages of ground beef. Take a moment, and when you’re ready, compare your findings to my answer key below.

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Look closely…

Keep looking…

It seems so easy…

Ready? Here’s the answer key:

  • They are different brands.
  • The beef on top is organic and the beef below is simply “all natural.”
  • The beef on top is in a square package and the beef below is in a rectangular package.

The answers are all fairly obvious, are they not? But there’s more to this riddle than meets the eye. There’s one last difference I bet you couldn’t see. It’s that the two packages on top are room temperature and completely inedible, and the bottom two packages are nice and cool, just out of the cooler at the store down the street. So how did we get here, you might ask?

Several months ago I wrote about “Plan B” in my house, which consists of a drive to Chipotle whenever I ruin dinner or fail to plan properly. The particular instance that sparked the “Plan B” post was that I’d taken the chicken out to thaw for an hour in the morning, mistakenly left it out all day while I was at work, and came home to room-temperature chicken that had to be tossed. Most frustrating of all was that this wasn’t the first, second, or even tenth time I’d done such a thing.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Last night, I took two frozen packages of hamburger out of the freezer. One went in the fridge to thaw out for Tuesday night, and the other went in the sink to thaw until bedtime so it would be ready to cook come dinner time tonight. Well, I woke up this morning to find the beef still sitting in the sink.

So I took the other package out of the fridge and set it in the sink to thaw while I got ready for work. An hour later, I pulled into the parking lot at the office and realized: I hadn’t put the beef back into the fridge. Now, imagine every single cuss word you have ever heard. I said them ALL before I got out of the car.

I am no longer allowed to use the sink method for thawing meat. If it ain’t thawed, I ain’t cooking it. We’ll have PB&J. Or we’ll have cheese and crackers. Or we’ll have cereal. ANYTHING to keep me from wasting $15 on meat.

Did I mention I have a very forgiving husband?

Beef: Nailed It!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am a master at overcooking meat. Unlike many of my kitchen mishaps, this particular problem isn’t due to lack of skill or inability to multitask. I am terrified of making someone (or myself) sick by serving them undercooked meat. This means I tend to overcompensate and we eat a lot of burned and/or extremely tough, barely-chewable meat in my house.

I’ve been taking extra caution lately, trying SO HARD to cook my meat just perfectly. I’ve made several chicken dishes now with chicken so tender I can’t believe I was the one to prepare it. Despite my improvements in poultry, there’s still…

Beef.

UGH, beef. If I wasn’t thinking of my husband (you’re welcome, husband), I would cook my beef so long it becomes jerky. All you people who like rare or medium-rare, or hell, even medium doneness in your beef: you crazy! I want my “red meat” to be as non-red as it gets.

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But I know that in cooking, nothing about overcooked beef is appealing. So damn it, I’ll get better at this!

The other night for dinner, I chose a recipe for copycat PF Chang’s Mongolian Beef. It called for sliced flank steak, but I opted for pre-cut stir fry meat. In either case, I was about to fry little pieces of beef in hot oil. This is pretty much a guarantee we’ll be chewing leather at dinner.

I don’t have a method to “not overcooking” other than to take the pan off the burner the very second I’d normally give the meat just a couple more minutes…to be on the safe side. Guys, this is so difficult for me. If only you could feel my internal struggle.

But last night, that’s exactly what I did. And THANK FREAKING GOODNESS, because the meat was cooked so wonderfully. It was soft, but not red and bloody. It was just a little bit crispy on the outside from the cornstarch, but not tough and dry on the inside.

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I don’t often get to say this in the kitchen, so here goes: Nailed it!!!

I also added broccoli to mine, which wasn’t in the recipe. I have no regrets.

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If you have any good tips on how to NOT overcook meat, please share! You’ll be my hero.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Have I mentioned before how much I hate frying things in oil? I don’t mind sauteeing a few veggies, but ask me to drop some meat into a significant amount of hot oil, and you’ve lost me. Not only am I petrified of being attacked by jumping droplets of fiery hot oil, but every time I try to cook meat this way, it burns to a crisp on the outside while staying 100% raw on the inside. Every. Single. Time.

I’ve had a recipe for Crispy Buffalo Chicken Tenders hanging out on my Pinterest board for several weeks. Lately I’ve been playing the “shit or get off the pot” game with my recipe pins. It was time to either make the chicken tenders or delete the pin and admit that I was never going through with it. After all, the recipe involved cooking the chicken tenders in a frying pan and finishing them off for a few minutes in the oven.

I finally opted to shit—er, cook the chicken tenders. If I failed, there was always plan B (burrito bowls from Chipotle, as always!).

This was the first recipe I’ve ever made that involved “dredging” the meat in flour. Yeah…I’ve had this blog for three years and I’m a first-time dredger. I still don’t know what purpose it serves, but my breading clung nicely to the meat, so I won’t argue its importance!

The instructions were to heat the oil on medium-high heat and leave the chicken tenders untouched in the pan for seven minutes. I did lift them up at about five minutes and they were the most perfect shade of golden brown, and I admit that I flipped them at that point for fear of charring them. After a few minutes on the other side, I moved the tenders to a cooling rack over a cookie sheet and transferred them to the oven. Eleven minutes later, the meat was perfectly cooked and (gasp!), the outsides were gloriously crispy.

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After removing them from the oven, I may have dropped one of the chicken tenders on the kitchen floor. The dog was quick to attack the fallen food and she seemed thoroughly satisfied with the taste. Good sign!…I think. She also enjoys the flavor of cat poop, so it actually could have been a very bad sign.

The chicken tenders were supposed to be dipped in ranch, which sounded delicious. But it turns out our bottle of ranch was two months past its expiration date. We had nothing else to dip our chicken tenders in. I crossed my fingers and hoped they were flavorful enough without a dipping sauce. And they were. They were fantastic.

They were also hotter than hell.

My husband couldn’t even finish his. He loved the flavor, but his mouth was on fire after his second chicken tender and he wasn’t able to eat the other two on his plate. I ate three, but I think it was at least an hour afterward before I found any relief from the burning sensation in my mouth.

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Thanks a lot, expired ranch dressing. Yeah, I’m blaming you.

So, I guess it’s time to go through my kitchen and check the expiration dates on everything.

At least I did a good job at frying the chicken!

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!

The Great Meatball Casserole Spillage of 2015

You know how certain workplaces have signs that read This department has worked ____ days without injury? Sometimes I think my blog needs a sign that reads This cook has cooked ____ meals without failure beyond repair.

For the record, if I did have such a thing on my blog, the count would currently be 0.

Saturday night, I spent an hour preparing an Upside Down Meatball Casserole recipe. I was extra proud of myself because it was the first time I’d ever cooked meatballs in a skillet on the stovetop. I’ve always only baked them in the oven because I’m terrified of hot oil, and I avoid cooking in more than a tablespoon of oil at all costs. But I cooked nearly 30 meatballs in a quarter cup of oil and they were just GORGEOUS.

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Once the meatballs were done, I assembled the rest of the casserole. It looked and smelled delicious; I was stoked! All I had left to do was pop it into the oven for half an hour. I set the timer for 18 minutes so I could check on it. As it baked, the most heavenly scent filled the kitchen and the living room.

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When the timer went off, I slipped on a potholder and slowly pulled the casserole dish out of the oven. It was clear right away that the biscuits weren’t yet done. As I made to place the dish back on the rack, it began to wobble in my grip…

Quick sidebar: recently I came across this picture on the interwebs, and I simply shook my head and thought, “Wow. I tend to make mistakes in the kitchen, but at least I’m not that bad.”

So, the casserole dish full of meatballs, sauce, cheese, and raw dough, was wobbling in my hand. Yes, I had taken it out of the oven one-handed. That’s not important. (Okay, it’s extremely important. I’m never removing something from the oven one-handed again.) I’m sure you know where this is going.

Once gravity took over, there was just no stopping it.

It felt as if I were watching it in slow motion. The dish hit the oven rack and half of the casserole slid out over the edge and splattered against the bottom of the oven. It sizzled like ten pounds of bacon. I grabbed the dish and placed it on the stovetop and shouted, “Babe! Babe! Babe! Babe! Babe!” to my husband, who was only about twenty feet away from me. He took a leap and landed beside me, and so did the dog, because the sauce and the cheese were dripping out on to the floor.

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Initially I was in shock, unable to react. After snapping some photos as proof, I leaned back against the counter and buried my head in my hands while my husband used a barbecue spatula to scrape up what he could of the mess. When he was done, I studied the remains in the casserole dish and finally broke into tears. Not because I’d ruined dinner—hell, I’ve done that so many times I’m desensitized to the feeling—but because I’d spent so much time and everything had been going so well, and I’m sure it would have been one of the best things I’ve made in a long time if it weren’t for my dropping the dish.

This is what a shattered dream looks like.

This is what a shattered dream looks like.

Even the dog is giving me that "I can't believe you did that" look.

Even the dog is giving me that “I can’t believe you did that” look.

Luckily my husband gives great hugs and he offered his reassurances that “shit happens, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad cook,” and then he treated the family to burgers at Red Robin.

It won’t be right away, but I will attempt this meal again. First I have to clean the oven. And also, to whomever was the victim of the pizza incident in the photo above: I’m sorry for ever feeling sorry for you. It turns out I have similar mad skills.

Chili Tweaks and Homemade Cornbread

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A few years ago, I found the easiest chili recipe and I’ve made it several times over, always using a different kind of salsa. I make it probably once a month, and I almost always serve cornbread on the side.

Cornbread from a box.

From a Jiffy box, to be exact. We’re not even talking fancy Marie Callender’s cornbread mix. We’re talking 48-cent Jiffy cornbread.

I’ve considered making homemade cornbread, but laziness (and shame) have always taken over and driven me to purchase the boxed mix. But since part of my cooking journey is to rid my kitchen of as much boxed stuff as possible, I finally went through with making cornbread from scratch!

But first, back to the chili. As I said, I’ve made this same chili recipe numerous times. I’ve got it down to perfection. I almost don’t even need the recipe anymore. I wrote this down in my recipe notebook a LONG time ago, and unfortunately I don’t have the teensiest clue where it originated from. If I ever find it, I promise I’ll edit this post and link to it.

Ingredients

1 pound lean ground beef
1 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 16-ounce cans of kidney or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
2.5 cups salsa
1 4-ounce can of diced green chiles
2 teaspoons of chili powder

Steps

  1. Cook the ground beef, onion, and garlic in large skillet until beef is browned. Drain.
  2. Add the beans, salsa, chiles, and chili powder. Bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook, stirring frequently, for 20-25 minutes.

I repeat: it’s easy, and I’ve perfected it. No mistakes. No disappointments. It was a combination of bravery and confidence that influenced me to make some alterations this go-around.

First, I swapped out the ground beef for some stew meat chopped into half-inch pieces. Second, I used homemade salsa. And third, I eliminated the green chiles because I completely forgot about them at the grocery store.

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I wasn’t horribly impressed with the salsa I made for use in the chili. It was the same recipe I used in a recent post, but it didn’t really have that “chili” flavor I was going for. So, I cracked open a can of tomato sauce and poured half of it in, and I added about 2-3 extra teaspoons of chili powder for good measure.

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While the chili cooked, I started on the cornbread. I used a recipe from my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was almost as effortless as the boxed Jiffy mix. My only mistake was melting the butter, and then whisking in the milk and eggs and letting it sit for a few minutes while I tended to the chili. By the time I poured it all into the flour/cornmeal mixture, the butter had become wax-like. I frantically stirred the batter in an attempt to break it all up. It must have worked, because the cornbread was fabulous!

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The chili I was worried about? Also fabulous! I was a little saddened that I used a salsa recipe with no chunkiness to it, as that’s one of the things I love about chili. Next time, I’ll still make my own salsa, but I’ll try a different recipe that doesn’t puree it down to that sauce-like consistency. The taste was still wonderful and I’m proud of myself for taking a bit of a chance and seeing it pay off!

Do you prefer chunks of beef, or ground beef in your chili? I think it’s a tie for me, but it was a nice change from the typical chili I make. 🙂

I Want My Baby Back Baby Back Baby Back

I recently wrote about being intimidated by the prospect of cooking baby back ribs.  The day before writing that post, I’d cracked open an old crockpot cookbook I hadn’t used in over a year.  In it I found a recipe for Honey Ribs.  Aha! I’d thought.  The crockpot is foolproof!  No skill required!  After all these years, I was brave enough to purchase a rack of ribs at the grocery store.

First lesson from the experience:  The crockpot is not foolproof.  Yesterday morning, I gathered the ingredients to throw in the crockpot before work.  I…had…no…honey.

How does one make HONEY ribs without honey?  It’s like mac ‘n cheese without cheese.  Cherry pie without cherries.

So I had two problems.  One, I had no honey for my HONEY ribs.  Two, I had nothing else to cook for dinner.  With a pessimistic sigh, I retrieved the brown sugar from the pantry and decided it would be the understudy to my missing honey.  Because, you know, the consistency is pretty much identical.  (NOT.)

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The “before” pic.

In the end, there was good news and bad news.  The good news:  the meat itself was cooked to perfection.  It was tender and delicious.

The "after" pic.

The “after” pic.

The bad news: none of the other ingredients—beef consommé, barbecue sauce, dry mustard, maple syrup, or that blasted brown sugar—could be tasted. Not at all. The husband and I ended up smothering the ribs in Famous Dave’s barbecue sauce. Then they were pretty damn tasty.

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Awaiting a generous coating of Famous Dave’s Rich and Sassy.

While the recipe itself left something to be desired—aided, no doubt, by my failure to purchase honey before planning honey ribs—we both really enjoyed the end result. My husband’s great idea is that next time (because there will definitely be a next time), I’ll throw them in the crockpot before work one day, and he’ll take them out when he gets home in the afternoon, lather them up with barbecue sauce, and finish them in the oven until dinnertime.

The end verdict is that I can only laugh at how nervous I was about cooking baby back ribs. My fear was not about the flavor so much as it was about the actual meat. And that part was fantastic! Check one off the list for 2015 cooking milestones!

Anyone know of any crockpot rib recipes that actually pack a decent punch of flavor? If so, I’d love for you to share!

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.

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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.

Plan B

In my house, there is always a Plan B for dinner. More often than not, Plan B consists of burrito bowls from Chipotle.

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We utilize Plan B more often than it really should be in one’s household. Whether I cook something that resembles sewage, or I fill up the crockpot in the morning and forget to plug it in, it’s not exactly “rare” that the husband and I end up at Chipotle.

Today it was made clear that I don’t even have to begin preparing food in order to ruin dinner. Not one dish was dirtied and not one burner was turned on, but we had to resort to Plan B.

Honestly, I kind of blame the dog. Let me back up a bit.

This morning, despite it being a depressing 18 degrees outside, Samantha was insistent on running around outside with the four-foot-long stick she recently found on a walk. Upon returning inside, she bolted around the house, ping-ponging off the walls like she’d just chugged a case of Red Bull. In the midst of her burst of energy, I noticed some splotches of red on the kitchen floor.

I called out Samantha’s name, suspicious she was bleeding from one of her paws. She came flying into the kitchen at full speed, running in circles as I begged her to calm down. At last, she stopped long enough for me to confirm she’d managed to cut one of the pads on her foot.

And that’s when I noticed that my kitchen looked like a murder scene. There were bloody paw prints everywhere. To my horror, I realized the blood trailed deep into the living room as well.

At this point I had roughly ten minutes before I had to leave from work in order to make it to a very important early-morning meeting. So I prioritized and dealt with cleaning the wound and helping the dog, and decided to worry about cleaning up the kitchen floor on my lunch break.

On my lunch break, I spent twenty stinking minutes cleaning dog blood off the kitchen floor and spots I’d missed on the carpet, and spraying down Samantha’s kennel blanket with stain remover before throwing it in the washing machine. TWENTY MINUTES. And this is what caused us to resort to Plan B for dinner.

Okay, maybe you’re wondering how I can blame this on the dog. Let me explain.

When I first arrived home on my lunch break, I remembered the chicken for tonight’s dinner still felt like it wasn’t completely thawed on the inside—although the outside layer was squishy as ever. I removed it from the fridge and set it on the counter, thinking half an hour in room temperature might speed along the process. Well, I had no idea just how much cleaning up I had to do, and by the time I was finished I was once again in a rush to get back to work.

At 4:45, as I wrapped up my tasks at work, a horrible thought came over me. I texted my husband.

Me: Did I leave the chicken on the counter?
Husband: Yup.
Me: Crap. Will you put it back in the fridge?
Me: [A minute later] Is it even still cold?
Husband: Nope.
Me: Craaaaaaap.
Husband: [Sends cartoon image of a smiling turd]

The chicken was completely warm and had been for who-knows-how-long. It had been sitting on the kitchen counter for five hours. Like I said, I didn’t even start cooking and I still managed to ruin dinner. But if it hadn’t been for the dog blood, I bet it wouldn’t have happened.

My husband might argue that last part. But he’s not here to prove me wrong, so I’m still blaming it on the dog.