Cooking without cheese

I have a sneaking suspicion my 11-week-old is insensitive to milk protein (that she gets through breastfeeding), so I’m cutting out all dairy for two weeks to see if it makes a difference.  I’m pretty sad about giving up yogurt, but the biggest challenge is going to be cooking without cheese.  I cook a LOT of things with cheese.

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Last night, I made a deep-dish taco pizza.  As I grated the cheese that would be sprinkled all over the top of the pizza, I kept reaching to pinch some shreds of cheese between my fingers and eat it.  It’s usually my reward for grating cheese because I HATE grating cheese.  But of course, I had to continually slap my hand and tell myself that cheese is currently off-limits.

I scattered the cheese all over half of the pizza, because only my husband would get to eat that part.  When the pizza came out of the oven he looked at it, perplexed, and said, “How can you eat a taco pizza without any cheese?”

I should have slapped him.

(Don’t worry, there isn’t actually any husband-slapping occurring in this house.)

So, one dinner down, 13 to go.  I will be scouring Pinterest and my recipe-books for dairy-free recipes, and I will be avoiding anything that involves cheese so I’m not being teased like I was last night.  Sorry, B, if I’m going cheese-free, so are you.

Any favorite dairy-free recipes you can recommend?

 

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 Mac in a Snap

I’m not a big fan of leftovers, with one exception: chili. And when I say “chili leftovers,” I’m not talking about the kind you stick in the fridge and eat the next day. I like to freeze my leftover chili and wait to stumble upon it a month later after I’ve forgotten about it—surprise, five minute dinner!

Earlier this week I realized I had two fewer chicken breasts than I originally thought, so I was picking through the freezer to find something else to cook for dinner. AHA! Deep in the freezer, I discovered some chili I’d frozen last month.

Normally the drill would be to thaw it overnight, heat it in a pot, and that would be that. On this particular occasion, however, inspiration struck.

I heated up the chili in one pot and boiled some ditalini pasta in another. While both were cooking, I grated some cheddar cheese. Feeling extra daring, I even tossed about a tablespoon of taco seasoning in with the chili.

Once the chili and the pasta were done, I combined the two and stirred in the cheese until I was left with an ooey gooey pot of wonder.

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Let me tell you, this tasted SO GOOD. I’m pretty sure it tasted even better just knowing it took only ten minutes of actual work to prepare. I honestly don’t know that I’ll ever just plain ol’ chili again when I freeze the leftovers!

What kinds of quick dishes do you like to make using leftovers from other meals?

What kind of cheese ain’t yours?

On Thursday and Friday, this stupid f*&#ing crap happened.

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For the record, that is SEVEN inches of snow.  And also for the record, the reason the snow doesn’t appear as a smooth, perfect blanket in this picture is because it turns out the puppy really loves playing in the snow.

But wait, it gets better!  Last night it was a whopping one degree, so this stupid, stupid snow is all freezing solid and we’re essentially living in a bleeping igloo.

Long story short, it’s been a bit cold and I’ve been a bit whiny.  What better to combat this dumb weather than to spice things up with some nachos?

Last night I made nachos for dinner.  Like chili, nachos is one of those dishes I can’t exactly screw up too badly.  I started with this…

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Which turned into this:

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I baked them for about ten minutes to melt the cheese and heat up the refried beans.  I added the olives to my own plate at the end because the husband is anti-olive, and then we both plopped a big spoonful of sour cream on our nacho mountains.

I don’t make nachos often enough.  I think this was the first time in…sheesh, years, I think.  But on an ice-cold night, these really hit the spot!

Oh, and if you really thought I pulled this off flawlessly, you obviously don’t know me very well.  My downfall on nacho night:

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“Easy open” my butt.

So, what kind of cheese ain’t yours?  NACHO CHEESE!  (AKA, my husband’s favorite joke of all time.)

Broiling final exam and experimental marinara meatballs

Today marks the final challenge of my first “Two Week Technique,” a 14-day assignment of learning all that is necessary to know about broiling.  After doing some much-needed reading on the subject, I made a list of the basics of broiling and found recipes for three different types of food to cook under the broiler.  First, I tried my hand at broiling grilled cheese sandwiches.  Second, I attempted (and failed) to make broiled stuffed potatoes.  Third, I surprised myself by successfully cooking sirloin steak under the broiler.

The final test was for me to choose something to broil without using a recipe.  I allowed myself to rely only on the things that I have learned in my three recent broiling experiences.  Without further adieu, here is the product of my education in the school of broiling:

So what on that plate is broiled?  Well, I ultimately decided that for my final test I would stick to a simple cheesy garlic bread.  Why?  Because what I learned is that if you’re cooking anything fancy, the broiler is best left for something a little less complex.  Since broiling cooks from above at a high temperature, it’s really better left for things that…well, need to be cooked from above at a high temperature.  If it doesn’t need to be cooked this way, it’s mostly a pain in the ass to try cooking it under the broiler.

Therefore, I chose to make cheesy garlic bread.  I made this decision based on the fact that I wanted the top–and only the top–of my bread to be cooked.  I started with this darling little loaf of artisan bread:

Then I sliced it, brushed each slice with melted butter, sprinkled the slices with garlic salt, and topped them all with grated Parmesan and Romano.

Then into the oven they went.  As they sat under the broiler, I checked on them about every 15 seconds.  Since I did learn the broiler is a bloody fast way of cooking, I didn’t want to risk the cheese burning.

I made some turkey meatballs to go with the cheesy garlic bread.  At this point, I’m able to wing it when it comes to meatballs–I no longer need recipes for them!  The meatballs tonight were simply seasoned with basil, oregano, and chopped onion.  After they were finished baking, I simmered them in a pot of marinara sauce.  While they simmered, they looked so delicious I just had to take a picture.  Unfortunately, the photo looked nothing like the pot of food in front of me; rather, it looked like a still from a zombie apocalypse film.  (This was confirmed by my fiance as I was saving the photos to my computer.  He saw the picture out of the corner of his eye and said, “Are you looking at a picture of a gunshot victim?”)

I can assure you, these tasted SO much better than they look in the picture above (I promise, this dish wasn’t inspired by Rudy Eugene).  I served them with some asparagus and the cheesy garlic bread, which was DIVINE!

I feel that my first “Two Week Technique” was successful.  Though I don’t feel I’ll be using my broiler much for anything other than cheesy garlic bread, I know I learned a lot and that it helped me grow as a cook.  Tomorrow will start my next TWT:  dough!

Broiling, Take One: Grilled Cheese

Today begins my first “Two-Week Technique” challenge.  Because of my recent disappointment with broiled chicken (my first ever experience with a broiler), I want to broil a variety of foods to get a better feel for the process.  I have three recipes lined up and I figured I’d start with the easiest and work my way up to (what I imagine will be) the most difficult.  First up?  Grilled cheese!

First, and most importantly, I did do my research.  I compiled a list of the important things there are to know about broiling:

  • To broil is “to cook food a measured distance below direct, dry heat” (Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 14th edition)
  • Use a ruler to measure the distance between the top of the food and the heating element; when cooking meat, the thinner the cut, the closer it should be to the heat source
  • Trim off excess fat to avoid flareups
  • Keep an eye on the food while it is cooking, as it can easily be overcooked if not watched carefully
  • Steer clear of oily marinades; for broiling, rubs are a better flavoring option
  • Meat should be at room temperature when you begin broiling

Until I found a recipe on Betty Crocker’s website for broiled grilled cheese, I didn’t know the broiler could be used to make something as simple as a cheese sandwich.  I tossed my superb grilled-cheese-making skills aside and put my broiler to the test.  First, I readied my bread and cheese while the broiler preheated.

The first hiccup I encountered was that the recipe didn’t specify whether to broil the sandwiches on “high” or “low.”  I did some quick reading online and found that many people used the low setting if they weren’t cooking a big slab of meat.  I decided to play it safe and broil the sandwiches on low.  I hardly took my eyes off of them, checking them about every ten seconds.  The recipe’s instructions were to broil them for two minutes on one side, flip them, and broil for one more minute.  I had to flip mine three different times over the course of five or six minutes.  Maybe low wasn’t the right call.  The good news is, they looked like your average grilled cheese!

Even though the broiled grilled cheese was successful, I don’t think I’ll do it again.  It gave the bread a different texture than what you’d get if you grilled them on a skillet.  But I had a good bonding moment with my broiler tonight and I’m excited for our next rendezvous:  Stuffed Potatoes with Ham, Thyme, and Gruyere!

Ooey Gooey Gruyere

I came to a stunning realization last night:  I am no longer a terrible cook.

That’s not to say I’m a “good” cook.  I feel I haven’t yet risen to that status.  But to say I suck at cooking would, at this point in time, be a pretty inaccurate statement.  Therefore, I feel I must start a new chapter of my culinary chronicles.  I have stumbled through some pretty ridiculous moments, but I’ve gained enough experience that I feel it’s time to get real about cooking.  Say hello to the two newest components of my blog:

Ingredient of the Week:  Each week, I will select one ingredient with which I have had no prior cooking experience, or that I am not familiar enough with to feel I could use it without a recipe to guide the way.

Two-Week Technique:  Every two weeks, I will select one cooking technique or method that is new or unfamiliar to me (or one that I’ve plain failed at in the past), and I will give myself two weeks to master it.  The goal will be to use the technique at least three times in a two-week period with recipes as a guide, and then to use it at least once on my own, without a recipe, to see if I’ve adequately learned the technique or method.

Having said that, this week’s Ingredient of the Week is Gruyere cheese.  I’ve been watching more of the Food Network lately and it seems like Gruyere is being used in all kinds of recipes.  Of course, I had never tasted the stuff (as obsessed as I am with cheese, it’s amazing how many cheeses I have never tried; it’s borderline ridiculous).  I went on a hunt this weekend and found some (holycowexpensive) Gruyere and used it last night when I made Giada De Laurentiis’s Baked Gruyere and Sausage Omelet.

As I grated the cheese, it was a given that I had to have a sample.  My one sample turned into two, and ten or eleven samples later I finally added the grated cheese to the whisked eggs and milk.  WOW, that stuff is GOOD!

As the omelet was baking, my parents stopped by for a few minutes.  When I took the dish out of the oven, my dad’s response was, “That looks really good!  You need to take a picture of it!”  Consider it done:

By the way, something random I learned that I should have known all along:  that stuff continues to cook after you take it out of the oven if whatever it’s in is still hot.  My mom explained this to me as I fretted over whether or not my toothpick test indicated that the omelet was too runny.  I let it sit for a few minutes and once I dished it up, the debate was over.  The eggs were the perfect consistency and the omelet was phenomenal.

Later this week, I’ll be making some Gruyere-and-ham stuffed potatoes cooked under the broiler.  Oh yeah, by the way:  my first Two-Week Technique is broiling.  Because, you know, the first time was kind of…meh.

Here’s to hoping I have more successful posts in the near future!

Pinterest-free week day three: Grilled cheddar & roast beef

You know how some children are held back a grade in school because they don’t quite meet the expectations of their grade level?  Well, that’s kind of how I felt when I made dinner tonight.  I reverted back to the kindergarten equivalency of cooking:  grilled cheese sandwiches.  Have I ever mentioned that I can make a MEAN grilled cheese sandwich?  My mom will attest to it.  She’s been known to make special requests for my grilled cheese sandwiches.

Part of my culinary journey is to continuously branch out and try new things, so tonight I shook up my usual grilled cheese recipe.  I used sharp cheddar cheese (oooooooo!) and sliced roast beef (ahhhhhhhh!).  Okay, so the people who can make beef Wellington, coq au vin, and souffles are yawning or wiping away tears of laughter.  But hey, it’s a rare opportunity to give myself just a smidgen of praise.

So the good news:  my fiance and I were both able to eat all of our dinner tonight.

 

Night o’ Fails

Confidence is low tonight.  Really low.  I messed up my stuffed chicken, I burned myself on a hot pan, and the potato side dish I made for dinner never even made it to the table.

I was inspired by this recipe I found for “Nacho-Rific Stuffed Chicken.”  I flattened some chicken breasts (this is getting easier, finally) and filled them with a mixture of shredded cheddar cheese, refried beans, and sour cream.  However, when I folded the top half of each breast over the half that was topped with the mixture, I didn’t do anything to secure the halves together.  I figured the mixture would act as a glue, in a way.  Into the oven they went.  I set the timer and checked on them about 10 minutes later.  One of them had come undone and half of the cheese and bean mixture had oozed onto the baking sheet.  I quickly stabbed the other breast with toothpicks to make sure it stayed intact, but when I tried to do the same with the one that had unfolded, it had already cooked enough that I could hardly get it to bend.  I had no choice but to bake the breast as it was, half of it covered in a cheesy bean mixture and the other half completely naked.

Innnnnn the meantime, I was also baking some potatoes I had cut up and coated in a honey-chili powder glaze.  They looked and smelled delicious, and I’m sure they would have been–had I actually been able to try them, that is.  I followed a recipe I used once before that called for the chunks of potato to be roasted at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Tonight, I started at 375 and roasted the potatoes for 20 minutes.  At that point, they had just barely begun to soften, so I upped the temperature to 400 and let them roast for 15 minutes more.  I took a test bite and my heart sunk when it became clear the potatoes were nowhere near done.  I didn’t want to call it quits, but…my fiance and I were both terribly hungry, I’d had a long day, and I just couldn’t fathom waiting all night for those damn potatoes.  I’m sure I didn’t cut them into small enough chunks.  I’m so stinking handicapped when it comes to potatoes.  POTATOES.  I live in Idaho, the land of freaking potatoes.  A month’s supply of potatoes costs a dollar.  How on earth are they such a challenge for me?

So, this was my dumb dinner:

Sweet Maui Onion potato chips and a half-bare, half-cheesy chicken breast.  At this rate, I’ll be the next Food Network star in no time……..

The thing I did wrong and the thing I did right

In my house, we adore potatoes and we adore cheese.  Back when we filled our cabinets with boxed meals, we often cooked boxed cheesy potatoes or potatoes au gratin.  Because of its fancy shmancy name, I’ve never imagined homemade potatoes au gratin would be an easy dish to make.  But when I saw a recipe for them from Pioneer Woman, I couldn’t resist.  Not only did I learn that there’s not a whole lot to potatoes au gratin, but I got to celebrate when I produced this BEAUTY of a dish:

Never.  Again.  Never again will I cook boxed potatoes au gratin.  I’ll sign a statement in blood if need be.

So, the other day I finally ran out of cooking spray and had to buy a new can.  Boy, was I surprised when I discovered that cooking spray comes in a variety of oils!  No joke, this is news to me.  Not only did this cause inner frustration as I stood in the aisle trying to determine which one I needed (and for that matter, which one I’ve been using all along), but I realized I know nothing about oil.  I own two kinds of cooking oil:  extra virgin olive oil and vegetable oil.  Unless a recipe specifically calls for vegetable oil, I always use olive oil by default.  When I left the store with my can of canola oil cooking spray, I gave myself an assignment:  educate myself about oil.

Today marks the first day I ever knew there is a thing called a “smoke point.”  I also never knew some oils are used to prepare food, but are not to be cooked with.  I learned which oils contain which types of fats, which means I also learned which types of oil are healthier than others.  I’m not an oil expert by any means, but I do feel enlightened and I’m positive what I’ve learned is going to help me make better decisions when cooking with oil.

Now, back to the smoke point.  About a month ago, I made blackened chicken for the first time.  The recipe I followed called for the chicken to be heated in olive oil.  At the time, I thought I’d done something terribly wrong.  My house filled with smoke and I couldn’t stop coughing.  I was terrified to lift the lid off the pan, thinking I’d unleash the flames of culinary hell.  Now that I’ve read up on the different types of cooking oil, I’ve discovered that olive oil (especially EVOO) isn’t necessarily the best choice for blackening chicken.  It tends to cause more smoking than would, say, vegetable oil.  Go figure.

It feels good to know that choosing an oil isn’t some arbitrary decision like when I decide which socks to wear every day.  It’s especially satisfying to know that cooking spray doesn’t come in different varieties for the sole purpose of confusing people like me.