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!

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. 🙂

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…

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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?

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.)

Creations: “Open-faced omelet” and scrumptious simple chili

For the past couple of nights, I haven’t really planned ahead for dinner.  Five months ago, this would have resulted in a trip to Subway or to the grocery store for a DiGiorno.  But I was wearing my bravery boots, so I attempted–for two nights in a row–to make up my own meals.

Last night, I made what my fiance has dubbed the “open-faced omelet.”  Against my better judgment, I started by peeling and dicing two russet potatoes.  I say it like that because, as many of you already know, potatoes are my sworn enemy.  Those uncooperative little bastards never do what I want them to do, so I usually avoid them altogether whenever possible.  Since one of my goals in the kitchen is to never give up, I dumped the diced potatoes in a heated, oiled skillet and crossed my fingers.

It took about 20 minutes, but the potatoes finally turned soft on the inside and browned on the outside.  I was absolutely ecstatic that they didn’t turn to mush like they typically do!  Once they reached a beautiful brownness, I added chopped onion, chopped garlic, and about 10 ounces of sliced turkey kielbasa.  In a bowl, I whisked together some milk and eggs and poured the mixture into the pan, letting the eggs scramble among the rest of the ingredients.  Once the egg had cooked, I topped it all with some Parmesan and Romano.  Mmmmmm, it was delicious.

Tonight, I was in the mood for chili.  Since chili is something I have yet to fail at, I thought I’d try my hand at making chili without a recipe.  It turned out so good that I’ll even share what I did!  It’s SUPER easy, but nice and flavorful.  Even my test subject (fiance) approved.

Ingredients:
1 lb. ground beef
1 small green pepper, diced
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (14.5 oz.) can Italian-style diced tomatoes
1 (14.5 oz.) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (14.5 oz.) can chili beans
1 (4 oz.) can chopped green chiles
1 tbsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. cumin

1)  Add ground beef, onion, garlic, and green pepper to a large pot.  Cook over medium heat until beef is browned.

2)  Add the remaining six ingredients to the ground beef mixture.  Stir well.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

I’m feeling really proud of myself.  Five months ago, I couldn’t even chop an onion.  Now I’m making up my own recipes and–gasp–sharing them with others!  That’s a LOT of progress made in just a matter of months.  GO ME!

Pinterest-free week, day one: Taco salad

I will never learn to cook as long as I keep using Pinterest.

This is my prediction, at least.  I’ve been thinking long and hard about my use of Pinterest for recipes.  Almost all of the cooking I’ve documented so far on this blog has resulted from recipes I found on Pinterest.  And nothing against the people whose recipes are circulated on the website, but I’m truly starting to believe they are detrimental to novice cooks.  They’re not designed for people who don’t know what they’re doing.  They offer no method of coaching a brainless cook through the tasks they might not understand.  Therefore, I am dubbing this week “Pinterest-free week.”  This week, the majority of what I’ve planned to cook comes straight out of my Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook.  I chose this book because it is, without a doubt, written for people who haven’t mastered the ropes of cooking.

I started off Pinterest-free week with a simple recipe for taco salad.  I’ve been feeling bad about the flavorless food I’ve put on the table this week, so I chose something easy to make and hard to screw up.  There truly aren’t many good, hearty meals that are simpler to prepare; nevertheless, I’ve never before made a taco salad, so it was still new to me.  I started with browning some ground pork.  Easy peasy; I could do it with my eyes closed!

Then I added kidney beans, taco sauce, and corn.  No sweat!

While that simmered, I chopped some veggies–lettuce, tomatoes, and green onion–and set out some tortilla chips and shredded cheddar cheese. I opted to go with a “build your own salad” setup because my fiance and I differ on our salad preferences.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, dinner was done!  It was delicious as all get out.

I’m feeling really good about my Pinterest-free week.  My inner chef can only stay in hiding for so long…

Creamy Spicy Chicken Pitas

It’s been an eventful week for this lil’ chef!  I made blackened chicken for the first time, which nearly caused my fiance and I to suffocate from smoke inhalation (this isn’t normal, is it?).  I also cooked–and tasted–quinoa for the first time and LOVED it.  I attempted to make lemon-honey chicken, but the honey all dripped off in the oven and we ended up, once again, dipping plain chicken breast into barbecue sauce.  I watched a video on how to cut a mango and failed to replicate anything the video showed me.  And on top of it all, I was finishing up my final projects for the end of the spring semester.  Now that I have a 3-month break from school, I’m hoping I can really spend some time focusing on my cooking.

I hadn’t planned anything for dinner tonight and around 5 o’clock, I was feeling really indecisive about what to make.  I ended up at the grocery store with a vision in my head of some sort of Mexican chicken pitas.  I had no recipe–just an idea that I went with as I wandered the aisles of the supermarket.  What I didn’t expect was how good they actually tasted!  In fact, they were so good I feel confident in sharing the recipe.

Creamy Spicy Chicken Pita

Creamy Spicy Chicken Pitas (Serves 2)

Ingredients:
2 chicken breasts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 tablespoons poblano pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
3 tablespoons taco seasoning
2 tablespoons avocado
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 pita pockets
Water (for the taco seasoning)

1)  Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat.  Add onion, pepper, and cilantro and saute for about 1-2 minutes.
2)  While the vegetables are cooking, mix together the avocado and sour cream in a small bowl.  Set aside.
3)  Add chicken to skillet and cook until no longer pink.  Add taco seasoning and 2 tablespoons of water and continue to cook until thickened.
4)  Spread the avocado-sour cream mixture inside a pita half.  Sprinkle with your desired amount of cheddar cheese.  Add the chicken mixture and enjoy!

Pasta clumps and black pepper overdose

I recently purchased The Silver Spoon:  Pasta, which is a ginormous pasta cookbook I’ve been itching to use.  Tonight I tackled a recipe from the “long pasta” chapter:  Vermicelli Pasticcio.  The grocery store seemed to be experiencing a vermicelli shortage, so I grabbed a package of thin spaghetti and thought, They aren’t that different, are they?

The dish is basically a big pile of pasta, mozzarella, and prosciutto topped with a Parmesan-egg mixture and baked.  Exciting fact:  this was my first time using prosciutto.  It took me 20 minutes to find it at the grocery store and my jaw dropped when I saw how expensive it is, but damn it, I wanted to try it!  The dish, before baked, looked like deliciousness in the making:

The antichrist of healthy food.

And it would have been delicious, except that after 20 minutes of baking, the cheese glued the pasta together and it was nearly impossible to eat.  So now I scratch my head wondering, if it would have been vermicelli–REAL vermicelli–would it have turned out differently?  Thinking I know how to substitute food is another issue I need to work on.  (This recipe calls for cilantro, but I only have basil.  What the hell, they look the same–let’s try it!)  Is it possible that my substitution of spaghetti for vermicelli made a difference in how edible the dish was?  The whole thought gives me a headache.  There are so many types of pasta that are so similar in size and shape:  vermicelli and spaghetti, penne and ziti, gnocchi and cavatelli.  What’s the purpose of having so many freaking shapes of pasta?  AAAAAAA!

Anyway.  This afternoon I finally bought salt and pepper shakers.

The newest addition to my kitchen.

Until today I’d been using the salt and pepper that come together in a cheap little package.  You know, the ones with these tops:

So long, old friend.

I shall now share with you a tale of a stupidly ironic moment.  I was making a batch of North Woods Bean Soup that called for 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper.  I had not yet transferred my pepper into my new shakers–had I done so, the next thing that happened would have been entirely prevented.  I feel pretty confident in visually measuring a half teaspoon of pepper, so I flipped open the lid of my cheapo bottle and turned it upside down over my pot of soup.  I thought I’d flipped open the “shaker” lid, but instead I’d opened the other half of the top (the one with the big hole for pouring large amounts of pepper).  To my horror, I realized too late and in the blink of an eye, I had about a tablespoon of pepper in my soup.  I frantically grabbed a nearby spoon and tried to bail out the pepper.  In my mind, I’d imagined the pepper as being clumped together in a mass, but as soon as the spoon touched the floating glob of pepper, it all dispersed in the broth like a dandelion being blown into the wind.   I wanted to cry.  I ended up sacrificing some of the broth in order to get as much of the pepper out as I could.  Just my effing luck.

I did taste a spoonful of soup and the pepper content seemed okay–but I guess the truth will come out tomorrow when I have a whole bowlful.  Heavens to murgatroyd…

 

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.

Patience, grasshopper

Today I stopped at the store on my way home from work to pick something up to cook for dinner.  Before leaving work, I had been scouring the internet for recipes.  Nothing was speaking to me, though.  I was still butt hurt by last night’s uber unsuccessful bechamel.

Then it clicked.  Cue the imaginary light bulb hovering above my head.

I’ve been so determined, so balls to the wall about the idea of becoming a great chef, that I’m not taking my time and I’m trying to rush into things.  Yes, I want–and need–to constantly try new things and test myself.  However, the point in testing yourself is to see if you can do something.  If you can’t, you either give up or you try again and again and again until you can.  The past several months for me have been a series of tests that I have FAILED, and instead of trying and practicing until I turn those failures into talents, I’ve given up and tried the next thing on the list in the hopes that there will be “something else” I can do successfully.

I kept this in mind as I planned tonight’s dinner.  I wanted to try something new, but it needed to be something I could try that would build on the few strengths I already have in the kitchen.  The result?  Fajitas!

A few months ago, whenever I removed the core of a bell pepper, my entire kitchen would end up splattered in seeds.  In the sink, on the floor, in my hair, on my clothes.  And now:

Victory!

And of course, my relationship with chopping onions has always been rocky.  But I’m getting better:

Oh la la!

Lately, when I’ve chosen recipes for dinner I’ve been picky about choosing recipes that are really (really, really) challenging.  For me, at least.  So of course I’m bound to mess up A LOT!  Hello, Captain Obvious speaking.  If I’m going to learn to cook, I need to feel at least somewhat comfortable with my abilities or I am doomed to screw up any given recipe.  And that’s what I did differently tonight.  I’ve never made fajitas.  It’s “new.”  It’s “different.”  It’s a challenge–especially since I’m still getting a handle on cooking different types of meat.  Yet, I never once doubted that I was capable of making them because there were steps involved with which I felt completely at ease.

Halfway through the process, things were still looking good:

Peppers and onions and steak, oh my!

The fajitas went off without a hitch and a few minutes later, we had a scrumptious dinner that, for a nice change, hadn’t gone terribly wrong.

(Insert sigh of relief here.)

Tonight’s lesson:  patience, patience, patience.  It’s all about the baby steps.  Fajitas aren’t fancy and they don’t require the skills of a talented chef–but then again, I’ve got a long way to go before I reach “fancy” and “talented.”