Spaghetti Squashed Dreams

A few times a year, I go through a spaghetti squash phase. Whenever this happens, I have to find a way to make lunches out of it because my husband hates squash of all forms. When I was recently hit by the spaghetti squash bug, I decided to mix things up a bit and try it for breakfast.

When I think of breakfast, the first thing (or even second or tenth thing) that comes to mind is not squash. But I found this post on Oh Sweet Mercy with instructions for squash browns—essentially, hash browns made out of spaghetti squash. I had to try it out.

The post emphasizes the importance of patting the squash dry prior to forming and frying the squash patties. I dropped a heap of squash onto a plate and sopped up as much liquid as I could with a few paper towels. I made the squash as dry as possible until the towels began sticking to it and tearing off in soggy shreds.

IMG_0941

I placed a perfectly formed, and lightly salted and peppered, squash brown patty in a preheated skillet. Several minutes later, I nervously flipped it over. To my surprise, it only partially fell apart! Using the spatula, I pushed the loose strands back into the patty and let it cook several minutes before flipping it again.

IMG_0948

This time, more than half of it came apart. Drat! I tried my damnedest to salvage the beauty of the squash brown, but to no avail. What I ended up with was simply a plate full of fried spaghetti squash that, I might add, never even truly browned on the outside.

IMG_0949

And sad fact: I don’t enjoy the taste of spaghetti squash at 7 a.m.

In the end, I reverted back to my usual breakfast and have been eating spaghetti squash for lunch every day this week. At least it wasn’t a complete waste…

What fun is cooking if you don’t at least try new things, anyhow?

Not-Ruined Potatoes and the Barf of the Week

If you’ve read my past blog posts, you’re probably more than familiar with my disturbing ability to ruin potatoes.  POTATOES, of all things.  If you’re a new reader, let me tell you:  I usually couldn’t cook potatoes if my life depended on it.  I’ve always claimed I must be cursed, as I could dice a potato into half-inch cubes and bake it at 400 degrees for five hours and it would still be raw.

No matter how badly I ruin a recipe for potatoes, a certain amount of time always passes before I try again.  Things never get any better.  I truly deserve an award for perseverance, if nothing else.

Recently I found a recipe that instructed to dice the potatoes, place them in a bowl with a small amount of water, and heat them in the microwave for 6-8 minutes.  I’m one of those weird people who uses a microwave only as a last resort–call it a paranoia thing.  If anything classifies as a last resort, it’s cooking potatoes in the microwave because no other method works for me.

To my surprise, the potatoes did cook in the microwave–but they were a wee bit overcooked and slightly crumbling into a diced potato-mashed potato hybrid.

Tonight, I made a salsa chicken recipe I’ve cooked a few times.  Usually I make a side of rice or salad to go with it, but tonight I stepped outside of my comfort zone.  I not only decided to tackle microwaved potatoes again, but I didn’t have any kind of a recipe.  I was wingin’ it.

I diced the potatoes and placed them in a bowl with a little bit of water and a tiny chunk of butter.  I checked them every few minutes until they were perfectly done and then I tossed them into a preheated grill pan.  I sprinkled them with salt, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and BBQ seasoning, and tossed them until they just barely began to brown on the outside.

Pretty sexy, huh?

Pretty sexy, huh?

Not only was my husband impressed that the potatoes couldn’t have been more perfectly cooked, but he complimented me on how good they were several times as we ate.  Score one for my ego!

So, with the success story out of the way, it’s occurred to me that while the end result of cooking is often delicious and beautiful food, there are plenty of aspects of cooking that are truly barf-worthy.  Therefore, each week I will post a “Barf of the Week” picture to share how disgusted I am by some of the things we have to deal with in the kitchen.

This week’s Barf of the Week:  Congealed bacon grease!  EWWWW!

It smelled worse than it looked.

It smelled worse than it looked.

Freezer FAILS

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

Exhibit A: Bananas

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0594

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

The next morning:

IMG_0605

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

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

Exhibit B: Potatoes

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

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

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

IMG_0574

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

IMG_0606

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

 

 

 

 

Samantha’s Last Carrot

Over the years, I’ve learned a few lessons about having pets. A few examples:

  1. If it looks too high for the cat to reach it…it’s not.
  2. Being 65 pounds does not stop a dog from sitting in your lap.
  3. Bugs aren’t nearly as fun to eat as they are to kill.
  4. Scratching the wall next to the litter box is somehow necessary to burying poop.
  5. If you give your cats wet food even once, you will be committed to giving it to them every day for as long as they live…or else.

Most of the things I learn from and about my pets are pretty general and I often learn they apply to my friends’ and families’ animals as well. However, there are exceptions. One of them came to light last night.

My parents have a corgi named Flash. He’s adorable as all get-out but he’s always been a tad overweight. (Who am I kidding, that’s what makes him adorable!) For years, he’s been on “diet” food. At some point his vet suggested giving him carrots in lieu of treats because they’re low-calorie. It seemed a little odd, but Flash loves them.

Last night I was making a big batch of Spicy Red and Black Bean soup (mmmmmmmmmm), which called for a cup of chopped carrot (which, by the way, I have finally mastered). I had about a third of a carrot leftover and wasn’t in the mood to eat it. However, waiting at my feet in anticipation of my dropping something was my eight-month-old puppy, Samantha.

Don't trust her cuteness, it's a trap.

Don’t trust her cuteness, it’s a trap.

I recalled how much Flash loves carrots and thought it would be an easy way to dispose of my leftover carrot. Samantha’s eyes ballooned as I held out the hunk of carrot for her to take.

I immediately returned to my cooking but I could hear Samantha crunching away at her exciting orange treat. At some point it occurred to me that although several minutes had passed, the crunch crunch crunch from behind me was still going strong.  Eventually it stopped, Samantha disappeared, and I turned around.

This is what I found. ARGH!!!

IMG_0402

The whole time Samantha was chewing on that carrot, she didn’t swallow a single crumb of it. Needless to say, this was the first AND last carrot she’ll ever be getting. And now I have yet another pet lesson to file away.

Brat.

 

 

Steaming, take one: potatoes

Many of you are already aware that potatoes are a major foe of mine in the kitchen.  The battle isn’t against any kind of potato in particular; bakers, reds, babies, sweet potatoes, they are ALL on my can’t-cook-worth-poo list.  I always manage to overcook my sweet potatoes and undercook my other potatoes.  Every.  Single.  Time.

At my bridal shower a couple of months ago, I was given a big freakin’ steamer pot.  Back before I moved out of my parents’ house, I used their steamer pot–once–to cook some broccoli.  Now that I have one of my own, I figured I’d better become friends with it and see what beautiful magic we can make together.  I chose to start with potatoes.

I’ve been on a sweet potato kick lately, but my husband dislikes them.  Therefore, I figured I’d really put the steamer pot to the test by using it to cook a sweet potato and a russet potato at the same time.  I chopped each potato into about 20 small cubes, tossed them in the pot, and set the timer for 15 minutes (the minimum time recommended for steaming potatoes).

At 15 minutes, I lifted the lid and used a fork to poke one cube of each of the types of potato.  For me, this is always the defining moment in my attempts at cooking potatoes.  I have a terrible habit of assuming that if the fork can penetrate the top 1/1000th of an inch of potato, it must be done (and I learn the hard way, when chewing half-cooked potato, that my assumptions need some tweaking).  Tonight, I was smart enough to set the timer for five additional minutes when I didn’t feel the fork pierced the potato quite smoothly enough.

So what was the verdict?  BEAUTIFULLY cooked potatoes!  I squished them up with a potato masher and a little bit of butter (and a handful of cheese in my husband’s) and they were by far the most well-cooked potatoes I have made to date.

I think my steamer pot and I are going to get along juuuuuuust fine.  🙂

Pressure cooker, take three: California chicken

Amidst all of my recent bridal shenanigans–multiple showers and, this past weekend, my bachelorette party–I seem to have lost my brain.  It up and left my head and is surely floating somewhere in the sky far away from here.  Keep that in mind if you see a brain drifting aimlessly through the clouds overhead.

Given that my day has been one moment of stupidity after another, I should have known better than to try a new recipe.  But the first two rounds of pressure cooking had gone so well–I thought I had this one in the bag.  “This one” is a recipe I found called California Chicken.

To begin with, I realized that I’ve learned a thing or two about what makes a good recipe.  If I can be honest, I don’t think this recipe was well-written.  First, it calls for “3 pounds chicken, skinned and cut into pieces.”  Which part(s) of the chicken should be used?  Is it boneless?  How large or small should the pieces be?  Technically, I could cut a chicken breast in half and call it “two pieces,” but I could also make 20 pieces from that one chicken breast.  While deep in contemplation, it occurred to me just how precise a good recipe needs to be.  Basically, I had to trust my gut on this one.  I always have chicken breasts on hand, so that’s what I used.  I sliced them into 1″ cubes and prayed for the best.

I browned the chicken as instructed and then added the rest of the ingredients.  At that point, I made an impromptu decision that may or may not have contributed to the failure of this dish.

I added frozen broccoli.

I’m a really big fan of veggies with my chicken, and broccoli just seemed to fit the dish.  What I hadn’t considered was that frozen broccoli packs a bit of water.  After cooking the chicken under pressure as called for, there was still quite a bit of liquid left in the bottom of the pan and I could NOT get it to thicken or cook down any.  By the time the chicken made it onto our plates, it was drier than a bone in the desert.  The only consolation was that the flavor was really, really good.

Prior to cooking, I’d had a great internal debate about what to make as a side dish, and ultimately settled on mac & cheese (of the Kraft variety), due to poor planning.  Once I was aware of just how crappy the chicken turned out, I was grateful for my decision.  At least I’d chosen a side I couldn’t mess up!

For my final installment of my Two-Week Technique pressure cooking trials, I can state with honest conviction that I will NOT be cooking meat!

Dough, take two: chicken and dumplings

The first time I ever had chicken and dumplings, I remember thinking the concept of “dumplings” seemed so elaborate.  I just couldn’t wrap my head around the thought of dough being cooked in liquid.

When I encountered a 30-minute Rachael Ray recipe for chicken and dumplings, I thought long and hard about whether or not this was a road I wanted to risk traveling.  If I closed my eyes for one second, I could imagine at least ninety-two things that could go wrong if I were to attempt chicken and dumplings.  Then I envisioned myself in my comfort zone, and just outside of it was a pot of chicken and dumplings calling my name, coaxing me, taunting me.  Okay, chicken and dumplings.  You win.  Count me in.

One of the first steps of the recipe was to saute some veggies in oil and butter–among them, a potato.  Since I’ve had such good luck (note:  that was said in a sarcastic tone) with cooking potatoes, I was thrilled about this (still sarcastic).  The potato held up, though, and was softening pretty nicely without turning into mush.

After I added a quart of chicken broth and the chicken breast pieces, it was time for the dumplings to be born.  I mixed together the ingredients, measured out the first tablespoon, and veryveryvery carefully dropped it into the simmering liquid.  One of those ninety-two things I’d imagined could go wrong was that the dough ball would make contact with the liquid and immediately disperse into a hundred little floating fragments of dough.  All that happened, though, was that the completely intact ball of dough bobbed around in the liquid, finally settled, and started to puff up.  Very anti-climactic, if you ask me.

Since Rachael Ray failed to tell me how to gauge the done-ness of the dumplings, I was quite nervous about serving dumplings that were still doughy inside.  I wasn’t sure if it was normal for their tops to be sticky.  After the max cooking time, they were still sticky so I sucked it up and called my fiance in for dinner.  The dumplings were cooked to perfection and, aside from burning the crap outta my tongue, my attempt at comfort food really hit the spot!

What kinds of things have you made that seemed SO much more complicated than they really were?

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!

Broiling, take two: Not-so-stuffed potatoes

The plan tonight was to make Rachael Ray’s Stuffed Potatoes with Ham, Thyme, and Gruyere.  Part of the attraction–aside from the fact that it’s mostly comprised of potatoes and cheese, two of my favorite things–is that it involves the use of Gruyere (my Ingredient of the Week) and broiling (my current Two-Week Technique).  Gotta love two-for-one deals!

I should have known by the fact that the one and only shallot I’ve ever purchased was MOLDY, that nothing about tonight’s cooking would go as planned.  I placed my potatoes in the microwave, as the recipe instructed, and struggled to come to terms with the fact that my stuffed potatoes would be shallotless.  While the potatoes “cooked” (thought I cringe to think using a microwave is “cooking”), I sliced the ham and grated the Gruyere.

Per the recipe, I should have microwaved the potatoes for “12 minutes or until tender.”  At 12 minutes, they didn’t feel very tender at all.  I let them go another two minutes before I took them out and let them cool.

Then disaster struck.

When I tried to scoop out the potato innards, the skins peeled away like dead skin off a healed sunburn.  This was terrible!  How do you stuff potato skins without any potato skins?  But it was horrifically obvious to me that these “stuffed potatoes” weren’t going to happen.

This is what I was left with:  a bowl full of mashed potato, sliced ham, grated Gruyere, thyme, butter, and milk.  (I am, however, proud of myself for researching how much dried thyme equals a tablespoon of fresh thyme.  I’ve finally learned some discipline when it comes to making estimations!)  Anyway, I was hungry as a Milton Bradley hippo and plan B was a necessity.  What was plan B, you might ask?  A mountain of ham and potatoes, that’s what.

This was literally all I could come up with.  I threw everything on the baking sheet, stuck it under the broiler, and let it sit until the top was a little crispy.  Unfortunately, while the top was perfectly done, nothing underneath really heated up.  Had I let it sit under the broiler long enough to get hot, the top would have charred, leaving me with a volcano of potatoes instead of a mountain.  Dinner was a plate of lukewarm potatoes, nearly cold ham, and half-melted cheese.

It is with great regret that I report that this attempt at broiling was nowhere near as successful as the first.  My fingers are crossed in the hopes that my next try will be a trillion times better.  I might cross my toes, too, for good measure.

He made, she made

Dinner tonight was a joint effort between my fiance and me.  He’d been planning to barbecue some chicken breasts, so I told him I’d “come up with something” to go with them.

And that is how I get myself into stupid situations.

By the time I got home from work, I had about 0.0000000012794362% of an idea in mind.  It involved rice.  But if I didn’t come up with a plan for the rice fast, we’d be eating our barbecued chicken with bone-hard, plain white rice.  After opening the refrigerator, the cupboards, AND the freezer, I had gathered chicken stock, frozen broccoli, sharp cheddar cheese, and the ingredients to make a bechamel sauce.

I started by cooking the rice in the chicken stock.  While I left them to do their thing, I dumped some frozen broccoli florets into a mini food processor.

I’ve never used my itty bitty food processor to chop frozen veggies (or frozen anything, for that matter).  It’s probably breaking some culinary rule and I’m probably lucky I didn’t break my appliance or myself.  It took a little longer than the usual time to chop stuff, but the results were exactly what I’d hoped for!

I added the broccoli to the rice and whipped up a quick bechamel sauce.  That’s right, I whipped up a quick bechamel sauce.  Looking back on how badly my first one came out, I’m so proud that I can make such a statement!  Anyway, to the bechamel sauce I added about a quarter cup of shredded sharp cheddar, and then I stirred it into the rice.  While my fiance was outside working the grill, I sneaked a test bite of the rice.  I expected it to be okay, but not phenomenal.  It was actually pretty fantastic!  Much better than what I’d anticipated.  The only downfall was that it needed a little salt.  I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I currently have no salt in my house.

Honestly, who runs completely out of salt?

I finished the rice and got a mini grilling lesson from my fiance (more of those to follow, stay tuned……).  Between the two of us, dinner was wicked awesome.