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.

chilimac.jpg

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?

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!

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.”

Another day, another mess in the kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep.

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

Little balls of success

I’ve always been under this weird impression that making meatballs is fairly complex.  Staying true to my word and trying something new, I chose a recipe for some ginger meatballs for dinner last night.  A couple of nights ago, I chopped an onion perfectly (yay!) so I was on a confidence high when prep time arrived.  I managed to get all of my ingredients prepped and ready before I began, which is usually my first roadblock whenever I set out to cook a meal.  Huge accomplishment.  If only you knew.

Mise en place. (Yeah, I learned a new vocab term.)

As I said, I had thought meatballs were complicated to make.  Then again, I tend to believe anything I haven’t ever cooked is complicated.  Bacon, for instance.  I still need to tackle bacon.  But imagine my surprise when I discovered there is nothing more to meatballs than:  1) Mix ingredients and 2) Roll mixture into balls and bake.  As I began to shape the meat into balls, I second-guessed myself.  I thought, There’s no way it can be this easy.  I have to be missing something vital.  But a triple review of the steps told me otherwise, so I crossed my fingers and slid the pan into the oven.

Raw talent.

Meanwhile…

The recipe for these meatballs included steps for rice noodles with stir-fried veggies.  If there’s one thing I know I can handle in the kitchen, it’s stir-frying veggies.  The rice noodles, on the other hand–they’re a whole new species to me.  I’ve eaten my fair share at Thai restaurants, but I’ve never cooked with them.  Hell, I had trouble finding them in the grocery store.  When the time came to prepare them, I became stuck.  The recipe says, “Cook noodles according to package directions.”  Out of four brands of rice noodles on the store shelves, I picked the package that didn’t have any directions on how to cook them.  Go figure.  But thank goodness for Google, right?

Wrong!  After a Google search for “how to cook rice noodles,” I’d gathered a melting pot of methods and no idea which one to choose.  One was to boil them like you would any other noodle.  Another was to place the noodles in a bowl and soak them in boiling-hot water.  A third option was to soak the noodles in water of any temperature.  All of these methods seemed to carry the risk of gooey, sticky, clumpy noodles.  From what I read, it seemed like no matter how you choose to cook rice noodles, they’re easy to screw up.  I debated the methods and finally chose to try the method of pouring boiling-hot water over a bowl of dry noodles.  Ten minutes later, they were still stiff and crunchy and the water had become cool.  Talk about disheartening.  So, I went with my gut instinct.  I tossed the noodles and the water into a pot and boiled them like I would spaghetti.  After a few minutes they were nice and soft.  I rinsed them in cold water and tossed them into the pan with the veggies, and although they were slightly gooey, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared.

Success!