Kitchen Showdown

Yesterday I cooked dinner in the crock pot, so it is now in the kitchen sink filled with soapy water to soak off all of the food crusted to the inside.  Chances are it will still be there three or even four days from now.  My husband doesn’t want to clean it and neither do I, so this will result in a Kitchen Showdown.

A couple weeks ago, I made tacos for dinner.  When my husband was cleaning up, he put a lid on the dish of refried beans and stuck them in the fridge.  We were never going to use up the leftover beans and both of us knew that.  But as B slid them into the refrigerator, this was the conversation:

B:  I’m just going to save these because I hate cleaning up refried beans.
Me:  Wait.  So you’re putting them in the fridge so I eventually get annoyed by them and clean them up myself?
B:  Yes.

A week after that, we were putting away groceries after a shopping trip.  B always puts away dry goods and I take care of the refrigerated and frozen items.  Of course, as I was clearing out room in the fridge, those DAMN BEANS were still sitting there.  I removed the dish and placed it on the kitchen counter next to the sink.  And I left it there.  As B was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner that evening, he picked up the dish and said, “You left this here for me, didn’t you?”  And then he threatened to just throw the dish away.  After I threatened to throw him away if he didn’t just clean it up, he finally did it, grumbling through the whole process.

Well, it’s a similar story with the crock pot.  It’s always a hassle to clean and neither of us wants to do it.  One of us will at least fill it with water to let it soak, but after that it’s a game to see who gets annoyed enough with it to finally finish cleaning it.

It’s going to be a problem once my maternity leave ends at the end of the month.  I won’t have much time to cook during the week, so the plan is to do freezer dump meals every night—which means the crock pot must be cleaned immediately after each use.  It’s probably time to invest in the crock pot liners I’ve seen or we’re in a lot of trouble.

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Tip of the Week: Recipe Read-Throughs

A cooking tips article on Lifehacker’s website indicates that reading recipes in full before starting to cook is a “no-brainer.” Eeek. Since I began teaching myself how to cook, this is something I’ve failed to do—but what’s worse is that until recently, I never realized how dumb it is that I’ve skipped this very important cooking 101 tidbit.

I shamefully admit my laziness has been to blame. As long as the recipe indicates a “start-to-finish” time, I tack on ten minutes for my slowness and dive right in, thinking that reading the recipe in its entirety is wasting precious time.

But wouldn’t ya know it, it’s just the opposite! I recently started reading my recipes all the way through prior to cooking, because it helped me to set up my mise en place (which I was also trying to improve on). I was amazed at how much more smoothly my cooking experiences went!

It’s like walking in the dark. In a dark room, you can still make it from point A to point B by feeling your way around, slowly but surely. But if you turn on a light, you get there much more quickly because you can see what’s around you and you’re not fumbling. Reading the recipe before cooking is like turning on that light, because you can see what’s ahead of you.

Tip of the Week: Well-Planned Workstations

One of the most important aspects of cooking is mise en place, which is the idea of gathering the ingredients and tools needed for cooking and having everything arranged prior to getting to work. I hate to admit that I’m still not perfect at it. I do prep about 75% of my ingredients before I begin cooking, but I’m a complete failure at gathering my tools and cookware ahead of time.

Part of the problem is that I don’t have a proper “workstation” in my kitchen. I tend to spread myself out while I’m cooking: on one counter I do my measuring, on another I do my chopping, and as I work, I make at least half a dozen trips to the trash can on the other side of the room. Clearly, I missed the last call for boarding the efficiency train.

I found a great article on Bon Appetit about building a better kitchen workstation. Based on their suggestions, there are a few major improvements I need to make when it comes to prepping and cooking my meals. I think these tweaks to my setup will greatly improve my ability to adhere to the idea of mise en place.

  1. I need to secure my cutting board to the counter with a damp towel or nonstick pad. I also learned this recently in Sur la Table’s online cooking basics course. It’s a miracle I haven’t chopped off a finger!
  2. I need a trash bowl. The time spent on each trip to the trash can adds up, and we all know mere seconds can make or break a vital step in preparing a dish.
  3. I should keep my salt in a ramekin. I usually pour my salt from the round Morton canister into a measuring spoon or into the palm of my hand. Sure, it works, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to simply dip the measuring spoon into the ramekin or grab a pinch with my fingers?
  4. I need to keep paper towels handy for cleaning debris from knives and cutting boards. My paper towel holder is cheap and lame, and both hands are required to tear off a towel. Again, any time saved is beneficial to my cooking; I should start tearing off a few towels ahead of time and having them at the ready.
  5. I need to keep the essential tools handy. I said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m terrible at gathering the necessary tools before I start cooking. It’s not uncommon for me to realize that the pan I need is dirty and I have to wash it while, meanwhile, the food in another pan is burning because of my lack of preparation. It has to end!

Do you have any tips for a more efficient workstation in your kitchen?

Freezer Spill Prevention 101

Last week, I sifted through the fruit and veggie compartment in my freezer and grabbed a bag of stir fry veggies—and promptly spilled half the bag all over the inside of the freezer. How did this happen? Because there aren’t enough chip clips in the world for all the frozen fruit and veggies we keep on hand. The stir fry veggies were one of the many bags in our freezer that had been opened, but not clipped to prevent spillage. As I stared down into my freezer and cursed the bits of broccoli, snow peas, and carrots strewn about, I knew something had to change.

Last night, I pulled everything out of my freezer for a mass reorganization. I saved the fruit and veggie compartment for last, because I had more than an organization issue to deal with—I also had a storage issue. I piled all of the bags on the counter, and then I grabbed a Sharpie and two different sizes of freezer storage bags.

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I emptied every single bag of fruits and veggies into freezer storage bags and labeled each one. This was meant to solve the spillage problem, which was half the battle. The other problem was that I’m always having to dig through the drawer in the freezer to find what I need. When I buy new frozen items, I tend to toss them into the freezer and they all end up in a disorganized jumble. After transferring everything into freezer storage bags, I placed them neatly into the compartment in the freezer, arranging them according to how often I usually access them. The fruits I use in my morning smoothies are all at the front, easily accessible. The veggies I use less frequently, such as the corn-carrot-asparagus mix, are stacked up nicely in the back of the compartment, underneath the veggies I use more often, like peas and peppers.

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I’m feeling very optimistic about this new arrangement in my freezer. Already this morning, I felt so much more relaxed as I prepped my smoothie ingredients in my blender. It goes to show that even the seemingly small changes in a kitchen can make a big impact on cooking and food preparation.

Do you have any tips and tricks for freezer organization at home?

Go Go Gadget Wish List!

I have a problem with kitchen gadgets: it’s that I don’t have enough of them! I love kitchen gadgets, but my collection isn’t very impressive. Part of the problem is that I can’t seem to prioritize my wish list. Would I rather have a rubber tube garlic peeler or a spiralizer? Can’t decide…guess I’ll just buy some shoes instead.

Yes, I’ve certainly slacked off in the kitchen gadget department. So I put together a list of ten gadgets that are not only nifty and convenient, but that I truly believe would help me to be more efficient and reliable in the kitchen. The goal is to actually buy ALL of these (gradually, of course), and I’m going to hold myself to it by posting reviews here after I try out each one!

Stainless Steel Finger Guard:
So I don’t chop off my fingers, which surprisingly hasn’t happened yet.

 Stainless Steel Meat Baller:
Because I’d rather not make a hobby out of rubbing sticky raw meat between my hands.

Egg Perfect Timer:
For even the simplest of cooking tasks I can’t seem to perfect.

Hands-Free Storage Bag Holder:
Because I’m tired of cleaning spilled soup off of the counter/stove/floor.

Quirky Stem Fruit Juice Spritzer:
Because why not?

Spaghetti Measure:
So I’ll stop making enough spaghetti to feed my entire neighborhood.

One Stop Chop Cutting Board with Storage Containers:
So I’ll stop dropping veggies on the kitchen floor while trying to scrape them into a bowl.

The Ultimate Garlic Peeler:
Because it’s like magic, and I like magic.

Seasoning Sticks:
Because I’m bored with my meat being flavored only on the outside.

And finally, Multi Blade Herb Scissors:
For those of us who hate spending an hour working for one teaspoon of fresh cilantro.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Sink Woes

We have a white kitchen sink and we hate it.  My biggest beef with it is that it gets so dirty SO easily.  Well, it doesn’t get any dirtier than it would if it were any other sink, but because it’s white, it’s more noticeable.

We’ve lived in our house a year now and NOTHING has gotten rid of these grody stains.  Not even my go-to box of 20 Mule Team Borax did the trick.

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At my wit’s end, I consulted with my friend Google and found a website that referenced this website that swears by a simple bleach-baking soda mixture.  The claim:  two parts baking soda and one part bleach will rid the stains from a white sink.  My prediction:  bullshit.  Far too simple (i.e., “too good to be true”).

I mixed two tablespoons of baking soda with one tablespoon of bleach and spread the mixture around the bottom of my sink.  I tackled it with a cleaning brush and I didn’t even have to put muscle into it.  THIS IS WHAT I GOT:

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I’ve never seen my sink so clean.  I don’t even think it was this clean when we bought the place!

IMG_0485Oh…in case you spotted it, I did not miss a couple of spots.  There might have been an incident earlier this year in which I dropped the crock pot dish in the sink.  It might have resulted in chipping the sink.  And it might have broken my crock pot dish, which resulted in my purchasing a much fancier crock pot.  (A blessing in disguise, I say!)

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Now of course I’m obsessed with the bleach-baking soda concoction that worked its miracle on my sink.  I’ve already deep cleaned the bathtub and I’m starting to wonder why I have so few porcelain fixtures in my home.  MUST…CLEAN…MORE!

Truly, I’m excited I’ve found a solution to the dirty sink problem.  A kitchen can only feel so clean when the sink is disgusting!

 

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?

Mango Madness

A couple of years ago, I purchased my first fresh mango.  I’d heard they were a little tricky to slice, and BOY was that rumor true.  Despite following a set of written instructions online, I mangled that mango.  It was a mangle-o.

Because I’ve learned a lot in the kitchen since then, I decided to give it another go.  Mangoes were a great price at the grocery store, so I thought I’d add some fresh mango to my morning smoothies.

The first thing I did was pull up this YouTube tutorial.  Then I washed my fruit and centered it on the cutting board.  It was go time.

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The nice man in the video warned of the seed in the middle of the fruit, and he instructed to cut just off to the side of the center of the mango.  I paused the video, thinking I am gonna OWN this mango!

But of course, my mango was thinking, Challenge accepted.  I pushed the knife into the fruit in the same spot shown in the video, and halfway down, it hit the seed.  A rocky start, but not a “doomed” status quite yet.  I moved the knife slightly further away from the center of the fruit and tried again.  And hit the seed.  Again.  When I finally cut into the mango and didn’t hit the seed with the knife, I’d sliced off roughly a centimeter-thick piece of fruit.

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I attempted to cut the slice o’ mango as demonstrated in the video.  I’m practically a pro at the method when it comes to avocados.  Alas, I’m less than skilled at this same method where mangoes are concerned.

Getting that first slice pretty much blew my opportunity to follow Mr. Nice-Bearded-Man’s guidance on cutting the rest of the mango.  Ten minutes later, I had butchered the stupid thing and I was left with a pile of assorted sizes of mango chunks and a pile of scraps from the skin and the core.  All I can say is, good thing these were intended to be tossed into a blender!

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If you have any good tips for cutting mangoes, PLEASE share them with me!  I still have more to slice and I plan on making an update post when I’m finished.  Help a girl out with your best pointers!

Turning Tables

It’s a strange Saturday. My stepson isn’t here because of a birthday sleepover, and my husband had to go into work this morning. I’m not usually left to my own devices on a Saturday morning, so I normally go for a quick run, take a shower, and spend the afternoon running errands or going to the park with the family.

Having the house to myself this morning meant I glued myself to the couch and caught up on my Dateline recordings. At one point I got up to refill my coffee and realized: my kitchen table is a disaster zone.

IMG_0383I tried to ignore it. Damn it, this was going to be a lazy morning! The TV is allllll mine. I’m still wearing my glasses and my pajamas, and if I feel like spending half the day playing Hungry Cat Mahjong, no one is here to judge me. (If my husband would play even one level of that stupid game, I’m sure he’d understand. He’d have to.)

Anyway, the fourth or fifth time I went into the kitchen, I finally cracked. I can’t remember the last time I cleaned off my kitchen table. We eat dinner at the table every night, and all I do is push everything off to the side to make room for our plates. Something had to be done.

I started to clear off the table and almost immediately I felt better about my life. Until I discovered the table is covered in a blanket of dust and pet hair, and then my contentment crumbled yet again.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it took me half an hour to clean up the kitchen table disaster zone. It looks like a quick job until you consider the stack of old mail that has to be sorted and the fact that every little item seems to belong in a different room in the house.

But here’s what I determined: tidying up the kitchen table makes the entire house seem cleaner. A few nights ago, I went on one of my random cleaning rampages and still felt like the house was a pigsty. I couldn’t figure out why. One of the few things I hadn’t done that night was give any consideration to the kitchen table. Somehow it seems to fade into the background and I don’t give much thought to how cluttered with junk it becomes.

table.pngRight now I feel so much more comfortable than I did a couple of hours ago. Now the challenge will be resisting the temptation to resume using it as a dumping grounds for anything we’re too lazy to actually put away where it belongs.

Personally, I give it five hours max. What can I say? I’m a realist. I’ll just enjoy it while it lasts.

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What types of “little” things do you do around the house to help it seem cleaner?