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:

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.  🙂

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!

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?

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.

Pinterest-free week day two: Things ruined

I’m pouting right now.  I mean, I am really pouting.

I had a pretty rough day.  When I stepped into the kitchen to start cooking dinner, I took a deep breath and thought:  You’re going to cook an awesome meal, and it’s going to make you forget about all of the stupid parts of today.  But no, dinner tonight simply became another stupid part of today.

Since potatoes haven’t really been my forté lately, I wanted to make another attempt.  Because, you know, I’m not smart enough to throw in the towel yet.  I read a Cooking Light recipe for potatoes that are cubed, then boiled, and then sauteed.  Their photo of the end result was of a pile of crisp, polished cubes of potato.  Cube, boil, and saute?  Pssshh, I can do that!  I brought the potatoes to a boil and simmered them, and then I got to work on the chicken.

Though I’ve used my fair share of bread crumbs, I have never cooked with panko.  I finally purchased a big bag of it in bulk at the grocery store.  Tonight, I mixed it with a “Southwoods” seasoning consisting of cracked pepper, salt, garlic, and dried flakes of a few different peppers.  Then I dipped some raw chicken tenders into a beaten egg and coated them with the seasoned panko.  It was much cleaner than using regular breadcrumbs.  See how nice they looked?

While the chicken tenders baked, I drained the potatoes.  The recipe had suggested 20 minutes, with a note that you didn’t want to over boil the potatoes, and I drained mine after about 17 minutes.  When I tossed them into a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, I damn near cried when they crumbled at the softest touch of the spoon.  I knew then that we’d be having nearly mashed potatoes with dinner.  On the bright side, I did (for once) make sure to add enough salt.

I also used up some leftover lettuce for a salad.  I shredded a carrot for the first time.  It took about a year and I don’t think I did it “correctly,” but I got the job done.

So, after I checked on the chicken tenders a couple of times, they looked done and I took the temperature of each one, which exceeded 180 degrees.  I cut into a couple and they were nice and white.  The normal drill for chicken.  Yes, there is a point to this blabber.

First, here’s a picture of my dinner plate:

And a close-up of my unintended mostly-mashed potatoes:

And finally, the chicken tenders I was certain would be prize-worthy:

The potatoes, though not what I’d wanted, were decent.  But the chicken tenders.

Arrrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhhhh, the chicken tenders.

Something wasn’t right with them.  Though they weren’t the least bit pink, and though they’d measured at 180+ degrees, their texture was still that of raw chicken.  Their taste was that of raw chicken.  They were raw chicken tenders disguised as thoroughly-cooked chicken tenders.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  They were so cooked in appearance that I felt cooking them longer would simply burn the outsides (which had already turned a nice crispy brown).  But the bottom line is, neither my fiance nor I trusted them.  Neither one of us ate them.  As I write this, I am waiting for the vomiting to begin because I’d eaten a few bites as I tried to determine what was wrong with the chicken tenders.

Long story short:  I made a reasonably good lettuce-and-carrot salad 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……..

Too-crunchy taters and a disgracefully dull knife

On the menu tonight:  honey-balsamic chicken and Parmesan hash brown cups.  I was really excited about these hash brown cups.  While I nearly broke my arm trying to shred the potatoes with my mandolin (we fight more often than we get along), I thought to myself: It will all be worth it when my mouth is full of cheesy, potatoey goodness!  I drooled just thinking about the moment I would pull them out of the oven.

If you’ve learned anything about me, you must know by now that the recipes I most anticipate are the recipes that are the least successful for me.  Here’s what the pan looked like just before it went into the oven:

In almost every muffin tin, shredded potatoes stick up out of the top like snakes on Medusa’s head.  No matter how many times I pushed them down, they popped right back up, desperate to escape the tins that would become their scorching potato graves.  Now is where I admit that I may have shredded the potatoes lengthwise, resulting in long strings of potato (as opposed to the short little matchsticks usually used to make hash browns).

When they’d finished baking and I flipped them upside down onto the plate as the recipe instructed, I didn’t think they looked too bad.

But where the strings of potato kept creeping up out of the muffin tins, they burnt to a crisp so badly that my fiance and his son wouldn’t eat them.  Luckily, the insides were still ooey and gooey, so the boys ate the innards.

While the hash brown cups baked, I worked on a simple honey-balsamic chicken.  I’ve noticed lately that my go-to knife hasn’t been cutting so well.  It’s a really good quality knife and I use it almost every day.  But in the six months I’ve owned it, not once have I “honed” it (a new term I learned today).  I may as well have been using a spatula to do my cutting.  So before I started on the chicken tonight, I allowed Chef Ramsay to show me how to properly hone a knife.  It made a WORLD of a difference!

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.