Cooking without cheese

I have a sneaking suspicion my 11-week-old is insensitive to milk protein (that she gets through breastfeeding), so I’m cutting out all dairy for two weeks to see if it makes a difference.  I’m pretty sad about giving up yogurt, but the biggest challenge is going to be cooking without cheese.  I cook a LOT of things with cheese.

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Last night, I made a deep-dish taco pizza.  As I grated the cheese that would be sprinkled all over the top of the pizza, I kept reaching to pinch some shreds of cheese between my fingers and eat it.  It’s usually my reward for grating cheese because I HATE grating cheese.  But of course, I had to continually slap my hand and tell myself that cheese is currently off-limits.

I scattered the cheese all over half of the pizza, because only my husband would get to eat that part.  When the pizza came out of the oven he looked at it, perplexed, and said, “How can you eat a taco pizza without any cheese?”

I should have slapped him.

(Don’t worry, there isn’t actually any husband-slapping occurring in this house.)

So, one dinner down, 13 to go.  I will be scouring Pinterest and my recipe-books for dairy-free recipes, and I will be avoiding anything that involves cheese so I’m not being teased like I was last night.  Sorry, B, if I’m going cheese-free, so are you.

Any favorite dairy-free recipes you can recommend?

 

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: Writing in Cookbooks

Sur la Table recently released a series of online cooking classes, and to promote them, they offered a cooking basics course for free.  The course covered topics such as proper knife technique, how to use salt in cooking, how to perfectly cook chicken, and so on.  After watching the first session, I was hooked!  I took notes while watching and practiced in the kitchen over the next several days, and I feel the course was a tremendous help.

Only then did it occur to me:  although I cook almost every single day, and despite my improvements, I’m not continuously learning about cooking.  Yes, I’m getting plenty of hands-on experience; but there is still so much about cooking I don’t know, which means I have an endless amount of growing to do as a cook.  So each week, I will be sharing a tidbit I’ve learned about cooking–whether it is a simple, quick bit of advice, or a major tenet of culinary arts.

I read the following snippet of advice on the Epicurious website:

Write in your cookbooks.

Soup could have used more tomato? Chicken needed ten more minutes in the oven? Make a note of it and you’ll never make that mistake again.

This is something I have never—seriously, never—done. Yet I find myself making comments all the time like, “The vinegar is a little overpowering,” or complaining that the food took twice as long to cook as was stated in the recipe.

On the surface, this seems like a simple tidbit of advice for someone who uses recipes often. But for someone like me, this truly applies to cooking as a whole. Although my culinary skills have improved tenfold since I started this blog three years ago, I find I’m still lacking confidence when it comes to cooking without a recipe to guide me.

If I start jotting notes down in my cookbooks, it will not only help me the next time I cook that particular dish, but it will help me to recognize the things that make or break a meal. It will force me to consider how the different ingredients and their amounts work together and contribute to the final product. Usually I’m so focused on following the steps that I don’t really think about how each thing added really changes the recipe. By making notes in my cookbooks, I’m hoping this forces me to take a step back and analyze what I’ve learned by adjusting the recipe according to how it tasted.

What about you? Do you make notes in your cookbooks?

Chicken Wins

I cooked chicken breasts in a frying pan and I DIDN’T BURN THEM! [Cue confetti, balloons, and blowout noisemakers.]

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That beautiful picture is the result of a Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets with Maple-Mustard Dill Sauce recipe. I’ve never cooked chicken this way without burning it on the outside. And the sauce was delicious! I was a little weary of combining maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and dill, but somehow it worked really well. I wish I was talented enough to know how to mix weird condiments and herbs to make such brilliant flavors. Le sigh…

Not that I can’t make up my own great flavors. The other night I made pesto-stuffed chicken with a side of seasoned brown rice. I didn’t use a recipe for any of it, and I’m rather proud of that. I stuffed the chicken with pesto, rolled it in a bread crumb-Italian herb mixture, and topped it with Parmesan cheese. I cooked the rice in chicken broth mixed with two teaspoons of onion and herb Mrs. Dash, and then added about half a teaspoon of salt and a handful of Parmesan.   It’s nothing complicated, but it was tasty! Chopped, here I come!!!

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Wooooahhhhh. I got a little carried away there. No Chopped. I’m lucky if I’m familiar with even one mystery basket ingredient each episode.

I am feeling pretty good about my cooking skills this week, though. I’m making pork tenderloin for the first time ever on Thursday, so let’s hope this good mojo continues!

Last Week’s Eats

I’m a little afraid of admitting it—I’d hate to jinx myself—but last week was a really successful week in the kitchen! A little sampling of the things I whipped up…

Black Bean Burgers:

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Sweet and Sour Chicken:

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Lasagna Rollups (without using a recipe!):

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Side note on the lasagna rollups: Toothpicks are a MUST. In every Pinterest post I’ve ever seen about lasagna rollups, there are NEVER toothpicks holding them together. Well, those people must have magical powers because if I wouldn’t have had toothpicks, these suckers just wouldn’t have happened.  Also, the curvy sides of lasagna noodles fall off MUCH too easily.  Someone should invent lasagna noodles that don’t do this.  It’s 2015, I’m sure it can be done.

Skinny Honey Lemon Chicken:

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The skinny honey lemon chicken was decent, but the sauce was more congealed and gel-like than I would have preferred. What bothers me more, however, is the fact that yet again, my final product looked nothing like the picture in the original recipe.

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It reminds me of this comparison of a marketing photo of a Big Mac, versus the actual product you get at McDonald’s. Of course the Skinny Honey Lemon Chicken looks like one of the best things I’ll ever eat, until I actually cook it and it looks like I stirred some chicken into a jar of Vaseline.  I realize blogs like Gimme Some Oven use professional photography and I use a non-fancy Canon with horrible lighting in my kitchen, but COME ON…

For the record, I did totally garnish mine with sesame seeds. You can’t even see them. Elusive, they are!

Also this week, I was going to make some oven-fried chicken until I spilled meatball casserole all over my oven and didn’t get around to cleaning it for several days.  So instead, I improvised a creamy noodle dish with seasoned sauteed chicken, and it was actually quite tasty!  I made the sauce from scratch, and it was by far the most flavorful sauce I’ve ever made without a recipe!

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This week I’ll be tackling squash browns (hash browns made out of spaghetti squash). It’s one of those things that will either go really well, or really terribly! Wish me luck!

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?

Cooking Zone of Familiarity: Missions for 2015

juliachildNo matter how much I improve in my cooking skills, I still have a list of dishes I’d really like to take a stab at, yet I am terrified to attempt. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to explain why I’m afraid of making them. Included in this list are:

  • Baby back ribs
  • Any kind of roast
  • A whole chicken or turkey
  • Anything “fried”
  • Lasagna
  • Homemade marinara sauce
  • Pie

I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’m trapped inside my comfort zone. I have no problem trying something new as long as it’s within the confines of what is already familiar to me. Well, that needs to change! There was a day when I was petrified of cooking chicken breasts, yet today I cook so much chicken I’m surprised my husband and I haven’t sprouted feathers. All I have to do is try. I might fail. I mean, it’s me we’re talking about—there is a good chance my first attempt will be humiliating and inedible. But once I’ve tried, that particular dish will have migrated into my Zone of Familiarity, and that’s when I can try again and improve.

The list above isn’t all-inclusive, but in 2015, I will attempt ALL of the items at least twice—once to become familiar with it, and twice to apply what I learned during my first attempt.

I’m starting with baby back ribs; they’re on my list for my trip to the grocery store today, and I already have my recipe picked out. Be on the lookout for a post in the next week or so!

For the rest of the items on my list, feel free to share your favorite recipes with me in the comments! I am going to OWN my kitchen in 2015!

One last thing, and I promise it’s the only time I’ll push it: I just started up a Facebook page for my blog, and every single follower means a lot to me. I’ll be sharing recipes, articles, and other miscellaneous cooking humor, so please take a peek. 🙂

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!

Creamy Pasta with Spinach and Kielbasa

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit.  Ladies and gents, I’ve pulled it off!  I envisioned a recipe of my own creation and for the first time, it came out EXACTLY like I was hoping it would.  Ohmyfreakinggoodness, I’m beaming with pride.  I have no idea what to call it, so I’ve dubbed it “Creamy Pasta with Spinach and Kielbasa.”  Okay, if I continue down this path of creating my own recipes, the names are going to need some work.  But for now, the obvious will have to do.

Here it is.  My pride and joy.

Some of you are probably skeptical.  Pictures can be deceiving, right?  My fiance says this was delicious–yes, he used the word “delicious” in regards to my cooking.  So for any non-believers, here is the recipe.  Try it out.  I promise that it won’t make you gag.

Ingredients:
-8 oz. dry linguine
-1/2 cup chopped onion
-2 cloves minced garlic
-1 cup finely chopped fresh spinach
-13 oz. turkey kielbasa, sliced into bite-sized chunks (or kielbasa of your choice, but I recommend the turkey)
-2 tbsp. butter
-2 tbsp. flour
-1 1/2 cups whole milk
-1 tsp. Italian seasoning
-Salt and pepper
-Cooking spray

1)  Cook pasta according to package directions.

2)  Spray a large skillet with cooking spray.  On medium-high heat, saute the onion and the garlic for 2 minutes.  Add the kielbasa pieces and cook 2-3 minutes or just until they begin to darken on the outside.

3)  Add the spinach to the skillet and cook about a minute, until it begins to wilt.  Transfer the onion, garlic, kielbasa, and spinach to a bowl and reduce heat to medium.  Return the skillet to the burner.

4)  Add the butter to the skillet.  Once it has melted, add the flour and whisk until it has formed a roux.  Stir in the milk, and continue to stir until the mixture is thick and bubbly.  Add the Italian seasoning and salt and pepper to taste.

5)  Return the onion, garlic, kielbasa, and spinach to the skillet; stir them together with the sauce.

6)  Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce.  Stir until everything is well combined.  Serve, and enjoy!

 

(Below:  random butter picture.  Because who doesn’t start drooling at the sight of sizzling, melting butter?)