April 27, 2009

Life Gets Busy, Do I Have to Give Up Cooking? Maybe.

So I’m a few weeks into this whole cooking challenge thing and realizing that it is *work*. Why did I not realize this earlier? Like before I got started with it? Granted, it is work with some particularly yummy benefits (if I do say so myself), but still…

There’s the obvious stuff. Like the cooking (duh...). The grocery shopping. And the blogging thing. Like I said obvious.

But then there’s the other stuff. Like cleaning.

For whatever reason, I cannot cook in a messy apartment. Yes. The entire apartment has to be clean before I feel like I can do something that, when all is said and done, makes one gawd-awful mess of my kitchen.

I’m not entirely certain why I feel the need to have a clean apartment before I start making a mess in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the fact that if I’m up to my elbows in goodness in only knows what in the kitchen, I need some respite from the mess.

And then, there’s my whole short attention span issue. It takes next to nothing to distract me. I’d like to say that it’s something sexier like multitasking, but it’s not multitasking when I forget to do whatever it was that I was going to do before I was distracted while on my way to do whatever it was I was going to do.

So this is a lead in to the explanation that, while I sometimes have no excuse for being behind on my self-set schedule of cooking and blogging other than my own short-attention span, I will have one during the next couple of weeks. The job that pays the bills (and that I enjoy, too) is sending me on the road for some conferences and the weekends will be full of other commitments that do not involve me cooking or baking for others.

Although… Now that I think about it, this might be an opportunity to more carefully plan out how it is, exactly, that I’m going to make sure I make it though all of my cookbooks by the end of the year as planned. Hmm

Oh! What’s that? A silver lining? Seen through some rose-tinted glasses? Why yes. Yes, I believe that is the case.

April 25, 2009

A Blog Entry in Which I Describe Four, Count 'em, FOUR Dishes!

Last weekend was a busy one in my kitchen.

It was also a bit of torture.
And if you think I’m being melodramatic, then I’d like to see you make BBQ brisket in a slow cooker. You spend several hours smelling its BBQ yumminess knowing that you have hours and hours and hours to wait before you can have any, and then you just try to tell me that that isn’t some sort of horrid, self-inflicted torture.

In the end, it has so totally been worth it. The two pounds of brisket that simmered for a little more than eight hours in the BBQ fixin’s turned out just lovely.

Admittedly, this BBQ brisket won’t be winning me any awards, but it was a very good first attempt at making BBQ. Especially if you take into account that 1) I rarely make any dishes that contain a beef ingredient that isn’t ground and 2) that I have no real clue as to what goes into the making of BBQ.

That last comment might be a bit of an overstatement, if I’m being honest. The reality is that there are no BBQ from scratch recipes in my family. At least none that I’ve ever seen. So while I get the differences between Texas, Kansas and North Carolina BBQ, I’ve only ever really had BBQ from scratch while at a joint that specializes in BBQ.

Anyhow, the BBQ brisket was turned into pulled BBQ brisket sandwiches. Yummy. In fact, I had some leftovers last night, and it was just as good, if not better than when it came out of the slow cooker the first night.

At the end of it all, this BBQ attempt has inspired me to do a little more research into BBQ recipes so that I can better understand how it’s done and then I can see what I can do to make it my own.

To go along with the BBQ brisket, I made two side dishes. Cole slaw. Easy enough. I’ve made it plenty of times before and went with my good ol’ standby recipe from my trusty "Better Homes & Garden Cook Book." Unfortunately, since I now use that recipe as more a guiding post than a recipe, I got the proportions a little bit wrong. Oh well. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t be doctored up later on.

The other side dish qualified for the new-to-me category. It was a Baked Mexican Black Bean
dish. This one was fun to make, even if I did misread the instructions and underestimate the cooking time by about an hour. It just meant that the BBQ brisket had to slow cook for a little bit longer.

This was a good dish made with a half pound of cooked bacon; onions and garlic sautéed in the bacon and bacon grease; add a whole jalapeño, a pound of black beans and six cups of liquid (chicken broth, water, a combo, or whathaveyou) dumped and in brought to a boil. Then, you throw all of that into the oven to bake for an hour covered up; and then add a can of diced tomatoes and bake it for another hour uncovered.

It was this last step that I missed when reading the directions. On the bright side, I realized this early enough to turn down the BBQ brisket so that it wouldn’t overcook.

Like all bean dishes of this sort, it was great straight out of the pot and has been great in subsequent leftover dishes.
Well… Actually, they’ve been really great straight out of the fridge on some tortilla chips, but I’m willing to bet that they’d be great in a burrito or quesadilla too.

And, lest you think I’ve been a horribly lazy person by not blogging about all of this earlier this week, let me tell you that I also made a third new-to-me dish last weekend.

It’s a Tuscan Bean Dip. Very simple stuff. Lots of garlic sautéed in a quarter cup of olive oil until golden. Toss in a couple of teaspoons of fresh rosemary and a pinch or so of hot pepper flakes after the oil was taken of the heat. Now, at this point, if you had a grownup’s food processor, you’d dump all a can of cannelloni beans and all but a teaspoon of the oil in that and process it till creamy enough to suit you taste.

In my case, I have a mini-food processor. So I mixed the beans and the oil together in a bowl and processed it in batches. That worked out just fine *and* I got to use my mini-food processor for the first time ever.

A fact that I hope doesn’t upset my Mom or Dranny too much since they gave it to me eons ago thinking I’d use it to chop veggies.

A note for my Mom and Dranny: I was just scared of it and of liquefying the veggies instead of just chopping them. Really. I swear.

Back to the point…

When finished, the Tuscan Bean Dip was perfect on some toasted slices of french bread along with some goat cheese on some other slices. It was just right for a light supper in my case or would be a good appetizer-y dish in other instances.

At this point, you may well be wondering just how many cookbooks I managed to use this weekend. I am sad to report (sort of) that I only used one new cookbook.

One?! Just one?!
Clearly, I am very not efficient at this whole cooking challenge thing.

The cookbook in questions was the surprisingly good “Food Network Kitchens Favorite Recipes.” I say surprisingly good because I half expected this to be full of cast-off recipes that the Food Network stars didn’t like. Instead, it’s actually full of a lot of interesting, basic recipes for all types of occasions.

So while my cookbook usage efficiency is a bit on the crap side of things, the recipes were not. And there you have it.

Now I must be off. I have a new menu to plan.

April 19, 2009

What's With the Whole Cooking Thing, Anyhow?

While I’m waiting for dinner to slow cook itself into readiness, I figure I’ll do some writing.

Rather than write about what’s in the slow cooker (BBQ brisket), the oven (Baked Mexican Black Beans) or the fridge (cole slaw) for tonight’s dinner, I thought I’d tell you a bit about why it is that I’m so obsessed with cookbooks that I have 46+/- cookbooks and countless food magazines lying around while hardly, if at all, being used.

The easiest explanation is that it’s all the fault of my Mom and Dranny (she’s my maternal grandmother).

Yep. I’m going to lay this habit squarely at their feet. I don’t even feel the slightest twinge of guilt in blaming them for this. After all, next to their collection of cookbooks, mine is insignificant. Absolutely, utterly, 100 percent insignificant.

Of course, I don’t help them much since I’ve added more than a few cookbooks to their collection. That’s beside the point though.

Actually, in all seriousness, I really did learn my love of cookbooks from my Mom and Dranny. We would sit together and read through cookbooks quite a lot when I was growing up. We would pick out recipes to make or just drool over the pictures and recipes. Heck, we still do for that matter.

One cookbook in particular, “Texas: The Beautiful Cookbook,” which was a gift to my Dranny from one of our B&B guests, is still a favorite of mine. When I graduated from college and moved into my own place, it was one of the cookbooks that I wanted for myself. However, on a Hill staffer's paltry salary, paying $60 for a cookbook was more of an extravagance than I could justify at the time. I did buy it for myself several years ago when I found it on sale at Barnes & Noble. I still have it and will pull it out every once in a while and just flip through it. Gorgeous pictures, interesting recipes and some great info about how the recipes are tied to Texas.

In addition to blaming my Mom and Dranny, I have to give them credit too. When I decided to make something, they’d let me.

For example, the tuna noodle casserole that was one of the first dishes I insisted on making all by myself. I might have been in 4th grade, maybe 5th. It took me nigh on to forever to fix, but I did it. How my Mom and brother survived the wait without either bursting in to the kitchen to help me or to kill me is still a mystery to me.

Even better was the time I got it in to my head that making petit fours from scratch would be a good idea. We all laugh about that one - now - and use it as a cautionary tale for others. It seemed like so much fun and so simple. Ha! Cutting all those little cakes and glazing them and decorating them. Not even close to easy.

To this day, I can still smell the weird almond-flavored glaze and can only shudder in horror. And you know, now that I think about it, I’m not sure we even ate any of them. That’s how disgusted I was with them by the time I finally gave up on them.

This is only part of the reason I’m so obsessed with cookbooks in particular and food in general. The rest of the explanation will have to wait because dinner is just about ready.

Dinner time!!!!!! Yay!!!!

Easter Orphans - A week after the fact

Easter has always held a very special place in my heart.

On my mother’s side of the family, this is a big family holiday. When I was young, it came complete with all the usual trappings, including a special outfit, Easter eggs and baskets, the Easter egg hunt, and – best of all – a very large Easter dinner.

Growing up, Easter dinner was almost always an Easter ham, potato salad, baked beans, some sort of veggie and bread. This was a tradition that I very much took for granted my first year at college, when I had no plans to go home and then broke down at the very last minute.

And I mean that literally. I was a crying, desperate mess making last minute arrangements to get home for Easter. I simply could not fathom *not* being home for Easter. In my books, it would be almost as bad as not going home for Christmas.

After that first year at college, my Easter traditions began to change. I spent an Easter with my paternal grandmother and her side of the family enjoying time with family I don’t get to see as often as I would like. Then I moved to DC, where getting home to see family became harder since I was an underpaid staffer on the Hill trying to make ends meet in a city that eats your paycheck before it’s even in your bank account. It was while I was living in DC that I began my own Easter tradition.

Easter Orphans Dinner.

And lest you start thinking that I’m some sort of noble soul hosting actual orphans, let me set the record straight.
Easter Orphans is a dinner I host for friends who, like me, can’t go home for Easter Dinner. And when you live in DC, there are a lot of people in very similar situations.

My first Easter Orphans Dinner did not feature my family’s traditional menu. Instead, I served a Tex-Mex feast of chicken enchiladas and assorted other goodies. In subsequent years, I
served the traditional menu, but I also hosted an Easter brunch whose center piece was the mimosa bar.

This year’s Easter Orphans Dinner was actually brunch for supper, featuring a mix of recipes from my family’s Bed & Breakfast days and new-to-me recipes from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics” cookbook.

Oh. And mimosas. Mimosas are a must when it comes to brunch, even if it’s a brunch served at supper time. An absolute must.

First up on the menu was an Easy Quiche we served our Bed & Breakfast guests. The recipe is uber-easy and relies upon Bisquik rather than a pie crust. Add some eggs, cheese, sour cream, assorted spices and your choice of filler, and you’re all set. Following my waste-not rule, I used the cheddar and smoked apple chicken sausage already in the fridge as the key flavors in the Easy Quiche. I was a little worried that the smoked apple chicken sausage would be weird, but it turned out just fine. And the cheddar complemented the apples and vice versa.

But more to the point of my whole cooking challenge, I used two new recipes from Ina
Garten’s “Back to Basics.” First off, let me just tell you that I want to make everything in this cookbook. Even the fish dishes, and I *hate* fish. For Easter weekend, I settled for tackling two recipes.

ctually, I feel like I should say I tackled three recipes. “Back to Basics” has two tomato-based soup recipes. One of which was more complicated than the other. The other of which used fresh tomatoes.

Being somewhat lazy and not having five pounds of tomatoes on hand, I went with the easier recipe, but used canned tomatoes as described in the more complicated recipe. The easier recipe had the added benefit of being Creamy Tomato Basil, a soup I love, love, love.

Essentially, you sauté an onion and couple of carrots in olive oil. I added two cans of Hunt’s Diced Tomatoes and one can of Hunt’s Fire Roasted Tomatoes in place of the five pounds of fresh tomatoes. Add chicken stock, fresh basil, salt and pepper; simmer for 30 minutes or so; add heavy cream; and then blend it to a smooth consistency. The easier recipe said put all through a food mill. I don’t own a food mill. So I just put the soup through the blender in batches.

Et voila! A Creamy Tomato Basil Soup to die for. I will never buy the pre-made stuff again. Well, unless I’m really freaking sick and can’t even contemplate putting one foot in front of the other, let alone making a soup that requires the use of a knife and blender.

The tricky part of the meal was the stupid warm goat cheese salad I made. Lawd!

The recipe made it sound so simple. Goat cheese wrapped up in some bread-crumb dusted phyllo dough.

Yeah. Whatever.

First off, I used the wrong type of goat cheese since the recipe called for a wheel and I used not-wheel goat cheese. Second, I put too much bread crumb between the layers of phyllo dough.

It looked pretty enough, but it wound up being too dry and not cheesy enough.
Oh well. You can’t win ‘em all. The spring greens with champagne vinaigrette (store bought) that accompanied the warm goat cheese were lovely though…

Dessert was an ever so simple Strawberry Shortcake. I love making Strawberry Shortcake. Any recipe that is easiest to make by simply squishing the ingredients together with your hands gets big points in my book. And smishing strawberries together with a touch of sugar doesn’t get any easier or yummier. The shortcakes were made using the super, duper, top-secret Bisquik recipe that you’ll find on the side of the box.

And yeah, in case you haven’t noticed, I like Bisquik. So does Paula Deen.
If you care to suggest alternatives to Bisquik, feel free to do so. Just know that I’m not very likely to listen.

And that was this year’s Easter Orphans Brunch for Supper Dinner. I made a big mess, had a great meal with fabulous company, and managed to walk away from the day with no injuries.

Definitely a success so far as I’m concerned.

April 06, 2009


If I'm going to meet the goals of my own personal cooking challenge, then I'm going to have to step up my game and get a-cookin'. To that end, I spent some quality time perusing my cookbooks for recipes that would make use of a few of the ingredients I have in the fridge already.

And then I stumbled acrossed it.

A recipe for Hushpuppies.

Hushpuppy memories flooded my brain.

I could practically taste the huspuppies.

I could hear the gerbils running on their wheels as they thought up a meal centered around hushpuppy yumminess.

To heck with making due with what's in the fridge! I could go grocery shopping.

And then I finished reading the recipe, which included this direction:
"...heat the oil over high heat ... fry in batches ... maintain the temperature of the oil between 350 and 375 degrees." (Source: "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook")
My delight in finding this recipe evaporated in less time than it took me to look at my wrist and to remember the Natchitoches Incident.

So yeah. I won't be making those hushpuppies anytime too soon. I'll leave the frying of them until I get a new electric skillet for my birthday (hint, hint Mom!).

April 05, 2009

Never Underestimate Paula Deen or Chocolate Cookies

Today, I made three different goodies from three different recipes. Only one of them counts against my cooking challenge.

Seriously? Yeesh….I need to get more organized about this gig if I’m going to use all of my cookbooks before the end of the year. Okay. Enough complaining.

Brunch today included a do over of my family’s banana muffin recipe. The last ones were good, but they seemed a little tough to me. These came out much better. Plus, I made them with chocolate chips instead of walnuts. Even better.

The big to do was, in fact, a very simple recipe from “Paula Deen & Friends: Living It Up, Southern Style.”

First, I had to get past my 12-year-old-boy-esque reaction to a dish called “Sausage Balls.” Sausage Balls. Yeah. Go ahead. Giggle. I did. More than once. Still giggling, actually.

Whatever your reaction to Sausage Balls, they met a few of my criteria for making brunch this morning. 1) Easy. 2) Use the ground sausage in the freezer (the waste not rule in effect). 3) Be a new dish.

Sausage Balls are a mixture of ground sausage, Bisquick, shredded cheddar cheese and some pepper. That’s it. You mix it all together by hand. Form one-inch balls. Bake ‘em all on a cookie sheet sprayed liberally with PAM cooking spray. Flip ‘em once. And then eat ‘em.

I liked ‘em. I was sort of surprised. But I should've known better. This is a Paula Deen recipe. You can underestimate her or make fun of her for using more butter than might seem reasonable. But she is Paula Deen. She knows what the heck fuzzy she is doing when it comes to food.

I capped off today’s cooking adventures by making cookies for dinner.

Are you really all that shocked? After all, I ate muffins and Sausage Balls for brunch. Cookies for dinner were the only way to go, really. And no, salad wasn’t an option. Today was a blizzardy, sleety, icky mess. I deserved comfort food.

Tonight’s cookies were inspired by a photo I saw on TasteSpotting.com, one of my new favorite Web sites. It took me to A Pookie Pantry’s blog and this recipe.

My biggest challenge with these cookies is not eating every. single. one. of. them. RIGHT NOW. All of them. All two dozen of them.

Gah! The restraint is killing me.

If I hadn’t promised to bring cookies to my co-workers tomorrow, these cookies would not be sitting on their plate untouched. They would be in my belly. Where they belong.


The restraint I am showing in not eating every single solitary cookie deserves some sort of an award.


Oh well. I will content myself with sharing them and just hope that my co-workers like them as much as I do.

If not, I’ll snatch them out of their ungrateful hands and snarf them all down myself.

April 04, 2009

The Pink Elephant

If you've visited my site before or if you've heard me complaining in the last couple of weeks, then you know that I recently burned the holy living daylights out of myself. I find this somewhat amusing since the burns coincided with the first of my cooking challenges.

For the purposes of maybe putting the whole thing behind me (or at least trying to do so), I thought I would share with you the status update on the burns.

For one thing, I'm bandage free. A good thing since I had been losing more layers of skin than I actually have each time I ripped the bandages off to put more medicine on the burns.

Of the four burn marks, only two of them look like they'll be leaving noticeable marks. As for the other two, I'm
very glad they're fading to barely discernible patches since they look like cigarette burns. Not a cute look.

On the other hand, if you play the cloud game with the worst of the burns (upper right corner), you can just make out a pink elephant if that pink elephant had been carved from wood by a crunchy, granola sort who thinks kids shouldn't have normal toys from PlaySkool.

So while these scars will likely prompt future questions along the lines of, "Honey child! WHAT did you DO to yourself?!" I can now say I'm seeing a pink elephant and folks will hopefully think I'm only a just little bit crazy rather than thinking that I might be just a little bit tipsy at an inappropriate hour of the day.

Somehow, I'm thinking that that might bit just a little bit of wishful thinking on my part. But, then again, maybe I'm just plain ol' crazy. We shall just have to wait and see, won't we?

A Simple Pleasure…

Last night, I was cooking dinner and realized that I had missed cooking.

I did not start my little cooking challenge two weeks ago because I missed cooking. I started it because it seemed like a cute idea. You know, “cook your way through your collection of cookbooks and blog about it” cute.

Well, maybe not so premeditated as that sounds, but you know what I mean. It just sounded fun in a cute way.

I didn’t expect to realize I had missed cooking and that it’s actually a suitable stress reliever for me. Being as short-attention spanned as I am and having the kind of job that requires that I switch gears with little to no warning, it’s nice to focus on something to the exclusion of all else.

And if you doubt that cooking takes focus, you’ve clearly never cooked with me.

For example, chopping vegetables. Yeah. Me plus sharp knives. Needless to say, I’m paying very close attention to the knife and veggies and ignoring other everything else while chopping them into little bits and pieces. I may have no apparent regard for avoiding burns based on the Natchitoches Incident, but I would like to keep my fingertips in place.

If you’re wondering how I could have come to a point in my life where I could miss cooking, I can sum it up pretty quickly. I’m single, work some oddball hours, hate doing dishes and had gotten in to the habit of not cooking while living in DC, where going out to dinner five to seven nights a week was the norm.

All things considered, cooking had become this exotic activity I did only when visiting my family or when I got a wild hair and decided to host a random dinner party.

So whatever else comes of my cooking challenge, it has reunited me with my joy of cooking (hello, pun intended!). And, as Martha Stewart might say, that is a good thing.

Now… If only someone else would do all of the freaking dishes and pots and pans. *sigh*