September 26, 2009

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater!

Last weekend I was determined to make progress toward my cooking challenge goal. I did. Sorta. I used two cookbooks, but think I can only count one of them because I sorta cheated.

Well, I feel like I like I cheated because a couple of the dishes really didn't meet the qualifications for the new-to-me rule, even if they did meet the qualification for the waste-not rule.

A third dish met all of the qualifications though. That makes me feel a little bit better, but only just a little bit.

Anyhow, on the roster for last weekend's cooking shenanigans were Chicken Fricassee (this is the qualifier recipe), Curry-Coconut Chicken Tenders (cheater recipe - i've made tenders of a different flavor before) and Blueberry Muffins (cheater recipe - please. muffins? muffins?! there's nothing new about making muffins).

Both chicken recipes came from Betty Crocker's Best Chicken Recipes. This is one of a number of cookbooks I received in a previous life as a perk of my job. There were several recipes in the cookbook that looked interesting and that were very pretty in their photos.

The challenge I kept running into is that so many of them called for some sort of jarred, pre-made sauce or some such thing that I'm sure was intended to make it easier to put dinner on the table. However, this recipe approach assumes that you're not up to the challenge of making your own sauce or that you keep the jarred stuff hanging around the house. I don't. In fact, I'm not sure I can imagine buying jarred alfredo sauce. Meh...

Anyhow, the Chicken Fricassee recipe (top photo) did appeal to me (hello dumplings!) and I had all the ingredients in my cupboards already. Although, oddly enough, this Betty Crocker recipe recommended that you make the dumplings from scratch. I don't have anything against from scratch dumplings, but a Betty Crocker cookbook didn't recommend the use of Bisquick? I find that odd.

In any case, I made the Chicken Fricassee and, if you know me, then I'm sure you won't be surprised to know that I actually did make one recipe modification. I skipped the whole from-scratch dumplings step in favor of using Bisquick. Yes, I used the Bisquick. I like the Bisquick.

Once the Fricassee had simmered and the dumplings had finally cooked through, I sat down to a nice casual dinner. For never having made Chicken Fricassee before, I think it turned out pretty well. In fact, it's a dish I'd make again, especially on an overcast, damp sort of day when comfort food seems so right.

The following day, I set out to use the remainder of my chicken as an easy way to adhere to
my waste-not rule. From the same Betty Crocker cookbook, I picked out Curry-Coconut Chicken Tenders (middle photo).

This should have been a very simple, enjoyable dish. It wasn't. Due to what I'm sure was operator error, it was icky.

Let's start with the fact that even though I own just about five bazillion spices, curry is not one of them. So, I substituted chili powder. No biggie, right? Wrong. That substitution combined with the use of sweetened, shredded coconut and some other undetermined flaw led to a dish that was barely edible.

The coconut did not crisp up. I used too much chili powder. And the sum total was a bunch of chicken tenders that tasted not so good.

I redeemed the cooking adventures that day with a batch of blueberry muffins (bottom photo) using a recipe from "The Joy of Cooking: All About Breakfast and Brunch." Going against my own belief that not-Maine blueberries are bad, I had picked up a pint of Georgia blueberries along with some other berries. Having committed this egregious error, I had to use them before they went bad. I will concede that these were not awful in the muffins, but that's as much as you'll get from me.

The fun twist in this muffin recipe was using brown sugar instead of white. I liked this twist and think it might account for how moist the muffins were.

At the end of the day, I feel like I technically can say, "Check! One more cookbook down!" However, I feel like I cheated too much in making the blueberry muffins. To redeem myself, I will have to make something else from "The Joy of Cooking: All Breakfast and Brunch" cookbook.

Then, and probably only then, my guilty conscience might shut up and leave me alone.

September 14, 2009

Breaking in the New Kitchen

At the very end of August, I moved to a new apartment. When I first saw it's floor plan online, I was intrigued enough to book an appointment. Almost from the very first moment I walked into it, I was smitten. Lots of windows. Great space. High ceilings. And, most important, a kitchen designed for entertaining and cooking - much more so than my last apartment.

I love the new place. I couldn't wait to move into it - even though I was in the midst of a ginormous work project and loads of travel.
Somehow, I managed the move and the work travel with only the occasional lapse in sanity.

What I did not manage so well was a timely approach to unpacking. I managed to create a semblance of order in my bedroom; found the necessities for the bathroom and kitchen; and hooked up my brand new, fancy TV and cable.

And then I hit a roadblock.

My new kitchen is much, much bigger than any kitchen I've ever had (my parents' kitchens do not count). There are acres of counters and unfathomable depths in my cupboards. Overwhelmed by the prospect of needing to organize my stuff in this much space, I spent several days rummaging through the organizing sections of multiple stores looking for the magic things that would ensure that my kitchen would make sense and that I'd be able to find my stuff in the midst of all this space. A Container Store in Omaha might have made my life a little easier. Alas, no such store can be found here.

And this is where I will call a spade a spade - right before my parents or one of my friends does so.

I was stalling. I was procrastinating.

But thank goodness for Twitter. I made a public promise to make chorizo and maybe even some pate knowing that if I told the world I was going to do something so specific, I'd have to do so.

And I did.

Well, I did make chorizo. I did not make pate. However, I also made roasted tomato soup. I'll try making pate some other day.

Prior to the move, I'd been pouring over Robb Walsh's "The Tex-Mex Cookbook" and remembered there was a recipe for chorizo that seemed relatively straightforward and easy enough. This recollection was confirmed when I finally found "The Tex-Mex Cookbook" in the third box of unpacked cookbooks.

Robb's recipe for El Chico's Chorizo is pretty simple. Not having a full-size food processor though, I cheated and bought ground pork into which I mixed the chili powder, paprika, salt, garlic powder, cumin and red wine vinegar
by hand. Robb's recipe calls for buying a cut of pork and grinding it yourself along with the spices. But let's be honest kids, it's way more fun to use your hands to mix ingredients together than a food processor. It's okay to disagree with me, but I'm not sure I'll trust you quite so much anymore if you do. Just saying...

Anyhow, once the spices had been mixed in, I set the chorizo aside to allow the flavors to combine for a bit and turned my attention to making something out of the fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes a coworker gave me.

What I really wanted to make was one of Ina Garten's tomato soups again, but that would be repeating a cookbook and a recipe. Not good since I'm so far behind on accomplishing my goal of making at least one recipe from each of my cookbooks before the end of the year.

Lucky for me, my Mom gave me "Sunday Soup: A Year's Worth of Mouth-Watering, Easy-to-Make
Recipes" as a gift last Christmas. This little collection contained a number of tomato-based soups. However, I struggled to reconcile my waste-not rule with my new-to-me rule. Eventually, I settled on Roasted Tomato Soup because it involved actually roasting the tomatoes myself - something I've not done before.

Aside from being time consuming, this too was a simple enough recipe. First, the tomatoes (cut in half and seeded) were roasted after marinating for about 15 minutes in olive oil, salt, pepper and crushed, dried rosemary. Once roasted, I put the tomatoes and some chicken stock in the blender and pulsed them to a slightly chunky texture. This was then set on the stove in a sauce pan and brought to a boil and then left to simmer. Taste tests proved that the salt from the marinating process wasn't quite enough for my tastes, so I added just a bit more.

While the soup simmered, I finished off the chorizo by browning it with a bit of veggie oil and some chopped onion. Once browned, I removed all but a couple of heaping tablespoons of sausage from the pan and cracked a couple of eggs into the pan to make Chorizo y Huevos, a
recipe suggested by Robb in "The Tex-Mex Cookbook."

At this point, you might be asking, "How did this all turn out, Steff?"

Well, I'll be honest. By the time I finished making everything, I was tired and cranky. I'd spent all afternoon cooking not because I was making anything complicated, but because I had to remember where in the freaking world I had put my cooking utensils, pots, pans and whatnot. It was irritating and I just kind of snarfed everything down that night. I guess this is part of the process of breaking in a new kitchen.

Fortunately, I made enough chorizo and soup for leftovers. The next night, I made the Chorizo y Huevos again and put them on top of a slice of country bread with some shredded cheese
and salsa. Very delicious. Plus, I think the sausage was better for having had a day to allow the flavors to combine instead of just a couple of hours. The soup was good too. But, I have to say, I like the soup I made from Ina Garten's recipe better. Perhaps that's because of the basil and cream though. Just a guess.

September 12, 2009

Corn, Ice Cream & a Dessert Potluck for an Entire Town

This post is long overdue by just about any person's standards, but since I've only just about finished my unpacking, I still haven't cooked in the new place and so now is an opportune time to share this with y'all.

(btw, there truly is something wrong with this scenario that WILL be fixed this weekend. more specifically, i WILL be cooking this weekend. thank goodness!)

While spending 4th of July weekend in
Texas with my Grandma Mary Lou, we did some cooking and the like. Among the dishes we made was corn grilled with butter and fresh parsley from her garden.

Talk about fun. Not having a yard, I don't have a garden. Having a cat that likes to get into things, I don't have a window sill herb garden. So, for me, it was a novelty to go out to the
garden and pick fresh herbs. Especially since I had to remember which bits of green were parsley and which bits of green I should avoid like the plague. (for the record, i was successful in this venture.)

The corn turned out fabulous. So simple and fresh. I will caution others though to not peel back the husks about two minutes after the corn comes off the grill unless you actually enjoy the sensation of having the top layers of skin on your fingertips singed a bit. I don't, but I still did it. Not very bright, eh?

We also made a few other goodies, including burgers, baked beans and potato salad. No photos of those though. I blame the lack of photos on the homemade ice cream. Not that I have any photograhic evidence of that either. But, let me tell you, when your grandma is an officer in the town's Garden Club and said Garden Club has promised to coordinate the potluck dessert table for the town's 4th of July celebration, there isn't a lot of time to be wasted and certainly not enough time to be taking pictures.

For her contribution, Grandma Mary Lou made
the kind of ice cream that you make in those wooden bucket ice cream makers with the ice and freezing salt you put down the sides.

Please excuse me for a moment, but...

Hello! You mean I get to dump ice and salt all over the place and will be rewarded with homemade ice cream? Really? Wow... It was like being a kid again because, gosh darn it, I was going to make darned sure there was plenty of ice and salt dumped on the ice cream maker if it meant I had first dibs on the ice cream.

And bless my Grandma. I did have first dibs. When we pulled the paddle out, she gave it right over to me so that I could eat all the ice cream off of it. Granted, this priviledge would be part of the beauty of having been the only grandkid on the premises. Regardless, I still would've called dibs and won. I'm sure of it. Well, relatively sure.

Anyhow... I got first dibs on the ice cream and it was heaven. On the downside for me, we had to share. Darn the Garden Club and its promise to coordinate the town's
4th of July dessert potluck!

Now, in case you're wondering about this town potluck and whether or not the whole town attended, I can tell you that yes, in fact, just about the whole town attended. Like I said before, it's a small town. Plus, I have reason to know because, in addition to coordinating the dessert potluck, the Garden Club also served up the desserts. And, somehow, I was dragooned into helping.

Okay. So I wasn't really dragooned into helping, but what else was I supposed to do when confronted with picnic table after picnic table of sheet cakes that hadn't been cut before they were brought to the potluck? Just stand there and stare? No. I couldn't do that. Instead, I grabbed a spatula (there wasn't a knife to be found anywhere) and got to work cutting cake for the town's 4th of July Dessert Potluck brought to you by the Garden Club.

Also, while two of these three of pictures don't have much of anything at all to do with the grilled corn, ice cream or other goodies I helped make while visiting my grandma, I wanted to share them nonetheless.

As background, Grandma Mary Lou lives
on the very southern edge of town and, across the road to the east, is a neighbor's field. To south and west of her house are the old golf course and more fields. Personally, I find the landscape fascinating and gorgeous in its own right and I hope you enjoy these pictures as much as I do.

September 01, 2009

Grandma's Grocery Store

I suspect that when my parents read this, they’re going to scold me. After all, I just moved into a new apartment and the vast majority of my stuff is still in boxes.

They might have point. After all, those boxes aren’t going to unpack themselves. However, I can only unpack just so many boxes before I go stark raving mad.

In any case, between the move and some recent work travel that's taken me to Minneapolis and Raleigh for days at a time, I haven’t had much time to make anything more complicated than a faux quesadilla cooked in the toaster oven. Heck, I almost didn’t have enough time to pack before the movers arrived.

Since I haven’t made a lick of progress toward accomplishing my goal of cooking from all of my cookbooks before the end of the year recently, I thought I’d take a moment to share with you one of the reasons why I’m so obsessed with all things food.

I’ll start by telling you that one of my early memories is of me toddling around my Grandma Mary Lou’s grocery store. This is a very, very vague memory from my childhood. I have no recollection of what I was doing exactly, but I’m willing to bet this “memory” is actually an amalgam of several memories of playing in the store or shopping for groceries with my mom or even just stopping by for a visit.

When I was little bit older, Grandma Mary Lou moved her store to a new location. The new store I remember vividly. I spent hours and hours there. I have so many good memories of the time I spent there and the freedom of being able to go into just about any room, aisle or cubby. Although Grandma Mary Lou and Cathy, the store’s butcher, were very serious about being careful around the butcher block area. There was no fooling around there.

I’m sure when I was little, I must have been underfoot a lot. I played silly pranks, played hide and seek with my brother in the back of the store (and the front, if I'm being honest), and would try to help stock shelves.

As I got older though, I did do some actual work around the store. I bagged groceries. Stocked shelves. Rang up customers. Helped make pizzas for the deli. Sorted coupons while watching Bob Barker on the “Price is Right.” (And no, I didn't purposely volunteer to sort coupons at the exact time that "Price is Right" came one. That was merely a coincidence. I swear. No, really, I promise. Pure coincidence.)

In return, Grandma Mary Lou paid me in comic books I read while sitting on bags of dog food, ice cream treats, candy and hugs. And then there was the end-of-summer, back-to-school shopping spree. My brand-spanking new Trapper Keeper and big, fancy box of Crayolas with a built-in sharpener were my pride and joy.

While some kids might have resented working in their family’s business, I never really thought twice about it. For me, it was a fun way to spend time with my grandma. There was also the side benefit of being able to talk and talk and talk with goodness only knows how many people. That was nice.

Plus, without even realizing it, it was a lesson in how important a grocery store can be to a community. The town in which Grandma Mary Lou lives isn’t that big and a lot of folks live out in the country on their farms and ranches. Coming into town to go grocery shopping was a big commitment. I know. When I was little, I lived with my family out on our farm, which was about 20 or 30 minutes outside of town. In an area like that, Grandma Mary Lou’s store was a place where people would run into one another, visit for a bit and share news and gossip.

Grandma Mary Lou sold the store quite some time ago. The first time I went to the store with her after the sale was weird. I wasn’t allowed to go in the back or behind the deli counter. I sure as heck couldn't get an ice cream out of the freezer for free either.

One thing hasn’t changed much though. Folks still have to go to the grocery store and you’re sure to run into folks you know while you’re there – even if you’re like me and you only get back to visit and share news and gossip just every once in a while.

(Note: I published this Aug. 30 originally, but edited it a bit on Sept. 1.)