Go Ahead… “Spoil” Your Appetite

If you like avoiding cooking as much as I do, the best thing to do is make the meals you cook last as long as possible.The best way to do that is to spoil your appetite… with vegetables.

Yep. I’m talking about intentionally gobbling up that green stuff most humans seem to have a natural aversion to. I can feel your horror growing from here.

To illustrate my point, let’s head back to your childhood. Why didn’t your mom ever let you eat cookies before dinner? It’s because she wanted you to fill up on real food, not sugar. If she let you eat cookies before dinner, not only would you be too full to eat a meal full of nutrients for a growing kid, but she’d have a sugar high child bouncing off the walls come bedtime.

Now that you’re a fully grown and “responsible” adult, it’s time to start putting that practice back into your life but with a twist; if not for your health, then for the sake of not having to cook more often than is necessary. If all you’re eating for dinner is pizza, you’re going to eat a lot of pizza. But, if you eat a serving of baby carrots before you start in on your pizza, you’ll having an extra slice or two left over for dinner tomorrow instead needing to find something new to eat.

Here’s some more great news: there’s plenty of raw vegetables you can eat (baby carrots, broccoli sticks, celery, etc), but the cooked kind are microwaveable. You can find them at any Grocery store; the store brand, The Green Giant, Bird’s Eye, and more. They come in these awesome plastic bags that you throw in the microwave to get fully cooked vegetables on the other side. Sure, you might have to throw some butter in the bag to add flavor, but is that really so much to ask?

For the record, I recommend eating the vegetables first, before the rest of your entree. Get the healthy and somewhat less tasty part of your meal out of the way and then feast on the good stuff. Your main food will actually feel like a treat now because it’s not vegetables.

Vegetables aren’t that bad. I promise. They’ll help you be a healthier person, and they’ll keep the cooking at bay for another day or two. If that’s not enough to get you eating plants, I don’t know what is.

One Onion Too Many?

Every once in a while, a recipe will call for half a cup of chopped onions and you may accidentally end up chopping 2 cups like I did last weekend. Maybe you won’t. If you do, though, I have good news for you.

  1. You haven’t wasted the onions. Onions keep for 7 – 10 days at a temperature of 40 degrees or below, which means you don’t have to throw them out and waste the money and time it took to buy and chop the onion. I’m citing the National Onion Association (http://www.onions-usa.org/faqs) on this who cites the USDA, which means this information is completely legit.
  2. The decision about what you’re making for dinner next has become infinitely easier. If you have a go to recipe that requires onions, you now know what you’re making for dinner next. If you don’t have a go to recipe, I have a suggestion for you.

And in other news, there’s a National Onion Association.

As Not Seen on Pinterest: Grandma C’s Casserole

Citizens: today I bring to you a recipe that I haven’t yet seen on Pinterest. This is a recipe my mom learned from her surrogate grandma. It is a classic comfort food, very yummy, contains no healthiness whatsoever, and was a staple of my childhood. Best of all, it’s really easy to make.

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I’m new to the art of taking food pictures, so trust me when I say this casserole tastes much better than it looks.
For this recipe you will need the following things:

  • 1 can of Cream of Chicken
  • 1 can of Cream of Mushroom
  • 1 c sour cream
  • 1 bag of egg noodles
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 large diced onion
  • Ritz crackers
  • 1 oven that heats to 350 degrees
  • 1 13 x 9 pan
  • Spoons and spatulas for stirring

First thing’s first: preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Now for the food. To start, dice your onion. Then, brown your meat with your onion. Okay? Brown the meat with the onion. I skipped that step… which is why the subsequent pictures on this post don’t completely match up with the words of the steps. If you forget to brown the meat without the onion and instead add in the onion later, it’s okay. The dish will still taste fine, but it’ll taste a little bit better if you cook the two together.

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You know… just going for that artsy meat angle.
Once the meat and onions are cooked, dump both into your 13 x 9 pan along with the cans of cream of mushroom and cream of chicken.

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I’d like to stress again that these onions were supposed to be cooked with the meat…
Then, add in your egg noodles and mix everything together. This can get a bit messy… various noodles with cream of chicken goop may land on the pan edges or completely outside of the pan as you mix. Be sure to wipe the edges of the pan with a wet paper towel to avoid the excess on the pan turning into those burned bits that can be really hard to wash off.

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When you’ve mixed everything thoroughly, stick the pan in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes. Once it’s finished, you have the option to crumple up Ritz crackers and sprinkle them on the top of your dish. That is… if you didn’t eat them all while you were cooking.

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I snacked through half a roll of Ritz crackers while making this dish.
The finished dish should look like this:

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Yep, there are some burned noodles in there. I’m still working on this cooking thing.
and it should taste like heaven. I’m kidding… but it should taste pretty good.

Puree & Not So Simple

Through personal experience, it has become clear that the likelihood I don’t know how to do something is directly correlated to how French-sounding the word is. In keeping with this pattern, when I came across the word “puree” in my most recent recipe-to-try, I had no clue how to puree anything or what puree was.

Puree is defined as mashed fruits or vegetables (think baby food). This sounds simple enough. It certainly looks simple enough; a picture of puree looks like a toddler went to town on a tomato with a baseball bat (see? baby food).

Now, puree’s level of ease is dependent on whether you own a food processor. If you have a food processor, puree is very easy. If you don’t have one, it’s less easy. I don’t have a food processor but I do have Google, which has some of its own ideas about getting around the food processor as you can see here.

For this method, all you need to do is boil the vegetable you wish to puree and then push it through a sieve (these French terms are everywhere. Did the French invent cooking? Am the only person who didn’t know?). From my understanding a sieve is a glorified strainer, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that.

The recipe I made in conjunction with this method(One Pot Roasted Red Pepper and Sausage Alfredo) needed to puree the roasted red peppers that filled this jar before I took this picture.

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I ended up with this much puree, and that took A LOT or work.

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My working theory is that most of the red peppers evaporated during the boiling process when I wasn’t looking, but that’s unconfirmed.

After 7 minutes of pushing boiled roasted red peppers through my sieve, about ⅛ a teaspoon of puree had accumulated in the bowl under my strainer. It turns out puree likes to stick to the bottom of the strainer instead of falling into the bowl (come on gravity… help a girl out). If you try this version of pureeing, please be careful when you’re scraping puree off the strainer. My attempt landed the puree on the counter directly adjacent to the gaping opening of the bowl, and that’s just frustrating.

It’s also good to know that you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.

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You can try to pushing roasted red peppers through the strainer with a spoon. Be forewarned, though, that will stop working once the strainer gets clogged up with pepper skin and the occasional seed. After that, the peppers just have a great time moving around the strainer instead of through whenever you apply pressure with a spoon.

I recommend the tried and true “cave-man” technique. Ditch the spoon and use your hands. It won’t look pretty…

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…but it does the job. Or, you could buy a food processor. At this point I strongly suspect buying a food processor would have been worth it in time saved alone. Sometimes it pays to buy the tools rather than trying to outwit the man.

How to Cook Less: The Case For Leftovers

Leftovers

I love leftovers, but some people aren’t big proponents. My siblings, for instance, are anti-leftover. At home I open the fridge to see all these amazing leftovers from my mom’s cooking while my brothers and sister lament the lack of food to eat in the background. Excuse me dear sibs, but there’s an abundance of delicious and gloriously edible sustenance staring you in the face every time the you open the refrigerator. You know… right there among the mountains of clear tupperware containing FOOD.

It was around 7 or 8 that I first became enemies with cooking. My mom forced me to attempt making food, which went very badly. I swore off cooking, but this left me with a big problem. My mom made me cook in preparation for when I’d be in charge of cooking for myself. If I hated making food and couldn’t make food, how was I going to eat?

Around this time, my mom started making me microwave my own leftovers instead of doing it for me, and it made me realize something. With microwaving, all I had to do was throw cold food on a plate, put it in the microwave, and not burn it. If I did all those things successfully, I could have food. WITHOUT cooking.

Since that day I’ve been an active proponent of leftovers. My attempts to convert my siblings by expounding the delightful virtues of leftovers have been unsuccessful, but I hope I’m doing a good job of convincing you.

Most weeks I make a big meal on the weekends and eat it for dinner throughout the weekdays. This ensures I never have to cook after work, which means I have more time to do things I like or to relax. It also ensures I avoid fast food. By providing myself with an equally fast option (the microwave) I don’t have to worry about accidentally spending $8 a day on fast food or acquiring the “benefits” that come with eating take out every day of the week. I’d absolutely recommend giving it a try. Even if the leftovers only give you a day off cooking during the week, it’s totally worth it.

How to Cook Less: The Glorious Crock-Pot

For those of you who don’t already know, crock-pots are the holy grail of cooking gadgets. Why? Because crock-pots (aka slow cookers) are basically glorified microwaves that make much better food.

You’re a fan of microwaves, right? Throw cold food inside, set the timer, and get a steaming hot meal back in minutes- minimal effort, maximum results.

The main difference between a crock-pot and a microwave is potential food prep required (vegetables that need dicing, etc.) before tossing things in, and the increments of time in which the cooking is done. Crock-pots need hours in contrast to microwave’s minutes, but the lack of speed is more than made up for with taste.

Trust me on that. I tried to avoid learning to cook by living off microwaveable food . Not cooking was fun, but at some point, the ease of microwaving could no longer mask the taste of Lean Cuisines or P.F. Chang’s Chicken Fried Rice. I began longing for real food that didn’t taste faintly of odd chemicals and a meal that could actually make me feel full.

Enter the crock-pot. I was wary of crock-pots for a long time. For some reason, I assumed they all cost $60 and up (some do, but you don’t need to buy those), and they seemed too good to be true. Cooking had always been a trial to overcome, so to hear that I could throw things in a pot, ignore them for a couple hours, and get real food out of it had me suspicious. The last time I threw ingredients in a pot and got a meal out of it was when I used the pretend kind while cooking in my childhood in my Little Tikes kitchen.

Luckily I overcame my wariness, bought a 8 quart Hamilton Beach Slow Cooker for $39 at Target, and became a convert with my first meal. Crock-pots are amazing, and they make cooking infinitely easier. If you don’t believe me, get on Pinterest. Pinterest loves crock-pots too, and Pinterest is never wrong.

The Story of How Being Healthy Ruined My Dinner

Ground Turkey

When it first became clear that microwaveable food was not a viable long term solution to cooking, I decided to try making only healthy meals. So, when the recipe I found on Pinterest for dinner one evening suggested substituting ground turkey for ground beef , I jumped right on it. The recipe is called Healthy Taco Salad and I could make it even healthier just by switching the meat.

I kept congratulating myself for my plans to make healthy taco salad with ground turkey throughout the day. Yes sir. I felt others would want to congratulate my big health initiative too, but I spared my friends the inconsequential big news.

Unable to keep it completely inside, I did “casually” mention my substitution during a pre-cooking conversation with my mom. I expected some approval, and maybe a compliment, when I brought it up. Naturally, the foreboding mom-tone of caution accompanying her warning to MAKE SURE I absolutely had the meat cooked all the way through before consumption set off my paranoia. She didn’t get into any specifics, but my brain didn’t need them. It filled in the blanks with quickly, interpreting her advice as a warning that some dastardly strain of bacteria or life-debilitating disease would be the consequence of less-than-perfectly cooked meat.

Feeling wary but knowing I had no other options for dinner, I looked to the instructions on the meat packaging for guidance. There it stated the ground turkey needed to reach a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before consumption. This was extremely unhelpful as I didn’t have a meat thermometer and certainly wouldn’t be going out to buy one (I’m trying to save money here).

Instead, as I punctured the plastic wrapping of the package and wiggled the ground turkey into my frying pan, I planned to “sense” when the meat was cooked thoroughly. Somehow, I got it in my head that meat gives off some sort of vibe at 165 degrees Fahrenheit that I would be able to pick up on. It remains unclear how I came to this conclusion.

As soon as cooking got underway, rational thought filtered back in to remind me I would not in fact be able to “sense” anything, but it was too late to turn back. Things were sizzling and browning and you don’t put half cooked meat on hold to go buy a meat thermometer.

Throughout the browning process, concern for my life kept me second-guessing whether the meat was finished. I’d firmly grasp the rubber pan handle in preparation to pull the pan off the burner, only to picture myself in the hospital, hooked up to breathing tubes with some irreversible turkey-related malady. That’s when I’d think to myself, “Better give it another minute or two.”

As I continued to keep giving the meat “another minute or two” the meat pushed around by my spatula started to sound a lot like pebbles scraping across cement. This seemed like a trustworthy enough indicator that the ground turkey no longer threatened my health.

The resulting meat was edible, but only for somebody who really doesn’t want to throw out a meal that took hours of shopping and cooking to make (that’s me). Half the turkey meat had the consistency of gravel. The other half had more of a chewy tough texture. We won’t get into the taste. Suffice to say, adding in the rest of the traditional taco ingredients was key in stomaching my meals that week.

But- I never went to the hospital, never got hooked up to any breathing tubes, and to my knowledge, never acquired any turkey-related parasites. In my kitchen, that’s a success.

A Most Unwanted Promotion

THE HARDEST

In the last couple years, I’ve made two very big mistakes. In 2013 I graduated from college. In the fall of that same year, I moved out of state.

Depending on how you view these things, graduation and moving out of my parents’ home may not seem like mistakes. Now, try looking at it through the eyes of a cooking failure. What do college and living at home have in common? Easily accessible food cooked daily by people (be it cafeteria workers or my mom) who aren’t me. Leaving both sources of food meant I was now in charge of the meals. Here are a few things to know about me to explain why this was a bit of a waking nightmare:

  1. My legacy in the kitchen is that of grandiose culinary disasters and a persistent inability to understand the basics of cooking. Case in point, the sugar-salt confusion of ’98 involving a triple-batch of chocolate chip cookies salty enough to cause dehydration.
  2. Out of respect for said legacy and my shortcomings in the kitchen, I have avoided all cooking and baking. The occasional Thanksgiving dish forced by my mother or weirdly optimistic personal attempt at boxed brownies is the most food experience I’ve gotten in the last several years.
  3. I love to eat. I am a fan of food. I’m hungry often.

Graduation and moving landed me the role of head chef. And it was a problem. I had taken care of everything I needed for the move, but it wasn’t until I stood in my new kitchen staring at white cabinets, an empty refrigerator, and an old school oven that I realized I’d overlooked how I was going to feed myself.

And so, after a month or two of denial (during which I subsisted off frozen dinners, cereal, PB&J, and fast food), my cooking journey began. Unsurprisingly, plenty of things went wrong.

As making food properly is something that apparently takes time to learn, plenty of things are still going wrong. I decided to write about them as a tribute to the struggle in my life that is cooking and the potential progress I make. I have hopes to one day be a much better, more confident cook who can laugh at these mistakes in hindsight as a culinary master… or something like that. Until then, I’ll keep at it in the kitchen, and we’ll see how it goes.