Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Cabinet That Physics Forgot

There's really no other explanation for it. I don't see how all the stuff I squished into that cabinet stayed there without raining (too much) on me every time I opened the door.

Then, when I visited my sister in the Fall, I was making dinner and asked where she kept her Crockpot. "In the garage, where else?" she laughed. And sure enough, her don't-use-it-everyday stuff was neatly stacked in a cabinet in the garage - accessible, but not in the way of the used-regularly skillet and casserole dish. BRILLIANT.

This is short because, y'all, it has Been A Week. Work. Funeral (far, far too young). A cold that won't go away. You know how it is.

So in a nutshell, here's the 3-weeks-or-so process it took to streamline my kitchen so that I can fly through dinner prep. Undoubtedly someone could knock this out in a day or two if they had a lot of time to focus on it, but the 3-week process worked just fine for me.

1. I cleared a shelf in the basement and relocated some rarely-used, but necessary, items from the kitchen to nicely labelled storage boxes downstairs. Specifically - my canning equipment, roasting pan, deviled egg plate, cupcake tin, chip & dip plate, big wooden salad bowl, and a specialty cake pan or two. Key - if it has dust on it, you probably don't use it enough to justify the kitchen real estate.

And there's really no go-to list for this. I have two Dutch ovens and truly use both of them a lot. Not everyone does.

2. Sometimes more is more. If you are washing something multiple times midpoint through a recipe, perhaps you need more than one. My baking goes faster now that we have two good sets of measuring cups and two sets of measuring spoons.

3. Sometimes less is more. If you have 3 soup ladles, and you never make 3 kinds of soup at the same time, keep your favorite and let the rest go.

4. Repurpose. When I moved all the canning equipment to the basement Sweetie went nuts trying to find the funnel. It turns out the widemouth funnel I use for canning was also the perfect size to funnel coffee beans into the grinder. Since it had a regular use I didn't know about, we brought it back upstairs.

5. Bins! Plastic or vinyl-coated wire bins! Fabulous, and cheap! I have a long, narrow cabinet next to the stove and keep grains/rice/pasta in there. And OY, what a pain to have to pull everything out piece by piece (some of it falling of its own accord) to get to what I needed or even see what I had.

What took me so long to figure out that putting the different kinds of rice, biryani packets, box of cous cous, etc. in one of these $5 babies would make such a difference?

And when I had a side-by-side fridge, this (probably $10) was a LIFESAVER - it was sooooo much easier to pull the basket out of the freezer and sort through it on the counter than to remain crouched and frozen, pulling one item out at a time and hoping it would all fit back on the shelf when I was done... We've since sold the old refrigerator but I kept the basket for the new freezer.

Note - write down the measurements of your cabinet/shelf/freezer before you go. A bin 10 inches wide is no help for an 8-inch-wide cabinet.

6. What's it really worth? I am fortunate to come from a family of excellent cooks. And my roasting pan and some other equipment previously belonged to one grandmother or another.

And you know what? To them, it was just kitchen stuff. Not heirlooms, not the souls of their being, not a key piece of their identity. I nearly had a breakdown when I was trying to make some room in the kitchen and couldn't come up with any reason to keep the old handled eggbeater except it was Grandma's. Mind you, I had never used the eggbeater in the 8 - 10 years it had been in my possession.

Realistically - did my grandmother ever gaze fondly at her eggbeater, or vegetable peeler, or Pyrex pie plate (which, actually, I have and use) - and wonder who would care for these treasures when she was gone? Not my practical Grandma, I'm certain. Her heirloom china is beautifully displayed in our china cabinet, but the eggbeater has gone on to grace a stranger's kitchen. Ultimately, she would not want me to live my life surrounded by stuff that gets in my way and keeps me from doing what I want to do. For all I know, she hated that eggbeater and always meant to replace it.

More recipes coming soon!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I Need Maple Syrup, Not This Pomegrante-Infused Pancake Topping With Vanilla Essence

Sweetie and I frequently have about 15 minutes to sit down and eat together during the week, and sometimes the only reason we even have that is because we decide we'd rather eat together at 8:30 than separately when real people eat dinner. And by "eat dinner", I sometimes mean "slap a piece of turkey between two pieces of mustard-slathered bread and say a blessing over it."

And I have yet to meet any real-life June Cleaver who makes a meat & three from scratch I have and use an apron, but that's really where the commonalities end. Most of us on most days are just doing the best we can!

There are ways, though, to streamline this process so that, with catlike agility, you can whip through your kitchen and break your "Nothin' to Somethin'" personal best time for getting food on the table. Make that getting food on plates on the table.

The first step (we'll do two or three more) is this: get a garbage bag. One pantry/drawer/cabinet/whatever at a time, pull out ALL the food and check the expiration dates.

Much like 12-steppers need to get deeply, painfully honest with themselves (OK, maybe not quite that intense... for some people) it's time to shine the flashlight on yourself and ask The Hard Questions. Namely, this expired when??? and why the hell is it still in my possession, shouldn't it have run away on its own by now?

I thought I was pretty familiar with the stuff in my cabinets. And I was, because some of it and I had quite a long time to get to know one another. I mean the bulgur wheat that was packaged in 200... this hurts.... 2006. Fare thee well. The shiitake mushroom broth that sounded so cool and I never had any idea what to do with it (keep your ideas to yourself, I've Hefty'd the dream). The blanched almonds that made a perfect snack that one time with the dried cherries (also still on the spinaround).

And now that it's all gone, I can - dare I say it? - find the salt. And the peppercorns and the canned tomatoes and the jelly. So when I race in the door and leash up the dogs and run back home to start dinner, I don't waste time anymore plowing through the useless and expired and the highly specialized in order to get to the Jiffy cornbread mix. It's right there.

Next time - What To Do With Aunt Louise's Tupperware Circa 1974

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Judgey McJudgerson, Table of One

So here's how it went down.

Earlier this week Sweetie gave me the wonderful gift of taking care of the dogs after work, which allowed me to go straight from the train station to the gym. This is key, because more often than I like, going home = staying home, regardless of my intentions. I survived the ass-kicking Fat Burner program on the stair stepper, did my weights, and a little more cardio.

As I was leaving I was accosted by a salesperson by the front desk. "You're not really going to go home and cook, are you?" she said. Uh, yes. I'm hungry.

"It takes so long," she said. "You can eat really well without having to do so much work."

She was selling pre-packaged, healthy meals. I told her the sample smelled great, but I really do cook and chop actual vegetables. Long story short, she has met judgey People Who Cook before. She waited for me to tell her that the devil himself lives in freezable trays, that the American way of life depends on boiling your own pasta, and that Big Food could not be allowed to win the hearts and minds of Atlanta families.


Broccoli is broccoli is broccoli. And whether you chop it with your own knife or some machine cuts it and seals it in a baggie, it's still 1,000 times healthier for you than French fries. And if someone is depending on pre-packaged food because she works full-time and goes to school part-time and tries to spend her remaining time with her kids, what's with the judgey?

For the record, she made me curious about how much time I spend chopping vegetables. I decided to have Kitchen Sink Pasta for dinner (whatever pasta-friendly veggies I have in the fridge, pasta, and a smidge of cheese on top). To hack up one dinner's worth of yellow crookneck squash, tomato, red pepper, and broccoli took 4 minutes. That includes the time peeling and squooshing the garlic clove... for whatever that's worth.

And in fact, I'm kinda being one of those could-be-slackers right now. I've been sick for 3 days - out of the past 48 hours, I think I've slept for 40. I had planned to make a Red Velvet Cake for our Valentine's Day dessert - it was our wedding cake. But then the whole sleeping thing and, well, no cake. So then I was going to run out to Whole Foods and buy a few slices, and even that is beyond me at the moment. I love to cook and truly see value beyond price and nutrition in preparing my own meals, but the last thing I'm going to do is get all cookier-than-thou about someone who's too sick, too tired, too bad of a cook to do it all from scratch everyday. Isn't life too short?

So in honor of my Valentine I am pulling it together long enough to get one of his favorite meals on the table - Chicken Parmesan. In this case it would actually be more work for me to drive to the store and buy a jar of prepared spaghetti sauce than to use what's onhand at home. I smooshed two cloves of garlic into a little olive oil, opened a can of San Marzano tomatoes, and pulled a dollop or two of tomato paste* out of the freezer. Then I sat down and waited for the Magic of Heat to turn it into sauce. When it's cooked down a little I'll add some oregano and basil. Done.

I line this up assembly-line style on the counter - chicken on the left, then a dish with the beaten egg, then a dish with the bread crumbs, then the skillet.

The breadcrumbs, by the way, are from the Honey-Oat Bread I made a few weeks ago. Making homemade bread is WAY too much work to just toss the bread when I was tired of it, so not wanting to waste all that effort I sliced it, dried it in the oven, and ran it through the blender to make breadcrumbs, which I keep in the freezer. And there's nothing in the world like real breadcrumbs to inexpensively bring the dish up to the next level.

*I never, ever use a full can of tomato paste for anything. Get out some waxed paper, put 1-tablespoon-sized dollops of paste on the paper, and freeze. The next time you need tomato paste just get whatever you need out of the freezer.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Chicken Parmesan
Healthy Chicken - Barbara Chernetz

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1 large egg
1/2 cup plain dry breadcrumbs (OR crushed gluten-free corn flakes)
2 cups spaghetti or pasta sauce
4 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, sliced (or shredded, it doesn't matter)
1 TBSP grated Parmesan cheese (if you can, do real Parmesan and not the green can)

1. Place each piece of chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap. Pound gently to flatten each piece to an even 1/4-inch thickness. (Note - I used what I had onhand, which was chicken tenders).

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a shallow bowl, beat the egg with 1 TBSP water. Place the breadcrumbs on a flat plate.

3. Dip each chicken piece into the egg mixture, then in the bread crumbs to coat.

4. Coat a large nonstick skillet with vegetable cooking spray and heat over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning once, until browned, 5 to 7 minutes.

5. Spread 1 cup of the spaghetti sauce over the bottom of a 9-inch square baking pan (I just use whatever baking dish is handy). Place the chicken on the sauce, then top with the mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top. Bake until the dish is hot and bubbly and the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cake - It's Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

As Bill Cosby said, "My kids wanted chocolate cake for breakfast. And I thought, well, it has wheat, eggs, and milk. That's breakfast!"

A wise man, that Cosby.

There has been one and only one time that I picked up a cooking magazine in a grocery store and immediately flipped to the recipe and bought the ingredients I needed. Cooking Light's Blueberry Poundcake looked so fresh, so yummy-all-day, so perfect on the cover that I just had to make it as soon as I got home. Trust me, even for someone as cooking-obsessed as me, that's a rare moment.

The cake lived up to its promise and has become something of my signature recipe. I've brought this cake on vacation to Tybee Island, to office meetings, to a baby shower brunch, for a birthday gift, to Sunday School, you name it. Looking at that list, I hadn't realized it's quite the travelling companion. It's also a happy coincidence that my father-in-law adores blueberries, so I make this for his birthday every year. I mean, how lucky is it that my go-to recipe happens to feature his favorite food??

When this recipe was published in 1998 it was fairly easy to find 8-ounce containers of lemon yogurt. At least in my neck of the woods, that's no longer the case. You can safely substitute vanilla yogurt or boldly substitute peach yogurt (not the fruit-on-the-bottom kind). Frozen blueberries work beautifully in this cake - and amen for that, because fresh berries get ridiculously pricey. I also love that this recipe uses eggs and not "egg product." Eggs I'm familiar with and always have in the house... egg product, not so much.


Cooking Light

2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light butter
1/2 (8-ounce) block 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened - this is usually labeled "Neufachtel"
3 large eggs
1 large egg white
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (8-ounce) carton lemon low-fat yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Cooking spray
1/2 cup powdered sugar
4 teaspoons lemon juice

About an hour before making the cake, take the 1/2 block of cream cheese, yogurt, and the butter out of the fridge to let them warm to room temperature. They'll incorporate into the batter much better that way.

While you're at it, if you're using frozen berries pour them into a colander so that they can thaw and drain. REMEMBER THAT BLUEBERRIES STAIN. If you have a white enamel sink try putting the colander in a metal bowl to catch the juice.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Beat first sugar, butter, and cream cheese at medium speed of a mixer until well-blended (about 5 minutes).

Add eggs and egg white, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine 2 tablespoons flour and blueberries in a small bowl, and toss well. [Note: dusting the blueberries with flour helps them disperse through the cake. If you skip this step the blueberries will all sink to the bottom]

Combine remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture alternately with yogurt, beginning and ending with flour mixture.

Fold in blueberry mixture and vanilla; pour cake batter into a 10-inch tube pan coated with cooking spray.

Bake at 350° for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool cake in pan 10 minutes; remove from pan. Combine powdered sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl; drizzle over warm cake. [Note: I consider this optional. I'm sure it's terrific, I've just never bothered with it]

Cut with a serrated knife.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"I want the burger, but I want it without the bun and with organic lettuce and hold the onions, unless they're grilled..."

ONE. You may make ONE restaurant menu substitution without risk of spit in your food.

And at home, you can do whatever the heck you want. I make a pretty big substitution - beef instead of chicken or turkey - routinely, since Sweetie eats red meat and I don't. So sometimes we have one skillet with ground taco turkey meat and another with ground bison taco meat, and so on.

This substitution was super-easy. While taking the train to work last week, I was sitting next to the Unabomber (seats were sparse) and reading the current Better Homes and Gardens. This recipe jumped out at me, even with the dreaded stinky cheese. But waitress? Um, me? Serve stinky bleu cheese on one, and feta on the other, and we're home free. While I'm not a huge fan of pears, I don't mind them and they work in this recipe. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this comes together quickly enough for a weeknight.

Better Homes and Gardens, February 2009

2 turkey breast tenderloins (1 to 1.25 pounds)
1 tsp dried sage
Salt and pepper
2 TBSP butter
1 6-ounce package fresh baby spinach
1 large pear, cored and thinly sliced
1/4 cup crumbled nasty stinky bleu cheese, OR feta cheese (that's kind of a lot - you can probably get by with less)

1. Horizontally split tenderloins to make 4 1/2-inch-thick steaks. Rub turkey with sage; sprinkle with salt and pepper (note: I sprinkled my turkey with sage and it was fine. I'm always washing - boiling, really - my hands a dozen times when I work with raw poultry and I needed to save a washing by doing the sprinkle).

2. In an extra-large skillet cook steaks in 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat 14 to 16 minutes, or until no longer pink (170 degrees), turning once. Reduce heat to medium if turkey browns too quickly).

3. Remove from skillet. Add spinach to skillet. Cook and stir until just wilted.

4. Meanwhile, in a small skillet, cook pear slices in remaining 1 TBSP butter over medium to edium-high heat, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes or until tender and lightly browned.

5. Serve steaks with spinach and pears. Top with cheese.