How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Making Lentil Chili

A friend of mine recently hosted a large number of her relatives at her place thanks to a death in the family. So to help her out, I sent over some lentil chili. It’s a dish I make fairly often. It’s hearty, healthy (for the most part) and it tastes really good. Plus I often make it vegan for those folks of that persuasion.

Apparently, my friend’s relatives really loved it and she asked me to get the recipe for them. Um. Oops.

That is the downside to not cooking with recipes. Sometimes, folks want to know how you made something and it can be tough explaining it. That’s assuming I remember. The other downside to not cooking with recipes.

Oddly enough, my lentil chili did begin with another recipe, in this case, a copycat recipe for canned chili, such as Dennison’s or Hormel. I’d had a yen for some and when the copycat recipe came pretty durned close, I analyzed it. According to the person who posted that recipe, what made the chile taste the most like the canned stuff was Fritos corn chips. I looked at the ingredients on the corn chip bag and there were only three: corn meal, salt, and safflower oil. So I tried the recipe again, adding corn meal. Not even close. Turns out, it was the salt that made the copycat work. There’s a boatload of salt in Fritos, which makes you wonder just how much there is in canned chili.

So I started wondering how I could make a similar version that would be healthier and come up with the idea of adding mushrooms (for meatiness) and collard greens (for the health benefits) to lentils, which cook quickly and are pretty good protein-wise. I added mostly the same spices and came up with my lentil chili.

It’s a pretty straightforward process. Chop half an onion, then get your collards and mushrooms chopped. Instead of the collards, you can use any leafy green you like (or don’t like – the good thing about this chili is that it hides the nasty flavor of kale).

Add some oil to a saucepan, and get the onions cooking until translucent. About this time, you add the chopped greens and mushrooms. Then you want to add one to two tablespoons of a chili powder you like, about a teaspoon of garlic powder, another half to full tablespoon of ground cumin, plenty of salt, and some pepper.


Get it all stirred up, then add the lentils. I’ll sometimes add a pat of butter or two if it’s only going to be me and the Beloved Spouse eating it. Butter makes it not vegan, so leave it out if you’re feeding any. Give the lentils a good stir, then add a couple cups or so of water to the pot and bring it to a boil. Don’t worry about it not being thick enough at this stage. The lentils will thicken the chili as they cook, which takes about fifteen to twenty minutes at a soft boil. I’m about to add the second part of what makes this taste so good.

Yep. That’s corn meal. Once the lentils are almost cooked, I start sprinkling in corn meal by the handfuls.

You can sort of see it above. The idea is to keep stirring as you do so that the corn meal doesn’t lump up, but thickens the chili up evenly. Not thick enough, stir in more corn meal. Too thick? Add a little bit of water and stir. Give it a taste before you serve it and see if it needs any extra spice or salt. And that’s pretty much it.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

I Have a Lot of Cookbooks

cookbooks, cooking, eatingEvery time I want to get a new cookbook, I can almost always predict my husband’s response: “You don’t use the cookbooks you have.”

Yes, I do. I use them all the time to get ideas and to learn new techniques.

And my husband does have a point when he reminds me that I don’t follow recipes. Of course, I don’t, at least, not in the heat of getting dinner on the table night after night. I don’t have time to start and stop as I check amounts, measure out and otherwise make sure I’m doing what the writer intended. Not to mention, there are plenty of times when I don’t care what the writer intended, I want something that’s a little different.

That doesn’t mean I don’t learn from cookbooks or that I don’t enjoy having them. Which is why I have quite a few. Some are old classics that I stole from my mother. (Yeah, Mom, that’s what happened to your copy of The Joy of Cooking.) Others are books that I’ve either picked up through the years or received as swag from various TV networks, back when I was doing the TV critic thing. Some I’ve even bought.

Dring my Thanksgiving vacation, while I and my folks  waiting for our lunch reservation, we were hanging out a bookstore. I found a new cookbook on sale. I talked my husband into buying it by making a new suggestion. Each week, we would choose a cookbook off the shelf and cook one or two recipes from it.

This is more hobby cooking – stuff we do for the fun of it. But the results have been very good. I’m also taking notes – something I’m not generally good at. The bottom line is that my husband and I are having fun. And we’re getting new ideas and trying new foods. Can’t do worse than that.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Six Reasons For Cooking Your Own Meals

cooking your own meals, cooking for yourself, how to cookA few weeks ago, I got a flyer in the mail for a home meal delivery service. This seems to be the new big thing. Either you get your meals already made and ready to heat. Or you can get all the ingredients for a meal and cook it yourself. It seems like between services, restaurants, and supermarket pre-made items, there’s no point in cooking your own meals.

The advantages of these services are pretty clear. There’s less time hassling it out at the supermarket. Less time actually having to plan and cook. Less clean up. The service that I just mentioned even sent the meals in compostable containers to minimize the trash.

So I signed up. I’m no fan of cooking, any excuse to get someone else to do it for me will do. I abandoned the service after two months and, I think, five meals. I didn’t use it. Part of that is my very strong cheap streak. The prices weren’t that bad, but I could still do better on my own.

What really did the service in, though, was that I had to go on this rather restrictive elimination diet. No lactose, no gluten, and among the forbidden vegetables was onion. Onion is the base of just about every dish out there. I can cook my own food and use onion powder, which is allowed. But I’m pretty well out of luck when it comes to anything commercially prepared.

As it turns out, there are a lot more reasons for cooking your own meals than there aren’t. So here are a few of them.

Reasons for Cooking Your Own Meals:

1.) It’s healthier. Forget my crazy elimination diet. The more I eat out rather than cook my own, the more weight I gain. It’s that simple. Fats and high-calorie additives make food taste good. Restaurants, food services, and pre-fab commercial food producers can’t stay in business if their food doesn’t taste good. So guess what ends up in the food offered by these folks – fats and high-calorie additives. And if you do happen to be on some kind of restrictive diet for health reasons, say, you have to limit sodium or something else, that makes eating out insanely hard.

2.) You get a better variety of foods. Granted, there are a lot of options out there, but if you hook up with a service, you’re pretty much limited to what they feel like cooking and/or prepping for you. Also, depending on your personal palate, if there’s a hot new ingredient, you can bet everybody will use it and if you don’t like it, you’re stuck. I, for one, loathe cilantro, and everyone loves using it. Blech.

3.) It’s a lot cheaper to make your own. Well, not if you’re eating strictly fast food, but check out the film Super-Size Me to see what a disaster that is for your health. If you shop carefully, you can eat a lot more economically if you buy lots of fresh veggies, a minimum of meat, and even fewer pre-made food items. And see above about the whole health thing.

4.) You’re not as limited. I know, with bazillions of restaurants out there, that sounds a little silly. However, it’s more about being able to decide whether you want to eat out or just hang at home with some personal comfort food. If you don’t know how to cook, you can’t recreate your favorite childhood dish on your own. You can’t make something you really love that the restaurants just aren’t making because it’s not in style. You can when you are cooking your own meals.

5.) If you have a picky eater in your family, it’s a whole lot easier to get the young ‘un to try something new if the rule is eat what’s in front of you or don’t eat. Depending on the service, or if you get your food from restaurants, said young ‘un can simply eat only what he or she wants, also really bad for their health.

6.) Cooking your own meals can be fun. I do get tired of the cooking grind, but I also really enjoy cooking dinner with my husband. It’s a lot more relaxed way to get dinner on the table and helps us talk to each other. When my daughter was still living with us, our family night was all about the three of us making dinner together, which gave us lots to talk about, especially during those awkward teen years, and it was fun. It can also be fun just to create a dish out of your own imagination. Cooking can be very creative. And there’s just a good feeling knowing that you can take care of yourself.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Surviving the Grocery Store

grocery store, grocery shopping tipsWe have a grocery store near us that we absolutely love, yet we generally refer to it as The Gates of Hell. Why? This place is chronically crowded, and deservedly so. They have excellent prices. The produce is good and not the same old you find at other stores. Oh, and the service deli. I don’t even want to think about how many inches on my hips that deli is directly responsible for. Or, more accurately, waiting in the service deli for my number to be called because I always find something else to add to my order while waiting.

And, often, while waiting around for my number to be called (and it is always a wait), I am often reminded how most advice about grocery shopping is pretty lousy. They tell you things like don’t shop with your kids but don’t tell you who’s going to watch the squids while you’re at the store. Go when it’s not crowded, and yet, the whole reason stores get crowded is that most of us are at work when they’re not. And I love the idea of mapping your store so that you have your list items grouped by aisle. You may be that organized, and if you are, I salute you. I most certainly am not. Besides, I usually go to at least two different stores because not all of my stores have the same items at the right prices. That’s a lot of mapping and I do have better things to do.

But there are some things you can do to make life easier at the grocery store. Such as keeping a running list with you at all times. I use a grocery list app on my phone, which believe me, helps a lot. That way, when I see that I’m running low on granulated sugar, I just pull out my phone and quickly type it in, instead of trying to remember later that I need to add sugar to my list. I’ve also had a notepad with a magnet on the back stuck to my fridge so that I can list things as I see them running out, like crackers or Worcestershire sauce. With the app, I can also add toothpaste and shampoo because I have my phone in the bathroom, or in the bedroom, and don’t have to cross the house in a state of undress so that I can get those items on the list before I forget.

You may prefer adding your items to what mystery author Donna Andrews refers to as The Notebook That Tells Me When to Breathe, and I’m reasonably sure you have one. Most of us do. Whether we use it or not, well, that’s another issue. But the nice thing about putting your list in your Notebook That Tells Me When to Breathe is that notebook tends to be something we keep with us all the time. It’s always there. You can put your menu in it, too. I have my menu on my phone as a Google calendar. Again, it’s always with me because my phone is and when I’m shopping and think I’ve forgotten something or can’t remember why I put tater tots on my list, I can check my menu to find out.

The advice folks recommend a list to help you control spending – and that does help. However, a list saves me boodles of time. Why? I’m not running back to the store after forgetting some key item nearly as often as when I don’t keep my list up to date. I’ll still forget things sometimes. That’s why keeping the menu with me helps me remember that I do need pork chops after all.

My other cardinal rule is to eat before I get to the grocery store. This is one of those bits of advice that is not always practical. But if you’re trying to control your spending or your waistline, an empty tummy and lots of ready-made junk right in front of you, placed there on purpose so you’ll buy it, is not a good combination. Grab that protein bar out of your purse or the glove compartment and eat it before shopping.

I also make a habit of tracking my spending as I put items in my cart. I used to have to do this just to make sure I could afford everything. I still do it because I don’t want a lot of food going to waste, and if I did forget to eat, it helps keep me in check. If I’m conscious of how much I spending, it’s easier to stop and ask myself if I really need that stick of goat cheese.

Because sometimes, the answer is yes. Which is my final tip. Don’t forget to get a small treat for yourself, whether it’s indulging in a cranberry goat cheese log (thank you, Trader Joe’s) or a bar of chocolate to be broken up and parsed out over the next week or two. You remember stuff for your kids or for your spouse. Don’t forget yourself, even if it’s indulging in a trashy romance on your phone while you’re waiting in line. Or for your number to be called at the service deli.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Menu Planning Made Easy

menu planning, how to plan a menuIt’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking blog post, but I’m still very interested in teaching folks how to cook, rather than simply follow recipes. Which is why I’m looking at menu planning today.

Here’s the thing – there are lots of reasons not to cook for yourself. Certainly, there are tons of good services out there, some that won’t expand your waistline too badly. But there are more reasons to do the cooking yourself. You reduce waste, you keep better control of what goes into your food and, hence, onto your hips, it’s a great family activity. I could go on. But let’s assume that you’ve already decided that you need to cook more at home. Where and how to begin?

That’s where menu planning comes in. Having a plan makes it a lot easier to come home and start cooking, maybe after a short rest or other decompression ritual. On the other hand, if you come home at a dead heat and find that all you have in your fridge is a pound of frozen chicken breasts and no clue what you were going to do with them, then it’s all too easy to hit the drive-thru again. Also, if you have a plan and you forgot to get the chicken breasts out of the freezer, you can still cook because tomorrow night’s dinner is a salad and all you have to do is put the chicken breasts in the fridge, then make the salad, instead.

A menu plan, basically, plots out a week or more worth of dinners (and lunches and breakfasts, if you want to go that far), so that you can go to the grocery store once a week or so, instead of daily. You don’t need anything fancier than a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. I have used calendar pages in the past – they worked great. But now I use a Google calendar, which means I can look up what’s for dinner before I get home, or if I see something at the supermarket that might work well with what I’ve chosen for a dinner. There are apps that will help you with this but in my experience, they’re very tied to using recipes – which we are trying not to use here – and you have to game them to get a simple list of items you want to prepare. Seriously, you don’t need a recipe for a basic side salad, and if the app is going to insist that you use one, why mess with it?

Menu planning steps

It always helps to start menu planning by looking through your fridge and pantry to see what’s already there. I’ll often write down a list of which veggies didn’t get used up the week before, and maybe thumb through the freezer compartment to see what meats I’ve already got and need using. I also think about the rhythm and flow of my week. For example, in the picture below, you’ll note there are no entries for Tuesday and Thursday nights. We’re not going to be home those nights, so no point in planning a meal. (I also tend just to plan dinners, though I should plan lunches, as well). Sunday nights, I like to have something a little more special and since we have a tradition of the Mid-Week Break, Wednesday nights are generally going to be a bit more involved and/or special.

menu planning, how to plan a menu

Next step is figuring out what goes where. Now, if I’m using a piece of paper that doesn’t already have the days of the week on it, I write them in. Sundays also have the advantage of generally being more open time-wise, so I’ll often cook a roast or a whole chicken or something fairly large so that I can use the leftovers during the week. Usually, that’s just sandwiches or chicken salad, but that also means another meal on the menu that I can schedule and not think about. Or a couple lunches. Most meals in our household involve a protein and two vegetables (side salads count as one veggie). For example, if I’m making lentil chili, I’ll either count the lentils as a protein and/or add some cheese. Then I’ll chop up a veggie or two to cook as part of the chili. Or we’ll have a bit of roasted pork tenderloin, with broccoli and salad, and maybe some sweet potato oven fries as an extra treat. You’ll note protein does not necessarily mean meat. I’ll often use high-protein grains or legumes instead, and I don’t often combine meat with high-protein grains. It’s not necessary.

Now, if you’re not certain what you want to cook, you can look through your cookbooks or online for ideas. There’s nothing wrong with using recipes, especially if you’re new to cooking. Just be aware that it’s a lot easier for something to go awry, such as forgetting to put a key ingredient on the shopping list.

After that, it’s just a matter of plugging in what goes where. So, say that bit of roasted pork tenderloin is scheduled for Sunday. There will be leftovers, which can become Cuban sandwiches on Thursday, along with some coleslaw and green beans. We try to practice Meatless Mondays and also abstain from meat on Fridays, and it looks like the weather is going to be fairly warm Monday, so I’ll throw together a gazpacho for that night, and gee, grilled cheese sandwiches sound good for Friday, maybe with a cucumber salads, since I’m doing coleslaw the night before. That leaves Wednesday… Hmm. Haven’t done a chicken piccata in a while. That sounds yummy and with my beloved and I working together, not nearly as much trouble. That leaves Tuesday. We’ve done chicken and pork. Maybe a skillet lasagna, with spinach and chopped kale (the two veggies) for Tuesday. Boom. We’re done.

Now, all I have to do is look over my menu, figure out what I need to buy, put it all on the grocery list and go shopping. But that’s next month’s post.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Organizing Your Kitchen

kitchen organization, cooking, how to cookIt has been a while since I’ve done a Dark Side of the Fridge (how to cook) post. But I’m working on a whole new scheme to post regularly and…

I’ve got my fingers crossed, too.

In any case, if we are going to talk about learning to cook, rather than simply read recipes, then we’ve got to think about the space in which we do it. Okay, even if we mostly prepare recipes, how our kitchens are organized will have a massive impact on how easily things get done. Which if we’re not wild about cooking, in the first place, is not generally something we want to be thinking about, let alone spending money on.

But, but, but. A reasonably well-organized kitchen can make it a lot easier to get in and get out before you go nuts or die of hunger. Seriously. Some folks come to this conclusion quite naturally. Some folks ain’t me. I have to think about these things, such as realizing the reason the damn circuit breaker keeps blowing in the mornings is because the toaster oven and the coffee maker are on the same circuit and both draw a lot of power.

Now, the thing the so-called experts recommend is to look at your kitchen layout and imagine the Food Prep Triangle. That’s the triangle made by your fridge (where most of your food is kept), your sink, and your stove. You want to line things up so that they’re included in this magic triangle to reduce steps. Sounds really nice and can help get you started thinking about how you move in your kitchen. But it doesn’t always take into account how kitchens are really laid out. Or that maybe it makes more sense for your pantry items to be in the pantry, which is just outside of your kitchen. Or that, as the diagram of my kitchen shows, the stove needs to be in the far corner because there are a bunch of kitchen cabinets in positions 1 through 6 and the port for the gas line is in that far corner. Or that directly across the kitchen from the door to the dining room is the door to the utility room and pantry and the back door to the house.

Movement in my kitchen is profoundly affected by that back door because we have to go through the kitchen to let the dogs out, get the laundry hung out on the line, hang out in the back yard, things like that.

The fridge is in the opposite corner because there’s nowhere else to put it.

That being said, even with the supposedly bad layout, my kitchen is pretty darned efficient. Why? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where and when I use things and putting the appropriate tools and/or dishes near those locations. For example, I have a stand-up mixer which I keep on my counter at position 5. All my baking ingredients are in the cupboard underneath. My pots and pans are on the baker’s rack next to the stove. My dinner dishes are in the top cupboard at position 1, where I can grab them and head straight to the dining room, where I will use them.

Not everything is perfectly placed. I had to put the toaster oven on a different circuit and that ended up being on the counter at position 1 because the coffee maker, at position 4, is next to where the water for it is. But most things are where I can get them easily. Knives in blocks on the counter at position 6, close to the fridge, where the veggies I will chop are. I also have my cutting boards next to my knives. Wooden spoons and whisks are in a jar on the baker’s rack, next to the stove where I will use them to stir soups and sauces. The microwave is next to the fridge, so I can pull something out and heat it quickly.

So, when you have an off day and a lot of extra time, look at your kitchen and ask  yourself if the tools you use all the time are out next to where you use them. Ask whether the ingredients you use are stored near the place where they are prepped. Can you shift something around on your counters so that you can get to it when you need it, rather than having to shuffle through a drawer or two first?

These may seem like minor things, but making your kitchen as efficient as possible does make it a lot easier to get the cooking done. I promise.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Cooking with Wine

So last week, my kid asks me about cooking with wine. Namely, she was trying to figure out how to interpret a recipe calling out dry white wine, and couldn’t figure out which white wines were technically considered dry. Well, that in and of itself is the current post on our wine blog Wine recipe, Dry red wines, dry white wines, cooking with wine recipes, dry cooking But while few recipes are about the wine, cooking with wine is a major part of building flavor into a dish.

When we’re talking about wine in recipes, we’re generally talking about a dry wine, one that doesn’t have sweet flavor from leftover sugar in the wine. That’s because what wine generally adds is acidity. Now, that may sound pretty icky – acid is that awful sour flavor you get in lemons. But when you add enough sugar to lemon juice, it tastes pretty good. That’s because the sugar counteracts the sour acid and the sour acid balances out the super sweetness. In other words, the two flavors balance and play off each other.

The same thing happens when you add wine to a dish. In addition, when you cook it for a longer time, that acid softens and adds an interesting note to the whole thing, rather than just taking over. If you’ve ever eaten a musty-tasting pot roast or a stew that just seemed rather flat and flavorless, then some sort of wine or acid was missing.

When Cooking with Wine is good

You can add wine any time you want a brighter flavor in a dish, not just when the recipe says to. For example, you’re making some gravy for a meatloaf or some steaks you’ve cooked. Adding a bit of wine after you’ve made your roux  (check out the How to Make Gravy post here) will make your gravy taste rich and lively rather than just okay. Say you’ve fried that steak or pork chop and you want to get all those tasty stuck on bits up. Pour in some wine, maybe a quarter to half a cup and bring it to a boil, then scrape all those bits up. It’s a technique called de-glazing and it’s wonderful for making sauces and gravies, plus it makes your pan a lot easier to clean. Once you’ve cooked your wine for a bit, you can add some butter or cream or even just some extra broth (beef broth for beef or pork, chicken broth for chicken or even fish, although there is such a thing as fish stock or broth, too). Reduce it by boiling it down a bit, and bingo, you have sauce.

Another time you want to add wine is when you’re making a stew or a braise. In two classic French recipes, you add a whole bottle or two to braise the meat – coq au vin (chicken) and boeuf bourguignon (beef). Braising is cooking meat or vegetables at low heat for a long time with liquid in the bottom of the pan, as opposed to submerging them in liquid and cooking on low heat for a long time, which is stew. You may not want to go as far as using a whole bottle of wine, but even a half cup or so will add a lot of flavor.

The trick to remember is that the less time you’ll be cooking the dish or sauce, the less wine you want to use. Wines, especially dry red wines, can be pretty strongly flavored. It’s one of our mantras, right? You can always add more, you can’t add less.

When Not to Add Wine

Basically, you don’t generally want to add wine to anything that is already pretty acidic. I once made the mistake of adding white wine to a chicken picatta sauce, which already has lemon juice in it. That was a bit on the tart side. Tomatoes also have a fair amount of acid in them, so unless I’m making a tomato-based sauce that’s going to cook for several hours, I’ve stopped adding wine. Instead, I add vodka, and boy, does that kick up the flavor.

So go ahead and experiment and see what happens. You might even have a glass to drink while you finish dinner. It’s one of the things that makes cooking with wine fun.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Timing Your Thanksgiving Dinner (a Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Timing your Thanksgiving DinnerWelcome back to my special series on how to cook a delicious Thanksgiving Dinner even if you’ve never done it before. In this second-to-last installment, we’re covering not only timing your Thanksgiving Dinner, but how to get everything into your fridge in these critical days leading up to the big event. The series starts with Getting Organized, and you can find the links to The Gravy Tutorial, how to cook the turkey, and several of the side dishes at the bottom of the first post.

Timing is everything they say, and that’s certainly true when it comes to getting a bunch of different dishes cooked and all on the table at the right time. But fear not, I’ll walk you through the process below. But first, we have another job to do. Not one I want to be doing, nor does anyone else I know. But if you don’t, you’ll be making yourself a little crazier than you need to be come T-Day.

I’m talking about Cleaning the Fridge. Yes, I’m talking about going through your refrigerator and throwing out those little jars of pesto that you’re never going to use, all the science experiments, all the containers of something that’s probably still good but you have no idea what it is. Do the same with your freezer. I am willing to bet you’re going to free up a good 10 to 20 percent of space in each compartment. Why? Because we don’t like waste. So when there are leftovers, we tend to hang onto them. But then they don’t look so appealing, but we don’t want to waste, so we still hang onto them. And then they grow fur and we toss them with a cleaner conscience because we have spared ourselves some scary disease by doing so.

This is not the time to wait. You need that space for cut veggies, a turkey, Aunt Martha’s cranberry compote, turkey broth and all the other other ingredients of your feast.

However, keep in mind a couple things. You can pile stuff that’s packaged on top of that turkey. You’d also be surprised how many foods do just fine outside the fridge. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and many other veggies actually do better outside the fridge than in it. Anything you really need to keep crispy, like salad greens, carrots, celery, radishes, those do better in the fridge. Cheese, unless it’s processed cheese-like stuff, keeps perfectly well outside the fridge. In fact, that’s the whole point of cheese – it’s a way of preserving milk. Anything that is going to grow nasty critters if you don’t keep it below 40 degrees, such as meats, needs to go in the fridge. Bread does better outside the fridge. You can keep your sodas outside the fridge and pour them over ice when it’s time to serve. You can keep your butter outside the fridge. It’ll be a little soft, but then most folks prefer it that way.

Now to getting all the stuff in and out of the fridge and into the oven/onto the stove and onto the table to applause and acclaim. You just have to do some planning. If you don’t plan, you will be running around your kitchen, frazzled and crazed, and then when something goes wrong, well, they’ll be pulling you out from underneath the dining room table to get the vodka bottle you’re hugging to your chest. Even if everything doesn’t go according to plan, if you have one, it’s a hell of a lot easier to adjust to your actual circumstances.

So, get a nice glass of wine, a few bits of cheese to nibble on, a couple notepads or a pile of scrap paper, a pencil or pen or whatever you like to write with, and let’s lay everything out. Now, I am a gadget fan, but this is one of those instances where I prefer paper. When I’m using my tablet, the screen always goes dark right before I need to check something or when my hands are wet or gloppy. I suppose I could adjust the time before it goes to sleep, but then I have to remember to adjust it back. Not to mention, I’m always worried that the darned thing is going to fall into the sink or get melted by the toaster oven. Paper, on the other hand, is always on and will survive most kitchen mishaps. You can also tape paper to your cabinets. Can’t do that with a tablet. Your mileage may vary.

There are two tricks to timing. First up, write everything done. Go through your menu, item by item, and write down the steps you will take to make or reheat that item and in what pan, and in which dish you’ll serve it.  Add setting the table and pre-dinner clean up. Secondly, assume everything is going to take two to three times longer to do than normal. So what if the turkey is buttered and ready to go in the oven a full hour before it should? You put it back in the fridge and do something else on  your list.

If it helps, set alarms and write down what time something is supposed to happen, such as check the sweet potatoes at 4 p.m., instead of 20 minutes. Because you know you’re not going to remember when you put the sweet potatoes in the oven.

After you’ve got your list of menu items and the steps you need to take, get a second notepad or pull those sheets off the one you’ve been working with (or download my handy dandy checklist), and start a new list. What you’re going to do is work backwards from the time you’re hoping to serve the turkey and main course. So, say it’s going to take four hours to cook the turkey and you want to have dinner at 3 p.m. It’s going to take 20 to 30 minutes of rest time once the turkey is out of the oven, so it comes out around 2:30 p.m. and four hours before that is 10:30 a.m. It takes 20 minutes to cook the potatoes, and it’s going to take 30 minutes to eat the soup and salad courses, so the potatoes need to be in the water, ready for the heat just before 2:30, and the heat gets turned on at 2:40.

Yeah, it’s a little like battlefield maneuvers, but it will get your specific dinner on the table at roughly the right times. And if the turkey takes too long to cook, then spread out the hors d’oeuvres, soup and salad. If it’s cooking too fast, slow the heat, then skip the hors d’oeuvres and eat the soup and salad together. In short, just because you have everything set up to happen at this time or that, you may have to readjust. But because it’s all written down, no sweat. Just re-write as you go.

And after dinner, cram all that food back into the fridge and we’ll worry about the leftovers later.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Green Beans Amandine (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Welcome back to my series on how to make your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done it before. If you’re just joining us, you can check out the first post, Getting Organized, which has all the links to the other posts, including how to roast your turkey and how to make gravy. This post is on a basic side dish that will get you lots of applause for minimal effort: Green Beans Amandine. Don’t be afraid of the fancy title. It’s just green beans sauteed with almonds.

Let’s be real. Thanksgiving Dinner is not about healthy eating. That being said, one does want to at least nod at healthier options and a green veggie side will go a long ways toward that nod. It’s all about balance, right?

The thing with Green Beans Amandine is that they sound fancy, but they’re really pretty basic. You can do the first step (the blanching) well ahead of T-day, then flip them in the pan with the butter while the turkey is resting from its bout with the oven. Try and get someone else to mash the potatoes. Or do the beans first, then mash the potatoes. Your call.

You need only three ingredients: Green beans (figure about five or six beans per person), almonds ( about a tablespoon for four people) and butter (not more than a tablespoon for four people). Oh, and water and salt.


The first part is easy (sort of), and this is the part you can do any time before Thanksgiving Day. Trim the icky bits off the beans (the stem ends and any bits that look black and nasty). Then put a good-sized pot of water on high heat. While you’re waiting for it to boil, set up a bowl big enough for all your beans, filling it with cold water and making sure you have some extra ice.

When the water in your pot is boiling, add the beans.


Give the beans about three to five minutes. While they’re cooking, add the ice to the bowl you set up. And watch the beans. You want them looking really green and perky, not that drab greenish brown that tends to come out of cans. They can still be a little stiff, but if they’re more flexible than when they went in, you are golden. Once they’re at that point, pull them out of the hot water with a slotted spoon or a sieve and dump them into the ice water bowl.


The idea is that you’re stopping the cooking right away so that the bean keep their pretty green color. Don’t worry if they’re still a little crispy. You’re going to be cooking them again, so you want them a tad undercooked here.

So the big day has arrived. The turkey is out of the oven, the soup and the salad have been consumed, the potatoes await mashing. All you have to do is melt a tablespoon or more of butter in a frying pan over medium heat, then toss in some slivered almonds – maybe a tablespoon per four people eating. (Note – I overdid it on the almonds in the below pics.) Stir those around until they’re just starting to pick up a brown tinge, then add your beans.


Give the beans a couple more stirs, add some salt, stir again, then turn the heat way down while you cut up your turkey, then mash your potatoes. Put everything into its proper serving container and serve. And that means pouring yourself a glass of wine and relaxing. The clean up will wait.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

A Mashed Potatoes Primer (A Dark Side of the Fridge Special)

Welcome back to my series on making your own delicious Thanksgiving Dinner, even if you’ve never done it before. If you’re just joining us, you may want to check the earlier posts on Getting Organized, The Checklist, Tools and Decorations, The Gravy Tutorial, How to Cook the Turkey, and How to Make Soup. These were written with the idea that you’d be making and doing some of this stuff in the weeks approaching Thanksgiving and I know we’re getting down to the wire here, but you can still get organized and get it all together, even at the last second. Today, a quick primer on how to make Mashed Potatoes.

I know. You’re thinking seriously? How to make mashed potatoes? Isn’t that, like, the easiest dish to make?

Yeah. It is, but it’s also a critical one and you can turn those lovely spuds into a gluey mess if you’re not careful. However, this method is about as foolproof as it can get. Also, this is one of those dishes that you really have to make fresh. Which means while everyone is lingering over their salads, you’ll be in the kitchen finishing these up.

First up, figure out which potatoes to buy and how many of them you need. Personally, I like russets (or Idahos) for mashing. Those are the longish ones with the scaly brown skins on them. My husband likes the smooth red-skinned ones. And there are those who insist that Yukon Golds (which should be specifically labelled as such) are the absolute best. Yukon Golds do make a darned good mashed potato, but a) you’re going to have to find them and b) they cost considerably more. If you really want to, go for a mix of red and russet, which is, essentially what a Yukon Gold is. As to how many? Imagine a man’s fist (or if you’re a man, make one). You want one potato roughly that size for each person (or two that together are about that size), plus a couple extra for the pot, as it were.

Don’t stress on making too much. It’s really hard to because almost everyone loves mashed potatoes. Secondly, you can do all sorts of tasty things with the leftovers.

Cooking your mashed potatoes

The easy part is getting the potatoes prepped and cooked. We don’t peel the potatoes. You can, but it’s an extra step and you can’t peel them ahead of time because the insides turn an icky gray brown sitting in air. They’ll still taste all right, but they’ll look pretty nasty. About the time the soup is ready and you’re doing your final blast of heat on the turkey, you’ll want to cut up your potatoes into 2-inch chunks. Do not get a ruler out and measure. Just guess. Trust me, it will be fine. Make sure you get them into a pot and cover them with water, then cover the pot, and put it on the stove over high heat. Keep an ear out – it will start boiling over, at which time, you go over to the stove and turn it down to medium heat and let it go for about another 20 minutes or so. You’ll probably be done with your soup (or whatever) around then. The turkey should be ready to come out of the oven to rest. Let the potatoes rest in the water, also.

Now, for the mashing. Drain the potatoes by holding the lid open just enough for the water to get out, but not the potatoes and flip it over the sink. This obviously works better with a pot with a long handle than like a Dutch oven. If you had to resort to one of those, get someone to help you drain.

mashed potatoes

Note – you’re not getting out an extra bowl or anything to mash in. Use the pot. Now add a couple chunks of butter – about a tablespoon per five potatoes, but that’s just a rough guestimate. You can add up to half a stick (four tablespoons) and probably be fine even with a relatively small amount of potato. Start with a little, and some salt and pepper. You can always add more if the potatoes aren’t as creamy as you’d like.

mashed potatoes

Same with the milk. Add a little and see what happens as you mash. You can always add more, you can’t add less. Now, if you’re used to precise proportions as laid out in a recipe, that can feel really uncomfortable. But the recipe is going to steer you wrong as often as not. The recipe writer has no idea what kind of potatoes you have, what conditions they were grown in, how hot or cool your kitchen is. You’ve just got to add a little at a time and see what happens.

Mashed potatoes

Now, for the mashing. Don’t use anything mechanical, even for a mountain of potatoes. Use a hand masher. It won’t take long to do by hand and you won’t end up with glue – a real risk when you’re using a hand mixer or immersion blender.

Mashed potatoes

And that’s pretty much it. If you’ve got time, try a sample batch tonight or sometime the week before Thanksgiving. Because mashed potatoes are insanely tasty and relatively easy to pull off. Even without a recipe.