How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

My Fried Chicken Waterloo

I know – it’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking post. Too busy trying to sell books and thinking about other stuff. But food is one of my passions and I want to write more about it. Especially since I’ve hacked my way through more cooking than most of these kids out there have eaten.

Chicken thighs in the fry pan about to be fried.
Boneless Thighs – cooking at room temp worked here, but….

That being said, I do have one problem. I can’t fry chicken. I want to re-create the fried chicken my mother used to make. The kind where you flour the chicken pieces, toss it in a pan with oil, and it comes out fully cooked and golden brown. What I usually get is blackened on the outside and raw on the inside. I have turned down the flame, I have measured cooking temps. I’ve started it in cold oil.

I even (shudder) googled it and searched the SeriousEats.com site. I like Serious Eats, but if there’s a complicated, fussy way to do something, that’s one of the places you’ll find it. I don’t need complicated and fussy in my kitchen. I need a meal on my table.

But, for the sake of form, I tried their method of brining the pieces (which I’ve taken to doing anyway with buttermilk, because it tastes so good), then essentially patting the flour onto the wet pieces to make what amounts to a dryish batter. They also cheat and cook the pieces in the oven after the initial fry. I even measured the temp of the oil. It still didn’t make very good chicken.

I complained on Facebook, and one of my friends not only went into the whole long complicated process but explained the science of why. Which was interesting, but totally missed the point. My mother, and millions of women like her, for generations have floured their chicken, put some oil or shortening in a pan and freaking made gorgeous, lightly crispy fried chicken. They didn’t use thermometers. They didn’t soak and drain and whatever. Some used deep fryers, but a lot just used a pan. So why the hell can’t I?

I tried asking Mom, but she really didn’t have much to say. She hasn’t made fried chicken in decades and said that she just floured the chicken, put it in a pan with oil, and fried it. I’m probably going to have to get her into the kitchen with me so that the old body memory can kick in.

Close of up the current attempt at fried chicken - still too dark, dummit.
Still too dark, but it’s done.

Last night I did come close to success by pulling the chicken out of the fridge two hours before I fried it so that it was at room temperature. But the second batch was considerably darker than it should have been, and the first batch almost got that dark before the breast meat was cooked.

So, we’re getting closer. I think next time, I’m going to only soak those pieces I can fit into my pan in one go and start the oil cold. I did have some success a couple years ago with boneless thighs. Still, that ain’t what Mom did and that’s the goal.

This isn’t rocket science, nor should it be. Cooking good, tasty food shouldn’t be that big a hassle.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Chop an Onion

Wow. It feels like forever since I’ve a done a Dark Side of the Fridge post. And it probably has. Nonetheless, I’m adding a new basic cooking skill to the mix. The idea, as I have explained before, is that there’s a world of difference between cooking and simply following recipes. So the more basic cooking skills you have under your belt, the easier it is to adapt recipes and to get a healthy dinner on the table fast.

Since an awful lot of dishes, from soups, stews and casseroles, start with chopped onion, it only makes sense to focus on getting one chopped evenly and quickly without loss of digits or skin.

Your first step is to cut the onion from stem to blossom end

 

Like so

 

Then cut off the stem end (it’s the end that does not have all the scraggly root bits).

 

Next, lift and pull back the papery peel.

 

Now, placing the knife edge perpendicular to the onion, make a series of radial cuts around the onion half.

 

Like here…

 

Here…

 

And here. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’ve made lots of cuts, about a quarter inch apart, all along the onion half.

 

Now, slice the onion across the rings. See how the little diced bits just fall off the knife.

 

Ta dah! A perfectly diced onion, ready for the pot. And in about two minutes, too. Okay, it may take you a little longer, but don’t worry. Keep cooking and you’ll get plenty of practice.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Cleaning Up Tips for the Holidays

cleaning up tipsLet’s be real. Cleaning up is the absolute worst part of cooking. And after a full-on holiday feast, the last thing you want to do is haul yourself up and wash a larger than normal pile of dishes, not to mention the icky, greasy pans.

The funny thing is, with all the holiday help tips out there, no one, but no one offers tips on how to clean up your kitchen after a big holiday meal or party. I suspect it’s because it is such a dreary chore that there really isn’t much that can be done to make it less so. But there are a few things you can do to make a little easier.

Cleaning up Tips

First, don’t make such a big mess in the first place. You can read my post here on how to do that. But the important part to remember is that if you don’t absolutely need that dish or pan, don’t use it! Clean as you go, too. If you’re waiting for the potatoes to boil, you can clean up the peelers and other dishes. There will be less to do later.

Make sure to de-glaze the roasting pan. That’s usually going to be your greasiest and ickiest. De-glazing is easy. You get the drippings and grease boiling, then add some broth, wine or other liquid, get it boiling again and as it does, you scrape all the stuck-on bits into the liquid and use it as a base for your gravy. If you’re not going to make gravy or some other sauce, either pour all that goo into a container and save it to make a sauce later, or feed it to the dog. Or, if you’re not going to make a gravy, squirt some dish soap into the pan and use that to boil and scrape everything up.

If someone else offers to help, accept. Now, I get that there are times when this isn’t feasible. But even if that surly relative is only asking to be polite, accept the help. Women have used clean up time for millennia as a chance to gossip about the rest of the relatives. You can, too.

Sometimes listening to a good comedy podcast or other show helps ease things a little. Sometimes the noise is just annoying.

Get all the plates scraped off as you stack them on the counter. Make sure any paper towels or other wrappers are in the trash, and any containers that you’re going to recycle are ready to be rinsed.

When you’re packing the leftovers, be sure you have the lid next to the container. I can’t tell you how many containers I’ve had to wash because I dumped the leftovers in, then couldn’t find a lid to fit.

Wipe down any counter or workspace that will serve as a landing area for clean dishes. You don’t want to go to all the trouble of washing something then have it pick up crumbs or globs of sauce dribbles. I like using a large towel over our worktable rather than the dish rack, which is always too small.

Wash the least dirty to the most dirty. In other words, if you wash your glassware first, it won’t pick up grease from the wash water and your suds will last longer. Nor will it pick up the tiny bits that were left on any plates and pans. Get everything loaded into the dishwasher that can go into it and don’t worry if you miss a fork or two. Those are easy to hand wash.

Let as many dishes air dry as you have room for. Your good glassware will probably need to be dried right away or it might get spots, and there may not be a lot of room in your kitchen to leave pans out. But whatever you can leave out, you may as well.

A nice glass of wine can help or it can increase the odds of something breaking.

Finally, once you get the plates scraped and the leftovers put away, you can come back to most of it in the morning. If any of your pans are crusted with something starchy, you may want to soak those in some cold water overnight. Greasy pans should get the soap treatment (see above) while they’re still hot. But unless you’re going to risk your drains by pouring the soapy grease down right away, along with lots of hot water, you’ll probably be better off wiping up the mess with some paper towels once they’re cold, and then washing them.

Hope this helps. And please, feel free to share any cleaning up tips you have. We could all use the help.

 

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Roast a Turkey Redux.

This is a post redux from my series on how to cook Thanksgiving Dinner. Thanksgiving Day may be on Thursday, but you may want to start thawing your bird now. Really. And here’s how to roast when it’s thawed.

It’s all about The Bird. Roasting a turkey is pretty easy. You prep the birdie, slap it in the oven. It cooks to 165 degrees. You pull it out, let it rest for 20 minutes while you mash the potatoes, finish the gravy and the green beans. Then you slice it in the kitchen, so you can snatch some of the yummy crispy skin first, and serve.

The trick is roasting the turkey so that it’s done at a certain time, such as after all the guests have arrived but before Grandma gets tipsy. Because turkeys are so big, they take a lot of time to roast. Not to mention ovens get cranky and depending on how cold your bird is before you put it in, it may take more or less time to get cooked all the way through. And you want it cooked all the way through because undercooked poultry is icky and because it can transmit salmonella, which is no fun at all.

I shoot for a slower cooking time – it’s easier to adjust for the timing of your meal. And it’s a much bigger problem if your bird is done too soon. Holding it in the oven or reheating it can dry it out and that’s not tasty. If it does happen to you, don’t despair. That’s what gravy is for. Just go ahead and slice the bird up and put it in a roasting pan or oven-safe dish, and cover it tightly with foil. Turn the oven to warm and if you can find the room (and you should, since the bones will be mostly gone), slide a pan of water on the lowest rack in the oven or on the floor. This will keep things somewhat moist.

A lot of folks recommend brining, and I used to be one of them. Until I discovered just how freaking hard it is to find a bird that hasn’t already had salt and other flavors injected into it. If your local turkeys are unbrined and you do want to, there are plenty of recipes out there on the Internet. But it is an extra step, plus the hassle of finding room in the fridge. Unless you’re in a part of the country where it’s below 40 degrees at night, in which case, a cooler on the back porch, securely closed, will probably do just fine and keep things perfectly safe. And speaking again of safety, you really want to make sure you clean any surface the raw turkey has come into contact with, and that you wash your hands before touching anything else. It’s a bit of a pain, but better than making your guests sick.

One note – because the stores hadn’t gotten their turkeys when I did the photos, I’m doing the demonstration on a chicken. Fear not. It is exactly the same process. The only difference is the size. And the first step is to figure out when you need to get the sucker into the oven. You’re going to be roasting it at 300 degrees, so figure it’s going to take 15 minutes for each pound of bird you have. I have a 12-pounder, so that’s 12 times 15, which is 180 minutes, divided by 60, equals three hours. You have a 20-pounder, that’s 20 times 15, which is 300 minutes, divided by 60, and that’s five hours. You want dinner at three. Bird goes into the oven at 10 a.m.-ish. If you’re going to stuff your bird (which I do not recommend because it takes longer and it’s harder to tell if the stuffing got cooked all the way through), then figure 20 minutes per pound.

It’s okay if the bird goes in a little late. Because I haven’t shared with you the one trick that will pretty much guarantee (as much as anything can) that the birdie will come out when you want it to. You’re going to blast it with high heat at the end of the cooking cycle. I learned this from watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on making turkeys, and I forget why he likes it. But I think it makes the skin crispier to blast at the end and I know I get a lot better control over when the verdamnt bugger comes out. Getting close to dinner time and the thermometer in the bird hasn’t crept past 100 degrees? Start blasting. Things cooking a little too fast? Turn down the heat until closer to dinner time, then blast the bejeebers out of it right before you serve the soup.

Which brings me to another major point – you will need at least an instant read thermometer. If you rely on the little pop-up that some birds come with, you will get over-done, dried out bird. Also, you won’t be able to tell when to turn the heat up. I like a probe thermometer, because you stick it in, put the bird in the oven and it stays. The wire drags out of the oven to the read out, but you can see exactly where your bird is at any time. And you can use it for any roast, meatloaf or even bread that you put in the oven.

Now, turn your oven to 300 degrees and prep your roasting pan, which means finding something to keep the bird above the fat and other goodies that drip to the bottom. This allows air underneath the bird and it doesn’t get so greasy. Or so I’m told. If you don’t have a rack, a small plate turned upside down will do just fine.

How to cook a turkey

Using a small plate on the left, using a rack, to hold the bird up and away from the drippings.

 

Wash and dry the turkey both inside and out. This is one of those rare occasions when a paper towel really does the job better than anything else.

IMG_2876

 

Now, you want to season the skin. You can use oil, with salt and pepper and/or other seasonings, use only plenty of salt and pepper, or my fave: slather on some butter all over, then salt and pepper. It’s Thanksgiving and unless you have an exceptionally compelling reason to cut the calories back, it’s worth the indulgence. Do cut off the half stick of butter before you use it because you’ll just contaminate the whole stick and butter ain’t that cheap.  All you do is scoop up a chunk of butter, warm in in your hand for a moment, then rub it all over, starting with the breast side. That’s the really meaty side.

 

IMG_2879

 

Then flip the bird into the roasting pan, breast side down. What? Am I committing heresy here? Hell, yes. It’s like I said in one of my earlier posts, that image of everyone ooing and ahhing at the perfectly browned bird? It’s a terrible way to roast a bird. All the juices drip into the back, which you don’t eat. Roasting a bird breast down doesn’t give you the pretty presentation, but all those lovely juices drip into the breast and helps keep it moist and delicious. I know which I’d rather eat. And you’ll be slicing this sucker in the kitchen to further spare you the embarrassment of doing a bad slicing job. One other benefit of roasting the bird on its breast, you don’t have to tie it up (even if you do stuff, which I do not recommend), nor do you have to worry about putting foil on the wings so they don’t get over done. No, as you see in the photo below, the wings tuck in very nicely on their own, as do the legs.

Do remember, however, to butter the backside of the bird, and generously salt and pepper it.

IMG_2881

 

Insert your probe in the breast, away from any bone. Folks say put the probe near the thigh. I always hit a bone or the cavity and my bird ends up underdone, which is bad. If you plan to roast to 165 degrees, then everything gets done, but not overdone, and carryover heat (that final bit of cooking that gets done outside the oven while the bird is resting) takes care of the rest.

IMG_2885

 

Set your probe thermometer to 140 degrees, or plan to check the turkey about every hour it’s in the oven. Put it in a 300 degree oven, but don’t stress if your forgot to turn it on earlier. Just turn it on now. It’s not going to hurt anything. That bird is going to be cooking a while. In an ideal world, you’ll be cooking it until the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees (about the time the hors d’oeuvres are set out), then blasting it with high heat until the internal temp reaches around 165-167 degrees. As noted above, if it’s cooking too fast, turn the oven down and check again in another half hour or so. If it’s cooking too slowly, give it about 15 to 20 minutes, then start blasting. And by blasting, I mean turning up your oven to its highest heat, around 500 degrees. Do keep an eye on things. My oven takes freaking forever to get to 500 degrees, even when it’s been cooking at 300 degrees. You may want to turn your oven on before Thanksgiving and see how long it takes to get to 500 degrees. It should only take about half an hour for the blast phase, but again, you can’t cook by numbers. Watch the birdie.

Oh, look. It’s done. You’ve strong-armed the bugger out of the oven. Now, using a couple sets of tongs and/or some long forks, pull it from the pan and set it on a cutting board (we like to put our cutting board on a half-sheet pan to catch all the juices) and cover with foil to keep warm while it rests. Now, we like our wooden cutting boards. We clean them with extremely hot water and a little bleach after every use and rinse them again. There are those who say that’s still not enough – and if you have someone among your guests with a compromised immune system, it may not be. You can also use a plastic cutting mat. One other note, you may want to cook some broth in that messy roasting pan, scraping all the bits off the bottom and sides, then pour everything into a jar, which you’ll put in your fridge once it’s cooled. It may be too salty for the gravy, but just salty enough to perk some up or for extra gravy later. Or you may have to toss it. But your roasting pan will be a lot easier to clean.

IMG_2913

Now, to the cutting (and let’s thank my Beloved Spouse for demonstrating this part). First, your remove the legs, separate the drumsticks from the thighs, and set them on your serving plattter, cut the meat off the thighs. Remove the wings next.

IMG_2915

Cut the bird vertically along the breastbone, then cut the slices of breast meat from the front to the back. Repeat on the other side.

IMG_2921

 

Seriously. That’s it. Serve the turkey forth, sit down and drink a big glass of wine. You’ve earned it at this point.

Catch the whole series on how to cook Thanksgiving Dinner here. Scroll down for all the links.

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.