The Return of #FoodPorn: Friday Night Dinner!

So we all know that dinner is hard work, particularly when you’ve been ultra-busy, you’ve gotten home late, and you’re feeding a family of five. It can get hectic, ’cause everybody is HANGRY and they don’t want to wait. The first option is to go to boxed foods — quick to prepare, marginally decent taste, pretty cheap.

NOPE.

While I do occasionally succumb to the “let someone else do it” mentality, I also like to feed my family real food, and I’ve learned how to do it fast. This past Friday, I did just that. I made a beautiful, comfort-food dinner that went from grocery bags to plates in right at an hour.

Go ahead and try it…you know you want to.


The Menu

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Ain’t that a pretty plate? What’s on it is:

  • Chicken Kiev (a modified version)
  • Buttered Spinach
  • Macaroni & Cheese

All made from scratch. Yup, in an hour. Ingredients first, then process.


The Ingredients

Here’s a shot of the ingredients. It really isn’t as much as you think. And the flour is missing, ’cause I’m a dork and forgot to grab the tin.

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Chicken Kiev

  • 3 large (thick) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 eggs, well beaten
  • 2 cups bread crumbs (I used seasoned bread crumbs, others use panko. Your choice)
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp italian seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper

Buttered Spinach

  • 1 lb fresh spinach, washed well
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

Mac & Cheese

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni
  • 2 16 oz bags shredded cheese (I use Italian Blend & Mexican Blend)
  • 4 eggs, well beaten
  • milk
  • salt & pepper

Links above send you to the individual recipes. Just in case you want them.

Also note, I’m cooking for a crowd. You can always modify these recipes to feed less people. Just drop your ingredients proportionally so you always have the right  blend of flavors.


The Process

Here’s what time it was when I started:

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  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Start the water to boil for the macaroni. Pull out a ginormous skillet and add about a half-inch/inch of your favorite oil [I used a well-seasoned canola]. Set it to medium-low.
  • Beat the eggs well and pour them into the macaroni dish. Add 1 1/2 cups milk and half the cheese. Salt and pepper it, then stir it up really good. [A word of advice: use a teaspoon or so more salt than you expect to use. Trust me…the noodles need it.] Stick it on the counter.

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  • If the water is boiling, throw in the pasta. If not, cut up the butter for the chicken and and stick it somewhere warm to soften.

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  • Throw the spinach into a collander and rinse it well. Then drain it and rinse it again, particularly if it just came out of a garden. Dirty butter tastes funky.

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  • Do the pasta thing now if you haven’t already. Boil it 10ish minutes.
  • Is your butter soft? If so, great. If not, stick it in the microwave for about 15 seconds. You want it squishy, not melty. Then dump all of your filling ingredients into the bowl with the butter and mash it up really well. I used to fork to squish, then a spoon and my fingers for the stuffing.

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  • Slice the chicken breasts lengthwise from the side. You want them relatively thin and evenly-sized, but thick enough to stuff and bread. You need a REALLY sharp knife for this next step, otherwise you’re going to mutilate your chicken. [I prefer this method to the pounding/freezing/wrapping nonsense. It’s faster and tastes just as good.]

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  • Use the tip of the knife to slice a pocket into each chicken breast half from the side. You want it as deep and wide as possible without slicing through the other side of the meat. If it happens, it’s okay. Don’t panic. Just be careful how you stuff them.

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  • Stuff roughly 1 tbsp of butter into each breast, making sure to fill the pocket. Keep the butter away from any cuts or openings so they will seal themselves and keep the buttery goodness inside.
  • Wash your hands really well so not to transfer bacteria.
  • Rinse the spinach one more time for good measure.
  • When your timer goes off on your pasta, pause whatever you’re doing (if you’re playing with the chicken, wash your hands) and drain the pasta well. Dump it into the prepared dish and stir it up. Add the remainder of the cheese and, if it appears thick and lumpy, a little more milk to make it creamy. Shove that bad boy in the oven and forget about it. Doesn’t matter if the oven isn’t completely to 400 yet. It’ll get there.

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  • Lay out your bowls for the eggs, flour, and bread crumbs. Beat the eggs really well (I mean beat the unholy hell out of these suckers. The better beaten they are, the better they stick to the chicken) and pour them into the dish.
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Why yes, I did steal my daughters’ IKEA plates for this.
  • One at a time, roll the chicken pieces in flour (shake off excess), dip in egg (careful not to layer it on too thick), then roll in bread crumbs and set on a dry plate. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
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This is messy work, y’all.
  • Wash your hands. If you have Clorox Clean-up or some other germicidal cleaner handy, move everything and clean your counter. Empty the dredging bowls and squirt ’em too. Salmonella isn’t something we play with in our house.
  • Check your oil by dropping a single drop of water into it. If it sizzles, it’s ready. Which by now, it should be.

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  • TIME CHECK!
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Not bad…not bad at all.
  • Carefully place the chicken pieces into the hot oil using tongs. Try not to scrape off the breading or pierce the meat. Only place as many as your pan will comfortably fit — mine holds 3 at a time. Set the timer for 4 minutes.

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  • Get another pot and shove your spinach into it. Don’t worry about it all fitting into the pot. It’s gonna shrink up A LOT.
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See? Mine doesn’t fit either.
  • Set the heat under it to medium. The water still in the leaves from the rinsing will be sufficient to let it wilt. Stir it occasionally, making sure to bring the top leaves down into the pot so they can steam, too.
  • When the buzzer goes off, flip your chicken. Set it to another 4 minutes, but keep an eye on it. If it gets too dark too fast, turn your heat down and reduce your time to 3 minutes.

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  • Once the majority of your spinach is wilted, throw it back in the collander to drain off the excess water [there won’t be much]. Return it to the pot with the butter and other ingredients and turn it down to medium-low. Let that cook (remember to stir) until the butter is melted, then turn off the heat and just let it do its thing.
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Same Spinach…different consistency. Shrinkage is real, y’all.
  • Remove the chicken pieces from the oil and let drain on paper towels. Be careful not to squeeze them too hard or the butter pockets might explode. We don’t want that. Yet.
  • Add the next/remainder of the chicken and cook as above.
  • Check on your mac and cheese. By now it should have a nice, golden-brown crust on top. Yank that gooey goodness out of the oven and put it on a heatproof surface to cool. If you have grease on top from the cheese, dab it away with a paper towel.

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  • Flip the chicken. Get your plates ready.
  • Wash up. You really shouldn’t have a huge mess, and dinner will be much more satisfying if you don’t have to deal with it afterward.

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  • Remove the last of the chicken from the pan and cool.
  • Plate up your food and serve. Check out the time, too.
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One hour and seven minutes. BAM!
  • Congratulate yourself on a job well-done.
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One more time, ’cause it’s gorgeous. And look at that empty sink to the right!

NOTE: If you don’t like the idea of the frying, you can always bake the chicken – 350 degrees for about an hour, turning once. You want your inner temperature to register at least 165 degrees, otherwise you run the risk of uncle Sal coming to dinner, and he’s not invited.

So there you have it. Dinner in an hour. Now go forth and create magical foods!

 

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Friday Food Porn: Makin’ Gravy!

Gravy

No, children, that is not a euphemism. We’re actually talking about the proper technique for making gravy. I get a lot of questions and comments about it, so I figured I’d go ahead and spill it here for everyone to enjoy. I make gravy three ways, and I do all three quite regularly. Now keep in mind this is a talent not everyone possesses out of the gate, but it can, in fact, be taught. Trust me on that…I used to be a horrible gravy-maker, but I’ve learned how to do it. My mother always said the two hardest things to master in the kitchen are gravy and biscuits. I still haven’t figured out biscuits yet.

So first, let’s talk about the different types of gravy:

VARIATIONS

  • Meat-based milk gravy: made with beef drippings, pork sausage, or fatback grease as a base, it’s by far the unhealthiest (and best tasting) topping of the lot.
  • Poultry gravy: traditionally a holiday staple, poultry gravy is made from chicken or turkey stock and often includes the giblets, eggs, and other goodies.
  • Meatless gravy: for the vegetarian crowd, this gravy uses a butter and oil base with vegetable stock, chunky veggies, and lots of heavy seasoning.

(Yes, it’s possible to make a vegan-style gravy, but in my experience it doesn’t taste very good due to the limited flavor combinations. It’s made similarly to the Poultry Gravy, except you use vegetable stock and load up on the veggies, salt, and fresh herbs. I’m not vegan, so it’s not my preferred method. However, I have done it in the past for others.)

Different gravies are used for different things. The easiest and most common is the first – the meat-based milk gravy. I make this about once a week in some form or another because it goes well with potatoes, rice, and half a dozen other starchy vegetables. Plus it’s an easy way to keep beef from going dry. I’ve made meatless gravy, but being a carnivore, it isn’t my favorite. HOWEVER, I don’t like to leave anyone out and when I have guests who are of the herbivoric persuasion, I like to make sure they can enjoy dinner as well.

Each variation has different ingredients, and different techniques. But they all require the same basic equipment and many of the same ingredients.

The Equipment

The Ingredients

  • Heavy-bottomed sauce pan
  • Measuring cup
  • Measuring spoons
  • Two large cups
  • Long-handled wooden spoon
  • Fork
  • Whisk
  • Flour
  • Milk
  • Water
  • Butter and/or oil
  • Salt & Pepper
  • Bouillon or liquid stock
  • Spices
  • Corn starch
  • Browning liquid
    (like Kitchen Bouquet)

Once you’ve decided what type of gravy you want to make, the next step is to tailor your ingredient list to your dinner. I’ll give you three examples of gravies I’ve made in recent months. Then we’ll talk technique.

Hamburger Steak Gravy

Turkey Gravy

Mushroom Gravy

  • Meat drippings
  • 3 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp oil or butter
  • 1 cube/teaspoon beef bouillon
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups milk
  • garlic powder, oregano,
    seasoning salt, rosemary
  • Kitchen Bouquet browning
    liquid
  • 3 cups Turkey stock
    (with giblets included)
  • 1 cube/teaspoon chicken
    bouillon
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tsp poultry seasoning
  • 2 tbsp corn starch
  • 2 tbsp COLD water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 c minced sweet onion
    (or shallots)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 2-3 c sliced mushrooms
    (any variety)
  • 1/2 cup marsala wine
  • 1 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp rosemary
  •  2 tbsp butter, softened

Now let’s talk about how to make a good gravy. The most important step is going to be your stirring. Keep it moving in the pan, otherwise you’re going to have lumpy gravy every time. The mechanics vary a little from gravy to gravy (except Poultry Gravy, but that’s a totally different kettle of catfish), but the basic idea is the same: Just keep stirring!

You always want a big, deep skillet to do this. Mine is a 14″ diameter, 2″ deep Cuisinart pan. The brand doesn’t matter. I just happened to get it for cheap at TJ Maxx a few years back.

There’s also a little bit of math involved. For a good, naturally-thickening gravy, you want your base-to-flour ratio to be fairly even. 3-4 tablespoons of meat drippings/butter combination to 3-4 tablespoons of flour. That also means you’re going to be adding 3-4 cups of liquid once your roux is ready. If the ratio is off too much, chances are your gravy isn’t going to do right.

Here’s how it works:

  • Poultry gravy is easy. Throw everything but the cornstarch and cold water into your pot and cook it for as long as you like. You can continue to add water if it cooks down too much. Five minutes before you serve, turn your fire up to about medium-high. Mix your corn starch and cold water together (add the water to the starch or it does weird things) and pour into your pot.  Stir until it thickens, then serve. (Note: I usually start mine when I put my bird in the oven. Throw everything in and cook it on medium-low to low until the bird is done. Then I pour the critter drippings into the pot and fire it up so it’ll thicken.)
  • For your non-poultry gravies, you want to make sure your base (meat drippings or oil) is good and warm. If you have onions or other veggies you’re using, you’ll want to throw those in now. Cook them over medium-high heat about five minutes, until the onions are translucent. Keep Stirring! You also want to make sure you keep the bottom of the pan scraped down. Those crunchy bits are your flavor.
  • Once your veggies are ready, drop your heat to medium. Add your flour and stir with a whisk. You’re going to be testing your motor skills, so settle in. You want to incorporate all of your flour into the liquid mixture. It’ll turn thick and resemble bubbly custard. Keep stirring until you get a nice reddish-brown color (that’s why we call it a roux). Keep stirring through every bit of this next step or your gravy will go lumpy.
  • Begin adding your liquid. You’ll want to do this slowly and roughly 1/2 cup at a time. The roux will immediately get thick and lumpy, but as you add more liquid and stir, it’ll even out. By the time you’re done you’ll have a thin gravy.
  • Next, add the rest of your ingredients – bouillon, seasonings, extra veggies… that sort of thing. Once it comes to a boil, reduce your heat to medium-low and slide a lid about 3/4 of the way onto the pan. Stir it every few minutes, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan well each time. After about half an hour, you’ll have a nice, rich gravy.

Friday Food Porn: Baked Chicken Alfredo

It’s Friday! That means it’s time for FOOD PORN!

Today’s dish is one of my favorites. It’s quick and easy, and I’m totally cheating here by using pre-made ingredients. I had this for dinner Wednesday night, and it was fan-freaking-tastic if I do say so myself. Even my picky family eats this every time I cook it. This recipe makes enough for a family of 4 to eat with leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

 

BAKED CHICKEN ALFREDO

Baked Chicken Alfredo

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed
2 tbsp butter
1/4 tsp garlic powder
salt & pepper to taste
1 16-0z box penne or moscatelli pasta
2 jars alfredo sauce (or you can make your own) [I used i jar each Bertolli Garlic Alfredo and Mushroom Alfredo]
2 cups shredded Italian blend cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

 

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a casserole dish in cooking spray and set aside.

2. Saute chicken in butter with salt, pepper, and garlic over medium heat until cooked through. I like to cook it until there’s a nice, crisp layer on the outside of the chicken pieces.

3.  While the chicken is cooking boil the pasta according to package directions. Drain and run cold water over it to stop the cooking.

4.  Pour cooked, cooled pasta, both jars of sauce, and chicken into a deep mixing bowl (or the pot you cooked the pasta in!). Mix thoroughly and pour into prepared casserole dish. Spread parmesan cheese over mixture and top with shredded cheese.

5. Bake 20-30 minutes, until cheese bubbles and begins to brown.

Food Porn: Loaded Potato Soup

Mornin’ Creeps.

So I didn’t cook a big, scary meal worth sharing on Sunday. Main reason: The husband and I were helping out with the local Arts Council’s oyster roast fundraiser Saturday night and I was beat. I did, however, cook on Saturday. When I was younger, I had this grand vision that involved me going to Johnson & Wales University, learning everything there was to learn, and opening my own restaurant.

Well, I grew up and got real. Restaurants are a hard business, and I also happened to find my true passion along the way – writing. I love wordcraft, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Just because I no longer want to own a restaurant, it doesn’t mean I don’t still really enjoy cooking. I do, and I enjoy it a lot.

So when I got the craving, I went to the store and bought a bunch of stuff. It took almost a week to get the time to take on this crazy culinary project, and Saturday was a great day for it. As is the custom, I looked at about a dozen recipes, decided I didn’t like any of them, and made up my own. So, ladies and germs, I present to you:

Ultimate Loaded Potato Soup

Ultimate Loaded Potato Soup

Remember, kids, I don’t do things like most people do. I don’t measure, I don’t follow directions, and I certainly don’t let the fear of screwing up bother me. So for all of you out there that want directions, I’m going to do my best.

The Ingredients

Potato Soup Ingredients

5 strips applewood bacon
1/2 – 1 cup diced onion
2 tbsp butter
3 cups chicken broth (or 3 cups water and 3 tsp chicken boullion)
2 cups milk
1 pint heavy cream
8 small/medium red potatoes, cubed
1 tsp celery seed
1/2 tsp garlic salt
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 c shredded cheddar cheese
1 bunch green onions
8oz sour cream
1 mystery ingredient (to be revealed later!)

Alice

This is Alice. She’s my helper. She does all those nice things like eat my extra onions and help me stir everything. Whether I want the help or not.

Bacon1. Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. It’s going to take awhile. You want it very well done and very crispy.  While it’s cooking, chop the potatoes and onion.

2. Drain and cool cooked bacon on paper towels. Use the bacon drippings to sautee the onions. Cook them 3-4 minutes, until they’re translucent. While they’re cooking, add your chicken stock to your soup pot (I used a stock pot. Normally I would use a cast iron dutch oven for this, but mine had a bad run in with a sink, so I’m having to re-season it at the moment) and get it warming. Add your butter, celery seed, garlic salt, salt, and pepper.Sauteed Onions

3. Once the onions are cooked, remove them from the pan – be sure to strain them. You don’t want all of that grease in your pot – and place them in the stock. Add your milk and cream. Add your potatoes. Cook over medium heat. You want the potatoes to cook slowly, and if the heat is too high, you run the risk of scorching your soup. A rolling boil will ruin your soup quickly.

4. Let it cook about 20 minutes. In the meantime, crumble your bacon and slice the green ends of your onions. How much of this you do depends on how many people you’re feeding and how much of it they’re going to eat. After that’s done, wash up your dishes. You’ve got time, so you might as well use it.

Grease*Cook’s Note: See that bacon grease in your pan? When you go to wash your dishes, don’t pour this down the drain. Let it cool and either pour it in a jar for later use or pour it in the trash. Putting it down the drain can clog up your plumbing and cause serious problems with your local sewers. Pouring oil and grease down the drain can get you in huge trouble with your local wastewater provider.

5. Check your potatoes. If they cut easily with a fork, you’re ready for this step. Otherwise, let them cook another 5 minutes or so. Add approximately 1 cup of shredded cheese to your pot and stir well. The broth is still going to be thin.

***SECRET INGREDIENT***

Potato Flakes

Most people use flour or corn starch to thicken soups and stews. Normally, I would do that, but in this case I had something much more appropriate.

Yep, that’s right… instant potato flakes. It gives your soup a better flavor, and keeps it from being grainy. This is why you added butter all that time ago.

6. Add between 1/2 cup and 1 cup of potato flakes, depending on how thick you want your soup. I used 1 cup.

7. Cook another 5 minutes on low, until soup is smooth and creamy.

8. Spoon into bowls. Stir 1/4 cup sour cream into each bowl. Top with more shredded cheese, bacon bits and onions.

Enjoy!

And a treat for my little helper: strawberry milk in a purple mason jar cup.

Strawberry Milk

Food Porn: Mexican Lasagna!

Sunday nights have become my night for inventive cuisine. Typically I’m either (a) fully stocked and ready to play, or (b) clearing out the fridge. Last night’s dinner was a combination of the two. My husband took me to The Cheesecake Factory Saturday night as sort of a late birthday celebration, so now we have boxes of leftovers and cheesecake taking up a whole bunch of space. We also bought groceries yesterday, so it meant making even more room.

So I started pulling stuff out of the fridge, then out of the cabinets. And I realized I had a bunch of stuff that didn’t match. AT all. Which meant that naturally I started mixing and matching, and the following is what happened.

Continue reading “Food Porn: Mexican Lasagna!”

Colds and Comfort Food

I have a cold. And it really, truly sucks.  Being sick is one of those things that sucks all the joy out of my world, and that says something because I’m pretty damn happy. Most of the time, anyway. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m my happiest when I get to play in my kitchen, so last night, that’s what I did. I didn’t feel well, so it wasn’t anything spectacular. Just some good, old fashioned comfort food.

I made chicken and stars.

Chicken and Stars

Pretty, isn’t it? This is one of those things that I only eat when I’m sick. The problem is that I don’t like canned soups anymore. I’ve come to realize that I can make the same thing, and it’s going to (a) taste better, (b) be better for me, and (c) last longer. This recipe makes A LOT of soup. The good news is it freezes really well. I make mine a little different that most people would because my husband doesn’t eat cooked celery.  I’m not a big fan of it either. I also cook like a southern woman… meaning I MEASURE NOTHING.

That having been said, still want to know what I did?  Good. Keep reading.

Continue reading “Colds and Comfort Food”