Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Comfort Foods -- American Chop Suey

After diligently spending two evenings working my butt off at the gym (ow, my legs...), I came home today to devour two sloppy joes in utter ecstasy.

Sloppy joes, via Manwich with toasted, buttery rolls = in my top 5.

  1. Home-made mashed potatoes with beefy gravy
  2. Sloppy joes
  3. Baked Macaroni and Cheese
  4. Ham and spinach Quiche
  5. American Chop Suey

Honorable mentions:

  • Tacos
  • Baked potatoes with chili
  • Salmon with garlic cream sauce (Dad was the only one who ever made this, and it was one of the few things he really cooked well... "I Miss My Father's Terrible Cooking" post coming soon)

All insanely easy to prepare, but one bite just takes me back home, to my happiest, most blissful childhood times. Back when life was easy, (or if it was hard, which in retrospect it probably was, I was ignorant of it in my carefreeness) and I had nothing to worry about. Ages 7 through 10 are what I'm taken back to, when we lived in the big house on the main road in town, before my dad passed away, before my parents even split up, before we learned about my brother's difficulties... When I wore dresses but caught frogs and rocked out to the Spice Girls on cassette with my very best friend.

Not that life now isn't good, it is. Life is great. I have a great family, a wonderful boyfriend, a college education and a job that I just love. A few tweaks here and there (get me back to the city please?) and life would be perfect. But there's something so innocent and pristine about being little... I'm an adult now. And it's fun to revisit the little girl I used to be, when I take a huge bite of that sloppy joe.

Here's one of my comfort foods for you to enjoy, not sloppy joes, but close, and so amazingly easy to prepare and delicious. College-Student friendly!--very easy to prepare in your dorm's common room stovetop.

American Chop Suey

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 can condensed tomato soup (sometimes a can and a half, just to be safe)
  • 1 small can mushrooms (or one cup fresh)
  • 1 small pepper (red is my color of choice)
  • 1 package spaghetti

-Prepare spaghetti according to package. Don't forget to salt and oil the water so that they don't stick together!

-Cook peppers and mushrooms until they begin soften: if using fresh mushrooms, cook with the peppers, as they cook at roughly the same time. If using canned mushrooms, add after the peppers have already finished.

-Add beef and cook until browned. Drain as much fat as you can (my usual mistake is to drop it all over the sink, whoops!), then add the soup. Stir until warm and combined. Toss with spaghetti and serve.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Boyfriend Makes Dinner, Bee Makes a Side Dish

What did I tell you about the pictures? Better ones are coming, I promise!

It's always sweet when the boyfriend offers to make dinner... or, rather, when he forcibly removes me from the kitchen in order to cook something that's in danger of nearing its expiration date.

Still, it's sweet.

It's also always tacos or kielbasa.

But oh, does the man make a good kielbasa. Gone are the days I merely squirted mustard and called it a day, or nibbled them off toothpicks in their h'ors d'oeuvres state. It's go honey barbeque or go home. It's quite simple to do: Take one kielbasa, slice it up, smother in bbq sauce, and cook over medium heat until fully cooked. Top with more bbq, and you're done!
Yep, this is boy food at its finest. Pair with a beer for that extra bit of classy. It's truly delicious. And goes really really well with a Blue Moon.

However, I had fully intended on making this:

I entirely stole this picture from my friend's Facebook to show you in a better resolution what this dish should look like. Here's a link to his wife's blog. That counts as credit-giving for the picture, yes? Sure. Anyway. This amazing deliciousness is brussels sprouts with bacon and onions. It looks divine. And I'd already purchased the ingredients to make it.

Thankfully, it made a lovely side dish to Boyfriend's kielbasa and boxed noodle concoction. If you have any doubts about brussels sprouts, please put them behind you and smother them in bacon grease. You'll be glad you did.

I'd also like to point out that in most recipes, I will forget an item. Especially if I make a special grocery trip to buy the ingredients, there will ALWAYS be something missing from my list. In this case, it was chicken broth. Now, I could have gone the healthier route and used water and salt or something of that nature. But no, I mercilessly slaughtered a can of condensed chicken soup (shaped like Disney princesses... why he had this in his pantry I have only a vague idea) and made makeshift broth. I was hesitant because said can was a month past its expiration date, but various googlings assured me that I would not die of botchalism. Close call.

Brussels Sprouts and Bacon
(adapted from Rachel Ray's recipe here)

  • 4 slices of bacon, chopped
  • 1-2 tbs extra virgin olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan and a little more later to coat the sprouts)
  • 1 small onion, chopped (the recipe calls for shallots, but I used regular onions since they hold up a little better in the frying pan)
  • 1 to 1.5 lb brussels sprouts, halved or quartered by size
  • 1 cup chicken broth (or a drained condensed chicken soup can with some water, hah)
-Cook the bacon until crispy. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate and set aside.

-Add olive oil to pan and mix around with the bacon grease. Add onions and saute until they begin to soften but not brown.

-Add sprouts and coat with oil--add more oil at this point if you need to--season with salt and pepper, and cook until just soft.

-Add chicken broth and simmer until sprouts are tender. This will take ten minutes or more, check tenderness with a fork until desired softness is reached.

-Remove from heat and mix in the bacon. Serve! Devour! Delish!

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Camera, Back from the Dead!

So far my foodie pictures have been less than I'd hoped they'd be--mainly because I haven't had a camera since October and have been using a combination of MacBook webcam and 2 megapixel camera phone to take pictures of my creations.

Not so appetizing.

But now that I have my beloved Nokia S3000 Coolpix (don't laugh, it's silly but it does the job) back in working order, expect some semi-decent pics instead of the utterly laughable thus far.

With the exception of the next few posts, I mean. Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps and Boyfriend Makes Dinner posts are forthcoming, and sadly they are of the 2 megapixel variety.

It'll be better, prettier soon, just stick with me! :)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Comfort Food -- Quiche

Quiche is one of my ultimate comfort foods. It's also a good Busy-Life-Food, because it is so versatile! It takes about 45 minutes total (with prep and cook time) but for the time investment, the dish really pays off. It makes a nice, light dinner, a warm and filling breakfast, or a quick lunch. That's three meals from one quiche. And as far as I know, it'll keep for a week at least, so you get some good milage out of this one dish.

With the pie crust being about the only exception, you can usually find all the ingredients for a delicious quiche without a trip to the grocery store. I find my culinary improvisational skills are at their best when faced with quiche. Once you have the basic egg-pie base, you can put pretty much any veggie or protein you like in there. I've made everything from the standard cheese and egg quiche to a zuccini and spinach quiche to a fancy ham and brie quiche.

And, as with my fabulous Mac and Cheese secret Ritz-cracker topping, this two has a secret: I use Pillsbury Crescent Rolls for the crust. Since I'm basically entirely a culinary novice, I have never attempted to make my own pie crust. And one day, in my little apartment in the city while in college, I was craving my mom's ham and spinach quiche so badly I could feel my stomach screaming at me. I had the crescent rolls in the fridge (leftover from a party where I made pigs in a blanket) and decided to do some experimenting.

The result? An amazingly buttery, flaky crust. Delicious. So much more than a mere pie crust could ever be! I knew I would never even attempt a regular pie crust, as this was far too close to heaven to ever stray.

The funny part: Apparently this is the same trick my mom has been using for years. Like mother, like daughter. No wonder I loved her quiches so much growing up.

Easy Quiche
(feel free to sub any of the suggested veggies for those of your choice!)

  • 1 roll Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
  • 4 Eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup chopped mushrooms
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 cup spinach, cooked and chopped
  • 1/2 cup cheese (I use cheddar, but use whatever you'd like)
  • 1/4 cup ham, chopped or cubed (I use deli ham that has been chopped or shredded)
  • Dash of salt and pepper

-Pre-heat oven to 350. Butter or grease a pie baking dish and form crescent roll strips into a crust--basically, just pretend it's play dough and mold it into the shape of the dish.

-Heat olive oil in a frying pan and add onion. Cook until soft, then add garlic, mushrooms (I use canned, but if you'd like to use fresh, take a few minutes to let these soften as well), and spinach (again, I use frozen but if you use fresh, take a few minutes to let it wilt). Cook for a few minutes until warm and well combined. I also add the ham at this point, to get it a little browned, but this is entirely optional.

-Place ham and veggie mixture into the pie crust. Spread evenly.

-Combine eggs with milk and whisk together. Add salt and pepper, then pour over the veggies and ham in the pie crust.

-Top with cheese!

-Bake for 25 minutes, or until eggs are set.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dinner -- Chicken Marsala with Mascarapone Cream Sauce

In my food extravaganza of the other day--from which this blog was born--I bought all the necessary ingredients for my new favorite recipe to make for my parents. I felt bad about not getting Mom a card for Valentine's Day, and although my stepfather is a bit meat-and-potatoes and stays far away from the kitchen when I make it smell like curry and other exotic spices, this was a dish he had mentioned he wouldn't mind trying.

Let me pause for a moment and mention that the recipe is from my newest blog obsession, Can You Stay for Dinner? I've tried about seven of her recipes thus far and have about five more on the To-Cook List. They're all absolutely amazing and the wonderful Andrea keeps them to about 500 calories per meal. I drool over every thing she posts, and making my own cooking blog was heavily influenced by hers. Please do check out her blog though!

Anyway. This is the third time I've cooked her amazing Chicken in Creamy Mustard Marsala Sauce The first time, I was disappointed. I had bought the cheapest Marsala wine from the liquor store and though the sauce smelled wonderful the chicken came out far too dry. But I knew it had potential. I didn't want to give up.

Here is what I learned:

Simmering the mushrooms and onions in the Marsala wine

  • Marsala wine is hard to find in a liquor store. I had the option of the $4 bottle or the $20 and no in-between. I went for the $4. The stuff smelled like nail varnish.
  • GROCERY STORES SELL MARSALA COOKING WINE: $3! Round 3 I discovered this and it made all the difference.
  • I don't like onions, though tolerate them when I think they'll add to the recipe, but I didn't have any on me for Attempt 1. I think this is mostly why something felt like it was missing from the dish.
  • Andrea's recipe used meat pulled from a roast chicken. I had no time for this, so I thought regular breasts cooked in a skillet with oil would do. Fail. They came out dry and took forever to cook.
  • Next round I butterflied the chicken breasts (still didn't want to roast a bird) and tried to use a potato masher as a mallet to tenderize them. Better, but still dry.
  • For this attempt, I used a real mallet, salt and peppered each side of the flattened breast, then put it in a bag with a few tablespoons of the Marsala wine and let it marinate. I again cooked the chicken in a skillet with olive oil, and discovered that everyone is right about this rule: DO NOT TOUCH BROWNING MEAT. Developing a good crust is VITAL to tenderness and juiciness! I will use this tip religiously from this point forward.
  • Pulling apart the meat by fork/hand makes it look much better than coarsely chopping with a knife.
  • I had no parsley for the first two attempts. Don't forget the parsley, if only because it gives it more color. Also gives it a nice burst of fresh flavor.

My stepdad said, "It's good." So I think it was a success.

Taken via webcam. Need a new camera badly...
Dessert was another Can You Stay For Dinner special: Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies. These are heaven.

See that? That's what browned butter looks like. It's like regular melted butter, but oh so magical. The smell is amazing and it's what makes the cookies the best cookies I've ever taste. I intend on doing some experiments with this substance in the near future, absent-minded-professor style. It will have its own blog post, just you wait.

And that was dinner tonight! Thank you to Can You Stay for Dinner? -- I no doubt will be reviewing more recipes of hers in the future. I'd do five more right now if I could!

A Good Read for Aspiring Kitchen Novices

Came across this while browsing my daily Food News Journal email blast.

Though I've come a long way from rubbery scrambled eggs (Don't rush it, and use milk, always!) and melted plastic bowls via microwave (chocolate melts are temperamental and burnt chocolate is evil) I still have some pretty big fails every now and then. I still feel like the absent minded professor when faced with a new recipe, plowing through it with my special brand of organized chaos and hoping upon hoping that something edible comes out of it with the fewest possible casualties.

Like when I made my famous mac and cheese (see two posts prior) for my dear friend who just had a baby and entirely forgot one cup of milk AND to temper in the egg because I was so concerned about getting it all made and getting it to her in a timely manner and worrying about how I'd keep it safe during work--a sign on it in the communal fridge did just fine--that I didn't pay attention and though she swears it came out just fine I have my doubts. Girl just pushed out a kid, she deserves the creamiest cheesiest mac that man creates!

This article won't help your memory or absentmindedness, but it brings up some interesting points: like if a recipe calls for a medium sauce pan and you only have a large sauce pan it could effect your end results. Who knew!

Check it out.

Snack Attack! -- Simple Pleasures

I am a snacker. I'm not ashamed. Sometimes the time between meals is too long, and one must succumb to the more animal urges--diets be damned, pass me that crinkly bag of something and a soda and sit me in front of a television please and thank you, I've had a long day of class/work/turning oxygen into carbon dioxide and I need something in my belly STAT.

I go through phases of the perfect snack. Beginning with bologna sandwiches in my early years, to brie on toasts with sweet apple sausage in college (the apartment times, not the dorms), to Triscuit Quattro Formaggio to this. 

This, my friends, is Saltines with butter. And some grape jelly. It's really that simple.

If you have not experienced this wonder, please, step away from the computer and go find these items. I guarantee you, you have these items in your pantry. It sounds bizarre, it sounds salty, it sounds blah but oh you are so very very wrong. This is divine. The creamy butter--or margarine, if you're like me and are unable to successfully spread block butter without destroying whatever you press the knife to--with the crisp salty cracker is just perfect.

I came to this realization the other night, when my mom made a delicious hamburger soup. We were out of our usual fancy bread to accompany the soup, and my mom asked if I could bring her some Saltines with butter. I gave her a quizzical look and did as I was told. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I took a bite for myself.

And the rest is history.

On about day three of this obsession I remembered a Sex and the City episode where Carrie discussed her "single girl habit" of eating a stack of Saltines and grape jelly while reading fashion magazines barefoot in her kitchen. Intrigued, I added jelly to the mix. Equally lovely.

So there you have it, my current snack of the moment. If you don't take a minute and go whip some of these up, you're really missing out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Famous Mac and Cheese

I thought I'd begin with my old reliable: my beloved Baked Mac and Cheese. Adapted from equal parts my mother's recipe, Alton Brown's crazy show, and my own additions, this is the dish that is requested of me most often. I could be a chef at a five star gourmet restaurant and my family and boyfriend would still beg for my mac and cheese when it's my turn to cook.

My secret arsenal of dijon mustard, cayenne pepper, and loads of garlic topped with crushed Ritz crackers is what gives it that little extra, I think. Forget lowly breadcrumbs or even fancy-pants panko, Ritz is where it's at.

I don't agree with Alton's suggestion of deep-frying the leftovers though. A bit too gourmet for me!

Bee's Famous Baked Mac and Cheese

1 package macaroni elbows
7 tbs butter
3 tbs flour
3 cups milk (percentage of your choice!)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
large dash of cayenne pepper
1 egg
2 tbs dijon mustard
2 blocks cheese, cut into blocks -- this is up to you, but I like sharp cheddars
1.5 sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed

-Prepare a box of macaroni according to the package.
-Melt 4 tbs butter in a sauce pan and slowly add the flour, whisking constantly.
-Slowly add the milk, again whisking constantly.
-Add the garlic, cayenne, and mustard and stir to combine.
-Whisk the egg in a small bowl and temper into the sauce. For those who don't know what "tempering" is--I'll admit, I had to google it the first time--it's when you slowly add a warm liquid to a cold egg, tiny spoonfuls at a time, so that the egg will gradually reach the temperature of the sauce without scrambling, making it safe to add to the hot sauce. If you were to pour it into the sauce all willy-nilly and cold, it'd cook immediately and you'd have egg bits floating around. No good!
-Let the mixture simmer until thick, it should coat the back of a spoon.
-Once the sauce is thick, add most of the cheese, reserving a small amount for topping later. Stir until melted.
-Combine the cheese sauce with the prepared macaroni and pour into a greased baking dish.
-To make the topping: melt the remaining butter and toss with the crushed ritz. Pour crumbs over the top of the mac and cheese and top with the remaining cheese.
-Cook for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Spoon out, eat immediately, fall in love.

In the Beginning... There was Food.

Like many things I make in life, this blog was created in a burst of spontaneity. A thought that struck me while browsing the aisle of the local grocery shop, my basket again overflowing with assorted culinary odds and ends that was gradually amounting to more than the contents of my checking account, when I experienced a moment of pure elation upon seeing a jar of chili paste I'd searched for in every other grocery store in a ten mile radius. FINALLY! I could make every thai dish on my To-Cook List! And I didn't even have to cross the river to the Asian grocery store 40 minutes away to do it!

It dawned on me then, more than ever: I love to cook.

This, coupled with the earlier epiphanies of "I love to write" and "I need to find a 12-step program for my internet addiction" resulted in two things happening that evening: One, preparing a creamy chicken marsala dish for tomorrow's dinner, and Two, this blog entry.

It's a logical step. I've had a blog more or less since I was ten, and have a couple currently. But they're mostly for me to rant and complain on and post pictures of cats. Who cares about that?--Well, a handful of special people actually, but for the most part, no one. Who cares about food? EVERYONE!

Sharing my love of food and possibly writing something people will actually read? Sounds good to me.

A brief (hah, yeah right) summary of my culinary history: I always tried my hardest to cook. From the time I could reach the stove I was waking my parents up with a delightful breakfast-in-bed of brown apples cut clumsily with a plastic knife, lukewarm coffee because the coffee maker scared me, and rubbery scrambled eggs. It was always a little joke, Bee Can't Cook. A fact enforced when I melted a bowl in the microwave, somehow managed to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies that simply would not solidify in the oven no matter what the temperature, and tried to melt butter that was already smooshed into some kind of batter that resulted in cooked, sugary egg mush.

And so it lasted for about ten years. And then two very important things happened: I moved into my own apartment, and became a vegetarian. Suddenly there were not many things I could eat, and I had to cook them all myself! Lest I go broke eating out all the time. Armed with a stack of vegetarian cook books, I slowly began to teach myself how to cook. By the next month my baked mac and cheese was legendary. A year and a half later I succumbed to a Big Mac and my veggie phase was over, so I did the logical thing and taught myself how to cook the meats.

The final push into my obsession with cuisine and my over-spending in the supermarket was my summer interning for the fabulous Lisa Ekus. I stumbled upon her business in my college textbook for Book Publicity while doing a project on freelance publicists. Not only was she the most respected cook book publicist in the country, but I COULD SEE HER HOUSE FROM MY HOUSE and had a very distinct memory of trick-or-treating to her house years earlier and commenting on the library that took up the whole front of the building. I sent an email, hoping upon hoping she'd take the time to respond, and within a week I'd met with her and her daughter and staff and had secured the internship for the summer.

Soon I found myself lost in Lisa's cook books, photocopying her clients' recipes and trying them out on my new boyfriend. I admired and envied every smiling face on every cover--they were cooking for a living! Why couldn't I?--oh, that's right, I have still am vague on what exactly fois gras is and my knife skills are abysmal. I don't think I've even ever tasted souffle...

My next internship, at FamilyFun had a similar effect on me. I still have piles of teared-out pages, waiting to be cooked up. I wish I'd been brave enough to ask the test kitchen to let me shadow for a day. The smells wafting from the basement were divine, and on the lucky days we got to taste-test and rate the recipes slated for publication were the ones I looked forward to most.

Did I mention I watch Top Chef religiously? One of these days they'll take a chance on a young go-getter with no experience, right??

So I graduated with my shiny new publishing degree, moved back in with the parents, and got a sensible job as a marketing assistant for an energy company. In my free time, I keep my parents and my boyfriend well-fed.

This was when I decided that I knew my mid-life crisis was already impending. I would reach 40 and go to culinary school and finally make my secret dreams come true. Hell, at quarter-life I'm yearning to do that too! So my recipe book gets thicker, my ambitions get higher, and my wallet gets skinnier as I shell out $5 for Oyster Sauce to make thai lettuce wraps.

And so begins my journey into the Cooking Blogosphere, my Quarter Life Crisis. Hopefully I can inspire other wannabe chefs to try on the ol' silly white hat, or just give you something interesting to cook for dinner or drool over. I have big plans for this, let's hope I go through with it.