Saturday, January 9, 2010

Guest Blog: Cooking like an Iron Chef when you've only got zinc

Pardon the nerdy science pun in the blog post heading, but that's what I am - a nerd. No, this isn't Debra. This is her husband Seth. Debra has been begging me for quite some time now to be a guest blogger on her site. I've regularly declined because I honestly have nothing to write about. I have to save all my humor genes for the end-of-year family letter, so humor is out of the question. That leaves ... well, nothing.

Until now. Tonight, as we were eating dinner, Debra told me she really enjoyed the meal I prepared. I know, shocker right? A man cooking dinner? Yeah right. And yes, it was more than something I ordered from the McDonald's drive-through window. Debra said she loves it when I cook meals from off the top of my head, even going so far as to say I have a gift for it. Now, as far as I know, I only have three gifts: writing sad poetry to polka, running a Furbies fan site and watching ESPN. Don't laugh, it's a talent. Anyway, she said I should start a guest column on her blog about how to make a full meal from whatever you might have in your refrigerator. I thought about it for a second, ate another mushroom, tugged on my beard for security and agreed. We'll see how this goes.

For starters, let me say I love to cook. I've always loved to cook. It started when I was 18 months old and my mom put out a bowl of cereal and a cup of milk in the fridge so I could make myself breakfast each morning. At the same age I also regularly helped make macaroni and cheese and knew exactly what ingredient should go next.

Here's me as a kid. Cute, huh? What happened? I'm not sure either.

My passion for cooking only continued over the years. When I went to college, I was surprised my roommates didn't cook. They lived off HotPockets and Mountain Dew. I wasn't about that. I grew up with home-cooked meals and wanted my spoiled culinary tastes to get what I felt they deserved. This is when I started to experiment with making meals with whatever few items I might have in the fridge. This led to such incredible creations as mayo smothered pickles on Eggos and hot dogs infused with a Dr. Pepper and mustard reduction, topped with Whoppers and shaved Ramen. All kidding aside, my attempts were equal brilliance and failure.

Ever since I've been married, my creativity in the kitchen has skyrocketed and not just because I now have every kitchen utensil known to man. For the first two years of our marriage I did the vast majority of the cooking. Now that I'm busy with teaching all day, Debra does most of the cooking on the weekdays, leaving only the weekends for me. That's when my creativity runs wild. We buy the ingredients she needs for the week and then I get to create with what's left over. I love it. It allows me to set my creativity free and really enjoy the process of cooking.

I say all this because I believe everybody can become a proficient cook using only whatever ingredients may be in the fridge at the end of the week. It takes some practice and a knowledge of a few fundamentals of creative cooking and you're set.

My first advice is to let go of mom's recipes and your favorite cookbook. Yes, I know these meals are tried and true and your spouse and children love them. There are memories attached to meals. You've always done roast on Sunday, blah, blah, blah. I get it. But, really, aren't we all a little sick of the same meals over and over? One of the biggest reasons we don't branch out more is because we're afraid we might not like something. That's an understandable fear, but dinner isn't really a major investment of either time or money. It's relatively inexpensive and one of the few places where you can really innovate without going crazy and cutting off your ear. Go ahead and experiment. It might not come out perfect, but I bet there will be elements of it you like and then you can find ways to improve it. Who knows, it may just become part of your cookbook.

That sounds great and all, but how do I get started? First, make a goal to make one new meal a week. I'm not saying it has to be just from what's in the refrigerator. Try any new meal once a week. This blog regularly has some good ones and there are millions of recipes on the Internet. The very process of trying something new will spark creativity and will give you confidence to create even more complex meals from very simple ingredients.

In the coming posts I will outline very specific topics. For now, I will wrap this up by challenging you to make one new meal this week. If you're having a hard time making yourself do this, plan for two fewer meals than you usually make. This will allow you to use up your favorite fall-back meal and then you're forced to make a new meal. Good luck and bon apet... forget that French word. Pound that food!

Tonight's creation:
Breaded lemon chicken pasta with squash
NOTE: This was what was left in the refrigerator at the end of the week. I often cook with squash, but I got creative with how I made the chicken and it made all the difference.

2 chicken breasts (add more for a larger family) cut into thin strips
2 or more different types of squash. (I used an Italian squash and just a common summer squash)
green onion
lemon juice
bread crumbs
olive oil
bow tie noodles
Italian dressing

Herb/Spice Rack
I love herbs and spices, so every meal will include these.
garlic salt
Cut one squash (the larger one) down the middle. Cut the other squash down the middle and then dice into 1/2-inch chunks. Lay the squash in a heated pan with olive oil. Sprinkle herbs and spices on top as desired. Cook through until the squash starts to darken and show signs of charring. (To speed this process up, use less olive oil). Add diced green onion and sliced mushrooms.

Meanwhile, slice the chicken into thin strips and lay in another pan heated with olive oil. Add some lemon juice to it. (No, I will not give you an exact amount because I don't cook that way. But, as a guide, only add enough so the chicken is lightly sitting in the lemon juice. Do not smother it.) Add herbs and spices to the chicken. Turn chicken halfway through the cooking process.

Once the chicken is cooked through, drain any excess liquids. Transfer the chicken to a baking dish covered in tinfoil (for ease of clean up). Lightly coat chicken in butter and coat with bread crumbs. Place in oven heated to 350 degrees and bake for 10 minutes.

Place chicken and vegetables on bed of bow tie noodles (yes, the shape of the noodles makes a difference. We'll discuss that in another post). Top with Italian dressing.
After having made this, I realized it would be better if it was sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and topped with black olives and diced tomato. Even still, it was delicious. Go ahead and try it. This can be your new meal of the week.
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