I'm Making A Concerted Effort This Weekend

I'm going to make a concerted effort this weekend to cook something new. The last two weeks or so were busy because of Valentine's Day and some nights out with friends on the weekends. Last weekend in particular was a minor league hockey game on Friday night and then an ordeal that ended in a $100+ (split between two people) trip to the grocery store and a good but bland dinner menu for the week.

Sunday we made white (chicken) chili for dinner as well as both chicken salad and egg salad for lunches during the week. Monday we were busy so some of the pre-made food/leftovers. Tuesday we had coconut crusted tilapia with asparagus and Kashi rice. Last night we have baked garlic and herb salmon with wild rice and a balsamic vinaigrette salad with tomato and fresh mozzarella. Tonight the dinner menu is looking like whole wheat pasta, something I am none too pleased about.

Meanwhile the last two nights at 7pm I've watched Food Network Challenge "Build A Better Burger". Its killing me. Healthy food is great sometimes, but a lot of times it just sucks. This weekend I am going to make something, I don't know what, but it will be great and filling and as unhealthy as it needs to be so that it tastes right. None of this whole wheat pasta business.

Omelets (or Omelettes, both spellings are correct)

I haven't been doing a whole lot of cooking this past week. At least not new cooking. We did French Toast and Macaroni & Cheese for some easily stored on the go meals but that was about it. Part of our Valentine's Day weekend was to avoid cooking. So we went out for dinner Friday and Saturday night, but Saturday morning I managed to squeeze in a MacGyver breakfast in part because Lauren never brought her waffle iron back from work.

The result was cheese omelets:

2 eggs
1 tbsp butter
1 8 or 10 inch non-stick skillet
salt & pepper

Add butter to the skillet and heat until slightly brown. crack 2 eggs, beat with a fork, add salt & pepper to taste, then add to skillet. While the egg begins to form to take your fork and stir the eggs without scraping the bottom of the skillet. With your other hand shake the pan back and forth. It is somewhat like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. To get comfortable with this you may need to remove the skillet from the heat. Thats not problem just periodically put it back on to keep the egg cooking. After about a minute, take your fork and run it around the edge of your egg to set the boundary. After another 30 seconds, lift one edge of the egg and tilt the pan towards the opening to let some excess egg run off. Why? I don't really know. I'll let Alton Brown explain below. But once you've run off some of the excess egg, let it cook on medium heat for 10-20 seconds (depending on your preference), then add your toppings, cook for and additional 10-20 seconds, fold and serve.

For my omelette I used Mozzarrella, Parmesan and Provolone. Thats the cheese we had on hand from the lasagna. Lauren didn't care for her because of the Parmesan, so I got to eat mine plus a half of hers.

As far as how you cook them, if the instructions were not clear enough, here is the Good Eats episode that will show you how it's done. For what its worth I didn't bother with warming the eggs before I started, so my omelet may not have been as delicate as Alton Browns, but it wasn't scrambled eggs either. I also didn't bother with all the nonsense about what kind of spatula is best. I used a fork for everything. To see the important omelet related stuff for Alton Brown, skip to about the 9 minute mark of the video above.

Garlic Chicken Alfredo Lasagna

Last night I made a Garlic Chicken Alfredo Lasagna, my first lasagna ever. It seemed straight forward enough but there were some rookie mistakes. First, I tried to make it convenient by purchasing oven-ready lasagna noodles. You buy them in the regular pasta section. The dry noodles are scored in such a way that they manage to absorb liquid from the lasagna ingredients. They seem easy enough, because you just lay them down like a brick mason, layering ingredients and sauce in between. However its a little unclear how much liquid is enough to get them to cook all the way through. So you might build your lasagna in 15 minutes, but you spend 45 minutes wondering if its going to be crunchy. Unfortunately that is exactly what happened to the top layer of noodles. They didn't quite cook all the way through. I don't know if that was because of the cheese on top or because liquid drained toward the bottom, but I have an idea of what it was.

My second mistake was in layering the lasagna. It had occurred to me that I should probably stack the noodles perpendicularly by layer but abandoned the idea quickly when I saw the size of the noodles. My pan was 13 x 9, but the noodles were about 10 inches long. So the noodles wouldn't fit across the pan without cutting them first, and when you cut dry pasta it cracks like glass. Yet another reason to take the time to get regular lasagna noodles and boil them before you lay them down. Much easier to manage odd lengths at that point. So I stacked the lasagna in the same fashion in all three layers. In retrospect I think what may have happened was that the liquid that should have remained at the top layer probably drained straight down the seam to the bottom. Or perhaps it was the order that I chose to layer my ingredients. Just for the sake of safety, I'm going to recommend that you use regular lasagna noodles if you attempt to follow this recipe just because I can't pinpoint exactly what I did wrong.

On to the recipe:

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (approx. 2 lbs) diced, cooked
1 box no boil lasagna noodles (or regular lasagna noodles)
2 15 oz containers ricotta cheese
1 box frozen chopped spinach (defrosted, squeezed dry)
4 roma tomatoes, chopped fine
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 jars alfredo sauce
1 cup milk
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic

Preheat the oven to 400. Mix ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese and spinach in a large mixing bowl and set aside. As far as the garlic goes you can either add it to the chicken or add it to the sauce. Whisk milk and alfredo sauce together until smooth. Spoon a thin layer of the alfredo mixture on to the bottom of your pan. Put your first layer of lasagna noodles on top of it. Then spread your ricotta cheese mixture on top of the noodles, followed by your tomatoes and pepper. Cover with alfredo sauce. Add second layer of noodles. Repeat ricotta cheese, followed by chicken and mushrooms, covered with alfredo. Add third layer of noodles, cover with remaining ricotta and alfredo, top with mozzarella cheese. Bake at 400 for 45 minutes.

The MacGyver Breakfast

Borne primarily out of laziness and the hatred of single digit temperatures I have begun a weekend tradition I'm calling The MacGyver Breakfast. It consists of me waking up, wandering aimlessly around the kitchen opening and closing the refrigerator door several times, taking note of what I do and do not have to work with.

When I've keyed in on at least one bountiful ingredient I open up my Joy of Cooking cookbook and check the back pages for recipes utilizing that ingredient. When I opened the fridge last Saturday I couldn't get my mind off the bottle of lemon juice I had purchased the week before when I made chicken salad. I wanted pancakes, I wanted them to have flavor but all I had was lemon. That is when I discovered

Lemon Pancakes:

Dry Ingredients

1 cup flour

1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Wet Ingredients
3/4 cup sour cream
1/3 cup milk
lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons butter (melted)
1 egg 1
1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix the dry ingredients with a wisk, in a separate bowl mix all the wet ingredients until it becomes a milk-like consistency. By hand quickly mix the wet ingredients with the dry for 15-20 seconds. The batter will be light and airy. Do not overmix the batter or the pancakes will be dense and not nearly as good. Heat a skillet and make pancakes.

These pancakes are awesome on their own, but the next time I plan on making them I'm going to throw in some blueberries. I didn't bother with the lemon zest since I was using bottled lemon juice.

This post isn't done yet. A couple weeks ago I had a similar, but far less spectacular, experience with sour cream. The night before Lauren and I had made some white chicken chili and as a result had most of a 16 oz container of sour cream left in the fridge. So when I went rummaging through it the next morning looking for potential breakfast items I couldn't get my mind off of the sour cream. It might be weeks before we do anything else with sour cream and I just don't trust expiration dates, especially when the container in question costs about $1.50.

So once again I opened up The Joy of Cooking and discovered an excellent use for the ingredients I had on hand.

Sour Cream Muffins:

Dry Ingredients
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Wet Ingredients
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
2/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/2 stick butter (melted)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Bake at 350 or 375 for 10-12 minutes, or until you can stick a fork in the middle and have it come out clean.

This is an excellent base muffin recipe. The sour cream and brown sugar keep the middle and muffin top nice and moist. They are pretty good on their own but a bit less sweet than you might expect. My suggestion here would be to add either lemon and blueberries or banana and walnuts to the muffin batter to round out the taste.

Other sour cream muffin addition possibilities include Snickerdoodle (pictured), cherry & peach, apple cinnamon and chocolate.

Sour cream is pretty awesome.

Soft-Baked Pretzels

A couple of months ago when Lauren and I were messing around with yeast and dough for cinnamon rolls I mentioned to her that I really wanted to make soft-baked pretzels. Just this month I happened to catch an episode of Good Eats that explained exactly how to do just that. Unfortunately I don't see how you get this done without an electric mixer unless you've got some seriously muscular forearms. There is a lot of kneading required to get the smooth consistency required for the pretzels to have awesome chewiness.

* 1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water

* 1 tablespoon sugar

* 2 teaspoons kosher salt

* 1 package active dry yeast

* 22 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 4 1/2 cups

* 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted

* Vegetable oil, for pan

* 10 cups water
* 2/3 cup baking soda

* 1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water

* Pretzel salt

Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.
Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan. In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan. Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula.

Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the pans(s) half way through. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

These pretzels are excellent. You can use coarse sea salt instead of pretzel salt if you have a sea salt grinder at home. On the episode, Alton Brown said the primary benefit of pretzel salt was that it gives you the classic pretzel look. Table salt gives you a little too much coverage on the pretzel.

Aside from the one hour proofing time, the recipe was quick and easy. Once the dough was ready it took about 10 minutes to roll them out, shape them and get them ready to bake.

Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Last week I came across an episode of Good Eats on macaroni and cheese. More than half the episode was spent on your typical fancy baked macaroni and cheese casserole, which is wonderful but ultimately not very practical for someone that typical cooks for one or two.

But just before the episode ended, Alton Brown talked about how to make a quick homemade stove top mac and cheese to compete with the powdered Kraft Mac N Cheese and Velveeta Shells N Cheese. It is ridiculously simple and really only requires one or two oddball ingredients, but you can buy and store those ingredients at room temperature almost indefinitely.

Alton Brown's Stove Top Macaroni and Cheese:

  • 1/2 pound elbow macaroni (2 cups dry)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 ounces evaporated milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Fresh black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 10 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded

In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente (6 minutes) and drain, then rinse with cold water. Return to the pot and melt in the butter. Toss to coat.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and mustard. Stir into the pasta and add the cheese in 3-4 separate handfuls. Over low heat continue to stir for 3-5 minutes or until creamy.

I used mild cheddar rather sharp and I just bought bag of shredded Meijer brand. I didn't feel the need to be fancy by buying a block of cheese and shredding it myself, and some of the reviews I had read weren't so keen on the sharp cheddar flavor. I tried to limit my ingredients to whole containers (where possible) so I could get a read on how easy everything would be to buy, store and then make on demand, similar to the boxed macaroni and cheese. Evaporated milk comes in 5 oz containers (not 6 oz) and shredded cheese is sold in 8 oz bags (not 10 oz) so those were the amounts I used. I also skipped the hot sauce because all we had was habanero hot sauce and I didn't feel like taking that risk.

As far as the ingredients are concerned if you are in the habit of weekly grocery shopping, butter and eggs should be staple ingredients that you'll have on hand for your other needs. Here is a complete price break down. A "serving" in this case means the amount of ingredients you'll need to make one batch of mac and cheese.

Elbow macaroni - $0.46 per serving (servings per box)

Butter - $0.25 per serving (2 servings per stick)

Evaporated milk - $0.69 per 5 oz
Shredded cheese - $2 per 8 oz
Eggs - $1-$3 per dozen ($0.10-$0.25 per egg)

Dry mustard - $0.35 per serving ($2.35 per oz, 6 teaspoons in one oz)

Give or take some sale prices this comes out around $4 per batch. The difference is that when its all said and done this 8 0z of mac and cheese can easily feed four adults. My experience with the 7.25 oz Kraft mac and cheese and the 12 oz Velveeta shells n cheese is that you're looking at feeding about 1.5-2.5 people if you're lucky. So in the end when you weigh all the pros and cons of the various macaroni and cheese preparations, they all come out pretty close to even in price per meal. Which means the winner should be decided on taste, and nothing comes close to the home made stove top macaroni and cheese.

In my opinion this is the kind of mac and cheese you're going to want to put out at family gatherings/work parties/potluck dinners as a side dish. A little bit goes a long way, people will love the taste and then you can impress them by telling them how simple it is to make.

Lastly, I didn't take a picture of my mac and cheese because its hard for a picture to capture how it tastes any different than any other mac and cheese.

Also worth noting is that if you refrigerate it and heat it up later (like I did for lunch today) the cheese doesn't get all clumpy and oily and the noodles don't get weird and rubbery. I'll stop short the hyperbole of saying "I'll never buy mac and cheese again" and just say that I don't see any reason why I shouldn't make a habit of keeping all the ingredients on hand so I can have it on demand.