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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Category Archives: New Recipe

This is an old standby that I haven’t made in a while: Yellow rice w/Chorizo & Chicken. It was the best one I’ve ever made and I attribute that to the blog – I was able to adjust the recipe now that I’ve learned more about myself as a cook.

First, I finally broke the habit of trying to cook meat and vegetables that cook at varying rates together! So I cooked the meats separately, set them aside then cooked the vegetables. It was relaxed and actually, strangely, takes less time than trying to cook them together because I cook each item at a higher heat for less time rather than forcing myself to keep turning down the heat because something is burning and something else isn’t cooked enough!

Second, I got the family size Goya Yellow Rice box because I had a note on the recipe to double the rice. That also made for really nice proportions. Finally, I improvised (totally out of character for an Unnatural Cook) and threw in some leftover green olives I had. The olives plus some Louisana hot sauce and we had a nice little picante thing happening.

 

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This is not the best dish I’ve ever cooked but its one of the ones I’m most proud of. It sort of makes me realize how much my confidence as a cook has grown since I began this blog mishegas. For lack of a better name (and because I love my son and this is what he named it) I present to you Test Taking Pasta.

Test Taking Pasta is this weeks “surprise meal.” The one where I get inspired by ingredients at the store. It’s called Test Taking Pasta merely because this is the week of the state math tests. The inspiration was actually last Saturday’s meal of garlic broccolini and chicken kebabs: my daughter pointed out that it would make a good pasta dish. I thought the asparagus looked nice so I added that to the mix along with wine, shallots, garlic and leftover onion.

It’s really the technique I like that I came up with. I roasted the broccoli and asparagus together with tons of minced garlic. I overcooked the vegetables a bit because I started them too early but my family is a fan of blackened vegetables so no one was disappointed about that besides me – I’m the only one who saw them while they were still beautifully green. While the vegetables were roasting I cooked the chicken in very small very thin strips, high heat, salt & pepper. Then I took out the chicken & sauteed the shallots and onion. I added more minced garlic at the end then deglazed with white wine and returned the chicken to the pan. While the pasta water was boiling I kept the chicken and onions warming in the oven with the vegetables. When the pasta was cooked I threw it all together and added parmesan.

I think the Test Taking name should stay. Maintaining this blog has been a test of my resolve, writing when I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing has been a test of my character, making meals up has been a test of my willingness to fail. The state may not be testing the kids in the most meaningful way but it hasn’t quelled their love of learning and that’s the thing that counts.

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I used to be really daunted by this chilaquiles recipe – so many steps & bowls & ingredients halved and mixed with other ingredients. But now that I’m thinking about cooking differently – trying to understand technique – I was able to simplify it for myself. The recipe is by Grace Parisi from Food & Wine. I cut out the sour cream & the scallion from the original recipe and added an onion. I do not cook the sauce as she does and I use more chips. I rewrote the recipe, breaking it down into sections that help me understand the process and thereby feel like less of a slave to the directions. The changes have made it quicker and less stressful to prepare and somehow I’ve convinced my daughter, the last hold out, of its merit. For me this is true comfort food. Basically warm, flavorful mush. My son calls it the soggy chip thing which is just about right.

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By Thursday I gave up and went out for Thai Food with the kids. I was three days behind on the dishes and it was a busy week; I was tired. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the kids woke up twice at the ungodly hour of 5:50 in the morning because they important things to do, like get into Dutch settler costumes and make zucchini bread.

That’s how Thursday’s dinner, a spinach, leek & bacon frittata, turned into Friday’s lunch for the car ride to Vermont. I finally, finally managed to follow my own advice and cooked the bacon and the leeks in separate pans. Surprisingly it felt like less work.  Having to clean the extra pan took less time than negotiating the stress of putting two things  that cook at different rates in the same pan. (As I write that I have to admit I’m pretty sure it was my husband that cleaned the extra pan, but still….)

The frittata made a great on the road meal and I was quite pleased with my made up combination of spinach and leeks, inspired by the giant leeks found at the store.

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Making the beans tonight and thinking about the corn avocado and mango salsa I was going to make up myself, got me thinking about memorizing. I basically know how to make the beans because I’ve memorized the steps. Lately I’ve begun trying to memorize recipes because it dawned on me when I memorize a recipe it teaches me not only how to make that dish, but how to cook. Memorization is a form of internalizing knowledge so that it becomes part of you in a way that you don’t really realize until, say, you go to grad school and someone points it out.

Last week in my literature seminar, the instructor was horrified to learn how few of us (myself absolutely included) had any prose at all memorized. When forced, I could come up only with the opening lines to Dante’s Inferno, in italian, which I misquoted horribly. The correct lines would have been: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, or, In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood. We won’t go into what I actually said, we will settle for the fact that it was a fitting two lines of poetry for a middle-aged woman feeling out of her depth.

But my instructor was not appeased. “What will you do if you’re thrown in jail?” he inquired of us with genuine concern. He was right. What would I do? But more importantly, how could any self-respecting grad student such as myself not have made it a point to internalize the very best of the language I purported to write in? And so he set us the task of memorizing an entire page of prose which is much harder than it sounds. Easier, were the two lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d wished I’d remembered in class: Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand / come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.

I am still working on the prose, the opening to Man in the Holocene, by Max Frisch. “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread…” I am hooked now, on memorizing prose, hoping that it will do for me creatively on the page what memorizing recipes is doing for me creatively in the kitchen.

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Two new recipes: Lemon Chicken & Sauteed Jerusalem Artichokes.

Both represent a bit of changing of the ways caused by the blog. The chicken because I made an effort to plan based on what was leftover – some unused chicken legs in the freezer. The Jerusalem Artichokes because I saw them in the store last week and wrote it down on my meal plan thinking I could try to find a recipe for them for the following week. Sort of a baby step toward being inspired by ingredients while I’m shopping.

Both recipes are keepers. I did burn the chicken at the last minute by putting it in the broiler to crisp the skin and then forgetting about it. It wasn’t ruined, just slightly to the wrong side of charred.

The Jerusalem Artichokes were another Jamie Oliver recipe. I like the way he writes his recipes: the directions are clear enough so that the food turns out, but free enough so that you feel like you’re really cooking, not following instructions. I realize that contradicts everything I thought I wanted in the kitchen when I started the blog. But now that the blog has forced me to see that cooking is easier when you understand what you’re doing instead of when you’re following rules – I’m also free to see that certain recipes can actually teach you to become a more confident cook.

In other words, the Unnatural Cook is discovering she has an interest in becoming a Natural Cook after all….

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