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The Unnatural Cook

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

Tag Archives: Mistakes

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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So it’s official, I’m going to try to change my ways. A tiny bit. I’ve been undermined by my own blog.

When I started the blog I was sure that the easiest way to get the cooking done was not to think about it. I thought I had mastered a brilliant strategy for how to serve dinner every night even though I didn’t like to cook. Meal planning and following recipes were my battle tactics. Then, in the act of writing about it I discovered that, in fact, my way was not the easiest way – even for me. I learned that on the nights I didn’t need to follow a recipe, I was more relaxed.

At first this was a source of great concern because I am not comfortable with change. (Is anyone?) But in the end it seemed ridiculous to avoid being more relaxed. There’s just no justification for that. So  I am going to see if I can nudge myself to learn more about cooking without recipes. Here’s the plan (because there always has to be a plan, I haven’t changed that much….)

I’m going to leave one night a week open on the meal plan. When I do the shopping, I’m going to allow myself to be inspired by some ingredient in the store and create a meal around it (Which I will then put on the plan. Again, I haven’t changed that much). It’s sort of like my daughter’s challenge for me to make dinner from what was in the house, only, I’ll have a much better “pantry” to choose from. The crazy thing is, this actually sounds fun to me.

I realized while I was shopping today that my plan keeps me from paying attention to anything other than finding what’s on the list. It’s really a silly sort of way to go through life. As an homage to my former self I am going to post in the sidebar my Meal Plan 101. I’ve had it written for ages but for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to adding it. It will be a record, of how the unnatural cook got her start. I’m not going to stop meal planning, but maybe, over time, I can adapt it so that I’ll grow as cook. One day, far in the future, I may even attain natural cook status.

Tonight we had leftover tomato soup with garlic broccoli and french bread. I finally doctored the soup to my satisfaction! I did it poorly a couple of weeks ago – too tangy, no flavor – so I tried to correct that with what I had around. I added sugar, fresh basil, marjoram, hot pepper and extra cream. Being willing to do it wrong and keep trying is the secret to all success in life, why I thought cooking was different I have no idea.

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It’s good to have good friends. They can come to dinner, you can feed them chili, drink too many beers, make false statements about John Dos Passos, and they still respect you in the morning. (I remembered that he stuck with Stalin and his friends turned against him, but really, he turned on Stalin and went with McCarthy & Goldwater!) There are so many ways to get it wrong in this life when you’re trying to get it right….

Dos Passos is quoted as saying, “What is the use of being a man if you are wrong?” I say, being wrong is not the problem; the unwillingness to be wrong is. Men and women get themselves into trouble not by making mistakes, but by being unwilling to see them and change course.

Now how on god’s earth that’s supposed to lead me back to chili I have no idea…..Really, all I wanted to do was add the instructions for how to make the ancho chili powder that I left out of the chili recipe.

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So I managed to convince three people who said they didn’t like squash that they did. It was my brother-in-law’s doing. I tried a recipe of his, Oven Baked Risotto with bacon & butternut squash. He is a fantastic chef and this is one of his family’s staples. He makes a double batch and uses the leftovers to make rice balls later in the week. I should have realized how much food I was making when the recipe called for 10 cups of stock but I sort of pretended that it would all be fine and that when he said lasagna pan he meant the 9 x 13 pan I use for brownies. He didn’t. He meant a giant casserole which is not something I have.

4 cups of stock into the recipe I realized I’d made an error. I ended up having to pour all the ingredients, rice, bacon, shallots, squash & stock into the biggest bowl I had and then distribute the mixture between two 9 x 13 pans. My nine year old daughter directed me and I was pretty sure once I’d put it in the oven that we’d be ordering pizza for dinner. But I should have had more faith; four cups of rice does absorb ten cups of liquid. Who knew? Well, my brother-in-law Dan knew but he’s the definition of a natural cook. I’m sure it caused him a certain amount of pain even to be forced to write the recipe down for me. But I’m sincerely grateful he did.

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I’m not sure how we’d get through the week without mexican food. Mole was the first spicy food the kids liked and when they did, we knew we could live with them for a very long time. We are dedicated to La Poblanita, a brand of mole sold in deli containers at our local bodegas. We usually buy the traditional chile & chocolate mole but recently we saw that they also sell Pipian – pumpkin seed mole. Pipian is something we already eat – the super market brand, Doña Maria. The bodega variety is much easier to use, it starts out the consistency of a very thick smoothie and slips right into the slow cooker. The Doña Maria starts out like a rock – I have to dig it out of the glass jar with a spoon and dissolve it in boiling water in order to get it to turn into sauce before I can put it in the crockpot. Turns out the two Pipans taste quite different. The La Poblanita was much spicier and had an almost citrusy flavor. I sort of messed it up by adding too much stock to the crockpot so the sauce was too thin in the end. Next time, I might do it on the stovetop. I could even bake the chicken first…

We had black beans & rice to go with it. The beans area wonderful recipe that my husband John created. I measured out the spices so I could include the recipe. Normally I just shake! Very natural cook of me.

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A quick and easy dinner from the freezer for a school night. Only it wasn’t quick, and I always forget that. This is the fourth or fifth meal we’ve managed to get out of two sausage lasagnas I made in December and every time I reheat the lasagna I forget how long it takes, so dinner is both late & lukewarm. Why is that? Why is it so hard to learn from mistakes?

The sausage lasagna is a recipe I made up which makes it a source of pride. I used the idea of bolognese technique (simmer in milk, simmer in wine) but used sausage instead of ground beef. It also leaves out the ricotta cheese. My daughter doesn’t like ricotta and by bending the lasagna rules a bit I managed to create something that everybody would eat, thereby adding a new meal to our repertoire. A lesson I suppose in the joy of rule breaking for a rule following lass.

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This week’s meal plan was based on the concept of a nine-day week. I stretched it because my second semester of school started and I didn’t want to grocery shop until Thursday (after my classes were over). On school nights I try and keep dinner as simple as possible – usually something from the freezer. Tonight we had mac & cheese (leftovers) and garlic broccoli. The garlic broccoli is John’s recipe and I thought I knew the technique but I was wrong. The broccoli he makes is blackened and garlicky but mine was mild and overcooked. One of the nice things about the blog is that it forces me to correct mistakes. Normally I’d fret, do nothing and screw it up again. It could go on that way for years – but now I’ve discovered Command K.

Command K is the link button and I love it. I knew I’d want to turn the words garlic broccoli into a link and even as I was cooking, I was writing out the recipe. As things turned out, it was a recipe for bland, mushy broccoli. So over dinner John explained the technique again, and after dinner he corrected the recipe for me. Next time, I’ve got it in writing. In school the professors often talk about imitating writing you love as a way to learn how to write. I suppose it’s the same with cooking. Recipes are a form of imitation. I’m imitating cooks I love (in this case literally) until I become one myself.

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