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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: Technique

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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Chicken Indienne, Basmati Rice Pilaf & Roasted Cauliflower.

Another meal planned for quick and easy to get done after the kids get home from school. Indienne was from the freezer, and now, even the pilaf which I used to find intimidating is becoming something I can do almost by heart. Just have to remember the strange ratio of 1 1/2 cups of rice to 2 1/4 cups of water and I almost have the technique down.

The cauliflower couldn’t be easier. One or two heads of cauliflower cut into florets. Olive oil, salt, bake at 450° for an hour. 1/2 way through I check, stir and often add more olive oil. When finished, inhale.

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I made up my own Thai Green Curry dish. Me. The Unnatural Cook.

It was inspired by the whole making Chicken Indienne is the same thing as making Tortilla Soup thing from last Tuesday. I really owe it to my daughter who convinced me a mere two months ago to challenge myself to make something up from what was in the pantry. Now there’s no stopping me.

The curry came out pretty well – it smelled fabulous but didn’t taste quite as good as it smelled. Not that the flavor wasn’t good, it was just weaker than I expected. I think next time I’ll add a third tablespoon of green curry paste. Here’s how I did it: I cut an eggplant into cubes and roasted it at 450° for one hour. Meanwhile, I browned 2 packages of boneless chicken thighs in olive oil. I removed them from the pot and sauteed one small diced onion. (Not too long, because I learned my lesson from Carbonara Night). Then I added 2 T. of green curry paste. I cooked the onion with the curry paste for one or two minutes and added chicken stock and coconut milk and returned the chicken to the pot. Then I simmered the chicken for about 40 minutes, uncovered. While the chicken was simmering I cut up one red pepper, one green pepper and trimmed a large bunch of string beans. I added them to the chicken for the last 10 minutes of cooking and put the lid on to steam them. Oh, and stirred in the roasted eggplant too. At the very end I tore up some fresh basil leaves and mixed them into the curry.

I think I cooked the chicken a bit too high because I was trying to get the sauce, which was very thin, to thicken. It never got any thicker, but the chicken did get a bit stringy which means it was overcooked. (Don’t think I knew this – it was my husband who explained it.) Next time I’ll simmer it lower, for less time & keep it covered like I do with the Indienne. I served it with Jasmine rice which, disappointingly, tasted exactly like regular rice. I expected something all fragrant and flowery. But that’s just quibbling. All in all it was an extraordinary success.

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The pasta I made last night could not rightly be called carbonara because it had cream and because I browned the bacon and onions together for so long, that when I added the cream to the pan the sauce turned brown and looked more like stroganoff.

Every time I make this I tell myself I shouldn’t brown the bacon and onions at the same time because I can’t control the rate they cook at but then every time I just go ahead and put them in the same pan anyway to save myself the trouble of washing two pans. I can’t seem to break the habit. But since I got a rare complaint (read helpful suggestion) from my husband that next time I should brown the onions less (so they’d be less sweet) maybe I’ll finally change my ways.

I never really considered that the longer you sauté onions, the sweeter they get. I just always thought of browner as better. But sweet is not the right flavor for every dish. Once again, my cooking life seems to parallel my writing life. My husband gave me a neat little lesson in constructive criticism. Because he explained the relationship between cooking time and flavor I can use the information to improve my cooking instead of taking it personally. Cause that would just be silly.

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Making the Tortilla Soup tonight I followed the same technique I did last night: I read the recipe in advance to get the idea of the big picture and then only referred to it when I needed specific instructions. I noticed something interesting: the procedure for making the soup was very similar to the procedure for making the chicken indienne – brown the meat, sauté the vegetables, add the spices, add the liquid & seasonings, simmer. I’ve been cooking these dishes for years without ever noticing this.

I understand this is not an earth shattering observation. But it does confirm that the process of paying close attention while I cook in order to learn how to cook, is exactly the same thing that I’m doing at school by learning to “close read.” The close read theory is that by making simple observations of a text, a reader can learn to see how writers create prose. Close reading turns any book, essay, short story or poem into a teacher. The blog has become my “close read” of what’s in the pot. My kitchen is now a character in an ongoing dialogue about creativity.

I can already see, for example, how the discovery about the soup/indeinne will be helpful on the days I challenge myself to make up a recipe from ingredients I find at the store. With the technique in mind, I can experiment with vegetables, seasonings and flavorings and create my own dish. Thai coconut curry anyone? I can see it now: chicken, red peppers, green peppers, string beans, eggplant, cocoanut milk. Seasonings? I have no idea; I’ll have to look that up. But I do know how to make it: brown the chicken, sauté the vegetables, add the cocoanut milk, simmer. Nothing Unnatural about that, baby.

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Tonight I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I made homemade croutons from stale bread. Really stale bread. As in, I have a blister from sawing through it.

I’ve had a recipe for croutons in my recipe notebook for a long time and I’m proud to say that I followed it as a guide, not gospel. The great thing is that the bread cooks at the same temperature as the chips we make, 375°. I can remember that and won’t need to refer to the recipe again.

To make the croutons I cut the bread into squares, put them in a bowl and added olive oil & spices: salt, pepper, oregano, marjoram and garlic salt. Then I baked them on parchment, for just over 15 minutes, stirring half way through. Using up stale bread appeals to the obsessive side of me that hates to throw anything away. I’m thinking of saving the leftover croutons in the freezer to use with the leftover onion soup…

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Leftovers from leftovers. It doesn’t get better than that.

We took the leftover sauce from Wednesday’s leftover chipotle chicken tostadas, mixed it with rice and made breakfast burritos with eggs & black beans. My husband cooked making the whole thing even more exciting. I got a burrito rolling technique lesson too: fold the bottom up, fold the left side over, roll once, fold the right side over & the top down, roll again. He also made a wonderful side dish of tomato corn and spinach to go with it.

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