Life By Kristen

Go, and embrace your liberty. And see what wonderful things come of it. – Little Women

Archive for the category “In the Kitchen”

Dreams of Culinarian Creations

As much denial I am in that Saturday is September 1, I’m also really looking forward to the fall, as I know from the social media world, a lot of other people are too!

I’m looking forward to cool nights, sweater dresses, and cardigans with jeans. Of course the not sweating just sitting feeling will be great, the ability to do work outside on the house without worrying about heat stroke, and not having to commute in a hot sauna of a car without AC and sitting in beach traffic.

There are a zillion things I didn’t do this summer- never got a beach day in ( which is a crime) or went for drinks at Castle Hill. There is still plenty of time for that of course, since summer never really ends in New England until middle to late September, though who knows anymore with the wacky weather.

What I am most looking forward to is having cooler weather to cook again. On hot nights after work in the summer the combination of hot house, sweating, and being tired mean a lot of quick salads, takeout, or dinner over at my parents. It was just too much work and effort for me this year. Now that the temps are starting to get back into the not sweating- all-the-time mode, I can’t wait to bake bread, use my slowcooker, and roast potatoes. I have a pretty strict no oven in the summer rule, which I broke last week to make zucchini bread ( disclaimer: it was the most cool night in the while and I was doing it at about 9pm). I’ve already started planning meals and making organized Pinterest boards for soups and pasta dishes to try out.

Cooking has not always been my favorite thing and it has only been in the past few years where I have come to love it, read recipes and cookbooks for fun, and really experiment with food. I still have so long to go especially when it comes to improvising and looking into the freezer and cabinets to be able to make a meal from the most random ingredients. But I enjoy it a lot and I’m looking forward to making meals to share with my family on a more regular basis. I hate to waste food so I end up eating even some of the clunkers and often feeling down about the bad results, but I’m improving everyday. I’m contemplating a more formal cooking class in the later fall as well to learn more about cuisine, flavors, and to improve my knife skills. And of course- to document all the trials and tribulations on the blog too!

How are you in the kitchen? Are you a reluctant cook or a master chef?

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My Relationship with Recipe Binders

I had two giant binders of recipes, an accordian file of more, and five cookbooks. Not to mention a Pinterest collection that has a board for every type of food or meal.

I love to cook and I love trying new recipes, though throughout the years I have had my fair share of cooking disasters, but for the most part, the kitchen is a fun place for me to cook and bake up yummy creations for my family and friends. As such, any time I saw a new recipe I would email it to myself or print it out and add it to the binder, which of course was very carefully organized by type of food or meal. After making a dish I would make comments on the print out ( “use half the amount of butter” or “made for staff picnic 2009″) so that I wouldn’t duplicate a bad recipe or make the same mistakes.

Seems like a good system, right? If I used it, it would be. In the past six months or so, I barely used the recipe binders. As I started pinning more, I would print out less things, though in my mind I thought that if I came across a winner of a recipe then I would print it out as a keeper. Then my organizational brain thought how silly that would be since so many recipes in the binder I have never even made. When I began living alone, I also began the very.bad.habit. of not cooking all that much and making the same easy meals. I ventured outside of this box with slow cooker recipes during the winter, but all of these came from online. The recipe binders sat on the bottom shelf of the microwave stand and made me feel guilty.

Yep, an inanimate object made me feel badly. It wasn’t just the guilt over all the paper I wasted ( though in my defense, some of it was on used work printer paper that I turned over to print on- very ecofriendly). The recipes just sort of sat there as a reminder of all that I wasn’t. They said ” hey, you’re being lazy by having dinner at your parents house for the third time this week instead of using your great kitchen.” They said “hey, making potstickers or pierogies every night and eating them out of the pot isn’t exactly cuisine.” (Perhaps the bigger issue here is that I am giving voice to a binder full of paper haha). Essentially they reminded me that I had compiled these great ideas for dishes to make when I was married, to serve during the dinner parties and gatherings I was going to host in my house and bring to the houses of my best girlfriend. And that is the truth- there were dishes in there that were ripped out of magazines or taken from blogs because they were favorites of my exhusband or because I hoped to bring them to a party and wow everyone with my superior culinary skills.

And at the same time, as much as the recipe binder sat and mocked me every time I saw them on the shelf, I pained me to be able to go through them and get rid of recipes or even to think about getting rid of recipes. I was somehow attached to these random pieces of paper with bean dip and tiramisu ingredients on them. Some of them almost were like souvenirs or markers of my life- there were photocopied recipes from the newspaper of the city where my first out of grad school museum job was, recipes that my ex husband’s mother had given me right before I got married, and others that a dear college friend who I haven’t spoken to in years gave me. Getting rid of them wasn’t just about decluttering and downsizing to a manageable level.  A lot of those recipes were accumulated during happy and bad times, with hopes that cooking would make things better, celebrate a happy time, or commemorate an event. To just throw them out felt almost like I was throwing out my old diary.  But seeing them there just made me feel so much like a failure. I know that it’s silly to give so much value to such an innane object, but I have learned in the past year or so, that sometimes emotional attachment  and strife comes from the most random things ( ask me sometimes about the glass mugs I own).

After going back and forth about these recipe binders several times, about a week or so ago I got the cleaning bug and started going through so many things in the house. In the kitchen I have a basket on the counter where I throw random mail to follow up on, coupons, recipes, and other ephemera to go through once a week, usually on a weeknight when I am eating my dinner standing up at the counter ( really really bad habit). As I went through the basket, there were many recipes ripped out of magazines that I was sorting, including one for a chunky tomato soup with shrimp. Now I love me some shrimp, but soup is another thing. I am incredibly picky about soup. I am incredibly picky about texture really. And I’m not the biggest fan of tomato soup either. But for some reason, I cut out the recipe. And for whatever reason that particular Tuesday night, I decided that it was RIDICULOUS to hold on to things that I had slim to no chance of ever making. And that one recipe for shrimp tomato soup started me off with the rest of them. I tore through the binders, eliminating items I know I would never make, had random ingredients I know I would never buy, and so on. I recycled A LOT of paper. There are still two binders, but I think once I get the organization itch again I can consolidate them into one. One binder of items I want to make and will actually get done. Since the great recipe purge of 2012, I’ve made two from the binders already.

It also made me realize that I could purge them because I’m designing my own life, doing what makes me happy. It doesn’t matter that I no longer am married and have no one to cook for everyday- I have my family to cook for every weekend for our Sunday dinners, friends to invite over, coworkers, and more. My life is right now as it needs to be and I am happy in that– it is vastly different than I imagined 29 would look like, but the guilt doesn’t belong here anymore because everything I have right now was my choice- and that tastes amazing.

Cooking Fail

So with my goals in mind and the no-grocery challenge ongoing, I’ve been trying to plan meals as much as possible. I made this recipe a few weeks back.

Broccoli chicken casserole seemed like a great meal to make on a Sunday because it would give me ample meals for lunch and dinners, with the potential for freezing some too. Recipe is over here.

I had frozen some chicken a few weeks back after roasting a chicken. I had all the ingredients I needed for the sauce and ample amounts of frozen broccoli and lots of brown rice too.

The goings on of the recipe aren’t all that important. It was a decent, filling dish that I would make again in fall or winter. I made enough for four meals out of it, two of which I froze for quick lunches or dinners during the week.

The real story of this post is my complete fail.

That would be burnt to a crisp, hard as a hockey puck, burnt brown rice.

I love to cook, but in some respects, I am a neophyte in the kitchen. I will try new recipes often and I admit there have been times I have been impatient and not read through the entire recipe before starting out. This has to led to a number of different incidents including bread way too wet to rise, burnt chocolate pudding, and chicken that was burnt on the outside but raw in the center. I’m human and I’m learning from every single mistake. This time I didn’t read the recipe through all the way and saw after prepping the broccoli mixture that I needed cooked rice before the casserole went into the oven. Since I am trying to be a better cook using pantry items, I had about a cup of brown rice left in the cupboard that I decided would be easier to microwave than cook on the stovetop. Needless to say, in my rushed state, I also failed to see the part of the rice directions that said to cook at half power. I ended up using some quick rice and mixed in after the casserole came out of the oven. It wasn’t totally the same and the casserole was very wet because it did not have the rice to absorb the moisture, but it tasted fine. Not my best meal, but not my worst either.

The No-Grocery Challenge

A few weeks ago I was making a grocery list and going through my pantry and realized I had 7 cans of tomatoes. 7- for a one person household. I ended up with these 7 cans of tomatoes from stocking up at sales or with coupons and then putting them away in a cupboard where I forgot about them, only to buy more a few sales later. Same thing with my pasta and rice supply, frozen chicken in the freezer, and even frozen soups and prepared meals I made a few weeks back. All this food, yet I have still be going to the market almost every other week and spending money.

After taking an inventory of what I have and seeing what I eat and use the most, I decided an experiment was in order- to see if I could go a whole month without buying any groceries. As soon as I made that decision, I quickly realized that I would run out of milk in that time, which is an essential item for my tea and coffee. And while I have a good stock pile of frozen vegetables in the freezer, going a month without fresh fruit like bananas is not the healthiest decision either. So my no grocery month challenge has one asterisk, which is in the month time ( January 29- February 29), I can buy only the milk that I need and have a small budget of $10 for 2 weeks of fresh vegetables or fruit.

I have a set plan to make this month very do-able and I hope, sustainable for the future. While  living off the pantry and freezer items will help my personal budget for one month, I also am hoping that it will help reframe my grocery shopping and meal planning for the future. As evidenced through my stockpile of canned tomatoes, I buy items I need when they are on sale and often don’t check my current stash before I head to the store. With some pantry staples I do like to have 2 of things so I don’t run out just when I think I need it, but seven is clearly too many. And while buying items like pasta when they are on sale and I have a coupon means a real savings for me, doing it multiple times a year on a one-person budget and one-person eating schedule is a bit much and I will donate some of my pantry non-perishables to a local food pantry too.

I am confident that I can do this challenge and make changes in how I spend money at the grocery store. I’m especially enjoying the opportunity to try out new recipes for pantry staples that can become standards in my meal rotation.

Have you ever done a no-grocery month? Any tips or helpful suggestions  for me?

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