Maybe cooking is

Most people will tell you cooking Mexican or Tex Mex dinners aren’t difficult.  But I’ve never really attempted one until this year’s Superbowl.  And even if the ads weren’t a success this year, the dinner was with my friends Erin and Melissa.

The complete dinner (clockwise from top): guacamole, Spanish rice, refried beans, pork.

First, I somewhat followed this crockpot recipe, but I’m glad I also checked the community comments beneath the recipe.  I didn’t add any liquid and instead opened two 8 oz. cans of green chilis to put at the base.  I needed to put an ingredient between the meat and the bottom of the pot to keep the meat from overcooking.  Then I smeared the pork shoulder chunks (because I had it cut into boneless ribs) with Old El Paso’s 40% reduced sodium taco seasoning.  Set it on low and let it cook for 6 hours.  When I removed the meat, it had created its own juice to simmer in with the spices.

The Spanish rice was a box kit from Old El Paso – pretty good and easy to let simmer for 25 minutes.  Which was great because as that was cooking, I put together the ingredients for guacamole.  First I chopped up half an onion and then 2 Roma tomatoes.  I added lots of cilantro to the bowl, and grated some rock salt and peppercorns.  Then I squeezed half a lime and added 4 avocados.  The secret kick: jalapeno juice, either from a fresh pepper or from a jar of sliced peppers (which is what I used).  Then hashed it all together.  I added the avocado pits back in to keep the guacamole green (a tip I picked up from my friend, Caitlin) and served it with chips and Jack’s Special Medium and Thick & Chunky Garden Fresh salsas.


The final ingredient to the dinner was refried beans.  Easiest part of the meal.  2 cans of refried beans in a sauce pan on the stove top, added some Herdez salsa verde and Mexican shredded cheese, and topped with mild sliced jalapenos.  Let that heat up until the cheese melted, and then put everything together on the plate.  So.  Good.

Refried beans with salsa verde, shredded cheese and mild jalapeno slices.

Oh, and I forgot to post this recipe for pork chops last week, but it was another one I tried over the break that was good as long as you follow the advice in the comments.  It was served on New Year’s Eve with this concoction for potatoes au gratin.

Quote of the week: “Worthless people live only to eat and drink; people of worth eat and drink only to live.” Socrates (469 – 399 BCE)


Guess who’s food blog made it to the one-year mark?!  Probably a bagillion people’s, but that includes mine!  Thanks for reading, commenting, sending recipes, suggesting tips – all of it was very helpful in 2010.  I’m excited about the new recipes to try in 2011!

But nostalgia takes over when the ball drops sometimes.  So I have to recap the best of the last few days of 2010 foodie moments/ recipes:

Thanksgiving dinner at Mom's (master chef, uncertified): sweet potato and raisin salad, turkey with gravy, oyster stuffing, fresh-baked dinner roll, cranberry sauce, black olives.

I’ve been warned in the past that cookies from scratch are disproportionate in appreciation ratio: they take a long time to make and get eaten too fast.  But they’re relaxing to make on a Friday afternoon to unwind – as long as you have an electric mixer.

I tried these “spicy” gingerbread cookies, which aren’t really spicy.  These cookies have a citrusy zest because they have grated lemon peel and have a nice thicker consistency.

Make sure to cake the surface in flour so that the cookie dough doesn't stick!

The easy-to-make icing can be colored or left plain.

I made green icing, too, but it didn't fit in the picture. In heart bowls!

This recipe is good for last-minute cookies: although the dough needs to sit in the fridge for 2 hours, they only bake for 6-7 minutes and then cool for 10 minutes or so.  If you want to put on icing, you’ll need to allow more time to cool.  The cookies are great without icing, too.

I also made a batch with white icing. Finished product needs to be placed on cooling racks.

These cookies are recommended.  A chocolate-lover favorite is always cream cheese chocolate brownies.  I have a special Christmas Cookie cookbook from my childhood where I found this recipe, and I don’t think it’s in print with the publisher any longer.  Interesting moment: the publisher creates books for brands.

In celebration of the holidays, I also visited a reindeer farm!

Feeding three reindeer from Alaska at Hardy's Reindeer Ranch!

I baked large loaves of zucchini bread as gifts for some of my relatives during the holidays.  They loved them.  Cha-ching.

Add some saran-wrap, some ribbons and voila! Yummy Christmas present.

I also made some vodka sauce with mushrooms and penne pasta. I actually didn’t use this recipe, but it looks pretty good from Food Network.

Add the green leaves last so that they don't overcook.

Stirring in the whipping cream before pouring over penne pasta.

Some other successful and delicious meals have included:


  • Veal Scalopini – the moisture contained in the meat makes this dish really worth making.
  • Slow Cooker Turkey Chili – delicious and spicy chili!  Really amped up with chives, sour cream and shredded cheddar.
  • Old-Fashioned Pancakes – the basics are sometimes the best
  • Apple Crisp – nice combo of what you’d expect from a baked apple pie, but with oatmeal!

Okay, so sorry for the hiatus, but this post offers the best of the best, so that’s an adequate consolation prize, right?

Quote of the week: “Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts, but to cook well one must love and respect food.”Craig Claiborne (1920-2000)

A lot of food has happened since the last post.

Surprisingly, Martha Stewart disappointed me.  Her recipes, organized by season, in Everyday Food: Great Food Fast just didn’t resemble the pictures I took.  Mostly because the garnish turned out lime green.

The basics, according to Martha Stewart, take some serious time to cook.

Corn polenta with freshly grated parmesan cheese and melting unsalted butter.

I made the corn polenta (p. 381) with mushrooms and top sirloin with a parsley garnish (p. 46).

I also found it necessary to add some liquid to the mushrooms to keep them from burning.

Naturally, I chose red wine.

But good news came from this meal: the maiden voyage for my Oster blender impressed me – it can grind parsley leaves!

The final meal: polenta with mushrooms, top sirloin and parsley garnish, white wine.

Don't you want some?

Not sure if I’d make exactly this dish again, but I’d check back with Martha to try some more seasonal recipes.

San Francisco

San Fran is a long flight away from the Midwest, but worth the few hours of cramped leg space for the food, the shopping, and the nightlife.

Cako cupcake bakery in Union Square.

Natalie and me at Cako on O’Farrell Street (at Powell).

Check out the tats on the guy's arm serving the cupcakes; even the hardest can go soft for food.

I tried the red velvet (cheesecake-based icing) and a chocolate cupcake with white (buttercream) frosting for $3 each.  A tasty momentary indulgence, the cake wasn’t moist enough to touch the top spots on my cupcake list.

Another restaurant worth the venture was Masala Indian Cuisine in the cute neighborhood Inner Sunset near Golden Gate Park.  Very authentic, the place blasts Bollywood soundtracks and has great deals for large lunches (but no buffet).  An affordable authentic Italian place back near Union Square is L’Ottavo Ristorante on Sutter Street.  I had the delicious lobster ravioli in a shrimp and spinach cream sauce.

To fully take advantage of the amazing Asian cuisine available, friends and I also hit up a la carte dim sum at Hang Ah Tea Room.  In business since the 1920s and located off of one of Chinatown’s alleys, everything from Hang Ah’s kitchen was delicious.  In particular, I recommend the pork and shrimp shu mei and Chinese broccoli in brown sauce.  The Old Siam Thai Restaurant on the border of the Tenderloin district is worth visiting at any time for the freshness of ingredients and quality of meats.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from top of Buena Vista Park.

If you get a chance to visit San Fran on a nice night, consider spending time at the Rogue Ales Public House beer garden in North Beach.  If you play trivia there, you have the chance to win Rogue dollars!  Rye bar, created and owned by two graphic designers and tended by mixologists, captures the fashionable bar scene.  I couldn’t get enough of their basil vodka gimlets.  The bartender told me the trick is to clap the basil between your palms to open up the flavor.  You’re welcome.

I also tasted this yummy Lynchburg Lemonade:

  • 1 part Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey
  • 1 part triple sec
  • 1 part sour mix
  • 4 parts lemon-lime soda
  • lemon slice
  • cherries

Mix the first three ingredients, then add to the fourth and garnish with the lemon slice and cherries.  I’m finding my niche for cocktail flavors – lime is a big component of those that I find delectable.

Slow Cooker Thai Beef

There’s an Asian grocery a few steps from my door.  It looks like a crack house you’d find in a city from the exterior: no windows, a door bought self-installed with two locking door knobs, next to an alley.  Which is of course why I went in.

And characteristic of an Asian grocery in the Chinatown part of a city, it has an excellent array of products for Korean and Japanese cooking, but also for Indian and Thai cuisine as well.  It also isn’t organized well for outsiders.  I spent an especially long time searching for sliced bamboo shoots on my grocery list, but the workers are helpful and even pointed out when I was about to buy the wrong fish sauce.

This is an exact copy of the Red Thai Curry Beef recipe in Williams-Sonoma Slow Cooker cookbook.  First, sear the beef with salt and pepper to seal in the moisture and flavor; cut into 1.5 inch chunks and place in crockpot.  Second, sauté the onions and garlic, then add in coconut milk, brown sugar and lime juice and bring to a boil.  Third, pour the mixture into the crockpot on top of the beef and let it sit for 3 hours on high.  Start cooking jasmine rice about 30 minutes before it’s finished.  Add bamboo shoots to the crockpot about 15 minutes before it’s finished.  Pretty easy, in retrospect.

When finished, I removed the beef to a separate plate to cut it because I forgot to slice it before placing it into the crockpot. Separately, I also generally want to minimize grease intake in my meals.  So I spooned the orange-colored grease (which floats to the top) into an empty coconut milk can.

  • Main: Beef in a red curry sauce with onions and bamboo shoots
  • Side: Francine mangos from Haiti
  • Drink: Fat Tire and Blue Moon beer

Mango side + red Thai curry beef over jasmine rice and garnished with mint.

So good.

I was skeptical about the fresh mint, but the contrast accentuated the beef and curry flavors nicely in this meal.  Almost to the point that you can’t have it without the mint.  Something to consider for overall success.  Definitely recommended.

With that, I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving!

Thought for the week: “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.” – Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

After a stressful week, I found myself listening to Tears for Fears and Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” and making chocolate pudding.  Not exactly my moment.

Or is it?  Is this just exactly what I need?  Do I need to feel like I’m in a late 90s chick flick dancing around the kitchen a la Meg Ryan/ Julia Roberts/ Sandra Bullock style with chocolate smeared on my cheek and a pudding-covered whisk to use as my microphone, singing “I just died in your arms tonight“?

Anyway, the pudding is actually just a step in making the audience-pleaser dessert: dirt.  A combination of chocolate pudding, crumbled Oreo, cool whip, and gummy worms, it’s a perfect Halloween display.  And I’m in luck.  I have a potluck Halloween party tomorrow night.

I used whole milk to make the pudding extra creamy.

Mixed pudding! I played with the whisk to make swirly patterns.

Crushed oreos added.

Mixed in the cool whip.

Close up. Irresistible.

I don’t have pictures of the pudding cups with dirt and worms since it’s just prep for tomorrow, but I will next week!

I also made some slow-cooker turkey chili.

First I had to brown the ground turkey on the stove with some olive oil.

Turkey turns a greyish color when cooked fully.

Grey. Told you. But I had to drain the liquid before adding it to the crock pot.

I chopped up my onions coarsely and smeared butter on the sides of the crockpot. The layering in starts with turkey then onions.

Then the kidney and black beans.

To avoid splashing, the condensed tomato soup went in next just before lots of spices, including chili flakes to give it a kick. So pretty!

The fun part is mixing those layers before setting it to cook. Ready to simmer for 4 hours.

After simmering. Turkey chili ready for eating.

Shredded some sharp cheddar cheese, some fat-free sour cream and some green onion on top. Mmm dinner.

This is a really tasty chili.  I don’t usually have sour cream with my chilis, but it added such a richness that I have to recommend the toppings.

University foodie explorations

Campus Recreation has a “healthy cooking” program that is surprisingly robust for being housed in the Athletic Recreation Center, or the largest campus gym (which even has an indoor rock climbing wall!).  I was tempted to join the cookbook club until I saw that it focuses on basic skill building (i.e. making chicken and rice).

The instructional video recipe archives are kind of cool.

Or you can see the list of recipes and cookbooks, which have a number of vegetarian options, if you’re looking for some ideas.

An interesting marketing ploy I noticed: the local grocery store County Market offers cooking classes and “healthy food tours” of their stores.  Ironic that the instructor’s name is Hope?

Only in the Midwest

Things like the Chicago Cubs Cookbook make me think the Midwest is cute.  Because you know that these athletes are consuming large quantities of their “all-star recipes.”  But despite a cover photo taken in a style stolen from The Rascals, I remain unconvinced that they make what they eat.  So posed, somewhat comical.

Published August 15, 2010! Order yours now!

Thought of the week from the 1980 movie, Popeye: “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today.”

Wow, what a hiatus.  It’s October.

But I’m back.  And I’ve got lots of pictures and recipes to share.

Tonight, I made veal scallopini with a baby bella mushroom gravy.  I know it sounds fancy, but it’s really not, and it’s pretty easy, even though I modified the directions.


Veal frying with olive oil and butter.


First, I breaded and fried the veal.


Veal - pink au jus stage.


You can tell the veal finishes cooking when its juices run clear (as opposed to pink).


Breaded and cooked veal cutlets.


After I removed the cutlets from the pan, I deviated.  I decided to melt the rest of the butter to saute the sliced mushrooms.


Mushroom saute


Then I poured in the broth on top and mixed in the remnants of the fried dough.  I like thick gravies, so I let it simmer for about 30 minutes and stirred occasionally.  This really let the broth absorb the flavor of the dough, which then the mushrooms absorbed.  Oh, and I forgot to add the parsley, but I didn’t really need it anyway.


Simmered for 30-45 minutes to create a thicker gravy.


I served it with some real mashed potatoes!  …That I picked up from the grocery store pre-made.  Resorting to short cuts isn’t cheating if it tastes good, right? The whole meal was really tasty.


Veal in mushroom gravy with mashed potatoes on the side.



The close up


As a side note, I’ve switched over to using real, unsalted butter instead of margarine.  And I’m kind of into organic fruits now, especially berries.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In other food-news, I have discovered some precious resources on the University of Illinois’ campus.  One is the Bevier Cafe located just down the block from my department office.  This is the “food laboratory” for students in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department, who also staff and manage it.  It.  Is.  Awesome.

The other resource, down the hall from Bevier Cafe, is the Spice Box.  This is the student-run restaurant in the Hospitality Department and appeals more to a fine-dining experience with a price fixe menu and two-course special menu.  I have plans to visit it shortly but it honestly takes more concentrated effort due to reservations and scheduled dining events, of which there are none in the immediate future.  I’ll keep my eye on it.

My cooking, plus endless new cuisine experiments, should tempt you East Coasters to come visit!  🙂  As far as the past items, I’ve been cooking, take a look below and tell me what you like.  Also I have random pictures from this past summer.

Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington, NC – late June


Some say the Bellamy House is still haunted by its former servants.



Bellamy porch. I have one of my other photos of the grounds hanging up in my apartment. Come see it!



The famous, modern servant staircase in the antebellum mansion.


Cooking in Chicago – mid-July to mid-August


Sisterly effort: this meal includes steamed asparagus and a turkey sausage and sun-dried tomato main (my contributions) and a mozzarella, tomato and basil paired with fresh sangria (from my sister).



I whipped together a penne pasta sauce incorporating: Trader Joe's organic vodka sauce as the base with added onion, black olive, and shrimp.



Lady Gaga singing live at Lollapalooza. We stood in a crowd for three hours, but it was worth it so I could dance to rah rah ah ah ahhh. My sister got this shot! I want her bra.


Cooking in Urbana-Champaign – late August-present


Local Curtis Orchard apples for some apple pie.



Gooey, apple pie sugar syrup. I added two tablespoons of cinnamon to the recipe.



Apples added into the mix.



Softening up those apples.



I'm getting better at my pie lattice-work.



Close-up of the finished pie.



Dinner: rib-eye steak with A1 sauce and sweet potato with a Blue Moon citrus splash on the side.



Zataran's dirty rice mix for a Southern-themed dinner party.



Dirty rice after simmering for a half hour. It was a hit at the party!



Dinner: salt and peppered, broiled pork and steamed asparagus with lemon juice.


Thought for the week (which fits nicely with my study of media): “It’s amazing how pervasive food is. Every second commercial is for food. Every second TV episode takes place around a meal. In the city, you can’t go ten feet without seeing or smelling a restaurant. There are 20 foot high hamburgers up on billboards. I am acutely aware of food, and its omnipresence is astounding.” – Adam Scott, author, The Monkey Chow Diaries, June 2006

For this lemon blueberry pie recipe, I made a few changes that completely changed the look and taste of the pie.  First, I substituted lime zest (grated limes) and lime juice instead of lemons and lemon juice because that’s what I had on hand.

Lime base while thickening.

Blueberry (boiling) and lime (cooling) sections. You can see the lime zest!

I also like my pies with top shells, but the base of this pie has several eggs in it and poses a quiche-like outcome if I chose to bake the pie. So I baked the top shell separately on top of an oven-safe pot cover and baked it alone in the oven.  Then I removed it and placed it on top of the pie.

Completed pie. Now into the fridge!

This recipe took time.  I pre-baked the crust (10 min.), stirred the lime mixture (20 min.), boiled the blueberries (15 min.), waited for both layers to cool before combining (10 min.), baked the top shell (10 min.), and then put it in the fridge to congeal (4 hours).

The result was a key lime pie base with a blueberry filling top, and very rich.  The recipe calls for 6 eggs, which create the richness, and a ton of sugar, which adds to it.  I found myself giving away slices to at least five people just to get it out of my fridge!

My second recipe this week was balsamic-soaked bacon-wrapped scallops with water chestnuts.  This is another full-bodied dish.  Although Rachel Ray calls for six huge scallops, I used medium-sized scallops and just made more of them.  I also didn’t have fresh ginger on hand, so I used about a teaspoon of ginger powder (because powder is always more potent than the real ingredient).

I pre-soaked the scallops, but only for 10 minutes.  Scallops can easily be ruined by over-marination, so whereas a tough steak should soak overnight, scallops only need a quick rinse.

Scallops soaking.

Next, I cut the bacon and placed water chestnuts on them, then wrapped the scallops.

Bacon ready for the scallops. I used wooden toothpicks to wrap them, and sometimes had to really stretch the bacon around to pin it.

I drizzled some of the marination over and then put them in the oven and turned them after 5 minutes.  I actually cooked them for about 19 minutes instead of 10 because I really wanted the bacon cooked.

Into the oven!

When I took them out, I covered them in cracked pepper and served four per plate.  Ultimate decadence.

Serving display.


  • Drink: Red wine
  • Main: Bacon-wrapped scallops
  • Side/dessert: A pluot

It’s blueberry season.  I went out on a limb and tried this savory blueberry sauce on tilapia.  Similar to the blueberry mixture found in the pie recipe above, this recipe called for the addition of chives, balsamic vinaigrette, and chicken broth.  I wasn’t sure how the flavors would blend together.

Blueberries and chives, which you couldn't really taste. I think there were too many types of flavors competing with each other.

While the mixture was coming together on the stove (about 20 minutes) thanks to Mitra’s stirring, I placed the tilapia in the oven to bake.

Multitasking in the kitchen!

Final dish. Although it looks great, I don't think I would repeat this recipe for the sauce. It just seemed confused.

  • Drink: Red wine
  • Main: Blueberry sauce over tilpaia
  • Vegetable: Asparagus with lime juice
  • Carb: Basmati white rice

Mitra and me ready to eat.

This upcoming week is the last one that I’ll spend in this D.C. kitchen!

Thought for the week: Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino from 1956

I have a huge rice supply to deplete before I move from the district out to the Midwest.  Since the Internet is ubiquitous, I intend to continue my cooking and blogging from Illinois.  Lucky you.

My first rice-involved dish was the cream of mushroom chicken dish.  Firstly, this seems like a great standby for quick and inexpensive weekday dinners.  Secondly, I felt creative when cooking and made minor alterations.

Although the recipe calls for the chicken and onion to be chopped, I decided to play with size.  I chopped some of the onions, and left some in large chunks, which gave it a country down-home feel.  I left some of the chicken as medallions, but I think chopped works better.

Chicken and mushroom sauce (without rice).

Here was real daring: instead of the evaporated milk, I substituted white wine.  I cooked it a bit longer on the stove to thicken the consistency (the milk would have made it thicker) and poured it over organic brown rice.  Paired with a bottle of the Chilean Terra Andina merlot, it passed the test.  Next time, I’ll put in the dairy.  Maybe.

That same evening – I was feeling ambitious – I moved to cook basmati rice with the goal to whip up Alton Brown’s Indian rice pudding recipe.  I’d already been to the grocery store and didn’t remember cardamom, so I improvised.  I dumped about 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract into the mixture for flavoring and added sliced almonds.

Basmati rice pudding with golden raisins, pistachios and sliced almonds.

Without the cardamom, the nutty rice pudding lost its exotic-ness, but made up for it by becoming Southern rice pudding and allowing the rich flavors of the nuts and raisins to stand out.  I’d probably add more cream than whole milk next time.  It is dessert, after all.

My next dish was shrimp jambalaya.  The recipe comes from Nag’s Head, North Carolina and is one of my favorites of my mom’s recipes.  This recipe is similar and is made in a slow cooker, so you don’t have to slave over the stove!  I don’t really enjoy sausage too much, but here’s another recipe from Bubba for jambalaya that ham and sausage-lovers would enjoy.

Much like Bubba, I like bacon in my jambalaya.

Mmmm... bacon.

Next I shredded my bacon, combined minced garlic and chopped onions and green peppers, uncanned the diced tomatoes, and set aside the seasonings.

Ingredient bowls of prep work.

I sautéed my veggies with the bacon in the bacon grease and then added the seasonings. After the onion became clear, I added the tomatoes and stirred constantly to thicken the mixture.

Sauteing the foundation for the jambalaya.

Finally, I added the shrimp and then rice.

You could serve this sauce over rice instead of stirring it in, but it's Southern tradition to mix it.

I doubled the bacon and shrimp, so I also doubled all of the ingredients except the rice.  Overall, I was extremely happy with this dish, but my mom’s is still the best.

Thought for the week: “Talk doesn’t cook rice.” Chinese proverb

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