Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Recipe Recycling - Chinese Chicken and Broccoli

My favorite trick for cooking from my pantry is to take the ingredients I have on hand and drop them into an existing recipe that does not necessarily call for those ingredients.  Substitutions do not necessarily need to give similar flavors, textures, etc. to a dish to make something tasty.  For example, when I see a delicious looking mustard-dill pan sauce designed to go over lamb chops I will readily grab chicken out of my freezer and go to town.

Two days later, I tried it with some pork cutlets, yum. And even now, I'm envisioning it reduced a bit more and spooned over roasted asparagus and fennel. (I promise, if/when this happens I'll post a picture or two.)

For today, however, I need to figure out what to make myself for my birthday dinner.  Yes, today I turn 33. Being the youngest of 6 kids, birthdays (particularly ones this close to a new school year) did not garner a huge amount of fanfare. Sure, there was a ridiculously dense and moist fudge cake that I still dream about from time to time. Sure, everyone was forced to pay just a little bit more attention to you than normal. But the absolute best thing about a birthday in my family was that it was the one day of the year when you had the right to choose what was for dinner.

Think about it.  We had so many people eating dinner together every night that some of us had to sit at the kitchen counter because the kitchen table was not large enough to seat 8. If mom made something for dinner that you didn't like, you either sucked it up and ate it, or you poured yourself a bowl of cereal. (I've heard stories from the early years when my parents tried to force their children to eat what was made for them, but by the time I arrived, they had given up all hope.)

So, you can imagine how exciting it was to know that you could have mom make whatever YOU wanted for dinner, older brothers and sisters be damned.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Cube Steak Sandwich

My mother was a financial genius.  Anyone able to feed a family of 8 (six kids and two adults... well okay... six kids, one adult and one Dad.) as well as she did on the budget that she had is nothing short of a miracle worker.  So, needless to say, every single "budget friendly" trick I know, I learned from watching her.

Our primary source of iron was ground beef.  From her famous spaghetti sauce chock full of meatballs to her beef stroganoff to burgers that dad cooked perfectly on the grill, we rarely strayed from this staple of American cuisine.  However, both my parents were steak fanatics.  They absolutely loved a nice rare hunk of unadulterated beefy goodness on their plate.  Unfortunately, big juicy ribeyes (and of course, filet mignon for Mom) were not budget friendly enough to make this more than an incredibly rare treat.  So, to break up the ground beef monotony, mom would occasionally pick up cube steaks from the grocery store and pan fry them for us.  To us kids, it was awesome.  The portions were generous and we could drown those tough, beefy cuts in A1 sauce and devour them with our mashed potatoes.

So, when I "grew up" and started living on my own (you know, almost 10 years after graduating from college) I had an epiphany. I was walking through the grocery store, checking out the price per pound of various proteins and lo and behold, there was a small package of three cube steaks for about $4/lb.  After subsisting on ramen and $1.99/lb packages of chicken thighs, I thought I would treat myself.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Double Dill Tartar Sauce

My sister calls me "Condiment Boy".  This does not bother me at all.  In fact, I embrace it.  I love creating interesting sauces, dips and spreads.  They're usually easy to create, easy to put together and easy to clean up after.  Also, you can eat the same basic meal over and over and over and by simply switching out the condiment(s) you use, you will never get bored.  Or at least I won't get bored.  You might... but then, you aren't "Condiment Boy".

This fascination may stem from a deeply ingrained need to avoid being bored.  A ham and cheese sandwich is a perfectly tasty lunch. Some snooty restaurants may try to spice this up with Spanish ham and shaved truffles.  For me, some jarred roasted red peppers and some homemade honey mustard makes this boring lunchbox fare into something... fancy.

Vegetables For Lunch - Chinese-style sauteed green beans with garlic, ginger and soy

Over the past year, I have had the immense pleasure of going to my sister's house for dinner, sometimes several days a week.  Over the past decade, I didn't realize how much I was missing vegetables in my diet. A simple salad, steamed broccoli, or even just mushrooms on a piece of pizza... I can feel my body reveling in the addition of whatever goodness vegetables inject into it.  This was the inspiration of today's pantry-purging light lunch.