These Cooking Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Last night, I was preparing fish to bake. It was a 2-lb bag of tilapia fillets, and I planned on doing half with salt, pepper and garlic, and half with Cajun seasoning. While visions of dusting the fish fillets with their respective spices danced in my head, I noticed a warning on the plastic that wrapped each fish fillet. It said that you should remove the fish from the plastic before thawing.

Too late! I routinely thaw the fish individually wrapped, in the main packaging, in my freezer. And they taste just fine, whether I’m baking them or grilling them. No harm, no foul.

Just like my fish experiences, there are other times when you can break the rules that recipes scream at you. Here are 8:

  1. Use your favorite vegetables. When you’re making a casserole or slow cooker dish, go with the vegetables that you like (or the ones that you have on hand), as long as you time their cooking in a way that ensures they get cooked to appropriate doneness.
  2. Go with yogurt. Fat-free Greek yogurt can stand in for cream, or for sour cream. Try topping your nachos or baked potatoes with some, mixing some into your chicken pot pie stuffing, in soups–the possibilities are endless!
  3. Alternatives for desserts. Diet lemon-lime soda and liquid eggs in yellow and white cakes. Diet cola and liquid eggs in dark cakes and brownies. Pumpkin puree in spice cake. Fat-free Greek yogurt works here, too.
  4. Ditch the butter and oil. No, you won’t get the same flavor, but if you want to save on fat and calories, opt for cooking spray or water for sautéing (or nothing at all, if you don’t have your temperature super-high).
  5. Tweak the spices. Fresh or dried? Go with what you have, using more dried if the recipe calls for fresh. Leave out the salt if you have high blood pressure, or switch to a low-sodium salt, because if you’re cooking with certain items (like spaghetti sauce, cheese, or broth), you’re still getting sodium in the mix anyway. There’s a reason many bloggers (myself included) don’t give exact measurements for spices–part of the art of cooking is figuring out what works best for your taste. Experiment and go with the proportions that work for you.
  6. Switch up the meat. Rather than a pork shoulder, try pork loin. Instead of high-fat ground beef, try lean ground beef (93% lean) or learn ground turkey. Don’t be afraid to make a recipe vegetarian, either–for many dishes, you’ll be safe opting for beans or textured vegetable protein (TVP).
  7. Take shortcuts. As a rule, or in a pinch, you can buy rotisserie chicken or rotisserie turkey breast. Or, get the person at the seafood counter to steam the shrimp or crab for you, before tossing with grains, vegetables, or pasta. For vegetables? Buy pre-cut veggies from your produce section, or even frozen peppers and onions from the freezer section.
  8. Don’t braise meat for slow cooking. As with using butter or oil for sautéing, braising does add another dimension of flavor, but if you want to cut corners on time, you can get along fine without doing it.

Whether you’re starting to cook more healthy now as part of a resolution, or you’re plugging away at healthy eating as a long-term lifestyle, there are areas where it’s perfectly fine to bend or break the cooking rules to bring your food to the table faster, or more in line with your taste preferences. I wish you hours of happy rabble-rousing in your kitchen!

Question of the day: What rules do you break in the kitchen? What tips do you have for making your life as a cook easier?


Roasted Zucchini, Spaghetti-Style

Call it a remnant of having done the South Beach Diet more than a decade ago, but I don’t eat a lot of pasta. I guess in a Weight Watchers frame of mind, I’d rather not spend so many points on a small serving of pasta and sauce.

Thankfully I think I’ve found a good pasta alternative, in zucchini. I was inspired to make this by a recipe in an old issue of Weight Watchers magazine. The recipe called it zucchini fettucine, but used raw ingredients and a vinaigrette-type dressing to make a salad. I took my version to the oven, though, and dressed it up like your garden variety wheat noodles.


  • 4 zucchini, peeled of skin
  • Minced garlic to taste
  • 1T olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 to 3/4c of your favorite spaghetti sauce
  • Shredded parmesan (optional)
  • Shredded basil (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350. Take a vegetable peeler and shave the zucchini into strips. Stop peeling when you hit the seeds.

Toss the zucchini with the oil, garlic and salt and pepper. Place in an oven-safe pan and roast until mostly tender, but with a little chewiness still.

Add your pasta sauce after taking the zucchini out of the oven. Top individual servings with 1-2T parmesan and a bit of the basil, if desired.

Notes: Leaving behind the skin and the seedy center, I got approximately two 1/2-cup servings out of this recipe. My suggestion would be to double this recipe for leftovers!

Looking into the nutritional value of zucchini, the Whole Foods Web site says that zucchini may retain more of its nutrients when it’s cooked by steaming. I think I’ll try that when I make this again.

Spaghetti With Chicken and Tuscan Vegetables

I am not the biggest pasta eater in the world, but I was looking for a change of pace with meals for this week. This recipe was inspired by a sale on the Tuscan vegetables at my supermarket.


  • Chicken breast tenders (I grilled a 2.5-oz bag of raw tenders, but I intended to have leftovers for other uses. You should count on having 3-4 oz of chicken for each pasta serving. Also, rather than grill your own chicken, you could buy a package or two of Italian flavor precooked, sliced chicken breast.)
  • 1/2 box of spaghetti (I used whole wheat thin spaghetti, but go with your favorite.)
  • 3 boxes of Pictsweet Tuscan Vegetable Medley (or 2 boxes of Bird’s Eye Tuscan Vegetables in Herbed Tomato Sauce)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup of spaghetti sauce per serving (This will be needed for the Pictsweet vegetables, but not necessarily for the Bird’s Eye brand vegetables, as the Bird’s Eye ones are prepared in a tomato sauce.)

Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Grill or heat through the chicken. Heat each individual package of vegetables in the microwave according to package instructions.

Serve 1/2 cup of pasta with 3-4 oz. of chicken. Add a serving of vegetables, and then your pasta sauce, if you’re using it. Mix well.

Notes: I marinated the chicken breast for a few hours in a mixture of salt, pepper, oregano, minced garlic, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Rather than go with a tomato sauce for the pasta, you could experiment with garlic and olive oil instead. You could also top this dish with cheese, if you’d like–parmesan or mozzarella. Another possible addition to this meal: a salad or a side of spinach or broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and olive oil.

Things I Learned From a Month of Salads

My 2012 started off with me stocking up on lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, red cabbage, peppers, and other kinds of raw vegetables to turn into salads. In the month of January, I embarked on a challenge to eat a salad a day.

I was sick and missed dinner on Day 7, and on Day 26, the realities of salad fatigue had set in. But after those two missed days, I ate two salads on the following days. So I eventually crossed the finish line into February, today, with 31 bowls of veggies and proteins having made their way through my body in the month before. Someone figure out how to turn a radish into a medal for me!

I am happy to have completed my challenge with minor hiccups. I will be glad to get back to not having to limit my food options, but I think I will incorporate more salads into my life in general. I came up with a bunch of tasty ideas that I won’t let go to waste!

Besides filling up my mental recipe box with ideas, I learned a bunch of other things about salads and their place in my life. Here are 10 of those things: Continue reading

Two Days, Four Meals, Few Hours

I am a firm believer in cooking the majority of my food. But when you do that, you have to have a good plan to get everything done as efficiently as possible.

Here’s what I did this past weekend to get together meals for lunch and dinner. The things I made were two types of chicken breast, turkey kielbasa, a Cajun-spiced turkey dish, two types of rice, and pasta for my son. And then I made dessert! Here’s the chef’s log:

Saturday morning: started the Cajun turkey. This is a slow-cooker dish that became easier because I didn’t have onions or peppers on hand to chop. I placed two turkey thighs, skin on, in the slow cooker, topped them with a large can of crushed tomatoes, and added Cajun spice and onion powder. I let the meat go for 10 hours, checking in and mixing occasionally.

Saturday evening: I took the thighs out off the sauce and discarded the skin, gristle and bones. I shredded the turkey with two forks, then returned it to the slow cooker. That didn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Sunday morning: I marinated the chicken. There were 16 breast tenders in the package; I put 8 in a bag with hot sauce and canola oil, then the other 8 in a bag with apple cider vinegar, oil and Adobo seasoning. I shook the bags and placed them in the refrigerator. That didn’t take more than 10 minutes.

Sunday afternoon: I started the white rice for my husband in a slow cooker, with a 32-oz box of chicken broth and some butter. I refrigerated the rice when it was  finished. Prep time was approximately 5 minutes.

Sunday evening: to grill the chicken and kielbasa, I started my indoor electric grill. While it was heating up, I started jambalaya rice in the microwave: two boxes of rice and seasonings, water, and some oil. I covered the container and let the rice cook for 25 minutes.

With the grill hot, I grilled one batch of chicken, then the other. Then, I grilled the kielbasa. It took maybe 45 minutes to an hour to thoroughly cook the meat. In the middle of doing this, I boiled the pasta water and then cooked and drained the pasta.

In the meantime the jambalaya rice finished cooking, but I heated it for another five minutes. I also mixed up a batch of diet Coke brownies and put them in the oven. They were the last thing to finish cooking.

As far as vegetables, I had heated a steamer bag of spinach earlier in the day, for breakfast. I will need to heat another bag of vegetables later this week.

Without a lot of effort, I was able to cook several meals for the week. The things that saved me time were the slow cooker, rice cooker, grill and microwave. Also helpful were the carton of chicken stock, the can of tomatoes, the large package of chicken, and the pre-seasoned jambalaya rice boxes.

This was the strategy I used to feed my family and save time. What divide and conquer strategies do you use?

Chicken Thighs: My MVP

Call me biased, because the chicken thigh has always been my favorite part to eat, but 9 times out of 10, when I make a dish using chicken these days, it’s with chicken thighs.

Why the love? Chicken thighs are more flavorful than breasts, in my opinion, and they are less likely to dry out in cooking. Plus, with their small size, they are already portion-controlled.

I can buy a bag of 8 to 10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs for $5.99 from Aldi. Once I thaw out these thighs, here are some of my favorite things to do with them:

Grill them. This is the easiest way to prepare the thighs, and the one that I use the most. Sprinkle them with spices or marinate them, then throw them on the grill. My favorites are barbecue rub and sauce; jerk spice; and salt, pepper and garlic. Eat them in a light hamburger bun or sliced in a fat-free tortilla, on a salad or with your favorite side on a plate.

Light chicken parmesan. I grill the thighs seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and oregano, then top them with a tablespoon or two of spaghetti sauce, then a half or full slice of provolone cheese. Eat this with a little pasta and sauce and a salad, or worth your favorite sides.

In the slow cooker. I’ve made a chicken curry with the thighs, with sliced onions and green peppers, curry powder to taste, and chicken stock as the liquid. In the past, I’ve slow-cooked chicken breast with a couple jars of salsa verde; I’d try it with thighs as well, to eat in tortillas. Or, I’d experiment with one salsa verde jar, chicken stock, onions, white beans and cilantro to make a white chili.

If you decide to make boneless chicken thighs your go-to poultry option, like I have, lot me know what you come up with!