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?

Review: Mexican Weeknight Easy

I read. A lot. Whether it’s reading what my digital peeps and Tweeps are up to, reading music blogs, scouring Pinterest for new recipe ideas, or trying to make a dent in my Kindle book pile (I’m currently reading the Sherlock Holmes collection, in hopes of getting ideas in how he survived the fall on the British show), I’ve always got words whizzing by my eyes for some reason.

Sometimes the writing comes from magazines that I’ve picked up at the market. That’s how I got my hands on Mexican Weeknight Easy, a magazine devoted to Mexican cooking for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as information on spices and produce that figure prominently in Mexican cooking.

I probably confess to my Mexican food addiction just about every week, but let me tell you, I still learned a lot from this publication.

Here are the 5 most useful things I got out of parting with $5.99:

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One of the five things I learned was how to make this!

  1. How to make sophisticated chips. I routinely microwave tortillas into crispy chips, but I typically don’t spruce them up with anything more exciting than salt. I will, however, be trying the smoked paprika, cumin and salt chips, as well as the lime jalapeño ones.
  2. How to pickle red onions. There’s a pretty easy recipe for picking red onions in citrus juices and spices that sounded interesting. A little web research told me that picked red onions, aka cebollas encurtidas, pair nicely with a variety of foods. I have a weak spot for onions, so I will definitely be doing this!
  3. How nachos (supposedly) got their name, and other tales. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I really enjoyed this, and the other factoids that run throughout the magazine.
  4. What to do with a chayote. I’ve seen this puffy pear-looking piece of produce in the market, but I didn’t know it was (technically) a fruit. Or that I could cook it like squash.
  5. How to make a delicious, healthy Mexican breakfast. Huevos oxaqueños, eggs poached on a bed of vegetables, will become a staple dish for me, served with corn tortillas and a little cheese.

I’d recommend this magazine to anyone who likes Mexican food like me, or anyone who’s looking for new ways to make flavorful meals with tons of fresh ingredients. I’m looking forward to expanding my Mexican repertoire!

Wasabi-Soy Chicken Kebabs

This recipe was inspired by another supermarket walkabout that I did last week. I happened on to a 99 cents sale on salad dressing/marinade from Old Cape Cod. I’ve grilled chicken thighs with teriyaki sauce, but never adapted something like this to a meat-veggie skewer combo. Seeing the wasabi soy ginger dressing caused the idea to leap into my head. (That, and the fact that I have this challenge going on and the fact that I had some baby bella mushrooms in my fridge that I needed to do something with ASAP.)

Still improving my food styling skills. Don’t judge me. : )

Recipe

  • 4 or 5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/2 cup of Old Cape Cod wasabi soy ginger marinade (or your favorite teriyaki sauce, with a little wasabi, cayenne or red pepper flakes)
  • One large onion, cut into large chunks (I cut each half into 8 chunks of multiple layers)
  • 1 package of baby bella mushrooms, stems removed, washed, dried

Add everything to a gallon-sized ziploc bag, making sure to mix the sauce through thoroughly. Marinate for a least 20 minutes. (I wouldn’t marinate more than a couple hours, unless you can vouch for me that the onions and mushrooms won’t be mushy.)

Thread onto skewers and grill until the chicken is done.

Notes: I served this with boil-in-bag brown rice, grilled scallions and a little more of the marinade. Be encouraged that it can come together fairly quickly!

Grilled scallions are served in Western Hemisphere Latin/Spanish cooking, but I know scallions appear in Asian cooking as well, so I figured why not toss some scallions from my garden with the marinade and see what happens? It turned out pretty tasty. (I only wish I had more scallions for the meal; can’t wait until the rest of them get big enough to pick.)

Even if you do buy the Old Cape Cod product, if you like spicy food you might still want to up the spiciness with some red pepper flakes. The sauce had attitude, but wasn’t really all that hot.

The 10-lb. Ham Challenge: Two Days, Seven Recipes

Around Easter time, I learned that I qualified for a free ham from my grocery store. But I had no plans to cook it for the holiday, so off it went to my freezer.

Every market day since then, I found myself staring at the 10-lb. ham in my freezer when I went to store other items, marveling at how much space it was taking up. This past weekend, I vowed to do something about it. I brainstormed and made a list of recipes, gathered some necessary groceries, thawed and boiled the ham, and made these items. (Note: If you don’t happen to have a 10-lb. ham lying around, don’t eat ham, or want to make these dishes a little lighter, you could substitute in turkey ham instead.)

About 2lbs. of the ham have been accounted for at this point.

Split Pea Soup

I made the soup to the specifications of my recipe using turkey ham, just substituting in a pound of the ham and using the water from the ham in place of water or fat-free chicken stock. (Next time I think I’ll do half ham water, half regular water, or just the chicken stock, to lessen the fat content.)

Ham and Apple Salad

  • 2-3 oz. ham, diced
  • 1 oz. of a smoky and/or sharp cheese–I went with gouda
  • 1/2 Granny Smith apple, diced (Go with your preference for peeling. I kept the skin on.)

Add the ingredients on top of a bed of spinach (as I did) or lettuce. I ate it without dressing, but if I had it handy, I would’ve used low-fat honey mustard dressing. Thinly sliced red or white onion also would’ve been a nice addition.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

This one also uses the recipe I usually use for turkey ham. The only substitution this time was using the ham.

Ham and Pineapple Grilled Cheese Sandwich

This is similar to an earlier recipe I posted, with bacon and fat-free American cheese. This time, I’ve used the ham instead and given a foodie-worthy upgrade to the other fillings.

The before pic.

  • 2 oz. ham, thinly sliced
  • 1 light hamburger bun
  • 1 slice smoked cheddar
  • 2 thinly sliced pineapple rings
  • 1T I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light

Preheat a nonstick pan to medium-high. Separate the bun halves. (You’re going to use the bun inside out, so the butter toasts the bread better.)

Add the slice of cheese. Top with a pineapple slice. Add the ham, then the other pineapple slice, and close the sandwich.

Spread 1/2T of the butter spread on one of the buns (again, on the white side, not the brown side). Add the sandwich to the pan, butted side down, pressing down on it a bit. Add the rest of the spread to the unbuttered bun half at this time. Flip the sandwich when the part that’s cooking is brown enough. Repeat with the other side.

The after pic.

Notes: The only thing I’d change with this would be to let the pineapple get to room temperature. Mine came from the fridge and it didn’t get warm, even though the cheese did melt.

Jerk Ham and Pineapple Hash

  • 1lb ham, diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • Approximately 2c diced pineapple (fresh or canned in juice and drained)
  • 4-5T jerk marinade
  • 4-5T apricot preserves
  • 2T balsamic vinaigrette

Heat the onion in a pan (with or without oil) until it’s translucent. Add the ham; heat through.

Mix the marinade, preserves and vinegar together while the ham and onions are heating. Add the pineapple to the pan once the ham mixture is heated through. Pour the jerk mixture into the meat mixture; heat everything through.

Notes: I used the vinegar because I didn’t have a full bottle of jerk marinade. But if I did, I would’ve used two more tablespoons of the marinade and omitted the vinegar. (The vinegar didn’t dramatically alter the taste of the sauce, though.)

Serve the hash over brown or white rice or whole wheat or regular couscous, or as is, with a starch vegetable. Another interesting idea: Serve it as a burrito/wrap sandwich, with black beans and rice or arroz con grandules.

Creamy Spaghetti With Ham and Garlic Peas

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I was inspired to make this by a gigantic pasta cookbook I got as a wedding present. Pasta with ham, peas and a heavy cream sauce or a boatload of parmesan cheese seems to be a beloved Italian meal; this is my attempt at making something skinny and also quick to bring to the table. (Again, using turkey ham instead of pork would lighten things up a bit more.)

  • 1/2 lb. of ham
  • 1 package Birds Eye Steam Fresh Garlic Baby Peas & Mushrooms
  • 1/2 jar light Alfredo sauce (I went with Classico, but Ragu makes it, too.)
  • 1/2 package whole wheat spaghetti

Cook and drain the spaghetti. Heat the vegetables in the microwave according to package instructions, then heat the ham in the microwave in a microwave-safe container.

Mix the pasta, ham, vegetables and sauce together. Voila!

Note: I typically don’t cook with Alfredo sauce and I was a little afraid scorching it, so I didn’t heat it up. Feel free to heat it if you’d like. Also, in researching it a bit, many recipes I’ve seen use a chunky pasta, like shells or bowties, or fettuccine over thin spaghetti; you can always go with your favorite pasta shape.

Epilogue: After making these recipes over the course of two days, I set aside a pound of ham for miscellaneous use (including omelets and other salads), and I gave the remainder to my mother, along with some of these things I made. In the future, before freezing the ham, I think I’ll cut it into 1-lb. and 1/2-lb portions, using my food scale as my guide.

I doubt I’ll find myself in this predicament again, but at least I know there are simple ways for me to make a ham disappear!

Baked Parmesan Tilapia and Rice Cooker Rice Pilaf

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This was dinner on Sunday, a couple of different ideas for a family that likes fish and rice. These two items came together quickly with things I normally have on hand.

Fish Recipe

  • 1 lb. tilapia fillets
  • 3/4 c fat-free Greek yogurt (You could also use fat-free sour cream)
  • 1/4 c parmesan (I used shredded, but feel free to use grated, reduced fat or regular)
  • Your favorite spice combo to taste (I went with soul seasoning)
  • 2 T I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light
  • 2 T Italian breadcrumbs

Preheat your oven to 350. Spray a baking pan with cooking spray. Place the fillets in the pan.

Mix together the yogurt, cheese, and seasoning. Spread the mixture equally on the fillets.

Melt the butter spread. I mixed the breadcrumbs and spread and topped the fish with the mixture, but you could also sprinkle the breadcrumbs on the fish and then drizzle the butter on top.

Bake the fish until it flakes with a fork. One fillet is a serving.

Rice Recipe

  • 3/4 c uncooked orzo pasta
  • 1 1/4 c rice (I went with parboiled rice, but you could use another kind of white rice)
  • 2 T I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light
  • 4 c water

Add the orzo to a microwave-safe dish; add the butter spread. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds; open the microwave and stir the pasta and spread together. Keep zapping the past and butter spread for 25-30 seconds until the pasta has browned lightly.

Transfer the orzo/spread mixture to a rice cooker, and add the white rice and water. Start the rice cooker. At some point, stir the pot to mix up the rice and pasta a bit. One serving of rice is half a cup.

Notes: I’ve seen the fish recipe before made with sour cream, but I have been big on using Greek yogurt in the place of sour cream for a while in various dishes. It’s such a great all-purpose item to keep stocked, IMO.

I make white rice regularly because my husband prefers it, but I think in the future I’ll experiment with making the pilaf with brown rice. I’d much rather have the extra nutrients in the unstripped rice.

3/4 cup of orzo is a teensy fraction of a box of orzo, so you could make the pilaf numerous times with one box (generally retailing in the neighborhood of a dollar!), or measure out what you need for this recipe and make an orzo salad with the rest.

Some recipes call for chicken stock with the rice. I’m a little leery of cooking rice with chicken stock because it tends to be mushy. But I may have better luck in the future with chicken stock, because I’ve switched from regular long-grain rice to the parboiled rice.

Chicken Mango Jalapeno Burrito

I keep saying that I need to go to the market and just walk down the aisles and check out everything that’s in there, to find new, interesting items. I got another good reminder of my need to do that this weekend. I knew I wanted to buy some andouille to pair with red beans and rice, but I took a moment to see what other kinds of sausage were available at my local market, and I found this mango jalapeno chicken sausage:

It sounded really interesting and delicious… and the $3 off coupon that was attached to the packaging didn’t hurt, either. So into my shopping cart it went.

I was thinking I’d make burritos with it, because I knew I had a bunch of tortillas and rice at home to use up. And that’s what I did.

Recipe (1 serving)

  • 1/2 Aidells Spicy Mango With Jalapeno chicken sausage (I grilled the sausages, but you could heat them on the stove or in the oven instead.)
  • 1 burrito-sized tortilla
  • 1/3 cup of rice/rice and beans (Use any leftover rice you have–brown rice, white rice. I used some leftover rice and pigeon peas.)
  • 1/2 oz. reduced fat cheddar
  • Grilled or sautéed peppers and/or onions, optional

Dice your half of sausage. Heat through your rice, if it’s left over from another day. Place the tortilla on a plate and microwave for 25 seconds.

Top the tortilla with the rice, then the sausage, peppers and/or onion if adding, and the cheese. Roll it up!

Here’s the “exciting” pic of the finished burrito:

Notes: I wanted to try the sausage, but you could absolutely adapt this for any meat leftovers you have, in addition to the rice leftovers. I wanted to taste the sausage in this, but you could add a little salsa if you wanted. Peach mango might be nice, to complement the flavors in the sausage.

This recipe is for one burrito, but I made a bunch of these at one time: 2 for my husband’s meal, one for me (with a salad of lettuce, tomato, and light ranch dressing). If you want to make more than one at once, heat a bunch of rice at once. I still chopped the sausages half a sausage at a time, though, to keep tabs on portions. I heated the tortillas one at a time, and measured the cheese for each burrito separately.

Dirty Rice and Smoked Turkey

This is another one of my go-to recipes. I’ve never had authentic dirty rice, which, from what I gather from the Internet is made with chicken livers, but I have experimented with the boxes of dirty rice that you can pick up from the rice aisle in your grocery store.

Here’s what I like to do most often with the rice mix:

  • 2 smoked turkey legs
  • 2 boxes of dirty rice
  • 10-oz. bag of mixed vegetables

Boil a pot of water on your stove, and add the turkey drumsticks. Let them heat through for 45 minutes to an hour. (You could probably also wrap them in foil and heat them in the oven, but I’ve never tried that.)

Let the turkey cool, then dice it finely.

Next, prepare the rice. I typically make it on the stove in a large microwave-safe container, but you could also make it on the stove. Place the rice and seasonings into your cooking vessel, but add the turkey as well. Cook to package directions.

Once the rice is finished, add the frozen vegetables and mix everything thoroughly. Let the rice sit for 5 to 10 minutes–the vegetables will thaw and heat through with the heat of the rice mixture.

I typically eat slightly more than a cup of this rice mixture at a time, with steamed vegetables on the side. Doubling the boxes of rice makes a lot; if you would like to half the recipe and use one box, I’d go with one turkey drumstick and half of the vegetables as well.

Rather than use smoked turkey, you could also use ground turkey or ground lean beef instead.