Instant Pot

An acquaintance told me about her Instapot recently. It definitely sounded like something I would love to try out. Luck would have it that the husband and I stumbled onto a Macy’s going out of business sale and there was an Instant Pot (not the “Instapot”, another brand). This has to be one of the most amazing inventions ever.

First, you can do all the things. Think one pot meal and this is your best friend. You can saute, slow cook, steam, warm, pressure cook…I mean the thing specifically has a risotto setting! Also, unlike most other kitchen gadgets you find, this one can eliminate other items in your kitchen! I’m going to keep my crockpot, but I COULD get rid of it.

The first thing I made with the Instant Pot was my risotto. I was skeptical, but it came out awesome. The best part was that the risotto normally takes over and hour and I’m stuck standing over a hot boiling dutch oven for most of the time. While the work out to my arms is awesome, it’s also exhausting. In the Instant Pot, I sauteed the shallots, wine, garlic and rice, and then just added my saffron, salt, pepper and vegetable stock. I set the pot in the steam function for 20 minutes. The risotto was awesome!

As weird as it sound, I love the Instant Pot for making pasta. It’s really the equivalent of one pan as far as dishes are concerned, so while it sounds like too much for such a simple dish, it’s worth it. The pasta comes out perfectly done. I’ve done a recipe where you make the sauce first and add the pasta and steam. I’ve also done pesto by cooking the pasta in the pot and adding the pesto after it’s done to the hot pot. In both cases, the pasta was delicious.

My next adventure is going to be chicken. I have some chicken thigh thawed and I’ve found several good looking recipes online. I don’t think I’m going to use one of the recipes, but I will use some ideas I got from them. I’m thinking of a garlic, onion and white wine chicken preparation. I’ll try to remember to update you on how it came out!

Pesto Experiments

It turns out that while, yes, the classic pesto sauce we all think of is basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan, you can make many varieties of pesto. I mean, we all know this because we’ve seen them on various menus or in jars at the grocery store, but I hadn’t really thought of experimenting with them.

However, the other night, we were out at Pasta Passion, a new place in the neighborhood, and a member of our party had the Genovese pesto, which was made with walnuts…I think. So I made a basic basil pesto, but instead of pine nuts, I used ground almonds. It came out delicious. There’s definitely a flavor difference because pine nuts have their own particular taste, but it was good. I am super curious to try it with walnuts!

You can also make pesto from a ton of other things. I learned from one of my beloved cookbooks, East Like a Gilmore, that all you need is 1) an herb or vegetable, 2) a nut or seed, 3) cheese, and 4) oil. Most people stick with olive oil, though I have seen some recipes with avocado or grape seed oils. Just use an oil you would eat as a salad dressing.

For herbs, you can stick with basil or use cilantro or mint. Anything that has that same texture profile works. Or, you can use a vegetable like sun dried tomatoes or roasted red or yellow peppers. If you want an Italian flavor, Parmesan is good, but so is Asiago or Romano. But you can go a little Mexican or Greek using cotija or feta. You just want a cheese that is a little harder like the texture of Parmesan. And you can add to these four basic ingredients, if you want for a little sweetness, a little honey. If you want a little spice, jalapenos or red pepper flakes.

Anyway, there are no rules for pesto. Feel free to experiment with flavors you love. Your family is nothing if not your own little focus group. I have to avoid the spicy, but I think I could do almost any other crazy combination of the above basic four categories and throw it on pasta, and my kids would all eat it. But we’ll see…in any case, trust me that it is worth it to make your own pesto. Nothing in the store will ever compare, and it’s super easy. Check out my basic Pesto Sauce recipe.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Yes, the blog title sounds like a recipe. And the recipe can be found on my recipe page. However, penne with vodka sauce is more of a bonding experience with my daughter Katie.

The first time I tried to make this dish was a total disaster. No one, not either of my daughters or their father would eat it. This wasn’t one of those things where people politely pretend to eat it or peck at it. It was terrible. The sauce was so bad that I heard about it for more than a decade after that awful dinner episode. It took years before Katie would even try vodka sauce in a restaurant. She discovered, as we all suspected or knew, that it was her mother and not the dish itself that was to blame for that traumatic dinner experience.

A year or so ago, I decided to try this dish again. This time, I used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe. It was fantastic. Since then, my Katie has periodically requested this dish and, between the story and her love of the dish itself, this has become more of a bonding experience than just a simple dinner.

I recently acquired an instant pot, and there will be an entire separate post on that soon, but I tried making the penne with vodka sauce in it. It was a raving success. And it combined my love of experimenting with cooking with being totally lazy. Throw all the stuff in a pot and see what happens. Add a couple of ingredients and serve.

The best part about making the dish in the instant pot is that I got to just hang out with my daughter, who is going off to college soon, for a half hour and just chat. And when it was ready, we had a classic Italian dinner on the patio with great conversation!

Oops, I totally botched dinner!

I love to cook. I pride myself on being an excellent home cook. I can cook lots of different cuisines, though Asian has mostly alluded me. I am working on that one. But last week, I totally botched the easiest possible dinner. I had purchased a couple of bags of frozen pasta dishes from Trader Joe’s. This is an easy dinner, right? All you have to do is heat and eat. Somehow, I messed that up, and it worked out great!

I steamed cauliflower to go with the pasta, which was a basic tomato sauce penne type dish. We had cauliflower, and it was going to go bad if not cooked soon. I normally roast it, but it was hot out, and I try not to run the oven. The cauliflower turned out to be the star of the evening.

We sit down to dinner and start to dig in, and the pasta is cold. I cooked it for more than the recommended times. It looked warm. The bowl felt warm. But I didn’t try it before putting it on the table. (All the Food Network judges would be cringing about that one.) I don’t mean it wasn’t quite warm enough. It was cold. It was like I took it out of the refrigerator and put it on the table. But here’s the good part. The sauce was also spicy. It had a zing that I knew the youngest kid was going to be extremely “anti” about. But because it was cold, that never came up. She ate all her cauliflower and then had two more helpings. She claimed she just didn’t really like cold pasta.

I seriously did some victory laps here. Don’t get me wrong. She eats cauliflower. She loves cauliflower and pretty much most vegetables. Getting her to eat a veggie you put in front of her is not a problem. But she also is a breaditarian. She would take pasta, bread of any ilk, and rice, over all other foods. We struggle to make sure she isn’t just carb loading on a daily basis. I messed up pasta in a way that made it so that she ate it like it was the side and devoured the veggies and fruit. I am calling that a big win.

Sometimes we all really mess up dinner. I could tell you some stories about my early days of cooking. But sometimes, a mistake leads to a victory or a great work of art, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. Also, as a side note, never trust the package instructions. Taste your food, even if it wasn’t your own creation before putting it on the plate!

Home Fresh

So, we ended up with a free Hello Fresh order this last week. A former neighbor may have an error in updating his address. I contacted Hello Fresh and was told to enjoy. I’ve tried these services in the past, and while some of the recipes are good, and it’s nice having someone just deliver the ingredients, I found them to be very stressful. My husband and I both work full time and sometimes very late. It stressed me out that the food needed to be cooked so I didn’t waste it. So, I gave up those services and instead subscribed to a spice membership for a while. I liked that, but ended up with a lot of spice combos, which is less my thing.

We had three meals that we needed to make, or it was going to result in food waste. I’ve made two of the three recipes so far. The first one was a chicken sausage spaghetti dish. It was very good. I was annoyed that the instructions included “remove sausage from casing.” I’m not lazy or anything, but the casing is then waste. I often buy sausage that is just ground with no casing, so I’m not entirely sure why it was delivered in casings. But that was trivial. What I did note was that the dish could use some spice. The sausage could definitely have been spicier, and it needed like a little red pepper flake or something. But, the cooked onions and bell pepper were delicious.

The second dish was a recipe for Juicy Lucy’s. These were good, but I would definitely make some alterations if I were going to make this dish again. I have to admit, it is unlikely I would make it again. It wasn’t a bad dish. I just didn’t find the cheese being stuffed in the burger any more appetizing than just throwing the cheese on top at the end of cooking. The recipe also called for cooking the burgers in a skillet on the stove. I find this to be the least flavorful way to cook a burger. I prefer the grill above all else. However, if the grill is not an option for whatever reason, your broiler is ideal for making burgers. Use a cast iron skillet and put in the broiler for a few minutes until browned on top and then flip and cook again. You get burgers that are far more akin to grilled or your local pub. The dish also only had potato wedges for a side. It was definitely missing something green or fresh.

The last recipe is for chicken and pineapple quesadillas. I’m not putting pineapple in a quesadilla. I get some people like that kind of thing. I like cooked pineapple with ham. I also recently experimented with smoked pineapple and really liked it. However, I am not generally a pineapple person. So the plan is to alter that recipe and just use the ingredients to make a chicken and cheese quesadilla and serve the pineapple on the side or send it with my husband for a snack during the day.

However, the entire experience has made me rethink the Hello Fresh-type industry. I like that I learn some new recipes. And I like that your meal is planned out for you in advance. My take on this, however, is that I need to go back to pre-planning meals the weekend before and just buy myself the ingredients required to execute them. I used to do this when my older two girls were little, and it worked wonderfully. It’s also good for the budget and health as you are less tempted to order pizza!

Change is a constant

One of the more interesting challenges of dealing with picky eater children is that their tastes also change. And sometimes, they change like a see-saw, so it’s hard to keep up. I mean, my Katie has changed from vegetarian to vegan to vegetarian to pescatarian to eating some meat but not all meats. I literally have to ask any time we’re gonna have a meal to make sure I’m on the current menu!

We all know that our tastes change as we grow. I didn’t really like red meat as a child. It turns out this was partially because my mother only eats meat so well done that most cultures would be making clothing or shoes from it. When I was around 19, I tried a rare steak, and I’ve never looked back. But there are other foods I’ve tried after years of not having and discovered that I now like.

But combine changing tastes with pure stubborn child-like attitude, and man, it gets fun. For example, the 9 year old won’t eat anything that has a texture similar to mashed potatoes or applesauce. However, she loves pesto. I am not going to explain that it’s basically the same texture she claims to not like. Somehow putting it on pasta makes it edible. But short of a penne that had a little kick, I haven’t really found much pasta she wouldn’t eat. I am trying to convince her she should retry different textures as that definitely changes with age. So far, not too open to that idea.

And her food preferences or tastes change so frequently, we need some type of daily briefing to keep up. She’ll eat eggs every morning for months, then one day, the eggs are just left on the plate, and we’re told she’s just kind of tired of them. I recently bought strawberries from a street vendor. She was super excited when I bought them. I gave her a bowl for snack and each strawberry was half-eaten. When I inquired, I learned that she saw a wrinkle here, or it wasn’t worth the work to get around the stem. After a little more discussion, she informed she really doesn’t like strawberries that much. Well, this was new, as she usually eats them up. Next week, we could have a total reversal of this opinion.

The best part is that asking prior to offering the food is of no help. As an added bit of fun, she doesn’t have the self-awareness often to even know that these changes are happening. In her defense, I’m not sure how you would know your taste buds have changed until you try something. But it usually takes a couple of times of her not eating it or eating it weird (I’ll try to explain eating weird in another blog sometime) and us asking a lot of questions to get her to analyze and realize that said changes have occurred. So add food-therapy to our dilemmas?

Oh the fun of having picky eaters!

Pork practice

So I’m assisting on a team at a bbq & beer contest in August. This is super exciting, as you can imagine. In preparation for this, I get to have a lot of fun practicing and tasting beer, so it’s even better than I would have thought. Seriously, I went to the other side of Chicago on a Tuesday at noon to have beer! The biggest part of the competition is the beer and bbq pairing contest.

So after tasting some delicious beers from Open Outcry Brewing, I got inspired to try out some pork recipes. I used a bourbon aged stout to create an Al Pastor-inspired marinade and sauce. For the marinade, I blended guajillo peppers, achiote paste, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic. I marinated pork shoulder in that overnight. I had saved half of that mixture and I heated it on the stove and added brown sugar, apple cider vinegar and some tomato sauce to make a sauce that I used on the shoulder about 3/4 of the way through smoking. I also smoked a pineapple over the pork for the last 2 hours. The dish was pretty delicious. I would like to tone the heat down a bit. I only smoked it to a slicing doneness, and I think it would be better if smoked until pull-able and then served like a taco, though I’m curious how an arepas would hold up.

I also made a heated brine with water, salt, pepper, cumin, whole garlic cloves and bay leaves. After chilling it, I brined a pork shoulder in it overnight. I rubbed this one with fresh ground black pepper, cumin, garlic, salt, brown sugar and onion powder. I admittedly went to heavy on the black pepper. The pork was delicious and tender, but the outside could definitely have used a little less pepper. Again, I did this one to slice and not pull, so I would adjust that for the actual competition.

This coming weekend, I have a picnic ham thawing because I’m currently out of pork shoulder. I figure there will be some difference, but it’ll still allow me to play with flavors. And I’m gonna cook that until it just falls apart! (kidding, mostly). I still have some of the al pastor inspired sauce, so I thought I’d play with it a bit more. I’m thinking if I add orange juice to mellow it out a bit…not sure, that’ll be in a blog next week!