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!

Street Food

Why is street food something I’m willing to break all the rules for? I’m a bit of a germiphobe when it comes to food. Like, I don’t care if something was dropped on MY kitchen floor. I’ll wipe that off and throw it on the plate and eat it. But I’m always leery of other people’s germs getting on my food.

For example, I rarely eat at buffet restaurants or eat the salad bar. I am just super freaked out about the fact that the masses eating at these restaurants have direct access to the food. I know there are tongs and spoons and that silly glass that is supposed to protect the food from them, but we’ve all seen what crazy things people do. And we have no idea when the last time they washed their hands. Like I want to wash my hands after I touch the tongs behind the person in front of me before I go eat the food.

But street food defies everything. Give me the most unregulated looking guy selling tamales outside a grocery store or a lady with a pop up tent on a dirt road in Belize and I have no qualms about eating those tacos she’s selling. Food trucks are the greatest thing ever because they bring this to life, even though in a somewhat more regulated way than the tamale guy hitting the bars late at night. Unfortunately, Chicago stifles the food trucks way too much, and so the ability to enjoy them is more limited, but I have hiked an insane distance in the middle of a workday to get to them.

Part of my desire to travel is inspired by food. I cannot wait to visit more countries where street vendors are encouraged and enjoyed by all. And I swear to you, the more unregulated it looks, the more likely I am to go ahead and order 2 of them. I have no idea why they don’t trigger my insane germophobic tendencies, but I love street food. Well, I love food in general, but you get the idea.

Cooking Binge

I occasionally go on cooking binges. I don’t mean eating binges. I mean cooking. This weekend has been a prime example. Friday night, I got the urge to cook all the things, so I made a grocery list. Those who know me know that I am not a “get up and get going” personality in the morning. But Saturday morning, I got up, got dressed and went to grocery store number one to get items on my list for all the things I wanted to make this weekend. I came back home, unloaded those, ate breakfast and then set out for another trip to my local spice shop, my favorite local cheese stop, and my local grocery, Harvest Time, for the rest of the ingredients.

On Saturday, I made homemade gnocchi with a mushroom mornay sauce. This started with first making ricotta cheese. It was a fun adventure. I’ve never tried making my own cheese but have always wanted to do so. It was pretty simple. Mine did not come out exactly like a store bought ricotta, but I think that was impatience on my part. It was just a little thinner, but it tasted awesome. I used the ricotta in the gnocchi batter along with cheddar and Parmesan. Apparently, with more patience and pressing, I can also make paneer, so that will surely happen soon. I also made some more hummus while waiting on the cheese to set.

On Sunday, I started a pot of chili around noon and let it simmer 8 hours. When I make chili, nothing comes from a can generally. This was fresh tomatoes, dried kidney beans, etc., so you need the time to simmer and get all the ingredients cooked down properly. I also made Morning Glory Muffins for Eleanor, but this time I substituted walnut pieces for pecans. We’ll see if she notices a difference. The walnuts are one-third the price of pecans currently. I finished the evening by making a Chicken Pot Pie because I’ve been experimenting with the recipe and wanted to try a new technique on the roux.

The good news is that the chili and the muffins freeze well, and Katie took a large portion of the gnocchi to her dad’s house, so while we do have a ton of leftovers, it should just provide lunches and dinners throughout the week for the husband and I. The bad news was that my poor husband has done a lot of dishes this weekend. (We do not have a dish washer.) He tells me it’s okay because he loves the food.

Weirdness from a 9 year old on food

Eleanor is 9, so sometimes, she’s a super interesting tiny human. (She hates when I call her a tiny human, and in fairness, she is taller than every other kid in her grade and probably the grade above her.) However, kids at this age, while wildly frustrating at times, are also still in that most interesting phase where they are still developing their own ideas and opinions. This starts about the time they start school and start being exposed to new opinions and customs and such that are different from what they know from their family. It’s kind of really cool.

So recently, I’ve been taking note of some of these interesting ideas, beliefs, etc that come from her. Some make me laugh. Some are just crazy wrong. But they are all interesting. As an example, she likes broccoli stems. She prefers the stems over the florets. I think it’s partly a texture thing, but I found it interesting. It also made me observe how little stem is on the broccoli sold at most grocery stores. This is likely because most people prefer the florets. But that either means the stems are being thrown away, which is a food-waste problem, or it means they are being separated and, I don’t know, sent to companies that make pot pies and cream of broccoli soups? I hope so, but I am concerned they are being wasted.

Another funny example recently took place because she was doing a theater program for school. It was the week of the actual performance, so she had to be at school later than normal. When we picked her up, she had not been able to eat her snack, so she ate it on the way home. She had apple slices, and they had browned slightly, as they do. Owen asked her if she minded that, and she informed us that she likes it because the brown makes the apple a little sweeter and it tastes good. Who knew? We’ve been avoiding apple slices because we figured the browning would totally be a “no” with all her picky eating habits. I guess we know why there is a saying about assumptions.

Trust me, there are so many antidotes, many unrelated to food that I could share, but for this blog, we’ll stick to food. She also watches a ton of Food Network (No, I’m not solely to blame for that!) and so her descriptions of food, even if sometimes made up because she doesn’t really have a reason not to like a dish, are very articulate at least. But they almost always have a little bit of that 9 year old innocence and peculiarity that is so entertaining!