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Cooking lessons

I like undertaking projects, and without a doubt, one of my longest running projects to date is my freshman year roommate, Jashin.  I know, I know.  That statement sounds really awful.  But even she admits she can be a bit of a work in progress at times. Now more than ever, with her undergraduate experience drawing to a close, I know I will someday have to release Jashin into the wild.  My last lesson?  I wish to arm her with some easy recipes to ensure she won’t live off pasta and jarred spaghetti sauce for the rest of her life.

I don’t remember being taught how to cook, and there weren’t a lot of home cooked meals in my house growing up – just a regular rotation of Hamburger Helper and what my siblings and I lovingly refer to as “leftover casserole,” which consists of the week’s meals rehashed and stewed in a Crockpot for three hours.

My grandmother, however, was a different story.  I reckon hers was the last generation that fixed breakfast every morning and called lunch dinner and dinner supper.  Even on mornings when she had to get four small granddaughters and her husband out the door by 7, she had breakfast waiting by the time we toddled down the hallway.  I’m talking the works – scrambled eggs, fried eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy.  I don’t know if I ever made anything with her that wasn’t apple pie or chocolate chip cookies, but I was always in her kitchen.  While my sister and cousins would play video games, I was watching her fry chicken legs in hot oil.

I cook instinctively – I sniff, I smell, I taste, I stir.  I’m constantly adding a pinch of this or a pinch of that, and I don’t measure unless I’m baking.  It makes me excellent at games like “What can I make with a half pound of ground turkey, three stalks of asparagus, an almost-empty tub of cream cheese and a handful of spices?”  It doesn’t translate so well to a.) creating replicable recipes or b.) teaching people how to cook, especially not when the student is someone like Jashin, who is not instinctual in the kitchen and requires a recipe to make Jello shots. But I like a challenge.

chicken chili

Chicken chili
1-2 chicken breasts, cubed
1 can white beans, drained
1 tomato, diced
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 T minced garlic
1/2 c chicken broth
crushed red pepper
cumin
oregano
cayenne pepper
salt
pepper

I like chili because it’s a relatively simple dish to make, not one that requires hours laboring over the stove as most people think.  I especially like white chili, which can be thrown together in a matter of minutes from what you have on hand.  Like onions?  Use more onions.  Need to use up a second tomato?  Dice it up.  Only have one chicken breast?  You get the drift.  I started our with a crash course on pantry staples – things like canned broth, minced garlic and spice rack favorites that beginner cooks don’t think to buy unless a recipe calls for it.  I use cumin in a lot of chicken dishes, but Jashin had never heard of it.  She’d never cooked from a jar of garlic before, and noticed immediately how much more aromatic a dish becomes when you can saute garlic and onions together.  Start with about a tablespoon of olive oil, adding more as needed.  Begin sauteing the onions and garlic and add the chicken when it’s almost translucent and oh-so fragrant.  Now it’s time to season.  I told Jashin to think about how she’d season something that was already on her plate – something like a grilled chicken breast.  ”You’d sprinkle a little all over and crack some pepper on top until it had some color, right?”  She agreed.  That’s the principle I use in this dish.  I eyeball each spice, shaking each over the skillet in turn.

Once the chicken has cooked, it’s time to add the beans.  I make sure to give them a little toss in the cooking oil before adding the broth, which should be brought to a boil.  Once it’s bubbling, stir in the tomatoes, reduce the heat and let the chili simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

Here’s where you really work with your spices.  It’s much easier to season chili than it is a grilled chicken breast, as you can taste  the ingredients between cooking and serving.  I told Jashin to think about what each spice adds to the dish – cumin adds smoke; red pepper, spice; and cayenne, heat – and season accordingly.  One thing I should have told her was to keep in mind that the chili would be even heater and spicier than what she sampled on the stove because the simmering process enriches the spices.  Our chili ended up being a bit hot, but nothing that couldn’t be tapered with a big glass of milk.

I have about a zillion cute serving dishes – these soup crocks were a steal at four for $7 – and I firmly believe presentation is a key to cooking for guests.  Here’s my chili secret: spoon some chili into the bowl or crock, top with cheese, cover with more chili, then sprinkle with more cheese.  That way, people get what they want (a mountain of cheese), but the dish itself isn’t so buried they can’t identify what they’re about to dig a spoon into.  Other serving suggestions?  Top with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of avocado.  Class dismissed!

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