Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cocoa-orange-braised chicken

It's stressful trying to figure out what your very first recipe is going to be on your very new group cooking blog. Especially when the mere IDEA of having been invited to hang out with these three other incredible women makes you want to jump up and down and squeal like a little girl. (I'm 45 years old. When jumping-up-and-down excitement happens? It may be an appropriate response, but it's not pretty.)

So, the first recipe. It needs to make a statement, I thought. It needs to tell readers something about me, I thought. It have photos.

Oh. Yeah. I almost forgot about that part.

See, a lot of my favorite recipes are things that you just don't make during a Southern California middle-of-fall heat wave. (That was earlier this week, by the way, when I was cooking for this entry. Today? FREEZING. Like in the 60s! Brrrrr. And yes, I know you all hate me right now.) Or they're things that you just don't make when you're in the middle of having a mini nervous breakdown over your youngest child's upcoming IEP, because they take too much planning or buying or thinking. (That can apply to either the receipes or the IEPs, by the way. In case you were wondering.) Or they're things that just weren't SPEAKING to me at that particular time on that particular day. And I like my food to speak to me. In a figurative way. Not, dear god, literally.

All of which meant that, while I could tell you all about how to cook these favorite dishes o' mine, I couldn't show you them. And I want to show you them.

And so I decided to start from scratch, as it were. To do that, I went to the cookbook shelves.

I should say, here, that most of my cooking is of the improvisational variety. But, as you can see from the above photo, I do love me some cookbooks. And some cooking magazines. and some handed-down-from-my-grandmother-and-her-friends recipes.

I have more recipes than I could ever possibly use. But that doesn't mean I don't actually have another set of cookbooks in addition to those above on the other side of the kitchen.

(No, it would not be wrong for you to think quietly to yourself that I have more than a little obsessive-compulsive disorder lurking inside.)

Anyway. When I hit the cookbooks, I came across one I'd never tried before. One I'd never even seen before that I could remember. And then I saw that it had cocoa in it. And that it was quick and easy to make. And that it had COCOA in it. (Did I mention the cocoa?) And I was sold.

Cocoa-Orange-Braised Chicken (adapted from Best of Sunset Weeknight)

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, fat trimmed (I used closer to three pounds, I think. Because that was what was in the on-sale package of thighs I bought.)
2 T olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, either minced or pressed
1 1/2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 T chili powder
1 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
chicken broth (The recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups. But then the directions had me using only 1/2 cup. In the end, I upped that to about 3/4 cups, and I was happy with the amount of liquid the chicken was in. You might need to eyeball this.)
2 oranges (You'll need to grate peel from one--about 1 teaspoon's worth--and squeeze juice from it. The other one is going to become your garnish, if you want to follow the original recipe exactly and be all fancy like I decided to be.)
1/4 cup sweet dessert wine (They suggest an orange muscat wine. I used the cheapest sweet dessert wine I could find at the store. Which, for the record, was Barefoot. Barefoot Moscato. Love Barefoot wines. As you can see, I love to cook, but I'm clearly no gourmand.)

So, now, the how-to:

1. Rinse, pat dry, and cut up chicken into chunks.

2. Pour oil in a 12- to 14-inch frying pan or skillet; when hot, add chicken and brown all over. Transfer chicken to a plate until step 4.

3. Add onion, garlic, cocoa powder, chili powder, sugar, cumin, and cinnamon to skillet; you want the onions to be translucent and the spices to start really giving off fragrance. At that point, add your chicken broth (see note above), and stir to loosen any spices sticking to the pan bottom. Simmer for a few minutes.

4. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the orange peel and juice to the pan. Simmer it all until the chicken is cooked through, which if you're me, means cutting into random pieces, being sure you still see pink, and then simmering for way longer than the 8 minutes the recipe thinks you'll need at this point. (Remember that OCD?)

5. Now's the time to be fancy if you want, and peel and cut the other orange into thin slices, which you'll place on top of each serving of the braised chicken when you plate it out. This made my 12-year-old daughter, Em, giggle with delight.

6. Finally, when the chicken is cooked through, add the wine and bring to a boil over high heat. Add salt to taste. Put into bowl or on plates and garnish with orange (and parsley sprigs if you really want to go all out).

Makes about four servings, maybe more. And Sunset says it's about 440 calories per serving.

I served this with garlic mashed potatoes, because Em wanted to help me cook (she actually declared herself my sous chef, and did a lot of the measuring of ingredients for me as well), I had some small white potatoes in the house, and she loves her some mashed potatoes.

She was also beyond thrilled when I took a picture of HER creation and said I'd include it in my new blog. It's the little things.

Anyway, I thought this was delicious, though there was something about the chicken thighs I bought that was just...wrong. They never seemed to finish cooking, no matter what I did. So, next time, I'm going for white-meat tenders, so I don't have to do as much cutting off of fat, which I hate doing and am terrible at anyway. Plus, as much as I appreciated Em's sous chefdom, this dish NEEDS to be served over rice, in my opinion.

Baroy and Em enjoyed it, too.

N had cereal. This is not unusual. Sigh.

So, in the end, I'm pleased with Best of Sunset Weeknight's suggestion for my evening. But it's never going to replace my all-time-favorite go-to cookbook, which is The Joy of Cooking. I know it's probably no longer cool to admit to adoring Joy, but I do. It's just so...perfect. Easy. Versatile.

What about you? What's your favorite cookbook? I think I need some suggestions to add to the collection. And an addition to the house, of course, to store them all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beef stew for dummies—or for busy cooks

Once upon a time I had a very large kitchen with oodles of storage and counter space; I also had the luxury of lots of time to shop farmers' markets and specialty shops unencumbered by anything more than my own imagination and the time to "create" in my culinary kingdom. Then, life handed me and my husband a surprise in the form of our extremely premature and very ill child. Nearly six years, three thousand miles and, it seems, a whole lifetime ago, life handed us a set of circumstances which turned our world upside down. We opted to move back to the east coast—to my hometown—to be closer to our families and, we hoped, a built-in support network.

Today, our life is fuller than we could ever have imagined. Complicated? Sometimes. Okay, fine, nearly always. Rich? Absolutely. I am a stay-at-home parent homeschooling our son; my husband is a nurse. Our little family lives in a tiny townhouse with an even tinier kitchen. And two cats.

No, really, I’m not kidding.

My kitchen is so tiny we can’t open the dishwasher and the oven doors at the same time. If I’m standing at the sink and my husband opens the refrigerator door, I am effectively trapped until the door is closed. Did I mention my kitchen is tiny? On the occasions we’re in the kitchen together, my husband and I need to give each other directions much like a wait staff in a busy kitchen. “Behind you! Hot food!”, "Watch out for the cat's tail!" or “Knife on the left, don’t back up!” are frequently heard in our kitchen. It’s really a one-cook space. Consequently, I tend to do a lot of crock pot cooking, baking in batches that I can freeze or store, or marinating something for my husband to cook on the grill—year round.

I’m blessed with a husband who enjoys cooking—though not as much as he enjoys eating. He is a willing sous chef on the occasions I have the time and energy to plan something adventurous. More importantly, he is content to eat anything I prepare and loves it when I experiment in the kitchen. I’ve been doing much more of that since our son, Nik, decided he enjoys food—a lot!

Nik has had a feeding tube of one sort or another since he was born. It wasn’t really until early this year that he showed any interest in food. But once he did, the boy became an eating machine. As we phased out Nik’s feeding tube, replacing more and more formula with pureed or mashed foods by mouth, I had to up my game in the kitchen. Not only have I had to come up with a greater variety of foods but I’ve had to figure out how to adapt them meet Nik’s need to be gluten free (GF) as well as avoiding some other suspected allergens. The transition hasn’t been nearly as hard as I thought it would be; there’s such a wealth of information and products readily available.

Many of the recipes I’ll share with you may be GF or I will try to give tips on how to adapt a recipe to be GF. Many of those adaptations will have been born through trial and error—sometimes lots of errors. I’ve always been more of an intuitive, experimental cook than a precise one.

Ask me for a recipe for something I’ve served and it might go something like this: “Add a pinch of this, a dash of that, simmer until it’s thickened. Add xyz spice to taste.” How long should it simmer? I don’t pay attention, really. Instinct. Consequently, a few of my meals are fabulous creations which turn out exactly as I envision them while many turn out to be reasonably good but not quite what I intended. In most cases, they are never prepared exactly the same way twice.

Of course, if you’re reading a cooking blog, odds are you’re not looking for precisely measured and strictly regimented recipes. You'll get a few of those from me but, really, if you want measured and regimented, use a cookbook. If you want to know how this stay-at-home-homeschooling mom manages to make some tasty meals for her hungry family? Pull up a seat, pour yourself a cup of coffee—or a glass of wine—and let’s get cooking!

Crock Pot Beef Stew


1 pound boneless chuck, fresh or frozen*
12 oz baby carrots
8 oz canned chopped spinach
1 large can (14.5 oz) low fat, low sodium beef broth
1 1/4 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed and halved
1/2 cup dried minced onion or 1 large fresh chopped onion
2 cups cold water whisked with 6 tablespoons All-Purpose Flour Blend**

Prepare your crock in whatever manner you prefer. I simply spray the bottom with cooking spray; some people prefer to use liners.

Place meat on the bottom of the crock. (* I used frozen meat because I knew I would be cooking the meal overnight. Either thawed or frozen works fine.)

Add vegetables and beef broth right on top.

Add generous sprinkles of both savory and oregano (NB: I don't measure but I'd estimate nearly 2 Tbsp each. Start light; you can always add more later.)

Whisk flour** and water together until completely smooth. Add to crock.

Cover and cook 4 hours on high. This should be enough for the meat to be tender and the vegetables completely cooked without being mushy. (I cooked mine overnight on low for twelve hours because I wanted everything to be soft enough to grind/puree to feed to my son.)

This recipe can be adapted to suit your particular tastes in vegetables. I simply made it using ingredients I knew would puree well and which Nik enjoys. In the past, I've made it using broccoli. You can use cauliflower, green beans, peas...whatever you like. You can also add more meat or make it completely vegetarian.

**To make this recipe using traditional wheat-based flour, use a 1:1 ratio. For general cooking, I use this all-purpose blend I found in Living Without magazine.

This recipe, as written, yields 8.5 cups. Approximately 230 calories per cup. (We are still tracking my son's caloric intake so many of my recipes will have that information provided.)

I hope you'll give this recipe a try and let me know how you like it. Meanwhile, what's your favorite crock pot recipe?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Gluten-free salmon patties (and hello!)

I am so excited to be a part of (Never) Too Many Cooks. To get to talk about food and help out a cause that is important to me – who could ask for anything better?

Food is a very big deal to me. We’ve often joked in my family that we plan our vacations around the restaurants we want to try. Family get togethers? Always about the food. Why do we look forward to the holidays so much? The food, of course!

I have always enjoyed cooking but reserved it for weekends, holidays and special occasions. My husband and I often made a “date” of cooking at home, choosing a special wine, not skimping on dessert.

That was before kids.

Now there are 2 more hungry mouths to feed (every day even) and, cliché as it sounds, I feel like I spend all of my time in the kitchen. Every day.

I enjoy looking up recipes, talking to friends about what they have for dinner to get inspiration, and even occasionally try to be a little inventive. Sometimes that works out, sometimes not.

My oldest daughter (age 5) has some food sensitivities, so we’ve modified our diet to be free of both gluten and dairy. It hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been as difficult as I imagined either.

Nearly everything I post will be free of both gluten and dairy. Nearly. Come the holidays, I’ll be making many of our favorites that my daughter wouldn’t eat anyway, so why bother modifying it? I’ll share some of those too.

The recipe I want to share today is the very first recipe I have ever modified to be gluten free (GF).

One of my family’s all-time favorite meals is Salmon Patties. The kids, ages 2 and 5, love them! Over the years, I have tried many, many different recipes, and eventually we settled on a Bisquick version as our favorite, and that’s the one I started with when creating my own GF Salmon Patties.

Gluten Free Salmon Patties
1 C crushed Rice Chex cereal
½ C all purpose gluten free flour
2 tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp black pepper
8 medium green onions finely chopped
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 eggs lightly beaten
2 6-oz cans, or 1 14.5-oz can, of salmon

Olive oil for cooking

Mix the cereal, flour, garlic powder and black pepper in a medium bowl.

Add green onions, mustard and eggs.

Mix these ingredients together really well before adding the canned salmon. I have found the patties are firmer and moister if the ingredients are well-mixed before adding the salmon.

Add the canned salmon and mix well (I use my hands!).

Form into 3-inch patties.

Heat olive oil in large skillet on medium heat. When oil is heated, add the patties and cook for about 10-12 minutes, turning once, until they are nicely browned and cooked through.

Drain on paper towel after cooking to absorb some of the oil.

Notes: You can use the fresh salmon pouches in place of canned salmon if you prefer. I buy wild-caught Alaskan canned salmon (in bulk) because we eat these so often.

Salmon patties can be served with any number of things. When we are feeling particularly in need of comfort food, we make French fries. Pasta goes well with them too. You could also make them burger-size and serve them on a bun.

Please leave a comment if you have a question, or if you try them - let me know what you think.

And let us know - What is your family's favorite meal?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A little of this, a little of that—and voila!

It started as an off-handed comment. "I would love to write a food blog." Because, really, who doesn't love food?

And from there, the conversation took off. We talk about food all the time, anyway. Share recipes, ask what's for dinner, lament the things our kids won't try. So, we said to ourselves, sure—why not? Why not do it together, and to give something back.

That's the short story.

The longer version involves how we came together in the first place. All of us moms, each raising a child with special needs, finding each other and fostering friendships within a larger online support group of parents and caregivers, teachers and therapists. We are a modern mixed up virtual blended family.

My name is Kristen Spina. I am a writer at work on my first novel. And I love to cook. Being in the kitchen is my therapy (one day I'll have a kitchen large enough for a couch!). I read recipes for fun, but unless I am baking, I rarely follow directions. For me, cooking is intuitive. A long time ago someone told me, "Baking is chemistry. The formula matters. But cooking? Cooking is art."

I couldn't agree more.

When the four of us started talking about our ideas and what we hope to accomplish with this blog, it was clear that our individual talents and interests were an ideal foundation for what we want to achieve.

Two of us earn our living as writers. All four of us are moms to children with autism. We have three girls and three boys between us, all school age. Ironically, our most adventurous eater is a five-year-old former micro-preemie who only recently "convinced" his parents and his doctors that he was done with his feeding tube—by repeatedly yanking it out! He wanted them to know he was more than ready for a seat at the grown-up table (and wait until you see the incredible meals his mom prepares for him).

Every blog is a work in progress. This one is no exception. We'll open the doors to our kitchens wide and share our favorite recipes. We'll talk food and wine and technique (and kids), and there will probably be a lot of chocolate. We'll use fresh and real ingredients—can you say butter?—as often as possible, knowing too, that sometimes life leaves us no option other than to open a box and add water. Some of us will have a lot to say about gluten free and casein free cooking. We'll share ethnic dishes and desserts. And when words fail us, we'll show you a lot of nice pictures.

We are a geographically diverse group. West coast, east coast and two points in-between. Three of us are heading into winter, thinking about soups and stews and the kind of food that warms the soul. Our fourth will likely be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner in a tank top and shorts. In other words, four bloggers, four unique kitchens and four inimitable styles—a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

So, please—pull up a chair and stay awhile. We are anxious to hear your thoughts. Visit often, comment a lot. There's plenty of room at our table.

Soon we will be making a decision about the charitable angle we hope to include here. It is our intent to generate revenue through advertising and possibly even sponsorship to donate to a cause within the special needs community we all know and love. A community that has sustained us through so many of our own ups and downs.

But in the meantime, let's get cooking, shall we?

Food. Friendship. Fun.

And to kick things off, tell us, what's for dinner tonight? Chicken, fish, pasta, popcorn?