Asparagus-ish Soup

Ha! Say that three times fast.

Remember my disastrous start as a person who cooks?

You can read about it here and here and here if you don’t.

Well last Friday, I was working my PT job and another librarian came in with this huge bag in her hand and stuffed it in the teeny mini fridge. It was crazy, watching her do that. She then told me the bag was filled with asparagus from her garden and said it was free for the taking. Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables, hands down. So, upon leaving that day, I yanked the bag from the fridge and pulled out maybe a pound of this giant asparagus this woman grew.

Then I had to figure out what to do with it. Obviously, I asked my mom. She suggested asparagus soup and said she had a good recipe. Unfortunately, she never gave me the recipe. Not a huge deal. I then Googled “asparagus soup crockpot” on Sunday, when I decided to make something. I found tons and tons of recipes and they were all different. One thing I kept seeing over and over is that you should blend your asparagus soup to make it, essentially, cream of asparagus, most claimed for better flavor.

I don’t have anything that can do that, so I shrugged off that concern and closed my computer.

I decided it was just soup and I was going to wing it.

Yes, wing it.

I cleaned the asparagus and cut it up. Into the crock pot. It didn’t look like much.

So I dug into my fridge. I had some cauliflower (another veg I love) on hand that needed to be used up. So I chopped that up and tossed it in with the asparagus. I also found a green pepper that needed to be used. Cut up and toss in. And there was half a zucchini. That went in, too. Then I had two small red potatoes that were getting soft, so I scrubbed them, cut them and tossed them in, too.

Now, it was less “asparagus” soup and more “vegetable” soup, but there was still more asparagus than anything else. Thus: asparagus-ish.

I didn’t have vegetable broth on hand. I had some bouillon and could have made some, but that seemed like too much work. So I used the three cans of chicken broth I had on hand. That didn’t seem like enough liquid, so I added the one can of beef broth I had on hand.

Then I threw in a little kosher salt, some garlic powder, some fresh cracked pepper. I stood over it for a moment and gave it some thought, and decided it needed a little heat, for a boost of flavor. So I added some crushed red pepper. No measuring, for anything, just threw things in the crock pot. I cooked it on low, all day long. Probably 8-9 hours. Then I tasted it. It was okay. Not spectacular. I decided that these wise women of the blogosphere may be right. It needed to be creamy.

Some of the recipes called for the adding of heavy cream, but I didn’t want it to be that heavy….or to add the extra fat. So I let it cool, put it in the fridge overnight and left it. On Monday, I stopped at Target and bought a hand blender. This one here. It was affordable (and I had a $5 gift card) and also came with an extra measuring cup, of which I only have one, so win all around.

I went home last night and warmed up the soup, still in the crock pot. When it was warm, I used my new hand blender to blend the soup. Essentially, I pureed it. I did not add anything to it, just blended it together.

Then I tried it.

It was……AMAZING. One of my favorite things I’ve ever cooked and probably the first thing I’ve cooked on my own, without using any sort of recipe. The texture was perfect, the blending was absolutely the right way to go. Because I added the dark beef broth the color of the soup isn’t as attractive as one would hope, but who cares when it tastes like that. It’s got a little bit of kick to it, and is the perfect amount of salty (no extra needed) and it is just awesome. I ate a huge bowl for dinner last night and contemplated eating a second. I was full, but it was so good. I am very excited to have it again for dinner tonight.

So there you go. I’ve told the tales of my flops in the kitchen, I figured it was about time I shared one of my successes as well. Let me know if you try it!

 

Unintentional Gravy

Last night, I was cooking dinner. It was a brand new recipe, Soy Dijon Pork Loin.

The recipe itself calls for a “pan sauce” to be made with the excess marinade. Now, aside from the fact that I don’t actually know what a pan sauce is, I figured I’d just follow the recipe.

Problem. The pan sauce calls for vegetable broth and I did not have any on hand. Ok, well, now it’s time for my YEARS of cooking experience to kick in.

I try to think what I can substitute. My knowledgeable brain decides that any liquid in the same amount ought to work.

Now, I suppose I should tell you that there was olive oil in the pan from lightly searing the pork, also some crispy particles from the same process. The recipe called for using the still warm pan and melting butter in it. Then adding the marinade and a cup of vegetable broth.

I did all of the above except for the broth. I figured water might work. Except it was only about a 1/4 cup of marinade and I was worried it would get too watery and flavorless. So I did 1/4 cup of water. Then, I thought of other options for more liquid to add. Don’t ask me why, but I was convinced I needed more liquid.

So I added a few tablespoons of sesame oil because I had it on hand.

I suppose it is possible I didn’t really think that one through. My brain was focused on flavor and not so much on…well common sense I suppose.

Adding sesame oil made the entire pan mixture very, um, oily? And then, of course, you will recall that I just finished adding….WATER.

So, now I have a rapidly separating mixture with floating chunks of charred pork and congealed goo (marinade). The whole thing looked like a terrible version of wet dog food gone wrong.

Of course, with my vast knowledge and experience in the culinary process, I was confident I could fix the problem. WHY I was confident, I’ll never know, because, let’s face it, I don’t know jack about making sauces. I don’t even know what I was doing except trying to follow a recipe and failing miserably.

So, I thought and thought and thought and the only solution I could come up with was to bind the gooey mixture to the oily stuff and make it homogeneous. That was the idea, at any rate. Once again, with my vast knowledge I figured it would have to be something powdery, like flour, in order to work.

I’m not real clear on the thought process there, just that my brain thought, POWDERY!, and then my brain deduced that this was the best idea it had ever heard. My brain needs a vacation, I think.

So I look in my cupboard and I spy….corn starch! Again, not super clear on what corn starch actually does, but I seemed to recall that my mom might have used it to thicken something and maybe it might bind the crap on my stove. Never mind that binding was not at all what the recipe said it should be doing but this was pretty jacked up by this point and for reasons I’ll never understand, I was intent on saving it. Saving something I didn’t know why I was making in the first place. Brilliance at it’s best, folks.

All my glorious knowledge determines that corn starch is the missing ingredient. I open the box, and without a second thought, dump some in. Did I measure? No. Did I read instructions? No. Did I give any thought to this at all? No, not really.

Well, clearly my solution was brilliant and the sauce was saved.

Um, no.

The sauce, formerly separated oil and congealed goo, had now become separated oil and CHUNKY congealed goo.

Not good. Actually, quite bad.

I stirred. That didn’t work. I whisked. That didn’t work. The stuff on the pan was a mysterious blend of too many ingredients. It was like a classroom full of students on the first day. Given instruction, they can probably work together, but if you just throw them in the room, there is going to be chaos.

My pan was that chaos.

I stared hard at this mixture. I peered as closely as I dared. I wondered if there was any chance it might turn into something if I kept whisking and cooking? The only thing that actually happened was the color. Adding the corn starch changed the color of the mixture from a dark brown to gravy brown. You know that color, replicated nowhere in nature, it is the color of brown gravy.

GRAVY!

My brain seized on this idea like it was a life raft in a sea of horrible ideas. Suddenly I recalled that corn starch was exactly what my mother used to make gravy. So, I could turn this into gravy.

Maybe.

Perhaps with some help.

I pulled out my trusty friend, Google, and googled (no, I’m not kidding) “make gravy”.

The first link on the list detailed the process. Somehow, inadevertantly, I had mostly started making gravy without realizing it. With regard to the corn starch, I should have blended it with water to form a paste (so sayeth the Gods of Google) before adding it to the goop in the pan. I missed that step, which probably accounted for the chunks. But, the instructions said to keep adding water and whisking vigorously until it reaches the desired consistency.

I added a bunch of water (this slop was a MESS at this point) and began to whisk.

I whisked.

Vigorously.

And suddenly, the slop started to transform. The chunks blended in. The color evened out. The oil combined with the sauce. It was pretty thick, so I added more water and kept whisking.

Every few minutes, I’d stop. It’d start to cook down and thicken. I’d add more water, keep whisking.

Once the pork was fully cooked, I pulled it out of the oven to let it rest.

Bravely, fearlessly, I tasted the mixture for the very first time.

It was….

good. Great, even.

I had made, for the first time in my life, gravy. It wasn’t on purpose and my guess is that I made it way harder than I had to, but I had, for all intents and purposes, created soy Dijon sesame gravy.

Unintentional gravy.

The very best part?

I worked so hard and turned this disaster into a working recipe. I felt like a real chef. Except…I don’t  actually like gravy. I never eat it if I can help it. So there I was, a pan full of hard earned gravy, and I didn’t even want to eat it.

Now that, is a classic example of Livlife. Never give up, even if you don’t want the outcome.

Unintentional gravy.

And I did eat some. It was better than expected.

Burrito Bounty

I believe we’ve talked a bit, about how I’m not much of a cook. What I am good at is research. I’ve scoured the internet for food blogs, recipe websites, tips and tricks, and I’m making myself better through research. My favorite source is still my mom, but that will never change.

I used to be so bad I couldn’t go to the grocery store without calling my mom. No lie, at least the first six months of living alone, I called her every single time I went to the grocery store. Where do I find…? What does this mean….? Is this the same as…? Things like that.

One of my favorite food blogs is called Budget Bytes. Aside from the fact that she cooks on a budget and tries to keep cooking more cost effective, she also seems to have the same palate as I have. We like the same stuff. I’ve tried several recipes and liked them all. I would say I think I like more flavor than she does, but mostly, what she says is good, I know I’ll like it, too. That’s good to know. I certainly would never make everything she makes, some of it is just bizarre, but this is for certain my favorite.

Now, a problem I have is lunches. I hate lunch, but it is my biggest meal of the day. I don’t like it because I’m having it at work. I don’t eat breakfast, so my first meal of the day is lunch. Then I eat something smaller for dinner at home. But, back to lunch, because it is at work, I can’t cook, it has to be microwaveable. Many of you are probably thinking, leftovers! But, I don’t like to cook every day, so when I cook something, I eat the leftovers for days afterward, so I don’t like them for lunch.

Which leaves me with frozen dinners. I used to buy Healthy Choice steamer bowls. They were very tasty AND good for you. But, they are $3.50 each, if you can get them on sale, over $4 if not. When I still worked at Hamline and had extra money, that was fine, but not on my budget. I can’t be paying $20 a week on lunch. I switched to Banquet tv dinners, which are $1.29 each, but they are often on sale 10/$10. At a dollar a piece, I’m suddenly spending $20 a MONTH on lunch. Much more economically sound, but they aren’t good for you, nor are they particularly filling. I’m usually hungry by 4pm. It sucks.

So, I’ve been casting around for new ideas…what can I do for lunch? Then, my dear blogger at BB put up this recipe about a week ago. Burritos Blanco. (Okay, it was January 16, so I guess it was two weeks ago).

I love Mexican food, that’s no secret, so I was all about these burritos anyway. Then, she said in the recipe, “I can’t tell you enough how great it is to have burritos like this stocked in your freezer. They’re the ultimate grab-n-go lunch. I just take one out of the freezer, put it in a container (to catch condensation) and it’s mostly thawed by lunch time. Then I just heat it up real quick in the microwave and I’ve got a super satisfying and filling lunch.”

Really?

It sounded strange to me, but worth trying. So, I made the recipe. First, I had to figure out “pork shoulder”. I had never bought one before. I went to my Taste of Home magazine to read about it and then went to the store armed with my minimal knowledge and-BAM-there it is. Just as described. I was so happy to have bought meat on my own, without calling my mom. (Buying meat kind of scares me, it’s very overwhelming and so particular).

It so happened that she stopped by the day I was cooking the pork shoulder, so I was able to brag to her that I purchased it all by myself, without her help. (It’s hard to believe I’m about to be 33, isn’t it?)

At any rate, after you cook the pork shoulder, you just assemble these. Easy Peasy. Seriously, the prep took maybe 5-10 minutes. Once they were done and rolled up, you wrap each burrito in saran wrap and throw the lot of them in a freezer bag, or two.

The next day, I grabbed a single wrapped burrito out of the freezer bag and took it to work. I left it in my mini fridge for the day and it was still mostly frozen at lunch. That means I cook it about 90 seconds to heat it up. Here’s the real kicker, once done, these are fantastic! The shell stays soft, the meat and beans blend together and the cheese melts and gets all gooey. Delicious. Plus, just one burrito fills me up and keeps me full. Yesterday, I had one for lunch at 1:30 pm (late lunch) and didn’t eat dinner until 9pm and I was fine. I was starting to get hungry, but these babies fill you up!

I have never made a recipe and been so happy with it. Her budget had the individual burritos costing $1.74 each, but I compared her prices to mine and mine were cheaper. Even so, less than $2 for a delicious, fairly healthy, filling lunch is totally worth it.

I’ve had people at work asking me about my lunch. I think they thought I was making a gas station burrito or something and then I’d tell people I made it and I’ve given out the recipe about 8 times. It’s been so popular, I figured I should share it for friends and family. (And you awesome 11 strangers who follow my blog, thank you!)

So there you have it–my current favorite recipe. I’m down to four burritos left–and already thinking about buying another pork shoulder to make it again. I love this recipe!

The Joy of Cooking

Could you feel the facetiousness dripping from that title?

I don’t like to cook. I really don’t. I DO cook, now that I don’t live with my mom, I don’t have much choice. But I don’t enjoy it, it isn’t fun or interesting or pleasurable or anything but an annoyance and the obstacle standing between me and my meal.

So, there’s that.

But, I do admire and appreciate my crockpot. That is why, the majority of meals that I cook come from a crockpot. I actively search out crockpot recipes, my recipe file is filled with them. They are all variations on a theme, though, I’ve come to realize that crockpot cooking is fairly limited. There is only so much that can be done.

Fine, I don’t really care. I’m a pretty simple eater. I honestly think I could eat tacos every day for the rest of my life and be fine with it. Actually, if I had to only life off of one thing, that is what I would pick. No doubt. Love tacos. Love Mexican in general, which is why I have a plethora of Mexican-themed crockpot recipes.

But, that is not the topic for today’s discussion. Today, we’re going to talk about my frustrations with a process that is already filled with frustration for me. It stems from the recipe I made yesterday, for crockpot chicken teriyaki stir-fry.

1. Finding recipes online – It’s hard. It shouldn’t be, because there are a million recipe sites, but I think that is what is so hard. There’s too, too much. I don’t even know where to start, which is saying something, coming from a researcher. Is this how all the rest of you feel all the time on the interwebs? Also, I find that most online recipes, unless you go to a specific chef site (like rachaelray.com) are submitted by real people. How do I know if you can cook? What are your qualifications? I could post a thousand recipes online, but that doesn’t make ME a good cook? Or worse is when the recipe will rave “people couldn’t get enough, everyone was begging for this recipe” or some variation therein and then I will try it and it is terrible. So then I have to wonder, did I cook it wrong? Or do the friends of the recipe submitter ALL just have terrible taste?

2. Explicit and/or unnecessary directions – For example, {explicit} put all the ingredients into the crockpot in the order listed. I see this all the time. I don’t understand it. What difference could it possibly make? Then, the recipe I made yesterday, the teriyaki chicken, she said, put all ingredients into crockpot in listed order. Then stir until all are coated.

If you’re going to stir them all up, who cares what order they go in? Seriously? SERiously?

Or {unnecessary} replace cover. Plug in crockpot, turn to low. I mean, come on. I freely admit I’m a cooking imbecile and even *I* know to plug the damn thing in. (Okay, I did forget once, but figured it out about an hour in).

3. No directions – I hate these. When it says things like “salt and pepper to taste”. What does that mean? Or, even better, it says “add all ingredients and cook until done”. Until done? I should hope so. But, when will that be? 2 hours? 4? 6? 8? Tell me! The teriyaki chicken was one of these. It said “Add teriyaki sauce to taste”. WHAT?!?! I don’t know what that means, plus, it is called “TERIYAKI chicken” doesn’t that sort of imply it is a main ingredient? How much? Just tell me how much?

4. Recipes that don’t work – Like when it says cook on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours. I don’t like this. First of all, I dispute the fact that that low setting is exactly half the temperature of the high setting. Second, even if it is, I refuse to accept the premise that food cooks the same in these two scenarios. It just can’t. Give me a direction that works. But, even when you do…it has to work. The teriyaki chicken said the above “4 on high or 8 on low” I chose 8 on low because I was headed off to work. (That’s right, I got up in enough  time to make dinner before going to work….who’s the adult now, punk?) At any rate, when I came home, the chicken was mush and it was burnt all around the edges. Granted, it was 9 hours in the pot, but still, this came across like 6 hours would have been plenty.

5. Recipes that I don’t understand – When they say something like braise the spinach before placing in crockpot. What does that mean? How do you braise? How important is it? What happens if it goes into the crockpot raw? Does it change the flavor? Do you see why I have problems? My mother is sick of me calling her with a thousand questions about everything under the sun. People have got to be clear!

Long and the short of it is this. The teriyaki chicken was fine. Not spectacular. It will be when I make it again and make some adjustments (cause, you know, I can do that will all my fancy chef training). Like less water. It was pretty runny for stir-fry. And I’ll cook it less. Yeah.

Oh! Here is an actual cooking tip for you (who laughed?). If you’re making stir-fry and, like me, you don’t wish to buy fresh veggies of a thousand variety and want a nice bagged selection. I’m all about frozen bags of veggies. But, stir-fry veggies always have broccoli in them. I don’t like broccoli. Some have mushrooms. I do not eat mushrooms, under any circumstances. I looked and looked and couldn’t find them without those two items. Then, I happened to see, out of the corner of my eye, in the steam-n-serve section at Rainbow, there are Roundy’s brand “pepper stir-fry veggies”. It is a mix of different colored bell peppers, sliced and onion. That’s it. LOVE it.

What else? This is a long blog about not much of anything. Just stuff on my brain, since I “cook” now and all. Oh, irony of ironies, the absolute only reality show that I love and watch religiously? Top Chef. No lie. I love Top Chef. When I download my tv shows every week, and I am staring at that list of television goodness, the first thing I watch every week is Top Chef. It even beats Castle. ‘Course, that is more about Tom Colicchio than anything else, but I do get mildly depressed when it is out of season. So much so that I have taken to watching the spinoffs, which don’t even have Tom Colicchio in them.

Also, WordPress doesn’t think teriyaki is a word. It is spelled correctly, I double checked, but it still puts that angry, red squiggle under every usage. Teriyakiteriyakiteriyakiteriyaki. Take that spell check.

And, also, it doesn’t like crockpot. I’m fairly sure that’s because it is supposed to be two words. But I like it better as one. And it’s my blog so I’ll misspell if I want to.

And my mom just called and invited me out to dinner. I haven’t been to a sit down restaurant in ages. Ha! I just typed that and then realized I had lunch with Kelly and Christian on Sunday (or 4 days ago) at a sit down restaurant. Guess that sentence isn’t true at all. Unless “ages” can be redefined to mean 4 days. Once again, it’s my blog.

That’s enough craziness afoot in here. (Lanie? Laughing?)

I’m out of town this weekend, so unless something startling happens in the morning, see you next week!

Two is Better than One

Crockpots, that is.

Slow cookers.

Little bits of cooking perfection, as I like to call them.

I think I’ve covered, in detail, that I don’t cook. But, what I can and do partake of, at least lately, is the crock pot meal. There is something absolutely brilliant in the idea that you can throw a few ingredients into a pot and hours later they will somehow be a meal. Less than five minutes prep, in most cases, produces a lovely meal.

Have you ever noticed that you don’t smell a meal while you’re cooking it? Obviously, there are smells associated with cooking, but it isn’t at all the same as walking into a house and getting the whole cacophony of smells amalgamated perfectly.

It’s like living with my mom again. Those glorious days when I’d come home from work and the house would smell the delicious smells of a well-prepared meal. Or, better yet, I’d arrive home to a cooked meal. No waiting, no work, just good food. I’ve missed that, living alone. I eat terribly as a single gal, because after I get home, the last thing I want to do is figure out what I can throw together to give my body sustenance. It isn’t appealing. I usually go with the “easiest” option, which is often, coincidentally, the fastest.

Now, I come home, my house smells like good food and it is DONE when I get there. I scoop it onto a plate and I can be eating within five minutes of walking in the door, if I wish. Or I can eat an hour later. It’s up to me!

The crock pot is like my wife. She’s, evidently, a 50s housewife who cooks hearty meals and has them on the table the second I walk in the door after a hard day’s work. She also never complains and never goes against my wishes. If she could give me children, I’d never leave her.

Here’s the problem.

I don’t think I’m cut out for monogamy. Back at Christmas, after moving in to my new house, I received my wife as a present from my mother. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type!) I also received a different, larger, shinier crock pot from my sister.

I took my sister’s back, because it was larger and who on earth needs two crock pots?

Turns out, I do.

In the past seven days, I’ve made three meals in the crock pot and am angling toward another tomorrow. It gets annoying to have to wash it, practically daily, just to keep up with the demand. (After reading the link above, turns out, this is NOT the first time I’ve had these thoughts…guess I’m not original.)

If, however, I had a second wife, my problems would be solved. I could rotate them, always have one working while the other one is being cleaned. Of course, two wives is not without its problems. Where do I keep them? Do I have to choose a favorite? Can I divide the duties? One does beef dishes and one does chicken, perhaps?

And, of course, the greatest question of all, do I have to move to Utah?

I’m just one girl, I shouldn’t need two crock pots, and I don’t, not really. But, suddenly I love mine so much, I may actually cry and carry on with histrionics of epic proportions, should anything happen to my one true love.

Maybe the greatest question of all should be, when did I become this nutty over kitchen equipment?