Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chicken and Vegetable Stir-Fry

Stir-fried vegetables, served over rice or ramen noodles, is a staple for my family. They're simple, quick, tasty, and healthy. If I've got some chicken, pork, beef, or some other meat hanging around I'll throw that in, too. A favorite with me and the kids is to skip the meat and add firm tofu instead.

I'm so glad my kids like tofu!

The secrets of stir-frying, as I see them, are four fold:
  1. Cut the meat (or tofu) and vegetables small enough to fit on a fork (or pick up with chopsticks), and thin enough to maximize the surface area.
  2. Use high enough heat to cook the vegetables quickly, but maintain crispness.
  3. Cook each ingredient only until it's done, and no more. You want each ingredient to be cooked to it's own perfection. This may involved cooking each ingredient separately, and then recombining them to heat through in the end.
  4. In order to do points two and three effectively, you've got to keep the food moving in the pan. That's why it's called stir-frying, for heaven's sake!

One of the great advantages of a stir-fry is that you can use whatever you have on hand. You don't need to make a special trip for ingredients, unless you want to of course.

Here's what my daughter and I made together a couple of Sunday's ago:

Chicken and Vegetable Stir-Fry


2 boneless chicken breasts
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 yellow onion, chopped (I prefer using green onions, but we didn't have any on hand).
1 cup baby carrots, cut into thin strips (With full sized carrots, cut into thin slices on a bias. This makes pretty ovals that are easy to handle with chopsticks.)
Two stalks of celery, chopped
1 can (6 oz.?) of sliced water chestnuts
1 green pepper, rough chopped
1/4 cup sherry
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
3/4 cup water
1 cube chicken bouillon
1/2 tsp ground ginger (fresh is better)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Peanut oil

Rinse the chicken and cut into 1" pieces. Toss with 1 tbsp of the cornstarch to coat, and set aside. Cut the vegetables and set aside in individual dishes (My family washes and reuses plastic sour cream tubs for this).

Heat the water, and dissolve the bouillon cube in it. If you've got some chicken or vegetable stock on hand, that would be better.

Heat a wok or large non-stick frying pan on medium high heat. Add about one tbsp of peanut oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Because we are going to cook each ingredient separately, you may need to add more oil from time to time. Just try not to overdo it.

Add the onions and garlic, and cook until the onions just start to get a bit brown. Remove from pan and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium and add chicken to the pan. You may need to add more oil. Add the chicken/cornstarch mixture to the pan and cook until it's no longer pink inside, and the outside is just a nice golden color. Remove from pan. Make sure you put it in a clean bowl, not the one you mixed it up in. We don't want to risk getting salmonella, here.

Cook the other vegetables, one at a time, removing them after they have been cooked through, but still a bit crispy. It's better to undercook them than overcook them.

De-glaze the pan by adding the sherry. When it quits bubbling quite so hard (showing that the alcohol has been evaporated), return all the ingredients to the pan and gently stir together.

Now that the bouillon or stock is cooled, mix the bouillon with the soy sauce, ginger, and remaining tbsp of cornstarch. Add the mixture to the pan. Cook, while stirring, until the sauce is thick and bubbly. Add salt or soy sauce to taste.

Serve over cooked rice or noodles in individual bowls, and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cooking and Kids

I always enjoy it when my kids express interest in cooking. I love passing on the things I've learned about cooking and the kitchen to them. I think it may be part of the desire to "leave a legacy."

The actual act of cooking with them isn't always the most fun thing, though. At the very least it's instructional. I might be the only one learning something, but you never know.

At the best of times, the kids learn something about cooking. At the worst of times, they learn a few 'new words' from Daddy. Some of those words I have to repent for.

Actually, my kids have heard me swear enough times that I don't think I have any new words left. They know them all already. That doesn't mean it doesn't bother them. I still have to listen to the lecture from my oldest daughter about how I shouldn't swear, and how it makes her uncomfortable when I do. Normally I'd get upset with my children lecturing me. The problem is she's right, and we both know it. I've got a long way to go on that front.

Bad language aside, I think teaching kids to cook is important. I can think of very few life skills that are as important as learning how to get around in the kitchen. Not everyone needs to be a master chef but, knowing how to make a quick meal can come in mighty handy. It certainly helped me while I was dating (girls love a man who can cook) but, that's another story.

A few weeks ago my 12 year old daughter wanted to learn to cook a stir-fry. She was in charge of family home evening that week, and wanted to use chopsticks as part of an object lesson. Jumping at the chance to combine food with faith (or anything else for that matter), I heartily agreed to teach her.

First, I taught her my rice recipe, and then went on to talk about the principles behind stir-frying, as I see them. She's already pretty good with a knife so she prepped, or finished prepping, quite a few of the vegetables. She's still at the stage where she likes to eat meat, but doesn't want to touch it (It's gross, Dad!), so I prepped the chicken.

Unfortunately, I have a tough time teaching in the kitchen. I always end up doing more than I should while I'm demonstrating things. I think I ended up preparing and cooking the various ingredients a bit more than she did. In addition to my bad language, that's another thing I need to work on.

In spite of all that, I think she did a very good job. It was certainly tasty and her object lesson for Family Home Evening went over very well. Her basic premise was that it takes practice to use chopsticks. The more we use them, the better we get. She showed us that faith is the same way. We need to practice exercising our faith if we want it to grow stronger, and work more efficiently for us.

It's times like these that make cooking with my kids worth every bad word I struggle not to use.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Rustic Pasta and Beans

Because my Sunday's are so busy, and I don't want to resort to eating frozen TV dinners, I tend to make simple, one dish meals on that day. Pasta and rice dishes are high on the list.

Mormons are also into food storage, or at least they're supposed to be. Our Church leaders have counseled us to keep at least a year's worth of food, along with some water, and rotate it as we go on. Beans and dried pasta are easy to store, and the following dish takes advantage of that.

Rustic Pasta and Beans

This recipe was inspired by a pasta and beans recipe from the Veneto area of Italy. They don't do a lot of pasta there, but they do like their beans. This dish has plenty of both. I prefer using fresh whole wheat pasta cut into "tagliatelle" with this dish, even though the flavors of the sauce tend to drown out the mildly nutty flavor of the pasta. Fettuccini or wide egg noodles would be good, too.


1/2 pound tagliatelle pasta
1 1/2 cups cooked ham, cubed
1/3 cup bacon, crumbled
2 cups dried kidney beans (cook according to package directions or use canned)
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 cup beef or chicken stock (or use bullion)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for sautéing
Parmesan cheese and parsley for garnish

Cook the beans ahead of time, if you need to. Cook the bacon in a large skillet until nice and crispy. Remove, let cool, and crumble. Chop the vegetables and sauté them in a small amount of oil until the onions just start to brown. Add the garlic and cook a minute or two longer. Add the ham, cooked bacon, and beef stock to the pan. Cover and simmer on low.

Bring six cups of water to a boil. Add pasta and a pinch of salt. Cook until pasta is just barely al dente, and drain. Add the sauce to the pasta and cook for a few minutes until the pasta is done.

Top with grated parmesan and parsley if desired. If you really want to get rustic, instead of grating the cheese, cut a small chunk of it and stick it in the middle of the dish right before serving.

This dish will really fill you up, so don't dish up too much at once. I like to serve it in bowls, for some reason, instead of plates. Maybe it's because we have more bowls than plates are our house. You may also want to have an orange or some other citrus fruit as a dessert to counteract the nitrates in the bacon and ham.

Vegetarian Option

This dish works well for vegetarians, if you take out the ham and bacon. When I do it that way, I'll drizzle a bit of extra olive oil over the top for added flavor.

Either way, I like adding an extra clove of garlic and plenty of black pepper to give it a bit more kick.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Simply Sunday

Sundays are special days for most Christians, and Latter-day Saints are no exception. It’s the Sabbath day and we try our best to keep it holy. It’s a day of rest so part of keeping it holy is trying to do as little work as possible, and not making anybody else work, either.

This is a weird paradox for me. First off, our Stake president likes to hold general priesthood meetings several times a year. No big deal. It’s just an extra meeting to go to once in a while. The trouble is our Stake president likes to hold them at 6:30 in the morning, or what I fondly refer to as the “time of apostasy.”

I’m not a morning person. I am the stake music director, however, so I can’t skip out of them. I’ve got to arrange for hymns, an organist, and then direct a bunch of overly tired men and teenage boys in singing them. As much as I’d like to, I can’t be one of the “saints who have slept.” I’ve got to get up and go to these meetings as well as my regular church meetings.

It's also very difficult as the stake music director to encourage regular choir practice attendance, without attending myself, so you can add that to my list of regular Sunday meetings, as well.

Because of my work schedule we’ve also chosen to do Family Home Evenings on Sundays. For those who aren’t LDS (and we can fix that, if you’d like), that’s an evening during the week that we get together as a family to discuss the gospel, deal with family issues, and so on. Sometimes we get serious, sometimes we play games. It’s all about spending time together as a family. The Church recommends we set aside Monday nights for that sort of thing, but I work late on Mondays so we do it on Sunday’s instead.

My schedule is also busy enough that I try and do the majority of my Home Teaching assignments on Sunday, too. It’s not the best choice of days, but it’s more likely I’ll get it done, then. Again, for those who aren’t LDS, Home Teaching is a program where members who hold the priesthood go visit with assigned households in the congregation (either a branch or ward). We sometimes share a message about the gospel, but mostly it’s just to make sure everyone in the congregation is doing okay. If they need help, financially, medically, or otherwise, Home Teachers can alert the powers that be and get it to them. Sometimes they need money, sometimes food. Either way the ward leaders can get on it. Maybe they need a priesthood blessing, in which case the home teachers can do that to. In any case it’s a great program. It helps make sure that as a “ward family” each member is getting the physical, and spiritual, things they need.

All of this boils down to the fact that Sundays aren’t really a ‘day of rest’ for me. Some people think that’s a blasphemy. That’s just too bad for them. My family does the best we can and God understands. He’s kinda cool that way.

Because I’m the one that normally cooks it also means I’ve got to make dishes that are quick and simple. If I try and get all elaborate on Sundays, nobody eats. Fasting is a great thing, but I don’t try and do it more than once a month if I can help it. Sometimes these dinners will be of the “one dish” variety, like ham-fried rice or a quick stir-fry. Other times they’ll be two or three simple things, like spaghetti and a green salad on the side. Either way, there’s something to be said for simple and quick fair. The less time I sit in front of the stove, even if I’m enjoying it, the more time I can spend with my family.

That’s not to say I don’t cook with my family on Sundays. I try and do that as much as I can. The challenge I face with that is my wife doesn’t like cooking, and my kids are still young. I don’t care how much she may beg; I’m not going to let my two year old chop vegetables for a few more years.

Still, there are things that can be done to make meal preparation simple, and quick. I’m actually quite grateful for such recipes. I think God inspired their creation. At the least, they keep us from eating frozen TV dinners on the Sabbath. Eating that way really would be a blasphemy.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Simple Pie Crust - Mother's Day Pie

Yesterday was Mother's Day. With all the to-do here about pie, I decided to make my wife a pie. It would be a personal homemade gift for her, and a new blog entry for me.

Win - win.

In any case I decided to make a cherry lattice pie. This had less to do with the fact that my wife likes cherry pie than with the lone can of cherry pie filling in the pantry.

Besides, I was going to go all out and make the pie crust myself. That makes it all better, right?

Don't answer that.

You may remember that I don't like making my own pie crusts. I always have trouble with them. A friend of mine, Micheline Savard, sent me a dirt simple pie crust recipe. It's similar (in one case nearly identical) to other pie crust recipe's I've tried, but so what? I'd try it anyway. Here it is:


2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter

Mix the flour and salt together in a medium size bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until you have coarse crumbs. Add ICE water just until it holds together. Press into a pie plate and make as thick or thin as you want.

I didn't have that much butter in the house, so I used shortening instead. I didn't just press it in, either. I divided the dough ball in half and rolled it out. It was nearly the same as a double crust recipe I know so I figured it would be fine.

Getting the pie crust off the cutting board and into the pie plate is always the trick. I've learned a few different methods of doing this. One is to roll the dough onto the rolling pin and then unroll it into the pie plate. The other involves folding it into quarters and then unfolding it into the pie plate.

It always looks so easy when I see other people do it.

For whatever reason, it never works out that way for me. I always err on the side of trying to make the crust really flaky. I love a good flaky pie crust. Of course that means that you can't add too much water to the mix, which also means the crust is harder to work with. Sure enough, this pie crust kept falling apart in the transfer. After two or three tries I gave up. I dropped the pieces int0 the pie plate as best I could and reassembled it there, sealing the cracks by smooshing the edges together. It looked more like a car accident than a pie crust.

After pouring in the canned filling, I started to work on the lattice top. Cutting the rolled out crust into thin strips was the easy part. Getting those strips onto the pie without breaking apart was an act of faith.

Apparently I don't have enough faith when it comes to pie crusts, because every one of them broke apart. Thank goodness a lack of faith in pie crusts isn't going to affect my standing in the church. I used several words at the time that I will need to repent of, though

Trying to weave them together was a nightmare. After a quick try, I decided to cut to the chase and laid several rows left to right, and then several more top to bottom. The checkered effect was there, but to say it was a true "lattice" is like saying a glob of melted steel is a true Rolls Royce.

Pretty, this pie was not. It didn't look that bad, but it was nowhere near as pretty as the picture you see at the top of the blog. I'm not daring enough to post pictures of my own creations.

It was flaky, though. Well, it was half flaky - half crumbly. Ugly it may have been, but mmmmm. It tasted good.

I have a confession to make. (Go figure. Have you seen the title of this blog? Duh!) Even though I made it for my wife, I ended up eating more slices than she did. More than my kids, for that matter.

Sorry, honey.

Mmmmmm . . . honey . . . .

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Glory of Pie

Pies played an important role in my childhood. I can remember my mother making pumpkin pies, minces pies and rhubarb pies, I've never liked those, every year. Come to think of it, my Dad makes a pretty good apple pie.

I love pie. Want to make me happy on my birthday? Forget the cake. Make me birthday pie.

My favorite time of year for pie was late summer. Growing up, my parent's had a peach tree in our back yard. When the peaches were ripe our family would harvesting them for use during the rest of the year. We’d cut them up and bottle them, make jam out of them, eat them fresh off the tree, and my mom would make a fresh peach pie.

Now, before you go pulling out your pots and pans and heating up your stove, let me explain something about this pie. It isn't what you might expect. My mom would blind bake a pie crust, fill it to the brim with sliced fresh peaches, and then pour orange flavored gelatin over the top (they didn't have peach flavored gelatin, back then). After it set up, we'd top it with Cool Whip. As I got older I started making my own whipped cream, instead, but I still love that pie.

I know this recipe sounds like something out of a weird homemaking magazine, and maybe it was. But fresh peaches on your fork, stuck to a tasty pastry crust and smeared with whipped cream is quite the treat. In my book, it beats a cooked peach pie, hands down.

Over the years I've learned to make pies my mother never dreamed of making. My mother never made key lime or sweet potato pies, but I'm pretty fond of them, and I think mine are pretty tasty.

The only troubling thing about making pies is the crust. Fillings are easy, but making a good pie crust is a nightmare. I've found a few good recipes (my great-grandmother’s pie crust recipe is pretty darned good), but getting the right consistency of the dough is more of an art than a science. You want it to just barely hold together to make a flaky pie crust, but if it's too loose, it will fall apart before you can get it into the baking pan.

In recent years, I've given up. Instead of making my own I've started buying the ready-made pie crusts at the grocery store: graham cracker crusts for my key lime pies, and the frozen dough for the sweet potato pies. They're not as good as the home made variety, but they're a heck of a lot less work. What can I say? I'm lazy.

UPDATE: My cooking obsession has overcome my lazyness, and I've started making my own pie crusts, again. Recently, I found a recipe that used a cooked corn-starch slurry to help it stay tender and hold together. It was touted as being “fool-proof” and was presented by someone I really respect in the cooking industry. I've made it twice now, and I can tell you it was crap. Yeah, the dough was easy to work with, but it cooked up like rubber. Ick. Back to traditional recipes, for me.