Mary Cooks: Easy Chicken Taco Meat

Tonight, with my counterpart skim-coating the new ceiling in our bathroom, I was provided with another opportunity to try my luck in the kitchen. Regular readers know that the results of my cooking do indeed appear to depend on luck - sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally indifferent. But tonight I had one of my rare successes, and this time luck had nothing to do with it.

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Moroccan Chicken with Pomegranate Glazed Carrots

My counterpart returned from Pittsburgh, and things have more or less returned to normal. Except that he is now telecommuting to Pittsburgh from the den. Which means until the weather is consistently nice for grilling, dinner will usually be something quick, like hot dogs or mac and cheese. This provides me with an opportunity to continue cooking. So long as he is open to experimentation.

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Mary Cooks: Shrimp Cakes with Wasabi Tartar Sauce

Last night's dinner included a potato rosti that yielded five servings. For tonight's dinner, I was looking for something that would pair well with that leftover potato. And where I come from, there are few things that go better with fried potato than fried fish. Earlier today over my morning coffee, I found a recipe for shrimp cakes on the Foodista blog and knew it was dinner.

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Mary Cooks: Poussin with Pomegranate Sauce

Someone once said that a man's reach should exceed his grasp. This was me in the kitchen tonight. With my counterpart away on business for a second week, I thought about what it was I really wanted to eat for dinner tonight. As we still have a surplus of small game bird from D'Artagnan , I decided that one little poussin wouldn't go missing and rolled up my sleeves to actually cook something.

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Mary Cooks: Fried Rice

Fried rice is actually so simple I don't think it really counts as cooking a meal. While it does involve some timing and a good idea of what goes together well, fried rice can usually be accomplished without too much fuss. All you really need is leftover rice, meat, some veg, an egg, and a little sauce.

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Mary Cooks: Stuffed Peppers

Gareth is away in Pittsburgh this week, so I am on my own for dinner. And thus begins another "Mary Cooks" series.

I'm starting this series with what is sure to be a controversial dish: Stuffed Peppers. And if Gareth is reading this in his hotel room, I'm sure to hear about this when he gets home as I have long claimed to dislike stuffed peppers. Why? Because I dislike green bell peppers. My stuffed peppers (or, as I am cooking for one - pepper) will be the much sweeter red variety.

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Bread for St. Brighid

February 2, or Groundhog Day, falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and from a solar perspective is the midpoint of winter. Before the legend of the groundhog and his shadow, it was a very different time. It was a time of cold and dark and hunger giving way to light and warmth as the days steadily grow longer. It is a time to look forward to the coming spring, to begin preparations for the planting when the cold fades away and the earth is once again soft and warm and open.

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Holiday Baking: Mary Cherry Christmas Pie

When my counterpart and I started discussing Christmas dinner a few weeks back, I knew I wanted a cherry pie. I grew up in Northeast Wisconsin, and we spent our Christmases with my grandparents and cousins in Sturgeon Bay on the Door Peninsula, where orchards of tart cherries littered the landscape from Brussels bordering Kewaunee County in the south up to Gills Rock on the northern tip of the mainland where a ferry could take you to the islands on the very northern tip between Upper and Lower Michigan. Every Christmas, every holiday, ended with a tart cherry pie.

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Mary Cooks: The Easiest Fish Ever

There's been surprisingly little cooking going on at my house. It all started last Sunday. My counterpart and I were feeling industrious after taking down the shed the previous weekend and set about clearing the yard. We sprung for a professional one-handed chain saw (which I have dubbed Bruce) to help remove creeper and dead tree limbs that would otherwise be out of reach with a heavier, two-handed saw. Things overhead. One such dead limb came crashing down, bounced off the ground, and hit my beloved right in the kisser.  I did what any good wife would do. I put a bag of frozen peas on his face and drove him to the ER.  Luckily, there was no concussion, no infection, no lost teeth. Just teeth that were very very loose. Seven stitches, two Percacets, and a tetanus shot later, he was ready to go home. But not ready to eat anything

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Mary Bakes Potato Bread

After a series of increasingly bad dinners that culminated with me being assured that I never actually have to cook ever again, I decided to return to more familiar kitchen terrain, and today I am baking bread.

I learned how to bake bread at my mother's bosom. It was Green Bay WI in the 1970's and grocery stores didn't have bakeries and she had seven mouths to feed on one income. Making bread at home was cost effective and probably more convenient than buying it. Later, when she re-entered the workforce and there was less time and more money, we would frequent the Dolly Madison outlet off of East Main in what is now known as the Three Corners neighborhood. But before such cushy times, I remember a childhood full of a different type of comfort - the smell and taste of home made bread.

This was also before bread machines, and my mother made her bread by hand. I follow this practice even with such modern conveniences as the Kitchen Aid (complete with dough hook) in the house. What I learned from my mother is that it's not just about the finished product. I learned that bread is about family, and that a lot of love goes into it. Bread is also about the process. And the process you follow shapes the end result.

I also learned that dough feels good. I learned this when I was four. Making bread was a family ritual shared by me, my mom, and eventually my younger sisters while my dad was at work and my older brother and sister were at school. Only we younger ones got to punch down the warm dough after the first rise and help knead out the air created by the yeast. And once the bread had baked, only we got slices of still-steaming bread covered with Mom's home made jelly, often made with fruit growing wild in our back yard.

Mis en place

While my mom made a very nice, hearty loaf of white - and then later whole wheat - bread, I make potato bread. I use the Joy of Cooking recipe as my guide. Bread is one of those things that, because it so hands-on, absorbs the energy you put into it. If you knead the dough to work out your anger and frustration, the dough won't rise properly. You also get better results from your yeast when the moon is full. And, all ingredients should be at room temperature when you start as cold eggs or milk will result in sluggish yeast. For potato bread, the type of spud you use also has an impact based on the starch content. I get results that I like best with red potatoes. They have a strong potato flavor and are not too starchy.

Sweating eggs are still too cold

Buttermilk Potato Bread

3/4 cup mashed potatoes, still warm

1 stick very soft butter

4 tsp active dry yeast

2 cups buttermilk

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tbsp sugar

2 1/2 tsp salt

about 6 1/2 cups flour

I'll start with reheated left-over mashed potatoes if we have any. If not, I'll make my own. a couple of good-sized potatoes should be enough. I don't usually measure them out but then add enough flour at the end to make it work. I also season the potatoes with salt, pepper, butter, cream, and herbs.

Using a large bowl, mix the softened butter into the potatoes until fully integrated. Add the yeast, buttermilk, egg, sugar, and salt.


If you don't have buttermilk on hand - I know I never do - you can make your own by adding a couple of dashes of a light vinegar - not Balsamic - to regular milk.

Regular milk

Add some vinegar to curdle slightly

Add the first three cups of flour and blend in with a spatula or wooden spoon. Once integrated, begin adding the remaining flour one cup at a time. After for or five cups of flour have been added, you'll need to give up the utensils and mix by hand. This is a wonderful experience. If the dough is still sticky after all the flour has been added, add a little more until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Smooth and elastic dough

Once it's the right texture, shape it into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl, flipping it to coat with the oil. Cover with a towel and leave it alone to rise until it has doubled in size, about an hour or so. This can be done at room temperature. However, if  the various factors cited above prevent you from getting a rise out of the dough, place it in a warm oven (175 or lower) with the door ajar.

Doubled in size

Once the rise is complete, knead out the air, using additional flour if the dough becomes sticky. Shape the dough into two loaves and place into greased loaf pans with any seams or creases facing down. I am partial to Pyrex glass pans as the glass provides an even baking temperature and creates a nice crust. I also recommend using the full 8- or 9-inch loaf pans rather than mini-loaf pans for a yeast bread.

Cover and let rise again, keeping an eye on things as this rise is usually quicker - about 45 minutes or less.

Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how your oven behaves. Pay attention to things after the first 30 minutes. Things baked in my oven tend to develop a dark outer crust before the insides are completely cooked. When the upper crust is just about the right color, I cover the loaves with foil until the rest of the bread catches up. Once I see a golden brown crust forming on the bread in the pan (I can see this because I'm using Pyrex), the bread is done.

Fresh from the oven

Cool in the pans on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting a piping hot slice, slathering it in butter, and enjoying thoroughly.

Mary Cooks: Chicken with Roasted Lemon, Green Olives and Capers

Experiences that engage multiple senses make solid and lasting memories. This is part of the reason why a certain smell or taste can evoke vivid childhood experiences. It's also part of why eating and family meals are so important. And, it's part of what led to Monday's dinner. As I was perusing recipes on , I came across this. Even though lemon + olives + capers = a very bitter sauce, the recipe reminded me so much of the food I had in Milan, I suffered a wave of nostalgia so strong that, against all reason, I decided this was the dish to make for dinner. So, without further ado, I present Monday's dinner:

Chicken with Roasted Lemons, Green Olives, and Capers

Mis en place

Roasted Lemons

12 thin lemon slices (from 2 lemons) -

I used a single lemon and got 8 thin slices

Olive oil

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange lemon slices in single layer on prepared sheet. Brush lemon slices with olive oil; sprinkle lightly with salt. Roast until slightly dry and beginning to brown around edges, about 25 minutes. (Lemons can be made 1 day ahead. Transfer to container. Cover; chill.)

Roasted lemon slices


4 large skinless boneless chicken breast halves -

I used thighs and cut them into bite-sized pieces. After the unfortunate cashew chicken from last week, everything is in bite-sized pieces. If it looks the same, it cooks the same. Which means: for even cooking, make sure everything is cut the same size.

All purpose flour

5 tablespoons olive oil -

I used half for my meat and the other half for some veg

1/2 cup sliced pitted green Sicilian olives or other brine-cured green olives

2 tablespoons drained capers

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, cut into 4 pieces -

I totally left this out

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley -

I substituted cilantro

I also added a vegetable medley consisting of:

1/2 white onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 jalapeno, diced

1 small zucchini, cut into matchsticks

1 large clove garlic

Before you even start cooking, prep the veg. Then, on a separate cutting board, prep the meat. Remember that the veg to meat ratio should be about 5:2.

Still not enough veg, but an improvement over last week

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge chicken in flour to coat both sides; shake off excess.

I sprinkled salt, pepper, and flour on my chicken bites and tossed it all together to coat.

Heat 5 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Stir in olives and capers. Add stock and bring to boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom of skillet. Boil until liquid is reduced to syrup consistency, turning chicken over after 3 minutes, about 5 minutes.

Reading this passage, it sounds like if you flour your meat and then add stock to it as it cooks, you will get meat simmering in a beautiful sauce. This is a blatant fallacy.

The sauce will separate as soon as you remove the heat. Which mine did

Magic sauce

While the chicken was cooking, I heated a separate pan for my veg. The onion, peppers and garlic will all cook at about the same speed. The zucchini cooks quicker, even in larger pieces, so I let everything else cook for about 7 minutes before I added it to the mix.

Note that the veg will cook down to about half the original volume

 I also started a pot of pasta.

Three pans on the stove top and something roasting in the oven - that's very chefy

Add butter, roasted lemon slices, and 2 tablespoons parsley; simmer until butter melts and chicken is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to platter. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon parsley.

OK, so I skipped the butter, but did add the roasted lemon and cilantro and let it simmer until the pasta cooked. The sauce separated and had to be reconstituted with a little cream and some additional stock. Gareth topped it off with a hard cheese.

The finished product. Even cheese can't save this dish.

Now, here's where I have to say that some recipes are just not good ideas. This might be one of them. While it was only marginally edible, Gareth could see the direction I was trying to go with this. There are several fundamental things wrong with this recipe that need to be addressed for any level of success:

  1. The lemons. Lemon zest and lemon juice are both very good things in a sauce. Actual lemon slices? Not so much. On his third bite, my counterpart got a lemon slice in his mouth and was unable to continue.
  2. The capers. They are pungent. They are vinegary. They are bitter. There are really only two dishes in which capers will really work: a bagel with lox, and pate. Both contain other strong flavors for which the caper is a counterpoint, and both contain a high volume of dairy. Unless you;re using a quart of cream, leave the capers out of it.
  3. The sauce. There is no magic sauce that thickens in the cooking process because the meat is coated with flour. This is really cooking code for "lazy-ass sauce". Whenever you see cooking instructions like this, just break out your medium sauce pan and make a roux like you're supposed to. 

So, Monday's dinner was not exactly a success. But it wasn't a complete failure, either. I learned a little more about food and cooking. Plus we both had a pretty good laugh.

Mary Cooks: Week 1

This week, I managed to produce three fairly decent evening meals.They were all very different, so even though they were all chicken, they all had their own distinct flavor. And no one got food poisoning. Which is progress for me.

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Mary Cooks Cashew Chicken

Tuesday's dinner starts with an old recipe from our salad days, those happy golden years of our life together. While we weren't yet married, we were well on the way - out of his bachelor pad, out of the city, out in the suburbs. We were no longer working for Manpower or Kelly or Office Team. We had "real" jobs and a neat little row house just across the Harford County line.

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Mary Cooks Butter Chicken

When my counterpart first started discussing this week's dinner plans with me, we agreed that chicken would be the most likely to yield success. It's cheap and it goes with just about everything. He recommended I start with an Indian dish known as Chicken Makhani, or Butter Chicken. I've never actually had this dish, which I think worked in my favor as I had no preconceived notions.

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Mary Cooks

My spouse uttered five little words last night - a simple phrase I dread that invariably releases the beast from the deep recesses of my anxiety closet - "I'm working late next week."

The words hung in the air for a moment with all the unspoken implications in a cloud around them. I felt my heartrate quicken as my chest contracted and a tiny seed sprouted in the pit of my stomach. The moment passed, and I picked up my end of the conversation with a carefree shrug: "I can cook dinner."

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