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Monday, September 13

The Adventurous Cook (Or, What Was I Thinking?)

We've all done it.  We waltz into the kitchen with the intention of making something yummy to eat, then just stand there, aghast with the realization that, despite having several things to choose from, nothing seems to go together.  Can of corn, box of spaghetti noodles, 1/2 tub of rocky road icecream...great by themselves, but you can't make a meal from them.  What to do, what to do?  Ah...improvisation!!

So, we tinker.  We try to make something without really thinking about it, hoping that it will work.  Sometimes, we succeed, sometimes we bomb.  Well, there are ways to work it so that the successes outweigh the bombs.  It's all in how you understand your ingredients.  Knowing how they taste alone will give you your biggest tool in learning to combine them into something yummy.

It can be tricky, learning and remembering all those flavors.  But, it can be done.  After all, if it couldn't, who would have EVER come up with zucchini cake?  I mean, come on...zucchini?  Cake?  Who thinks up this stuff?  People just like you, that's who. I can only imagine that somewhere, someone had a hankering for carrot cake, but didn't have any carrots on hand.  Zucchini?  Eh, why not?  Success!!

You have more than meat, vegetable, or starch to work with.  Each of those falls into a catagory...sweet, savory, or neutral.  It's your knowledge of those catagories that will help you tremendously when cooking a meal with a 'less than choice' larder of ingredients. 

Let's start with meat.  After all, it's usually considered the 'anchor' of a meal, right? The main dish...beef, pork, chicken,'s going to set the mood for the entire meal.  So what sort of things work best with each?

BEEF:  Beef is a red meat.  It's dense, packs alot of flavor, and is rather filling.  Definitely falling in the savory catagory, it's flavor lends well to rich, hearty ingredients.  Add potatoes, carrots, and onions, and you have potroast.  Heck, just a baked potato on the side will do nicely in a pinch.  Beef can carry a meal without any trouble.

PORK:  Less dense than beef, pork still falls into the same catagory.  However, it's flavor can be enhanced with other things and changed, so you need be a little more careful with what you add to it.  Not so heavy handed with seasonings.  Pork does best with subtler flavors.  Green beans, lima beans...heck, ANY beans go pretty well with pork.  You can even cook the pork IN the beans.

CHICKEN:  Chicken is "the wonder meat".  Why?  Because it can do almost anything...savory OR neutral, it can stand alone or be cooked in something else, and each way will give it a new definition.  That's because chicken is a 'white' meat...less dense, it can take on almost any character you wish to give it.  That's why chicken is probably the most versatile meat you can have on hand.  It's very forgiving, too...which means trial and error meals usually work out reasonably well.

FISH:  The trickiest of the bunch.  Fish is naturally light in flavor, and can be easily overwhelmed with very little effort on your part.  Granted, some fish has more flavor than others...salmon, for example, is rather distinctive in taste.  But, for the most part, you want to be very light handed with fish.  A little lemon and butter, and that's it.  Angel hair pasta with a light alfredo sauce is an excellent example of what goes well with fish.  Most definitely, fish falls in the neutral catagory.

So how do you choose?  How do you know what goes well with something, and what doesn't?  You have to KNOW your flavors.  For example, if you are making something with a strong garlic flavor, you certainly don't want something smoky in taste to accompany it.  Basically, that would be like combining Italian with BBQ...not the tastiest combo I could think of.

The trick is this...when looking over your supplies, see everything according to how it tastes ALONE.  Then, when choosing, pick those things that would complement the other.  I know, it can sound hard, but it's actually really simple to do, because you still have your past experiences to go on.  Meals you've eaten at your family's house...meals in restaurants...those experiences have taught you what would normally go together.  Use those memories!!

Yes, you'll make mistakes.  We all do.  But, with time, practice, and a little patience, you'll always improve.  Before you know it, you'll be easily whipping out solid meals without much difficulty.  Even when the pantry doesn't hold an easy remedy.

Here's a short list of quick, everyday meals that most of us already have the items on hand for:

Mix 1 can tuna, a prepared box of mac & cheese, 1 drained can of peas and carrots, bake for 30 minutes at 350...Tuna Casserole.

Mix 1 lb ground beef (browned and drained), 1 cup macaroni noodles, tomatoes, some chili seasoning, 2 cups water in a pot and simmer for 30 minutes...Chili Mac.

Place 4 chicken breasts, 1 cup rice, 1 can cream of mushroom soup blended with 2 cups water in a baking dish and bake at 350 for 45 minutes...Mushroom Chicken.

Slice chicken tenders into strips, add slices of onion, bell pepper, and a can of diced tomatoes...season with  garlic, oregano, salt and pepper,  and simmer for 30 minutes...Chicken Cacciatore (serve that over spaghetti noodles).

The possibilities are almost endless, and are only limited by your imagination.  There are plenty of books out there with ideas for quick, easy meals using what most people have on hand...find one, and discover for yourself the ease with which you can turn what seems to be disparate ingredients into something truly scrumptious!!  ENJOY!!!!

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