What prompted today's entry was a post-dinner discussion with Cameron about our strengths and weaknesses in kitchen affairs. He certainly can wield a mighty spatula, that man, with an admirable (read: sexy) understanding of building flavors rather than forcing them. I concede to him as grill-master for his grasp of heat application and meat-handling (lol). And of course, Cameron fears no foods. This is important if you're an American interested in dating a Filipino.
My strength, it seems, is my ability to scan the contents of a fridge or pantry and come up with something inventive. I don't mean that stoner inventiveness wherein you make a sandwich using every jarred item in the fridge. When I rummage through the kitchen -- even when I stroll down the aisles of a grocery store -- I think with a five-star appetite and a five-dollar budget. The results generally remain to be seen, but more and more consistently I've been knocking it out of the park.
This week I'm dog-sitting, this time for someone who is practically a stranger. After getting over being thoroughly baffled at these people's ability to trust me, I set to work taking over their well-equipped kitchen. These people are major Trader Joe's fans, evidenced by container upon container of TJ-brand EVERYTHING. That's encouraging, since TJ is big on showcasing different flavors and meal concepts. As Cameron said, "Trader Joe's is the most like, 'hey, have you tried so-and-so?'" Thus, there are lots of great kinda-exotic ingredients at their disposal -- sri racha chili paste, soy sauce (WTF kind of house doesn't have soy sauce anyway), pungent cheeses, etc. Following suit, Cameron and I filled in other TJ ingredients that would complement the household's existing selection. Here's what we came up with:
CHICKEN NUMBER ONE -- Friday
I threw this chicken dish together with little to no forethought, just a glance at available ingredients. Starving yet feeling adventurous, I went to town on a package of de-boned, skinned chicken thighs we picked up at Albertson's earlier that day. The chicken was rubbed down with chopped garlic, salted and peppered, blessed with a little lemon juice then stuffed with a mix of Mediterranean-seasoned feta (a TJs find) and Salem blue cheeses. I secured them with toothpicks to hold the cheese in the meat, then dredged them in a mix of flour and fresh-grated Parmesan cheese. I attempted to oven-fry these pieces in a tray dotted with butter.
While the oven-fry intent wasn't well-realized (they should've been breaded rather than dredged), the result was still delicious. The meat was perfectly done, with lots of dense flavors all the way through. To stretch the meal to feed two more surprise dinner guests, I paired the chicken with an easy salad: hand-torn hearts of romaine, grape tomatoes, grated Parmesan, pine nuts, and Italian dressing.
Good reviews all around on this one! It's worth refining and retrying; if I do go back to it I will be sure to mention it in here afterward.
CHICKEN TWO/THREE -- Saturday, Tuesday
This dish was definitely sponsored by Trader Joe's. We stopped in for pita chips and hummus, Cameron's current snack-food fixation, and decided on picking up a handful of items for dinner: chicken thighs (there we go again), frozen heat-and-serve "Thai Jasmine" rice, Thai shrimp gyoza, and a bottle of TJ brand Thai red curry sauce. I have a bottle of that stuff at home, so I knew it was good.
While Cameron set up the gyoza, I got to work on the chicken. First, a sprinkling of salt and pepper -- light on the salt, since there's a lot going on -- then a light smearing of minced garlic and sri racha. Then a scant bit of cumin, a scant bit of coriander (operating on the logic that coriander is just ground-up cilantro fetus, and cilantro is a top ingredient in Thai cooking). A very light drizzle of sesame oil, a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and into the pan they went. I got a bit of sear on both sides, then lowered the heat and lidded them while I microwaved the rice and got plates ready.
See that?! "[M]icrowaved the rice," guys. MICROWAVE RICE. Ask Cameron, I was skeptical at first. But for less than $1/serving I wasn't scared to try it. Besides, it's TJ. It turned out perfectly. I'm pretty sure that TJ's heat-and-serve rice is foolproof.
After the chicken was done, I cut the thigh hunks into slices and lay them atop the rice. In the meantime a generous dollop of the red curry sauce went straight from the bottle into the chicken pan, for heating and also to add the tasty chicken drippings (garlic, lemon and all) into the sauce. We poured it onto the chicken and rice, and of course, Cameron's shrimp gyoza filled up the rest of the plate.
We liked this dish so much (and we had enough ingredients left over), we made it twice. Given that we didn't have to buy the seasonings, sri racha (which you can steal from Chinese food restaurants anyway), lemon, or sesame oil, we managed to make two sexy and exciting dinners-for-two with about $15 total. And that's only because these white folks ain't got no damn rice-cooker. We could've gotten two servings of rice for 40¢ but I don't know how to make stove-top rice. Imagine, a fancy-pants dinner for two for $5.50!
PANCAKES FOR ONE (ALWAYS DEPRESSING) -- Monday
The strawberries I bought on Thursday were getting close to turning, so I decided to make strawberry pancakes for myself. I jotted down a from-scratch pancake batter recipe I found online, then set to work. With it went two slices of what little bacon I found in their fridge, and one egg prepared over-easy.
Flavors were good -- I mean, such a dish is foolproof -- but I think I had my heat too high for pancakes. The outside was overdone, the inside somewhat underdone. I didn't realize how much of an effect a couple of chopped-up strawberries would have on pancake batter, but seeing that the less-done parts of the pancake were close to the strawberry chunks, that was likely the culprit. At the very least, I think that morning might be my only bacon-cooking success story to date.
I know, pancakes + bacon + eggs =/= creativity. But I tried, I learned, I ate the whole thing. Also, I plated it really pretty, and as I had been about my cupcakes-from-scratch attempt, as long as it looks good, no one on the internet can tell me how bad it tastes.
Pictures to follow on the Thai chicken dinner and strawberry-pancake breakfast, by the way. I'm quite overdue for a photo redux entry.
Overall, I'm very pleased with my kitchen adventures. They always serve to excite me, get me thinking about how I'm going to stock my own future kitchen. I've begun building a mental list of essentials so that with a sizable initial capital and a little forethought, every meal can be done on the cheap but still taste (and look!) like a million bucks. That's how I roll, and Cameron may tease about it but he still knows my kitchen ish be bomb as eff.