My name is Kate Aaron, and I have a confession to make: I’m not a crafter. *hangs head in shame* That’s not to say I haven’t been in the past: my parent’s house is full of pots I’ve thrown, cross-stitches I’ve made, and pictures I’ve painted. The last time I painted something it might have been by numbers, but that wasn’t always the case, and once upon a time I could produce a mean landscape or still life a la Cézanne.
These days, however, I tend not to have much time for crafting, nor the space for the products of such hobbies, so most of my efforts now go into
destroying Russia in Civilization making something that disappears almost as soon as it’s finished. I’m talking about food.
Cooking is an art, baking is a science, goes the old expression, and most of my kitchen experimentation certainly proves I’m more artist than scientist. Which doesn’t mean I don’t love making sweet things. Back in my uni days, whenever I was in a bad mood I’d solve it by throwing together a crumble, whether or not we had the appropriate ingredients in the house. After being forced to struggle through a bowlful of bananas and stewed plums topped with crushed cornflakes, my best friend made sure there was always at least a couple of apples in the house.
My recent attempts in the baking field included a no-egg, one-pan lemon cake that was almost embarrassingly easy and yummy to boot, and pecan pie cupcakes (an attempt to save myself the $3.50 an individual cupcake costs at a local coffeeshop). Alas, my recipe wasn’t quite as good as theirs, but it was still damn delicious!
Despite the odd baking success, my natural stomping ground is on the more forgiving side of the fence, in the cookery department. Once you understand how different flavours work together, it’s incredibly easy to create something yummy from scratch. Knowing how to throw a few ingredients together and make a meal also matters to me because I’m English and still adopt the spirit of the Blitz when it comes to food — “Waste not, want not!” My long-suffering wife AJ is resigned at this point to having a fridge filled with Tupperware.
I’ve blogged in my own little corner of the internet about my ups and downs with using a crockpot (something I didn’t have before moving to America, although I think that’s because of me rather than any cultural differences). At first, it took some getting used to, and I’ve now learnt the valuable lesson that broccoli will not steam gently if you put it on top of your beef, but will burn horribly over a course of six or seven hours and stink the house out for a week. Oops.
Broccoli mishaps notwithstanding, I have managed to produce some surprisingly excellent results from throwing a few ingredients in the crockpot and forgetting about them for half a day: laissez-faire cooking at its best! Slow cooker soups, stews, curries, and more, are also the best way to use up leftover meat.
I’m a big curry fan, and visited most Indian restaurants in the north-west when I lived in England, but unfortunately curry isn’t something readily available Stateside. When I first arrived, I scoured every store I went into for curry sauce, but they were either nonexistent or very expensive, and really, who wants to eat curry from a jar? After a bit of Google-fu I found a recipe I liked the look of, did some tinkering with it to suit all the tastebuds in the house (none of which are really fond of hot food), and created something of which I’m rather proud, and it more than did justice to the remains of a leg of lamb.
To make it yourself, throw a couple of diced yellow onions into a frying pan with a little bit of olive oil, sweat them down, add 2 teaspoons of curry powder, 1tsp ground coriander, 1/2tsp of ground cumin, 2 tablespoons of grated fresh ginger, 4 minced cloves of garlic, and (optional) 1/2-2tsp of crushed red pepper flakes if you like your food hot. Cook for a couple of minutes, until the onions have absorbed all the spices and the pan is dry, then toss into a crockpot with chicken or lamb. Throw in a 14.5oz can of coconut milk (low fat if you want to save on calories) and another of diced tomatoes (or a smaller can of tomato puree and a couple of chopped tomatoes, if you prefer), 2 bay leaves, and 2 cinnamon sticks. Stir it all up and forget about it until the meat is cooked (low for four hours if you’re using cooked meat to start with, high for six if raw). You can add any veg you want in the last hour or two (zucchini is a favourite in my house!) and serve over rice.
Not every meal comes from the crockpot however. I think everyone should be at least able to make a basic pasta dish from scratch, and there’s been plenty of sauce experimentation in our house. Crockpots are pretty forgiving of most things, but you do have to watch the spices because a little goes a long way (as I discovered when I added cracked black pepper to a pot roast!). Throwing ingredients into a pan on the stove lets you play around with flavours and create something you really love. Start a basic pasta sauce with a panful of chopped tomatoes (or tinned tomatoes/tomato sauce if you don’t have time to simmer them for an hour or so until they break down), then go wild with herbs — fresh is best, but dried will also produce good results. Basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme all work wonders, or just buy an Italian herb mix and throw in a couple of teaspoons. Fresh minced garlic and a splash of red wine bring it together with depth and body.
If you prefer white sauce, switching out the heavy cream for 8oz of low-fat cream cheese makes a healthier, tasty sauce. White wine, fresh garlic, and chicken broth bring it together. Toss in some canned artichoke hearts and stir through a bit of spinach at the last minute, and you’ve got the perfect chicken and pasta dish.
My last round of experimentation has been with something most people find a bit intimidating: risotto. Contrary to popular belief, cooking risotto is no harder than cooking almost anything else. In fact, it can even be easier.
If you’re doing it the traditional way, you want to cook the rice in a deep frying pan with butter, onions, and garlic, for a few minutes until the rice is glossy, add a splash of white wine and when it’s burnt off add hot chicken stock a cup at a time, stirring to prevent the rice from catching. It’s easy, but it takes a while. Eventually the rice will go thick and creamy, at which point you can flavour it with pretty much anything: a handful of parmesan cheese makes it even creamier, and pureed beetroot or squash always works for me.
There is, however, an even easier way. Start the risotto in the pan the same way you would for the traditional method, but instead of adding the broth a cup at a time, add it all at once. Then put the pan in the oven (or transfer the rice to an ovenproof dish before adding the broth, then put it in the oven) and bake it for 40 minutes. When it comes out, it’ll look godawful. Just give it a stir and add your flavours. Perfect risotto with zero effort, every time. A favourite recipe using this technique calls for cooking chicken thighs with the risotto, and adding pesto afterwards. Nom!
So there you are. Whether you’re an experienced cook or you could burn water, why not get in the kitchen tonight and whip up something different?