I guess my friends and family are beginning to think I know how to cook… silly. I merely enjoy myself in the kitchen, and usually dream up something tasty in the process. My best friend, Amanda, has always been amazed at how at ease I am while cooking, since her idea of making dinner used to be heating up a frozen pizza. Her taste buds have matured so much through the course of our friendship, and now she is even brave enough to get her hands dirty in the kitchen! She assisted me with the Baked Arancini I made for my mom’s party (which, according to my mom, were better than the Italian restaurant’s fried rice balls that she sampled today!) and got her first full cooking lesson this evening. We made Balsamic chicken with mushrooms (my college roommate’s favorite recipe!) as well as my take on the classic haystack, with none of your expected ingredients. A haystack is typically tortilla chips, shredded lettuce, beans or meat, salsa and cheese, but is layered in stereotypical fashion that is unique to the dish. My version uses none of the same ingredients, replacing the chips with polenta, the lettuce with green beans, the salsa with roasted red peppers, the protein with pine nuts, and the cheddar with goat cheese. Polenta is new to me as well, introduced to me by my mom less than a year ago. It is simply boiled cornmeal, which can be made as a porridge or shaped into a log. I am totally in love with this dish – I created it to use up some leftovers a few months back, and was even more pleased with the result the second time around! Definitely give this recipe a try, and play around with the layers to use up whatever you have on hand!
A few tips on the recipe for those of you who are new to the kitchen (I did just give a cooking lesson, so figured some advice might be appropriate in this post!)
1. Using recipes is a really good way to start learning flavor combinations, get inspiration, and get instructions of how to make dishes using certain techniques. However, don’t feel like you need to stay married to the specific recipe if you feel inspired to branch out and try something new! (The exception to this rule is in baking, where it is usually a pretty good idea to follow instructions…)
2. Don’t skimp on the seasonings. Herbs, vinegar, salt and pepper add a HUGE flavor component, with a relatively low-cost and calorie component. I season almost all of my food with at least pepper, if not also salt and dried herbs. If you are worried about your sodium intake, salt can be omitted from some dishes without being missed, but on occasion is really needed to bring the flavor out of certain foods. You can also choose to let your dinner guests let their own taste buds be their guide – check out these adorable salt and pepper shakers that my mom and I found at a local festival this afternoon. A crafty addition to my dining room table!
3. Chopping is a simple step that often takes too much time for new cooks. I once cooked with two of my guy friends and was finished with cooking dinner before they even finished their one chopping assignment. True story. Save yourself from this fate by using sharp knives, learning the simple rocker technique (where you stabilize the blunt back tip of a chef’s knife with the palm of your hand and using a rocking motion to facilitate chopping), and using scoring for easy veggie chopping.
4. Minimize your clean-up by re-using sautée pans when possible. For example, tonight I sautéed green beans in one pan, then transferred them to a bowl and added my mushrooms to the same pan. I pushed the mushrooms to the side while the chicken cooked. Be careful not to let raw meat come in contact with food that will not be further cooked when using this dish-saving technique.
5. Start with something manageable and work your way up. If you start with a recipe that is way too complicated, you might get discouraged which will only further keep you out of the kitchen. But don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something that looks a little more challenging than you think you can handle. If you mess up, at least its only food – probably not an expensive mistake, and there is always pizza or a good ol’ PB&J as a stand-by dinner ;)
With that being said, go forth and experiment with a new recipe or two. Maybe even this one (recipe guidelines are at the end of the post). Just enjoy yourself and see what you can create!
12 1-inch slices polenta log
2 roasted red peppers
1 cup sautéed green beans
6 oz goat cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts
salt and pepper to taste
Place polenta slices onto a baking sheet and season with ground pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and layer with roasted red peppers, green beans, goat cheese and pine nuts. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Return to oven and broil at 350 degrees for 5 minutes. Goat cheese should be slightly melted and ingredients should be warmed through. Serve two per person as a side dish, or three to four per person with a salad as a main course.
Just in case you are a visual person, the progression of building the haystack…
Baking the polenta slices.
Adding the roasted peppers.
Layering the green beans.
Now for the goat cheese and pine nuts.
Finishing off the dish in the broiler oven.
Enjoying the meal!
Question: What is your favorite kitchen tip/trick?