Before I was ever responsible for the health and nutrition of another person, my diet consisted mostly of pop tarts and alcohol. My most impressive feat in the kitchen was making these little biscuit-type thingies that my family lovingly referred to as “Jeannine’s Balls.” They consisted of unmeasured ratios of water and Bisquick pancake mix, rolled up into little balls and then flung into a hot oven ‘til kinda, sorta done-looking. I made them for the first time when I was ten years old, and they continued to be my specialty dish at home until sometime around my mid-twenties. For those of you with dirty minds, you can just go ahead and say it aloud with me: my family ate my balls for fifteen years. That is, indeed, what she said.
My husband chose to marry and procreate with me (though not necessarily in that order) despite my severe lack of cooking skills, but after having my first kid I decided I better learn a thing or two about feeding a family. You know, to bring out my well-hidden, potentially non-existent, inner domestic goddess and stuff. So I went and purchased these culinary masterpieces:
It’s been about six years since I learned how to boil water, and I’ve come a LONG way. Now I can even MIX things with water (jello, anyone?). I’m just kidding. I’m actually an okay cook. My kids and husband are still alive, so that’s some proof of my kitchen skills, right?
As it turns out, my inner domestic goddess really was in there somewhere. Well, the one that does the cooking was there. The one that does the cleaning and the laundry? Ehh, notsomuch. But one out of three ain’t bad.
So what’s a decent blog entry without an oddly-numbered list of some sort? I’ve compiled a short list of random things I’ve learned that have made my life easier ever since I purchased those pathetic books. I’ve got some tips, tricks, and admittedly, a couple of totally unpaid advertisements as well. I apologize, in advance, if you have neither Costco nor Trader Joe’s nearby. And I’m also very sorry to hear it.
Make rice in the oven. I can’t make rice on a stove to save my life. For those of you who think you just boil water, throw it in and wait, you have either never made real rice or you’re making some easy-peasy, minute rice copout shit. Minute rice is WAY more expensive than the real stuff, and I’m on a budget over here. There’s no fancy schmancy quick-cooking rice in my cabinets, people. Oh, and if you are using the real stuff and your rice still comes perfect after a mere hot water bath, then good for you. Go audition for the Next Food Network Star or something. For me, rice was always the enemy. So after years of abuse from smug friends and family about my inability to make rice, a light bulb finally went off in my head. Make it in the OVEN. Totally works every time.
Trader Joe’s is not as expensive as you think. I love Trader Joes. Let me repeat myself: I LOVE TRADER JOE’S. When it first opened on Staten Island, I couldn’t care less. I was like, ugh, screw that expensive, health food, yuppie bullshit. I’m good over here at my local Pathmark. But then my son started attending preschool next door to TJ’s and I decided to give it a try after all. Be advised: this is not a paid advertisement. I wish it were, because then maybe I could afford to buy that fancy minute rice after all. But I’m being as genuine as I can be. Their stuff is mostly inexpensive and of better quality than a lot of the crap at the supermarket. This is my favorite item, because I use it like four times a week and it’s cheaper and much better tasting than the crappy one I used to buy at Pathmark. And I promise they have better stuff than chicken broth, but that shit’s just a staple in my kitchen. If you live near a Trader Joe’s and don’t shop there, you are doing a great disservice to yourself. And if you don’t live near one, then maybe try moving?
Make kale chips – I know I lost a little bit of street cred with the whole Trader Joe’s obsession, but I’m about to make it even worse. Because I think roasted kale chips are the best thing to happen to a vegetable since eggplant parmesan. I’m not even exaggerating. They are easy to make, loaded with all kinds of healthy vitamins and ministers, and most importantly, delicious. VERY delicious. Delicious enough for children to eat willingly despite their green appearance and vegetable categorization. Here’s what you do: go buy fresh kale (not those stupid pre-cut bags; don’t be lazy). Wash the leaves and pull off the stems. Chop it up into big pieces. Toss with some EVOO (what up Rachael Ray?! That’s extra virgin olive oil, for those of you non-30-Minute-Meal-watchers). Add some salt and pepper. Lay it out evenly on a baking sheet and roast at 375 for about 10 minutes, or until kale is crispy but not burnt. Put it on the dinner table. Tell the kids you made “green chips” as a side dish because they were just so good that day (ha! Imagine?). Then pat yourself on the back because your family? Is happily eating KALE. That totally deserves a scoop of ice cream with your after-dinner glass(es) of wine.
Costco makes the best rotisserie chickens, ever – Costco sells a lot of the best things ever, but we don’t have all day here. I have no idea what kind of yummy scrumptious awesomeness they put in their chicken recipe, but I don’t even care. You know how there’s always that one night during the week, after a particularly long day, that you’re just not in the mood to cook? So you order pizza or Chinese food. And then another night comes along and, again, you don’t feel like cooking. But you already ordered out one night, so then you eat leftovers or maybe sandwiches. And then a third night rolls around and you’re like, shit, I might have to actually put on the stove tonight. That’s when you should head to Costco and grab one of their amazing chickens (for just five bucks!) and boom, another night free of cooking. Except for a simple side or two. Tomorrow night, you’ll make a feast. Promise. Well, maybe.
Always make your own salad dressing – Most store-bought salad dressings are nasty. At least, in my opinion, they are. You might agree or disagree, but you certainly have to admit that home-made salad dressings are way better. And really, is it that hard to mix oil and vinegar? My favorite salad dressing recipe comes courtesy of my mom: two parts olive oil, one part lemon juice, one or two teaspoons of sugar or sweetener, salt, and pepper. Shaky, shaky, and done. So easy, and I promise it’s the best dressing ever. I usually add a little parsley, fresh or dried- whatever you have. Now, are you ready for my favorite trick ever? Here it is: when you squeeze lemons, (should you be adventurous enough to opt for fresh lemons over the store-bought, pre-squeezed, bottled kind) squeeze them out over one of these bad boys to avoid getting pits in your dressing. Everyone has one of these handheld grater things. Even I have three of them, for some reason, and my kitchen is basically the size of a walk-in closet.
Food Network + the Internet = perfectly fine cooking education – I’m so grateful to live in an age where, when I have a cooking question, I can just type it into Google and have several hundred pages of answers a second later. As you might recall, when I was living home with my parents, I was unfortunately too busy getting drunk and eating pop tarts to bother paying attention to my mom in the kitchen. And my grandmother passed away before she was ever able to fulfill her necessary Italian Grandma duties by insisting I learn the way of the wooden spoon (when it wasn’t being broken over some poor, misbehaving sibling’s head). So when I finally moved out, I had all my shiny new pots and pans and spatulas but didn’t know the difference between a saucepan and a frying pan. So I turned to my new best friend: The Food Network. Oh Giada, Bobby Flay, and Rachael Ray! How you’ve shown me the way! I suppose this is neither a cooking tip nor secret, but more of a statement of fact: as long as there are entire channels dedicated to teaching people how to boil water, as well as awesome websites like Allrecipes and Epicurious, you’ll be alright. Your food might even eventually taste almost as awesome as if your mom, or maybe even your Italian grandma, made it herself. Almost.