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Old 02-24-2010, 01:34 PM   #1
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Question Using on-hand ingredients to cook basic meals

I opened my spice cabinet last night and had a revelation: I don't know how to use most of these items to cook basic meals! If you asked me prior to yesterday if I considered myself to be a novice cook, I would have said no. I have a lot of favorite recipes, some rather complex, and I can make them all quite well. However, now that I am a mom (I have twin 3 year old daughters) and have a lot less time to "follow recipes" (as I did the 14 married years before I had children), I need to start learning some basics (which I just discovered I don't seem to know any).

I probably have close to 60 spice jars, and I use a lot of the items often when following recipes. But I've suddenly discovered that I don't know how to use them for basic cooking. For instance, if someone gave me a plain chicken breast and told me to use spices in my cabinet and "create a dish with it" quickly, I wouldn't know where to start. (I guess I'd never cut it on Hell's Kitchen!!) I'd probably put a little bit of olive oil in a pan for cooking it, but I'm not sure what I would use to season it. I could bread it and pan fry it.

If given some time, I could make a brine for it, brine it, slice a pocket in it and stuff it with fresh mozz. cheese, basil leaves and sundried tomatoes and grill it! But if you heated up a skillet (or gave me a baking dish for the oven) and handed me a chicken breast and told me to cook it in 15 minutes or less, I wouldn't even be sure what to season it with. (But I would guarantee that I have whatever seasonings you tell me to use! )

What would you use to make some basic quick meals starting with simple cuts of meat: a chicken breast, a piece of fish (any), a steak, pork chops, etc. The more I'm thinking about it, I'm realizing that I don't know how to cook very much off the top of my head. Without a recipe, I'm clueless.

Wow. I'm still floored that I am asking this question! I guess I lack the creative element necessary for real cooking. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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Old 02-24-2010, 01:46 PM   #2
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I think part of the problem is that people overthink this. It can be as simple as seasoning with salt and pepper if you like. But here are some suggestion that my family likes.

- soy, honey, ginger (mix till you like the taste)
- salt, pepper, garlic, lemon zest
- drape some swiss cheese and ham over the chicken and drizzle liberally with italian dressing
- cut up in nugget size pieces and dredge in crumbs of your choice mixed w/ italian seasoning, bake or fry

when in doubt I fall back on salt, pepper, garlic powder, and italian seasoning.
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Old 02-24-2010, 02:32 PM   #3
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I too have a lot of spices in my cabinet, but then I have very few favorits ones and that is what I use for quick meals. Leaving the fancy stuff for the fancy recipes. Don't worry about it, you are doing fine.

Oh, and btw, congratulation on your teins, that is such a miricale after 14 years. G-d blessed you, good luck.
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Old 02-24-2010, 03:03 PM   #4
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I am willing to bet you're not a novice cook. You just forgot about "tossing" stuff together! Single meals in a pot are so much simpler than meals where you have to put several things together.

Keep around dry ingredients like rice, macaroni, cous cous, quinoa, etc. Macaroni can be boiled ahead of time and refrigerated after it's been drained if you know you're going to want to use it soon. Same goes for rice, cous cous, and quinoa.

Here's some fast (meat-based) meal ideas:
Goulash: Brown some ground beef, drain, and toss in with a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes, garlic, basil, and oregano. If you feel so inclined, brown bell peppers and onions with the ground beef and toss them in.

Chicken and Rice: boil or bake chicken breasts, dice, and dump into a crockpot with uncooked rice and plenty of broth. Add black pepper, sage, and thyme. Cook in the crock all day while working and you'll have an awesome meal that night. Feel free to chop up onions and celery and add them to the pot too.

Other ideas: Pot of beans with ground beef and green chile. Add garlic, onions, oregano and cumin, and salt.
Pot of beans with ham: add bay leaf.
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Old 02-26-2010, 07:16 PM   #5
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Try some summer savory in the cream sauce over asparagus, there's something complimentary in those tastes.

Old bay seasoning with most fish and shellfish, or the sauce you make.

Star Anise with beef and radish (chinese radish or regular) in a stew is complimentary.

Rosemary S&P on buttered potato cubes, then baked to a nice crisp.

Lemon and oregano on grilled ribs.

To me, rice is like a white canvas, you can add and try many different spice/herb combinations and add a little S&P butter, and see if you like it and what you would like it with--chicken, beef, etc.

Caraway in saurkraut. or Rye bread.

Ginger and Garlic, a lovely combination in so many dishes. We love it in Moo Goo Gai Pan--many recipes for that out there.

Garlic and Chili oil (hot), hunan chicken or beef.

Anise seed in pancakes with little pieces of fried sausage (breakfast) in it.

Well, that's a list to try.
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Old 02-27-2010, 09:30 AM   #6
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The seasonings I tend to use the most are garlic powder, red pepper flakes, paprika, salt and pepper. I put these on chicken, fish, vegetables (toss cubed potatoes in olive oil and these spices and bake, yum!), even pizza dough - well except for the paprika, I usually just use that on meats and potatoes to make them *look* nicer. I could probably survive with just the garlic powder, salt and pepper! I also sometimes add dried oregano or basil. Good luck!
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Old 02-27-2010, 01:36 PM   #7
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Many cook books have an herb section that gives basics on what herbs go better with meats, fish, chicken, veggies, etc. It would probably be good to acquaint yourself with that and just learn which ones you really like. You can always start with a small bit of the herb and increase to your liking. I have a large pictorial that was put out by Woman's Day in the 70's and it is very helpful, but you can get the same information from a basic cookbook.
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Old 03-03-2010, 03:19 PM   #8
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Hi everyone! Thanks for your replies. I forgot to tell you I was leaving for vacation on the 28th. Sorry for the delay in response. I appreciate you all taking the time to assist me.

Vagriller: Thanks for your suggestions. They are pretty basic, but I guess I tend to overlook things like that (and overthink things, as you said). I look forward to trying them.

CharlieD: Thanks for the congrats. The twins were actually quite the miracle(s)!! Perhaps I'll share the story with you guys some day. I can't even tell it without crying (good tears)! They are amazing children...who will probably surpass me in intelligence by the age of 5. (They are READING now at age 3. I can't believe it!)

froggythefrog: You are correct. I'm not really a novice. But I guess I just don't have a creative mind to toss things together. I am an embedded systems programmer so I know I don't lack intelligence (lol), but I just don't have a creative side (cooking, decorating, crafty stuff...). But if you need help with a math problem, I'm your gal! I haven't thought about goulash in YEARS! My mom used to make that when I was a child and I loved it. And the chicken and rice sounds simple and delicious. Bean ideas are great ones, too. Thanks so much.

Bliss: Thanks for the creative ideas! Interesting spin on asparagus. (I usually just drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt and fresh ground pepper and roast.) I've always loved Old bay when I taste it on things, but I use it rarely...mainly because I don't know what to do with it, I guess. I've used Anise in cooking some Mexican dishes. I'm not familiar with Star Anise (I know what it is, just never thought about how to use it), but I'll definitely consider it. My mom used to make potato cubes with rosemary, S&P. I had forgotten all about that. I've never cooked ribs with oregano, but often squeeze a bit of lemon on them. I never try anything creative with rice. Good suggestion! I love the ginger and garlic combo. I never made hunan chicken or beef before. I'll have to look for some recipes (lol - or am I supposed to be avoiding "recipes"? ) I have anise seed. Making pancakes with those and fried breakfast sausage is an intereting idea. I never would have thought of that. Thank you so much for all of your suggestions!!

tasty-italian-cook: thanks for your suggestions. Again, I guess I overlook the basics. To me, I don't feel like I'm making anything "good" if I am not following a recipe. Your comment about the paprika made me smile. My mom always used to sprinkle it on everything "to make it look nice". (She passed away in 2007. I really miss her and wish she were here to offer advice about my girls.)

licia: That's a great idea (herb section). I will look and see what I have! Thanks.

Again, thanks to all who replied. I am going to attempt to hang around here and see if I can "grow".
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Old 03-03-2010, 04:31 PM   #9
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A quick suggestion: start with a generic cuisine or region and work from there. Typically the same spices are used in most dishes from the same region and can be adapted pretty easily to whatever you're making. Good luck.
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Old 03-03-2010, 09:27 PM   #10
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You can't go wrong with having Herb and Spice Charts handy. FWIW, my favorite herb is tarragon. Works with chicken...and Brussels sprouts...and potatoes.....

And good luck with those two blessings of yours. We have b/g twins that are 29 years old...and haven't killed either of them yet.
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