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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mama Masha's kitchen - Controlled Chaos – the Art of Random Cooking

After all the stuff I’ve written about organizing your fridge, kitchen cabinets and pantry and about budgeting for groceries, you might be rather startled to see the words “chaos” and “random” in the title. And yet… We all have those days when we just don’t know what to make for dinner. We don’t want leftovers. We don’t want to order out. There is a ton of opened and half-used containers of things in the fridge, but we haven’t a clue what to do with them. It happens to all, myself included. I used to hate those times of culinary indecision, but now I rather relish them. It is a time to just start throwing things together, and what can be more fun than that?

Random cooking is a great time to wake up your inner kid and invite him or her into the kitchen. Who but a kid would replace tomatoes with beets just because they are both round and red, or dump oil that is normally reserved for desserts into a salad? Heck, they are both slick and transparent and sort of… well… oily, right? Below are a few “random” recipes I threw together with nary a clue of the final outcome. No eaters were wounded as part of this production. In fact, my husband asked me to make some of this stuff again, so it’s just as well that I have to retrace my steps for my hungry readers.

Totally random potato salad

Ingredients:

• 3 very tired potatoes – the kind you have left in the basket (or wherever you normally store potatoes) that tell you it’s time to just get more potatoes)

• ½ of a large onion – used the other half for sautéing here and there.

• ½ jar of pickled beets – again, used the beets elsewhere and then forgot I had this jar already open.

• 2 tablespoons of sweet pickle cubes – scraped off the bottom of the jar of Mt. Olive pickle cubes. If you don’t know what Mt. Olive is, you haven’t lived.

• ¼ of a bag of frozen veggie mix – carrots, beans, broccoli, whatever else was in that bag. It’s colorful, so I use it.

• 2 tablespoons of mayo – scraped off the bottom of the mayo jar because I didn’t want to open the new jar just yet.

Preparation:

• Peel and boil the tired potatoes until you can run a fork through them. If you don’t feel like it, you actually don’t have to peel them – that’s fine. Potato skins are edible. Just cut out the “eyes” and outright potato sprouts, because having potato plants in your salad is just not cool.

• While the potatoes are cooking, chop the onion into small pieces and sauté it with frozen veggies. Use olive oil to sauté – that way you can dump the whole thing into the salad, without having to worry about the dressing. I love butter and all, but it can get a bit too… well… buttery, when you sauté veggies on it and then add them to a salad.

• Find a nice big bowl to start dumping things into with enough room to mix everything.

• Chop the pickled beets and throw them into the bowl.

• As soon as the potatoes are ready, douse them with cold water. Keep at it until they are cooled enough to handle without having to make a donation to a local burn unit.

• Chop the potatoes coarsely (if you don’t know what that means, you haven’t been reading my column – it’s your own fault, figure it out) and add them to the bowl.

• Add sautéed onions and veggies to the bowl.

• Add pickle cubes and start mixing.

• Add mayo and keep mixing until everything looks nice and uniform.

• Put in the fridge for 2-3 hours to chill.

• Eat.

Alternatives:

• If you don’t have potatoes, you can do all the same things but with pasta and make it a pasta salad instead. This entire scheme works best with either spiral pasta or elbow pasta – gives you a nice mouthful.

• If you don’t like mayo, you can replace it with some sort of oil and balsamic vinegar.

• If you want some protein, ham cubes work fabulously well with this sort of thing. If you don’t have ham cubes, go look wherever you normally keep lunch meat. If it’s not green and/or overly slimy, cut it into small pieces and add it to the mix. If you are not sure about the expiration date, nuke it in the microwave for 30 seconds.

Pork – the other (random) white meat

Ingredients:

• 2 pork chops – in a freezer bag, fished out of the back of the freezer and miraculously not freezer-burned.

• A box of Tony Chachere’s chicken rice – easy to find because, yes, my pantry is pretty well organized and I can see those bright green boxes a mile away.

• 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic – thank goodness for those big garlic jars!

• 2 handfuls of canned mushrooms – don’t worry, these are small handfuls because I have very small hands. The mushrooms in question are some random brand I picked up at the Grocery Outlet – the local low-income grocery store. Doesn’t matter – they still taste good.

• A bunch of freshly-cut lettuce leaves and spicy Asian greens I grown on my porch.

• 6-7 small pickled beets

Preparation:

• Ok, so I cheated just a little bit when it comes to the random part, and thawed the pork chops earlier in the day, then poured some wine into the bag, once they were fully thawed, resealed the bag and put it back into the fridge (not the freezer).

• Start the rice cooking – it takes 25 minutes per box directions, and Tony Chachere doesn’t lie. Set the kitchen timer for 25 minutes – it’s not just for the rice.

• While the rice is cooking, chop up the greens, mix them well, put them into small bowls.

• Slice the pickled beets and mix them with the greens in their bowls. Add a little bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on top. I also add a little bit of walnut oil – spicy Asian greens really are… well… spicy. The gentle sweet taste of walnut oil helps take the edge off them. Note: to those who wonder how the hell I can grow seemingly exotic greens on my porch. Actually, it’s not that hard. Most hardware stores and nurseries now sell these potted salad mixes. All I did was buy one, then separate different greens into different pots. The greens got so happy about having all that space to grow they’ve been leafing like crazy for a month now – and there are more coming. All I do is water them and cut them – we have a fresh leafy salad almost every evening. I need to get more of the regular salad, because the spicy kind is a bit too much for my husband. Otherwise, it’s awesome stuff!

• When your kitchen timer says the rice has 12-15 minutes left to go, start heating some olive oil in the frying pan. I added a little bit of smoky sesame oil because we have it and because I could. I had no idea what I was doing, but it couldn’t hurt.

• Add garlic to the frying pan, then mushrooms. If you have some sort of herb mix, add that too (Mrs. Dash is a no-miss, ground pepper is good. I added hickory-smoked black pepper).

• Toss the pork chops into the frying pan (careful – that sizzling oil likes to splatter). If you were soaking them in wine or a sauce, pour that in too.

• In 2 minutes, turn the pork chops over, turn the heat down to medium and cover the pan.

• After about 3 more minutes, turn the heat under the pan down to low.

• Keep an eye on that timer – as soon as the rice is ready, the pork chops should be ready too. Turn everything off, serve and enjoy!

Alternatives:

• Tony Chachere’s rice can be replaced with white rice or brown rice or pasta.

• Pork can be replaced with steak or chicken.

• Beets can be replaced with tomatoes.

• Garlic can be replaced with chopped onions.

An accidental chow mein

Ingredients:

• 2 packs of Ramen noodles – see, I didn’t realize we didn’t have spaghetti or any other sort of thin pasta. So, I grabbed these. We bought a case of Ramen noodles back in the winter, when we were stocking up on basic supplies. It turned out to be a lot more noodles we knew what to do with, so I am looking for new ways to use them.

• A pack of boneless skinless chicken breasts I forgot I had.

• ½ bag of frozen veggie mix – yup, that’s the same one I used for the random potato salad.

• ½ cup of sweet and sour stir-fry sauce – ok, so I am a sauce and seasoning junkie. It’s not an accident that we have ten kinds of salt and half a dozen different oils at our house. I like making up my own sauces, but I also like trying out some store-bought ones. I have two stir-fry sauces I bought recently: a sweet and sour one and a classic one. This just seemed like a good opportunity to try out one of them.

Preparation:

• If you started thawing the chicken earlier in the day – good for you! If not, fill a large pan with luke-warm water and put the chicken package into it. It will take a few tries, but it will thaw fairly quickly. When I don’t know what we are having for dinner, I pull some sort of meat out of the freezer to thaw – I know I’ll figure out what to do with it eventually.

• Start heating some olive oil in a deep frying pan. This being a (more or less) Asian dish, peanut oil would be nice, but if you don’t have it – no problem, olive oil works too. If you don’t have a deep frying pan, use a sauce pan. You need the depth, because you’ll be adding more stuff later and will need room to stir things.

• Once the oil is sizzling, toss the frozen veggies in and mix – get them as coated in oil as possible.

• Start water heating for Ramen noodles.

• Slice chicken into skinny pieces and add them to the frying pan. Turn the heat down to medium-high and stir with veggies.

• Add the stir-fry sauce, stir really well – so that veggies and especially chicken all have some sauce on it. Then reduce heat to medium-low, cover and let it do its thing.

• Cook Ramen noodles as directed. If they just happen to be chicken or pork or Oriental flavor Ramen noodles, by all means, add the flavor packet. But if they are beef or shrimp, don’t – even that little bit is bound to overpower the chicken.

• Once the Ramen noodles are ready (should be about 2 minutes), dump them into the pan where chicken and veggies are – broth and all. Stir vigorously. Add more stir-fry sauce if you feel like it.

• Crank the heat up to medium and keep stirring uncovered. If some of the noodles get a bit singed in the process – no problem. They are very yummy when crispy. I am not suggesting that you make coal out of them. But a slight bit of singeing is ok.

• Turn off, serve and enjoy.

Alternatives:

• Ramen noodles can be used for tons of stuff. I’ve made fabulous breakfast quiche with them by adding two eggs, ¼ of an onion (chopped), mushrooms, tomatoes and some sharp cheddar on top.

• For this particular dish, you can make it a pork chow mein, a shrimp chow mein, a beef chow mein, or a vegetarian chow mein.

Other random things

• Pasta, rice and potatoes are universal meal foundations. If you have one of these, you can build on it. The added benefit is that they can all be cooked in a multitude of ways (yes, you can fry pasta after boiling it) and eaten cold.

• Unless it’s green and looks like it’s about to start walking, lunch meat can be microwaved, baked, and fried to be added to mini-pizzas, omelets, salads and savory crepes.

• Stale bread dipped in egg and toasted on a frying pan makes fabulous French toast. If you can dig up that forgotten bottle of maple syrup and nuke the syrup for 30 seconds, you are golden. If you have no maple syrup, but think you might be able to locate a can of strawberry or cherry pie filling – that works great too.

• If you have chicken fingers, but no dip, mix regular mustard, vinegar and brown sugar – keep adding and mixing them together and tasting the mix, until it tastes right.

• Fried Spam, sausage, turkey or ham on top of pasta, mixed with barbecue sauce is too awesome for words. No, it’s not good for you. Yes, it’s still worth trying, especially when you are hungry and can’t find anything else.

• You don’t have to be a professional chef to make a respectable pasta sauce. All it takes is a can of diced tomatoes, sautéed chopped onions or garlic (or both – they actually do go together), and some cheese (cubed, sliced, shredded in a packet or shredded in a plastic can – doesn’t matter). Heat it all together stirring constantly and dump it on top of pasta. Add more cheese on top, and no one will complain. If you want to be really fancy, cook up some ground beef with those onions (or garlic or both), then add the diced tomatoes, some black pepper and cheese. MMMMM!

• Fresh greens are ridiculously easy to grow. If you prefer the milder kind, go for regular salad with big green or red leaves. If you like things spicy, get a mix of regular salad with spicy Asian greens. Cut a handful of leaves before dinner, rinse them, chop them, top them with a little bit of oil and balsamic vinegar – and you’ve got a salad. You can add whatever you want – croutons, shrimp, chicken, bacon, ham, tomatoes, cucumbers, even strawberries.

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