Archive for July, 2014


It seems like forever ago that I wrote about my two year long craving for Chinese food and shared my recipe for Mongolian Beef. But really it was only last year. I’ve wanted to write about today’s recipe since shortly after that post, but it just never worked out. But it’s certainly been a life saver when a Chinese food craving strikes. Why is it that Chinese food is such an iconic craving? So many people I know lament that they crave Chinese food but can’t find a decent restaurant for it. Sure; people get cravings for pizza, sandwiches, soups, Mexican food, and any number of sweets. But Chinese food is what you always see the characters ordering for delivery in the movies. It’s what you always hear mentioned during conversations about late night bar crawls or whirlwind trips. And almost invariably the expression of the craving is followed by “but there just isn’t anywhere nearby to get good Chinese!” Someone will say “Such & Such has decent food, but it’s (insert location that is most definitely out of the question for whatever reason).” And that usually leads to the party agreeing to either eat at some mediocre Chinese place or forgo it altogether. Neither option does anything to satisfy the craving. In fact, that usually just makes it worse. Yeah… been there done that. Got really sick of it. Once that happened, I went on a search for a good chicken recipe. I found a copycat of the recipe that P.F. Chang’s uses for their Crispy Honey Chicken. I’ve never been to P.F. Chang’s, but I’ve heard they’re really good, so I started with that recipe and went about tweaking it so it went beyond “good”. That’s what I do. And I’m good at it πŸ˜‰ What I ended up with is a definite family favorite that my kids rejoice over when they see it on the menu. Chinese Food Craving- 0, Humble Food Snob- 2 πŸ™‚

This is a recipe that is highly adaptable. You can swap out ingredients or add veggies with ease. I’m going to give the basic recipe and method and then suggest substitutions and additions at the end. This is also a super simple recipe that doesn’t use any specialty ingredients at all. All you really need is this:

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Start with a pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or thighs, if you prefer). Slice them thin or cut them into small cubes (about half an inch). Combine the cut up chicken with about 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 2 or 3 cloves of finely minced garlic. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour. You can certainly skip the marinating step- I do sometimes- but it adds a really nice, yet subtle, flavor to the chicken.

Ummm… there’s supposed to be a picture of chicken marinating here. As you can see, there isn’t. I had no garlic. Sigh. And I forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer last night. Oh well. Use your imagination πŸ˜‰

Once the chicken is done marinating (if you choose to do so), set it to drain in a colander. Once the chicken is well drained, put in into a large bowl. Add enough cornstarch (corn flour) to completely coat the chicken. I can’t tell you how much that will be- it differs with each batch I do. You might have to add cornstarch a few times until your chicken is coated. Just start stirring and see how it goes. It should look something like this:

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Let the chicken sit while you heat up the oil in which to fry it. If you have an actual fryer, awesome! Go for it! I don’t. I tend to go back and forth on whether or not I want one. It would be nice to have an actual deep fryer, but I never have a place to store it. Maybe once we move again. But then again, as I’m working on getting rid of appliances and gadgets that use electricity, I’ll most likely pass even if I have the chance to get a fryer. For me, a pot or deep sided pan works just fine. So get out your frying equipment and get ready to fry your chicken. My “fryer” is an old dutch oven. It was my grandmothers. It’s in an atrocious state. I need to see to that. Later. Anyway, I’ve filled my fryer about halfway. Don’t fill anything you fry in more than half full. If you do, the oil could bubble up over the top and start a fire. Heat the oil to about 350 degrees. This usually takes about 10 minutes for me but it will vary according to the size and shape of your fryer. I have a frying/candy thermometer, but I don’t usually use it for frying. I use my experience to tell me when it’s about ready and then try a tiny piece of whatever I’m frying. If you don’t have a thermometer, put a small piece of bread in the hot oil. If it takes about 30 seconds to brown, you’re right around 350 degrees. Or you can take a wooden spoon and stick the handle into the oil. If the oil bubbles around the handle you’re there. When your oil is hot, take a small handful of chicken and jiggle it a bit in your partly open fingers to get rid of excess cornstarch and gently put the pieces in the fryer, one at a time. Wash your hands and then use a slotted spoon or wire frying spider to stir the chicken around a bit. Let the chicken cook until it’s just barely golden. That can take anywhere from 3-5 minutes, depending on the way you cut your chicken.

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Once done, use the spoon or spider to retrieve the chicken and transfer it to a colander over a heat proof bowl to drain (that’s the easiest way I’ve found) and put another batch of chicken in. Repeat the process until all of the chicken is cooked. It really is supposed to be this pale. If you marinate it before cooking it will be a little darker.

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Now you can start on the sauce. Spray a measuring cup with cooking spray or brush the inside with a tiny bit of oil and measure out the honey. The oil will prevent having to wrestle the honey out of the cup. Pour the honey into a pan large enough to hold all of the chicken. Add the rest of the ingredients- except the slurry ingredients- and turn the heat up to medium high. Whisk to dissolve the sugar and bring the sauce to a boil. Once boiling, add the chicken and stir to coat. Boil once again for about 3 minutes to see what effect the cornstarch coating on the chicken will have. Mix up the slurry during that time. Stir in about half of the slurry. Boil and check the consistency. It’s supposed to be very thick- almost like a gel. If you would prefer it thinner, add only 1/4 of the slurry to begin with. If needed, add more. It should only take a minute or so after the addition of the slurry to see what the sauce will do. Watch it closely- it will seize on you pretty quickly. If it does (you’ll know; it gets clumpy), add apple or pineapple juice to thin it out a bit, stirring to make the sauce a sauce again.

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Normally I serve this over noodles because my family doesn’t really like rice. In fact, most of this went over noodles (the same ones pictured in the Mongolian Beef post). But I wanted mine over rice and I didn’t want to have both Chinese food posts over noodles, so I made this serving with white rice. But isn’t it pretty?? And it’s SO good! It’s one of my favorites- my kids’ too. The leftovers (if there are any) are fabulous!

I promised you some adaptations, so here they are:

-Shrimp could easily be substituted for chicken. Marinate them if you want, coat them in cornstarch, and fry like the chicken.

-You could add some ginger to the marinade if you wanted to. About 2 teaspoons of fresh grated or 1 teaspoon of dry ginger is very tasty.

-You could make this chicken without frying it, but it’s not the same. It’s still really good, don’t get me wrong. But coating and frying the chicken adds enormously to the texture and flavor of the finished dish.

-If you wanted to add garlic and/or onions (green, white, or both) it would be a very welcome addition! Simply saute them in as small amount of oil as you can manage in the pan you will make the sauce in. Once they are sauteed, add the sauce ingredients and proceed as directed above.

-You could also add some steamed veggies and/or water chestnuts. Steam the veggies on their own and then add them at the last moment. OR, if you want them crunchy, stir fry the veggies quickly in the pan you’ll make the sauce in. If you add water chestnuts, slice them (if they aren’t that way when you buy them) and put them in the sauce along with the chicken to make sure they are heated through. I’ll put the substitution ideas in the ingredients list.

 

The Recipe:

FOR THE CHICKEN:

1 LB Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts or Thighs, sliced or cubed as directed above

2-3 Cloves Garlic, minced fine

2-3 T Soy Sauce

Enough Cornstarch to thoroughly coat the chicken

FOR THE SAUCE:

1/2 C Chicken Broth (Sake, Rice wine, White Wine, or even plain Water will work too- but will add zero flavor. I avoid cooking with it when I can!)

1/2 C Honey

2 Oz Apple Cider Vinegar (Rice Vinegar or White Wine Vinegar will also work- just don’t use plain, white vinegar. It’s much too harsh.)

3 T Soy Sauce

1/4 C + 2 T Sugar (Granulated is what’s called for, but Brown Sugar will work fine)

FOR THE SLURRY:

1/4 C Pineapple Juice (I take mine from canned pineapple I feed my kids πŸ™‚ You can also use Apple Juice like I did here or plain Water. My preference is pineapple, but I was out.)

1/4 C Cornstarch

The Method:

*Combine the chicken ingredients– except for the cornstarch- and refrigerate for about an hour (or as long as possible if you don’t have an hour to spare.)

*Drain the chicken well and place in a large bowl. You want a bowl with high sides because cornstarch’s fondest wish is to make a huge mess!

*Coat the chicken with the cornstarch and set aside.

*Heat a fryer, large pot, or large, deep pan with oil for frying the chicken to 350 degrees.

*Fry the chicken in batches, draining each batch well.

*Combine the sauce ingredients in a pan large enough to hold the chicken as well as the sauce.

*Whisk the sauce to dissolve the sugar and turn the heat to medium.

*Bring the sauce to a boil and then add the chicken.

*Boil gently for about 3 minutes then add one quarter to half of the slurry. Boil once again.

*Check for consistency. If you want the sauce thicker, add the more of the slurry. Bring back to a boil. Don’t let it overcook- it will seize and get clumpy and gummy. If that happens, use juice, broth, or water to thin out and correct the sauce.

*Serve over noodles or rice.

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When Ron & I started dating I was a single mom of 15 month old twins and to say that money was tight would be a gross understatement. Ron was a student, so his finances weren’t any better. Most of our dates consisted of staying in and watching a movie after the girls went to bed. That continued after we got married (10 months after we started dating). For our first anniversary I wanted to have a special dinner, but we didn’t know anyone in the town we had moved to so we couldn’t call a sitter. And money was still an issue. We were quite fond of our evenings in, but I didn’t want our anniversary to be just another date night on the couch. So ’round about April (3 months before our anniversary- I like to be prepared well in advance) I started really thinking about what I could do to give the two of us a special evening. I started by making a playlist on Youtube of romantic songs to listen to while we ate. Then I decided on dinner: pan seared filet mignon, Caesar Salad, good, crusty, fresh bread, and cheesecake for dessert (to find the recipe for the AMAZING cheesecake I make, click here). I know what you’re thinking “Filet mignon?! How is that cost conscious??” But if you watch the sales at a lot of grocery stores, you’ll find they offer filet mignon as part of a 2 for $5 (-ish; stores differ, but they usually offer them at a price that’s far less than what you’d normally pay) special at least once a year- usually 2 or 3 times. That makes it completely affordable! And I’ve found that deal in three different states in three different parts of the country, so there’s a good chance you’ll find it where ever you live. If I can get the steaks on sale I can make the whole dinner for about $25-$30 or so, give or take. Try getting 2 steak dinners with cheesecake for dessert at a nice restaurant for $30 or less and you’ll know why I’m perfectly fine with staying home and making our special occasion dinners when we’re low on money!

Once the night of our anniversary arrived, we put the girls to bed as usual and then set up the living room with a small coffee table in the middle of the room set with candles and Ron’s laptop set up next it for the music. Ron sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen while I cooked and we talked. When dinner was ready we sat in the dark living room at the candle lit table, talking about our life together so far and what we’d like the future to hold as we ate a delicious dinner and listened to music that we both loved. By the end of dessert we had decided that the evening was so wonderful that we didn’t miss going out in the least. In fact, Ron requests the exact same dinner for his birthdays- even when we do have the money to go out. It’s truly a magical experience for us!

For our anniversary this year Ron had to work. For some, that means having a late dinner. For us that means postponing it completely because for now Ron spends Sunday night through Friday afternoon away from home, on the road with the railroad. So I had to plan the big night for the weekend after. I wanted to go all out this year because this is the first time in 4 years we’ve been able to have our special meal. I even bought flowers for the centerpiece this year. I’ve included pictures of the table for our special evening. But for now, I’ll give you the method for the steak I cook…

You’ll need 2 bacon-wrapped pieces of filet mignon. Sometimes the ones that are on sale come vacuum packed in a package of 2. I got this year’s steaks from the butcher counter at my local grocery store. About a day before you plan to cook them, coat both sides with seasoning. I’ve used McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning on these (I haven’t gotten around to making my own yet- but I will soon). Press the seasoning onto both sides so it sticks. IMG_20140719_204407536 Wrap the steaks in plastic and put them in the fridge until about 30-40 minutes before you plan to cook them. Let them come to room temperature while you let the oven heat up to 400 degrees. Yes; my anniversary is in July. Yes; I did this anyway. It was worth it!

Once the steaks are at room temperature and the oven has heated up, put a small oven proof skillet on medium high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom. When the oil shimmers (it will happen fast so stand and watch it) put the steaks in and cook on the first side for about 2-4 minutes. My steaks are only about an inch to an inch & a half thick, so they will only take about 2 minutes to sear. It may seem like the seasoning is going to burn- don’t worry; it will be fine. So long as you put a good thick layer of seasoning on, it will form a crust instead of actually burning. If you don’t want a crust of seasonings, just sprinkle the steaks with a little seasoned salt. Or you can leave them plain too.

Cook the steaks for about a minute on the second side and then put the whole pan into the oven. Let the steaks cook for about 10 minutes for rare. (Despite the color on the outside of the steak in the picture below, it really was rare in the center.) This will give you time to plate up the sides you’ll be serving. I just did mixed greens and bread because we were going to be eating dessert immediately after dinner and I didn’t want us to be stuffed from a huge meal and therefore unable to truly enjoy our dessert. Well, that and other reasons πŸ˜‰ If you make sides other than salad and bread, you’ll need to have them ready and standing by for when the steaks are ready to go. Once the steaks come out of the oven, plate them with the other sides and you’re ready to go! IMG_20140719_210231824

(Note: because of the lighting in my kitchen at 9 pm, the steak looks darker than it was. In reality the color was about a shade & a half lighter than in the picture.)

Here is what this year’s anniversary dinner looked like: IMG_20140719_210422052

 

In the light when I set this table up it looked like this: IMG_20140719_193756588_HDR

 

It’s super easy to turn a table that seats 6 into cozy seating for 2 or 3. See the stepped risers the candles are on? They’re made of these: IMG_20140719_193907100

Yep. Four 12 packs of soda. The single cans are for stability and the gallons of water are to help insure the top boxes don’t move around. Throw a (clean!) bed sheet over the whole thing and you have a beautifully appointed romantic table for 2, complete with ambiance! And all for WAY less than you’d pay in a restaurant. For fun, Ron & I did the math. Including decorations (which we already had but we included into the price to account for people buying them specifically for this dinner), rum to go in the sodas we had, and all of the ingredients, we had dinner for less than $50. Money isn’t an issue for us now, but it’s always wise to be judicious with the resources we have. And it feels good to know I can provide a top-notch meal for less than we’d have to pay elsewhere.

 

Over dinner we discussed our favorite memories from the last year and from the 8 years we’ve been together. That’s our anniversary tradition, and this year it was extra sweet πŸ™‚ It was a beautiful evening with my beloved. Β After all we’ve been through and with how bright our future looks, it was wonderful to have a special dinner just the two of us with great food and a romantic atmosphere. Ron was happy to have our special dinner again and I was happy to be able to make it for him. I’m very lucky to have the life I have and I really couldn’t ask for more. Life is good πŸ™‚

As it turns out, we have traded a very hot and dry summer for a slightly less hot but humid summer. However, I’m not complaining. It’s over 90 in Colorado, where we just left. And when the breeze blows, it’s frighteningly similar to a convection oven. Β I’ll take 85 with humidity any day! But I do still have to take care in heating up the kitchen, of course. We have air conditioning, but only in the living room. So I am limited in what I can cook still. I started looking around for some versatile main dishes that won’t heat things up too much. I thought about starting another Summer Sucks type series (to find the entire 14 week series from Summer of 2013, click here), but decided against it. Life is better than it was last summer, and for that I’m grateful. Summer is still by far my least favorite season but now that we’re free of my oppressive in laws, Summer doesn’t suck nearly as bad as it used to!

In my search, I found some recipes for chicken cutlets in a super simple coating that are pan fried. They can be whole cutlets to eat with pasta salad on the side, they can be cooked and cut up over some greens and veggies as a salad, or they can be cut into strips and breaded then fried to be an easy finger food main for the kids to dip. Oh- and they make wonderful sandwiches; always a nice option when it’s hot outside! And the flavor is wonderful! The coating has only 2 ingredients- and only one has flavor of any kind, so I was surprised at how flavorful this recipe was. All you need is this:

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Seriously- this is all you need! This recipe is so easy that you can have it on the table in about 15 minutes. It’s perfect for a fast dinner after work or after a long day playing in your garden. The breadcrumbs have to be panko. You could make these with regular breadcrumbs, but the results won’t be nearly as crunchy. The Parmesan, on the other hand, gives you a little wiggle room. You can buy it already grated in the deli section or you can buy shredded and just rub it between your hands until you achieve a “grated” texture. OR you can even use the pre-grated stuff in the can that you find in the non-refrigerated section. The results will be a tiny bit different, but I’ve had to use it before (I was out of the real stuff and couldn’t get to the store) and the chicken was still tasty. As for the chicken, you can buy pre-sliced cutlets or whole, boneless, skinless chicken breasts and cut them horizontally into thinner slices.

If you want to make sure your chicken stays nice and juicy, give it a brine first. To 4 cups of cool water, add 1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce along with 2 tablespoons salt and stir to dissolve. Soak the chicken in the brine in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, but not more than about 8 hours; these are thin pieces of chicken and you don’t want them too salty. When you’re ready to cook the chicken, drain and rinse it, then pat it dry with paper towels and proceed with the recipe.

In a shallow baking dish or on a platter with sides, pour the Parmesan cheese. If you bought shredded, take some between your (hopefully freshly washed and dried!) hands and rub. Continue to do this until the cheese is broken up into a grated consistency. (Yes; there are shreds of Parmesan left in my mixture. I like to leave some of the cheese shredded. It gives a good consistency to the breading. Yet another option to add to the suggestions above. The beauty of cooking! πŸ™‚ ) Then add an equal amount of Panko crumbs and mix the two together with your fingers.

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Now take a piece of chicken and lay it into the mixture. Pick up some of the crumbs and spread them over the meat. Press them into the chicken then turn the cutlet over and repeat. Carefully pick the chicken up by one end, give it a tiny shake to get rid of the excess coating, and lay it on a plate to go into the hot pan. Only coat as many pieces as will fit into your pan at one time- you don’t want the coating to get soggy while the chicken is waiting to be cooked.

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In a large, heavy bottomed frying pan on medium high heat, add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan by about a 1/4 inch. Once the oil begins to shimmer, carefully add the chicken cutlets to the pan. Let cook for about 2-4 minutes and gently turn the cutlets over with a spatula. Let cook another 2-4 minutes and firmly but gently slide the spatula under the chicken. It will stick, so you have to make sure you get under the breading. Remove to a rack or paper towel lined plate to drain a bit. While the chicken is cooking, you can go ahead and bread the next batch of cutlets. Repeat until you’ve used up your chicken.

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I can tell you truthfully that this chicken is every bit as tasty as it looks! I still haven’t found a satisfactory breading recipe that uses an egg or milk dip to adhere the coating. They’ve all been a disappointment. But THIS recipe… this one satisfies every single time. It even makes good leftovers. Just heat a little oil in a pan and re-fry the cutlet for about 1 minute per side. It takes a tiny bit longer than the microwave, but it’s so worth it!

I hope you are all having a great summer so far! It feels wonderful to be back and blogging. I’m very excited about the future and am thankful that you’ll be right there with me!

The Recipe:

You can make as many or as few cutlets as you wish; just purchase the breading ingredients accordingly.Β 

Chicken Breast Cutlets or Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts sliced into cutlets

Panko Bread Crumbs (plain or seasoned, as you wish), enough to coat the chicken cutlets

Parmesan Cheese, Shredded or Grated, in an equal amount to the Panko

The Method:

*In a large, shallow dish, mix the cheese and the bread crumbs.

*Heat a large, heavy bottomed skillet or frying pan over medium high heat. Add oil to a depth of about 1/4 inch.

* Lay a cutlet in the mixture and put some of the mixture on top, spreading it over and then pressing down.

*Turn the chicken over and repeat.

*Lift the cutlet and shake gently to remove the excess breading and set aside on a plate.

*Bread only as many cutlets as will fit into the pan at one time.

*Once the oil is hot, place in it only as many cutlets as will fit without crowding. I have a 12 inch frying pan and can usually fit 3-4 cutlets in each batch.

*Fry the cutlets 2-4 minutes on each side (depending on how thick your cutlets are). Take care when turning them over; they may very well stick if you aren’t using a non-stick pan.

*Remove when cooked through and golden brown and drain on a rack or paper towels.

*While the first batch is cooking you can bread the next batch and have it ready.

*Repeat the process for the remaining chicken.

Ok, so it’s definitely not new. It’s older than I am by at least 10 years. And it’s a run down kitchen in a run down place. But it’s only until next summer, and it’s not in my in-law’s house! Yes, we’ve finally moved! Thanks to my husband’s awesome job with the rail road, we were able to get our own place! We had to relocate to do it, but sometimes that’s the way of things. We moved from Loveland, in Northern Colorado, to Watertown, South Dakota. We really like it here, but with the way things worked out we had to take a place that’s not in good shape. We will move next summer, hopefully into our own house that we buy. But for now I’ll make this kitchen work. I’ll be posting a new recipe soon; next week, actually. An easy chicken recipe that kids and adults alike will love and doesn’t involve the oven. At least, that’s the plan. I also have something up my sleeve for a little later; a special recipe that will make going back to school feel not quite so hard (for those kids who hate to see summer end. My kids can’t wait to get back to school, but they love the recipe I’ll be sharing too πŸ™‚ )

I’m very happy to be getting back to blogging after such a long absence. I have several posts in mind for this fall and winter that I’m really looking forward to sharing with you- we just have to get through the dreaded summer first. Thankfully, the cooler weather comes to South Dakota faster than it does to Colorado and I’ll be enjoying fall and winter soon. Thank you for sticking with me and making this whole crazy blog thing work. πŸ™‚