a maki mockery

What I’m about to share with you transpired roughly four months ago, but it’s taken me that long to stomach the thought of this disaster long enough to pen this post. I also thought it apropos to recount the tale now, considering my friend, Laura — with whom I embarked on this maki mishap — just got home from her first grad school semester in Europe.

When I first sought to break into the food blogosphere, I was inspired by a site called The Food in My Beard. This guy, Dan, always seemed to be entertaining his friends with fun parties full of creative dishes. One of the first recipes I ever favorited was his macaroni and cheese mock-i rolls, a playful take on maki (hand-rolled sushi) using Kraft macaroni and cheese and ground beef. Now, if you read my “About” section, you’d know that I typically avoid The Blue Box in my esculent endeavors, but the creativity and novelty of Dan’s creation reeled me in.

First mistake: Laura and I tackled this challenge on a weeknight. You must set aside a lot of time for this — like, four+ hours. Unfortunately, we were incredibly impatient, which not only doomed the dish, but caused us to pick at all the mac ‘n cheese and ground beef scraps along the way; when the dish got plated hours later, I wasn’t hungry anymore, and forcing myself to try it made me sick to my stomach. (I may or may not have gagged a few times writing this.)

The basic approach is to make thicker macaroni and cheese, spread out the “rice” on a sushi roller, add ground beef and sriracha (Thai hot sauce), roll it up, put it in the freezer to solidify, cut into maki slices and bake to serve. Sounds simple enough, right? Yeah, we thought so, too. Our mac ‘n cheese wasn’t thick enough. We used Tiger Sauce instead of sriracha. We rushed through it. Things got messy. Instead of clever little maki rolls, we ended up with terrible little maki blobs. A culinary failure if I’ve ever seen one.

Total time? Way too long. Way, waaaay too long.
Cost? $1 Kraft mac ‘n cheese, $3 ground beef (but you need only about 2 cups), $3 Tiger Sauce (but I implore you: Go with the sriracha).
Overall success relative to expectations? 2 out of 10. And to make matters worse, Laura insisted she’d eventually bake up the unclaimed mac-beef logs in my freezer, so instead of throwing them out, I had to be reminded of this disaster every time I went for ice. (And, I might add, Laura left for Europe without following through on the maki resurrection.) Kudos to The Food in My Beard for the creativity, and more props for pulling it off. Laura and I could not, but at least we had a good time. That’s all that matters in cooking, right? No? Well… I got nothing then.

even the lighting was bad


chicken zucnuggets

Remember Happy Meals? I do. I remember eating one virtually every Saturday afternoon from age 5 to 9 — and this was before McDonalds revamped its children’s menu with “healthy” alternatives. Why did my parents think it was a good idea to pump me full of french fries, orange drink and questionable meat nuggets on a weekly basis? Sure, those chubby years gave me some time to develop a stellar personality, but I would have made it there eventually. All I got from those Happy Meals were cheap Barbie figurines and stacks of embarrassing elementary school photos. And probably heart disease.

I recently found and made this “sneaky” recipe that uses lean meat and zucchini to make chicken nuggets healthier than those you’d find at McD’s (or even the bagged, frozen variety). I don’t have any kids to fool with this, but I think it’d work on my unsuspecting picky-eater friends. The consistency is on par with a traditional chicken nugget and they’re breaded, but baking them saves you some calories and clean-up time.

mmm, non-questionable meat nuggets

♦1 1/2 c. grated zucchini
1 lb. ground chicken
1 egg
1 tsp. onion salt
2 c. bread crumbs

Mix zucchini, chicken, egg and onion salt until well combined.  Form 1 to 2 tablespoons of mixture into small balls, press flat (until about 1/2-inch thick) and coat in bread crumbs.  Transfer to lightly greased baking sheet.  Once all nuggets have been formed and breaded, give them a light spray of cooking spray.  Bake at 400 degrees for 13 to 15 minutes. Serve with barbecue sauce, ketchup, honey mustard or — my condiment of choice — pure honey.

Total time? 10 minutes prep, 15 minutes bake.
Cost? $2.99 ground chicken, $1 zucchini, $1 bread crumbs
Overall success relative to expectations? 6 out of 10. Instead of grating the zucchini as the recipe recommended, I did some sort of chopping-slicing hybrid and ended up with pieces too big and visible to sell anyone on this being a “normal” chicken nugget. The bread crumbs were plain, and I accidentally used onion powder instead of onion salt, so I lost a lot of flavor points there. Still, these have potential to be a not-as-delicious-and-fatty-as-McNuggets-but-still-tasty-and-healthier meal or snack. Recipe yields 18-20 medium nuggets. Hot Wheels toy not included.

from my head to my taquitos

When I look back on what I ate in college, I can’t help but cringe. It’s not like I’m eating caviar and escargot these days, but my diet back then — whether by lack of funding or ambition — was appalling. I remember the day I made a container of Ramen noodles, placed it on the ground next to my chair and then put my foot directly in it when I got up to answer the door. I salvaged what noodles and broth remained in the cup and continued eating. What? I paid a full 79¢ for that stuff and I didn’t feel like waiting another three minutes to eat.

Nowadays, thoughts of Ramen or Easy Mac or Domino’s 5-5-5 ne’er cross my mind, but there is one of my college guilty pleasures about which I sometimes get nostalgic: the 7-Eleven taquito. That hot, Monterey Jack chicken filling? That crisp, greasy encasement you could feel sticking to your insides moments after consumption? Ahh, yes, I sure miss you, old friend.

Fortunately, I’ve found a way to fill that void without giving myself a coronary: creamy chicken taquitos (a la Let’s Dish). This is by far one of the best savory things I’ve created on my quest for kitchen glory. It is easy to make and share, has great flavor and doesn’t leave you wondering how long it’s been spinning on that metal hot dog-turny thing.

creamy chicken taquitos

♦4 oz. low-fat cream cheese
1/4 c. green salsa
1 tbl. lime juice
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbl. chopped fresh cilantro (I omitted)
1-2 green onions, chopped
2 c. shredded cooked chicken
1 cup shredded pepperjack cheese
6-inch flour tortillas

Heat cream cheese in microwave for 30 seconds, until it’s easy to stir. Add green salsa, lime juice, cumin, chili powder, onion powder and garlic. Stir to combine, then add cilantro (if desired) and green onions. Add chicken and cheese, and combine. Place two to three tablespoons of mixture on lower third of tortilla (1/2 inch from edges) and roll tightly. Place seam-side down on a sprayed baking sheet. Spray tops of taquitos with cooking spray before baking to help them brown. Bake 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees, turning halfway through.

Total time? 20 minutes prep, 12 minutes bake.
Cost? $1.79 tortillas, $2 chicken, $1 cream cheese, $1.69 shredded cheese.
Overall success relative to expectations? 9 out of 10. These would have been perfect if they had a tad more spice, but overall, they were awesome. I ate them for dinner, lunch the next day, dinner that night and lunch the day after that without getting sick of them. I got eight out of this recipe, and you can freeze the leftovers (if you have any).

asiago no-go

Sometimes when my family discusses days of yore, we’ll bring up how fitting it was that my brother’s first word was “no,” considering he was a disobedient devil in school and a terror at home (for about 22 straight years). My first word? “Cheese,” which they also consider apropos due to my childhood affinity for Land O’ Lakes white American (sliced thin) and my relative hatred for anything but.

My high school English teacher did a deserted island exercise once and asked us what one food we would pick. My answer? Cheese. “Do you have any idea what a steady diet of cheese would do to your innards?” she asked. Yup. Don’t care.

So given my love for cheese, it’s a bit surprising how little I actually know about it. I’ve got a pretty good handle on American, cheddar and mozzarella, but I’ve only just begun branching out to more “exotic” cheeses. Sadly, this experience with the eggplant and asiago panini may have set me back a bit in that venture.

A word of advice: If you’re using an ingredient you’ve never tasted before — especially one that’s going to be a major, melted component of your dish — try it first. I foolishly thought, “I like Panera’s Asiago bread. There’s no way putting a big hunk of this smelly cheese on an otherwise awesome sandwich would ruin my dinner!” Wrong-o. (And I thought my cost-saving use of a kaiser roll instead of legit panini-making bread would be the make-or-break of the meal. That actually turned out to be the best part.)

If you’re a fan of the strong-tasting Asiago, the dish is simple: Cook one eggplant (sliced and seasoned with salt and pepper) with a little bit of olive oil in a pan for about 6 minutes. Place on bread. Cover with slice of Asiago. Add roasted red peppers if desired. Grill in panini press or cook on frying pan as grilled cheese.

Total time? 15 minutes.
Cost? More expensive than I wanted: $5.49 Asiago wedge, 69¢ roll, $1.29 eggplant
Overall success relative to expectations? 2 out of 10. Even after I scraped the melted Asiago off the sandwich, my meal was inedible. And thank God I ended up with a whole wedge of cheese I absolutely hate. Sigh. Really, though, I can’t get mad about this; it’s my own fault for not trying the cheese beforehand. Next time, it’ll be mozzarella for sure.

ode to the sandwich

I really don’t watch “Friends” too much, but the episode where Monica and Rachel challenge Joey and Chandler to a who-knows-each-other-best contest always makes me laugh. My favorite part?

Ross: What is Joey’s favorite food?
Monica: Sandwiches!!

Joey’s in luck — Today is National Sandwich Day, also known as the birthday of John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Despite his military and political accolades, Montagu is best known as the likely source of what we today know as the sandwich. He reportedly ordered his servant to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread so he could eat it with his hands; people began ordering “the same as Sandwich,” and thus, a culinary masterpiece was dubbed.

In honor of this special day, I’m sharing my lunch with you: an avocado and sprout sandwich. It might not pack the meat the earl was after, but I think it’s pretty fantastic.

♦two slices of wheat bread
half an avocado
alfalfa sprouts
cream cheese
lemon juice
black olives
salt and pepper

Toast bread. Assemble sandwich. (Even Tribbiani could figure this out.)

organic alfalfa sprouts

Total time? Five minutes.
Cost? $1.67 avocado, $1 can of black olives, $1.25 cream cheese, $1 alfalfa sprouts.
Overall success relative to expectations? 10 out of 10. You wouldn’t really expect too much from a simple sandwich like this, but I thoroughly enjoyed it (and will make it for tomorrow’s lunch, too). Anything with avocado is amazing, and the sprouts add nice textural variety. Definitely recommend the olives and lemon juice to add in some acidity, and I don’t think this would be as good if it were on white bread, so avoid that if you can.

bacon cheezza

When it comes to my taste in food, the people in my life fall into one of two categories: those who encourage my sometimes strange pairings, and those who question those questionable pairings with a “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Last week, I tried cooking for someone who falls into the latter, and finding something to suit both of our tastes is pretty difficult; fortunately, pizza is the great equalizer. And October is National Pizza Month — bonus!

Prepping for our meal together, I ran down my list of recipes-in-waiting, searching for something with meat — a component he needs, but I more often than not avoid (you have to cater to the guest, after all). A good compromise, I figured, was a meat-tastic pizza that allowed us to exert control over our respective slices. Thus, I give you bacon cheeseburger pizza (adapted from Dishing Up Delights).

My go-to pizza dough was on sale last week (haven’t attempted making my own just yet), but — of course — the only thawed balls they had were whole wheat, which I was sure wouldn’t fly with my guest; he’s one of those ‘I-hate-anything-even-remotely-good-for-me-even-if-I’ve-never-tried-it’ kind of guys. Much to my surprise, though, he obliged and we forged on with our whole wheat pizza base.

We used about 3/4 lb. of 93% lean ground beef and five or six slices of bacon, but it’s obviously up to your liking, as is the variety and amount of barbecue sauce you employ. The original recipe calls for thinly sliced onions as an additional topping, which we nixed, but, hey — if you want to cry cutting them before you eat and make everyone cry by breathing on them after you eat, go for it.

This was super easy (especially because I had an extra set of hands in the kitchen) and we were both pretty pleased with the end result. Oh, except for the part where those extra hands I had in the kitchen burned themselves on violently erratic bacon grease; I told you guys that stuff is dangerous…

♦Store-bought pizza dough
Ground beef, cooked
Bacon, cooked
Barbecue sauce, any variety
Red pepper flakes
Shredded mozzarella cheese
Olive oil

Roll out dough on baking sheet. Mix barbecue sauce and red pepper flakes to taste, and slather (good word, right?) in an even layer across the dough. Spread a layer of cheese across, then add ground beef and bacon to your liking. Brush crust with olive oil. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

Total time? 30 minutes (with pans of ground beef and bacon cooking simultaneously).
Cost? $1 pizza dough, $1.74 mozz cheese, $1.50 BBQ sauce, $2 ground beef, $2 bacon.
Overall success relative to expectations? 8 out of 10. I was happily surprised to taste very little difference between the whole wheat dough and traditional flour dough, but I wasn’t liberal enough with the barbecue sauce and lost some flavor points there. Probably could have used a less lean meat to add some more flavor, too. One of the slices I controlled got doused in extra mozzarella cheese after the meat layer (below) — definitely recommend it.