I was surprised when at my 10 year high school reunion several people associated me with cooking because of my past dinner challenges here on the blog. I guess I shouldn't be surprised since I devoted two whole months to recipes and food reviews, but I don't really think of myself as a cook, certainly not a good one anyway. Just an experimental cook. So I thought maybe I'd give you a glimpse of what we eat when I'm not trying new things, the shortcuts I take when I'm not much up to cooking (which, admittedly, has been frequently lately), and tricks that get my kids to try things. Maybe they're not really cheating, just normal, for most of us at least. We'll start with my family's favorite: Chinese Food.
Adam and I took a Chinese cooking course early on in our marriage, and we continue to love to find new recipes for our favorites. Chinese food is really great because it cooks fast, however if you're cooking from scratch it can be time-consuming to prep. So, here are some of our favorite recipes, and how I cheat to make them less of a process. One thing I would recommend if you're going to make a lot of Chinese is a rice cooker, unless you are a Minute Rice type of cook. For our family I cook 2 1/2 cups of white rice, and all I have to do is measure it into the cooker, add water and flip a switch. It automatically flips to "warm" once it's done so I don't have to even think about it.
This seriously takes me 30 minutes or less, including time to thaw chicken and cut up. I'll admit that the original version of this recipe has travelled with me since high school foods class!
2 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 bag frozen stir-fry vegetables (I actually use about 2/3-3/4 of a bag)
1/4 cup cold water
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp chicken bullion (or you can substitute chicken broth for the the water and omit the bullion)
3 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp grated/minced ginger or 1/8 tsp dried ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
Heat 1 tbsp oil in wok or large skillet over high heat, then add chicken pieces. Cook until golden, then remove from pan and set aside. Add heat remaining oil in pan, and add vegetables. Cook until vegetables turn bright in color and are no longer frozen. Return chicken to pan. Leaving a well in the center of the mixture, add sauce and bring just to a boil, then stir into mixture. Sauce should thicken slightly, then remove from heat and serve over rice.
Honey Chicken Stir-Fry
This is a variation on the basic, with a bit of a different cooking process. I found this recipe on allrecipes.com, and the only thing I change is to use chicken broth instead of water in the sauce.
Kung Pao Chicken
We have tried so many home-made recipes to find one that has a great flavor, but nothing we've tried meets our standard, so here is my cheater secret: Panda Express Kung Pao Sauce. We started by buying the orange sauce at the grocery store and when we saw they also made a kung pao sauce, we knew it was gold. It's not cheap, but neither is pre-prepared pasta sauce, or anything pre-made for that matter. It's the price you pay for convenience, and it's worth it to me. Use the amount of chicken breasts you usually would to feed your family, and just add everything else to proportion, according to your tastes.
chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
salt and pepper
oil for frying
zucchini, cut into bite-sized pieces
Panda Express Kung Pao Sauce
Heat an inch of oil in wok for frying. Put flour, salt and pepper into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, add chicken pieces and shake to coat. Sift chicken from excess flour. (Test oil with a small piece of chicken to make sure it is hot enough.) Remove oil except about 1 tbsp. Stir-fry zucchini until skin is bright and flesh begins to turn translucent. Return chicken to pan, add sauce to desired texture, and sprinkle peanuts to taste. Stir and heat briefly, then remove from heat and serve over rice.
Okay, I'm adding this in here because it's our favorite, but it is a bit more time-consuming than the others because you have to bread and fry the chicken. However, the sauce is the bottled sauce, and even though I'm slow and hate deep frying it never takes me more than 45 minutes to make. You can add vegetables to it if you like, we just usually have it without. If you use vegetables, just stir-fry them in a tbsp of oil before adding chicken and sauce. Again, just use the amount of meat your family normally eats, and breading to cover. It's a bit of trial-and-error the first time, it's not hard after that.
chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
flour (we usually use a combo of flour and finely crushed saltine crackers to up the texture)
salt and pepper (sometimes I add a dash of ground red pepper)
mixture of half egg and half milk
oil for frying
Panda Express Orange Sauce
Heat an 1-2 inches of oil in wok to about 350 degrees (if you don't have a thermometer, just test with a small piece of chicken to make sure it's frying immediately, but not burning). Put flour, salt and pepper into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Dip chicken pieces in egg mixture, then add to flour mixture and shake to coat. Sift chicken from excess flour. Fry chicken in a single layer, cooking in batches if needed, until chicken is opaque. Drain on paper towels and set aside. I usually use a separate wok (you can use a skillet) to stir-fry the fried chicken with sauce until heated, then serve over rice.
Okay, one more trick. Our kids love Chinese food (as if they had a choice), and I know lots of kids are cool with rice. But if your kids aren't big fans of Asian food, or if you just want to add some novelty to dinner (like us), kids' chopsticks are really fun. Regular chopsticks can be hard to master, but we bought some attached with springs at the top at the Kitchen Collection outlet that work great. There are also lots of chopstick holders that hold them together at the top that come in all kinds of shapes that are really cute, too. And Max likes to use little plastic tongs as his "chopsticks."