7 mistakes you are making in the kitchen, as told by Pineapple Chicken.

We all make mistakes. In novice cooking, there are plenty of pitfalls that can ruin a dish. But there are also ways to avoid these mistakes. Here we’ll look at some common mistakes and easy fixes that will help you produce beautiful and tasty food. We’ll use a pineapple chicken stir fry as our inspiration. But first, the recipe.

Ingredients

1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into bite sized pieces.
1/2 large onion, diced small
1/2 fresh pineapple, cut into bite sized pieces
1 package (8 oz) snow peas, snap peas or green beans
1/2 cup cashews
1 cup stir fry sauce (recipe in link)
1 cup plus cornstarch with 1 teaspoon each salt/pepper (to taste)
2 tbls cornstarch(divided)
up to 2 cups water
Optional: Additional veggies, water chestnuts, baby corn

1-2 cups uncooked rice
1 tablespoon butter

Instructions

Once the chicken is cut as uniformly as possible, let it drain and pat dry. Coat the pieces in 1 cup of cornstarch, mixed with salt and pepper. Be sure every chicken piece is dry to the touch, adding more cornstarch if necessary, 1/4 cup at a time.
In a hot skillet, add the chicken in one layer. Cook on high until chicken is dark golden and crispy.
Meanwhile, follow instructions for rice, adding a tablespoon of butter to pot or rice cooker.
Remove chicken and add onions. Cook onions until translucent on medium heat (about 10 mintues). Turn heat back up to high and add pineapple. Cook pineapple until color brightens, and pieces are lightly caramelized.
Meanwhile make a slurry of 2 tbls of cornstarch and 1 cup of water. Turn heat to medium low and add soy sauce mixture to the pan, followed by the cornstarch slurry. Add snow peas and cashews. Mix to coat ingredients in sauce, cooking on low until liquid thickens. Add another cup of water as needed to thin out sauce.
Serve over rice.

Mistakes

You don’t taking advantage of “what looks good” when you go shopping.

To everything there is a season. For example, my original plan for this recipe was to do orange chicken. At the market however, I passed by a gorgeous, golden ripe pineapple that smelled like heaven. The best part about cooking is being driven by what looks good, what season you are in. One of the reasons I love the farmers market is that it provides a rich education on when to expect certain fruits and vegetables, as well as an opportunity to experiment. I’ve never made pineapple chicken before. But I know the basics of technique and felt comfortable enough to wing it.

You don’t mirepoix.

Prepping is key. Spend the first 20 minutes gathering everything you need: pre-measure all your ingredients, wash and chop fruits and veggies, then chop everything else you need in the size you need it. These are my brand new bowls so I wanted to use them, but usually I save clear plastic soup containers from the market and use those for my mirepoix.


One other note: Time is precious, so prep your ingredients in a particular order. Cut fruits and veggies first, then meats. That way, you don’t have use a different cutting board or spend extra time washing the same cutting board.

Place everything you need next to your stove top, as close as possible in the order you will be cooking. Stir fry in particular is a wait, wait, wait, hurry GO! kind of food.

You don’t flavor your rice.

Rice deserves flavor, just as any other starch. Just a tablespoon of butter will give you great flavor. I particularly like using it in the rice cooker, because you also get a little crispy rice at the bottom of the pan.

Who doesn’t like crispy rice?

You overcrowd the pan.

I’ve covered this before, but it is essential to choose a pan that allows food to breathe. Crowded chicken will steam instead of crisp. Sure the food is edible, but really, you are better than that.

You cook food at the wrong heat.

Some meats should sear. Some fruits and veggies should too. Others get better the longer they cook. But sauces can quickly burn, and other vegetables lose crunch and flavor (not to mention nutrients) when cooked at heats that are too high. Get to know your range and find out which foods like it “hot” and which ones like it “not.”

You don’t cook ingredients long enough or you move the food in the pan too much.

You’ve spent the time to get to know your cook top and the ingredients. But now you can’t stop fiddling. Take a look at this chicken piece. That is the result of about 10 minutes of cooking on high. It is just barely starting to get the right color. I cooked it another 10 minutes.

Likewise, let onions go for at least 10 minutes. They are just getting to the point of translucency. This is when I add the pineapple. But don’t go too fast at this point.

And don’t move it around too much. Just let it be. Take a look at side by side images of the pineapple. I turned these after about 5 minutes. They look beautiful and the onions continued to gain color.

You cook other ingredients too long.

Delicate herbs, thin veggies, nuts really need just a little heat to brighten their colors and get a little tender. Respect your ingredients and they will reward you with ultimate flavor.

A saucy minx.

The best homemade stir fry sauce to keep in your fridge.

Looks like I need to make more…

Today I’m introducing you to my favorite sauce. It’s one I make myself and keep in my fridge at all times. I can also add to it easily and often do when I have the right ingredients on hand.

This is a basic sauce, but it makes my life easier to have it premixed and ready to go when I’m making stir fry.

The one issue I have is that I really don’t measure. I go by taste on this one. But I’ll try to give you approximations so that you can make this at home, and adjust to your liking.

Ingredients

The secret sauce! Not pictured: scallions (I didn’t have any), rice wine vinegar.
  1. Soy sauce (about 1 cup)
  2. Honey (about 1/4 cup)
  3. Finely grated ginger (1 tablespoon or to taste)
  4. 2-3 cloves of finely grated or crushed garlic (about 1 tablespoon)
  5. 1-2 stalks chopped scallions
  6. Thai fish sauce (a teaspoon or to taste)
  7. Rice or white wine vinegar (a teaspoon or to taste)
  8. Optional: Shichimi—a red chili pepper blend (1/8 teaspoon)

Variations

With a simple adjustment, this sauce base is a great replacement for teriyaki sauce (with far fewer preservatives). All you need to do is measure out 1/4 cup of the sauce, add 1 cup water, the juice from an orange or lemon, and 1/4 cup brown sugar into a pan over medium heat. Add a cornstarch slurry of 2 tablespoons cornstarch and 1/4 water and cook for about 5 minutes.

Another quick adjustment makes it a great dipping sauce for gyoza. Measure out a few tablespoons of the sauce, add an equal amount of rice wine vinegar and a few drops of sesame oil, as well as a few extra splashes of fish oil. The dipping sauce is light and tangy—perfect for the dumplings.

You can experiment with spices. I really like shichimi, but it would be great with chili oil—or even a packet of the chili flakes that come with pizza delivery if that’s what you have on hand.

A few tips

As I mentioned, I add to this sauce whenever its convenient. For example, when I buy a bunch of green onions at the market for a recipe, there are always leftover stalks. Sometimes I can use those during the week, but other times, I might not get to them. If they are looking a little limp (but are free of mold) I’ll trim any questionable parts, chop up the good parts and throw it in the jar. Because the main ingredients are soy sauce, honey, and vinegar, the onions are pickled. The ginger and garlic are likewise preserved.

Speaking of ginger, whenever I buy ginger root, I slice it up and keep it in my freezer. It stays pretty hearty and can be used in to make ginger tea, smoothies, lemonade, curd, or in this sauce whenever it is needed. The garlic can also be frozen (or stored in oil), but my husband grows garlic in our herb garden, so we have a pretty good supply on hand.

If you don’t have fish sauce, you can omit it… but its sooooooo good, I think you’ll want to add it. It adds a layer of umami flavor that makes the sauce irresistible. A small bottle will last for years.

Do you have a secret sauce? Let me know!

Can we talk about shortbread?

There is no better cookie than shortbread. Fight me.

Almond-flour shortbread with orange zest on my mom’s luncheon china. Too much butter.

From make, to bake, to take no other cookie beats shortbread. It is the three ingredient wonder that makes you look like you know what you are doing. They work for every holiday, as well as appreciation gifts, and are easy to make gluten free (although they are never sugar free or fat free…sorry).

The base recipe is 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour. So if you are going for a couple dozen (depending on size), here is what you might use:

1/2 cup sugar (bakers sugar is best, but use what you got)
1 cup SALTED butter (room temperature– 65F-69F).
2 cups flour

Cream the butter and sugar, mix in any flavorings, add the flour and mix until it is dough. Refrigerate or freeze for an hour and bake at 375F for about 10-12 minutes.

Wham! Yep, that’s it. From there, you have endless options and ways to fiddle, but you’ll almost always maintain that ratio of 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour.

I assume you have questions.

Why salted butter?

Oh hell yeah. You’ll notice I did not add salt. For one, I wanted to be cool and say that you can make something delicious with three ingredients. Just let me have this moment.

But you can add salt. If you use unsalted butter you’ll want to add 3/4 of a teaspoon. And if you like salty cookies, add fancy salt on top of the cookie before you bake it.

Seriously, give salted butter a try. I know it isn’t canon. I just really like the flavor. Check out Alison Roman’s Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread for a mind-blowing shortbread experience.

Why is your room temperature so specific?

Butter plays differently at different temperatures. Cold butter yields flakiness, which is why you use cold butter for pie crust and biscuits. For cookies, the goal is crumbliness. Room temperature butter is usually about 71F, but I live in an area that can reach triple digit temperatures in the summer. Plus I find that butter warms as you work it. I like the results best if I start at slightly cooler than room temperature. If your butter gets warmer, you will likely see a little more spread in the final cookie, but by all means bake them and eat them gleefully.

Why refrigerate or freeze?

What I like about this recipe is that the cookies get better the more the dough has time to fully integrate. Plus, it gives you options. I’ve made the dough on a weekend and baked up half a dozen in my toaster oven during the week for dessert. The dough will stay safe wrapped in parchment and cling wrap for a week in the fridge, and up to a month in the freezer.

In truth, we should start making nearly all our cookies this way. There is no need to buy cookie dough from the store when you can make it exactly how you want it and have it ready at a moment’s notice.

What size should I make the cookies?

Slice-and-bake shortbread is perfect for a quick cookie snack.

I’ve found that a tablespoon makes a really nice sized cookie. It bakes quickly and balances the richness. Depending on your customization, some cookies might spread, but in general, shortbread holds shape really well. Roll them into balls to get a half moon shape, or keep them in the same shape the scooper makes for a slightly flatter result.

Alternatively, roll the dough into a log before it is refrigerated and slice-and-bake. NOTE: For a really pretty finish brush the logs with a beaten egg and coat them in demerara or sanding sugar before slicing.

If you want to roll them out to cut into shapes, be gentle. Pat them into a flat disk and refrigerate. Then roll the dough out as lightly as possible.

How can I customize?

Nearly any way you see fit. Add a couple teaspoons of vanilla or almond extract. Add a tablespoon of citrus zest; a tablespoon of lavender or rosemary. A cup of chopped walnuts or pecans make a tasty cookie. You can also play around with the flour, substituting almond flour to make the cookies gluten free. Or replace about 1/3 of a cup of flour with cocoa powder to make chocolate shortbread. And 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in the flour can yield a tender/crisp texture that is amazing.

One key thing is to look up at least one recipe when your are planning a substitution. Substitutions might call for slight ratio changes as well. For example, when I use almond flour I cut back on the butter by 4 tablespoon (using the ratio measurements I mentioned above). Almond flour has a bit of fat in it and is more moist than normal flour. I get a lot of spread with that cookie if I put in too much butter. Do I still devour them? Yes, yes I do.

I also prefer shortbread for decorated holiday cookies, precisely because they hold shape better than sugar cookies. A simple icing of lemon or orange juice and powdered sugar mixed with seasonally appropriate colors allows you to pipe or flood beautiful cookies like a champ.

And now for the best part!

Mine, all mine.

Here’s the real secret. Kids don’t really like shortbread as much as adults do. My son will even pass up shortbreads with chocolate chip. It’s an adult cookie. It’s a subtle cookie. That means when I bake them, I don’t have to hide them. And that makes mommy a smart cookie.

Cornstarch is magic.

Make food yummy and science experiments messy.

Cornstarch is one of those ingredients that I never thought about. For most of my adult life, I loved cooking, but didn’t delve too deeply. I’d make a meal a few times per week or bake yummy cookies. That’s about it.

However, once my kids were born I realized just how into food I was. I’m now a special occasion baker, a nightly dinner planner, and a lunch-time prepper for hubby and elementary school kid. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and a lot of time thinking about the kitchen.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t make complicated food. I’m not great at decorating cakes or making a meal look like a work of art. What I’m getting better at is using up what’s in the pantry/fridge. So if I have extra pears, you might see an Italian pear cake. Extra citrus (like I have now) will result in some lemon short bread or orange chicken.

Using up what’s available means getting creative. And that means you have to have some key ingredients on hand. These staples go beyond what I used to think of basics. They now include cornstarch.

Cornstarch is like a secret ingredient. No one really knows its there, but it helps you pull off some great food tricks.

Orange chicken, pudding, meringue…

Speaking of orange chicken, I will never again make the stuff without cornstarch. After I cut up pieces of chicken breast, I put it in a bag and shake it with a generous amount of our good friend. It helps the chicken crisp up and helps again when I’m making the sauce. I’ll write up my orange chicken recipe in another post. (For those of you paying attention, this is a one pan, one process meal)

My favorite dessert is pudding. If you use cornstarch to make it instead of “the box,” it is called creme patissiere (or pastry cream). I’m not going to give you the recipe, but you can find it easily. It’s a bit eggier than pudding, but very simple, and so delicious. I need to go make some right now…

Ok I’m back.

I’ve only made one meringue, but it started to weep immediately. Weeping/beading is when liquid sugar bleeds out at weak points in the structure. Further meringues are tend to shrink in the fridge. They are unstable and unsightly.

A friend of mine from college revealed that there were a few techniques required beyond whipping egg whites and sugar to achieve a stable meringue.

Here is what he told me:

“My Meringue is made with the usual sugar, egg white, salt, and vanilla extract, but also with a “roux” mixed in that is made with sugar, cornstarch, and water brought to boil. It does not bead. It also does not shrink after refrigeration, and this method keeps the weeping down to a minimum. Filling should still be hot when putting the meringue on to keep weeping down. 400F for 12-14 minutes.”

There are a ton of other things cornstarch does, like coat marshmallows and mochi to keep them from sticking. They are also the secret to luscious alfajores (Argentinian sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche). Don’t worry- I plan to make those soon.

SCIENCE!

And finally, nothing in the kitchen happens without science. So it is really fun to take food and conduct experiments. These are great for a rainy day activities, or when you are trying to keep the kids from watching TV until their brains mush.

To make mud or ooze put cornstarch into a bowl and add a drop or two of food coloring. Add the water slowly, mixing the two by hand until all the powder is wet. Keep adding water until it feels oozy when you’re mixing it slowly.

While your kid is not listening, you can tell them about other non-Newtonian fluids, and how to escape quicksand or a vat of ketchup.

Be sure to get really nerdy about it; mention how Newtonian liquid flows at specific rates, but that this is a suspension. Pressure forces the particles into a locked position to hold shape. Watch this video of people filling shallow pool with cornstarch and water and walking across it. Fail at keeping your kids from falling down the YouTube rabbit hole.

Once you get their attention again, invite them to punch the ooze, to see that it is hard, and then stick fingers in slowly to pick it up. The goo will melt through their fingers and you’ll get cornstarch everywhere. YAY.

If you want to get really messy, consider adding borax and glue and make bouncy balls.

Mix together 1/2 teaspoon of borax, 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and 4 tablespoons of warm water thoroughly. Put 1 teaspoon of white glue into a separate container with a few drops of food coloring mixed in. Add the cornstarch, borax and water mixture to the glue. Roll the ingredients together between your palms until it becomes rubbery. Form into round balls after the stickiness is gone.

In reality, cornstarch is not that hard to clean. It is inexpensive and fun and will expand your food repertoire. Go make some magic.

One pan, one process. Mushroom and tarragon chicken.

This incredible one-pan meal is all about technique and endless possibilities.

This pan is overfilled. But doesn’t it look delicious? Photo by Sébastien Marchand on Unsplash

The ingredients

4-6 bone-in, skin-on thighs or skin-on chicken breast (the skin is important)
1 c sliced mushrooms
3 tbls chopped fresh tarragon
2 large spring onions, chopped small
2 garlic cloves, chopped or grated (or about 1 tbls)
1/4 c heavy whipping cream
1/4 c white wine (aka, whatever is left over from last night)
2 tbls lemon juice (or one lemon squeezed)

The equipment

Garlic grater, crusher or microplane
Oven-safe or cast iron skillet (essential)

Turn oven to 375 F.
Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.
In a hot cast iron skillet place chicken skin side down. Be sure not to crowd the pan. Sear on high until skin is crispy and light brown. Turn the chicken over with tongs and (safely) move the skillet to the oven.
Cook 40-60 minutes until chicken is 160 F internal temp.
Meanwhile mix heavy cream, white wine, lemon, garlic, and green onion in a measuring cup. Add some salt and pepper.
When the chicken is done, move it back to the cooktop and remove chicken. Add mushrooms in a single layer and sauté over high heat until one side is golden brown. Turn mushrooms and golden them up.
Reduce heat to medium low and pour the cream mixture into the pan. Use tongs or wooden spoon to scrape up brown bits and incorporate them into the sauce. Cook, stirring often, until liquid is reduced by half (about 5-10 minutes). Turn the heat off and add half of the tarragon. Taste and adjust seasoning. Place chicken and any drippings back into the sauce, and garnish with the rest of the herbs.

The chicken, veggies and sauce can be served over rice, egg noodles, or with a salad.

The story

I love this meal. It is so fancy and yet you only use one pot. I make this when I want to remind myself that “I can f-ing cook!” True story: this was the first meal I made after our daughter was born. After several months of take out, meals from the freezer, and friends feeding us (thank you thank you thank you) my husband devoured it and said, “I missed your cooking.”

This is actually a really simple meal and its very easy to swap ingredients. I tend to use chicken thighs because they stay juicy, even if you overcook them…in fact they get better. Anything I can shove in the oven and walk away from is a bonus. That’s why skin is important. When you flip the chicken, make sure the skins are super crispy. It will continue to cook in the oven while bathing the meat (mmmm chicken fat bath). You want properly rendered skin that crunches when you eat it. (I love chicken skin-don’t judge me).

I generally use my 8-in. cast iron skillet because it fits four thighs nicely. Plus I love it. However, when I’m cooking for more people, I need a bigger vessel. Enter my 12-in. Calphalon Unison skillet. It is light-weight (comparatively), easy to clean by hand, and goes from stove to skillet in one easy swoop. I’m super sad to report that the line has been discontinued. Stock up if you see them at TJ Maxx.

Tarragon has a licorice flavor, but it’s not in your face. If for some reason you don’t like (or have) tarragon, many herbs make a nice swap. Cilantro is especially nice and you can confidently add a big handful if you are looking to use up a bunch. Parsley is a bit grassier, and should be used 1:1 in place of the tarragon. I haven’t tried mint or basil yet, but I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t work. Rosemary should be used sparingly since it is pretty strong and can easily take over a dish. If you try something different let me know.

Green onion is also a taste thing. You can use regular onions, but cook them with the mushrooms so they have a chance to sweeten up.

Another ingredient that can be substituted is the heavy cream, although your choices are limited. I’ve used whole milk with minimal difference in flavor. What I like about milk or cream in combination with lemon is that you get that sour cream/buttermilk flavor. Plain yogurt would do here too. I would still add the lemon, though, because I like the lemon flavor.

If you use a nut milk, almond (unsweetened and plain) will likely give you the cleanest result. I’ve never done coconut milk. I bet the flavor would be wildly different, but still delicious. I would definitely use cilantro for a coconut milk application. And I might throw in some curry paste, ginger, lime leaves… and now that’s a whole other post.

Don’t have mushrooms? Well, that one is a little tougher. But hey, I could see this as a broccoli or cauliflower meal. Asparagus? Sure. Want to add green beans? Go nuts. What you add or exchange will change the flavor profile, but your results will still be yummy. Cook any veggies over high heat to give them a bit of caramelization. They will pick up some of the chicken flavor from the fat in the pan (you’re welcome). Do remember that veggies are more delicate than mushrooms so remove them from the pan while the sauce is reducing to avoid creating soggy gray mush.

Of course, you can always omit wine. A splash of white wine vinegar can create a similar result. The point is, this is a process meal: Cook the meat in the pan, remove the meat, cook veggies with pan drippings, add a delicious liquid with some thickening properties and reduce. Add fresh herbs. Add the meat back in and serve.

Sit back and enjoy the accolades.

My recipe promise

Here is my promise to you: I will never post a long blog about a recipe, while waiting to give you that recipe until the very last moment. I won’t do it.

Because I know what it is like to scroll through someone’s blog post when my hands are covered in flour. I know the ads take eons to load, or never load and you have to hit refresh.

Me waiting for a site to load. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hurt jeffhurtblog.com/2012/05/25/how-create-sticky-conference/ via Flickr.

I know how it is when you’ve got 15 minutes before the baby wakes up and you need to make sure you’ve measured the marinade right or check whether the burner should be medium low instead of a default high.

And I know what it’s like to be excited to cook something for the first time and you finally chose the prettiest picture from your search and now, you just want to make it!

I don’t begrudge these ads (they pay for people to write these great blogs, do the research and post the pretty food porn). And I don’t begrudge the writers sharing those interesting tales of technique, discovery, and joy. We need more storytelling.

But, I also know the pain of cooking from an online recipe. So, as Meatloaf puts it, I won’t do that. (Yes, I’m old. Google it)

Stay tuned for my first recipe.

I have a mug problem.

This is my kitchen. Full disclosure, I removed about 15 things from this picture (scrub brushes, broken lids, dirty cups, etc.) to give you just a taste of my mug collection. These are only the ones that were clean or currently unused (although I pulled the flower one from the sink). I have special mugs to remember places I’ve been, silly ones that make me giggle, beautiful ones that brighten my day.

Let me tell you about the “Facts of Life” mug. I rescued it from my workplace about 10 years ago. It is tiny—too small for coffee (although don’t test me. I have smaller ones). I will never give it away. Here’s why:

If side one is everything you ever wanted in a mug, check out side two: Signed by Charlotte Rae, in 1983! This is the kinda stuff you only see in Los Angeles. It was likely given to a crew member for the show, and it made its way to my office in 2009, where it was (almost) abandoned. I rescued it and gave it a new life in my cupboard.

The good news is my 5-year old son loves to use it for hot chocolate. While he drinks it, I tell him about the show and I sing him the theme song. He is so far unimpressed, but there isn’t a better life philosophy than “you take the good, you take the bad, you take ’em both.”

There is also a line in the full song:

If you hear them from your brother,
Better clear them with your mother
Better get them right,
call her late at night

So call your mom, kids. Late at night. You can thank my mug collection for the reminder.