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.

Here we go.

Thanks for joining me!

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman, to be a mom, to be a creative, and to work. I guess we do it all, even if we don’t “have” it all.

I’ll be sharing the things I think are interesting and fun about life, as well as the not-so-great moments.

Here’s the big picture: I had a full-fledged career before I had kids. I lived by myself in an urban area, had tons of friends, a good nightlife, and a string of “whatever” boyfriends. I was independent and I was alone—seriously, I didn’t even have a pet.

I met my husband after his first marriage (no kids) ended. Now we have two kids, a 5-year old who just started school, and a near 1-year old. We live in full on suburbia, a “nice” place, full of activities for families, great weather, and good schools.

Now my house is full. Two kids, two dogs, a fish tank.

My life has 180-ed. I’m a mid-life mom, and my family is the best things that ever happened to me. So I hope you’ll join me as I discuss the things I love, the life I live, and coffee that gets me up, now that I’m wearing my big girl pants.

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