Monday, January 24, 2011

Chili Today, Hot Tamale

Yeah, I know, it’s an old joke. My mom used to say it when she made chili for dinner. However, she never had a chance to make this fantastic white chili. I think she would have loved it. It is the only soup that Maddy will eat, and it’s easy to put together and leave to simmer in a crock-pot on a cold winter day, or fast enough to serve for dinner within about 30 minutes. It also makes a boatload, but freezes well. I serve it over Fritos for a little crunch.


• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 4 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 (4 ounce) cans chopped mild green chilies
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 3 (16 ounce) cans great northern beans, undrained
• 6 cups chicken stock or 6 cups canned chicken broth
• 4 cups chopped cooked chicken *see note below*
• 3 cups grated monterey jack cheese (about 12 oz.)

Heat oil in large pot over medium high heat.

Add onions and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes.

Stir in garlic, then chilies, cumin, oregano, and cayenne and saute 2 minutes.

Add undrained beans and stock and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and add chicken and cheese to chili and stir until cheese melts.

To freeze, pour soup into a rigid container (or freezer bag), label and freeze. To reheat, thaw in refrigerator overnight or simply put frozen soup into a large pot and gently heat, with lid on and stirring often, till heated through.

NOTE – If you don’t have precooked chicken, you can boil 2-3 large chicken breasts or about two pounds of chicken thighs until cooked through, while preparing the soup. Drain and rinse under cool water, then chop or shred the meat.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Let Them Eat (Dirt) Cake

Maddy’s birthday is this weekend. She has requested that I make her a dirt cake, complete with gummy worms.

I remember when I first made this cake – it was for Jessica’s 7th birthday, so that would be almost 15 years ago. She told her friends it was dirt cake, and one little girl cried and said she didn’t like dirt. It took 5 minutes of hand-holding to convince her that it was not real dirt but crushed-up cookies. After we got through that crisis, I scooped it out of the plastic flower pot with the little plastic shovel and served her a plate. She saw the gummy worms and it was crisis-time again.

However, all subsequent parties involving dirt cake – whether it was for Jessica, Kelli or Maddy – went smoothly. I’ve probably made it at least twice for each of my girls. Kids generally love this cake, and adults like it as well - it’s pretty tasty. It can be made in a flower pot, plastic bucket, clear glass bowl, or even layered in a rectangular pan. The possibilities are endless.

Enjoy! And don’t forget to warn the small children that it’s not really dirt.

Dirt Cake

1 20 oz package chocolate sandwich cookies (like Oreos. Don’t use double-stuffed, it’s a waste of a good cookie)
¼ C butter or margarine, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened (can use fat free or low-fat)
1 C powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 small packages instant chocolate pudding (I use one chocolate and one vanilla)
3 C milk
1 12 oz container frozen whipped topping, thawed (like Cool Whip. Again, low fat or fat free works too)
Gummy worms

Process the cookies in a food processor (or crush them in a gallon freezer bag with a rolling pin) until they are fine crumbs and look like, well, dirt.

In a large bowl, beat the butter, cream cheese, sugar and vanilla on low to combine, then on medium until smooth. Add pudding and milk and beat on low to combine, then medium to mix thoroughly. Fold whipped topping into the mixture.

To assemble: layer 1/3 cookie crumbs in the bottom of your serving dish, then top with half of the pudding mixture. Follow with 1/3 cookie crumbs, remaining pudding, then top with the remaining cookie crumbs. Decorate with the gummy worms. (You can also mix some worms into the pudding mixture, just to get the full dirt effect and really freak people out).

Chill for at least 3 hours before serving.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Elegant But Easy – Chicken Marsala with Fettuccine Alfredo

I think every cook should have a few core recipes that can be relied on time after time to yield spectacular results. In my house, they usually involve chicken. Over the next few weeks I will share with you some of my go-to dinners, and hopefully you can use them next time you’re faced with the age-old question of “what’s for dinner?”

This is one of my favorites – it is easy enough for weeknights, but also serves as a great meal to impress the in-laws, celebrate a special occasion, or just cheer you up after a crappy day. It doesn’t involve any odd ingredients except for Marsala wine, but what cook doesn’t have wine on hand? I always cook with wine, although I don’t always add it to the pan. I usually keep it in a glass next to the stove.

Serve with a green salad and garlic toast – Mangia!

Chicken Marsala (serves 4)

2 T olive oil
2 T butter
2 cloves garlic, pressed (or 1 heaping T of jarred minced garlic)
1 cup grated parmesan cheese (like Kraft)
4 chicken breasts, flattened to about ¼”
1 pound fresh mushrooms, rinsed and sliced
½ C marsala wine
¼ C chicken broth or water
1 T cornstarch

Heat the oil and butter over medium low heat until the butter is melted; add the garlic and swirl the pan a few times, letting the garlic infuse into the oil/butter for about 5 minutes. In the meantime, pound the chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper until about ¼’ thick, then coat each side with the parmesan cheese.

Increase the heat to medium-high, then add the chicken breasts. Cook in the butter/oil until cooked through, turning every so often to brown both sides, about 5-7 minutes.

Remove the chicken onto a plate and cover to keep warm. To the pan drippings, add the wine, broth and mushrooms, and cook for 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the drippings and cook over medium-high until slightly thickened. Return the chicken to the pan and spoon the sauce over the chicken to coat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer just a few minutes - enjoy!

Chicken simmering in the oil.

Fettuccine Alfredo (serves 4-6)

1 lb fettuccine noodles
½ stick butter
½ to ¾ c fat-free half and half
1 cup fresh shredded parmesan cheese
¼ tsp ground white pepper, to taste

Cook fettuccine according to package directions; drain and set aside. Add the butter to the the still-hot pasta pan, and melt over low heat. Return noodles to the pan and toss to coat.

Add ½ cup of half and half and cheese; toss to coat. If you desire more sauce, add more half and half until it’s the consistency you like. Sprinkle with pepper and toss to combine.

The pasta pot is amazing. No broken pasta!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Panic In The Aisles

Conspiracy theorists contend that weather forecasters get a kickback from grocery stores during winter. A mere hint of snowfall sends people scurrying to the grocery store to stock up on milk, eggs and bread.

I don't think it's due to a craving for french toast or fried egg sandwiches, but rather because those three items have a pretty short shelf life. In a pinch you could substitute powdered eggs and evaporated milk, and you can freeze extra loaves of bread. However, fresh is always better, right?

Here's a list of items I've found to be pantry essentials. Keep these items stocked up in your kitchen, and you'll be ready for the next blizzard without joining the hordes of last-minute shoppers. You might have to stop for fresh milk and eggs, but most gas stations/convenience stores carry it at a comparable price to your grocery store. You can get a candy bar while you're there to eat while you're sitting in traffic, too.

  • Baking essentials - flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cornstarch, salt
  • Assorted pasta - not just spaghetti but also shells, elbow mac, rotini, lasagna
  • Rice - a box of instant, as well as flavored varieties, like beef, chicken or spanish flavors
  • Oils and fats - olive oil, vegetable oil, a small can or sticks of shortening. Keep extra stick butter and margarine in the freezer.
  • Canned or frozen vegetables, including tomatoes, beans, potatoes, mushrooms
  • Canned or frozen fruits, like strawberries, blueberries, applesauce, and pineapple
  • Canned soups (low fat/low sodium, of course).
  • Canned beef, chicken and/or vegetable broth, or bouillon cubes
  • Jars of pasta sauce
  • Peanut butter
  • Jelly
  • Honey
  • Chocolate - baking chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, hot chocolate mix and Hershey bars hidden in an empty Hamburger Helper box (freeze Snicker bars in a broccoli box)
  • Condiments - bbq sauce, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, salad dressings
  • Milk - fresh if you have it, but also stock cans of evaporated or a box of powdered for cooking
  • Eggs - fresh eggs will last 3-5 weeks. Egg substitutes (Egg Beaters) last about 3 months.
  • Cheese - block cheese is cheaper, but bags of shredded cheese can be frozen
  • Bread - I love the bags of frozen rolls - bake only what you need. Sandwich loaves and buns can be double-wrapped and frozen for a few months.
  • Spices - garlic powder, dried onion, vanilla, chili powder, cumin, pepper, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme (now I dare you to not sing that the rest of the day)
  • Meat - chicken breasts, ground round, bulk sausage (like Jimmy Dean), pork chops, beef or pork roasts
  • Fish - frozen filets, shrimp, canned salmon and tuna
  • Wine - white and red cooking wines, Marsala, sherry. I cook with wine, in a glass next to the stove. I hear some people put it in the pan with the food, too.

Of course, this list is based on my fallback recipes, so your list may vary. I'm not a vegetarian, I eat red meat, I drink, and I'm not a huge fan of fish.

These items can serve up a variety of meals. They might not be exotic but they'll keep you warm and well-fed on a cold winter's day.


Welcome to my new venture, Cooking Without A Net. I agonized for days about the title of this new blog. I wanted to be quirky, different, fun, and memorable. Finally it dawned on me - Cooking Without A Net. It's a play on the title of my other blog, and it is an accurate description of my culinary technique. I'm totally self-taught, no lessons, and boy, does it show sometimes.

My vision for this blog is to make it a place to entertain you with tales of my cooking trials and errors, to experiment with new recipes and update old ones, and ask you to share your stories as well.

I also hope that this will help me substitute comfort eating with comfort cooking. I know I sometimes eat to fill the void left when my daughters died. I figure if I'm going to be in the kitchen, I might as well be productive.

Thanks for stopping by!