September 21, 2016

Chicken and Veggies in Brown Sauce

I apologize for the delay in posting, but between classes, networking, social events, football games, and all other aspects of being in college I've barely had enough time to cook let alone write about what I'm eating. Unfortunately, that usually means I rely on various types of takeout for dinner. I've probably had pizza at least twice a week since classes started, but that's mostly due to clubs and meetings with free food. When I'm craving Chinese food, I do have a backup so I'm not forced to order delivery *every* time.

One of my family's favorite Chinese takeout staples is chicken with mixed vegetables in a standard brown sauce. I have no idea what the actual name is for this magical sauce since every place we've ever ordered from just calls it brown sauce. It salty, savory, and a little sweet, so it goes with everything. Here I've used stir-fried chicken and a combination of broccoli and eggplant with some water chestnuts for crunch. However, you can easily sub in your favorite meat and vegetables. Given my love for the Dane County Farmers' Market and all the wonderful finds there, I'll just use whatever looks best this week.

If you do decide to swap veggies, you have to consider the best ways to cook them. The vegetables will be warmed at the end but that's rarely enough to cook them all the way through. For broccoli and similar vegetables like cauliflower, blanching works wonders to keep the crunch and the color. If you use eggplant, squash, or zucchini, I find it's best to brown those in a bit of oil instead. Thin, crunchy options like water chestnuts, bean sprouts, carrots, and jicama are best left raw until added in at the end. I usually pick one or two from each category so there's some textural variety.

The meat is incredibly easy, and it doesn't even get much seasoning since I want it to soak up all the flavor from the sauce. Simply heat a big skillet (or ideally a wok if you happen to have one) with a little bit of oil and sear the chicken or other meat until brown. For the juiciest results use a whole chicken breast and slice after cooking; for the crispiest results cut into slices before cooking.

The last component is the sauce, which is my personal favorite since you can use it to improve any assortment of ingredients. It starts by cooking lots of garlic in the meat drippings. That gets deglazed with chicken broth and soy sauce and then sweetened with brown sugar. The final step is typical of many Chinese-American sauces: thickening with a cornstarch slurry. That sounds intimidating, but it's really just mixing cornstarch with water and adding it to the warm sauce as a thickening agent. The trick is to wait until shortly before serving since you'll get lumps if you don't whisk it frequently. You should end up with a thick, velvety sauce that perfectly coats all the other components of the dish, so it might be worth making an extra extra large batch of the sauce and freezing it for future use, which for me will probably be the next time I get home after a 3-hour library study session.

1 1/2 lbs Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts, Sliced
1 1/2 lbs Eggplant, Diced
12oz Broccoli Florets
1 8oz Can Sliced Water Chestnuts, Drained & Rinsed
8 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Cups Chicken Broth
1/3 Cup Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Brown Sugar
1/4 Cup Cornstarch

Heat some oil in a large skillet. Add enough eggplant cubes to form a single layer and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Repeat with the remaining eggplant and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli, cook for 1 minute, drain, and place in an ice bath. Drain and pat dry once cool.

Heat some oil in the large pot used for broccoli. Add enough chicken to form a single layer, season with salt and pepper, and brown on all sides, about 6 minutes total. Repeat with the remaining chicken and set aside.

Cook the garlic in the chicken drippings until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, soy sauce, and brown sugar. Whisk the cornstarch with 1 T water and stir into the sauce. Simmer/boil for 6 minutes or until thickened. Add the chicken, eggplant, broccoli, and water chestnuts and cook for 2 minutes or until coated.

Serves 8
Recipe Adapted from

August 31, 2016

Peach Cobbler

Heads up: I'm writing this from the airport as I wait for my flight back to college. This week has been full of packing, petsitting, and cooking squeezed in between. I have concluded that the most timely recipe to publish right now is for peach cobbler since I get to use the freshest in-season Georgia peaches and smother them in a buttermilk crumble and bake it all in my favorite new mini cast-iron skillet. What makes this dish so good (beyond the best peaches of the year) is that the topping is good for everyone. I know there's a few different camps for cobblers: there's the streusel-y crumble-y people, the biscuit people, and the cake-y people. This topping somehow manages to pull elements from all of them, so you should be pretty excited by now.

To some, the peaches are the most important part. I get it; it's peach cobbler. I toss them in a mixture of sugar, cornstarch, and spices to make a perfectly sweet filling with just a hint of cinnamon and vanilla. It ends up being a bit syrupy but not runny, which is exactly how my family likes it. If you don't add cornstarch, you end up with a peach soup with some carbs on top. To make it a bit fancier, you can add some vanilla bean, but I find that sometimes, especially when it's the height of peach season, it's best to just let the peach flavor shine.

Ok now for the magical topping. My sister prefers a crumble while I love biscuits and cake, though I do like my biscuits as biscuits and not as dessert toppings. To try to satisfy everyone, I started with my basic crumble recipe but added buttermilk to make a sweet biscuit topping. I added just enough buttermilk to make it a bit on the liquid side so I could drop spoonfuls on the peaches. Basically, this dough has the look and flavor of a crumble with the buttermilk tang of a biscuit and the texture of a cake. It really is the best possible combination for all cobbler lovers.

The second part of what makes this cobbler so addictive is the skillet. Like any (kind of) southerner I have a favorite cast-iron skillet. It just so happens that mine is a mini 8" skillet perfect for individual steaks, roasted chicken, and desserts like (surprise!) peach cobbler. It's enough for one very hungry person or 2-3 if you're in the mood for sharing. It's one of those simple desserts that you don't feel too bad about eating since it's mostly fruit, or at least that's what I tell myself.

4 Peaches, Peeled & Sliced
1 T Cornstarch
1/4 Cup Brown Sugar
1 tsp Lemon Juice
1/2 tsp Vanilla
1/4 tsp Cinnamon
1/8 tsp Nutmeg
1/8 tsp Salt
1 T Butter, Cubed

1 1/4 Cups Flour
1/4 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup Brown Sugar
1/2 tsp Cinnamon
Pinch Salt
4 T Butter, Melted
1/4 Cup Buttermilk

Heat oven to 350F and grease an 8" cast-iron skillet.

For the peaches, whisk the cornstarch, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt together. Toss the peaches with the lemon juice and vanilla, then add the dry mixture.

For the topping, whisk the flour, sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt together. Whisk in the butter, then fold in the buttermilk.

Transfer the peaches to the skillet and top with dollops of the batter. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until the peaches are tender; the time varies based on how thick the peaches are sliced and you may need to cover it with foil to prevent the topping from over browning.

August 16, 2016

Blueberry Muffin Bread

I'm pretty sure it's time for most people to go back to school. You know how I know? Hardly any of my friends are available to stuff our faces with Waffle House and there's a noisy school bus that likes to beep its way along my street at 6:45am. Aside from that I have it pretty good; my classes don't start for another three weeks but I still get to make yummy back to school recipes like blueberry muffin bread, which makes a great breakfast or lunchbox treat. I'm all for the convenience of individual blueberry muffins but sometimes I just want to slice of as big of a piece as I want without knowing just how many servings it is. My family also has a tendency to throw extra muffins in the freezer and forget about them, so having a big loaf sitting out on the counter is more incentive to actually eat it, though it tastes so good it won't be sitting out for long.

The main thing I like about this cake is that it's basically an excuse to eat cake for breakfast. Honestly, there's not much in here that makes it breakfast food vs dessert other than the fact that it's packed with berries. There's a stick and a half of butter in this thing, so this may not be the ideal breakfast for those using the start of the school year as a second attempt at New Year's resolutions. However, as I said before, it makes a great lunchbox surprise/after school snack/crying after too much homework pick-me-up.

I always start with the streusel. It's a little different than my basic streusel recipe, which you can find tucked into cinnababka streusel buns or sprinkled on top of peach crumb cake. It's a simple combination of butter, sugar, flour, and a pinch of cinnamon. My ratio results in a perfectly crumbly mixture with both big nuggets and crunchy sandy bits. In other recipes I'd add more cinnamon but I went easy on it here since I wanted the blueberries to be the star. You can always bump it up a bit, but with it being peak blueberry season I figured I'd take it down a notch.

The actual cake is almost as easy as the streusel. I start by beating butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. I then add an egg and a big splash of vanilla. Like any other cake, I alternate the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients. This is far easier than trying to stir buttermilk into an overly stiff batter and avoids the inevitable lumps when mixing dry ingredients into a too-liquidy mixture. The final step is adding the blueberries. Since it's still summer, I like to use fresh berries, but I throw them in the freezer for at least an hour. This reduces the number of burst berries so you get distinct pockets of blueberries instead of a purple batter. Another trick to keeping the blueberries evenly scattered is to toss them in a spoonful of flour first. This keeps them from sinking to the bottom and gives you gorgeous slices all the way through.

When pouring the batter into the pan, you don't necessarily have to pile all the streusel on top. I prefer to do that so it gets nice and crunchy on top. However, you can double it and spread a layer in the middle for a sweet cinnamony surprise. You can also swirl it through the batter for a more interesting visual. All of this is under the assumption you don't eat all the streusel/batter/fresh blueberries before baking since knowing my family that's not entirely out of the question.

1 Stick Butter, Softened
2 T Butter, Melted
3/4 Cup Sugar
1/3 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 1/2 tsp Vanilla
1 Egg
2 1/3 Cups Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp + Pinch Salt
1/4 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 Cup Buttermilk
1/3 Cup Sour Cream
1 1/2 Cups Blueberries

Heat oven to 350F. Line a loaf pan with foil and grease.

Combine 1/3 cup flour, dark brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and 1/4 tsp cinnamon. Add the melted butter and chill.

Beat the softened butter and sugar together. Add the egg and vanilla. Whisk the remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda, and remaining salt together. Whisk the buttermilk and sour cream together. Add the flour mixture to the butter in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk mixture in two additions. Gently fold in the blueberries.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and top with the streusel. Bake for 1 hour or until cooked through.

Makes 1 Loaf
Recipe Adapted from Buns in My Oven