I thought of doing a Thanksgiving post because Turkey Day is almost upon us, but I figure I can give you an after-action report next week to see if I can pull it off :)
This week, I want to talk about how to make something like Thanksgiving work, or really any meal. It took me forever to learn this pearl of culinary wisdom, and I think it is the key to me foisting off my cooking successfully on my family.
The secret: MARKETING.
I know this is a curse word among many writers. How many of us just want to write in peace, without thinking about “the market,” trends, sales, or benchmarks. Totally get it.
But I think for both home cooks and for writers, marketing can be the key to reaching and delighting your audience, your Constant Readers and your Constant Eaters, both.
Take last Friday. I was wrecked, exhausted, demented from over-work. Not coherent, let alone shiny and happy and perky. Pioneer Woman, I was NOT. And yet, I made a huge meal that all my family loved, picky ones and starving I-could-eat-a-house ones.
So how did I do this?
Thanksgiving is coming, and I am already getting intimidated by the hard-core home chefs planning fabulous gourmet family adventures. Rock on, gifted ones…I think it is amazing you can do that without getting chest pain from anxiety.
Me, I used to quietly cry over the turkey from stress, hopefully when nobody was looking. Seriously, I was not able to overflow the table with cornucopia bounty without losing it a little.
But let’s forget Thanksgiving until next week, once it’s all over. I’m talking today about how to think about a meal. Once I learned this crucial ability, I could even contemplate Thanksgiving without chomping a bottle of antacids.
It used to be I would make ONE thing. Hamburgers. Noodles. Chili. All fine meals. But they did not really wow the folks, sadly. I still do this on weeknights at times…just feed the people and move on.
But it wasn’t until I got the hang of putting my best foot forward with my offerings that I got deep appreciation. It was magic, really, because most of the time I was making the same food.
Instead of hamburgers, it was BBQ nite (seriously, add some BBQ potato chips, some pickle chips, and BBQ sauce along with the ketchup and you are in business. If you throw in some hot dogs and relish you have a BBQ fest!).
Instead of chili, it was Taco Tuesday. (I’ll share my version one week…it is a thing of beauty, somehow being junk food and totally healthy at the same time).
And this past Friday, instead of a pile of random food I dubbed our meal “Italian Fest.” I made a bunch of different recipes and served them all together in a harmonious, “Italian” way, family style. And we all ate with wild abandon.
So, tip of the week: find a concept for your dinner. It could be the SAME STUFF that you always cook, but if you pair it with matching sides or even drinks it will make all the difference.
I suspect this is not a big deal for people who always knew how to cook. But for me, who learned it late? This is GOLD. Hope it helps you fellow home cooks!
So here’s how I pulled it off…
ITALIAN FEST SUPREME :)
Three dishes, 30 minutes, lots of good eats…
Healthy and Delightful Chicken Parm
3 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast (I grabbed whole breasts because they were so much cheaper and nicer) (and you can make less or more chicken as you need…)
good jarred tomato sauce (I love Rao’s but there are many brands out there)(and yes you can easily make great homemade sauce but that was beyond my abilities last Friday night)
a big bag of shredded mozzarella cheese (if you are kosher or lactose intolerant, go with a veggie cheese…there are a lot of great choices out there, and if you have a favorite please let me know and I will put it in this little recipe). You could also use sliced fresh mozzarella if you want to get fancy with it
optional additions that I think will enhance the dish even more:
jar of roasted red peppers (you could roast them yourself, but see my note re: tomato sauce)
white mushrooms, sliced
any other veggie you like in tomato sauce…onions, green peppers, etc.
if you eat bread: get a big crusty loaf of Italian bread to make these into heroes, or to use on the side to dip into sauce.
How to do it:
Optional first step: dress up the tomato sauce. Saute mushrooms, onions in pan with olive oil, then put in the store sauce and let it all simmer. Add spices to taste. You can skip this step and it will be fine but I think the veggies add a lot of flavor and I like sneaking veggies in there where I can.
NOTE: if you are making broiled veggies, prep them now so that you can roast them quickly later: I used zucchini and eggplant, sliced about 1/2 inch thick. If not, no worries…the chicken is really pretty filling by itself, especially if you serve it on bread. Also if you are making salad you can prep it now but last Friday I just threw it together last minute.
preheat oven to bake at 375.
If you have whole chicken breasts, split/butterfly them so they cook through.
Get a big frying pan and start on the stovetop medium high with olive oil.
Season the chicken. I used salt, pepper, paprika for color, and Italian seasoning.
NOTE: most people would dip these in an egg wash and put bread crumbs on for crunch and flavor. We are semi-low carb so I made this more “paleo” style but this recipe works fine with bread crumbs, or almond flour if you want to get fancy while staying low-carb
Sear the chicken 3-4 minutes on a side. You will get some nice color and sear on the chicken, especially if you use paprika.
Transfer to a baking sheet or casserole dish…use something that can handle some sauce.
Cover with either dressed up sauce or plain sauce straight out of the jar.
Take your shredded mozzarella or veggie cheese and cover the chicken. Don’t be shy with the cheese…use a lot.
Cover the baking dish with foil, and pop in the oven.
Cook chicken for 10 minutes covered, then 10 minutes without the foil (beware hot casserole with escaping steam!).
If you are into crispier cheese, put under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese is lightly browned. Then take it out and put the foil tented on top and let it rest for a couple of minutes while you get everything together. Before you send it to the table, check the thickest one and see if it is cooked through (it should be okay).
Serve this family style on a big platter, or right in the casserole if it will work on your table. Serve the roasted peppers on the side to go with the chicken…if you put it all together on a hunk of Italian bread, it is really filling and yummy.
Not one, but two sides: Mediterranean Roasted Veggies and Rustic Garden Salad
Now, while the chicken was in the oven, I made the sides (I have a double oven which gives me time-bending superpowers but you could broil in a good toaster oven or just do the veggies once the chicken comes out and is cooling off).
I also made a salad while the veggies were roasting (I know, multi-tasking like crazy). I made a simple Caesar salad, but you can put together a green salad with the veggies of your choice. You could also outsource the salad to a kid…my youngest loves making salad and makes it almost every night.
Put the zucchini/eggplant onto an oiled baking sheet and coat with olive oil and salt lightly.
Fire up the broiler to high, and put the veggies under the broiler, 7 minutes the first side, 5 minutes the second side. But this will depend on the fierceness of your broiler, the thickness of the veggies, etc. So watch them carefully, since once they brown they will get very brown very fast.
Once they are nice and golden on each side, take them out of the oven and plate them up. Toss lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (this is OMG delicious) and it is ready to go.
Voila…serve to group of hungry people. I served all of this with Italian sparkling water, but of course wine would work too :)