Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wandering Aimlessly Through the Grocery Store

Oh, stop pretending like you have never done this before. I see AT LEAST one person doing this at the grocery store every week. I have a silly theory (and Becca, tell me if your psychological studies agree with this) that because we grew up with food just appearing on the table (at least in my experience) without very much knowledge of how it got there or because we grew up being steered around in the grocery cart, not really paying attention to how the food was suddenly in bags in our car, that we feel this will be instinctive when we begin to cook for ourselves. We can just show up at the grocery store and it will just happen - we'll know exactly what to get and what to do. Hence, we go to the grocery store and wander aimlessly, buying too much, eating badly, and not having anything to make a meal out of.

How to solve it? Well, I know there are some of you who may be adverse to this but I promise you, I PROMISE YOU, that you will benefit from this, saving money and time and helping yourself cook better. We must organize ourselves.

George has asked this question, and I've had this conversation before with many people. First, what we must do, is figure out what we need in our pantry:

Step 1: Go through your refrigerator and cabinets and write down the items that you like to have every week. For Joe and I, this is Grape Juice, soup, roasted garlic bread, milk, eggs, etc. The things you love to eat every day.

Step 2: Let someone else do the rest of the work! Here I give you Rachael Ray's pantry list, which is what I used when stocking my kitchen in our apartment just months ago. And I'll give you a hint, I went through hers and crossed out half the stuff. Do NOT get the produce or the perishables, for example, unless it was on your own personal list and you eat carrots every day, like I do. It will only sit around and then spoil and make you mad. I found the spices very helpful though - it's nice when reading a recipe to say "oh allspice, I got that."

Step 3: Make your own list by combining the two. Here you will see the list Joe and I use for our house.

Grocery List

We have had to update it a number of times but the work at the beginning was worth it. I go through this list every week and check off what I need and add the things that aren't week-to-week. It's delightful, easy, and makes my life so much easier every week. And it only took about an hour of work one day.

Step 4: PLAN YOUR MEALS. This is definitely not as hard as it sounds - you can think of this when you're on your way to work or in the shower. Now, I know it's tough when you don't have an arsenal of recipes at your disposal like Mom did, but I am going to keep giving you my recipes here and I have some great resources for you to try:

You can enter ingredients in here and find a recipe that works around it. Like "chicken" and "scallions" and see what happens!

Let me show you how I do it for myself. You'll see it's not as hard as it looks.

I start by looking at the week: which days I need to plan for and which ones I don't. For example, this past week:
Monday - I would work late, so Joe would eat some leftovers
Tuesday - Joe would work late, so I made eggs and roasted asparagus.
Two dinners down already!
Wednesday - I would try one of my favorite recipes, parmesan cream sauce with peppered chicken.
Thursday - I have some ground beef and pork in the freezer leftover from my lasagna, so I would make some hamburgers.
Friday - Frozen pizza because DUH I don't even cook on Fridays.
Saturday - going to a party, so no dinner to make.

Week done! From there, you go through your recipes, make sure you have what you need, make your list, and you're on your way to a fast, easy trip to the grocery store. Three more tips, once you start to get the hang of it and, most importantly, when you get to know the layout of your grocery store.

1. Organize your list into the different departments of the store so that you are even more organized.

2. Give yourself a time limit. There are times when I'm walking down the aisle and I go "ooooooooh, look at all those breakfast bars. ooh, there are NEW ones. Maybe I should browse every single one and check the prices and nutrition facts COMPULSIVELY" and then it's an hour later and I've gotten nothing I needed. No, tell yourself "I will be IN the check-out line at 11:15" and when you get distracted look at your watch and make sure you can stick to your time.
3. Try walking just a little bit faster. I know this sounds goofy but frankly people are like SNAILS in the grocery store - steer around those slow-pokes, you have got other things to do!

I hope this helps, it sure helped me. Please share any other types of grocery store tips you've got!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Recipe Request!

Dear Readers,

My brother and husband have been giving me a bunch of crap because I did not respond to all your generous posts yet. Please don't hate me, I love you so much for reading this right now, I can't stand it! The thing is that I have been thinking over all your questions, trying to think of a comprehensive post. But screw it, I suppose. Completely throwing all fairness and first-come, first-serve rights to the wind, I am going to answer Katie's questions first, since she wanted a recipe for this weekend. Sorry Cara, Jeffrey, and all you other lovely people that responded via facebook - I promise, I will be getting to you very soon! Tell my husband to buy me a laptop so I can blog on my hour-long train ride to and from work.

Now, Katie asked about a recipe to prepare for her entire family. Well, when preparing for a crowd, even if they are your loving family, I have two suggestions: cook something simple and cook something you've DONE BEFORE.

Really, most people will appreciate a home-made dinner even if it isn't the most complex thing they've ever eaten. It's usually the fact that you made it for them and, of course, that you made it with love.

I should also include the caveat here that I make a lot of italian food these days because my husband loves it (I am pretty sure that he is 70% pasta) and frankly a lot of it is easy to make. Cut these vegetables, saute, add booze, serve! Cooking with booze (and drinking it, of course) completely changed the way my mother and I approach every recipe, but that revelation was so life-altering that it deserves it's own post. Or three.

Anyways, Katie, I would suggest that you do something you're already really good at - one of those recipes that you don't need to look at the recipe very much while you're cooking. You'll feel comfortable and you have much less chance of getting caught up by the timing issue.

However, if you really want to try a new recipe, I have a great one that I've made twice now, and it is SO EASY. And sure crowd pleaser. It's Penne Alla Vodka, Rachael Ray style.

Another caveat: this recipe really is easy, but I can't do it as fast as Rachael Ray does, even with my abbreviated mise en place. That woman has the best sense of time management of any human being alive - she's truly gifted. Still, there are limited ingredients, very little chopping, mostly measuring and stirring. Also, with this recipe, I let the sauce simmer probably for ten minutes after all the ingredients were in the pan, stirring often - it was just a little too thin for my taste and as you let it simmer, it thickens up.

With this easy recipe, I served some sauteed chicken. I took some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded them out by putting two breasts at a time in a gallon plastic bag and beating them up until they were about a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch thick, seasoned with salt and pepper, and put them in my biggest frying pan (the same pan I am using to make my sauce, which is a 5.5 qt pan with high sides - if you don't have a big enough pan, I would use a large pot for the sauce and a seperate frying pan for the chicken) in just a bit of olive oil, maybe two tablespoons TOPS. Just enough to lube the pan. Leave the chicken in the hot pan until it forms a nice crispy brown crust - mine takes about 4 minutes per side, but every stove is different. Try this a couple of times (in different meals, not just this one) by checking the breast every so often. This isn't going to ruin the sear, and soon you'll learn how long it takes on your cook top for other recipes. The juicy, crusty chicken worked really well with the very decadent sauce.

And the great thing about the sauce is that it's cost friendly. I omit the basil leaves at the end, because if I'm not using the basil leaves in another dish that week they are just going to spoil in my fridge, but they do add a nice touch and lovely dimension of flavor at the end.

And that's it. I'll tell you, this is Joe's favorite dish so far, it doesn't take very long, and it really pleases - I'm sure your family will appreciate it.

If you're interested in making a vegetable side dish, which I often forget about, I recommend roasted vegetables. My specialty is roasted asparagus, the recipe I will include here, but you can roast broccoli or zucchini or peppers or pretty much anything you like with this recipe! Roasting is super easy and makes even some of the usually bland or bitter veggies taste good - I even like roasted brussel spouts (although with a fair amount of bacon, I will admit.)

Roasted Asparagus:
1 bunch Asparagus spears
olive oil (start at one tablespoon and add more if you feel you need it)
3 garlic cloves, sliced

Line a baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil (or two layers of the regular stuff) for easy clean-up. The amount of asparagus is relative to the number of people you're serving - I recommend about 1 bunch at the store for two people (I eat a whole bunch myself, I LOVE this stuff.) Bend each asparagus spear until it snaps in half naturally (or, snap one and then line up all the asparagus spears with the snapped spear and cut to the same size, like Rachael Ray does - that tends to work fine). Also, slice a couple of cloves of garlic into thin slices (I like a lot of garlic but you can use as much as you prefer.) Put the spears on the pan and sprinkle some salt and pepper on them and drizzle some olive oil JUST TO COAT. You don't want them drowning in olive oil. Line up the asparagus in lines so that they form what looks like rafts and then put the garlic slices on top - try not to let any garlic fall on the pan, it will just burn and add nothing to your dish. Drizzle the tiniest bit on olive oil on top of the garlic (OR, before putting the garlic on the asparagus, toss the slices in a little olive oil to coat.) Cook at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until the asparagus gets a little carmelized on the outside (that gorgeous golden brown crunchy goodness.) It's my favorite vegetable recipe ever, I make it several times a week in my toaster oven!

Now, for dessert, I will admit, I don't make dessert that often. But I wonder if you wouldn't be interested in this recipe that I made for Joe the other day. I saw similar recipes in two different magazines this month, and I made my own twist and I'll tell you, it's RIDICULOUSLY good. Not healthy, in any sense of the word, but amazing. It's Grilled Chocolate Sandwiches!

(Grilled in the same sense as a Grilled Cheese. Oh, you are SO intrigued, I can tell!! Joe made a suspicious face at this sandwich for a full 60 seconds before finally trying it, and the progression of his enjoyment was hilarious. "Huh, that's good... oh wow, that's really good. Bonnie, this is really good. Oh my GOD. BONNIE, MAKE ME EIGHT MORE!" Yes, it was sort of a food-gasm. I couldn't have been more proud. And I quite agreed. )

The recipe:
One loaf of Challah Bread (also excellent for French Toast if you have leftovers)
Thin chocolate bars in whatever chocolate you prefer, milk or dark or whatever (Hershey works very well)
Butter or butter spread, whatever you have around.

Cut the challah bread relatively thin, maybe to a half-inch thickness, and butter one side of each, just like a grilled cheese. Place one piece of bread in a frying pan, buttered side down and layer the chocolate bar pieces in one layer. Place the other piece of bread on top, buttered side up, and cook just like you would a grilled cheese, getting the buttered bread crispy and the chocolate melted. My chocolated melted fine, but if yours isn't melted at all by the time you flip, put a lid on top of the pan as the second side browns - this will trap the heat and the chocolate should melt by the time it's done. Because challah bread is usually narrow, you should be able to put several sandwiches in one pan at the same time. Put all these on a plate with a little powdered sugar if you want to be fancy. Then serve! This is untraditional but sure to interest your guests and sure to please - it is ridiculously delicious.

I hope this helps and that everyone else enjoys these recipes. Kate, if you try it, tell us how it works out!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Bad Day For Crab Cakes: Why it PAYS to be organized in the kitchen

Every two weeks, my devoted brother and I get together at either of our apartments and practice cooking. The person hosting chooses the menu and buys the ingredients and we get together to cook. It's a lot of fun and a great way to practice on some more difficult recipes you've wanted to try, if you've got a cooking buddy around!

Anyways, last night we attempted crab cakes because Dan always wanted to try to make them at home. Crab cakes also happen to be one of my favorite dishes.

Dan was going to come over an hour later than we had planned because of work, so I decided I would use the new-found time to set up our mise en place, a french cooking term, as so many cooking terms are, which means "everything in its place". Essentially.

This is one of my favorite cooking concepts if you have ever developed Frantic Cooking Syndrome. This is when you start to cook a recipe you're not familiar with and one thing goes wrong, followed by EVERYTHING going wrong, followed by ordering pizza.

Mise en place means that you get absolutely everything in the kitchen ready before you apply a bit of heat to your meal. Such as last night, as I waited for Dan: I got out all the pots and pans and placed them where they would be, I measured out all the ingredients, such as the rice, the seasonings, the mayonnaise, and had them all sitting there ready to be used. This is especially important in such a small kitchen as we have:

See all the counter space? Right. It's hard enough to work in there in general without adding unpredictable timing on my stove that only gets hot when you put it on HIGH.

Now, getting back to the dinner last night, I did my best to set up everything as neatly as possible but I made two mistakes:

1. All the chopping that I had saved for Dan - chopping being his favorite part - was for the rice pilaf, which would take longer to cook than the crab cakes.

2. Somehow, I didn't read the recipe carefully enough. Alton Brown says that when attempting a new recipe you should go into another room, other than your kitchen, and read the recipe while sitting down to avoid such blunders. But I didn't do this, dear reader, and therefore I ended up adding A CUP of mayonnaise to the crab cakes, when there shouldn't have been any. At all. I mean, the recipe said HOLD THE MAYO and I said,"How about A CUP?" Needless to say, the crab cakes wouldn't form and when we put them in the pan they burned. Exhibit A, my friends.

So. What did Bonnie learn from this horrendous situation (although the pilaf was just lovely and the garlic roasted asparagus, as always, a triumph)? It PAYS to be organized, because (and I didn't tell Joe this before, but I guess now he'll know) the pound of lump crab meat I bought cost $18. THAT'S A LOT OF MONEY, especially these days, and it all went into my trash can, completely inedible.

I know what you're thinking. Here you are trying to find a fast way to cook yourself delicious, wholesome meals at home and I am telling you to add all these extra steps. But, no, I practice an abbreviated mise en place in my kitchen that really makes a difference in my cooking. 5 minutes at the beginning could save you 30 minutes at the end.

1. Before doing anything, read the recipe straight through in another room. Do this standing still, without any distractions.

2. Take out all of the pots and utensils you'll need and place them where they'll be used. The knife with the cutting board on the counter and the pot, with its lid standing by, and its wooden spoon next to it. This avoids your steak almost cooking to perfection in a frying pan and, as you lean down to get your next pot for your vegetables, you realize it's been buried in the back behind a thousand things, and by the time you wrestle it out, your steak is now overcooked.

3. Organize the tasks by longest-to-cook, to shortest-to-cook. Get that pot of water boiling for your pasta before anything else, or you're going to be waiting and annoyed later. Especially if your stove sucks, like mine does.

4. Know yourself - if you stink at chopping onions, as I do, chop them first, when there's not much else going on besides boiling water, perhaps. Then you can go slow and avoiding cutting yourself, which REALLY slows down the cooking process, I assure you. I also like to measure things like rice or spices that I have a tendency to spill in my small kitchen.

5. Have a patient spouse (Joe never gets annoyed with me about waiting to eat, even if it gets close to 8:00PM because I've messed up, which does wonders for the marriage...) and if you're cooking for yourself, be patient with yourself. You are learning how to cook and, like anything, you're going to make a mistake once in a while. Which is why...

6. Have a backup. If it's ordering pizza, so be it, but better yet perhaps is leftovers from the successful meal you made the other day.

Friends, my crab cakes might have been a delicious lunch for me today instead of sitting in the dumpster in the parking lot of my apartment complex, $18 of my hard-earned money down the drain. Now, you can't learn if you don't try, so it was all for a better purpose, but taking the time, just 1 or 2 minutes before I got started, could have very well saved me money for a tank of gas.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


If you've found my blog you've been invited by me or someone else (hooray!) and you clearly have some interest in food and cooking. Or you're just checking out what I'm up to and aren't you adorable for that. No matter what, welcome!

I suppose a little background on me would be appropriate. I am a 24-year-old woman who plans fundraising events for a theatre in Philadelphia. I've just recently gotten married and I live with my wonderful husband, Joe, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Joe, incidentally, is an English Teacher on the Jersey Shore and also has an intelligent and humorous blog called The Correct Opinion which you can and should visit at

I've always been interested in cooking and food but it wasn't until I lived in an apartment and off my meal plan in college that I became completely and totally OBSESSED with cooking and food. No joke. Turn on any television in my home and you'll find the Food Network, not to mention 50% of our DVR programs consists of Food shows. I read cook books and food magazines in my spare time and practice cooking with my older brother as often as possible, which, unfortunately, isn't that often. I think about food and cooking all the time - seriously. If I am going out to dinner, I am contemplating the menu up to a week before. Most of my friends fear going out with me because I'm such a food snob, even though I don't think I'm so mean about it, thank you very much. No matter - so much the better for you, dear reader.

Because as much smack as I talk about cooking, I'm not really that great at it. Nor am I very experienced. But my passion to feed my face with delectable food, and the satisfaction I get from making it myself, is what makes me think I can do good for others in this space.

You see, when I first became obsessed with cooking and cook books, I searched far and wide for a comprehensive book that said "So, you want to learn how to cook for yourself your first time out on your own? This book is for you!" But no such book exists. Now, isn't that a damn crime? We need help, people! So it's been my goal to create such a resource, fueled by my own experiences in the kitchen and my own research, to help my friends and others out there to enjoy great food at home. Joe and I have been so pleased with our dinners so far and I know everyone likes to eat good food and I know YOU DO because you're reading this right now! And believe me, the pride you have when you cook a good meal - well, it's addictive, frankly.

But I will need your help. My experience will be specific to me and my kitchen and I couldn't possibly create a good resource without tackling problems specific to other people's experience. So please, post a comment, or write me an email (, and tell me what drives you crazy about cooking and what you'd like to do better or know how to do at all, and let me see if I can help! Like I said, I love to do this stuff, so I might as well put it to good use.

Thank you again for visiting and come back again soon!