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Discover the sublime beauty of working with what you have in front of you

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I went to the refrigerator searching for anything that needed to be turned into a great meal. As usual, Liz came into the kitchen and saw me staring into the depths of the refrigerator. She just shook her head and went about her morning. Yes, she knows me well. I noticed that I had a big bag of yellow squash, three huge bell peppers, several sweet onions, and a couple of varieties of Daivi beans that I had cooked from dry. At this point, the cooking juices are flowing and I’m getting into the zone. Continuing my investigation, I found a package of ground turkey in the freezer, some chicken breasts, and a few other items that I could make use of. 

Chicken fingers made with seasoned flour instead of breadcrumbs.

In the pantry I found a couple containers of chicken cooking stock, some corn flour that I had gotten from my buddy who owns Daivi Natural Food, a couple cans of diced tomatoes, and a small box of saffron hidden in the back of my spice cabinet. I have two entire kitchen cabinets dedicated solely to spices and dry herbs. 

Once I had put together and organized the various components and ingredients that I had found, it was time to get to cooking. When I cook, it isn’t just for that day. Each dish is intended to make up several meals. I find this to be efficient and convenient for my schedule. To do this, I group the various ingredients for the dish I am working on at that moment. I usually end up with several things going on at once. After all, I am a professional. 

First, I cut all the vegetables, cleaned, and butterflied the chicken, and put everything into manageable work dishes. I always must be organized and have my “mise” set. (Mise en place is a French culinary term that means organizing ingredients before cooking.)

Squash soup, Nana-style.

I used all that beautiful yellow squash to make a version of what Liz’s Nana called squash soup. In this case, I diced all the yellow squash that I had. I used an 11-by-13-inch glass casserole dish that I liberally oiled with my own olive oil blend. In that dish I combined the diced squash with diced sweet onion, and the diced tomatoes. I seasoned this with kosher salt, black pepper, a touch of crushed chili peppers, chopped garlic, dried parsley, and some of the fresh basil from my plant that I froze last fall. I simply mixed all these ingredients together, drizzled it with olive oil, and covered it with waxed paper and foil. I placed the entire casserole dish on a baking sheet and cooked it for one hour at 425 degrees. When the hour was up, I uncovered the dish and cooked it open for an additional 20 minutes. The result was perfection. This dish can be enjoyed hot with pasta or rice. Or even as a stand-alone dish or a side dish. It is also delicious as a cold dish. I like it with a touch of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. 

While that was cooking, I utilized the other shelf to roast those bell peppers with sliced sweet onion and garlic. I simply seasoned this with kosher salt and black pepper with a pinch of Italian seasoning and a spritz of olive oil from my sprayer. The aromatics coming from the oven were intoxicating.

Remember the chicken and the corn flour that I mentioned? I decided to do a variation on chicken fingers. As you know, most chicken fingers are heavily breaded with flour, breadcrumbs and even some corn meal. I was looking to make a version that was healthier and gluten free. It was so simple. Unlike corn meal, corn flour is much finer, making it non-gritty and very user friendly. Rather than cutting the breasts into the typical finger shape, I left them in their natural shape. I did not pound the breasts into cutlets as I was happy with the butterflied thickness. I combined the corn flour with salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder, poultry seasoning and paprika. Then I got a little crazy and added a sprinkle of crushed chili pepper and some grated parmesan cheese. Why not? I heated some olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When I was ready to work, I raised the heat to medium high. Then I pressed the chicken into the corn flour mixture, being careful to coat the chicken evenly, and placed the coated pieces straight into the hot oil. I made 12 pieces and cooked four at a time so as not to overcrowd the skillet. The result was moist juicy chicken with a light crispy and delicious coating. Delicioso!

At this point I had just enough energy left to use the kidney beans that I had ready along with the ground turkey to create a batch of chili. Liz is not big on spicy food. The art here is to produce big-time flavor with minimal heat. For this chili I used some of the diced sweet onions that I had reserved from the squash soup, sauteed this with the ground turkey in a wok-shaped sauté pan. I used the usual chili powder and the basic seasonings that make for a great chili. But, instead of adding jalapeno peppers, chilis, crushed chili peppers, chorizo, or any of the heat-producing ingredients, I added a can of diced tomatoes, some mild salsa, and a cup or so of chicken stock. I brought everything to a boil, gave it a stir, set a cover partially opened to allow for reduction, and lowered the heat to a simmer. I went back and stirred the pot every 10 minutes or so until the chili was reduced to my liking, which is thick and hearty. I served this over some rice with extra sharp cheddar and sour cream. It made a great meal with plenty left for at least one more good meal. 

So, friends, when that urge to cook strikes, just go with it. You will be amazed by what you can make with ingredients that you probably have at your fingertips. Have fun with it. Buon appetito!

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