Batch cooking #2

After last week’s batch cooking success, I decided to try again. The plan for this week: some sort of tagine, some sort of chili or meat sauce, and some sort of baked good. My plan was to have everything done by Sunday afternoon. But we all know how it goes with plans…

I’m still getting used to the whole “working full-time thing” and the ancillary lack of free time. I had a lovely day on Saturday playing 7th Sea, but that meant that all my weekly chores (laundry, groceries, cooking, cleaning, etc.) needed to be done on Sunday. No worries! I was prepped! I was ready! I got up at 8:30 on Sunday morning… only to find an email from a friend asking if he could come over and cook us breakfast.

Well, there went my plan for morning laundry, but no worries. The breakfast-cooking friend is a stove-cooking kind of guy, so I could make the apple pudding while he used the stove.

This, at least, went off without a hitch. Yes, my apples were on their last legs (and one, in fact, was past its last legs, but I was still able to salvage about half of it). Yes, I had no eggs and needed to borrow some. Yes, I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of “grease and flour a baking pan.” Still, the two and a half apples I had were exactly the right amount, and it came out quite tasty. (I know, because Marc was snacking on it all day.) I sprinkled a little brown sugar on top before baking, but otherwise stuck almost exactly to the recipe. Huzzah for things coming out right!

By the time breakfast was over and my friend had left, I had about a half-hour to clean up the mayhem in my kitchen before my mom came to drive me to do groceries. From there, it was over to her place to do laundry. And as soon as I got home from that, Marc and I went out for dinner because we hadn’t seen each other much this past week. (Between his exams and my work, timing has been tricky.)

Long story short, I only got into the kitchen to start cooking at around 7:30 p.m. I knew what I wanted to make: chicken-and-apricot tagine (loosely based on this recipe), some sort of meat-saucy-type thing, and rice.

Challenge #1: Not enough pots

See, both the tagine and the meat sauce were going to be fairly large dishes, given that I wanted them to last me all week, and I was making about two cups of rice for the same reason. In the end, I settled on using my 3 1/2 quart saucepan for the tagine (which needed to be covered for its cooking) and a wok for the meat sauce (because of the larger volume than my normal pans). Sadly, this left me with my 2-quart saucepan for the rice, which really isn’t big enough and forced me to leave it open a crack so it wouldn’t boil over. I was worried this would do weird things to the texture (like dry it out overmuch), but thankfully it seems to have turned out okay.

Challenge #2: Preparing the mise en place

I’m not good at prepping while I cook. I like to have everything ready beforehand. And because at least one of the recipes was improvised and the other hadn’t been made in a while, I wasn’t used to the ingredients or quantities. In the end, I chopped up three onions, four cloves of garlic, a red pepper, and about 14 dried apricots, as well as measuring out spices, opening cans, partitioning everything up, and just generally getting stuff ready. I should mention that I was opening a new bag of ground coriander, and while the good news is that it did not spill all over my counter, the bad news is that it did spill into my junk drawer, requiring me to pull everything in the front of the drawer out so I could clean it up. It took me over an hour and a few more dishes than were absolutely needed, but in the end I had everything in two tidy little rows, in order of when I’d need them, and I was ready to start cooking.

Challenge #3: I still don’t know how to brown chicken

Some of you may recall that the last time I made chicken tagine, I had a huge problem with oil splattering. But that was a year and a half ago, and this is now, and I thought I’d learned something since then.

Oh, hubris. How omnipresent you are.

I was using my aluminum 3 1/2 quart saucepan to brown the chicken. I heated it up on medium-high, put in a glug of canola oil (knowing that olive oil has a fairly low smoking point and is not generally recommended for high heat), waited for that to get “legs,” and put in my first three small-ish pieces of chicken.

Oil splattered everywhere.

Now, I have purchased a splatter guard in the intervening year and a half, so it wasn’t as bad as it might have been, but every time I reached in to turn the chicken, I wound up getting hot oil splattered all over my arm. In the end, I could only flip two before taking the pot off the heat, letting it cool down and the splatter subside, and trying again. I threw out the used oil and prepared to start over.

Okay, thought I, what am I doing wrong? Perhaps I had the heat too high. I turned it down to medium. Maybe, I seemed to recall, the chicken is still too moist with water and that’s what’s causing the splatter. I patted down all the pieces with a paper towel. Maybe I’m just cursed. I said a prayer. I put in the chicken. There was yet more splatter.

In the end, I wound up putting on an oven mitt and manipulating the tongs with that. Clearly, I have much to learn on this process. Next time, maybe I’ll try in my non-stick pan and see if that works any better. For some reason, browning chicken in aluminum just does not work for me.

Challenge #4: Timing

Last week, I was lucky enough to have recipes that were mostly all variants on “bring to a boil, then simmer.” And while this week’s recipes were also all variants on that theme, there were a few extra steps at the beginning that cause timing to be a bit interesting. One of them was the aforementioned browning of the chicken thighs (the very first step of everything). Then was the cooking of the onions, which was all done in one pan and then separated out. After that, the tagine had two or three stages of “add stuff, cooking for a minute or two” before the “bring to a boil” stage, and the meat sauce had the added step of “brown the ground beef.” I couldn’t just bring everything to a boil at once — I had to do “stuff.” (Technical term: stuff.)

I wound up putting in the ground beef on medium in the wok (along with the already-cooked onions) and broke it up a bit, then played around with the tagine until it was ready to come to a boil, then went back to the meat sauce and finished up cooking the ground beef. At that point, I added a cut-up red pepper (they were on super-sale at the grocery store), garlic, basil, oregano, and a can of tomato paste (thanks to the advice of some Facebook friends last week) and mixed it all up until everything was coated. Then I put in about 3/4 of a big can of diced tomatoes.

“Wait a second, Julie. Didn’t you say you were going to use crushed tomatoes for your meat sauce this week?” Why yes. Yes, I did. But the tagine called for about a cup of diced tomatoes, and since I didn’t feel like having two and a half cups of leftover tomatoes sitting in my fridge (I swear I have yet to find any cans smaller than 28 oz for diced tomatoes), I just used them in the meat sauce.

In the end, all those friends who recommended adding a tin of tomato paste were right on the money. Much thicker this week. It looked like a “real” meat sauce. Pleased Julie is pleased.

In any case, I got everything boiling, down to a simmer, and then tackled the dishes.

Challenge #5: Waiting for everything to cool down

I mentioned before that it took over an hour to get my mise en place ready, so by the time I put the chicken in the pot to brown it was almost 9:00, and by the time everything was ready it was about 10:00. Which was great. I had my rice, my tagine, my meat sauce… all of them still steaming hot on the stove. And it was getting remarkably close to my bedtime.

What’s a girl to do? I uncovered all the pots and waited. In the end, I waited about half an hour. This was not long enough — everything was still quite hot — but I was tired and wanted to stop being in the kitchen. I packed everything up, still hot, and put it right into the fridge. Was that the right decision? Probably not. But I have no idea what the right one would have been, and hopefully it didn’t destroy my fridge or any of the food in it, because I’ve got all my holiday baking butter and eggs in the fridge now, and it would be a shame to have to go buy them again.

And that’s it. I’ve got two big containers of tagine, one and a half big containers of meat sauce, two big containers of rice, and about 3/4 of the apple pudding left to keep me for the week. Which is good, because so far I’m booked every evening from Monday to Thursday this week and have absolutely no idea when I’d cook otherwise.

I just hope that next week is less stressful. I’m not sure I can go through that again.

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