Thinking of Starting a Cooking Group?

Thinking of Starting a Cooking Group?

Don't wait another day!

We are Las Chicas, and we've been a cooking group for the past 5+ years. Let me tell you about us and the other cooking groups I’ve been a part of before I suggest ways for starting a group of your own.

At the end of a New Year’s Day party, Jeanette, Peggy, Sheree, and I were talking about how we enjoyed learning how to cook new foods. We had the same passion for food, so it seemed natural to schedule a lunch. Sheree started by teaching us how to make Spanish omelets, which are nothing like what Americans think of as omelets. Also called tortilla Española, it is a potato and egg dish that sometimes contains onions and garlic.

The afternoon was so much fun that we decided to make it a monthly event. It turned out that each of us specialized in different ethnic foods, so we had a lot to share. Peggy taught us to make French crepes and Chinese egg rolls. Her daughter-in-law, who lives in China, cooked an enormous, multi-course, authentic Chinese meal for the group when she visited the U.S. I don’t think any of us ate for days! Sheree specialized in Spanish cooking, and Jeanette cooked Peruvian recipes from her family. I cooked Mexican and Indian food, making flour tortillas and explaining the uses of mustard oil.

Through the years, we shared more than food. We shared each other’s ups and downs. Births and deaths, children going to college, health scares, and the day-to-day details of life. We didn’t always cook. Sometimes we went to restaurants, and we went to Peru for a week to visit some of Jeanette’s family. We didn’t get together every month, but we always scheduled the next luncheon.

Unfortunately, our last scheduled event was a week ago. My impending move will make it impossible for me to attend. I hope Las Chicas will add a fourth member and continue without me. I will miss them! The following picture is the outstanding salmon dish Jeanette served. Jeanette, please share the recipe!

Jeanette's Peruvian salmon

Jeanette's Peruvian salmon

This was my fourth cooking group. The first one was in Texas with a neighbor. At 4 pm every Sunday, Kerry and I sat down and planned a three-course meal — appetizer, main meal, and dessert. We went to the grocery and then cooked dinner. Our husbands did whatever husbands do when women get together, but they were always ready when dinner was finally served. Every recipe was new, so we always learned something. We served a salad with every meal, and I learned how unlimited the options are for dressings. I think this is the reason I like to cook new things all the time. During the eight years, we each had two children, but we continued the tradition. Of course, things changed. We planned menus ahead of time, repeated recipes, and ended the nights earlier, but it was every Sunday until we moved to Wisconsin.

The next two cooking groups were with the Newcomer’s Association, so we were thrown into a group of people we didn’t know. The first Gourmet Group decided that the hosting family would prepare the entire meal. Our personalities never meshed, and I found that there was competition to outdo the previous dinner party. When my husband and I hosted, we made homemade individual pizzas, so everyone had to roll out their pizza dough. Working with flour can be messy, so I provided each guest with a chef’s jacket with their name embroidered on it. At the end of the year when each of the four couples had hosted a meal, no one suggested continuing.

Not dismayed by the previous unsuccessful group, my husband and I signed up for another. The leader of this Gourmet Group decided that the host family would plan the meal and prepare the main dish. The recipes for the other dishes, appetizer, sides, salad, and dessert, were sent to the other three couples to make and take to the dinner. Initially, I didn’t like this idea, but it turned out to be a fantastic way to cook new foods. I was assigned a Spanish chorizo with balsamic vinegar recipe. It sounded terrible, but I followed the directions very carefully, and it was absolutely fantastic. Again, this group opted not to continue, and my husband and I decided we didn’t enjoy eating dinner with people we had nothing in common with.

As you see, cooking groups come in all shapes and sizes. In my experience, it is important to include people who you know. Decide how often you will meet. Once a week was intense, but it was a wonderful celebration every week. Once a quarter wasn’t often enough. If we had met more often, maybe we would have bonded more. I prefer once a month.

Deciding the format is tricky and depends on the cooking levels of the members. Personally, I learned the most from having recipes assigned to me. There are downsides to this, but it is worth trying, especially if you want to push yourself into new areas of cooking. Or, choose a cookbook and make every recipe.It’s worth having a conversation upfront to ensure everyone is comfortable with the approach.

The hardest part is finding people to join you. My recommendation is to start by asking yourself who you would like to spend more time with. It could be a friend from yoga class or someone in your book group. It can include spouses and children. Be creative and think outside the box.

My next cooking group will be difficult to find because we are moving to a place where we only know family. It will take time to find the right group, but I will find it because sharing food with other people is important to me.

I served this appetizer at the last Las Chicas meal. It’s simple to make, easy to transport, and is addictively delicious. Serve this to your cooking party, but tweak it, and rename it in honor of your group.

Make Cooking a Social Event

Make Cooking a Social Event

I'm extremely lucky to have a group of friends who love to cook. It also doesn't hurt that I run a cooking school where I am exposed to many diverse people, from vegans, gluten-free, and Paleo to students who just want to cook an easy meal. What I enjoy the most is seeing more people with the desire to cook.

Yesterday, I taught a class with Kay and Donna in Delafield, Wisconsin. Two extraordinary women, who were so cheerful and relaxed, yet exuded the desire to take the next step in cooking. Both are accomplished cooks. Donna was in the food industry for a while and is now returning on a limited basis to fill in for others on vacation. Kay used to cook often, but her new routine finds that she's out of the habit. It was great to see Donna tackle the puff pastry, even though she had some reluctance. Kay was most interested in cooking the risotto. They split up the tasks, and they were the perfect team.

Delafield cooking lesson

Last month, I taught a class to a mother and daughter, Lauren and Claire, in Allen, Texas. The daughter is vegan, and it was fun to hear her discuss adaptations to the recipes. What Claire was willing to compromise on and what she wasn't. It was refreshing to listen to an open dialogue on why one chooses to eat what one does. The menu was Chicken fajitas, but she made tofu fajitas. It was a first for me, so I can honestly say that this high school student taught me how to branch into new areas. And, yes, they were delicious. Change the chicken to tofu and the Worcestershire sauce to soy sauce. 

In both cases, I was struck by how much each cooking student wanted to learn not only how to cook but the whys of what they were doing. Why do you score the puff pastry? To let out steam. Why do you measure the dry ingredients first? So that you can use one set of measuring spoons instead of two. Why do you wash cryovac meat? Because it smells like ruined meat. If it smells after washing it, you may have a problem!

I take cooking for granted. For the past twenty-five years, I've prepared food and enjoyed it. My family and guests like my food, or so they say! But after these recent lessons and thinking back to when I was the happiest in the kitchen, it seems to be when I have other people with me. The family decorating cookies. My Mom and Dad watching my sister and me bake a cake in an Easy Bake Oven. My mother-in-law helping prepare for a New Year's Day Party. My cooking group, Las Chicas, learning to make Peruvian food, Tortilla Española, and crepes.

Kay, Donna, Lauren, and Claire remind me that cooking is more than just about the food. It's also about the social experience. Not everyone has the time, space, or desire to cook with other people, but if you are in a cooking rut, choose a recipe, grab a few friends, and spend the afternoon cooking. The food doesn't have to be great. You may create some exciting memories no matter what. Laugh. Enjoy doing something different. It's not really about the food after all.

Kay and Donna's cooking lesson was to prepare a dinner for seven people. The menu was Mediterranean lamb chops, Mushroom risotto, which was a variation of Red onion risotto, a salad with Sweet and sour vinaigrette, and a Berry tart. We finished the prep in less than two hours, and they had plenty of time to spend with their guests before putting the final touches on dinner.

Remember that cooking doesn't have to be a chore. Invite a friend for the afternoon and divide the food for dinner that night. Enjoy the process!

Why I Like Vegetable Oil Better Than Olive Oil

Why I Like Vegetable Oil Better Than Olive Oil

It seems obvious that olive oil tastes better than vegetable oil, right? Also, everything I read suggests it is healthier and improves our hearts and cholesterol numbers. Olive oil costs more than vegetable oil, but people are willing to make the sacrifice. I have yet to see any Vegetable Oil Stores springing up.

So, why do I like vegetable oil better than olive oil? Simply put, I am tired of listening to the news about what I should buy and eat. This past week, I conducted taste tests of vegetable oil versus olive oil, and my family served as the judges. Our tastes may differ from yours, so I encourage you to do your own tests. Or, take my advice and save money by switching to vegetable oil!

How did I accomplish this? Blind taste test to the rescue! I was the only one who knew which oil the recipe contained. I used separate pans to cook the dishes and measured everything carefully. Instead of plating the food, this week we ate family style. The three of us ate from both the dishes and voted on our favorite. I voiced my opinion last since I knew the oil. The results were fascinating.

Potato test

This picture shows the test of Home fries. The potatoes in a vee were tossed with corn oil. The ones in the shape of an o were tossed with extra-virgin olive oil. This was the first test, and the results were not what I expected. My husband and I could tell no difference in the taste. My son, however, preferred the olive oil potatoes. The potatoes were identical in appearance after cooking. Olive oil won this contest slightly.

The second test was crab cakes. I cooked the cakes in two separate pans in the same amount of oil. Again, there was no difference in appearance after they cooked. The results were shocking. Both my son and I clearly favored the crab cakes cooked in corn oil. My husband couldn't tell the difference. Vegetable oil was the clear winner.

What better test than sautéed onions? I slivered a yellow onion and cooked them in the same-sized skillet with the same amount of oil. The first thing I noticed was that the corn oil appeared to cook the onions faster, burning them slightly, even though I tried my best to regulate the heat. Also, the onions absorbed more of the corn oil and turned a dull white. The onions cooked in olive oil had a lovely golden color. Hands down, the olive oil onions won. Well, my husband still couldn't taste the difference.

At this point, it was time to test how the oils compared uncooked. This was easy. It's obvious. Olive oil tastes better than vegetable oil when dipped in bread. The fruity flavor won easily. But what about in a salad dressing? I decided to test the oils in Caesar dressing. This contest tested my sanity. The vegetable oil won so decisively that it was hard to eat the olive oil version. Even my husband could taste the difference.

Is it olive oil and seafood that don't pair well? Both the crab cakes and Caesar dressing, with anchovies, were superior when made with corn oil. The olive oil apparently overpowered these dishes.

One additional consideration is that olive oil has one of the lowest smoke points of any oil. When you cook at high temperatures, use oils with a smoke point at or above 400º. Olive oil ranges from 325 – 375º. Corn oil's point is 450º. When searing, deep-frying, or stir-frying, use vegetable oils or safflower oil, which has a smoke point of 510º.

Why is the smoke point relevant? When oil is heated past its smoke point, the oil breaks down and releases free radicals. While a little smoke is okay, if smoke billows from your pan, then let the oil cool and taste it to see if it tastes acrid or burned. If so, toss it and start again.

My conclusion is that olive oil works great for sautéeing onions, at a low temperature!, and is better for drizzling over fresh tomatoes or as a dipping sauce, but for most recipes, I recommend vegetable oil.

My next test might be to see if I can taste the difference between corn and canola oil. I see canola oil making headlines lately.


Are You Prepared for Unexpected Get Togethers?

Are You Prepared for Unexpected Get Togethers?

With the warmer weather and more relaxed schedule of summer break, casual gatherings on the patio with friends are more common. In the past week, I've been to two such al fresco events, and I cannot think of a better way to spend time with friends.

My experience is that when the weather is great outside, most people, including myself, want to spend less time in the kitchen and more time around the grill. My husband disagrees, but not everything for a meal can come from the grill!

Most people know that you can grill meats, seafood, veggies, and pizza. There are other foods that can be grilled as well. Have you ever thought about grilling bread, sandwiches, potatoes, or polenta? What about meatballs or tofu? Fruits, such as apples, peaches, pineapple, and even watermelon, are excellent side dishes to any grilled meat. Artichokes, asparagus, and green beans are also good. This list is endless, so use your imagination.

Just because you can grill something doesn't mean that you should! I was once in one of my favorite restaurants, so I trusted the chef's creations. I thought a grilled Caesar salad sounded odd, but the waitress recommended it. Well, let's just say that two bites were enough. Some people like this salad, so try it if it sounds interesting to you. Grilling a head of romaine lettuce is not attractive to me. While you can grill lettuce, I will not do it. I also ran across a recipe for grilled pound cake, which again does not interest me, but maybe it would be good with grilled fruit?

Grilling makes entertaining easy, to say nothing about the simple clean up! A quick trip to the store to buy meat and veggies is all that you really need. Marinating the food is optional, so last minute get togethers present no problem. But, what about an appetizer or side dish?

It is important to have a  properly stocked pantry for last minute parties so that you can enjoy the company instead of being in the kitchen cooking. I always have toasted nuts and crackers in the freezer, which can be pulled out and paired with cheese. I also keep a jar of Mediterranean spiced olives and hummus in the refrigerator. And, just like that, you have appetizers.

This week's recipe for Garlicky butter beans takes little to no time to prepare and requires only pantry ingredients. Canned beans, garlic, mustard, lemon juice or vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. If you have fresh herbs, add them. If you have the time, make this recipe 24 hours in advance to allow the beans to marinate. 

Serve this bean salad as a side dish, in a salade composée, or as a topping for bruschetta for an appetizer. If you like garlic, you will love this dish! Another plus is that it is appropriate for vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free guests. There are no nuts, dairy, or soy either.

Keep a gallon of ice cream or Magnum bars in the freezer and dessert is solved. If you have fruit, why not grill it? If nothing else, it will provide a lively discussion.

Share your unusual grilling recipes or experiences!

Returning to the South

Returning to the South

And the things I never appreciated

Last week, I told you that I was on a 2,100-mile journey with my son, from Milwaukee to Rochester to Dallas. Well, we made it, and the car is unpacked, and his things are in his tiny apartment. I don't know the square footage, but the volume would be impressive because of the 10-foot ceilings. At least he will have an excuse not to change the lightbulbs.

The journey's been a lot of fun, despite some tense driving situations. These are all due to the fact that I am bad at reading a map but worse at giving directions. Add to that the fact that we moved in on the hottest day of the year. 96º. At least it was only up one flight of stairs!

After living in Texas for 13 years, I knew what to expect — hot weather, pickup trucks, long red lights, and lots of traffic. These things are still here, but it's the small things that I didn't appreciate.

We stopped in Texarkana, Arkansas for a night. At dinner, the waitress was friendly. Then, we went to check into the hotel. Turns out we went to the wrong one! Why put a Holiday Inn and a Holiday Inn Express next to each other?!? Anyway, the two people at the front desk were quite talkative. The same thing at our actual hotel.

We traced the behavior back to Columbus, OH actually. From that point on, the staff at restaurants, people at front desks, and people in parking lots were super friendly. Even in elevators! It seems that we must have a conversation before settling down to business. It reminds me of Europe, actually. I always thought the Midwest was friendly, and it is compared to our experience in Upstate New York, but it's nothing like the South.

The other thing I never noticed is the number of restaurants. They are absolutely everywhere. Vietnamese, Indian, BBQ, Shabu Shabu, Japanese, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, delis, and donut shops. I'm so jealous of my son, although as a poor co-op/college student, he can't afford them or to shop at Whole Foods, which is literally across the street.

But, the most important discovery I've made is that the unsweetened iced tea is far superior to anything I can get at home. I don't know what's different about it, so I will research that when I return home. Meanwhile, I'm drinking as much of it as I can!

I'm looking forward to getting back to my kitchen. Yesterday at lunch, I had a terrific pizza, Fiori di zucca, with zucchini slices, zucchini blossoms, and Scamorza cheese. It was not only delicious but beautifully presented. It also made me ask why I stopped using fresh Asiago and Scamorza as the cheese on my pizzas. That's my favorite combination. Looks like pizza experimentation is on the agenda!

When I move from Milwaukee later this summer, I wonder what I will miss. One thing is Amy's caramel apples, but they ship! I'm going to try to soak up Milwaukee while I can, but I'm also looking forward to my next adventure.

How to Make Good Choices When Traveling

How to Make Good Choices When Traveling

Stop at Applebee’s

May 20, 2017

By now, you know that cooking and eating are important to me. Some would even say an obsession. New recipes and food combinations excite me. One of the reasons I love to travel is to experience customs and rituals that push me into new areas.

Currently, I am on an epic road trip from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Richardson, Texas via Rochester, New York. Why? My son finished his second year at RIT and is going to his seven-month co-op in Texas. What mother wouldn’t love to join her son and make this 2,100+ mile journey?!? Did I mention that we have all of his college belongings in a small car?

Today is day four. Three hotels. Six restaurants. One breakfast in the car. One breakfast in a hotel. One skipped breakfast. In past travels, my mission was to find hidden restaurant gems, but this trip is different because I am on a schedule and don’t have time to venture far from the highway or want to drive extra at night.

After eight and a half hours on the road the first day, I just didn’t feel like searching or driving to a restaurant. In the same parking lot of the hotel was an Applebee’s, so I decided to eat there for dinner.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the menu and found calorie counts for every single menu item. Many restaurants include some calorie counts, but this list was simply fascinating. After twenty minutes of intense scrutiny of the menu, the waitress took my order for a chicken quesadilla appetizer.

This Tex-Mex dish was far from my desire of a salad, but it seemed the better choice. Many people think salads or vegetarian dishes are healthier and have fewer calories, and I admit to those thoughts on occasion. This menu forced me to face the facts and realize that when in a restaurant, it is difficult to make a good choice.

Which have fewer calories? Answers are at the bottom of the page.

  1. Pepper-Crusted Sirloin and Grains OR a child’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich
  2. French Onion Soup OR Mozzarella Sticks appetizer
  3. The classic burger OR Oriental Chicken Salad
  4. Triple bacon burger OR BBQ Brisket Tacos
  5. Chicken Caesar Salad OR Shrimp Wonton Stir Fry


When you cook food at home, it’s easy to know whether something is high or low in calories because you know the ingredients. Even if you eat prepackaged food, the calories are listed, so you have some knowledge to help you make appropriate decisions. But, in a restaurant, you are at the mercy of the chef. 

Calories aren’t everything, and these numbers are estimates at best, but it is one way to understand the ingredients in the food you are eating. I don’t know the answer to making choices in every restaurant, but Applebee’s makes it easier. After looking at this menu, I understand why eating in restaurants contributes to weight gain in the US. By the way, the menu calories do not match the website numbers.

I have many more days on the road and restaurants in my future, but this information will help me to make better choices, which is especially needed because of my lack of exercise. Will I eat at another Applebee’s? Probably not, while I appreciated the menu, the food could improve.

Here are the calories listed on Applebee’s website.

  1. 380 vs 640
  2. 380 vs 460 You will probably eat all the soup, but you would share the mozzarella sticks.
  3. 630 vs 1420 The salad has over double the calories of the burger! 
  4. 1170 vs 1220
  5. 800 vs 630

By the way, the Blue Ribbon Brownie Bite has 380 calories, the same amount as the Pepper-Crusted Sirloin and Grains and French Onion Soup and lower than every other choice I gave you. Who would guess that?

As always, happy eating and cooking!

How do I develop new recipes?

How do I develop new recipes?

Oh, and another tasty chicken recipe!

Where do I find the inspiration for meals and new recipes? It's my mood, the weather, and the ingredients I have on hand. Instead of planning menus by the day, I stock my pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for the week. This gives me the flexibility to decide which meal to cook the day I am going to eat it.

The next question is, "How do I thaw everything in time?" I don't recommend leaving food on the counter because of safety concerns, but putting a tightly-sealed package of frozen chicken in a container of cold water will thaw it quickly.

The real question is how do I develop a recipe? My nose is the answer. I know my mood and what flavors I want. When I make tuna salad, for example, I go to my spice cabinet and open random jars. Whatever smells good that day is what I use. And, every day is different.

That worked well until my younger son continued to ask me what I did differently with a recipe. Turns out, he likes consistency, and I wanted to perfect recipes for iwannabeacook. When I'm in the kitchen cooking, typing recipes into my laptop isn't possible, so I keep a notebook. Here's a picture with my notes for this week's recipe.

Recipe notebook.jpg

This notebook contains every recipe I make. The different ink colors tell you how many times I've edited the recipe. The color of the date, red in this case, shows the color of the original notes. The blue ink shows the edits right after making the recipe. In this case, commenting on the cooking and marinating time. The black ink shows afterthoughts with variations.

What you don't see is a large X or the words "REDO." Those happen. The tags sticking out of the side of the notebook mark recipes that are still under development and need more work. Sometimes the taste or cooking time was off, but other times it isn't the time to present a recipe. For example, I have a Christmas cookie recipe that is finally perfected. I can't release it until the holiday season because no one else wants to think about Christmas cookies in May. No worries though, I'm already working on November/December recipes.

Chicken fajitas with Sautéed plantains, a quick & easy meal

Chicken fajitas with Sautéed plantains

A quick & easy meal

Ranch hands near the Mexican border in the 1940s were partially paid with meat from butchered steers, typically receiving the least desirable cuts. When they received the tough skirt steak, they pounded, marinated, grilled, and then sliced it and served it in tortillas. This was the beginning of the Tex-Mex dish fajitas. Today, fajitas are basically any cooked and sliced meat served with tortillas.

iwannabeacook’s chicken fajita recipe is flavorful but quick and easy enough for a weeknight dinner. The main ingredients are chicken, onions, and bell peppers. The marinade takes only a few minutes to make. If you have time, marinate the meat 1 – 4 hours. The flavor is both spicy and tangy. This recipe takes 20 minutes, start to finish. Serve it with corn or flour tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, cilantro, and cheese.

This recipe is also flexible. Instead of the spice mixture, use taco seasoning or chili powder. Instead of chicken, use beef or shrimp. For shrimp, limit the marinating time to 1 hour. Add or change the vegetables. Use zucchini or summer squash. Add jalapeño slices or chipotle powder.

Plantains, also called cooking bananas, are not known to most households in the US, but they are a wonderful side dish to grilled and roasted meats. They have less sugar than a regular banana and are more suitable as a side dish. Cutting the plantain on the bias provides more surface area to brown.

Plantains are used in two forms, unripe and ripe, but they are almost always cooked. Ripe ones can be eaten raw, but it is rare. The blacker it is, the sweeter it is. 

This recipe is quick and easy and provides something slightly unusual. If you want to learn about a new food, try this one.  

What does my empty plate say about me?

What does my empty plate say about me? 

Eating habits at the end of the meal 

After clearing the lunch plates on Friday, I had an epiphany. Typically, my husband and I each clear our plates and put them in the dishwasher, but on this particular day, we both left the table to complete some task. I returned to the table a few minutes later to remove the dishes.

When I reached down to pick up the plates, I noticed that my plate was completely clean, barely used. My husband’s plate had food left on it, and the plate was obviously dirty.

At that moment, I realized how these dishes represented our personalities. My plate, like my life or how I want it to be (!), was neat and orderly. Everything in its place, nice and tidy. The plate was also efficient, no need to scrape the plate. It could go straight into the dishwasher.

My husband’s plate was a different story. He had food left, so the food had to be scraped into the trash. The fork and knife weren’t in a convenient spot to pick up, so I had to adjust those before moving the plate. What does his plate say about his personality? At the time, I was only thinking about how his plate affected my current schedule. How much more work it required before I could put his dish in the dishwasher.

But, thinking about it, I came to realize how much it represented his personality. When he eats, he clearly focuses on his food, not thinking about wasting food or cleaning it up later.

During most lunch meals, we work on the Wall Street Journal’s crossword puzzle, so we don’t merely eat and leave the table. We continue working after our food is eaten, so our plates sit in front of us. For me, it’s hard to see a dirty plate sitting there.

In the grand scheme of things, why does this really matter? It doesn’t, except that I eat more in an effort to make my plate orderly.

What should I do? Serve myself less, knowing that I will eat whatever is on my plate? Be conscious of what is going on and actively leave food on my plate? Clear my plate as soon as I’m finished eating?

The point is that I have choices. For the upcoming week, I’m going to leave food on my plate and try not to worry about how it looks. By the way, my husband doesn’t believe I can do it. Now, I know I will do it! Another insight into my personality.

What does your plate say about you? And your partner’s or children’s plates? The next time you go have dinner with friends, take a look at their plates and see what you can glean about their personalities.

What do I serve with grilled meats?

What do I serve with grilled meats? 

A quick and easy vegetable medley 

Here in Wisconsin, we are pushing the season for grilling, but after a long winter, it’s time to start. Of course, one must choose the correct weather conditions. Grilling in the dark is not bad, but pouring rain or thunderstorms are unacceptable. If the weather is great, I usually change my dinner menu to include grilling.

Grilling adds a distinctive flavor to food, and honestly, it is good to be outside after being inside for so many months.

With gas grills, grilling is fast because it doesn't take long to heat the grill. With modern technology, even charcoal grills are fast, especially if you use an electric starter. 

But, the best part of grilling is the easy cleanup. There are no roasting or broiler pans to wash. This is a timesaver in itself.

Grilling is perfect for a busy weeknight, but the question is what to serve with the grilled food. If possible, marinate the meat the night before or morning of. Use a recipe from iwannabeacook, such as an Asian marinade or Cuban marinade or simply use a spice mixture. Bring the meat to room temperature and turn the grill on.

While the grill is heating, it’s time to prepare a side dish. If you’ve done a little planning, you will have raw vegetables in your refrigerator—celery, bell peppers, zucchini. If you have an onion, then you are well on your way to creating a delicious vegetable medley. Be creative with the vegetables and spices you add.

Simply sliver the vegetables into 3 x 1/2 x 1/4" pieces. At this point, the grill should be ready. Add the meat to the grill and return to the kitchen to cook the vegetables, which will cook in less than 15 minutes. Finish cooking the meat, and dinner is served. Of course, you could add pasta, rice, or beans as a side dish.

When dinner is finished, there are only a few dishes and most will go into the dishwasher. So, cleanup is fast.

Many people think grilling is a lengthy and time-consuming process, but it doesn’t have to be. With practice, you will become comfortable with timing the food and not have to hover over the grill constantly.

The Sautéed vegetables with feta cheese recipe is a great side dish for any meal—grilled or roasted meats or as a side for Enchiladas. It’s quick, easy, and flexible.

Tired of cooking the same recipes?

Tired of cooking the same recipes? 

New season, New spices

April 8, 2017

It isn’t often that I recommend products to buy because everyday cooking should be fun and easy. When I find a product that does both, I want to pass the advice along. Spice Trekkers is one answer to adding variety to weeknight meals.

iwannabeacook has featured three recipes from the Spice Trekkers already: Coconut orange sauce, Spanish-style sautéed potatoes, and Sweet and sour vinaigrette.

This week’s Satay chicken wings recipe is also inspired by the Spice Trekkers cookbook and uses the included spices. After extensive use of their spice kit and cookbook, it is time to highlight their product.

Ethné and Philippe de Vienne travel around the world looking for spices to use in their unique spice blends. After traveling around the world for more than 30 years, they’ve built relationships with people to provide high-quality spices to use in their blends.

This package comes as a spice kit and cookbook. The spice kit contains 20 spice blends in small containers. There are six additional tiny containers, which are used to teach you the difference between taste and flavor of spices. A mystery spice is included as well.

The cookbook starts with an introduction of spice categories—Bitter, Sour, Hot, Sweet, and Aromatic—and then continues with tips on purchasing and storing spices. The next section is dedicated to the spice blends.

For each of the 20 spice blends, the cookbook includes a recipe for the actual blend, which means you can make it yourself after using the initial container. While this sounds like a great idea, the expense of buying the necessary spices may not be practical because some unusual spices are included. For example, my spice pantry is well stocked, but it does not include cassia buds, voatsiperifery peppercorns, cubeb, galanga, or kentjur, just to name a few of the more unusual spices.

After the spice blend recipe, three recipes are given that use the highlighted spice blend. The range of recipes in the book is vast, including soups, salads, vegetables, pasta, potatoes, chicken, beef, fish, and desserts. Each recipe includes a photo and takes only one page. The cooking time is less than one hour for most recipes, not including marinating time.

After the recipes, a two-page spread highlights a person or group of people and how they relate to that particular spice blend. These are stories about people from everywhere. The stories are worth reading. It’s a reminder that cooking is important to people everywhere.

A few details about the spices. The spices are whole, meaning they must be ground first. A spice grinder or dedicated coffee bean grinder is essential. Why are the spices whole? Freshly ground spices are more intense and have more flavor.

The spices are gluten free. They do not mention whether blends are processed in a nut-free facility.

Are all of the blends hot and spicy? I did not find the blends overly spicy, but they are full of flavor. The recipes using the blends include spicy ingredients, but those can be adjusted to suit your taste. 

What if you run out of a spice blend and cannot make it due to the lack of unusual spices? Actually, I’ve used some of the recipes without the spice blend and instead added the spices I did have. The recipes are forgiving and should be used as a guide. Experiment with spices and adjust them to your palette.

Where can you buy this spice kit? sells more than just this product and includes additional recipes and a blog. Zingerman’s also sells this product.

These are the twenty spice blends included:

Singapore Curry
Madras Curry
8 Pepper Blend
Aleppo Seven Spices
Koftes Spices
1001 Nights
Tex-Mex Spices
East Coast Spices
Classic Fines Herbs
Chinese Five Spices
Cajun Blackening Spices
Panch Phoran
Silk Road
Creton Spices
Vegetable Spices
Yunan Blend
Mediterranean Herbs
Satay Spices

Devil's Food Cake

Devil’s Food Cake

The Ultimate Birthday Cake


March 31st

My younger son’s 18th birthday was in March. And each year, it’s the same discussion of what kind of cake to have. Chocolate is a given, but how many layers? What kind of icing? My husband’s question is about the type of candles to use. Should we use the numbers, the relighting candles, or just regular ones?

From the picture above, you can see that I used regular candles. What you can’t see is how the wax sprayed the cake when they were blown out!

As for the number of layers, I decided on three. Why bother with only one layer? Two is too few, but four layers make the cake too tall and hard to cut. So, I settled on three.

Now the hard part. Which recipe? I decided to go with a tried-and-true recipe that I’ve made many times, a Devil’s Food Cake. It’s simple, fast, and delicious.

What exactly is a Devil’s Food Cake, and how do it get that name?

Devil’s Food Cake is said to be a chocolate version of an Angel’s Food Cake because of how light and fluffy it is and the fact that it is not overly sweet. Baking soda creates the light and fluffy effect, and unsweetened cocoa powder gives the cake the chocolate taste without making it too sweet or rich.

Unlike a German Chocolate Cake, which has to have a caramel filling or frosting with coconut and pecans, Devil’s Food Cake only refers to the cake itself. The frosting can be anything you desire. While a white icing would make a strikingly beautiful cake, this birthday cake, according to my son, had to have a chocolate frosting. A fluffy chocolate butter frosting was the only logical choice.

A little more history about these cakes. Angel’s Food Cake became popular in the late 1800s, Devil’s Food Cake in the early 1900s, and German Chocolate Cake around 1960. 

Remember that this cake was for my son. My favorite birthday cake is Angel’s Food Cake with a Spiced Cranberry Sauce.

Email me your favorite birthday cake or tradition. I would love to hear your story.

As always, happy cooking and eating!

While I'm Away, Let Them Eat Comfort Food

While I’m Away,

Let Them Eat Comfort Food

I leave today for a trip to Cuba with my father. It’s our first father-daughter only vacation. We’ll be together nine nights – two nights in Miami, seven nights on the Fathom cruise ship. Dad’s always wanted to go to Cuba because he grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s wanted to go for over 50 years. I’m honored to be going with him. It’s going to be an eye-opening trip.

You may be wondering how this story relates to iwannabeacook, other than to tell you that there won’t be a newsletter next week. Well, my husband and younger son are going to be home alone next week, so they will have to cook their own food.

I heard my son ask my husband about what they were going to eat while I was away. He assured him it wouldn’t be a problem; he assured me he wouldn’t eat out every night.

Doing what anyone in my situation would do, I gave him a tour of the freezer – steaks, lamb chops, brats, ground beef and pork for meatloaf, chicken. The next stop was the pantry – pasta, rice, potatoes, onions, garlic, canned tomatoes, spices. The final stop was the refrigerator – carrots, celery, lettuce, bell peppers, cheese.

I’ve said this over and over again. With a well-stocked pantry, cooking is simple. We browsed the recipes on iwannabeacook and came up with a long list of recipes. Listed below are some of the possibilities. I put this here not only as a reminder to him but as a list for my readers when they have no idea what to cook.

He now has nine menus for the week. As it turns out, most of these recipes are comfort foods for my husband and son, and they are relatively quick and easy. Do I think all nine meals will be made? Do I think the vegetables will be prepared, served, or eaten? Absolutely not! But what’s important is that they know they have a lot of choices. All they have to do is to remember to thaw the meat and take his iPad to the kitchen!

There will be no newsletter next week, but the next newsletter will highlight my trip to Cuba. When I travel, my creativity in food planning soars, so be prepared for new and exciting recipes in the near future! 

As always, happy cooking and eating!

March 4, 2017

I Don't Want Your Advice – or Do I?

I Don't Want Your Advice – or Do I?

February 24th Newsletter

How often do you ask people for advice? And if you do, how often do you follow it? Most people don’t actually want advice, simply thinking out loud. If someone comments, great, but that’s not really the goal.

Last week, I found myself in this exact situation while having my hair done. Chatting with Michelle, my stylist, I wondered aloud what I was going to cook for dinner. Weather is a big factor in what I cook, so I looked at the window. That particular day was in the 50s, overcast and dry, but it wasn’t grilling weather yet. Michelle interrupted my rambling with the suggestion of spaghetti squash with tomato sauce. Interesting idea, but it didn’t really sound exciting. “Great idea!” This was enough of a comment to move on to the next subject, which is usually the case with a stylist or anyone for that matter. No wonder stylists know everything. It’s impossible to just sit in the chair and say nothing. Michelle also gave me an idea for a birthday present I needed to buy, stemming from another random comment I made.

The gift idea really was a good one, a bottle of olive oil for a cooking friend. Perfect. The best thing was the store was just around the corner, so I booked my next appointment, i.e., next advice session, and off I went to buy the olive oil. On the way back to my car, I passed a grocery store. Yes, you guessed it. Why not take her advice on dinner? After all, the olive oil was a great idea. So, I stopped in to buy a spaghetti squash. Knowing my son wouldn’t exactly love this meal, I added frozen meatballs to my basket. And just like that, dinner was planned, something to break out of my normal routine.

As it turns out, the meal was terrific, not only in taste but how simple it was to make. The hardest part was cutting the spaghetti squash in half. Since the sauce is made from pantry ingredients and only takes 30 minutes to make means you can make it anytime. Add meatballs, frozen or homemade, or Italian sausages for a more complete meal.

My unsolicited advice for my readers is to listen to the advice people give you, at least once in a while. You might find excitement in breaking with your normal routine. After all, what harm will it do?

Thanks for all the interesting comments about the lime story from last week! Some people loved it, and others asked if was insane. No, I’m not insane; I just want answers.

As always, happy cooking and eating!