Cooking for Community

Dinner parties are great, but I somewhat want to take my cooking to the next level: I don’t specifically want people to pay me to cook for them, but I want to cook some treats to sell at the local Relay for Life event.

Relay for Life is a fairly simple premise: rather than a charity race, it’s a long (sometimes overnight) walk-a-thon where folks raise money to support research to cure cancer. During the event, however, each “team” of participants only has to have someone walking all the time (in principle), so everyone on the team can be participating in the night-long party that is Relay: people set up games, grill out, sell cupcakes, anything and everything to keep raising money for the American Cancer Society. Local folks who haven’t been fundraising are welcomed to spend the evening in the carnival atmosphere and know that their dollars have all gone toward a good cause.

The first time I participated in Relay, I was part of a team from a club in college. We had a big tent, and I don’t remember what we were selling or doing but walking late at night in the beautiful mountain air was fun, and the luminarias that people sponsor for people who have had cancer in their lives were beautiful and twinkled around the perimeter of the walking space. I remember telling a bunch of knock knock jokes at 4 in the morning, delirious with lack of sleep. It was a wonderful time. I bonded with folks from my club.

Now, I have the opportunity to be a part of Relay in my new town – it seems like an event that isn’t particularly well attended. The fundraising goal has gone down from last year to this year, and the chairperson is a survivor of cancer who seems eager to get some young folks involved. As a new resident and young-ish person, I’m hoping to contribute, and since I love having things count in two places, I think I’m going to make something for my blog but in quantity to sell for the ACS at Relay.

So here’s my call for recipes: what easily portable and reasonably healthy treats would you recommend for selling at a Relay for Life carnival? There will be plenty of unhealthy food to go around (nothing wrong with that!) but I figured I might offer a respite on that front, if I could come up with one. If you have a great recipe, comment and send me a quick blurb about how the recipe has worked for you in the past! Thank you!

17. T and K’s Root Beer Chicken

rootbeerchickenT and K are some of the happiest people I met in school. Not that they are cheerleader-excited about everything, but just that most of the times that I see them, they are reasonably optimistic, have something exciting they’ve recently learned or experienced, or are willing to slough off a bad day with a funny movie or a chat. At school, where I’ve started to learn a lot of people aren’t particularly happy, these kinds of people are so important. K and I studied some similar things and even though we didn’t get to hang out all the time, his excitement reenergized me when my homework got monotonous. T is a photographer and her work always makes me feel like the world is a little more mysterious and beautiful than I see it through my phone’s camera lens.

They made a delicious, surprising crockpot dish themselves for the dinner party, which has an amazing 3 ingredients (this is the kind of recipe of my dreams, folks). The result, despite tasting like root beer which I’m not a fan of, was awesome: moist chicken with just a slightly different take on barbecue-flavor, a bit of that rooty tang with a sustained sweetness. It would be really good on sandwiches, too, I think, without really needing to be “pulled,” just taken off the bone. om nom nom.

Recipe here!

Cooking Failures, and Recoveries

This Sunday was the prettiest Sunday in a while – the wintery temperatures abated and after a clarifying night of storms, blue sky abounded. I was going to cook everything: cooking is a pleasure in a kitchen with so many windows, and it still wasn’t warm enough to spend all day outside (though I tried mightily!) so I set about trying two new recipes.

I am rarely daunted by the fact of having none of the tools or ingredients I need. I should be though; it can be truly, breathtakingly difficult at times. As with many of the times when I’ve wished for a less finicky version of my current blender, this day was bad for the new recipes: I tried a pesto dish that really needed a food processor, and a crockpot dish that needed me to have full-fat coconut milk, not the more cow’s-milk-substitute kind I had, and for some reason, my yeast never being the kind of yeast that will actually turn bread out correctly.

What turned out: pesto that was really just a loose cheesy, nutty salad (not the worst thing in the world, but not what i was going for either), a watery version of saag chicken curry (also not badly flavored but truly lacking the fortifying creaminess that gives it its luscious flavor. Also… was I going to perfect curry the first time I ever tried it? I doubt this.) and hard-as-rock french bread rolls with no puff to them at all (I am doing yeast wrong. How am I doing the yeast wrong???).

I was bummed all evening – my visions of plump, crusty rolls beside steamy curry for dinner and light pesto to throw on leftovers or pasta throughout the weak were dashed. But isn’t that just the way with daydreams? They get dashed all the time. I needed a recovery plan. There would be no throwing out of mundane failures, if I could help it.

The way I buckled down this time? The pesto-that-cannot-be-created will be wilted with some alfredo sauce for a pasta dish this week. The curry was better the day after and on a whim I packed a rock-hard roll in the same container as my curry – during lunch, it softened up into a dumpling, which added some texture to the broth-y curry. Overall, I think it will all get eaten, and I will have learned a few of my lessons: either be easier on myself if my tools aren’t up for the job, or pick recipes at times when I have the tools!

Also, anyone have advice for getting bread to rise? I really want to make this work.

16. D’s Crockpot Parmesan Pork Chops

crockpotIf the recipe that D gave me could speak, it would tell me “calm down – everything in your house has a purpose. Everything in your kitchen will contribute to this meal, and it will be easy and delicious.” I felt hypnotized by these pork chops.

I don’t know much about pork, or chops, or meat in general – it’s the first time that I haven’t wordlessly let Husband select the meat he wanted in his meals and instead made a beeline for the on-sale styrofoam-and-shrink-wrapped pork. I found some (to my eyes) good looking chops that were at half their “original” price and I decided resolutely not to overthink it. If part of this project is trying things I wouldn’t normally try, this was one of them. My tendency toward lazy vegetarianism and my husband’s preference to cook one of his major meat groups (ground chuck, chicken breasts, bacon) meant that we weren’t usually a pork chop family. I remember once, well before we got engaged, Husband rustled up some pork chops from his grandmother’s fridge and gave them a thick coating of dried herbs before frying them – delicious. Still, the feat hasn’t been repeated lately, so I thought this recipe both appropriate for a party (it feeds so many people!) and appropriate for our home.

The ingredients all piled on top of each other didn’t look like much in the crock-pot, which was first christened with this dish (my writing skills sometimes lag behind my cooking, in that I’ve already posted about the breakfast scramble I made after this dinner party dish!). Hours later, however, the pork chops were so tender that they broke apart on their own, and fell into pieces in the perfect, creamy-thick broth. While there was a substantial quantity of calories in the sauce, it really wasn’t made of anything unwholesome – no secret quantities of butter went into the making of this. The cream of mushroom soup did what so many sauce starters do, providing the roux-like base and allowing the flavor of the meat to permeate through it.

We had way too much food at the party, so these lasted for a very long time in our house, being packed into tupperware for lunches – so good. So comforting. 🙂

Crockpot Parmesan Pork Chops

6 – 8 whole pork chops bone-in
21 ounces canned cream of mushroom soup
1 cup bread crumbs
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese grated
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons ground paprika

-In a bowl combine bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, McCormick Seasoning Pack and Paprika.
-Spray crock-pot with Pam.
-Lay the first layer of Pork chops (you only want 2 layers so squish those in as needed).
-Spread one can of Cream of Mushroom Soup over the chops.
-Shake half the dry ingredients that are in your bowl.
-Lay your next layer of Pork chops.
-Spread the other can of Cream of Mushroom soup over the chops.
-Cover the rest of the mixture with your dry ingredients.
-Cook on low for 4-6 hours.

Possibly originally from:


15. C’s Jalapeño Cheese Dip

jalapenodipOne of the dinner party recipes, which appeals to me in my current state because I’m hungry and I miss spicy cheese. It’s a pretty constant state of missing spicy cheese – I first discovered queso at a great burrito joint in my college town, and had a standing weekly date with an old friend to complain about life while dunking chips there… mmm. C’s recipe took me back.

C, like Jalapeño Popper Dip, is more than meets the eye. She’s quiet, a studious member of the classes I’ve taken with her, and thus the more clueless members of the class don’t get to see her sense of humor, her wide ranging knowledge of topics of all kinds, or her intense observation of human nature. She once told me that in a class she would watch my facial expressions change and laugh at me; this is a person who knows what’s going on.

Jalapeno Popper Dip looks like a vat of cheese – nothing wrong with that. However, inside, it’s got corn and spicy pepper bites, turkey bacon and a creamy blend of cheeses that make it perfect for right-before-dinner noshing. We dug in almost immediately, a crowd of hungry guests who wanted to wait for everyone to arrive before beginning the plate-filling in earnest. As a person who regularly longs for queso because of a few summers spent working in Texas, I crunched my way through a slew of tortilla chips covered in this stuff. It was nicely serendipitous: one moment, I’d get only creaminess, the next, a fiery bit of pepper. C also keeps me guessing: I like hearing her take on things because I cannot predict it. I hope to share spicy cheese with her many times in the future.

14. M and B’s Taco Soup

M and B were the couple who offered us counsel as we began preparing to get married. B was Husband’s college pastor, so it made sense for us to ask a person who knew him so well to give us sound advice before marriage.

The first time we met them was via Skype, to chat about some questionnaires that Husband and I had taken. I was excited to meet them, but a bit nervous. Over the following months, we skyped at least twice a month about different readings and questionnaires we were doing – the months were long because of new jobs and wedding planning, but we still managed to feel pretty energized after every conversation. Knowing them so well also made the day before and the day of our wedding so much more personal and comforting.

I decided to make M and B’s Taco Soup recipe for a girl’s night I attended. Girls night to me is a chance to actually talk as much as I want – with Husband, he often is so direct and to-the-point that our conversations are short, even if very sweet. Girls night in this case was also Mexican-themed, which meant delicious guacamole. We were making crafts, and chatting, and meeting a friends’ one-month-old baby who was just the snuggliest little dude. It seemed like the perfect audience to try my soup-making skills on.

I made the soup rather easily – I wonder if this is because this soup is ridiculously easy to make (this is definitely true) or because I’m actually getting more comfortable in the kitchen. Either way, all the muscle needed in this recipe was summed up in cutting the onions, opening the ground beef wrapper, and twisting the can opener on 5 cans. (I dropped the pinto and kidney beans in favor of one can of black beans – still taco-appropriate and one of my favorite kinds of beans). Otherwise, the powdered dressing and seasoning mixes meant that I got a soulful soup with no guesswork; Husband said he would like it spicier but I think I’d probably accomplish that by just grabbing the “hot” rather than the “regular” taco seasoning packet.

I wasn’t sure how it would go over with the Girl’s Night crew; they are all great cooks and I’ve been learning tips from them for the past few months. Still, when I mentioned taco soup, the host’s sister said, “wait, is that the one with the taco seasoning and the ranch dressing?” and when I said yes, she was excited: “That soup is so good!” As we all discussed recipes that evening, we realized that some recipes are kinda like chain letters – passed from one cook to another, sometimes as little shortcuts or as ways to make veggies palatable for kids, and even though I’d never met the host’s sister before, we had something in common instantly because we’d interacted with the recipe.tacosoup.jpg

Taco Soup

2 1/2 pounds ground beef

1 large onion, chopped

1 package taco seasoning

1 package Hidden Valley Ranch dressing

Brown. drain fat.

Do not drain vegetables. Add:

1 can pinto beans

1 can hominy or corn

1 can red kidney beans

1 can diced Rotel tomatoes

2 cans chopped tomatoes.

Simmer 45-60 minutes.

13. J’s Pearl Barley Casserole (and bread recipes please!)

I have an inherent trust for recipes that begin with a generous cube of butter and chopped onion in a pan, sizzling to brownness. This start, while totally not indicative of whether the rest of the recipe will be good, fills me with a trust that whatever results will be tasty and bursting with the earthy spice of onion.

Pearl Barley Casserole has this going for it – and it starts with a lot of delicious, diced veggies sizzling together before gaining an uncommon grain addition and being baked. This combo is good for me because, despite what it looks like, I’m trying to make 2016 a healthy eating year. Certainly there have been a healthy quantity of bread pudding servings and a few too many triple peanut butter cookies, but my overall goal, as perhaps iterated back when I was writing about A’s lentil soup, is to use my unbridled enthusiasm for food to also fill my home with healthy leftovers that make for easy and delicious packed lunches for work.

So far, this has been very successful indeed – and today, the already meditative stance that cutting and chopping veggies usually grants me was extra helpful as I came home from a morning meeting with a ferocious level of hunger. I knew that this level of out-of-proportion need to feel tended to result in poor consumption choices – read, I just eat everything, usually with cheese on top – so I set to work: chop the onion, chop a shallot (why not?), sautee the onion and shallot while you chop celery, then chop pepper and mushroom while those cook. My hunger pangs abated; not that I wasn’t gonna still nosh through some falafel for lunch, but it was enough to calm me, and I finished a handy side dish. While it includes butter, this dish packs so many veggies and the starchy barley that one could still call it quite healthy: per serving, it is quite low in fats. Barley, while not particularly different in nutritional content from wheat, is a nice variety – after my first experiment with farro, I am now convinced that dishes that sub a different grain in for rice are more than worth they while.


This recipe was given to me by J, one of my husband’s aunts. She’s been present for a lot of the important times that I’ve spent with Husband’s family; she is welcoming and fun. I was especially warmed to know that when my mother-in-law told her about this blog, she wanted to send me more recipes! This is the kind of enthusiasm I cherish in Husband’s family: no matter the project, I know these folks are behind me and behind the goals that Husband has as well.

J lives not too far off, and I’m excited to go visit her soon, not only because she and Husband’s uncle have a hot tub… 🙂 Since I’ve lately begun trying my hand at yeast breads, I’m hoping to be able to bring a loaf or two.

Does anyone reading this have a favorite bread recipe? It seems really fun to make my own with whatever I want to put in it, and I’ll make sure to write about the experience of making it. FullSizeRender.jpg

Pearl Barley Casserole:

3 T Butter

1 large onion, chopped (I added a shallot! Yum!)

2 ribs celery, chopped

1 cup pearl barley

1 package of mushrooms, diced

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 cups chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 350` – melt butter and cook onion until browned. Add celery and cook about 5 more minutes. Mix barley into vegetables and stir until coated with butter. Fold mushrooms and green pepper into barley mix; season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour low-sodium broth into barley mixture and bring to a boil; cover dish. Bake in oven until barley is tender (approx 30 minutes); uncover and bake until barley absorbs moisture. About 15 minutes – low fat!! Enjoy!