Perfecting Pasta

The theme of my Learning Project this week: pasta.

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Photo Image: Jasmine via grazeme.com

The reason why I wanted to learn how to cook pasta is because pasta is such a versatile food — not just in the type of noodles you can buy but in the types of pasta dishes you can create. Pasta dishes, for the most part, are also relatively quick to make — pasta is an easy meal to whip up after work. I wanted to expand on the one, boring pasta dish that I knew how to cook (read: spaghetti and store-bought tomato sauce) and see what other pasta dishes I could learn. To help me decide what pasta recipes to try, I took requests from my family: my brother requested “anything with shrimp”, and my mom asked that I try making a vegetarian lasagna.

My brother’s request for “anything with shrimp” didn’t give me much direction, but I ended up picking a recipe for spicy parmesan shrimp pasta which I found on the Damn Delicious — a food blog created by Chungah Rhee which focuses on quick and easy meals for the everyday home cook. Here is the breakdown of how much I spent on this meal:

Cost For Ingredients:

  • Olive oil – $0 (had at home)
  • Parmesan cheese – $0 (had at home)
  • Garlic – $0 (had at home)
  • Brown sugar – $0 (had at home)
  • Soy sauce – $0 (had at home)
  • Red pepper flakes – $0 (had at home)
  • Shrimp – $10.63 (I bought a 1.7 kg bag for $31.99 and used roughly 1/3)
  • Penne – $1.88 for a box
  • Green onion – $0.21 (I bought a bunch (6) for $1.28 and used one)

Total = $12.72

On my Learning Project blog from last week, my ECMP 455 classmate Randi commented with some cost-effective cooking tips that I took into consideration when buying my ingredients this week. Randi suggested trying to buy my ingredients, especially the protein, in bulk whenever possible, so I bought the shrimp that I needed for this recipe from Costco. Overall, the bag of shrimp was more expensive then it would have been at another grocery store, but because I bought such a large bag, I was able to freeze the shrimp that I didn’t use and save it for another meal. So, in the big scheme of things, I ended up saving money (thanks, Randi!). I also had most of the ingredients for this recipe at home, so, overall, I didn’t spend much at all.

In terms of cooking, this recipe is super easy to make. I left the shrimp out to thaw during the day on Friday while I was at school, and Friday evening I washed the shrimp, took the
tails off, and made the marinade. Then, I left the shrimp to soak in the marinade overnight in the fridge.

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The shrimp soaking in the marinade (olive oil, Parmesan, garlic, brown sugar, soy sauce, & red pepper flakes).

Aside from that little bit of prep work, the whole meal took me 20 minutes to make on Saturday afternoon.  I had never cooked shrimp before, so that was a bit of a learning curve. According to the recipe, the shrimp are cooked when they turn pink, but to me, they always looked a bit pink, so I had trouble telling when they were done and had to sample a few to find out (which I’m not complaining about). Aside from that minor blunder, though, man, was this recipe delicious.

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The finished product.

Because the recipe is so easy to make, I was a little uncertain of how it would taste. But, it was incredibly flavourful and had a nice kick to it from the red pepper flakes. A word of caution: If you’re not a fan of heat, I would cut down on the amount of red pepper flakes — a little bit goes a long way. I used the amount the recipe called for and it was very spicy. My brother loved the dish, as did my mom and I, but sadly, he only rated it 8.75/10 because he wished that I used spaghetti noodles instead of penne noodles (thanks, bro.).

The other pasta dish that I attempted this week was a vegetarian lasagna. While I was researching a recipe, I was surprised to learn just how many different types of vegetarian lasagna there are. The recipe that I ended up choosing I found on another food blog called Eating on a Dime (which I found convenient considering the stipulations of my Learning Project).  Unlike the spicy Parmesan shrimp pasta recipe, I had to buy most of the ingredients for the vegetarian lasagna, so the meal ended up costing me a little more than anticipated:

Cost For Ingredients:

  • Lasagna noodles – $3.85 for a box
  • Mushrooms – $1.56 for an 8 oz. container
  • Zucchini — $2.04 for two small zucchinis
  • Green bell pepper – $1.53 for one
  • Onion – $0 (had at home from when I cooked Shepherd’s pie)
  • Garlic – $0 (had at home)
  • Olive oil – $0 (had at home)
  • Pasta sauce – $3.97 for two 24 oz. jars
  • Basil – $0 (had at home)
  • Ricotta cheese – $6.28 for a 500 g container
  • Mozzarella cheese – $6.98 for a block
  • Eggs $0 (had at home)
  • Parmesan cheese – $0 (had at home)

Total = $26.91

When I started cooking, I was a little worried about how this dish would turn out. The recipe calls for two jars of pasta sauce, which is normal, but unlike a traditional lasagna,

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My soupy sauce.

there is no meat in this recipe to absorb some of the sauce, so when I was putting the layers of the lasagna together, it looked a bit soupy. The lasagna was still soupy when it came out of the oven, which made me even more worried that I had screwed up. However, the recipe calls for the lasagna to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving, and I learned that there is a reason for that — the sauce sets during that 15 minutes, so the lasagna ended up being quite firm when I went to cut it.

Another thing that I was worried about was that, without meat, there would be no substance to the dish.  That did not end up being a problem, though. The lasagna was full of flavour and it ended up being quite filling with all of the vegetables — you honestly didn’t even miss the meat. In fact my mom rated it a 9/10 and said that she enjoyed it more than a meat lasagna.

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Right before going in the oven.

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The finished product.

That being said, if I were to make this recipe again, there are a few things that I would change. First, I would try sautéeing the zucchini by itself for a few minutes before adding the other veggies because the zucchini was still a bit firm in the lasagna. Second, the recipe called for a box of lasagna noodles, but I only used nine, so I ended up throwing out the rest which was really disappointing and a big waste of money. The recipe also seems quite adaptable, so if I were to try making it again, I would try adding other vegetables like spinach, squash, and maybe even some grated carrots.

Again, these were two meals that I was able to make for under $50 (less than $25 a meal), and we had tons of leftovers which will last us early into the week. However, the prices that I’m quoting for the meals don’t include the basic ingredients that I already have at home.  So, while these meals may be cost effective, they would cost more if I were living on my own. One thing that I’m starting to realize from this project is that when I move out, I’m going to have to put money into stocking my fridge and cupboards with basics, everyday ingredients like spices, condiments, etc. In addition, I’m already starting to see that when I’m living on my own it might be worth it to cook several large meals over the weekend and freeze the leftovers for lunches and suppers during the week. While cooking at home initially might be more expensive than eating out, the fact that I’m able to cook one meal and have leftovers from that meal saves me money in the long run.

With the February break coming up, I’m hoping to do a lot of cooking. Any suggestions on what I should try next? Let me know in the comments!

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Cost-Effective Cooking

I really didn’t know how to start my Learning Project. Last weekend I did some initial research and started sifting through recipes to try and figure out how I wanted to structure my project, but I was so overwhelmed by the number of cooking resources available online that I couldn’t decide what to cook first. My boyfriend and I had plans for supper Tuesday evening, and that’s how I finally got started. One of our favourite restaurants is Earls, and every time we go we both order the Cajun blackened chicken. I thought that for my first meal, it would be cool to try making a homemade version of this dish for our dinner.

After deciding on what to cook, I turned to Pinterest to find a recipe. I love Pinterest, but I do admit that it can be a bit daunting. For instance, while I was browsing, I typed in “Cajun chicken recipes” and literally hundreds of different recipes came up — it was hard to know which one to pick. However, one of the neat features of Pinterest is that you can rate a recipe that you have tried and leave comments or tips which other people can view. As a newbie chef, I find this feature very helpful because I can read what other people have to say about a particular dish before I try it for myself.

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I ended up choosing a recipe for baked Cajun chicken breasts that was originally posted on galonamission.com — a food blog created by Chelsea Haga. In addition to the chicken, I decided that I would make mashed potatoes (because they are my all-time favourite food) and green beans as sides.

Next, I went shopping for my ingredients. As I mentioned in my first Learning Project post, one of the factors that I want to take into consideration during this project is cost, so while I was shopping, I kept track of how much I was spending on all of my ingredients. One of the big things that I noticed while I was shopping is how expensive spices are — I had to buy a jar of paprika for my recipe and it cost me over $6. Luckily, my mom had most of the spices and herbs that I needed for the rub at home. Overall, for this recipe, I ended up being a little over the $25 budget that I had set for myself; however, if I had to buy the majority of the Cajun spices, I would have been way over budget. Here’s the breakdown of how much I spent:

Cost For Ingredients:

  • Chicken breasts – $16.08 for 6 large chicken breasts
  • Green beans – $2.40
  • Potatoes – $5.97 for a 10-lbs bag (I used roughly a third of the bag)
  • Spices – $6.19 for paprika; everything else I had at home

Total = $30.64

The actual cooking went relatively smoothly — the recipe was clear and concise making it easy to follow. I did, however, have to make a slight adjustment to the recipe. First, the recipe that I was following was for baked Cajun chicken, not blackened Cajun chicken. Blackened chicken is the result of a quick cooking over very high heat.  This is a technique that I have never tried before, so I found a short YouTube video that taught me how. It ended up being very simple — basically, before putting it in the oven, you have to sear the chicken in a smoking-hot frying pan for one minute on each side to char the spices from the rub.

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Prior to blackening


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While blackening

 

Overall, I was very pleased with how the meal turned out — the chicken was delicious (my boyfriend gave it an 8.5/10)! I did make the rookie mistake of forgetting to take the chicken out of the freezer ahead of time, so I had to wait close to 45 minutes for the chicken to thaw before I could start cooking. This wasn’t a huge deal, but it did add extra time to the meal prep, so we didn’t end up eating until really late. It was worth the wait, though.

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The final product

As I mentioned before, this meal ended up costing more than $25; however, after supper, we had enough chicken leftover to have three more meals over the next few days, so I got my money’s worth.

I also ended up trying out another recipe last week. I had a ton of leftover mashed potatoes from my Cajun chicken meal, so my mom suggested using the extra potatoes to make a shepherd’s pie. Since I’m trying to be cautious of cost during this project, I liked the idea of being able to turn the leftovers from one dinner into a whole other meal, so I decided to try it out. While searching for a recipe, I came across a website called Simply Recipes, founded by Elise Bauer. The recipes posted on the website are neatly organized into categories. I conveniently found the shepherd’s pie recipe that I used in the “budget” category. The recipe was very budget-friendly; I had most of the ingredients at home, so I hardly had to spend anything:

Cost For Ingredients:

  • Potatoes – $0 (I used the left over mashed potatoes from my previous recipe)
  • Onion – $1.97 for a 3-lbs bag (I used one onion)
  • Butter – $0 (had at home)
  • Ground beef – $8.50 for 1.5 lbs
  • Mixed vegetables – $2.97 for a 1 kg bag (I used half a bag)
  • Beef broth – $0 (had at home)
  • Worchestershire sauce – $0 (had at home)

Total = $13.44

This recipe was super simple to make — there was very little to it! I did make one tiny adjustment to the procedure: I cooked the beef separately in order to drain the fat that was released before mixing with the veggies (a little tip that I got from my mom).

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I made shepherd’s pie for dinner for my family on Friday night, and everyone really enjoyed it. All in all, I think it was another successful meal. What I liked best about the shepherd’s pie recipe was how inexpensive it was to make — I liked that I was able to save money by using the leftovers from a previous meal. In addition, the recipe was large enough that, after supper, we had extra shepherd’s pie leftover!

 

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Right out of the oven


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The final product

In the end, it cost me $44.08 for the full two meals that I made this week. I set a goal for myself of $25 per meal, which means that I was under budget, and I had leftovers from both meals. I’d say that’s pretty cost-effective cooking.

Now I’m looking for my next cooking project. For starters, I have created a “food board” on Pinterest where I have started to pin different recipes that I come across that I think are interesting and might want to try throughout my Learning Project. Do you have any go-to favourite recipes? Share them with me in the comments!