Cooking With What You Have… and picking a good recipe

On this Monday night, I found myself with a spaghetti squash, some pork chops, and approximately zero motivation to cook. I do, however, have a need for tasty leftovers to send with Scott to work. Welcome to an impromptu (11 PM) dinner of roasted spaghetti squash and pan-fried Dijon pork chops*. Mmm.

Not what I looked like, mixing my mustard sauce. (photo from apartmenttherapy.com, which is great)

Not what I looked like, mixing my mustard sauce. (photo from apartmenttherapy.com, which is great)

I had intended to make squash casserole, but we didn’t have quite the right ingredients on hand, so I had to change the plan. Somewhere in my frantic internet search for pork chop ideas, I realized that my recipe search process has changed a lot in the last few years. That made me wonder if anybody else struggles to pick out recipes like I did (and sometimes still do). I realize that you’re probably a cooking genius and learned this ages ago, but just in case it could help you out… keep reading.

I used to pick recipes based on title, more or less. If it sounded good, I was in. It’s kind of the same technique I still use to pick wine. (Is the label nice?)

Now, I have a few quick screening tactics for recipes. First, I usually pick recipes from sources I trust. Your list could be full of family members. I certainly have some favorite recipes from my mom and my grandma. But for me, the larger list starts with Giada and The Pioneer Woman, Scott’s and my favorite cooks respectively. Then the list continues in lots of different directions. The common thread for all of my “trusted” sources is that I’ve made several recipes from that one source, with overwhelmingly positive results from that source.

I go to Martha Stewart if I’m feeling fancy or planning a bigger than average party. I go to Real Simple if I’m only enthusiastic enough about cooking to last for 20 minutes of prep and/or cooking. I go to loads of other loved cookbooks if I’m feeling more adventurous or if I’ve run out of good options in the traditional sources. (Good places to start: Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys, Dinner: A Love Story, William Sonoma’s Fast Weeknight cookbooks, and The New Cooking Light.)

Then comes the second screening tactic–look for some trusted ingredients. You know the ingredients you love and the ingredients you avoid. For me, mustard and lemons are a few of the “plus” ingredients, while expensive things we don’t already have in the pantry are a minus. Back when we had rosemary in the front yard, that was a major plus. Inexhaustible fresh herbs always help take something from good to great.

And there you go. Since I started using those really simple tools instead of nice recipe titles, my recipe success has sky-rocketed. I only wonder what would happen if I knew anything about wine.

*I honestly can’t find the recipe I used for the pork chops. But I think I remember it. Here goes: Mix 1/2 cup of Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon of crushed garlic (or a smaller quantity of garlic powder), 1 teaspoon of honey, 1 teaspoon of chopped fresh parsley, and 2 teaspoons of garden herbs (which I translated into “All-Purpose Seasoning,” but could probably be interpreted as any number of herb mixes). Put that mixture into a plastic bag, add 4 pork loin chops to that bag, making sure that the chops are covered in the sauce. Let them sit in the bag for at least 5 minutes, then cook them on a grill or grill pan or whatever you have that is closest to those options. It will take 5-7 minutes per side to cook the pork chops through, but you can make sure you get it just right by going with an internal temperature of 145 degrees. I think our chops were on the thinner side, and thus only took 4-5 minutes per side to cook through. The recipe ended with a nice mustardy flavor and a happy brown crust on the pork chops. Last-minute win.

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