Lessons from the Kitchen; Creamy Tortellini

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Ingredients

Diced onion

Minced garlic

16 oz sausage

20 oz tortellini

28 oz crushed tomato

Chicken broth

2 tbsp cream cheese

16 oz spinach

16 oz shredded cheese

Spices (depend on personal taste)

Saute the onions until fragrant and translucent. Add sausage, garlic, and desired spices, and cook until sausage is browned.

Add tortellini, tomato, and broth. Bring to a boil, then turn to medium low and simmer until tortellini is cooked through and the liquid is reduced. 

Add spinach and cream cheese, stirring until spinach is wilted.

Add shredded cheese and combine. Serve.

This is one of my husband’s favorite meals, and I love it, too. I don’t think I’ve ever had an Italian dish I didn’t like, so it’s no surprise I like this one. However, there is a lot of room for creativity with this recipe. 

Substituting a different flavor of sausage, different spices, and different cheese could give this dish an entirely different flavor. While I normally make it with Italian sausage, seasoning, and cheese, I really want to experiment with it.

One of my ideas has been a breakfast style dish. I think a breakfast sausage and cheddar cheese would be a great flavor combo. I also want to try Mexican flavors, by using chorizo sausage, a Mexican cheese, and a spice mix of chili powder, cumin, and paprika. I might even try adding black beans instead of spinach to the Mexican version. 

This is a great meal to practice your recipe creativity with. It is easy to halve, which would let you practice without committing to the entire 8 servings that the original recipe makes. I encourage experimentation with all cooking recipes, though baking is a different case. I hope this dish helps you get more comfortable with altering recipes.

I have a few suggestions for how to change this recipe, in addition to the different flavor profiles I talked about above. I think the vegetable aspect would be easy to change, and in fact the original recipe I adapted this one from didn’t have any vegetables in it. You could try corn, sweet peas, kale, even potatoes. Just make sure to adapt the cooking time accordingly. Something like potatoes would take a while to cook, whereas the kale could be added at the end, like the spinach. I don’t personally like kale, but I know a lot of people love it.

You could also use ravioli instead of tortellini, and I would like to make a seafood version one day. I love lobster ravioli, and I think this could be a great dish with lobster ravioli and shrimp. A cajun flavor profile would also be really good, I think. Andouille sausage and a cajun spice mix, maybe some shrimp, sounds really good.

Creamy Tortellini

Ingredients

Diced onion

Minced garlic

16 oz sausage

20 oz tortellini

28 oz crushed tomato

Chicken broth

2 tbsp cream cheese

16 oz spinach

16 oz shredded cheese

Spices (depend on personal taste)

Saute the onions until fragrant and translucent. Add sausage, garlic, and desired spices, and cook until sausage is browned.

Add tortellini, tomato, and broth. Bring to a boil, then turn to medium low and simmer until tortellini is cooked through and the liquid is reduced. 

Add spinach and cream cheese, stirring until spinach is wilted.

Add shredded cheese and combine. Serve.

Lessons in the Kitchen; Lemon Onion Tilapia

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It’s always a good idea to have a few easy, quick recipes on hand, and especially so with the upcoming holiday season. I like having recipes that mostly use things I generally have on hand, and ones that don’t take much effort are even better. This recipe definitely checks all those boxes, and I keep it on my menu rotation pretty frequently. It has the added benefit to me of the memory of the afternoon when my grandma taught me this recipe.

I use Tilapia, typically, but you can use any kind of fish. I like keeping individually wrapped tilapia filets in my freezer, and eat them a lot for lunch and occasionally for supper. A basic white fish like Tilapia, Whiting, or Cod are good to keep on hand because they are so versatile. There are tons of sauces and toppings you can put on them, and multiple ways they can be cooked, too. It’s also one of the recipes you can buy in bulk at your regular grocery store.

For sides, you can make whatever you like. I try to have some sort of vegetable, but I also like having some kind of carb, too. Tilapia is a light fish, so I like having something filling, like rice, as a side. This time I made fried rice with peas and egg. The rice isn’t so much a recipe as it is a method, but I’ve included instructions below anyway. It should get you started. Of course you could always do a more simple white rice, steamed veggies, and/or salad. This one is really up to you. If I made it this week, I would probably make sides of white rice and blanched spinach with sesame oil and garlic. Next week, I might just stick a simple salad and toast with it.

Lemon Onion Tilapia

One Tilapia filet per person 

Half a lemon per person

Quarter onion per person

One tbsp butter per person

One clove garlic per person

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Slice the lemon and onion, then layer half on the bottom of your dish.

Add the tilapia, then cover with the remaining lemon and onion. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Add crushed garlic clove and butter to the pan, then bake at 375 for 20 – 30 minutes, until done.

I like to cover the pan with aluminum foil for the first 15 – 20 minutes, then remove it for the final baking time. The fish should flake easily and be opaque when it’s done cooking. Periodically spoon the butter and juices back over the fish during bake time.

Fried Rice

Cooked rice (white or brown, however much you want)

Some kind of frozen or canned vegetable (I normally use frozen sweet peas, but corn or carrots would work really well, too)

Sesame oil

Canola oil

One egg

Soy sauce

I try to cook the rice ahead of time. Heat a little oil in your pan, then add your rice.

Stir for a moment as the rice cooks, then make a hole in the middle. Add your egg and scramble to cook. Once cooked, add frozen peas and mix everything together.

Add sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, and pepper to taste. Literally, taste the rice and adjust seasonings as needed. 

Lemon Onion Tilapia Recipe Card

One Tilapia filet per person 

Half a lemon per person

Quarter onion per person

One tbsp butter per person

One clove garlic per person

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Slice the lemon and onion, then layer half on the bottom of your dish.

Add the tilapia, then cover with the remaining lemon and onion. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Add crushed garlic clove and butter to the pan, then bake at 375 for 20 – 30 minutes, until done.

I like to cover the pan with aluminum foil for the first 15 – 20 minutes, then remove it for the final baking time. The fish should flake easily and be opaque when it’s done cooking. Periodically spoon the butter and juices back over the fish during bake time.

Basic Spaghetti Sauce

This is the recipe card that goes along with my Lessons from the Kitchen; Basic Spaghetti Sauce post. For the original post with more details and photographs, click the button below.

1 can crushed tomatoes

1 can tomato sauce

1 medium onion, diced

1 small bell pepper, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

Olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan, then saute the onions and bell pepper until the onions start to go translucent around the edges.

Add the garlic and saute until the garlic is fragrant and has just a little bit of golden brown color.

Add the cans of tomato, bring to a boil, then turn onto low and simmer for as long as you can. Be careful, as tomato sauce pops and splatters a lot if it boils too rapidly, so only let it come to a gentle boil, then cover with a lid as it simmers. The longer you are able to let it simmer, the more flavorful it will be.

Lessons from the Kitchen; Basic Spaghetti Sauce

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Welcome to the second installment of Lessons from the Kitchen. I personally love Italian food, and of course the most basic Italian dish (in America, at least), is spaghetti. There are so many ways to eat spaghetti, and so many different ways to make it, that it is a great basic dish. Once you understand the basic formula, you have access to countless variations, only limited by your own imagination. 

For the recipe card with basic instructions and fewer photographs, click the button below.

One of the best things about spaghetti is you can tailor it to the level of effort you want to put in. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with jarred or canned spaghetti sauce, but sometimes I want a more homemade version. The basic sauce recipe below is great for days when you want to put in slightly more effort, but you don’t want to start with fresh tomatoes.

I want to point out that the sauce in this recipe is vegetarian, but I frequently make it with some type of meat. If you want to make a meat sauce, just saute whatever you want to use (ground beef, ground sausage, etc), then start at step one in the recipe below. I frequently use ground italian sausage, but you can use whatever you like. Just make sure you use less oil when you start to saute the vegetables. 

For this particular meal, I made a side of breaded chicken. It was simple to make, and I go into a brief overview below the spaghetti sauce recipe. It isn’t a formal recipe, but perhaps one day it will be. 

I also toasted some bread, which I dipped into olive oil mixed with an Italian herb mix. I sliced mozzarella and manchego cheese that I had found on sale at the grocery store, prepared a basic caesar salad with store-brand dressing, and added a glass of wine to complete the meal. It was a little more extravagant than I would  normally prepare, but I felt like treating myself and I must say, it was a delicious meal. Of course you can substitute whatever cheeses, bread, or wine you like, or any other side dish you  might fancy. 

Spaghetti Sauce

1 can crushed tomatoes

1 can tomato sauce

1 medium onion, diced

1 small bell pepper, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

Olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan, then saute the onions and bell pepper until the onions start to go translucent around the edges.

Add the garlic and saute until the garlic is fragrant and has just a little bit of golden brown color.

Add the cans of tomato, bring to a boil, then turn onto low and simmer for as long as you can. Be careful, as tomato sauce pops and splatters a lot if it boils too rapidly, so only let it come to a gentle boil, then cover with a lid as it simmers. The longer you are able to let it simmer, the more flavorful it will be.

Boil pasta according to box directions. Do not rinse. A lot of people wonder how to know how much pasta to make. I typically either do a full or a half box, but a quart box would be easy to visually estimate. Just use the back of the box and the “servings per container” number to estimate how much you need. Of course, I typically round up at least one serving, but I really love pasta.

For the chicken, I butterflied two chicken breasts, then coated them in an Italian herb blend bread crumbs with salt, pepper, and grated parmesan cheese. I then pan-fried them in a little canola oil, and when they were done I topped with two slices of mozzarella cheese and broiled for a few minutes. For a simpler, less labor-intensive version, the chicken can be baked on some aluminum foil at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 30 minutes. 

Until next time, have fun, be safe, and eat good food!

Lessons from the Kitchen; Cheeseburgers and Fries

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Welcome to the first chapter of Lessons in the Kitchen, where I teach you how to cook and help you expand your recipe repertoire. Today’s meal is cheeseburgers and home fries, one of my favorite meals. You can continue reading for full explanations with photos, or click on the buttons below for recipe cards without explanatory photos.

Below is a basic recipe and instructions for four people, but it can easily be increased to serve more. I typically plan for either ⅓ or ½ pound patties for the burgers and about one good sized russet potato per person. If you are only cooking for one or two people you can freeze leftover patties, just layer the patties between wax or parchment paper and seal in a freezer bag. Leftover hamburger buns can also be kept in the freezer by placing in a large freezer bag.

A note on ground beef. The fat content of ground beef is something I never thought about until I started doing my own shopping, and there are a lot of options. The main thing to remember is that the higher fat content will give you a juicier burger, but those patties will also shrink the most in the cooking process. Generally, the more fat content, the juicier your final burger will be. Honestly, trial and error tends to be the best method to determine your personal preference.

A note on meal timing. One of the most difficult and intimidating aspects of cooking a meal is timing everything to be done at about the same time. For this meal, I find best results from preheating the oven and getting the fries in the oven for their first fifteen minute bake time, then starting on the hamburgers. This is also a good idea because it reduces the chances of cross-contamination from the raw ground beef onto the potatoes. If you do struggle with timing and one dish is done before the other, just place either on low heat or on a plate in the microwave or oven to keep warm.

Cheeseburgers

2 pounds ground beef

Salt

Pepper

Garlic powder

Olive oil

  • Open the pack of ground beef and transfer to a plate. Throw away the trash and wash your hands. *Note; I always use a cast iron skillet to cook burgers, if you do the same go ahead and set it on a low heat to preheat the pan.* 
  • Sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder over the surface of the meat. Use your hands and mix the ground beef up to distribute the seasonings. 
  • Divide the meat into four equal portions of roughly ½ pound each, I normally do this by eye. Form each into a rough ball, then flatten. You want the patties to be about as thin as you can make them, and you can make the sides smooth or leave them a bit rough based on personal preference. If you are not confident in your ability to divide the pounds evenly, you can use a digital scale to make sure each patty is roughly the same size. Wash your hands again. 
  • Turn your stove on to medium heat, then line a clean plate with paper towels and place to the side. Drizzle a little olive oil in the pan, and when hot lay the patties on the pan. Do NOT move them immediately after placing in pan. You want a good sear to form when they hit the hot metal, and moving them around will disturb that process. 
  • When the edges start turning brown and they move easily, flip each patty. After a couple of minutes, start checking more regularly on their doneness. This can be checked a couple of ways. My favorite kitchen tool is a digital thermometer, which you can get for about $10 at Walmart. Ground beef should always be cooked well done, which is about 160 degrees fahrenheit. If you don’t have  a thermometer, there are two other ways to check. One is to gently press on the patty with a spatula and notice what color the juices are that come out. If the juices are pink or red, then it’s not done, but they are done when the juices are clear. The other way is to make a small cut into the center of one of the patties and look at the color of the ground beef. You want it to be one color, no pink. 
  • When they’re done, place them on the paper towel lined plate and top with sliced cheese of your choice. Transfer to a bun after they’ve cooled slightly and drained. One of the easiest ways to elevate a burger is to slightly butter the bun and toast it to your liking.

Homemade Baked Fries

About one potato per person, depending on potato size

Canola oil

Salt

Pepper

  • Turn oven to 425 degrees fahrenheit. Either wash or peel your potatoes, I prefer to leave the peel on my fries. 
  • To slice the fries, first slice a potato in half lengthwise. Then, make a parallel cut to the first to slice each half in half again. Lay each plank on it’s wide flat side, then slice into three or four. You want a general equality in the size of each fry. This will be impossible, since potatoes are not square, but the ideal fry would be a long square stick. 
  • Place the fries on a baking sheet, drizzle with vegetable oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Use either your hands or a pair of tongs to toss the fries and ensure equal coating of oil. 
  • Place in the oven for about fifteen minutes, then remove from the oven. Flip all the fries over, making sure each one is on a new side, then return to the oven for an additional fifteen minutes. 
  • To check if the fries are finished, pierce with a fork. A done fry will be easily pierced, but if there is much resistance, they may need ten or fifteen minutes longer.

Cheeseburgers

This is the recipe card for my Cheeseburgers from the Lessons from the Kitchen series. To view the entire original post with step by step photos, please click the button below.

2 pounds ground beef

Salt

Pepper

Garlic powder

Olive oil

  1. Open the pack of ground beef and transfer to a plate. Throw away the trash and wash your hands. *Note; I always use a cast iron skillet to cook burgers, if you do the same go ahead and set it on a low heat to preheat the pan.* 
  2. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder over the surface of the meat. Use your hands and mix the ground beef up to distribute the seasonings. 
  3. Divide the meat into four equal portions of roughly ½ pound each, I normally do this by eye. Form each into a rough ball, then flatten. You want the patties to be about as thin as you can make them, and you can make the sides smooth or leave them a bit rough based on personal preference. If you are not confident in your ability to divide the pounds evenly, you can use a digital scale to make sure each patty is roughly the same size. Wash your hands again. 
  4. Turn your stove on to medium heat, then line a clean plate with paper towels and place to the side. Drizzle a little olive oil in the pan, and when hot lay the patties on the pan. Do NOT move them immediately after placing in pan. You want a good sear to form when they hit the hot metal, and moving them around will disturb that process. 
  5. When the edges start turning brown and they move easily, flip each patty. After a couple of minutes, start checking more regularly on their doneness. This can be checked a couple of ways. My favorite kitchen tool is a digital thermometer, which you can get for about $10 at Walmart. Ground beef should always be cooked well done, which is about 160 degrees fahrenheit. If you don’t have  a thermometer, there are two other ways to check. One is to gently press on the patty with a spatula and notice what color the juices are that come out. If the juices are pink or red, then it’s not done, but they are done when the juices are clear. The other way is to make a small cut into the center of one of the patties and look at the color of the ground beef. You want it to be one color, no pink. 
  6. When they’re done, place them on the paper towel lined plate and top with sliced cheese of your choice. Transfer to a bun after they’ve cooled slightly and drained. One of the easiest ways to elevate a burger is to slightly butter the bun and toast it to your liking.

Baked Fries

This is the recipe card for my Baked Fries from the Lessons from the Kitchen series. To view the entire original post with step by step photos, please click the button below.

About one potato per person, depending on potato size

Canola oil

Salt

Pepper

  1. Turn oven to 425 degrees fahrenheit. Either wash or peel your potatoes, I prefer to leave the peel on my fries. 
  2. To slice the fries, first slice a potato in half lengthwise. Then, make a parallel cut to the first to slice each half in half again. Lay each plank on it’s wide flat side, then slice into three or four. You want a general equality in the size of each fry. This will be impossible, since potatoes are not square, but the ideal fry would be a long square stick. 
  3. Place the fries on a baking sheet, drizzle with vegetable oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Use either your hands or a pair of tongs to toss the fries and ensure equal coating of oil. 
  4. Place in the oven for about fifteen minutes, then remove from the oven. Flip all the fries over, making sure each one is on a new side, then return to the oven for an additional fifteen minutes. 
  5. To check if the fries are finished, pierce with a fork. A done fry will be easily pierced, but if there is much resistance, they may need ten or fifteen minutes longer.
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Lessons from the Kitchen; Introduction

This is the first installment in a series called “Lessons from the Kitchen.” While I hope my readers can learn from all of my recipes and posts, this series is intentionally planned to be educational. I firmly believe that anyone can cook. After all, following a recipe is just following instructions. So this series is for anyone who has decided to take the leap and really learn how to cook. 

The main point of this series is to teach you how to cook for the every day. Simple, quick weeknight suppers, basic desserts, and go-to recipes for a party. I’ve selected recipes that I use very frequently, and I hope they’ll make up the core of your recipe book, too. 

Format of this Series

I know that cooking, and cooking regularly for oneself or one’s family, can be a daunting task, especially to a beginner. So I’ve compiled twelve sets of recipes to help teach you how to cook and add some recipes to your repertoire. 

We’ll start with some recipes that require closely following the instructions, but then we’ll move to some recipes that I encourage you to modify according to your personal taste. Each recipe has a note as to which category it falls into. These are also daily recipes, the types of meals and dishes I cook on a regular basis, so you can really get a lot of use out of them. The last four parts of the series will be “Impressive” recipes, those are meant to help you show off your new cooking skills a bit.

Requirements

While this is meant to teach you how to cook, there are some basic cooking skills required. I’m assuming you know how to crack an egg, and boil water, and not hold the sharp end of a knife. But really there isn’t much previous knowledge required to get started. 

My biggest pieces of advice are to read the recipe carefully multiple times, and to plan plenty of time for the cooking of each meal. I suggest finding a weekend or evening when you don’t have anything planned, so you can relax and take your time. Then just put on some relaxing music, grab some water (save the wine for the meal, it’s best not to cook while tipsy), and enjoy yourself!

Kitchen Safety

It is very important to stay safe in the kitchen. A lot of harm can be done, either by physical injury or food poisoning, if you don’t take the proper care when preparing food. I’ll go over some of the basics here.

Be very aware when you are cooking of what is hot and what is on. If you take a pan off a stove eye, turn the eye off immediately. Keep oven mitts handy and always use them, even if you think the item has cooled enough to handle. In the same vein, keep pot and pan handles facing towards the back of the stove. A handle hanging out into the kitchen could be bumped into and cause a hot mess, or if you have kids, could cause an unexpected trip to the hospital (my mother-in-law knows this from personal experience, thanks to my husband).

Be careful with knives. They say a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife, but both must be handled with extreme care. Keep out of reach of children at all times, and never leave a knife submerged in water where it can’t be seen. Keep a firm grip on your knife when using by pinching between your thumb and the first knuckle of your index finger. You should also grip the handle as close to the blade as you can, as this gives the most control.

When preparing raw meat, wash everything as often as possible. Wash your hands after handling raw meat before touching anything, wash cutting boards and knives immediately, and wipe down your counters with a soapy, hot washcloth. It is super important to prevent cross-contamination. It’s also really important to make sure all meats are cooked to an edible temperature. There is a temperature guide below, but I honestly tend to use a search engine just to double check in the moment that I remember the right temperature needed.

Chicken, turkey, other poultry; 165 degrees

Ground meat; 160 degrees

Pork; 145 degrees

Fish; 145 degrees

Steak; at least 145 degrees

How to Use a Recipe

Some of you are probably thinking this section is pointless, but allow me a few moments to make my point. To really develop your cooking skills and recipes, you need to do more than simply reading through a recipe on your phone. 

I like to use a three ring binder and a pen, but you can also use any kind of notebook and writing tool. I like the binder and loose leaf paper because I can remove the needed recipe and won’t have to keep the whole book in the kitchen while I cook.

When you want to try a new recipe, first read over the whole recipe, and make sure you have all the ingredients needed. I always write out recipes by hand on the loose leaf paper I keep in my binder. There are multiple reasons for this. I’ve found from personal experience, that I remember things best when I write them down. It’s good to be really familiar with the steps in a recipe, so you don’t have to stop in the middle of every step to check what you’re meant to be doing. I also frequently change and tweak recipes, so having them written down on paper allows me to make notes about what I’ve changed, so I can make it again in the future. 

I’m sure you’ve heard of “mise en place,” and if you haven’t, it is a fancy french term for getting your ingredients ready before starting the steps. It is very useful, even in the home kitchen. I typically don’t measure the ingredients out, which is what most professionals do, but I like to set all the ingredients out beside my mixing bowl or the stove. Then as I measure and add to the recipe, I set them aside in another spot. This is really helpful in keeping track of what you’ve added to the recipe. 

Basic Utensils

I distinctly remember moving into a house in college, and realizing that I didn’t have any kitchen utensils. I had been cooking regularly for over five years at that point, and it still took me a while to figure out exactly which kitchen tools and utensils I needed to purchase. So I’ve compiled a list below of the most basic kitchen tools, and an additional list of things I prefer to have, if possible.

Basics

Any standard spatula

Serving spoon

Slotted spoon

8×8 or 9×13 casserole dish (size depends on how many servings you typically cook at one time)

12 or 16 quart pot (to boil pasta)

12-inch skillet (my personal preference is cast iron due to its versatility, but you can get another type if you prefer, just make sure to read the label regarding washing and oven use)

Simple food thermometer (Digital is preferred but any food thermometer will work)

Extras (Can get by without but can make life easier)

Whisk

Rice Cooker

All-in-one cooker (something with both pressure cook and slow cook settings)

Small (6 or 8 inch) skillet (again, my preference is cast iron, but other types will work as well)

14 inch skillet with lid

Dutch oven

Ingredient Selection

I fully believe in using the generic, store brand of products when that’s what you can afford. Goodness knows I’ve been on tight grocery budgets before, so don’t worry if that’s what you can afford. Now, I do spend a bit more on ingredients, but I still don’t go all out. I shop at the most inexpensive grocery store I can find and there are certain things I buy name-brand, and certain things I buy cheaper, but it all depends on your own personal preference.

If you can afford it, and you have freezer space, buying in bulk is often cheaper in the long run. Things that you eat often, for me chicken, ground beef, and various types of pork, can be bought in larger quantities for a lower price per unit. This is more of an investment up front, but it can pay off in the future. And you don’t have to go to Sam’s Club or Costco to buy in bulk. Normal grocery stores typically do the same thing. 

Menu Planning

There is a high value in planning out what meals you’re going to eat ahead of time. This can be done in week increments, or by the month. I like planning for each month at a time, because it allows me to do one big grocery shopping trip each month. Then I’ll go back as needed to pick up things like fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, and bread. It’s easier and less stressful to me. 

If you plan for a month at a time, it can be helpful to plan so that you’ll be able to buy things in bulk. For example, I’ll often plan two or three meals that use chicken thighs, then buy one large pack. I’ll open the pack when I get home and separate into separate containers depending on how much I need for each meal. It can be a good way to save a bit on groceries. 

Another note on saving money at the grocery store; generic, store brand canned vegetables are exactly the same as the name brand. Frozen or dried vegetables are cost-effective, too, it just depends on what will work best for your recipe and what you have time for. Dried beans definitely take a lot longer than canned or frozen, but they are typically the cheapest version. 

Until Next Time

I hope you find this information helpful as we launch into our first recipe next week. Especially if you are a beginner cook, please look over the things I’ve talked about today and familiarize yourself with kitchen safety. I can’t wait to get started and I hope you enjoy this series! Until next time, have fun, be safe, and eat good food.