How to Become Your Own Chef

Growing up, I was always fascinated watching others cook. My mother was always up to something in the kitchen, and I can remember the aroma of meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, spaghetti and meatballs and so many other classic dishes as if they were cooking in my own kitchen this very second. As my brothers and I grew older and spent less time at home, family dinners occurred less often, and cooking evolved into more of a hobby than a feeding frenzy. As time went on, my mother cultivated her skills, and others in the family followed suit. Between my mother, father, two brothers and myself, there was always something good to eat. And we were always experimenting.

My husband says he’s never met a family so food-oriented as mine, and I take it as a compliment. Having an arsenal of culinary skills, recipes and a passion for good food contributes to a life that is rich and flavorful. A meal can be so much more than sustenance if approached the right way, and because I want others to experience this same kind of elevated dining, I am going to share some useful tips for becoming your own chef, and propelling your cooking to the next level.

1. Diversify

If you’re only used to cooking one style of food, it’s time to branch out. A great way to expand your palate is by experimenting with foods that are loaded with fragrant spices. This helps to broaden your palate, allowing you to infuse ordinary or bland dishes with new, exciting flavors. The first go-around may not be a success, but don’t let that discourage you. The more disasters you have in the kitchen, the more you learn from your mistakes and cultivate your skills. And, don’t be scared. A lot of times a recipe may look intimidating, but chances are it’s not. It’s only scary because you’ve never made it before. Get comfortable in your kitchen by experimenting with new things.

2. Study

I love reading recipes. Studying the ingredients and methods used in any given recipe will help you to think more critically and thoughtfully about the way you cook. I often will compare recipes from three or four trusted chefs to learn why they make the same recipe so different. Why did one chef add this ingredient while they others did not? Why did these chefs cook it this way, but the others cooked it another way? Asking questions and studying the work of many experts will make your cooking more thoughtful (and tastier, too). By studying the works of others, testing their recipes in your own kitchen, and evaluating what works and what you would change, you can create your own arsenal of unique family recipes.

3. Read the comments

Another thing that will elevate your cooking and encourage less kitchen disasters is reading the comments section of a recipe. Typically, you can gauge whether a recipe is good by checking its rating, but even more helpful are the comments that users provide following the recipe. They will note whether the cooking time was accurate, any substitutions or additions they recommend, and other helpful comments. Of course, you won’t find a comments section in a cookbook, so this is only applicable to recipes you find online.

4. Share your creations with others

You are your own worst critic. If you want good, honest feedback, feed your creation to people who you trust. And, if they’re foodies, even better. Everyone’s palate is different, but people inherently know what tastes good. If you want to improve your cooking, ask others for feedback and suggestions.

5. Be prepared

Make sure you have all your ingredients and equipment ready. Measure things out, set up your workspace, and always allow yourself plenty of time. If you’ve forgotten an ingredient, don’t have your tools at the ready, or are rushed for time, things start to go wrong and make for a stressful cooking environment. You will be more successful and happy if you start out prepared.

5. Have fun

Grab a glass of wine, put on some music and enjoy the experience. Cooking can be a chore, or it can be fun. If you have a choice, wouldn’t you rather it be the latter of the two?

Photo courtesy of Margo Greenman.

Bourbon Glazed Bacon Wrapped Chicken Bites

This recipe originally appeared on Sip Northwest.

I love entertaining, but sometimes it can be difficult to think of appetizers to set out that are new and exciting. OR, you spend so much time getting other things ready, you’re left with only a short time to throw something lackluster together. These Bourbon Glazed Bacon Wrapped Chicken Bites are time consuming, but they can easily be made ahead of time. Simply follow the directions below, set aside on a baking sheet, and reheat when you’re ready for your guests to arrive. Another great thing about this recipe is that it can also easily be turned into an entrée. Bag the bacon and sauté the chicken with onions and peppers, and serve alongside rice for a quick transformation into a bourbon chicken dinner.

Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Serves: 6

1 pound regular sliced bacon, cooked in oven for 20 minutes at 350 degrees
4 chicken breasts, cut into 1-2 inch chunks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cloves garlic, minced
½  teaspoon salt
¼  teaspoon ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper, optional
Oil for pan

¼ cup of your favorite bourbon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons ketchup


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a large baking sheet, lay out bacon in one, even layer. Place in middle rack of oven and cook for 20-25 minutes (or until fully cooked but still chewy).

While the bacon is cooking, prep the chicken and glaze. In a medium bowl, mix chicken, cornstarch, garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes together, set aside. In a small saucepan, whisk together bourbon, brown sugar, soy sauce, worcestershire sauce and ketchup, until well heated.

In a large saucepan, heat up a small amount of oil. Add chicken and cook for about 3 minutes on each side. Add glaze (don’t worry, it will thicken up once it mixes with the cornstarch coated chicken) and continue cooking for 3-4 minutes, until chicken is fully cooked and glaze has thickened.

Remove chicken from heat. Once bacon has finished cooking and both bacon and chicken have cooled to the touch, cut a bacon strips into thirds, wrap a small strip of bacon around a chunk of chicken, and secure with a food pick.

The chicken and bacon will cool as you wrap them, so keep the oven on 350 and reheat for about 10 minutes just before you plan to serve. OR, prep ahead of time and reheat before your event.

If you’re planning on having a larger party, I recommend doubling the recipe. These bites are an instant crowd-pleaser.


Photo courtesy of Margo Greenman.

Lemon Drop Cakes

This recipe originally appeared on Sip Northwest.

I recently received a baking kit from a company called Cakes Under the Influence. The kit included silicon molds and martini shaped inserts that could be used to bake cake batter in. They also sent a cake mix (just add booze), but I haven’t tried it yet. Instead, I used the molds to test out my own recipe for Lemon Drop Cake. The result? Amazing. Once the individual cakes were done baking, they easily popped right out of the inserts and fit into the accompanying martini “glasses” that came with the kit. This is an absolutely adorable idea. Whether you want to make something creative for a birthday party or just feel like going all out for no reason, Cakes Under the Influence makes boozy desserts look as good as they taste.

Of course, you can make these cakes in traditional cupcake liners, too. Either way, they’re boozy, lemony and delicious.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Bake time: 20 minutes

Make: 16 cupcakes

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1 stick of butter (at room temperature)
3 eggs
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
¼ cup milk
6 ounces vodka
2 tablespoons lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium sized mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, and set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whip together the butter and sugar on medium speed (about 2 minutes). Add eggs and continue beating until mixture is smooth.

Turn the speed down to low and slowly add the vanilla, lemon juice, milk and vodka. Once well mixed, add lemon zest and slowly incorporate flour mixture until all ingredients are well incorporated and there are no visible lumps.

Using Cakes Under the Influence’s martini molds, or regular cupcake liners, fill metal insert or paper liners two-thirds full with cake batter. Place in middle rack of oven, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.

The cake forms its own type of sugary crust, so frosting is optional. I dusted my cakes with confectioners sugar and garnished with a lemon spiral.


Lemon Drop

A sweet and sour punch of citrus makes a lemon drop a great cocktail for when you want something boozy, refreshing and mildly sweet. Just like the candy, this too will make your lips pucker, in the best kind of way. Effortless and delicious, this classic cocktail is another example of how sometimes it’s the stripped down, back-to-basics type foods and beverages that withstand the test of time.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Makes: 1 serving


1 ½ ounces of your favorite vodka
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice (must absolutely be fresh)
¾ ounce simple syrup (make this by boiling equal parts water and sugar – let it cool completely before using in your cocktail)
lemon zest for garnish


In a cocktail shaker, combine vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup and ice. Shake vigorously, pour liquid into a martini glass or tumbler, and garnish with lemon zest.


Best BLTA Ever

Sometimes things are best when they’re left plain and simple. I’m always eager to add special sauces or “surprise” ingredients to my creations, but over time, I’ve found no matter how satisfying the result, some things are never quite as good as the bare-boned original.

My husband has been sick this week, and upon his requesting soup and sandwiches for dinner, I wanted to make something he (and I) would really enjoy. A BLT with some avocado is about as simple and delicious as you can get. No frills necessary to set this one off, just quality ingredients.

TIPSY TIP: Cook your bacon ahead of time. If you always have some pre-cooked bacon in the fridge, you’ll find making things with bacon isn’t as frustrating as it sounds. I like to cook 1 pound of bacon in the oven when I have some spare time on my hands. Spread bacon in one, even layer on a large cookie sheet, set in middle rack of oven (preheated to 350 degrees) and cook for about 20-25 minutes. The bacon will be very chewy. This makes it perfect for re-heating, so that you can keep it semi-chewy, or re-heat it a bit longer to achieve desired crispiness. You can re-heat your bacon in the microwave or in a skillet on the stove for best results.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Makes: two sandwiches (you can easily up the ingredients for additional servings)


4 slices of your favorite fresh baked bread (I used Essential Baking Company’s Fremont Sourdough)
6 strips of bacon (re-heated to desired crispiness – I like mine still slightly chewy)
1 heirloom or organically grown tomato, thinly sliced (trust me on this, they pack a lot more flavor)
3 large leaves of green leaf lettuce (the crinkly, slightly crispy kind – it adds the perfect texture)
1 avocado, thinly sliced


Butter outer sides of bread. In a skillet, lightly brown bread until it is golden and lightly crispy. Flip bread and heat up other side.

Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on one or both sides of the bread.

Place avocado on one side of bread, and spread with a knife. Add lettuce, tomatoes and bacon.

This recipe is so simple and satisfying. Within just minutes (if you cook your bacon ahead of time like I told you to), you will have a gourmet sandwich ready to be devoured. Serve with tomato soup, or a garden salad loaded with fresh herbs – and a tall glass of beer, of course.


Margo’s “Famous” Kale Slaw

This has been one of my most sought after recipes. I make it all the time, but this is the first time I’m sharing it. This simple slaw is fresh, healthy and flavorful, and it can be served alongside so many things. The cilantro in it makes it perfect for serving with Mexican and Asian cuisine. It also goes great with summer barbecue. If you haven’t noticed, versatile foods are one of my favorite things. Having a go-to slaw or salad  that can be paired with whatever you’re making is something to be cherished. Seriously.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Serves: 10
For the salad:

6 cups shredded green and red cabbage (you can purchase a pre-shredded mix or shred 3 cups of green, 3 cups of red and combine)
6 cups shredded kale
1 small red onion, finely diced
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
2 carrots, shredded

For the dressing:

1/2 cup mayo (or veganaise – my personal preference)
3/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons  stone ground mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons dill seasoning (I like the Spice Hunter’s Deliciously Dill)
1 teaspoon sugar
crushed red pepper to taste (this is optional, but recommended)


Prepare all ingredients and combine in a large pot (emphasis on large – this stuff can get messy). After whisking together all dressing ingredients in a separate bowl until a smooth-textured dressing has formed, drizzle dressing over salad and toss to coat. For a lighter salad, use less dressing.


Chocolate Stout Bundt Cake

This recipe originally appeared on Sip Northwest.

Valentine’s Day is this Friday. Though my husband and I have always made a point of not celebrating Valentine’s Day, we always end up going all out anyway.

But, going all out doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out to a nice restaurant or shower your loved ones with gifts – instead, make something the two of you can devour together alongside a glass of wine (this also pairs perfectly with Propolis Brewing’s Rosa ale).

I love this recipe because it’s deceivingly simple. The Bundt pan creates instant elegance by lending its form to the decadent cake, while chocolate ganache add an extra touch of delicacy (and helps cover up any imperfections the cake may have, too).

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Makes: 16 servings

For the cake:

2 sticks butter
1 cup stout beer
¾  cups cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 packet instant coffee crystals (or about 1 teaspoon)
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups granulated sugar2 sticks butter
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
Crisco for greasing the pan

For the ganache:

1 cup white chocolate chips
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
½ cup heavy whipping cream


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a Bundt pan using Crisco, set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat, slowly melt the butter. Add stout, and using a whisk, slowly mix in the cocoa powder, vanilla and coffee crystals. Once all ingredients have blended together to produce a silky, satiny texture, remove from heat.


In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda and salt), and set aside.

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the eggs on medium speed. While still mixing, slowly add sour cream and chocolate mixture. One well combined, slowly add the dry ingredients.

Once well blended, evenly pour into the Bundt pan. Place on the middle rack of your oven and bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

You will want the cake to cool completely before removing from the pan – this will probably take around an hour.

Once the cake has cooled, you are ready to prepare your ganache topping.

In a double boiler, heat chocolate chips with heavy cream, whisking the mixture together until all of the chocolate is melted and a smooth texture has been achieved.

Slowly drizzle the ganache over the top of the cake and serve!

Photo courtesy of Margo Greenman.

Bloody Mary Night

During football season, my sister-in-law and I turned to bloody Mary’s as our beverage of choice. Even though the season is over, I still can’t seem to get enough of these spiced and garnished sippers. Perusing pictures online for some inspiration, I found a bloody Mary that looked worthy of consumption, and something that I thought we could recreate. The picture sparked some interest and ended up turning into a bit of a party.

Bloody Mary Mix Recipe

Makes 1 pitcher


64 oz tomato juice (chilled)
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
juice of half a lemon
1 jalepeño pepper (seeds removed)
3 large cloves of garlic
1/4 cup olive juice
1/4 peperoncini juice
2 tablespoons ground black pepper, or to taste


In a food processor, pulsate jalpeño and garlic together and put in a large pitcher. Pour in remaining ingredients (tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, lemon juice, olive juice, perponcini juice and pepper).

Set in fridge and let chill while preparing the garnish.

This is the fun part.

For our garnish we used green olives with pimentos, green olives stuffed with bleu cheese, peperoncinis, lemon wedges, peppered bacon and miniature grilled cheese sandwiches. Try experimenting with other pickled veggies such as green beans, peppers like peppadews, meats, cheeses and anything that sounds appetizing.


To make the bloody Mary’s, fill a tall glass with ice, add one (or two) shots of vodka, fill to the top with bloody Mary mix, and top with your selected garnish.


Beer Battered Fried Chicken

This article originally appeared on Sip Northwest.

Fried chicken is the best. Whether you enjoy yours straight up, or prefer it thinly sliced and wedged between two sliced of bread sandwich-style, few things beat a good piece of fried chicken.

When I go out to eat, I typically don’t opt for chicken dishes, as I’ve always considered chicken something simple that I can just make myself. That was until by chance I ordered a chicken sandwich at a local restaurant and was completely blown away by how flavorful the breading was and how juicy the chicken was. I was clearly doing something wrong.

After this rather eye opening encounter, I did what I always do: I tried to recreate it. And I did, or at least close enough.

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: approximately 10 minutes
Serves: 4 (or more, depending on the size of each chicken breast)


4 chicken breasts, butterflied
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
3 eggs
¾ cup pale ale
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
oil for deep frying (the amount needed will vary based on the size pot you use)


Butterfly each chicken breast. You can do this yourself, or, save time by asking your local butcher.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and beer. Place chicken in bowl so that each piece is well coated. While the chicken soaks in the egg-beer mixture, in another bowl combine all of the dry ingredients. You can substitute the salt and pepper for three teaspoons of your favorite chicken rub.

Coat chicken in dry mixture, then repeat process again (dip chicken in the egg-beer mixture and back into the dry mixture to get a double coating).

In a large pot (with tall sides to avoid splatter) heat up enough oil to submerge the chicken. The oil will be ready once it has almost reached the smoking point.

Dip each piece of chicken, one at a time, into the oil and cook until golden brown (about 2-3 minutes on each side, depending on thickness of chicken).

You can use this chicken to make a great sandwich (I recommend using a toasted roll, lettuce, tomato, red onion and a honey mustard dressing), or, serve alongside your favorite country-style sides.


Satsuma and White Wine Dressing

This article originally appeared on Sip Northwest.

During the winter I crave hearty meals that are hot and melty, and typically not very healthy. Because eating fresh should be a year-round habit, here’s a recipe that will make cold winter salads something to look forward to.

⅓ cup Barnard Griffin 2012 Columbia Valley Pinot Gris
⅔ cup good olive oil
½ cup fresh squeezed satsuma juice, plus grated rind of 1 satsuma
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cloves of garlic, minced and lightly sautèed
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a saucepan, lightly sautè garlic until golden brown. While garlic is busy sautèeing, grate satsuma rind.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Using an immersion blender (you can also perform this step using a food processor, or if you don’t have either, some vigorous shaking—about five minutes—should do the trick), combine ingredients until all are emulsified and the oil does not separate from rest of the dressing.

Strain the dressing into a container, leaving garlic behind.

The recipe makes about 1 ½ cups of dressing. Shake dressing well before serving, and because the dressing is made with all natural ingredients, shelf life is about one to two weeks.