Monthly Archives: October 2009

Cooking with Kids: Pumpkin Muffins

One of the great things about my position at the Boys and Girls Club is that I get to pretty much choose what I do in my time with the kids, as long as it pertains to healthy living.  This means I will get to spend plenty of time with them in the kitchen, trying to show them recipes that are delicious enough to satisfy their still developing taste buds, easy enough to make that they can recreate it on their own at home, and affordable enough to fit within a very modest budget.  It can be a challenge at times, so if anyone has any suggestions I would love to hear them.

This past week I decided to do some Halloween themed snacks.  For starters, I had the younger kids clean out some pumpkin seed and toast them with a bit of salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  This was perfect for the younger age group, because they got to have a tasty snack, and it only took about 30 minutes so they could then go outside and play.  Then, with the older kids I started some pumpkin muffins, using shredded pumpkin I had done the night before at home.  Now I don’t know if you have ever used fresh pumpkin before, but if you haven’t I suggest you keep your eyes out for recipes that use canned pumpkin.  It’s not that shredding pumpkin is hard.  It is just time-consuming.  And dangerous.  And hard.  These weren’t even big pumpkins, and it took me like 3 hours to get 6 cups of shredded pumpkin.  Plus I nicked up my fingers pretty good with the peeler and the grater.  But it’s all about the kids, so I endure.

As I am typing this in our cramped kitchen I happened to look out the window and see a giant banana fly down my street on a motorcycle.  I don’t have anyone here to tell this to, so I am telling you.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

It really is a blast working with kids.  They were so excited about getting to cook, and they really did a good job.  And some of them are so funny it is impossible to keep a straight face, even if they are doing things they maybe are not supposed to be doing.  But they also work hard, and they all did a good job making the muffins.  I was impressed by their ability to share ingredients with each other, and to take turns mixing and measuring.  They were even generous enough to let me join in the fun and clean up after them.  What angels.

Pumpkin Muffins


2 cups flour
2 tsp cinnamon + some to sprinkle on top
2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups shredded pumpkin

-Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
-In a different bowl combine sugar, eggs, vanilla, and vegetable oil.  ix well, and then add to the first bowl.
-Stir wet and dry ingredients together, then fold in shredded pumpkin.
-Pour into muffin tins, sprinle some cinnamon on top, cook at 325 degrees for 25 minutes

Recipe courtesy of the Food Network.


Home Alone: Jess’ Version

Sorry we haven’t posted in a while. Things have been a little crazy lately. Paul’s been busy at work, and Midterms, with a capital M, have happened for me at school. Hence, our cooking has been limited to easy things you can heat up and an extensive amount of leftover freezer food. I think we’ve had leftover curry four times since we made it last Sunday night a week and a half ago.

But, I figured that because Paul posted when he was home alone and had to cook alone, so should I. He’s gone to a conference for the next few days. Which, apart from being in deep dispair due to his absence, also means I have no dinner waiting for me when I come home on Wednesday nights after my late class. Sadness. So, what do I do for myself for dinner tonight? Chips and week-old guacamole.

When Paul’s left alone, he cooks himself a lovely tuna melt, complete with hot, oven french fries. I, on the other hand, take the first thing I see out of the fridge and start munching. But after finishing the guacamole – there was only a tablespoon or two left – I’m left throughly unsatisfied. But it’s late and after being at school for 11 hours, I’m tired, and in no mood to cook anything interesting.

Good thing Paul and I cooked for an army last weekend (that’s a whole ‘nother post for another time), so I just put a dipper into the big pot of vegetable soup in our fridge and pulled myself a bowl. Veggie soup with barley hits the spot when you’re tired and hungry. And hopefully, it will keep me re-charged for yet another night of studying for midterms, completing problem sets, and grading lab reports.

Speaking of which I had better go do…

Signing off,

Post script: I promise something more interesting next time. Perhaps we will regale you with the aforementioned tale of Paul and I cooking for an army. Or perhaps Paul will post about the cooking lessons he’s been doing with the kids at the Boys and Girls’ Club.

Guest Post: Cooking Abroad

Madhuri Vijay went to college with Paul and I. She was my roommate for several years and is currently traveling the world on a Watson Fellowship. She maintains her own blog at Veer Bhogya Vasundhara. Enjoy the following guest post to Cramped Kitchen courtesy of Mads.

As a bosom friend of the authors of this fine blog, I have naturally been closely following Jess’ and Paul’s culinary adventures with a mixture of awe and childishly unbridled joy. Some of you may know who I am; I shot to fame for my role as the “authentic Indian studying the Indian diaspora” in the recent blog post titled “Curry Fever,” which immediately inspired to me to appear as a guest blogger writing about my own cooking experiences.

I am traveling to various foreign countries over the course of this year, and I knew, right from the start, that it would be an opportunity like no other to sample different cuisines, to taste strange and exotic flavors, to become familiar with alien eating practices. And I was right. I’d love share with you, if I may, my biggest food-related success: the night I ate two dinners.

Here’s are a couple things you should know before I begin:

1. I am living with a host couple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but they’re out of town at the moment, which means I have to make my own arrangements for food.

2. I don’t know how to turn on the stove in their kitchen. I think it requires some kind of advanced biometric information in order to turn on, like a voice match and retinal scan. Or I have perform a sacrificial ritual at midnight during the full moon to appease the stove gods. Not sure yet.

Anyway, let’s begin.

It was typical Tuesday night. I was at home, alone naturally, alternating between checking Facebook and doing some writing on my laptop. My rumbling stomach made me glance at the clock. 9:30 p.m. already! Far too late to go out to a restaurant, since I live in a not-so-safe neighborhood, and I tend not to venture out after a certain point in the evening. Well, a home cooked meal it would have to be then.

I opened the refrigerator to survey my options. The first thing I spotted was a white paper bag from Domino’s containing the free garlic twisty bread I’d received with my last pizza order. A perfect appetizer. Clutching the bag, I wandered into the kitchen. It would need some preparation, I thought, to soften it and really bring out the subtle flavor of two day-old garlic and salt. Perhaps I could heat it up in the microwave. Then I remembered my host telling me before she left that the microwave was broken. She’d meant to get someone to fix it, but hadn’t had the time.

So I took the more circuitous, but less processed route to soften my twisty garlic bread. As Jess will tell you, four years of knowing her has made me appreciate the natural, organic method of food collection and preparation. I set the twisty bread on my desk, still in the paper bag and stared at it. Intensely. Waiting for the atmospheric humidity and my own infrared gaze to work their magic. After about thirty seconds of this, I abandoned the idea of less-than-rock-solid-twisty-garlic-bread (let’s be honest, it was free so how could I complain if it was a tiny bit hard?) and began munching on it until the bag was empty.

Then the specter of the main course raised its ugly head, so I trotted back to the refrigerator. I like my meals to be varied and balanced (my mother is a nutritionist, so it’s only natural), so I decided I needed some dairy. I grabbed an opened packet of cheese singles – not Kraft, but equally healthy, I’m sure – and retreated to the safety of my room to enjoy them. I am very particular about my cheese, so I made sure to tear them into bite-sized bits, which allowed the flavor to really break apart and engulf my taste buds. Four of these cheese singles proved to be a hearty and satisfying meal, and I longed for something to wash it all down.

I remembered, on one of my last trips to the refrigerator, seeing a bottle of Coke lying on its side. I investigated and found my powers of observation had not failed me. Granted, there was only enough to fill half a cup, and it was flatter than a ten-year-old girl, but I thought it was the perfect end to the perfect meal.

Shortly after this, I fell asleep at my computer while reading about the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971, as I tend to do when reading about liberation wars of any kind. When I woke up, forty minutes later, I was dismayed to find that my stomach was rumbling again! This was unfathomable. I looked dazedly at the computer screen, the words miraculously transforming into all manners of delicious foods. I thought about the refrigerator, about all the possibilities contained within. I began compiling a mental list of ingredients. An apple I should probably throw away. Some raw vegetables. A bottle of jam. A mysterious covered dish I didn’t have the courage to open.

I put my head down on my keyboard, causing a series of angry beeps. Time, I think, stood still for a moment. Then inspiration hit.

Forty-five minutes later, I was eating a Spicy McChicken Burger and sipping on yet another Coke, feeling like my cultural indoctrination was complete. McDonald’s had never tasted so good, or so Malaysian. And the best part? I put some of the leftover fries in the refrigerator for tomorrow’s dinner.

Oh, one other thing. Please don’t tell my mother I live like this.

Curry Fever

Forward note: This post is written with a nod to our friends: Aneesh, Mads, and James’ VR mug (from which I borrowed the title of the post).

Updated 10-27-09: See pictures of our Indian feast!

Sai Ram brunch. Thursday night Indian food at Downer (the good nights). The delicous Indian food Mads and Aneesh cooked for us at the cottage for New Year’s. Mads’ mom’s delicious meal during graduation weekend.

These are my delicious memories of Indian food. Notice none of them occur during the time Paul and I have spent in Bloomington. So, naturally, we’ve had a hankering for Indian food recently. And, because we’re poor and can’t afford to go out to dinner for the real thing, last Sunday night, we decided to bite the bullet and try to make it ourselves.

Having watched the magic and mystery that is anyone cooking Indian food, one could naturally conclude that it is extremely difficult. Mads and Aneesh spent upwards of 2 or 3 hours in the cottage kitchen cooking for us: chopping dozens of vegetables, stewing this, sautéing that, steaming this, and adding spices upon spices with such apparent ease that I had to simply chalk it up to it being in their blood. Once we tasted the product, I knew that there was no way I’d ever be able to make something that tasted that good.

But we decided to try to at least concoct something edible. Chicken curry – that seemed classic enough, and with no mashing of mysterious, rare ingredients. So we began with an online search for “Chicken Curry Recipes.” A word for the wise here: don’t ever do that. There are like twelve thousand million different chicken curry recipes out there: South Indian Chicken Curry, Malay Chicken Curry, Coconut Chicken Curry, North Indian Chicken Curry, Kerala Chicken Curry, Bobby Flay’s Chicken Curry, and on, and on, and on. And it’s not like looking up recipes for Chicken soup, where they’re all pretty much the same. Every single curry recipe was different. Different spices, different bases, different order of cooking ingredients, different cooking times, different cooking vessels…yikes! So, I began sifting through them and searching for one that seemed kind of parallel to the simple verbal recipe I’d received from Aneesh: sauté some onions, garlic and ginger; add curry, tomatoes, chicken and water; simmer. And I wanted one that included, ideally, cauliflower, peas, and potatoes, because I like them in Indian food. No small task.

What I ended up with was a recipe that basically had the same order of operations given by Aneesh, with spices that I actually had in the cupboard, and I thought I could just throw in the veggies and it’d be fine. It may not be authentic Indian, but as I am not authentic Indian and Paul is not an authentic Indian, I didn’t care. (Heck, I don’t even know what the phrase “authentic Indian” means. If your curious, this blog by an authentic Indian studying the Indian diaspora may shed some light.)

So, I began, editing the instructions at will, as I usually do. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, I never actually follow recipes. Even to make something as simple as pancakes.) And, after an hour and a half or more of cooking, I had a vat – literally, a vat, to feed 10 people – of my own chicken curry. It smelled like curry, looked like curry, and, to my great surprise and delight, tasted like curry! (Not as good as yours however, Aneesh; don’t worry.)

But the hardest part was yet to come: making the rice. Paul and I rarely eat rice. Neither of us really like it plain, so we only cook it in things, and even then rarely. So at the store, we’d bought the cheapest rice possible, and that came in a bag. After we’d used it once, we put the remainder in a tupperware container. This is where our problem lay: we had no back-of-the-box instructions to follow. And I forgot whether we had instant rice or real rice. So Paul searched the internet, and initially came up with dozens of sets of instructions, all some variation of “follow the back of the box.” Helpful, internet. Thanks so much. Finally, he did find something that at least gave proportions of rice to water and how many people X amount of rice would serve. We guessed on the rest, and it mostly worked (although we had to cook it longer than expected because it was a little watery).

Curry: check. Rice: check. Naan bread: check (Paul had made this while I was brewing the curry). Authentic Indian meal: maybe. You’ll have to judge for yourself based on the pictures (which, as I am writing this post from school, will be coming as soon as I get home and can upload them from the camera). We do have just slightly less than a vat of curry left, however. So if you come visit us in the next month or so, you just might be able to try some!

Here is an approximate reproduction of my curry recipe.

Jess’ Chicken Curry with potatoes, cauliflower, peas and peppers

Yield: 1 vat of curry (but, honestly, 1 brimming 8 qt pot)


4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into large cubes

1 large onion
1 thumb-sized chunk of ginger (you got a better way to measure it when you’re at the supermarket?), grated
2 heaping tablespoons of minced garlic (because I hate cutting it up myself; it makes your hands stink)
2 tablespoons cooking oil (I know, Mads’ and Aneesh, you guys use butter; but this is healthier)
1 chopped fresh cayenne pepper
1 large tomato, diced (or 1 can diced tomatoes)
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce (or paste; sauce was just what we had on hand)

4 tablespoons curry powder (yes, I thought it was a lot, too; just do it)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (could reduce or omit this, I think)
1-2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon crushed bay leaves (or 1 whole bay leaf)
1/2 -1 teaspoon ground black pepper (because I like it)
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (NOTE: this gives it a hefty kick; tone this down – a lot – if you don’t like spicy foods)
1/2 teaspoon sugar (also, you could omit this; I think it just cuts the spice a little bit)
salt to taste

Veggies: (add any or all or others you have on hand)
1/2 cup chopped mushrooms (because they were going to go bad if I didn’t use them)
1/2 green or red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup chopped cauliflower florets
2 medium-sized potatoes (approximately 1 1/2 cups), cut into small cubes
1 cup frozen peas and carrots (or just peas; I had peas and carrots open in the freezer)


To make curry base, sauté onions, garlic, chopped cayenne pepper, and ginger in the bottom of a large soup pot, until very tender and slightly pasty. Add all the spices, stirring well to mix between each addition. Add tomatoes and tomato paste Allow flavors to blent, stirring frequently over medium heat for about 10 minutes. This will yield a thick, pasty base that smells delicious. Add chicken chunks, stirring to coat with base, and enough water to cover. Allow to simmer on low to medium for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. Chop the vegetables during this time, adding the potatoes as soon as they are chopped along with more water to cover. Add the remainder of the veggies, and water to cover, if needed. Curry should have the look of a soup with broth to cover the veggies and chicken. Simmer on low for another 10-20 minutes, or until chicken is completely cooked and vegetables are desired tenderness. Serve over white rice, with sauteed spinach and naan bread. Enjoy!

Southern Comfort

Paul and I made fried chicken, mashed potatoes with green onions, and our favorite spicy kale tonight! If we’d had remembered to make the biscuits from the tube we had in the fridge, it would have been the ultimate comfort food meal. No time for much more but pictures now. But I promise the recipes for our spicy kale (one of our favorite ways to get our vitamins) and, of course, for the delicious chicken soon!

The Last Supper

Yeah, so I have a job now.  Well I am not supposed to say it is a job, I am supposed to say I am serving at the Boys and Girls Club on behalf of AmeriCorps, but for all intents and purposes it is a job.  This means I will be out until 7 or 7:30 most nights, which will seriously hamper my cooking opportunities.  Now, I am very excited about this job, but I don’t think Jess will be so gung-ho about me cooking when I get home and eating at 8:30 every night.  That means probably less frequent posts from me from here on out, just a heads up to all three of you who read this.

Anyways, Jess was out late again tonight for her stat’s class, so it was up to me to come up with dinner.  For some reason I had been craving chicken alfredo for a while, so I decided to do that.  I figured this was a good meal for me because it involved cooking pasta and using jarred alfredo sauce.  That is certainly within my abilities.  However I knew Jess would be mad if that is all I served her after she had been in school for ten hours, so I tried to spice it up a little bit.  I sauted some green and red pepper, a handful of mushrooms, some onion, and some spinach with some olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper.  This went with the chicken into the sauce and over the pasta.  It was not overly difficult or groundbreaking, but it was very tasty.  Add in the bruschetta left from last night’s debacle and it was a very good meal.  A very good last meal before I face the horror that is the working world.  Heaven help me.

Epic Fail

We’ve been fairly busy in the cramped kitchen this week, and therefore, have lots of fodder for the blog. Including the following tale of woe:

I opened the freezer with a total lack of enthusiasm for the yesterday evening’s meal: pork chops. Pork chops are not Paul’s and my favorite, but we got a family pack of 8 of them for something like six bucks at the store a few weeks ago. When you’re on a budget, you gotta eat what’s on sale.

“What should we have with these?” I asked Paul, holding up two frozen pork chops in a Ziploc bag, looking nonplussed.

“Some sort of potatoes?” He questioned back.

“I guess,” I answered lethargically. “Now to look online for interesting potato recipes,” I finished as I broke out my computer.

Great. Potatoes. We both love potatoes, but we’ve been eating them a lot lately, and haven’t been very creative with what to do with them. We’ve had mashed, baked, roasted, oven-style fries and more over the past week. And, because we always have leftovers, I spent last weekend eating nothing but leftover potatoes from the fridge when Paul was away on a work retreat.

“I saw someone on Food Network making these chili fries the other week,” Paul said, in a much more optimistic tone of voice than I thought necessary when discussing potatoes.

“We don’t have any chili, Paul.”

“No, like with chili powder on them, to make them spicy fries.”

“Oh. Well that sounds alright,” I said. “At least it’s different.”

So, I got to work chopping potatoes for Paul’s chili fries and he set out to defrosting the meat. (Because of Paul’s mishaps, we’ve taken to dividing and conquering in the kitchen, meaning, I do all the chopping, and Paul does anything but.) After the potatoes, I started dicing up tomatoes for the bruschetta we had decided earlier on having, because we have a large bouquet of basil in our kitchen from the farmer’s market last week. The bruschetta, I was definitely looking forward to. As I was dicing, I began contemplating the looming specter of the meal: the pork chops.

“How on earth can we season these things to go with…italian bruschetta….and spicy potatoes…?” I trailed off.

Most of the seasoning combinations we’ve used in the past have been spice rubs or barbeque-based sauces: hearty flavors that don’t really go with the idea of light, tomato-basil bruschetta toasts.

I kept opening the fridge repeatedly for inspiration. But no matter how many times I looked, the only thing I saw was a tub of plain yogurt. Okay, I thought. This could be a start.

For some reason, I had in my mind that I’d seen somewhere before yogurt and herb sauces made to go over pork chops. I could do that. Right?

I grabbed the yogurt, a fresh cayenne pepper, a sauce pan, and, yup, pepperoni. I once again, set to chopping. Spicy pepperoni-basil-yogurt sauce. Yeah, that might be good over pork chops.

Meanwhile, Paul was seasoning and baking the potatoes, putting olive oil on bread for the toast for bruschetta, and watching me skeptically. He had a right to. Even I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Fast forward through a bunch of boring chopping, stirring, sauteeeing, and baking, to T minus two minutes before food time: Paul’s chili fries were done, the bread had just been put under the broiler, the bruschetta was on the table, the pork chops were sizzling in a pan. And I was still fretting over my sauce, which I had just tasted.

“It’s not too bad,” I lied to Paul. It was kinda funny-tasting, but I still had hope.

“Check the bread,” said Paul, as he was getting two glasses of ice water ready.

I opened the oven and determined that the bread was not crisp enough yet, deciding to wait another few minutes.

I dumped in a bunch of fresh ground black pepper into my sauce, put in some extra olive oil, hoping to save the consistency, and turned off the heat.

Then, I smelled burning. That’s definitely not my sauce, I thought.

Yikes! The bread! I yanked open the oven door to a flood of smoke. Paul rushed to open the windows, but the smoke alarm sounded anyway. My beautiful homemade bread toasts were black. Completely. Unsalvagable. And we had no more bread to start over.

“Oh well,” sighed Paul.

As we sat down to our dismal dinner, I was heartbroken. No bread for bruschetta and a sketchy-tasting sauce for the pork. The bruschetta was going to be my favorite part! We just stared at each other over the kitchen table, as we poured on dainty amounts of the sauce onto a corner of pork.

“You first,” I told Paul, who was looking at his pork curiously. He took a bite.

“That’s not so bad,” he said, chewing, and reached for the sauce pan.

I tried it.

It was at least edible, and didn’t make me feel like ralphing all over the table. It kind of tasted like warm ranch dressing…with pepperoni. Anyways, it was better than eating the pork plain. And, at least we had the chili fries. Paul’s portion of the meal was successful. My part, however, was an epic fail.

Well, maybe things didn’t turn out so bad. We decided to save the bruschetta to serve with new bread toasts tonight, to have with chicken and pepper alfredo. It goes better with pasta anyways. And after our failed dinner, I made yogurt and cream cheese apple dip, which was delicious. So that mostly made up for my kitchen fails.

The moral of the story: don’t let something you don’t think will taste very good distract you from making sure the best part of the meal turns out right.