Instant Pot Mac and Cheese with Chicken and Peas

A one-pot dinner in 15 minutes.

Macaroni and Cheese
This looks a lot better than that orange stuff I used to eat.

Everyone loves macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food. What’s better than home made?

I’ll admit it: for most of my life I’ve been hooked on Kraft Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese dinner. For years, it was almost a special treat to whip up a box of this unnaturally orange stuff at home. But with the rise of good mac and cheese and its popularity in restaurants, I started looking outside that blue box. And, after making this dish, I can’t see going back — ever.

This recipe is based on one I found in the Pressure Cooker Perfection cookbook by the folks at America’s Test Kitchens. It’s a great cookbook with nice color finished food photos — I’m a sucker for that in cookbooks — but it predates the Instant Pot I and so many of my friends have. Since I modified the recipe a bit for my own version, I figured I’d rewrite my version of it with Instant Pot-specific instructions. Here it is.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces (2 cups) elbow macaroni. I used large elbows but I suspect you could use small ones or any other similarly sized/shaped pasta.
  • 2 cups water. I used cold water because the recipe didn’t specify otherwise.
  • 1 teaspoon salt.
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. You can omit this is you prefer not to have the spice.
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard. I used the full teaspoon and could really smell it when it was first cooking and wondered whether I should have cut back. But I couldn’t taste it in the finished product.
  • 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk. I used whole milk, although the original recipe says 2% is okay. Use fat free at your own risk. Please remember that evaporated milk is not the same as sweetened condensed milk, although they’re usually together on supermarket shelves.
  • 1 cup cooked chicken, chopped. I occasionally buy roasted chickens at the supermarket and, because I usually can’t eat a whole one by myself in two days, cut up the breast meat and freeze it in a vacuum-sealed packet. It’s perfect for recipes like this.
  • 1/2 to 1 cup frozen peas. I love peas and aways have a bag in my freezer. I didn’t measure; I probably used a whole cup!
  • 4 ounces (1 cup) sharp cheddar cheese, shredded. I bought it pre-shredded.
  • 4 ounces (1 cup) Monterey Jack cheese, shredded. I couldn’t find it pre-shredded so I had to shred it myself. In hindsight, I realize I could have bought a pre-shredded mild cheddar/Monterey Jack mix the supermarket offered in 8-ounce packages.

Instructions

  1. Mix macaroni, water, salt, pepper, and mustard in Instant Pot (or other pressure cooker).

  2. Cover and seal pot for pressure cooking.
  3. On Instant Pot, press Manual and set for 5 minutes. (On another pressure cooker, heat and cook at high pressure for five minutes.)
  4. When cooking is finished turn pressure cooker off, do a fast pressure release, and carefully remove lid.
  5. Stir pasta thoroughly. It should be mostly cooked with some water left in the pot.
  6. On Instant Pot, press Saute. (On another pressure cooker, heat to medium high.)
  7. Stir in milk, chicken, and peas.
  8. Cook until liquid is mostly gone and pasta is tender.
  9. Turn pressure cooker off and remove from heat.
  10. Stir in cheeses and serve.

This makes four good-sized servings, perfect for dinner.

Easy Pizza Dough

You can make your own pizza at home.

Pizza
Homemade pizza with morel mushrooms, leeks, minced garlic, cheese, and an egg.

Last week, after a successful morel mushroom hunt, I went in search of recipes for morel mushrooms. Along the way, I found a recipe on Saveur’s website for Pizza with Ramps, Morels, and Eggs. I made the pizza on Thursday, substituting leeks and minced garlic for the ramps, which were not available locally. (Note to self: plant garlic this autumn.) It was delicious. But the thing that impressed me most was how easy it was to make that pizza dough.

A few people who saw my photo of the pizza on Facebook asked whether I’d made the crust from scratch. I did. Here’s my version of just the pizza dough recipe. I found some problems with Saveur’s recipe as published and have made changes accordingly here.

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup water, heated to 115°F. I heat the water in the microwave, although I suspect my tap water would come out hot enough. Use a thermometer to check it. Too cold and the yeast won’t activate. Too hot and the yeast could die.
  • 1 packet (or 2-1/4 tsps) active dry yeast. I buy yeast in a jar so I measure it out.
  • 1/2 tsp sugar. Sugar feeds the yeast. Do not omit it.
  • 1-3/4 to 2 cups flour. The recipe called for 1-3/4 cups, but I needed more to make a dough that could be handled. You’ll also need some for dusting a work surface.
  • 1/2 tsp salt.
  • Olive oil.

Instructions:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine water, yeast, and sugar. Let sit until foamy, approximately 10 minutes.
  2. Add 1-3/4 cup flour and salt and mix on medium speed until dough forms. Add additional flour if necessary to stiffen up the dough until it’s still very soft but workable. I added at least 2 tablespoons more.
  3. Increase speed to medium-high and knead for about 5 minutes.
  4. Use olive oil to lightly coat a clean bowl. Transfer dough to oiled bowl and turn to coat dough with oil. (The Saveur recipe skipped this step; as a result, the dough stuck to the plastic wrap. If you prefer, you can skip the oil and dust the dough with flour to prevent sticking.)
  5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes. My oven has a “Proof” function so I used it.
  6. While you’re waiting for the dough, prepare the topping(s) for your pizza.
  7. Remove the dough from the bowl and move it to a lightly floured workspace. (This is one of the reasons I love having granite countertops.)
  8. Split the dough into the number of pizzas you want. This recipe should make 2 8-inch pizzas, but there’s no reason why you can’t divide it into 3 or even 4 or leave it as one large pizza.
  9. Work each piece of dough into a flattened shape about 3/4 inches thick. While the original recipe uses the word “roll” and I used a rolling pin for the first of two pizzas, I used my hands for the second one.
  10. Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper on a flat pan.
  11. If desired, brush each pizza with olive oil. Then top with desired toppings.
  12. Bake at 450°F for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.

One of my favorite pizza toppings is eggplant sautéed with garlic and olive oil and then topped with goat cheese crumbles. Morels and leeks with garlic and butter (from the Saveur recipe linked above) wasn’t bad either.

The best thing about this recipe: it’s quick. You can go from a pile of ingredients to finished pizzas in less than an hour. And it tastes good, too.

Blender Bullshit

Do people really fall for this crap?

I used to own a Kitchenaid blender. It was a pretty simple model with a glass jar. I didn’t use it often, but it worked well enough when I did. Until it broke.

I’d bought one of those Magic Bullet blenders to use in my RV when I traveled. Because I didn’t replace the Kitchenaid, I started using it at home, too.

Magic Bullet
A Magic Bullet blender

A Magic Bullet is basically a blender base with two different blade assemblies and a bunch of plastic cups that the blade assemblies screw into. You fill a cup with what you want to blend, screw on the blade assembly, turn the whole thing upside down, and stick the bottom of the blade assembly into the blender base. When you push down and twist, the blender turns on.

Nowadays the “original” Magic Bullet comes with only a few cups and lids. But when I bought it, it came with about a dozen. I’m not sure why. They were a pain in the ass to store so I threw most of them away, keeping just one of each size. Ditto for the rings that turn the screw-top cups into smooth-top cups. (I’m not going to drink out of a plastic blender cup.) And the lids.

Let me be clear: the Magic Bullet is junk. It’s the same kind of disposable appliance so many Americans bring into their lives. Cheap and functional, but not exactly reliable. I knew mine would break and I knew I would throw it away. The only thing that surprised me is how long it lasted before it finally broke: maybe 8 years?

But it did break. And I was left blenderless.

Immersion Blender
My Braun immersion blender is part of a set that includes a chopper and whisk. I often use the whisk to make fresh whipped cream. I don’t think I’ve ever used the chopper. Maybe I should?

Well, that isn’t exactly true. I have one of those immersion blenders. It’s like a stick that you put blade side down into a pot of soup to puree it while it’s cooking. Mine’s a Braun and it works very well. I didn’t use it often until my Magic Bullet broke. Then I started using it to make smoothies. It got the job done — I’d just stick it into a big cup full of the ingredients and whir it until it was smooth — but I had to be careful if I didn’t want smoothie all over my kitchen.

Clearly, it was time for a replacement blender.

I mentioned it to my Facebook friends and the recommendations started coming in. Apparently, there are a lot of folks out there willing to pay in excess of $300 or $400 for a blender. I think they must use it a lot more than I do. I just wanted a small and functional kitchen appliance that I could store on a shelf in my pantry when not in use.

I was in Costco last month and saw that they had a Nutri Ninja, which another smoothie-making friend had mentioned. Yesterday, I went in to look for it. It was there, next to the $350+ Vitamix, selling for just $99. But it had a lot of parts — those damn blender cups — and I seemed to recall another model with fewer cups and a lower price. I found it hiding behind the Vitamix display for $69. Less parts, less money. I put it in my cart with the other things I’d come to Costco for.

NutriBullet
Not the blender I thought I was buying, but I honestly don’t care.

It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered I’d bought another Magic Bullet.

What fooled me was the larger size and the prefix “Nutri” in the product name. It was a NutriBullet, not a Nutri Ninja. Sheesh. I really should pay attention when I shop.

Another person might have taken the damn thing back to Costco. But I honestly didn’t care. All I wanted was another cheap blender and that’s what I got. This one was bigger and beefier with bigger plastic cups than the old one. If I got 5 years out of it, I’d be happy.

The Cookbook
On the surface, this looks like a recipe book, right?

What surprised me, though, was the hard-covered book that came with it. On the surface, it looked like a cookbook. Later, when I went to bed, I took it with me to browse it before I went to sleep. It took only moments to realize what it really was: a piece of marketing material designed to fool people into thinking that they’d bought some kind of special nutrition machine that would make them healthier and help them lose weight like no regular blender could. After all, they’d bought a “nutrition extractor,” not a blender!

Nutrition Extractor!
“Nutrition extractor”? It’s a freaking blender.

Yes, the book had recipes, but it also had a lot of nutritional information about trendy “superfoods” like cacao nibs, organic chia seeds, organic goji berries, and organic maca powder. There were pages and pages about these “foods,” along with information on how you could order them from the NutriBullet website.

And the testimonials! Pages and pages of them from people praising the NutriBullet to high heaven. Here’s an example closing line for one that stretched two full pages:

It has touched my life in more ways than I can explain.

Seriously? A blender? You really need to get out more, Daniel.

I especially liked the recipes that required you to cook a bunch of ingredients, wait for the mix to cool, and then “extract” it in batches before reheating it again. News flash: an immersion blender like my Braun can do it without cooling the soup down, saving hours of food prep time.

In all honesty, I found the recipe book offensive. Cover to cover, it was full of marketing bullshit, touting the mostly imaginary benefits of a crappy blender. I couldn’t believe anything I read inside it and felt insulted that someone thought I might. And the stock photos of the attractive 60+ men and women enjoying their healthy lifestyle were a real turn off. Is this blender for old people?

It amazes me how low marketers will stoop to sell an inferior product.

Anyway, I’ve already tossed the book into my Goodwill box. Maybe someone more gullible than me will find it worth reading.

And yes, today I’ll give it a try. But I won’t be making a “nutriblast.” I’ll be making a good, old fashioned smoothie, just like I always have. And you can keep the goji berries.

Pressure Cooker Mongolian Beef

Another recipe for my Instant Pot.

Back in December I took delivery of 1/4 cow: about 100 pounds of local grass-fed beef. The meat was butchered and packaged and frozen and most of it is still in the freezer I bought primarily to store it.

Mongolian Beef
Here’s what my first try looked like. I cut the green onions too long. (Not sure what I was thinking there.) And yes, I know I can benefit from a course on food photography.

Among the cuts of meat I got in my package was a lot of stew meat. I’ve been using it to make a variety of things, including beef barley soup, in my Instant Pot pressure cooker. The other day, while looking for something different to make with an Asian flair, I found this recipe for Mongolian Beef.

I made it today, tweaked to the beef I had on hand. I wasn’t thrilled with the results. In general, it was too sweet and not flavorful enough. I made some minor changes to the recipe that I think make it better — at least for me. Here’s my version.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes. The original recipe called for sliced flank steak.
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice. This was not in the original recipe, but I think it adds flavor.
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Vegetable oil may be substituted.
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce. Low sodium would probably be best, since this recipe can be quite salty. I might even consider cutting the soy sauce in half the next time I make it.
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar. The original recipe called for 2/3 cup dark brown sugar, but I think it comes out way too sweet so I cut it in half. I use light brown sugar.
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger. The original recipe called for 1/2 teaspoon.
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons cold water
  • 4 green onions, sliced into 1-inch pieces. The original recipe called for only 3 green onions.

Instructions

These instructions assume you’re using an Instant Pot or a similar electric pressure cooker.

  1. Mix salt, pepper, and five spice in a medium bowl. Add beef and toss to coat as evenly as possible.
  2. Add oil to the pot and press Saute.
  3. When oil begins to sizzle, add meat and brown on all sides. You may have to do this in multiple batches so as not to crowd the meat. When browned, transfer meat back to the bowl.
  4. Add the garlic to the pot and sauté for one minute.
  5. Add the soy sauce, 1/2 cup water, brown sugar, and ginger. Stir to combine.
  6. Add browned beef and any accumulated juices.
  7. Press Keep Warm and then press Manual. Set the timer for 20 minutes. Make sure High pressure is selected.
  8. When pressure cooking cycle is done and beep sounds, press Keep Warm. Then release the pressure (carefully) by turning the release knob. When all the pressure has been released, carefully remove the lid.
  9. Combine the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons water, stirring until smooth.
  10. Stir the cornstarch mixture into the beef mixture in the pot.
  11. Press Saute and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sauce thickens.
  12. Stir in the green onions.

Serve with rice and steamed vegetables or a salad with a ginger dressing.

This is not spicy at all, although I think it could use some heat. If anyone has any suggestions on what kind of chili or pepper I should add, please leave your suggestion in the comments for this post.

Maria’s Most Excellent Eggnog Coffee

If you love eggnog and coffee, try this.

Eggnog Nutrition
Nutritional information, courtesy of Google.

I love eggnog. But due to the crazy calorie count — 223 calories for just 8 ounces — not to mention the fat and cholesterol content, I try to minimize how much I drink. (Seriously, eggnog is just not really good for you.)

Eggnog latte from Dutch Brothers or one of the other drive-thru coffee shops around here help. I ask them to thin out their eggnog lattes with some non-fat milk. This reduces the richness while maintaining the flavor.

But I also make a similar drink at home when eggnog is available. Here’s my recipe, should you care to try it:

Ingredients:

  • 2 parts eggnog
  • 1 part low- or non-fat milk. (I typically use 2%.)
  • 3 parts strong, hot coffee

Instructions:

  1. Combine the milk and eggnog in a microwave safe cup.
  2. Microwave on high for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, until very hot but not boiling.
  3. Add coffee. I normally brew my coffee right into the cup of eggnog and milk using a Brew and Go.
  4. Stir and enjoy!

If you’re interested in a spiked version of this, be sure to check out this review of eggnog spiking options. I tend to enjoy this in the morning, so I haven’t tested any alcohol additives for myself. Yet.

Beef Barley Soup

Skip the mushrooms!

Freezer full of meat
Here’s what 100 pounds of beef looks like in a mid-sized upright freezer. The other meat I’ve been storing is on upper shelves. The doors are filled with plastic containers of homemade heat-and-eat meals.

Yesterday, I took delivery of 100 pounds of grass fed, locally raised beef. This “1/4 cow” came butchered, wrapped, and frozen solid. Although I already had a chest freezer I’d brought with me from my Arizona home, I bought another freezer primarily to store this meat. It just about filled the bottom two shelves.

(I should mention here that our local supermarkets often put “expiring” meat on sale for 30% to 50% off. I can’t tell you how many amazing deals I’ve gotten on normally very pricey meats just because their last date of sale is that day or the next. One day I scooped up four racks of lamb for about $7 each and a large boneless leg of lamb — which was great in a Moroccan lamb dish — for about $10. Last week, Safeway had a sale on baby back ribs that were still frozen: $2.99/pound instead of the normal $4.99. I bought four racks for smoking on my Traeger. Having a big freezer makes it possible to take advantage of these deals as they come up. And when you consider how much I’ve been using my new Instant Pot lately, I don’t expect to have any trouble keeping that freezer full of meat or homemade heat-and-eat meals.)

I had some control over what I’d get in my beef package — basically a menu where I could choose a certain number of cuts in certain categories. In addition to a bunch of steaks cut from all over the place and a lot of ground beef, I also got short ribs, roasts, a very large brisket, and stew meat.

With a winter storm coming, I figured that some comfort food was in order. So when I went down into town to run errands and pick up the beef, I stopped at the supermarket for the few ingredients I needed to make beef barley soup.

I found the recipe on MyRecipes.com. I chose it over other recipes I found online primarily because it looked so hearty in the photo and wasn’t tomato-based. Although I made the recipe pretty much as it was written, I wasn’t satisfied with the results. The reason: mushrooms. In my opinion, mushrooms ruin the flavor of this soup.

So here’s my new take on this recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil. The original recipe called for cooking spray. But why not use a little olive oil instead?
  • 1 to 1-1/2 pounds stew meat, trimmed and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. You can make it with less meat, but if you have more, use it. It’ll make a heartier soup. The beef I got was amazingly lean and didn’t need a bit of trimming.
  • 3-4 large carrots, sliced. Carrots are a must-have in any meat-based soup.
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, sliced. The original recipe called for 1-1/2 cups of celery. Seriously? That’s way too much.
  • 1 large onion, chopped. The third member of the aromatic trilogy, I put onions in most soups and stews. The original recipe called for 2/3 cup, but more is better.
  • 1 large parsnip, sliced. If you can’t find parsnips, add another carrot or two.
  • 1 medium turnip, cut into 1/2-inch cubes. This will really round out the root vegetable flavor.
  • 4 cups fat-free, low-sodium beef broth. I could not find real beef broth (vs. “beef flavored” broth) in my supermarket that was both fat free and low sodium. So I bought what I found.
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 2/3 cup uncooked pearl barley. This was the first time I’d ever bought or cooked barley, despite the fact that I really like beef barley soup. Go figure, huh?
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt. You can probably omit the salt if you don’t use low-sodium beef broth. I did, but then again, I’m trying to keep my salt intake down. Remember you can always add salt; you can’t remove it.
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Pepper is always good with beef.

Instructions:

These instructions assume you’re making this on the stovetop. I’ll update this blog post when I have pressure cooker instructions. I need to experiment.

  1. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
  2. Add beef to pot; cook 4-6 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently.
  3. Remove beef from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  4. Add vegetables to pot; cook 6-8 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates.
  5. Return beef to pot with beef broth and bay leaf; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
  6. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 1 1/2 hours or until beef is tender, stirring occasionally.
  7. Stir in pearl barley; cover and simmer 45 minutes or until pearl barley is tender.
  8. Stir in salt and pepper.
  9. Discard bay leaf before serving.

Keep in mind that the longer you cook the pearl barley or let it sit in the hot soup, the more liquid it will absorb. The net result could be more of a stew than a soup. If you want a soupier soup, either reduce the amount of barley or increase the amount of broth.

This yields about six-eight servings, depending on serving size. I think it would be excellent with some crusty bread on a cold winter day.

Want a printable version of this recipe? Download it as a PDF.

Low-Fat, Low-Calorie Raisin Bran Muffins

A variation of a Martha Stewart recipe.

This summer, after cleaning out my RV for the last time, I found myself with an unopened box of raisin bran cereal. I like raisin bran, but there are other cereals I like better. So I searched for a way to use up the cereal and remembered how I used to occasionally make raisin bran muffins. So I went in search of a good recipe that called for the ingredients I had on hand. I found this one on MarthaStewart.com.

I made them with just one substitution: I didn’t have whole wheat flour so I used just unbleached flour. They came out amazing: moist and tender. I stored the leftover muffins in the fridge and reheated them one at a time with a 30-second zap in my microwave.

Of course, the big drawback to the recipe is also what makes it moist: it contains oil, which is high in fat (duh) and also high in calories. Although the folks at MarthaStewart.com seem to think this is a “low-fat” recipe, it could be better. I decided to try again with a substitution that could make it better: using unsweetened applesauce instead of oil.

This isn’t something I dreamed up. I’d read it in other places and figured this recipe would give me a good opportunity to try it. Here’s my version of the recipe — not only did it come out great, but it’s about 80 calories less per muffin than the Martha version. Like the other version, this makes 6 largish muffins.

Ingredients:

  • Nutritional Info
    Nutritional information with the ingredients here. As you might expect, it’s pretty high in fiber.

    1 1/2 cups raisin bran. I used Kellogs, but you can use any brand. If you can get it without sugar-coated raisins (ick), go for it.

  • 3/4 cup 2% milk. You could probably substitute fat-free milk for even less fat and a lower calorie count.
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour. If I had whole wheat flour — it’s on my shopping list now — I’d do 1/2 cup of each.
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar. You could probably reduce the amount of sugar if you wanted to since the unsweetened applesauce is still sweeter than oil. That would further reduce the calorie count.
  • 1/4 cup sauce unsweetened applesauce. If you use sweetened applesauce, you might be able to completely omit the brown sugar. I don’t know; I haven’t tried it. I don’t buy sweetened applesauce.

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a 6-cup muffin tin.
  2. In medium bowl, combine cereal and milk. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.
  3. Stir applesauce, egg, and sugar into cereal mixture and mix well.
  4. In a small bowl, thoroughly combine remaining ingredients. Fold into cereal mixture.
  5. Raisin Bran Muffin
    One of the drawbacks of substituting applesauce for oil is that the muffin sticks to the paper liner. The next time I make this, I’ll put the batter in the individual lightly oiled tin cups.

    Divide batter into prepared muffin cups. Bake 20-25 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

  6. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then move to a wire rack. Store in a sealed container in refrigerator.

If you do make this, let me know what you think. I’m also interested in any substitution ideas you might have.