Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Michelle/Mishka Project

I've decided to try something new...something I’m going to shamelessly call the Michelle/Mishka Project. No, this is not a new-agey commitment to self-improvement; it is a blatant rip-off of the Julie/Julia Project, which you may have heard of. Why am I doing this, and what does it consist of? Several factors came together to make this happen, I will pull the threads together below, before turning to the ‘what’ portion of today’s programme.

Influence one: My auntie recently sent me a report about some research that finds that unlike men, when women are stressed, they tend to nest. Houses become cleaner, more home-cooked meals get made, etc. This effectively lowers their stress by re-orienting them to certain nurturing aspects of their lives. So nesting, and as a part of this, cooking, is a wonderful way to decrease stress. And who couldn't use that?

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t cook. However, what many don’t know is that this isn’t because I can’t cook or I don’t want to cook. It’s because that of all the different things in life that you can outsource (and given there are so many that you can’t), cooking is one of the easiest. Open a can of something, pull out a frozen entrée, pick up a fast-food meal or a burrito from your local Mexican taqueria: yummy for the tummy and a boost for the timeclock.

Of course, just because it’s fast, easy and good-tasting, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. While we all know this on some level, it has been brought home to me recently via the information found in ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Haven’t read it? Do yourself a favor and get yourself a copy of the book or audiobook and start reading it TODAY. I’m not kidding even a little bit. The author’s premise is that if it isn’t something your grandmother would have recognized as food, it probably isn’t a good thing to be putting in your mouth.

Why? Think you’re making a good choice because you’re choosing low-fat mayo over regular? You’re not, and Omnivore’s Dilemma explains why. Is something high in high-fructose corn syrup a better choice than something high in fat? No way, not even close. Let’s say you haven’t had a bite of corn in the last year. Would you be surprised to know that a huge part of your diet consists of corn despite that? It does, and Omnivore’s Dilemma will tell you why the industrialized farming complex in this country has forced this to come to pass. Less surprising are the other dangerous side-effects of industrial farming: food that is less nutritious that it was even 50 years ago (thus requiring us to eat more calories), full of hormones and pesticides, and reeking in animal cruelty.

Don’t panic. I’m not trying to change anyone into a militant vegan. That’s not the book’s point, and it’s not mine, either. I love meat, and I ain’t gonna stop eating it; and yes, I realize that animals have to get killed for me to continue to eat meat. I am a full believer in the circle of life, and I know that when I die, I’ll go back into the food chain, and things will eat me. So what am I saying? I’m saying that this book opened up my eyes to many things, including the evils of industrial farming, which extend roots far deeper into our food culture than I had ever imagined, and that the lies the industrial farming industry and the food conglomerates—and yes, even the FDA and USDA—have been feeding us have been leading me to think that choices I’ve been making were actually good ones (like low-fat mayo) when they really were not.

Okay, so that’s another influence that has made me thing about how I’m eating, and one that has lead me to begin buying more organic food (OD will explain to you what *real* organic is, btw—what the USDA and FDA call organic may be nothing of the sort), and mostly to shop at my farmer’s market, in order to support small family farms that use healthy farming practices (and don’t waste fossil fuels shipping my produce etc. halfway across the country/globe). Okay, end fruity-sounding environmentalist rant.

The last influence, and probably the most important reason I’m turning this into a blog project, is a book I stumbled on earlier this summer: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment. This lead me to read Julia Child’s autobiography, because the premise of the book is a woman named Julie Powell, who decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, while writing a blog about it. (And as you may know, this has been made into a movie that was released recently; I recommend it).

Both women go on a personal journey where food is the product, but not really what’s ultimately important. Both women are searching for their passion and their place in the world, a way to be able to believe in themselves. For Julia, this is cooking itself. For Julie, it’s being a writer.

For me, it’s about finding balance again.

Eating is so basic to our survival; maybe it’s just me, but that fact makes cooking a way to tap back into a more basic side of myself, one that has been put away for a while now. So, I hope that by keeping this focus in the back of my head, I will constantly keep a channel open to the part of me that is at the core of being human.

Now, I’m not masochistic, crazy, or thin enough to survive trying to cook my way through MtAoFC; I learned vicariously through Julie Powell that I don’t want to go that route (I mean really, did anyone ever actually enjoy cold poached eggs set in aspic? Does anyone under the age of 60 even know what aspic is?). But what I do hope to do is try a new recipe or technique once in a while. Maybe a side-dish, a simple hors d’oeuvres, a variation on something, or an entrée. And, I’ll probably have many quiet periods when I don't have new enough or interesting enough to be worth saying.

And, of course, if you have any of your own cooking adventures and/or favorite recipes you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!

So here’s my first recipe. I changed a recipe I found quite a bit to keep it from giving me instant heart failure. Turns out, the changes I made work well, and knock the fat in the recipe by at least half—you’ll never miss it. So here it is, my recipe for:

Mishka’s Modified Chicken with Creamy Mushrooms

2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms (approx. 12 cups, can be half this if you like; I like lots of mushrooms)

1 tablespoon olive oil (can be slightly less if you like, or you can substitute chicken stock when sautéing mushrooms)

1 ½ tablespoon butter

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (works best with Italian-marinated breasts, but this is not essential)

3 tablespoons rice vinegar or white wine vinegar

1 ½ cans 98% fat-free cream of mushroom soup

3 tablespoons capers, drained

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Salt to taste, but you won’t need to


1) Pound chicken breasts to flatten them somewhat, or cut them into large strips (ala chicken fingers).

2) Heat the oil in a large skillet at medium-high heat and sauté mushrooms until tender, approx 5 mins. Alternately, you can put the mushrooms in the pan with no oil, but continually add chicken stock such that the mushrooms are not swimming in it, but it keeps the pan moist and the mushrooms from burning. I used the oil version, but have used the chicken-stock version in other recipes successfully.

3) Remove mushrooms from skillet; reduce heat to medium.

4) Put butter and chicken into the skillet with remaining mushroom liquid. Cook until chicken is no longer pink (170F), approx 8-10 minutes, turning once. If you did not flatten or cut up the chicken, it will take at least twice that time, and you risk the outside of the chicken getting tough in order to get the chicken fully cooked.

5) Remove chicken from skillet, and remove skillet from heat. Do not clean skillet.

6) Add vinegar to the skillet, and loosen the browned stuff on the bottom of the pan.

7) Return the skillet to heat, stirring in soup, capers, and pepper. Bring to boiling. Boil gently for 1-3 minutes, or until sauce is the consistency you want. Put the chicken and mushrooms back into the pan, stir together, and serve.

I found this worked well over rice.

As Julia Child would say: Bon appetit!

© Michelle M. Chouinard 2007 All rights reserved.

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