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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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I've been thinking lately about how I learned to cook and it's interesting enough that I'm going to make you read about it before I reward you with a simple recipe. If it inspires you to experiment a little, I'll consider this admission successful.

I used to hate cooking. When I was little I delighted in slicing apples for pie or mixing ingredients for baking cookies. But when I was in high school, my mother went back to work full-time and I was drafted to make dinner for five people five nights a week. I was in high school—and a teenager—and I hated this chore beyond all reason. I grumbled and complained and my mother did her best to figure out what to put in the Crock-Pot so I wouldn't have to screw up dinner again.

Then I moved out of my parents’ home and loved that I could have frozen pizza and eat junk food for dinner and I swore I'd never cook. And that lasted about six months until I got a major craving for my mother's beef stew. The beef stew that I used to hate eating because of the stewed tomatoes and the huge chunks of onion—now I wanted it. Thankfully, I had an apartment with a huge kitchen and between me and my roommates we had all the pieces I needed to make stew. And it was the best stew ever. This is when I began to cook again, and to finally enjoy it.

Several years later I moved to Chicago, moved in with my boyfriend, and had a job which got me home two hours earlier than him every night. Not knowing anyone else in the city, not having any money to go anywhere, and wanting comfort, I began cooking every night. And this is when I really learned how to cook. I had the time, I had enough money to go shopping at local markets every day for what was fresh and on sale, and I loved that I had no idea what to do with many of the ingredients I was coming across.

This is when I invented "accidental dinner.” It started with potatoes. They're cheap and I already knew a lot of quick and tasty ways to cook them. I would wander the aisles of the store, grab a spice or a vegetable, a new type of oil or something else I'd never heard of and experiment by mixing it with potatoes. For example, the paprika I'd been used to sprinkling on deviled eggs was flavorless and existed purely for decoration. A friend suggested I pick up Hungarian paprika. So I pan-fried some potato slices and sprinkled them liberally with paprika and salt. Wow! So simple and tasty. I then made a mash of cubes of potatoes and prosciutto. Then I mixed some chayote with some potato, then I . . . well, you get the picture.

This "accidental" cooking is called such because if it came out it was purely by accident and not because I knew what I was doing. There was always the cheap pizza place's phone number on the fridge if I screwed up, but in the first year of putting my new cooking philosophy to the test, it only happened twice.

Saturday night, I decided to make dinner. We haven't done a major stock-up at the grocery store and we're still sorely lacking in many of our staples. But I was convinced that I could make a tasty dinner out of what we had on hand. I fished out of my refrigerator and cabinet:

1 small onion
8 ounces of mushrooms
1 frozen chicken breast
1/2 bag of frozen peas
1/2 carton of sour cream
1 lemon
1/2 box of penne pasta

I wasn't really sure how this would all work, but I knew I could make something out of it. I sliced the onion and mushrooms and started sauteeing them in a skillet over medium heat with about 1 tablespoon of oil. I defrosted the chicken breast in the microwave and then cut it into bite-sized chunks. I set a pan of water over medium-high heat to boil and covered it.

Once the onions were clear and the mushrooms were soft, I added the chunks of chicken and began cooking them. They were mostly cooked through about the same time the water began to boil so I dumped the pasta into the boiling water. I added the frozen peas and about 3 tablespoons of capers to the skillet. I crossed my fingers and hoped that my impromptu "cream sauce" would actually taste decent.

I squeezed the juice from 1/2 of the lemon into the carton that held the sour cream and stirred with a fork. I then poured this over the concoction in the skillet and stirred until everything was covered and the peas were soft. I drained the pasta, tossed it into the skillet and gave everything a quick stir and plated it.

Andrew had put together a salad that consisted of two types of lettuce and half of a cucumber. We had an open bottle of red wine so he poured us a glass of Yellowtail Shiraz each. We looked at each other, toasted to an "accidental dinner" and took a bite.

And it was good! It was very good in fact. If I'd used fat-free sour cream it would have been an almost fat-free dinner. If I'd used wheat pasta instead of regular pasta it would have significantly reduced the simple carbs. I could have used fried tofu or extra-firm tofu that had been pressed instead of chicken. I could have used corn instead of peas, or even broccoli or carrots.

That's the wonder of accidental dinners. Several times I've thrown caution to the wind and thought "I wonder what would happen if I wrapped x in y and baked it,” and several of those times I've been so impressed that I've kept the recipe in my mental stand-by list for when I don't know what to make for dinner. Or I've realized a combination of flavors that I adapt later in different ways. My "accidental" cream sauce was incredibly simple and I think I'll use it again.

So here's my assignment to you: Open your refrigerator and your cupboard and pull out 6 ingredients and figure out a way to make dinner out of them. If it sucks, if it tastes awful, then make peanut butter sandwiches or order a pizza. It's not the end of the world, and while I'm opposed to wasting food, if you learn something in the process, even if you learn what not to do, then it won't be a complete waste.

If your "accidental dinner" is so incredibly good that you feel the need to brag, send me an e-mail to cc[at] and tell me all about it.

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