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The C-word

Welcome to the first installment of The C-Word, a cooking guide that breaks the ramen noodle tradition. This will be a rather informal cooking column geared toward teaching culinary basics to the average college student attempting to cook in a college residence hall.

First, a little bit about me: I am not a professional chef. In high school I worked a couple of parties in the kitchen and on the floor with Bella Cucina Maria, a local one-woman catering business in my hometown of Port Chester, N.Y. I learned the basics of how to chop ingredients, plate effectively, and serve without dropping or spilling.

Other than my time with Maria, the only other cooking training I have had was with my mother and father. A couple of the recipes I’ll be sharing are secret family concoctions perfected by generations of Nowotniks and Benedicts slaving away in hot, stereotypical Polish kitchens. Actually, that’s a lie; we don’t strictly follow tradition or recipes.

I’m almost 100 percent Polish and have yet to learn how to make a pierogi. I never was taught or cared to learn. I probably know more about South American cuisine than Central European cookery, seeing as over half of Port Chester’s population is of Latin decent. For my birthdays, my best friend’s mom used to cook authentic Mexican enchiladas every year.

With my first recipe, I’ll fuse my American melting-pot culture with my love for chili powder and cook southwestern chicken soup, which is the easiest, cheapest and most delicious soup I know.

The ingredients you’ll need are:

2 tablespoons olive oil
One yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
3 cups fat-free, no-salt-added chicken broth (unless you’re into that)
1 lb skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into half-inch cubes
1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cups corn, fresh, canned or frozen
One red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice
One tall pot

Serves four to five people

Directions:

In a tall pot, heat the olive oil until it coats the bottom of the pan with a thin, runny layer. Next, add the onion. If the onion sizzles, you’ve heated up the pot correctly. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook the onions until they’re slightly brown and broken down. This will take about eight minutes.

Next, add in the cumin and chili powder. Cumin is slightly expensive, but it’s a great spice. It’s used pretty much in every Americanized Mexican dish, so you’ll get a lot of mileage out of it. However, it’s OK to forgo the cumin.

Cook the onions and spices for about a minute until the scent from the spices starts to permeate your kitchen, and then add the chicken.

Some quick chicken cutting tips: I have a special flexible cutting board that I use just for cutting chicken. I’m a huge proponent of washing your hands and utensils in soapy water after handling chicken. The two minutes it takes to wash everything can save you 24 to 48 hours of food poisoning and an awkward trip to the emergency room. Also, use a sharp knife. There is literally nothing more frustrating than hacking away at a raw chicken with a blunt knife. And finally, buy the chicken without the bone or skin on it. It makes the process much easier.

Once the chicken looks about a quarter to halfway cooked through (about two minutes), add in the broth and wait until it all starts to simmer.

Once the mixture simmers, add in the black beans, corn and red bell pepper, and cook for another five to 10 minutes or until the red bell pepper starts to get tender.

Finally, take your soup off the burner, add a quick squirt of fresh lemon or lime juice, and enjoy!

My roommates and I have a bottle of lemon juice from concentrate that is used for such occasions. It comes in handy for a lot of stuff like fish and mixed drinks and doesn’t go bad as quickly as fresh juice.

Send me an email at helen@dev.thetriangle.org if you have any questions, suggestions about the recipe or if there’s anything you’d like me to try out!