Why Hello There! And Welcome back to Kitchen Castastrophes. I’m your multi-mental-make-up man, Jon O’Guin. Last week, we made Garlic Soup, and then lost our mind and let our full frat flag fly while drinking stouts. And while it’s certainly fun to cut loose every now and again, there’s also a time for restraint and frugality, a word that sounds like a forbidden Mortal Kombat technique, but is much more boring. In any case, today’s recipes are for small, modest meals. How small? Well, you don’t even need a plate to serve them. These are Microwave Mug Meals.
The Microwave: The Easy-Bake Oven of Radiation
Technically, Title Jon, Easy-Bake Ovens are ALSO radiation based, since heat is a form of radiation, but let’s not get into electromagnetics and physics, I’m about to explain how microwaves work.
To understand microwaves, you’re going to need to understand electromagnetics and physics, because I’m nothing if not hypocritical.
The only one of “I’m nothing if not…” lines that gets MORE accurate the more I use them.
And to double down on hypocrisy, let me start this post about Microwave Mug Meals with a Snack I made on the Stove on a Plate.
Luckily for my reputation, you don’t need to UNDERSTAND microwaves to use them, so we’ll save a more thorough discussion for how they work for another time. (If you really need to know, slash want a stupidly nerdy sneak-peek into what’s certain to be a laugh-riot of a post: microwave ovens spin a magnet to make invisible vibrations (“microwaves”) that fuck up the atomic spin of molecules in food, and the resulting friction of the molecules dragging on themselves/their surroundings heats things up. IN essence: the heat from microwaves comes from the amount of food molecules Tokyo-Drifting around because they got Nas’ed up by invisible lasers.)
If your microwave’s not out-of-control, then you’re not in control.
However, what IS important to know about them is their thematic role in the modern American kitchen: convenience. Microwaves are to ovens what 7-11s are to restaurants: the quick and dirty way to get something when there’s no time for anything better, but not something that’s ever going to win awards for quality or flavor. And this is for somewhat valid reasons: because of the unique way that microwaves heat food, they’re able to heat food quickly and efficiently, but also somewhat erratically and without adding ‘value’ to the dish (in that it won’t produce Maillard reactions, or pleasing textural contrasts.)
As such, microwave meals are quite commonly consumed by millions of Americans, but they’re not ‘respected’. A Hot Pocket is something you eat because you’ve chosen not to try for something better. However, recently, I found myself in a position to combat this opinion in my own life, due to a cookbook my mother gave me.
Pictured here, in case you forgot what books look like.
I’ve noted SEVERAL times now that I was in Oregon for some time recently, and that organizing my living situation there was somewhat chaotic. I ALSO noted that I had originally come believing I would be staying in a cabin out in the woods. The reason I repeat all this is to illustrate the scale of my family’s attitude toward preparation. “A Cabin,” my family figured, “might not have much in the way of a kitchen. But if it’s got power, it’s probably spent the $40 to have a microwave.” And thus I was sent to Oregon with a cookbook for making meals in coffee mugs, as well as a panoply of mugs themselves.
When I ended up staying in a standard home with all the modern conveniences, then, you might think that our preparations were to be for naught. BALDERDASH, I say. If I hauled 6 points of paper and ceramics 300 miles, I’m going to USE them. Further, being a self-contained unit, the idea of recipes built for one person (as these mug meals are) appealed to me. So I grabbed a couple cans of food from local stores to make these mini-meals, only to discover that the one tool I wasn’t set forth with was a CAN OPENER. And by the time I was finally ready to cook these, the roommate WITH the can opener had moved out. Which is one of many ways I came back from my trip to Oregon with more bags of crap than I came with.
This can opener, like its owner, is mostly just a big knob.
Having procured our tools and the means to make merry, let’s dive into the two Mug Meals I made: King Ranch Chicken Casserole in a Cup, and West African Peanut Stew in a cup, and discuss how they went.
Chicken A La King Ranch
King Ranch Chicken Casserole is a recipe that I’ve heard of a couple times over the last few years, but have never actually made. I was once SUPPOSED to make it, but there was a miscommunication and I made Turkey Tetrazzini instead.
Now, you all know how much I love a good historical origin story in these posts, so let me give you the origin for King Ranch Casserole: No one knows who made it, or when. “Surely you can’t be serious,” you exclaim, “Wouldn’t we just need to check near the King Ranch for an origin?” First off, I think we all know how I feel about being called Shirley. And secondly, that’s kind of the problem. See, as you might be unaware, King Ranch in south Texas is the largest ranch in the United States. And so we’re clear, it’s over 1,000 square miles, making it bigger than some OF the states. (Eat it, Rhode Island.) And it had been around for something like 80-100 years when the recipe first started appearing in magazines and other publications. Even weirder: King Ranch is a BEEF ranch, and this is always a CHICKEN dish.
Not always GOOD chicken, mind you, but almost always CHICKEN.
The core recipe is…an impressively forward-thinking piece of American Fusion cuisine. By which I mean “King Ranch Chicken Casserole is a knock-off of lasagna with Tex-Mex flavors”. Seriously, you make a meat sauce out of chicken, peppers, onions, and canned soup mixes, you replace the noodles with corn tortillas, and you replace the ricotta and Parmesan with cheddar or a Mexican Cheese Blend. Layer, bake, serve. The big appeal of the dish (beyond the ever-present appeal of a casserole, which is to say “meat, starches, and sauces taste good when combined”) is that it presents a lot of iconic Tex-Mex flavors without being TOO spicy. Canned Ro-Tel tomatoes, poblano peppers, cayenne, they all go into this casserole. Normally. The mug version is a little simpler.
Instead of building a sauce out of canned tomatoes, sautéed peppers and onions, and canned soup mixes, this recipe goes a little more direct, by just mixing some jarred alfredo sauce with salsa. Which, honestly, is pretty efficient flavor transfer. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, meet smooth cheese and a sprinkle of chili powder.
A match made in Mess.
To that mixture, you add flaked canned chicken, and a torn-up corn tortilla, and microwave for a little over a minute. Mix it up, top with shredded cheese, microwave again to melt the cheese, and it’s ready to go.
Flavor-wise, this was…look,I know I’m more than a little bit of a bougie dick. I eat high-falutin’ cheeses and weird ‘beef salads’. I’ve written multiple times how I occasionally struggle with posts because they’re not ‘sexy’ enough in terms of the food. That said, I also LOVE Instant Ramen, and I like Kraft Mac and Cheese. I can live off of frozen burritos for weeks at a time. So when I say “this tasted pretty good for how cheap it was”, that’s not me bashing the dish, it’s an honest appraisal of components and result. The taste wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was nice. I think a little tweaking of brands, maybe a bit more spices, and the dish could be really solid. There’s a slightly metallic taste I almost always get from canned chicken, for instance, and a brand that DIDN’T have that would go some way to improving it.
I’ve eaten worse nondescript orange goo’s in my day.
But while you’re busying fitting the biggest ranch in Texas into your cupped hands, I’m already moving onto weirder topics on other continents.
I Bless the Mugs Down in Africa
This is a very weird part of the post for me, and you may already know why: West African Peanut Stew has a LOT of names, but the one I’m most familiar with is Ma’afe/Maafe. If that name strikes a tiny note of recognition in your brain, it’s probably because I’ve mentioned I’ve been thinking about making Maafe on the site several tiems in the last year. Or maybe you just heard it somewhere else, how am I supposed to know where you remember things from? But, for months thinking about making it was all I did. Until recently, where I decided to make both IT and a Coffee-Mug version of it.
The original logic made sense: The King Ranch Chicken Casserole recipe is pretty straightforward, and kinda small. It feels weird as the focus of a whole post. So I need another mug recipe. I see they have Maafe in the cookbook, and it triggers an idea. Make the coffee mug version in Oregon, where my resources are limited, and then the full version when I get home. But due to some schedule re-jiggering in the last 4-5 days I was in Oregon, I ended up not having time. Further, I failed to consider a simple fact: which side does the explaining?
Who talks first? Do I go, or do you go?
Do I just drop today’s recipe into your lap and walk off to go drink like a divorced dad when mom’s got the kids that weekend, or do I explain things now for context and end up repeating myself on Monday like a drunken parrot? Why do all my metaphors involve me being drunk? (That question is answered with “Realistic Expectations.”) The answer I decided on is a little bit of both.
Why West African Peanut Stew? Because I’ve been eating a lot of it over the last year and a half, for reasons I’ll explain on Monday. What exactly is it? Well, once you hear the name, you’re pretty much set: it’s a stew, from West Africa, that uses peanuts (and typically peanut butter) for protein, texture, and to thicken the stewing liquid. And let me tell you right now: This version doesn’t really do that.
I mean, it LOOKS like it will, but not really.
The Mug version of this stew is not a stew. It’s a soup. They straight up call it “West African Peanut Soup” in the title. Which makes sense: it’s pretty hard to reduce liquids in a microwave, so if you can’t find an easy stew liquid stand-in, you just gotta make it a soup. The soup starts with half a can of Ro-Tel Tomatoes, which is funny to me now that I know they’re a pretty traditional ingredient in King Ranch Chicken Casserole. Why are they HERE and not there?
The other starting ingredients are ¾ of a cup of chicken or vegetable broth, and 1 tablespoon peanut butter, which really gives you the idea of the relative thickness of this soup right there, and almost a teaspoon of curry powder for complexity and spice, mix it all together, and heat it up. Personally, I had to stir, heat, then stir again, because it’s hard to get peanut butter to dissolve in cold chicken broth.
It’s also hard to SHOW that it’s hard for it dissolve, because things never do go smooth.
Then comes the main event, which comes in 2 forms. If you want a vegetarian or vegan version, you can use black-eyed peas as the main textural component of the soup. If you want some more meat, you can use a can of flaked chicken. Personally, I went with the peas, because A, I didn’t want to buy another can of chicken, and B, I’ve always liked them as an ingredient far more than as a band.
Black-Eyed Peas aren’t peas at all, but a kind of legume (which, to be fair, peas also are. As are peanuts.) that looks basically like a bean. You toss them into your warmed soup base, heat it all again, stir in a touch of greenery in the form of parsley, and serve.
Where it will look totally different than the earlier picture of a murky tan liquid with things in it.
And I’ll tell you this: while this doesn’t really taste like the Maafe that I like, it’s not half-bad. The Ro-Tel chiles are spicier than I thought they’d be, and the whole ensemble is physically hotter than I thought, so I almost burnt my tongue on the first sips. But once it cooled a little, the resulting soup was quite interesting. My only real complaint is that the tomatoes and peas all sank to the bottom of the cup, so I had to keep making weird deep-dive spoon scoops to get a balance of broth and actual food. But it all tasted nice. The spiciness mixed with the peanut butter and curry really hit the spot on a cold December afternoon.
So while the King Ranch recipe may need some tinkering, I honestly dug the West African Soup as is. And being based entirely on using fractions of canned goods, the dishes are very frugal for the solo cook: The West African Peanut soup can probably be made for around $2.50 a mug, once you get all the components. The King Ranch Chicken runs a bit higher, since it’s got a whole can of chicken in it, but it’s still probably around $4 per serving. Making these cheap and easy meals that bring a bit of culinary flair to your microwave meals. Not a bad trade at all.
If you want to help Jon afford future meals of not-peas in curry broth, consider supporting the site on Patreon! It’s a great way to make sure that Kitchen Catastrophes keeps the lights on. I’d especially like to thank friends of the site Katie Jones and Max Supler, who used Patreon pledges as holiday gifts this year. That has brought us so close to our next Patreon goal, where we can start using the Patreon funds to upgrade our equipment and bring you all better quality recordings, and potentially upload videos!. Of course, not everyone has the funds to do such things, but that doesn’t mean that your support isn’t just as important. Every like, share, comment and re-tweet of our social media posts brings the site to the eyes of more people, which brings new voices into the conversation, and helps Jon feel like he’s doing something people enjoy with his time. Thank you one and all for all you do, and we’ll see you Thursday.
THURSDAY: I’M PROBABLY GOING TO EXPLAIN MICROWAVES, BUT I MIGHT DO CASSEROLES INSTEAD, SINCE THAT’S A LITTLE MORE SEASONALLY APPROPRIATE. OR MAYBE A HISTORY OF GINGERBREAD. IT DOESN’T RELATE TO TODAY’S POST AT ALL, BUT IT’S A LOT MORE APPROPRIATE.
MONDAY: JON MAKES MAAFE IN A NEW WAY, AND SHARES WHY HE’S BEEN “STEWING” ABOUT IT FOR SO LONG.
King Ranch Chicken Casserole in a Cup
Serves 1 (use a 12 oz coffee mug)
1 (5 oz) can of chicken, drained and flaked
1 medium (5-6”) corn tortilla, torn into pieces
1/3 cup light alfredo sauce
¼ cup medium or hotter chunky salsa
¼ tsp chili powder (or cumin)
¼ -1/3 cup shredded cheese
1. Combine all ingredients except the cheese in the mug, and mix thoroughly. Microwave on high 90 seconds to 2 minutes, until hot.
2. Top with cheese, and either return to the microwave for 30 seconds, or simply let sit until cheese melts. Eat warm.
West African Peanut SOUP
Serves 1 (use a 16 oz coffee mug)
½ can of tomatoes w/green chiles, with juice
¾ cup of vegetable or chicken broth
1 tbsp peanut butter
¾ tsp curry powder
½ cup of rinsed and drained canned Black Eyed Peas, or a 5 oz can of chicken, drained and flaked
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1. Combine tomatoes, broth, peanut butter, and curry powder in mug. Stir to combine, and microwave 60-90 seconds on HIgh to heat through.
2. Stir again, add the peas or chicken, and return to the microwave for 1-2 minutes on High. Season with salt and pepper, and stir in the parsley.