I like to describe my cooking skills as abstract art. I never make the same thing twice because I’m usually adjusting recipes on the fly and forget what I did different when it turns out. When I first started cooking, I followed the recipe to the letter, but as I became more comfortable, I started to improvise. One lesson I learned quickly is the difference between recipes for baking and cooking. Baking recipes are science experiments with precise measurements and instructions to follow for success. Cooking recipes are outlines and ideas of what can and might work. Once you know the basics, then the rest is inspiration.
    I found this recipe in the January Farmer’s Magazine. It looked intriguing, but I knew I was going to need to make a few adjustments to fit our family. Here are some of the changes I made. I am always looking for ways to use up packages of round steaks and flank steaks. I used two packages of beef instead of the pork shoulder. While the meat was still frozen, yet thawed enough to slice, I cut it into strips and trimmed off the excess fat. Since I couldn’t find oyster sauce in the grocery store, I tried clam juice. I’ll use the extra juice in clam chowder later this winter for extra flavoring. When I was in a hurry, I grabbed a bag of frozen vegetable medley (carrots/broccoli/cauliflower). This saved me prep time. When I came in from chores, I stirred them in with the meat and juices. While they warmed up, I made 4 cups of instant rice. Both were done at the same time. The original recipe called for a pound of spaghetti, but rice is much quicker to make when you are short on time.

Crock pot stir fry
1/3 cup soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon oyster sauce or clam juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger or 1 teaspoon dried ginger
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder or 2 packages beef round steaks or flank steaks, frozen
3 cups broccoli florets
2 carrots, julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 stalks celery, diced
1 cup snow peas
1 5-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained
4 cups cooked rice
Chow mein noodles to top off
    Whisk together soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, oyster sauce, ginger and sesame oil in slow cooker. Add meat, cover and cook on low heat for seven to eight hours or high for three to four hours.
    Remove meat from slow cooker. Shred the meat before returning it to the pot with the juices. Stir in vegetables. Cover and cook on high heat for 15 to 30 minutes, or until veggies are tender. Cook rice according to directions.
    The meat manager in the grocery store shared a tip with me about pork shoulders. It makes the best pulled pork and shredded meat because of all the fat surrounding this cut of meat. The fat and connective tissues give this meat its flavor and juiciness. By using the round steak and flank steaks, it will be drier because it lacks the connective tissues, but it will still be fork tender.
    This next recipe has been lying on my kitchen counter since the holidays. I could not think of making them until we had all the Christmas candy and baked goods eaten up. I finished the last piece of fudge this past week and needed to start restocking the sweet bags. The first recipe I pulled was this one. It is a perfect treat for Valentine’s Day or Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday).

Salted caramel chocolate chip cookie bars (browneyedbaker.com)
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
10 ounces Kraft caramels, unwrapped (or a bag of caramel bits)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Sea salt, to sprinkle over caramel and bars
    Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square pan and line with parchment paper; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together dry ingredients; set aside. In a mixing bowl, mix together melted butter and sugars until combined. Add the egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Mix until smooth. Slowly add dry ingredients and mix on low, just until combined. Stir in chocolate chips. In a medium microwave-safe bowl, combine caramels and heavy cream. Microwave on high until caramels are melted, stirring every 20 seconds. This will take about two minutes.
    Press half the cookie dough into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Pour hot caramel over the dough and spread into an even layer, leaving about 1/2 inch around the border. Sprinkle caramel with sea salt. Take clumps of remaining cookie dough and flatten in your hand and place on top of caramel layer. Smooth pieces together. Top with sprinkling of sea salt.
    Bake for 30 minutes or until top of the bars are light golden brown and edges start to pull away from the pan. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for about 30 minutes to allow the caramel layer to set. Cut into squares and serve. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to four days.
    These last few instructions made me giggle. Once the bars were cool enough to eat, the pan was gone by the end of the Super Bowl game. I guarantee there will not be any leftovers to store for four days.