CHINA GROVE — Watching Karen McCorkle wield a knife, slicing up a red bell pepper and an onion in her China Grove home, was reminiscent of the many Quickfire challenges I've seen on the Bravo's “Top Chef.”
Oatmeal sandwich cookies
11/2 cups shortening22/3 cups brown sugar4 eggs2 teaspoons vanilla extract21/4 cups all-purpose flour2 teaspoons of cinnamon11/2 teaspoons of baking soda1 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg4 cups of oatsMix shortening and brown sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Beat in vanilla. Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Add to shortening and brown sugar mixture. Stir in oats. Drop teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Filling — 1 tablespoon per cookie3/4 cup shortening3 cups confectioners sugar7 ounces of marshmallow creme1 to 3 tablespoons of milkMix shortening, sugar and marshmallow creme. Add enough milk to achieve spreading consistency. Spread on cookie. Top with remaining cookies.
On the television show, contestants are typically competing for some type of fancy prize, like a new car or immunity to put them one step closer to becoming the winner.
Karen was motivated by something else. She was trying to get the meal done in a timely manner.
I suspect she developed her sense of urgency after spending years cooking for her family of four. It dwindled to two as her daughter, Madison, and son, Statler, left home.
She finished slicing the vegetables in the time it took me to cut up half the pecans needed for the dish. When I asked if we had enough, she politely replied “Keep chopping.”
I'm no pro with a knife. After slicing into my right index finger with an X-Acto knife while working on a college project and promptly receiving eight stitches, I became quite skittish with knives.
For a while, I didn't use anything sharper than a butter knife. I eventually realized I'd have to conquer this fear if I was ever going to eat fresh fruits and vegetables again.
“You're a good, even chopper,” Karen proclaimed when I finally finished cutting up the pecans.
“It's easy to be a master when you only chop two at a time,” I said with a laugh.
Karen's chic, updated kitchen is the second I've visited for the series, “Someone's in the Kitchen with Sarah.” She taught me how to make scrumptious Chicken Fettuccine Supreme.
Next week, Salisbury resident Brian Pfaff will show me how to make Panamanian rice.
Cooking with Karen
When we arrived at Karen's house, she immediately directed us to her kitchen, which was completely revamped a few years ago with new cabinets and appliances.
She showed us photos of the old kitchen, which was small and dark. The changes greatly improved the flow and energy of the space, and a large set of windows provide tons of natural light.
We got to work preparing the dish almost immediately.
Karen did a butterfly cut on the raw chicken before placing it in a skillet with olive oil, a substitution for butter she's been using for years. The butterfly cut helps the chicken cook faster, she said.
The family started eating healthier when her husband, Jeff, needed to lose weight. A few small changes helped him drop 50 pounds in one year.
They've continued to make swaps.
“We cut out as much white stuff as possible. We eat all whole wheat,” she said. “Instead of butter, I use Smart Balance or olive oil.”
While we cooked, Karen talked a lot about her family.
It was clear they are very close, gathering every Sunday for dinner. It's a tradition she says is an absolute must.
“That's our time,” she said. Since the kitchen is Karen's favorite place to be, it makes sense she would video chat with her daughter, Madison, a senior at Appalachian State University, from the room. She sets the computer on the counter and talks while she cooks.
Throughout the conversation she explains what she's doing.
“She says I act like I have my own cooking show,” Karen said. “I would actually love that.”
Karen didn't even have to measure out the ingredients for the chicken fettuccine because she's made it so many times.
Luckily, she had a recipe handy for me to take with me. It seemed simple enough, but I'd be lost without the recipe.
We cooked the chicken in a skillet until brown, then took it out and cut it into bite-size chunks.
Next, she sauteed the red pepper, onion and a clove of garlic in the skillet with a bit of olive oil.
Instead of using fettuccine noodles, she actually cooked whole wheat angel hair pasta.
When that was done, she added the noodles and chicken to the skillet and removed the garlic clove.
For the sauce, she simply poured a mixture of skim milk, butter, parsley and Parmesan cheese on top and stirred. After cooking a few more minutes, the dish was done.
After that, we added the pecans, which had been dipped in butter and toasted in the microwave.
The kitchen smelled amazing, and the meal was absolutely delicious.
Karen and Jeff shared stories about their family while we ate dinner. The couple grew up in China Grove and have no intentions of leaving.
Karen said her uncle has a good response when people ask if he's lived in the town his entire life.
“Not yet,” she said, quoting him.
After dinner we had some of the best cookies I've ever eaten, homemade oatmeal sandwiches cookies.
Karen had to make those before we arrived because of time, but she shared the recipe. I'll definitely be trying to make them myself.
Finding new recipes
Karen and Jeff got married when she was 18 years old. That's when she got serious about cooking.
“I don't remember when I really started enjoying it as much as I do now,” she said. “My mother was a stay-at-home mom and she cooked a lot, but I don't remember if she liked it or not.”
Karen started searching for recipes and trying new dishes about 20 years ago, when she really started to fall in love with cooking.
“I find them on the Pinterest a lot now, and sometimes I get recipes from friends,” she said. “When I buy a new cookbook, I sit down and read it like a novel.
“I can't wait to get it home and go through the whole thing, I get excited about picking out which one I'm going to try first.”
Each week, Karen plans out what the family will eat. The process begins on Friday when she sits down with a green composition book and decides which meals to make.
Then she types up a menu called “What's Cooking in Karen's Kitchen.” It resides on the fridge throughout the week.
“It takes some work up front to plan it all out, but it makes your week easier because you know what meats to thaw,” she said.
Karen, who works at the Food Lion corporate offices, then makes out a list of ingredients and uses an aisle directory to go through and put the aisle number beside each one.
“It makes shopping pretty efficient,” she said. “I can go straight down the aisles and get what I need.”
Karen has dishes that she cooks regularly, but she also likes to explore.
“We try new things all the time,” she said. “Sometimes it's a flop, and sometimes it's really good. You never know until you try it.”
When browsing Pinterest or cookbooks, Karen said her criteria for new recipes are simple and straightforward.
“I want something that's not too hard and something that's really good.”