CY, short for “Challenge Yourself”— Inspired by a particular show on the Food Network, I love creating meals/dishes with just a few random ingredients that I find at the grocery store. Here, I’ll share with you what works (and what doesn’t!) and how to incorporate that into your daily life as a home cook.

CY: Cheez-It, Instant Ramen, Marinara Sauce & Venison Sausage

This post contains a recipe. Here’s an auto-scroll to: Cheez-It Shakshuka.

The thought behind Challenge Yourself was so that my faithful readers (and those close to me — which, who are we kidding? Those are the same folks) can suggest crazy food combinations for me to try to make happen.

Finally, with this edition of Challenge Yourself, I have ingredients assigned to me! This time from my lovely girlfriend Samantha, who thought THIS would be fun.

Well, do I have a recipe for you.

CY Ingredients: Marinara, Cheez-It, Maruchan Instant Lunch, Venison Sausage
The ingredients: Marinara sauce, Cheez-Its, Maruchan Instant Lunch with Chili Piquin and Shrimp, andVenison and Pork Sausage with Jalapeños. (JW on the Road)

The CY Ingredients:

  • Cheez-It (4.5oz box — the small one!)
  • Smoked Venison & Pork Sausage with Jalapeños (Semi-Dry)
  • Marinara Sauce (24oz jar)
  • Maruchan Instant Lunch with Chili Piquin & Shrimp

The approach

As soon as I saw the marinara sauce, I knew I had to go with shakshuka. Shakshuka (sometimes spelled Skakshouka) is a dish originating from Tunisia that contains a tomato sauce base with peppers, garlic and a few other spices. There are different versions of shakshuka in different regions of the world, but it’s most commonly found in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking now.

Note: Want to recommend ingredients for future challenges? Let me know in the comments or via the contact page.

The challenge with starting a shakshuka from a jarred marinara sauce (this was Newman’s Own brand) was that it comes already seasoned. In addition to tomato sauce, the ingredients list for this jar also contains salt, carrot puree, olive oil, dried onion, dried basil, dried garlic, dried fennel seed and black pepper.

I put the marinara in a saucepan over low heat and added a little bit more black pepper and let it slowly come up to a warm temperature.

Instant Lunch in Marinara Sauce
When you add the Instant Lunch noodles to the marinara sauce, the structure of the styrofoam vessel will remain until the noodles warm and mix in with the sauce. (JW on the Road)

Then, I opened up the instant lunch — while Maruchan makes a variety of ramen-like products, this was the one that comes in a ready-to-eat styrofoam cup — cut the styrofoam off the chunk of noodles and dropped the noodles into the marinara. Just like it would if you added boiling water to the ramen, the warm marinara sauce helped break down the ramen into a more cooked-noodle-like texture. After the ramen was thoroughly mixed into the sauce, I tasted it.

Surprisingly, the chili piquin seasoning that came mixed in with the instant ramen (not in a pack like the stuff you get in the little bag for less than a dollar) was very dormant and instead only provided some subtle heat to the sauce. I had expected to have to do more flavor melding, but somehow it all blended all together well.

The noodles themselves were there. Noodles are not a traditional part of shakshuka, but I left them in for more texture and body.

As for the shrimp part of the chili piquin shrimp flavor? I honestly have no idea where the shrimp went after I added the noodles to the marinara. Was it a seasoning? Were there chunks? I have no idea. I didn’t taste it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, but the flavor virtually evaporated.

Caveat: I cooked this dish at my grandma’s house in Pennsylvania, and she’s got almost none of the normal pantry essentials I keep on hand. If I were home, I’d probably have added shrimp stock (which I always keep on hand and make after I cook or eat shrimp) to help bring out some shrimp flavor and make this truly representative of the challenge ingredients list.

Either way, the sauce wasn’t bad with a little black pepper added, but I added some red pepper flakes, paprika, dried thyme and some cumin to pull out the cajun flavors (supposedly) present in the chili piquin mixture. While the paprika, red pepper and thyme made the dish more cajun-y, the toasty cumin balanced it with the black pepper, garlic and more Italian-y flavors.

I grabbed a separate pan. In this case, it was a 10-inch cast iron skillet. This pan was eventually going to be the vessel that the shakshuka comes together in, so best case scenario, it’s a pan that can go into the oven. In the cast iron, I dropped just a dash of olive oil — seriously a very small amount — and put in half of an onion, diced.

Sausage and Onion Cook in Cast Iron
The sausage and the diced onion cook down together in a cast iron skillet. (JW on the Road)

While the onion was cooking, I took the sausage out of the package and tasted it and got almost entirely salt and heat (hello, jalapeños). I chopped up the rest of the sausage, which was semi-dry, into small bits.

Once that onion started to color and became aromatic, add two cloves of garlic minced and the sausage. The goal here is for the sausage to pull in some of the aroma of the garlic and onions along with some of the fat from the olive oil to help balance (just a little bit!) the raw heat in the sausage from the jalapeño. I also really wanted to crisp up the sausage so that there was some different textures at play in an otherwise soupy shakshuka.

Once the onions and garlic had cooked down to my liking, and the sausage appeared browned enough, I added the marinara-ramen mixture on top of the onions and sausage and mixed so that all of the components could come together equally. When that started to bubble on the stove, I reduced the heat.

In my grandma’s small hand food processor (basically an immersion blender with a very small food processor attachment), I ground the cheez-its into a powder. Now yes, I realize I have already done the pulverize technique for a CY post before (forgive me).

Cheez Its and Eggs Top the Tomato Sauce
Raw eggs sit atop the tomato sauce mixture which has been topped with powdered Cheez-Its. (JW on the Road)

I heavily covered the top of the tomato mixture with the cheese powder. I was looking for a thick enough layer that you knew for sure that the Cheez-Its were there. If you’re going to do it, do it.

Then, in traditional shakshuka fashion, I cracked three eggs into the bubbling mixture and covered it. Then I topped that powder and eggs with more shredded mozzarella cheese. This is a cheesy dish and I will not apologize for it. I did my best to leave the area where the eggs were open so you could see the eggs when cooking.

Shredded Cheese with Eggs & Cheez-It Powder
Atop the ground Cheez-Its and eggs, add some additional shredded cheese (this is a blend between cheddar and mozzarella, but I would recommend just mozzarella). Leave the yolks of the eggs as uncovered as you can so that you can see how cooked the eggs are. (JW on the Road)

Another weird caveat: My grandma doesn’t have an oven (long story), so I left this on the stove covered until the eggs were just barely cooked through — I was able to tell by the texture of the whites. If I were home for this, I’d pop it in a pre-heated 300ºF oven on the top rack for about 5 minutes to cook the eggs on top. 

Shakshuka is a weird dish to plate, but again, partially due to my grandma’s limited serving and cookware, I served this in a bowl making sure to get at least one egg per person. I wouldn’t judge if you ate it out of the cast iron itself though. Rustic.

The verdict

This should not have been as good as it was.

There’s no way that you should be able to take those ingredients and put them in a cast iron pan with little to no extra work and that it should be a dish that still makes me salivate months after first making it. The texture of the crispy sausage worked perfectly. You could taste the flavors I (tried to) develop in the marinara-ramen mixture. Most surprisingly, you can taste the cheez-it flavor even in the mozzarella cheese mixture. It weirdly works. I don’t understand how, but it really does.

If this were not a challenge, though, I would of course do things very differently. I’d make the tomato sauce base from a mixture of canned tomatoes and fresh tomatoes, reduce it down into a sauce and develop seasonings (fresh thyme & other fresh herbs) along the way. I’d ditch the noodles from the ramen if I didn’t “have” to include them. The noodles did provide some good body in the sauce mixture; however, they’re just not really supposed to go with shakshuka. If anything, the noodles probably seeped flavor from the sauce (maybe that’s why I had to amp up the cajun flavors). I think this would be better without them.

With the cheez-its, while I’m not sure I want to willingly use them again to make a dish like this, I think the powdered cheese mixture added great flavor (salt!) to the cheese mixture, and definitely has me thinking more about dried cheese and how that can impact a dish.

The non-forced ingredient that was a game changer here, though, was the onion. It balanced the sausage well and provided a great aroma. It helped break down the overall “prepared” taste of a lot of these foods and started down the path of tasting like something real.

I’ve already made shakshuka several times since this initial cook — none of those efforts have included cheez-its or venison sausage, but if I open my cabinet one day and those items are there (they actually are right now), I would probably do this again.

It was good. Like really good — in a very guilty-pleasure hunch over the cast iron on the stove and eat kind of way.

Plated Cheez-It Shakshuka
One beautiful egg atop a sauce mixture containing instant ramen, marinara sauce, pork and venison sausage and cheez-its. (JW on the Road)


Recipe:

Cheez-It Shakshuka

Serves 3

Time: 5 minutes to prep, 25 minutes to cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 24oz jar marinara sauce
  • 1 Maruchan Instant Lunch with Chili Piquin and Shrimp
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 8 oz La Villa Ranch Smoked Venison & Pork Sausage with Jalapeños Semi-Dry
  • 1 4.5 oz box of Cheez-Its, ground
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

Directions:

  1. In a medium saucepan, warm marinara sauce over low heat until warm but not yet bubbling. Remove Instant Lunch from packaging and add to the sauce. Mix until combined and noodles are equally distributed.
  2. Add the black pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, thyme and cumin, and mix intermittently until mixture is lightly bubbling, approximately 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. In a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, add olive oil until shimmering. Add diced onion and minced garlic and cook until it begins to look translucent and is fragrant.
  4. Chop the sausage into small, but uniform pieces. Size is up to you, but you want something that is not big enough that it occupies a full spoon but not too small where it gets lost in the sauce. My cuts were probably half an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide.
  5. Add the sausage (all of it!) to the onion mixture and cook for approximately 10 minutes until onions are lightly browned and soft and sausage is crispy and has darkened in color.
  6. Pour the marinara sauce mixture on top of the sausage mixture and stir to combine, ensuring that the sausage, onions, garlic and noodles are evenly distributed throughout the pan.
  7. Warm until sauce begins to bubble.
  8. Cover the sauce mixture with a thick layer of ground Cheez-Its. It won’t be all of the Cheez-Its from the box (but seriously save these and coat anything with them, they’re sickeningly good).
  9. Crack 3 eggs equally distributed across the surface of the cast iron. Note: You can definitely use more eggs than this and do slightly smaller portions to serve more people, but it’s up to you.
  10. Top the Cheez-Its and eggs with a layer of shredded mozzarella — about 1/2 cup.
  11. If cooking on a stovetop, cover with a glass lid so you can see when eggs are fully cooked. If finishing in an oven, put pan into preheated 300ºF oven on the top rack directly under the broiler and check after 5 minutes to see if egg is cooked. You’re looking for light and fluffy whites around the edges.
  12. Serve one egg per person in a bowl or on a plate with a grind of fresh black pepper.

CY, short for “Challenge Yourself”— Inspired by a particular show on the Food Network, I love creating meals/dishes with just a few random ingredients that I find at the grocery store. Here, I’ll share with you what works (and what doesn’t!) and how to incorporate that into your daily life as a home cook.

Corn Flake Cauliflower

CY: Corn Flakes, Tea, Cauliflower & Ham

This post contains a recipe. Here’s an auto-scroll to: Corn Flake Cauliflower.

When I was thinking about this blog, I was very excited about so many things. The Challenge Yourself series was pretty high among them.

The goal here is this: Take four (or more, I guess) ingredients that are seemingly random and create something that’s (hopefully) good. The risk? If it’s bad, I’m still committing myself to writing about it. I really want to encourage folks (and myself) to get out of their comfort zone and cook ambitiously, even if it’s going to fail. Pizza is only a phone call away.

Orange cauliflower, corn flakes, canned tea, ham steak. (JW on the Road)
Orange cauliflower, corn flakes, canned tea, ham steak. (JW on the Road)

The CY Ingredients:

  • Orange Cauliflower
  • Corn Flakes
  • Ham Steak
  • Ginger Lime Iced Tea

The approach

The ideal situation for this series as always to have someone else recommend the ingredients for me; however, when it came time to put this post together, no one had time to recommend anything or go to the store with me. So instead, I purposely tried to grab ingredients that didn’t go together. They needed to not have a natural fusion, and include a “wild card.”

Note: Want to recommend ingredient sets in the future? Let me know in the comments or via the contact page.

Did I pick these ingredients subconsciously knowing what I would do? I don’t think so? But who knows.

Looking at these ingredients, I couldn’t help but think about the moment that cauliflower is having right now. In some places, you’re just as likely to see “Buffalo Cauliflower” on a menu as you are their poultry cousins.

So, looking at these ingredients, a sauce-covered cauliflower seemed like the way to go.

To start, I pulled out my pot and emptied the can of ginger lime iced tea into it over high heat. Before dumping it in, I took a quick taste of the tea. It reminded me of the drink that came from the powdered iced tea mixes I drank in my childhood. Sweet with an aftertaste of citrus. Kinda tastes like summer.

Honestly, I couldn’t really detect the lime or the ginger at all in the tea — something I knew I’d need to pull out of it later if I wanted it to stand out.

While the tea was warming up on the stove, I opened my pantry to take a look at what else I had. Right away, hoisin stood out to me. Hoisin is a thick, sweet and subtly spicy sauce commonly used in Chinese cuisine. It reminds me a lot of American bottled barbecue sauce, but with a heavy dose of soy, chiles and garlic.

If you’re adding hoisin to this sauce, you’re instantly taking the dish into Asian territory. I followed the hoisin with some soy sauce and a dash of sambal. With those two ingredients, the main approach was to add some salt and some heat to work with the sweetness from the tea and the hoisin.

Looking back now and writing this, I probably would’ve added a dash of fish sauce here as well. That could’ve avoided the back and forth balancing act that I struggled with next.

When I tasted that, however, the acidity of the sambal and the salt of the soy sauce overpowered, so more sweetness was in order to balance.

Enter Mike’s Hot Honey. I love this ingredient. They normally pay people (influencers!) to use it in recipes and on Instagram. I’m not one of those lucky ones, but I love it just the same.

The hot honey is made by blending honey and chili peppers, so it brings the sweetness but also brings a really slow-burning spice.

With sweetness, spice and salt all holding their own, I just needed a dash of acidity to balance it out. I used apple cider vinegar because it’s my go-to vinegar in my pantry, but also because it wouldn’t alter the color of the sauce.

Simmering Tea Sauce
The sauce — made of tea, hoisin, soy sauce, sambal, hot honey, apple cider vinegar and vegetable stock — simmers to reduce in size and become syrupy. (JW on the Road)

Thanks to the addition of the vinegar, the flavor of the sauce was pretty well balanced, but it needed 1) more quantity and 2) to be backed up by a supporting flavor. I added about 1 and a half cups of vegetable stock and let it simmer down until reduced by almost half. After the reduction, the sauce was more syrupy in texture.

Consider for a moment the ham steak. It’s something I haven’t seen since I lived with my parents and it was a quick-ish weeknight meal. Ham steak is great, but it’s a bit limited in terms of its scope. The best way I knew how to handle it was exactly how it had been cooked for most of my childhood, but with the addition of the tools I’ve learned to use since.

While my parents would basically heat up a ham steak in a nonstick pan on the stove and then finish it on a sheet pan in the oven. I heated up my cast iron pan to as hot as I could get it, tossed in a just a little bit of vegetable oil and seared the ham steak fast and hot on both sides and then put it in a 300 degree oven to keep warm while I dealt with the rest of the ingredients.

Anytime I see a cereal or a grain product that isn’t a rice or a pasta, I immediately think about how it reminds me of breading for a fry. I didn’t want to fry anything here, but the texture of the corn flakes was certainly going to be useful. Using a spice grinder, I churned some corn flakes until they were a delightfully sugary powder.

Ground Corn Flakes
Ground Corn Flakes (JW on the Road)

Before removing the corn flakes from the grinder, I added two teaspoons each of ground ginger and lime zest. Remember what I said earlier about the lime and ginger flavors being muted in the tea?

I cut the cauliflower into florets, tossed with the sauce I had reduced in the oven, and coated in the corn flakes mixture. I put the coated cauliflower in an oven-safe container and baked it on 400 degrees for about 15 minutes to soften the cauliflower.

Orange Cauliflower after Baking
Orange Cauliflower after baking the first time (JW on the Road)

Then, I added some additional sauce and some additional breading to the top and put it under the broiler for about 5 minutes to get a nice crisp.

While the cauliflower crisped, I pulled out the ham steak and diced it and tossed it in a little bit of the remaining sauce.

Afterward, I pulled out the cauliflower, mixed in the diced ham and plated over rice and topped with toasted sesame seeds.

The verdict

Good! Think sweet and subtly spicy. The cauliflower would be great on a skewer at a cocktail party and is just good and interesting enough to probably make someone ask you what it is.

Reminds me of a great play on general tso’s chicken, or maybe even sesame chicken. Somewhere in there.

Admittedly, it kinda feels like I phoned in the ham steak, but the salty burst of flavor that comes from the ham mixed with the cauliflower was great. I’m also glad I included the ginger and lime zest in the corn flakes breading — it really amped those flavors up in a way that complements the dish.

All in all, a good first step. I’d make it again. In fact, I probably will.

Corn Flake Cauliflower
The cauliflower and ham, plated on top of rice and topped with toasted sesame seeds. (JW on the Road)


Recipe:

Corn Flake Cauliflower

Serves 4

Time: 5 minutes to prep, 40 minutes to cook, 1 minute to assemble

Ingredients

  • 2 12 fl oz cans of lime ginger iced tea
  • 1/2 cup hoisin
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sambal
  • 1 tbsp Mike’s Hot Honey
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup corn flakes
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp lime zest
  • 1 ham steak (approximately 1 pound)
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 orange cauliflower
  • 1/4 cup brown rice, cooked
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

Directions

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine iced tea, hoisin, soy sauce, sambal, hot honey, vinegar and vegetable stock. Mix together and simmer on medium-high heat until mixture is reduced by about half. This will take about 20 minutes.
  2. In a blender, food processor, or spice grinder, combine corn flakes, ginger and zest. Grind or pulse until powdery.
  3. On the stovetop, preferably in a searing hot cast iron pan with a tablespoon of vegetable oil, sear both sides of the ham steak until browned. Keep warm in a 300º oven.
  4. Break down the cauliflower into florets. Set aside leaves or excess stalk for later pickling. Remove the ham steak from the oven and turn it to 400º.
  5. Toss the cauliflower in the saucepan with the sauce. Remove from pan and coast with about 3/4 of the corn flakes mixture.
  6. In an oven-safe pan, bake the cauliflower for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, coat with more of the sauce and the remaining corn flakes. Make sure to save a little bit of the sauce for the next step. Then, turn your broiler to high. When it’s on high, put the cauliflower under it for 5 minutes.
  7. Dice the ham steak and toss it in the remaining sauce.
  8. Remove the cauliflower from the oven, mix in the diced ham steak.
  9. Serve the cauliflower and ham combination on top of rice and top with the sesame seeds.

CY, short for “Challenge Yourself”— Inspired by a particular show on the Food Network, I love creating meals/dishes with just a few random ingredients that I find at the grocery store. Here, I’ll share with you what works (and what doesn’t!) and how to incorporate that into your daily life as a home cook.