Wax-On Wax-Off, the Kitchen Edition

My friend and Time for Dinner co-author Pilar Guzman has a theory about cooking from recipes (as opposed to improvising with what you’ve got in front of you). She calls it the Wax-On/Wax-Off theory. Remember how the Karate Kid had no idea he was developing muscle memory for defensive blocks until Mr. Miyagi took away the car-waxing cloth???  Pilar believes that there is a whole world of capable cooks out there who are still waxing cars…I mean, still relying on recipes even though their highly developed culinary muscles have fully prepared them to start winging it in the kitchen.

That person was me until a few years ago. I remember the recipe that turned it around for me — Chicken with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts. I had eaten some version of the dish in a restaurant and for whatever reason decided that this was the meal that was going to be my Crane Kick. I had probably cooked and edited 4200 skillet meals by that point in my life so I knew the basic technique was…

Brown meat in fat. Remove meat. Add vegetables. Add meat back to pan with some form of liquid. Simmer until meat is cooked through.

So I thought about the ingredients I needed, thought about the technique, then tested myself. The exercise not only yielded the most delicious dinner that even the girls inhaled like wolves, but ignited a little flicker of confidence that I knew would just keep growing. And it has. I think it’s a huge reason why I’ve been able to keep the family dinner thing going. (Is there anything less appealing than bobbing back and forth between a pot and a cookbook during the six-o’clock scramble?) So now, it’s your turn to test yourself. Up there in the picture are all the ingredients you need (chicken, bacon, brussels, onion, wine…forgot to show salt & pepper) to create Chicken with Bacon and Brussels (finished dish pictured below). See how you do…and let me know how it turns out.

Can I tell you how much I love this dinner? Not only is the bacon/ brussels combo genius, but the whole meal takes about a half hour and uses only one pot.

PS: The “I Want to Cook with What I Already Have” chapter in Time for Dinner is a nice way to start weening yourself off recipes. They provide just enough structure to get you started, but are loose enough for some good old-fashioned off-roading.

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I am exactly that person; I’ve been cooking for years, the daughter or an accomplished cook as well, and I run back and forth between the stove and the cookbook every night to make sure I have my teaspoon measured perfectly.
Unlike with baking, cooking isn’t a precise science – more of a dance. Improv. Thanks for reminding me of this – I’ll return and report!


Hello — first, thank you, I think this is a wonderful space. My cookbook came today and I can’t wait to read it. Second, I still miss Cookie magazine. Just sayin’. Finally, I wonder if you can help with this: I’m lucky to have a 3-year old who eats lots of different foods, our problem is getting him to the table. We get home around 5:15. Dinner on the table between 5:45 and 6:00 PM. Toddler to the table, well, most nights, at best, about 6:45 after repeated reminders that “no growing food = no dessert.” He just won’t stay put to eat. He usually ends up eating 10-15 bites of dinner while on the run, a small bowl of ice cream at the table (Dessert!), and then, by 7:30 he is hungry for his main food staple: plain yogurt with honey. This isn’t a disaster by any means, but I’d love him to sit at the table with us for even 15 minutes, and to fill up more on dinner and less on yogurt. Any ideas?


i think that there are a couple of different types of cooks – those who like to use a recipe to cook and those who don’t. i am one who does. (this could be because i’m an engineer by training and it appeals to my meticulous and somewhat neurotic/anal nature.) i just like the certainty of knowing what to do next. of course there are things i make so often that i no longer need the recipe because i know it by heart, but i still “use” the recipe. it’s also not to say that i don’t sometimes make substitutions based on my prefereces or just what i have/don’t have on hand, but i still basically follow the recipe. i have a friend who hates recipes and would always prefer to make it up, you just have to go with what works for you.

Jessica F

Thanks for another cute post!
I recently moved, and my personal cookbook (with all my handwritten, time tested, modified recipes) went missing! Having to relearn all those recipes is still a work in progress. But I was surprised to realize that I didn’t actually NEED the recipes. I had made most of them so many times, I could just “do” them.
Except for the desserts.
The difference between 3 eggs and four in a recipe is the difference between a pineapple casserole and pineapple scrambled eggs!

Schuyler B.

I love your blog. I discovered it this summer and have been an avid reader ever since. After reading your post yesterday, I “shared” the recipe for the brussels, chicken, and bacon dish with my husband, who was on deck to cook dinner last night. In my mind’s eye, I knew he had defrosted chicken, we had brussels sprouts, and miracle of miracles, we even had some really good bacon in the fridge. He was game, having had a lot of practice “winging it”, so whipped up the dish. Yummy does not even describe how good the meal was. My five-year-olds were still talking about how good it was this morning. Thanks for the inspiration!


I just spent the better part of a staff meeting writing down the way to do this and I am still kind of wondering if it will work. Will report back tomorrow. I, for better or for worse, am a person who depends on instructions and recipes so I am a little nervous about it. 😮


I made this last night and it was AWESOME! I don’t have kids (yet), but I do have a husband who swore he hated brussels sprouts, but adores bacon. He loved it! I substituted the bacon for turkey bacon because I had it in the fridge, and added some craisins along with the liquid (chicken stock and white wine) which added to the wonderful flavor complex. I also threw some toasted slivered almonds on at the end for texture. Thanks!


Mmmm….cooking in bacon fat makes a big difference, doesn’t it? Alas, I covered my pan (I am totally paranoid about undercooked chicken) and my sprouts came out terribly anemic looking. But the taste was fine, and we loved the bacony chicken. Thanks for the inspiration to step out of the comfort zone (but I think I’m back to waxing for a bit!).


This recipe caused something magical to happen in my house. Not only did my 5 year old pop three brussel sprouts in his mouth, one after the other, but he ate about three spoonfuls of quinoa (drizzled with the sauce from the chicken/sprout dish).

I casually mentioned that people call them brussel sprouts because they make people sprout and grow tall. (Did I mention we sometimes lie about the effects of food? Fish make you swim better, carrots make you hop high like a rabbit and broccoli really are mini trees and bushes that elves and hobbits live in). After hearing that he will grow taller, he ate a few more! I should go buy a lottery ticket right now because this kind of luck does not happen to me.

Anyways here is how I made the meal: I cooked the bacon, set it aside and then partially cooked chicken thighs in a little reserved bacon fat, set aside the chicken, then sauteed the sprouts and onion together, then put the chicken back in the pan with the sprouts and onion, added 1 cup of chicken stock and put a lid on it for about 10 minutes. Easy peasy lemon squeezy!


Amanda! This warms my heart — especially since you were nervous about going off the book only a few hours earlier. And the way you cooked the dinner is the exact way I cooked it, but for the rest of you…don’t look. That’s cheating!


You are so right on!! I’ve been waxing on and off and on and off and I never once thought I could actually cook without a recipe. Geesh. Friends always say I’m a good cook. I always say I can read directions.

Thanks for this inspiration. I’m scared silly to start with something like brussel sprouts that I’m not even sure I will like, but I’m throwing caution to the wind!

I’ll let you know how it goes . . . this weekend. For tonight I need something a little more predictable.


I do cook this way fairly often, but I haven’t tried this combination–so we’re having it tonight! Here’s hoping the kids will try some brussels sprouts! It reminds me of another favorite variation: chicken with onions, fennel, a little balsamic (on the chicken), raisins, parsley & pinenuts. Add a little extra broth, too. I like that everyone eats this meal, even if we lift the chicken out and serve it without veggies to the kids (they have carrot sticks or edamame instead). They’ll eat the brothy sauce on a side of noodles or mashed potatoes, too.


This is a great post. Your words crystallized a sense I’ve been having lately that I’m not harnessing my kitchen know-how as much as I should. It’s so much more fun when you put your own creativity into a dish. Thank you!


Your topics are always so spot on. I love the idea of cooking with what is in my kitchen but am still terrified of messing it up. First of all – who really cares, my husband will eat anything. The man used to microwave chicken in college. And second how else will I learn? You have given me the confidence to do it! I love this idea, maybe you could do more of these? I know I would enjoy it!


Made this tonight… I was kind of nervous but liked the challenge. It was pretty good but missing something I think. Would you mind sharing how you prepared it? Just for comparison-sake? Thank you for your recipies and inspiration!


When I was a kid, I hated eating vgeetables. One night brussel sprouts were the vegetable of the evening. I hid my four in a coffee can on the windowsill that held an avocado pit studded with toothpicks that my Mom was hoping would turn into a plant You know like all Moms did in the 60s Unfortunately, my secret was revealed about a week later when a very unpleasant odor was emanating from that coffee can I was found guilty Forty years later, I friggin LOVE brussel sprouts! Who knew they could actually be tasty! Thanks, my child!


Made this for dinner last night and it was delicious!! Scaled it down for two people and now I wish I had made more for leftovers!


This post spoke to me so clearly, I decided that I needed to read every single post ever written starting with January 2010. And I’ve basically done just that the last week (I’m up to 2012!), quietly reading on my iPad during Bears games at home with my boyfriend. I’ve since found that many of the posts are incredibly relatable – but none more than this one. I’m a 27-year old woman who travels for work and I’m always looking for quick, easy, healthy recipes. But I’m glued to the recipe. Today, I decided to wax off. I probably read every post you wrote about salmon, but decided to make it my own way – with store-bought stir fry sauce I had lying around with kale and rice. I’ve never had a more perfectly cooked salmon (thanks to your salmon and brussels sprouts recipe directions) and I’m so proud of myself for coming up with a combination myself, one that didn’t involve reading a recipe word for word.

Not to get too lengthy here, but your blog is inspiring me to cook for myself – not my husband (I’m not married), not my children (I don’t have any) but just me. And I love how versatile it is. Thank you!


Man, I kind of think of myself as someone who does okay in the kitchen. But I made a mess of this dish. Burned the bacon, the chicken was tough and stringy. Even the brussels sprouts, which I normally roast with olive oil and s & p, turned out mushy. I guess I am better at following instructions and then introducing variations or going off-book once I’ve practiced something a couple times! I’d love to be a “real” cook — peeking in the fridge and pantry, grabbing this and that, and whipping up some tasty dish. It didn’t happen for me last night though!

Lisa Eberhart

Did anyone ever get a proper recipe for this dish? I can experiment, but I prefer to have some help. Do you chop the brussels sprouts or leave them whole? Do you add wine AND chicken broth or one OR the other? My family loves everything, so I am not worried about them liking the dish – I would like a proper recipe. Thanks!