Written by Sharis Roe DeJaynes, photos provided by Jennifer Nelsen
As a busy professional, I do not have much time to cook, though I do love to eat good home cooking. Bored with my own quick meals, I recently joined the “someone else cooks for me, please!” collective, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I hired local chef Jennifer Nelsen. Delivered with cooking instructions and the extra groceries necessary to finish the meal or dish, I initially chose chili, baked ziti, beef broccoli, and southwestern chicken. Since then, ceviche, beef stroganoff, and even pot stickers have likened my taste buds. Everything packs enormous flavor, and I simply had to sit her down and learn some of her secrets.
Island Guide: Where have you been all my life?
Nelsen: I was born in Dallas, Texas. I was raised there, went to high school there, and went to college there at SMU. I raised my 3 children there as well. Circa 2009, we moved to Galveston and I cook not only for my family, but for friends and clients alike, with my passionate yet scientific approach to food.
Island Guide: Tell us about when your love of cooking started.
Nelsen: I can thank my mother for allowing me in her kitchen at an early age. I was the strange child who, on Saturday afternoons, would not be outside playing with my friends. I would be inside watching Julia Child on TV – seriously, I was 6 or 7 years old. I loved and was fascinated by Child. I even dressed up like Julia Child for Halloween multiple times. Of course, no one knew who I was, but I did.
My grandmother was an excellent cook. Unfortunately, some of her recipes went to the grave with her. I’ve tried to replicate her pork chops, tacos, and the orange cake that was so moist it had to be held together with toothpicks, to no avail. She could do more with a box of Shake ‘n Bake than anyone I’ve ever known. I spent a lot of time with her growing up as my father and mother traveled quite a bit.
I remember my grandmother always had all her spices lined up on the top of the stove, so I did the same thing when I got my first apartment. I didn’t know what half of the spices were at the time, but I started experimenting…first with a box of Kraft mac and cheese, with tuna in it. I learned a lot by making mistakes.
Island Guide: What chef have you learned from the most?
Nelsen: I literally have every episode Julia Child has ever filmed. It’s hilarious seeing all the old appliances, and her dropping things on the floor, and “You can’t do anything without a good sharp knife!” (Nelsen says in her best Julia Child voice.)
When I was pregnant with my twins, I was on bedrest and we didn’t have cable. So, I had two options, watch the O.J. Simpson trial which was going on at the time or watch PBS. There were a lot of cooking shows on PBS in the afternoons, and I just kept watching. I literally would make my husband go to the store and get the ingredients so I could make what they were making. Of course, I’d totally screw it up. I was not good when I started, but I kept watching, and I kept trying, and I kept experimenting. It was the only thing I ever found that I didn’t get bored with. I couldn’t get too serious about cooking though because I had carpools, and school, and dance, and all things raising girls attend to. But then, Food Network came along and it was “game on!”
Island Guide: Who are more of your favorite chefs?
Nelsen: Ina Garten is by far my favorite Food Network chef. She makes elegant food, and something anyone can do if you pay attention. I also like Alton Brown. He explained the science behind cooking and why when you mix butter and cream it thickens, for instance. That certainly appealed to me. Emeril Lagasse was of course, always entertaining but I was way too intimidated to try one of his recipes. Emeril and Bobby Flay make amazing dishes, but the list of ingredients is longer than any kid’s Christmas list. Way too much for me.
And of course, there’s Robert Irvine. I had the opportunity to interview and write about Robert Irvine for publication, twice.
Island Guide: When did you get serious about cooking?
Nelsen: I started getting serious about 10 years ago when the kids were a bit older. We had a party and my next-door neighbor held up a plate of my food in front of me. I thought “uh oh, he hates it,” but he said, “Jennifer, you have a gift.” I was floored, and that was the validation I needed to keep going and growing. Once people started asking me to make a dish here and there, my confidence grew even more.
I’m dead serious about my cooking now. I constantly create – it’s not the same thing over and over. There are dishes now though, that I can do in my sleep, and that’s comforting. I love teaching people how to cook as well. It’s like teaching a man to fish, as the saying goes.
Island Guide: What are your favorite tools?
Nelsen: All-Clad cookware and a T-fal non-stick skillet. Good cookware is a must. I have a Vitamix blender, a Cuisinart, and a KitchenAid mixer. Knives are personal, and I own Wüsthof knives. I’m a bit of a kitchen tool hoarder overall, truth be told.
Island Guide: Can you share a few random tips, tricks, and a recipe, please?
Nelsen: Sure thing!
Build relationships with your butcher and produce folks at your grocery store of choice. They can help get you what you need.
On making your own Pizza dough: It’s a challenge for sure, but low and slow works best. Give it special pizza flour, and the 24-hour curation it deserves.
Make your own chicken stock, for multiple uses. Boil rice or pasta in it for more flavor. It’s easy to make and you can freeze it for later use.
Your Thanksgiving Turkey: Soak it in a buttermilk brine for 3 days, and get a Butterball, period. And speaking of Thanksgiving, plan early and buy what you need early.
Must have knives: Paring knife, boning knife, and a chef’s knife. Literally, try them on for size in your hands, and buy them separately. You don’t need a billion knives, nor should you store them in a wood block (it’s simply unsanitary) and never put them in the dishwasher.
And for a recipe, my Chicken Enchilada recipe is a favorite. I shared it at GalvestonIslandGuide.com/jennifernelson.
Island Guide: What services do you provide?
Nelsen: I can provide prepared microwave meals, Crock-Pot meals, quick to make casseroles or pasta dishes, and the like. I can come to your house and cook for you. I can cater private dinners for six or less. Perhaps you just need appetizers for a party you’re hosting? I can do that too. I’d love to cook for anyone who appreciates food as much as I do.
Island Guide: Even chefs have guilty food pleasures, what are some of yours?
Nelsen (laughing): To this day, I still love Kraft deluxe mac and cheese, Shake ‘n Bake pork chops, and SpagettiOs with franks, right out of the can. Burger King and Taco Bell too. There, I said it! My secret is out!
If you’re in need of a personal chef, a caterer for an intimate gathering, or just some good ol’ home cooking from time to time, Jennifer ‘can do!’ and you will enjoy her full flavors immensely. Contact Jennifer Nelsen at Facebook.com/jennifer.w.nelsen or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Nelsen’s Chicken Enchiladas with Red Chili Sauce
Sauce and Filling:
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 4 thighs), trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 cans tomato sauce (8 ounces each)
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 can (4 ounces) pickled jalapeños, drained and chopped (about 1/4 cup)
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (2 cups)
Tortillas and Toppings:
10 corn tortillas (six-inch)
3 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (3/4 cup)
¾ cup sour cream
1 avocado, diced medium
5 leaves romaine lettuce washed, dried, and shredded
2 limes, quartered
Vegetable cooking spray
Instructions: (10 Enchiladas, Serving 4 or 5)
- For The Sauce And Filling: Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, coriander, cumin, salt, and sugar; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken and cook, stirring constantly, until coated with spices, about 30 seconds. Add tomato sauce and 3/4 cup water; stir to separate chicken pieces. Bring to simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and flavors have melded, about 8 minutes. Pour mixture through medium-mesh strainer into medium bowl, pressing on chicken and onions to extract as much sauce as possible; set sauce aside. Transfer chicken mixture to large plate; freeze for 10 minutes to cool, then combine with cilantro, jalapenos, and cheese in medium bowl and set aside.
- Adjust oven racks to upper and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 300 degrees.
- To Assemble: Follow illustrations below to heat tortillas and fill, roll, and sauce enchiladas. Cover baking dish with foil. Bake enchiladas on lower-middle rack until heated through and cheese is melted, 20 to 25 minutes. Uncover and serve immediately, passing sour cream, avocado, lettuce, and lime wedges separately.
- To Make Ahead: The sauce and filling can be prepared (step 1) up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container; however, the enchiladas should be assembled shortly before baking.