Join the My Home Table challenge and cook all through January

With the holidays behind us and a month of new beginnings ahead, it’s back to work in the kitchen.

A year ago, I joined my friend Martha Pincoffs on a challenge to prepare and eat only home-cooked foods during the month of January. It wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I got into the rhythm of having a better plan for what I’m going to cook and being willing to spend more money at the grocery store. Even though the grocery bill was higher, we saved money in the end by cooking all those meals at home. I spent far more hours in the kitchen cooking and doing dishes, but we enjoyed discovering new dishes that everyone in the family would eat.

This year, I’ve decided to take on the challenge again, and you all would be more than welcome to join. Pincoffs decided to call it the My Home Table challenge, so you can search the hashtag #myhometable to see how others are tackling it.

My goals are to cook even more from the #Austin360Cooks posts that you all share and to tackle at least a few dishes I’ve never attempted to cook at home, including this General Tso’s Chicken from “The Asian Slow Cooker: Exotic Favorites for Your Crockpot” by Kelly Kwok (Page Street Publishing, $21.99).

If you haven’t already done a kitchen and cookbook purge, now is a great time to do it. I like to pull out all the items in my pantry, throw away the expired stuff and make a pile of ingredients that I’m either going to cook with that week or donate if I don’t. Keeping those cans, jars and boxes on the counter — and putting the must-eat stuff in the fridge and freezer right out in front — will remind me throughout the week of my mission to cut down on the clutter.

If you’ve already given some TLC to your kitchen and still feel like you’re in a rut, my best piece of advice is to go shopping at a different grocery store, maybe one you’ve never been to, or go shopping with a foodie friend to see your favorite store through new eyes.

Home cooking might come easily to you every day of the year, and if so, forgive those of us who struggle to maintain the enthusiasm day after day. Let’s use this month as an excuse to encourage each other to find new joys in the kitchen and maybe even cook a meal for someone with whom you’ve only ever gone out to eat. Inviting people into your home to serve them your food doesn’t have to be a big, fancy affair.

Be gentle on yourself if you’re not feeling like Ina or Nigella or Alton. By cooking more at home this month, you’re figuring out what kind of cook you are, not trying to copy someone else. That’s a gift that you’ll enjoy all year long.

General Tso’s Chicken

This is one of my husband’s favorite dishes that he orders every time we get takeout. Pan-frying the chicken on the stove beforehand adds an extra layer of crispiness we all love. The juicy bite-size pieces are coated in a sweet, spicy and tangy sauce that is so good you can’t help but wander back for seconds.

— Kelly Kwok

3/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp. cornstarch, divided

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into bite-size cubes

2 tsp. cooking oil

1 cup low sodium soy sauce

1/2 cup water

4 Tbsp. honey

2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce

1 1/2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

2 Tbsp. ketchup or tomato paste

1/2 tsp. fish sauce

1/2 tsp. sesame oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp. fresh ginger, minced

3 to 4 tsp. red chili garlic paste, to taste

4 to 5 dried red chilies, or to taste

2 Tbsp. chilled water

Cooked rice, for serving

1 green onion, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional)

Sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

In a large zip-top bag, toss together 3/4 cup cornstarch and black pepper. Add the chicken to the bag and give it a little shake until well coated.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken, about 2 to 3 minutes on both sides, then transfer to the slow cooker.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, water, honey, hoisin sauce, vinegar, ketchup, fish sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and chili paste and pour over the chicken. Cover and cook on low for about 3 to 4 hours.

About 30 minutes prior to serving, toss in the dried chilies, then whisk together the remaining cornstarch with water in a small bowl and stir into the slow cooker. Turn heat to high and allow the sauce to cook and thicken up for about 20 to 30 minutes.

Serve with cooked rice and garnish with green onions and sesame seeds, if desired. Serves 4.

— From “The Asian Slow Cooker: Exotic Favorites for Your Crockpot” by Kelly Kwok (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)

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