Here are some great tips for softening butter if you want to make impromptu cookies: Quick n’ Easy: Ways to Soften Butter | The Kitchn.
Here are some great tips for softening butter if you want to make impromptu cookies: Quick n’ Easy: Ways to Soften Butter | The Kitchn.
Guacamole is one of my favorite dips to make when guests come over or we just feel like snacking on the weekends, and I think I have perfected my recipe over time. I have posted my recipe for guacamole here before, so in this post, I’ll share some tips I have learned about making a truly great guacamole. Bonus: It’s really easy to make, too!
Guacamole is truly at its best when it is kept very simple, so the flavor of the avocado can shine through. It does not need fillers like sour cream or cream cheese. What it does require are perfectly ripe avocados. Plan on using 1 avocado for every 2-3 diners.
When shopping for avocados, look for those that have a darker green skin, almost black. Squeeze the avocado gently. A ripe avocado should give easily under the pressure, but it shouldn’t feel like you can completely squish it; by that time, it’s probably over-ripe and turning black inside. If you buy avocados that aren’t completely ripened, leave them out on the counter a few days and they will get softer over time. Only put them in the refrigerator when they reach the desired ripeness.
My guacamole recipe originally comes from Rick Bayless’s great cookbook Authentic Mexican. The number of ingredients are kept to a minimum, and there really is no way to improve on Bayless’s recipe, although you can make some substitutions if you like. This recipe serves 4-6 people.
First, chop 1 white onion as finely as you can and put it in a bowl. If you have a really ripe tomato, you may want to chop it and add it to the bowl as well, but it is certainly not necessary and should be omitted when tomatoes are not in season.
You will need 2 ripe avocados. Slice each avocado in half lengthwise, working your knife around the pit. Gently twist the two halves in opposite directions to separate them. Using a large spoon, scoop out the pits and reserve. Then scoop out the avocado flesh and add it to the bowl.
Using a potato masher, roughly mash the avocado with the onion. This is a great alternative use for what is usually a one-function tool. However, if you don’t have a potato masher, you can use a fork, although I don’t feel like it does as good a job. I like a creamy texture with just a little chunkiness.
Add a few drops of Jalapeno Tabasco sauce, 1 teaspoon salt or to taste, and the juice of 1 lime or to taste. I substitute the Tabasco sauce for jalapeno because I always have it on hand, but you can also use 1 jalapeno, finely chopped. Keep tasting your guacamole as you season it. Some avocados will need more help than others.
When you are done, bury the reserved avocado pits in the guacamole and cover the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap right against the top of the guacamole; this will help prevent browning. Let the flavors develop for a few minutes before serving with tortilla chips.
I do not add cilantro or garlic to my guacamole, but you may want to experiment by adding a few sprigs of cilantro, chopped well, or 1-2 minced garlic cloves. You can also substitute or add other chiles for the jalapeno, such as serrano chiles or even rehydrated chipotles, which will make the guacamole much spicier. For a milder guacamole, try roasting the chiles first.
Just remember that the secret to good guacamole are great avocados, plus onion, salt, lime juice and a little spice. As long as you have those components, you can make a really great guacamole any time.
When I first started learning how to cook, I was a slave to recipes. This was because I lacked the self-confidence to realize when something was done cooking or when a new flavor needed to be added or how much seasoning to use.
But as I have learned how to cook and become more comfortable with different techniques, I find myself going off the recipe more and more. A recipe is a great starting point. It can inspire me or help me get started. But once I start cooking a dish, I feel more creative and get greater enjoyment out of the process if I ignore the recipe.
How do you start to cook off-recipe? This is my process, which might provide some guidance. But every cook is different, as is every dish; that’s what makes cooking such a fun and rewarding activity. So I encourage you to follow your own intuition in the kitchen, and develop a process that works for you.
Usually, I do start with a recipe so I’m not working from a blank slate. I read the recipe through once or twice. I preheat the oven, if needed. I assemble my ingredients, or mise en place, and make sure that everything is peeled, washed and chopped (although I have to admit that I don’t pay a lot of attention to the amounts of ingredients called for in the recipe).
But before I start to cook, I simply close the cookbook, so I don’t have the recipe readily available to refer to anymore. I know the general process; the rest I leave to instinct. By not relying on the recipe, I have to use my five senses instead, which I think results in a better tasting dish. After all, the recipe writer doesn’t know how hot my stove gets or how much pepper I like.
My sense of sound tells me when the oil is hot or when the soup is boiling too ferociously. My sense of sight tells me when the vegetables have browned enough or the meat needs to be flipped. My sense of smell tells me when the food is nearly done cooking, and my sense of touch lets me know when the meat is cooked through. Finally, it’s important to taste, taste, taste while cooking. This lets me know when additional seasoning is needed, or when I need to ramp up a particular ingredient, or when something is just missing from the dish.
While I cook, I let everything around me inspire me. Perhaps there is a stray vegetable or two languishing in the crisper that I could throw into the dish. A sprig of fresh herbs from the garden sitting in a glass of water on the counter suggests a garnish. While reaching for the salt, I spy another seasoning that I think will augment the flavor profile. Even a glass of wine that I’m sipping from can add a splash of brightness to a sauce.
This “seat of your pants” cooking can result in failures, of course. But so can recipes. And more often than not, I love the finished dish, because it’s cooked to my tastes, not to the specifications of a cookbook author. I also love it because it has more of me in it, because I connected more with the dish while I was cooking it and gave it focused thought, rather than relying on the recipe to guide me.
If you have never cooked this way, why not try it every now and then? If the dish doesn’t work out, you can learn from your mistakes. And the more you practice this type of cooking, the better you’ll get, and the more your confidence will grow. I think you might even enjoy making dinner more.
I finally got around to reading last Thanksgiving’s issue of Fine Cooking. In it was an article on alternative sweeteners, which I found helpful because I’m trying to cut down on refined sugars. Because alternative sweeteners, like honey, agave and maple syrup, are more intensely sweet than sugar, I can use less of them and still get the sweet effect I want.
But how to use these sweeteners in recipes? The article provides a helpful guide:
Start by substituting ¾ cup honey, maple syrup or molasses for each cup of sugar, and reduce the liquid by 3 tablespoons. To substitute agave, use 2/3 cup agave nectar for each cup of sugar and reduce the liquid by ¼ cup. Also, since these sweeteners will speed the browning process…, reduce the baking temperature by 25 degrees. Check for doneness at the usual time, but you may have to increase the baking time slightly.
A very useful tip!
Here’s a useful tip that I had to employ last night: how to substitute canned tomatoes for fresh in a recipe. Use the following guidelines when substituting canned tomatoes for fresh:
I’ve been trying to eat more soup lately. It’s the season for soup, but it’s also one of the best foods you can eat if you’re trying to lose weight or eat more healthy foods. Broth-based soups fill you up and leave you feeling satisfied without adding a lot of calories. They also are a good way of getting a lot of vegetables into your diet.
Often, I’ll try to make a big pot of soup on the weekend and then freeze the leftovers for lunches. But I have to admit that I don’t often think ahead. I either don’t take the container out of the freezer to thaw in time, or I skip making the soup altogether.
I usually have a lot of cooked vegetables left over from weeknight dinners, though, and I hate to throw food out, but eating reheated vegetables doesn’t always appeal to me. This week, the lightbulb went on. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before to turn those leftover vegetables into soup. All you really need to keep on hand is some stock, which is easy enough to make ahead of time, or you can buy it pre-made (I prefer the kind that comes in the aseptic containers, as those brands seem to have less salt).
All I did was simmer the cooked vegetables with some stock to cover for about 10-15 minutes. Roasted and braised vegetables seem to work best, but any veggies will do. If the vegetables get too soft and mushy, just puree the soup in the blender or with an immersion stick blender, and you have cream of whatever soup. Season well, but make sure the seasonings you add don’t clash with whatever seasoning might already be on the pre-cooked vegetables.
A little grated cheese or a dollop of plain yogurt makes a great garnish. You could also toss in whatever bits of leftover cooked meat there might be, such as roasted chicken or some crumbled bacon. Voila! A quick and healthy lunch is on the table, with very little pre-planning required.
Well, it’s clear that I haven’t had a chance to post much here recently, and I haven’t been doing many cooking challenges lately either. Sometimes life gets too hectic. With that in mind, I am returning my focus to simple recipes, and I will post a bunch of them here.
By simple recipes, I mean recipes that have only a handful of ingredients, no more than five total, including salt, pepper and oil. Or quick but complete dinners that you can put together in one pan. These are the kinds of recipes that you will memorize after making them two or three times, so that you can easily whip one up on a weeknight even if you’re dead tired, or you can pull out when you’re not sure what to make with that ingredient you picked up on sale.
These recipes are great to add to your repertoire, but the problem is that they can become boring after a while. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a ready-made arsenal to add pizzazz to any recipe. You can vary the flavors depending on your mood and what you have available.
Here is my list of sure-fire ways to quickly and easily boost the flavor quotient in a simple recipe:
As I post some of my favorite tried-and-true simple recipes, I’ll provide examples of these flavor boosters. But never be afraid to experiment. Cooking is more fun that way!
I originally posted this in response to a question on Quora: How can someone who enjoys cooking improve their skills and knowledge? I am a self-taught cook, and these are the practices that best helped me.
First, focus. Food is a very broad area, but it’s hard to be very good and very broad at the same time. Stick to ingredients that you like and want to eat. The same idea applies to cuisines. At home, I primarily cook Italian, French and American cuisines. The ingredients are familiar to me, the dishes are both classic and delicious, and my family enjoys them. When we want authentic Mexican or Japanese or Thai, we go out to eat. However, if you really enjoy one of these cuisines, specialize in that. Any of them will be an enjoyable challenge.
Next, identify dishes that you like and then cook them over and over. I like to pick a recipe — spaghetti carbonara, for instance — and try its variations from different cookbooks. Over time, I get to know what I like and what techniques are most effective. I also gradually memorize the recipe as I cook it over and over. Once the recipe is ingrained, you can start to play with variations.
As you are cooking, practice using your senses of taste, touch, smell and sight for seasoning food and determining when it’s done. Seasoning is the most critical way to build flavor, especially salting appropriately, but it’s difficult to learn how to season from recipes. Most recipes simply advise to salt to taste. I follow Alice Waters‘s advice and taste my food frequently, both before adding any seasoning and afterward, to see how the flavors change and deepen. Over time, you learn when a dish requires more seasoning and what seasoning to use to best augment the flavors of the dish. Whenever a new component is added to the dish, it’s time to taste again to see how the flavors have changed and if additional seasoning is required. This is really only something you can learn through practice. (I use my son’s old baby spoons for tasting spoons; they work very well.)
Another thing to practice is looking at, smelling and, in some cases, touching your food to determine when it’s done or when it’s time to add other ingredients. Don’t rely on recipe cooking times, as they aren’t calibrated to your stove, ingredients or tastes. The best recipes tell you what the food should look like when it’s ready. Should the onions be translucent, golden or deeply browned, for instance? What does the steak feel like when it’s cooked to your liking? After doing this for a while, you will only need the oven timer as a backup for your own sensory input.
Finally, keep notes. I keep a notebook of my favorite recipes, important techniques and basics I want to remember, and variations I like. I also use a website (Cookbooker) to note which recipes I’ve tried from my cookbooks and what I thought of them. I like the website for this purpose because I can easily search it, but a notebook or card file would also work.
And remember, when it comes to cooking, there’s always something new you can learn. If you find yourself getting bored or getting into a rut, stretch yourself by learning a new dish or technique.
One last tip: I benefited immensely from taking a knife skills class and investing in some good knives.
The latest issue of Fine Cooking has a procedure for making homemade nut butters using almonds, hazelnuts and pecans. Making my own nut butter is probably not something I would have thought of doing. We always have a jar of natural peanut butter in the fridge, but to tell the truth, I usually avoid buying the fancier kinds because of the high cost. The procedure seemed fairly simple, though, and looked like a good way to use up nuts bought for other recipes. As a matter of fact, I had a container of hazelnuts in the freezer that I had never found a use for, so I decided to try it.
It was as easy as promised. The hardest part was peeling the hazelnuts; I used the procedure recommended on Ochef, but still will probably avoid buying hazelnuts so I don’t have to do this tedious task again. (Fortunately, you can use skin-on almonds or pecans instead.) You need a food processor or very high-powered blender to do the chopping, but it only takes a few minutes to make. The result is a jarful of creamy, decadent nut butter that is delicious spread on warm banana bread or toast.
You need 2 cups toasted, skin-on almonds; toasted, skinned hazelnuts; or untoasted pecans. Chop the nuts in the food processor roughly.
Add ¼ teaspoon salt and pulse to combine. While pulsing, slowly add 1½-4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil until the mixture is fairly smooth. Use just enough oil to help the nuts break down.
Add 1 teaspoon honey and pulse to mix. Store in a jar in the refrigerator up to 9 months.