Here are some tips on freezing berries from Cook’s Country. Apparently, I already goofed when I froze excess blackberries and blueberries last week by washing them first. Oh well, they are destined for pulverization in smoothies or ice cream anyway.
Category Archives: Ingredients
Recently, when posting tips on how to cook without recipes, I suggested learning one or two techniques for each ingredient that you cook most frequently. Just as a guide, here are the techniques I’ve identified for my own personal cooking. These suggestions will give you a place to get started, especially if you’re just learning how to cook. I’ve linked to specific instructions if they were posted previously on my blog.
Please note: These suggestions do not represent every possible way you can cook an ingredient, just the methods that I like best and use most frequently. Also, not all ingredients are listed, because I don’t eat everything. Substitutions are noted when applicable.
Apples: raw in salads or applesauce
Avocados: raw in salads
Bacon: pan-fry or roast
Beans, lentils and peas (dried): simmer in the slow cooker
Cabbage: raw in salads or braise; substitute brussels sprouts (cooked)
Clams and Mussels: steam
Cucumbers: pickle or raw in salads
Edamame: boil or simmer; substitute fava beans or lima beans
Eggplant: grill or roast
Grains: boil or pilaf
Green beans: simmer
Greens (chard, collards, kale, etc.): boil or wilt in bacon fat
Mushrooms: roast or saute
Peas (including sugar snap and snow peas): boil or stir-fry
Sausage: grill, roast or saute
Tomatoes: raw in salads, roast or saute (cherry tomatoes)
Zucchini: grill or saute; substitute summer squash
Everyone knows that tomatoes from the garden taste the best. They are warm, sweet and taste like sunshine on a plate. Nothing you can buy in the grocery store can come close to tomatoes you grow yourself.
This year, we are growing cucumbers for the first time, and I have discovered that the same is true of them. Usually, I can take or leave cucumbers. But the cucumbers from our garden actually have flavor. They are cool, crisp and herbaceous, great with just a touch of salt or lightly pickled. After eating my own homegrown cucumbers, I think I’ll have to give up supermarket cukes altogether.
My favorite way to prepare cucumbers is to marinate the slices in vinegar and seasonings. I keep a bowl of these “pickles” in the fridge and snack on them guilt-free before dinner or throw them into salads. This isn’t a recipe so much as a set of guidelines. Feel free to experiment.
Lightly Pickled Cucumbers
Peel and slice the cucumbers. For 1 lb. of cucumber slices, combine 2 cups water and 1 cup white wine vinegar. Add 1 tbsp. coarse salt plus fresh dill, hot red pepper flakes and sliced garlic, as desired. Let the cucumbers marinate at least 1 hour. Keeps up to 1 week in the refrigerator.
If I have too many cucumbers to eat fresh, I plan to make freezer pickles. Here’s a recipe from Sidewalk Shoes.
One of my cooking goals this year has been to cook more without using recipes. I do love cookbooks. I browse through them frequently and use them to come up with new ideas. I also enjoy challenging myself with difficult or new recipes when I have the time, usually on the weekends.
But during the week, when time is at a premium and energy is often at a low, I find it’s easier to cook without consulting a cookbook. I started seriously teaching myself how to cook about three years ago, and now I’ve reached the stage where I feel very comfortable winging it. Here are the keys to success that I have learned along the way.
The first is to learn some basic cooking techniques. While books on techniques are readily available, I’ve found that cookbooks that contain a lot of simple recipes are the best teachers. I highly recommend Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and Cooks’ Illustrated The New Basic Recipe, especially for learning basic methods of cooking meats and vegetables.
But don’t try to memorize every possible cooking technique. Sure, there are 101 one ways to cook chicken, but you don’t have to know them all. Instead, after sampling a few different ways of cooking a particular ingredient, pick one or two that you like best for the ingredients you cook most frequently. For instance, I like asparagus pan-roasted. I’m probably not going to bother steaming it, although that’s a fine way to cook it. For ingredients like chicken, I have 3 or 4 techniques in my repertoire, depending on whether I’m cooking bone-in pieces, boneless breasts or cutlets.
I keep a cooking notebook, where I list all the ingredients I usually buy, plus notes I’ve collected about them — including my favorite techniques for cooking that ingredient. This is also a good place to record notes on storage, freezing and any special prep required for that ingredient.
Next, develop a repertoire of key recipes, what I call master recipes. These should be recipes that you really like, which cook quickly and can adapt to whatever you have on hand. In my repertoire are a few soups, a handful of pasta recipes, an easy fish dish, and some one-dish meals like a stew, risotto, burritos and frittata. Although I prefer simply cooked vegetables or one-pot entrees, I also have a few side dishes in my roster, including some basic salads, a couple of potato dishes and a vegetable gratin.
Even though these recipes are easy to memorize, I record them in my recipe notebook in case I need to review the details. I rotate through them depending on what I have on hand to cook with, but I always make sure I have the foundations for my master recipes in my pantry.
The third key is to understand what flavors go together, especially when seasoning the dish. The Flavor Bible is a terrific reference. It lists pretty much every possible ingredient and the foods, herbs and seasonings that go best with it. You can pick and choose based on what you have and what you like.
Cooking this way makes grocery shopping a lot easier. I no longer make a list composed of what’s called for in the recipe, regardless of whether it’s in season or way too expensive. Instead, I look for produce that’s high-quality, in season and therefore usually cheaper. And I know that I need to replenish any foundation foods, dairy, eggs and meat when we’re running low and stock up when they’re on sale. I also treat myself to one or two cheeses — usually on sale — that will go well in salads or for snacking.
On the weekends, I spend some time making foods that will make it easier to cook during the week. For instance, I prep produce: washing, peeling, slicing. I also make a batch of chicken stock, a bottle of salad dressing and a loaf of bread or some pizza dough. I may make a sauce or pesto if I need to use up some surplus. This helps me avoid buying the packaged versions of these foods.
So I may not be posting as many recipes on this blog, since I am not cooking as many recipes anymore. Please share your tips for cooking without a book in the comments.
I bought my first watermelon of the season today. My intention is to make watermelon popsicles, as the one food my 2-year-old does ask for day and night is “ice pops.” With temperatures like this, who can blame him?
I fortuitously learned just today to look for a yellow patch on the watermelon’s bottom. The yellow color signifies that the watermelon was left to ripen on the vine (the yellow patch is where the watermelon rested on the ground). A lighter color or white means that the watermelon was picked before it was fully ripe, and watermelons don’t continue to ripen after they are picked.
It’s becoming harder and harder to incorporate fish into my diet. Due to worries about mercury, polluted fish farms and overfishing, I have really cut down the amount of fish I buy and eat. It’s not difficult to imagine that there may come a time when we eat no fish at all, other than those few species that can be safely and cleanly farmed.
I still buy Alaskan wild salmon from time to time, though. Wild salmon is much less contaminated than farmed, and salmon is the one fish (other than tuna) that everyone in the house will eat. It’s also very easy to cook. Usually, I buy one large fillet that will feed the three of us, probably leaving some leftovers for sandwiches the next day.
Roasting is a quick and easy way to cook salmon. Last night I basted the fillet with a mixture of one part honey and one part coarse grain mustard, then sprinkled it with salt, pepper and dill. I roasted it for 12 minutes or so at 400 degrees. Serve with some spring peas sauteed in butter and onions and a simple green salad, and you have an easy weeknight meal.
We are in the midst of that brief season when we must gorge ourselves on asparagus, for all too soon, it will be gone. Overindulgence is the key so that we don’t miss asparagus too much once its season is over, but rather let our longing build up slowly until the next spring.
Asparagus and eggs are a classic combination, and I celebrated Mother’s Day by eating a variation of this dish twice. Of course, the classic asparagus-and-eggs dish is crisp-tender spears topped by a fried egg and Parmesan shavings, which is always satisfying, but I encourage you to try something new.
For brunch, mix chopped, crisply cooked asparagus with fluffy, cheesy scrambled eggs. For dinner, try blanched, chilled asparagus spears drizzled with red wine vinaigrette and chopped hard-boiled egg.
I’m sure there are many other ways to combine these two great ingredients. How many can we try?
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What is the most you would pay for an ingredient? Not one you planned to use for a special-occasion meal, but just for your everyday cooking.
For me, the ceiling seems to be about $5 (except for meat, of course). Yesterday, I was thinking about making an onion soup that calls for a broth made from dried porcini mushrooms. It sounded good to me. Except one tiny bag of the mushrooms cost $6.99. Um, no thank you. I’m also going to avoid the pine nuts (at $23/pound right now).
In a recent post, I posited that you would spend less money on fresh fruits and vegetables if you made an effort to eat seasonally. To help us do that, the North Carolina Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services provides this very attractive chart (there is also a printable version for the refrigerator). I see that, other than peanuts, the only vegetable that’s in season all year round is the sweet potato, which explains why I’m always struggling to come up with new ways to cook them. If you don’t happen to live in the great state of North Carolina, perhaps you might find similar information at your state’s Dept. of Agriculture.
It seems that all the healthy eating guidelines, whether from Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman or my doctor, include the admonition to “avoid processed foods.” I started thinking about this recently. What would it entail to avoid processed foods? What kind of impact might this diet change have on health, weight or the pocketbook?
First, what are “processed foods,” exactly? Generally, we think of processed foods as stuff like frozen meals, hamburger helper, chips, cookies and crackers from the grocery. But a processed food is any food that has been altered from its natural state. Frozen and canned foods are processed, as is pasta, bread, cheese, yogurt, juice and milk. Olive oil, soy sauce, mustard and vinegar can be considered processed foods. So can bacon, sausage and smoked salmon. Even flour and sugar are processed foods.
Obviously, not all processed foods should be put on the “bad” list, and I don’t think that’s what the people giving this advice intend for us to do. It’s not practical to eat a diet consisting entirely of whole foods, especially in seasons when fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t as abundant. In fact, I admire human ingenuity when it comes to food processing, which has enabled us to preserve our foods long after they would have otherwise gone bad through techniques such as curing, pickling, drying, canning and freezing.
I think “packaged foods” is a better way to think of the kinds of processed foods that should be avoided. These are foods that come in a package with brand names, health claims and unpronounceable ingredients on the sides. So I am challenging myself to reduce, as much as I can, packaged foods in my grocery shopping.
For me, a packaged food is anything that comes pre-packaged in the grocery store. Part of this challenge is to get myself to make more things at home that I would normally buy. So here are my rules for this challenge:
- If I can buy it in bulk (grains, beans, nuts) or I can put it in a package myself (locally baked bread) or the store packages it for me (meats, cheeses, dried fruits), then I consider it “unpackaged.”
- If the packaged item is a staple ingredient/food that I can’t easily make at home, I will continue to buy it. This includes condiments like soy sauce and mustard (but not mayonnaise or bottled sauces), pasta, yogurt, cheese, wine, tea and coffee.
- I will make an exception for vegetables that have short growing seasons whose packaged versions are superior for most of the year. These include canned tomatoes and frozen peas, soybeans and corn.
Those are all of the rules. I see this challenge as a way to get myself and my family to eat healthier, but also to stretch myself more in the kitchen. Instead of buying bread, stock, mayonnaise and crackers, I will need to make them myself when I want them.
For any of my family members who might be reading this, I am not planning to enforce this challenge on you. You will still be able to have your white bread and cheesy bunnies, at least until you decide to join in the challenge with me.
If you decide to take on a similar challenge, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to follow your progress.
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Lately, it seems a lot of people have been writing books and articles and blog posts giving us advice on how to eat more healthfully, including two of my favorite food writers, Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. Once you boil away the excess, their advice always comes down to the same thing:
Cut back on processed foods and meat. Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Surprisingly, I have seen quite a backlash to this simple, commonsensical advice on the blogosphere. Eating fruits and vegetables is expensive. It’s downright elitist!
Huh? Okay, I’ll grant you that for the urban poor who live in food deserts, a fresh fruit or vegetable is hard to come by. And our inequitable food system subsidizes “product” crops such as corn and soy over whole fruits and vegetables, making them seem more expensive.
But… Many people can still afford to eat fruits and vegetables. Here’s what I think is a big part of the problem. We here in America have forgotten how to eat seasonally.
For the better part of human history, people ate fruits and vegetables when they were ripe and harvested. Yes, we have figured out some ingenious ways of preserving the harvest. Canned tomatoes are one of the great products of civilization, in my opinion. But unless you had frozen or jam on hand, you didn’t expect to eat blueberries in March or to have pears in the spring.
In our modern food culture, though, we’ve grown accustomed to having all fruits and vegetables available to us at all times. But when you buy produce out of season, it’s two or three times as expensive, and it doesn’t taste nearly as good. That’s because it was picked before it was fully riped and shipped all the way from Chile or some such place. It’s simply a bad deal all around.
One commentator on this post remarked that she tried to give her kids healthy snacks like blueberries but they cost so much. Of course they do. Blueberries don’t grow this time of year in our part of the world, so their scarcity is going to make them much more expensive. On the other hand, avocados are selling 2 for a dollar at my local grocery, and tangerines are 6 for 99 cents. That’s because they are in season and plentiful right now. They’re awfully yummy too.
If you try to eat seasonally, you’ll find that your produce bill will go down. I know it can seem like a drag, not getting to eat blueberries in the winter, but think of how much more you’ll appreciate them when they’re ripe, tasty and abundant. If you absolutely must have something out of season, buy it frozen, where it will probably be cheaper.
A while ago, I learned two simple rules to help me eat seasonally. The first is to remember what’s in season when. I just think of the life cycle of a plant and buy produce to match. For example:
- In spring, when plants are budding, eat tender leaves and flowers, i.e., greens, fresh shell beans, peas, asparagus, artichokes.
- In summer, when plants are at their most beautiful, eat colorful soft fruits, i.e., berries, melons, peaches, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini.
- In autumn, when plants are distributing seeds, eat nuts and firm fruits, i.e., apples, pears, pumpkin, winter squash.
- In winter, when plants have gone dormant, eat root vegetables, i.e., carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips.
Here’s another simple rule for deciding how to prepare those seasonal fruits and vegetables:
What grows together, goes together.
Here are several links to other food blogs to help you eat better on a budget via MetaFilter. Happy eating!