Monthly Archives: March 2014

An easy, almost free Vegetable Stock, from one ingredient we usually throw away

053 055First, a bit of information about stocks and broths.  A stock is:  1/  usually made from beef, lamb, veal, fish, shellfish or poultry,  2/ includes the bones or shrimp shells, and the bones are usually roasted after the meat is removed and prior to making the stock;  3/  is primarily intended for use as part of a recipe, or a foundation for a recipe and not served by itself; and 4/ often due to the use of bones will be much thick and gelatinous when cooled.  A broth is:  1/ made from meat or chicken or fish or other proteins but NOT the bones or shells;  2/ is lighter in flavor and color than a stock and will not be thick or gelatinous; and 3/ although it can be used in a recipe as one of the components, it can also be served alone as a first course, or served hot in a mug on a cold evening (a cup of chicken broth can be so good!), or as a light liquid meal (perhaps for someone not feeling well, or restricted from eating solid foods due to illness, with a doctor’s approval, of course).

However, I call this recipe a stock, because it’s not supposed to be served alone, and it can be used in a variety of recipes.  And it’s made with just two ingredients:  water, and corn cobs.  It’s a Corn Cob Stock.

Cut the kernels off of the cobs, and use the kernels in any way you wish.  This is a great way to use the end-of-the-season corn on the cob when the prices are cheap but the corn kernels are kind of dry and small and not very appealing, or corn cobs that are skimpy, missing kernels or aren’t nice enough to serve whole, or after cutting off a lot of corn kernels for use in chowders or other recipes.   Or if you are lucky to end up with many more corn cobs than you can possibly use, cut the kernels off and freeze them and save those cobs.  If you cut the kernels off the cob for a child or for someone who doesn’t want to gnaw on a whole ear of corn, save those cobs!

You’ll need a large pot.  How many corn cobs you can use depends on how large a pot you have.  I use a 12 quart pot for about 6 -8 corn cobs, and I have a 16 quart pot that I can fit more cobs in.

Break the corn cobs (with the kernels cut off) in half, and place them in the pot.  Fill the pot with cold water nearly to the top, and bring the water to a boil.  Let the cobs boil for about an hour.  There’s no need to stir.  After an hour, remove the cobs and compost them or toss them.  Taste the water, just so you know what the water tastes like now.  It will be fairly tasteless and very mild. Take careful note of how much water is in the pot.  (You can do this by noting how the water comes up to a rivet from a handle, or you can stick a wooden spoon into the pot and then put a rubber band around the spoon handle to mark how high the water came up on the spoon handle.) Now, bring the water to a boil again and let it just simmer away until the water is only half the volume that it was when you removed the cobs.  That’s called “reducing”, if you are unfamiliar with that term.  You want to reduce the water by half.  It’s interesting when you’re making this stock for the first time to taste the water at various points in time.  If you’d like, you can reduce the water even further, for a stronger flavor.

When you have just half the volume, you should have a  lightly sweet, corn-reminiscent, delicious liquid that is a pale, pretty gold color.  There will probably be some pieces of corn kernels or the occasional corn silk, so at this point you can strain the liquid through cheesecloth or a fine strainer.

Now, what to do with this delicious light stock from throw-away corn cobs?  Use it as the liquid in corn bread, corn muffins, or any bread.  Use it in soups, casseroles, or in place of milk to lighten some recipes.  Use it in any recipe calling for vegetable stock.  Or, there’s my favorite:  mashed potatoes.  I boil 5 lbs of potatoes in salted water until tender, then mash them by hand, add 4 ounces of cream cheese, half a stick of butter (or a whole stick of butter), and enough of the corn cob stock to get the perfect consistency.  Then I bake the mashed potatoes at 350 degrees in an oven-proof casserole dish until heated throughout and just the lightest golden color around the edges.

Store the corn stock in canning jars, or freeze in quart-sized bags.




Cream of Anything Soup



Making your own “Cream of Anything Soup” puts you in control of the ingredients, the quality and the thickness of the final product.  You only pay for what you use, not what the manufacturer adds.  In less than 10 minutes, and using just three ingredients (butter, flour and milk), you can have a simple white sauce that can be the basis for your own cream soup or sauce.

Let’s begin with the basic sauce.  This is known as a White Sauce, or a Béchamel (pronounced ‘besh-ah-mel’) Sauce.  When a vegetable or meat stock is substituted for the milk in the following recipe, it’s called a Velouté (‘vel-oo-tay’) Sauce.

Put ½ cup unsalted butter into a sauce pan and melt it gently (don’t use margarine).  Then add ½ cup all-purpose flour.  Whisk until the butter and flour are well combined and then continue to cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly.  Then add 2 cups of cold milk.  Stir until the mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat down a little, and let the mixture boil gently, until it thickens, stirring frequently, for about 3 to 5 minutes.  Using these measurements makes about 2½ cups of white sauce. The basic rule is 1 part butter to 1 part flour, and then enough milk to create the thickness of the final sauce that you need.

Substitutions:  Instead of butter, another shortening may be used.  Some possibilities are oil, bacon grease, lard, coconut oil or a healthy butter substitute that is labeled as good for cooking and that contains no trans-fats or hydrogenated ingredients.  Soy or almond milks can be substituted for dairy milk, as long as they aren’t sweetened.  But if you’re going to use a strong-flavored shortening like bacon grease, or if you’re going to use coconut oil, be sure to consider the final use for the white sauce.  If you’re using this sauce in a spicy recipe, then bacon grease would be ok, but that wouldn’t be a good idea if you’re going to serve the sauce over grilled asparagus, for example.

Another important consideration is the final use for the sauce. The recipe makes a thick sauce to add as a recipe component.  Using three cups of milk would make a thinner sauce that you can add plenty of sautéed vegetables to, or chicken, to serve as an actual cream soup.

Now, here’s where it becomes Cream of Anything: 

The basic principle is: add the extra ingredients after the white sauce has cooked and thickened, so they won’t be overcooked and possibly tough or rubbery.  And you’ll know how the ingredients taste and whether salt or pepper would be a good addition.

For cream of mushroom soup, sauté some mushrooms in a little oil or butter until they’re tender and golden (it just takes a couple of minutes).  It’s important not to chop them before sautéing them, but if they’re very large, simply cut them in half before cooking them.  Wait until after they’re cooked to chop them to the desired size (smaller for use in recipes, nice slices for serving as a soup).  Add salt to taste, or don’t!  It’s up to you.

Or sauté chopped celery in a little oil or butter, and then add it to the base for cream of celery soup.  Again, add a little salt and pepper if you’d like.

You can add finely chopped cooked chicken (and a little salt) to make cream of chicken soup.  Use leftover chicken from a roast chicken, or better yet, poach chicken breasts gently, cut them into the desired size, and add to the white sauce for a cream of chicken soup or sauce for pizza.

Or you can stir in a cup of cheese that you have shredded to make a cheese sauce.  If you’re making a cheese sauce, you’ll want a thinner white sauce made with an extra cup of milk or two, to avoid having too thick of a final product.

Any vegetable that you can sauté or grill or roast and chop can be added to the sauce (asparagus, potatoes, squashes, etc.).

A little finely grated fresh nutmeg makes a nice addition to the sauce when it’s served plain.

Make a roast garlic sauce (simply slice the top off of a whole head of garlic so that all the cloves inside are exposed, drizzle a little olive oil over the cloves, wrap very loosely in foil and roast at 450˚ for about 45 minutes to an hour.  When it’s cool enough to handle, squeeze the golden tender cloves out with your fingers and mash slightly with a fork.)

Use the white sauce, flavored with a little barbecue sauce or roast garlic or chili powder or just by itself, as a sauce for a specialty pizza.  Spread some sauce on pizza dough, top with chicken or bacon or little turkey meatballs or sautéed mushrooms or fresh vegetables or hot peppers or sun-dried tomatoes or anything you love on a pizza.

Making your own sauce means you can add salt, omit salt completely, leave out something that someone is allergic to, or add extra vegetables or make the final product as spicy or mild or cheesy or flavorful as you like.  It also means you’re not paying for unnecessary ingredients, additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fillers.  Here is a list of the ingredients from a popular cream of mushroom soup that is available in nearly every grocery store in the country:


[Modified Food Starch as defined by the FDA:

You can look up all the other additives, but just reading their names is enough to make the whole thing sound pretty unappealing, don’t you think?  And the uncertainty of what type of vegetable oil is used, and what counts as “flavoring” (that’s a pretty wide door they can walk through, isn’t it?), well, that’s why I believe it’s so important to simplify our food and make a simple cream soup with butter, flour, milk and a couple of pronounceable ingredients.

(the beautiful photo of the mushrooms is courtesy of flowercarole lifestyle blog).


Well, my first official catering event is over.  Three days, well over a hundred hungry people (and many came back for a second serving), two entrees and a dessert.  It was exciting and tiring at the same time.  Since it was a music festival event (South by Southwest), I served a “Raw Energy Salad” and and “East by Southwest” Asian inspired rice dish, with a choice of turkey or tofu and lots of vegetables.

I learned a lot:  serve more raw or fresh food, when buying supplies keep them organized by category, and there’s never enough Sterno.

In the next few days, expect some basic recipes here, and thanks for reading!

Chocolate Drops (an easy dessert treat)

Chocolate Drops are one of the simplest quick, small desserts to make and enjoy.

Quickest directions for those more comfortable with cooking:  Temper your choice of dark or semi-sweet chocolate, spoon onto parchment paper by teaspoons, flatten with butter knife or spatula to a very thin layer, top with chopped pistachios, chopped dried cranberries and a tiny sprinkle of coarse salt.  Chill.

More detailed directions:

Really, the only required things you’ll need to make these is parchment paper and chocolate.  It’s pretty easy to get parchment paper at any grocery store or any store that sells foils and wraps.   The toppings are up to your imagination.20140311_182233

Place about 2 cups of chocolate chips, or 8 ounces of chocolate (semi-sweet, dark, milk, whatever your preference is) in either a microwave-safe bowl or a stainless steel bowl or a double boiler.  A smaller pot set inside a larger pot works, as long as the smaller pot will not fall completely into the larger pot.

Either microwave the chocolate until it’s melted (do it carefully and slowly, don’t burn it), or melt the chocolate in the bowl or smaller pot over boiling water.  If you choose this melting method, make sure not to splash any water into the chocolate.  It’s amazing how badly that ends up.

Set out a long piece of parchment paper, about 18 inches long.

When the chocolate has melted, you can transfer it to a plastic bag and snip the end off (so it’s like a pastry bag) or you can simply use a spoon.

Put about a teaspoon of chocolate onto the parchment paper and swirl it with a butter knife or small spatula until it’s a thin, circular shape.  Sprinkle with chopped pistachios, chopped dried cranberries and a tiny bit of kosher salt.  Of course, you can change this up however you’d like: dried cherries, a different kind of nut, no nuts, candied fruit, whatever you like in or on chocolate.

Let them set in a cold place or in the fridge until they’re hardened and then enjoy!

Pronounceable Food

In these blog posts, I’ll mostly be writing about cooking with simple ingredients.  For the most part, the recipes won’t involve processed foods or pre-made packaged stuff.  I’m not the type to insist on that 100% of the time without any mercy, but I try to encourage it.

There are a few reasons for encouraging homemade cooking using simple ingredients.  I think that the food on many grocery store shelves contains too many unnecessary additives.  For example, there’s high-fructose corn syrup.  I personally do not believe that it’s bad or poison or should never be used.  The problem that I see with it is: it doesn’t belong in nearly everything!  We don’t need it in salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, breads, macaroni and cheese mixes, ketchup and frozen dinners.  We rely too much on sweetened foods and don’t even get to appreciate the real taste.  Those low-fat or “diet” versions of regular ingredients often have a lot more ingredients than the full-fat ones.  Look at the sour cream labels sometime when you’re in the store.  Regular sour cream has about 2 ingredients, and the fat-free sour cream has a long list, mostly unpronounceable.  So use the regular sour cream with the simple real ingredients and just use less.  That’s possible, because the taste won’t be masked by the artificial stuff.  Sure, it might be 20 extra calories, but it will be far fewer chemicals and processed additives.

And by making your own versions of stuff that is sold ready-made in stores, you are only paying for the ingredients you use.  Why pay for a package of stuff that is allegedly “cheese” when you’re actually paying for the cheese-like substance, some powdered wood fiber, artificial colors, artificial flavors and anti-caking agents and the packaging?  Buy real cheese, pay for real cheese, and use less.  The flavor will not be masked by a dozen other ingredients.

By making your own food, you can add or subtract what you need.  No dairy, less sodium, more cinnamon, extra cayenne pepper, none of an ingredient you’re allergic to: it’s all possible if you make it yourself.

If you want to know where to start, take a look at your pantry and see what types of foods or ingredients you use most often.  If you were stocking your pantry or cupboards or shelves, what would you buy?  What do you like to eat?  There’s no need to get rid of your favorite meals and start eating only imported persimmons and wheat grass seedlings.  But take a good look at the ingredients in the foods you use, and let’s imagine how to make them using simple foods.  That green bean casserole that always appears at the holidays?  Cook fresh green beans, make a quick homemade cream of mushroom soup with just four ingredients (butter, flour, milk and mushrooms), soak thin onion slices in milk, dredge the slices in flour and fry them in a little oil.  Combine these things and you have a delicious casserole, with just over a half-dozen ingredients, plus salt and pepper.   Enchilada sauce?  Make it.  Chicken with cream of something soup and rice?  Make the soup.  It takes 10 minutes.  And everything’s pronounceable.  I guess that’s what I like.  Pronounceable food.

When starting out to cook healthier,  your kitchen will need a few simple things.  Good heavy-duty freezer bags are one thing.  When I make stocks from chicken or meat bones, I freeze the stock flat in quart-sized bags and then stand them upright like books, or stack them flat in the freezer.

The small size canning jars are great for making your own spice mixes and storing bulk spices.  I have a wire basket with my 12 favorite, most-used spices in small 4-ounce glass jars.  I can just grab the basket since my most-used spices are there instead of hunting for individual spices, and I can easily tell what spice I’m running low on.

A food thermometer can be really helpful.  I have a probe-type one that can stay in the oven during the cooking (it’s a sharp probe attached to a wire, and there’s a temperature sensor on the other end that sits on the counter or magnetically attaches to the outside of the oven), and I have an instant read one that is not oven-proof.  Thermometers are not expensive, and when you use one you’ll know if your loaf of bread is done, or the chicken is thoroughly cooked.

The other tool that I think every kitchen needs is a micro-plane or grater with very small holes.  It’s useful for zesting lemons, or grating fresh nutmeg or garlic or chocolate or cheese.

These are not expensive items, just tools that I couldn’t get along without.

I’ll work on posting more recipes, next.


Homemade taco seasoning

No processed packet of sugar and chemicals here!  I use Masa Harina in this taco seasoning.  It’s a traditional corn flour used in Central and South American cuisine (it’s not corn meal) and is usually available in the international sections of grocery stores.  It will thicken the taco mixture, and you don’t have to worry about cooking out that potentially raw flour taste.  Masa can be used, when mixed with water, to thicken chili and Mexican hot chocolate.  Buy one bag, keep it dry and well-sealed and it will last a long time.

The benefits of making your own taco seasoning are several.  First, you’re not being forced to settle for the manufacturer’s pre-selected choice of salt, sugars, preservatives that are added to the spices.  Taco seasoning doesn’t need sugar and chemicals.  Second, you can adjust the heat and salt levels to your liking –  make it spicier, lower sodium, less spicy, more garlicky, whatever you prefer.   And buying your own spices is a lot less expensive than paying for those little seasoning envelopes and unnecessary ingredients.


 2  Tbsp chili powder (plain, smoked or chipotle flavored)

2 Tbsp paprika

2 Tbsp ground cumin

1 Tbsp garlic powder (important note garlic salt)

1 Tbsp onion powder (note, not onion salt)

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 Tbsp Masa harina

1 tsp salt (optional)


 Use about 3 tablespoons of the seasoning along with 1/2 – 3/4 cups of water per pound of ground beef when making tacos or Mexican meatloaf.  You can double or triple this recipe (or more) and just keep it tightly sealed at room temperature indefinitely.

For a sweeter, citrus-y seasoning (for use with chicken or fish tacos), just add about a teaspoon of sugar and the zest of 2 limes or lemons just before mixing the seasoning with the raw chicken or fish.

You can also mix a bit of the seasoning with mayonnaise,  for spreading on a chicken and avocado sandwich for example.


Asian Lettuce Wraps, Two Ways (meat and vegetarian options)

This is a recipe I created yesterday.

Ground Beef or Turkey Lettuce Wraps


1 lb ground beef or turkey

4 Tbsp canola or grapeseed or other vegetable oil, divided

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrots

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried orange peel

8 oz water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped or slivered

½ cup cooking sauce (recipe below)

Washed whole lettuce leaves (from Bibb lettuce or green leaf lettuce)

For serving, optional choices:  cooked rice, minced ginger, or slivered almonds, Sriracha sauce or other Asian sauce (soy, hot sauce, whatever your preference)


In a large skillet, heat 2 Tbsp of the oil and add the meat.  Cook thoroughly.  For best results, allow the meat to get slightly caramelized, until it’s browned and gets slightly crispy.

Remove the meat to a bowl, add the other 2 Tbsp oil to the same skillet and cook the onion and carrots over medium heat until tender.  Add a little more oil if the vegetables begin to get too dry.  Add the water chestnuts and cook, stirring, for about a minute.  Add the garlic and orange peel and cook for another minute.

Add the meat back in and stir to combine.  Add the cooking sauce and stir until the entire mixture is heated throughout.

Serve in lettuce leaves, either wrapped or in a bowl.  If desired, add a bit of rice to the lettuce before putting the meat mixture in.  Top with almonds or ginger or hot sauce, or all three!

Lettuce Wraps Cooking Sauce:

4 Tbsp oyster sauce (see notes below)

2 Tbsp unseasoned white rice vinegar

1 Tbsp Mirin

1 Tbsp hoisin sauce

1 Tbsp Asian sweet chili sauce

Stir all ingredients together until well combined.

Notes:  Oyster sauce is an extract of oysters with seasonings.  A vegetarian option is available, made from mushrooms.

There are varieties of rice vinegar available, and some are sweetened or seasoned.  This recipe calls for the unsweetened white rice vinegar (there are other varieties available, such as red).  Also, this product is different from rice wine.  So be sure to get the white unsweetened or unseasoned rice vinegar.

Mirin is a sweetened rice wine.

Hoisin sauce is sometimes called Asian BBQ sauce.  If you prefer not to use it, you can use a combination of ½ part soy sauce and ½ part of your favorite BBQ sauce.

Sweet chili sauce is both sweet and a little tangy, with crushed red pepper flakes or finely diced chili peppers in it.

Try to buy the best quality sauces with the simplest ingredients.

 Tofu and Mushroom Lettuce Wraps


14 – 16 oz firm or extra firm tofu

4 Tbsp canola or grapeseed or other vegetable oil, divided

8 oz mushrooms (preferably cremini), coarsely chopped

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrots

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried orange peel

½ cup lettuce wrap cooking sauce (recipe above)

¼ cup plum sauce or duck sauce

Washed whole lettuce leaves (from Bibb lettuce or green leaf lettuce)

For serving, optional choices:  cooked rice, minced ginger, or slivered almonds, Sriracha sauce or other Asian sauce (soy, hot sauce, whatever your preference)


First, press the tofu.  Tofu is full of water and it must be pressed out.  Place a couple layers of paper towels on a plate.  Remove the tofu from the packaging and put it on the towels.  Cover with another couple of layers of towels, and place a heavy weight on top (a cast iron pan, or bricks wrapped in foil, or heavy books – protect them with waxed paper to keep the water from soaking through the towels into the books).  Leave undisturbed for at least an hour, preferably several hours.  Change the towels if you’re leaving the tofu overnight or all day.

Into a large skillet, put 2 Tbsp oil and sauté the onions and carrots until tender.  Then add the garlic and orange peel and cook quickly, for about a minute.  Remove this mixture to a separate bowl.

In the same skillet, add the rest of the oil.  When it’s hot, crumble the tofu into the pan with your hands and sauté it, stirring frequently, until it’s golden, about 5 – 6 minutes.  Then add the mushrooms to the tofu and sauté for about 2 minutes.

Add the onions and carrots back in, along with ½ cup of the cooking sauce and stir until heated throughout.  Stir in the plum sauce and serve in lettuce cups with rice, almonds, ginger or the sauce of your choice.


Pure Foodishness

So I’m going to start a blog.  It will be a collection of my thoughts about cooking with simple ingredients.  A challenge that I enjoy is learning how to make a homemade version (without processed ingredients or added sugar or unhealthy additives) of some of the most commonly used items in a pantry like taco seasonings, ranch dressing mixes, cream soups, chicken and beef stocks.

I love learning about cooking and healthy eating, and there certainly is a lot to learn!  I’m looking forward to sharing my ideas and hearing yours.