Monthly Archives: May 2014

Homemade Chocolate Syrup

What’s in the chocolate syrup that is stirred into milk and served to those kids who are always smiling in the commercials on TV?  What does it have to do with wood-pulp industry by-products?  Read on…

Recently, I looked at the labels on the bottles of chocolate syrup in the supermarket.  Most of them listed “high fructose corn syrup” as the main ingredient, then corn syrup, and another sugar.   Cocoa was on the list of ingredients, but often 4th, after all the sugars.  Then there were the polysorbates, the mono and diglycerides, xanthan gum, artificial flavors and vanillin.  Vanillin?  If you want to delve deep into chemistry, just look up “vanillin” online.  It’s pretty depressing: vanillin is synthesized from a by-product of the wood pulp industry called lignin, or an even more mysterious word called guiaicol (described as a yellow-tinged oil) and at that point the multi-syllabic words and chemical processes made my brain tired, and I quit reading.  I am pretty sure that Walter White, the chemistry teacher from “Breaking Bad”, would be a helpful resource when trying to understand how vanillin is manufactured.  But whether or not you stayed awake in chemistry class, it doesn’t take long to realize that vanillin is not what we want to be consuming or feeding to our families, especially in something as simple as chocolate milk.  Many websites advise avoiding vanillin in the diets of children with ADHD (along with other artificial colors and flavors).

I looked up homemade chocolate syrup recipes online and for the most part, they called for sugar, cocoa powder, and a few harmless extras like salt, or butter or vanilla extract.

But I was trying to find something even more basic, and healthier.  Most of the ordinary cocoa powders that are on the grocery store shelves today are labelled “Dutch process” or “processed with alkali”.  That’s not an entirely bad thing.  Pure cocoa powder (the kind our grandmothers baked with) can be a little bitter.  So a Dutch chemist figured out how to process the cocoa to make it less acidic.  [This is why some vintage recipes that call for “cocoa” don’t come out quite as nicely as you had expected.  Some of the recipes, passed down from years ago, used cocoa that had not been Dutch processed, and the leavenings are affected (the baking soda and baking powders, for example).  So it’s important to know if the recipe you’re using calls for Dutch processed or natural cocoa.  If it’s from a magazine from the 1940s, or on your grandma’s recipe cards, use natural cocoa.  Recipes today often specify “Dutch process cocoa” and the other ingredients are adjusted accordingly.  It’s possible to buy natural cocoa, but it requires reading all the labels and some stores don’t carry anything but the Dutch processed types.]

Processing cocoa with alkali strips it of some of the healthy properties of chocolate, or else the healthy properties are greatly reduced.  You’ve probably heard that dark chocolate has anti-oxidant properties, and contains flavanols, which can help lower blood pressure and contribute to overall health (when consumed in moderation which, sadly, means we cannot exist on a diet of 100% dark chocolate).  When cocoa is “dutched”, those anti-oxidants and flavanols are significantly lessened.  So it’s not so much the process as the loss of the healthy attributes of pure chocolate that make Dutch process cocoa not as preferable a choice when using cocoa.  The problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to find natural, unprocessed, old-fashioned cocoa.

This led me to trying to make as simple a chocolate syrup as I could.  After a little experimenting, and remembering that raw local honey and maple syrup are good choices of sweeteners, I made this:

Homemade Chocolate Honey Syrup

3/4 cup raw local honey                                                                                                                                     8 ounces pure unsweetened chocolate (I used two 4 ounce Ghiradelli 100% Cacao bars)     1/2 cup water                                                                                                                                                         1/2 tsp salt (I used Redmond Real Salt, which is unrefined and contains minerals)               1 tsp vanilla (good quality, without additives or caramel coloring;  see note below)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and melt to combine over low heat, stirring occasionally.  Store in a jar or bottle.  Since this is just honey, chocolate and water basically, it really doesn’t need refrigeration, as none of those are routinely refrigerated. 

I found that the next day, the syrup was pretty thick, so I stirred in another half cup of water (didn’t heat it, just stirred the water in.)  It all combined smoothly.  You can adjust the water amount until it’s as thin as you’d like.  

I’m going to experiment a little with this recipe.  I’m going to make another batch and instead of just melting it, I’m going to boil it for about 3 minutes to see if that results in a slightly thinner product.  If you try that, let me know what you think!

My daughter taste-tested this and loved it.  She said she could taste the honey but that wasn’t a negative point.  I did use a rather strong local honey, which was what I had in the pantry,  so if you prefer a milder taste, try to find a local honey that is milder or sweeter.  Many local farmers’ markets or stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s will have several honey options to choose from.  You can usually get good advice from those sources about the different tastes of different honeys, and which are milder and which are stronger.

Use this chocolate syrup to make chocolate milk (your choice of milk: oat milk, almond, soy, lactose-free, or regular dairy milk).  Drizzle over ice cream or pound cake.  If it’s too thick, heat it a little or stir in a little water.

Note:  I make my own homemade vanilla extract, from brandy or vodka and vanilla beans.  Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa from the Food Network, has an excellent and simple method of making vanilla extract that is available online.  This allows you to use vanilla that consists of just two ingredients, without caramel color, or additives.  But it’s important to remember while homemade vanilla takes just a few minutes to make, it requires several months to develop the flavors.  You can make a couple of bottles in minutes, and then store them in a dark cool place for several months until they’re ready to use.  So start now and the vanilla will be perfect by late summer or for holiday gifts or hostess gifts in the fall and winter.

 

Small Gadgets: I’m not a big fan, but this one is different

My kitchen is pretty simple.  Good, sharp knives.  A heavy-duty stand mixer and food processor.  Spatulas that can handle heat and a substantial dough.  Really good scissors for boning a chicken or cutting a pizza.

What I don’t have is a lot of cute gadgets, or tools that only serve one purpose.  No separate slicers for bananas, avocados, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, strawberries and lemons (they all seen to be shaped like the food they’re intended to slice, or else they have a name that a four-year-old would think is funny).  Nothing with little wheels that rolls like a toy car and chops herbs.  Nothing that makes faces on food or that turns food into clever shapes.  No plastic burger shapers or burger stuffers.  Nothing that most clean hands can’t do, like separate egg yolks and egg whites.  Nothing that turns hot dogs into animals or people shapes that you can dress up or decorate, or that turns completely different foods into hot dog shapes.

I do understand that there is a place for some gadgets – when a cook really needs to make a task easier and/or safer (to relieve arthritis pain, to help with a task that is difficult, or to allow children to help with some tasks rather than using a sharp knife), or if you just really like serving hot dogs that have arms and legs and a smiley-face.  I have a julienne vegetable peeler, and a tool that makes removing corn kernels quicker, so I’m not completely against gadgets.

But then I bought a Pampered Chef Scoop Loop.  Yeah, maybe it’s a silly name (or maybe it’s a clever name).  And I thought, it’s probably going to be a silly tool, too.  I was wrong!  This gadget is going into my drawer with my microplane grater, nut-milk bag and strong kitchen twine (in other words, the good stuff).  It stays.

It’s advertised as being a flexible oblong tool with serrated ends that allows the user to quickly scoop seeds out of cucumbers and squashes and tomatoes.  It also says that it creates an easy granita (A granita is a shallow layer of fruit juice or other liquid, frozen until not quite rock-solid, and then scraped with a fork or spoon into a bowl; it’s a refreshing treat that can be made from pure fruit juice (or almost any other liquid such as coffee or tea, or the hundreds of creative ideas for granitas online).  It’s a great substitute for a calorie-loaded ice cream, very refreshing and extremely easy to make. But scraping it out of the pan with a fork is messy and time-consuming and pretty much discourages me from making a granita.  Attacking a rimmed sheet pan filled with frozen juice with just a small fork seems doomed from the start, and the frozen bits of juice kind of fly everywhere.)

So I tried the Scoop Loop.  First, I ran the serrated smaller end of the Loop around the top of a whole tomato, and then sunk the loop into the tomato.  Within seconds, I had a completely hollowed-out, neatly-seeded tomato, ready for stuffing or chopping.  Then I tried it on a cucumber.  Again, the result was a completely seeded cucumber, with only the seeds removed, leaving the rest of the cucumber intact.  Then I poured a pure fruit juice with no added sugar or ingredients into a very shallow dish and froze it until it was fairly solid.  I used the thicker end of the Loop and within seconds, a granita appeared, with no ice bits splashed all over, and with very little effort.

This is one gadget that is worth having.  (And no, I don’t sell Pampered Chef or have any connection with the company other than being the occasional customer.  I just really like this Scoop Loop.)

Here are two photos, of the Scoop Loop removing cucumber seeds, and of the finished granita (this one was made with 100% pure organic tart cherry juice and nothing else).

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Edamame: the Nutritious, Bright Green, Young Soy Bean

Edamame (pronounced ed-ah-mah-may) is a young soybean pod, picked when they’re a beautiful green color and edible, but not fully ripened.  They’re generally sold frozen, in one pound bags, with nothing added (no salt or any other ingredients).   Sometimes they’re available fresh, but most of us will find them in the frozen section of the market.  The pods resemble pea pods, and usually have two to three beans inside.  Edamame are a nutritious source of protein, fiber, vitamins and iron, and they’re an inexpensive and delicious snack or light meal.

To cook them, fill a large pot with water and add about 2 teaspoons of salt.  Bring the water to a full boil and then put the entire bag of whole edamame pods in.  You’ll notice that the pods sink to the bottom, but quickly, they’ll begin to all bob to the surface.  Boil for about 3 minutes, remove from the heat and drain them in a colander.  If you are boiling fresh – not frozen – pods, boil them for about 7 minutes.   Keep the pods intact; don’t remove the seeds.

Sprinkle them with good quality sea salt and serve with plenty of lime wedges. My daughter tosses hers with a little butter.  I prefer mine with just lime juice and salt. Eat them by holding a pod to your mouth (kind of like holding a harmonica) squeezing the pods between your teeth until the tender seeds pop out.  Only the seeds are eaten and the pods are discarded.

They’re delicious with crusty bread or pita chips, or just by themselves.

Other ways to enjoy edamame:  the seeds can be removed from the pods after they’re boiled and mixed with other seasonal vegetables (such as roasted corn kernels, chopped red bell pepper, halved cherry tomatoes) and served as a side dish.   Add cooked pasta to the cooked edamame seeds, chopped fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, grated carrots, chopped red pepper, a little grated parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil for a delicious pasta salad.  The cooked seeds can be combined with cooked rice, chopped cooked chicken, sautéed red bell peppers and a little soy sauce.  Or you could cook a pound of edamame for about 15 minutes until they’re very soft, and purée the seeds with 4 ounces of a mild soft, fresh cheese (such as goat cheese, soft feta,  or brie), 1/2 teaspoon of dill,  the juice of a lemon and a little salt to make a delicious dip.

The Mother’s Day Picnic That Almost Was

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.  It reminds me of a memorable Mother’s Day picnic that we almost enjoyed several ago.  My husband was stationed on a remote and beautiful Caribbean island, and we all lived there for about two and half years.  It was an island of contrasts:  alongside the turquoise oceans, dolphins jumping out in the bay and the snorkeling and scuba diving, there was crime, a drunk man who roamed the parking lot of the island’s only movie theater throwing coconuts at people, and poverty that was so extreme that it was almost impossible to comprehend.  We met many wonderful people there – some with lovely homes on beautiful beaches who helped us adjust to life on the island with amazing graciousness and hospitality, some brave people who lived in cinder block huts who had suffered abuse in their home countries and were hiding out as refugees, and tourists, travelers, and adventurers from all over the world.

There was a lot of island wildlife that we got used to (and some that we never did get used to).  There were parrots and dolphins and stunningly beautiful fish and jelly fish and pelicans.  Gorgeous birds would perch on the window sill of our house and hop right into the kitchen.  We learned not to turn on the toaster oven without first checking underneath it for lizards.  We would sit outside in the evenings on the veranda and watch the little almost-transparent lizards roaming the walls of the house.  Crabs made their way into the house sometimes, and they could be big and mean.  Once I came down to the kitchen to find a crab as big as a dinner plate in the middle of the room, and when he saw me he hissed and snapped at me.  One crab got stuck in the roof vent of our house.  We could hear him tip-tapping and skittering through the vents at night but we could never catch him.  He crawled through the ducts until he finally found the vent in the bathroom ceiling.  For a while we had to use the bathroom with the crab sticking his claw through the vent and snapping at us.  He was mad.  I was pretty miffed at him, too.  (But it’s an effective way to make sure someone doesn’t take too long in the bathroom, let me just tell you.)

Anyway, for Mother’s Day one year I requested that we all go down to the lagoon outside our home, and go snorkeling and enjoy a picnic lunch together.  Everyone liked that idea and together we packed sandwiches, cold drinks and ice in a cooler.  We set the cooler on the rocks by the water and had fun snorkeling and swimming and feeding the fish that would follow us around as we swam.  After a while we got hungry so I went onto the beach and opened the cooler to get lunch ready.  I guess we hadn’t shut the cooler as tightly as we thought, or maybe someone opened it to get a drink and then didn’t close it all the way, because lying on top of our nice sandwiches was a plump colorful gecko lizard, about eight inches long.  His eyes were closed, and if it had been a cartoon, I think he would have had little x’s where his eyes were, with stars circling his head.  He looked dead dead dead.  His not-so-bright idea of helping himself to our lunch had trapped him in a box that was much too cold.  I screamed in surprise and backed away (pretty far away and pretty quickly), wondering what else might be in the cooler (some of his friends?) or whether I could still enjoy a lunch that a  big old lizard had recently died on.  Then my husband and kids got the idea that maybe he wasn’t truly dead, just too cold, and they gently removed him and put him on a warm rock.  Sure enough, he un-froze and once he warmed up, he crawled away.

We ate lunch at a local restaurant.

My family insisted that the food would be fine, but all I could picture was lifting the lid of the cooler, expecting my Mother’s Day picnic and seeing that cold, lifeless, fat lizard on top of all the food, like a weird freaky garnish.  And you know what they say about the rules for garnishing:  the garnish should be edible and it should be appropriate for the food it’s served with.  That was one huge garnish fail.

But the picnic we almost had made a memorable Mother’s Day for me that year.

Tomato Berries!

Even though I’ve been discussing seasonal vegetables, the next subject of this blog will not, in fact, be a vegetable, but a berry.

tomatoes

That’s right.  Not only is the tomato a fruit, but it’s actually a berry.  It’s all about how the tomato plant is pollinated and how the plant grows and where the seeds develop.  There’s lots of information available about the botanical classification of the tomato, but let’s just agree that it’s a berry and get on with some of the basics of using the tomato in cooking.

Walk through a store or farmers’ market that has a wide variety of tomatoes available, and the colors and sizes will amaze you.  There are the typical round tomatoes that we’re so familiar with, and smaller tomatoes like the cherry tomato and the even smaller grape tomato, and heirloom tomatoes and Roma or plum tomatoes that are more oblong in shape.  The colors vary from bright yellow to all shades of red and orange and green and almost purple.  Some seem to have almost no flavor or aroma, and others smell like they came from the garden a few minutes ago.  There are canned tomatoes that have been puréed or chopped or fire-roasted or imported.

Heirloom tomatoes have been cultivated from seeds passed down from generation to generation, to protect a certain size or color or shape.  There are commercially produced heirlooms, and family heirlooms (the family saves the seeds from that year’s crop and carefully preserves them for planting next year).   There are also heirlooms that have been created by combining varieties.  There are so many names, colors, and tastes of heirloom tomatoes – you’ll have to try a few.  Some people feel that the deeper darker colored varieties taste better.  It’s a matter of personal preference.  However, if you can find heirloom tomatoes that are certified as “dry-farmed”, there’s a good chance they will taste delicious.  Dry-farming is a way of controlling the way the tomato is watered, which allows for more flavorful development.

The standard round grocery-store tomato is available in loose bins, or still on the vine.  Tomatoes are carefully monitored while they’re ripening.  After they cross a certain ripening point (determined by the percentage of green unripe-ness or ratio of green to red) the vine is cut with the tomatoes still on it or the tomatoes are picked.  They’re timed to be red when they reach the market.  But they were all picked green and some were artificially ripened.  The only way to harvest a ripe tomato that had time to properly ripen on the vine is to grow it yourself, or to buy from a farm stand that you trust.  Sometimes I think that the tomatoes on the vine smell and taste better than the hothouse ones, but that might be my imagination.  It’s hard to buy a flavorful ordinary supermarket tomato.  Tomatoes on the vine look more appealing to consumers but often the taste is no better than the cheaper loose type.   Look for seasonal, local tomatoes and it will be worth it!

Roma, or plum, tomatoes are the oblong ones, and usually less expensive than other varieties.  They often have fewer seeds than the large round ones.

San Marzano tomatoes are a protected type of Roma tomatoes that grow in one location in Italy, in volcanic soil.  You may see some tomatoes marketed as “San Marzano style” or “Italian style” but only the true San Marzano tomato may be called San Marzano, and here in America they are only sold in cans, never in jars.  There will be wording on the can that certifies that they are authentic (the can label will say D.O.P. which is an Italian certification of authenticity).  San Marzano tomatoes have been cultivated to have more flesh, arguably a better taste, and fewer seeds and the gelatinous material that surrounds the seeds.  There are almost endless discussions online about whether it’s worth it to pay more for authentic San Marzano tomatoes (they can be expensive).

Canned traditional tomatoes often have additives like citric acid which can make them a little more acidic than fresh tomatoes.  Try to find tomatoes with as few additives as possible.  Skip the canned tomatoes that include basil and onion and garlic.

Now, about those tomato skins and seeds:  to peel a tomato, simply make a small x (just about a half-inch long) in the skin with a sharp knife.  Drop the tomato into boiling water for about 45 seconds, and then remove it to a bowl of ice water.  The skin will slip off easily when the tomato is cool enough to handle.

There’s a lot of debate about removing seeds.  Some people believe that the seeds are flavorful.  Here’s my opinion:  If you are making a chili, or a tortilla soup, or a dish with lots of chopped vegetables and herbs, then the seeds won’t really matter.  If you are slicing tomatoes to put on a sandwich or chopping tomatoes for a fresh salsa or a salad, then the seeds will tend to make the final product watery.  To remove the seeds when you want to keep the nice shape of the tomato, slice the tomato in half, and use a small melon baller or a round spoon (even a grapefruit spoon) to just slide those seeds out and the gelatinous membrane that surrounds them.  To remove the seeds when you’re going to end up chopping the tomato or when you’re going to throw it in a sauce, and the shape isn’t too important, just slice enough of the top of the tomato off to reveal the seeds, hold the tomato upside down over the sink and just gently squeeze.  The seeds will fall out (you may need to coax them a little with your finger or a small spoon).  If you’re making a very pure tomato sauce, removing the seeds is more for looks than anything else.

Bottom line:  remove the seeds from tomatoes to keep fresh salsas, salads and sandwiches from getting watery and soggy and when you want the final product to look smooth and simple.  Don’t bother removing them for making chili, chunky soups, or casseroles. 

Roasting tomatoes is a great way to bring out a whole new depth of flavor.  Simply lay whole or halved tomatoes on parchment paper and drizzle with a little olive oil and salt.  Roast at 425 degrees until they turn a deep color and become tender.  One of my favorite simple meals is a lightly toasted piece of Italian artisan bread, covered with roasted tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  Roasted tomatoes are great on pizza, and they can be made into a delicious sauce.

To make a simple marinara sauce, inspired by the great chef Marcella Hazan, whose sauce is the standard for all marina sauces, an onion is sautéed in olive oil, and canned San Marzano (or a similar style) tomatoes are crushed by hand and simmered with the onion and a little butter. (I use a sharp paring knife to just nick off the slightest tip of the canned tomatoes where the stem was, simply because that part bugs me and I think it will never become tender.  That’s just a personal quirk of mine.)   If you plan to use this as a pizza sauce, some fresh oregano leaves can be added at the beginning.  For a meat sauce, after the onions have been sautéed, add a pound of ground beef and brown it thoroughly before proceeding with the tomato step.  If you want to use fresh tomatoes, use about 4 pounds of seeded and peeled tomatoes, and cook the sauce until the tomatoes are very tender.

Here’s the recipe:

Simple Marinara Sauce

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 28-ounce cans of good quality tomatoes

4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

10 basil leaves, roughly torn or finely sliced (your choice)

In a saucepan, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until the onion is golden and tender.  Meanwhile, crush the tomatoes with your hands in a separate bowl.  Add the tomatoes and butter to the pan, along with the salt, bring to a simmer, and cook gently for about 45 minutes (10 minutes if you’re in a rush, up to 2 hours for maximum flavor).  Add basil and taste for salt at the end of the cooking time.

            Now is a good to talk about the herb rule.  If the herb has a tough stem (like rosemary, or oregano or thyme; their stems are woody) they can be added at the beginning of the cooking time (even if it’s going to be a long cook time).  Herbs like parsley and basil and cilantro, with stems that are grassy and bendable, should be added near the end of the cooking time.

So try some new tomato varieties this week, and enjoy these delicious berries!

Good Things to Know About Selecting and Using Seasonal Vegetables (and some science stuff)

It’s the time of year when the produce sections of grocery stores and farmers’ markets and farm stands are starting to look bright and fresh.  Beautiful red peppers, tomatoes that look and smell amazing, colorful zucchini and summer squashes are everywhere.  But do you know the best way to select and use them?

Let’s start with bell peppers.  Make sure to read the word of caution near the end of this post, please.  That’s where the science-ish stuff is.

Green bell peppers are not fully ripened.  They’re less expensive than red or yellow or orange bell peppers because they require a shorter growing time and can be harvested quickly without regard for proper ripening.  They can be bitter and are best used in recipes with lots of strong flavors like sausage and onions, or in a spicy chili dish.  Most people prefer not to eat them raw. The beautiful red, yellow and orange peppers have been allowed to ripen naturally and slowly, and they have a sweeter, milder taste as a result.  They can be eaten raw in salads or with dips, or cooked in a variety of ways.  The pepper variety will determine the color  and shape and size.  A green pepper may ripen to become any one of a number of colors, depending on its variety, but it won’t really properly ripen at home after buying it at the store.  There’s no truth to the myth about “male” and “female” peppers (determined by the number of lobes or sections on the bottom of the pepper – some people have been told that the number of lobes can tell you if the pepper is “male” or “female” and that one is sweeter than the other.  But that’s neither a botanical possibility nor a culinary fact).  The number of lobes depends on the botanical variety of the pepper and growing conditions and other factors.  However, it does seem that a pepper with more lobes or sections on the bottom might have more edible pepper flesh inside and less room for the seeds that we throw away.  Look for firm, unblemished, smooth, shiny skin and uniform color when selecting a pepper.

Red, yellow and orange peppers are fun because they’re one of the few foods that you can purposely burn!  It’s easy to make your own roasted red peppers.  Use an outdoor charcoal or gas grill, or a gas stove burner or the broiler in your oven.  Keep the pepper whole, and hold the pepper with tongs over the grill or burner, or lay the pepper directly on the grill, or set the pepper right in the flame of the gas stove (this last method is the fastest and requires paying close attention to the pepper).  If you’re broiling the pepper, put it on a broiler rack and place it close to the broiler, or lay it directly on the top oven rack with a piece of foil on the lower rack to catch any drippings that might escape.  Turn the pepper from time to time as the skin blackens so that all sides char evenly.  It won’t take long.  When the skin is completely blackened all around, use tongs to place the peppers in a plastic bag or paper bag and seal it up until the pepper is cool.  The steam from the roasted pepper in the sealed bag helps to further loosen the skin.  When the pepper is cool, you can just brush the charred skin off or rinse it under cool running water or peel it off.  Run your fingers over the pepper flesh once the skin has been removed to check for any leftover shards of charred skin.  What will be left is a beautiful tender skinless pepper.  Slice it and use it in salads, serve it on a steak or on top of a baguette slice with some salty feta or queso fresco cheese, or in other recipes.  The tenderness and the flavor can’t be matched!

An important word of caution:  You may have noticed that roasted red peppers in the grocery store are in pretty jars of olive oil.  However, when you roast peppers, use them right away or store them, covered with olive oil, for just one day in the refrigerator, or wrap them securely and freeze them.  Never store them for a long period of time (more than a day) in olive oil either in the fridge or at room temperature because of the real possibility of botulism poisoning.  Roasted red peppers (and other vegetables like garlic or sun-dried tomatoes) sold in grocery stores in jars of oil have been specially treated so that the botulism toxin will not form, and it’s impossible for the home cook to be sure that roasted red peppers covered in olive oil will not develop the deadly toxic bacteria if stored for more than a day or two at the most.  So if you make your own roasted red peppers use them right away or the next day at the latest, or freeze them.  If you freeze them, lay them individually on a tray covered with parchment paper until they’re frozen, then transfer them to a freezer bag.  This keeps them from freezing in a clump.

The botulism poison develops when the bacteria is deprived of oxygen (I know, that sounds backwards, but the botulism spores don’t grow in oxygen.  Once they’re starved of oxygen they can flourish.  It’s a whole bunch of science gobbledygook but it’s real and it’s important.  If you want to read words like “anaerobic”, “clostridium botulinum” and “gram-positive” you need to find a much more intelligent blog).  I’ll summarize:  Oil has no oxygen.  The botulism bacteria cannot survive in an oxygenated environment, like the air in our houses and the air we breathe.  When you immerse a vegetable such as garlic or peppers into oil (even if the vegetable has been cooked), you create an environment with no oxygen and any botulism spores that were present are now free to grow.  Refrigerating the infused oils is not enough to kill the bacteria.  That’s why you should never slice your own garlic and keep it in the fridge in oil so it’s convenient to use, or roast a whole bunch of peppers and keep them in oil in the fridge for the future.  The same holds true for herbs.  Botulism doesn’t taste bad or have a bad smell which makes it impossible to detect, but it’s a dangerous, even potentially fatal, result of improper food storage or canning.

So burn some beautiful peppers and enjoy them right away.  Chop them up or slice them into strips.  Mix them into a homemade hummus or crab cakes.  Add them to deviled eggs or scrambled eggs or a frittata.  Stir some into tuna or chicken salad.  Purée them with a little cream and pour them over pasta, or stir them into some sour cream for a dip.  Or just enjoy fresh red, orange and yellow peppers, washed and sliced or diced, with salads, with tuna and olives and hardboiled eggs, or briefly sautéed with other spring vegetables like snap peas and stirred into cooked pasta.  Peppers are full of nutrients and flavor!

These pictures show the progression from charred whole pepper, to steaming in a bag, to skins and seeds being removed, to the final product.  The last photo is a baguette slice topped with queso fresco (a mild, salty cheese – you could use goat cheese or feta instead) and roasted red peppers.  It’s a delicious light lunch.

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How to Keep Vegetables Fresh

Knowing how to store vegetables is important for the home cook.  Vegetables taste better and last longer when properly stored.  And if you’ve spent money to buy them or spent time preparing the garden, planting the seeds and harvesting the produce, you want the best, freshest, most delicious vegetables, right?

So here are some good things to know:

Most vegetables will be stored in the refrigerator.  Some refrigerators have a drawer with a little sliding knob to control the humidity (two drawers are extra nice!).  Sliding the control knob to low humidity opens a vent which allows moisture to escape that particular drawer.  Setting the knob to high humidity closes the vent and keeps the humidity in the drawer.   Some high-end refrigerators have computerized controls to set humidity levels.  And some refrigerators have no humidity controls at all, but there are ways to control humidity even with the most basic refrigerator.

Vegetables (and fruits) with skins that we typically peel, or that can rot or go moldy should be stored at low humidity.  That includes all squashes (summer and winter), mushrooms, turnips/rutabagas, and okra.  Vegetables that will eventually wilt and go limp and lifeless need high humidity.  That type of vegetable includes anything in the lettuce and leafy greens families, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, asparagus, cucumbers and leafy herbs.  It will help, when thinking about a particular vegetable, to decide if it’s the type that would rot (like an old Jack-O-Lantern that we forgot about) if it were too old, or would it just be a limp and floppy, like the carrot that stayed in the fridge too long and we didn’t notice it, and now it droops)?  If it will turn black and rot, then it needs low humidity.  If it will flop over, it needs moist humid conditions.

Don’t store vegetables packed too tightly together, and don’t keep vegetables near most fruits.  Apples and pears, for example, when stored near vegetables, will cause rotting to happen pretty quickly.

If you don’t have a fridge with special drawers or a drawer without controls, try these methods:  for the low humidity vegetables, store them unwashed in paper bags with holes poked in them or loosely wrapped in paper towels so humidity can escape.  (Of course, you’ll wash them when it’s time to use them). For high humidity vegetables, wash them first and store them in damp paper towels or in plastic bags.  Leafy herbs and vegetables with stalks (celery, asparagus, etc) can be set in a container with water so the stalks can soak up moisture.

Don’t wash low humidity vegetables before storing them.  Wash them right before serving them or cooking with them.  High humidity vegetables will benefit from being washed prior to being put in the refrigerator.

Here’s a summary:

Low Humidity, Don’t Wash Before Refrigerating, Store in Paper:

Winter Squashes

Summer Squashes

Mushrooms

Turnips and Rutabagas

Okra

Garlic

 

High Humidity, Wash Before Refrigerating, Store in Plastic:

 Lettuce and Spinach and Leafy Greens

Broccoli

Cabbage

Carrots

Asparagus

Fresh leafy herbs (like parsley and cilantro)

Carrots

Celery

Beans

Corn

Some vegetables, like potatoes and onions, should not be refrigerated and should be stored in dry cool conditions.  Tomatoes are best when kept on a cool counter top at room temperature.

One more food safety rule to keep:  raw meat and poultry and fish should be stored on the bottom shelf of the fridge, and fresh foods like vegetables and fruits should always be stored on a shelf above the meat or poultry or securely in the crisper drawers.  That way, you don’t risk any juices from the raw meat dripping or seeping or splashing onto the vegetables.

Next blog:  what to look for when selecting vegetables!