Category Archives: The Basics

Basic techniques and recipe fundamentals (sauces, seasonings, etc)

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!

 

 

 

Salad Inspirations and Homemade Dressings

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It’s a good time of the year to think about fresh salads and homemade vinaigrette dressings.  The bottled dressings that we rely on so often contain a lot of sugar and artificial ingredients.  A simple dressing and a healthy salad are easy to make.

The basic method of making a vinaigrette dressing is to finely chop a small shallot.  [A shallot is milder than an onion and won’t overpower the dressing.]  Then choose some herbs.  If they’re fresh, finely chop those, too.  Combine the shallots and herbs with a ratio of one part acid to three parts oil.  Begin with ¼ cup acid and ¾ cup oil. [The acid can be lemon juice, Balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, orange juice or another fruit juice.  The oil can be olive oil or canola oil or grapeseed oil.]  Add a small amount of Dijon mustard [just a teaspoon] to help the oil and vinegar combine smoothly.   Whisk well and add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. 

Oregano and basil go well with traditional oil and vinegar dressings.  Tarragon and thyme pair very well with chicken and meats.  Dill goes beautifully with potatoes and with Greek flavors.  Fresh flat leaf parsley (not the curly leaf kind) goes with almost everything.  Mint would go nicely with a fruit-based salad.

Here are some suggestions for flavor combinations:

For an Italian Salad (lettuce, tomatoes, chopped bell peppers, artichoke hearts (not marinated, but either frozen and thawed, or in water only) good quality black olives, and perhaps cubed mozzarella cheese or cooked pasta or chopped salami or prosciutto), make a vinaigrette of shallot, a handful of fresh basil and oregano (or a tablespoon of each of the dried herbs), and then ¼ cup red wine vinegar and ¾ cup olive oil.

For a Spinach and Fruit salad, combine baby spinach leaves, dried cranberries, chopped pistachios (or pecans or walnuts), and either mandarin orange segments or chopped peaches or nectarines or pomegranate seeds (or a combination of all of those fruits!).  Make a vinaigrette dressing of ½ cup pure pomegranate juice, ¼ cup pure orange juice, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, and ¾ cup light oil (like canola or grapeseed) and 2 teaspoons of honey or maple syrup. Taste and add a little more honey or maple syrup if needed.

Make a Tuna Salad with mixed greens, drained white beans, chopped celery, grated carrots, tuna, and chopped hard-boiled eggs.  Toss that gently with a vinaigrette dressing of chopped shallot, 1 part white wine vinegar, a couple of teaspoons of Dijon mustard and three parts olive oil. 

How about a Greek Salad?  Combine lettuce, tomatoes, chopped Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, thinly sliced red onion, chopped cucumbers with a simple homemade Tzaziki sauce (pronounced tzah-ZEE-kee – the first syllable is like the zz in pizza with that tz sound).  Combine 16 ounces of plain Greek yogurt with two peeled, seeded and finely chopped cucumbers.  Add 2 Tbsp olive oil and the juice of a small lemon.  Stir in a couple of garlic cloves, finely minced, and a handful of fresh dill, finely chopped.  Refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving.  Tzaziki is delicious as a dip for fresh vegetables, too!

Try a different Chicken Salad.  Combine fresh greens with chopped cooked chicken, halved green grapes, chopped celery, chopped fresh tarragon with just a little mayonnaise (about ¼ to ½ cup at the most) mixed with a teaspoon of honey.  Just make sure to go easy on the mayonnaise so the salad ingredients are the star, and it’s not a gloppy mess.

Make a regular garden salad, of greens, tomatoes, fresh vegetables (peppers, cucumbers, radishes, whatever is fresh and affordable and available that you like in a salad) and turn it into a Steak Salad.  Grill or broil your favorite steak cut, such as London Broil (choose a steak that’s best served thinly sliced, not one intended to be served like a T-bone), and slice the meat after it’s cooked to medium rare and after it’s rested for 10 minutes.  Lay the slices over the salad, sprinkle blue cheese over everything, and drizzle with a simple combination of ¼ cup red wine vinegar and ½ cup olive oil. 

A very simple Potato Salad can be made by combining boiled chopped Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped hard-boiled eggs, diced peeled and seeded cucumbers, and just enough mayonnaise and Dijon mustard to help the salad stay together.  Add some salt to taste.  For a 5 pound bag of potatoes (a Potato Salad for a crowd) you might need a little more than a cup of mayonnaise and a quarter cup of Dijon.  Make sure the mayonnaise and Dijon don’t drown the salad.

When making your own vinaigrette dressing, just remember that if all you’ve ever had is bottled commercial dressing, a homemade one won’t taste as sweet, and it will taste fresher.  And don’t be afraid to use nearly any fresh herb, such as flat leaf parsley, basil, oregano, thyme or tarragon.  Add garlic if you like, as long as it’s finely minced or grated or very thinly sliced so you don’t find a huge chunk of garlic in your salad.  Dijon mustard is a great addition to an oil and vinegar dressing.  And don’t forget to taste the dressing before pouring it on the salad.  Try to think about whether it needs a bit more acidity or a little sweetness from just a touch of honey or maple syrup.  And go light when you’re pouring dressing on a salad.  The dressing should lightly coat the greens and other ingredients and shouldn’t be pooling in the bottom of the salad bowl.  Don’t add all the dressing you’ve made.  Add a little and taste a bit of lettuce before adding more dressing.  

If you want more inspiration, look at the bottled salad dressings the next time you’re at the grocery store.  If you see a flavor that you like, such as raspberry vinaigrette, then re-create that at home. Crush fresh raspberries through a sieve so the seeds are separated from the juice.  Measure the juice and add three times as much of a neutral oil (canola or grapeseed).  Add a small drizzle of red wine vinegar or lemon juice.  You’ll soon find out that you can have the delicious flavors without the xantham gums, sugars, thickeners, and everything else that goes into a processed salad dressing.  You can find lots of flavor combinations to make at home by just browsing through the salad dressing aisle.  If you have a favorite bottled dressing, feel free to ask me about it and I’ll help you find a recipe for it so you can make it without all the chemicals and additives.

If you want to use wine vinegar or Balsamic vinegar in dressings, just be aware of two things:  1/ don’t buy any wine vinegar that has sugar added (and NEVER buy cooking wine – it’s just sugared cheap weird stuff); and 2/ don’t buy Balsamic vinegar that has caramel color added.  I have checked recently and even places like Walmart and ordinary grocery stores (not just the nicer gourmet stores) offer a Balsamic vinegar choice that contains only vinegar and grape must (that’s the term for the skins and grape pieces left over from the wine making that is the foundation of the Balsamic vinegar-making process).

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

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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:

WATER, MUSHROOMS, VEGETABLE OIL, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, WHEAT FLOUR, SALT, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, DEHYDRATED CREAM (CREAM [MILK], SOY LECITHIN), YEAST EXTRACT, FLAVORING, DEHYDRATED GARLIC.

[Modified Food Starch as defined by the FDA:   http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=172.892

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).

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.

TACO SEASONING

 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)

DIRECTIONS:

 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.