Category Archives: Observations

Thoughts about foods, trends, and ideas

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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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.

Thoughtful Cooking and Eating

I’ve been looking at a lot of food blogs lately – mostly the ones that advocate clean eating, cooking from scratch, and using real ingredients.  Some of them can almost sound mean and condescending and overly critical.

I want this blog to be encouraging.  And I want us to practice thoughtful eating and cooking as much as possible.  By that I mean, it’s okay to use the occasional convenience product, it’s okay to get a fast food meal once in a while, it’s okay to sometimes need a frozen dinner.  But processed foods, frozen meals and fast food shouldn’t be the norm.  They shouldn’t be the only food we eat.  They shouldn’t be the go-to menu and they shouldn’t be the only stuff we ever put in the grocery carts or on our tables.

And in the process of learning how to cook the basics from scratch, maybe we’ll all be more thoughtful of what we’re eating and what we’re cooking with.  What’s in those processed foods?  Is there a simpler better way to me the foods we like?  Do we appreciate what foods are available to us?  Do we take the time to enjoy the flavors of fresh food?

For example, in the grocery stores lately I’ve been seeing more and more water flavoring agents, intended to make water less boring and more exciting.  The next time you pick up a cute trendy water flavoring product, and start to make your bottle of water a sparkling, iridescent neon purple color, think about these questions:  how many millions of people on this planet have no clean water at all?  How many children in this world are sick from drinking water that’s filled with garbage and diseases?  What’s in that bright red or turquoise flavoring?  Do we need colors and fake flavors in order to appreciate clean pure water?  How about just dropping some sliced lemons or apples or peaches or cucumbers into a glass of water?  Let’s be thankful for clean water to drink.

And when you grab those cans and quick boxed dinners, think first and read the label.  Look at the list of ingredients.  Is there a cleaner, more pure way to make a tuna casserole without the box ?(Yes: tuna, peas or broccoli, a quick 10 minute cream sauce, whole grain pasta, without sugar and chemicals.) Put the fake processed stuff down and head to the produce department and get some fresh food.  Simplify things and enjoy the blessings of pure food.  And let’s put more thought into what we’re eating and what foods we’re preparing and serving.

This week’s observations: changing things up!

This week, I experimented with a couple of foods and techniques.

I have a rice cooker, and admittedly, I use it less for rice than anything else.  I’ve cooked beans in it, and soups, and used it as a slow cooker.  This week, I cooked chickpeas in it.  I soaked a standard-sized bag of dried chickpeas in plenty of water for 24 hours, then drained and rinsed them and threw them in the rice cooker with fresh water and set it to “brown rice”.  It was nice because they didn’t require any tending to, and they came out perfectly tender.  I prefer to use dried chickpeas instead of canned because they’re so inexpensive, they taste better, there are no additives, and I can control how tender or firm I want them to be.

These were for a hummus of sorts, so I made sure they were very tender.  I realize that a true hummus is a time-honored traditional food that is made with tahini (sesame paste), and good olive oil, and cumin and just the right amount of garlic.  So I need to qualify that this is not a true hummus.  I think that tahini adds great flavor, but I didn’t have any, and I wanted to see if I could make a “hummus” (ok, a chickpea dip) with flavor and without fat (the chickpeas have a tiny amount of fat but certainly nowhere near the amount in oil and in tahini).  I had a few serrano peppers, which I blackened quickly in a dry skillet, then removed the seeds and minced.  I added cumin and briefly toasted that in the skillet too (making sure it didn’t get burned and bitter).  I pureed the chickpeas and serranos and cumin in a food processor, but of course, it was really thick.  To make it into a dip of the right consistency, I poured in 8 ounces of a light IPA beer and found that the resulting mixture was smooth and dippable and nicely spiced.  I took it to my son and several of his friends, and asked them to critique it, without telling them what was different about it.  They tasted it and then they ate it all.  They all immediately identified it as hummus and loved the serrano peppers and the the cumin and the beer and none of them realized there was no oil at all in it.

My past “hummus” experiments have included:  making it with roasted garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and making it with a mild chicken broth instead of oil and adding plenty of spice.  So if you want a hummus type of dip with healthy chickpeas, and don’t have tahini, don’t let that stop you.  Make sure to use cumin and other flavors like roasted garlic and maybe some lemon, and use a beer or light broth to make the puree just the perfect consistency.

I also purchased an inexpensive Nut Milk Bag and made my first batch of oatmeal “milk” from steel cut oats.  The bag is beautifully made and cost just a few dollars on Amazon.  The mesh is really fine and the seams are finished nicely and it’s strong enough to support more than a pound of homemade ricotta cheese or cream cheese.  I love making ricotta cheese and it’s really easy (again, it’s not a true ricotta, which is made from the whey left over from making cheese, but it tastes like ricotta and can be used in recipes like ricotta and looks like ricotta so…).  Cheesecloth was just not working well because too much of the cheese got stuck in the cheesecloth.  This nut milk bag is perfect.

The oatmeal milk was really easy.  I soaked a cup and a half of steel cut oats in plenty of water overnight.  In the morning, I drained the oats, poured them into a sieve and rinsed them very well (that’s important).   Then I pureed them in the blender with 4 cups of fresh water, and put the whole mess into the nut milk bag which I hung from the cupboard handle over my sink, where I had put a large clean bowl.  I squeezed the oat mush so the milk drained into the bowl.  It took some wringing,  and I let it drain for quite a long time, but what I ended up with was several cups of a simple liquid that was creamy and white and smelled and tasted like oats (I didn’t flavor it at all, but most people suggest a little pure maple syrup and some unrefined salt.  I purposely didn’t use any sweeteners or salt because I wanted to know what the plain milk tasted like.  It would be great in a homemade banana nut bread, and with a little vanilla, maple syrup and salt it would be delicious to drink, too).  The oat pulp left in the bag was used to make cranberry oat bars.

So, an inexpensive Nut Milk Bag can be used for more than homemade “milks” made from almonds and cashews and steel cut oats – it’s great for draining homemade cheeses.  And a rice cooker can cook beans and chickpeas and much more than rice.   And hummus, or a chickpea puree, doesn’t need tahini or extra fat and calories from oils, but it does need flavor and spice.  Try new things!!!  What recipes and/or cooking techniques have you tried that are new and different?

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.


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.