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Archive for the ‘Cooking strategies’ Category

I have the Cadillac of ovens: a real Kitchen-Aid with a slick digital timer, a bread proofing button, and everything. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but it was part of the reason I bought my place. : ) It  has been sadly out of service for a month as the keyboard shorted out (the price of luxury) but I just got it fixed this week. Overjoyed hardly begins to describe it. For the new keypad’s maiden voyage I made an old favorite: vegetable lasagna.

Because I own the Cadillac of ovens, it has a special exhaust fan in the back that works to keep the temperature even. This has the effect of making the oven work a bit like a convection oven, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it speeds up cooking sometimes. It’s bad because it overbrowns. The solution to overbrowning, as you may know, is to put aluminum foil over your cookies, pie, cake, etc. You should do this anytime you feel they are starting to get too brown before they are truly done.

But I’ve encountered a big problem with foil — if you just stick it on some objects flat across the top, they stick. I’ve had problems with that with my lasagna, where the cheese bubbles up and sticks to the foil. That can be a good thing if there are just a few golden brown, crispy cheese spikelets for the cook to eat. But if it’s a significant portion of your cheese, that’s not so good. A few months ago, I ripped an entire chunk of sheet cake off a cake when it stuck to the foil — and because it was still gooey, there was no way to replace it. Here at altitude, our cakes tend to rise REALLY high before assuming their proper height, even if they’ve been properly altitude adjusted (which is a whole other problem).

So with this lasagna, I tried something I vaguely remembered reading or hearing about as the solution to the problem: folding the aluminum into a little tent and place that over the baking object. I just folded my foil in half at an obtuse angle and laid it on the rims of the pan. I’ve never been quite sure how aluminum foil prevents browning (is it just preventing the reflection of heat from the top of the oven? If so, wouldn’t heat get reflected under the foil?) and I half wondered if tenting it wouldn’t just bring the browning problem back. But it worked — perfectly. No sticking to the foil. No premature browning.

Magnifique! Give it a try next time you’re worried about browning *and* sticking.

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burrito 003

A few weeks ago I linked to an article that discussed the food-borne illnesses that seem to have cropped up from eating frozen pot pies. Today I want to talk about my philosophy on frozen dinners and the place they can have in your home meal repertoire.

I can understand the urge to buy a frozen pot pie. I just made a pot pie myself a few weeks ago, and it’s not 30-minute dinner. It’s about a three-hour process, all told, although one of those hours is baking and cooling. Nor am I immune to buying frozen dinners. Actually, I think frozen dinners can be a healthy part of an overall home-cooking strategy that keeps you out of more-expensive sit-down restaurants. I do, however restrict myself to one brand: Amy’s.

In the article on frozen food safety, Amy’s was the only company that took pains to guarantee its ingredients’ safety and go on the record as doing so. And all of their products I have tried have been, in my opinion, uniformly healthy and delicious. They use high fiber and whole wheat ingredients when possible, and make sure to include plenty of protein and veggies. I’ve tried two paneer-based (homemade cheese) indian curries, an indian samosa, a frozen pizza, and am about to try the afore-pictured burrito. They’ve all been excellent — even better than average restaurant quality.

Now I know what you’re thinking: why should I pay extra for organic frozen dinners? Let me turn that question around on you. Is $2 really too much to pay for an occasional frozen burrito? $4 for a nice Indian meal? Think about how much they’d cost in a restaurant and probably not be nearly as good for you.

Besides, we’ve already established that frozen dinners should be an exceptional indulgence, not the rule (which, coincidentally, is how I also view meat . . . ). I eat a frozen dinner a few times a month, at most. There are fast ways to get fresh food on the table, and we’ll be talking about that here. But for nights or days when there is just no other way (you can’t cook (Plan A), and you’ve run out of leftovers and your own frozen provender (Plan B)), wait till you find Amy’s on sale at the store and stash some in your freezer (Plan C). You’ll be glad you did.

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<div xmlns:cc="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" about="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamsjoys/71498012/"><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=Have you ever seen an  expensive bottle of the herb-infused olive oil in a cooking store with an exorbitant price tag stuck to the lid? I have, and always felt such creations were too rich for my blood.

At the same time, I once tasted a bit of the divine substance at a restaurant in Boulder (basil-infused olive oil + fresh crusty bread = heaven), but still I assumed that, if purchasing them was right out, creating one of these concoctions from scratch involved a 15-step three week process necessitating USDA-canning-grade instructions. Turns out it’s not so.

In an article in this week’s New York Times, Mark Bittman reveals it’s easy as . . . well . . . pie.

FLAVORED oils are invaluable summer ingredients, at home over salads, grilled vegetables, meat, fish or almost anything else for that matter. They’re also among the simplest exotic kitchen creations imaginable.

You can pay $15 or even $30 for a half-liter bottle of flavored oil, or you can pay for oil plus herbs plus bottle, more likely to be around $10 a liter, and wind up with something considerably better.

If you jump to the article you’ll find a recipe for the stuff, although I must note that if you look at the correction, it appears even the mighty Mark Bittman got in trouble with the food safety police. Ahh, well. Better safe than hospitalized for hemolytic uremic syndrome, I always say.

Photo: Lavender-infused olive oil in an artist-approved but definitely not USDA-approved pose. Credit:jamsjoys/Creative Commons No Derivative Works Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Click image for link.

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Ashley with some wild watercress picked fresh on our family farm in Kentucky

Ashley with some wild watercress picked fresh on our family farm in Kentucky

My sister Ashley runs a cooperative weekly rotating dinner party called a “Supper Club”. I’ve often thought of doing something similar but have had difficulty finding people who will commit to hosting one meal weekly. I’ve invited her to guest blog about her experiences doing this, and today will be the first of four non-consecutive posts on the topic. Hope you are inspired, and enjoy! j.f.

On occasion, I like to write. Especially when doing so of my own volition on topics of interest. My sister offered to let me crash her blog with my adventures Supper Clubbing and I agreed, hopefully not to her later disappointment. (of course not! jf)

First, since this seems to be a foreign concept to a lot of people, let me elaborate on the concept of a “supper club”, or at least what it means to me. I’m sure there are other names for it, but at its most basic, a supper club is a group of people who take turns cooking for each other. At the moment, my Supper Club only has three members (down from a high of six), so we field trip to restaurants on weeks when the stars don’t align for one of us to cook.

Many people are so scared to cook for themselves that I’m sure the concept of cooking for other people seems absolutely daunting, if not downright impossible (right up there with trying to refuse a second helping of desert at Thanksgiving!).

Let me allay your fears by passing along my own personal mantra as said by Catherine Aird, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” : ) There are definitely times when I feel I’m the latter much more than the former, but I persist nonetheless because doing is really the only way to get better. Failure is often the best way to learn (and incidentally, makes for much better stories)!

If you’re skeptical still, let me assure you that in the course of my supper club I’ve had meals which were undercooked, overcooked (and even set on fire), several hours late and bestly (yes, I said bestly) perfectly done.

In the end, we’re not looking to be a top chef. Supper Club is not simply about becoming a better cook, though that’s nice. It’s about connecting with other people. When we pop open a bottle of booze and talk the week out over a home cooked meal, I don’t think things get much better. It’s possibly the best thing about my week. Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough for now. Stay tuned for my first post on the last Supper Club I hosted.

Ashley

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In the New York Times this week was some sobering news about the safety of proccessed foods. The frozen-pot-pied-induced sickening of 15,000 people shows it’s not just undercooked hamburgers and poultry-juice contaminated cutting boards that are sickening people anymore.

[T]he supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

… The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.

Because food processors can no longer guarantee the safety of their ingredients, they’re putting the burden on consumers to ensure the safety of their products by asking you (in confusing language) to use a kitchen thermometer — and object which even I do not own (but wish to purchase, and which one commentator noted may not even give accurate readings unless it is digital). But doesn’t that defeat the whole point of “convenience” foods?

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Vegan, gluten-free. Time — about 30 minutes, but you can cook while you’re doing the main entree. Difficulty: easy!

As promised, here is the recipe for the easy coconut rice I made to go with my sweet potato supper. If you’re looking for a way to really make a meal sparkle, it pays to add some flavorings, even if it’s only salt, to what you are making, whether it be rice or vegetables. It need not take long. Good cooks have been simmering their rice in chicken broth for eons, but coconut milk is also a choice you should consider for Asian-style meals. Though high in saturated fat, it has no cholesterol (only animals make cholesterol in their cell membranes — it helps keep them fluid). It can add fat that helps your body absorb the nutrients from vegetables and whole grains better. And the flavor is just divine.

For you beginning home cooks, the important thing here is to WATCH THAT RICE. This method relies on the old-school absorb-all-the-liquid method of cooking rice, which is easy to screw up if you’re not paying attention. Untended rice will develop a carbonized crust best left to scientists trying to date the remains of your rice in their landfill-archaeological excavation 3000 years from now. So set a timer. Stir occasionally. This is an important cooking principle in general: pay attention. If you get distracted, bad cooking is usually the result.

This recipe from Cooking Light presumably cuts down on the fat to the extent possible without sacrificing taste.

Coconut Rice

2 1/4 c. plus 2 T. water

1 cup coconut milk

3/4 t. salt

1 1/2 c. uncooked basmati rice

To prepare rice, bring first 3 ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in rice, and cook, uncovered, 5 minutes. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; let stand 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.

From Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2006, p. 68

If you’ve never had rice flavored with coconut milk before, you should give it a try. The annoying thing about coconut milk is that you can almost never use a whole can at once, and as for making the coconut milk yourself . . . yup, you guessed it: “Like hell I’m doing that!” In the next post, I’ll address what to do with the remainder. Can you freeze coconut milk?

Jennifer

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Step into any cooking store and you can see the vast galaxy that is the world of kitchen gadgets. But let’s face it — most of them are duds. The majority take up valuable real estate in your drawers while providing virtually no use to you. And we all know what happens: what little use they might provide is mooted because you can either never remember what you have or know where to look when you do want it.

In short, there’s a big case to be made for (pardon the pun) paring down to the essentials. But here at Home Cooking Well, I’m going to talk occasionally about tools that are useful; items every home cook should have or consider having. Here’s one: the mini-food processor.

mini_food-processor_chopped_onions

I got this one second-hand for $5 from a departing French post-doc who worked in my friend Laurie’s biology lab at MIT. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. But in the years since, it has more than proven its worth.

This little gadget is great for prepping vegetables — particularly onions — before cooking. How many recipes call for chopped onions, garlic or ginger? With one of these, you can simply coarsely chop the vegetables and then throw them in. In 5-10 seconds all your otherwise-tedious chopping is done. And on a busy weeknight, it’s small things like this that can help you cut down on prep time in a major way.

What’s more, as a former picky eater, I know lots of picky eaters don’t like big slimy chunks of onion in their food (it’s a texture issue). This method helps you preserve the onion flavor and content while keeping the individual chunks small.

One caution: don’t chop vegetables at the same time unless the recipe calls for them to be thrown in all at once. Otherwise, just scrape out the dish and chop them separately.

These little gadgets are also great for chopping nuts and pureeing small-batch sauces (I’ve made peanut sauce in mine before), vegetables, or liquids. But beware: inexpensive ones often leak (and yes, I learned this the hard way). For  more liquidy jobs, you’ll want the big kahuna: a full-sized Cuisinart or similar. Alternatively, and this is good practice with all food-processors, hold back as much of the liquid as possible from whatever you’re pureeing and add it back in in only after you’ve taken the puree out of the processor.

How about you? Anyone else own one of these little guys? How do you use it?

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