Tricks of the Trade: Owning Cooking Tips

website peach shortcake

“Run, Paula, run!”

In middle school our gym year always began with a trip to the town park for a complete “physical”.  Sit ups, push ups, a mile run around the track.  As an overweight pre-teen this was not one of my favorite things to do in life. Unfortunately I had no choice in the matter.

Then came the September of my eighth grade year.  During my seventh grade year I had suddenly and miraculously begun to grow once again and had completely thinned out.  While I had realized this was doing wonders for my social life, I had yet to learn that it could impact my athletic ability.

You can imagine my surprise to discover that with the weight loss, I could actually hold up my thinner weight in a push up, pull in the smaller stomach into a sit up position, and run without losing my breath.  It was an even greater surprise to discover that I was on my way to beating Stephanie, the yearly hands-down “winner” of the mile run.

I had simply been marveling in my ability to breathe and run at the same time as I went around the track the first time, but as I ran the track for the second time, the screams of friends telling me to “run” made their way into my consciousness.  I looked around and discovered that Stephanie was a few paces behind me, which was simply unheard of.

A true confession:  When I realized that I was actually ahead of Stephanie, a surge of adolescent competitive power surged throughout my entire being and all I could think was that I was going to beat Stephanie if it was the last thing I did. Unfortunately, Stephanie had years of running on her side, which I was all to aware of as she began to gain on me.

Since I was determined to win, though, I pictured my dad in my mind.  He had run in numerous marathons, many of which I had watched him run in, so I figured I might be able to gain some tips from him.  I could see him regulating his breathing, keeping his steps heel-toe, and focusing his vision ahead on the finish line.

As I adjusted my breathing, stride and vision, I began to feel like a runner, and I started to think that I actually was a runner.  It occurred to me that I could actually beat Stephanie and before I knew it, a burst of speed had kicked in and I was leaving Stephanie behind by a quarter of a lap, which continued until I crossed the finish line.

New experiences can trump the old

Before that day I would have vehemently denied that I could run, let alone beat the fastest girl in our grade.  That experience proved I was wrong, though, and in many ways changed the trajectory of the next few years to come as I took up long-distance running.

In the same way, too often I hear from people that they can’t cook, that they’ve tried in the past and it didn’t work, so they don’t want to try again.  What I’ve learned over the years is that anyone can cook.  They just have to learn the tricks or tips that will help them to be successful.

Searching out tips

The key is to actually seek out the tricks of the trade, though.  Much of what I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t in cooking has been through trial and error experience, but just as much has been people sharing their tips with me along the way and me searching out the best tips in cooking magazines, from cooking shows, and online.  Disastrous recipes have miraculously come together once I’ve learned the right tips for those particular recipes.

So, below I’ll share a few tried and true tricks which I’ve learned along the way to get you started, so you, too, can discover that you can “run” when you thought you couldn’t.

Cooking tips

1.  Ever been frustrated that your potato pancakes or crab cakes fall apart?  Mix your bread crumbs or oatmeal or whatever dry mixture you’re using in with the eggs and let it sit for five minutes to absorb the egg before you mix them into the rest of  your ingredients.

2.  Been frustrated by a recipe that calls for buttermilk when you never have buttermilk in the house?  Add one teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of whatever milk you use and let is sit for five minutes.  Then just add it to your recipe.  Alternatively, invest in SACO powdered buttermilk which can sit in your pantry or fridge for months without going bad.  You just add water when you need to use it.

3.  Ever wonder why your hamburgers puff up on the grill?  It’s because heat is affecting the cooking of the burger from all directions, making the center of the burger puff.  If you simply put a dimple in the center of your burgers, the burgers will cook more evenly and not be puffed up.

4.  Been trying to figure out how to make your thawed frozen fish taste like fresh? The key to good frozen fish is to thaw it completely, rinse it, and pat it dry with a paper towel before you cook it.  Too often folks just thaw and cook which leaves too much of the watery residue which greatly affects the cooking, the taste and the texture.

5.  Don’t want your pasta to be too soft after the sauce is added?  Cook your pasta one to two minutes less than the package directions, drain, and then add it to your hot sauce so the pasta will finish cooking with the heat of the sauce.   If you are cooking your pasta ahead of time, rinse it in cool water, drain, and toss with a tiny bit of olive oil.  The pasta will keep until you need it later for dinner.

6.  Never been able to roll out that pie crust without problems?  Put the pie dough in between two pieces of wax paper and then roll out with the rolling pin.  You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to roll that pie crust now.

7.  Been trying to figure out how to actually get all of your honey, molasses or otherwise sticky substance out of the measuring cup and into your recipe?  Lightly grease the inside of your measuring cup or line it with plastic wrap.  The sticky liquid will just slide out.

8.  Want to cut your small fruit into equal sizes?  Use your egg slicer.  It works wonders.

9.  Want boiled eggs that aren’t green on the inside or over or undercooked?Cook’s Illustrated has the best method I’ve ever tried:  Put your eggs into cold water, completely covering them up to an inch over with water.  Bring the water to a boil over high heat.  Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the eggs sit in the pan for 10 minutes.  Remove the eggs to ice water for five minutes, and then peel.

10.  Tired of your freshly baked quick breads sticking to your loaf pans?  Line your loaf pans with parchment paper so that “ears” are sticking up from the pan, so that you can simply lift the breads out of the pans when they’re done.

11.  Want homemade pizza crusts to be as crispy as the pizza from a brick oven? Preheat your oven to 500 degrees with your pizza stone or pan in the oven.  Put your pizza crust directly onto the hot pizza pan and cook for five minutes before you add your tomato sauce, toppings, and cheese.  Return the pizza to the oven for another five minutes or until the cheese is melted and the crust is browned and crisp.

12.  Been sad that your mashed potatoes which were perfect when you made them are too thick when you serve them?  Potatoes will continue to absorb the milk over time, so after you initially make your potatoes, let them sit for a few minutes before adding more warmed milk to the potatoes.

13.  Ever had difficulty making those pudding recipes because they gum up when you add the cornstarch?  No matter what your recipe tells you, if you simply whisk the cornstarch in from the beginning into your liquid and slowly warm the liquid up over low heat, stirring constantly, your pudding will thicken properly without gumming up.

14.  Wonder how to keep your cheesecake from cracking?  Wrap the outside of your cheesecake pan with aluminum foil and your cheesecake pan into a larger pan which you can add hot water to up to the center of the cheesecake pan.  Bake the cheesecake as instructed.  The moisture from the water will keep your cheesecake from cracking.  Just be careful when you’re removing the pan from the hot water after it’s done!

15.  Tired of trying to cut your cake layers to make enough layers for the cake recipe?  Simply bake thinner cake layers.  For example, I bake a multiple layer cake by putting about a cup of cake batter into a parchment lined 9 in pan and baking two pans at a time for about ten minutes.  Then I have four, six, or eight nicely sized thinner layers without the effort of trying to “cut” the larger cakes into smaller layers.

16.  Want to make great pasta salad?  After you cook your pasta and drain it, transfer the pasta immediately to a large cookie tray so it can cool quickly and evenly.  This will improve the texture of your pasta for your pasta salad and help your pasta marinade to “stick” to the pasta better.

Peach Shortcakes

Shortcake Ingredients:

1/2 cup vegan butter (or real butter if you can have it)

2 cups 100% whole wheat flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon dried orange peel

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons Agave (if you want to use sugar, it would need 1/4 cup)

1/2 cup soy milk (or whatever type you use)

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2.  In a food processor put the butter, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, orange peel, ginger, nutmeg, and Agave.  Pulse just until the dough is crumbly.

3.  Slowly add the milk and pulse just until the dough clumps together.

4.  Drop lightly filled 1/4 cups of batter onto the parchment paper and gently pat the dough into even biscuit shapes and sizes.  (You may want to lightly grease your measuring cup if you don’t want the dough to stick.  I don’t actually use a measuring cup. I just eyeball a 1/4 cup size.)  

5.  Bake for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits are lightly browned and cooked through.

Peaches Ingredients:

2 16 oz bags of frozen peach slices (you can always use fresh, too!)

4 tablespoons Agave

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 tsp ginger

1/4 cup packed ginger mint and/or mint leaves

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Thinly slice the ginger mint and/or mint leaves into strips.

2.  Mix the Agave with the cinnamon and ginger.

3.  In a large bowl, mix the gingermint/mint leaves and the Agave mixture with the peaches.

4.  If using the peaches shortly, let the peaches sit out on the counter for 15 minutes or more until they are thawed.  Be sure to stir the peaches every so often.  If using the peaches later in the day or the next day, put the peaches into the fridge.  Be sure to mix them well before serving.  (You can also thaw the peaches in the microwave before mixing them with the other ingredients, if you need them more immediately.)

Cream Ingredients:

One pint soy creamer

1/2 cup soy sour cream

1/4 cup Agave

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

Cooking Instructions:

1.  In a saucepan, mix the soy creamer, the sour cream, the agave, the cornstarch and the salt.

2.  Slowly cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken.

3.  Remove from the heat and add in the vanilla.

4.  Pour into a heat safe bowl.  Place a piece of saran wrap directly against the cream to prevent it from forming a “crust”, and cool in the fridge.

5.  When it’s completely cooled, you can simply stir it up with a spoon and serve over the shortcakes or you can whip them in a mixer or with a whisk if you want to incorporate some air and make the cream fluffier.

Assembling the Shortcakes:

1.  Place one shortcake on a plate.

2.  Spoons some peaches on top of the shortcake.

3.  Put a dollop of cream on top of the peaches.

4.  Enjoy!

“Herb”ivore: Using Herbs for Flavor

website herbs

“You can’t kill this.  It’s a succulent.”

True Confessions:  I am a plant killer.  Since I have no malicious intent and do not deliberately intend to kill my plants, I am, however, only guilty of involuntary plant-slaughter at most and not actual murder or even voluntary plant-slaughter.

And since I know this about myself, I don’t ever buy plants to have in my house; and friends and family who know me well don’t buy plants for me as gifts.  One day, however, a friend arrived for brunch with a plant in hand called a succulent.  (If you’re not familiar with a succulent, as I was not, it’s what a cactus is, though there are other varieties of succulents which are not cacti.)

My friend, who is absolutely marvelous with plants, assured me that she had brought me a plant that even I could not kill.  As you can imagine, with my track record, I was skeptical.  But my friend was right.  It’s a year and a half later, and the little succulent is still going strong.

It’s probably because you can basically ignore it, and it will still thrive on its own. As long as I remember to water it at least once a month, it’s good to go. Essentially it’s my type of plant, and if my friend had not given me the succulent I would never had learned that I could be free of my identity as a plant killer.

Why use herbs

For some people, they feel similarly about herbs and spices.  They don’t know exactly what to do with them and haven’t used them a lot, so they don’t.  They stick with salt and pepper and bottles of Mrs. Dash which just combine many herbs and spices together for use with anything.

Herbs and spices, however, are wonderful to use in cooking, because they can bring nuanced flavors to your food and allow you to cut back on your sodium use. Today, the variety you can find at the grocery store is remarkable.  You can buy it dried, freeze-dried, frozen, packaged in refrigerator tubes, ground, pureed, as leaves, and of course, fresh.

Fortunately for me, my husband has a green thumb, and he grows wonderful herbs for me in small planters we keep on the back porch which I can just snip as I want. When I don’t have fresh herbs available, though, I freely use the dried, freeze-dried, and refrigerator tube versions as well.  And I always have a variety of ground spices in my pantry for my use.

Tips for using herbs and spices

There are a few things to always keep in mind when using herbs and spices.

1.  Fresh herbs are usually added near the end of your cooking time, because they lose their flavor if cooked for too long, while dried herbs and spices are added at the beginning because they need the heat to bring out their flavor.

2.  Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor so you use less than you would  of fresh herbs.  1/2 to 1 tsp of a dried herb is usually equal to a tablespoon or two of a fresh herb.

3.  Since the oils in a dried herbs are essentially “trapped” inside, before you add dried herbs to your dish, you should “crush” them a bit between your fingers to release their flavor.

4. Spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are usually associated with baking and fruit dishes, but they add wonderful flavor to meat and seafood dishes and even to soups, beans, and macaroni and cheese.

5. Most herbs go well with just about anything from meat to vegetables to even fruit.  Experiment to see what flavors you like with what.

6. When you really want to bring out the flavors in a recipe, creating a base aromatic is the best way to go.  Simply put a little bit of oil in your pot and add dried herbs or spices, along with chopped onions or peppers or garlic, and slowly cook them over low heat for a little while before adding your meat or vegetables or fish or soup or whatever.

7. If you’re making something like a soup or stew or roast which needs a long time to cook, dried herbs are really better to use than fresh.  If you want to use fresh herbs, you can add those at the end as a garnish.

8. If you buy fresh herbs in a package from the store and don’t use it all up immediately, wrap the leftover herbs in a slightly damp towel and put it in sandwich baggie to keep it fresh a little longer in the fridge.

9. If you buy dried herbs and spices, they will lose their potency after a while, but the length of time varies.  Essentially, the rule of thumb is that if you can’t smell anything when you gently rub the spice or herb and/or they’ve completely lost all their color, most likely they should be tossed.

10. When using dried herbs, you should shake the herbs into your hands and then add them carefully to your dish.  If you shake the container over the dish itself, the steam from the cooking gets into your container and can spoil your dried herbs more quickly.

11. Dried herbs should be kept in a dark, dry, cool place.  Those little spice racks we buy are actually not very good for storing the herbs and spices, because usually those are put on the wall, near the stove where the light, heat and moisture all work together to spoil the herbs and spices.

12. If you want to buy dried spices or herbs but get that “fresh” flavor, buy whole dried spices which you can grind in a spice grinder just before using.

Herbed Shrimp and Vegetables

Ingredients:

1 – 2 tbsp olive oil (depends on how much you prefer to use)

1 cup frozen chopped onions (can use fresh if you have)

1-2 tsp dried herbs of your choosing (depends on how you prefer to use)

1-2 tsp minced garlic (jarred, tube, freeze-dried, fresh, whatever in the amount you prefer)

4-6 zucchini, 5-6 inches long, cut into 1/2 inch half moons*

2 yellow peppers, diced into 1/2 inch squares

1 14.5 oz can no salt added petite diced tomatoes, drained

1 lb thawed frozen deveined cooked shrimp**

4 cups fresh herbs of your choosing, chopped (will reduce to about 2 cups when diced)***

1/2 tsp coarse sea salt (you can add more or just omit altogether)

1/2 tsp black pepper

Cooking Instructions:

1. In a large stovetop skillet combine the olive oil with the onions.  Saute over low heat, stirring occasionally, for ten to 15 minutes until the onions are caramelized, which essentially means they’ve turned darker in color and become a bit thicker in texture.

2.  Add the dried herbs and garlic and saute for another five minutes over low-medium heat, being careful to stir so the garlic doesn’t burn.

3. Add the zucchini and peppers and saute over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes until the colors become a bit darker and more vibrant.

4.  Add the tomatoes and saute another 3-4 minutes.

5. Add the cooked shrimp with the herbs, salt and pepper, and stir until well coated and shrimp becomes slightly warm, about 1-2 minutes.

6. Serve by itself or over pasta or rice or couscous or quinoa or whatever.

* I prefer to buy or grow and use smaller zucchini because the flavor is better and it’s not as seedy.  If you purchase a larger store zucchini, then you should adjust your amount accordingly and scrape out the seeds from the zucchini before slicing.

** I love frozen deveined cooked shrimp because it’s cheaper and always ready when I want to use it.  You can use fresh shrimp but you then need to add it after the vegetables with the tomatoes so they can cook during that 3-4 minutes.  If yo use the frozen shrimp and forget to take it out ahead of time like I always do, you can just put the shrimp in a bowl of cold water to defrost them.

*** I use a lot of herbs for this recipe because my family likes it that way, but you can use reduce the amount by half.  As for the types of herbs we use, we like to vary it every time, but we usually use some combination of oregano, basil, mint, ginger mint, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, dill, chives, and/or parsley.

Easy Does It: Cooking with a Crockpot

website crockpot

“What’s for dinner?”

The yellow school bus had pulled up less than a minute ago, and my youngest had bounded into the car, dumped his backpack onto the car floor, and buckled his seat belt before asking the question he asked every weekday at the same time.

Before I could answer, he cast a hopeful look at me and threw out another one word question, “Pizza?”  Then, he giggled, because he was already anticipating the answer which I gave most every day to this ritualistic exchange.

“Noooo, no pizza today, little pizza monster.”

If my son had his way, we’d have pizza every single night for dinner.  And in some ways, it would make my life simpler if we did just eat the same meal every day.

“What’s for dinner?” is arguably one of the most frequently asked questions of a mom.  And for many moms at the witching hour, it’s one that can cause considerable stress.  Families today are pulled in so many directions, and getting supper onto the table for a family meal can be a daunting prospect, let alone trying to make it a healthy meal that also takes into account every person’s food allergies.

Crockpots or slow-cookers

If you’re like me, though, you do want to make family dinners a priority, and if you do, I’d like to encourage you to think about using a crockpot.

If you don’t know what a crockpot or slow-cooker is, it’s simply a pot in a warming element that cooks your food slowly over time.  Today, there are many varieties, but the most used are the 4 quart and 6 quart sizes.  They usually have a knob which you can turn to a low, high or keep warm setting.  Some are programmable, though, and others have the settings by hours, usually 4, 6,or 8 which are the most used times on a crockpot.

You can purchase them for reasonable prices these days at any store, but you can also acquire them for very little money at second-hand stores like Savers or the Salvation Army or online at sites like Craig’s list .  Whatever you spend, it will be one of the best investments you’ve ever made.

Advantages of a crockpot

I actually own four in different sizes, because you can cook just about anything in a crockpot – meats, stews, soups, vegetables, beans, cakes, puddings, fruits, quiches, etc….

The advantage of doing so is that you won’t be cooking during the most difficult time of your day.  You simply put everything into your crockpot first thing in the morning, and the food is ready when you and your family are ready to eat at the end of the day.  Also, because the crockpot can keep things warm, for those days when you simply can’t eat as a family, the food can stay warm in the crockpot for as long as you need so each person can eat when it suits their schedule.  (I actually have a meal in one of my slow-cookers right now as I write:  Thin and Trim chicken sausage mixed with zucchini, eggplant, summer squash, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and herbs.  Doesn’t that sound delicious?  And this evening when we’re rushing in from all the children’s after school activities, it’ll be ready for us to eat!) 

In addition, crockpots are wonderful for those summer months when you want something warm but don’t want to make the house warm by using the oven.  As well, for those times when you need to cook a lot (think Thanksgiving!) and your oven is full, you can use crockpots to cook your side dishes at the same time as whatever is in your oven.

Slow-cooking tips

Some tips for you to know when cooking with a slow-cooker:

1) Don’t stress about it!  You can put together just about anything, and it will come out fine.

2) Whatever you need to cook the longest should be on the bottom.  So foods like potatoes and carrots and other root vegetables which can take longer should be at the bottom if you were to make a meal like pot roast and vegetables.

3) If you like your meat to still moo when it’s done, you don’t want to cook it in a slow-cooker.  Slow-cookers are for when you like your meat to be tender and falling apart when you put your fork to it.

4) Your crockpot should always be at least half full to 3/4 full for it to cook properly.

5) Foods cooked on the low heat setting normally take between 7-9 hours.  If you use the high heat setting, the food usually cooks in half the time as the low heat setting.

6) If you make a single food like meatloaf or a whole chicken, you want to add some liquid like beef or chicken broth to the pot, or these items will be a bit dry.

7) If you’re cooking other foods like a stew or roast and vegetables, you want to limit the amount of liquid you add, because the process of slow-cooking will add liquid to the foods naturally.

8) Never put frozen meat into the crockpot.  They will not cook well.

9) You can, however, put little frozen fruit or veggies into the crockpot like peas or blueberries if you’re making a mixed vegetable or fruit dish.

10) You should always cut off any extra fat from any meat before putting it into the slow-cooker because the fat will just drain into your food.

11) If you want to enhance the flavor of  food you’re cooking, you can brown the meats or sauted your aromatics (garlic, onions, et…) before adding them to your slow-cooker.

12) Boneless chicken breasts only take a few hours, about three to four hours in a crockpot on low, but cuts of meat like  a roast take longer, 8 to 10 hours on low.

13) If you want vegetables to be only lightly cooked, you should check them after two hours.  Most vegetables only dishes will be done in three to four hours.

14) Crockpots are great for beans, because you don’t have to presoak them.  Just wash them and put them into the crockpot with your seasonings, and after 6 to 8 hours, they’ll be done and ready to eat.

15) Don’t be afraid to experiment!  There are so many online blogs and recipe sites, as well as crockpot cookbooks, that you could probably make a different crockpot meal every day of the year and not exhaust the recipes.

Crockpot Enchilada Casserole

Ingredients:

1 to 3 tsp chili powder (depends on how hot you like things)
1 cup low salt, fat free chicken broth
6 oz can of tomato paste
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp ground cumin
One 8 oz can no added salt tomato sauce
2 tsp minced garlic
½ tsp black pepper
1 cup salsa

One 15 oz can of no added salt beans (ranchero, kidney, northern beans, black – whatever you like best or have on hand)
2 cups thawed frozen corn
1/2 cup diced red, yellow or green peppers
1/2 cup finely diced zucchini
1/2 cup sliced broccoli

4 chicken breasts (sliced into thin slices or diced into small squares and sauteed just until no longer pink) 

10 corn tortillas
8 oz shredded reduced fat, low sodium cheddar cheese (can be omitted)

Cooking Instructions:

1.  Mix the chili powder, chicken broth, tomato paste, oregano, cumin, tomato sauce, garlic, pepper and salsa together.  Set aside.

2.  Combine the beans, corn, peppers, zucchini, and broccoli.  Set aside.

3. Layer two tortillas on the bottom of the crockpot.*

4.  Follow with ¼ of the chicken slices.

5.  Top with ¼ of the sauce mixture.

6.  Add ¼ of the bean mixture.

7.  Top with 1/5 of the cheese.

8.  Repeat the layering three more times.

9.  Top with the last two tortillas and remaining cheese.

10. Cover the slow-cooker and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours.

*NOTE: The two tortillas don’t completely fill the crockpot, so we layer the tortillas perpendicular to the layer beneath (i.e. making a cross shape with every two layers).