Cooking Techniques: Croquettes

“But you play that, not eat it!”

I confused my son last week because I made croquettes (kro-kets), and he thought I said, “Croquet (kro-kay).” He thought it was funny that we were going to eat the game! And of course, croquettes actually look like little balls, so throughout the entire meal, he kept pretending that he was hitting them through croquet hoops.

If you aren’t familiar with croquettes, the name comes from the French, but they’re simply chopped up meat or chicken or cheese or vegetables or fish or potato or rice or quinoa or beans or combinations of all these, rolled in breadcrumbs or seeds or nuts and then cooked. For me, croquettes are a lovely way to use up leftovers. They’re versatile, not only in what you can put into them, but the way you can make, cook, and serve them. Plus if you serve them for company, the French name makes them think you’ve done something special. *grin*

Croquettes are quite easy to make, especially if you’re beginning with leftovers. The most common recipes you’ll find online are for ones made with mashed potatoes, either alone or in combination with meat, chicken, cheese, or vegetables. You’ll usually find, too, that they’re fried in some way, whether deep-fried or pan-fried, but they can be just as good baked. Below I’ll give you some tips for how to go about making your own.

The Main Ingredients: What’s important to know about croquettes is that no matter what you use, smaller is better. You don’t want large chunks in your croquettes. Because you’ll be rolling the mixture into balls, the smaller the pieces of meat or vegetables, the easier it will be for them to adhere to one another. I use my food processor to zoop at least one of the ingredients into almost a paste – potatoes, butternut squash, chicken, fish, rice, quinoa, beans, etc… all work well. Then I process the rest of the ingredients into tiny pieces which will mix well into the more paste-like ingredient. The reason I made croquettes last week was because I had some leftover chicken breasts which weren’t enough to serve as another meal for the whole family, so I processed them into a paste and added finely chopped cooked zucchini, mushrooms, and broccoli (also leftovers).

The Seasonings: You can season croquettes however you like. Salt and pepper, of course, but herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, chervil, sage, mint, dill, tarragon, marjoram, etc…) and spices (allspice, cayenne, cardamom, coriander, tumeric, cumin, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, cloves, mustard, onion, saffron, etc…) of your choosing are great, too. If you are going to eat the croquettes by themselves, you should season more heavily. If you are going to serve them with a sauce, then the croquettes can be more plain because the sauce will give them flavor.

The Binder: It’s important that your ingredients hold together to keep their shape. If you do as I do and puree one of the ingredients into a paste, then the rest of your ingredients will stick to that. It’s one of the reasons why so many croquette recipes are made with potatoes. Potatoes are naturally glutinous. If you want all your ingredients to be small, solid pieces, though, then you’ll need something to hold them together. Most anything works. Some recipes use eggs. Others call for mayonnaise or sour cream or yogurt. Many just moisten the ingredients with a little bit of liquid like chicken or vegetable broth or milk and add some flour or bread crumbs to give the vegetables or meat something to adhere to. Whatever you choose to do is fine. What’s important is that your ingredients can be shaped into balls, so if they can’t and won’t stick together, try something different.

The Shaping: Whatever ingredients you use and however you choose to bind the croquettes, I recommend that you chill the mixture before you shape the croquettes. Unless your ingredients are super sticky, chilling the mixture will help them to adhere to another better. I use a quarter cup measuring cup to form my croquettes but you can certainly make them smaller or larger. Whatever size you make, though, having them be uniform will allow them to cook evenly if you bake them or help you to time them consistently if you’re frying them.

The Coating: After you’ve shaped your main croquette ingredients into balls, you need to coat them with something. Usually they are coated in bread crumbs. I like to make my own with gluten free bread, but you can use store bought bread crumbs. What’s important is that your crumbs be very fine. Texture is very important to the taste of the croquettes. If you opt to use something other than bread crumbs, there are many options: cracker crumbs, finely ground nuts or seeds, flour, etc… Once you decide on your coating, you can decide how you want to adhere the bread crumbs (or other choice) to the croquette balls. You can roll the balls in beaten eggs, in milk, in broth, in mayonnaise, in just about anything which will help the bread crumbs stick to the croquettes. I find that eggs make for a crispier croquette, mayonnaise (or something similar like sour cream or yogurt) for a moister croquette, and milk and broth for softer croquettes, so you can choose.

The Cooking: If you want to deep fry them, it’s best to make sure you have enough oil to completely cover the croquettes. You also want to heat your oil as hot as you can. I have a deep fryer which heats to 374 degrees but if you heat oil in a pan stove-top, you can usually get the oil to about 350 degrees. The hotter your oil, the more quickly the croquettes will cook and the less oil they will absorb. Since your ingredients in the croquettes are already cooked, all you’re doing is making the croquette warm and crispy, so usually just two to three minutes is all they need to cook.

If you want to pan fry the croquettes, you simply need enough oil to brown all the sides of the croquettes. Having your skillet on medium high is good. Simply place the croquettes in the skillet and allow them to brown on one side before turning them over to brown on the other. When making the croquettes in a skillet, they usually take about four to five minutes per side.

My preferred method for making croquettes is to actually bake them because they’re healthier that way. I line a pan with aluminum foil which I’ve crinkled and very lightly grease the foil with olive oil. I place the croquettes on the foil and then lightly brush them with olive oil. I preheat my oven to 450 degrees and bake the croquettes for about 20 minutes, turning them halfway through.

The Sauces: Croquette sauces are as varied as the ways you can make the croquettes. You can dip them into a barbecue sauce, a cheese sauce, a tomato sauce, a lemon sauce, a mustard sauce, a garlic sauce, an avocado sauce, a dill sauce – if you can imagine it, you can make it. What’s important is to think about the ingredients you used in the croquettes and to match a flavor which would complement the croquettes. So, for example, if you used ham and potatoes, maybe a mustard sauce. If you made fish croquettes, maybe a lemon-dill sauce. What’s fun is if you make croquettes and serve them with a couple of different sauces for the family to try.

 

 

The Coating:

The Cooking:

Cooking Techniques: Stir Fry

“It was magnificent!”

Our family had a recent opportunity to attend a concert my oldest was performing in which was her women’s Glee club singing with Cornell’s men’s Glee club. Over 120 voices combined in four part harmony to create a most wonderful listening experience. What was amazing was listening to the individual voices even as their voices melded to become one united sound.

I thought about this when I received an email asking about how to make a good stir fry. Stir fry is food’s equivalent to a choir. Separate types of food becoming one dish where the tastes of the individual food remains even as their flavors meld to create a delicious stir fry.

Too often, though, people think of stir fry as something difficult. “Well, I don’t have a wok,” some say. “It’s too much chopping,” others say. I’ve also heard, “I never have the proper ingredients.” The fact, though, is that stir fry can be easy, quick, and done without a wok. It’s a great way to use up leftovers or to make when you only have a little bit of a variety of food items available. It’s also versatile and can be made any number of one thousand and one ways, not to mention stir fry is very accommodating for people with food allergies.

The Pan: The reason people like woks is that their curved shape allows you to cook at different temperatures at the same time. The bottom, which is closest to the heat is hotter and the temperature gets increasing cooler as you get to the top. This means you can move cooked foods toward the top and add newer food to the bottom to begin cooking on the hottest part, and then you simply mix everything together in the end. The shape of a wok also allows you to cook in different ways. The food that hits the hot bottom sears which traps flavor into the veggies or protein. When the sauce is added, though, moisture rises in the concave center of the convex wok, allowing the foods near the middle to top of the pan to be braised, which softens the food without making it mushy. If you don’t have a wok, though, you can still make a good stir fry. The key is simply to use a skillet which is just slightly larger than your burner and which has at least 2 in sides, which most of the larger skillets have these days. The center closer to the burner will get hotter than the edges of the skillet which allows you to move food to cooler sections of the pan, and the higher sides will allow you to braise. If you don’t have a large skillet with 2 in sides, you can also simply cook in smaller batches, cooking the veggies and protein separately, then mixing the two, and thickening the sauce separately and adding it to the mixed vegetables and protein. Doing everything separately doesn’t add time, it only adds another dish, and if you use the dish you’ll ultimately be serving the food in, then it won’t even do that!

The Veggies: All good stir fry dishes have an assortment of vegetables. Varying what goes into the dish can make for a colorful presentation as well as provide a variety of nutrients, textures, and flavors. People tend to get hung up on what they see as a “traditional” stir fry with bamboo shoots and baby corn and water chestnuts, but virtually any vegetable can go into a stir fry, so whatever you may have on hand works: broccoli, green beans, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, sweet potato, zucchini, squash, bean sprouts,leeks, asparagus, beets, radishes, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, and of course, baby corn, water chestnuts and bamboos as well. What’s key is cooking your vegetables uniformly. This means chopping vegetables of similar texture into the same size. It may also mean that you start vegetables which may take longer to soften like carrots and sweet potato first and adding greens like spinach or kale at the end. What’s nice about stir fry is that your goal isn’t to cook the vegetables for a long time; it’s to cook them just long enough for their colors to become bright and deep. You want the veggies to be still have some of their crunch and crispy-ness, not for them to be mush. For folks who don’t want to do any chopping or prep at all, nowadays you can buy your vegetables pre-chopped in the vegetable section. You can also used frozen chopped veggies, which is what I tend to do because then I always have veggies on hand.

The Protein: A stir fry doesn’t need to have protein but if you’d like to add protein, just about any type can go into a stir fry. Beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops, tofu, beans. As with the vegetables you want the protein to be able to cook quickly and uniformly, so make sure all pieces are similar size. Cutting the protein into smaller pieces allows you to use less, increases it’s ability to blend in with the vegetables, and spreads its flavor. Most recipes will tell you to sear the meats like beef, chicken and pork first and then to move them to the cooler section of the wok or skillet while you cook the vegetables and then to mix the two together, adding the sauce. This allows the meats to begin cooking their cooking process with the searing but then finishes the cooking with the braising which keeps the meat from becoming tough and dry. When using protein like tofu or softened beans or seafood, though, it’s often better to cook those at the last minute, just before you add the sauce because they usually only need a couple of minutes to cook, and overcooking them will make them tough or fall apart. For folks worried about the prep and chopping for these, you can find pre-sliced tofu and meats at the grocery store. For seafood such as scallops, I use the frozen variety; I simply thaw them in cold water for about 15 minutes and throw them in. You can also simply used leftovers from previous meals which you throw in at the last minute just to rewarm.

The Sauce: A good stir fry will have some flavor added more than just your veggies and protein. What you do can vary, though. If you don’t want a sauce, you can simply use herbs and spices. Stores carry premixed blends for specifically adding to stir fry. You can also experiment with herbs and spices to see what you like. For me fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions are my preferred flavors. If using dried herbs and spices, you’ll want to add them to the veggies and to the protein as you begin cooking them so the flavor have time to meld. If using fresh, add them at the end. If you opt to make a sauce, the key thing to know is that you need a thickener for your sauce. For stir fry usually cornstarch is the thickener of choice but you can also use tapioca starch or arrowroot or any type of flour. You want to whisk the thickener in with your liquid before adding the sauce to the pan to thicken. A good rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of cornstarch, tapioca starch, arrowroot, or flour is needed for every cup of liquid. When cooking the sauce, you’ll want to continually stir the sauce whether you’re cooking the sauce separately or whether you’ve added it to the pan with the vegetables and protein. If you add it the pan with food in the pan, simply move the veggies and protein to the edges of the skillet or up the sides of the wok, so you can thicken the sauce in the middle of the pan. Once thickened, combine the sauce with the veggies and protein. As for ingredients in a stir fry sauce, that all depends on your tastes. For the liquid part you can use soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, broth such as chicken, beef, or vegetable, red or white wine, sherry, etc…, whatever your tastes prefer. To add another dimension of flavor to whatever liquid you choose, you can add different flavored vinegars like apple cider, rice, or red wine, juices like lemon or lime or pineapple, oils like sesame or peanut, etc…. You can also add herbs and spices like garlic, scallions, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, etc…. To make the sauce, simply mix all your chosen ingredients in the ratio that tastes the best to you and which makes one cup’s worth, add your thickener, mix well, and cook over heat, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens to a consistency where it will cling to the veggies and protein in your stir fry. If you find that for some reason you need more thickener, simply mix more of your thickener with the equivalent amount of water and add it to the sauce (so, one teaspoon of cornstarch with one teaspoon of water).

The Sides: Stir fry can be eaten alone or atop something else. Good options if you want to eat them with something else are rice (brown, white, wild, jasmine, etc…), quinoa, barley, noodles such as udon, soba, lo mein or rice noodles, strips of spaghetti squash or zucchini ribbons or chopped cabbage, fresh greens like spinach, kale, arugula or swiss chard, etc…. Use your imagination and be creative.

 

 

Cooking Techniques: Entree Souffles

website souffles

“I’m afraid I’ll make it and it will deflate.”

I’ve never quite understood the fear and awe people have about and for souffles. One, a souffle is simply an egg bake. It’s a vertical, airy one, but it’s an egg bake nonetheless, which if you think about it, isn’t really all that special. Yes, it looks pretty when it’s puffed, but if I had a dime for the number of times people have eaten a souffle for the first time and been disappointed because it’s just an airy egg bake, I’d be quite wealthy.

Two, somewhere along the line the myth arose and has been perpetuated that only the best of the best can keep a souffle from deflating and that if your souffle deflates, you are somehow a failure as a cook. The factual truth is that a souffle is going to deflate, no matter what you do or how good a cook you are. Julia Child’s souffles deflated. Really, they did. You can’t defy gravity, especially if you’re making an egg bake vertical instead of horizontal. You just can’t.

Why do you think the restaurants always bring souffles out immediately, straight from the oven and make the first cut into it within literal seconds of presenting the dish? Because they know it’s going to deflate, and they only have a few minutes to showcase it! I know, because I worked in restaurants and brought out those souffles!

Honestly, souffles are not difficult to make. They simply require some time and patience. A couple of hints to help with the cooking process, though:

1. Having your ingredients at room temperature: The airy texture of a souffle is achieved through the use of whipped egg whites, and egg whites whipped the best when they are warm, and the whipped eggs incorporate better into the other ingredients when they are warmer as opposed to cold.

2. Use the right baking dish: In order for a souffle to rise, a round, glass casserole dish which has a good depth to it with a straight edge is the best. Your souffle needs to rise upwards, so you don’t want to use a dish that is shallow or too long in diameter; and you want the dish to have a straight edge so the souffle has the support it needs while it rises. If you have a dish which is the right dimensions but doesn’t have a straight edge, you can insert parchment paper into the dish to create the straight edge you need.

I use a casserole dish which is 7 inches in diameter and 3 inches in depth/height to make a souffle which feeds a family of four to five. Often you’ll find that recipes call for you to use individual dishes, 6 or 8 ounces in size, because the smaller the souffle, the easier it is to rise. If you have enough little dishes, then by all means, use them. If you don’t, though, using a dish like the above works well.

3. Be sure to prepare your pan as needed: Because a souffle needs to rise, it is important that you provide something for the souffle to stick to as it rises. Most of the time, your recipe will call for you to grease the pan and then coat it with an ingredient like bread crumbs. This is because the bread crumbs are coarse enough to provide texture for the souffle to cling to as it rises.

4. Keep your ingredients lightweight, small and dry: If you are making a vegetable souffle, it is best to finely chop your ingredients so they can easily incorporate into the eggs without weighing them down. I often make a souffle when I have leftover cooked vegetables and/or meats I want to use up. I simply plop the leftovers into my food processor and chop them into small pieces for use. If your ingredients are excessively wet, squeeze the liquid out, because wet ingredients are heavier than dry.

5. Be creative with your spices and herbs: Souffles are simply eggs mixed with whatever your filling is, so any flavor you want will come from the spices and herbs you add. Sometimes people are hesitant to try something besides salt and pepper with their eggs, but the addition of chives or tarragon or nutmeg or thyme creates a savory taste which complements eggs really well.

6. Use cream of tartar: When whipping egg whites, a little bit of cream of tartar goes a long way. Cream of tartar is an acid which helps your whipped egg whites to hold their proper form and shape as needed. Many times if folks have a problem with their souffles it is because they overwhipped their eggs, and the eggs began to lose their hold. The cream of tartar helps to prevent that loss of hold if you do accidentally overwhip. If cream of tartar isn’t something you have on hand, lemon juice or vinegar will do the same trick.

7. Use equipment properly: When whisking egg whites, you need to make sure your bowl is absolutely clean and dry. Even a tiny amount of water or stuck on food can make a difference in how well your eggs beat up. Also, if your mixer has a special wire whisk attachment for eggs, use that instead of the regular beater. The wire whisk allows for more air to be incorporated into the egg whites.

8. Know when to stop: When you begin whisking egg whites, they will be liquidy and clear. As the eggs begin to incorporate air and the protein strands begin to uncoil, your eggs will turn white and foamy, will double in size and will become stiffer. When you can lift your whisk and the egg whites stick out at a 45 degree angle like a little wave, your eggs are done.

9. Be patient with the egg whites: When you incorporate the egg whites into your vegetable mixture, you want to take your time. Add the egg whites a little at a time, and gently fold the whites into the mixture, using a simple S method: You gently run a curved spatula around the sides of the bowl, gathering up a bit of the egg whites and gently scoop down the center to mix the egg whites into the mixture. You repeat this slowly until all the egg whites are incorporated into the mixture.

10. Think lighter: The one thing about souffles is that they often use a lot of eggs, and as we all know, too many yolks are not always the healthiest for us to eat. I usually use just a couple of whole eggs and the rest is liquid egg whites, and the result is still a nice souffle which has less cholesterol and calories and fat.

11. Don’t skip the sauce: Most souffle recipes require that you mix your vegetable and/or meat ingredients into a cream sauce. Folks can be tempted to skip this to save on calories or because of worry about allergies. Don’t. The sauce coats the vegetables and allows it to incorporate more easily into the egg mixture. I have found that you can use any type of milk that works for you and that you can lighten the sauce by omitting the use of oil.

12. Be realistic: If you follow all the tips, your souffle will puff up beautifully while cooking and will come out of the oven nice and tall, but know that within minutes, gravity will take over and slowly the souffle will fall. Just enjoy those few moments and the taste of the dish itself as you eat!

Vegetable Souffle

Ingredients:

1 cup cooked, finely chopped mixed vegetables, drained or squeezed of any excess liquid (I use leftovers from other meals like spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, etc…)

1 tbsp minced onions

2 eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup liquid egg whites, at room temperature

1 cup “milk” (soy, flax, rice, cow: all work)

2 tbsp “flour” (sorghum, oat, garbanzo bean, whole wheat, etc…)

1 tsp mixed herbs and spices (I like to mix tarragon, thyme, black pepper, and nutmeg – 1/4 tsp of each)

1/4 tsp cream of tartar

Cooking Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a casserole dish 7 inch in diameter and 3 inch in height with your favorite method (olive oil, vegan butter, etc…) and coat the dish well with bread crumbs. (I use Ian’s gluten free bread crumbs or make my own in the food processor with Udi’s gluten free bread.)

2.  Mix the finely chopped vegetables with the minced onions and set aside. (Be sure to squeeze out any excess liquid from the vegetables.)

3. Separate the yolks from the whites of the two whole eggs, and add the yolks to the vegetable mixture.  Add the whites to the liquid egg whites. You should have 3/4 cup of egg whites for your use.

4.  In a large, shallow pan, mix the milk with the flour and herbs and/or spice choices, whisking well to incorporate the flour and seasonings into the milk.

4. Cook the milk mixture over medium low heat, stirring continually, until the mixture begins to thicken.  Should only take about five minutes in a large, shallow pan.

5. Stir the vegetable mixture into the sauce and allow the mixture to cool slightly.

6. Put the liquid egg whites into a clean mixing bowl and stir in the cream of tartar. Using the wire whisk attachment to your mixer, whisk your eggs until the whites  double in size, are foamy and white, and when you pick up the whisk, the eggs are stiff, tilting to a 45 degree angle.

7. Slowly add the egg whites to the vegetable mixture, incorporating a little at a time, using a curve spatula and moving gently in an S motion, around the edge, down the center, until all the egg white is mixed into the vegetables.

8. Gently spoon the souffle mixture into your prepared dish, and carefully tap the dish once or time to level it.

9. Bake in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes. The souffle will have risen and be puffed, dry and firm, no longer wet.

10. Remove and serve immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking Techniques: Lettuce Salads

website salads

“There’s a reason your favorite restaurant puts grated carrots on the salads.”

I came home from my family vacation to find a phone message waiting for me. A friend wanted to know if her husband was correct:  Does cutting lettuce make it brown more quickly?

I had to laugh because my own husband and I have the same discussion every time I make salad. He was a “professional” salad maker at a restaurant as a teenager where he was taught to always rip the lettuce, not cut. I, on the other hand, prefer to cut my lettuce for salad.

The fact: whether you cut or tear, your lettuce will eventually brown around the edges, no faster or slower one way or the other. Numerous reputable chefs have tested the “browning” theory and found no difference; yet the myth persists. Hence the continuing debate between me and my husband for over 20 years!

My friend’s question got me thinking, though, about salads in general. While cutting or tearing makes no difference to how quickly your lettuce browns, it does affect both the taste and texture of salads. In fact, how we choose to cut all the vegetables we put into a salad makes an enormous difference. So, I thought it might be nice to write a post on salads.

For me, salad is not just a side dish you eat because you’re supposed to be healthy. It is a dish worth preparing with time, care, and thought to the ingredients going into it. Salads can be as versatile as everyone’s preferences dictate. How you make a salad affects the taste and how aesthetically pleasing it is to your other senses as well. Made well, it’s a wonderful addition to a meal or a meal in and of itself.

In addition, salad is very friendly to most dietary restrictions and food allergies because 1) vegetables are healthy and good for you to eat and 2) you can make a salad with what you can eat and leave out what you can’t.

Lettuce, Greens, and Spinach: There are a variety of lettuces to choose from for salad:  romaine, bib, green leaf, red leaf, escarole, chicory, frisee, raddicchio, mesclune, butter, Boston, iceberg. The list goes one. The best salads are a mix of different types of lettuce because you accost your taste buds with different textures and tastes and nutrients. That’s why those bagged mixed leaf lettuces are so popular.

I would recommend, though, that unless you really and truly have a love for iceberg lettuce, opt for some of the other varieties for your salads. Iceberg lettuce really is only good for providing water to your diet, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most tasteless of the lettuce lot.

Adding spinach to your salad, however, is always a plus because it’s so nutrient rich. In the same way, using other greens like arugula and kale and turnip greens are a wonderful way to add to and enhance the taste and texture of the lettuce in your salad. For some of these, though, you may want to be judicious in the amount you add, because too much may make your salad too bitter. You want to balance the tastes for the most savory eating experience.

As for cutting versus tearing: If you slice your lettuce into thin strips, the dressing can more easily cover the lettuce. This is why cabbage for cole slaw is always cut into strips. If you tear or leave your lettuce in leaf shape sizes, the dressing will get caught in the small crevices of the lettuce leaves or slowly drip downward off a large part of a lettuce leaf. Some people like their dressing only partly covering their lettuce. Others prefer more coverage.

Also, if you slice the lettuce into smaller strips, you can more easily combine the other sliced vegetables with the lettuce. Slicing does, however, increase the amount of lettuce you need for your salad. This is why restaurant salads are always served to you with larger lettuce leaves. It looks like you’re getting more for your money.

You’ll notice, though, that because restaurants do serve leaf lettuce that all your other vegetables are simply put on top in large slices, because it is more difficult to “mix” the vegetables into a leaf lettuce salad. Again, some people prefer to eat their salad vegetables separately, one at a time. I like my veggies to be mixed altogether in each savory bite.

Carrots, Jicama, and Cabbage: Most restaurants put grated carrots on top of a salad. This is because it stretches the carrot, allowing them to use a smaller amount per salad, but it also is more flavorful in a salad. If you shred carrots, jicama, or cabbage it will more easily incorporate into a salad, allowing their flavors to meld with the lettuce without overpowering the lettuce. This also gives your salad some pretty color, especially if you opt for different colored and types of these vegetables. My husband always grows pretty purple, red, orange, pink and white carrots for us which make our salads simply beautiful.

Sometimes you’ll find the carrots, jicama or cabbage in shaved shapes. This is more for effect, to be pleasing to the eye – though, shaved carrots do have a nice texture for eating.

If you want to simply cut carrots or cabbage into pieces, it’s always worth the time to slice them thinly. It can be rather unpleasant for the taste and for the mouth to suddenly bite into a chunk of carrot or cabbage when eating your salad.

Cucumbers and Radishes: Restaurants love to make pretty flowers out of radishes and to place artistically peeled cucumbers on top of salads. If you’re artistic, go for it! For the best taste, though, I prefer to cut cucumbers in half, scoop the seeds out, and then thinly slice the cucumber. The resulting quarter moon shape looks pretty in a salad, and the thin cucumber pieces are easy to eat and give just the right amount of crisp to a salad without being overly chunky.

Radishes have a strong flavor, so if you’re going to actually put them into your salad instead of just using it as a pretty garnish, shredding a small amount or thinly slicing just one radish or two is enough to add some flavor without overpowering the rest of the ingredients.

Broccoli and Cauliflower: People are very split when it comes to adding these cruciferous vegetables to salads. In their raw form, they can be chunky and detracting to a salad. If you’re going to put them in a salad raw, the most pleasing texture and taste is to chop them into thin pieces.

What I like to do is to do a quick blanch where you put them into boiling water just for a few minutes to bring out their beautiful color and to slightly soften them. Then when you slice them into bite size pieces and add them to your salad, they won’t be too hard, too chunky or displeasing to the eye.

Zucchini and Summer Squash: These are lovely additions to a salad, especially if you grow them or purchase them small in size. The smaller they are, the more sweet and tasty they are. You can chop them into thin, bite size pieces and add them to your salad for some wonderful color and added texture and taste.

If the only varieties you can get are large, though, you’re best doing as I suggest for the cucumbers: halve the zucchini and/or squash, scoop out the seeds, and thinly slice them to achieve those quarter moon shapes.

You can also do as you might with the broccoli or cauliflower and blanch them before slicing into thin, bite size pieces.

Sprouts: Green sprouts, lentil sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts, radish sprouts, pumpkins sprouts. There are many types which can add lovely texture and taste to a salad. For most, I recommend simply chopping them as you would an herb and adding to your salad.

For bean sprouts, though, some people prefer them slightly cooked, so blanching them before cutting would eliminate that hard, raw taste. If you like them raw, though, chopping them into smaller pieces makes them easier to eat.

For all sprouts, though, you should tailor the amount to your taste preference. Some can have a sharper bite to them which some people like and others prefer in smaller amounts.

Peppers: Peppers are a lovely addition to a salad because you can add beautiful color by using red, purple, orange, yellow, and green peppers and you change up the taste by using hot or sweet peppers. It’s always best to seed your peppers. One, the seeds aren’t pleasant to bite into in a salad. Two, they aren’t pretty in a salad.

For peppers, how you slice them is all about the texture and taste you prefer. I like to slice my thinly and into small bite size pieces so they can be mixed well into the salad to incorporate their color and their taste. Some people prefer their peppers in square chunks. To stretch a pepper, you can chop one into tiny pieces and mix them throughout a salad, much like shredded carrots. This adds a pleasant taste and some color without using too much of your pepper supply.

Tomatoes: Tomatoes come in so many varieties that you can add color and taste and texture to any salad simply by using a couple of different types. For most tomatoes, though, you should plan to add them to the top only of your salad just before serving. If you leave tomatoes mixed into a salad for too long, they make your salad too moist and cause it to wilt.

For smaller tomatoes like cherry and grape and pear, I like to slice them in half and sprinkle them across the top of the salad because it’s pretty that way. For larger tomatoes, you should cut them into bit size pieces. Restaurants always give you just one or two large quarters, because they’re trying to save on money, but I know you find those hard to eat and moan as you try to cut them with your knife and they fly across your plate!

Other Vegetables: The list can go on because there are so many more delicious vegetables out there! The tip is this: No matter the vegetable, decide what you want it to do for your salad. Is it going to add color? Is it going to add texture? Is it going to add additional flavor or taste? Is it doing all three?

Once you know the answer to the above, then you can decide how it will best add the color, taste or texture. Should you thinly slice it? Should you chop it into bite size pieces? Should you chop it into tiny pieces to incorporate into the salad? Do you need a lot of it? Do you only need a small amount? Should you blanch it first or use it raw? Once you decide, then just do it.

Seasoning and Additions: Once you’ve chopped, sliced, diced and grated all your wonderful vegetables, you’re not necessarily done. You can add other items to your salad to amplify it’s taste, color and texture.

Seeds, Nuts, Fruits, and Beans: Different types of seeds like pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds and sunflower seeds make tasty additions to salads. They add crunch and good nutrients.

Nuts, if you’re not allergic, are also quite tasty in salads and have good nutrients as well. Just make sure not to use too much because they can be high in fat. Slicing or chopping them into thin pieces can stretch them and add flavor without needing to use too much.

Beans like chickpeas and kidney beans and black-eyed peas and white beans are great in salads. It’s best that they’re cooked, though. *grin*

Fruit like dried apricots or cranberries or fresh blueberries or strawberries or sliced oranges or grapes all make for a tasty salad, too. It’s always best to add these at the last minute, though, because like the tomatoes, they can wilt your salad if left in for too long.

Herbs, onions, celery and garlic add lovely taste to a salad. It’s always best to thinly slice these or chop them into tiny pieces so you can best incorporate their flavor throughout your salad. Be wary of using too much and overpowering the other tastes in your salad.

Meat, Tofu, Chicken and Cheese: If you’re making your salad into a meal, adding protein is always a nice plus. You should make sure to balance the portion of protein accordingly, though. You should have more salad than protein, not protein with a tiny bit of salad underneath it! For all, shredded or bite size pieces add the best texture and taste and aesthetic look to a salad.

Dressing a Salad: How you dress your salad is as versatile as how you make your salad. You can have it plain. You can make up a simple vinaigrette. You can drizzle honey, yogurt or sour cream over it. You can squeeze a lemon or lime over it. You can opt for putting just a bit of balsamic vinegar or another type on top of it. The list is endless.

What’s important to keep in mind is that you never want to overpower or drown your salad with however you dress it. The purpose of a dressing is to help bring out the flavor of your vegetables, not mask it!

 

 

Cooking Techniques: Roasting Vegetables

Roast Vegetables

“Tell me, honestly, do you think it can be done?”

Three weeks ago my middle school daughter’s principal called. The director for her play had quit suddenly with no notice, after having done very little in the first place to ready the students and the production for their performance which was just over two weeks away.

He wanted to know if I thought it would be possible for the students to actually pull together an entire production in two weeks and whether I would be willing to step up to be the director who would attempt and achieve such a feat.

Having run a summer theater program where essentially that is what we did – pull together a production in about two weeks worth of time – I told him that the kids and parents could definitely do it and that I’d be happy to help.

There’s a difference, though, between directing a production which you’ve planned from the start where you put into place ahead of time the variables which you know you need to and what I just did in these past couple of weeks – which was essentially scramble like a mad person to discover what needed to be done and having it done as quickly as possible with the few options I had available.

Sometimes mealtime can have the same feel. Certain days you’re able to plan ahead and create an extraordinary meal with items you were able to purchase from the grocery store ahead of time. Other days you find yourself scrambling, wondering what you have available and how you can pull something nutritious and tasty together in a short period of time.

That’s where roasting vegetables becomes a literal godsend. You can quickly roast most any vegetable you have on hand, whether fresh or frozen, and make a nice meal for your family on those days like the ones I’ve recently had where you’re literally figuring out dinner with less than thirty minutes to serve it.

The first advantage of roasting vegetables as a dinner meal is that you’re serving something healthy to your family because vegetables contain good nutrients you need. Secondly, roasting intensifies and brings out the flavor in vegetables which make them tastier. Thirdly, roasting quickly cooks vegetables through, better than cooking them stovetop or grilling. Fourthly, you can use small amounts of good, healthy fats like olive oil to roast the vegetables. Fifthly, once you have the tasty roasted vegetables you can easily add beans or leftover meats to it for a more filling, yet quick, meal.

Some Tips for Roasting Vegetables:

1. High heat is better: Temperatures of 450, 475 and 500 degrees are best for roasting. I always roast at 500 degrees. The high heat reduces the opportunity for your vegetables to “steam”, and it caramelizes the outer “skin” of your vegetables, bring out the flavors and sealing in the tasty “juices”.

2. A clean oven is necessary: Because you’re cooking at high temperatures, your oven must be clean. A dirty oven will smoke and set off your smoke detector and add an unpleasant odor to your kitchen. If you have a self-cleaning oven, use the feature. If you don’t, it really doesn’t take that long to use a little hot water and soap and a scouring pad to get off any grime and crusted on pieces which might burn.

3. Rack positioning is key: Roasting your vegetables in the center of the oven will cook more evenly. Putting the pan on the top rack usually browns the food more. Putting the pan near the bottom rack gives the food more of a sauteing effect. Depending on what you’re going for, you should be sure to place your rack before preheating your oven.

4. Pan size and type are important: You always want to roast your vegetables in a single layer without them being on top of each other, so your pan should be large enough to fit all the vegetables your are roasting. You don’t, however, want a lot empty space around your vegetable pieces because this will cause burning, so your pan should also be just right for the amount of vegetables you want to roast.

The type of pan you use is important, too. You want a pan that can withstand high temperatures and which won’t cause your vegetables to stick to it. If possible, you should invest in a basic roasting pan which will serve you well.

5. The type of vegetable matters: If you are cooking a variety of vegetables, you should always cook root vegetables like carrots first, because they take longer to roast. Vegetables like zucchini take less time, so you will need to plan accordingly. You’d start the carrots first and roast them so they’re halfway done, and then add the zucchini, so the two vegetables will finish together.

6. Size also matters: You always want to roast the same type of vegetables of the same width and length, because if your vegetables are different sizes, they won’t cook evenly. If your vegetables are different textures, however, such as peppers and green beans, you want the area of the peppers to match that of your green beans, which may mean cutting your peppers into large squarish chunks as opposed to cutting them into slices which match the length and width of the green beans.

Also, if you’re in a hurry, this is obvious, but the smaller your pieces, the more quickly they’ll roast. I usually chop my vegetables so that I can have fully cooked roasted vegetables anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes.

7. Turning the vegetables is helpful: If you don’t want your vegetables to burn on one side, you should be sure to toss or turn the vegetables as you roast them. I usually toss the vegetables every five to 10 minutes, depending on the vegetable (root vegetables need the longer time).

8. Plant oils are better: One, oils like olive oil, have good fats, but cooking-wise, animal fats like butter or bacon drippings will brown your vegetables much more quickly than you want when you’re shooting for even cooking. As well, you can more easily very lightly coat the vegetables with a smaller amount of a plant oil than you can with animal fats.

9. Season wisely: I don’t like to use salt unless I have to. Many folks argue that you need salt to bring out the flavor. I have found that seasoning in certain ways is just as flavorful. For one, you can use flavored olive oil like a roasted garlic olive oil or a rosemary olive oil to coat your vegetables. Two, you can add freshly chopped herbs just after roasting. Three you can creatively flavor your vegetables – mix a little balsamic vinegar with a tiny bit of maple syrup; stir curry powder into your olive oil; make a lemony vinaigrette; make a sauce of your choosing – the options are endless.

10. Enjoy the roasted vegetables alone or as a larger meal: Once your vegetables are roasted, you can eat them as a meal in and of themselves or you can use them to create an entree. For example, tonight in less than thirty minutes, I roasted butternut squash, carrots and Brussel sprouts in the oven while I sauteed some onions in olive oil stovetop. I added curry powder and fat free, low sodium chicken broth, and when it had come to a boil, I added a can of no salt added chickpeas and let it simmer for about five minutes. By then the vegetables were roasted, and I threw them into the chickpea curry mixture, and dinner was done.