Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The well-stocked Kitchen

What does having a well-stocked kitchen mean? I believe it means having the basics in your cupboards, at your disposal, from which almost any meal could spring. To me, this means onions, garlic, carrots, and celery to provide the base for just about anything from soup to sauces; nuts, legumes, pasta in various shapes, and your favorite grains as side dishes or the base of any vegetarian cooking; flavorings such as herbs and spices, salt and pepper; baking basics like sugar, flour, and eggs; and fats such as butter, olive and canola oils. With these basics you can create almost anything. Never be without them. Restock them immediately when you run out. The key is to be ready for nearly anything. Consider this like making an emergency preparedness kit, except the “emergency” is dinner.

Take note of what you cook regularly. You’ll see a pattern emerge. I gravitate towards Italian and Mediterranean dishes, so I almost always have ingredients on hand that are typical for that kind of cuisine. This makes me fairly ready to make just about anything I may be in the mood for. I find it easier to do my weekly shopping when I have the basics on hand. It saves time. To make something, I usually only need a few more things to complete the dish. When I shop, all I really need are the perishable items like fruit and vegetables.

Also, the well-stocked kitchen means you could be buying in larger quantities, which will save you money. “Bulk” shopping is definitely worth it if you use these things regularly. It’s easy to go overboard though - not everything has an infinite shelf life. Spices, for instance, shouldn’t be kept longer than 6-9 months. They lose their potency. Other stuff just gets rancid (nuts, for instance, and anything else containing oil. Make sure you turn these items over with a fair amount of speed).

The “well-stocked kitchen” makes cooking more fun. You have the tools you need at your disposal and future culinary creations are only limited now by your imagination.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer is for Grilling

Memorial Day is approaching and that traditionally signals the beginning of summer. Grilling is such a great way to impart flavor to foods, and since this blog is all about flavor, I would be amiss to not cover this universally-embraced cooking technique.

Did you know that grilling food is the single most important reason for the successful development of the human race? Amazon carries a book called Catching Fire - How cooking made us human. Looks like an interesting read. The review says, "Contrary to the dogmas of raw-foods enthusiasts, cooked cuisine was central to the biological and social evolution of humanity, argues this fascinating study. Harvard biological anthropologist Wrangham dates the breakthrough in human evolution to a moment 1.8 million years ago, when, he conjectures, our forebears tamed fire and began cooking. Starting with Homo erectus, these innovations drove anatomical and physiological changes that make us adapted to eating cooked food the way cows are adapted to eating grass. By making food more digestible and easier to extract energy from, Wrangham reasons, cooking enabled hominids' jaws, teeth and guts to shrink, freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains. It also gave rise to pair bonding and table manners, and liberated mankind from the drudgery of chewing (while chaining womankind to the stove). Wrangham's lucid, accessible treatise ranges across nutritional science, paleontology and studies of ape behavior and hunter-gatherer societies; the result is a tour de force of natural history and a profound analysis of cooking's role in daily life. More than that, Wrangham offers a provocative take on evolution—suggesting that, rather than humans creating civilized technology, civilized technology created us."

Ok, so back to this weekend. If your plans call for spending time with friends and family, as ours do, especially outdoors, enjoying the great weather (it’s in the 70’s where I live – perfect!), then a grill fest is sure to be in order. Our friends Anna and Mike are hosting the fete: a Sausage and Beer Fest. Should be great.

Here are some great grilling tips to keep in mind before you light up:

1. Use the right equipment – flat, all-metal skewers are great for grilling vegetables, a small spray bottle filled with water to put out any small fires that may erupt, a silicone basting brush, a wire brush to clean the grill, and a pair of extra-long metal tongs for moving things around on the grill.

2. Start with a clean, oiled grill – A clean grill reduced sticking food and flare-ups. Scrub grill clean with a stiff wire brush, then brush the entire grate with a neutral-flavored cooking oil such as canola, grapeseed or vegetable oil. Extra virgin olive oil is too precious to use here and is also not suited for high-heat grilling.
3. Bring ingredients to room temperature – moving meat and vegetables straight from the fridge to the grill leads to uneven cooking. Let foods come to room temperature for about 30 minutes before putting them on the grill.
4. Score steaks and chops – leave ¼ to ½ inch of fat on steaks and chops for natural basting and real flavor in the cooked meat but be sure to score the fat (make small cuts in it) so the meat doesn’t curl up while on the grill.
5. Wrap fish in leaves – protect fish from the heat of the grill by wrapping whole fish or fillets in large leaves such as grape leaves, fig leaves, banana leaves or corn husks. They also make a great presentation as you bring them that way to the table.
6. Use herbs for added flavor – tie a bunch of herbs together, particularly rosemary, and use them as a basting brush, but also add sprigs of hardy herbs to the smoker tray of your grill to impart additional flavor to the food.
7. Prevent Flare-Ups – Flare ups burn food, add bitter char, and increase carcinogens in grilled foods. Starting with a clean grill will help, so will cooking with the lid on (completely or slightly ajar). To manager flare-ups that occur despite these precautions, keep a small spray bottle filled with water at the grill, ready to spritz rogue flare-ups.
8. Flip Once – limit handling items on the grill. Grill completely on one side before turning or flipping, and then cook completely on the other side. Minimizing handling helps meat hold on to its juices and everything develop attractive grill marks.
9. Touch your food – chefs can tell when meat is done just by poking it. With a little practice, so can you. Raw meat feels very soft, rare meat is still soft, medium rare is fairly resistant but yields a bit, medium springs back at you a bit quicker, medium well and well will be solidly firm. This is something you can only learn with practice, so start poking!
10. Let food rest – this tip is particularly important for all poultry and meat. Let meat rest – sit at room temperature (tented with foil to keep warm, if you like) to allow the moisture and heat inside to distribute evenly. Resting is the final step in cooking meat and should not be overlooked. Ten to fifteen minutes is good for most items.

So, let your inner caveman/woman get the better of you this weekend and fire up your grill. By the way, grilled asparagus, if you can still find any around, is wonderful and takes only minutes.

Grilled Asparagus

  • a bunch of asparagus
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • coarse, or regular, high-quality sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
Wash asparagus and peel, especially the tougher bottoms. Lay out evenly, so none overlap, on a foil-lined grill. Drizzle with the oil, salt and pepper. Grill for about 5-7 minutes on medium low, watching the whole time.
Take off grill and enjoy immediately!
Happy Memorial Day!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Becoming a better Cook

Someone recently told me that she read my blog because she wants to improve her cooking skills. While that is a huge compliment, I thought about this and realized her statement probably applies to just about any of us. Anyone to whom the responsibility of preparing meals for their family has fallen, or who's voluntarily chosen to do the cooking. I mean, don't we all want to be better cooks, no matter what our experience level is?

But how do we improve our skills in the kitchen? I believe it's just a matter of practice. Though it's been said that "practice makes perfect", I disagree. Practice does not make perfect. Here I can't help but think of Julia Child. Even if you're not old enough to remember her TV show, you may have seen reruns or clips of it in recent years, where she flips an omelet in her saute pan and instead of it landing back nicely in the pan it partially lands on the stovetop. She handled it so gracefully, scooping it up and putting it back in the pan to finish it, telling us that no one needs to know. So, even Julia Child wasn't perfect, and that's ok. Practice means just that: practice. And with repeated practice, one learns and improves. You can read as many cookbooks and cooking magazines and websites as you like, but you will not become a better cook unless you get your hands dirty.

Now if you're really green in the kitchen, taking a multi-week cooking class is a great way to learn a vaariety of skills in a fun setting. I did this many years ago at a place called "Home Chef". It was part cooking school, part gourmet foodie store. It was a 12-week, hands-on class with about 10 other people. I found a place in Orange County that offers something similar (although I paid a LOT less back then at Home Chef!). The Laguna Culinary Arts Center in Laguna Beach. They also offer one time classes in case you don't want to do the series.

But really, the key to learning and improving is to not get into what I call a "cooking rut": cooking the same things over and over. That's not only boring, but it won't help you improve. Expand your culinary horizons and try something new every week. Say you're not a baker and making a cake intimidates you (that's me). Get out of your comfort zone and make the thing you fear. Go on and bake that cake! What if grilling scares you because you always burn things, or you've always wanted to make a sauce but don't know how? What if you've never made your own mayonnaise before or you don't know how to roast a chicken? Try it. Put it on next week's menu, search for a recipe and do a little homework on the how-to's if you need to, gather the ingredients for it next time you're at the market.

I think the key is to have an open mind and a desire to explore and be adventurous. By trying new dishes, new techniques, new ingredients, we improve our cooking skills and build confidence. And I'm certain your friends and family will be willing guinea pigs in your quest to be a better cook.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

More uses for Coffee

Most of us are avid coffee drinkers. After all, it's estimated that over 2.25 billion cups of the stuff are consumed around the world each day. Seven million metric tons of coffee was produced in 2010 alone! The largest producers of coffee beans are Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia and Indonesia, but the largest consumers of coffee are Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden (what's up with those Scandinavians?!). The United States is 27th on that list.

Either way, the world drinks a lot of it. With its jolt of caffeine, it rouses us from our slumber to help us face the day, or nudges us awake during the mid-day when a nap would be welcome but isn't feasible. What a bummer, too. I love to nap!

One thing I learned while researching coffee was that darker roasts are actually sweeter than lighter roasts, which I found almost counterintuitive. Darker roasts are generally bolder because they have less fiber content and a more sugary flavor. Lighter roasts have a more complex and therefore perceived stronger flavor from aromatic oils and acids otherwise destroyed by longer roasting times. Mmmmhh, interesting.

Anyway, the brown stuff is consumed in a variety of forms common to most of us that have visited a Starbucks - latte, moccachino, cappuccino, espresso, cafe au lait......but there are other uses for coffee that you may not have considered. Its bitter astringency is a great addition to dishes that are bold, earthy, sweet, or nutty. Everyone's heard of Tiramisu, that delicious Italian dessert of sweet cream cheese and ladyfinger cookies soaked in coffee. It's a fantastic concoction that has a sweet and yet exotic overtone that makes it so appealing.

When cooking with coffee, think bold and assertive combinations. Coffee lends itself to pairing with other flavors that enhance its boldness. Nuts, for example, such as almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and pecans; fruits such as bananas, coconut, dates and figs; spirits such as brandy and cognac; warming spices such cinnamon and cloves; as well as caramel, chocolate, cocoa, cream and milk, ice cream (vanilla), and maple syrup.

Experiment when cooking. Add a shot of leftover coffee when a recipe calls for a little bit of liquid and the addition of coffee might work instead of milk or water. Sometimes I add some of my leftover coffee from the morning to cookie or quick bread recipes, or to pancake batter. I love the combination of coffee and chocolate, so it's no surprise that my favorite chocolate brownie recipe uses coffee as an ingredient. It's subtle, yet its being there elevates the brownie to new heights. Try making them sometime.

Mocha Brownies

4 (1 oz.) squares semi-sweet chocolate
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 Tbsp. instant coffee granules dissolved in 1 Tbsp. hot water
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and line a deep 8-inch square cake pan with waxed paper. Melt chocolate and butter in a saucepan over low heat, then cool. In a bowl beat sugar and eggs until thick and pale yellow. Fold in chocolate and cooled coffee and mix thoroughly. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl. Lightly fold these into the chocolate mixture, then fold in nuts. Pour into prepared pan & bake 25-30 minutes until firm. Cool in pan (I know it's torture to wait this long!) for 30 minutes. Cut into 16 squares (or 9!) and serve.

Variations: replace walnuts with chopped pecans or hazelnuts.

What to do with used grounds:
If you have any plants in your yard, consider using your used coffee grounds to help them grow. Acid-loving plants are especially fond of them, such as azaleas, hydrangeas, camellias, and many berry plants such as blueberries. Starbucks has a program called "Grounds for your Garden" which is a great idea for using grounds they would otherwise throw away. Imagine the amount of grounds they would be adding to our landfills!

Other thoughts on coffee:
Many of us buy coffee on a regular basis. And if you are one of them, I urge you to consider the type of coffee you are buying. Most of the regular coffee available for sale in supermarkets is commercially produced without much thought given to the environment or our health. Regularly produced coffee is one of the products shown to be highest in pesticides. It really is important to buy organic coffee. Another label you might often see but are not familiar with is "shade grown". More on that below. I believe these are important considerations when buying coffee. Here's why.

"Originally, coffee farming was done in the shade of trees, which provided natural habitat for many animals and insects, roughly approximating the biodiversity of a natural forest. These traditional farmers used compost of coffee pulp and excluded chemicals and fertilizers. They also typically cultivated bananas and fruit trees as shade for the coffee trees, which provided additional income and food security.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other groups gave eighty million dollars to plantations in Latin America for advancements in technified agriculture.These plantations replaced their shade grown techniques with sun cultivation techniques to increase yields, which in turn destroyed forests and biodiversity.

Sun cultivation involves cutting down trees, and high inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Environmental problems, such as deforestation, pesticide pollution, habitat destruction, soil and water degradation, are the effects of most modern coffee farms, and the biodiversity on the coffee farm and in the surrounding areas suffer.

As a result, there has been a return to both traditional and new methods of growing shade-tolerant varieties. Shade-grown coffee can often earn a premium as a more environmentally sustainable alternative to mainstream sun-grown coffee." Source: Wikipedia.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Restaurant Review: Lucille's Smokehouse BBQ

Saturday night I had the pleasure of visiting a new restaurant. A neighbor of ours gave us a gift certificate for having done something nice for him. It was a good excuse to finally try this place out.

Because I've never done a restaurant review before (mostly because we haven't been eating out much lately), take note: this place made enough of an impression on me to warrant writing about it.

At first glance, Lucille's Smokehouse BBQ looks like any other family restaurant. We walk in and the first room is small with a counter and the staff are busy filling take-out orders, which apparently is a brisk business for them, from the looks of all the bags awaiting pickup. The next room leads us to the hostess station. Upon rounding the corner to her, the alluring, sweet aroma of barbeque sauce hits me, envelops me like a warm blanket. Ah.........you have to understand, I have a love affair with BBQ sauce. I could eat it by the bucketful.

We are seated, given menus, etc. The staff is terribly friendly and helpful, but I'm not going to go on about the service. I cannot complain - the staff was attentive. But I'm here to tell you about the food. The only thing that's really important, in my opinion, when dining out. I can ignore bad waitstaff, leave a bad tip, or complain to the manager to get it rectified, but if the food is bad, there is no fixin' that!

We peruse the menu. Meanwhile we receive biscuits in a basket. Much to my surprise, they are sprinkled with sugar and served with a semi-sweet apple butter. I didn't care for it. I don't like starting my meal with something sweet (ending it that way is another matter entirely). Anyway, we decide that we are both in the mood for pork. My husband orders the full rack of the Baby Back Ribs, while I order a platter with assorted meats: chicken, pulled pork, and (pork) spare rib tips.

No sooner were we sipping on our beverages, the food arrived (that was fast!) and we began to salivate. First, the aroma of the BBQ sauce alone was enough to get the juices flowing, but the plates were HUGE and I knew that if it was good, I'd be enjoying about 1/2 of it for lunch the next day. We dove in. The table suddenly got very quiet and remained so until my husband finally had to ask if I liked it. As if the moaning and lip-smacking sounds I was emitting wasn't enough of a clue. YES, I love it. Now, don't interrupt me!

Baby Back Ribs - the full order
The baby back ribs were most definitely the best of all the meats we had before us. They were so tender, you could have pried them apart with a fork. They were the perfect blend of just enough meat, the right amount of sauce, and the right amount of carmelization. It is the process that makes these so fantastic: slowly smoked in this enormous smoker which you can see by the kitchen, and then finished on a grill. It was perfection. They were, my husband said, absolutely the best ribs he's ever had. And I, never before a real pork or ribs lover for that matter, absolutely loved them. My dish was also very good. It was the BBQ Half Chicken & Two Meat Platter, where I chose the pulled pork and spare ribs as my two meats. Though my ribs were not as tender as the baby backs, they were extremely savory. The chicken was also fall-off-the-bone tender. I must say everything was seasoned well and all the BBQ sauces used were fantastic.
Red Velvet Cake at Lucille's

It was a great dining experience and if you are a ribs and/or BBQ lover, we highly recommend Lucille's Smokehouse. I wished I had room for their Red Velvet Cake. Someday we'll have to go back and try it.

For more information on the restaurant's menu and locations, click here. They also have family size meals and as I mentioned food to go for families or parties.

If you go, let me know what you thought.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nature's Pharmacy

This was emailed to me from a friend in England recently. I thought it was very interesting and wanted to share it with you.

Apparently, Nature has provided all that we need for survival.

"A sliced Carrot looks like the human eye. The pupil, iris and radiating lines look just like the human eye...and science now shows carrots greatly enhance blood flow to and function of the eyes.

A Tomato has four chambers and is red. The heart has four chambers and is red. All of the research shows tomatoes are loaded with lycopine and are indeed pure heart and blood food.

Grapes hang in a cluster that has the shape of the heart. Each grape looks like a blood cell and all of the research today shows grapes are also profound heart and blood vitalizing food.

A Walnut looks like a little brain, a left and right hemisphere, upper cerebrums and lower cerebellums. Even the wrinkles or folds on the nut are just like the neo-cortex. We now know walnuts help develop more than three dozen neurotransmitters for brain function.

Kidney Beans actually heal and help maintain kidney function and they look exactly like the human kidneys.

Celery, Bok Choy, Rhubarb and many more look just like bones. These foods specifically target bone strength. Bones are 23% sodium and these foods are 23% sodium. If you don't have enough sodium in your diet, the body pulls it from the bones, thus making them weak. These foods replenish the skeletal needs of the body.

Avocadoes, Eggplant and Pears target the health and function of the womb and cervix of the female - they look just like these organs. Today's research shows that when a woman eats one avocado a week, it balances hormones, sheds unwanted birth weight, and prevents cervical cancers. And how profound is this? It takes exactly nine months to grow an avocado from blossom to ripened fruit. There are over 14,000 photolytic chemical constituents of nutrition in each one of these foods (modern science has only studied and named about 141 of them).

Figs are full of seeds and hang in twos when they grow. Figs increase the mobility of male sperm and increase the numbers of Sperm as well to overcome male sterility.

Sweet Potatoes look like the pancreas and actually balance the glycemic index of diabetics.

Olives assist the health and function of the ovaries.

Oranges, Grapefruits, and other Citrus fruits look just like the mammary glands of the female and actually assist the health of the breasts and the movement of lymph in and out of the breasts.

Onions look like the body's cells. Today's research shows onions help clear waste materials from all of the body cells. They even produce tears which wash the epithelial layers of the eyes. A working companion, Garlic, also helps eliminate waste materials and dangerous free radicals from the body."

Nature's Pharmacy! Amazing!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Around the World...Mexico

While Cinco de Mayo sounds like a big Mexican holiday, it is actually a more popular celebration in the United States. The day commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. While still meaningful in Puebla, Mexico, in the US it has become a date on which Mexican heritage is celebrated. It is actually an American Civil War holiday – created by Mexicans and Latinos living in California who supported the fragile cause of defending freedom and democracy during the first years of that bloody war between the states.

History aside, it’s an excuse to drink a margarita and enjoy some Mexican food. We should never pass up on an opportunity to do that.

My family has loved Mexican food for as long as I can remember. Our kitchen was a virtual “United Nations” where we paid homage to all sorts of ethnic cultures. Mexican food was among them. An iconic Los Angeles restaurant dating back to 1927, El Cholo is, and still remains today, a family favorite. When my family was all together again this April, we made it a point to celebrate my birthday there. More recently, “Taco Tuesday” is becoming a regular thing for me and my husband at a place in Irvine that we like to visit on the way home from work. For a couple of bucks, we can fill up on tacos and call it dinner.

This Cinco de Mayo we will be making our own at home. With taco shells and some ground meat we’ll season with spices, and veggies and salsa, we’ll be all set. Though most people think of Mexican food as heavy (and it is!) because you usually think of lots of cheese (fat) and carbohydrates, it can be a healthy cuisine if you keep those to a minimum. Beans are an excellent source of fiber and meatless protein and make an idea based from which to start. Tacos, burritos, and of course, tostadas can be healthy, provided you stock up on the vegetable component and buy some decent tortillas made without lard and preservatives. See if you don’t have a tortilleria in your area where you can buy them fresh. If not, get them at your local health food store or Trader Joe’s where they carry brands you can trust.

Forget the taco seasoning packets which usually contain artificial ingredients and chemicals) and simply blend your own. You most likely have some of these in your cabinet anyway. If not, get them, if you plan to make Mexican food regularly. Dried oregano, cilantro, cumin and red pepper (chili) are the basics. I recently bought “Chili con Limon” (chili with lemon) which is fantastic on all sorts of things like vegetables, in salad dressings, and to flavor rice.

Bottled hot sauces belong in every kitchen, because you can find one that suits your particular level of hotness and add great flavor to your meals. Personally, I don’t like anything too spicy – I want to taste the food, not scorch my esophagus. I love Cholula (a red chili sauce) and any of the green jalapeno sauces which add a nice citrusy note to many Mexican dishes.

Salsa are also easily made at home with a few simple ingredients. Many store brands contain artificial ingredients and preservatives we can do without. All you need are tomatoes, red onion and /or green onion, garlic, jalapenos, fresh cilantro, and lime juice. You can easily control the level of spice by adding more, or less, jalapeno to your liking. And there’s nothing like fresh pico de gallo, just the way I like it: chunky.

Mexican food can be part of anyone’s diet as long as you keep it fresh and healthy. Grilled chicken and meats with Mexican seasonings, big veggie salads with cilantro pepita dressing, fresh seafood with fruit salsas (such as mango, papaya, pineapple) are all good. A great cookbook I once saw at a bookstore in New Mexico that I had to have is called “The Healthy Southwest Table” (see my reading list at right). Though many of the recipes have long lists of ingredients, the dishes I’ve made from it have been really wonderful: healthy, fresh and full of flavor.
Happy Cinco de Mayo!

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