Week 20: Winter strikes again.

Cold weather comfort food.

Spring being what it is in Utah means that winter can return at a moments notice. This means that soups, stews and chillies are a great way to settle in and enjoy a cold, wet spring night. Which is exactly what we did this past week. Some things were made from scratch, others were canned and both were served with home made bread.

We also participated in a neighborhood Block Party sponsored by our church. It was a fun evening meeting old and new neighbors while getting out into the spring sunshine even if it was cold. Fortunately we slipped the dinner in between storms.

My contribution was a chili bar with both a traditional south west chili with beans, a pot of chili verde and an assortment of toppings. A simple bowl of chili can be expanded into a great meal by just serving it over some chips and adding what ever toppings you like. To take it a step further serve the whole thing over a bed of lettuce or other salad greens for a great chili to taco salad.

So take a simple dish of chili or stew, serve it over a carbohydrate like chips, potatoes, rice or pasta and add to it toppings that both compliment it and balance out a complete meal. Chili over macaroni or spaghetti are good alternatives to chips or potatoes. If you are making a stew try doing traditional Irish stew which does not include potatoes. If you cook the potatoes into the stew they become mushy and begin to dissolve into the stew. Instead roast the potatoes skin-on with a little oil and sea salt. Then split the potato in a bowl and serve the stew on top of it. This gives you a flavorful potato with a crispy skin that is distinct from the stew that you serve on top of it.

Next week should be interesting. I will be on the road again and will attempt to post from the road on my phone. John

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Week 19: You need some Cook Books.

I know what you are thinking. “I have cookbooks” But do you? Or do you have recipe books? Are your books just lists of ingredients, times and temperatures? Or do they delve into in-depth instruction on cooking techniques? This is the difference in recipe books and cook books. Look for a couple books that teach techniques for basic and more advanced cooking that can be applied to any list of ingredients. A recipe book may call for you to sauté some ingredients where a cook or cooking book will teach you how to sauté. I’ve never seen a recipe book discuss the Maillard Reaction. If you don’t know what that is, you need some cooking books.

A recipe book and a cook book.

Above are two great books. Very different in purpose and scope but equally important. On the left is Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients. It is at heart, a recipe book. Wonderful recipes with only five ingredients that most people should be able to cook with techniques they have already picked up. It is not intended to to teach cooking technique.

On the right is Ken Forkish’s masterpiece on bread. It contains several recipes but they are all variations on just four ingredients. Flour, water, salt and yeast. The rest of the book is techniques to get the most out of these ingredients and some wonderful essays on the history and culture of bread. The essays alone are worth the price of the book.

Far too many cooks have an assortment of recipe books but are hobbling themselves by not increasing their knowledge on cooking techniques. If you think you have mastered your culinary skills, stretch you horizons. If you have mastered frying and sautéing, try your hand at Wok Hei. You will be humbled as you master what is called The Breath of the Wok. If you think your skillet is hot try an iron wok at the proper temperature. You will be in awe of what can be done with proper wok technique. There are books dedicated to Wok Hei as well as most other techniques.

Stretch your culinary legs and read some cooking books. Yes I said READ them. A recipe book is just lists of ingredients and basic instructions. A great cook book teaches techniques but should also have a great amount of readable material. History, family stories, philosophies as well as recipes. Take my challenge and read a cookbook.

See you next week. John

Week 18: Have a few great standby meals.

Not even a picture this week. I’m late so this will be very short. This week was dominated by meeting some long lost members of my family. It was an incredible experience. What did we do? We ate. It was just time to cook, eat and celebrate. These are the days when you seriously need a few great meals you can put on in a moments notice.

Keep them simple and fun. We are talking Burgers, Dogs, Pizza. That sort of simple. But make them great. Take the lowly Hot Dog. You could just boil them and add mustard and ketchup but why when it is so easy to knock them out of the park. Use a great Polish or Italian sausage. Top with a dill spear, celery salt, minced onion, peppers and stone ground mustard. Wonderful and an easy upgrade. Besides no one over the age of eight should eat a dog with ketchup.

Or a fast pizza. Throw a pizza stone in the oven and set it to HOT! Make some dough if you have time or buy some pre-made dough. DOUGH! NOT frozen pizza crust! Toss it thin. Top with sauce, mozzarella and basil. Maybe a little pepperoni. Neapolitan at it’s finest. Quick, easy and impressive if you have first worked the techniques.

You don’t always have time to prep a great meal but if you have prepared yourself, you can knock out a great meal on little notice. Dig into your roots and heritage. What great meals come from your families past that you can master and present on a moments notice? Build your culinary repertoire so you are not stuck depending upon take away food when it is time for an impromptu celebration.

John

Week 17: A quarter of a year and still chugging along.

Sandwich Wrap.
The most useful thing you are not using.

Just another week in the kitchen. Nothing special or interesting this week. It is just so normal now to eat in. There have been an occasional social or business event where we ate away from home and we did attend a cultural festival where we had a horrible meal from a vender but aside from that, eating in is really the norm. Our finances have really seen a boost as well as our health. I am losing about a pound a week and my wife’s blood pressure is the best it has been in years. I presume the later is to the lack of salt from restaurant food. But all in all just another week in our lives.

I know people are asking my wife to have me post more recipes. I will try to do more of that in the future. Most of what I have been cooking has just been from the gut or meals I know well. No recipes to follow but I will be cooking more new things in the upcoming months as the weather warm up so there will be new recipes to post.

This weeks tip goes back to the ABCs of cooking. Always Be cleaning. If you make a mess clean it top as fast as you can. this keeps your kitchen clean while you cook. this makes cooking easier and more fun. However, if you can avoid a mess in the first place you are way ahead of the game. One way to do this is to use Sandwich Wrappers to keep things clean. I use them in many places you could use a paper plate or paper towel but I find wrappers less expensive and easier to use in many cases.

Keeping the counter clean.

They are available in 10, 12 and 14 inch sizes. and cost about $12 to $15 for a package of 1000 sheets. They are lightly waxed and are slightly water resistant. The wax makes them great for wrapping food, prepping food and keeping areas clean but don’t use them in place of baking sheets or baking parchment. The wax will create a lot of smoke when heated in the oven.

They are available at any food service dealer. If you are not shopping a professional type food service store, Start. Many are for wholesale customers only but many are open to retail customers as well. Those are the ones to find. They have all of the things professional cooks use so why not bring those resources into your home to improve your cooking. I will take more about these stores in a later post.

Like I said this was just an ordinary week. Menu included Salad and Sandwiches, Chili over corn chips, Chili Verde with Quesadillas and Corn Dogs (frozen) on a night that dinner was particularly late.

The only thing to really note this week was I have started to cook meals for my wife to take to lunch at work. Instead of just sending her leftovers in a deli container for her to warm up I bought nice paper take away containers, plastic silverware sets and take out style “T-Shirt” bags for her to take her lunch to work. It looks like she is bringing a meal from a restaurant instead of just packing yesterdays food in a jar. this is helping me up my cooking game for her. Even a lunch you haul to work can be made nice. I will talk more about that more later also.

Thanks, John.

Week 16: Ramen. The most versatile of soups.

More choices than you may have realized.

We are all familiar with the ubiquitous little packets of Ramen Soup. The staple food of students and insomniacs the world over. Not the greatest meal and a horrible source of nutrition, but inexpensive and readily available. Worse yet are the styrofoam cups of Ramen known as Pot Noodles. Not exactly a culinary delight but have heart, there is a lot that canoe done with the lowly Ramen noodle.

First just toss out the Pot Noodles. they are in all senses disgusting and little can be done to improve them. I know they are convenient in the workplace microwave world we live in but they are just too bad to bother with. Take a few minutes and make something a bit more edible and bring it with you.

Now add the other ingredients back into the pot and you have a passible meal cooked in only one pot for easy cleanup. And ditch the little packet of flavoring you can. Use a good broth or stock if possible.

Now onto the title packets of noodles. They can be the basis of a fair meal. Cook the noodles in plain water and set aside. Using the hot water, boil a couple of eggs and set aside. Empty the pan and fry (yes you can fry in s saucepan) some meat. Chicken, pork or beef work great to you can just poach a little fish if you want and set aside. Using fresh water or stock, boil some thinly sliced vegetables. Don’t overcook the veggies.

But wait! There are even better choices for Ramen Noodles. Most Japanese markets and many better grocery stores sell much higher quality noodles in dried, as in the box on the right, or frozen forms. these noodles are in a totally different class than the little packets we all know so well. They are seriously worth the effort to go and look for.

The best way to prepare soup with these higher quality noodles is to pre cook your protein. Either meats, eggs or seafood and set aside. Then cook the noodles in one pot and the veggies and sauce in another. When the veggies and noodles are done combine in a bowl with the meat and cover with the flavored stock. top with fresh veggies and herbs or other add ins.

Go for the good stuff

If you don’t want to make your own stock for the soup base, just go buy the pre made Ramen stocks available at Japanese markets. They are expensive but they go a long way. this bottle was about $45 but it makes 5 gallons of stock as directed. To me that is a little strong so I dilute it a bit further and get about 7 gallons out of a bottle. When you see how many bowls of soup come out of 7 gallons of stock after adding in the noodles, meat and veggies, this bottle goes a long long way.

The soup we make with the better noodles, good stock, fresh veggies and some fresh herbs is a fantastic and very nutritious meal. A far cry from the snack made from the little packets. Ramen is all the rage in the western world today. Don’t miss out on this great soup.

Besides Ramen this week we cooked big Pizzas leaving enough for some leftover meals. Pancakes for dinner one night. Fresh made veggie juice. Chili over corn chips with cheese and onions. Pork Chops with stuffing, gravy and veggies. And finally sandwiches. We keep meat, cheese, bread and other sandwiches toppings at hand at all times now. It is less expensive, faster, easier and more healthy to make sandwiches on busy nights that we previously would have just run out for burgers.

That’s all for this week. John

Week 15: The ABCs of Cooking.

The simplest cleaning tip.
Diluted dish soap in a spray bottle.

ABC Always Be Cleaning

If you want one of the greatest cooking lessons ever, go buy Disney’s animated film, Ratatouille. The “Keep Your Station Clear” scene where Colette tells Remy/Alfredo to keep their station clear, Elbows In, Don’t make a mess. Basically Always Be Cleaning.

One of my favorite cleaning tips is to keep an industrial spray bottle of dish soap diluted about 1:10 with water next to the sink. Don’t use the one dollar spray bottles available everywhere. The pump wears out too fast. Buy a $5.00 bottle from any hardware store and they will last for years and they hold more solution. I love Dawn brand soap but any good soap will do. Just dilute it with water and spray. It is easier to add the water first then add the soap. If it gets foamy, just let the bubbles settle then finish filling with water or soap.

I just keep it on the counter next to the sink and use it as needed. I am far from a clean freak but I can’t stand working in a cluttered kitchen and I won’t put up with a filthy kitchen. My kitchen gets very dirty all the time but it gets cleaned. Filth is just unhealthy and completely avoidable. A cluttered kitchen is just a sign of not cleaning. No one likes to work in a cluttered kitchen so we don’t. Instead we head out the door to eat out. There is nothing wrong with eating out but to be self-forced to eat out all the time because your kitchen is too cluttered and dirty to use is inexcusable.

Always be cleaning. No one likes to cook a meal then need to spend a long time cleaning after the meal has been eaten so take proactive steps to avoid this. First start with an empty garbage can. At least empty enough to get through the evening. Second empty the dishwasher if it is clean. If it is full of dirty dishes, top it off and run it. If there is only room for a couple more items run it anyway or you will have a sink full of dishes at the end of the evening after you finally run it when you put the last couple items in it. Third clean the counters and stove off. Give yourself room to work with a clean station. Now you can easily cook efficiently, cleanly and safely.

Remember, always be cleaning. Don’t leave food scraps on the counter or cutting board. Little messes build up. Throw them in the trash. Never just sit and watch a pot or pan cook. Watch it but take literally a few seconds and clean something. Rinse something and get it in the dishwasher. Check the stove. Get a pan in the sink to soak. Just hit it with a spray of soap first. Check the stove. Spray a knife with soap, wash and dry. Check the stove. Wipe up a spill or spatter from the pan on the stove. Check the stove. You get the idea. In a commercial kitchen no one is paid to sit and watch a pot cook. Cooks must multi task and the default after everything else is to clean something. If you do this by the time diner is over most of the cleaning is already done.

Another great use of a spray bottle of soap if you are cooking something real messy is to lightly spray the stovetop (traditional electric or gas, not induction cooktops as there is a slight chance it could cause a crack) and countertop next to the stove before you cook and let it dry. Then anything that gets on the stove or counter is sitting on a thin layer of soap This makes cleaning extra messy meals very easy.

Another old mechanics trick is to rub a couple of drops of dish soap in their hands and under their nails before work. Then oil and grease come off of the skin because they didn’t get into the skin because of the soap was already there.

If you try the spray bottle trick you will find it is easier than getting a few drops out of a regular bottle of dish soap and you will find a lot of uses for it. One word of caution when spraying anything in the kitchen. Never spray around open food. You don’t want to contaminate your food. Remember, Always Be Cleaning. Your cooking will improve, you will save time and money and the whole evening will be more enjoyable.

This weeks menu was very simple, forced by some wonderful family events. I discovered some long lost family members. It was great but restrained some of my cooking. We ate a lot of sandwiches. Many were Panini style grilled sandwiches. It only takes a few minutes more to grill a sandwich but they are well worth the time. Salads. Soups. And an often overlooked classic. Sloppy Joes. Just fry a pound of ground beef and mix in a can of Sloppy Joe sauce (usually next to the Chili in the grocery store), serve on a hamburger bun with potato chips and you have a classic Sloppy Joe.

But why stop there? It is so easy to take them to a higher level. Mix some finely minced onion into the meat about half way through cooking. Reserve some onion to use as a topping. Just before serving add some finely chopped dill pickle into the mixture. Dice the pickle and squeeze on a couple paper towels to remove the juice or the mix will get wet. Top the sandwich with some of the reserved onion and a little shredded Cheddar cheese and serve. They are a wonderful throwback to the 60s and 70s that your family will love.

I will see you next week. John

Week 14: Salt

Salt, Lots of salt.

Sorry about posting late this week but life got in the way, as it often does. Weeks like this would have usually had us depending heavily on fast food and eating out, but as we were already in the swing of eating in we made it through. Mostly.

This week we ate salad, packaged spaghetti and bottled sauce, canned soup, crepes, chicken and rice, and stir fried veggies. Pretty normal for a hectic week but two incidents drove us to restaurant food. We anticipated these types of events and accounted for them in our year long plan but I didn’t expect two in the same week.

First we were scheduled to feed dinner to two Missionaries from our church. Scheduled for Next Week! I had planned a nice dinner of roast chicken with fettuccini and broccoli in a roasted pepper cream sauce. Someone informed them it was last week so when they showed up we had almost nothing in the house and nothing decent that could be prepared in the time frame they had available for dinner.

The solution? Chinese delivery! We ordered the generic “Dinner for Four” and had it delivered. Now this is a very good, family owned place that cooks from scratch. Not the stereotypical Sysco Canned food that many Chinese restaurants serve. This is good food. But I was struck by how salty it was.

I will let you in on a professional secret. Good restaurants use TONS of Salt and Fats! that’s why the food tastes so good. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were in need of sodium and all of the calories they could consume. This is why we developed a taste for salty and fatty food. It drove us to seek out those foods first when scrounging for food. This ingrained desire is now a problem where salt and fats are now easy to find.

Have you ever wondered why we like Salt and Pepper? Why not Salt and Ginger? Or Oregano or Cumin or Dill or……….? Sulphur! Pepper contains sulphur. We need sulphur for many things including digesting food. Salt and Pepper are easy ways to get sodium and sulphur in our diet.

The second incident was a family activity along with a close family friend. Afterwords my father in law took us to dinner. I could have recused myself from the dinner after the activity but that would have been a serious social Faux Pas. He took us to another one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. Again a wonderful family run place where everything is cooked fresh and from scratch. I did a good job of just eating a light meal out of the selections before me but again I was struck about how salty everything tasted after my food for the past months. It tasted Great, but salty to my pallet at this time.

I want to be clear that I am talking about Salt. Sodium Chloride. NaCl. Not Mono sodium glutamate, MSG. That is a separate issue that is widely misunderstood and was blown way out of proportion. The “Chinese Food Headache” has been debunked by several studies but the myth just won’t go away.

A salty restaurant meal is not an issue for most people, but salty meals all the time can be an issue for anyone. As we have become more dependent on eating out as our norm rather than cooking at home, salt and fat have become critical health issues.

The solution? Cook more so you can control salt and fat. Plan ahead and bring a light lunch with you to work. It takes the same time to prepare a healthy lunch as it takes to go grab fast food at lunch. And just be aware of the salt and fats in restaurant foods. there is nothing wrong with eating out, just be aware of what you are getting and plan that into your overall diet for the week.

See you next week. John