Archives for January 2011

Assorted links for January 31, 2011

In case you missed them in the news, these are some wonderful articles from the past week about food, kitchens, and cooking:

  • The New York Times is doing a two-part series on food through their Freakonomics podcast. The first episode explores Nathan Myhrvold’s science of cooking, and Alice Waters’ response to it: “Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup, Part I.”
  • In what has turned into a controversial article, the Los Angeles Times reports that “Eating bad food may make you sad.”
  • If your kitchen is also the place where everyone in your family dumps his or her stuff, you might be interested in The Washington Post’sIt’s a kitchen, not a chatchall.”
  • This article is a year old now, but I’m going to try following this technique the next time I season our cast-iron skillet. Sheryl Canter suggests in “Chemistry of Cast Iron Season: A Science-Based How-To” to use food-grade flaxseed oil instead of other oils. When I get around to it, I’ll definitely document the process and report back to you.

Have you spotted interesting food-related articles in the news recently? Share your findings in the comments.

Bare bones kitchen essentials

Outfitting a kitchen is an extremely personal endeavor. One person’s must-have gadget can be clutter in another person’s home. Matt and I both love cooking, but the items we believe to be essential are vastly different. This makes a lot of sense since what we use and rely on day-in-and-day-out is closely tied to the foods we love to eat and enjoy preparing. Also, our amount of kitchen storage is considerably dissimilar.

We have received a few requests asking us to create a universal list of kitchen essentials. Since we don’t believe a real universal list exists, we’ve made a couple lists based on our preferences. Below is Matt’s list, full of items he has in his RV. I think of Matt’s essentials as the bare bones of outfitting a kitchen. I’ll publish my list next week and you’ll instantly see that just a few more feet of space, and a difference in favorite foods, makes what we consider to be essential extremely different.

Bare Bones Kitchen Essentials

Elastic recipe: Frittata

frittata on top of potato and parsnip hashbrown cake

Oh, how brunch has improved for me since I learned how to put together a good frittata. I recall it fondly; I was living in Chicago and had just received my first piece of cast iron cookware. It was a nice big Lodge skillet, and I was eager to use it for something that needed to be started on the stove but finished in the oven. At the time, my collection of cookware was full of non-stick surfaces and flimsy plastic handles, so you can understand the excitement to fully utilize my new toy.

My cast iron had built up that nice shiny non-stick surface, and I was ready to try my hand at frittata construction. Using directions from my Cook’s Illustrated New Best Recipes book, I was immediately impressed with the recipe’s result. Tender eggs lovingly cradled the cheese, binding with the sauteed vegetables like an omelet, but with far easier preparation.

A frittata benefits from cooking on the stove until the bottom sets, then finishing in the oven under a broiler so the top can cook as well. Skipping the oven step leaves you with a runny wet top, which is definitely not something you’d want considering that frittata is often eaten at room temperature. Cooking it under the broiler also gives your frittata that gorgeous brown cheese and egg surface, which both looks and tastes amazing. Be honest, who among you can turn down food with a crispy browned cheese crust? (Well, except for you poor lactose-intolerant souls. I feel for you.)

There’s even more to love about a frittata. It’s a one-pan meal because you saute your meats and veggies in the pan you use to complete the dish. It’s simple, easy, and has very little clean up.

I also dig how customizable a frittata can be. You have the ability to make one as healthy or rich as you want. On the healthier side, there’s this recipe from Mark Bittman, who has created a frittata that uses more vegetables than egg. Want something richer? You can always incorporate multiple cheeses, including whole milk ricotta, or even some delicious bacon. As with an omelet, your fillings will ultimately determine both the flavors and calories.

Elastic Frittata

Note: use roughly 1/3 cup of vegetable/meat additions for every two eggs

  • eggs: 6 eggs for a 10-inch skillet or 8 eggs for a 12-inch skillet
  • sauteed vegetables (onions, red peppers, asparagus, leeks, mushrooms)
  • steamed vegetables (diced potatoes, broccoli, frozen peas, corn kernels, spinach)
  • raw vegetables and add ins (tomatoes, green onions, roasted red peppers, capers, olives)
  • meats (chopped raw bacon, sausage, ham, smoked salmon)
  • cheese: 1 cup, 1/3 reserved for topping (cheddar, swiss, parmesan, monterey jack, feta)
  • salt and pepper (reduce amount if using salty cheeses)
  • herbs (basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, dill, parsley, chives)
  • optional: ricotta, cream or whole milk for richness
  • 1 Tbs butter (for sautéing vegetables, if not using any breakfast meats)

Beat eggs with 1/3 cup cream or whole milk (if using). Add in 2/3 cup cheese, steamed vegetables, raw vegetables, and any herbs. Season with salt and pepper.

If using any breakfast meats such as bacon or sausage, brown the meat on medium high heat, then set aside, and reserve one tablespoon fat to use for additional sautéing.

If using any ingredients from the sauteed vegetables list, cook them over medium high heat along with 1 tablespoon butter or reserved cooking fat from breakfast meats. Cook for five minutes or until translucent and slightly softened.

Set broiler to high.

Add back any reserved meats along with the egg mixture and lower heat to medium low. If using ricotta, add spoonfuls into un-set egg mixture (about 1/2 cup total). Cook for 3 minutes, then tilt pan to one side while simultaneously pulling on edges of set egg mixture. Uncooked egg should flow underneath. Continue cooking for another 3 minutes, then repeat pulling set egg mixture to allow more to flow underneath. Cook for another 3 minutes or until eggs are mostly set, then add last 1/3 cup of cheese to the top.

Place cast iron pan under the broiler for 3 minutes, checking after 2 minutes to make sure nothing is burned. The top of the frittata should be evenly browned and bubbly. And, when you’re done, please don’t forget to turn off your stove and oven.

More Variations

Close relatives to the frittata are the Tortilla Española (also known as a Spanish omelet, utilizing thinly sliced potato and onions) and Spaghetti Pie (an incredibly adaptable way to use up leftover pasta). Both of these recipes use many of same techniques that you’ll use to create a frittata, but with very different flavors and textures. Try them both!

You can also prepare cute little frittatas using a mini muffin pan. Just pre-sauté your vegetables and any meats, allow to cool, then add them to your egg, cheese, and herb mixture. Spray your mini muffin pan with non-stick spray, add your ingredients, then bake at 375ºF for 8 to 10 minutes, or until mixture is set and top is golden brown.

One last amazing thing about frittata: There’s no wrong time to serve one. Obviously, there is the typical brunch application, but you can also throw a slice of frittata between two pieces of crusty Italian bread with some greens and a lovely dijon mustard and you’ve got a distinctly hearty sandwich. For dinner, you can serve frittata as a side, full of savory sauteed mushrooms and a little white wine, then drizzled with an herb and butter sauce.

Simple, healthy(ish) snacks

Snacks give you that extra burst of energy between meals to keep you functioning at your best. Plus, they can be a great way to fit in another serving of fruits or vegetables or legumes into your diet if you’re not getting enough at mealtime. I’m always on the lookout for new snacks that are healthy(ish) and peanut-free (since my son is allergic). I recently asked a few friends about their favorite snacks, and here are some ideas that came out of our conversation:

  • Plain or lightly salted tree nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans)
  • Rosemary Roasted Cashews
  • Roasted Cashews with Garam Masala
  • Baby carrots and Hummus (you can leave out the hot sauce and use a hand blender instead of a food processor)
  • Raw vegetables dipped in Chile-Garlic Vinaigrette (I skip the anchovy paste and use bottled lemon juice)
  • Dried fruit slices
  • Piece of whole fruit (banana, apple, handful of grapes)
  • Celery sticks with sour cream and roasted tomatoes
  • A bowl of cereal
  • Granola
  • Ricotta cheese with chocolate chips (I’ve never tried this one, but the way Dave describes it the dish tastes like cannoli filling — yum!)

What are your favorite healthy(ish) snacks? Share your ideas and recipes with us in the comments.

BBQ Tofu Salad

My friend Ashish is a lifelong vegetarian and an amazing cook. I love eating dinner at his place because I never miss the meat — he makes filling dishes that highlight the flavors of what he’s serving.

He recently introduced me to a tofu salad recipe that will make even a dedicated carnivore’s mouth water. This salad is perfect as an entree and pairs well with a peppery red wine. And, sadly, I don’t have a picture of the finished product because I ate it before remembering to photograph it. It’s that good.

BBQ Tofu Salad

(With initial inspiration from Crispy Barbequed Tofu Slices)

BBQ Tofu:

  • 1 package Extra Firm Tofu (8-10 oz) — We prefer the WildWood Organics brand because it comes vacuum packed with no extra water
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tbsp of your favorite BBQ sauce
  • 1/2 to 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp salt (depending on how much flour you use)
  • 2-3 Tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 cup more of your favorite BBQ sauce

Drain tofu (if you get WildWood Organics brand, this won’t be necessary — just blot dry), and slice into strips about 1/2″ wide and 1/2″ tall. If you can only find the tofu that sits in water, you’ll need to drain it, press it with a weight to take out additional water (a cast iron skillet works perfectly for this), and then make sure it’s quite dry.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat (make sure it doesn’t get so hot that it smokes). In a small bowl, whisk together the egg white and 1 Tbs of BBQ sauce. Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a separate bowl. Dip the tofu slices into the egg mixture, then into the flour mixture, shaking off excess flour. Fry in the hot oil for about 1 minute on each side, until golden brown. Do not crowd the tofu as it fries, strips shouldn’t touch. Remove from the oil to paper towels to drain and cool.

Turn on your oven’s broiler or toaster oven’s broiler. Put the 1/2 cup of BBQ sauce in a dish, and bathe the tofu slices in the BBQ sauce so they’re nice and covered. Allow the tofu to marinate while the broiler heats up. Arrange the tofu on a broiler pan, or a wire rack set in a cookie sheet for best results.

Broil the tofu for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until browned and crisp. Watch closely so as not to burn them. Cut them into smaller pieces if you’d like, and let them cool a bit before adding to salad below:

Salad:

  • Any greens you like (but I wouldn’t use iceberg)
  • 1/2 avocado, diced
  • 1/2 to 1 tomato, diced
  • Any other vegetables: corn, black beans, scallions, carrots, zucchini
  • Crushed tortilla chips
  • Salt and pepper

Dressing:

  • Any leftover BBQ sauce in the dredging dish
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • Plenty of fresh ground black pepper, and some salt to taste

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together. Taste and adjust seasoning, acidity, or BBQ sauce according to your preference.

Assemble salad in a large bowl, add the BBQ tofu and dressing, toss, plate, and enjoy.

Making foamy milk without a steamer

When you buy a latte or cappuccino at a coffee shop, it’s always dressed with a nice frothy head of milk foam. That foam comes from aerating the milk with a blast of superheated air from a steam nozzle. If you buy an espresso machine of sufficient fanciness for your home, it may have an attached steam nozzle. With some practice, you might even learn how to use it without without spraying hot milk all over yourself.

But does that mean you can’t have foamy milk unless you have an espresso machine? And what if you’re a tea-drinker, like I am?

Fortunately, you can easily steam milk at home using nothing but a sealed microwave-safe container (say, a BPA-free cup with a lid) and a microwave. Simply fill the container with your milk, shake vigorously until it foams, and then immediately microwave until hot (usually less than a minute). The foam will solidify and remain on top as the milk heats. Then, carefully pour the milk so the foam floats on top of the milk and onto your coffee. (You can spoon the rest of the foam onto your drink if you prefer.) This even works with soy milk, and there’s no messy milk spray if you mess up.

Sprinkle some cinnamon or mocha on top and you’ll have a cup of joe worthy of a barista.

Note: Reader @hornbeck suggests removing the lid on the cup before microwaving. Her lid blew off during cooking! We’ve never had that happen, but it sounds like a great suggestion to us. The lid is important for shaking purposes; it’s not important for microwaving.

Elastic Saltimbocca

Rolled Saltimbocca Chicken

I was searching the internet a week ago, hunting for some fun saltimbocca recipes, and mostly what I found was that the word saltimbocca in Italian means “jumps in your mouth.” If you’ve ever had saltimbocca, you’ll agree with me that this is an accurate description of the salty cured Italian meats and fresh woodsy flavor from sage as the perfect topping on veal, chicken, pork, or beef, creating a dish so simple and delicious that you can’t help but devour it (well, if you eat meat you likely agree with me, but probably not if you’re a vegetarian).

Aside from the love I have from eating powerfully delicious saltimbocca, I also thoroughly enjoy its two primary methods of preparation. There’s the stacked method, where little piles of meat and herbs are accompanied by a nice melty slice of cheese. Then, there’s the rolled method, which takes the stack and bundles it all into a little sleeping bag shape, secured by toothpicks.

Whether you like flat or rolled, both produce scrumptious results if done correctly. Additionally, both are somewhat adaptable if you can think outside the box with your ingredients. For example, some of the most delicious saltimbocca chicken I’ve ever tasted was also the most nontraditional, utilizing provolone and basil as the two main flavorings.

With that in mind, here’s the saltimbocca recipe I’ve created:

Elastic Saltimbocca

  • oil or butter (for browning)
  • meat cutlets pounded out to 1/4 inch thickness (veal scallopini, chicken breasts, and skirt steak work well) Note: if using skirt steak, each piece needs to be pounded even thinner than 1/4 inch, and is best used with the rolled technique.
  • one or two whole leaf herbs per cutlet (sage is traditional, but as I mentioned basil is also fantastic)
  • one or two pieces of salty cured Italian meat per cutlet (Prosciutto or you can try thinly sliced pancetta, mortadella, soppressata, ham, or salami) Note: lunch meat style ham with high water content will not adhere well to the meat, and therefore is best used with the rolled technique.
  • optional: one piece of cheese per cutlet (provolone, fontina, mozzarella, monterey jack, swiss)
  • alcohol: 1 cup per six cutlets (dry white wine, vermouth, marsala)
  • stock or broth: 1 cup per six cutlets (chicken stock works well with veal or chicken, and beef stock with beef)
  • option cubed butter: 3 tablespoons per six cutlets
  • optional: more herbs for finishing sauce (thyme, sage, basil, oregano)

Heat your oven to 200ºF and throw in a cookie sheet topped with a cooling rack. This is where you will be storing your finished stacks or rolls while making the finishing sauce.

Season each cutlet with salt and pepper.

Stacked Preparation:
Lay out flattened cutlets, topping each with whole leaf herbs, then salty cured Italian meat. Press to adhere and reserve cheese for later (if using). Dust each stack with flour, shaking off any excess.

Heat oil or butter in a wide skillet over high heat until bubbling, then adjust heat to medium. Add your assembled stacks to the pan with the Italian cured meats on the bottom. Cook for six minutes, or until golden brown. Flip each stack and top with a slice of cheese (and additional herbs if desired), then cook for another four minutes.

Transfer the stacks to the cooling rack in oven to keep warm while working on additional batches and making the sauce.

Rolled Preparation:
Lay out flattened cutlets, topping each with whole leaf herbs, then salty cured Italian meat, and finally a layer of cheese. Roll up each stack like a sleeping bag and secure with toothpicks, noting how many toothpicks you’ve used so none are forgotten before serving. Dust each roll with flour, shaking off any excess.

Heat oil and butter in a saute pan over high heat until bubbling (but not smoking), then adjust the heat to medium. Add your assembled rolls to the pan and cook for 8 minutes, turning once to brown sides evenly.

Adjust heat to medium low, cover pan, and cook for an additional 8 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked through the entire roll.

Transfer the rolls to cooling rack in oven to keep warm while working on pan sauce.

Pan Sauce:
After cooking the meat, adjust the burner to high and deglaze the pan with the alcohol, scraping up flavorful bits from the bottom. Cook until the alcohol has reduced to half its volume, then add stock or broth. Again, reduce this liquid by half, then turn off your burner and add herbs and cubed butter (if using). The remaining heat in the pan should melt the butter and combine to create a rich velvety sauce.

Remove your saltimbocca from the oven, turn off the oven, and pull the toothpicks out of your rolled preparations. Plate the meat, and then pour pan sauce over the top. Serve with some delicious garlic string beans or sauteed spinach. Enjoy!

Gestalt theory and how to build a better breakfast burrito

Back in my college days, I was a graphic design major, and, between bowls of ramen, I seem to remember a few classes. A few of the things I remember learning have stuck with me, like the gestalt principles of design. If you look up the word gestalt, you’ll find it’s a noun describing a “unified whole” perceived as more than the sum of its parts. In the world of design, the idea is that you can take shapes which mean less on their own, then group, divide, or play with them to create something greater, and more meaningful.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw the concept of gestalt applied to cooking. Sure, you can eat your ingredients individually, but will tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and basil ever taste as good on their own compared to the beauty that is a homemade marinara sauce?

Of course, not all ingredients go well together, which is why it’s so important to practice and learn from examples. One of my favorite examples of gestalt gone right is the humble breakfast burrito.

Oh Beautiful Breakfast Burrito

Imagine it’s morning, and you’ve been procrastinating since you woke up. Occasional sips of coffee clear the haze from your vision, but not the hunger coming from your belly. You hear that first whiny creak from around your navel, like an old boat that has spent too much time on the water. Not long after that, you’ll hear it again … this time a little more insistent.

My view is that in addition to being darn tasty, a well-placed breakfast burrito shuts up that crying belly better than reruns of The Price is Right. You begin with ingredients that taste great on their own and make them tastier by combining them in a tortilla. It’s gestalt, baby.

I start, a little unconventionally, by making a dinner casserole:

  • four eggs, beaten
  • a pound of breakfast sausage, cooked
  • a cup and a half of finely diced zucchini and yellow squash, raw
  • half a finely diced onion, sauteed
  • a teaspoon of butter to saute the onion (you could also use canola oil)
  • a cup of cubed cheddar and pepper jack cheeses
  • two and a half cups of brown rice, cooked
  • a half cup of water
  • about a teaspoon and a half of salt to season the vegetables

Cook and saute as directed, then mix all the ingredients in a big bowl. Oil a 9 x 13 casserole dish, pour in ingredients, cover, and bake 35 minutes at 400ºF. Remove the cover and cook for another 15 minutes. Out will pop a delicious casserole, which you will eagerly enjoy. Each blissful bite of casserole will combine the flavors into something new and wonderful.

I like to eat the casserole with some cornbread while enjoying a cold beer. Then, the next morning when my stomach is grumbling, I enjoy it with tortillas as a breakfast burrito:

  • take the casserole leftovers out of the refrigerator and cut a piece that looks like it might fit nicely into two small tortillas
  • plop it into the microwave for a minute and a half
  • quickly set the tortillas on the recently heated leftovers
  • spoon the casserole into the tortillas after they’re nice and pliable from being steamed
  • roll up the little casserole into your new breakfast burrito

It will all come together in a nice hand-held package. You may want to top the burrito off with some diced tomato and a dash of hot sauce. Breakfast nirvana.

Toppings: A Dance Between Visual Cues and Flavor

Let’s cut to the chase, toppings on your food can achieve the following things:

  • visually represent ingredients in a dish where these elements are muddied or hidden
  • add visual appeal with more color and shapes
  • add contrasting textures for greater mouth-feel variety
  • add contrasting flavors for greater balance

Toppings are that extra step that take your cooking to the next level.

Removing The Mystery

Here’s a hypothetical situation: In preparation for a dinner party, you’ve been standing over a hot stove for a few hours. You are on track to create the most delicious mushroom soup ever conceived. I’m not talking about any of that button mushroom stuff — no, you’re using all the good expensive stuff. You’ve pureed the soup down to a silky smooth mushroomy bliss, and it tastes so yummy you’ve actually impressed yourself with this one. The guests are about to arrive, the candles are lit, and that is when you realize the soup looks like boring mono-beige mystery liquid. Yes, you could tell your hungry company that the brown enigma in a bowl is mushroom soup, but you want your masterpiece to do the talking.

I’ve been in this situation (can you tell?), so don’t feel bad if you can relate. It’s true that we really do eat with our eyes. Sight is intimately tied to memories of flavors stored in the brain, both good and bad, signaling our taste buds to get ready for eating. If there’s no memory associated with the food in front of you, it will remain a mystery to the brain. Your salivary glands don’t fire, and you’ll be hesitant to dig in unless you happen to model your life after a certain Travel Channel host who lives to eat the unknown. Simply adding a known topping can signal the brain that what’s inside the mystery food is somehow related to the joyfully sprinkled goodness on top.

The quickest way to create a mystery meal is to stuff it into your handy dandy margarita maker: the blender. A blender can take an easily recognizable chunky potato broccoli soup and turn it into bizarre green mush faster than you can say “great green globs of gloop.” With a soup like this, I find it’s great to make the ingredients more obvious, so I reserve some of the still chunky components after they’ve cooked but before they go into the blender: a quarter cup per serving should work. Then, I’ll add these recognizable components to the top of the newly homogeneous soup after its poured into each serving bowl. The chunks of potato and broccoli are like ambassadors of Soupville, delivering a message of delicious to your brain.

Making It Pretty

While I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to creating masterpieces, I like to think I’ve watched enough Giada, Emeril, and Bobby to get a basic idea of how to make a plate look pretty. There are books out there which can help you learn the A-to-Z’s of food presentation, but I find creative topping experimentation is fun even without having these resources. Contrasting colors are a good way to start, and I try to add fresh herbs at the end of plating to enhance visual appeal, as well as flavor. The red of tomatoes or yellow of bell pepper slices work well in the same way.

You can go a step further to make your food even more eye catching by thinking about the shape of your additions. If I were serving a nice square block of mushroom and rice casserole, I could make bump up the visual interest by topping it with some round sauteed mushrooms, perhaps reserved from an earlier step. The roundness of the mushrooms contrasts with the squared edges of the casserole, making it a lot less boring to the eye.

Crunchy Smooth Crispy Crumbles

What makes us desire varying texture when we eat? Avoidance of monotony. We get bored of feeling the same texture in our mouths, which is probably why I can scarf Ben ‘n Jerry’s ice cream but I always take my time on creamy smooth gelato.

If I were using my Chicken Stew with green chiles recipe as an example, my reserved ingredients and additions would be:

(added in order from last to first)

  • dash of hot sauce (adds heat and a little sour, which is good for hearty dishes)
  • teaspoon of lightly salted green chiles (reserved from beginning of recipe, repetition of flavor and texture)
  • three or four pieces of chicken (reserved after cooled chicken has been separated from bones, repetition of flavor)
  • dollop of sour cream (contrast and balance heat from stew and hot sauce, adds richness)
  • tortilla chips or Fritos (these “float” on top, creating a base for all other additions, adds texture and flavor)
  • finally, the chicken stew on the bottom

SimpliFried’s first Meal Plan

I’m happy to present the first SimpliFried meal plan!

A few notes about the plans:

  • The meal plan is written for one adult, however the recipes are usually for two or more people. I’ve done it this way to indicate serving size. I was afraid someone might read “4 c Cereal” and think one person was supposed to eat four cups instead of four people having one cup each.
  • Obviously, if there is something on the list you don’t want to make, swap it out for something you do.
  • Before going to the grocery store, compare the shopping list with items stored in your pantry. You likely already have many of the ingredients in your cupboards (honey, vanilla extract, flour, vinegar, etc.).
  • Also, if you have chosen to delete a recipe from the plan, cross the item off the shopping list. Check first, though, to make sure the item isn’t used in other recipes you do plan to make.
  • A number of times in this meal plan I have referenced using frozen vegetables. I buy non-salted frozen vegetables. If you buy vegetables with salt, you will want to reduce the salt in the recipe where the vegetables are used.
  • This meal plan requires two trips to the store, the second trip on Saturday to buy fresh fish and a few other items. It is best to buy non-frozen fish the day you plan to cook it.
  • If you are allergic to tree nuts, try hot wasabi peas as your morning snack (assuming you’re not also allergic to wasabi or peas).
  • Both weekend breakfasts and lunches are open. Use any recipes you love in these spaces, finish up some leftovers, or treat yourself to a meal out with friends.
  • The breakfasts, lunches, and snacks this week are really simple. I didn’t want the meal plan to have the world’s longest shopping list.
  • Inevitably, there are mistakes somewhere in the meal plan or shopping list. If you find one, please post it in the comments so we can all learn about it. Please be nice, though. Remember, this is our first meal plan — I’m sure we’ll get better over time.
  • Questions are also welcome in the comments. I’ll try to get to them as they arise.

Download as an Excel file (there are two worksheets — the meal plan and the grocery lists):

Download as a PDF:

Understanding cooking thermometers

In all of the posts we’ve written about meat, we’ve talked about cooking the meat to a specific temperature. When I first started cooking, I thought only professional chefs took the temperature of what they were making. It wasn’t until I bought a thermometer to use with my smoker that I realized it was a great tool for all cooks — especially beginners.

A thermometer reduces the risk that you will overcook or undercook meat. I like to think of it as idiot-proofing my cooking. In fact, it kind of feels like cheating.

Some meats you want to cook to higher temperatures on purpose — a pork shoulder slowly smoked to 195º F falls apart and melts in your mouth, even though it was safe to eat at 160º F. Conversely, if you fry a pork chop on the stove to 195º F, you’ll have the equivalent of an inedible rubber Frisbee on your hands. Following recipes and cooking to the suggested temperature can really improve your cooking.

There are two types of cooking thermometers:

Leave-in thermometers

Instant-read thermometers

I recommend having both. The leave-in thermometer is appropriate for when you’re roasting meat in the oven, and the instant-read thermometer is best for testing temperatures of stove-top cooked items. Leave-in thermometers you can set for the recommended temperature and most models will even beep when the temperature is reached — like I said, it feels like cheating. And, instant-read thermometers are great because they are the size of a pen and just as convenient to use.

Read the instructions on the thermometers to learn how to gauge the most accurate temperatures. Usually, you will want to take the temperature at the center of the thickest part of the meat, and you don’t want the thermometer to be touching any bones to get an accurate read.

You might also benefit from having a thermometer for measuring liquids in your collection:

I suggest getting one with a clip on it so you can easily attach it to the side of your pot when deep-fat frying, making candy, or whatever it is you’re doing with liquids and need an accurate temperature reading.

If you’re really into thermometers, you can also get ones to test the accuracy of your oven and your refrigerator. You may be surprised by how inaccurate the internal thermometer on your appliance really is. Also, I think the laser thermometers that check surface temperatures are really cool … although, I’ve never actually used mine for cooking. I mostly use it to test the temperature of the sidewalk in the summer, because I’m weird.

Good fish

I grew up in a family where the only fish we ate were fish we caught. A few times a year, my dad would load us into his car and we would head to a river or lake to catch some fresh water fish. We’d fry up the trout, bass, catfish, or crappie just minutes after we caught it. The only exception to this was canned tuna, and that was used in mom’s tuna casserole with egg noodles, a can of cream of mushroom soup, some melted cheddar, and Corn Flakes crushed on top.

I was in high school the first time I had salmon, and college the first time I ate sushi. Even now, as a regular preparer and consumer of fish, I feel like it’s a delicacy. I am less adventurous with it in the kitchen than I am with other foods. I’d actually say I’m nervous around it. What if I don’t get out all the bones? What if I undercook it? What if I overcook it? Is it safe to eat? Will I accidentally poison myself and my family?

Fish isn’t something to be feared, but it does require more finesse when working with it than other meats do. The main reason these scaly creatures require more finesse is because fish are cold-blooded. In contrast, most of the meats we cook in our homes are from warm-blooded creatures, and the proteins in warm-blooded creatures’ muscles are more forgiving. They can take a wider range of temperatures and cooking times. Fish are finicky and aren’t forgiving.

Buying fish can also rattle the nerves. The safest fish to buy are ones that were frozen on the boat and sold frozen in the store. You lose some flavor quality this way, but run less of a chance of getting food poisoning. If you’re new to cooking fish, I recommend starting with individually wrapped frozen tilapia fillets from your grocer’s freezer (make sure you get the U.S. raised tilapia). The more comfortable you become with cooking fish, you can leave these frozen fillets behind and strike up a relationship with a fishmonger.

When you’re ready to work with fresh fish, start by researching all the fish markets and grocery stores in your community to learn which fishmonger has the highest product turnover and best reputation. Introduce yourself to the fishmonger when the market is slow and he or she can take some time to talk with you. Then, have your fishmonger teach you to identify fresh fish. Ask as many questions as you need to — including your fishmonger’s name — before making any purchases. Also ask to have your purchase wrapped in crushed ice, and bring an insulated bag with you to store the fish until you get home. You will want to eat the fish the day you buy it.

Over-fishing, mercury buildup, and toxins are fears many people have with consuming fish. These are legitimate concerns, and I strongly suggest checking the Environmental Defense Fund’s Eco-Best Fish page to stay current with recommendations. You can also get updates to the list via their Twitter account @SeafoodSelector. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also tracks this information, but I like the chart on EDF’s page better. Both sites have really great fish safety and preparation information.

When I’m in a hurry, I like to make a broiled tilapia sandwich with an olive tapenade (the tapenade is sold by the jar in the condiment aisle at most grocery stores). This recipe is good for you, and simple to make. I don’t have a recipe in the strictest sense of the word, but this is the cooking and assembling method I follow:

  • In the morning before work, I move an individually wrapped frozen tilapia fillet (U.S.) from the freezer to the refrigerator (or however many I need — one per person usually is enough).
  • After work when I’m ready for dinner, I turn on my stove’s broiler with the top oven shelf in the second to top setting.
  • Unwrap the fillet and set it on a square of aluminum foil or a cookie sheet.
  • Squeeze a little lemon juice (usually bottled, but fresh if I’m feeling zesty) over the fillet.
  • Broil the fish for 3 to 5 minutes on each side. I like the internal temperature to be 145º F and the outside of the fish to be a bit stiff for this sandwich.
  • I slather a hotdog bun, French roll, or an Italian roll with store-bought olive tapenade. Then, I put the fillet on the bun and enjoy.
  • Don’t forget to turn off the oven when you’re finished.

If you don’t like sandwiches, simply plate the fillet and put a few spoonfuls of the tapenade on the top. If I eat it without a bun, I like to squeeze a little more lemon on it to finish the dish. Either way, this entree is fast and simple to make, and great for someone just starting to cook fish at home.

Elastic recipe: Chicken Stew

are you hungry yet

I sure do love Alton Brown for all he’s done on Good Eats to help me and lots of people learn about food, cooking, and the science behind the two. The first time I saw the show was in my old apartment after college, and I wasn’t sure what the heck I was watching. The skits threw me, but it didn’t take long before I wanted to know the “why” and “how” behind turning ingredients into “Good Eats.” Not only that, but the things Alton cooked were mostly meals I wanted to try cooking, too. After I looked up the recipe on the internet, I’d try them out in my own kitchen using my new cooking knowledge. You might have a similar story.

The episode “Cubing Around” (which I mentioned yesterday) presented me with the idea that you can take meat, brown it in batches on cast iron (or enameled cast iron), add ingredients and liquids, then take that same pot and throw it in a low temp oven to make the whole thing come together. After an hour or more, out comes a simply amazing, mouth watering, fall apart meal … with flavors and textures I’d never tasted before. The most amazing part was that the Swiss Steak CAME FROM MY KITCHEN. I was blown away. It felt like a miracle. I cooked it a few more times, then after my friends tried it and gave me a thumbs up, I was pushed to forever enshrine the recipe as something wonderful.

Fast forward to a few years down the line, and I was making Swiss Steak again, but this time in the RV. Around that time I was also looking to cook chicken in ways I hadn’t tried. I wondered if I could do a chicken in my cast iron. So then I tried replicating the process of making Swiss Steak, but with chicken instead. This experiment happened to coincide with the chile harvest in New Mexico where you can buy loads of the suckers for cheap. When driving through the state, I bought some just to have on hand, and they seemed like the perfect thing to add to the chicken after the initial browning steps. It turned out great in the end.

From the success of the green chile and chicken experiment, I began to see other ways I could have gone with the ingredients, new variations springing up in my mind, and from that I was able to produce what follows:

Elastic Chicken Stew

  • 1 whole chicken, cut into breasts/legs/thighs, skin removed (or roughly five or six thighs, skin removed)
  • 3 cups vegetables (use whatever you have that works with chicken, like onions, carrots, tomatoes)
  • liquid to cover (roughly a cup and a half of water, stock, or broth)
  • oil or butter (for helping the chicken and vegetables brown)
  • optional (herbs, spices, sauces, oils, wine)

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

Remove the skin from the chicken. If you don’t, it ends up all soggy and gross from the liquids when this dish goes into the oven.

On your stove top, brown the chicken in batches using a lightly oiled cast iron (or enameled cast iron) dutch oven on medium high heat. Sprinkle the chicken lightly and evenly with salt and pepper. For this part, don’t try to cook the chicken all the way through. You’re just giving the meat some color. Transfer browned pieces to a plate (or the lid of dutch oven).

Next, add veggies and a little oil or butter if the bottom of our pan is dry. If using fresh vegetables, do a quick five minute saute/brown of everything to add some flavor. Your vegetables will cook better if they’re cut into evenly sized pieces. After the fresh veggies are done browning, add anything canned or jarred like tomatoes, corn, or as in my earlier example, green chiles. Scrape the bottom of the dutch oven, getting all those browned bits loose. Those brown bits add tremendous flavor.

After your veggies are browned, it’s time to add things like herbs, spices, oils, wine, or whatever flavor enhancers you feel like. Go wild! Give it all a stir, then nestle in the chicken pieces among the veggies in the pot. Turn off your stove top.

Add in the water (or broth or stock) to just barely cover the chicken. Put the lid on the pan, and then put it all in the 350ºF oven about 50 minutes. (When it’s finished, you want the meat to have an internal temperature of at least 165º F.)

Remove from the pot from the oven and uncover. Take out the chicken using tongs, and set the meat aside to cool. Re-cover the dutch oven still containing the vegetables. When sufficiently cool, break the chicken into bite-size pieces and transfer the boneless meat back to dutch oven. Adjust seasonings if necessary, and serve on it’s own or over your rice. With the green chile stew pictured above, I also added a dollop of sour cream to the top of each serving.

Cast iron, five recipes which use it, and all from an RV

Don’t you just love cast iron? I sure do, and I can’t help but feel a little warmth in my heart when I think about all the wonderful things that have emerged from my ole Le Creuset. As a society, we’ve been using this type of cookware with great success for hundreds of years, both commercially and at home. Cast iron works so darn well every time, and I’ve found it really helps having one for cooking in my RV.

With that thought, I decided to come up with a list of reasons why I love cast iron and why it’s great for RV living. Check it out:

  • Cast iron (or enameled cast iron) can go from the stove to the oven (and even the campfire) without a problem, doing the job of two cooking vessels, which means one less thing to wash after dinner is over. This is an especially good thing given the small amount of sink space found in most RVs.
  • It does its job well. On the stove it can sear using high temperatures because the material is thick and conducts heat like a pro, and in the oven that means even heating for soups or braised dishes. This multi-tasking means I have one less thing cluttering up what little storage space I’ve got.
  • The cast iron is incredibly durable. Being so heavy-duty means one less thing I have to replace if mistreated, like when I foolishly stored mine in an overhead cabinet. My Le Creuset made a speedy six-foot drop one day while in transit, but thankfully no human or cast iron was hurt in the process, and it now resides in a much safer location.
  • You can throw one in the oven at high temp for 45 minutes or so, then when you take it out you’ve got a mega hot griddle for super searing power.
  • In a manner of speaking, it’s a bread baking machine according to some guy named Bittman in NY. Other sources confirm success. Pretty cool if you ask me, especially if you enjoy the goodness of freshly baked bread like I do.
  • It’s so heavy, which makes it useful as a door stop, bludgeoning weapon, a combined weight and heating element to make grilled cheese sandwiches, and it’s the best high volume roasted garlic maker ever.
  • Voted by me as my favorite pot to use for making baked brown rice, which happens to be a staple in many of the things I cook.

And here are four more links to cast iron recipes I like:

Good Eats’ Swiss Steak Recipe from the episode “Cubing Around.” (Not only is this a fantastic dish, but it became the basis for a lot of other ideas I’ve had about cooking meats in cast iron)

Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread, which I mentioned earlier.

Amazing and simple French Onion Soup — 1907: Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée from the New York Times Magazine. Based on the size of your cast iron, you may need to adjust the amount of the ingredients a bit.

Erin also swears by Alton Brown’s Rib-Eye Steak method.

Do you have a favorite cast iron recipe?

Staples: Bread Machine Whole Wheat Bread

Before we purchased a bread machine, we deliberated buying one for months. Would we use it? Is it worth it? Will we like it?

I don’t live in an RV like Matt, but our kitchen is still small. When describing it to people who haven’t been in our home, I often refer to it as the dining room closet. A bread machine takes up a good amount of counter real estate, and I didn’t know if it was worth the sacrifice.

Ultimately, we ended up borrowing one from my in-laws when they decided to upgrade, and used theirs until it died after decades of regular use. A week after the borrowed bread machine’s death, we missed having one in the house, and took that as a sign that we should buy our own.

I’m telling you this lengthy story about our bread machine because I don’t think bread machines are for everyone. If you don’t regularly use one, it’s clutter in your kitchen. It’s not something anyone needs. There are healthy loaves of bread in bakeries and on grocery store shelves all across this country, and obviously ways to bake a tasty loaf in your oven. I bake bread at home because it’s less expensive than store-bought bread, I know exactly what is in it (which is important when you have a peanut-allergic child), and one of my favorite smells in the world is the scent of baking bread.

Simply stated, a bread machine is extremely convenient if you make all of your bread at home. You don’t have to tire out your arms kneading dough or find the right spot in your kitchen to get the best rise or heat up the oven or wash your hands 100 times from working with live yeast. You pour ingredients into a loaf pan, and three hours later you have an amazing loaf of bread. If you are busy, but would like to make bread at home, a bread machine makes that an incredibly easy task.

Erin’s Bread Machine Whole Wheat Bread — 2 lb loaf
Note: I use all King Arthur flours because the ones included in this recipe are all processed and packaged in a peanut-free facility.

  • 1-1/4 c. Water
  • 3 Tbl. Honey
  • 2 Tbl. Unsalted butter, diced into 27 small cubes (room temperature)
  • 1-1/2 c. Whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c. High gluten flour or bread flour
  • 1 c. Unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/4 oz. Active dry yeast

Layer all ingredients into the bread machine’s loaf pan, sprinkling the yeast on last.

As far as baking is concerned, I suggest starting with your machine’s programmed setting for whole wheat bread and only customizing if you don’t get your desired results.

Three minutes after the alarm sounds signaling your bread is finished baking, grab two oven mitts and turn the bread out onto a cooling rack. If you like a soft crust, immediately brush 1 Tbl. melted unsalted butter onto the six sides of the bread with a pastry brush.

To save time, on Saturdays when I’m making a loaf, I’ll pre-measure out a second bread’s worth of flours into a zip-top sandwich bag. During the week, when I’m busy and have less time and energy, it’s nice to have the flours ready to go.

(Final Note: If you are considering becoming a weekend baker and don’t want to invest in a bread machine, I highly recommend getting your hands on The King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking Cookbook and Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Actually, I recommend all of Reinhart’s books — the guy is a baking genius.)

SimpliFried meal plans

Whenever I’m planning our weekly meals, I feel torn between choosing the healthiest options and choosing the yummiest ones. I keep up with the latest nutrition and diet research, and know I’m supposed to be eating whole grains, at least five servings of vegetables a day, lots of Omega-3s, and to stay away from trans- and saturated fats. I’ll be honest, though, I love eating foods containing all types of fats (specifically butter, cheese, and fried goodies), salt, and more red meat than is recommended for a healthy diet.

From a scientific perspective, I know why I’m drawn to the not-so-healthy choices. Fat tastes amazing — it coats the taste buds, boosts flavors, and makes you feel satiated. Salt decreases bitterness, enhances sweetness, and sharpens aromas. And red meat (especially from well-fed and free-ranging animals) mimics silk in the mouth.

A diet free of fat, salt, and red meat is not for me. At the same time, though, I’m not ready to turn my back on good nutrition.

I don’t have an exact system, I simply create menu plans as healthy as I can stand to make them. I don’t want to shorten my life because of poor food choices, but I also don’t want to spend my life eating foods I don’t enjoy. Overall, I feel that my family and I are eating better than we ever have — nutritionally and flavorfully.

If you have a similar outlook, the SimpliFried meal plans may work for you as they’re composed. If you like to eat more healthy, feel welcome to switch up the not-as-healthy recipes you don’t like for ones you do. If you don’t like a specific option, switch it out, too. All Mondays are meatless, so if you insist on consuming meat every day of the week, you might want to plan out these days yourself.

Because my family eats from the plans we post to the site, you’ll notice the plans don’t include recipes with peanuts (my son is allergic), walnuts (I’m allergic), much pasta (my husband isn’t crazy about pasta), or strong mustard flavors (I’m not a fan). Additionally, there aren’t many desserts because we don’t have much of a sweet tooth. There also aren’t calorie counts because I don’t track how many calories I consume.

All meal plans will be accompanied with a shopping list and a link to corresponding recipes. You can expect the first meal plan next Friday (Jan. 14) for the week starting Jan. 17.

Look for SimpliFried meal plans at least once a month. And, from time-to-time we’ll have guest meal planners to spice and sweeten things up. In the meantime, you can create your own meal plan and shopping list using the guide from our sister site Unclutterer.

Elastic recipes: Using leftovers to unclutter a fridge

I love a good meatloaf. On cold days, my thoughts uncontrollably zero in on a hot slice of that home-cooked, belly-warming classic, brimming with juicy flavor, and served up next to some fluffy mashed potatoes.

What I dig about meatloaf is how easily it lends itself to such varied ingredients. Sometimes, I throw in some frozen peas or an onion soup mix packet if I have one handy. Pre-made sauces really work well, too. Do you like Teriyaki sauce? I do, and sometimes I’ll add a half cup, which gives my meatloaf a nice sweet tang. I think meatloaf is a truly adaptable meal. It’s almost elastic, wouldn’t you say?

That elasticity got me thinking. Since meatloaf allows so many substitutions, couldn’t I break down the recipe into components and create new versions on the fly, like a template?

To me, the basic formula for putting together a meatloaf looks like this:

Elastic recipe: Meatloaf

  • 3 parts meat (ground beef, poultry, pork, lamb, and Italian/breakfast sausage are all contenders)
  • 1 part absorbent starch (packaged breadcrumbs or cubed white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel, cornbread, or oatmeal)
  • binder and liquids (eggs, sauces, oils, milk, and/or canned soup)
  • flavorful optional component (veggies, cheeses, spices, soup mix)

Your oven should be preheated to 325º F. Mix the ingredients well (feel welcome to use your clean hands and squish everything together) and bake it in a lightly greased or parchment paper-lined 10″ loaf pan. You’ll want to cook the meatloaf until the internal temperature is at least 160º F for red meats or 165º F for poultry.

By Simplifying a recipe down to its basic components, you can change it into something super adaptable. Making a formula instead of a precise recipe helps you utilize whatever leftovers or ingredients you have available.

Of course, part of using an elastic recipe is knowing how the ingredients interact. To help you make sure the results are delicious, I will add a paragraph or two in future elastic recipes explaining some food theory pointers to show why things work the way they do.

I find that some meals lend themselves well to become an elastic recipe better than others. Stew, hash, and stir fried rice are some of the best dishes that use up leftovers because they are so adaptable. This kind of problem solving helps me clean out a fridge full of misfit ingredients and create something delicious by mealtime.

In the end, it may not taste exactly like your mother’s Sunday night meatloaf, but you could very well turn out something your stomach loves. Look for more elastic recipes from me in the future.

The SimpliFried Manifesto

If you’re anything like us, you enjoy all of the conveniences of eating out at restaurants — no shopping, a variety of dining options, and not having to wash a single dish after you’re finished. Eating out is one of our favorite things to do, but it is expensive, and the quality of service, ingredients, and atmosphere vary dramatically from restaurant-to-restaurant and from night-to-night at the same establishment. Simply picking where to eat can be just as frustrating as figuring out what to make at home.

We’re busy, and after long hours at work, feeding ourselves and our families can feel like a burden. But we don’t want it to be a burden. We want the stress surrounding mealtimes to go away. We want eating at home to be as convenient as eating in a restaurant. We want to sit down, enjoy a delicious dinner, and know exactly what we’re eating and whether we’re providing our bodies with proper nutrition. We also want to enjoy the company of our friends, families, and even our own thoughts in the comfort of our homes.

We want to eat something for lunch other than reheated leftovers. We want to be able to chop onions without bleeding. We want to save our money to buy the best quality kitchen gadgets, appliances, and equipment we actually use, and stop wasting our money on items and features we don’t. We don’t want food to rot in our refrigerator’s crisper. We want to get the best cuts of meat from the butcher. And, we want to feel like celebrity chefs when we put food on the table.

Most of all, we want the process to be as painless as possible.

We want these things, and we have accepted the quest to make them happen: SimpliFried is a blog about ending mealtime stress. If your nerves are fried, we’ll be your simple, delicious, and nutritious cooking guide.

Oven Baked Brown Rice

I love this recipe because it is incredibly hands-off and doesn’t require any special equipment or skill to make. Brown rice is such a seemingly simple grain, but it transforms into this warm, wholesome, and nutritious food. This easy-to-prepare whole grain can also become the basis for many other recipes. I think it’s wonderful even on its own with some butter and a bit of black pepper.

Oven Baked Brown Rice
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe:

1 1/2 c. Brown rice (uncooked)
2 1/3 c. Water
2 tsp. Canola oil
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt

Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375º F. Bring water, salt, and canola oil to a boil in an oven safe pot or baking dish (I use an enameled cast iron dutch oven), then add rice. Alternatively, you can start with the rice, salt, and oil in the pot, then add boiling water from an electric kettle.

Cover the container tightly with foil, or use a tightly fitting lid, and bake for one hour (or until tender).

Remove baking dish from oven, uncover, fluff with fork, then cover with a kitchen towel for 5 minutes. Uncover and let stand another 5 minutes, then serve immediately.

How to find local farmers markets and how to know what’s in season near you

According to the Department of Agriculture, there are more than 6,100 operational farmers markets in the U.S. These markets are a way for farmers to sell their fresh, locally grown and raised items directly to the consumer in the season when the food is harvested.

The majority of farmers markets are only open March through November, but close to 900 stay open during the winter months. To find the farmers markets near where you live, and their schedules, check out:

To learn what foods are in season and when, check out:

  • Eat the Seasons, a website tailored to what foods are in season this week in North America (vegetables, nuts, meat, etc.), or
  • Find what produce is in season at the National Resources Defense Council’s Eat Local search engine. (Oddly, not all states appear to be listed at this time. A search of surrounding states should provide expected produce availability.)

The vast majority of farmers and vendors at markets only accept cash for their items. Sometimes, there are vendors with snack items — kettle corn, freshly brewed coffee, cupcakes — so be sure to bring a few extra dollars if you want to enjoy a treat. Vendors might also charge for bags, so bring a few reusable produce and shopping bags with you to avoid the extra charge. I’m also not sure why this is the tradition, but the phrase “farmers market” doesn’t include any possessive punctuation.

Remember, too, not all farmers markets are created equally. Try out a few different locations near your home and/or office to find the right farmers and vendors for your needs.

You can also learn a lot from the people staffing the vendor stalls. Usually these people are the same folks who work the land and are responsible for bringing the food to market. They know if this year is going to be a good one for strawberries, or if Downy mildew is wreaking havoc on their basil. In a grocery store you can’t forge a relationship with the grower, so definitely take advantage of this access at a farmers market to help plan your meals and learn as much as you can about the foods you eat.