Archives for June 2011

Be brave! Make a fancy cake

For my son’s first birthday last year, I made this:

If you aren’t familiar with the children’s television show Dinosaur Train on PBS, this is what the cake is supposed to resemble:

I started by baking a standard chocolate cake in a set of Wilton Choo-Choo Train cake pans a day before my son’s birthday. I poured the batter into one side of the cake pan, put the second pan on top, tied the two pans together with cooking twine, and baked the cake a little longer than the recipe recommended (roughly 7 to 10 minutes more). Once finished, I took the pans out of the oven and let everything cool.

The next day, I took the cake out of the pans, carefully set it on a cardboard cake circle and turntable, and decorated it with icing using a star tip. I bought the icing at my local grocery store, and my star tip attached directly to the tube.

I had never decorated a cake before that day, so it took me three hours to get all of the icing onto the cake. It wasn’t difficult, but I did have to continually reference the image I’d printed of the train from the internet. I had considered making miniature Buddy and Tiny characters out of fondant icing (the way they do on all the fancy cake shows), but since it took me so long to ice the cake, I just put some dinosaur figures on the turntable and called it done.

Honestly, I was incredibly surprised by how simple the cake was to make. Sure, it took some time, but it wasn’t hard like I thought it might be. And, when I did mess up, I just wiped off the mistake with the tip of a butter knife and redid the area. If you’ve wanted to make a fancy birthday cake but were nervous to try, I suggest going for it. Worst case scenario, you’ll get a funny story out of the experience and rush to your local bakery to buy a replacement. Best case scenario, you’ll get an amazing cake.

Meatless Monday: Vegetarian lasagna

Lasagna is a wonderful meal because you get dairy, whole grains, vegetables, and proteins in every bite. It’s also nice because it’s a filling entree and the leftovers are sometimes better than the original meal. It was a staple in our house growing up, and it’s something I like to make when we have dinner guests.

That being said, it takes a bit of time to assemble it all. It’s not difficult to make, but getting it all together can be time consuming. Whenever I tell my mom I’m making lasagna, she always reminds me “don’t begin when you’re tired.” This is sage advice. To keep it from being a huge burden, I like to make two at a time and freeze one for up to a month. (Put the second one in the freezer before the baking stage, then move it to the refrigerator two days before you plan to bake it.) Adding a second one to the mix doesn’t add much to the time line, but something to keep in mind is that it will occupy one of your casserole dishes while it’s hanging out in the freezer.

This specific recipe is also vegetarian. If you want to make it vegan friendly, you will need to substitute soy-based products for all the dairy ingredients throughout the recipe.

Vegetarian Lasanga

  • 1 package dried lasagna noodles (I use a whole wheat lasagna noodle, but semolina ones are good choices, too)
  • 1 Tbl unsalted butter
  • 8 oz baby portabello mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 of a large, sweet onion, diced
  • 24 oz canned tomato sauce (no salt, no spices)
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tsp dried sweet basil
  • 1 tsp ground Mediterranean oregano
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 Tbl dried parsley
  • 1 package (8 oz) cream cheese
  • 1 cup small curd cottage cheese or ricotta cheese (ricotta makes the cheese mixture very thick, so only use with cheese lovers)
  • 1 Tbl raw green pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 small zucchini
  • 1 small yellow squash
  • 3 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Cook lasagna noodles per their directions until just tender. Lay them flat on a piece of wax paper after cooking, not overlapping, to keep them from sticking together.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and onions to the pan and saute until the onions are translucent and tender. Add tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic powder, and parsley and stir well. Cover and cook on low for 12-15 minutes, stirring periodically to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan.

While the sauce is heating through, mix the cream cheese, cottage cheese (or ricotta), diced raw green pepper, and sour cream until well blended.

Using a sharp knife, cut the ends off the zucchini and squash and cut both in half. Then, lengthwise, slice up the vegetables into 1/8 inch or thinner strips.

Spray the bottom of a 3 quart casserole dish with cooking spray. Cover the bottom of the dish with a little of the sauce, which also helps to keep the bottom layer of noodles from sticking to the pan. Lay one layer of noodles on top of the sauce. Cover the noodles with 1/3 of the cream cheese mixture in a thin layer — drop it by spoonfuls on top of the noodles and then gently spread it with the back of the spoon.

Alternating between pieces of zucchini and squash, place half the vegetables in a layer on top of the cheese layer:

Spread out about 1/3 of the tomato sauce over the zucchini and squash.

Then, place another layer of noodles, cheese mix, zucchini and squash, and sauce.

Next, put on the remaining cheese mix, the 3 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese, and the remaining sauce to finish.

Bake at 350ºF for 25 to 30 minutes. You don’t want the noodles or cheese to burn, so keep a close eye on the lasagna after the 25 minute mark. Let the lasagna set for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting.

Questions for cooks: Meal planning for picky eaters

Reader Katie submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I was wondering if you have any suggestions or might do a post asking for reader suggestions about how to balance food likes/dislikes within a couple? There are a number of things that my husband and I are both particular about, but since I always do the cooking, I have a tendency to stay away from ingredients that I dislike but don’t always stay away from the ones he dislikes. I try to make dishes that are still easy enough to work around the stuff he doesn’t like, but I think it is probably still frustrating for him. Any ideas?

A great question, and a problem we struggled with for years in our home. To name just a few items from the long list of foods my husband dislikes: he won’t eat pasta (unless I make it by hand), rice (unless it is accompanying Chinese or Thai food at a restaurant), or anything resembling a casserole (there aren’t any exceptions to this one). Before we met, I’m fairly certain he survived on hamburgers, hot dogs, and limes (that isn’t a joke, he really likes limes).

To be fair, I am also a picky eater. I don’t like store-bought mustard, mayo, or ketchup (I’ll eat them only if I make them) or anything containing one of these ingredients (deviled eggs, coleslaw). I won’t eat raw fish (it’s a texture thing), walnuts (I’m allergic), or heavily processed foods with ingredients I can’t identify (like Oreos and Velveeta).

After three years of eating out almost every meal at restaurants, I started craving home-cooked food and tried numerous strategies to find common ground. In the end, these are the ways we were able to finally sit down together and share a meal:

  • Three strikes. I will offer up three meals that I know he likes that I am also okay with eating. If he shoots down all three meal ideas, he has to make three alternate and legitimate suggestions (naming three things I hate is not acceptable). If he can’t come up with one option that interests both of us, I have to make three more suggestions. This back and forth idea generation distributes the burden of coming up with meals between the two of us, and it also makes us more willing to compromise and revisit a suggestion.
  • Mark it. I’ll get a cookbook (like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), read it, and mark every recipe that looks interesting to me with a removable flag. I’ll give him the cookbook, give him a due date (usually a week) for when I want it back, and ask him to look at the recipes I’ve flagged. He’ll then look at all the recipes I’ve flagged and remove the flag if he doesn’t like the recipe. We’ve never had a situation where he removes all of the flags, so the recipes that remain flagged are added to our notebook of recipes to try.
  • Recipe notebooks. As I just mentioned, we keep recipe notebooks. One notebook is full of recipes we both love, and the other is full of recipes we have agreed to try. We go through waves of creating meal plans out of the different notebooks. When we’re stressed, we tend to rely on our the book of our favorite recipes. When times aren’t so stressed and we’re feeling in a rut, we turn to the recipes we’d like to try. Both notebooks are arranged by type: Appetizers, Entrées, Side Dishes, Desserts, Drinks, etc.

Once or twice a month, we also have an on-our-own night. On these nights, we’ll both prepare dinner for our son, and then make whatever it is we want for ourselves. Our son might have leftovers, I might have a bowl of pasta, and my husband may pick up something from a drive-thru (another food type I usually avoid).

Thank you, Katie, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. I hope I was able to give you some ideas, and please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Own This, Not That in the kitchen

Over on Unclutterer today, we’ve been talking about ways to reduce clutter by doing things like substituting multitaskers for unitaskers. Similar to the book Eat This, Not That, a reader wondered if we had guidelines for what to keep and what to toss.

This is especially easy to do in the kitchen, where unitaskers reign supreme, and I thought it would be fun to do a kitchen-specific round here on SimpliFried. It’s meant as part real suggestion and part fun, so don’t worry too much if you have some of the items in the “not” category. Own This, Not That:

What suggestions would you make for this list? Share your serious and fun ideas in the comments.

Adjust-as-necessary blueberry cream pie

I have a theory that there are two types of people in the world: Cake People and Pie People. I am one of the Pie People.

I’ll eat cake, but when I do my heart almost always wishes I were eating pie instead. I’m certain my preference toward pie has to do with my partiality toward salt over sugar. The salt in pie crust makes the sweetness of the filling more bearable. Whereas when I eat cake, the shot of pure sweetness makes my teeth hurt. It’s not just me, as an informal polling of friends at a recent party revealed that those of us who crave salt heavily skew toward being Pie People.

One of the problems with being a Pie Person is that pies usually take more time to prepare than cakes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of time to devote to pie making. I know how to make an amazing pie crust, but I rarely have the time to do it. And, my neighborhood is sadly void of decent pie-making bakeries.

So, when I was developing this recipe, I kept my fellow time-crunched Pie People in mind. The recipe adjusts based on the amount of time you have to devote to making the pie. This one is perfect for Independence Day celebrations where setting down a bright blue pie is commonplace:

Adjust-as-Necessary Blueberry Cream Pie

Time-saving options are in parenthesis

  • A 9″ deep dish pie crust (or a 9″ deep dish Keebler graham cracker Ready Crust)
  • 1 pint of blueberries, washed and the bad ones picked out (or one 21 oz. can of blueberry pie filling)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar, based on your tartness flavor preference (or delete this ingredient if using blueberry pie filling)
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream (or 2 cups real whipped cream from a spray can — do NOT use Cool Whip)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or delete this ingredient if using whipped cream from a spray can)

Per the pie crust’s instructions, bake and set aside to cool. If using a frozen pie crust, I prefer to use the Marie Callendar brand, which is flaky and only takes 12 minutes to bake. (Alternative: If not using a traditional pie crust, simply unwrap the Keebler graham cracker Ready Crust.)

While the pie crust is baking, clean a pint of blueberries. Be sure to pick out the stems and bad berries as you’re transferring the clean berries to a bowl. With a fork, stab some of the blueberries, smoosh a few up against the side of the bowl, and leave a few whole. Pour up to 1/2 a cup of sugar over the berries, mix well, and set aside. (Alternative: If not using fresh berries, open a can of blueberry pie filling and pour it into a bowl. Set aside.)

In a mixing bowl, combine 8 oz cream cheese and 1 cup powdered sugar until the consistency of butter. Transfer the cream cheese mixture to a separate bowl and clean out your mixing bowl if you only have one mixing bowl for your stand mixer. (Sorry, but there isn’t a short cut for this step.)

Pour 1 cup of heavy whipping cream into a mixing bowl and turn to a medium speed. Slowly add 1/2 cup of sugar to the liquid and whip until you have whipped cream — be careful not to over whip. (Alternative: Measure two cups of whipped cream out of a spray can.)

Gently — oh, so very gently — fold and stir the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture until blended. Then, pour the cream mixture into the cooled pie crust.

Using a strainer, drain off some of the syrup from the blueberries before adding the berries to the top of the pie. You won’t want to strain off all the syrup, but you’ll need to take off some so you don’t make a mess of things. (Alternative: If using blueberry pie filling, you may also need to strain off some of the syrup from the berries. You probably won’t need the whole can of pie filling to cover the top of the pie.)

Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. Also, refrigerate any leftovers if there happen to be any.

Now it’s time to confess — are you one of the Cake People, or are you one of the Pie People, too?

Learning new things in the kitchen

I’d like to start off by saying I haven’t always been aware of the importance of learning new things. Some days I feel perfectly content to stay home, watch the same familiar television shows I’ve always loved, and eat food I’ve eaten a thousand times before. Nothing new. Just comfortable.

Learning something means getting out of that zone of comfort. Recently I had the opportunity to try something way outside my range of current knowledge when my wife signed us up for a reasonably priced cake decorating class through Michael’s Art Supplies. We dove in, rolling out fondant pansies on the first day, and by the next class a miniature garden of sugary flowers bloomed on our table as we learned to use the royal icing. It was so much fun!

These experiences punctuate my desire to keep learning new things. I feel like the mantra of “never stop learning” is how people become successful, and that when newly formed neural connections sizzle into existence it feels really great. You’ve probably experienced it in many times, but it may be easy to forget how beneficial it is for us when the clutter of life gets in the way.

I’ve set a goal to actively learn new cooking techniques and preparation methods for the next three months. I’ll be taking another cake related class in July, and I plan on looking through the cooking section of my newspaper for more classes or conventions. I also plan on writing about my experiences here.

Here are some ideas that I’ve had to continue my culinary education:

  • look up more classes offered through community programs or restaurants
  • attend a wine tasting
  • visit local beer breweries
  • visit a locally produced food supplier and ask a lot of questions (I have my eye on the Arizona Cheese Company Milk ‘n More Store)

I encourage you all to try something similar to broaden our horizons and keep our mental knifes sharpened.

If I can learn how to make a primrose like the one pictured above, then so can you.

Recipe: French fries

I am incredibly picky when it comes to French fries. I am so picky, in fact, that the only fries I will eat are ones I make at home. All other fries let me down, even the infamous McDonald’s fries.

Unfortunately, making really good fries at home takes time. You can make mediocre fries in just a matter of minutes (slice fries, put them in hot oil, remove fries from oil, salt, serve), but amazing fries require a 30 minute ice water bath and two rounds of frying. As a result, I don’t eat fries very often, but when I do I greatly enjoy the fact that I took the time to make them right.

French Fries

  • Russet potatoes (any hearty, very starchy potato will work)
  • Canola or olive oil
  • Kosher salt

My rule of thumb for deciding how many potatoes to use is one per person plus one additional potato. For example, if three of us will be having fries, I use four potatoes. I do this because usually one potato has a bad spot in the middle of it and I end up throwing out at least part of one of the potatoes.

Start by filling a salad spinner half-way full with cold water and a dozen ice cubes.

Then, wash your potatoes and cut out any eyes or visible bad spots.

Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, slice up your fries and immediately submerge them in the ice water. (I usually use a more traditional fry-producing attachment on my mandoline, but I was feeling like waffle fries today.)

Let the potato slices soak for 30 minutes. This soaking helps to make the finished fry crisper, less gummy, and possibly healthier for you (reducing something called acrylamide).

After 30 minutes have passed, lift the strainer insert out of the salad spinner and pour out the water. Put the strainer back into the bowl, attach the top, and spin the potatoes dry. Once spun, pour the potatoes out onto a couple sheets of paper towels and pat off any remaining water.

Pour an inch of canola or olive oil into the bottom of a cast iron pot and heat the oil to 290ºF-300ºF. In batches, slowly add the potato slices to the oil and fry for only two minutes. (The potatoes will not be a golden brown when you remove them from the oil.)

Let the fries rest on a cooling rack while you fry up the remaining batches.

After all potato slices have been through the oil once, turn up the heat so the oil reaches 340ºF-350ºF. (On my stove, a medium or medium-high will create these temperatures. If you aren’t using a thermometer, do not be tempted to turn the burner up to high, where you can push the oil past its smoke point, and your fries will taste like burned oil.) In batches, slowly add the potato slices again to the oil. This time, you’ll only need to fry the potatoes for 15 to 30 seconds to achieve a beautiful golden brown. Immediately remove the fries from the oil and let them rest on the cooling rack. If you wish to salt the fries, do it now while a bit of oil remains on the exterior of the fry.

Serve warm.

Why you sauté some rice and pasta, but not all

A college roommate of mine regularly sautéed dry angel hair pasta in butter for a few minutes before tossing the pasta into boiling water. At the time, I remember thinking my roommate was weird.

A little more than a decade later, as I was sautéing dry arborio rice to make risotto, it dawned on me that I was doing essentially the same thing as my former roommate, but with rice. So then, I decided the person who wrote the risotto recipe was also weird.

Then yesterday, out of the blue, I got a ridiculous craving for Rice-A-Roni when I spotted a box of it at the grocery store. I wasn’t raised in a Rice-A-Roni home, so I’m not even sure how I knew what it tasted like. But, I decided to give into my spontaneous craving, and buy a box. When I brought it home, I noticed that the first step in making Rice-A-Roni is to sauté the dry rice and vermicelli pasta in butter. It was at this point where I started to think my roommate, the risotto recipe creator, and Golden Grains manufacturing might not be the weird ones and that instead I might be for not sautéing rice and pasta before eating it.

After perusing a handful of food science textbooks, I’ve realized my final assumption was correct — I’m the weird one, at least as far as narrow gauge pastas (like vermicelli and angel hair) and medium grain rices are concerned. It turns out, sautéing dried grains before immersing them in boiling water has two important benefits:

  1. The grains absorb flavors from the fat used for the sauté (like a nutty flavor from butter or a fruity flavor from olive oil), and
  2. When you’re sautéing, you’re also toasting the grain. You give the grain a crust-like exterior. This crust-like exterior keeps the rice from becoming too mushy (mush works great for rice pudding, but isn’t very good for a paella or risotto), makes it harder to overcook (something that is very easy to do with medium-grain rice), and keeps the grain separated, but still a little sticky (you want to feel like you’re eating rice, but don’t want individual grains to fall off your fork). It gives medium-grain rice and narrow gauge pastas some tooth.

Now that I understand the why, I’m realizing I can improve a number of pilaf recipes I’ve been flubbing lately. Sautéing a nice golden color on the rice first will eliminate the mushy results I’ve been getting.

Paying attention to what you’re eating at mealtime may help curb snack cravings

Last week, New York Magazine reported in “Lunch Amnesia” on an upcoming report about snacking being published in the food science journal Appetite. The research reported in the journal found the more a person pays attention to what she eats during a meal, the more her brain remembers eating, and the less likely she is to desire snacks.

From New York Magazine:

The Appetite study was conducted at the University of Birmingham in England. Twenty-nine women were fed identical lunches: a ham sandwich, chips, and water, about 500 calories in total. Some of the students ate their lunch with only their random thoughts as company. Others ate while reading a newspaper story about changes in the size of chocolate bars and fizzy drinks in England. The rest ate while listening to a three-minute audio clip encouraging them to focus on the look, smell, flavors, and textures of their food. An hour later, the professors brought the students back and put before them plates of cookies, among them chocolate chip and chocolate fingers (apparently a British thing; we will trust that they are appealing). The students who focused on their lunch ate roughly 50 percent fewer chocolate-chip cookies and 60 percent fewer chocolate fingers than their newspaper-reading and mindless-eating counterparts. Or as the researchers put it: “Rated vividness of lunch memory was negatively correlated with snack intake.”

I often crave a snack in the middle of the afternoon and am now wondering if paying more attention to what I eat at lunch will help curb these cravings? I certainly know what I’ll be thinking about during my next meal.

Thanks to my friend Gretchen for tipping me off to this interesting report.

Questions for cooks: What are the strange spices lingering in the spice cupboard?

Reader Kelly submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My boyfriend is an awesome cook and I’m not. The other night while he was making dinner, I went exploring through his spice cabinet and found a bunch of things I had never heard of. I asked him to explain some stuff to me, but I think he was making up answers. They were totally over-the-top. So what is cream of tartar? Is allspice a blend of a bunch of spices and which ones? I tasted the ground mustard and it sort of tasted like the mustard you might put on a hot dog, but not enough that I’m convinced they’re the same things. Any help is appreciated!

What is cream of tartar? Unless you’re a winemaker, most folks have no idea what cream of tartar is or where it comes from. Winemakers know all about it, though, because it’s in grapes and helps to ferment them into wine (yummy, yummy wine). Technically, it’s potassium hydrogen tartrate, which is the salt in tartaric acid. Not-so-technically, it’s the stuff that makes you pucker when you bite into a really tart grape.

Through a purification process that I don’t fully understand but involves actually making wine, potassium hydrogen tartrate is released from the grape and is made into a white powder (when you touch it, it feels smooth like satin). This powder is then used primarily in baking to help things rise and keep their shape (like cakes and cookies). It’s also used in sugary things if you want them to be really smooth, like cake icing. If a recipe ever calls for baking powder and you don’t have any on hand, you can mix cream of tartar with baking soda and make your own baking powder. The ratio is pretty much 2 parts cream of tartar to 1 part baking soda. My favorite use of cream of tartar is in meringue cookies.

What is allspice? Although its name sort of implies it, allspice is not a blend of spices like a curry. It’s actually the unripe, dried, and ground berry of the pimenta dioica tree, which is usually just called an allspice tree. As a spice, it is sharp (it kind of stings when it first hits your tongue), but sweet. I think of it in a similar category as nutmeg and cloves, though not as bitter as either. People use it in all sorts of food preparations, both savory and sweet. If you’ve ever had Jamaican jerk chicken, you’ll be very familiar with the flavor. I like it and use it in apple allspice muffins.

What’s the difference between ground mustard and mustard you put on a hot dog? Ground mustard is simply ground-up dried mustard seeds from the mustard plant (there are numerous varieties of mustard plants, all producing seeds in a range of flavor intensity, which then go on to produce different types of mustard sauces). When combined with vinegar (or another liquid acid, like white wine or lemon juice) and some other ingredients, ground mustard becomes the condiment you put on hot dogs. The reason ground mustard doesn’t taste exactly like the sauce you put on your hot dog is because the acidic liquid amplifies the flavor and makes it hotter and/or more pungent. I recommend making your own mustard sauce some time and seeing how easy (and better) it is to do it at home.

Thank you, Kelly, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. I hope I was able to help you in your spice exploration.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Creating a cheese plate

Whenever we have guests, which is quite often during the warmer months of the year, I’ll set out a cheese plate for hors d’oeuvres. It’s incredibly simple to unwrap some cheese and crackers, so I’m able to spend more time with my guests instead of being stuck in the kitchen fixing something more elaborate. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll add a spoonful fresh honey and fig jam, which takes just a minute more to prepare.

I’m a cheese person — I take cheese-making classes, I read a ridiculous amount of cheese news, I fantasize about working at Murray’s or becoming a cheese maker — and I love to put together a cheese plate with a theme for my guests. The plates might contain cheeses from France or all be soft cheeses or all pair nicely with a Riesling.

If you’ve never put together a cheese plate, but like the idea of a simple hors d’oeuvre, check out one of the following books for some inspiration:

I also strongly recommend checking out the section on cheese in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking for a basic introduction to the science of cheese.

Post Script: The image at the beginning of the article is of Kerrygold Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey, a wonderfully sharp cheese I’ve already included on three cheese plates this spring (an Irish cheese plate, a cheddar plate, and an infused with alcohol plate).

Pork belly kale: Making a favorite recipe a little more healthful

We eat a ridiculous amount of hearty greens at our house — kale, collards, mustard greens, swiss chard, and spinach make regular appearances on our plates. They’re rich with vitamins (usually A, B6, C, E, and K) and minerals (like iron and magnesium), high in dietary fiber, and are often good sources of protein and sometimes calcium. Hearty greens are also extremely easy to make and very versatile.

I grew up cooking greens in things like bacon fat and butter. Occasionally, I’ll still do this — when you have a craving, you have a craving — but most days I opt for something more healthy(ish).

For example, one of my favorite ways to eat kale is wilted for a few minutes in bacon fat and with crumbled bacon as a topping. The fat and nitrates don’t erase the healthful aspects of the kale, but they definitely don’t keep the calories off the waistline or the vast amounts of cholesterol out of my system. Now, I make the same dish but modified a little to reduce some of the fat and nitrates (definitely not all the fat, but some). It tastes so similar that I don’t even miss all the yummy bacon grease:

Pork belly kale

  • 1/2 lb. uncured, skinless, Berkshire or Duroc pork belly
  • 1 to 2 Tbl. canola oil (enough to coat the bottom of your sautee pan)
  • 10 broad leaves of kale
  • Optional: 1 tsp of lemon juice and 1/2 tsp kosher salt or 2 Tbl. crumbled blue cheese to finish

In a cast iron pan on medium-high heat, sear the top and bottom of the pork belly, starting first with the fat side down. You’ll want a caramel brown color sear, which will take about 4 or 5 minutes to achieve on the fat side and about 2 or 3 minutes on the meat side. Once you have that wonderful brown, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook the pork belly slowly until it is done all the way through (based on the thickness of your pork belly, this could take up to 20 or 30 more minutes). If you don’t want to stand at the stove flipping the pork belly over every 5 minutes for 20 minutes, you can cover the pan and put the seared pork belly in a 250ºF oven for a couple hours. Check on the pork every 30 minutes or so to make sure there is still some liquid in the bottom of the pan. You don’t want a grease fire (hence, the pan lid), but you also don’t want the meat to dry out.

When the pork belly is finished, transfer it to a cooling rack.

In a clean and cool pan, warm a tablespoon of canola oil over medium heat. Slowly add 10 broad leaves of kale that have been washed, dried, had the central vein cut out, and then torn into credit card size pieces (or smaller). Wilt the kale until it is a consistent dark green and it is tender (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat.

Dice the cooled pork belly into 1/2″ cubes and toss over the kale.

Based on the flavor intensity of the kale, you may choose to finish the kale with a teaspoon of lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Or, if you enjoy blue cheese, a tablespoon or two of it crumbled on the top is excellent. Just don’t use lemon juice and blue cheese — this makes for an unfortunate flavor combination.

As a side dish, this recipe serves 2 to 4 people.

What unitaskers are lurking in your cupboards?

On Unclutterer, we have a humorous feature every Wednesday that highlights a unitasker. A unitasker is an object that has only one purpose and has very low utility for the majority of people. So, although an item like a fire extinguisher only has one purpose, it is not a unitasker because it has extremely high utility (we call these items single-use objects). An item like the Corn Kerneler, however, is a unitasker since its utility is well below that of a knife you already own or even a corn stripper.

One thing about unitaskers, though, is that they often are the perfect solution for one person. If they didn’t meet someone’s very specific need, there wouldn’t be a market for the device at all. I know there are a handful of unitaskers in my kitchen that other people would laugh if they saw, and you probably have a few, too. Instead of being embarrassed about our unitaskers, I think we should flaunt them. Let’s have a laugh together about the fun and ridiculous items we have lovingly made space for in our kitchens:

The SodaStream:

My husband and I like the sensation of drinking soda pop, but don’t love all the calories. Carbonated water is a wonderful alternative for us, and with this device we don’t have to buy bottles of sparkling water at the store. I’m sure everyone who sees the SodaStream in our kitchen thinks we’re weird that we don’t just drink tap water. I’ll admit, it’s a little abnormal, but it works for us.

ClickHeat Baby Bottle Warmer:

We got this item as a gift when my son was three months old, and we never once used it on his baby bottles. However, the gel pack snaps open to be flat, and so we use it whenever we need a heating pad. If we pull a muscle or break our nose (like what happened to me a year ago when my son accidentally head-butted me), the baby bottle warmer is a reliable friend.

Pasta Maker:

First things first, the official name of this pasta maker is the “Marcato Atlas Wellness 150 Pasta Maker.” I love that “wellness” is part of the device’s name. Cracks me up every time I pull it out of the cabinet. Anyway, homemade pasta is a lengthy process, I only make it a few times a year, and this pasta maker takes up a good amount of cabinet space. It works great, but buying dried pasta from the grocery store is really easy to do. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to use the pasta maker for dumplings, so it comes out of the cupboard a few more times a year than it did in the past. Still, I could use my tortilla press for dumpling skins and just buy dried pasta from the store if I’m in the mood for pasta … but, alas, I continue to hold onto this device.

So what unitaskers lurk in your cupboards? Share your unitaskers with us in the comments.

Easy summer eats: Miso mayo salad dressing and herb chips

Summer is the best time of the year when you live in an RV full time. Having all the windows open with the breeze blowing through my home really seems to capture the relaxed peaceful essence of this season.

As the temperature rises, cooking with my oven kills the effectiveness of those nice breezes, so I prefer to add more salads to my diet in summer. I love the variety and availability of fresh greens from my weekly farmers market because I get to keep my salad contents in constant flux.

Lately, I love using tender baby greens for my salads. Their delicate flavor and soft textured leaves really pick up and hold tightly to light dressings. I made one the other day that reminded me of something from my childhood.

Back in the day, my sister and I used to spend summers on Long Island in New York with my grandparents. We would eat dinner in their big enclosed patio, enjoying my grandma’s cooking while the breezes rolled through the window screens and Jeopardy played on their little black and white TV set.

I remember my grandpa used to eat salads with just a big dab of mayo and some salt and pepper. At first I was put off by it, but then one day I tried his salad and loved the rich creaminess (although it was less than healthy). What did I care? I was ten.

Fast forward to earlier this week, which was right about the time I was getting tired of the basic vinaigrette I was using on my salads. On a whim I purchased some Miso Mayo earlier in the week, and it occurred to me that it might work well as a replacement for regular mayo as a salad ingredient.

If you haven’t tried Miso Mayo you really should. It adds a wonderful zing to sandwiches and it was the perfect ingredient for my improvised salad dressing. Give it a shot on some baby greens, preferably eaten while sitting outside with some nice summer breezes for company.

Mustard and “Mayo” Salad Dressing

  • 2 Tbs Miso Mayo
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper

Mix first three ingredients in the bottom of a big salad bowl with a balloon whisk. Keep whisking and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Add a dash of salt and pepper to your desired taste. Mix in your washed and dried greens, then serve.

Toasted Herbed Flatbread Wedges

I made these for the first time a few years ago and hadn’t made them since. Then I recently though it seemed like a good time for their revival now that summer is here and salads are constantly on my plate.

I love how easy these are to put together, and I can make them in my toaster oven instead of my full size oven to keep from heating up the RV. Cutting them into wedges give them maximum surface area, enabling lots of crispy edges when toasting.

  • 1 piece of flatbread, naan, or pita bread
  • 1 tsp olive or canola oil
  • a sprinkling of kosher salt
  • a sprinkling of dried herbs (I used thyme, but oregano, cumin, or dill work well too)

Rub both sides of the flatbread with the oil, then sprinkle with the salt and herbs on both sides as well. Cut into wedges.

Toast on the darker setting, then let the bread cool down in the toaster so the bread becomes crisp. Serve with salads, soups, or as a scoop for hummus.

USDA ditches food pyramid, adopts a plate

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has bid farewell to the food pyramid and has introduced its new healthful eating website and icon:

Without argument, the new icon is certainly less confusing than the triangular shaped rainbow mess the USDA has been using the past six years:

But, the new icon is still incredibly vague. Since the purpose of the USDA implementing the icon is to promote nutritious eating habits, the logo could easily have included the phrases “Fresh Fruits,” “Fresh Vegetables,” “Whole Grains,” and “Lean Proteins.”

I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction, but once again it seems to have missed the mark. What is your reaction?

According to infomercials, we’re all bumbling idiots in the kitchen

If you’re a regular reader of Unclutterer, you know that watching infomercials is one of my guilty pleasures. Specifically, I love how infomercials portray people as bumbling idiots, incapable of handling life’s most basic tasks.

A reader recently tipped me off to a wonderful montage of infomercial mishaps in the video “As Seen on TV: A Tribute to Doing it Wrong.“ The majority of the misfortunes in the video are food related (Cutting brownies! Cracking eggs! Pouring drinks! Using plastic wrap!), and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

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