Archives for Cooking Skills, Methods, & Styles

Beans and garlic, sitting in a tree

A few weeks ago, I watched a Rick Bayless cooking show where he mashed together a can of black beans with crushed garlic as a spread for a sandwich. This idea is so simple, yet I’d never thought to try it. I had to make some.

Sure enough, the garlicy flavor had made sweet aromatic love to the beans, creating a pungent spreadable base with plenty of uses.

Below are just two recipes for this delicious combination, but there are probably 46 million other uses as well. My guess is that mashed lentils would also work, and mashed garbanzo beans with garlic is pretty much half-way to hummus.

What’s important is to balance the richness of the garlic in the beans with fresh and bright sour flavors like tomato, hot sauce, or citrus.

Mashed Beans and Garlic

  • 1 or 2 minced large garlic cloves (I like to use a press for this so the garlic flavor really distributes)
  • 1 15 oz canned beans, or roughly 1 1/2 cups soaked dry beans and liquid
  • 1 tsp olive oil

Add oil, garlic, and a pinch of salt to a pan over medium heat. Cook for about 30 seconds to elicit a strong garlic flavor. For less intensity, adjust heat to medium low and cook until garlic becomes translucent, or about 3 minutes.

Dump in beans and liquid, then stir to combine. Use a potato masher to break up most of the beans, creating a thick chunky paste. Cook until heated through, or roughly 3 to 4 minutes. Adjust seasoning as desired, remove from heat, and reserve.

Black Bean and Garlic Breakfast Burrito with Cotijo Cheese and Lemon-Tomato Salsa

(makes 3 burritos)

  • 1 large tomato
  • 2 medium lemons
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 3 burrito-size tortillas
  • 3/4 cup reserved mashed black beans and garlic
  • 1/2 cup crumbled cotijo cheese
  • 1 tsp butter
  • 3 large eggs, beaten until fully combined

Dice the tomato into small cubes and place in a small bowl. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel from the lemon including all white parts, then cut out the fleshy wedges between each membrane. Dice these wedges then combine with the tomatoes and salt and pepper in the bowl. Mix well.

Keep the tortillas warm and pliable by wrapping them in foil and keeping them in a low temperature oven.

Over medium heat, melt the butter in a small non-stick pan, then scramble the eggs with a dash of salt and pepper.

Lay out the tortillas and spread each with the beans, then top with cojito cheese, scrambled eggs, and the salsa.

Add your favorite hot sauce to finish. Enjoy and follow up with some nice mint tea to improve your newly acquired garlic breath.

Cannellini Bean and Garlic Bruschetta

(makes roughly 3 cups)

  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 8 large leaves of basil
  • 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1 Italian baguette, sliced and toasted or grilled
  • reserved mashed Cannellini beans and garlic

Dice the tomato into small cubes and chiffonade the basil into thin strips, then combine in a bowl with the vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well.

Smear the baguette slices with the mashed beans and garlic, then top with the tomato mixture. Add extra basil and enjoy while discussing the finer points of Leguminosae and Allium Sativum.

Establishing a kitchen routine

We have a saying in our home: “A meal isn’t finished until the kitchen is clean.”

Since all three members of our family typically eat three meals a day at home, keeping the kitchen clean is especially important. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have dishes to use the next day or any counter space to prepare our food.

We haven’t always been great at keeping the kitchen clean after a meal. Our first couple years of marriage my husband and I were downright awful with the chore. We weren’t dirty (food made it back into the refrigerator and dishes were rinsed), but we weren’t tidy. As a result, we ate out at restaurants a great deal.

Once we trained ourselves to clean up immediately after a meal, we started eating at home more often, and mealtime stress was reduced.

Not every family has the same needs, but this is how our family handles kitchen chores:


  • First adult to kitchen puts tea kettle on stove top to boil and unloads clean dishes from dishwasher.
  • Second adult to kitchen gets son booster seated and bibbed, makes son’s breakfast, and makes adults’ coffee.
  • Both adults make and eat their breakfasts while son continues to eat breakfast (our little man is a slow eater).
  • One adult loads breakfast dishes into the dishwasher and wipes down counters.
  • Other adult cleans son, table, son’s bib, wipes down son’s booster seat, and sweeps floor.


  • One adult makes lunch for family and puts preparation materials in dishwasher as finishes with them (pots, pans, etc.).
  • Other adult gets son in booster seat and bibbed. Sets table.
  • Everyone eats.
  • Adult who set the table loads lunch dishes into the dishwasher and wipes down counters.
  • Other adult cleans son, table, son’s bib, wipes down son’s booster seat, and sweeps floor.


  • One adult makes dinner for family (typically the adult who didn’t make lunch) and puts preparation materials in dishwasher as finishes with them (pots, pans, etc.).
  • Other adult gets son in booster seat and bibbed. Sets table.
  • Everyone eats.
  • Adult who set the table loads dinner dishes into the dishwasher, wipes down counters, and runs the dishwasher.
  • Other adult cleans son, table, son’s bib, wipes down son’s booster seat, and sweeps floor.

Because there are three of us eating three meals a day at home, we have to run the dishwasher every night. If you eat one meal a day at home, you and/or your family might not have to run the dishwasher as often.

If one of us needed a packed lunch every day, the lunch would be made at the same time dinner was being made. This responsibility could either belong to the person making the meal or it could belong to the person setting the table. If you have teenage children, they could easily make lunch while parents make dinner.

The idea is to get into a routine where everyone is participating in meal preparation and cleanup, and at the end of the meal the kitchen is ready for the next time someone wishes to cook.

What is your/your family’s kitchen routine? Are your responsibilities clearly defined so the process is efficient and helpful? If you don’t have a mealtime routine, could you/your family benefit from having one? Share your experience in the comments.

Can there be comfort in kitchen routines?

I love coffee.

But, even more than drinking coffee, I love the routine of making coffee.

Every morning I follow the exact same coffee routine. I heat water on the stove top in a tea kettle until the water boils. Then, I let the water sit briefly until it cools to 197ºF. The point at which the water is the perfect temperature, I pour it over freshly ground beans in my AeroPress:

I stir the water and grounds 10 times with a non-reactive stirrer, then depress the plunger at a steady pace to extract a beautiful cup of coffee.

I find great comfort in the daily making and drinking of my cup of coffee. It might seem ridiculous to you, especially if you aren’t a coffee drinker, but you likely have a food or drink or other routine in your life that has a similar effect on you.

Kitchen routines have both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, an after-meal clean up routine keeps the kitchen clean and clutter free. The routines of making your favorite meals or getting ready for a dinner party can be just as soothing as making that morning cup of coffee. On the negative side, routines can also imply that you’re in a cooking rut — you make the same things over and over again because you’re busy and the creativity isn’t flowing.

What are your favorite kitchen routines? Do you love making a morning cup of coffee like I do? Do you look forward to the time alone with your thoughts each night after dinner while you’re doing the dishes? Share your favorites (and your least favorite routines) with everyone in the comments.

Honing your knife skills

On the advice of a professional chef, I took a knife skills class about a year ago. The class was through a local recreational cooking school, and was targeted toward people who love to cook and want to learn to wield a knife like a professional.

The class was phenomenal and certainly worth the $80 I paid in tuition. However, like all new skills, you have to practice them to get better. I found myself wishing I could be a vegetable prep cook on a line in a busy restaurant so I could have a continuous supply of produce to use for practice. Obviously that isn’t the case, so I’m still working on many of the skills to improve my speed and accuracy.

If you have a local cooking school that offers knife skills classes, specifically hands-on classes instead of demonstrations, I strongly recommend taking the class. If you feel comfortable using a knife in the kitchen, look for a class like I took that moves beyond the basics and helps to improve speed and accuracy as well as advanced techniques.

In the meantime, or if you don’t have a cooking school near you, check out chef Roger Mooking’s video on basic knife skills. All home chefs can benefit from reviewing and learning these techniques:

If you can’t see the video automatically, check out the clip on YouTube directly.

I’m also considering getting a cutting board with measurements on it to help improve my visual accuracy while cutting.

How have you worked to improve your knife skills over the years? Share your resources in the comments.

Simplified menu construction for parties

Ever been to a dinner gathering where some friends cook and you can choose what you want from a menu that they’ve created? I seriously love this kind of party. Back in the day, a friend of mine prepared and served up made-to-order sushi for guests at a New Years Eve party. Along with great drinks and a wonderful atmosphere, the occasion was made extra special by those little printed menus and his simple but beautiful food presentations. Giving guests an option seems to keep everyone happy.

That is, of course, unless your menu is overly complicated. It may sound appealing to provide your guests with a list of all of your favorites to accommodate as many preferences as possible, but if you include too many wildly different options you’ll end up going crazy with all the preparation and planning. But, there’s a solution to keeping it simple while maintaining the happy variety of a menu.

Plan out entree and appetizer ideas that could share a base recipe, providing the central ingredients used for all the menu options. Cooking a large quantity of the base recipe gives you a platform from which you will build variations and menu choices. Here are some examples:

The following dishes use roasted tomatoes and garlic

  • Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)
  • Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula with Roasted Tomatoes

These recipes are listed at the end of this post.

The following dishes use oven braised chicken

  • Linguine with chicken and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce
  • Chipotle chicken tacos with tomato-lime salsa and sour cream
  • Braised chicken and and Monterrey Jack cheese stuffed enchiladas topped with red and green chile sauces

These three recipes will appear in an upcoming SimpliFried post.

Look to your favorite restaurant menus for inspiration when writing your own. Be descriptive, so your menu can build anticipation in your guests when they read a detailed explanation of the care that goes into your cooking.

My first example above benefits by accommodating a vegetarian option, so I thought I’d use it to show how these recipes come together. What’s more, the base recipe can provide a theme for your gathering.

Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic

(makes roughly 4 portions for use in either dish)

  • 6 large tomatoes
  • 6 large garlic cloves still in their peel
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 325ºF and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove stem from tomatoes, then cut them in half across their equator. Scoop out and discard seeds and pulp. Arrange tomatoes on baking sheet cut side up. Scatter garlic cloves on baking sheet as well. Evenly drizzle olive oil on tomatoes, then add salt and pepper.

Bake for one hour, or until tomatoes are browned, wilted, and are starting to fall apart. Cool and reserve for further applications.

Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)

(serves four)

  • 1 lb box penne pasta
  • 3 large zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch coins (roughly 1.5 lbs)
  • 1.5 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbs Italian seasoning blend
  • 3 cups roasted tomatoes
  • 6 cloves roasted garlic
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

In a large pot, bring some salted water to a boil and add the penne. Cook for nine minutes, or until al dente.

Meanwhile, combine Parmesan cheese with Italian seasoning blend in a bowl and mix well.

Bring a pan up to temperature over medium heat. Add the zucchini in one layer (working in batches), then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a big pinch of the cheese mixture to the tops of each piece of zucchini. Cook for five minutes, then flip each piece of zucchini so the cheese mixture is touching the pan. Cook for another two to three minutes, then use a plastic spatula to remove zucchini from pan. The cheese mixture should adhere and become crispy. Slice each piece in half and reserve.

Strain pasta and reserve a half cup of the cooking water.

Add the roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes, and reserved pasta water to the pot used for cooking the penne and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Using a stick blender, puree into a slightly chunky sauce. Turn off heat, adjust seasoning, then add the red wine vinegar.

Divide pasta between the plates, add the sauce, zucchini, and any remaining cheese mixture.

Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes

(serves four)

  • 1 lb trout filet cut into 1/4 lb portions
  • 3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice from half a lemon
  • 3 roasted garlic cloves
  • 10 cups arugula
  • 2 cups roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped fine
  • 3/4 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 500ºF and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Evenly arrange trout portions on baking sheet, leaving a two inch gap between each. Liberally rub 1 Tbl of the oil into each trout portion, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for roughly 11 minutes, turning once, or until the fish flakes easily. The surface should be bubbling and crisp. Let cool uncovered for four minutes.

In a large mixing bowl mash the roasted garlic into a paste using a fork. Then whisk this with the lemon juice and remaining 2 Tbl olive oil and a dash of salt. Add the arugula, roasted tomatoes, and dill. Toss to combine.

Divide the arugula mixture between the plates then add the trout. Top each portion with a generous dollop of the Greek yogurt and garnish with more dill.

Staple secrets: Mashed potatoes

On a road trip during college, driving northeast about an hour out of St. Louis, I spotted a billboard that asked, “When was the last time you had real mashed potatoes?”

I repeated the question from the billboard aloud after I passed it and let out a big chuckle. I didn’t notice if the advertisement was for a restaurant or the U.S. Potato Board or exactly why it wanted to know about my relationship with mashed potatoes. It struck me as an odd billboard, though, and I’ve never forgotten the inquiry.

It has been more than 15 years since I saw that sign, and still it comes to mind whenever I’m making mashed potatoes. And, since I love mashed potatoes, I’ve thought about real mashed potatoes and that sign quite extensively.

Potatoes aren’t winning any first-place medals for nutrition (one large potato contains almost a quarter of your daily recommended carbohydrates), but they are rich in potassium, vitamin C, and dietary fiber. Assuming you aren’t eating mashed potatoes at every meal every day, I think they’re a great occasional side dish that fills you up, makes you happy, and gives your body energy. (You’ll also be able to answer the question about when the last time was you had real mashed potatoes!)

When I make mashed potatoes, I start by bringing a large pot of water to boil on the stove on high heat. Then, I peel three large Russet potatoes and cut them into 2″ cubes. The size of the cubes isn’t especially important — 1″ or 2.5″ or 3″ are fine — just make the cubes all the same size as each other so they can cook at the same rate.

Dump the potato cubes into the boiling water, turn the burner down to low, and cover. Twenty or 30 minutes later, you should have potatoes that a fork easily pierces without any effort. Strain the water and get out a large serving bowl.

I like to mash my potatoes using a ricer instead of a masher. I do this because the ricer takes extremely less effort than the masher, and because I think it makes the mashed potatoes lighter and less heavy. I put the mashed potatoes into the serving bowl temporarily at this point.

Once I’ve riced the potatoes, I melt half a stick of butter (salted) and 4 oz of cream cheese in the pot over low heat. When melted, I turn off the burner, add the potatoes back to the pot, and give everything a good stir. This is the point where I might also add 1/2 cup of shredded sharp cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon, two tablespoons of chives, and/or two cloves of minced roasted garlic. I usually let the eater add finishing salt instead of adding during the cooking process.

How do you make mashed potatoes? What are your favorite add-ins? I’m of the opinion that recipes and preparation styles for this prolific and yummy staple should be shared. So, tell us your mashed potato secrets.

Protecting your feet in the kitchen

If I’m in my house, I don’t usually wear shoes. This is fine if I’m sitting at my desk, but it’s not so great when it comes time to make a meal in the kitchen. I’ve started to realize that to avoid spills, slips, and back pain I need to change this behavior.

My first thought is to keep a pair of rubber soled Dansko clogs near the entrance to the kitchen:

These shoes are commonly worn by chefs in professional kitchens and nurses who spend a lot of time on their feet. I had a pair of them when I was a teacher and wore them most every day. They would certainly help.

The idea of having “kitchen shoes” is a little funny to me, though, so I’ve also been exploring getting an Imprint brand Anti-Fatigue Comfort Mat for the kitchen floor. I would wear shoes I already own, but have the added comfort of a gel mat under my feet.

Do you do anything like this in your kitchen? I’m interested in reading what you do — if anything at all — to protect your feet while you cook.

Baking sausage

My Italian family makes sausage once or twice a year. It’s a lot of work assembling roughly 60 pounds of ingredients, but it helps to have lots of people there sharing in the experience and making the job easier. Laughter and happiness naturally mix into the event as we add fantastic flavors to the ground pork. The recipe we use has plenty of garlic, fennel, basil, and lots of provolone. When it cooks up, it is just pure goodness shaped into patties and links.

I recall the first time I made this recipe. I was coming home from visiting family with some frozen sausage all coiled up in a plastic zip-top bag. On a whim, I tried baking it. I took a 12″ x 12″ baking pan, added the thawed but still coiled sausage, two cups of white rice, some boiled water, and a little salt and pepper. After sealing it up with two layers of aluminum foil, I baked it for about 45 minutes at 350ºF.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled out the piping hot dish from the oven, but I sure was happy with the result. The rice had become plump and infused with the rich flavors of the sausage. The heat worked to transfer fat and oils from the pork and cheeses to the rice, giving it body like a jambalaya. Precious flavors drip out of sausage when it is cooked on a grill, but the baking method seems to preserve them all.

I’ve made this dish a few times now, trying new things along the way — mixing herbs into the rice or changing up the cooking liquids. And, it gets a nice benefit from vegetables added right at the end. I tried throwing in some thinly sliced red and yellow peppers, which softened ever so slightly from the residual heat of the rice. They gave the dish freshness, balancing the richness of the rice and sausage. Fresh herbs work well at this stage, too.

Baked Italian Sausage

  • 1.5 to 2 lbs Italian sausage in casings
  • 2 1/3 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups white or brown rice
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 3/4 cup any combination of finely diced red bell pepper, roasted red peppers, green onions, marinated artichoke hearts, or olives
  • optional: 1/2 cup chopped herbs (basil, Italian flat leaf parsley, thyme)

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

To a 12″ x 12″ baking pan, add whole sausage and surround with rice. Sprinkle the garlic powder, salt, and pepper over rice. When the water has boiled, add it to the baking pan and immediately cover with lid or seal with aluminum foil.

If using brown rice, bake for an hour. Otherwise, bake for 45 minutes, or until sausage is firm and rice is entirely cooked.

Uncover, then remove sausage to cutting board. Slice on the bias into thick coins. Add sausage back to the rice along with vegetables and herbs (if using). Let rest 10 minutes, and serve with a nice glass of wine. Salute!

Finding zen by smashing garlic

Peeling garlic isn’t fun. I don’t really enjoy it because the cloves seem to come in varying degrees of difficulty where some shed their coats without any effort, yet others seemingly hold on for dear life. Flaky bits of paper clinging to a sticky garlic juice coated cutting board make me want to give up.

After years of watching Food Network, I’ve seen pretty much every host do the side-of-a-wide-knife smash technique. They all smile. They never get frustrated with the garlic peel while on camera. Am I missing something besides a lot of edited out rage face?

Maybe. Or, maybe I just wasn’t seeing the right pattern.

In the past, when I’ve tried to recreate the smashing technique of the professionals, most of the time I ended up with broken up peel incorporated into a mass of garlic pulp. Was my knife positioning off? Was I smashing with more force than the people on television?

I decided to watch the professionals more closely and see exactly what they did that I wasn’t doing. I figured it out, and decided to try my hand at the garlic smashing technique again.

First, I cut off the brown root end. Nothing new here. Next I tried positioning the other end just outside the edge of my knife and toning down the smash power. Would having that end intact during the smash cause the peel to hold together better?

I smashed.

The peel of the clove didn’t get mushed into the meat. I grabbed the clove by the sprout end and shook it a bit. With the peel mostly intact, the meat of the garlic dropped right out. I tried it with a smaller clove. It still worked, although some of the meat needed to be picked from the paper. Overall the success rate provided a level of kitchen zen akin to watching Bruce Lee practice kung fu in slow motion. Yes!

Check out CookingGuide’s step-by-step video instructions for more insight:

Questions for cooks: Measuring foods that don’t fit in measuring cups

Reader Ziegler submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I’ve been wanting to make more attempts at cooking and I keep looking at healthier recipes. My problem is, sometimes recipes tell you to use a cup of fresh spinach or romaine or some other lettucy type thing, how am I supposed to measure that? If it doesn’t fit in a measuring cup I’m clueless!

Also, I’ve seen recipes that ask for something like 2 cups of “cooked” pasta. How am I supposed to figure out how much dry pasta to use in order for it to end up as 2 cups once it’s cooked?

The easiest way to measure foods that don’t conveniently fit into measuring cups is to use a digital food scale. Then, find an ingredient conversion list that provides data on the specific item you’re using. Lately, I’ve been relying on the ingredient conversion list at the back of the Canyon Ranch Cooks cookbook because it’s extensive, incredibly specific, and I already own it.

For spinach, Canyon Ranch Cooks lists 1 pound of raw spinach to be equivalent to 10 cups raw or 2 cups cooked spinach. For all types of lettuce, it lists 1 pound of lettuce to be 6 cups of chopped or torn lettuce or 4 cups of shredded lettuce.

Doing a little math, this means a cup of raw spinach is 1/10th of a pound, which is 1.6 ounces or approximately 45 grams. (1 pound = 16 ounces, 1 ounce = 28.3495231 grams) And a cup of torn lettuce is 1/6th of a pound, which is 2.7 ounces or approximately 77 grams.

Now, to answer your question about how much uncooked pasta becomes cooked pasta, I turned to the National Pasta Association for an answer. (I’m not kidding, there really is a National Pasta Association.) According to their website, 8 ounces of uncooked pasta is usually 4 cups of cooked pasta. So, you would need 2 ounces (approximately 57 grams) of uncooked pasta to get 1 cup of cooked pasta. For an exact measurement, again I recommend using a digital food scale and weighing out the uncooked pasta.

Many recipes in cookbooks are now starting to list weight measurements, which eliminates the need for doing math. If you’re not a numbers person, I definitely recommend checking out these types of cookbooks.

Thank you, Ziegler, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

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.

The smell of a slow cooker

I love my slow cooker so much because it’s like a little robot chef who prepares meals for me while I’m away, happily laboring so I can be off living life. I also dig how it fills my home with the smell of whatever it contains while cooking. As I’ve learned, this can be both good and bad, especially when living in an RV.

Living in such a small space means things that have strong odors tend to collect and intensify in the RV, creating some funny stories as a result.

For example, there was the first time I made black beans in my slow cooker. After a day of soaking in water, I put them in to start cooking on low as I went to sleep. When I woke up, the distinct smell of farts surrounded me. It was everywhere, like I’d risen from sleep to find myself in the men’s restroom at a chili cook off. That’s when I remembered the beans slowly cooking away in the kitchen. With a very thankful nose, I now keep a window cracked when using my slow cooker to prepare dried beans.

More positively, on my way to Zion National Park, I stopped in Glendale, Utah, as apple season was in full swing. The RV park where I stayed was surrounded by an orchard, and guests could pick as many apples as they wanted. With my trusty slow cooker at the ready, I picked about two dozen fresh apples right off the tree, then after being cored they began a slow trip to sauceville. I added in plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg, which eventually became the primary scents emanating from the slow cooker. The RV became saturated with a rich perfume and suddenly I was living in a giant apple pie. It was pure heaven.

My favorite smells are those that trigger a taste memory powerful enough to start me salivating. Since slow cookers are so great for slowly braising meat, I was pretty enthusiastic when I found this great recipe for carnitas. Big chunks of deliciously spiced pork shoulder cook with braising liquid for five hours on the low setting, turning them into the most tender, fall-apart filling for tacos or burritos you’ll ever eat. The smell of them cooking has combined with the ecstasy of that meal to create an intense connection somewhere in my primitive brain. Now, whenever I cook carnitas, that rich smell of pork and spices coming from my slow cooker sets off that scrumptious taste memory. I love it!

On the opposite side of the spectrum are recipes that use a slow cooker for aromatic ends without any expectation of a delicious meal to follow. These potpourri creations use ingredients like citrus, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla to pump out scents that are sure to make your mouth water while transforming your home into grandma’s cozy warm cottage.

Is your slow cooker having an affair with your nose? Tell me in the comments!

Time-saving steps in the kitchen

I’m always on the lookout for ways to save time in the kitchen. Here are some of my favorite tips for shaving a few minutes off my chores:

  • The trash can and compost pail are the two most important devices in your kitchen. Make sure both are at the center of everything when preparing a meal. If you store your trash can and compost pail under the counter, pull them out while you work so you aren’t constantly having to touch a knob to open the cupboard door with dirty and full hands.
  • During the day, we load dirty dishes into the dishwasher immediately after a meal. Before heading to bed, we run the dishwasher. Then, first thing the next morning, as I’m waiting for water to come to a near-boil for my coffee, I unload the clean dishes. Dishes won’t ever pile up on the counter because everyone in the house knows the load is dirty. If you wash dishes by hand, immediately wash them after a meal to avoid attracting bugs and pests.
  • It won’t work in every kitchen, but in mine it is best to open all the cupboard doors and drawers before unloading dishes from the dishwasher. I leave the doors and drawers open during the entire process, and then close them when I’m finished. You don’t waste time opening and closing doors.
  • When cleaning the counter after a meal preparation, I wipe all the crumbs directly into the open dishwasher instead of into my hand.
  • Store the items you use most often in drawers and on shelves that are easiest to reach (usually between your knees and your shoulders). You don’t want to bend over or grab a step stool to reach high shelves every time you’re working in the kitchen.
  • Store items where you use them. All coffee supplies should be near the coffee pot. All pots and pans should be near the stove. Protective oven mitts should also be near the stove so they’re easy to grab right when you need them.
  • When you know you’ll be cooking foods that tend to splatter, wet a washcloth or sponge and add a dollop of dishwashing detergent to them before you begin cooking. Then, wipe up splatters off the stovetop as they happen so you won’t have to invest a bunch of elbow grease later scrubbing down the mess.
  • If you have an electric stove, lay a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil under the coil on the oven floor. Replace the foil once a month or more often if you know something spilled during baking. This simple trick makes oven cleaning a lot simpler.
  • When waiting for water to boil, the oven to preheat, your tea to steep, or the timer to run down on something you’re making, use those spare moments to clean the toaster or another quick kitchen chore. Over the course of a week, your kitchen will get cleaner without investing any extra time.
  • Instead of wasting time scrubbing pots with stuck-on food, pour a tablespoon of baking soda and a few cups of water into the pot. Bring the baking soda-water mixture to a rolling boil and then turn off the burner and let the water cool. You shouldn’t have to do much intensive scrubbing on the pan after that.

What time-saving steps do you take in the kitchen? Share your tips in the comments.

Learning basic baking ratios

I recently made a batch of scones from a recipe a friend gave to me, and something was wrong with the scones. They were fluffy — they rose like a cake — and very, very bitter.

I reread the recipe and instantly knew what was wrong with it. There was a mistake, and the recipe asked for far too much baking powder. I hadn’t been paying close attention when I was adding ingredients to the mixing bowl, and I blindly followed the recipe without questioning it. When used correctly, baking powder is a great leavening agent and lifts cakes and other baked goods to beautiful heights. When used in overabundance, it makes baked goods bitter and metallic.

The recipe from my friend called for 2 tablespoons of baking powder for 1-1/2 cups flour.

Usually the ratio is just 1 to 2 teaspoons of baking powder for 1 cup of flour. (If you weigh your ingredients, it’s about 5 to 10 grams of baking powder for 140 grams of flour.)

Mistakes like writing tablespoons instead of teaspoons are very common. Knowing what to expect in a recipe can help you to identify these typos before adding ingredients so you don’t waste your time and money.

I’ve found Irma Rombauer and her family’s Joy of Cooking to be good for teaching these basics, especially the “Know Your Ingredients” section. Knowing these baking principles also are wonderful for creating your own recipes and creations.

What resources have you turned to for helping you learn these baking basics? Share your resources in the comments.

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.

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.

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

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.

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?