How-to brown butter and a recipe for crispy sage brown butter cream sauce

While on a trip to New York City a couple years ago, I ended up taking refuge in a lovely Italian restaurant during an unexpected downpour. Once I realized the rain was going to be more than a few minutes long, I asked for a table and was delighted by my chance meeting with the restaurant.

My meal included a pasta dish that was topped with a crispy sage and brown butter cream sauce. At the time, I thought the “brown butter” aspect of the sauce was some kind of special butter, because the taste was magical. It wasn’t until I got home and did a Google search for “brown butter” that I learned it wasn’t a special kind of butter at all. It was simply butter that had been browned.

I was intrigued.

Browning butter gives it a nutty flavor, it erases the tang some butters have, and makes it delicious. All you need to do is melt butter in a skillet over medium heat and wait for it to turn a light brown. That’s it. Nothing else. You have successfully browned butter.

If you want to crisp up some fresh sage in the brown butter, remove the butter from the burner when it is brown and throw in some sage. The sage will fry in the butter and turn crispy. Again, that is all you have to do. It is really, really, really simple.

To make it into a cream sauce, whisk in some cream. If you want to get fancy, you can add a splash of lemon juice or dry white wine, but it’s not necessary. The sauce isn’t healthful, but it is really yummy and won’t give you a heart attack if you have it a few times a year.

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Homemade salted and herb butters

Now that you’ve learned how to make homemade Fancy Butter, you may want to make it even more fancy. Super-fancy butter making isn’t difficult, and it tastes so amazing you’ll be impressed you created it. The first time I made the Herb Butter (the second recipe below) my husband stood in the kitchen searching for foods he could slather it on. You will, too.

Salted Butter

  • 1 cup unsalted butter (I prefer the homemade Fancy Butter)
  • 3/4 tsp Kosher salt
  • An 8-oz. Ball jar

Set out the unsalted butter on your counter and allow it to come to room temperature.

In a glass bowl, mix thoroughly the salt and the butter. I like to put some butter into a large serving spoon and mash the salt into the butter with the back of a fork.

Use immediately or store in an 8-oz. Ball jar. Using the back of a spoon, firmly pack the butter into the jar, careful to smoosh out all air pockets. Then, put a little water on top of the butter before screwing on the jar lid. This water will help the butter to keep from absorbing smells and help to preserve the butter. Just pour it off before you use the butter, and add a little to the top each time you put the butter back into the refrigerator for storage.

Herb Butter

Based on Ina Garten’s Herb Butter recipe

  • 1 cup unsalted butter (I prefer the homemade Fancy Butter)
  • 1/4 tsp minced garlic (one medium clove should do it)
  • 1 Tbl finely chopped scallions (both white and green parts)
  • 1 Tbl finely chopped fresh dill
  • 1 Tbl finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley (dried can work in a pinch)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice (fresh or bottled, whatever you have on hand)
  • 3/4 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Set out the unsalted butter on your counter and allow it to come to room temperature.

Mince and chop all of the herbs and put all ingredients except the butter in a glass bowl. Stir these ingredients together well.

Add the butter to the bowl and mix thoroughly. I like to put some butter into a large serving spoon and mash herbs into the butter with the back of a fork.

Use immediately or store in an airtight container. The Herb Butter should keep for about a week. I like to put a dollop of the Herb Butter on a freshly grilled salmon fillet, melted over roasted asparagus, or as a dip for crispy bread sticks.

Fancy butter

I love butter. I don’t eat it as often as I once did, but when I do eat butter, I want the experience to be glorious. I want it to make my taste buds sing. I want to be able to brag about it to my friends (although I wouldn’t, because that would be a little weird).

Buying butter from your local market is simple. And, since simple is a big theme on this blog, I’d be negligent if I didn’t acknowledge how easy it is to just buy butter.

However, making butter at home takes mere minutes and tastes incredibly better than the mass produced stuff. If you have 10 minutes and some heavy cream on hand, I strongly recommend whipping it up yourself. You’ll also get some amazing buttermilk out of the process, so it’s like you’re getting two great things for the price of one.

Fancy Butter, Basic Recipe

  • 1 pint organic heavy cream (the best you can buy, cream as the only ingredient, and NOT ultra-pasteurized)
  • Plastic wrap
  • An 8-oz. Ball jar and lid
  • Cheesecloth (natural, ultra fine)

Pour the cream into the bowl of your stand mixer and attach the whisk arm. Cover the bowl (as best you can) with plastic wrap or a lid specifically made for your mixer to keep the buttermilk from splashing out of the bowl. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can also use a food processor with a chopping blade. You can also close it up in a 16 oz. jar and shake it for a long time, and it will do the same thing, but with a lot more effort on your part.)

On medium-high speed, mix the cream until it separates into curd and buttermilk. You’ll know this has happened because you’ll hear the buttermilk sloshing around in the bowl and splashing up on the plastic wrap. You’ll also notice the curd will have a yellow hue to it.

Not done:

Done:

Drape a square of natural, ultra fine cheesecloth over a large glass bowl and then pour the buttermilk and butter into the bowl.

Wrap up the butter in the cheese cloth, and gently squeeze out the buttermilk liquid with your clean hands. At this point, if you’re keeping the buttermilk, pour it into a separate container (preferably glass) and then give the bowl a quick rinse. After rinsing the bowl, rinse the butter in the cheesecloth under the water, too. Over the bowl, squeeze out the excess water again. Be careful not to squeeze so hard that the butter squeezes through the cheesecloth. Repeat this butter rinsing and gentle squeezing process until the water is almost clear squeezing out of the butter (usually three or four times).

Pour all the remaining liquid out of the bowl, unwrap the butter from the cheesecloth, and let the butter rest in the bowl. Using the back of a spoon, firmly pack the butter into the 8-oz. Ball jar, careful to smoosh out all air pockets. Then, put a little water on top of the butter before screwing on the jar lid. This water will help the butter to keep from absorbing smells and help to preserve the butter. Just pour it off before you use the butter, and add a little to the top each time you put the butter back into the refrigerator for storage. My grandmother used to do this with margarine, and it works wonders with butter, too.

Your homemade butter should keep for up to two weeks, but I sincerely doubt you can go that long without eating all of it. It’s incredibly yummy.

Over the remainder of this week, I’ll show you how to make herb butters, clarified butter, brown butter, and throw in some recipes for how to use these amazing fats. Today’s recipe is just the beginning.

Questions for cooks: Taste bud differences

Reader Megan submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

When I eat cilantro, it tastes like dish detergent. When my husband eats cilantro, he says it tastes yummy and nothing like soap. I don’t like the acidic taste of raw tomatoes, but my husband loves them. When cooking a meal, I know when things taste good to me, but how do I know if something I make will taste good to a guest? How different is the experience of taste from one person to another? How varied are one person’s taste buds from someone else’s taste buds?

I can confirm that individual food preferences will sometimes highly vary based on personal history, the concentration and quantity of taste buds, and scent memory. Finding common ground between you and your guests can be a challenge.

To avoid disappointed faces, try these approaches:

  • Use prior knowledge of your guests to guide your menu. If you can recall a time you’ve seen them enjoy Italian food, then keep that in mind when you step into the kitchen. Do you remember a conversation when they mentioned a hatred of mushrooms? Keep them out of your cooking at all costs.
  • If you have zero idea what they have enjoyed in the past, keep your cooking basic, then allow for individual customization. Tacos can be made with a small assortment of base fillings which guests pick during assembly. A plethora of toppings will provide further customization, keeping guests happy no matter what their tastes are.
  • While not the most cost effective or timely solution, you could prepare an assortment of options ahead of time and reheat/complete them when guests arrive. With enough time and preparation, you could have four or more meals ready to go in your freezer, ready to be reheated and completed with additional fresh ingredients. This would give your guests a potentially huge number of options at your disposal. Personally, I like to have a few glass Pyrex storage containers full of tasty meals hanging out in my freezer for just such an occasion. They can go into the microwave straight from the freezer, and are a breeze to clean.

Thank you, Megan, 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.

French press iced tea

I moved! While the RVing adventure has been a blast, I felt it was time to settle down into a home sans-wheels and enjoy living on a foundation again. I’m loving the additional counter top space and full sized oven. Hooray!

Hauling boxes for a move during an Arizona summer sure isn’t something I plan on doing again any time soon. The sweat was flowing like buckets, but I had plenty of water to avoid overheating. Here’s another great way to stay cool this summer.

Clean out any coffee grounds from your French press and fill with assorted teabags/loose tea leaves. For my example, I’m using two bags of Red Berry Zinger by Celestial Seasonings to establish a fresh fruity base, accompanied by a bag of green tea and a chamomile blend for background. I’ve also added several lemon peels and sugar to taste (roughly 1/4 cup).

Using all those tea bags will produce concentrated flavors that mellow and balance when the ice melts.

Fill your French press to the top with boiling water and steep for four or five minutes. Be sure to take a blurry photo of your progress.

Shoot more goofy photos while it steeps. You get bonus points for using a reflection to point at the awesome skylight in the kitchen of your new apartment.

Pour tea into a two quart pitcher full of ice, then serve in a nicely chilled mug full of ice. Cup your hands around that sucker while drinking for a delicious icy rush of heat relief. More bonus points for rimming the mug with turbinado sugar.

Simply magical butter and onion pasta sauce

A cool breeze on a hot summer afternoon. A friendly kitty head-butt when after a lousy day at work. The smell of freshly washed sheets as you climb into bed. What do these things all have in common? They’re unexpected pleasures that can magically improve your mood in simple ways.

My mind never before put “simple” and “home made pasta sauce” together, but that was before I tried this unexpectedly wonderful version I found over at Smitten Kitchen. It sat as a bookmark in my browser, blinking like a red dot on my radar for about a year before I got around to trying it. I used to think every homemade pasta sauce took hours to put together, but that has all changed now.

As others who have tried this recipe have written, some real magic happens with this sauce. This sentiment is completely understandable given the tiny number of ingredients and incredibly simple preparation instructions. All you need to do is simmer a big can of whole tomatoes with some butter and onion for forty-five minutes, remove the onion at the end, then mash everything into a sauce. The bright fresh flavors will have you thinking this is some David Copperfield-type stuff for sure.

Simply Magical Butter and Onion Pasta Sauce, a la Smitten Kitchen

serves 4

  • 28 ounces whole peeled tomatoes from a can (San Marzanos are preferred)
  • 5 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
  • salt to taste

Empty the tomatoes and their juice into a sauce pot, along with the butter and halved onion, then bring to a simmer. Cover and adjust heat to maintain a steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until fat droplets from the butter freely float to the surface.

Remove the onion and crush the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a spoon or blend using a stick blender.

Adjust seasoning with salt, but most canned tomatoes come pre-salted so you may not need this ingredient.

Do a card trick, saw your assistant in half, then serve the sauce over your favorite pasta.

Grilling basics: Using cedar-planks

Fish is delicate and absorbs flavors easily from a grill. As a result, it tastes best when grilled over hardwood charcoal and infused with additional glazes or spices. Since many glazes make a fish fillet sticky, and therefore very difficult to remove from a grill grate, we recommend using cedar planks under the meat. Not only does the cedar add a wonderful flavor to the meat, but it also keeps the fillet in one piece when it’s ready to eat.

If you’ve never used cedar planks for grilling before, this is the basic information you’ll need:

Start by getting a food-grade quality cedar plank (if you’re making your own, you need to buy untreated cedar). You can find them online, at your butcher counter (ours give them away free if you ask for them), in kitchen supply stores (though, usually more expensive than anywhere else), and even at some hardware and home improvement stores.

The next step is to soak the cedar planks for at least two hours before grilling. This keeps the planks from burning up while you grill with them.

You can see, we soak ours in a shallow cake pan and we weigh them down with a cup of water.

When you’re ready to use them, pull them out of the water and set the fish fillet directly onto the wet board. The fish should be skin-side down on the wood.

Put the planks directly onto your hot grill, and cover with your grill lid while cooking.

When your fish has reached its desired temperature, remove the whole plank-fish unit from the heat and serve. The fish skin will usually stick to the plank, which makes the eating process even easier.

This particular salmon fillet was coated in a honey-bourbon glaze. To recreate it, mix 3 Tbl of honey with 1/2 cup of your favorite bourbon. Using a pastry brush, spread the glaze over the salmon immediately before putting the salmon on the cedar plank. The garnish is a slice of apple also glazed with the honey-bourbon mixture. This preparation is incredibly simple, and very tasty.

Grilling basics: Using a chimney starter and making coffee-crusted flank steak

When we grill during the week, we use a tiny Weber grill (specifically, it’s a Smokey Joe 10020, which we affectionately refer to as just plain Joe). I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we use Joe because he heats up quickly, evenly distributes heat, and doesn’t require a lot of charcoal. Within half an hour of lighting him, we usually have lunch or dinner on the table.

We use a chimney starter and hardwood charcoal when we grill. (We use either the Trader Joe’s or the Whole Food’s charcoal brands). With the chimney starter there is no need for lighter fluid and no need to arrange the coals in a certain pattern. If you’re unfamiliar with the incredibly simple process, you fill the starter with charcoal:

Put a few pieces of newspaper in the bottom of the starter:

Light the paper on fire:

Wait 20 minutes, and then pour the hot coals into your grill very carefully:

This specific grill was heated up to cook coffee marinated and crusted flank steak:

(You’ll have to trust me that the finished product tastes and looks much better than this raw meat. Sadly, I ate the entire meal before I realized I hadn’t taken any photographs of it. Yum.)

We got these cuts of meat already marinated and crusted from our butcher, but it’s easy to do at home. Simply get two individual servings of flank steak and marinate them overnight in the refrigerator in a zip-top bag full of coffee. The coffee should be a roast you enjoy drinking, because you can taste it after you’ve grilled it. Also, the coffee should be room temperature or colder when you put the meat in it. You don’t want the liquid to cook the meat.

Right before you’re ready to put the meat on the grill, strain off the liquid, salt the meat, and dredge it through your favorite coffee grounds. (The whole coffee beans you see in the picture above are just for decoration, only use grounds.) Rub the coffee into the meat a little, similar to how you would a spice rub. Grill the meat to a nice medium-rare, remove from heat, cover with a bowl like a dome, and wait five minutes (letting the meat rest) before serving.

Coffee-crusted flank steak is perfect with fried eggs and hash browns, as a “breakfast for dinner.” The coffee makes the steak sweet, almost as if you had added a lot of sugar to a cup of coffee. It’s really good, though, and gives you a little bit of a caffeine kick. If you don’t want that caffeine rush, use decaf coffee instead.

Favorite food feeds on Twitter?

I’m a fan of Twitter because I get a lot of my food news through it. I subscribe to the feeds of numerous local chefs, bartenders, restaurant reviewers, grocery stores, food scientists, nutritionists, cookbook authors, and even a few celebrity chefs and food writers.

I especially love the feeds from my local grocery stores. For instance, I knew last Friday that my local Whole Foods was having a “Buck-a-Burger” sale on their gourmet hamburger patties, which saved me a good chunk of money for the cookout we had with my family on Saturday. (Do a search to find your specific local grocers.) As long as you’re not following (too many) navel gazers, I’ve found Twitter to be an extremely useful tool for collecting insights into the food world.

Here are some of the Twitter feeds I follow and find interesting for various reasons:

Individuals (chefs, cooks, food scientists)

Companies

Food science, nutrition, and other food-related feeds

If you’re on Twitter, what are your favorite feeds? Are you following ours @SimpliFried? Share your suggestions in the comments.

Questions for cooks: Meals that travel well without refrigeration

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I recently started a project that has me traveling to the other side of the state every other week. My flight leaves at 6:00 a.m. and arrives at 10:30 am. I then leave again at 4:40 p.m. and return home at 10:30 p.m.

I get a per diem to cover all three meals when I take these trips. But I really want to just pack my meals so I can pocket the per diem. Besides, the town I go to is very small and remote. There is a grocery store, but it’s selection is not good, and everything is expensive.

Anyway, I have to go through airport security and gelpack-type freezer packs are not allowed. I’ve heard things about using ice, but it seems to depend on the agent and the airport. So, I would like to avoid food that has to be refrigerated. To make matters worse, I have to strictly watch my salt intake, so most microwave and canned foods are not good options.

This is like a riddle or a word problem on a math test: “Rose needs 1,500 calories a day, but has to avoid refrigerated and preserved foods. How can it be done?”

Right off the bat, I know that fresh fruits and vegetables are going to be a good option for you. Apples, bananas, raw broccoli and cauliflower crudites, snap peas, and oranges shouldn’t cause a problem for you as you go through security. If the item is not refrigerated in your grocer’s produce section, you don’t need to refrigerate it in your lunch pail.

Bagels and bread should be fine. Same goes for almost all aged, hard cheeses. Cheese sandwiches aren’t usually exciting, but using a hearty bread and a wonderful cheese will be filling and enjoyable. I’m thinking something like a jalapeno cheddar bread with some pepper jack cheese, or a rustic Italian with a Parmesan or Manchengo.

Smoked salmon and cured meats travel well, too. I love a salumi that bites you back or causes you to take notice, like a Culatello di Zibello, a delicate prosciutto, a hot pepperoni, a crusted pancetta, or a spicy coppa. Don’t go overboard with the smoked and cured meats — just a little with crackers should be enough to give you some protein — because you don’t want to elevate your salt intake too wildly.

Cliff makes some wonderful granola bars that aren’t especially high in sodium or fat, and taste great. Talk to people who regularly go hiking, and they’ll also have great suggestions for you.

Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more portable 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.

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.

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