Creating a cheese plate

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pork belly kale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What unitaskers are lurking in your cupboards?

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

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

The SodaStream:

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

ClickHeat Baby Bottle Warmer:

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

Pasta Maker:

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

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

Easy summer eats: Miso mayo salad dressing and herb chips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mustard and “Mayo” Salad Dressing

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

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

Toasted Herbed Flatbread Wedges

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

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

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

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

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

USDA ditches food pyramid, adopts a plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In observance

In observance of Memorial Day here in the United States, the SimpliFried staff has today off from work. We’ll be back here tomorrow with more stress-reducing advice.

Questions for cooks: Vegetables on pizza

Reader Serendipity submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I love making homemade pizza, partly because it’s really yummy and partly because I can make it without tomato sauce, which I don’t much like. My favorite pizza toppings are mushrooms and bell peppers, but it seems like the water content of the vegetables makes the whole pizza a little soggy. I’ve tried putting the vegetables under the cheese, on top of the cheese, drying them off really well after washing them, and none of these things have really worked. Is there something else I should be doing to prevent the sogginess? Should they be cooked or something first? I’ve been putting them on raw.

I lightly cook almost all my non-cheese toppings before adding them to a pizza. The exception to this rule is olives, which don’t retain much water as a result of the salt curing process.

I even fry pepperoni before putting it on a pizza to expel a good portion of the grease that has no business swimming around on the top of my pie. I learned this pepperoni degreasing tip from the great Peter Reinhardt in his pizza cookbook American Pie. This simple tip transformed the pepperoni pizza experience for me since I had always found pepperoni pizza too greasy to enjoy.

Vegetables like mushrooms, peppers, and onions don’t have to be fried for very long, just long enough to get some of their water to evaporate. If you get all of the water out they can turn rubbery in the hot pizza oven, and no one enjoys rubbery vegetables on a pizza. To remove a little water, I put a frying pan on a burner and heat it to medium-high. Then, I toss my chopped and diced veggies into the pan. I’ll push them around, flip them over a few times, and cook them just a smidgen (less than a minute in a hot pan). After removing them from the heat, I pour them out onto a cooling rack until I’m ready to use them on the pizza. I prefer a cooling rack to a paper towel because the veggies can get soggy on a paper towel, defeating the whole purpose of cooking them beforehand.

When you bake your pizza, be sure to have a very hot oven (530ºF or greater) and use your convection fan if you have one. The air movement and the extremely high heat will help evaporate a little more water out of the vegetables and create a perfect crust.

Thank you, Serendipity, 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.

This year’s signature summer cocktail: The French Martini

For the past two summers, my cocktail of choice has been a Bourbon Cherry Lemonade. Bourbon is an old friend of mine; we met in college while most of my classmates were taking up with tequila. I was more of a sipper than a shooter, so Bourbon and I got along splendidly.

I still love a good bourbon, and Bourbon Cherry Lemonades won’t disappear completely from my repertoire, but after two summers it’s time to find a new summer standby. The reason I have a summer drink is because I don’t usually keep a fully stocked bar. With a signature drink, you keep those ingredients on hand for whenever you have friends over for dinner, a party, or just want to enjoy a drink with dinner. A cooler of beer and a signature drink are usually all you need to have to throw a great afternoon barbecue.

After holding a few grueling auditions (sipping cocktails is such strenuous work), the French Martini edged out the competition with its inspiriting not-too-sweet, not-too-tart, not-too-heavy qualities as this year’s signature summer cocktail.

According to the Chambord website, the French Martini recipe is:

  • 1 1/2 oz Finlandia Vodka
  • 1/2 oz Chambord Liqueur
  • 2 oz Pineapple Juice

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into martini glass. Garnish with raspberries.

I’ve found that using just 2 oz of pineapple juice makes for quite a strong and small martini. So, I recommend using a full 3 oz of pineapple juice.

I also recommend ditching the Finnish vodka (Finlandia). It’s made with barley and is suggested, I assume, because the Chambord and Finlandia are distributed by the same company in the US (Brown-Forman). It’s not a bad vodka, it’s just not the right vodka for this drink.

Since the drink is called a French Martini, I think it works much better with a French vodka. Vodkas produced in France are typically made with fermented wheat or grapes, which tend to produce a little sweeter and more delicate flavor than other grains or potatoes do. The popular French vodkas that are imported into the U.S. include Grey Goose, Ciroc, Pinnacle, Nuage, Idol, Integre, Rue 33, and IceKube. After trying these French vodkas, I settled on the Ciroc as my favorite for this drink. (If you don’t have any French vodkas in your collection, Hangar 1 is a great American alternative because of its distinct sweetness.)

French Martini, SimpliFried Style

  • 1 1/2 oz Ciroc Vodka
  • 1/2 oz Chambord Liqueur
  • 3 oz Pineapple Juice

After combining the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, give it a vigorous shake, and then strain the liquid into a glass. If you have raspberries on hand, garnish with two on a toothpick (like you would two olives in a Dirty Martini).

If you drink alcohol, what is your preferred drink this summer?

Granola memories

I know you’ve got granola memories. Maybe they are faded, set up high on a dusty shelf with memories of your favorite birthday cake from childhood or the first time you really loved a slice of pizza. Maybe that memory includes the first time you cooked your own batch of granola after having watched a cooking show (like me). Maybe a friend of yours loves to cook and gave you the recipe.

Are you happy with the granola recipe you use? I’ve experienced mixed results in my efforts to find the right combination of oats, nuts, and crunchiness. It took me a while, but I think I figured it what I was really looking for: clusterization. I’m guessing sometime in my childhood I first tried a cluster filled bowl of heavenly granola then wolfed down two more servings in rapid succession.

I wonder if something like this happened to Melissa over at I tried making her recipe for Seven-Year Granola, and the clusterization factor was off the charts fantastic. Big chunks of oats were hugging little centers filled with spices and nut pieces, creating a type of happy morning flavor only rivaled by the sun of a new day. Make a big enough batch of this granola and you can have that feeling every morning of your week!

When I cooked this recipe I made changes to it, which I’ve included below in italics. Enjoy!

Heavenly Cluster Granola

  • 1 lb. (450g) quick oats (I used 12 oz quick oats and 4 oz rolled oats)
  • 3 cups (750ml/about 300g) coarsely chopped raw nuts and/or seeds (I used pecans, shelled sunflower seeds, and sesame coated cashews)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace (or nutmeg) (freshly grated nutmeg is FANTASTIC!)
  • 1 cup packed (200g) dark brown sugar (I used 1/4 cup white and a 3/4 cup brown)
  • 1/2 cup (115g/1 stick) unsalted butter (I cut this down to half a stick)
  • 1/3 cup (80ml) water
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • dried fruit, at your discretion (I used 1 1/2 cups raisins)

Preheat the oven to 300ºF. In a food processor, coffee grinder or blender, grind half the oats to a fine powder. In a large bowl, combine the whole oats, ground oats, nuts, seeds and spices. In a microwave-safe bowl (or in a saucepan over medium heat), combine the brown sugar, butter and water and heat just until the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbly. Stir the mixture together until smooth, then stir in the salt and vanilla. Pour this mixture over the oats and nuts, stirring well to coat (I usually do this with my hands). It should be uniformly moist – stir in another tablespoon or two of water if it isn’t. Let stand for about ten minutes.

Spread the mixture out on a large baking sheet, separating it into irregular clumps with your fingers, and allowing space between the clumps for the hot air to circulate. Slide into the middle of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and stir, gently breaking up the mixture into small-to-medium sized clumps. Return to the oven and bake another 15 minutes or so before stirring again. Repeat the bake-and-stir until the mixture is a uniform golden brown and completely dry; this usually takes 1-1 1/2 hours. Cool completely, then stir in any dried fruit you want to use.

Reader discussion: Share your cooking experiences

It’s Monday and I’m in a chatty mood. If you are, too, share your answers to these questions in the comments:

  1. What is your favorite meal to make?
  2. What is your fall-back meal when you’re tired/stressed and don’t feel like thinking about food?
  3. What is the meal you have made that unexpectedly impressed you?
  4. What is a meal you want to learn to make?

1.) My favorite meal to make is pulled pork (a pork shoulder) that I have grilled all day in my smoker. Since it takes more than 14 hours to make, it’s not something I do very often. But, oh, how I love a homemade barbecue pulled pork sandwich.

2.) Tuna casserole, which my husband can’t stand, but I could eat every day of the year if I didn’t care about my cholesterol or sodium intake. It’s what I make when we do “dinner on our own.”

3.) The first time I successfully made steamed char siu bao at home. It was unbelievably easy, but before then I had decided it was something I would only ever eat out at a restaurant. These buns are not a regular part of our meal plans.

4.) Pâté. I hear it’s easy, but I haven’t yet built up the courage to try making it at home.

Now it’s your turn — share your responses in the comments. I’m eager to read your answers.

Questions for cooks: Cleaning cookware

Reader Andy submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I have a couple of nice stainless steel pots and pans that I’ve completely blackened with high-temperature cooking experiments and burning oils. They are completely black on the bottom and top and in one of them, perpetually sticky with safflower oil. Is there any trick to restoring them to their original silver cleanliness?

The first thing I would do is ignore their color for a minute and instead look at their shape. If you set the pots and pans on a flat surface, do their bottoms completely lie flat? Or, are your pots and pans warped so that they wobble a bit or only directly connect to the surface in a few places? If the pots and pans are warped, it’s time to replace them. The unevenness is creating hot spots in your cookware and isn’t providing a consistent heat to the food you’re making. If they’re not warped, then consider cleaning methods.

If you need to buy new pots and pans, and if you can afford them, look for stainless steel ones with a copper metal core. The higher price will make you think twice before attempting crazy (fun) experiments, and the copper core will also be able to handle higher heats than likely what you have now (my guess is that your stainless steel currently has an aluminum core, which will scorch foods at higher temperatures). Also, if you get new pots and pans, please let them completely cool before ever running them under water. Your cookware will last much longer.

When cleaning stainless steel, you may need to try a few methods before finding the exact one that works for you. I recommend starting with the least caustic method and only increasing to a more caustic product if necessary.

The insides of the pan may come clean by simply bringing 2 cups of water to a boil, adding 2 tablespoons of baking soda, stirring the mixture around for a few minutes, and then turning off the heat and letting the entire pan cool. Baking soda has a pH level of around 9, which is fairly high compared to other cleaning products. I’m always surprised by how well baking soda works as a cleaning agent.

If baking soda worked on the inside of the pans, then make a thick paste — 1 tablespoon of baking soda, a few drops of lemon juice, and a few drops of water — to use on the exteriors of the pans. Use it like you would any abrasive cleaners and scrub it in with a soft sponge before rinsing it clean. Don’t use a scouring pad on your cookware.

If the baking soda method is a failure, try the Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser. At $9 a can, it’s not that much more expensive than the baking soda option and is a trusted brand of cookware cleaner. Again, remember to use a soft sponge and not a scouring pad when cleaning your cookware.

Sadly, if neither of the previous methods work, look for a commercial degreaser that is specifically made for cleaning stainless steel cookware. You’ll need to head to your local restaurant supply store to get your hands on one that is guaranteed food safe by the USDA. Take a pot or pan with you, and the employee at the restaurant supply store may even let you try the product out in the store to make sure it will work for you (no guarantees, but they just might let you). If someone recommends you use regular Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner, do not take this advice, as it is not food safe. Simple Green does make a commercial food-safe degreaser, but expect to pay $60 to $80 for a bottle of it. The food safe degreasers you’ll find at a restaurant supply store are a fraction of that price.

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

Buying the cow?

Growing up in a family with working farms on both my maternal and paternal sides, it wasn’t rare for me to have previously made acquaintance with the animal I was eating for dinner. The idea of this might freak out some people, especially those who like to imagine the meat they consume is grown in a sterile lab (see, Better Off Ted, season one, episode two). For me, however, it was just the way it worked.

After the animals would go to slaughter, my family would receive a quarter, half, or whole chicken, pig, and/or cow that my mom would butcher and put in our chest freezer. It wasn’t until both of my parents’ farms became grain farms that we started buying meat at the grocery store like the non-farmers did.

When my husband and I bought our first house, I brought up the subject of talking with our favorite butcher about buying a cow. Since this wasn’t the way my husband was raised, he was a little uneasy with the idea in the beginning. But, he eventually changed his tune after I showed him the numbers and did a little persuading.

Ordering a cow

The process of ordering a quarter, half, or whole cow can be extremely simple: you tell your butcher you’re interested, and he makes it happen. A little less easy, but not much more difficult, is to find a farm and contact it directly. I like to get the cow from a farm I can visit and inspect the environment where the animal was raised, medical treatment it received, and food it ate. This is easy to do in Virginia where we have a number of organic cattle farms and they’re accustom with working directly with consumers. If a farm in your area doesn’t work with consumers directly, they almost always use a CSA or small butcher shop as their coordinator.

The costs of buying a cow

Once you order a quarter, half, or whole cow, you’ll need a place to store the meat. A small chest freezer (under 10 cu. ft.) will fit a quarter or a half cow and the freezers retail anywhere between $200 to $350. The Energy Star website reports that a small chest freezer manufactured between 2001-2008 costs about $45 a year for electricity to operate and $38 a year for a newer model. Crunching the numbers on this, the first year to run the freezer you will pay around a dollar a day and less than 15 cents a day in the following years.

Quarter, half, or whole cows that you butcher at home, vacuum seal in meal-size portions, and freeze are about $3.50 per pound. This is in comparison to $5 to $30 per pound of store-bought, already butchered, small-servings from the butcher’s counter. The price of half a cow, a small chest freezer, and the energy to run a small chest freezer is still less than buying the store-bought, butchered, small-servings a couple times a week.

One thing to note is that if you buy half a cow (or a quarter or a whole), you’ll also want to purchase a meat grinder to make ground beef. I like the food grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, which was $45. A steel one that attaches to your counter will work fine, too. If you have a food processor and don’t mind inconsistently ground meat and don’t plan to make sausages, you could probably use it, too.

Also, if you aren’t excited by the idea of butchering the whole, half, or quarter cow you plan to purchase, for a little extra money the butcher will usually cut it up into steaks, roasts, ribs, and ground beef for you (which mildly increases your cost per pound). If you’re uncomfortable with offal, your butcher and/or farm can also leave these out of your cuts.


Even though it’s financially beneficial to consume beef this way, and in many ways more environmentally friendly, these weren’t the reasons my husband eventually came around to the idea. His motivation came after reading an article on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). He realized that his chances of getting the infection are greatly reduced if he’s eating from just one cow over a six month period instead of dozens of cows. This never weighed into my decision-making process, but I thought it was worth mentioning in case other people have similar concerns about BFE.

Simple side: Polenta

One of the grains I always keep in my pantry is cornmeal. I use it for making cornbread and hush puppies, sprinkling it on the peel when making pizza so the dough easily slides into the oven, and for breading chicken, catfish, and pork chops. I’ve also used it instead of rice or millet in porridge. My favorite use for it, though, is for polenta (or what many Americans call grits).

Polenta is a nearly perfect side dish. It is one of the easiest foods to make, it is incredibly versatile and willing to accept all types of additions to compliment a meal, and it is nutritious (high in dietary fiber and iron). Plus, it’s inexpensive when you make it with cornmeal instead of an instant polenta mix — costing just a few cents per serving.

To make a traditional polenta, use 4 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal (e.g. 4 cups water to 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup water to 1/4 cup cornmeal, etc.). The ratio for making a thick polenta (perfect for shaping into cakes for frying) is 3 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal.

Regardless of traditional or thick, boil the liquid and then slowly add the cornmeal while constantly stirring (to avoid clumps from forming). Then, turn down the heat, cover, and simmer until your polenta reaches its desired consistency (about three hours for 1 cup of cornmeal). Most times I make polenta, I simply pour the water and cornmeal straight into my slow cooker, give it a stir, turn the heat on high, and have polenta ready in a few hours. Unlike rice, polenta is very forgiving, so it takes a lot of effort to ruin it.

If you wish to add cheese (parmesan or cheddar are common additions) or spices (salt and pepper are standard, and red pepper flakes can certainly give it a kick), do this after the polenta has finished cooking. When making grits, add butter at this same point of the process. If you wish to add any ingredients to your polenta that might need cooking (like chopped onions or carrots), saute these first and then add them at the very beginning of the polenta’s cooking process.

To give your polenta more complex flavors, use beef, chicken, or vegetable stock as the liquid. If you’re having the polenta with steak or sausages, consider adding in a shot of red wine (your polenta will be pink, but tasty) along with your boiling base liquid. If after you’ve made your polenta, it turns out thicker than you desired, add a little cream to finish. Leftover polenta can be served at breakfast with a little sugar, cinnamon, and a shot of milk.

A thick polenta made with beef stock, ready to be shaped for frying:

If you decide to fry up cornmeal or grit cakes, use the 3:1 ratio and then form the cakes with either your hands or by pressing the meal into a cookie cutter. Over medium heat, fry the cakes (without the cookie cutter) in a pan with a teaspoon of hot canola oil (to prevent sticking) for three or four minutes each side. The polenta cake should have a golden, crispy crust when finished. Set on a cooling rack until ready to serve (not a paper towel because the bottom side will get soggy).

More traditional images of polenta.

My favorite type of cornmeal to use when making polenta is a coarse, stone ground yellow. If I’m making grits, I’ll use a lighter, white cornmeal. There are also blue cornmeals, but I’ve never used them.

Questions for cooks: Storing food processor blades

Reader C submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I live in a teeny tiny apartment, with a teeny tiny kitchen. One of the problems of the kitchen is that I have very little counter space, and no drawers whatsoever – just cupboards and shelves.

That being the case, do you have a creative suggestion for a food processor storage solution? The blades especially have been a huge storage problem.

Before I offer up some storage solutions, I have a few questions for you. How often do you use your food processor? Do you have other small appliances that can do the same thing? The reason I ask is because I don’t own one and have never had a need for one. Whenever a recipe calls for one, I’ve been able to use an alternative like a mandoline, blender, or a basic chef’s knife. The only time I’ve borrowed one was when making brioche for the first time (using one of the recipes in Cookwise), but since then I’ve just used my stand mixer with the same success.

If you’re regularly using your food processor, and aren’t interested in getting rid of it, I recommend checking with your appliance’s manufacturer to see if they make a storage solution.

What’s nice about storage solutions made by the product’s manufacturer is that the storage device is specifically suited to exactly what you have. In this case, the blades lock into the holder and there is a plastic cover that fits perfectly over the blades, which is incredibly safe.

If your model doesn’t have a manufacturer-designed storage solution, I’d use something like a CD spindle or a paper towel holder. Then, I’d look for a protective covering you can fit over everything (a plastic ice cream tub might work).

Another option might be to store them in a drawer or box with appropriately sized dividers.

Thank you, C, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas 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.

Good Eats has ended

According to the Chicago Tribune, multiple other news outlets, and (reportedly) even Alton Brown himself, the Food Network show Good Eats has ended.

Episode 249 “Use Your Noodle 5,” which aired the first week of May, was the show’s last regular season episode. There will be three hour-long specials to come out later this year, but otherwise the show is done. Likely, however, the Food Network will continue to air reruns every day for the next decade.

I’m eager to learn about Alton Brown’s next project, and to get the final cookbook in his Good Eats series (I already own the first two). Maybe we should have expected the show coming to a close after 12 years when the second book in the series was called the “Middle Years.”

We at SimpliFried want to wish him much success in whatever it is he does next, and we will certainly be watching.

(Image from

Cheddar Ale Soup (and a drink recipe, too)

Back in my early twenties, the Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence, Kansas, was a popular hangout where my friends and I would meet at least once a week for dinner and drinks. My beverage of choice was a Cyclist — half lemonade and half Wheat State Golden (a Kolsch-style wheat beer) — which was perfect for hot and humid Kansas nights.

In sharp contrast to the cold, refreshing Cyclist, my favorite entree was a large bowl of Free State’s Cheddar Ale Soup. The soup was made with white cheddar cheese from Alma (my 101-year-old-grandmother’s birthplace), the brewery’s own Ad Astra Ale (an amber), and cream.

Once the weather started to turn warm this year, nostalgia for the Cyclist and Cheddar Ale Soup set in and I haven’t been able to curb the cravings. Since I now live 1,000 miles east of Lawrence, stopping by Free State hasn’t yet been an option. Instead of letting my cravings and nostalgia overwhelm me, I headed into my kitchen to recreate a version at home.

The Cyclist was simple to reproduce: Half a glass of a favorite wheat beer (or the leftover Miller High Life from the recipe listed below) and half a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade (or even a decent store-bought one works in a hurry).

The Cheddar Ale Soup took me longer to figure out how to reproduce since neither Alma Cheese nor Ad Astra Ale are available in D.C.-area markets. Ultimately, I found that Miller High Life was all I needed to get the results I wanted. (It is the “champagne of beers” after all …)

Nostalgic and Easy Cheddar Ale Soup

Makes one bowl

  • 1 cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup Miller High Life
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp canned diced green chiles or jalapenos
  • Pepper to taste

In a small soup pot at room temperature, mix the cheddar cheese and flour until the cheese is dusted and no longer sticks to itself very well.

Over medium heat, add the beer and start stirring constantly with a rubber spatula (making sure to scrape any stuck cheese off the bottom of the pot). Completely melt the cheese. Once the cheese is a large melted mess, slowly add the milk (a few tablespoons at a time) to fully incorporate it into the melted cheese. Remove from heat and turn off the burner.

Add the teaspoon of diced chiles, a little pepper, and serve immediately. I like it with a hearty bread and, of course, a Cyclist. Multiply this recipe out for as many people you plan to serve, but you’ll need to reduce the beer a little bit to keep the consistency. I wouldn’t substitute skim milk because your soup will be too thin if you do, but you could easily substitute cream for the whole milk if your heart desired. The soup will have a little bit of a grainy texture to it, which I believe is part of its charm.

Best part of all, this soup takes less than five minutes to make.

(One time when I found my pantry bare of canned chiles, I substituted a teaspoon of Frontera Guacamole Mix and it was just as fabulous.)

Overcoming your fears in the kitchen

Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed as saying, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” This quote could be inspiring in many aspects of living, but I found it to be especially encouraging when I was learning to cook.

One of the reasons I was hesitant to cook at home was I didn’t feel like I could make restaurant-quality food (which, I couldn’t at that point). Why would I eat at home when I could eat something better at a restaurant? It wasn’t until I quit my job to go to graduate school that I had to pinch pennies and stop eating out most every night. To keep from getting incredibly bored eating poor to mediocre dinners, I embraced Eleanor’s words and began trying to do the things I didn’t think I could do.

How did I do it?

  1. Become comfortable with failure. If you have a misguided notion that you’re going to get every recipe and every cooking skill right the first time you attempt it, your pride is going to take a hit. (Mine did. This was a lesson learned the hard way.) Cooking isn’t difficult, but many skills require practice.
  2. Identify your favorite meals you’ve had in restaurants. Recreating these meals at home is a good place to begin your journey. With just a couple tries, you’ll probably discover you can make better versions of these meals.
  3. Hang out with the recipes. Does the idea of making a souffle terrify you? Carry the recipe around with you for a week. Study it. Read it so many times you can recite it from memory. When you know what to expect, the process is less frightening.
  4. Research. Whether you get your hands on a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques or watch videos on YouTube, it’s always a good idea to see how someone else tackles a similar method. Even if your style is a little different, seeing another person do what you want to do reduces a lot of fears.
  5. Have a backup plan. Keep a loaf of bread and sandwich meat in the refrigerator for those nights when what you attempt is grossly inedible. You’ll feel a lot less pressure when you know you and your family won’t go hungry.

Let go of your fears and learn to clarify butter, trim a rack of lamb, emulsify a Hollandaise sauce, bake a loaf of bread, cut the spine out of a whole chicken, butcher a tenderloin into fillets, bread and fry tofu, or whatever it is you are currently afraid to do. You can do it, you should do it, even if you think you cannot.

Questions for cooks: Grilling for apartment dwellers

Reader L submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

With summer approaching, more and more recipes are for grilled foods. These sound delicious, but I live in an apartment and the logistics of grilling are challenging, to say the least. There is a concrete pad about 20 yards away from my back door and that is where I set up my small charcoal grill (I tried a gas grill but was constantly afraid I’d blow myself up!). So, all the ingredients, utensils, etc. have to be carried there and then I have to keep watch to ensure that no small children or pets get into the danger zone around the grill. My question is, first, do you have any tips for simplifying the task given the restrictions that I have? Second, is a grill pan or a broiler in the oven equally usable for a grilled recipe? If not, can some recipes be adapted to use this equipment, and how would I know which recipes they are? Do grill pans always smoke? Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

I’m likely about to upset some folks, but I don’t believe cooking food on gas grills is grilling. In my opinion, it’s simply broiling food outdoors. There isn’t anything you can do with a gas grill outdoors that you can’t do with your broiler on your oven. I believe the purpose of grilling foods is to cook them outdoors, over an open flame, and infuse the foods with flavors from burning wood (which you can get from logs on a campfire or hardwood charcoal in a grill). So, I think the little grill you have on your patio is perfect for grilling.

Although I don’t face the same space restraints you do, I typically grill on a small Smokey Joe during the week if I’m just making dinner for my family. What is nice about these small grills is you don’t have to use much charcoal, they heat up quickly, they’re small enough not to have inconsistent heating issues, and the charcoal goes out faster after you finish. Larger grills are perfect for entertaining, but can be a waste of time and resources for your regular, daily grilling needs.

I have a metal box with a flap I use to store and transport all of my grilling supplies. It includes a bag of hardwood charcoal (I love the Trader Joe’s brand), a chimney starter, long matches, ash pans (I usually just get disposable, aluminum turkey roasters for cheap from the grocery store), grilling tongs and spatula, an oven mitt, a water spray bottle, meat thermometers, and a tool for scrubbing/brushing off the grill grate. It’s not the most portable solution, I’m certain, but it is nice to have a single place where all of these supplies safely live when not in use. (And, obviously, don’t ever put ashes into the storage box. When cool enough after grilling, I collect all of the ashes into the disposable roasting pan, completely submerge the ashes in water, let the wet ashes in the ash pan sit on my patio for a day or two, and then dispose of the entire soggy mess.) I think a portable grill kit like this could work well for you, so you’re at least reducing the number of trips indoors and out when grilling.

If the weather is nasty or if you just don’t feel like firing up the grill one night, you can always achieve a similar effect with your stove or oven. A grilling pan works reasonably well (technically you’ll be frying your food), and you can get ones that cover one or two burners on your stove top. If you buy cast iron, you can also use these pans on your outdoor grill, in your oven, and directly on a campfire. A broiling pan (one likely came with your oven) is great to use for grilling (technically broiling) foods in the oven. Simply adjust the top rack in your oven to be the same distance away from the flames that you would choose for your grill rack to be away from the charcoal (I prefer the second or third height from the top — the top height is too close to the flames in my oven). When broiling, be careful to monitor the meat and keep a box of baking soda nearby in case you have any grease flare ups. Small fires are rare, but you want to be prepared in case they happen.

Good luck to you with your summer’s grilling adventures! Thank you, L, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Also, check out 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.

Tools for creating grocery shopping lists

Shopping lists are essential for helping you to remember what you need to buy at the grocery store. There are two stages for compiling most shopping lists — the running list you add to as you run out of essentials and the planning list you create as you’re putting together your weekly meal plan. Both are important, but made in different ways.

I recommend everyone having a public list on the refrigerator or hung on the wall in the kitchen that any member of the house can write on as needed. If your son finishes the milk, he can add “Milk” to the list. If your roommate eats the last slice of bread, she can add “Bread” to the list. A public running list is even convenient in case you have house guests and one of them discovers you’re out of toilet paper.

When creating your planning list, you may choose to add to the running list or create a second list. I use a worksheet for meal planning, so I just copy the items off the public list onto the planning list. The system you will use consistently is the best system for you.

Tools that might work for you for creating effective grocery shopping lists:

What method do you use to create your shopping list? Share your system in the comments.