Monday, August 31, 2015

The Importance of a Killer Dessert

Chocolate Chip Squares (photo by Jenny Craig)

You can slave in the kitchen for days making the perfect meal, but if the dessert doesn’t prompt guests to demand seconds, thirds and fourths, you might as well have ordered out.  Even guests who tell you they’re on a diet or they don’t eat carbs or they’re too full will remember an outstanding dessert.  And if you somehow made a mess of the main dish, they’ll forget it immediately because they’re slavering over something much better.

You can even make your mark at someone else’s dinner party if you volunteer to bring the dessert—as long as it looks fabulous and tastes even better.

What do I bring to get attention?  Homemade Lemon Meringue Pie, Flourless Chocolate Cake and the extremely easy-to-make Chocolate Chip Squares (see recipe below). 

If you have a killer dessert to share, write it down in the COMMENTS link, and I’ll post it. 
Chocolate Chip Squares – serves 8 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen”)  
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips 
Place one of the oven racks in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  
To save time on cleanup, cook and bake in the same container.  Place an 8-inch square metal baking pan on a stove burner over low heat and add the butter.  As soon as it’s melted, turn off the heat.  
Add the two sugars and stir thoroughly.  Make sure the pan has cooled down and then add the egg, vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt, and stir until well combined.  Mix in the chocolate chips. 
Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the top of the dough has begun to brown and pull away from the sides of the pan. 
Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the squares. Cool on a rack.  To remove from the pan, cut the baked square in half and then in quarters.  Slide a metal spatula under 1 of the quarters and lift out.  Repeat for the other quarters.  Cut each quarter in half so that you have 8 large oblong pieces.  Serve.
           For more chocolate recipes get “Chocolate on the Brain” 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 16

Making a stir-fry? It’s easier to slice meat thinly when it’s partly frozen. Just pop it in the freezer for 30 minutes before cutting.

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 15

Do you frequently make your own pizza? Instead of paying for bottled pizza sauce, spend much less on an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce. Mix in a few tablespoons water, 1 teaspoon chopped garlic (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder), 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Stir and use.  Penzeys makes its own Pizza Seasoning(ingredients undisclosed).

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Foolproof Recipes…or Do Only Fools Believe That?

I would like to be able to tell someone, “This recipe is foolproof,” and know I’m being honest.  But I know better.  No matter how simple a recipe seems, something can always go wrong.

What could be easier than baking a potato?  Turn on the oven.  Set the temperature.  Scrub the potato.  Place it on the oven rack.  Set the timer.  Come back in 1 or 1 1/4 hours.  Remove and eat.

And yet, when someone else follows this exact recipe, sometimes there is a disaster.  Why is that? Lots of reasons:

Size of the Potato. Huge baking potatoes, often sold individually, may take up to 2 hours to be fully baked, while small potatoes could be ready in 45 minutes.  The inside of the potato can shrink if the potato is in the oven too long.

Temperature. The most popular settings are 400 or 425 degrees, but if you’re using the oven at 350 or 375 degrees, you can still bake your potatoes.  However, the cooking time will be longer.

Piercing. Before baking, stick a metal skewer or spike through the potato.  Or stab it a few times with a fork.  This will allow some steam to escape, which helps keep the potato from exploding.

Rub the Potato Skin with Olive Oil and Salt vs. Don’t Bother. The oil softens the skin and adds some flavor. Try it sometime.

Wrap Potato in Foil. Do this only if you like soft potato skins.

Potatoes in foreground pierced with a skewer.  Potatoes in the back rubbed with olive oil and salt.
(photo by Sammy Mills)
In case you wondered, more than 100 varieties of potatoes grow in the U.S., and only some of them are recommended for baking.

Is your brain ready to explode? Just remember that russet potatoes are the most popular for baking and are also the cheapest.  They’re also the ones most commonly available in 10-pound bags.

For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 15

When you are cutting raw chicken or other uncooked meat or fish on a cutting board, be sure to scrub the board thoroughly before using it to cut anything else. Otherwise you may inadvertently give yourself food poisoning.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 14

Know when to throw it away. If your bananas are too mushy, some people say, “Make banana bread.” I say, “Unless you’re a banana bread fanatic, why bother?” You’re just using up more ingredients and taking in more calories. Or even worse, you let the banana bread molder in the back of the fridge. Toss the bananas (or other food you can't bring yourself to eat) and don’t feel guilty.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

If Fish Didn’t Have Bones

Crunchy Baked Fish with Tabouli Salad and Garlic Mayonnaise (photo by Jenny Craig) 

I didn’t grow up with fish sticks, but I did like pickled herring and gefilte fish—neither of which had a bone in sight.  My introduction to real fish came in London, where there was a chain of restaurants called Wheelers.  You could order Dover sole cooked at least a dozen different ways.  When the waiter brought your dinner, he deboned it right in front of you.

Regrettably I never developed that skill, so my family dealt with many mouthfuls of bones and consequently hated fish.  Now that I’m more aware of fish’s healthful benefits, I have made strong efforts to cook relatively boneless versions.  

Salmon steaks (which are chopped through the backbone) have bones, but salmon fillets don’t.  Fresh tuna lacks bones, but it’s expensive.  Fillets of cheaper fish, such as rockfish, tilapia and swai, are usually bone-free.  Or if you’re looking for another gadget to add to your collection, invest in a pair of fish tweezers.

Here is my version of fish sticks.
Crunchy Baked Fish - serves 4 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room”
1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 pounds fish fillets 
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside. 
Combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper in a soup bowl or large plate and set aside.  Place the mayonnaise in another soup bowl or large plate and set aside. 
Rinse the fish and remove any visible bones.  If you like, cut each fillet into 3-4 relatively equal pieces. 
Using a fork, dip a fillet into the mayonnaise and coat both sides.  Then transfer it to the bread crumb mixture and coat both sides. 
Transfer the coated fillet to the foil-covered sheet and repeat the process until done. 
Bake for 10 minutes, or until the fish breaks into flakes when you press on it with a fork.  Serve immediately.
           For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 14

Is your brown sugar like concrete? Instead of getting out a hammer, add a slice of apple or a slice of bread and close the container. The extra moisture will soften the sugar overnight.

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 13

Substitute a cheaper ingredient for a more expensive one. For instance, it won’t make a difference if you use an onion instead of 1-2 leeks. I have nothing against leeks, although they are messy to clean. Leeks are probably listed as an ingredient in the first place because the recipe writer wanted to make the recipe more distinctive-sounding, not more distinctive-tasting. New recipes are sometimes just “improvements” on old recipes. The unwritten rule for writing recipes is to change at least 3 ingredients.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

How to Feel Like an Idiot in the Kitchen

Russian Vegetable Borscht (photo by Andy Mills)

I must be incompetent.  I found a recipe for a stuffed flatbread in a prestigious publication, and it caused my mouth to water.  It involved making dough and a filling and then frying the flatbreads on a hot griddle.  The whole process was supposed to take an hour. 

I’ve been making my own bread and pizza for years.  How hard could it be to make this dish?

Preparing the filling was easy enough.  But the dough—impossible!  After 60+ minutes of trying and failing to roll it out into 12 large circles, I decided I was either incompetent or something was wrong with the recipe. 

My dinner guests had already arrived, so I improvised.  Out went the dough and in came a package of pre-made flour tortillas. 

Luckily I was also serving my can’t-miss Russian Vegetable Borscht, using fresh beets, so people didn’t leave the table hungry.

Lesson #1: Don’t prepare untested recipes for company, no matter where you get them.

Lesson #2: Keep a package of flour tortillas in the freezer.
Russian Vegetable Borscht – serves 6 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room”) 
3 medium fresh beets, baked per instructions below, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes 
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil 
2 large peeled carrots or 15 peeled baby carrots, cut in 1/4-inch slices 
2 sticks celery, cut in 1/4-inch slices 
1 large onion, cut into 1-inch pieces 
3 cups water + more if needed 
1/2 16-ounce package shredded cabbage 
1/4 cup ketchup 
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar 
1 tablespoon sugar 
1 bay leaf 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1/4 teaspoon black pepper 
1/3 cup sour cream (optional)
Put the oil in a large pot and begin heating over high heat.  Add the carrots, celery and onion and stir for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften.  Add 1 cup of the water and bring the mixture to a boil.  Turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 15 minutes.  
Add the remaining 2 cups of water, beets, shredded cabbage, ketchup, red wine vinegar, sugar, bay leaf, salt and black pepper.  Bring the mixture back to a boil over high heat.  Turn down it down to medium-low, cover and cook for another 30 minutes.  
Remove and discard the bay leaf and serve.  Offer sour cream as a topping, if desired.            
How to Bake Beets If the beets have greenery still attached, cut off the stalks and set aside for another use or discard.  Remove and discard any trailing roots. Wash the beets, wrap them tightly in foil, place them in a pie pan and bake at 350 degrees for 2 hours. When the beets have cooled, pull off and discard the skins.  Cut into 1/2-inch cubes. 

Beets Straight from the Field
           For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 13

Too fond of bacon? Next time you buy a package, separate the uncooked strips and freeze them individually or in packages of 2 (in resealable freezer bags, freezer wrap or foil). Defrost only what you need. You can use a large resealable bag to store many individual slices, as long as they don’t touch each other. Lay the bag flat in the freezer. Once the strips are frozen, you can stack them on top of each other.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 12

Use eggs more often as a main dish. Why not make a cheese omelet or a vegetable frittata for dinner? Throw in a baked potato, and you have a meal for under $2.

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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Can Food Preferences Be Genetic?

Now that my cookbook co-author/son Kevin is out of the house, I don’t get a chance to cook just for him very often.  However, he dropped by for lunch the other day, and I automatically knew what he would most prefer to eat—a tuna tortilla.

During my 4 years of high school, I packed a tuna sandwich for lunch every day.  I even ate them on weekends.  Back then, I didn’t know what a tortilla was because Mexican food hadn’t yet penetrated Western Pennsylvania.  Now I live in Southern California, and flour tortillas are a staple.  I eat one for lunch most days.  Often it’s filled with tuna, melted cheese and a squirt of hot sauce.  Kevin’s kids are vegetarian, although his son Andy likes tuna tortillas.  Maybe there is tuna gene in the family.

Tuna Tortilla (photo by Kevin Mills)
Tuna Tortillas – serves 2  
1 5-ounce can tuna, drained
1 tablespoon sweet or pickle relish
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
1 scallion, cleaned, trimmed and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1 large celery stick, cleaned, trimmed and chopped into 1/4-inch slices
2 flour tortillas
2 handfuls grated cheddar or jack cheese
A few drops of bottled hot sauce (optional) 
Transfer the tuna to a small bowl.  Add the relish, mayonnaise, scallion and celery and mix thoroughly. 
Begin heating a tortilla in a medium-hot dry frying pan.  When the top starts to puff up (about 10-15 seconds), turn it over and sprinkle on 1 handful grated cheese.  Cover and cook for a few seconds, or until the cheese melts.  Don’t overcook or the tortilla will get brittle and crack when you fold it. 
Remove from the pan, add half the tuna salad and fold into thirds.  Serve with hot sauce on the side. 
Repeat for second tortilla.
Photo by Kevin Mills

Friday, August 7, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 11

Buy a whole raw chicken and cut it up yourself. Use strong scissors to make the job easier.

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 12

Save time by cooking extra. Leftover potatoes can help fill a burrito, or they can become mashed potato pancakes. Extra potatoes or rice can bulk up a soup. If you have a lot of rice, make Chinese Fried Rice. Freeze leftover cooked meat in 1- or 2-person portions. Be sure to label what it is. Nobody wants to eat mystery meat.

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