Monday, February 29, 2016

Is Asparagus Your Enemy?

I never imagined vegetables could be considered evil until I heard a 12-year-old say, “Asparagus is my enemy.”  A food fight was brewing at my dinner table until a portion of salad took the place of the offending vegetable.

I had a good laugh as I piled my plate with extra asparagus.  It’s one of my favorites, now that I’ve learned that it doesn’t just come in a can.  When I was growing up, I thought asparagus was pale green or white and slightly mushy.  I got used to the taste, but for some reason it was served to company, and I usually was allowed just 1 or 2 spears.

When I discovered fresh asparagus, I thought something was wrong with it because it was so green. Also, I was hesitant to cook it because recipes insisted that I peel the stalks since they were tough.  I tried and decided it was too much trouble.  Then I read a cooking tip that said to hold a spear in two hands and bend it near the cut end until it snaps.  Then discard that tough bit of stalk.  Snapping I could do.

Now that it’s asparagus season, I don’t know which recipe to make first: Oven-Roasted Asparagus, Asparagus Vinaigrette or Spicy Stir-Fried Asparagus.  Maybe I’ll make all three.

Uncooked Asparagus
 Spicy Stir-Fried Asparagus – serves 3-4  
2 teaspoons olive or canola oil 
1 teaspoon chopped garlic 
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger 
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional) 
1 pound asparagus, washed, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces 
1 teaspoon soy sauce 
Add oil to a wok or frying pan and begin heating over high heat.  Add the garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes (if desired) and stir-fry for about 1 minute.  
Add the asparagus and continue stir-frying for about 3 more minutes, or until a sharp knife can penetrate a piece of stalk with just a little resistance.  (NOTE: If you’re cooking with very skinny asparagus, reduce the stir-frying time to 1 minute.)  Add the soy sauce and stir-fry for another 15 seconds.  
Serve hot or set aside until needed and serve at room temperature.
           For easy-to-make recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 43

Since meat is usually the most expensive ingredient in a meal, eat less of it. Bulk up dinner with an extra vegetable or a salad.

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 44

Freeze ground meat in gallon-size plastic freezer bags. Flatten the meat as much as you can before sealing. It will freeze faster and thaw more quickly. If you decide you only need half the package for a meal, whack the still-frozen meat on the edge of the counter to split it in half.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

What I'm Serving at My Oscar Party

I grew up watching the Oscars, even though I never saw any of the nominated movies in my Pennsylvania coal-mining town.  The show seemed so glamorous.  Then I moved to California and went to hundreds of movies every year as part of my job as an entertainment journalist.

So far, no one has assigned me to cover the Oscars, and I’m glad.  I hear it’s agony for the reporters, who have to dress up and write their stories super-fast while missing most of the action.  Seldom do they eat until late evening.  Meanwhile, I sit around in front of the TV in sweats and slippers and see it all.

For this Sunday’s post-show Governors Ball, Oscar food impresario Wolfgang Puck ordered 1,000 stone crab claws, 7,500 shrimp, 300 lobsters and 1,300 oysters.  He’s also making chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, potatoes with caviar and chives and short ribs with truffle polenta for 1,500.

I, on the other hand, am cooking for 8.  Sadly there will be no Bear Meatballs in honor of “The Revenant,” which features a grizzly mauling Leonardo DiCaprio.  My local stores don’t carry bear meat.  But they do carry potatoes, so I will be serving “Martian” Baked Stuffed Potatoes, a dish Matt Damon’s astronaut probably dreamed about.

To honor four films set in the 1950s food--“Brooklyn,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Carol” and “Trumbo”—I’m making Not-Your-1950s-Meatloaf.  And as a nod to “Spotlight,” which is set in Boston, I’ll also offer Mini Shrimp Rolls.

That leaves dessert.  After considering numerous 1950s options, including Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Cherries Jubilee and Baked Alaska, I settled on cheesecake, but not just any cheesecake. It will be Chocolate Cheesecake because no meal celebrating anything is complete without chocolate.

Chocolate Cheesecake – serves 12-16 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room”
3 8-ounce packages Neufchâtel or cream cheese 
1 1/2 cups chocolate graham crackers + 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) 
1 12-ounce package chocolate chips 
1 cup sugar 
3 large eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
1/8 teaspoon salt 
1 cup light sour cream 
Remove Neufchâtel or cream cheese from the refrigerator to begin softening. 
Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
To make the cheesecake crust, grind the graham crackers into fine crumbs in a blender or food processor or put them in a plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin or large can.  Transfer to a medium bowl. 
Melt the butter, add to the crumbs and mix thoroughly.   Transfer the crumb mixture to an 8- or 9-inch springform pan (a special pan with a bottom that separates from the sides of the pan).  With the back of a large spoon or your hands, press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the pan and about 1 inch up the sides.  Try to make the crust equally thick everywhere. 
Melt the chocolate in a thick-bottomed pot over very low heat, stirring until it’s almost melted.  Turn off the heat.  The heat of the pan will melt the remaining chocolate. 
Put the Neufchâtel or cream cheese in a food processor bowl or large mixing bowl and process or beat until smooth.  Add the sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, melted chocolate and sour cream and process or mix until well blended and no streaks of white are showing. 
Pour the mixture into the crumb crust and shake the pan gently to distribute it evenly. 
Place the pan on a cookie sheet to catch possible drips.  Bake for about 1 hour, or until the top begins to brown. Check it after 50 minutes to make sure it hasn’t begun to burn.  The center may seem a little wobbly, but it will firm up as it cools.  Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a rack. 
When the cake reaches room temperature, cover the top of the pan with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. 
To serve, run a knife around the inside of the pan, loosening the cheesecake.  Remove the sides from the pan and slip the knife under the bottom of the cheesecake to loosen it. With the help of two metal spatulas, you should be able to transfer the whole cheesecake onto a serving plate.  If it sticks, serve the cheesecake with the base in place.  This cheesecake tastes best cold.
          For more chocolate recipes, get “Chocolate on the Brain” 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 42

When buying grapes, shake the bunch gently. If grapes fall off, they’re not fresh. They may be wrinkled or getting moldy and need to be discarded.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 43

Measure salt over an empty bowl or pot.  If it isn't empty, a twist of the wrist can add in too much salt, and there’s no easy way to remove it.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Lunch in London

Unless you’ve actually eaten in London recently, you probably imagine people dining badly on Beans on Toast, Bangers & Mash (sausages & mashed potatoes) and Cornish Pasties (a meat/potato/turnip/onion concoction encased in pastry). 

On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Russell Hoban’s hilarious children’s book, “How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen,” you might even search for such unappetizing dishes as Greasy Bloaters and Mutton served with Cabbage and Potato Sog.  Roald Dahl fans might seek Mudburgers, Bird Pie and Stink Bugs’ Eggs.

These meals are no doubt still around.  But they weren’t on the menu at my friend Judy’s house when our plane landed an hour early.  We arrived before lunch instead of after it.  With no meal prepared, she reached into her cupboard for a selection of cheeses, crackers, a pot of plain yogurt, some cherry tomatoes and a few cut-up apples.  It was refreshing and healthy—the perfect antidote to jetlag.

For easy-to-make recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 42

Don’t press burgers flat to speed their cooking because their juices will escape, making the burger dry.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

If I Were Making Airline Food...

I would work hard to provide a decent breakfast, not one where sugar is the first or second ingredient in packaged "cakes" and yogurts.  It would be hard to make anything less appetizing than the breakfast I was served a few days ago on a non-stop flight to London.  Unfortunately my stomach was captive, and I had failed to bring any snacks.

Granted, the breakfast was free, even though we were flying economy.  But the airline just reported a $3.3 billion profit for the final quarter of 2015.  How about taking 1 percent of that to upgrade the meals?

Had I planned ahead, here's what I would have packed:

Fresh Fruit Salad
Homemade Chocolate Chip Bagels 
Deviled Eggs with Mustard and Dill

I plan to make at least two of these dishes for the return journey, just in case. 
Deviled Eggs with Mustard and Dill - serves 1-2 (adapted from "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!")  

2 large eggs 
2-3 teaspoons mayonnaise 
1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard 
Dash salt 
Dash black pepper 
1/8 teaspoon dried dill 
Poke the eggs with a needle or egg pricker (see Mom CookingTip 40).  Gently place the eggs in a small pot, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat.  When the water boils, turn down the heat to medium and cook, covered for 3 minutes.  Turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the hot water, covered for 15 minutes. 
Drain the pot and cover the cooked eggs with cold water.  When they are cool to the touch, roll them around on the counter, pressing down so the shells develop many cracks. The shells should peel off easily. 
Cut the eggs in half lengthwise.  Carefully remove the yolks, put them in a bowl an mash thoroughly with a fork.  Add 2 teaspoons mayonnaise, mustard, salt and black pepper and mix well.  If the mixture is too dry, add another teaspoon mayonnaise.  Return the yolk mixture to the whites and sprinkle with dried dill.  Serve immediately or refrigerate, covered, until needed.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 40

Naval oranges are now in season
Eat seasonally. This means buy corn, tomatoes, peaches, figs and other fruit in the summer, when they’re grown locally. Not only are they cheaper than other times in the year but also they taste better. Groceries often advertise bargain prices for foods in season because there’s so much available.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 41

If your recipe calls for buttermilk and you don’t have any, add 1 teaspoon lemon juice to milk and stir.

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Recipe So Easy You Can Barely Call It Cooking

Sometimes I can’t face standing at the stove, and yet I can’t bring myself to order take-out either.  That’s when I turn to my secret ingredient—a pork tenderloin. If I don’t have one on hand, I will happily go to the store and get one.

I had never heard of this cut of meat growing up.  But some years ago when a new neighbor invited us for dinner and served Roast Pork Tenderloin, I was immediately hooked.

The tenderloin is self-descriptive—very tender.  It comes in a heavy plastic, shrink-wrap bag, and it’s not cheap.  On the other hand, it’s sometimes on sale.  And it’s certainly cheaper than eating out and faster too.  Twenty minutes in the oven is all it takes.  
Roast Pork Tenderloin – serves 2-3 
1/4 cup honey 
2 tablespoons brown sugar 
2 tablespoons cider vinegar 
1 teaspoon dry mustard 
1 pork tenderloin (about 1 pound) 
Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 475 degrees.  For easy clean-up, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  
Put the honey, brown sugar, vinegar and dry mustard into a small pot and mix well.  Set aside. 
Trim any fat from the tenderloin and place on the foil.  Spoon 2 tablespoons of the honey mixture over the top.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Turn the tenderloin over and spoon on another 2 tablespoons of the honey mixture.  Bake another 10 minutes. 
Near the end of the cooking time, bring the remaining honey mixture to a boil and keep warm. 
Slice the tenderloin into 1/2-inch slices and serve with hot honey sauce.  The slices can be slightly pink. 
NOTE: Do not buy huge pork tenderloins for this dish because they take much longer to cook.
For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 39

Ethnic grocery stores sell specialty items like hoisin sauce and sesame oil cheaper than supermarket chains. You can also stock up on many varieties of lentils and spice mixtures at lower prices.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Happy Meal

What is a Happy Meal if you’re cooking it?  Definitely no toys, but otherwise anything is possible.  It just depends on whose happiness is at stake.  Do you want to make yourself happy by preparing your favorite meal?  Or would you rather be happy because you made someone else’s favorite meal and thus prevented bickering at the table?

As an eater, I’m easy.  I can make myself several dozen different dishes that qualify as a Happy Meal.  I recently discovered the joys of a fried egg sitting on a bed of couscous—but not the tiny granules of couscous I was used to.  I tried out some of Sadaf’s Toasted Couscous, which swells into BB-size granules when cooked.  It makes a perfect base for a fried egg.  Add salt, pepper and salsa.  I couldn’t be happier.

This dish would not put a smile on Bart’s face, however.  His Happy Meals are more work: Coquilles St. Jacques (Scallops in a Creamy Sauce) and the fairly complicated Chicken Kiev.  I like them too, but they’re not every day fare – at least not in my kitchen – except on his birthday.  Today it’s my turn to be happy.

North African-Style Fried Egg(s) – serves 1 

2/3 cup - 1 cup cooked Toasted Couscous or regular couscous 
1-2 teaspoons olive or canola oil 
1 large egg (2 if you’re really hungry) 
Black pepper 
Cook the couscous, which means boiling it briefly in water.  Set aside and keep warm. 
Add the oil to a frying pan and turn the heat to medium-high.  
Carefully break the egg(s) into the pan so that the yolk(s) remains intact.  Turn down the heat to medium.  Cook for about 2 minutes, or until the white(s) are firm on the bottom.  
Using a metal or silicone spatula, very carefully turn the egg(s) over, trying to keep the yolk(s) intact, and cook for another 2 minutes.  The yolk(s) will be slightly runny.  
Spread the couscous on a plate and transfer the egg(s) on top.  Season with salt and pepper and add a spoonful of salsa.    
NOTE: Couscous is a North African side dish often made of wheat.  It absorbs sauces well. Cooked pasta can be used as a substitute.