Thursday, March 31, 2016

Leeks: What Are They and How Do I Cook Them?

Leeks, which are part of the onion and garlic family, look like scallions on steroids.  They have a mild taste and a much bigger price tag than onions.  To make their food seem more exotic, some recipe-writers call for leeks when they could just as easily use onions.  That’s a waste of money as well as time because this vegetable is much harder to clean.  In fact, cleaning leeks can be more of a challenge than cooking them.

Leeks vary greatly in diameter—as little as 3/4-inch to 2 inches--and are often sold in bundles of two or three.  Most of the leek is edible, although the dark green part is fibrous and strong tasting.  I usually cut much of it off.

The white portion is so dense that dirt rarely gets between the layers. But once you get to the light and dark green parts, you’ve got to wash each surface carefully.  No one wants a mouthful of grit. 

Here are several ways to clean leeks:

1) Wash the white part, which is the cleanest part.  Trim 1/2-inch of the white root end.  If you need 1/2-inch slices, cut into the white part now. When the color starts to change to light green, separate the layers and rinse them thoroughly.

2) Leave the root end attached (to hold the layers in place) and cut the entire leek in half lengthwise.  Rinse both halves thoroughly, separating the layers with your fingers.  Dirt and sand tend to congregate in the green areas.  Then trim the bottom few inches of the dark green part as well as 1/2-inch of the white root end.

3) This third method works only if you need thin slices of leek: Trim the bottom few inches of the dark green part as well as 1/2-inch of the white root end.  Then slice the unwashed leek into thin slices and add the slices to a pot at least half full of cold water.  Stir them around so that they shed all dirt and sand and then carefully scoop them out with a strainer, leaving the dirt behind.

Why do I go to all this trouble?  I’m very fond of Leek Curry, Leeks Vinaigrette and Leek and Potato Soup.

Leek Curry
Leek Curry – serves 4-6 as a vegetable or 3 as a main dish over rice 
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil 
2 whole cloves 
1 bay leaf 
1 teaspoon chili powder 
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander 
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 
1/4 teaspoon black pepper 
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
2 large leeks, including most of the dark green parts, cut into 1/2-inch slices (see above for cleaning tips) 
1 large onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices 
1 teaspoon chopped garlic 
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce 
Several handfuls washed small spinach leaves (optional) 
Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat.  Add the cloves, bay leaf chili powder, coriander, cumin, ginger, black pepper and cinnamon and cook for 30 seconds.  
Add the leeks, onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. 
Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil.  Turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.  Add the spinach leaves, if using, stir to incorporate, and cook for 1 minute.  Discard the bay leaf and cloves before serving.  Serve hot or cold.
           For easy-to-make recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Monday, March 28, 2016

Mystery Meat

Greek Roast Leg of Lamb
Like most home cooks, I fall into ruts.  The same old stuff is easy to make, everyone eats it and I can prepare it in my sleep. It’s comforting, but where’s the thrill of the new and exciting?  

It’s not that I want to dine on exotic animals, but when a mountain lion crept into the Los Angeles Zoo recently and gobbled up a koala I did wonder what it tasted like.  I had venison once as a kid but have no recollection of its flavor.  A friend shot a bear recently, and his wife filled the freezer with bear meat.  I never got to try it because they live 3,000 miles away, but she said it tasted fatty.

My first copy of “Joy of Cooking” included recipes for opossum and squirrel, neither of which I’ve attempted to make—possibly because the squirrel-cooking directions say: “To skin, cut the tailbone through from beneath….”  Or, for opossums, “If possible, trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereal for 10 days before killing….”

Recently I’ve been thinking about “mystery meat,” that unidentifiable college entree my kids told me about.  Maybe it wasn’t as awful as they said.  Maybe it was some new entrĂ©e being tested on unsuspecting students.  Or maybe not.

I think I’ll console myself with some Greek Roast Leg of Lamb cooked medium-rare.

Greek Roast Leg of Lamb – serves 8-10 (adapted from "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!")  
1 boneless leg of lamb, 5-6 pounds 
1 garlic clove 
1 tablespoon olive oil 
1/2 lemon 
1 teaspoon dried oregano 
1/4 teaspoon black pepper 
Remove the lamb from the refrigerator 2 hours before cooking to allow it to reach room temperature.  When you are ready to cook the meat, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. 
Peel the garlic and cut it into 6 slivers.  Place the lamb, fat side up, on a rack in a roasting pan.  Cut 6 slits, each 1/2-inch deep, in different places on top of the lamb and insert the garlic.  
Pour the olive oil over the lamb, squeeze the lemon over the oil and then sprinkle on the oregano and black pepper.  

Bake the lamb for 25 minutes per pound (rare), 30 minutes per pound (medium) or 35 minutes per pound (well-done).  Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.  When the lamb is finished cooking, remove it from the oven and let it sit for 15 minutes on the rack or transfer it to a cutting board.  This last-minute wait will make it much easier to slice.  

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 47

If buying large quantities of food at a big box store intimidates you, find a friend or group of friends to shop with and divvy up the purchases. Eight cans of tomatoes may be too many for your pantry, but four or even two are manageable.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Question for Mom

(L-R) Cheddar Cheese, Goat Cheese, Colby/Jack Cheese
 If cheeses like Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gouda or Goat have some mold growing on the surface, should I throw the cheese away? --Sheila S.

No.  Just cut off and discard the moldy portion. 

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 48

To cut 8 or 9 cherry tomatoes in half at once, put 1 plastic lid from a take-out container on the counter, sharp edge up. Place the washed cherry tomatoes on the rim next to the sharp edge. Place a second plastic lid on top of the tomatoes, sharp edge down. While pressing firmly on the top lid with one hand, take a sharp knife in the other hand and slice through all the tomatoes at once.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

When Someone Offers to Cook Me Dinner, What Do I Choose?

Blini, which are Russian yeast pancakes.  They remind me of all the traveling Bart and I did while we were living in London some years ago. We met our first blini in Moscow, when we were part of a package tour that included all our meals.  One night we escaped and went to a club filled with prosperous young Russians.  Everyone was eating blini, so we ordered them too.  We’ve been eating them ever since.

By now, the whole family likes them.  Instead of sulks and arguments at the table, everyone is filling their plates with little pancakes and covering them with sour cream, jam, smoked salmon or, on the rare occasion, a very inexpensive caviar.  Sometimes we play some Tchaikovsky to get us in the right mood.

Blini – serves 4 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room” 

2 1/4 cups milk – divided use 
1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast 
2 cups all-purpose flour 
1 1/2 teaspoons salt 
2 tablespoons butter 
3 large eggs 
1 tablespoon sugar 
1 tablespoon canola or corn oil + more as needed 

Toppings (choose 1 or more) 
Sour cream 
Melted butter 
Smoked salmon 
Heat 1 1/4 cups of the milk briefly in a small pot, just to take the chill off.  It should be no more than lukewarm.  Pour the milk into a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it.  Add the flour and salt and stir thoroughly. Don’t worry if there are a few small lumps.  The mixture will be sticky. 
Cover the bowl with a tea towel or plastic wrap and set it aside on the counter for 2 1/2  hours, until the batter has more than doubled. 
Melt the butter in a small pan and set aside. 
Add the remaining 1 cup milk, eggs, sugar and melted butter to the yeast batter and stir vigorously until well combined.  Cover and set aside for 30 minutes. 
Heat the oil in a large frying pan or griddle over medium heat.  After 1 minute, flick a drop of water into the pan.  If it immediately sizzles, it’s time to cook the blini.  If not, wait a few more seconds. 
Small blini are easier to cook and turn over, so using about 1/4 cup batter per pancake, pour 4 or 5 blini into the pan.  Cook for about 2 minutes, or until the bubbles that begin to appear on the surface of the blini begin to break.  Flip the blini over with a metal spatula and cook them for 1 more minute.  The second side will not get as uniformly brown.  
Serve this batch and immediately start on the second batch.  You shouldn’t need to add additional oil to the pan, but if the batter starts to stick, add 1 more tablespoon of oil.  If you want to serve everyone at once, use 2 frying pans or keep the cooked blini hot on a cookie sheet in a 300-degree oven while you cook the rest of the batter. 
Serve with one or more of the suggested toppings.  Leftover blini can be reheated in a toaster.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 47

Before using a cup or spoon to measure anything sticky, including peanut butter or honey, wipe the cup or spoon with oil to prevent sticking.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 46

If you frequently use yeast, look for 2-pound packages of active dry yeast at places like Costco, where it costs around $5. Store the unused portion in the refrigerator.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Hominy: What Is It and How Do I Cook It?

My first encounter with hominy was in a California supermarket.  A store employee was offering samples of Pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and stacked on the table were cans of hominy.  The picture on the label showed large kernels of corn, so large that they could have been on steroids.  They tasted like corn, only more so. 
Hominy on the left, Corn on the right
Is hominy a new vegetable?  No.  Here’s how corn transforms into hominy: dried corn kernels are soaked in an alkaline solution, and that process causes the kernels to swell.  You can buy hominy in ready-to-eat form in cans or you can buy it dried in bags.

I bought a can and added a cup of hominy to homemade vegetable soup.  It was definitely a conversation-starter.

Homemade Vegetable Soup - serves 4 

2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced 
1 large onion, diced 
1 large stalk celery, thinly sliced 
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil 
1 tablespoon bottled crushed garlic 
1/2 teaspoon black pepper 
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes 
1 15-ounce can ready-cut tomatoes 
1 large zucchini, diced 
3 cups water + more if necessary 
2 vegetable bouillon cubes or 2 teaspoons vegetable base 
1 tablespoon lemon juice 
1 cup hominy 
1 cup leftover cooked pasta (optional) 
1 6-ounce bag fresh pre-washed spinach 
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional) 
Put the oil into a large pot and begin heating over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, onion and celery and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables begins to soften. 
Add the garlic, black pepper and red pepper flakes and stir briefly. Add the tomatoes and their juice and the zucchini and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Then add the vegetable broth and lemon juice and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. While the mixture is heating, drain the hominy, rinse it under cold running water and add it to the pot, along with the cooked pasta, if using. 
When the mixture returns to a boil, add the spinach and stir for a few seconds, or until it wilts. If the soup seems too thick for your taste, add 1/2 - 1 cup water and heat until hot. Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese on the side, if desired. Or set aside until ready to eat, and then reheat briefly.
For easy-to-make recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Who Can Resist a Recipe Called Shakshuka?

Not me.  When I recently saw a New York Times recipe for this Middle Eastern dish, which I’d never heard of, I was intrigued.  A few hours later I opened my daily email from The Guardian, a British newspaper, and what should be featured but a big story about Shakshuka.

Popular for breakfast in Israel, Shakshuka may have an exotic name but it doesn’t require exotic ingredients—unless you think tomatoes, onions, garlic, bell peppers, eggs, paprika and chard are exotic.  Okay, chard, which is a leafy green vegetable sold in bunches, is sort of exotic.  Fresh spinach works just as well.  I know because I tried it both ways. 

I can’t remember the last time I made a new recipe twice in two weeks.  Shakshuka is easy, cheap and, most importantly, both Bart and I like it.  We practically licked the plates clean.  It may become my new emergency dinner meal.

Shakshuka – serves 2 (adapted from the New York Times) 

1 tablespoon olive oil 
1 small onion, diced 
1/2 red bell pepper, diced 
1 teaspoon chopped garlic 
3 roma (plum) tomatoes, skin removed and cut in half, or 15-ounce can diced tomatoes  
1 zucchini, diced 
1 teaspoon paprika 
1 sprig fresh rosemary (optional) 
1/2 teaspoon sugar 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1/4 teaspoon thyme 
1/4 teaspoon black pepper 
1 bunch chard, center ribs removed and discarded, or 1/2 pound fresh spinach  
3-4 large eggs 
2 tablespoons chopped parsley 
Hot sauce (optional) 
Hot cooked rice (optional)  
Use a cast iron frying pan or casserole dish that can be heated on the stove top as well as in the oven.  Add the olive oil and begin heating over medium heat.  Add the onion, red bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables start to soften.  
Add the tomatoes, zucchini, paprika, rosemary (if using), sugar, salt, thyme and black pepper and stir to incorporate.  Turn down the heat to low, cover and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. 
Begin preheating the oven to 375 degrees. 
Meanwhile, if you are using chard, half-fill a medium pot with water and begin heating over high heat.  Cut the chard leaves into 4 or 5 pieces.  When the water comes to a boil, add the chard pieces and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until they have shrunk and softened.  Drain and set aside until the tomato mixture is finished cooking. Remove and discard the rosemary (if used). 
If you are using spinach, add the leaves to the tomato mixture after about 10 minutes and cover again.  The spinach will shrink as it cooks. When it’s done, stir the mixture.  
If you are using chard, stir it into the tomato mixture once it has finished cooking. 
Make small indentations in the vegetable mixture and gently break the eggs into them.  Sprinkle with parsley. Place the frying pan or casserole in the oven and bake until the yolks are just set, about 11 minutes. 
Serve immediately and pass the hot sauce.  Serve over rice if desired. 
NOTE: Other Shakshuka recipes suggest adding cubes of cooked potato, eggplant and artichoke hearts.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 45

Make your own pie crust.  It may seem complicated at first, but it’s not.  And it will cost just pennies to prepare.  Click here for an easy recipe. 

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 46

If you’re out of milk and the recipe calls for some, water down 1 tablespoon sour cream or just use water.

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Teaching a Friend to Cook

It’s not often that I have an opportunity to give a cooking lesson.  Bart would rather eat a bowl of leftover plain rice than learn how to stir-fry some chicken to put over it.  But once a year or so my young friend Alayne drops in for the afternoon so I can show her how to make a few new dishes.  Then we eat the end results.

This time she wanted to know how to cook fish and bake a lemon meringue pie.  The Crunchy Baked Fish recipe she chose was easy. Click here for the recipe. (

Not so the Lemon Meringue Pie.  There are several ways to go wrong if you’re not concentrating.  One time I was so busy talking to a girlfriend while making this pie that I forgot to add the sugar to the beaten egg whites.  Only after I’d spooned them on top of the lemon filling and was putting the pie into the oven did I notice the meringue looked funny.  Luckily I was able to scrape the egg whites back into the bowl, beat in the sugar and return the now fluffy meringue to the top of the pie.   

We started by making a pie crust.  Many people would never consider making their own pie crust, but I wanted to show Alayne that it was possible.  With some tips, wax paper and my grandmother’s rolling pin, she did an excellent job. Click here for the recipe.

Next she made the lemon filling—not from a box but with real ingredients.  Again with a few pointers from me, she had no difficulty—even when she had to separate the eggs (yolks into the filling and whites into a dry bowl).

Once the filling was ready, Alayne made the meringue.  

By then the pie crust was baked, and it was time to assemble the pie.  

As you can see, it turned out very well, so well that her boyfriend requested she make another one for his birthday.

Teaching Alayne reminded me how useful it can be to hang out in the kitchen with someone who knows how to cook.   I found myself imparting all kinds of information that I would never think to write in a recipe—information intrinsic to cooks and missing in non-cooks.

Maybe you can learn it while helping your mother or grandmother.  Maybe you can absorb it while watching TV chefs at work.  Maybe you can teach yourself through trial and error.  If you know enough, you’ll enjoy cooking.  And if you don’t, your restaurant and take-out bills will be enormous. 
Lemon Meringue Pie – serves 8 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room”
1 baked pie crust (click here for the recipe) 
3 large eggs 
2 lemons 
1 cup + 6 tablespoons sugar 
3 tablespoons cornstarch 
1/2 cup cold water 
1 cup boiling water 
1 tablespoon butter 
Make the pie crust, bake it and set aside. 
Separate the eggs and let the whites come to room temperature in a large glass or metal bowl (not a plastic bowl). 
Wash and dry the lemons.  Grate the rind against the smallest holes of a grater until the entire yellow surface has been removed. (Click here for Mom Tip.)  Set the lemons aside. 
Combine the grated rind, 1 cup of the sugar, the cornstarch and cold water in a medium pot.  Stir the mixture until the cornstarch is fully dissolved. 
Add the egg yolks to the sugar mixture and mix until smooth.  Add the boiling water, stirring constantly.  Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, continuing to stir constantly.  When the mixture begins to thicken, turn down the heat to medium-low and cook for 2 minutes, continuing to stir.  If it’s not stirred, the mixture will burn on the bottom. 
Remove from the heat, add the butter and let melt, without stirring.  This will take about 5 minutes. 
Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
While the butter melts, cut the lemons in half and squeeze out the juice.  You will have about 1/2 cup liquid.  When the butter has melted, stir the lemon juice into the filling. 
To make the meringue, use an electric mixer, eggbeater or whisk to beat the egg whites just until they form stiff peaks.  Do not overbeat.  Gentle beat in the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, until all the sugar has been absorbed and the peaks have slightly softened.  
Transfer the lemon filling to the baked pie shell.  Gently spoon the meringue on top and spread it with the back of a spoon so that it completely covers the filling and touches the edges of the pie crust. Swirl the meringue with the back of the spoon to make little peaks. 
Bake for 5-8 minutes, or until the peaks begin to brown.  Check frequently to make sure you don’t burn the meringue.  It’s done when it’s partly golden brown and partly white.  Cool on a rack.  Refrigerate leftovers, if there are any.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 44

When a recipe calls for butter, consider substituting olive or canola oil instead. Not only are these oils cheaper but also they’re healthier. Note: this won’t work when you’re baking, unless the recipe calls for the butter to be melted.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Question for Mom

Chocolate Cheesecake
If you open the oven door when a cake is baking, will it hurt the cake? --Emily F.

Possibly it could.  Keep the door shut until you can actually smell the cake—that means it has baked for at least 2/3 of its suggested baking time.  An open door lowers the temperature of the oven and can cause the cake to sink in the middle.  This is one reason most ovens have a light inside and a glass panel on the door.  If you want to see how a cake is coming along, switch on the light and look through the glass window. 

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 45

Crush nuts or make breadcrumbs out of toast by putting the nuts or toast into a self-seal bag and banging it with a rolling pin or side of a can.

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