Friday, September 30, 2016

Question for Mom

Ricotta (left) and Cottage Cheese (right)
When should I use ricotta instead of cottage cheese? –Tom P.

I bought my first tub of ricotta not long ago after someone criticized me for using cottage cheese in a lasagna recipe.  I have to confess that although I’d heard friends speak lovingly of ricotta, I was perfectly happy with cottage cheese.  I’d eaten it since I was a kid and was used to its taste.

Finally I decided to see what all the fuss was about.  Ricotta is creamier than cottage cheese.  In fact, it reminded me of cream cheese, although a little less dense.  In the lasagna the taste of ricotta was pretty much indistinguishable from cottage cheese, although it looked better. 

The family’s picky eater, who normally gobbles down lasagna, ate the noodles but pushed the ricotta around on his plate.  On the other hand, the family’s junior eating machine ate three portions.  Several of the adults said they liked my new version of lasagna better than the old.  Others said they preferred the cottage cheese version. 

End result: Ricotta, which is somewhat more expensive than cottage cheese, may make some dishes better, but lasagna isn’t necessarily one of them.  I plan to experiment with the leftover ricotta in a different dish and will report back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 63

If you have leftover raw vegetables that you served with a dip, slice them up and toss into a stir-fry. Or cook them in a small amount of water and serve as a side dish. Those packages of “baby” carrots that accumulate in the fridge can be put to good use here.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 72

Bake a fruit pie on a rimmed baking sheet.  That way if the juices overflow, they won’t get on the floor of the oven.

Apple Streusel Pie is the perfect reason to test this tip.  The produce manager at my local grocery store recommended Granny Smith apples for pie baking, and he was right.  They did not disintegrate into mush, and they provided a nice tart flavor.

Granny Smith Apples
The best thing about this pie, besides its taste, is that it needs just a bottom crust.

Apple Streusel Pie – serves 8-10 
1 unbaked pie crust (click here for recipe) 
6 large Granny Smith apples 
3/4 cup granulated sugar 
3 tablespoons flour 
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg  
Streusel Topping 
1/2 cup flour 
1/2 cup brown sugar 
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 
Make the pie crust, put it in a pie pan (deep dish if you have one) and set aside. 
Peel, core and slice the apples.  This takes more time than you would think and is the hardest part of making this pie.  Put the slices in a very large bowl. 

Begin preheating the oven to 375 degrees. 
Combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl.  Stir the mixture thoroughly and pour over the top of the apples.  Toss the apples gently with 2 large spoons so that the mixture covers as much of the apples’ surfaces as possible.  Transfer the apples and any leftover mixture into the pie crust. 
Make the streusel topping.  Combine the flour, sugar and butter in the bowl you just emptied. Using a pastry cutter or 2 knives, cut the butter into tiny pieces and mix into the flour and sugar.  Sprinkle this mixture over the apples. 

Place the pie pan on a rimmed baking sheet or broiling pan (to catch juices that may overflow the pie pan) and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the streusel begins to brown.  Remove from the oven and let cool before serving.
           See all my Cooking Tips!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

What Makes a Sandwich?

Cuban Sandwich
Did you ever hear of a Spaghetti Sandwich?  How about a Chip Sandwich (aka Chip Butty or French Fry Sandwich)?  These used to be food staples on British film sets—served to starving actors and crew members, often during shoots in the middle of the night. 

Then there’s the Sugar Sandwich, which I banned in my kitchen after looking at my daughter’s friend’s teeth.  Sugar sandwiches (white bread and butter, covered with a sizable amount of white sugar, topped with another layer of bread and butter) had eroded them into pegs.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Tuna Salad Sandwiches—the staples of my youth—seem a little tiresome these days.  But I don’t know if I’m ready to get out the bread and build a sandwich out of crushed potato chips, Oreo cookies, rice, maple syrup or potato salad--all items people have mentioned that they like in sandwiches.  The worst idea, though, is the peanut butter/jelly/mustard combo.

On a recent trip to Boston, of all places, I discovered the Cuban Sandwich and fell in love.  It reminded me a little of a Reuben Sandwich (corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye bread, serve hot).

Cuban Sandwiches are easy to make, although they require some slices of roast pork—not an ingredient most people keep on hand.  Possibly harder to find is Cuban bread, which resembles a French baguette but is soft in the middle.  I used soft rolls instead.  

My version of this sandwich is not exactly like the real thing, but it’s good in its own way.
Cuban Sandwich – makes 3 
3 tablespoons mustard 
1/2 pound roasted pork tenderloin, cut in 1/4-slices (see recipe here 
1/4 pound thinly sliced deli ham or turkey 
1 cup grated Gouda cheese or 3 large slices Swiss cheese 
2 dill pickles, sliced thinly 
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil 
Slice the buns through the middle and spread mustard thickly onto the cut sides.  If you have a loaf of Cuban bread, cut it into thirds and then slice each third through the middle and add the mustard. 
Place the pork slices, deli ham or turkey, cheese and pickle slices equally on the bottom half of the 3 buns and cover with the top halves. 

If you have a panini press, use it to grill the sandwiches.  Otherwise, add the butter or olive oil to a large frying pan and begin heating over medium high heat.  Spread the melted butter or olive oil around and place the 3 sandwiches in the pan.  
Cover the pan with a lid and, while pressing the lid down to flatten the sandwiches, cook for about 3 minutes, or until the bottom of the sandwiches have browned.  Turn the sandwiches over and cook for another 3 minutes. 
Remove from the heat, cut in half and serve immediately.

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

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

There are two schools of thought about this vegetable: love and hate.  Both exist within my immediate family.  I’m one of the lovers, while my cookbook collaborator, Kevin, is a hater.  Thus we have no okra recipes in our four cookbooks.

The haters dislike okra because it oozes a slimy liquid when cut, and they can’t move beyond that—even if the okra pieces are in a stew or soup and the liquid has disappeared.

The lovers like the distinctive taste.  Because okra is so little known to most people, it’s almost like discovering a new vegetable.  When you’re tired of broccoli, peas, zucchini, Brussels sprouts and other cooked green veggies, give okra a chance.  If you can’t find it fresh in the vegetable department, you can buy it frozen, either cut up or whole.  If buying fresh, choose the smallest okra possible.

In the U.S., gumbo is one of the most popular uses for okra, but I had my first bite of okra at an Indian restaurant buffet.  I was intrigued and quickly decided that cumin, coriander, turmeric and cayenne pepper are good companions.  Here’s an Indian recipe I like from Madhur Jaffrey.

Sweet and Sour Okra
Sweet and Sour Okra – serves 4-6 (adapted from “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery”
1 pound fresh okra 
1 tablespoon chopped garlic 
2 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 teaspoon ground coriander 
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric 
1/8 or 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on how spicy you like your food) 
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil 
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds 
1/2 cup water + more if needed 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon sugar 
1 tablespoon lemon juice 
Rinse the okra and cut off and discard the two ends.  Slice the okra into 1/2-pieces. 

Uncooked Okra
Combine the garlic, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and pepper flakes in a small bowl and set aside. 
Put the oil in a frying pan and begin heating over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, add the whole cumin seeds.  As soon as they begin to sizzle, which should be within a few seconds, add the garlic/spice mixture. Cook, stirring, for several minutes. 
Add the okra, water, salt, sugar and lemon juice, stir and bring to a boil.  Turn down the heat to low and cook, covered for about 10 minutes, or until the okra is easily pierced with a sharp knife.  Add 1-2 tablespoons water if the mixture seems too dry. 
Serve immediately or remove from the heat and reheat when needed.  
           For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 71

Test to see if the oil in a frying pan is hot enough by flicking a drop of water into the heated oil. The water should sizzle. If it doesn’t, heat for another 30 seconds and try again.

See all my Cooking Tips!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Are Cooks Born or Trained?

Cheddar Potato Soup
How did you get started in the kitchen?  Curiosity?  Necessity?  A cooking class?

For me, it was necessity.  A newly minted college graduate sharing a one-bedroom apartment in New York, I had a low-paying job and a large appetite.  To keep from going hungry, I had to start cooking.  But I didn’t know how to make anything.

Luckily a colleague invited me to dinner at her apartment.  A few years older and seasoned in the kitchen, she showed me how to whip up a pot of Spaghetti with Garlic Sauce.  Although I had never eaten this dish before, it immediately became a weekly, if not daily, dinner.

The lesson most people would take away from this experience would be to take a cooking class.  Obviously by watching someone else make a recipe, I could follow their lead and have success.  After all, I had already done it once. 

Ornery as I am, though, I decided to skip the human contact aspect of the equation.  I would simply open a cookbook, pick a recipe and follow the directions as best I could.  For some reason I trusted that any recipe that was printed in a book would work.  Soon enough I realized that’s not true, but I didn’t change my approach.  I just became more careful about what cookbooks I bought.

Over the years I taught myself to cook.  Ultimately that’s how my first cookbook,  "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!" came about.  I had tried to teach my co-author son Kevin how to cook, but all he wanted to master was the Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.  I showed him how, and that was it for personal cooking lessons.  He finally learned, like I did, by trying out recipes.  But in his case there was the incentive of a publisher’s paycheck at the other end.

Here is one of his favorite recipes from that first cookbook. 
Cheddar Potato Soup – serves 2 as a meal, 3 as a soup (adapted from  "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!") 
1 tablespoon butter 
1 medium onion, thinly sliced 
1 tablespoon flour 
1 14-ounce can chicken, beef or vegetable broth plus 1 can water or 1 1/2 tablespoons
     chicken, beef or vegetable broth
 concentrate plus 3 1/2 cups water  
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes 
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese 
Dash black pepper 
Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the slices begin to soften.  Add the flour and stir constantly until it is fully absorbed.  Add the broth and water and turn up the heat to high. 
When the soup comes to a boil, add the potato cubes.  When the mixture returns to a boil, cover and turn down the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft enough to be mashed. 
Turn off the heat and, using the back of a large spoon, mash some of the potatoes into the broth.  The rest can remain in cubes to vary the soup’s texture. 
With the heat still off, add the Cheddar cheese and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.  Season with black pepper and serve.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sesame Oil: What Is It and How Do I Cook with It?

Sesame oil is sold in small bottles and is used mainly for flavoring.  Be careful if you use it for frying because it can burn easily. 

The oil is pressed from roasted sesame seeds and is usually a golden color, although I have seen a brown version.  It’s popular in Asian cooking.  Add a few drops of sesame oil just before you serve a stir-fry or tofu dish, and you will be surprised how much it improves the taste with its unique nutty flavor.

Super-Easy Fried Tofu – serves 2-3 as a main dish 
16 ounces (1 pound) extra-firm tofu 
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil 
1 tablespoon chopped garlic 
1 cup water 
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar 
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce (more about hoisin sauce)
2 tablespoons soy sauce 
1 teaspoon sugar 
1 teaspoon sesame oil 
Cooked rice (optional) 
Optional: you could stir-fry some onions, bell peppers, snow peas and/or pieces of asparagus and add to the tofu just before serving. 
Drain the tofu and cut it into 1x2-inch pieces.  Set the pieces on a paper-towel lined plate for about 10 minutes to extract extra moisture. 
Add the oil to a large frying pan or wok and turn the heat to medium-high.  When the oil is hot, gently place the tofu pieces into the oil and fry for about 10 minutes, carefully turning the pieces over, until the tofu begins to brown in spots.  
Add the garlic and stir gently for 20 seconds.  Then add the water, rice wine vinegar, hoisin sauce, soy sauce and sugar.  Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to medium.  Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the tofu has absorbed at least half of the liquid.  Add the sesame oil and cook for another minute.  Serve immediately, or set aside and reheat when needed.
          For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 62

Use eggs as your main protein source for dinner once a week. They will definitely reduce your food bill.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Friday, September 9, 2016

Missing an Ingredient?

Easy Biscuits
Sometimes I have a blind spot when I’m reading a recipe.  The list of ingredients is right in front of me, and yet I fail to see that I need 2 eggs and only realize when I’m in the middle of making the recipe that I don’t have any.

Should I drive to the grocery store?  Ask my neighbor if she has any spare?  Throw away what I’ve made so far?  Keep cooking and leave the eggs out?  Find an egg substitute?

Depending on which ingredient is missing, any of the above could be the right option.  So how to do know which to pick

In most cases if the missing ingredient is in the name of the dish, you should probably make every effort to acquire it.  On the other hand, if you’re making something called Cinnamon Apple Coffee Cake, you could skip the cinnamon and make Apple Coffee Cake.  But if you’re out of apples, Cinnamon Coffee Cake, while sounding tasty, might not come out well.  Possibly you could substitute pears or bananas.

This is both the fun and terror of cooking.  Everybody has a disaster now and then, but here are a few guidelines that have worked for me.

Don’t leave out such ingredients as:

Eggs—unless you’re using them to coat chicken or fish before adding breadcrumbs.  In that case you could substitute mayonnaise or oil as the pre-breadcrumb coating.

Flour—if the recipe calls for lots of flour, go get some.  But if you need just a teaspoon or tablespoon of flour for thickening a soup or sauce, you can substitute cornstarch.

Salt—if it’s strictly a seasoning, you could leave it out, although you can substitute 1/2 – 1 teaspoon soy sauce, which will provide a salty flavor.  However, if the salt is going into bread or pizza dough or a cake or cookie recipe, get some salt. I once forgot to add it when making bread, and the bread tasted terrible.

Milk—unless you’re making a traditional milkshake, milk is not an essential ingredient.  But you need to have a substitute.  The same amount of water works well in almost every instance.  If you happen to have some cream, sour cream or yogurt, add a tablespoon to the amount of water you’re substituting and stir it around to get a milky look.

Here’s a recipe that requires 3 of these 4 ingredients.           
Easy Biscuits – makes 12 (adapted from “Faster! I’m Starving!”) 
1 cup flour 
1/2 cup milk 
2 tablespoons mayonnaise 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. 
Put the flour, milk, mayonnaise, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl and mix well. The mixture will be sticky. 
Scoop out 1 heaping teaspoon of dough and drop it onto the foil on the baking sheet. Repeat until all the dough is used up. There should be 12 biscuits. 
Bake for 15 minutes, or until the tops of the biscuits have begun to brown. Remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, pull the biscuits from the foil and serve. 
NOTE: The baking time and temperature can be adjusted to coordinate with other parts of the dinner you may be baking. For instance, you can bake these biscuits at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or 400 degrees for about 18 minutes.
          For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Question for Mom

How much juice is in one lemon?  Alice F.

It depends on the size of the lemon and how thick the peel is.  The average thin-skinned lemon, which is about 2 ½ inches long, should yield about 2 ½ tablespoons juice.  A bigger lemon with a very thick peel might yield just 1 tablespoon juice.  Thin-skinned lemons are a better value.

Here are some other useful measuring tidbits:

4 oz. cheddar cheese = 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese 

1 large apple = 1 cup sliced apples

12 oz. (1 package) chocolate chips = 2 cups chocolate chips

See all Questions for Mom

Monday, September 5, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 61

When chicken tenders first came on the market, they were cheaper than boneless chicken breasts. Now they’re more expensive, so why buy them? Buy boneless chicken breasts instead and cut them into strips.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Friday, September 2, 2016

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

You’ve probably seen kale at the salad bar—not necessarily in the salads but underneath the salads.  It’s practically indestructible and also cheap, with thick stems and strong, curly leaves. 

Kale is often a deep green, but it can also have some purple or blue streaks.  It’s sold in bunches in the fresh vegetable sections of most stores, and it holds up well in the fridge.  Avoid bunches that look dried out or have yellowish leaves.

For many years kale was an overlooked salad green, but recently it has become trendy.  I’m not a big fan of fresh kale in salads, unless it’s chopped very fine.  But I do like it in soups.  A little boiling softens kale right up, and unlike fresh spinach it does not disintegrate into almost nothing.  A few stalks, with their impressive stems removed and discarded and the leaves cut into 1-inch slices, make a good addition to this Meatball Soup recipe.

Meatball Soup
Meatball Soup – serves 4 as a main dish 
24 cooked turkey meatballs (see recipe here)   
6 ounces uncooked medium egg noodles (about 1 1/2 cups) 
1 bundle fresh kale 
1 14-ounce can chicken broth plus 1 can water or 1 1/2 tablespoons chicken broth
            concentrate plus 3 cups water 
1 tablespoon soy sauce 
1 teaspoon chopped garlic 
1 teaspoon fresh chopped ginger or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 
4 scallions, white and green parts cleaned and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces 
Prepare the meatballs and set aside. 
Cook the noodles in boiling water for 10 minutes (or however long the package says).  Lift them from the water with a slotted spoon, keeping the water boiling, and put them in a bowl. 
While the noodles are cooking, wash the kale and remove and discard as much of the thick central stems as possible.  Chop the leaves into thin strips (no more then 1/2-inch wide).  Add them to the boiling water.  Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the leaves soften and shrink somewhat.  Drain the kale and set aside. 
Combine the chicken broth, water, soy sauce, garlic and ginger in a large pot and begin heating over medium high heat.  When the mixture comes to a boil, add the meatballs, noodles, kale and scallions and cook for 5 minutes.  Serve immediately.
           For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"