Monday, October 31, 2016

Barley: What Is it and How Do I Cook It?

Pearl Barley
Barley has been around for more than 10,000 years.  I first tasted it in my grandmother’s Chicken Barley Soup, but I didn’t know what it was until much later.

I really fell for this grain when I lived in London and frequented Cranks, a popular vegetarian restaurant.  It was originally located right on Carnaby Street, well before the street itself became the headquarters of Swinging London.  By the time I discovered it, though, Cranks had moved around the corner to Marshall Street.  I never noticed any high fashion people there having lunch, but I did see lots of unusual salads. Almost all of them featured such grains as cracked wheat, wheat berries or barley.

Most barley sold today is pearl (or pearled) barley.  It is missing both its outer husk and bran.  Pearl barley has a mild taste, mixes well in vegetable salads and is high in fiber.  I also like to serve it as an alternative to rice.  If I have some fresh mushrooms, I’ll slice them, brown them in a bit of butter or olive oil and add them to the cooked barley.

Cooking pearl barley is like cooking rice.  Bring water to a boil, add the rinsed barley and cook, covered, on low heat, for 40-45 minutes, or until the grains are tender yet chewy.  1 cup of barley needs about 3 cups of water to produce a chewy grain and about 4 cups of water to produce a softer grain.

You can also buy hulled barley in some stores and on the Internet.  This barley has had its hull removed, but the bran is intact.  It is darker brown in color and takes about 25% longer to cook.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 78

Mixed Noodles with Pesto Sauce
If you eat a lot of pasta and have leftovers of different varieties—maybe spaghetti, farfalle, rotini and gigli --reheat them together and just add sauce.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Question for Mom

How long do spices last? – Cheryl Z.

When I was growing up, my mother kept spices around for decades.  She hardly used them and didn’t realize they would lose their punch after awhile.  I’ve been guilty of that myself on occasion.  But after reading Penzeys Spices Thanksgiving catalog, I know better.  Here is what this herb and spice company says: 

“The government’s guidelines for freshness dating is four years for whole spices and two years for ground.  Some people say six months is the longest spices should be stored, but most spices are harvested only once a year, so it does not make sense to discard them every six months.  On the other hand, two years is too long to store finely powdered spices….  When in doubt about a spice, just smell it.  If it smells strong and spicy, use it.  If not, toss it.”  

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mom’s Basic Bootcamp: Roast Chicken

This is the first in a series of basic recipes anyone can easily make.  They have existed for centuries because 1) they are simple, and 2) they taste good.  Once you master their preparation, you’re free to improvise…or not.  I usually don’t because I know what I’m getting, and I don’t have to think twice about how to make it.

Sometimes extra steps and unusual ingredients will improve a recipe.  Guests may ooh and aah over them.  Sometimes they won’t.  Possibly, more steps and ingredients will add extra minutes or even hours to the preparation time, not to mention extra cost. 

Occasionally I will go that extra mile because I like to cook, I like variety and I like to eat at home.  But I’ve made enough errors of judgment—or maybe the recipe was just ill-conceived—that I tend to fall back on straight-forward dishes like Roast Chicken.  
Mom’s Basic Bootcamp: Roast Chicken – serves 4 
1 whole chicken (2 1/2 – 4 pounds), thawed if frozen 
1 tablespoon canola or corn oil 
1/2 teaspoon garlic power 
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 
Remove the chicken from the fridge 30-60 minutes before you plan to cook it, allowing it to get closer to room temperature. 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 
Remove the giblets and neck (if included) and set aside to make chicken stock, if desired.  Or discard.  Rinse the chicken inside and out and place on a rack in a roasting pan.  Using a paper towel, wipe the chicken skin with the oil.  This will help the skin to brown.  Sprinkle on the garlic power and oregano. 
When the oven is hot, place the chicken inside and roast for 1 hour.  A 4-pound chicken may need an extra 10-15 minutes.  You can also bake potatoes at the same temperature for 1 hour.  To see if the chicken is done, do these things: 
* Wiggle a leg to see if it moves easily.  It should.  If it doesn’t, roast for another 10 minutes. 
* Tip the chicken so that some of the juices in the middle of the bird run out into the pan,  The juices should be clear, not red.  If still red, roast for another 10 minutes and try again. 
* Stick a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the leg.  It should register at least 170 degrees. If it doesn’t, roast another 10 minutes. 
Remove the chicken from the oven, transfer it to a rimmed carving board or platter and let sit for at least 15 minutes before carving or cutting into pieces.
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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Turning Leftovers into New Dishes

Chinese Fried Rice
I feel guilty if I throw away leftovers—unless they have a suspicious green tinge.  Luckily I don’t mind eating the same thing a few nights in a row.  I feel like I’m on kitchen vacation.

Unfortunately, Bart doesn’t share this view.  If he liked what I made originally, he will drum up some enthusiasm when he sees it on his plate on Day #2.  But there’s no way he will eagerly lap it up on Day #3. 

However, if the extra baked potatoes suddenly appear as Home Fries or part of a taco filling, his enthusiasm returns. A leftover stir-fry that featured tofu, an ingredient he doesn’t like, looks completely different a few days later when strips of stir-fried pork replace the distinctive white squares.

And there’s always the possibility of Chinese Fried Rice when I cook too much plain white rice.  Leftover veggies can be tossed into Fried Rice or Risotto.  Leftover roast chicken can yield a dozen new dishes—from Chicken Salad to Grilled Chicken Sandwiches to Hearty Chicken Soup (complete with leftover rice).

Be clever when repurposing leftovers, and don’t tell anyone what you did.  They’ll think you’re a genius to come up with such a creative meal.
Chinese Fried Rice – serves 2-3 as a side (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen”)  
1 large egg 
1 tablespoon water 
1 tablespoon butter 
1 medium onion 
1 red or orange bell pepper 
1 tablespoon canola, peanut or corn oil 
2 cups cold cooked rice 
2 tablespoons soy sauce 
1/2 cup frozen peas 
1/4 teaspoon black pepper 
Beat the egg with the water.  Melt the butter in a large frying pan or wok over medium-high heat.  Add the egg and cook it, without stirring, for about 1 minute, or until it is firm.  You don’t need to turn it over.  It will look like a flat pancake.  Remove it from the pan, cut it in shreds and set aside. 
Peel the onion and cut it into small pieces.  Wash the bell pepper, cut out and discard the stem and seeds and cut it into small pieces. 
Heat the oil in the same frying pan or wok over medium heat.  Add the onion and bell pepper and stir-fry for about 5 minutes, or until the pieces begin to soften.  
Add the rice, soy sauce, frozen peas and black pepper and stir continuously for about 5 minutes, or until the rice is hot and the peas are cooked.  If the rice starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add another teaspoon more oil.  Add the egg shreds and stir until they are distributed throughout the mixture.  Serve immediately. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 77

Keep a package of dried tortellini is your cupboard.  It makes an excellent, cheap, quick emergency dinner.  Top it with a few tablespoons of pesto sauce, garlic butter sauce or a prepared pasta sauce. Sprinkle on Parmesan cheese, if you have some handy.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 64

Don’t store unripe bananas next to apples. Apples produce a type of gas called ethylene that ripens fruit.  Bananas will turn brown much faster in the presence of ethylene.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Bean Sauce: What Is It and How Do I Cook with It?

Ground Bean Sauce (left) and Bean Sauce (right)
There are various forms of Bean Sauce on the shelves of Asian supermarkets, including Bean Sauce, Black Bean Garlic Sauce, Ground Bean Sauce, Spicy Black Bean Sauce and Chili Bean Sauce.  This condiment is used to add spice and some thickness to Asian dishes.  It is quite salty, so you don’t need very much—1-2 teaspoons should be enough for a dish that serves 4.  Consistency varies, from smooth to chunky. 

Bean Sauce ingredients usually include sugar, salt, wheat flour and fermented soy beans.  Store jars of Bean Sauce in the refrigerator.  They will last for at least a year.

Spicy Stir-Fry Shrimp
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Saturday, October 15, 2016

When Someone Else Is Cooking

On that rare occasion when friends invite us to dinner at their home, I couldn’t be more excited.  First of all, it means I have to cook just one thing since I always like to contribute something.  Often it’s a dessert.  I seldom make desserts when I’m putting dinner on my own table.  It’s a combination of laziness and calories.

Even better, a home-cooked night out introduces me to new recipes.  Most of my friends have either gotten bored with cooking or never learned in the first place.  But there are a few kitchen experimenters out there, and it’s a thrill to sample their goods.

Our friend Ellen introduced me to a fabulous recipe called Hail to the Kale, which she learned in a cooking class.  Imagine the intriguing combo of kale, peanut butter, lime juice, dates and chopped almonds.  The salad is supposed to serve 8, but 4 of us polished it off very quickly.

Recently our friend Dorothy invited us for Grilled Chicken Kebabs, served with a unique way to bake sliced potatoes. I ate myself sick and then begged for the recipes.  Here is her kebab recipe.  The potato recipe will be posted soon.

Dorothy’s Grilled Chicken Kebabs – serves 4-6 
2 pounds boneless chicken breasts or tenders 
1/4 cup olive oil 
2 tablespoons prepared mustard 
2 tablespoons cider vinegar 
1 teaspoon garlic powder 
1 teaspoon dried crushed rosemary 
1/4 teaspoon salt 
3/4 teaspoon onion powder 
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 
1 large red bell pepper 
1/2 pound button mushrooms 
Handful cherry tomatoes
1 large purple onion  
Cut the chicken into 2-inch by 1-inch pieces. 
Combine the olive oil, mustard, vinegar, garlic powder, rosemary, salt, onion powder and black pepper in a large bowl.  Add the chicken pieces and stir until the pieces are well-coated.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  If using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes so they don't burn.
While the chicken is marinating, wash the bell pepper and remove the stem and seeds.  Cut it into 12 pieces, each large enough to thread onto a skewer. 
Wash the mushrooms and tomatoes.  
Cut the onion so that you have about 16 pieces large enough to thread onto a skewer. 
About 30 minutes before you want to eat, thread the meat and vegetables onto the skewers.  Begin heating the grill (low heat) or the broiler.  The rack under the broiler unit should be at least 4 inches from the heat. 

About 10 minutes before you want to eat, place the skewers on the pre-heated grill or under the broiler and grill for about 5 minutes per side, or until the chicken is white in the middle, not pink. Cut into a large chicken piece to make sure it is done.  
Serve immediately.
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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 76

Peanut Butter
If you’re measuring something sticky, wipe the inside of the measuring cup or spoon with a bit of oil. The sticky ingredient will pour right out.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 75

Undercooked Pork
If meat is undercooked, slice it and put it under the broiler and broil for 45-60 seconds per side, continuing to keep an eye on it, until it is done enough for your taste.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

I Can Make That Too: Peanut Butter Cups in Mom’s Kitchen vs. Store-Bought Peanut Butter Cups

My first encounter with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup came in middle school, when we had a fundraiser that involved buying candy wholesale and selling it full price to fellow students.  The Peanut Butter Cups sold out immediately.  Did I really buy them all?

Now, many years later, I’m okay with not getting too many Halloweeners.  That way I can take charge of the leftover Peanut Butter Cups.

However, I am pleased to say that I have figured out how to make my own version, which I call Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chunks.  I think they taste better than anything store-bought.  And they are made with ingredients a basic kitchen is likely to have: peanut butter, chocolate, butter, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, milk and salt.  No odd-sounding chemicals are added to extend the candy’s shelf life.

My version, which uses dark chocolate because I like it better than milk chocolate, is usually gone within 24 hours.  I prefer making Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chunks in a brownie pan because it’s easier than fiddling with cups or muffin tins.  An 8-inch square pan makes as many as 25 small squares or 1 big square. 

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chunks – serves 8-12 (adapted from “Chocolate on the Brain”)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature 
4 squares (4 ounces) semisweet chocolate or 2/3 cup chocolate chips 
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar 
3/4 cup peanut butter 
1/4 cup brown sugar 
2 teaspoons milk + more if needed 
1/4 teaspoon salt 
Line an 8- or 9-inch square pan with aluminum foil or wax paper, making sure that the ends overhang the pan by about 2 inches so that you can easily lift the candy out of the pan later.  Set aside. 
Melt the chocolate in a small, heavy pot over very low heat, stirring constantly.  When the chocolate is almost melted, turn off the heat and set aside .  The heat of the pot will melt the remaining chocolate. 
Put the remaining ingredients in a food processor or large bowl.  Process or beat with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy.  Taste to see if the mixture is too dry and crumbly.  If you want it smoother and creamier, add another teaspoon or more milk and mix until it reaches the consistency you prefer.  It should remain firm enough to pick up without sticking to your fingers. 
Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and press into a flat, even layer with the back of a large spoon.  Spread the melted chocolate in a thin layer over the top of the peanut butter mixture.  Refrigerate uncovered for 15 minutes to let the chocolate begin to harden.  If it gets too hard it will crack into pieces when you try to cut it. 
Carefully lift the ends of the foil or wax paper and remove the candy from the pan.  Cut into 25 squares, or bigger pieces if you prefer.  Store in a closed container or wrapped in foil or plastic.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 74

Baked Tilapia
If you overcook fish, top it with salsa and say that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The salsa will disguise any dryness.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Comfort Food

Blintzes with Pumpkin Butter, Blueberry Jam and Sour Cream
Most children give up their blankies, teddy bears and other childhood comforts as they reach adolescence.  But they often continue to be partial to certain foods that remind them of happy times.  For some, Mashed Potatoes are their comfort food.  Others want Chicken Soup, Fried Chicken, Spaghetti Bolognese, Chocolate, Chips and Salsa, Ice Cream or, as my friend Ilene says, “A cup of hot tea with a really good cookie.”

Blintzes ring my bell.  My maternal grandmother made them, and thinking about them brings me back to a simpler time.  Back then it wasn’t my responsibility to put food on the table or worry about people’s food preferences.  I ate what was put in front of me, whether I liked it or not.  Luckily I was a fan of Blintzes, which, if you’ve never had them, are pancakes stuffed with a cottage cheese/ricotta/egg mixture and served with sour cream or jam.

Life is different today.  Parents often negotiate with their children about food, and dinner can be a battleground.  Luckily for me, Blintzes are popular at my house.  They’re one of the few dishes I make that everyone is happy to see on their plates.
Blintzes – serves 6 (makes about 40 small blintzes) 
4 large eggs 
1 1/3 cups milk or water 
1 cup flour 
2 tablespoons canola oil + more for frying 
Dash salt 
2 cups (16-ounce container) cottage cheese 
1 cup (8 ounces) ricotta 
2 large eggs 
2 tablespoons butter (to top blintzes before baking) 
Sour cream 
First make the pancakes.  Combine the eggs, milk, flour, oil and salt in a blender and blend until the mixture is smooth.  Or combine the ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until the mixture is smooth.  Don’t worry about a few small lumps.  
Add 1 teaspoon canola oil to a heavy frying pan (cast iron or non-stick, if possible) and begin heating over medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, pour 2 tablespoons batter into the frying pan and, holding the pan’s handle, tip the pan at different angles to spread the liquid into a rough 5-inch circle.  It’s okay if the pancakes are different sizes.   
You need to move quickly because the frying pan is hot and the batter will begin cooking.  Fry on one side only.  The pancake will be done when the top is smooth and has a slight shine.  It may take you several tries before you master this technique.  You won’t need to add additional oil to the frying pan unless the pancakes begin to stick.   
Continue making pancakes and stacking them on a plate until you’ve used up the batter.  Set them aside while you make the filling.  

Combine the cottage cheese, ricotta and eggs in a bowl and stir thoroughly.   
Prepare your largest baking pan or 2 smaller pans.  Grease the pan(s) with a bit of canola oil and set aside.  
If you want to bake the Blintzes as soon as they are assembled, begin preheating the oven to 375 degrees.  
Place 1 pancake on a plate and add 1 or 2 tablespoons filling, depending on the size of the pancake.  Fold up the pancake into a package, making sure the filling is completely enclosed.  Place it, seam-side down, in the baking pan.  Repeat this process until you have used up all the pancakes and filling.  

Cut the butter into small pieces and top each Blintz with a piece. If you are not baking them immediately, cover and refrigerate until ready.  Bake covered for about 20-25 minutes (depending on whether they are at room or refrigerated temperature). 
Serve with sour cream or jam.
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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 73

Cold Grated Cheese
Cheese is easier to grate when it’s cold, so grate it straight from the fridge. If it’s been sitting out for a while, chill it in the freezer for 20 minutes. That way the grated slivers won’t stick together.

Warm Grated Cheese
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