Monday, August 21, 2017

Balsamic Vinegar: What Is It and How Do I Cook With It?

Balsamic vinegar became popular in the U.S. about 40 years ago.  It is a dark, strongly flavored vinegar made in Italy and aged for as little as three years and as much as 25 years before being bottled.  No wonder some bottles can sell for at least $1,000. 

A few drops of this liquid added to a dish at the end of cooking can make a big difference in flavor. Do read the label.  If you're paying a lot of money for a bottle, it should include the word “Modena,” which is a town in Italy, or the words “the Emilio region.”

Cheaper versions are also available and can add flavor to salad dressings, sauces, meat and even strawberries.

When you pour balsamic vinegar, it looks like thick soy sauce. You may have had it in restaurants mixed with olive oil and used as a dipping sauce for bread.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Why a Recipe Doesn’t Always Come Out the Same and Does It Matter?

Wholegrain Bread
Some dishes in my repertoire are decades old.  I make them at least monthly—Spaghetti with Clam Sauce, Asian Turkey Burgers and Blueberry Jam are good examples.  At least one—Wholegrain Bread—I make weekly.

And yet, even though the recipes are burned into my brain, they often turn out slightly differently.  The biggest botch, involving Spaghetti with Clam Sauce, came about when Bart once made it and forgot to add the clams.  But he was able to sprinkle the chopped clams on top, so all ended well.

Leaving out an ingredient can vastly alter a dish, or it can make no difference at all.  I once forgot the salt when making Wholegrain Bread, and it was practically inedible.  But when I left the salt out of Chocolate Chip Cake, nobody noticed.

If you normally use 1 tablespoon fresh ginger in a recipe but substitute 1 tablespoon ground ginger, your final product will be extremely ginger-y.  Better to substitute 1 teaspoon ground spice for 1 tablespoon fresh spice.

If you can’t figure out why that old standard tastes different, consider these possibilities:

* Maybe you’re using a different brand of canned goods or pasta.

* Maybe you bought your meat or fish from a different grocery store.

* Maybe it was frozen instead of fresh or vice versa. 

* Maybe the weather was overly humid, and ingredients like flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt absorbed some moisture.  That extra liquid can affect the consistency and flavor.

* Maybe you used a different recipe.

There are lots of maybe’s.  But the biggest ‘maybe’ could be maybe it doesn’t matter.  And if it does, maybe you’ll remember not to do it next time.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Question for Mom

Will a candy thermometer also work as a meat thermometer?  -- Ginger B.

No.  A candy thermometer can clip to the side of a pot or a deep-fat fryer and measure the temperature of hot oil or melted sugar used in making candy such as fudge.  A candy thermometer may go as high as 400 degrees. A meat thermometer, which registers the internal temperature of roasting meat, generally goes only as high as 180 degrees.  Some candy thermometers have a spike at one end, making you think maybe they would work on meat, but they aren’t meant to determine whether the chicken is fully cooked.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Use at Least 1 Exotic Ingredient in Every Recipe

Thai Chicken Pizza
Here’s an idea to make dinnertime a little jazzier.  Add at least one exotic ingredient to whatever you’re cooking.  It could be a new spice you want to try or an unusual vegetable.  Maybe substitute peanut oil for canola oil. That will definitely change the favor of the dish.

If you don’t like the end result, add another exotic ingredient to counteract the first one.  Or add water or broth and turn the dish into a soup.  Throw in a handful of noodles or possibly a drained can of corn or beans.

Maybe this approach is how chocolate became a key ingredient in Mole.  Most people would never think of adding unsweetened chocolate to a main dish, but Chicken Mole has become a classic in many sophisticated Mexican restaurants.

In the 1950s fresh garlic was probably considered exotic in a lot of households.  Peanut butter was for sandwiches or cookies, not part of a pizza topping--as in California Pizza Kitchen’s Thai Chicken Pizza.  That dish also calls for hoisin sauce, a condiment common in Thai cooking but most unusual in an American recipe.  It's most welcome in Thai Chicken Pizza.  Hold the chicken if you want a vegetarian version.

Thai Chicken Pizza – inspired by California Pizza Kitchen – serves 3-4  

Spicy Peanut Sauce:

1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons ginger
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

Combine all these ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until fully mixed.  Set aside.


1 tablespoon olive oil
10 ounces boneless chicken, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Begin heating olive oil in a medium pan.  Add chicken and stir-fry for about 5-6 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and there is no sign of pink when you cut 1 piece in half.  Coat the chicken with 1/4 cup Peanut Sauce.  Set aside in fridge until needed.

Pizza Topping:

1 1/2 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese
4 scallions, green and white parts thinly sliced
1/4 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Pizza dough for 2 12-inch pizzas 
1/2 cup cornmeal

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Sprinkle a pizza paddle with cornmeal, and stretch out 1 pizza round and lay it on the cornmeal.  Spread the pizza with half the remaining peanut sauce.  Cover with 3/4 cup Mozzarella, half the chicken and half the carrots.

Unbaked Thai Chicken Pizza
Slide the pizza off the paddle onto the pizza stone and bake for about 8 minutes, or until the pizza crust is firm and has begun to brown on the edges.  Remove from the oven, sprinkle on half the cilantro and serve.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 87

Don’t want to pay a lot for unsweetened baking chocolate?  Use unsweetened cocoa instead, which is much cheaper. Three tablespoons unsweetened cocoa plus 1 tablespoon butter equal 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate.  

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Question for Mom

How can I prevent a skin forming on top of my chocolate pudding? – Karen G. 

Very easily.  Once you have made the pudding and transferred it to a large bowl or individual cups, lay plastic wrap over the entire surface of the pudding and smooth it out so there are no  bubbles.  Refrigerate until needed.  Just before serving, remove the plastic. 

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 86

If your cherry tomatoes taste sour, don’t throw them out.  Sauté them in a few tablespoons honey for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Serve as a side dish or bake them, as I did, as part of a tomato pie.

Cherry Tomato Pie – serves 6 as a side dish

1 pre-baked pie crust
2 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 -3 cups cherry tomatoes, washed and dried but left whole
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 8-ounce brick cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Begin preheating the oven to 400 degrees (375 degrees if using a glass pie pan).

Put the honey in a medium frying pan and begin heating over medium heat.  Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously until some of them begin to shrivel.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Spread the mustard onto the bottom of the pie crust and then cover with thin slices of cream cheese.  Sprinkle with salt and black pepper.  Transfer the partly cooked tomatoes and any juices on top of the cream cheese so that the cream cheese is totally covered.   Bake for about 20 minutes, or until some of the tomatoes begin to collapse. 

Serve immediately or let cool and serve at room temperature.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Ants May Have Saved Me

Never do I look forward to an ant attack in the kitchen, but this summer I found an upside: no death by botulism. 

By the time I noticed the first ant on the counter, the invasion was well underway.  The dishwasher seemed to be their new home, but soon enough I realized they had discovered my pantry—actually a tall, 5-shelved closet filled with boxes of dry pasta, sugar, lentils, spices and all kinds of bottled and canned goods.  “Thank goodness for cans,” I thought.  Ants may be persistent, but they can’t eat metal.

To impede the ants, I decided to clean out the pantry.  That’s when I discovered some very old cans of food.  They were years past their “use by” date.

How did that happen? 

I realized it was because we were eating healthier.  Now I made Russian Vegetable Soup with fresh beets, not canned beets.  We preferred fresh green beans over the pre-cooked version.  The large can of clams was just too large, so I kept saving it for the right occasion, which never came.  As for the can of sweetened condensed milk—I have no idea why I bought it 10 years ago. 

I checked the USDA site for information about botulism poisoning from old cans and discovered that my fears were mostly unfounded.  I probably could have eaten their contents without adverse effects because they weren’t bulging or leaking.  But I didn’t want to eat them.  I would rather use my pantry space for food I actually look forward to eating. 

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Question for Mom

My food often tastes bland even though I added the spices called for in the recipes.  What am I doing wrong? –Eddie G.

The most likely culprit is the age of your spices.  If they've been hanging around in your kitchen for more than a year, they may have lost their punch.  Try doubling the amount the recipe calls for.  If that doesn’t work, buy replacements.

On the other hand, the recipe you’re using may have been written by someone who doesn’t like spicy food.  That’s why the recipe calls for just a tiny amount of spice.  Try doubling or even tripling the amount of spice—although do be cautious if it’s cayenne pepper.  Or you can add more spice to a small portion and taste-test it.

Unless you use a lot of a particular spice, don’t buy the large economy size jar because it will lose its taste before you use it up.

As a last resort: find recipes spiced to your liking and use that cook’s recipes.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

How Far Can You Stray From a Classic Recipe?

I’ve been aware of Gado Gado, an Indonesian salad, for years.  I’ve admired pictures of it and even considered making it at one point.  But I never did because 1) it looked like too much work, and 2) it didn’t appear filling enough to be a main course.

Sunset Magazine’s July issue carried a recipe for this salad, and I finally decided to try it.  ‘Too much work’ and ‘not filling enough’ still seemed valid concerns, so I decided to add a few of my own touches and subtract one of theirs--the bean sprouts, because there were enough cold vegetables already on the platter. 

To make this salad more substantial, I added a bowl of cooked rice, 3 cups of shredded chicken, a bowl of sliced mangoes and a large garlic bread.  And because I was feeding 10 people, I increased the number of hard-boiled eggs.  I also doubled the amount of peanut sauce.  I confess I reduced the spiciness because of some tender young palates.

Maybe I ruined the dish for die-hard Gado Gado fans, but my family liked it.  There was something for everyone, even the pickiest of vegetarians.

This brings me back to my original question: does changing a classic recipe matter?  Yes, in some cases it does, although Gado Gado may not be one of them.

Julia Child’s Coq au Vin (Chicken in Wine Sauce) and Beef Bourguignon (Beef in Red Wine) recipes are two classic dishes I try to follow exactly.  I’ve experimented with shortcuts and substitute ingredients, and the dishes have suffered.  My compromise is not making them very often.  But when I do make them, I follow the recipes exactly.  I never regret it, even if I’m exhausted afterwards.

Pick a few favorite classic recipes and follow them exactly.  Then experiment with everything else. 
Gado Gado – serves 10 – adapted from Sunset Magazine, July 2017 issue 
1 package (14 ounces) extra-firm tofu
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 tablespoon canola or peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon salt 
10 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half
3 cups cooked shredded chicken
3 cups thinly shredded cabbage
2 cups fresh green beans, cooked and cut in half
2 Persian cucumbers or 1/2 English cucumber, thinly sliced
1 bunch radishes, cleaned and quartered
2 cups cooked rice 
5 honey mangoes, peeled and sliced 
1 loaf French bread, heated 
Peanut Sauce 
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup lime or lemon juice
1/2 cup hot water + more if needed
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon minced garlic 
Cut the tofu into 1-inch square pieces and let sit on several layers of paper towels for 15 minutes.  Pat dry and transfer to a medium bowl.  Sprinkle with cornstarch, curry powder and salt and stir gently. 
Add the oil to a large frying pan and begin heating over medium-high heat.  Gently place the tofu squares into the hot oil and cook for about 10 minutes, or until it has browned on all sides.  Transfer the squares to one corner of a large platter. 
Arrange the hard-boiled eggs, chicken, cabbage, green beans, cucumber and radishes to other areas of the platter. 
Transfer the rice, sliced mangoes and slices of garlic bread to bowls. 
Make the peanut sauce: Combine the peanut butter, lime or lemon juice, hot water, soy sauce, brown sugar and garlic in a container large enough to stir thoroughly without spilling.  If the sauce seems too thick, add more hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time.  Transfer some to a serving dish, set on the platter and refill as needed. 
Place the platter and bowls on the table with serving tongs and spoons and let people help themselves.
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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 118

If you have a small bit of leftover rice, need more and don’t want to go to the trouble of waiting for more rice to cook, try this:  add 1/2 cup dried instant couscous and 1/2 cup boiling water to a bowl containing the leftover rice.  Cover and let sit for 5 minutes, or until the couscous plumps up.  You will have an unusual-looking but basic side dish.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Question for Mom

Why do recipes say that roasted meat and poultry should rest for at least 15 minutes when they come out of the oven? - Angie P.

Resting time allows the juices to settle back into the cooked meat or poultry and also makes carving easier.
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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Rescuing Food Disasters

Meatball Sandwiches
Unfortunately you can’t just call the Fire Department when you have a food disaster.  Instead you need to call on your ingenuity.  Hunger is a great motivator.  Just ask my brother, who filed this report.

“I was preparing my dinner, having gotten out the three left-over meatballs (from the previous night's ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ dinner), the spaghetti sauce, the mozzarella cheese and the last bun that was in the house.  I had just finished toasting the bun and was in the process of moving it from the toaster-oven to a pan.  There I intended to add the meatballs, sauce and cheese before reinserting the whole concoction into the toaster-oven for a few minutes, at the "top brown" setting, so as to melt the cheese and warm everything up. 

“But, rather than taking the pan to the toasted roll, I hastily tried to move the roll to the pan on the other side of the sink.  That's when "the disaster" occurred.  The burning-hot roll fell out of my hand and into the sink, landing in a container full of water.  I was, not surprisingly, very upset.  This was the only roll available for making my all-day-long-looked-forward-to meatball sandwich. 

“My first emergency plan, namely, to dry out the soaked roll by baking it for a while, had to be scrapped when I noticed that the container soaking in the sink was filled with very soapy water.  Thus, if I waited an hour for the roll to dry out I would have removed the water from it but, alas, not the soap, and that was not a flavor which would have complemented my savory collation in the slightest.  Hence, I needed to get inventive.  So I mashed up the meatballs, pretty much returning them to their original ground-beef consistency, liberally spread the tomato sauce over the meat, placed several slices of mozzarella cheese on top and broiled everything for several minutes.  The result: a very enjoyable meal which I called ‘Pasta-less Lasagna!’"  

That’s a lot better than my disaster yesterday with black beans.  I filled up a pot with water, added 1 cup dried black beans, put the gas flame on low and set the timer for 2 hours.  I left the kitchen, didn’t hear the timer ring and returned 3 hours later to a pot of charred black beans.  That was a 10 out of 10 disaster, maybe even an 11 out of 10 because I had to throw the beans and the pot away.  I must remember to take the timer with me next time I leave something cooking.

Sometimes cooking disasters can have a positive result in the future.  I discovered the value of lining a layer cake pan with wax paper or parchment paper when I couldn’t extract a layer from the pan without breaking it. Now I know better. 

I learned from experience that baby octopus takes less than 5 minutes to cook, unless you like eating rubber bands.

Grilled Baby Octopus
The good thing about disasters is that you discover something new.  The bad thing is that the possibilities for disasters are never-ending.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 85

If you have leftover French bread that you have already sliced, freeze it until you need garlic bread.  Then spread the pieces on a baking tray covered with a silicon mat or foil.  Cover each with a little olive oil, oregano, salad seasoning and fresh garlic.  Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, or until the slices are slightly crispy. and serve.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Mom’s Basic Bootcamp: Pizza Dough

I have been making pizza for so many years that I could probably create the dough in my sleep.  In fact, I’ve written about pizza before because I love it so much.

Making pizza dough is a simple procedure, although there are many ways for something to go wrong.  I’ve stumbled through all of them.

The worst was forgetting to add salt.  You wouldn’t think a little bit of salt would make a difference, but you could really taste its absence.  My second worst mistake was adding too much salt, which made the crust nearly inedible.

What else can go wrong?  You can over-bake it and have crunchy pizza.  Or you can under-bake it and have floppy pizza, although that’s easily corrected by 1-2 more minutes in the oven.

If you don’t add enough flour, when the dough rises it will be too sticky and won’t stretch out properly.  You can fix that by kneading in a few tablespoons flour to counteract the stickiness.  You can also rub your hands with olive oil or water before you start stretching the dough so it won’t stick to you.

If you add too much flour, the dough will be too dry and will crumble when you’re trying to stretch it.  To moisten the dough, knead in 1 tablespoon water or more as needed.  You want the dough to be smooth but not sticky.

Speaking of stretching, I have never managed to throw the dough up in the air and spin it like pizza maestros do.  But it’s possible to stretch the dough by gently pulling it into a 10-or-12-inch sort of round shape.

In case you’ve made too much dough, put the extra in a greased freezer bag and freeze it until needed.  Let it defrost in the fridge overnight.  About 3 hours before you want to eat the pizza, remove the dough from the fridge, transfer it to a greased bowl, cover with a tea towel and let rise for about 2 hours.  Then treat it like regular dough.
Mom’s Basic Pizza Dough – makes 3 10-or-12-inch pizzas  
1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast (scant means just a little less) or 1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup room temperature tap water + more if needed
1 teaspoon brown sugar or honey
3 tablespoons olive oil + more for greasing bowl
3 cups flour + more if needed
1 teaspoon salt  
Pizza sauce
Toppings – Mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, cooked sausage, sliced mushrooms, sliced tomatoes or whole cherry tomatoes, anything else you like on pizza 
Put the yeast in a food processor or electric mixer with dough hook and pour in a few tablespoons of water.  If you add all the water to a food processor bowl at this stage, it might leak.  Add the brown sugar or honey and let sit for several minutes.  Then add the olive oil, flour and salt.  
Begin processing, adding the rest of the water, and process or beat until the contents form a rough ball.  If the dough is crumbly and won’t hold together, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it forms a ball that is smooth and not too sticky.  If the ball is too sticky, add more flour, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough becomes smooth. 
Add a teaspoon olive oil to a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl.  Turn the dough over once so that the top of the dough is covered with oil.  Cover with a tea towel and set on a counter to rise for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, until it has doubled in size. 
Once the dough has risen, it’s time to make the pizza.  Remove the top rack from the oven and place the bottom rack on the lowest position.  Place a pizza stone, if you have one, on the bottom rack and begin heating the oven to 500 degrees.  If you don’t have ne, you can use a heavy-duty sheet pan placed upside down on the rack.  Sprinkle it with cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking to it. 
Cut the dough into thirds.  Sprinkle a thin layer of cornmeal on a pizza paddle. Take one of the pieces of dough and slowly and carefully stretch it into a 10-12” circle and lay it on the pizza paddle.  Patch any holes with dough from one of the edges.  Cover with sauce and toppings, slide it onto the pizza stone and bake for about 7 minutes or until the dough has fully baked.  Slide it out of the oven with a metal spatula onto a large plate or cutting board and serve immediately.
Dough Mixed in Food Processor

Dough Before It Rises

Dough After Rising

Uocooked Pizza

Pizza Ready to Eat
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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Za’atar: What Is It and How Do I Cook with It?

(Left) Za'atar                                                          (Right) Sumac
Za’atar (aka zatar or zahtar) is a spice blend that has been around for centuries and used primarily in the Middle East.  Travelers have come across it sprinkled on pita bread, hummus, meat, salads and roast potatoes and began searching for it when they got back home.  Now it’s available in some ethnic groceries and online at, and

What’s in za’atar?   Toasted sesame seeds, salt, thyme or oregano and sumac. 

You ask what is sumac?  First let me say it has nothing to do with poison sumac.  Edible sumac is a dark red spice made from dried and crushed berries harvested from sumac bushes.  It has a distinctive sour taste and livens up whatever you sprinkle it on.  It is generally available wherever za’atar is sold.

For a quick appetizer, add 1 tablespoon za’atar to 1/2 cup olive oil, mix, pour into a dish and dip warm pita bread into it. 

Last night I added za’atar to stuffed baked tomatoes, and it improved the flavor enormously.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 84

If you have frozen leftover slices of French bread, and they are dried out when they thaw, don’t toss them in the trash.  Sprinkle them with a small amount of water and set aside for 10 minutes until they soften up.  Then cut them into small pieces.  Add some chopped garlic, sliced scallions, olive oil, salt and black pepper and use the mixture to stuff tomatoes or mushrooms. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the bread starts to crisp.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 117

Don’t bother rinsing the inside of a roasting chicken.  There’s no need.  Water will spread raw chicken juices and bacteria into the sink and possibly beyond, where they can contaminate surfaces and anything else sitting there.  If you roast the chicken until it’s fully cooked (165 degrees on a meat thermometer), the heat will kill all bacteria.  Water can’t do that.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

First Catch Your Trout

Or get a friend to go fishing on your behalf.  That’s how I came to be cooking fresh trout a few years ago.  My friend caught more than he could eat while camping, so he brought me some extras.  And he told me how to cook them.

Pan-Fried trout is a no-nonsense recipe, especially if you’re camping in the woods and know how to light a fire.  I confess I have never been camping, and I have never rubbed two sticks together to create a spark.  I don’t have a cast iron frying pan either, although I do have a frying pan big enough to hold three trout.

If you don't fish or have a fisherman friend , the fish counter at most grocery stores can get you fresh trout.

Luckily, my friend gutted the trout, so all I had to do was rinse them off, coat them with cornmeal and pop them into a hot frying pan for a few minutes per side. 

We should have gone into the backyard and sat on the grass to eat dinner by moonlight.  But that would have been too much like camping.

Pan-Fried Trout – serves 3 
3 cleaned trout (about 3/4 pound each)
1/3 cup cornmeal or flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons canola oil or butter
3 lemon halves 
Rinse the trout in cold running water, making sure all the insides have been cleaned out.  Set aside. 
Put the cornmeal or flour, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper, if using, into a large paper bag and shake. 
Put the oil or butter into a large frying pan or wok and begin heating over medium-high heat.  When it’s hot, put a trout in the paper bag, hold it closed and shake it several times to coat the trout with the mixture.  Put the trout into the hot pan and repeat the process with the other trout.  Cook for about 3 minutes per side, or until the coating has browned and the flesh of the fish has turned from translucent to white.  Pull up a piece of the skin to check.  Also, to test for doneness, see if a fork slides easily into the trout in the flesh near the tail. 
Serve immediately with a lemon half per person.  Advise diners to eat the top layer of fish (and skin, if desired), and then gently pull away and discard the backbone.  Then eat the bottom layer.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Question for Mom

Butterflied shrimp in middle of plate

What does it mean to butterfly shrimp?  Ethan B.

Butterflying shrimp involves cutting them almost in half lengthwise and flattening them out to look like a butterfly.  The two sides are still attached, but the shrimp looks twice as big.  Butterflying cuts down on the cooking time.  It’s a technique often used for dramatic effect when grilling shrimp.  You can also use this technique to make the serving look bigger.

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Persian Cucumbers: What Are They and How Do I Use Them?

Persian cucumbers are miniature cucumbers.  They are 5 or 6 inches long, have thin, non-waxed skin and tiny seeds.  They never taste bitter like regular cucumbers sometimes do.  They do not need to be peeled before eating.

I started seeing them in ethnic markets a few years ago, and now they are readily available in many supermarkets.  If you’ve ever bought a regular cucumber, used half of it and left the other half rotting in the fridge’s vegetable bin, you’ll welcome these pint-size versions.

I like Persian cucumbers in salads or as a simple cold side dish.  Use the old fork trick of sticking the tines into the top of a cucumber and pulling down the sides to make shallow indentations.

Toss some slices into a stir-fry or a potato salad.  Make cucumber sandwiches. You can even pickle Persian cucumbers if you want.
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Friday, July 7, 2017

Whoops! I Forgot an Ingredient

“Why does this spaghetti taste so bland?” I asked myself last night at the dinner table.  I thought through the previous five minutes, when I was putting final additions to the sauce. Then I realized, “I forgot the fresh garlic.”

Uh oh.  Should I confess?  I looked over at Bart, who was happily eating every strand.  Maybe he was being polite or maybe he hadn’t noticed.  Maybe he was just relieved that leftover turkey burgers were no longer on the menu.

I remained silent, finished my dinner and vowed to start tasting whatever I cooked before I served it.  I never developed that habit for one simple reason.  Recipes sometimes tell you “salt to taste,” but that direction often comes when you’re mixing ingredients into raw meat.  I’m not a raw meat fancier.  So I winged it and made sure there was a salt shaker on the table.

Years of cooking has taught me that unless you are forced to throw out your disaster because it cannot be rescued, TELL NO ONE you made a mistake. 

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 116

Uncooked Turkey Burger
I’ve offered this tip before, but it bears repeating on the 4th of July.  If you are grilling turkey burgers and want to make sure they are fully cooked without burning them, do this:

Grill them for a few minutes per side, making sure they are beginning to brown and have grill marks.  Then transfer them to a roasting pan or sheet pan and bake them at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the juice they exude is no longer pink.  Turkey burgers should never be served rare.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Is It Possible to Have Too Many Ripe Tomatoes?

Yes.  Too many ripe homegrown tomatoes on my kitchen counter can cause guilt, piggishness and extra work in general.  I can’t eat them all immediately.  Well, I could, but why should I be ruled by a tomato?

I could cook them up in soups, stir-fries, sauces and casseroles or make lots of salads.  I could haul out my Tomato Pie recipe. I could try canning them, but I have never canned anything.  I could experiment with drying them in the oven for use later.  I really should try that, but that seems too much like work.

Experts say, “Don’t refrigerate tomatoes because it affects their taste.”  Before I heard this piece of advice, I always kept my tomatoes cold.  I can’t remember if the taste was affected, but refrigeration did help prevent spoilage.  Now I feel guilty if I put them
in the fridge.  But will I feel more guilty if I leave them on the counter and they start to rot?

I could give them to friends and neighbors, but then what if I decide that I want to make Gazpacho or four Tomato Pies?  Oh, the worry!

While I was pondering this problem last night, I decided to make Angel Hair Pasta with Tomatoes and Basil for dinner.  That took care of some of the tomato glut, plus it tasted good enough that I might make it again tonight.  

I am lucky in one respect: my current tomato overflow is limited to the cherry tomatoes grown on my deck.
Angel Hair Pasta with Tomatoes and Basil – serves 4 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Dining Room”)  
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, chopped, or 1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
3 ounces fresh goat cheese, cut into thin slices, or 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or two large tomatoes, chopped
16 ounces dried angel hair pasta or vermicelli 
Half-fill a large pot with water, cover and begin heating over high heat. 
While waiting for the water to heat, make the sauce.  In a large serving bowl combine the basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil, salt, black pepper and tomatoes.  Stir thoroughly. 
When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and set the timer for the time noted on the package (probably about 6 minutes).  Stir occasionally to keep the noodles from sticking together.  When the timer rings, taste a noodle to make sure it is done. If it’s not, cook for another minute. 
Drain the noodles in a colander in the sink.  Transfer them to the serving bowl while they are still hot, toss them with the sauce and serve immediately.  This dish is also good at room temperature.
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Friday, June 30, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 115

(left) Traditional Cranberry Sauce  (right) Cranberry Sauce Made From Dried Cranberries 
Pining for cranberry sauce but can't find any fresh berries?  Use dried cranberries soaked overnight in a small amount of water.  No cooking needed.  The cranberries will plump right up, and any excess liquid can be spooned off and drunk as cranberry juice.  Kudos to my brother Steve for coming up with this idea.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Blood Oranges: What Are They and How Do I Use Them?

The first time I saw the inside of a blood orange I was shocked. It really looked like the orange was bleeding. There was some normal orange flesh, but what was that big splotch of purple?

Then I tasted it and realized it was an orange with benefits.  Not only was it exotic to look at but also it had a sweeter, more intense flavor than orange oranges.  

You can treat a blood orange like any other orange—squeeze them for juice, eat them in sections or, for maximum effect, peel them and cut them and serve them in a bowl with some greens as a side salad.  Or serve them sliced as a dessert, by themselves or with sliced strawberries.  Guests will be impressed. 

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Monday, June 26, 2017

How Often Do Your Dinners Seem Like Restaurant Fare?

Not very often at my house?  Maybe it’s because I’m usually in a hurry or I’m obsessed with using up leftovers. 

This week I had two graduations to go to, both starting at 6 pm, so eating did not begin until after 8 pm.  Who wants to be in the kitchen after spending two hours in a football stadium cheering on the new grads?

One of those nights I was drafted to make pizza for the new grad.  The other night we stumbled home and had leftovers.

Last night I was finally inspired to make something gourmet-worthy—using my definition of gourmet, which is something I would not be ashamed to serve to guests. 

I chose Catfish Masala.  It was quick and easy, and I was shocked how good it was. It would certainly stand up well against any fish dish in an Indian restaurant.  I even used not-quite-thawed fish.  Unfortunately we ate it all up, so there are no leftovers.

Catfish Masala – serves 2 (adapted from “Faster! I’m Starving!”)  
3/4 pound catfish, red snapper or tilapia
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil (divided use)
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 medium tomato, roughly chopped
1/2 red, yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 
Cut the fish into 2-inch pieces.  You can use frozen fish, if you like. 
Begin heating 1 tablespoon oil in a large frying pan or wok over medium-high heat.  Add the fish and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and transfer the fish and any liquid to a bowl. 
Add the remaining tablespoon oil to the pan and begin heating over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, tomato and bell pepper and cook about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. 
Add the garlic, ginger, paprika, coriander, cumin, turmeric, salt and cayenne pepper and mix well.  Return the partly cooked fish and liquid to the pan and stir gently so the fish is covered with sauce.  Turn down the heat to medium, cover and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the fish is firm.  Serve immediately.
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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Question for Mom

What are chicken tenders? Alexis R.

Chicken tenders are skinny pieces of white meat that are part of a chicken breast but not fully attached.  You used to see them in packages of boneless chicken breasts.   About 15-20 years ago stores starting selling them as separate cuts of white meat, and they were cheaper than regular boneless breasts.  Now they’re priced higher. 

If you’re squeamish about cutting boneless chicken breasts into skinny pieces, by all means buy chicken tenders.  But you can easily cut boneless chicken into pieces yourself.  If you use a fork to hold them steady, you don’t have to touch the raw chicken.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Meat and Salad in One Bowl = Strange Bedfellows

I don’t usually have meat in my salad – or salad on my meat.  In fact, when I was growing up, my mother set out “salad plates” so that her salad wouldn’t mingle with other dinner items.  No gravy ever touched a lettuce leaf in our house.

In college I discovered Chef’s Salad: hard-boiled eggs, strips of ham and/or turkey or roast beef, tomatoes, cucumber and grated cheese, mixed into chopped iceberg lettuce and covered with Thousand Island Dressing.  It made a great dinner on the run.

When I moved to California, I was introduced to Cobb Salad: chicken chunks, pieces of bacon, tomatoes, avocados, hard-boiled eggs and Roquefort cheese, topped with a vinaigrette dressing and served on top of chopped iceberg lettuce.  Another full meal on one plate.

Also new to me was Taco Salad, with its ground beef or shredded chicken mixed with taco chips, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, sour cream and guacamole and served over chopped iceberg lettuce.

I’m seeing a theme here: chopped iceberg lettuce, which must be the blandest salad ingredient ever grown. 

Iceberg lettuce also turns up in Thai Pork Salad.  The novelty here is that the pork is served hot on top of the salad ingredients.  I was skeptical, but it works.  Leftovers turn out to make a great tortilla filling.

Thai Pork Salad – serves 4 
1 pound boneless pork chops
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 –10 ounces iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced
4 scallions, trimmed and white and green parts sliced thinly
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 small or 1/2 large cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon canola oil 
Remove any fat and cut pork into 1/2-inch by 1-inch strips. 
Combine lime juice, ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, chopped garlic, paprika and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl.  Add the pork strips and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes. 
Put the lettuce, scallions, red bell pepper, cucumber, mango and cilantro into a salad bowl.  Refrigerate until needed. 
Begin heating the oil in a frying pan or wok over high heat.  When hot, scoop out the pork pieces from the marinade, saving the marinade, and add the pork to the pan. Stir-fry for about 3 minutes, or until the pork is no longer pink in the middle.  Transfer the cooked pork to the top of the salad.  Then cook the remaining marinade in the pan for about 1 minute, or until it comes to a boil.  Pour it on top of the pork and serve the salad immediately.
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