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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