Your Recipes Are Half Missing!

. . . but you probably don’t know it!

Ever wonder why a recipe might not taste as good as you’d hoped, even though you followed it exactly?  Here’s a big reason:

Recipes are usually missing half the information you need to make them turn out the way you want.

Of course this vital information hasn’t been omitted intentionally. It’s just that there’s a lot of know-how that goes into making recipes. If a recipe writer were to actually document all the ingredient notes, cooking tips, cautions about doneness and seasoning, and all the other details and nuances that go into creating a dish, it would fill a small booklet. Since nobody wants to read a small booklet to make a single dish, a writer shares just the key points, and that summary is what we call a “recipe.”

Your recipes might as well have half their pages ripped out!

You’ve heard of the phrase, “reading between the lines.” This idiom came from an early method of transmitting coded messages by writing secret information in invisible ink between the lines. Only by “reading between the lines” would the recipient learn the secret information.

This is actually a pretty good description of what’s going on with a recipe. There is a lot of invisible information that would make your dishes turn out better. But you need a decoding device to decipher it. In the kitchen that “device” takes the form of our knowledge base of cooking techniques, tips, tricks and other know-how, e.g., what kind of pan is best for sautéing vs. soup making; how to strain broth, cook frozen fish and use fresh herbs; what kind of salt to use; the difference between mincing, dicing and chopping; and how to tell when a vegetable or piece of meat  is done.

For the longest time this kind of know-how was fairly universal, so recipes could be pretty brief, like this recipe for Colcannon from the 1960s. (1)  (Don’t worry–we have a more modern version for you!)

1960s version of Colcannon recipe

As we’ve become less and less familiar with cooking, however, recipes have had to become longer and longer, making them more and more tedious to follow.  And even at that, there is still a lot of information that isn’t included.

So where does this leave the everyday cook who is yearning for tastier and more satisfying meals? Begin building your knowledge base!

Happily, it’s not the hopelessly daunting task it might seem to be. A surprisingly large number of knowledge bits are used again and again. Discover what makes one recipe click and there’s a very good chance that bit of knowledge will apply to a dozen other recipes, too. Very often, the only difference between a new cook and someone we consider a “good” cook is simply that good cooks have experimented more and thus have a bigger knowledge base to draw from.

4 Ways to Begin Building Your Knowledge Base

  1. As always, the best teacher is experience. Nothing like a limp vegetable stir fry to know that’s not what it means to “cook just until crisp-tender.” As important as having a kitchen learning experience, however, is observing it, learning from it and checking it into your database. That’s how a new tidbit becomes an entry in your knowledge base and not just a random bit of misfortune that is quickly fumbled through and forgotten.
  1. Books and articles are another great source of cooking know how. In fact, my cooking “education” is almost entirely a combination of experience plus reference reading. One time, for instance, I read a simple newspaper article on three secrets for great sautéing. It revolutionized the way I sauté–and is the foundation for the way I teach the technique in our classes. Besides the weekly food section of the newspaper, some of my favorite cooking know-how sources are: The Joy of Cooking (1997 ed.), Cook’s Illustrated, Fine Cooking, James Peterson’s Vegetables, and the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef.

It’s not a bad idea to make a practice, once or twice a month, of reading something about cooking–even if it’s just a recipe that shares a little background knowledge. Get started now by checking out the next blog post where I detail how I read between the lines to make Colcannon to better suit my tastes and health needs.

  1. Of course, there is much to be learned from watching and learning from others, whether that’s just a friend, family member or television chef who focus on technique more than pure entertainment.
  1. Finally, of course, there are cooking classes, whose exact purpose is to share “between the lines” cooking know how. They can really fast track your knowledge base creation, as long as they are not too narrowly focused on a single recipe or food type. Look for classes that share general, frequently used techniques and everyday cooking.

These are exactly the goals of our new Cook Happy | Live Healthy online course–which is why I hope you check it out if you’d like to build your knowledge base and gain more confidence and comfort making recipes that sparkle and sing for you. Or invite some friends over for a Cooking Get-Togethers–enjoy being with friends while learning more about everyday cooking.

One Last Caution Please don’t let this article be reinforcement for any notion you might have that cooking is an exclusive club, only for those “in the know.” Not the case at all–there is room for everyone in the kitchen! Find out how everyone–regardless of experience–is moving along the same “Good to Better Cooking Continuum,” and know that this article is only meant to help you progress from meals that are good to meals that are better, i.e., ones that better fill your yearning for yumminess, wholesomeness and comfort at mealtimes.

Now go check out my recipe for a healthy version of Colcannon, which includes a lot of the information missing from the 1960s version above!  And then read how I used my knowledge base to create this version in “Colcannon: Decoding the Missing Information Between the Lines of a Recipe.”

(1) 250 Irish Recipes: Traditional and Modern, [Mounth Salus Press:Dublin] 196? (p. 76-77) from: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodireland.html

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Recipe: Irish Colcannon–a Healthier Version

Simple Potatoes, Kale and Onions Make a Beautiful, Super Nutritious and Tasty Dish

STEP 1


  • ½ Tbsp. butter
  • 3 cups green onions sliced about ½” thick (from about 2 bunches, using both white and green parts)

Place a large, lidded skillet over medium heat and add butter. When melted and just lightly sizzling, use a spatula to spread over the bottom of pan, then add green onions and cook just long enough to take off their raw edge, about 2-3 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

STEP 2


  • 6 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ¾” dice (from about 2 lbs. or 6 medium potatoes)
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 cups rich broth, no- or low-sodium
  • 1 cup water

Into the same skillet, put potatoes, salt, broth and water. Cover pan and bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer potatoes about 10 to 15 minutes, until almost soft when stuck with a fork.

STEP 3


  • 4 cups loosely packed kale leaves, stems removed and cut into roughly 1” squares
  • 2-3 Tbsp. salted butter
  • Unrefined salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Grainy mustard–optional condiment

Add kale to potatoes and continue simmering, covered, until potatoes are soft and kale is tender to taste, about 5 to 10 more minutes. Remove lid, turn heat to medium high and boil until most of liquid evaporates. Meanwhile, use a potato masher to mash potatoes roughly, leaving some texture. When desired consistency is reached, remove pan from heat.

Stir in reserved green onions along with butter, salt and pepper, to taste. Serve topped with an additional pat of butter and/or mustard, if desired.

Mashing the Colcannon

Even though the kale is already added, it won’t interfere with mashing the potatoes.

Leftover Fun

Don’t worry if you end up with leftovers.  You’re set for a quick and nutritious breakfast the next day–or two:

Pic of Potato PancakesMake Potato Pancakes  Beat 1 egg + 1/8 tsp. baking soda into about 1½ cups Colcannon, beating with a fork until thoroughly combined. Melt about 2 tsp. butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium to medium-low heat. When butter sizzles lightly, drop in Colcannon batter to form roughly 3” patties. Fry on both sides until golden brown.

Helpful Hint: If you will have patience and allow the patties to brown thoroughly before flipping, they will cook through nicely, flip easily without breaking, and have nice, golden crusts.

Pic of

Riff on Spanish Tortilla Mix 2 eggs + 1/8 tsp. baking soda into about 2 cups Colcannon, beating with a fork until thoroughly combined. Melt about 1 Tbsp. butter in a 10” heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium to medium-low heat. When butter sizzles lightly, pour in all of the Colcannon batter to form a large pancake. Cover pan and lower heat to medium-low or low. Allow tortilla to brown all the way across the bottom. Flip onto a plate, then slide back into pan to cook the other side. Tomatoes make a nice serving accompaniment.

Creative Fun

Although not traditional, you can experiment with some fun additions:

  • Bacon, sausage, hamburger (brown and cut or crumble into pieces)
  • Shredded cheese (sprinkle on top)
  • ½ to 1 cup cream or whole milk (mix in while mashing potatoes)
  • Chives, red onion or leek greens instead of green onions
  • Roasted chiles
  • Carrots, beets or parsnips (substitute 1 cup for 1 cup of the potatoes)
  • Other Greens (chard, collards or spinach) or the traditional cabbage

Be sure to read the other posts in this series about information that’s hiding between the lines of a recipe, and how I created this recipe by teasing out between-the-lines-information to meet my tastes and health needs.

Colcannon: Decoding the Missing Information Between the Lines of a Recipe

A traditional Irish dish, Colcannon was reserved for special occasions since “few Irish cottagers grew turnips or cabbages.” (1)  How interesting since those foods are so common nowadays!  Common though they may be, when combined with affordable potatoes you get a lovely dish that is not only budget-minded but also highly nutritious and tasty enough for company.

The following recipe for Colcannon caught my eye, no doubt because I’m part Irish, but also because autumn’s cool weather has finally blown in, making a hearty potato dish sound perfect.  What’s more, it takes good advantage of cool-weather produce:  I have lots of kale and green onions from my garden along with plenty of potatoes in with my CSA share.

Read Between the Line Pic

Reading Between the Lines  While making the recipe, however, I noticed how often I was “reading between the lines,” making additions and substitutions based on my health needs (I’m dairy-free), tastes and experience in the kitchen.  Another post explained how a lot of a recipe can be missing–as if written in invisible ink between the lines.  Read on to see how much and what information can be “missing” from a recipe, and how to begin building your knowledge base of trick and tips to make meals that are ever more satisfying for you.

Mind Your Ingredients  It all starts with good ingredients.  They are especially critical in dishes that have only a few to rely on for flavor, particularly when 1) the main ingredient (potatoes) is on the bland side and 2) when the main flavorings (cream and butter) have to be reduced or eliminated for health reasons. This is where tricks, tips and experimentation come in:

Colcannon RecipesColcannon--Substitutions

Health Boost  Interestingly, the modifications above also had the effect of improving the healthfulness of the dish.

  • Nothing against butter, but with 100 calories per tablespoon, it’s helpful to be moderate–and it’s not so very hard to reduce  5-6 Tablespoons to 2-3 Tablespoons.
  • While I eliminated the cream due to a dairy allergy, it also saves a lot on the calorie count.  Since butter and cream are the traditional  flavor enhancers, however, reducing or eliminating them makes it all the more imperative to use the flavor boosters listed above.
  • Potato skins, besides adding flavor, are loaded with vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B-6, thiamin, niacin and vitamin C, as well as iron, potassium and magnesium (2)-–plenty of reasons to leave them in the dish instead of tossing into the compost bin.
  • Finally, increasing the kale from three cups to four and tripling the green onions also boosts flavor along with nutrients.

My Recipe for Colcannon  See how I used all this information from “reading between the lines” to create my healthier version of Colcannon.

(1)  FoodTimeLine.org

(2)  “Does the Skin of a Potato Really Have All the Vitamins?”

Recipe: Bone-Broth Pork Green Chili

Bone-Broth Pork Green Chili

A dish with many uses:  Use as a sauce over, e.g., burritos, as a side soup, or as a one-dish meal with the addition of shredded or ground chicken or pork.   Plus, it can be made entirely from the pantry, with the exception of the optional cilantro.  See the previous post for more about bone broth and the pantry staples used for this chili.

Green Chili Pic

Step 1:  Saute Vegetables and Seasonings

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 med onions, sliced ¼” thick, then cut into 2” lengths
  • 2 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1-4 Tbsp. chopped roasted chiles (e.g., Anaheims)
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp. dried leaf oregano (preferably Mexican)

In a large saute pan, warm oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add onions and saute about 5 to 10 minutes. Over medium high heat, they will brown deeply and almost char in spots.

Reduce heat to low and once pan has cooled slightly, add garlic, chiles, cumin and oregano and cook 2-3 more minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.

Step 2:  Cook Potatoes

  • 2 med. potatoes, diced to ½”
  • 1 qt. pork (or chicken) bone broth, fat skimmed and reserved

While the onions saute, combine potatoes and bone broth in a soup pot, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender but not mushy.

Step 3:  Mix and Simmer

  • 1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice
  • ½ to 1 cup diced tomatillas (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Add to cooked potatoes, along with reserved onion mixture. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer another 5-10 minutes for flavors to meld.

Step 4:  Thicken Chili (Optional Step)

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil (or reserved pork fat, see Notes)
  • 2 Tbsp. whole wheat flour
  • ¼ to ½ cup water

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together olive oil and flour, gradually adding water to form a smooth paste.  Add to chili, whisking continuously to avoid lumping.  Cover and simmer about 5 more minutes until chili is thick and no longer tastes of raw flour.

Step 5:  Accessorize

  • Freshly squeezed lime juice
  • Chopped fresh cilantro (optional, but good!)

Taste and add more seasonings, if needed. Serve immediately with fresh lime juice and cilantro to taste, if using.

NOTES

1. Pork Bones  I started with an uncured shoulder roast.  Ham hocks could also be used, but I would avoid cured ham products as that could add a “cured” flavor to the chili that might conflict with the usual pork green chili flavor.

I slow cooked the shoulder roast and pulled off the meat for a variety of dishes, saving a little for the chili.  After pulling the meat from them, I returned the bones to the slow cooker,along with some of the pan drippings and filled with water to simmer for a bone broth.  I strained the broth through a sieve into quart jars and allowed it to chill, so the fat rose to the top where I could skim it off before adding the remaining broth to the soup.  The skimmed fat is what I mixed with flour to thicken the soup.

2.  Broth Options  You could make this with just a regular pork stock or even a canned broth (or try Pacific Foods’ new bone broth.)  The flavor will not be as big, but it will still be fine.

3.  Meat–Make It a Meal  Any meat from your pork bones can be added to the chili, if desired.  Alternatively, shredded chicken can be added.

4.  Optional Mix-ins  For color, consider adding a little frozen corn or black beans (drained and rinsed to avoid discoloring the soup.)

5.  Gluten Free  For the whole wheat flour, substitute a combination (half and half) sweet white sorghum and teff flours.

6.  Chile Warning!!  Depending on the chiles you use, they can be HOT!  So add gradually, tasting after each addition, until you know the amount that works for you.  If the chili ends up being too hot, it can be served over rice, add chicken to it, top with cheese, etc.

What’s Up with Bone Broth?

Bone Broth Pic

Bone broth is BIG. I knew it for sure when I saw that Pacific Foods is now making it, and whole cases were specially displayed at Whole Foods. So what’s the deal?

Essentially, a bone broth is just animal bones simmered in water. But unlike broths and stocks where the simmering is done a few hours, a bone broth is simmered for a long, long time–like 24+ hours. That’s why I use a slow cooker to make it.

Why the new and sudden interest in this old-fashioned staple? Just like fermented foods, another old-fashioned food given new life, we’re loving bone broths because they are nutritional powerhouses. Seems old-timers knew a thing or two about nutrition without so much as a single study to rely on!

Here’s a great article from Jenny McGruther’s Nourished Kitchen blog that explains the nutritional benefits and links to her “recipe” for making bone broth.

In addition to great nutrition, let me add that bone broths have incredible flavor. Although canned broths work fine if you’re short on time, making your own broths, stocks and especially bone broths will take you into another taste stratosphere. If you can just get yourself to try it a couple times and get over the initial hump of making your own, you’ll find it actually requires a pretty minimal time investment and pays off in extra flavor 10 times over. Plus,

  • it’s a lot less expensive than store-bought, actually costing about $0.25 since it’s made mostly with bones you’d otherwise toss, and
  • homemade doesn’t contain the natural flavorings, colorings, sugar, tons of salt, etc., etc. that many packaged broths now include.

Like Jenny, I almost always have some bones simmering for a broth that can add easy, great flavor to all sorts of dishes.  This week, for instance, with some pork bone broth simmered up last week, I made pork green chili. I’ve had a hankering for it, since I have LOTS of roasted chiles from my CSA. They are prepped and bagged in the freezer, waiting anxiously to be put to use. Also in my pantry:

  • jars of tomatoes from my summer CSA,
  • jars of tomatillas from my garden, and
  • lots of potatoes, garlic and onions (the last of 2014’s produce harvested in the fall and distributed in my winter CSA.)

It’s so nice to have a helpfully stocked pantry.  Drawing from mine, I was able to come up with a great dish, no grocery shopping needed.  Check out the recipe in the next post.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Roasted Chicken

After a recent post on storing your slow cooker, one reader asked why we didn’t include any ideas for using a slow cooker.  So here is one from Lauren, our long time volunteer adviser and the class assistant in our New Kitchen Cooking School.  I had always slow cooked chicken by submerging it in water and cooking on low for 8 to 10 hours–essentially poaching it.  Then Lauren shared her method which essentially roasts the chicken. Guaranteed good results–and ridiculously simple:

Slow Cooker Roasted Chicken

Step 1:  Plop Bird into Slow Cooker, Breast Side Down

Picture of Slow Cooker Chicken

Keeping the breast down helps it stay moister.  The wide, shallow style slow cooker is better for roasting since it allows more air circulation around the bird, although the tall narrow style can work, too.

Step 2: Season Chicken

You can be fairly generous with the salt and especially the pepper.  If you want, be creative and toss on some herbs or spices, e.g., Herbes de Provence, Italian Herbs, a Moroccan rub . . . .

Step 3:  Cover and Cook on High ~ 3 Hours

Slow Cooker Chicken

Timing is where things can be a little tricky, because of differences in cookers and bird sizes. So start monitoring after two hours, until you learn the right timing for your slow cooker and usual bird size.

Step 4:  Uncover and Cook on High ~ 1 More Hour

Browned Slow Cooker Chicken

Even covered, the bird browns and crisps fairly well. Now, in an unusual twist, leave the cover off another hour to brown even a little more. Be sure to leave the temperature on high.

Step 5:  Baste Every 15 Minutes (optional, but really adds flavor and moistness)

Basting Chicken

Basting is what makes the chicken taste more like those succulent rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. I just baste as I pass by the chicken while doing things around the house, or while preparing the rest of the meal. IMPORTANT: Before serving, test the chicken for doneness (see Note below.)

Step 6:  Use the pan juices to make a delicious sauce, e.g., with just a little grainy mustard and Herbes de Provence, maybe a little wine.  Try making it in the slow cooker, but if it’s too slow, scrape everything into a small skillet or saucepan.

Fair Question:  Why not use the oven?   I prefer the slow cooker because of the “tolerance” and “visibility” factors.  While an oven doesn’t exactly speed cook foods, the window between not quite done and overdone may be only 10 to 15  minutes.  Outside that narrow window, the chicken gets tough and dry, something I’ve experienced plenty of times because I’m not one to stand guard over food.  With a slow cooker that window is much longer, maybe 30 to 60 minutes.  And even if I go past that window, there’s a good chance the chicken will still be pretty good.  It’s hard to ruin a dish completely in a slow cooker unless you completely forget about it.  At the same time, it’s easier to monitor a chicken in a slow cooker sitting on the counter than one buried in a hot oven in a heavy pot.

Note on Doneness:  According to Joy of Cooking, chicken must be cooked to the point where the meat releases clear, not pink, juices when pricked to the bone with a fork.  This correlates with an internal temperature of 170 (F) on an instant-read thermometer.  However, for the breast meat, doneness is reached at an internal temperature of 160 (F).  I usually slice between the thigh and torso of the chicken to see that the juices run clear and the meat is no longer red.

Kitchen Purging–2 Stories

Story 1:  One reader got right on the ball after reading the last post on “Getting, Giving and Purging,”  She wrote,

Simple Math: In came the NutriBullet, out went the old blender

“I recently took over the NutriBullet I’d given my son.  Compared to my current blender, the NutriBullet is far more effective, less hassle to use, easy to clean, and takes up little space.  Know anyone who wants a blender?”

Talk about action!  And she gets to benefit by having a lot better tool for blending, without having to stumble over the old blender.

But what if you’re not ready to give up the old blender completely?  Here’s a handy organizer’s tip:  store it off site (basement, closet, garage).  Attach a note with the date.  If you’re living fine without it after a year, you can put it in the Goodwill box without regrets.

Story 2, or “How to Make Equipment Decisions without Undue Angst or Buyer’s Remorse”

Interestingly, another reader was wondering about blenders, too.  But she was weighing whether to replace her regular blender with a Vitamix.  This is a question I get a lot and no wonder:  We’ve all been wowed by the Vitamix ads and all the cool things a Vitamix can do.  (I admit to buying one, although I later returned it.)  Here’s how I advised her:

Vitamix There are so many neat kitchen tools and gadgets.  But unless you have money to spare and don’t mind getting submerged in clutter, keep your plastic in your purse until forcing yourself to answer two key questions.

1) “What’s your objective?” and
2) “What’s the best tool for the job?”

In this reader’s case, she was attracted to the Vitamix so she could start vegetable juicing, and for this objective, a Vitamix would be perfect.  But then there’s the second question:  Is it the best tool? What’s “best” isn’t just a matter of function (where the Vitamix clearly excels), but also one of

  • cost ($400 to $600 for a Vitamix),
  • what you already have on hand (a regular blender that can achieve her objective just fine),
  • storage and counter space (a Vitamix takes up more room; her kitchen is on the small side), and
  • ease of use and ease of cleaning (probably a toss up.)

Based on these factors, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to shell out the price of a Vitamix.  But I asked one more question that sealed the deal:  “Does she juice regularly now?”  No, she is just getting started, it turns out.  All the more reason to wait on the big, expensive juicer.  Commit first to the juicing and see if you can make it a regular habit and if it produces the desired health benefits.  Then assess whether something more than a regular blender is needed–and when you weigh all the factors, especially price, the much less expensive NutriBullet might be the best choice if juicing is the objective.

Faced with a really cool product ad, you may not want to make this kind of hard-nosed assessment.  You just want the cool tool and want to find a way to justify it.  Which is a good way to get a case of buyer’s remorse.  That’s why I said, “force” yourself to answer the two key questions above.  That way you won’t end up with stuff that ends up being cupboard clutter instead of the valuable tool you hoped for.

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