Healthy Eating Tips: Small Plates, Big Vegetable Bowls

Nutrition experts have discovered another trick to combat overeating:  Smaller plates.  You’ve probably heard about the research from Cornell University showing that smaller plates lead to smaller portion sizes.  Great idea, but I think there needs to be an exception for vegetables–salads in particular.  In fact, there needs to be not just an exception but a reversal of the rule.

In other words, follow the small plate approach for the meat and starch portion of your meals.  But inasmuch as only one in ten of us eats the recommended daily quota of vegetables, stick with a BIG plate (or at least a separate small plate) for vegetables.  If small plates lead to small portions, then it stands to reason that big plates will lead to bigger portion sizes.

In the case of salads, consider using a big bowl instead of a plate.  That way, you can adequately toss salad and dressing.  I discovered this trick when a Mad Greens restaurant opened nearby.  It is like a restaurant-controlled salad bar.  You pick out the ingredients of your choice and the staff assembles it.  But here’s the key:  the salad is assembled in a BIG metal bowl, so it can be easily and thoroughly tossed.  In the end, every piece of the salad is perfectly coated, and it tastes superbly flavorful, even with a only a couple squirts of dressing.

Eating my Mad Greens salad was an “ah ha” moment.   The low-fat 90s had taught me to avoid the globs of dressing restaurants ladle on salads.  Instead, I always ordered my dressing on the side.  At home, I never dressed the entire salad so the leftovers could be stored for the next night or two.

So I grew accustomed to pouring a little dressing on top of my salad and then semi-mixing it in, since it is impossible to properly toss a salad on a tiny salad plate or piled next to meat and potatoes.  Salad would end up all over the table.  So for years I made do with a semi-dressed salad:  Some bites would have mouth-puckering amounts of dressing; some would have none.

Mad Greens introduced me the taste of a well-dressed salad-and happily, it isn’t dependent on GLOBS of dressing, just proper tossing–and for that a big bowl is the key, just like it’s the key to eating a goodly portion of salad.

So in a happy coincidence, I could achieve two good things with one simple change.  I first began serving my salads in a round plastic storage container.  A mixing bowl will also work.  But today, I found a very lovely yellow bowl (probably a small casserole dish?)  at The Peppercorn, our local kitchenware store extraordinaire.

Depth is a key characteristic for a good salad eating bowl.  This one does a perfect job containing a salad of winter vegetables topped with canned tuna steaks, sun-dried tomatoes and raisins.  My current dressing fav is shown, too.  Annies Sesame Shitake Mushroom.  Lots of flavor, no fake stuff.

Depth is a key characteristic for a good salad eating bowl. This one does a perfect job containing a salad of winter vegetables topped with canned tuna steaks, sun-dried tomatoes and raisins. My current dressing favorite is shown, too. Annie's Shitake & Sesame Vinaigrette. Lots of flavor, no fake stuff.

Depth is the most important thing to look for (besides being cute and coordinating with your current dishware, of course.) While there are plenty of salad serving bowls, most are too shallow and/or flared to contain a feisty salad.  In the picture, I included a regular soup bowl for a point of comparison.

If you are looking for a good bowl on-line, I happened upon one at Silvermark’s site:  http://silvermk.com/product_detail.cfm?id=16.  You can also find all sorts of other great salad-making apparatuses there.

Caution:  Hazards Ahead!

As with anything, watch out for imbalances.  In the case of salads, the imbalances can come in a couple forms:  Non-vegetable ingredients and salad dressings.

First, keep in mind that big bowls are a trick for eating more vegetables, not oversized amounts of ham, cheese, smoked turkey,  pasta salad and myriad other non-vegetable toppings in a typical salad bar.  Homemade salads aren’t usually overburdened with high-calorie additions, since who has the time to prepare them?  But faced with a salad bar spread of enticing toppers, all cut and ready to go, it’s easy to overload.

Second, we know that the calories in dressing can often outweigh those in the salad itself!  Big bowls are a way to strategically spread the dressing so it is put to effective use.  This way, it’s possible to dress a larger portion of salad vegetables with the same amount of dressing.  Watch out that you don’t end up doubling the dressing as you increase salad size!  If it helps, measure out the dressing before adding.

If your salad could still use a little kick after it moderately dressed, here’s another trick:  Instead of ladling on more salad dressing, sprinkle on some extra vinegar (e.g., brown rice or balsamic), some freshly squeezed lemon juice, a few grinds of pepper or a shake of cayenne.  Even salt (just a little) can help bring out the flavors without a lot more calories.

Happy vegging!

Here’s a recipe for Tuna Salad with Homemade Balsamic Dressing

Food Safety–Even Freshly Ground Peanut Butter Is Implicated

I guess I’ve got peanut butter on my face!  I just finished my last post, about feeling safer eating low-on-the-food-chain, freshly ground peanut butter.  Then I took a break, read the paper and discovered that even freshly ground peanut butter has been implicated in the peanut scare!

Before lashing my wrists with a wet noodle, it bears mention that I have been eating my Vitamin Cottage freshly ground butter for two weeks with no ill effects.  Also, it was on the “Remove” list as a precautionary measure only.

What’s more, the point of my last post was not that simpler, less processed foods are immune from contamination.  They certainly can be tainted.  But the chances for contamination seem to increase the more processes a food is subjected to and the more complex the web of distribution becomes.  Simplifying the foods we eat and the food production system means our regulatory dollars can be focused on fewer products and processes–most likely producing better detection and enforcement.

As it now stands, from just companies beginning with the letter “A,” there are over 100 peanut products subject to the recall.  I got too dizzy to count the entire listing.  Peanuts are but one food ingredient.  Imagine a single government agency trying to police the hundreds of ingredients in the market, all combined thousands of different ways in thousands of product variations.

So while we may not be equipped to fully protect ourselves, I continue to stand by my advice of supplementing the FDA’s oversight with some oversight of your own–and some simplification of your foodstuffs.

Wishing you happy, and safe, meals

Food Safety: Why Don’t We Just Eat Peanut Butter?

“You Are on Your Own.”

That was the headline of an editorial admonishing the FDA for its failure to effectively regulate the safety of our food and drug supply in the wake of 2009’s peanut butter scare.  While the FDA does indeed deserve admonishment, do consumers also need a wakeup call?  Hello, never completely trust strangers when it comes to the safety of what you put in your mouth.  Put another way, “Is it time that we begin to just eat peanut butter?”

Yesterday, I ground my own at the grocery store. There were just peanuts inside the grinder and what came out of the machine was just plain peanut butter.  While the system isn’t foolproof, its simplicity leaves little opportunity for the introduction of pathogens.  A huge peanut-product factory, on the other hand, offers countless opportunities.

The bigger the operation and the greater the pathogen opportunities, in turn, the greater the regulatory burden.  Introduce operators who are even the slightest bit opportunistic, an economic culture that celebrates profits over responsibility, and now an economic downturn and you have a suck hole for regulatory dollars.  Can we possibly afford an FDA that could effectively police our massive, far-flung food production and delivery industry?  Even if we could pay for that level of regulation, could it really catch all the shenanigans going on?

Just one year ago, in February of 2008 in the midst of yet another food scare, the Wall Street reported on an outside advisory panel that estimated the FDA needs “about 150% added to its appropriated base budget, phased in over five years, [just] to cope with challenges such as inspecting a rising tide of imports.”

The article didn’t translate that “150%” into dollars and cents, but I’m sure it would have been a big number.  And who knows if that big number would have covered extra inspectors for peanut plants right here in the US of A?  Or people to watch out for the tomatoes running around and making their way into salsa?  In fact, can you imagine the dollars it would take to adequately inspect and police every bottle, can and piece of produce that makes up the 40,000 items in a typical supermarket?

Things have gotten to a point where even product manufacturers are getting nervous.  Dole Food Co., the largest producer of fresh vegetables, “recently started using radio-frequency identification tags to track leafy greens as they move from fields to trucks and through processing facilities.”

Does the insanity of this development strike anyone else?  People are starving and yet we’re going to spend precious food dollars on a huge technological system to ensure what farmers have managed to do for ages:  deliver safe, delicious food.

Do you feel trapped in a crazy spiral yet:  As consumers we love having a huge selection of food products from around the world, manufactured into forms as convenient as possible.  And please be sure that everything is ridiculously cheap.  Now we are discovering that “global reach,” “convenience” and “cheap” combine to form a toxic stew.  No one is going to deliver a fantastic variety of convenient foodstuffs to our doorsteps for free.  Food manufacturers have to profit, and if they must sell at artificially cheap prices, something’s gotta give.  In the case of food, lots of things “give” so we can have cheap, appetizing food in unhealthful quantities:  The environment is one of the biggest martyrs.  Food safety is a close second.

So should we be surprised when peanut plants and chicken slaughterhouses and cattle feedlots and salsa factories cut corners on safety and purity!

Hence my original questions:  While we must demand a more effective FDA, is it realistic to rely on regulation alone?  Maybe we consumers really are on our own-at least partly.  Maybe it’s time we pitch in and do a little detective work of our own.  Here are a few suggestions that have given me a measure of comfort.  As you will see, the underlying theme is eating closer to home, and minimizing the hands and factory processes touching  your food:

  1. Start by reading ingredient labels.  Don’t buy products with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Period.
  2. Better yet, nix or reduce the number of factory products you buy.  In other words, have a piece of Great Harvest toast spread with freshly ground peanut butter instead of some packaged peanut butter cracker concoction. The fewer the hands and processes, the less the risk of contamination.
  3. For things like pasta, salad dressing and olive oil, watch which companies you buy from.  Spend a little time finding ones that still value integrity.  If you find a good brand, stick with it, even if it costs a few more pennies.
  4. Buy from the farmer and local producers in your community who will feel really badly (and whose business will suffer immensely) if tainted food gets traced to them.  Community accountability still counts for a lot.
  5. Trim back a little on our tastes for exotic food stuffs.  Begin to explore and appreciate what can be produced close to home where it can be watched and monitored more closely.
  6. Cook more.  With FDA enforcement questionable, you’re better off relying on the sanitation procedures in your own kitchen.
  7. Freeze your own peaches for winter.  Don’t rely on ones that must go through 20 hands to be shipped here from Chile (they never taste very good anyway.)
  8. Wash your own spinach and lettuce.  Get a good salad spinner to make easy work of it.  Don’t rely on the stuff that must go through a factory.
  9. Don’t demand things like strawberries in December when they must be shipped from across the globe.  Be happy with pears and apples from storage.

What–this costs a lot?  Consider the costs of all the hundreds of peanut products that got pitched over the last month, many of them from our own personal larders.  Consider also the cost of expanding the FDA budget by 150%, and likely a lot more.  While this will only translate to a higher tax bill, you’ll likely see a direct price hike to pay for Dole’s radio-frequency identification system.

What–it takes time?  Consider the time cost of lying in bed with salmonella!  Even when we’re not actually sick, there’s the continuous, time-consuming, energy-zapping drain of fear.  We eat three times a day, 24/7.  Do we want each meal and snack to be an exercise in fear or pleasurable interlude on a hectic day?

What–it sounds draconian?  After all, “we’re entitled Americans who should be able to buy anything we can afford.”  Well, maybe it’s not such a free market after all.  Maybe there are some tradeoffs and responsibilities that go with being the biggest consumers on the face of the earth, ever.

Many happy, healthy and safe meals

Comfort Stew: Beef Daube Provencal

Recipe for Beef Daube Provencal

This is the slow cooker version.  See the notes below if you prefer to make it stovetop, as I did.
What to have with this stew?  I was hankering for mashed potatoes, which is why I cooked the stew on the stovetop.  That freed up the slow cooker for my famous Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes.  Write me for the recipe , if you’d like.
By the way, this makes a big stew, easily enough for two days, since it always taste better as leftovers and you might as well get a time-free meal one night!  The second night I’ll probably serve it over brown rice with a little cabbage slaw.  Read how to make dishes like this A Bright Spot in troubled times.

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 lbs. stew meat, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-2” cubes (use more or less, depending on your liking for meat)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed saute pan until hot but not smoking.  Sprinkle beef cubes with salt and pepper, and then place carefully in hot oil in a single layer.  With heat on medium high, brown sides of cubes quickly, turning with a fork or small spatula to brown most of the sides.  As soon as a cube is browned (maybe 2-3 minutes total), drop into slow cooker.

  • 2 med. yellow onions, diced to about ½”
  • 12 whole garlic cloves (about 1 head), chopped roughly
  • 4-6 stalks celery, dilced to about ½”
  • 8 oz. mushrooms (or 2 large portabellas), sliced about ¼” thick (optional)
  • 6-8 med. carrots, sliced about ¼” thick

Once the meat is browned and removed from saute pan, reduce heat to medium and add onion, stirring to scrape any bits of meat from bottom of pan.  Cook onion a few minutes, then stir in celery and cook a couple minutes more, then stir in garlic and cook just 1-2 minutes, then quickly stir in mushrooms, if using, and cook a few more minutes. Stir in carrots then remove all vegetables to slow cooker.

  • ½ c. chicken or beef broth
  • ½-1 cup red wine
  • 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2-3 tsp. minced fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp. dried rosemary leaves, crushed)
  • 1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme (or 2 tsp. dried leaf thyme)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2-3 dashes ground cloves
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Once vegetables are removed from saute pan, reduce heat to low , add broth and deglaze pan, which means scraping the bottom of pan with your spatula to loosen any remaining browned bits.  Add wine, tomatoes, tomato paste and spices, stir until everything is thoroughly combined, then pour carefully into slow cooker and stir again to combine the liquid, vegetables and meat.

Cover and cook on high for 5 hours or low for 8 hours.  Before serving, taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed.

What I did differently

Recipes are always just a starting point.  It’s good to make them once as written, so you have a point of reference.  Then you can innovate for fun or, as is more often the case for me, you can adapt to work with whatever you have on hand and need to use up!

  1. Mushrooms I didn’t have any and wasn’t going to make a trip to the store just to get some.  So I omitted.
  2. Bacon To make up for the lost flavor of the mushrooms, I chopped up (just two) strips of bacon, cooked it slowly to render its fat and used that to brown the stew meat, instead of olive oil.  Not quite as healthy, I know, but it’s a small and occasional thing!
  3. Stovetop Cooking Once the vegetables were sauteed, I returned the meat to the saute pan (I had removed the browned pieces to a bowl), then stirred in everything else.  I have a BIG saute pan which can double as a stew pot.  If yours isn’t big enough, transfer everything to a heavy bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven.  If your pans aren’t heavy-bottomed, be sure to stir the stew frequently so it doesn’t burn as it simmers.  Stovetop cooking also benefits from more liquid, so I used 2 cups of broth, rather than just ½ cup.  This also made a nice gravy to put over the mashed potatoes.
  4. Wine Speaking of liquids, I only had a ¼ cup of red wine, so I used up some leftover white to make ½ cup.

Cooking School

  1. “Draining” Stew Meat Before browning the beef cubes, place in a colander and press out any remaining blood that would likely splatter and impede browning.  This is also a good time to sprinkle with salt and pepper and then toss to coat the meat cubes  evenly.
  2. Brown Don’t Steam It’s important that beef browns, and doesn’t steam or simmer in the first step.  That’s why it needs to be in a single layer.  So if you have more than one layer of beef cubes, brown them in two batches.
  3. Be Quick Browning beef cubes is a QUICK process.  Overcooking the little guys on high heat makes them tough and chewy.  So don’t let them cook much further than the surface level. before removing them to the slow cooker.  In other words, you should probably focus on just browning the meat, not doing three other things while the meat browns!
  4. Cleaning Up a Burn Hopefully, none of your stew meat burns instead of browns, so you can just add the onions to the saute pan after removing all the meat.  BUT, if your meat cubes have the audacity to burn, first pour in a cup or so of water, scrape them up and discard.  Reheat the pan and add another tablespoon of olive oil to before cooking the onions.
  5. Gentle with the Garlic Garlic can burn easily and then it tastes awful.  So only let it cook a couple minutes, really, then quickly stir in the next ingredient, which will cool things off and prevent the garlic from burning.
  6. Tomato Paste Trick Remember that extra tomato paste can be stored in the freezer.  Freeze in ice cube trays, or just spoonfuls on waxed paper, then place the frozen portions into a zippered freezer storage bag and you’re ready the next time you need just a tablespoon or two.

Looking for a Bright Spot

“Don’t dwell on all the bad news around you.” That’s the current advice from the positive thinking industry: You may have lost your job and your house, you’ve no doubt lost a lot of paper value and retirement security, there’s no vacation this year and probably not many additions to the wardrobe, plus you’re struggling to keep your marriage off the rocks, but through it all, keep your eye on the positive ball.

I’ve been having a hard time with this prescription. Somehow, hearing about the 600,000 jobs lost in just the month of January, or the latest report about how the consequences of our environmental misdeeds have now reached the point of no return, or how many soldiers are now committing suicide–these things keep striking me with dismay, no matter how hard I try to remain upbeat.

Don’t get me wrong. I would like to turn my thinking around. Somehow, we’ve got to get our collective psyche out of the cellar or all the stimulus checks in the world aren’t going to save us. The problem lies in finding something good to think about. Where’s the golden nugget that could distract us with some happy thoughts?

Could food be that bright spot? Coming from a kitchen and healthy eating coach, I know that sounds a little self-serving. But it isn’t just me thinking in this way. This morning I was dropping my car off at the garage. As always, I got to chatting about food, in this case it was with the owner, Laurie.  She told me about one of yesterday’s customers. While waiting for the mechanics to finish his car, this customer phoned his wife and had the most interesting and pleasant conversation about what they could make for dinner, what he could pick up on the way home, what might taste good with it, and so on. “Isn’t that a nice conversation,” Laurie asked, “instead of talking about all the depressing stuff going on?”

Humble food could be a savior right now. Something warm, yummy and comforting could give our brains something positive to chew on and ruminate about. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to cost a lot, either. In fact, I’ve got a simple beef stew simmering on the stove that is making me feel pretty positive about dinnertime. It has a fancy French name, Beef Daube Provencal, but that just has to do with being cooked in a covered casserole and coming from the Provence region of France.  Turns out its a pretty appropriate recipe , because Provence is a place where they seem to know that extreme delight (and a positive take on life) can come from simply combining the foods readily (and inexpensively) available in a region, and doing so with care, attention and with enough time to let the flavors meld.

Many happy meals, and in case you’d like to make a “fancy” French stew, the recipe will be in tomorrow’s post. For now, go buy some stew meat (or take it from the freezer) and make sure you have carrots, celery and garlic on hand, as well as 1 small can each of tomatoes and tomato paste. If you want the deluxe version, get some mushrooms and fresh rosemary from the store, too.

Pity the Poor Pantry

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Pity the poor pantry.  It’s always getting lumped with all that old-time stuff our mothers (or grandmothers) did.  Remember the stuff they would drag out of the pantry?  Canned vegetables that tasted like cardboard and boxes of Jello that got turned into something with “salad”

Jello--A Pantry Classic, Perfect for Jello Salad!

Jello--A Pantry Classic, Perfect for Jello Salad!

incongruously in the name.  And that thing they did called “stocking the pantry?” That took a whole lot of time, and for what?

Nowadays, we’ve got at least a couple grocery stores within driving distance, selling everything you could ever want and we prefer our vegetable fresh rather than canned, thank you very much.  So why do we care about the pantry?

Well, we might laugh about our grandmothers’ pantries, but the joke might actually be on us.  Under the guise of modernizing our ways, we might have gotten tangled in a time-consuming, health-defeating, taste-stifling trap.  How can that be and, more importantly, is there a way out?

First, how could we have gone wrong by buying fresh at the grocery store?  To begin with, have you ever calculated the time cost of  our “quick” stops at the store to pick up something fresh?  It’s called “overhead” and it amounts to between 20 to 30 minutes, whether you stop to pick up two items or 20.  Secondly, grocery stores “selling everything you could ever want” are not a blessing on a weeknight at 5:30, when you’re racing home from work tired and hungry.  Tromping up and down their mammoth girth can make even Chinese take out sound good, to heck with any New Year’s resolutions to the contrary.

Which is exactly the problem.  Faced with spending 20 to 30 minutes in a stressful, artificially-lit, high-pressured mega-mart at the end of a long day, who wouldn’t opt for Chinese take out, or frozen pizza, or drive-through hamburgers?  So we end up in the curious predicament of having access to an extraordinary wealth of healthful, fresh, delicious foods and yet actually eating a narrow range of highly processed convenient foods.  Adding injury to insult is the fact that a lot (maybe most?) of what we buy on an average jaunt to the store isn’t fresh anyway:  Pringles, breakfast cereal, pasta and jarred sauces come to mind.

So is there any way out of this predicament?  You bet!  Dump any lingering mortification you harbor about the pantry and embrace it fully–but in a new-fashioned way.  No canned spinach and Jello for the modern gal’s (or guy’s) pantry.  Instead, stock yours with the makings for healthful, taste-tempting and fast meals–and skip that every day or every other day trip to the store.

Sarah is a perfect example.  We met at a dinner party last weekend.  She had brought some completely delicious hors d’oeuvres made completely from the pantry, which prompted a conversation about pantries.  “I never go to the store more than once a week,” she informed me.  “I figure out what I’m going to make for the week, then go shopping on the weekend.  What’s always amazing is how little I need to buy for my weekly meals.  Almost everything comes from the pantry.”

I couldn’t help but ask, “So are you able to make pretty good meals, even working more than full time?”  “No problem,” she replied.

Ready to get out of the grocery store and into the kitchen, making great meals instead of tromping up and down the aisles?  Read on. . . Here’s what’s in this series:

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

Pantries Aren’t Museums

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

If we cringe at the word “pantry,” it could be a reaction to the staleness that seems to go hand in hand with both the pantry and its contents. “Pantry staples” sounds a bit dull to begin with. To make matters worse, our well-intentioned pantry purchases often get buried and forgotten until well past their already lengthy shelf lives.

This series of articles is all about re-discovering the pantry as a hip, happening and helpful sort of thing. This is undoubtedly what you’ll discover when you first create a pantry. I feel pretty certain of that.

But with enough time, any new thing becomes stale, and a newly created pantry is no exception. Over time, stocking the pantry becomes routine:  We figure out what staples we use frequently, we buy extras and have them in place, and we save a lot of time making meals.

All of this is good, of course. Until we start getting antsy and boredom starts nipping at our heels, because the meals we make with our pantry staples are the same ones we made last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. . .

That’s when it’s time to breathe some fresh air into your pantry. Sure, you don’t want to fill your shelves with stuff that never gets used. On the other hand, it’s good to stretch a little, buy something new and different and use that new found treasure as a springboard to refresh your mealtime repertoire.

You could say that pantry stocking is a two way street: Generally, we motor along with our well-known and frequently used pantry staples, but occasionally we should hop the median and drive the opposite direction, letting some wild pantry purchase lead our meal making decisions.

It’s not so hard to find something wild to get your creative cooking juices flowing. An earlier article in this series called this “treasure hunting:”

On your next shopping trip, gift yourself five extra minutes for some “treasure hunting.” Pick one section of an aisle, temporarily suspend the to-do list tapping its toes on your brain, and take time to actually look around at the various products, especially the quirky ones on the bottom and top shelves (that’s where they put the newer, less familiar—and often more interesting—products.)

Here are some other places to look and suggestions for treasures you might like to try:

Magazine Articles and Mediterranean Treats As mentioned in yesterday’s article, O Magazine recently reported that top chef Tony Manturano went on a shopping spree to Europe and refreshed his pantry with seven intriguing finds: capers in salt, chickpeas, harissa, Mediterranean olives, passato di pomodoro, piquillo peppers and tuna in olive oil. Magazine articles like this are a good way to locate fun ingredients that will shake up your pantry, especially since this article included a tempting introduction to each of the seven possibilities.

Friends and Tamarind If a friend serves up a new flavor for you, be sure to ask about it. Ask nicely and she might even give you a small, try-before-you-buy tester, as my friend Claudia did when I asked about the tamarind she used in a dish.

Recipes and Thai Pantry Staples While it’s common to pass on recipes that feature ingredients you’ve never heard of, don’t discount all of them. Every now and then, give one a try even if it does require a new ingredient or two. A recipe for Thai peanut sauce is how I got introduced to the unique flavor or Thai chilies and fish sauce.

Truffles, Gourmet Olive Oil and Store Demonstrations Here’s a suggestion that shouldn’t be too tough: Whenever you come across a demo table at the grocery store, sample the wares. Health food stores in particular are good about offering some unique ingredients. This is how I discovered truffle oil and truffle salt, as well as Lucero’s divine olive oil from California.

Marjoram, Turmeric and the Bulk Herbs and Spice Aisle Herbs and spices offer an easy route for experimentation. They take little in the way of a monetary investment if you buy just a small amount from the bulk section. What’s more, they can be tested in very small portion of a dish, to make sure you like the flavor before risking the entire dish. Over the past year, I have been experimenting extensively with marjoram. It has become one of my favorite herbs. Now I am beginning to use Turmeric not only for its interesting taste but also its healing capabilities.

Once you’ve procured a new pantry treasure, make sure it gets put to use:

  • First, find a recipe that utilizes your new pantry treasure–just do an Internet search if a recipe didn’t come packaged with the inspiration for the ingredient;

  • Second, plan a time to make whatever recipe you find; and
  • Third, keep your pantry organized so you can find ingredients when you need them.

Ignore these rules and you’re practically assured of pantry overload. It’s a problem I hear about frequently: “I’ve got all this stuff in my cupboards and it never gets used #%$%&^*!!”

One final caveat: Passé is OK. Food can be such a trendy thing. I once read an article declaring that sun-dried tomatoes and truffles had officially passed their prime and would reflect embarrassingly on any cook who used them. I almost dumped my tomatoes and truffles before my good sense came to the rescue. Trends and fads be darned; if you like a pantry staple, use it

And now, it’s time to go fix my latest pantry fav: Dried beans. I have always stocked canned beans which are perfectly acceptable. But they are a far cry from the soft, buttery taste of dried beans simmered in a slow cooker. And there are so many uses for a freshly cooked batch. The topic of another day. . .

Ready to begin experimenting with a pantry.  Build one if you’re pantry-less, or if you’ve got a pantry, find out how to make the most of it.   Check out my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which explains what to buy and how to store and organize it for easy access, or email to set up some individual kitchen coaching where we focus on setting up a helpful and healthful pantry. If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, here they are:

Invaluable Kitchen Resource Gets No Respect

Remedy for the Post-Vacation Refrigerator Blues

Time Spent Stocking the Pantry Isn’t Wasted, It’s Invested!

How Many Great Meals Are Hiding In Your Pantry?

. . . or Do a Better Job Working the One You Have

Good News:  The Fun of a Pantry Journey Lasts More than an Afternoon

Pantries Save Time, Reduce Stress, Save Money, Produce Intriguing Meals and Maybe Even Lead to Enlightenment

How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours

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