Best Practice Secrets of Good Every Day Cooks

What Good Everyday Cooks Know that Struggling Cooks Don’t

Picking Up Barbeque Sauce from Honeysuckle

Exploring the Louisville Farmers’ Market at our first Market Morning.  Here, Kristen Hall talks about  she is reformulating all her sauces to use real ingredients–like what you’d have in our own pantry.

For a recent magazine article, Martha Stewart was asked how often she orders take out.  Her response was something like a couple times over the last 15 years.

How many people are in the “0-5” range for takeout during the last 15 years?  Initially, Martha’s response made me wonder whether she is some kind of freak.  But then it struck me:  I haven’t ordered takeout more than a couple times in the last 15 years either!

Fact is, there are people “out there” who make healthy, good-tasting meals night after night like it’s no big deal.  What do they know that most people don’t?

Here’s one big secret:  They know the difference between healthy and unhealthy convenience foods, and they know how to use healthy convenience to make good meals manageable.  Case in point:  The Honeysuckle Gourmet’s Black Jack Barbecue Sauce we discovered at our first Market Morning in Louisville.

Barbecue Sauce

Kristen’s Black Jack Natural uses her homemade ketchup to avoid unhealthful ingredients.

How did we know it was healthy?  At our Market tour, we got to chat with Honeysuckle’s Kristen Hall.  She explained how she is painstakingly reformulating each of her sauces to use all “real” ingredients, i.e., the same stuff you’d find in your own pantry.  If you could replicate a sauce yourself, you’ve got a healthy time saver.  You’re just paying to have someone else mix all the ingredients.

What about the cost?  At $7.00 a jar, it’s tempting to write off the sauce as “too expensive.”  But as FORK owner and class participant Christine pointed out, our group of 8 used only a quarter of the jar!  That means I’ve got at least 4 to 6 more meals in that jar for my husband and I.  Which brings us to the third point:

How do I use the rest of the sauce to make great meals, manageably?  This is the key to making condiments cost effective, i.e., finding ways to use them rather than having them waste away on the refrigerator door.  In addition to using the sauce to top sautéed chicken breasts at our class, I’ve found two other easy ideas:

Fast Recipe 1–Slow Cooker Chicken Legs  In need of a fast meal that could be prepared in advance, I skinned a couple chicken thighs and legs and plopped them into the slow cooker with 1/2 cup of sauce.  Eight hours later, I had melt-in-your mouth pulled chicken and sauce that went perfectly over warmed up leftover rice and broccoli.  Fast food couldn’t be faster!

Fast Recipe 2–Barbeque Chicken Soup  A couple days later, the leftover chicken and sauce became the flavor base for a quick, light summer soup with leftover broccoli, potatoes, new carrots from the garden and onion and garlic, of course.  I used another 1/4 cup of sauce + a little hot sauce for flavor.  Again, faster than fast food–and I still have half a jar of sauce.

So that’s how good every day cooks make good meals manageable–and delicious.  Learn more:  Join one of the everyday meal making classes with The New Kitchen Cooking School.

Brain Eating Stress and the Cooking Solution

Relaxation Photo

If relaxation time is hard to come by, consider that time making meals can double as stress-relief time

We all know stress isn’t a good thing.  But who knew that it literally eats holes in our brain tissue?  As explained by Houston neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, “Stress is underpinned by particular hormones that circulate through the body and the brain.”  Within the brain, “stress literally chews miniature holes” in the tissue.

That ought to send us racing for the relaxation room!  In planning a relaxation strategy, however, keep in mind the fundamental advice offered by Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University:  “You can’t save stress management for weekends or holidays.  It has to be done daily.”

Great, now there’s one more thing for the daily To-Do list!  Before that thought sends you into a bout of aggravated depression, consider this possibility:  Maybe you don’t need to try squeezing another half hour of relaxation time into an already over-scheduled day.  Instead, transform the time already spent making dinner into relaxed and creative time.

It may take a little imagination** to even envision dinner making as something that’s not one of the stressors chewing holes in your brain.  We’ve been carefully programmed to believe that cooking is so stressful and impossible that frozen pizza is the only option.  In truth, however, dinner making can be a great zone-out time, where you get lost in vegetable chopping, flavor combinations, the colors, the smells. . . . maybe the lovely glass of wine you sip while sautéing and stirring.

How does a person get to a place where cooking is a creative outlet instead of stressful drudgery?  It’s a simple learning process.  The more you know, the more uncertainty, fear and stress are replaced with confidence, comfort and calm.

Our meal making classes are all about sharing the skills that make cooking easeful and natural–and a time when you can unwind doing something that’s tactile and sensory.  Join us and save a few brain cells!

**We’ve got a couple good posts on how imagination is a key tool on the healthy eating journey:   and

Note:  Information and quotes from “The Consequences of Stress, A Shrinking Brain, Memory Loss Can Result,” Leslie Barker Garcia for The Dallas Morning News, from the Daily Camera, March 14, 2012, p. 3B




The Special Beauty of Old Things

Turning hard grain kernels into soft baking flour

Farmer John's Grain Mill

Farmer John’s Grain Mill

I have a fondness for things that have withstood the test of time–like Farmer John’s grain mill.  Manufactured in the 1940s and having traveled across three states before landing in Colorado, the mill is still in fine working order.  No planned obsolescence here!

Grain poured in the top funnel drops between two vertical stone disks in the center chamber.  There, one disk grinding against the other transforms kernel to soft stone-ground flour.

Amazingly, even the grinding disks have barely suffered from years of grain grinding.  In fact, the mill’s elegantly functional design is still used in grain mills manufactured today–with the exception of a plastic, rather than metal funnel.

As long as it’s not raining, Farmer John trundles his mill to the Boulder Farmers’ Market each week so shoppers can enjoy freshly ground flour.  See our video about the benefits of freshly ground grain.

Grain Mill from Back to Basics

Grain Mill from Back to Basics

If you can’t make it to the market for Farmer John’s flour but still want the benefits of freshly ground wheat, check out the little Back to Basics mill that has served us well for many years.  It’s hand operated–good for a quick boost of the metabolism or an engaging activity for over-energetic kids.  Use the mill for almost any grain and adjust the coarseness for anything from flour to breakfast cereal.  You’ll be surprised at how wonderful freshly milled cereal tastes in the morning.

Recipe: Skillet Souffle with Spinach, Smoked Salmon & Tomato Jam Topping

Spinach will be in season for another couple weeks.  Try it a new way in this skillet souffle, which is made on the stovetop to avoid heating up the oven now that summer is here.  The salmon addition is optional.  The tomato jam topping is a nice, low-cal and dairy free alternative to cheese, but if you’re short on time, just top with cheese.

Skillet Souffle with Spinach, Smoked Salmon & Tomato Jam Topping

Green Garlics

Green Garlics

Step 1:  Make Tomato Relish

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 lrg. green garlics, white and green parts divided (garlic scapes are a fine substitution)
  • 15 oz. can Muir Glen diced tomatoes and their juices (or 2 cups fresh tomatoes, diced, with their juices)
  • 1 tsp. sugar (optional)
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste

Slice garlic in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise about ¼” thick, keeping white bottom slices separate from green top slices.  Measure out ½ cup of white bottom slices; reserve remaining slices for use below.

Heat oil over medium heat in a medium sauté pan (about 8-10”).  When it is fairly warm, add the ½ cup white garlic slices and sauté gently for about 2-3 minutes, until just beginning to soften.  Stir in tomatoes, sugar (if using), and salt and pepper.  Lower heat and simmer until very thick, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning.  Remove from heat and reserve.

PIC green garlic

Step 2:  Saute Vegetables

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large yellow or red onion, diced to ¼” (about 2 cups)
  • ¼ to ½ lb. cremini mushrooms, chopped to about ½” (about 2 cups)
  • 1 to 1½ cups reserved green garlic pieces (to taste)
  • 1/8 to ½ tsp. chili flakes, to taste
  • 8 cups spinach leaves, cut into roughly 1-2” squares (about 1/2 lb.) or 4 cups spinach stems, sliced about ½” thick
  • 1 large cooked salmon steak flaked into small pieces (about 2 cups) or ¼ to ½ cup smoked salmon pieces
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste

In a large saute pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until quite warm.  Add onions and cook and stir about 5 minutes, until just beginning to soften.  Add mushrooms and cook another 5-7 minutes until mushrooms brown slightly and their juice evaporate.  Add spinach leaves or stems and cook another 5 minutes (for leaves) or 8-10 minutes (for stems) until tender, stirring every couple minutes.

Sauteed Vegetables

Sauteed Vegetables

Lower heat to medium low, push vegetables to sides of pan and add another 1 tsp. olive oil to center of pan.  When it is fairly warm, add reserved garlic slices and chili flakes.  Saute gently for about 2-3 minutes, until garlic is just beginning to soften.

Add salmon, stir everything together and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Continue cooking until salmon is heated through, then reduce heat to low and keep warm while cooking eggs.

Step 3:  Souffle Eggs

8 med. eggs, well beaten

Over medium heat, warm a separate, non-stick saute pan (about 8-10”) and coat lightly with butter.  When pan is fairly warm, pour in eggs.  Turn heat to low, cover and cook just until puffy like a souffle and all liquid egg is cooked.  If eggs are becoming too brown on the bottom before top portion is cooked through, gently separate in a few places with the end of spatula and allow any remaining beaten eggs to seep down to bottom of pan.

Skillet Souffled Eggs

Skillet Souffled Eggs

Step 4:  Assemble the Dish

½ to 1 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)

Gently spread spinach mixture over the cooked soufflé.  Dot with tomato jam and feta crumbles.  Serve immediately.  (Can also be served at room temperature, like a quiche.)

Finished Skillet Souffle

Serving the finished dish at Farmers’ Market

Cooking Disasters and Ugly Soup

What Not to Do When Cooking

Opportunities for humility are never in short supply.  In a recent class, a participant brought up the perennial problem of cooking failures.  My response began with the reassurance that cooking disasters don’t really happen that often, so don’t let them scare you from the kitchen.   Of course the very next day I enjoyed a full-scale cooking disaster–and got a good reminder of how de-motivating failure can be.

Ugly Soup

It wasn’t that my Ugly Soup tasted so bad, but more that is was so profoundly taste-less–which is about as bad!

My vegetable soup started out the right way:  Making a broth with chicken bones, then using it to cook some leftover broccoli stalks which got pureed in the blender.  But then I decided to throw in a handful of rice to see how it cooks up in a lots of liquid instead of a carefully measured amount.  Next came some of last autumn’s kale from the freezer.  Things were looking very green, so I sautéed and added some onion and then a few marinated sun-dried tomatoes.  Finally, worried that the flavor was on the bland side, I dumped in Herbes de Provence.

For once, I had to force myself to eat the resulting conglomeration.  Despite integrating a little color, it was still an unappetizing shade of green.  The taste was completely uneventful.  Plus, the rice didn’t have time to cook through so it was raw-tasting.  And then there was the far more serious crunch of chicken bones.  Seems I did a halfway job straining my chicken broth and a few got into the blender (which explained the funny noise the blender had been making!)  No surprise that I yearned for something more after forcing my way through a bowl of my Ugly Soup.  Needless to say, the recipe doesn’t follow.

So even after 40 years in the kitchen, disasters still happen.  But as they say in the positive thinking business, mistakes are less important than the response.  After a disaster, do you retreat into the welcoming arms of the processed foods industry (which thrives on making us feel incapable of feeding ourselves)?  Or do you filter out the chicken bones and try again?

If you are interested in transitioning to a healthy eating lifestyle, the second option is the only option.  The reason is simple:  We cannot maintain a healthy eating lifestyle without cooking our own meals from real foods.  A diet of packaged and processed foods cannot yield good health unless chosen with extreme care and eaten with extreme discipline–something that is practically unattainable.

Given that disasters cannot excuse us from the kitchen, what can we learn to help us get back in the saddle again?

  • For starters, always strain your chicken broth.
  • Avoid the last minute approach.  Dashing flavors together in a hurry may be something TV chefs can do, but most of us benefit from a little time for deliberation.  Or stick with a recipe created by someone who took time to figure out good flavorings.
  • Instead, think ahead.  The think-ahead approach always delivers the best results–and takes the stress out of cooking.  Had I thought ahead, I would have cooked the rice the night before when there was plenty of time for it to soften into a nice, fluffy thickener.
  • Herbs and spices, in particular, benefit from forethought.  Dumping spices into a dish at the very end stunts their flavor potential miserably.
  • Mind the colors in a dish  We really do eat with our eyes as well as our stomachs.  So even though I was full after eating my soup, my eyes were still hungry–and they are very close to the brain that sends me foraging for more food!
  • Finally:  Join one of our cooking classes!  We love to share all the confidence-building tricks and tips, new recipes, new flavors and cooking basics that take the overwhelm out of healthful, everyday meal preparation.  See how simple, easy cooking can be fun and engaging.  Check out our schedule.

Recipe: Millet (or Rice) with Garlic Scapes

Millet with Garlic Scapes

Millet with Garlic Scapes

Problem:  You’re having rice for dinner, again.  We love brown rice because it’s easy and delicious.  But if you’re craving just a little pizzazz, here’s a solution:  Lightly Fried Millet with Seasonal Garlic Scapes.

1)  Vary It  When cooking a pot of grains for the week, try a different grain.  I’ve been playing with millet–and developing a taste for this fluffy yellow grain.  Cook 1 cup of grain in 2 1/4 cups of water.

2)  Fry It  There’s a reason we all like fried rice.  Added fat up the flavor quotient of almost any bland food.  But you don’t need to add a vat of fat to get the taste benefits.  I used just 1 Tbsp. of a good fat–safflower oil–for four servings.  Hint:  leftover, cold grains are best for frying, after they’ve dried out a bit.

3)  Brighten It  Garlic scapes and green garlic are in season and add wonderful color and flavor to plain old grains.  They’re easy to slice.  I tossed about 1 cup of them in oil before frying the grain.  Sauteeing just a minute or so takes off the raw edge.

4)  Crunch It  While sauteing the garlic, I went one step further (totally optional) and added a handful of pine nuts. Slivered almonds or chopped walnuts are a perfectly fine (and a lot less expensive) alternative.  Toasting for just a minute or so really brings out the flavor.

5)  Finish It  After sauteing the garlic and toasting the nuts, I added about 2 cups of cold millet.  Crumble before adding as it forms into a solid mass when refrigerated.  After adding, leave it alone a couple minutes to brown before turning.  It might pop just a little.  Cover briefly with a lid if necessary.  Once the grain is browned and slightly crispy, turn off the heat and stir in just 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil, if desired.  Serve and enjoy.

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