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

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: 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.

What Are Your Holidays Missing?

Getting, Giving–and Purging

Gifts are so much fun. As kids we loved getting them. As adults we learn the joys of giving them. But few people know about the final piece in the triad: Purging. Probably because it’s a fairly new piece of the puzzle. Purging wasn’t so vital before the Age of Stuff.

The slow cooker has become my new best friend as I’ve discovered more and more ways to take advantage of its convenience, from stewing chickens to roasting vegetables and making meatloaf. Because I use it so much, I gifted myself with a second one. The wide, round shape offers different cooking options than my first cooker which is taller and narrower. But, I don’t want to initiate clutter creep by leaving it on the counter.

But with houses stuffed with stuff, receiving a gift can trigger dismay as easily as delight. “Where am I going to put it?” you wonder before the wrapping paper even hits the floor.

Happily, the Christmas season of giving is followed by ringing in the New Year, and its motto offers just the advice we need: “In with the New, Out with the Old.” Professional organizers and clothes closet gurus have been saying the same thing for years: For each new item, eliminate one old thing.

A bottom cupboard houses my old slow cooker on the top shelf; below it would be a logical and handy place to store my new cooker.

Following this rule is especially valuable in the kitchen, where clutter builds slowly and imperceptibly. Bit by bit the counters become overrun, cupboards bulge and everyday meal making becomes unbearably time consuming and annoying.

So resolve this year, at the very least, to eliminate one old gadget for each new one added.This advice isn’t just theoretical as you can see from you CrockPot story to the right.

But what about the mixer, sifter and pitcher? They were used a lot when my kids were young and baking was a big part of our lives. Now they are rarely used and are an easy target. But no need to toss completely; instead I’ll just relocate to the basement storage shelves where I can retrieve them for occasional baking. Meanwhile, a perfect spot is opened for my new cooker.

In with the New . . .  Out with the Old

Simple mathematics.  But what if it’s not so simple to actually do?

This is where professional organizers come in. An outside eye can make clutter easier to spot, can help decide what to keep and what to toss, and can make lighter work with more hands. Plus, as a master organizer, I can work with you to create kitchen spaces that flow efficiently and smoothly, supporting rather than hindering. This year, I’d be happy to help get your kitchen under control–all or even just a part. Call or email to arrange a time–or order a copy of my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, for a DIY solution.

Waste Not, Want Not: 5 Tricks for Cooking Not Tossing Bitter Foods

© 2010 by Kate on Flickr.com, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

My neighbor emailed me yesterday: “Mary, do you want a bunch of arugula?” Seems she had tried it in a salad and discovered that it is one bitter vegetable.

I could be called the dumping ground for all foods confounding, and strong-tasting bitter foods are definitely in that category. So it wasn’t surprising that my neighbor asked if I could take the remaining bunch off her hands.

I accepted, albeit a little reluctantly. Although it is a “highly nutritious food,” not to mention a very trendy one, arugula’s bitter taste would take some finessing to make it palatable.  In case you end up with produce on the bitter side, whether by “gift,” accident, or maybe in a CSA box, here are five tricks for taming rather than pitching it.

  1. Pay Attention to Seasons  Arugula is a cool weather crop, which means that it grows–and tastes–best in the cooler temperatures or spring and fall.
  2. Pay Attention to Maturity Just as with people, vegetables get rougher and more opinionated as they age. So for vegetables that are prone to harshness, buy the baby varieties. While I generally can’t stomach fresh arugula, I was surprised at the mildness of baby arugula used in a spring salad.
  3. Balance (a/k/a Dilute) the Flavor  Eating a whole serving of bitter food is sure to provoke a gag response. But that’s not the point. Bitter foods are meant to be used in small amounts to counterbalance too much sweetness, heat, saltiness, etc.  In this way, they add wonderful dimension and depth of flavor to a dish. In our New Kitchen classes, we teach about the six main flavors, including bitter, and how to balance them for intriguing flavor.
  4. Fresher Is Better This is true for any vegetable, since flavor and nutrients are at their peak when a vegetable is picked at its prime. For bitter vegetables in particular, allowing them to sit in the frig, gradually losing their moisture content and freshness might well concentrate their bitter flavor.
  5. Cook Them “Cooking tames” is a fundamental principle we share in our New Kitchen classes, where we learn about strong and bitter vegetables like turnips, radishes and arugula. Too much cooking, of course, and the food turns bland and mushy–kind of like the way a lot of us remember the vegetables our mothers’ made! But gentle, careful cooking can take down the high notes and blend everything together into a pleasing melody.

In the bowl is my version with scrambled eggs. My neighbor’s side dish is in a plastic container for easy transport to her house for a tasting.

Putting these principles to work, I went to work taming my neighbor’s arugula.  I started by sauteing an onion for a sweeter base. Red Anaheim peppers brought lovely color and mild heat.  Then I went two directions:

  • For my breakfast, I scrambled the arugula mixture with a couple eggs, which are also on the sweeter end of the spectrum.
  • For my neighbor, I added a pear for serious sweetness. Salt and a splash of red wine vinegar made for a fairly complete flavor combination.

The Verdict: The arugula was still bitter, my neighbor reported, but the pears definitely made it good enough to eat–and she’s right. A bitter vegetable will always be bitter, the best we can do is tone it down and balance it with other flavors for a dish that’s passable and even a little enjoyable–and so we avoid tossing it in the trash.

Anaheims are commonly harvested and sold when they are still green, so you may have never seen gorgeous red Anaheims. They turn red if not picked when green. I found their color irresistible so picked a few at our CSA’s Autumn Harvest Festival. Green and red can be used interchangeably.

Caption:

Recipe: Slow Cooker Kohlrabi Gratin

Cooking vegetables gratin-style is a delicious option–in the winter. Because a gratin is baked an hour or so, it’s tough to even think about making one in the heat of summer. Hence the slow cooker version in this recipe. Of course in cooler weather, you can also bake this dish at 350 (F) for an hour or so.

Although kohlrabi has been at the markets lately, with the arrival of August’s hot temperatures, this cooler weather crop may disappear for a while.  However, it frequently reappears in autumn, so keep this recipe handy.

For tips on peeling and cutting a kohlrabi, see the next post.

Serves 2

Step 1 Lightly Saute Onions

  • 1 med. red onion, sliced into strips about ¼” x 2” (or 1 cup sliced green parts of fresh onions)
  • ½ Tbsp. butter

In a medium-sized, heavy bottomed saute pan, heat butter over medium heat until lightly sizzling. Add onions and saute, just until lightly browned (about 5 minutes.)

Kohlrabi

See the next post for instructions on quickly cutting matchsticks or, for a more traditional style gratin, quarter and slice kohlrabi thinly.

Step 2 Combine and Cook

  • ½ Tbsp. butter
  • 2 medium kohlrabi (about 3 to 4” in diameter), cut into ¼” matchsticks (or thinly sliced and halved)
  • 1 cup milk or unsweetened almond or soy milk
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Grease a 3 to 5 qt. round slow cooker with butter, then add and stir together sauteed onion, kohlrabi, milk and salt and pepper. (Reserve onion pan for making breadcrumbs.)

Slow cook gratin a total of 6 to 8 hours as follows: Begin by covering slow cooker and cooking gratin on high for 2 to 3 hours until simmering vigorously, stirring occasionally. Once mixture is simmering well and kohlrabi has begun to soften, remove lid and continue cooking until most of liquid is evaporated–about 2 to 3 more hours, stirring occasionally.*  Then reduce heat to low and re-cover with lid and continue cooking until vegetables are cooked to taste, about another 1 to 2 hours.

Step 3 Toast Breadcrumbs and Serve

  • ½ Tbsp. butter or olive oil
  • 2-3 Tbsp. dried breadcrumbs

In pan used for sauteing onions, melt butter over medium heat, then sprinkle crumbs evenly across bottom of pan. Cook, stirring every minute or two, until crumbs are lightly browned and crispy. About 30 minutes before serving, return slow cooker to high and sprinkle evenly with prepared crumbs. Continue cooking, uncovered, for the last 30 minutes. Serve with optional garnishes.

Optional Garnishes

  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)

* Note:  cooking the dish uncovered allows moisture to evaporate, so the gratin comes out more like a baked dish than the kind of soupier dish that normal slow cooking produces.  While this means this isn’t a dish to fix and forget all day, the result is well worth the small amount of extra attention required.

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