Scrubbing Vegetables: “Veggie Scrub” Makes It Easier

Check out this great new 2-for-1 find:  A vegetable scrubber + fresh herb colander for just $3.50

Clever

Clever (and easy) gadget for vegetable scrubbing. Especially good for cleaning small produce. The Veggie Scrubber(www.VeggieScrubber.com)

Although I’m a still big fan of my $2.50 nail scrubber from the cleaning supply store, I put the “Veggie Scrub” to the test on Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes.)  These gnarly and knobby vegetables are the toughest vegetable I’ve ever scrubbed, but the Veggie Scrub did a great job with them.  I am always reluctant to buy sunchokes just because they are so hard to wash, but now that’s not the case.

The packaging instructs to either wear it like a mitt to scrub vegetables with your hand, or to pop the vegetable inside the pouch and rub under flowing water.  The first method worked best with large vegetables, while the second worked best for small things like baby turnips and potatoes.

Either way, you get a decent and inexpensive vegetable scrubber.  But wait, there’s more:  The Veggie Scrub doubles as a fresh herb “colander.”  Washing herbs is always problematic, not only because they’re small and hard to manage, but also because they get soaked and become difficult to chop.  The Veggie Scrub contains them handily while washing.  Then take the pouch outside, fling it up and down vigorously and the herbs are quickly dried enough for a decent chopping job.

Green Kitchen Tip: See tomorrow’s post, about reusing the mesh bags from lemons and limes as an herb washer/spinner

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Washing Spinach vs. Packaged Spinach

Claudia is a “Good Mom.”  She buys spinach for her family because it’s so tender, tasty and full of nutrients.  But getting her family to help wash it is like climbing Mt. Everest.  Week after week, spinach goes to waste in their household.

Ray doesn’t like washing spinach any more than Claudia’s crew.  But neither will he shell out the extra dollars for the pre-washed variety.

So even though Ray and Claudia’s family all like spinach and would love to eat more, they end up with none. Not a happy ending in spring, when spinach is the star of the seasonal show.  What to do?

Getting Past the Money Thing The money thing is understandable.  You’re standing in the vegetable aisle.  Bunch spinach is $1.99.  Next to it are packages of pre-washed spinach for $2.99.  In the context of the grocery store, a dollar is a lot.  So right then and there, it seems foolhardy to pay for the packaged spinach.

That would be fine if we went ahead and bought the $1.99 bunch.   But all too often we don’t, which is why it’s worth examining the money thing a little more closely.

From the safe perch of this blog, well outside the grocery store context, the perspective is a little clearer:   It’s a dollar we’re talking about.  The difference between eating spinach and reaping its many benefits and not eating it at all is a single dollar. Maybe you eat spinach two or three times a month.   That’s $3 for the entire month.  Need I say anything about the cost of a single latte?

The 5-Minute Thing Assuming you can face down the money thing, there’s another big problem with the pre-washed spinach:  its packaging.  What happens to that plastic shoe box after fulfilling its single job of delivering your pre-washed spinach?  Of course we can “just throw it away.”  But as Julia Butterfly Hill so simply and poignantly puts it:  “There really is no such place as “away.”  This is what keeps Claudia from reaching for the packaged spinach at the store—and what leaves her with a washing problem and rotting spinach.

It’s no surprise that no one in her family wants to wash spinach.  It’s inconvenient and takes time and in our frenzied culture, that is sufficient cause for panic if not disdain.  But just like the money thing, it helps to stop and think:  just how much time is at stake?

I forced myself to quantify my time fears recently while staring at a leftover plastic spinach box.  Just how much does it take to wash a bunch of spinach?  Out of curiosity, we timed it for the Washing Spinach video for this month’s Vegetable-a-Month Club.    [[LINK]]

Spinach washing takes 5 minutes.   So we’re talking about 5 minutes.

There’s some real data instead of just more vague time fears.  So when I am torn between packaged and bunch spinach I ask myself, can I afford 5 minutes out of 16 waking hours for clean air?  Are pure water and fewer toxins in our dirt worth 5 minutes?

The Best of Both Worlds Happily, there is a solution that takes some of the environmental sting out of buying pre-washed spinach.  Some stores have bulk bins of pre-washed spinach.  The price isn’t much better than the boxed stuff, but at least you can take it home in a recycled plastic produce bag.  While I would still wash it (who knows how many hands have touched it), washing spinach in this form doesn’t take any longer than any other vegetable.

Farmer’s market spinach is often sold in bulk bins, too, and when sold in this form it is very often pre-washed.  It must definitely be given a final wash at home but again, this doesn’t take long.

Take the Aggravation out of Spinach Washing There’s one final way to tackle the spinach conundrum:  Take the annoyance out of spinach washing!  Then it isn’t a barrier to buying the less expensive, more environmentally friendly forms of spinach.    First, if you’re in a hurry, instead of tearing the spinach, use a long serrated knife to cut it to the right size.  Next, don’t get overly worried if a few stems find their way into your spinach.   Finally, get a large washing vehicle, like a salad spinner or a pasta pot with an insert.  Then you don’t need to scrub the sink before washing.

Find more tips on the Washing Spinach video from the Vegetable a Month Club—and enjoy spinach with abandon when it comes into season in spring and fall.

Crockpots and Slow Cookers: What Is a Good Slow Cooker Recipe?

In case you haven’t noticed, slow cooker recipes are the latest trend in the cookbook trade.So there’s no problem finding recipes.The problem lies in choosing a couple to actually make.While a lot of that choosing is a matter of personal taste, here’s one thing I’ve learned specific to slow cooker recipes:

Look for recipes that take advantage of a slow cooker’s advantages.

Obviously, if you wanted to make chicken stew, you wouldn’t turn to your countertop grill.Similarly, you wouldn’t turn to your slow cooker for crispy grilled chicken.That’s because specialized kitchen appliances all have their tradeoffs.In other words, being really good at one thing makes it not so good for other things.

Slow cookers, for instance, are really good for:

  1. Cooking the heck out of tough characters like stew meat and dried beans, transforming them into melt-in-your mouth goodness.
  2. Hands-off cooking, i.e., being able to throw everything in a pot in the morning and forget about it until dinnertime.It’s probably no coincidence that slow cookers became popular when women started working outside the home all day.

The downside of a slow cooker, of course, is that dishes can come out pretty mushy, especially if they include delicate things like sweet peppers, zucchini, asparagus and chicken breasts.

So when you’re looking for slow cooker recipes, don’t fight the machine.Look for recipes with ingredients that require long cooking times, that can be thrown together and left alone, and where a certain amount of “mushing” is not a huge issue.Think classics like pot roasts, stews, soups, chilis and other bean dishes.

This all sounds so self-evident.Why do I even write about it?Because it’s easy to get tripped up by what I call “gourmet slow cooker recipes.”Lately I’ve noticed that many of the newer slow cook recipes have become quite innovative:ethnic chicken dishes, risottos, Cornish game hens, poached salmon, banana cakes.I got all excited about them—until I saw the cooking times:2 hours on HIGH; 4-5 hours on LOW; or LOW 4 hours then HIGH for 30 minutes.

What happened to the “fix it and forget about it” principle?

Here’s my theory:Remember that slow cooker collections are the latest growth category in the cookbook trade?That means a lot of new recipes have to be developed .Necessarily, authors are getting creative, and the tradeoff for more flair is less “fix-it-and-forget-it.”

So as you scout for slow cooker recipes, be mindful of cooking times.If the slow cooker makes good meals feasible because you can turn it on in the morning and walk out the door, then watch out for dishes with odd cooking times.They are better for people who work out of the home or for weekends.

Even if you fall in these categories, it’s worth questioning whether slow cooking is the best option for certain foods like chicken breasts, fish and some of the more tender foods.They are so great cooked fast on the grill or stovetop, why bother using a very slow pot that you can’t control very well?What’s more, cooking them to be moist and succulent requires close watching over their cooking minutes.Achieving such delicious exactitude with a hard-to-control slow cooker would be tedious, if not impossible.

So in my search for slow cooker recipes, I am leery of ones that treat the slow cooker like a glorified stove top pot, since that leaves me suspended in a funny limbo, with a meal that can neither be left alone all day nor cooked in one fell swoop before dinner.

Does this mean those recipes are bad or that I won’t ever use them?Not at all.I’m sure the recipes are delightful, but I will only choose one for my slow cooker repertoire if it benefits my cooking schedule and makes a good meal easier to get on the table.In other words, I’m looking for recipes that take advantage of the slow cooker’s advantages!

Crockpots and Slow Cookers—Why Are They Sitting in the Back Bottom Cupboard?

The idea is perfect: throw a few ingredients into a stoneware crock, turn it on and voila! At the end of the day, you walk in the kitchen and there waits a richly aromatic meal, all cooked and ready to go.

For a lot of people, the great crockpot dream comes true all the time. But it seems that for an equally good number of us, it’s more dream than reality. Of course we all have crockpots, we clearly see their advantages, we want to use them, but we don’t. Hopefully, this blog series will be of some help.

Crockpot or slow cooker?

First off, let’s get the terminology right: “Crock-Pot” is actually the brand name for the slow cooker created by the Rival Company. “Slow cooker” is the correct generic term for these devices. It’s kind of like “Kleenex” and “facial tissues.” So in fairness to the Rival folks, we’ll use the correct generic name.

Isn’t the middle of summer the wrong time to talk about slow cookers?

Seems like it, but one of my clients alerted me otherwise. She loves her slow cooker in the summer because it doesn’t heat up the house. The fact is, even in summer we eat hot cooked meals, so what if they’ve been cooked in a slow cooker instead of a sauté pan?

Also, if you’re serious about taking advantage of your slow cooker, there’s some getting ready to be done. Start gravitating that way now and there’s a good chance you’ll be ready when the weather begins to cool. The next blog will talk about getting ready for slow cooking. . . .

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