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

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.

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.

Spinning Leftovers for a Week of Dinners—plus a Lunch

Leftovers are a common problem for solo cooks. Not just extra servings of a dish, but also all the vegetables, seasonings, meat, rice, and other ingredients left over from making the dish.  Making the Sauteed Beet and Snap Pea Salad in the next post, for instance, leaves behind nearly a dozen foods:

The Leftovers List

  • Sauteed Beets

    Sometimes beets are only sold in bunches.  If you don’t need that many for a dish, saute the leftovers for a fabulous salad topper–or mid-afternoon snack.

    One serving of the finished salad

  • Steak strips
  • Couple handfuls of sugar snap peas
  • 2-3 beets from a bunch
  • Beet greens
  • Beet green stems
  • Garlic
  • Cumin dressing
  • Cilantro
  • Limes
  • Rice or quinoa

Problem or Possibility?  All those leftover items in the frig could lead to some anxiety.  “What am I going to do with all of them?  They’re taking over my frig!”  Or those leftovers might become sparks of inspiration for a whole week’s worth of meals–plus at least one lunch:

Lunch the Next Day

  • Leftover Sautéed Beet and Snap Pea Salad with Goat Chevre and Toasted Walnuts
  • Whole Wheat Pita Wedges

Make creative use of leftover salad by serving with a different side and new toppings (substitute another cheese or nut to suit your tastes)

Night 2

  • Sweet Potatoes with Cumin Dressing
  • Salmon with Lime and Cilantro
  • Garlic Sautéed Beet Greens

If it’s too hot for sweet potato fries, microwave then grill wedges and toss with dressing. Grill the salmon, too, and top with lime juice and cilantro. Try sprinkling apple cider vinegar over the sautéed beet greens.

Night 3

  • Early Summer Meal Salad:  Lettuce, Sautéed Beets and Summer Turnips, Spicy Pumpkin Seeds, Garbanzo or White Beans, Cherries or Apricots—plus anything else you have on hand!
  • Lemon Tarragon Vinaigrette (or store-bought dressing of choice, e.g., Drew’s Sesame Orange or Braggs Vinaigrette)
  • Whole Wheat Pita Wedges

For an interesting addition to a salad, cut and saute the rest of the beets, along with some summer turnips, as directed in the Beet and Snap Pea Salad recipe .

Night 4

  • Snap Pea Stir-Fry

    Leftover snap peas make a great snack, or make a quick stir-fry with them. Learn the 10 Steps to Super Stir Fries in one of our classes

    Stir Fry with Snap Peas, Onions, Summer Turnips, Steak Strips and Carrots

  • Leftover rice or quinoa

Use up leftover summer turnips from Night 3’s salad.  Cut them and the carrots into 1/4″ matchsticks. Flash fry steak strips in a separate pan for best results. Combine everything and top simply with soy sauce and San-J Szechuan sauce for a little heat. Serve with rice or quinoa warmed in the microwave.

Night 5—Super Easy Meal

  • Readymade Lentil Soup with Beet Stems
  • Whole Grain Toasts with Chevre and Roasted Peppers
  • Optional Chicken—grilled, rotisserie, deli or sautéed

Relax at the end of the week. Simply slice leftover beet stems very thinly and stir into Amy’s or another favorite lentil soup.  Simmer 5 to10 minutes until tender to taste. Meanwhile, cut whole grain bread into quarters and toast or grill; top with chevre and diced roasted peppers. Serve chicken on the side if desired.

Recipe: Quick Kale Huevos

Colorado weather can be frustrating. April comes and we think spring, then a snowstorm blows in. May’s gentle spring rains come, but turn to freezing sleet on a dime. And in June, when we’re ready for the riotous color of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant–we get greens. Our gardens and Farmer’s Markets are filled with chard, kale, collards, lettuce, spinach–all lovely but all green.

There is a reason for the bounty of greens. They are cold weather crops capable of surviving Colorado’s unpredictable, often-brutal springs. Take spinach. Not only can it successfully “hibernate” all winter, it practically relishes a spring snowstorm–emerging unscathed and actually tasting better. Meanwhile, hot weather tomatoes, peppers and eggplant can’t even be planted until mid-May and don’t start flourishing until well into July and August.

So in June, it’s all about the greens. While a radiant sight after winter’s brown and grey, they can get tedious. So in the vein of making lemonade from life’s lemons, find a quick idea for kale below.

Want more ideas?  Come to our class:  “Vegetables, Tasty, Tasty Vegetables,” a seasonal meal-making class focused on the greens–buying, storing, prepping, lots of versatile uses.

  • 5 Tuesdays:  June 3 – July 1   ~   5:30 to 8:00 p.m.
  • Register Online through City of Boulder–Class Code:  215238  Or simply call Parks and Recreation: 303-413-7270 (before 5 p.m.); 303-441-4400 (after 5 p.m.)

Also see one of the first posts, “It’s a Green, Green World,” with four more unique recipes for the green season:

  • Spinach and Sweet Potato Soft Shell Tacos
  • Red, White and Greens Stir-Fry
  • Wilted Spinach with Radish Dressing
  • Pasta Frisee

 Recipe:  Quick Kale Huevos

 A great way to get in a couple servings of vegetables at breakfast time–but equally good for lunch and dinner. Be sure to use 100% whole grain bread for a 100% healthful meal.

Quick Kale Huevos–or substitute chard or spinach

Step 1–Stem and Chop Kale  Stem an entire bunch so you’re set for several meals. Once stemmed, bunch kale leaves together and chop into pieces roughly 1″ square, then wash and spin dry in a salad spinner.  Tip: Remember to chop and save the stems for soup, stir fires, etc.

Step 2–Simmer-Steam Kale Use about a cup of liquid; broth provides a great flavor boost. Cover and cook over low heat until kale is tender to taste, then remove the lid, turn up the heat and cook to evaporate any remaining liquid.   Tip: Kale can be harsh-tasting (why a lot of people are leery of it.) Experiment with cooking it a little longer than usual–past where it loses its vibrant color, it may even become fairly limp–but you may well like it a lot better!

Step 3–Two-Pan Cooking  To speed things along, I use a second pan to fry the eggs and toast the bread while the kale cooks in its own pan.

Step 4 Assemble Toast, kale, eggs, salsa. I also had leftover slow-cooker beans in the frig. Why not throw those on as well after a quick heating in the microwave?  Other additions: cheese, avocado, chiles, low-fat sour cream . . .

 

 

Recipe: White Fish in Cilantro Broth with Sweet Potatoes and Broccoli

Simple, One-Dish Style Makes for Simple Dinner Times

Broccoli florets and julienned sweet potatoes surround delicate white fish kept moist and tasty with the springy tang of a cilantro broth.

Step 1:  Prepare Cilantro Broth  

  • 1 Tbsp. roughly chopped garlic (from about 3 cloves)
  • 1 Tbsp. jalapeno pepper, chopped roughly, more or less, to taste
  • ¼  cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ tsp. salt, more or less to taste
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, low sodium (divided)
  • 2 cups roughly chopped cilantro, both stems and leaves

In cup of immersion blender, combine garlic, jalapeno, lime juice and salt.  Allow to sit for several minutes to meld flavors.  Add half of broth and cilantro.  Blend until fairly smooth but with a little texture, then add remaining broth and blend just enough to incorporate it.  Reserve.

Even though this is a one-dish meal, two-pan cooking makes preparation faster–vegetables simmer-steam in one pan while the fish cooks in another.

Step 2:  Simmer Steam Vegetables

  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, low sodium (divided)
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, cut about ½ to 3/4” in size
  • 1 lrg. Garnet or Jewel yam, julienned to about 1/8”, then cut into roughly 2” lengths

Combine broth and broccoli florets in a large frying pan with a lid.  Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat t o low and simmer just 3-5 minutes, until broccoli is halfway done.
Stir in yam strips and continue simmering until both broccoli and yams are almost done to taste, about 3-5 more minutes.

Step 3:  Pan Fry White Fish 

  • ½ to ¾ lb. cod, talapia or other mild white fish filets either fresh or frozen and thawed, cut into 2-3” cutlets
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil, to taste

While vegetables cook, warm oil over medium heat in a medium-sized, heavy bottomed saute pan.  Gently squeeze or pat cutlets dry, then season with salt and pepper.  When a corner of fish sizzles gently when touched in warming oil, use a spatula to spread oil evenly over bottom of pan, then lay cutlets in warmed oil in a single layer so they do not touch each other.  Set timer and cook for 3 minutes and flip over.  Reduce heat to medium low and cook another 1 minute, then remove immediately to a plate.

Step 4:  Combine and Serve

As soon as vegetables are almost done, stir in reserved sauce, then push vegetables to sides of pan and lay partially cooked cutlets in center.  Continue simmering, covered, just 1-2 more minutes, until fish is done.  Taste and add more salt, pepper, lime or jalapenos,  to taste.  Serve immediately, placing two or three cutlets in center of wide soup bowl surrounded by half of the vegetables.  Spoon broth over the top.

Optional:  Serve alongside a little brown rice to soak up the broth deliciously

NOTES:  See the next post for background information on preparing this recipe.

Recipe: Simple Chinese Vegetable Sauce

Find Salvation from the Barren Wastelands of Boring Veggies

Find Salvation from the Barren Wastelands of Boring Veggies

The next post will talk about Debilitating Boredom Syndrome and how sauces can be just the cure if you’re agonizing over having to eat more broccoli, or spinach, or zucchini.  This Simple Chinese Sauce is a perfect example.  One of our class participants, CSU Extension Agent Ann Zander, couldn’t believe something so simple could turn plain old broccoli into a treat.

But here’s the thing about sauces:  Everyone’s tastes are so different.  You have to taste, taste, taste and adjust.  Use the following combination as a starting point, but be sure to add more lime or soy sauce as desired.  Toasted sesame oil can be quite strong, so add only a few drops at a time if you should want more.

  • 2 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil*

Combine in a small bowl and allow to sit for 5 minutes or so.  Taste on a vegetable piece and adjust flavors.  Be sure to stir immediately before serving to make sure ingredients are evenly combined.  While this sauce adds welcome zing to broccoli, it can also be used on many other vegetables, including green beans, zucchini, spinach and stir-fried cabbage.

*Note:  Toasted sesame oil is different than plain sesame oil that is used for stir-frying.  The toasted variety is dark brown in color and has the smell characteristic of Chinese cooking.

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