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.

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Is it OK to use the garlic and ginger that comes in jars?

Those little jars of prepared garlic and ginger are so completely convenient!  No fussing

I like The Ginger People and Emperers Kitchen brands because they dont have any artificial preservatives.

The Ginger People and Emperor's Kitchen brands have good flavor but no artificial preservatives. Although some kind of preservatives are needed to keep them from molding, these brands just use citric acid, sugar or vinegar. In the background are chives in bloom.

with paper-thin garlic peels, no paring gnarly knobs of ginger or endangering fingers on the ginger grater and no garlic-smelling hands for the rest of the night.  But is it OK to use these conveniences?

I get this question a lot, usually phrased a little sheepishly, as if the questioner is already using the bottled stuff; she just wants to know how guilty she should feel.  After all, what kind of cook doesn’t peel , mince and grate her own ginger and garlic?

One of the fun things about my cooking classes is that we actually experiment with fancier ingredients and preparation methods, do side-by-side taste comparisons, and see whether they are worth the extra time and money.  This month we pitted prepared garlic and ginger against fresh, in an easy version of Saag Paneer.  (Join a second session of this class; make this intriguing dish then take it home for dinner)

The results?  The dish with fresh ginger and garlic really did taste better.  “Brighter” you might say.  You could really pick up on the tangy-ness of the ginger and earthiness of the garlic.  So yes, peeling, chopping and grating your own does make a difference.  But does that answer the question of whether it’s OK to use prepared stuff?  Not exactly.

Even though I know flavor might be sacrificed, I use prepared ginger and garlic all the time because sometimes, flavor isn’t the only factor to consider.  How much of a flavor difference is there?  Will it make a difference in the dish I’m making?  What if I’m so pressed for time that a flavor/convenience tradeoff is acceptable?  And finally, do I care?

In our Saag Paneer class, for example, one participant acknowledged that fresh tasted better—but not enough to offset the convenience of the prepared version!  She was perfectly happy with the taste of her dish, which is the real bottom line and the answer to our question.  As long as you are OK with a tradeoff in taste, then pre-chopped ginger and garlic are completely OK.

Sure, a five-star chef wouldn’t use prepared ginger and garlic, but she has a sous chef to do her grating and chopping!  For everyday cooks, the prepared products can be a real godsend, making good-enough dishes possible on a busy schedule.

Personally, I favor a selective use of prepared garlic and ginger.  Rather than completely embracing or shunning them, I follow this rough rule:  The longer garlic and ginger are cooked in a dish, the less they are the dominant flavor, and the less time I have, the more I am inclined to use the prepared versions.  Conversely, in recipes where garlic or ginger is used uncooked or only lightly cooked, or where it is the main flavor, I am inclined to use fresh unless I absolutely don’t have time.

Here are some specifics to flesh out that general rule:

Mary’s Six Guidelines for Fresh vs. Prepared

1.  Cooking Time When garlic or ginger is used in an uncooked form, as in a pesto or salad dressing, I use fresh, no question.  Ditto for dishes where the garlic or ginger is only lightly cooked, as in Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts (check it out at the Vegetable a Month Club.)  In these cases, flavor is critical.  What’s more, when used fresh, very little is required, minimizing prep time.

On the other hand,if garlic is called for in a long-simmering stew, I usually opt for prepared, since the flavor difference becomes almost imperceptible with longer cooking times.  For in-between dishes, like stir-fries and skillets, I let time dictate my choice.

2.  Flavor Dominators When garlic or ginger is the predominant flavor in a dish, I am sure to use fresh, as in the classic Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic or Ginger Sauteed Halibut.   If the flavorings are just a side note, however, I feel fine substituting the prepared versions, as when I make nut burgers, which combine a myriad of flavors.

3.  Backup Plan What if the flavor of fresh is needed, but there just isn’t time to chop and grate?  Two solutions:  Use a little more and/or cook it a little less, to keep the flavors bright.

4. A Continuum Perspective Any time a convenience food question comes up, I view it from a “Continuum Perspective.”   In other words, I imagine the possible range of foods positioned along a continuum.  On one end are highly processed and refined packaged foods without much in the way of nutritional value to recommend them.   At the other end are nutritional darlings like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, good fats, and so on.

Of course it would be ideal to eat completely from the whole, natural, fresh and from-scratch end of the continuum, but I pat myself on the back if I at least keep progressing along towards the ideal.  So if at times I must rely on some canned beans—or pre-chopped ginger and garlic–to get a decent meal on the table, I don’t hesitate for a second.  I’m still further along the continuum than if I tried to cook completely from scratch, got overwhelmed and ended up making a packaged and processed something out of desperation.

5.  At Least Try Fresh Once Remember what your mother said when you turned up your nose at dinner?  “How will you know unless you try?”  I used to think that bottled lemon juice was a good enough substitute for fresh—because I had never bothered to squeeze my own.  Finally I put out the effort and tried fresh.  I was fully humbled and corrected.  So at least try the fresh stuff a couple times so you have a point of reference–and know if you’re missing out on something.

6. Read the Ingredient Label Everything said so far is based on the assumption that your pre-chopped ginger or garlic (or other convenience food) is just that:  “ginger” and “garlic.”  Surprisingly, this is often not the case.  Reading the ingredient label is the only way to know if a seemingly simple food contains additives, colorings, preservatives, excessive amounts of salt and so on.  If it does, using it isn’t just a matter of taste, but also a matter of personal health.

The Bottom Line:  They may be completely convenient, but real cooks can use pre-chopped ginger and garlic–without feeling guilty!

Convenience Foods Are Costly, But Can You Make Dinner without Them?

My last grocery bill got me thinking. There was a $2.49 line item for a box of instant brown rice. (I always keep a box on hand in case I forget or am unable to make my weekly pot of rice.) Putting it away, it was such a lightweight, especially compared to the bulk bag of organic brown rice I had also gotten. I ran some numbers to see just how much I pay for the privilege of convenience:

$2.49 buys me

1 box of instant brown rice = 6 cups of cooked rice (enough for about 2 meals)

OR

2 1/2 lbs. of bulk brown rice = 20 cups of cooked rice (enough for 6+ meals)

That’s a pretty dramatic difference, and likely as not, the same ratio applies to most other packaged foods in the store. So why are convenience foods like instant rice flying off the shelves when we’re all being squeezed by high grocery prices? Simple: because they’re so darn convenient! Who’s got time to cook from scratch?

There’s the rub. It would be nice to save some money at the grocery store, and cutting back on convenience foods is an obvious target, but how can we possibly assemble decent dinners without a convenience crutch? Here are three strategies that work for me: Strategic Substitution, Stretching and Simplifying

Strategic Substitution

Strategic is the key here, i.e., where can significant price savings be had for little or no extra time? If you’re hankering for something like tamales or sushi or ravioli, making your own probably doesn’t make sense. But things like rice, beans, meatballs, fish sticks and chicken nuggets are all so easy, why should you pay someone else to make them?

Rice is perfect example. The preparation time is identical: Mix water, rice and salt in a pan and put it on the stove to cook. The only difference is the cooking time: You can’t wait until 10 minutes before dinner to cook regular brown rice. Instead, get in the habit of making a pot of at the beginning of each week. Then it’s just a microwave away from being ready. (In case you don’t use it up, just freeze it.)

How To But what if you don’t know how to cook rice except from a box? Or beans, fish sticks, chicken nuggets or meatballs? Jump to these links:

  • How to Cook Rice
  • How to Cook Dried Beans
  • How to Make Fish Sticks
  • How to Make Chicken Nuggets
  • How to Make Basic Meatballs

More Numbers Here are some more numbers to justify cooking outside of boxes:

  • Dried Beans: $1.00 of dried beans produces the same amount as $6.00 worth of canned beans. Think of the additional savings if those beans serve as a protein substitute for meat!
  • Breaded Fish Fillets: Gorton’s Crunchy Breaded Fish Sticks are $7.49. A 10-minute substitute, using the same kind of fish, costs $3.08, less than half.

More Good News

  • Healthier Cooking lower on the convenience chain not only saves money. It results in meals built from real, straight-from-the-earth foods, without gratuitous additions for fat, salt, sugar, colorings, preservatives and flavors.
  • Tastier Better yet, those real foods taste a whole lot better than cheap, mass-produced factory-made foods.
  • Kinder to the Planet And the icing on the cake: look at all the packaging that’s avoided, the dyes and inks that aren’t being used, and the energy that isn’t being devoted to shipping frozen foods around the country. Hooray!

Ready for more strategies? Read on. . .

Stretching

Sometimes our hand reaches for packaged foods at the store because we’re not too comfortable in the kitchen. The thought of making something completely from scratch sounds impossible. So buy a convenience “starter” but stretch it, and while you’re at it, use healthy “stretchers.”

Soups are a great example. Imagine Foods and Pacific Foods both make pureed soups in large, 1 quart sizes, which are just about half the per-ounce cost of smaller canned soups to begin with. With great flavor and a healthful vegetable base, they are a perfect backdrop for all sorts of easy and equally wholesome “stretchers.”

Remember the pot of brown rice I suggested cooking and keeping on hand? It makes an easy and inexpensive addition to any soup. Ditto the dried beans you’ll want to start cooking once a week to have on hand. Leftover chicken would also taste good in practically any soup.

Now bring in some vegetables. Chard is an easy to prepare, fast cooking and usually pretty cheap option, as are broccoli (be sure to use the stalks, too), spinach and zucchini. Red peppers and snowy white cauliflower are great for color. Frozen vegetables are especially good in winter or when you’re particularly short on time: chopped spinach, peas, corn and diced green beans.

Let color be your guide when deciding on combinations. Imagine golden butternut soup, for instance, with kale and white beans, or deep green broccoli soup with rice and cauliflower florets. You get the picture. . .

In the end, enjoy an easy meal had inexpensively and without sacrificing great flavor or health.

Simplify

No doubt time is a another big reason we keep gobbling up packaged foods despite their price tags. While picking out my box of instant rice, a hurried mom grabbed a box of scalloped potatoes off the shelf next to mine then darted off for the next aisle.

She was right in thinking there wasn’t time to make the traditional bubbly baked potato dish. But a box isn’t her only option. “Simplify” and more alternatives present themselves.

In the same amount of time that it takes to make a packaged potato mix, you could simply scrub and microwave potatoes and top them with grated cheese for a tastier and fresher alternative. For just 5 extra minutes–and half the cost–you could make another simpler option: the microwaved Cheesy Potato Casserole recipe below.

Betty Crocker’s Scalloped Potatoes (including added milk and butter) = $2.70

Homemade Cheesy Potato Casserole: = $1.39

Here’s the Recipe:

Cheesy Potato Casserole

  • 1 ½ lbs. potatoes (about 6 sm-med)

Scrub and puncture several times with a fork to prevent them from exploding. Microwave three minutes, turn each potato and microwave another 3 minutes. Repeat this process until potatoes are soft when squeezed.

While potatoes cook, combine sauce ingredients in a small, microwavable bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

  • 2 oz. cheddar cheese, finely shredded (about 1 cup)
  • 2 Tbsp. low-fat sour cream
  • 1-2 tsp. stoneground mustard, more or less to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. milk

When potatoes are done, microwave sauce 20 seconds, then whisk to combine. Repeat this process 2-3 times, until sauce is smooth. Avoid overcooking or sauce will become stringy.

Assemble the casserole: Butter a 9” x 5” loaf pan. Slice potatoes about ¼” thick. Lay half of slices in the loaf pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with half of the cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining potatoes and sauce. Eat immediately or, to better meld flavors, microwave entire casserole 30 to 60 seconds.

______________________

We’d all like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent beings, but we’ve been hoodwinked by food marketers. We’ve been hoodwinked into believing we’re too busy or stupid to make anything on our own. Of course marketers want us to believe that. It’s the only way we’ll buy inferior-tasting convenient foods.

So stop believing the marketers. With just a bit of courage and willingness to try, we can do this food thing on our own. Not only will we save money and end up with better–tasting and more wholesome food, it’s very likely we’ll find that being self-reliant is pretty rewarding.

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