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Two in One: Chicken Soup and Chicken Stock

8 Mar

Today I am going to share with you a great way to use 1 bird (chicken) in 2 ways (that’s almost the same as the “kill 2 birds with 1 stone” saying right?).  I decided recently that I wanted to make chicken noodle soup, and figured I might as well make some stock while I’m going to the trouble.  Actually, I ended up making 2 additional meals out of the chicken I cooked for the soup and stock, and I’ll be sharing those recipes later on the blog as well (I made chicken salad, Buffalo style, and also a pasta with chicken, asparagus and a goat cheese cream sauce later in the week).

First I want to discuss the making of stock.  As anyone who cooks knows, chicken stock is one of the most commonly called-for ingredients.  Even when it’s not called for, it’s beneficial to use it whenever a recipe calls for water (rice cooked in chicken stock instead of water, for example, is worlds beyond regular rice in flavor).

Making your own chicken stock is pretty much the easiest thing ever (and that was in the words of my husband).  Additionally, it usually costs next-to-nothing to make it, because the ingredients can be the scraps you have around from other recipes (stray celery/carrots/onions/herbs and leftover chicken bones).  Compared to store-bought stock, homemade stock is also abundantly more flavorful, plus you can control what’s in it (no MSG, not too much salt, no preservatives, etc.).   You can either make it and use it right away, or portion it into small containers and freeze it.  Then, you will always have it on hand when you need it (thaw it on the defrost setting in your microwave for a few minutes, then pop out the ice-block-of-stock into a saucepan and melt it back into liquid over low heat – it takes no time at all.)

Ok, so enough about all the reasons you should try to make your own stock.  Oh wait, one more reason, you will feel like a real chef and can impress all your friends, when secretly all you did was throw a bunch of bones and vegetables in a pot and left it to boil for several hours.  :-D

Since I was planning to make chicken noodle soup, I thought I would save myself some time and effort later in the week, and cook a whole bunch of chicken at once.  The basis of this post is that you can make a big pot of chicken stock, using one or more chickens, and then transform the broth into soup, and the chicken into other meals.  Classically, you don’t need actual chicken meat to make stock, but I used it in this case so that I could take that chicken meat and use it for recipes later in the week (plus that helped make the stock extra flavorful).  Half the stock I made went into my freezer to use other times, and half of it got turned into the broth for soup.

So without further ado….

How to Make Chicken Stock

There are no hard rules or recipes to follow for making chicken stock.  With all of the following ingredients, you don’t even need to peel them (even the onions! Just leave the skin on); just cut each ingredient in halves or quarters and then throw them in the pot.  There are several ingredients you definitely want to include if you can, such as:

  • 1-2 Onions (white/yellow)
  • 2-4 Carrots
  • 2-4 Celery stalks,
  • Whole peppercorns (~1 tablespoon) – whole because then you can strain them out
  • Fresh herbs – throw them in as whole sprigs/bunches – for example, parsley, thyme, tarragon, or whatever you have on hand

…If you have more celery and carrots and herbs on hand, go ahead and throw them in – it definitely won’t hurt!  Other than that, some nice additions for some more flavor are:

  • Leeks (very well cleaned)
  • Garlic (just smash the cloves, no need to peel)
  • Salt (to taste)

Plus, obviously, one of the following:

  • Whole, raw chicken (split in two so it cooks quicker)
  • Raw, bone-in chicken parts (thighs, breasts, wings, etc)
  • Leftover chicken bones

To make the stock, throw all the roughly chopped vegetables in the pot (there will be more than shown below):

Add your chicken bones or chicken meat.

Then fill the pot up with water. Use at least 10 cups, and make sure all of the ingredients are covered with water.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for about 3 hours, or as long as possible, loosely covered so you don’t lose too much water to evaporation.   If using whole chicken or chicken pieces, remove them after 45-60 minutes (for a whole chicken, use the upper end of that range), and separate the meat from the fat and bones.  Discard the fat, set the meat aside, and return the bones to the pot for the remaining simmering time.

Using tongs or a skimmer (one of my favorite kitchen tools), remove the chicken bones and vegetables.

Then, strain the hot stock throw a fine mesh strainer.  Please be careful at this step, as the stock is beyond HOT and the steam alone can burn you!

Let the stock sit to allow the fat to separate, then skim it off using a spoon.  As you can see in this picture, the fat floats on the surface and the difference in color will help show what needs to be removed.

Portion the stock into small containers and allow it to cool at room temperature temporarily before refrigerating or freezing (allowing the stock to cool to 140°F before refrigerating is safe because 140 is still hotter than “the food danger zone“. Cooling on the counter first also helps you avoid raising the temperature inside your refrigerator or freezer unsafely, which can happen if you put a large volume of very hot soup or stock right in the fridge).

Chicken Noodle Soup is a no-brainer:

Follow the directions above to make your stock, using whole chicken or bone-in chicken pieces.  Cook the chicken in the stock until cooked through, as indicated above, 45-60 minutes. Remove the chicken and separate the fat from the meat and bones.  Return the bones to the pot, discard the fat, and shred the meat.  Refrigerate the shredded chicken until ready to use.

Continue to simmer your stock for 2-4 hours, or as time allows.

Meanwhile, dice:

  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 1 small yellow onion

When the stock is done simmering, strain as directed above, removing the vegetables and bones.  Be very careful, it is very hot!

Return the strained stock to the pot on the stove, and return to a simmer.  Add the diced vegetables and:

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves if that’s all you have)
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon tumeric (for color)

Simmer for ~10 minutes, until vegetables are tender.  While the stock is simmering rapidly, add 16 ounces of pasta noodles and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes more.

Then, add the cooked chicken to heat through and serve!

When I made this, I made 2 huge pots full of stock/soup, using 2 chickens.  That meant that I had plenty of leftover cooked chicken for recipes later in the week, like Buffalo-style chicken salad for sandwiches and pasta with goat cheese, asparagus and chicken (which I will be sharing on the blog next week!)  The amount of effort and time and money it takes to make a second pot or bigger batch or stock/soup is minimal, so it really is worth it.  Having leftover cooked, shredded chicken around is never a bad thing, since the uses of it are limitless (think tacos, pasta, enchiladas, pizza, quesedillas, etc).

Vinaigrettes 101

27 Jan

Making vinaigrettes is definitely a skill you want to have in your culinary arsenal.  Whether it’s for throwing together a salad for which a store-bought dressing just won’t do (sometimes there’s not just a perfect flavor in the store – so this way you can customize your own!), or creating a nice vinaigrette sauce for fish or other meals, it’s a good skill to have.  Making your own dressings is simple, yet impressive.  Additionally, you can make them how you want them – without high fructose corn syrup or preservatives (not that there’s anything wrong with those, I am a Food Scientist after all, but sometimes it’s just nice to have things all-natural and homemade).  Plus, homemade dressings can be healthier (you control the amount of oil and sugar) and taste better (homemade balsamic vinaigrette is just so much better in my opinion!).

There are just a few basic principles to keep in mind:

(1) the basic components: fat (oil), acid (vinegar) and an emulsifier (optional)

(2) the ratios of these components

Ratios:

Typically, a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part acid is a good starting point.  Sometimes the ratio can be 1:1 (when using a weaker acid, like citrus juice) or even 3 or 4:1 (for very strong vinegars).  It’s up to you!  Just go by taste and consider what the dressing will be on – can it stand up to a strong vinegar or is it better if it’s toned down a bit?  I tend to like a 2:1 ratio (because I like a good vinegar tang and then there is less total fat and calories than a 3:1 ratio).

Fat/Oil:

  • Oils: Extra virgin olive oil, grape seed oil, walnut oil…
  • Dairy: Yogurt, buttermilk, cream…  I’m not going to go into detail on how to make your own cream dressings – I’ll save that for another day
  • Other: Avocado (to supplement the above oils)

Acid/Vinegar:

  • Vinegars:  Red wine, white wine, rice wine, balsamic, cider, Sherry or Champagne vinegar…
  • Citrus: Fresh squeezed lemon, lime or orange juice…

Emulsifier (or in non-Food Science terms, the component that can make the oil and vinegar come together and stay together – since naturally the oil and vinegar tend to separate)

  • Eggs: raw egg yolks (which I don’t condone) or pasteurized egg products (like Egg Beaters)
  • Mustard: Dijon, whole grain, spicy brown, honey…

Eggs and mustard both help to emulsify dressings because they contain amphiphilic molecules that interact with both water and oil (so they bridge the gap between the two and help hold them together, in very simplified terms!).  Vinaigrettes can also be pretty successfully emulsified by the use of a blender or food processor, without adding mustard or eggs – the force of a blender breaks up the fat into smaller droplets – which will make a fairly stable dressing that won’t separate as fast as one that was just whisked together.

Extras:

  • Onion/garlic/shallots: finely minced or even grated on a microplane
  • Seasonings: herbs (finely minced), spices, and definitely salt and pepper!
  • Sweetener: sugar or honey can really help complete a vinaigrette
  • Water: water can successfully be added to a dressing in small amounts to thin and to reduce calories
  • Hot sauce/cayenne pepper/red pepper flakes – something spicy, in a small amount can give a dressing a nice zing

To blend:

  • Whisk: The most traditional method.  Mix the vinegar, emulsifier and all other “extras” in a bowl, then slowly stream in the oil as you whisk the dressing vigorously in one direction.
  • Shake:  The quick-and-dirty method.  Place all the ingredients in a Tupperware or jar with a secure lid and shake until combined.
  • Blender/food processor:  If you want a more stable dressing, using the high speed of a blender or food processor will make a better emulsion (so it won’t separate as easily as the first two methods).  Like with whisking, add everything except the oil to the blender, turn it on, then slowly stream in the oil through the opening at the top of the blender or processor.  Using a hand-held immersion blender also works well.

Whether you want a more creamy, emulsified vinaigrette is up to you.  If you are tossing a salad with the dressing in advance, it won’t matter as much if it separates, compared to serving the dressing in a bottle on the table, where you may want the dressing to appear consistent and uniform for appearance sake.

Recipe for a Basic Vinaigrette

Yield: 1 cup, Time: 5 min

The cast of characters:

  • 1/4 cup vinegar of your choice (or 1/3 cup citrus juice) – in this example I used balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey (or sugar, optional)
  • 1 dash Tabasco (optional)
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced (or 2 teaspoons minced shallot)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Methods:

Whisk:  Add first 8 ingredients to a bowl.  Whisk continuously while slowly streaming in the olive oil.

Shake:  Add all ingredients to a container (jar or Tupperware with a tight-fitting lid), cover, and shake until well combined.

Blender:  Add first 7 ingredients to the blender (not the shallots, if using – add after blending).  While the blender is running, slowly stream in the oil.

I shook mine:

With any dressing and method, taste and adjust the seasonings and ratio of oil/vinegar to your taste (ideally, dip a piece of lettuce in the dressing to see how the final product will taste).  Add more salt, sugar or pepper if needed.  Vinaigrettes like this can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.

Inspiration: Where to Find it, How to Organize It

9 Dec

I think the main reason I cook so often is that I’m pretty sure life is too short to:

1. try every single recipe I want to…. there are thousands..

2. waste time eating things that aren’t delicious and/or new!

Of course I don’t live by this second principle all the time – sometimes there is just simply not time to cook something fancy for every meal of the day.  However, I do like to get in the kitchen as often as possible.  It makes me happy to eat delicious food, and I figure, if eating is that important to me, I better figure out how to cook the things I like myself!

I’ve been collecting recipes for years.  I am definitely that person at a party making people write down their recipes for me.  However, I think it’s probably very normal and easy to be uninspired when it comes to food (especially on any given weekday night when you just can’t bear trying to figure out what to cook).  But, I’ve never really met anyone who didn’t like to eat delicious food.  If you like to eat, but don’t like to cook, I think here are several places you should look for inspiration to get in the kitchen.  Learning to cook will allow you to eat delicious foods anytime you like!  It’s a miracle! :)  Anyway, I’m getting carried away.  My main sources of inspiration have been:

  • Family & Friends – These are the recipes we all grew up with.  They may be simple, but they have been well-tested and perfected over many years.  These are great recipes to start cooking with, since they are likely relatively uncomplicated and you can learn first-hand from people you know. 
  • Restaurants – There have been many, many times where I have eaten something in a restaurant and then am inspired to try it at home.  Pay attention to what you’re eating and how you think they made it.  I now have developed this .. thing (problem? obsession?).. where I only order things at a restaurant that I know I can’t yet make at home.  I feel like it’s a waste to order something that I know I can easily replicate at home (for example, simple salads or burgers, etc.).  Since now I only like to eat more complicated or exotic dishes out, these dishes continue to inspire me.  Maybe I’m weird?
  • Cooking shows – As cliché as it sounds, a lot of what I know about cooking has come from watching cooking shows.  My ultimate favorite is Top Chef – I’m a die-hard fan.  But in terms of learning, the instructional shows are more useful.  I don’t necessarily make the exact recipes that I’ve seen on the shows, but in general it inspires me to get in the kitchen.
  • Foodgawker – This is like porn for foodies.  I LOVE this website.  It is a website composed of user-submitted pictures of food from their blogs.  I started saving so many recipes that I had to cut myself off for a few months.  It got out of hand.  But then I discovered Pinterest, which serves as a great way to organize the recipes you find online that you want to try (you can “pin” any page/picture you like).  Hopefully soon I’ll start submitting recipes to Foodgawker and link my Pinterest account to the blog, so you can see what I’m pinning.
  • Magazines – I subscribe to Everyday Food and Food Network Magazine, both of which I highly recommend.  FN Magazine has a very clean and easy-to-follow layout, with a wide range of recipes, from quick, week night meals to more involved, technique-centered recipes.  Everyday Food is great too – all the recipes seem to be relatively simple, yet gourmet, with short ingredient lists usually.  These food magazines are more accessible for the beginning cook (I used to subscribe to Bon Appetit, but with less pictures and more advanced recipes, I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner).  I have found a lot of great recipes in Real Simple magazine also.
  • Cookbooks – I own far too many.  I read them like novels, cover to cover.  As far as which ones, a must-have is a good reference cookbook (I recommend Joy of Cooking, Bittmann’s How to Cook Everything, and/or Better Homes and Gardens).  I also own many specialty cookbooks.  My ultimate favorites have been: Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at HomeThe New England Soup Factory Cookbook, and Everday Food’s Great Food Fast).  Also, did you know you can borrow cookbooks from the library?!  I do this all the time now to find new recipes. 

Now, possibly just as important as inspiration is organization.  I only started doing this in the past few years, when I realized I had such an enormous collection of recipes that I liked in various books and magazines and online, etc. but I was never trying any of them out!  That’s when I realized it’s pertinent to organize them in a way that will make you reach for them when you need an idea.

This is my system:

 

I have a filing box that has multiple hanging files and tabs to organize the recipes I want to try.  Within the file box the tabs are: Appetizers, Sides, Salads, Soups, Entrees (divided into Vegetarian, Pasta, Chicken, Meat, Seafood, Sandwiches), Breads, Desserts and Miscellaneous (including drinks, sauces, etc).  If you are less of a recipe hoarder, you can start with less tabs.  I like this system because when I’m trying to plan dinners for the week, I ask myself what I’m in the mood for (Chicken? Seafood?), go into the folder, and look through my recipe choices. 

If I try, and love, a recipe, it gets moved to my “Tried and True” binder, which has tab dividers with similar labels as above.  The recipes are 3-hole punched, put in sheet protectors, or, if they are index card sized, they are put in those plastic photo album sheets. 

With any recipe that makes it to my “keeper” binder, I make sure to take notes on it, listing my modifications, likes and dislikes, etc.  That way, the next time I make it, I’m not wondering “wait, wasn’t there something I didn’t like about this recipe?”.

This system has taken care of all of my printed out, photocopied and  magazine recipes, and has SIGNIFICANTLY increased the amount of recipes I try.  I still have an enormous stack of Food Network Magazines I need to go through, since I have subscribed and kept every issue since the very first one and tried not to rip out any recipes.  I’m abandoning that and starting to go through them and take out recipes, because I have realized that I NEVER go back and try to “find” recipes from old magazines – the recipes need to be out and more easily available.

There are still other things I need to improve on too:

  • I am trying to use Pinterest more to keep all my online recipes organized in one place. 
  • I need a new system for my cookbooks.  Right now, all of my cookbooks have post it notes marking recipes I want to try, but as with magazines, I never go and open a cookbook to find recipes I want to try, because they are not organized in any way.  My new idea is:  when I go through a cookbook and see a recipe I want to try, I will write on an index card the recipe name, which cookbook it’s in, and what page it’s on.  Then, I will put these index cards in the appropriate file in my “Recipes to Try” file box.  That way, all my cookbook recipes will also be included when I’m searching for a chicken recipe, or whatever type it is.  This will save a lot of time and photocopying.

So clearly, I still have work to do too.  But hopefully you will feel more ambitious in finding recipes, knowing that you will have a way to organize them and find them again when you want to try them.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress :)

The Secret to Making “30 Minute Meals”…Knife Skills!

8 Dec

…Knife skills, and possibly a team of assistants behind the scenes.  But that’s besides the point.   The point of this entry is to emphasize how having certain knife skills will empower you in the kitchen (is that too cheesy?).  It really will though!  If you have ever watched an episode of 30 minute meals, you know Rachael Ray saves a lot of time compared to the average home cook because she can prep all of her ingredients so quickly.  One of her most used terms is “chop and drop” – chopping things as she needs them and dropping them in the pan.  This saves a lot of time.

So before I get into specific chopping/cutting skills, there are a few knife basics to know.  Once you get yourself a nice, quality, and sharp Chef’s or Santoku knife, you need to take good care of it.  Here’s how:

  • Hand wash your knives in warm water and soap.  Don’t put them in the dishwasher! Wipe them dry with a paper towel before you put them away.
  • Store them on a magnetic knife strip or knife block (not just loose in a drawer!).  I use a magnetic strip and I love it because it won’t dull the blade at all.
  • Sharpen them when needed.  I don’t use anything fancy, just a basic sharpener from any kitchen store (I have still not mastered the art of using a steel rod – that scares me).

Now for some actual knife etiquette:

The first thing to know is how to properly hold a knife:

… That is not my hand, just for the record.   The image is from here.  But as you can see, you wrap your pinky, ring, and middle fingers around the handle.  Your thumb and index finger grip the blade.  Don’t extend your index finger straight on top of the blade – it may slip and you might get cut. 

The next thing is how to grip the food you are cutting:

Image from here

Tuck your fingers under – then there is no way for you to get cut.  You can’t chop off the tip of your finger if they are out of the way.  Use the rest of the fingers to guide the food you are cutting.   Practice on celery.  One hand holds the knife, and the other hand simultaneously guides and holds the food.  Which brings me to my next point – the cutting motion.

In most cases, the method to use is called the tip-fulcrum method.  In this method, the tip of the knife is always kept on the board.  While the tip is on the board, you move the rest of the knife up and down.  This is a safe and controlled way of cutting, because if the tip of the knife never leaves the board, it’s a lot harder to cut yourself.  If you pick up the whole knife when cutting, you’re more likely to lose precision and cut yourself.  A good video to demonstrate both of these principles is found here (between 0:30 and 1:30).

Once you get the motion down, there is some basic terminology to describe different ways of cutting food.  They include: chopping, dicing, mincing and julienning.  Chopping can be rough and is generally a larger cut.  Dicing is a smaller cut, usually into uniform cubes.  This can be a fine dice, medium, large, etc (below, top left and center).   Mincing describes a very fine dice, for example, garlic, into very tiny pieces (below, top right).  Julienning is basically cutting foods into strips or matchstick shape (below, middle row).  The best way to learn is to practice – use a soft food like potatoes – to practice the motion. 

 

Image from here

Finally, I thought I might describe some tricks and tips to cutting some very basic foods (you’ll use them so often that it really helps to be efficient).   

First, garlic.  The first thing is to break a clove off from the bulb.  Wedge your fingers in and pull one out.  If they are really tight and hard to get out, turn the whole bulb upside down on a cutting board and apply some weight to help separate the cloves.   Once you get a clove out, lay it on a cutting board, take the side of your knife (blade facing away from you) and hit the knife with the heal of your hand to smash the clove under the blade.  This removes the skin.  A trick I learned from a chef friend of mine is that the harder you smash the clove, the less you have left to chop.  So smash it well, then run your knife over it repetitively (keeping the tip on the board), in a swift motion to mince.  If you need to make a paste, add a little bit of salt to the mince (it helps bring the liquid out), and alternate mincing and scraping it on the board with the sharp edge of your knife.

 

Image from here

Onions are another basic to learn how to cut like a chef.  Once you learn the process, you will wonder how (and why) you ever cut an onion any way else before.  It’s methodical and leads to an even dice every time.    The process would be kind of hard to explain by writing, so I’ll rely on good old Gordon Ramsey to describe it: How to Chop an Onion.  I promise it will change the speed at which you can cook!

I have adopted Rachael Ray’s method for cutting up bell peppers because I’ve seen her do it on TV, and I think it’s clever and quick.  She just slices it in half, right down the middle, right through the stem.  Then, she tears out all the ribs/seeds/stems from each half – and voila, left with two perfect halves ready to dice or slice.

There are of course many other exceptional foods that have completely different methods to cut, but I think those are better left for another day.  The ones that come to mind are avocados, mangos, how to peel and seed tomatoes easily, whole squashes… etc.  In the future, as they come up in recipes here, I will try to remember to show how to cut them in my posts.  Otherwise, and when in doubt, there seems to be a YouTube video for just about everything these days – and videos speak more than a thousand words.

Hopefully you see the importance of learning some basic knife skills.  It will make you a more confident and efficient cook, and you will no longer avoid recipes just because it looks like a lot of stuff to cut up.  I HIGHLY recommend taking a knife skills class if you are able.  Cooking schools are popping up everywhere these days which offer them.  Even places like Williams-Sonoma offer classes (including “complimentary” technique classes!).  If you can’t take a class, watch videos online or watch cooking shows.  I have learned a lot of tricks and skills from watching certain chefs on TV (some are better than others – Giada and Rachael Ray are good examples).  And finally, practice makes perfect (which I am still far from – but I do like to practice and pretend that it is my workout for the day).  And if all else fails, buy a food processor (though I think I have cut myself more with the blade of my food processor than a knife, and I’ve owned it only a few months…oops?!).

What to Keep in your Cupboards (And Fridge. And Freezer.)

7 Dec

In continuing with the 4 basic principles you need to get going in the kitchen, we come to: what you need to keep in the pantry.   Surprisingly, one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is to make something out of nothing.  How many times have you been in the kitchen, staring in the fridge, thinking “there is nothing to make for dinner”?   While most people probably reach for the nearest take-out menu (and yes, sometimes I just don’t feel like cooking either), I find that these are the times when I am most creative.  

Just as there are several indispensable kitchen tools, there are also several ingredients which will enable you to make something out of nothing.  These are the basics that I think you should always keep in your kitchen.  Having them on hand will greatly reduce the number of ingredients you will be required to buy each time you want to make a recipe, and they will also help fuel your creative fire (more on that under the “Inspiration” post – coming soon).

Beautiful pantry, found here.

Pantry Staples:

  • Oil – Both extra virgin olive oil (cooking, vinaigrettes) and canola/vegetable oil (baking, Asian recipes).  Keep them in easy-to-dispense bottles (squeeze bottles or drizzle bottles next to where you cook).
  • Salt – Kosher or sea salt, it doesn’t matter to me, but do use a coarse salt – and keep it in a bowl or salt cellar so you can easily pick it up and control how you season your food).
  • Black Pepper – Freshly ground from a pepper mill.
  • Vinegar – A few types are necessary to have on hand.  I like to always have red wine vinegar, balsamic and rice wine vinegar.  At least.  I have been known to have more than 8 varieties at times…
  • Rice & Pasta- Brown rice for a healthy side dish or base for stir fry.  Italian dried pastas for obvious reasons, dried Asian noodles (I like wide rice noodles) for stir fries.
  • Beans– Any variety really, they add bulk to meals when you don’t have meat on hand.  I particularly like having black beans around for easy Mexican, any time.
  • Canned tomatoes/paste  – I love the tomato paste that comes in tubes now (so you don’t have to buy a whole can just for one tablespoon – it keeps in the fridge a very long time).  Tomatoes are used in so many recipes, if you always keep some on hand, it will be a huge life saver.

Salt, pepper and olive oil set-up – right next to the stove

Fridge Staples:

  • Mustard– Definitely keep Dijon on hand at the minimum – it’s a staple for making a quick dressing.
  • Hot sauce – It’s up to you which variety… I keep Tabasco, Frank’s and Sriracha at all times, since they are all slightly different.  Tabasco is good for adding straight heat, Frank’s definitely gives a more defined Buffalo wing flavor, and Sriracha is my new favorite – it’s ideal for Asian food, but I’m beginning to use it on everything…
  • Cheese – Some sort of shredded cheese is always handy to have, as well as good parmesan.  Not the kind from the green can!  Real parmesan, in block form, will last a long time in the fridge, and you can use it more sparingly because it has SO MUCH more flavor.  I swear by it.  It makes such a difference.
  • Corn tortillas  – I am a freak for corn tortillas.  I love them.  And I always have them in my fridge, because breakfast (Huevos rancheros?), lunch (tacos?) or dinner (enchiladas?), I can always find a way to use them.
  • Mirepoix – the fancy French word for celery, carrot and onion.  Another Holy Trinity of cooking (just like oil, salt and pepper).

Freezer Staples:

  • Bacon– It is a great flavor base for so many recipes, and if you freeze it in packs of ~4 slices you will always have the perfect amount ready for any recipe.
  • Homemade stock – I must post about this in more detail.  Sure, you can buy the boxed/canned stock and keep that in the pantry, but homemade stock is simply the best thing ever.  Think about it!  It’s incredibly easy to make using leftover vegetables and meat bones, and so it is basically the definition of making something out of nothing.  And I love that.
  • Vegetables  – Any variety you like.  I always keep frozen peas, edamame, spinach and stir-fry vegetables in the freezer.  Because they are frozen at their peak of freshness, the healthfulness of frozen veggies is the same as, or even better, than fresh.
  • Chicken – Buy it in bulk (saves money) and then individually wrap the chicken pieces in plastic wrap and freeze (then you always have it on hand); thaw it in the fridge.  I buy both boneless, skinless (to thinly slice for stir fry, for example) and bone-in, skin-on breasts (for roasting – it’s so much more juicy).
  • Ground beef – Again, buy in bulk to save money, and freeze in 1 lb increments in zip-lock bags

Countertop (or wherever you store them…):

  • Garlic – Fresh really is best.  The pre-minced refrigerated kind is just not the same -it’s spicy and hot and weird.  Fresh is cheap and easy to prep if you have a microplane or some knife skills ;-)
  • Citrus – Fresh lemons and limes give flavor to dishes like nothing else… Honestly I don’t always have them in my kitchen, but I should.
  • Wine – If you don’t want to keep bottles on hand just for cooking, or can’t seem to spare any for recipes ;-), a good alternative is to buy some cooking wine and keep it in the fridge.  Or even one of the nice boxes of wine they have now (they have come a long way in terms of boxing GOOD wine!) – because those have a very long shelf life.

Asian-Specific Ingredients:

I have been cooking a lot of Asian-inspired food in the past few years.  I love Thai curries and easy stir-fries.  There are a few basics specific to this type of cooking that I always have:

  • Sesame oil – One little bottle will last a long time.  It’s very nutty and you only need a drop or two to add serious depth of flavor to any Asian dish (it is definitely one of those secret ingredients that makes you go hmm what is that).
  • Coconut milk – A must for Thai cooking.  I usually keep the “light” kind on hand, but the full-fat variety will take your curries from ho-hum to restaurant quality.
  • Thai curry paste – If you have an Asian grocery store nearby, I HIGHLY recommend buying your curry paste there – it’s worlds better, spicier and generally more authentic tasting than the kinds I’ve seen in my regular grocery store.  I credit my Thai friend, Keng, with enlightening me on this. 
  • Soy sauce – A classic ingredient, probably not much explanation needed.
  • Sriracha – As I said before, I think it’s the best way to add heat quickly and easily to any Asian dish.

Herbs & Spices:

If I had to only pick 10 herbs and spices to have on hand, they would be: 

Cinnamon (duh), nutmeg (whole, then freshly grated), curry powder (I love curry – and combining paste and powder gives more curry flavor), cumin (essential for the Mexican cooking I love), thyme, parsley, basil, oregano (all of which I would ideally always have fresh, but that only happens if I plan to make a recipe well in advance), cayenne pepper and crushed red pepper (I am addicted to spicy lately – and it will just add that much more interest to every dish).

Spices, found here.

So that was simple right?!  Hopefully not too overwhelming.  It’s not like you have to run out and buy all these things right away, it’s just my list of what I have found most useful to have on hand.  And, you probably have many of them in your kitchen already!  As I post different recipes, I will try to go into more detail about the ingredients I use and why they are important.  I will also try to post short tips, as I think of them, about different ingredients or tricks I’ve learned.  I hope that helps!  And please ask any questions you may have in the comments section!

The Tools to Begin

6 Dec

I recently got married, which means my kitchen was also recently combined with my now-husband’s.   We each already owned a very complete kitchen’s worth of stuff.  So between combining our households and having a wedding shower, we had about 3 sets of everything there is to own in the kitchen.  I love kitchen tools.  And appliances.  And shopping at places like Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel for everything I don’t need.  My family and friends also know this about me, so for the past ~6 years I think almost every present I have received has been kitchen-related.  Despite being a sort of kitchen utensil hoarder, I do realize there are really only a few basic things you NEED to get started cooking. 

… That’s a picture of the already-pared down collection of my kitchen tools after the big move.  Don’t be like me.

Anyway, here are the top 10 kitchen supplies I see as must-haves (in no particular order):

1. Good knives.  They really don’t have to be super expensive.  My first “real” knife was a <$20 Rachael Ray Santoku knife .   The most important thing is that they need to be SHARP.  Sharper knives are actually safer than very dull ones, because dull knives can more easily slip off the food you are trying to cut – I speak from experience (it was an onion).  It’s amazing how effortlessly I can chop foods now with the new Henkel knives I got for my wedding. 

While most would suggest owning about 4 basic knife types (Chef’s/Santoku, paring, utility, bread, etc), I think the most important is one good Chef’s knife or Santoku. I prefer Santoku, I don’t really even know why.  If using a big, sharp knife is scary, buy a smaller one – 5 or 6″.   A bread knife (or serrated knife in general) is also very useful – for cutting things like tomatoes and well, bread.  Cutting a baguette with a bread knife instead of a Santoku the first time was glorious.  Whatever you do, just please don’t be using steak knives as your primary cooking knives (Mom).  You’ll be amazed how much easier cooking is when the prep like chopping is easier!  I literally felt my cooking skills improve 10 fold when I got new, sharp knives.

2. Tongs.  Metal or heat-resistant silicone-coated.  I love tongs.  I never even owned any until a few years ago.  They are magical at picking things up (obviously?).  They come in where spoons and spatulas fail you.  I don’t have much more to say about them.  Get some.

3. Flat-edge wooden spoon.  Another tool I didn’t have until recently (maybe I should rewrite this list in a year and see how much it changes again?!).  I have always loved wooden spoons, but a flat-edged one is just that much better, since it easily scrapes up everything on the bottom of a pan, unlike the rounded edge spoons.   I am especially in love with this “lazy spoon” I bought at an art show last summer.  They are also more gently on non-stick pans than other types of spoons.  Treat them with mineral oil to keep the wood looking like new and not cracked.

4. Mini silicone whisk.  This is probably not on many other people’s lists of must-haves, but I love mine.  It has been so handy in so many situations – making vinaigrettes,  whisking together small amounts of dry ingredients, whatever.  The main reason I love a mini silicone whisk  though is for making pan sauces (i.e. gravies, etc).  Silicone because it won’t scratch your non-stick cookware.  Mini because it’s cuter. 

5. Microplane/Grater.  I love me a microplane (which is a very fine grater) for several reasons.  One: whenever I use lemon (or any citrus) in a recipe, I ALWAYS use both the zest and the juice.  I love lemon, and the essential oils (read: flavor) of the lemon exist in the skin.  Use only the colored part of the skin, not the white pith part, which is bitter.  I also use my microplane for grating fresh parmesan, fresh nutmeg, and fresh garlic cloves.  More on why using freshly grated versions of all these ingredients is important later..

6. Digital meat thermometer.  Hello, my name is Amy, and I am paranoid about food safety.  I wish I could be blissfully ignorant, but alas, I am a food scientist and my middle name is “I know too much about food microbiology to be anything but over-cautious”.   A digital meat thermometer will not only help keep you and your family safe, it will also help you be a better cook!   Growing up, I, and I’m sure many others, ate a lot of dry chicken and dry pork.  I guess I was lucky my mom realized the importance of fully cooking meat; however, a meat thermometer can help you avoid OVER cooking food, as well as under cooking it.  Using a meat thermometer will help take the guess-work out of cooking meat.  Yay.  The magical number for poultry and ground meat it’s 165°F.  For pork and cuts of certain other meats it’s 145°F with a rest time of 3 min.  For more information, click here.  Maybe I will do a whole post about food safety one of these days…

7. Good peeler.  Again, not something that most people probably think is that important.  But now that I have a really good one, life is so much easier!  I bought mine at Crate & Barrel, but they also sell the brand I like on Amazon.  It’s easier to hold in your hand than other styles and makes the job much easier.

8. Pastry blender.  Ah, I also did not own this until very recently, but my life is so much better now.   I can’t believe I ever suffered through making crumb topping without one.  Also very useful for… you guessed it….pastry or biscuit dough :).  So, I guess if you don’t make crumb toppings or biscuits or dough then maybe you can live without one (two knives moved in a criss-cross pattern can also substitute in a bind), but I recommend one anyway. 

9. Cutting boards.  Not an overly exciting addition to the list, but necessary.  I use a large wooden one for most chopping of vegetables, etc.  Key word: large.  Nothing’s worse than all the food your chopping ending up all over the counter and feeling all cramped when you are chopping.  Give yourself room to work.  Other key word: wood.  I like wood because supposedly it doesn’t dull your knives as fast.  Which is important for a lazy person like me who doesn’t feel like sharpening them.   However, you also need to own a plastic cutting board for meat preparation.  Do NOT use the same cutting board to prep meat and vegetables.  Plastic is important for raw meat too because it can be put in the dishwasher. 

10. Heavy pots and pansI included this because I remembered how hard it was to cook things well, without burning them, when I only had crappy, thin pots and pans.  Thin pots and pans heat unevenly, and sometimes too quickly, which will make it easy for soup to burn to the bottom of the pan or meat to cook unevenly.  This is another one of those things where your cooking will improve 10 fold when you have the right pots and pans.  Again, you don’t need to spend hundreds, just don’t buy the cheapest crap at the store.  They should feel heavy.  I also like non-stick cookware as opposed to stainless steel, because you can cook things without needing to add so much fat/oil to the pan.

Of course, this list is not a complete list.  You’ll probably need some spatulas, mixing bowls, measuring cups, etc. etc.  But those things just seemed a little more obvious and pretty self-explanatory to me.

I honestly think you will see how much easier and enjoyable it is to cook when you have the right supplies.  Cooking without these quality and basic tools would be like trying to write a best-seller using a type-writer:  it may be done, but it will take a lot longer and be a lot more frustrating.   So there you have it.   Any questions?

Introduction

2 Dec

Hello.  My name is Amy, and I love to eat.  I love to eat even more than I love to cook, which is a lot.  And the best way to make sure you get to eat lots of the food you love is to learn how to cook it yourself!  I want to share my enjoyment of cooking with whoever wants to read about it.  I am 24 years old and still learning myself, so bear with me.  I may be young, but I’m not afraid to try new things in the kitchen.  Growing up I was a pretty picky eater, but once I got into late high school and college I guess I grew out of that.   With my new culinary adventurousness came a new-found love of cooking.  I always used to bake, but it wasn’t until college that I really started to cook

I’m a self-taught cook, though I would of course love to go to culinary school one day.  I’ve learned all I know through reading, watching cooking shows and watching others in the kitchen.  Most importantly, I’ve learned by TRYING.  Nothing will teach you more about cooking than getting in the kitchen and giving it the old college try.   Don’t be afraid, there will be a few disasters, but those are the funny stories (like when I realized I forgot to put eggs in some brownies once they were already in the oven, proceeded to take the batter out of the oven, mix in the eggs and call it a day – it’s fineeeee).  There are just a few basics you need to get going in the kitchen:

1. The appropriate kitchen tools/supplies

2. A pantry stocked with basics

3. Some basic knife skills

4. Inspiration

…. I will write a separate post about each of these – because each point deserves some more tips and elaboration.

One of the most important things I have realized in cooking is that a recipe is just the beginning.  Adjust everything to your taste.  Use it as a starting point, not as the final say.  The same cannot really be said for baking though – which is a science – and everything is there in a certain amount for a certain reason (as a Food Scientist by training I respect the laws of baking).  I still love to bake, but cooking is just that much more fun because there is no right and wrong.  So use my recipes as a base and adapt them as you want.  I will try to suggest alternatives and ideas with all my recipes so you can develop your own! 

Thanks for reading! I can’t wait to start sharing recipes and ideas with you!