Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Links for 08/24/10

Bottled tea beverages may contain fewer polyphenols (antioxidents) than home-brewed

SproutRobot tells you when to plant your garden

Health Checkup: Who Needs Organic Food?

Cage confinement of laying hens increases Salmonella risk

Let's discuss food recalls

Yesterday the FDA announced a recall of 380,000 pounds of deli meat (that's 190 tons), most of which was sold at Wal-Mart in the form of sandwiches, for listeria contamination.

I'm a bit late to the party but my husband and I just watched Food, Inc. last week.  If you've seen the movie (or read any of Michael Pollan's books or any number of other books and documentaries out there), then this recall probably doesn't surprise you one bit.

What surprised me was learning that the FDA has forced 41 similar recalls since January 15, 2010.  There are a couple on the list that were recalled for mislabeling, but the rest are for E. coli, listeria, and salmonella.  And the truly horrifying "foreign material", "adulterated", "underprocessing", and "animal drug contaminant."

Now, knowing what I know about the FDA and how utterly powerless and, quite frankly, apathetic it is toward the American food supply, I can reasonably assume that the amount of things not recalled that should be is almost unfathomable.

I don't know why people continue to buy frozen ground beef patties.  It seems like there's a recall on those every other week.  The fact that they're mixed with filler that has been treated with ammonia notwithstanding.

Choosing to eat clean, real food is not your typical the-sky-is-falling worst-case-scenario type overthinking.  It's not like helicopter parents who don't let the kids out of the house because of course there's some psycho rapist behind every bush just waiting to snatch them away if they walk across the street.  This is about eating a fast food hamburger and ending up in the hospital.  It's about downer cows, crowded chickens who can't walk under their own weight, pigs whose feet are rotting from standing in their own feces, water supplies ruined from industrial farm runoff, Monsanto thugs putting family farms out of business, greenwashing, the obesity epidemic, the cancer epidemic, untested GMOs, and on and on.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Part 4, Lesson 2: Rounding It Out

Part 4: "I Can't Afford Fresh Food"
Lesson 2: Rounding It Out

Incorporating Exercise
Eating real, fresh food will give you more energy.  That's just how it is.  So as long as you're making major lifestyle changes you might as well get in some exercise to burn some energy off.  There are a million and one websites, articles, and magazines with ideas on how to incorporate exercise into your busy day.  Some of the ideas are impractical (join a gym!  Sure, I'll get right on that after I work my full time job, then pick up the kid and make dinner and clean the house and take the kid to soccer practice and put the kid to bed and maybe say a couple of words to my spouse before passing out and go back to work in the morning so I can continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck) or just plain stupid (jumping jacks in your cubicle!).  If we're being completely honest with ourselves here there are many good excuses not to exercise.  But here's the thing: most of your excuses are crap.  Take the stairs.  Park farther away.  Get up 20 minutes earlier.  Play with your kids.  Go for a walk.

Feeding the entire family
It's possible to feed your kids something other than french fries, Happy Meals, and frozen chicken nuggets.  If your kid has never tasted jicama or kohlrabi, why not?  If they've tried them once and decided they hated them, did you try to prepare them a different way?  Have a few years passed since you last tried?  Kids are pliable.  I encourage you to get kids excited about trying new things.  I know that some kids are steadfastly stubborn little bastards, but I don't think you should ever stop trying. 

Do you have a baby?  Have you ever considered making homemade baby food?  It's easier and faster than you think.

Do you have school-age kids?  Do they eat school lunch?  Do you know what they're eating?  Please find out and consider sending healthy, fresh food with them.  With a little pre-planning mixed with freezer and food storage skills it's easier and faster than you think.  Better yet, start a conversation with your child's school about the quality of the food they're serving.

The Big Box Of Crap
Remember that box of crap food you've been adding to this whole time?  It's time to go and look at it.  How have your feelings toward this stuff changed?

Your Homework:
Donate your box of crap to a food shelf.  I'm sure there's a box at your local supermarket.  There are a lot of hungry people out there and even if this food isn't the best, it's better than nothing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Part 4, Lesson 1: Budget Foods

Part 4: "I Can't Afford Fresh Food"
Lesson 1: Budget Foods

Finally she's writing about money, right?

It is possible to eat real food on a budget.  I promise.  You may just need to adjust your shopping style.

Be A Coupon Ninja
This is the most time-consuming thing you can do, but the deals you can score are amazing.  The jist of super couponing is this: store has something on sale, say, 2 widgets for $1.  You have two coupons for $0.25 off 1 widget because you bought 2 Sunday papers or printed 2 off the Internet.  The store doubles coupons.  Thus you end up with 2 widgets for free.  I'll wait while you work out the math.

This is how you can get a lot of things for free or extremely cheap.  And you don't have to work out all the sales and coupons yourself.  Through the magic of the intarwebtubes people have done all the work for you: see A Full Cup, Pocket Your Dollars, and a number of other sites like these.  I've got a bunch in my RSS reader for ease of reading.

This all being said, don't be sucked into the trap of free or cheap convenience foods just for the sake of getting them free or cheap.  Bad free food is still bad food.  Get them and put them in a donation bin if you must.  Look for deals on produce (they exist!), pantry staples, and household goods.

Buy In Bulk
I'm sure you've heard this before, but have you ever actually taken a stroll through your store's bulk section?  Some stores are better than others and it can be worth it to drive a little farther to the store with the better selection.  If you're in Minneapolis, the Rainbow at Lake and Minnehaha has a stunning bulk area.

But the bulk section is scary!  There's all these bags and weighing and labels and scoops and oh god nobody is here to hold my hand fffuuuuuuu....

Get over it and stop being such a lazy asshole.  Grab a bag, a twist tie or label, and a golf pencil or one of the attached pens.  Scoop your stuff into the bag.  Write down the PLU, the number code on the bin of whatever you're buying, on the twist tie/label.  You don't even need to weigh it because the cashier will do that at checkout.

Better yet: bring your own container so you don't need plastic bags.  If you do this, weigh your container first and write the weight down on your label.  This is called the tare weight and you may need to remind your cashier about it.  Don't forget to write down the PLU too.  There's no need to make your cashier's life harder; they get enough shit from bad customers as it is.  Seriously, if you talk down to your cashier I will punch you in the face.

Another bulk tip: near the bulk bins you will usually find bulk or bagged spices.  Go ahead and compare the price of bagged peppercorns or cayenne with the jars in the spice section.  Mmm hmm.  Yup.

Farmer's Markets and Farmstands
If you have access to a farmer's market or a farmstand, GO.  The food is more often than not local, very often organic, as fresh as it gets, and cheap.  I mean, really, really, really cheap.  It's sickening to have to pay $1.49 or more for a single avocado at the supermarket when I know I can go to the farmer's market and get a bagful of 5-8 for $2 or less.

In addition to actually meeting and speaking to the actual farmers, you have the benefit of finding produce you never even knew existed.  When it's so cheap, why not try something new every week?

Ethnic Markets - Field Trip Time!
I went to United Noodles this weekend and picked up a pound of frozen shelled edamame for $1.49.  I usually get 12 oz for $2.59.  Lemons and limes can be had at Latino markets for a couple of bucks a bag, as opposed to $1 each at the supermarket.  Spices that run $8-10 for a few ounces can be found at Asian and Indian markets for pennies on the dollar.  I saw a huge bag of whole cardamom pods at United Noodles for less than $3.

So get on over that xenophobia and go.  You won't get any funny looks even if you're not brown or yellow.  The clerks are usually more than happy to answer questions and help you find stuff.

Don't pass by the ethnic aisles at the supermarket, either.  The Latino section, in particular, can score you cheap cinnamon, whole dried peppers, cayenne, beans, and rice.

Co-ops (really!)
Co-op and budget aren't usually two things that go together.  You picture co-ops as places where yuppies driving Priuses and Minis buy expensive organic soap and carrot juice.  While this is mostly true (Wedge, what up?), it is possible to find reasonable prices there too.  Membership truly has its advantages in the forms of coupons and member-only specials.  Co-ops usually have fabulous bulk sections too.

The only problem with CSAs is that you have to come up with the money up front.  It's a bit painful having to drop like $500 all at once, but if you think about it it actually works out.  You're getting local, organic (usually) produce, and a LOT of it.  If you freeze what you don't eat right away rather than giving it away or letting it go bad, you can stretch out your CSA goods well into the winter and maybe even beyond.

You can garden almost everywhere, even in an apartment.  If you get involved in seed swaps or seed giveaways, it's nearly free.  If you're in the "I hate tomatoes" crowd and have never eaten one straight off the vine, you may just change your mind.  Those mealy bastards at the supermarket have absolutely nothing on a homegrown heirloom tomato still warm from the sun.

Your Homework:
Find and visit an ethnic store or a farmer's market.  Buy at least one thing you've never heard of.  Research it online when you get home.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Part 3, Lesson 2: No Sweat Big Batch Cooking

Part 3: "I Don't Have Time To Cook"
Lesson 2: No Sweat Big Batch Cooking

Soup: cheap, filling, usually healthy, usually fast.  Soup can be made in large amounts to feed a lot of people or to be stretched out over time.

Canned soup: salty, mushy, tasteless.

Homemade soup can be seasoned just to your own taste.  It can be made with leftovers and the stuff in your fridge that's about to go bad.  It can be frozen.  You can add more stuff to it throughout the week so you're never eating the same soup twice from a big batch.

Soup is easy.  Saute some aromatics (the mirepoix or trinity in your freezer is perfect for this), add liquid, add your filler ingredients, and season.  Simmer for a few minutes.  Done.  See?  Easy.  Add a salad and some bread and you have a filling, nourishing meal.

This is by no means complete, but here's a simple place to start if you want to come up with your own quick soup.  Choose something from each column, heat, and serve.

Liquid Protein Carb Veggies
Chicken broth cooked chicken cooked rice frozen mixed vegetables
Turkey broth cooked turkey cooked pasta diced tomato
Beef broth cooked pork tortellini cubed potato
Fish stock cooked steak quinoa diced squash
Tomato juice/V8 fish barley green beans
Vegetable stock shrimp


cooked ground beef
shredded cabbage

diced onion


Your homework:
If you have a can of soup in your pantry, turn it around and read the ingredients list and nutrition facts.  Now put it in that bag of crap in your basement.  Plan one night this week where you will make soup.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Part 3, Lesson 1: Menu Planning

Part 1: "I Don't Have Time to Cook"
Lesson 1: Menu Planning

You know it and I know it: menu planning prevents convenience food.  It's hard not to order pizza when you don't have any fresh food in the house.  If you take some time once a week/fortnight/month to plan your meals and have a shopping list ready to go, you'll really have no excuse besides laziness to open that can of Chef Boyardee.

As you have probably gathered from the weekly master files, my particular approach to meal planning is pretty nerdy.  I use a spreadsheet so I can easily sort my shopping list by day, type, ingredient, or whatever.  Back before we got our groceries delivered I would sort by type so it would make it easier and faster to find everything in the store.  I hate grocery stores, so if I could shave a few minutes off here and there by not bouncing from aisle to aisle, I did.  You sure don't have to use my spreadsheet, or any sort of prefabricated meal planning tool at all.  A pen and a piece of paper work just fine for some people.  If you do want to try out some other meal planners, there are a ton of them if you know where to look.

For the sake of example, let me tell you how I do it.  I use Google Docs to store all my recipes.  As I come across new and interesting recipes throughout the day, they get added immediately.  I try to keep everything labeled according to cuisine and some meal types like soups, salads, sandwiches, and sides.  I'm not so good at keeping up with that, but I've got about 85% of my recipes categorized that way.  Here's an example recipe.  You'll notice at the bottom of the recipe there is a spreadsheet that corresponds with my meal plan's shopping list tab.  So all I have to do is copy and paste that part.  I add these inline spreadsheets as I use recipes so the next time I use them it saves me a ton of work.

Your "Usuals"
Here's an example of a meal plan we used in May.  It was the week of the Kentucky Derby, hence the terribly unhealthy meal on Saturday.  It was delicious.  Anyway, if you scroll over you'll see that the last tab is called "usuals."  We eat homemade pizza and spaghetti a lot in our house.  They're our go-to lazy meals.  They're prepped and ready to be copied and pasted into the shopping list tab.  I encourage you to come up with your own "usuals."  If you've got a few of these in your back pocket and implement a weekly "usuals" night, that's one less meal you have to plan.  It's a huge load off my mind knowing that Thursday or Friday is usually spaghetti night.  We used to have enchilada night too, but that made us fat.

If you look at the "Month" tab (whoops, I guess I didn't update this one for May) you can see how I can take the sting out of a month's worth of meals.  If I have an outline of what I'm going to plan, I can look in Google Docs for a salad recipe one night, something Korean the next, and then a soup, all I have to do is fill in a couple blanks.

This all makes sense to my mind and I'm sure it's on the top end of control-freakiness.  So take whatever parts of this that are useful to you and come up with your own solution.

Planning Snacks
If you're trying to watch your weight, take the time to plan your snacks too. 

If All Else Fails
Copy someone else.

Your homework:
Choose a meal plan template that works for you.  Plan a week's worth of dinners and make a shopping list to go with it. 

Extra Credit:
Plan out all your breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks for a week.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 8: Where the Flavor At

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 8: Where the Flavor At

So you may be staring down a pile of beautiful fresh produce and wondering what to do with it besides eat it plain.  If you're just coming down off of a diet of high-sodium, high-fat, high-industrial-chemical-flavor food, real food can taste a little bland at first.  Not to worry, for it's just your taste buds adjusting.  Before I got pregnant I almost completely eliminated extra salt from my diet.  Everything tasted like cardboard for a couple of weeks, then gradually came back to life in my mouth.  A few weeks later I ate some kind of frozen horror show food (eggrolls or something like that) from my parents' freezer and couldn't believe how ridiculously salty it was.

There are ways to flavor food with real ingredients.  There is always the spice cabinet, but don't overlook things like fresh citrus juice (NOT from a bottle, and certainly NOT from concentrate), buttermilk, "fancy" cheeses, fresh herbs, dark leafy greens, dried fruits, nuts, flavored oils and vinegars, olives and pickles, stocks and broths, yogurt, butter, and simple classic sauces.

Here are some ideas to get you going (and here's a great article on the subject):

  • Broccoli: saute in olive oil and butter with sliced garlic.  Squeeze fresh lemon juice over it before serving.
  • Couscous: add chopped olives, walnuts, chopped red bell pepper, and chopped dates.
  • Green beans: blanch and toss in a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, fresh parsley, minced garlic, and crushed red pepper.
  • Carrots: steam and toss in butter, honey, and tarragon.
  • Corn on the cob: go Mexican style and smear it with a small amount mayonnaise.  Roll it in crumbled queso fresco, farmer cheese, feta, or grated Parmesan, then sprinkle on chili powder.
  • Portobella mushrooms: marinate in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper.  Roast or grill.
Your cooking method can impart flavor too.  There is a whole world of grilling and barbecuing out there.  Try tossing a few handfuls of wet smoking wood chips on your coals sometime.  Oven roasting vegetables brings out an incredible amount of flavor.  If in doubt, roast your vegetables.  Toss them in oil, add salt and pepper, and put them on a sheet pan in a 375 F oven until they're as toasty as you want them to be, stirring occasionally.  Cook vegetables and grains in broth. 

How to pair flavors

Where to begin?  Here's your homework.  Get a paper and pen.  Take out all of your dry herbs and spices.  Take the caps off.  Grab one at random.  Grab another one.  Put them both together under your nose and inhale.  Inhale carefully.  It's not my fault if you're sneezing up cayenne for the next day and a half.  How does it smell?  Do the two things go together?  Do they remind you of anything?  Does it smell like rotting bison ass?  Write your thoughts down.

For example:

You'll start finding patterns.  You'll quickly discover what you like and what you don't.  You may notice that some things smell "warm" and others "cool."

Extra credit: try pairing spices with cheese and giving it a whiff.  Herbs and fruit.  Fruit and vinegar and herbs.

It may take time, but eventually you'll build a mental (or written) list of what goes with what.  And eventually your taste buds will wake up and you'll appreciate the sweet crunch of a fresh peapod, the natural umami of an artichoke, the different flavors and textures of greens, and so on.

A word of caution: not everything you cook needs to have the ingredient list length of your average Indian food recipe.  Less can be more.  Experiment with two or three flavors at a time.  Unless you're actually cooking Indian food.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 7: Stepping Outside of Your Culinary Comfort Zone

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 7: Stepping Outside of Your Culinary Comfort Zone

"I cook this way because this is what I grew up eating."
I have heard this excuse over and over and over when people try an explain away the box of Hamburger Helper and tub of margarine they just devoured.  But guess what: your parents gave you that crap because they were poor and you were a picky asshole kid.  Don't worry, all kids are picky assholes.  Their taste buds are still developing and are, most of the time, super sensitive to certain flavors (this can actually change in a child from week to week).

Now that you're all growed up it's time to expand your culinary horizons.  I grew up eating generic mac and cheese, white rice, and ramen.  These days I prefer food with actual flavor.  You can too.  Note: chow mein is not what I'm talking about here.

Discovering New Cuisines and Flavors
Have you ever tried Somali food?  Peruvian?  Do you know the difference between Thai and Vietnamese food?  If you're lucky enough to live in an area with a wide variety of cultures, don't be afraid to try out your local ethnic restaurants.  If you don't have this opportunity, you're going to have to do a little bit of research.  Remember the Cajun holy trinity of onions, green peppers, and celery?  It turns out that almost every cuisine in the world has its own version.  Check out this fascinating Wikipedia article on the subject.

Vegetables You Thought You Didn't Like
Think back to your childhood.  Are there vegetables that you absolutely refused to eat?  Do you still refuse to eat them?  It's time to give them another try.  If you've never tried Brussels sprouts sauteed in butter and garlic, you're really missing out.  How about mashed turnips or parsnips?  Roasted artichoke hearts?  I bet the reason you didn't like these vegetables is because your mom boiled the hell out of them.  Now that you know how to roast, saute, pan-fry, and stir-fry I bet you'll find a recipe you like involving a vegetable you thought you didn't like.

Your Homework
In your RFBC Journal, write down three "holy trinities" that sound intriguing to you.  Read up on a cuisine you know nothing about.  Find and make one recipe.  Remember to go outside of your comfort zone, even if it's just a little bit.  Here are some links and suggestions to get you started:
Thai - Pad See Ew
Vietnamese - Black Bean with Eggplant
Korean - Dubu Buchim Yangnyumjang
Indian - Chole
Somali - Zucchini and Cilantro Sabayah
Russian - Baklazhanovaya Ikra
Jamaican - Citrus Curry Rice Salad
Native American - Fry Bread
Peruvian - Papa a la Huancaina
Lebanese - Fattoush

What sounds good to you?  Personally I'm itching to try the papa a la Huancaina.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 6: Eating the Rainbow

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 6: Eating the Rainbow

This might be a little scary for people who are used to eating prepackaged convenience food, but you all need to hear it: you need to eat colorfully.

Are the things on your plate usually a shade of brown or beige?  Maybe a little orange processed cheese in there too?  Yeah, I thought so.

I bet you're tired all the time.  Overweight.  It's hard to get out of bed in the morning.  Hard to think clearly.

Your Homework
Go to the grocery store.  Stand in the produce section.  Look around you.  Look at all the colors.  Now pick one of the center aisles of the store.  Look at the packaging.  Bright colors!  Words in starbursts!  Friendly, eye-catching fonts!  Look at the food itself: beige.

You want to eat foods that are ingredients, not foods that contain ingredients.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 5: Reading Labels

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 5: Reading Labels

 My husband has declared me a genius on more than one occasion where I went into the kitchen without a plan, raided the cupboards, and came up with a full meal.  It isn't rocket science and everyone can do it.  Even you.  It does require a decently stocked pantry.  A meal requires four layers:

  • A base (grains, starches)
  • A protein
  • Flavor (as simple or as complicated as you'd like)
  • Fill in with veggies
Thus, you should stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer accordingly.

The Base Layer
This doesn't have to be the literal, physical base layer, but I have to tell you that when I'm pressed for time and ideas it's really easy to start with rice or couscous and put something on top of that.  Good things to have on hand are rice (short grain, long grain, and brown), couscous, barley, quinoa, bulger, wild rice, and potatoes.  And let's not forget about pasta.  It's nice to have a variety of short and long types on hand.

Pantry Proteins
Beans, lentils, and quinoa are full of protein.  TVP or TSP granules or nuggets are good vegetarian proteins if you want to go that route, but they're fairly processed.  Shelf-stable silken tofu lasts a while and is extremely versatile.  Canned meats and seafood are always an option.  Dried mushrooms (hit up an Asian grocery for the motherlode) and sea veggies (nori/laver, konbu, agar) are nice to have.  Oh, you didn't know that nori was high in protein?  Now you do.  And don't underestimate the role nuts and seeds can play in savory main dishes.

The pantry is where your flavor lives!  There is a galaxy's worth of oils, vinegars, and condiments out there.  And of course, there's your spice rack.  You can keep dried chiles, fruit, and vegetables on hand nearly indefinitely.  Garlic and onion are on this layer too.  Stocks and broths are lifesavers and pack in a ton of flavor when you pair them with grains.

Once you've got these three layers covered, it's easy to fill in the blanks with fresh or frozen fruits and veggies.  So, say you're craving Mexican.  Takeout is just a phone call away, but... you decide to check your kitchen first.  You grab some long grain rice, a can of black beans, garlic, onion, and chicken broth.  Scanning your spices you remember the cumin and chili powder have that "Mexican-ish" flavor you're craving.  Moving to the fridge you get some frozen corn and cheese.  And what's that in the back of the freezer?  Some leftover shredded rotisserie chicken?  In about 20 minutes you've got a simple meal of beans, corn, and chicken over rice.  You can fill in the rest with simple frozen veggies or a salad.  No takeout required.  It may not be haute cuisine, but at least it's real.

Canned Vegetables
Let's talk about canned veggies for a moment.  They're cheap.  Available.  They keep for years on the shelf.  But I don't recommend them.  In college I had a couple of roommates who worked at a vegetable canning facility... and let's just say that if I ever use a canned vegetable (a couple of times a year, maybe) I pay quite a lot of money to buy the best brands on the shelf.  Um, yikes.  That's not even going into the sodium levels, the viscous mystery fluid they're swimming in, and the BPA plastic that lines the cans.

But Tomatoes Are A Vegetable Too, Right?
Well, no, technically they're a fruit.  But canned tomatoes are great to have around.  If you buy a decent brand, there is very little chance of... foreign material... getting into the cans.  I personally try to only buy whole peeled canned tomatoes because they use the best fruit for that.  That's not to say that I never use canned chopped tomatoes.  It all depends on how pressed for time I am.  You might consider canning your own tomatoes too.  It takes a little time and effort, but anyone with some jars and a big pot and accomplish this.

Pull out one more convenience food from your pantry and put it in that box in your basement.  Yes, even that box of Rice-A-Roni you're keeping for your late-night beer munchies.  Now take a look at your spice collection.  How old is that ground nutmeg, really?  Did you know that most spices herbs start to break down and lose their flavor after 6 months?  So that jar of crushed basil you've had since the first Bush administration?  You might want to toss that.  But don't toss everything you own yet.  Make a list of spices herbs you want to replace and slowly, over time, replace them one or two at a time.  If you want to be extra nerdy you can write the date you bought your herbs and spices on the container with a sharpie or a piece of tape.

I don't know anyone who can afford to replace their spices every six months, but there does come a time when you should probably say enough is enough.  I'm going to throw away a jar of rosemary I've had since my first apartment in 2000.  Your turn!

Once you start cooking with fresh (read: recent) spices herbs you will really notice a difference.

(Thanks to Missy for pointing out that there is a difference between herbs and spices.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 4: Freezer Staples

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 4: Freezer Staples

Have you ever heard the word "mirepoix" (pronounced "meer-pwah")?  It's the flavor basis of a ton of food.  It's 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrot.  You can do endless things with mirepoix.  Chop it up in large pieces and put it in with a roast.  Add it to stocks and broths for soups.  Saute it and add to rice with some herbs for a quick side dish.  Deglaze a pan with wine after panfrying meat and add mirepoix to make a sauce.  Mirepoix is the foundation upon which to build flavor.  And it's freezable.  It's nice to have a bag of prepared medium-diced mirepoix handy to throw in a quick dinner.  It's homemade convenience food.

Similar to mirepoix is the Cajun trinity in which the carrot is replaced with green bell pepper.  This is so good when put into scrambled eggs in the morning and wrapped in a tortilla with cheese. 

We already talked about beans last week.  You can buy a pound of dried beans for around one (US) dollar or less and get the equivalent of four cans of cooked beans out of it.  Considering some canned beans can be upwards of $3 a pop it's a pretty good return on investment.  Beans are easy, but most of them need to be soaked overnight or boiled and soaked for an hour before you can get to the real cooking.  If you can remember to soak your beans before you go to bed you can simply drain the soak water and throw them in the crock pot with fresh water in the morning.  Or soak several pots of beans overnight, then drain, refill, and cook them all at the same time on the stove the next day.  If you portion them out 2 cups at a time into quart-sized freezer bags and freeze them flat you'll be in bean heaven for weeks or months.  It's so easy to pull out a bag, defrost it quickly under running water or in the microwave, and toss it on a salad.  Or in a burrito.  Or a stir-fry.  Or bean dip.

Ice cube trays are one of the most versatile pantry tools you can have in your arsenal.  Freeze cubes of leftover stock, broth, wine (leftover wine, LOL), chopped fresh herbs (barely covered in water), egg whites, and tomato paste.  When they're frozen, pop them into bags.  If you measure chopped herbs into two tablespoons per cube and tomato paste into 1 tablespoon per cube you're ready for nearly any recipe that calls for these ingredients.  And isn't that better than using a couple of sprigs of parsley or a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and letting the rest go to waste?

Speaking of broth, you can make your own easily by keeping a broth scrap bag in the freezer.  Veggie ends and peels that you would normally discard go into the bag.  This includes onion and garlic skins, zucchini peels, carrot ends, tomato seeds, vegetables about to turn bad that you're not going to use, and fresh herbs that aren't going to get used.  This all makes a great veggie broth.  If you use chicken broth a lot, put chicken bones and scrap meat and fat into the bag.  Or use beef bones, pork bones, turkey carcasses from Thanksgiving, or seafood bones and shells.  Once the bag is full, put it all into a big pot of water and simmer 1-4 hours (or longer!), skimming off the foam periodically.  Or put it in a crockpot on low for about 10 hours.  Cool, then transfer to bags or containers (I like 2-cup portions) and freeze.

Master File 4.  The meal plan is below.  I included a meat recipe for you omnivores because it would be almost criminal to mention mirepoix and not pair it with meat.

  • Vegetarian Black Bean Chili           
  • Cajun Macaroni           
  • Roast Chicken           

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 3: Reading Labels

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 3: Reading Labels

I mentioned in the last post that you need to read labels to find things that won't kill you quite as fast.  There's one easy rule of thumb you can stick with: only buy things with recognizable ingredients.

But if you're worried about your weight and health in general you can take it a few steps further.

Sugar's natural, right?  Sure, kinda, in a really industrial, refined way.  Sugar on a label can mean cane or beet sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, and about 20 other different things.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the average person (eating 2,000 calories a day) shouldn't get more than 40 grams of refined sugar a day.  That's about 10 teaspoons.  To put it in perspective, your average can of pop has 40 grams of sugar in it.

Corn Everywhere
Corn is all over convenience foods like a rash.  Considering corn is little more than sugar wrapped in fiber with a few vitamins and minerals mixed in, no wonder we're all so fat.  Here's a list of some of the things corn can be made into. 

When the FDA is considering actually regulating the amount of salt in American food, you know there's a problem.  The recommended daily allowance is less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day.  That's ONE teaspoon of table salt.  Per day.  Take a look at some of the labels on food in your pantry.  You will be horrified.

Fat is confusing.  Some fat is good and essential for health.  But only unsaturated fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).  The RDA is around 65-70 grams a day, or no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake.  There are 13.5 grams of fat per tablespoon of olive oil.  2 ounces (2 servings, or a little less than half the can) of Pringles has 20 grams of fat.

Ah, calories.  The big, bad, scary number. You can do any number of Internet searches for various calorie-counting diets and such, but if all that's overwhelming I'll break things down for you.  The average person who's not on a diet should get around 2,000 calories a day.  If you eat three meals a day, that's around 667 calories that you can divide between each meal.  Now throw in two snacks a day of around 200 calories each and each meal goes down to 533 calories each.  It's really easy to eat 533 calories in a meal.  This is, of course, a rough guide.  I personally tend to eat a big breakfast, a lighter lunch, and a big dinner.  I aim for between 1200 and 1500 calories a day but I don't count each calorie obsessively anymore.  I know that if each meal is around 500 calories then I'm doing OK.

The Takeaway 
I just threw a ton of numbers at you, and for that I apologize.  Don't ignore them completely, but remember that the most important thing to look for when reading labels is finding recognizable ingredients.

Your Homework
Hey, remember back in week 1 when I told you to take a meal's worth of the convenience food you had in your pantry and put them in a box in your basement?  Have you gone down there and used any of it?  It's time to do the same thing again.  Go back through your pantry and take out another meal's worth of convenience food.  Put it in that box.  Now get out your RFBC Journal and start reading the labels on the stuff in your Big Box O' Crap.  Write down the products with the highest numbers for the following nutrition facts: calories, fat, and sodium.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 2: Convenience Foods That Won't Kill You Quite As Fast

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 2: Convenience Foods That Won't Kill You Quite As Fast

We've used frozen veggie burgers and bagged salad in Part 1, not to mention barbecue sauce and salad dressing.  Convenience foods.  It's not always a bad thing.  Most of the time, but not always.  (I'm putting the veggie burgers into the "eat these rarely" category.)

It's all about balancing time and reading labels.  You could make a large batch of homemade marinara sauce and freeze or can it.  This would be ideal.  But when you're running late to pick up the kids from daycare and they're screaming the whole way home and your partner is sick and all you want is to put some spaghetti on the table before you have to run to Jane and Johnny's piano recital, you just need to go to the store, turn some jars around, and find the least offensive spaghetti sauce you can.

If you know what goes into a food to begin with because you've read recipes or actually made them yourself, you know what to look for on a retail version of the food.  For example, spaghetti sauce.  You know that marinara is tomatoes, oil, a little sugar, maybe some onions and garlic and perhaps some spices.  You know it doesn't have high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, soy lecithin, citric acid, or autolyzed yeast extract. 

So you get a jar of spaghetti sauce with recognizable ingredients.  It costs a little more than the brand you used to buy.  That's fine -- you're paying for convenience.  But the next time rolls around and you get another jar.  Maybe two.  Month after month you keep buying these jars at the store.  They're almost $4 each.

But then look at the alternative.  You buy a bushel of tomatoes, fresh basil, onions, and garlic at the farmer's market.  Take an afternoon, maybe involve the kids, and make your own spaghetti sauce.  Season it just the way your family likes it.  Portion it out into freezer bags.  It works out that for the same amount of sauce you'd get in a jar for $4, you put into your own bag for around $1 or less.  And if you get the tomatoes out of your own garden?  It's pennies per serving.  Is it worth more to you to save time or money?

Psst... you can also make spaghetti sauce in the crock pot.

The Takeaway
Start reading labels.

Your Homework
Find recipes for the following staples and copy them down in your RFBC Journal: spaghetti sauce, alfredo sauce (can you freeze this?), freezer jam, and pesto.  Extra credit: ketchup.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 1: Real vs. Fake Foods (The Truth About Butter)

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 1: Real vs. Fake Foods (The Truth About Butter)
The butter vs. margarine debate has been raging since margarine's debut in 1869.  The dairy lobby has had a heavy hand in the villainization of oleo (as my grandma calls it) and there's a lot of truth mixed with a lot of fiction floating around.  It isn't one molecule away from being plastic and it wasn't originally developed to fatten turkeys.  It was developed as a low cost butter substitute to feed the French military and the lower class.  You can read all about it hereAnd hereAlso here.  Speaking of lobbying, margarine manufacturers couldn't add coloring to their products to make it look more palatable until the end of the Second World War.  Imagine spreading your morning toast with something that looked like shortening.  Does that make you change your mind about margarine?

Margarine is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than butter.  Stick margarine usually contains trans fats, which we all know to be evil and wrong.  If you're going to use margarine, get the kind in the tub.

However, you need to decide if you really want to eat something that involves bleaching, deodorizing, fortification, colorization, and (sometimes) hydrogenation

Assuming you're not vegan, consider giving butter a second chance.  Butter contains one, maybe two ingredients: cream and (sometimes) salt.  It contains the same amount of calories as margarine.  Personally I think it tastes better.

But the key here is moderation.  Moderation in all things in good.  Moderation in fats is better.

The butter vs. margarine debate is a good example of real vs. fake foods and how politics and lobbying have shaped our perception about acceptable foods.  Somehow along the way we decided that fluorescent powder in a packet (or fluorescent ooze) is an acceptable substitute for real cheese.  That vitamins sprayed onto empty calories and chemically manufactured sugar substitutes were more acceptable to feed our children in the morning than buttered toast and fruit.  Colorful advertisements, cartoon mascots, and special interest lobbying have led us down a terrible path.

I don't mean to sound preachy here, but this is the bread and butter (ha!) of the Real Food Boot Camp: to get you to think critically about the things you put into your body.

Your homework
If you have any stick margarine, throw it away.  There really is no excuse to subject yourself to trans fats.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Part 1, Lesson 5: Finding Recipes

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Lesson 5: Finding Recipes

Ruts.  We all get stuck in them.  Those dog-eared recipe cards and cookbooks in your kitchen can provide comfort... and boredom.  Time to expand your recipe collection.

Whether you store your recipes in an index card box, three-ring binder, shoved inside a cookbook, or on your computer, get it out now.  Is your system working for you?  How do you use it?  If you don't have space on your counter for an overstuffed binder, how can you improve on your system?  Can you easily add new recipes?  Really take some time to examine your method.

My method evolved over many years.  I started off with 3x5 index cards in a box (meticulously copied from my mom's collection) simply because that's how my mom did it.  And how my grandma does it.  Then I started adding recipes and I found that 4x6 cards worked a lot better, so I upgraded to a three-ring binder.  I collected recipes from magazines and newspapers and shoved them into the slots thinking I'd sit down and copy everything down onto real cards one day.  Of course that never happened.  So I started keeping my recipes in text files in a folder on my computer.  That worked well for a while until I ultimately uploaded them all to Google Docs.  Now I can get at all my recipes all the time from any computer.  I recently started adding photos to the recipes.

There are plenty of places to collect recipes: the library, the Internet, the newspaper, and TV.  Once you're comfortable with what flavors, textures, and ingredients work together you can just start winging it.

Your Homework

Find three new recipes to make this week and make your own meal plan in your RFBC Journal.  Add your new recipes to your collection.  Now you can really evaluate your system.  Is there an easier way to do this?

We'll go into further detail on meal planning in Part 3.  Care to share what you came up with?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Part 1, Lesson 4: Food Storage

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Lesson 4: Food Storage
Recipe: Roasted Pesto Shrimp with Pilaf and Spinach (Master File 3)

We're going to juggle three recipes at once today.  Start with shrimp, then spinach, then the pilaf.  Half the shrimp will be used for Wednesday's recipe and half the rice will be used for Friday's recipe.  So let's talk food storage.

Vast Plastic Wastelands
If you know you're going to have a crazy week and will be pressed for time (and subsequently tempted by fast food or food-in-a-box), look for recipes where you can cook once eat twice. If you're making rice, make a double batch and freeze half.  Same goes for beans, casseroles, taco filling, or whatever.  It's nice to have a stockpile of cooked staples in the freezer so you can put a meal together in a few minutes.

In an ideal world we would all be storing our leftovers in glass containers with airtight lids.  Glass keeps odors in, doesn't stain, microwaves well, and doesn't leech chemicals into food.  But glass storage can be expensive so it's something you may need to build up over time.  Glass also doesn't travel well.

Everybody's got a collection of yogurt containers, margarine tubs, deli containers, and Cool Whip tubs.  They're fine for short-term use but they're not meant for washing and reusing.  The plastic breaks down and leeches into your food and causes any number of known and unknown health problems.  It also tends to put an off plasticky taste into your food.  My personal rule of thumb is to reuse the containers twice, then recycle.  If the containers get frozen, they get recycled after one use.  They never get microwaved.  You can use a Sharpie to put a mark on the container to keep track of how many times you've used it.

If you're going to freeze food, zip-top freezer bags are great space savers.  They're not the greenest option but if they don't get too funked up with greasy food you can wash and reuse them.  You can portion out rice, meat, beans, sauces, or grains and lay them flat in the freezer.  They defrost very quickly this way.

I'm not covering a lot of new ground here.  The point I want to make is that planning ahead in small baby steps will save you time and money down the road.  It doesn't take much more effort to make a little more of something a day or two a week and have food waiting in the freezer for later.

Here's the new meal plan, Master File 3.

I'm not going to give you the full play-by-play for today's recipes because this is boot camp, remember?  You can do this.  Remember to read the recipes fully before you start and have your equipment ready to go.  If you have any questions or problems, leave a comment below.

1. Soak your skewers
2. Start your rice
3. Prepare shrimp
4. Prepare spinach
5. Put shrimp in oven
6. Prepare pilaf

The Takeaway
Plan ahead.

Your Homework
Take out all the storage containers that you own.  All of them.  Yes, even that half-melted Tupperware bowl your aunt left at your house in 1987.  Spread them out on the floor and sort them according to type.  Get rid of anything that's warped, melted, cracked, or otherwise unsuitable for the storage of nourishing food for you and your family.  Now take all of your lids and match them to each container.  I bet you have a ton of lids with no containers and containers with no lids.  Get rid of them.  By the way, did you know that if you have any Tupperware branded containers you can order replacement lids for everything?  But if you know that there's no way in hell you'll ever muster up the effort/money to do this, get rid of your un-lidded, useless Tupperware.  Be honest with yourself.

Also note that when I say "get rid of them," I mean "please recycle your shit."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Part 1, Lesson 3: Kitchen Tools

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Lesson 3: Kitchen Tools

We've used a few convenience foods so far in the last two weeks and now it's time to crack down.  Let's also talk about leftovers and what to put them in.  But first, what kind of equipment do you need to put everything together?

Let's look at your objects
If you're like me, you're still using stuff your parents gave you when you left home.  Which is fine.  Like I said, I'm doing it too.  Over time I've learned that the motley assortment of kitchenware I had been hauling from apartment to apartment and finally to my house could be whittled down quite a bit, and that some things that seemed to hold a strange nostalgia for me just plain needed to be replaced.  I still have my mom's electric wok from the 70s? 80s? that has most of the Teflon coating missing from the bottom and I'm pretty sure if I ever use it again it will give my family cancer.  But it's still in the back of the cabinet.  Its working replacement is a real steel Chinese wok.

We've already covered knives.  Bare minimum you'll need that chef's knife (or santoku if that's how you roll), a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife.  Anything beyond that is pure personal preference.

You'll want a large (10" or 12") frying/saute pan/skillet.  If you're just going to own one single pan of this type I would say go with a hard anodized version.  These pans can stand up to some abuse and occasional metal implement useage.  Stainless steel is an option, but it's hell to try and cook sticky things like eggs in without a near-spiritual level of experience with your particular pan.  It's best to have one that can go in the oven, so avoid plastic handles if you can.  You truly get what you pay for in the cookware department so spend a little money here if you can.  If you can't afford it, that's fine too.  You'll just need to pay very close attention to your stove temperature and perhaps use a slightly lower temperature than what most recipes call for.

It's a really good idea to have a cast iron skillet in your arsenal.  Lodge makes a fantastic product.  It's pre-seasoned and very reasonably priced.  I actually use my Lodge pan more often than my fancy-pants Le Creuset.  Cast iron is one of the best non-stick surfaces around and holds heat like a dream.  Eggs and pancakes slide right out.  You can go straight from stove top to oven. 

You'll need a large pot with lid to cook pasta and large batches of soup.

A smaller pot (2 to 3 quart) is great too.  A lid is essential.

Now to the hand implements.  If you don't already have a silicone rubber spatula, get one immediately.  You can use this to saute, scramble eggs, stir soup, lift and serve casseroles, stir-fry, and just about everything else.  Look for a sturdy one-piece model if you can find one.

A flat spatula/turner, slotted spoon, long handled wooden spoon, tongs, metal balloon whisk, box grater, and vegetable peeler are also essential.

You'll need measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a liquid measuring cup.

Finally, a colander or strainer.

These are the bare minimums that any kitchen should have to be fully functional.  Did I forget anything here?  Do you have any favorite kitchen items that you absolutely can't live without?  Leave a comment!

The Takeaway:
You don't need to own every kitchen gadget and utensil you see at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.   You can cook just about anything with a bare minimum of essentials.

Your Homework:
Go through your worst kitchen drawer or cabinet.  You know, the one that you can barely close because of all the crap you have stuffed in there.  Is anything broken, rusted, or hasn't been used in years?  Get rid of it.  In your RFBC journal make note of anything that needs to be replaced or acquired.

Here is Master File 3 with shopping list, menu plan, and recipes.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Part 1, Recipe: Barbecue Tofu (or whatever protein) Chopped Salad

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Recipe: Barbecue Tofu (or whatever protein) Chopped Salad (Master File 2)

Do not fear the tofu!  If you've never tried baked tofu, give it a shot.  It's a far cry from the bland, mushy tofu you may have an aversion to.  If you are absolutely against the idea, put some BBQ sauce on a pound of chicken breasts, pork cutlets, steak, or mix it in with some kidney or garbanzo beans.

Salad is great because it comes together very fast and it's easy to make large amounts to be used as leftovers for lunch.  Start this off by getting the tofu in the oven.

large pot or microwave-safe container
large bowl of ice water
chef's knife
cutting board
big serving bowl
small bowl or mug that fits inside your serving bowl

1 block firm or extra firm tofu, well drained
barbeque sauce, about 1 cup
4 ounces green beans
3 large carrots
4 celery stalks
1 ear yellow corn
1 red bell pepper
1 small red onion
1 head romaine lettuce
Barbecued Tofu, warm (see recipe)
1 1/4 cups (about) Ranch Dressing
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

To drain tofu, wrap the whole block in 3 sheets of paper towel or a clean dish towel.  Put a plate on top and weigh it down with some canned goods or books.  Let it sit for as long as possible while you get the rest of your equipment ready.

Line a cooking sheet with aluminum foil. This will help make cleaning up easier. Spoon a thin layer of barbecue sauce across the lined pan.  Start a large pot of water on high heat (unless you want to cook some veggies in the microwave - your choice).  Wash your veggies.  Put your colander in the sink.  Prepare a large bowl of ice water.

Slice pressed tofu into 1/2 inch thick cutlets and place in pan. Spoon a layer of sauce across the top of the tofu and bake for approximately one hour, checking occasionally so as not to overcook.  Don't worry too much about the hour cooking time.  If you finish your veggies well beforehand and you're really hungry, then by all means eat.  You can put the tofu under the broiler for a minute to get some caramelization too.  Tofu is done cooking when sauce has baked in and tofu is moist, but not saucy.

To trim your green beans, line up a handful and cut the ends off.  Then turn them around and cut the other ends off.  You can use kitchen shears to cut the ends off but that takes forever.  Cut your trimmed green beans and carrots into bite-sized pieces.

If you're not using a microwave, add the green beans to your boiling water and cook for 30 seconds.  Add the carrots in with the green beans and cook for 30 seconds, or until the green beans and carrots are bright and crisp-tender.  

If you are using a microwave, put the green beans and carrots in a microwave-safe dish, add three tablespoons or so of water, cover with plastic wrap or (preferably) wax paper, and nuke on high for 1 minute, or until they're bright and crisp-tender.

Drain the green beans and carrots and immediately place them in a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain again, then pat them dry (be sure they are very dry).

Put a small bowl or mug inside your large serving bowl.  Stand your ear of corn on this little platform and use your knife to slice the kernels off the cob.  Remove the corn for now.  If you want to wash the bowl to make it pretty again that's up to you.

Cut your celery and bell pepper into bite-size pieces.  Use the onion chopping method you learned this week to chop the red onion, but make sure you make your cross cuts as close together as you can so you get a fine chop.

Combine the green beans, carrots, celery, corn kernels, bell pepper, and onion in a bowl.  The vegetables will keep for 1 day, covered and refrigerated.

Cut the warm tofu into 3/4-inch pieces.

Lop the root end off the lettuce and cut off any discolored ends.  Roughly chop or tear the lettuce into bite-sized pieces.  Toss the lettuce and veggies in your serving bowl with however much dressing you prefer, and season it to taste with salt and black pepper.  Scatter the tofu pieces and cheese over the salad and serve.

Easy BBQ Tofu recipe source
Barbecue Tofu Chopped Salad recipe source

Friday, January 8, 2010

Part 1, Lesson 2: Mise En Place

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Lesson 2: Mise En Place
Recipe: Lo Mein (Master File 2)

A common mistake people make is just diving straight into a recipe without reading it first.  They'll get something started on the stove and -- oh crap, there's some time-consuming step they need to finish right away before whatever is on the stove burns to a crisp.  Read every recipe before you begin.

Did you notice on the last recipe that all of the chopping and cutting was done before any actual cooking took place?  This is called mise en place ("meez en plaahs") and it's very important for quick cooking things like stir-fry.  You should have all your ingredients and equipment out, in place, and ready to go.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of mise en place, especially if you've got a family buzzing around distracting you while you're trying to cook.

Let's talk about lo mein, or at least the American version of lo mein.  It's basically stir-fry with noodles.  It's extremely important that every little bit of the ingredients and equipment are prepared before the first drop of oil hits the pan.  Once you get started cooking it will move very quickly and you don't want anything to overcook or burn.

I won't judge you if you use ramen, but it's really not the healthiest option.  In that case you'll be frying noodles that have already been fried.

large pot
chef's knife
cutting board
wok or large frying pan
wooden spoon or spatula to stir with

8 oz pkg lo mein noodles, spaghetti, or 2 packages of ramen (flavor packets discarded)
Any combination of the following vegetables:
   red bell pepper
   mushrooms, sliced
   broccoli, chopped
   baby corn
   bok choy
   edamame, shelled
   snow peas
   bean sprouts
   green onions, green and white parts sliced diagonally into 2" lengths
Protein of your choice: chicken, tofu, shrimp, seitan, tempeh; chopped into 1" cubes (optional)
2 tbsp peanut, canola, or vegetable oil
2 tsp sesame oil
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp cornstarch
salt and pepper, to taste

Put a large pot of water on over high head.  Keep an eye on it and when it's at a full rolling boil cook your noodles according to the package directions.  Set your timer.  Drain when they're done.  Meanwhile,  get everything else ready.

Wash your veggies.  You don't have to peel your carrots, just make sure they're scrubbed well.  If you're using whole mushrooms, you can either carefully wipe each one with a damp paper towel or say screw it and rinse them under running water and drain well.  They say that mushrooms can get waterlogged if you do this.  I've never experienced this problem, nor have I noticed any difference in flavor, texture, or juiciness when comparing a wiped and rinsed mushroom side-by-side.  Then again, I don't eat raw mushrooms so maybe that's where the difference lies.  If you use baby corn in a can please drain and rinse away the extra sodium.

Combine sesame oil, broth, soy sauce, garlic, and cornstarch.  Set aside.

Start with the carrots.  We're going to julienne these, or turn them into thin matchsticks.  Begin by cutting off a thin sliver from the side of the carrot to create a stable base to set it on.  Cut off the ends.  Cut the carrot into halves or thirds so you have roughly 2-3" lengths.  Cut down each piece lengthwise so you have long planks.  Cut each plank into matchsticks.  Set aside.

Do the same with the red pepper.  See the last recipe for full instructions on seeding and cutting into planks.  Cut the planks into matchsticks and set aside.

Cut the stems off your mushrooms if they're dark or woody.  Slice them and set aside.

I like to separate broccoli into two parts, the green froofy part and the stalk, and treat each as a separate vegetable.  Chop or separate the froofy part into bite-sized florets.  Cut off the bottom woody part of the stalk and peel using a vegetable peeler.  You can eat the leaves so don't worry if you get a few in your stir-fry.  Now cut the stalk into planks and then matchsticks.  Set aside.

Not much you need to do with baby corn except drain and rinse.

Bok choy kind of looks and tastes like a cross between celery and lettuce.  Cut off the root end and chop the whole head crosswise.

To julienne zucchini, shave a little bit off the bottom like you did for your carrot so it doesn't roll around on you.  Slice off the ends, then slice downwards into planks.  Planks into matchsticks.

If you're using frozen edamame, microwave until they're defrosted.  De-shell if necessary.

If your snow peas have stringy ends on them, cut them off.  You probably won't need to since they're so tender.

Please tell me you're using fresh bean sprouts, not canned.  Rinse them very well.  If you're using canned, please note that they will make this whole dish taste like cheap canned chow mein.  That is so not what we're going for here.

Trim the tops of your green onions to get rid of any discolored or dry spots.  Trim off the root but leave as much of the white part as possible.  Slice them (on the diagonal if you're feeling fancy) into 2" lengths all the way down to the white end.

Veggies are ready!  Make sure your noodles are done and drained before you go any further.

Heat a wok or the biggest frying pan you have over medium-high heat.  Put 2 Tbsp peanut/canola/vegetable oil in there and swirl it around to coat.  Stir-fry the vegetables in the order listed above, one at a time, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.

Push off to the side and stir-fry your protein until cooked.  Alternately, if your wok or pan is too small for this, you can cook the protein before the veggies, remove, and return it to the pan with the noodles.

Add noodles and sauce.  Stir everything around until sauce begins to boil, then lower heat and simmer until thick, about 5 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  You can garnish with additional chopped green onions and crushed red pepper if you like.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Part 1, Recipe: Roasted Vegetable and Fish Tacos

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Recipe: Roasted Vegetable and Fish Tacos (Master File 2)
Hopefully you have a sharp chef's knife now.  You're going to need it.  Before you do anything you need to learn how to hold the knife.  Go here and look at the picture at the bottom of the page.  It might feel weird at first, especially if you (like me) used to hold your knife with your index finger pointed down the top of the knife.  The correct hold will give you a ton more control and greatly reduce the chances of you cutting off any digits.

Today we'll be making tacos.  If you don't like fish use cooked chicken, shrimp, tofu, seitan, or tempeh.  Read through the entire recipe before you begin.  It looks long but it goes quick.

chef's knife
cutting board
broiler pan
baking sheet/sheet tray/cookie sheet/jelly roll pan (whatever you call it)
cooking spray
aluminum foil
paper towel or tea towel

1 lb white fish such as cod, halibut, walleye, trout, or tilapia (find the best choice here)
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
chili powder
cayenne pepper (optional)
salt & pepper
2 medium zucchini
1 large tomato
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 lime
1/2 cup sour cream or crema
1/4 cup cilantro
salsa (optional)
8 taco size flour tortillas

Wash all your vegetables well.  This includes the lime. Spray your baking sheet with cooking spray and set aside.

Start with the bell peppers.  Cut off the tops and bottoms and set aside.  You will now have bell pepper tubes with seeds inside.  Either reach in and yank out the seeds and membranes or stick your knife in and cut them out.  Don't worry about getting every last seed.  They're not going to hurt you.  Stand the tubes up and cut the peppers into thirds or fourths so you end up with planks of pepper.  Cut each plank into sticks 1/2" wide.  (Having trouble gauging 1/2 inch?  The tip of your index finger to the first knuckle is more than likely 1 inch long.)  Then rotate the sticks 90 degrees and chop into 1/2" square pieces.  Dump these unceremoniously onto your baking sheet.

Move on to the onion.  It has an end where the green parts came off (top) and an end with whiskery roots (bottom).  Cut off the top.  Stand the onion on its top so that it's stable and cut the whole thing in half right through the root end.  Now you can easily remove the skin from each half.  Take one half at a time and lay it down with the root end near your non-dominant hand and the cut top end facing your knife hand.  Get down so the onion is at eye level.  You're going to take your knife and hold it parallel to the cutting board.  Slice through the onion halfway up but stop before you go through the root end.  The root is going to hold everything in place while you work.  Now you can stand up again.  Slice the onion from bottom to top (1/2" inch slices), but again don't slice through the root end.  Now make perpendicular slices across the grain (1/2" again) of the onion and voila!  Perfectly uniform chopped onion!  Put the onion with the peppers on your baking sheet.

Now would be a great time to preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.

Next we'll deal with the zucchini.  This is going to be cake compared to the onion.  Slice off the top and bottom, cut it in half lengthwise, then slice into 1/2" thick half moons.  These go to the baking sheet.

Garlic time.  Pull the cloves off of the bulb and put them on your cutting board.  Lay your knife on top of one and either pound down with your fist or push down until the clove smushes and cracks.  You can slip the skins off easily now.  Cut each bulb in half, lay the flat surface down, and chop the garlic into a not-so-fine mince.  Onto the baking sheet with these.

We'll do the tomato last because it goops up the cutting board.  Cut out the core at the top of the tomato using the tip of your knife.  If this scares you, use a paring knife.  You just want to cut out a cone-shaped wedge around the part where the stem comes off. Cut the tomato in half along its equator and use your finger to scoop out the seeds and pulp.  Lay each cut half down on the cutting board.  We're going to cut it into slices similar to how we made that first cut into the onion so get down so you're eye level with the tomato.  With your hand on top of the tomato and your knife parallel to the cutting board make 1/2" slices up the tomato starting from the bottom.  Slice all the way through.  Now you have tomato planks, more or less.  Cut each plank into 1/2" sticks and each stick into 1/2" pieces.  I know the tomato is irregular and squishy.  Just do your best here.  These go onto the baking sheet.

Now drizzle about two tablespoons of oil over everything on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle with a hearty pinch of salt and pepper.  Use your hands and mix everything together so the veggies are all coated with oil.  Arrange everything to take up the entire pan in a single layer if possible.  Put this in the oven and set your timer for 15 minutes.

Wipe the tomato goo off your cutting board and dry.

Pick or cut off a 1/4 cup of cilantro leaves.  You can have some of the top part of the cilantro stems in there without it being woody and overpowering so don't worry about it.  Give the cilantro a rough chop.  Put them in a smallish bowl with 1/2 cup of sour cream and the juice from half of the lime.  Stir and let it sit so the flavors marry.  Cut the other half of the lime into wedges.

Stir the veggies after 15 minutes.

Set your timer for 10 minutes.

Prepare the fish by drying the fillets off with some paper towel.  Brush each side with a little bit of oil.  Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides.  Sprinkle each side with cumin, chili powder, a bit of oregano, and cayenne if using.  Spray a broiler pan with cooking spray and place fish on it.

Wrap your tortillas in aluminum foil and set aside.

When your veggie timer goes off check and see if you can stick a fork into a piece of pepper.  Things should be crisp-tender.  If it's too much on the crisp side keep checking every five minutes until done.  Once those are done take them out and set them aside for a minute.  Crank up your broiler.  While that gets nice and hot move the veggies into a serving bowl and cover loosely with foil.

Put your foil tortilla package into the main part of the oven.

Put the fish under the broiler and set the timer for five minutes.  Flip the fish over and set your timer for three minutes.  Check the fish every minute after that because when things go bad in a broiler, they go bad fast.  Now is not the time to wander into the other room to watch TV or check your email.  You're looking for completely opaque fish that flakes easily with a fork and has clear juices.

Pull the fish out, cut into pieces or strips, and serve on warm tortillas with the veggies, sour cream, lime wedges, and salsa if you insist.

Leftovers Idea:
If you have leftover veggies, put them into some eggs in the morning.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Part 1, Lesson 1: Knife Skills

Part 1: "I Don't Know How To Cook"
Lesson 1: Knife Skills

I think that a big hurdle for people to overcome when they claim they can't cook is some basic skills that seem scary but are actually simple and absolutely essential.  The biggest of these basic things is knife skills.  Theoretically you can go to the grocery store and get pre-cut veggies and meats from the salad bar or pre-packaged and pre-cut stuff from the produce section, but that is wasteful (packaging!), expensive, and severely limits your options. 

Photo by pstuifzand on Flickr
It's time to learn how to use those knives.  Even if your knives are hand-me-downs from your college days.

There's a little homework involved here.  It's boot camp, remember?  Time to get up and take some action if you want to change your life.  First, go to your kitchen and grab your biggest knife that isn't a cleaver (you have a cleaver?  Scary).  You should have either a chef's knife or a santoku.  If you don't have either one of these, you will need to get one.  You will use this knife more than any other knife in your kitchen.  I personally recommend going with a chef's knife that is at least 8" long, preferably 10".  If you really don't have a ton of money to run out and pick up a Wusthof or Henckels or whatever, go grab one from the dollar store.  Yes, the dollar store.  It will last you about a month and that's enough time to learn.  Of course, it would be best if you could get an actual decent knife that will last you 20-30 years.  If you spend $20 at Target you'll get a pretty OK knife for the money.  And for the love of dog, don't buy anything from an infomercial or door-to-door salesperson.

OK.  So you have your chef's knife.  You might want to pick up a paring knife too if the size of the knife intimidates you.  You can get a nice one or you can get a three-pack at the grocery store.  Whatever.

Eventually you'll want a serrated bread knife too.  Since you can't sharpen a serrated blade it's OK to go lower end on these because you just have to replace them when they get dull.  These three knives are all you really need.

Do you already have a chef's knife?  Let me guess -- it's so dull you just end up smashing or tearing whatever you're trying to cut.  Yup, you and almost everyone in America.  So your homework is to find a place to get it sharpened.  You don't have to spend a bunch of money on this; in fact it'll probably be free.  Here in the Twin Cities there is a chain of grocery stores called Lunds and Byerlys who sharpen knives for free overnight at the meat counter.  It wouldn't hurt to ask your local butcher or meat counter if they'd sharpen yours for you.  If you're coming up dry there, go to Google Maps and type "knife sharpening near Minneapolis" or wherever you live.  Without the quotes, of course.

Do not skip this step.  You absolutely have to start with a sharp knife if you want to learn how to use it.

So how do you use it?  Here comes...

Your Homework
Read some articles and watch some videos.  Answer the following questions in your RFBC Journal:
1. How do you properly hold a chef's knife? 
2. What is the proper order to cut up a potato into small pieces?
     a) planks, stabilize, matchsticks, dice
     b) stabilize, planks, matchsticks, dice
     c) stabilize, matchsticks, planks, dice
3. How can you quickly and easily dice an onion?

Let's Practice With A Meal Plan
This meal plan has been designed so you can practice cutting, chopping, slicing, and dicing.

Here's Master File 2 with menu, shopping list, and recipes.  I have detailed the play-by-play directions for each recipe.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pstuifzand/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Introduction, Recipe: Spaghetti with spinach and veggie sauce, salad with croutons Play-By-Play

Recipe: Spaghetti with Spinach And Veggie Sauce (Master File 1)

So far so good?  Here's a super easy one for you.
Spaghetti with spinach and veggie sauce, salad with croutons

spaghetti, preferably whole wheat
spaghetti sauce
olive oil
any other veggies you have laying around, cut into small pieces


1/2 baguette
olive oil
garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

  • Put a big pot of water on for the spaghetti.  If you cover the pot it will heat faster.
  • Lay two layers of paper towels on a plate and set aside.
  • Cut the baguette into cubes.  Toss in a large bowl with 1-2 Tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp garlic powder (more to taste), salt, and pepper.  The bread should just be coated with oil, not dripping.
  • In a large saucepan heat 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add onion and zucchini and saute five minutes.
  • Is your water at a rolling boil yet?  If so, add 1 Tbsp salt and your spaghetti noodles.  Bring it back to a boil, then drop the heat down to a gentle boil.
  • Meanwhile, add the entire jar of spaghetti sauce to the onion and zucchini.  Bring to a simmer and drop the heat so it doesn't splatter all over the place.  Let this simmer while your pasta is cooking and you work on the croutons.
  • Heat a large pan over medium-high heat.  Add the croutons (in batches if necessary) and saute 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until golden brown all over.  Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula onto the paper towels.
  • Drain your pasta when it's done but keep it kind of wet so it doesn't stick.
  • While your pasta waits take the sauce off the heat and add a handful of spinach at a time, adding more as it wilts.
  • Toss the salad with croutons and salad dressing, top with any leftover Parmesan cheese you may have, and enjoy!
Cook 1 lb ground turkey/beef/sausage/crumbled tofu/rehydrated TVP along with the veggies for the sauce.
Just about any kind of veggie can be added to the sauce.  Some things to try would be shredded carrot, celery, bell pepper, eggplant, broccoli, olives.

So how did the first week go?  We've covered burgers, pizza, and spaghetti.  Familiar recipes with a twist.  Next week we'll start learning some knife skills and techniques to make cooking with real food faster and easier.

Your Homework
Write each of these topics down on a separate line: bake, roast, saute, chop, slice, meal plan, toast, boil.
Now do a word association for each.  Write down the first thing that pops into your mind, be it a single word or a sentence, next to each topic.  We'll revisit this later.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Introduction, Recipe: White Bean and Spinach Pizza, tomato and zucchini saute, Parmesan toast Play-By-Play

Recipe: White Bean and Spinach Pizza (Master File 1)

Ready to cook again?  It looks like there's a lot going on here but I promise it's nothing you can't handle.

White Bean and Spinach Pizza, tomato and zucchini saute, Parmesan toast

White Bean and Spinach Pizza
Source: http://www.eatbetteramerica.com/recipes/dinner/vegetarian/white-bean-and-spinach-pizza.aspx

Prep Time:10 min
Start to Finish:30 min
makes:8 servings

1/2 cup sun-dried tomato halves (not oil-packed)
1 can (15 oz) Progresso® cannellini (white kidney) beans or 1 can (15 or 16 oz) great northern beans, drained, rinsed
2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 package (10 oz) prebaked thin Italian pizza crust (12 inch)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 cup firmly packed washed fresh spinach leaves (from 10-oz bag), thinly sliced or torn into small pieces
1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat Colby-Monterey Jack cheese blend or Cheddar cheese (2 oz)
  • Heat oven to 425°F. Pour enough boiling water over dried tomatoes to cover; let stand 10 minutes. Drain. Cut into thin strips; set aside.
  • In food processor, place beans and garlic. Cover; process until smooth. Spread beans over pizza crust. Sprinkle with oregano, tomatoes, spinach and cheese. Place on ungreased cookie sheet.
  • If you don't have a food processor, use a blender and add a tiny bit of water.  Or just mash them by hand with a fork.  It doesn't have to be perfectly smooth!
  • Prepare the Parmesan toast and put it in the oven too.
  • Bake about 10 minutes or until cheese is melted.  Check the toast after five minutes.
  • Prepare Tomato and Zucchini Saute while everything is cooking.
Tomato and Zucchini Saute

1 tomato, chopped
2 zucchinis, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Heat oil in a wide pan over medium-high heat.  Add onion and saute (stir often) three minutes.  Add tomato and zucchini and saute five minutes, or until tender.  Season with salt and pepper.

Parmesan Toast

1/2 baguette
shredded Parmesan cheese

Cut the baguette into slices.  Spread with butter.  Place on a sheet pan and top with cheese.
Bake at 425 degrees 5 minutes or until cheese is browned.

The Takeaway
Today you baked, sauteed, and toasted.   You made a tasty, healthy pizza that didn't arrive by car.  Everything here is generally family-friendly and minimally processed.