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.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Introduction, Recipe: Veggie Burger Pitas

Recipe: Veggie Burger Pitas (Master File 1)

Check out Master File 1 to see how you can prepare for this meal and the two other meals this week.

Veggie Burger Pitas, french fries, sliced apple

Veggie Burger Pitas
Source: http://www.eatbetteramerica.com/recipes/dinner/vegetarian/veggie-burger-pitas.aspx

Prep Time:10 min
Start to Finish:25 min
makes:4 sandwiches

1 package (12.8 oz) frozen vegetarian burgers (4 burgers)
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 medium onion, cut into thin slices
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (3 oz)
Cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt
2 pita breads (6 inches in diameter), cut in half to form pockets
4 leaves red leaf lettuce

2 tablespoons fat-free (or regular) mayonnaise or salad dressing
2 tablespoons fat-free (or regular) sour cream
1 tablespoon chopped cucumber
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill weed or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed

Heat oven to 450°F. Spray 15x10x1-inch pan with cooking spray. Place burgers on one side of pan. Place bell pepper, onion and mushrooms on other side of pan. Spray vegetables with cooking spray for about 3 seconds; sprinkle with seasoned salt.

On another pan arrange your french fries.  Put both pans in the oven together.

Bake 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms from pan. Turn burgers and vegetables; bake 5 to 8 minutes longer or until vegetables are tender and burgers are hot.  The fries may need more or less time; keep an eye on them.

Core and slice your apples while everything is cooking.

In small bowl, mix topping ingredients. Spread topping on insides of pita bread halves. Fill each pita bread half with lettuce, burger and vegetables.

I know what you're thinking.  Veggie burgers?  Frozen french fries?  Aren't those convenience foods?  Yes, but we're doing baby steps, remember?  As you learn more cooking techniques we'll be adding in more and more fresh food. 

The Takeaway
This menu is an exercise in preparation and juggling three meal components at once.  We also learned how to roast vegetables, which is a great way to squeeze a lot of flavor out of your veggies.  How did it feel to cut up those veggies?  If you're not comfortable with a knife yet, do your best for now and hang in there.  We'll be discussing knife skills later.

Your Homework
Prepare for the rest of the week if you haven't already by referencing the "Plan of Attack" tab of Master File 1.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Introduction, Lesson 1: Pantry Raid - The Big Box O' Crap

Lesson 1: Pantry Raid: The Big Box O' Crap
I'd like to talk about your pantry.  If you're like a lot of people you've either got it stuffed with convenience foods or it's nearly empty.

Convenience food out
If you've got one of those empty pantries, you don't have to worry about this.  The rest of you, I want you to go find a box or a bag or something roomy enough to hold all the crap food in your pantry.  Don't worry, we're not purging yet.  We're doing baby steps here.  Take out what you would normally eat for dinner tonight and put it in your container.  Be honest.  Were you going to make tacos with that Old El Paso kit and serve them with that box of Rice-a-Roni and a pitcher of Crystal Light?  Then maybe finish with a boxed cake mix or some pudding?  Put all this stuff into that box/bag.  Now put the box/bag in your basement or a closet.  We'll refer to this as the Box of Crap from here on out.  Please refrain from removing items from the Box of Crap for the duration of the boot camp.

Fresh food in
This week it would be easier if you would follow the plan exactly.  If you don't want to that's fine -- just please don't replace crap with crap.  Time to go shopping! I'm going to give you three recipes to incorporate into this week.  They're all easy enough for anyone to make.  They're all meatless so feel free to add the protein of your choice.
Download Master File 1, the menu, shopping list, and recipes

Recipes anyone can make
This week's recipes are:
Veggie Burger Pitas, french fries, sliced apple
White Bean and Spinach Pizza, tomato and zucchini saute, parmesan toast
Spaghetti with spinach and veggie sauce, salad with croutons

The recipes are all in Master File 1 but subsequent posts will hold your hand through each recipe.

If you have any questions on methods or substitutions, let me know!

The Takeaway:
Your food sucks.  Otherwise you wouldn't be doing this.  If it seems like you're jumping into this boot camp with both feet, you are!  Don't let that intimidate you.  The first couple weeks of this boot camp are pretty hands-on but it's nothing you can't handle. 

Your Homework:
Get that notebook, fire up your blog, or open a new word processor document.  This will be your RFBC Journal.  Write down what you put into the Box of Crap today.  If you had an empty pantry, write down what you would most likely eat for dinner tonight.

Now go shopping.

Friday, January 1, 2010


You can call me PPC.  I'm not a nutritionist, doctor, fitness expert, or chef.  I'm just a busy wife and mom who works full time and tries to keep her family healthy.

I know a lot of people who say they want to eat healthier but they  A) don't know how to cook, B) don't know anything about food, C) don't have time to cook, and D) think they can't afford to eat better.  So I came up with a (gentle) boot camp series of blog posts to see if I could help out even a little bit.  I'm not terribly happy with the first version so I'm rewriting everything.

When you look at a cookbook, online recipes, magazine and newspaper articles, and TV reports about how we're all fat, lazy, and killing ourselves with processed food, it's easy to get overwhelmed and just go right back to that box of mac and cheese in the cupboard.  We all have to start somewhere when it comes to cooking.  I'm a big fan of the Couch to 5K running program which does exactly what it implies -- 9 weeks of baby steps to get anyone running a 5K.  It's easy to say "I'll start tomorrow" to anything in life, but when it comes to your health let's face it -- there may not be a tomorrow for some people.  So why not change people's perceptions of cooking with real food through baby steps?

I don't want to throw around a whole ton of scientific articles and info about the nuts and bolts of nutrition.  This is a series of simple steps to tip the scale from mostly convenience food to mostly fresh food.

What you need:
A notebook, a blog, or a word processor document
... that's it.

Welcome to the Real Food Boot Camp Version 2.0

I'll be re-writing the original Real Food Boot Camp and relocating here.  It will hopefully be more entertaining, more encouraging, more intuitive, and more organized.

To-Do List:
  • Logo
  • Template
  • Outline