I won’t beat around the bush: cooking involves lots of work. From store to prep to skillet to plate–it’s no easy task! Here’s a round of tips that will help you (at least a little bit) with each of these steps.
Store: For the past week or so, several Tablet staff members have dared to join the enviable ranks of Birthrighters by staffing and blogging about a Birthright trip while they’re on it. So far, they’ve offered two major pieces of advice in regard to food. The first: don’t order pizza from Domino’s in Jerusalem. The second: “How (not) to Bargain in the Israeli Marketplace.”
Prep: Do you hate it when people serve vegetable platters during cocktail parties or as an appetizer? Do you also secretly wish you could serve one and get away with it? Serious Eats, the ultimate guide to junk food, sandwiches, and helpful cooking tips, is here to help with a “How to Put Together an Awesome Vegetable Platter” guide.
Skillet: I have a confession: making the perfect panna cotta has never been a concern that’s kept me up at night. But, if you are one of the (many?) people with this problem, the LA Times has a solution for you! Read on for the three key elements for “Cracking the Code of Panna Cotta.” Just don’t forget to stock up on Kosher gelatin as you experiment.
Plate: This link actually combines a few different tips, but ultimately it’s about presenting a beautiful layer cake to impress your friends and family. As usual, Food52′s Kitchen Confidence post “Mastering Layer Cakes” does not disappoint, with descriptive prose coupled with step by step pictures of the whole process.
A little late on the delivery, but, as promised, here is a follow-up guide to menu planning. An easy way to begin your menu is by picking a theme–anything from spring to grilling to Mexican. But picking a theme isn’t a requirement for a great menu. Follow these four rules and you’re sure to come out on top!
1. Color– a dinner that features foods of many colors accomplishes two goals, one aesthetic and one nutritious. A plate with many bright colors is more attractive and more appetizing than a plate of all brown or white foods. It also means you are hitting a wide array of nutrients by eating the rainbow (not the Skittles variety).
2. Texture–it’s important to vary the textures in a meal to keep your guests’ mouths and minds interested in the food. While serving a pureed lentil soup, mashed sweet potatoes, and pudding for dinner may hit a variety of colors and nutritional sources (protein, carbohydrate, etc.), it will be boring to eat. Even in a single pureed dish, it might be a good idea to throw something crunchy into the mix, like some spiced nuts on top of the pudding.
3. Cooking method–again, the emphasis here is on variety. You could make a meal of four different types of stewed dishes, but I would recommend mixing it up with something a little lighter, too. It’s also a good idea to have some kind of raw vegetable at every meal, like salad or crudites. By using different methods like braising, sauteing, steaming, boiling, and frying, you’re meal will be more engaging and satisfying.
4. Flavor–of course the most important aspect of a well executed meal is that everything taste good! But just like the other “rules,” you want there to be a mix of flavors as well. While a meal consisting entirely of sweet foods (beet salad, corn, honey-glazed chicken, and babka, for example) sounds delicious and would be fun to eat, most likely you’ll come away from the meal feeling sick and/or unfulfilled. Try to include savory, spicy, sour, bitter, tart, salty, and umami in addition to sweet.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerances have been ignored and under-diagnosed for years, but these days it’s hard to miss. Labs have seen a jump in requests for blood tests and it is now estimated that somewhere around 18 million Americans are sensitive to gluten.
Gluten is an insoluble protein in wheat, rye, and barley, among others. Because it is somewhat elastic, it helps to leaven and build structure in baked goods. It’s also hard for the human digestive system to handle. For most people, their bodies persevere and move on with their days, but for others eating or coming in contact with gluten can have a major impact.
Gluten intolerance is a toxic, negative reaction to gluten. It can often be dealt with through slight avoidance, indulging on occasion and not being stringent about gluten in non-food products like toothpaste and paint. Celiac, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder, in which the body builds up antibodies against gluten every time the person comes in contact with the protein. After a while, the intestinal villi are destroyed and become incapable of absorbing nutrients, which leads to blood toxicity. In short: if you think you might have a gluten intolerance, it’s a good idea to check it out before it gets out of hand. While many people have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon as a fad, those who actually suffer from gluten experience a wide range of serious symptoms.
People often are nervous about making food for friends who can’t eat gluten and while it’s true that the diet can be challenging and expensive, it doesn’t have to be so far from the food you are used to. Many who switch to gluten-free lifestyles actually eat healthier, because they make more room in their diets for vegetables, fruits, and wholesome foods. Try the recipe below for a great granola that happens to be “GF”–just make sure to buy gluten free oats for those who have severe sensitivity.
If you’re looking for a new challenge as a baker, pulling off a tasty gluten-free treat is rewarding and much appreciated by people who don’t eat gluten. There are so many incredible whole grain and legume flours out there to experiment with–make this your excuse! Keep in mind that without gluten, breads will need more yeast, eggs are crucial for binding, and you may need more fat or fruit puree to keep it moist. Make sure you eat or freeze your baked goods right away, since gluten-free items have a short shelf life and lose moisture quickly.
Resources to check out:
The Gluten Free Gourmet by Betty Hagman
Gluten Free Baking by Rebecca Reilly
Gluten Free Girl and the Chef by Shana James Ahern
4 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/2 cup unsalted raw almonds, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Grade A maple syrup
1 spoonful raw honey
2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup dried apricots, cut in strips
1/4 cup dried medjool dates, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 375° Farenheit.
Mix oats and nuts in a large mixing bowl.
In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk maple syrup, honey, and coconut oil. Pour over oat mixture and mix until evenly coated.
Spread mixture onto a full sheet pan (or two half sheet pans) in an even layer.
Put the tray in the oven and check regularly, stirring the oat mixture to avoid burning. Remove when golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. The granola will not be hard at this point–that happens as it cools.
When the mixture has cooled a little, fold in dried fruit. When completely cooled, store in an airtight container.
Let’s talk about brown rice. It gets a pretty bad rap. Some people suffer through it because it’s a health food, but most people dismiss it immediately and just stick with white rice or nothing. Rice has been available for human consumption for over 5,000 years. The average American eats about ten pounds of rice over the course of a year. In Asia, that number is closer to 100 pounds. Most of that rice is white.
But I have news: brown rice is actually delicious.
As someone who grew up in a Cuban household, white rice is the go-to starch–black beans and rice, arroz con pollo, albondigas y arroz--the list goes on. And the brown rice you find popping up at restaurants and in the Uncle Ben’s instant packages don’t make me want to ditch the white rice either.
And yet… I know the facts. Brown rice is a whole grain. Because only the hull is removed, brown rice is the healthiest rice product. As it turns out, if you take care of your brown rice and cook it properly, it can be just as tasty as its white bi-product.
Some notes for properly preparing whole grains:
- Because they still contain the protein-rich germ, whole grains smell slightly sweet or have no odor and need to be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer to keep fresh. If you’re going to use it soon after purchasing it, store it in a cool, dry place.
- Rinse whole grains in a strainer in a water-filled bowl before using. Change the water repeatedly until it is clear. While rinsing, sift through the grains with your fingers to make sure there are no small rocks in the mix.
- Toast your grains before cooking them in order to bring out the sweet nuttiness that gives whole grains their special flavor.
- When cooking whole grains for a salad, like wheat berries, cook in salted boiling water like pasta.
1 cup long grain brown rice
1 3/4 cups water
pinch of salt
Wash and drain rice (as explained above).
In a saucepan on medium heat, roast the rice until it is dry and slightly aromatic. Do not use any fat (butter, oil, etc.) and be careful not to let it burn. This should only take a couple of minutes.
Boil the water and add the boiling water and salt to the rice. Cover and return to a boil. Simmer for 30 minutes without lifting the lid. Turn off the heat and let it steam for 15 more minutes without removing the lid.
Fluff with a fork and serve.
After my first day in culinary school I came home with an armload–two white chef’s coats, two pairs of houndstooth pants, three starched aprons, six towels, a plastic name tag, and a bag of knives. And of all of the things people have asked me about since that day, the question I get the most is–what kind of knives should I buy?
Fortunately for the inquiring minds of my life and now for all of the Noshers out there, knife construction and handling was the first thing on the syllabus after orientation.
1. Material: Most knives are made of one of three types of metal–carbon, high carbon steel, and stainless steel. If you’re looking for a cheap knife that makes clean cuts, go with carbon. But while it is inexpensive and easy to sharpen, it’s not great for humid climates or acidic foods since it discolors easily and it does not hold an edge (i.e. doesn’t stay sharp). Unlike carbon knives, high carbon steel does not corrode, does hold an edge, and looks pretty, but is definitely more expensive and a bit trickier to keep sharp. Stainless steel knives have very strong blades that resist abrasion and discoloration, they’re cheap, and attractive, but it is hard to maintain an edge and the blade rips through food instead of slicing. Stainless steel is usually used for serrated knives since they don’t require the same kind of care.
2. Design: There are two key visual components to look at when choosing a knife–the tang and the rivets. The tang is the metal part that runs from the blade through the handle. The best quality knives are going to have a full tang, meaning it is one solid piece of metal. The number of rivets holding the tang and handle together are also a way to measure quality, with three rivets being the best.
3. Gut: I’m referring to your gut here, not the knife’s. Ultimately, it’s your knife so you need to be comfortable with how it feels in your hand. I like my knives to feel solid and weighty, but not leaden. A friend of mine recently bought a set of knives that, while highly functional, just feel all wrong to me because of their weight (although they are great if you want an easy way to keep them separated for meat, dairy, and pareve jobs). Also, think about how many knives you actually need. Yes, uniform knives in wooden knife blocks look lovely on your countertop, but in reality a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife are sufficient for pretty much any job. (Side note, if you’re looking for a way to store your miscellaneous collection of knives, I use this bamboo knife dock that fits into one of the awkward drawers in my kitchen and keeps my knives organized and safe).
Forty percent of food grown in the United States gets wasted. It is left in the fields, doesn’t make it to grocery stores, sits forgotten in our refrigerators, or is pushed to the side of our plates. According to a study by the University of Arizona, in 2004 the average family of four wastes $600 of food every single year–and that was 2004. Where does all of this food end up? Landfills, mostly.
With the arrival of warmer weather, we are embarking on a season that gives us more opportunities to waste food, but also more opportunities to do something about it. With higher temperatures, our bodies are more inclined to crave water-rich produce that will cool our bodies internally, like cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. These cravings will cause us to go to the grocery store or farmers market, buy everything that looks good and take it home, at which point we might get lazy and decide it’s a great night to go out to dinner and the once crisp veggies will start wilting.
Avoiding waste of any kind is a Jewish value, known as bal tashchit, and there are a lot of ways we can easily incorporate these waste-avoiding, and money-saving, techniques into our lifestyles. The most obvious is planning. Take time to think about your week–when you will be able to cook and eat at home or take food with you. Shop accordingly and with a list. Since I am never quite sure what produce will look good before I shop, I usually like to write down the number of times I’m going to need a vegetable in the coming week to give me some flexibility on what I buy.
Storing your food appropriately is a crucial step in minimizing waste. Part of this is about organization and part of it is technique. Always make sure the older food is in eyesight, both in the fridge and in your cabinets. Food52 put out two guides, here and here, to tell you where everything should go to make it last. My favorite–put your fresh herbs in a cup or mason jar with water and loosely cover with a plastic bag. I did this with my cilantro recently–it stayed fresh for two and a half weeks!
Next step: when cooking–save your scraps! Well, some of them. Some scraps and bits, like carrot peels and broccoli stalks, are great for stir fry or making stock. Toss them into a bag and freeze them until you are ready to re-purpose them. Of course, some scraps can’t be eaten, like onion peels and egg shells, but they are great fodder for compost. Find a community garden (which is also a Jewish concept) that wants your scraps. I’ve started taking mine to The Gan Project here in Chicago, which helps me cut back on waste and painlessly contribute to a cause I believe in.
And then, when you’ve sat down, eaten your meal, and realized you cooked for an army–use your leftovers! Take them to work for lunch or turn them into something completely different. The Big Oven is an incredible tool that allows you to plug in your leftovers and then gives you ideas on what to do with them.
The internet is an amazing resource for just about any task you might want to accomplish. My little brother just informed me that he will be teaching himself how to build a desk just by watching YouTube videos. But since my interests (and The Nosher’s) are more food-focused, I’m probably more likely to Google how to make great pareve ice cream or how to keep herbs fresh. In the past week, some of my go-to kitchen experts have posted a slew of great kitchen tips that you can start using today! Here are a few:
Herbivoracious put up a great video guide on how to use steel to keep your knives safe and efficient in the kitchen.
Joy of Kosher digs into the nitty gritty details about different kinds of oils, what they are good for, and why we don’t have to run away from them. (Note: this article does not address the classic Ashkenazi fat-of-old: schmaltz.)
theKitchn tackles the challenge we all face at some time or another–what to do when you’re cooking for one.
Every Day Health partnered up with editors from the South Beach diet to come up with six tips for changing the way you cook.
What are some of your tricks of the trade?