Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wednesday Links

USDA lowers pork safe cooking temperature. About time, I say! How about you? Do you still cook your pork to 160 degrees F? Will this make you change your mind?

Do you know someone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance? Some good information on what those terms really mean.

Looking for new recipes for Memorial Day? Picnic salads and beyond!

In the market for a new Italian cookbook? Jamie's Italy is on my birthday wish list and these sound pretty amazing, too.

Have you ever cooked with rhubarb? These rhubarb streusel muffins are a good place to start.

Local News:

Gourmet Underground Detroit reviews a few of the carts at Mark's Carts in Ann Arbor.

Have you tried Simply Suzanne's Granola? I recently saw it on the shelves of the Pure Detroit store in the Ren Cen and have been kicking myself for not picking up a bag. Great news - it's going to hit Michigan Meijer stores next month.

Hi there

I'm having a hard time finding the motivation to write. I'm doing better about cooking more regularly, but I'm not sure what to do about the blog. Is what you've been reading making an impact, had an effect? Are you cooking more? Are you still struggling? Are you bored?

Or do you go through phases like I do? I'm in one right now. It feels like it's been raining for days, if not weeks. Sometimes that makes me want to bake. Sometimes it saps my motivation to cook completely. Today all I can muster is some homemade soup. And that's OK. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

So please let me know what you think. I'd love to hear from you - good, bad or anything else you want to share. Just click on that comments section underneath this post. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday Links

Test your dairy IQ - are you getting 3 cups a day?

You might be getting enough dairy in your diet, but how about luxury foods? Gilt Taste has arrived. I might not be able to afford the products, but I'm thrilled to see Ruth Reichl (formerly of Gourmet magazine) back on the scene. The best part? It's a mini-food magazine, too!

Wondering about the calorie information for a recipe you've found online? A new recipe search engine, Foodily, will do it for you automatically.

More on recipe search engines - will they make you a better cook?

Local News:

Oran Hesterman, the head of Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network, will appear at the Eastern Market this Saturday, May 21, to sign his new book Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All. For each book sold, about $15 will benefit Gleaners Food Bank.

Mark Bittman, on Detroit.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Stamp Out Hunger 2011

Join me in the fight against hunger on Saturday, May 14.

What can you do to help?
  1. Place non-perishable food in a bag.
  2. Leave it at your mailbox on Saturday, May 14th.
  3. Your letter carrier will pick up and deliver to local food banks or pantries.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wednesday Links

Ever wonder how people eat in other countries? The Guardian U.K. interviewed 5 families to find out.

While Bob was in Germany a couple months ago, he ate lunch daily at his company's cafeteria - and really enjoyed the food. How often do you hear that about cafeterias in the US? Read Mark Bittman's take on the future of American cafeteria food.

Do you count your calories? Few Americans do it correctly, if at all.

Some new (to me) food blogs to add to your must-read list.

And speaking of food blogs, Saveur magazine's brief history of food blogs shares how it all began.

May seasonal food guide - and some ideas how to make the most of it.

What would make this list of links complete? News about Jamie Oliver!

Local News:

Spring has finally come to Michigan! Check out this list of spots in Metro Detroit that offer outdoor dining.

New restaurant chain Twisted Rooster emphasizes ingredients grown or produced in Michigan.

Great news for fans of Slows BBQ.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spring Dinner Party

I'm in the middle of planning a dinner party for this Friday night. How do you plan parties? Do you have a list of recipes you always make? Or do you use the party as an excuse to try something new?

I like to try something new. Cooking for two may sound easy if you regularly cook for 4 or more, but it does have its limitations. Try making a leg of lamb roast for two and you'll be eating the leftovers for a week. Even something as small as a whole chicken is too much for two people - unless you use the leftovers to make chicken stock.

The advantage of a roast (beef, lamb or pork are the usual suspects) is that it typically only needs minimal work at the beginning and the end - leaving you with a good hour or two of hands-off cooking. After spending one too many dinner parties in the kitchen, trying to saute chicken breasts at the last minute, I'm a convert to the large roast. Or anything, really, that does the bulk of its cooking in the oven. Lasagnas and other baked pastas are great for that reason, too.

I also like to let the weather and the seasons guide my decisions. And although spring has finally come to Michigan, it still cools down at night, making my debate between something lighter (and more spring-like) and heavier (to combat the chill) that much tougher.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on party planning. Leave a comment and let me know how you do it. Are you inspired by food magazines? Or a new cookbook? Or would you rather meet your friends at a restaurant and avoid the cooking altogether?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Product Review: Trader Joe's White Salmon Alla Checca

While recently checking out the frozen fish at my local Trader Joe's, I came upon this little package. White Salmon Alla Checca, or Wild Salmon Fillets Marinated with Herbs & Spices. In addition to the white salmon (which I've never tried, or even heard of), the ingredients listed tomato, lemon juice, garlic, leeks, shallots and basil.  All those things sounded good to me and I'm always on the lookout for quick and tasty dinner options so decided to give it a try.

The package is sold by weight and the nutrition facts said the servings per container varied so I wasn't sure how many fillets I was buying. But $8/pound didn't seem ridiculous to me. Is that high? For an American product? It says it's a product of the USA so I hope that means the salmon is American, too.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wednesday Links

Do you eat tilapia? Do you know how it gets to your table? Some good info on factory fish farming.

My grocery store advertises that all its meat is 'natural'. Here's some clarification about what that means.

Speaking of my grocery store (Hiller's, if you're wondering), they sell a lot of British food, including candy bars. Apparently I've been missing out on the Ripple.

Some insight into why we crave junk food instead of healthy fruits and vegetables.

Mark Bittman's thoughts on new food marketing guidelines for kids. They sound great, but why won't they take effect for another five years??

It's tough being a kid these days. And a lack of access to healthy foods isn't helping.

Are you eating enough beans? According to the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should be eating 1 1/2 cups a week. Sounds like a good reason to try that new black bean burger recipe.

Local News:

Looking for some local sweet treats? Ice cream, cookies, cakes, candies and more. And if you've never been to Ray's, it's definitely worth the trip.

Have you been to Rochester's Mind, Body & Spirits? I heard that they had closed for the winter, but now it looks like they're closed for good.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Cooking for Your Health

Another reason to cook for yourself and your family? It's good for your - and their - health. I know I've said this before (if not to you, then to everyone else I know); everything you cook at home is so much healthier than what you get in a restaurant. Although maybe I shouldn't generalize. If you're deep frying Twinkies for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then yes, a meal at the local Old Country Buffet might actually be an improvement. But for the rest of us, I think it's safe to say that when we're cooking from scratch, our meals are less likely to be drowning in fat, sodium and all that other bad stuff.

When you cook your own meals, you get to decide everything. The type of ingredients (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats), the preparation method (grilled, baked, roasted) and the portion size. When's the last time you got to make all those choices at a restaurant?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wednesday Links

Shrinking height of poor women reflects lack of food. And it's not just true in places like Africa.

My number one reason for wanting to go back to Barcelona? La Boqueria, one of the largest food markets in Europe. Ok, and maybe some more of that amazing jamon iberico.

How to chop an onion without crying. I might have to give this a try the next time I'm making French Onion soup.

Many Americans ill-informed about red wine and sea salt; how do you compare?

Want to improve your food photography - or find out how to start? This guide has some great, basic information.

Taste buds aren't the only reason we love some foods and hate others.

Local News:

It's time for the Metro Times Best of 2011! Stuck in a restaurant rut? Check out the list of best new restaurants, special dishes and new concepts in food, according to the MT staff. And if that's not enough ideas, check out the readers' choice picks.

Wondering how to eat local in metro Detroit? Hint: Eastern Market.

Forget sharing a cow - who wants to raise their own pigs? Well, on someone else's farm, of course. Contact J & M Farm for more details, or find them at the Eastern Market, shed 2.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Links

Inspiring results of one writer's attempts to improve her eating. The most important lesson learned? You're worth it. I definitely agree.

More information about the two new food shows recently announced by ABC. Will you watch The Chew after The View?

Speaking of food TV, does the fact that Rachel Ray makes $18 million make you less likely to buy her brand of EVOO?

Did you know Odwalla was a little eco-business with heart? Turns out they're also owned by Coke. Check out this organic industry infographic for more information.

A new vegetarian cookbook from London's Yotam Ottolenghi that I'm adding to my wish list. Plus a recipe from the book.

Whole Foods is launching a Cooking Department - sounds like a great idea!

Is there an afterburn effect from a workout? According to some new research, intensity may be the key.

New research on food cravings. Not eating the foods you crave might help.

Just because the FDA isn't requiring calorie information for drinks on restaurant menus does not mean they're good for you.

Looking for some eco-friendly ways to celebrate Earth Day on April 22? Here are some good to know top green myths, including some about organic food.

Local News:
A list of Detroit bloggers who write about restaurants and life in the city.
Has anyone tried these chocolates? I think this calls for an Ann Arbor field trip.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Broccoli and Garlic Penne

Do you still cook the same way you did when you first started making your own meals? Or have your skills and tastes changed and evolved over the years?

My skills as a cook have definitely improved (those two years spent in culinary school helped) and my taste buds have changed, too. I cook from scratch most of the time and if I end up grabbing a pre-packaged something due to a time pinch, I'm generally disappointed. Believe me, I wish I could find frozen meals that I thought were worth the time savings - and calories. If you've found something you love and would recommend, please let me know!

But aside from the frozen ravioli that I keep for emergencies (and the ice cream kept for um, other emergencies), there isn't much in the frozen food aisle that I can honestly say I like. Most things, no matter what your skill level might be, always taste better when made with your own hands.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Favorite Cookbooks

Do you have favorite cookbooks you turn to again and again? Here are some of the ones that help get me back in the kitchen.

Barefoot Contessa - Ina Garten's show on the Food Network never fails to inspire me. Everything looks amazing and the most important part? Ina makes it look so easy and do-able. The cookbooks are all that and more. The recipes always work and the food tastes fantastic. But use your common sense; that Potato Fennel Gratin may be delicious, but all the heavy cream and cheese says 'special occasion' side dish to me. And I can't choose a favorite book - I love all 7 of them!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wednesday Links

Did you watch Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution last night? What did you think?
Here's some backstory of Jamie's food fight with the LA schools.
The fiscal toll of treating 'lifestyle diseases' - more from Mark Bittman.
5 great pantry staples at Trader Joe's. Definitely check out the canned smoked trout, too. It's a great, sustainable alternative to canned tuna, especially if you're concerned about mercury levels.
How to share a cow. I've been meaning to look into this - anyone interested?

Local news:
Going out to eat this Easter? Here's a list of Metro Detroit holiday brunch spots.
Or maybe a home delivery service of locally produced food? Door to Door Organics promises that during the Michigan growing season, as much as 75% of their produce will be sourced from local farmers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wednesday Links

Avoiding BPA - some easy steps, some a little more difficult. But all definitely worth the effort.
New proposed federal regulations on menu labeling and calorie information. I'm looking forward to seeing the changes, but I really wish they hadn't exempted movie theaters.
A great read: one woman's journey into the world of slow food.
An interview with Ruth Riechl, former editor of Gourmet magazine.

Local news:
It's Detroit Restaurant Week! You still have time to make a reservation - the final day is Sunday, April 10th.
Food carts are expanding in Ann Arbor. I can't wait to check everything out.
It must be spring - Bell's Brewery's summer brews are out. Go to to find out where to buy them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cooking for myself

Last month Bob went to Germany for a two week business trip. As I've said before, when he goes out of town or has other plans for dinner, I do my best to use it as an opportunity to make the meals that only I like. That way I'm less inclined to go out to eat, or (usually) worse, grab some take-out.

But two weeks worth of meals for only me? Even for someone who loves to cook as much as I do, that felt pretty overwhelming. It wasn't the actual cooking I was worried about; it was, like always, the motivation. Luckily, I had a couple days worth of pasta sauce in my freezer to keep me going until I found it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wednesday Links

Mark Bittman on proposed Congressional budget cuts to programs for the poor and hungry.
Anemia risks and issues for older women.
Some hope in the battle against Philadelphia students' bad eating habits.
Lower levels of Salmonella found in organic chicken.
Another case against giving antibiotics to livestock.

And finally, some fun!
Mmm...homemade bagels. I've been meaning to try this recipe.
Some great ideas in cooking for one.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Starting Over

Somewhere, somehow in the past few months, I lost my focus. Or maybe lost is a bit extreme. Misplaced might be a better word. I started this blog in the hopes that it might help inspire people to cook more, to take better care of themselves. I wanted to find a solution to our country's obesity epidemic. To help people realize and understand the value of cooking for themselves and their families on a daily basis.

But motivating people I've never met is a lot harder than I thought it would be. So I tried to tell you how I do it. Why I do it. How easy it is to do it. And I started to include easy recipes that I made regularly in the hopes that you would follow along. And pictures that I hoped would motivate you, too.

I don't know if any of it is working or helping, but I want to get back to the 'why' because I think that is the most important part. And I'm going to take a step back from the recipe bit. My concern is that because the internet and blogs in particular are still so very new, the etiquette and how-to's are still being worked out. And even though I've been crediting the authors whose recipes I use, I'm not sure if it's been enough.

There are recipe blogs all over the internet - really great ones, in fact. And there are cookbooks coming out every week with all sorts of new and amazing recipes. If you're coming here in need of ideas, I'll be happy to point you in the right direction. I'll tell you which ones I trust and why. And instead of just recipes, I'll work on showing you techniques and tips instead.

Today's tip: if you don't make lasagna very often because your recipe serves 12 and there are only 4 of you, split the lasagna into two pans and freeze one for later. Of course if there are only 2 of you, that's still a lot of lasagna.

Let me know what you think. We're in this together, after all.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon

Do you like to make soup? I usually make it at least once a week, especially in the colder months (come on, Spring!). And I like making it for a lot of reasons. It's usually pretty simple; chop some ingredients, throw them in a pot, add stock and let it cook. It's usually fairly healthy, at least the ones I choose to make. And often, it's mostly vegetarian; meaning the only meat is the chicken stock.

As I've said before, I'm always on the hunt for more meatless meals that Bob and I can agree on. I can't say I'm ever going to become a full fledged vegetarian, but I do realize there are many benefits to skipping meat every now and then. It's better for the environment and it's usually much cheaper to cook without it. Not to mention that more and more medical evidence indicates that it's healthier for us.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wednesday Links

Need help beating the winter blues? Check out these inspired ideas.
The always informative Mark Bittman on fixing agricultural subsidies.
Anyone interested in a road trip to NYC? One word: doughnuts.
Not just for kids - adding color (and nutrition) to your meals.
Yikes! More good reasons to watch the salt.
I'm always on the lookout for new vegetarian recipes.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Roasted Chicken + Chicken Stock

Raw chicken plus vegetables, ready to go in the oven.
Roasted chicken, where have you been all my life? OK, seriously, I've been cooking it for a couple years now, but I can't believe it took me this long to get on the bandwagon. There is so much to love! Juicy, tender chicken, slow roasted, caramelized vegetables...all cooked together in one pan.  Leaving me time to actually wash some dishes read a magazine.

I think the problem was that I never knew what to do with the leftover chicken. Bob is not a dark meat fan and I hated the idea of throwing away half of a bird every single time. And then I stumbled upon this article for making chicken stock and I learned something new; it's possible to make chicken stock with cooked meat. I hope I'm not the only person that didn't know that, but all the cookbooks I've ever read on the subject instruct you to start with raw chicken. And we didn't even make chicken stock at my culinary school (too basic, I'm guessing); we spent our days making veal stock instead. Always, always using raw bones and vegetables.

Needless to say, I'm a convert. Instead of only roasting a whole chicken once in a great while, I now roast a whole bird once a month, if not more. And instead of dreading making chicken stock the traditional way (ie., with grease flying all over the kitchen as I browned the parts on the stove), I do my own variation and I'm just as happy with the results. Maybe even happier because my kitchen isn't covered in grease.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Planning a dinner party

Sneak peek into this weekend's dinner party prep.

There's been some chatter online lately about the demise of the dinner party. As the author of a blog that hopes to encourage people to cook more, suffice to say, I don't agree. To me, a dinner party is any time you have someone over for dinner. It can be one person, it can be 6. The important part isn't the number of guests; it's that you're opening up your home, inviting someone in to share a meal. It doesn't have to be fancy - heck, you don't even have to cook the actual meal (although that would be great, too).

So what's stopping more people from hosting dinner parties? Is it the usual culprits of time, energy and motivation? Well, if you've managed to find those things in order to cook dinner more often, throwing a dinner party isn't much more difficult. In fact, it's only as difficult (or complicated might be a better word) as you want it to be.

Start simple; host a potluck. Tell everyone you'll make the main dish and ask them to help out with the sides. If you've ever hosted a holiday meal, you've probably already figured this one out. Another great idea is to host a soup and (fill in the blank) party. You make a couple types of soup, maybe even this one and then decide if you want to offer a salad and some bread or rolls.

Or, maybe sandwiches instead. Who doesn't love tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches? Sorry Mom, but some of my best childhood food memories are of my sister Aimee making me that exact lunch on half days home from school. Those sandwiches almost cancel out the image of my sister surrounding herself with cereal boxes at breakfast so I couldn't bother see her.

In keeping with the simple/make-ahead theme, another thought is lasagna or any other baked pasta like macaroni and cheese, manicotti or baked ziti. I once hosted a family birthday lunch for 13 and made it easy on myself by making two lasagnas ahead of time, one vegetarian, one meat. The only tricky part was making sure both were thoroughly re-warmed in my oven, but it all worked out. And birthday cake makes everything better, don't you think?

Or go in the complete opposite direction and challenge yourself to try something completely new. That's one of the reasons I host dinner parties; well, in addition to wanting to see our friends. I know, I know, you're never supposed to try out new recipes for the first time when you're having guests. But since I'm only cooking for two on a daily basis, I don't get the opportunity to make a lot of larger things, like roasts, unless we want to eat it for the entire week. I just make sure to use a recipe from an author I trust - and have a back-up plan, in case things don't work out.

Whatever you decide to serve (and I will happily join you for take-out pizza), remember that your friends and family are there to see you, first and foremost. You don't need to have a perfect house or wait til you have the perfect plates. And in the paraphrased words of my beloved Ina Garten, your friends won't have a better time if you spent all day in the kitchen. Just invite them over! I promise you won't regret it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day!

What do you do when you come down with a nasty sinus infection the day before Valentine's Day? Cancel your fancy dinner plans because you can't taste anything anyway? Say who cares because it's a stupid holiday created by Hallmark (it's not)? Or for those of us who actually like an excuse to celebrate love  (or really, anything), postpone your dinner plans til the following week? I choose the last one.

So tonight's menu really isn't anything fancy. It's just fancier than what I make most nights of the week, meaning, a side dish that takes more than 5 minutes to throw together and if everything goes well, a dessert for two. Here goes.

(Belated) Valentine's Day Dinner Menu for Two

Green Salad
Potato Gratin for Two
Steamed Broccoli
Individual Fallen Chocolate Cakes

I'm starting with the dessert because if I don't, it's the one thing most likely to be cut from the menu due to lack of time, energy or interest. Well, not really lack of interest. More like willpower or the realization that Bob and I have both eaten our weight in chocolate this past week. Nope, I'm not one of those people who loses their appetite when they're sick. This dinner was the only part of Valentine's Day that was postponed; the chocolate was most definitely still gifted and received.

And regardless of how much chocolate was received (and sometimes already eaten), Valentine's Day also means chocolate for dessert around these parts. It's what my Valentine wants and it's what he gets - and it's such a simple, yet amazing dessert, I'm sure I'll be finding other excuses to make it throughout the year.

Did I mention how easy this dessert is? It's a variation on the always popular molten/lava cake and unlike other recipes, doesn't involve separating eggs or anything tricky. Not that I think separating eggs is tricky, but it usually involves dirtying more bowls (and whipping the yolks and whites separately) and I'm all for streamlined if the end result tastes this good!

Buttered ramekins, about to be dusted with cocoa.

Final whipped egg/sugar/salt mixture.
The only special technique required in this recipe is folding. And I happen to love folding. If you don't, or don't know what I'm talking about, folding is a method of gently mixing ingredients together so that whatever you're mixing, doesn't get deflated. And the reason you don't want those ingredients (typically eggs) deflated is so they puff up in the oven.

It's always easier to fold ingredients together when your bowl is big, rather than small. You want to have enough room to move the spatula around. See how much room I have in the bowl below?

First step of folding.
Halfway there.
Start by scraping your spatula along the side of the bowl and then continue under the mixture at the bottom, pulling the spatula up through the middle. Give the bowl a quarter-turn and repeat. Continue to gently fold the ingredients together, taking care not to deflate the egg mixture more than necessary. When barely any streaks of flour or egg mixture are visible, you're finished.

Final mixture, completely folded.
The finished cake with a piece of chocolate added for a goofy bit of garnish.
The cake pictures are the only ones that turned out, but I'm including the potato gratin recipe, anyway, because it's just so good. And if you're looking for a foolproof way to cook a steak in the oven, check out the link above or here.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Individual Fallen Chocolate Cakes
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated - Cooking for Two 2010
serves: 2

notes: special equipment needed - two 6-ounce ramekins

If you find yourself at a kitchen supply store with no idea how to determine the capacity of the ramekins staring you in the face, allow me to help. I have Apilco ones from Williams-Sonoma and if you can find them on sale (sometimes they have seasonal colors, like pink), grab them.

According to the W-S site, the ones I have are the large size (3 1/2" wide,  1 1/2" tall) and hold 5.4 ounces. They also have a mark on the bottom, near the edge, that looks like a 7. I haven't been able to determine exactly what it means, but it must have something to do with size as my much larger Apilco souffle dish has a number 6 (or an upside down 9) on the bottom.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for ramekins
cocoa powder, for ramekins
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
confectioner's sugar, for dusting (optional)
  1. Set oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter two 6-ounce ramekins and dust with cocoa.
  2. Combine chopped chocolate and butter in microwave-safe bowl and microwave til melted, approximately 1-3 minutes. I suggest using medium power and start with 30 seconds, stir, repeat until melted. Stir in vanilla.
  3. In large mixing bowl, beat egg with whisk attachment on medium-low until foamy, approximately 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and beat egg til soft and foamy, about 1 minute. Slow speed to medium and gradually add sugar and salt; return speed to med-high and continue to beat til egg mixture is very thick and pale yellow, 5- 10 minutes longer. If using a stand mixer, this should only take 5 minutes.
  4. Using a spatula, scrape whipped egg mixture on top of chocolate mixture, then sift flour over top. Gently fold mixtures together until just incorporated and no streaks remain.
  5. Divide batter between prepared ramekins and smooth tops. Note: If you're making these in advance, stop here and chill the filled ramekins by placing them in the refrigerator. When ready to bake, proceed with the following directions.
  6. Place ramekins on baking sheet and bake until cakes have puffed about 1/2" above rim of ramekins and jiggle slightly when shaken, 10-13 minutes.
  7. Run a small knife around edges of cakes. Gently invert each ramekin onto individual plates and let sit til cakes release themselves, about 1 minute. Remove ramekins, dust with confectioner's sugar and serve immediately.
Potato Gratin for Two
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated - Cooking for Two 2009

notes: special equipment needed - a shallow 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" baking dish with sides that are no more than 2 inches high.

Prep and assemble all the ingredients before slicing the potatoes or they will turn brown (don't store the sliced potatoes in water - the starch is needed for the recipe). The 1/8" thickness of the potato slices is crucial for the success of the dish; use a mandoline, a V-slicer or a food processor fitted with an 1/8" thick slicing blade.

1 large russet potato (about 12 ounces), peeled and sliced 1/8" thick
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small shallot, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon minced, fresh thyme - or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese (or Parmesan)

  1. Adjust an oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Coat an 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" baking dish with vegetable oil spray (like Pam). Place the potatoes in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and salt and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic, thyme, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and cook until incorporated, about 10 seconds. Whisk in the cream, bring to a simmer and cook until beginning to thicken, about 30 seconds.
  3. Pour the sauce over the potatoes and toss to coat thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish and gently pack the potatoes in an even layer, removing any air pockets. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the potatoes are almost tender, 35-40 minutes.
  4. Remove the foil and sprinkle with the cheese. Continue to bake, uncovered, until the cheese is lightly browned and the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes longer. Let the gratin sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Taking a sick day, or two

While I'm off recouperating from my annual sinus infection, take a minute to check out this great article from on why a recipe might fail. More often than not, it's likely not your fault!

And if you're looking for more guidelines and suggestions for eating healthy, here are some common sense/real world tips.

I finally saw the movie Food Inc. yesterday and I highly recommend it. It was a great reminder to make some more changes in my own diet and the way I shop. If you've already seen it, please share your thoughts!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cooking for one - Fettuccine with Artichokes

Bob's out of town for work again and you know what that means? Lebanese take-out!

Just kidding! Who would want to read about my take out meals? Hmmm...I guess some people might, but that's not why I started this blog. Thanks to you, I'm actually sticking to my resolutions and I'm cooking dinner more often. Still not every night and no, I have no plans to kick my pizza habit, but hey, one meal at a time.

Tonight's dinner is compliments of the wonderful writers at the former Gourmet magazine. Gourmet called it quits over a year ago and I still miss it. True, I didn't cook very much from it at the end. And I often spent a lot of time hunting down exotic ingredients for a recipe that easily took me over 2 hours to cook. But I've yet to find a replacement that gets me as excited about cooking and food as Gourmet. At least not one that I can afford.

Fettuccine with Artichokes is a meal I often make when I'm dining solo. I realize this is my second vegetarian meal and some of you might be wondering what's going on. I haven't stopped eating meat, but I tend to skip it when Bob's out of town. Like I said before, I try to use these occasions as an opportunity to cook things Bob doesn't eat - like artichokes.

So nothing tricky about this recipe. Really basic ingredients, too. The only thing I usually have to pick up from the store is the frozen artichokes. But if you plan ahead (unlike me), you can have them sitting in your freezer, just waiting for an opportunity to be turned into this.

I usually get mine at Trader Joe's because that's the first place I saw them. And of course, at Trader Joe's, they're super cheap. But 'my' store didn't have them so I had to plow on to my usual grocery store. What dedication, huh? Believe me, I was pretty impressed with myself. Missing ingredients is my standard excuse to grab some pizza. But, um, since we had pizza last night, that wasn't an option. At least not for another week.

Fettuccine with Artichokes

serves: one (the original recipe serves 6)

notes: The changes I made were pretty minor. I added a bit more of the artichokes because I really like them. And I held off adding the lemon zest til the end because I think it tastes fresher that way.

Cooking for one can be tricky when it comes to choosing a pan size. The saute pan in this recipe needs to be large enough to hold the cooked pasta at the end, but not too large so that the onion burns. I like the taste of the caramelized (browned) onion, but if you don't, keep the heat on low the entire time.

3-4 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, not thawed (or about 12 hearts)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 of a small onion
kosher salt and black pepper
pinch of red hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 ounces dried egg fettuccine
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, grated

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook artichokes til just tender, barely 2 minutes. Do not drain pot - remove artichokes with a slotted spoon and set aside. Return pot to boil.
  2. Chop onion into small or large pieces, whatever you prefer. Heat butter and olive oil in 10" nonstick saute pan over med heat.  When foaming butter subsides, saute onions, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened, about 6 minutes. If onions are getting darker than you like, turn the heat down to low.
  3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in salted, boiling water (the pot from #1) til al dente. My noodle package recommended 8-10 minutes so that's what I used. Fresh fettuccine noodles (sold in the refrigerated section of the grocery store) will take much less time to cook. Again, check the label.
  4. While pasta is cooking, add artichokes to the onions and saute for approximately 3 minutes until warmed through and starting to brown. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat.
  5. Drain pasta (reserving 1/2 cup pasta water) and add to artichoke mixture. Add 1/4 cup of pasta water to pan, along with lemon zest, parsley and Parmesan and toss to combine.
  6. Taste and season with additional salt if needed. Thin mixture with remaining pasta water if desired and serve with additional cheese on the side.
  7. And don't forget a salad to round out the meal!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Potato Leek Soup

What do you do when you see yet another severe weather alert in the forecast? If you're anything like me, you stay home and make soup. Well, and maybe some cookies (why does falling snow always make me want to bake??), but that's another post.

This is one of my winter standards. It's warm and cozy and exactly what you need on a chilly night, like tonight. But it's also one of my year round favorites.  It's cozy, but not so heavy/hearty/stick-to-your-bones that you can't enjoy it in the spring or summer, too.

And the best part of all? It's so simple that I challenge you to tell me that it's too much work. No special equipment required and only four ingredients that you should be able to find in any grocery store, plus a bay leaf, salt and pepper. OK, and a tiny bit of flour to thicken it ever so slightly.

It doesn't get much easier than that, or healthier. According to my handy-dandy MasterCook software, each serving is only about 250 calories. Even if you add a full-fat homemade Caesar Salad and a small roll, that's a pretty darn healthy meal in my book! I'm not all about the calorie counts, but it's nice to know if we're on the right track. And if you're interested, I'll include the information that I have (with the caveat that I'm clearly not a dietitian or nutritionist).

One last tidbit before we get to the recipe. Have you ever seen the phrase 'sweat the vegetables' in the directions of a recipe and wondered what, exactly, that meant? It's a great technique, especially when you're trying to watch the fat in a dish, but in my experience, most recipe writers get it wrong. When you 'sweat' something, you use a small amount of fat (3 tablespoons butter in this case) combined with low heat. I like to start the heat on medium to give the vegetables a kick and then once they're tossed with the butter or oil, add a pinch of salt, lower the heat and place the lid on the pot.

The pinch of salt helps draw the moisture out of the vegetables and the lid keeps that moisture in the pot. And when you keep the heat on low, checking and stirring every now and then, the butter or oil doesn't burn and the veggies soften like they're supposed to, without browning. I, personally, don't mind if there is some browning, but if you see some brown spots and you start to get worried, add a splash of chicken broth, white wine or even some water to the pot. Just a small amount of liquid will keep whatever you're cooking from browning or even burning.

Chop the leeks.

A lot of leeks.

Toss them with melted butter and sweat them til they're softened.

Chop the potatoes, preferably small enough to fit on your spoon.

The end result.
Potato Leek Soup
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, January 2000

servings: 4-6, generously
yield: 5.5 cups

note: Those Cook's Illustrated people must be hearty eaters. The original recipe made 11 cups and served 8 people. I halved the recipe, but feel free to double it - and hey, freeze the extras!

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds leeks (my store sells leeks in bunches, as in 3 for $1.99 - I use one bunch)
1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (it's true, homemade is best, but store-bought does the job, too. this is the brand I use)
1 bay leaf
1 pound red potatoes
salt and pepper (I like to use kosher salt because it's easier to grab with my fingers)
  1. Cut off the dark green part of the leeks, leaving only the white and light green parts. Trim the root end. Leeks are usually pretty dirty inside so slice them in half lengthwise and then rinse under cold water. Some recipes will tell you to soak them in a bowl of water, but I think that just makes more dishes to wash. Scrub out the dirt with your fingers and dry the cleaned leeks.
  2. Chop the leeks into small pieces, depending on your preference. The original recipe called for 1-inch pieces, but I like them smaller, as seen in the 2nd and 3rd pictures above.
  3. Heat butter in a Dutch oven (or any heavy, large saucepan) over medium heat til foaming. Add leeks and a pinch of salt, stir everything and cover with a lid. Turn the heat to low and cook (or sweat the vegetables) for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and softened.
  4. Sprinkle flour over leeks and stir to coat, cooking until flour dissolves, about 1-2 minutes. The flour is added to help slightly thicken the soup, by combining with the butter in the pan and in step 5, the broth.
  5. Turn heat to high and slowly add broth, whisking constantly. 
  6. Chop the potatoes into bite-size pieces. Add bay leaf, potatoes and salt and pepper to taste to pot. The amount of salt you'll need will depend on how salty the broth is - definitely look for the low-sodium store bought stuff.
  7. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 5-7  minutes, until potatoes are almost tender. Lower heat, if necessary to keep pot at a simmer (not a boil).
  8. Remove pot from heat and keeping lid on, let sit for 10-15 minutes until potatoes are completely tender. Discard bay leaf, taste and season with additional salt and pepper if needed and serve.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Menu planning, part 2 - more ideas, less crazy

It's hard to describe menu planning with a picture.

Maybe my crazy method of menu planning (see part 1 here) didn't do it for you. Believe me, it doesn't always work for me. Like yesterday, when my husband had to go out of town on a last minute business trip. I have a week's worth of recipes planned and even the groceries to go with them. But my motivation? I'm having a really hard time finding it. So to help myself out when it happens again (and I know it will), I'm adding a back-up plan to my method.

That is the point of all this work, after all. We're doing it to ultimately make our lives easier and hopefully, better, get the idea. There's a never-ending stream of research telling us how important family meals are for our well being and our health. And by family I don't just mean two parents plus two kids. Family is however you define it and dinner for one is just as important as dinner for six.

If you're still not convinced that it's worth the effort, check out this food manifesto by Mark Bittman. He has a bunch of great ideas on how we can improve our food supply, but he also talks about the value of home cooking. Another good source of information is the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that was released this past week. It can be tough to follow the guidelines at a restaurant, but at home you're in control.

In the end, no matter what your motivation, planning meals (and cooking them) will take some time to make it a regular habit. It makes sense to find the method that works best for you and your lifestyle.

Here are a few more ideas to help you get started.
  1. Create theme nights. If you were a kid in the 1970's, you might remember Wednesday as Prince Spaghetti Night. The ad campaign may have been hokey, but the concept still makes sense. Whether it's Pasta Wednesday or Soup and Salad Thursday, a routine makes it easier to plan the menu and to stick to it. Find four pasta recipes, four soups and you're on your way to planning a whole month of dinners.
  2. Plan for leftovers. If you're making a pot of spaghetti sauce, it's not much more work to double the recipe and freeze the extras. Soups and casseroles also freeze well.This is my 'new' back-up plan, by the way. But it only works as long as the dinner gets made in the first place.
  3. Cook ahead of time. Similar to #2, except you're typically only planning a week ahead. Prep and cook meals on the weekends or whenever you can find the time. Plan for the days you know you'll get home late and you'll stop making a side trip to pick up a pizza.
  4. Finally, don't forget to treat yourself. I still love going out to eat at restaurants - who doesn't?  But if healthier eating is your goal, those meals need to be a special occasion, a treat. It's going to be tough, but I promise it will be worth it!
Now let's get cooking!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Planning a menu, part 1

Why make a menu plan? Well, if you're anything like me and you head over to the grocery store without any specific ideas (aka, a list), you end up coming home with snacks, some veggies, maybe some meat and a gallon of milk. And then they sit in the refrigerator while we go out to dinner because I have no idea what to make.

I've been cooking for myself for close to 20 years now and think the only recipe I have completely memorized is Broccoli and Garlic Penne. And that's because the ingredients are broccoli, garlic and penne pasta. OK, plus salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. But I always have those on hand so they don't really count.

So unless you're some mastermind with a treasure trove of recipes memorized, I think you can agree with me that making a plan is a very good thing. Now we just have to figure out how to do it. There are as many ways to make a menu as there are cooks. I'm not going to tell you my way is the only way; it's just what works for me. Here's what I do.

  1. I start by looking at my/our schedule for the upcoming week and figure out how many meals I will need. Typically, I shoot for 5 meals, knowing that my fresh veggie supply will have to be replenished after that many days. And also realizing that despite my best attempts, there will possibly be a restaurant or take-out dinner somewhere in there.
  2. Decide the different types of meals I want to make. For me, this means one soup/salad dinner, one or two chicken meals, a beef night, pork and hopefully something vegetarian. The last one's an ongoing struggle for me as my husband's tastes run to more meat and potatoes fare, but I'm working on it.
  3. And speaking of my husband (let's call him Bob - because that's his name), if he's going to be out of town for work, I'll be sure to plan dinners that I wouldn't normally make and will look forward to cooking. It's hard enough to motivate myself to cook for two and in the past, going solo usually meant I treated myself to some take-out. But to be honest, I tended to find myself catching up on some trash TV and before I knew it, it was 7pm, if not later. And my local take-out options? Not so great.

  4. Next up? This part varies week to week, depending on my mood and energy level. I have a growing collection of cookbooks, I subscribe to a few cooking magazines and I read far too many cooking blogs. I also have recipe software (MasterCook Deluxe, to be exact) and although it came with its own collection of recipes, I've never used any of them. Instead, I use the program to import recipes from the web or wherever else I find them. It's not the best software, but it keeps everything in one place and it saves me from printing recipes. So, to make this long story short, depending on what I feel like, I go through my cookbooks, search online and/or sometimes just scroll through my handy-dandy MasterCook for ideas.
  5. Once I've found recipes that sound appealing, I do a double-check to make sure they're something I can pull off within my time constraints. If I want to make something more time consuming (like 2 1/2 hour Carbonnade a la Flamande), I'll plan to make it over the weekend, when I have more flexibility.

  6. Ooh, and don't forget side dishes! This is where I typically fall short. It's great when I can combine them in the same pan as the main course, like a roasted chicken. But that doesn't work for everything so I usually end up with something simple on the side. Steamed or roasted vegetables, basic green salad and sometimes a rice or grain.
  7. Finally, after a quick check of my cupboards, freezer and refrigerator to check on ingredients, I put everything on a list to take to the grocery store. And that's it!

OK, so I might have lost a few of you back there on number 4. I realize not everyone's as crazy as I am about hunting down recipes. I promise Part 2 will offer a more stream-lined solution. And in the meantime, see if you can guess what I'm making in that picture at the top. I know no one's coming here to see more pictures of empty pots and pans!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Already have the basics?

If you read through my list and thought, I have that stuff, it might be a good idea to look around and see if you have (or need) a few more essentials. I know, this list is getting long, but like I said before, many of these things will be with you pretty close to forever. And you're here because you want to start cooking or start cooking more regularly, right? So here are some more basics, plus a few really nice to have(s)...

  • Whisk - not sure how I missed this the first time, but you'll need one or more of these to make salad dressings, gravy, maybe even make polenta.
  • Tongs - plural, as in, get more than one pair. I use these to grab pieces of meat to flip, to pull them out of a pan. Basically to do everything my fingers would do if they were coated in Teflon. The second pair is when you use the first ones to grab raw meat and don't want to use them to contaminate cooked meat.
  • Sheet pans - these are the workhorses of the kitchen and another essential. I use them for cookies, of course, but also to roast vegetables, cook smaller cuts of meat or fish, as a place to set up a bunch of prepped ingredients...the list goes on and on. I recommend the traditional kind with the rolled lip - often called a jelly-roll pan - and I get them at restaurant supply stores like Gordon Food Service. They typically cost around $9 for the standard/half-sheet size and $6 for the quarter-sheet size. Get them both - better yet, get 2 of each!

  • Colander - a must have for straining pasta, stock and even rice, if you get one with small enough holes.

  • Strainer - similar to a colander, a strainer typically has a handle instead of legs. But because of its finer mesh (aka, smaller holes), it can be used to strain liquid from many, many more things. Like what, you ask? Um, rice, pasta and lots of other things I can't remember. It's also great for sifting flour and other dry ingredients in baking - but that's another list.
  • Vegetable steamer basket - super cheap and indispensable for quickly steaming veggies on the stove top.

  • Food mill - similar in abilities to a food processor, a food mill is old school technology. It comes with 3 discs to control the coarseness and has feet to be placed on top of a bowl. I use mine to puree vegetables when I want to strain the final product at the same time.

  • Food processor - first up in the nice to have category, a food processor can do everything from mixing pesto, shredding cheese and slicing vegetables to whipping up dough for pie crust. I don't use mine every day, but it's wonderful to have it when I need it. And at 15 years old, it's still going strong.
  • Immersion blender (or regular blender) - I mostly use my immersion blender for pureeing soups. It can be done right in the stockpot, as opposed to pouring the soup into a regular blender. Goodbye hot soup burns! Of course a regular blender is great, too. You can use it to make all sorts of frozen drinks, some soups, pesto, etc. I'm just bitter because my last one broke a year ago and it doesn't look like it's getting replaced anytime soon.

  • Dutch Oven - if you're going to be making soups or stews on a weekly basis, this is a great investment to make. There are many brands available, but the king is definitely Le Creuset. I bought mine at an outlet for over half off and not a week goes by that I don't use it. I make soups, braises, curries, even the now infamous no-knead bread. Plus it looks so darn pretty and it will seriously last a lifetime.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Where to start

To start cooking, we need some basic equipment.

  • A stove/oven - gas or electric as long as it works

  • Some pots and pans - preferably at least one nonstick pan or skillet (10 inch or 12 inch depending on the number of your eaters) and one traditional skillet (same sizes). A stockpot (8 quart or bigger), a medium saucepan (3 1/2 quart or so) and a small saucepan (1 1/2 - 2 quart)
  • Knives - chef, bread and paring

  • A few spoons and spatulas, preferably one heat-resistant
  • A cutting board, preferably two (one for chicken only)

  • Mixing bowls in different sizes

  • Measuring cups and spoons

None of this has to be fancy or expensive. But everything needs to be sturdy and capable of doing the job. It's all too easy to get frustrated while cooking if your equipment isn't doing what it's supposed to do (aka, cooking instead of burning). It may not be the most appealing idea to spend your money on kitchen tools (altho it's one of my favorite ways!), but much of it will last decades, if not a lifetime. And if you're going to be using these things to prepare potentially three meals a day for the rest of your life, isn't it worth it?

If you're just starting out, you can buy basic things like cutting boards, spoons and bowls at places like Target , IKEA or even dollar stores. Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond and major department stores all carry a variety of cookware brands in a range of prices.

The one tool I'm a stickler about, however, is knives. I'm pretty certain that before I started culinary school, I'd been using dull knives for about my whole life. Again, like everything else, they don't have to cost an arm and a leg.

Thankfully, if you can't afford or don't want to spend much, there is a highly rated and recommended brand of reasonably priced knives called Victorinox/Forschner. They can be found online and at local restaurant supply stores and the Fibrox-handled (non-slip!) 8 inch chef's knife typically costs around $25.

I'll start working on a list of the cookware I own in case you want specific recommendations.

Alright, I think that's enough for today. Now go shopping or better yet, go cook some dinner - I expect to some dirty pots when you're done!

Friday, January 7, 2011

No more excuses

It's a new year. Time for making resolutions to work out more (or to start), to eat better, to cook more often, to fit into that bathing suit (er, that was last year), to fill-in-the-blank. And I'm no different. The start of a new calendar year makes it all seem more appealing and it feels like a fresh start. A clean slate.

So that's why we're here. As of today, you and I are going to start making grocery lists, planning menus and cooking dinner. And on a consistent basis, no less! Sound ambitious? It is, but it's also very do-able. Generations of men and women have been doing it for centuries, without even things like the internet to help them out. And they were just as busy, if not busier than some of us are today.

If that mini-pep talk wasn't enough, I'm here to help. I've got oodles of suggestions for how to plan a menu, find the right recipes, pick the right name it. In fact, if you have a question about anything cooking (or baking), let me know. We're in this together.

Now let's get started.