Why You Should and Can Cook at Home

Sometimes, an afternoon spent playing in the dirt with your son seems like a much better idea than cooking dinner.  In my eyes, practically any afternoon spent playing with my children was not time well spent, but time best spent.  When I speak to people about food, I get many defensive responses.  At the top of the list are: 1) I can’t cook, mostly because I never liked cooking and have grown to hate it, actually, which is very uncool these days because I can’t post a picture of what I just cooked on Instagram; 2) I can’t afford organic food.  It’s ridiculously expensive, and 3) I don’t have the time.  But there are many counterarguments for why you should and can cook at home.

Yes, You Can Cook

I am about to begin publishing a series of posts with recipes that are simple and straightforward, that even the most culinarily-impaired person can prepare.  I promise to include ingredients that most people use and eat on a regular basis.  No special kitchen tools, no ingredients that you have to buy at a specialty store or purchase online.  The goal is to encourage you to get into your kitchen.  Bring your children; bring your wife; bring your husband; bring your dog (ours are very good with clean-up when stuff “hits the deck”).  If you know how to turn on your stove, you are qualified to prepared these recipes.

Yes, You Can Afford Some Organic Food

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food.  I discuss this in another post.  But if you eat at a fast food place, and are feeding a family of four, you will probably spend about $25.  A pound of grass-fed organic beef runs about $6.50.  Add on $2.00 for rolls, $1.29 for organic leaf lettuce, less than a dollar for an organic tomato (less if you grow a tomato plant in a pot on your patio).  And maybe you get frozen fries for $2.50 (Not hard to make your own, but intimidating, so we’ll go with the frozen food section) and a bottle of soda for $1.99 (but you should drink water – it’s a lot better for you and much less expensive if it comes out of your tap and you filter it), you have spent less than $16, had some good bonding time with your family, and eaten organic food, and saved $9.00.

And you’re thinking, ‘Nine dollars?  All that for a nine-dollar savings?”  But let that add up.  Let’s say that you get fast food once a week.  Now it is $9 x 52 weeks a year, which is over $400.  Still not enough to get your attention? What if it also meant that your cholesterol levels returned to the normal zone and you could stop spending money on a prescription or two?  We tend to look at these kinds of things in a small context, but the truth is that what we eat and how we eat affects our physical and mental health.  So factor in time spent at the doctor – what is your time worth an hour?

Time is Relative

And speaking of an hour, the biggest complaint/defense I hear is “I don’t have the time.”  This is also a matter of perspective.  Some days are ridiculous.  We have them, too.  But many days are not; they are more I’d-rather-crash-on-the-couch-than-cook.  Let’s see if we can start to change that.

We can start with

Simple Burgers

  • 1 lb. of ground meat (you choose what you want to use, beef, lamb, turkey, etc.)
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ t ground pepper
  • ¼ t onion powder

Mix all of this together and form four patties.  Fry them in a pan over a medium heat, about 6 minutes a side.  Put them on a platter in a warm spot.

If there isn’t any fat in the pan, add 1 T olive oil or butter and heat it.  Add 1 T flour and stir it around in the fat.  Add ½ C of milk, and stir until it thickens.  If you have some Worcestershire sauce, you could add a dash of that, but it isn’t necessary. Pour the sauce over the patties and take it to the table.

You can serve this with a salad that you have one of your family members make, or just slice up a head of lettuce and put some dressing on.

Start to finish, this takes about 25 minutes.

Eating my Youth: Chex Mix

Every so often, I like to take stroll down Amnesia Lane.  My husband and I reminisce about by-gone days and ideas.  One night we were re-living our child’s-eye view of cocktail parties of the 60’s.  Both of our parents would entertain friends, set up a bar area, make hors d’oeuvres, and that staple munchie, Chex Mix.  All I could think about that night as I was trying to fall asleep was making some Chex Mix.  It would be like eating my youth.  Because if my youth had a flavor, it would be Chex Mix.  But not the stuff in a bag from the store.  And it turns out,  not following the recipes I found on the internet.  We did NOT have bagel chips in our Chex Mix in the 60’s  I mean, who even knew what a bagel chip was in 1969?  I had to scour images of Chex boxes until I found one that had the recipe on the back.  And one morning, I finally found it. The Holy Grail of Snacking.  So give yourself some love this weekend, and make some

Chex® Mix:

  • 6T Butter
  • 1 t seasoned salt (recipe follows)
  • 4 t worcestershire sauce
  • 2 C of each of Corn, Rice, and Wheat Chex (for gluten free, just omit the Wheat Chex, and increase each of the others so you have a total of 6 cups of cereal)
  • 1 ½ C mixed salted nuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 250⁰ F.
  2. Melt the butter in a shallow pan (a 9×12 baking dish works OK, but my roasting pan that has sides that are a little higher prevents spills)
  3. Mix in the seasoned salt and the worcestershire sauce.
  4. Add the cereal and nuts.  Toss well to coat evenly.
  5. Heat in the oven for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes.

 

Eat the love!

 

Seasoned Salt

  • 2 T salt
  • 2 t sugar
  • ¼ t turmeric
  • ¼ t onion powder
  • ¼ t garlic powder
  • ¾ t paprika
  • ¼ t cornstarch (prevents caking)

Mix it all together in a jar.  Store in a dark place tightly lidded.

 

Quick & Easy Tomato Soup

For many of us, nothing says homey comfort on a snowy winter day quite like a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup.  I grew up on tomato soup that was made from the condensed stuff out of a can, like many of us did.  Here is something almost as quick and almost as easy as that condensed soup, but with a lot more flavor.  It calls for tomatoes that were canned in the summer, and homemade stock, but you can substitute.  Just be sure to read the labels and choose carefully!

Tomato Soup

  • 1 quart of homemade stock (Bone broth works really well)
  • 1 quart of tomato puree
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 rib celery, diced
  • 1/2 green pepper, diced
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 T sugar
  • 2 t salt
  • 1 T arrowroot powder***, dissolved in 2 T water
  1. Melt the butter in a large pot.  Add the onions, celery, green pepper, and salt.**  Saute until it is soft, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the tomatoes, stock, and sugar and simmer for another ten minutes.  If you want that smooth consistency of the canned condensed soup, you can run an immersion (stick) blender through the soup.
  3. Bring the soup up to a boil and add the arrowroot, stirring constantly.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste

This is also wonderful with some homemade pesto mixed in, or adding Taco Seasoning or Aged Inlet Seasoning

 

**Adding salt at the start of the saute helps to draw the moisture out of the vegetables and keeps the soup from getting too watery.

***If you do not have arrowroot, you can use corn starch or potato starch.

Focus on One: Perfect Pumpkin Pie

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Happy November.  It has been a while since I have had the time to write anything.  The opening of school has been very hectic, and as the first marking period wound down, I realized that in addition to other things I didn’t do this fall because I was so busy with school work, I hadn’t written a blog entry in months.  Focus on one?  Writing blog entries again?  Well, it IS November, and Thanksgiving is a mere 12 days away, so Focus on One: making the perfect pumpkin pie.  For years, I worked on perfecting my pumpkin pie and I think that after all of this time, I have finally got it down.

There are two things that make a pumpkin pie really great: one is using a mix of fresh pumpkin and butternut squash puree and the other is the pie crust.  I will start with the crust.  Excellent pie crust results from very cold fat and not over mixing the dough.  How do you do that?  Make the crust mixture in advance and put it in the freezer.  I actually make batches of the crust mix and freeze it in plastic bags with 1 cup of mix in each bag.  And the trick to not over-rolling your dough is to use a pastry cloth and a pin sock and NEVER wash them.  “Yuck,” you say.  Store the pastry cloth and the pin sock in a freezer bag in the freezer.  It is like having a non-stick pastry cloth and I can roll out a very thin pie crust.  Another question is about the fat to use in the pie crust mix.  Traditionally, people used lard in pie crust because it creates a much flakier crust.  However, many people use butter because it has a better flavor, but the texture of the crust is more like shortbread than pie crust and it is difficult to roll thin.

In “Recycle Those Pumpkins,” I give instructions to bake-off your Jack-O-Lanterns.  You can use the same technique to bake off any type of squash, and store it in the same way.  I use the frozen puree in soups, casseroles, and custards.  The reason I like to use a combination of pumpkin and butternut squash for my pie custard is that the butternut adds a beautiful color to the finished product.  Also, if you are using Jack-o-lantern pumpkin instead of pie pumpkin, it will improve the flavor.  What is the difference between a pie pumpkin and a jack-o-lantern pumpkin?  J-O-L pumpkin seeds are chosen for hardiness and size.  Everyone wants a nice big pumpkin to carve, and one that won’t go soft and moldy in a day.  Pie pumpkins do not store as well because they have a higher sugar content, softer flesh, and a softer outer shell.  The nice thing about pie pumpkins is that they are available at local farmer’s markets right now, along with other great fall veggies.

Elements of the perfect pumpkin pie:

Pie Crust Mix Recipe:

In a large bowl, mix together:

  • 6 Cups All-Purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Cut in 1 pound of fat (lard, butter, shortening (not really recommended), or some combination of two or three) at room temperature until it makes pebbles.  Store in the freezer until ready to use.

Once the crust mix is frozen, you can use it.  For one crust pies, use 1 Cup of mix and add 3 Tablespoons of ice water.  Stir just until it all comes together.  For two crust pies, use 2 cups of the mix with 1/3 Cup ice water.

To roll out a pie crust, lightly flour a pastry cloth and a pin sleeve.  Make a ball out of the dough and squash it flat with your hand.  Roll the dough into a circle.  To transfer to the pie plat, fold it in quarters and slip the pie plate under the pie crust, then unfold it.  Give the crust a lot of slack and gently push it into the bottom edges of the pan.  If you tear it, just take some dough from the excess around the edges and patch it.  No one can see the bottom of the pie.  Just make sure to seal it up so the filling doesn’t leak through.

Pumpkin Custard

  • 11/2 Cups fresh pumpkin puree (if frozen defrost it first)
  • 1 1/2 Cups fresh butternut squash puree (if frozen defrost it first)
  • 3/4 C sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F (200° C) and cover a baking sheet with foil.  Place the unfilled pie crust on the baking sheet and set aside.
  2. In a sauce pan with high sides, mix the pumpkin and butternut squash purees.  Put this over a medium-high heat. and cook for about 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently, until most of the water has cooked off of the puree.  Do not rush this step, as too much water in the puree will affect the overall consistency and flavor of the custard.
  3. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the milk and cream and beat together.
  4. Once the puree has gotten really thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the dry ingredients.  Make sure they are well combined.
  5. Add the egg-milk mixture and stir until it is all incorporated.
  6. Fill (but do not overfill) the pie crust.  If there is extra custard, you can bake it in a greased ramekin.
  7. Bake for 40 – 50 minutes, or until set.  Check the pie after 30 minutes.  If the crust is getting too brown, cover the edges only with foil.

This custard also makes great ice-cream.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for your continued support on this blog!

A General Word on Lacto-Fermentation

When I teach Lacto-Fermentation classes, one of the things I almost always make is Ginger Carrots. I refer to them as “Fermented Foods for Beginners.” It is a good name for them because carrots generally retain their texture and people are successful with a ferment. While L-F is a very easy food preservation technique, it still takes some time to get the hang of it and there are failures. There is a lot of conflicting information here on the internet, so it is easy to let things sit out for too long, and therefore, turn mushy, which is pretty objectionable.

How Long to Leave Things Out

People are talking about L-F because the people in the medical community are finally seeing that the consumption of probiotic foods and good gut health has a direct impact on overall health. So you took my class, or you read a bunch of blog posts. In one place you read to leave things out for 2 days. Another said leave it out for 7 days. And yet another said that you aren’t doing yourself any good if you do not leave the ferments out at room temperature for 12 weeks. In my 90° F summertime kitchen, that’s a disaster.

Here’s the deal: Lacto-fermentation, just like anything else, has optimal conditions. When I teach my class, I tell people that everything depends upon the condition in your kitchen. The beauty of lacto-fermentation is that you can taste and test your ferments, and leave them to ferment some more if they are not ready. When you like the results, you move them to cold storage (the refrigerator or a wine cooler), with the understanding that the fermentation process is not stopped by the cold, only slowed, and the colder then environment that the ferment is stored the slower the fermentation process goes.

I have tested my ferments for pH levels – I grabbed the litmus strips out of a kid’s chemistry kit that came our way, and tested my kraut. It isn’t very scientific, because I only did tested on two batches and only recorded the temperatures as high’s and low’s, no hourly variations. One had daily temperatures in the 60’s, and overnight lows in the high 40’s. The other had highs in the 50’s and overnight lows in the low 40’s. I was looking for a pH in the low 4’s or high 3’s. As expected, the first batch reached a pH of 4.0 days faster than the second batch that had the cooler temperatures with which to contend. So, for MY KITCHEN, that is not air-conditioned, and is not well insulated, the counter time for fermenting can vary by 4 or 5 days. When I tested these batches again, after being in the refrigerator for 4 weeks, the acidity had increased, lowering the pH to 3.8. Writing this post makes me want to get more litmus strips and test all of my ferments. I love watching those things change color!

If you test your ferments, remove a little liquid from the container – DO NOT DIP THE STRIP IN YOUR FERMENT!

Now you say, “Natalie, you haven’t answered the question.” I know. I can’t really answer the question because I am not fermenting at your house. Open it, sniff it, and taste it.

Back to those Ginger carrots. You can make these with shredded carrots (my preference), as carrot sticks, or as coins. They taste great in any shape. I like the shreds because they are nice to mix in with greens for salad and make a delicious salad dressing (recipe also follows) that tastes kind of like that orange dressing you get at Japanese restaurants.

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Ginger Carrots

2 C shredded carrots (or cut in other shapes)

1 2 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped or grated

1 C of filtered water

1 T sea salt

Combine the salt and water and stir until the salt is dissolved.

In a bowl, combine the carrots and the ginger and mix thoroughly. Stuff them in a scrupulously clean jar. Cover with the salt water. Be sure the carrots are below the level of the liquid. Secure a lid on the jar. Leave to ferment on a counter, out of direct sunlight. Usually this takes 2-3 days.

 

Ginger Salad Dressing

1 C Ginger Carrots (above)

½ C rice vinegar

½ C salad oil of choice

2 T toasted sesame oil

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and emulsified. Refrigerate for an hour before using.