Wednesday, September 25, 2002


Finally, the weather has changed and it's really Fall, not just technically Fall, and it's almost October. October has always been my favorite month, and Fall my favorite season, for a number of reasons: my birthday is in October; my favorite holiday, Halloween, is in October; it's the month that you get to start wearing sweaters and eating warming foods; nature goes into her whole Autumn display; and it holds the promise of Winter, which I really like in concept, but don't actually like when it's here. I also love the whole iconography of Halloween (yes, I'm one of those people who sometimes decorates the whole house for it) and making Halloween food and treats. Here's one recipe I'm definitely going to do this year—how cute are those? Now to just find the time to plan the party and…think of a costume. Guess who has zero ideas this year?

Friday, September 13, 2002

Cooking Lesson Seven: Our Favorite Winter Soup

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

An easy, warming pot of soup for the depths of winter.

Yes, I know, I did promise to follow up the Super-Efficient Cooking Day with some more recipes for you to go with that, but, since it is the depth of winter right now, I want to share my favorite winter soup recipe with you all.

All you will need for equipment are some basics: a cutting board (or counter do don't care about), knife, can-opener and big soup pot.

Your ingredients:

¾ c. chopped onion
¾ c. chopped carrot (I chop the carrot sticks I always have in the fridge)
1 T. olive oil (any vegetable oil is fine)
1 lb. ground beef (or equivalent protein; turkey, tofu, soy crumbles etc.)
1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes (do not strain)
1 15 oz. can of chickpeas (do not strain)
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce (note on all these cans: just get close to 15 oz. Sometimes I can only get the 14½ oz. diced, and often have to buy 2 8 oz. cans of sauce)
HEAT!: I use about a T. of a chopped habañero relish I have; but you can use whatever hot seasoning you have on hand. Sambal Oelek would work great, or even Tabasco. Or fresh jalapeños, maybe. Go easy, you can always add more. This gives the soup its warming and sinus-clearing properties, but you don't want to kill people here!
seasoning: A T. or so of any "southwest" or "tex-mex" mix would work. I use about 1 t. of salt, ½ t. of fresh ground pepper, and about ¼ t. each of cumin, oregano, cayenne and paprika.
6 c. water

Put the onion and carrot in the pot, along with the olive oil, over low heat. Cook, stirring regularly, until softened. Bring the heat up to medium-high and add the beef; sauté 'til it starts to brown. Add all other ingredients, and continue stirring until it comes to a boil; lower heat and simmer for at least half an hour. Voilá! You're done!

Some alternate approaches: If you're using beef or turkey and you want to lower the fat, brown the meat first, drain it and set it aside while you saute the onion and carrot, then add back in. Also, if you don't care about fat, tossing in about a T of butter shortly before serving adds some real richness (which it will to any soup). And of course, the longer you simmer it, the better it gets. This soup reheats really well, on the stove or in the microwave. I don't know how long it will keep though, because it never lasts more than a few days around here. (I'm telling you, I could live on this soup.)

When you're ready to eat, just serve it with some nice crusty bread from the store or your oven, and you're good to go.

Ah!! Now you're ready to face that old man winter again!


I forgot to mention that of course you can subtitute any canned bean for the chickpeas. Kidney beans or cannellini would probably work great. I'm still partial to chickpeas in my soup so I won't be experimenting personally.

Janaki responded on her blog with this recipe for her favorite winter soup, a potato-cheese-broccoli soup. She also got totally ambitious and served my soup up in carved out rye bread bowls! How swanky is that?

The super-productive and super-cool Abby Denson tried my recipe with no beans at all, and said it worked just great without them.

And Michael Lo offered up this near-instant Chinese restaurant classic: 1 can creamed corn, one can of water, and an egg (raw), stirred together and brought to a boil. Haven't tried it yet, but sounds good and very fast.

And finally, during my non-solid food phase while sick after dental work in January I came up with near-instant bean soup: 1 can black beans, one can diced tomatoes, 1 can chicken broth, plus your favorite black bean soup seasonings (I forget, but I think I used some oregano, cumin and S&P). Bring to a boil, simmer until you can't wait any longer, and then, if you can't eat solid food (or want a smooth soup), use an immersion blender to puree. When I made it again after getting better, I added sautéed onions and carrots.

Cooking Lesson Six: the Super Efficient Cooking Day!

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

How some time invested one afternoon can feed you for days.

I often find that I have very little time to spend on anything, much less in the kitchen. But I hate the idea of falling into the fast- and snack-food trap that gets so many people. So one of the things I've been working on over the past year or so is ways to have maximum good healthy home cooking with a minimum of time and effort, and my number one solution has been (fanfare) the Super Efficient Cooking Day! (Which is actually only an hour or two, but "day" sounds better...)

Some of these elements may not work for you, but the idea is still the same -- to spend a short but very organized amount of time in the kitchen which will cut hours of work from your week. Adapt as you like to the kind of foods you eat. What I end up with is: pre-cooked chicken which can be used about a zillion different ways; a load of clean, fresh, and prepped vegetable which can you can either snack on or use in dinners over the next several days; and a batch of hard-cooked eggs which are a great snack or ingredient as well.

In addition to everyday kitchen items (i.e. oven, timer, etc.) you will need a kitchen mallet; and either a jellyroll pan or a cookie pan that has a rim all the way around it.

Your shopping list:

a package of chicken breast, boneless (with or without rib meat is up to you; I go with)
eggs -- amount and type is your call
fresh vegetables, carrots and celery being the basics; plus whatever else you might like. I might go with carrots, celery, zucchini and mushrooms on a typical day.
optional: ingredients to make whatever dip (hopefully a healthy one) you like for your vegetables. I go for a low-fat sour cream or yogurt plus salad dressing mix (ranch is good).
additionally: whatever ingredients you'll need for tonight's dinner + however many meals ahead you want to shop for.

The Procedure: First, go ahead and preheat your oven to 350° or so (F) (my oven bites so I actually set it to 400°). Then get your eggs started -- put as many eggs as you want to cook into a pan that allows them to all fit in comfortably in a single layer, and cover with cold water (an inch above the eggs). You're going to bring them a boil over high heat, and immediately turn off the hear, cover and let sit for 20 minutes. Then transfer them to a bowl of cold water.

Next, we deal with the chicken. While you're waiting for the eggs to boil, get out your baking pan (line it with foil if you want easier cleanup), and give it a very light coating of vegetable oil. Take your chicken (using a large cutting board rather than the counter is a good idea here) and separate each portion. (At some point in here you'll be turning the heat off -- set a timer so you don't let the eggs sit too long.) Some pieces may be too large for one serving, just cut these in half. If you end up with some irregular pieces, don't worry, just plan on using those for stir-fry or something else where you'll be cutting up the chicken. Using your mallet (the smooth side), pound each piece to an even thickness of about ½". Lay the pieces on the pan so they don't touch -- you can optionally season the chicken at this point, depending on what you plan to do with it later. Some salt and pepper will be fine for almost anything though. Put the chicken in the oven and clean up your raw chickeny mess. (And if you aren't done before you handle the eggs -- wash those hands!) How long the chicken will take depends on your oven and the quantity of chicken. Just check on it every 5 minutes or so. (If you plan to use it without any further cooking, make sure it's well-done before taking it out -- if you'll be using in cooked dishes slightly underdone is okay. Just make sure it's cooked thoroughly the second time around.) Note: once we started buying larger packages of chicken at Costco, I still cut up and flatten all the chicken, but I separate all but a couple day's worth into dinner-size portions, wrap and freeze.)

Now, that your chicken is roasting and your eggs are cooling, it's time for the vegetables. Wash up your cutting board (or get out a clean one) and chop and slice away! I like to fill a bunch of Ziploc Containers (I like the "short square" ones) with cleaned, cut-up vegetables to grab and eat out of the fridge, and since I'm cleaning and chopping anyway, I will also chop up whatever vegetables I need for the next couple days at the same time (sliced mushrooms or zucchini, chopped peppers or onion, you name it).

At this point your chicken should be done -- and you should have a nice stack of containers full of ready-to-use-and-eat veggies, and a bowl full of eggs ready to put away. This is a rewarding moment. Store the chicken and veggies in the fridge, and either peel or store the eggs as they are. (Either way, they'll keep about a week. My method is to peel them and then store in a lightly salted water bath.)

But what to do with all this food?

Make a batch of whatever you like to eat raw vegetables with best and snack on them instead of junk.
Snack on the eggs, make egg salad, deviled eggs, or whatever you like best.
Use the chicken and vegetables in super-quick and easy dinners for the next couple days.
Make quick sandwiches from pieces of the chicken.
And after a couple of days (and before any of it goes bad) all of the vegetables and chicken you haven't yet used can find their way into a big stir-fry or soup! (Chicken shouldn't really be kept for more than about 3 days at most -- if you don't think you'll use it all, freeze it and use it later.)

Obviously, you may want a completely different set of prepped food at the finish, but the idea is the same, and the time saved will be the same too. As always, adapt to your own preferences!

Whew! Now make yourself some tea and take a break!

Cooking Lesson Five: The Mighty Marinade!

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

Some quick and easy ways to get variety into your home-cooking menu.

Marinades are a great way to add variety to your cooking -- you may only be able to, say, grill chicken or broil fish. but if you change your method of seasoning you can have a different final product every time you cook. Personally, I like to marinate whatever we're going to eat and then grill it. This allows me to throw a bunch of ingredients together early in the day, and then simply pull them out and place them on the grill to make dinner quickly later.

The simplest definition of a marinade is a seasoned liquid which meat, poultry, fish or vegetables are soaked in (I'm just going to say "meat" from here on in to make it easier on me, but think fish or chicken or tofu if that's what you prefer), in order to infuse them with the marinade's flavors and/or tenderize them prior to cooking. Generally, a marinade consists of an oil and an acid, with seasoning added to the mixture. The oil and acid help infuse the flavors into the meat, and the acid has an additional tenderizing effect -- so marinades are especially good for tougher (i.e. cheaper) cute of meat. For something which doesn't need tenderizing, you can use a low-acid marinade, or even skip mxing up a "proper" marinade -- you can take any liquids you would use to season your food and soak your meat in them. Soy sauce, wine, orange juice -- with or without additional seasoning added.

Don't worry about being too incredibly precise, or about following any specific recipe. This is a great opportunity to experiment. Base your seasoning mix on any flavors you are partial to, or on a recipe you think sounds interesting, but don't worry too incredibly much about precision. You can even use almost any salad dressing as a marinade. In a "proper" marinade, the acid will actually partially cook the meat as it marinates. There really is a huge difference -- if you try a number of different marinades you'll find that any marinade high in acid will visibly cook the meat as it soaks!! (And you can even leave the oil out entirely -- although for things like lean meat or skinless chicken the oil is rather necessary for the cooking process.)

There's a few basic rules of thumb when it comes to marinades -- but beyond that, you can do whatever you want! (Marinades are one of the areas of cooking that allow for the most experimentation with only very rare bad results.)

Make sure not to over-marinate. Especially in the case of acidic marinades, which could actually start to break down your meat! Generally, red meat can be marinated for up to 24 hours (although I usuall just go for 3 or 4); chicken should be marinated in the 2-4 hour range; fish for 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on what kind of fish it is (anything, for example, that may be called "steak" -- swordfish, tuna, etc -- can probably be marinated for up to 2 hours); and vegetables only need 15 minutes or so, as the flavorings are more of a coating and don't really soak in. (But they can be left much longer.) Of course, use your own judgement. Very thinly sliced chicken obviously needs much less time than whole parts do. And honestly, if you need to leave the chicken in the marinade all day while you're at school or work, don't worry about it!!

Keep everything cool! Especially in the case of chicken -- do not marinate at room temperature as a rule. Make up your marinade and then slip it into the fridge. You can bring it out a little while before cooking, but be careful. And if you want to use the leftover marinade as a sauce, make sure to cook it thoroughly -- pour it into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil before using it.

Match your seasoning to your meat. Obviously, the stronger the flavor of the item you're marinating, the stronger the seasonings you can use. However, that's not a strict rule by any means. Just keep in mind that milder ingredients like some fish and chicken will be totally overwhelmed by heavy flavoring. Of course, sometimes that's what you want.

Don't waste dishes! The absolute best way to marinate is in a one-gallon reclosable freezer bag. It's much easier to get the meat covered completely, you can simply turn it over every half hour or so instead of stirring, and you just throw it away after you're done. I'm generally not into using plastic, but this is one case where it is so much easier and the result is so much better it's completely worth it. You simply pour the ingredients directly into the bag, add the meat, close and go!

I personally prefer to grill all marinated meat, but you could also pan-fry, broil, or even put in a roast or stew.

Here's my basic all-purpose marinade; used by friends with good results:

1/4 cup vegetable oil (or olive oil, or other flavored oil you like)
1/3 cup soy sauce (or vinegar, fruit juice or wine)
approximately 1 tablespoon each of your favorite herbs and spices. I most commonly use mustard powder and lemon pepper in my soy/oil mix, occasionally adding a little chopped garlic.

The only important thing you should keep in mind is to keep the flavors balanced. If you use a strongly flavored oil (such as peanut or olive) you need to make sure that the accompanying liquid won't clash. Soy sauce and olive oil, for example, would not be high on my list of optimal mixtures. With olive oil I'd probably use a flavored vinegar; with something like peanut oil I'd experiment with juices and vinegars to find one I like (peanut oil and lime juice, for example, are a good foundation for a Southeast Asian-inspired marinade). If your seasonings are very hot (chili powder, cumin, garlic) you might want to either use a fruit juice in your mixture, or balance them with some honey or sugar. Here are a few more basic marinades for you to start with:
A vegetable marinade:
1/4 cup olive oil; 1/4 cup vinegar; 1 teaspoon powdered mustard; 1 clove minced garlic; 1 cup ice water

For any meat or fish:
1 cup water; 1 cup wine*; 1 tablespoon pepper; 1 bay leaf; 1 small onion, sliced thin; 1 teaspoon crushed rosemary or thyme; 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.
*use red wine for beef; dry white wine for chicken or fish; vinegar if you'd prefer not to use wine

For beef or shrimp: a beer marinade!!
1-1/2 cups beer; 1/2 cup vegetable oil; 1 small onion, sliced thin; 1 minced garlic clove; 2 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 teaspoon salt; 1/2 teaspoon pepper; 1 teaspoon powdered mustard.

Have fun!!

Cooking Lesson Four: Rice, The Wonder Grain

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

There's a reason most of the world eats rice everyday. It's easy, goes with everything and it's good for you too.

After covering bread, the major source of grain for most people (aside from maybe Captain Crunch, that is), I figured I ought to follow up with another great food basic, rice! Rice is not just a nasty bland side dish foisted on you by parents -- rice is a great base for all kinds of meals, and is so versatile you can eat it constantly and never get bored. (Not to mention the health benefits of eating a lot of grains.) There's even a great new cookbook called On Rice that is nothing but dishes from every cuisine in the world, served as one-dish meals over, you guessed it, rice! I got it a few weeks ago, and starting making recipes out of it right away -- if you get into the whole rice thing, it's an absolute necessity, especially as it has mostly non-asian based meals, which is usually all you get in stir-fry/"serve on rice type cookbooks.

Now, there are about a zillion kinds of rice and ways to cook rice, but I'm obviously not going to get nutty here. Any basic grocery store is going to have several kinds of plain rice (as well as the nasty minute kind), health food stores will have several more varieties, including brown rices and related grains like wheat berries. And asian groceries will have even more, including different varieties of sticky rices-- really, whatever kind of rice you want to use is fine. I personally would recommend looking for a stickier rice, as it will hold together much better when you put other foods over it. Also, there are major taste differences in rice. Experiment with different types and brands until you get what you want.

As for cooking your rice -- follow the directions on whatever kind of rice you are using, as cooking times and amounts of water can be very different from rice to rice. Rice isn't difficult to cook once you've got the hang of it, although it's another one of those intimidating cooking things. Stove-top cooking in a nice heavy pan will work just great. If you find you are fixing rice a lot, invest in a rice cooker -- believe me, it is worth the money. (Make sure you get a good one though -- don't get one of those rice cooker/veggie steamer deals with the glass lids -- they do not work.)

Now, the whole thing that is brilliant about rice is that it is great for turning almost anything into a solid meal. Once you've got the basic idea of stir-frying down, you can take anything you find in your fridge, cook it, and dump it over rice to make a meal. Here's the idea:

You need a large frying pan (or a wok if you actually have one), and some sort of cooking oil. Take any ingredients you have on hand -- all vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned), or vegetables with some meat or chicken. Prepare the ingredients -- wash veggies, and cut everything into bite-size pieces, and place to one side. Gather up whatever seasonings you've decided to use -- the easiest is to just use soy sauce and nothing else, but you can use anything you want -- peppers, any kind of cooking sauces, any seasoning (store-bought or your own mix). Heat a small amount of oil in the pan over med-hi heat, let the pan get pretty warm, and then start adding your ingredients. Start with the things that will take longest to cook (meats, "hard" veggies like raw carrots and onions), and add everything bit by bit until everything's in the pan. Keep stirring, adding the seasonings you've picked to taste, until everything is cooked through. Pour over a bowl of cooked rice and voila! Yummmmm!!

Obviously, you can get as sophisticated as you want here. One nice thing to try is adding broth (buillon is fine) towards the end, and then adding a little cornstarch diluted in cold water to make a thick sauce in the stir-fry. And there's tons of excellent recipes that follow this basic idea which you can use -- but my point is, you don't have to have a recipe or even a particular list of ingredients! Once you know how to whip this sort of thing up, you can always make a presentable meal out of whatever's in the house (well...assuming you keep some food around besides Captain Crunch). In college a roommate and I regularly ate "vegetable bin scraps over rice", and I still like to throw things together and see how it turns out. it's not alway great, but it's always edible.

One really good rice dish is a classic Japanese dish called donburi. There are about as many kinds of donburi as there are kinds of rice, but here's an easy one (great on cold nights):

You will need: 1 sliced onion (halve it lengthwise, then slice the halves thinly); about 3/4 lb beef, either ground or sliced into bite-size pieces; 1 c beef broth/buillon ; 2 T soy sauce; 2 T mirin (you should be able to find mirin in the "asian" section of your grocery store -- in a pinch you can use sake); 2 T sugar; 1 t ground ginger; cooking oil. (And don't forget to have a batch of rice ready!) You can use chicken and chicken broth instead of the beef if you like.

Heat a small amount of oil in a large frying pan or wok (med-hi). Add onions and cook until soft. Add meat and cook until cooked through. Mix the soy sauce, mirin, sugar and ginger in a small bowl and add to onions and meat. Continue cooking for another minute, then add broth. Bring liquid to a boil, then turn burner down to low and cover pan. Let cook for 5-10 minutes, then heap cooked rice in bowls and pour mixture over the rice. Dig in! (serves two)

Cooking Lesson Three: Bread!!

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

Add a jug of wine and your "thou" and you are all set (or; some stew, a blanket and a good tv show...all depends on the weather, really...)

Bread is, of course, one of the most basic foods. You can eat it anytime, with almost anything. Unfortunately (unless you have a bread machine, of course), making bread can be really time-consuming and, not at all easy. You've got the yeast, and all that kneading and rising and kneading and rising...but before there were yeast breads, there was something much simpler, quicker and easier to make -- soda bread!!

Soda bread is any bread that uses baking soda (there are also recipes that use baking powder) instead of yeast to make the dough rise in the oven. Because the physics involved are so different, preperation is entirely different also. Most soda breads are seriously as easy to make as throwing some stuff in a bowl, mixing it up, and baking it for half an hour. And fresh-baked bread is one of the best things in the world.

Here's how to make a simple white soda bread, good with butter and jam, excellent with soups, and probably good for anything else.

You will need: 3-1/2 cups of flour. (Just plain flour, not sifted or anything.) 1 teaspoon of baking soda. 1/2 teaspoon of salt. 1-1/2 cups of buttermilk. That's it!! After you've made this once, you could try experimenting, adding herbs, or dried fruit, or whatever you'd like to try.

Set the oven to 425 degrees, and sprinkle some flour on a baking sheet (aka cookie sheet), and on a counter or table you can work on. Mix the flour, salt and soda in a large bowl, and then add enough buttermilk to make it moist and clumpy. (Don't let it get slimy! You can add a touch more flour if it seems too wet, but you can only fix it so far.) Turn the dough out onto your floured work surface and knead it with your hands until it forms a large ball. Shape it into a circular patty, 6" across and 2" high. Using a sharp knife, cut an "X" across the top of the dough patty. Bake for about 1/2 an hour, until the bread is golden brown and sounds like a drum when you tap the bottom. Let it cool a bit before you start cutting it up. Now, wasn't that a cinch?

In the coming cold weather, try this bread with some thick stew, beef or vegetable.

You might also try making cornbread, which is another non-yeast bread. Any bag of cornmeal will have a decent cornbread recipe on the back, and cornbread is just as easy to make as soda bread. Try cornbread with chili! Or with the meal in lesson one.

Once you've mastered this simple soda bread, check out cookbooks for other soda bread recipes you can try. I really just do not have the time to make regular bread, but soda bread is just as good, and too cinchy not to try!!

Cooking Lesson Two: Date-Impressing Artichokes

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

Come off like a pro by making this easy-to-cook but intimidating vegetable.

Artichokes are a very impressive vegetable -- they intimidate most people, but they shouldn't! They're really a cinch to cook (hardly any work), and not hard to eat once you know what you're doing. Serving up artichokes will make you look like a serious cook -- and, while I don't know about their validity as the aphrodisiac they were once reputed to be, I do know that eating with your fingers and nibbling on your food can add a your date. We won't go into that, however! The lavish homemade sauce will make you look even more clever -- but you can skip it and just use melted butter with a little lemon juice mixed in.

Here's what you need: 2 artichokes. (They aren't hard to pick out -- just look for nice firm, fat-looking ones with as even a green color as possible.) Powdered mustard, garlic, olive oil and vinegar for the sauce. (Or butter and lemon juice)

First, start the artichokes. You want to clip off the pointy ends of the leaves -- I just use a pair of scissors. Then cut off the top 1/2" of the artichoke and the entire stem, taking off the bottom layer of leaves. To wash the artichokes, sort of spread out the leaves under running water, and then shake upside down. Place them upside down in a vegetable steamer over as much water as will fit in the pan without flooding the steamer, put a lid on the pan and put on the stove over high heat. Once the water is boiling, check the clock or set a timer, and just ignore them for the next 45 minutes. (If you are using a small pan, check to make sure the water hasn't boiled off every 10 minutes or so -- add more water as necessary.)

While the artichokes are steaming, fix the rest of your dinner (I suggest steak and rice, or something else simple) and then make your sauce (you can make the sauce as far ahead of time as you want). In a bowl put 1/2 teaspoon of powdered mustard, and either one chopped garlic clove or 1/2 teaspoon of prepared garlic (the little jars at the grocery store). Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 tablespoons of vinegar, stir and let sit.

To make sure that the artichokes are done, pull the pan off the heat, take off the lid and pull up one of the outer leaves with your fingers or a fork. If the leaf pulls off easily, you're ready to go.

Using tongs or something else that'll keep you from getting burnt, lift the artichokes out of the steamer carefully, and place them right-side-up on the plates. On the table, put a dish containing sauce between your date's plate and yours -- and make sure to put a big bowl or something similar to the side to put the discarded leaves in.

To eat the artichoke, pull a leaf off from the outside layer, and hold with your thumb on the inside (the side curving in). Dip into the sauce (you'll get to know how much sauce you like on you leaves as you eat) and then place the leaf between your front teeth about halfway into your mouth (inside, concave side, down). Bite down gently and scrape the flesh of the leaf into your mouth across your lower teeth as you grip the leaf with your upper teeth. Throw the skin of the leaf into the bowl you put on the table. Now do you see what I mean about that certain....something? (Especially if you get to, I mean have to teach your date how to eat it.) If you don't get a lot of flesh off the first several leaves, don't be frustrated -- the outer leaves have a lot less meat on them, and it will get better as you go in.

When you get to the tiny leaves in the middle -- you don't eat these. Pull them out and expose the
"choke", which is the part that looks like a lot of pale green hair. Use a spoon (or whatever) to scrape the entire choke out and get rid of it. Now, what you are looking at is the heart, which for many people is the highlight and big payoff of eating the whole thing. Cut it into chunks and eat it, dipping it into sauce. Or eat it whole if it's a small one.

(TIP: if you're one of the people intimidated by artichokes, make one for yourself and practice first -- then you'll impress your date even more with your sauve, worldy artichoke eating style!)

Have fun! And if you get lucky, I don't want to know about it. See you next time!

Cooking Lesson One: A Swanky Meal In Minutes

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

A simple chicken-and-side-dish dinner that needs few ingredients and even less time.

Okay, not minutes exactly, but here's a meal that is totally easy to fix (even if you've never cooked before!!) and looks and tastes like you knocked yourself out fixing it. Guaranteed to impress!!!! This will feed 2-4 people. For more, just double all ingredients.

You will need: Tequila (any brand will do), lime juice, boneless chicken breasts (one per person), 1 15-ounce can of black beans (not soup, beans), 1 15-ounce can of Green Giant "Mexicorn", Tabasco.

First: the main dish. Use one chicken breast per person. Put them in a pan or container with high sides and add (using a standard measuring cup) 2/3 of a cup of tequila and 1/3 of a cup of lime juice (use Rose's Lime if you feel extra swanky -- it's in the cocktail section). This makes your marinade. Let the chicken sit in the marinade for at least 30 minutes. (You can let it sit as long as you like -- but put it in the refrigerator if it's going to be more than half an hour.) Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat with a small amount of oil in it. Add chicken a few pieces at a time and cook until browned on both sides. Pay attention -- chicken burns easily. If you're not sure if it's done, cut through a piece and look at the inside -- if it's pink cook it a little longer. If you have a grill -- this is especially good grilled!

The side dish. (This is pathetically simple but people always think it's complicated.) Take the can of black beans and rinse them in a strainer. (You can do this while the chicken is soaking.) When the chicken's about half-way done, dump a 15 ounce can of Green Giant "Mexicorn" into a second frying pan over medium heat. After about 2 minutes, add the rinsed black beans. When heated through, add a few drops of Tabasco and turn the heat down until you're ready to serve it.

Ta-da! Now you have made a posh-looking dinner. Serve the chicken and vegetables with a salad, some rice, or for extra bonus points, bake some cornbread!! Cornbread is super-easy to make and uses only a few ingredients. Find a bag of cornmeal in the baking section -- recipe and directions are on the bag. Have a nice dinner!

A Few of My Favorite Cookbooks

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

Truthfully, I rely very heavily on my collection of old cookbooks for most basic cooking. You can't beat the old Better Homes & Gardens notebook-style cookbooks (pre-1960) for an all-purpose great cookbook. And if you can find
a complete set, the Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cooking is not easy to get, but is a comprehensive, 13-volume encyclopedia (they weren't kidding when they named it). I learned how to cook out of my family's copy, and after
years of looking managed to find my own set. It's not really that difficult to find good basics like these with just a little time spent checking out thrift stores, flea markets, or of course, eBay.
But there are plenty of good cookbooks in print today, although there's an overwhelming number of them! Here's a few I've found incredibly useful.

First up is On Rice, as mentioned in Lesson Four. I love rice, and this has tons and tons of one-dish meals, with something for everyone. I've made probably at least half of the recipes in here by now (although I confess to tweaking them a lot of the time -- I do love shortcuts!) There's also a lot of great information on all the different kinds of rice, and there's even dessert recipes! I have yet to try one of them, but someday I'll need that comforting rice pudding, I'm sure!!

the Visual Food Encyclopedia is a super reference -- it has become a total supplement to my Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cooking because while it isn't nearly as in-depth (after all, it's just one book, not 13 volumes!) it does have good basic info on a ton of fresh ingredients, the recipes are more modern and simple, and it's full of the most amazingly beautiful full-color paintings. Ever wondered exactly what a ripe mango was supposed to look like? Well, now you can know.

I probably cook Japanese food a good percentage of the time, although I lean more towards the home-cooking side than anything you'd really find in a restaurant. Two of my most essential references are The Book Of Japanese Cooking and Japanese Family-Style Recipes. Both have great pictures, easy-to-follow directions and no ingredients should be too difficult to track down. I'd have to say, if you only get one though, go for the Book of Japanese Cooking.

Who doesn't love restaurant cookbooks? I have loads of vintage ones, and it's still a healthy division of the cookbook sections. But I have to confess I've never gotten one of the award winning modern books like The French Laundry Cookbook. I just can't get into that style of cooking myself, although I'd be perfectly happy to eat there! No, for me it's the retro-styled official cookbooks like those from Lundy's, Junior's, or the Brown Derby. Maybe partly because they're usually good reads as well as good cookbooks!

Speaking of retro cookbooks, a lot of the old standbys are still around. You can pick up the current edition of the standard Better Homes & Gardens book, still in the 3-ring binder but modernized and updated. I already have two (30s and 50s editions) so I can't justify adding this one, but every kitchen should have at least one edition of this classic. I've never bought one myself, but I'm sure the basic info is still just as good. And if you want modern, or healthier recipes, it would probably do you more good than a vintage copy. And while you're at it, you can get modern versions of two other classics: the Good Housekeeping and Betty Crocker cookbooks, or, even cooler, a new reprinted edition of the 1950 Betty
cookbook, exactly like the one I have -- just new and clean.

Sometimes I don't want to cook, but I want to read about food and cooking. The ultimate food writer is of course M.F.K. Fisher, and her Art of Eating is a great introductory volume containing five of her early works. Another writer I like is Betty Fussell whose My Kitchen Wars is about all sort of things (but it does all come back to the kitchen). For a more modern viewpoint, check out either of Anthony Bourdain's books -- Kitchen Confidential is a must-read for anyone who's either worked in a restaurant or wanted to, and A Cook's Tour is a really enjoyable read about food and eating all over the world. Plus, the guy liked comics growing up, so that's a mark in the plus column as far as I'm concerned.

Tools I Use

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

In my opinion, and in that of practically everyone I know, a rice cooker is an absolute necessity. I'd rather give up the microwave than lose my rice cooker! And once you have a rice cooker, you'll find that you really do want to make rice constantly. I actually use the smallish-but-awesome Zojirushi NS-KCC05 (it has fuzzy logic!!) although I admit I scored it on sale. The fuzzy logic cookers are nice because they're much more forgiving, and they're much better at holding warm rice without burning it or drying it out. But fuzzy logic isn't necessary -- there's a great line of lower-cost Aroma
rice cookers
which I have used and which work perfectly fine. One note though -- do not buy a glass-lidded rice cooker! They are really just good steamers and do not work anything like a standard rice cooker. Avoid!!

Another thing I can't live without is my cast iron skillet (although I think you're better off checking your local hardware store or Kmart unless you've got a free shipping deal!) And don't believe all that nonsense about never touching it with soap! After it cools, give it a good wash with some regular detergent and a scrubber and then dry it thouroughly. This does not harm the seasoning in any way.

I was surprised to find bamboo cooking utensils available online (I pick mine up in a Chinatown grocery) but I can't recommend them enough. They're much better than wooden spoons and spatulas.

I've finally been convinced of the good uses of citrus zests, which I'd always avoided until recently getting one of the great Microplane zesters. I'm totally a convert and I want the others in the line. I got the big flat one so I could also use it for ginger; but I want to get one I can use for cheese. (My brother got one of the handled ones, suitable for cheese, so I can see how he likes that one before I decide.) Anyway, this thing makes such perfect, light and non-bitter zest you can use it in anything and never notice it (except for the added flavor). A kitchen extra, but an important one.

And finally, anyone who cooks even half-seriously should invest in at least one really good knife -- the difference between cheap and good knives is amazing. Your one knife ought to be a chef's knife or the japanese equivalent, a santoku. I prefer the santoku, probably because I use it mainly on vegetables, which is really what it's designed for. But whichever type you pick, make getting a good knife a priority. You won't even believe the difference.

Why a computer in the kitchen is not a bad idea!

or; some of my most-used online resources for cooking

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

Cooks and shows:

The Food Network's massive site is still probably my first stop when trying to figure out what to do with some surplus vegetable or what the best side dish is for a new recipe I'm trying. They're almost too massive, in fact! But if you search by show it can help a lot. I have not watched anything regularly in ages (aside from A Cook's Tour) but I do still try to check in on Melting Pot when it's the Eastern European kitchen, Ming Tsai on any show, and of course Good Eats, which is an absolute must-watch.
Speaking of which, there finally is a Good Eats website, although really it's an Alton Brown site. A little sparse, but hey, I sure can't complain about that, can I? If you need more detail, check out the Good Eats fansite, which includes every little smidgen of info you can imagine about the show from transcripts to equipment lists.
The one cooking show I do not miss is Nigella Bites (in spite of the unfortunate name). Nigella Lawson's trust-your-instincts-and-go-for-it approach is right up my alley, and the food is always simple and amazingly good. However, as her show ended up on E! and the Style Network, there is no good web presence for her show (or her). The official US site offers very little in the way of recipes or anything else, and the UK site isn't much better (although it does have some recipes not found in the US site). The show is on constantly, though, so just try to catch it on tv.
Now, The Splendid Table is a show on the radio, true. But it's a really great and interesting program I always learn something from. Thank goodness for the internet, though because I always miss it on the air. The site has shows archived so you can listen to whatever you've missed (plus details and recipes right on the site). Lots of other helpful info, too.


I don't love love but it is on my list of places to check when I need a dish. The pro is that you can find a recipe for almost anything; the con is that a lot of the recipes aren't that great since they're not being screened by pros for you. But, if you are confident that you can adjust for taste or you have time to do a test run on any recipe, it's a great resource.
I like Epicurious a lot, although it's a little too "buy this, buy that". But the recipes are good and the enhanced search is impressive as heck. (Not to mention a good work-avoidance tool...)
And finally, RecipeSource is a really extensive, stripped down database of tons of recipes.


If you are missing one or two ingredients from a recipe, you don't necessarily need to run down and buy them (especially if, say, your recipe calls for one tablespoon full of something you have to buy by the quart). Check the Cook's Thesaurus first for equivalents and replacements, as well as for more info on obscure ingredients.
The temperature that water boils is important to a lot of recipes, but it's often not actually 212° -- to find out exactly what it is in your town, right now, check out the Boiling Point of Water Calculator.
And finally, while it is generally not for the novice, I find the online version of Fine Cooking (my cooking magazine of choice, although I don't even get it anymore!) to be a really great resource -- you will even find short instruction movies on various cooking processes and recipes!!

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