Tag Archives: cooking 101

Kitchen Hack: Easier way to peel potatoes and stop them from Discoloring

potato and peeling

Nobody likes black potatoes! Here’s how to stop it.

As if you need a reminder – we’re coming up on the holidays and in my house that means a whole lot of potatoes! I’m not too fond of the yucky colors my potatoes have been known to turn before they’re even cooked so I’ve found a great hack to avoid just that.  You know, hacks are those little kitchen “tricks” that you learned from your parents. Nowadays, we call them “hacks” because everything that makes life easier is a hack? Right?

In my case, I learned most of my best kitchen hacks from chefs, friends, and twenty-plus years owning restaurants. After a while, they start accumulating.

Some hacks are like the one I’m going to share with you in a bit – someone gets inspired after doing a task over and over. Other hacks are like the ones I’ve shared before, the practical idea of turning leftover wine into ice cubes. That’s a favorite. Then again, there’s the one my friend discovered. He never peels his garlic by hand. No, he breaks the cloves apart and tosses them into a plastic covered container and shakes it hard for about 10 – 15 seconds. Apparently, all that banging around in the plastic container does the job for him. I’m trying that one the next time I need peeled fresh garlic.  Sounds a whole lot easier than how I’ve been doing it.

The hack that I’m about to share with you now is on that same level. As we all know, potatoes can be hard to peel – and once peeled can change to an unappetizing color. Your everyday Russets will turn brown or gray; sweet potatoes will turn black. Oxygen in open air triggers the acids in potatoes; as the acid oxidizes, the meat of the potato begins to discolor. The more sugar in the potato, the darker it’ll become.  The trick is to get that potato peeled as quickly as possible and stop the oxidization process before it starts.

If you’re going to mash them, and you have enough time, I suggest you lightly score the skin (be careful not to cut into the flesh of the potato) and boil them whole.  Once they’re cooled the skin will simply slide right off and you’re ready to mash.

But, if you’re going to use them to shred for a potato pancake or slice them and use them in other dishes you will need to work quickly to avoid having your beautiful potatoes turn those horrible colors.

Get two bowls – large enough to hold all your potatoes. Fill the bowls with cold water.

  1. Place washed whole potatoes in one bowl and let the potatoes stand for 10 to 15 minutes. The soaking will help with the actual peeling of the potato.
  2. Peel as usual and immediately put the peeled potato into the second bowl of cold water. Make sure that the bowl is large enough (and there’s enough water) to completely cover the potatoes.

The hard-earned secret to the hack? The water stops the oxygen from coming in contact with the potatoes. This hack will give you extra valuable minutes to finish peeling everything. Now your Russets will be white as snow and your cooked sweet yams will look as pretty as they are delicious.

Have fun!

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

You’ll flip when you see how easy it is.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all types of cuisine. But Italian cooking – that’s my absolute go-to favorite. Many of my favorite restaurants are Italian – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Sfixo in Beverly Hills is still – hands down – my favorite local Italian. It’s really fabulous if you’re a fan of dishes that come from northern Italy.

Many people think that all Italian food is basically the same – pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.  But, there are real variations all along the entire country – traditional Italian cooking is strongly region-based. In northern Italy, you’ll find an emphasis on rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, Southern Italians embrace the Mediterranean diet with tomato sauces and lots of sea food with everything in between.

I travel to Italy as often as possible – at least once a year – and during each visit I make sure that I take at least one cooking class to learn “secrets” from great Italian cooks.  I follow several of them on social media – two have even become friends – Judy Witts Francini (@divinacucina) and Helena Kyriakides (@yummyyummyitaly).  It’s the only real way to understand a cuisine – take a class, tour an area of the country and eat the food!

The truth is, you don’t have to be a great cook to make a great dish – just understand some basic rules of the cuisine. All you really need is a sense of adventure. My recommendation, start small, and work your way up!

For instance, I was watching a post by Judy on how to prepare a simple Tuscan tomato dish (they’re in season right now) that you can use as a sauce, a side dish, or even as part of the main course.  And, in that post I learned a secret about olive oil and fresh garlic (by the way – true Italian cooks uses very little garlic – they prefer to let the fresh ingredients shine).

Ingredients

  • 1 Clove Garlic, sliced (add more if you’re cooking a lot of tomatoes).
  • Whole Cherry Tomatoes (I recommend organic). Use multi colored ones for fun or slightly larger ones that you can cut into fourths.
  • Enough EVOO – that’s “extra-virgin olive oil” to lightly cover the bottom of your frying pan or saucepan. I recommend Long Meadow Ranch Winery Prato Lungo Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has just the right flavor for Italy.
  • Sea Salt (to flavor).
  • Fresh Basil (to flavor).

Preparation

  • Add sliced garlic to the COLD oil. Here’s the “secret” I learned from my friend: never put fresh garlic in hot oil – it will burn almost immediately and become very bitter. You’ll just have to throw the whole thing away and start over. By adding garlic to the cold oil, the garlic has more cook time in the olive oil adding flavor to the oil and will turn golden very slowly so you can remove any bits that start to get too dark.
  • Medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic till golden.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan.
  • Add sea salt (to flavor).
  • Slowly cook down the tomatoes until tender and they begin to burst.
  • Add the fresh basil (cut into thin ribbons – chiffonade) at the end if you’re using the tomatoes on pasta.

As I mentioned before, this preparation is very flexible. You can use this as aside for a grilled steak or on top of pounded and sautéed (Paillard) chicken breast with some baby arugula. You can use it to dress up grilled fish, or as a simple sauce for pasta or over small noodles for a simple pasta salad. And personally speaking, the basil leaves are a must – for the aroma and the flavor.

See? It’s so simple. Doesn’t this make you want to jump up and cook?

Fresh Eggs!

Egg test

An easy test to make sure that your eggs are fresh and safe to eat.

Eggs are a staple – fried or poached for breakfast, boiled for salads, brilliant as an omelet for a late supper or as an important ingredient in all sorts of recipes. You really don’t want to run out of them.

As we all know, eggs won’t last forever, even in a good refrigerator. Pay attention to those “sell by” dates and rotate eggs (as you would milk) making sure that you use the oldest stock first. But, does that mean you have to be a “date hound” for those expiration or “use by” dates? Short answer is “no.” A friend of mine complained a few days ago that his wife literally pounces on any eggs that remain in a carton after the expiration date – bam, into the trash. Completely unnecessary and overly cautious.

The fact is, assuming they are in constant refrigeration, raw eggs are usually safe for about three weeks after the “sell by” date has passed.

Look it up on Google, and you’ll see that this is a pretty common factoid.

But you still need to be careful – a bad egg is a terrible thing to crack open in your kitchen (it’s a smell that you never forget).

The first test is a visual inspection of the egg. Look for cracks or discoloration of the shell. The egg may even start to give off a certain odor – stronger than normal egg-smell. These are all nature’s signs that you really need to part with that egg.

Still not sure? Here’s a method I learned from my mom. Get a tall pitcher or other container and fill it half-way with cold water. Carefully place each egg into the water. If the egg drops to the bottom of the container – it’s good to eat.  If it lays on its side it’s even more fresh than if it stands on one end on the bottom but either way – they’re both good to eat.

If it floats – the egg is well past its prime. This is the clearest sign that you have a problem. Why does it float? Newly laid eggs have either no air cell or a very small one.  As they begin to cool (just laid eggs are about 105 degrees F!) the contents of the egg contract more than the shell so the inner membrane separates from the hard shell and forms the air cell.  As the egg ages moisture escapes through the shell and air replaces it so the air cell becomes larger.  The bigger the air cell, the more it floats.  So, if your egg is floating on the surface the air cell is big enough to make it buoyant.  Throw the egg away, you definitely don’t want to eat it.

Cool little trick, isn’t it?

A simple way to save “leftover” wine

Coravin Wine Preserver

Wine Ice Cubes: The best thing for “leftover” wine.

Good wine is a terrible thing to waste.

Being a lover of wine, I’m always offering a glass or two to friends when they stop by.  I take great care in the wine I select. It’s important only to drink the wines you like (that doesn’t mean they aren’t new ones to you – just don’t waste those calories on bad wine!).  I always like to discover new wines and learn as much about them (the grape, the blend, the winemaker) as I can.  Every label has a story.

It’s very little surprise then that I try never to waste wine once the bottle is opened. If I think that only one or two glasses will be poured, I will reach for my Coravin – a device that allows you to pour a glass or two without pulling the cork!  It inserts a long needle through the cork, displaces the wine poured with Argon gas, and when the needle is removed, the cork seals over itself, and no air touches the wine in the bottle thereby there’s no chance of unplanned oxidization of the wine.  It’s a truly genius system.  So, when I open a bottle, I want to make sure that every drop is enjoyed!  But sometimes, I might not realize we only have time for one glass, and I’ve opened the bottle only to have half of the bottle left.

Leftovers are great, some foods like soups, stews, and sauces are even better the second day, but that is not the case with wine.  When air meets wine – oxidization of the wine begins.  This is a great thing for a few hours as it allows the wine to “open” and change the taste and bouquet of the wine for the better.  The wine becomes what the winemaker intended for you to be drinking.  But, when too much air comes in contact with the wine – like by the next day – then the change isn’t so great.  I can taste the changes, so I don’t drink leftover wine – and the problem remains.  What to do with that leftover wine before it changes into something no one wants to drink?

This is what I do with that “leftover” wine – I make ice cubes!  Whenever a recipe calls for wine, you should always be using something that you’d actually drink. You wouldn’t believe how this improves the dish.  If you’ve ever just reached for that jug of red when the recipe calls for dry red wine and then another time (with the same recipe) you’ve used wine that you would be happy to drink you know exactly what I’m talking about.  Your dish will always taste better when it’s made with wine you enjoy.

I have very clever OXO Good Grip “no spill ice-trays” made by OXO that I buy at Bed, Bath and Beyond.  They have a flexible top that seals over the liquid so that there are no spills in your freezer.  Simply fill the tray with your leftover wine, lay the top on the tray and freeze.  Frozen cubes slide easily out of the tray.  Keep the frozen wine cubes in a Ziploc bag that you’ve written what the wine is and the date it went into your freezer.  Whenever you’re cooking and the recipe calls for wine – simply pull out your frozen wine cubes and you never have to open a new bottle again.  Of course, if you need a couple of cups of wine for the recipe then, by all means, open the fresh bottle and enjoy a glass of the “leftover” wine while your recipe is cooking away!

Don’t take your Cutting Board for granted!

Thinking about cutting boards today

Cutting board safety tips – there’s a reason that chefs do the things they do.

 

When I owned my restaurants we followed some pretty strict guidelines when it came to food preparation.  Many of the guidelines are written by state regulators. Most of them though are common sense things, like cutting boards.

The fact is – anything that your food touches can be somewhere that it can pick up contamination of some kind. For instance, if you cut up raw chicken, would you use the same cutting board to slice a tomato? Well, if you do and you don’t rigorously clean the board before you start slicing the tomatoes the danger from cross-contamination – the bacteria that naturally occurs in chicken meat – to anything else is extremely high.

But, it might surprise some people that raw, unwashed fruits and vegetables can also carry bacteria. I’ve seen people take raw, unwashed carrots, cut the tops off of them on the cutting board, then place those same carrots that are now washed and peeled back on the same cutting board to slice. Not a good idea.

Cutting boards need to be washed thoroughly and constantly.  Let’s start with our choice of boards.

Wood, Plastic, Glass?

The choice of material can help control the risk of cross contamination.

For a long time, nearly all cutting boards were made of wood. Traditionally they are made out of hardwoods like maple that have a very tight grain and won’t score (scratch) easily. Some people like softer woods like cypress which are less likely to dull knives. Good wood cutting boards tend to be more expensive, are heavy and require quite a bit of care to keep them like new.  You need to carefully wash your wooden board after each use with soap and water and thoroughly dry – regularly oil it with food grade mineral oil, and never put it in the dishwasher.

Plastic or silicone boards also have their advantages and disadvantages. Some people don’t like plastic because it can score from your knife cuts and perhaps trap bacteria but I like that I can put mine in the dishwasher to sanitize.  I replace my plastic boards before knife damage chips away at the surface.

Glass cutting boards are beautiful, won’t scratch or crack and are easy to clean.  BUT, food tends to slip on a glass surface and are also more likely to move around under the pressure of your chopping so the possibility of cutting yourself is a problem. But the worst part about glass boards is that they will dull your sharp knives faster than you can say this sentence!

The Verdict

Some food safety researchers recommend a mix of wood and plastic. I use my wood cutting boards for bread only – that way I don’t ever worry that bacteria is lurking on the surface.  It really depends on personal preference and how careful you are with proper cleaning and care, but obviously, the safest method is to use different boards for different foods.

When I’m cooking I use plastic only. For several reasons. You can buy different colors of plastic boards for different types of food – which all but guarantees that you’ll prevent cross contamination between raw proteins and other foods.  For instance, I use green for vegetables, red for meat (beef, veal, et cetera), blue for fish and white for chicken and other poultry.  This is the rule that’s always followed in restaurants.

Places like Crate and Barrel carry plastic boards that come in all sorts of colors. These boards are kind to your knives, fairly light weight, can be washed with soap and water easily, and if needed they can be soaked in bleach or a vinegar sanitizing solution to keep clean. Another important plus – especially for restaurants – plastic boards are cheaper than wood and can be dumped in the recycle bin when you’re done with them.

Be safe!

A Different Friendsgiving

How about a Friendsgiving?

Take your Thanksgiving Dinner to a New Level – In 5 Easy Steps!

When I was growing up Thanksgiving was always at our house.  We had a very small family, just 5 of us and no cousins anywhere close by, but my parents did have several close friends and their families would come.

My Dad always made the turkey (he was the good cook in our house!) and I loved the smell of it cooking for hours in the oven.  One of my very favorite food memories is my Dad making what he lovingly referred to as Turkey Carcass Soup the next day with, you guessed it, the carcass of the turkey.  It was always delicious!

Today my siblings live far away, my parents have passed and my close friends are my family.  I know I’m not alone in this situation as my friends and I talk about the looming holidays every year.  Some of them travel to their families to celebrate and some are lucky enough to have family close by but there’s always a group of us that are adrift this time of year.

Now we have what has been dubbed a “Friendsgiving” and I have to tell you it’s the BEST.  It only takes a few friends, 3-4, to pull this off so you don’t need a crowd at all just a little pre-planning and being firm that it’s a POT LUCK – everyone contributes!

Here are the 5 easy steps to pull off your own Friendsgiving!

  1. Plan the menu a few weeks ahead (3 to be safe) and put it up on a Google Doc so that everyone can sign up. Make sure that the menu includes how many servings are needed.  The host ALWAYS makes the turkey (or if you don’t cook- you can buy it already cooked at your local market).
  2. If you don’t have enough chairs and tables, rent them or your friends might have a few extra. You can get very inexpensive table cloths and napkins at Target or IKEA or a local thrift store.  The same thing goes for plates, flatware and glasses.  Target, IKEA or your local thrift store.  They do NOT have to match.  Part of the fun is the eclectic setting!
  3. Set the table the night before. I actually do this every time I have a party.  It saves not only time but also me from going crazy on the day of the party.
  4. Instead of a formal bar – you can use a cooler filled with ice and put bottles in it to keep cold. These are your friends, after all.
  5. Serve dinner buffet style with little cards with the description of the dish and who made it.

Remember, the whole point of this is to gather your friends and share a wonderful meal that everyone has helped create.  Then sit back and watch football!

Tips from a Pro: Your “Cooking 101” Lesson for The Day

I’m always surprised when I’m in a restaurant and my meal comes and it has absolutely NO flavor.  There is no excuse for a dish to come out of a kitchen (yours or anyone else’s, including a restaurant’s) with no flavor. The meal itself may look fabulous, but someone didn’t taste it while they were cooking.  You may decide that you don’t like the flavor, or that it is over/under cooked, missing key ingredients, burnt – who knows? BUT it should always have flavor.

I went to a very old and famous resort/spa with a chef girlfriend.  When we booked the reservations she made sure that I knew that all meals were vegetarian and I was completely fine with that.  I’m happy to eat vegetables for a week, I’m not so sure that I could go for a month but I can definitely go for a week.  As it turned out, they also served some fish and shrimp at dinner.  The product that was going into the meals wasn’t the problem; the problem was that the meals had NO FLAVOR.  Someone made the excuse that the dishes were also low-sodium – that didn’t fly.  They weren’t just missing salt; they were missing the entire spice cabinet!  Believe me, for the price we were paying, there was no excuse for poorly prepared meals.

This leads me to my number one cardinal rule in Cooking 101: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS taste while you are cooking and definitely taste BEFORE you serve! At least you’ll know you like the flavor!