Tag Archives: kitchen

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!

How to tell if that fruit or veggie is actually organic!

Reading PLU Labels on Fruits and Veggies

A kitchen hack that makes it easy to tell the difference between organic and GMO produce.

I work very hard on keeping a balanced and healthy diet. The best way for me to do this is by reading labels. It’s a habit! I avoid foods with lots of preservatives and other chemical additives. I stick to things that taste good – but I stay away from things that I’ve decided are not helpful or that there’s even some question that they may not be healthy. That’s why I habitually look for a label. Most labels tell you everything you need to know.

Take GMOs, for example. A GMO is a genetically modified organism (plant, animal or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified).  Lots of people wonder whether GMOs are healthy or not. I don’t want to dive into that debate, it’s just something I avoid.  Even when I’m buying dairy products – I look for the non-GMO Project logo on the packaging.

Here’s a perfect example of that habit of mine. Every now and again, when my friends and I decide that we need to have an evening of cooking together we’ll all go shopping as a group.  It’s as if the party starts from when we get to the store! Here’s a little tip – if you want to know where to go to select the freshest food for your family, follow a foodie. Especially one that’s been in the restaurant business for half her adult life.

The first question was where to shop. I love Gelson’s on Century Park West off Santa Monica Boulevard; been going there for years. It’s a little busy sometimes – especially just before and after lunch but it’s always clean, well organized and well stocked.  We went at 3 pm – perfect for a group of friends to poke around for their groceries.

I had fun using lessons I learned from my trip to Italy to point out the differences and uses of penne and rigatoni pasta. Then we got to the produce section. I was looking at bananas when one of my friends heard me say, “Good, all nines.” From her expression, I knew she needed an explanation.

All fruits and vegetables have a PLU or product look up code assigned to them. Bananas are always 4011, bok choy is 4545 (great with soups), brussel sprouts are 4550 (love them when roasted!) and Large Cripps pink apples are 4130 (favorites for aromatic fruit salads). The codes are there because it makes it easier for everyone to track and inventory product. And, it’s the numbers that the cashier uses to punch in when you check out of the market.

The PLU codes are found on little labels stuck to each fruit or vegetable. Sometimes they’ll be on the box or bag for fruits that are usually purchased in bulk, like a bag of tangerines (4055). They’ll also be on the tag above the bin that contains the items.  Here’s the important point about PLUs. Most of them have 4-digit codes. These are conventionally grown. And most of these codes start with a 3 or 4.

Increasingly, you’ll find 5-digit PLU codes. And these are divided into two classes – ones that start with an “8” and ones that start with a “9.”  Many of the PLU codes at Gelson’s begin with a “9” – which means that the produce is USDA-certified organic!  So, if you come across a 94011 – it’s a banana, but it’s an organically grown banana!

The “8” means that the item is GMO (genetically modified).  Typically these “8”s are found on a known group of High Risk Crops, that include corn, zucchini, or crook neck squash and papaya among others.  I couldn’t find any “8”s at Gelson’s – or for that matter, in any of the stores around Beverly Hills, even on the summer corn.

So, it’s very easy to remember “I hate “8”s but “9” is FINE!

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 new way to prepare and serve onions?

better way to serve onions?

Tried everything to stop the weeping and smell from onions? Try this!

I happen to love onions: red, white, yellow, green – it doesn’t matter which one, I love them all – when they’re in my food as part of a dish. But not so much when the smell just hangs around the kitchen (sometimes for days) like a guest who hasn’t gotten the hint that it’s time to go home.

And the tears. I don’t like the tears.

If you’re like me, you’ve tried all kinds of “tricks” on how to stop all the stinging and crying that comes with preparing onions. I tried freezing onions, but they’re harder to cut. I also tried cutting onions under water, but the onions get slippery and that’s very dangerous. I even tried holding a piece of bread in my mouth. Less dangerous but you end up looking weird, your eyes still tear and the kitchen still smells.

I even heard about putting a burning match in your mouth – but that’s not one I’m going to try! A friend uses swimming goggles in his kitchen – for cutting onions and crushing garlic. Cute, but another idea I’m NOT going to try.

So, imagine my surprise when I was let in on a professional kitchen secret… twenty years in the restaurant business, and it’s not easy to surprise me anymore!

This is a trick from a friend of mine, Christine Moore who is the founder and chef of Little Flower Candy Co. and Lincoln – two great places to visit for breakfast and lunch or early dinner if you happen to be in Pasadena, CA.

So, okay. We all know that onions are a great way to help build flavor in a recipe in so many different ways but they come with a price.  Look at what we all suffer though: runny nose, stinging eyes, and a really strong smell that fills the kitchen and refrigerator during and after you’ve been cutting, slicing, and dicing.  Not only does it permeate whatever container you’ve put them in but that smell can linger in the kitchen for days. Just when you think that awful smell has finally cleared, you pull out those chopped onions from the refrigerator, you open the container – and you are hit with it all over again!

As it turns out, onions aren’t just a wonderful addition to a recipe they are healthy for you too. They’re full of vitamins, proteins and things that nutritionist call “essential elements” like amino acids which your body really needs to stay healthy.

But all of this goodness comes at a price. Onions are typically grown in sulfur rich soil and that sulfur becomes part of a plant protein (sulfur-based precursors).  When you cut open an onion these precursors meet with enzymes called allinases that produce sulfenic acid which rises as a gas and reacts with moisture – like your eyes and nose – to form a mild form of sulfuric acid! And we all start to cry…

But wait, there’s more. During the chemical reaction, you get thiosulfinates – that’s what produces the raw onion smell. Guess what? That stuff just stinks. It’s not acidic. Which means we can now dispense with that old rumor that the smell is what causes the weepy eyes. Thus, the more you cut, the more of both of these things will fly through the air in your kitchen and your whole house!

Which brings me back to Chef Moore’s little surprise tip, which has been thoroughly tested by me and my friends.

Step one: Fill a bowl with ice water and place a sieve or colander in the bowl so that it is submerged in the ice water.

Step two: Use a sharp knife – you’ll work faster and it damages fewer of those pesky cells that release the allinases – and cut your onion in half.

Step three: Place in the halves in the ice water for a minute. Remove the halves.

Step four: Finish your slicing and dicing of the onion and place those pieces back in the sieve (or colander) and ice water for another minute.

Step five: Remove the sieve. Dispose of the water.

One friend told me that he was preparing a recipe that called for minced onions. He sliced the onion thin, dipped the slices in the ice water, then minced without dipping. The trick worked. He also claims that the onion taste in his dish seemed richer (he was making a soup).

Your cut onions will no longer have a strong smell and will not burn your eyes. Added plus: using this method means that you can store prepared onions to your heart’s desire – and not stink up your refrigerator or your kitchen! One more plus: because the production of acids is limited, cooked or raw cut onions won’t burn your stomach as much.

Isn’t this BRILLIANT? Thanks Chef Moore! Now we can enjoy our onions in peace!

Tips for kitchen knives: which ones do you really need?

Which one is right? Do you need more than one? Do you need a full set?

Everyone needs a good set of kitchen knives. I mean everyone! But there are so many different types of knives to choose from made by so many companies that offer great quality. So, the question is how do you pick the best ones for your kitchen?

I learned from all my years as a restaurateur that you do not go for the prettiest nor do you necessarily need the most expensive. Most important, you don’t absolutely have to buy every knife that a sales person suggests. The most important thing that you will always want to look for in any knife you’re buying is a “full tang” – that means that they have been forged from a single piece of steel – one piece that goes from the tip of the knife all the way through to the end of the handle. Very often you can see that the handle looks like a “sandwich” but sometimes with a synthetic handle you won’t be able to see it (ask them to be sure). Once you’ve found the knives in your price range that have a “full tang” you can narrow your choices down if you follow these simple steps:

The first thing to think about is comfort. No matter if you cook a lot or a little in your kitchen, you’ll want to pick the one that feels the best in your hand. Pick it up, hold it – you don’t ever want it to slip.  If it feels good in your hand, you have a candidate.

The next thing to think about is ease of control. Some knives can be fairly heavy. Especially some of the newer “pro” versions. Heavy is not always good but you also don’t want one that’s too light for your hand. What you need is one that balances well in your hand and is easy for you to control.

Once you find the kind of knives you like, don’t feel pressed to buy a full “set” just because they’re on sale. You don’t need all of them. There are only three types of knives that are essential to any cook – four if you’re like me and like some variety.

Fran's Knives

Fran’s choice of knives, from left to right: paring, santoku, chef’s, and serrated, all from Zwilling J.A. Henckels.

  • 3.5″ Paring Knife – a real necessity for picking and fine trimming and cutting.
  • 8″ Serrated – useful for cutting crusty bread.
  • 8″ Chef’s Knife – excellent for chopping and perfect for ‘rocking’ while slicing. Or…
  • 5-7″ Santoku – an alternative for the chef’s knife, also good for chopping and slicing but a completely different shape.  I find that I usually reach for my Santoku before I reach for my Chef’s Knife but it is personal preference between the two.

Whatever knives you select, remember that comfort and control are the two most important things to consider. Don’t believe for one minute that you must pick knives from the same company. If you find that you like different knives from different companies, be bold and mix and match them.  I happen to like the knives from Zwilling J.A. Henckels. You should also look at Wüsthof, Shun, and Global – all offer very practical, well made, and – in my opinion – high-quality tools.

Now for some tips on the care and use of your new kitchen knives.

Don’t let knives ever go dull – learn how to sharpen them – you can use either a sharpening stone or even an electric sharpener. Contrary to popular myths, even serrated knives can be sharpened (but, you will probably need to have these done professionally). Dull knives are not just a hassle; they can also lead to injury. You should never have to work hard to slice and chop. Dull knives will cause you to grip not only the thing you’re cutting but also the knife. Cutting, chopping, and slicing should be easy tasks that take little physical effort. If you force a dull knife to do a job, it can cause you to make mistakes or slip, and you will probably end up cutting things that you don’t want to cut, like your fingers!

I hate to harp on a list of ‘don’t do this, ‘ but there’s another big don’t for your new kitchen knives: don’t ever put them in your dishwasher and don’t drop them in your sink to wash later. Good kitchen knives are precision tools. It doesn’t take much to bump and dull them. Learn to wash them by hand – blade side away from you – and wash and dry them right after you use them. Washing them right away keeps food from drying and crusting on the blade, which forces you to scrub. You don’t want to scrub a sharp knife!

Think about how you’re going to store your knives. At the least you’ll use the safety covers that may come with the blades. The last thing you want to do is grope around in a drawer full of uncovered and sharp knives. Seriously! What you’ll find is that there is a quite a diverse number of ways to store knives – countertop blocks, wall mounted blocks, magnetic strips, in-drawer inserts. There are dozens of systems and methods, and each has their pros and cons. The best idea is to look around at all of them to see what’s best for your kitchen. Like your knives, select one based on what makes you feel the most comfortable.

Enjoy your kitchen knives – safely – and cook lots of great meals with them. Most of all, have fun.