Tag Archives: cooking for family

Kitchen hack: Save your leafy herbs, chop them the right way

Fran preps leafy vegetables

How to chop leafy herbs AND keep all that wonderful flavor for your recipe.

Open a recipe and you’ll find a call for a leafy herb – chopped. To be honest, unless you’re just using the herb as garnish (or really know what you’re doing), you always want to chop herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro. That’s the way to release the oils and flavoring into your recipe.

But here’s the problem. Most people tend to over chop their leafy herbs – to the point of mashing all that extra goodness right into the cutting board. You’ve seen it, right? Chop away and, boom, green liquid stains all over the board! Here’s the thing – that green liquid is telling you that a lot of the vital flavor from the herb is NOT going into your recipe but has stayed behind. What do you do?

I’m going to help you rescue your herbs – get more out of what you put in – and I’m going to help you cut back on the amount of prep work. Part of the great reward (other than more flavor for your recipe) is that you’re going to be so happy when you see how easy this is to do the right way.

Basil is one of my favorite herbs – so aromatic and flavorful. But it’s very soft and bruises easily which makes it the one herb so easy to over-chop. This classic French style of preparation is called chiffonade and it’s the right way to not lose all that Basil goodness by leaving it on your cutting board:

  1. Rinse the Basil and remove each leaf from the stem.
  2. Roll the leaves tightly together with largest leaf on the bottom – smallest on top – like a small cigar.
  3. Start at one end and gently slice the “cigar” into thin strips with a very sharp knife. Remember: a sharp knife means “no bruising.” But it also means be very careful. Curl your fingertips in away from the knife blade and keep the knife tip on the board.
  4. Depending on the recipe, make your cuts no smaller than 1/8th of an inch; 1/4th an inch or slightly larger is fine for most recipes.
  5. Strips too big? No problem. Cross cut once or twice and now you have smaller pieces. Enjoy that wonderful smell in the process.

Apply the same chiffonade process with any leafy herb like Italian parsley or cilantro. Hold the bunch with one hand and lightly shave off the leaves from the stems. Then roll the little leaves together like the basil and gently cut through them only once. Watch my video and see how it all comes together.

Don’t try this method of preparation with thyme or rosemary – that’ll be for another day. But, if you follow these few easy steps, you will get to enjoy more of your herbs in your recipe.

How to pick olive oil – read the labels!

olive oil fran berger

Want a great olive oil? Here are 6 tips for reading labels and looking for signs.

I went to dinner at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills with a group of friends. My history buff friend was there. I told you that he’s never without some interesting anecdote or interesting factoid. He calls it an occupational hazard of being a university professor.

Well, this time we were commenting on the olive oil that the chef used; a stand-out flavor that made my Braciole di Manzo (beef rolls with prosciutto and tomato sauce) scream out amo l’italiano! (I love Italian!) In a break in the conversation, our history buff told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes several years to grow an olive tree mature enough to produce olives. During war, ancient armies went straight to the olive tree groves and burned them down.

It takes years to produce a good crop and decades to form a legacy of taste. That’s why good chefs do not fiddle with cheap olive oil. It just doesn’t happen.

I love olive oil. It’s great to cook with – sautés, sauces, salads, even just for dipping great bread – not just for Italian food, but for almost any dish you can imagine where you want to add that wonderful and timeless flavor. And like many of my friends who are chefs, I am a little picky when it comes to selecting my bottle of olive oil.

There are big differences in brands, and it’s actually easy to tell which ones are better – if you know what to look for! And just like wine, you just need to know how to read the label:

  1. ‘Extra Virgin’ is the highest quality given to olive oil – it means it’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other ‘defects’ like rancidity and never treated with heat. There’s still quality variations within ‘extra virgin’ but it’s the best way for an overall guarantee of purity.
  2. My recommendation, if true flavor is what you want, then stay away from any bottles of olive oil that say “light.” Oil is always 100% fat – it can NEVER be “light.” What the label really means is that the oil has been distilled and treated in such a way that strips away the true odor and color of olive oil. If all you need for your recipe is a common cooking oil, then buy an inexpensive neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.
  3. If the bottle is inexpensive and still labeled ‘Product of Italy’ then there’s a pretty good chance that the olives weren’t grown or pressed in Italy. The label may mean that’s where the product was placed in the bottle – which is a whole other thing, right? They can still claim it’s a ‘product of Italy’ if it was only bottled there.  So, the oil could come from just about anywhere. Look carefully on the back of the label for “IT” (Italy) or “GR” (Greece) or “SP” (Spain) as the source of the olives.  If you can, buy one that comes from one farm or collective but at the very least from one country.
  4. Not all great olive oil comes from Italy. Some of it comes from California. One hint: if the oil comes from somewhere that also produces good wine, then there’s a good possibility they have great olive oil too!
  5. Let’s end an old fable right now: just because the olive oil is darker and greener doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality oil. Some very high quality olive oil is light yellow. So, color doesn’t really matter. Like wine, good olive oil has a great aroma and taste. It all depends on what you like personally.
  6. One thing that is not a fable: good olive oil never come in a clear plastic or clear glass bottle. Ever. The ‘good stuff’ usually comes in an opaque or dark glass, or metal. The reason is that good olive oil goes bad fairly quickly. Exposure to light and heat speeds up that process.

One last point, good olive oil doesn’t HAVE to be used with Italian food. Find a flavor you like for the dish you want to prepare – could be continental, Americano, or even Asian – and love it!

 

How to dice an onion – the easy way.

Fran Berger dicing onions

This trick will make dicing onions quick and so very simple.

Onions get all the grief. They stink up our kitchens and they sting our eyes and make us cry. Yet, onions are in so many recipes, all kinds of dishes: soups, sauces, salads, fried, broiled, and baked bringing their own special flavor to your recipe. It’s hard to cook without this veggie!

I even know someone who eats onions raw! With salt! Seriously. He told me the other day that when he was a small kid, his mother told him that onions were brain food. He’s been eating them raw ever since. He IS smart, but I don’t think onions are the reason!

There are so many different varieties of onion, each with their own unique color, aroma, and flavor. I’m going to focus on the full round varieties. The most common type of these is the “yellow” onion. This is the full-flavor variety that you’ll find many recipe authors call out in all kinds of preparations. You’ll find “white” onions in Mexican dishes. They give off a sweeter flavor when sautéed with proteins like chicken, beef, and pork. Red onions are generally milder in flavor and are awesome raw, so you find them in lots of salads and some soups.

With these three most common varieties, you’ll often be asked to dice. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to dice “full round” onions. Have you ever sliced an onion then restacked the cuts to slice again? You know how clumsy that is, right? Well, there’s only one way that really beats all of them. I’ve been using this method for years – it’s one of the best lessons I learned from a chef friend. It’s the method I’m going to show you now. Check out my video so that you also see how it’s done in seven easy steps:

  1. Cut ½” from the stem end – this is the top of the onion where the stalk grows.
  2. Turn the onion around and cut into the root about half way. Don’t cut the root off completely. You’ll see why in a minute.
  3. Lay the onion on the stem end and cut the onion in half, vertically through the top to the root end. Then peel the onion. Remove the outer most ‘paper’ layer and one more ‘onion’ layer.
  4. Lay one half of the onion on the flat side and make vertical cuts. Keep your fingers curled under to protect them and be careful to NOT cut all the way through the root end.
  5. With your hand flat on top of the onion (keeping your fingers far from the knife) make two (or more) horizontal cuts. Again, be careful to not cut through the root end because we need the root to hold the onion layers together for us.
  6. Slice across your previous cuts, all the way through, till you reach the root end. Now you have a diced onion!
  7. The closer together your horizontal cuts and vertical cuts are the smaller your dice will be. This method can also be used if you need larger pieces for skewers – just make your cuts about ½” apart and the onion pieces will separate into perfect larger pieces.

One last little tip: use your knife to chop your diced onion on the board if you want a finer dice.

Enjoy!

How to zest citrus for your recipe

fran-berger_zesting

My Three Tips to get the best of your ‘zest’.

A friend of mine and I were looking over a drink recipe. When we got to the part about adding “zest” to the drink, she wondered, “what kind of zesting do they want?” That’s actually an excellent question because the author of the recipe didn’t say.

Take a look at what the dictionary says for the word “zest,” and you’ll probably find words like “interest” or “excitement.” That about sums it up when it comes to home cooking and mixing drinks – you want interest and excitement?  Add citrus or acid and you add a whole new layer of flavor to what you are creating.

You’ll run into “citrus zest” as an ingredient for both cooking and drink mixing from time to time. It’s the easiest way to capture an interesting aroma and add excitement for the taste buds. It’s not a trick – it’s a long-standing culinary technique. But even if you’re familiar with it, there are different ways to zest, depending on your goals.

The basics of “zesting” are straightforward. But I have collected some handy tips that I’ve picked up over the years that could make your zesting just a bit easier.

Zesting adds some of that fresh citrus flavor (orange, lemon, lime, even grapefruit) to whatever you are preparing. The best flavor and aroma comes from the outermost color layer of the rind (not the pith or bitter white layer). There are three different ways to zest citrus fruits that I show in my video. Each one is easy, but they work best when you have a specific goal in mind:

  • Microplane is the finest sized grate and it’ll give you lot of flavor. I typically see fine zest as an essential flavoring ingredient for batters, deserts, and sauces. Remember – a little goes a long way!
  • Five-hole zesters will give you a much more significant and rougher zest that’ll produce lots of aroma, but a little less flavoring than a microplane. You probably won’t see this type of zesting as a cooking ingredient, but you may see it in drinks or as a colorful curly aromatic garnish in a finished dish like a salad or for fish and poultry.
  • Veggie peelers are really useful zesting tools. You can use them to create wide strips of zest that can be sliced into narrower strips that look and smell great in drinks. You can also dice the slices as an aromatic garnish. I’ve seen a few cooked dishes that call for sliced zest – mainly in middle eastern and Asian dishes. Or, you can leave the wide strip just as it is as a great ‘twist’ for your martini!

One more comment about zesting ‘types.’ When you run into a recipe that calls for zesting, the author will probably tell you which one is needed. If the recipe doesn’t specify the zesting type (which happens on occasion), my recommendation is to use the microplane only when the zest is needed as a cooking ingredient. Use the five-hole zester and veggie peeler when zesting as a garnish.

On to my Three Zest Tips that will make the best of whatever zesting you need:

FIRST, Wash the fruit rind (peel) thoroughly. You’re using the rind in the final preparation of whatever you’re drinking or eating. Sometimes there is a thin wax coating on the fruit so I use soap and water and give it a good scrub without damaging the skin.

SECOND, pick the zesting you want (see list above). Remember that the finer the zesting, the more powerful the flavoring you’ll get.

THIRD, use only the colorful outer layer of the fruit – that’s where you’ll find most of the aroma and flavoring. Try to avoid the bitter pith of the fruit, the white part that makes up most of the rind.

For the Zest of your life. Have fun!

We love our Avocados GREEN

You love green avocados

An easy to remember trick to keep your cut avocados from turning that unappetizing brown.

If you have been following me for a while, you know that I collect little stories about this and that. I think that’s one of the skills that a home entertaining expert should have: being able to dole out a quick story for any moment or situation. It’s better than trying to crack the ice at a party with talk about the weather. Right?

Here are a few tidbits about avocados.

If you haven’t heard, the avocado is actually a fruit. Botanically, they belong to the same plant group as do laurels. So, basically, we eat what amounts to an enormous berry that has a single large seed.

Originally, avocados were thought to have come from Mexico. A while back, a friend of mine who is an anthropologist (yeah, I have one of those too), told me that there was some new evidence that suggests that avocados started off as several distinct varieties that came from Peru, the Guatemalan highlands, and along the Central American isthmus. They’ve even found the remains of an avocado plant that they think is 15,000 years old!  It’s crazy that avocados have been around for that long.

Now for the practical part.

I love avocados. They’ve always been one of the staples in my home – ready to slice and eat at a moment’s notice. They’re a great “go-to” easy snack for friends who drop by and perfect for salads, sliced with veggies, or as guacamole (more on that later).  Don’t forget the ever popular avocado toast that you find in almost every restaurant and that is so incredibly easy to duplicate at home!

The downside for avocados – they have an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase that causes our tasty fruit to start browning almost immediately after cutting. This is really inconvenient when you want to save half in the fridge for tomorrow’s snack. I mean, who wants to spread brown avocado on toast? Seriously.

Everyone has their own little trick to keep their avocados from turning brown. Twenty years in the restaurant business – I’ve heard them all, seen them all and tried them all!

One of the most popular tricks is my least favorite: drip lime or lemon juice on the cut parts, which is the same trick we use on cut apples. It works but, in my honest opinion, not very well. They still turn brown after about 4 hours and then the avocado has an extra flavor that you might not want.

Then there’s the one about keeping the pit attached. I don’t know why, but it seems to work for about 4 hours or so, and then the oxidization starts. The big downside is that the pit has to be attached to the uncut half. You can’t add the pit back to an avocado that’s been sliced.

The fact is, many of us will eat an avocado that’s been stored in the fridge and has browned a bit, but not for company consumption.  So, a near miss just doesn’t cut it for me. If it’s going to work, it has to work really well.

The best method – tested in my own kitchen – place the cut half of an onion into an airtight container with your cut avocado. The onion releases sulfur dioxide which is a natural preservative – which puts a full stop on the browning. The great plus for this method is that it’ll keep cut avocados nice and fresh (cubed, sliced, peeled) for about 24 hours! And now you have a little onion to add to that toast.

See my video on this method. And enjoy your avocado!

Kitchen Hacks: Must Have Spices for any Home Cook

What's in your spice cabinet?

“Sniff test” your cabinet – it may be full of spices but are they still usable?

Even if you cook every day, there’s always a chance you’re going to run into a situation where you just don’t have all of the spices that you need to finish a dish. It’s why I always tell everyone that the most important first step in any recipe is to read it through at least once before you start cooking and double check your cupboards for the ingredients and spices you’ll need.

The other problem – and this happens once in a while in my kitchen – is that you see a spice that you have, but it’s too old. Unfortunately, the shelf life of dried spices is – at the most – only about 12 months. Some finicky “spicers” say that dried spices only last 6 – 8 months.

The best way to know if your spices are ‘still good’ is to bring them out every so often – and sniff them!  I know that might sound weird, but it’s the best way to check if they still have potency. Or… you can wait to check them until it’s time to assemble your ingredients. Either way, remember that just because the can or bottle looks good doesn’t mean that the spices they contain ARE good. If they lose their fragrance, then it’s time to replace. Even dried spices should have a robust aroma as you open the container. If they don’t, they won’t impart enough of their flavor into your dish.

If you don’t cook very often, or a particular spice is a bit unusual, buy the smallest size container you can find. A friend of mine takes the time to write the date of purchase on all of her spices. That’s a great idea, but I’m not sure it’s necessary when you just need to ‘sniff’ them. Instead, I’m more concerned about what’s actually in my spice cabinet – so that I’m ready for just about anything.

In my video, I give you a short list of what I consider seven genuinely essential spices. I’ve expanded that list to 15 for my blog readers:

  1. Kosher Salt – always used by professional cooks and good home cooks. Ideal for cooking because it’s less salty than iodized salt by volume, so you have better control.
  2. Salt Crystals and Whole Peppercorns – you’ll need salt and pepper grinders. Once you get in the habit of using grinders, you’ll never go back to granular salt and pepper. The difference in flavor is very noticeable.
  3. Rosemary – one of my top three herbs. Rosemary is used in a lot of Mediterranean and French style cooking.
  4. Oregano – number two in my herb list. This one is widely used in both Mexican and Italian cuisines.
  5. Thyme – and number three in my herb list – a very aromatic way to ‘spice up’ proteins, especially poultry.
  6. Garlic Powder – fresh is better for more garlic flavor, but sometimes you’re caught without any fresh garlic in the kitchen. Or, perhaps you don’t like the smell in the kitchen and on your fingers. Or sometimes all you need is a dash of flavor. Go for the “roasted garlic” variety – it imparts a deeper flavor.
  7. Crushed Red Pepper – an essential spice for African and Mexican dishes, but this is my most favorite way to season meats and veggies. Just add a dash at a time to flavor.
  8. Chili Powder – a spice mix in itself. Depending on the brand, it’s built around Cayenne pepper, but many other spices are added – read the label.
  9. Cayenne Pepper – for that recipe where you need a pinch of extra heat.
  10. Ground Cinnamon – used in both sweet and savory recipes.
  11. Cumin – an aromatic spice used in many different cuisines, either whole or ground.  If you’re using whole for your recipe, take a few minutes and toast it before adding it to your dish. The difference in flavor is immediately noticeable.
  12. Curry Powder – which is also a blend of other spices, typically coriander, turmeric, mustard, cumin, and fenugreek. You can use it to spice up curry (of course), but I use it quite a lot on my roasted or fried veggies and even on French fries!
  13. Ground Ginger – used in a lot of Asian and other international cuisines.
  14. Smoked Paprika – the subtle smoky flavor adds a bit of complexity to just about any dish.
  15. Vanilla Extract – because, who doesn’t have at least a small bottle of this pure joy? And to be perfectly honest, I love the purity of Simply Organic, Madagascar pure Vanilla extract. Be careful to look for pure vanilla extract – you don’t want the artificial flavor.

Now, the question that often gets tossed at me is where to get the best spices? Personally, I like the consistency of the spices I get from Spice Hunter, McCormick, Morton&Bassett, and Simply Organic. And of course, salt – who else but Morton?

Enjoy!

Recipe for a Warm-up: Bloody Mary Soup

Bloody Mary Soup

A new food memory: try my friend’s recipe for this delicious Bloody Mary Soup.

A few years ago, on what in Southern California is considered a “cold” winter day, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted a Bloody Mary.

We were actually standing on her balcony watching the sunset with friends. Despite my thick coat, gloves, and my beanie, I was still freezing! Okay, the wind was also making it pretty cold, and we had just got the fire going, so give me a break.

“In this weather?” I was a little astonished.

“Soup,” she finished.

That was when I noticed she was handing me a stoneware mug with the most delicious-tasting savory soup I’ve had in years. And now that I have the recipe, whenever I cook up a batch of this marvelous soup, I think of my friend and the great time we had with our friends that cold afternoon on her patio.

I believe food is a fabulous way to bring people together. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you also know that I have a real love for delicious recipes. Put them together, and you have what I call “food memories” – it’s one of the more emotional aspects of sophisticated living.

Now, with my friend’s permission, I’d like to share this wonderful soup with you, with the hopes that you’ll make some great food memories of your own. And before we go any further – yes, it is a “Bloody Mary” in the truest sense.

Ingredients

  • 2 TBS chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • ½ cup of your favorite vodka (Chopin Vodka).
  • 2 cups V-8 juice – your choice, regular or spicy (I use spicy)
  • 2 cups chicken or beef stock (broth) (I use beef for a richer taste)
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce (make sure you shake it up)
  • 1 28oz or 32oz can of Fire Roasted Tomatoes or diced tomatoes (I use Fire Roasted tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup horseradish (prepare to taste – I use way less because I use the Spicy V-8), add a dash of your favorite hot sauce if you like.

Instructions

Bloody Mary Soup recipe Fran Berger

You probably already have what you need to make this recipe.

In advance of cooking, I recommend that you prepare the “liquids” in one large bowl. Combine the V-8 juice, chicken or beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, and your tomatoes (canned or freshly cut). Don’t strain the tomatoes. Mix everything up and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a stock pot with olive oil and heat (medium). Add thyme leaves, garlic, celery ribs, onion (all chopped) and sauté on medium (cook until tender and onions are golden). By the way, make sure that your stock pot is large enough to hold everything – including all of the liquid!

Add the vodka to deglaze the veggies – scrape up all those beautiful browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the alcohol has “cooked off” – shy of a minute at medium heat.

Get your bowl of liquids and pour it in!  This is where a large stock pot is really useful. I recommend Staub’s 4-quart “Cocotte” for this task, because you’re going to heat this up until it boils, then reduce heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve let this go for up to 50 minutes and it seems to cook up the tomatoes very nicely. But as I always say, watch your pots!

Stir occasionally while simmering. Add the horseradish and hot sauce GRADUALLY. Taste often to make sure that you don’t overpower the other flavors. You can always set aside the horseradish and hot sauce for guests to flavor up for themselves.

When time’s up, turn off the heat.  Use an immersion blender to carefully puree the tomatoes, and serve warm in a big mug.  This recipe will make 6-8 servings (depending on the size of your mug) and can be doubled or tripled (or more!) for your party – just be sure your pot is big enough!

Add a pickled bean stalk or pickled artichoke as a garnish to add even more flavor. See my blog post on pickling. And see my video using this recipe.

The last touch: a shot of Chopin Vodka, if you like. Either way, it’ll taste so amazing served hot. Absolutely the best “bloody mary” you’ll ever make for yourself. Watch this video to see how easy it is!

Enjoy!

Is it time to update your cookware?

Fran Berger and her cookware.

Celebrate the New Year or a New Home with new non-stick cookware from All-Clad and Staub.

Maybe you’ve moved. Maybe you’ve remodeled. Maybe it’s the New Year and it’s just time. Whatever the occasion, it’s time to take a look at your pots and pans for a refresh.

These days, there are so many options. Not like in the old days when our parents were limited to the department store offering of brightly colored enameled cookware.  Remember early Teflon? Seriously.

There’s already so much psychology at play when you’re entertaining at home. We want everything to be – just so. We spend time to make sure that the home environment is uncluttered. We want the plates and utensils to be clean and bright. Glasses crystal clear.

Not only do I believe that a good set of pots and pans can really help you achieve better results in the kitchen, I think good cookware helps you feel more confident while you’re trying that new recipe for the first time. But I also think about the appeal of food as I prepare it.

Often, my guests will show up as I’m finishing, so they see me at work over my cookware. You know that means: I’m fussy about my kitchen. I don’t mind that they see the mess I create as I’m cooking, but I don’t want them to see their food prepared in pots and pans that are stained or blackened!

That’s why I’ve always been partial to All-Clad with their down-to-Earth quality. Aside from the fact that the sturdy metal handles are designed to stay cool as you cook, they just look great on the range. The clean stainless-steel pots and pans give you what a friend of mine calls “the real cook look.”

All-Clad also has the dark anodized conductive aluminums which work great on electric ranges. They even have some very nice looking copper-bottom pans and pots.

Whatever “look” you want, I recommend All-Clad’s durable non-stick cookware. First off – non-stick is just a good idea. But in this case, it’s not just any non-stick – this is pro-level hard-anodized non-stick. It resists abrasions and corrosion; it’s chemically stable and totally non-toxic. Not at all like your mom’s Teflon pans!

All-Clad cookware is not only the most durable pan you can buy, the non-stick surface has an extremely long-life span. I’ve had mine for 10 years and they have not chipped or peeled – ever.

As for sizes, let’s say that you want to replace one pan at a time. The first, most important size is the 8-inch skillet followed by either the 10 or 12-inch skillet. This gives you flexibility for a little sautéing or cooking up a healthy-sized omelet.

You’ll need a stock pot – get the 4 quart. You’ll use it do your soups, chili, and for tasks as simple as boiling pasta. Speaking of pasta, you’ll want some sauce pans for making your ‘Sunday Sauce’. Maybe a 1-quart, but if that’s too tiny for you, definitely the 2-quart covered sauce pan, then add a 3-quart later if you need something between the 2-quart and the stock pot.

If you decide to go for a set, you don’t need to go crazy with gratins, grille pans, and roasters. Certainly not to start. Look at smaller 8 pan collection like the one on my video.

One more pan – that’s not in the All-Clad line up – but one that should definitely be on your list is a great cast iron skillet. There’s no school like the “old school” – right? I like the ones from Staub.  Iron skillets are perfect for braising – and the ones from Staub are built to go from stovetop and straight into the oven.

My last tip – especially if you go for the durable non-stick – remember that you should only use wood or silicone spoons and spatulas. I like the ones from OXO – they’re perfect! Modern non-stick surfaces are abrasion and scratch resistant – but they’re not invulnerable. The pans will last longer if you protect the surfaces.

This is the way to really look good if your guests arrive a bit early and you’re working away in your 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!

What about those Meal Kit Delivery Services?

From Plated - a meal kit

Review of the top 5 meal kits – for pleasure, convenience, and flavor!

A friend of mine goes on frequent camping trips with her family. There’s one thing that she does before every trip – no matter if it’s a short weekend trip to the desert or a week-long stay out in the forest – she plans every meal, right down to the last 1-½ cup of flour and ¾ teaspoon of baking soda (pancakes, if anyone is counting). The day before the trip, she bags and boxes all the ingredients that she’ll need and even adds instructions.

“I make it so easy that even my youngest son can cook a meal,” she says. The most important part: it’s quick. She has four kids and a hungry partner – so maybe that’s what you do in that situation. Besides, who wants to bring measuring cups and spoons on a camping trip?

I wonder if that was the inspiration behind the meal kit? Everyone is so busy now, and the first thing that goes out the window when time is short is cooking dinner. But you and the family have to eat so what’s the alternative? Fast food, again? Seriously?

meal kits logo listEnter the various Meal Kit Delivery Services that have popped up. There are so many options in national brands now. Personally, I think it’s a great convenience if you want to cook and haven’t had the experience to feel comfortable in the kitchen. Even if you have expertise in the kitchen, the kits save you lots of time – no more going to the store, buying everything you need for the recipe and then measuring out all the items. It all comes in the kit – pre-measured, ready for you to cook.

My only note of caution – read the subscription rules carefully. Some are longer and more complicated than others. You can’t just call the day before an expected delivery and cancel a meal. That sort of thing.

A few of the top trending meal kits are: Terra’s Kitchen, Peach Dish, HelloFresh, Blue Apron, and Plated. Your real choice is how much you actually want to spend time prepping and cooking the meal – or would you rather have most of the ingredients come pre-made.  I’ve placed them in order of their convenience value. All of these kits produce high-quality meals.

Total Time Convenience: Terra’s Kitchen is very easy for people who are really pressed for time and/or want total convenience. These meals have the least amount of preparation time needed because things come pre-chopped, sauces already made, et cetera.

Cooking Ease: Here’s my ‘middle’ tier for easy meal prep that requires a few more steps than Terra’s Kitchen but not as many as others. If you don’t mind chopping some veggies, Peach Dish and HelloFresh will give you some cooking ease and very nice meal. All the ingredients are carefully measured out. The instructions are very clear.

Adventure and Experience: Blue Apron and Plated are for people who want a little more adventure in their cooking experience. The recipes are a bit more complicated and might require learning some new cooking skills but, the results show it.  You’ll be creating dishes you never thought you’d ever be able to make in your own kitchen.

The great thing about all of the kits: someone else is doing the shopping and the planning. You will learn about dishes you might not otherwise make. And, you might enjoy them so much you may keep some of the recipes and try them later on your own.

But the best thing? You’ll be spending time with your family and friends in the kitchen and at the table, creating memories over a meal that you cooked!  And, really, those memories are what it’s all about.

Enjoy!

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?

My best recipe for Beer Steamed Clams

Fran Berger - beer steamed clams

Want to try cooking Clams? Try my “beer steamers” – so easy to do.

A bowl of bear steamed clamsI know a lot of my friends are intimidated by the thought of cooking clams. It’s true that you have to be a little careful with them, but in all honesty, they’re actually one of the easiest things to cook and the reward is high. Clams are really fabulous as appetizers or as part of the main course.

Clams are harvested from all sorts of locales – each type has its own distinctive characteristic and flavor. They grow in both fresh and salt water, and range in all types of shapes and sizes.  Clams are a terrific source of lean protein with just a 3-ounce serving providing 22 grams of protein and only 126 calories with less than 2 grams of total fat. Served fresh, clams are also nutritious – tons of Vitamin A, B and C not to mention iron and magnesium.

Nothing surpasses (for simplicity and ease) steaming clams with a good bottle of beer. I love to serve up a whole pot of “beer steamers” for my guests- serve it with grilled corn on the cob and of course a great salad.

Buy your clams fresh at your local market. In California, we usually get a type called Manila clams – they’re smaller and very sweet. They are also the ones that won’t have any sand in them so you don’t have to worry about the grit.  If you buy a different type of clam ask your fish monger how to clean out the sand before cooking.  Buy clams the day you need them if at all possible.  But, you can also buy clams online. Keep live clams on ice in your refrigerator for one but never more than two days. When you’re ready to cook your clams, sort them for freshness and wash the shells thoroughly in cool water. You don’t have to scrub hard, you just want to get rid of the bits of sand and sea life that you don’t want in the cooking pot!

Now, how about that recipe?

  • Sort the clams for freshness. Throw away any that are even partially open or are cracked or missing pieces of shell.
  • Pour enough beer (a full-flavored beer like a stout) to cover the bottom of a large fry pan or kettle that has a tight-fitting lid. Preferably a glass lid.
  • Turn on the heat and bring beer to a boil.
  • Add the cleaned clams to the pan/kettle. Remember that you’re steaming clams, so make sure that none of them are fully submerged in the beer.
  • Close the lid and bring back up to a boil. If you have Manila clams, cook for 3 minutes or just until they begin to open; 5 minutes if your clams are a larger variety. Be careful not to overcook as they will become very chewy.
  • Watch your pan/kettle closely during the cooking – a glass lid helps with this part – because you want to take them off the heat as soon as they start to open. Also, note that during the steaming process, clams will release their own water as they cook so be sure that your pan is large enough to accommodate any extra liquid. You don’t want that water to overflow and create a big mess.
  • Remove the pan/kettle and place the steamed (and opened) clams in a bowl. They’re ready to serve!

While it is true that clams are easy enough to cook, there are some very important rules that that you need to know:

Rule 1: Cook only clams that have shells that are tightly closed. Don’t cook clams that have broken or cracked shells – and never, never, ever cook ones that look or smell dead. You want your clams as fresh as the market can deliver.

Rule 2: Watch your clams closely during the steaming. The smaller Manila clams will cook within about 3 minutes of cooking: they open up and that’s when they’re done! Larger clams may need more time, up to 5 minutes of steaming.  Once they start to open be sure to remove the pan from the heat.

Rule 3: Discard any clams that do not open up with the rest of them. Cooking longer will not “make” them open – you don’t want to eat them if they don’t open with the group….Trust me.

Once you get over your hesitation and steam your own clams, here’s Rule 4: Have plenty of lemons and melted butter on hand for eating!  Enjoy!!!