Tag Archives: kitchen hacks

Kitchen Safety Tip – avoid food borne bacteria and clean that sponge!

Clean your kitchen sponge

Kitchen sponges can be as dirty as your toilet! So clean or replace them regularly.

I like smart people, but intelligent kids make me smile. Even when the smile is a tad uncomfortable.

My friend and I were sitting in her living room chatting over coffee and cheesecake when her teenage daughter, Isabella, literally bounced into the room with good news: she got an A+ on her biology project.

“What was your project about?” I asked.

“Bacteria in the home,” Isabella answered.

Mom didn’t look too happy.

Without skipping a beat, Isabella explained how she and her lab partner set out Petri dishes all around her home and the homes of four other families (with permission, I assume). After exposing the dishes to the open air for a few hours, the young researchers sealed them and waited to see what kinds of bacteria grew.

“We found 22 forms of mold and bacteria,” Isabella reported flatly. “And you know which room had the most?”

Mom squirmed.

“It was the kitchen!”

Hand to heart, I resisted glancing down at my slice of homemade cheesecake, expertly drizzled with chocolate syrup and dotted with a slice of strawberry. I kept my attention on Isabella, who went on to explain not only did they find more variety of bacteria and molds in the kitchen, there were three times as much of it than in any other room.

Before mom could intervene, Isabella said it: “Even more than the bathroom.”

Breakpoint reached, mom smoothly reminded Isabella about a task that would take her far into the house for an extended period. I suppressed a big grin (for me, that’s hard, I can tell you).

“She’s such a brilliant girl,” I said, taking a big bite of that lovely slice of cheesecake, adding, “Oh, this is so delicious!”

From the scientific perspective, researchers agree with Isabella’s findings. The kitchen is “dirty” like this because it has the most human traffic. It’s not that the kitchen itself is so dirty, it’s that WE’RE dirty. The human body is a veritable magnet for bacteria, molds, and other stuff. And the kitchen is a place where it collects, grows, and prospers.

Luckily Isabella didn’t use the kitchen sponge as part of her study. Mom would have been catatonic.

A couple of years ago, a group of microbiologists released a study about the health dangers of the ordinary kitchen sponge. According to the study, the researchers found more than 300 different kinds of bacteria with literally trillions of those little bugs in ONE sponge. The only other place in your whole house where you’ll find such a concentration of bacteria is – you guessed it, the toilet.

EWWW! I’m not sure it gets any grosser than that. And imagine what you’re doing when you use the kitchen sponge to wipe up a spill on your dining room table!

I have tips for kitchen safety. A few of them are my own that I’ve collected over time. Some you’ll find on the internet that seem to work very well.

First – get cellulose sponges. Williams-Sonoma sells some nice ones that are a handy size that I use in my kitchen all the time. You can also find cellulose sponges on Amazon as well. Cellulose sponges are organic so you can toss them into your compost. They’ll hold up better to when you need to clean them than the artificial ones (e.g., Scotch Bright urethane foam).

Second – this one is passed down from the ages: never use your regular kitchen sponge to clean up after handling raw meat – especially chicken. If a kitchen sponge comes in contact with raw meat, toss it out. Don’t even try to clean it.

Third – speaking of cleaning – bleach doesn’t work on the harmful bacteria. It will wipe out the bacteria that causes the smell, but not the stuff that can make you and your family really sick. For effective cleaning, you must keep up with cleaning sponges every day with any one of these recommended methods:

  1. Microwave your sponge for 1-3 minutes. There’s some disagreement among the researchers about the time length, but they do agree that microwaving for 1 minute will kill most harmful bacteria. In two minutes, you’ll kill the rest. Three minutes and you’ll end up with a very hot and very clean sponge. Important note: make sure your sponge is wet (not dry) when you put it in the microwave and also note that artificial sponges won’t last as long as cellulose (they tend to flatten out after each cleaning). And, don’t put sponges that have metal (hint: sponges with abrasive pads) in the microwave oven.
  2. Put your sponge in the dishwasher when you run the heated dry cycle or boil it for about five minutes (but I’m not sure I want that sponge boiling in my good stockpot!). Heat is critical for cleaning sponges and wiping out colonies of harmful food bacteria
  3. Regularly replace your sponge – at least every month. But some researchers say (and I also agree) that active kitchens should replace all sponges every two weeks at a minimum.

I love those really smart girls who can dig up important facts. But it doesn’t take rocket science to know how important it is to keep your kitchen as clean as possible. Stay safe!

Time to Clean out the Kitchen Drawers?

Kitchen Updates

Out with the old tools and the odds gadgets – and make sure you get these must-haves.

It’s true that there’s a list of ‘must haves’ that every good home cook should have at their fingertips. But for me, after twenty years in the restaurant business, I’ve become clutter intolerant. Especially in the kitchen. So that list of must-haves has gotten shorter and shorter. Of course, I have a little story.

Several years back, I went to a friend’s home for a dinner party. I volunteered to help out with some of the preparations. Big mistake.  My friend was very proud of her gadgets – she had one thing that automatically chopped veggies, another thing that sliced them, and yet another weird thing that diced. She had drawers and drawers of more things that I seriously doubt she had ever used but maybe once. But here’s the thing: she didn’t have a single peeler that worked. Nada! Worse yet – no sharp knives or any way to sharpen them, which is a little pet peeve of mine. How can anyone cook without sharp knives?  A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in the kitchen.

I’ll admit that the more you cook, the more likely you’ll accumulate a collection of kitchen tools and gadgets that could fill two or three drawers. My mother was like that. She had so much stuff! And some of it was great – but I knew she only used most of it once or twice at a Thanksgiving dinner – while I was still living at home! At some point, you really have to take a cold hard look at some of this clutter and get rid of it.

I’m not talking about tossing out a favorite spoon (I have a short wooden spoon that’s over 20 years old!) or any of the big items like mixing bowls and cookware. I’m talking about the small stuff that fills drawers and clutters the kitchen. Another point – while I’m at it – tools and gadgets don’t last forever. Even favorite peelers eventually get dull and stop working. Worse yet, some tools have been used so much that they’re hard to clean, which is not good.

My solution! Start over. Dump everything that has aged or simply doesn’t work, and replace it with new stuff.

I did that last year. And it was fun. I went to one of my favorite stores – Crate and Barrel – and bought a brand-new set of kitchen tools by OXO. And what did I get? What I call, my ‘Must-Have Five’:

1.        Measuring cups and measuring spoons – yes both. This is one item that I seem to accumulate over the year. Most of the extra cups and spoons I get are from friends who came by to help cook (experienced home cooks often bring their own tools). I like the metal ones – I just feel like I’m getting a better measure from a metal spoon or cup.

2.        I love my wooden mixing spoons. Good ones are keepers. But like all things wood (example: cutting boards), eventually, you’ll have to part with them. You may see me in my videos also cooking with bamboo paddles. At any given time, I may have four or five of each of these extremely handy tools.

3.        Tongs – because who doesn’t need tongs? They’re indispensable for turning meat and veggies in a fryer, broiler, grill or pan. They’re handy for all sorts of reasons. So, I’ll have two or three of these – different lengths. And if you have non-stick cookware, make sure that you get the ones with coated tips so they won’t scratch.

4.        Can Opener – Oh yes. Have you ever tried to open a can without one? I have a funny story I’ll tell you sometime about a friend who went out to the desert with his family without one. But there are so many types! I like the basic hand crank edge opener.  These are the ones that open the can under the ridge so there are no sharp edges on the lid.  They’re easy to clean, and they’re small enough that they fit in a drawer easily.

5.        Peeler – If you cook at home, you must have at least one sharp and functioning peeler. Remember that these gadgets break or dull often. A peeler should be able to peel a raw carrot easily. If it skips or gouges, time to replace. Peelers are also great for making lemon zest that goes with quite a few recipes I know.

Last word – this list does not include what I think of as the essential tools like spatulas, sharp knives, whisk, potato masher, and rubber scrapers. If you bake, you want a good rolling pin. If you grate cheese, a nice box grater is good to have. But please – try to resist buying that electronic chopper on the clearance table. You’ll never use it again. Just sayin.

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!

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!