Cooking With Auntie Jane

Instructions For Surviving on Your Own in the Modern World

Month: August, 2012

OMG! My Yogurt Expired Three Days Ago! I Think I Feel Sick!

Just a few words here about expiration dates, kitchen safety, and what’s really important versus what’s corporate CYA. Generally, food is quite safe in this country. But in the last few years, we’ve had outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that have killed people, so you need to pay attention.

Basically, all of this is common sense, but some of it is stuff your Auntie Jane has to tell again, just to make sure.

First and foremost, WASH YOUR HANDS! You don’t need to constantly use alcohol gel out in the world, but in the kitchen, hand washing is important. Especially before and after touching raw meat and the surfaces that the meat has touched. The way that animals are raised in this country now, with antibiotics in their feed, makes them a factory for resistant organisms. So remember to wash your hands if you don’t want to get violently ill. But it’s not just meat. Fruits and veggies have spread illnesses. So wash everything, and especially your hands!

Next, you need a fire extinguisher. They are not cheap, but when you need one, you need it NOW, and compared to losing all you stuff or your life, whatever they cost it is not enough, so if you don’t have one, get one.

So, now let’s talk about expiration dates on food and over-the-counter medicines.

On meat and fish, your nose is your guide to freshness with these foods. You can smell when they are “off,” and you should pitch them in the outside trash if you open a package and it smells even a little bit wrong. (The store will give you a refund without you taking the smelly fish back to them, they will believe you.) I try to use fish and meat the day I buy it, and if not, at least by the next day. Meat keeps better than fish, and ham, which is “cured,” or preserved by smoking and/or with salt, lasts the longest.

Always read the “sell by” date on meat and fish, and buy the package with the furthest “sell by” date you can find. Then use or freeze that meat within a few days of that date. Don’t freeze fish. It doesn’t freeze well at home. With beef, you can’t go by looking at it to tell if it’s fresh. Supermarkets keep air out of the packages and put nitrogen in the display cases to keep the beef nice and pink, so you think it’s fresher than it really is. Just look at ground beef the next time you buy some. It will be pretty and pink on the very outside, and all brown on the inside. Just go by the “sell by” date on the package and don’t let your eyes fool you into buying bad beef.

Moving out of the meat and fish realm, I feel differently about expiration dates. I think that they are put on a lot of things to avoid lawsuits, not to tell you when food or medications have actually gone bad.  By which I mean, they are artificially early, making you throw out a lot of good food and medication when you don’t have to.

For instance, yogurt. It’s basically spoiled milk already because it’s made with bacteria, so what’s going to make it spoil? Unless there’s thick green mold growing on the top, which only happens if you’ve already opened it, yogurt will keep for several months unopened in the fridge. If there’s watery stuff on top, just stir it in, there’s nothing wrong with that. (And if you absolutely need some plain yogurt for a recipe, and there’s only a little mold, you can spoon that off. The green stuff is only penicillin, so it’s not going to hurt you. Am I grossing you out? Come on. Don’t be so prissy!)

Eggs will keep for two months in the fridge. Ignore the date on the carton. If you are whipping egg whites, you want super fresh eggs to get the highest rising whites, but otherwise, don’t worry. If you are concerned that your eggs might not be good anymore, crack one open and give it a sniff. A bad egg smells REALLY bad. Now, I’m not saying eat eggs of any age raw or under cooked. You need to cook your eggs. I prefer to buy my eggs from a local egg ranch at the farmer’s market so I know they’re fresh, rather than at the super market where they’re trucked in from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away, and where the risk of infection with Salmonella is higher. But, if you’re not lucky enough to get eggs from a local source, just be sure to cook your eggs well to kill any bacteria the eggs may harbor.

Canned goods are good for eons unless the can is swollen, in which case pitch it carefully so it doesn’t explode. In this day and age, you shouldn’t see a swollen can unless it’s been damaged somehow. I, personally, have never seen a bad can of food. If someone has made homemade canned peaches or something like that, and given it to you as a gift. Look carefully at the top to make sure it hasn’t puffed up. Problems these days are much more likely with home canning.

With fresh fruits and vegetables, you’ll know when they go bad, because they get wilted, or slimy, or soft or just nasty looking.  Wilted celery and parsley (as long as it’s not slimy) can be chopped up and put into soup, because the taste is still there. Do try to use fresh produce as fast as possible to preserve taste and nutrition. I have a compost pile out back where I put my less-than-wonderful produce and the worms out there are in heaven.

I leave tomatoes on the counter because, while they last a bit longer in the fridge, they lose flavor in there as well.  And modern tomatoes are tasteless enough without robbing them of what little they have. Strawberries also lose flavor in the refrigerator. I try to cut them up and use them almost immediately. If I’m going to refrigerate them, I wash them and individually dry the berries and put them in a plastic bag with a paper towel inside the bag.

Over the counter medications like acetaminophen (generic for Tylenol) can safely go a year or two beyond the expiration date. I used to know a nurse who worked with a charity that specialized in gathering out-dated drugs from pharmaceutical firms and hospitals to take to developing nations where they were life-savers. Five years is a little much, but I’ll take cough syrup that has slid three years past its date (so I’m not very good at cleaning out my medicine cabinet!) if I’m feeling miserable and don’t want to go out, and I’m still here to tell the tale. Just use your common sense. If the drug was out-dated yesterday, it’s fine to take it today.

By the way, don’t throw medications down the toilet, they eventually get into the water that we drink. Take them to your local hospital for proper disposal.

Back to hand washing. While it’s important, as I said, to wash your hands and your counters and cutting boards while you’re cooking, especially when dealing with raw meat, I think Americans have become positively crazy about germs.

There is no avoiding microorganisms. They are everywhere, and many of them are good for you and necessary for life. There is nothing wrong with getting a bit dirty now and then. If you aren’t exposed to an array of microorganisms, you can’t build up a good immune system. So relax and stop carrying around all those wipes and all that alcohol hand cleaner. You look silly! Soap and water is just fine.

And please don’t demand an antibiotic if the doctor says it’s probably a viral infection. It won’t help, and it could well hurt in the long run. You and your children will survive — this is not the eighteenth century.

That’s it. I’ve gotten down off my soap box for now. Relax, have fun.

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It’s Not the Zombie Apocalypse, Dude! You Don’t Need All That Stuff in Your Cupboards!

Everybody needs to stock a few things in their kitchen cupboard. But if you’ve got too much, it’ll either go bad before you use it, or you’ll pack it up and move it fifteen times and then finally throw it out.

So, the point is, it’s a waste of time and space, and especially money, to have too much on hand.

When I met my husband, Larry, he had several huge bottles of Lawry’s seasoned salt and two mega jars of beef bouillon cubes which his mother had sent him off with to start life on his own. God only knows what she thought he’d cook up with those things, (the man fixes pasta and pancakes and frozen vegetables, that’s it), but they came with him and his LP collection and a huge blue oil painting when we got married. I finally threw out the salt after 20 years (don’t ask me why I kept it, but there is a power to mothers-in-law), and I used up the bouillon cubes about ten years ago. I wasn’t so lucky with the oil painting — it’s in the family room. But, I digress.

Buy herbs and spices in small containers. They are expensive, and they lose their punch pretty quickly. Sniff before using, and don’t hesitate to pitch it if your dried oregano is smelling more like your great aunt’s reticule (look it up) than an Italian herb. Everything lasts longer in the fridge and freezer, and I know a lady who keeps her spices in the fridge. I don’t have room in mine, but you might try that.

Some spices, like allspice, can be bought whole and ground in a spice grinder for a fresher taste. Whole nutmeg is nice to grate with a small grater onto the top of a pumpkin pie.

For organizing spices in the cupboard, a small Lazy Susan is cheap to buy and very helpful. Anything that will hold your spices together, and keep them from wandering all over the shelves is a good idea. I’ve seen people use Tupperware-type plastic containers to hold like-sized spice containers, or to alphabetize their spices. I’m just not that organized, alas.

Olive oil has become about as complicated to buy these days as wine. But the good thing is there’s a lot of good olive oil out there, so it’s hard to go wrong. Buy olive oil as “extra virgin” (yes, I know this makes no sense), and it should be the “first cold pressing” if it says anything about pressings. I like Pompeian (it’s Italian, but bottled in Baltimore and I’m a loyal Baltimorean), but as I said, there are many good olive oils out there, including some from California that are great. However, unless you want to eat bread soaked in olive oil with your spaghetti dinner, (which is a healthier option than butter, and very tasty) you don’t need the more expensive brands. Don’t get huge bottles, either. Like wine, olive oil doesn’t like being exposed to air. It gets an unpleasant metallic taste to it after awhile. So, buy no more than eight ounces (less if you live alone) and buy it more often than less often. Throw it out if it tastes bad. My niece imports a delicious Turkish olive oil that’s great with bread and salads. You can check it out on Facebook.

Vinegar, on the other hand, lasts a long time, though it can get cloudy, in which case, throw it out. Don’t get white vinegar, which is diluted acetic acid and is nasty (it smells like a chemistry lab). White vinegar, however, can be helpful in cleaning lime scale, since lime scale is basic, the opposite of the vinegar’s acid. But white vinegar should not be used on anything you eat. Yuck. Get red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is very nice, and has come down in price in recent years. Still, it shouldn’t be used in a recipe. If a recipe calls for 1/4 cup of vinegar, they mean apple cider vinegar, which costs $2.00 a quart, not balsamic vinegar, which costs $6.00 for half that much. Champagne vinegar is a marketing ploy. Don’t even bother.

Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and Tabasco-like hot sauces last almost forever and are nice to have around to enrich sauces, use in recipes and in case a guest asks for them for their meat or rice. I get small bottles because we don’t use them much. You should purchase what you need depending upon what you use.

Cooking oil is important to have for baking and frying. I don’t use a lot because frying isn’t a healthy way to cook. I’m not picky as to kind, though I usually get canola oil since it’s supposed to be better for the heart (wait a week, and the theory will change). I buy a quart or liter bottle at a time. It doesn’t go bad on the shelf. Cooking spray, such as Pam, has all but replaced cooking oil in my frying. So, it is always in my cupboard. I don’t get store brands because the nozzle on those tends to give too heavy a spray. Though brands such as Mazola tend to be less expensive than Pam, which was the original.

Baking powder and baking soda. If you bake you need them both. Baking powder is the stuff in the round can, baking soda is the Arm and Hammer rectangular box stuff (though buy the generic, it’s the same and much cheaper). See the photo at the top of the post, if you are confused. These two things are very different in their actions when used in baking, so make sure you have the right one. Baking soda can be really useful around the house. You can use it for tooth paste in a pinch (though it lacks fluoride). It makes a cheap, nonabrasive cleaner for surfaces when sprinkled on a wet sponge. It absorbs odors in the fridge if you leave an opened box in the back, then after a couple of months you can pour that box down the kitchen sink to freshen it up a bit and rinse it down with a pan of boiling water. If you have acid indigestion, a teaspoon mixed in a glass of water will fix that too (though it’s very salty and if you have heart problems or high blood pressure stay away from it and stick with a regular antacid).

Flour, corn meal, sugar, corn starch etc. should, again, be kept in canisters which can be bought cheaply anyplace that sells housewares. Pantry moths love these things and once an infestation gets going it’s tough to get under control and it involves throwing out a lot of food. (Can you tell I’ve been traumatized by these things?)

Have a few canned goods on hand, but remember that you don’t need to stock up as if your kitchen cupboard is a 1950’s bomb shelter. Even a good blizzard won’t keep you housebound for more than a few days. Canned things take up space and you’ll find that a few of those things will linger in there for months (if not years), and that’s a waste of precious money. Also, you should be eating fresh foods as much as possible.

Thinking of blizzards, if you live in the world of blizzards and black-outs, or Zombie invasions, for that matter, I highly recommend gas stoves. If you are apartment or house hunting, and you have the choice, get the place with the gas stove. You can always light a gas stove with a match if the electricity, and the electric pilot, goes out. With an electric stove, you are out of luck. Yes, a gas oven is not as good as an electric oven because the heat is not as even. The back of a gas oven will always be hotter than the front, so you may have to turn a baking loaf of banana bread half-way through to assure even cooking. But, a gas stove top works much faster compared to an electric stove top. And generally, gas is cheaper than electricity. So, if you are looking at places to live, and one place has a gas stove and another has an electric, go with gas.

Regular white granulated sugar is plain old sugar, buy the cheapest you can find. However, did you know that powdered sugar and confectioner’s sugar are the same thing? Powdered confectioner’s sugar is the stuff that you dust on top of a cake to make it look like pretty snow. Powdered sugar can’t be substituted for regular granulated sugar! You can demonstrate this by stirring some in your coffee, it will make it cloudy and icky sweet. So on to brown sugar. I have found that brown sugar can vary. If you are buying brown sugar, buy it in a plastic bag, not in a box. I live in Southern California, where it’s really dry, and since brown sugar is made by mixing white sugar with molasses, sometimes it seems that the boxed brown sugar is just a large lump of white sugar with molasses sprayed on it, which then instantaneously becomes a unless brown brick. The stuff in a plastic, resealable bag is the real McCoy; nice, soft dark brown sugar.

So, there you go, my ideas on what you need in your cupboards. Of course, things will accumulate. I bought a bag of bulgar wheat awhile ago at Whole Foods, thinking I’d cook that up in some imaginative way. It’s still sitting there on the shelf, next to the bag of mixed beans I was going to make into soup. Nobody’s perfect, I’m sad to say.

Kitchen Simplicity; Or, You Don’t Need All The Stuff You Think You Do

Let’s start with kitchen hardware. We all would like to have a huge CuisinArt with a box full of sharp-as-death tools and a KitchenAide mixer that can knead four loaves of whole wheat bread at one go. I would also like to have a kitchen with a Wolf Range with six burners and granite counter tops with gold sparkles in them. The fact is, you can get along with a lot less and be an excellent cook. On the other hand, you can have all that machinery and still end up using your kitchen as just one more beautiful room for entertaining, without doing much cooking. Did you see the movie Julie and Juia?  The Julie character in the movie (and I’m sure the woman in real life) was cooking up all that fabulous French food in a tiny kitchen without a lot of fancy equipment. Of course, if you’re getting married, expensive kitchen hardware is just the thing to put on the registry. But bear in mind, you don’t need it.

So let’s get started. If you buy the right things, they’ll last you a lifetime or more, and you’ll be happy in your kitchen. If you buy cheap stuff, you’ll be replacing it over and over and you’ll hate it while you’re using it. You don’t have to spend a fortune on the latest designer chef’s signature brand. You don’t need 6,000 pots and pans and 20,000 gadgets. You just need a few basics. This is especially true if you are young and will probably be moving a lot. You will thank me that you are not carting around a 30 lb. mixer and a 20 lb. food processor with every move.

Knives and Sharpener: One utility knife and 1 paring knife, maybe a bread knife if you’re like my son Paul, who likes to bake bread. A 10-inch chef’s knife is considered the basic knife. But a six or seven inch utility knife is just as good to start with (actually, I didn’t get the chef’s knife until my late 50’s and it still kind of scares me, it’s so big). Buy the best brand you can but stay away from over-priced chef’s brands, and no home cook needs a $200 knife. Forschner is a good brand (they are the kitchen knife brand of the folks who make Swiss Army knives) with good blades but inexpensive handles. Some kinds of knives start well over $100 for a tiny knife, and the clerks get all snooty with you, so find a happy medium. and only get two. You really don’t need any more to start with.

Don’t put your knives in the dish washer and always dry them immediately after washing by hand. Protect the edge of the knife. Buy a sharpening steel and learn how to use it. An electric sharpener is great, but they aren’t cheap. Ask for one for Christmas. There are inexpensive little sharpening gadgets that hold the knife at the right angle and do a super job. I don’t have one, but I want one. Shop the website below, they cost about $35.
The Knife Merchant 1-800-714-8226, or www.knifemerchant.com, is a great source for knives at good prices and good advice about knives.

Two or 3-quart sauce pans: You need two. I have three plus a steamer, but I could get along with two and my steamer on regular days. I am not in favor of non-stick cookware like Teflon, though it has improved greatly in recent years. However, I still think that unless you spend a lot of money, the pans themselves tend to be thin, so heat doesn’t distribute well and you have a hot spot over the middle and the rest of the pan is cold. Also, eventually the surface flakes off, probably into your food. Very, very bad for you.

To find cookware, check out stores for professional cooks for open stock cookware, or sales in department stores on decent cookware. Calphalon and other trendy cookware is way too expensive. I like good old-fashioned Revere Ware with it’s copper bottoms. Ask for these things as gifts (my son got a set of Revere Ware from his aunt last Christmas). Also check out yard and estate sales and the Salvation Army, too. I absolutely love my mother’s old cast aluminum Dutch oven, and cast iron frying pan, and you can’t buy things like those anywhere but second hand stores. I have bought nice sets of stainless pans with aluminum bottoms at Target and I have seen Revere Ware sets at our local outlet mall. So, there are options which are not too expensive.

A word about taking care of your pans. Don’t take a hot pan off the stove and run cold water in it. Ever see a pan with a round bottom? That’s what happens when you put cold water in a hot pan. Let it cool off, then soak it.

Steamer: This can be a stand alone steamer like the one I have (a wedding gift from my husband’s Uncle Mark and Aunt Joyce, so it’s getting up there), or one of those little fold-up baskets that fits into a saucepan (my parents used one of these forever, but my daughter and I agree that they are kind of annoying). Steaming vegetables preserves the most nutrition and flavor, so a steamer is a must.

Frying pan: I bought my son a cast iron frying pan. I was impressed they still make them. Properly cared for, it will outlive him. You can see a photo, above, of my mother’s cast iron frying pan which came from a Wyoming girls’ summer camp. Goodness knows how old that pan is. It has outlived my mother, and will out-live me. My son’s new pan came “pre-seasoned,” which means we weren’t supposed to have needed to put oil in it and heat it up for five minutes before it’s maiden voyage. Well, they lied. Pre-seasoned or not, the egg we scrambled the first time stuck pretty badly. The directions say not to use soap or detergent on it, which is important with cast iron for about the first 20 years. He’s supposed to put oil in it after each use, which is a good idea. I like cast iron because, while it requires attention, it’s a joy to cook with. It heats up quickly and the heat is even. Also, it builds your upper body strength. If you can’t find cast iron, there are good stainless pans which have a copper or aluminum core to provide good heat dispersal.

Stock pot: A large pot for cooking soup or stew. This can be substituted with a crock pot for awhile, though ultimately, everyone needs a large pot because you can’t cook a box of spaghetti or a dozen ears of corn in a crock pot. The sets of pots and pans which I’ve bought my kids have each included a big pot of some kind, which makes buying one of those sets look increasingly economical.

Small sauce pan: A 1-quart sauce pan is good for making hollandaise sauce, boiling an egg, or making oatmeal if you don’t happen to have a microwave handy.

Loaf pans: If you bake bread you’ll need two. Mine are aluminum, but they don’t seem to be available anymore. See what’s available in the store. Try to avoid non-stick, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. One loaf pan is nice to have because there are some pretty good quick bread mixes out there and at Christmas time it’s nice to make pumpkin bread or cranberry bread to share at work, and nobody needs to know it’s from a mix. Also, if you make meat loaf, you’ll need a loaf pan.

Mixing bowls: You can’t make brownies or oatmeal cookies without at least two of these. An inexpensive set of three or four nesting bowls is a great investment. They will last forever. If you are going to bake bread, you will need a really large bowl, as big as you can find. A salad bowl will work.

Colander: Hard to drain hot pasta without one.

Oblong pan: This is for baking gingerbread or broiling salmon. 9x12x2 inches or something like that. It can be Pyrex or stainless, avoid the non-stick.

Canisters:  Really important for keeping things like flour and corn meal protected from pantry moths. Pantry moth eggs come in with the packaging of all kinds of dry stuff and if you don’t want a major infestation, complete with creepy crawly wormy caterpillars, get some canisters. They are cheap. By the way, you can prevent an infestation if you take your flour or corn meal, fresh from the store, and put it in the freezer for half an hour or so to kill whatever larvae have traveled in with the packaging.

Drawer Stuff: Assorted wooden spoons, pancake turner, tongs (surprisingly useful, and very cheap), bottle opener, ladle, measuring spoons, measuring cups, can opener, cork screw (even if you don’t drink, what if dinner guests bring a bottle of wine and want a glass?), two-tined long-handled fork, wire whisks, timer (most ovens have one, but what if you’re timing rice and salmon steaks?), potato peeler, instant-read meat thermometer (a must).

Heat disperser: This is a round metal thing full of small holes which sits on the burner and a pan sits on top of it. It acts like a double boiler, decreasing the heat of the burner (turned as low as it can go) and protects a delicate thing like hollandaise sauce or melting chocolate from getting too hot and being ruined. This is a cheap, nifty gadget and I love mine.

Citrus squeezer: Fresh lemonade, anyone? Also needed for hollandaise sauce (if you don’t know what hollandaise sauce is, all will be revealed later on. It will be worth the wait.)

Pot holders: Plus tea towels, apron (at least one), dish scrubbers, a long-handled dish brush and whatever else you need to keep dishes clean. In this section I would add the things that you need to clean the floor, including a bucket, mop, rubber gloves and detergent. Those Swiffer things just don’t work well on really dirty kitchen floors, like those found in recently vacated apartments. One word. Eeeweewe.

Blender and/or small food processor: I like a small food processor better than a blender, it’s more versatile and takes up less space. I currently own a cool, inexpensive thing made by Braun: a hand blender where the machine part comes off and fits to various things including a small food processor. Those clever Germans! However, a regular blender is not expensive, and they do have the advantage of making margaritas in the summertime, so there is something to be said for the traditional blender if you have the money and the space.

Toaster: This should be an easy purchase but I’ve gone through a lot of them over the years and they all seem to have flaws. Check out the thrift stores. Don’t buy an expensive one because they don’t seem to be any better than the cheapies, in my experience. My sister has one identical to the one our parents got as a wedding gift in 1937. If that doesn’t tell you something about manufacturing these days….

Coffee Grinder: I don’t recommend them. If you can tell the difference between good coffee ground right before you use it and good coffee ground just before you leave the store, then ask for a grinder for Christmas. I find that mine makes a mess on the counter and I can’t tell the difference in flavor. It’s more important to make sure your coffee pot and brewing apparatus are scrupulously clean (the oil in the coffee goes rancid).

Brightly colored plastic kitchen utensils. I almost never use my aluminum colander because it blends in with everything else in my dark cupboards, but I can spot my bright red plastic one right away. And in my jumbled mess of a kitchen drawer I can find my green spatula in no time flat. So, go with the pretty colors.

Cutting board: A small (big ones are too heavy to lift and scrap chopped veggies into a pan on the stove, also hard to store) plastic or wooden one is a necessity. The rumor that wooden cutting boards harbor bad bacteria is not true. Women have used them for hundreds of years without anyone dying. Just wash it off with soap and water, for crying out loud! Don’t cut on your counter! It will ruin both the counter and your knife.

Small Electric Grill: Think George Foreman. I don’t have one of these but my son does and he loves it, especially for pork chops. They come out really moist, he says. I saw a friend of ours defrost a skinless chicken breast in the microwave and then cook it on her grill, all in less than 10 minutes, and it tasted great! I’m not saying this is a must-have, but if you see one on sale, you might consider it.

I’m not going to talk about dishes, silverware and glassware. I like Target as a source, but these are really more fashion accessories and people can buy what they like, need and can afford.

However, I do have one piece of advice from my mother. She said to always keep an extra set of glasses put away for special occasions because glasses get broken and messed up in the dishwasher, etc. The set can cost $20 from Target (which mine did), it’s just the fact that they’re all there and they match that’s important. You might also get a set of cheap wine glasses for the same reason. My mother was a very wise lady, and I’ll be quoting her a lot throughout this blog.

We will tackle the kitchen cupboard next. However, I have to break here as my dear husband, Larry, is patiently awaiting his supper, and I have to go start chopping some veggies on the cherry cutting board that Larry’s dear dad made for me thirty years ago.