Cooking With Auntie Jane

Instructions For Surviving on Your Own in the Modern World

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Dominican Bacalao (Salted Cod Stew)

Easy Caribbean Fish Stew Over Rice

Easy Caribbean Fish Stew Over Rice

I learned this delicious recipe back in the early 1970’s from my wonderful sister Ann. Back then, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in the city of Barahona, in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island whose main export these days seems to be Major League baseball players. Anyway, in those days this was a very cheap fish which Norway and Canada exported to poor countries like the Dominican Republic, where refrigeration and protein were hard to come by. Unfortunately, nowadays, the great North Atlantic codfish has been overfished, and salt cod sells for about $15 a pound. That’s well out of the price range of someone living in a palm board shack in Barahona, of course. But it is available to people like me who frequent Whole Foods. You can find it in a wooden box, or as a whole salted fillet, near the seafood counter.

This recipe is easy to make. The only drawback is that you have to boil the cod for 30 minutes to soften the fish and remove enough of the salt to make it palatable — and that boiling process is pretty smelly. Make sure you turn on the hood above your stove and if the weather allows, open the windows and kitchen door.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound dried salted codfish
  • 1 onion, chopped (you can use only half an onion if you don’t like them)
  • 1 green (and/or sweet red or yellow) pepper, chopped
  • 1 16 oz. can of tomatoes (the last time I made this I only had a 32 oz. can and it worked fine)
  • About a quarter teaspoon dried oregano
  • Pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon of vinegar (red wine, cider, balsamic, just not white vinegar)
  • 1 or 2 eggs (I have never used two eggs. I don’t like an eggy taste, but this is a flexible recipe)

Instructions:

Wash the cod under running cold water and pull out any obvious bones. Some cod will have more bones than other cod, and it’s worth looking for, and extracting, the bones during this washing process. Some little bits of fish may come off while you are washing. You want to retain those little pieces to boil.

After a good washing (about 5 minutes) put the fish in a large sauce pan with a tight-fitting lid, cover with cold water, put the lid on and turn the fire on medium high and wait for the water to boil. This will boil over easily and make a smelly mess of your stove, so don’t walk away! Once the top of the pan is hot and you hear boiling inside, turn the heat down to low and set a timer for 15 minutes.

When the timer rings, carefully drain off the water from the fish (Be careful! There will be steam coming from the pan.) and then cover the fish again in cold water and repeat the process of bringing the water to a boil and turning the heat down. Set the timer again for 15 minutes.

If you don’t change the water in this way, the end product will be almost too salty to eat. Trust me. I’ve tried it.

After a total of 30 minutes of boiling, the fish should come apart in bite-sized chunks. Drain the fish well in a colander and set aside.

In a large sauce pan, heat a tablespoon (or so) of olive oil and saute the onion until it’s translucent (don’t let it burn!). Add the cooked codfish, then the canned tomatoes and stir. Add the chopped green pepper, the oregano, then the vinegar. Break an egg or two over the mixture and stir in, letting it cook down. The egg acts as a thickener, which you don’t even notice.

Serve over rice. Be sure not to add salt to the rice during preparation. This is salty enough!

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OMG! My Yogurt Expired Three Days Ago!

Okay, my friends, let’s take a few minutes to talk about kitchen safety

Not quite past it's due date, it was a little tart, but not bad. Oh, did I say I'm not great at fridge cleaning-out?

Not quite a year past it’s toss date. A little tart, but not bad.

plus some medical stuff. In daily life, some things are super important, and others are just corporate CYA.

Basically, all of this is common sense, but some of it is stuff your mom (i.e. me) has to tell you.

First, expiration dates on food and over-the-counter medicines are put there to avoid lawsuits, not to tell you when food or medications have 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 (various strains of Lactobacillus and their relatives), 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 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 scrape that off. The green stuff is only penicillin, so it’s not going to hurt you.)

Eggs will keep for a month or more 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. If you got your eggs at the farmer’s market, and were laid the day before you bought them, then you can probably keep them three months in the fridge. The older the egg is, the stiffer the yolk will be and it will stick to the wall of the shell if it’s really old. Eggs can harbor Salmonella, which are really bad bacteria so always make sure you cook them well.

Canned goods last for eons. A swollen can, of course is no good and should be disposed of gently, to avoid an explosion. In this day and age, you shouldn’t see a swollen can unless it’s been punctured somehow. Someone who is inexperienced at home canning can get into trouble. However, I don’t know enough about home canning or it’s pitfalls, so I won’t comment here except to say that I’ve never had anything but delicious jams and pickles and grape juice from the home canners I have known.

You’ll know when fresh fruits and vegetables 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. Try to use fresh produce as fast as possible to preserve taste and nutrition. Don’t throw out a peach or nectarine just because it has a brown, even slightly moldy spot. Just cut the spot out, and you’ll find the stone fruit is probably incredibly delicious.

I leave tomatoes on the counter because, while they last a bit longer in the fridge, they lose flavor in there, 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.

Now, let’s switch gears to the medical world. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen can easily go a year 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 a few years past its date if I’m feeling miserable and don’t want to go out, and I’m still here to tell the tale.

Now let’s talk a little about America’s obsession with germs.

While it’s important to wash your hands and your counters and cutting boards while you’re cooking, especially when dealing with raw meat, and I certainly wash my hands ridiculously frequently in my job as a nurse, I think Americans have become positively crazy about germs. Of course, television feeds (created?) this germophobia, trying to make us think that we should be afraid of the germs on our floors and in our toilets, so we will buy ever more environmentally irresponsible cleaning products.

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 you and your kids 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. Soap and water is just fine.

And please, oh please, don’t demand an antibiotic if the doctor says it’s probably a viral infection and it’ll pass without treatment. Antibiotics are useless against viruses, and using one when it’s not needed could well hurt in the long run. You and your children will survive — this is not the eighteenth century.

While we’re on the subject of microorganisms and the days when easily preventable diseases routinely decimated families, let’s talk about getting babies immunized. The New York Times has a fantastic article about vaccines and the diseases that they have virtually wiped out over the last 200 years or so. I’m putting a link to it here. www.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-vaccinations-ess.html.

One statistic I gleaned from the article, which I will leave you with is about diphtheria, a childhood disease we no longer see in this country thanks to the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) shot. During the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, the immunization system there fell apart. During that time not so long ago, the Red Cross estimates that there were 100,000 cases of the disease, and that it killed 5,000 children.

If we suddenly had an epidemic of that proportion in this country, sickening and killing thousands of children, there would be an uproar for a cure. Well, there is a cure. Don’t get it in the first place. Immunize against it.

Phew! Well, that’s it. I’ve gotten down off my soap box for now. Relax, have fun.

Banana Bread for the Soul

Banana Bread

From: Feed Me I’m Yours, by Vickie Lansky

Feed Me, I’m Yours is a wonderful cookbook which which has been up-dated over the years and includes multiple recipes for great play dough and many fun kiddie foods. This banana bread recipe is easy, and yummy. Save too-ripe bananas in the freezer for baking day by peeling them and plopping them in a freezer bag. Never waste a black banana! Also, this recipe calls for 4-5 bananas. I’ve made it with 2 with no appreciable difference. As always, read this recipe all the way through before you get started. Much love, Your Auntie Jane

Who sliced off the heel of my banana bread!?

Who sliced off the heel of my banana bread!?

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup margarine
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2-5 mashed, very ripe bananas  (the number is very flexible)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup all bran cereal
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Cream margarine and sugar until light in a large bowl.
  • Add egg and mix well.
  • Then add the cereal, bananas and vanilla. Stir.
  • Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and add to the first mixture.
  • Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray, pour in the batter.

Bake for an hour or until the bread tests done. This bread can be a little wet in the middle, especially if you’ve used 5 bananas, so make sure to insert a tooth pick or a kebob skewer (my mother used a broom straw, using the clean upper end, but most brooms are plastic now so less good for bread testing) into the middle to make sure it’s done. (It is not done until the tester comes out of the middle of the bread totally clean.) Turn the loaf out onto a rack and let sit until it is entirely cool before slicing. Or, if you can’t wait, you can slice it, but it will not cut into nice, even pieces.

Ta, da! A beautiful loaf to enjoy with your morning coffee or to take to work as a treat for everyone’s coffee. You can give this to the kids for breakfast. It’s not terribly sweet, and it’s got bran, bananas, nuts and some egg. My kids were picky eaters, so this worked for me, and they are both skinny people as adults. But I know that moms these days are much more concerned about sugar, so some may balk at this for breakfast. As in all things, it’s up to you.

Flexible, Delicious Spicy (or not) Veggie Stew

This is a really nice vegetarian, actually vegan, recipe I found years ago in the Boston Globe. But you don’t have to be ovo-lacto to enjoy this casserole. It makes a hearty, delicious dinner for anyone who likes to eat.

Butternut and summer squash are visible, but what you can’t detect are the aroma of cumin and the bite of hot pepper!

You can serve this with rice or couscous, or Italian bread and a salad. For those of you carb-adverse folk, you can skip the bread or couscous, and just serve the salad. Though something in me cries out for bread with a warm, yummy stew.

I’ve found that you can change the vegetables in here without much difficulty. I have left out the zucchini (more like forgotten) on occasion. You can add more (or different) beans, and it tastes the same. Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, any can of plain old beans you have in your cupboard (no baked beans or chili, of course) will work in this casserole. Also, you can change the squash to two cups of Idaho potatoes, if you can’t find (or don’t like) butternut squash. However, be sure to cut the potato into big chunks, and don’t cook it too long, or it will go to mashed potatoes.

Wine-wise, this earthy casserole probably needs a big red that can stand up to it. But I think I might like a chardonnay, which is white, and would be served cold. My wine knowledge isn’t extensive, it just struck me that the chardonnay might taste good. It depends on the weather. On a cold day, I’d definitely want a red. Suit yourself. Educate your palate. Don’t serve wine a box, and you’ll do okay.

Time management. This recipe does have a fair amount of prep time, just because of the vegetable peeling and chopping, but then it goes together quickly. Give yourself 45 minutes to get dinner on the table, though you may be finished earlier than that especially if you buy pre-chopped onions and squash.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped. Remember, garlic comes in a bulb, like a tulip bulb, which is naturally divided into cloves. To get the papery covering off the garlic clove, turn a knife blade on its side, put it on the clove and smash down. Actually, if you love garlic, you can add two or three cloves to this casserole. As I said, this casserole is flexible.

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups diced butternut squash (or Idaho potato, or one cup of each). Butternut squash can be found pre-diced, but check the date, and get the package from the back of the case. I’ve unfortunately bought spoiled, slimy squash. Ick!! It’s best (freshest and cheapest) to buy a whole squash and chop it up yourself. You want a squash with a long neck and a small bulbous part at the end. Slice it into roughly half-inch thick circles, peel the circles and then cut up the squash into chunks.

2 carrots, thinly sliced

1 small (8 oz.) can crushed tomatoes

Season with: Salt to taste (I add about a teaspoon then check before I serve, adding more if needed), 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper. (If you increase the crushed red pepper to 1/2 a teaspoon you’ll have a pretty spicy dish. My friend from Texas loved it this spicy, my husband from Wisconsin wouldn’t eat it. Judge for yourself.)

1 cup vegetable stock (canned or boxed). I like the boxed stock because it’s resealable and then stores in the fridge. Cans don’t reseal well.

1 small zucchini or other summer squash, sliced

 1/2 cup canned chick peas, drained. Chick peas are also called garbanzo beans. If you can’t find chick peas, look for garbanzos.

Instructions

In a 3-quart or larger saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the onion and garlic and cook them until soft, but don’t let them brown, this takes only a minute or two. Onions and garlic go from soft and perfect to burned and ruined in no time! Don’t leave the pan!

Next, add the carrots, butternut squash (and/or potatoes), seasonings, tomatoes and stock. Bring to a boil, cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer 5-10 minutes; check often, you don’t want to cook the veggies to mushiness.

Add the zucchini and chick peas and stir gently. Put the top back on the pan and cook for about 3 minutes.

Turn off the heat.

Now, fix your couscous by package directions (it takes five minutes) and pull together a salad.

Or slice up some lovely crusty bread and don’t worry about the couscous.

And invite me to join you!

Memorable Moussaka

Probably ten years ago, I brought this moussaka to a pot luck at work, and I swear there are still people who bring it up longingly. The other day in the lounge, when I was telling my colleagues about this blog, I got a request from a few nurses to post the recipe.

Moussaka is a classic Greek casserole made with ground beef, or lamb, cooked in a sweet spicy tomato sauce, layered with broiled eggplant, sprinkled with cheese, then covered overall with a yogurt/egg mixture and then baked. ‘Tis to die for.

I found this recipe in a book of Middle Eastern recipes by Paula Wolfert. However, that recipe included sliced potatoes in the layers, and all the Lebanese and Egyptian and Iranian nurses and doctors with whom I work who ate the moussaka that day kept saying to me, “There are potatoes in here, Jane. Why are there potatoes in your moussaka? It’s delicious, but the potatoes don’t belong.” So, forever afterward I’ve left the potatoes out of the recipe. It also cuts down on the work involved.

You can make moussaka with either beef or lamb, but if I’m going to the trouble of making moussaka, I’m going to go to Whole Foods and spend the money for ground lamb. I’m not going to use just some package of ground beef. Lamb elevates this dish from something your mother would have made on Saturday night, to something you would go out to a nice Greek restaurant to be served. (If you can’t find ground lamb, you can buy a boneless leg of lamb, have the butcher grind it for you, and then have him package it into one-pound packages which you can freeze.)

The lamb makes the difference in all sorts of ways. Lamb is a rich, delicious meat, and you taste that richness in the dish. For those of you who are not familiar with lamb, (and some people really don’t like it) this may be a great way to introduce yourself to the meat, because its slight “gamey” flavor will be mixed in with the tomato and onion. Lamb is more expensive than beef, so if cost is a deciding factor for you, by all means, use ground beef. But I recently bought a pound of ground lamb at Whole Foods for just over $7, so it’s not that expensive.

Aside from the price, the other downside to lamb is it’s pretty fatty, and if you can’t get lean ground lamb, you’ll have a lot of grease to pour off. Save the can that the tomato purree came in, dump out any extra tomato stuff, rinse it and dry it well, so you can pour off all the lamb, (or beef, you’ll have grease with beef, too) grease into the can. Never, ever pour grease down the drain, or the Mr. Roto-Plumber Guy will be getting rich from your misdeeds!

This is enough work that you’ll want to serve it for guests at a dinner party, with a nice crusty bread and a big green salad full of artichoke hearts and all kinds of olives and feta cheese. Use olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of butter for the bread. When shopping for a red wine, tell the wine expert in the store that you’re serving lamb in tomato sauce and you need a red that’s big enough to stand up to it.

So, as always, read the recipe all the way through before you start. You area going to need a pretty big baking dish for this, as it serves eight. I like the disposable aluminum pans available in the baking aisle at the grocery store. Though I just bought a new Pyrex baking dish to make this in. It wasn’t expensive and I like it.

Also, think about time management. There are a number of time-consuming steps in here. The eggplant slices have to soak for at least 30 minutes before being dried and then broiled. The meat sauce takes 30-40 minutes to cook. And once assembled, the entire casserole takes about 45 minutes to cook, and then it has to sit a few minutes before you can cut it. I’d give myself at least two hours from start to finish on this casserole.

There’s nothing wrong with having your guests wait a bit, enjoying the aroma of an amazing dinner while they sip some wine or sparkling water, but you don’t want to have them meandering around your place looking at their smart phones and scraping for the last of the chips and salsa. About half an hour is the most you should ever make guests wait for their dinner.

Always set your table before you get your shower. Have everything look just the way you want it, then get yourself ready.

Moussaka

Equipment you will need

A big heavy skillet, a 10x14x2-inch baking dish (I bought a Pyrex dish that’s slightly smaller, and it works fine), a large bowl or pan for soaking eggplant in salt water.

Ingredients

1 1/2  pounds eggplant — you want a nice shiny purple/black eggplant, which is solid and heavy, with no soft spots.

5 tablespoons olive oil (plus or minus), plus more for cooking the eggplant

1 1/2 cups minced onions — recently, pre-chopped onions were recalled, so I’m back to cutting up my own onions, alas. But better safe than sorry.

1 clove garlic, chopped — garlic comes in bulbs, which look kind of like tulip bulbs. Each bulb is naturally divided into smaller cloves inside the papery covering. You want just a clove, not an entire bulb. To peel the clove, take the flat side of a big knife, put it on the garlic clove and smash down on the clove to break it open. Then it’s easy to peel and chop up.

1 pound lean ground beef or lamb, Whole Foods sells ground lamb. If you don’t have a Whole Foods or specialty butcher nearby, you can buy a boneless leg of lamb, have it ground up, and divided into 1 lb. packages. But this produces pretty fatty ground meat which has to be drained before you add the onions and garlic.

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, more or less to taste

1/2 cup tomato purree or strained tomatoes, buy the smallest can you can find. A half cup is only four ounces, or 120 cc.

1/4 cup chopped parsley

2 tablespoons real butter

1 package grated Parmesan cheese — enough to cover the top of the pan generously, if you have a block of Parmesan, so much the better, grate away.

3 eggs

2 cups plain yogurt, beaten until smooth

1 cup milk

Pinch of paprika — the recipe calls for hot Hungarian paprika, but I’ve never been able to find it.

Instructions

1. Peel the eggplants and cut into 1/2-inch circles, discarding the top and bottom. Dissolve a tablespoon or more of salt into a large bowl of cool water to make a salt solution and soak the slices of eggplant for at least 30 minutes. The salty water draws the water out of the eggplant by osmotic pressure over a semi-permeable membrane. See, 10th grade biology actually was good for something!

2. While the eggplant is soaking, in a large frying pan, cook the ground meat until it’s brown and crumbly. Pour off most of the liquid fat into a tin can, NOT DOWN THE DRAIN. Add the onions and garlic and cook them with the meat, stirring often, until the onions are soft, about 5 minutes more.

3. Stir in the spices and tomato purree. Add 1/2 cup water, the parsley and salt to taste. (Remember, not too much salt. People can always add it at the table.) Turn the sauce off once it tastes right and leave it on the back of the stove.

4. Heat the broiler. (My broiler doesn’t need heating. I just turn it on when I need it. You know your oven.) Drain the eggplant, squeeze the slices gently, and pat them dry with paper towels. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and brush it lightly with olive oil. Put the eggplant slices on the baking sheet in a single layer and brush them with olive oil. (You will find that they soak quite a bit. Don’t over do it. The oil is just to help them brown.) Broil until golden brown on both sides. This should take about five minutes per side. Transfer the slices to a dish and put them to the side.

Broiled eggplant on the lamb mixture, almost ready to bake!

5. Use half the butter (you can use cooking spray, but butter tastes so much better) to thoroughly grease a 10x14x2- inch baking dish. Cover the bottom of the pan with the meat sauce. Layer the eggplant on top of the meat. Cover the eggplant entirely with cheese.

6. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Beat the eggs well. Slowly stir in the yogurt and milk. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Pour the yogurt/milk mixture over the top of the casserole and dot with the last of the butter. Let the casserole settle for about 10 minutes. This lets the eggy mixture, which will bind it all together, work its way down through all that spongy eggplant — so set a timer. Bake, uncovered, until the top is golden brown. That’s about 45 minutes. Check, and let it cook longer if it needs it. Remove from the heat, let it settle for a few minutes (not more than 10) then cut in large squares and serve.

Finished moussaka, cut up and ready to serve. Wish you could get a whiff of my kitchen!

Yummy Vegan Yam and Butternut Squash Soup for an Autumn Day

Okay. I promised my vegetarian sister-in-law (she’s ovo-lacto, for those keeping score) that I’d provide something other than bran muffins that she could actually fix and eat. And now I’ve come up with it!

Note: You need an immersion blender for this recipe! You can use a regular blender, (or even go retro and use a food mill), but you have to do it in batches, and it can get messy, with hot soup flying all over your kitchen. Immersion blenders are cool tools, so this may be the time to treat yourself to a reasonably priced one.

Yam and butternut squash soup is a lovely, creamy soup which I found a couple of years ago in the Health section of the New York Times. While we’re on the subject, I’d like to encourage everyone to get an online subscription to that wonderful paper, if only for their cooking section. The Science and Health sections are also really good, but the cooking section has a wealth of wonderful recipes on a weekly basis.

This soup uses a white mashing/baking potato to produce its excellent texture so it is gluten-free. The soup is relatively quick to make (accent on the word relatively, there’s a lot of peeling and chopping of veggies involved), it serves six, can be made a day ahead of time and it even freezes well.

If you buy the butternut squash pre-diced, rather than as a whole squash, it decreases the prep time and work, since butternut squash is pretty tough to peel and hack up. But if price is an issue or somebody gave you a winter squash from their garden, by all means, sharpen your weapon and have to! Just slice the long neck into circles, peel the skin off, and then cut up the flesh into small pieces. Oh, and don’t forget the round, gourd-like part at the end. Scoop out the seeds, peel the skin off and chop it up as well. Careful of your fingers!

Serve this soup with a salad of mixed greens topped with chopped pecans. If you are ovo-lacto, some gorgeous crumbled blue cheese would go well on the salad. Dress it simply with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Again, if you’re not vegan, nice crusty bread from the bakery will complete your dinner. Or you can bake some bran muffins, from the last post, which I might do tonight if our California weather cools off enough to allow me to turn on the oven.

As always, read the entire recipe before starting.

Yummy Yam and Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients

1 tablespoon vegetable oil — you don’t have to dirty a measuring spoon unless you’re really unsure. Just a nice dollop of oil to cook a small onion and some ginger in.

1 small onion, chopped — if you are in a hurry, buy pre-chopped onion, and use about half the container and throw the rest away, onions grow bad things in the fridge.

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger — peel the ginger first, of course. You won’t need a huge piece, even it you like a bit more kick in you food and you increase by half the amount of ginger you add to the soup.

1 pound butternut squash, peeled and diced — pre-peeled and cut up

Ginger, Idaho Potato and Yam

Still Life with Partially Peeled Roots and Tuber

squash is a time saver, but more expensive.

1 pound yams (you can use sweet potatoes but they tend to be lighter in color, a bit woody in texture and have less flavor than yams, in my opinion), peeled and diced. (We are not talking about canned sweet potatoes here!)

1 medium-sized russet potato or Yukon-gold type potato, peeled and diced — these are the potatoes we didn’t want for our chicken dinner. These potatoes will melt down to mush and provide the creamy texture for the soup.

6 cups water, vegetable or chicken stock — Most containers of stock hold four cups or 32 ounces. Don’t bother opening a second container and wasting half of it. Just rinse the box or can with water and use that “stock-y” water to make up the difference.

Salt and pepper to taste — Keep tasting as you go along, adding a teaspoon of salt as you go. Just remember, with salt, less really is more. People can add salt at the table if need be. It isn’t an insult to your cooking. The average American diet contains way too much salt, so take it easy in the kitchen.

Instructions

1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the squash, yams, white potato, and water or stock, and bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste, (try a teaspoon first, add more later) reduce the heat, cover and simmer 45 minutes, or until all of the ingredients are tender.

2. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup. You can also puree the soup by putting it through the fine blade of a food mill, which I think would be easier than a regular blender, certainly safer. With a regular blender, work in batches, placing a kitchen towel over the top for extra security. Return the soup to the pot and stir with a whisk to even out the texture. Heat through, add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Ta, da!

Ready for The Table in Cobalt Blue

Feed the Ravening Hordes Vegetable Beef Soup and Bran Muffins

Yummm

What could be more welcoming than soup and muffins?

The weather is beginning to change, even in Southern California, though you have to look harder for a hint of fall here. Everywhere the kids are back in school, and the sun is beginning to set earlier in the day. Up the street from us the men are playing soccer on the elementary school field, and the ice cream trucks drive by playing Mexican polkas to attract customers. Fall is a state of mind, not a temperature, perhaps. The slate is wiped clean, our shoes are new, and we are excited to have a fresh start.

And, it’s time to consider rich autumnal foods. I want to bake bread and cook stews and this time of year I especially want to fix my mother’s vegetable soup.

It’s actually a beef vegetable barley soup, but she called it vegetable soup. This is the soup that Mother had on the stove when you were coming home from college or from a long trip, so that it would be ready the minute you walked in the door cold and hungry. She served it with bran muffins, and it was always welcoming and wonderful.

My soup is not actually my mother’s soup. I wish I knew why. It has all the same ingredients, and my soup is awfully good, but it’s not the same. Your soup will not be my soup. It will be delicious, but it probably won’t taste like mine either. Soups are mysterious, mystical creations.

This recipe makes a lot of soup. I mean, enough to serve probably ten people. So, the good thing is you can freeze it in a Tupperware-like container. I am including a gluten-free version, substituting rice for the barley. The soup will be different, but it will be just as delicious.

Before we get started on our soup and muffins I want to remind you of a really basic step that beginning cooks sometimes forget. Always read the entire recipe before you begin. Like, before you start making bran muffins, do you actually have a muffin pan? That would be a good thing to own before you are standing with a bowl full of batter before a hot oven. It always comes down to the basics, my friends.

So, here we go.

Vegetable Soup

Again, this makes a big pot of filling soup which feeds a crowd cheaply. Try it instead of chilli for your next football party. It freezes well in a plastic container, though it lasts easily for a week in the fridge. It’s easy to make, it just takes time. So, make sure you don’t want this soup for dinner in 3o minutes because this will be ready tomorrow, not tonight. If you want it tonight, start around 9 AM, to have it done by 6 PM. Still, it will be better on day two.

Ingredients

•    Soup bones — ox tail and marrow bones are both wonderful, but neck bones, even short ribs will do. Bones add real flavor to soup, and they are absolutely necessary here. If you don’t see any in the meat case, ring for the butcher and ask.

•    Soup/stew meat, you don’t need too much, maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound. Trim all fat off the meat.

•    A bunch of celery, the end cut off, washed well and chopped into small pieces, including the leaves, which add flavor

•    A bunch of parsley, the ends cut off, well washed and chopped up finely.

•    5-6 large carrots, sliced. If you like more, use more.

•    2 of the biggest cans of whole tomatoes, not puréed, or stewed, or sliced, or fancied up in any way.

•    1 cup barley.  If you want a gluten-free version, use one cup of washed white or brown rice. To wash the rice put it in a colander and rinse under running water for a minute or so to get the extra starch off.

•    Salt to taste

•    Bovril (Hard to find in the U.S., I have friends bring it from England) or “Better than Bouillon” 2-3 tablespoons, to enhance the flavor. If I don’t have any of these things I throw in 4-5 beef bouillon cubes, and reduce the salt. You can also use beef broth rather than water. That works as well. Bovril is a dark, black sticky beef extract that really adds flavor to stews and soups. If you have a friend going to the UK, ask them to bring you some. Also, a teaspoon dissolved in a cup of hot water is much richer and more yummy than a cup of bouillon from a cube.

Instructions   

•    Put the meat, bones, parsley, and celery in a large stock pot and cover with water or beef broth, add Bovril or other flavor enhancer and about a tablespoon of salt (if using bouillon cubes add salt later, remember, you can’t take it back out once you put it in).

•    Cover, place on high heat (Don’t walk away!) until it boils. Reduce the heat and simmer for several hours.

•    Check “under the hood” after about 3 hours. If you are using marrow bones, you can now remove them to a plate and spread the marrow on a piece of bread, sprinkle it with salt and eat it, if you like marrow. (Try it once, you might like it.)

•    Otherwise, poke the marrow through into the soup to enrich the broth. Free up any meat clinging to the bones and then remove the bones from the soup. Check the flavor and add salt as needed. At this point I often like to put the soup-in-progress into the fridge to cool overnight to solidify the fat on top, so I can easily remove it.

•    After skimming the fat and returning the pot to the heat, add the barley, carrots and tomatoes, filling each tomato can once with water and adding to the soup. Continue cooking for another few hours, check the flavor and add more salt if needed.

•    Serve with bran muffins and a green salad. Store extra in the fridge overnight. Before reheating, skim off hardened fat and discard. Add more water if necessary before reheating.

If you freeze some of the soup, when you defrost it (which will take a few days in the fridge) you may want to add some beef broth and a small can of tomatoes to perk it up a bit.

Bran Muffins

This recipe came from the General Mills All-Bran cereal box many years ago. My mother served these with her vegetable soup and with many other things. I’m not sure that General Mills even makes all-bran anymore. These muffins are not the huge muffins you are used to seeing these days. This makes a dozen standard muffins, with no spilling over “muffin tops.” However, they are delicious, light inside and slightly crispy outside. This recipe can be doubled, so if you have two muffin pans, you can make 24 muffins.

Ingredients

•    1 cup All-Bran (add a little molasses to Kellogg’s)
•    1 cup milk
•    1/4 cup sugar
•    1 cup flour
•    1/2 teaspoon salt
•    1 egg
•    3 teaspoons baking powder
•    3 tablespoons oil

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Spray a muffin tin with cooking spray.
In a mixing bowl soak the bran in the milk.
In a separate bowl mix the dry ingredients together.
Add the oil and the egg to the bran mixture.
Mix in the dry ingredients.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the muffins are brown.

Serve warm with butter

Impress-Your-Date (Mom, Girlfriend’s Mom, etc.) Chicken Dinner

So, you promised your mom or your sweetie or your fill-in-the-blank person that you would fix them a home cooked dinner and now you are panicking because you have no idea what to do. It all seems WAY too difficult and you are thinking you will have to drag out a copy of Julia Child and start cooking last week, and that’s impossible, so you’re screwed, so why even try?

Stop worrying. Simple, honest, home cooked food is so delicious, and it’s almost a lost art these days. So, if you fix a roast chicken dinner (make sure your guests are not vegetarians, or vegans first, of course — I will have the vegan dinner plan in another post), with boiled parsley potatoes, and a salad, you will wow your dinner guest(s) without having to spend much money, time or anxiety. (Well, the anxiety part is up to you, because you’ll have to clean up your house.)

I know this is a very old-fashioned kind of meal. Very “meat and potatoes” as it were, but it’s just because it’s so basic, and so homey, that your guests will love it. Trust me.

Oh, I almost forgot dessert! For dessert, you can serve vanilla ice cream topped with fresh berries and whipped cream. If it’s winter, even better, you can serve vanilla ice cream topped with a warm raspberry sauce made with frozen raspberries and a little sugar, topped with whipped cream. I’ll talk you through it. It’ll be so elegant their eyes will pop.

SHOPPING LIST:

A chicken: Chickens come in sizes. Roasting chickens (called “roasters“) weigh 8 or 9 pounds and will feed probably six people. Smaller chickens are called “fryers,” and tip the scales at about 5 or 6 pounds. Then there are the itty-bitty personal-sized chickens called Cornish game hens. If you are feeding about three or four people for your home cooked meal, you should buy yourself a fryer. They cost maybe $10 or less, depending upon where you live. Try to get one that’s from a local producer.

Right here let me point out what a great resource a butcher is. The guy behind the meat counter can give you great advice about how many pounds per person of what kind of meat you need, and different ways to cook meat. Make friends with your butcher and your fish guy. Ask them, “What’s good today?” Use their expertise. Ask them about marinades. These are the folks who know all about these things and they like to be asked.

“New potatoes,” about two tennis ball-sized potatoes per person. Use your judgement. Sometimes the potatoes are smaller, so, buy more. There are lots of different kinds of potatoes. These potatoes come by different names in different parts of the country. They are often (but not always) sold in a bin, rather than pre-packed in bags, which makes it easy to buy smaller quantities. These are the kind of potatoes that are not peeled before you cook them. They may be pink or white on the outside with white flesh, or they may even be purple, with purple flesh (those are a little sweeter than the white spuds). Any will do. What you don’t want are the big oblong Idaho potatoes which are the sort that you bake or mash, or the Oregold or Maine potatoes that are best for peeling and mashing. (And for those of you worried about the fact that these potatoes have too many carbs, well, just have chicken and salad.)

Salad material:

What looks best to you? What do you like best in a salad? Do you like baby spinach? Then get a bag of that and wash it up and let it drain in your colander. Are you partial to the greens they call “spring mix,” which has various kind of lettuces all in one bag? How about arugula? That can be a little bitter, and if you’ve never tried it, maybe you should stick with butter lettuce, which is perhaps my favorite. Whatever greenery you get, even if it says it’s been pre-washed, always wash it well. If you buy dear old iceberg lettuce, take off the outer-most layers and throw them out. They are likely to be full of insecticide, or something. Chop or tear up the iceberg, then wash it in your colander. I don’t like the very inner parts, which are yellow and kind of bitter, so I throw them in my compost bin.

If you don’t have a salad spinner. Do what my mother did, which is put your wet lettuce in a pillow case, go outside and give it a whirl to get the water out, then put it in the fridge for an hour or so, and the lettuce will be crisp and lovely.

I like to add cherry tomatoes, carrots, avocados, and sliced mushrooms to my salads. I leave onions out of a salad, just because so many people don’t like them, though I personally like onions.

It can be a bit tricky to tell if avocados (which my dad called “alligator pears”) are ripe, and I get it wrong now and then. You can ask the produce guy in the supermarket to pick one for you. An avocado needs to be dark green, almost black and give gently in your hand. If the avocado is lumpy, it’s over-ripe. I think the best way to eat an avocado is not in a salad, but just cut up, and sprinkled with salt and lemon juice. If you find enough ripe avocados, you could fix an avocado salad, and skip the bowl of greens and veggies. Give everybody half an avocado sliced on a small plate of lettuce and drizzle with a little olive oil and vinegar. Simple and elegant.

Other stuff you’ll need:

A can of whole cranberry sauce. I know you think cranberry sauce is only for Thanksgiving, but it’s not. Cranberry gives a nice sweet/tart compliment to poultry any time. I like Ocean Spray, but the store brand will be cheaper. Buy what your wallet tells you. You can get jellied, if that’s what you’re used to, but whole cranberry sauce is closer to the stuff I make in the fall.

Curly parsley. This is what we’re going to wash, chop up finely, and sprinkle on our buttered potatoes. You don’t have to do the parsley. I just think it dresses the spuds up a bit. And a bunch of parsley is cheap.

Salad dressing. Usually, I would say you should make your own, but you have enough to think about, so go with a nice vinaigrette. No ranch dressing. You want something light, essentially oil and vinegar and a few spices.

Salted butter. Real butter. To hell with our cholesterol levels (and there is some thought now that butter’s not so bad). This is a special occasion, and it calls for the real stuff to provide the potatoes with the proper taste and the chicken with a nice brown skin.

Vanilla Ice Cream and a can of whipped cream. Normally, I like to whip my own heavy cream, but you may not have a mixer, and the point of this dinner is to make it as anxiety free as possible.

Fresh or frozen berries. If buying fresh berries, strawberries will be the least expensive. You’ll need a quart or so. If you find a guy selling them on the street, or a farmer’s market, that’s the best. By three little pint boxes. Raspberries and blackberries are fabulous, but they grow on very thorny bushes and are delicate, so they are difficult to harvest, which translates to a high price. Wash your strawberries, hull them (take off the stem) and cut them up, sprinkling them with a few teaspoons of sugar as you go, so they are sweet enough not to seem horribly sour next to the sweetness of the ice cream. One bag of frozen raspberries will make enough sauce for four people.

A bottle or two of white wine. Man, I am not a wine expert. If you can, ask one of your guests to bring the wine. If you can’t, about $15 will buy a decent bottle of wine, and there are many nice California Chardonnays and lighter Pinot Grigiots which will work for your chicken dinner. But definitely, try to get your guests to bring the wine. Each state, and sometimes, each county in each state sells alcohol differently, so I’m not even going to try to advise you on buying wine. Just buy what you like and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not okay wine. Except Thunderbird. I draw the line at Thunderbird, and Boone’s Farm.

Nice quality paper napkins. They can be white or colored. Folded or a big square which you fold yourself. You don’t have to have cloth napkins for your guests, but you do have to provide them with something a lot nicer than extra napkins you brought home from Subway.

Candles. If you’ve got some candle holders, candles always make an occasion seem special. Don’t get scented candles, however, because the scent will interfere with the experience of the food.

A table. I know I’m sounding picky. But if you have to clear your computer off your desk, or spend $50 for a card table at Staples, do it, because people over 18 don’t want to sit on the floor or eat balancing their dinner on their laps. If you get a card table, it will store easily and you will use it the rest of your life. If you don’t have a tablecloth, you can fold a sheet to fit. Get creative. Make place mats.

THE NEXT STEPS:

One of the most difficult things for inexperienced cooks to pull off is having everything come out at the same time. You don’t want your vegetables to be done half an hour before the main course, because they’ll get cold.

One way to eliminate some timing problems, is to substitute cold dishes for hot ones until you’re a bit more sure of yourself in the kitchen. In our menu, we’re just going to have a salad, which you can make ahead of time and stow in the fridge. Another thing to do ahead of time is to set the table. Do that before you take your shower.

To figure out when to start cooking, make a reverse timeline, starting with the dish that takes the longest to cook, which in our case is the chicken. So, if we’ve invited our guests to arrive at 6:30 PM, and we expect to sit down at 7 PM, our five-pound chicken is going to need to go into the oven at 5:30. That means you need to turn on the oven to preheat at 5 PM.

Most chickens will cook in about an hour in a low-sided pan at 375 degrees. A huge “roaster” chicken will take about 90 minutes. Cornish game hens, which make a nice meal for a single person, take about 40 minutes because they are so little.  You have to preheat the oven because slowly increasing the heat on a chicken will encourage bacterial growth which is dangerous and nasty.

Wash the chicken inside and out (this is a good way to make sure you’ve taken out and tossed the giblets, which are the neck, heart and liver). Pull or cut off the fat (it’s lighter-looking, yellowish, and clings to the inside of the skin) that’s on either side of the entry into the bird. Then pat the chicken dry using paper towels. Make sure you wash your hands and the counter well with soap and water, and discard the paper towels after handling raw chicken. Chickens carry Salmonella which doesn’t make the chicken sick but can make you very sick. Make sure you take out your trash, too, because chicken parts left in the trash smell to high heaven by morning.

Bend the wings back under the bird (no reason, it just looks nicer.) Dot the top of the bird liberally with real butter. The butter will give the bird a nice brown, crispy skin. Bake (again, at 375 degrees) in a low-sided pan sprayed with cooking spray to help with cleanup. The chicken will be done when the juices run clear when you poke it with a fork. If the juices look pink or bloody, keep cooking. This is a good time to use a meat thermometer. The thermometer should read 185 degrees when stuck in the thigh, the part below the drumstick. Be sure not to touch the bone because that will give a false high reading. Mostly, you can tell a chicken is done because it smells done and is nice and brown and the legs are loose when you move them.

Quickly, to carve a chicken, it’s best to go on You Tube and look for a little movie. It’s not hard. The most important thing is to be sure you have a sharp knife. Most people have knives in their kitchens that are no better than butter spreaders, and then they wonder why carving a chicken is so hard. Sharpen your knife first, and don’t bear down on the knife, and the chicken will carve easily.

Potatoes take about 20-30 minutes to cook, and they can keep warm on the stove once done just by turning them off. So, if your guests are arriving at 6:30, and dinner is at 7 PM, start the potatoes at 6:15 PM. Cut the potatoes into golf-ball sized pieces, cover them 3/4 with water, add about a half teaspoon of salt to the water (don’t need to measure), cover and turn the heat on high. DON’T WALK AWAY! When the potatoes are boiling, turn the heat down and set the timer for 20 minutes. Check the potatoes with a fork when the timer rings. If the fork goes in, they are done, if not, wait another five minutes and check again. When they are done, drain the potatoes in a colander, put in a bowl, dab on some butter and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.

While the potatoes are cooking, put your salad in a big bowl, and put it on your table with the dressing near it.

Just as everyone is sitting down, put the bag of frozen raspberries in the sink to defrost. After the plates have been cleared, get out the vanilla ice cream to soften a bit, while you make the raspberry sauce. Put the frozen raspberries in a 1 qt. sauce pan with a scant 1/4 cup of sugar and heat slowly, until it’s all combined and warm and juicy. I am not a good food stylist, but if I were, I’d make this into a parfait, with layers of ice cream and raspberry sauce in a wine glass, with whipped cream on top. What I generally do, is put ice cream in a cereal bowl, pour on the sauce and pile on the whipped cream. It tastes just as marvelous, it’s just not quite as pretty.

So, there you go. A yummy, chicken dinner that you can do time and again with success. In coming posts, I’ll talk about fixing rice, and about cooking vegetables. But a good, basic chicken dinner will always serve you, and your guests, well.

You can do it! Auntie Jane says so!

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.

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.