Cooking School: Where Do I Start?

Photo Credit: beingoxymoronish. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: beingoxymoronish. via Compfight cc

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!

I don’t know who said “Don’t compare your beginning with someone else’s middle,” but it definitely applies to the journey of learning to cook healthy meals.  I think it’s a lifelong process and we all have room for improvement.  That being said, if you’re just getting started, please don’t get discouraged by people who have been on the journey longer!

Normally my Cooking School posts are more instructional, but today I just wanted to write a note of encouragement to all of those people out there who want to learn to cook, or change the way they cook, but aren’t sure where to start.  You can do this!  You are not behind.  Jump in where you are and don’t feel guilty about how you’ve done things in the past.

Over the holidays, I was having a conversation with a family member who is really wanting to get away from convenience foods and fast food, and help her kids start eating healthier foods, but doesn’t know where to start.  My husband excitedly showed her the menu planning website we’ve been using lately, filled with things like curry, roasted salmon, and lamb kebabs.  It was a bit overwhelming for someone trying to break out of a mac-n-cheese and chicken nugget rut!  I know my husband was trying to help, but it’s not realistic to go from the freezer section to 5 homemade meals a week.  We didn’t get there overnight and it’s unreasonable to expect anyone else could, either.

I grew up in a family where we ate out a lot (my mom ran a business and worked a ton) but we ate pretty healthy when we ate at home.  My mom has always been interested in the latest health trends (she’s all about her chia and flax seed these days) so that balanced out all the Pizza Hut and Golden Corral we ate.  My own real food journey started several years ago, when I watched Fast Food Nation.  I’ve never been a big fast food eater, but that movie convinced me of the importance of eating foods that were as close to their natural state as possible, and trying to avoid unpronounceable ingredients.  Not long after that, I read Animal Vegetable Miracle, and started shopping at farmer’s markets and even joined a CSA for a while.  Michael Pollan and the blog Kitchen Stewardship were big influences for me as well.

These days, between a full time job and little kids keeping me busy, don’t have time to volunteer on the CSA farm or even visit the farmer’s market on a regular basis.  I focus on cooking and eating a wide variety of foods (including lots of veggies) that are as unprocessed as possible.  No, my kids don’t always eat everything I serve them — but at least they’re being exposed to them and seeing them being eaten.  (Keep trying, and eventually it will pay off.  My 4.5 year old asked for seconds of brussels sprouts the other day.)

Each person has their own reasons for starting to cook and eat healthier.  Figure out what your why is — if you base the changes in your eating/cooking off of your values, you will be much more likely to be successful.  And I’m here cheering you on!
For everyone I recommend to try out vacuum sealers to preserve your food if you have not already. You are going to love it. Read reviews and best rated vacuum sealers by visiting http://vacuumsealerresearch.com/.

What or who has influenced the way you cook or eat?

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Cooking School: Back-Pocket Recipes

Photo Credit: CHRISSPdotCOM via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CHRISSPdotCOM via Compfight cc

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!

I love to try new recipes, but we’re all busy people, so it’s nice to have some familiar recipes that you know how to make and that you know are crowd-pleasers — whether you’re cooking for your family or dinner guests.  For this latest installment of Cooking School, I thought I’d share some of the meals that I make over and over again — recipes I keep in my back pocket (or have memorized!) that I couldn’t live without.  Here are the meals that I keep in a regular rotation:

Breakfast:

Dinner:

  • Chicken enchiladas (I’m usually too lazy to roll up the enchiladas, so I guess it’s really enchilada casserole.
  • Tacos – just plain ol’ ground beef with onions and taco seasoning, bowls of lettuce, tomato, cheese, beans, avocado, salsa and sour cream.  Everyone can make a taco or taco salad that suits them perfectly.
  • Stir fry (with rice or noodles) — you can mix up the flavors so much by using different sauces!  This is a great way to use up leftovers, too.
  • My go-to Sunday dinner is roast beef (I learned that one from my grandma).
  • Homemade pizza (Williams-Sonoma dough recipe, spaghetti sauce, cheese, and whatever you want for toppings)
  • Grilled chicken (make extras for salads and wraps).
  • Southwest quinoa salad

This post was inspired by a similar post from my friend AfricanKelli (check out her Top 8 meals!) and 15 Recipes Every Parent Should Know from Dinner: A Love Story.

What are your back-pocket meals?

Like what you read?  Check out some of my other Cooking School posts:

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Cooking School: Frugal Dinners

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Photo Credit: Tax Credits via Compfight cc

There are blogs devoted to saving money, couponing, and getting the best deal on everything you buy.  Unfortunately, I just can’t get excited about that stuff.  I really dislike grocery shopping, so I’ve always gone for about speed and convenience over getting the best price on every item.  However… Now that I’m paying for two kids in daycare, it is becoming clear that I have to start paying more attention to our budget. After tracking our spending for a couple of weeks, our grocery and household budget is an area that can definitely use some trimming.   I’ll write more about our budgeting (or lack thereof) later, but for now I want to talk about some ways to save money by cooking meals with inexpensive ingredients and stretching your more expensive ingredients to last longer.

Go meatless or meat-light.  Meat and dairy are some of the “spendier” items on my weekly grocery bill.  Many families have incorporated a meatless Monday or another vegetarian night each week for the health benefits as well as cost savings.  My husband usually doesn’t enjoy vegetarian meals unless they’re fairly elaborate, like Indian meals with lots of side dishes (which I love but rarely have time to prepare). So instead of going completely meatless, I’ve been trying to cut the meat in some of our dinners down by as much as half, by mixing it with grains, beans or other vegetables.  (Here’s a whole post devoted to hiding veggies in plain sight!)  This sneaky trick works great in casseroles, enchiladas, chili, and soup.  I can also usually get away with a meatless meal as long as it has a significant helping of eggs in it, like a veggie quiche.  (Lentil sloppy joes are pretty good, too!)

Shop in season. I don’t always follow this advice these days, since my son loves grapes even in the winter when they’re ridiculously overpriced.  But when you can, buying fruits and vegetables that are in season is so much more affordable than those that have to be flown in from the southern hemisphere.  (Also — nothing beats good in-season produce for taste.  I’ve pretty much stopped eating fresh tomatoes except for during the summer.)  For family favorites that aren’t in season, try the freezer section.  I can almost guarantee it will be cheaper, and they still taste pretty good.

Buy in bulk. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the produce that I have found that our local Sam’s Club lately (we don’t have Costco but I suspect it is similar). With a little bit of planning, even our family of four (two adults and two small children) can usually use the larger quantity packages that are sold at the warehouse clubs.  Here are my use-it-up strategies:

  • plan meals that use a lot of whatever you’ve bought (like fajitas for a large pack of bell peppers)
  • wash and chop the fruits and veggies as soon as you get home from the store to encourage healthy snacking
  • use them in freezer meals 
  • buy vegetables that can be frozen (did you know you can even freeze spinach to use it in smoothies or cook it in the future?)

Go exploring.  Two of my best bargain grocery shopping tips (especially if you like to cook ethnic foods) are buying spices from the bulk bins at the local health food store, and buying sauces and and other speciality ingredients at ethnic markets.  I don’t have time to run down every sale in town at a zillion different grocery stores, but these are staple items that you can stock up on, and it’s really worth the extra trip — we’re talking prices that are half or a third of what you would pay at the grocery store.

Rubber chicken.  Yeah, it’s cliche, but it’s true — you really can s t r e t c h a single chicken into a lot of meals.  First, buying a fryer is cheaper per pound than buying the pieces cut up.  You can cook the breasts for one meal, then throw the thighs and drumsticks in the crockpot for another meal.  (Mmm…chicken pot pie.)  Use the backbone and other random bits to make stock for soup.  (Don’t be scared of cutting up the chicken yourself!  Get yourself a sharp knife and watch this YouTube video to learn how.)  You might even be able to pick off the last bits of meat from the carcass to use in enchiladas or a casserole.

What are your best budget-friendly cooking tips or recipes?

And an annoucement:  Shira Miller won the Wildtree giveaway by liking my Facebook page.  Thanks to everyone who entered!

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Cooking School: Veggie Haters

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Photo Credit: Nati’s Cakes via Compfight cc

New Year’s Resolutions – love em or hate em, you’ve got to admit that trying to eat a little healthier (a very common one) is a pretty good goal.  But what if you just don’t like vegetables?  Or if you like them, but you’re trying to cook healthier meals for your family and you’re getting some major push-back from someone else in the house?  It’s time to deal with cooking for the veggie hater.

This post was inspired by a question I got from a friend of mine.  She’s a young wife and her husband hates vegetables.  In her words, he “will eat a kiwi or baby carrots about once a month, but it’s very difficult to get him to eat non-meat/bread/processed things.”  Whether you eat vegan, paleo, or something in between, I think we can all agree that eating baby carrots once a month is not going to cut it in the fruits and veggies department.  Here are my top three strategies for cooking vegetables for the veggie hater.

Hide them.  Stay with me.  I’m not going to go all Jessica Seinfeld on you here, but I do think that hiding veggies has a place in a healthy diet.  I don’t mean hide as in don’t tell the person they’re eating veggies (although you might have to try it), but hide as in make them as unobtrusive as possible.  We could all stand to eat more vegetables in our diets, why not make a few servings really easy?  Shredded or pureed vegetables can be added to many foods with little or change to the flavor of texture.  

Try adding pureed red or orange vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, or red bell peppers into chili or other creamy soups.  (The really easy approach is to use pureed pumpkin, since you can buy it already pureed.)  Speaking of chili and soups – if you’re making anything soupy, you should be able to substantially increase the vegetables without affecting the flavor much.  Shredded carrots or zucchini can be added to muffins.  It’s pretty hard to sneak spinach into most foods, since the color gives you away, but if you have a willing participant who just doesn’t like the texture of vegetables, you can eat tons of spinach without ever eating a salad — put it in smoothies, meatloaf, baked pastas, and soup. I’ve even heard of people putting spinach in muffins!  (Tip: spinach releases a lot of water when cooked, so frozen spinach that has been thawed and squeezed out works better when extra water would mess up the recipe.)

Minimize them.  I don’t know why, but something about chopping vegetables really small seems to make them more palatable to many people.  Try a chopped salad, or just dicing everything smaller or shredding next time you make a vegetable side dish or something with vegetables in it, and see if your veggie hater will eat it a little better.

Sweeten them.  Have you ever heard of super-tasters?  Basically, they’re a small segment of the population who have really super-charged taste buds.  It sounds awesome, but when it comes to vegetables, it’s curse because super-tasters taste the bitterness in vegetables that many plants have developed to fend off predators.  To combat this, we have to figure out how to sweeten them up.  (The vegetables, not the super tasters.)  Step away from the sugar!  Cooking vegetables at a high heat — like roasting or stir-frying — will caramelize their natural sugars and make them taste sweeter without any added sweeteners.

Good veggies to roast are carrots, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli and bell peppers.  Cauliflower is surprisingly good roasted, especially with a favorite seasoning blend on top.  (Penzey’s Northwoods or curry powder are totally different but equally delicious on cauliflower.) Hard squashes (like butternut and acorn) are good to roast too, but they can be difficult to peel when raw, so try roasting the squash cut in half with the seeds removed, then scoop it out of peel and cut it up afterwards.

Here is my roasted vegetable un-recipe:  turn oven to 400, chop veggies into uniform-sized pieces (smaller will cook faster if you’re in a hurry) and toss in a little olive oil. Put everything on a cookie sheet and sprinkle on a little salt. You can add other spices later — sometimes they burn. Put veggies in the oven to cook and stir them around every 15 minutes or so. Cook until they look browned and are soft on the inside.

Copycat them:  Are there vegetables that your veggie hater will eat in a restaurant?  Other than a Bloomin’ Onion?  What about fajita vegetables at a Mexican restaurant, stir-fried veggies floating in soy sauce at a Chinese restaurant, etc?  You might be able to recreate these as side dishes at home, and even if you do use a heavy hand on the salt, sauce, etc., I can guarantee you it’s probably still healthier than what you get at a restaurant, and YAY they’re eating vegetables.

Normalize, normalize, normalize:  Veggies at every meal, no exceptions.  (Okay, I give you a pass on breakfast.)  Make vegetables a normal part of the food culture at your house, and eventually eating them will become less of a foreign concept.  Yes, it’s frustrating to cook things that you know other people won’t eat, but they’re never going to change unless presented with the opportunity.

I want to encourage you to try, try, try again when it comes to presenting the veggie hater with new foods.  Recommendations for feeding picky children often state that you should present the same food to a kid up to 12 times before you should expect them to eat it without a fight.  I see no reason that a picky adult should be any different — if anything, they will probably be more resistant and set in their ways!
Have you overcome your veggie hating ways?  Tell me how!  What’s a vegetable you hated as a kid that you love now?
Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!
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Cooking School: Thanksgiving

Our original plan for Thanksgiving this year was to host dinner for my husband’s side of family at our house, but due to some health issues a family member is having, we’re going to visit them instead.  It’s only about a 3 hour drive and I don’t have to get my house company-ready, so I’m not too disappointed.  Plus, the prospect of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, even for our relatively small family, scared me a little bit!  I am much more comfortable in the supporting role, of asking: “What can I bring?”

Every family has different traditions about what dishes are served at Thanksgiving, and I don’t really think Thanksgiving is the best time to experiment with a bunch of new recipes.  However, over the years I have attempted to make slightly healthier versions of some old favorites.  If you think about it, most of what is served on Thanksgiving, in its natural state, is very healthy.  I’d venture to say there are more vegetable side dishes on most people’s Thanksgiving tables than most other meals of the year.  The problem comes when we start going crazy with the butter, sugar, and… oh let’s just admit it — fried onions and marshmallow toppings.  (Not together, hopefully!)

Here are some ideas for slightly healthier swaps that will make your Thanksgiving table a slightly less guilt-inducing (and help you save room for your pie of choice!)

  • Fried turkey –> Smoked turkey
  • Green bean casserole with those famous fried onions –> Roasted or sautéed green beans with carmelized onions on top
  • Mashed sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows –> Roasted sweet potatoes topped with cinnamon and a little maple syrup
  • Mac and cheese –> just say no to Velveeta
  • Stuffing –> can you sneak in some veggies?  This would be an excellent place to use all that leftover zucchini that you stuck in the freezer this summer.
  • Mashed potatoes –> mash in some potato skins for extra fiber, season with herbs like chives, garlic and parsley, not just salt and butter, and please oh please — use real butter, not the fake stuff!
  • Gravy –> it’s sauce made out of fat and flour, I got nothin’.  Enjoy in moderation… it’s not the kind of thing you eat every day.  (RIGHT???)
  • All those cakes, pies, and cookies –> It’s Thanksgiving, pick a slice of your favorite and enjoy the heck out of it!

And just for fun — here’s a Thanksgiving Mad Libs from my favorite cooking blog, Dinner: A Love Story!

Do you have any cooking or hosting responsibilities for Thanksgiving?  Do you try to make healthier dishes, or splurge since it’s a holiday?

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!

 

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Cooking School: Curries

Photo Credit: shadowplay via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: shadowplay via Compfight cc

Last week I wrote about eating seasonally, and mentioned that fall and winter are ideal seasons to eat “warming” spices like those found in most curries.  Curries can also be made with tons of veggies and little or no meat, making them a tasty and frugal meatless meal (or mostly meatless) even if you’re not normally a veggie lover. The rich flavors of the spices mean you won’t even miss the big chunk of meat that sometimes seems to be the star of the American dinner plate.

If you think you don’t like curry because you ate in an Indian restaurant once and it was too spicy (hot) or the flavors were just too strong, I want to encourage you to give it another shot by making it at home.  You can cut the spices down by half (or more) until you get used to the strong flavors.  If you don’t like spicy food, you should try Rogan Josh, Sweet Curry, Tandoori, or Sate.

Almost everything I know about cooking with curry powders or pastes I learned by trial and error and by reading the Penzey’s catalog.  (Not an affiliate link, I just really love their spices.)  For example, here’s the description of Sweet Curry Powder:

A good starter curry powder-great flavor with little heat. Travel to the port towns of Southwestern India today and you will be served a variety of fish seasoned with this same style of curry, though sometimes with a pinch more fenugreek and always with a healthy dose of fiery hot peppers. Sprinkle on baked chicken or fish, use about ½ tsp. per pound for rich (not too spicy) flavor. For tuna salad, mix 1 tsp. per Cup mayonnaise with 1 tsp. Dijon mustard and a dash of vinegar. Add 1 tsp. to a pot of chicken soup for flavor and color. For a curried pasta or green salad dressing, mix 2-3 tsp. seasoning in 1 Cup yogurt or ½ Cup each of vinegar and oil. Hand-mixed from: turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, fennel, cinnamon, white pepper, cardamom, cloves, black pepper and cayenne pepper.

I love how they include little mini-recipes in the spice description!  It’s also nice to see what the spice blend is made of, for when you want to get more advanced and start mixing your own.  (Or if you just want to make a new recipe without buying a new spice mix.)

There are a couple of ways to go when you want to start cooking with curry.  I’m all about cooking freestyle, but when I’m trying out a brand new style of cooking, there’s nothing wrong with following a good recipe.  I made these Grilled Thai Curry Chicken Skewers and Coconut-Peanut Sauce last week, and they were very good.  Make a large batch of stir-fry veggies and rice as side dishes, then a couple days later, mix all your leftovers together (the chicken, veggies, rice and coconut dipping sauce) for a meal that might be even better than the original.

For something a little more Indian-inspired, here are some of my favorite recipes:

  • Chicken Tikka Masala – This is a great recipe to start with if you’ve never cooked with curry before.  It’s not the most veggie-filled recipe, but you could always add some sauteed veggies for a more well-rounded meal.  Bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, peas, green beans and okra are all good additions to Indian curry dishes.
  • Lentil Rogan Josh – I know it sounds weird, but the relatively bland lentils are a great base to really let the curry seasoning shine.  It’s also very much a “pantry meal,” if you have the rogan josh seasoning blend then you probably have everything else in your pantry or freezer.  (I left out the dried mango powder and it was fine.)  Vegan.
  • South Indian-Style Vegetable Curry – to really get your veggie fix, and stretch your curry-cooking muscles a bit, try this recipe.  It’s full of healthy stuff that I love to eat, like chickpeas, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, coconut milk…and you’ll notice that “curry powder” is suspiciously absent from the ingredient list.  That’s right — you’re mixing your own.  Like I said, this is a bit advanced, but I’m pretty sure you could use an equal amount of a premixed curry powder and it would still taste great.

Once you’ve made those three recipes, I hereby declare you a curry expert, and unleash you upon the world to invent a new version of curry with your own favorite spice blend, meat, and veggies.

Have you cooked with curry before?  If not, have I inspired you to try it?

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!  

PS. I think I’m going to put this series on hiatus for a while until inspiration strikes again. But if you have an idea, suggestion, or would like to write a guest post, I’d love to hear from you.  Leave a comment or email me at sarah [at] kerner -dot- net

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Cooking School: Fall Favorites

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Photo Credit: donsutherland1 via Compfight cc

 It’s officially fall.  We can start replacing fresh salads with roasted or steamed veggies, cook more beans, grains or meat for warmth and energy, increase nuts for fat and incorporate the produce that grows around you.  Fall is also the ideal time to slow down your lifestyle to help remove toxins and de-stress your body.  Fall’s foods are naturally immunity-boosting and prepare our bodies to be healthy and balanced as we enter the cooler season.  Excerpt from “The One Diet That Works for Everyone,” posted on the blog “Mommy Run Fast,” Sept. 25, 2013.

This week’s Cooking School post was inspired by a blog post I read recently about the health benefits of eating seasonally.  The paragraph above is just a snippet, but I’d encourage you to check out the whole post if you’re interested in learning more about the concept of eating seasonally or according to your Ayurvedic type.

It makes perfect sense to me that nature produces the foods we need to keep us healthy as the seasons change.  And doesn’t it just seem like the right thing to do to start eating warm, cozy foods in the fall and crisp, fresh foods in the spring?  Sadly, few restaurants (especially of the drive-through variety) seem to recognize any change in the weather and continue to dish up the same heavy, greasy fare year-round.  To help you cook your own healthful, seasonal foods, here are some of my favorite recipes for fall.  These aren’t just recipes I found on Pinterest with a pretty picture — I have made all of these recipes many times, and I can personally vouch that they are easy, healthy, and delicious.

Cheater’s Pulled Pork (it’s a “cheater” recipe because you make it in a crockpot, not a smoker.  But it’s still pretty darn good!)

Slow Cooker Vegetarian Chili with Sweet Potatoes I’m sure I’ve mentioned this recipe before, but it bears repeating — it’s a great vegetarian recipe that even meat-lovers like!

Roasted pumpkin or squash seeds

Pumpkin Pie Baked Oatmeal (this one takes some advance planning, but it’s sooo good, and great for feeding overnight guests because you mix it up ahead of time.)

Homemade Granola with seasonal add-ins like dried cranberries, dried apples, pecans, walnuts, and extra cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice.  (The recipe calls for honey and brown sugar, but I only use the honey and it’s sweet enough.)

Gumbo-laya (my own invention)

Roasted Vegetables — chop an assortment of fall vegetables (like sweet potato, squash, brussels sprouts & cauliflower) into equal-sized pieces, stir in a bit of olive oil and salt, and roast at 400 degrees F until they look roasty toasty.  Top with seasoning of choice, stir, and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Healthy-ish Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chicken & wild rice soup — I don’t have a link to the recipe I normally use but this one looks very similar.

Curry — I keep promising a post about curries, and it certainly seems appropriate to make it next week’s topic — stay tuned!

What are your favorite fall foods?  Do you think eating seasonally can help you stay healthy?

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment! I try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.

 

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Cooking School: Slow Cooker 101

slow_cooker_101

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Cooking in a slow cooker (or Crock-Pot) is a little bit of an obsession for me. I own three crock-pots of various sizes, several cookbooks specifically dedicated to slow-cooking, and I cook at least one meal a week in a crock-pot during all but the hottest parts of the year. Done right, a slow cooker meal is truly a busy person’s best friend — there is nothing like coming home from a long day at work to a delicious-smelling meal that is hot and ready to eat. You take off your uncomfortable work shoes, change clothes, and pour yourself a refreshing beverage. Ahh… Dinner is served.

Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way. My slow cooker mishaps include tough, overcooked meats, mushy vegetables, and – somehow – rice that was both undercooked AND burned. (Yes, I have had some truly amazing kitchen disasters. Remind me to tell you about the time the cookies I was baking started dripping out the front of the oven.)

Here are my top tips for successful slow cookery:

Choose the right meat. This is not the time for boneless skinless chicken breasts or super lean pork chops. Dark meat generally works better than white meat, and a well-marbled cut will be better than very lean meat. Since it cooks for such a long time, the fat has time to soften and keeps the meat moist, while leaner cuts turn dry and tough. (Cutting off big chunks of fat is usually a good idea, though.)

Use the right amount of liquid. Actually, that makes it sound much harder than it really is. Slow cookers are basically sealed while they’re cooking, so no moisture is coming in or out during the cooking process. If you forget to add liquid (or enough liquid), then you’re stuck (ha ha) cleaning dry, burned-on food out of your crockpot. Add too much, and you’ve got Insert-Recipe-Name-Here-Soup, complete with watered-down spices and soggy vegetables. Really, as long as you’ve got a cup or so of liquid, you should be fine, but be aware that some ingredients will soak up liquid during cooking, like rice, other grains, or beans. Fresh vegetables will release some moisture so you can get by with a little less liquid in recipes with a lot of veggies.

Understand how the slow cooker works. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your crockpot will prevent a lot of frustration. The crockpot is not an oven, a skillet, or a grill. Don’t expect food to come out browned or crispy or you’ll be disappointed. Think stew, braise, and simmer.

Plan for side dishes or extras. One of the great things about the slow cooker is how it melds the flavors into a harmonious whole while bubbling away all day. But, if you put everything you plan to eat for dinner in the crockpot, you may end up feeling like everything on your plate tastes the same (and the mushy-ness factor might be overwhelming). I like to add a little variety to the meal by either adding something crunchy after cooking (such as crumbling chips or crackers over chili) or planning a contrasting side dish like a cold, crunchy green salad or a toasty dinner roll.

Here’s one of my favorite crockpot recipes. It tastes great on its own, but it also makes awesome leftovers, shredded up and turned into burritos.

Crockpot Chile Verde Serves 6

1 onion, coarsely chopped

1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 T. olive oil

4 oz green chiles, diced (any can of green chiles will do, but if you’re lucky and have New Mexico green chiles in your freezer like I do, use them!)

1 jalapeno, diced

7 tomatillos, coarsely chopped (yes – tomatillos. Little green tomatoes with a weird papery husk that you peel off. Ask the produce manager, you might be surprised to find them at your local grocery store! They are firmer than normal tomatoes, so don’t worry if they seem hard.)

2 lb. lean pork, trimmed and cubed

2 t. oregano

2 t. sage

1 t. cumin

1 t. red pepper flakes

salt & pepper

1/2 c. beer (oh darn… I guess you’ll have to finish off the rest of the bottle! Water or chicken broth would be good substitutes if you’re not a beer drinker)

Optional toppings: cilantro, sour cream, tortillas, diced avocado, shredded cheese

  1. First, saute onion, green pepper, and garlic in olive oil and add to the crockpot. (If you don’t have time to cook everything, it’s okay. Just put it into the crockpot raw.)
  2. Next, throw in the diced green chiles, jalapeno, and tomatillos.
  3. Brown the meat and add to the crockpot. (Again – it tastes a little better with the meat browned but it’s not essential. If I had to choose one thing to pre-cook in this recipe, this would be it.)
  4. Grind the spices in a mortar (I use a cheap coffee grinder dedicated to spices), add a few dashes of salt and pepper, and add to the crockpot.
  5. Finally, add the beer.
  6. Cook in the crockpot on low heat for approximately 8 hours (a little longer won’t hurt it).
  7. Traditionally this is served in bowls with hot flour tortillas, salsa, and cilantro. You can also serve with sour cream, grated cheese, olives, and pickled carrots and jalapenos. I like to make Spanish rice (brown rice mixed with Rotel) and refried beans for side dishes. For leftovers, mix pork with rice for yummy burritos!

For more slow cooker recipe inspiration, check out three more good recipes here (chicken pot pie, jambalaya, and BBQ chicken). I also highly recommend the cookbook The Gourmet Slow Cooker. Vegetarians and veggie lovers should check out Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker.

I’ve also started a new Cooking School Pinterest board where I’ll post recipes and other things I find that go along with my posts here.

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment! I try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.

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Cooking School: Mediterranean Flavors

Photo Credit: ric_w via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ric_w via Compfight cc

Mmm… this is a favorite of mine!  When I think Mediterranean flavors, I think:

  • Lemon
  • Garlic
  • Sesame (tahini sauce)
  • Vinegar
  • Oregano
  • Feta cheese
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Yogurt
  • Chickpeas
  • Fresh summer vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers
Opa!

Opa!

At my house, we sometimes have a meal we affectionately call “Greek Night.” It’s really more of a mishmash of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern dishes, but they all work pretty well together. We usually have 2-3 of the following dishes:

  • Greek salad (tomatoes, red onion, bell peppers, cucumbers, feta, and olives, either with lettuce or “village style” — no lettuce, just the good stuff!)
  • Falafel (I make my falafel from a mix — it doesn’t have any unpronounceable ingredients in it, so I feel pretty good about it)
  • Hummus (if you have a food processor, you should absolutely be making your own hummus. It’s just chickpeas, olive oil, salt, lemon, garlic, oregano, and tahini. Play around with flavors until it tastes the way you like it.  Yeah, yeah… tahini is a bit of a specialty ingredient, but the jar will last in your fridge indefinitely — or not, if you eat as much hummus as we do. Plus, you’ll be able to make the yummy Greek salad dressing that I share below.)
  • Grilled chicken with Greek seasoning
  • Tzatziki sauce (plain Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, and Greek seasoning)
  • It’s not part of our regular rotation yet, but I’d love to add tabbouleh salad to our “Greek Night.”
IMG_1686

Don’t be afraid of looking a little silly! Anyone can add Mediterranean flavors into their cooking repertoire.

Even though all these dishes are simple to make, it is a little time consuming to put all this together, especially on a weeknight after work. You can do a lot in advance — make the hummus & tzatziki, grill the chicken with a previous night’s meal, and you could even be a real overachiever and pre-chop veggies for your salad.

And... step right this way for a delicious salad dressing recipe!

And… step right this way for a delicious salad dressing recipe!

Greek Tahini Dressing
1 oz. (1/8 c.) Olive oil
1 oz. tahini
1 oz. white wine vinegar
1 oz. lemon juice
1/2 t. Salt
1/2 t. Oregano
1/2 t. Parsley
1/2 t. Honey or Sugar

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake well to combine.

Tastes great on a "village style" Greek salad of chopped cucumber, tomato, chickpeas, kalamata olives, green peppers, and feta cheese

This tahini dressing tastes great on a “village style” Greek salad of chopped cucumber, tomato, chickpeas, kalamata olives, green peppers, red onions and feta cheese.  Or… eaten with a spoon.  Your choice!

If you love Greek flavors as much as I do, you should also try these Greek burgers — they’re a little more work than a regular burger, but they are seriously delicious.  Plus, they’re a great way to sneak some spinach and bell peppers to your favorite veggie-hating carnivore.

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment! I try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.

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Cooking School: Kitchen Hacks

Photo Credit: mammaamericana via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mammaamericana via Compfight cc

I haven’t had time to put together another primer on ethnic cuisine (the curry post is coming, I promise!) so instead, here is a random assortment of kitchen tips and tricks from me to you. I’d love to hear yours! Please share in the comments and we can all learn something new.

  • Keep your garlic close to your knives or near where you do most of your chopping. It’s so small and doesn’t require refrigeration, so you can put it almost anywhere, and it saves you one more rummage through the cupboard to get something when you’re chopping veggies.
  • Buy the pre-washed, pre-chopped veggies if it means you will actually eat them. The extra expense is worth it if you’re just going to let the non-pre-chopped veggies rot in your crisper drawer.  (A cheaper option is to do all your washing & chopping at once so it’s just DONE.)
  • If you take dinner leftovers for lunch, pack your lunch containers as you clean up from dinner.
  • Fill one side of your sink with hot soapy water when you start cooking, and drop dirty dishes in as you go. Even if you don’t wash as you go (like some overachievers!), you’ll have a lot less dried-on gunk to deal with later, and you won’t have dirty dishes piled everywhere.
  • Write down kitchen/pantry staples on your grocery list as soon as you use them up. There’s nothing worse than starting to cook, only to realize you bought all the fresh ingredients for a nice meal but you’re missing something that you always have on hand, like spaghetti noodles.
  • Read your recipe all the way through before you start cooking. Make sure you haven’t missed an essential step, like “marinate overnight” or “let rise for 3 hours” that doesn’t fit your expected cooking time. (This tip is mostly for me.)
  • Is there some inexpensive kitchen tool that would significantly improve your cooking experience? (For example, all my dishrags were stained and torn. It was grossing me out every time I washed dishes.). Treat. Yo. Self. A decent vegetable peeler, oven mitt, or new set of dishrags costs less than $5. You’re worth it!

Okay, I was serious about sharing your best tips!  I want to learn from you, too.  See you in the comments!

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment! I try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.

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