Cooking School: Asian Cooking Toolkit

Photo Credit: barron via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: barron via Compfight cc

Okay, here we go!  My first attempt to provide you some guidance for cooking freestyle — whether that means making a recipe your own, or inventing something new. When I talked about this last time, several people commented that they would like to learn more about cooking ethnic cuisines.  We make a lot of stir-fry in our house, because it’s a good way to eat veggies without feeling like you’re eating health food.  Also, it’s really tasty.  An important part of a good stir-fry (and many other Asian dishes) is the sauce.  If you’ve never cooked Asian food, the ingredient list can be a little intimidating — and actually tracking down the ingredients seems impossible!  But I am here to tell you, it is not.

(Okay, perhaps if you live in a isolated, not-ethnically-diverse small town, like my hometown in northwest Missouri, it might be difficult.  But not impossible. Just add a stop to your next shopping trip to the closest big city.)

Take this shopping list to your nearest Asian market and buy everything on it.  (Get the large bottle of soy sauce.  You’ll use it.)  They will be way, way cheaper than at the mainstream grocery store, and properly stored (several of these need to be refrigerated) they will last almost indefinitely!  Most of the “weird” ingredients are repeated in differing proportions in all kinds of Asian dishes.  You will probably spend $30 on sauces and be able to make the equivalent of $300+ worth of Chinese/Thai/Japanese take-out with them.

  • Soy sauce
  • Hoisin sauce (or as we call it with my 3 year old, “Chinese ketchup.”  Chinese BBQ sauce is probably more accurate, but it’s all about marketing.)
  • Sriracha sauce
  • Sambal Oleck (chili paste)
  • Fish sauce
  • Sesame seed oil
  • Mirin (or, as its described on the packaging, “sweet cooking rice seasoning”)
  • Rice wine vinegar

Also useful to have on hand:  Fresh ginger, fresh garlic, and lime juice

Disclaimer – I am not an expert on Asian cuisine.  But here are combos of the above ingredients that I’ve found to roughly approximate the flavors from various Asian restaurants I enjoy.  Soy sauce is the main ingredient in all of these, with the other ingredients added in small amounts for flavoring.  Shoot for roughly 1/2 c. soy sauce and a dash, splash, or up to a tablespoon of everything else.  Go easy on the spicy stuff if you’re not used to it!  You can always add some sriracha to the finished dish if you want it spicier.  Ditto with hoisin to make it sweeter (or to cut the spiciness if you went a little overboard.)

Japanese (teriyaki): Soy + sesame oil + mirin + garlic + ginger + honey or brown sugar

Thai: Soy + chicken stock (equal amount to soy sauce) + lime sauce + fish sauce + garlic + sriracha.  Top finished dish with chopped peanuts or cashews.

Chinese: Soy + rice wine vinegar + garlic + ginger + chili paste for spicy sauce or hoisin sauce for sweet sauce (or go crazy and add both!)

Don’t be scared to taste as you go – soy sauce is really salty, so be prepared to add extra vinegar, sweet, spicy, or citrus to balance it out.  I usually mix up a smaller amount of sauce than I think I’ll need, then add a little bit of this or that until I get a sauce that tastes good to me.  Don’t be afraid to experiment — this week I made peanut noodles as a side dish, which sounds way fancier than it really is, which was combining peanut butter, soy sauce and garlic and putting it over whole wheat spaghetti noodles and steamed broccoli.

Do you ever make up your own sauces, or are you strict recipe follower or a bottled-sauce devotee?

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: Substitutions

Photo Credit: Drake General Store via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Drake General Store via Compfight cc

Before I jump into instructions on freestyle cooking for various types of ethnic foods (Asian, mediterranean, & curries were specifically requested), I thought I’d throw out there that there is nothing wrong with following recipes.  My mom is an awesome cook, but she rarely deviates from a recipe.  However, there are some benefits to freeing yourself from the recipe a little bit:

  • It lets you make dinner with what you already have in the kitchen,
  • It saves you from buying that expensive ingredient you’ll never use again,
  • You can make a recipe even when you can’t find that one weird ingredient, and
  • You can make a recipe just the way you like it (even if the original recipe calls for something you don’t care for)

Here are some of the most common substitutions I use when cooking:

  • Sour cream & Greek yogurt can substitute for each other.  Sometimes cottage cheese can fill the bill, too (if the chunky texture won’t be noticeable in the finished product).
  • I never use up buttermilk when I buy it for a recipe… unless you’re going to use the whole container, make your own by adding 1 T. of lemon juice or vinegar to 1 scant cup of milk.
  • Specialty seasoning mixes – if you don’t think you’ll use it very often, don’t buy it!  Just google “homemade ____ seasoning,” check out the ingredients, and add a dash of each to whatever you’re making.  It will be close enough!
  • Substituting dried herbs for fresh. It drives me crazy to let most of a bunch of fresh herbs go bad in the fridge because I only needed a tiny amount for a recipe I was making.  You can substitute 1 t. of dried herbs for each 1 T. of fresh herbs that a recipe calls for.  (The only thing I can’t find a good substitute for is cilantro – I think cumin is the dried seed of the cilantro plant but it doesn’t really taste the same.)
  • Out of bell peppers but you have zucchini instead?  Go for it!  In most recipes (especially those with strong seasonings in them), you should be able to mix and match veggies to use up whatever you have in the fridge.  Just pay attention to cooking times — generally, harder veggies like carrots take longer to cook than softer veggies like summer squash.
  • Meat.  I don’t like shrimp, but I don’t let that stop me from trying all those yummy shrimp recipes.  I just use bite-size pieces of chicken instead.

Making substitutions in baking can involve some higher math, so tread lightly.  It’s no big deal to switch out chocolate chips for raisins, but trying to drastically reduce the sugar in a recipe can have disastrous results. Ditto if you’re out of baking soda or baking powder — they’re not the same!  Here are some baking substitutions I’ve found work well, mostly to make baked goods a little healthier.

  • Try substituting all or part of white flour for wheat flour, or up to half of the flour with almond flour.
  • You can substitute up to half of the oil or fat in a recipe with applesauce or pumpkin puree.  This can make the finished product a little rubbery, but I think as long as you keep at least half the fat in place, then it’s not really noticeable.
  • Substituting healthier sweeteners for sugar is pretty tricky, but I’ve had good luck cutting down the amount of granulated sugar a recipe calls for by up to half.  If you’re worried how a recipe will turn out, or you’re altered a well-loved family recipe, try cutting down the sugar a little bit at a time.  My guess is almost no one will notice!
  • Out of eggs?  Make a flax egg!  One egg = 1 T. ground flaxseed and 3 T. water.  Mix them together and give them a few minutes to set up.  (Also good for vegans or people with egg allergies.)
  • Speaking of allergies and vegans – dairy substitutions are easy, too.  Use almond or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk, and coconut oil instead of butter.  Both measure out the same as their dairy equivalents.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something…What substitutions do you make when cooking?  

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: Everyone has to start somewhere, and learning to cook freestyle

A friend of mine recently invited me to join a Facebook group she named “Creating Less Chaos” and described this way: “The basic idea is to post meal plans, recipes, links to recipes, and other breakfast, lunch or dinner ideas. Also, please share great sales so we can grab cheap food too!”

Sounds great, right?  Lots of people joined, and started posting all kinds of stuff: what meat is on sale at the local grocery store this week, some of those weird “shared” facebook recipes that seem to float around, and their weekly menu plans.  I quickly learned that my friend who started the group must be quite a chef!  Here’s her menu: IMG_1513Yum – can I just eat at her house every night?  But, that plan, without a lot more information, is not something that the newbie home cook could execute.  I mean, do most people even know what panko is?  The only comment on this post says “Hmm… not sure if I’ll make it in this group.  Sounds too fancy and healthy for me. :/”

A few days later, someone posts this, I assume as a joke:

IMG_1511But apparently it wasn’t meant (or at least it wasn’t perceived) as a joke.  Here’s a comment: “I really appreciate the exact ingredients and instructions.  This is a real weak area for me, and all the fancy menus with no ingredients or instructions just leave me feeling inadequate and frustrated.”

Argh… I’m pretty sure the point of this group was not to inspire people to combine 3 pre-packaged, heart-attack-inducing convenience foods with cheese and onions.  It also isn’t to show off how awesome our cooking skills are and make other people feel frustrated that they’ll never be able to cook like that.

This is exactly what I’m trying to address with these weekly posts.  “Fancy” menus and  recipes have their place, but unless you are confident with executing some basic cooking skills, you’re never going to write “panko encrusted fish” on your weekly menu plan.  I read an article in a cooking magazine this month about learning to cook freestyle — being able to throw together or improvise a dish without relying too much on a recipe.  To me, this is the heart of cooking.  Well, that and the ability to substitute/change ingredients in a recipe to suit your tastes, budget, and what’s available in your kitchen and/or grocery store.

I think the next few Cooking School posts will focus on techniques for freestyle cooking various dishes.  I already touched on this topic a bit in my Quick Dinners post, giving basic recipes for stir-fry with noodles and hearty scrambled eggs.  Some other examples from the magazine article* I read were some tips & “template recipes” for vegetable soup, stir-fry, and roasted vegetables.

I want these posts to be useful to you!  What cooking techniques, dishes or ingredients are most intimidating for you?

*  I can’t find the article online or I would link to it — it has a ton of good info.  It’s the Sept 2013 issue of Vegetarian Times if you want to look for it.  Article begins on page 58.

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: Survival Mode

Sometimes life is just crazy. You’re on a deadline for a huge work project, it’s finals week, or… maybe you just had a baby. (Don’t worry, I wrote this post ahead of time and scheduled it for today.)  My mom is visiting for a week to help us out, and she volunteered to do my weekly grocery store run since I was in the hospital all weekend.  I didn’t really have time to do a formal meal plan, and I figure a lot of people will be bringing us food, but I knew I needed to get some food in the house.   So, for what it’s worth, I present to you my survival-mode grocery list

  • bananas
  • grapes
  • other fruit that looks good/is in season/is on sale
  • bell peppers
  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • sweet potatoes
  • baby carrots
  • cucumber
  • frozen peas
  • deli ham
  • ground beef
  • ground turkey
  • chicken breasts
  • spaghetti sauce
  • eggs
  • sliced cheese for sandwiches
  • shredded mozzarella
  • shredded cheddar
  • milk
  • Greek yogurt
  • tortillas
  • bread
  • hamburger buns

Your list might look a little different, especially if you’re not feeding a toddler who loves fruit, but at least this is a starting point.  In case you can’t tell, my basic go-to meals include turkey burgers, sandwiches, spaghetti & meat sauce, tacos or enchiladas, and stir fry.  Some of these groceries may get thrown in the freezer if we get a lot of meals brought to our house this week.  (Best baby gift ever, by the way.) 

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, although I just had a baby last week, so no promises! 

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Cooking School: Planning ahead

Photo Credit: Mike Rohde via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mike Rohde via Compfight cc

One of the best (only?) ways to eat healthy, whole foods on a tight schedule is to plan ahead by prepping or pre-cooking some ingredients.  While this sounds like quite a headache for planning purposes, it’s really not that bad, and it saves so much time.  Here are some ideas of ways to start incorporating a little pre-planning into your meal planning and cooking:

Precook rice/quinoa/other grains — I love brown rice, but it takes FOREVER to cook.  It also reheats pretty well.  Solution?  Make it the night before or on Sunday afternoon in a big meal prep cooking session.  Advanced skills:  make a double batch and freeze the leftovers.  Flip the page in your meal planning notebook and write down something for next week or the week after that uses rice, so you don’t forget about it.

Cook meat in large batches — Are you browning ground beef?  Grilling or broiling chicken?  Cook double and use it for healthy lunches during the week, or find two different ways to use the meat in dinners during the week.  Need some specific ideas?  Ground beef can be turned into tacos, spaghetti sauce with meat, or sloppy joes (mix with tomato sauce & sauteed onions). Grilled chicken could be used on top of a big chopped salad, in chicken fajitas (just saute the veggies and throw meat in at last minute to warm up), or chopped up and simmered with your favorite BBQ sauce for BBQ chicken.

Wash and chop veggies and fruit — I don’t know about you, but I’m way more likely to actually eat the fresh fruits and vegetables I buy if they’re clean and chopped when I open the fridge to cook or make a snack.  Yeah, it’s a hassle, but it’s going to be a hassle no matter then you do it.  Might as well bite the bullet and get it done.

For more great ideas about how to streamline meal preparation for healthy eating on a busy schedule, check out this post from Alphamom (don’t let the blog name turn you off, I promise it’s great advice even if you’re not a mom.)

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, although I’m having a baby tomorrow so the next few weeks may be a bit spotty around here.

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Cooking School: Quick Dinners

It’s 6:15pm, you just walked in the door to your home, you’re starving, and you don’t have dinner planned.  What do you do?

A) Order pizza or Chinese take-out

B) Stick a Lean Cuisine in the microwave and hope for the best

C) Rummage around your fridge, pantry, & freezer and come up with a reasonably healthy and tasty meal.

This happens to all of us from time to time (less if you’re meal planning and grocery shopping on a regular basis, but still – it happens!)  Sometimes you’ve just had a crazy day and pizza or a take-out sandwich is all you can handle.  But I think a homemade meal (that would be C!) can do a world of good for getting me back to feeling normal, especially when I’ve been traveling (or eating out a lot already).  Here are a few go-to meals that can be made with inexpensive pantry or freezer staples.

Stir-fry with noodles

  • Food: spaghetti noodles, some vegetables (fresh or frozen), onion & garlic if you’ve got it, leftover cooked meat (optional), soy sauce, hot sauce if you like spicy food (sriracha is great, but Tabasco or anything hot sauce will do!), vegetable oil.
  • Tools:  Pot to boil pasta noodles, large-ish frying pan
  • How to: Get a pot of water boiling.  While you’re waiting, chop your veggies & meat into smallish, evenly sized pieces (about the size of your thumb).  Defrost frozen veggies slightly in the microwave.  When the water is boiling, put the pasta in to cook, set a timer for 8 minutes.  In a frying pan, heat a glug of vegetable oil over medium high heat.  Cook onions and garlic first, stirring often.  after a couple of minutes, add other veggies, stirring often.  Add meat last, if using.  Strain pasta and add to frying pan, pour in a couple of glugs of soy sauce and a bit of hot sauce to taste.  Stir it all together & eat!

Hearty scrambled eggs

  • Food: 2-4 eggs, any combo of the following: veggies (fresh or frozen), cheese, beans, leftover cooked meat, vegetable or olive oil
  • Tools: Non-stick skillet, rubber spatula (don’t use metal in a non-stick pan, it will flake off the coating!)
  • How to: Scramble eggs in a bowl with a little salt and pepper. Chop your meat & veggies into smallish, evenly sized pieces (about the size of your thumb).  In a frying pan, heat a glug of oil over medium heat. Defrost any frozen vegetables by cooking quickly in the frying pan.  Add the remaining meat, beans or veggies and cook/heat through.  (This is pretty similar to the stir-fry recipe if you haven’t noticed!)  Add egg mixture to pan and allow to cook on bottom (it will turn white or lighter yellow).  Scrape the cooked part off the bottom of the pan and stir, breaking it up.  Repeat “cook a little while then stir” process a few more times, until eggs are almost cooked (not too shiny).  Stir in the cheese & eat!

Popcorn dinner

  • Food: popcorn, cheese, fruit, veggies (drag out those wilty old carrots from the crisper, celery & peanut butter, canned green beans aren’t really that bad!)  You know — eat your food groups!
  • Tools: popcorn popper (or — did you know you can pop popcorn in a plain paper bag in the microwave, without all those sketchy chemicals in the regular microwave popcorn.
  • How to: Eat up!

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: First, you need food

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Photo Credit: moonjazz via Compfight cc

This is the first post in 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’m going to try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.

The first hurdle to overcome when making the switch from eating out (or eating a lot of processed foods) to eating homemade food is having food in your house to cook!  This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I hear people complaining that they eat out because they have nothing in their fridge.  If this sounds like you, I’m guessing you still go to the grocery store occasionally, but if you want to start cooking more regularly, you will have to change up what you are buying a little bit.

Everyone has different tastes, and anything you cook at home is going to be healthier than processed food (fewer additives, and probably less sugar, salt and fat, too), so at this point I would encourage a newbie cook to buy things you like to eat, and not feel pressure to only buy the healthiest foods.

I think the easiest way to grocery shop, when you’re not planning on cooking any gourmet meals that require special ingredients, is to have a basic list that you follow each time you visit the grocery store.  Fill in the categories with things you like, then you can mix and match ingredients to make different meals.

Proteins – chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, tofu, beans

Fruit and Veggies – usually what’s on sale is what’s in season, and it will taste the best.  Don’t buy more than you think you will reasonably eat; throwing away rotten food can be so frustrating.  Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great way to keep stuff on hand and not have to worry about it going bad before you can eat it.

Fats – Have you heard? Good fat is good for you! Also, it really helps you feel full without eating a huge amount of carbs.  Plus, it tastes good.  Butter, avocado, olive oil, nuts, cheese…. or bacon.

Carbs – Forgive me, paleo friends.  I think bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes (sweet potatoes and regular ones too) – in moderation – all have a place in a healthy diet.

Seasonings/Spices/Sauces – these can be a little expensive to buy all at once, but they can make such a big difference in making food taste good.  I encourage you to just pick up one or two per grocery trip so the sticker shock isn’t so bad.  Are you making tacos?  Buy some taco seasoning and salsa.  Next week, get some barbeque sauce to put on your grilled or broiled chicken.

Okay, now I’ve given you a shopping list and absolutely no guidance on how to cook anything yet.  Hmm… what’s next?  A basic recipe?  Instructions on how to cook, say, meat or vegetables?

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