Archive for ‘Simple Soutions’

January 22, 2018

Mix and Match

Sometimes in the kitchen I just have to mix and match. I grew up on a farm so it wasn’t convenient to shop at the grocery store often. We planned and purchased for a week at a time. If we decided to vary the menu from our plan, we sometimes had to make substitutions. Those habits stuck with me. I tend to shop once a week with a loose plan in my head. In between trips, I mix and match to create the meals I desire.
While our Cooking2Thrive recipes go through at least three extensive tests to make sure the proportion of each ingredient is just right, my everyday cooking is haphazard, thrown together, and, more often than not, delicious! I’m rarely deterred by lack of an ingredient.

I recently decided to make tuna croquettes. They’re one of my favorite quick & easy go-tos. I keep them really simple like my grandmother did. She always mixed canned salmon, an egg, crushed saltines and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Then she pan fried them in melted butter. I use tuna rather than salmon, but other than that I follow her lead.

Technically, these may not even be croquettes to you. They have no béchamel or brown sauce. They’re not rolled in breadcrumbs, and they’re shaped like round patties instead of cylinders. Nonetheless, they’re quite tasty.

Five-ounce cans of solid white albacore tuna in water are staples in my pantry. I combine one or two cans with one egg, gluten-free breadcrumbs, and a little salt & pepper. I never measure, I just add breadcrumbs until the mixture isn’t too wet or dry to hold together. Then I make patties and pan fry them in butter.

Most recently, I began making the croquettes and realized I only had about a tablespoon of breadcrumbs. That’s not enough. I had no crackers or bread on hand. I did have an open bag of Cheetos® puffs (yes, I know those aren’t healthy). I placed a handful of them in a plastic bag and crushed them to use in place of the breadcrumbs. I had to crush a few more, but they worked like a charm!

I had never before considered using Cheetos in croquettes, but there are substitutions I make on a fairly regular basis. I add vinegar to regular milk to use in place of buttermilk. I use coconut crystals in place of brown sugar. I use dates or honey to sweeten muffins or cookies. I substitute anise for fennel or vice versa. I mix and match citrus all the time depending on what I have handy, sometimes adding a little apple cider or rice wine vinegar to enhance the acidity of lemon, lime, or orange flavor and balsamic vinegar to enhance cherry.

Last week I baked some tilapia to serve over rice. I really wanted the fresh punch of a pico de gallo as a finisher on top. I had no cilantro, lime, or peppers on hand. What I had was grape tomatoes, yellow onion, and basil stir-in paste.

I thought why not see if I can combine these into something that will add the cool acidic top note I’m looking for? I chopped the tomatoes and onion into small pieces, added a small dollop of the basil along with some salt and pepper. The resulting salsa enhanced the fish and rice perfectly even though the flavor profile varied from pico de gallo.

At some point, most of us will discover we lack an ingredient needed to finish a dish we’ve already started cooking for dinner. That’s a great time to mix and match. If you’re not sure where to begin, a guide to pairing flavors can be helpful. Check out the award-winning book – The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs.

Or just do what I do and wing it. Cooking is as much art as science. I can’t tell you how I know a substitution will work. I just see it in my head. You may be able to do this too. There’s nothing wrong with giving it a try!

Mixing and matching may make your food a little less predictable, but in my experience, no one seems to mind as long as it’s tasty.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

November 30, 2017

Travel Tip #19 – Pack Light

When you get ready to make that holiday trip…pack light. I’m a planner. I can be spontaneous and I don’t have to nail down every detail in advance, but I need to feel that I’m prepared for the possibilities. Being prepared for everything that I imagine might happen on a long trip can leave me at risk for severe overpacking. The fact that I always carry at least one book and usually two doesn’t help.
When I was preparing for my first trip to Europe, an older, wiser, well-traveled coworker advised me to pack my bag then remove half the stuff and pack again. Once the bag was packed with the half that remained, she told me to remove half of what I’d packed that second time. Then, she said, you’ll have what you need.

I might have ignored that advice, but just prior to receiving it, I’d learned about the concept that the size and weight of the bags you carry reflects the size and weight of the emotional baggage you carry. I was pretty sure I wanted to appear as though my emotional baggage was small. And so, I packed a fourth of what I had planned to take.

As it turns out, that advice was worth its weight in gold! That particular trip to Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Moscow was filled with unexpected walks while toting my bags – a task much more easily accomplished when the bags are light. The surprising thing was, I actually had everything I needed.

Learning that 3/4 of what I’d originally packed wasn’t necessary made a believer out of me. In a couple of weeks when I head back to LA, it will be with a fourth of the things I feel like I might need while I’m there. Don’t worry, I’ll still have a book in hand (the old school paper kind). I’ll leave the computer behind.

Lugging around too many large, heavy bags will soon wear on you. You want to arrive at each destination feeling energetic and excited, not overloaded and exhausted. Packing light will give you a great start toward feeling less burdened and more carefree. And isn’t that’s why we want to get away in the first place?

There are many advantages when you pack light. They include:

No need to purchase large suitcases.
Faster, easier packing before you leave.
Less stress on your shoulders, back, knees, and feet.
Easy transfers when changing modes of transportation.
Fewer bag fees.
Room to pack items you purchase during a trip.
Fewer things to keep up with.

If you can’t imagine packing lighter, here are a few ideas to explore:

*Many hotel, condo-style hotel, Airbnb, and VRBO accommodations offer laundry facilities. If you are making an extended trip, laundry access will allow you to carry less and still have clean clothes without interrupting your planned activities.

*Carrying neutral, solid colored items that can be layered, mixed and matched, or accessorized differently will allow you to vary your appearance. A couple of bright colored scarves can totally change the look of basic black pants and a sweater.

*Only packing for predicted weather variations can reduce your load. Check the weather forecast. While forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, they can be relied on to give you an overview of the likely extremes. Pack for those. Could it rain unexpectedly? Of course, but you can always pick up an inexpensive umbrella at a gas station or dollar store.

If an unexpected cold front comes through and you need a new fleece hoodie or a coat, think of it as a shopping opportunity. If your budget is tight, even small towns often have a discount store, thrift store, or flea market with an option that will serve you well. I’ve made some great purchases from thrift stores in Austin, Texas; Santa Monica, California; and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

*A pair of multipurpose shoes that can be enjoyably walked in for miles while looking dressy enough for a casual dress is a great investment for your travel wardrobe. Shoes are bulky and heavy. The fewer you have to carry, the better. It’s worth it to purchase a pair of comfortable, versatile shoes.

Of course it’s best if the shoe color is neutral and coordinates well with both light and dark clothing. It may take time to find the perfect pair, but in my experience having them can reduce the weight of my suitcase by several pounds. For most trips, I can wear one pair of shoes and take some $1 flip flops and have all my needs covered.

*Reducing the contents of your purse to the essentials means you can carry a small crossbody bag with convenient organizational pockets for travel. Pare down your credit cards to a couple of essential ones. Take only critical keys. Choose one lipstick. Leave your checkbook, library card, grocery store rewards card, old receipts, coupons, full size pill bottles, and additional keys at home.

*A review of your travel history can reveal unnecessary items you’re in the habit of packing. Do you pack workout clothes? If so, do you regularly work out when on a trip? If not, skip the workout clothes. Do you regularly use a hotel pool or hot tub? If not, and you’re not planning a beach vacation, don’t carry a swimsuit. In other words, not preparing for activities you rarely take advantage of will result in lighter bags.

Getting away can provide rest, inspiration, and a sense of feeling carefree that helps relieve stress and provides renewal. Packing light can encourage that carefree feeling. I want that!

October 24, 2017

No Need to Argue Over Dinner

There’s no need to argue over dinner, even if everyone is hungry for something different! Ever decided to start cooking dinner at home only to meet resistance from family members who are used to customized choices in a restaurant? Your husband wants Indian, your son wants Mexican, your daughter doesn’t want either of those, and you just want dinner on the table.
pot pie
When you’re trying to get in the swing of regular meal prep, resistance can be discouraging. You may be willing to cook so that your family will eat more fresh food, but that doesn’t mean you’re all that excited about the added work you’re taking on. Before frustration grows or food fights begin, it can be helpful to explore some ways you can customize without changing your overall plan.

Using a little creativity can help your family transition to meals at home without feeling like personal preferences are limited. Once everyone realizes there’s some flexibility, they’ll relax. That doesn’t mean you have to be a short order cook. It means that you recognize that years of eating out have conditioned the family’s expectations and some retraining is required.

During the transition, it is important to set some boundaries while keeping the atmosphere positive. How can you accomplish this without laying down the law that you eat what’s put in front of you…period?

Here are some ideas:
Flexible seasoning.

With the family in the mood for Indian and Mexican and something else, you can take a flexible approach to seasoning. In other words, establish that the cook chooses the protein, but each family member can choose how his/her serving is seasoned.

Before you let the idea scare you, here’s what dinner could look like: Four pork chops seasoned as follows: 1)Simple – seasoned with salt, pepper, & garlic powder. 2)Indian – seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, garam masala, and applesauce. 3)Mexican – seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cumin. 4)Alternative Mexican – seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder and mole sauce.

Place all 4 chops on the same broiling pan and broil. Any of these will be delicious served with rice and a salad, thereby keeping the menu simple while accommodating several flavor preferences.

This could also be accomplished using steak seasoned multiple ways or grilled with basic seasoning, then sliced and finished with various sauces — salsa verde, chimichurri, teriyaki, and blue cheese for example. Steamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, and mashed potatoes will round out this steak menu.

Grilled or broiled chicken is easy to season independently, but cook simultaneously. Baked chicken can be shredded and served over salad or added to sour cream and green chile peppers then served over black beans and lime cilantro rice. It can be tossed in barbecue sauce and served as a sandwich. It can be added to enchiladas or used in chicken spaghetti.

In short, independent seasoning doesn’t have to take additional time or add another trip to the store. All you need is a little flexibility and creativity.

Choose a pot.

If weekends are when you have the most time to cook, make several one pot meals at the beginning of the week, then let the family help themselves to their preference each day. Include vegetables in the pots or steam a few separately to serve as sides. In addition, stock the kitchen with fresh fruit and salad components to compliment your prepared items.

Consider one pot meals like chicken & rice with broccoli; ground turkey with sour cream, Parmesan, and English peas; tuna with pasta, cheese, and spinach or kale; ground beef with taco seasoning, black beans, and cheese; beef stew; or chicken pot pie.
broccoli salad
Beat the heat.

In the summer, you may want to offer salad samplers — chicken salad, tuna salad, and egg salad paired with 5 bean salad, broccoli salad, black bean & corn salad, caprese salad, or a build-your-own green salad. There are so many options with salad!

If your kids like to help in the kitchen, creating salad recipes can be a great introduction to experimenting with flavor combinations. The more involved they are the more likely they are to consume the end product.

Warm your insides.

Soups can give you nutritious variety in the winter. There’s something about soup that’s extremely satisfying — especially in cold weather. Prepare two or three types for the week and let the family choose a preference at meal time. Chicken vegetable, chicken with rice, chicken noodle; tomato, cream of tomato; chili; clam or corn chowder; potato; minestrone; white bean; matzo ball; and split pea are all good options. This list could go on and on and your family is sure to have some favorites. Most soups freeze well, so your prep could be as simple as taking something out of the freezer.

Soup can be supplemented with bread, cornbread, or crackers; raw vegetables with a favorite veggie dip; sandwiches; or salads.

Make breakfast a wild card.

Obviously, it’s important to establish that meal choices when you’re cooking are not a free-for-all. If you don’t, you’ll have chaos and a full time job on your hands. On the other hand, there’s no reason for anyone to go hungry because they simply can’t stomach steak when that’s what you are serving.

Preparing for this possibility in advance can prevent a power struggle later. One way to do this is to make breakfast a wild card. If your daughter can’t stand steak, she can play a wild card and cook her own breakfast for dinner. As long as she uses ingredients already on hand, cooks it herself, and cleans up her dishes, you agree to refrain from comment on her choice.

Of course, you can set age limits and weekly limits for use of the established wild card. (No wild cards until you are in first grade and only 1 wild card per week.) The wild card doesn’t have to be breakfast. It could be sandwiches, loaded baked potatoes, salad, pasta, or something out of the freezer.

Keep track on a calendar or dole out printed monthly coupons to be redeemed. The rules are yours. Just make them clear, concise, and consistently enforced. For the best chance of success with this plan, all negotiating should take place prior to a rule’s instatement. Review dates can be established in advance to insure that the system can be improved without diminishing its enforcement.

Inspiration may be a side effect.

Cooking at home has many health advantages. The key to making it a habit is removing the obstacles that prevent you from cooking on a regular basis. Families that are used to custom ordering in restaurants may resist a sudden change to one-size-fits-all meals. That doesn’t mean you need to argue over dinner.

Using the techniques listed here to create an easier transition from restaurant ordering to uniform meals can help you avoid complaints and resistance and the resulting emotional fatigue that may make you feel like implementing a healthier lifestyle is too much trouble.

As an added bonus, providing variety in a way that only requires a tiny bit of additional thinking and no additional work could actually turn out to be fun! I love the process of visualizing new menus, unexpected combinations, and solutions. It’s the kind of mental activity that inspires me.

Try these ideas and who knows, you may get inspired along the way too!

September 12, 2017

Pare Your Kitchen Down to the Basics

You can pare your kitchen down to the basics and still prepare great food! I love looking at houses online. Of course I pay special attention to the kitchens. For me the primary considerations are a gas stove, functional cabinets, and countertop workspace followed by cuteness.

Cuteness includes what the countertop workspace is covered with, the flooring, paint, backsplash, hardware, and cabinet style. I hate the unimaginative gray that currently dominates new houses and many remodels. I love clean, classic subway tile, European style small refrigerators, hardwood floors, and interesting countertops like wood or recycled glass. With these items in place I’m ready to fill the cabinets with necessities and fun china, pottery, and serving pieces.

What is necessary for food prep?

Let’s be real. Most of us don’t need all of the gadgets that fill our cabinets or clutter our countertops. It’s fine if you want to have them, but if funds are limited or you don’t have much space you can forego the additional purchases and pare down to the basics.

Here’s a list of basic cooking tools:

Durable, sharp knives.
A set with a carving knife, chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated bread knife is sufficient. Keeping my knives sharp is a constant battle, so a handheld knife sharpener is also useful.

Cutting board.
Using a cutting board protects your countertop surface and keeps bacteria from meat, fish, and poultry contained. You may want to dedicate one cutting board to proteins and another to everything else. I like to use plastic for proteins because I can wash it in the dishwasher. I use wood or bamboo for vegetables, fruit, chocolate, cheese, bread, etc.

Measuring cups and spoons.
With adjustable or multiple quantity cups and spoons, you may only need one of each. I’d probably have two of each handy — one for wet ingredients and one for dry. Even though they take up more drawer space, I actually prefer separate measuring cups and spoons. Collapsible silicone sets minimize the space used, but hard plastic and metal also serve the purpose.

Mixing bowls.
Unless you do a lot of baking, a basic set of 3 bowls — large, medium, and small should be sufficient. Glass, metal, pottery and plastic choices are all readily available. If you rarely cook or need additional capacity, serving bowls can double as mixing bowls. You can use a cereal bowl to whisk an egg or dissolve yeast and a roasting pan to combine larger amounts of ingredients.

Baking pans.
The most commonly used baking pan is a 9 x 13 rectangular pan. It works for cakes, biscuits, casseroles, lasagne, oven fried chicken, chicken spaghetti, bar cookies, cobbler, bread pudding, and even your Thanksgiving dressing. It may be all you need, but you’ll probably want a cookie sheet or two, a loaf pan (with extra tall sides if you make gluten-free bread), a roasting pan with a lid, a muffin tin, a pie pan, and at least one casserole dish. A square glass baking dish can double as a casserole dish by using aluminum foil when you need a lid.

Stove top cookware.
Every kitchen needs at least one cast iron skillet. Okay, you can live without one, but you’ll have much better cornbread, pineapple upside down cake, seared steaks, country-fried potatoes, fried chicken, blackened Brussels sprouts, and stovetop burgers if you have one. Cast iron can be used for any dish you start on the stove top and finish in the oven.

Also essential are a large pot for cooking pasta, and at least one saucepan. Most kitchens will need an additional saucepan or two in order to cook multiple dishes at the same time. You may want to invest in a good skillet and a sauté pan.

A spatula, slotted spoon, large regular spoon, whisk, grater, can opener, colander, small and large funnel, and dough blender plus a hand crank beater will give you what you need to prepare a meal, bake a cake, and top it off with homemade whipped cream. You can add a basting brush or potato masher if you feel you need them.

Small appliances.
The only small appliances I would recommend are a food chopper, a slow cooker, and a waffle iron. I find a chopper sufficient for the chopping and puréeing I do, and a slow cooker comes in handy at parties. My antique cast iron waffle iron leaves something to be desired. A modern, electric version is definitely preferable.

On the other hand, I don’t need a coffee maker — a French press or pour over coffee maker can make an incredible cup of coffee. I don’t need a toaster — toast can be made in the oven. I can make whipped cream with my hand crank beater in less time than it takes to get out and set up a mixer. I don’t use juice in large enough quantity to justify a juicer. Two cast iron skillets will make a panini. A saucepan will heat water if I don’t buy an electric kettle. I can cook rice in a pan. Poached eggs don’t require a poacher. Popcorn is easy to pop on top of the stove. I don’t drink soda so I have no use for a soda maker. Pressure cookers scare me. I am happy buying dried fruit from and ice cream from the grocery store. And even though that orange nonstick skillet looked really tempting at 2am in a hotel room, I can’t think of any reason I’d need to fry hardware. That’s about a dozen kitchen specialty items I don’t need when I pare down to essentials.

If you love grapefruit and want a grapefruit knife, you should absolutely have one. If having a potato peeler makes you feel better about peeling potatoes, there’s nothing wrong with buying one. If you weigh ingredients when you bake, investing in a good quality scale makes sense.

The point is that you will not be limited to mediocre food when you choose to keep your kitchen simple! Knowing that can help you stay within budget and reduce clutter in your home. It feels good to me to know that I can prepare scrumptious meals and baked goods and still be mindful about kitchen purchases.

In this day of advertising bombardment, I think it bears repeating…you can pare your kitchen down to the basics and still prepare great food!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”