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Ontario, Canada
I am a wife, mother and grandma who enjoys the many aspects of homemaking. A variety of interests and hobbies combined with travel keep me active. They reflect the importance of family, friends, home and good food.
Cook ingredients that you are used to cooking by other techniques, such as fish, chicken, or hamburgers. In other words be comfortable with the ingredients you are using.
--Bobby Flay

For Your Information

Please watch this area for important information like updates, food recalls, polls, contests, coupons, and freebies.
  • [January 15, 2016] - It's National Soup Month so this month's posts will focus on soups. Yum!
  • [February 1, 2016] - An interesting report on why you should always choose organic tea verses non-organic: Toxic Tea (pdf format)
  • Sticky Post - Warning: 4ever Recap reusable canning lids. The reports are growing daily of these lids losing their seal during storage. Some have lost their entire season's worth of canning to these seal failures!

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Energy Use of Small Kitchen Appliances

Frugal Kitchens 101
Most modern homes have numerous small electric appliances but few home cooks consider the cost of operation of these appliance. The cost of cooking does add to the overall cost of the meal so should be included when calculating your food costs to give you a good idea of how much your food actually costs. Choosing the right electric appliance can save you money. For example one of my slow cookers (an appliance often recommended for saving time) is 325 W (4¢ per hour) while my large burner is 2000 W (24¢ per hour) so on the surface it looks like the slow cooker is the better deal. However, the slow cooker would cost 24 - 32¢ to use for 6 to 8 hrs, quite common with slow cooked meals. The pressure cooker can cook the same meal in under 45 minutes using the big burner for a total cost of 18¢. If you use a slow cooker 3 times a week you could save $9.36 per year or 77,922 kW. It's not a large savings but it is a savings and with today's rising energy costs combined with a greater environmental awareness every kW counts! Where am I getting these figures?

I'm so glad you asked because it's time to do a little math. Don't worry, this simple equation for calculating the cost of operation for appliances is quite painless to master. This math will help you choose the right appliance for the desired results and may even help you weed out some of those high costing appliances while saving you money on your food prep.

To calculate the cost per hour for electrical appliances you will need: your electric bill and the wattage of the appliance. On your electric bill there will be the cost per kWh (ours is currently 5.6¢ per kWh). There may be a cost adjustment (CA) to account for electricity lost as it travels through the lines to your house (ours is 1.092). Finally there will be service charges. Ours are about 56% of the bill and electric use affects all the service charges so in reality our cost per kWh is 11¢. Next look for a label on your appliance that gives the specs. On that label there will be the wattage usually expressed as a number followed by W. What you need to do is convert W to kW so you divide this number by 1000. Now you have to multiply the kW by the CA by the cost per kWh by hours used so the equation looks like this:

W/1000 x CA x cost x hours used = cost per hour

Example 1: My large burner is 2000 W and I have it on for 1 hour.

2000/1000 x 1.092 x .11 x 1 = 24¢ per hour

Example 2: My large burner is 2000 W and I have it on for 15 minutes.

There are 60 minutes in an hour so 15/60 = .25

2000/1000 x 1.092 x .11 x .25 = 6¢ per 15 minutes


Friday, March 27, 2009

An Bit of an Update


Dear Readers, 

I arrived at the home of oldest grandbaby last Saturday to await the arrival of youngest grandbaby due according to the doctor any hour now.  There has not been a rush to the hospital yet but we expect one very shortly.  Before I left I was able to schedule several posts but not much more beyond a week.  Unfortunately despite enjoying a lot of great food and taking a lot of wonderful pictures to share with you, I do not have Photoshop on the laptop I borrowed from my husband so those will have to wait until I get back home side.  Frugal Kitchens 101 and Kitchen Quick Tips will not be affected and you may see a graphic or two from what I have in Photobucket.  Please bare with me.  Things should be back to normal within a few days :) I promise to let you know when the little one arrives! 


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kitchen Quick Tips - Broccoli


Don't throw out those broccoli stems! Peeling makes the stems tender and enhances the flavour. Use on vegetable trays or add to soups and any dish calling for broccoli.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Depression Cooking with Clara - Poorman's Feast

Many are experiencing tough times due to the economic downturn. As a result there is considerably more interest in reducing the ever rising cost of food. This is one reason I include the economic benefits of cooking from scratch and preserving home grown or locally purchased foods at home. Avoiding fast food and convenience foods is one sure fire way to save money. Unfortunately many are being forced into this philosophy.

I discovered the Depression Cooking with Clara videos on YouTube. My first thought was her videos fit nicely with the them of this blog (previously here and here). The following video is Clara's version of a Poorman's Feast. It's interesting to note that you can make quite a nice meal with a few simple ingredients. One thing she does not mention is lentils may contain small stones so be sure to check them before putting them in the pot. Clara adds lemon juice to the olive oil because the citric acid acts as an anti-bacterial agent that might have been important during the Great Depression when the meat might have been a bit off.

Clara speaks of using both olive oil and lemons during the Great Depression. I recall my late Mom talking about the depression years in Ontario, Canada. Oranges were very rarely available so it was a real treat to get an orange in your stocking for Christmas. Unless you lived in an area where you could get lemons, they would have been just as scare as oranges. Olive oil is another commodity that would have been practically unheard of. Instead rendered fat would have been used.




Monday, March 23, 2009

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Think Green (Food Storage)

Frugal Kitchens 101
In the past few weeks I have given you some ways that thinking green in the kitchen can save you money. This week's topic is food storage. Food storage includes all methods you use to keep a particular food from the moment it enters your home until the time you use it. The main methods are pantry storage, refrigeration and freezing. All of these methods have one thing in common. They all require some form of packaging whether it be the package the food came in or packaging and containers you use for short or long term food storage. Thinking green when making the choice of how to store the food means you will ultimately save money. Try to use recycled or reusable containers rather than plastic wraps and tin foil. In general the following factors can damage your food storage: air, light, humidity, rodents/other small animals, insects and temperature extremes. One of your biggest food dollar savers will be using a vacuum food sealer such as FoodSaver® Vacuum Sealer.

Pantry Storage

Home canned and store bought foods, boxed foods and packaged foods are generally stored in kitchen cabinets or pantries. A pantry can be as small as a tall cabinet or closet to a large walk-in pantry like mine. Any food in your cabinets or pantries cost you money to get it there in addition to the cost of the food itself. Protecting your pantry food supply will depend on the original packaging.

Your pantry food storage should be dark for most of the time and at a temperature about 55º to 65ºF. All foods should be protected using a suitable container for the purpose you need. Choose containers that can be re-used or are recycled. In most cases you should be able to find recycled containers simply by asking people you know to save them for you. The best containers for protecting your pantry food supply are:

  1. vacuum sealed glass jars - By far this is the best as it keeps out all damaging factors except light. Use mason jars or recycled jars that mason jar lids will fit so you can vacuum seal. The vacuum seal is achieved when home canning foods to make them shelf stable or using a FoodSaver® to vacuum seal dried foods in mason or regular jars to keep them fresh.
  2. glass jars - Originally packaged foods can be placed in 2 gal jars as can larger quantities of dried foods such as pasta. Smaller quantities of food can be place in smaller jars but be warned that humidity may still be able to get in the jar enough to effect the food. Check restaurants for institutional sized jars as they often give them away free.
  3. food grade plastic pails or jar like containers - These are ideal for larger quantity dried foods especially flours. Doughnut shops or restaurants often give away 5 gallon plastic pails but some may charge a small nominal fee of $1. Recycle containers from foods you or someone else bought at warehouse type stores. Buy condiments like ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise in larger institutional sized plastic container then recycle the containers to use in your pantry.
  4. non-food grade plastic containers - These can be used to protect store bought packaged foods from rodent damage providing the food does not come into direct contact with the container. You may have to buy these containers so check for stackable shoebox size containers at the dollar stores if you are storing on shelves. These are great for envelope type foods and smaller boxed items like pudding mixes. Larger covered plastic bins are great for protecting bags of flour, rice and grains. The bins can sit on the floor yet rodents and water lower than the height of the bin won't get in.
  5. metal containers - Store bought canned food in most cases comes in tin cans. Keep these up off the floor and dry to prevent any rusting. Use recycled coffee cans with lids to protect smaller amounts of food. These will keep out rodents and insects but a little humidity might be able to get in.

Refrigerator Storage

By far the major enemy in refrigerator storage is air. The inner compartment of the refrigerator is dry so it draws moisture out of the food. Anything that is stored in the refrigerator unless it is a fruit or vegetable protected by the humidity control in the crisper must be covered to prevent cold air from damaging it or it becoming contaminated. I do not find tin foil or cling wrap suitable for refrigerator storage because both are single use materials that add to landfills. Several well known brand name companies have convinced us the only way to go is to use plastic in the form of bags, cling film or hard containers. I am going directly go against this advice and recommend you minimize the use of plastic in your refrigerator. The reason for this is in the long run barring breakage glass containers will out perform plastic containers hands down. The nice thing about using glass containers is you can easily see the contents. Glass containers don't discolour over time like plastic does and if you use heat resistant containers they can go from fridge to microwave with no worries. What I really like about glass containers is they are inert so there's no plastic taste or worries about chemicals from the plastic leaching into your food. When looking for glass replacements for plastic containers check resale stores, yard sales, dollar stores and department stores. Recycling this way is a great way to save money! Here are the glass containers I use in my fridge.
  1. mason jars - I use a lot of these because I have a lot so if a jar isn't in use for canning it might just find it's way into the refrigerator. I make dips and sauces directly in mason jars using the blender method. I have jars in use that are well over 30 years old so with proper care mason jars are a great value.
  2. recycled jars - I try to recycle as many jars from store purchased foods as I can. My problem tends to having difficulties finding enough so I put the word out I'm looking for these types of jars with lids.
  3. vacuum sealed canisters - These are specialty canisters useful for short term storage meant to be used with the FoodSaver® Vacuum System or similar. This method extends the life of cheeses and produce in the refrigerator.
  4. covered casserole dishes - All of my large glass casserole dishes have plastic lids. These are used for refrigerator storage. I have three smaller casserole dishes with glass lids
  5. covered 4 oz bowls - I have several of these small bowls that can be used during meal for mis en place or for storing small amounts of foods in the refrigerator.
It is virtually impossible to not have some form of plastic for storage in your refrigerator. Some plastic containers still finds its way into my refrigerator but it is a lot less as I pare down my hard plastic containers but some commercially purchased foods come in plastic containers or packages. Any hot food should be cooled before putting it into any plastic storage container for storing in the refrigerator. Most of the plastic used in my refrigerator are the acrylic FoodSaver® canisters used for a variety of foods and bags for the FoodSaver® that keep cheeses fresh by vacuum sealing them.

Freezer

By far the most prominent storage used in my freezers is butcher's paper because that is the way our bulk meat purchases come packaged. Butcher's paper is a salmon pink paper coated with wax on the food side. This form of packaging is used almost exclusively by butcher shops and abattoirs. When properly used the meat is well protected from freezer burn. The freezer is one area of food storage that I do not want to use glass as breakage presents a safety issue and it is a huge mess to have to clean up. I've tried hard plastic container (GladWare®, Ziploc®) but I find both become very brittle with the cold. This results in broken lids and/or bottoms when things get moved around in the freezer. My storage of choice for the freezer is vacuum storage bags especially if you order the no brand version online. These are a sure fire, economical way to protect against freezer burn. I also use zipper style freezer bags for a few foods. Both these styles of bags can be washed and reused providing they were not previously used for meats, fish or poultry.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cowboy Steaks Cooked on the Griddle

My husband is currently working some very long hours, leaving between 4 and 5 am daily and arriving home between 7 and 8 pm. There have been quite a few times that we eat dinner that late but right now by the time he gets home he doesn't feel like a big meal. What I've been doing is making dinner as normal then plating his up for his lunch. So his big meal is mid-day with a smaller meal when he gets home. I'm relying heavily on the freezers and pantries because growing season is just around the corner and our beef bought on the hoof will be ready soon. That means I need to clear space especially in the freezers. Wednesday night I cooked up a couple of cowboy steaks using the griddle.

cowboy steaks on the griddleUsing the Griddle

I previously wrote about the cowboy steaks we bought to support a local group. Pan frying is actually recommended because these steaks are marinaded but they were good prepared that way. This time I decided to try using the George Forman Griddle we were gifted with. Yes I have an indoor grill cartridge for my stove and a tabletop indoor grill but I wanted to see exactly how the griddle would perform. I know it performs well for breakfast foods and making English muffins. The best way to test this is to see what else it can cook well!

The meal consisted of a cowboy steak with a side of sautéed onions and zucchini, nothing that could not have been prepared using a couple of frying pans. I set the griddle to 350ºF and added just a little olive oil. First on were the steaks followed by the onion slices and zucchini pieces.

cowboy steak with sauteed onions and zucchiniCowboy Steaks

Cooking these marinated steaks on the griddle was entirely different than cooking in a fry pan. I found the steaks caramelized better without losing much in the way of moisture. The onions even crisped up and caramelized better. The zucchini that was added last maintained its great green edging. In terms of taste this meal was a real winner hands down. The meat was cooked nicely to medium rare and the vegetables were nicely caramelized. It was a very nice meal.

In terms of energy usage the griddle used 1500 W per hour (18¢/hr) per hour compared to using the large burner at 2000 W (24¢/ hr) and the small burner at 1250 W (15¢/hr). For 18¢/hr I cooked a meal that would have cost me 39¢/hr to cook my conventional means. That's not a lot of saving but every time you can save on cooking costs it is one more way of reducing those food costs. Don't forget you are saving those all important kWh and every kWh does count!

The meal tasted great and I saved energy so what was the negative? There really wasn't a negative. In fact I enjoyed using the griddle so much for this purpose that I will likely choose it over the frypans in future. Clean-up was ever so easy so that was not a negative. However, I wiped down my back splashes simply because cooking this way will add a bit of a greasy film into the air that will settle on surfaces. This really is minor but still more than what you would get using splatter screens on a frypan.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Prime Rib Roast (Grilled)

Prime rib is cut from the rib section of the beef. It is an extremely tender cut of meat that tends to be on the little more expensive side. Prime rib is generally cut into roasts or steaks. Our local No Frills had prime rib roasts and prime rib steaks on sale for $4.88 per lb. My husband brought home a roast that weighed in at about 4 lbs just under $20. Now that sounds expensive for a roast but considering what we did with it it wasn't.

preparing prime rib roasts for grillingPreparation

The prime rib roast (1) could have easily be cut into 4 generous steaks. At that price the steaks would have cost $5 each. In comparison to eating out this is still one heck of a bargain!

Instead of cutting into steaks we cut into what essentially could be considered two smaller roast (2) or two large steaks. A heavy cleaver was a good choice for cutting the prime rib roast in almost half. The reasoning behind this was to use one smaller prime rib roast for dinner and the other one for lunches for the rest of the week.

What is really different about cooking a prime rib roast is using a grill. Now if you think about it prime rib is meant to be cooked almost blue, seared on the outside but rare on the inside. You really need a hot grill (3) for this one!

grilled prime rib roastsGrilled Roasts

Each of the prime rib roasts will easily feed two people with enough left-overs for lunch the following day. The prime rib roasts were quite thick so cooking this way on the grill was can be a bit of a challenge. We've cooked them this way before so it was not really a challenge for us. What is very important is a high heat while controlling the possibilities for any flare-ups. Flare-ups will cause charring, something that is not desirable. A hot grill will allow you to achieve just the perfect method for cooking prime rib roasts. What happens when you grill is a layer of caramelization on the meat that adds a lot of flavour while keeping the inside just warmed and still rare. The resulting flavour is amazing!

prime rib roast plated Grilling gives just the perfect amount of smokiness to the beef without adding anything else to it. No seasonings are necessary. This is one time you really want the taste of the beef to shine through. As you can see it is definitely cooked to perfection of blue. Why do you want to cook prime rib this way? Prime rib is extremely tender so it lends itself well to be cooked blue. You don't want to over cook it as you will lose both flavour and texture.

I served the grilled roast with sautéed mushrooms, onions and zucchini with oven baked potatoes. Pictured is an inside view of the smallest roast of which we shared but I plated nicely for the picture. It was a romantic dinner for two served on one plate and eaten in front of the fireplace.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Sourdough Starter

I've talked a discussed sourdough breads that rely on sourdough starters. The most common questions that arise with sourdough breads is how to create and maintain the starter. The starter is critical to a good sourdough bread! Essentially the starter is nothing more than equal amounts of flour mixed with water then set in aside at room temperature to collect the wild yeast. If you have made a lot of bread there will be a lot of wild yeast in your kitchen. If you don't it will take longer for your mixture to become inoculated with wild yeast.

There are two warnings your must head when using sourdough starter. First, you cannot make yogurt and keep the starter on the counter. The reason is the bacteria that causes the yogurt to yog (get thick) competes with the yeast. This is why you eat yogurt if you have bacterial stomach or gastrointestinal problems such as thrush. The yeast from the yogurt kills off the bacteria. Well this principle demonstrates why yogurt making and sourdough starter cannot co-exist in the kitchen. Either or both will fail. Second, despite all good maintenance your starter may get contaminated. If at any time your starter does not look right, discard it and start again. For some, fruit flies (Drosophilla melanogaster) that feed on the yeast not actual fruit can be a problem so either protect your starting using cheese cloth or use your starter mainly through the winter months when these insects are less likely to be present.

sourdough starter, sour, dough, bread, sourdough sponge Before

Sourdough starter requires regular maintenance normally referred to as feeding. That is because the yeast population that is doubling exponentially in the starter uses up the food resources. In this case the food resource is flour. Once the food resource is depleted the yeast population will begin to die off. You don't want that because the starter will no longer have leaving power. To prevent yeast die off from happening a portion of the starter is removed and either used for a second batch of starter or discarded. An equal amount to what was removed is then added in the form of half flour and half water, mixed well into the remaining starter. A plastic container is preferred because any starter on the sides can easily be scraped back into the main starter. The starter must be fed before making bread.

Pictured is the starter just after feeding. As you can see it immediate reacts by showing signs of bubbling. If your starter does not do this discard it and start again. You should smell a deep, aromatic, yeast smell to the starter that is rather tangy. If you notice any other smell, discard the starter and start again. If you notice any peculiar colour that indicates spoilage, discard the starter. Note: It is normal for a liquid to form on top of the starter. This is called hooch. The hooch should be stirred back into the starter before feeding.

sourdough starter, sour, dough, bread, sourdough spongeAfter

Many sourdough recipes tell you to let the starter get spongy. Well that can be a bit confusing to those new to making sourdough breads. A sponge is just that. The starter takes on the appearance of a sponge with a lot of air pockets and somewhat springy texture. Think of it as an edible form os spray foam insulation that expands after spraying! The sponge will be light and airy while more than doubling it's size so be sure to use a large container.

If you want the sponge to form quicker or if your kitchen is cold heat a grain pack in the microwave oven. Cover it with a tea towel then set the starter on top. This will provide enough warmth for the starter to form a sponge. When measuring the sponge, spoon it into a measuring cup and always warm any liquids going into the bread dough to allow the wild yeast to continue multiplying giving that lovely sourdough flavour that just can't be beat!


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kitchen Quick Tips - Thickener


Use instant potatoes to thicken soups and stews in place of corn starch or flour.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sourdough French Bread (Oven Baked)

Sourdough breads are always a delight. What sets sourdough breads apart from other breads is the slight tangy flavour derived from the sourdough starter. The starter gets it's flavour and leavening properties from wild yeast. Traditionally sourdough breads were a staple in pioneering days. Starters were protected to ensure being able to make future loaves of leavened breads. The started was passed from family member to family member as well as often being dried to keep the starter safe while traveling. I have previously written about plain sourdough bread, sourdough French bread (ABM), and sourdough muffins. Last Saturday I made two loaves of sourdough French bread baked in the oven.

Drying Sourdough Starter

When you have an established starter with just the right flavour you will want to save some of it for future use. To dry sourdough starter thinly spread the starter on a sheet of parchment paper. Allow it to dry naturally out of direct sunlight. Peel off the dried starter and break it into small pieces. It will be quite brittle. Place the dried starter pieces in a mason jar. Vacuum seal and store in a dark cool location.

Sourdough French BreadSourdough French Bread Loaves Cut

This is essentially the same recipe as the sourdough French bread (ABM) however the results are quite different due to the cooking method. This is considerably closer to a traditional sourdough French bread. The addition of yeast ensures a lower rise time however, if you want to make this bread traditional omit the yeast and give it an extended rise time. This may take longer but the results are very good. Trust me on this one, the method is a bit more involved but the bread is oh so good you will want to make it quite often!

Sourdough French Bread

1½ c sourdough starter
½ c water
1½ tsp organic sugar
1½ tsp sea salt
3½ c unbleached flour
3 tsp instant yeast


Measure the dry ingredients in into the bowl of a KitchenAid® stand mixer or similar. Mix on setting 1 and mix thoroughly. With the mixer still on setting 1 mix in starter and water. If necessary add just enough water for the dough to clean the sides of the bowl. Set the mixer to setting 2 and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. Remove the dough hook. Cover with a warm, moistened tea towel until dough is doubled in size. Punch down the dough. Divide in half and form into two elongated loaves. Sprinkle ¼ c cornmeal on a Silpat® lined baking sheet. Place the loves on the cornmeal. Cover with a warm, moistened tea towel and let rise until double.

Cut 4 deep, diagonal slices across the tops of the loaves. Combine 1 tsp cornstarch and ½ c water in a sauce pan. Heat to just boiling without boiling. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Place a large baking pan with ¼-inch boiling water in the oven. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Brush the loaves with the cornstarch mixture. Place the dough in the oven above the water. Bake 25 minutes or until golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

sourdough French bread oven bakedSourdough French Bread (oven baked)

Sourdough French bread baked in the oven is absolutely wonderful! It is rich and tangy with a beautiful golden, chewy crust due to the baking method. Adding humidity during the baking process is what gives the chewy crust texture.

Pictured is the the beautiful golden crust and lovely inside. The inside is denser than a regular loaf of bread but that adds to it's character. It's very good, piping hot from the over with just a little butter. When cooled cream cheese goes nicely with it or cut on a diagonal for making sandwiches. Two of my favourite ways to use sourdough French bread when entertaining is to use the bread as a base for garlic bread with cheese or lightly grill slices then top with bruschetta in a jar toppings.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2009

St. Patrick's Day

Garden Gnome
©2006-2009


Monday, March 16, 2009

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Think Green (Meatless Meals)

Frugal Kitchens 101
Continuing with this month's Frugal Kitchens 101 theme of thinking green this week's topic is meatless meals. Meat is an expensive source of protein accounting for a good portion of any food budget. Meat is also expensive in terms of the environment. One very cost effective way of saving money on your grocery bill is to reduce the amount of meat you consume. Simply reducing the size of the meat serving is enough to see a difference on your food bill but you can do better than than. Each week plan on at least one meatless meal!

Meatless meals need not be boring! One of our favourite meatless meals is spaghetti served with roasted tomato sauce, homemade bread and a garden salad. It's simple to prepare and inexpensive to make but does not taste anything like a budget stretching, meatless meal. Unless you are aiming for a vegetarian dish, meatless meals can take advantage of homemade meat stocks. These stocks are extremely inexpensive to make (about $0.00052 per ml) and can be home canned or frozen. They give the flavour of meat without the actual meat so use them to enhance the flavour of vegetable dishes and soups without adding much in the way of cost. Cook your pasta or rice directly in the stock for a real flavour boost without the price of additional meat! A lot of great soups can be made without the addition of meat. I home can dozens of jars of tomato soup each year that does not contain any meat products. A hearty meatless meal can easily be made by adding cooked long grain or wild rice to the soup then serve with salad and homemade bread or simple grilled cheese sandwiches. This is a real comfort meal during the winter months. Another fabulous winter comfort ,no meat meal is baking an extra large baked potato then topping with home canned old fashioned chili sauce. Oh and you just can't beat toasted tomato sandwiches in the summer months especially when made with sun kissed tomatoes fresh picked from your garden. There are so many possibilities!

As soon as you remove meat from the meal you are bound to save money. I aim for one meatless dinner per week but that's not written in stone. We often have more than one meatless dinner per week including with most breakfasts and lunches also being meatless. So give it a try and see what you think. Hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised!

next week: Think Green (Food Storage)


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cookware Basics: Quality Over Quantity

Earlier this week I was contacted by Khara of Cookware.com offering me the opportunity for their writers to author an article for Mom's Cafe Home Cooking. This is not a paid post so if you have a moment please check out their website. What interested me is they now have shipping to Canada! I accepted their offer and after a bit background work the following article written by Jamie S. of Cookware.com appeared in my inbox yesterday. The Thanks so much Jamie. The article is very much in keeping with my cooking philosophy and the spirit of this blog. I hope you enjoy Jamie's article as much as I did.

Enjoy!

Garden Gnome
©2006-2009

Cookware Basics: Quality Over Quantity

For some, cooking is a chore. Just something that has to be done every day. For others, myself included, cooking is a passion. Way more than a hobby, cooking for me is a constant learning experience. I constantly find myself experimenting with some of my favorite recipes - substituting this for that, with varying degrees of success.

When it comes to the cookware I use in the kitchen, I am an advocate for quality, often more expensive pieces that I know will last me longer and cook my food better. Let me guide you through my thought process when it comes to choosing for the best cookware.

The tendency for many amateur chefs and foodies is to buy a variety of single-use small kitchen appliances, when they could potentially save money by investing in premium quality bakeware, utensils and cookware sets. Case in point, a quality sauté pan will generally give you better results than a George Foreman Countertop grill.


Quality Materials, Quality Cooking:

If you plan on spending a lot of time in the kitchen, or you have a young family, I definitely recommend investing in some professional grade cookware and bakeware. From personal experience, I've found non-coated stainless steel and cast iron to work the best. While some people swear by non-stick cookware, there have been some concerns regarding the coating itself.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C-8, is a chemical commonly used to bond the non-stick coating to the pan. The EPA asked eight US-based companies, including DuPont, to work towards the elimination of PFOA as it has been shown to cause cancer, low birth weight as well as raising a slew of other health concerns.

While these health concerns are constantly being disputed, I've found that in my personal experience, a non-stick pan will not give the sear that a stainless steel or cast iron pan will give. Ask most chefs, and they will agree that a quality stainless steel pan will brown your food better than its non-stick counterparts. Cast Iron will more evenly distribute heat while maintaining a steady surface temperature, good for pan broiling, stewing or baking.

Another benefit to purchasing some high quality cookware, instead of several countertop appliances, is the electricity you will save in the process! It all adds up! What, with a toaster, a coffee maker, a countertop grill, a rice cooker, etc., your electric bill is likely going to be higher each month, depending how often you use everything. Plus, by having fewer countertop appliances, you eliminate needless clutter, giving you more workable countertop space!


Essential Countertop Appliances

I didn't mean to imply earlier that all countertop appliances are rendered useless by quality cookware. No, quite the contrary! Having a few choice kitchen appliances will most certainly enhance your cooking experience. For instance, a durable stand mixer is a must-have for cooking and baking.

I also couldn't do without my blender and food processor. While there's something to be said for a fine set of kitchen knives, if you're prepping for a large party, you're not going to want to chop everything yourself without the aide of your food processor. These sorts of appliances make food prep infinitely easier, leaving you time and energy to focus on perfecting the flavors of your food.


For Your Consideration...

For many cooks, price point is the biggest hindrance when it comes to shopping for new cookware. In tough financial times like we're currently seeing, that's a very valid concern. You need to think about it in the long term. Quality, extra durable cookware will last you longer than the cheap stuff. You won't have to replace it in a year or two and the quality of your food will be so much stronger. It's a win, win!

Jamie


Friday, March 13, 2009

Easy Chicken Parmigiana

There are very few days that the food channel is not on here. Not only do I view this channel I listen to it in the background turning my attention to the television only when something peeks my interest. I get a lot of ideas simply by listening. A couple of days ago it seemed like the theme of several of the cooking shows was pairing Parmesan with chicken so I though why not? then I started playing with that idea and how I could do it. This is the dish I came up with.

Parmesan chickenJust Baked

I wanted to create a warm, comforting meal using boneless skinless chicken breasts and Parmesan cheese so I went shopping in my pantry. The choices from my pantry were homemade shake & bakeroasted tomato sauce  and a package of spagettini. I chose dried parsley from my herb collection; fresh Parmesan cheese, cream cheese, sour cream and milk from the refrigerator; and 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts from the freezer. I now had what I thought was the makings for a good meal.

Method: I poured about 1½ cup of the homemade coating mixing into a shallow dish then shredded about ¼ c of Parmesan cheese into the mixture and stirred well before coating the chicken. I placed the coated chicken on a Silpat® lined baking sheet then sprinkled with an extra ¼ c of shredded Parmesan cheese. The chicken was baked at 180ºC (350ºF) until the outside was golden and crispy with inside juices running clear.

coated parmesan chicken  with roasted tomato sauce on spaghettiEasy Chicken Parmigina

While the chicken was cooking I cooked the pasta to al dente and drained. Then I stirred in 4 oz of cream cheese, 2 tbsp roasted garlic, 2 tbsp sour cream and just enough milk to make the sauce creamy.
I warmed the roasted tomato sauce so was ready to plate when the chicken was cooked.

I placed a chicken breast on a bead of the spaghettini then topped with roasted tomato sauce and garnished with dried parsley. This made for a lovely presentation that tantalized the taste buds just from sight. The meal did not disappoint. Using fresh grated parmesan this way really pumps up the flavour without adding a lot of fat while at the same time the cheese adds a nice crispiness to the coating. The easy sauce on the pasta mixed well with the roasted tomato sauce but the roasted garlic flavour was a little lost. Next time I will use a butter sauce instead of a cheese sauce to let the roasted garlic shine a bit and accent the Parmesan chicken. Chopped fresh green onions, parsley or chives would be a nice substitute for the dried parsley.

This is a dish that really has a lot of potential so it will be one I tinker with until I get just the right effect. In the mean time we will be enjoying the attempts that aren't quite just there yet :)


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kitchen Quick Tip - Parsley Substitute


If a recipe calls for fresh parsley and you do not have any on hand, substitute celery leaves instead. Dried celery leaves can be substituted for dry parsley (flakes).


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Baked Peameal Bacon Roast

Before Christmas I bought a pork loin on sale, cut it into three pieces then cured it for peameal bacon. After curing I froze the three pieces to keep them for the holiday season. One piece safely travelled with us to Wisconsin. One of our kids recently moved there so needed a taste of home in the form of real Canadian peameal bacon. The second was thawed then sliced and fried as a breakfast meat during the holidays and let me tell you oldest grandbaby loves peameal bacon! I thawed the last 1 kg (2.5 lb) piece of peameal bacon for dinner last Thursday knowing that we would get 3 or more meals from it.

peameal bacon roastBaked Peameal Bacon Roast

Our favourite way to prepare peameal bacon is pan frying but sometimes I make a baked peameal bacon roast. It always goes over well. It bakes quickly with excellent results. I don't always add water and in fact this roast was baked dry giving what I feel is a nicer but firmer result. Adding a bit of water gives a moister result. Both are equally appealing to the palet. Baked peameal gives a different texture from pan fried in that pan fried is a bit grainer. Baked peameal has a slightly smoother texture because it is cut after cooking. This is most pronounced if the peameal bacon roast is cooled then cut thin as a lunch meat.

Oven baked potatoes compliment baked peameal bacon roast nicely. To bake simply wash the potatoes well then poke with a fork and bake at the same time as the roast. This really is just simple comfort food that really doesn't need anything fancy or complicated. At most keep the topping for the potatoes to butter or perhaps a little sour cream. If you want to accent that comfort food flavour top the potatoes with old fashioned chili sauce.

peameal baconPeameal Bacon Dinner

Peameal bacon makes for a quick cooking yet very flavourful dinner meat. We often fry up sliced peameal bacon as a dinner meat. It is a lean, low calorie choice that is sure to please. A little peameal bacon goes a long way too because it is considerably more filling than regular bacon. It is similar to ham so think along those proportions for serving sizes. I find two slices cut about ½ inch thick is a good serving size for most adults although some may want a bit more.

Baked peameal bacon just pairs lovely with oven baked potatoes. I like serving steamed broccoli or spinach as a side with sautéed mushroom. A garnish is not really needed but thinly sliced sweet peppers adds another splash of colour to the plate.

peameal bunPeameal on a Bun (2)

I previously posted how to make peameal on a bun using fried peameal bacon. This was a simple dish featuring fried peameal bacon with cheese. There really are so many ways you can take peameal bacon on a bun with one of the most common ways is a breakfast sandwich with peameal bacon, egg and cheese.

I made peameal bacon on a bun with all the fixings quite similar to those for a hamburger for dinner on Sunday. I used thick slices of left-over peameal bacon roast. Toppings included: cheddar cheese, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayo and mustard. The side was a simple garnish of bread and butter pickles. It was a simple yet substantial meal.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

T-bone Steak and Mocha Bliss

It has been a long, cold winter and while we grilled a few times outdoors over the winter it was warmer and easier to grill indoors. Last weekend we grilled steaks outdoors enjoying the beautiful, balmy and rare 16ºC (60ºF) day. The following day it dipped below freezing again but we still had the memories of those great steaks. Nothing beats the taste of outdoor grilled foods!

T-bone steakT-bone Steak

We are now into freezer clean-out mode in preparation for our bulk beef purchase that will be ready the first week of April. I thawed the last two T-bone steaks in our freezer. A T-bone steak is cut from the short loin and tenderloin of the hind quarter of the beef. The steak gets its name from the T shaped bone. The cut involves two cuts of meat with the the larger portion being the short loin and the smaller portion being the tenderloin. T-bone steaks are considered one of the highest cuts of steak just below a Porterhouse that has a larger portion of tenderloin on the bone. This was the perfect steak for outdoor grilling!

I'm of the school that you don't need a lot of flavours to have a good steak so it is very seldom that you will see either of us use barbeque sauce or rubs when grilling steaks. The primary goal for us is to have the taste of the beef shine. We often but not always pair grilled steak with sautéed mushrooms or caramelized onions. Both accent the flavour of the beef without overpowering it. A steaks sauce is nice on the side for some steaks but not T-bone!

mocha bliss dessertMocha Bliss

Several years ago a variety of no bake desserts based on using CoolWhip® as an ingredient appeared on home style buffets and at home gatherings. For whatever reason these desserts quickly became favourites likely because they were easy to make and didn't cost a lot but the real reason was people liked them! I occasionally make one of these desserts usually because someone asked for that particular dessert or because I know this will be a dessert that will go over well with that particular group.

My husband was going to an event last weekend and as always knew I would send something homemade. It had been a very busy Saturday so I relied on something quick and easy. This recipe uses chocolate pudding but I wanted a bit more of a grown-up taste so I made mocha instead. Mocha refers to the combination of chocolate with coffee. You can substitute the half & half with 2% milk and use low fat CoolWhip® for a lower fat version. It won't be quite as creamy but will still be good.

Mocha Bliss

1 pk chocolate instant pudding
2 c half & half cream
2 tbsp instant coffee
2 c CoolWhip®
1½ c dark chocolate cookie crumbs
2 tbsp melted butter

Pour the cream into the bowl of a KitcheAid® stand mixer or similar. Turn to speed 2 and slowly pour in the instant coffee. Mix until well blended. Continue mixing an pour in the pudding mix. Mix until well blended. Remove the bowl and set in refrigerator until the pudding is set. Spread the cookie crumbs on the bottom of an 8.8 X 11 X 2 - inch glass baking dish. Drizzle the melted butter on top. Mix butter and cookie crumbs well them press firmly on the bottom. Refrigerate. Attach the bowl to the mixer again. Add the CoolWhip® and slowly mix. Mix but leave the mixture marbled instead of uniform. Spread the mixture over the cookie crumbs. Lightly swirl to accent the marbling. Garnish with grated chocolate.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Think Green (Cooking)

Frugal Kitchens 101
Two weeks ago I started the series comprising four posts on how to save money on groceries by thinking green. So far I've discussed ways to save on the cost of acquiring food and packaging. Today I will be discussing the very important factor of overall food costs, cooking. Quite often the cost of cooking is not taken into consideration when talking about food. Part of the reason for this is the cost of cooking is hidden as part of your utilities bills or your rent rather than something that is in black and white that you can see when you buy your groceries. However, to get that food on the table it does cost money in terms of cooking. What you think is a budget priced meal could actually be costing you more to cook it than the cost of the ingredients. Reducing cooking costs for meal prep is one area where you can have a dramatic impact on the overall cost of your food.

Let's consider cooking an $8 roast. There are several methods to cooking a roast including roasting (oven, countertop roaster, grill), slow cooker and pressure cooker. My costs for each based on our current energy rates are:

  • oven - 31¢/hour
  • countertop roaster - 9¢/hour
  • natural gas grill - 10.3¢/hour
  • slow cooker - 4¢/hour
  • pressure cooker - 24¢/hour
On the surface it looks like the slow cooker is the cheapest appliance to use but consider it takes 6 to 8 hours in the slow cooker the actual cost is 24¢ to 32¢. In this case the cheapest method is using a pressure cooker on the large burner (24¢/hr) that will cook the roast in 45 minutes or (3/4)(.24) or 18¢ followed by the counter top roaster at 2.5 hours 22.5¢. However, if you are running the AC the natural gas grill at one third the cost of electricity here is by far the best choice because it keeps the heat out of the kitchen. Ok, so we are talking pennies or are we. Consider if you use the oven or countertop roaster and cook 2 roasts at a time. You will use the same amount of electricity as cooking one roasts but now you have one roast for dinner and one to slice up for sandwiches or as planned left-overs. Sounds good right? Well if you add in vegetables or even potatoes with planned left-overs you are now maximizing the cost of cooking and reducing the cost overall for cooking. So the first rule when cooking is to multi-task by cooking more than one meal at a time. This is especially important when using your oven. For example if you bake 2 loaves of bread in the afternoon take advantage of the pre-heated oven to cook a complete dinner in the oven that night. Better still cook extra for planned left-overs.

Over cooking is a sure fire way to waste food. Burnt food simply does not taste good and there really is no way to remedy the fact that it is burnt so it ends up being tossed wasting both the food and the cooking fuel used. The best remedy for this is to be attentive and ever ready to adjust the temperate while cooking. However, there is another way that food is overcooked resulting in less than desirable results and that is boiling vegetables. Boiling vegetables really is a poor way of preparing them as a lot of their nutrients is lost in the water. Quite often the vegetable water it tossed down the drain rather than being saved to make vegetable stock. It takes a lot of energy to boil a full pot of water with vegetables as well. A better option for cooking vegetables is to steam them to al dente to keep a higher level of nutrients or roast them along with meats. Grilling vegetables also gives lovely results without adding a lot of cost. Ultimately eating raw vegetables saves the most in terms of cooking costs so always look for ways to serve raw vegetables with each meal.

During the hot summer months when the AC is on look for ways to cook outdoors or omit cooking entirely to keep extra heat out of the house. Use your grill as an oven or as a grill but always cook on it with planned left-overs in mind. Sandwiches, salads, wraps and cold soups make wonderful hot weather foods that eliminate cooking entirely. Eliminating cooking especially in the hot weather is not only going to save you the costs of cooking but also the cost of cooling your home. Dishes that require minimal cooking such as potato salad and pasta based dishes can also save a lot of money so adjust your eating habits according to the seasons.

Think Outside the Box: The obvious way to save money on cooking is to simply not cook. In some areas of the world or if you eat only raw that might be possible. For most of us eliminating cooking costs is not going to be practical but the costs can be greatly reduced. One thing you may want to consider is solar cooking. Solar has long been used for dehydrating foods (eg. sun dried tomatoes) so you might want to experiment with that. A more enterprising use of the sun that I heard of during the y2K scare was to use your car as a cooker/dehydrator. Consider how hot the interior of a car can get on a hot summer day. It is more than hot enough to warm some foods as well as dry some foods. I've also heard of people cooking foods on their car radiators while traveling. I cannot comment on either of these methods as I have not used a vehicle in this fashion. Another idea that is gaining popularity is cooking using a solar oven. These can be purchased or homemade. There are several online resources. In northern climates these will likely only be useful in the summer months. Another way to reduce your cooking costs is combine cooking with heating. If you heat with wood using a fireplace or woodstove, cook soups and stews on either. If you don't heat with wood another option is to use a wood fired kitchen stove. This will provide heat while giving greater cooking options. Foods of course can also be cooked outdoors using wood fuel if you have a good supply of wood. Again this is not practical during the winter months in northern areas.

next week: Think Green (Meatless Meals)


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Depression Cooking with Clara - Egg Drop Soup



Here's another video in the Depression Cooking with Clara series. This cooking series with Clara shows what it is really like to cook with only a few simple ingredients to make a substantial meal during very lean times. I think it is quite easy for people to get into the mindset that they need a lot of fancy ingredients to make good food. Yet that is furthest from the truth. You need good ingredients to make good food! Many are turning to the older ways of cooking realizing that all those convenience foods are not only costly but they don't guarantee good food.


Friday, March 06, 2009

English Muffins

If you have been reading this blog you will know that I strongly encourage making your own bread products. Surprisingly the main reason for do so is not economic although most homemade bread products are considerably less expensive than store bought. The main reason is a freshly made product that you control the ingredients. You don't need to worry about ingredients like artificial colourants or flavours, high fructose corn syrup or excess salt, fats and sugar. Using a few simple, inexpensive ingredients you can make a wide variety of delicious homemade breads.

Many folks are intimidated by making bread products like bagels, doughnuts, dinner rolls and English muffins. Monday I made a batch of English muffins for the coming week. Homemade English muffins will keep about 5 days and they can be frozen to use throughout the week as needed. There's no need to be intimidated. Remember the only thing that really sets an English muffin apart from other yeast breads is how it is cooked. The underlying principles of making yeast breads remain the same. Once you see how easy it is to make English muffins and how tasty they are you won't go back to store bought!

making English muffinsEnglish muffins have their origins in Victorian England. They were made by the family baker from left over scraps of bread and biscuit doughs then fried on a hot griddle. The resulting light, crusty muffin was served the downstairs staff of Victorian England but they soon were requested by the upstairs family as well. English muffin factories soon appeared in England with the muffin man selling their wares. The peak of popularity for these muffins in England was the years before World War I however, they have gained popularity in North America.

There are several recipes for English muffins and I will post others as I make them. This recipe uses eggs so the muffins are rich and flavourful. The dough is kneaded until smooth and elastic (1). I remove the dough hook and cover the bowl with a damp T-towel (2) to allow the dough to double. The dough is then rolled out and cut with a wide mouth mason jar ring that I find is the perfect size. The rounds are placed on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal (3). Then the tops are wet and sprinkled with cornmeal and the rounds are covered to rise for 30 minutes.

English muffinsEnglish Muffins

The traditional way to cook English muffins is on an ungreased griddle. If you do not have a griddle you can use a cast iron fry pan which is what the original bakers would have used. English muffins can also be cooked on an indoor or outdoor grill. The cooking time is considerably shorter than the bake time for a loaf of bread. My husband loves these English muffins. They aren't just for breakfast either. Cut them in half and use as a base for quick individual pizzas or place a nice slice of your favourite cheese over a half then bake in the oven until the cheese is melted and slightly browned.

English Muffins

1 c milk
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp organic sugar
1 tsp sea salt
3 c unbleached flour*
2 tsp instant yeast

Warm milk to just warm. Beat eggs. Stir eggs and butter into the milk. Place dry ingredients in KitchenAid® or similar stand mixer bowl. Attach dough hook to mixer. Mix dry ingredients on speed 1 until well combined. With the mixer still on setting 1 slowly pour in the wet ingredients while continuing to mix. *Add small amounts of extra flour as needed until the dough cleans the side of the bowl. Knead on setting 1 until dough is smooth and elastic. Remove dough hook and cover with damp towel. Allow to proof until doubled. Roll out to ¼ - inch thick. Cut into 3 inch rounds. Place on a cornmeal sprinkled baking sheet. Brush the tops with water. Sprinkle cornmeal on the tops. Cover and let rise 30 minutes. Preheat ungreased griddle or grill to 175ºC (350ºF). Cook on each side 6 to 7 minutes or until lightly golden brown.

Yield: 20 muffins

Breakfast

I could not leave you without a picture of these wonderful English muffins. The eggs add a lovely richness to these muffins. Did you know that the best way to enjoy English muffins is to toast them? It's true! Toasting brings out the chewy and crunchy all at the same time with tantalizing your olfactory senses with their wonderful aroma.

Pictured is the homemade English muffin I enjoyed for breakfast. I lightly toasted it then spread on a little butter. Can you see those nice nooks and crannies? When cutting an English muffin turn it on its side then use a fork to poke holes around the perimeter. Break it apart and voila!


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kitchen Quick Tips - Bread Glazes


Before baking bread:
For a dark, shiny glaze, brush on 1 beaten egg yolk. For shine without colour, brush on 1 egg white mixed with 1 tbsp water.

While bread is still hot:
For a softer crust, brush with butter.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Roasted Chicken Dinner

The traditional family meal for many families is roasted chicken in cooler months but you know roasted chicken makes an excellent weekday meal as well. Chickens are generally small enough that they can be roasted in about an hour in a conventional oven depending on the size of the chicken. The perfect weekday to roast a chicken is one that you either don't have to work or a day that either yourself or another family member can put the chicken on about 4 pm if you normally eat at 5:30 pm. If you are a WAHM, SAHM or homemaker roasting a chicken on a weekday makes perfect sense. Why would you want to roast a chicken on a weekday? The reason is quite simple. Not only will you enjoy a lovely, comfort meal but there will likely be enough left overs for the following day's lunch not to mention the carcass for when you want to make stock.

roasted chickenRoasted Chicken

We love roasted chicken but whole chickens are expensive here averaging over $8 each. I can actually buy a cooked, ready to serve rotisserie chicken from the deli for $5! For a few dollars more about the $12 range I can buy a turkey in the US when they are on sale so I don't roast whole chickens very often. Whole chicken can be roasted unstuffed on a broiling pan or stuffed using a simple stuffing made with homemade poultry seasoning.  The roasting time for chicken is 20 minutes per lb at 135ºC (350ºF) in a conventional oven. Internal temperature should be 75ºC (165ºF) using a meat thermometer. Do not over cook as this will dry out the chicken.

I have mentioned several times on this blog how much I enjoy using my Hamilton Beach® 6.5 quart countertop roaster. What I have noticed is that foods cooked in this roaster cook considerably faster and that includes roasted chicken. Using a countertop roaster of this size can easily shave off a good half hour of roasting time for chicken something that is appreciated when roasting chicken anytime. Roasting using a countertop roaster saves both time and energy costs!

roasted chicken gravyGravy

Some people pour the drippings and any liquid from the roasting pan through a strainer into a sauce pan then thicken for gravy. This is not a good idea for a few reasons. First and foremost you are losing a lot of flavour by using this method. Always make your gravy in the roasting pan. The only time this will not work is if you roast in a clay baker. For that reason a clay baker is not the best choice for roasting. Straining the gravy before making it removes all those little tasties that add to the flavour of the gravy as well. Leave these bits and pieces in the pan while you make the gravy. Pour your gravy through the strainer into a gravy separator before serving the gravy.

roasted chicken dinnerRoasted Chicken Dinner

Monday I roasted a chicken for dinner using the countertop roaster. I served the roasted chicken with stuffing, steamed spinach and reheated sour creamed potatoes left over from Saturday's dinner. It was a lovely, comforting meal on a cold, blustery March night.

Often vegetables are overcooked which is a shame. When you overcook vegetables not only do they lose visible appeal, the texture becomes mushy and they also lose valuable nutrients. One of the worst offenders is boiling vegetables to cook them. Instead, I prefer steaming vegetables to al dente (meaning with bite) to keep their beautiful bright colours and nutrients. Steaming your vegetables also saves you energy costs. So instead of covering those vegetables with water to cook them, try steaming instead. I'm sure you will love the results!

I reheated the left over sour creamed potatoes in a covered glass casserole dish for about 20 minutes at 135ºC (275ºF). Quite often reheated potatoes can be drier in texture and that is because they lose moisture during the reheating process. Covering the casserole dish with a lid ensured any moisture in the potatoes stayed in the potatoes to keep them moist. They warmed up nicely!


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Souped Up Cream of Broccoli Soup

Several years ago I discovered the food channel, Food Network. It quickly became and still is my favourite channel. While I enjoy watching and learning from all of the chefs and cooks, I am rather partial to Michael Smith. His philosophy is cooking without a recipe which is something that is very much my style of cooking. Some of the best meals are those made without using a recipe. I agree with him that a recipe is just a starting point. Recipes are not intended to written in stone!

Have you ever wondered why a dish you made using your friend's recipe did not taste like your friends? This is due to a few reasons. First every cook has little ways of doing part of the prep or cooking that isn't reflected in the recipe. These are not intentional omissions but rather they aren't mentioned because they are second nature to the author of the recipe so the author simply doesn't think to include them. For example they may only use sea salt but because that is all they use, they don't think to specify because to them it's just salt. The second reason that the recipe results will differ is the ingredients themselves. Something as simple as the variety of the tomato used in a dish can change the flavour yet most recipes do not specify the variety to use. Flavours of the same ingredient vary not only between brands but within the same brand depending on location. Some ingredients are only locally available so substituting another similar ingredient will have an effect on the dish. Finally don't over look the importance of emotion in relation to how we remember how a particular dish tasted. So next time you are following a recipe do a little experimenting. You will be surprised at what can happen!

Cream of Broccoli & Mushroom Soup

Winter is hanging in there so soup is always a welcomed meal. Virtually none of my homemade soups have an actual recipe that is meant to be followed exactly. They are jotted down in my kitchen journal as I make them so I can keep a record of tweaking but even as they appear on this blog they can still be tweaked further for your family's tastes.

Yesterday I decided to make cream of broccoli soup (my recipe here). I thought it would be a great soup on a cold, blustery day. As I was getting the ingredients out, the mushrooms caught my eye. Hmm, mushrooms would be a nice addition so they went into my ingredient group. I spotted the bacon and thought "why not?" so it went into the ingredient group as well. Instead of using a flour slurry to thicken the soup I decided on using instant potatoes. Instant potatoes are wonderful for thickening cream based soups! Use the finely ground instant potatoes rather than flakes for thickening although flakes will work in a pinch. I used turkey stock in place of vegetable stock. The resulting soup was quite lovely!

Method: Use the recipe in the link above as a start. Omit the cheese if desired as I did in this soup. Cut the bacon into pieces and fry. Drain and pat to remove fat. After adding the stock and partially blending the soup, add the mushrooms and bacon. Slowly pour in instant potatoes stirring constantly to get the desired consistency.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Think Green (Packaging)

Frugal Kitchens 101

Last week I gave a few tips on how you can save money on acquiring food simply by thinking green. Did you know that by simply thinking green with respect to food packaging that you can save a considerable amount of money on your grocery bill? It's true! This eco-friendly approach to food packing will you be save you money with very little effort. It will not be possible to eliminate all food packaging but you can greatly reduce it to save money and help the environment.

Packaging plays a huge role in the cost of groceries from increasing transportation costs to storage costs and even getting that food home. We even package our groceries in shopping bags to get the food home. Some grocery stores charge you 5¢ per bag while others do not provide any bags at all but rather provide empty boxes to cart groceries home it. Those stores that do not charge for bags factor the cost of the bags into the price of the groceries just as they do for all other costs of operating the store. The debate has long been plastic verses paper bags however the green approach is to use cloth re-usable bags or plastic grocery bins. In the case of bags, at one time the cloth bags were about $3 each but now many stores are selling them for 99¢ or you can easily sew your own cloth bags. In most cases the cloth bags will pay for themselves within a few grocery trips and last several years. If you make your own, I recommend not making them too large to prevent them from being too heavy when filled. An alternative to cloth bags is to use heavy wicker baskets with handles but these will take up more storage space when not in use.

Everything in the grocery store is packaged in one form or another. Most fresh fruits, vegetables and fresh nuts have their own natural packaging and while some may need bagging to get them home, most do not. Choose fresh produce over canned or frozen and in season to save money as well as eliminate store packaging entirely. Avoid pre-packaged salad mixes, pre-chopped packaged produce, pre-made packaged salads/fruit or vegetable trays. There is no reason to buy apples, oranges, peppers and other types of produce conveniently packaged in plastic bags. Simply put the loose fruits or vegetables in your cart to be put into your cloth bag to take home. Whole nuts bought in bulk are an exception so package these into a produce bag that can be re-used over and over. Most pastry and bakery items are packaged with some of it being over packaged. Avoid packaging on these items by making your own at home. If for example you make 2 loaves of bread per week you will have kept 104 plastic bread bags and bread ties out of the landfill while enjoying a healthier product at a considerably lower cost. Simply switching your dried breakfast cereal to fruit/yogurt, fruit smoothies, hot breakfasts, hot cereals or even off brand cereals packaged only in a plastic bag without the box you will be saving both money and keeping extra packaging out of landfills. Consider changing your over packaged instant oatmeal to quick cooking oatmeal (cooks in 1 minute) for a healthier product not laden with salt, sugar and preservatives that is considerably cheaper than the instant oatmeal packets. Flavour with homemade jams, jellies, maple syrup, fruit or brown sugar.

Avoid buying anything meant as individual servings. Examples of this are pudding cups, fruit cups, frozen entrées, yogurt cups and individual snack bags. All of these are more expensive than homemade versions and all produce an incredible amount of garbage. Homemade versions will keep this garbage out of landfills. Avoid anything over packaged as this packaging does increase the overall cost of that particular food. A good example of this is individually wrapped cheese sticks that are then packaged into another bag. Per unit price the cheese sticks are more expensive than simply buying a block of cheese.

Some stores off bulk food bins where you scoop out what you want into rather thin plastic bags or plastic containers. The food is priced in $/kg or $/lb. This gives you the flexibility to buy as much or as little as you want. In general this food tends to be less expensive than pre-packaged foods. Buying this way allows you to avoid entirely jars, bottles and boxes. It is especially cost effective when buying herbs and spices.

Consider canning, freezing and drying your own foods either home grown or purchased from farm stands and taking advantage of good grocery store sales. Canning can save a considerable amount of money while completely avoiding store bought foods packaged in aluminum cans and jars. Canning jars are re-usable so this practice prevents aluminum cans and jars from ending up in landfills in areas where recycling is not available. Freezing will of course involve you packaging the food into freezer bags or wrapping in freezer paper. Vacuum sealed foods packaged for the freezer eliminates freezer burn. These bags can be re-used until too small to seal. Re-usable freezer containers will help reduce this cost. Many foods are cheaper when home frozen in comparison to foods in the freezer section of the grocery store. Take advantage of in season produce to dry foods as well. Homemade beef jerky, fruit roll-ups and trail mix are examples of foods made with dried foods that are all cheaper than store bought.

Some food products should be avoided entirely or limited. Included in this group is soda/soft drinks, bottled water and ready to use juices or juice drinks. Unless these containers are recyclable in your area they will end up in a landfill unless you re-use them. The problem is these containers will add up in numbers greater than you can re-use. Soda is just empty calories with no nutritional value. I'm not saying to give up soda entirely although it will save a lot of money if you do, what I am saying it to limit soda as much as possible. Bottled water is expensive per ml or ounce compared to the very water you are already paying for from your taps. Consider if you drink two bottles of water per day that adds up to 704 bottles per year. Individually purchased at 99¢ that is $696.96! But also consider just in production costs of all that plastic and the impact all those bottles have on the environment. Invest in a couple of 16 oz refillable water bottles (2 - 4 per adult) and it necessary a filter for your tap or even a filtering water jug. Filter your own water to fill your refillable water bottles for a fraction of the cost of store bought bottled water. In most cases ready to drink juices are more expensive than concentrated fruit juices in the freezer section. Buy the concentrated fruit juices to save money buy not paying for the water and to reduce packaging. Invest in a fruit juicer or a steam fruit juicer to make your own healthy juices with in season produce then can or freeze them for later use. Fruit drinks with only 10% real fruit juice or less are not a good value for your dollar so are best avoided. Individual juice boxes (tetra pacs) should be avoided as they are more expensive per ml (oz) and not eco-friendly. Avoid pre-made ice tea and ice tea powders. Some tend to be high in sugar but both are more expensive than making your own ice tea using tea bags. Even using herbal teas along with black or green tea to create different blends is still considerably cheaper than store bought. Pour into a refillable water bottle for easy portability.

Eco-friendly ideas: It is virtually impossible to avoid or eliminate all food packaging. In this case choose re-usable over recyclable (eg. glass jars over aluminum cans); recyclable over non-recyclable. Remember to always follow the first rule of grocery shopping - unit shopping. At some point you will come across a product where the larger size is more expensive per unit than the smaller size. In this case you have a couple of choices. You can buy one or more of the smaller size or you can find a substitution or simply just don't buy. In many cases you may decide to buy one or more of the smaller size so either recycle or reuse the packaging. Get creative at reusing packaging. Jars and cans are easy to find uses for especially since jars protect dry foods from insects, rodents and humidity. Large aluminum cans can be turned into small foot stools and used to hold a variety of spreadable items in the garden like grass seed. Plastic squeeze bottles can easily be reused and not just for food items. Cereal boxes can be cut to use as magazine organizers or open them up and use them for weed control under mulch. Institutional sized jars and plastic containers (eg. mustard, ketchup, Miracle Whip®) with their cheaper per unit priced contents are ideal for holding all sorts of small toys in the playroom. Coffee cans with lids and the new plastic coffee containers are also ideal in the playroom. From experience rodents will chew on bath soap so store your bar soap stash in empty metal coffee cans. Soda cans can be turned into emergency single burner stoves or cut to make windchimes or whirlygigs for the garden. Use large plastic soda bottles to protect seedlings in the garden. In some communities you can even sell your aluminum cans to local recycling businesses or even returned for a refund of a pre-paid deposit. Check online for many other uses for packaging that you might otherwise recycle or toss.

next week: Think Green (Cooking)


Sunday, March 01, 2009

Meat Pies with Sour Creamed Baked Potatoes

One benefit of being a foodie is other people love to share some of their signature dishes and recipes with you. A couple we know well immigrated from Lancestershire, England a number of years ago. She is a fabulous cook who has had a good deal of experience as owner and operator of two English style pubs in Canada as well as experience in England. She makes lovely meat pies that were always a hit at her last pub and is now selling them at a weekly farmer's market. Her husband dropped off a couple at my husband's office on Thursday so we had them for dinner Saturday night.

meat pieMeat Pie

Meat pies or some form of meat pies have been a staple in most cultures for time ever. Essentially a meat pie is some type of thick stew (eg. meat with vegetables and gravy) as opposed to other pastry covered meat based dishes like pasties that do not have the gravy as part of the filling. They are usually rich and flavourful on the savoury side with nice flakey crusts. The meat pies were pre-baked so all I had to do was re-heat in the oven. Trust me these meat pies are nothing like those store bought meat pies.

My husband's meat pie was beef with vegetables. The crust was lovely, nice and flakey. The filling was rich, thick and flavourful! I served the meat pies with green beans and sour creamed baked potatoes (recipe follows).

steak and kidney pieSteak & Kidney Pie

My meat pie was steak and kidney, a traditional British pub fare made by topping a filling of chopped steak and beef, lamb or pig kidney in a sauce then topped with crust with or without the bottom crust. This version of steak and kidney pie also had potatoes in with the meat but no other vegetables. The crust gets its deep golden sheen by brushing it with milk before baking.

Sour creamed baked potatoes make a wonderful side for steak and kidney pie. The original recipe I had said to use double cream and lemon but I substituted sour cream. The results were quite good!

Sour Creamed Baked Potatoes

6 medium baking potatoes
¾ sour cream
1 tsp prepared horseradish

Wash potatoes and prick with a fork. Bake at 180ºF (350º until soft. Remove from oven. Cut in half. Scoop out the inside of the potatoes leaving about an eighth inch of the potato on the flesh. Mash the scooped out potato with sour cream and horseradish. Spoon back into the potato skins. Bake at 180ºC (350ºF) with the steak and kidney pies for 25 to 30 minutes or until meat pies are cooked through and the tips of the potato filling begin browing.