Tag Archives: cooking 101

Recipe Cooking Times Can Be Deceiving!

cooking times

Often, they’re just a suggestion.

Recipe writers can’t always be quite as precise as they’d prefer when they list cooking times in a recipe.  So many variables enter into the equation.

This Spring, a friend’s daughter was making her first brisket for a dinner party.  She had preheated her oven, browned the meat on both sides, added all the ingredients to the roasting pan and then carefully put it in her oven for the listed 2 hours of cooking time.

She called me in a panic at the 2-hour mark – she had placed the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the brisket and the temp on the thermometer was correct.  But to her horror, the meat still appeared a bit pink (brisket is cooked all the way through) and it wasn’t tender at all!  She had eaten brisket many times at other friends’ homes and it was ALWAYS fork tender.  Hers was tough.  She was almost in tears and she couldn’t understand what she’d done wrong.

I calmed her down, told her that she’d done nothing wrong and then, because I’ve cooked more brisket than I’d care to think about, gave her this advice: ignore the cooking time and meat temp and put it back in the oven until a long-tined fork goes into the thickest part of the brisket with the greatest of ease.  Then, and only then, it would be cooked perfectly.  She needed to cook to the indicator – tenderness – not the time in the recipe.  Needless to say, her brisket was a success.

Here’s a good rule to follow:  Always cook to the indicator and not the time on the recipe.  The listed time is basically a suggestion unless you’re talking about how long to boil eggs and then it’s quite specific!

Recipes will always tell you what something is supposed to look or feel like.  It might be ‘cook until the skin is crispy and brown’ or, ‘when the spices start to stick to the bottom of the pan’ or, as in my favorite salmon recipe, ‘until the color has changed half to two-thirds the way up side of the filet and the skin releases completely from the pan’.

The reason you can’t go by an exact time on most recipes is because kitchens vary.  The oven temperature could be ‘off’ (even though you set your oven temp to what is in the recipe that doesn’t mean that your oven and the recipe writer’s oven are calibrated the same), the moisture in the air can be different from your kitchen to theirs, the material of your pan can be different from the writer’s, or any other number of small differences that can all add up to the listed cooking time in a recipe being not quite right to get the hoped for result.  Medium on an electric range is completely different than medium on a gas range.

So, remember, the cook times to achieve a ‘doneness’ are suggestions (we all taste pasta while it’s cooking, don’t we?).  If after the suggested cook time has expired and it still doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to – keep cooking.  Remember my brisket story.

If you remember this tip, pay attention to the process and don’t blindly follow the cook time on a recipe, you will have a much better result.  Patience!

Kitchen Tool Upgrades to Take You to The Next Level

My list of handy ‘next level’ kitchen tools so you’re not caught without “the right tool for the right job.”

There’s an old saying about using “the right tool for the right job.” It isn’t just about odd jobs around the house – it’s about EVERY job – the right tool makes whatever the job is so much easier and that includes the tools in your kitchen.  When it comes to making sure you have the right tools, there’s no difference between fixing a leaky faucet and cooking up a lovely dinner for guests.

This is my list of handy ‘next level’ kitchen tools. None of these ideas are expensive – almost all are under $35. But having these tools around the kitchen could make all the difference between a fun cooking adventure or enduring what could become an unnecessarily difficult kitchen experience.

Read: The 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks

My goal is to help you avoid the situation where you’ve already started a recipe and suddenly you realize that the simple task of grating Parmesan cheese is not going as planned. Or, you need the wine opened for your pot roast and that old handy wine opener (the one you’ve had since college) suddenly jams. Some of these items you know you’ve talked about replacing the last time you reached for them. A few of them you don’t think about until the day you need them.

This is why I urge all cooks, whether you’re a new or inexperienced cook or are very comfortable in the kitchen, to be proactive about all your tools. You don’t know the pain until the simple tool you need is either missing or broken!

Here’s the easy part about all of this—it doesn’t take much to upgrade the standard tools in your kitchen—you just have to remember to do it. And, I’m here to help:

A good citrus squeezer. Seriously, this is the one everyone forgets. Remember, you just can’t get as much juice out of the lemon or lime using only your hands.

A two-step Waiter’s Corkscrew. This is a pro tool, used by waiters everywhere and will make getting the bottle of wine open that much easier.

A good quality microplane. You’ll never have to mince garlic or ginger with a knife ever again.  And, this tool is perfect for Parmesan cheese!

A sturdy dough or bench scraper. Bakers use it to scrape the dough off the counter, but here’s the thing—it’s actually perfect for transferring chopped anything (meat or veggie) into pots and pans without picking up the cutting board.

An insert rack for your pan. If you ever plan to fry anything and want to keep it crispy, get a cooling rack that fits your sheet pan.  Air can flow underneath your fried items and keep them crispy – they don’t sit in the oil from the fryer.

A set of nesting mixing bowls. Stainless or glass, because everyone needs mixing bowls, right?

A cast iron skillet – 10-12”.  This will become your favorite skillet in the kitchen.  Nothing sears meats better and it can go from stovetop into the oven with no worries.

REAL kitchen shears. Not scissors you also use for cutting paper. You want shears that can cut through chicken bones AND that sheet pan pizza you just made. Important feature—make sure you get the ones you can easily take apart for thorough cleaning.

A serrated bread knife. The thing is, this is not just for bread but also any hard-skinned vegetables like Squash – AND tomatoes (perfect for any thin-skinned soft fruit because it won’t tear the skin!)

A paring knife. Small and sharp, for the little cutting jobs that require precision.

Read: The Essential 5 Must Have Knives for your Kitchen

A fish spatula. Characterized by the extra-long part that does the scraping or picking up. Usually made of thin stainless steel.  This one is not only for fish but for just about anything that needs a little extra flexibility to pick up the food in one piece.

A stainless ladle. This is for that pot of chili you’re going to make on Sunday or the favorite soup for dinner.

Watch my video to see these tools and get the feel of the way they work. And remember—maybe you already have some of these tools. But, check them out and make sure they’re ready for your next cooking adventure.

Defining the 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks

What you need to know about the top 10 essential tools for your kitchen.

A client of mine just bought a second home near a lake. She faced the same problem all cooks face when stocking a new kitchen – what are the basics necessary to prepare meals for her and her family?  What are the absolute essential kitchen tools?

One of my favorite websites, Bon Appetit, posted an article titled 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks. Here are my notes on the ‘Essential 10’.

The first item is a 10” stainless steel skillet. “Stainless steel” because you don’t want anything that will chip, stain, or break. Personally speaking, ‘non-stick’ surfaces are a ‘non-starter’ for the “essential” list because this will be your workhorse tool. Nothing against ‘non-stick’ (I have a small one for my morning eggs) but they do need a bit of extra care to protect them from scratches. Cast iron is another favorite, but these also require some careful cleaning and regular seasoning. As with many of these “essentials,” it’s all about personal preference.

Next is a good chef’s knife. You can do most of your kitchen chores with this one knife–so make it the first one you buy before you add other knives. Your biggest consideration is the length of the blade. For me, the 8-inch blade is a nice size but, you may prefer the 10-inch. There’s really no formula for which one is better. It’s personal preference—how it feels in your hand, balance and how long of a blade you’re comfortable working with. You should also consider getting a honing steel to sharpen your knife each time you use it—a dull knife is one of the most dangerous things to have around the kitchen.

Read: The Essential 5 Must Have Knives for your Kitchen

There’s always a lot of chatter about cutting boards, myself included. There are two things to think about: food safety and utility. I know people who swear that their glass cutting boards help them permanently solve the food safety issue (you can sanitize them). They also last longer than wood, bamboo, or plastic. But a glass cutting board will dull your knives faster than you can read this sentence. Actually, glass can ruin your chef’s knife.

So, what’s the perfect cutting board in my kitchen? A good hardwood (walnut, hickory, oak). If you want to preserve your knife and don’t care that you’ll have to replace your board often, softer woods like cypress are great. Good wood boards are perhaps 2” thick, so they don’t warp when they get wet. A Bamboo board—which is a nice compromise between hardwood and softwoods—will be about ¾” thick. As for the food safety issue, you should have a separate board for vegetables and another for animal proteins—you don’t want to cross contaminate. That’s where plastic cutting boards come in. You can stick them in the dishwasher and they’re cheap to replace when they warp, start to chip or get heavily scratched.  By the way, never stick your wood or bamboo board in a dishwasher.

Read: Don’t Take Your Cutting Board for Granted!

You need a 5 to 8-quart heavy stockpot. You will use this for boiling pasta, blanching veggies, and cooking up batches of your favorite chili or soup recipes. You want a heavy-bottomed one so that the heat is distributed evenly. Make sure that the lid is tight fitting.

It may seem obvious, but you’ll want a large cooking spoon—wood or stainless steel. I have several. Stainless is durable but can scratch some surfaces. Replace wood spoons as often as you replace wood cutting boards.

People sometimes forget how important it is to have a good set of measuring spoons and measuring cups. I like metal ones—they’re sturdy, and they retain their shape after years of use. You’ll find sets with eight or more different spoons and cups. Go for the simplicity of the basic four. In spoons, that’s one-tablespoon, one-teaspoon, half-teaspoon, and quarter-teaspoon. In cups, you’ll want one-cup, half-cup, one-third cup, and quarter-cup. Any more than that is just clutter.

That leads me to your basic liquid measuring cup. Glass is fabulous—but get one that’s tempered glass, so it doesn’t shatter the moment you put boiling liquid into it. Forget the one cup size because you already have that in your set of measuring tools. Go straight for the 2-cup and then add a 4-cup later.

You’ll want a rimmed sheet tray. Emphasis on “rimmed”—I like the ones with taller rims that are about half-inch tall. You’ll use this for roasting and baking.

A veggie peeler is definitely an essential. There are all kinds of designs but, I love my Y-peeler. It’s faster than a swivel peeler, easier to handle, and so cheap that when it finally gets dull, you can just replace it.

Lastly, a set of fine-mesh sieves. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that you can do all with big mesh colanders. Big mesh is suitable for draining big veggies, but not very useful otherwise. No plastic, it can become warped if you put hot liquid in it. You want a thin-rimmed metal sieve. Some come with plastic handles—but the simplicity of all metal is better. I say “set” because you’ll want perhaps three sizes. One should be about 6” in diameter that will double as a spider in the kitchen for scooping out blanched veggies, pasta, rinsing beans or grains, draining stock and sauces. I also use that one for poaching eggs.

That’s my “essential 10”—check out my video so you can see them for yourself.

You may think of other tools like saucepans, spatulas, whisks, and a slotted spoon. But if you’re a beginner, don’t clutter up your kitchen with all the accessories. Take it one step at a time. Learn your tools, and you’ll have more fun. I promise!

Food Tip – The best croutons for your summer salads!

home-made croutons

Add a kick to your salads with home-made croutons – and it’s so easy.

I love crunchy carbs, don’t you? The specific carb that’s on my mind right now are croutons. Okay – so not exactly health food. I think of home-made croutons as a sort of “love food” – for the love of cooking and entertaining friends. They can be used so many different ways – perfect for topping salads and crumbled over grilled asparagus just to name a few.

Diving back to my restaurant days, croutons originate from France, early 19th Century, when an unknown chef had an idea to put small pieces of toasted bread crust into food. It was such a great idea that fragments of croûte (crust) found its way into all sorts of recipes, and eventually salads.

Now, of course, we can buy croutons in all shapes and sizes; ready and prepared for soups, salads, or whatever. Some are okay, but the best is home-made. I picked up a recipe from my favorite magazine and website, Bon Appetit. I loved it so much that I recreated the recipe in this video.

A friend of mine uses this recipe for her fried chicken breadcrumb spice mix. Not exactly health food either, but that’s a recipe that defines “love food.” I showed this recipe to another friend who loves to snack on them with a glass of red wine on “down time” nights when she binges on her favorite streaming video programs. To each her own, right?

The recipe indeed starts off simple enough, with a loaf of day old bread from your favorite baker. I love the Röckenwagner Farmer’s Market brand. It’s where I can find my favorite loaf of bread – rosemary olive oil. But your bread can be anything – a pure sourdough, a French loaf – it doesn’t matter.

Next step, preheat your oven to 375°F.

Take your loaf of day-old bread and trim off the crust all the way around. You don’t have to be careful with the trimming, because after you’re done, you’re going to take the whole loaf and tear it into irregular, jagged pieces. The pieces should be about the size of your thumb leaving behind plenty of nooks and crannies.

In a single layer on a baking sheet, pour a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil over your pieces of bread. I’m a little particular about my olive oil – I wrote a whole explanation you may want to read. In this case, I use Terra di Brisighella that I brought back from Italy. It’s real Italian, extra virgin and has an excellent taste.  But, as long as it’s good olive oil and you like the taste it’s the perfect one for your recipe.

Sprinkle salt generously. I use sea salt because it’s not as salty tasting as table salt. It’s perfect for this kind of preparation.

Next, squeeze all of the pieces of bread with your hands to help them absorb the olive oil and salt. Then spread the pieces out again.

Slip the baking sheet into the oven for about 10 minutes.  Watch the oven (not all ovens heat the same) and make sure you take them out before they burn!

Then enjoy some tasty croutons, made by your own hands!

Kitchen hack: Save your leafy herbs, chop them the right way

Fran preps leafy vegetables

How to chop leafy herbs AND keep all that wonderful flavor for your recipe.

Open a recipe and you’ll find a call for a leafy herb – chopped. To be honest, unless you’re just using the herb as garnish (or really know what you’re doing), you always want to chop herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro. That’s the way to release the oils and flavoring into your recipe.

But here’s the problem. Most people tend to over chop their leafy herbs – to the point of mashing all that extra goodness right into the cutting board. You’ve seen it, right? Chop away and, boom, green liquid stains all over the board! Here’s the thing – that green liquid is telling you that a lot of the vital flavor from the herb is NOT going into your recipe but has stayed behind. What do you do?

I’m going to help you rescue your herbs – get more out of what you put in – and I’m going to help you cut back on the amount of prep work. Part of the great reward (other than more flavor for your recipe) is that you’re going to be so happy when you see how easy this is to do the right way.

Basil is one of my favorite herbs – so aromatic and flavorful. But it’s very soft and bruises easily which makes it the one herb so easy to over-chop. This classic French style of preparation is called chiffonade and it’s the right way to not lose all that Basil goodness by leaving it on your cutting board:

  1. Rinse the Basil and remove each leaf from the stem.
  2. Roll the leaves tightly together with largest leaf on the bottom – smallest on top – like a small cigar.
  3. Start at one end and gently slice the “cigar” into thin strips with a very sharp knife. Remember: a sharp knife means “no bruising.” But it also means be very careful. Curl your fingertips in away from the knife blade and keep the knife tip on the board.
  4. Depending on the recipe, make your cuts no smaller than 1/8th of an inch; 1/4th an inch or slightly larger is fine for most recipes.
  5. Strips too big? No problem. Cross cut once or twice and now you have smaller pieces. Enjoy that wonderful smell in the process.

Apply the same chiffonade process with any leafy herb like Italian parsley or cilantro. Hold the bunch with one hand and lightly shave off the leaves from the stems. Then roll the little leaves together like the basil and gently cut through them only once. Watch my video and see how it all comes together.

Don’t try this method of preparation with thyme or rosemary – that’ll be for another day. But, if you follow these few easy steps, you will get to enjoy more of your herbs in your recipe.

How to dice an onion – the easy way.

Fran Berger dicing onions

This trick will make dicing onions quick and so very simple.

Onions get all the grief. They stink up our kitchens and they sting our eyes and make us cry. Yet, onions are in so many recipes, all kinds of dishes: soups, sauces, salads, fried, broiled, and baked bringing their own special flavor to your recipe. It’s hard to cook without this veggie!

I even know someone who eats onions raw! With salt! Seriously. He told me the other day that when he was a small kid, his mother told him that onions were brain food. He’s been eating them raw ever since. He IS smart, but I don’t think onions are the reason!

There are so many different varieties of onion, each with their own unique color, aroma, and flavor. I’m going to focus on the full round varieties. The most common type of these is the “yellow” onion. This is the full-flavor variety that you’ll find many recipe authors call out in all kinds of preparations. You’ll find “white” onions in Mexican dishes. They give off a sweeter flavor when sautéed with proteins like chicken, beef, and pork. Red onions are generally milder in flavor and are awesome raw, so you find them in lots of salads and some soups.

With these three most common varieties, you’ll often be asked to dice. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to dice “full round” onions. Have you ever sliced an onion then restacked the cuts to slice again? You know how clumsy that is, right? Well, there’s only one way that really beats all of them. I’ve been using this method for years – it’s one of the best lessons I learned from a chef friend. It’s the method I’m going to show you now. Check out my video so that you also see how it’s done in seven easy steps:

  1. Cut ½” from the stem end – this is the top of the onion where the stalk grows.
  2. Turn the onion around and cut into the root about half way. Don’t cut the root off completely. You’ll see why in a minute.
  3. Lay the onion on the stem end and cut the onion in half, vertically through the top to the root end. Then peel the onion. Remove the outer most ‘paper’ layer and one more ‘onion’ layer.
  4. Lay one half of the onion on the flat side and make vertical cuts. Keep your fingers curled under to protect them and be careful to NOT cut all the way through the root end.
  5. With your hand flat on top of the onion (keeping your fingers far from the knife) make two (or more) horizontal cuts. Again, be careful to not cut through the root end because we need the root to hold the onion layers together for us.
  6. Slice across your previous cuts, all the way through, till you reach the root end. Now you have a diced onion!
  7. The closer together your horizontal cuts and vertical cuts are the smaller your dice will be. This method can also be used if you need larger pieces for skewers – just make your cuts about ½” apart and the onion pieces will separate into perfect larger pieces.

One last little tip: use your knife to chop your diced onion on the board if you want a finer dice.

Enjoy!

How to zest citrus for your recipe

fran-berger_zesting

My Three Tips to get the best of your ‘zest’.

A friend of mine and I were looking over a drink recipe. When we got to the part about adding “zest” to the drink, she wondered, “what kind of zesting do they want?” That’s actually an excellent question because the author of the recipe didn’t say.

Take a look at what the dictionary says for the word “zest,” and you’ll probably find words like “interest” or “excitement.” That about sums it up when it comes to home cooking and mixing drinks – you want interest and excitement?  Add citrus or acid and you add a whole new layer of flavor to what you are creating.

You’ll run into “citrus zest” as an ingredient for both cooking and drink mixing from time to time. It’s the easiest way to capture an interesting aroma and add excitement for the taste buds. It’s not a trick – it’s a long-standing culinary technique. But even if you’re familiar with it, there are different ways to zest, depending on your goals.

The basics of “zesting” are straightforward. But I have collected some handy tips that I’ve picked up over the years that could make your zesting just a bit easier.

Zesting adds some of that fresh citrus flavor (orange, lemon, lime, even grapefruit) to whatever you are preparing. The best flavor and aroma comes from the outermost color layer of the rind (not the pith or bitter white layer). There are three different ways to zest citrus fruits that I show in my video. Each one is easy, but they work best when you have a specific goal in mind:

  • Microplane is the finest sized grate and it’ll give you lot of flavor. I typically see fine zest as an essential flavoring ingredient for batters, deserts, and sauces. Remember – a little goes a long way!
  • Five-hole zesters will give you a much more significant and rougher zest that’ll produce lots of aroma, but a little less flavoring than a microplane. You probably won’t see this type of zesting as a cooking ingredient, but you may see it in drinks or as a colorful curly aromatic garnish in a finished dish like a salad or for fish and poultry.
  • Veggie peelers are really useful zesting tools. You can use them to create wide strips of zest that can be sliced into narrower strips that look and smell great in drinks. You can also dice the slices as an aromatic garnish. I’ve seen a few cooked dishes that call for sliced zest – mainly in middle eastern and Asian dishes. Or, you can leave the wide strip just as it is as a great ‘twist’ for your martini!

One more comment about zesting ‘types.’ When you run into a recipe that calls for zesting, the author will probably tell you which one is needed. If the recipe doesn’t specify the zesting type (which happens on occasion), my recommendation is to use the microplane only when the zest is needed as a cooking ingredient. Use the five-hole zester and veggie peeler when zesting as a garnish.

On to my Three Zest Tips that will make the best of whatever zesting you need:

FIRST, Wash the fruit rind (peel) thoroughly. You’re using the rind in the final preparation of whatever you’re drinking or eating. Sometimes there is a thin wax coating on the fruit so I use soap and water and give it a good scrub without damaging the skin.

SECOND, pick the zesting you want (see list above). Remember that the finer the zesting, the more powerful the flavoring you’ll get.

THIRD, use only the colorful outer layer of the fruit – that’s where you’ll find most of the aroma and flavoring. Try to avoid the bitter pith of the fruit, the white part that makes up most of the rind.

For the Zest of your life. Have fun!

Kitchen Tip: How to slice a mango

Fran Berger - cutting mangoes

Love the mango – tips on picking, prepping, and enjoying.

A few weeks ago, I was with a friend, walking around a local farmer’s market (one of my favorite pastimes). We stopped at one booth where we found mangoes – which is a bit unusual for California, but there they were.

I love mangoes. I pointed to them and said, “These look so pretty!”

My friend looked, and shook her head, “Nope. Hate cutting them.  I never seem to get it right and eventually just end up with a mess!”

I had to step back. With twenty plus years in the restaurant business, naturally I’m fearless about food. But I can see how mangoes could be intimidating. They’re big, odd shaped, and look nothing like apples and oranges. In fact, did you know that although they are considered a “stone fruit” (single large seed in the center of the fruit) they actually belong to the cashew family?

Mangoes are the most commonly eaten fruit in tropical countries in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific archipelagoes. It’s the national fruit of India (almost half the cultivated mangoes in the world are grown in India) and widely grown in Pakistan and the Philippines. But lately, growers in South America and California have had good luck growing them, thus the unusual appearance at my local farmer’s market.

Ripe mangos are great to eat raw – chilled or not. Sour or unripe mangoes are used in chutneys, pickles, etc.  Many drinks, juices, and smoothies are made using mangoes, and they can be dried and or added to cereals. Mango pulp is used to make jams and jellies. They can be eaten almost any way you can imagine when you want to add a little natural sweetness to a dish.

How can you tell if a mango is good? Don’t focus on the color of the skin. Mangos ripen from green to yellow, with some varieties showing red. Use the same rules you’d use for avocados and peaches: firmly soft to a gentle squeeze. A ripe mango (ready to eat) will also have a fruity aroma at their stem ends.  Don’t be afraid to sniff your fruit at the market – it’s a perfect clue as to ripeness – this includes citrus!

How do you cut a mango? First big tip – DO NOT try to peel the mango while still on the pit. It’ll only turn into a soft and mushy mess! Best results come when you cut the fruit from the pit – which is pretty straight-forward.

  1. Mangoes look very unusual. The pit itself is flat which gives the mango an odd oblong shape that tells you the direction that the pit is going. After you wash the skin thoroughly, place the fruit on a cutting board with the stem end away from you and the narrow edge of the mango facing up. Take a look at my video for a better view of what this looks like.
  2. Use a very sharp knife and cut down one side of the pit. Turn it around and cut down the other side of the pit. This will leave some fruit still attached to the pit, you’ll cut that later.
  3. Gently take the mango halves into your hand and VERY CAREFULLY score the fruit, but don’t cut through the skin. This will give you long mango slices. To dice, score the fruit again crosswise.
  4. Take the scored halves and turn them inside out. Then cut along the skin to release the mango slices or cubes. Important tip: keep your hand flat!

As for the rest of the mango, the part that’s still on the pit, you can quickly cut around it for a few more slices and cubes.

Enjoy!

Kitchen Hacks: Must Have Spices for any Home Cook

What's in your spice cabinet?

“Sniff test” your cabinet – it may be full of spices but are they still usable?

Even if you cook every day, there’s always a chance you’re going to run into a situation where you just don’t have all of the spices that you need to finish a dish. It’s why I always tell everyone that the most important first step in any recipe is to read it through at least once before you start cooking and double check your cupboards for the ingredients and spices you’ll need.

The other problem – and this happens once in a while in my kitchen – is that you see a spice that you have, but it’s too old. Unfortunately, the shelf life of dried spices is – at the most – only about 12 months. Some finicky “spicers” say that dried spices only last 6 – 8 months.

The best way to know if your spices are ‘still good’ is to bring them out every so often – and sniff them!  I know that might sound weird, but it’s the best way to check if they still have potency. Or… you can wait to check them until it’s time to assemble your ingredients. Either way, remember that just because the can or bottle looks good doesn’t mean that the spices they contain ARE good. If they lose their fragrance, then it’s time to replace. Even dried spices should have a robust aroma as you open the container. If they don’t, they won’t impart enough of their flavor into your dish.

If you don’t cook very often, or a particular spice is a bit unusual, buy the smallest size container you can find. A friend of mine takes the time to write the date of purchase on all of her spices. That’s a great idea, but I’m not sure it’s necessary when you just need to ‘sniff’ them. Instead, I’m more concerned about what’s actually in my spice cabinet – so that I’m ready for just about anything.

In my video, I give you a short list of what I consider seven genuinely essential spices. I’ve expanded that list to 15 for my blog readers:

  1. Kosher Salt – always used by professional cooks and good home cooks. Ideal for cooking because it’s less salty than iodized salt by volume, so you have better control.
  2. Salt Crystals and Whole Peppercorns – you’ll need salt and pepper grinders. Once you get in the habit of using grinders, you’ll never go back to granular salt and pepper. The difference in flavor is very noticeable.
  3. Rosemary – one of my top three herbs. Rosemary is used in a lot of Mediterranean and French style cooking.
  4. Oregano – number two in my herb list. This one is widely used in both Mexican and Italian cuisines.
  5. Thyme – and number three in my herb list – a very aromatic way to ‘spice up’ proteins, especially poultry.
  6. Garlic Powder – fresh is better for more garlic flavor, but sometimes you’re caught without any fresh garlic in the kitchen. Or, perhaps you don’t like the smell in the kitchen and on your fingers. Or sometimes all you need is a dash of flavor. Go for the “roasted garlic” variety – it imparts a deeper flavor.
  7. Crushed Red Pepper – an essential spice for African and Mexican dishes, but this is my most favorite way to season meats and veggies. Just add a dash at a time to flavor.
  8. Chili Powder – a spice mix in itself. Depending on the brand, it’s built around Cayenne pepper, but many other spices are added – read the label.
  9. Cayenne Pepper – for that recipe where you need a pinch of extra heat.
  10. Ground Cinnamon – used in both sweet and savory recipes.
  11. Cumin – an aromatic spice used in many different cuisines, either whole or ground.  If you’re using whole for your recipe, take a few minutes and toast it before adding it to your dish. The difference in flavor is immediately noticeable.
  12. Curry Powder – which is also a blend of other spices, typically coriander, turmeric, mustard, cumin, and fenugreek. You can use it to spice up curry (of course), but I use it quite a lot on my roasted or fried veggies and even on French fries!
  13. Ground Ginger – used in a lot of Asian and other international cuisines.
  14. Smoked Paprika – the subtle smoky flavor adds a bit of complexity to just about any dish.
  15. Vanilla Extract – because, who doesn’t have at least a small bottle of this pure joy? And to be perfectly honest, I love the purity of Simply Organic, Madagascar pure Vanilla extract. Be careful to look for pure vanilla extract – you don’t want the artificial flavor.

Now, the question that often gets tossed at me is where to get the best spices? Personally, I like the consistency of the spices I get from Spice Hunter, McCormick, Morton&Bassett, and Simply Organic. And of course, salt – who else but Morton?

Enjoy!

Time to Clean out the Kitchen Drawers?

Kitchen Updates

Out with the old tools and the odds gadgets – and make sure you get these must-haves.

It’s true that there’s a list of ‘must haves’ that every good home cook should have at their fingertips. But for me, after twenty years in the restaurant business, I’ve become clutter intolerant. Especially in the kitchen. So that list of must-haves has gotten shorter and shorter. Of course, I have a little story.

Several years back, I went to a friend’s home for a dinner party. I volunteered to help out with some of the preparations. Big mistake.  My friend was very proud of her gadgets – she had one thing that automatically chopped veggies, another thing that sliced them, and yet another weird thing that diced. She had drawers and drawers of more things that I seriously doubt she had ever used but maybe once. But here’s the thing: she didn’t have a single peeler that worked. Nada! Worse yet – no sharp knives or any way to sharpen them, which is a little pet peeve of mine. How can anyone cook without sharp knives?  A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in the kitchen.

I’ll admit that the more you cook, the more likely you’ll accumulate a collection of kitchen tools and gadgets that could fill two or three drawers. My mother was like that. She had so much stuff! And some of it was great – but I knew she only used most of it once or twice at a Thanksgiving dinner – while I was still living at home! At some point, you really have to take a cold hard look at some of this clutter and get rid of it.

I’m not talking about tossing out a favorite spoon (I have a short wooden spoon that’s over 20 years old!) or any of the big items like mixing bowls and cookware. I’m talking about the small stuff that fills drawers and clutters the kitchen. Another point – while I’m at it – tools and gadgets don’t last forever. Even favorite peelers eventually get dull and stop working. Worse yet, some tools have been used so much that they’re hard to clean, which is not good.

My solution! Start over. Dump everything that has aged or simply doesn’t work, and replace it with new stuff.

I did that last year. And it was fun. I went to one of my favorite stores – Crate and Barrel – and bought a brand-new set of kitchen tools by OXO. And what did I get? What I call, my ‘Must-Have Five’:

1.        Measuring cups and measuring spoons – yes both. This is one item that I seem to accumulate over the year. Most of the extra cups and spoons I get are from friends who came by to help cook (experienced home cooks often bring their own tools). I like the metal ones – I just feel like I’m getting a better measure from a metal spoon or cup.

2.        I love my wooden mixing spoons. Good ones are keepers. But like all things wood (example: cutting boards), eventually, you’ll have to part with them. You may see me in my videos also cooking with bamboo paddles. At any given time, I may have four or five of each of these extremely handy tools.

3.        Tongs – because who doesn’t need tongs? They’re indispensable for turning meat and veggies in a fryer, broiler, grill or pan. They’re handy for all sorts of reasons. So, I’ll have two or three of these – different lengths. And if you have non-stick cookware, make sure that you get the ones with coated tips so they won’t scratch.

4.        Can Opener – Oh yes. Have you ever tried to open a can without one? I have a funny story I’ll tell you sometime about a friend who went out to the desert with his family without one. But there are so many types! I like the basic hand crank edge opener.  These are the ones that open the can under the ridge so there are no sharp edges on the lid.  They’re easy to clean, and they’re small enough that they fit in a drawer easily.

5.        Peeler – If you cook at home, you must have at least one sharp and functioning peeler. Remember that these gadgets break or dull often. A peeler should be able to peel a raw carrot easily. If it skips or gouges, time to replace. Peelers are also great for making lemon zest that goes with quite a few recipes I know.

Last word – this list does not include what I think of as the essential tools like spatulas, sharp knives, whisk, potato masher, and rubber scrapers. If you bake, you want a good rolling pin. If you grate cheese, a nice box grater is good to have. But please – try to resist buying that electronic chopper on the clearance table. You’ll never use it again. Just sayin.

Recipe for a Warm-up: Bloody Mary Soup

Bloody Mary Soup

A new food memory: try my friend’s recipe for this delicious Bloody Mary Soup.

A few years ago, on what in Southern California is considered a “cold” winter day, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted a Bloody Mary.

We were actually standing on her balcony watching the sunset with friends. Despite my thick coat, gloves, and my beanie, I was still freezing! Okay, the wind was also making it pretty cold, and we had just got the fire going, so give me a break.

“In this weather?” I was a little astonished.

“Soup,” she finished.

That was when I noticed she was handing me a stoneware mug with the most delicious-tasting savory soup I’ve had in years. And now that I have the recipe, whenever I cook up a batch of this marvelous soup, I think of my friend and the great time we had with our friends that cold afternoon on her patio.

I believe food is a fabulous way to bring people together. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you also know that I have a real love for delicious recipes. Put them together, and you have what I call “food memories” – it’s one of the more emotional aspects of sophisticated living.

Now, with my friend’s permission, I’d like to share this wonderful soup with you, with the hopes that you’ll make some great food memories of your own. And before we go any further – yes, it is a “Bloody Mary” in the truest sense.

Ingredients

  • 2 TBS chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • ½ cup of your favorite vodka (Chopin Vodka).
  • 2 cups V-8 juice – your choice, regular or spicy (I use spicy)
  • 2 cups chicken or beef stock (broth) (I use beef for a richer taste)
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce (make sure you shake it up)
  • 1 28oz or 32oz can of Fire Roasted Tomatoes or diced tomatoes (I use Fire Roasted tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup horseradish (prepare to taste – I use way less because I use the Spicy V-8), add a dash of your favorite hot sauce if you like.

Instructions

Bloody Mary Soup recipe Fran Berger

You probably already have what you need to make this recipe.

In advance of cooking, I recommend that you prepare the “liquids” in one large bowl. Combine the V-8 juice, chicken or beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, and your tomatoes (canned or freshly cut). Don’t strain the tomatoes. Mix everything up and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a stock pot with olive oil and heat (medium). Add thyme leaves, garlic, celery ribs, onion (all chopped) and sauté on medium (cook until tender and onions are golden). By the way, make sure that your stock pot is large enough to hold everything – including all of the liquid!

Add the vodka to deglaze the veggies – scrape up all those beautiful browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the alcohol has “cooked off” – shy of a minute at medium heat.

Get your bowl of liquids and pour it in!  This is where a large stock pot is really useful. I recommend Staub’s 4-quart “Cocotte” for this task, because you’re going to heat this up until it boils, then reduce heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve let this go for up to 50 minutes and it seems to cook up the tomatoes very nicely. But as I always say, watch your pots!

Stir occasionally while simmering. Add the horseradish and hot sauce GRADUALLY. Taste often to make sure that you don’t overpower the other flavors. You can always set aside the horseradish and hot sauce for guests to flavor up for themselves.

When time’s up, turn off the heat.  Use an immersion blender to carefully puree the tomatoes, and serve warm in a big mug.  This recipe will make 6-8 servings (depending on the size of your mug) and can be doubled or tripled (or more!) for your party – just be sure your pot is big enough!

Add a pickled bean stalk or pickled artichoke as a garnish to add even more flavor. See my blog post on pickling. And see my video using this recipe.

The last touch: a shot of Chopin Vodka, if you like. Either way, it’ll taste so amazing served hot. Absolutely the best “bloody mary” you’ll ever make for yourself. Watch this video to see how easy it is!

Enjoy!

Is it time to update your cookware?

Fran Berger and her cookware.

Celebrate the New Year or a New Home with new non-stick cookware from All-Clad and Staub.

Maybe you’ve moved. Maybe you’ve remodeled. Maybe it’s the New Year and it’s just time. Whatever the occasion, it’s time to take a look at your pots and pans for a refresh.

These days, there are so many options. Not like in the old days when our parents were limited to the department store offering of brightly colored enameled cookware.  Remember early Teflon? Seriously.

There’s already so much psychology at play when you’re entertaining at home. We want everything to be – just so. We spend time to make sure that the home environment is uncluttered. We want the plates and utensils to be clean and bright. Glasses crystal clear.

Not only do I believe that a good set of pots and pans can really help you achieve better results in the kitchen, I think good cookware helps you feel more confident while you’re trying that new recipe for the first time. But I also think about the appeal of food as I prepare it.

Often, my guests will show up as I’m finishing, so they see me at work over my cookware. You know that means: I’m fussy about my kitchen. I don’t mind that they see the mess I create as I’m cooking, but I don’t want them to see their food prepared in pots and pans that are stained or blackened!

That’s why I’ve always been partial to All-Clad with their down-to-Earth quality. Aside from the fact that the sturdy metal handles are designed to stay cool as you cook, they just look great on the range. The clean stainless-steel pots and pans give you what a friend of mine calls “the real cook look.”

All-Clad also has the dark anodized conductive aluminums which work great on electric ranges. They even have some very nice looking copper-bottom pans and pots.

Whatever “look” you want, I recommend All-Clad’s durable non-stick cookware. First off – non-stick is just a good idea. But in this case, it’s not just any non-stick – this is pro-level hard-anodized non-stick. It resists abrasions and corrosion; it’s chemically stable and totally non-toxic. Not at all like your mom’s Teflon pans!

All-Clad cookware is not only the most durable pan you can buy, the non-stick surface has an extremely long-life span. I’ve had mine for 10 years and they have not chipped or peeled – ever.

As for sizes, let’s say that you want to replace one pan at a time. The first, most important size is the 8-inch skillet followed by either the 10 or 12-inch skillet. This gives you flexibility for a little sautéing or cooking up a healthy-sized omelet.

You’ll need a stock pot – get the 4 quart. You’ll use it do your soups, chili, and for tasks as simple as boiling pasta. Speaking of pasta, you’ll want some sauce pans for making your ‘Sunday Sauce’. Maybe a 1-quart, but if that’s too tiny for you, definitely the 2-quart covered sauce pan, then add a 3-quart later if you need something between the 2-quart and the stock pot.

If you decide to go for a set, you don’t need to go crazy with gratins, grille pans, and roasters. Certainly not to start. Look at smaller 8 pan collection like the one on my video.

One more pan – that’s not in the All-Clad line up – but one that should definitely be on your list is a great cast iron skillet. There’s no school like the “old school” – right? I like the ones from Staub.  Iron skillets are perfect for braising – and the ones from Staub are built to go from stovetop and straight into the oven.

My last tip – especially if you go for the durable non-stick – remember that you should only use wood or silicone spoons and spatulas. I like the ones from OXO – they’re perfect! Modern non-stick surfaces are abrasion and scratch resistant – but they’re not invulnerable. The pans will last longer if you protect the surfaces.

This is the way to really look good if your guests arrive a bit early and you’re working away in your kitchen!