About The Fearless Cook

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Spice, The Variety of Life

I’ve talked about money saving tips on meats by buying larger cuts on sale and doing your own cutting, chopping and grinding afterwards.

Later on, my mind goes to turning the purchased proteins into something tasty and memorable. I consider how to cook it, what spices and condiments to use, and whether I can use fresh ingredients. By using fresh rather than boxed or canned you control the amounts of additives in your diet. Additionally, for purposes of preservation, most of the flavor has been cooked out of pre-prepared food. Companies often add salt, sugar and other ingredients to bring back some of the flavor and make it palatable.

Spices in jars are expensive. That is a proven fact. Often times they are stale because in reality we don’t really know how long they have been packaged for. The ‘best if used by’ dates are often out to several years. Believe me I know. They are so expensive I was hesitant to throw them away, sometimes even after a few years mainly because I didn’t use enough of them to replenish!

Instead, I purchased a Krups coffee/spice grinder for about $19.00. I suggest this one because I have used it for years and it is one of the most inexpensive out there. By using it I take advantage of less costly bulk spices for a much better and fresher product. The best example is here is the use of peppercorns.

While pre-ground pepper is very cheap, it’s also ‘dead’ in terms of flavor and the oils inside that allow the flavor components to remain active. I suspect it’s actually the sweepings off the spice company’s floor! Instead, simply buy whole peppercorns in bulk. Throw them a couple tablespoons at a time into your grinder. I was amazed at the results. From the first time you will notice the wonderful difference in the smell. It will also lessen the amount needed in a recipe.

Consider some other bargains at the bulk counter that don’t even need grinding.

Fennel seed sold in a glass bottle is minimum $2.00 an once, bulk it is $.25 an once.

2 ounces of dried parsley sold in a glass bottle is $2.00, bulk is $ .17.

A glass bottle of the ‘fancy’ ground cumin is $4.39 for 1.5 ounces. Whereas the same amount in bulk is $1.40.

These are only a few examples. But you get the idea. Check out the stores where you do your shopping. Most are putting in bulk spice sections as well as dry good sections for beans, rice, coffee and others. If you don’t see them, look in the ‘health food’ aisles, sometimes they put them where people can buy oats, granola, and natural remedies in bulk.

These are nice because you can purchase just the right amount that you need for your recipes. Of course there won’t be any packages or bottles for them. I am sure there will be some in your kitchen you can recycle for storage. Remember your money goes for, the packaging. Just wash them and refill with your new ones.

I was amazed at the money I have saved, which more than paid for the grinder. And with winter here it is the right time to be making all the spicy, savory warm your tummy recipes you have been craving all summer!

Face Your Fears

Baklava perfection…

Until a couple of years ago, I was afraid to try making a lot of the foods that I have always enjoyed. Truth be told, my family from back then would look askance at the way I cook today! Basically I see what is on sale at the super market for the week, and then figure out how to cook it after I get it home. Or if I’ve tried a new dish at a restaurant that I like, I’ll try to replicate it while putting my own spin on it.

For example, steamed pork buns were something that I’d wanted to make, but the process looked daunting. Eventually I looked up how the dough was made. Lo an behold, the basic dough was very much like what you get out of a canned roll of biscuits! I reasoned that if I rolled the biscuit dough out thin, added a dollop barbecue pork, and then steam them, I’d get a similar result. Guess what? It worked.

My experiments have ranged around the globe culinary wise. When shopping at different ethnic markets, I’ll often see an interesting vegetable. So in the basked it goes, so that I can take it out at home to see how to use it.

I also have developed an interest in watching food channels on YouTube for interesting dishes. Better yet, I’ve duplicated many of the items profiles in my kitchen. In some cases I actually take bits and pieces from several and come up with a completely new recipe!

Don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients and experiment. The internet provides an answer for almost any question you could ever think of. You might find out that your cupboards may already have something you can use for that special dish you want to try without having to run to the store.

The biggest tip I can give for eating like royalty on a budget is don’t be afraid to try something new. Try it…you might like it!

Tiramisu Delight

Love tiramisu but you are lactose intolerant or have a problem with raw eggs then this is the delicious solution. This dessert is made from lactose or fat free cream cheese, non dairy whipped topping and contains no eggs. It has been taste tested and passed with flying colors.

If you choose the fat free cream cheese this one piece of delight contains only about 150 calories. It is so rich tasting you will be satisfied until the craving hits you again.

Ingredients:

 2 tablespoons Instant Coffee

1 tablespoon sugar 1 cup hot water

Optional: 1 tablespoon of rum

2 pkg. (3 oz. each) ladyfingers, split, divided

1 pkg. (8 oz. each) lactose or fat free Cream Cheese, softened

1/2 cup sugar

2 cups thawed nondairy whipped topping

1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

Semi-sweet chocolate swirls or slivers

How to Make It

Step 1: Dissolve combined coffee granules and 1 Tbsp. sugar in hot water.

Step 2: Arrange 1 pkg. ladyfingers on bottom of 13×9-inch dish; brush with 1/2 cup coffee.

Step 3: Beat cream cheese in large bowl with mixer until creamy.

Step 4: Add 1/2 cup sugar; mix well.

Step 5: Whisk in whipped topping.

Step 6: Spread half the cream cheese mixture over ladyfingers in dish; top with remaining ladyfingers. Brush with remaining coffee mixture; cover with remaining cream cheese mixture. Sprinkle with cocoa powder and garnish with chocolate pieces. Refrigerate for 4 hours.  

Quicky Picky

There are three main ways to preserve vegetables: Pickling, Canning, and Fermentation as with what is done with sauerkraut. For the purpose of this blog I am only going to talk about quick pickling.

Quick pickles are not as deeply flavored as fermented pickles but are excellent when used for salads, sandwiches and just general snacking. The biggest advantage is that they are fully flavored and ready to enjoy from twenty minutes to a few days spent in the brine.

First let me explain what quick pickles are. Their common name is refrigerator pickles. They are simply vegetables that are pickled in a vinegar, water, and salt (sometimes sugar, too) solution and stored in the refrigerator. Quick pickles also do not require canning when refrigerated.

Pickling is best done with super-fresh vegetables. Save the slightly bruised specimens for soups or other forms of preservation. Almost any vegetable can be pickled, and the shape you choose to pickle in is entirely up to you. For example, carrots can be peeled and sliced into matchsticks or coins. Cherry tomatoes are best preserved whole. Green vegetables, such as green beans or asparagus, can be blanched in boiling water for two to three minutes and then shocked in an ice bath to preserve their color, but this step is purely optional.

Most of my pickling is done for carrots and daikon radish combination for the Vietnamese sandwich, bahn mi. Carrots alone make a very good substitute for sauerkraut on corned beef sandwiches. Cucumbers are next make a very good bread and butter pickle by the addition of pickling spices and garlic. I will be adding some horseradish to the mix next time.

INGREDIENTS

  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 cup thinly sliced vegetables (such as carrot, red onion, and/or cucumber)
  • Whisk vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small bowl until sugar and salt are dissolved. Add vegetables and let sit, squeezing gently with your hands occasionally to help them pickle more quickly, 10 minutes.

The pickles will last three months or more in the refrigerator. Hope you will try these. An economical way to enjoy pickles for a fraction of the cost of buying them pre-made in the store.

Happy Porker

Yet more on ‘Eating Well on a Fixed Income’.  When bone-in pork shoulder went on sale for .99 cents in my area, I had a golden opportunity to see what I could make out of it.  
After picking up a pair of 10lb pork shoulders, I broke it down with my meat carving knife to get the following items. (You can see this in the picture, from twelve o’ clock and moving roughly clockwise.)
2 Pulled Pork Sections (shoulder bones and attached meat)
2 Pork Belly-style Sections
1 Pork Roast
3 Sets of pork steaks
2 portions set aside to make pork sausage
4 portions of pork shoulder chunks

That’s plenty of material to work with if you know what pieces to use!  For example, the fattiest segments are cut like a slab of bacon and can be worked with just like pork belly.  The next-fattiest can be ground up and mixed with fresh and dried fennel to make amazing sausage.  Then the leaner pieces can be turned into pulled pork, stir fry, or chunks for Vietnamese Caramelized Pork.  While I wouldn’t want to eat pork every day for 2 weeks, there’s enough recipes around to do different things with the meat that you wouldn’t get bored!
Finally, I was able to answer a question that’s always been in the back of my mind as a frugal shopper: How much are you paying for the bone when you buy by weight?  Here in Austin, bone-in pork runs 20 to 40 cents a pound less than the boneless equivalent.  So which is the better deal?
Option 1: Bone-in Pork Shoulder @ .99 cents/pound
Option 2: Boneless Pork Shoulder @ $1.29 / pound
Now I can actually answer this, as I weighed the pork shoulder bones (which slid out cleanly from the pulled pork sandwich meat I made yesterday).  The bones from the two shoulders weighed .78 pounds, or .39 pounds each.
So out of a 10-pound pork roast, you’re paying for .39 pounds of bone and 9.61 pounds of meat.  That raises the price from .99 cents a pound to…(drum roll please)
…1.04 cents per pound!
Well, if you know how to use a carving knife + how to make amazing pulled pork, pork pernil, or any other roasted version that allows you to remove the bone without leaving any meat behind, the Option 1 wins, hands down!

Tablescapes & Plating

In one of my first posts I talked about how we start the dining process with our eyes. I have talked about the tools of the kitchen. What I want to say here is more along the lines of showing rather than telling.

I believe that all meals should be a ‘dining experience’, no matter if you are eating a hot dog at a food truck or a filet mignon in a posh restaurant. And remember that at home, we control how the food we cook looks on the plate!

Over the years, I have collected many different types of table-wear, so I can use different place settings. However, a bit of imagination goes a long way when creating a piece of food art. That is what I want to stress here: that the plating of food is like composing a picture. You want a balance of color and objects.

A splash of color provided by a sprig of celery leaf, dill, lettuce and other vegetables and fruits. Loaves of bread and gourds like pumpkins, make marvelous bowls. Seashells, and food safe trays made from wood all add to the tablescape as they add interest to the food that you spend time and effort into making. Oh, and make sure that the drips on edges of the plate are cleaned up before serving.

Look at every plate as if you were preparing it for a photo shoot and your mouth will start salivating before the first taste.

Cook Anything With These

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Cooking and eating delicious food are two passions of mine. Of course, to create superior dishes require good ingredients. But ‘good’ ingredients does not necessarily mean ‘expensive’ ones!

Some of the best tasting dishes are made from cheap cuts of meat, and the commonest of vegetables. But here’s a bit of wisdom earned from over the years: sometimes, it’s the tools at your disposal that are key. 

Your first set of tools are an understanding of kitchen chemistry. After all, chemistry is the study of how substances change with the application of physical processes (heat, pressure) or combining them with other substances.  That sounds a lot like cooking to me!

Luckily, in recent years there’s been a lot of people analyzing how our tastes of salt, sweet, sour and bitter play with one another. Recently, a fifth taste has been recognized. Studies confirmed just a few years ago that our mouths contain taste receptors for this ‘more-ish’ savory taste.

Umami is what I am talking about. (It’s pronounced ooo-MAH-me.) The Romans loved garum, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelized meats and vegetables.

Staples List #1: Tools to bring out flavor with chemistry.

Worcestershire sauce: This is a fermented liquid condiment created in the city of Worcester in Worcestershire, England, in the first half of the 19th century. 

White Wine or Sherry: This does not necessarily mean a ‘cooking wine’. They have extra salt in them. As a rule, if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it!

Ketchup: Yes, believe it or not! This is used for the base of a whole bunch of sauces.

Fish sauce: The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content. Soy sauce is regarded by some in the West as a vegetarian alternative to fish sauce though they are very different in flavor. Fish sauce is not only added to dishes as a seasoning, but also used as a base in dipping sauces.

Oyster sauce: This describes a number of sauces made by cooking oysters. The most common in modern use is a viscous dark brown condiment made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt and water thickened with corn starch. Some versions may be darkened with caramel, though high-quality oyster sauce is naturally dark.

Soy sauce: (Also called soya sauce in British English) This is a liquid condiment of Chinese origin, made from a fermented paste of soybeans, roasted grain, and brine.

Garlic: Most often used as a flavoring agent but can also be eaten as a vegetable. It is used to flavor many foods, such as salad dressings, vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces, vegetables, meats, soups, and stews. It is often used to make garlic butter and garlic toast.

Onions: one of the most widely used foods in cooking because of the luscious flavor they add to cooked vegetable and meat dishes.

Ginger: The root or underground is often associated with Asian cooking, and commonly used in stir-fries. The stem (rhizome) of the ginger plant can be consumed fresh, powdered, dried as a spice, in oil form, or as juice. It has also been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes.

Cornstarch: Wheat flour and cornstarch are the two most common forms of grain starches we use in our cooking. 

Potato starch: Potato starch, tapioca (made from manioc root), and arrowroot are larger-grained starches … This type of starch is called resistant starch, which functions kind of like soluble fiber. Many studies in humans show that resistant starch can have powerful health benefits. This includes improved insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar levels, reduced appetite and various benefits for digestion

All-purpose flour: Thickener and building block for sauces, pasta, and baked goods.

Eggs: The ultimate natural emulsifier – they smooth things out, allow batters to stick and flow, and add richness to everything.

Grain Starches: Wheat flour and cornstarch are the two most common forms of grain starches we use in our cooking. Because it is almost pure starch, cornstarch is a more efficient thickener than wheat flour.

Grain starches also contain a relatively high percentage of fats and proteins, which can make sauces thickened with these starches look opaque and matte-like. These starches also tend to have a distinctive cereal taste once cooked.

Root and Tuber Starches

Potato starch, tapioca (made from manioc root), and arrowroot are larger-grained starches that gelatinize at relatively lower temperatures. Sauces thickened with these starches are more translucent and glossy, and they have a silkier mouthfeel. Root starches also have less forward flavors once cooked.

These root starches don’t stand up as well as grain starches to longer cooking and so they’re best used to thicken sauces toward the very end of cooking.

Choosing Which Starch to Use: If you need to thicken at the beginning of cooking, as for macaroni and cheese or a classic beef stew, go for a grain starch. If you need to quickly thicken a sauce just before it comes off the stove, use a root starch. I prefer using root starches in baking for custards, puddings, and pie fillings.

***

Aside from the right ingredients, the correct mix of kitchen equipment allows you to transform simple and inexpensive ingredients into meals that you’d pay several times more for at a restaurant.

Staples List #2: Kitchen equipment to bring out flavor with physical processes (cutting, browning, mixing, etc).

Food Processor with a 720 watt motor: As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the food processor can do the work of many other appliances. It chops, slices, grinds and mixes. All with only a change of its blades. It is less expensive and more versatile that a stand mix master and easier to use.

Mandolin: This is for the items that need a thinner slice like homemade potato chips.

Iron Skillet: This has been the workhorse of the kitchen for centuries. The older ones are the best. If you by a good new one it could cost you over a hundred dollars.

If you didn’t inherit one like I did, start by scouring thrift shops and antique stores for a more reasonable priced skillet. Don’t worry about the way they may look. They can be brought ‘back to life’, check out how on the internet. I like to have several sizes as well as a flat iron grill for tortillas and egg omelets. Twelve inch is a good versatile size.

Sauce Pans: I have four in my kitchen. One that holds about two cups, four cups and a two quart. Also a Dutch oven. I have one porcelain cast iron Creuset style pan with a lid for brazing in the oven. I also have four different sizes of skillets. From small to large with flat perpendicular sides.  I find this is best to use when I need a lot of room on the cooking surface because it is never good to crowd what you are frying.

Bamboo Steamer: I used to have a steel steamer that collapsed when not in use and fanned out when putting in a pot to steam items. I no longer use the metal one. I find a bamboo steamer is easier to use and gives better results for a much more variety of uses such as steaming buns or sausages. Vegetable are better because they are steamed and not sodden when taken out. You don’t have to lift the whole steaming tray out when you want to check the food.

Spatulas: Different shapes are used for different food items. Three most used one in my kitchen is a silicon one used for the none stick pans, a flat blade for grilling and one called a fish spatula that has a beveled edge for getting under the more delicate meats and fish.

Wooden Spoons: An array of wooden spoons are very useful. Stainless steel slotted spoons and metal tongs. The ones that kind of look like a lobster claw.

Potato Peeler: I have two kinds that I find useful. A regular one and one that does multiple type of cuts as well as peels. This is for julienne cuts of carrots, potato, cucumbers and other vegetables.

2 Baking dishes: 9 inch round, 9 X 13 rectangular. Can be glass or tin.

Mixing bowls: Small, medium and large.

Measuring cup set

Measuring spoon set

There are literally hundreds of kitschy kitchen gadgets out there that either don’t work or have a single use. The Rollie Egg master is one, if not the worst ideas I have ever seen for a useless kitchen tool. http://www.thepizzle.net/the-rollie-eggmaster-is-the-best-dumbest-cooking-device-ever-invented/

The items I have listed above are what I believe can be used for cooking that a kitchen would need to be able to cook just about anything.