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4 Cooking Mistakes You Learned From Your Parents (and how to fix them)

by | Feb 11, 2013

Photo by A6U571N

Have you ever noticed that bad home cooking, the kind you choke down out of politeness to friends and family, is almost always bad in the same way?

Bland, soggy vegetables. Tough, chalky meat. These are the meals that have you longing to get home to a bowl of cereal (or at least reaching for another glass of wine to wash it down).

Most bad food tastes alike because we are usually making the same mistakes in the kitchen. And since horrible cooking is rampant among my parents’ generation (you were a very lucky child if you didn’t grow up hating spinach), I assume this is where most of us learned these bad habits.

The good news is that if you avoid the four most common errors you’ll be able to cook almost anything decently well.

4 Cooking Mistakes You Learned From Your Parents (and how to fix them)

Mistake #1: Overcooking

By far the most common reason food is ruined is overcooking. When vegetables are cooked too long they lose their vibrant color, sweet flavor and crisp texture, making them far less appealing. Remember that most vegetables can be eaten raw, so cooking should just enhance their flavor and make them a tad easier to chew.

The same is true for meat. Beef, pork, poultry and seafood all taste worlds better when they aren’t burnt to a crisp. Overcooking meat ruins the texture, making it dry, chalky and hard to swallow. Perfectly cooked meat should be tender and juicy. Moreover, meat cooked well done contains more carcinogenic compounds than meat cooked medium rare.

If you source your proteins from high-quality, reliable farms it can be safely cooked to temperatures a few degrees below those recommended by the USDA. They suggest the higher values to protect the meat companies (not you) from being sued for letting their animals bathe in their own feces. Yes, good meat is more expensive. But if you like meat and don’t like E. coli it is an excellent investment. If you do buy industrial meat (or industrial fruits and vegetables for that matter), there is certainly a safety concern and you should be aware of the risks of undercooking.

Solution: Err on the safe side.

The best way to avoid overcooking is to check the food before you expect it to be done. If it’s veggies take sample bites during the cooking process, and don’t be afraid to stop earlier than a recipe says if the taste is good. If it is meat, use a thermometer in the thickest part and pull it off the heat a degree or two before the final temperature. Keep in mind that meat will continue cooking after you pull it from the heat, and be sure to let it rest off the fire for 5-10 minutes before eating. You can always cook something more, but can never cook it less.

Mistake #2: Under-salting

A little salt goes a long way, and sometimes just a pinch can save an otherwise bland and boring dish.

If you’re wondering why a healthy eating blog is recommending something that everyone tells us is unhealthy, keep in mind that 75% of the sodium eaten by Americans comes from processed foods. So if you’re cooking fresh food at home you’re already winning the salt war. Besides, if it’s getting you to eat more vegetables then it is a really good thing.

Watch this video for more about the science behind how salt affects your health.

Solution: Use a little more salt, then more if necessary

I recommend finding a decent sea salt for flavoring dishes. It adds a dimension and complexity you just don’t get with standard iodized salt. If you’re concerned about the possibility of over-salting a dish but are curious if more salt would help, take out a few bites and sprinkle a little on. You should be able to tell right away if it will help.

Keep in mind though that over-salting can taste even worse than under-salting, and is much harder to fix. Always be careful and just add a little bit at a time until you get the balance right.

Mistake #3: Not enough acid

This one took me awhile to figure out, but it can transform a dish when used properly. Acid adds a slight sourness to foods that can be exceptionally powerful for brightening dull, uninspired dishes. Sour is also the opposite of bitter, so adding a touch of something acidic is usually the best way to fix a dish where the flavors are unbalanced.

Solution:

A squeeze of lemon or a dash of vinegar is sometimes exactly what you need to take a dish from just OK to absolutely delicious.

Mistake #4: Using bad ingredients

I saved this until the end because I say it all the time on Summer Tomato, but this is really the most important step.

It’s February and tomatoes couldn’t be any more out of season, so don’t buy them. There are plenty of seasonal ingredients at your local grocery and they will taste worlds better (and be cheaper) than anything artificially ripened and/or shipped from another hemisphere.

Solution: Cook with the seasons

Even if you can’t make it to the farmers market every weekend, you can still find seasonal (if not exactly local) ingredients in your grocery store. If you live in Minnesota and can only find California broccoli this time of year, so be it. But you don’t need strawberries from Chile or tomatoes from a greenhouse in the middle of winter, and they won’t taste good anyway. Here’s a great seasonal food chart if you don’t know where to start.

What cooking mistakes have you learned to fix?

Originally published February 6, 2012.

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Pan Roasted Baby Artichokes With Pistachios, Lemon And Black Quinoa Recipe

by | May 7, 2012
Pan Roasted Artichokes With Pistachios And Black Quinoa Recipe

Pan Roasted Artichokes With Pistachios And Black Quinoa

Small artichokes really don’t get the love they deserve. While the large ones are delicious and great for entertaining, the smaller kind are easier to work with and much more versatile. They are tender and delicious, and usually even less expensive.

This recipe for pan roasted baby artichokes was born out of necessity. After a solid week of forgetting to buy the herbs I needed to make my usual recipe, my bag of artichokes were the last remaining vegetable in my refrigerator and I knew if I didn’t cook them they would soon go bad. So I started digging around my pantry.

Since I didn’t have parsley, I needed something else to season the artichokes. The only other fresh flavor I had was lemon, so I decided to use the zest as a primary ingredient. I also used pistachio nuts that I had left over from my Chard, Pistachios and Mint recipe, and some black quinoa (here’s my favorite brand) to make the dish more substantial.

I was completely unprepared for how delicious this turned out. I caramelized the lemon zest with some shallot, which gave the artichokes a sweet tanginess that perfectly balanced their creamy flavor. The quinoa added a beautiful contrasting color and an intriguing crunchy texture, while the nuttiness of the pistachios gave the dish a rich earthiness.

As soon as I tasted it I knew I needed to share this recipe. The second time around it turned out just as good.

Pan Roasted Baby Artichokes With Pistachios, Lemon and Black Quinoa

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb small artichokes
  • 1 half medium shallot
  • 1/4 c. shelled pistachio nuts
  • Juice and zest of 1 Meyer lemon
  • 1/2 c. black quinoa cooked
  • 1/4 c. + 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper

If you haven’t cooked your quinoa, start that first. Remember that it expands to four times its original volume when cooked, so you don’t need to make a lot.

Whisk 1/4 c. olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt in a large mixing bowl. Clean your artichokes by cutting off the top third and the bottom, then removing all the tough leaves. You do not want the artichokes to be stringy, so it is better to remove extra leaves than too few.

Cut your clean artichoke in half then submerge it instantly in the olive oil and lemon juice mixture. Artichokes quickly oxidize and turn black when exposed to air. The acid from the lemon juice will prevent this from happening. As you’re cleaning the artichokes and adding them to the bowl, stir the mixture regularly to be sure none are exposed to air for too long.

Thinly slice your shallot. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a deep pan on medium high heat. When the oil swirls easily in the pan add the shallots and pistachio nuts. When the shallots begin to brown, add the zest and stir. Cook the mixture for another minute or two until the shallots have almost completely caramelized.

Add the artichokes and liquid to the pan and salt and pepper to taste. Turn the artichokes so their faces are touching the surface of the pan and allow them to brown and the liquid to reduce. Stir the artichokes every few minutes until the liquid is almost completely reduced and all surfaces of the artichokes start to brown. If the pan dries before the artichokes have finished cooking, add 1/8 c. of water to prevent the shallots and nuts from burning.

The artichokes are done cooking when then are tender all the way through. At the last minute, toss in the quinoa and mix well. Make sure to scrape the caramelized bits of shallot and zest into the quinoa. Adjust salt and pepper and remove from heat.

Makes one main course or 2-3 side dishes. This would pair beautifully with roasted rosemary chicken.

Originally published April 19, 2010.

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Farmers Market Update: Alemany

by | Jan 24, 2010
Murals at Alemany

Murals at Alemany

Instead of my usual trip to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, this week I visited the Alemany farmers market in San Francisco near Bernal Heights.

People love this market, and it is kind of amazing that I have never been to it before. My main excuse is that it isn’t easy to get to via public transportation.

Lemon Slices

Lemon Slices

Blood Orange

Blood Orange

The Alemany farmers market was founded in 1943 and is the oldest in California. The stalls are painted with beautiful and sometimes humorous murals, and the market has a fantastic community of local farmers and vendors. It is the only city-run farmers market in San Francisco, and some of the vendors I spoke to had been members for generations.

Giant Turnips

Giant Turnips

Lemongrass

Lemongrass

The produce was notably more affordable than what I normally find at the Ferry Plaza market, though the selection was not quite as broad. There is also a fantastic selection of prepared foods, including the best dulce de leche cookies in the entire universe.

Pumpkin Bolani

Pumpkin Bolani

Dulce de Leche Cookies

Dulce de Leche Cookies

I also enjoyed fava dips from Fava, and vegan Afghani stuffed breads from Bolani.

The Alemany farmers market is a special community and worth a trip for all San Francisco residents.

Flowers

Flowers

Jumbo Lemons

Jumbo Lemons

Have you been to the Alemany farmers market?

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Essential Groceries

by | Apr 10, 2009
Fresh Herbs

Fresh Herbs

Having the necessary pantry items is critical to getting started eating healthy, but obviously you need a lot more than that if you actually want to cook fresh, delicious food. Today I have prepared a list of groceries that should always be in your refrigerator. Many of these items are fresh, which means you need to buy them regularly.

(This post is part of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry. Subscribe to Summer Tomato to get more free healthy eating tips)

As I have explained before you must set aside a small amount of time once a week to do your grocery shopping or else healthy eating will be nearly impossible. This time needs to be non-negotiable; you must find a way to make it happen.

So why not start to upgrade your healthstyle this weekend?

Put these groceries on your weekly shopping list and never take them off:

  • Shallots or leeks These are members of the onion family, but milder and sweeter than you might be used to. Even if you think you do not like onions, I recommend starting most vegetable dishes with one of these ingredients. Shallots are like small, mild red onions. Leeks are like large green onions, but tender and delicate in flavor. Here you can see pictures of leeks and shallots.
  • Garlic People feel very strongly about garlic, some can’t get enough while others avoid it. I have found myself in both camps at some point, but now I am somewhere in the middle. I go through a small bulb every week, but rarely use more than one clove per dish. With subtle amounts of garlic you can add depth and dimension to your meal. Too much can overpower all the other flavors.
  • Lemon As I explained when discussing vinegar, acidic foods are extremely important in cooking. Lemon has the added bonus of possessing an amazing zest that adds both sweetness and brightness to your food. I panic a little if I don’t have lemon in the house.
  • Parsley Flat leaf or “Italian” parsley is the perfect herb for everything. I always buy it, even if I do not know what I am going to use it for. It is also rather robust and keeps longer in the fridge than more delicate herbs, like cilantro. If you do not normally cook with parsley, definitely buy some and try it in your next vegetable dish. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
  • Fresh herbs Of all the other fresh herbs, I usually only pick one or two to have in my kitchen at once. Which ones I choose depends on the other foods I am buying. Mexican food thrives with cilantro and oregano. French style vegetables are beautiful with thyme. I cannot live without rosemary on my roasted potatoes. Mint is perfect with Moroccan food. Experiment! Fresh herbs can change the way you approach cooking. If you don’t know how to use something, Ask Me! or ask Google 🙂
  • Eggs I do not buy eggs every week, but I buy them regularly (always a half dozen farm fresh eggs). They are incredibly versatile and a great, quick meal any time of day. Check out my favorite scrambled eggs recipe.
  • Tofu or tempeh However you think you feel about tofu should probably be reexamined. It can be very delicious when prepared correctly. Regardless of the claims of Dr. Atkins, science tells us it is actually much healthier to get your protein from vegetable sources. I love meat in all its forms, but during the week I usually stick to vegetable protein and fish. And sometimes eggs.
  • (Soy) milk I use soy milk for my cereal and in my coffee. I know many people prefer different kinds of milk, and whatever you choose is fine. If you currently drink dairy milk, my only warning is to use it very sparingly. Consuming cow’s milk is strongly linked to increased risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis (I know!), acne, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. If you were raised in America and do not follow nutrition science, I’m sure this sounds insane (it did to me). Unfortunately it is true. Easy on the milk.
  • Condiments I mentioned last time I keep my soy sauce and almond butter in the refrigerator. The other condiments I keep handy are tahini, mustard, tomato paste, capers and olives. None of these are absolutely necessary, but they are nice to have around to mix up your flavors. They do not need to be purchased very often.

These groceries are always in my refrigerator and it is fair to say that I consider them essential. However, this list is by no means exhaustive.

Please share with us your favorite essential groceries so we can all benefit.

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