Six Uncommon Condiments – Pantry Extras

Here’s a look at some condiments you may not know, but maybe should.

In the beginning there was ketchupketchup.

Ketchup has reigned supreme for nearly 200 years. At its peak, it was found in 97% of U.S. households.

But global influences have perked up our palates. There’s a big world of flavor out there. Clear out some space in the pantry and push aside the ketchup bottle in your refrigerator. It’s time to make room in your kitchen and your cooking repertoire for six new condiments.

Sriracha, oh how I love thee. Squeezed on vegetables, drizzled over noodles, mixed into dressings, dips, and sauces; a moderately spicy chili base with a healthy garlic kick, Sriracha is a condiment chameleon. It transcends cuisines and national boundaries meshing equally well with dishes from Asia, Latin America, and the American South. It rivals ketchup as a tabletop catch-all.

Fish sauce requires a leap of faith. Comprised largely from fermented anchovies, on its own it is potent and smelly. Use it judiciously as a dipping sauce or an ingredient in curries, casseroles, and stir-fries. The flavor is pure magic.

Chimichurri sauce can be green or red (with added tomatoes or peppers). It’s primarily a blend of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper flakes, with different spices added to suit the dish. It’s used as a marinade and as a sauce, mostly with grilled meats. It’s popular throughout South and Central America; especially in Argentina where they know a thing or two about grilling meats.

tahiniTahini has been found on supermarket shelves in the kosher aisle forever. A creamy paste made from sesame seeds, tahini is most closely associated with the Middle East, where it is a familiar ingredient in hummus, falafel, and eggplant dishes. Tahini has the consistency of peanut butter but with a milder taste, and adds nutty richness as a sandwich spread, salad dressing, and dessert ingredient.

Harissa is a chili sauce that appears on every North African table; sometimes in every course at every meal in all kinds of dishes. To my taste, a little goes a long way: a dab added to stews, sandwich spreads, soups, and sauces adds a distinctively tart, fiery finish.

Preserved lemons are lemons that have been essentially pickled in their own juices along with salt and some spices like cloves, coriander, pepper, and cinnamon. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but whatever the preserved lemons are added to take on complexity and a kind of exoticness. Beans or vegetables, sauces and salsas, dips and desserts will all have a little Moroccan je ne sais quoi.

Kitchen Basics – Part 6: Bakeware

In addition to pots and pans that are used on the cooktop (burners) of the stove, you also need things that can go into the oven. Some pots and pans can go into the oven, but some have plastic handles that may not be oven proof.

There are two basics I think every kitchen needs: a cookie sheet or baking sheet and a baking dish or casserole.

The difference between a cookie sheet and a baking sheet is the presence of a lip all around the edge of the cookie sheet. There are also things called a sheet pan or half-sheet pan, which usually have 1/2 to one-inch sides. I’ve never used any of these for cookies. But I do use them all the time to put under dishes that might bubble over or to provide support to lightweight cake pans or foil cookware. They’re also good for making pizza if you don’t mind that they’re not round. These cost less than $10 usually.

The other baking dish you need is a 9 by 13 inch pan, preferably Pyrex glass. Be wary of non-stick metal pans because the non-stick coating is easily scratched, making is no longer non-stick. Pyrex is a wonderful invention. Just don’t use one of your good knifes to cut what’s in the dish into portions. Use a butter knife or metal spatula. This will cost you about $15.

A casserole, made of Corningware or ceramic works great for many things, but can be a bit pricey. Stick to the oval shape or something similar. Rectangular casseroles can sometimes lead to corners getting overdone.

Additional bakeware will depend on what you like to make, such as bread, biscuits, meatloaf and other dishes.

One additional note here. To us Americans, an oven, even a small one, is pretty much standard in every kitchen. But that’s not true in other parts of the world. Those places just have a cooktop. Baked goods are purchased from a bakery, restaurant or other food shop. So, enjoy your oven and make good use of it.

Spring Foods Are Coming

After months of little but imported produce in the grocery stores, it’s nearly time to begin seeing new items raised closer to home in the bins. Many fruits and vegetables begin showing up in stores as early as March, depending on where you live. Take advantage of this bounty and be on the lookout for them. Also, they can give your body the goodies needed to shake off winter blues.

Honeydews. These melons can be sweet and juicy or hard and wooden and tasteless. Selection of ripe honeydews is the key. They begin showing up in stores later this month and are filled with lots of antioxidant vitamins. Look for melons that feel heavy and with skins that bounce back when you poke it. If it feels like wood, it probably isn’t ripe yet.

Rutabagas. This not well known root vegetable has made it through the winter and is now ready to harvest. They are inexpensive and loaded with vitamin C. They can be boiled, baked or mashed. Mix with potatoes for a snappy new take on an old standard.

Spring Peas. These tender balls of goodness are versatile. They can be eaten in so many things from soups to salads. Add some to pasta to really kick up the nutritional value of the dish.

Asparagus is another little green wonder that begins showing up in the spring. The white variety has a tough skin that has to be removed before cooking. You can stick with the green variety for steaming, roasting or sautéing. And don’t think the thin whips are more tender. The thicker stems can be cut into smaller pieces and cooked to a tasty, less fibrous consistency.

Fava beans. These have a very short spring season. In fact, that’s what the name means. Like other beans, these are nutritional powerhouses with lots of fiber, vitamins and other vital nutrients like iron and zinc. You can use them in many ways, much as you would chickpeas.

Strawberries. These popular fruits have many applications. It’s recommended you get these in the peak of the spring season. But don’t let them sit around. They have a very short life after being picked.

Baby lettuce. The wonderful thing about lettuce is it’s easy to grow, even indoors. A simple window box can supply you with plenty of greens that just keep coming. Baby lettuce has a delicate flavor that can perk up any salad, so much so that you may not even need dressing.

Morel mushrooms. These begin appearing as early as late winter, depending on the weather. These are some of the best-tasting mushrooms you will ever eat. Sauté them in a little butter and you’re in for a treat.

Take a walk through the local farmers market. But try to exercise some restraint. These foods will look so good you’ll be tempted to buy more than you can carry.

What’s That Smell?

Bachelors are notorious for leaving things in the fridge until they can crawl out on their own. Actually, we’ve all been there. Things get lost in the back or hidden in the so-called crisper drawer.

In addition to taking a regular inventory of the refrigerator contents and making a note of expiration dates, the next best thing is to use your nose. After all, that’s what it’s for.

Healthy living website HellaWella created this graphic to help us bachelors. Here you can find out just how long many common foods can last in the ice box. See it. Download it. Learn it. Use it.

Grocery Shopping Tips

One of the purposes of The Bachelor’s Kitchen is to help singles eat better. We do this not only by providing information about food and cooking, but by exploring strategies to make your cooking experience better. With most of us having such busy lives, having a plan and some tips can save you a lot of time and a lot of frustration.

My first rule is to know what you need. That means keeping a list in the kitchen of what things you are out or nearly out of. Combine that with a ready eating plan and making a grocery list is a snap.

Next, I like to review the grocery store’s weekly circular of what’s on sale. Buying and building your menus around what’s selling at a reduced price can make shopping easier and save a lot of money. If you’re a coupon clipper, that will improve your savings even more. But don’t be too committed to the list and nothing but the list. Many stores have unadvertised specials. Also, sometimes you can find better deals from other brands that aren’t on sale. Always take a good look around the shelves and review all your options.

Always keep your pantry well stocked. If you have plenty of basic ingredients, you can whip something together at any time. This is especially important during times of emergency or unexpected guests.

Do make a list, even if you’re just picking up a few things. Not only are you less likely to impulse buy, but you’re less likely to forget something you need. When looking at recipes, always note on your grocery list what that dish requires.

Read the labels! This may seem like  no-brainer, but most people don’t look beyond the brand name and picture on the front of the package. I’ve seen shoppers get that glassy-eyed look the minute they get hold of a shopping cart. Look at amounts as well as price. Review the ingredients. Take a gander at the nutrition information. These labels are there for a reason, so take advantage of the information.

Don’t just consider price. Quality makes a difference, too. Any mother will tell you there’s no use buying something cheap if no one will eat it.

If one’s available, buy from the local farmers market. True, the price advantage isn’t always there. And you have to keep an eye out for quality. But it’s usually a good deal with greater variety, better prices and better quality.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. As Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern says, “if it looks good, eat it.” You might make a great discovery.

Stay away from your bottled salad dressings aisle. Making your own is so easy and tastes better.

Another advantage of the farmers market is access to people who know about the food they’re selling. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the professionals. 

You can probably come up with some more supermarket shopping tips. Please leave us a comment if you can add to this list.

More Kitchen Basics

In addition to having something to cook in, you also have to have things to get food into those cooking vessels and move them around.

Let’s start with mixing bowls. Stainless steel is lightweight, easy to clean and versatile, but you can choose from a wide range of materials. One large bowl will get through most of your mixing needs. But a set of varying sizes is even better. These range in price from around $5 to about $25.

Some of the more expensive bowls have a non-skid coating of textured rubber-like plastic. Here’s a little tip: if your metal or glass bowl slides around while your mixing, take a slightly damp dish towel wrapped into a circle and put the bowl into the created nest.

Other materials include glass, ceramic, plastic and Melamine (a synthetic polymer which is fire resistant and heat tolerant).

As you can see, many have lids so they can be used for storage. Glass can get scratched and is breakable, but it will stand up to a fair amount of heat. The same applies to ceramic. Plastic can be scored if you use a fork for mixing. It also is easy to melt if you get it too close to the stove. But it’s lightweight and cheap. Melamine is sort of a cross between ceramic and plastic and a good choice for lots of uses.

But steel will allow you to create make-shift double boiler for melting chocolate. It doesn’t stain, is unbreakable, doesn’t score or scratch easily and is very easy to care for.

Recipe: Pesto Chicken Florentine

Part of the fun of cooking in The Bachelor’s Kitchen is trying new things. I found a recipe for Pesto Chicken Florentine that sounded pretty good. But as happens so often, I ended up making substantial changes to the recipe and I think those are improvements. So, what follows is my version of that recipe.

In keeping with my effort to increase my vegetable intake and cut back on meat, most of my changes reflect that. Also, I added more spice and cheese to the dish while using lower fat jarred Alfredo sauce. I think you could easily add more vegetables to this dish, like steamed broccoli, fresh peas or other greens besides spinach.

Also, as I could not find the dry Alfredo sauce mix the original recipe called for, I used a Light Parmesan Alfredo in a jar. And instead of Romano cheese I used Parmesan, and a lot more of it.

Before you gasp at my using a jarred sauce when I preach so often about processed foods, remember that I DO read labels. Therefore I can tell you that this jarred sauce was very close to what you would make at home. The only difference was: 1) the use of a preservative, which is common in nearly all prepared foods; and 2) the use of a chemical emulsifier (derived from a natural source but not commonly found in most homes) to replace the fat that would otherwise be used.

This is a three pot recipe, so clear off your stove top. You’ll need a large skillet, a small saucepan and large pot for cooking pasta. While the recipe calls for penne pasta, I see no reason why you can’t use just about any other pasta you like or have around.

Pesto Chicken Florentine

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of your personal spice mix (you do have one, don’t you?) or salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, I like garlic, but you may want to use less
  • 2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves – cut into cubes
  • 1 tablespoon rice or red wine vinegar
  •  1 12 oz. salad bag fresh spinach leaves, I know it seems lik a lot, but it cooks down to very little
  • 1 (16 ounce) jar Alfredo sauce (see note above about light sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons pesto, I used jarred stuff, which is just fine
  • 1 (16 ounce) package dry penne pasta
  • 3 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add garlic, saute for 1 minute; then add chicken and cook until all pinkness is gone. Season chicken with your own spice mix or salt and pepper to taste. When chicken is close to being cooked through (no longer pink inside), sprinkle on vinegar. Add spinach and saute all together for 3 to 4 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, pour Alfredo sauce into a small saucepan. Stir in ground black pepper. When hot, stir in pesto; keep warm.
  3. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. Rinse under cold water and drain.
  4. Pour pasta in large mixing bowl. Add chicken/spinach mixture and enough pesto Alfredo sauce to coat. Add Parmesan, mix well and serve.

Prep Time: 10 Min; Cook Time: 35 Min; Ready In: 45 Min

4 servings

Calories: 572, Total Fat: 19.3g, Cholesterol: 84mg

Great Balls of Meat

Behold the humble meatball. This staple of Italian cuisine has now been elevated to gourmet status by leading chefs. They are showing up as featured items on food blogs, fine dining menus and in food magazines. Why? Well, I guess its because every confort food will have it’s day in the sun, so to speak.

Actually, meatballs are not unique to Italy. We can find similar treats in Greece, Afghanistan, Denmark and, of course, Sweden. And you may think you know what Swedish meatballs are all about, but let me assure the real thing is nothing like the cocktail party buffet item to which we have become accustomed.

The history of meatballs goes back more than 2,000 years to the time of the Roman empire. In what may be one of the first cookbooks, Caelius Apicius wrote Things Concerning Cooking and contained recipes for meatballs using ground meat with bread, pepper, garum (a fish sauce similar to today’s Worcestershire Sauce) and pine nuts. And what was the favored meat to be ground and formed into little balls? Well, it wasn’t beef. Peacock was Apicius’ favorite. He also listed pheasant, pig, chicken and rabbit.

Today there are countless meatball recipes using meat mixtures, tofu and fish. They can be found from the Balkins to India. One of the biggest varieties of the meatball is the kofta. You can find these from North Africa, around the Mediterranean, through Persia (now Iran), Bengal, Bangladesh and all across China. Sometimes these are called meat dumplings, such as the steamed variety found in dim sum restaurants. In addition to being paired with pasta, meatballs can be found in soups, curries, braises and doused in gravy or sauce.

If you ask what makes a good meatball, you’ll get a different answer every time you ask the question. But leading chefs have a few tips for making good meatballs.

  • For the best flavor, use a mixture of meats like beef, pork and lamb.
  • Some fat is necessary or the meatballs will come out dry.
  • Use soft bread crumbs or hard crumbs soaked in milk.
  • Use only the egg yolk as a binder because the whites will dry out during cooking.
  • To keep the fat content down, bake until brown instead of pan frying. Then add them to a sauce to finish cooking and take on more flavor.
  • Refrigerating them for 30 minutes before baking will help keep them from falling apart.
  • Use a light hand with the spices, especially the garlic.

Enjoy these great balls of meat with almost any cuisine in The Bachelor’s Kitchen.

Kitchen Basics – Part 8: Utensils

There are a number of tools you’ll need to mix, stir, flip, turn and move around food, both while cooking and before. These utensils can cover a wide variety of sizes, shapes, materials and uses from simple to multi-function.

Wooden tools are the oldest known to our civilization and they are still used and useful. Among the most useful are wooden spoons. They are non-reactive and can be used with all types of food. Metal spoons can react with some foods and lend it a metallic taste. Wood can be used with non-stick cookware and a useful insulator to heat, up to a point. Your typical wooden spoon will cost around $7. At first, the wood may feel a little rough in your hand, but that will go away with use. Other wooden tools are stir-fry paddles, spatulas, pasta forks and salad tongs.

Another useful material that’s come on the market in recent years is silicon. A silicon spatula is a great utensil. It’s heat resistant and non-stick. It usually comes with a slightly bowled head making it sort of a combination between a spoon and scraper. Silicon can be used to cook with as well for mixing and off-the-heat functions. This also costs around $7 up to $15 for each piece depending on size and brand.

Other useful spatulas are models used for flipping pancakes and burgers, ones that help lift out pie, cake or lasagna, fish turners, scrapers, egg turners in heat-resistant plastic and metal, and more. If you can only have one, go for the silicone spoon spatula, it is the most versatile.

Most mixing jobs require a whisk, depending on the consistency of the mix. There’s just as many different kinds of whisks as there are spoons and spatulas. The best ones are made of metal and have a metal handle. Avoid the plastic ones, they just collapse under the pressure. Also avoid wooden handles that can’t go into the dishwasher. And stay away from the metal handles that look like springs, as they trap food particles and moisture. If a whisk develops rust, throw it away. Select a whisk of about medium size that will feel good in your hand. You can add to your collection later as needs arise.

There are lots of other kitchen tools that can be useful, but most of them aren’t needed as kitchen basics. Those are in the intermediate level. Those are things that are good to have, but not part of the minimum needed to feed yourself.

Is It Still Good?

Okay, bachelors: Here’s a Pop Quiz! You novice cooks can join in, as well.

Have you ever ignored those expiration dates on packages?

If you answered no, we will likely doubt your veracity. (That means we won’t believe you.)

But if you answered yes, congratulations! You are a typical bachelor!

Next question. Admit it, you think if a carton of milk has been open for a week but still has another week to go on its expiration date it is still good?

Raise your hand if you answered no. Okay, we’re still going to have to doubt your answer.

But if you answered yes, you’re not just a typical bachelor, you are a typical consumer. Those “best by” and “Sell by” dates are not just suggestions. In most cases, they are there by law. But they don’t tell you how long you have before the food starts to go bad. What they show is the “shelf life” of an UNOPENED container.

Next question. Can goods are good forever. Right?

Wrong. While canned food can last a long time, they can still develop bacterial contamination or other problems as the years roll by.

Frozen food can last forever. Yes?

No. Freezing can significantly slow or stop bacteria from growing, but it starts right up again when the thaw comes. Also, how foods are frozen and what the package may contain can also make a difference in how long the food will last in the freezer.

So, once again, reading the label can actually save your life.