Take It Slow, Even In Summer

For many people, slow cookers are for soups, chilis, stews and chili-cheese dip at a party, usually during the cold weather months. But slow cookers are great to use in the summer, when you’d rather be out doing things and the electric bill is soaring.

Choosing appliances for a small kitchen is always tricky. You have to make some careful decisions about appliances based on what you really use, how much counter space you have and whether you have space to store the ones you can’t keep on the countertop.

For my money, a slow cooker is a useful appliance. Although it’s not usually worth keeping on the countertop all the time, it is worth finding some storage space for when you’re not using it.

First, let’s talk economics. Slow cookers, regardless of size, use very little energy, only pennies of electricity per hour. This is way less than a full size stove, microwave or convection oven.

Second, let’s talk heat. Yes, these things do get hot, and will warm your kitchen a little. But compared to what the oven or stove put out, it’s nothing. However, if there are children around, you should keep them away from the cooker just as you would a hot pot on the stove. The sides of the cooker will get pretty hot.

Third, let’s talk time. Lots of people look to slow cookers as a busy-workday sort of thing. Put everything together in the morning before you leave for work and have dinner waiting for you when you get home. But it’s also great to use on the weekend. Got a busy day of errand running planned? just throw the stuff together in the slow cooker and off you go. Many of the units today have timers, so you don’t have to worry about them burning or overcooking your food. Some are even programmable to not only kick down to a warming mode after a set time, but to go from high to low — a very valuable feature.

While we’re on the subject of time, add an hour or two to what the recipe says for cooking. You want the cooker to go to the warming mode about an hour (or more) before you’re ready to eat. Otherwise, the food might be way to hot. Remember my resting rule. Always let cooked food sit and rest for a little while before serving or eating.

There are tons of recipes for slow cookers. In addition to things like soup, you can bake, braise and steam. Sometimes, a little ingenuity is required, but a little thought or a mistake or two and you’ll pick up quickly on what you can and cannot do in your slow cooker.

I’ve made a very successful meatloaf in my slow cooker. Also a roasted chicken. But if you don’t want them swimming in grease, save some old tuna cans to use as supports to keep the food out of it. A slow cooker is perfect for braising meats, like beef or pork for ribs, barbecue or roast. It does things like pulled pork or chicken or Italian beef very well.

But did you know you can bake in the slow cooker? It’s great for cobblers, puddings, even cake. Just remember that the outer ring will be a bit more done than the center.

You’d be surprised what this thing can do. Check out a slow cooker cookbook from the library or look at some recipe collections online. Of all the appliances you can have around, but not use every day, the slow cooker is one of the most useful.

How Easy It Is

We were thinking the other day in The Bachelor’s Kitchen about how easy it really is to come up with a delicious, satisfying and even healthy meal in no time with things you have on hand. PotatoLeekSoup-LeeksPotatoesAt the farmers market, we had purchased some leeks, an ingredient we love to use in The Bachelor’s Kitchen. There were some potatoes we purchased for something else that never got made. Suddenly, the idea of our favorite potato leek soup came to mind. And we were off.

We could have tried to find our recipe, but instead we decided to wing it. Taking our soup pot down from the shelf, we light a low fire under it and began peeling and chopping potatoes and leeks.

We add some olive oil to the pot and add the leeks, slowly sweating them with a pinch of salt. As they soften, we add a couple tablespoons of flour and get all the leek rings coated and turning a little brown. Chicken broth is added and the chopped potatoes. We topped off the pot with some water to make it more soup-like. Once the potatoes were soft, we added two cups of milk, lots of ground pepper and some dried herbs. Another hour of slow simmering and it was ready.

It was that easy. So you have no excuses.

Buy Large, Cook Large, But Be Selective

Many people have learned about the joys of buying in bulk. Yes, the deals can be quite good. But that’s only if you have the space to deal with it. Normally, bachelors like me live in small apartments with very little storage space. While buying 20 rolls of paper towels seems like a great deal, where will you put them?

When it comes to buying food, there are good times to buy large quantities, and times when you face the same problem of where to put the stuff and using it in a reasonable amount of time.

For example, watch for when chicken breasts are on sale at your local supermarket. They are usually in three-pound packages. When you get home, take a couple of them to clean and cook right away, wrap the rest individually in plastic and put in a freezer bag. Pop the bag in the freezer and you can pull out one anytime for a quick and easy meal.

Use the same strategy with all kinds of protein and most fruits. But vegetables are a lot harder to treat this way. Freezing them can be a more involved procedure if you don’t want a pile of sludge. Do a little research before you plan to freeze fresh fruits and vegetables.

You can make your own frozen dinners by cooking ahead and putting the food in plastic containers that can go from freezer to microwave. Do the same with personal mini pizzas, homemade breakfast muffins and burritos. I never cook a single serving when I cook. It’s just too hard. Make full meals for four, eat one, put the rest in plastic containers, two in the fridge and one in the freezer for later.

This is especially important with meat and poultry and even some fish and seafood. One note you need to know here: if something comes frozen, keep it that way until the day before you’re planning to cook it. Don’t freeze and thaw repeatedly, it gives you mushy, nasty foods.

Always keep frozen vegetables from the store freezer section in the freezer at home. These are always useful for side dishes, stir-fries and lots of other uses.

So, be smart when you buy in bulk. Do you have a place to put it? Will you REALLY use it right away? If there’s any doubt, let the store be your warehouse. You may pay a little more, but the peace of mind and not living with piles of stuff all around you is worth the few extra cents.

Summer’s Time To Try New, Healthy Combos

Summer is great time to try new things. This is the time when you can get the best produce, the best ingredients and the healthiest food. And combining foods for maximum nutrition can lead you to come up with wonderful, new dishes.

Combining foods for maximum nutritional value is called by food scientists food synergy. That means the combination of two or more items leads to greater nutrition than any of the items individually.

One example is a chickenRoasted Chicken and White Bean Salad. This has high amounts of zinc which helps control your appetite. This salad is not only good and healthy, it helps you eat less. Using Cannellini beans white-bean-chix-salad-lwill give you lots of valuable iron, more than red meat or spinach. They’re also loaded with protein and fiber. Make your own salad dressing to top chicken, beans, fresh greens, tomato, onion, pepper and whatever else you like and you’ve got a great meal.

Making your own salad dressing is easy. Even if you add a little sweetness, it’s still going to be healthier than what you buy in a bottle at the store. Just remember it’s three parts oil to one part vinegar. After that, you can add whatever flavors you like, such as garlic, herbs, spices and fruit juice.

In fact, a great tip is to cut up an orange over a bowl, adding the juice to the dressing and some of the orange slices to your salad. You can do this with almost any sweet citrus fruit. The iron in the orange combines well with baby spinach, making a salad that’s a big step above iceberg or romaine lettuce. I like spinach for a salad because it holds up longer in the refrigerator than regular lettuce.

Want to have a creamy dressing? Try using plain, low-fat yogurt instead of mayonnaise. Experiment. You might be amazed at what you can come up with.

Another tip is to add hazelnuts to your salad. Hazelnuts are rich in folate and Vitamin E, items that help your heart. Nuts add crunch to the salad (in place of croutons) and vital fats. Sunflower seeds are also a great addition.

GarlicGarlic not only adds flavor but it’s a great combatant against disease. It’s naturally antibacterial, helps fight cholesterol and can help prevent cancer. Using strong flavors like this gives a more satisfying eating experience, making over-eating less likely.

Tomatoes, fresh or cooked, add lots of heart-healthy nutrients in addition to flavor. Don’t make a pasta salad without them. Combining tomatoes with olive oil, increases your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients.

Fresh herbsFresh_Herbs.146112635_std are great as a topping or in the dressing. Basil, for example, is full of anti-oxidants, which help fight off heart disease. And don’t stop at just salads. Herbs can go on or in almost any dish.

For dessert, fresh fruit is wonderful. Want to kick it up a notch? Make a sugar-free chocolate sauce to dip or put on top. Take unsweetened cocoa powder with an equal amount of Splenda or other sugar substitute and combine with a little water, working it in and adding a tablespoon or so at a  time until you get the consistency you want. I use this on top of ice cream (sugar-free ice cream can be a little gummy) or other meal finishers or snack treats. Chocolate and cocoa contain disease-fighting antioxidants and can help reduce the risk of blood clots. It also lowers blood pressure and increases problem solving skills. Combine that with fresh fruit’s Vitamin C and you’ve got a super dessert in more than taste.

Now’s a great time to try something new, to experiment and come up with your own dynamite combinations for great taste and better health.

Eat Less Meat, Lose Weight

Time and again, readers of The Bachelor’s Kitchen know, we have talked about eating less meat. We’re not advocating we give up meat all together, just that we eat a little less. We should do as the Chinese do and make meat more of a flavoring to a dish of vegetables and rice than the typical American diet of meat and potatoes.

A new study from Europe seems to be bearing this idea out.

Researchers from Imperial College London found that avid meat eaters gained more weight over 5 years than those who ate less meat but the same amount of calories.

This confirms not just what we have said about eating meat, but what we have said about the type of calories making a big difference. Losing weight is very hard, but for a long time we’ve believed that it was just a matter of eating less. Now we’re starting to learn it’s about what you eat as well.

Should You Use Artificial Sweeteners?

Using sugar substitutes have been used for several decades. They’ve been a huge benefit to diabetics who need to keep their sugar levels down. But there are side effects. Some have been shown to cause cancer, others seem to cause seizures in some people. We once saw our society as “better living through chemistry.” But today, we’re trying to get most of the chemicals out of our food, seeing in them links to heart disease, obesity and other health issues.

So what’s a concerned bachelor/bachelorette or anyone else to do?

There are times when using a sugar substitute is a great idea, even if there may be health risks. The consequences of eating too much sugar can be worse than those posed by exposure to chemicals. But it’s also a good idea to train your sweet tooth away from craving so much sugar. This has two great advantages: 1) you have less exposure to both chemicals and sugar; and 2) when you do have something sweet, it’s all the better.

First, let’s look at the different kinds of artificial sweeteners.

Saccharin. This has been around for over a century. Use of this sweetener has declined a great deal because studies have found a link with certain forms of cancer in animal tests. Some countries have banned it’s use. Saccharin is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and is usually combined with other sweeteners, like maltodextrin, to lessen it’s bitter aftertaste. With the invention of other sweeteners, use of saccharin has declined because of FDA labeling requirements as well as health concerns.

Cyclamate is a sweetener you don’t see anymore at all in the U.S. and only rarely in other countries. It has also been linked to cancer.

Aspartame. We also know this as the Nutrisweet brand. It was discovered in 1965 and is derived from two amino acids, the building blocks of protein. It was the king of the sweetener market for more than three decades. It lacks the aftertaste of saccharin and likes more acidic environments, like in soft drinks and other beverages. But it doesn’t work well in baking because heat causes the amino acids to break down. There have also been cancer scares about this product but studies have been inconclusive.

Sucralose. This is best known under the brand name Splenda. It is also available now under other brands and in a generic form. This is called, nutritionally, sugar alcohol. Because it is made from chlorinated sucrose sugar but is only partially absorbed in your body, it’s been found to be a good substitute for most sweetening uses, including baking. Most baking products use a combination of sucralose and sugar. As I’ve mentioned before, you cannot replace all of the sugar in baked goods because sugar acts like a liquid in that use and you have to make up for the lost volume. For the most part, studies have not revealed any terrible health problems so far.

Others. Maltitol and sorbitol are often used frequently, in toothpaste, mouth wash, and in foods such as “no sugar added” iced cream. It is also a sugar alcohol but can cause a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts. I also think they have a nasty aftertaste. Erythritol is gaining momentum as a replacement for these other sugar alcohols in foods as it is much less likely to produce gastrointestinal distress when consumed in large amounts. It is made by fermenting with yeast the basic sugar glucose. In many other countries xylitol and the herbal sweetener stevia are used extensively. These are natural sugar alcohols made from plant fiber.

As you can see, all of these sugar substitutes have their problems. Most are sweeter than sugar. Only some are really good substitutes for real sugar. But a lot depends on how you use it, just like anything else. In beverages, it seems to me most of these sweeteners are a lot better for you than sugar. Regular carbonated soda is just sugar water with bubbles. If you drink even one, you’ve shot your recommended sugar intake for the day. But learning to like coffee and tea without sweetening, not adding anything besides fruit to cereal and other steps away from sweetness might be a good idea.

Recipe: Indoor Baby Back Ribs

Ribs are a favorite barbecue item in the summer. And baby back ribs are always especially tender and delicious. But if they’re not cooked long enough, they can be tough. If they’re cooked too long, they fall apart. And how, without a smoker, can you get that wonderful slow-cooked barbecue taste when you don’t have an outdoor grill? Well, I found a really good solution.

If you haven’t tried this method, you might find it a little questionable. But I assure you it works very well. Also, when you’re done, I don’t think you or your guests will be able to tell you didn’t spend hours slowing cooking them on a grill.

Broiled Baby Back Ribs

Prep time: 10 minutes; Cook time: 1 hour 15 minutes; Ready in 1-1/2 hours. Makes 3 servings.

Ingredients: 

  • 3 lbs. pork back ribs, cut into 3 rib serving pieces
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke flavoring

Directions:

  1. Place the ribs in a large stock pot and fill with enough water to cover the ribs. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer for about one hour or until ribs are tender.
  2. Meanwhile, stir together in a saucepan the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, salt and liquid smoke. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. When it begins to simmer, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered about 30 minutes until thickened. Stir frequently.
  3. Set oven rack to about 6 inches from broiler coil or burner. Preheat broiler. Line a baking sheet with foil. Carefully remove the ribs from the water and place on baking sheet meaty side up. Brush the ribs with half the barbecue sauce. Broil until the sauce turns sticky and lightly browned, about 7 minutes.
  4. Turn the ribs over, brush with remaining sauce and broil until sauce turns sticky and starts to blacken, about 7 minutes.

I like these with some potato salad  and baked beans. This is a great spring and summer dish.

The Rise of Sustainable Seafood

You may recall we’ve discussed the issue of sustainable seafood before. Seafood is good for you. It’s healthy and many experts and doctors are urging us to consume more. But that presents a problem. Already many popular fish species have become nearly extinct because of overfishing. Also, many underwater habitats have been destroyed by large scale fishing operations that gather up or scrape away lots of animals needed for a healthy ecosystem. Aquafarming has tried to answer that call, but this has its own problems such as environmental damage and artificial, antibody-laden feed.

And that’s not all. There’s also increasing concern over mercury contamination of many popular species like tuna and swordfish. We have the long burning of coal to thank for that.

What’s a responsible bachelor to do?

The answer is sustainable seafood. That means either fishing methods that don’t destroy habitats or take in unwanted species. It also means consuming fish that reproduce quickly in the wild.

Now, we’re seeing an increasing demand for sustainable seafood among the general public, not just the environmentally conscious. A recent article on NPR’s food blog, The Salt, reports that big chain stores, where so many Americans shop, are catching on to this trend and moving to change the stocks in their seafood selections.

“Increasingly, those of us who shop the big-box retailers including Costco, Target and Walmart are finding a blue label on seafood packages. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label signifies that the seafood comes from a fishery that’s met a rigorous set of standards aimed at promoting responsible, sustainable catches.”

And supporters of this movement say consumer demand is making the difference. That means we are becoming more informed about our food – and more conscious of how we spend our food dollars. Right now, these changes are not translating to higher food costs. But that could change.

“And how might these commitments influence our pocketbooks? Well, lots of factors influence the fluctuating prices of seafood. It’s all about supply and demand. Currently, about 14 percent of global fisheries have gone through an MSC certification. It’s possible that as retailers demand more sustainable fish, pricescould rise if supplies are limited.”

Overall, this is good news. It means this vital food resource can endure long into the future. So, go ahead and eat more fish and seafood. Just look for that label that tells you it’s something we all can live with.

Avoid These Fins, Your Life May Depend On It

We’ve talked about fish and seafood and how important they are to your diet. We’ve encouraged you to seek out and consume sustainable shellfish. But there are problems with eating more fish. Not only are many fish stocks being over-consumed, but with the increasing addition of mercury to the oceans because of the burning of coal, many fish present a health issue.

Some environmental organizations are advocating taking fish off the menu, but that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Still, we should heed the warnings of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The fund feels that many popular fish are being depleted. It also says those same fish are highly contaminated with mercury and PCBs.

Here are some fish you should avoid and why.

  1. Bluefin Tuna. These are very large ocean-going fish that are highly prized in many cultures, especially Japan, where they sell for $177,000 per fish. They are so contaminated with mercury that many environmental and health organizations have recommended eating absolutely none of them. Fortunately, if you’re a sushi lover, there are plenty of other fish that can be used.
  2. Chilean Sea Bass (also called Patagonian Toothfish). Remember when this was the hit of all fine dining restaurants and quite a few of the not so fine? Chefs and eaters alike loved the buttery meat. There is one fishery that’s producing high quality farm-raised sea bass, but most have been fished to near extinction. Also, the methods used to catch them, trawlers and longlines, have damaged the sea floor and hooked many seabirds.
  3. Like the bluefin tuna, Groupers have high levels of mercury in the flesh. These are very large fish that can live to be 40 years old. However, they reproduce only during a short period in their lives.
  4. A fish that’s become quite popular is Monkfish. It hasn’t been popular before because it’s a very ugly fish. It is a bottom-feeder that looks like a really big catfish. Because of its diet, it absorbs a lot of mercury and PCBs.
  5. Orange Roughy is another popular fish that’s prone to overfishing. Like groupers, this fish lives a long life but is slow to reproduce. They live for 100 years or more, which means there’s a high chance it has a lot of mercury in its flesh.
  6. Most farm-raised salmon, also called Atlantic salmon, are raised in overcrowded conditions just like most pigs in feed lots. Their pens are rife with parasites and diseases which threaten wild salmon swimming past the farms to their spawning grounds. They are fed an unnatural fishmeal containing high amounts of antibiotics. The lack of open water also means they contain high amounts of PCBs.

This doesn’t mean that all fish are contaminated or in danger. There are many species that are thriving and highly sustainable.

Quick, Easy Baked Fish

Many people are afraid to cook fish. Our society has more experience with poultry and red meat. But fish and seafood offer many health benefits and can be mighty tasty, too. People who live on or near the coast are well aware of the sea’s bounty. But in the Midwest, fresh seafood can be very hard to find. Almost always it must be frozen to get to landlocked states without spoiling. And we know that frozen fish or seafood can end up watery, mushy and foul tasting because of what the freezing process can do to the flesh.

But I recently found a way of cooking frozen fish that is easy, quick and very flavorful. You might want to try it. But first, let’s look at the best way to thaw fish before you start cooking.

Obviously, the best way to thaw frozen fish from the market is to allow it is sit, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for six to 12 hours. Sometimes it may take longer, depending on the size and quantity of the fish. Remember to put the packet of frozen fish on a platter or in a dish to catch any water that comes off the fish as it thaws.

If you’re in a hurry, you can place the frozen package under running cold water for one to two hours per pound. You can also put the fish in a sealable plastic bag and put that in a bowl of cold water. Change the water every half hour. Remember to use safe food handling guidelines and keep the thawing fish isolated and clean everything it touches thoroughly after.

Do NOT try to defrost in the microwave. All you get then is partially cooked fish likely to dry out when you cook the rest of it. Also, do not thaw the fish on the kitchen counter. Once that fish gets warm it gets dangerous. And don’t refreeze thawed fish. Cook it as soon as possible once thawed.

Now that you have your thawed fish, it’s time to get cooking.

Mexican Baked Fish

Ingredients: 

  • 1 to 2 pounds thawed fish fillets
  • 1 cup salsa, jarred or homemade
  • 1 cup shredded cheese
  • 1/2 cup crushed corn chips
  • 1/4 cup sour cream

Directions:

  1. Press the water from the thawed fish fillets using paper towels. Attempt to get as dry as possible.
  2. Preheat oven to 400F. Grease a baking dish.
  3. Lay the fillets in dish and pour salsa over them. Sprinkle with the shredded cheese and then top with the crushed corn chips. Don’t add any more salt, but a couple grinds of black pepper would go well.
  4. Bake uncovered for 15 minutes or until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
  5. Top with sour cream before serving.

This goes great with rice and beans.