Pantry Basics: In The Freezer

The freezer is one of The Bachelor’s Kitchen’s best friends. It enables you to have quality meat and vegetables at any time. It should not be filled with frozen dinners, although one or two for emergencies, carefully chosen, might not be a bad idea. But the following items are things you should try to keep stocked at all times. Buy these in quantity when on sale so you have some fresh meal ingredients available when times get lean.

Chicken breasts. These are often on sale but in packages of three pounds or more. While that’s way more than any bachelor needs, buying in this quantity when the price is low is a good deal. When you get home, or at most the next day, wash and dry the beasts and wrap each one in its own plastic wrap. Wrap them as tightly as you can. If you’re going to be keeping them in the freezer for more than a week or two, also wrap each one tightly in aluminum foil. Place all of them in a zip-topped freezer bag and then the bag into the freezer. All this wrapping may seem excessive, but it will prevent freezer burn from ruining the meat. Use this same process for just about anything that might be left in the freezer for a while.

Frozen Vegetables. We really like frozen vegetables. They are not much, if any, more expensive than fresh. They already are cut and trimmed, so you’re not buying the parts of the plants you don’t eat, like corn cobs and broccoli stalks. They are well cleaned and ready to go into whatever dish you’re making. Do not eat thawed vegetables without thoroughly washing them. Some types of frozen vegetables will get mushy if thawed but not cooked. Avoid those in any kind of sauce or “ready to eat” additives. If unsure, just check the ingredients label.

If you want to make your own frozen vegetables, after cutting, cleaning and trimming them into individual pieces, make sure they are completely dry and lay them out on a cookie sheet with a little space between each one. Put the sheet in the freezer so each piece of vegetable is individually frozen. This should take a few hours. Then put the pieces in a zip-topped plastic bag and back into the freezer.

Ground Beef. For American kitchens, this is a staple, although it’s not as cheap as it once was. Still it’s a versatile beef that can do a lot more than just hamburgers. A pound of ground beef, a little pasta and some tomatoes and you’ve got a quick meal. If you buy this in quantity, separate it into about one-pound chunks before wrapping and freezing each chunk in its own package. If you know you’ll want some hamburger patties, you can make them now and individually wrap and freeze them for quick dinners.

Fish Fillets. You don’t have to be stuck with child-like fish sticks or even breaded fish. You can buy fillets of tilapia, salmon, whitefish and other mild, easy to cook fish in large bags, individually wrapped and frozen. Some people are afraid to cook fish, but it’s not as hard as you think. And there are people who had a bad fish experience in their past and think they don’t like it. But give it another shot, you might be surprised. Fish should never smell fishy. If you smell ammonia, it’s gone bad and should be thrown away. If you can, buy fresh fish just for the day you want it. But that’s hard to do if you live a long way from the coast, thus we have it on our Pantry Freezer Basics list. We’ll talk about some ideas to Bachelor Cook fish later.

You might wonder why I don’t list frozen fruit. It’s great for making smoothies or desserts, but not as just fruit. It gets too mushy after it thaws. Some cooks recommend the individually frozen method I mentioned above for vegetables, but I haven’t found it to work for all vegetables and most fruits. There are good uses for frozen fruit, but not as a Pantry Basic.

Pantry Basics: Non-Food Items

We’ve talked a lot about the ingredients you need to have a reasonably well-stocked pantry. There are plenty of items we could include, but we’ve tried to concentrate on the basics.

So, while we’re talking about Pantry Basics, in addition to food, you’re also going to need some other items to help keep your food. This entry will talk about all those non-food things your pantry should also include.

Containers. There’s not need to spend hundreds of dollars on expensive plastic containers from name-brand companies. You can now buy inexpensive containers that can go well in the refrigerator, freezer and microwave. Because they are inexpensive you don’t care if they get stained, lost or ruined. Starter sets are available or you can buy packages of just eh sizes you need. Typical sizes are called Entree (about the size of the center of a dinner plate, square), Side/Salad (more versatile cube-like and just the right size for a single serving of soup or stew), and Snack (small, can be rectangular or round, just the right size for dressing, condiments or single servings of protein). You can buy larger sizes, but I find breaking things down to fit these standard sized containers gives me more options, like one-serving meals or portions that can be divided into “use soon” in the fridge or “use later” in the freezer. These are a MUST for leftovers. As I don’t encourage bachelors to make single-serving meals, you need to have a way to keep leftovers and have them valuable for quick and easy meals when you get home from work and don’t want to cook or wait for a meal.

Plastic Wrap. This has been in American kitchens for many decades and it is so very useful. The advantage is that it keeps air from getting to food, and air is, as I have stated before, a greater threat than almost anything else. Plastic wrap should alway be backed up by other containment if used for storage. It can be used in the microwave, but only for short periods of time, as it will melt if what it’s covering gets too hot.

Aluminum foil. This has been around the kitchen even longer than plastic wrap and just of useful. The good thing is it can be used for cooking, except in the microwave.

Wax or Parchment Paper. Parchment usually refers to a writing surface made from animal skin, such as vellum. But parchment can be made from plant based materials. Fibers are boiled down from pulp and then collected and then washed, leaving behind just the cellulose which is then dried. This gives it a resistance to grease and a semi-transparency. Wax paper is regular paper coated with wax. These are not always interchangeable. Wax paper is very useful for mixing dry ingredients or coating a countertop to protect it from stains or dirt. It is also handy for covering dishes in the microwave to prevent splattering all over the inside of the oven. However, under high heat, the wax will melt making food taste like biting into a candle. Parchment paper is great for lining cookie sheets and cooking in the oven using a method called “en papier” (in paper). It will burn if it gets hot enough, but in contact with food it is safe.

Freezer and/or Storage Bags. The difference between freezer bags and storage bags is the thickness of the plastic. Freezer bags are able to keep out frost and some freezer burn, while a regular storage bag will not do quite as good a job. Freezer bags also allows less of the food’s scent through making them better for storing vermin-prone goods like flour, sugar or corn meal. But storage bags are usually cheaper. They both have their uses. Storage bags can usually only be used once, while freezer bags can, if kept clean, can be re-used, depending on what was stored inside. If it was meat, do not re-use the bag. But bread or wrapped products might be re-used if clean.

You can probably find other useful things to keep in the pantry, but these are the basics.

Pantry Basics: Dry Goods

In addition to the flour, sugar and baking mix I mentioned in an earlier article, there are a few other dry ingredients we need to have in the pantry.

Rice. This is a staple for most of the world. Only in the more Northern climates, like Europe and North America, do people consume more wheat and other grains. You can buy rice in many forms, but I stick with the very affordable five pound bag of regular long grain white rice. It is the easier to cook and the most adaptable to a wide range of recipes and cuisines. It is true that brown rice, which is exactly the same but with the outer hull still on, does have higher nutritional value. But it also requires longer cooking and can be more difficult to get right. You can buy instant rice if you’re not sure of your ability to cook rice without it coming up mushy or sticky. Instant rice is just rice that has been partially cooked and then dried. An agent to keep it from sticking together or absorbing moisture from the air are about the only things added. The boil-in-the-bag types are okay, too. The microwavable or boxed side dish varieties present a problem since they usually have lots of salt and other stuff in them. However, I will admit they are very convenient.

Cooking rice DOES take some practice. Sushi chefs spend two years just learning how to make the rice. Fortunately, rice is inexpensive. Start out with small amounts until you get the hang of it. Here are the tips:

  • Wash the rice in a strainer. Do it in batches if you have to. Rinse under cold running water and try to make sure every kernel gets doused. Don’t be afraid to get your hands in there and work the water and rice around. You are removing the excess starch on the outside of the rice kernels which can make the rice mushy or clumpy.
  • Add rice and cold water to a cold saucepan that has a good, tight-fitting lid. Use 3 cups of water to 2 cups of uncooked rice.
  • Add 1 teaspoon salt, or 1 chicken bouillon cube or 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules. You can also use 1 cup of chicken stock in place of 1 cup of water.
  • Stir once.
  • Put on high heat and bring to a rolling boil. You may stir once if you fear the rice might be sticking, but that’s all. Any more will make the rice mushy.
  • Turn the heat to low, cover and walk away for 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let the pot sit for 10 minutes.
  • Now, carefully use a fork to fluff the rice and break it up.

It may not work the first time. Every stove and pot is different and can affect how the rice turns out. But once you get it, you’ll find it easier each time. I’m not a big fan of most rice cookers because I don’t think they turn out any better. For the beginner, instant rice is easier but may or may not be fool-proof.

Pasta. My problem with pasta, as I think I’ve mentioned, is that we eat too much of it because it’s cheap. As a processed food, dry pasta is not bad as it usually doesn’t have much of the bad stuff in it. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE BOX! The times they give are usually pretty accurate. Do NOT throw pasta against the wall to see if it sticks. Just pull a bit of it up out of the pot, blow on it to cool and see how it feels in your mouth when you chew it. You’ll know if it’s right. Always use at least 4 quarts of water or more. This is one time a stock pot is really useful. Personally, I don’t think there’s much difference between one pasta brand and another. Think about using pasta more creatively instead of just a tomato based sauce. Mix with extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese and dried basil for a classic Italian side dish. Pine nuts go great with this if you have some, but they are expensive. Mix vegetables, cheese, herbs and a little oil or butter to make a healthy side. Just don’t have a big plate of pasta with sauce and meatballs or meat sauce. That’s like eating half a loaf of bread.

Bread Crumbs. Like chicken stock or broth, I think you should make your own bread crumbs. It’s not hard. If completely dry, they can go in an airtight container (otherwise, stick them in the freezer). You can save up stale bread or crackers for just this purpose. If you must buy bread crumbs in the store, try to find Panko, the Japanese style breadcrumbs. Your last choice should be that sawdust in the container they sell. I don’t care how they dress it up, it’s still sawdust. It’s just too fine to create more than a mush. If you need bread crumbs for a recipe, put some bread in the toaster on the darkest setting without burning or blackening. If you have a food processor, use it. Otherwise, let the bread sit for a bit and try toasting again until you get as much moisture out of it as you can. Watch it carefully! If the oven’s already on, cut the bread into small pieces and arrange on a cookie sheet and bake until golden brown.

Next, the icebox.

What’s the difference between wines?

We thought it would be a good idea to talk about all the different kinds of wines and what makes them different. What is wine, anyway?

Wine is some kind of fruit juice that has been allowed to ferment. Fermenting mean the sugar in the juice has been eaten by micro organism called yeast, which are everywhere. The yeasts give off two things as they eat, grow, reproduce and die: alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wine is the oldest intoxicating drink known to humankind. It is made from various juices all around the world. The only places wine isn’t made are very cold climates where conventional fruit does not grow. Wine is usually made from grapes because this fruit has the best balance of acidity, sugar and amount of juice. Wine can also be made from any fruit juice and from some grains such as rice and barley. Most starchy grains are used to making brewed beverages, like beer, or distilled liquor, like vodka or whiskey. It’s believed that the earliest wines were made in the area around what is today Iran about 8,000 years ago.

Wine is named for the variety of grape used, the method and/or the region in which was made. For example, Chianti applies only to wine made mostly from Sangiovese grapes specifically grown in the Tuscany region of Italy. Champagne can be made from several different grape varieties, but can only come from the Champagne region of France. The method used is called Champagnoise, which can be applied to any sparkling (bubbly) wine but does not confer the name Champagne.

Laws generally state that a wine with a varietal name, such as Chardonnay, has to contain mostly Chardonnay grapes. Other juices can be added in small amounts to create a particular or consistent flavor. Wines that do not meet the majority grape requirements are called blends and usually have a trademarked marketing name, such as Meritage. Wine made from grapes mostly from a single harvest are called Vintage. This designation can mean a lot or mean nothing at all depending on the type, style and region of the wine. Winemakers try to make their products consistent from year to year, so vintage often doesn’t mean anything.

There are hundreds of wine grape varieties, many of them you have probably never heard of. Some of the more obscure grapes don’t make a very good wine by themselves, but are used as blending juices to create a particular taste. In addition to red and white, wines are also divided into dry and sweet. Most of the best wines are dry because sugar often hides the delicate combination of flavors that can exist in wine. But there are places for sweet wines, like Muscat, usually drank as a dessert. Rose or blush wines are always blends and are often sweeter than many popular wines. White Zinfandel, for example, has nothing to do with real Zinfandel, which is a hearty red wine. The sickeningly sweet White Zinfandel is a blend of chablis and whatever leftover red wine they have lying around. It is usually drank by people who don’t like the dry quality of most wines. The only good thing I can say for it is it doesn’t taste like wine.

What’s classified as sweet in wine terms is often not what most people consider sweet in food terms. Gewürztraminer, for example, is considered a sweet wine but its taste in food terms would probably be called semi-sweet.

You’ve probably seen on TV wine tasters swish the wine around their mouths and spit it out before precisely naming it down to the year. There are really very few people who can do that. The only reason they spit out the wine is because they are usually tasting so much that they would otherwise become too drunk to be able to identify the wine. The real way to taste wine is to use your nose. When a wine is presented to you, the waiter should hold the bottle so you can read the label and make sure it’s what you ordered. He or she should then lay the cork next to you after removing it from the bottle. Don’t smell the cork! That would only tell you something if the wine had gone bad, called corked, by reacting to some small germs in the cork itself. Cork is a natural product and even though they go through elaborate procedures to clean them, sometimes something slips through. Corked wine will smell of ammonia and dirty latrine. Believe me, there will be no question. Just return it. People in the wine and food business know this happens and factor that into their costs of doing business. All the cork can tell you most of the time is whether the wine has been stored properly. Wine should be stored long-term laying on its side so the liquid touches the cork. Keeping the cork wet makes it less likely the seal will be broken and air allowed into the bottle, which would make it go bad. Because of a shortage of cork oak trees, many corks today are made from a synthetic material that does not require being kept moist and will not allow the wine to become corked.

Wine should never completely fill the glass. It reacts with air, and you will want to swish the wine around inside the glass, causing some agitation to add air into the wine. Take your time, there’s no rush, even if some wait person is standing anxiously at your elbow. Some wine lovers like to look at how the wine coats the side of the glass. What this means is not always clear. Next, you want to smell the wine. Go ahead and stick your nose well down into the glass, as far as you can without actually getting your nose wet. The smell, or bouquet, of the wine is as much a part of the taste as what hits your tongue. The smell should give you some idea of the taste. You should smell fruit and other scents from around the vineyard. Lavender and earth smells might be present. Enjoy the smells whatever they might be.

Now, you’re finally ready to taste it. Sip a small amount into your mouth and swish it around a little. But NOT like mouthwash! Pucker your lips and suck in a little air, making bubbles in the wine in your mouth. This wakes up flavors you might not otherwise detect. Try to do this as quietly as you can. You’re not sucking down a shake with a straw, you know. Now, you can swallow. Pay attention to how the wine tastes as to goes to the back of your mouth and into your throat. There may be a lingering flavor, called a finish.

Red wines should be served at room temperature or just below, around 70 F. White wines should be cool but not cold, about 60 F. Icing down wine longer than needed to bring it down to temperature will kill the taste.

Now, enjoy it! Wine is an amazingly complex substance and has fascinated people for thousands of years. After all this, we still have more to cover, and we’ll do that soon.

Fear of Sauce Making

Novice cooks always seem to be afraid of making sauces. We have never understood why, exactly. Mother-Sauces

Some sauces are “fussy.” But most are simple and a byproduct of regular cooking.

Hot and cold

The first division we can make about sauces is they are either hot or cold. A hot sauce is probably what most of us think of when someone says “sauce.”

An example of a cold sauce would be something we think of as a condiment or a dipping sauce. Ketchup, salsa, tartar sauce or mustard are examples of cold sauces. Some, like ketchup, start out as a cooked sauce. But many are cold throughout. Cold sauces are some of the easiest to make and a good place for novice cooks to begin.

Salsatomato-and-pepper-salsa

This is one of the best examples of a cold sauce. It’s easy to make, consisting of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, some spices and sometimes herbs like cilantro. The key to good salsa is to allow it time to let its ingredients get together and exchange flavors. It’s best to make salsa the night before you need it.

Hot

Hot sauces can be as simple as gravy or as complicated as Bechamel. Hot sauces are used most commonly as an enhancement to an entree or as a part of a dish. Most hot sauces use a roux (roo), a blend of flour and fat, as a starting point. But many begin with some basic vegetable combinations, as in a pasta sauce.

We divide hot sauces into three groups: gravy, topping and rouxs.

Gravy

gravyMany don’t think of gravy as a sauce, but that’s exactly what it is. Its shares many of the same elements as a roux. It is also one of the first sauces many cooks learn to make. It is a rustic sauce made from the drippings of roasted or fried meats. Flour is added to the drippings in small amounts. Lots of stirring with a whisk is required. Other liquids can be added, like wine, vinegar, milk, cream or stock. The combination is brought to a boil and then simmered until thickened. This is ideal to do while meat is resting, because it takes about ten or fifteen minutes.

Topping

homemade marinara sauceA topping sauce is something like a pasta sauce, the most common of them. Pizza sauce also qualifies. These usually start with some basic vegetables, like celery, onion and garlic, brought together with oil in a pot. Tomatoes or tomato sauce are added along with herbs, water or broth and spices then cooked until the flavors come together. We recommend making your own sauce instead of opening a jar. It does not take much longer and the freshness and quality are so much better.

Rouxs

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThese sauces usually begin with flour and fat. In this category we find the famous four French “mother” sauces, each a basic sauce from which other sauces can be made by adding other ingredients.

The most basic sauce in this group is Bechamel, a simple butter, milk and flour sauce which becomes the base for cheese sauce among others. These can be toppings, but they can also be essential to a dish, like lasagna or Eggs Benedict.

A Basic Bechamel Sauce begins with melting 5 tablespoons of butter in a bechamelsaucesaucepan over medium heat. A 1/4 cup of all purpose flour is sprinkled in a little at a time, whisking constantly. Stir until the mixture is smooth and begins to brown. It takes about 7 minutes to reach of golden sandy color.

Remember that lighter color rouxes have less flavor but more thickening power. Darker roux’s, often found in Cajun cooking, are more flavorful and lose most of their thickening power.

Whisking continuously, slowly stir in 1 quart of milk. Bring the mixture to a gently simmer, barely bubbling, then lower the heat to medium-low. Cook for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently until the mixture no longer tastes gritty. Season with a coupe teaspoons of salt and some freshly grated nutmeg. Remove from heat.

Now you can add cheese or other ingredients if you want more than just the usual Bechamel.

The key to most sauces is lots of stirring and gently handling. Sometimes a sauce “breaks,” meaning it separates. Usually, adding a little more liquid under a low heat will fix a broken sauce.

Kitchen Intermediates: Griddle

As we continue our series on intermediate level kitchen equipment, things that are useful but not essential, we take on one of my favorites — the griddle.

A griddle is a flat surface, usually metal in the developed world, that’s used for cooking all sorts of foods. It’s kind of like a large, flat fry pan. You’ve seen the big industrial models in restaurants and diners. There, it’s called a flat top. In the underdeveloped world, a griddle can be a flat stone or brick tablet over an open flame. Flatbreads are a common item cooked over this type of griddle.

When I was a kid, we had a two-burner cast-iron griddle that was used almost as often as the cast iron skillet. Believe it or not, those are still available. In fact, if you can afford it, this is the preferable model because it has the weight to sit flat on the stovetop.

Another variation is the griddle pan. Most in this country are square with a single handle. The problem with these is they lack to weight to sit even on the burner. I have one of these. I like it and I use it quite a bit. But without food on it, the handle weight causes the other end to rise up off the burner. Also, it doesn’t heat as evenly as I would like.

This is a variation on a Welsh griddle, which is cast iron, round and has a single handle. It looks like a crepe pan, for which it is ideal. A griddle typically has either a short rim or a shallow trough for grease.

Another type is the tappan, a Japanese griddle you may have seen in robata restaurants like Beni Hana.

You also may have seen an electric griddle, similar to an electric skillet or grill. The problem with these is uneven heating.

Costs for a griddle or griddle pan can range from about $15 to well over $100.

The griddle is a close cousin of the indoor grill or a grill pan. But we’ll look at those later.

Kitchen Basics – Part 2: Cutting boards

Now that you have your cast iron skillet, it’s time to think about the other tools you’ll need to set up a basic kitchen.

It’s time to think about knives and cutting boards.

For cutting boards, there are a lot of choices in size and materials. You have to choose one, at least, that will both protect the edge of your knives and that can be easily cleaned, even sterilized, if used for meat. Many cooks have different cutting boards for different uses, and if you can afford it, do it. But always make sure it can be cleaned with soap and hot water.

Never use a cutting board made of glass or ceramic. It will ruin your knives. The slick surface also is dangerous, allowing whatever you’re cutting to slip and slide.

That leaves wood, bamboo, plastic, wood, silicon and particle board.

Wood is great for vegetables and similar foods. The surface is very forgiving on knife edges and it can take a lot of abuse and cleaning. However, it can’t be sterilized or put in a dishwasher. So, there is some concern that contaminants can enter the pores of the wood and linger to spread and grow. That makes it a less than ideal choice for meat.

Bamboo has many of the same qualities as wood, plus it’s a great renewable resource. It is basically a type of grass and grows quickly. But unlike wood, the surface is usually a bit rougher than wood, making moving food around or into your knife is a little harder. These are popular and inexpensive, making them a good choice. But not the best choice.

Particle board is made of wood materials and a laminate. It has a lot of the same qualities as wood, is relatively cheap and easy to clean. Many are also dishwasher safe. But I’m not convinced that the laminate coating is easy on knife edges.

Silicon cutting boards are flimsy but relatively durable. The flexibility makes them great for transferring ingredients into mixing bowls and similar receptacles. They also are inexpensive and come in an array of colors, allowing you to assign a different color to different uses like red for meat, chicken and seafood, green for fruits and vegetables and so on. But you need to put these on a solid base and take measures to keep them from moving while you are cutting.

That leaves my personal favorite: hard plastic acrylic. These are light enough to pick up and carry to your pan on the stove but firm enough to withstand the dishwasher or heavy scrubbing. They don’t soak up contaminants, but they can stain. These also are easy on the blade edge. In a small apartment, they can be used to give you temporary additional counter space by covering over the sink or cool stove burners. I’ve had mine for many years and it’s still a great cutting board. It has just a little texture on the surface to keep the food from sliding around, but not enough to make feeding the food into your knife difficult.

Blue Box, My @$$

I’ve said it before. Macaroni and cheese from a box may seem easy, but the damage to your health, and the health of your children, is just too high. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the stuff with powdered cheese-like bright orange substance or the kind with a cheese-like sauce in a pouch or can. Both are loaded with salt, fat and sugar. Yes, sugar. You’d be amazed at how many convenience foods have added sugar in some form. We already consume way too much of that.

So, what’s a carbohydrate loving bachelor, or a busy parent, to do? Make your own macaroni and cheese on the stove. And, believe it or not, it can take almost the same amount of time as the boxed kind.

When I was a kid, macaroni and cheese was not an everyday dish. It was something that was served on holidays or other special occasions because it took a lot of time. First you had to cook the macaroni. Then you made a cheese sauce with milk. Velveeta was a popular ingredient in that. While it is a processed cheese food, meaning not a cheese itself, it really does make a good and easy cheese sauce. In my family, the macaroni and sauce were brought together in a buttered baking dish and then chunks of cheddar cheese were inserted all around the dish and dotted around the top. This made a great macaroni and cheese with a little crusting around the outside and a center that didn’t run all over the plate. But it took time, money and some effort.

Today, that kind of macaroni and cheese is rejected by most kids and lots of adults who like the stuff in the box. It’s familiar. It’s cheap. It’s quick. It’s easy.

It’s crap!

Forget the box without taking all that time as with old fashioned macaroni and cheese. This way you can control the amount of salt and fat and ditch the sugar altogether.

Easy Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese

This makes four servings and takes about 20 minutes.

Equipment:

  • A large saucepan
  • A small saucepan or microwavable measuring cup
  • Whisk
  • Spoon

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil (oil will change the flavor but has less fat)
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 2 cups half and half or milk (another place you can cut the fat)
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar (I do my own with a chunk of cheese and a box grater)
  • Heavy pinch of salt (for the pasta water)

Directions:

  1. Put water in the large saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Add salt. Cook macaroni according to package directions, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  2. Warm the milk either in the microwave for about 1 minute on high or in a small saucepan over low heat.
  3. In the large saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter or warm the oil. Whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly, a little at a time, whisk in the warmed milk. Whisk continuously until the mixture is steaming and starts to thicken, about four minutes.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in cheese until melted. Add the macaroni and stir to combine. Check seasoning and serve.

See? You don’t have to be dependent on the box, even if you don’t have a lot of time. We’ll look at some other homemade convenience foods over the next few weeks.

A Great Alternative to Fried Fish

People are eating more fish. And that’s a good thing. For some, the coming of Lent means more fish. And that means more fish frys at churches all around town. But how about fried fish that isn’t fried?

Baked fish is healthier, but frying adds a lot of flavor. It also adds a lot of unnecessary fat and calories. You can get a lot of that fried flavor in the oven with less mess and less fat.

Naturally, you will have to adjust the following recipe to fit the type, thickness and amount of fish you’re cooking. These instructions are written for two pounds of thick white fish, which equals about 6 servings. This process works better on thick fillets than thin ones. So, try this first with haddock, cod or something similar. Tilapia or swai will mean cutting the baking time about in half because the fillets are thin.

Make sure you thaw the fish thoroughly before you do anything else. About two pounds of meaty fillets should be rinsed and dried well with paper towels.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven the 400ºF. Coat a baking sheet with nonstick spray.

In a shallow bowl, combine 2 egg whites or 1 whole egg with 1/2 teaspoon of dill weed, 1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. In another shallow bowl, place a cup of cornflake crumbs.

Dip the fish in the egg mixture and then the crumb bowl, making sure the fish are completely covered. Place the fillets on the baking sheet and coat with more cooking spray.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. They should flake easily with a fork when done.

Smothered Pork Chops With Mushroom Gravy

Most recipes for smothered anything involved a can of condensed soup, usually cream of mushroom. But we think you can do better. Kick the can and start from scratch. It’s surprisingly easy.

You’re going to need your cast iron skillet, dutch oven other large pan. Also, you need a small saucepan, around two quart size.

Start with four pork chops. Place them in a single layer (or as close as you can get) in a plastic container that can be sealed. Mix in a bowl or other container a simple marinade of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, a few of your favorite spices and a couple cloves of minced garlic. You want a little more vinegar than oil and don’t skip the garlic. Because we’re going to leave this on the counter in the sealed container, the garlic acts as a natural anti-bacterial. Along with the vinegar, you can leave the meat at room temperature for up to two hours.

While the meat is marinating, chop half an onion into rough pieces. Mince another two cloves of garlic, this time for flavor. Rinse about eight ounces of sliced mushrooms. Heat up your skillet over medium heat. Add about two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, then your onions. Stirring often, cook the onions until they just begin to brown at the edges. Add in the mushrooms. A pinch or two of salt will help bring out the moisture in both the onions and mushrooms and help the caramelization. Now is the time to add the garlic. Don’t add it too soon as it will burn and turn bitter. Some ground pepper will also help.

Meanwhile, put your saucepan over medium low heat and add two or three tablespoons of butter. Allow it to melt. Slowly whisk in an equal amount of flour and whisk into a paste. VERY slowly add about two cups of milk, whisking constantly. Turn the heat down to low and when the mix begins to thicken, add the mushroom and onion mix. Allow it to simmer lightly, stirring frequently.

Put the skillet back over medium heat and add another tablespoon of olive oil. One at a time, place chops in the pan. Let the meat sit for about two minutes, then turn over onto another area of the pan. Wait a minute and add the next chop. Do not crowd the pan. After both sides are browned, you can stack the chops if you need the space. Once all the chops are browned, spread them out in a single layer and pour in enough of the marinade to cover the bottom. After five minutes, turn the meat over.

By now, the mushroom sauce should have thickened a lot. Pour it over the chops, cover the skillet and turn the heat to low. Allow the chops to simmer for another five to ten minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 125ºF. Turn off the heat and finish your side dishes. Rice or potatoes go well, along with some steamed broccoli.

Who needs canned soup?