Archive for Kitchen Tips and Tricks

Christmas Gifts and Stocking Stuffers for Foodies and Cooks

Those of you who are more organized that I have been this year may already be done with your Christmas shopping. In that case, I hope  you will still enjoy this peek into my kitchen and the brief reviews of my favorite kitchen tools.

For those of you are still trying to figure out gifts for those last few people on your list, here are some ideas for those cooks, tea snobs, foodies and real food enthusiasts in your life. (Or, if you ARE the cook and foodie in your life, and you want a handy list to share with those people who are running behind on gifts for you, that works too.)

Most of these gifts are available on Amazon, and will still get here in plenty of time for Christmas with Amazon Prime free 2 day shipping. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, this is the perfect time of  year to sign up for a free trial.

 Stainless Steel Ginger Grater

(This link is to a very similar grater to the one I have; Amazon doesn’t seem to carry the exact brand of ginger grater I own.)

I picked up this ginger grater on clearance somewhere for a couple of dollars. When it came it looked like a ridiculous little gadget, and I really wasn’t sure how often I’d use it, especially since fresh ginger is something I buy occasionally and not a staple in my kitchen.

From the first time I tried it I was hooked.

It makes a very quick job of grating a few tsp of ginger for tea or flavoring water kefir and other ferments. (It get a little uncomfortable to hold if I need to grate a larger amount of ginger, but that’s a fairly rare occurrence for me.) It also works well for zesting an orange, and would probably work as a nutmeg grater and for lots of other such small jobs.

The grater I linked to on Amazon is about $6, which is well worth it for a small and versatile kitchen tool, and makes it a great little stocking stuffer.

Perma Brew Tea Infuser (Tea Toby)

As far as I have been able to discover the Tea Toby is the ultimate way to brew a single cup of loose leaf tea. It snaps closed and doesn’t leak tea leaves into your cup of tea (unless you catch some tea leaves in the seam when you close it, which isn’t really the fault of the infuser at that point).

I like the fact that I can fill it with tea and throw it in my suitcase, or even my pocket, and be ready to brew a serving of medicinal tea, peppermint tea, or my favorite chai at a moment’s notice.

It’s about $7 on Amazon, so small and cheap enough to qualify as a stocking stuffer, or it could be included in a gift basket of loose leaf teas.

Small Mesh Strainer  

This is a seriously high quality little stainless steel strainer. It costs about $13, but it comes with a lifetime warranty, and I’ve used mine for about two and half years without it showing any signs of wear. I bought it while I was on the GAPS diet, to use for straining pulp out fresh juice by the glassful, and it quickly became one of my most frequently reached for kitchen utensils.

I use it when straining spices out of water kefir or kombucha after the second ferment, straining my cold brew tea into a glass or new jar, straining cold brew espresso, and other misc. occasions of “I have particles in my drink that I don’t want there”.

It fits perfectly into the top of a glass, mug or quart jar without needing to be steadied as I pour through it, and the fine mesh does a good job of straining most things well. (You might get some small dust like particles when straining tea, but I haven’t had a big problem with that with most teas.)

Bamboo Cutting Board with Cutting Mats

I used to have this set of cutting boards (which cost about $6 on Amazon), which I really liked because of the ability to store several cutting boards in a small space in my apartment kitchen. They even lasted pretty well, as it took over a year of heavy use (probably an average of being used once or twice a day) for the fruits and veggies cutting board to start falling apart.

The problem I had with my original set of cutting boards was that they would fall down between the side of my fridge and the cupboards if I wasn’t very careful when putting them away (in the only reasonably accessible storage spot I have for cutting boards in my small kitchen).

I’ve only had the bamboo cutting board (which cost about $20) for a few months, but it’s already demonstrating all the advantages of my original set of cutting mats, with a few important bonus features.

It comes with even more (color coded) cutting mats, so I can use different mats for raw chicken, raw beef, raw pork, veggies, bread and cheese, plus a plain black mat for serving food on. The variety of mats helps prevent cross contamination while storing in a small space AND all the mats store conveniently INSIDE the bamboo cutting board, so no more plastic mats slipping down into hard to reach cracks!

Also, the bamboo cutting board has a lip around the edge to prevent juices from the chopped foods going all over the counter. Plus, the cutting mats feel more heavy duty than my original set of cutting mats, so they should last even longer. (A set of replacement mats to fit in the bamboo cutting board can be purchased for about $13.)

Aerolatte Milk Frother 

While the other items I mentioned are mostly very practical kitchen tools that I reach for often as I cook, this one is pure luxury. At $26 it’s stainless steel with a 5 year warranty (there are also lower price options with no warranty where the housing is made from cheaper metals) and indispensable for any coffee lover who likes to whip up fancy coffee drinks with as little fuss as possible.

While I can’t say that this milk frother has worked flawlessly, most of the problems I’ve had with it in the past have been due to battery issues which are not the fault of the frother. (The more juice in the battery, the better and faster it froths, while low quality batteries or mostly used up batteries cause it work slowly, poorly or not at all.) The first one I was shipped did have a manufacturing flaw which affected its use, but Amazon quickly replaced it without any fuss.

The beauty of this tool is in its simplicity. It fits in my utensil jar on my counter, so about two minutes total I can pull it out, froth milk for a latte or a steamer, rinse it off, set it in the dish drainer to dry and enjoy my fancy hot drink.

Bonus Idea: Cast Iron Skillet Maintenance Kit

This one works as a stocking stuffer, as a small extra to add to a larger gift of cast iron cookware, or just as small gift for neighbor you know could use it. It could work for newlyweds, for seasoned cooks who can always use more dish scrubbers, or for those who you think need a little help understanding how to take better care of their cast iron.

For the cast iron maintenance kit you’ll want a nylon scraper (I have these, which are simple but heavy duty, but there are a range of options available, including this more elegant bamboo scraper), a plastic scrubbie (you can make one yourself, buy them in bulk on Amazon, or buy them individually at your grocery store), and a green scouring pad (also available in bulk on Amazon
or in smaller quantities at your grocery store). Optionally, you could also include one of these scrub buds for the really tough cast iron messes.

This post contains affiliate links.

DIY Plastic Scrubbie Tutorial

DIY Plastic Scrubbie (made from onion and orange bags)

Isn’t it the most charming plastic scrubbie you’ve ever seen? What? You don’t normally gush over plastic scrubbies? Oh…

 There are two things you should know about me up front: the first is that I collect a lot of disparate tips and tricks and life hacks for saving money and making life simpler, and I’m willing to try a lot of them. The other thing you should know is that I have neither time nor energy to continue using tips and tricks that don’t work well or are overly time consuming.

 So, when I say that I’ve tried making my own scrubbies out of old onion and orange bags, this is not that surprising. However, when I say that I save all my old onion and orange bags for making scrubbies (unless something’s gone moldy in them, because that’s just gross) and I never buy plastic scrubbies, this is noteworthy.

 Here’s how it works:

 DIY Plastic Scrubbie (made from onion bags)

 When a bag that looks like this comes into my house, usually containing onions or oranges or occasionally some other type of produce, I cut off an paper tags or metal clips on the ends and stash the bag in a kitchen drawer until I have several.

 Once I have a half dozen or more of these bags saved up, or whenever my current scrubbie has reached an untimely demise from tackling an unusually disgusting job, I take two minutes to turn the bags into a new scrubbie.

 At this point, with the ends cut off, the bags should be cylinders of plastic mesh. It doesn’t matter if they’re a bit torn, but unless they’re still basically in a cylinder shape they’re going to be a lot harder to use neatly.

DIY Plastic Scrubbie

 In this overly bright picture I have begun pulling the cylinders of plastic mesh over my arm so that they’re stacked or nested inside each other. Once all the bags, or cylinders, are layered, like a giant cast, I remove the whole thing from my arm. Then I begin to roll them up together from the end, like rolling up a giant pant leg.

DIY Plastic Scrubbie

When you’re done, it should look like a giant, inedible doughnut. (Mmm, doughnuts…)

DIY Plastic Scrubbie

 If you had plenty of mesh bags to start with, your scrubbie may function perfectly well at this point, but if your material was a bit sparse it may be best to tie a knot of sorts in this loop make it more solid and easier to scrub with. (It’s probably best if you just watch the video for my demonstration of how to do this, but in the end you’ll end up with something that looks rather like this.)

DIY Plastic Scrubbie (made from onion and orange bags)

Ta da! You’ve just made your very own plastic scrubbie out something you were probably otherwise going to throw away! Don’t you feel a glow of frugalness and environmentally friendliness inside now?

Cooking 101: How to Brown Ground Beef

Today I’m continuing in my Cooking 101 series, aimed at novice cooks. This post may be a bit dull for old hands at cooking, as I really don’t have any new or exciting comments about cooking ground beef, I simply wanted to provide a basic tutorial for beginning cooks to have some confidence about how to to perform this foundational task in cooking a meal.

Once again, my nephew Toby guest starred on this video, lending his status as a bona fide beginner to make sure my instructions qualified as simple and comprehensive enough for anyone to follow.

When we went to film this video, I discovered that my ground beef had not defrosted as quickly as it should have, and so this video does provide some technique for cooking ground beef even from a partially frozen state. I include written instructions below for both the standard method of cooking completely thawed ground beef, and the jury rigged method of cooking partially frozen ground beef.  (I have recently learned that putting a bit of water in the skillet helps when cooking ground beef that’s still frozen, so I will be including that in the instructions below, though it was not included in the video.)

Healthiness Rating: Healthy

Not only is ground beef healthy, but learning to brown ground beef, if you don’t know how, opens up a lot of options for making your own meals that don’t include chemicals and processed foods.

Yumminess Rating: Yummy

Adjust the salt to your own taste, and again ground beef a great tasting food just on it’s own, but it’s also the foundation of a lot of other even more amazing dishes.

How to Brown Ground Beef (The Basic Method)

1. Remove ground beef from packaging and place in a skillet. (I like to wash the raw meat juices off my hands at this point before I proceed.) Turn on burner to medium.

2. Use spatula or wooden spoon to break up the ground beef into small pieces.

3. Stir ground beef every minute or two (or more often if you like) as it begins to brown. You might also like to continue to break up the ground beef into smaller pieces as you stir.

4. Continue cooking the beef until all traces of pinkish hue are gone and the beef is completely brown all the way through.

5. If there’s an excessive amount of fat in the pan after brown the ground beef, you may want to remove the fat. You can do this by (a) scooping out the meat with a slotted spoon, leaving the grease behind, or (b) pouring the meat into a colander. If you choose option (b) remember that the grease has to go somewhere. You can put the colander in a bowl and empty the grease into the trash after it’s cooled, or put the colander in the sink, remove the colander after the meat has drained, and run lots of hot water and bit of dish soap down the drain to prevent the grease from clogging your drain.

How To Brown Ground Beef (From Frozen)

1. Remove ground beef from packaging and place in a skillet. (I like to wash the raw meat juices off my hands at this point before I proceed.) Turn on burner to medium low.

2. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to scrape any thawed meat off the sides and edges of the hunk of frozen meat.

3. Add a bit of water (maybe 1/4 of a cup) to the skillet. Put a lid on the skillet and let it simmer for about 3 minutes.

4. Repeat step 2, stir and break up any clumps of cooking meat that are separated from the main block of frozen meat, then put the lid back on the skillet for another 2-3 minutes.

5. Repeat step 4 until all the meat is thawed.

6. Increase heat to medium. Stir ground beef every minute or so (or more often if you like) as the ground beef continues to brown. You might also like to continue to break up the ground beef into smaller pieces as you stir.

7. Continue cooking the beef until all traces of pinkish hue are gone and the beef is completely brown all the way through.

8. If there’s an excessive amount of fat in the pan after brown the ground beef, you may want to remove the fat. You can do this by (a) scooping out the meat with a slotted spoon, leaving the grease behind, or (b) pouring the meat into a colander. If you choose option (b) remember that the grease has to go somewhere. You can put the colander in a bowl and empty the grease into the trash after it’s cooled, or put the colander in the sink, remove the colander after the meat has drained, and run lots of hot water and bit of dish soap down the drain to prevent the grease from clogging your drain.

How to Freeze Zucchini (Two Methods)

How to Freeze Zucchini (Two Methods)

I’m not always the person who will tell you the right way to do something or how you’re supposed to cook. The world has professional chefs for that. I’m always interested in learning better methods for my cooking, but I’m not a professional chef, nor am I ever likely to start cooking in a five star restaurant.

What I can tell you is how I make cooking work in an apartment sized kitchen on a fairly strict grocery budget and with chronically low energy. I like shortcuts in my cooking. If you ask my how to freeze something, my instinct is to say “Put it in a ziploc bag and put it in the freezer.”

I frequently google “how to freeze ______” about whatever I have excess of at the moment, but what I really want to find out is “can I get away without blanching this food” or “Please tell me this is one I can just throw in the freezer and it will be fine in a year”.

My google search on zucchini turned up split results, so I’m sharing two methods with you today. I found a lot of people who are freezing grated zucchini for zucchini bread don’t blanch their zucchini, and it works perfectly fine. However the right answer seemed to be blanching the zucchini for better quality. This led me to the conclusion that grated zucchini is fine to just freeze, but sliced zucchini is probably better off blanched.

I use grated zucchini for zucchini bread and sliced zucchini for zucchini casseroles, reminiscent of lasagna, but with zucchini instead of pasta.

Method 1:

Grate zucchini. (If you have a food processor and a lot of zucchini, I recommend the food processor method of grating.)

Label quart sized bags with ‘shredded zucchini’, the date, and any other info you’ll want later, such as how much zucchini is in each bag or the average cost of each bag of zucchini based on your price paid per zucchini.

If you have a specific recipe in mind for the zucchini, measure out the amount for your recipe and put that much into each bag, otherwise just fill the bags 1/2 to 3/4 full depending on preference.

Squeeze out as much air as possible from the bad, then seal.

Freeze.

Method 2:

Boil a gallon or more of water in a large pot. I like to use my stock pot that came with a pasta insert for this sort of thing–the pasta insert makes draining the vegetables a simpler process. My pot is very similar to this, except I got it deeply discounted. This one would be a less expensive but still high quality option. (affiliate links)

Slice zucchini. (Again, if applicable, food processor is very handy here.)

Plunge zucchini into boiling water. If you have a pasta insert or steamer basket, but the zucchini into the insert first, then put the insert into the already boiling water. Otherwise, just dump the zucchini straight into the pot.

Let ‘cook’ (technically, blanch) for 3-5 minutes. You don’t actually want the zucchini to be soft or cooked when you’re done, just hot enough to kill off the enzymes that change the texture of the zucchini over time.

As the zucchini blanches, label quart sized bags (or gallon sized if you plan on making very large quantities of your selected zucchini dish) with ‘sliced zucchini’, the date, and any other info you might want when you pull it out of the freezer.

Remove the zucchini from the heat and plunge it into an ice bath. If you’re using a pasta insert here, you’ll want to carry the whole pot to the sink and remove the insert over the sink. The pasta insert or steamer basket with allow you save your boiling water for a second batch of zucchini, if desired. If you don’t have a pasta insert, just pour out the zucchini into a colander, then plunge the colander into ice water.

OR, if you take shortcuts (as I tend to do), skip the ice water and just run cold tap water over the zucchini until it’s lukewarm. (Just like you would do to stop pasta from cooking.)

Let the zucchini drain for a few minutes.

Put the zucchini into the labeled freezer bags.

Freeze.

How to Wash and Season Cast Iron

How to Wash and Maintain Seasoning on Cast Iron

 I’m departing from my normal recipe posts this week, to show you how I take care of my cast iron. I use my cast iron skillet for everything. I realized this week how much this is true while I was cooking meals with my  husband’s sister, because I was startled and confused every single time she cooked vegetables in a saucepan.

Besides nearly always cooking my vegetables in my cast iron skillets, I also use them for cooking eggs (scrambled or fried), browning meat, frying (meats or starchy foods like funnel cakes or fritters), and often even for making white sauces  or reduction sauces. Occasionally I’ll even cook a casserole type food in the oven in my cast iron skillets.

I like the even heat distribution from the heavy bottom of the cast iron skillet, and honestly, I guess I just like the feel of them, and the kind of cooking I associate with such traditional cookware.

When I first read about cast iron, I thought it sounded like way too much work. I got the impression that after every use it had to be seasoned in the oven, including an overnight cooling period, and who wants to put that  much work into their cookware?

Fortunately, it turns out that cast iron thrives just fine on a much simpler routine.

There a few basic rules for washing cast iron, the most important of which is NEVER use dish soap on a cast iron pan. The soap will destroy the seasoning.

In order the remove the food particles you will want to use the gentlest scrubber that’s reasonable for the amount of food stuck on the pan. The best tool for removing a lot of stuck food, such as when you’ve accidentally burned a layer of food to the bottom of the pan, or when you’ve forgotten to clean the pan promptly and all the food has hardened to an impenetrable level, is a nylon scraper. (I use one of these, but a cheaper one such as this, should be equally effective–affilliate links).

I like to let really stubborn food soak for 15-60 minutes and then tackle it with the scraper. In most cases in just slides right off the pan using this method. Try not to soak your pan longer than necessary–an overnight soak will probably cause it to rust, and definitely remove some of the seasoning.

For a basic cleaning of cast iron, I use a plastic scrubber much like this one (affiliate link), but I make mine by rolling up old mesh onion bags together. A green scrubbie (affiliate link) is equally good, it’s just a matter of preference.

If the above methods don’t work  you can try steel wool, or better, a stainless steel scrubbie, but those should only be used when necessary, as they can damage the seasoning.

After cleaning and rinsing the cast iron pan, it should be dried on stove burner, usually set about medium, but it depends on the heat of the stove. You want it to get hot enough to evaporate off all the water, but not hot enough to start smoking. Also, you want to stay close enough to notice when it’s dry and remove it from the heat, or it will start to smoke, no matter how low the stove is set.

Now, after all the talk above about seasoning, you may be wondering, especially if you’re new to cast iron, what the deal is with this seasoning and why it matters so much. Seasoning is a layer of oil which has bonded to the iron, creating a chemical free ‘non stick’ surface to the pan. Removing this oil makes the pan much more prone to rust and much less useful, as food will stick and burn if the pan isn’t properly seasoned.

In order to maintain this seasoning, you want to add oil on a regular basis. You can do this after every time you dry the pan, or just when it seems like it needs it. You want to add the oil while the pan is still warm, so be very careful not to touch to the pan, and if you’re burn prone or think you might accidentally touch the pan in the seasoning process, wait until it cools somewhat before you start.

You can use whatever kind of oil you like, and long as it’s straight fat. I often use olive oil because it’s handy to reach for, but occasionally use whatever neutral oil I have on hand (such as grapeseed oil) or coconut oil. Lard and tallow should also work just fine, but butter is not ideal, because it has other food particles besides just fat.

Pour between a teaspon and a tablespoon of oil into your  cast iron pan. Wipe the oil around with a paper towel or clean rag until all the inside surfaces of the pan are covered with oil.

Let the pan cool, and it’s ready to use again!

If your cast iron pan does get rusty, it’s often still possible to return the pan to a usable state. Scour off the rust (this would be a good time to use one of those metal scrubbies that’s only for dire circumstances), rinse, and continue with the normal drying and seasoning steps.

A note about allergies: because of the nature of the seasoning of a cast iron pan, it may retain some small food particles that can be enough to trigger food allergies in those who are particularly sensitive. If you or someone in you immediate family has food allergies, you may need to completely strip the seasoning from your cast iron pan and start over, proceeding to season and cook ONLY with non-allergenic foods in the cast iron from that point forward. (Google ‘strip cast iron seasoning’ for more detailed instructions: common methods are putting it through a cycle in a self cleaning oven, or leaving it in a campfire/coals for an hour.)

(Notice how at the end of the video I said the pan needs to dry? I actually meant it needs to cool. In case you were wondering…)

How to Keep Lettuce Fresh Longer (Mason Jar Method)

How To Keep Lettuce Fresh Longer (Mason Jar Method)

Today’s recipe is less of a recipe and more of a how to or kitchen tip.

Let me set a couple of scenarios for you:

In the first scenario, you open the fridge looking for a mid afternoon snack. You see a lot of vegetables that would need to be cut up before being eaten, which would mean pulling out a knife and cutting board (which you’ll then have to wash later). You know making a salad wouldn’t take you that long, but it feels like making an extra meal in the middle of the day, and there’s piece of leftover dessert sitting on the shelf below those salad makings, which requires no time at all to eat.

In the second scenario, you buy an extra head of lettuce on shopping day, because you have great intentions. You are going to eat more salad, and be a healthier person. And somehow, two weeks later you find a slimy green thing in the back of your fridge and think, “Oh, yeah, I was going to eat that…” Maybe it’s because you overestimated how much lettuce your small family could go through, or because life got crazy and you didn’t eat as many meals at home as you planned on, or just because of the first scenario and it always felt like it would take too much time.

Well, let me suggest a strategy that solves both of the above problems: lettuce in a mason jar. As soon as you get home from the grocery store (okay, let’s be realistic–within a couple days of getting home from the grocery store), cut up all your lettuce.

I prefer to shred my lettuce, with a lengthwise cut down the middle so I don’t have any unreasonably long shreds, but you can cut it any way you like.

Wash and dry your lettuce. If you don’t have a salad spinner, you may find it easier to wash your lettuce before cutting it, but in my opinion, the salad spinner is the way to go. I picked up a second hand salad spinner similar to this one (affiliate link), and despite leaning toward cheap and flimsy, it’s probably my favorite salad spinner I’ve ever used because of it’s simple and straightforward design.

Pack your lettuce into a mason jar. You can pack rather firmly, but don’t push down so hard that you bruise the lettuce, as that may shorten it’s life span even in the mason jar. Seal the jar and refrigerate.

I find that this simple method makes my lettuce last for at least two weeks, and sometimes longer, but with unpredictable results beyond that point (probably depending on how fresh it was to start with).

Some people do whole salads in a mason jar using a similar method. I’ve never tried that myself, but I probably will at some point when I need to put together travel food or a lunch on the go. As I understand it, the general theory is to put heavy veggies on the bottom, then lighter veggies, then lettuce, then top it with a creamy dressing that seals all the air in before putting the lid on. A quick google search for ‘salad in a jar’ should yield plenty of information if you need more details.

By the way, while I’m not doing my typical recipe style review, I can say that this method of storing lettuce is husband approved, as it means my husband just might choose a salad for snack if the work of cutting up is already done. Win.