Ingredients, Tips and Tricks

Here is where I put all of my 'general kitchen tips' that make cooking and eating a little bit easier for me!

This list is in alphabetical order, and will be updated more as I add more recipes to the blog.

 I use all sorts of beans in my recipes, but I never use canned beans for various reasons. Dried beans to take longer to prepare, but you can simplify the process. When you buy a large amount of beans (a pound or more), soak them overnight and then cook them the next day. Drain and cool the beans, then refrigerate until chilled. Then freeze the beans in about one to two cup portions in individual freezer bags. When you want to make a recipe that uses beans, simply thaw them in the refrigerator and viola! Convenient uncanned beans! I always have a wide variety in my freezer - kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, northern beans. Thaw out two bags if you're making chili, one bag if you're adding them to a salad.

Frozen fruit
 In the winter months, it can be very hard to find frozen berries and other soft fruits at reasonable prices. Frozen organic fruits are perfect for smoothies and parfaits. Fill a cup with frozen bananas and berries and some apple juice and make a delicious, thick smoothie. If you thaw frozen fruit, it ends up syrupy from the natural juices and water from freezing - toss this in ice cream, yogurt, milk or cereal.

How to freeze fruit: In the summer months, freeze your own fruit! Wash and trim or peel your fruit and make sure it is dry. Spread it in a single layer onto parchment paper on a plate or baking dish. Place in the freezer until it is frozen through, then transfer to a freezer bag and you'll have it all winter (or until it's gone!) When fruit goes on sale, buy a double or even a triple amount and freeze the rest. You can never have too much fruit in your freezer. Pretty much any fruit (except citrus) freezes well in this manner - bananas, berries, pears, mangoes, pineapple...

Frozen vegetables
 I will take frozen vegetables over canned ANY day of the week! Their texture is usually much more similar to fresh, and the nutrient content is much better preserved. Sometimes frozen vegetables are better than fresh, as they are picked when they are ripe and immediately frozen, whereas fresh vegetables may have been picked when they weren't quite ripe and shipped to the store (meaning they're old) - and if you're buying conventional produce, they may have been blasted with irradiation. For the convenience factor, nothing can beat frozen organic peas, corn (I don't see the point in spending a bunch of time to shuck cobs - I'd rather eat it on the cob if I have it that way) and edamame. Other frozen vegetables I'm a big fan of include:
- peas & carrots - often sold as a mix, with either diced or shredded carrots. I like to add to soups, omelets, tuna or chicken salad, pastas, anything!
- all sorts of green beans, including french cut, Haricot Verts and regular. very similar texture to fresh.
- pearl onions - who wants to peel those from fresh? Cook these in liquid over low heat for a long time (like in a slow cooker or a long-simmering soup or sauce) to reach a good texture. They pop in your mouth. Yum!
- Spinach - a 10 ounce block of frozen spinach is a ridiculous amount - drain it really well and use in pastas, dips and soups
- Broccoli - frozen is a much better value at $3 for a 1 pound bag, whereas you pay $3 for a head of broccoli and you only get maybe two servings of florets. If you're adding broccoli to a pasta sauce, cheese sauce, soup or dip, look for bags of chopped broccoli - smaller pieces of stems and florets - for about half the price as the frozen florets.
- California blend - a mix of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. I always have a bag or two on hand in the freezer. This goes well in soups, stews and noodle or rice dishes, and also if you're low on money and/or haven't been to the store in a while you can steam these and use it as a nutritious veggie side dish.

Herbs (basil, oregano, sage, etc)
 I use a lot of dried herbs. Fresh herbs are simply ridiculously expensive in stores, so I only use those when they are in season and I can pick them for free from my mother's garden or they are plentiful and cheap at the farmers market. The amount of basil that costs close to $5 at the grocery store, I can buy five times that amount for $1 at the farmers market, or pick that same amount from mom's garden every other day! If you like fresh herbs (and they are fabulous) I would highly suggest growing your own garden. When that isn't available, dried herbs are fine. The secret to them is to make sure they cook. You can't simply sprinkle dried oregano on a pasta and have it taste good - you have to let it simmer in the sauce, or you have to coat your meat/fish with it and cook it. I do at times put a small amount of dried herbs into a sauce or salad dressing that won't be cooked, but that is only small amounts.

How to dry herbs from fresh: Gather a bunch of fresh herbs at the stems. Suspend them upside down (stem side up) in the air - I do this with rubber bands and a paperclip on one of my cabinets. They will dry overnight. The next day, remove the leaves - crushing them if necessary - and store in an airtight container, preferably a glass jar. Discard the stems or use in stock.

Szechuan pepper
 This is a plant native to Asia and widely used as a spice all throughout Asia. It is often sold in dried form and looks like peppercorns although they are not actually pepper. However, you can use it exactly like any other kind of pepper. I like to buy whole peppercorns and throw them whole into sauces (to be later removed) or grind them in a pepper grinder. Available anywhere you can find specialty spices. In my recipes that call for Szechuan pepper, black pepper can be substituted but the flavor will be different.

 I wish I could always use fresh tomatoes, but sometimes I cannot spare the $6 a pound they often cost during winter months (not to mention greenhouse grown tomatoes are not always very delicious). When I do not have fresh tomatoes I will use canned, but only certain brands. Many brands of canned tomatoes tend to taste metallic or have extremely high sodium contents. I like to use Red Gold, 365 Everyday, or Muir Glen - preferably organic if that is available. I look for them to go on sale and stock up - especially sometimes the Red Gold will be fifty cents a can, when this happens I buy twenty or thirty cans and store them in my pantry. They get used quickly enough. Canned tomatoes are available whole, diced, crushed, stewed, with spices already added in... keep a variety on hand and choose what you think would be best for the recipe.

99% of the flour tortillas you buy at regular grocery stores contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and bleached flour. If you use flour tortillas, try to find an organic brand that does not contain these ingredients. Corn tortillas are my favorite for most cooked dishes - and they usually have a much less scary ingredient list.