5 Surprising Foods to Keep in the Freezer

You’ll save money and waste less with the freezer as your friend.  These five foods are handy to have on hand:

1. Tomatoes  When you find a great source for tasty tomatoes (your garden?), and you want to preserve the flavor of summer, it’s a simple matter to pack them clean and whole in a freezer bag.  When needed, simply rinse under warm water, and the skin peels right off.  Core and chop to the desired size while still semi-frozen.  When thawed they will be comparable to canned tomatoes.  Use in soups, stews, casseroles and sauces.

All that's left from last summer's garden.

All that’s left from last summer’s garden.

2.  Avocados  Simply wash, slice in half and peel.  Pop them into a freezer bag just like this.  Alternatively you could mash them up with a little lemon juice and freeze.  The texture of this fruit does change from its fresh state, but previously frozen avocado makes a great guacamole.  I like to use mashed avocado on my sandwich as a replacement for mayo.

Peel and freeze!

Peel and freeze!

3.  Grains  When you have time, make an extra-large batch of your favorite grain.  Let them cool thoroughly, spread out on a baking sheet before freezing.  Then divide grains into small portions in freezer safe bags.  Squeeze out all extra air in bag to avoid ice crystals and freezer burn.  Keeps in freezer for two to three months.  Use as the basis for a quick dinner, an addition to casseroles or soups, or as a breakfast cereal.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

4.  Milk  When I started buying organic milk on a regular basis, it was a shock to the pocketbook.  But then I found out that I could buy it on sale and stick the extra jugs in the deep freeze.  Yes, the texture does change.  It may be slightly “grainier” and needs to be shaken before use to blend the fat back into the milk.  Not great for drinking a glass with cookies but fine for cooking/baking, and I happily use it on my cereal.

5.  Ginger  We love cooking with ginger.  Unfortunately, it always seemed that we didn’t use it up before it went bad.  Then I stumbled on a tip in my Cook’s Illustrated magazine that changed my despair to, well, if not joy, then satisfaction…  Peel and freeze.  Easy.  Frozen ginger makes grating simple.  Also, check out this page from Lunch In A Box for more ideas about freezing ginger.

What do you find that works well coming out of the freezer?

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Friday Feature: Bulgur, It’s What’s for Breakfast

This afternoon, shortly before picking Sam up at school, I was in the kitchen cooking up…breakfast.  It’s true, I’ve been a little preoccupied with breakfast lately, but I’m not completely disoriented.  In fact, my sense of timing has never been better.  I’m ahead of the game.  Tomorrow’s breakfast is done.

Lucky for Sam breakfast bulgur makes a great after school snack too.  Admittedly, he regarded my offering warily at first.  But in the end, he scarfed it down in record time.

Not an especially mouth-watering name, but bulgur is really quite tasty and versatile. Bulgur, wheat that has been hulled, dried and ground, is a quick cooking grain frequently used in a middle eastern salad called tabbouleh.  But it is so much more than that.

020Turns out that bulgur (as well as many other grains) makes a great addition to the breakfast scene and is a simple and delicious alternative to oatmeal. The following recipe uses another handy kitchen tool, the rice cooker.  If you don’t have one, you can cook bulgur the traditional way, but the rice cooker gives you especially tender, fluffy results.

This useful machine is fitted with a round, removable, aluminum bowl.  A simple button turns it on, and it goes off by itself when your grain has absorbed all the added liquid.  It cooks basic grains in lots of different ways including risotto, pilaf, paella, and breakfast porridge (among other things).

Of course, you can cook grains without one–a pot with a lid will suffice, but the rice cooker makes perfectly cooked grains every time.  And clean up is about as easy as it gets. Keep your eye out for a rice cooker at yard sales or thrift stores.

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Breakfast Bulgur

  • 1 cup bulgur
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 T. brown sugar
  • 1 T. butter

Add bulgur to the bowl of the rice cooker.  Then add the rest of the ingredients–stirring to combine.  The butter will melt during cooking.  Cover and cook.

When machine switches to “OFF”, let bulgur steam on the warming cycle for 10 minutes.  Fluff with wooden spoon and serve nice and hot.

If you don’t have a rice cooker, don’t fret.  All you have to do boil two cups of water, add bulgur and other ingredients.  Cover and reduce heat to a low simmer.  Check for water absorption at about 10 minutes.

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I like eating mine with yogurt, apples and walnuts.  Sam enjoyed his with milk, blueberries and cinnamon.  It is lightly sweetened, but a drizzle of honey or syrup can be added if desired.

Leftovers?  Put them in a container in the fridge and heat them up as needed all through the week!

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Family Project: Yogurt Cream Cheese

In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, you learn that if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk.  And when he gets the milk, he’s going to ask for a straw.  And when he’s done, he’ll need a napkin. I’m sure you see where this is going.  And if you have children, you’ve lived it! One thing leads to another until you’re right back  to cookies.

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Well, in my case it started with a realization that we were spending quite a bit of money on organic yogurt.  Sam was going through record amounts and I was *cough* indulging a bit as well.  So I met the challenge head on and made it myself!

Once I made the yogurt though, I discovered that I could make cream cheese out of it.  Imagine that.

Using The Encyclopedia of Country Living as my guide, I followed a few very simple steps:

Step 1:  Pour one quart of freshly made yogurt into the center of a length of cheesecloth spread over a bowl.  (Optional: Mix in 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt to yogurt beforehand.)

001Step 2:  Pull the ends together to create a “ball” of yogurt.  I used rubber bands, of which we have plenty, to close off the cloth.  I used the remaining ends to create a loop (again with rubber bands) which I could hang from a yardstick.  Use whatever materials you have on hand to hang the yogurt.

As you can see, the liquid will drain into the bowl.  I had to dump mine periodically so the yogurt wasn’t sitting in it, but you could hang yours differently so that it isn’t quite so low.

006Step 3:  Hang for 6 to 48 hours in a cool airy place (sooner is safer). This ball of yogurt cream cheese was hanging for at least 17 hours in my cold, unheated kitchen—from the afternoon of the previous day and through the night.  Peel off cheesecloth.

It’s ready to eat!  And honestly, it’s tastes better than store bought cream cheese made from cream and just slightly (and deliciously) tangier.  No complaints from the head taster, my 13 year old son.

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And, naturally, if you make some yogurt cream cheese, you’ll have to make some bagels to go with it. 🙂  It’s as simple as that.

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Make or Buy: Yogurt (from scratch)

It’s time to take yogurt to the ultimate level.  I talk a good game, and I’ve written about both frozen and flavored varieties, but lots of people make their own.  Why not me?

I’ve been wanting to make yogurt for quite a while.  It sounds easy enough, but nothing can be that simple, right?

Well, turns out it is!  Here’s how:

First gather all your tools and ingredients.

  • 1/2 gallon of milk (I used whole milk for best flavor but you don’t have to)
  • 1/2 cup “starter” yogurt with live cultures (grocery store yogurt is fine)
  • dutch oven or other heavy pot
  • candy thermometer (great because it clips on side but other type is fine)
  • wooden spoon
  • whisk
  • small bowl

  • Heat milk on medium high, watching thermometer.  Stir pot the whole time to avoid burnt milk on the bottom and take off heat when the temperature reaches around 190 degrees (don’t boil).

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  • Have sink filled with a couple of inches of cold water.
  • Place entire pot into water to cool, stirring continuously, this time to keep temperature even throughout.

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  • When temperature reaches 105 to 115 degrees, remove one cup of milk and whisk it into small bowl with the half cup of yogurt until smooth.

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  • Now whisk this mixture back into the large pot with the rest of the milk.  
  • Fit with lid and wrap the whole ensemble in a thick towel for insulation.

For the incubation period, you want to keep the milk in a warm place.  I used the microwave to heat two cups of water in a large mug to boiling point.  Then I shut my towel wrapped package carefully inside (avoid jostling) along with the heated water–which kept the interior nice and warm.

The cup of heated water is in the back corner.

The cup of heated water is in the back corner.

Check on your yogurt after about 6 hours.  Taste for preferred tartness.  I let mine sit for 7 hours with happy results but you could go longer.

I’m not sure what it was about making yogurt that seemed so daunting initially.  I guess I assumed this was one of those unforgiving processes–where one false move can end in disaster.  But after my success, I’m thinking that, with a few more batches under my belt, I can probably ditch the thermometer and intuit the timing.

I can do this!  And when I do, the whole operation will take less time and trouble than driving to the store to buy it.  Make or buy?  Definitely make!

yogurt parfait with orange segments and chopped almonds

yogurt parfait with orange segments and chopped almonds

Make or Buy: Almond Butter

My friend, Diana, gets the same gift from me every year on her birthday.  Almond butter.  I enjoy making this for her because, besides being simple to whip up, she’s always so happy and grateful to get it.  Like I’m a kitchen diva. I say why mess with a good thing. She loves the stuff. Maybe as much as I do.

You can make it for a fraction of the cost you’ll pay at the store.  And it’s gonna taste, well, fresh–not like store-bought.

Here’s how:

Almond Butter

Ingredients:

1 pound of raw almonds 🙂

(I love these 1 ingredient recipes.)

You can start with previously roasted almonds or, quite simply, you can roast your own in less time than it takes to work a Sudoku puzzle (My current addiction.)

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I use roasted almonds as opposed to raw because they release oil as they grind which makes the process faster (and easier on my food processor) but mainly because of the flavor.  Roasting gives almond butter a rich toastiness that raw almonds don’t.

So preheat your oven to 325 degrees.  Pour your almonds into a roasting pan in one layer, and put them in the oven for about 20 minutes.  Let your nose be your guide.  When I begin to smell them, they’re ready.

Roasted almonds.

Let them cool just until you can handle the pan.  Then drop them into the bowl of your food processor.

It will take several minutes.  At first, the almonds will appear crumbly.  Persevere. Eventually these crumbles will transform into smooth nut butter.

It will look crumbly for quite a while.  Patience, Grasshopper...

It will look crumbly for quite a while.  Patience, Grasshopper…

After 5 to 10 minutes, and an occasional scraping of the sides of the bowl, it will be ready.
013Spoon into a clean jar or other container.
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Tip:  I use peanut butter to help clean labels off of really cool previously used jars.  It works better than any other product I’ve tried, along with a good scrubber and some elbow grease, of course. These jars are great for packing almond butter in.  Maybe I could use the almond butter to clean them, but really, why waste it?

Almond butter is so versatile.  From sweet to savory, it’s a staple in our kitchen.

Sweet:

Add to smoothies.  Pairs well with bananas, peaches, and chocolate.

Swoon worthy when you drop a dollop into a bowl of good quality vanilla ice cream.

Slather some on a piece of dark chocolate.

Savory:

I love a good almond butter and cheese sandwich with sprouts.

Almond butter dipping sauce for your spring rolls.  Try the recipe at Iowa Girl Eats.

Spread on a piece of thinly sliced, toasted whole grain sourdough.

What about making other nuts into nut butter?   Peanuts are obvious.   I’m wondering if the pistachios I have will grind up green.  That would be lovely.  Cooking Light has a “nut butter primer” that will give you the scoop on how to turn different nuts into nut butters.

Give it a whirl!

 

 

12 Great Kitchen Tools for Preparing Real Food

Cooking real food requires working with real ingredients–no surprise there.  It calls for a bit more than opening a can.  And while my can opener still sees some action, the more I cook, the more I find other kitchen tools that make my life easier and, dare I say it, more fun?

I’m treading on dangerous ground here.  Already outlet space is at a premium.  We have 5 small, electrical appliances taking up valuable counter space.  To reach the phone we literally have to slip our hand between two of them.

But plugged in or not, I have several kitchen tools that I use every day or close to it.  I chose 12 that deserve special mention for their usefulness in preparing healthy food for my family.  From low-brow to high-end (sort of, it all depends on your perspective) here they are:

1.  Oil can.  Love having my olive oil at hand when and where I need it.  It sits “stoveside” for ease of access. Great for filming a saute pan or drizzling over pasta.

2.  Pepper grinder.  There’s nothing to match freshly ground pepper.  Great on pasta, soups, salads, pizza, in sandwiches–wherever!

some tools of the trade.

3.  Finger bowl for salt.  While my salt bowl certainly looks attractive, it serves an actual purpose.  When seasoning food to taste, I enjoy having a small bowl of coarse salt handy  to sprinkle on dishes as needed.

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4.  Digital scale.  Many recipes give weight in addition to cup measurements.  More accurate in baking.  I find I use it so much I just leave it on the counter (whoops, more counter space gone).  Trivia:  about 24 almonds=1 oz.

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5.  Stainless measuring cups/spoons.  Daily use.  Just got a new set for Christmas!  I finally got that 2/3 cup measure I’ve been doing without forever.  I feel so decadent.

6.  Food processor.  I bought this years ago.  Jim was dubious.  But I really use it.  The slicing blade makes for great coleslaw, potatoes just the right thinness for gratin, apples ready for pie.  The dough blade has saved me tons of time making breads, pizza, bagels, etc.  It even makes nut butters!

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7.  Compost Can.  Since we’re eating more fruits and vegetables than ever, we’ve seen an explosion in the amount of trimmings.  Rather than throw them in a plastic bag to haul to the dump, we throw them outside to decompose.

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8.  Silicone baking mats.  I love using these.  Don’t need to oil pans this way for baking projects.  Great for “drying” grains for salads.  Making fruit leather every summer has never been easier.  I hear they’ve come out with round ones.  Looking forward to trying them.

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9.  Citrus press.  This was a present from Sam a few years ago.  I didn’t know I needed it until I had it.  Lots of fresh Meyer lemons at the market right now.  The juice really brightens the flavor of cooked vegetables and makes for some lovely salad dressings.

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10.  Julienne peeler.  I bought one for myself not too long ago.  I love to julienne vegis for sandwiches and salads.  Raw carrots and beets look particularly nice.  Great for sushi fillings too.

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11.  Good quality knives.  Probably the most useful and “high-end” tool we’ve got.  Get a good set.  If you have to choose, make sure you have good paring and serrated bread knives.

12.  Roasting pans.  Ours are nothing fancy.  Three sizes–small, medium and large. Older than the hills.  We roast vegetables and nuts frequently.  Couldn’t live without them.

This list is not exhaustive by any means, but I have to draw the line somewhere. If I had made it a baker’s dozen, I would have included my old, dented aluminum colander–which sees plenty of action.

Cooking is personal.  What works for you?  What tools of the trade do you swear by?

2 Whole Grain Dishes Your Family Will Love

We eat a lot of grain-based salads.  They’re hearty and healthy.  And if you have a vegan in the family as we do, they satisfy everyone.  We’re cutting back on rice a bit, but there are many more grains out there begging to be made into salad.

Like quinoa, for example.  Quinoa is technically a seed not a grain–grown in South America.  What makes it such a star is that it’s a complete protein, high in manganese and phosphorus.  It cooks up pretty much the way rice does–quickly.  Which is handy if you’re in a hurry.

From this...

From this…

To this.  Fabulous.

To this. Fabulous.

I found the recipe for this Quinoa and Black Bean Salad with Orange-Coriander Dressing at theKitchn.  I tried the recipe the way it was written–separating the orange sections with a knife.  They give a link to how it’s done.  If that seems like too much work (and it did to me although the orange segments were delicious), substitute a few of those nice seedless clementines for the oranges and just throw the sections into the salad.  That’ll be quicker and still taste great.

This salad is so pretty to look at that I think it would be a great dish to bring to a party.

And have you ever tried farro?  It’s an ancient wheat variety with a chewy risotto like texture.  This recipe, Farro with Roasted Mushrooms, was a community pick on the hip and trendy cooking site, Food52.

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This recipe can be made vegan by serving the Parmesan cheese on the side.

TIP:  Grain dishes are about as easy to improvise as soups.  I doubled the amount of mushrooms called for in the original recipe and roasted them with lots of fresh, finely chopped rosemary to good effect.  Another time, when I discovered I had no mushrooms, I substituted bite size pieces of roasted cauliflower instead.  Add what you like and make it your own.

TECHNIQUE:  The secret to keeping the grains in a salad from being wet and mushy is to spread them out to dry once they’re cooked.  Use a large roasting pan or cookie sheet.  Or a silicone baking liner like this one.  Once they’re at room temperature they’re ready to use in salad.

cooling farro

Dinner for one tonight.  Hardly ever happens.  Leftover soup pairs well with my grain salad.  And leftover  grain salad makes for a great lunch.  Look for these grains in well-stocked grocery and natural food stores.  Enjoy!

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