Posts Tagged ‘creative cooking’

Produce as dessert can be as tricky as it is temporal. There are plenty of vegetables we consider fruits, fruits we consider vegetables, “accessory fruits” that don’t really fit into either category, and, of course, other parts of the plant that we may or may not desire as dessert. Presenting produce as dessert can be as simple as rinsing, chopping, and mixing fruits as a salad, to blending them into a shake, to adding other ingredients and boiling, baking, and/or chilling them as a more complex dish.

Then there is the matter of marrying the textures and tastes with “accent” ingredients such as cream or chocolate. Or making a new texture by adding the fruit as the accent, such as in cakes, pies and other pastries, ice creams and sorbets, mousses and puddings. So, we can have one fruit and have endless ways to make it into something unique and delicious, if we just keep in mind the capabilities and boundaries offered by that particular fruit.

Apart from applying our creativity to the process of going from plant to sweet treat, the short shelf life of produce demands that we think relatively quickly after, if not during, purchase. Many fruits don’t last more than a couple of days after arriving home, especially if they are not stored in the fridge. Some of the “tougher” fruits, like bananas and granny smith apples for instance, stay up to a week out of refrigeration; on the other hand, berries and thin-skinned fruits such as plums don’t last quite as long.

The typical food patterns we usually associate for fruit-based desserts include:

Flavor: pineapple and melon, strawberry and banana, orange and strawberry, apple and pear, and berries generally go well together (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, blackberries, etc.). The red currant and its cousin, the lingonberry, go well with other fruits, in preserves, and they also complement meats very well, as we tend to see in Nordic cuisine. Cloudberries and gooseberries, also prominent in Nordic dishes, are less common in the middle latitudes and lend subtly sweet overtones to a dish.

Texture: fruit and cream, fruit and bread, fruit and honey, fruit and ice, the list goes on and on. However, how the fruit is added makes a difference. For instance, lemon-flavored Italian ice sounds good, but why does the idea of drizzling honey over lemon wedges 1) make me want to grab my Vicks Vapo Rub and 2) sound like a rather unappetizing dessert for most? Replace the lemon wedges with baked apple, pear, or even banana, and the dessert is suddenly divine. While we value the lemon for its juice and occasionally its zest, most folks do not like to bite into the meat of the lemon itself, which, admittedly, may have something to do with the bitter taste. But the acidic citrus flesh also simply doesn’t work with everything (again–this is for most people; there are always exceptions). Using lemon with cream is a great idea; but again, you probably wouldn’t serve the lemon itself with the cream; you’d blend the lemon juice or grated zest with the cream and perhaps a few other ingredients in order to neutralize the tartness and offer a smoother texture.  But strawberries with cream is a whole ‘nother story.

Keeping in mind flavor, texture, and longevity, it’s fun to play around with new ideas and push the envelope by investigating and experimenting with the various cooking options for almost every edible plant out there. To help us along, we can look to world cultures for inspiration. We can also borrow (or else fully adopt) the vegan and vegetarian options that have been developed in many parts of the world and that offer us new possibilities for almost any type of cuisine out there. Even if you’re not vegetarian, the techniques cultivated in this branch of culinary thought are very useful in applying to other dishes. And it’s always helpful to have a few recipes on hand if you have vegetarian or vegan friends or family coming to dinner. In the coming weeks I am hoping to flesh out the vegetarian/vegan section of this site (poor pun) with the help of a friend who has already done a lot of the leg work to modify old favorite recipes–stay tuned!


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Whether you buy local and organic or conventional produce, the fact remains that some fruits just don’t last quite as long as others. After all, they are plants that have been recently cut and transported for consumption. A general rule of thumb is 5-7 days, refrigerated. Obviously, some can last a bit longer, and some a bit less. What this means is that you either 1) need to have the dish in mind whilst buying the ingredients at the market or store; or 2) need to have enough “helper ingredients” on hand to use whatever may be in season or whatever may have caught your eye that day.

The idea is that, unlike, say, roots and tubers, produce really does need to be used in a “revolving door”-type fashion and should always be on its way through the house rather than stored as a staple that can be kept for weeks or even months. If this option is not going to work for you, frozen, canned, vacuum-sealed, or otherwise preserved produce may be a good solution for you. But it’s never quite as tasty or as healthy as the fresh option. Usually, you’ll have to add more sugar to frozen fruits.  On the other hand, usually people keep the sugary syrup in which many fruits are canned and consider that useful flavoring.  But you may need to rinse off any legumes or veggies that are jarred or canned as those are often treated with some sort of preservative that isn’t quite as tasty or useful.  But it’s your kitchen–your call.

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When I made my third, and last, attempt to go vegetarian, I was living in one of the most difficult places in the world to try this–Armenia.  Things have changed a bit since I lived there, but at that time it was very difficult to keep to a vegetarian diet, especially when the local cuisine is based on meat, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and more meat.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, fruits and other produce in the summertime did help, but the winter was brutal for anyone even thinking of foregoing meat.

In fact, I did such a poor job that I had to occasionally allow myself some fish just to keep myself from keeling over.  My skin turned gray, my hair went brittle, I gained weight from all of the carbs I was eating to feel full.  I clearly did not know what I was doing.  I literally dreamt of meat-filled banquet tables.  I remember waking up one morning, salivating, thinking I had bitten into a chicken leg.  It’s true.  Suffice it to say, this did not work out for me.  After seven months of trying, I gave up.

While I still don’t cook very much with meat at home, I definitely don’t turn it down as a guest in others’ homes, and I do order meat at restaurants.  Of course, even if everything I buy at home is ecologically and ethically acceptable, all bets are off when I am eating elsewhere.  Who knows what’s in that burger?  Do we know if those eggs are from open range chickens fed 100% grains?  I’m still trying to reconcile this for myself, but the truth of the matter is I know that I cannot live completely without meat.  I just minimize where I can.  It’s difficult, because as you may be able to tell, I’ll eat almost anything.  Maybe someday I’ll give it another go, and see how far I get.  It will have to be in a country with ample alternatives to meat.

In the meantime, I do enjoy increasing my knowledge of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.  There are plenty of meatless, fishless, eggless, dairyless dishes that I enjoy, and having more recipes under my belt is never a bad thing.  Even if we take small steps at a time, we can make an impact on our health, on the environment, and on the state of animal welfare.  I will expand this discussion of why people go vegetarian and vegan in a later post, and I invite my friends who follow these diets to chime in.  For now, I want to share the Google Books preview of Vegan World Fusion Cuisine, which contains tons of great-looking recipes without any animal products whatsoever, ranging from easy to a bit more sophisticated cooking and preparation methods.  I will eventually attempt some of these recipes myself, but if anyone reading this beats me to it, by all means please write in and share the results!  Click here to see the preview of the book.

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A friend told me this sounds like a self-help title.  Well, it kind of is.  There are some common themes that I have found run more or less constant through the world’s cuisines.  I find it useful to think of the purpose of the dish before thinking of the specific types of foods I want to add, and looking at eating patterns through the lens of multiple cultures gives us that much more flexibility in thinking of what to prepare for a given meal or event.

The basic elements of the typical main meal of the day:

The Appetizer

Appetizers can range from a bowl of potato chips to a plate of fried calamari to a single broiled scallop with an expensive sauce on a piece of lettuce.  The general idea is that it’s either something to eat while you’re waiting for the main dish to finish cooking, or that it opens your appetite for more things to come.  In some places this is also known as the “First Plate.”

Soups, small pasta portions, small salads, breads and spreads, and tapas make good appetizers.

The Meal

The substantive portion of food.  Also known as the “Second Plate.”  Usually consists of a stew or combination that juxtaposes proteins and complex carbohydrates.  This can be meat and potatoes, poultry and pasta, fish and rice, or a variation on any of these matches.  A vegetable or vegetable medley is often added.  Vegetarian options usually replace the meat protein with a legume, such as lentils, chickpeas, or beans.  For instance, a tagine with chickpeas, fruits and vegetables, and couscous.

New Age Western diets emphasize reducing the carbohydrate element in meals; however, the most successful long-term diets of this sort acknowledge that whole grains–and the carbohydrates that come with them–are a critical part of the human diet.  A well-rounded, home-cooked diet is often significantly useful in losing weight; just the sheer reduction in processing chemicals and preservatives through control of the ingredients makes a great difference.

Other diets such as vegetarianism and veganism remove a great deal of proteins; it is best to consult texts and cookbooks that have been approved by doctors for the best ways to maintain the necessary balance through the use of legumes, fruits and vegetables, and other meat substitutes.

The Dessert

We typically think of desserts as a sweet treat at the end of the meal, to be had with sweet wine, liqueur, coffee, or tea.  Dessert is often light because we are already at least somewhat full.  The texture is sometimes creamy or buttery, sometimes flaky or crunchy, and sometimes fruity and refreshing.

“Other” types of meals, and the People Who Eat Them

Many cultures have “in-between” snacks and small meals to tide everyone over between meals.  In fact, in Morocco it isn’t uncommon to have several snacks and meals throughout the day–a far cry from the traditional 3 meal schedule, and the more contemporary 5 meal per day plan, in the US.  In Spain, a small pastry and coffee is normal for breakfast, with a very large afternoon meal, maybe an evening snack after work (usually tapas) and a smaller meal later in the evening, usually between 10 and 11pm.  In Germany, cereals, or muesli, topped with yogurt is a normal breakfast, as are cold cuts and bread, and a lunch with beer and a heavier dinner.

England, as many Americans know, boasts a huge traditional breakfast with such goodies as fried eggs, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, sausage, bacon (thicker than bacon in the US), black pudding (much like Morcilla sausage in Spain used for tapas and meals), and if you’re close enough to Ireland, white pudding too (like black pudding but without the blood and with more fat).  I know that after a British breakfast I can’t eat too much more for the rest of the day.  But I usually have enough space for an afternoon tea, which usually consists of tea with cream and a pastry or small snack (for instance, toast with butter or the classic crumpet), followed by supper and dinner (which in the US are two words for the same thing).

Obviously, there are many types of meals, and half the fun is learning about them.  But basically, one way of thinking of the typical substantive meal is as a formula:


Of course, there are many variations on this formula, depending on cultural preferences and regional availability.  But this is the most common combination of food categories and an easy way to make pairings in your head when you’re just throwing something together from what you have or thinking of what you need to restock in your pantry as backup.

Why we should care about food patterns and the role of The Meal

It is interesting to think of how meals are incorporated into the daily routines of different cultures; it gives us a chance to step back from our own reality and rethink the way we eat.  One thing does seem to remain constant: meals, big or small, are opportunities for social gatherings and allow for communication and comradery, if we utilize them as such.  But so often, we eat alone, quickly, without thinking about where our food came from or even what is in the food we are eating.  Maybe not every meal can be a big deal, but making time for friends and family and taking time to prepare our meals, at least in my opinion, adds an important social dimension to our daily lives.  It’s worth making the time!

In any case, it is important to have a basic idea of how these meals fit together, in order to take them apart, ingredient by ingredient, and put them back together again in perhaps unexpected ways.  The interchangeability of many ingredients means you could have a sack of apples that could, in theory, be used for the appetizer, the meal, the snack, or the dessert–or even all four if you choose.  This is especially helpful if you’re working with limited ingredients and don’t have time to run to the store for more.  Half the fun of cooking is finding new ways to prepare old favorites.

Theory in Practice: an Example

Very few people can start to put strokes to canvas before knowing what they want to paint.  Let’s say you open your pantry to make something and you find a sack of potatoes, one onion, a bunch of radishes, and some carrots.  You turn to the fridge and you have only sour cream, cream, butter, two chicken breasts and a little cheddar cheese.  Some lemons sit nearby.  You have your usual backdrop of sugar, flour, corn starch, salt, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil, and maybe some bread crumbs and graham crackers too.  If you don’t already have an idea what kind of food you are trying to make, if you can’t think of whether it is a savory snack, a sweet treat, a full meal–it will be nearly impossible to make the ingredients you have work for you.  This is not to say that you have to have the whole recipe set out in front of you–that’s absolutely not the case, because that would be the opposite of  “breaking free” of the rules and playing with new ideas.  You can always look up recipes, but it’s always more of a hassle to be prepared with everything you need to follow them exactly than it is to add or subtract something and make it your own.  Not having the time to go back out to the store and buy everything necessary for a given recipe is often what deters people from making something quickly from scratch and ordering takeout instead.  This is easily overcome with a well stocked kitchen and a little creativity!

Continuing with the example with the ingredients noted above.  If it is an afternoon snack you seek, you may wish to make some version of Kalter Kartoffelsalat (German cold potato salad); if it is nighttime, maybe a stew or a carrot-radish-onion salad as an appetizer to a meal of lemon cream broiled chicken breast and mashed potatoes or potaoes au gratin.  If you only want something light and sweet, you could make a lemon cup with whipped cream and crumbled cookie topping (or, alternatively, lemon pie).  There are almost always several options using the same ingredients.  And it’s fun to try to think of all of them!

Note: The recipes to the meal ideas above coming soon!

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Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that making food from scratch sounds great, but you have no time for it, especially during the week.  Well, it’s entirely okay to cut corners and use pre-cut, canned, jarred, frozen, dried, freeze-dried, or pre-assembled ingredients.  Of course, normally it’s healthier if you have fresh ingredients, and generally you will be able to taste the difference.  That said, there is nothing set in stone about what has to be your creation and what can be store-bought; there is no contest for most “from scratch” cook, and the only real litmus test of success is that you and your family and friends enjoy the outcome.  This blog post lists some great quick recipe ideas with pre-made ingredients from Trader Joe’s, for instance.

So, you may be now be asking yourself, what is the point of making the sofrito from scratch, or what motivation might exist for marinating the chicken breast yourself when it is so easily purchased at the store with a delicious marinade already prepared?

1)  Knowing what is in your food

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always understand all of the ingredients listed on bottled products.  I never fully understood the MSG debate, but it seems to be in a lot of pre-made foods.  I know it’s just a flavor enhancer, but because it’s not something I myself would add while cooking, I do generally try to avoid it.  And despite the fact that I am not a fan of the fact that an unnaturally occurring enzyme has to be added to create high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the main reason I don’t like it is that I actually just don’t like the aftertaste.  It’s for this reason that I absolutely adore Coca-Cola outside of the U.S. (in which sugar is used) but avoid most soft drinks when I’m Stateside (the land of HFCS, thanks to our unfair tariff imposition on sugar and our corn farming subsidies).  So you can eliminate any “iffy” ingredients in your food and drink by controlling them at the source.  Furthermore, if you have any sort of restrictions on your diet, like food allergies for instance, the only way to be certain of everything that is in the food is to make it yourself (save spending extra bucks in the special foods section, which is okay too if you can swing it).

2) Reducing fat, sodium, or calorie intake

Again, starting from the source gives you complete control. It probably comes as no surprise to you that fats and extra carbs or calories can be sneaked into a prepared meal.  In fact, frozen foods usually have ridiculously high sodium content to help with preservation.  The frozen pizza I used to enjoy once a week when I was growing up had more than 30 grams of fat per serving–and it was a personal pizza so I would eat 4 servings in one sitting.

Following on the pizza example.  I was recently in Venice and seeking a respite from the expensive restaurant dinners I had been inhaling.  I found a hole-in-the-wall trattoria on the water, with pizzas made to order.  I watched as a balding man in a smudged white apron sweated over a small table filled with no more than 10 basic ingredients, including simple dough balls, shredded mozzarella, halved cherry tomatoes, freshly sliced prosciutto, sliced pepperoni, and a tub of tomato sauce.  Apparently they also had a specialty of making pizza with french fries on top (not something I care to recreate).  In the 30 minutes it took for me to be able to walk out of there with my two pizzas, I watched that man throw together about 15 pizzas.  He actually didn’t even start on my pizzas until about 20 minutes in.  If this doesn’t prove how fast and easy it is to create your own pizza masterpiece, complete with the knowledge that you’re eating only the ingredients you’ve added and no extra grease or preservatives, I don’t know what would.

3) Availability

If you travel a lot, you know how important it is to be able to find local versions of your biggest comfort foods.  Likewise, if you went on vacation and had the most amazing dish but can’t seem to find its match anywhere where you live, short of having someone airmail it to you, you will be looking at the option of recreating it on your own.  Substituting ingredients may be necessary.  Understanding food patterns is essential to recreating meals and adding your own flair to the recipes.

4) Spicing it up in the kitchen

If you get to make the dish yourself, you not only get to control what flavors are in the meal but you will also be making a connection in your mind of new flavor combinations, rather than just taking what is given in a pre-made sauce packet or takeout box.  You can use these new combinations in other recipes, and you will be more likely to actually do that, as you become more and more comfortable with making things yourself and gaining confidence in your cooking.

This is not to say that switching things up is always easy.  I have been called a “creature of habit” on more than one occasion.  I am known to stick with things that work: a particular parking spot at the supermarket; a particular convenience store.  It’s no different with food.  I enjoy particular cereals; a particular brand of soy milk; a particular flavor of gelato.

There’s nothing wrong, at least in my opinion, with sticking with what you know.  If you make an amazing chicken fettuccini, why mess with it?  If your family requests your signature cranberry sauce every Thanksgiving, there’s no need to disappoint them with something new.

However, as they say, a little change can actually do you good, at least once in a while.  Change in the kitchen, as with all things in life, can be fun and exciting.  So pick a night that doesn’t matter to you–no need to hijack the Sunday pot roast dinner if it’s a tradition; try a Friday instead.  Trying new things shouldn’t feel like a chore, it should be something you look forward to.  So take baby steps if changing your methods seems overwhelming; try dedicating one night every couple of weeks for something “different,” and see how it goes over in the household.  Chances are you’ll eventually stumble on something worth trying again!

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Potatoes and other root vegetables or tubers, such as sweet potato, yam, yuca, taro, ginger, onions, carrots, radishes, beetroots, shallots, tigernuts, and turnips.  Celeriac is a less starchy alternative.

This group of foods often serves the same purpose as grains and grain products.  Almost everyone has heard of the role of the potato in saving Ireland from famine; anyone who has had Polynesian food knows of taro.  Yuca is wildly popular in Latin American cuisine; sweet potato is known nearly worldwide.  Ginger is used medicinally and also to sweeten; onions, carrots, radishes, beetroots, shallots, and turnips are generally used to season or in salads.  Tigernuts are not available everywhere but are used to make an amazing drink called horchata, a fabulous alternative to milk, originated in Valencia, Spain.  (Note: this is not the same horchata from Mexico, which is made from rice and usually topped with cinnamon.)

This group of foods is also incredibly easy to keep on hand; a sack of potatoes can last weeks, even months, in proper storage conditions.  If you maintain a supply of root vegetables in your home, you will almost never find yourself wondering if you should run to the store for a last-minute meal.

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For thousands of years, humans have created different kinds of diets, many of them largely based on grains and cereals.  Wild grains, and later cultivated grains, supplied necessary carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and even some proteins.  Grains have been ground crudely to eat as gruel, blended directly with meat, put in salads, and ground as flour for cakes and other pastries, or to absorb sauce and complement meat or vegetables.  In some form or another, grains still constitute the base of most (though not all) of the world’s diets.

Typical grains around the world include wheat, oats, barley, corn, and rice.  Less universally popular are alternative strains of the typical grains, as well as spelt, quinoa, sorghum, spillet, rye, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, and fonio.  Some are more easily accessible than others, depending on where you live.  Most can usually be found in natural food stores.

A particularly useful benefit of most grains and grain-based foods is their long shelf life (breads excluded).  This is one of the easiest categories of food to maintain a steady stock of in the pantry, and almost guarantees that you will always be able to “throw something together” even if you are almost completely out of foods in other categories.

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