These 10 Tips Will Make Life In the Kitchen So Much Better!

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Editor’s Note: Recently I was reminded of  this post which I wrote several years ago, and as MacroChef has added many new readers, it seemed worthwhile to post again. Enjoy!

Although I’ve been cooking professionally for thirty years, sometimes I still feel like a beginner. The culinary world is so vast that what I’ve learned is just a fraction of what there is to know. Aware as I am of my limitations, I hesitate to offer advice–but sometimes I do anyway! So, here is my list of ten tips which, if you take them to heart, could help make you a more confident and polished cook. Much of this, frankly, I’ve learned the hard way, and I pass these suggestions along to you in hopes that you can avoid some of my missteps. Also, I’d love it if you’d offer some kitchen tips of your own. What kitchen wisdom have you discovered which you’d like to share? Comments welcome.

1. Start with a good knife. You really don’t need most kitchen gadgets if you have a good knife. I like the all purpose chef”s knives made by Wusthof or Henckels. While these knives can be pricy, they’re a good investment as they can last for decades. Try out various models to find the size and handle shape most comfortable for you. Shop around and you’ll probably find a deal. Also, invest in a diamond steel to keep your knife sharp. If you have an old, dull, but quality knife, have it professionally sharpened and then maintain the edge with a steel.

2. These are also essential: a roomy cutting board, a micro plane grater, kitchen shears and an instant read thermometer. The later is especially useful if you cook meat, fish or poultry, but an instant read thermometer will tell you if your food is heated through, no matter what it is. From a food safety standpoint, food should be heated to 140˚ F or more. I prefer the nondigital thermometers because they don’t need batteries.

3. Maintain a properly-stocked pantry. By that I mean, stock the essential ingredients you constantly use: salt, soy sauce, miso, vinegars, oil, stock, canned tomatoes, pasta, whatever those are, for your cooking style. Also, herbs and spices. Buy these in small quantities in bulk, if possible, and toss away those more than a year old. Read seven more kitchen tips after the jump…

Photo above: Chef Chuck Collison constructs a vibrant salad, last summer at the Saratoga Springs Retreat Center.

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Rejoice, There’s Fungus Growing In My Bedroom!

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If you’d have told me a few months ago that I’d soon be growing shiitake mushrooms, I’d probably have looked at you like you’d lost your marbles. But, you know, I’m learning that if you live long enough, all kinds of strange things come to pass. And so, this is the story of how mushrooms came to growing in my second bedroom.

It  all began with Lee Brokaw, a friend who lives in Santa Cruz, that legendary surfing town south of San Francisco. Lee often drops in on Monday afternoons to visit us cooks in Palo Alto while we’re putting together our weekly vegetarian dinners. Most of the time, he brings  samples of his latest culinary experiment (right now he’s deeply into Korean cuisine), but a few weeks ago, Lee showed up with the gift of a dark, mysterious log clothed in a plastic bag, and protected by a cardboard box. He’d been to Santa Cruz’s annual Fungus Fair over the weekend, and evidently, done a little shopping. It turns out that what he brought  was a shiitake mushroom minifarm, a growing kit which is a “specially formulated mixture of red oak sawdust and rice bran which has been fully impregnated with the culture (“mycelium”) of the shiitake mushroom…” Enclosed was a four-page flyer with the simple growing instructions.

Within a week, my log was peppered with baby mushrooms (blue photo below), and in five or so days more, the mushrooms were mature (photos, above and below).  In fact, while I was out of town for a few days, the mushrooms became more open than ideal (for both culinary and medicinal purposes, partly-closed caps are thought to be of better quality). However, the shiitakes were delicious, sautéed, and in soup–you’ll find some of my recipes using fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms here, here, here and here. The people who made my shiitake log, Far West Fungi, have a retail store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, but you can order yours on line. The World’s Healthiest Foods site has an article on the well-documented nutritional and medicinal benefits of shiitake mushrooms here.  As for me, if all goes well, I may soon have a second crop of fungus popping up in my bedroom.

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View Lee Brokaw’s photos of the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, after the jump.

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Condiments You’re Going to Love: Starting With Sesame Salt

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From time to time, people come to me with a question which goes like this: “I’m trying to eat a more natural, whole foods diet, but sometimes it gets a little dull.  What can I do to perk it up?”  You could perhaps interpret this entire blog as an attempt to answer that question, but today I want to focus on condiments, little bits of seasoning you apply at the table. And the condiment I highlight couldn’t be simpler: sesame seeds toasted with a little salt and then ground. We call it sesame salt or by its Japanese name, gomashio (go-mah-she-oh, goma= sesame, shio=salt). There are at least a couple of reasons we prefer sesame salt to plain table salt. First of all, it delivers a lot more flavor per gram of sodium. Secondly, sesame seeds are highly nutritious, containing as they do iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, and calcium, along with thiamine and vitamin E.

Here’s how to make sesame salt: 1) Rinse 1/2 cup unhulled brown or black sesame seeds in a fine mesh strainer and shake dry. 2) Heat a cast iron or similar thick-bottomed pan and pour in the seeds along with 1 to 1  1/2 teaspoons good quality sea salt. 3) Toast this over low heat, shaking or stirring constantly, about five minutes or until the seeds smell aromatic, turn a slightly darker color and begin to pop. 4) Grind with a mortar and pestle until about 75 % of the seeds are ground. 5) Cool, then store in a container with a lid. No need to refrigerate. Sesame salt will keep for weeks, but you’ll probably use it before then.  Sprinkle on rice, other grain dishes, noodles, even toast. Adjust the amount of salt to suit your taste. If you double or triple the recipe, it will take longer to toast the seeds. Yes, if you make a larger batch, a food processor works great, but using a mortar and pestle is more traditional and more fun.

Variations: Change up this recipe by substituting other seeds: flax, sunflower, pumpkin. Another variation: toast pumpkin seeds in a 325˚ F oven just until they begin to smell great and look a little golden, then sprinkle them lightly with umeboshi vinegar and toast for a few minutes more, or until they are dry. Watch closely! Chop coarsely in a food processor–an incredibly tasty condiment.

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Photos–Top: Grinding sesame seeds and salt with a mortar and pestle. Above: Toasting sesame seeds and salt in a cast iron skillet. Every kitchen needs one!

On the French Atlantic Coast: Not All “Old Salts” Are Old!

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My friend and correspondent in France, Robert Bonnell, visits salt harvesting areas on the French Atlantic Coast frequently and reports that artisanal salt harvesting is still very much alive.  He wrote about salt from Guérande and the Île de Ré here, and below he describes harvesting in another nearby area.  It is good to know that a younger generation is learning a craft so vital to our well being. Robert’s report:

“The saunier (salt harvester) in the poster, Yohan-Paul Eveno, mentioned that there were only three active sauniers nowadays in the salt marshes near the town of Les Sables d’Olonne, although there used to be a lot more.  It appears that the profession never completely died out, though, and one of the three is now in his eighties and has been a saunier all his life.  Yohan-Paul learned the tricks of the trade from the old salt, if that’s what we can call him.  He knows that in Guérande the profession is called “paludier”, but insists that everywhere else in France it’s “saunier”.  For the record, Les Sables d’Olonne is down the coast from Guérande, and up the coast from the Ile de Ré, both of which we’ve described before.”

Too Many Lemons? Make Preserved Lemons and Enjoy Them All Year Round

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One of the many things I treasure about living in California is the amazing abundance and variety of citrus fruits which come into season in the winter. Among all that variety, Meyer lemons are probably the one I find most useful.  While in many places Meyer lemons are an expensive delicacy, in the Bay Area, it seems nearly everyone has a neighbor, friend or family member with a tree which produces more than they can use.  Play your cards carefully, and you never have to buy one.  Even I have a dwarf Meyer lemon growing in a pot on my patio, and today I harvested about 20 lemons which I’ve decided to preserve Moroccan style. Preserving lemons is a wonderful way to stretch a supply of lemons to last for a year. You can use the preserved lemons in almost any savory dish where the brightening taste of lemon is appropriate. Preserved lemons are a frequent ingredient in tagines, the stew-like dish which is one the foundations of Moroccan cuisine, and preserved lemons are a great foil for most any protein, whether beans, fish, poultry or meat. Chopped fine, they’re also a great addition to whole grain pilafs and salads. Yes, it’s true that you can buy preserved lemons at upwards of $10 a pound in stores such as Whole Foods, but if someone offers you a slew of lemons, why not make your own?  All you really need to add is salt.  Then, it’s just a matter of patience–this truly “slow food” will be ready in about a month! Detailed directions for preserving lemons, after the jump…

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Produce Superstars: For Great Taste and for Healing, Ginger Rocks!

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I suppose you could see the ginger rhizome in the photo above as a bit homely, but knowing ginger’s numerous uses, both culinary and medicinal, I see it as beautiful. Ginger, a cousin of turmeric, cardamom and galangal, grows in fertile, tropical soil, especially in India, China, Fiji and Indonesia. Not only has ginger been vital in the traditional medicines of East Asian, Indian and Arabic cultures since ancient times, its healing properties have been confirmed in double-blind, controlled studies, in the relief of pain and swelling caused by osteoarthritis, for example. Among other medicinal uses are relief of digestive system upsets, treatment of respiratory problems, and in breaking fevers. Ginger is thought to stimulate blood circulation, cleanse bowels and kidneys and to nourish the skin (read in more depth about ginger’s medicinal uses here, with information about dosages, here). Ginger as a medicinal is available in extracts, tinctures, capsules and oils, but it’s such a versatile and useful plant, why not cook with it and enjoy the lively, pungent taste of fresh ginger? After the jump, I suggest numerous ways to incorporate ginger into your daily cooking…

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Ginger Plant--Color plate from Köhler's Medicinal Plants

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Sea Vegetables: Roasted Nori, An Addictive New Snack

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I found this roasted, seasoned nori at Trader Joe's. Irresistible!

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I almost hesitate to mention this new snack which appeared recently at Trader Joe’s, for fear that those of you with addictive personalities will blame me for hooking you on something new! But here it is: Roasted Seaweed Snack, consisting only of roasted nori seasoned with a little salt and sesame and canola oils.  A lighter, healthier snack would be hard to come by.  The package weighs .4 ounce–so you know it’s unlikely to pack on the pounds, and two pieces contain only 15 calories. Nori, of course, is one of those sea vegetables I’m so enamored with, and why not?  It tastes really good, and even kids who’ve never seen it before, quickly come to love it.  Nutritionally, you can’t go wrong as it contains nice quantities of vitamins A and B, as well as iodine, protein, carotene, calcium and iron. Although this product is Korean, Japan, which produces about 350,000 tons a year, is by far the largest producer and consumer of nori. You’ll see it wrapped inside or out of the maki rolls at your local sushi bar.  It’s grown in an elaborate system of racks in the water and finished in a process which resembles paper making. So, if you, like me, prefer your snacks slightly salty, I commend Roasted Seaweed Snacks to you. If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, many Asian markets sell a similar product, and as with almost everything else, you can order it online.

Full-sized sheets of nori (right), roasted, seasoned nori (left). Photo by Alice Weigand via Wikipedia.