How to Cook With Your Nose

I remember when I first made the decision to move away from high sugar, high salt food, to more wholesome, natural food.  It was the day that I realized that the pre-packaged food tastes like crap compared to the stuff I can cook at home.  The saying is true, why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home?  (Granted, this is in the literal context).

The key is to understand how to give your tongue the flavor and variety it desires without the added sugar and salt.  Fresh and dried herbs and spices are the key to satisfying your tongue, your brain, and your stomach.  Many people are afraid to cook with herbs and spices because they don’t know how it works.  So I challenge you to cook with your nose.  If you do, you will learn how to cook creatively and off the top of your head.  You will be known as the best chef in the family!

I learned when I was teaching my young cousins how to cook that they would instinctively bring every spice and herb up to their nose for a smell.  Since smell and taste are biologically linked, it makes total sense.  It’s also important that you have good quality spices and herbs.  If you have some in your cabinet, test them.  If they don’t smell much, or they smell musty, throw the whole thing out.  They’re not worth having.   Go restock at a good spice store like Penzey’s, or another specialty store near you.  If you don’t have one, go for the better quality at the grocery store.

Once you have then lined up in a row, one by one, sniff and taste each herb and spice.  Think about other foods that you love to cook with.  Does this flavor appear in that food?  What types of foods would this go well with?  That will give you a basic familiarization with what is available to you.  Then, when you are making a recipe think through your spice cupboard.  What smells would go well with what I am making?  What are other herbs and spices that are close to the ones called for in the recipe?  Try it out, and don’t be afraid to be daring!  Your family will live with an occasional flop, and they will sing your praises for the daring experiment gone deliciously right (like roasted or mashed sweet potatoes with curry powder and red pepper flakes—try it, trust me.).  Here are your essential spice pantry ingredients:

  • Oregano (everything)
  • Thyme (everything)
  • Italian seasoning (for Italian, chicken, and pork).
  • Garlic powder (everything)
  • Onion powder (everything)
  • Bay leaves (for slow cooking)
  • Cumin (Southwestern and pork or beef)
  • Coriander (for Southwestern, Mexican, or Indian dishes.)
  • Sage (pork and chicken)
  • Cinnamon (baking and to add depth to meat dishes)
  • Real vanilla extract (not imitation stuff)
  • Cayenne pepper and/or red pepper flakes (adds depth to so many dishes.)
  • Good salt and black pepper (obviously, almost forgot about it)

The best way to get herbs is to have your own garden.  If you don’t have space for a large outdoor garden (where most herbs will go perennially—or in the case of dill, like weeds), you can plant a windowsill herb garden.  Then you can always add a fresh kick to your meals.

I know I failed at several apartment herb gardens before I finally figured it out.  Like all gardening, its about sun and water.  Pick a sunny window.  If possible make it a southern or western window.  You may see a window with sun in the afternoon when you’re home, but you don’t realize that is the only time it gets sun.  Herbs need 6-9 hours of sun a day.  Once you have that window, double stack your herbs.  We put a shelf across the middle of our best window so we could have twice the space.  These are your good window garden herbs:

  • Basil (pair this with a slice of fresh summer tomato and melt in happiness)
  • Rosemary (best fresh, not as good dried)
  • Cilantro (essential to be fresh).
  • Dill (a personal favorite)
  • Parsley (flat)
  • Oregano (better dried, but also good fresh).
  • Thyme (good on everything)

Water is usually the biggest problem (it was for me).  First, you need to make sure that you have a dish of some sort under your pot to catch the water.  That way it doesn’t get on the sill, and it sits under your plant.  When the soil is dry in the pot, it will suck up the water from the dish.  Then, push in your index finger into the soil. If it is moist down at your fingertip, you don’t need to water.  If it’s dry, water away.  How often this is differs based on the plants, the pots, and your climate.  Even here in the dry Rocky Mountain West I only had to water every other day.  Gnats are another good clue.  If you have gnats on your plants, you have way over watered them.

I hope that this helps you learn ways to kick up your cooking and be a Diva in the kitchen!

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Spagetti Squash Au Gratin

I love pinterest.  A lot.  But so many of the recipes I can’t have any more.  The doctors put me on a low (read: almost no) carbs diet.  So when I find a low/no carb recipe that looks good I use it.  I love au gratin potatoes, but we usually only have them at holidays (or with ham).  So carb free au gratin?  Yes please!

We love spaghetti squash.  It has great texture (a bit crispy if not over cooked), no carbs, and easily substituted with pasta.  Spaghetti squash is a type of winter squash.  Winter squash is thus named because they store well through the winter.  It is allowed to mature into full fruits with hard rinds.  Summer squash, on the other hand, is not allowed to fully mature.  If you have ever seen a full grown zucchini you will understand why.  Until recently, the origins of this great gourd were shadowed.  But thanks to an extraordinarily thorough review of the possible history of this delicious squash on the Polyglot Vegetarian blog, we now know that the first variety was actually developed in China, and then popularized here over the last 80 years.

You can use spaghetti squash any way that you would use spaghetti.  It holds up wonderfully well to cooking.  Cover it in sauce, eat it just buttered (we love that as a side), do whatever you like.

Regardless, it is important to know how to properly prepare the squash before you try to use it.  If you over cook it you will end up with squash that is quite mushy.  You can either cook it in the oven, or in the microwave.  Unless you are doing a couple of them at once, I recommend the microwave.  It’s much faster.  Regardless, you want to prepare it by cutting off the stem end just so you can cut through it.  Then set it up on that cut end and cut it in half lengthwise.  Scoop the seeds and such out of the middle.  (Delicious option: rinse the seeds clean, toss in some salt, and roast in the oven for a snack.)  Get out a glass baking dish.  Put in the squash cut side down, and put in about an inch of water in the bottom.  Microwave for 10 minutes, or cook in the oven for about 40 minutes.  Whatever you do–don’t put it in whole!  One of the ladies in my weight watchers group did that, and it exploded everywhere.  You will know it’s done when you use tongs and pinch it across the middle (short ways) and it gives, but doesn’t collapse easily.

To get it stringy, tip it up again and let it cool a bit so you don’t burn yourself.  Take two forks and scrape in different directions.  This will sting it wonderfully.  Make sure to have a bowl nearby so that you have somewhere to put your bounty.  Scrape down all the way to the shell.

Check out the original recipe at Dandy Dishes Blog.  This may not be a low fat recipe, but it is low carb, and that’s enough low for me!

Spaghetti Squash Au Gratin

These directions are for each large squash.  We doubled it and it made enough for plenty of left overs.

Ingredients:

  1. 1 large spaghetti squash
  2. 1/2 c light sour cream (alt: heavy cream or half and half)
  3. 1.5 cups shredded cheddar cheese (I like sharp) (alt: gruyere)
  4. 1/4 onion, very thinly sliced
  5. 1 Tbsp butter, cut into small pieces.
  6. 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or more if you want it spicier)
  7. 1/2 tsp dry thyme
  8. A few scrapings of fresh nutmeg.  Or a pinch of dry.

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Prepare the spaghetti squash in the microwave or oven.  If you are doubling the amount, it’s probably faster to fit them all in the oven.
  3. Let the squash cool a bit in a bowl.  Mix in the sour cream, half of the cheese, the butter, the very thinly sliced onion (I emphasize very thin, and in sizes you can eat easily), and the seasonings into the squash.
  4. Put the mixture in a sprayed baking dish.  Top with the remaining cheese.  Bake for about 30 minutes.
  5. Broil for about 5 more minutes until bubbly and brown and you start salivating.
  6. Let sit for about 10 minutes to absorb the liquid.  I dabbed off the cheese grease from the top.
  7. Eat it and melt into a blob of happiness.
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Expansion Project: Yard to Kitchen

I have recently been mulling over the inseparable connection between earth and eating.  I should say that I have been mulling over it again, since it’s common theme in my inner soliloquy.  When I was thinking about things I want to write about, I realized that I can’t just put recipes out there when it is so important to me that what I eat be fresh and wholesome (and preferably picked my self).  So I have decided to expand the blog from only recipes to bits about my garden as well.

February and March are some of the hardest months for me.  Spring is so close I can almost smell it, but I know in my head (if not my heart) that we are up for a few more blizzards before we get there.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t dream and plan.  The first plan is for chickens.  You read right, your eyes do not deceive you.  I said CHICKENS!

The idea started with a neighbor.  Marsh is a retired man who has turned all of his attention to his garden and his livestock.  He has an acre or two where he has a wonderful garden, about 70 chickens, and fattens a few steers.  In early spring he will put out signs for fresh eggs on the main road in front of his house.  That is how we first met him.  After we moved in we stopped by to get eggs.  Then we started talking about gardening, and how we were looking forward to planing our first garden the next spring.  He is a wealth of great information.  The eggs from his chickens were always amazingly tasty.  Store eggs are just the sickly little brother of the football quarterback.   At first we thought “why do we need to get chickens when we can get eggs from Marsh?”  But everyone knows about Marsh’s great eggs, so if you are not there right at picking time, you don’t get any.  Then we thought, “well, I’m sure our kids will want to do chickens for 4-H, we’ll wait until then.”

Then I got connected to Sundari Kraft and her blog Eat Where U Live on Facebook.  Sundari is a beacon for people who want to help sustain themselves in an urban setting.  She has a marvelous garden, along with chickens and pygmy goats.  She was instrumental in changing the Denver city laws to allow for chickens and pygmy goats to be kept with reasonable regulations.  I would always see things on her feed about her chickens and goats and garden.  So late last summer, I got the wild hair to have our own chickens starting this spring.

My mother in law is notorious for coming up with wacky, off the wall, schemes and projects.  So when I turned to my husband with a look of mischievous plotting and said “I want to get chickens” he just looked back and said “ok, what do we need to do?”  A man who grew up with a normal, staid, suburban mother would never have said such a thing.  So first, to do our research, and make sure it was right for us, we took the Denver Botanic Gardens Chicken Coop Tour.  Or, as I call it in my head, the Tour de Coop.  Wonderful people around the city open up their yards and coops for inspection by curious strangers like us.  They answer questions and give others ideas.  We hope to be a stop next year.

Even after reading books, and blogs, and the amazing Backyardchickens.com , I was unsure of what exactly we needed to do to be ready.  Then I saw that Sundari was teaching a class on backyard chicken keeping at the botanic garden.  So we decided to sign up.  It’s amazing how much information she can cram into a few hours.  We got to hold chickens, learned how to raise them from babies, what they need for living quarters, and how to make sure you have healthy chickens so you can enjoy the delicious eggs.  If you are interested, check out her class page.  She also teaches classes on keeping goats and organic gardening.

So after that long personal story that I am sure very few of you read (including my mother), we get to the moral of the story.  We are getting our baby chicks in just a few weeks.  So this weekend we are getting together our brooder (a large cardboard box) and starting on the coop plans.  T-minus two weeks to chicks!

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Easy Tender Crock Pot Brisket

I love the show Cooks Country on PBS.  They thoroughly evaluate recipes and cooking equipment  and give everyone only the very best.  The show is a lot of fun to watch too.  I normally catch it half way through and so don’t get the full enjoyment of the show.  So, in true fashion, last week I caught them half way through doing a brisket in the crock pot.  I just bought the new Cooks Country crock pot cook book (I highly recommend it to everyone), but this wasn’t in it.

The way I have usually done brisket is in an oven bag (to keep in the moisture) for 10 hours at 250.  It is well done, but can be greasy.  When I turned on to cooks country, they were talking about dry roasting brisket.  I have had it this way, but often they are dry.   Cooks country had an amazing revelation.  If you put the brisket in the crock pot on top of a disposable aluminum loaf pan, it keeps the meat out of the drippings, but keeps in the moisture by steam.  What is even cooler is that the vacuum created under the pan sucks in the drippings so that they don’t sit in it and get greasy.

Another great tip is to put slices diagonally about 2 inches apart across the meat.  That helps the moisture and flavor get into the meat.  Also make sure that when you put the meat in, you put it fat side up.  That helps the drippings fall through the meat to season it.  Because I came in half way through the episode, I did not get the recipe for the rub they used.  So I made up my own.  Feel free to make up your own too.

Ingredients

  1. 5 lb brisket
  2. 1/2 large onion
  3. 1.5 Tbsp Penzey’s Chili 9000 seasoning
  4. 2 tsp garlic powder
  5. 2 tsp onion powder
  6. 1/2 tsp coriander
  7. 1/2 tsp ground caraway
  8. A few dashes of cayenne powder
  9. Whatever else you want.
  10. Disposable aluminum loaf pan

Directions

  1. Put the aluminum loaf pan in the bottom of a large crock pot.
  2. Mix up your dry rub in a bowl.
  3. Dice the onion.  Put it in the bottom of the crock pot.
  4. Lay out the brisket on a cutting board or pan.  Put gashes diagonally across the meat on the non-fat side.  Rub most of the rub into this side of the brisket.  Flip it over and rub the remaining on the fatty side.
  5. Place the brisket in the crock pot on top of the pan.  Cook on high for 7-10 hours or until it is tender.  It only took 7 hours for us.
  6. When its done, take it out and place it in a pan or plate.  Cover with aluminum and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes.
  7. Put the drippings in a gravy separator.  Pour off the fat.  Use the drippings to pour onto the meat.
  8. Slice across the grain and enjoy!
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Fast, Fresh, Homemade Marinara Sauce

Now that I have been getting more busy with work, I have had to cut down on the amount of time that I can use to cook dinner.  Even though I didn’t want to out of principal, I tried a Rachael Ray 30 Minute Meals cookbook.  While I may not be a fan of her show, her recipes are indeed fast and delicious.

One of the ones that surprised me the most is a fast, easy marinara sauce.  I had been struggling for a few years to find a homemade marinara sauce that I really like.  I took a bunch of fresh tomatoes and would simmer them down for a few hours with herbs and veggies like I saw suggested, but never liked it.  It felt too heavy, like all the sun had been simmered out.  So I thought, heck, why not, I’ll try a fast way instead.  I was not disappointed.  This is now (with my modifications) my go to tomato sauce recipe.

Marinara sauce originated in southern Italy as an easy and fast sauce to help pasta and meats taste better.  Because of the high acid content of tomatoes, it keeps well too!  The first time a recipe for this sauce was published was 1692.  Can you imagine what Italian food must have been like before the tomato?

This recipe is harder to do in the winter, when you can’t go out to the garden to grab your own tomatoes and basil.  And many of you probably don’t have big enough gardens to do it either.

Fast, Fresh, Homemade Marinara Sauce

Ingredients

  1. 2T Olive Oil
  2. 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes.
  3. 3 cloves garlic
  4. 1/4 onion, minced
  5. 2 large cans diced or crushed tomatoes.  (Or the same amount of fresh, chopped.  I like to do 1 can, and then 1 package cherry tomatoes, quartered).
  6. 15-20 basil leaves, cut or torn
  7. 1 tsp dry oregano, or 3 stems fresh, leaves taken from stems.
  8. 1/2 dry tsp Herbs de Provence.
  9. 1 or 2 handfulls spinach, minced

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large sautee pan.  Chop all the ingredients.
  2. Sautee the garlic and pepper flakes till they start to smoke.
  3. Dump in the tomatoes and stir around.  Put in the herbs.  Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes.
  4. Put in the well chopped spinach at the very end.  Let it wilt in.
  5. Serve over meat, pasta, or whatever you want.
  6. Enjoy!
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Potato and Bacon Chowder

We got our first snow not too long ago.  It was so cold and miserable.  It has been chilly since then.  I really wanted a good creamy thick soup, and I had bacon and potatoes.  What can be better?  So I searched the web looking for ideas for the soup I had in my mind.  I think I got it.  Note: this is for foodies, not for people on a diet.  =)

Potatoes are indigenous to the Americas–everywhere from the US to Uruguay.  The kind of potatoes we eat the most today are from the Andes.  Potatoes come in all kinds of colors from pure white to almost black purple.  If you’ve never had a purple or blue potato you should try it some time.  They’re very good.  This one, though, calls for your average Idaho potato.

Potatoes are starchy tubers that grow under the plant.  We keep trying to grow potatoes in our garden, and people are always amazed to see the plants growing up tall.  The potatoes grow attached to the roots.  They are there to store energy from the sun so that the plant can grow again the next year.  That is why you can plant a potato and get a new plant the next year.

Potatoes are now the fourth most cultivated food on the earth, only below wheat, rice, and maize.  There are many different variations to potatoes.  You will hear about some that are waxier and are better for potato salad–these are like the red potatoes you see in the grocery.  Russet potatoes from Idaho are fluffier.  They are better for baking, roasting, and soups.  The difference is whether they fall apart easily or not.  Some times you want it to fall apart, and sometimes you don’t.  In this case, the traditional russet or similar is the best choice.

Potato and Bacon Chowder

Ingredients

  1. 4 medium potatoes (2 c chopped).
  2. 1 cup chicken broth.
  3. 8 slices bacon
  4. 1 med onion, chopped
  5. 3 ribs celery, chopped
  6. 1.5 c milk
  7. 1 can non fat cream of chicken soup concentrate, undiluted
  8. 3/4 c fat free half and half.
  9. 2 dashes dried dill
  10. 1 tsp salt
  11. pepper to taste
  12. 1 sage leaf, chopped

Directions

  1. Peel and cube the potatoes.  Put them in a soup pot with the chicken stock.  Simmer until the potatoes are tender.
  2. In the mean time, cook the bacon in a large sautee pan.  Chop the onion and celery.  When the bacon is done, drain on paper towels.  Saute the onion and celery in the same pan as the bacon was in.
  3. Once the potatoes are finished, add in the veggies, salt and pepper.  Stir together.  Then stir in the cream of chicken soup.  Slowly add in the milk and half and half stirring to incorporate.  Then rip up the bacon into small pieces and add them in, along with the sage and dill.  Heat until warmed through.  Add in more milk if it is too thick, let it simmer down if it is too thin.
  4. Enjoy!

 

 

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Roasted Eggplant and Red Pepper Dip

This spring was a very cold and wet spring.  That meant that our garden was very slow in taking off.  It was just really getting going, and then it snowed this weekend. We got our first eggplant off the plant in late August.  This weekend we got four big ones, and 5 small ones off the vine.  It was an amazingly prolific plant, and we will certainly have one again next year.  The first fruit we got we made with pasta.  These ones we decided to do baba ganouj.  Then I realized that I didn’t have any tahini.  So here is a recipe for tahini-less eggplant spread.

I’ve done a blog on eggplant before, so I’m going to do something about one of the secondary ingredients–garlic.  We can very rarely make anything without garlic.  I was fortunate enough to get a whole braid of Spanish Roja garlic from the farmer’s market a few months ago.  It is wonderfully spicy and flavorful seasoning.  Sometimes I wonder what the spicy flavor there is, and I realize that it’s the garlic!

Garlic is a bulb that grows underground, much like an onion. In fact they are from the same family.  Garlic is originally from central Asia.  It spread quickly around the globe, though.  The ancient Egyptians grew and used garlic.  Imagine how easy it must have been to trade in garlic, and how ecstatic the new recipients must have been.  You can carry the little dry cloves, plant it, and then revel in the taste.  Garlic is an essential ancient ingredient all across Asia and Europe.

Garlic is also very medicinal.  Countries with an indigenous cuisine high in garlic have lower cancer levels.  It is believed that garlic also helps with blood pressure and cholesterol, is an antibiotic and antiviral.  The antibiotic properties are such that Louis Pasteur used it in WWI and WWII as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene in soldiers.

Garlic does have some unfortunate side effects.  The most noticeable is that if you eat entire jar of pesto (which my husband used to do on a very regular basis) your pores will start to exude garlic and your wife will insist that you leave the room.

Roasted Eggplant and Red Pepper Dip

Ingredients

  1. 4 medium eggplants.
  2. 4 large cloves of garlic
  3. 1 or 2 roasted red peppers from a jar (we put in 2, my husband thinks that was great, I think that 1 would have been better and not overwhelmed the eggplant).  You can also roast them yourself.
  4. 1/4 cup of olive oil, plus extra for brushing.
  5. 1/4 cup lemon juice
  6. Salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp)

Directions

  1. Cut the eggplants into half or quarters depending on how big they are.  Brush them with olive oil.  Or I put them in a large bowl and tossed them in oil with my hands.
  2. Grill them on the grill.  Start with skin side down.  Then flip them over and grill on the light side until they just turn golden.  The skin will be bubbly and crispy.  Then put them back in a bowl and let them cool until you can handle them.
  3. Put the garlic in your food processor.  Side note–if you don’t have a food processor you need one.  Pulse until it is minced.  Or you can mince it yourself.
  4. Once the eggplant is cool peel off the skin.  Put the meat of the eggplant in a food processor with the garlic.  Also put in your 1, or 2, roasted red peppers.  Add in the salt.  Pulse until it is a bit smooth.  Add in the lemon juice and olive oil while the processor is running.
  5. Spread on good crusty bread, peta, or veggies.
  6. Enjoy!
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