1/24/17-From Fruits to Nuts
Toothaches are the worst. No question. No debate. Several months ago, my dentist told me root canal surgery was necessary to alleviate my toothache. I didn’t realize, at first, that it would take several appointments for the root canal and replacement crown. Since I wasn’t allowed to chew hard or sticky foods, I missed some of my favorite frequent snacks: dried fruit and nuts. They are also useful ingredients to have on the shelves to incorporate into the repertoire of the craft and finesse of eating solo.
Dried fruit is a way to get the nutritional benefits of fruit, the vitamins, minerals, and fiber, without having to search for decent fresh fruit and worry about storing it. They supply energy rapidly. I am diabetic so I carry dried fruit when I need something to boost my blood sugar so I don’t have to rely on white sugar-laden candy.
I have found I simply feel better when I eat quality protein. Nuts are packed with protein and will fill you up quickly because they are high in calories and fat. Don’t fret. They do not contain saturated fat so do not contain cholesterol. The portion size of nuts will not have to be large because they are so dense. They are a good source of protein if you aim to cut back on the saturated fat contained in meats.
The process of drying fruit not only concentrates the flavor, but makes them far more shelf stable and portable than fresh fruit. The nutritional value is also dense. The most common dried fruit is raisins but there are so many more fruity flavors. Dried cranberries are fairly common as are dried apples, apricots, cherries, pears, dates, and prunes.
Both dried fruit and nuts are useful to have on hand for meal preparation. Many ethnic cuisines utilize these ingredients. Nuts or dried fruit can certainly be added to green salads. Nuts like cashews or almonds are great additions to stir fries. Both nuts and dried fruits can be added to dishes based on rice or other grains and served warm or chilled.
To prepare a rice salad for take-away to work or school lunch, cook brown rice or a rice blend, preferably one with wild rice, since its earthy flavor complements nuts so well. Use part of your cooked rice for a dinner, with chicken or a pork chop, for example, and cook enough extra to prepare the salad.
As the rice cools, stir in some olive oil and apple cider vinegar, to taste. The rice will absorb these liquids so you can be generous but be sure and taste for the vinegar level of your choice. Add roughly chopped dried fruit or nuts, the selections can vary each time. Almonds and dates combine well, walnuts and dried cranberries are a welcome pair. Some diced onion and green pepper can be stirred in as well. Add a bit of coarse salt, taste and add more, if needed.
Dried fruits and nuts can often be found for in bulk so can be purchased in as little or large an amount as you need. The bulk bins are often in the Natural Foods Sections or next to the Produce Section of a well-stocked grocery.
A word of caution: I have seen too many people over-rely on fruit juice for supposed nutrition. Although, juices do contain vitamins, the beneficial fiber content of the fruit is missing since it is strained away from the liquid juice. The portion size of juice is often way too large thus providing way too much sugar, even though it is natural fruit sugar, at one time.
Dried fruits and nuts are welcome additions to busy days as they are packed with excellent flavor, beneficial nutrition and slow, even energy release.
When I talk to people about their frustrations with food preparation, an item that comes up often is cooking eggs. Inevitably, the issue is not having the right equipment. Having the right tools for the job is crucial: a non-stick skillet and a rubber spatula. Eggs can readily become part of your rotation of quick comfort food.
Eggs are a versatile, inexpensive source of protein that are quick to prepare. I like breakfast food but am not one to eat much in the morning, so eggs become dinner when I want something quick and light. They come perfectly packaged for solo meals, all shelled up, ready for the portion size of your choice. Be sure and look at the date on the carton when you purchase so you get a dozen that will have a life of more than a few days. Don’t forget the option of hard boiling them for salads and lunches.
Start building your egg cooking confidence with scrambled eggs. Pull eggs out of the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before using. The shells are less likely to shatter if they are at room temperature. In my never-ending quest to dirty as few pieces of kitchenware as possible when cooking solo, I scramble the eggs right in the skillet. Turn burner to medium high heat. Add a small pat of butter, margarine or even olive or vegetable oil to your skillet, about a tablespoon. Put skillet onto hot burner and warm it up. Have rubber spatula ready. Crack eggs into the warm skillet and immediately break the yolks with the spatula. Continually move the eggs in the pan with the spatula to scramble. If I am eating toast with my eggs, I will have put the toast down before I started the eggs.
I enjoy fluffy yellow eggs on their own so if I am including a vegetable, I do it on the side. I would drop some baby spinach right into that warm pan after I slid the scrambled eggs out. Or, I would have put some broccoli in the microwave, before I started the eggs. A great feature of eggs is they will take to many seasonings including curry powder, chili powder, or smoked paprika, for example. Be cautious at first, you can always add more seasoning. It is impossible to remove it. A dash of salt is essential.
Then, don’t be afraid, next time, to try sunny side up or over easy eggs. Don’t panic if they break; they can become perfectly tasty scrambled eggs! As before, heat the skillet with the slight bit of butter or margarine but this time, use medium low heat. Again, have your spatula handy. Crack your eggs into the heated pan firmly enough so you get a firm break all the way through the shell but not so forceful that you shatter the yolk. As the whites begin to cook, you want to very slightly tilt the skillet to move the uncooked whites to the edges (edges will be cooking quicker than the interior). You can use your spatula to lift the cooked white while tipping the pan to let the liquid white. A sunny up egg will have a loose yolk but I enjoy it for my toast or potatoes. An over easy egg will firm up the yolk just slightly. Using your plastic turner, flip each egg in the pan after the whites have set. Then, slide it onto your plate.
An 8 inch non-stick skillet will be plenty room for two or three eggs. The care of the pan is important not only to prolong the life of the pan but for the quality of your food. Most important is to not scratch the interior surface. Therefore, do not use metal utensils, ever. A rubber or wooden spatula should be used. Do not put a non-stick pan in the dishwasher. Wash it by hand with mild dish soap and avoid using abrasive scrub pads. When storing, if stacking it with other pots on your shelf, cover the non-stick surface with a layer of paper towel or a cloth kitchen towel to protect it.
When I stopped at my favorite bookstore recently to pick up a Christmas gift for my Mom, I bought two books for myself. So many of the best gifts are the ones I have given myself. Most of them are more of an attitude, the permission to forward. Those random acts of kindness, we hear referred to so often, need to be directed at ourselves. Those of us who live solo often butt up against what may seem to be the norm. We should be kind to ourselves.
Actually, we are the leading edge of major social shifts. Roughly a third of all households hold one person. Virtually half of all meals are eaten alone. We are flying solo but we have chosen where to land. The most dominant part of living solo is that my choices are mine, they are purposeful. I have come to value the calm of my small apartment. I can turn my favorite music up. Or I cannot turn anything on at all. I can write without interruption. Most of us who live alone do so in cities. We have chosen to live alone together. We choose who we want to be with and when. I find my time with friends or family is so much more valued because it is by choice, and not a required chore.
Many food writers and cookbooks extol the virtues of sharing the table and cooking for others. While I don’t disagree with the premise at all, I think they are missing a major part of the narrative. This is not the reality for many people much of the time. Just because we are eating solo doesn’t mean our table is any less vital. We all need to eat everyday but our evolving and ever changing relationship with food will often mirror our attitude towards the rest of life’s challenges.
One of the most difficult things I found to reconcile after the loss, to cancer, of the person I thought I would be spending the rest of my life with, was that food and the act of sharing it was such a large part of our relationship. I was too sad for too long to prepare much, if any, interesting food. But food preparation has been part of who I am for way too long, from helping my Mom prepare food for our family of ten, to working in professional kitchens for almost 20 years, to consistently sharing the table with the same kind, smart man for 10 years.
The independence of living solo allows discovery. Relish the new flavor you just tried or the simple, comforting chicken soup you just made. Savor the evolution of your abilities to form new meals to enjoy. Be kind to yourself when trail mix is dinner. I am thrilled to have created the pages of The Deliberate Pickle to continue the feast we call life. I have discovered a new way to use my culinary knowledge.
M.F.K. Fischer was an American food writer before there was an industry of food writing. Her writing must have been revolutionary 70 years ago. This is an excerpt from her culinary alphabet in Gourmet Magazine in 1948, when she extolled the virtues of eating alone, “A is for Dining Alone,”
Lucullus, the Roman host whose dinners are still talked about for their elaborate menus and their fabulous cost, grew tired one day of dining with other men.
He ordered a meal for one person. When it was served to him, he was conscious of certain slackness: the wine was perhaps a shade too cold, and the sauce for the carp, which certainly was less succulent than usual, lacked that tang for which his chef was justly famed.
Lucullus frowned and summoned the majordomo.
“Perhaps, perhaps,” that official agreed, with a flood of respectful salutations. “We thought that there was no need to prepare a fine banquet for my lord alone—”
“It is precisely when I am alone,” the great gourmet answered, icily, “that you require to pay special attention to the dinner. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.”
Create your own ritual for being kind to yourself. We plan for much more mundane things. The ways we choose to eat and nourish ourselves are crucial to our self-assuredness and the craft and finesse of eating solo. This is an attainable New Year’s resolution.
11/22/17-Spicing up the Kitchen
If variety is the spice of life, then, according to my kitchen logic, a variety of spices can contribute to both the craft and the finesse of cooking solo! Starting with flavors you know already enjoy, whether it’s a Mexican blend in taco seasoning or Italian herbs for pasta, you can build a spice shelf that becomes part of your weekly food preparation. However, buying dry herbs and spices can be frustrating since they often spend far too long on a store shelf, losing their peak flavor.
As with many parts of ingredient shopping, seeking out a specialty shop will yield superior products and knowledgeable shop owners whose passion for food preparation will become beneficial. A company I cannot recommend more highly is Penzeys Spices, https://www.penzeys.com. Their products are highly useful in stocking a kitchen for solo eating. Most of their spices can be purchased in varying sizes, including tiny jars, often less than ½ cup in quantity. These are ideal for small quantity cooking, trying new flavor blends and utilizing them before they become stale.
The quality of their products and customer service is excellent as shown by their growth to 69 retail stores, in 29 states. Their website is tremendously popular. I am not receiving any compensation for my enthusiasm but have been a customer for decades since they are based in my hometown of Milwaukee, WI. Sign up for their on line mailing list and you will receive fantastic special deals on products and lots of preparation ideas.
Their spice blends can have multiple uses. Dehydrated veggies including garlic, onion, peppers, and celery are certainly useful to us preparing solo meals when we don’t want to purchase a large quantity of fresh vegetables that we are not sure if we will use.
Stocking spices will be a useful way to turn basic items into a variety of flavors. A routine comfort food like a baked potato can be varied with various ethnic flavors and preparations. Even when preparing food for one, you will start to bake four potatoes at a time as you expand your planning for future meals.
To bake potatoes, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Wash four medium Idaho or Russet potatoes. Rub the wet potatoes with coarse salt. Place in oven. Start to test after 45 minutes. Bake until a fork that punctures a potato shows that it is soft completely to the middle.
The first baked potato, popped open in its jacket, can be a warming meal by adding toppings and some microwaved frozen broccoli. You many have sour cream and shredded cheese on hand because nachos are already one of your quick options.
The remaining potatoes can be diced into a potato salad for lunches to be taken to work or school, simply by tossing with an Italian vinaigrette, dry basil, salt and dehydrated onion and pepper. Or, they can be refrigerated then later chopped and sautéed with olive oil as a companion to eggs or chicken. My current potato favorites are chili powder and salt or Greek spice blend and lemon pepper.
A crucial step in cooking solo is effectively stocking your kitchen shelves. Having seasonings on hand provides a framework for food preparation that is less of a chore.
11/8/17- Three Essential Knives
Understanding knives, especially the chef knife, could be the most crucial factor in becoming comfortable with food preparation. It is just as important as the novice musician choosing their first real instrument or the Little Leaguer choosing their own first personal bat. When I watch someone use the wrong knife for their food preparation, I can see why they’ve become frustrated in the kitchen.
With these three essential knives on hand, you will be able to chop veggies, cut fruit, slice bread, and complete basic prep like butterflying a chicken breast or pork chop (a future topic).
- A serrated knife, with its blade that is jagged with serrations, is often called a bread knife because that has become its principal use. It is also useful for cutting hard foods such as hard cheeses, such as Parmesan or aged cheeses or for slicing soft whole tomatoes. A good serrated knife is long and is serrated on both sides of the cutting edge.
- A paring knife is a short utility knife that will become the second most useful tool to prepare food. You will use it when you are holding the item you need to cut, in your hand, instead of cutting on the cutting board such as carving the core out of a fresh tomato, or carving around the skin of a whole orange.
- A chef knife or French knife is your versatile, virtually all purpose knife. It is worth investing in a decent chef knife. They can vary widely in price so you decide where to start. This is a time when a well-stocked kitchen store or housewares section of a department store will be useful.
A chef knife with a blade of 8-9 inches long is a good starting point. It becomes such a versatile knife because the blade is both long and wide. A long blade helps reduce the amount of awkward wrist bending. The wide blade makes it easier to produce straight parallel cuts. A wide blade allows for clearance between the fingers holding the knife and the cutting board because your knuckles don’t knock onto the cutting board.
It is important to test drive a chef knife before buying it. You won’t be able to take an onion or a carrot to the store but you will be able to make sure it fits properly into your hand and not feel too heavy. Hold it loosely in your hand, like you are shaking someone’s hand. It should tilt just slightly forward. Your knife needs will evolve as your cooking skills improve and will depend on the routes you take with ingredients. The better your skills become, the more you may find a need for a longer, thinner blade to provide more precision.
A word about knife sharpening: leave it to the experts, for now. When I have taught cooking classes, students often ask me how often to sharpen knives. It certainly depends on how often the knife is being used. For those of us who have used a knife for eight hours or more a day in a professional kitchen, the answer is every day or several times a day. But when we are preparing food for one, it could be once a month or less or more.
Keep in mind that you are more likely to injure yourself with a dull knife than a sharp knife because you will be forcing the knife. If can feel the muscles in your forearm tighten, you are putting too much pressure on your knife and time for a sharpening. When you shop at a grocery store that has a full service meat and seafood counter or are fortunate enough to live close to a specialty meat or fish market, they will most often sharpen knives for customers. If they don’t have a sign posted that says they sharpen knives, ask them. They want customers who have good knives at home who will purchase the delicious items in their displays.
I will refer to these three basic knives often in future posts and will explain technique. Having the right tool for the job is a crucial, confidence building start for enjoyable food preparation. Your chef knife will be your prime ally in the craft side of the craft and finesse of eating solo.
Even with limited kitchen space and often not a lot of kitchen storage, a few pieces of cooking hardware are crucial for success in expanding your repertoire and increasing the variety of foods you prepare for solo meals. For those of us who have worked in professional kitchens, the dollars spent on knives and pots of all sorts can become rather absurd. It almost becomes a competition!
When I cook for myself, I have become expert in using as few pans as possible and messing up as little as possible. The benefit of the dishwashing crew in the busy restaurant kitchen is not there at home! The longer I have been working in kitchens, the more I realize that most of the needs, especially in a home or apartment kitchen can be obtained with just a few pieces of crucial equipment and, hopefully, not a massive financial investment.
What may seem a surprising place to find these kitchen tools is the place you would shop for other common tools: the hardware store. I’m envisioning what was the neighborhood hardware store with the slatted wood floor and the aisle of tiny drawers with screws and bolts in hundreds of sizes. Especially in small to medium sized towns, the hardware store was, and still can be, the destination to go to for all things to purchase for home improvement, including kitchen essentials.
The inflated prices of the specialty kitchen stores will not exist so, for buying kitchen basics, the hardware store makes total sense. The direction you take with your food preparation and the types of ingredients you cook with will determine what tools you need. There are some basics that have multiple uses:
Plastic spatula, or sometimes called a rubber scraper, It can be used on your non-stick skillet when cooking eggs or in a bowl to combine a pasta salad, for example;
Wire whisk– Choose a medium sized whisk, about 8 inches long, that you can use to scramble eggs or whisk together a vinaigrette dressing;
Can opener– Not all canned products are our enemy. In the middle of a Wisconsin winter, I will turn to a quality canned tomato product for pasta sauce;
Pancake turner– A hard plastic, rather than metal, is preferred since it can then be used in a non-stick skillet. It will be useful for flipping a burger or a pork chop or turning that French toast you’re treating yourself to on Sunday morning.
Vegetable peeler– There is a surprising variety of designs of peelers all of whom ultimately peel a carrot or potato. I find the design with a wider handle that is wrapped with a non-slip grip material is most effective.
Stainless steel mixing bowl– They often come in sets of three. A 3 quart, one quart and half quart are helpful.
Measuring cups– A graduated set of one cup, half cup, a third cup and a quarter cup are needed for measuring dry ingredients. They usually come with a long ring keeping them all attached. Also, a two cup measuring cup with the measuring units on the side is used for liquid ingredients.
Measuring spoons– Spoons come in sets with measures of tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon and quarter teaspoon and also usually come hooked together with a ring.
While you are browsing the kitchen aisles of the hardware store, you will likely find ideas to help make the most use of what might be your limited kitchen storage space. Magnetic hooks for your refrigerator could hold your kitchen towel and the sets of measuring spoons and measuring cups that are joined together by a small ring. You may find small drawer units that can add storage where you need it or a revolving rack for your spices that you will learn how to stock.
The staff at the best of hardware stores can be allies in your goal of creating a realistic kitchen where solo meals are prepared with ease. We’ll discuss knives, pans and cookware very soon!
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