Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cooking: Is it a Chore?

Recently I've had the opportunity to speak with people who feel that cooking is a chore that they feel they should do, but that it is hard to motivate themselves to get going in the kitchen.  I understand this, i've had bad days where getting my butt into the kitchen seemed annoying at best.  Thankfully, if you're cooking just for one or two, there's plenty of techniques you can employ to save time in the kitchen and reduce actual "cooking time."

Getting Started Cooking:

1) What do you like to eat?
2) What are the basic seasoning ingredients in that type of food?
3) What are the basic vegetables in that type of food?
4) What are your protein sources (meats you eat versus meats you don't eat, non-meat sources for protein?)

Basic Nutritional Information:

We are omnivores, so the key to health is diversity of foods.  Be they vegetables, meat, nuts, seeds, whatever--we require diversity in our meals to maintain nutritional health.  As Michael Pollan says in "Food Rules," : "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Vegetables."

The key to doing this easily is having the veggies on hand.  "Eat Food" means not the processed crap.  His guide to that was if you are in a grocery store and your grandma or great grandma were with you--would she recognize it as food?  If she wouldn't--it isn't food.  A good guide.

Around the Kitchen: basic equipment for reluctant cooks--

The stuff that goes on that birthday or christmas, housewarming, graduation, or wedding registry is the stuff that will make your life easier.  For the reluctant cook, the best equipment is the stuff that gets your food done on your schedule.

That is the following:

A Slow Cooker-- put a night (or a week) of food in the cooker in the morning, have it ready by that evening.  There are even some really awesome recipes for overnight oatmeal.  *As a slow cooker and rice cooker do much of the same thing, you can use a slow cooker for your rice.  

A Pressure Cooker -- cuts down on the time it takes to make just about anything.

A decent Coffee Grinder--for nuts --If you need to add a little bit of protein to your daily intake but have a  hard time with this, buy and store bags of nuts, coarse grind them and top oatmeal, muesli, yogurt, cereal, add to cookies, ice cream, turn into a butter for toast, over stir fries, salads, or as trail mix.

Blender--smoothies can be a quick way to get a burst of protein and sugar in the mornings.  Add greens (yeah, I know how that sounds, but you can't taste them) and you can obtain more iron that way, too.  Flax seed?  and you have a dose of omega-3s.

Stainless steel, glass, and BPA-free silicone-- I hate cleaning.  I do it, and I've even gotten better at it over the last few years, but I still hate it.  But if you are a lazy-in-the kitchen person, focus on buying kitchen products that are easy to clean is essential.  Stainless steel and glass don't stain or hold odors or flavors the way wood does.  For artisanal cooking this is not desired, but for easy cleaning and throw-in-a-pot nightly cooking (or semi-nightly cooking) it is highly desired.

BPA-free silicone is for any baking endeavors you might undertake.  Breads and cakes don't stick.  I've been ecstatic about these acquisitions.

Glass storage containers-- these have a higher upfront cost than plastic storage containers, but you can forget a meal in a glass storage container, it can mold and get down-right disgusting and then you can hold your nose, dump it out and clean the glass container and it will retain *no* smell--none whatsoever. Make a mistake in a plastic container and any food you put in it will taste gross.  Glass lasts longer and is more forgiving with lazy-cooking mistakes.

Once you have a few choice items, you are ready to start building a workable kitchen for a lazy cook.  And--it's okay to be a lazy cook.  We all start there, and some cooking is better than no cooking for your wallet and for your health.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Real Food

I have recently read "In Defense of Food," by Michael Pollan.  I really liked it, of course, though there are some things that I would have asked pesky questions about if I'd acquired the same information in a lecture format.

In all, the Real Food movement is mostly in the same direction I've been moving towards.  So I would like Modern Menu to chronicle my journey, shifting away from packaged foods and progressing towards a healthy lifestyle--food first.

What is the plan?

For April:

Protein rich breakfasts
Green leaves in all three meals
Eating more slowly
At least 1 walk a day
Putting my plants in the ground!

I will share recipes as I come by them, and discuss the challenges and learning experience I go through as I make these changes.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Tips: Cooking for 1 with Leftovers

I have heard a lot of people saw they were tired of eating the same thing over, and over, and over.  The problem is not redressing leftovers. This is one of The Whole Home topics, so I won't go into it excessively.

But I will say a few things I have learned when I have cooked for just myself, or myself + guy:

Cook More Not Less

Make it easy on yourself, don't cook things all the way through, but just...most of the way.  A good example is the extra Italian-Style Stuffed Bell-pepper...Stuffing.

I made 4 stuffed Bell-peppers (That's 2 meals for the Guy and Myself) and froze the rest of the stuffing.

What's in the stuffing?

1 package ground turkey
3/4 of a can of Marinara (you can use a whole can, I just had opened the jar to make pita-pizzas)
3 stalks green onion
2 cloves garlic
A few handfuls baby spinach leaves, shredded
2/3 a cup of rice
Basil (I'd prefer 4 to 6 fresh leaves, but I was out)
A dash of Oregano
1 can of sliced olives
1/4 cup Mozzarella cheese

Place seasoning in pan with olive oil, add meat, spinach, olives, rice, marinara, and lastly the cheese = cook till done.

In order to make stuffed bell-peppers, spoon these into bell-peppers (you cut off the tops, rinse the insides to get rid of seeds). Place bell-peppers in a pan that has been coated with an inch of water.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes at 375 degrees.

The Extra stuffing:

Make More Stuffed Bell peppers (The Lazy way)

Or Stuff another veggie, like a tomato (Almost as lazy).

scoop out the insides of the tomato, add it to the stuffing before reheating.

Salt the insides of the tomato, a touch, and let dry for 5 minutes (perfect for the reheating of the stuffing) ladle stuffing into tomatoes. Bake tomatoes same way you would the Bell-peppers.


Make Meatballs for pasta, kabobs, or bento side: Use 1/2 of the remaining stuffing, ball it, and bake or boil it. Freeze the Meatballs until you are ready to use them.

The other 1/2? 

Try adding it to a fritatta, make a casserole, turn it into turkey-burger patties (just like the meatballs, the rice is a stand in for breadcrumbs), turn it into cabbage-wrap stuffing...


Preheat over to 370. Place your leftovers in a frying pan with a metal handle, over some olive oil.  Add 6 eggs, already beaten.

When eggs firm up, transfer to oven.  Bake for 5 minutes. Turn on Broiler, Broil till firm and edges browned slightly (looks like an omelet).


Pick other leftover veggies: (Zucchini, carrots, eggplant, broccoli, all will do fine) Chop them up, simmer in olive oil with a touch of rosemary, till semi soft.

Add a little more Marinara on the bottom of a pan, layer stuffing and veggies like you would a lasagna. Add more cheese on top.  Cook till browned (15-20 minutes), because all the food is partially cooked already.

* Casseroles are not my favorite, but they are supremely simple.

Turkey Burger Patties:

Shape the Remaining stuffing into balls, flatten and fry in olive oil.

Cabbage Wraps:

Blanch cabbage leaves in water.  Warm your stuffing in the microwave.  Spoon mix into cabbage leaves, wrap and let cool.

The idea?  Multiple meals with one mixture, and each of them could taste quite different, dependent on how it's prepared.

And More cooking?

It references the quantity of a single dish (i.e: the stuffing), but also helps you to avoid nightly cooking.  To keep yourself eating well, prepare any of these dishes into meals ahead of time, so you can pop them in the microwave at home or at work.

Suggestions for a Meal?

  • Bell-pepper + veggie soup
  • Meatballs over Spinach and Chive linguine (courtesy Trader Joe's) + shredded bell pepper (the frozen kind, defrosted) with arugula salad (arugula + sun-dried tomatoes + shredded carrots + feta) = awesome lunch
  • Stuffed Tomato + side of broccoli, carrot, cauliflower and baby red potatoes, quartered  
    • (Nuke potatoes in butter/margarine, add them on the frying pan with rosemary, black pepper.  Once the potatoes are starting to soften add the other veggies--if they were frozen, defrost them in the microwave first)
  • Turkey Burger with Spinach Salad
  • Casserole with Cesar salad, or the veggie mix mentioned above.
  • Cabbage Wraps with fingerling carrots, celery, your choice raw snack-veggie, tzatziki sauce (or a spinach &artichoke dip), whole grain crackers + grapes  (light summer lunch). 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Weight of The Nation & My Health Food Kick

For those of you who haven't seen this, spend the time watching this  It takes awhile, so I'm just going to embed the first half of the first one.  But if you are a parent, you really should watch them all.  While this information is important for everyone who wants a long and healthy life, these trends have particularly dire ramifications for today's children.

You can stream the rest here.

But one of my take-away messages is that cooking is essential in the home.  While I have always cooked, we have gone on a serious health food kick since watching this series. I have been buying exclusively whole-grain tortillas, pita, and bread. With the one exception being a bag of hamburger buns.

We already eat exclusively lean meat (chicken and turkey) and only occasionally eat ham and fish. But eating well and eating healthy: these are essential.

If you eat enough veggies, and keep your grain and protein down, I doubt you'll ever have an excess of calories.  But I'll expand on some recipes to help eat well, easily, and healthy all at once.

What are your thoughts on the video?  And if you have seen  the rest of the series what do you think?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

To Breath New Life into an Old Blog

I haven't posted in awhile, due to...partially...a whole slew of life-reasons.  One mild crisis I've had is the realization that cooking is my hobby, not photography.  So I am constantly cooking and constantly forgetting to take pictures until the first bite has made it into my mouth. Then the picture is ruined.

Step-by-step pics will never be something I can pull off effectively, though I strongly admire the bloggers who can.

I cook.  I eat.  I will do my best to have some pictures, but this blog won't ever be overloaded with them.
I understand, for a lot of people this is a turn off, and I won't be offended if I learn people have stopped following because my style isn't their cup of tea.

I am a writer with a hobby. So the text, and the quality of food is more my deal.

Next, I have a very different way of cooking, a sort of old-fashioned way that does not live well in our scientific time of precise measurements.   I cook by feel.

This takes practice, but once you have it down, you can put together a meal by instinct.

Another issue that I have is limiting myself to recipes.  Cooking is part pf a lifestyle choice.  I, like many Americans, I'm sure, are electing to adopt old-fashioned ethics to cope with the modern world.

What is this?

Waste reduction, reuse, etc.

Many places in the world do this sort of thing without effort, but in America, we have grown up with a different sort of training. So we have to retrain ourselves to live the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did, with a few notable (technological) differences. We have to relearn frugality, relearn resource management, and relearn how to live within our own physical environment without causing irrepressible harm to the resources we count on for food, clothing, and the roof over our heads.

So in this blog, I think I will expand the nature of my discussion, and perhaps move more in-line with my infant project I am beginning with a friend.  We're calling this project: "The Whole Home."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bulk Buying & Berries

We pay for convenience in this society. It is no secret. However, it is a sentiment that comes with a definite abundance of wealth. Currently, a lot of us (myself included) are feeling that wealth is no longer something to be counted on. So I am of the mind to rely more on my own hard work than someone else's. Mine: I can control what goes into my food, guarantee its healthiness and minimize my overall expenses.

So while grains are the most common bulk foods, what do you do when you have perishables? And how hard is it to preserve fruit, veggies and such?

My favorite option is freezing.

As we plug on toward the end of berry season here in Northern California, my favorite bits of summer will vanish from the farmer's market. However it is the best time to buy berries in bulk at your local market, or right off of the farm.

To freeze berries I use plastic ziplock baggies. I cut up strawberries, measure them into 1 cup portions, and place in the freezer. They keep very well this way.

Rinse blueberries in warm water. Portion out appropriately, and store in baggies. Make certain when you close the bags, you have eliminated as much air as possible.

Blackberries, raspberries can be kept the same.

If you bought a lot of berries, save this task for a day you have at least an hour free. If you have to wait a few days for this, make sure that your berries are rinsed well and stored in the fridge. Do your best to freeze within a week of purchasing them. Realize that if you buy from a grocery store, your timeline is much shorter as your berries have been off the plant for a longer time and so have less life in them.

Plop frozen berries into a touch of water and add seasonings for a quick pie or fruit tart. Defrost in the microwave just enough that the berries can be pulled apart and add to a smoothie. Berries + water + cinnamon, sugar (or honey), nutmeg, vanilla = perfect topping for pancakes,french toast, crepes, granola, yogurt, cottage cheese.

Defrost, drain, and toss with sugar to dry before using frozen berries in baking: breads, muffins, scones.

Berries also make a good topping for ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbet and gelato.

To turn frozen berries into fruit juice, cook in water until your pan is full of liquid only. Then allow to cool, store in fridge.

You can add juice to a liqour and drink--or freeze and turn into a granita, a frozen dessert that chases away a hot day.

To use frozen fruit to make creaming popsicles, cook in vanilla and honey then add to vanilla yogurt, and freeze in cups with popsicle sticks in the center. If you keep the fruit just a bit chunky, it adds texture to the treat. However, you could just make it a strawberry frozen yogurt pop by combining fruitjuice and yogurt, as well.

I love the diversity of dishes I can make with berries. They are small so generally very easy to work with. They are among some of the healthiest of fruits, loaded with antioxidants, and some even help to fight depression. So if you are working on obtaining more fruit in your diet, berries are a good way to go.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Identifying What you will Eat: Food Families

--Picture: Helen Lam

"Food Families" is a term I use to indicate Food-from-region-of origin. I feel that "ethnic" doesn't fit, because...well...look at Chinese cuisine. When you say "Chinese cooking," what regional (or ethnic Chinese) cuisine are you referring to?

"Family" references the relatedness between different regions without lumping groups into an "ethnic" category they don't belong to. (Anthropologist-in-training showing here :P)

After you have maintained a food diary for two weeks, you should start to notice that your choices fall into broader categories.

For instance my own are: Asian, Mexican, and Italian-Mediterranean.

Now that's a wide variety, but it informs me what oils, seasonings, sauces, and grains I need to keep at hand.

Each "Food family" has different-but-related base seasonings. (This is a result of geography, trade, Imperialism, etc) Basically, you have an array of tastes for each of your food families, and "ethnic" options underneath that umbrella.

So you have key items that you keep stocked, because these will allow you to construct meals from any of your "food families."

How do you find out what these ingredients are?

Start with your favorite dishes. Pull up their recipes. Set the recipes side by side. Now take a pen or pencil to the list.

If you have repeating ingredients that show up in at least 2 of your recipes, circle them. These are your stock items, and some of the first things you should buy before meal planning.

Obvious ones are soy sauce for Asian cooking, olive oil for Italian cooking, wine for french cooking, cream and salt for American cooking...

But there are more seasonings and spices than the "obvious" ones. And sometimes these even "cross" families. Like basil, sherry, honey, garlic, onion, salt, sugar, and canola oil.

If there is a seasoning option that you can use "in place of" another ingredient, and the replacement ingredient is in line with other dishes--use the replacement. This means that you keep that "replacement ingredient" on hand, and maintain you "stash" effectively.

Effective management of these base ingredients makes all meal planning possible.