Peppermint Heaven

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

bowl with marshmallows glass jar with cocoa mix and mug

Peppermint Marshmallows + Cocoa Mix = Yum

For Christmas this year I gave my nieces hot chocolate mix, made with Droste chocolate and vanilla sugar (sugar that sits in a jar with the spent husks of vanilla beans), and peppermint marshmallows that I made using Alton Brown’s recipe with peppermint extract substituted for vanilla.

It was reportedly a big hit, with special kudos from their cousins who declared it “better than Starbucks” and “peppermint heaven.”

[A friend of mine made marshmallows a few years back while I was visiting her, otherwise I'm not sure I would have attempted these. I don't think I even knew you could make homemade marshmallows before that. But they are not difficult. They are especially not difficult if you have a stand mixer, but even if you don't, it's not bad.

My friend and I were discussing recipes etc. in December when I was trying to decide whether I should make them. She said she wasn't sure if she would do them without a stand mixer. I decided to try it anyway and see how it was. It was fine. It does take a little while but it's easy -- as I said to my friend, you're just standing there holding a mixer, it's not like you're trying to hold a Volkswagen over your head. I looked at it as quiet time, like meditation. I was busy that week, it was a nice break.]

Because of the rave reviews, and because we are in the thick of hot chocolate season, I decided to post the recipes.

Peppermint Marshmallows

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
12 oz granulated sugar (approx 1-1/2 cups)
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp peppermint extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup corn starch

Prepare the pans.

Combine confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly coat a 9×13 pan with oil, or use nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle the sugar and cornstarch mixture into the pan and shake the pan to completely coat the bottom and sides. Return the excess mixture to the bowl for later use.

Place the gelatin into a large bowl along with 1/2 cup of water.

In a small saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Place over medium-high heat, cover and allow to cook for a few minutes, until the sugar has melted. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

[No candy thermometer? Here's how to tell what stage it's at the French chef way.]

Turn the mixer on low speed using the whisk attachment if you have one (if not, regular beaters will work fine), and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the mixer speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and has cooled to lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the peppermint when the mixture looks to be about done, and continue mixing for another minute or so to incorporate.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan.

[Note: The mixture will be VERY sticky, and the process of getting everything out of the pan and smoothed will be somewhat challenging. Just do the best you can and happily enjoy the batter that is stuck to the beaters and the bowl and the spatula as a special bonus for the cook. That's all for you. Yum.]

Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later.

Allow the marshmallow to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Turn the marshmallow out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, roll each square in the confectioners’ sugar mixture to coat all sides. Store in an airtight container.

Alton Brown says these will keep for three weeks, but I’m here to tell you they will keep pretty much indefinitely. They will dry out somewhat, but will still be edible, and will taste fine.

I looked up a few cocoa mix recipes online, and the one that looked best was from Martha Stewart, so I went with that. The only problem was that it makes a huge amount, 92 eight-ounce servings, so I cut the recipe in half.

Hot Cocoa Mix

1 and 3/4 cups sugar
1 and 1/4 cups cocoa
1 and 1/2 tsp salt

Combine ingredients in a bowl or jar, and stir to distribute evenly. Store in an airtight container.

To serve, heat one cup of milk per serving. (Whole milk will taste good. Whole milk with a tablespoon of cream or half & half will taste better. Other forms of milk are an acceptable substitute. Do not attempt with water.)

To each mug, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix. (For a less sweet version, use two teaspoons of mix plus one teaspoon of straight cocoa.)

Pour a tablespoon or two of warm milk into the mug, and stir to make a slurry of milk and cocoa. Then slowly add the rest of the milk, and stir to thoroughly combine.

Top with peppermint marshmallows.

Share with your cousins to make them jealous that you get to drink this all the time and they only get it when they come over to your house.

Alternative Holiday Treats

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

plate with granola bars and Santa

Santa Treats

If you are looking for something to give to whoever you might want to give holiday treats to — friends, neighbors, clients, coworkers, teachers, hairdressers, doormen, elevator operators (everyone needs to go read the John Cheever story “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” when you’re done here) and of course, Santa — and you would like something other than butter-laden, chocolatey-ness to send out into the world, I am here to remind you of the delicious granola bars that smitten kitchen posted a recipe for in 2009 and that I made a few times in 2010 but never got quite right.

I came back to the recipe this year because I was looking for something I could eat in the morning shortly after getting up, on days when I had to be up and out of the house on an accelerated schedule. (The problem with not being hungry for an hour or two after you get up is that if you have to actually get up and get out of Dodge, you get really hungry right in the middle of whatever it is you had to leave early for. And then you are trapped somewhere with no access to food. And that is a bummer.)

After a few more tries with the granola bars, I am now completely in love with them. (I gave some to a friend a week or two ago and told her I was still working on the recipe but that they were pretty good, I hoped she liked them. She emailed a few days later and said she thought I could stop working on the recipe, and could I please send it to her.)

So here’s the latest version, and what I learned.

The first thing I learned is that you should definitely get quick-cooking oats; the ones I made with old-fashioned oats pulsed in the blender or food processor, as the original recipe gave as an alternative to quick-cooking oats, did not hold together. The ones with quick-cooking oats worked much better.

The second thing I learned is that you should follow the instructions and use parchment to line the pan.

I feel like every cookie or brownie recipe I see these days tells you to use parchment, which just seems like a waste of paper to me, just oil the pan like they used to do back in the olden days. But because of the falling-apart problem, I’m going with parchment, because you can pull the whole thing out of the pan and then cut it, which keeps it from falling to pieces when you try to put a spatula under individual squares and pull them out.

So after making those two changes, I ended up with actual granola bars, not granola bar crumbles. Hooray.

And in terms of ingredients, you can mix and match and put in whatever strikes your fancy.


Fruit and Nuts and Seeds

The main downside of these is that nuts are expensive, and some oils and sweeteners too. You feel like you spend a million dollars getting everything together. But if you get a bunch of different things, you don’t use that much of any of them, so you can make a whole bunch of batches with a whole bunch of different things in them. Just keep them all in the freezer until it’s time for the next round. And also you can mix in lower-cost options — sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, coconut — and that helps.

The last batch I made had coconut oil and safflower oil as the oils; honey, molasses, and agave syrup as the liquid sweeteners; dried apricots and raisins as the fruit; cashews, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and coconut flakes as the mixed nuts and seeds; and peanut butter as the nut butter. (The previous two batches had pepitas, which I missed in this last batch; I didn’t realize I’d used all of them up.) And I made it with 1/4 cup of brown sugar, instead of 1/2 cup, because the first few batches felt too sweet for breakfast.

They are much better than store-bought granola bars, and maybe even better than cookies (well, for breakfast, at least). Enjoy!

Granola Bars

1-2/3 cups quick cooking oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or oats processed into flour in a blender or food processor)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup sugar (brown or white)
1/4 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/4 tsp salt

1/3 cup nut butter

1 cup dried fruit
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds

6 Tbsp oil, or melted butter
6 Tbsp liquid sweetener
1 Tbsp water

In a large bowl, combine oats, oat flour, sugar, cinnamon (if using), and salt. Stir to mix.

Chop nuts and fruit into small pieces.

Over low heat, combine sweetener, oil, and water and stir to combine.

Pour combined oil and sweetener mixture over oats. Add nut butter. Stir until everything is mixed together and the oats are coated with oil and sweetener. Add nuts and seeds and stir until everything is coated and uniformly distributed.

Place a sheet of parchment in the bottom of an 8 x 8 inch pan, with enough overhang on the sides to use as handles when removing.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and, using a sheet of plastic or waxed paper between your hand and the batter, press press press until it is all packed into the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until the top is evenly brown.

Remove from oven and let cool. When completely cooled, remove from pan using parchment overhang, peel off parchment, and cut into squares.

These keep well in a closed container (e.g., plastic storage container or cookie tin) for at least a week. I don’t know how they freeze because I’ve never been able to keep them around long enough to need to freeze them.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Hot and Spicy Peanuts

I had total sticker shock in the nut butter aisle at Whole Foods last week.

Peanut butter prices had been rising because 2011 was a terrible crop. But then 2012 was a bumper crop, so I had seen a few articles that said that prices should be coming down, that consumers should see some relief from high peanut butter prices in 2013. But then there was also news about the closure of a peanut butter processing plant due to salmonella outbreak that was likely to affect organic brands, because the kinds of peanuts used in the plant were those used in natural and organic peanut butters (those without added sugar and fat). So then it seemed like that might make some prices go higher instead of lower. But I was still thinking that prices might go down.

The Whole Foods 365 store brand of peanut butter used to be $1.99 and then it was $2.19 and then it was $2.79. That’s a big jump. But still in line with peanut butter prices for comparable products at other stores, and still pretty cheap, so it hadn’t affected how I shop.

I generally like peanut butter in any form — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter cookies, the divine peanut butter cookie, my family Special sandwich – and I really like those peanut butter filled pretzels that Trader Joe’s sells, but I don’t make it to Trader Joe’s all that often and also they are not cheap, I think it’s around three dollars for a small-ish bag. Then at some point I had a revelation that I could just dip pretzels into peanut butter and it would be basically the same thing. Duh. So I started doing that.

Last week I stopped at Whole Foods on my way to work to pick up some snacks, and was thinking that some peanut butter and pretzels would hit the spot. So I picked up a bag of pretzels and headed to the peanut butter aisle and was stopped dead in my tracks by peanut butter at $3.39 a jar. Gah! That’s a twenty per cent jump! Since the last time I bought peanut butter!

I think if I’d been expecting an increase I might have dealt with this better, but I was actually thinking it was going to go down this year. So that really threw me. I decided I didn’t need peanut butter and pretzels after all (I didn’t) and would think about alternatives.

And then that made me think about what lessons were there for shopping on a limited budget. What do you do when the price of something suddenly goes up? What are the options?

You can…

(a) see if there is a brand that is cheaper and buy that instead,
(b) see if there is a different but similar item that is cheaper and buy that instead,
(c) check different stores to see if any of them have the item for less than the store you usually shop at and stock up,
(d) think about whether there is an item that is processed differently that is cheaper, and that you can finish processing on your own to make a comparable finished product,


(e) just go ahead and buy it anyway.

If you always do (e), your grocery bill will just keep going up and up. Most people start with (a) because it’s the easiest. I usually go with (d) because I think that buying less processed, cheaper items and finishing the processing myself not only saves money but also often results in higher-quality food.

An example of this would, of course, be buying dried beans and cooking them yourself instead of buying canned beans. But anything you can buy in a ready-to-eat form and also a raw-ingredient form would apply. Often prices of the raw-ingredient form increase much more slowly than for the ready-to-eat form. It just depends on how much time (and energy) it takes to get to the finished product, and whether that’s worth it to you.

There are some crazy expensive artisanal peanut butters for sale in shops around here, and there was an article in the N&O not too long ago about making your own nut butters starting with raw peanuts, and roasting them yourself, which sounded interesting to me. (As you might have figured out by now, I have a thing for making things from scratch that normal people just buy.)

So then I started pricing raw peanuts and I’m not sure if it would actually be cheaper than buying peanut butter.

Whole Foods had a three-pound bag of shelled raw peanuts for around twelve dollars, so that’s four dollars a pound. The Hispanic stores and Li Ming’s have small bags of raw peanuts in the shell for (I think) around $2 a pound. Stone Brothers & Byrd, which is mostly a garden supply store but also carries traditional Southern foods, sells raw peanuts in the shell in bulk for $2.80 a pound.

Roasted peanuts in the bulk section are about the same price as a pound of peanut butter. Trader Joe’s peanut butter was $2.79 a jar (Whole Foods’ previous price), and I was over there, so I bought a couple of jars. But I don’t like it as well as the 365 brand.

I did buy some peanuts from Stone Bros., and am thinking about roasting them and making peanut butter, but in the meantime, I decided to turn some of them into one of my new favorite things — Bill Neal‘s recipe for Hot and Spicy Peanuts.

If you like the spicy peanuts sold in convenience stores, make these. They are along the same lines, but a million times better, because they are fresh fresh fresh, they don’t have all those preservatives in them, and you can decide if you want them more spicy or more sweet or whatever tastes good to you.

The first time I made them, a couple of months ago, I followed the recipe exactly. The second time, I think I reduced the sugar slightly. This last time, I used three different kinds of Penzey’s paprika — Hungarian sweet, Hungarian half-sharp, and smoked Spanish — along with sea salt, Habanero salt, white sugar, and cayenne. And didn’t measure anything at all.

My strategy now is to mix the seasonings together in a small bowl and taste. When it tastes good — a little salty, a little sweet, a little spicy — it’s ready to go. This is definitely a recipe that you can adjust however you want, and it is very easy. The only hard part is not eating all of them at once as soon as they are cool.

Hot and Spicy Peanuts
from Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking

1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp (or more) ground cayenne
1/2 tsp (or more) sugar
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1-1/2 cups raw, shelled peanuts
1-1/2 Tbsp water

Combine the salt, paprika, cayenne, and sugar and reserve. Heat the oil in a skillet or saute pan over medium high heat. Add the raw peanuts (in their skins), shaking the skillet frequently to prevent their scorching. When the peanuts are golden brown throughout (after 8 to 10 minutes), sprinkle the combined dry seasonings over all and shake well. Carefully, but immediately, pour in the water and agitate to help the flavorings coat the peanuts. Serve immediately or let cool. These will keep for weeks in an airtight container.

Yeah, right. Good luck keeping those around for weeks. That’s all I have to say.

I’ll let you know if I decide to roast the peanuts and make peanut butter. Still on the fence about that.

Yet Again … I’m Doing It All Wrong

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I read an article today in the News & Observer about the “ten habits of happy cooks” — things that people who like to cook have in common.

Do I do any of these things?

Uh, no. I do not.

I do like to cook, though, so I just wanted to put up a short post to say that if, like me, you are unable to make a meal plan, think ahead, keep a running shopping list, and clean while you go (that last one especially kills me, it just does not happen in my life), there is still hope.

My solution is to keep things really simple.

Figure out a few things you like and just make those things. Pick things that are reasonably healthy, that are affordable to you, that you (and the people you are feeding, if you are feeding people other than yourself) are willing to eat on a regular basis, and that are easy to make and easy to clean up.

Things you make frequently are always going to be easier because you don’t have to think so much about them. It also makes shopping easier because you can narrow your focus to the things you usually buy.

When you get sick of eating the same thing, stop making that thing and find something else that is equally good/cheap/ healthy/easy.

And that is my solution. It seems easier than trying to be organized. That just feels like a losing battle.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

truffles in a small bowl

A Tiny Bowl of Truffles

At some point over the winter I ran across a great website called that has recipes for things to make and take with you camping. I like camping as much as the next person (depending of course on how much the next person likes camping), but it’s not something I do very often. The appeal for me of the site is not that it gives recipes specifically for outdoor activities, but that it gives recipes for things that can be made ahead of time and easily taken with you. Think of an eight-hour shift at work as a camping trip and you’ll see where I’m going with this.

I haven’t tried any of the make-your-own dried mixes yet, though I found many of them intriguing. The main thing that interested me were the recipes for healthy snack-type foods. You can’t eat a lot of crap when you’re out hiking, you won’t make it, so most of the snacks involved nuts and fruit and other whole foods. And also they don’t require refrigeration (obviously) and are easy to pack and carry with you.

I did food for the March Third Friday opening at The Scrap Exchange, and the show for the month was an installation by Elsewhere artists from Greensboro. For the opening, they did a live cooking show. They were highlighting foraged and fermented foods (mushrooms, sourdough, kimchi, etc.), so I decided we should have some raw food snacks, and I remembered the Trail Cooking site.

I picked raisin almond bars, which are extremely simple, and nut butter truffles, which looked similar to a peanut butter candy recipe that I make and like very much.

I was planning on splurging and getting cashew butter, even though it costs an arm and a leg, but I started to have second thoughts when actually faced with the SEVEN DOLLAR price tag. But then I took a deep breath and decided it was for a good cause and got it. And I also got peanut butter. And I continued to have reservations about using the seven dollar cashew butter and thought about just doing the peanut butter ones and returning the cashew butter but eventually I overcame my fear of seven dollar nut butter and decided to just Use It.

The original recipe is called Easy Nut and Chocolate Truffles and that is no joke, these are easy. And they are good.

It calls for 1/2 cup of nut butter, 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder, 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons of mini chocolate chips, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. You mix everything together and then scoop out balls and roll the balls in a coating of your choice.

I made two versions.

The budget version had peanut butter, regular cocoa powder, a combination of white sugar, brown sugar, and honey for sweetener, regular-size milk chocolate chips that I chopped up to make closer to mini chocolate chip size, and vanilla extract. I rolled them in unsweetened shredded coconut.

The deluxe version had cashew butter, a combination of regular cocoa powder and dark cocoa powder (Valrhona) that I had left over from the Baked brownies I made over the holidays (which were truly divine — and the spiced version from Smitten Kitchen were even better), the same brown sugar/white sugar/honey combination for sweetener, chopped chocolate chips, and vanilla extract. Then I mixed some of the dark cocoa powder with vanilla sugar that I make by putting the husks of vanilla beans (what’s left after I scrape out the seeds to make vanilla extract) in a small plastic container with granulated sugar and let sit forever.

The budget version was good, the deluxe version was really good.

But what I decided was needed was a super deluxe version. So I made those next. And those were the best yet — richer but much less sweet.

Here’s the recipe:

Cocoa Cashew Truffles

1/2 cup cashew butter
1 T dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T sugar
1-2 T brown sugar
1 T honey
1 tsp instant espresso powder (optional)
2 T chopped bittersweet chocolate (60%-70% cacao) or milk chocolate

For coating
1-2 tsp dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1-2 T vanilla sugar

Combine the first eight ingredients in a bowl and stir until all is combined and the cocoa/chocolate/sweeteners are all evenly distributed. Taste and add more sweetener if you’d like a sweeter confection.

Mix the cocoa powder and vanilla sugar together and put in small, shallow bowl or plate.

Scoop out using a tablespoon or other small scoop (I used a 2 tablespoon coffee scoop) and, using your hands, roll into a ball. Roll the ball around in the cocoa/sugar mixture to coat.

Share with people you like. Or keep and eat all for yourself. No one will know.

Case Study: Ramen

Friday, March 8, 2013

Yesterday at work I started thinking about ramen. Not straight-up five-for-a-dollar grocery store ramen, but not David Chang ramen, either. Something in between.

I had driven to work because I had to go to the post office, so that meant I had more options for stopping points on the way home. Usually I walk, and in theory I could walk to more than one store, but the two stores I generally go to are not in the same direction, so it makes for a long trip, and rarely am I up for that on my way home.

But this time, car. The world was my oyster.

So I stopped at Food Lion and bought three packages of ramen for eighty-nine cents. Then I drove to Whole Foods and considered the options for vegetable and meat additions.

I thought about getting chicken and poaching or roasting it but decided against that, I wanted something simpler. I’m not much of a beef eater at this point, so flank steak or something like that didn’t feel right either. I decided to go with the Other White Meat, and got a small boneless pork chop, around five ounces.

Then I was thinking I should get some kind of greens, bok choy or napa cabbage or baby spinach.

The bok choy and napa cabbage were both HUGE, I knew it would be too much of a challenge for me to use that all up before it went bad, and also they were both $2.99 a pound or something like that, it was going to be way over $5, which is out of my price range for vegetables. Sometimes they have loose baby spinach, you can buy just a handful, but I didn’t see any yesterday. But they did have baby bok choy, so I bought a small one of those for around a dollar. And some green onions for $1.49, which always feels like highway robbery, but I decided to just suck it up this time.

And on the way home, I thought about how I was going to cook it.

And then by the time I got home, I was tired and hungry, so I ate leftovers instead. (Wonh, wonh, wonnhh. You lose. No soup for you.)

But tonight. Tonight! I took a nice afternoon nap and had energy for dinner.

I cut the pork chop into bite-size-ish pieces and marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, chinese rice wine, while I did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. (Things are kind of a mess around here, don’t ask.)

I took a quart of chicken stock out of the freezer, ran the container under water to loosen it, slid the big frozen chunk out of the container into a pot on the stove, turned the stove to medium high and left to thaw.

I chopped the green onions, minced a clove of garlic (from the pantry), grated some ginger root (from the freezer).

I chopped the baby bok choy into bite-size-ish pieces and heated a frying pan in which I’d cooked some bacon earlier in the day and added a little bit of canola oil and sautéed, with some salt and pepper for seasoning. When it was tender but not cooked all the way through, I poured in some of the stock (which was by now thawed), covered the pan, brought to a boil, and simmered until seemed sufficiently done, cooked but not mushy. I tasted and decided to add some soy sauce for flavor.

I heated a little bit of canola oil in a pot, and when it was hot threw in the garlic, ginger, and white part of the onion. Stirred for a minute, when that was fragrant, added the pork. When the pork was browned and seemed more or less cooked, I poured the chicken stock into the pot and tasted and adjusted seasonings — added salt, pepper, chili salt (salt a friend gave me — kosher salt plus some kind of crazy spicy chili, it’s totally spicy, a little goes a long way). Tasted again, needed more … something. Added msg (figured it would not be a true ramen experience without msg) and a little bit of chili paste with garlic. Tasted again. Salty, spicy, good. Brought to a boil, then let simmer.

In the meantime, I cooked the ramen noodles the normal way, boiled in water.

When the noodles were about ready, I added the cooked greens to the pot with the pork and heated those together for a minute. Put the noodles in a bowl, ladled the broth/pork/greens over the noodles, added the green part of the chopped green onions for garnish.

So good.

Not the cheapest thing in the world, because of the pork — around six dollars for two servings (with almost half of that being the pork). But cheaper than going out somewhere for a noodle bowl, and better too.

And these are the kinds of things you can make that aren’t very expensive, and aren’t very hard to make, and use some things you buy fresh (vegetables, meat) and some things you have in the pantry (noodles, garlic, condiments, spices) and some things you have in the freezer (chicken stock, ginger).

And are really, really good.

Pantry Cooking III: More Recipes

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Okay, more with the recipes for making meals from what you have on hand. It just goes on and on.

Another strategy for using up odds and ends is to make a casserole with some kind of pasta, leftover meat and vegetables, and a white sauce to hold it together.

If you have powdered milk on hand, and butter or margarine and a little bit of flour, you can easily make a white sauce.

Basic White Sauce
2 Tbsp butter or margarine
2 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup milk (fresh or reconstituted from dry milk powder)

Melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and stir with a fork or whisk until combined and clumped together and bubbling. (This is called making a roux. I know, so fancy!)

Cook and stir for a minute or two to lose the raw flour taste. Add milk and stir to disperse all of the butter and flour in the milk, and continue stirring until smooth. As it heats up it will start to bubble and thicken, which is what you want.

This is for a medium sauce. For a thinner sauce, use one tablespoon each of flour and butter; for a thicker sauce use three or four tablespoons of each.

You can add up to one cup of shredded hard cheese to it if you want, to make a cheese sauce, and spice it up with pepper, mustard powder, paprika, chili powder, etc. Once you add the spices and you’ve combined it all with pasta and vegetables, no one will even be able to tell it was made with powdered milk. Or you can use fresh milk if you want, that’s fine too.

Note that this is the same technique used to make gravy — add flour to fat, stir together to make a roux, then add liquid, heat and thicken.

You can make milk gravy from chicken fat left from frying chicken and serve with mashed potatoes, or sausage gravy from the fat rendered from cooking bulk sausage. Add the cooked sausage to the gravy when done and serve over biscuits.

You can also make gravy from the broth you get when you stew chicken — add a flour/water mixture to the stock in a 1:2:8 ratio (e.g, mix 1/4 cup flour with 1/2 cup water then add to 2 cups stock) — which you can serve over dumplings or potatoes.

I feel like gravy is a lost art. It gets a bad rap for being unhealthy, and it’s true, its key ingredient is fat, how healthy can it be. Unless you’re out slopping the hogs at the break of dawn every day, you probably don’t want to eat it at every meal. But man is it good. And cheap. And it holds things together to make a meal like nothing else.

Also in the casserole-ish leftover department, you can change things up and skip the pasta and use pastry instead — combine vegetables and leftover meat with a white sauce and a pastry crust, to make a pot pie.

Or skip the white sauce and mix everything up and then make pastry dough to make some kind of meat pie (like an empanada — I use the recipe from the More with Less cookbook, and wrote about it in 2010, with pictures and everything).

Or use potatoes and mix the meat and vegetables with that and fry everything together to make hash. (And if you have some gravy to serve with this, all the better.)

There’s really no excuse for not using up leftovers, there are so many things you can do with them to turn them into a new meal.

I once had an odd assortment of leftovers, including potatoes that I’d cooked when I roasted a chicken, so they were coated with chicken fat and rosemary, and some bacon and scrambled eggs (and honestly I don’t know how I ended up with leftover bacon and scrambled eggs, I think I must have thought I was really hungry and cooked a lot and then realized I wasn’t that hungry and didn’t want to throw them away so I stuck them in the fridge, that’s not something I usually have around). It was Weird Food Night where I eat whatever odds and ends I have, and I mixed together the potatoes and bacon and eggs and heated it up and it was SO GOOD.

The down side of mixing up stuff like that it’s really hard to recreate, so if it turns out to be super delicious you end up being kind of sad about it because you know you’ll never be able to have that exact same thing again. But you get a good meal and you can just try to live in the moment. And once you start making things like that, there’s almost nothing that isn’t worth saving, you can use it all.

You can also incorporate assorted leftover things into quick bread/muffins — things like cookie crumbs, small amounts of nuts, leftover jam, cooked grains — and that’s magical too. I wrote about that in 2010 also, so won’t go into it again here. That technique is also from the Tightwad Gazette. Thank you again, Amy Dacyczyn.

The bottom line is that you want to learn how to be creative in the kitchen and to get away from the idea of needing a recipe to make a meal. Which doesn’t mean that you will never make anything from a recipe again, making a nice meal with things you went out and got just to make a nice meal is enjoyable and you should definitely do that as often as you’d like. But doing that takes time and energy, and you don’t want to have to expend time and energy every time you’re hungry. It also generates leftovers that will go to waste if you’re making a fresh new meal with newly purchased ingredients every day.

The ultimate goal is to develop a repertoire of things you can make that require hardly any time or energy at all, and once you know what those things are, you can work on keeping the ingredients for those things on hand.

So when it’s late and you’re tired and hungry, coming home and going to the freezer and pulling out some chicken and tortillas and vegetables, and heating the chicken with spinach and corn and eating it in the tortillas with a little bit of salsa, and maybe some cheese, feels like less work than stopping somewhere and standing in line and ordering and waiting for your food and bringing home a styrofoam container of food that, despite the styrofoam, will not be hot by the time you eat it, and will not be very good. And will cost ten dollars.

That’s the place you want to get to.

Pantry Cooking II: Recipes

Friday, February 15, 2013

In my last post, I talked about the kinds of food I like to keep on hand most or all of the time. For those looking for a more thorough explanation, or those who like to learn from example, I will give details on a few meals I like to make using those things.

I can almost always make a good breakfast-type meal — omelette or scrambled eggs — with eggs and between one and three of the following add-ins…


in whatever combination sounds good.

One combination I like especially for an omelette is herbed cream cheese (combine about a tablespoon of cream cheese with a squeeze of fresh garlic from a garlic press plus pepper and Herbes de Provence or whatever herbs you have — thyme, oregano, basil, etc.) with diced avocado and fresh tomato.

An omelette is nice but scrambled eggs are almost just as good and easier to make. As far as I’m concerned, scrambled eggs with cheese wins for best/easiest combination, it’s hard to go wrong with that.

The key to good scrambled eggs is to cook over low heat and don’t stir too much, just enough to scrape the cooked part off the bottom and let the uncooked part flow over so it can cook. And then don’t cook too long or the eggs get dry.

If you keep cream or half-and-half around for coffee, try making scrambled eggs with a little bit of that, it’s very good. If I’m not doing that (which I usually don’t), I use a tablespoon of water mixed with the eggs. (I don’t use milk because I can’t tell the difference, I think it’s totally fine with water. I like to save my milk for things that matter.)

Along with the eggs I’ll eat some kind of bread/carb thing…

—cheese grits (with Worcestershire sauce, or, since I’m out of that and trying to use things up, lately I’ve been adding Pickapeppa Sauce)
biscuits with honey or jam
—half a bagel with cream cheese or jam
—toast, but only if I have bread from my neighbors

plus some kind of fruity thing …

—fried apples (peel apple, heat a skillet and add a little bit of bacon grease, when hot, slice apple into skillet and cook until tender, YUM)
—half a grapefruit
smoothie made with frozen berries, frozen banana, juice
—orange slices
—sliced apple or pear

So as long as I have eggs, I have a good meal. And I don’t limit myself to breakfast with that, I’ll eat eggs any time of day or night.

Another technique that is very useful is the Universal Pilaf recipe from the Tightwad Gazette. This calls for the following:

—fat or oil: e.g., olive oil, canola oil, bacon grease, chicken fat, butter, margarine, shortening
—base (aromatic) vegetable: e.g., garlic, onion, shallot, leek or green onion (white part only)
—protein: e.g., cooked or raw chicken, ground beef, ground turkey or other meat; or any kind of canned (or cooked) legume; or tuna or whitefish
—grain: e.g., white rice, brown rice, couscous, millet, quinoa, bulghur, wheat berries
—vegetable: e.g., frozen or fresh peas, carrots, corn, spinach, celery, tomatoes
—liquid: e.g., water, broth, vegetable cooking water, stock
—seasonings: e.g., salt, pepper, basil, oregano, curry powder, chili powder, paprika, etc.

in the following proportion, for approximately two servings:

2 Tbsp fat
1-2 cloves garlic plus 1/2 cup onion (or more, or less, it doesn’t really matter)
1/2 to 2/3 cup protein
1 cup grain
2 cups liquid
1/2 cup vegetable (or more)
seasonings to taste

The basic procedure is as follows:

1. Heat fat in a large skillet, for which you have a lid that fits.
2. When the fat is hot, add the aromatic vegetable (garlic and onion) and cook until the onion is translucent.
3. If using uncooked meat, add it now and brown. If using cooked meat or beans, add to heat through. (If using tuna, do not add yet.)
4. When the meat is browned and/or heated through, add the grain and stir until coated with fat.
5. Add the liquid and bring to a boil. (Add tuna now, if using tuna.)
6. Add vegetables and seasonings, stir, and return to a boil.
7. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until the liquid is absorbed.

How long this takes to cook depends on what grain you use — couscous will be done in 15-20 minutes, brown rice will take closer to 45 minutes, white rice somewhere in between.

My favorite version of this involves ground beef, white Jasmine or Basmati rice, peas, carrots, and curry powder. It is also good substituting cooked chicken for the ground beef, or using couscous or brown rice instead of white rice. (The reason I usually use white rice is because I often make this on Saturdays when I eat a big breakfast then do stuff around the house all day and then all of a sudden realize that I am really, really hungry and I need something that will be ready now now NOW. Or soon, at least. And white rice cooks quickly and I almost always have it on hand.)

This is a really great technique; unless your cupboard is truly bare, you can almost always make something that tastes delicious and is ready quickly. It’s a winner.

The other thing I rely on is tortillas with some kind of filling — you can do a breakfast-type thing with beans and cheese and scrambled eggs or a taco-type thing with corn tortillas and chicken and vegetables (and cheese … and salsa … and …) or enchiladas with spinach and cheese and beans or chicken, or a wrap with cheese and tuna or salmon. Or, or, or. The possibilities for that are nearly endless.

At any point in time, I will almost always be able to very quickly make a good tortilla-based meal out of what I have in the pantry and/or freezer.

I can also usually make a stir-fry with rice or noodles (or leftover rice, as fried rice).

Making a stir-fry is a great way to use up bits and pieces of things that are not enough to make a full meal but that you want to use and not throw away. Even noodles go much further when you stir-fry everything together than when you boil and eat. Two ounces of pasta with tomato sauce is not much of a meal but two ounces of pasta stir-fried together with vegetables and soy sauce feels like plenty.

One version of stir-fry I like a lot is Singapore noodles, using rice sticks and curry powder and whatever vegetables I have around, or yakisoba, which is more of a generic stir-fry noodle thing.

And there’s more, but that’s enough for today. I’ll do a separate post with the rest.

Pantry Cooking

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Okay so I was planning on writing about Amy Dacyczyn’s Pantry Principle, but when I reviewed the article of that name in The Tightwad Gazette, I realized that I don’t actually do what she advocates. I don’t buy everything when it is at its cheapest point and make all meals entirely from my pantry.

I do however rely greatly on my pantry and freezer, and it’s a key part of cooking for less. So I slightly adjusted the title of the post and I’m going to focus on the general strategy of making meals from things you have on hand, because the real trick to shopping and eating for less is … (drum roll, please …)


Because in the words of Schoolhouse Rocky, Knowledge is Power.

The good thing about life in general, and the process of cooking and eating for less in particular, is that you will automatically gain knowledge as you go. The bad thing is that if you haven’t been doing it already, you have no knowledge to start with and it can feel overwhelming.

But remember that being able to shop and cook cheaply and efficiently is a SKILL not a talent. You do not have to be born with the ability to do this, you can figure it out one step at a time and you will get better and better at it until eventually it will be second nature and you no longer have to think about it at all. And you will be able to laugh about how overwhelming it seemed when you first started and all the dumb mistakes you made.

Ha ha ha.


One of the key strategies you need to develop is to be able to make a meal from things you have on hand. (Important note: You do not need to always have everything you ever might want on hand. You do not need to turn into one of those Mormon survivalists with a year’s worth of food in a bomb-proof shelter in the backyard. You just need to be able to make something that you will be willing to eat with what you have available to you at one particular point in time.)

I am not a good decision-maker. In the language of Barry Schwartz in the Paradox of Choice, I am a “maximizer” — I always want to feel like I’m making the very best decision I could possibly make. I am also a perfectionist with OCD tendencies. This is a terrible combination that can make life torture. I am often completely unable to make any decision at all, for fear of making the wrong one.

One of the ways I’ve improved my quality of life is by eliminating vast swaths of options from the realm of possibility, leaving me with a much more limited number of items from which to choose. I do not have to decide what hotel to stay at on vacation because I do not go on vacations. I do not have to walk up and down every aisle of the supermarket thinking about what I could or might or should get because I only have $12 to spend, so most things are not in my budget.

Problem solved.

This is also why I am not a Mormon survivalist with a year’s worth of food in a bomb-proof shelter in the backyard. I would have as much trouble deciding what to do with that as I would dealing with the grocery store.

Less is enough.

You want to have a few meals that you like and can make with simple ingredients that you can then try to make sure you have around most or all of the time.

So what do I like to keep on hand most or all of the time?

In the freezer

• tortillas (corn, flour)
• cooked chicken (roasted and/or poached)
• uncooked chicken, cut into pieces
• bacon • chicken stock
• bananas, unpeeled and individually wrapped
• other fruit (peaches, blueberries, cranberries)
• vegetables purchased frozen (peas, spinach, corn)
• vegetables purchased fresh then processed for freezing (mushrooms)
• ginger root
• tomato paste, wrapped in 1 Tbsp packets
• nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pecans, almonds)
• bagels, sliced in half
• bread, sliced
• bread crumbs
• jam, from my mom

I also like having at least one other kind of meat available in the freezer, sausage or ham or kielbasa or ground beef, because sometimes I’m really hungry and that’s just what I want, pasta with chorizo or empanadas with ground beef or something like that. Sometimes the no-meat thing just doesn’t do it for me.

In the pantry

• canned tomatoes
• dried legumes (chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans)
• canned beans
• canned tuna or salmon
• pasta (fusili, macaroni, spaghetti)
• Asian noodles (rice noodles, rice sticks)
• rice (white, brown, Jasmine, Basmati, wild)
• grains (millet, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, bulghur wheat)
• nut butter (usually peanut, sometimes almond, if I win the lottery I’ll buy cashew butter)
• baking supplies (shortening, flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, powdered milk or powdered buttermilk)
• cornmeal
• grits
• dried fruit (raisins, figs, plums)
• popcorn
• oils (olive oil, canola oil)
• vinegars (Chinese black vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic, white, cider)
• assorted sauces (fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce)
• spices

Then in the pantry or refrigerator I have basic condiments like ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise as well as Asian condiments like chili paste with garlic and hoisin sauce. Plus random things that keep forever like capers and pickles.

I also favor long-lasting vegetables like carrots and cabbage over ephemeral things like lettuce. I try to keep onions and garlic on hand, and it’s good to have some potatoes or sweet potatoes around too.

And these are obviously more perishable, but I almost always have eggs, fruit, and some kind of cheese in the refrigerator.

And also I usually have some kind of leftover something in the freezer, too, soup or pasta sauce or chili or…

And again, I must emphasize that I do not always have every single one of these things around, but I pretty much always have some of them. (Like I said, you just need enough to make one meal, not all of them.)

So that’s what I have around.

And I started to write out specific examples and recipes, but this post got really long, so I split it into two and will put those up separately tomorrow.

On Freezing

Friday, February 8, 2013

I am in the process of finishing a post on cooking with what you have on hand, which is basically a more detailed explanation of the last post I put up, with advice for my friend on eating for less.

It was going to be one very long post but then I decided to split it into two, and then I decided that this part probably should be a separate entry too, and I should just put it up as background. So here it is.

This is a side note about freezing, which I feel is important.

When my mom was visiting once and I went to put something in the freezer, she said, “People who read your blog must think you have a really big freezer.” So I just want to say that I do not have a stand-alone freezer and I do not even have a big freezer.

I used to have a normal-sized freezer that comes with a normal-sized refrigerator but now I have a small European sized refrigerator/freezer and I’m still working on figuring out how best to use it. I have a lot of different things in my freezer, but I have very small quantities of each thing. For instance when I say I have ground beef in my freezer, I might have a quarter pound of ground beef. Pretty much everything is like that. So it might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t take up much space.

I’ve found there to be a few keys to keeping a lot of different small-sized things in a freezer and having them available for use without a lot of prior planning. The main things are to:

A. process items into individual-sized servings prior to freezing, and wrap separately to help keep from turning into little pieces of freezer burn;

B. label things so you can pull out a bag and quickly identify what it is;

C. divide your freezer into “zones” with certain kinds of items always in the same area, so you don’t have to dig through everything any time you need to find something.

In general, I wrap individual serving sizes in plastic wrap or waxed paper. This is important because you need to be able to pull out just what you want and thaw and cook it quickly. For instance you want to be able to pull out a slice of bacon and put it in the frying pan, frozen, and cook it. This will not work if your bacon is frozen together in one giant slab. Same with cooked chicken, tomato paste, mushrooms, bread, bagels.

You need to be able to pull out two slices of bread or half a bagel, which you can put in the toaster, and toast (no need to thaw, you can toast bread directly from the freezer). You want a tablespoon of tomato paste to use in your sauce. You want to pull out enough chicken to make one or two servings at a time.

This is true of pretty much everything.

This does add some time to the whole process, but not much. It takes just a few minutes to measure out your leftovers and tear off some plastic wrap or waxed paper and wrap them up. But it makes things that otherwise would be completely impossible very easy. So don’t skip this step.

In terms of labelling, it’s so tempting to get lazy with that and think you’ll remember what that thing is later but I urge you to not skip the labelling step either, everything looks the same in the freezer. Unless it’s something like bacon or something that’s obvious from the shape what it is. But otherwise you really need the label.

For labels, I use the white tags that I bring home from the grocery store with the bulk bin number written on them. I fold them in half and write the name of the item on both sides, so if it flips over, I can still see the information I need.

If you care about moving through things in an orderly fashion and/or how long you keep things in the freezer (not a big concern of mine, but I know some people pay attention to things like that), you can put the date on there as well.

I try to wrap things up well enough that they won’t be exposed to air and are thus less likely to experience freezer burn. A lot of times recipes will say that something will keep for x amount of time in the freezer but in my experience, things will keep pretty much forever in the freezer, it just might not taste that great by the time you get around to eating it. But it won’t kill you.

In terms of how I store things, my freezer situation is in a little bit of flux right now, I don’t have a great system yet, but my old freezer was basically divided into 12 zones: top and bottom, front/back, left/middle/right. Bottom right back was vegetables, bottom right front was fruit, bottom middle back was stock and sauces, bottom middle front was soups and leftovers. Et cetera. Every type of thing had its own spot in the freezer, so it was easy for me to find what I was looking for among the many nearly identical-looking containers.

This is where getting the new freezer caused problems. It has a different layout than my old freezer and my zones disappeared and I had no idea where anything was. Any time I went to look for anything I had to pull everything out and it was frustrating and annoying and felt really stupid. I decided that the best strategy would be to go through everything there and eat it and start over with a new system. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

In summary, the overall freezing procedure is

1. Take stock of the food item and figure out the best way to process and freeze it so you can use it later. For instance:

Bacon—I pull off a big piece of waxed paper and wrap accordion style with a layer or waxed paper between each piece of bacon;

Cooked chicken— I measure out one cup of chicken and put in plastic wrap and wrap up;

Tomato paste—I measure out one tablespoon and put it in a piece of waxed paper and fold the paper over and flatten to make a little flat disc of tomato paste;

Mushrooms—I sautè in olive oil with garlic and measure out a quarter cup and put in plastic and wrap;

And so on.

(If anyone has specific questions about how I handle certain items, let me know in the comments and I’ll fill you in on what I’ve tried and what worked and what didn’t.)

2. Wrap the processed items in single-size portion (however much you need to make what you are most likely to make with it).

3. Put the wrapped items together in a zipper-top freezer bag.

4. Write on a small piece of paper the name of the item you are putting in the freezer.

5. Put the bag in the freezer in the area where like things are stored.


Don’t forget about that last step.

Wow that turned into a lot on freezing. Sorry about that.

Next up I’ll talk about what kinds of food I keep around, so stay tuned for that.


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