Is it a crisp, a cobbler, a crumble or something else?

My husband has a fruit tree that was supposed to have been an apricot tree or so the tag attached to it said. As it grew and started to produce fruit, it was clear as it was not an apricot but was an apple tree. (I was sad as I love apricots.) We do not know what kind of apple tree it is other than it is an early producer. This year we harvested a nice supply of apples from this tree and I decided to make a cobbler. Or, was it an apple crisp? Maybe an apple crumble? Do you know the difference and does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although not the definitive word, let’s start with some definitions from The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Rob Herbst.

  • Betty (aka brown betty) – Baked puddings made of layers of sugared and spiced fruit and buttered breadcrumbs.
  • Buckle – This is an old term for a single layer cake made with fruit.
  • Clafouti – A French country dessert made by topping a layer of fresh fruit with batter.
  • Cobbler – A baked, deep-dish fruit dessert topped with a thick biscuit crust sprinkled with sugar.
  • Crisp – A dessert of fruit topped with a crumbly, sweet pastry mixture and baked until brown and crisp.
  • Crumble – A British dessert in which raw fruit is topped with a crumbly pastry mixture and baked.
  • Slump (aka grunt) – An old-fashioned New England dessert topped with biscuit dough and stewed until the topping is cooked through.

Now, for a bit more detail.

Betty is a dish similar to a crisp or crumble but has a breadcrumb topping that is layered into the fruit mixture before baking.

Buckles traditionally had a cake-like base with fruit placed on top and as the batter rose during baking, the fruit would fall into it, making the top look “buckled”. Today, the fruit may be incorporated into the batter or sprinkled on top of the batter before baking.

Clafoutis is a dessert with French countryside origins. It is very similar to a buckle in that it has fruit and a batter. Some have a cake-like batter over the fruit while other batters are more custard-like.

Cobbler – This dish seems to date back to the mid-1800s and is generally thought to be fruit baked with a dough. In its origins, it really was a fruit pie and only later came to be defined by a topping either of biscuit-type dough or a cake-type batter. The topping is often just dropped over the fruit in large spoonfuls. When making a cobbler, it is recommended to use firmer fruit as it will take longer to release its juices, allowing the topping to begin cooking without getting soggy.

Crisps have a topping that is a bit crispier and crumblier than cobblers, more streusel-like. This dish dates to the early 1900s in the US. The topping is made of butter and sugar along with a binder. The latter might be flour, oatmeal or a combination. It might also include nuts. This topping bakes up a bit crispy and ends up with a crumbly texture. Because of this, many people will call a crisp a crumble. Crisps are better for your riper fruit and you want to see the filling release its juices and bubble up and into the topping.

Crumbles are similar to a crisp but the topping has a different texture. Oatmeal or nuts are typically not included in the topping, which has a denser texture than a crisp. It is thought to have been created during the time of WWII. Choose fruits similar to those for a crisp.

Slumps/grunts are made by spooning biscuit dough over stewed fruit, which is steamed stove-top until the topping is cooked.

Back to what I made. It truly was a cobbler as it had that cake-like topping. If you want to call it something else, that is fine with me. However, knowing what type of topping you want will help you to find the best recipe for you.

Canned Milk Products

I was making homemade ice cream this week and my recipe called for a can of evaporated milk. That caused me to wonder if the average person knows the difference between that product and the other canned milk product – sweetened condensed milk – and when to use them. Afterall, they are both in little cans that look similar but they are very different products. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let’s start with the definition of milk. According to the FDA, “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows … that shall have been pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized.” All of us know what milk is and where it comes from but have you ever defined it like that? That’s government-speak for you.

The different types of milk and other dairy products vary by their milkfat content. Here are the percentages of each kind from the highest to the lowest fat content. This will help you make decisions about substitutions for the canned milk if necessary.

  • Heavy cream – not less than 36% milkfat
  • Light whipping cream – between 30% and 36% milkfat
  • Light cream – not less than 18% milkfat
  • Half and half – a mixture of milk and cream to create a product that is between 10.5% and 18% milkfat
  • Whole milk – not less than 3.25% milkfat
  • Reduced fat – about 2% milkfat
  • Low fat – about 1% milkfat
  • Skim/fat-free – essentially no fat

Evaporated Milk

To make this product, fresh milk is simmered until the liquid is reduced by about 60%. This results in a product that is concentrated and creamy. The cooking process breaks down the milk proteins (caseins), which means it is less likely to curdle in your recipes.

According to the FDA, it must contain not less than 6.5% milkfat. It is homogenized and contains vitamin D. The addition of vitamin A is optional. It is processed by heat to prevent spoilage.

It will be sweeter than regular milk as the natural sugar in milk, lactose, has been concentrated during the evaporation process.

This type of milk is often used to give a creamy texture to dishes such as sauces, macaroni/cheese, mashed potatoes, puddings, fudge, etc.

It can stand in as a substitute for regular milk in recipes by adding an equal amount of water. However, it will cause a deeper color with a slightly sweet, caramelized flavor. So, it may not be something you want to use for your bechamel sauce.

If you do not have a can in your pantry, you can use a fresh dairy product. Use the milkfat content info above to pick a suitable choice. You may also use a mixture such as for one cup of evaporated milk, mix ¼ cup cream with ¾ cup whole milk.

Another alternative is to make your own. All you have to do is to simmer milk until the volume is reduced by about 60%. It can be stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to 10 days.

Condensed Milk

This is also known as “sweetened condensed milk” and therein lies the difference between this product and evaporated milk. Sugar to the tune of 40-45% is added to the milk. As it is boiled down, it becomes very thick and caramelized.

Due to the sugar, this product is mostly used in desserts such as puddings and sweet custards. It is also a key ingredient to Thai iced tea. In baked goods, it provides tenderness, moisture and flavor as well as adding color to pastry crusts.

According to the FDA, it must contain not less than 8% milkfat. It is pasteurized and homogenized and contains vitamin D. The addition of vitamin A is optional. The sweetener must be added in sufficient quantity to prevent spoilage.

Because of the sugar, it cannot substitute for evaporated or regular milk. Once again, though, you can make your own. There are different recipes but here are two.

  1. Mix ¾ cup sugar, ½ cup water and 1⅛ cup dry powdered milk and simmer until thickened, stirring frequently.
  2. Heat ⅓ cup + 2 Tbsp evaporated milk or regular milk with 1 cup sugar and 3 Tbsp margarine/butter until sugar dissolves.

Because both of these products are shelf-stable and have different purposes in the kitchen, it is a good idea to have some available rather than substituting. Once opened, just keep the left-overs in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. Do you have some in your pantry right now? I hope so!

Great Meals in a Hurry!

Fall seems to be such a busy time of the year for many, especially for parents as the children are back in school with all that entails including a myriad of activities. It may seem very difficult to get a home-cooked, healthy meal on the table. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to give you some ideas that might help.

Although a lot of us do not like to hear this, the number one piece of advice is Meal Planning. It sounds like a chore and will take some time and thought but will help you in the long run. Meal planning is simply deciding what you are going to make for the upcoming week. Once you know what you want to make, you can ensure you have all the ingredients on hand. So, when Tuesday comes, you do not have to wonder what you are going to make; you already know and you already have everything you need in your pantry/refrigerator.

If you need help planning your meals for a week, there are plenty of websites that offer weekly meal planning suggestions. Even my local supermarket sends out such an email each week. You may want to consult more than one as you probably won’t like all the suggestions from just one site.

Here are just a few to get you started but there are plenty more out there.

  • Prep from Eating Well
  • Whole Foods Market offers what they call the Easy Weekly Meal Plan
  • Tastes Better From Scratch has premade plans and also offers an option for you to customize the plans from their repertoire of recipes.
  • King Soopers offers Weekly Meal Recipes

As part of your meal planning, have your recipes (if using) ready to go. Have a folder for printed copies. Bookmark recipes that you find online so you can find them again easily.

You can’t make great meals if you do not have a stocked pantry/freezer/refrigerator. Once again, there are plenty of Pantry Essential lists available with suggestions for what to have on hand at all times. Here is one I wrote.

Planning ahead also allows you to take freezer items out to thaw either the night before or the day of your meal.

When you have the time, cook ahead. Make larger batches and freeze in dinner-sized portions for future use. When you are really short of time, grab for one of your own make-ahead meals rather than a store-bought one.

When it comes time to actually cook, speed up the process with some simple techniques.

  • Cut for speed – rather than cooking whole chicken breasts, cut them into strips or cubes. They will cook much faster. Rather than roasting an entire pork tenderloin, cut it into small medallions and cook quickly on the top of the stove.
  • Multi-task – while your potatoes/grains are cooking, get organized to cook your meat. Don’t waste “down” time. While a dish is simmering, wash a few dishes, wipe down your counters, etc. Clean up will be easier and quicker if you do it along the way rather than waiting until the end of the meal.
  • Embrace pan sauces – making a pan sauce is quick and easy and can transform your meat into something special and something different each time you make it. See this prior Cooking Tip on how to make a pan sauce.
  • Utilize eggs – eggs are not just for breakfast. Eggs are nutritious and cook so very quickly. Whether they are used in omelets, frittatas or just fried, they can make a very easy and delicious dinner. Make them your own by adding cheese, veggies, bacon/sausage, etc.
  • Consider dinner salads – boil some eggs before you leave for the day and put them in the refrigerator. For dinner, put them on top of a large plate of greens, veggies, cheese or whatever toppings you want.
  • Make grains ahead of time – although many starch/grains don’t take that long to cook, some of the whole grain ones might take a bit longer than you wish. If you are making something that takes under a half-hour, just put it on to cook as soon as you get home. For the longer cooking ones, make large batches when you have the time. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few days and for longer storage, you can freeze them.
  • Consider Bowl Meals – See this Cooking Tip for how to quickly put together Bowl Meals, a tasty, healthy and colorful meal choice. Some do call for a bit of veggie chopping. If you do that ahead of time and store in the refrigerator, putting the bowls together is a cinch, especially if you have those grains stored in your refrigerator.
  • Make it Pizza Night – if you make a simple pizza dough and freeze the dough balls, you can have a fun dinner on the table quickly. Take the dough balls out of the freezer in the morning. Top as desired, bake and see the smiles at the dinner table. I always have a bag of pizza balls in my freezer for those busy nights when I need a simple dinner.

What about you? What are your favorite strategies for speeding up meal prep? Do you have a favorite meal planning site?

Let me know!

Tomatoes — Heirloom or Hybrid?

It is Tomato Central at our house right now due to the proliferation of what is growing in my husband’s garden. (If you live in my area and want buy some, let me know.) I find the number of tomatoes he grows humorous as neither one of us is a fan of fresh store-bought tomatoes. I love a good pasta sauce or using them in other ways but not to just eat them fresh. However, as he has branched out to grow heirloom varieties, I can now enjoy a caprese salad or a tomato tart. All these types of fresh tomatoes and what to do with them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

There are two main types of tomatoes – Hybrid and Heirloom. Hybrids are intentionally cross-bred by the plant breeders. This produces tomatoes that are more disease-resistant, have longer shelf lives, better yields, uniform appearance and so forth. Like so much fruit (and veggies), they are bred to give the consumer what “looks” good, not necessarily what tastes good. They are the main type of tomato that you will see in the supermarket.

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been saved and passed down through the generations. Farmers would save the seeds from the best fruits and then use them to grow more. It is said that some varieties can date back 100 years or more.

The reason that many people rave about heirloom tomatoes is that they think they have superior taste. I can personally attest to that but I suppose it depends on your taste buds. They can look unusual, both in color and shape. Note that the term “heirloom” is unregulated. It is one of those terms that has become popular and growers want to jump on the bandwagon. So, try to buy from someone you trust or grow your own.

If you are a gardener, here are a few pros/cons to help you decide what to grow.

Heirloom Pros

  • Flavor—many think it is superior to hybrids
  • Variety – more variety in color, size, texture
  • Tradition – continuing to propagate heirlooms contributes to greater genetic diversity in tomato plants
  • Replanting – the seeds can be reused season after season with the fruit being identical to the parents

Heirloom Cons

  • Appearance – although some people love how different they look, others do not
  • Yield – they have a lower yield than hybrids (You would never know that by looking at my husband’s garden!)

Hybrid Pros

  • Growing conditions – they are more disease- and heat-resistant and manage harsh weather better than heirlooms
  • Yield – these produce more fruits per plant than heirlooms
  • Consistency – with hybrids, you are going to get a more consistent and dependable harvest

Hybrid Cons

  • Replanting – the seeds cannot be replanted as they have been cross bred and the next season, they will not be like the parent and could be very undesirable.
  • Flavor – as the growers try to make better growing fruit, it often loses in the flavor department.

There are thousands of heirloom varieties. One gardening site listed almost 300 varieties with interesting names such as Aunt Ginny, Banana Legs, Black Sea Man, Cosmonaut Volkov, Cream Sausage, Hillbilly, Potato Leaf, Nebraska Wedding, Pink Ping Pong, Sugar Lump and Ten Fingers of Naples.

Every list of “favorites” you look at is different. Therefore, let me just list those my husband is currently growing in Colorado.

Amish Paste – this heirloom is thought to have originated in the 1870s with the Amish people in Wisconsin and later in Pennsylvania. It is fairly large and known for its juicy flesh. Although they can be eaten fresh, they are a superb sauce tomato.

Beefsteak – the most common heirloom with several varieties. There is also a type of hybrid by the same name. The tomatoes are large, about a pound or more.

Black Krim – named for the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, it is another beefsteak type tomato that is dark red and salty.

Brandywine – relatively large tomatoes with an excellent flavor and a pink hue. We grow both a red and yellow variety.

Cherokee Purple – a beefsteak tomato with a green shoulder and purplish/blackish interior.

Mr. Stripey – these huge, beefsteak-type tomatoes are very pretty due to their red and yellow coloring. The background color is yellow to light orange, with red spots/stripes radiating out from the stem. They have a high sugar content, making them particularly delicious.

Old German – this tomato was a favorite of Mennonite families from the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, and dates back to the mid-1800s. It is in the beefsteak family and can grow to a size of almost 2 pounds. It is bi-colored, featuring golden yellow and reddish stripes.

There is another way to categorize tomatoes apart from heirloom vs hybrid.

  • Cherry tomatoes – these are round, bite-sized and juicy tomatoes. They are great for salads, snacks or kebabs.
  • Grape tomatoes – sources say they should be half the size of cherry tomatoes but I must say this doesn’t appear so when you look at the boxes in the supermarket. They are more oblong in shape, are less sweet than cherry tomatoes, contain less water and a thicker skin. You may use as you would cherry tomatoes.
  • Roma tomatoes – these are larger than either grape or cherry and are also known as plum tomatoes. Due to their sweetness and juiciness, they are good for canning or sauces.
  • Beefsteak tomatoes – large and firm enough to hold their shape when sliced. They are often preferred for sandwiches or burgers although they can also be canned or used in making a sauce.
  • Tomatoes on the vine – sold still attached to the vine, which prolongs their shelf life. Good for sandwiches, canning and sauces.

So, what’s the deal with San Marzano tomatoes? This is probably one of the best known tomato varieties and is a type of plum tomato. The authentic San Marzano is grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in volcanic soil, leading to a lower acidity and a sweeter flavor As with so many things, there are fakes out there. In the supermarket, you will mostly find them canned. Look for the D.O.P label Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino.

Chefs will claim that this is the preferred tomato for making sauce due to its sweet taste and thick flesh. When put under taste tests, neither Cooks Illustrated nor Serious Eats found it necessarily lived up to its hype.

Most of us in the cooking world have been taught that you should never refrigerate tomatoes. It turns out that this is one more of the culinary myths that has been perpetuated through the years. (For more culinary myths, see the two Cooking Tips I wrote on this subject. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Taste testers have found that tomatoes do fine in the refrigerator and the shelf life is prolonged by up to 5 days. If they have been cut, put them in an airtight container to prevent them from picking up odors.

Another myth is that you need to remove the seeds. You do not. They do not affect the flavor but if you want them removed for aesthetic reasons, then go right ahead.

What is the best use for heirloom tomatoes? Use them in a way that they can shine such as caprese salads or tomato tarts. Here are two great recipes. The first is a Tomato & Basil Tart, which is like a caprese salad baked in a pie crust. The second is an Heirloom Tomato Tart with a custard filling. Both are excellent.

What about you? Are you a tomato lover? Have you tried heirlooms? What is your favorite?

Pears — worth waiting for!

Summer is now winding down and fall is soon to arrive. That makes me sad – not because fall is not a beautiful time of the year, but because it portends the arrival of winter. Anyone who knows me knows that winter is not a happy time for me. Back to fall, though. One of the nice things about fall is fall produce. Pears are one of my favorite fall fruits. That wonderful fruit is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Since we see pears in our stores year round, we may not realize that they are at their peak in fall. As with so many kinds of fruit, there are many varieties out there but we only see a few at our local market. Let’s look at some of those that are easy to find as well as few that aren’t.

Anjou

This pear is short, squat, very plump with almost no neck. It’s skin is smooth and the flesh is firm but juicy. It is not overly sweet and has a hint of citrus. It comes in both red and green varieties. Although they differ in appearance, they are very close in flavor. The red ones are really more brownish than true red.

It is a great all-purpose pear and can be eaten raw, baked, poached or even used in savory dishes. It is available October through May.

Asian

Also known as the “Apple Pear”, this pear looks and tastes quite different than what we normally think of as pears. Other names include Japanese pear, Korean pear and Taiwan pear.

It is apple-shaped with matte light brown skin that is a bit gritty and rough. Biting into them, they will be crisp, almost crunchy and not very juicy. The flavor is sometimes described as a cross between jicama and apple.

These are best to eat raw in salads and slaws and are available August through February.

Bartlett

Another name for this popular pear is Williams Pear. They have delicate, thin skin, a sweet taste and a soft/juicy bite. You can find both red and yellow varieties. Although one of the favorites in terms of pear flavor, they are also very perishable.

These are wonderful for eating raw. They do lose their shape in cooking and so are good for using is sauces or making pear butter. Most canned and processed pears are Bartletts. They are available July through early winter.

Bosc (Kaiser Pears)

The skins of this type of pear may have a mottled brownish appearance with rough patches of light brown and a greenish skin. They are taller than other pears with an elongated slender neck and are fairly firm even when ripe. The flesh is white, sweet and crisp but can have a grainy texture. They have a strong pear aroma.

It can certainly be eaten raw, but since this pear holds its shape when cooked or baked, it is often called for in recipes where you want that shape such as in a poached pear dish, a pear tart or a salad. It is available September through the winter.

Comice

This pear has a wide, round shape with a bit of tartness and a soft texture. It is often called the “Christmas pear” due to it’s popularity in holiday gift baskets. It has yellow-green skin and often has a red marking on one side that comes from the sun hitting that spot. It has a delicate skin with sweet and creamy flesh.

It is delicious when eaten raw due to a fruity flavor and aroma and is particularly suited to pairing with cheese. It does not have the grittiness that you can get with some pears. It is also good for baking and is available September through February.

Concorde

These are a brighter green than other pears and have longer necks. They are very juicy and sweet. As they ripen, they develop a mellower and vanilla-scented flavor. Their flesh retains its color and doesn’t brown much when cut.

They are good for eating raw and for cooking as they retain their shape. They are available September through February.

Forelle

These are smaller oval-shaped pears and are known by their “lenticels”. As they ripen, their yellow-green skin turns bright yellow and red freckling/lenticels appears. They are very sweet and delicate.

They are available October through February.

French Butter

This is a European variety that is great for pear butter. They start off green and turn golden yellow as they ripen. They can be quite sour and tough if not ripe. Once fully ripe, they become juicy and soft with a slight lemony flavor.

They are available September through December.

Seckel

Another small pear (one or two bites) with firm flesh, they are great when you want to show off the whole pear such as in poached pears. The color ranges from pale green to deep red. They are more tart than other pears and can have a somewhat bitter taste.

They can be eaten raw, cooked or even canned. They are so small that that they can be preserved whole and are available September to February.

Starkrimson

These pears have a deep red color and a mild flavor that is a bit floral and sweet. They are available August through December.

Taylor’s Gold/Gold pear

Related to the Comice pear, its skin is a light golden brown and it is very aromatic. It is almost round with golden-brown skin. The flesh is sweet and juicy. They are great for making jams, jellies and sauces.

USAPears.org has a nice graphic rating pears on texture and taste. Here is a summary of this graphic.

Pear varietyTexture from crisp (1) to soft/juicy (10)Taste from sweet (1) to very sweet (10)
Green Anjou76
Red Anjou76
Bartlett108
Red Bartlett108
Bosc23
Comice910
Concorde410
Forelle41
Seckel23
Starkrimson108

When picking out pears, choose ones with smooth, unblemished skin and that are firm to the touch. Check for ripeness by gently pressing the neck and if it gives a bit, the pear is ripe. Pears do not fully ripen on the tree. (An exception is the Asian pear, which does ripen on the tree. They do not soften or get sweeter after picking.) Once you bring them home, allow them to ripen on the counter at room temperature, which may take 3-6 days. Once ripe, use within a few days or put in fridge. Put Asian pears in fridge right away.

Most pears do not change color was they ripen. The ones that do are:

  • Bartletts – turn from green to yellow
  • Red Bartlett and Starkrimson – turn a brighter red as they ripen
  • French Butter – turn from green to yellow
  • Forelle – turn bright yellow with red lenticels

So, what do you do with pears? I think the best thing is to eat them raw. Here are the best pears for that purpose.

  • Anjou – firm, mild flavor, juicy
  • Asian – crunchy, mild flavor
  • Bartlett – very juicy and among the sweetest of pears
  • Bosc – crisp with delicate sweet flavor, very pear-like
  • Comice – less grainy than other pears, clean, bright pear flavor, sweet, soft, juicy. Some say it is the absolute best pear to eat raw.
  • Concorde – juicy, vanilla-like flavor, smooth texture
  • French Butter and Seckel – make sure they are fully ripe

If you want a pear that keeps it shape when cooked/baked, Bosc is the best option but Anjou, Concord and French Butter can also work.

If you want a pear that falls apart, choose Bartlett. A nice option is to use a mixture of Bartlett & Bosc allowing you to get the best of both worlds.

When cooking with pears, they can be peeled or not. Some peels are smoother and some are rougher. Also, some peels get tougher when heated. Complementary spices to use are cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

Typical preparations include:

  • Poached in wine, syrup, fruit juice, water
  • Baking – tarts, pies, cakes
  • Jams, preserves, chutneys
  • Since they are related to apples, pears would be a suitable substitute for apples in recipes
  • Slice and toss in a salad. One of my favorites is a spinach & pear salad with a maple-bacon vinaigrette.

I wish it were easy to find all the different pear varieties in my local market. Right now, I can get Anjou, Asian, Bartlett, Bosc, Concord and Comice. What about you? What’s your favorite? What can you get where you live?

The World of Summer Squash

As with so many gardens this time of the year, ours has begun to produce beautiful summer squash. My husband only grows two kinds and they are the two you see most commonly in the supermarket – zucchini & yellow crookneck squash. There is more to summer squash, though, and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip. I will discuss a few of the varieties although the list is not exhaustive.

I am pretty sure you won’t be able to find all of the following varieties in your supermarket. At my local markets, I can buy zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, chayote and tatume. You may find a larger selection at a farmer’s market and you can certainly grow most of these.

Chayote

With a somewhat wrinkled shape and a light green color, this variety is slightly sweet with an apple- or cucumber-like flavor. It may be put into a salad, marinated, pickled, grilled, sauteed or used in soups.

Cousa

This variety of summer squash is shorter and squattier than zucchini. It is lighter in color and may be striated. It has very thin skin and is a bit sweeter than zucchini. Because of the shape, they are great for making stuffed squash boats.

Pattypan

This squash comes in a variety of shades from white to yellow to green as well as different sizes. They are also known as “scallop squash” due to the scalloped edges. The smaller ones take very well to the grill but are also good when roasted or sauteed.

Round zucchini

Also known as Eight Ball zucchini. they taste just like regular zucchini but are shaped more like a grapefruit. They are great for making stuffed squash just as you would stuffed peppers. Another fun use is to spoon out the insides and use as a bowl in which you serve soup.

Tatume/Tatuma

A Mexican heirloom squash also known as calabacita or Mexican grey squash. Some look like a lighter green zucchini and others are more round in shape. No matter the shape, this variety is sweeter and more flavorful than zucchini. Use just as a regular zucchini.

Yellow Crookneck

This is what most of us call yellow squash and can be either straightneck or crookneck. They are bright yellow and the skin can be either smooth or bumpy. They have the best texture if under 6 inches in length. Flavor is mild and similar to zucchini. A popular use is in a summer squash gratin, especially when mixed with green squashes.

Zephyr

This squash is two toned, yellow on top and pale green on bottom. It is a hybrid between yellow crookneck, delicata and yellow acorn squash. They are perfect for slicing into rounds or making into zucchini noodles. They have a somewhat nutty flavor.

Zucchini

This is the squash most people think of when you say summer squash. They are thin skinned with firm flesh. The smaller ones may be eaten raw but may also be grilled, sautéed or grated into zucchini bread.

As you pick out your summer squash, look for ones that are firm, vibrant in color and heavy for their size. Avoid wrinkled skin or soft spots. Pick smaller squash (aim for under 8 ounces) as they will be more tender, less watery and more flavorful.

When you get the summer squash home, store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to about a week or two. Some experts say they will keep longer if put in a plastic bag with one corner open to promote air circulation.

If sliced and blanched, they can be frozen and kept that way for up to a year. It can also be grated and frozen to use later in zucchini bread or muffins. Note, though, as it thaws, it will accumulate liquid, which will need to be drained.

My favorite way to prepare summer squash is to toss them in oil and Italian seasoning, sear in a grill pan or a cast iron skillet and then serve with a grating of Parmesan cheese. What is your favorite way?

Fresh Lemon Substitutes

In a prior Cooking Tip, I wrote about Lemons, different varieties and their uses. If you do not have the fresh fruit available, are there any suitable substitutes? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

If your recipe calls for lemon zest, Better Homes & Gardens suggests trying the following although they do caution that you will not get the same flavor as you would with fresh zest.

For 1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest, try one of the following.

  • ½ tsp lemon extract
  • 2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lime zest or other citrus zest

When it comes to using bottled lemon juice rather than fresh, there aren’t too many side-by-side taste comparisons.

Cook’s Illustrated tried making both lemon curd and lemonade with packaged products. Although none were ideal, they found that ReaLemon lemon juice from concentrate and True Lemon crystallized lemon juice both were acceptable.

A news organization did a taste test among five of their staff where they used fresh lemon juice or one of the substitutes in seltzer water. Only two of the five correctly identified the cup with fresh squeezed juice. However, the fresh juice was preferred for flavor overall.

The other consideration is the ingredient list. For fresh lemons, there is only one ingredient – fresh lemon juice. I looked at the ingredient list for different brands of lemon juice products at my local market. This is what I found and it should help guide you if wish to buy one of these products.

Kroger —lemon juice concentrate (water, lemon juice concentrate), sodium metabisulfite (preservative), lemon oil, sodium benzoate (preservative)

Italia —lemon juice, lemon oil, potassium metabisulfite as a preservative

Santa Cruz — organic lemon juice

Lakewood — organic lemon juice

Minute Maid frozen lemon juice – 100% lemon juice from concentrate

Tantillo — lemon juice (99.94%), essential lemon oil (0.12%), potassium metabisulfite (0.06%) (as a preservative)

ReaLemon —lemon juice from concentrated (water, concentrated lemon juice) and less than 2% of sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite (preservatives), lemon oil

I try to always have fresh lemons available. If kept wrapped in plastic in the produce drawer in the refrigerator, they will last quite a while. Alternatively, zest and juice the lemon and store them separately in the freezer. I am not a fan of the packaged products for dishes in which lemon is a predominant flavor although they can work in a pinch when you only need a small amount.

What about you? Have you ever done a taste test? Which do you prefer?

Foraging for Food

During our time in living in Albuquerque my husband and I visited Silver City, New Mexico. While there, we dined at a restaurant called The Curious Kumquat. It was known as a “foraging forward” restaurant. It was an excellent place to dine that featured many dishes composed of ingredients that were obtained by foraging. The chef, Rob Connoley, has also written a cookbook, Acorns and Cattails, in which the recipes feature “ingredients that any home cook can forage, grow, or hunt.” Have you ever foraged for your food? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Have you ever taken a hike and eaten some of the wild-grown berries? My husband has been known to screech to a stop when he sees blooming elderflower along a country road. He picks it and then makes delicious elderflower cordial. That is foraging. Of course, it is much more than that and one needs to be very careful about what one eats in the wild. There are edible and poisonous plants that look very similar. And, we all have been taught about being careful of mushrooms growing in the wild.

Here are some rules that I have gathered from foraging experts. These presume that you are foraging only where it is legal to do so.

  • Seek the help of an experienced forager. Look for foraging clubs or seminars that might be in your area.
  • Familiarize yourself with what grows in your area – herbs, trees, weed, etc. Learn to positively identify them.
  • Learn to identify poisonous plants.
  • Use good foraging guides and cross reference between them. As I mentioned, there are look-alike plants that you do not want to confuse.
  • Do not eat anything that you cannot positively identify as safe.
  • One expert’s mantra is “Assume Nothing, Test Everything”. He warns that you should not eat any wild plant unless you are 150% (yes, that is correct) certain of its identification. Even then, he recommends testing it to ensure you do not have an allergy or sensitivity to it. Here is what he calls the “Tolerance Test”.
  • Begin with easily identified foods such as dandelions, nettles, strawberries and blackberries.
  • Only pick as much as you need and never take all the plants of any one kind in an area.
  • Do not pick in areas that are subject to pollution such as roadsides or near commercial farms.
  • Harvest at peak time for the particular plant. This is when the flavor and aroma will be best. Good guides will be your helper in this regard.
  • Harvest early in the morning. (This is also good advice for cutting the herbs growing in your own garden.) This is when the essential oils are highest.
  • Make sure you properly cook what you forage and use only those parts of the plants that are edible. For example, whereas ripe, cooked elderberries are edible, the bark, stems are roots are considered poisonous.
  • Consider cultivating wild edible plants in your own garden

This map will tell you what might be available where you live. Just as with all produce, there are seasons for wild edible plants. Here is one website that lists what is available at certain months although not all of these items will be available everywhere.

Do you forage? Let me know.

What do those food dates mean?

If you were to look through my pantry or refrigerator, you would certainly find some items that were beyond their “Best By” dates. Would I find the same if I snooped through your pantry? What do these dates mean and are they really that important? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

You may not realize this but according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), they do not require any food dating apart from infant formula.

So, why do we have these dates? Manufacturers provide dates to help consumers and retailers determine the quality of the food, not the safety.

They go further and state that “Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor. You’ll know when you open the package if the food has lost quality. Many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety”.

They continue by explaining that “foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat. So, if you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Use it to make chili or tacos. The seasonings and additional ingredients can make up for loss of flavor.”

There are different terms you will see on food items that need some clarification.

Sell By – This date is more for retailers than consumers, telling them how long to leave something on the shelf. After this date, many stores put these items in the Bargain section. You should regularly look through this section in your store as you can get some perfectly safe food items for great prices.

Best If Used By/Before – This date tells you that the food may be of higher quality or have better flavor if you use it before that date.

Use By – Manufacturers use this date to tell the consumer when to expect the product to be at its best quality and you might expect some deterioration in quality after this date.

Freeze By – A date that tells you when to freeze a food item to retain its quality.

Now, these recommendations presume that you are handling and storing the food items properly. If you do notice any signs of spoilage such as off-odors, flavors or texture, it should be thrown away.

Another interesting tidbit from the USDA is that what causes food spoilage are molds, yeasts and bacteria. Viruses do not cause foods to spoil as they cannot grow in food. As for bacteria, there are what are called pathogenic bacteria, which are the type that cause illness. There are also spoilage bacteria. The latter causes food to spoil but do not cause illness.

There are all sorts of charts in books and online with recommended storage times for different food items. An easier way is to the FoodKeeper website and app from the USDA. Just input the item and it tell you how long you should keep it. For instance, if you input Apple Cider Vinegar, it tells you

For freshness and quality, this item should be consumed within:
Indefinitely
if in the pantry from the date of purchase

The USDA also tells us that it is fine to donate items past their printed dates. As they say, “The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes but the products should still be wholesome if not exhibiting signs of spoilage. Food banks, other charitable organizations, and consumers should evaluate the quality of the product prior to its distribution and consumption to determine whether there are noticeable changes in wholesomeness.” For more info on this topic, see this link on their website.

I hope this information makes you feel better about not throwing away every food item that hits its “best by” date. There is way too much food waste going on in our country and this Tip may help you decrease that just a bit.

Jam – Freezer or Preserved?

My husband has been harvesting beautiful and delicious fresh strawberries from his garden lately. Although they are great to just eat out of hand or make into some yummy dessert such as strawberry shortcake, we have more than enough to also make strawberry jam. I thought I would use this Cooking Tip to talk about the differences as well as the pros/cons between preserved and freezer jam.

Preserved jam is the type you see on store shelves. You cook your fruit mixture making it to your taste and preferred thickness level. It is then spooned into sterilized canning jars, sealed with lids and placed in a pot of boiling water for a specified amount of time. At the end of that time, the sealed jars are carefully removed from the water and set on a rack to cool. As they do, they seal, signified by a little popping sound.

Freezer jam on the other hand is either not cooked at all or only briefly. Generally, the fruit is mashed, sugar is added and left to macerate for a while before adding pectin. The jam mixture is once again placed into sterilized jars and sealed. However, rather than preserving it by placing it in the boiling water, it is cooled and stored in the freezer.

Preserved jam

Pros

  • It is shelf stable and does not need any refrigeration until it is opened.
  • It is thicker and more jam-like as it sets up better than freezer jam.
  • It has a smoother consistency than freezer jam.

Cons

  • It is more labor-intensive to make.
  • Because of the cooking process, the resulting jam is darker in color and has somewhat of a “cooked fruit” taste.
  • It requires more sugar than freezer jam.
  • You need to very careful to ensure the jars/lids seal properly.

Freezer jam

Pros

  • It is easier to make than preserved jam.
  • It requires little or no cooking, depending on the recipe.
  • Because it is not (or only slightly) cooked, it retains the bright color of the fruit.
  • Because the sugar used is more for sweetness rather than preserving, you generally use less sugar.
  • The jam may be put in any container that is meant for the freezer.
  • Perhaps the biggest pro is that it has more of a natural fruit taste. Because it is not cooked, it just tastes “fruitier”.

Cons

  • It can take up significant freezer space.
  • It results in a thinner jam.
  • If you are using a no cook recipe, the sugar and pectin might not fully dissolve causing a slightly gritty consistency.
  • It is not as good for gift giving as it must remain frozen, or at least refrigerated.

No matter which type of jam you wish to make, this is not a product where you can just “wing it”. For proper consistency, taste and safety, you really need to follow a tested recipe. The recipes contain four critical ingredients – fruit, pectin, acid and sugar.

Fruit is obviously needed for color and flavor.

Pectin is necessary for gel formation. Some fruits may be naturally higher in pectin and thus, not require additional pectin. Other fruits, or if you are making freezer jam, will need to have pectin added to the mixture. There is a type of pectin called “low or no sugar” pectin. It is used when jam makers want to put less sugar into the jam. Rather than using sugar to gel, it uses calcium. It will give you a thinner, less sweet but fruitier result.

Acid assists with gel formation as well as flavor. The right amount is necessary to set the pectin. Again, follow the recommendation from the recipe.

Sugar is vital for gel formation and flavor. It also acts as a preservative as it inhibits the growth of bacteria.

I remember the first time I tasted freezer jam and could not believe how much brighter and more fruit-like it tasted. Although, as noted above, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of jam. Which do you like?