Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Veggies can be exciting!

We are now on to Tip #4 in this series of Cooking Tips on cooking/eating healthy. In this Tip, I want to talk about a very important part of everyone’s diets – Vegetables. We all should be eating more veggies but it would help if we could make them a bit more exciting without sacrificing nutrition.

All veggies are high in important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also high in fiber while being low in sugar, fat and sodium. There are some differences, though, in vegetables. Veggies can be divided into starch and non-starchy. Starch breaks down into glucose in our bodies and these veggies are higher in calories than non-starchy and lower in fiber.

It is recommended that we eat all types of veggies but we should consume more of the non-starchy, especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Non-starchy vegetables contain only a small amount of starch. Here are some of the most common. One caveat – beets and carrots straddle the line between starch and non-starchy. So, if you are trying to decrease your intake of starchy veggies, you should limit these two items.

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Greens (Collard, Kale, Mustard)
  • Green Bean
  • Jicama
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Pea Pods And Sugar Snap Peas
  • Peppers
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Salad greens
  • Summer Squash (Yellow, Zucchini)
  • Tomato
  • Water Chestnuts

Starchy veggies contain more starch but they also have abundant nutrients. Some examples are:

  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Lentils
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter Squash (acorn, butternut)

The best form to eat vegetables are either fresh and frozen. Frozen is a great option as they are picked at the height of ripeness and then quickly frozen. Be careful, though, that the frozen package you pick up does not contain a sauce or seasonings. These often contain added sugars and sodium. Watch out for canned vegetables as they also often contain sodium and sugar. As I have said in my prior Tips in this series, you should become adept at reading the nutritional facts labels. Make sure the only ingredient on the label is the vegetable.

Unless you are eating canned or frozen veggies, you need to clean them. The USDA recommends washing your produce under cold running tap water to remove any dirt & reduce bacteria. If there is a firm surface, such as on apples or potatoes, the surface can be scrubbed with a brush. Do not use detergent or soap as these are not approved for use on foods. You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce. Note that the recommendation is just for plain water. You don’t need any special type of produce spray. If you really want to do more than just plain water, make a mixture of 1 part distilled white vinegar to 3 parts water. This is really not necessary, though.

There is a bit of debate over washing pre-washed, bagged greens. Although some recommend washing these items, many others say you are more likely to introduce contamination from your kitchen by doing so. Also, any pathogens left on pre-washed greens are probably so tightly adhered that washing them again in your kitchen is probably not going to do anything. The latter is the opinion of the USDA.

What about peeling your veggies? It is generally accepted that the peels are full of beneficial nutrients that you will lose if you peel them. So, if you are able to just scrub your veggies and eat/cook them without peeling, you are better off. There are some peels, though that are just too fibrous to eat or they are too difficult to clean properly. In that case, wash them first and then peel them. By washing them first, you are not transferring debris/pathogens from the outside to the inside. Most pesticide residue can be removed by washing. However, if you are concerned about this, peeling will give you an extra measure of comfort.

Now that we know which veggies we should eat often, which ones we might limit somewhat, and how to clean them, how do we make them tasty? There are those people, like my husband, who just love veggies in the purest form. If you are not one of those, let’s look at some ways you can increase your interest.

Having a salad every day is one of the healthiest habits you can form, whether it is before dinner each night (as we do) or as the main part of the meal. It is a great way to get a variety of veggies in one dish. Start with a mixture of greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, microgreens or more. Add in fresh veg such as celery, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers and green onions. One drawback for me in making sure we eat salads every day is all the prep – slicing and dicing all those ingredients. Something I do to make this easier is to prep ahead for a few days. If I am making a salad for Monday night, I also set out small bowls for the next three nights. I then cut up enough veg for each of those nights and put them in the small bowls. Now, for the next three nights, I just have to put my greens in a salad bowl and dump in the contents of those bowls of precut veg. Voila – instant salad!

Sometimes we will eat our veggies raw but other times, we want them cooked. Cooking veggies can alter them in the following ways.

  • Texture – caused by the fiber in the veggies
    • Fiber is made firmer by:
      • Adding acids such as citrus juice, vinegar or tomato products.
      • Sugars – this is more often used when cooking fruit
    • Fiber is softened by:
      • Heat – the longer you cook veggies the softer they become.
      • Alkalis – this is why you do not want to add baking soda to your veggies as it will make them mushy.
  • Flavor – flavor can be lost in the cooking liquid and with prolonged cooking times
    • Cook your veggies in as short of time as possible to limit flavor loss.
    • Some veggies where a bit of flavor loss is preferable is with strongly flavored veggies such as onions, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and rutabagas.
  • Color – there are white, red, green & yellow/orange veggies
    • White
      • Potatoes, onions, cauliflower
      • Other veggies may not be white on the outside but are on the inside. Examples are cucumbers, zucchini and celery.
      • Acid helps to keep the whiteness. So, if you are cooking your veggies in water, add a small amount of lemon juice.
      • Cooking for shorter amounts of time helps preserve the color.
    • Red
      • Red cabbage, beets
      • Acids turn them brighter red.
      • Alkalis turn them blue or blue-green.
      • Over-cooking leads to loss of the red color.
    • Green
      • Acids lead to loss of the green color.
      • Overcooking turns bright green veggies to an unappealing olive green.
    • Yellow/Orange
      • Carrots, corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes, some bell peppers
      • Yellow & orange pigments are very stable. Acids and/or alkalis do not cause much of a color change.
      • Overcooking can dull the color.
  • Nutrients — nutrients are often lost by overcooking or cooking in a lot of water.

The main ways of preparing veggies (other than eating them raw) are boiling, microwaving, steaming, sauteing, grilling or roasting. Here is a colorful guide from Cooksmart.com showing you which veggies do best with which methods of cooking. The same website has a great section on how to prep veggies if you are not familiar with how to get them ready for eating.

Boiling

This is not the best method as it is so easy to overcook the veggies and much of the flavor and nutrients can be lost in the water.

Steaming

This method leaves your veggies crisp and there is less loss of flavor. It works great for porous vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower.

Microwave

This is one area where your microwave is a useful tool, especially (but not exclusively) for frozen vegetables. A few minutes in the microwave and your veggies are ready for the table.

Sautéing

Sauteing is a great way of cooking veggies as it allows you to get some color on them. You can use a nonstick pan or you will need to add a bit of oil if using a regular pan. Heat your pan, add a small amount of oil and heat until hot. Before adding the veggies, add some aromatics such as shallots, garlic, or ginger. These will add great guilt-free flavor to the veggies. After sautéing the aromatics, add the veggies and cook until done. If the pan gets too dry during the cooking process, you may add a splash of water/broth. Add a bit of salt to taste as you are cooking and, if desired, finish with some acid such as lemon juice. Optional toppings include a grating of parmesan or pecorino cheese, nuts or seeds.

You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing.

You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing

Roasting

Roasting veggies requires you to preheat the oven and takes longer (~30-45 minutes) than other methods. However, as moisture is driven off in the oven, it does concentrate flavors and leaves you with crispy edges.

Something that is helpful to get crispy results is to put your sheet pan in the oven as you preheat it. That way, your veggies start to cook and sizzle as soon as you put them on that hot pan. Oven temperature recommendations vary but are usually pretty hot — 400° to 500°. I will prep my veggies, put them in a bowl, season them with salt and fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme) and toss them in a small amount of olive oil. You can even add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Carefully remove the hot pan from the oven, add the veggies and roast until tender and crisp.

Grilling/Charring

I am not a fan of most grilled foods and so, we do not own an outdoors grill. However, I do like to grill or char veggies stovetop. For that, I use either a grill pan or a cast iron pan. After preheating the pan, I add the veggies and cook them until they are brown and just a bit charred. I normally toss them first in a small amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. When cooking them on the pan, space them apart so they will char. If you place them too close together, they will steam, which is not the result you want with this method. I especially like this method for zucchini and Brussels sprouts.

None of these methods require you to add anything to the cooked veggies before eating. However, you can consider a small grating of a flavorful cheese such as parmesan, pecorino or asiago or a sprinkling of nuts such as slivered almonds. Just to be sure to watch how much you add. Some like to add a pat of butter (although this is a saturated fat) or a drizzle of olive oil. You can get butter-flavored olive oil or herb-infused oil for more flavor.

I hope this Tip will encourage to eat veggies every day whether it be in a salad, as a side dish or even both. They can be extremely tasty and are certainly a necessary part of a healthy diet.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Oregano – not just one herb!

I had a friend visiting and I took her to my favorite spice shop, Savory Spice, to restock her spice pantry. One of the items she wanted was Oregano. I asked her if she wanted Mediterranean Oregano or Mexican Oregano. She looked at me strangely and asked about the difference. She said she did not know there was more than one kind. Since she is a great cook, I figured if she didn’t know this that maybe many of you did not know either. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What most cooks think of as oregano is probably the Mediterranean version. It is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae.

Mediterranean is a bit of a generic term for all types of oregano grown in that region. Different varieties include Greek, Italian and Turkish. Most supermarket versions will not specify what type it is but good spice shops will often list that information. The most common is probably Greek. It is typically known as the “true oregano” although some will also apply that term to the Italian variety.

Mediterranean oregano in general has a robust flavor with sweet, minty and peppery notes. It will, however, vary somewhat in taste depending on which variety it is. Some may be more bitter, sweet or peppery than others. Greek is said to be the most savory and earthy, Turkish is the most pungent and the Italian is the mildest. The latter is actually a hybrid of sweet marjoram (also a type of oregano) and common oregano.

Mexican oregano is native to Mexico, the southwestern United States and Central America. It is part of the Verbenaceae family, to which lemon verbena also belongs. Its flavor is different than Mediterranean oregano. It has pungent, citrusy flavors with a peppery note and a subtle licorice undertone.

When do you use which variety? Well, if you have read many of these Cooking Tips, you will know I do not have many hard and fast rules. However, the best results happen when you pair the particular variety to the cuisine of that geography.

Therefore, you would use the Mediterranean variety when you are making those dishes. It pairs well with flavors such as onion, garlic, basil, flat-leaf parsley and thyme. It is especially known for its use in Italian dishes including pizza & pasta sauce, herb butters and Italian vinaigrettes.

Pair your Mexican oregano with other spices such as cumin, chili and paprika. Use in dishes with Mexican or southwest-type flavors such as chili, enchiladas or salsa.

One last tidbit about oregano. Chefs generally prefer fresh herbs over dried herbs in many preparations. However, oregano maintains excellent flavor when dried. In fact, many feel that fresh oregano is too pungent and they prefer the dried.

Did you know that there were different types of oregano? Do you always use just one or do you switch it up depending on what you are cooking? Now that you know the differences, I hope you will feel much more comfortable using this wonderful herb!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

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?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

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?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The Many Colors of Bell Peppers

I have written a prior Cooking Tip on chili peppers in which I discussed many different varieties. In this Tip, I wanted to talk about the pepper we use most commonly in our kitchens – the bell pepper.

Bell peppers are great for adding not only flavor but also color and texture to your dishes. The one thing they do not add, though, is heat as they rate zero on the Scoville heat chart. You will see them offered in different colors for varying prices. Just what is the difference?

The most common colors you will see are green, red, yellow and orange although rarely you might see brown, white, purple and even striped. The difference in color has to do with the stage of ripeness along with the varietal of the pepper plant.

All bell peppers start out green and change color as they mature. Depending on its varietal, when it is ripe it may become yellow, orange, red or one of the more unusual colors. Some varieties even remain green when ripe.

The taste of a bell pepper also changes as it ripens and changes color. Many people think they do not like bell peppers because they have only tasted the unripe green one. Those are more grassy and even bitter as compared to riper peppers. As they ripen, they become sweeter and lose the bitterness. It is almost like a different fruit. (Yes, even though we think of them as vegetables, they are botanically classified as a fruit.)

When using bell peppers, you can easily substitute one color for another. The only caution I would add is that using an unripe green pepper in place of the riper colored ones will alter the taste. However, swapping out red for yellow and so forth will not change the taste. It will, though, change the appearance.

The nutritional value also changes with the ripening process. Although all bell peppers are a very healthy fruit, as they ripen, they do develop higher amounts of some nutrients such as vitamin A & C, lycopene, and lutein.

When choosing bell peppers, pick ones that have a firm skin without wrinkles. Look at the stem; it should be fresh and green. They should feel heavy for their size. Avoid peppers with any kind of blemishes.

Green peppers will have a longer shelf life because they are less ripe. They will also be less expensive since the colored ones have had longer time on the vine, which necessitates more care. Do not let that discourage you from buying the colored ones, though, especially if you think you do not like bell peppers because you have only tasted green ones. Store them whole and unwashed in your refrigerator produce bin.

I love the ripe ones raw on a salad but they have many other uses such as stuffed peppers, sausage and peppers, made into a romesco sauce and many others. Do you have a favorite use? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tender, Flavorful Baby Greens

My husband has been growing greens all winter long in his greenhouse. Now that it is warming up, he has begun moving things to his outdoor garden. Although he grows many wonderful items, I just love the baby greens. I have written a prior Cooking Tip on lettuces as well as on microgreens. In between these two categories is the subject of this Cooking Tip – Baby Greens.

In the growing stages of greens, it all starts with the seed. When this germinates, it is called a sprout. As the sprout puts out its first leaves, it becomes a cress. These first leaves are called “cotyledons” and are not true leaves. One source compares cotyledons to baby teeth and true leaves to adult teeth. After this cress stage, the microgreens develop and are anywhere between 2-4 weeks old. As the plant continues to develop and put out true leaves, the result is baby greens. Although there is not a true distinction between microgreens and baby greens, for our purposes we will think of baby greens as older and more developed than microgreens. And, they are smaller versions of the fully developed plant. Any type of green can be harvested at a “baby” stage. For a list of types of greens, see my prior Tip on lettuces.

Baby greens are very tender and flavorful. For some greens such as lettuce and spinach, there may not be too much difference in texture and flavor between the baby version and the mature plant. In other heartier greens such as kale, the baby version may be much easier for some people to eat since it is going to be lighter in flavor and more tender.

Arugula is interesting in that its baby form is different in shape than its adult form. Younger arugula is more oval in shape rather than the typical branched shape of older arugula. Baby arugula has a less intense flavor than the adult counterpart.

According to farmers, “microgreens” and “baby greens” are not true botanical terms but are applied to these products for marketing purposes. There are other labels you will see at the store that are also solely to get you to grab their particular box of greens. Here are some examples from my supermarket. Your neighborhood store may have different varieties. To know what to buy, just look at the list of greens to see whether it contains anything you do not like.

Power greens – these are generally mixtures of baby leaves of, among others, chard, kale and spinach.

Mixed salad greens – these give you a variety of color and texture and include greens such as romaine, arugula, frisée, radicchio, mizuna and chard.

Baby spring mix – also termed “mesclun”, this is similar to the mixed salad greens and contains a mixture of lettuces, chard, spinach, arugula, frisée, tatsoi, lolla rosa, mustard greens, radicchio and beet tops. Some spring mixes may also contain herbs such as cilantro, parsley and dill.

50/50 salad blend – this is a mixture of half spinach and half baby spring mix.

Protein greens – distinguished by the addition of sweet pea leaves, it also contains other baby greens such as spinach, bok choy, kale and mizuna.

What do you do with baby greens?

  • Make a simple salad with your favorite vinaigrette. I normally use a mixture of what my husband has harvested. It might be mature lettuce and spinach along with baby greens and microgreens or it might be just baby greens. Rarely are you going to make a dish with just microgreens.
  • Some of the sturdier baby greens such as chard and kale might be gently sautéed and served with a warm, light sauce.
  • Layer them with similar flavors such as tossing pea greens in a pea salad made of different types of peas.
  • Use them as a garnish for soups or entrees.

There is a debate on which is healthier – microgreens, baby greens or mature greens. I am not sure I really care as I know that they are all healthy and we should all be eating more greens. Eat the ones you like. Eat a variety. Try them in new preparations. We have so much choice nowadays. Enjoy them and be creative!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Veggie Color & pH

Besides the wonderful nutrition they give us, vegetables also add great color and texture to our meals. If you are planning on cooking these veggies, you need to be aware that how you cook them will determine how they will look and taste on the plate. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Green veggies

What gives veggies a green color is chlorophyll. This chemical, though, is destroyed by acids, such as lemon juice and vinegar. To maintain the color, cook them quickly in minimal water. Leave off the lid so any acidic elements can escape.

Chlorophyll also has a tendency to turn dull and brown during extended cooking and storage.

Have you ever noticed that canned green beans tend to be a dull olive-brown color, whereas frozen green beans are intensely green? When green beans are canned, the acids that are naturally in the beans are released into the cooking water. Due to the canning process the acids stay in the can, which means they are cooked and stored under slightly acidic conditions. Thus, the darker color.

Frozen green beans, on the other hand, are blanched in water with a neutral pH, which is less detrimental to the color. They are then frozen to preserve their color and freshness.

Cooking in an alkaline environment causes different chemical changes that result in a greener color. As opposed to regular chlorophyll, the compound that results from these changes is water soluble. Therefore, you may see the cooking water turn very green as well. The downside of cooking in an alkaline environment is that the veggies can turn mushy.

White veggies

Potatoes, onions, cauliflower, and the white parts of celery, cucumbers, and zucchini get their white color from flavones. They may turn a brownish-yellow when cooked with alkaline ingredients. An acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar, lemon juice or vinegar, may be added to help neutralize the alkaline environment in which these vegetables are cooked and prevent discoloration. Overcooking can give these veggies a very unappetizing gray color.

Yellow and orange veggies

Carotenoids are the yellow and orange pigments found in carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash. These pigments are very stable to acids and generally retain their color unless they are overcooked. In that case, the color may fade.

Red/purple produce

Anthocyanins impart the red & purple color found in red cabbage, beets, cherries, red and purple grapes. Under neutral conditions, anthocyanins are usually purple. Under acidic conditions, they can become a brighter red. When they’re exposed to alkaline conditions, they will appear more blue or green.

This reaction is reversible in that if your food has changed color due to the addition of too much of an acidic or alkaline ingredient, you may add more acid/alkali to balance the pH, which will reverse the color change. To see a visual of these changes, see this article by Decoding Delicious.

Another point about anthocyanins is that they tend to lose color rapidly during cooking. So, just like green vegetables with chlorophyll, fruits and vegetables with anthocyanins should be quickly cooked with little exposure to water or other fluids.

What does this all mean in practical terms as you are in your kitchen? First, if any these color changes occur, look at the ingredients to see if you can pinpoint the culprit. If you are unsure whether a food is acidic or alkaline, see this chart, which is free of health claims and cautions.

It can also help you improve the color of your veggies. For example, just a small amount of acid will give red beets and red cabbage a bright red color. Have you ever noticed how often cabbage is cooked with tart apples? The acid from the apples will brighten the color.

You do need to be careful about adding acid as it can toughen vegetables and prolong the cooking time. Therefore, if your recipe calls for an acid (lemon juice, tomatoes, vinegar), add just a bit at the beginning of cooking and put in the rest toward the end, after the vegetables have become tender.

If you have ever had your red cabbage lose its red color and turn green, there may be a chemical reaction going on producing both a blue and yellow pigment. When combined, blue and yellow make green. You can prevent this by adding a small amount of acid such as lemon juice or vinegar. If you are making a dish with baked cherries or walnuts, adding just a bit of buttermilk or yogurt may help prevent the discoloration.

There is much more to properly cooking veggies but we will have to leave that to another Tip!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fungi — Great Umami Flavor!

I taught a Thanksgiving cooking class but did a Vegetarian take on it. If you look at many vegetarian dishes, you will see that mushrooms often play a large part in those dishes. I realized that I had never written about mushrooms, probably because they are not one of my favorite foods. I decided it was time to delve into this ingredient and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Mushrooms are a type of Fungus (Perhaps that is why they are not my favorite!). As everyone knows, some are edible while others are toxic. If you are going to forage for wild mushrooms, you need to be thoroughly educated about mushroom types.

They have a rich, almost meaty flavor, making them a great ingredient for more substantial vegetarian dishes. This flavor-boosting ability is due to a high content of free amino acids such as glutamic acid. For a more in-depth explanation of how this can boost umami flavor, see this Cooking Tip. I will first discuss storing, cleaning and cooking. That will be followed by a discussion of the most common types of mushrooms.

After harvest, mushrooms remain metabolically active. This can be slowed by storing them in a refrigerator. They should be loosely wrapped in moisture-absorbing packaging to avoid the accumulation of moisture on the surface, which can lead to spoilage. The recommended methods are to leave them in their original packaging or place them in an open paper bag. Do not store them in a plastic bag.

Mushrooms last 4-7 days in the refrigerator. Some say you can freeze them but they will be mushy when thawed. They freeze better when sautéed first as the cooking process will draw out moisture and concentrate the flavor. After cooling, put them in a freezer-safe container and freeze for up to 9 months. To use, there is no need to thaw but because of the textural changes, they are best used in dishes that are cooked.

As mushrooms grow in dirt, you need to pay special attention to cleaning them. One of those “old kitchen tales” is that you should never wash mushrooms as it will cause them to become soggy and less flavorful. In 2009, on the blog Cooking Issues by the International Culinary Center, they claimed to debunk this myth. They cooked two batches of mushrooms side-by-side. One was washed in water and the other was just brushed off. They note that although the mushrooms do take on water, it all cooks off in the hot pan. More importantly, in a taste test of these mushrooms, the tasters could not tell the difference.

They did notice an interesting event. The brushed-off mushrooms tended to absorb a lot of oil and thus, became greasy. The washed mushrooms did stew a bit until the water was cooked off. However, during this time, they were not absorbing oil. By the time the water was all evaporated, the mushrooms weren’t as porous and so, did not absorb the oil very well. The brushed-off ones started absorbing oil from the moment they were in the pan. In this testing, they cooked the wet mushrooms in a very crowded pan whereas they dry mushrooms were given plenty of room. Even with this, tasters preferred the less greasy mushrooms.

Whichever method of cleaning you use, as with much produce, do not clean them until right before you are going to cook them.

Mushrooms can be used whole, halved, quartered or sliced. Some mushrooms such as shitakes must have their stems removed. The stems of portabellas are also very large and woody. They are normally removed before eating although they can be used to flavor stocks, soups or sauces. For most other varieties, the choice is yours.

As for cooking methods, they can be sautéed, grilled, roasted or even microwaved. The cooking method that develops the most flavor is when they are cooked slowly with dry heat. And, of course, they can certainly be consumed raw.

Types of mushrooms

White button – These are undoubtably the most common mushroom you will see in the markets. They make up about 40% of the mushrooms grown around the world. They are the mildest tasting and can be eaten either raw or cooked. Examples of dishes include soups, salads and pizzas.

Cremini – This is a firm, dark brown variation of the standard white button mushroom. They have a fuller flavor than the white but they can be used interchangeably. Another common name you will see is baby bella as they are a young portabella.

Portabella – These are fully-matured cremini mushrooms. They have very large (4-6 inches) flat caps with fully exposed gills. Because of their dense texture and meaty flavor, they are often used in vegetarian cooking as a meat substitute. Other great uses are grilling and stuffed mushrooms. They are very common in Italian cooking as they give depth to creamy sauces and pastas. As mentioned above, the stems are very woody and are usually removed. The dark gills are typically scraped out and thrown away. Although edible, they do no favors for the appearance of your dish. Another spelling is portabello.

Porcini – These mushrooms have round, golden- to reddish-brown caps with bulbous white stems. The flesh is tender and cream-colored while the flavor is described as earthy, meaty and even nutty. They are available fresh or dried although in the US, it can be difficult to find fresh ones. The dried porcinis need to be soaked in water before using. They can be added to braised meat dishes, ground up and sprinkled onto meat or cooked into a risotto.

Chanterelles – Described as trumpet-shaped with yellowish stems and frilly brown caps. The flesh is delicate and golden with an almost fruity aroma. Their shape leads to accumulation of dirt, requiring a thorough cleaning before consuming. Their woodsy flavor means they work well in souffles, cream sauces, soups, pasta or just sautéed in butter.

Morels – Morels have a distinctive spongy and conical shaped cap, ranging in color from tan to dark brown to gray. The flesh is delicate and spongy and their flavor is earthy, nutty and somewhat spicy. They are another type that traps dirt and so must be cleaned well. They are often just sautéed in butter and served with meat or poultry or added to soups or pasta.

Oyster – These are fan-shaped with cream to gray colored caps (although there are yellow, pink and blue varieties) and short white stem and gills. Delicate in aroma and flavor, they are very common in Chinese cooking for stir-fries and soups. If you use these, be aware that they will take a longer cooking time.

Shitake – These are recognizable by their dark brown umbrella-shaped caps with cream colored gills and stems. The flavor is earthy, woodsy and slightly meaty. As previously mentioned, the stems are tough and should be removed. They come in fresh and dried form with the latter being more intense in flavor. Very common in Asian cuisines, they release an earthy, umami flavor when cooked. They can be sautéed, stir-fried, roasted, sprinkled on pizza or added to soups.

There are, of course, many other varieties. The problem will be in finding them in our supermarkets. You will probably always be able to find button, cremini and portabellas. You can occasionally find some of the other varieties although it might be easier to do so in specialty markets.

Whether you are a forager or just shop for mushrooms in the market, they are an ingredient that can add great umami flavor to your dishes or help you make a substantial and “meaty” vegetarian dish. Have fun with them!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The Wonderful Season of Fresh Corn

We are in the middle of a wonderful season – fresh sweet corn season! It is definitely one of the greatest treats of the summer. Whether you grow your own or buy it in the store or the farmer’s market, you may want to consider not only cooking some for your dinner but also storing some for future use. In this Cooking Tip, we will discuss the best ways to do just that.

Let’s first discuss how to pick out the best corn if you are purchasing it. Contrary to what so many people do in the store, you should not remove the husks before purchasing it. The husks/silks protect the corn and keep it fresher for you until you can prepare it. You may ask how you know it is a good ear if you do not look. First, feel the corn to make sure the kernels feel firm and not soft.

The corn husk should be bright green, wrapped tightly against the corn and slightly damp. Do not choose ones that are starting to yellow or feel dry. Also, avoid any with small brown holes, which could mean insects. The bottom of the corn where the ear was broken off the stalk in the field should not be brown as that indicates it may not be the freshest.

The tassel should be light brown or gold, and slightly sticky to the touch. If you smell it, it should smell slightly sweet. Avoid corn that has a tassel that is dry, black or mushy.

Once you get home, it’s fine to store your corn at room temperature if you’re going to cook it within the next few hours. If you don’t plan on eating it right away, it’s best to refrigerate the corn in the crisper with the husks on, tightly wrapped in a plastic bag.

You may have heard the adage that you shouldn’t pick the corn until the water is boiling. This is based on the concern that corn’s sugars turn quickly into starch after picking. This may have been true at one time but about 25 years ago, corn began to be modified to be much sweeter with a longer shelf life, giving more time for you before its sweetness deteriorates.

When you are ready to eat it, it is time to remove the husks and silk. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully lower the cobs into the pot, cover and return it to a boil. No need to add salt as it won’t penetrate the corn. There are also those that feel salt makes the kernels tougher. Boil for 3-5 minutes or until tender. Some varieties will cook faster than others as will fresher corn.

What do you put on the corn once it is on your plate? Butter, of course! To liven it up a bit, you may want to try an herb butter, a chipotle butter or some other type of compound butter.

If you want to keep the corn for later use, think of freezing it. The main debate is whether or not you need to blanch the corn before removing the kernels for freezing. Cooks Illustrated looked at this and decided there was no need to do so. They compared freezing kernels raw and after blanching for a minute. Their tasters preferred corn kernels that had been frozen raw rather than those that had been blanched.

The University of Minnesota extension office disagrees as they feel the natural enzymes in corn need to be inactivated before freezing to prevent loss of color, nutrients and flavor as well as textural changes. Blanching is how you inactivate the enzymes. The National Center for Food Preservation also recommends blanching. I encourage to try both ways and see what you think. If you do, let me know your results.

If you choose to blanch, be sure to put them into an ice bath to chill after removing from the hot water. This prevents over-cooking.

Whether you blanch or not, cut the kernels from the cobs, spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once they are frozen, transfer the kernels to a zipper-lock bag and freeze them for up to two months.

Although you can freeze whole cobs, the result is generally disappointing. So, take the bit of time to remove the kernels before freezing.

I love corn on its own but it is also great in a salsa, in a side dish like Esquites (a Mexican corn dish) or Maque Choux (a very rich Creole dish) or just sautéed in a hot skillet. You may prefer to grill it. Do you have a favorite way to enjoy summer corn? Let me know. Enjoy the season while it is here and put some away for a dreary winter day!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Chili Peppers — Heat or Flavor?

Have you noticed how everything today seems to be flavored with hot peppers? Each producer wants to outdo the other with how hot they can make their product. I must admit that I have a fondness for flavored potato chips. (Don’t tell anyone!) It used to be that you could get all sorts of interesting flavors. Today (sadly to me) it is all about being flavored with chilis and other ingredients that add hotness. This has certainly brought certain chili peppers into the everyday language of consumers and is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The first thing to address is the word itself. Is it Chile, Chili or Chilli? It is often a matter of location. In American English, the preferred spelling is “chili” and it refers not only to the peppers but also to the delightful stew-like dish we all make. “Chilli” is the preferred spelling in British English whereas “chile” is the predominant spelling in Spanish-speaking countries.

Another interesting distinction is when you are referring to the ground powder. “Chili powder” generally means it is a mix of dried, ground chile peppers along with other spices. “Chile powder” should be solely dried chili peppers.

I do not know about you but I’m sure I vary how I spell the word without thinking about which is proper. In fact, I may alternate spellings within this Cooking Tip. If it is important to you, though, you now have the somewhat authoritative word on this subject.

I am much more interested in the different types of chili peppers, their heat level and their culinary uses.

The active ingredient in chili peppers is capsaicin. That amount that a plant contains depends on the genetic makeup of that plant but also on growing conditions and its ripeness. Higher temperatures and drought increase production of capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin increases until it begins to ripen when it starts to decline. It is maximum about the time that green fruit begins to change color.

Since those are items that you cannot control, what can you do to modulate the heat level in the dish you are making? Here are four factors that you can control.

  1. The variety of chili you use – if you want less heat, you can choose a chili that is known to have less capsaicin.
  2. The amount of chili you use – this is obvious but the more chili you use, the more capsaicin you will have in your dish.
  3. The presence or absence of the parts of the chili that contain the capsaicin – if you carefully remove the seeds and the membranes, you can decrease the amount of capsaicin you are left with.
  4. The length of time that the chili is in contact with the other ingredients – the longer the time, the hotter the dish.

Is there anything you can do to reduce the burn once you have ingested the capsaicin? Everyone has their own remedies but these are recommended although they are temporary measures.

  1. Ingest some dairy (not plant based). Dairy contains a protein that helps to break the bonds between the receptors in our mouths and the capsaicin and washes it away, like a detergent.
  2. Put something rough/solid into your mouth, such as a cracker or rice. The roughness distracts the nerves with a different type of signal.
  3. Take a spoonful of sugar. The sugar molecules bond well with the capsaicin.
  4. Wait it out. The pain caused by the capsaicin generally dissipates within 15 minutes.

Choosing which chilis are hotter depends on knowing a bit about the Scoville scale, which is a rating of pungency/heat level. The higher the pepper is on the scale, the hotter the pepper. The scale goes from zero for bell peppers to 15 million for pure capsaicin. A chili known as the Carolina Reaper was certified as the world’s hottest chili pepper by the Guinness World Records in 2017 at 2.2 million units. However, other peppers known as Dragon’s Breath (2.48 million units) and Pepper X (3.18 million units) claim they are hotter although their claims have not been certified. There are many charts you can find that list the ratings for different peppers but I like this compact one for easy use.

Which are the best peppers to have for your cooking? The following is far from a complete list of peppers but they are the ones that you are most likely to see in the supermarket. They are listed in order of heat level from lowest to highest.

Bell Peppers

These are zero on the Scoville chart, making them a great choice if you just want flavor without heat. These are part of the Cajun trinity (similar to mirepoix in French cooking) and are the base for Creole cooking. They add flavor, crunch and color (green, yellow, red, purple) when served raw on a salad or as part of a veggie tray. They are a great shape/size for making stuffed peppers. Roasting them adds some smokiness. One of my favorite pizza sauces is just puréed roasted red bell peppers.

Anaheim Pepper

This long pepper is also known as a California green chile or a New Mexican chile. The peppers originated in New Mexico, where they are still grown in different versions. They arrived in the city of Anaheim in southern California in 1894 and began to be grown commercially and thereby gaining its name. If grown in the Hatch region of New Mexico, it is known as a Hatch Chili Pepper. This pepper starts out green and turns red when mature. The Scoville rating is from 500-2500. They are very popular in salsas and southwestern dishes.

Poblano Peppers

This pepper is low on the Scoville scale (1000-2000 units) and is used greatly in southwestern cuisines. In dried form, they are called Ancho Chilis. They are fairly large in size and dark green in color until they fully ripen when they turn red. At that point, their hotness level increases. Green poblanos are very flavorful without burning. Think of chili relleno.

One caution about looking for poblano peppers in the store. Many stores mislabel them as Pasilla. In reality, pasilla peppers are the dried form of the Chilaca chile. I am really not sure as they look nothing alike although some say it is because the pasilla pepper looks similar to the dried poblano, the ancho chili.

Jalapeño Peppers

Other than bell peppers, this must be the most known and commonly used chili pepper in the US. It carries a Scoville rating of 3,500 to 8,000 units. We normally see it in its green form but it will turn red when it takes on a slightly fruity flavor. When dried, a jalapeño is called a chipotle. Jalapeños are used in many dishes but are most commonly used in salsas and sauces.

Fresno Pepper

Similar in appearance to a jalapeno, it is higher on the Scoville scale at 2500-10,000 units. In addition to the increased heat level, it also has more fruitiness than the jalapeno. Also like the jalapeno, they are great in salsas and hot sauces.

Serrano Pepper

Serranos are only a couple of inches long, with a tapered end. They are usually found in our stores in a green state but when ripe, they are red or yellowish-orange. It is a very spicy pepper rating between 6,000 and 23,000 on the Scoville scale. It is also said that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. These are used where you want a bit more heat, especially in Mexican and Thai cooking.

Cayenne Pepper

This little chili is slender and tapered. In our stores, you are more likely to find it in its dried, ground form—known as ground red pepper or just cayenne pepper. It is often also found in spice mixtures such as some chili powders. It is spicy with a rating of between 30,000 and 50,000 units. Use sparingly in any dish you want a bit of heat.

Thai Pepper

Thai peppers are spicy chili peppers with a wide range of heat – from 50,000 – 100,000. Although in our stores we will probably just see something called “Thai chili peppers”, there are many different varieties. What they all have in common is that they are small in size but high in heat.

Habañero Pepper

Having become popular in recent years, this pepper is now easier to find in the stores. It should be used with care, though, as it rates between 150,000 to 350,000. It is small and bulbous and has a fruity flavor underneath the heat. They are often used to make hot sauces.

As I mentioned, there are so many different chili peppers that it impossible to mention all of them in this Cooking Tip. Being able to recognize the above, where they fit on the heat level and how to use them will help you to harness the power and flavor of Chili Peppers!