Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Unusual Vegetables

I have written a fair amount about fresh produce in prior Cooking Tips. Now, I would like to talk to you about what some people might call “Unusual” vegetables. They are only unusual in that many people either do not know what they are or have never tasted them before. In this Cooking Tip, I hope to encourage you to seek them out and give them a try.

Fennel

This is a crunchy veggie with a refreshing and complex flavor. Because it is often mislabeled “sweet anise”, many people shy away expecting it to taste like licorice. However, the flavor is sweeter and more delicate than anise and when cooked, becomes even lighter. Fennel is not anise. They are unrelated plants. One large difference is that the entire fennel plant is edible but only the seeds of the anise plant are edible.

There are two types of fennel. The one I am discussing is called “Florence Fennel” or “Finocchio”. It is cultivated in the Mediterranean, and has a broad, bulbous base with wispy fronds. (Fennel pollen is the golden powder taken from blooming fennel flowers.)

The other kind of fennel is common fennel. This is where we get fennel seeds. The plant does not have a bulb. Rather, the stems and greenery are used just as with the Florence variety and is considered more of an herb rather than a veggie.

To prepare it, cut off the stalks and trim a thin slice from the base of the bulb. Halve it from top to bottom, through the root end. Cut out and discard the triangular piece of core in each half. Peel off and discard any outer, wilted layers. Now, you may cut each half in half again and then slice crosswise. You may also use a mandoline to get very thin, shaved slices. The fronds may be chopped and sprinkled as a garnish. It may be eaten raw or cooked.

Fennel is freshest from late fall to early spring. Look for firm, tightly packed bulbs with fresh, unwilted fronds. Avoid any with bruises or brown spots. After purchasing, it can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 5 days

Kohlrabi

This is a version of the basic cabbage plant in which the main stem swells to several inches in diameter. It is a member of the turnip family. In fact, the name comes from the German for “cabbage turnip”.

There are two varieties: Green & Purple. The green version has a pale green bulb and green leaves with light green veining whereas the purple has a purple root, stems and purple veining on green leaves. Both varieties have a creamy white flesh. One source says its flavor is reminiscent of a “sassy-sweet blend of mild broccoli and celery root”.

Both the bulb-like stem and the greens are edible. Young kohlrabi are tender enough to eat raw or cooked briefly. The leaves or stems are also edible and can be used in sautés and stir-fries. The leaves are said to have a flavor similar to collard greens. Kohlrabi is most often sold without leaves. If the leaves are still attached, separate the bulb from the leaves. The bulb should be peeled and sliced prior to being consumed. The smaller bulbs won’t need to be peeled, while the larger bulbs tend to have less flavor, with a thicker, chewy peel.

It can be sliced or shredded and tossed in your salad in its raw form, where it will add a fresh, crisp texture with a sweet yet mild peppery bite similar to a radish. It can also be roasted, stir fried or added to a soup or stew. The greens may be cooked just as you would kale, turnip, or beet greens with just a quick sauté.

To prepare it, cut off the stems and any leaves. Cut it in half down through its center and slice into quarters. Use the tip of your knife to cut at an angle through the core and discard it. Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel off any tough skin. At this point, slice off the top and then slice the quarters into your desired size. For thinner slices, a mandoline may be used.

Choose a kohlrabi that is heavy for its size but no wider than 3 inches. The green leaves should be firm and deeply colored. Avoid soft spots with yellowing leaves. When stored properly in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, kohlrabi can last for weeks. The leaves can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

Rutabaga

Rutabagas are also known as Swedes and they are a root vegetable that’s related to both the cabbage and the turnip. Some people confuse rutabagas with turnips. They are related, but rutabagas are generally larger, have a more yellowish flesh and are more mild tasting. They are also denser than turnips and will require a longer cooking time.

Due to being related to both turnips and cabbage, they share flavor characteristics. They can have the peppery, bitter bite of turnips but can also be creamy and sweet if roasted.

Cooking them is easy. They can be cooked until tender and then added to mashed potatoes. They may also be roasted or pureed into a soup.

It is recommended to choose smaller roots (under 5 inches in diameter) to ensure they’re tender. Avoid cracks, bruises, soft spots, or wrinkles. Rutabagas are freshest in the late fall and winter. They may be white or yellow.

As many rutabagas are sold waxed, be sure to scrub the outside before peeling it. Then, just cut into your desired shape.

Pick out rutabagas that are firm, smooth and heavy for their size. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.

Parsnip

Although parsnips look like carrots and are related to them, they are a different root vegetable. They can be eaten raw although they are usually cooked.

Some chefs recommend only giving them a thorough scrubbing rather than peeling as they say most of the flavor is right below the skin. The larger ones have a woody core. I like to cut this out although Cooks Illustrated finds this to be unnecessary if you are going to puree them rather than another application such as roasting. Popular ways of using parsnips include mashing, baking, broiling or pureeing them into a soup.

They are at their peak from fall through early spring. They accumulate more starch than carrots but then they convert it to sugar when exposed to cold temps. This results in the winter roots being sweeter than autumn roots.

Look for ones that are small to medium in size with an ivory color and a firm texture. Avoid any that are soft, shriveled or blemished.

Experts say you can store them in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks although I find they don’t last quite that long.

Celery root

Also known as celeriac, this is another root vegetable that has a crisp & firm texture. Its roots project from a knobby surface that requires deep peeling.

It tastes somewhat like celery because it has similar aromatic compounds as celery but the flavor sweetens with cooking. It can be grated or cut into fine matchsticks and added to a salad but it really shines when made into a mash (either on its own or in combination with other veggies), baked or roasted.

Choose small, firm ones with a minimum of knobs. They are not the easiest to peel and you may find that a knife works better than a veggie peeler.

It can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 7-10 days

There are other even more unusual vegetables. These, though, are ones that you can probably find in your grocery store. If you haven’t tried them, I encourage you to do so. You may just find a new favorite veggie!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Dried vs. Canned Beans – Is there really a difference?

Last week’s Cooking Tip was all about peas, a type of legume. Beans are another legume that most of us consume. This Cooking Tip will discuss the differences between dried and canned beans and how to cook them.

Beans can be categorized differently but one of the major categories is Dried vs Canned. Which do you use? Does it make a difference? Canned beans actually are dried beans but they have already been cooked. Therefore, you can use them without soaking or simmering them for hours. These are certainly more convenient but, as with most convenience foods, there is a downside. The canned beans sit in a brine in the can, which can draw out starches & proteins, leading to an alteration in texture and flavor.

Do you need to soak dried beans? This is usually recommended for dried beans as it softens them and decreases the cooking time. It is also thought that some of the elements that lead to gastrointestinal symptoms are leached out during the soaking. Serious Eats found that smaller beans with thin skins such as black beans actually do better without soaking. They did a testing with black beans by cooking them three ways. (Note that this test was only done with black beans and does not translate to all dried beans.)

  • Soaked in water overnight and then cooked in the soaking water.
  • Soaked, drained, rinsed and cooked in fresh water.
  • Cooked without any soaking.

Their results showed the following:

  • Time – un-soaked black beans only took an additional 20 minutes to cook.
  • Color – the darkest beans were those that were not soaked or were cooked in the soaking water.
  • Flavor – soaked and rinsed beans were the least flavorful. The other two methods yielded similar flavor. Another interesting finding is that if you add aromatics to the cooking beans, the most flavorful result was the un-soaked beans.
  • Texture – not much difference here but the beans that were un-soaked or those that were cooked in the soaking water were creamier due to the fact that you are not rinsing away the starch.

If you are cooking larger and thicker-skin dried beans, soaking is recommended. The age and quality of the bean are other factors as the lower quality they are and the older they are, the more they will need a soak. Since this is very difficult to assess when you are buying dried beans, it is probably smart to err on the side of soaking. Of course, the longer they sit in your pantry, the more they dry out and the more they will need soaking.

Should you salt the cooking water for dried beans? Serious Eats recommends salting, saying that the sodium helps to release magnesium & calcium from the beans. These elements give beans their rigidity and decreasing that leads to softer and creamier beans. They recommend that you season your soaking liquid with one tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of water. Drain and rinse the beans before cooking in lightly salted water. Cooks Illustrated agrees with this advice.

The procedure for cooking dried beans begins with sorting through the bag of beans and discarding any that are off-color or damaged as well as any stones you may find. Rinse them to remove any dust or dirt. Unless you are using black beans or you know you have very fresh beans, opt for soaking. Cover the beans with water. Since the beans will double (or more) in size, use enough water so they will stay submerged as they plump out. Add salt as discussed above. Allow to stand at room temperature for four to eight hours. If more than eight hours, refrigerate them. However, do not soak more than 24 hours. Drain and cook.

To cook, cover with fresh water and season with salt. Add flavorful aromatics such as onion, carrot, celery, garlic, leeks, fennel and herbs. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to obtain a gentle simmer. More vigorous boiling can lead to disintegration of the beans. As you are cooking, skim off any foam that develops. It is difficult to recommend a definite cooking time. It is better to just test the beans periodically until they are tender without any firmness or graininess. When done, remove from the heat and allow them to cool in the water. If they are close to being over-done, put the pot in an ice bath and allow to cool.

One caveat about cooking dried beans at altitude. Because of the lowered boiling point at altitude, cooking beans will take longer than suggested in most recipes.

Some experts recommend adding a small amount of baking soda to speed up the cooking process. Do not use more than 1/8 teaspoon per pound of beans to prevent an off-flavor from developing.

There is a quick-soak method that some recommend. It is to cover the beans with salted water, bring to a boil, remove from the heat and allow to stand one hour before draining and cooking. This does shorten the overall time but it also results in decreased nutrient levels.

There are other methods such as using a pressure cooker, a slow cooker or your oven. Those that promote the oven method claim it is second only to the pressure cooker in quickness of cooking, it cooks the most evenly and is the least likely to burst the beans. Some say that soaking is not required with oven cooking but others still recommend it with larger and older beans as they do cook faster and more evenly. After draining the beans, put them in a large oven-safe pot with enough room for the expansion of the beans. Add seasoning and aromatics and cover with water by at least an inch. Bring to boil on the stove. Bake in a pre-heated 325° F oven for 75 minutes and check for doneness. Continue cooking until done, once again realizing that it may taker longer at altitude. The Kitchn cautions that with red kidney beans or white cannellini beans you should boil on the stove for 15 minutes to ensure toxins that are present in raw/undercooked beans are eliminated. Still others advocate a cooler oven (250°) and cooking for a longer time, 6-8 hours.

With a pressure cooker (something I do not own), it is said that presoaking is not necessary but if you do not soak, you are more likely to end up with beans that have split open. Here is a great source for using your pressure cooker (or Instant Pot) with a chart for cooking times. It even includes recommendations for altitude adjustments.

For a slow cooker, the same pros/cons of presoaking your beans apply. Drain and put the beans in your slow cooker and place aromatics on top. Cover with water by two inches. Add salt and stir to dissolve. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours (remember altitude may lengthen this). Start checking after about 5 hours and then every 30 minutes until done. Some people will cook on high, which results in the beans being done in less time. Sources do not recommend using the slow cooker for kidney beans due to the toxin issue. Here is a link to a source discussing this issue of Red Kidney Bean poisoning.

Cooking canned beans takes much less time. Be sure to drain and rinse them as they are in a very starchy and salty liquid. They should be cooked for at least 30 minutes to allow them to absorb the flavors of the recipe.

What if your recipe calls for dried beans but you only have canned beans? You need to know how to covert from one to the other. Cooks Illustrated recommends using 58 ozs of canned beans for every pound of dried beans.

Serious Eats tested a number of different types of beans and created the following chart.

Type of BeanWeight DriedEquivalent Cooked
Cannellini1 pound2 lb. 8 oz. (6.5 cups)
Chickpeas1 pound3 lb. 4 oz. (7 cups)
Red Kidney1 pound2 lb. 7 oz. (6.5 cups)
Pinto1 pound2 lb. 5 oz. (6.5 cups)
Black1 pound2 lb. 5 oz. (7 cups)
Black-Eyed Peas1 pound2 lb. 13 oz. (6.5 cups)

What’s your favorite way to use beans – baked beans, hummus, soups, stews? Whichever it is, I trust this Cooking Tip will help you on the way to success!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Peas in a Pod

I was making a delightful pea salad the other day that contained three types of peas along with arugula. I also added some of my husband’s micro pea greens, which made it even better. With spring coming and the memory of this salad, I thought the subject of peas might make an interesting Cooking Tip.

A pea pod is actually a fruit and the peas inside are seeds. Some of the pods are edible, while others aren’t due to the fibrous and tough nature. There are three types of peas that you are most likely to find in your supermarket: English peas, sugar snap peas and snow peas.

When you say peas, most people will think of English or garden peas. These are the ones we find in the freezer section. Supermarkets rarely carry the whole, fresh pods as customers really do not want to shell them. They would rather have someone else do that for them. They must be shelled as the pods are too tough to digest.

If you are a gardener, there are many varieties (or cultivars) of garden peas that you can plant. In the store, though, the particular variety will not be listed.

Snow peas are also known as Chinese pea pods. They are flat and the pods are edible. The seeds inside are not allowed to plump out before harvesting. They can be eaten raw or briefly cooked. Just as with garden peas, there are a number of cultivars that can be grown.

Sugar snap peas are a cross between English peas and snow peas. Once you remove the strings, the entire pod is edible either raw or after blanching. The pods are sweeter and rounder than snow pea pods

Another word you will see on some packages of peas is “petite” or in the French, petit pois. As the name implies, they are smaller but they are also more tender and sweeter in flavor. This is my preferred variety.

In my local supermarket right now, I can buy fresh snow peas and fresh sugar snap peas. The only garden peas to be found are frozen. This is not a bad thing, though, as frozen vegetables are picked at the height of ripeness and quickly frozen to preserve their flavor and nutrient level. I think frozen vegetables are a great item to keep on hand and are not necessarily inferior to fresh varieties, especially out of season.

Peas are very easy to prepare. They can be boiled, steamed, stir fried, or microwaved. They can be added to foods such as salads, omelets, quiches and savory pies. They only require a brief cooking time and can even be eaten raw. Try not to over-cook them. One exception might be if you are making the very British dish – Mushy Peas. Although you can make mushy peas from garden peas, they are traditionally made from a variety called marrowfat peas, a large, starchy and mature pea that is left to dry outside in the field.

Are you a lover or hater of peas? If the latter, could it be you have only had inferior and over-cooked peas? I encourage to try some wonderful and tasty peas cooked to perfection. They are one of my favorite side dishes and are especially nice when the different varieties are combined in the same dish. Spring is coming. Enjoy the produce!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Microgreens – Tasty, Colorful & Packed with Nutrition

As many of you know, my husband has a full-time job but is also a part-time gentleman farmer. He keeps chickens and bees as well as growing fruit trees, berry bushes and all sorts of vegetables. He has a greenhouse, which keeps us in fresh greens for much of the winter. He has recently become interested in growing Microgreens and I thought that would make a good Cooking Tip topic.

Many of you have probably heard of baby greens, especially baby spinach. Baby greens are small versions of fully mature plants that are picked before they are fully grown.

My husband’s micro pea greens

Microgreens are similar but are cut even younger in their growing lives. They are the first, tiny shoots of herbs, lettuces and other greens. They are usually grown in soil and require sunlight. They are harvested between 7 & 14 days after germination and are under 3 inches tall. Because of their small form, the flavor is said to be more intense than the mature greens.

Microgreens are different than sprouts as the latter are obtained by sprouting seeds in water to achieve germination. They are harvested within 2-3 days. As you may have heard in the news, sprouts do carry a higher risk of bacterial contamination that can cause illness. This concern has not been found with microgreens although caution is recommended depending on how the greens are grown, harvested and stored. Be sure to wash them thoroughly before consuming.

It is said that all the nutrients that you would find in the mature plant are packed into the microgreen version. That makes it possible to amp up the nutritional value of your salads (or other dishes) by adding just a small amount of these greens. Therefore, they are said to be nutrient-dense. One caveat is that the nutrient content can vary widely depending on where the microgreens are grown, when they are harvested and the kind of soil used.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland conducted a scientific analysis of nutrients in microgreens. The results were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and were summarized in The Salt in 2012.

According to the study, “The researchers looked at four groups of vitamins and other phytochemicals – including vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene — in 25 varieties of microgreens. They found that leaves from almost all of the microgreens had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. But there was variation among them – red cabbage was highest in vitamin C, for instance, while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E.”

Some caution, though, that the amount nutrients can vary depending on how and where it is grown, handled and harvested. Not only are additional studies needed to evaluate the effect of these agricultural practices on nutrient retention but also to compare microgreens to their mature counterpart. Finally, according to the Agricultural Research Service, “no known study has been conducted to evaluate whether consumption reduces cardiovascular disease risk factors.”

In a 2018 issue of The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the authors state that not only are they easy to grow but, “microgreens are environmentally friendly and serve as excellent sources of various nutrients.” They conclude that, “based on existing literature, microgreens appeared to be excellent low-caloric sources of nutrients and bioactive components. Based on their chemical compositions, we propose that these nutrient-rich plants may provide health-promoting effects related to abilities to prevent the development of the vast array of inflammatory-related chronic diseases.”

They do end with stating that more studies need to be done “to fully realize the value of microgreens in human health.”

Here is just one list of popular microgreens.

AmaranthArugula
BasilBeets
BroccoliCabbage
CarrotsCelery
ChardChia
ChivesCilantro
DillFennel
Garden cressKale
MintMizuna
Mustard greensParsley
RadishRadish
SunflowerWatercress

Microgreens do have a very short shelf life, only a few days. They are not always readily available in grocery stores but they are easy to grow – even without a greenhouse.

There are many ways to include microgreens in your diet. We throw them on our salads but you can also add them to sandwiches and wraps as well as blended into smoothies. Add them to omelets or sprinkle them on pizza.

Whether you toss them on your salad for color, for taste or for nutrition, microgreens are a great addition!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

A Myriad of Potatoes

What is your favorite Thanksgiving side dish? For many of us, it has to be mashed potatoes. There are more and more potato varieties in our store that I thought it would be a good time to write a Cooking Tip about potatoes. Afterall, potatoes are the most consumed vegetable in the US and, worldwide it is the fourth largest food crop.

According to Potatoes USA, potatoes were first cultivated around 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC by the Inca Indians in Peru. In the 1500s, Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the flavors of the potato, and took them to Europe. According to the same source, “potatoes arrived in the Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Governor Francis Wyatt of Virginia at Jamestown.”

There are at least 200 varieties of potatoes although all of these can be put into the following categories: russet, yellow, red, white, blue/purple, fingerling and petite.

Another way to categorize is by texture – waxy or floury. Floury potatoes have more starch concentrated in the cells. These cells swell and separate when cooked resulting in a dry, fluffy texture. Waxy potatoes have cells that tend to stick together when cooked giving them a more dense and moist texture. Because of this difference, certain types are better suited to some uses than others. Others are in-between waxy and floury and tend to be more all-purpose. Let’s discuss these different types.

Russet – these potatoes are medium- to large-sized, oblong in shape and brown in color with whitish flesh. They are said to have a mild earthy flavor with a medium sugar content. They are a floury potato making them ideal for baking and frying resulting in a crispy exterior and a lighter, fluffy interior. They make wonderful mashed potatoes since light and fluffy is what we want in that dish. Particular varieties include Burbank, Norkotah, Ranger, Goldrush and Centennial.

Yellow – these can be very small to fairly large in size. They can be either oblong or round in shape. The skin is lighter in color in varying shades of yellow. Sugar content is medium and they are slightly waxy. When cooked, they produce a very creamy texture with a slightly sweet and buttery flavor. Great uses include baking, roasting or mashing. Names you may see include Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, Agata, Santina and Bintje.

Red – these potatoes are usually small to medium with a rounded to slightly oblong shape. They have smooth, red skin and white flesh. This is a waxy potato with a slightly sweet flavor and a medium sugar content. The waxy texture allows the potato to stay firm throughout the cooking process. This, along with the attractive red color, means that they are great in salads, soups and stews. As a side dish, they are better boiled or roasted but can be mashed. Varieties include Chieftain, Norland, Red La Soda, Pontiac and Ruby.

White – these are small to medium in size with a round to long shape, very delicate white or tan skin and a white flesh. They have a medium starch content with a low sugar content. They can be used in a variety of ways including mashing, grilling or in salads. Names include White Rose, Cascade, Superior, Kennebec and Cobbler.

Purple/Blue – these potatoes are on the smaller to medium size with an oblong shape. The smaller oblong ones are called fingerlings. Their skins are a very pretty purple or blue with flesh that can range from white to pink to purple with shades in-between. The flavor is called earthy or nutty with a low sugar content. The flesh is moist but firm resulting in a potato that holds it shape, making it great in salads while adding a delightful color. To preserve this pretty color, they are best prepared in the microwave although you can also steam or bake them. Varieties are Purple Peruvian, Purple Majesty and Adirondack Blue.

Fingerlings – as the name suggests, these potatoes are finger-shaped. The skin color varies: red, orange, purple or white. The flesh also ranges from red to purple to yellow or white. They will often have colored veins throughout the flesh. Texture is firm and waxy. Flavor is buttery and nutty. Sugar content is medium. Pan-frying and roasting are great preparation techniques for these potatoes but they can also make an interesting potato salad. They are various varieties but they will usually just be called “Fingerlings” at the store.

Petite – these potatoes are named due to their size. The color of the skin and flesh will reflect the larger-sized varieties as will the shape, texture and sugar content. Flavor is said to be concentrated in the small size. They are great in salads and make nice roast potatoes.

Proper storage is important for the longevity of the potatoes as they continue to metabolize after harvest. Store them in a place where the temperature is about 45°-50° F and the humidity is high. Do not refrigerate. Minimize exposure to light and try to keep them in a well-ventilated place.

I started this Cooking Tip by mentioning mashed potatoes. Let me end by helping you make the perfect dish of mashed potatoes. First, start by choosing the right potato. Classically, this is the Russet but Golden Yukons go a great job, too. Scrub the potatoes. You can peel either before or after cooking them. There are those who feel that cooking them with the skin on leads to better flavor. Some even advocate not peeling at all because they like the flavor/texture of the skins in the final dish. I’m sure we have all been told that most of the nutrients are in the skin. According to the Idaho Potato Commission, the skin does contain about half of the fiber in a potato but more than half of the nutrients are in the flesh. If you score the skin around the middle of the potato, you can just pinch off the skin after cooking. Here’s a video on how to do that.

Put your potatoes (peeled or not, cubed or not) in a pot and cover with cold water. This way they cook more evenly. If you drop them in boiling water, the outside can cook before the interior. Make sure you add salt to the water so that it will penetrate the potato and add flavor that you really cannot get by just salting afterwards. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until tender. Drain and return to the pot. Put the pot back over low heat to dry the potatoes. Now, mash the potatoes. I prefer using a ricer but if you wish a more rustic dish, use a hand masher. Mixers and food processors can be used but are not recommended as they often lead to gummy results.

I always add a bit of butter to my mashed potatoes. I soften or melt it first so it mixes in easily and I do not over-mix them. Many people add warm dairy (so it doesn’t cool the potatoes) such as milk or cream but for every-day mashed potatoes, I save some of the cooking water and use that to thin out my potatoes. It not only makes them creamy but also adds salt. So, be sure to taste before adding any additional salt. Other additions are up to you – parmesan cheese, herbs, garlic – whatever your heart desires.

Happy Thanksgiving. I am very thankful for all of you and that you take the time to read about my favorite topic – Food! Please let me know if there is anything specific you wish I would discuss.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The age-old question — what is the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

Sweet potato D's Harvest
My husband’s 2018 harvest of Beauregard sweet potatoes 

We had some dear friends visiting with us recently and they had a suggestion for a Cooking Tip. I figured if they had an interest in this topic that some of you would also. So, for this week’s Cooking Tip is the age-old question – what is the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

Before I discuss that question, I have an interesting tidbit I ran across during my research. Is it more proper to write “Sweet Potato” (two words) or “Sweetpotato” (one word)? I have always thought it should be two words. However, the International Potato Center writes it as one word to differentiate it from true potatoes. The North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission agrees and would like us all to adopt the one word spelling. (My spell checker does not agree, though!) I will use both spellings in the rest of this tip.

Despite the name, sweet potatoes are not related to the potato. Whereas potatoes are tubers, sweet potatoes are actually a root of a vine in the morning glory family. They are said to originate from either Central or South America. They are grown abundantly in the US, particularly in southern states. Since 1971, North Carolina has been the #1 sweet potato producing state in the United States.

There are many different varieties of sweet potatoes. Here is a link to chart listing almost 125 varieties. I suspect you will only find two or three different varieties in your supermarket. There are different ways to classify them but I find the following the most helpful. It classifies sweet potatoes grown in the US into two major types although there are different varieties among each type.

  1. Firm sweet potatoes – These have golden skin and pale flesh that remains firm when cooked. They were actually the first to be produced in the US and in our stores, they are commonly called sweet potatoes.
  2. Soft sweet potatoes – These have coppery skin and orange flesh that becomes creamy and fluffy when cooked. When this variety became available, stores needed to differentiate them from the firm variety. At that time, African slaves thought they were similar to yams that they had known in their home country and began calling them by that word. This was then picked up and even today they are commonly called yams. Some of my research indicated that the USDA requires stores to add “sweet potato” to the label if they use the word “yam.”

Although they are available year-round, their peak growing season is from fall through early winter. When picking one out, choose one with a smooth skin, firm ends and no soft spots. Avoid storing sweet potatoes in the refrigerator, which will produce a hard center and unpleasant taste. Rather, store them in a cool, dry, well ventilated container. For best results, store them in a basement or root cellar away from strong heat sources.

Yams are a totally different and unrelated tuber. They are related to the lily family. To understand the differences, refer to this chart I adapted from the North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission.

 

Sweetpotato

Yam

Taste Sweetpotatoes are almost always sweeter than yams. Starchier and more potato-like, usually not very sweet.
     
Appearance In the U.S. the majority of Sweetpotatoes sold are one of four appearances:

  • Rose color skin with orange flesh
  • Pale copper/tan skin with white flesh
  • Red skin, dry white flesh
  • Purple skin and flesh

All are more slender in appearance than a potato and have tapered ends; however each of these does have a different flavor profile.

Varies considerably. Some yams are the size and shape of small potatoes; others can grow up to 1.5m (5ft) in length and weigh over 100lbs (70kg).

 

Skins may be dark brown or light pink; insides white, yellow, purple, or pink.

What most of us probably think of as a typical sweet potato whether it is made into delightful fries or on your Thanksgiving table in a casserole is what the stores call yams – although as I mentioned, they should be called yams/sweet potatoes. What the store calls just sweet potato is probably not going to be what you want for a traditional sweet potato dish. Are you confused, yet? Don’t be – choose more by color of the skin and even the flesh if you can rather than the name.

Since 2006, a purple sweet potato has become available. The three main types in the US are:

  • Stokes Purple® sweet potatoes – These originated in the US and have purple-tinted skin with a very purple flesh that intensifies when cooked. They are a bit drier and denser than orange sweet potatoes. They are very high in anthocyanins, the antioxidant that gives it the purple color.
  • Okinawan sweet potatoes – These are said to originate from South America but then migrated to the Philippines, China and Japan. Their name comes from the fact when they made it to Japan, they were first grown on Okinawa, a Japanese island. They can also be found in Hawaii and are at times called Hawaiian sweet potatoes. They have beige skin and a lighter lavender flesh, which turns blueish purple when cooked. They are said to have a delicate, slightly sweet taste with a creamy and starch texture.
  • Ube – This is not really a sweet potato but a purple yam. It is a staple in the Philippines and is often used in Asian desserts. It has brown, bark-like skin with flesh that ranges from white with purple specks to lilac. Although it is said to have a sweet and nutty flavor, my husband and I never did develop a taste for it during our time in the Philippines.

Friedas.com has a fun video demonstrating the differences between these three.

I love sweet potatoes any way you cook them. Or, should I say I love yam/sweet potatoes since I strongly prefer the orange-fleshed variety. I have never tried purple sweet potatoes although as I mentioned, I have partaken of Ube – not something I wish to repeat. How about you? Have you tried them? Let me know.

The image shown at the top of this post is my husband’s harvest of Beauregard sweet potatoes from 2018. All I have to say is — DELICIOUS!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tomatoes — canned or fresh?

20190815_180834aDespite being summer when fresh tomatoes are at their best, I suspect every one of us has canned tomatoes and tomato products in our pantry right now. If you don’t, email me and let me know why not. For the rest of us, we probably have at least some (if not all) of the following: whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, fire-roasted tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste and tomato sauce. These products are the subject of this Cooking Tip.
 

  1.  You can turn whole tomatoes into almost any other tomato product whereas diced tomatoes cannot be magically transformed into whole tomatoes.
  2.  Whole tomatoes come packed either in juice or puree, giving you more choice. She recommends packed in juice if you want a fresher tomato flavor and packed in puree for a deeper tomato flavor.
  3.  Diced tomatoes have calcium chloride added, which helps the diced tomatoes retain their shape. This may be what you want in a salsa but whole tomatoes will cook down better. Most American whole tomatoes also have calcium chloride added but Cooks Illustrated found that it mostly acts near the surface, leaving the interior very tender. You can find whole tomatoes without calcium chloride but you will need to look at the Italian imports. I looked at the whole tomato products at my normal market. They carried their own store brands, Muir Glen, Hunts and Kuner’s. The only one that did not have calcium chloride was a higher-end store brand. Although my store didn’t carry them, the Cento brand does not have calcium chloride listed as an ingredient. A quick perusal of Amazon showed that if you want to stay away from calcium chloride, imported is going to be your choice.
  4.  No seasoning is added, thus giving you more control over the seasoning in your dish. Tomato sauce and stewed tomatoes are going to have a number of things added to them. If you have looked on your grocer’s tomato shelf, it is getting even harder to find any diced tomatoes without some added seasoning.

 
What about substituting one type of canned tomatoes for another? For example, if your recipe calls for diced, will your can of whole tomatoes work? It depends – if you want the tomatoes to hold their shape, whole tomatoes will not do this well. If you do not care about the shape/texture, feel free to substitute. Another caution about substituting is to remember that some of these canned products contain added seasonings, which you may or may not want in your dish.
 
I’m sure most of you have heard that the best tomatoes are San Marzano, the name coming from the region of Italy where they are grown from specific seeds. Today, you can find tomatoes grown elsewhere from the same seeds. Cooks Illustrated did a taste test and found they did not live up to the hype. If you want to read their entire results, here is a link although you will need a membership to view it. For purposes of this Cooking Tip, I will tell you that they preferred Muir Glen, an American brand that was very acidic with a high sugar content. Their runner-up was Hunt’s. Serious Eats agreed that the San Marzano designation wasn’t necessarily a winner. Their preference was for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Finally, just to show you how much an individual’s taste matters, a taste test from TheKitchn put Cento at the top, Muir Glen at #3 and Trader Joe’s last at #9. Who do you agree with? San Marzano or not? Let me know.
 
Tomato products are one of those pantry staples that are a boon to a cook. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will take a minute to read labels to ensure you get the right product for your dish. Happy Tomato Cooking!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Are you into Buddha Bowls?

 A tasty Bulgogi Beef Bowl I recently made . A tasty Bulgogi Beef Bowl I recently made .

Have you noticed the popularity of so-called “Buddha Bowls” lately? Just what are they and why are they all the rage? This Cooking Tip will attempt to answer these questions.

Although “Buddha Bowl” is the most common term I see, they have also been called Grain Bowls, Hippie Bowls, Macro Bowls and other terms. They are basically very artfully arranged single-serving bowls of food. They are usually, but not exclusively, vegetarian.

There is no definite explanation for the term but according the authors of Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind, it may have come from the way that Buddha ate. “Buddha woke up before dawn every morning and carried his bowl through the roads or paths wherever he was staying. Local people would place food in the bowl as a donation, and at the end he would eat whatever he had been given.”

The Urban Dictionary has a different idea. They define it as “a bowl which is packed so full that it has a rounded “belly” appearance on the top much like the belly of a buddha.”

No matter the origin of the name, they are generally considered healthy and they are composed of fresh and whole ingredients. There are certain elements that usually go into each bowl although the variations are only limited by your taste and imagination. Most bowls contain the following components: Whole Grains, Veggies, Protein, Dressing and Toppings.

Grains – Keep it interesting by choosing different grains, preferably whole grains. Try brown, black or red rice, farro, quinoa, bulgur, barely or millet. These can be made ahead and kept if the refrigerator for a few days.

Veggies – There are a plethora of veggies out there that you can add either raw or lightly cooked. Not only do the veggies add nutrients, they also lend beautiful color to the bowl. Choose from greens, carrots, cabbage, cucumber, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower or zucchini. Roasting the veggies adds another dimension that can be very nice. How you prepare them is up to you – they can be chopped, shredded or sliced.

Protein – Since many Buddha bowls are vegan or at least vegetarian, the protein is often tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, beans, lentils and so forth. However, feel free to add a lean animal protein such as chicken or fish. Some bowls even feature pork or beef.

Dressing – A wonderful mixture of liquid flavor is typically drizzled over the bowl to make it complete. These may be homemade or store-bought and can include a vinaigrette, hummus, guacamole or even salsa.

Toppings – Sprinkle seeds or nuts on top. Scatter tender, fresh herbs such as parsley or cilantro.

Your bowl should be not only visually attractive but full of flavor. Use different colors such as yellow, green, red, white and pink. Include a variety of textures so you have both soft and crunchy elements. Don’t cut everything in the same shape but have variety – cubes, sticks, grated, julienned, etc. Finally, balance the different flavor components of sweet, salty, acid, bitter & umami.

Although Buddha bowls have seen a definite uptick in popularity recently, the components are really nothing new. Just good, clean, healthy and flavorful food. What’s not to like about that?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Summer equals Salads!

Warmer weather is often an incentive to eat more salads. The word “salad” can mean a lot of things but it usually includes some sort of greens. Americans tend to equate lettuce with iceberg lettuce but, there are so many more varieties of lettuce and greens to liven up your salads. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to open your eyes to all there is out there. The following list is not all-encompassing as the Yuma, Arizona, County Cooperative Extension office claims there are more than 100 varieties of lettuce and salad greens. I will only discuss some of the most common greens.

Leaf lettuce – This type of lettuce comes in red & green. Rather than coming as a “head” of lettuce, the leaves all branch off of a single stalk. Both red and green leaf are mild in flavor and have tender leaves. It is often found in varieties termed spring lettuce, mesclun, etc. It is great for the base of many salads.

Romaine lettuce – This lettuce has elongated leaves with a thick white rib. Its leaves are sturdy but a bit more bitter. It provides more texture to your salads.

Iceberg lettuce – Although iceberg is looked down upon because it does not have as many nutrients as other types, it does provide a nice crunch. It also is less perishable and will last longer in your refrigerator than other lettuce.

Butterhead lettuce – Two types are Boston and Bibb. Boston is an extremely tender and soft lettuce and due to it flexible leaves that can be separated from the head, it is great for making lettuce cups. Bibb comes in smaller heads and has a sweeter taste.

Kale – Although not a “lettuce”, it is thought of as a nutrient-dense green. It does have a bitterness that is not to everyone’s taste.

Arugula – Known as “rocket” in Europe, it has dark green leaves usually with a long, spiky shape. It has a peppery bite to it. It can be used on its own but is often a great addition to other lettuce mixes. It is also used in sandwiches and as a pizza topping. Because of its peppery flavor, it goes well with tangy dressings.

Spinach – Another green that is full of nutrients that can be the sole green in a salad or mixed with other varieties.

Radicchio – Easily recognized by its reddish-purple color, it also goes by the name of “chicory”. It also tends towards bitterness but that can be tempered by grilling or roasting.

Endive – Also known as Belgian endive, these small leaves are a relative of radicchio and are crisp and slightly bitter. Due to their spoon-like shape, they are great for acting as a vessel for dips or fillings. Another popular preparation is to braise them.

Frisée – Other names include curly endive & curly chicory. These are also in the same family as radicchio and endive and are known by the very curly leaves that are tinged with yellow and green. It has a fairly potent flavor and so, often just a small amount will be added to lettuce blends.

Escarole – This is a type of endive that is mildly bitter. It holds up well to cooking, making it a great addition to soups and pastas.

Mâche – Also known as lamb’s lettuce or corn salad, it is a delicious and sweet green with soft green leaves. Its dark green leaves grow in a rosette pattern. This is one of my favorite greens to add to a salad.

Watercress – The name derives from its semi-aquatic growing nature and is classified as both a green and an herb. It is another green with a peppery flavor.

Mizuna – Also known as Japanese mustard greens, it has a mild, peppery taste. Some say it is like a less intense version of arugula.

For the best salad, try to buy whole heads of lettuce when you can. (Even better, grow your own.) The texture and flavor will be much better than pre-bagged items. They do need to be thoroughly washed before consuming. If you do buy bags of pre-washed greens, the question that always arises is if you need to wash them once you get them home. According to the FDA, prewashed greens can be consumed directly from the bag. They say that prewashed items probably have less bacteria (if any) than what is found on your kitchen counter or sink. Therefore, washing the prewashed greens is more likely to introduce bacteria into an already clean product. Another point made by a microbiologist is that any pathogens remaining on prewashed greens is not likely to be removed by your own washing of them. Here is a link to the FDA Guidelines. If you choose to wash the prewashed greens, make sure your counters/sinks are very clean and store the washed greens in the refrigerator.

For proper storage of crisp heads of lettuce such as iceberg and romaine, core the heads, wrap it in moist paper towels and refrigerate in a plastic bag that has been left slightly open. For leafy greens, including arugula & spinach, either store them in the original container or, if you have room, leave them in the salad spinner after washing and drying them & put the spinner in the refrigerator. More tender heads such as Boston lettuce with the root attached can be stored in the original plastic container or in a plastic bag left slightly open. If there is no root, wrap in moist paper towels and place in a plastic bag left slightly open.

TheKitchn.com tested three different methods of storing greens. The favorite in this test was to line a plastic storage container with paper towels, put the greens on top and cover with more paper towels followed by the lid before placing in the refrigerator.

If your lettuce has wilted, it means it has lost water. To refresh it, just soak it in plain ice water for about 30 minutes.

According to WebMD, eating a salad almost every day may be one of the healthiest eating habits we can adopt. It is also one of the simplest and, if you branch out with some of these less-frequently used greens, it can also be a very tasty one!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Mirepoix, Sofrito & What?

Good cooking techniques transcend the type of cooking you want to do. However, when you get to ingredients, they vary between types of cuisines. Mirepoix, Sofrito and Cajun Trinity are examples of similar items that differ from cuisine to cuisine. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to explain these mixtures, their similarities and differences.

All three of these terms refer to the basis of so many savory dishes. The ingredients are mixtures of aromatic vegetables. These vegetables are diced and sautéed in some type of oil. This base is used in the completion of whatever dish you are cooking. They are meant to provide a subtle but pleasant background flavor as well as supporting and improving the flavor of the finished dish. In French cooking, it is called Mirepoix. Sofrito refers to a similar mixture in Italian, Spanish & Latin American cuisine. For Cajun cooking, it is called the Cajun Trinity, also known as the Holy Trinity.

France is the home of classical cooking techniques. Their classic Mirepoix is a mixture of onions, carrots & celery. The ratio is typically 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot and 1 part celery – by weight. A common variation is White Mirepoix where leeks and parsnips replace some of the onions and carrots. It is used to flavor dishes when you want a white color in the final dish. Other ingredients that are sometimes used are shallots, garlic, diced ham, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and ginger.

The classic Italian Sofrito actually starts as something called a Battuto and, once cooked, it is termed a Sofrito. Usually it is a combination of onions, celery, carrots, garlic and parsley although there are quite a few variations on this mixture. It also can include bell peppers or fennel as well as finely diced cured meats such as pancetta or prosciutto. There is no set ratio for the ingredients.

There are many regional variations on the Italian Sofrito including Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican. These variations often include ingredients that are specific to those areas.

The Cajun Trinity requires bell pepper, onion and celery. Although there is a difference of opinion on this, a good starting ratio is 2 parts onion, 1 part celery and 1 part green bell pepper. This particular mixture does not usually have as many variations as the other mixtures. Along with a dark roux, it becomes the base for Cajun and Creole dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée.

Suppengrün is of German origin and is made of carrots, celery root and leeks. Variations include onions, parsnips and potatoes. There is no set ratio.

From Poland we get Włoszczyzna, similar to its German counterpart but often with cabbage as the primary ingredient.

No matter which version of this base you are using, be sure to cut the vegetables relatively uniform in size. The shorter the cooking time of the ultimate dish, the smaller size the pieces should be. For longer times, they can be cut into larger pieces.

To turn these vegetables into the respective base, heat the cooking fat (typically oil or butter) in a sturdy pan. Generally, the onions (or leeks) will be cooked in the fat first. What comes next depends on the particular mixture. If garlic is called for, add it next but cook carefully so it doesn’t brown or burn. Follow by adding the rest of the vegetables. Lastly, add the herbs.

Usually, only “sweating” the mixture is what you want. This would be done on a lower heat just until the vegetables are giving off some of their juices, softening in texture but not browning. If you are using this base in a dish such as a soup, stew or pasta sauce, feel free to slowly cook the vegetables until they are almost melted. If you wish to add them to something like a frittata or omelet, you may want to stop cooking before they lose all their texture. There are times when the mixture is cooked until it browns but I will leave that for another discussion.

The main take-away from this discussion is that slowly cooking these aromatic vegetables even if you do not follow the listed combinations can add a tremendous amount of flavor. This simple step can take your dish from good to great!