Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cooking Class

I haven't led with cooking lately, and it's not as though I've done anything spectacular, but I thought I'd bring up a few things that were on my mind in that regard. It's not that I think I'm some cooking guru, but I get a lot of questions on how I can come up with recipes and how I know what substitutions I can make in a recipe. I think anyone trying to eat healthier or more interesting food can benefit from a few ideas. I also have been giving impromptu cooking lectures while waiting at the deli counter or picking out off-the-beaten-path-of-typical-American-cuisine produce (not spontaneously! only when someone asks a question). Part of this, I think, is rising food prices. Three times I've been at the store with dried beans in my cart, and I've been stopped by people asking how to cook them. I even have my "lecture" down to under a minute :) They're so much cheaper than canned beans that people are getting curious about them, but it seems not many people know how to do that anymore. Likewise with seasonally cheap vegetables that are outside the usual comfort zone for people. And people who didn't used to cook *at all* are being forced to limit their eating out because of food and gas costs.

Cooking is natural and intuitive for me the way knitting is for other people. I can knit, yes, but it's not the effortless, creative process it seems to be for so many of the knitting bloggers I follow. I have knit myself sweaters that I don't wear because of ill-advised yarn substitutions (the Hourglass Sweater that fits great but isn't in the best color, not to mention the too-scratchy wool) or blind pattern-following (the Simple Knitted Bodice that is too short, and I knew it would be too short, but I was afraid to alter the pattern). I don't really remember learning how to cook. I started in high school when I first started the vegetarian thing and no one knew what to cook for me anymore. I started with a couple of cookbooks and some internet recipes and just went nuts. I'm happiest with Italian/Mediterranean cuisine, but I do a bit of Mexican and Asian cooking, too. When I see a recipe, I see possibilities, not a shopping list. But I think that those who are less cooking-inclined can learn how to do this and become more confident in their cooking.

Healthier eating: If a recipe isn't already billed as "low fat" or "light," you can almost always cut the fat by at least a third without ill effects. If it's a baked item, replace the missing amount of butter or oil with an equal measure of low fat yogurt, drained applesauce, canned pumpkin, light cream cheese, or another low fat ingredient that doesn't clash with the existing ingredients. How to know if it will clash? Partly common sense, like replacing butter in a brownie recipe with pumpkin, which has a strong flavor, is probably not a good idea. But in a spice muffin, pumpkin would be great. If you're not sure, you can e-mail me :) If the missing fat is in a cooking recipe, you may not need to make any change. Or you might want to spray the pan with cooking spray so that the missing fat doesn't lead to food sticking. If it's a sauce or another dish in which liquid amount is key, replace the missing fat with an equal measure of broth (I use veggie broth, obviously). If it's a dairy-oriented sauce, replace with low-fat milk (I'm not a big proponent of skim milk, which tends to make things taste funny or separate oddly). If you want more whole grains in your diet, replace half the unbleached flour in a recipe with whole wheat. White whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour are less obvious than regular whole wheat, but have the same benefits. Try doubling the vegetables in a dish, which lowers the overall calorie count per serving in addition to sneaking in more veggies. Or try adding an additional vegetable. Same with fruit--try increasing the amount. Cooking Light has a "recipe makeover" section where they take a reader's fat-laden favorite and remake it into a decently healthy dish. You can learn a lot about lightening recipes from those examples.

What flavors go together? How do I substitute one ingredient for another? This takes practice, but you don't have to reinvent the wheel. If you don't have (or like) kale, google "kale substitute." Or just ask yourself what it brings to the dish, and what other item might do that just as well. Kale is a leafy green...try using a different leafy green like spinach. Kale is pretty thick, though, so you'll want to cook the spinach for a lower time than the recipe calls for. Also think about menu items at restaurants you like. Do they use citrus and spinach together? Carrots and ginger? Eggplant and tomato sauce? If there's a combination you like, try to emulate it at home. If you know you want to make tomato sauce for pasta, search at a site with A LOT of recipes, especially one with reviews (All Recipes and Cooking Light are great for this). You can get a feel for what the possibilities are, and what combinations get good reviews. With practice, you'll get used to weeding through and finding the recipe you'll like best.

How do I cook that? I actually don't have a basic cookbook (I like the single-cuisine, specialty ones), so I don't know one to recommend. I've heard good things about How To Cook Everything, though. And googling is always your friend. Search "how to cook kale" and you'll find plenty of suggestions. And again, feel free to ask me :) I will tell you how to cook dried beans here, though, because it is SO much cheaper and lower in sodium than buying canned beans. Cover beans in a large pot with cold water two inches above the beans and let sit overnight. The next day, drain and return to the pot. Cover with cold water two inches above the beans again and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until tender. For chickpeas, cooking time might be 45 minutes, but I've had black beans take a full two hours. Unless you know the age of your beans (not likely, as they could have been on the shelf for years), you can't predict the actual cooking time, so just keep checking. I usually do a pound or two at a time. This is a lot, but they freeze really well. Just move into one-cup containers (or whatever size is convenient for you) and pop in the freezer. I defrost by moving a container to the fridge the day before I want to use them, but you can defrost in the microwave, too. If you're going to puree the beans, put in a teaspoon per pound of baking soda during both the soaking and cooking stages and it will help break down the starch. NEVER add acid (like citrus juice) or salt to the cooking beans (until they're partially cooked) as this will make them tough.

Wow, that was long. I hope it wasn't overly boring or pretentious. If you have cooking questions, feel free to put them in the comments. I can't really help you with meat, but I'm pretty comfortable with a wide range of other cooking/baking.

So, anyway...knitting! I'm almost to the armpits on Placket Pullover. I'm afraid I should have used one row of off-white between blue stripes instead of two, because my off-white yarn ball is getting frighteningly small. I may have to order another.

Reading: I've been reading mysteries, and I'll have a bunch of reviews up this week. It's Book Blogger Appreciation Week, so we have some giveaways we'll be doing this week over at On My Bookshelf.

Writing: Are you ready for this? Word count: 10, 640. Woo! Almost done with Chapter 2, and I hope to have that one done by tomorrow. I think my chapters are too long, though, so I might need to break it up a bit. I also have to make a map of my town, as I think I contradicted myself about where some of the places are.


Mary said...

Definitely not boring. I'm so glad you put the bean directions in. I have a bag of chickpeas I've been avoiding becasue I wasn't sure what to do past the soak step :)

YarnThrower said...

THANK YOU!! I'm always interested in tips that are helpful in the kitchen. Cooking has never been my favorite thing to do, though I see it as part of my "job" as a
homemaker/mom, so I'm always looking to learn things to streamline the process, make things more healthy, etc. And, you are certainly not pretentious, nor boring!

Kudos regarding your book progress! That's so great!

Stefaneener said...

Oh man, you and I have GOT to sit down and talk cooking some day. I love the idea of meandering around. Tonight was a goat cheese and tomato tart in rosemary butter pastry -- good, but there was something off in the flavor, and no one here wanted to sit and discuss it. Sigh.

I love the idea of you just spouting off pontification in the grocery store.

Anonymous said...

Laughed out loud at the "not spontaneously!" clarification on the cooking lectures in the grocery. Great visual.

Such a nice cooking tutorial - informational and inspirational. I commend you!

When I became a veggie a few years ago (which came as quite the shock to pretty much everyone, including me), I too had no clue aboout cooking beans or other now-revered legumes in my diet. Now buying cans seems weird to me. Once I started learning how to break the canned-food curse, I got friendly with Lorna Sass (well, her books) and made the leap into pressure cooking, which was...awesome. Not scary. Awesome. Everything is sooooo quick, and flavorful and fresh. Love it. Guests can't believe how fast a yummy meal can come together.

Thanks for sharing your tips here. Now I feel like I'll be keeping my eyes out more often for substitutions - especially pumpkin, of which I can never get enough this time of year. I hadn't heard the tip about adding baking soda to beans to break down the starch prior to pureeing. Nice.

Excellent work on the word count. Fixing contradictions can be done later, right? The momentum of writing the story cannot be interrupted with such minutia. I love books with little maps included, or family trees. Such an intriguing preview of the story to come!

KnitPastis said...

Thanks so much for the cooking review! I know how much you love to cook and it shows.

You are up to the armhpits already!That's great.

Yippi, you are almost done with Chapter 2. Bing out the wine!

Kate said...

I've nominated you for the "I love your blog award", so you need to get on over to my blog and pick up your ribbon.