Monthly Archives: January 2012

Book It: The Preservation Kitchen

This book has a can-do attitude. (via

In yesterday’s budget-minded post, I forgot to mention one skill that would behoove any thrifty cook to learn: preserving and canning. Can’t say why I haven’t gotten around to trying my hand at this age-old kitchen tradition myself–it could be because I have no room to store all necessary canning equipment, or maybe it’s because of my irrational fear of botulism. (Fun fact: The word “botulism” is derived from the Latin botulus, which means sausage, because the problem was first identified with improperly stored sausages in the 1800s.)

Still. Learning how to can and preserve is still at the top of my to-do list for 2012. Hopefully the experience will be food poisoning-free.

In any case, if you’re as interested in these kinds of techniques as much as I am, you might want to check out the upcoming cookbook The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves and Aigre-Doux, by Paul Virant and Kate Leahy, due out April 3. (What’s aigre-doux, you say? It’s a French term used to describe combined sour (aigre) and sweet (doux) tastes, as in, for example, a sauce with a sugar-vinegar base.)

Ok, so full disclosure here: Kate Leahy is the very talented cookbook writer/cook/epicurean genius behind the food blog A Modern Meal Maker, and she also happens to be one of my good friends. We met while we were both doing our master’s degrees at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and have been talking about food ever since!

She not only has an impressive culinary backgroundbut she’s also co-written the famed A:16 Food and Wine cookbook, which came out in 2009. (See my at-home A16 feast here.) And now she’s gone and collaborated with Paul Virant, the acclaimed executive chef at Vie, a Michelin-starred New American restaurant in Western Springs, Ill. that specializes in seasonal cuisine, to create what looks to be a truly beautiful cookbook that’s jam-packed (ha) with recipes for preserves, such as jams, relishes, pickles, brandied fruits and conserves.

The second half of the book apparently pairs the recipes in the previous pages with seasonal menus. Example: brandied cherries in a cherry clafoutis and smoked spring onion relish with chicken fried steak. Yum!

So I may be biased toward this book, since my friend co-wrote it, but it’s worth checking out if you’re really interested in preserving and canning technique since Virant is quite the expert on the subject . If you’re like me and just can’t wait to get your hands on a copy, you can pre-order it at (naturally). This might be the push I need to finally invest in a pressure canning set. Or at least get over my angst over botulism in general.

Congrats, Kate, on putting another fine cookbook on your shelf!


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Filed under book it, Food, the thrifty cook

Kitchen Conundrum: (Grocery) Bills, Bills, Bills…

How much do you spend at the grocery store? (via

Do you ever track how much you spend on groceries each month? I never really thought about it until last week. Growing up, my sister and I learned that if there’s one thing that one should never really skimp on spending, it’s good food, and I suppose that philosophy has carried over into adulthood.

Of course, with the economy the way it is, dropping bucks on a slab of foie gras or a chunk of jamón ibérico is pretty much out of the question. But still. Even the every day stuff all adds up. I don’t know about you, but I tend to shop at two or three different grocery stores a month for variety–usually one Asian store, a supermarket and/or Trade Joe’s–so even though I’m spending maybe $30-$40 at each place, the bills pile up rather fast.

A leg of jamón Ibérico bellota can fetch up to $1,280. Too rich for my blood!

Out of curiosity, I added up all my grocery bills for January, and came up with a figure around $550, including alcohol. I was pretty shocked, actually, because it sounded pretty darn high for a household of two. I wondered how my spending stacked up with others, and came across a nifty little calculator on that actually tells you how your food spending compares with people in your area.

The result? I definitely spend a lot more on groceries compared with people in my area, but then again, I hardly spend anything on restaurant food each month. (We get takeout/eat out maybe once a month, if anything.)

That made me feel a little better, but it was definitely a wake-up call. Perhaps I should rethink my food  budget and figure out ways to stretch it out–a difficult task for a food lover, to be sure. Is it possible to save money on groceries without having to resort to stockpiles of Hamburger Helper, 10-cent ramen packages and SPAM?

A while back, I picked up a book called Be Thrifty: How to Live Better with Less by Pia Catton and Califia Suntree (excellent book, by the way) , and there are some pretty good tips in there for the thrifty cook.

Be thrifty, not cheap, especially in the kitchen. (via

Some paraphrased “Tenets of the Thrifty Cook:”

1) Avoid dining out. No problem.

2) Set a realistic grocery budget and, if possible, pay with cold, hard cash. Errrgh.

3) Buy nutritious but economical food, like beans, tougher cuts of meat for stewing; cut out things that don’t have much nutritional value, like sodas; and cut down on expensive foods, like seafood and filet mignon.

4) DIY as much food as possible. Now that’s something I can hang with. Fresh, homemade pasta, bread and ice cream? Yes, please!

5) Grow your own veggies and herbs.

6) Curb food spoilage. How many times have you found a science fair-worthy specimen of old leftovers in a Tupperware stashed in the back of the fridge? Yuck. Here’s an idea from

And, of course, there are budget-stretching recipes, like shepherd’s pie, bean and pasta soup, DIY pizza, lasagna…and this simple, $7 recipe for linguine with Italian braised escarole that can feed 4 people.

In the spirit of saving money–and experimentation–I’ll step up to the challenge and try living by these tenets and beyond, and document my adventures. Feel free to chime in with your own tips and tricks on saving money in the kitchen.

Suddenly, saving money on food doesn’t seem like such a drag after all.


Filed under adventures in grocery shopping, Food, kitchen conundrums, the thrifty cook

Nuggets of Wisdom

Chicken nuggets fly the coop in Banksy's 2008 installation The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill (via

I did a bad, bad thing tonight.

After work, I planned on making some deliciously healthy Barley Stew with Leeks, Mushrooms and Greens, and was feeling good about a week’s worth of fairly good-for-you eating. It all came crashing down, though, when I picked up Dr. J from his office. Having had a super long day after pulling an all-nighter for work, he requested that we go to McDonald’s for dinner.

I hesitated for a split second, then our car started barreling toward the Golden Arches.

Hell yeah! We hadn’t gotten fast food since our honeymoon in Montreal over the summer. (Long story short, we got dolled up to have a fancy, expensive dinner, but the restaurant closed due to a city-wide blackout and the only place open was “McDo,” as it’s known in French.)

Fifteen minutes later, we brought home our fast-food booty:a Big Mac meal for him, and a 10-piece McNugget meal for me.

I see that arched eyebrow and the judge-y look. Yes, I have seen “Supersize Me,” and I know some people believe Chicken McNuggets  are made of unidentifiable pink, chicken-y crap. But then again, there are some people also believe that wearing Forever Lazys in public is acceptable.

Nope, that's not strawberry soft-serve ice cream, friend. (via

Supposedly, mechanically separated chicken is made from eyeballs, guts and other nasty bits soaked in ammonia, reflavored and dyed with artificial colors. (Not entirely true, by the way, according to, and anyway, I have it on good authority that McNuggets are made of chicken breast meat, not that pink crap, so that didn’t bother me in the least.)

But I ate my McNuggets with gusto anyway and was feeling pretty good–until I flipped the box over to check out the nutrition facts (BAD idea) and realized that I’d just consumed 29 grams of fat (44 percent of the recommended daily value)  and 1000 mg of sodium (42 percent of DV). Ouch.

I looked to blog therapy to relieve my McGuilt Trip, but as I googled Chicken McNuggets,  I came across a Daily Mail story that came out today about a UK teen who has eaten nothing but Chicken McNuggets for 15 (!!) years and passed out while working. She was rushed to the hospital because she had trouble breathing and was found to be critically vitamin deficient and anemic. And she also had inflamed veins in her tongue. Gross.

The sad part is, the photos in the story really show how sickly she is. Imagine how much prettier she’d be if she’d eat a damn salad every now and then.

After reading her story, I didn’t feel quite as bad about 10 measly little nugs. Still. I think I’ll work out over the weekend anyway and make that barley soup to cleanse out the ol’ colon. Gotta atone for my sins somehow, I suppose.

Happy weekend to all, and to all a good night.


Filed under Food, in the news, Random musings

Mushroom Watch 2012: ‘Shroom to Grow

My beloved mushrooms meet their fate.

It seems like only yesterday that my shiitakes were but wee spores. I tended to them every day, carefully misting them three times a day and following every instruction in the handbook–even going so far as e-mailing the mushroom patch company to ask someone questions about the welfare of my little ones.

Then they started growing like gangbusters in girth and height virtually by the hour, reaching 1 inch in diameter, then 2, then 3. After they stayed at nearly 5 inches in diameter for a couple of days, though, I knew they were good and ready to be harvested.

I feel sort of silly even typing this, but I actually felt the slightest tinge of sadness when I cut the stems and chopped them up. I’d invested quite a bit of time and effort in my patch, and even though I only got two mushrooms out of it, they were the very first fungi I’d ever grown, on purpose anyway. A girl never forgets her first shrooms.

At first, I thought about just sauteeing them with a little butter and salt, but then I found this drool-worthy Epicurious recipe for Wild Mushroom Risotto.  Dee-licious.

So what now?  It looks like my patch is dormant at the moment, so no more updates for a while. Hopefully, the next time I get a flush of mushrooms, they’ll grow bigger and badder than the first ones.

Maybe I should get some advice from Ian Neale, a Welsh farmer whose vegetable-growing prowess caught the attention  of a certain hip hop star who also happens to be a fellow gardening enthusiast.

“Let’s smoke some swede, fo’ shizzle.”

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Filed under DIY projects, Food, kitchen adventures

In the News: Diabetes, Shmiabetes!

Paula Deen's sticky situation (via

Paula Deen. Love her or hate her, she seems to be on every food lover’s mind at the moment, thanks to her ill-advised decision to admit she’s had Type II diabetes for three years and that she’s now a spokesperson for controversial diabetes meds from Novo Nordisk. And days before her birthday, no less!

I’m really not a Deen fan at all–anyone who’s created a beef burger topped with bacon and a fried egg sandwiched between two doughnuts has got to be batshit crazy. But I thought of her diabetes debacle as I piled four huge Cadbury Dairy Milk bars into my shopping cart at the grocery store, with the intention of using them in yet another baking experiment, and wondered whether I was slowly killing myself and the people around me with my cooking and baking as well.

Type II diabetes runs in my family: my mom, grandma, uncle and aunt all have/had it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up getting it, too. Sure, I try to sub out stevia for sugar in my coffee and I work out occasionally, but damn, I love me my sweets. In fact, I just annihilated four Dare Raspberry Whippets (the Canadian version of Mallomars, but with a raspberry jam center) while writing this post, and I don’t care who knows it!

I get that diabetes is a hard pill to swallow if you love to eat and prepare food as much as someone like Deen does. What I don’t get is her apparent lack of self-awareness. I wonder whether she thought twice before dumping a box of butter into a pie on her show,  or whether she even blinked while serving up her chocolate cheese fudge–complete with two sticks of butter and a half-pound of Velveeta cheese ::gag::

It would seem that as a celebrity figure that people look to for culinary guidance, Deen could have used her diagnosis more thoughtfully and promoted healthier eating without hawking a questionable medication. At first glance, it looks like she’s doing just that–her website now features a microsite with healthier versions of some of her recipes, although I think there’s just no saving the donut burger–but the microsite is brought to you by Novo Nordisk. For shame.

As home cooks, though, do we have the same responsibility to give our loved ones healthy food? Of course, to some degree, yes. But, as with most things in life, moderation is key–and exercise is a must. After all, the French eat croissants all the freaking time–so much so that a recent French “fat tax” got everyone’s culottes in a bunch when they thought the tax would jack up croissant prices–but they walk and bike everywhere, so there you go.

All right, I’m rambling now. I actually didn’t intend to write a full post tonight, actually, but, hey, y’all get a freebie tonight. What I really wanted to do was post a few of my favorite Deen memes. (More awesomeness here.) Good night, and good luck.

The Yecch Files (via

The Lady's rebuttal to everyone's bitching over diabetes (via

You otter know better, Paula. (via

Letting it all hang out. (via

And, for good measure, the OG of diabetes himself, Wilford Brimley.

Hip hop and he don't stop (via


Filed under Food, in the news, kitchen conundrums

In the News: Jay-Z’s Blueprint for Disaster?

Jay-Z's restaurant/club relaunch got everyone's attention--but not in a good way

It’s been a big year for Jay-Z so far, what with the much-publicized birth of his baby with Beyonce, a Billboard Chart hit, and the grand re-opening of his recently renovated 40/40 Club. Incidentally, the reopening of 40/40 also takes the cake for the biggest celebrity gross-out in the past couple of weeks, since the New York Department of Health shut it down just one day after the rapper held a star-studded, A-list relaunch party last week, with the likes of Russell Simmons, Spike Lee and (random!) Warren Buffett.

Jay-Z and Warren B. had to regulate. (via

Apparently, Jay-Z had 69 problems, but irony ain’t one. After he lavished $10 million on a floor-to-ceiling renovation of his fancy lounge/eatery (loungery?), it appears there wasn’t enough in the budget to upgrade the kitchen’s walk-in fridge or train the staff on basic food safety, which resulted in 69 health code violations. Sixty-nine!! That’s probably the only context in which that number lacks any appeal whatsoever.

According to the New York Post, the violations included the following (hold your gag reflex until the end, please):

1) A worker was seen mixing salsa with bare hands.

2) There were five pounds of cooked mashed potatoes left out at 89 degrees Fahrenheit; while 10 pounds of cooked rice and 50 cooked turkey burgers were kept at 67 degrees. All hot foods must be stored at a minimum of 140 degrees.

3) Fifty pounds of raw chicken wings, 5 pounds of raw shrimp, and 100 raw turkey burgers were kept in a fridge at a lukewarm 60 degrees instead of 41 degrees. Would you like a side order of e. coli with that?

Jay-Z’s reps were quick to clean up the mess and pin blame on a malfunctioning refrigerator that just happened to go on the fritz when the health safety inspector dropped by for his spot check. The club reopened shortly after.

But even a blitz kitchen scrub-down wasn’t enough to make the club’s current “C” grade disappear immediately. The grade will be reconsidered at a city hearing next month.

That’s all well and good, but doesn’t change the fact that before the club closed for renovations last year, it had racked up 39 health code violations, including unsanitary conditions and improper food handling. A restaurant would need to “score” 28 points or more to qualify for the “C” grade, which is the lowest a restaurant can get before being declared a biohazard area. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

Salmonella rave party. You don't want an invitation, trust me.

The whole 40/40 story got me thinking back to a New York Times story I read last year about whether the average home cook’s kitchen would pass a health inspection.

I remember it freaked me out a bit, because there were a few things going on in my kitchen that would definitely raise red flags with a health inspector, like a cracked cutting board (I’ve since thrown it out), washing my hands in the kitchen sink (honestly, who has the time to run up to the bathroom several times after handling certain foods while cooking?) and having a damp kitchen towel hanging on my oven door handle.

The last thing any home cook wants is to sicken his or her dinner guests, and the possibility of unwittingly serving up a dish a la Typhoid Mary  is a constant fear. (That, and having one of my many long, black hairs fall into a lasagna or a cake, even though I always tie my hair up. ::shudder::)

Typhoid Mary had a little lamb...and accidentally killed a bunch of people after serving it. Sad face. (via

I guess people will probably forget about the 40/40 snafu and Jay-Z will continue to make bank off it. But would you dare eat at a restaurant that has had such a bad health-inspection track record? Hindsight may be 20/20 for the HOVA and his kitchen crew,  but until the club consistently cleans up its act, I’m thinking the answer, for now, would be:

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Filed under Food, in the news

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Let’s Eat!

Let the festivities begin! (via

There are lots of things to love about Chinese New Year, no matter what your cultural heritage is–firecrackers, dragon and lion dances, lively drums, gorgeous red paper lanterns lighting the night sky…and the FOOD. Oh, the food. It’s amazing that there aren’t more obese Asian people, given the way we gorge ourselves on special occasions and our zest for food in general.

Basically, Chinese New Year lasts 15 days, and kicks off with a New Year’s Eve reunion dinner (or, more precisely, feast), featuring some key foods, each of which have a symbolic significance. The feast usually includes whole fish, perhaps a steamed red snapper or rock fish with a soy, cilantro, ginger, sesame oil and green onion sauce, to signify prosperity and abundance; jiaozi dumplings filled with pork and green onions or leeks, which stand for wealth; spring rolls, which resemble gold bars and signify good fortune; oranges and/or tangerines to bring luck; nian gao, or Chinese New Year cake, made with sweetened glutinous rice; and some kind of noodle dish, which signifies longevity.

Trying to eat egg drop soup is SO much harder while wearing a fancy empress hat.

Since I’m only a half Chinese (and not a very good one at that), I didn’t really go all out and make a big meal over the weekend. Growing up, my family never really got into the full swing of things during CNY. Sure, we did the whole red packet exchange thing (we kids really enjoyed that), and there was the occasional ten-course dinner at a Chinese restaurant, but it was nothing big.

That didn’t stop me from cooking up Cantonese seafood chow mein, which happens to be one of my favorite Asian dishes of all time. Featuring a colorful mix of veggies and seafood in a brown gravy, all sitting atop a pile of crispy, golden pan-fried noodles, Cantonese seafood chow mein is, in my humble opinion, the perfect balance of textures and flavors. It’s also kind o f hard to find, especially among Americanized Chinese restaurants. Usually whenever I order it, it turns out to be a mess of greasy, thick noodles in a gross, flavorless sauce, topped with mystery meats and limp veggies.

My humble seafood chow mein

Usually, I’m a slave to cookbooks and recipes–I’m trying to remedy this in 2012–but when it comes to Asian foods, I take a more intuitive approach. Sure, I still use recipes as guidance from time to time, but usually I’m flying by the seat of my pants, paying little to no attention to measurements.

Still, for the purposes of this blog, I tried writing things down in a recipe of my own, so here goes. All of these ingredients can be found at any well-stocked Asian grocery:

Flaming Dragon Cantonese Seafood Chow Mein
serves 4

1/4 lb. medium fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 lb. medium fresh scallops
1/4 lb. frozen squid, defrosted, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces (you can find packages in the Asian frozen fish section that have already been cut and cleaned)
2 tbsp. plus one tsp. corn starch
1 tsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 tsp. fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
5 tbsp. canola oil
3 tbsp. oyster sauce
2 tbsp. cold water
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. sesame oil
One 16 oz. package of precooked Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles (I like Twin Marquis brand, do NOT use that LaChoy crispy noodle crap)
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced thinly and diagonally
4 oz. canned sliced water chestnuts
4 oz. canned sliced bamboo shoots
8 oz. canned baby corn
4 oz. canned peeled straw mushrooms
2 tbsp. dry white wine
1 c. low-sodium chicken broth
4 oz. fresh snow peas, strings removed
12 baby bok choy or 6 large bok choy, with bottoms trimmed and individual stalks separated


1) Pat shrimp, scallop and squid dry with a paper towel, and toss with 1 tsp. cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon salt, white pepper and minced ginger and garlic in medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2) Mix oyster sauce, 2 tbsp. cornstarch, water, sugar and sesame oil.

3) Preheat oven for 10 minutes at 300° F.

4) While oven is preheating, heat 2 tbsp. oil in a wok on high until hot. Reduce heat to medium. Gently lower noodles into the wok to avoid splashing hot oil and  cook until golden, using chopsticks or a fork to separate and flip noodles as they cook. If noodles are not browning and look a little dry, then  add 1 tbsp. vegetable oil. Remove noodles from heat and place in a heatproof platter, and keep warm in the oven.

5) While noodles are warming, heat 2 tbsp. oil in wok again on high until hot, then turn down to medium-high heat. Pour in scallops and shrimp and stir until halfway cooked, then stir in squid. Cook until shrimp are pink, scallops are firm and opaque, and squid are opaque and slightly curled, about 5-7 minutes. Remove wok from heat and pour seafood mixture in a medium heatproof bowl. Set aside.

6) Return wok to stove and heat up remaining 1 tbsp. oil on high heat until hot. Turn down heat to medium, then pour in carrot, water chestnuts, bamboo, baby corn, mushrooms, wine and remaining 1/2 tsp. kosher salt. Stir fry for 2 minutes.

7) Stir in chicken broth, and bring mixture to a boil.

8) Cook uncovered for 1 minute, then stir in snow peas and bok choy with the oyster sauce/cornstarch mix. Stir until thickened, then return shrimp, scallops and squid to the vegetable mixture. Season to taste with additional kosher salt and white pepper as needed.

9) Take out the noodles from the oven, then pour contents of entire wok over the noodles. Serve immediately.

This is my first attempt at an actual recipe of my own (thanks to Kate Leahy over at Modern Meal Maker for guidelines on how to write a recipe), so hopefully this works for you.

In the meantime, may you all live long and prosper in the year of the dragon, and that these noodles will give you a long and happy life.



Filed under Food, kitchen adventures