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Cappuccino: No espresso machine necessary!

14 Nov

This morning I had a lovely breakfast before heading out to the Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market.  My customary coffee turned into a cappuccino, and I had a lovely fruit/yogurt parfait using some of the granola I made a few weeks back.

It turns out that all you need to make a cappuccino complete with frothy goodness is a blender!  I got this great idea from my newest cookbook, The Urban Vegan by Dynise Balcavage.  I typically make my coffee in an Italian espresso pot, or caffettiera.  However, make your coffee with whatever contraption you wish.

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While my coffee was brewing, I put about 3/4 cup of soy milk (you can use milk of any type for this purpose) in a glass liquid measuring cup and microwaved it for about 1.5 minutes.

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Get out your blender.  Put the hot milk in the blender, and whirl for about 20 seconds or so.  The blender gets enough air into the milk to produce froth.

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Check out my lovely holiday mug.  It’s a little crazy looking, but comes in handy for a cappuccino.

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Mix the coffee and milk in the mug, and sprinkle with cinnamon.

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To top off my cappuccino triumph, I made a breakfast parfait with a sliced organic Gala apple, organic whole milk yogurt from Straus Family Creamery, the very last of the granola I featured on the blog about a month ago, some dried cherries, a few chopped walnuts, and some honey.  Yum!  Great way to start a Saturday.

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I think this set me up for a great farmer’s market experience.  I ended up with giant sweet potatoes, a large bunch of beautiful arugula, persimmons, a green bell pepper, and a bag of tangerines.  Yum!!  I’ll take some pictures of my loot and post them later.

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Top 10 Tips for Being a Better Cook

24 Aug

I mostly taught myself to cook.  Though my family is full of excellent cooks, my mom in particular, and I grew up with food made from scratch, I didn’t really learn to cook until my second year in college when I moved out of the dorms.  At first, I made a lot of pasta, eggs, quesadillas, and lots of things out of boxes and cans.  I had no real idea of how to properly prepare vegetables, or how to make an omelet, my own soup, or a marinara sauce.  There are some things that have definitely helped me in my quest to learn to cook.  If you are on a mission to learn to cook or be a better cook, the following tips may be as useful to you as they have been to me.

  1. Buy yourself some cookbooks. The internet is a great resource for recipes, but there’s nothing like thumbing through a cookbook to get ideas and inspiration for trying something new.
  2. Set a goal of making at least one new dish per week. Shooting for this goal, or surpassing it, will keep you out of a rut and help you learn faster by exposing you to a variety of ingredients and techniques.  In no time, you’ll have a reliable repertoire of dishes you’ll feel confident making for yourself and others.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. You will have the inevitable screw-up, so accept that.  The first time I made chocolate chip cookies, I didn’t realize that cookie dough expands as it bakes, so I made giant balls of dough and ended up with huge cookies.  Not such a disaster, since they were still chocolate chip cookies!  My family still makes fun of me for it.  In the words of the great Julia Child, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.  In cooking you’ve got to have a “What the hell?” attitude.”  Now that’s some sage advice.
  4. Keep it simple. Rome was not built in a day, and you will not become a master cook in a day.  Trying to do too much too soon will set you up for frustration.
  5. Don’t get hung up on following recipes exactly. When baking, being exact is important because baking is more scientific than cooking.  You need exact proportions of things like flour, liquid, and baking soda in order for your baked goods to come out right.  However, cooking is much more flexible.  Look at recipes as templates–good ideas that can be adjusted according to ingredients you have on hand or simply your own personal preferences.  For example, if you don’t like cilantro, don’t feel obligated to use it in a recipe.  Replace it with an herb that you like or just don’t use any herbs.  It’s really up to you.  You’re the boss in the kitchen.  Remember, no one’s watching you, so do what you want.
  6. Watching cooking shows has been very valuable for me because you can observe techniques and pick up lots of helpful information it might take you a while to learn otherwise.  I learned to chop onions, garlic, and other vegetables by watching people like Giada de Laurentiis on her show Everyday Italian on the Food Network.  I learned lots of other things from her as well, like how to properly cook pasta and get your fish to come out perfectly every time.  I also love Ina Garten and her show Barefoot Contessa. She and Giada both have excellent cookbooks, but you can also find their recipes on the Food Network website.
  7. Don’t think of cooking as drudgery, and you’ll do it more often. Not everyone shares this view, of course, but I view cooking as an important form of caring for myself and others.  There’s really nothing like eating something awesome you’ve made for yourself to make you feel pampered.
  8. If you have a local farmer’s market, check it out sometime. An old friend convinced me to start going with her, and through this experience I learned a lot about food and I started experimenting more in the kitchen.  I learned what’s in season when, which also helps me know what to buy at the grocery store.  Buying in season generally means better quality and less expensive produce.   You want to stay away from peaches in December, for example.  They’ll be expensive and will have no flavor.  Only buy cherries in the summer, or you’ll pay out the nose.  Before I started going to the farmer’s market, I had no idea that kale and swiss chard are mostly winter vegetables, that figs are best in July and August, and that apples start appearing in the late summer, early fall.  I also started cooking with vegetables I had never tried before.  I had never thought of eating kale until I found some beautiful purple kale at the farmer’s market and decided I had to find some way to use it.  So, I bought it and made omelets.
  9. Enlist the power of Google to help you learn. If there’s something you don’t know how to do, Google it.  If you have ingredients you don’t know what to do with, Google them and it will find a recipe for you.
  10. Plan ahead. I like to use Sundays as my day to make food for the week.  You don’t need to cook all your meals in one day, but it’s helpful to get a head start by cooking up some soup or making a casserole.  You can also use any blocks of time you have to pre-chop vegetables, cook rice or other grains, cook beans, etc. to use on the fly during the week when the last thing you feel like doing is chopping and you don’t have 2 hours to cook beans.

The Easiest, Cheapest, Most Satisfying Breakfast Ever

17 Aug

What could it be, you ask?  I realize I’m making quite a claim here.  My answer?  Oatmeal.  Oatmeal is actually pretty fast when you cook it yourself instead of making it from the instant packets.  Quick-cooking oats cook within 1 minute, regular “old fashioned” oats in 5, and, my favorite kind, steel-cut oats cook in about 15 minutes, or even more depending on how creamy you want them.  However, many of us are not willing to cook anything in the morning.  I know this because I hear it all the time from people I know.  Below, see what steel cut oats look like if you’ve never seen them before.   Steel cut oats are just the entire oat “groat” cut into smaller pieces, whereas more “mainstream” oats are whole oats that are steamed and then pressed, making them faster cooking and giving them a different texture.

steel cut oats

steel cut oats

Many people I know who don’t want to commit to cooking something for breakfast eat instant oatmeal.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating instant oatmeal, but many brands have a lot of added sugar and other questionable ingredients.  Others, like Kashi, are better in terms of having less sugar, but cost more.  I checked, and a box of 6 packets of Kashi instant oatmeal are $3.50-$5, depending on where you buy it.  If you cook your own oatmeal, it’s unbelievably cheap by comparison.  For $4, I can get 4 pounds of steel cut oats from a local grocery store’s bulk food section.  There are some brands of steel cut oats that are pricier, like McCann’s, but typically you can find them cheaply priced in the bulk section of many grocery stores.  Also for $4, you can get two big canisters, or about 4 pounds total, of 1-minute quick or 5-minute old fashioned oats.

2 lb container of 5-minute oats, also known as "old fashioned oats"

2 lb container of 5-minute oats (30 servings), also known as "old fashioned oats"

The solution that will help you save both time and money and reduce your sugar intake is the following:  Make several servings on Sunday evening, store in the refrigerator, and reheat as needed throughout the week with a bit of extra water and your favorite toppings.  I got this idea from Heidi Swanson, in her book Super Natural Cooking.  You still have, in effect, an “instant” breakfast, but it won’t have as much sugar and it’s much cheaper.  Plus, you can use some tasty and creative toppings.  Here, I give you some ideas.  But first, how to make the oatmeal.  My example is with steel cut oats, because I prefer them.  I enjoy the 5- minute “old fashioned” oats as well and buy them also, but I don’t really like the 1-minute “quick oats” because they come out a bit mushy, in my opinion.  But, to each his own.

I made 4 servings of oatmeal, with 1 and 1/3 cups of oats, 4 cups of water, and 1/2 tsp of salt.  Steel cut oats require a 1/3 cup oats to 1 cup water ratio, whereas 1-minute and 5-minute oats require a 1/2 cup of oats to 1 cup of water.  Multiply these amounts based on how many servings you need to make.  You need some salt to bring out the “oaty” flavor.  When I forget to add salt, my oats are bland.  No one wants bland oats.  Anyway, each serving needs just a pinch of salt.  For my 4 servings, I used a 1/2 tsp, so use that as a guideline if you need to multiply.

Step one is to measure out oats and water.  Step two, bring water to a boil with the salt.

water and salt

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When water boils, add the oats.  Stir, then turn down heat to medium low.  Leave uncovered to cook for the time required depending on the type of oats you are cooking.  Steel cut oats need at least 15 minutes.  I cooked mine for 20 or so.  Obviously, quick and 5-minute oats will cook much faster!

Simmering oats

Simmering oats

The oats will thicken as they cook away….

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Once your oats are done cooking, allow them to cool a bit and transfer to a container for storing in the refrigerator.  Refrigerate.  When ready to eat, add a bit of extra water, perhaps 1 tablespoon per serving, and microwave for 1-2 minutes.  Then, add your favorite toppings.  More on that in a second…but first, pictures on what I did with my oatmeal this morning:

Blueberries, brown sugar, and peanut butter

Blueberries, brown sugar, and peanut butter

Yum!

Yum!

To this, I added some soy milk.  You can use soy milk, cow milk, cream, goat milk, almond milk, or no milk.  Whatever you want.

So, with a bit of forethought and some oat cooking on Sunday evening, I have enough “instant” oatmeal to last several days.

One of the advantages of cooking up plain oatmeal is that you can play with different toppings and come up with some very tasty results.  You pick your sweetener here, whether it be brown sugar, white sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, whatever.  Unless you pour on the sugar, you’re certainly getting less sugar than you would with your average flavored instant oatmeal.  Here is a list of some of my favorite combinations:

  • 1 or 2 teaspoons peanut butter with a few chocolate chips.  It’s fabulous.  Like a cookie!  My sister taught me this trick.
  • berries, like blackberries or blueberries, with peanut butter and brown sugar
  • frozen or fresh mango with some coconut and some brown sugar or honey
  • walnuts, cinnamon, brown sugar
  • fresh or frozen strawberries, mashed, and some brown sugar
  • mashed banana with peanut butter
  • chopped dates, brown sugar, and walnuts
  • raisins or dried cranberries with walnuts or almonds
  • whatever kind of jam you have
  • applesauce

There are endless other combinations, but those are some favorites that come to mind.  Enjoy your “instant” oatmeal!