Dinner Select - Meal Planning

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Sweet Potatoes and Yams
Cumin Facts
Dutch Oven
Slow Cooker Coq au Vin
Beef, Chicken or Vegetable Stock

Sweet Potatoes and Yams....
Do you know the difference between a yam and a sweet potato?  Even our local grocer incorrectly labels sweet potatoes as "yams".  Actually the two are different vegetables.  Yams are a staple in tropical regions, but rarely seen in the U.S. and Canada. 

Cumin Fact...
Interesting fact for the week...Cumin is a spice typically found in Indian and Mexican recipes.  It has a warm, sweet flavor, and is one of the key spices used to make chilli powder and curry powder.

Dutch Oven....
Here's an idea for your holiday wish list.  Do you own a Dutch oven?  It is a heavy (typically cast iron) pot with a tight fitting lid.  Historically they were used for cooking on an open fire, but today they are wonderful for cooking stews on the stovetop.  We love our enameled cast iron oven from Le Creuset.

Slow Cooker Coq au Vin....
We added two new recipes this week that we are very excited about: Slow Cooker Coq au Vin (for those of you who select chicken among your preferences) and a Veggie Panini (for those that include vegetarian).  We are anxious to read your reviews of these! 

Slow cookers are perfect for stews or roasts, and especially this time of year it's nice to come home to a warm dinner.  Dinner in a slow cooker can also accommodate the nights when your family needs to eat in shifts.  Take a couple of servings from the pot, and leave the rest warming until the last family member comes home.

Beef, Chicken or Vegetable Stock.... 
This week's tip: Several recipes call for broth...beef, chicken or vegetable stock.  You have many choices including making your own (who has time for that?), or buying canned stock, bouillon cubes/granules or a jarred paste base product.  Our preference is the jarred base product, for example, "Better than Bouillon" by Superior Touch.  We think the flavor is better than that of bouillon cubes/granules and it's more convenient that buying and storing multiple cans of stock.  One small jar of the concentrated base makes many servings and keeps in the fridge several weeks after opening.  Plus it's easy to make small amounts like a half cup of broth when using the base.

Mashed Potoatoes....
If you're hosting a Christmas dinner next week, aim for a menu that allows you to mingle with your guests rather than toiling in the kitchen.  Beef tenderloin roast and roasted salmon are each great choices for a main dish because you season first, and then simply pop it into the oven until it's done.  Get the chopping and measuring for the side dishes done in advance so you can relax as you make the final preparations. 

Mashed potatoes are practically obligatory in my part of the country, but boiled red potatoes are a nice alternative.  A vegetable like Brussels sprouts or green beans with slivered almonds is colorful and easy for a large group.  And unless you love to bake, buy a lovely pie or cheesecake from a local bakery for dessert.  Irish cream on ice makes a cozy holiday drink.   If you're lucky enough to enjoy dinner at someone else's house, have safe travels!   Happy Holidays!

Asian Food...
Try a new Asian recipe this week!  A common ingredient in Asian food is fresh ginger.  In addition to adding a lovely fragrant mild spice to food, ginger has also been used since ancient times as a medical remedy to treat various ailments from stomach upset to the common cold. 

You can find fresh ginger at your supermarket in the fresh produce section, usually near the fresh garlic.  Or for convenience, we buy bottled minced fresh ginger, which you can find in the international aisle of your supermarket.

Coriander Leaves...
Have you read recipes that call for coriander leaves?  Coriander leaves are also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley.  We always call it "fresh cilantro".  Fresh cilantro is a common herb in both Asian and Mexican food.

White Wine and Grapes....
Did you know that white wine is often made from red grapes?  The juice from even a red grape is essentially white, and white wine is made using fermented grape juice.  The production process involves little contact with the grape skin. On the other hand, the red wine production process involves using whole, crushed, fermented grapes.

Why you should use olive oil in cooking...
Two main reasons:  1. To add flavor... Meat or vegetables sautéed in olive oil taste great, and olive oil enhances the flavor of Mediterranean sauces.  For example Italian spaghetti sauce is not authentic without olive oil!  Vegetable oils have no flavor, so they work great in case you don't want to alter the flavor of the ingredients.  2. For nutritional value... Olive oil contains more monounsaturated fat (the good kind) than vegetable oils, and it is less processed than most vegetable oils so it retains more of its original nutrients.

When we Americans refer to "prosciutto", we are referring to Italian dry-cured ham.  However in Italian "prosciutto" simply means "ham".  Every region in Italy makes its own variety of Prosciutto, for example Prosciutto di Parma.  Prosciutto wrapped around melon slices makes a great appetizer.

Wild Rice...
Did you know wild rice is not really rice at all?  Wild rice is actually a type of marsh grass that grows naturally in parts of North America.  Recently it is also grown commercially as well.  It is difficult to harvest, therefore it is an expensive luxury.  It is a nutritious whole grain, high in protein and low in fat, with an earthy, nutty flavor.

Garlic Presses....
Do you own a garlic press?  We believe pressing garlic is a lot quicker than mincing it with a knife, especially if you invest about $35 in a good press that can handle pressing an unpeeled clove.  Pressing a clove unpeeled wastes only a little, and it saves time and makes cleanup easier. 

Note that the flavor of pressed garlic is a bit more intense than minced, but the difference is minimal as long as the garlic is cooked in the recipe.  When our recipes call for "minced garlic", you can choose your own preferred method.

Ethnic Grocery Shops....
You can find great deals at small ethnic grocery shops.  Sure we shop in our local supermarket most of the time.  However there are some things that are too expensive or unavailable in the superstores. 

For example, we love basmati rice and use it whenever a recipe calls for long-grained rice.  (Maybe it is because we love Indian and Thai food that we like basmati rice best.)  Anyway it costs $3 for a 1 pound package of basmati rice at our local store!  That would barely last one week in our house.  Instead we periodically go to a local Indian grocer and pay only $15 for a 20 pound bag! 

Consider visiting a grocer that specializes in your favorite ethnic food to find some surprising deals.  

Mozzarella Cheese
Mozzarella cheese was first made in Italy near Naples from the rich milk of water buffalos.  Today thanks to this country's love of Italian food, both low moisture mozzarella and high moisture (fresh) mozzarella are readily available. Most American-made mozzarella is made from cow's milk.

For convenience and price, in our recipes we typically use the pre-packaged shredded low moisture mozzarella.  However for some dishes, like Caprese Salad for example, only fresh mozzarella will do.  Fresh mozzarella has a higher moisture content making it more perishable, and consequently more expensive.  Fresh mozzarella does have a superior taste and texture, so try it as a special treat in pasta dishes and on pizza if you are willing to splurge! 

Corned Beef
Did you know corned beef is not made with corn?  Corned beef is beef brisket cured in seasoned brine.  The term "corn" is in reference to the corns or granules of salt used in the brine.  Corned beef and cabbage is a typical Irish dinner.  Smoked corned beef is known as pastrami, as in the famous Reubin sandwich made with pastrami, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye bread. 

Mustard Greens
This week's new recipe "Roasted Vegetable Tagine" (for those of you who include vegetarian among your preferences) features "mustard greens" among other vegetables.

Mustard greens are popular in southern cooking and are now in season. They have peppery leaves, which are a bit too pungent for eating raw unless the plant is very young.  Mustard greens are high in vitamins A, C and K.

Salting Eggplant...
Why salt eggplant?  Two reasons.  First eggplant has a high moisture content.  When salt is sprinkled on slices of eggplant, moisture is drawn to the surface and may be wiped away with a paper towel.  The result is a dryer, denser eggplant less likely to become mushy when cooked or to absorb too much oil when sautéed.

Second eggplant turns bitter as it ages, and salting helps remove some bitterness.  Of course it is best to buy eggplant fresh (with shiny exterior that springs back into shape when pressed lightly) and use it promptly. 

Kosher Salt...
Is kosher salt really kosher?  No.  "Kosher" salt gets its name from its use in the process of making meat conform to Jewish kosher standards.  Kosher salt may come from either underground mines or from the sea.  Both kosher salt and course sea salt have larger, irregular grains versus the fine grains of table salt. 

Some say kosher salt tastes "less salty" than table salt, but this is probably because the grains are larger and less dense giving the sense of more salt than there really is.  The nutritional value of kosher salt, sea salt and table salt is the same (except that table salt contains added iodine, which is necessary for proper thyroid function.)

Blue Corn Tortillas...
Researchers found that blue corn tortillas are slightly healthier than white tortillas.  Blue tortillas have less starch and more protein, and their deep blue/purple color comes from the same healthy compounds found in blueberries, plums and red wine. 

Be cautioned that once the tortillas are fried to make snack chips, the benefit of blue over white is only marginal.  Nevertheless next time you reach for a bag of tortilla chips, consider trying blue.  Dip the chips in some fresh guacamole and salsa, and you have a tasty, healthy and colorful snack! 

Chile Peppers 101
There are over 100 varieties of peppers aka chiles.  The "hotness" is a result of both plant genetics and growing conditions.   While hotness is mostly subjective based on an individual's taste, there is a common scale "Scoville heat units" that measures the amount of capsaicin (the chemical found in peppers that gives peppers "heat").  Some common fresh peppers in order from no heat to fiery are: 

Bell peppers (no heat);

Poblano (mild);

Jalapeño (mild-medium);

Serrano (medium);

Thai (hot); and

Habañero (extremely hot). 

Always wear gloves when handling mild-hot peppers to prevent passing oil from the pepper to your eyes! 

On a recent trip to Mexico we discovered an easy and delicious appetizer: jicama (HEE-comma). Until this trip we had always ignored this root vegetable, which is a good source of vitamin C.  It has a sweet, nutty flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked. 

As an appetizer, simply peel the thin skin (like you would peel a potato) then slice the vegetable into strips.  Place the strips in a shallow serving bowl, squeeze the juice of one or two limes all over them; sprinkle with a little salt and serve with fresh guacamole.   We like the flavor and crunch of the raw jicama dipped in guacamole, and it is a healthier (and gluten-free) alternative to tortilla chips.  Look for jicama at your local supermarket!   

Swiss Raclette
Looking for a new and fun idea for dinner with a group of 4-8 friends?  You will really enjoy a Swiss raclette dinner party.  Raclette is both a type of cheese and a dish that features the cheese.  The word raclette is derived from the French word "racler" which means "to scrape".  Historically the Swiss melted the cheese over an open fire and as it melted slowly they would scrape the cheese off the wheel and serve it with potatoes and bread. 

The dish raclette is very popular in Europe (there they call it "gourmet") and we were introduced to it years ago when we were living in Belgium. You need an electric raclette grill, which costs around $60-$100.  The grill sits in the middle of the dining room table, and guests grill their own food while enjoying a few nice bottles of wine!  

Remove that garlic germ! 
If you cut a garlic clove in half, you will see a small sprout in the middle.  That sprout is called the garlic "germ".  Very fresh garlic has only a tiny, white germ.  As the garlic gets older, the germ becomes larger and eventually turns green.  Experts say the garlic germ should be removed and discarded - especially when the germ is large or when the garlic is to be eaten raw as in guacamole or salad dressing.  Why? The germ is very acidic and can cause indigestion.  It also has a bitter flavor, which may affect your recipe and leave a nasty aftertaste. 

Special Occasions 
Have you ever had a neighbor deliver a meal to you when you were going through a challenging time?  If so then you know that dinner is one of the best gifts to receive!  Shortly after having our first child, our next-door neighbor at the time brought us a hot meal one night.  After receiving plenty of adorable baby dresses and blankets, nothing left such a thoughtful impression during those sleepless days as that home-cooked dinner! 

Since then we always try to pass on the same consideration to our friends and neighbors.  Check out the new "Homemade Spaghetti Sauce Gift Meal for Friend or Neighbor" that we just added to the Special Occasions Page.  It has all the makings of a great gift meal: it's kid-friendly with home-made comfort food appeal, and it's flexible enough to be served on the day of delivery or saved for a later date.  

Chile, Chili or Chilli? 
Do they mean the same?  Yes.  The original term "chile" means pepper in Spanish.  For example "Poblano chile" and "Poblano pepper" mean the same thing.   

Americans added the "i" at the end when the dish we now call "chili" was translated from Spanish "Carne con Chile" ("meat with chile").  Consequently we typically call the chili seasoning "chili powder".  Chili powder is a blend of ground dried chiles plus fillers such as cumin, garlic powder and salt.  Because it is a blend, chili powder flavor and spiciness can vary hugely. In contrast, "ancho chile powder," for example, is pure ground ancho chiles.

The term "chili" has further evolved to become an American term for hot peppers. We see often in print "chili pepper" or even "chilli pepper" in reference to a hot pepper.  So in short chile, chili and chilli may be used interchangeably as a term for a hot "pepper". 

Baby Carrots
Baby carrots are so popular, and indeed they are convenient for snacking right out of the bag. However they are typically more expensive per pound than regular full-length carrots and the variety of carrot used for baby carrots is not as flavorful.  Baby carrots are simply full-size (ugly) carrots that are chopped in two or three pieces then whittled down to a uniform small size, then peeled and washed.

If it has been a while since you have tried regular fresh carrots - with the green tops still on, you may have forgotten what a carrot is supposed to taste like!  You'll especially notice the superior flavor of fresh carrots when eating them raw.  Look for young, slender carrots about 8-inches long with fresh leaves.  Remove the greens after you buy them since they draw away moisture from the root.  Much of the nutrients are in the skin, so gently scrub the skin and wash just before using (don't peel the carrots unless they are larger with tough skin)

Vegetable Herb Garden
It's a perfect time to start a vegetable and herb garden if you haven't already.  Even if you're limited on space, you can easily grow a few selected plants.  For example, we have a ridiculously tiny garden in the corner of our back yard where we grow two tomato plants (one regular and one cherry tomato), two pepper plants (one sweet and one hot), and a handful of herbs. 

Even a small garden like ours is very rewarding.  First there is nothing better tasting than vine-ripe tomatoes (or any vegetable) harvested from your own garden!  Second, our kids get a kick out of watching everything grow and they learn that the original source of produce isn't the supermarket.  And finally growing herbs that you use in cooking is more economical than purchasing expensive store-bought herbs.  Herbs and most vegetables grow best in full, hot sunshine in well-drained soil. 

It's the season for grilling! 
In addition to great grilled flavor, cooking outdoors keeps your kitchen cool!  The cooking surface of your gas grill needs to be cleaned each time you use your grill.  If your grill grates are plain cast iron, you should do a "burn-off" just before you grill. You simply turn the grill burners on high and close the lid for 10 minutes; then brush off the charred residue from the grates with a steel brush.  Check with your grill owner's manual about keeping your cast iron grill oiled. 

If your grill grates are any other surface (steel, stainless steel or porcelain-coated) then you may do a "burn-off" just after cooking.  As soon as you remove the food from the grates, turn up the heat and cover for 10 minutes.  Then brush with a brass brush.  The only trick with doing the burn-off after you cook is the tendency to forget your grill is turned on high while you are inside enjoying dinner...unfortunately I am speaking from experience!  So now as soon as my timer goes off that the grilled food is done, I reset it for 15 minutes to remind me that the grill may still be turned on.

Leafy salad greens
Leafy salad greens contain some of the most concentrated sources of nutrition. In fact they are so good for you, that you should try to eat some every day!  The darker the green color, the more the nutritional value.  For example, spinach, collards, romaine, dark green leafy lettuce are rich sources of minerals like iron and calcium, and vitamins including K and C.  They also contain fiber and protein.

Iceberg lettuce doesn't offer as much nutrition as darker-greens, but it is not completely void of nutrition either.  Even iceberg lettuce is a good source of vitamin K.  Next time you're at the supermarket check out the wide variety of leafy greens and try something new!

Chicken Yassa
This week we added a new recipe "Chicken Yassa" with origins in Senegal.  A typical West African after-dinner drink would be mint tea.   For four cups of this delicious tea, simply place a bunch of fresh mint leaves in an empty teapot along with 4 green tea bags; set aside.  Heat cold water in a kettle just to a boil, then pour the hot water into the teapot over the mint and tea bags.  Let steep about 5 minutes.  In Africa the tea is served very sweet with plenty of sugar.

Parsley is more than just a pretty garnish.  It's the world's most popular herb, and it is full of great nutrition! It's high in vitamins C, K and A.  Parsley is a good source of folic acid.  It even contains a unique plant oil that studies indicate may help neutralize particular types of carcinogens.  No wonder Chinese herbalists use parsley to treat all kinds of ailments.   And if the health benefit of parsley doesn't entice you, parsley is also a great breath freshener!  So don't be afraid to add more parsley than recipes call for, and add plenty of chopped parsley to your green salads too! 

Cutting Boards
Cutting boards: plastic vs. wood?  Wooden cutting boards need more attention over time since wood is porous.  To prevent bacteria from soaking into the surface, wooden cutting boards need to be treated with food-grade mineral oil regularly, and sanded periodically (when knife-marks get very deep).  We prefer synthetic just to avoid the maintenance and because synthetic cutting boards can be sanitized in the dishwasher...make sure you get one that fits in your dishwasher! If you must wash it by hand, use hot soapy water and then a very mild bleach solution, then rinse and air dry. 

Remember to avoid cross-contamination from potential bacteria-harboring foods such as meat and fish to food that won't be further cooked.  You can do this by using one cutting board first for vegetables, and last for meat.  Or use two different cutting boards.

When you think of coleslaw you probably think of a shredded cabbage salad with mayonnaise-based dressing.  In fact long before the 1750's when mayonnaise was introduced, coleslaw was popular with vinaigrette dressing.  The term "cole" originates from Latin, colis, meaning "cabbage"; and the term "slaw" comes from a Dutch word for "salad". 

Consider variations in dressings and ingredients to the conventional coleslaw for a fun summer side salad.  In addition to cabbage, you can use a combination of shredded broccoli, carrots, apples, and/or jicama.  Instead of mayonnaise or vinaigrette, try a dressing with lime juice and soy sauce (as in our Vietnamese Chicken Salad) or yogurt and lemon juice.

Salted Butter
Our dinner recipes occasionally call for butter (for example in a creamy soup or sauce).  Although we don't specify it in the recipe or shopping list, we recommend buying unsalted rather than salted butter.  The salt acts as a preservative giving salted butter a slightly longer shelf life of about 5 months instead of 3 months.  However professional chefs agree that salt over powers the natural sweetness of butter.  Plus some salted butters have more salt than others, so using unsalted butter makes it easier to control exactly how much salt is in the recipe.  Next time you have some nice fresh bread from your local bakery, try serving it with unsalted butter and you will notice a difference. 

Rice...to rinse or not to rinse? 
It used to be prudent to rinse rice in order to wash away any impurities like small stones or dirt.  However today's processing methods are cleaner, so it's not really necessary for cleanliness.   Rice in the U.S. is fortified by law with powdered vitamins and minerals; so rinsing washes some of these away.  Occasionally imported rice contains talc used to keep grains separated during milling or transportation; if so the label should instruct that the rice be rinsed. 

As for taste and texture, rinsing does make a subtle difference.  Rinsing washes off the powdery surface starch that may build up during shipping, and therefore results in cooked rice that is less sticky.  

Espresso vs coffee
Contrary to popular belief, any type of coffee bean can be used to make espresso or coffee, and both can be made with light, medium or dark roasted beans.  The type of bean used and the roasting method are purely a matter of preference (hence coffee shops spend a lot of time testing different variables and keep their blends secret).   

What really differentiates espresso from coffee is simply the brewing process.  Espresso is a small shot of pressure-brewed finely ground coffee made with a special pump-driven or lever operated espresso machine.  Coffee on the other hand is brewed with no pressure. 

Some say espresso has less caffeine than coffee.  In fact espresso has more caffeine than coffee per volume, but thanks to its small serving size one shot of espresso has about half the caffeine compared to one cup of coffee.

Are mushrooms good for you? 
Yes.  Well, at least the kinds you find at the grocery store are good for you...after all there are thousands of varieties of mushrooms and some rare wild ones are poisonous.  At your local grocer you will typically find shiitake and variations of the button mushrooms: white button, portabellas and cremini (in fact creminis are baby portabellas).  These are all low in calories, rich in dietary fibers and protein, contain B-complex vitamins, and even zinc to help boost your immune system.  Asia has been using mushrooms for centuries to treat a wide range of ailments. 

Sautéing tips:  1) do not overcrowd the pan - the goal is to brown the mushrooms in little fat, not boil them in their own juices; 2) do not salt until the end of sautéing process - salting too soon will make the mushrooms rubbery.

Are you packing a lunchbox for children in school? 
If so we recommend packing small portions from five different categories:  1) main course grains/protein, 2) fruit, 3) vegetable, 4) savory snack and 5) sweet snack.

In addition to a traditional peanut butter & jelly sandwich, try a "breakfast bagel" (with a fried egg) for a main course.  Also chili in a thermos is great in winter (prepare the thermos first with hot water, and then add the hot chili to make sure it stays warm until lunchtime).  A snack bag with dried fruits like raisins or apricots make a nice alternative to fresh apples and bananas for a fruit serving.  Finger food is usually a hit with kids, so baby cut carrots or grape tomatoes make an easy vegetable.  There are lots of relatively healthy choices for a savory snack such as whole grain Goldfish crackers, sesame seeds and almonds, or popcorn.  Finally even sweet snacks can offer nutrition.  For example whole grain granola bars or blueberry muffins (from a mix) with some wheat germ added to the batter are great choices.

When packing the lunchbox, consider portion sizes and containers appropriate for your child's age.  We'll have a school lunchbox menu and shopping list ready to share with you soon. 

Beets are now in season! 
They have a lovely unique, sweet, earthy flavor.  Plus beets are nutritionally packed with
folate, fiber and antioxidants.  The downside is that you really need to allow 2 hrs to prepare them.  They can be served warm or refrigerated, so they can be prepared a day ahead. 

Rinse the beets and trim the stems, but do not peel.   Place them in a foil-lined (to minimize cleanup) baking dish.  Leave plain or drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette; cover and roast at 400F until they are fork-tender, about 1 hour.   Set aside to cool at least 30 minutes. When cool enough to touch remove the skin by rubbing gently with a paper towel. Serve sliced alone or tossed gently with a green salad.  If you choose to serve with a salad, be sure to include some of the beet greens in the mix.  Beet greens are edible and also very nutritious

Removing Fruit Juice, Ketchup or Tomato Sauce from Clothing 
Next time you have a little spill of fruit juice, ketchup or tomato sauce on your clothing, remember that the faster you act, the better chance of removing the stain. 

Hot - even boiling - water works best to remove fruit juice.  Remove the garment immediately and run very hot water through the fabric.  If you do this right away, it will come clean in a couple of minutes, if not add a little detergent. 

On the other hand cold water works best for ketchup or other tomato based products like spaghetti sauce or salsa.  Remove the garment and soak in cool water for about 30 minutes, then scrub with laundry detergent.

(Hopefully you won't need this information, but here it is just in case.) 

Which is lower in fat, ground turkey or ground beef?  
Most would say ground turkey.  In fact, lean ground beef is much lower in fat than a package labeled simply "ground turkey". You need to read labels carefully and look for "ground turkey breast" if you want lower fat.  

We recommend ground chuck beef or ground turkey for burgers because they have more flavor than the leaner alternative.  For chili and other dishes where seasonings are added for flavor, we use lean ground round beef or ground turkey breast.

How about a tender pot roast this weekend?  
Just place a frozen - yes we did say frozen -2 lb beef roast in roasting pan. Pour water in pan about ¼-inch deep.  Top the frozen roast with 1 ½ tbsp beef bouillon paste or ½ package dry onion soup mix.  Cover and roast in your conventional oven at 250F until done and tender when poked with a fork, about 8 hours. 

The long cooking time necessary for cooking beef from a frozen state is what helps make the beef deliciously tender. It's economical because you can buy the roast when it's on sale and freeze it.  It makes an easy weekend main course!  As ovens do vary, be sure to check the roast after about 4-6 hours.  If it appears to be done early, just lower the temperature to 175F-200F until dinnertime

Next time you make banana bread or cookies, add some walnuts for nutrition!  Studies show that tree nuts and even peanuts are good for your heart by helping lower the LDL ("bad" cholesterol) in the blood.  Nuts contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and fiber.  All nuts studied appear to have similar benefits, including: walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts and peanuts.  

Remember nuts do contain a lot of fat - even if it is the healthy kind - and the nutritional benefit of nuts is slightly reduced if they're covered with sugar or salt.  Nevertheless adding nuts in moderation to your diet is a great idea, especially as a substitute for less-healthy snacks like candy or potato chips.

Carving Halloween Pumpkins   
We are having our annual pumpkin carving party this weekend.  When you carve Halloween pumpkins, you must try roasting the pumpkin seeds for a snack!  Simply preheat your oven to 300F.  Rinse the pumpkin seeds in a colander (discard the pulp) then blot dry with a paper towel.  Toss the seeds in a bowl with enough olive oil to just coat the seeds.  Line a baking dish with aluminum foil (to make cleanup easy), then spread the seeds in a single layer on the foil.  Sprinkle with salt or seasoned salt.  Bake about 20 minutes then toss and sprinkle again with salt.  Bake again until dry and toasted a golden brown, about 10-20 minutes more.  Roasted pumpkin seeds are fun to eat, and they even contain healthy fiber!

Real Popcorn  
When was the last time you made "real" popcorn at home, rather than the microwave kind?  We recently started making old-fashioned stove top popcorn for a treat, and we love it.  It is so much tastier...it's not that difficult...and we avoid that unpleasant microwave popcorn odor.  Here's how to do it:

Simply heat ¼ cup oil (any kind will do, but connoisseurs recommend coconut oil for its high flash point) in 4 quart saucepan over medium to medium-high heat.

Add ¾ cup popcorn kernels and shake the pan a bit to disperse kernels evenly over bottom of pan; place lid ajar on the pan.

When you hear the first kernel pop, start shaking the pan continuously (with lid on) over the burner until popcorn reaches the lid and popping slows. Remove from heat and pour popcorn into a large serving bowl. Be careful to open lid away from you in case a remaining kernel pops!

Season the popcorn with melted butter and salt or whatever topping you prefer.

Perfect for a movie night in your living room this weekend!

The original Jack-o-Lantern may have been a turnip!  Irish legend says that Jack was a greedy, nasty fellow who played mean tricks on everyone. One day Jack even tricked the Devil!  Well the Devil was embarrassed and vengeful.  So when Jack died of old age, the Devil would not accept Jack into Hell!  Of course Jack wasn't welcome in Heaven either.  Jack's ghost was left to wander in the darkness between the two.  The Devil tossed him a fiery ember from the flames of Hell, which Jack placed inside a carved out turnip for a lantern.  The Irish hollowed out turnips and other vegetables and placed them by their home to ward off Jack's evil sprit.  Later in North America, pumpkins were used instead. 

Did you know Swiss steak did not originate in Switzerland? 
In fact Swiss steak is an American dish, and the name is derived from the English term "swissing".  Swissing refers to a treatment of fabric in which it is run through rollers to soften it.  Similarly the meat typically used in Swiss steak is tenderized round or sirloin steak, also called cube steak.

Occasionally I will hear someone say they don't like curry, but I tell them, "don't be too sure if you've only tried one dish."  First of all "curry" is an ambiguous term.  It can refer to curry powder or to a dish with a sauce containing curry powder, onions, garlic and ginger.  Curry powder is a blend of ground spices, and the flavor can vary dramatically depending on the blend; it usually includes (among many others) cardamom, coriander, cumin, and fennel seed.  Yellow curries contain turmeric.  Spicy curries contain chilies. 

Impress your family by making a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.
When you consider that a pumpkin is really just a type of squash, you'll see that it's not difficult to prepare for a pie.  Of course make sure to buy the smaller, heavier, pie pumpkins instead of jack-o-lantern pumpkins.  One pumpkin is plenty for an 8- or 9-inch pie.  First cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds.  Place pumpkin halves cut-side down on foil-lined baking sheet.  Bake at 375F until very tender when poked with a fork, about 30 minutes or more depending on the size.  Once pumpkin is cooled, scoop out the pumpkin from each shell and purée...you have just made 100% pure pumpkin without a can!

Turkey: fresh or frozen? 
As you probably know, frozen turkeys are injected with a salt solution to help keep the bird moist.  In spite of this experts say fresh turkeys are juicier and more flavorful than frozen.  Fresh turkeys cost more per pound than frozen.  Personally we are buying fresh this year, and I have to admit one of the major reasons is to avoid that lengthy defrosting process required for a big frozen turkey.  Frozen turkeys need 24 hours in the refrigerator per 5 pounds...that's 3 days for a 15 lb turkey!  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

Did you have cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving dinner? 
Native Americans ate cranberries and also used them for medicinal purposes (in poultices) and as a red dye for fabric.  The Native Americans introduced European settlers to cranberries, and it soon became a staple in Thanksgiving meals.  We now know cranberries offer a great source of vitamin C and antioxidants too!

Green Tea   
How about a nice cup of green tea to help warm you up this weekend?  Green tea has a wonderful aroma and flavor plus the widely reported antioxidant properties.  Be careful how you brew green tea to get the most out of its delicate flavor.  First, if the water is too hot, the tea will become bitter and you will lose some of the aroma.  Heat the water to almost boiling (about 180F).  Second, do not allow green tea to steep too long or again it will become bitter.  Follow package directions as the time depends on the tea, but will typically range 1-3 minutes. Note that all tea has caffeine (unless it has been artificially decaffeinated), but less than half the caffeine of the same quantity of coffee.

Sweet Potatoes Vs Regular Potatoes   
Sweet potatoes vs regular potatoes...Both are healthy produce right from the super market.  They have similar nutritional value, except that sweet potatoes have slightly fewer calories and thanks to its orange color is a fantastic source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). Unfortunately by the time they reach your plate - often as French fries or sweet potato marshmallow mash -their nutritional value is mostly offset with fat and calories.  At home you can prepare sweet and regular potatoes in a healthier way in stews or as oven fries.  For oven fries, simply chop potatoes (some sweet and some regular); toss with a little olive oil and salt.  Place in a single-layer on a baking sheet, and roast at 400F until tender (turning and checking every 10 minutes).

As a big snow storm heads our way, we are dreaming of a tropical vacation.  Just think about sitting on a sandy beach drinking a Mexican beer with a wedge of lime... What started the lime tradition anyway and is it really authentic in Mexico?  In fact, most in Mexico do not add a lime to their Corona. Many locals say the lime is "a tourist thing."  As for how it started, reasons range from flavor enhancer to a cleansing agent.  Some say the acidity of the lime balances the sweetness of the beer. Likewise when Corona first started exporting to the U.S. almost 30 years ago, some say the flavor broke down thanks to its clear bottle during transportation and the lime helps compensate for the loss.  Others say the lime started as a way to clean away any dust or rust on the mouth of the bottle before drinking.  Regardless of how it started, I will still enjoy a lime in my Corona.  Cheers! 

When you hear "au gratin" you may think of a dish with cheese. 
However the term "gratin" does not literally have anything to do with cheese.  It is adapted from a French term that refers to the bread crumb topping.  Of course grated cheese is often added to the bread crumbs, which explains why we tend to assume an "au gratin" has cheese.  The French gratin is a cooking technique of thinly slicing an ingredient, such as potatoes, layering the slices with a cream sauce and baking until the bread crumb topping is golden brown. 

Did you know that the healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish can also be found in many other food sources as well?  For example red meat is a good source of omega-3 in addition to eggs, milk and dark-green leafy vegetables.  Growing in popularity is flax seed for its high content of omega-3.  Since the chemical makeup of each omega-3 dietary source is different, and because individuals absorb omega-3s differently, don't rely on one source.  As usual eating a variety of healthy foods is best!

Chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans, are versatile and healthy!  Rinse canned chickpeas to remove some of the sodium content.  Then the chickpeas can be served immediately in a salad, mashed for hummus or falafel, or added to a stew.  Chickpeas are high in fiber and low in fat.  They are also a good source of protein and calcium!

Chicken Soup   
We're in the heart of cold and flu season.  For centuries, civilizations have been serving chicken soup as a remedy the common cold.  Scientific evidence is sketchy, but several theories offer explanations as to the medicinal benefit of chicken soup.  Breathing in the hot soup's steam may help clear up congestion.  Protein (in this case chicken) increases infection-fighting white blood cells. One study showed that chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory properties that may sooth sore throats and respiratory passages.  And finally some say that simply the satisfaction of enjoying a comfort food like chicken noodle soup can make anyone feel better.

We have a great scalloped potatoes and ham recipe, new this week!  We recommend buying a fully cooked, smoked "PIT" ham at the supermarket, which we find to be reliably good. Pit hams are boneless and are trimmed of excess fat (in fact PIT stands for "partially internally trimmed").   A whole pit ham is usually around 10-12 pounds, but you can also buy them in smaller sections.  We always buy enough for a few meals:  roasted ham with mashed sweet potatoes, scalloped potatoes and ham, ham and bean soup...you get the idea!  Anyway because the ham is cured, it keeps fresh for a couple of weeks in the fridge!

Rotisserie Chicken  
I've seen quite a few quick dinner recipes that call for rotisserie chicken.  Personally we rank the grocery store rotisserie chicken right up there with other fast food...it is a tasty and convenient treat, but it's relatively expensive and high in sodium.  Read the ingredients to be sure, but many grocery store rotisserie chickens are injected with a salt solution or seasoned with an MSG blend.     

How long does it really take to preheat an oven? 
In fact most ovens require about 20 minutes to fully preheat.  If your oven beeps after only 10 minutes, it probably has not reached the desired temperature yet.  Recipe cooking times always assume a preheated oven.  Be careful to allow enough preheating time, especially when you're baking or when you're cooking at a high heat for a short time.  For example roasting vegetables in the oven requires a high heat to properly caramelize the vegetables.

Ready to Eat Salad Greens   
You will pay at least double for a bag of ready-to-eat salad greens vs a head of lettuce.  And the ready-to-eat greens will usually spoil within a couple days of opening the bag.  The convenience of pre-washed greens may be worth the extra cost when you plan to use the whole bag right away and have limited time; for example, it's great for a weeknight main dish dinner salad.  However for other purposes consider just buying a head of lettuce (any variety...generally the darker green, the more nutritional value).  It will last in your refrigerator crisper for a good week while you use it a little at a time! 

Pesto is an Italian sauce made from fresh basil, fresh garlic, pine nuts, grated cheese, olive oil and a little salt.  The ingredients are blended together using a pestle and mortar into a smooth creamy consistency, great on hot pasta! Pistou is the French version, but it is made without pine nuts and cheese.  Both words "pesto" and "pistou" come from the same Latin root as "pestle" that means to pound.

Coloring Boiled Eggs   
Are you coloring eggs this weekend? Here are two easy tips for perfect boiled eggs:  First of all you can prevent cracking by allowing the eggs to heat up gradually.  Let the eggs sit at room temperature for 15 minutes; cover eggs with cool water in sauce pan. then bring them to a boil. Secondly you can minimize the mess if an egg does crack by placing a Tbsp of vinegar in the boiling water while the eggs are cooking. 

With summer in full swing many people are adding fresh fruits as a healthy side for their dinners.  When preparing pineapple, did you know that the knife that was used for peeling the outside should not be used for slicing it?  The rind contains an acid that is apt to cause a swollen mouth and sore lips.  Be sure to use a different knife for cutting the pineapple or wash the knife thoroughly before reusing.

Over-Ripened Fruit
Do you have fruit in your kitchen that's ripening quicker than you can eat it? Puree it and use in smoothies or as a topping for ice cream, pancakes or waffles. You can also freeze the pureed fruit in a plastic freezer zipper bag and use it later on.

Peeling Fresh Garden Tomatoes
The tomatoes in your garden are probably starting to ripen.  To make peeling those fresh tomatoes a breeze, use a knife to create an "X" on the bottom of the tomato. Place the tomato in a pot of boiling water for 5 to 10 seconds. Immediately transfer to a bowl of cold water for about a minute to stop the cooking process. The skin should p

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