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Frozen Foods

Stouffers frozen chicken pot pie. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes and dinner is ready. Mashed potato flakes. Bring water and butter to a boil, add flakes and stir until thickened. Voila! Mashed potatoes. Frozen mixed vegetables. Jiffy blueberry muffin mix. “Easy!” “Fast!” Those were the two key ingredients my mother – busy with a teaching career and raising three children – was looking for when I was a child in growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the 1970’s. These are the foods I grew up eating.

She was never much interested in food. To this day, she’ll tell anyone who listens that she hates to cook. She fed us well-balanced meals, but they all came from a can or a box. I remember one night in high school when my friend Heather had dinner with us. She didn’t understand what it was that I was making. “Mashed potatoes,” I said, surprised. She had never seen mashed potatoes come from a box before, with no actual potatoes as part of the process. It had never occurred to me until I saw her shocked reaction that real potatoes should or could have been involved – the boxed variety were all I knew. And even Heather’s horror was somewhat removed from my reality. Her parents were hippies; of course they made everything from scratch.

It was some time before I began to see the virtue of the starting-from-scratch approach. Or that making a cake out of a powdery blend in a box to which one added an egg and some water was, in fact, a bit weird. Making a cake from butter and sugar and flour created something wholly different, with an entirely thicker texture and much earthier flavor. Mashed potatoes made from real potatoes and real butter tasted as if they came out of the ground, almost nutty and had a thicker, starchier texture.

But it all really changed for me with a pie. My father’s cousin Mary Ellen made a chocolate cream pie that I ate every year at the Fourth of July family picnic in Albany. My cousin Sarah and I ate most of that pie each year, returning every hour or so all afternoon for another slice. I loved the texture and lightness of the pie and its mild chocolate/cream flavor, but what made it sing to me was the crust. It was nothing like the pre-made crusts my mother bought. It was light and flaky, almost white in color. It was divine.

I started trying to make that crust when I was in high school. I used the Joy of Cooking recipe, with butter and Crisco. I made that crust over and over again, until I made it as well as Mary Ellen did. I learned that pie crusts could be flaky or crumbly, and the amount of butter or vegetable shortening determined which way the crust would go. That crust made me see food differently. It made me want to learn to cook properly.

Now, when I visit my mother, I make meals for her that she professes to greatly enjoy – a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and haricot verts, the last time I visited. She is repeatedly amazed that she has a child who likes to cook. “Do you really enjoy it?” she asks, every time. “Yes, Mom,” I assure her, “I love it.” “I never did,” she says. And when I leave, and the leftovers are gone, she reverts to eating the TV dinners stacked in her freezer.

Here is a post I wrote for Gothamist a few years ago that offers some useful baking equivalents and substitutions:

Halfway through that chocolate chip cookie recipe and realize you’re out of brown sugar? If, like many New Yorkers, you’re not on borrowing terms with your neighbors, here are some handy substitutions you can make for common baking ingredients:

 

• 1 cup buttermilk = 2/3 cup yogurt + 1/3 cup milk

• 1 cup confectioner’s sugar = 1 cup granulated sugar + one teaspoon cornstarch

• 1 cup light brown sugar = 1 cup granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon molasses

• 1 cup dark brown sugar = 1 cup granulated sugar + 2 tablespoons molasses

• 1 cup cake flour = 7/8 cup all-purpose flour + 2 tablespoons cornstarch

• 1 teaspoon baking powder = 1/4 teaspoon baking soda + ½ teaspoon cream of tartar

• 1 oz unsweetened chocolate = 1 ½ ozs bittersweet or semisweet chocolate less 1 tablespoon of sugar from the recipe

• 1 stick unsalted butter = 1 stick salted butter less ½ teaspoon salt from the recipe

• 1 cup whole milk = 5/8 cup skim milk + 3/8 cup half and half

What substitutes for baking ingredients do you use?

Eggnog is a drink that benefits from aging. Don’t worry about the raw eggs – as long as the alcohol content is high enough (at least 20%), it will kill any bacteria. Scientists at Rockefeller University in New York tested this theory last year on their own spiked eggnog, for ScienceFriday.com. They aged it for six weeks and then tested it; they found no traces of salmonella or other bacteria.

It doesn’t need to age a long time – two or three weeks will do. Start it today and it will be ready in time for Christmas or New Year’s. Those few weeks make all the difference in flavor and texture.

Once you’ve made the eggnog and refrigerated it, give it a good shake each day. It will thicken and the flavors, each distinctive when initially combined, will come together into a creamy and smooth blend. The alcohol will mix and react with the sugars and proteins, allowing the flavors to combine. The proteins in the egg yolks will break down and act as a gelatin for the whole mixture, causing it to thicken.

Eggnog
• 12 large eggs, separated
• 2 cups granulated sugar
• 1 quart whole milk
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 quart bourbon
• 1 cup Cognac or other high-quality brandy
• ½ cup dark rum
• pinch salt
• grated nutmeg for garnish
Separate egg yolks and whites. Combine egg yolks and sugar in large mixing bowl and whisk until well blended and creamy. Gradually add cream, milk, bourbon, rum, Cognac and salt, while continuously whisking.


In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the yolk mixture. Bottle eggnog immediately and refrigerate for three to four weeks, shaking well each day. Sprinkle with grated nutmeg before serving. Makes about three quarts of eggnog.

Dilly Beans


Dilly beans are pickled green beans. They’re a great way to preserve an abundance of summer beans. Plus don’t they look wonderful and slightly mysterious in their can? If put up properly, they’ll last for months, maintaining their crisp texture.

Their tart flavor and crunchiness are a great addition to any salad. You can add them to sandwiches, or eat them on their own. Some people serve them in martinis and Bloody Marys. Can them with garlic and dill, and spice them up with pepper and/or Tabasco.

This recipe is from Blue Ribbon Preserves, one of my favorite canning books. It contains a great basic how-to section on canning. Also included are recipes for every kind of fruit and vegetable.

Ingredients:

2 1/2 pounds of straight, young tender green beans
2 1/2 cups distilled water
1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt or pickling salt
4 garlic cloves, peeled
4 3-inch sprigs of fresh dill
12 whole black peppercorns

Gently rinse the beans 3 or 4 times in cool, clear water to remove any sand or dirt. Change the water between each rinsing. Drain well.

Cut off the stem end of the beans and trim the blossom end, cutting just below the base of the tail. Measure the beans to four inches in length and cut off the excess on the stem end.

Place the beans in an 8-quart pan and cover them with boiling water. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and drain. Immediately plunge the beans into a large bowl or pan of ice water for two minutes to stop the cooking process. Remove the beans from the ice water and drain well. Set aside.

Combine the distilled water, wine vinegar, white vinegar, and salt. Stir well to combine. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and keep hot until needed.

Lay hot pint jars on their sides. Place one garlic clove along the inside bottom edge of each jar. Arrange one sprig of dill, stem side down, against the inside of each jar next to the garlic clove. Add three peppercorns to each jar. Pack the beans snugly into the jars, with the stem ends at the bottom. Stand the jars upright.

Ladle the hot liquid into the jars, covering the beans and leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Using a bubble freer or plastic knife, remove any air bubbles. If necessary, add more liquid to maintain the headspace. Wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp cloth. Cover with hot lids and apply screw rings. Process pint jars in a 180 to 185F water bath for 30 minutes.

Fresh Tomato Sauce


It’s that time of year when a productive garden can get overwhelming. But the thought of opening a jar of flavorful tomato sauce in the middle of winter can provide inspiration. Whether you can or freeze this sauce, it will be a delight in January when grocery store tomatoes taste like, well, not much at all.

Nearly every product in this sauce comes from my sister’s garden: tomatoes, green pepper, garlic, basil and jalapeno. The onions (OK, and salt and pepper) are the sole ingredients that came from the grocery store. We literally filled a laundry basket full of tomatoes and peppers from the garden in one morning’s harvest (see photo below).

Ingredients:

12 tomatoes, blanched and peeled
2 jalapeno peppers, chopped fine
2 green peppers
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 medium onions, chopped
Several leaves basil

I’m rather finicky about tomatoes: I don’t like to see skin or seeds floating in my sauce. So I remove them. If you’re less picky you can skip this step. Fill a saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Have a bowl filled with iced water to one side. Cut a small cross in the bottom of each tomato, about 1/2-inch each way. Blanch each tomato for 30 seconds, then shock it in the cold water. Peel off the skin of each tomato.

In a large saucepan or stockpot, saute onions until translucent, approximately five minutes. Chop green peppers and jalapenos into small chunks. Chop garlic fine. Add garlic, peppers and jalapenos. Let cook for five minutes, then add tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

You can cook this sauce for a long amount of time, or just enough to heat the ingredients through and let the flavors combine a bit. It’s up to you. The sauce will be thicker if it’s cooked a long time, and the flavors will have blended together more. A shorter cooking time will really retain the fresh tomato taste.

Just before removing from heat, add basil. Remove from heat. Can or store in refrigerator/freezer containers. Makes 2 quarts.

The Life Span of Berries


How long will berries last after picking? If stored in your refrigerator, here are some basic estimates:

Strawberries: Up to one week
Blueberries: Up to two weeks
Blackberries: Up to four days
Raspberries: Up to five days
Cranberries: Up to one month

There are a few things you can do to extend their life. Don’t wash the berries before storing them; the damp will make them soggy. Rinse them just before using them. Get rid of any berries that seem soggy or overripe. One bad berry can ruin the rest. Store the berries in the coldest part of your refrigerator. The idea temperature for most berries is just above freezing. In general, each hour that a berry sits at room temperature means one less day of shelf life. Store-bought berries will have a shorter life span, depending upon how long ago they were picked.

Blueberry Jam


This jam has a wonderfully direct, elegant flavor. It’s a great way to preserve fresh blueberries as the season comes to an end, so you can enjoy them all winter long.

Blueberries are what’s known as a “superfruit,” because they are high in nutrients (Vitamin C, Vitamin K, manganese, Vitamin B6) and in antioxidents. There’s some evidence that eating blueberries can lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

I picked these blueberries at a pick-your-own organic farm called Owl’s Head Blueberry Farm in Richmond, Vermont. I added sugar and lemon juice, then cooked the berries with the lemon rind in the mixture to add more flavor and pectin. No commercial pectin is necessary; the jam will thicken enough with the natural pectin in the berries and lemon.

Ingredients:

8 cups blueberries
2 cups sugar
Juice of one lemon

In a large saucepan, combine blueberries and sugar. Crush the blueberries with a potato masher. Add lemon juice and lemon rind. Bring to a boil. Skim any foam that forms from surface.


Cook at a boil until the jam thickens, approximately 30 minutes. Test by dropping some jam on a plate. Put the plate in the freezer for a few minutes. Remove the plate from the freezer. If the jam wrinkles when you push it with your finger, it is done. If not, continue cooking.

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