Monday, August 22, 2011

Quick tip: cheese

This may seem elementary to most but every so often I have an "ahh, huh!" moment so I will put this up for those that may have their own "AHH. HUH!!" moment.
In the grocery store this weekend, I was noticing that the price of cheese has risen quite a bit. A one pound chunk of Kraft "premium" cheddar cheese (I am not sure what makes it premium...) was $7.50 at the Pig. A one pound chunk of store label chedder was $4.00 a pound. Now if you check the price on shredded cheddar, you will notice that the cost of having the manufacturer shred that chedder will cost you a good 50% more for that one pound of cheddar. My simple advice, dust off that knuckle buster and shred your own cheese when needed.

The price factor does not take into account another factor in shredded cheese. That factor is the preservatives added to shredded cheese so that it won't mold as fast. Reading the label, you will likely see "natamycin". This is an additive that prevents the growth of mold and yeasts. It does not effect bacteria, so they may still grow in the food. It is considered safe for consumption. That's the official stance on that additive, but why consume more additives? Other additives in shredded cheese include cellulose and corn (or other grain) starch. Now you know, so you decide...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Okra, or "that Southern vegetable"

I thought I would do a blog about okra, since that's the only thing coming out of my garden right now and in quite abundance. Okra is originally from Africa having come over with the slaves in colonial days. The plants it grows on can be as small a foot or two tall to over 10 feet (as mine now are). The pods grow pointing up and are best when smaller, 3-4 inches long as they tend to get woody, less tender and less juicey as they get bigger. Most popular in Cajun and Creole dishes (thanks to Louisiana for keeping the South on the culinary map), it is essential in several dishes, most notable being gumbo. Gumbo itself is a word that comes from the Angolan word for okra. It can be eaten fried, pickled (yes, pickled!! It is quite good this way too. Look for it in specialty shops and Walmart), stewed, gumboed and added to soups.

As the harvest comes daily from this veggie, I generally slice them in rounds and put them in a single layer on a sheet pan and then freeze them. When they are fully frozen I transfer to a zipper bag and store in the freezer until needed. I will pull these out, bread them and fry them- the way my kids like it best. I also add it to soups and in gumbo. When buying them, get only pods that are green without any brown spots and they should be fully plump and not shriveled. Trim the stem button off and add to the compost. It is edible, but generally a bit tough to chew.

So on to gumbo. The dish synonymous with okra. First brown some sliced onions in a pot, as in onion soup. The pods should be washed and then cut into rounds. Add them to the pot and cook for 40-45 minutes until the okra reduces down and becomes "ropy" and very slimy. Add your broth and other gumbo ingredients and finish the gumbo. The slimy okra will act as the thickener for the gumbo and give it the unique texture and flavor it is known for. The variants of gumbo are as many as there are cooks and every Cajun/Creole cook has their own version and way to tweek it. Seafood is most popular, as is sausage, rabbit, turtle and pork.

When eaten fresh or stewed, the sliminess usually turns off some people that are not used to it. Most Southerners are used to it and when fried, it looses the sliminess factor. Stewed with tomatoes and some basil or oregano, salt and pepper is another summer garden favorite. An another good thing about it is that it is usually pretty cheap, under $2.00 a pound. A pound of fried okra will certainly feed a good number of people. It will help stretch that vegetable soup a bit further (just ask Campbell's) and add more nutrients to it to boot.

Chef Cheapo may be cheap, but I'm not slimy like that used car salesman. That was just the okra

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lemons to lemonade

We usually have fresh squeezed lemonade for our dinner meal (when I can get my #2 son to make it). I enjoy the freshness of the fresh lemons with just a little sweetness. We used to use the frozen concentrate until we eliminated the HFCS from our diet. So how do you get all of the juice from lemons or any citrus for that matter? Simple answer- the citrus will always release more of its juice when it is warm. So how do you achieve that? The best way would be to have the citrus left on the counter and allowed to stay warm or room temp. If you are not able to leave thetm on the counter and they are cold from the fridge, you have a few options.

The objective is to get them warm. You can roll them in your palm and the cutting board. You can pop them in the microwave for 30 seconds. Drop them in a bowl of hot water for 15 minutes before juicing. Again, after getting them warm, roll them against the counter or board and your palm to loosen the juice before you cut into the citrus. Cut in half and use either a reamer or a juicing bowl and grind that lemon for all your worth.

Added tip- BEFORE you juice that lemon, use a zester and remove as much zest as you can. Put these zests onto a paper towel and then in a zipper bag. Put in the freezer and pull out to use as needed.

Monday, August 15, 2011

QUICK TIP: Easy clean up

This quick tip has savings on the back end of this tip. One area that many home chefs fail to take advantage of is the clean up. In most restaurants, anytime a pan is put into the oven, it is lined with parchment paper. Of course, restaurants use full size sheet pans. Most home cooks will find that a half sheet pan will fit a standard size oven. In the restaurant setting, parchment paper comes in a box with sheets the size of the full size sheet pan. For home use, you are reserved to buying a roll, 30 sq ft.

So, why use it. The wonderful thing about this is that is not only good for making clean up a bit easier, but also helps in keeping foods from sticking to the pan. Bacon cooked on a layer of parchment paper will not burn as easily as directly on the pan. Cookies will slide off the pan. Meatloaf will lift right out of the pan when the pan is lined with parchment paper. Cakes cooked with a paper barrier between the cake and the pan will lift off the pan without breaking (just remember to peel away the paper before icing the cake). Of course the payoff is an easier clean up.

It is a bit pricey, about $3.50 a roll (look for coupons for 50 cents to $1 off), but the savings in not loosing food to sticking to pans, burning or ruined cookware will be worth it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beans- part 2

If you read a previous post, you know I am a big fan of beans. I will deal with one in particular today- pinto beans. Having never been exposed to Mexican food until I moved away from home (Taco Bell doesn't count) at age 18, I never put much thought into how simple, yet fulfilling Mexican and Latin American food is. Just like many of the simple foods we enjoy now (meat and potatoes type dishes), Mexican food is really rather simple. Simple ingredients, uncomplicated processes and over the top in flavor are all ways to describe it. Quite simply, it's peasant food, and I say that with nothing but respect. The many ways beans, rice and beans and rice can be put together to make filling meals is incredible.

Take refried beans. I must admit, I was stuck with the can for years. I discovered a recipe for refried beans right here on Allrecipes that showed just how easy it is to make. Pinto beans, seasoning and fat (lard is best, but bacon fat will do) is all that is really needed. I bought 2 two pound bags of pintos. I rinsed, soaked and cooked them until they were tender. Now I did something that the purists would likely shun me for. I didn't refry them! I picked apart several recipes and the best I could figure, the refrying is done to help remove most of the cooking juices from them. I figured I would try a batch without refrying and they seemed to come out excellently. I actually ran the beans through my food processor with enough juice to make it wet enough to process until it was smooth. I added bacon fat, garlic and salt & pepper for flavor. OUTSTANDING!! I bottled it and stored in the freezer. Whenever I need some to make burritos or as a side, I pull it out of the freezer and it's ready to go.

I am sure you can add you own seasonings to your liking, such as chili powder, onions, fresh chilis, extra garlic and/or lime juice. Again, the purists may not like the method, but the savings in making your own is incredible. A can is anywhere from 75 cents to over $1.50. A 2 pound bag is only a buck and a half and the quantity doubles after they are cooked. You also control the quality and once you make your own, a can of beans just won't cut it anymore

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A bounty of tomatoes...

If your garden has become as prolific as mine has, you are now inundated with tomatoes. I planted 4 varieties this year and I had several volunteers pop up and now we are bringing in tomatoes by the bowl full. We have been using the cherry tomatoes in green salads and making tomato, basil and mozzarella salad. Some of the large slicing tomatoes we have been slicing for sandwiches and salads. I planted another type made for canning. It looks like the amemic ones in the grocery store, but these have actual flavor to them. I have been "putting up" these for the winter months when good tomatoes are scarce and also to save money on the grocery bill. I have been canning food for years, but I am not a big fan of canning some kinds of veggies, tomatoes in particular. I do not like how the tomato's texture has degraded from the excessive cooking required to can them. Instead of canning them, I have become a big fan of freezing them. The texture stays reasonable and they taste fresher when you pull them out and use them later in the year.

If you do not have a garden and want to take advantage of this, take a trip to your farmer's market. The NC Farmer's Market in Raleigh is a great trip for the family on a Saturday (and I am sure one near you would be too). There are always free samples (one of my kids favorite kind) and interesting new things and foods you may have never tried. I have often purchased a bushel of tomatoes for $10 and put them up for winter. A pretty good savings when you consider a 28 ounce can can go for $1.25- $3.00.

To prepare tomatoes to freeze, I simply wash them well, quarter them, cut out the core, cut up to the size you prefer, put in a zipper bag (I include the juices that come from the tomato), flatten and remove all air, seal and freeze. I put them in a single layer in the freezer until they are frozen solid and then stack them in the chest freezer. Some people may prefer to blanch the whole tomato and remove the skin. I am not that particular. To me, it just adds another couple steps and time to the process and it robs your body of the extra "roughage" it needs for good GI health.

Of course the same can be done for other veggies, although the process may differ depending on the veggie. I freeze okra that we grow by simply washing them, slicing and putting on a sheet pan (lined with wax paper) in a single layer in the freezer until frozen. After they are frozen solid, remove from the sheet pan and put in a zipper bag. Add to your stews and soups as needed. Berries are done the same way. Squash can also be done this way, although I am not happy with the texture of the squash after it has been frozen.

Experiment on your own and put up your bounty to enjoy through the winter months. It will certainly save you money and you will appreciate the fresh taste of your food, making the effort to put them up worth it, especially if you make it a family effort to put up the food.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


One of my favorite easy foods is the simple baked potato. Slather one of these gems with butter and sour cream and I am in heaven. You can get a 15 pound bag of these Peruvian descendents at Sam’s for about $8 depending on the time of year. When I have a bag that is getting old ( as can be “seen” by the many eyes starting to grow) I will bake off the whole bag. After eating our fill for dinner, I will let the remaining cool and then cut them in half lengthwise. Using a spoon, scoop out the guts of the potato, leaving a small amount still in the “boat”. KEEP THE GUTS!! Use the boats for making tater skins- fill with bacon bits, cheese and scallions. Or be creative and come up with your own fillings, like spinach and feta cheese, or artichokes, feta and sun dried tomatoes, or pizza skins-pepperoni, tomato sauce and mozzarella. The boats will freeze very well, stored in a Ziploc bag. Remove as many as you want and fill and bake.

What to do with the guts? Store them in the freezer until you have enough to make a good quantity of mashed potatoes. That’s right- instant, REAL mashed potatoes!! Warm them up in the microwave, mash well or leave them a little lumpy, add butter, S&P, sour cream and maybe a little milk if needed to thin to your desired consistency.

Another idea for using your tater skins is to stuff the boats with the mashed potatoes- twice baked potatoes. Use a piping bag or carefully spoon the prepared mashed potatoes into the skins, shingling the mashed as you pipe it in to create a weave design as you fill the skin. Place on a sheet pan and put in a 350 degree oven until the mashed turns a nice golden brown. Serve and enjoy, just like your favorite steak house makes.

Chef Cheapo, making your dinner better and cheaper.