Ours Is Not To Question Why

Questioning makes for a “wobbly” existence filled with uncertainty and hesitation.

I am usually a “do-er”. But when I was laid off last October from Whole Foods Market (along with 1,500 team members and team leaders) there was a truck-load of questions that invaded my world. What now? What do I do? What path do I choose? Nature abhors a vacuum and so do I. I got to work immediately: I took art classes, I applied to over forty jobs in six months, I picked up a few paying gigs, volunteered a little, hosted on Air B&B, traveled, and most of all caught up with numerous friends. Many projects are in the works and I now have a part-time job as well. Everything is fighting for my attention including this blog that I started in February and which came to a halt in May.

I do not have writer’s block, just an existential block. I question why, and what and for whom, I “should” or “ought” to be writing. I seem paralyzed by a bourgeois guilt over “musing” about food while thinking about the malnourished, undernourished and the starving of this world. I wonder if I have now become a slave to my own creation, stuck at a crossroad without direction. I question, I hesitate and find myself going around in circles, burying my head and thoughts under my pillow each night…. then I have to face the silence… the failure to post… another week gone by. Has anyone noticed? Does anyone care? Do I even care about food and cooking anymore?

Then, on a recent morning, I woke up thinking of my red, white and blue salads. It was the Fourth (of course! it had to be). My 18 years of food marketing had me programmed. I am still thinking “holiday-related” foods. At work I would have been figuring out what to push, what to merchandise and what to sample. Now I am neither entertaining friends nor family. I am NOT cooking nor am I barbecuing! And yet I am dreaming of chopped watermelon drizzled with pomegranate molasses and dotted with feta crumbles and blueberries…. Images of basil pesto, mint and cucumber fill my nostrils with hallucinogenic aromas.  Have I gone mad or am I relieved?

I had started to think that perhaps my obsession with food is DEAD! I had been thinking that perhaps I had lost my appetite or that it all had been a false but mandatory professional conditioning. But, let’s face it, it IS summer and cooking in the heat is grueling. Even eating is not a pleasure when you can barely breath. But… I DID wake up thinking about my favorite Fourth of July salad. And perhaps I am ready to write and post again. That said…

There is no question in my mind that summer is for salads, any salad—Green salads, bean salads, fruit salads and red, white and blue salads. Even if I never write about food again, I should at least share the secrets to my successful salad dressing.

First, let me list my favorite classics:

Mozzarella, tomato & basil w/0r w/o shavings of fennel and a drizzle of olive oil
Watermelon, blueberry, feta & mint
Cannellini beans & tuna, onion, parsley with lots of lemon juice & olive oil
Garbanzo beans, tomato & chopped cucumber, garlic, lemon juice & olive oil
Soba noodles, cucumber, spring onion, Thai basil & peanuts (w/soy sauce & lime)
Corn & black bean salad, red bell peppers, garlic, cumin & cilantro
Beet & Arugula salad…

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A variety of salads from meals shared with friends. All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

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The perfect salad dressing

I’ve been eager to share the secret to my dressing. This is as good a time as any. The dressing won’t go with the Soba noodle salad mentioned above, and I would not use it for the Cannelini and tuna—although it might not be bad—I would use lemon juice instead.

I make this dressing on a daily basis for my green salad (mesclun mix, arugula, and or romaine) to which I add pear, orange or apple, cranberries or not, cucumber always, or tomato and roasted corn sometimes, especially in summer.

Fadia’s Never-Fail Salad Dressing:
1 clove garlic crushed, 1/8 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses and 1/2 tsp olive oil. (If you do not use oil, you could substitute lime juice for the olive oil).

This amount is just right for a 2 – 3 people side salad or 1 large entree serving. The secret is also not to over soak your greens in dressing! That’s a mistake which will kill and wilt your greens and drown your salad in calories. You need just enough to coat it lightly, the juices from some of the fruit or veggies will add to the moisture.

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I used balsamic vinegar for years, but I find the pomegranate molasses (not a molasses at all, but a reduction of pomegranate juice) is less acidic, some brands have a little added sugar, but I swear it is my very favorite secret ingredient and it never fails to “wow” people over.

Salads are like paintings. You mix colors and add ingredients as you go. Add toppings: left-over grated cheese, bits of meats or frozen veggies, dried or fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, crushed seaweed, corn chips, toasted pita chips, the list is endless. Salad is a canvas for improvisation. Go for it! Be fearless and adventurous. Salads were my daughters’ first creations in the kitchen. At age four they’d sit at the kitchen counter and explore the possibilities, chopping, dumping and mixing. It’s a child’s game really.

So there you have it! I have just completed a post, and now… let’s hope I can leave my existential quandary behind and I can get back down to business (or will I ?). Until next week. 🙂

 

Pantry Fave #2: Za’atar

When I moved to New York City in the late seventies, the culture shock coupled with the civil war in Lebanon left me yearning for a world that would eventually disappear from my life. During my first decade on American soil, I inevitably gravitated towards a handful of Middle-Eastern grocery stores, scouring the shelves for recognizable Lebanese brands of staple ingredients. We did not yet have the Internet and Google with resources and recipes at the click of a mouse. Hummus and falafel had not yet invaded the coolers and shelves of every supermarket. Choices of Middle-Eastern restaurants and foodstuffs were limited. But I managed to get by with what ingredients I found locally and quickly became a good cook, duplicating my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes and dishes.

Za’atar was the ingredient that I missed terribly and sought persistently. More than a staple ingredient in Levantine households, it is a flavor that embodies the essence of “home”.  And so, despite the difficulty of communicating with my family back in Lebanon during a violent and brutal civil war, I shamelessly asked friends and travelers to bring me back bagfuls of that queen of all herbs and spices, stowed in their luggage.

Today, articles about za’atar and mana’eesh fill the Internet. Supermarkets carry tiny jars of it and za’atar flavored pita crisps share the shelves with corn and potato chips. You can buy it on line and Middle-Eastern grocers are now importing excellent blends. I sprinkle za’atar on my avocado toast in the morning. I have a jar of it at my desk at work to brighten my day when I feel like escaping the drudgery. My freezer is packed with five different blends that my family still sends me either from Lebanon or Jordan by way of Boston and Atlanta. Za’atar is my genie in a jar, the link to my heritage and to numerous memories.

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Roasted Beets and Carrots with Za’atar and Tahini Sauce

As I mentioned, za’atar is used in marinades and works particularly well with chicken. Mix the spice with olive oil, crushed garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let the chicken marinate for several hours and then bake or grill. Recently, I have been using za’atar with roasted vegetables, served with tahini sauce.

Ingredients
1 bunch beets
1 bunch carrots
1 Tblsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
¼ cup honey or maple syrup
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup za’atar

Instructions
Preheat oven 400˚ F.
Clean and peel vegetables and cut into 1 ½ – 2 inch cubes. Mix oil, salt, garlic powder, lemon juice and honey. Pour over the vegetables and toss until well coated. Spread vegetables on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil.

Roast for 20-40 minutes or until desired tenderness, stirring once or twice. Remove from the oven, transfer to a bowl and toss with the za’atar. You may also remove vegetables halfway through the cooking process and toss with the spice mix to further deepen the flavor. Return the baking sheet to the oven and roast until the vegetables are fork tender.
While vegetables are roasting, prepare tahini sauce (see previous post Pantry Favorites: Tahini). Serve the vegetables drizzled with the sauce and garnished with sprigs of parsley.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote last summer for The Cook’s Gazette, a quarterly on-line journal that is a beautiful resource for any foodie, filled with gorgeous photographs, incredible recipes, in-depth profiles of markets, chefs, cooks and personalities.

Here’s the link to my article (Memories of Lebanon).

Spring: Ris & the Ramp

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Red veined Sorrel, ramps, watermelon radishes, beets and white Hakurei turnips. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Since living in Washington I have grown accustomed to making a big deal over spring. Spring is a THING! It’s a happening.

My heart skips a beat at the sight of the first robin or the first peeping crocuses. Soon the trees will burst with gigantic magnolia blooms and a little later the glorious cherry blossoms will summon the photo-snapping tourists. The stretches of daffodils color the drive along the parkways, and the tulips adorn front yards with splashes of pinks, whites, purples and yellows.

But it seems the wait is a slightly longer for spring at the farmers’ markets. I drive myself sick with anticipation. I look for the appearance of ramps that indicate the beginning of Spring produce. I hadn’t heard of ramps until a few years ago when a celebrated Washington chef, Ris Lacoste brought them to my attention.

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Ramps. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ris is a dedicated mentor, contributor and educator. I am genuinely fond of her. I admire her sincerity, humility, her wit and her brilliance. She is not only one of DC’s top chefs, but her generosity of spirit allows to sit on many a board, consult and advise many restaurants and organizations, teach and mentor young aspiring chefs. Over the years, Ris and I would run into each other at the store and at every community event in the city where we never missed a chance to chat. She was in the restaurant business and I worked in the food retail business. We had loads to talk about and share.
So when Ris mentioned ramps one day, I took note. I went searching and researching for this illusive plant that turns out is a small wild leek, native to the Appalachian mountain region in eastern North America—now how would I ever have known that?—It is foraged in the woods. Ramps  have a short seasonal appearance that grace the market stands in April. Communities in Southern Appalachia celebrate ramps with annual festivals and restaurant chefs, plan whole menus around them.

But there is also a controversy around the ramp. Chefs may have glorified it but botanists have scorned its over-harvesting. It takes five to seven years for ramps to produce seed, and a year at least, for the seeds to germinate. Quebec, Canada, has banned its sale since 1995 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned its harvesting since 2002. For further detail this NYTimes article tells it all.

Boycott or buy?
I usually get carried away with my shopping at the market, often coming home with enough stuff for a family of eight. Maybe it’s an exaggeration. But seriously, the amount of produce that could go bad while waiting for me to find time to process is overwhelming. I therefore commit to a specified budget. A $5 small bouquet of ramps that dwindles down to a mouthful when cooked, may not be the most economical way for a poor foodie to be spending her money. Maybe I will buy one small bunch as a ceremonial act of confirmation— to mark the beginning of the season and to bring in the Spring.

That said, there are so many other lovely temptations that won’t burn a hole in my pocket. Ramps are gorgeous but so is everything else at this time of year. I cannot resist the red-veined baby sorell, the zucchini blossoms, and the baby new potatoes, the spring onions and baby beets, not to forget the white Hakurei turnips and rainbow radishes as well.

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For dinner I will make a salad with roasted beets, sliced turnips and baby sorrel, and a Spring Minestrone Soup that was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

Here’s her recipe: I have substituted quinoa for the brown rice and I have added lemon juice for a touch of brightness. I find quinoa earthy and delicate in flavor, overall more nutritious, and it takes less time to cook. If you are looking for a heartier bowl of soup, brown rice is more filling and comforting. You can use a frozen, cooked, store-bought version of both. I always keep a bag of each in my freezer for the occasional need. (Or you can use your own cooked, frozen quinoa or rice. They freeze easily. Place your left-over cooked rice or qinoa in a zip-lock bag, pat to release air, and seal).

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Spring Minestrone (with 0r without Ramps)

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 shallots or Spring onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced(Bunch of ramps if available)
(Bunch of ramps if available, washed and chopped)
3/4 cup Quinoa (cooked)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas trimmed and cut in half
8 spears asparagus trimmed diagonally into 1 “ pieces
1/2 cup green petite peas (frozen or fresh if you have them)
Lemon juice, Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil, sauté the shallots and garlic, (and chopped ramps) until soft. Add the stock and bring to a boil. add the the vegetables and cook until desired tenderness. I like them crisp and bright green, that will only take a few minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa. Add lemon juice, S & P to taste.

As for my bouquet of ramps, I photographed it, washed and minced it, sautéed it with fresh thyme and added it to my sautéed chicken livers, finishing it off with a splash of sherry.

Happy Spring!

Years ago, I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com/ after I had come across her book in 2007. You may not come back to my blog ever again after you’ve seen hers. But I need to give credit where credit is due and after all, my blog will always reference the books, cooks and people who have inspired me over the years.

All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Mona’s Gift

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Rendering of the book as I remember it. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

The very first cookbook that inspired and encouraged me was a Christmas gift from my aunt Mona. Title: “La Cuisine Est Pour Les Enfants”; translated: “Cooking is for Children”. It was a large format book, maybe 12” x 16” with a hard glossy cover and spiral bound. Large colorful illustrations adorned every page, and the recipes were “hand-written” in a large chalk-like black script. I might have been twelve or thirteen, and thought to myself “I am not a child!”, this looks too easy! I flipped through it and put it aside. The illustrations looked intentionally like a child’s drawings but were luscious and inviting. I was more interested in the technique and the medium than in what they represented.

One day, I cannot recall when exactly, after a hormonal bout of depression and desperation—the usual teen, over-the-top feelings of rebellion and alienation— I was searching for something to occupy and distract me. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover and emerged challenged to try every recipe for my family’s Sunday meal.

Most Sundays, my mother and paternal grandma took a break from cooking and we went out to eat when my father was in town, or, if he was not, we ate left-overs. By then, my maternal grandparents had passed away and we were no longer gathering at their home with my mother’s siblings and their families for huge Sunday luncheons. With my new proposition, my family would have to forgo the Sunday outing, accept and enjoy my cooking, and contribute to cleaning up after it was all over.

Much to my surprise my mom agreed and perhaps encouraged me. Of course she helped as well, but I wanted to remember the experience as a culinary feat that I achieved single-handedly. To this day, I brag about cooking since I was fourteen. It is true. For several Sundays, in the heat of a Beirut summer, I took control of that kitchen and prepared the most outlandish dishes from that cookbook. “Outlandish” because they were not the dishes that my mom or grandma prepared, “outlandish” because they required special shopping for ingredients that were not necessarily available in our pantry or refrigerator, and “outlandish”  because they had little to do with our Mediterranean seasonal diet. I took the whole business seriously and beamed with pride when my parents hummed with approval, or expressed their polite satisfaction with forced glee.

I remember a Quiche Lorraine—goodness how boring— but at least it didn’t break the bank like the Filet En Croute! My favorite was the Carbonade Flamande, a beef and prune stew that seemed really exciting because it required cooking the whole thing in beer, or the Coq au Vin that require red wine! Super adventurous and daring for a fourteen year old. I wonder now how that met my mother’s approval and how eating a hot beef or chicken stew could be appreciated in the dead of summer. But my family didn’t seem to blink. I never heard a complaint. On the contrary, they met my dishes with welcoming enthusiasm, pretending perhaps, as if it was the most delicious food they had tried—not that French cuisine was unfamiliar to us, but it hadn’t really made it into our pots and pans. It was my own initiation into the kitchen and that would not have been the same had I begun with my mother’s dishes. I would like to think that Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child, neither of whom I had even heard of then, would have been proud of me!

You may have gathered already that the cookbook was definitely not meant for children. Perhaps for adolescents, but NOT, in any way, for children. It left me exhausted, but cured from my depression. Luckily for everyone, I probably never delved into the dessert section (I don’t recall ever making the Clafoutis or the Choux a la creme! Can you imagine! The entrees were complex enough as it were, and enough of an exercise in tolerance and perseverance for cook and subjects alike. Luckily we survived the few weeks of experimentation and the result was proof enough for me that I was loved and worthy of the family cooks.

That book was where my life in the kitchen began and I have my aunt to thank for it. That gift was only the beginning of her influence. She would continue to inspire me with her unconventional, independent style. She was not a conformist. She was emancipated in her life and in her cooking. She often impressed us with fondue dinner parties and a few international dishes that were unheard of at the time within the family circle. Her Moroccan chicken with prunes and almonds was a recipe my mother and I would adopt and make for years to come. She opened my eyes to different cuisines. Her sense of adventure and accomplishment both in her career and in her kitchen inspire me to this day.

Pantry Favorites: Tahini

 

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If I were to choose some items from my pantry that I couldn’t live without, Tahini would be one of them. I’m in love with sesame. “Open Sesame!” was the password to the sealed treasure cave in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It’s what I think of when opening a jar of Tahini, expecting glittering gems. Instead, a golden layer of oil floats atop! A-nno-ying! I take a long spoon, forced to stir the oil into the paste below.

Used all over the Middle-East, Egypt and Turkey, it has also become popular in Europe and the U.S.  Sesame is an ancient seed used by the civilizations of Egypt, China and India. Probably originally grown in India, it is widely grown in Africa and Asia. Gardeners use sesame as a companion plant because it inhibits root knot nematodes. And in the U.S. a certain non scattering variety of the plant has been developed to allow mechanized harvesting. The sesame plant is used to alternate with cotton to improve soil quality. To read more about the agricultural background in the U.S. visit the site of the American Sesame Growers Association.

In India the oil is revered for the beautification of the skin. Sesame contains natural oil-soluble and water-soluble antioxidants. It is used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries as well. The oil and paste are so stable they can go months without refrigeration and resist going rancid.

So why is it a pantry fave?

Tahini is very nutritious. Although high in fat, it has no cholesterol. It is considered an energy food, rich in calcium and iron, copper, magnesium and protein. It has an impressive nutritional profile which you can see on this website. As a child I found it bitter, but now I could spoon it straight into my mouth if it weren’t for minding my manners—but I confess that I will lick the spoon when I’m done! I can’t help it.
#1. Taratoor or Tahini Sauce is my number one “go-to” sauce: Mostly used in pita sandwiches with falafel and shawarma, it’s fantastic with fish, roasted cauliflower and mixed in with roasted beets or carrots!
There are a couple of things you need to remember when making taratoor. The amount of garlic, lemon, salt is totally up to you. It’s a question of taste. Adding water changes it’s consistency and therefore whether you need it to be creamy or runny will depend on the quantity of water you add to the mix. Add a little at a time and stir as you go.

Tahini Sauce Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup tahini
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 Tblsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Optional: ¼ cup chopped parsley

Instructions:

Place the tahini in a small bowl and pour in water a little at a time, while stirring. The mixture will “seize” at first but will eventually loosen as you keep adding the water. Stir and add water until you reach the desired consistency. Add the lemon juice, the crushed garlic and salt to taste. Add the parsley if desired. If you want to double the quantities and throw it all in a blender, you can do that too. Tasting as you go.

Although I often make this sauce, I no longer make my own hummus. I find that some store-bought brands are so good and so cheap, I don’t bother making my own anymore. But I have yet to find an excellent store- bought Baba Ghannouj. This, I will gladly make at home, but only if requested by a family member or a friend: Here again the roasting of the eggplants, peeling the charred skin etc.. is such a mess that I would rather live without it.  Of course when I was cooking for a family I would inevitably make it, but for now… I remind you that I am all about efficiency and speed in the kitchen—My mother used to roast and peel the eggplant and freeze it whole until needed. A practice I would encourage.

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#2. The next best thing about tahini, is that you can mix it with date or carob syrup or honey. It’s a delicious spread to satisfy your sweet craving and you can control the sweetness yourself. The honey/tahini combo on toast is a soothing relief for a soar throat. Trust me.

#3. For an Asian variation, I use a tahini-miso sauce over Soba noodles mixed with chopped cool cucumbers, or steamed asparagus, fresh snow peas, cilantro, scallions and sesame seeds. You can use it as a salad dressing over some baby kale or spinach, sliced pear or orange with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds.

Tahini-Miso Sauce Recipe

  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • 1 clove garlic crushed
  • 1½ teaspoons sesame oil
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 1 tablespoon white or yellow miso
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon tamari sauce
  • ¼ cup warm water (more if needed)
  • Optional: 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Mix all together until smooth. This recipe makes about 3/4 cup. Use as much or as little as you’d like.

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Kitchen Tips (cont.)—Processing & Freezing

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Cilantro/garlic frozen cubes. Photo: © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The ice cube tray is a useful kitchen tool.

A great way to keep some essential ingredients on hand at all times is to portion and freeze. The ice cube tray is the perfect vehicle for the process.

#1. Frozen lemon juice

Squeeze lemons and pour the juice in a tray. Once frozen and solid, place the juice cubes in a zip lock bag to bring out at a moment’s notice to use in soups or cocktails in the evening, or to mix with warm water for a detoxing cleanse in the morning. 🙂

#2. Frozen Garlic and Cilantro mix

If you  are a cilantro lover and use a lot of cilantro-garlic combo in your cuisine, you’re familiar with the hassle. This combination is used to flavor many a Middle-Eastern dish. Use it for Tex-mex and Mexican dishes as well: chilis, tacos and salsas. Chopping cilantro, every time you need it, is time consuming and will interrupt the flow of a quick weeknight meal. Making big batches of cilantro and garlic in one sitting saves hours of labor down the road. Simply assemble crushed garlic and chopped cilantro, or throw it all into a food processor adding a little oil and salt. Sautéing is a practice that will deepen the flavor but is not necessary. You can sauté the thawed cubes when you are ready to use or you can do so before freezing. Whatever your  inclination or time constraints, portion the mix in ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, you can place the cubes in a bag or container and return to the freezer.


Recipe:

6-8 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of coriander
1 Cup chopped Cilantro
2 teaspoons Olive Oil
1/4 teaspoon of salt

Warm the oil in a small pan, add all the ingredients and toss around until garlic looks golden. If mixture sticks to the pan loosen with a little water. Be careful not to burn. Remove from heat, cool and place in a container and freeze.

Here’s a link to a recipe for Garlic Cilantro Salsa! http://www.food.com/recipe/garlic-cilantro-salsa-96866

I love Sautéed Potatoes with Garlic and Cilantro. Here’s a link to Mamas Lebanese Kitchenhttp://www.mamaslebanesekitchen.com/mezza/potatoes-saute-garlic-cilantro-batata-kizbra/#sthash.vJKYzDWD.dpbs


#3. Frozen Pesto cubes

I need not tell anyone how to make pesto. I like to make it in big batches all throughout Basil season to place in ice cube trays and freeze.
I use pesto not only for pasta, but to spread over fish before baking, in sandwiches and as a base for crostini with various toppings. My daughters like mixing pesto with Hummus. A Caprese salad is a natural pairing, but try it with chicken salad or mixed in with quinoa, petite peas, toasted pignoli and cubed tomatoes.

#4. Freezer tips in general…and more…

Get in the habit of labeling containers that go in the freezer with content and date. Much of the food looks the same once frozen. Having a large freezer is a mixed blessing: containers tend to get lost and forgotten for months: Bone broth, beef or mushroom stock look similar.

Precious spices, and nuts will last longer in the freezer than on the shelf.

If you don’t have a large freezer…

  • Revive wilted herbs and greens: I’ve had a fair amount of success soaking wilted cilantro or parsley—greens too— in a bath of fresh cold water, for 10 minutes or so. The salad spinner is perfect for this since you can immediately drain and spin out the excess water.
  • Radishes and carrots, if soaked in tubs of water and placed in the refrigerator, will last a whole lot longer and will keep their crunch.
  • Cooking your veggies and greens immediately is one of the better kitchen practices. Don’t wait for mushrooms to get slimy, and greens to wilt and mold in your refrigerator. Sauté mushrooms, blanch your veggies and greens. Leave them to drain and dry out before refrigerating or freezing.
  • I often get carried away at farmers’ markets because everything looks so appealing and fresh. Curb your enthusiasm by giving yourself a budget and a limit. I suspect we all buy way too much for our weekly needs. But if you process what you buy right away, you will get your money’s worth, rather than letting things wilt to the point of no return —destined for the trash. You and I know how much that hurts!

 

 

Top 5 Tips for Kitchen Survival

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Bunches of rainbow chard, need washing and chopping. I cook the stems separately with chopped onions and crushed garlic to make a nutritious and colorful garnish. Photos © Fadia Jawdat 2016

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#1: Dedicate one shopping/prepping day/week
I don’t care how insane this might seem, but my number one advice to anyone trying to eat a healthy diet is to dedicate one shopping day a week, followed by some “prepping” time. Even if you are single, you can save a lot of money by making your own meals at home and packing a daily lunch for the office. This works particularly well if you have a pretty predictable routine. If you’re traveling off and on, are the adventurous type and do not have a predictable work week, then this is not for you. But if you have a family to come home to after a full-days work, or if you are super conscious about your nutritional intake, then read on.

The biggest life-saving practice for me was to spend one day in the kitchen, prepping, peeling, washing, drying, blanching, sautéing, and storing. The rest of the week would seem like a breeze once I had cooked veggies, juiced lemons, peeled garlic and portioned sauces, and had them ready, right there at my finger tips. For the greater part of my adult life, I shopped for my  family’s weekly needs, then came home to spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. I had a planned weekly menu—nothing fancy, just well-rounded and balanced with enough variety not to bore the adventurous but also homey enough to be comforting. I would allow room for a couple of nights of recycled leftovers, and perhaps the occasional frozen pizza night with salad. Sundays seemed best for this practice, when dad took the kids to play-dates while I cooked up a storm.

My daughters were in no way banished from the kitchen. On the contrary, when they crawled, they had their designated lower drawers to open and explore, when they sat in their high chairs they had wooden spoons and plastic bowls to play with. When they were coordinated enough to sit at the high island counter across from me, they made their own sandwiches, learned to make their own salads and dressings, mixed batter, greased baking sheets and shared and enjoyed in the experience.

Chopping and freezing herbs, apportioning sauces, pesto and other ingredients are basic practices that help turn even the most elaborate dishes into a breeze. Here are a few to be followed by a few others next week.

#2: Peel entire heads of garlic at a time
I use at least a clove a day for my salad dressing and another few for sautéed mushrooms, soups, stews, roasts, marinades. A jar of peeled garlic in the fridge is very handy for “grab-and-use without switching gears.
Peeling garlic is my least favorite activity. If you peel a clove at a time, it’s an ordeal. Buy yourself one of those rubbery hollow cylinders to make your life a lot easier, and give it a go. Simply insert 4-6 cloves in the cavity, roll the cylinder on the counter while applying a little pressure, and voila! It’s done. Cloves as clean as a whistle. (Still, you need to clean off the mess on your counter and rinse out your peeler).

#3:  Chop and freeze parsley
Frozen parsley does  not seem to retain much flavor, but for garnishing dishes at the last-minute, or for a touch of green and a shot of potassium and anti-oxidants in a chicken soup, or a bowl of noodles, a sprinkling of frozen chopped parsley is visually and nutritionally miraculous.

#4: Freeze Ginger Root and Lemons
Place in Ziplock bags and freeze. I have been freezing ginger for years. Lemon, frozen whole, is a new-comer to my freezer. This practice makes the grating with a micro-plane less tedious.

#5: Freeze Tomato Paste
I buy tomato paste in cans, rarely in tubes. I only use a teaspoon or tablespoon at a time. Scoop out the paste into a ziploc bag and flatten out while evenly spreading the content to all sides of the bag. Seal and freeze. Once frozen, it is so easy to break off a piece to add to your pot.

As the children grew older, our habits changed and so did our palate. My cooking adventure grew and grew and my cooking repertoire expanded. But those basic tips mentioned here remain invaluable. When the kids come back and delve into their own recipes, my freezer is still filled with frozen essentials for them to use at a moment’s notice.

My freezer and I are always ready for the occasional snow day and the impromptu guests’ or daughters’ visits.