Tips for Cooking Pasta

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I’ve studied quite a bit with Italian chefs and have come to love Italian cooking and how Italians view food. With pasta, it’s not so much about the sauce…it’s really about the pasta! Here are just a few things I’ve learned about cooking pasta…

How Much Pasta Per Person?: The simple way to remember how much uncooked pasta is this: Figure a 1-pound box of pasta will serve 4 – 6 people depending on the serving size. For example: If I am serving just a pasta dish alone (no salad, etc.) figure 4 servings per a 1-pound box. If you are serving appetizers and/or salad then a 1-pound box of pasta will likely serve 6 people.

Cook Pasta in Enough Water: When cooking pasta, it needs enough water to cook properly and have enough room to move around while absorbing water.

Follow the directions on the package for the proper amount of water to pasta. Be sure to use a large pot when cooking pasta for several people. Many pots and pans imprint the size on the bottom of the pan. Cooking pasta in too small a pan will result in gummy pasta. Also, be sure to stir your pasta every 3-4 minutes, and especially right after you add the pasta to the boiling water.

Don’t Forget the Salt: Pasta needs a fair amount of salt to add flavor. Remember, there is no salt in the pasta itself.

Follow Package Directions for Cooking Time: Even if the package directions say to cook the pasta for 9 minutes, I like to start checking my pasta for doneness about a minute or two before the box directions suggest so it does not over cook. Pasta is best cooked “al dente”, that means still firm to the bite.

Drain – But Save Some of Your Pasta Water: When you drain your pasta after cooking, be sure to save about a cup of the “hot pasta water”. It comes in very handy in the event your pasta sauce is a bit too thick or dry.

Do not over drain your pasta to where it is dry. You need to drain the pasta to the point that it has “dropped” most of its water. This will help your pasta and sauce blend together much better.

If/When to Rinse: A good rule to remember: rinse just cooked pasta only if it is going into a pasta salad. If you do not, then prepare yourself for a gummy salad. Never rinse pasta that will be served immediately as the starch is needed to hold the sauce.

Heat Your Serving Bowls: When serving pasta, always warm your serving bowls as it helps to keep your pasta warm longer. When I drain the pasta, I put the colander right over the serving bowls. The hot pasta water serves as a way to heat up the bowls quickly. An alternative method is to place the bowls in a warm oven for a few minutes before dishing up the pasta.

Pantry Basics

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Quite often, my students ask me about how to store garlic, or they come to their cooking lesson with chilled onions. I explain to them how to properly store items for longer a longer shelf life. Perhaps this list will take some mystery out of how to store certain items in you pantry.

– Store potatoes in a cool, dark place with good air circulation. Never store them next to onions, as potatoes give off moisture and they will shorten each others shelf life. Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator.

– “Fresh onions” are Vidalia, Walla Walla and they have a higher moisture content. Store only these types of onions in the fridge and use within about a week. You can extend their shelf life by not letting them touch while storing.

– Store dry onions in a cool, dark place and in a single layer to prolong shelf life. Never store them in the refrigerator. Do not store next to potatoes, as they will shorten each others shelf life.

– Store garlic (see earlier blog entry on garlic) in a cool dark place, not the refrigerator.

– Store dried herbs and spices in your pantry and away from your stove or oven.

– Store honey at room temperature and in a dry, dark place. Cooler temps may encourage crystallization. If you already have crystallization, put your honey container into a pan of gently simmering water (remove lid of the honey bottle first), and heat until crystals are gone.

– Transfer flour from its’ original bag into an airtight container. Store at room temperature for up to 6 months. If the temperature warms above 75 degrees or so, set the flour in the fridge or freezer, as weevils like to appear in warmer weather.

– If you use cooking oils on a regular basis, store them in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. I like to purchase mine in smaller jars to help avoid spoilage or going rancid. For longer storage, store oils in the fridge for up to 1 year. If any oil has solidified (such as olive oil or walnut oil) in the fridge, simply bring it to room temperature before using.

– Nuts should be stored in a cool, dark place. Shelled nuts should be wrapped tightly and refrigerated for up to 4 weeks or frozen for a few months, unless they are in a vacuum-packed style can (then store at room temp).

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There was such great response the first time I blogged about Kitchen Tips that I’m offering some more to help you out in the kitchen with some little known facts.

– Keep Brownies Moist – Brownies will dry out if you cut into them before letting them cool completely. Their moisture escapes when they are cut before cooling.

– Stabilize Whipped Cream – Use Powdered Sugar (Confectioners Sugar) to whip cream for dessert toppings instead of regular sugar. The whipped cream will remain stabilized longer and you’ll be able to store it over night in the fridge…just give it a good stir when ready to use and it will be like fresh whipped! Don’t forget to add some vanilla extract when whipping to add a nice flavor.

– How to Store Leftover Stock or Broth – If you’ve got a partially full container of broth or stock left over from cooking, fill ice cube trays (or very small containers) with your left over broth. Freeze, then pop them out like they were ice cubes. Then store the “ice cubes” in your freezer for use another time. No more wasted cans of stock. In addition, I’ll often freeze a small amount (like 1/2 cup) in a freezer bag, then it’s readily available to me when needing just about that amount.

– Baking on Humid Days – On humid days, flour can absorb some of the moisture in the air, and affect your baking. For example: in really humid weather, a 6-cup bread dough recipe may require the addition of an extra cup of flour. I personally have had this happen to me when making sugar cookie dough and had to add additional flour to the dough in order to roll out properly.

– Underbaked Quick Bread – Ever baked quick bread only to have it under baked? If the bread has cooled, lay slices on a baking sheet, cover with some foil and bake at 300 degrees until cooked through. However, if the bread is still hot, stick it back into your hot oven until done baking.

– Cooking with Canned Beans – rinsing the beans will remove about 40% of the sodium and whatever elements that contribute to “gassiness”. When cooking dry beans, to prevent them from bursting out of their skin when cooking, keep the heat low and be sure to cover the pot.

– Protecting Your Non-Stick Pans – To help your non-stick pans from scratching while in storage, place a paper towel on the surface of your skillet before setting another pan inside of it.

Apple Varieties for Baking and Cooking

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Ever notice the number of apple varieties? They each have their own characteristics and many are great for baking and cooking. Below is a list of popular apple varieties perfect for cooking:

Golden Delicious: With a thin skin and a nice juicy interior, these apples are great for baking and give the best results in baked goods.

Rome: Bright red, juicy, and mildly tart. Rich flavor when cooked or baked. Best for pies and pancakes.

Granny Smith: Bright green skin, with some occasional white specks. Sweet and tart at the same time, best eaten raw or used in sauces, but also good for cakes, crisps, and pies, when blended with other varieties of sweeter apples. My personal favorite for snacking.

Jonathan: Mostly red with blushes of green near stem. Both sweet and tart. Good all-purpose cooking apple. Best for pies; halves will hold their shape in slow cooker.

McIntosh: Soft red and green color; sweet, tart, juicy, and firm. Best for eating raw, and in salads, applesauce, pies, tarts and juicing.

Fuji: Soft red in color, with some yellow near the stem. They are sweet, juicy, and firm and best for pie filling and tarts because they hold their shape.

 

Ingredient Substitutions

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Did you find a recipe that calls for a little bit of something that you don’t normally keep in your kitchen and don’t want to buy because you know the rest of it will go to waste? Here’s a handy list of ingredients that can be substituted for most ingredients in your recipes. Print a copy and keep handy in your kitchen.

• 1 teaspoon lemon juice = ½ teaspoon vinegar

• 1 tablespoon fresh herbs = ½ to 1 teaspoon dried herbs

• 1 small garlic clove = 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

• 1 pound fresh mushrooms = 3 ounces dried or 6 ounces canned

• 1 cup whipping cream as liquid = 1/3 cup melted butter plus ¾ cup milk

• 1 cup light cream = 3 tablespoons melted butter plus ¾ cup milk

• 1 cup ricotta cheese = 1 cup cottage cheese, liquid drained

• 1 cup sour cream = 3 tablespoons melted butter stirred into 7/8 cup buttermilk, soured milk or plain yogurt

• 1 cup sour cream = 1 cup plain yogurt (but it will taste less rich from the missing fat)

• Chunky peanut butter = creamy peanut butter (or grind roasted peanuts in a blender with a little peanut oil)

• 1 cup bread crumbs = ¾ cup cracker crumbs

• 1 cup butter = 1 cup margarine or 7/8 cup vegetable oil or 7/8 cup butter-flavored shortening

• ½ cup dry red wine or white wine = 2 tablespoons sherry or port

• 1 pound tomatoes = 3 medium or ¾ cup sauce (6 ounces) or ¼ cup paste (2 ounces)

• 8 ounces tomato sauce = 2/3 cup water plus 1/3 cup tomato paste

• 3 cups tomato juice = 2½ cups water plus 6 ounces tomato paste plus ¾ teaspoon salt, dash of sugar

• 1 cup granulated sugar = 1¾ cups powdered sugar for uses other than baking

• ¼ teaspoon powdered ginger = 1 teaspoon chopped fresh or 2 teaspoon minced crystallized

• 1 tablespoon grated fresh horseradish = 2 tablespoons bottled

• 1 teaspoon dry mustard = 1 tablespoon prepared mustard or ½ teaspoon mustard seeds

• 1 /4 cup rum = 1 teaspoon rum extract plus liquid to make ¼ cup

• 1 cup wine = 13 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 tablespoon sugar or a little less than 1 cup apple juice plus lemon juice

• ½ teaspoon cream of tartar = 1½ teaspoons lemon juice or vinegar

Garlic

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Garlic is one of my very favorite ingredients and possibly one of yours too. For me I can never have too much garlic. It goes with so many things, but is perfect for summer veggies, pasta dishes whether a cooked or “raw’ sauce or for any food in season in summer. Enjoy these tips for cooking with garlic…

Choosing:  Look for firm bulbs that feel heavy, with no signs of mold or “sprouting” at the top. Also avoid bulbs with soft or shriveled cloves.

Storing: Keep in a cool, dark environment with plenty of ventilation. I store mine in a terra cotta “garlic keeper” with a few holes on the side and a lid on top. Never store garlic in the refrigerator as it encourages rotting. Keep the bulbs whole and only break off individual cloves as needed.

Bulbs and Cloves: A bulb of garlic is comprised of several cloves having grown tightly together.  To release a clove or two of garlic from a tight bulb, place the bulb of garlic upside down on a work surface. Using the palm of your hand, press down hard on the bulb of garlic. The cloves should then break free.

Peeling a Few Cloves of Garlic:  Place a garlic clove on it’s side on your work surface. Taking your largest or widest knife, give the clove a really good “whack” to loosen the skin.

Peeling Several Cloves of Garlic:  Bring a small pot of water to a boil and place the garlic cloves into the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Drain and cool the cloves of garlic quickly in cold water to stop the cooking process. Pinch the cloves and the skin practically slides right off! Making pasta at the same time? Take advantage of your boiling pasta water at the same time!

Never put a bunch of papery garlic skins through your garbage disposal as it will clog up.

Preparation:  Chopping, mincing or crushing garlic will create a bolder, sharper flavor than slices or whole cloves of garlic. The flavor breaks down as soon as it is chopped or minced, so be sure to prepare your garlic just prior to cooking with it.

While chopping garlic, add a little salt along with it to keep the garlic from sticking to your knife. Be sure to adjust the salt content in the recipe to make up for the addition of salt with the garlic.

Got an old clove with a center green sprout starting? Cut the clove in half and simply remove the green sprout. It has a bitter and harsh flavor that you don’t want in your dish.

Cooking with Garlic:  Heating garlic mellows the flavor, while the finer you chop fresh garlic will intensify its flavor. Careful not to burn garlic – never add garlic to a pan with hot oil…instead, add the chopped garlic and the oil at the same time and then heat the pan. Then cook until the garlic is golden in color. To prevent from burning, cook garlic over low heat. Cook garlic for too long and it becomes bitter.

Tomatoes

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For me, summer is all about slices of my home-grown tomatoes, layered with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil, then drizzled with some extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper.  Ahhhh…summer is here!

Tomatoes are versatile because you can enjoy them in many different manners – fresh, cooked or canned. I love to cook with tomatoes as well as mix fresh chopped into all sorts of fresh pasta dishes.  If you grow your own tomatoes or get them at the local farmers market, produce stand or from your neighbors, here are some tips to help you enjoy them to their fullest:

How to Buy Tomatoes:  Look for firm and richly colored tomatoes. A good tomato also has a sorta sweet aroma. If you must buy them in a grocery store, look for “vine-ripened” for best flavor over regular grocery store tomatoes which have been “gassed” to make turn red!  Often times, an “ugly tomato” or less-than-perfect tomato signals a home-grown tomato (or Farmers Market tomato). A perfect tomato is often from a “manufactured” growing environment.

How to Store Tomatoes:  Putting your tomatoes in the refrigerator creates a “mealy” or spongy and tasteless tomato. Instead, find a cool spot in your home that never falls below 55 degrees.

To Peel Several Tomatoes:   Carefully slice an “X” shape at the base (end) of the tomato, then dip tomato into lightly boiling water for about 10-15 seconds. Then remove with either tongs or a sieve and run under cold water to quickly cool them. The peel will now slip off easily.

Freezing Fresh Tomatoes:  Got too many tomatoes? Peel and seed your extras, then place them in zip lock freezer bags and freeze for no more than 2-3 months. Use in soups and sauces or any recipe calling for canned tomatoes.

Making Your Own Sauce:  Plum tomatoes make the best sauce as they have less juice and will cook up faster. When you’re done cooking your sauce, it freezes very well and in fact, tastes better after it’s been frozen.

Serving Fresh Tomatoes:  Always slice/chop tomatoes just prior to serving to keep their juice from expelling and/or creating a soggy salad.

Cooking with Fresh Tomatoes:  Never cook tomatoes (or tomato-based dishes) in an aluminum pan.  Aluminum gives a bitter aftertaste to acidic foods like tomatoes.

Removing Seeds:  Cut the tomato in half crosswise. Then hold the tomato half in your hand, over a bowl or sink. Gently squeeze the tomato so the seeds release and fall into the bowl or sink.

Cooking Sprays – the Unexpected Kitchen Tool!

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Your everyday cooking spray is a great “multi-tasking” tool for your kitchen. Here are some helpful and unexpected tips for using:

–  Spray your cheese grater to prevent cheese from sticking when grating cheese. This works for chocolate as well.

–  If you must spray one of your sauté pans or skillet with cooking spray, never heat the pan more than 2-3 minutes, as doing so will scorch the cooking spray!

–  When cutting foods that stick together (such as dried fruits, marshmallows and gumdrops), spray your kitchen shears with the cooking spray beforehand.

–  When melting chocolate, spray the bowl first before melting. The chocolate will slide right out when melted. Use this trick when measuring honey or molasses in measuring cups or spoons.

–  Spray your plastic container well before storing food that stain such as tomato-based foods or sauces.

–  Spray your kitchen knife before slicing things like hard-boiled eggs or cheese to prevent sticking to the knife.

–  Next time you defrost your freezer, spray cooking spray inside (the shelves mostly). This will aid in removal of ice later on.

–  Store cans in a cool, dry place up to 12 months.

Pepper and Peppercorns

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Two of the simplest and yet most powerful additions you can make to your cooking is the type of salt and pepper you choose to cook with. Grinding your own pepper is far better than buying pre-ground pepper, as the taste of pre-ground cannot come anywhere close to the flavor of freshly ground or cracked pepper. Just think about the difference between instant coffee and a good quality freshly ground and brewed cup of coffee!

Always buy the largest peppercorns as they’ll have the best flavor.

If your peppermill does not allow you to adjust the grind, put some peppercorns into a zip-lock plastic bag. Seal the bag and with a rolling pin or heavy skillet, smash the peppercorns (or whack them) to get the kind of grind you desire.

Use different sizes of grinds for different purposes:
Fine grinds are for seasoning, while a coarse grind is for “flavoring” such as on a salad. For example, you do not want to season a delicate piece of fresh fish with a hearty, coarse grind of pepper.

Black peppercorns pack the heartiest of flavor compare to the other colors of peppercorns. I like to use the combination of 4 or 5 peppercorn blends when cooking.

White peppercorns are actually black peppercorns with the outer black skin removed. White pepper is used when making a white sauce or delicate colored sauce.

Cayennne pepper is ground from a variety of chile peppers.

Add a dozen or so whole peppercorns to a peppershaker to keep the pepper shaking easily and to freshen up the flavor of the pre-ground pepper.

Just like dried herbs and spices, store peppercorns in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Pre-ground pepper should be stored no longer than 3 months as it quickly loses its’ flavor.

All About Fresh Herbs

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Fresh herbs add spark to your cooking and are easily grown in yards, pots and flower boxes. Herbs like Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano and Lavender can be a part of your garden or yards natural landscape as they fit in so easily.

Choosing – black spots or yellow leaves indicate old herbs losing their flavor. Herbs purchased from Farmers’ Markets are grown in the field and have a stronger aroma than those purchased in grocery stores.

Washing – rinse under cool water, shake excess water off, then blot dry. You can either continue to dry them in a “salad spinner” or roll them up in paper towels to finish blotting up any moisture.

Careful! Do NOT wash fresh basil — you’ll wash away its’ aromatic aroma!!

Storing tender herbs (parsley, basil, dill, tarragon) –  remove any rubber bands (or fasteners) from the herbs and trim the stems (if the roots are still attached, skip that step). Place the herbs stem side down into a glass of water with enough water that covers the stems. Then cover loosely with a plastic bag and store on the top shelf of the fridge. They should remain fresh for about 5 days.

Storing fresh basil – store it the same way as mentioned above, however, loosely covered and at room temperature. Cold temperature causes their leaves to turn brown.

Perk-Up Limp Herbs – cut the bottom ¼ inch off the bottom of the stems, then place the herbs (stem side down) into a glass of cold water for about 30 minutes.

Getting the Best Flavor from Fresh Herbs – Heat will diminish the flavor of fresh herbs. Add tender herbs (basil, parsley, dill) towards the end of the cooking process, and sprinkle some on top of your finished dish. Stronger flavored herbs (thyme, rosemary) can be added much earlier in the cooking process so they have time to mellow and flavor the dish.

–  Just a little bit of fresh Rosemary goes a long way. Meaning, be careful how much you use!