Friday, November 10, 2017

Slice and Dice: Butternut Squash

Butternut squash risotto
With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s a fine time to start scouting out delectable side dishes. In our house, it’s sacrilegious to exclude mashed potatoes and stuffing from the menu. There’s less fervor associated with the other sides, and I like to use winter squash, in one of its many forms, to ensure that no one leaves hungry. After the holiday rush, I continue to use butternut squash and its thick-skinned brethren to add substance and, often a touch of sweetness, to salads, soup, and casseroles. Chances are prepping the versatile veggie is easier than you think.

How to Select and Store Butternut and Other Winter Squash

Winter squash varies widely in color, shape, and size. Nonetheless, always select squash that feels rock hard and seems heavy for its size. If possible, opt for squash that has its stem intact as it helps to preserve the vegetable's moisture. To maximize  shelf life, store butternut and other winter squash in a dark, dry, and cool spot such as a pantry.

How to Prep Butternut Squash

Thoroughly wash and dry the squash. Place it on its side on a cutting board. With a chef’s knife, cut half an inch off of either end of the squash.

Cut off top

Cut off bottom
Stand the squash with the wider cut end on the cutting board. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin.

Peel off skin

Slice the squash in half lengthwise.

Slice down the middle into two

Remove the seeds with a spoon. 

Remove the seeds with a spoon

To roughly chop, place one half of the squash on a cutting board with the cut side down. Slice it in half width wise.

Slice in half width wise
Place a quarter of the squash on a cutting board with the cut side down. Slice across the squash every inch or so lengthwise.

Slice across length wise

Carefully rotate the cut pieces 90 degrees and slice across the squash lengthwise every inch or so.

Repeat with the rest of the squash.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Slice and Dice: Eggplant

By early October, I start to crave comfort foods from around the world. Eggplants come in an endless variety - from Biancas to Santanas to Pingtung Long - and offer a ticket across the globe. I bake them until succulent in parmesan, roast them until smoky for baba ghanoush, and saute them for the perfect meat substitute in Asian dishes. 

How to Select and Store Eggplant

Although eggplant is available year-round, its peak season is during the late summer and early fall. When selecting the right one, be sure to check that the skin is smooth and taut. If it’s ripe, gently (and affectionately) squeezing the flesh will leave a shallow, temporary indentation.

How to Peel, Slice, and Salt Eggplant

In the U.S., the voluptuous pear-shaped globe eggplant is the easiest to find. Its purple-black skin becomes chewy when cooked, so it’s often removed. Its springy, porous flesh sucks in oil, so to keep it from becoming greasy when cooked, eggplant is often salted, rinsed, and dried before cooking.

Place the eggplant on its side on a cutting board. Slice of the stem and the rounded end.

Using a vegetable peeler or pairing knife, remove the skin in long strips, moving lengthwise from the stem to bottom end. Or leave it on and skip to the next step.

Slice across the eggplant crosswise.

Place slices in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt -- enough to ensure each slice has been dusted. This keeps it from becoming spongy when cooked. Let the eggplant sit with the salt for about 15 minutes. (You will see water beads appear on the eggplant's surface.)

Rinse the salt from the eggplant and thoroughly dry it before cooking.

How to Cube Eggplant

Place the eggplant on its side on a cutting board, slice off the ends, and remove the skin with a vegetable peeler, as above.
Rest the bottom end of the eggplant on the cutting board. Cut down through the eggplant lengthwise, every half inch, to create planks.

Stack two planks on the cutting board and slice across them lengthwise, creating half-inch wide sticks.

Cut across the sticks, every half inch, to create half-inch cubes.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Pumpkin White Chocolate Cookies

My Dad was a generous host who treated Halloween like a well-orchestrated dinner party. The candy he handed out had to meet a certain standard much like the imported cheese and crackers that he carefully assembled for dinner guests. In southern Illinois, mini candy bars were considered top of the line and a few weeks before Halloween, he and my Mom would drive to a wholesale store to buy them in bulk.  

My Dad would pile bags of the bars into a shopping cart to ensure that every witch, ghost, and goblin that rang the doorbell left with a generous handout. My Mom would tell him to cut back by a bag or two knowing that he cushioned the count to accommodate his sweet tooth. But my Dad would insist that they also take part in the celebration.

On Halloween, my Dad would leave his medical practice early to ensure that the yard was presentable. He brought out the blower to clear leaves from the driveway and the front walk. Afterwards, he would put on a well-pressed shirt, pair of slacks, and a sweater vest to guard against the cold each time he popped open the screen door. Before my parents sat down for an early dinner, my Dad would transfer the bars into wide-mouthed wicker baskets, making it easy to dole them out. He also loaded his camera with film to document the parade of costumed guests.


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons cardamom
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
1 large egg
3/4 cup chopped pecans
2 cups white chocolate, finely chopped


Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

Beat the butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar until well blended. 

Add the vanilla extract, cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger, and cloves and beat until combined.
Add the pumpkin puree and egg. Beat until well combined.

Add half of the dry mixture and beat until the dry ingredients are just combined. Repeat with the remaining dry ingredients.

Gently fold in the pecans and white chocolate.
Drop teaspoons full of cookie dough two inches apart on a parchment lined cookie sheet.

Bake until edges brown, about 10 to 12 minutes.

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Slice and Dice: Beets

"The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic..." Tom Robbins
 From the outside, beets fail to leave a lasting impression. In fact, they range from dull to downright curmudgeonly. Who wants that, when you can opt for cheery tomatoes or regally robbed eggplants? Well, as many cooks know, it’s foolish to judge a root vegetable by its cover. Despite their drab exterior, beets possess a beguilingly sweet, earthy flavor. They bring a jewel-like beauty to the table (think garnets and coral) and plenty of substance, including folate and fiber. 

How to Select and Store Beets

Select firm beets with wrinkle-free skin. If you find them with their greens intact, look for vibrant, succulent leaves, and consider yourself lucky: the antioxidant-rich greens are edible so you're getting two-for-one. Use them as a fiber-rich filler in soups, omelets, and stir-fries. 

Beets can be stored in the refrigerator loose and unwashed for up to a week. Cut off the greens first, leaving an inch of the stem intact to keep their stain-inducing juice from leaking into your fridge. Store the greens in a breathable bag in the fridge for up to two days.

How to Steam Beets

If the beet greens are attached, cut them with an inch of the stem still intact.

Thoroughly wash the beets. 

Fill a large pot with a few inches of water. Place the beets in a steamer insert in the pot and cover.

Simmer the beets until they are easily pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes to an hour for medium-sized beets. The skin may appear to pull away slightly. If needed, add more water during the cooking process.

Remove from the pot from the stove and allow the beets to cool.

Beet juice will stain your fingers. Put on a pair of plastic gloves to keep your hand from getting dyed.

Gently rub off the skin with your fingers.

How to Slice Beets

Slice off the stems and root end of cooked beets.

Place the beet on the cutting board root-side down. Slice across it every half inch or at larger intervals for thicker slices.

Wash your cutting board immediately as beet juice stains.

How to Dice Beets

Slice off the stem and root ends of cooked beets. Place the beet on the cutting board root-side down. Slice across the beet at every half inch.

Stack two beet slices on the cutting board. Cut across them widthwise at every half inch. Rotate the batons 90 degrees and slice across them lengthwise every half inch. 

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Caramelizing Onions

Before I met my husband, Chris, I tried my luck with online dating, which ran the gamut from dismaying to disastrous. Sound familiar anyone?

There was the guy who besmirched all Indians even though he knew my ethnic roots. During our shared meal, the waitress kept giving me “you outta ditch him” looks. Then there was the guy who unwittingly emailed me after dating my sister for several months. Guess he had a type.

There was also the guy with the seemingly promising profile (challenging job, close-knit family, big blue eyes) until I reached his list of likes/dislikes. He despised onions and didn't want them cooked in his house.

I know that relationships require compromise, but I eat onions every day. Could I really forgo the zing of red onions in salsa or three bean salad? Wouldn’t I miss the smoky undertow of yellow onions roasted with potatoes, carrots, or squash? And what about the silky, sweet touch of caramelized onions slathered on burgers, sandwiches, and pizza crust?

In the end, I decided giving up onions was too great a sacrifice and I kept looking for the one.

Did I mention that Chris loves onions? In fact, I have to ask him to dial back the mound he that mixes into guacamole and the hill that he layers onto salad. It leads to onion breath and occasional indigestion.

But that seems like a small sacrifice for Mr. Right. 

How to Caramelize Onions

Caramelizing onions is surprisingly simple. It involves cooking away the moisture hidden in each layer of an onion and browning the sugar that is left behind. The process requires patience more than anything else. Resist the temptation to speed things up by cooking the onions over high heat or adding sugar. (Chances are you’ll end up burning them.) Also opt for white, yellow, or red onions but not sweet as they become cloying when their flavors are concentrated.

To make about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of caramelized onions, thinly slice 2 large onions.

Thinly sliced onions

In a large skillet, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.

Heat olive oil

Add the onions and stir to coat them with oil. Season the onions with salt and pepper. Stir the onions every 2 to 3 minutes until they begin to look glassy.

Lower the heat to medium low and increase the frequency of stirring from every few minutes to every minute as they become stickier, turn light brown, and begin to lose their shape. This will take 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your stove top. 

Stages of caramelization
If the onions stick to the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water and scrap them off. This technique is known as "deglazing." Only do this if the onions are sticking so much that you can't loosen them without water -- some sticking is good as it's the contact with the pan that helps to create the color. You can always add more water if necessary, but adding too much will delay the process as the onions will begin to steam.

Continue to cook the onions, stirring frequently, until they become golden brown.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Poaching Fish

Poached salmon over sauteed greens

Dear readers, raise your hand if you eat two servings of omega-3 rich fish a week. Well, don’t feel bad – neither do I. But I’m starting to think that we should change our ways. After all, fatty fish is not only lovely and nuanced, it’s also easy to cook.

I usually bake or braise fish, which requires minimal effort. But with the summer heat, I’ve been poaching salmon and other fatty fish to eat it warm or chilled over a bed of sprightly greens. Like other moist-heat cooking methods, poaching locks in moisture and practically gives cooked salmon the texture of butter. I know it sounds crazy, but I am not making this up. The truth is you can easily make a five-star meal in your own kitchen, however humble it may be. Looking to comfort yourself after a long day of work or to toast the summer sunset with friends? Then, why not poach some fish.

How to Poach Fish

Chopped celery, carrots, parsley, and peppercornsFill a sauté pan or shallow pot with enough water to cover the fish.

Add a handful of your favorite herbs and spices to flavor the water. I threw in carrots, celery, cilantro, and peppercorns for this version. I also like to create a broth of sorts with lemongrass, garlic, and onions. Get creative here as the possibilities are endless (and surely you know how variety spices up life).

Adding vegetables, herb and spice to simmering water

Heat the water to a gentle simmer so tiny bubbles form along the rim of the pot. Let it simmer for 5 minutes to flavor the water.

Simmer vegetables, herb, and spice

Lower the fish into the water using a slotted spoon.

Lower fish into water

Cook the fish until it turns opaque and is heated through -- this will take about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the density of the fish.

Carefully remove the fish with the slotted spoon, and serve warm or chilled. 

Remove fish from water with slotted spoon

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Slice and Dice: Portobellos

Slice off the stem of the mushroom

I used to get a lot of flak for serving meatless meals, having descended from a line of devoted carnivores. The men, in particular, crave dishes with both heft and flavor. Because they are dense and filling, portobello mushrooms seem to satisfy even the pickiest eaters in the family. So, if you’re trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle and/or a greener footprint, be sure to pick up some portobellos.

How to Select Portobello Mushrooms

What do you get when a crimini mushroom (or baby bella) grows up? A portobello with chocolate-colored gills and a woody stem. Select the ones that are plump and smooth-skinned, with a delicate, earthy aroma.

How to Clean Portobello Mushrooms

Using a paring knife, slice off the stem. If it has the texture of a wine cork, throw it out or save it for making stock. If it is tender, rinse it and slice it into pieces length wise. 

Remove the gills using the tip of a spoon to scrape them away.

Scoop out gills with a spoon

Wipe the mushroom cap with a damp cloth or paper towel to remove dirt without soaking it in water.

How to Slice Portobello Mushrooms

Place the cleaned mushroom on a cutting board stem-side down. With a chef’s knife, cut the mushroom in half.

Slice the mushroom cap in half

Rotate each half so the flat, just-cut end is parallel to you, and slice across it width wise into 1/2-inch lengths (or thinner if desired).

Slice portobello width wise

How to Chop Portobello Mushrooms

Repeat steps above for slicing. Rotate the sliced pieces 90 degrees and cut across them width wise to make 1/2-inch cubes (or smaller if desired).

Slice into cubes

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Slice and Dice: Avocados

My apartment in Japan was tiny, but I figured I could squeeze two other teachers around my bento table for a meal. It would start with chips and guacamole, which where I come from, calls for bottled lemon juice and a few plops of mayonnaise. Over my lunch break, I flagged down a clerk at Isetan department store and asked for lemon juice with the cadence of a cave man. She smiled politely, bowed briskly, and sped off in the direction of the cooler as I followed in hot pursuit. She handed me a bottle of chilled juice and then bowed again. I replied with “Domo arigato” and teetered in her direction. Then I asked for may-oh-naise. The clerk broke into a broad smile, and replied, “My name? My name is Akiko!” Humored, I left without mayonnaise, which I later realized was a good thing. Who needs mayo when you've got fresh avocados?
As luscious as butter and as subtle as white chocolate, avocados add creamy comfort to many a dish. Their bumpy, alligator-like skin hides melt-in-your mouth yellow-green flesh. Here are some tips to use, whether you’re shopping for a batch of rippled, purple-skinned Haas, thin-skinned Fuerte, or another variety.

How to Select Avocados

Avocados only ripen after they have been harvested. To test whether an avocado is ready to eat, give it a gentle squeeze and look for a shallow imprint in the skin. If the flesh is as hard as a bowling ball, it will need time to mature. If you feel the flesh collapses under the skin, the fruit is past its prime.

How to Store Avocados

Ripe avocados can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three days. Once cut, be sure to sprinkle them with lemon juice, lime juice, or another acid to keep them from turning brown (or "oxidizing"). Unripe avocados should be kept at room temperature until they ripen. To hasten the ripening process, place the fruit in a paper bag with an apple or a banana.

To freeze: If, through great fortune, you end up with more avocados than you can use, consider freezing them. Use the steps below to pit and mash the fruit. Then sprinkle it with lemon juice, lime juice, or another acid to keep it from browning. Place it in an airtight container or freezer-safe bag before freezing it.

How to Prepare Avocados

To pit: Thoroughly wash and dry the avocado. Place it on a cutting board lengthwise. Hold a chef’s knife parallel to the cutting board. Starting at one pole, slice into the fruit. Rotate the fruit and continue to slice it along the equator.

Hold the avocado with both hands and twist in opposite directions. 

Carefully insert a spoon under the pit and lift it out. 

To slice: Place half of the avocado on a cutting board with the cut side down. With a chef’s knife, cut it down the middle lengthwise. 

Carefully pull off the skin. 

Place the fruit on the cutting board and slice it lengthwise or width wise.

To dice: Hold half of an avocado with one hand, flesh side up. With a butter knife, cut the flesh into half-inch strips lengthwise. Cut the flesh into half-inch strips width wise.

To mash: Scoop out the flesh from a pitted and diced avocado with a spoon and place it in a bowl. Then mash it with a fork.

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