>> Monday, January 12, 2009

Judging by its continued listing on the New York Times' "Most Popular Emailed" list, I'm going to guess that many of you have seen The Minimalist's (Mark Bitmann's) article, "Fresh Start for a New Year? Let's Begin in the Kitchen." His main suggestion, declutter your kitchen, is well- worth pondering. Unless, like me, you only moved into your kitchen in the past 5 months, you're a neat freak, and accumulation still seems necessary. Some of his specific suggestions make sense; others, well, let's see:

OUT Bouillon cubes or powder, or canned stock.

IN Simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you’re better off; if you have any chicken scraps, even a half-hour of cooking with those same vegetables will give you something 10 times better than any canned stock.

He's right that fresh stock is better than powdered stock. (I've never used canned stock, but I imagine it's not great.) But sometimes I don't have an extra 1/2 hour and want to make soup quickly, or as quickly as soup can be made. I recommend keeping some powdered bouillon (what kosher kitchen doesn't have some of that osem fake-chicken stuff...not that it's good for you or even tastes fantastic, but it has a job to do and does that job well). Moreover, I highly recommend Trader Joe's organic vegetable stock in the box. At $1.99, it's a well-priced 32 oz., and helps make soup-making much quicker. If you do have the time or need a special stock (lemongrass vegetable stock is fantastic), make it. If not, say thanks to TJ's and start cooking.

OUT Aerosol oil. At about $12 a pint, twice as expensive as halfway decent extra virgin olive oil, which spray oil most decidedly is not; and it contains additives.

IN Get some good olive oil and a hand-pumped sprayer or even simpler, a brush. Simplest: your fingers.

Good call. This is something I want to do. Mental note to self: buy a spray and maybe a new pastry brush.

OUT Bottled salad dressing and marinades. The biggest rip-offs imaginable.

IN Take good oil and vinegar or lemon juice, and combine them with salt, pepper, maybe a little Dijon, in a proportion of about three parts oil to one of vinegar. Customize from there, because you may like more vinegar or less, and you undoubtedly will want a little shallot, or balsamic vinegar, or honey, or garlic, or tarragon, or soy sauce.
In general, I agree. Homemade salad dressing is easy to make, customizable, and delicious. However, if there's a certain dressing you love or crave that you can't easily replicate, buy it. Especially if having that dressing on hand will make you eat salad more often, don't feel guilty about dressing out of a bottle. But do try to make your own dressing every so often. I prefer more vinegar to olive oil, but I'm tangy like that.

OUT Canned beans (except in emergencies).

IN Dried beans. More economical, better tasting, space saving and available in far more varieties. Cook a pound once a week and you’ll always have them around (you can freeze small amounts in their cooking liquid, or water, indefinitely). If you’re not sold, try this: soak and cook a pound of white beans. Take some and finish with fresh chopped sage, garlic and good olive oil. Purée another cup or so with a boiled potato and lots of garlic. Mix some with a bit of cooking liquid, and add a can of tomatoes; some chopped celery, carrots and onions; cooked pasta; and cheese and call it pasta fagiole or minestrone. If there are any left, mix them with a can of olive-oil-packed tuna or sardines. And that’s just white beans.

I guess I have a lot of emergencies, but I like keeping canned beans around. I know dried beans are a better value, and I'm working on buying more and using them more frequently. And I'll take up Bittman's suggeston to soak and cook a pound a week, freeze, and use later. But until I have that down, I'll take the canned variety for quick, healthy, and easy meals. Want Mexican? Open the black beans, sir-fry some onions and peppers, shred some lettuce, grab a tortilla, add some salsa and sour-cream (light, of course), and in less than 10 minutes, you have a meal. When I come back from campus and NEED. FOOD. NOW. I want those canned beans. When making a salad for lunch, those canned kidney beans and chickpeas add a big dose of protein really easily. Clearly the beans issue centers on time. If you have time and/or manage to plan ahead, dried beans are fantastic. If you have less time and/or don't plan menus a week in advance (I'm one person, I'm going to eat what I want to eat), canned beans are wonderful. For the record, I have a stash of dried red and green lentils on hand and use them with some frequency, so I may yet be converted to dried beans. I'll let you know.

OUT Canned peas (and most other canned vegetables, come to think of it).

IN Frozen peas. Especially if you have little kids and make pasta or rice with peas (and Parmesan!); not bad. Or purée with a little lemon juice and salt for a nice spread or dip. In fact, many frozen vegetables are better than you might think.

Agreed. Frozen vegetables are much better than canned veggies. In my cupboard, you will find canned corn (in water, for use in salads), canned tomatoes (the one major exception to Bittman's rule, I would argue, and key for winter tomato soups), canned water chestnuts (do they make them frozen?), and canned artichokes (though I just bought the frozen ones from TJ's; I think frozen is fine for making artichoke dips but I'm not sure about their place in salads). In contrast, in my freezer, there are frozen french green beans (from TJ's, notice a theme?), spinach, broccoli, corn, edamame, etc. And there are (or will be, once I make it to the store) plenty of fresh veggies in the fridge.

OUT Tomato paste in a can.

IN Tomato paste in a tube. You rarely need more than two tablespoons so you feel guilty opening a can; this solves that problem. Stir some into vegetables sautéed in olive oil, for example, then add water for fast soup. Or add a bit to almost any vegetable as it cooks in olive oil and garlic — especially cabbage, dark greens, carrots or cauliflower.

This I need to find. Tomato paste is another key item to have on hand for soups and sauces, and I must confess I've neither seen it in a tube nor looked for it. The latter might have something to do with the former.

OUT Premade pie crusts. O.K., these are a real convenience, but almost all use inferior fats. I’d rather make a “pie” or quiche with no crust than use these.

IN Crumble graham crackers with melted butter and press into a pan. But really — if you put a pinch of salt, a cup of flour, a stick of very cold, cut-up butter in a food processor, then blend with a touch of water until it almost comes together — you have a dough you can refrigerate or freeze and roll out whenever you want, in five minutes.

Right on. I often make crustless quiche and spinach pies (or turn that apple pie into an apple crisp). Here's an easy savory pie crust recipe. For sweet pie crusts, use the graham cracker method above (sub any cookie you want, vanilla wafers are another great choice).

Bittman also writes that "you should stock":
Real Bacon of Prosciutto
Fish Sauce
Canned Coconut Milk
Miso Paste
Capers, Good Olives (buy in bulk, not cans), and Good Anchovies (in olive oil, please)
Dried Fruit
Dried Mushrooms
Frozen Shrimp
Winter Squash and Sweet Potatoes
As the resident vegetarian, I'm going to disagree with about half of that list on veggie grounds and some of the list on taste grounds. I would argue that one should stock:

*Coconut Milk (great for easy curries and soups)

*Tofu (ok that doesn't go in the pantry or the freezer, but it's key)

*Quinoa (high in protein, easy to make, kosher-for-passover to boot)

*Cous-cous (cooks in all of 5 minutes; get some big "Israeli" cous-cous as well -- it's a lovely soup add-in)

*Good olives (although "good olives" and "stock" don't go together in my book; the olives go straight to my stomach)

*Cashews (for snacking, salads, and stir-fries)

*Dried fruit (apples and cranberries top my list)

*White flour & wheat flour (for baking, of course. Bread-making is easier than you make think as simple recipes go a long way and most of the "prep" time is spent rising which means you can do other stuff and be elsewhere)

*Frozen butter (see baking, above)

*Eggs (again, they stay in the fridge, but they're key to have around for breakfast, baking, and quick meals)

What would you add or change?


Dan the Ice Cream Man January 28, 2009 at 5:06 PM  

I take the cans of tomato paste and then freeze the parts I don't use. You could even scoop out tablespoons into an ice cube tray, then store in a plastic bag. (I've gotten really into this technique since i started making baby food). Also, I got a pressure cooker for my birthday, and it makes beans from scratch so much easier, and it really does taste much better (but I agree, great to have some chickpeas in a can for hummus or salad). Haven't tried the freezing beans thing yet.

two hippos January 29, 2009 at 10:44 PM  

Hi Dan! That's a great tip about tomato paste. I've been using whatever I need from the can and freezing the remainder in a small tupperware but the ice cube tray makes a lot of sense.

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