Thursday, August 23, 2012

Oops...I did it again...

We are going out for dinner tonight.  This was not part of the plan.  Once again, I got a little too big for my culinary britches.  I had a recipe picked out to make for dinner, but hadn't exactly read it before heading into the kitchen to begin cooking.  There it was...

STEP 1:  Mix the first 5 ingredients and marinade overnight.  Oops.  That would be last night that the recipe was referring to...and as of last night I hadn't given a single thought to this meal.  I am notorious for this.  I have a nasty habit of thinking that I can just waltz into the kitchen, heat up a pan, and begin cooking without having fully read a recipe yet.  Without fail, mistakes are made.  Tonight's victim - Chicken Marbella.  Sadly, it's going to have to wait for another night.

The French have a term called mise en place, (pronounced [MEEZE ahn plahs]) which refers to having all of the ingredients necessary for a dish prepared and ready to combine when called for by a recipe.  It literally means "set in place."  If you ask me, it's a good rule to live by, and preparedness translates well to many aspects of life.  I like to think of it as the "Get your sh*t together" rule.  It's likely the MOST important rule to learn and follow when learning to cook.  From time to time, I get it in my head that I've gotten too good for this rule.  Time and time again, I learn that I am sorely mistaken. 

I had never heard of mise en place until I landed my first "fancy" restaurant job.  I began working at Via Matta in Boston in 2002.  As a bartender, a member of the front of house staff, we referred to mise en place as it pertained to a guest's experience.  "Does the guest have the proper mise en place for the next course?"  Meaning; "Do they have everything they could possibly need to enjoy the food they are about to receive?"  It got shortened over time to just "mise" among co-workers, like "Is seat 1 mised?"  I'm sure the French would love this.

We used the term as servers at Via Matta, but so did the kitchen staff, and I have to say, they took it very seriously.  If you didn't have your mise en place ready, your night was going to be a nightmare...and you might not have a job the next day.  Having your mise en place meant you were ready to prepare any dish that came to your station.  You had your food chopped, washed, sliced, marinated, etc.  You were ready to rock 'n' roll.

Translating the idea behind restaurant mise en place to the home kitchen is not difficult, and it's a down right good idea.  You, and I, can save ourselves, time, money, sweat and tears if we just do a little prep work before we begin cooking.  Here are tips to a successful mise:

-Read, and re-read, the recipe.  Sometimes prep work is actually buried in the steps to prepare the meal.  Look out for this and catch it before you start mixing or heating ingredients.  It's common for an ingredient list to say something like: "onion, minced"  but you may also find a step in the directions that catches you by surprise that says, "now mince an onion."  This is problematic if you are then also trying to stir a pot.

-Ask yourself if you actually have all of the equipment and food needed to make the recipe...obtain it if you do not.  Don't forget about things that are implied...if a recipe says to "Stir" or "Flip" you will need a the right utensil to follow the directions.

Pinch Bowls
-Get yourself a set of nesting bowls, and a few extra small bowls for pre-measuring spices.  Sometimes these are called "pinch bowls."  They are invaluable.

-Slice, dice, peel, chop, sear, wash, marinade, measure, preheat and otherwise prep all of your ingredients BEFORE you begin cooking.  Put each ingredient in an individual bowl, or separate place on a cutting board so that it is within reach and ready to be added when called for by the recipe.

Mise check!

Being prepared is the key to turning words on a page into a beautiful and delicious meal.  Even the best chefs in the world prep before cooking.  Don't let yourself get so confident in the kitchen that you believe you can skip important prep work.  It never works!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"How Do You Like Your Burger?"

My father cooked all the time.  He made simple meals, with quality ingredients.  I have to admit that I learned a thing or two from him when I was young, even if I wasn't trying to at the time.  He loved to grill, and to entertain.  On most summer nights you could find anywhere from 5 to 15 people on his back deck enjoying a beverage, anticipating his char-grilled greatness.  When burgers were on the menu, dad took orders.  He asked everyone how they wanted their burger cooked, and what kind of cheese was going on top.  I was asked was part of the show.  When he got to me he would slap his forehead, dramatically roll his eyes, and announce to the crowd "Oh wait, I don't need to ask Jen how she wants her burger cooked because I started it before you all arrived, and I'll let it cook another 10 minutes past when we sit down to eat!"  He often teased me about my preference for well done meat.  He'd wonder out loud why I didn't just save him a couple bucks and eat a charcoal briquette drowned in ketchup if I was going to ask him to ruin a perfectly good burger by drying it out.  Some of my picky childhood food hang-ups really irked my father.  These days, I am disappointed if I get a burger that is cooked even a hint beyond medium rare.  I sure do wish I could sit down and enjoy one with him, so he could see just how sophisticated my palette has become!  He'd be so impressed to see juice running down my chin from a burger, and know that now I wouldn't have it any other way...unless it was meatless of course!  Cue dad rolling over. 

Oh man, I just realized that apparently I have a lot of feelings about burgers.  In spite of my fond memories of being ribbed by my dad for preferring grey meat as a kid (and my appreciation for medium rare goodness as an adult,) I am also a nutritionist.  That tiny detail makes me question whether or not a blog post about burgers is really even a good idea.  The typical American does not have any trouble meeting their burger quota, in fact, ground beef is often on the "only once in a while" food list for most people.   That being said, I'd like to introduce you to my new best friend, the Sweet Potato Black Bean Burger.

I found this recipe on a blog called Sweet Pea's Kitchen, which I love.  I first made them for our Fourth of July BBQ this year.  While most of us enjoyed slow smoked brisket that Matt had carefully tended for the entire day, our friend Dave (a vegetarian) raved about these burgers.  I had no room left to try one that day, and we sent him home with the extras, so I had to make them again to see what all the fuss was about.  Dave was right, they were fantastic!  Matt and I both have a healthy skepticism of meat stand-ins, substitutes, or imposters if you will, that pose as items typically made with meat.  These were an exception for sure.  They were flavorful and filling, had great texture and were really easy to make.  As you can see, I wound up with monstrously huge brioche buns from our local bakery, so next time I might flatten the patties out a bit before cooking so there is a better burger to bun ratio.  

According to the blog where I found these, they contain 7grams of protein 4 grams of fat, and only 210 calories  (before buns and toppings of course.)  Not too shabby for a weeknight meal.  The only change that I made to Sweet Pea's recipe is that I boiled my sweet potatoes instead of microwaving them.  Just a personal preference.  I also loved making these because it left me with about 1 1/2 cups of leftover quinoa already made, which I used for salads and breakfast for the rest of the week!  Bonus!  The recipe made 6 burgers so I threw the 4 extra in the freezer for future use.  Oh, just had a great idea for a "how things freeze" post.  Check back for that one! 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Practice Makes Perfect

I admit it, I am a perfectionist.  I live by the motto "do it right, so you don't have to do it twice."  I not proud of it, but there are times when my perfectionism actually prevents me from getting things done.  I have been known to forgo entire projects if I don't think that I can make the final product come out just so.

I have been working with a graphic designer to have a professional logo made for SIMK.  I'm really excited about it, but lately I've caught myself telling people that "I am waiting for my logo to be done before I post again" or "I don't want to post until my blog finally looks exactly how I want it to."   Today, I realized that this blog was in danger of becoming one of "those projects" that gets put on the back burner because it's not perfect.  I had to stage my own intervention against myself and write something!  I learned that sometimes doing nothing is far worse than doing something slightly imperfectly.  New motto: "They say that practice makes perfect.  If perfecting something is important to you, do it as many times as you can, you'll increase the likelihood of getting it right!"

As I reflected this afternoon on the concept of perfection, I thought about how daunting, and at times discouraging a task learning to cook can be.  I am a huge fan cooking shows, and celebrity chefs, but the trend in food television these days seems to be all about competition and perfection.  Personally these types of shows bug me.  With few exceptions, they feature a person who is already a pretty great cook (if you ask me,) and a panel of judges that tell the poor soul that their food is tasteless or looks unappetizing.   To me the offending food usually looks much better than what I make most of the time.  Does that mean that those of us who struggle to cook basic dishes should just give up on the hope of ever making a great meal?  NO!  We must however get in the kitchen and give new recipes a try.  That great meal won't make itself. 

Unfortunately, turning off your television and stepping into the kitchen may not be all it takes to make cooking feel less intimidating.  Maybe you see a photo of a beautifully styled dish in a magazine and think about how discouraging it will be if yours doesn't come out quite the same way.  Maybe you want to learn to cook, but are waiting for the perfect set of knives to be given to you for Christmas.  Maybe you think your kitchen is too small, and you keep telling yourself that once you move you'll try to make a few dishes.  Maybe you think that your budget limits the number of  ingredients that you can purchase, so you will wait until you have some extra money to buy pantry basics to start cooking with.  Whatever it is that makes you anxious about cooking or changing your diet, you can find a way to work around it.  Really, you can, but you have to want to, and you have to start sometime.  Why not today?

Start by thinking positively about your own personal culinary adventure.  Stop perfection seeking and begin actually perfecting something.  You'll never make that WOW dinner if you never, ever make dinner.  Remember to allow yourself a few flops, and learn from them.  Start today.  The the perfect time, perfect kitchen, perfect recipe, or perfect set of Le Creuset cookware may never come, so get over it and get started now!!!  Find a recipe with a few ingredients that you are familiar with, that requires tools and time that you have available, and make it.  It's that simple.  

And what about me?  I have set a goal for myself to post every Thursday evening, perfect or not.  Feel free to make me eat my own words if I don't deliver. 

And I'm writing...

Friday, June 15, 2012

You Hum-MUST Read This

As healthy snacks go, hummus with raw veggies is really a no-brainer...well...almost.  Am I the only person who thinks that every piece of advice regarding food these days comes with a caveat?  This is no exception.  All hummus is not created equal.

Raw veggies are quite difficult to screw up.  Sure some have more calories than others (and if you're on a strict diet you may want keep this in mind) but I've yet to meet someone who can really over do it on naked raw veggies, so pick what you like, and eat a variety of colors.  Most major grocery stores even sell pre-washed and pre-cut veggies these days.  If time is of the essence, it doesn't get easier than that!

Hummus, on the other hand, is the kind of thing that really gets me riled up!  Hummus is perfectly healthy.  It's packed with protein and fiber, important things to look for when choosing a snack.  Unfortunately though, like many other healthy foods, when it's sold in a package it should be looked at critically before purchase.  Something to keep in mind as you shop: Each brand of hummus, and each flavor, is made differently, and that means that it's nutritionally different too.  Something to keep in mind when you eat: The labels on hummus packages are often unrealistic about the size of a single serving.  No matter how many veggies you consume, eating a whole container of hummus (or even half) is a snack gone wrong...too much of a good thing.  

Hopefully by now you are getting the hint that you really should look at food labels when you shop.  I think it's most important to look at the label on a packaged food when you presume it's a healthy choice.  The nutrition label on that bag of Oreos is not going to have any good news on it, but the converse is not true.  Just because I told you hummus can be part of a healthy snack, doesn't mean that you should just grab any old tub of it and eat as much as you like while assuming it's good for you.  Even good foods need to be purchased and eaten mindfully.

As a guideline, a snack should be around 100-200 calories, low in fat, and exceptionally low in saturated fat.   When you look at a food label, the first thing you should peak at is the serving size.  On each brand of hummus that I looked at, 2 tablespoons is the serving that all of the nutrition information is based on.  That's not very much.  Odds are most of us will eat more than that in one sitting!  Check this out...
I measured out 2 tablespoons of hummus, and a more realistic portion (for me at least!) of 1/3 cup.  If I ate 1/3 cup of the following brands of hummus (plain or original flavor) here's how the hard numbers of my snack would add up.

Tribe: 160 calories, 9 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat
Cedar's: 160 calories, 12 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat
Sabra: 187 calories, 16 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat

And what about those cute little single serve Sabra cups with pretzels on top?  Well, here's the info from their website:

1 Sabra single serve cup with pretzels = 380 calories, 23 grams fat, 3 gram saturated fat

So, buyer beware of portion size and convenient packaging.  Wondering what makes the brands nutritionally different?  Tahini is a traditional ingredient in hummus.  It is a paste made of ground sesame seeds.  Since sesame seeds are quite high in fat, so then is tahini.   Each brand's hummus likely has a unique recipe, with different amounts of each ingredient.  You can tell roughly how much of an ingredient is in a serving of any food by looking at the order of ingredients listed on the label.  All foods list ingredients from most to least in a product.   On the Cedar's and the Sabra labels tahini appears second, and on the Tribe list it is 4th.   This little observation tells any keen customer that there is more tahini in the Cedar's and Sabra hummus than in the Tribe brand.  This is likely why is has almost half the fat!  If you prefer a brand of hummus that is a little heavier on the tahini that doesn't mean you are making a bad or unhealthy choice, but it should be a clue to have a bit less of it when you portion out your snacks.  Also, flavors of hummus vary wildly in fat and calories so don't assume they are all created equal.  Varieties with added olives, pine nuts or other high fat ingredients will drive up the total fat per serving so keep that in mind.

If portion control is really your Achilles heel, try finding these in a local store or ordering them online.  I'm a huge  fan!
Wild Garden makes these single serve, squeezable, hummus packs that are perfect for snacking on the go.  When unopened, they don't even need refrigeration!  I first tried these on an Alaska Airlines flight and was pleasantly surprised!  You can search their website for stores near you or order online at

If you have a food processor, it's super easy, and economical, to make your own hummus.  Making your own gives you control of what you add, and how much of each ingredient you use.   I chose to omit the tahini entirely from my hummus.   The calories worked out to be about the same as the store bought brands, but mine has less fat, and it's preservative and additive free.  It's totally not necessary to make your own hummus in order for it to be a healthy part of your snack routine, but if you do buy prepared brands, keep an eye on your portions and make the smartest choice to satisfy your individual taste buds and nutrition goals.

Homemade Hummus:

1 large peeled garlic clove
1 can garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon
Salt and pepper

What to do:
Open the can of beans and drain the liquid out in a colander or mesh strainer and give them a quick rinse with cold running water.

Put the garlic into the food processor bowl and pulse alone a few times until it's finely minced.

Add the beans.

Zest the skin of the lemon right into the bowl on top of the beans.  Sprinkle in salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice of the whole lemon into the bowl.  I like to do this over a strainer so no seeds get into the mix!

Pulse the ingredients until they look like a thick paste.

As the food processor is running, slowly drizzle the olive oil in through the hole in the lid.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and pulse a few more times.


Hummus is a great snack to get creative with.  Consider adding sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, extra garlic, or even hot sauce to your recipe to customize it to your taste.