Oops… A Little Trick for Softening Butter In a Jiffy

I always seem forget to take my butter out of the refrigerator before a baking project that calls for softened butter. I’m forever in a hurry which means having zero patience while my butter comes up to temp. This is a handy little trick for getting around that problem. It really works reasonably well… better than zapping butter in the microwave and possibly over-melting it or trying to beat it into submission in its too-chilled state.

  1. Put some very hot water in a ceramic or glass bowl and let it sit for 30 seconds or so to heat the bowl. [A good excuse to heat water for a cup of tea too]
  2. Dump out the water and place the bowl upside down over your stick of cold butter. You can also cut your butter into pieces before putting it under the bowl which will speed up the softening.
  3. Let your butter soften under the warm bowl while you are getting the rest of your ingredients ready for your project. It usually only takes a few minutes to soften the butter to a workable consistency.
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Tricked Out Pantry: Ginger At the Ready

The shortcut to serious yum in a hurry is a totally tricked out pantry. A handpicked collection of sauces, spices and condiments can get really tasty food on the table when you’re crunched for time or when you’re lacking inspiration. As this realization has hit me over the last couple of years, I’ve started devoting a lot more of my time in the kitchen to pantry projects and I eagerly seek out food adventures where we can pick up little goodies – everything from salt packed capers to dried chiles, kaffir lime leaves and exotic spice mixes. I’ve been known to pull over and drag a husband and two kids, even friends, out of the car for unscheduled pantry stops at the sight of a Latin market or Italian deli. And my dear family is ever so patient with me when they see me excitedly (too excitedly) waving a bunch of garlic blossoms…. saying “look, look!”. I can’t say that I know what to do with all of my fantastic finds yet, but they are waiting patiently for our discovery.

One item that does get a lot of play around Casa Stacie is ginger. From stir fries, asian marinades, curries, cookies, muffins and smoothies, ginger is such a versatile seasoning. It’s great for digestion and miraculous for unsettled tummies too (tell all your pregnant friends and anyone you know who suffers from motion sickness). So, I happily stole this trick from Simran and her mom. It’s a genius way to have beautiful, grated fresh ginger at the ready whenever you need it. It’s funny how some techniques are second nature to some and a revelation for others. Simran casually pulled out a big bag of grated ginger while we were cooking some spinach together one day. She broke off a piece, tossed it in the pan and rolled right along like it was no big deal. I thought “rewind… now that was a great trick”. She told me later that it’s one of the little things her mom always does, one of those crafty mom tips. I ran right out and made some of my own and have every intention of passing this tip down to my boys in our cooking days to come. So from mom to daughter, friend to friend, mom to sons, a little piece of kitchen wisdom is shared. And who knows? Maybe my kids will even manage to impress a few of their foodie friends with this one someday.

It’s a snap to do:

  • Buy a large quantity of ginger. At least 3-4 large pieces.
  • Remove as much peel from your ginger as you have patience for with the edge of a spoon.
  • Pop it all through your food processor and pulse it to get a fine mince. If you don’t have a food processor, find a friend who does. Do the project together and share the bounty!
  • Package your ginger in an air tight bag and store it flat in your freezer. [If you can remember, you might want to use the back of a knife to score off small portions while the ginger is semi frozen, so it will be easier to break later.]
  • Break off a hunk of grated ginger whenever the need arises. No need to even thaw it if it’s going in a saute pan. Yum!
We love ginger here on A  Little Yumminess. Case in point: here are some recipes from our archive that include fresh ginger. Now it’s even easier to give them a try.

Guest Post: Lena’s Cooking Shortcuts

My friend Lena who contributed the Stone Soup post to our blog, recently started her own blog called A Happier Meal.  First of all, what a great name for a food blog.  (I love it)  Secondly, she has already got some pretty yummy food up on her blog which is worth checking out.  Lena hopes you will enjoy the glimpse into her family’s cooking life, meant to inspire simple, sustainable, delicious home cooking that makes for a happier meal every time.

Her children are adventurous eaters and she is clearly doing something right.  I look forward to more of her recipes and trying some of them out for our family (I could use a culinary point of view shake-up).  Whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies, here I come!

Do check out her blog, sign up to receive updates or follow her on Facebook, you won’t regret it. 🙂  While you are at it, do follow A Little Yumminess on Facebook as well.

Her’s a recent post from A Happier Meal that got my attention and Lena kindly allowed me to replicate it here.  I hope you find her cooking shortcuts as helpful as I did.

My Cooking Shortcuts by Lena Brook

Getting a good dinner on the table by 6PM or so every night sometimes feels like an Iron Chef – level challenge. Most days, I rise to the occasion without breaking too much of sweat. And then there are those moments when 5PM hits and the kids are begging me for appetizers when I desperately need to be making dinner and I have NO idea what to cook. That is exactly when my patience runs thin and everything breaks down.

So over time, I’ve come up with a small arsenal of shortcuts to make my cooking life more enjoyable, and I thought I’d share. PLEASE feel free to add yours to the list – I can’t wait to see what great ideas you have up your sleeve!

The Top Five

1. Plan meals ahead. This is not a radical concept and has  been recommended by countless others, but you see, I loathe to plan meals, I much prefer to fly by the seat of my pants so to speak. Yet time and time again, the failure of my spontaneity has won me over to the more organized approach. Take a few minutes to poll the family about their dinner preferences for the upcoming week on Saturday morning, when everyone is in a happy, beginning-of-the-weekend mood. Or take it upon yourself. Either way, if you have a general plan you’ll feel much better equipped – actually buying necessary ingredients in advance is a bonus but not crucial. Its the ideas that count in my book!

2) Deal with garlic in advance. It always seems to take forever to peel and chop garlic when you can least afford to spend the time yet I love love love cooking with it and seem to need it frequently. Now, admittedly, I’m not a garlic press person and if you are, ignore this. But the rest of us, here’s my tip: peel and store cloves from 1-2 heads of garlic (however you are likely to use in 5-7 days time) and store in a glass or stainless steel container in the refrigerator. Chopping will seem like a breeze when you eliminate the peeling step.

3) Prep your “mirepoix.” Mirepoix is French for the crucial combination of diced carrots, celery and onions that form the basis for so many soups, stews, braises, etc. Store 1-2 cups of diced celery and carrots in one bag, and the same of onion in a glass container – they will be on hand for whatever you are cooking in the next 3-4 days.

4) The frozen food section. I do occasionally rely on store-bought frozen food items (see below for a case in point). But I prefer to create our own frozen food section in the fridge. I’ll freeze pizza dough, leftover soups and stews, ground beef and small steaks, sausages, fruit, butter, etc. Our freezer is unimpressive in size yet when I properly use the space, I’m always impressed with what I’ve got on hand. Ice cream is also a very important addition to this list, by the way.

5) Trader Joe’s potstickers. When in doubt, I bust these out. Pan-fried with sticky brown rice and green vegetables for a quick dinner, potsticker soup if you have chicken broth around, these work great for lunch or dinner (or breakfast, if you are Talia). I’m pretty sure I’ve been eating these on a regular basis since my early college years. And they still manage to satisfy.

A Week of Almost No Cooking (and A Top Secret Brownie Trick)

This lowly, unadorned turkey sandwich just landed on my list of favorite food moments.

Last week we were in Tahoe enjoying the incredible scenery, playing at the lake, doing a little fishing, boating or nothing at all if we felt like it. We threw together some simple pasta one night, rallied to bake brownies out of the box – nibbled on this and that and had our fair share of turkey sandwiches. That was pretty much the extent of our culinary adventures. As uneventful as that sounds, my week of almost no cooking brought me back to basics and reminded me about what really matters when it comes to all these food adventures we’ve been writing about. Sometimes the most humble meals are the most extraordinary if you’re sharing them with people you love.  Although it would be nice to see him grow into an adventurous eater and capable cook with a curiosity about where his food comes from, my greatest “foodie” wish for my son is just that he have as many happy memories around a dinner (or picnic) table as I do.

And now for the brownies….

Despite not thinking much about food all week (a rarity!), I still managed to learn something useful during this little hiatus…. something that resolves a long-standing annoyance I have with brownies — getting them out of the pan without tearing them to bits! I always imagine perfect little squares arranged artfully on a plate, and usually get jaggedy, sad looking things heaped in a pile. Luckily my family never rejects brownies for poor presentation.

As we were pulling our Duncan Hines beauties out of the oven, with hungry hoardes circling, my sister-in-law casually said “Can you grab a plastic knife? It works much better when they’re still warm.” Plastic knife! Such a low-tech and utterly simple trick. I have no idea why it works and no idea why I never heard this before, but I can back this one up 100%. “Like buttah!” Hurrah! No more clumpy looking brownies with the tops ripped off!

How to Cook Like A Chef

Last year, I was thinking about “what I want to do when I grow up” (post-baby version. I’m sure you can relate, parents!). One of the things I did was a stint as a stagiaire (fancy name for a kitchen intern) at Split Pea Seduction with chef Christian Noto. It was an eye opening experience for a home cook like me and I recommend it for anyone, moms and dads included, with some free time and a passion for cooking. If it’s something you’re considering, the most important thing is to team up with someone whose approach to food excites you and who is passionate about sharing their knowledge. It’s gotta feel like a learning experience, not free labor. Did I mention that you get to use cool tools like a giant Hobart stand mixer?

While I’m continuing to explore my interest in food in lots of other ways (including this blog), I do go back from time to time to help out which is a fun change of pace from the daily routine. I spent some time in Christian’s kitchen this week, so I thought I would share 5 takeaways that have followed me back to my kitchen at home.

  1. Cooking with All Your Senses. The amount of smelling and tasting going on in a professional kitchen was a big revelation for me. From taking the time to get a good sense of your ingredients before you start cooking to evaluating your flavors as you go (vs. making all your adjustments at the end). One favorite tip I picked up is making sure to taste vinaigrette on a piece of lettuce (or ideally whatever you’re serving it with) to get a true sense of its flavor before making your final tweaks.
  2. Component-ize Your Cooking. It turns out one of the most valuable cooking skills is plain old organization — a skill you get to practice a lot as a parent! When I spend just a little time on my game plan, I can usually find a way to knock out a few cooking tasks for most meals in advance. I also keep a running list of my favorite homemade pantry items (stock, tomato paste, customized spices, etc) which I work on when I can. All this means better food and less stress during the dinner time rush.
  3. Season Individual Components. Taking a few seconds to season the greens on a sandwich (a little squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt) makes a huge difference. Salting your pasta water (“it should taste like the ocean” — yes, taste pasta water!) makes for flavorful pasta, which makes anything you put on your pasta taste more amazing.
  4. Cook Like You’re Working in a Small Space. It’s impressive how much food can be prepared in a small space. Working neat is not one of my strong points, but now I have first hand-experience that it’s possible, so I keep trying.
  5. Composing. Experienced cooks like Christian seem to do this by instinct, but juxtaposing flavors and textures is something I still need to remember to think about. I like to look for ways to pair something soft and crunchy; slow cooked and fresh; sweet, salty, bitter, sour — making for much more interesting eating and cooking

Lastly, I learned that if your chicken just doesn’t have that “certain something” of your favorite restaurant, they probably seared it in duck fat. Somehow that makes me feel better. Blame it on the duck fat!