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Get Ready for Cooking Season

Cooking Season is right around the corner, folks!  None of us are ready.

Every year, we see it on the calendar.  And as if we are daring ourselves to see how long we can procrastinate, the week before Thanksgiving always ends up a flurry of planning, cleaning, shopping and cooking, and it all goes downhill from there.

This year, let’s do something different!  Let’s all start planning a little earlier.  Of course, I am the one that ends up cooking the majority of the T-Day meal in my family.  I’m ok with that.  I like it.  But it never fails that I get down to the day before, make my list, and decide I need a new insert-favorite-kitchen-gadget-here and I either can’t find it, or it’s too late to order it.

There are a lot of kitchen gadgets on the market that can help you do a lot of really fun things.  But there is also some ridiculous stuff out there too that ends up cluttering your cabinets and drawers more than it is helpful.  Each dish will require different equipment to get it ready.  But there are some universal basics that all chefs swear by, and we want to share them with you.

Sheet Pans:  aka, rimmed baking sheet

What these are good for: EVERYTHING! Not just for baking, the multi-purpose bad boys will become your new favorite.  Ever wonder how to make your baked fries crispier?  Sheet pans.  Want to bake 10 chicken breasts at the same time?  Sheet pans.  Want to bake thin layers of cake for a dozen tiered cake extravaganza?  Sheet pans.  Don’t worry about if they are non-stick (though I rarely recommend non-stick anything), shiny or dark metal, or if they have handles or not.  You can usually buy the aluminum ones in a three-pack at your local big-box store on the cheap.  Or you can busy super fancy ones at the restaurant supply store or online.  Line them with parchment paper or aluminum foil when you are using them (unless you are baking cookies, then don’t use anything!) to keep them clean and shiny forever.

 

Cutting Boards:

The bigger the better. If it came as a free gift with purchase of tequila, leave it in your bar cabinet.  At least 18” x 12”, minimum!

You need more than one, because sometimes you are prepping meat at the same time as veggies and you don’t want to cross-contaminate.  Two or three is recommended.

Wood or plastic, those are your only two options.  Glass is not a cutting board.  It’s a trivet.  And so is that extra piece of granite your countertop guy gave you.

Sometime that little divot that goes all the way around the edge to catch juices is handy.  But you should let your meat rest long enough that you don’t need that.  Just sayin’.

 

Mixing Bowls: To put your prep in

Cooking is 80% prep work.  So, you need something to put your prep into before it gets cooked.  A 5-piece nesting set is a great space saver.  You want a really big bowl, like 5qt or larger, a couple of medium sized ones, and a smaller one or two.  Or something like that.  Digging around the Tupperware cabinet is never fun, and generally what you find there is not very helpful.

 

Knives: The most important tool!

It’s self-explanatory, but your hands and a good knife set are the two most important tools in any kitchen.  You don’t have to have the most expensive set either.  But if you are using your grandmother’s hand-me-downs, that haven’t been sharpened since 1952, it’s probably time for an upgrade.  There are 3 knives you should always have on hand: a large chef’s knife, a small paring knife, and a serrated long blade for slicing bread, tomatoes, etc.  Also, you need a honing steel.  These come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, but you should learn how to use it properly, and use it every time.  If you take good care of your knifes, they will take good care of you.  As in, not cut you.  And who knows, you may even be able to pass them down to your grandchildren.  Just kidding…don’t do that!

If you really want to get serious about it, there are about a hundred different decisions to make before purchasing which knife is best for you.  Do you want German made, or Japanese?  Carbon or stainless steel?  Full tang or partial?  Handle material?  Handle fasteners?  And on it goes… The point is, find a cutlery store near you and go talk to a pro.  A really good knife will last a lifetime.  And if you like it, you are more likely to use it.

Next to not putting them in the dishwasher, sharpening is the number one most important way to take good care of your knife.  Not honing…that’s different.  I mean really sharpen the blade.  At least once a year if you don’t use them often.  Up to once every few months if you are a pro.  You can take them somewhere to have them professionally sharpened, or you can buy a stone and do it yourself.  But now is the time of year to do it!  Most places charge a minimal fee per knife, so there is no reason not to do it.  Most cuts happen because the blade is too dull, and you must compensate by using more force to push the knife thru the food.  Also, most Thanksgiving Day ER visits are from self-inflicted knife injuries.

 

Plastic To-Go Containers: think deli-counter macaroni salad.

One of the restaurants I worked in early in my career used these for all of their prep.  We had several different sizes.  And at the end of the night, we put all of our station prep into the appropriate size to store overnight.  They are stackable, disposable, dishwasher safe, and great for prepping several days ahead.  

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Chef’s Spotlight: Nikki Murillo

Chef Nikki Murillo

This month’s chef’s spotlight comes from our Chicago market. She has been with Friend That Cooks for just over a year after making a career change to pursue her passion for food. Meet Nikki!

In her own words.

Growing up in an Italian household, food has always been an important part of my life.  I used to watch and cook with my grandma, and that is what inspired me to become a cook. Ever since I can remember, food has been my passion. I honestly never thought that cooking would be my career. After several years of schooling in various majors, and never really feeling happy or satisfied with what I was doing, I decided to go to culinary school. While working overnights as an ER Tech, I attended Kendall College and graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts. I went on to work mostly in corporate catering on a very large scale. I’ve worked for companies such as Google, Yahoo, Uber, Pinterest and Walt Disney World and eventually on to Friend that Cooks.

I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything in the world.  Food is my passion. It brings people together, makes people happy, and gives us the nourishment that we need. I’m happy that I can provide that for people. Whenever I’m not cooking, I love going out to eat in Chicago, one of the greatest food cities in the world! I also love traveling and exploring new places!

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The Great Pumpkin Adventure- Beyond the PSL

IT’S PUMPKIN SEASON!!

And beyond the ever loved PSL, there are about a million things you can do with the delicious gourd.  A friend recently told me that she isn’t a huge fan, because she has only had it prepared super sweet.  She didn’t even think of the gazillion other spices she could put with it.  But trust me, if you like butternut squash, you will love pumpkin.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you begin your Great Pumpkin adventures (see what I did there!)  First, don’t use the jack-o-lantern that has been sitting on your front porch for the last several weeks.  One, it’s rotten.  Two, it’s not the right kind of pumpkin.  Three, it’ rotten.  “But we just carved it last night?”  Yeah, and about a bazillion flies and other bugs have already made it a fun little breeding and feeding ground overnight, if the squirrels didn’t get to it first.  Plus, you’ve had it for several weeks, or days, sitting in the hot, direct, daytime sunlight.  Not an ideal storage place for vegetables.  Trust me, it won’t be good.  And it’s not even the right kind to begin with.  What you want is called a pie pumpkin.  They are small-ish, cute and have a much sweeter and more tender flesh than the big guy you bought at the pumpkin patch.  You should be able to find them at your local patch or grocery store pretty easily.

“So how do I cook it?”  They are quite easy to prepare, actually.  You can either cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and roast it in a 400-degree oven for about 30-45 minutes.  Or you can prick the whole thing with a fork or paring knife and roast the whole thing, same way as above, for about an hour.  Save the seeds though!  After a quick scrub, some olive oil and sea salt, and quick toast in the oven, they make the best salad toppings and granola add-ins!  You can save the seeds from your carved pumpkin too, if you haven’t already thrown them away.

“Now what do I do with it?”  Well…whatever you want, really.  Think of it just like any other squash.  It makes a velvety creamy soup, is perfect to hide in chili and sauces for picky-kids, pancakes, French Toast, muffins, breads, cakes, pastas and even cocktails.  The sky is the limit.  Your pumpkin may yield more than you need for whatever recipe you decide, but it freeze well.

If cooking a whole pumpkin isn’t your things, no worries!  The canned stuff is delicious too.  And most brands are simply ‘just pumpkin’, so you don’t have to worry about getting a bunch of extra stuff you don’t want.  Check out this link from Food Network Magazine for 50 ideas to get you started.  And if you aren’t a big fan of cinnamon and nutmeg, you are in luck.  Because pumpkin pairs well with lots of other spices and herbs.

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Upgrade Your Tailgate With A Fresh Menu

tailgate foodFor some, tailgating is more important than the game itself.  It’s the smell of burgers on a grill, the chill of an ice-cold beer, face paint and community gathered together to cheer on the… whatever your mascot of choice is.  Sometimes it’s an early morning game though, and a burger just doesn’t sound delicious.  Or maybe you are just looking to spice things up!  Whether it’s the booze or the food that keeps the parking lot party going for you, there are a few simple things you can do to make your next tailgate a real hit.

First, the menu.  It doesn’t always have to be burgers and hot dogs!  Mexican, Italian, even bacon and pancakes are all great ideas to change it up.  Think outside the bun and get creative with your menu.

Second, the equipment.  Whatever you are using to cook your tailgate foods now will work for other menus too.  You may just need to think about it a little differently.  We use water baths, or bain maries if you are fancy, to heat up foods that are awkward or have already been cooked.  All you need are two disposable aluminum pans like this.  One that is deep to hold the water, and another that is shallower to hold the food.  Fill the deeper pan with about 2 inches of water and use the fire from your grill to heat it up.  The steam from the hot water will heat the shallow pan on top and provide a non-direct heat source for your lasagna, quesadillas or scrambled eggs.  Best part, when you are done, everything can be recycled, or even reused!

If you are a purist, and want to cook all your food on-site, think about packing a griddle or skillet.  For foods that don’t grill well, like bacon, pancakes, pasta sauce… you get the idea, your flame from the grill will act like a gas stove and you can cook just like you do at home.  Don’t forget about a good-old-fashioned Crock Pot.  Cook your dish at home and pack it up.  You don’t even need electricity.  Those things will hold heat for hours!

Third, the CHEER!  Tailgating is supposed to be fun, not fussy.  So above all else, relax and have a good time.  If you are happy, your guests will be too!  Just don’t forget the ice.  No one like a warm beer at a tailgate.

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Save Your Summer: A Guide To Sun-Drying

sun-dried tomatoesIt’s the end of the growing season for most of our summer herbs and vegetables, or at least close to it.  Maybe you were really lucky and able to eat everything you grew, or gave it away.  Or maybe you are like the other 99% of the population and you ended up with a bumper crop of all of your favorite things.  It happens to the best of us.  Our eyes are bigger than our proverbial garden stomachs and we buy too many plants.

But what happens to the extras?  After your neighbors and co-workers have had their fill, you’ve canned, pickled and preserved until your shelves are full but you can’t bear to see the precious hard-work go to waste.  There is still one easy, and very tasty way, to save the last bits of summer.  Sun-Drying!

I was thinking about this during the #SolarEclipse2017, when everything was all about the sun.  And it’s an excellent way to preserve fruits, veggies and herbs!  It also lends them to your favorite fall and winter recipes different than canning would.  So, what is good to sun-dry?  Almost everything!  But before you toss your produce on the back porch and call it good, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The whole point of sun-dying is to remove as much moisture as possible from the produce in order to preserve the flavor and nutrients for later use.  Bacteria and mold need moisture to survive and grow.  Remove it, and no more bacteria.  Some produce is going to take longer than others to achieve optimal dryness, so you have to pay attention.  Hot, all-day sun is best, and pay attention to humidity levels.  We want water leaving the produce, not going back in!

Equipment.  Tossing some tomatoes on a sheet pan and calling it good is only going to get you a big, moldy blob of tomato goo.  You need to make sure there is plenty of room for air to circulate around the entire vegetable or fruit to make sure it dries evenly.  Use a sheet pan, lined with parchment and a drying rack.  This will elevate the product to allow even air flow.  Also, unless you plan on standing over the product for a day or two, you might need to protect it from critters; bugs, squirrels, birds and the like.  You can easily make a cage of chicken wire or other wire grafting material and cover it with cheesecloth or some other kind of netting-like fabric.  Remember, sunlight is key, so make sure you can see thru it well.   You can also purchase something like this from Amazon.

Size.  In this case, it matters.  Just like when you cook food, it needs to be of uniform consistency and shape.  Also, the smaller the food, the faster it will dry.  For tomatoes, slice them in half or quarters and remove the seeds.  For zucchini, squash, peppers, etc, slice them into ¼ inch rounds or strips.  Slicing is a good idea for fruits too.  You also want to cut your produce to allow air inside the flesh.  The skin is there to keep air out.  So you need to break the skin to allow air in.  For berries that you would want to keep whole (because who wants to slice a million pounds of blueberries?!), blanch in boiling water for a few seconds to crack the skin.  This could work for cherry tomatoes too.

Oxidation.  You know when you’ve cut into an avocado and it starts to turn brown?  That’s called oxidation.  It’s when air mixes with the molecules of the flesh of the fruit and makes it turn an icky brown color.  It’s still delicious, just not delicious to look at.  It mostly happens to fruit and there are a couple of ways to prevent it.  Soaking the fruit in a mixture of lemon juice and water will usually do the trick.  Ascorbic acid and citric acid work well too.  You can buy them in powdered form to sprinkle on the flesh of the fruit.

Leafy greens and herbs.  Air drying herbs is my favorite way to preserve them.  I can only eat so much pesto by January before I wish I had some plain fresh basil.  Freezing in olive oil, or making an herb oil is good too, but limiting to how I can use it in a finished product.  Pick the leaves from the stems of the herbs and lay out on a parchment lined sheet pan.  You don’t need a drying rack in this case because of the flat, thin nature of the leaves.  Spinach, kale and chard are all great to air dry too.  You want the leaves to be as separated as much as possible.  And thicker, curly leaves like kale will take longer than the tiny leaves from herbs like thyme and oregano.  Dry whole, chop later.

If you don’t have a lot of direct sunlight, or maybe you don’t have the space to sun-dry, the oven works well for drying too.  Set it to the lowest temperature setting possible, and apply the same rules as above.  The oven will most likely take less time, as it is a more direct heat applied in a smaller space, but the results should be the same.

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After School Snack Attack

healthy snacksAfter-school snack.  Let’s face it.  It’s basically the 4th most important meal of the day.  And between a full day of school, homework, sports, band, dance and chess club, it should be!  Kids are just smaller versions of adults, and if you want them to make it thru the day without a sugar crash or major meltdown, good nutrition in the middle of the day is a great place to start.

You don’t have time to make your own Greek-style yogurt and beef jerky, or maybe you do.  But a box of Cheez-Its does not a healthy snack make.  The trick to snacks is having options the kids actually like, and getting them to eat it.

Unfortunately, pretty much anything on the shelf at the grocery store with the word SNACK on it is full of sugar, fat and loaded with empty calories.

 

There are 4 things to keep in mind when considering a snack choice for kids.  After all, the whole point is to keep their brains and bodies moving for another 4-5 hours.  What should you look for?

 

  1. Calories. Depending on your child’s activity level, calories matter. But most kids don’t need a 550-calorie cheeseburger happy meal.  Keep it between 200-400 calories.  That’s plenty to get them thru until dinner.
  2. Nutrition. We gotta keep them moving, so the snack should provide a good balance between protein, fat and carbohydrate.
  3. Timing. Scrambled egg sandwiches are a great option to keep your kid fueled up for sports. But maybe not 10 minutes before swim practice.
  4. Easy. Good news! You don’t have to spend 40 hours each week sourcing organic hemp seeds and crushing your own almonds for almond butter.  That’s what you have Friend That Cooks for! 😉 And for those of you that don’t, we put together a list of 15 awesome choices that go together in a flash.
  • Celery, Dried Fruit, Peanut Butter: 2 stalks celery- halved, palmful of small dried fruits- think raisins, cranberries, or chopped banana pieces, 2 tablespoons peanut butter- or almond, sun-nut or other butter of your choice.
  • Peanut Butter and Pretzel Sticks: Again, whatever kind of nut or non-nut butter you want, just a couple of tablespoons, and about ¼ cup of pretzel sticks.
  • Clementines and Dark Chocolate: For a lighter, sweeter snack idea, pair the easy-to-peel citrus with 1 ounce of dark chocolate. This one makes a tasty dessert for adults too!
  • Zucchini Bread Muffins: Add some plain flavored protein powder, or a handful of chopped nuts on top, for an extra protein kick. Check out this recipe here.
  • Snack Mix: Avoid unwanted sugars and extra calories and make your own!  Trader Joe’s is a great place to stock up on nuts, dried fruits and seeds.  Portion out the mix into ¼ cup individual snack bags for even more portion control.
  • Granola Protein Bites: There are literally hundreds of recipes on the internet for something like this. But here is one that we’ve tried and our clients really enjoy.  The flavor combinations are endless, so feel free to play.
  • Fruit and Coconut Water Popsicles: This one is great while the weather is still warm. The electrolyte boost is also perfect for your sports players and dancers.
  • Peanut Butter and Banana Toast: It can’t get any simpler than this. Once slice of whole grain bread, 1 Tablespoon PB and a half a banana.
  • Hard Boiled Eggs: These are great to have on hand as “add-ons”. Pair with the zucchini bread muffins, or even some hummus and veggies for a protein punch.
  • Hummus and Veggies: Sabra makes handy individual cups for even less prep! Sub the hummus for guacamole for something different.
  • Tuna Salad and Veggies: 1 can tuna packed in water- drained, 1 celery stalk- chopped, 1 hardboiled egg- chopped, 1 Tablespoon plain Greek yogurt or mayo, 1 tsp yellow or Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Celery stalks, carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes are all kid friendly and easy to prep ahead.
  • Cheese and Crackers or Fruit: 2 ounces of cubed cheese and 5 crackers is all it takes. If you can get away with it, pick a whole grain cracker option for maximum nutrients.  1 small apple or a handful of fresh berries to change it up.
  • Yogurt and Fruit: a small palmful of fruit goes really well with Greek yogurt.  The natural sugars in the fruit will flavor plain yogurt nicely, so don’t be afraid to give it a try.  A few chopped nuts go a long way too.
  • Tortilla Roll-ups: Think small, fajita sized tortillas, wrapped around some leftover meat from last night’s dinner, a smear of hummus, guac or spreadable cheese and voila!  Sliced bell peppers fit nicely inside that roll-up if you want to sneak in some veggies.
  • Nuts and Everything: 1 ounce, or about a palmful of roasted almonds or pistachios pair nicely with fruit, cheese or just about anything else.  The protein and fat content of the nuts keep the energy flowing until dinnertime.
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Chef’s Spotlight- Elizabeth Armstrong

 

This month’s Chef’s Spotlight features our new admin and office assistant, Elizabeth Armstrong.  Elizabeth was born and raised in Olathe, Kansas. She graduated from Olathe South High School in 2006 and went on to receive a Bachelor’s in Mass Media Advertising with a minor in fine arts from Washburn University in 2013.  Elizabeth spent a period of time designing websites and teaching drawing classes to elementary school kids.  She has also worked in the service industry for 14 years.

Elizabeth has a passion for all kinds of art and helping others. Staying creative is an ongoing outlet for her. She enjoys going to art exhibits, being out in nature, spending time with her niece, going to concerts and binge watching Netflix.

WELCOME ELIZABETH!  Not technically a chef, but definitely an important addition to our Friend That Cooks family, Elizabeth started with us in early May.  She works in our new headquarters office in Shawnee as our office assistant, website tamer and social media guru.  Check out her work on our Facebook and other social media platforms.

 

 

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Build Your Cookbook Library Like A Pro

We all have it.  That one book sitting on the counter.  Bent spine, dogeared, bookmarked and stained.  It’s the go-to.  The favorite.  Maybe it’s a collection of family heirlooms, a digital wallet stored on your iPad, a wedding present from your dear Aunt Sally, or a corner bookstore find.  A good cookbook can help plan that Thanksgiving feast for 20 or Tuesday night’s meatloaf supper.

For our chefs, they are a source of inspiration, and a education.  Just like a any other professional, chefs need to keep up with current trends, and brush up on techniques learned early in our careers.  It’s more than a hobby- it’s a lifestyle.

We get asked all the time, “What book should I have in my kitchen?”.  So we wanted to put together for you a  list of our chefs’ favorites.  Some are more reference books than recipe books.  But we still think they are great, even for the most novice of cooks.  Check out our list below and comment on your favorites.  Follow us on Instagram for the latest updates from Friend That Cooks!

The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook is great for everyday recipes.
Charcuterie, for meats: smoking, curing, salting and more. 
The Chefs Reference Guide is a great resource for the advanced home cook.
Instead of Google, grab a copy of Food Lover’s Companion. A great resource for anything food.
Composing the perfect dish is a breeze with Culinary Artistry. A great resource book for all home cooks.
Genuinely delicious and fun “fancy southern” cuisine from a Top Chef contestant, Fire In My Belly.
Learn everything pasta in Flour+Water: Pasta.
If bread is your thing, or maybe you want to learn, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast is great to have in your kitchen.
The French Laundry Cookbook delivers beautiful pictures and exquisite technique.
TV show personality delivers classic and fun foods in Guy Fieri Family Food.
Sean Brock, a Charleston legend in his own right, shows you how to make classic, southern dishes that are beautiful and sustainable.
Momofuku is a must for anyone looking to step-up their Asian culinary game.
On Cooking, a texbook and staple for any cook. A must-own for all.
Staff Meals is fun and original cookbook with wholesome recipes, unique ingredients and a laid-back approach.
Bon Appetit’s The Grilling Book should be your can’t-live-without, summer grilling guide.
Get serious pastry skills with The Pastry Chef’s Companion recipe and resource guide.
Not just for vegans, Thug Kitchen’s NSFW first official cookbook has taken the food world by storm. Get serious about eating more vegetables and get a copy of this book…yesterday!

 

Ethnic Food Lover’s Companion makes cooking your favorite ethnic dish a breeze.
The Cook’s book is a great resource for tips and tricks from chef’s all over the world.

 

If you like breakfast foods, you need The Breakfast Book. Think farm-house simple.
When you aren’t sure what to pair with this, or how to spice that, The Flavor Bible is every cook’s go-to.