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Chris's Tips

In this section I will periodically post tips to make life easier in the kitchen, whether cooking or baking, using a new utensil, or re-purposing a cast-off.  Tip #1 gives an idea for an empty paper towel roll.





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TIP #8: Squash Serving Bowls for Holiday Tables  

Beautiful, easy to make squash bowls will be the highlight of your holiday table this season. Use plastic inserts and simple carving to amaze all your guests. Use these bowls for serving nuts or candy, crackers or dip, and even seasonal arrangements.

Here’s an easy and innovative idea using squash as bowls. Hollowed out squash are seen used as bowls in many places. However, using a hollowed raw squash limits what can be served inside. Nuts, candy or crackers would absolutely not work. A salsa might, as long as you don’t mind the squash flavor. But why not carve out a squash to fit a plastic bowl inside? Squash come in all sorts of colors and sizes, and make lovely displays on a buffet table.



Squash Serving Bowls
Squash Serving Bowls

Grocery stores often have a condiment bar or other food to go and small plastic containers with lids, used to take home olives or pickled peppers and such. Some of these containers are perfect sizes for the squash. Some plastic containers have too high or thick a lip at the edge, so think what containers would best set inside the squash. The squash should be the star of the show. The idea is to make the plastic container relatively unnoticeable. Small glass or ceramic containers could also be used. What is best about plastic condiment containers is that lids can be placed on the container once the party is over, so leftovers are easy to remove and store.

Begin by tracing around the top of the squash with a marker to define an opening that is smaller than the mouth of your bowl or container. Better to start out too small and widen gradually. Take out the top of the squash and with a large spoon, scrape out all the seeds and strings, leaving it relatively smooth inside. Widen the top edge little by little, using a sharp knife and the spoon to scrape away the flesh. Test the width continually, until the container starts to fit inside. Check which edges are the tightest and work on them. Once the top opening is large enough to slide the container in partway, begin to scrape away the inside flesh of the squash until the container slides snugly inside. If the squash will be kept for some days, use a very mild bleach solution to rinse out the squash to prevent mold from forming. Keep the bleach ratio very low and rinse thoroughly.  A too strong bleach aroma will not make your holiday foods tempting.

Set out your finished bowls for salsa, guacamole, dips, candies, nuts, or crackers. Keep in mind that with green oasis or Styrofoam, they can be used for flower or other fall or winter arrangements, elevating your presentation to a whole new level.



Making Squash Bowls
Making Squash Bowls: fitting the container

With an idea of what you want the end product to look like, select colorful, pretty squashes. Things to watch for when selecting are:

  • They be well balanced in shape
  • They will set level on a flat surface
  • They are wide and deep enough to hold the container selected. 

There are plenty of squash varieties to choose from. Keep in mind that if the squash is pretty, but has a point at the bottom like an acorn squash, it can be turned over so the top is now the bottom and it can be used this way.

Smaller Squash Bowls
Smaller Squash Bowls
 


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TIP #7: Chill Cookie Dough on Baguette Pan 

If you happen to have a baguette pan, an alternate use could be for chilling cookie dough. Some recipes call for rolling dough into a log and wrapping in plastic wrap to chill. Unfortunately, this usually results in the roll of dough becoming flattened on one side, resulting in cookies with one odd side. Set the cookie dough onto a baguette pan to chill and that problem is solved.







Cookie Dough on Baguette Pan
TIP #6: Single Serving Wine Bottles 

If you do not keep wine in the house, or do not drink it, but will use it in cooking, try buying the little 4-packs of single serving wine bottles. They are drinkable, and therefore suitable for cooking. They come in the types needed such as a dry red (Merlot or Cabernet), dry white (Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc). If you do not use them often, just keep a couple in the back of the refrigerator, where they will stay reasonably good for a longer period of time.



 


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TIP #5: Cutting Methods 

Here are five of the most common terms for ways of cutting foods that should demystify these terms for everyone.

SLICE 

Slicing is the simplest of all methods. Most people understand the word, so maybe this is less necessary to explain. Slicing can be done thick or thin and any gradient between. Not everyone is able to slice neatly and evenly, but slicing is a downward motion with a knife. How this downward motion is accomplished can vary. One may slice bread, which requires a sawing downward motion to slice without smashing the bread. If slicing an onion, a simple downward motion is perfect.  Slicing a green pepper can vary. Usually one cuts the pepper open and cleans out seeds and membranes, but then do we slice across the pepper, or lengthwise? Sometimes this is purely preference, and sometimes it depends on how the final dish is to look.

CHOP  

Chopping can be done roughly or finely. The gradations are sometimes individually termed, such as coarse chop, or fine chop. Chopping is the method for making smaller pieces of a vegetable or fruit, for such things as a saute, salad, or soup. Making a salsa can be done coarsely chopped or more finely chopped. Chopping an onion is relatively simple, since with all the layers, quite a lot of small pieces are accomplished with few strokes. Some people chop slowly and some develop skill and chop more quickly. The most important thing is a sharp knife, which makes any chopping task much easier.

MINCE 

To mince means to chop into extremely tiny bits. Most often one minces garlic, as an example. This allows the strongly flavored bulb to be distributed evenly throughout a dish. Mincing any vegetable will take a longer time, as the chopping motions must continue until all the pieces are uniformly small. Fresh herbs are often minced before adding to food. Mincing is used when the desire is to distribute flavors without marring the visual effect, or as with the garlic, to distribute flavors most evenly. A garlic press will approximate the fineness of mincing garlic, though most professional chefs do not use a press.

JULIENNE  

To julienne means to slice into long strips of very uniform matchstick shape and size. There are tools out there these days that can help to make quick work of julienning vegetables such as carrot or zucchini, among others.  If julienning by hand, take the vegetable, such as a carrot, cut 3 to 4 inch lengths and slice each piece lengthwise into thin, even slices. Stack 3 or more of these thin slices together and again slice lengthwise through the stack, creating very thin matchsticks of the vegetable. These little sticks are often about 3 or more inches long, and can be added to a salad or a stir fry or wherever desired.

CHIFFONADE 

This term is most often applied to leafy foods, such as herbs or spinach or other leafy vegetables. It involves taking the leaves and stacking a lot of them together and then rolling the stack into a cigar like shape. While holding that roll steady with one hand, take your knife and slice across the cigar shape in very narrow slices. What you will have at the end are literally threadlike pieces of the food. A chiffonade of basil leaves is most wonderful on a Caprese Salad of tomato and mozzarella slices. A chiffonade of spinach or kale would be excellent tossed into a stir fry at the last minute.






Five Cutting Methods


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TIP #4: Freezing Leftover Paste or Sauce 

Some things, like leftover tomato paste, or the Thai Red Chile Paste recipe for example, are easy to put into the old style sandwich baggies (the ones without the zip top).  I take the tomato past or chile paste by tablespoons and put it down into a corner of the bag and then tie the top shut.  Freeze the little bags in one small freezer ziptop bag and mark it to show what is in the bag, and the date.

The little frozen bags are great for that "one tablespoon" (or two!) of something called for in a recipe. They are quick to thaw if needed, and really easy to get out of the bag. Just snip off the tied end and squeeze out the paste or sauce.


Storing Curry Paste in Baggies
Store one , two or more tablespoons of a leftover ingredient in sandwich baggies,
 tie the top closed and freeze




TIP #3: Cinnamon 

When cooking or baking a recipe from another country, and the recipe calls for cinnamon - look for "true cinnamon", sometimes called Saigon cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon. The flavor is far different from the Cassia cinnamon commonly found in the U.S., and far truer to the recipe flavor from other countries. 

Note also the difference in color and thickness of the quills.  True cinnamon is thinner, lighter colored and many layered, where cassia is far harder, darker reddish in color and with a single very thick layer in the quill.

Some common grocery store brands are now carrying Saigon cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon, according to the brand's title on the jar.  The taste , smell and color will determine if it is real cinnamon.  Smell it next to the common cassia in your cupboard.  If there is no difference in the smell, then it is not true cinnamon.




Cinnamon and Cassia






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TIP #2: Cold Butter 

Have you ever wanted to make a recipe that called for butter, room temperature, but had forgotten to take it out of the refrigerator - or just made a spur of the moment decision to make something, and the butter is too hard?  Take the hard, cold butter and pass it through a larger-holed grater into the bowl.  Add in the sugar, if creaming, and allow to set for just a minute or so.  The room temp sugar and the few seconds in the bowl will allow the creaming step to begin right away.
 
The only time this will not work is on those few recipes that have been tested and absolutely will not work with cold butter, such as some buttercream icings or shortbread cookies.  Otherwise, this works great - I have used it for over 40 years!



Grating Cold Butter
Grating Cold Butter




TIP #1: Microplane graters
 

They're so sharp, and some do not come with a cover for the blades.  Placing them unprotected in a drawer can lead to getting cut when reaching in. Save an empty paper towel tube, flatten it a bit, and use it as a "sleeve" to keep that sharp microplane covered up so you don't get accidentally "planed" when searching through a drawer.


Microplane with roll
Microplane with roll


microplane in roll
Microplane in roll