How To Be A Better Cook

I was reading my latest copy of Scientific American Mind (being a psychology teacher after all!), and was a little surprised to find an article giving four tips on how to be a better cook.  They include:

  1. Be focussed – especially when you’re cooking something that you think you know off by heart
  2. Mise en place – lay everything out beforehand
  3. Cook more often – practice, of course, makes perfect!
  4. Add butter and onions…

I was very pleased to see that I at least do the laying out and the practice tips already, although I have occasionally been guilty of not paying enough attention when cooking so that sometimes things do go wrong.  I’m not sure about the butter and onions one – although if you see some TV chefs when they are cooking chucking in tons of butter (James Martin, I’m thinking about you!), there clearly is something to the butter part at least.  Onions form the basis of 90% of my cooking already, and I’m looking for things to cook which don’t involve them as while they are one of the world’s greatest ingredients, I’d like a bit more variety.

I would add a few more tips though:

  • Do your research – when trying a new recipe, check online to see what other people thought of the recipe.  This is really easy when you are doing a new recipe you’ve found on a blog as usually the comments section is full with thoughts about that particular recipe.  When trying a recipe from a brand new cookbook though, sometimes it can be hard to find out what other people have thought… I would then look for other versions of the same recipe and see how they are different to the one I want to try.
  • Try everything – the only food I don’t like is liquorice.  That aniseed flavour is just not something that I enjoy although I know a lot of people who look at me in wonder when I say this.  I am happy to eat everything else though and am always willing to try out something completely new.  I’m still willing to try out new variations on the aniseed flavour just in case I might start to like it – although this hasn’t yet come true.
  • Don’t be put off by a new recipe because you lack one ingredient/piece of kit.  Search online for substitutions and see if there is a work-around for the kit.  I can’t seem to find asafoetida anywhere, and needed it for a lime pickle recipe I’m trying out at the moment, but read online that onion or garlic powder can be substituted (or even ignored altogether), so got on with version 1.0 of the lime pickle and we’ll see how it turns out.  I’ve sometimes found that when I have forgotten a key ingredient of something I have ended up with something a bit different but equally lovely.  I know that there are so many different variants of most recipes that what I am doing is probably out there somewhere so relax and get on with it.
  • Clean up as you go – our kitchen is not small, but it certainly isn’t big.  It is one of those galley type long and narrow kitchens where two people can work together only if they are happy about a certain amount of body contact when passing.  There is a fairly limited amount of counter space and can get cluttered very quickly – but doesn’t if I clean up as I go through a recipe.  I frequently do little chores while waiting for something to happen while cooking as well (like emptying the dishwasher, or cleaning the coffee machine), so that these can get ticked off the list as well.
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Blog Find: The Moodie Foodie

I read and follow a lot of food blogs – and use Feedly to keep them all in one place on my iPad.  I was catching up on my reading today and clicked through to a recommendation for Jay from The Moodie Foodie and read a few of her posts.  I’ve linked some of the posts which caught my eye below:

Articles:

Recipes:

I’ve added her now to my Feedly subscriptions and am going to experiment with some of her recommendations – and of course report back here on my findings…

Quick Kitchen Tip: When meringues go wrong…

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The meringues before they all went wrong – I used a new brand of greaseproof paper which wasn’t particularly greaseproof and they stuck!

When meringues go wrong Eton Mess is the usual “save”.  This happened to me recently, but I have found a new recipe that makes it look like it was deliberate to have chunks of broken meringue.

The Chocolate Meringue Semifreddo from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is easy, delicious and makes a lovely change from Eton Mess.  Just remember to pretend it was deliberate…

An Advent Calendar for a Foodie

AdventI’ve just opened the first window on my first advent calendar since I was at school – I saw the Montezuma’s Advent Calendar on sale on Ocado and went for it!  (although I see it is out of stock at the time of writing, it is available on Montezuma’s website at 25% off).  I am definitely in favour of calendars with quality chocolate in them – I don’t see the point in wasting calories on chocolate which is lower in quality!

The Lindt Milk Calendar looked interesting – but I prefer dark chocolate if at all possible, so the entirely milk chocolate selection didn’t quite tempt me enough.  The Lindt Dark Calendar  tempted me a lot until I saw the price!  It is cheaper on the Lindt website, but you then have to add nearly £4 shipping and having to be in for the postal delivery (as opposed to being able to pick a slot with online shopping).

I very much like the idea (next year) of getting a reusable advent calendar and filling it myself with Dark Lindor Truffles or Dark Ferrero Rocher (I am still in mourning that these don’t come in their own box anymore, and you have to get the milk and white ones too).

Christmas Wishlist for Foodies – Buy Cheap Buy Twice

I never really believed in the old adage “Buy cheap, buy twice” until we managed to kill a coffee machine every year for three years running!  We gradually moved up the price scale each time (admittedly the very first one was a £20 machine so we had quite a way to go to get into the luxury range), until we found a coffee machine that has now lasted three years and is still going strong.  I do get embarrassed though when someone asks the price, but in the long run it has saved us money by not going out to get our coffee-fix.  Considering my first ever job was a barrista for a not very well known chain of coffee stands (usually found in train stations), I have had a long-term love affair with all things coffee.  My husband has also had a long-standing reliance on caffeine given that he is a hospital doctor – between the two of us we make that machine work hard!

Sometimes it really is worth the extra spend on something that will last and save you time… or at least that’s what I tell myself.  Here are some of my top picks which are definitely worth the extra spend.

The coffee machine – DeLonghi Prima Donna

  • Don’t buy the fitted models – you’ll move and have to leave it behind, or it might break before the next kitchen refit and there is no guarantee that the newer models will fit in the space.
  • Do think about counter-space – some of the top models are quite tall, so may not fit under your cupboards, and since many require you to load them with water/beans from the top, pulling it out and pushing it back will increase the likelihood of damage (either to the machine or your counter-top).  An integrated bean-to-cup model enables you to choose your beans (and buy them in bulk), and grinds them for you, saving you the hassle of having a separate grinder on the counter.
  • Do think about cost-per-use – the pod style coffee machines lock you into using their refills, which can get quite expensive if you are not interested in learning how to fill your own pods.
  • My top pick: the DeLonghi Prima Donna (Amazon.co.uk link). 

The Food Mixer – The Kenwood Chef

  • Try not to get too influenced by form over function – the best models will last for 30 or more years (my mother still have two Kenwood Chefs that she was given as wedding presents – one for each of her marriages – which are still going strong 30-40+ years later).  Look for fully metal gears as these motors will last, while those not made out of metal will likely break if you leave them on too long too often.
  • Think about the attachments available – you may not want to make pasta or mince meat now, but you might in the future.  Pick the model with the best selection of attachments.
  • Think about who is going to clean it – one of the major reasons I picked the Kenwood over the KitchenAid is ease of cleaning.  The Kenwood has simpler lines making wiping it down after use a doddle, while a friend who has a KitchenAid regrets her choice as it is constantly getting dirty and takes that bit longer to clean.  You could always get a cover to  minimise the mess though…
  • My top pick: The Kenwood Chef Major Titanium (Amazon.co.uk link)

The Food Blender – The Vitamix

  • Think about what you may make – the better models have the most powerful motors which won’t burn out on long blends.  The cheaper ones may need time to cool down in between bursts of activity so you may be hanging around twiddling your thumbs – or you may break it!
  • Think about noise levels though – these machines are LOUD.  If you live somewhere with noise restrictions think about whether those neighbour relationships are good enough to withstand this…
  • My top pick: The Vitamix Blender (Amazon.co.uk link)
  • Second choice: The Berg Commercial Blender (Amazon.co.uk link)

The Toaster – Dualit New Gen

  • Four slices of toast at a time and a warming rack for buns/pastries – this does the job of something a lot cheaper, but feels far more solid than the previous £40 toaster we had…  This is definitely a luxury not a necessity, but such a lovely luxury…
  • Amazon.co.uk link

The Slow Cooker – Crock-Pot Slow Cooker

Things still on my wishlist to try:

Frugal Fridays: A glut of bananas

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Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to be organised, you end up with more produce than you can get through before it goes off.  Today, that happened to be bananas that ripened faster than usual – I had 9 bananas needing to be eaten immediately.   Here is what I did with them:

  • two were immediately blended with 400ml milk for two banana milkshakes
  • two were sliced and frozen in a freezer bag for a frozen smoothie at some point in the future
  • the remaining five were sliced thinly and baked in the oven at 100 degrees C for three hours to be banana chips for snacks

The Science of Ingredients: Serotonin and Tryptophan

The Educated Foodie Science Graphic PNG

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a hormone found throughout the body, mostly in the gut and in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system).  In the digestive system it helps the smooth muscle contract and so eases digestion.  In the brain it helps regulate mood, among other things, and is known as the happiness hormone as it contributes to a general feeling of well-being.

What has the research found?

Levels of serotonin have been found to be linked with:

How do we ensure we get enough Serotonin?

It is a hormone which cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so must be produced within the brain.  This is where the food bit comes in – we must eat tryptophan containing foods in order to be able to produce serotonin in the brain.  Eating foods high in tryptophan ensures that we have enough of the building blocks to make serotonin for ourselves.

These foods include:

  • Dairy: yogurt, milk, cheese
  • Protein: beef, pork, turkey, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs
  • Soy: tofu, soy milk, soybeans/edamame
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Whole Grains: oats, brown rice, wheat, wheatgerm
  • Nuts and seeds: hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fruit: mangos, dates, bananas
  • Vegetables: kelp, spirulina, potato skins
  • Cocoa: chocolate, cocoa powder

Alternatively, you can take a supplement of 5-HTP, although of course whether or not you believe in taking supplements is the basis for a whole series of posts!  If you do decide to take a supplement of it, remember to take it at night as it does make you feel drowsy…