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The Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta

Since I grew up in a home with a strong Italian background, pasta was a big part of my life. There was always a reason to eat pasta. Not feeling well? Here, have some pastina in chicken broth. Traveling tomorrow? Here, eat some angel hair with parmesan cheese.  Just got back from a long trip? Here, Grandma left a lasagna in the refrigerator.

Cooking pasta is something I’ve just always known how to do. I don’t remember being taught how to cook pasta. I just grew up helping my mom. What to do, and not to do, with pasta has always been common sense to me. As I’ve grown older, though, and met people from different backgrounds, I’ve come to realize that what I’ve always thought was common sense is really not common knowledge for many people.

And so here is a list of the common mistakes people make when cooking pasta. I like to refer to this list as the Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta.

  1. Using too small of a pot. Pasta is really starchy, and it expands while it cooks. It needs space to boil, otherwise you’ll end up with a gummy mess. You should use a pot around 6 quarts, even if you’re only doing half a pound of pasta.
  2. Not salting the water. This is your chance to flavor the pasta. If you don’t generously salt the water, your pasta will come out bland. To prevent salt from staining your precious pasta pot (yes, I used the word precious), wait until the water comes to a boil and then add the salt (just don’t forget!). How much salt? I don’t measure, of course, but I would say probably around 1 1/2  or 2 tablespoons.
  3. Adding oil to the water. I guess the thought behind this is that if you add oil, the pasta won’t stick together as it boils. Here’s the problem, though. Since oil floats on top of water, when you dump your pasta out, you’ll have pasta coated in oil and it won’t adhere to your sauce. Instead of adding oil to the water, just stir the pasta during the first few minutes of cooking and the pasta should be fine.
  4. Dumping all of the pasta water down the drain. I’ll admit that I didn’t learn this one until I was older. That salty, starchy pasta water is an excellent way to get sauces to adhere to your pasta. Even if you add just a small amount, the pasta and sauce will be so much happier together. Better yet, depending on the type of sauce you’re using, you can take the pasta out of the pot a few minutes early and let if finish cooking in the sauce and a bit of pasta water. I find this method particularly useful when doing very simple sauces, such as mushroom, wine and garlic. Just scoop the pasta and some water right into the skillet with the wine and mushrooms and everything will be quite delicious. If you wait until the pasta is done to toss it with the sauce, that’s okay too. Just be sure to do it in a large bowl off of the stove (so it doesn’t overcook) and toss immediately.
  5. Overcooking the pasta. Pasta should have a bite to it. Not crunchy but a nice bite. No one likes mushy pasta, except maybe babies and toddlers. To avoid overcooked pasta, look at the time recommended on the box and set your timer for a minute or two below that time. When the timer goes off, taste the pasta and keep tasting until it’s al dante. It will continue to cook a little out of the water, so get it out before it’s too late.
  6. Rinsing the cooked pasta. Sigh. That wonderful salt flavor just got rinsed down the drain. And the starch that will help the pasta stick to the sauce? Bye bye. Don’t rinse the pasta! The only, and I mean only, exception to this rule is if you’re preparing a cold pasta dish, such as a pasta salad, and you want to serve it immediately. Otherwise, resist the temptation to rinse your pasta.
  7. Putting too much on your pasta. Not everyone will agree with me on this one. In fact, I don’t even completely agree with myself on this one. Sometimes I do love a ton of sauce on my spaghetti. Most of the time, though, I like to keep my pasta simple. Nothing tastes better than pasta right out of the water, and so I hate to see that delicious pasta flavor covered up by too much. Some of my favorite pasta dishes will have a light sauce, such as a wine sauce or even just olive oil, a bit of cheese, and cracked pepper.

Every pasta shape tastes different to me, and every time I go into a specialty Italian store (such as Carfagna’s), I notice a shape I haven’t tried yet. Be adventurous with your pasta shapes and flavors. Also, think about the sauce you’re using. Pasta with ridges is ideal for heavier sauces, whereas something delicate, such as angel hair, is best with a very light sauce. Experiment with whole wheat vs white pasta. I find that whole wheat has a nuttier flavor and pairs well with pestos and wine sauces. Try egg pasta, if you haven’t before. Be bold. Think outside the spaghetti box.

 

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Myths about Healthy Eating

Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not a “I’ll just have a salad” girl*. I eat, and I eat a lot. But I’m also very active, which is the primary thing that fuels my hunger, and most (but not all) of what I eat is fairly healthy. And because I so often hear myths of what it means to be a healthy eater, I feel compelled to write this post and straighten a few things out.

  1. Myth #1: People eat healthy food to be skinny. I can’t speak for all women, but healthy eating, to me, has nothing to do with dieting or waist size. I eat healthy so that I wake up most mornings feeling good, so that I can run a 5k or do a long bike ride, and so that if I ever do get sick, I hopefully have a good starting chance of fighting the disease. And, even more importantly, I eat healthy so that when it comes time to go into motherhood and other stages of life, I’m able to physically and mentally take on anything that comes my way.
  2. Myth #2: Healthy food is bland and boring. If you think so, you’ve obviously never had a good vegetarian curry. The typical midwestern diet, which seems to be primarily composed of meat, grease, and cheese, is what’s bland and boring.
  3. Myth #3: People who like healthy food never eat unhealthy stuff. I love butter. I love making and eating super cheesy pizza. And cake with buttercream frosting. And fatty chicken wings. Oh do I love fatty chicken wings. Do I feel guilty or less healthy eating these things? Nope. Since I eat healthy most of the time, I don’t feel guilty about eating an unhealthy meal.
  4. Myth #4: If you eat healthy food, you don’t need the flu vaccination, and you’ll never get sick. Living a healthy lifestyle can help keep your immune system strong and help prevent heart disease, diabetes, etc., but healthy eating isn’t a replacement for a vaccination.
  5. Myth #5: Detox and drinking a majority of your meals is good for your body. Detox is not healthy. In fact, some of those detox drinks are just plain scary. Don’t get me wrong: I love smoothies, mostly just because I love fruit, and smoothies are an excellent way to get extra vegetables and nutrients into your body. BUT! juicing to lose weight is not healthy. Protein drinks or juices shouldn’t replace meals.
  6. Myth #6: Packaged health food is good for you. Don’t believe health claims. Stick with whole foods and homemade food.
  7. Myth #7: Eating healthy is like being on a never ending diet. Truth: if you just eat healthy, you’ll never have to diet again.
  8. Myth #8: Being healthy means being gluten-free, paleo, a vegan or a vegetarian. Some people are sensitive to gluten, some people are not. Some people rather not eat animals. What works for one person may not work for another. You can live a healthy lifestyle without cutting out certain foods. Figure out what works best for you body and your ethical beliefs and stick with it.
  9. Myth #9: Fat-free and sugar-free are healthy choices. On the contrary, these are almost always the unhealthiest choices. Plus, if something is fat-free, you’re probably going to use a lot more of it since it has less flavor. And more studies are starting to come out that show the dangers of artificial sweeteners.
  10. Myth #10: If you eat healthy, you’ll always feel hungry. If so, you’re not eating the right things. Though I often say that I’m always hungry, it’s because I’m active, burn off calories quickly, and have a high metabolism. After I eat, I feel quite full. But if your lunch consists only of celery sticks and peanut butter than yes, you’re going to be hungry.

So dear world: Stop dieting. Stop worrying about your waist size. Instead: Exercise! Be active. Cherish food.

*I love salads, though. I mean I really love salads. I often make big, mixing bowl-size salads and eat it all right out of the mixing bowl (in fact, I may be doing that right now), and I also love salads at restaurants, so I’m not against ordering salads. There’s a difference between eating a salad because you don’t want to gain weight and ordering a salad because it looks and sounds amazing. Besides, many restaurant salads are actually quite unhealthy once you factor in the dressing and toppings.

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Vanilla Pear Jam, Apple, and Roquefort Cheese Pizza

I swear, I do eat “normal” American-style pizza. You know, the cheesy kind topped with black olives, hot peppers and pineapple (ok, ok, so maybe my taste isn’t completely normal). But more often than not, I like unusual pizzas, or at least unusual in comparison to the greasy, cheese and pepperoni topped pizza that has conquered most chain pizza joints across the United States. I’m drawn to the ones topped with ricotta cheese or roasted vegetables or fig jam, prosciutto, and gorgonzola (amazing combination, by the way). So when I bought one of my favorite seasonal jams from the market (Vanilla Pear from Sweet Thing Gourmet Jams), and the owner recommended pairing it with gorgonzola cheese, I knew it was time, once again, to make pizza.

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I made a similar pizza late last winter using apples, caramelized onions, and gorgonzola (which is a delicious combination), but this jam, combined with the spiciness of the pepper flakes, gives this pizza an extra punch. I used roquefort cheese instead of gorgonzola, just for something different, but the taste is so similar that you could easily use either one. And of course, I don’t expect everyone to have access to such a unique jam, but I’m sure many other jams would work as well.

So to begin (and I apologize for the lighting in some of these photos. Dark kitchen.). You will notice in the below photos I’m using a pizza pan. It was my first time using one. Usually I use a pizza stone, but I found that the pizza pan works quite nicely as well.

Shape your pizza dough. Spread a thin layer of the vanilla pear jam onto the dough (a little goes a long way). Sprinkle with red pepper flakes, fresh garlic (about one small clove), and oregano or other Italian herbs. 

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Next add slices of apple and slices of banana peppers or another pepper of your choice.

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Between the peppers and apples, drop small chunks of roquefort or gorgonzola cheese. It spreads when it melts, so you don’t need much.

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Sprinkle the top of the pizza with a combination of asiago cheese and pecorino (or one or the other). Add a tiny pinch of salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper.

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Bake at 475 for about 8-10 minutes, or until crust is golden brown.

Remove from oven and drizzle balsamic vinegar on top. (I used a specialty vinegar I received as a gift: Vanilla Fig. Plain vinegar will do, as well. Just make sure it’s a thick, high quality vinegar).

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It’s sweet. It’s spicy. It’s creamy and crunchy. It’s delicious. Enjoy!

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Homemade Apple Sauce

It’s fall and time for apple season! One of the most wonderful parts of living in Ohio is picking apples at the many beautiful apple orchards. And what’s one to do with so many apples? Why, make apple sauce, of course.

This recipe is a rather old fashioned one. It’s the way my grandmother made apple sauce, the way my dad still makes it, and the way I make it as well. You need one specialty item: a food mill. I suppose you could use a food processor, but if you can get your hands on a food mill, I recommend it.

You begin by picking apples. Or buying them at the store, if that’s your thing. I’ve tried a few different varieties. My favorite apple to use it Jonathan. In the photos below, I was using a combination of Ida Red, Fuji, and Jonathan. I’ve also used cortland and mcintosh in the past. Note the color of my sauce. That pinkish color is caused by the red skin of the Jonathans. Depending on the type of apples you use, the color will change.

And so to begin at the apple orchard:

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Select a pot large enough to easily fit about twenty apples at a time. Rinse the apples well and then core and quarter them.

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Work quickly so that they apples don’t brown too much. Once done, place the apples in the pot, fill 1/4 of the pot with water, and bring to a boil. Once the apples are boiling, turn the heat down and place a lid on top, leaving a slight opening. Continue to boil the apples and stir them every few minutes so that the apples on top will cook as quickly as the ones on the bottom. Once the apples are all soft, remove from heat. (If you’re using multiple varieties, one variety may take less time to soften than another. Don’t worry. Just be sure to stir and get the harder ones down towards the bottom of the pot).

This is how they look when they’re done:

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Next place a food mill over a large bowl, like so:

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Using a slotted spoon, scoop the apples, one spoonful at a time, into the food mill. Turn the handle until all of the flesh has fallen through into the bowl and only the skins are left. Discard the skins and continue until all of the apples have been processed. Do not discard any water left in the pot. It’s flavored from boiling the apples and will help prevent the sauce from being too thick.

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Place the apples back into the pot with any of the leftover water and place the pot over low heat. Add a touch of cinnamon and about a 1/4 cup of raw sugar. (Both are optional)

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Boil for a few minutes. (Have the lid ready. It’ll splatter and apple sauce burns!)

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Once done, serve warm or cold or freeze it/can it for the winter. Enjoy!

 

 

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Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Cook.

When I decided to start this blog, I did so with one big thing in mind: I was determined not to be intimidating. I don’t want anyone to ever look at my blog and think, “I could never do that.” Sure, I do some crazy, time consuming recipes sometimes, such as the Asian dumplings. But most of the recipes on here, including those time-consuming ones, I strongly believe that anyone could do. I am, after all, just a twenty-something year old who loves to cook.

I do believe, though, that the “foodie” world can be very intimidating to those who aren’t used to being in a kitchen. Food magazines are filled with page after page of perfect looking food. The stars on Food Network always deliver flawless dishes.

Yet what people don’t see is the work that goes into creating those perfect images and shows. One photo in a food magazine, for example, can easily take half a day to shoot. Not only is there a photographer present, by also at least one food stylist. The final plate of food that is shot has been touched and fiddled with so much that most photographers say that they would never eat it.

And as for the cooking shows, unless it’s a show like Top Chef or Iron Chef, they can do as many retakes as necessary to make sure everything looks flawless.

As for me, though I certainly don’t have a food stylist, I can still turn a plate to only photograph the side that isn’t burnt, and I can take 50 or so shots of one plate of food and only post the one that makes it look good. I don’t post everything I cook. Most days, I cook three meals a day, and notice that you don’t see all of those meals. I just post the ones that turn out right. 

But trust me, I’m far from perfect in the kitchen. I make mistakes. A lot. So I promised myself when I started this blog that I wouldn’t only show the good things. I’ll let you see the bad things too.

And so, I’ll begin my making a list of the things that are bound to happen in a kitchen, and why you shouldn’t let these things stop you from cooking.

Not everything turns out that way it should.

  • Some recipes aren’t worth trying again and others take work. Pick the ones worth working on and keep trying until you get it right.
  • Take tonight, for example. I decided to try a new recipe. It was Alice Walter’s method of baking salmon. I followed exactly what she said, but when I pulled it out of the oven, it just didn’t seem like it was cooked enough, so I put it back in. I’m still not sure if I overcooked some of it or not, yet it tastes wonderful and I plane on trying it again until I can do it with confidence.

You will burn things.

  • Every time I make pancakes, I burn at least two of them.
  • I burn bread on a regular basis.
  • I’ve even managed to burn things that I didn’t know could burn.

You will burn yourself.

  • I burn my arms on a regular basis, but that other day I managed to burn my leg and foot as well. How? I was doing a chicken stir fry and, when I dropped the chicken in the wok, the oil splattered and hit my leg and foot. It’s been over a week and my leg still looks like this:

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You will make a mess.

  • Anyone who has ever lived with me will tell you that I’m a messy cook. This is what my kitchen looks like tonight:

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Yes that’s rice on the floor:

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You will do really silly things.

  • Just tonight, I put mushrooms in a pan and after five minutes couldn’t figure out why they weren’t sizzling. It took me several minutes of staring at the stove to realize that the burner wasn’t on.
  • A few weeks ago, I managed to dump half a bottle of paprika on a casserole.
  • I once caught a potholder on fire.
  • The first time my mom and I tried to brine a turkey, we chose a container far too small. Let’s just say that it ended with turkey-contaminated water all over the floor and my mother.
  • Nearly every time I make pizza or roast vegetables, I forget to turn a fan on and, therefore, set the smoke alarm off.
  • More than once, in the past couple months, I’ve grabbed a hot pan without potholders.

Why do I tell you all of this? To make you afraid? No, just the opposite. I want you to see that even someone who cooks as much as I do, still does all of the above on a regular basis,  yet I still plow on. If you let things like this stop you, you’ll never learn to cook.

After all, even Julia Child made mistakes.

And some more Julia Child quotes: 

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” 

“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”

“Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed — eh bien, tant pis! Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile — and learn from her mistakes.”

And my favorite:

“Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?”

So need I say more? Just start cooking. Make mistakes. Burn things. Drop things. Make a mess. And more importantly: Never apologize. Have fun!

 

 

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