Category Archives: Favorite Tools

Show & Tell: Top 10 Favorite Pantry Ingredients


When I’m on the road talking about my cookbooks, I love to bring along my kit of favorite pantry ingredients and a few favorite tools. (Unlike a toothbrush or an iPad, though, bottles of olive oil, bunches of fresh herbs, and sharp kitchen instruments can be difficult to carry on to an airplane. So this dog-and-pony-show only travels by car.)

I find that it doesn’t matter whether I’m at a bookstore, a farmers’ market, or a kitchenware store—people everywhere are interested in flavor pairing, quick cooking solutions, and brand choices. So I tell cooks that if they keep a pantry and fridge stocked with a few really versatile, good-quality ingredients, they can make literally hundreds of different delicious vegetable dishes with whatever they happen to bring home from the farmers’ market, the grocery store, or the backyard garden.

Here’s what’s in my “kit:”

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1)Aromatic veggies: Garlic, shallots, onions; fresh ginger; scallions. I begin almost every cooked veggie dish by laying down a base layer of flavor with sautéed or softened aromatic veggies—minced, diced, chopped or sliced. Sometimes I will add them part-way through cooking or even turn them into starring ingredients, but one or more of them is almost always present because of the deep and permeating flavor they provide (especially if they are caramelized). They’re also vital ingredients in raw preparations like vinaigrettes and salsas, and can be the backbone of a tasty marinade. I keep little bowls of garlic bulbs and shallots on my countertop, onions in a cabinet away from potatoes, and fresh ginger and scallions in the refrigerator.

Favorite low-tech tool: an ordinary spoon for peeling fresh ginger skin

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2)Lemons, limes, and other citrus—both juice and zest: Lemons are probably my all-time favorite supporting player in the kitchen. My go-to vinaigrette features lemon zest and juice, and I will very often finish a saucy vegetable dish like a braise or a soup with either zest or juice or both. The bright acidic flavor instantly revives dull or hidden flavors. Often I will substitute lime for lemon, and I’m particularly fond of using lime juice and zest to enhance (and cut the richness of) creamy dressings for potato salads, slaws, and cucumber salads. Fresh orange juice has great flavor but less acidity than lemons or limes so use it in combination with lemon or vinegar.

Quick finishing sauce: Combine 1 tablespoon citrus juice, ½ teaspoon fresh citrus zest, 2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey and 1 teaspoon soy sauce or balsamic vinegar. Double or triple amounts if you like. Drizzle over sautéed or stir-fried veggies just as you take the pan off the heat.

Favorite citrus tools: Microplane zester, OXO juicer.

DSC_33323) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese: A little bit of the real deal, with its nutty, salty flavor and crystalline texture adds depth and earthiness to any vegetable dish, whether it’s a baked potato gratin or a simple dish of roasted Brussels sprouts and walnuts. It’s expensive (sometimes painfully so), but it will be the last best quality cooking ingredient I give up before I go to the poor house. Substitutes can be lackluster at best, downright awful at worst. To get your last buck out of a piece of Parmigiano, simmer the rind with your broth when making your next minestrone.

Favorite way to cut: Surprisingly, though I love the range of handheld graters available for hard cheeses these days, I often turn to my food processor to chop Parmigiano into tiny pebbles. I like the bigger pieces and coarse texture for vegetable tarts and gratin or crostini toppings.

Tip: Identify true Parmigiano Reggiano by the branded name on the rind.

4) Fresh herbs. Nothing finishes a vegetable dish like a spoonful of chopped herbs or a handful of torn herb leaves. Like citrus zest, most tender fresh herbs add top notes and should be added at the end of cooking. Heat will take the oomph out of cilantro, basil, mint, parsley, chervil, and chives, so long cooking isn’t a great idea. Hardier herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, and oregano are happy to go into a long-cooking dish. Their substantial oils will permeate the dish as it cooks.

If you can grow any herbs at all, please do. Even a pot or windowsill will offer you freshness, availability, and the ability to cut just the amount you want. And if you have even a small yard, just a few square feet will be enough room to plant one or two of the heartier herbs, many of which are perennial in milder parts of the country. But if you’re like most of us and have to get at least some of your herbs at the grocery store, take them out of their original packaging when you get them home. Wrap them in damp paper towels and store in zip-top bags. The exception is fresh basil. If it hasn’t been refrigerated yet, keep it in a jar of water at room temperature.

Tip: Use a very sharp knife when chopping herbs and don’t overchop or you will get bruised, blackened herbs that can get bitter.

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5)Extra-virgin olive oil and unsalted butter. I cook almost exclusively with extra-virgin olive oil and unsalted butter (usually a combination of both) since cooking fat adds flavor to a finished dish, and these are both flavorful. The exception is high heat, which destroys flavor compounds (and of course, burns butter, due to the milk solids, though adding some oil will drop the smoke point a bit). So I keep one other oil on hand for stir-frying—usually peanut oil or vegetable oil, sometimes grapeseed oil. Nut oils I save for vinaigrettes.

Tip: To settle on a moderately priced extra-virgin olive oil that can be a “house” brand for you, buy several and do your own side-by-side taste test. (Invite some friends and family.) You’ll be surprised at how different the flavors can be. I tend to like the richness of olive oils originating in Spain (which many do—check labels.)

6) Vinegars and other acids: Like citrus, vinegars and other acidic ingredients like hot sauce, tomato sauce, pickling juice, wine, and unsweetened fruit juices really add dimension and brightness to vegetable dishes. You don’t need to go crazy keeping a lot of these around. In fact, you can settle on a couple vinegars you like best and stick with those.

My favorite vinegars: sherry vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, malt vinegar.

7) Honey, maple syrup or other natural sweeteners. As I mentioned above, I love a quick little sweet-sour finishing sauce for veggies, so I am quick to reach for the maple syrup bottle. And sometimes just a drizzle of honey over something like roasted cauliflower is a lovely finishing note. So pick your favorite natural sweetener and store a bottle of it next to the vinegar.

8) Toasted nuts and dried fruit: I keep almonds, pecans, walnuts and pine nuts in the freezer and toast small batches of them to add to veggie dishes for interesting texture and deeper flavor. I find the flavor of toasted (or maybe I should call them roasted) nuts to be much more appealing than raw nuts. I also love adding chopped dried cranberries, cherries, apricots or figs to winter veggie dishes.

Tip: To toast nuts, spread them on a sheet pan and put in a 350°F oven until browned and fragrant, between 4 and 10 minutes, depending on the nuts. Keep an eye on them—deep golden brown is good; very dark brown is heading for bitter. And use your sniffer–you’ll be able to smell when the nuts are starting to get too brown.

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9)Bonus “umami” condiments: To give veggies an added depth—almost a “meaty” flavor, I keep a few robust condiments (always in the fridge after opening) from each of my favorite cuisines. I could probably get by with just soy sauce and chili-garlic paste, but usually I have sesame oil, oyster sauce or fish sauce, capers, olives, sundried-tomatoes, and anchovies around, too. Plus coconut milk, canned tomatoes, and boxed broth in the pantry. All these condiments are bonus ingredients—you can certainly make delicious vegetable dishes without them.

10) Kosher salt and a good pepper grinder: I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt because I like feeling the large pieces in my hands as I season, but I also find that it dissolves well. I’m afraid that the perfect pepper grinder is still eluding me!

Of course there are other things in my pantry to stretch veggies further into main dishes—beans, grains, pastas. But for weeknight veggie sides, I can do just about anything with what I’ve listed here. And with the exception of the fresh herbs, pretty much everything can be shopped for infrequently and stored for several weeks at least.



Undercover: Health Insurance for Garden Seedlings

The garden looks like a morgue right now, I’m sorry to say. It’s not that anything’s dead—yet. (And I hope it stays that way, though we are really pushing things this year.) It’s just that most everything we’ve planted is under row cover, for one reason or another, and the billowy white fabric sort of looks like sheets over, well, you get the picture.

It doesn’t help that all the pretty stuff is hidden. At least a couple times a day I have to go peek—usually at the peas, which I find unbearably beautiful and promising as they unfurl their wings. (Plus, I am very proud of how well they germinated and the fact that I’ve managed to get radishes and lettuce into this raised bed, too. So I just have to stare at it all, you know.) I also have to remove the covers to water, but then I tuck everything back in, using clothespins, fabric pins, bricks, rocks—a motley assortment of things to keep the fabric down while the fierce Vineyard wind tries mightily to rip it off.

I had to laugh, because one of my favorite garden bloggers (and another former magazine editor), Margaret Roach, posted about row cover this past week, too. Read her informative interview with Paul Gallione of Johnny’s Seeds to learn some different uses for row cover. I also discovered, when I went looking for a “proper” definition of row cover (“sponbonded polyester” is it), an earnest blog site, Whiz Bang Row Cover Hoop System, which goes into great detail about hoop-supported row cover.

We are not quite so technical. We order our medium-weight row cover (Agribon 19) from Johnny’s Seeds or FedCo in big rolls. Then we go to the plumbing supply store and buy 50 or 100 feet of 3/4-inch PVC pipe and cut it into the right lengths using a ratchet cutter like this. Because we splurged on new fabric this spring (our old stuff has a lot of holes in it—fine for wind and some cold protection, but not for pest protection), I am using mostly bricks and stones to hold down the new fabric right now. The fabric pins are more secure, but you have to be careful about poking so many holes in the fabric, which then let tiny bugs in.

That brings me around to the main reasons we use row cover: wind, cold, and bugs. The bugs actually came first. I experimented with row cover our first season to keep flea beetles and cabbage worms from decimating all the brassica crops—especially my greens like mizuna, bok choy and kale. It worked well as long as I kept the row cover in good shape and securely on most of the time. Last year I wasn’t so diligent, and I paid the price. I never covered the kale at all, and I had some very beautiful Brussels Sprouts stalks until I took the row cover off of them in late August after the storm. A few weeks later, not having paid close attention, I realized the cabbage worms had settled in for a feast.

I’ve also used row cover over newly planted carrot seeds in the past, so I am trying that again this year, only earlier. Theoretically the cover keeps a downpour from washing the tiny carrot seeds away. But we’ve hardly had a shower, much less a downpour, all spring so this may be a mute point.

But the main reason we are using so much row cover this spring is to protect newly transplanted lettuce and greens from wind and cold. The medium-weight row cover only offers a few degrees of warmth, but it makes a difference while the roots are struggling to establish themselves. And protecting them from the dry wind we’ve been having is huge. The wind not only breaks the fragile seedling stems, but it also dries the soil out very quickly. And since the soil is so dry anyway, I’d like the little bit of water I’m adding not to evaporate more quickly than it has to.

Lastly, the reason the peas are under cover is crows (and other birds). Newly germinating peas are delicious bird snacks, so until the peas get tall enough to start clinging on to the mesh we’ve hung for them, they’ll be under cover. Peas love cool weather so they don’t need heat protection, but they appreciate the tiny microclimate under the row cover anyway. And the radishes and lettuce next to them are especially happy. The row cover on the pea bed is a real pain in the neck though. Because the trellis runs down the middle of the bed, hoops are not an option. Instead we wrap the row cover all the way around the raised bed like swaddling and then hold the middle up above the peas by clipping it to the trellis mesh with clothespins.

Is all this worth it? Well, considering we have hundreds (maybe thousands) of seedlings out there right now, I hope so. The goal is a nice harvest of greens to open the farm stand with on Memorial Day. So we’ll keep you posted—there are any number of hurdles (or hoops) to jump through (or over) before we get there!

For Stress-Free Veggie Grilling, Grab a Basket

Between rain drops this week, we’ve been firing up the grill a fair amount. My very favorite place to shop for veggies – the farm stand at Morning Glory Farm – finally opened up for the season. So I saddled up the Honda, headed down to Edgartown, and robbed the place. Not literally of course. But I did come away with a stash of valuable veggies, things that Morning Glory is already harvesting from their own fields and greenhouses. Among other items (like a tee shirt and a strawberry muffin), I nabbed baby bok choy, purple-tipped asparagus, scallions, and tiny mustard greens.

Since we’ve been working in the garden late every day, I’ve been dreaming up simple dinner ideas, too. (For a dozen weeknight ideas, read the blog I wrote for the Huffington Post this week.) I love grilled veggies, but sometimes prepping veggies for the grill, and then standing vigil over them patiently, is just a little more time than even I’m willing to give. So this week I grabbed my grill basket to make life easier. And I wound up improvising a number of different veggie dishes, using both my Morning Glory haul and the contents of my refrigerator veggie bin. (Just two samples–in the basket above, and finished, below.)

Grill baskets are inherently destructible. They won’t last forever, so don’t bother spending a lot of money on one. Just buy one—you won’t be sorry. (Mine is a particularly cheap, lightweight one that I picked up at a housewares store. But this new stainless steel one from Weber looks like a good bet.) Basically, using a grill basket is like stir-frying on the grill. But better. Because you don’t have to pay close attention. Stirring every three or four minutes, as opposed to every 30 seconds, is just fine. As long as you follow a few guidelines, you can cook practically any combination of your favorite veggies in about 10 minutes of mostly hands-off time.

Here are a few tips for cooking veggies in a grill basket:

1. Choose a combination of veggies that are loosely similar in density and moisture content. Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, sugar snap peas, young beans, bok choy, broccoli raab are all fine. (Yeah, I’m defining density very loosely here). Don’t use potatoes or roots other than carrots here. It’s also fine to throw in a hearty leafy green like cabbage or radicchio—delicious if you don’t mind a few charred edges. But don’t use delicate greens like spinach here unless you toss the leaves in at the end of cooking.

2. Cut all those veggies into pieces about the same size. Then augment them with at least some peppers, onions or mushrooms—aromatic veggies that give off moisture as they cook. The aromatics not only spread flavor around but they help all the other veggies cook, too.

3. Estimate how many veggies you’ll need by putting the raw veg into the (cool) basket. Mine feels fullish with 3 to 4 cups veggies. You want your basket to be slightly overcrowded. With the grill lid-down (and only occasional stirring), the indirect (oven-like) heat of the grill, along with the moisture the crowded veggies will give off to each other, will help cook the veggies cook through while they brown.

4. Be sure the veggies are thoroughly (but not excessively) coated with oil. You need the oil to draw the heat in and cook the veggies. Season with kosher salt, too.

5. Preheat the grill with the grill basket in it for 5 to 10 minutes. Cook over medium heat (unless your grill is really old and slow—then medium-high.) The veggies are done when they are all limp, tender (some will be crisp-tender), and gently browned in places.

6. When the veggies come off the grill, you can do almost anything with them. We like to toss them with a compound butter (fresh herbs, citrus zest, salt), which is quick and easy to make. Then sometimes we take it a step further and toss the seasoned veg with whole wheat spaghetti or another pasta and call it dinner (or a big part of dinner). If you like the compound butter idea, I’ve included a formula below for making one. You might not use the whole batch on the veggies; use any extra with your eggs in the morning or on a steak tomorrow night.

Compound Herb Butter: In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons well-softened butter with 1/2 tsp. citrus zest, 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tender herbs (chives, mint, parsley, cilantro, basil), and 1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup (optional). Mash with a wooden spoon until well-combined. Store tightly covered in the fridge for up to 3 or 4 days.

Tip of the Week: Make Fresh Bread Crumbs in a Coffee Grinder

Between the book, the blog, and magazine articles, I’ve developed at least 100 new recipes in the last six months. (Ninety-nine, I think, for vegetables, but I did get to do one dessert!) All that time in the kitchen made me super-aware of the many cool tips I’ve gleaned over the years, both from the great cooks I’ve worked with and from my own experience. Tips for making things easier, tastier, faster, or just plain niftier. I don’t always get to include my favorite tips in published recipes, so I thought it would be fun to share one here every so often. This week I’m starting with a tip (or two!) about making fresh bread crumbs.

Surprisingly, I use fresh bread crumbs a fair amount in vegetable dishes. I use them to make a topping (usually combined with a little Parmigiano, chopped fresh herbs, and olive oil) for oven casseroles, including gratins and baked pastas. And I use them to make a crunchy topping for a stovetop pasta or sautéed vegetables. For baking, I want to start with fresh, moist breadcrumbs, as they will toast in the heat of the oven. For stovetop dishes, I actually want to start with those same fresh, moist breadcrumbs. Rather than drying them out to make them crunchy, I “toast” them by frying them in just a little bit of butter or oil in a small nonstick skillet—much tastier. (I never buy packaged dry breadcrumbs—the texture is too fine and often they have unwanted added flavors.)

Either way, I always start with the same thing: bread I have whizzed in my coffee grinder. This little machine (mine is a Krups; $20 at Amazon) is incredibly efficient at ripping bread to shreds in seconds. I am partial to using English muffins for bread crumbs, because I love the generous texture they yield. I can rip up one fresh English muffin, whiz in the coffee grinder, and have fresh breadcrumbs in seconds. (I don’t over-whiz so that the crumbs stay somewhat coarse.) I also like to use up the ends of my sandwich loaves (which I collect in the freezer, where I keep most of my bread) by making them into bread crumbs. You can certainly turn artisan bread into bread crumbs, too, but it shouldn’t be more than a day or so old (unless it is coming from the freezer). Contrary to popular belief, rock-hard bread does not make good fresh breadcrumbs; it makes powder.

If I have lots of bits and ends on hand, I’ll use my food processor instead of my coffee grinder. A few quick pulses and I’ve got not just one cup but several cups of fresh bread crumbs. The food processor will work for small amounts, too. So if you don’t have a small coffee grinder that you can dedicate to cooking (it will chop spices and nuts too) rather than coffee, go ahead and use your food processor. Whatever you use, put any excess crumbs in a zip-top freezer bag and pop them in the freezer. There, they actually stay “fresh,” so that you can pull a half cup or so whenever you need it—they’ll defrost in seconds.

Christmas Presents Past and Future

Today I made up an imaginary friend named Shorty. I was writing a head note for a recipe (one that involves short-grain brown rice) and was fresh out of clever things to say. This is what happens when you agree to write a book quickly—your creativity gets taxed mightily. So much so, in fact, that no new recipe blog is coming forth from me today.

Instead I decided to write (quickly) about the other thing that is very much on my mind—Christmas shopping. I have, in fact, barely done any yet, which is Not Good. I can’t do much about that right this minute, but I thought maybe I could help you, since probably you have an equivalent of a book deadline hanging over you and are behind with your own efforts. Or maybe some wonderful friend or your husband or your mother wants to know what you want for Christmas.

Here are five ideas. They just happen to be some of my favorite kitchen tools. People often ask me about kitchen equipment. Sometimes the questions are real stumpers, like whether they should buy the newest combined microwave-convection-infrared-lightspeed-oven, whereupon I stare at them blankly since I haven’t been in the market for a new stove in 10 years. But when it comes to simple kitchen tools, I can babble on (my specialty).

My very favorite thing is a pink-handled knife from Kyocera. Well, honestly, it’s not the color of the handle that did it for me (yes, pink is my favorite color), though I do love the fact that every purchase of this knife sends $5 to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. It’s the ceramic blade—so darn sharp, and it has been that way every day that I’ve used it for the past five years (which is almost every day). The Santoku-shaped blade is only 5 1/2 inches long, so this isn’t your big chopping knife; I think of it more as a utility knife. I use it for thin-slicing potatoes, cutting up broccoli florets, slivering garlic, halving Brussels sprouts, trimming green beans…lotsa things.

The tool I use most in the kitchen—maybe even more than my ceramic knife—is a pair of OXO tongs. Three pairs, actually (two 9-inchers, one 12-incher.) I think I first got attached to tongs when I worked in restaurant kitchens, where pot holders don’t exist. (Come to think of it, neither do most common kitchen utensils.) You can use tongs to pull out hot oven racks and sheet trays, turn over delicate veggies or meats while sautéing, move anything around in a pan, or, of course, to handle anything on the grill. I particularly like the grip and the locking mechanism on the OXO Good Grips tongs.

I eat and cook with a lot of eggs, so I’ve messed around with many whisks. The silicone-coated balloon whisk from Le Creuset is the most efficient whisk I’ve ever used. I flick it around a few times and voila, my eggs are perfectly mixed. It’s a little bottom-heavy so occasionally it does fall out of a bowl, but I love it (and its color) nonetheless.  I probably don’t need to say anything about silicone spatulas other than, if you only have one or two—buy more! I have them in a rainbow of colors and sizes (I like a spoonula shaped one, too) from both OXO and Le Creuset. I still have my wooden spoons, but they spend more time looking good in an old ceramic baked-bean jar than my silicone spatulas, which hit the pans (especially nonstick ones) every day.

Lastly, I don’t know what I ever did without a Microplane® zester for zesting lemons, limes, and oranges. I love to use zest as a flavor booster in pan sauces, rice dishes, salad dressings, flavored butters…and this tool just makes getting that feathery zest (minus the bitter pith) a breeze. Use it for finely grating Parmigiano, too. I like my funky original one so much that I haven’t invested in one of the many newer ones with comfortable handles, but you could.

One last Christmas idea: Buy a goat! No, I haven’t completely lost it—yet. I just happen to love this idea: Instead of (or in addition to) giving an actual material gift to one of your friends,  OXFAM America will let you “buy” (make a donation in a certain amount) a gift (in your friend’s name) for a community in need. ($25 will buy a school lunch program for one child, $30 a vegetable garden for one family. The goat—a great source of milk, fertilizer and food in hardscrabble areas, is $50!) Your friend will get a Christmas card letting him or her know the donation has been made. I’m not saying you need to skip the kitchen goodies—just that one of these cards tucked next to the spatulas in a Christmas stocking might be in the true spirit of things.

Wherever your gift buying or gift giving leads you this holiday season, I hope you can keep that true spirit close by. Spend time with your friends—and not just the imaginary ones!

P.S.  Oops, I almost forgot. I know this is really not in the true spirit of Christmas (blatant self promotion—I don’t think so), but remember that Fast, Fresh & Green makes a great Christmas present, too! Be sure to try and patronize your local bookstore this season if you can.

Don’t be a Wok Snob—You’ll Love this Stir-Fry Pan

It took me a while to cozy up to nonstick stir-fry pans—those wide, sloping pans that are shaped like a salad bowl as opposed to a conical, flat-bottomed wok. Like a lot of folks, I thought you could only really use a wok for stir-frying.  And in a way, that’s true. A non-stick stir-fry pan won’t give you wok-seared vegetables. But it will give you something delicious. The trouble with wok cooking at home is that most of us don’t have the recessed burners and leaping flames needed to surround the sides of the pan. With that conical, flat-bottomed shape on a home stove, veggies tend to cook unevenly.

This thing called a stir-fry pan does something pretty cool, even if it’s not exactly stir-frying. Something, in fact, that’s a boon to weeknight veggie cooks. It browns and steams at the same time, producing deliciously flavored and cooked-through veggies. It’s perfect for somewhat dense vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots) that benefit from the added flavor of browning, but that need some moisture to cook through. (See Gingery Stir-Fried Carrots with Cranberry and Orange.) The huge and continuous surface area of the stir-fry pan means that the veggies get lots of contact with heat so that they get a chance to brown up. But the slope and depth of the bowl also mean that the veggies steam a bit as they’re tossed around together. All you have to do is stir.

The pan does an equally stellar job on quicker-cooking veggies like asparagus, pepper, onions, and mushrooms. And it’s the perfect vessel for cooking greens like chard, spinach, and bok choi, though you won’t get browning with these veg.

Over the years, I’ve also had to overcome my aversion to nonstick interiors. (I’m still really partial to stainless-steel-lined pans—like my favorite straight-sided sauté pan—for anything that’ll you’ll want to finish with a pan sauce. The yummy brown stuff that builds up on the bottom of the stainless steel pan is the foundation for the tastiest of sauces.) But for a simple stir-fry, I like the fact that I don’t have to use as much oil in the nonstick pan, and that the whole experience is less sticky and more fluid.

It’s true that this pan isn’t going to give you wok-seared results; but what it does deliver is something pretty delicious.  My favorite nonstick 12-inch stir-fry pan is a Circulon, available on Amazon for about $40.