Cooking with dried beans

My love for beans knows no bounds. They’re cheap, filling, easily available, simple to cook, packed with nutrition and utterly delicious. Seriously, what more could you want? There’s a good reason rice and beans are the staple food for well more than half the world’s population.

I’m on a personal mission to encourage people to cook dried beans, rather than canned. Look, I’m a big fan of having a well-stocked pantry, and if storing a couple of cans of black beans or chickpeas in yours means you’re more likely to whip up a quick soup or homemade hummus, then I’m all for it. But for sheer value and flavor, you can’t beat dried beans. They’re way cheaper, they’re not difficult to cook and they really don’t take more time – you just need to plan in advance. There are a lot of fairly strong opinions on how to cook dried beans, so if you already have a way that works well for your household, keep it. I’m here to tell you how I do it and why, but ultimately it doesn’t matter to me how you prepare your dried beans, just that you do.

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Apparently we have quite a few different dried beans in our pantry.

Spoiler alert (and controversial bean-cooking tip alert, too): I cook all of my beans the exact same way, in a slow cooker (also commonly known as a Crock-Pot). And I no longer soak the beans in advance. Plus, I salt them at the beginning. That’s right, friends: I don’t soak my beans. And I salt before they’ve started cooking. I have spent years and years cooking dried beans, and I’ve tried every method: simmering on the stove, pressure cooker and on and on, and I’m personally convinced that the slow cooker, with its incredibly gentle simmer and moist, low-heat environment, is perfect for beans. And I get to skip the soaking step, too. (I don’t have an InstaPot, and I’m not going to buy one, but if you have it and you like it, then use it for beans.)

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A fresh start

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I love everything about January. I love the quiet, the fresh start, the clean slate. And of course, this is the time of year when so many of us promise to do better. When we promise to eat right, drink less, stop going out to restaurants so often, quit smoking, save our money, exercise more and all the rest.

I don’t subscribe to the negativity often associated with New Year’s resolutions. (By mid-January, over a quarter of all New Year’s resolutions have been discarded, and only a scant 10% are actually followed through to the end of the year. Those are some pretty bleak statistics.) Changing habits is hard enough; I’d much rather start off on a positive note. I make a list of goals, not resolutions.

And with that positivity in mind, let’s revisit our annual primer on eating better. This isn’t designed to be an exhaustive list, nor a restrictive diet plan, merely a few simple tips to get your head in the right place for making healthy changes in your daily eating. Allow me to shout this from the rooftops: diets don’t work. Changing your mindset does.

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How to eat healthier

I may not love Thanksgiving, but I do love everything about January. I love the quiet after the holidays, the fresh start, the clean slate. And of course, this is the time of year when so many of us promise to do better. When we promise to eat right, drink less, stop going out to restaurants so often, quit smoking, save our money, exercise more and all the rest.Snowy trees.jpgI don’t subscribe to the negativity often associated with New Year’s resolutions. (By mid-January, over a quarter of all New Year’s resolutions have been discarded, and only a scant 10% are actually followed through to the end of the year. Those are some pretty bleak statistics.) Changing habits is hard enough; I’d much rather start off on a positive note. I make a list of goals, not resolutions.

And with that positivity in mind, how about a quick primer on eating better in 2018? This isn’t designed to be an exhaustive list, nor a restrictive diet plan, merely a few simple tips to get your head in the right place for making healthy changes in your daily eating. Diets don’t work, but changing your mindset does.

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How to make yogurt

There are foods and drinks we should buy, and foods and drinks we should make at home. I would place things like tofu, amazing soft-ripened cheeses, bacon and hoppy IPAs in the first category; though I can make these things, other people are doing a much better job at it. The second category, however, would include granola, bread, salsa, applesauce, hummus and yogurt, among many others – all of these are much better-tasting, healthier and certainly cheaper made at home.

I’ve been asked a number of times recently for instructions on how to make yogurt, and since I make it once a week on average, I thought it might be high time to share this magic with the world. Making yogurt is not difficult or expensive, but it does require a bit of patience and a basic understanding of fermentation – which is typically referred to as “culturing” when used in context with dairy products. Keep in mind that the instructions below are for cow’s milk yogurt; other milks, such as sheep or goat, or non-dairy products, like almond, soy or hemp, don’t turn into yogurt the same way.

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Yes, that is the current temperature in our sunroom.

Let’s be clear on what you absolutely do not need to make yogurt: you do not need a fancy yogurt maker, or an Instapot, or specially-purchased mail-order yogurt cultures. You can use these things if you have them, but to me they all fall firmly into the category of “convincing people they can’t cook without expensive gadgets and hard-to-find ingredients.” Peasants have been making yogurt for literally thousands of years; I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop at Bed Bath & Beyond to grab a yogurt maker on their way back from the fields. What you do need: fresh milk, starter yogurt culture, a heavy pot, an accurate thermometer, a ladle, a wooden spoon, clean jars and lids, and a warm, safe place to keep your yogurt while it’s culturing.

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Fresh milk + starter culture = homemade yogurt!

I make my yogurt in one-gallon batches, which yields four quarts plus a bit. If your household doesn’t eat much yogurt, or if you want to start small, make a half-gallon batch. You can always scale up when you realize how much yogurt you’re eating. Don’t buy UHT or other long-life milk to make yogurt or other cultured dairy products; its protein structure has been irreparably changed by the heating process used to make it shelf-stable. And when you’re buying a starter yogurt culture, buy plain, full-fat yogurt; no fruit or other sweeteners, thickeners like carrageenan or pectin, stabilizers or other mysterious ingredients (please, no M&Ms, sprinkles or chocolate chips). Yes, you can use skim or low-fat milk to make yogurt, but why would you? I am an advocate for full-fat dairy at all times; cows don’t give skim milk, so I see no point in consuming it.

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Placing your pot of hot milk in an ice bath will cool it to 110 degrees quickly.

To start, place two tablespoons (for a half-gallon) or four tablespoons (for a full gallon) of starter yogurt into a medium bowl and set aside. Pour the milk into the heavy pot. If your thermometer clips onto the side of the pan, attach it now; ensure the tip doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan or you’ll get an inaccurate reading. Heat the milk gently, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching; you’ll want to bring it up to about 175 degrees F (this could take as long as thirty minutes for a full gallon). Once it’s reached 175, remove it from heat and place it into an ice bath to rapidly bring its temperature down to about 115 degrees F. You can let it cool as is, but icing it is much quicker; stirring it frequently will bring the temperature down, too. (For those of you at altitude, please note that you do not need to adjust these temperatures.)

While you’re waiting for the milk to cool, bring a kettle of water to a boil, and place your clean jars on a folded kitchen towel on your worktop. Fill each jar with boiling water; always wash and warm one more pint jar than you think you need. Place the lids in a separate heatproof bowl and cover those with boiling water, too.

When the milk is around 110 degrees, whisk about one-half cup into the bowl you set aside with your starter culture. This tempers the culture, bringing the two liquids to a similar temperature and ensuring that the starter culture doesn’t cook when it’s added to the warm milk. Now, add the thinned and warmed starter culture to the pot of milk, and stir well. Pour the boiling water out of your first jar, and set it back on the towel. Ladle the warm milk and starter mixture into this clean, hot jar (a funnel comes in handy here). Repeat the process for the remaining jars until you’ve used all of the milk. Put the lids on the jars and close gently; the lids just need to be snug enough to keep from falling off but they shouldn’t be lumberjack tight. Wipe the jars and lids with a clean, damp towel to remove any milk residue.

You can now place the jars into a cozy spot, like a cooler lined with towels, or your (turned off) oven or microwave. The idea is to keep the jars pretty warm, which allows the culture to activate and thicken the milk. I use my dehydrator on a low setting; some people use a slow cooker or even surround the jars with heating pads or hot water bottles. You may need to experiment to figure out what works best in your household; just remember that you’re trying to keep the yogurt reasonably warm and undisturbed. Yogurt cultures love an ambient temperature range of 95 to 115 degrees; the cooler it is, the longer it will take to get a set (but it will still work!).

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Draining the yogurt in triple-layered cheesecloth will create a thick “Greek-style” yogurt.

I typically leave my yogurt to culture overnight, depending on how much I’m making and the ambient temperature in my house. It will thicken more once it’s been refrigerated, and you can also drain the whey out, leaving you with thick, “Greek-style” yogurt. Drained whey can be added to bread doughs or smoothies, or used as a starter culture for lacto-fermented vegetables, if you’re so inclined. I almost never drain my yogurt, preferring instead to let it culture longer so I have a thicker product and can use every bit of it; when I do have leftover whey I use it to cook grains, like farro and wheatberries. I always leave my yogurt plain so I can use it in both sweet and savory applications; if you want to add in jam or vanilla or honey or maple syrup or any other sweetener or flavoring, do so on an individual basis and not to an entire batch.

Of all the hundreds of batches of yogurt I’ve made, I’ve never had a batch not set. That said, if your yogurt isn’t turning out, I’d recommend first calibrating your thermometer so you know that you’re adding culture at 110 degrees. Too hot and it will die, too cold and it will go dormant. Just like using yeast in bread baking, temperature matters a lot. If you’re confident your thermometer is accurate, I’d next change the brand of milk you’re using, and then I’d change the starter culture, again thoroughly examining that ingredient label to verify that there is nothing in the yogurt besides milk and active cultures. Storebought yogurt has a lot of junk in it; read all your food labels carefully.

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Use the drained whey to bake bread, cook grains or ferment vegetables.

The temperature and speed that your yogurt cultures at determines the thickness of the final product, so once you’ve got the basic technique down, feel free to experiment with how long you let it set, and at what temperature. I’ve read that heating the milk to 195 degrees F allows for an even thicker yogurt because it denatures the proteins further, but I haven’t tried it. Know also that eventually your starter culture will wear out; if you’re making a lot of yogurt, you might find that you need to purchase a fresh starter yogurt every few months to keep your set strong.

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Homemade yogurt, homemade granola and fresh berries. Nom nom nom.

What else should you do with your homemade yogurt, besides enjoy it with fruit and granola? Bake with it. Blend it into smoothies. Use it to marinate meats. Freeze it in popsicle molds with swirls of jam and honey to make your own frozen treats. Add in fresh herbs and salt and make it into a tangy salad dressing or dip for fresh vegetables. Just remember to save a couple of tablespoons to start your next batch!

Cooking in cast iron

In my holiday-themed classes, I talk about how I’d rather have two or three really stellar, delicious dishes at a meal than an extensive buffet of mediocrity. I feel the same way about cookware and knives: that is, I’d rather have a few sturdy, durable pieces that perform perfectly and can take a beating, rather than dozens of cheap, flimsy pans or knives that bend, warp, break or just plain fail. Cooking well isn’t only about starting with the best ingredients, but having the tools (and the skills) to turn those ingredients into something remarkable.

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See how well-loved they are? I use mine every single day.

I love classic cast iron cookware. I love its heft, its lived-in appearance, its ability to retain heat. I love that it can be passed down through generations, and it only gets better. I love that it’s not shiny, not new, not a throwaway item. I love that it looks like something I should be using over a rickety camp stove to make a fry-up for hungry cowboys out on a cattle drive. I love that there is something of quality still manufactured in the United States. I love that cast iron asks you to cook well and simply and honestly.

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You can roast peppers to smoky, tender perfection!

Cast iron cookware has been in use around the world for over two thousand years, and there’s a reason for that: nothing retains heat better while still holding its form. Before we became such a disposable society, cookware like this was valued for its durability and its effectiveness, especially when slow simmering tough cuts of meat. Cast iron goes from stove to oven, and it can be used to make anything: flavorful stews, crispy yet tender cornbread, smoky, filling beans. And nothing – I mean nothing – sears a steak like cast iron. Ask any cowboy.

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You can create the most amazing garlic confit!

In the first half of the 20th century, cast iron cookware was ubiquitous in America. Then – coincidentally, right about the time we started turning to processed “convenience” foods – cast iron fell out of favor. It was too heavy. Too unwieldy. Impractical for TV dinners. Not suitable for microwaving soup. Couldn’t be put in the dishwasher. And so, most of the American companies went out of business. Today, Lodge is the only major manufacturer in the U.S., although a couple of smaller, “artisan” brands like Finex have appeared recently.

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You can make one-pan meals!

I got rid of my grandmother’s cast iron pans at a garage sale years ago. Freshly minted from an uppity French culinary school, I thought cast iron was too down home, too low-class, too American for my lofty European cooking skills. What misplaced arrogance; to this day, I regret selling those pans. Thankfully, N found a ten-inch skillet for me at a church rummage sale, and I picked up my comal, a flat, round griddle traditionally used for making fresh tortillas, at a thrift store. My other two are classic Lodge, a Dutch oven and a grill pan. They’re all pieces I love cooking with.

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You can put a little char on your tomatoes!

If you have any cast iron, take good care of it and it will take care of you for decades. Once it’s seasoned, meaning that you’ve basically created a nonstick surface through a combination of cooking fat and heat, never, ever use soap or any other chemical cleaner on it. Don’t immerse it in water, either. I typically just wipe my pans with a dry paper towel, if necessary, but if you’ve got stuck-on bits, you can heat the pan with a bit of water until they loosen, then scrape them out with a spatula. Really tough messes can be tackled with coarse kosher salt and a scouring pad. You can’t scratch them, can’t break them, don’t have to use any fancy utensils. They are indispensable workhorses.

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And the most essential thing you can cook in your cast iron Dutch oven…

Cast iron’s greatest advantage, of course, is also its greatest downfall: their weight means they retain heat beautifully, so they get hot and stay hot, and they’re heavy. Treat them carefully and respectfully. Use both hands when lifting; never try to “one-hand” a cast iron pan. When you remove the pan from the oven and set it back on the stove or other protected surface, do as restaurant chefs do and make sure you leave your kitchen towels on the pan to remind everyone (including you) that it’s hot. Large pans that have been heating for a while may take a couple of hours to cool down, so have a safe place to put them where no one will burn themselves. Don’t leave water in the pan, either, as they can rust, though if you find an unloved, rusty specimen, you can always remove the rust with salt and reseason the pan.

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…is quite simply the best bread you’ll ever taste.

Want to build your own cast iron collection? Start here, and thanks for buying American. Their stuff is top-notch and remarkably well-priced. Visit thrift stores and garage sales and flea markets (maybe you’ll find my grandmother’s pans?) but stay away from anything called an “antique store.” Little-known fact: antique is actually French for “overpriced stuff bought cheaply in a thrift store and aggressively marked up.” Cast iron’s resurgent popularity in recent years means anything even vaguely vintage can cost a fortune.

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And while we’re on the topic of the French and expensive things, this stuff is cast iron too, but with an enamel coating. It’s gorgeous, comes in an array of coordinating colors so the kitchen at your Provencal château can match the Parisian pied-a-terre and it’s priced for really rich people. Tread carefully with these: they’re beautiful and colorful, but you can scratch that enamel without too much effort, and not all of the knobs and handles are designed for high heat. These definitely require a bit more attention, and a lot more money.

Go cook, friends. And save me some cornbread.

 

Food stamp challenge

One of the comments I hear most frequently in my cooking classes and presentations is that “it’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget.” I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, and to prove my point, I decided N and I would take part in the Food Stamp Challenge. In Colorado, the challenge is organized by Hunger Free Colorado; your state will have different resources available.

While SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits vary from place to place and family to family, in Colorado food stamps amount to approximately $4.20 per person, per day. That amounts to $1.40 per meal, if you eat three meals a day, or about $29.40 per week; that number encompasses everything you consume, including drinks and snacks. (Legally, you cannot buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or non-food products with food stamps, but unfortunately you can buy soda, energy drinks, candy, cakes, chips, cookies, ice cream and plenty of other unhealthy items.) This is going to take some planning, and some smart shopping.

Here’s the tricky bit, though: SNAP benefits can’t be used for any sort of takeaway food, and can’t be used for anything consumed within a store. So no prepared deli items, no to-go coffees, no rotisserie chickens. It’s easy to see why smart hunger relief experts advocate cooking classes along with SNAP benefits; to make the most of this program, you really need to know how to cook from scratch.

Since my household comprises two adults, I’ll allot us a total weekly budget of $58.80. And since I want to play in the most honest way possible, I’ll plan for the way we currently eat: we drink black coffee in the mornings but don’t eat an early-morning breakfast; we typically eat around 10AM and 4PM (it works for us). We also eat very little meat, so going mostly vegetarian won’t be much of a struggle; this budget definitely doesn’t allow for a lot of good meat. And we only eat at restaurants when we’re traveling, so planning and cooking all of our meals at home won’t stress us, either.

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Scanning for sales is key to eating well on a budget.

A couple of other caveats about our food stamp challenge:

  • A challenge like this is necessarily a snapshot in time. We’re doing our challenge in December, which definitely makes most fresh fruits and vegetables harder to come by in our Rocky Mountain region – and they’re certainly not local, except for onions and greens! Fresh produce would be more abundant and less expensive in late summer.
  • To play fair, I am not using our backyard honey, or my own canned and frozen goods pantry. I have dozens of jars of applesauce, salsa, Western Slope peaches and other homemade canned goods, plus lots of produce in the freezer, but since I can’t truly ascribe a dollar value to these, we’re not eating these during the challenge.
  • I refuse to dramatically change our standard eating style in order to adhere to the budget; I’m not going to add cheap meat or nutritionally devoid, high-sugar cereal to our shopping list just to have something on the table. That isn’t what we eat now, and I believe the point of this challenge is to make fresh, delicious, nutritious food on a limited budget – not to just eat for the sake of eating.
  • As mentioned above, we’re a household of two healthy adults, and we only eat two meals a day. Your own household’s food stamp challenge will look very different, but we would love to hear about it!

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Some of our food stamp challenge ingredients. Embrace the bulk department.

Here’s what I bought for our challenge:

  • 12 oz. whole-bean coffee ($4.99, and it amounts to about $0.12 per cup. Worth every penny.)
  • 12 oz. animal-welfare certified bacon ($4.99)
  • dairy: 1 gal. local whole milk ($2.19), plain yogurt for starter ($0.59), 10 oz. queso fresco cheese ($2.49)
  • two dozen non-GMO cage-free with outdoor access eggs ($5.98)
  • fruit: 3 apples ($0.98), 3 grapefruit ($0.99), 1 lb. grapes ($0.97), 6 kiwi ($0.99), 3 pomegranates ($0.99), 3 pears ($0.98), 8 satsuma clementines ($1)
  • grains and legumes: 0.5 lb. dried black beans ($0.85), 0.5 lb. brown rice ($0.35), 0.5 lb. dried chickpeas ($0.75), 0.5 lb. green lentils ($0.59), 0.5 lb. rolled oats ($0.35), 1 lb. linguine ($0.99), 0.5 lb. white beans ($0.99)
  • 1 lb. organic tofu ($1.79)
  • vegetables: 2 lb. broccoli ($1.76), 1 lb. carrots ($0.69), 1 bunch cilantro ($0.33), 12 oz. frozen corn ($1), 2 cucumbers ($1), 3 bell peppers ($0.99), 2 heads garlic ($0.66), 2 bunches kale ($1.98), 1 lb. yellow onions ($1), 12 oz. frozen peas ($1), 5 oz. salad greens ($1.69), 1 bunch scallions ($0.33), 3 zucchini ($0.99)
  • staples: assorted bulk spices ($1), 0.5 lb. roasted almonds ($2.99), corn tortillas ($0.99), 5 lb. flour ($1.79), 0.25 lb. roasted pumpkin seeds ($1.25), 3 packets yeast ($1.19 with coupon), hot sauce ($0.99)

Total spent: $58.41

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Thanks to savvy shopping and the discount table, this is less than $10 of healthy, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables!

And here is our simple seven-day menu plan; again, we start with a pot of black coffee and only eat two meals per day. For snacks, we eat fresh fruit or raw vegetables, plus a handful of almonds and pumpkin seeds.

  • Day One: yogurt with fruit and almonds; white beans and sautéed kale with fried eggs; fresh bread
  • Day Two: breakfast tacos with eggs, zucchini, peppers, onions and queso fresco; tofu and broccoli stir-fry over brown rice; green salad
  • Day Three: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; pasta with bacon, garlic, zucchini and peppers; green salad; fresh bread
  • Day Four: eggs on toast with sautéed greens; lentil, vegetable and chickpea soup; green salad; fresh bread
  • Day Five: yogurt with fruit and almonds; frittata with vegetables, greens and queso fresco
  • Day Six: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; spicy black bean and corn soup; kale salad
  • Day Seven: huevos rancheros with leftover beans and rice; “favorites” (i.e. everything remaining from the week)

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Remind me again why vegetables are boring?

My comments on the week:

  • Our menu wasn’t really that different from what we eat on a regular basis. Each day included at least four servings of various fruits and vegetables and usually more, plus grains and legumes. Virtually everything we ate was healthy, flavorful and made from scratch. We didn’t feel hungry or deprived, but I can easily see how someone accustomed to eating at restaurants and/or eating a lot of meat might find this challenge…well, challenging.
  • I chose bacon as our only meat for the week because it offers so much flavor in even tiny quantities. In addition to adding it to pasta and soups, I also used the rendered fat for sautéing vegetables and greens for extra savory punch. Skipping the bacon entirely would obviously leave about ten percent of the weekly budget for other items, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I’d rather eat a small amount of good, flavorful meat than a lot of cheap meat.
  • I made four quarts of my own yogurt from one gallon of whole milk; the starter culture only has to be purchased once since you use a bit of your own yogurt as the starter for future batches. Plain full-fat yogurt made from good milk is a great source of quality protein, fat and calories, and dramatically cheaper than buying it premade.

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Does it still count as breakfast if we eat at eleven o’clock?

  • I also baked my own fresh bread as I do now, both for health and economic reasons. Although one could claim that whole wheat flour would be a better choice for homemade bread, I would argue that any homemade bread is far better than what you can buy, and far cheaper. Plus, stale bread becomes croutons and breadcrumbs, which add extra value and flavor; storebought sandwich bread doesn’t go stale, it just molds. (I buy my yeast in one-pound bags for $2.99 from a local restaurant-supply store; this is far cheaper than three packets for $1.19, even with a coupon. If you bake bread regularly, buy your yeast in bulk.)
  • It’s virtually impossible to eat purely organic on a budget this tight. While I appreciate the virtues of organic, with so little money to spend I’d far rather eat more conventional fruits and vegetables than just a few organic ones. Value for money wins here, although some of the discounted produce was organic.
  • I did miss having access to a well-stocked pantry, specifically various oils, vinegars, cooking fats (including good butter), seasonings and condiments. It’s very easy to make delicious, healthy food by just dressing it up a bit, and citrus, spices and other flavor enhancers really come in handy.
  • I also really missed cheese. We eat a lot of cheese, both on its own and as a garnish for vegetables and grains, and while I love queso fresco, I really enjoy using a variety of specialty cheeses in almost every meal. Plus, good cheese can often be found at a discount at our grocery store, too!

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Because we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection and meaningless sell-by dates, it’s easy to find supermarket bargains.

Tips for success for your own food stamp challenge:

  • Flexibility is absolutely key. I bought what was on sale, rather than what I necessarily wanted. If you’re going to cook well on a budget, pay attention to store advertising circulars, clip coupons and learn to adjust your meal plan based on what’s available at a good price, rather than what you feel like eating.
  • Our local grocery store has recently started selling blemished or undersized produce at a discount. This produce made all the difference in our food stamp challenge; most of our fruits and vegetables came from this table, usually packed at three for $0.99. I also always search for items close to their sell-by date that the store is looking to offload at a discount; I’ve purchased a lot of healthy, cheap and still-good food this way (see photo above). Don’t ignore this option if you’re cooking on a budget.
  • Also, don’t ignore frozen vegetables. They are cheap, healthy and easy to have on hand, plus they were frozen when that vegetable was actually in season. Fresh vegetables aren’t always the best option, especially on a tight budget.
  • Shop the bulk department for grains, legumes and spices; skipping the inflated packaging makes a huge difference in price. Dried beans are far less expensive than canned, and they don’t contain excess salt, either. Soaking beans overnight takes virtually no time and a slow cooker makes preparing healthy food easy.
  • Search out local ethnic markets. I could have spent substantially less on produce and beans if I had gone to any one of our incredible Mexican markets here in Denver. I wouldn’t buy animal products there, but I’d definitely buy pantry staples.

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Pasta is oft-maligned, but it is quick, inexpensive, filling, and most importantly easy to pack with lots of vegetables.

  • Get a good knife and a good cutting board and learn how to prep your own fruits and vegetables. Paying for the precut product costs a lot extra and it’s already started to deteriorate, too.
  • Think nutrient-dense and lots of color: discounted spinach, sturdy kale or purple cabbage rather than cheap but nutritionally vacant iceberg; black beans over pinto beans. Whenever possible, choose the most intensely colored whole food (that Windex-colored Gatorade does not qualify).
  • And think high flavor, too. I used small amounts of bacon, sharp, salty queso fresco and crunchy nuts and seeds to add a lot of flavor and texture to our dishes. You don’t need much, but they add interest. I spent money on onions, garlic, scallions and cilantro, both because they’re healthy and because they add a ton of flavor and punch without spending a fortune. Growing your own fresh herbs is a great way to enhance your meals.
  • We had quite a bit of food remaining at the end of the week (both prepared and raw ingredients); this is partially why our final day incorporated “favorites.” If you want to eat on a budget, you have to make use of leftovers, too. Throwing away food is exactly the same as throwing away money.

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Garlicky white beans and kale with fried eggs: pretty much perfect, in my opinion.

N pointed out that this challenge was easy for me, because I know how to prepare healthy, delicious food and enjoy doing so. While that’s certainly true, I would say yet again that the number-one best thing you can do for both your physical and your financial health is to learn how to cook, and cook often – whether or not you’re on a strict food budget. Take responsibility for your own health, and cook yourself some wholesome, tasty food. You don’t need to break the bank to do that.

If you choose to organize your own food stamp challenge, please share it with us!

 

 

 

Cooking Class: Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’re excited to be headed out on the road again, and in that spirit we wanted to revisit some of our favorite moments from our adventures earlier this year. Some weeks back, we shared a cooking class we had taken in Udaipur, India. And as we’re in nostalgia mode, and I’ve got Thailand on my mind since I just spent time talking to a friend about his trip, let’s return to Chiang Mai and a fabulous cooking class we experienced there. Like our Indian class, this day out was one of the highlights of our trip to southeast Asia.

Thai dessert bowl

Looks like Thai green curry, but it’s actually dessert: sweet rice pudding with bananas and coconut milk.

Thai rice market

Dozens of varieties of rice are for sale at the market.

Thai ingredients market

Fish sauce, a key ingredient in southeast Asian cooking.

We started our cooking class at one of the many local markets, where we sampled various ingredients and drank cold, sweet Thai iced coffee. While the cooking school has an extensive garden and grows many of their own herbs and spices, they still need to shop for a few things. Many Thai homes don’t have refrigeration, so shopping each day for fresh ingredients is both a pleasure and a necessity.

Thai cooking tables

We’ll grind our curry pastes and chop our ingredients here.

We left the market and traveled by minibus to the school, where we were offered iced jasmine tea and given a tour of the property. The cooking school is perfectly set up to accommodate guests, with spaces for prep, cooking and eating together.

Thai garden chilies

Tiny, fiery Thai bird chiles. Typically, the smaller the chile, the bigger the punch.

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Fresh herbs and aromatics, just harvested.

The cooking school has acres of gardens, where they grow lemongrass, basil, coriander, mint, galangal, ginger, kaffir lime, chiles and many other ingredients for their classes.

Thai cooking kitchen

Our indoor-outdoor kitchen, with cooking stations set up for each student.

Thai ingredients board

Thai ingredients bowls 01

Thai ingredients bowls 02

All of the components for the recipes we would make in class were neatly laid out for us. I emphasize this classical French technique a lot in my own cooking classes: it’s called mise-en-place, and it literally means “to put everything in its place.” When you’re cooking, assemble all of your ingredients like this in advance; it may seem tedious and time-consuming, but it actually makes preparing your dish much, much easier. Trust me.

Thai cutting board spoon

Fresh herbs and tamarind paste, like fish sauce, are key to classic Thai cooking.

Thai pestle mortar table

Although you can of course make curry paste in a blender, traditionally it’s prepared in a stone mortar and pestle.

Thai pestle mortar

Grinding aromatics for red curry paste.

Thai wok stir-fry veg

A wok allows for quick, high heat, so vegetables and proteins remain crisp and fresh.

Thai wok stir-fry tofu

Pad thai, a favorite Thai dish. In Thailand it’s not quite as sweet as it often is in America.

Thai red curry

Vegetarian red curry soup. Good Thai food is most often a delicate balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

Craving some Thai food after reading this? Me too. Try here, here or here. And if you have the chance, definitely book a cooking class on your next adventure. It’s well worth the time and money to cook and eat like a local, if only for a few hours.

Cooking from the garden

Friends, hello. It is early September and thus the height of the harvest season in our corner of the world. And though the tomatoes are finally, finally coming on after an unseasonably cool August, I find that I’m struggling to work up the enthusiasm I typically have during this time of abundance.

Veg Mixed

Right now seems to be a time of sadness for just about everyone. Not only are people suffering in our country and of course across the world, but closer to home friends and family are coping with grief, misfortune, illness, despair and all sorts of darkness. I struggle mightily (and often unsuccessfully) not to carry the weight of the world, so at times like these I always find myself back in the kitchen. We soldier on, doing our best; no matter what, we all need to eat.

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A habanero pepper plant after a rainstorm.

One of my biggest challenges in my cooking classes is providing clear, usable recipes, because more often than not, I don’t cook from them. I know well that everyone wants recipes – especially if you’re just starting out in the kitchen, recipes offer valuable handholding and a sense of regimented calm and comfort, a plan to follow. What I ultimately try to teach, however, is the confidence to cook without recipes – to improvise, to adjust, to have faith in the process and your own palate and that the end result might not be exactly what you planned but will still, most likely, be delicious. And summer and early fall are certainly one of the easiest times to cook without recipes, since you can let the produce guide you.

Peppers Raw.jpg

The before and after: shishitos raw…

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…and shishitos cooked, with flaky sea salt (of course).

As for improvisational cooking from the garden: let’s talk shishitos, just for a moment. These small peppers burst onto the culinary scene some years back as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants. The tip of the pepper is thought to resemble the head of a lion, shishi in Japanese; as such, their full name is shishitogarashi but is typically shortened to shishito. They’ll eventually turn red, like most peppers if left to ripen long enough, but they’re usually harvested green, about the size of a pinky finger. No recipe needed for these: crank up the heat on a cast-iron pan, drizzle with a tiny bit of neutral oil, like canola, and toss the peppers in just until they char and soften. Serve with soy sauce and flaky salt. I leave mine pretty crunchy, but you can cook them until they collapse, too, if that’s your preference.

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Cucumbers are another summer favorite; like tomatoes, the difference between harvesting your own and buying sad, bitter supermarket versions is night and day. These little ones are theoretically designed for pickling, but to be honest I end up eating most of them raw. Thinly sliced or cut into chunks, with slivers of red onion; they’re dressed lightly with rice vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Plus, any variety of bright, fresh herbs that I might feel compelled to use. Simple, fresh, crunchy, tangy and satisfying.

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Unlike some, I am never tired of zucchini. Growing vegetables in our high-plains desert can be so challenging that I’m gratified by anything that produces so much for so little effort. Plus, zucchini is infinitely versatile, and it never goes to waste in my kitchen. Looking for an interesting spread for toast? Try this recipe from a talented Oregon farmer and home cook.

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This summer, most of my zucchini starred in this Ottolenghi classic: lightly grilled with olive oil, then layered with fresh basil, toasted hazelnuts and slivers of Parmigiano, drizzled with hazelnut oil and white balsamic. I pretty much just gave you the recipe, but if you want more specific guidance, go here.

Tomatoes Heirloom

And these beauties? Nothing more than sliced, on a plate, with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. That’s it. Growing tomatoes in Colorado – and actually having them survive until harvest – is such a labor of love that it’s a crime to do anything more.

Take care of yourselves, friends, and make something delicious and nourishing to eat. Good food matters.

 

 

 

 

The FAQ Series: Oils + Fats

We kicked off our new FAQ Series with a post on salt; for our second installment, we’ll discuss cooking oils and fats. One of the most common questions I hear in my classes is “What sort of oil (or fat) should I cook with?” The short answer: it depends.

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As per usual, raiding my pantry yielded a surprising number of oils.

The most important things to know about any specific cooking oil or fat, beyond its potential health benefits, are its flavor profile and its smoke point. Certain oils, like sesame and unrefined coconut, will have a pronounced flavor and may not be applicable in all situations. A fat’s smoke point is the temperature at which it starts to break down; this can be a bit vague as it happens over a range of degrees rather than at a precise moment. When the fat starts to break down, it indicates a loss of flavor and nutrients, and possibly an imminent fire.

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Taste your olive oil straight…but maybe not out of a martini glass.

Oils are crushed, pressed or centrifuged out of nuts, seeds and fruits. Refined oils may have been subjected to additional filtration, bleaching, heat, chemicals and other treatments; they’re typically usable at higher temperatures than unrefined. They also generally have a neutral flavor and a longer shelf life. With true unrefined, or raw, oils, there is very little or no heat used to produce the oil. This is where the term cold-press comes in; the highest-quality olive oils are made without any heat which might compromise the delicate flavor nuances of the oil.

Flambe

Please don’t try this at home.

All oils can catch fire when heat is applied, so it’s important to know what temperatures you’ll be cooking at. An oil’s flash point refers to the temperature at which it could conceivably catch fire. Don’t ever leave cooking oils or fats unattended while heating; if for any reason oil does catch fire, turn the heat source off immediately and cover the pan with a metal lid to remove the oxygen source. Don’t ever use water on a grease fire, and don’t try to move the pot, as you could burn yourself or others. Baking soda or flour can also be used to douse the flames, but you’ll need a lot. In other words, prevention is a much better and safer option.

Olive Oil 01.jpg

Definitely the most-used oil in my kitchen.

Thanks to the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention recently. It’s certainly versatile, and without question the oil I use most in my kitchen. But like so many other food items, it can be confusing; most of our olive oil comes from other countries, and the FDA doesn’t regulate imported olive oils. As with honey, there have been many, many instances of adulterated olive oils sold in the U.S.; a 2010 study indicated that close to 70% of imported olive oil was incorrectly labeled. Some states, like California, have passed stringent labeling laws, but be aware that it’s pretty easy to slap just about anything on a bottle of oil and not get called out for it.

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So trendy that even Crisco got in on it.

Never cook with fancy, expensive olive oils; these oils are best for drizzling over salads or vegetables, or dipping with bread. There is no point in spending $30 a bottle (or more) for an oil that you’re going to subject to high heat; you’re just wasting your money. Always smell your oils; like any fat, oils can turn rancid. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, out of direct sunlight, and buy in small amounts. Expensive, delicate oils, like nut oils, are often sold in opaque containers rather than glass so they aren’t subject to as much degradation. Still, many consumers actually prefer rancid olive oil; this is probably attributable to the low-quality olive oil we grew up on – we think it’s supposed to taste like that.

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Both pretty and useful!

As with most foods, what matters most is your own palate. Before you spend hundreds on fancy olive oils, buy a few small bottles and taste the oil straight. Even better, go to a store that sells different oils and also offers a tasting bar. Some will taste sharp, or grassy, or bitter, depending on age and harvest and other factors. Don’t be swayed by celebrity chef brand names or pretty labels; price isn’t necessarily your best guide here. Figure out what you like, then buy it.

Butter 01

Thank the sweet Lord we’re allowed to love butter again.

When it comes to butter, quality definitely matters. In America, butter must be at least 80% butterfat to be labeled as butter; in Europe, it’s 82%. We’re starting to see more butterfat quantities on labels here (note Vermont Creamery products in photo above at 86%) and it does provide richer mouthfeel and certainly more flakiness in pastries. I use unsalted butter exclusively in baking and cooking so I can control the final salt content, but for spreading on good bread nothing compares to fresh, cultured, salted butter. Want to make your own? Try this recipe.

Butter 04

This little piggy became lard…

Remember when your grandmother kept the old metal coffee can filled with bacon drippings next to the stove? Like butter, lard, tallow and drippings are back in fashion; we can probably thank Team Paleo for that. It’s real fat, rather than fake fat, and it’s delicious. Use sparingly but with great enjoyment, and just like any animal product, buy from a reputable source. How the animals were raised matters.

Hazelnut Walnut Oil

Nut oils are delicious, expensive and prone to rancidity; use judiciously.

A simple (and by no means definitive) guide to cooking fats and oils:

Butter: literally nothing compares for flavor, plus exemplary flakiness in baked goods, but it has a low smoke point and burns easily. Use when the flavor will shine: in simple eggs, on top of pancakes or waffles, in pie crusts and pastries. Or make brown butter into an elegant sauce for fish or pasta. Try compound butters with herbs, garlic or other add-ins; it’s easy to make your own or buy from these lovely folks.

Canola oil: useful in baking when a neutral oil is desired; also good for sautéing and frying. This oil is a tricky one: it comes from the rapeseed plant and was developed using traditional plant breeding methods before the advent of GMOs. It was renamed for the sensitive U.S. market; the word canola is a hodgepodge of “Canada” and “oil,” since most of our rapeseed comes from Canada. There exists a misconception that all canola is GMO; although that isn’t true, rapeseed is one of the most common GMO crops, so if you’re avoiding GMOs, watch your labels.

Coconut oil: currently very trendy along with everything else coconut. Solid at cool room temperature so it behaves like shortening or butter in baking and is therefore very popular with vegans. Previously a nutritional villain, and now a hero (see also: butter, eggs, coffee, salt, red wine…)

Ghee: butter that has been clarified to remove the milk solids so that its smoke point is higher. Common in Indian cuisine.

Grapeseed oil: a byproduct of the winemaking industry, it’s neutral in flavor and best for baking, sautéing, and salad dressings when you don’t want a pronounced olive flavor.

Lard: rendered hog fat; it is neutral in flavor (unlike bacon drippings, which are smoky and bacon-y) and produces amazing pie crusts, especially when combined with butter. Obviously not suitable for vegetarians. Moderately high smoke point.

Margarine or other “fake butters”: never. Not even ever. Totally lab-created; typically hydrogenated oils often with mysterious additives. Stay away; there is literally nothing of value in these products. No, they absolutely do not reduce your cholesterol. I don’t care what the package says.

Olive oil: the most versatile and a favorite of Mediterranean diet proponents. Use olive oil for moderately high temperature sautéing, tossing with cooked pasta and drizzling over roasted vegetables. Expensive, flavorful olive oils should be reserved for salad dressings and as an accompaniment to good bread and should never be heated.

Nut oil, such as hazelnut or walnut: expensive, flavorful and great for salad dressings, especially when the same toasted nut is used in the dish. Try this simple beauty from the great Ottolenghi!

Peanut oil: high smoke point and good for frying; popular in Asian cuisine. Pronounced flavor and possible allergen issues. Great for deep-frying.

Sesame: see peanut oil, above, except that it’s way too expensive and strongly flavored for deep-frying. Dark sesame oil will have a stronger flavor.

Safflower oil: related to sunflowers, this is a neutral oil fine for frying and baking.

Sunflower oil: high in Vitamin E plus a high smoke point; neutral flavor. Use for baking and frying.

Vegetable shortening: Crisco introduced vegetable shortening in 1911 as a lard alternative. It’s solid at cool room temperature and therefore behaves similarly to butter or lard in baked goods. It’s also partially hydrogenated and not an ideal choice for health, although now the label claims “zero trans fats.” I’ll confess that it works beautifully in pie crusts and it is a vegan option.

Vegetable oil: most products labeled “vegetable oil” are typically soy, yet another primarily GMO crop. Soybean oil is one of the most common ingredients in heavily processed foods and has virtually no benefits whatsoever. If you’re looking for a neutral baking oil, choose non-GMO canola.

What should we discuss next? Let us know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The FAQ Series: Salt

We’re starting a new thing over here at Finding Quiet Farm: the FAQ Series. This programming will be based on the most common questions I’ve been asked over nearly a decade of teaching cooking classes to thousands of people; hopefully you’ll learn something and improve your own cooking. Let’s kick this show off right with the number-one question I hear: “How can I make my food taste more like restaurant food?”

Salt Crystals 01

The iconic pyramidal crystals of Maldon salt, harvested off the coast of England.

Pose this question to any professional chef, and the answer will be the same: learn how to use salt properly. (Just to quell the suspense, the second most popular question is “What sort of salt should I use?”)

Salt Selection.jpg

I don’t find it at all unreasonable that I have more than ten varieties of salt in my kitchen…except I only use two. You don’t need this many.

Learning how to season food properly – and specifically, how to use salt – is what separates mediocre cooks from amazing cooks. Whether in a restaurant or at home, salt is far and away the single most important component after the raw ingredients themselves – you can get by without almost anything else, but nothing (savory, at least) tastes good unless it’s been properly salted. And most sweet things need a little salt too, for balance. (Looking at you, salted caramel.)

Salt is the only rock we eat, and it’s vital to our health. It’s been prized for thousands of years throughout the world; Roman soldiers used to be paid their monthly wages in salt, hence our word salary. Salad, too, originates from salt since the Romans salted their greens. The Bible carries dozens of references, including salt of the earth and pillar of salt. Someone without esteem is not worth their salt. Simply put, it’s essential to our survival.

Salt Flats

The salt flats in Bonaire.

Salt is actually composed of two minerals, sodium and chloride. It’s produced either through mining deep deposits in the earth, or through solar evaporation. Most standard table salt is heavily processed and includes both added iodine (as a public health measure) and anti-caking agents to keep it free-flowing. Sea salt is, as you might expect, evaporated from seawater; fleur de sel is the crunchy, delicate top layer of sea salt and is typically used as a finishing salt. There are no health benefits to sea salt, despite a marketing campaign designed to make you think otherwise, but chefs don’t like the intensely chemical taste of iodized salt. We also use so much of it that we can’t spend our entire budget on fancy sea salts. We love coarse kosher salt.

Kosher Salt.jpg

So 11 ounces is less than 48 ounces but the bottle costs $12.95 and the box costs $2.99? I sense a swindle.

The term kosher just means that the crystals are larger and therefore more effective in drawing blood out of meat after it’s been slaughtered, in keeping with kosher tradition. Chefs love it because we use our fingertips to pick it up; most of us have those measurements so carefully calibrated that we’re more accurate than a set of teaspoons. All you need in your kitchen is a box of coarse kosher salt, poured into a small dish and set near the stove, plus a finishing salt like Maldon, whose large pyramidal crystals offer a satisfying crunch and burst of flavor when used properly on top of caramels or fresh ricotta with peaches on crostini or a beautifully seared steak. Don’t ever waste your finishing salt in pasta water or in baking recipes, and don’t ever pay $12.95 for the branded bottle on the left when the box on the right is the exact same thing, contains more than four times as much and costs $2.99.

Salt Dishes.jpg

It’s the only rock we eat…and it’s gorgeous. And delicious. And necessary.

Like our newfound obsession with the mysterious gluten, however, we’ve gotten our relationship with salt all wrong. The American Heart Association and other major medical organizations have shouted for years that Americans consume way too much salt and that it is a leading cause of high blood pressure, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases. The Mayo Clinic claims the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of salt each day, while the recommendation is 1,500 milligrams or less.

We avoid using salt the few times we do cook at home – that’s the salt we can control – because we’re so scared of it, and as a result our food is bland and tasteless. So we go out, or buy premade foods, because they taste better. Unfortunately, we get the vast majority of our salt (and our sugar) from these processed foods, including the ones we don’t even think about: sliced bread. Salad dressing. Bottled spaghetti sauce. Pastries. And obviously, any fast food will be loaded with salt. A single Egg McMuffin contains over 700 milligrams of salt – good luck staying under that 1,500 milligram mark if you eat fast food. Salt is a flavor enhancer, but more importantly for the processed food industry, it’s a preservative.

Kosher Salt Seasoned

I’ve taught numerous cooking classes where I’ve added salt to a dish and acknowledged gasps of horror at the quantity I’m using. Please, trust me on this: if you are eating most of your meals at home, cooked from fresh, healthy, whole foods and not from boxes and packets, and if you avoid processed foods like bottled salad dressings, take-out pizza, commercial lunch meats and cheap sliced sandwich bread, you don’t need to worry about adding salt when you cook. You’re already way ahead of the game.

Salt Book.jpg

You only need two salts: one for finishing, on the left, and one for everything else, on the right. Oh, and read that book.

How can you become more proficient about using salt? Taste your food. Taste it before you add salt, and after. Slice a fresh summer tomato and eat it without any salt. Now take another slice, sprinkle it with crunchy Maldon, and taste it again. Cut a steak in half, and cook it exactly the same, but use salt on one portion and not on the other. Your pasta water should taste like the sea, according to Italian grandmothers everywhere, and you should never cook beans or rice or vegetables or grains in unsalted water. Seasoning should be done in layers, as you build a dish, rather than just dumping a bunch of salt on at the end. Taste and taste again. Salt should never make food taste salty, it should make food taste more like itself; it’s designed to enhance food, not to overwhelm it. Restaurant food tastes delicious – and ideally not salty – because those amounts are carefully calibrated.  And because chefs have spent years learning how to season.

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Learning to cook well at home is a process, as I’ve mentioned many times. And learning to season is part of that process, just like learning your own palate. Remember those famous words: “salt to taste.” So go get a box of kosher salt, and start using it. With your fingertips, please.

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