Tag Archives: cooking

Eco-Saturday: Use the right burner

If you own an electric range, here’s a way to use just a little less power without expending any effort at all:

Use the correct burner.

This seems like a small thing — and it is — but it takes zero effort, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by not doing it, and if it shaves a penny or two off your power bill, why not?

Most electric ranges have four burners — two large and two small.

If you’re cooking something in a big skillet or stockpot, use one of the big burners. If you’re cooking something in a small skillet or saucepan, use one of the little burners.

If you’re not sure which size is best, before you turn on the stove, set your pan on a big burner. If you can see the burner sticking out around the bottom of the pan, move to a smaller one.

If you’re using a large pan, it makes sense to use a large burner. You want the bottom of the pan to heat evenly, and you don’t want to end up throwing food away because it didn’t cook right. But when you use a small pan on a large burner, you end up heating more of the cooktop than you need. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s website, SmarterHouse.org, using a six-inch pan on an eight-inch burner wastes more than 40 percent of the electricity produced by the burner. (Bonus points if you can figure out how they arrived at that number.)

Food won’t cook faster or taste better if you heat an inch of empty space all the way around the pan. That hot surface protruding from under the edge of the pan just wastes energy and creates a hazard in the form of an exposed hot surface.

SmarterHouse offers several other good tips on saving energy in the kitchen, such as using an appropriately sized pan (putting a big pan on a big burner to cook a little bit of food is no better than putting a small pan on a big burner), keeping your appliances clean and well-maintained, and considering which appliance is most appropriate for whatever you’re making. I’ve touched on some of that in previous blog entries, but SmarterHouse goes into more detail. I think it’s well worth the time to click on over to their site and look around.


Make-It Monday: Grape slicer

Here’s another trick that’s been making the rounds on all the Pinterest-clickbait sites. I hadn’t really had occasion to use it until the other day, when I was making another batch of cranberry sauce, but it works well, with a few caveats.

Cutting through a zillion individual grapes takes FOREVER.
Cutting through a zillion individual grapes takes FOREVER.

I add grapes to my cranberry sauce, because they taste good and give it a more assertive texture. The down side is that they have to be cut in half. Standing around cutting individual grapes in half is a pain, but I remembered a trick I’d seen for slicing cherry tomatoes and decided it probably would work just as well with grapes: Lay a handful of whatever small food you’re slicing on a cutting board, put a plastic lid on top of it, and press down gently while you run a knife just under the lip of the lid to slice through all of the grapes/tomatoes/whatever in one fell swoop.

Hold down the lid to keep the fruit from squirming out from under it while you slice.
Hold down the lid to keep the fruit from squirming out from under it while you slice.

In one of the pictures, you can see the edge of a big bread knife, which I’d thought might work well — most of the clickbait pictures I’d seen showed someone using a serrated blade considerably longer than the width of the lid — but in reality, big knives are unwieldy, and I’m klutzy, so I ended up sawing through the lid and making a mess of the grapes. I swapped the bread knife for a plain old steak knife, which was easier to handle and made a much neater cut without damaging the lid.

If you’re just slicing a handful of tomatoes for a salad, I wouldn’t bother getting out the lid, but if you have a large number of small fruits or vegetables to cut, it’s definitely worth rummaging around in the recycler for a plastic lid to speed up the process.


Eco-Saturday: Eat in season

We’re reaching that drizzly, chilly, depressing time of year when all the tomato vines are dead, most of the herbs are fading, and the farmers’ markets are winding down.

When the weather sucks, it’s tempting to buy the out-of-season produce that finds its way into the grocery store every winter.

Try to resist the temptation.

Out-of-season produce is almost always shipped in from some other country where the growing seasons are longer. To survive the trip without spoiling, it has to be picked early — before it’s ripe — and the varieties capable of traveling long distances are bred for durability, not flavor, so you’re going to end up paying extra for an inferior product that’s wasted a ton of fuel getting here.

Rather than subject yourself, your bank account, and the environment to that, look at what you can do with frozen and canned vegetables and whatever happens to be in season.

The Mother Earth News Almanac, which I reviewed on here last week, has a couple of good winter recipes, including an utterly divine potato-cheese soup I’ve made too many times to count.

Root vegetables (carrots, onions, turnips, radishes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) are good this time of year and likely didn’t have to travel very far. Winter squash is also in season now, and mushrooms are grown year-’round.

If you like meat, try putting a roast or a few chicken breasts in the Crock-Pot with a can of beer and several cloves of garlic and cooking it overnight. If you don’t eat meat, dried beans are a good option — just soak overnight, simmer in the Crock-Pot all day, and serve over couscous for an easy, high-protein meal.

Cruciferous vegetables (kale, collards, turnips, cabbage) are in season. Slow-cook the kale, collards, or turnips, or shred the cabbage, fry it with bacon and onions, and spice it up with a little sriracha.

Apples and cranberries are also in season at the moment; grab some of each to make cranberry sauce. Many other fruits are available frozen or canned and work well in cobblers.

If you just can’t give up salads, use spinach or sprouts (easily grown on the countertop) as a base and add mushrooms, a handful of nuts, some bleu cheese, and maybe a diced Granny Smith apple or some thinly sliced radishes. Raw turnips also make a good addition to salads if you julienne them first.

And, of course, you can always find canned and frozen ingredients to get your family through the winter. Our favorites include chili; posole; gumbo; minestrone; green-chile stew; smoked sausage with canned sauerkraut; and Philly sandwiches made with frozen tricolor pepper strips.

Food doesn’t have to suck just because the weather does. Pay attention to what’s in season, and don’t be afraid to buy weird-looking roots you see at the grocery store. Between Google and Pinterest, you should be able to figure out what they are and how to use them.


Eco-Saturday: Toaster oven

In my relentless march toward a tiny house somewhere off the grid in New Mexico, I’ve spent a big chunk of the past year experimenting to see which appliances are expendable, which are helpful but not absolutely necessary, and which are completely non-negotiable. (More on that in a future Tiny Tuesday post.)

About a year ago, as part of my experimentation, I bought a lower-end toaster oven similar to this one and started using it in place of my regular oven.

Small but mighty.
Small but mighty.

Even if you bake regularly and are absolutely committed to using a full-sized oven for cakes, cookies, Thanksgiving meals, etc., you can do the environment (and your power bill) a big favor by using a toaster oven instead of your regular oven as often as possible.

I cook most of our meals at home, and for just about everything I make, I’ve found the toaster oven equal, if not superior, to the regular oven. Its compact size means I don’t need to preheat it, which saves me time and money every time I bake. I always hated preheating, partly because it took extra time, and partly because I resented the fact the heating element was drawing power for 10 minutes without giving me anything in return.

The smaller size also means you’re not wasting money and energy heating a lot of empty space around your food. If I’m just making a small fritatta for the two of us or a few break-and-bake cookies to soothe a craving, I don’t need to heat five cubic feet of space. Instead, I use the toaster oven to get the same results in roughly one cubic foot, thus knocking down my energy consumption for that meal by about 80 percent.

Two other ways the toaster oven saves resources, neither of which would have occurred to me before I bought it:

1. The smaller space means I cook smaller batches, thus reducing the risk of having more leftovers than we can eat. (This also helps with portion control, as I don’t end up eating more than I need just because it’s there.)

2. Most toaster ovens come with a timer that shuts off the oven when the time is up, reducing the likelihood of wasting food by burning it.

A toaster oven won’t work for every household or every project. But it’s a nice option, and one I’ve used far more than I expected.


Vegetarian Friday: Pasta e lenticche

Despite growing up in a town full of Italians, I had never heard of pasta e lenticche until a friend of mine posted this recipe for it on Facebook a few months ago.

I took a Crock-Pot shortcut with the lentils and riffed on it just a little, ending up with what has become one of my favorite vegetarian meals. It’s easily veganized if you skip the milk, which I personally don’t think adds much.

2 T. olive oil
Small onion, chopped
Two small carrots, chopped (I used a couple of colorful ones from the farmers’ market)
Clove of garlic, minced
1 c. brown lentils
1 T. tomato paste
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2 T. Italian seasoning mix of your choice
8 oz. ziti or mostaccioli
1/3 c. milk
Hot sauce

auté the onion and carrots in olive oil about 5 minutes until the carrots soften. I started the carrots first, then added the onion a couple of minutes in. The original recipe says not to brown the onions, but I ignored that because caramelized onions always taste better. When vegetables are soft, add garlic and cook about a minute.

Put onion mixture, lentils, tomato paste, tomatoes, bay leaves, red pepper and seasoning in Crock-Pot, cover with about a quart of water, and let simmer overnight.

Just before you’re ready to serve, dump the contents of the Crock-Pot into a deep saucepan, add another cup of water and the milk, and bring to a boil. Add pasta and simmer 10-12 minutes until pasta is al dente and liquid has thickened and reduced a bit.

Serve in bowls with Parmesan, salt, and — if you’re me — plenty of hot sauce. (Note that I never add salt to dishes while I’m cooking them. Good chefs disapprove of this approach, but whenever I salt food as it’s cooking, the heat seems to break down the flavor so much that I end up having to add more at the table. Knowing how terrible excess sodium is for my body, I just can’t see salting my food twice to taste it once, so I just cut out the middleman and salt everything when it hits my plate. YMMV; plan accordingly.)

Serves four. I like this recipe because it tastes rich and hearty but contains very little fat and gives you a big nutritional bang for your calorie buck.


Vegetarian Friday: Mushroom stroganoff

As a child, I was an insufferably picky eater, but one of the few things Mom could get me to eat reliably was beef stroganoff.

When I went vegetarian in college, I was delighted to find packets of instant mushroom stroganoff on sale for $1 apiece. It wasn’t quite as cheap as ramen, but it tasted better, especially if I doctored it up with a dollop of sour-cream dip and a squirt or two of mustard.

Prefabbed pasta mixes laced with MSG and God knows what else were fine 20 years ago, but these days, I really appreciate being able to pronounce everything that’s on my plate, and homemade mushroom stroganoff goes together so quickly and easily, there’s really no need to buy the prepackaged kind.

3 c. egg noodles
3 tbsp. butter
1/2 medium or 1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 lb. sliced mushrooms
Ground thyme
1 c. sour cream
1/4 c. mustard
2 tbsp. ketchup

Bring water to boil. While it heats, melt butter in a big skillet and saute onion until clear.

Mmmm ... mushrooms.
Mmmm … mushrooms.

Add noodles to water and simmer 7-10 minutes until al dente (tender but not mushy). While noodles cook, add mushrooms to skillet and saute until they release liquid and start to brown.

Add thyme and paprika.
Add thyme and paprika.

Sprinkle mushroom-onion mixture with thyme and paprika to taste. Add sour cream, mustard and ketchup, stir well, and reduce heat to medium. (Feel free to taste as you go and make adjustments to suit your own preferences. I frequently leave out the ketchup altogether, but my mom always put some in when I was a kid. I like it either way.)

That poor old wooden spatula has stirred too many batches of stroganoff to count in the last 20 years.
That poor old wooden spatula has stirred too many batches of stroganoff to count in the last 20 years.

Drain noodles, add to skillet, and stir to coat with sauce. Serves 4.

This is one of the best vegetarian meals I've had.
This is one of the best vegetarian meals I’ve had.

I’m not sure how well this would veganize; mushrooms sauteed in olive oil would work fine, and you can get vegan sour cream that tastes pretty convincing, but I’ve never used it in a sauce and can’t remember how well it melts. If somebody wants to experiment and report back, I’ll be happy to share your findings.

If you want extra protein, you can nuke a couple of Boca burgers, cut ’em into bite-sized chunks and add ’em to the sauce, which I used to do in college — and omnivores, you won’t go wrong if you cut up a couple of breakfast steaks and brown them in the olive oil while the onions are cooking.



Eco-Saturday: Ditch the cooking spray

Maybe the best 15 bucks I've ever spent.
A mister will cost you $10 to $20 upfront, but you’ll recoup the investment.

Let’s be honest: Cooking spray is one of the most convenient kitchen tools ever invented. Yeah, it’s laced with weird chemicals. Yeah, sometimes you can sort of taste them if you use too much of it. And yeah, using something that comes in a can you can’t recycle easily is a pretty lousy thing to do to the environment. But greasing a cookie sheet or baking dish by hand is a giant, messy pain in the arse, and cooking spray just wasn’t on my list of sacrifices I was willing to make for the environment.

Enter the cooking-oil mister. I’d forgotten these things existed until I saw one on an endcap at Target the other day and remembered my sister talking about one she’d gotten a few years ago. I think hers was a Misto; the one I picked up at Target was a Prepara that cost about $15.

Oil misters come with a big cap that you put over the top and pump up and down about 10 or 15 times. This pumps air into the bottle and creates enough pressure to aerosolize the oil.

If you’re trying to grease a very big pan, you may have to stop and pump a time or two while you’re using the mister, but that extra 10 to 20 seconds will save you calories and money by dramatically reducing the amount of oil you need to keep things from sticking without adding extra trash to the landfill or weird chemicals to your kitchen.

To give you an idea of the savings: I typically use two to three tablespoons of olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan when I saute onions and peppers. With the mister, I used maybe a quarter-teaspoon. In other words: I use 24 to 36 times as much oil without the mister.

At $12 a liter and 120 calories a tablespoon, that’s a helluva lot of money and fat — and just look at all those cans I’m keeping out of the landfill.

Oil misters. Getchu one.



Vegan Friday: Texas caviar

The first time I ever had Texas caviar was about 13 years ago at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. It has since become one of my go-to recipes when I want something with a lot of protein that doesn’t require a lot of effort.

The peppers are hidden under all the other stuff.
The peppers are hidden under all the other stuff.

1 green pepper, diced
1/4 of a small red onion, diced
Handful of grape tomatoes, halved
1 can blackeyed peas, drained and rinsed
1/4 c. Italian dressing
2 tbsp. taco seasoning or 1 tbsp. each cumin and chili powder
1 small hot pepper, chopped finely (optional)

Five-minute project. Maybe 10 if you haven't already chopped the vegetables.
Five-minute project. Maybe 10 if you haven’t already chopped the vegetables.

Toss all ingredients together and chill for a few hours or overnight to blend flavors. Serve with tortilla chips.

Texas caviar is an easy option for potlucks where you’re not sure you’ll find a lot of vegan protein sources.