BWAV Fave: Nuts.com (Try Their Nuts!)

nuts4I don’t remember how I first discovered Nuts.com, but all I can say is I’m glad I did. I *think* I went out looking for pine nuts and stumbled upon Nuts.com, but I can’t remember at this point.  What’s important is that this is one of my very favorite online vendors to do business with!

They not only sell nuts, but also dried fruit, trail mix, candy, grains, baking supplies… a ton of stuff!  I’ve ordered a little bit of everything from there over the last year or so:  various nuts and seeds, brown sugar, dried mango, colored Jordan almonds, and most recently a huge assortment of red and green candy for a holiday “candy buffet” I’m hosting.

I want to give credit where credit is due.  Most importantly, their stuff is always fresh. nuts1 SUPER fresh.  The dried fruits are soft and chewy, the nuts taste like they just came out of a roaster, and the candy is never stale.  They stand behind their freshness guarantee so I know if I ever do get anything that’s not fresh, they will make it right.

What is almost as important is their shipping speed.  They tend to ship your order the same day unless you’re ordering really late.  I am in North Carolina and my orders always arrive in two days.

nuts2Another plus is the quality of their chocolate.  OMG it is absolutely delicious.  It is some of the best chocolate I’ve ever eaten, especially for the price.  Try the “Ultimate Malted Milkballs.”  You will love ’em!

And that brings me to their prices–they are very reasonable.  And, if you order more than $59 worth you get free shipping.  Go ahead and order that much–try a little of everything–and order some sample packsnuts3 which are a great deal to try new foods!  So far with every order I’ve placed over $59, I have also received a free sample pack  of something new to try!

They make custom gift-trays, as well as custom trail mixes.  You really have to see this store to believe it!  I am truly impressed with www.Nuts.com

Basic Rules for Great Food

I had a conversation with a friend today about making a pesto.  And it occurred to me what makes a great pesto–fresh ingredients.  You wouldn’t use that pre-ground parmesan cheese from a can and dried basil leaves from a jar.  That got me to thinking about basic rules of good cooking.  People who have had my cooking and love it always want to know my secrets.  So, here you have them!  If you want to make really great food at home, these are some of the rules you’ll adhere to afaithfully.  I know some of you know these already, but they bear repeating and remembering.

And please, forgive me if I sound like a food snob.  I’m not trying to be one, I’m just giving you the unvarnished truth about what makes really GREAT food!  Here we go…

1.  Fresh, fresher, and freshest–that’s what you want!

Grab your food as CLOSE to the source as you can.  This is the #1 rule for good food and if you don’t follow anything else I’ve said here, follow this one.  (Actually most of my following rules are variations of this one!)

For instance, a bag of frozen cherries has gone through tons and tons of steps to get to your freezer, whereas fresh cherries were simply picked, washed and packaged.  The fresh ones have more vitamins, and more importantly, more flavor.

I have always hated peas. And asparagus.  Recently I was at a cooking lesson at a nice hotel and they served us a vegetarian dish made with peas and asparagus.  I gave it a shot and really LIKED the peas (still not wild about the asparagus).  Why?  They were actually FRESH peas, and not from a can or a freezer bag.

2.  Only ice should be frozen.

Freezing changes the texture and taste of most things.  Since protein is often the most expensive part of the meal, and the “star” of it, I’m particularly averse to frozen meats and fish.  I would take a fresh cut of sirloin any day over a frozen filet mignon.  This rule is even more important when we’re talking about delicate fish and seafood.  Frozen shrimp lose a lot of flavor, I don’t care what anyone says.  Their texture also changes.  If you can’t get fresh, frozen will do, but try to get fresh whenever possible.

cIn my freezer at home you find almost NO raw ingredients.  Why?  I’d rather buy them fresh as needed.  I do freeze fresh herbs that I grow, if I have a bumper crop of them, because they do okay in soups and stews later without losing flavor.   I also freeze citrus zest for later use, as it doesn’t lose anything by being frozen.

You may be wondering what’s in my freezer?  Ice, of course.  Frozen pizzas (DiGiorno, they are awesome compared to other brands), edamame (which is hard to find fresh, and, it is okay once heated up), ice cream, and the occasional frozen entrée like a Lean Cuisine or something.  But, I have to say that my love of cooking has far exceeded my desire to take the easy way out at meal time, so I rarely eat frozen entrees anymore.  Finally, I freeze my red Italian sauce that I make in huge batches.  It freezes well and doesn’t lose anything in the process of being frozen and then thawed.  My son loves that sauce and it’s a big messy endeavor to make it so when I do make it, I make a HUGE batch and freeze it.

3.  Dehydration sucks the flavor out of most things.

Dried herbs are crap, period.  Only when specifically called for in a recipe written by a well-known chef do I use dried herbs.  Otherwise, I always use fresh herbs.  Yes, they cost more.  When possible, grow your own and then they cost practically nothing!

The exception to this rule is sundried tomatoes.  They are quite tasty in their dehydrated state.  Mushrooms are always better fresh, but bsometimes it’s hard to find the varieties you need in the fresh produce section.  In that case dried mushrooms will do.

Of course, there’s dried and dehydrated fruits, like raisins and figs.  Those are okay when called for in a recipe.  But, if a recipe calls for FRESH figs, or FRESH grapes, then the dried versions are a no-no.

4.  Cheese should be good quality.

Good cheese does not come in a can or a cardboard box.  Parmesan should bought in a chunk and hand-grated as you need it.  That yellow stuff in the Velveeta box is not cheese–just read the ingredient label.  I remember a time when they used to sell it on the grocery store shelf, but for some reason they moved it to the dairy case.  My guess is people started asking what the content was that allowed the cheese to survive indefinitely without refrigeration?  Notice you don’t see it in any shape or form in your deli counter’s fresh cheese selection?  That’s because it’s NOT CHEESE.  I think it’s a petroleum product.  Don’t use it unless you are making queso dip that specifically calls for it.

5.  Buy local.

Let’s take a test.  You have a choice in the grocery store between two tomatoes.  Once is perfectly red, round and gorgeous in terms of color and shap.  The other is not so pretty, it’s kind of oblong and has a few little blemishy knob looking thingy’s on it.  Which one do you choose?

Answer:  Ask your produce manager where the tomatoes came from.  If the less-beautiful one was grown ten miles away, and the pretty one was imported from Mexico, I’d go with the locally grown one every time.  The ones from Mexico were likely picked green and then ripened with chemicals in transit.  The local one not only will likely be chemical-free and tastier, but you’ll be supporting your local farmer and reducing your carbon footprint to boot.

6.  Can most of the cans (and jars and bottles).

Canned and jarred food is normally pretty bad.  You don’t consider SPAM a real meat delicacy, do you?  How about Vienna sausages and potted dmeat?  No, not good.  Canned peas and green beans are just disgusting.  If you’re going to not have fresh peas and beans, then at least get frozen ones, they are a lot better than the ones that have been sloshing around in a can for months (or years).

There are a few things that come in a can or jar that are okay to use when called for.  These include:

  • tomatoes (fresh is still best in most recipes)
  • refried beans (it’s a hassle to soak and cook fresh beans, unless you’re a huge bean lover)
  • pimentos (when making pimento cheese these are an absolute must)
  • pickles and olives and capers (that briny goodness is a must in many dishes)
  • anchovies (nasty looking little creatures but they are a must-have in cesar salad dressing and some pasta sauces)
  • minced garlic (they sell jars of this stuff pre-minced and while I still prefer to use fresh garlic, in a pinch or for a large quantity that you don’t want to chop fresh, this stuff will suffice)
  • condiments (mustard, ketchup, chili sauce, etc., although truth be told these are also best made fresh, but sometimes you don’t have time to make everything!)

7.  Don’t overdo it.

When it comes to cooking time, I’m convinced that less is more for most things.  Meat is better medium rare than any other way.  I’d rather it be rare than medium well, because I can always throw it back on the heat for a few minutes, but once you have cooked it to medium well, you can’t “uncook” it.  You want to cook pork and chicken to the correct temperature for safety reasons, but you don’t have to go beyond that temperature!   See the chart here for some temperature guidelines.

eShrimp–omg–these are one of the most overcooked foods on the planet.  Shrimp are done within 3 to 4 minutes in most cases, but some people will cook them until they curl up and turn to little pieces of rubber.  STOP DOING THAT.  As soon as the flesh is opaque, the shrimp is done!

Vegetables are great when tender-crisp, and not so great when they are cooked to the point of being mushy.  I have entirely too many teeth in my head to want to eat mushy food!  Don’t overcook your veggies (in addition to the texture getting icky, you also lose a lot of nutrition when overcooking).

Hard-boiled eggs are another thing most people overcook.  If you want to know how to make a perfect hard-boiled egg, follow Martha Stewart’s instructions by clicking here.

8.  Butter–there is no substitute

Margarine is nothing but an oil product.  It might be a little lower in cholesterol than butter, but the taste is not worth the difference.  Always use real butter.  Always.

9.  Be an olive oil snob

Canola oil is canola oil is canola oil.  Same goes for peanut oil and grapeseed oil and most other oils.  But when it comes to olive oil, there are vast differences in quality and taste.  Read up on olive oils here.   Honestly, though, this is one of those things where price is pretty indicative of quality.  The stuff you buy at the grocery store that’s pretty affordable?  Probably not going to be very good.  I recommend shopping for the best quality oils online at Eataly.

10.  Be leery of cooking instructions

When you are cooking things like breads, cakes, etc., just remember that the cooking instructions were made using someone else’s oven and kitchen.  Your oven is different.  Your altitude is different.  So, set the timer for three minutes earlier than called for in the recipe.  Check it carefully from then on and make sure you don’t overcook it!

I have also noticed that most dried pasta packages call for cooking times that are a bit excessive.  You end up with pasta that is past the point of al dente if you follow those instructions to the letter.  To be safe, shave 20 to 25% off the cooking time, then test the pasta for doneness by taking a bite of it.  Make sure it’s to your liking!

So there you have some basic rules.  Now, the real question–do I follow all these rules 24/7?  Of course not.  Sometimes I’m in a crunch for time, or I can’t get to the store, or something is just not available or in season and I have to make do with what I have.  Hey, it’s just one meal and not every single thing you make can be perfect and gourmet-quality.  But, in your quest to make the best food possible, I do recommend following these guidelines whenever possible.

Bon appetit!

 

Good Stock

stockOne thing I have learned about cooking that didn’t seem important before is the difference in broth and stock.  I must recommend to you that you try, whenever possible, to use STOCK in your cooking, unless a recipe so clearly insists upon broth and only broth.

The basic difference is that stock is usually made from simmering bones, and possibly some aromatics like onions and celery, for hours.  Broth is typically made from simmering the meat itself.  The bones release some good stuff that makes stock have a much richer mouth feel and that translates into much better tasting food.

There’s two ways to get good stock.  One of them is to make it yourself.  I find that to be a huge time sucker, plus I hate handling animal bones and carcasses.  There’s some funky nasty stuff that floats to the top after you simmer a chicken carcass for hours and hours and I don’t like looking at it or messing with it.   No, for me, the second method of getting good stock is preferrable:   buy it.  But, what do you buy?  I’ll give you my recommendation here, but first a few no-no’s.

No-No #1:  Dry powdered or cubed bullion is NOT stock.  It is mostly flavored salt.  Say no to that.

No-No #2:  Pre-packaged broth is admittedly handy and fairly cheap, but, it’s also fairly tasteless and why you’d want to add something tasteless to your food is beyond me.

No-No #3:  Pre-packaged stock is definitely handy, but you don’t know if it’s going to be good until you’ve dumped it in your recipe and then it’s too late, plus,  each quart of it takes up a tremendous amount of valuable cabinet space.

Here’s what I have found that I love:   More Than Gourmet brand stock concentrates.  They are delicious and they take up very little space.  My favorite is the glace de poulet gold roasted chicken flavor.  They come in little 1.5 ounce serving pods or you can get a 16 ounce tub for about $20 at Amazon.com that will store forever in the refrigerator and you can use it as needed.  It’s pricey sounding, I know, but you’re going to get a lot of stock out of that container and it’s going to be GOOD stock.  Also, when you buy it in the little 1.5 ounce tubs it’s super expensive so the 16 ounce tub really saves you money.

When I made Sexy Chicken, I used this type of stock and it produced an absolutely–well, sexy–result.  I also used the same stock for making the quinoa I served alongside that chicken, and it had a nice flavor and mouth feel to it.

They have tons of real “gourmet” items in that line, including rendered duck fat, duck and chicken stock, turkey stock, and even seafood stock.  I haven’t tried those yet but I’m sure I’ll get around to trying the seafood stock, I just haven’t found the right recipe yet that requires me to use it.  Maybe this winter I will make a Manhattan clam chowder or a “down east” clam chowder and I’ll have reason to buy some!

Salty Talk

Salt is essential for life.  It has gotten a bad name as it pertains to health because it can, in high quantities, raise blood pressure.  There is no evidence, though, that it is linked to heart attacks, strokes, etc.  And, the real villain saltwhere salt is concerned is processed foods–that’s where you find loads and loads of salt.  If you cook and eat mostly fresh unprocessed foods you can add salt with wild abandon and not worry too much about it unless your doctor has told you otherwise.

Salts vary considerably in terms of mineral content, and of course, taste.

Types of Salt

Here I’m going to tell you about the different types of salts and why you might want to buy (or not buy) them.

Regular Table Salt

I own a box of regular processed table salt, but that’s only because I accidentally bought a box of it one day without realizing that it wasn’t Kosher salt.  I only use it for cleaning, art and craft projects, homemade bath and body scrubs, and other things that I do not intend to eat.

Processed table salt is also often referred to as “iodized” salt.  Iodine is an essential mineral in our diets, and it is necessary to avoid goiters.  Getting rid of regular table salt in your kitchen will not suddenly cause your family

You do not want a goiter.

Processed table salt containing iodine is a great addition to your anti-goiter diet.

to erupt with massive goiters.  Humans only need a small amount of this mineral and it is found naturally in cow’s milk, eggs, and strawberries.   Plus, the salt used in most processed foods like potato chips and baked goods is typically table salt with iodine in it.  So go eat some potato chips, wash them down with a glass of milk, and I guarantee you’ll be goiter-free.

Table salt also often has an anti-caking agent in it to keep it flowing freely from your shaker.

I dislike processed table salt because the fact that it is processed and has additives in it can give it a metallic taste.  And, if you buy the really cheap store brand salts, the additives in it can actually be things like aluminum silicate.  Aluminum?  The human body does not need aluminum to function properly, and some believe it is dangerous.    I am not a health nut but seriously, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to put heavy metals in your body when you can avoid them.  If you are going to use table salt for edibles, make sure that the added ingredients in it are potassium or calcium based.  Morton salt is, in my opinion, probably your safest bet and costs about 15 or 20 cents more per box than store brands.  Go nuts and spring for the fancy Morton salt.

If you bake a lot, you will need table salt.  Regular table salt is recommended for baking purposes, because the grains are very small and dissolve easily and evenly.

Kosher Salt

Kosher salt is processed salt that has a larger grain size to it, which is why it is not recommended for baking.  Most kosher salts do not contain any additives, though some may contain an anti-caking agent.  Chefs love kosher

Sea salt farmers

Sea salt farmers

salt because you can pick up those larger grains with your fingers and toss them into dishes.  The very fine grains of table salt do not lend themselves to being picked up with fingers.

Kosher salt does not actually refer to being “Kosher” as in made in accordance with Jewish law.  The term “kosher” actually refers to “koshering,” the process of removing surface blood from meat with salt.  I never knew that until now!

Sea Salt

Sea salt comes literally from the sea.  Ocean water is evaporated, leaving behind salt grains.  You can buy sea salt in many forms, from finely ground to coarsely ground, and, I have even seen iodized sea salt on the market (you do want to avoid those goiters!)   Sea salt will have trace minerals and sometimes impurities in it if the ocean in question is polluted.  Most people I know like sea salt because it does not have a metallic taste to it and has a little bit better flavor than table salt or kosher salt.

Coarse ground Himalayan pink salt

Coarse ground Himalayan pink salt

Himalayan Salt

Himalayan salt comes from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan.  It is usually pink or red in color, but can sometimes be a regular white or transparent color.   The mineral content of it differs from sea salt and other salts.  Some say they prefer the taste of it, while others say you can’t really tell the difference between this and any other salt.

Celtic Salt

Moist Celtic salt

Moist Celtic salt

Celtic salt originated in France.  It is also a sea salt, and it is higher in moisture content than other salts.  It is usually a light gray color.   Some prefer it for cooking because it does not leach moisture out of food the way drier salts do.

Other Types

There are lots of other salts out there that are regional in origin.  I’ve seen Hawaiian red salt, Peruvian salt, etc.  There are also tons of flavored salts out there that take a basic sea salt and infuse something like saffron or alder wood smoke or other yummy flavor into the grains.

The bottom line is that they all differ slightly in trace minerals, mineral content, appearance, and, flavor.  So what do you do?

What I Use

Every bit of research I’ve done on gourmet cooking tells me that food needs to be seasoned with salt (and usually pepper) at almost every stage of preparation.  As I have learned to cook better over the years I have found this to be true.  Does it really matter which salt you use?  Unless you’re feeding a professional chef or food critic, probably not.  But, if having a variety of them makes you happy, and makes your cooking more fun, then why not have them?  When I’m grabbing a pinch of Celtic salt, or flipping freshly ground pink salt out of my grinder, I feel like I could be hanging alongside Gordan Ramsey in a professional kitchen.  A shaker full of Morton “anti-goiter” salt just doesn’t give me the same thrill.

I have basically two containers of salt on my countertop for everyday seasoning, cooking, and finishing.  First, I have a bamboo salt box with two compartments.  One chamber contains Morton Kosher salt, the other contains a Celtic salt that I bought at World Market.  I usually reach for Kosher salt when I am seasoning foods that I’m preparing, or when I am measuring salt out by the teaspoon in a recipe.  I have Celtic salt because…well, honestly, because it looked like something cool to have in my kitchen.

Dual-compartment bamboo salt box.  About $20 retail.

Dual-compartment bamboo salt box. About $20 retail.

I have a salt grinder or mill that contains coarse Himalayan pink salt.  That’s what I put on the table when I serve meals and what I use as a finishing salt.  I dated a chef once who laughed at me when I told him I thought it tasted better than other salts.  I confess that if you blind folded me and made me take a taste test I’m not confident I could pick it out over other types of salt. But, I do like the color (my salt mill is clear so you can see the lovely pink grains).  Much like the Celtic salt, it makes me feel like more of a gourmet to have it around.

I have also purchased a few flavored salts that I rarely use.  Of the flavored ones one of my favorites is alder wood smoked salt.  It is yummy and has a very rich, distinct taste.

Where to Buy

Any gourmet supply store will have a variety of salts to choose from, with an appropriately gourmet price tag on them.  If you want an affordable source for flavored salts, I recommend Beaufort Olive Oil Company.

I have found that some of the best selection and reasonable prices are offered through Amazon.com.  You can buy a pound bag of your favorite salt often for less than the price of a 4 ounce jar at the grocery store!