Of Culinary Lore and Exceptional Marketing

Quite possibly my favorite thing about writing this column is the mountain of reader feedback it produces. I have the best readers in the universe, too. Nearly every letter turns into a love fest, which charges my batteries, making me love my readers all the more.

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Do you recall the letter from Pat, who complained of her lettuce turning rusty? I responded that the rust colored stains on lettuce are harmless evidence of the natural breakdown process and indicate that the produce is not exactly fresh. The brown edges and spots can be cut away, leaving the rest of the lettuce perfectly edible.

Well, that question together with my response brought a tsunami of input from readers insisting that Pat’s problem is that she is cutting her lettuce with a metal knife.

Salad in a Jar—Good for Health and Wealth

If you’ve been hanging with me for any length of time, you know I’m pretty wild about making Gifts in a Jar, which is now a downloadable ebooklet. I’m talking about glass canning jars with screw top lids. Seriously, you can stuff just about anything in one of these amazing containers and come up with a unique, lovely gift.

Over the years we’ve made Cookies in a Jar, Light in a Jar, Garden in a Jar, even a Journal in a Jar (instructions for all in the ebooklet). I have no idea why I’ve never embraced what is quite possibly the most practical use of a jar—Salad in a Jar.

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I didn’t think of this, but I’m pretty much in love with the person who did. Simply brilliant and so practical.

Basically, you assemble the ingredients for a fresh, healthy salad by layering them in a wide-mouth glass canning jar. If you do it right, you can make up a bunch of jar salads on Sunday, put them in the refrigerator and having your lunches made up for the entire week. Prepared well, a jar salad kept in the refrigerator will be as fresh up to a week later as it was the day you assemble it. And no vacuum-sealing necessary.

My Hate-Love Relationship with a Skillet

I really don’t know where I got the thing. It may have been a wedding gift. What I know is that I tried to use that cast iron skillet without success and I mean not even a little bit.

Food would become hopelessly stuck to it and burned beyond recognition. If it wasn’t turning out charred fare, it was growing a fine coat of rust.

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photo credit: WestChesterCycles c/o Flickr

In the interest of full disclosure, these shots above are not of my skillet. They are an apt depiction. Mine looked like all of the above. At the time, I wasn’t photographing my culinary disasters with hopes that one day I could share them with you.

Things got so bad, one day I threw that skillet and its sorry charred contents into the trash. What followed what a case of guilt that prompted me to dig it out, chiseled it down, put it through the dishwasher (the worst thing ever for cast iron) then banish it to the back of a closet.

Years later—OK decades—I pulled that skillet out of detention. I’d been learning that cast iron skillets are highly revered by experienced cooks. I was determined to take on the challenge of cast iron. I am proud to say I won that battle.

This skillet pictured below—now more than 40 years old—is the skillet I abused and which abused me right back. It has become one of my most prized possessions. All is forgiven and now my skillet and I have quite a thing going on.

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Family-Friendly Finger Foods

Are trips through the closest fast-food joint driving a hole through your food budget? It’s no wonder. Prices on all foods seem to be sky-rocketing, but fast food takes that prize. Yikes!

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Unlike supermarkets where every week you can find fabulous sales, you’ll never find sales at Wendy’s, McDonalds or Burger King. Or any other fast-food restaurant for that matter. I don’t consider an occasional coupon to be a Sale.

I know what you’re thinking: Chicken. Chicken Nuggets, Chicken Fingers, Chicken Sandwiches—they’re all so tasty from these places, so convenient and so kid-friendly.

Just consider this: In less time than it takes you to get into the car and drive to the closest drive-thru, you can make your own fast-food chicken fare—for half the price, or less. In fact, you can make a fabulous coating mix to mimic the best coated chicken you’ve ever eaten, in five minutes flat. And if that’s not enough, you’ll get three bonuses for your effort:

From Chuck Roast to “Prime Rib” in Three Hours Flat

Shortly after this column posted on the specific steps to roast a cheap cut of beef so that it turns out like prime rib, I got an email from faithful reader, Mary B. We went back and forth a bit as she prepared this for guests. I thought you would enjoy the feedback.

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But first, here’s a quick refresher on how to do that:

1. Make sure you have a good oven proof meat thermometer and an oven thermometer. Exact temperatures are the secret.

2. Tie the roast with white cotton string so it’s compact and evenly shaped.

3. Place inside a roasting pan, uncovered.

4. Insert meat thermometer into the thickest part of the roast.

5. Preheat oven to exactly 250 F using an oven thermometer, not relying on the one that is built into the oven. This is critical.

6. Leave roast in oven until its internal temperature is exactly 130 F.

7. Remove from oven, wrap it in foil and allow meat to rest for exactly 20 minutes.

How to Feed a Crowd and Not Go Broke

Graduation parties, rehearsal dinners, family reunions—it’s the season for large gatherings. If feeding lots of people has you in a panic, relax. I’ve got you covered with great big recipes for enough fabulous food to feed a crowd that won’t bust the budget.

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Crockpot Chicken BBQ

  • 4 pounds chicken breasts (skinless, boneless)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar (any type)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 28 ounces (3 1/2 cups) bottled
  • barbecue sauce
  1. Place chicken, water, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and cumin in slow cooker set on “Low.” Cook for 6 hours. Drain juices. Shred chicken right in the slow cooker using two forks to pull it all apart. Pour in barbecue sauce, stir to combine. Cook on “Low” for an additional hour. Serve on buns with coleslaw. Serves 16.

Easter Brunch on a Budget

It seemed like such a great idea several weeks ago when you invited the entire clan to your place for Easter Brunch. And now as the time draws near, you feel yourself beginning to panic.

How on earth will you ever come up with a menu you can easily fit within your spending plan that will feed an extra dozen or so hungry guests? Easy.

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Follow this menu that is curiously meat-free and depends on eggs, which are priced cheap around Easter—plus bread, potatoes, cheese and a few other fairly ordinary pantry items.

Add a big green salad, a plate of fresh fruit pizza (start with a slice of watermelon, top with a variety of fresh fruit bits and Feta cheese), and a basket of crusty bread to your gorgeous spread and you’re good to go.

If you feel you need dessert, delegate that to the first person who asks if they can bring something.

Fitness on a Budget

Recently I got a frantic letter from Barbara, who lives in Florida. It seems that her teenage son has taken up bodybuilding and her husband is adhering rigidly to the Atkins Diet, both of which are protein heavy. Barb got through the first week with a major case of mixed emotions: Her husband lost 7 pounds, her son gained 4—and her food bill doubled!

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Can Barb keep her food costs down while still supporting her family’s eating choices? I know she can. Special diets don’t have to be budget-busters. In the same way her son and husband are adjusting their way of eating, Barb must adjust the way she shops.

Don’t pay full-price for protein. Tuna, chicken breasts and lean beef cuts are always on sale somewhere. If you don’t want to store-hop, you can always find some cut of meat, fish and poultry on sale in your favorite market. Eat what’s on sale and if it’s a loss-leader (that means dirt-cheap in an effort to entice people through the door), stock up for the coming weeks. Grab up the items that are marked down for quick sale and then freeze.

Buy carbs in bulk. Find a warehouse club, ethnic market, health food store or food coop that offers rice, beans, oatmeal, nuts and legumes in by the pound. Store dry items in the freezer to retain freshness.

Shop with a list. Buying on impulse can blow a budget and a diet. So can arriving at the store hungry. Eat before you get there, stick to your list so you leave nothing to chance.