Inconvenient Convenience

Am I a snob? I didn’t think so, but I was recently called one because I turned my nose up at “Convenience Foods” - especially Hamburger Helper. Helper? Really? More like enabler.

This goes back to a previous post – Butter’s Better – in which I talk about my disdain for "ready to eat" foods with bewildering ingredient lists, gargantuan amounts of fillers and sodium, and a frightening array of additives and preservatives (not to mention excess packaging that makes for one FULL trash can). I am NOT saying these things (canned soup, frozen dinners, boxed rice and pasta dishes, and more) are not tasty, and I am NOT saying I haven’t – at one time or another – purchased some of them, but they are simply NOT something I typically choose to eat or to feed my family.

No, I don’t exclusively cook from scratch and I don’t shun ALL convenience items (for instance, I don’t bake my own crackers and bread or make my own taco shells, pasta, ketchup and cheese and Trader Joe's does make a mean Organic Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup), but I suggest it is possible to easily (and cheaply!) feed people delicious and nutritious meals without opening a cardboard box every. single. night. A peek inside my pantry and fridge/freezer will show a few of my favorite sneaky short-cuts - items I consider to be convenient.

-Canned beans (white, black, kidney, garbanzo)
-Uncle Bens converted rice (rarely use it, but some dishes call for it. I sure as heck would never admit this to my old Japanese Grandmother – if I had one.)
-Cake mixes (if they are good enough for Alton Brown, they are good enough for me)
-Sandwich meats (for school lunches)
-Salad dressing and mayonnaise (I make a vinaigrette from time to time but there are some really good pre-made dressings out there.)
-Krusteaz pancake mix (yes, I can do pancakes from scratch but sometimes the mix is, well, so convenient)
-Spam (but I’ve talked about my affinity for this salty pink canned meat before – I buy the lower fat, lower sodium “light” version - for what it’s worth).

Yes, this method of cooking is a learned skill. In my early years when I couldn’t cook, didn’t have enough time, and thought convenience foods really were that much easier, I was a Chef Boyardee, Stove Top Stuffing, Chunky Soup, Shake 'n Bake, Minute Rice type of girl.  But I’ve changed. Slowly but surely, over the years, I’ve become…a snob.

A quick, easy, cheap, not-from-a-box recipe example that I happen to be making for dinner:

Chicken Teriyaki "Assistant"
Stir-fry ingredients:
  1 lb boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
  1 lb broccoli, cut into florets
  2 T cooking oil (less if using non-stick skillet)
Sauce ingredients:
  1 T sugar
  2 T mirin
  2 T sake
  3 T soy sauce
  1 T corn starch

1. Whisk together sauce ingredients and set aside.
2. Heat cooking oil in large skillet or wok over med/high heat.
3. Add chicken pieces and sauté until mostly cooked (3-4 minutes).
4. Add broccoli and continue cooking until bright green and tender (3-4 minutes).
5. Add sauce mixture and continue cooking until sauce is bubbly and begins to thicken (2-3 minutes).
6. Serve over steamed white or brown rice and enjoy. (Serves four)

Butter’s Better post:

An Announcement from A Good Cooker

I bestow blessings on foods I enjoy. I tout the benefits of gadgets I own. I talk up (or down) restaurants I’ve tried. I promote, advocate, recommend, and espouse all types of products and services on this blog, and I have to say – I do it all for love.

I've recently read several articles about food bloggers gaining secret compensation and benefits for praising products. I want to make it clear I never have...and never will. And, if I ever do receive gifts or perks – like the Multicolor Ceramic 7-Piece Mixing Bowl Set from Williams-Sonoma - I’ll be the first to kiss and tell. I write about what I think, what I like, and what I consider share-worthy. I have an advertisement free food blog for the same reason. No compensation and no distraction – just 100%, Grade A food blathering ala A Good Cooker.

Thanks for reading!

Let's Talk Thai

My cooking goes through phases. In the winter I make a lot of soups. In the summer, when the bulk of my groceries comes from local farm stands, we eat mostly simple meals loaded with fresh fruits and veggies – oh, and tons of salsa. Sometimes I get on a Japanese kick – recently we had about two weeks of shabu-shabu, tsukemono, sukiyaki, unagi, curry, etc. And, looking at my most recent twitter tweets, it appears I’ve entered a Thai phase.

Whenever I fill out a silly email survey or am asked in person about my favorite food, I always answer the same, “Thai.” As I’ve written before, my love affair with lemon grass, fish sauce, coconut milk and green papaya began when I moved in next door to my Thai neighbor Anne. We hadn't even lived there a week when I heard a knock on the door. It was Anne. She had food. A tray of food. Delicious food.  Thai food.

A couple nights a week, this glorious event would occur. Anne would bring me a surprise - a covered plate of her fabulous dinner and…I would take her a plate of whatever I was making. I will never forget the night she brought over the ornate silver hot pot filled with a spicy soup laden with seafood, straw mushrooms, lemon grass and more. I still am not sure the name of the amazing dish simmering around the glowing coal filled chimney of the pot…but it left an indelible impression on me. I love Thai food. And, thanks to Anne, I know how to cook Thai food (at least I think so).

Tonight, I was going to make Pad Thai but chose a less labor intensive dish – Nuea Pad Tua Fug Yoa or Beef with String Beans. (Thai dishes frequently involve a very short cook time but a lot of chopping, dicing, slicing and other prep work - but that's one of the things that makes it so great - fresh taste and tons of flavor).  Beef with String Beans is one of the simplest Thai dishes I know how to make and, unlike many others I love, I can share this one with my family because it is not spicy (they don’t share my great appreciation for all that burns the digestive tract). As a note, not all Thai food is spicy. The focus, in my opinion, is on a diverse range of elements. The many fresh, bright combinations of herbs, spices, sauces and vegetables including lemon grass, garlic, lime, fresh basil, kaffir lime leaves and cilantro give Thai food its distinctive hot, sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes.

The meal I made tonight is one of my favorites because of the beans. Long beans look like regular green beans, but they are…well, long...really long – about 18” long and are found in any Asian grocery that has decent produce or in the friendly neighborhood mega-mart near the specialty veggies like snow peas, bean sprouts and English cucumbers. Yes, haricot vert or regular old green beans will do in a pinch, but – trust me – the long beans make the dish. (The bean – spelled thua fak yao in one of my books and tua fug yoa in another - is part of the recipe name. Nuea = beef and Pad = fry or stir fry). Even if someone has never tried Thai food – to eat or to cook – this is a great starter. Give it a try.

Beef with string beans
1 lb ground beef
3 cloves garlic (smashed)
1lb long beans (cut into 2” pieces)
3T fish sauce
1T sugar
1/4t white pepper

1. Brown ground beef. Drain.
2. Add garlic and cook until fragrant
3. Add fish sauce, sugar and pepper
4. Add beans and stir fry until tender
5. Serve with steamed jasmine rice and enjoy

Spice is Nice

Tonight I had a pound of local, grass fed, Three Sister’s ground beef thawed and ready for dinner…and that is just about as far as I'd managed with the preps. I had absolutely ZERO idea what I was going to do with it and mulled ingredients and thought about recipes and considered applications for a while and finally decided to make stroganoff. Then...I realized I was out of mushrooms.  My thinker shifted slowly to goulash – but not the Johhny Marzetti type macaroni and tomato stuff I grew up calling goulash - real goulash with bay leaves and tons of smoked Hungarian paprika and real sour cream (not that low fat or - heaven forbid - fat free junk). Technically what I ended up making would probably insult my old Hungarian grandmother – if I had one - but it was delicious, everyone loved it, and it is definitely on my Make It Again list. (recipe below)

The problem was, in cooking it, I used the last of my paprika and my last two bay leaves (one of which played a fierce game of hide-and-go-seek when I tried to pull it out of the sauce at the conclusion of cooking). Fortunately, my friend The Spice House was running a free shipping special for orders over $40 (code: FreeShip40). Not that I needed forty dollars of spices, but…well, anyone who knows me will know I surely didn’t mind finding something to add to my collection. I decided to stock up on a couple staples and take advantage of the free shipping special by treating myself to a couple items from my wish list.


Hungarian Sweet AND Spanish Smoked Sweet paprika – They don’t carry the Hungarian smoked I’m used to, so I decided to try a couple new ones. I hope they will do in my recipes - but I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve ordered from The Spice House (mostly I use paprika for chicken and pork rib rub and my newly invented “goulash” recipe).

Turkish Bay leaves – Instead of the domestic leaves that I usually buy, I'm going to give these with a “milder and more complex” flavor a whirl.  Bay leaves are an essential ingredient in beef and barley soup, the goulash, spaghetti sauce and more.

Tellicherry peppercorns – I bought a half-pound. I seem to be using the stuff at an amazing rate.  I use it in EVERYTING.

Za'atar – Ok, maybe this isn’t a staple to some, but I use it when I have it and I’m out right now. This Middle Eastern/Mediterranean blend of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, hyssop, and oregano is DELICIOUS packed onto flatbread brushed with olive oil and then grilled or lightly broiled.


Madagascar Bourbon Island Vanilla Bean Paste – I needed vanilla ANYWAY, but I’ve never tried the paste. I’ve heard it makes fabulous vanilla ice cream and Crème brûlée. Yummm!

Ras El Hanout – My cousin spent some time with the Peace Corps in Morocco and raved about the food. This regional multi-spice, spice blend directly translated to mean “top of the shop” is – in theory – the best of the best of the best of the best, sir! My cousin assured me I would find endless uses for it (NOTE: The Spice House website not only sells fabulous spices, they also list tons of recipe ideas using each type). I read that some blends of Ras El Hanout contain 20 or more spices – the one from The Spice House has 10 (Tellicherry black pepper, cardamom, salt, ginger, cinnamon, mace, turmeric, allspice, nutmeg, and saffron)

Aged Korean Black Garlic – I am a garlic nut, so I’m curious beyond words to try this aged and fermented specialty with the “sweet, salty, earthy taste…”

Vulcan’s Fire Salt – I’m also a spicy HOT food freak. This new item named after the Roman god of fire popped up in my twitter feed (yes, agoodcooker is on twitter – take a peek at the way bottom of the blog), so I had to try it. This sure-to-be-amazing salt blend contains the following: Salt, Louisiana Chile Mash, Garlic, Habanero Chile, Shallots, Tellicherry Pepper, Lime Peel, Pimenton de La Vera, Picane, Cumin, Allspice, and Vinegar.

Now that my spices are on their way, I'm sure I can think up more uses or make my newly invented version of goulash again soon. I know the family won’t mind.

Sorta Hungarian Goulash
1 lb hamburger
1 large onion, diced
1T paprika (preferably Hungarian smoked)
4 ounces red wine
8 ounces beef stock (preferably homemade)
2 large bay leaves
1t garlic powder
1t fresh ground black pepper
1t sugar
1T kosher salt (more or less to taste)
28oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 to 3/4c sour cream
1 lb fusilli (or similar) pasta

1. Over medium/high heat, brown hamburger. Drain most of the fat. Add onion and sauté until clear.
2. Add paprika and cook until fragrant. Add wine to deglaze pan.
3. Add beef stock (homemade), bay leaves, garlic powder, black pepper, sugar, salt and tomatoes. Simmer sauce on low until thickened (30 minutes or more to release flavors).
4. Cook pasta. Drain.
5. Toss pasta with sauce and add sour cream. Mix well.  Serve immediately and enjoy.

Musings of A Good Cooker

Last night’s dinner failed to satisfy me. As a matter of fact, several of the meals I’ve prepared recently have not been up to my standards. I don’t know what is wrong. I can't put my finger on it and no one has complained. The food hasn’t been terrible – just mediocre. Mediocre, meaning ordinary or so-so, is not good enough for me. I’m a perfectionist (as I’ve written before) when it comes to food prep. I cook primarily from scratch with high quality ingredients and decent tools of the trade. I keep reading and watching and comparing and learning. I try and try again. Whether it be last night’s simple supper of Julia Child’s cabbage soup and my homemade Italian herb bread or the more complex Beef bourguignon I made for Valentine’s Day or even something as easy as scrambled eggs – I want everything to be flawless. (And, I think I’m getting worse in my old age.) Despite the fact I’ve often wanted to chuck the whole meal in the woods, we eat it anyway (I abhor wasted food). It has always been good – just not good enough.

I don’t purport to be any kind of cuisine art educated chef - not even remotely, and I have no grand aspirations of owning or even working at a restaurant. I simply like making good – albeit perfect – food for my family and friends.

In writing this, I truly realized I'd rather have one bite of something absolutely fabulous than an entire seven course meal of mediocre fare.

I think – no, I know - this is the reason my life’s goal is to eat at Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley French Laundry. It is my true Mecca, my Xanadu, my Shangri-La. Ever since I saw the hysterically crude, amazingly entertaining, spicy food loving Anthony Bourdain sample coffee and cigarette custard there, I’ve longed to eat at The French Laundry…I dream of eating there…I will eat there.

Until then, I will endeavor to create delicious, nutritious and hopefully flawless - or at least close to it - foods for those closest to me. Tonight it’s some not too shabby shared leftovers of Bifteck Sautee Marchand de Vins and Hawaiian style chicken and coconut milk curry. Yummmm.

Watch the video and see for yourself (I don’t know why the last minutes are cut off):

The French Laundry:

I bought the book!:

To each his own

Recently I was involved in a discussion regarding the difference between herbs and spices - in my mind, spices are seeds and herbs are leaves – but what about other plant parts and even dried vegetables like onion and garlic powder? And how does one categorize saffron, zest, bark, extracts? (Using my definition, bay leaves would be herbs, but I’ve always considered them to be spices). My favorite procurement palace, The Spice House, groups them all together as “spices” but does have an “herb” category that includes all the typical leafy things as well as lavender (but not saffron or bay leaves which are listed as spices).

I decided to do what I love to do and research it. As with previous entries, the more I dug into the topic, the more questions I had.

First, the similarities. Spices and herbs are all inarguably parts of plants. Both are used widely in all styles of cuisine to add or enhance different flavor elements. In a typical grocery store, less the fresh items, all mingle together on the same shelves with salt, food coloring, gravy packs and chili seasoning.

A few differences. The shelf life of dried herbs seems to be in the neighborhood of six months maximum. A note - my reading states herbs generally should have some flexibility (not powder when crumbled), color (usually green), and an evident scent. Whole spices last much longer and can be kept for a year or two or more (ground = 6 months). Most herbs are relatively inexpensive while quality spices can sometimes almost break the bank.  Spices come in a range of beautiful colors and herbs are more often than not shades of green. 

I asked my good friend Merriam Webster to straighten it all out for me and didn’t find much help there either.

Spice- (noun) any of various aromatic vegetable products (as pepper or nutmeg) used to season or flavor foods

Herb- (noun) a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.

And, just to further confuse the issue:  Spice- (verb) to season with spices

Not satisfied, I grabbed my always faithful Cook’s Illustrated annuals to get their take on the matter. While they did not clearly distinguishing between the two either, herbs seem to be those used primarily fresh (or in a dried form) and spices are seeds separated between savory or sweet applications. (Interestingly enough, CI included crystallized ginger with the “baking” spices). Julia Child, who focuses on French cooking, defines herbs as the following: parsley, thyme, bay leaves, tarragon, chives, chervil, basil, fennel (as in the plant, not the seeds), oregano, sage and saffron. Basically, she agrees that herbs are leaves and plant parts and spices (such as allspice) are seeds.

Cookbook after cookbook, article after article - even the McCormick website lists them ALL as spices - oh, and every expert has their own opinion - but all seemed to come to the same conclusion. There is no single, all-encompassing conclusion. Apparently there are clear cut spices and clear cut herbs and a huge gray area in between. So, I guess I’ll call my seeds spices and my leaves herbs but truly, these categories - I've concluded - are ultimately best left to the opinion of the cooker.

While researching the topic for which I found no real answer, I did stumble across this very cool herb and spice guide. Check it out: 

Oh, Redondo

How I love you so. I’ve often said that one of the big things I miss about Hawaii is the food…and the flowers. But mostly the food. Portuguese sausage is one of those. One time we returned to Hawaii for a visit and I stuffed a suitcase with Hawaiian BBQ sauce and…you guessed it…Portuguese sausage. Silly to some, but anyone who has ever tasted the spicy salty red greasy goodness understands the passion.

Portuguese sausage may be a Hawaiian import, but it is nearly as popular as Spam - so much so it is served on their McDonald’s Big Breakfast with eggs, rice AND Spam. My favorite, Redondo’s Portuguese Brand Sausage, won Honolulu Magazine's 2008 award for "Best Portuguese Sausage."  (I didn't even know there was such a thing) 

Imagine the little dance I did when I spied the links of Redondo’s Portuguese Sausage – spicy and mild – in the meat cooler at a local store. It was expensive - $5.99 for a 12 ounce link, but I didn’t care. It was mine all mine and worth every penny.

This morning for breakfast I steamed the rice, scrambled the eggs and sliced and fried the 100% porky goodness and called the family to the table. 

Oh, Redondo...

My Mecca

No longer living in Japan and now unable to access many of the items I became used to purchasing left me wanting for a good Japanese grocery. Many Asian markets do carry a few of the specialty snacks and ingredients I like, but more often than not, good quality Japanese items were few and far between. In Virginia Beach I found – with the help of my nihonjin neighbor – a fabulous little place called Ichiban (“number one”) that carried Japanese products only. The store was very small but exceptionally clean and well organized – the products never looked like they actually traveled half-way around the world to get to the shelves. However, I’ve since moved and really miss my ready source for wakame, dashi, shichimi, shiromiso, konbu, unagi, mugicha

Missed, I should say, until another wonderful friend pointed me in the direction of Uwajimaya in Seattle. I nary waited a full day before jumping in my Jeep and heading out with visions of umeboshi dancing in my head.

While there is a blend of other Asian and South-east Asian (and even American) cuisine found throughout the aisles, the majority of the items are from the Land of the Rising Sun. I was thrilled to find a huge store, bakery, and foodcourt - almost a mall - packed with an amazing array of recipe ingredients, snacks and many goodies I had not seen since I left Nippon. Take a peek:

"Vanilla Cream Oreo Stick" (Yes, that's really what it says.  I can still read a little - well, enough to get by). This was one of the couple dozen flavors of ever popular Pocky-type snacks available.

Hello Kitty is Japan's Mickey Mouse, I dare say.  She is seen on toys, candy and snacks, rice cookers, space heaters, wine, lawn mowers (yes, lawn mowers) and even toilet paper and...uh, feminine products.

Canned coffee is everywhere in Japan.  There are literally hundreds of types - the best of which is Georgia brand by Coca-Cola (I miss it so...) and is not, to the best of my knowledge, sold in the USA.  It's almost worth a trip back to Japan - it's that darn good.  The same vending machines - located in absolutely every part of the country (we even saw one in the middle of nowhere next to a daikon field with no apparent power source) - spit out cold coffee (and tea) in the summer and perfectly heated stuff in the winter. 

Only the Japanese make wine-filled chocolate (3.3% alcohol) and wine ice cream this delicious...

Fresh, "real" wasabi, anyone?  Only $59.99 a pound.  It makes me wish I'd taken greater advantage of having it in my neighborhood grocery store when we lived in Japan.  

Fresh fish?  This one was VERY fresh - I think he winked at me.  Seriously though, they have fresh, in the shell sea urchin (uni), sashimi grade salmon (sake), tuna (maguro), and so much more. 

Not Japanese, but very close to what we saw in every corner bakery in Japan was the deliciousness that is Yummy House Bakery and Beard Papa's Cream Puffs (where they fill fresh baked pastry clouds with two flavors of custard while you wait).

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I can't wait to go back.  Now armed with all the ingredients I need to make shabu-shabu, yakisoba, sukiyaki - as well as many things I didn't really need, I'm excited to get cooking and eating and planning my next trip!  Stay tuned...


A beef about corned beef

The perennial favorite - corned beef and cabbage and all the good things that go along with it - is one of my all-time beloved dishes. Unnaturally pink slabs of fatty brisket, flavor laden chunks of root vegetables, succulent wedges of cabbage all served with a healthy dollop of spicy stone-ground mustard and a slice or two of warm, tender and crispy Irish soda bread – delectable. Homemade corned beef hash made from the leftovers – even better. Pesky pickling spices lying low like nasty little landmines just waiting for unexpecting teeth to chomp down - not good – not good at all. While I love mustard seeds in my mustard, I loathe biting into them in my boiled dinner. Ka-Boom!

My grandmother made the best corned beef and cabbage. My parents made good stuff too. Even the Navy made a mean carrot, cabbage and brisket lunch that packed the galley each and every St. Paddy’s Day. All…with…SEEDS! Try as I might to pick out all the peppercorns and friends, inevitably one or two or a few would escape detection by hiding in the folds of the beef or wedging into a potato chunk. What to do? What to do...

My eventual easy answer came from Japan. In fact, it sat it my gadget drawer largely unused for years without me even realizing the key to my dilemma was only a few feet away. I speak of the little empty tea bags used for loose tea. Yes, yes…one could put the spices in a square of cheesecloth or muslin and tie the little hobo bag shut before dropping the seasonings in the pot, but these little, single use bags work like a champ. I never cook with whole spices without them anymore. They keep the bay leaves at bay, the cloves cloistered, the allspice enshrined and pepper imprisioned in my adobo, lamb stew, beef and barley and more.  Oh, and they are of course also a wiz-bang at brewing tea...