Invitation to my Free Class! “The Fastest Path to Healthy & Exciting Home-Made Meals!”

Happy New Year!

Is “healthy eating” one of your new year’s resolutions?

Would you like to learn how to cook healthy, tasty meals at home with half the effort and time, and with twice as much variety?

As a New Year gift to my loyal readers, I’d love to invite you to my class “The Fastest Path to Healthy & Exciting Home-cooked Meals!” next Saturday, January 16 at Oakland Public Library for free!  I will teach you my unique system of how to make a variety of healthy meals at home easier and faster while having fun!  

In this class, you’ll learn the first, most critical step — how to keep an efficient, flexible pantry.  After completing this step, you will be able to whip up lots of dishes and end your dinner dilemmas forever!

  1. What to keep on hand & what to shop for
  2. How to mix and match ingredients for maximum flexibility and efficiency
  3. Demo of several easy dishes – with samples for tasting!
  • When?:  January 16 (Saturday), 2010   From 11:30am to12:30pm                  
    • Optional free trip to Trader Joes (12:30 – 1:30pm) to help you get a head start
  • Where?: Oakland Public Library Lakeview Branch: 550 El Embarcadero, Oakland, CA 94610    510-238-7344     
  • Questions?:  Leave me a comment!

This event is popular and expected to sell out!  Come early – seats are first come, first served (or bring a portable chair just in case).  The class starts promptly at 11:30am.

*Space is limited to first 40! Save your spot NOW and get FREE printable shopping list by signing up from Class Tab on top.

* Parking: If possible, carpool or take public transportation.  Parking could be challenging. There are a parking under 580 (right next to the farmer’s market), metered parking along main streets such as Grand, Lake Shore etc., and free street parking on side streets.

 Look forward to seeing you in person next Saturday!

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“Survivor: Pneumonia 2”: The Silver Lining

It’s been a pain to be sick for over three weeks, but I got something unexpected as a gift.

We now have another sous-Kitchen Wizard at our house.

OK, he’s learning, so it’s not the same, but given that he never really cooked much for the 11 1/2 years we’ve been together, he’s far exceeded my expectations.  (OK, he wants me to add that he occasionally grills and makes crepes on weekends, and pasta with pre-made tomato sauce when I’m not around. Oh, and a very nice salmon and lentil dish when I had flu 10 years ago.)

With minimum instruction and no specific recipes, he made the following:

  • Various pasta dishes (one with cauliflower, two with chicken and lamb sausages & veggies, one with seafood & veggies)
  • Potato with seafood & veggie sauce
  • Grated lotus root  & chicken burger (my favorite!)
  • Carrot soup
  • Sausage, potatoes and brussel sprouts (grilled)
  • Brussels sprouts salad
  • Brussels sprouts & sausage soup
  • Sautéed cauliflower
  • Cauliflower pasta
  • Japanese style Tofu scramble with tuna
  • Chicken with orange sauce
  • Swordfish Kebab
  • Chinese style seafood and veggie dish
  • Braised lettuce
  • Tuna and avocado rice bowl
  • Spanish Omelet

And probably a few more I’ve forgotten.  He’s made everything from scratch, without relying on pre-made things. (We don’t have these in our house any more.)  Of course, he had a choice to go out shopping and do so, but he didn’t. I was very proud of him. No take-outs either.

Is he a genius? He’d want me to say yes, but but in reality, no, and he only had minimum cooking skills to start with. (Now definitely medium cooking skills).  I realized when you give minimum yet flexible instructions, rather than a specific recipe, keep a well stocked pantry, and give people freedom to play, anyone can cook far beyond their imagination.

Before this, as far as I know, he didn’t cook much.  When I’m out, I felt I had to make sure that he’d have things to eat. So when I got really sick with 104F fever and entered my version of Survivor Pneumonia, which had never happened in the past, I was worried that we may have no dinners. I was too weak to cook, and I didn’t even have any appetite.

On the first night, he kept asking “what shall we cook?” and I kept telling him, “I don’t know. I’m not even hungry”.  The only thing I managed to do was 1) ask him what we had in the fridge, and 2) give him some suggestions about what he could make, and based on what he said he’d want to cook, 3) I gave him a very basic instructions and guidelines, and off he went.

It probably was helpful that I had no energy or appetite to visit the kitchen to check how he was doing.

Based on this, this is what I learned.

  • With minimum direction, anyone can cook.
  • Use all 5 senses, especially tasting throughout the process. Stay in the kitchen, and pay attention to what’s going on.
  • A well-stocked pantry is the key – you can make various dishes depending on the mood and time available for cooking.
  • Sometimes, all one needs is to change the frame work. When I had a craving for pureed soup, he thought it would be way too difficult and time consuming. When I gave him basic directions, he used his creative license, and made us a nice carrot soup, and concluded that it was quite easy.
  • Most important ingredient is the freedom to play, fail and subsequently succeed.

Afraid of criticism from your family? (or worse yet, yourself?)

Make sure there’s no food police allowed in your home-kitchen. Both the cook and the diners need to have adjusted expectations. You won’t be serving your dinner for $20 per plate, so if it doesn’t turn out spectacularly, no big deal. It’s only food! Focus on what went well, and if there is an area for improvement, write it down in your Kitchen Journal, so that next time, you won’t make the same mistake.

This is also a good practice for anything you do in life.  Change the way you see your accomplishments – 1. what went well, 2, what would make this even better, and how you can do that.  

Praise: Give praise to the chef. Even if you find some imperfections, praise what’s good about the dish.  Also the fact she or he took time to make that for you.  That alone is worth the praise.

Nothing says “I love you” like home-cooked food made with love.   That means no thinking about work, or fights with your family, or other concerns.  People can actually taste these problems.

Cooking time can be very therapeutic after a busy day at work, if you learn how to be present and use it as a time to be creative and have fun.

Just like driving, regular practice makes it perfect. My husband was forced to cook everyday for a few weeks. Once the first week was over, he was a lot more confident cook. And if he can do that, anyone can.

So the silver lining of my survivor pneumonia episode: 1. We have another cook in the house. (I don’t have to worry about his dinner when I’m not around!  Woo hoo!) 2. My husband found cooking is fun and easy.  3. We have another hobby which we can share. 4. Last but not least I now have a newfound respect for my husband.

What do you need to cook Japanese food at home?

Many people ask me what they need to cook Japanese food successfully at home.

Here’s the secret. If you want to cook Japanese food, you may want to invest in a few key Japanese seasonings. Don’t worry, they are not that expensive – and you can use them for other kinds of food, and they last for a while. Most large supermarkets in major cosmopolitan areas have these things. If not, try an Asian market near your house. They are most likely to have them for a cheaper price and often more variety.

  • Soy Sauce: Japanese kind is preferred. Kikkoman is readily available in most supermarkets.
  • Mirin: Sweet cooking wine, also called Hon-Mirin (hon means “authentic” or “real”). Aji-Mirin are not real mirin, OK as a substitute, but if there are both, get the real one.
  • Sake: Japanese rice wine. Yes, similar to the one you drink at Sushi restaurant, but for cooking, the left over and/or cheap variety which you may not want to drink is fine. Do not get cooking-wine. Can be substituted with dry white wine in a pinch.
  • Sesame oil: dark kind is preferred.
  • Rice vinegar: Japanese kind is preferred. Mizkan is readily available. Those from Philippine etc. taste significantly different.
  • Dashi: Japanese fish stock. There are powdered kinds and liquid kinds (see photo). Or you can buy bonito flakes and make it on your own. If you are vegetarian/vegan, you can use kombu (sea kelp) stock.
  • Sesame seeds: There are white and black kind, roasted whole, ground kind etc. Start with the roasted, white one.
  • Miso Paste: not as important, but if you love miso soup, it’s a must! (And you can eat it every day!!!) There are types that already have dashi in it.  For a typical non-Japanese house-hold, you may find this more convenient. Red ones (Aka-miso) are favored in North and Eastern Japan: saltier and more flavorful (in my opinion), white version (Shiro-miso) are used more often in the Western Japan. Sweeter and more subtle. They also have mixed that are called “Awase-miso” (meaning mixed miso), which you may want to start with.
  • Wasabi: I like the tube kind better than the powder. If you don’t like that kind of spiciness that comes straight to your nose, skip it.
  • Fresh ginger: I really prefer fresh kind to powdered. Totally different flavors. You can peel the skin and freeze it in the freezer, grate frozen one, if you rarely use it.
  • Extra: Men-tsuyu: Japanese noodle soup base. You can make a lot tastier version of this with soy sauce, mirin, sugar and dashi. However, men-tsuyu is convenient if you don’t have time. Many Japanese in Japan use it not just for noodles, but in many dishes like Japanese style omelets, soups and stews like oden, nimono, as well as salads, and even Japanese savory egg custard which all Americans seem to love. I think this is busy cooks’ (and non-purists’) friend.

As a start these will do!  As you increase your repertoire of Japanese cuisine, you can begin to add more to your pantry.

Later this week, I will post a secret to make miso soup easily at home… If you love miso-soup, or you have ever bought those expensive freeze dried kind from a store, this is a must read!!!  Be sure to subscribe from the top right so that you will not miss it.

If you have any questions, please leave me a comment!

L ot R: Bottled Dashi, Rice vinegars, Miso, Sesame oil, Mirin

Curry Base Split Recipe 4: Chana Masala & Bonus Recipe: Raita & Mango Lassi

From top left: mango lassi, chana masala, raita, potato and swiss chard curry, keema curry

From top left: mango lassi, chana masala, raita, potato and swiss chard curry, keema curry

Some of you asked me for the specific recipe for each curry on the photos I used, so as the finale of series of curry related posts, here’s the recipe for Chana Masala (Chickpea curry).  Chana masala is even easier than Keema, Potato and Chard, or Eggplant curry.  All you need is the curry base from our previous post and a can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans).  A great pantry menu and it’s filling too.

To complete your Indian feast, and make it more festive, there’s mango lassi (everybody loves it, especially kids) and raita recipes, so don’t miss them!

Chana Masala (Chickpea/Garbanzo Curry)

Directions:

  1. Heat the curry base (click here for recipe) in the pan.  Add a can or 1 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Add some stock as needed (it depends on how much moisture the vegetable has as well as your personal preference). Cook until the flavor is incorporated and heated through.  Adjust seasoning.
  2. Top with chopped cilantro (strictly optional. I hate it, so we don’t!) Serve with steamed rice, saffron rice or naan.

Note:

  • You can add more water, and puree it to make daal.

OK… So here’s the finale!  To make your Indian spread more authentic and festive, you need two other things… Raita and Mango Lassi!

Raita:

  • Chop onion, cucumber, tomato. Mix well with yogurt. Top with paprika or chopped cilantro.

Mango Lassi:

  • The easiest method is with Mango juice.  Mix Mango juice with yogurt with a stick blender.  I like about 1:1 ratio. Adjust the ratio, based on your preference.
  • If using frozen or fresh mango (cut in bite size pieces), puree everything together in food processor or blender (you may need to add some liquid such as milk if using blender.)
  • Optional: add sugar or honey if not sweet enough.

Since we talked about different uses of sautéed and grilled eggplants, we’ll talk about these possibilities in more details next week!

(Yup, this is the end of the curry posts…  I promise… at least for a while. : ))

Kitchen Tip du Jour: Always Keep Leftovers to Repurpose into Many Other Dishes.

Many people ask me how I can whip up variety of dishes so easily.

It’s because I have many pre-prepped food that can be used in many different things.

For example, when my sister-in-law, and her family was visiting, I was able to whip up a Turkish Eggplant dip in less than 5 min.  If you make from scratch, this would take well over 1 hour.

Yesterday, I made a spicy Spanish omelet for breakfast in less than 10 min. It would take about 45 min to one hour if you follow a normal recipe.

For lunch, I made flavorful Moroccan style Chickpea & Chorizo Chowder for quick lunch.  Time required?  To heat up the soup, about 5 min as well. If you make this from scratch, this too could take quite a while.

So why I can make these dishes that take a long time so quickly?  All from scratch!

“Is she really a wizard?”

No… I wish!

It’s all because I grilled extra eggplants when we BBQ a few days before, and saved the flesh in the fridge.

It’s all because when I was making clam with chorizo dish, I saved some sautéed onion and chorizo mixture before adding the clams, and kept it in the fridge.  All I did was adding that and (also leftover) sautéed potatoes to beaten eggs. All I did for the chowder is to add can of garbanzo beans and chicken broth (or even water!) to the chorizo mix and heat it up and puree with a stick blender.

Now you can see how many different varieties of dishes you can create by combining these leftovers and some other things you have in your pantry, fridge or freezer.

That’s why I am able to cut so much time from cooking the next time.

This is quintessence of Kitchen Wizard style cooking.

You can do the same.  Always keep leftovers to repurpose into many other dishes, so cooking & eating will be always a breeze and fun. Even when you don’t have time.  You’ll impress your family and friends for sure.

It’ll be like a magic! You too will feel like a wizard.

And never underestimate the power of leftovers!

Flavor Booster: Olive Tapenade

One of my pantry item, which is a flavor booster is olive tapenade.

This is great on baguettes, crackers and veggies. 

And did you know it also turns boring dishes to something brilliant with a bright flavor? It adds a lot of umami, the 5th taste (the other five are: salty, sour, sweet, bitter).

You can use it where you use olives and more…  I love using olive tapenade in my pasta, salad dressing, and you can top it on meat and fish, even crudo…  Italian style sashimi. 

You can buy this from the store, or make it easily when you have leftover olives.  Basically it’s a mixture of good olives (I love Calamata or Nicoise olives), anchovies, a little bit of capers and garlic pureed with extra virgin olive oil.  If your capers is in brine, add about a teaspoon of that liquid… if not, add about the same amount of lemon juice or vinegar. The exact amount doesn’t really matter.  Create a spread that taste good to you.

Keep it in fridge, and it should keep about a month. You can also use this as a base, and add chopped tomatoes, nuts, herb, nuts etc. to expand the variety as you use it in different dishes.

Here are the list of resources about Umami:

What are your favorite flavor boosters?  How do you used them?  Why do you like them?  Please share with us!

Flavor Boosters: Anchovy Paste and Fish Sauce

ceasar salad

Short-cut Ceaser Salad

Anchovy paste in a tube is my favorite purchase from our last visit to Italy. Even though the quality of anchovies are better when you buy them in salt or oil in jars, anchovy pastes are far more convenient, because all you have to do is squeeze out the amount you need, and they also last much longer. Plus, there’s no need to make it into a paste, or someone identify these and say “Oh, I hate anchovies!”  If they don’t see them, and you use just a little bit, they will love the flavor. (Example: Who doesn’t like Caesar’s salad?)  The only thing is, it’s almost gone, and they are hard to come by in the US.

So now what do I do?

I’ve been using the “liquid version”, which is far more economical, and easier to get, at least in the Bay Area where Asians are abound.

It’s fish sauce. Not just for Thai and Vietnamese dishes, you can add a dash of this instead of anchovies to add depth in flavor, called umami in Japanese.  If you make home-made Chinese noodle soup, use this to season the broth. Without adding much else, it creates a delicious soup.  I used to take a long time to make noodle soup without using anything with MSG in it.  Now all I need is a cooking liquid of poached chicken (which is shredded and often added back as topping of my noodle soup), a few slices of ginger, and fish sauce.  That’s pretty much it.

Just be careful not to use too much when using in non-Southeast Asian dishes.  The smell could be overpowering!

There are many kinds… I recommend the Three Crab brand. (Also SF Chronicle Food writer, Mai Pham’s and Slanted Door Chef, Charles Phan’s favorite.)

Many celebrity chefs are also turning into fish sauce as secret ingredients lately.  Click here for an article by San Francisco Chronicle food writer Janet Fretcher about using fish sauce for both Asian and non-Asian dishes.

Here’s the recipe for “pregnant-woman-friendly” Short-cut Caesar Salad from Janet’s article.

Shortcut Caesar Salad
This makes a main-course lunch salad or a small dinner salad.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 16 baguette slices, about 1/3-inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup prepared mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce, or more to taste
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced to a paste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound hearts of romaine, in bite-size pieces
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Brush the baguette slices with olive oil on both sides, then cut each slice in half to make half-rounds. Place on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Put the mayonnaise in a small bowl and slowly whisk in the olive oil, lemon juice, fish sauce and garlic. Add several grinds of black pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  3. Toss the romaine with enough of the dressing to coat the leaves nicely. Add the Parmesan and croutons and toss again. Serve immediately.
  • Serves 2 to 4
    PER SERVING: 255 calories, 5 g protein, 7 g carbohydrate, 24 g fat (4 g saturated), 11 mg cholesterol, 724 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

Do you like fish sauce or anchovy?  What do you use in it?  Please share with us!

Your Friends in the Pantry: Flavor Boosters!

As I mentioned in the previous post about the well-stocked pantry. there are things that I have to have in mine, which is the basis of my Kitchen Wizard cooking.

Here’s the list of some items I always have in my pantry/fridge for quick, flavorful meals.

Canned beans: (cannellini beans, chickpeas, black beans) for quick soups, chili, salads and dips.

Uncooked sausage, bacon: I use them as condiments.  Click here for some examples with regular uncooked sausagesHere’s for Chorizo.

Tuna in olive oil: (tastes far better than tuna in water, plus you can skip the step of adding oil for cooking and making dressing.) One of my childhood favorite is to mix tuna with chopped green onion and top it on steamed rice with soy sauce.  Yum!

Anchovy paste in a tube: Even though the quality of anchovies are better when you buy them in salt or oil in jars, anchovy pastes are far more convenient, because all you have to do is squeeze out the amount you need, and they also last much longer!

Tomato paste in a tube: same reason as above.  With canned tomatoes, you have to finish within a few days. The tube version keeps much longer.

Mirin: This is Japanese sweet cooking wine. We Japanese rely on this a lot… To me. the smell of cooked soy sauce and mirin mixture reminds me of home… In addition to traditional uses, you could use a dash of mirin as a secret ingredient in many non-Japanese foods, such as ratatouille.  

Going on Vacation? Fridge Clean-out Strategies before Your Trip

Summer is at full swing, practically every part of Northern Hemisphere.  Time for summer vacation! 

Are you going anywhere this summer? 

Every time we go off to a vacation or a trip longer than a weekend, I do a fridge clean-out.  The longer the vacation, the more important we do this, because no one likes to come home, and greeted by moldy produce in the fridge!

  1. Starting about a week or so before, stop going to major grocery shopping.  You would still like to buy things you cannot live without, such as milk, cereal and bread., but probably not something “nice to have”.
  2. Ask yourself these 2 questions: “Will I really cook/finish this before the trip?” and “Will this be good after we come back for a while?”  If the answer is Yes, buy it. If No, don’t.
  3. Eat what’s in fridge, supplemented by staples – things in the pantry and freezer, and long-lasting vegetables. For list of pantry items, click here.
  4. Do “Chef’s Mercy” recipes, meaning cook something without a recipe, or improvise quite a bit. 

This practice is not just for vacations.  It’s a great idea to clean-out what we have once in a while, by (ideally) cooking with them, not by throwing away. It helps you become better, more resourceful, ecological cook.  A great skill to have in any economy, easier to develop in an economy like this.

Plus when you clean out your fridge, and especially if you clean the inside as well, you’ll feel so much better. I promise!

Money saving tips 2: Stock your pantry smartly

I found this Money saving tips from Sandra Lee from Food Network on their website. I’ll introduce some of them from time to time, and expand with my own optimization tips. Today’s tip is to stock your pantry smartly.

Sandra’s Tip: Buy staples in bulk to save money and stock your pantry smartly.

  • Keeping a few key items on hand like seasonings, baking mix, condiments and lean protein will ensure that a tasty meal is just a mixing spoon away.

Kitchen Wizard Tips on stocking your pantry:

One of the biggest keys for optimizing your cooking efforts is to have a well-stocked pantry. Your ideal pantry really depends on your eating and cooking habits, ethnic background etc.  Since I’m Japanese, and I love to eat a variety of foods from around the world, my pantry consists of many things that many people may not even have heard of.  Yet there are things that every kitchen should have, such as eggs, milk, bread, onions, carrots and potatoes.

Here are the things that I believe should be in everyone’s pantry.  By having a well stocked pantry (and a willingness to deviate from a recipe when you need to), you should be able to eliminate unnecessary trips to grocery store – which saves you a ton of time, not just money.

You may want to tweak it based on your eating habits and add the quantity you need and print it out… Post it on your fridge, mark it when something is running out, and grab it with you when you go grocery shopping so that you won’t miss anything.

Pantry:

  1. Kosher salt or sea salt
  2. Black pepper, chili flakes, curry powder and bay leaves
  3. Soy sauce (especially if you cook a lot of Asian dishes)
  4. Vinegar – wine, Balsamic and/or rice vinegar (especially for Asian dishes)
  5. Oil – extra virgin olive oil, canola, sesame oil (if you cook a lot of Asian dishes)
  6. Wine – red, dry white and/or sake (for cooking.  Don’t buy “cooking wine”.)
  7. Sugar or honey
  8. Canned tomatoes
  9. Canned tuna in olive oil
  10. Canned beans (Chickpea, canellini or black beans)
  11. Rice
  12. Pasta
  13. Bread
  14. Flour
  15. Canned stock or bouillon cubes
  16. Nuts, seeds (Sesame seeds, for Asian dishes)
  17. Dried fruits (especially raisins)

Fridge/Perishables

  1. Eggs
  2. Butter
  3. Milk, cream, yogurt
  4. Cold cuts, meat, seafood, tofu
  5. Onions, green onions (especially if you cook a lot of Asian dishes)
  6. Carrots
  7. Celery
  8. Potatoes
  9. Lettuce
  10. Some kind of green vegetables
  11. Mushrooms
  12. Garlic
  13. Ginger (especially if you cook a lot of Asian dishes)
  14. Lemon
  15. Apples
  16. Banana
  17. Parmiggiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, Gruyere
  18. Mustard
  19. Mayonnaise

Freezer:

  1. Chicken tenders or breast
  2. Individually portioned ground meat and/or uncooked sausage
  3. Seafood – shrimps, scallops, seafood mix
  4. Corn
  5. Green peas
  6. Mixed berries

With this list alone, you are equipped to whip up dozens of different variety of dishes. By adding other fresh ingredients, and tweak the recipe with what you have on hand rather than what’s it’s called for, your options are infinite.

What are your favorite pantry items you can’t live without?  What kind of ethnic item do you recommend and why? Please share with us.

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