Kitchen Tip du Jour: Label everything with contents and date.

Label everything with:

  • Contents: ex. how its cooked, what’s in it, what part, vegetarian or not, etc.
  • Date: when it’s cooked, frozen or reheated.
  • (Optional) Serving size or portion:  Ideal to change the amount left over on the label as it’s used up.)

Use abbreviations as needed.  Make sure they are easy to decipher to you and those in your household.

Example:

  • SH P Chix Breast, 7/16, (2)  — shredded, porched chicken breast, made on 7/16, 2 breasts
  • ST onion/chorizo mix, 7/15  (1 c) — Sauteed, onion, chorizo mixture, made on 7/14, 1 cup
  • Lentil Soup, VN, 7/14 (4)  — Lentil soup, Vegan, 7/14, 4 servings
  • GR Turkey, 7/2 (4 oz) — ground turkey, frozen on 7/2, 4 oz portion

You get the idea.

This will make your life a lot easier… and save a ton of time and frustration! (Especially for something frozen.)

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Season’s Treat… Squash Blossoms/Zucchini Flowers: How to keep them fresh, longer?

squash blossoms

Squash blossoms and zucchini flowers… My favorite summer treat.

I first ate this delicacy in Nice during my summer vacation while at graduate school in 91.  I stayed at my friend’s grandma’s place in Nice, and they took me to the market in Old Nice, that’s where I had the first taste. I loved them!

The only thing was, I forgot to ask my friends what it was. I looked and looked and looked after I came back, but couldn’t find it, because in early 90s, they weren’t really known in the US.  I even contemplated stuffing any delicate looking, bell shaped, orange flowers to see if I could end up with that stuffed flower.  (One of them I thought about is supposedly poisonous… Thank god, I didn’t do that!)

So how did I find out they were zucchini flowers?  Almost 10 years after that, I finally found them at my landlord’s garden in San Francisco! Being from Italy, they had all kinds of vegetables, and one of them was zucchini. I begged them to give me some, and they reluctantly gave me about a dozen and told me to deep fry them with ricotta inside (Italian way).  Of course, I had to have some of them the way I had it in Nice.  It tasted the same…  I was transferred back to Nice…

When we were in Nice in 05, of course I had to take my husband to the market in Old Nice, and voila! The same stuffed zucchini flowers with many other vegetables! (See recipe from the last post.)

Squash blossoms are easy to grow at home. Given that they are hard to find, and quite expensive (50c per flower, often withered), I grow them just for the flowers.

All squash blossoms open in the morning, and close by mid-afternoon, so if you are growing them, you need to pick them early.  If you are using them for frying or to chop and add them to pasta or something, it’s ok if they are withered a bit. However, I love them stuffed the most, so I pick them early before they start closing.

Unless you have many plants, you may not have enough, so here’s what I do.

Pick the male plant if you want to grow squash.  I find squash and zucchini fruit themselves are cheap and easy to find, so I often pick female flowers which have a baby fruit at the end.  Take the stamens (or pistil) out, rinse gently with water, and wrap them in a moist paper towel.  Keep them in a Ziploc bag in the fridge, and keep collecting blossoms everyday until you have enough.

They should keep fresh for 3 – 4 days.

P1040734

The back: Stuffed with rice, sausages, pesto, lemon zest and cheese (some has Pecorino Romano, some have ricotta)

Front: Stuffed with ricotta cheese with pesto mixture.

Zucchini Flower on Foodista

Storage /Packaging — Freezing Part 2: Don’t Touch The Neighbors!

Don’t let the neighbors touch each other at the beginning.  Otherwise, you will find yourself in big trouble – soon.

Before you know it, they will get stuck. And, it will take forever to separate them, and it could ruin them all.  Not good.

I’m talking about freezing food.  Things like bacon, extra gyoza dumplings, those chicken breasts and drumsticks you bought on sale, but can’t finish.

One idea is to wrap them individually with plastic wrap, but there’s an easier trick, one especially helpful for things that are difficult to wrap.

It really is a pain to handle all the food stuck together.  Pretty much the only choice is to thaw the entire thing, and the rest often ends up in the garbage. Unless you manage to cut it off or smash it off, which takes a lot of time and frustration.  Not good.

With a little planning, you can avoid all that, and create a happy neighborhood in Freezerville.

Lay all of the individual pieces to be frozen on a cookie sheet, lined with a sheet of parchment paper or a silicon pad, making sure that they are not touching each other.  Otherwise, unlike human neighbors, you can guarantee these food neighbors will get stuck really badly, especially if they have moisture on them.

Once they are partially frozen, you can take them off the cookie sheet, and put them in a Ziploc bag. 

Then when you need to use them, all you need to do is grab whatever you need, no more, no less and thaw.

One exception is things like herbs, or chopped green onions.  Make sure to dry them well first, then put them directly into a Ziploc bag.  Their surface is small and thin, so it won’t become solid even when they are frozen, and even if they get stuck, it’s easy to break them up.  I grab some frozen parsley leaves, and mince them and add to food… They are so thin, it thaws while you are chopping.

With this rule, everyone will be happy in Freezerville.

Storage – Packaging Part 1. Freezing Thin with Cleavage

Packaging is important!

Are you shocked that was the first thing I uttered?  And that I mentioned cleavage?  This is a family-friendly site!  Rated-G!

I’m talking about when you store things – FOOD. Especially when frozen.

Have you ever frozen a bulk package of ground meat you bought on sale, thinking you’d never be able to use it in one shot, so you’ll save it for later. When you are ready to defrost, you realized, “Oh, shoot… I never be able to use it in one shot, and once it’s defrosted, I’m not supposed to refreeze…  Oops…”

So it requires a bit of pre-planning and strategy.

Kitchen Wizardry is all about how to make things easier to use later without heavy planning. (I’m not a good planner.) It’s about smart cooking and storing.

When something is in the fridge, you can just scoop it out and use it right away.  When frozen, all you have is a solid block, if you don’t plan carefully. It’s really important to make it easier to thaw and use when you store food for freezing.

There are different ways to freeze different things. Today, I’m going to talk about freezing something moist and spreadable (sautéed vegetables, sauces, etc.)

Here are the tricks.

  • Use the same size Ziploc bag whenever possible. For most freezers, quart size is ideal. For smaller amount, I use snack size.
  • Spread the contents thin – ideally 1/4 to 1/3 inches maximum.
  • Then lay the bag down flat and create deep creases across the bag, both vertically and horizontally before freezing.  This is to make it easier to break it off small pieces in the amounts you need. (Use the flat side of a rubber spatula or pointed tip of a chopstick to create these lines.)
  • Lay them flat inside the freezer until frozen – a cookie sheet works well. (Otherwise, all the contents will be balled at the bottom, ruining all of your efforts!)
  • Once frozen, store them vertically (like books) for easier retrieval.
  • You may want to label on the side, so that you can see the contents without taking out (again, just like books!)

Not everything can be shaped like this… or needs to be.

Stay tuned for other cool freezing tricks in future posts… (Click “Subscribe to Secrets of the Kitchen Wizard” via Email above the calendar, so you won’t miss them. : ))

Storage – Labeling: Masking tape and a waterproof pen

Have you ever wondered “What is this?  Do I need to use it soon?” when you opened your fridge?

I have…  I’ve always had many containers of leftovers, tried to figure out what they were, and more so, how old they were and if we needed to eat them soon or … if it would be better to throw it away.

One of the key secrets of Kitchen Wizardry is storage strategy, in particular, packaging and labeling.  Since we have been talking about the kitchen tool box, let’s talk about labeling first.

This guessing game was a huge waste of time. First of all, if the container is not see-through, I had no clue what was inside.  Clear containers are definitely helpful, yet very often, they required me to open to confirm what they really were, and often I even had to taste, ending  up eating that chopped cilantro I don’t like by mistake, thinking it’s parsley.

Of course the worst thing was figuring out when I made it.

I used to have a great memory, especially when it came to food, yet I can’t quite remember exactly how many days ago I made something, especially since I tend to make so many different things, it gets confusing!  I often asked for my husband’s help just like many other things, but he doesn’t cook, so his memory is even more vague.

Once I started doing this Kitchen Wizardry thing, I started to have even more containers and bags (and many raw pre-chopped things) so I couldn’t rely on my fading memory any more.

So, I started to label everything.  A long time ago, watching Martha Stewart labeling her linen closet shelves with P-Touch, such as “Bath Towels”, I thought “Oh, my God!  It’s too much! I would never do that!” 

But now I know Martha knew better. When everything is labeled, it’s much easier to find things… especially in the fridge and freezer.  (Now I’ve never seen Martha labeling things in her fridge on her shows or magazines.  But it doesn’t mean that she didn’t teach about it… I just don’t have time to watch her shows any longer.)

Since I’m more into practicality and efficiency than perfect aesthetics, all I use is good old masking tape and a water-proof pen. (Sharpie Ultra Fine.) It’s much more clear than a regular pen, yet fine enough to write in small letters, even on very small, 3 oz containers.  Masking tape is great.  It sticks well to any surface, and can be removed easily.  After dinner, I make all the labels for the leftovers, cut them and stick on each container.  That’s it. (I use regular scissors, not my kitchen shears for this task.)

Most of the time I just write what it is (recipe name, or how it’s prepared, like “sautéed zucchini with lemon zest” and the date I made it , that’s it.  When I make individual size packages of leftover ground meat, rice, etc, then I also add volume.  In that case, a label looks like “Steamed brown rice, 5/4/09, 125g. (I grew up in Japan, so metric system is always easier for me…  Use whatever easiest for you to figure out the amount, such as 1/2 C, 4 oz, or 1/4 lbs…)

Make sure to face all the labels to the front, so that you know exactly what everything is, and how soon you need to consume them (or if they are past-prime) at a glance.

If you have anything that needs to be used quickly, put it at eye-level or at least where it’s easiest to find.  Because it’s out of sight sight, out of mind happens really quickly in the fridge, and actually it should be called “out of sight, out of date.”

You can pretty much use the same labeling system for freezer too. Yet for freezing, there are a few tricks you need to follow to make your life easier, not the other way around…  We’ll talk about it on our next post.

I found this system easy to follow and fun – even to an organizationally challenged person like me. And I found we eat what we have on hand, in the right order, helping us spend less time in the kitchen.