05/30/14

On Real Food and Home Cooking

Empty Shelves

Someday I want to write a cookbook based on the premise that you can eat anything you want, any time you want, as long as you personally cook every bite from scratch ingredients.

You see, I disagree that people “don’t have time to cook” (I kinda have to, right?)…but really, I believe that:

1: people choose not to prioritize home cooking (we all have 24 hours in a day), largely due to social pressures and media influence, and…

2: people with little cooking experience don’t understand that home cooking can be simple, healthy, fast, and affordable… a position of ignorance that corporate food has been more than happy to encourage and profit from.

In our MY KITCHEN program, we teach foster kids, many with ZERO kitchen experience, how to cook simple, healthy meals in classes lasting less than an hour.

Regardless of what Food Network (and their frozen food sponsors) would LIKE us to think…you don’t have to be an Iron Chef to cook real food.

100_4719There’s also the ever-growing trend towards convenience “foods”, again much of it due to corporate marketing, who’s been trying to push their C-Rations on us since they were forced to find a non-military market at the end of WWII.

We’re reaching a critical tipping point in history where it will no longer be a matter of IF I choose to cook from scratch, but that there won’t be raw ingredients available to do so.

Lack of business and ever-tightening “regulations” are putting small farms, farmer’s markets, and artisanal food producers out of business in droves (and not by accident) while corporations are buying up larger tracts of farmland at a historic rate. As the supply diminishes, so does the knowledge, interest, and demand.

Unless something is done to change the trends…our great-grandchildren will be shopping in a food desert, and happily munching their solent green, and never know what they’re missing.

Retailers, of course, have a much more vested interest in moving people toward “meal assembly” than actual cooking.

There’s less waste, it’s easier to stock and store more “high profile” products in less space, and the shelf-lives (ie: the amount of time they have to get it sold) are vastly greater with frozen and pre-packaged foods. I’m not sure what the difference in mark-up is, but with 30% of our fresh produce ending up in the dumpster, the gap has to be pretty marginal.

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Finally, how much responsibility should we place on the TV shows, magazines and food writers of the past decade’s “foodie movement” for possibly widening the rift between “us and them” (ie: people who cook and people who don’t) by making it more about entertainment and “food porn” than practical application?

You’ll note that Food Network (and all the others) may be yapping incessantly about “farm to table” during the shows…but the ad time is filled with pre-packaged garbage and convenience food. Is the underlying message that…

“We both know you can’t do what you just watched Bobby do…but doesn’t THIS look almost as good?”

Change and education are the key to regaining responsibility for our family’s health and nutrition, not conceding to a corporate food mentality that will always, ALWAYS place the security of their shareholders over the health of our families.

Your thoughts?

-Chef Perry
SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com

07/31/13

Best of the best: picking out your produce

banner-programs-farmersmarketIt’s summer, and our Farmer’s markets are bursting at the seams with ripe, beautiful, delicious veggies!

12654364-largeOne thing I’m constantly reminding our subscribers of is this: when shopping for fresh produce, keep in mind your end goal…you’re wanting to prepare a delicious, nutritious dish…not shoot a magazine ad.

In other words, the best produce isn’t always the sexiest.

Imperfections can be attractive, hinting at surprising sweetness and depth of character. Unfortunately, most supermarkets today sell produce bred as much to withstand shipping, as for flavor, and while it might be pretty…it may not be particularly flavorful.

Use Your Senses

woman-smelling-fruit-400x400The best tasting produce is often irregularly shaped and blemished (because the more ripe the plant, the easier it is to bruise).

The freshest produce should feel solid and sturdy with taut skin. Leaf veggies should feel crisp and firm.

A lot of veggies and fruits can be sniffed for ripeness, and should smell strongly of what they are, without being cloying or overripe.

How to shop for vegetables

Okay, so here are some tips on how to pick good produce while shopping for a few of my favorite veggies…

Artichokes: Compact, plump, heavy, with thick, green, tightly closed leaves. Avoid if leaves are dry, spreading, or hard-tipped.

Asparagus: Straight stalks with closed, compact tips and full green color, except for white ends. Avoid if shriveled or have spreading tips. Thicker stalks should be peeled before cooking.

Avocados: Shiny green or mottled purplish-black (depending upon variety); yield to gentle pressure. Ripen in a paper bag at room temperature.

Beans: Firm, crisp, bright color.

Broccoli: Dark green, firmly clustered buds on firm, but not thick, stalks.

Cabbage: Firm, heavy, with brightly colored (green or red) outer leaves and no black blemishes.

Carrots: Firm, straight, with bright orange color, preferably with fresh green leaves attached. Avoid if limp or cracked.

Cauliflower: Firm heads with tightly packed creamy white clusters and fresh-looking green leaves. Avoid those with black spots.

Cucumbers: Medium to small, with bright green color. Avoid any with soft ends, or wax coatings.

Garlic: Firm heads with tight, compact cloves. Papery skin should be soft, not brittle.

Leeks: Firm, white base with fresh-looking green leaves.

Mushrooms: Firm, plump with tightly closed caps and fresh-looking stems. Select carefully, avoiding mold.

Onions: Clean, dry, firm with papery husks, and no sprouts or soft spots.

Peas: Firm, bright or light green, with well-filled pods. Avoid swollen, wrinkled, or immature dark green pods.

Peppers: Firm, shiny, with bright color, green, red, orange, or yellow. Avoid soft spots, or darkened stem ends.

Potatoes: Firm, smooth skinned, well shaped, with no sprouts.

Spinach: Bright green, fresh, tender leaves with no yellowing or wilted ends.

Squash: (zucchini, yellow, straight neck, patty pan) Smooth, bright skin, bright color, green or yellow, heavy and firm.

Sweet potatoes: Firm, uniform shape with even color. Avoid very large ones (it’s a sign of age).

Tomatoes: Firm, plump with unbroken skin; color and size depends on variety.

Turnips: Firm, unblemished, heavy for their size with fresh-looking tops.

Turnips: Firm, unblemished, heavy for their size with fresh-looking tops.

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Cooking Veggies

Now that you’ve picked out some great veggies…what do you do with them?

We (should) be getting the majority of our daily vitamin content from vegetables, so we need to be sure that how we cook them does not drain away all the vitamins and benefits of eating them in the first place.

Cooking vegetables can be tricky. Over cooking can make vegetables bland and soggy.

Personally, I think that veggies seldom benefit from being boiled. Boiling leeches out vitamin content, and is the main culprit in turning vegetables to a lifeless, tasteless glop.

So, how do we proceed?

SCeB8Depending on the veggies, I prefer steaming, roasting, or sauteing.

All three of these cooking methods leave vegetables full of life. They will be crisp and colorful. It will also not deplete the vegetables of their vitamin content.

By rule of thumb, vegetables will only need a few minutes of heat…ie: take them off BEFORE they look done. If you wait until the looked cooked through, they’re gonna be soft and soggy when you serve them.

So, get out there and pick up some fresh, beautiful (or even not so beautiful) veggies at your local farmer’s or produce market, and enjoy them at their seasonal best!

Chef Perry
hautemealz.com

07/3/13

Q & A: How much do I cook for a party?

hautemealz.com subscriber Donna asks:

“I’d love to host some dinner parties this summer in our new house, but I never know how much to cook, especially for a large group. Any tips on serving in big numbers?”

One of the most frustrating aspects of cooking for a crowd is the fear of running out of food.

I HATE seeing an empty pan on my serving table! So, how much should you buy? Too little, and you risk running out, too much and you’ve spent more than you need to.

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Portion Guidelines

Here are some general guidelines to help you calculate how many people you can serve with that raw chunk of meat on the butcher’s shelf…

When planning a meal, it is always better to purchase too much meat than not enough. Always be prepared for people with larger appetites.

The “Mystery Guest”

Mystery-GuestOne trick I use is to add a “mystery” guest for every 4 confirmed.

In other words, I plan 5 portions for 4 people, 10 portions for 8, 15 for 12, etc. If there are leftovers, the cooked meat will keep in the refrigerator for several days or the unused portions may be frozen for long term storage.

Party on!

– Chef Perry

06/14/13

Q & A: The Healthy Foodie

Angel asks:

Q: Regarding dieting, healthy eating, and shopping…I’m curious if you find special challenges on this endeavor since your a chef or if your knowledge of food helps.

I’m not a chef, but I do love food and my knowledge of nutrition has been very slowly expanding since I had my son. I find myself often wishing I knew more about the taste dynamic of different herbs, spices and foods that would help me to come up with more tasty versions of healthy dishes. Any tips?

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