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Terri's Tips: It Begins With the Ingredients

by Terri Geiser

Have you ever prepared a dish with enthusiasm and patience only to be disappointed with the taste and texture? Did you hear, "Well, it's okay... but it's just not quite what I remember," or "There's something missing." If so, read on.

CONSIDER THIS:

You weren't using the best ingredient or maybe it wasn't even the right ingredient. The right ingredient will complement the food, and it will enhance the final product while ensuring the best culinary result. Using the wrong ingredient will leave you feeling tired, frustrated, and disappointed with the dish. And I didn't even mention money. How much did you spend creating that "just okay" dish?

Don't you love it when instead you hear, "Oh my goodness! That is the best [whatever you cooked] I've ever tasted!"? I remember one of my first cooking classes like it was yesterday. I made French Beef Stew (see recipe here). I dished up sample tastes for the class participants. As I was turning I heard the man to my left make this unusual sound, a cross between a groan and a shout. I turned to him dreading what I would see but the look on his face said it all. He looked up at me and said, "This is the best stew I've ever tasted." I can't explain how happy that made me but from that moment on I realized I held the power to please people with my culinary talents. That was over twelve years ago and I still enjoy teaching, sharing and learning about food with friends and family. I hope you will find these tips and guidelines helpful

So follow Terri's Tips for ingredients and you'll be a better cook. And always remember, what goes in must come out tasting... delicious!

The list below gets you access to detailed information on...

HERBS

Herbs usually come from the leafy part of an annual or perennial plant. They have been used for culinary and even medical purposes as evidenced in quotes from the bible about the healing powers of herbs. However, if too consumed in very large quantities, some herbs can be harmful and should be used with caution. Evidence has shown that herbs can be useful for pest control. Herbs in the mint family, i.e. peppermint and sweet mint can help keep away flies, mice, ants, fleas, moth and ticks. They are not known to be harmful or dangerous to children or pets. Herbs can be used dried or fresh.

Tips for cooking with Herbs:

  • If you are using herbs make sure they are fresh; they will lose their aroma and if they don't smell good they won't taste good.

  • Using fresh herbs is always the way to go with few exceptions (click here for recipe using dried herbs)

  • If using dried herbs as a substitute for fresh herbs cut the amount by 1/3, i.e. one teaspoon chopped fresh = 1/3 teaspoon freshly crushed dried

  • If purchasing dried herbs try to find them whole, then gently rub between your fingers to crush. This will enhance the flavor and aroma for immediate results.

  • Grow your own herbs for maximum flavor. Bonus: they make great border plants, many producing beautiful flowers and they smell great. Line walkways, use in gardens and around trees and shrubs. (Click here for suggestions)

  • Grow annual herbs like basil in pots. You can take them in during cold weather and have fresh basil for sauces and stew all year (Click here for recipe using fresh basil)

  • Create your own combination of herbs for cooking carefully. Not all herb combinations will enhance flavor (see chart for Cooking with herbs)

  • Use the right herb for the right dish. Some herbs can overpower a delicate fish or sauce. (see chart for Cooking with herbs)

  • Herbs lose flavor with heat (see chart for Cooking with herbs).

SPICES

Spices are obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots seeds or stems of various plants and trees. Over 3,000 years ago the Arabs brought spices back from India and the Orient bringing great wealth to Europeans through trade. The hunger for wealth led to great expeditions resulting in the discovery of the New World. Today the United States is the world's major spice buyer. Spices are available in whole or ground forms.

As far back as 2500 BC there are records of spices being used for flavor, power and medicinal purposes. Spices have been used in foods, wines and fragrances. Europeans headed off to battle wearing garlic for power and strength. The rich slept on pillows of saffron because they believed it would cure a hangover. The romantic used cinnamon in love potions. There is evidence that the ginger has medicinal powers as an antioxidant and that it can cure an upset stomach.

Tips for cooking with Spices

  • Whole spices should be ground as needed for more fresh and intense flavor

  • Use spices sparingly so they don't overpower foods

  • Purchase in small quantities and store in a cool dark cabinet for no longer than 6 months. They can be frozen to maintain flavor

  • One of the best uses of spices is as a dry rub from meats and vegetables (recipe)

  • Spices sauteed in oil will release more flavor and enhance the dish

  • If the spice smells or taste weak, then it is and it should be tossed

  • You can decrease the fat and salt in a recipe by using spices for added flavor

  • Learn what combinations of spices work well together (see chart for cooking with spices)

  • Find the right spice for each dish (see chart for cooking with spices)

FRUITS

I have fond memories of walking out into my Dad's garden and picking fresh, ripe apples, peaches, plums and cherries. Nothing in the store compares to what comes right off the tree. The memories of the blackberries are not quite so grand. But I have to admit now, that even though I didn't love blackberry pickin' those were the best berries ever. We were loaded down with buckets and dressed in long sleeves to protect us from the briars. And man was it ever hot; blackberries ripen in the peak of the summer months. In the end though, it was worth it as we enjoyed my mom's baked cobblers. I also love raspberries and strawberries, they are so easy to pick, no sticker bushes to contend with. There are so many kinds of fruit that there is something for everyone.

Fruit is the part of a plant or tree that holds the seeds of that plant. They are eaten raw or cooked with the exception of a few fruits like lemons or limes that are used primarily for their juice. Many fruits must be peeled (banana, orange) but some fruits provide more fiber if the peel is eaten (apple, pear) and berries have no peel making them very delicate but delicious. And much to the surprise of many, tomatoes are fruits that were marketed as vegetables in the late 1800's because vegetables could be taxed. The case was even ruled upon by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, fruits not only taste good but are good for us too.

Have you ever heard the saying, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? Well the truth of that lies within the fruit. Fruit is naturally absent of cholesterol, high in vitamins and fiber and low in fat. The American Heart Association recommends 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Tips for your daily fruit:

  • Select fruits that are in season

  • Always look for fruits that are free of bruises and good color

  • Select fruits that smell good and give a little with slight pressure, just don't squeeze the life out of it
  • As fruit ripens its sugar level will rise

  • Make smart decisions when selecting food for you and your family, decreasing cost, contamination and pesticides

  • Get to know your grocer, and opt for your local farmer's market when possible for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Organic fruits and vegetables are pesticide free but can often be shipped thousands of miles, increasing cost and contamination

  • If possible grow as much as you can, free of chemicals

  • Store most fresh fruits in paper bags rather than in plastic and refrigerate to increase the shelf life
  • For more information about individual fruits (see chart)

VEGETABLES

Dad had us working in the garden as often as possible. My brothers didn't enjoy it very much but I must have because there hasn't been a season since I left home that I haven't planted my own garden. It takes time, hard work but when you pick the first tomato and eat it before you ever get back to the house, it is so worth it.

Vegetables are any edible part of a plant and most can be eaten raw or cooked. They are very important in our diet. The American Heart Association recommends 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The more colorful the vegetable the better for you so try those that are dark green, red, rich yellow or orange.

Tips for Veggies:

  • A serving size is usually 1/2 cup

  • Only buy what you can store in the refrigerator and use within 5-7 days.

  • You are in control of what you buy so only buy fresh, blemish free, crisp produce

  • Same as for fruit buy those that are in season

    MEATS

    Have you ever had a serving of meat that chewed like leather and tasted like salt? I have, so it makes me appreciate spending a little time to ensure my recipe comes out tender and tasty. There are several things to consider when selecting meat for your recipe. My friend who is a co-owner of Lobel's of New York provides great advice and information for selecting and cooking different cuts of meats many that I have incorporated here. Once you have a few tips to guide you, you will be serving great dishes for your family and friends.

    Meat is the edible tissue of an animal. It can be eaten fresh, aged, dried, or processed as in corned beef. Meat processors age meat to tenderize it but that also adds a whole new favor profile. At home you can easily tenderize meat by breaking down the meat's tough fibers through pounding or by marinating. There are great tools on the market for pounding meat, called meat mallets or pounders. It's a great way to get in a little exercise or work off a little frustration while you cook too.

    Marinades can add more flavor depending on the ingredients. The base of a good marinade contains acid such as wine, or fruit juice. Another technique uses commercial tenderizers composed mostly of a papaya extract called papain. Slow, long cooking is also a very familiar technique used for tougher cuts of meats.

    There are many types of meats to select from and from those there are many cuts of meat like filets, tenderloins, chops or ground. Different cuts require certain preparation based on your recipe.

    Beef is most likely the most consumed meat in America. Meat available to consumers is usually graded as prime, choice, or select but there are other grades too known as good and standard which are more often for commercial use. The grading system is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The grade is based on amount of fat called marbling and the age of the animal.

    The pork industry has undergone many changes over the years making pork safer to consume and more nutritious. In the mid 1800s trichinosis was linked to eating pork. Towards the early to mid 1900s the fear of trichinosis caused the pork industry to decline. Today the way pigs are raised and fed has made a big difference in the amount of pork people eat, improving quality. The National Pork Board's website says that trichinosis is killed when the meat reaches an internal temperature of 137 degrees Fahrenheit. Most recipes recommend an internal temperature of 160 degrees. This makes successfully cooking pork a challenge since it is now grown to be very lean, decreasing the fat content with supplies flavor and juiciness. It is considered the other white meat and thought to be by many more nutritious than chicken. Pork is a common ingredient in sausages and also comes fresh, smoked, or cured.

    Veal and Lamb are gaining popularity especially among chefs in top end restaurants. Veal, unlike beef should not be marbled. Veal bones make the best meat stock but unfortunately most meat is cut before it reaches the grocery store thus eliminating the access to bones. Lamb, the meat from a sheep less than 12 months old is considered by many to expensive. But due to the food revolution in America, people are spending more on food and venturing out to try new dishes.

    POULTRY

    Poultry is the meat from birds whether it is fowl, waterfowl or game birds. The meat of a bird is white because it has less oxygen carrying myoglobin than dark meat. The legs of birds will be slightly darker than the breast since those muscles are more exercised. Dark meat has more fat stored in them thus more flavor. Since the breast meat is less fat, the breast of a bird makes it a healthier choice, causing the chicken industry to gain more popularity.

    It is important to follow guidelines for cooking poultry to ensure that proper internal temperatures are reached. Poultry, like meat can be fried, baked, roasted, grilled, stewed, broiled and boiled.

    Safety Tips for Meats (includes Poultry)

    • Always handle meat carefully, avoiding cross contamination between meats and other food products

    • I use a separate cutting board for meats, separate from fruits, cheese or vegetables, etc.

    • Always thoroughly clean counter tops, knives, meat pounders and hands after preparing meats by using a good antibacterial soap/detergent and/or bleach

    • Keep meats refrigerated between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit

    • Fresh meat should be cooked no longer than 2-3 days after purchasing

    • Toss meat marinades after removing the meat unless you thoroughly heat it to kill all bacteria.

    • Follow the guidelines in the chart for recommended internal temperatures
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