The Cutting Board Debate: Wood or Plastic?

We seem to have (finally!) arrived at some controversy on this blog, such as it is: Should you use plastic or wood cutting boards in your kitchen?

In one corner, we have a commenter on this website who says wood is preferable, making the argument that a wooden cutting board kills bacteria on the surface of the board, whereas plastic just lets it sit there and fester.

In the other corner, there's me, and I disagree. Wood is more porous than plastic. Wood retains cooking smells more than plastic does and of course all smells are particulate--meaning there's "stuff" giving off that smell still on (or in--blech) the board. You can do your own experiment on this yourself: slice up a couple of onions on a wood cutting board as well as a plastic cutting board but then only moderately wash both cutting boards. You'll find the wood board gives off more "onion vibe" than the plastic board.

Do I prefer plastic cutting boards exclusively? No, because we own a wood cutting board too. Wood boards actually look a bit nicer and they’re not THAT much harder to deal with. I just think that plastic cutting boards are on margin more sanitary, easier to clean and a bit less expensive.

The Cutting Board Rules:
In any case, here are five rules of thumb for handling all cutting boards, whether wood or plastic:

1) Bleach me:
If your cutting board becomes discolored after extensive use, wash with a mild bleach solution (~10% bleach in cold water). Watch you don’t splash yourself on the clothes or more importantly in the eyes.... :)

2) Harsh and miserable:
Every so often it doesn’t hurt to put your cutting board in the dishwasher. The harsh, miserable environment inside a running dishwasher will sterilize the crap out of your cutting board, and that’s a good thing. However, I do NOT recommend this if you have a cutting board that is both wood and made of multiple PIECES of wood. Why? Because that same harsh, miserable environment inside your running dishwasher will also degrade the glue agents that are holding together the wood slats of your cutting board. Trust me, it will shorten the lifespan of the board if you put it in the dishwasher too often. Obviously with a plastic cutting board you won’t need to worry about this.

3) Be careful with meat:
An important rule to follow in your kitchen is to be VERY careful with anything you use when handling meats. You should never use the a cutting board for meat and use that same cutting board to handle other foods without first washing that board thoroughly with hot water and plenty of dish detergent.

4) Be REALLY careful with chicken:
This “meat rule” holds especially true with chicken. Heck, when you are handling chicken, I would also recommend rinsing the chicken itself in very warm water, and then patting dry with paper towels, just to be extra safe. It goes without saying that you should fully cook the surface of any solid meat (rare on the inside of a steak is okay), and you should fully cook any ground meats through and through. We can cover the rationale behind this in greater depth in a later post. And finally, carefully wash EVERYTHING that touches the meat. That includes the knives, the cutting boards, any counter space--and most importantly, your hands!

5) Consider a “Kosher” approach:
Own two cutting boards and use one for meat and one for veggies. That way you’ll be inserting an extra failsafe (separate boards AND careful cleaning) to make sure you never handle uncooked meat and other foods too closely.

I've been told that the way I handle raw chicken borders on OCD or even abject paranoia (multiple handwashings, repeated washings of the knife, cutting board and counter... you get the picture). But I will NOT allow any of my family or any of my readers to come down with salmonella or an e. coli infection. Not on my watch!

Related Posts:
Cooking Like the Stars? Don't Waste Your Money
What's the Most Heavily Used Tool in Our Kitchen? Our Rice Cooker.
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon.

Eight Tips to Make Cooking At Home Laughably Cheap: The Economics of Cooking, Part 2

Our last post tackled the setup costs of building a working kitchen. Today’s post talks about how to manage food and meal costs.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on the meal costs of cooking because lots of our friends claim that they can eat out more cheaply than they can cook at home.


If done right, cooking at home can be so cheap that it’s laughable, and believe me, you won’t be forced to eat gruel every day. So without further ado, here are eight tips that will help you make cooking at home laughably cheap:

1) Buy generic, especially when it doesn’t matter.
When you make my Chicken Mole recipe (you can find it at the bottom of this post), does it really matter whether you use store brand stewed tomatoes or Del Monte brand stewed tomatoes? (That was a rhetorical question and the answer is “No.” Nobody can tell.) Have you ever purchased your local store brand pasta sauce and compared it to Ragu? You might be surprised to find it’s not only half the price but it tastes twice as good. If you make Mock Wild Rice and use store brand mushrooms, does anyone taste the difference? Again, the answer is no.

I know I sound like I’m dispensing cooking koans here, but these are lessons I’ve learned through years of experience. You can use my experiences now and save yourself the time (and money). You’ll also find the “generic rule” true when you buy most dried pastas as well as most canned items. The only difference you’ll feel is in the wallet.

2) Buy your staples in bulk and load up if you see any staples on sale:
Basic staples like rice, brown rice, sugar, flour, etc are practically free when bought in bulk, and since they can be stored for a long time without spoiling there’s no downside to buying them this way. Even eggs keep for weeks in a fridge. My wife and I buy our rice in 10- or even 20-pound bags, although I will confess I’m a bit scarred for life with an experience we had buying basmati rice one time in a large bulk bag at an Indian food store in Jersey City, NJ. Let’s just say we later nicknamed that rice “bug rice” and diplomatically leave the subject hanging right there…

3) Make recipes that contain fresh produce.
I’ve already talked about how you can get an entire pound of collard greens for 99c, which costs about the same as a couple of Ocuvite tablets and contains more leutein and antioxidants. (Note to self: maybe it’s worth buying Bausch & Lomb [BOL] here at $53?) :) Most vegetables are really inexpensive. Two pounds of carrots? Less than a dollar. Potatoes? Two bucks for 5 pounds. A dozen eggs? $1.59. You get the picture: most raw or basic items in the grocery store are quite inexpensive. You only really start paying through the nose when you buy prepared foods. Which brings us to our next suggestion:

4) Lay off the prepared foods and take-out dinners.
Yes they may save time. But they are high in sodium and fat, cost much more, and usually don’t taste all that good. Do those Hot Pockets really taste good enough that it’s worth ingesting the excess sodium and partially hydrogenated soybean oil? Have you ever made your own pizza (even with an overpriced Boboli crust) and compared the taste to a flash-frozen store-bought pizza? Does it really take that much more time to slice up some peppers, onions and mozzarella cheese and open a can of plain tomato sauce when the result is something much better tasting and far healthier? (Don’t forget to throw in some dried basil, oregano and some crushed red pepper flakes into the sauce…)

Moreover, I would argue that if you practice at getting faster at cooking, you’ll even find that buying fully prepared takeout meals won’t save you that much time, even as they cost you significantly more money. It’s much more time efficient to make just ONE grocery trip a week to the store and make a couple of scalable meals rather than making a habit of picking something up for takeout multiple times a week. And nothing is as easy or as cheap as preparing a meal by reheating something you already made the other day.

5) Learn when different fruits and veggies are “in season” and buy them then.
As you get more experience buying fresh fruits and vegetables, you’ll begin to notice significant price fluctuations in items over the course of the year. But unlike what I’ve found in the stock market, these fluctuations are not only consistent but consistently exploitable from year to year. Grapefruits and oranges usually get cheapest in January and February. Where we live, blueberries become practically free in June. Peaches? Around May and June. Apples are cheapest in October/November if you live near an apple growing region. You get the idea. Try to get a sense of when things get cheap and focus your recipes around those ingredients.

Moreover, the saying “you get what you pay for” holds true for most things in life, but it totally flops in the grocery store. The irony is that when fresh fruits or vegetables are in season and are cheapest, they also taste the best. Go figure. But at least take advantage of it. And don’t expect to enjoy a grapefruit in the summer or expect to make a good blueberry pie in December. You’ll get a sense of the right times and prices to buy things as you start paying closer attention to things in your grocery store’s produce section.

6) Should I go organic? Hell no!
Not unless you want to get bent over every time you go to the store. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t trust the provenance of organic foods in the first place, and half the time the fruits and veggies in the organic section look kind of smushy anyway. It’s also worth noting that the profit margins that grocery stores make on organic foods are double or more what they make on regular produce. You’re not there to line the grocery store’s pockets--you’re there to feed yourself. I would stick with the reasonably priced foods and just be sure to wash and scrub them before you use them.

7) Don’t buy or eat junk food.
Okay, everybody gets an occasional craving for salty snacks. My two personal weaknesses (besides dark chocolate which I consider more of a pathology than a weakness) are Cooler Ranch Doritos and Hint of Lime Tostitos. But these types of foods are terrible for you, high in salt, make you feel lousy the next day and they cost much more than they’re worth.

8) Stay away from obscure, overpriced ingredients (and complex recipes) for now:
When you pull out a recipe and see that it calls for “saffron” or some other totally overpriced, hard-to-find ingredient, or if it calls for a zillion separate steps, just put that recipe down and slowly back away. Stick with mastering simpler recipes for now. This is especially true while you are still in learning mode about cooking. There’s no need to waste your patience, time, or money. The optimal recipe is one that is relatively easy to make, doesn’t have a lot of steps or obscure ingredients, contains inexpensive in-season produce, and can be doubled/scaled up to last for a few meals.

You can easily drop $200 or more for a fancy dinner out for two if you hit one of the Zagat top 50 restaurants in New York City. You pretty much CAN’T get a restaurant meal for two for much less than $20 anywhere these days. But most of the recipes we make in our kitchen cost $10 or less and can feed us for multiple meals. And the soups and vegetarian dishes we make often cost $5 or less (look here for some of my favorite veggie cookbooks). When you cook vegetarian meals it’s so cheap that I almost feel like it’s totally unfair to the food service industry.

My Easy Split Pea Soup recipe, which you can find in this post, costs about $2.00 to make in TOTAL if you make it vegetarian style, and maybe $3.00 or $4.00 if you make it with some chicken strips or other meat. I mean, that just makes me laugh out loud!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking eating out and I’m not even knocking junk food too much. I’ve already recommended some sites to go to if you need somebody to tell you to cut your own hairto save money so you can retire someday. My wife and I love to eat dinners out, not just in nice restaurants but in our neighborhood hole-in-the-wall places and different ethnic restaurants, etc. That’s where I get cuisine ideas, new recipe ideas, learn more subtleties about presentation and different taste combinations, and most importantly, get a night off from cooking. I’ll talk more about this when I cover the dreaded subject of “cooking burnout” sometime down the road. And yes, we have our late night ice cream/Doritos runs to the store on occasion. But we do our best to keep this stuff to a minimum.

There are many places you can learn more about frugal cooking that are beyond the scope of this blog. You can start by going here, here and here.

Start cooking! What are you waiting for?

Related Posts:
How to Make Your Own Inexpensive Sports Drink
Quite Possibly the Easiest Lentil Soup Recipe You’ll Find Anywhere
The Crockpot: A Siren Call for Single People
The Limping Dinner: Spicy Brown Rice

Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs: The Economics of Cooking, Part 1

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to cover a key issue on cooking: the cost.

There are two primary types of costs you'll bump into when you try and cook: 1) setup costs and 2) food costs. I'll cover the economics of food costs in a later post. I want to tackle the issue of setup costs first because they seem to be the primary stumbling block for most of our friends.

If you only focus on straight meal costs, cooking at home just crushes buying prepared food or eating out. But for many people the total setup cost for all of your kitchen gear is an entirely different matter. If you buy the wrong stuff, aren't sure what to buy, or pay too much for what you do buy, it can suck all the fun out of cooking for years. I won't even talk about the worst of all worlds: you return from the grocery store, arms filled with produce and mind filled with enthusiasm about the meal you are about to cook--and you discover you don't have the right &^*$% equipment to make the dish. Believe me, I've been there.

What I hope to show you today is that it’s NOT that expensive, complicated or even time consuming to set up a basic kitchen. I'll give some good advice on what basics you'll need and what you likely won't need. And you won't get hammered in the wallet after it's all over.

I'm confident that you'll find the economics of cooking at home to be insanely compelling if you are prudent about what you spend and then actually use your gear regularly. Keep at it. You'll get so good at cooking that, at a fraction of the cost, you'll be making better food at home than anything you can buy at the store OR in a restaurant.

The 80/20 Rule
My wife and I have a small kitchen crammed full of all sorts of dishes and pots and pans and tools. But our kitchen obeys a sort of an 80/20 rule where we do the vast majority of our cooking with a surprisingly small percentage of our equipment.

To stock a basic kitchen with enough tools and equipment to cook most things, you will need:

  • Pots and Pans: at a minimum you’ll need: 1) a medium saucepan (say 4 quart size), 2) a large stock pot/soup pot, and 3) a fairly deep (say 4 quart) non-stick frying pan with a lid (~$40.00 for a set of these by Silverstone at Wal-Mart)
  • A few sharp knives (cheaper ones are okay for now—a Ginsu 15 piece set of more knives than you'll ever use costs ~$20.00 at Wal-Mart, if you just buy a couple of inexpensive individual knives probably less)
  • A set of measuring cups and measuring spoons (~$15.00 for an entire set at Wal-Mart)
  • 2-3 mixing bowls (small, medium and large, can be cheap plastic) (~$7.50)
  • A 1.5 quart Corningware casserole dish (~$15.00)
  • A cheap cutting board (can have two, one for meat and one for veggies), prefer plastic here for sanitary reasons (~$5.00)
  • 2 cheap spatulas, 2 ladles, 2 serving spoons, a rubberscraper, a can opener, etc (all of these can be bought VERY cheaply at your local grocery store) (~$20.00)

$125-$150 or less
All together this will run you maybe $125 to $150. I used Wal-Mart website prices not because I’m commanding you to shop there, but more just for a reasonable cut at sample pricing. You might find stores charging more or less. And yes, you’ll also obviously need plates, silverware and glasses too, but again, these can be had very cheaply at any discount retailer. Save the fancy china and silver-plated utensils for later in life.

In terms of time it will only take you maybe an hour or two to hit a big box retailer and your local grocery store and pick up all of this stuff. All in, this is about equal to the cost (and time for that matter) of one nice restaurant dinner for two with a good bottle of wine.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list. You’ll find what you need in YOUR kitchen as you go along and cook the recipes that catch your eye. But my point is that it’s not that expensive to get yourself totally set up to cook the vast majority of meals that will hit your kitchen. And in less than one year you’ll have amortized the total cost of all your new gear over at least 100 meals (assumes you cook twice or more a week), thus the initial $125 to $150 startup costs will become an irrelevancy compared to the savings you’re generating each time you cook.

Thank you China!
It’s a lot less expensive to set up a kitchen these days that it was when I finished school and moved out on my own. Now that we live in the days of Wal-Mart and inexpensive goods imported from China, you can stock a basic kitchen surprisingly cheaply. Honestly, when I did my own due diligence on prices in preparation for was writing this post, I was stunned at how inexpensive things were. Basically most stuff costs less now than when I was first stocking my kitchen in the early 1990s—and I’m not even adjusting for inflation…! A textbook example: my mother bought me a 10 piece set of RevereWare Aluminum Disk Bottom Pans (what Revere now calls Tri-Ply Bottom) in 1990 for $149.99. I just checked the Revere website and guess what? The same thing now costs only $119.99. That's after 17 years. What happened to inflation??

It’s only when you get sidetracked to Crate & Barrel or Macy’s and you find yourself surrounded by Calphalon or Swiss Diamond pots and pans that you’ll get hammered in the wallet. Stay out of those stores and don’t bother to pay up for that stuff. It’s just not worth it.

Another idea is to "inherit" your kitchenware: I’m actually not joking about this. When I finished school and moved out on my own, my mother gave me some cast-offs from her kitchen that she didn't need anymore. I got her old measuring spoons, some ladles and serving spoons, a Corningware casserole dish, baking sheets and some other baking pans and measuring cups. Most of this stuff I'm still using 16 years later.

When I was 20-21 and totally broke, I also “borrowed” a set of industrial-strength plates, glasses and silverware from the Cornell University dining halls, all of which lasted me eight years before my wife put her foot down and got us new stuff. :) Furthermore, many people consider their cookware to be just another fashion item, to be cast off when the next season rolls around. If you have family or friends who think like this, try and take advantage--and save some landfill space too. Don't worry: my point here isn't to persuade you to steal silverware or stand between your parents and their cast-off bin. But if you are a bit creative you can save even more money so that cooking at home makes even more sense.

Buy some good stuff down the road
Later, I'll dedicate a post to helping you buy "good stuff" for your kitchen. Today's post is just to get you started so that cooking is easy, cheap, and most importantly, easy on your wallet. Down the road I'll give some examples of where it can be worth it to pay up for gear, especially if it helps you enjoy cooking even more. I'll share some examples of good stuff we've bought that turned out to be worth it many times over. And I'll also talk about a disagreement my wife and I had on whether to pay up for some expensive knives. Laura, you were right all along! I can admit it now.

Nobody NEEDS a George Foreman Grill
But the fundamental truth I want you to keep in mind is that there is a lot of expensive crap out there that you DON’T need. Nobody needs a George Foreman Grill, a Salad Shooter, or $100 wok, or even a $250 5-piece set of Le Creuset stoneware, and you don’t need a $120 fondue set (especially if you hate fondue like I do...). Yes, of course you can buy these things if you really want them. You won't get any annoying exhortations from me to save money (there's plenty of that kind of advice here, here and here). My main message is don't buy a ton of overpriced gear and then expect to "save money" by cooking.

Good luck! Go on out there and get started!

Related Posts:
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings
Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by linking to me, subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon.

Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking

We have a lot of friends who don’t really cook, but want to. The most common excuse we hear is that it takes too much time. Probably the second most common complaint has to do with all the setup costs you incur trying to set up a functioning kitchen.

Both of these are reasonable stumbling blocks to adopting the healthy habit of doing most of your cooking yourself. We’ll tackle the “time it takes” issue in this post and then tackle the “setup costs” problem in a later post.

So how can I cook but have it take less time? Here are seven practical specifics that will help make you an efficient cooking machine:

1) Get faster at prep work:If McDonalds can spend millions doing time-and-motion studies to extract as much efficiency as they can out of their employees, you can at least invest a little time in accelerating your speed at prep work. Usually the most time-consuming part of preparing most recipes (especially healthy ones with fresh ingredients) is the washing, cutting, chopping, slicing, dicing, etc of the produce.

So think of ways you can do it faster. Part of that is just practice: Do you remember the first time you picked up a knife to slice an onion? I remember… I wasn’t even sure which hand I should pick up the knife with at first (of course that’s a long and unrelated story which has to do with my left-handedness more than anything else). But now I can reduce an onion to tiny bits in less than a minute and it’s a relaxing, almost zen-like, task for me. Be patient, keep at it, and you’ll get good at this aspect of cooking.

But are there ways you can speed up the actual processing of the prep? Can you slice up five carrots piled up all at once rather than painstakingly slicing each carrot one at a time? Will it really change a recipe if you “coarsely” chop up the onions or the tomatoes rather than “finely” chop them? Are your knives as sharp as possible so you can blast through your veggies rather than having to saw at them? Can you adopt some of the techniques you see in those old Ginsu Knife infomercials where they chop really rapidly and hack up a batch of scallions in seconds? (Please watch your fingers though…). Any of these steps could dramatically reduce the aggregate time it takes to cook a meal.

2) Outsource your prep work:I’ll have another post tangentially on this subject called “How to Put Your Spouse to Work In the Kitchen” :) but for now think of ways you can get somebody ELSE to do some or all of your prep work for you while you manage the recipe like a general contractor. Can you have one of your kids sit at a separate table or work at a different section of the counter and peel and chop carrots, or wash and rinse veggies? This can save an immense amount of collective time and it’s actually good quality time for a family. Note: An extreme example of “outsourcing” prep work is to buy pre-cut veggies in a plastic bag in the store, or minced garlic in a can. Don’t let me hear about it if you do this. There is such a thing as taking an idea too far. Pre-cut veggies are likely going to be tasteless and probably sprayed with disinfectants that you can’t easily wash off. Better to buy whole produce and wash yourself. And using pre-minced garlic is cheating in my opinion.

3) Do tasks in parallel:This is also something that comes with practice, but you’ll get much more intuitive at it after you’ve cooked the same recipe a few times. When you look at a recipe, can you find examples where you can do two things at once to save time? For example, if you are making a dish with pasta can you bring the pot of water to a boil on the stove while you do 15 minutes of other prep work? That one may seem like a sort of obvious example, but this was a surprise timesaver to my wife when she was learning to cook.

Note also that if you can “outsource” prep work while you do other tasks, you are performing a great example of parallel processing too.

4) Scale your meals up:
If you’ve ever made a double batch of anything, you’ll find an amazing phenomenon happen: For most dishes when you double them, it does NOT take 2x the work to make 2x the food. Instead, I’ve found the ratio to be more like 2x the food for something like 1.2x the work! That’s a huge incremental benefit in terms of work per unit of food cooked. Try and find recipes that can be doubled (or even tripled) easily so that you can capitalize on this scale benefit.

There is one problem to watch for with this technique: you make a huge batch of something and you end up having to eat it every day for a week. By the end of the week you are so sick of the dish that you never want to see it ever again (believe me, I’m speaking from direct experience here). There are a few solutions to this. One is to freeze half of the dish and save it for another week. Another solution is to cook double batches of TWO dishes and alternate them every other day, or even alternate each meal for lunches and dinners.

5) Cook only a couple of times a week:This is a corollary to the “scale your meals up” suggestion and it saves my wife and me several hours of cooking time every week. We both work long hours and I have a long commute to work on top of my long hours. So we hit upon the idea of doing most of our cooking on the weekends and then using the leftovers for our meals during the week. Any meal that we thought we’d like to cook on a Saturday or a Sunday we would make extra and freeze or refrigerate whatever was left. Once in a while we might have to cook something on a Thursday night or limp into the weekend with a Friday night pizza delivery, but in general this system works really well for us. Heck, neither of us wants to get home late after a crappy day at the office and THEN have to fire up a meal from scratch.

6) Choose easy meals to make:Seems obvious, right? But what makes a recipe “easy” and how can you tell just by looking at it? This is a more complicated subject than it looks; in fact look for an entire post on just this subject in the near future. But for the time being I’ll just give a few quick pointers: Look for easy-to-find ingredients, recipes with only a few steps (and nothing intricate), and recipes that don’t contain an insane amount of chopping or prep work. For now, as you try new recipes and roll through your various cooking experiences, just keep your eyes open for any dishes that you’ve tried that came out well AND were quick and easy for you to make. Those recipes should be clear candidates for “heavy rotation” as we’ll see next…

7) Heavy Rotation:Hey, if radio stations do it, you can do it too. Build a short list of your cooking “hits”--recipes that are both popular with your family and that you can make quickly and easily. Then regularly rotate one or more of these hit recipes into your weekly menu. The key here: if you make the dish regularly you’ll get faster and more efficient at it until you can practically do it blindfolded. Obviously, just like radio, you can’t milk this strategy too heavily or you’ll get sick of ALL your hit recipes. The recipe below, my Chicken Mole, is a classic in our household and often finds itself “in the rotation”. It’s easy and quick, yet pretty original and unusual. Since I’ve made it a zillion times, I can make it from start to finish faster than my rice cooker can fire up a batch of rice to go under it.

I’ve found that if you have a short list of five or six truly easy-to-make “hits” and rotate one of them into your menu each week, you can use this system indefinitely without getting sick of any of the hit recipes. Believe me, that’s a far cry from a typical radio station that plays the same song every three hours! Moreover, you will find that you get quicker and quicker in finding the ingredients in the store, keeping them handy at home, and preparing and scaling up the meal itself. If you double the batch size of your heavy rotation recipes, you can efficiently take care of 1/3 or more of your meals this way, depending on the size and appetite of your family.

You’ll find two essential concepts that underlie these seven suggestions: that you must “practice” and “iterate” when you cook. You might find this somewhat frustrating, especially if you thought you could become a Ginsu master after just reading one lousy blog post! But as with anything in life, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. You may be slow at first, but with surprisingly little practice and experience you will learn lots of shortcuts and techniques that will make you a faster and faster cook.

This notion of practicing and iterating pretty much underlies everything I do when I cook. I’m always looking for ways to improve my cooking, and at this stage of my life and career, one of the key ways I needed to improve was to get faster and more efficient in the kitchen.

But keep in mind that cooking shouldn’t be just about speed. There are inherent rewards to knowing enough about cooking and eating such that you’ll appreciate the process of creating and enjoying a great meal. If you fundamentally hate cooking, will never enjoy the process of cooking, and you are permanently convinced you will never change your crappy attitude about cooking, then nuts to you. I can’t help you. Go read someone else’s blog.


Try one of our household’s favorite “heavy rotation” dish: Chicken Mole (pronounced MOH-lay). It is easily scaleable (I’ve cooked it for 27 people at a family reunion), freezable and reheatable. Enjoy!

Chicken Mole:
(Modified beyond recognition from an extremely old issue of Bon Appetit Magazine)

Spice mix:
2 Tablespoons mild chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A few shakes of cayenne pepper if desired

1 1/2 lbs chicken (prefer chicken breasts, cut into chunks or strips)
Cayenne pepper and coarse ground black pepper for seasoning
4 cans (14.5 ounces each) stewed tomatoes
1.5 ounces of unsweetened chocolate (prefer Baker’s)

1) Season raw chicken with cayenne pepper and coarse ground black pepper.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive on high heat in a large, deep (4 Quart) nonstick pan. Add chicken and sear at high heat until just done (do not overcook!).
Set chicken aside.

2) Reduce heat to medium-high and add a few more tablespoons of olive oil to pan.
Shake spice mix into the olive oil and stir with a plastic spatula.
Add more oil (if needed) until all of the spice mix is moistened in the oil.
Heat spices until they are blackened and smoking, about 6-7 minutes or more (be sure to have your overhead fan on for this part!).

3) Lower heat to low and add unsweetened chocolate. As the chocolate is melting, stir it into the blackened spices with a spatula. When the chocolate is fully melted, add in the stewed tomatoes. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cooked chicken into the sauce and simmer for 5 more minutes.

Serve over white rice.

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by purchasing items from via links on this site, or by linking to me or subscribing to my RSS feed. Finally, you can consider submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon. Thank you for your support!

Using Salt = Cheating

You'll notice that very VERY few of the recipes I use and that I'll post on this blog contain any added salt. That's usually one of the first modifications that I'll make to any recipe. Cut out the salt. It's cheating.

That's right, using salt in a recipe is like cheating. I consider it an even worse sin than using pre-minced garlic from a jar.

The purpose of this post is to convince you to cut as much salt from your diet as you possibly can.

Masking Agents
Salt is really just a masking agent. It blinds your tastebuds. It covers up the real taste of your dish. It masks any subtleties of taste that your ingredients or your overall dish might have on their own. It's nothing more than a blunt instrument.

What's even more mortifying to me is how many restaurants cheat by using excess salt. And we're not talking TGI Friday's here either (who could blame them?--I go there for the flair myself). My wife and I have found this in a meaningful percentage of some of the really good restaurants in New York. Dishes taste like brine instead of food. It's as if the chef dumbs everything down for you, yet he still charges you $29.50 for a piece of fish.

There's also an amusing story I read years ago about how Campbell's attempted to make "low sodium" versions of all their soups...and they all tasted so bad that nobody bought them. Eventually Campbell's faced the music and realized they couldn't just put out briny soups--minus the brine--and expect people to like them. You can't get away with a lifetime of making industrial-style soup masked with salt and then just take the salt away.

Taste Things For Real
I remember when my parents made the switch to a lower-sodium diet after my father's blood pressure got up above normal. At first, it was Mrs. Dash in everything. They felt that food "needed" something. But the truth is that almost all foods have a surprising subtlety that salt only serves to cover up.

I recall distinctly making my Mom's split pea soup recipe one time years ago and deciding to leave out the salt. When I finished cooking it up and actually tasted it, I couldn't believe how bland and tasteless it seemed at first. I remember thinking to myself that if I was going to try it this way, I should at least get through to the bottom of one bowl before I furtively added back the salt.

But then I began to discover some subtleties in the dish. Huh--split peas actually had a taste! Not a strong taste mind you, but they actually did have a taste and it was pretty good! This may not strike you as an earthshaking event, but it was the catalyst that actually changed my cooking permanently to where I now never add salt to any dish.

Try actually tasting your food for real. You don't have to be a savant in the kitchen to do this. If you cook competently, use decent-quality ingredients and condition your palate away from salt, your cooking won't "need anything" at all.

Condition Your Palate Away From Salt
Will you have the same experience I had at first and think everything is so bland you can't stand it? Then try using some exta black pepper instead of salt. Or try a little cayenne pepper or chipotle pepper. Or just stick with it and try eating your food for a few weeks with no salt added (see this link on the concept of a 30-day trial to form new habits). You'll find that in a matter of days this will deepen and enrich your palate, and you won't be so conditioned to NEED salt added to everything. You'll find that you'll very quickly develop a surprising subtlety in how and what you taste. You'll actually start tasting things for real instead of tasting brine. And your food will taste better and healthier to you without salt acting as a masking agent.

Live Longer, and Save on Blood Pressure Meds!
Heck, you're likely going to have cut your salt intake down eventually anyway, since we're all going to get old someday (if we're lucky) and we'll need to watch our blood pressure. Instead, why not teach yourself now to enjoy your food for what it really is, and you'll get the side benefit on saving on blood pressure meds (uh, and erectile dysfunction too) down the road!

A final note: Most foods already contain more salt than you'd think. For example the split pea soup recipe below contains optional beef boullion cubes. Guess what those are made of? Uh huh. If you use canned vegetables, especially canned tomatoes or tomato sauces...yep, added salt. Most stores will offer low- or no sodium sauces or canned products. Consider using them. But at the very least, don't add extra salt to a dish that should taste good without masking agents.


Try this recipe out for a simple, low-sodium soup:

Easy Split Pea Soup
1 lb dried green split peas (prefer Goya)
10 cups water
1-2 beef boullion cubes (optional; can also use 1-2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock, but then use only 8 or 9 cups water instead of 10 above)
3-4 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
pieces of ham or chicken (optional)

Rinse peas, then add to water and bouillion (or stock) in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer (covered) for 30-40 minutes, occasionally dipping off foam. Add all other ingredients and simmer for another 40 minutes or until peas are soft.

Best of Casual Kitchen

Here's a list of some of the very best posts of Casual Kitchen. Be sure also to visit the list of most popular posts as well as the complete index of posts.

How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer

How to Lie About the Soda Tax

Eight Things Frugality Taught Me

Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Food Costs

Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food

The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation

How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Cooking

Survivor Bias: Why "Big Food" Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is

Brand Disloyalty

The "It's Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food" Debate

Avoiding the "Yes, But" Vortex

Divorce Yourself from the False Reality of Your Grocery Store

Eight Myths About Vegetarians and Vegetarian Food

How Food Companies Hide Sugar in Plain Sight

On the Benefits of Being a Part-Time Vegetarian

The Worst Lie of the Food Blogosphere

How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions

15 Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating

Defeat the Diderot Effect in Your Kitchen and Home

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by linking to me, subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon.

Mock Wild Rice: An Insanely Easy To Make Side Dish

This laughably cheap recipe is a perfect accompaniment to almost any entree, and it takes less than 5 minutes of prep time to pull together.
Mock Wild Rice
(Adapted from June Koontz's recipe)

1 cup white rice
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 can beef consomme PLUS 1/2 can water (approx. 16 fluid ounces of liquid total)
1 small can mushrooms (pieces and stems okay), drained and rinsed
1 medium onion, cut into slices or chopped coarsely

1) Preheat oven to 350F.
2) Put all ingredients into a covered casserole dish, stir, and then then bake at 350F for 45 minutes.

Serves 4-6 as a side dish.
Two quick recipe notes:
1) You can easily double this recipe as long as you're using a 2 1/2 quart or larger casserole dish. I use a basic Corningware oval dish with the glass cover.

2) In a pinch this recipe can serves as entire meal, although I'd recommend also cooking a side of steamed veggies for some color and variety. Healthy vegetables plus a single batch of today's Mock Wild Rice would make a laughably cheap meal for three to four people.


How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by linking to me, subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon.

I Learned to Cook from My Mom

In the June Koontz household, all children were expected to be able to handle themselves in the kitchen. We were expected to know how to cook so we could "fend for ourselves" by the time we grew up.

So, my mother gave us all cooking lessons at various points throughout our childhoods. She started us out young: when I was five or six years old I would help her cook by measuring out some of the ingredients, pre-heating the oven and so forth. As we got older she would make sure we knew the difference between "t" and "T" or "tsp" and "Tblsp." We had to know the difference between baking powder and baking soda (I learned that lesson irrevocably when I made a batch of three-inch tall cookies by accident). We had to learn the difference between a dash, a pinch and an eighth of a teaspoon (yes I'm kidding on that last one).

We had to learn how to make cookies, cakes, soups, entrees--we even had pie-making lessons, although I must admit that one never really stuck with me. Fortunately I married a woman who makes an amazing pie crust, so now I just cut and peel the apples and I can leave the real pie-making artwork to her.

The culmination of the June Koontz school of cooking came in the form of a final lesson, where we were expected to cook a full dinner for the family consisting of a couple of side dishes and an entree. I got off easy on this one because by the time I took this test, my sisters had all grown up and moved away--while they each had to cook a full dinner for six, my "final exam" was just a dinner for three. :)

The key to this final exam was to think ahead and time things such that everything would be ready at the same time. We'll talk about this concept in a later post. It's harder than you think--you can't really cook a serious meal by performing all tasks in series. You need to perform some tasks in parallel and you also need to know how long different prep tasks should take and thus where are good places you can fit them into the overall workflow. You have to have a good sense for multitasking.

Hmmmm, that sounds surprisingly similar to my office job right now.... :)

Also, my parents always had a garden in their backyard so my sisters and I learned from a young age how ridiculously better-tasting homegrown vegetables and greens were compared to what you could buy in the store. The best store-bought tomatoes taste like styrofoam compared to what my Dad could grow in the backyard. Even lima beans taste great out of a garden. Seriously.

So I regularly thank my Mom for teaching me how to cook and for giving me all the fundamental skills I use in the kitchen now. Parents--listen up! This was one of the most important things I learned as a kid. It fostered my interest in cooking. It gave me really useful cooking skills that I refined and deepened as I got older. And most importantly, it gave me great bonding time with my mother.

It also helped me land my wife, who always wanted to marry a man who could cook.

So here's another recipe for you to try that comes courtesy of the June Koontz recipe collection:

Corn Chowder
(from June Koontz)

5-6 medium potatoes

6 cups water
3 onions
10 slices bacon (thick sliced preferred)
1 14.5 ounce can whole peel tomatoes or chopped tomatoes
1 lb frozen cut corn
1 teaspoon black pepper (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup hot milk

1) Peel potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Add to water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes, or until potatoes are nearly cooked through.

2) While potatoes are boiling, fry bacon in a non-stick skillet. Break bacon up into bite-sized pieces and set aside.
Drain MOST of the bacon fat (leave a couple of tablespoons of it) and fry onions in bacon fat until tender.
3) Add bacon, onions, frozen corn, tomatoes, seasonings (everything EXCEPT the milk) to the boiling potatoes. Bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes, then let stand a few minutes.
4) Heat milk in a pan or in a microwave and add to soup.

Serves 5-6.
Related Posts:
Blueberry Coffee Cake: Nostalgia Foods
How to Live Forever in Ten Easy Steps
The Recipe Filebox
How to Modify a Recipe Part 2: The Six Rules

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If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon.

Why You Should NEVER Use "Cooking Wine"

Where I currently live you can't buy wine in grocery stores. But (proof that the gods often torture us) you CAN buy a liquid called "cooking wine." Probably the best known brand is made by Holland House.

I read somewhere once that the reason it's okay to sell cooking wine in grocery stores is because there is a lot of salt added to the "wine" to make it "unpalatable" and thus not suitable for drinking like regular wine. Have you ever tasted this stuff? "Unpalatable" is too diplomatic a term.


Um, why would you add something that tastes like crap to your food? Do you want your cooking to taste like crap too? :)

So my rule for you is this: Don't ever buy cooking wine. Don't ever use cooking wine. The salt content is too high. It tastes like salt and it will make your food taste like salt. Worse still, it is way overpriced per unit of volume.

Instead, take your culinary skills up a notch and use a low-priced table wine that you can buy by the gallon. The favorite in our household is Carlo Rossi, and we prefer either the cabernet, chianti or the burgundy. We keep a jug'o'wine in our kitchen handy for cooking or anytime I feel like I need to rinse some cholesterol out of my cardiovascular system.

For $10-12 you can buy an entire gallon of Carlo Rossi at your local liquor store and get decent quality wine. Plus you can knock back a glass while you're cooking and enjoy life a little bit more.

On the other hand, for $3.49 you can get 12 lousy ounces of Holland House Super Sodium Special Unpalatable Wine. Do the math.

Try this recipe to test your cooking wine skills:

Casbah Curried Chicken:
(Adapted and heavily modified from the side of a NearEast couscous box)

1.5 lbs chicken (boneless breasts are best, cut up into strips or bite-sized pieces)
2 medium or large onions, coarsely chopped
4-5 carrots, sliced
5-6 stalks celery, chopped
8-12 ounces mushrooms, quartered if desired

2 Tablespoons mild curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (up to 1 teaspoon for a spicier soup)

1 14-ounce can chick peas/garbanzo beans
1.5 cups plain tomato sauce
1 cup water
3/4 cup inexpensive (but real) red wine

1) Season the chicken with cayenne pepper and coarse ground black pepper. Sear the chicken in olive oil in a non-stick on high heat, turning and flipping the chicken occasionally. Set chicken aside.

2) In a large soup pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and then add onions, carrots, mushrooms, celery and spices. Saute for 15-20 minutes on medium heat, stirring often, until vegetables begin to soften somewhat.

3) Then, add the chick peas, tomato sauce, water and red wine. Bring to a boil and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the chicken and serve over rice or couscous.

Serves 6+ easily.


Related Posts:

Using Salt = Cheating
Fake Maple Syrup
Mock Wild Rice: An Insanely Easy To Make Side Dish
Two Useful Cooking Lessons From Another Cheap and Easy Side Dish

Why I'm a Part-Time Vegetarian

Try going veggie!

I have pretty much of a heterodox philosophy towards vegetarianism. My wife and I cook a lot of vegetarian dishes and we embrace the cuisine from a style and health standpoint, but we are occasional meat eaters (maybe twice or three times a week) and not at all apologetic about it.

I understand the logic behind being a vegetarian and I understand and to an extent identify with the philosophical underpinnings of going veggie. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that we also have tons of (thankfully non-proseletyzing) vegetarian friends. When we have our vegetarian or vegan friends over for dinner we are happy to cook according to their dietary requests. No problem at all. Heck, maybe the only reason we have vegetarian friends is that they're just using me because I actually LIKE cooking veggie food and I'm good at it.

I do have one ethical issue to throw out to readers out there however: putting aside for a moment the fact that I eat meat, is it unethical to take a vegetarian dish and ADD meat to it? We have done this on occasion, in particular with some of the soup recipes from Jay Solomon's Vegetarian Soup Cuisine (see below for other veggie cookbook recommendations). One year we had leftover turkey meat from Thanksgiving and we added it to his Garden Gumbo. It worked well in the dish but at the same time we felt guilty because I'm sure Mr. Solomon would consider this a horrible bastardization of his recipe.

So what do you think out there? Am I a bad person?

One of my main beefs (sorry) with strict vegetarianism is with the fact that many of our vegetarian friends are staggeringly unscientific about their diets and they seem to get sick constantly. A few of them look pale--like they're not getting enough iron in their diet.

And holy cow, I also think if you plan to raise your kids on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you need to put on your scientist's hat and make sure you're getting all you need in terms of amino acids, minerals, etc.

But this isn't a polemic against vegetarianism. Far from it! This is actually a celebration of the cuisine by somebody who just happens to eat meat too.

Vegetarian dishes are a lot more likely to be high in fiber, low in fat, low in sodium and all around healthier than a typical meat-centered meal. They are cheaper too. Do you realize that an entire pound of collard greens costs only 99c? And a couple of servings of collards has as many antioxidants as an Ocuvite tablet--and for a heckuva lot less money too? And our politicians wring their hands about Medicare being out of control.

So this week I encourage you to try a vegetarian meal, or even try a vegan meal (no meat, dairy or eggs) and see what you think.

Here are a couple of cookbooks that I strongly recommend for getting into vegetarian cooking:
1) Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant: Ethnic and Regional Recipes from the Cooks at the Legendary Restaurant by the Moosewood Collective
2) Vegetarian Soup Cuisine: 125 Soups and Stews from Around the World by Jay Solomon
3) The New Laurel's Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition is another classic
4) Also Molly Katzen's original The New Moosewood Cookbook is a classic. There's an awesome hummus recipe in there that is a staple in our kitchen.

My wife and I lived in Ithaca, New York for a while in the late 80s/early 90s and that's how we got hooked on the Moosewood Restaurant and its cookbooks. If you're ever in Ithaca, make time to have dinner there. (Helpful hint: be sure to go to Ithaca during the summer!)

Try this dish while you're at it:
Spanish Chickpea and Garlic Soup:
(heavily modified--without permission--from Jay Solomon's book)

1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 onions, coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
10-12 scallions, chopped
6 carrots, peeled and sliced
5-6 potatoes, washed and unpeeled, chopped into chunks

1 14.5 ounce canned chickpeas, drained (prefer Goya)
5 cups water

3/4 cup fresh parsley, very coarsely chopped.

In a large stock pot, heat oil briefly.
Add onions, paprika and black pepper.
Saute on medium-high heat until softened, about 7-8 minutes.
Add garlic, saute another 2-3 minutes.
Add tomatoes, scallions, carrots and saute another 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
Add potatoes, chick peas and water. Bring to a boil.
Simmer for 30-40 minutes until potatoes are tender.

Remove from heat and add parsley. Let stand 5 minutes, then serve.
Serves 6-8.

Related Posts:
Garden Gumbo Recipe
Invigorate Your Cooking with Fresh Herbs
Groundnut Stew: A Classic and Exotic Vegetarian Recipe
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet: Diet and Athletic Training Part 2
How to Create Your Own Original Pasta Salad Recipes Using the Pasta Salad Permutator

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like, digg or stumbleupon.