An Easy Granola Recipe

Since the publication of this easy granola recipe, I've put together an extensive blogroll of great granola recipes. Feel free to take a look!

I really wanted this to be another screed, this time against boxed cereal. But after my outburst on phony syrup last week, a few of my legally inclined readers strongly suggested I settle down for a little while. :)

So instead I'll share with you a pretty easy granola recipe that I've borrowed from a Wall Street Journal article (of all places for a granola recipe!), but then heavily adjusted and modified later. One batch of this will make the equivalent of two boxes of cereal--and it'll taste better, be healthier, and be a heck of a lot cheaper.

It's funny, because where I went to school, "granola" was a perjorative term for people that wore tie-dyed shirts, went heavy on the body hair and really got worked up about the environment. I guess these folks like granola and eat it all the time? I don't know--I just heard the name. Of course I would never use that term myself. :)

Anyway, it's just amusing and sort of ironic that now the Wall Street Journal is running granola recipes. Life just goes in circles, man.

(adapted and heavily modified without permission from the Wall Street Journal)

Dry Ingredients:
4 cups oats (not quick oats)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup to 1-1/2 cups of nuts (unsalted almonds, walnuts or even peanuts are fine here)--[3/18/07: if you use peanuts though, use about 1/2 cup only. Otherwise the peanuts pretty much overwhelm the granola]
[Can also leave out nuts and add 1 to 1-1/2 cups raisins or other dried fruit, if desired]

Liquid Ingredients:
1/4 cup oil (corn oil or vegetable oil)
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (please don't let me catch you using the fake stuff here)

Mix dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.
Place liquid ingredients into a small sauce pan and warm on a stove on medium low. Stir until combined.
Pour liquid mixture over dry ingredients and stir well until dry ingredients are coated.
Spread mix on a cookie sheet and bake at 325 for 30-40 minutes until golden brown, stirring every 10-15 minutes or so to prevent burning.

After you've cooked and cooled granola, keep it in a relatively airtight container so it won't get stale.


Related Posts:
The Granola Recipe Blogroll

Fake Maple Syrup
How to Make a Perfectly Boiled Egg Every Time

Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer

Today's post isn't exactly about cooking. Instead I bring you ten rules that I hope will help you enjoy eating. Eating out, that is.

1) Go out to a really nice restaurant once in a while. It doesn’t have to be a daily thing, obviously. If you’re budget-conscious, think of it as a reward for yourself. Enjoy life a little bit by spending a little extra money once in a while for a great culinary experience.

2) Make a point of patronizing owner-operated restaurants rather than chain restaurants. Forget the Olive Gardens and the Red Lobsters and the Macaroni Grill. Does it really help the world if you give business to huge corporations like Darden Restaurants or Yum Brands? Help support a local entrepreneur in your town instead.

3) Try at least one appetizer. Or better, order two and split 'em with your dinner companion.

4) Try one of the house specials. Learn what the chef is good at. Ask the waiter or waitress "what's good here?" and make a point of ordering that dish.

5) I wish I didn't have to include this one, but it goes in anyway: Never speak on your cellphone in a restaurant. You’re just not that important. Turn your phone off for once and try and enjoy the here and now.

6) Order drinks, or try a new wine you’ve never tried before. Laura and I have a weakness for the occasional margarita (rocks, and I'm sorry but I must admit it, extra salt).

7) If the restaurant has a sommelier, use him. Yes, I know this sounds snobby, and you don't have to do this EVERY time. But it's actually kind of fun. Tell him something cryptic like "I like red" or "I like sweet wines" and let him go to work. Then write down all the information on the label--and even a jot down note or two on whether you liked it or not and why--and keep those notes somewhere. Heck, file them with your 401(k) statements--you might cheer yourself up this way.

8) Don't clean your plate. Take some of your food home with you. This will give you room to follow rule #9, which is…

9) Leave room for dessert! It's an especially good idea to ask the server for a suggestion or a favorite recommendation when it comes to dessert.

And finally,

10) Tip 20%, never less. This isn’t the 1980s anymore. Make the universe a plentiful place. We're in the era of outflow. If service is atrocious, tell the server politely (and keep an understanding and sympathetic smile on your face while telling) and still tip 15%.

I'd love to hear any additional rules that readers out there think I should include. We'll update this one as needed.

Related Topics:
Using Salt = Cheating
Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life by Shakti Gawain
The International Sommelier Guild

Top Ten Most Popular Posts of Casual Kitchen

These are the 10 most popular posts of Casual Kitchen, as measured by page impressions over (roughly) the past three months.

See also my Best Of page, as well as the complete index of posts!

1) The 25 Best Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen

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

3) The Do-Nothing Brand

4) Brand Disloyalty

The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation

The Priming Reflex: How to Control Your Appetite (And Turn Your Back on a Million Years of Evolution)

A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food

The Granola Blogroll: The Ultimate Authority on Great Granola Recipes

9) Organic Food, Chemicals, and Worrying About All the Wrong Things

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 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!

Fake Maple Syrup

I wrote a really positive post on Tabasco Sauce a few days ago, so in the interests of journalistic balance (and so I don’t seem like just another product flack), I decided to do a negative piece this time.

So today you’re going to read a piece condemning fake “syrup”.

A polemic. A denunciation, dripping with invective. A jeremiad. A screed, if you will.

Okay, so maybe you can tell by now that I, uh, don’t really like fake syrup. And it’s not just the taste. It’s more the phony-ness. The chemicals. The fact that we already get too much “high fructose corn syrup” in our diets as it is.

So to convince you, and to turn your stomach a little bit today, I’d like you to try a quick little exercise with me:

Let’s take a quick look at a highly typical phony syrup: Aunt Jemima. I’d like you to take a look at their “Original” syrup product page. After you go to that link, click where it says “Ingredients.”

Wow. Ewww. So this is what you are putting into your body when you eat this brownish-colored industrial goo:


Do they think they are doing a good job selling the product by putting that information on their webpage? I’d call that some pretty suspect work from the marketing department. Most people (including me) can’t even pronounce “sodium hexametaphosphate” much less do we want to ingest it. PS: does anybody out there care to weigh in on what the heck that chemical actually does? Is it toxic?

Maybe the hardworking webmasters at The Quaker Oats Company should just stick with simple pictures of the bottle, a smiling drawing of Aunt Jemima’s face… and just leave out the nauseating ingredients part

This is why you should ONLY use real maple syrup in your home. It’s delicious, it’s actually a real product, it keeps nearly forever, and it doesn’t contain sodium hexametawhatever.

To learn more about pure maple syrups from New York State, I encourage you to start with the New York State Maple Producers Association website. They have a thorough list of syrup producers here.

And if you want to learn about different syrup grades, take a look here. Keep in mind that in addition to New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania are well-known and highly regarded maple syrup producing states.

PS: My personal favorite is the New York Grade A Dark Amber!

Related Topics:
An Ode To Tabasco Sauce

An Ode to Tabasco Sauce

A quick one today. I'd like to celebrate one of my favorite non-alcoholic liquids: Tabasco Sauce.

In our home, we add Tabasco to almost everything: fried eggs, pefectly boiled eggs, pasta, fried rice and all of the cajun recipes we like to make (I'll share our recipes and a great cookbook recommendation for cajun food in a later post). I season beef and chicken with it, I sometimes add a few generous shakes to a vegetarian soup dish, etc. Oh, and of course let's not forget Tabasco is the second most critical ingredient in a Bloody Mary.

I encourage you to take a couple of minutes and look around the Tabasco website. Did you know you can buy glorious Tabasco by the GALLON now?

Also check out some of the recipes in the site. I'll cite two that really caught my eye: the Cowboy Chili with Beans and the Caribbean Black Bean Salsa (which for some reason is listed under "Mexican," but we won't hold that against them). Both are clearly recipes worth cooking.

I remember as a kid once reading one of the magazines sitting around the house--I think it was either Good Housekeeping or Reader's Digest (okay, I was a little hard up for reading material that day...)--and in one of the humor sections there was a blurb that said something along the lines of "You know you've had a long healthy marriage when you finish your first bottle of Tabasco."

Oh. My. And back then you could only buy the teensy 2-ounce size bottle!


I'm in a breakfast vibe as I sit at my computer this morning enjoying a delicious, energy-dense, perfectly boiled egg. So in that spirit, I thought I would share another classic breakfast recipe: waffles.

Waffles are more of a special-occasion kind of breakfast food--you know, a Sunday morning kind of thing. Obviously there's more work involved here than making a boiled egg. But this waffle recipe is fairly easy, comes out great every time, and I think it will also be a useful vehicle for teaching couple of important basic tasks in cooking. So, as a bonus, today you'll learn 1) how to separate egg whites, and 2) how to beat egg whites to the right consistency.

These two tasks might be too basic for some of my readers. If so, feel free to skip those sections--although you might miss out on a few off-color jokes. Those of you who are newer to the kitchen will find that these are tasks that will show up in many areas of cooking and baking, and thus you simply must learn them. I'll try my best to make it amusing for you.

Finally, I'll write a companion post to this one in the next few days which will venture into yet another level of cooking: teaching you how modify a recipe.

So, to begin with, here's my basic waffle recipe (with of course a generous thank you to June Koontz!)

(A couple of quick introductory notes: First, remember to read the recipe twice! Also, those of you who are new to baking and haven't separated or beaten egg whites before, be sure to take a hard look at the starred paragraphs below before starting up the recipe. Finally, you'll obviously need a waffle iron for this recipe. I suggest you consider this model:Black & Decker G48TD Grill and Waffle Baker --it's the kind we use. Take a look at the bottom of this post for a graphical link to Amazon's site where you can buy one if you need to.)

1 3/4 cups sifted flour (important that you sift the flour, THEN re-measure exactly 1 3/4 cups of the flour post sifting--this makes the waffles light and fluffy)
1/8 teaspoon salt (note that here is an instance where using salt is NOT cheating)
3 teaspoons baking powder

2 egg yolks, separated from the whites
1 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup corn oil or vegetable oil (not olive oil)
2 stiff-beaten egg whites

Combine dry ingredients (sifted flour, salt and baking powder) in a flour sifter.

Then separate the yolks and whites of the two eggs.* Put the whites in one medium-sized mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer set at high speed, until stiffly beaten.**

Put the yolks in another mixing bowl. Add in the milk and oil. Beat for 2 minutes at medium speed.

Add sifted dry ingredients to yolk/oil/milk mixture and beat for another 2 minutes at medium speed until combined.

Then, gently fold the egg whites into the yolk/dry ingredients mixture. Note: use a rubber scraper here, do NOT use the electric mixer. Using a mixer here will pretty much traumatize the batter and your waffles will come out a lot less fluffy.

Pre-heat the waffle iron, and while it's warming up, coat both sides of the cooking surface with a thin layer of vegetable oil. You will only need to do this once each time you cook waffles, right before you cook the very first one. This prevents the waffle batter from sticking to the iron. Use a simple cooking bristle brush (you should easily be able to find these in your grocery store, but here you can find a picture of a typical brush).

Add batter to the waffle iron (maybe 3/4 of a cup of batter, give or take, per waffle) and cook until golden brown.

A final note. Please, please use real maple syrup on your waffles. I forbid you to use Aunt Jemima high-fructose phony syrup. It's a crime.


* A Quick Tutorial on How to Separate Egg Whites:
This will be a quick sidebar on how to separate and then stiffly beat egg whites: This is sort of a delicate operation, but with a little practice you'll get great at it.

First, crack the egg gently on a sharp edge somewhere (don't use your rock hard abs this time--instead, try the edge of the mixing bowl you're using). Your goal here is to get a nice easy crack around the circumference of the middle of the egg. Then, hold the egg upright over a medium-sized mixing bowl and gently break open the egg, but make sure to keep the yolk part sitting in the lower half of the shell. Some of the white will run out over the shell's edge and into the bowl. Next, just transfer the yolk into the other half shell, letting the white run off and into the bowl below. Be careful to keep the yolk whole--don't let it rub or scrape against a jagged edge of the egg shell. You don't want to let any yolk mix in with the egg white. Just pass the yolk back and forth between halves of the broken egg a couple of times and let the rest of the white drop into the mixing bowl below. Then, drop the yolk into the OTHER mixing bowl.

Try not to get frustrated if you don't get it right the first time, you can always ditch that egg and try again with another. This is sort of a finesse operation that will get easier with practice.

** A Second Quick (and Off-Color) Tutorial on Stiffly-Beaten Egg Whites.
"Stiffly-beaten" is not a sexual double entendre. Seriously, it's actually a real cooking term. In simplest terms, it means you beat the hell out of the egg whites with an electric mixer set on high (a hand mixer like this one is best). This whips air into the egg whites and they grow and grow, and get thicker and thicker (and no, that is NOT a double entendre either) and foamier and foamier.

You will know you are done when "stiff peaks" form (come on!! get your mind out of the gutter!), which means if you stop the beater and then slowly lift the blades out of the fluffy egg white mixture, the egg white mass in the bowl below forms a peak that will kind of point up and stay pointed. This is in contrast to "soft peaks" where the tips sag and kind of curl down (this is getting to be over the top I know, but please concentrate! We're cooking here).

Uh, anyhoo, you'll see what I mean as you do this yourself. When you're finished beating the hell out of the egg whites, they'll turn into a light, fluffy foam-like material that, when gently added back to the waffle mix, will make your waffles deliciously light and airy.

Enjoy! And remember what I said about real maple syrup...

How to Make a Perfectly Boiled Egg Every Time

I don’t know about you, but I am always on the lookout for an easy-to-make, energy-dense, and easy-to-eat breakfast food. And I think I’ve found it in the simple boiled egg.

Boxed cereals are way overpriced (not to mention that most contain so much sugar that they make your mouth hurt). Oatmeal pretty much grosses me out. Fruit is great but by itself isn’t an energy-dense enough meal for me, leaving me a starving hypoglycemic shell of myself by 10am (Forgive a tangent: I’ll write an entire post at some point on the concept of the “energy density” of food because it plays such an important role in your energy levels, body weight, body fat, and overall health).

But eggs are pretty much the perfect food, not just because they meet all of these aforementioned requirements, but also because they are quite good for you too.

So today, I’m going to give a tutorial on how to make a perfectly boiled egg every time. You can benefit from my years of experience boiling and peeling eggs (okay, so maybe I haven't amounted to much in life...) and enjoy all the benefits of one of nature’s nearly perfect foods. :)

What Can Go Wrong?
These are the primary problems that crop up when boiling eggs:

1) The eggs crack and leak when you boil them, leaving white goo everywhere in the pan, or causing rubbery egg white to bulge and blob outside of the eggshell.
2) The fricking shells won’t peel off easily, and the egg white sticks to the shell as you peel it off.
3) Your eggs are under- or overdone relative to your tastes.

Avoiding Shell Crackage
Nobody wants an egg with rubbery white leaking outside the shell. Typically this problem occurs when you subject a refrigerated egg to a more massive temperature change than it can handle, causing the shell to break. It’s easy to avoid this:

1) First place your eggs in a pot of cool water and place on stove.
2) Then set burner to medium-low only for 3-4 minutes.
3) Only THEN do you turn the burner to medium high.
4) When water then reaches a rolling boil, turn the burner OFF and set the timer for 10 minutes.

Adding steps 1-3 will dramatically reduce the odds of a broken or cracked egg. These little guys are not lobsters, to be cruelly plopped into a pot of already boiling water. Treat them with care and gentleness!

Cooking Eggs to Perfection
Now this next bit of subtlety depends on what kind of eggs you are using. Are you using medium eggs? Large? Extra large? Jumbo? Ostrich? We will adjust the amount of time we set on the timer based on both the way you want your egg cooked AND the type of egg you are using.

Do you DEMAND your egg to be fully, solidly cooked through? If so, then add one minute to make it 11 minutes for large eggs and extra-large eggs. Add two minutes for jumbo eggs to make it 12 minutes. I was kidding about the ostrich eggs, but if you're dying to know, leave a comment below and I can look into it.

What if you want your eggs to be a little gooey in the center? Then set the timer for just 7-8 minutes for medium eggs (experiment with this a little to get the timing down exactly), with adding perhaps an extra minute for extra large or jumbo eggs to make it 8 or 9 minutes.

Shell Game
Finally, I’ll share with you a technique for cracking and peeling off the eggshell that works extremely consistently:

First drain the hot water out of the pan, and replace with a couple of inches of cold water (enough to mostly cover the eggs).

Then take an egg and crack it thoroughly on the edge of the pan, make sure all of the shell is nicely broken up all around the entire surface of the egg. (Note that it doesn’t HAVE to be the side of the pan. You can crack your egg on whatever you like: on the floor, on your rock hard abs, on the side of your head, etc. Go crazy. Just try and keep it out of your eyes).

Um, right. Okay... while you’re cracking the egg on whatever surface you’ve chosen, make sure the eggshell is thoroughly cracked all over the surface of the egg. Then--and here’s the important part--place the egg BACK into the water after you crack it. Let the egg sit there for 30 seconds to one minute, to let water seep into the cracks in the shell and around the inside of the shell. THEN peel off the shell. This is the critical step that will protect the white from sticking to the shell when you peel the shell off! The shell should come off quite easily.

How to Season a Boiled Egg?
Some people will put butter (or worse, margarine) on their eggs. I do not condone this. I also know that some misguided souls might shake a little salt onto their boiled egg. Some truly unethical souls might shake a LOT of salt onto their boiled egg. But readers of this blog all know that using salt = cheating.

I suggest you do this instead: shake a little cayenne pepper or chipotle pepper onto the egg and leave it at that. Try it! It’ll add a little fire to your morning.

A Final Note: Cholesterol
I know the primary objection most people have to eating eggs is their fear of cholesterol. Please don’t get wrapped around the axle on this issue. In my case, thanks to lots of long-distance running and a tendency to overindulge in red wine, I have great cholesterol numbers and ratios despite the fact that I eat boiled eggs for breakfast two to three times a week.

If you are dying to eat multiple boiled eggs every day, AND your cholesterol is high, then that’s a different story. In that case, I’d suggest you limit yourself to at most one egg maybe four or five times a week.

If you really can’t restrain yourself and simply must have multiple eggs every day (I secretly hope that my readership has more classic addictions like dark chocolate or pie or something... but hey, there are all kinds of people out there), at least skip the yolks and just eat the whites. Or barring that, pour yourself a little extra Chianti a few times a week with dinner, and then consider exercising a little bit every other day to get your HDL numbers a bit higher. :)


FAQs of Casual Kitchen

Who are you?
My name is Daniel Koontz, and I'm an amateur writer, blogger and cook.

Fine, but what do you REALLY do for living?
I work deep in the bowels of an enormous financial services company that for obvious reasons will remain nameless.

Why are you doing this blog then?
I'm doing this in part for fun and for creative expression. But I'm also doing this in the hopes that I can share some of what I know with people who want to learn more about food and cooking. Hopefully, this blog will grow into a helpful and entertaining forum for people to read and learn about cooking and share their cooking and eating experiences.

Where do you get your ideas?
From the deep and haunted recesses of my tortured mind. Seriously, I get them from all kinds of sources: from a lifetime of cooking, experimenting in the kitchen, eating out, changing and modifying recipes, reading and sampling cookbooks, making mistakes, talking to friends about cooking, reading widely about cooking and eating, etc. Sometimes my friends or readers of this blog will suggest great ideas as well--see below:

Do you take suggestions for ideas?
Of course. I'm always looking for new subjects and ideas to discuss. Either leave them in the comments section of any post, or email me.

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, the best way you can support me is by submitting any article you like to bookmarking sites like, digg, reddit, or stumbleupon (if you don't know what a bookmarking site is, you should--my life was infinitely changed for the better by

Feel free to spread the word and tell your friends about this site, and of course feel free to leave comments here on the blog with your thoughts.

How do you make money with this blog?
Theoretically, in four ways:
1) Through Google Adsense ad clicks. Advertisers pay to have contextually relevant ads posted on my blog. If you see an ad that you think is interesting and worth your attention, please feel free to click on it.
2) Through Amazon affiliate links. On occasion I will post product or book links to Amazon. If you use those links to get to Amazon and purchase any products, I will get paid a small affiliate fee.
3) By donations. You can use either the PayPal link below or click on the "donate" button on my blog's main page.

4) If readers send me bags of money in the mail.
How can I reach you to complain to/bitch at/annoy/compliment/thank/send money to/propose marriage to/ you?
You can email me here. And, sorry, I'm already married.

Crockpot Part Two: Recipes and Cooking Sites

There's been a quick (and fortunately positive...) response to my first crockpot post, so I'll follow up right away with some helpful resources for recipes, advice and crockpot product information. It's going to be a real crock-o-rama here today.

Of course anybody can type "crockpot" into a search bar on Yahoo or Google and see what turns up. But I've done my best to filter out any substandard sites where the recipes suck, or are too complicated, or whatever. Thus the sites I've listed below are ones that I've personally found particularly useful. If anybody has a site they'd like me to consider, please drop me a note in the comments section below.

List of Crockpot Resources:

1) Vegan recipes for the crockpot. The borscht looks particularly good by the way.

2) Here's a general crockpot recipe site that has a lot of promise, although let me apologize in advance for the rapid-blink banner ads.
Two particular standout recipes here are the Garlic Lime Chicken and the Kona Chicken. Both are easy as heck and have a creative mix of ingredients. You can easily tell both are worth cooking.

3) has an enormous (and I mean enormous) list of crockpot recipes... enough here for all possible tastes. But please don't make lasagna in your crockpot. That's just not right. The Cajun Red Beans and Rice has a lot of potential.

4) There are several very good recipes at Search for "slow cooker" under Recipes. The Slow Cooker Corned Beef and Cabbage is a must-try.

5) If you type "crockpot" into the search bars of Yahoo or Google, this site from comes up near the top. Despite this, it's still incredibly useful. :) You'll find an enormous list of recipes, a list of recommended cookbooks for slow cookers, advice on adapting recipes for crockpot use, and lots of other
useful advice, tips and FAQs on crockpots. There's even a "weekly recipe-in-an-email" option in there!

6) Here's a chicken cacciatore recipe that stood out from the pack.

7) Here’s an amazing pork tenderloin recipe, literally. Mmmmm.... pork tenderloin. A big self-conscious apology to any vegetarian or non-pork eating readers! This recipe is easy, fast and amazing-sounding. A keeper.

8) Finally, I found it particularly helpful to search on using the tag "crockpot"--the sites that turn up are for the most part excellent.


Enjoy! And remember, sometimes life can be a crock!

The Crockpot: How I Admitted I Was Wrong in a Cooking Debate

This is a story about how I came around to my wife’s view on using a crockpot, and how I can be totally, egregiously wrong about things. Sometimes.

It dates back to when my wife was registering for gifts for our wedding. She mentioned to me that she wanted to get a crockpot.

“A crockpot! What the hell do we need a crockpot for?” I yowled ungrammatically. I was laughing out loud at all the 1950’s images rolling around in my mind: The grayish, boiled mystery meat, smushy vegetables, Marion Cunningham, June Cleaver, etc. You get the picture.

One of the ironies here is that I used to work on the housewares floor of a big (and now defunct) department store back when I was in college--that’s where I acquired a lot of my early knowledge about what kind of gear you need and don’t need in the kitchen. I errantly considered a crockpot to be on the “don’t need” list.

But I learned later that meals from a crockpot have enormous advantages for a busy cook. They tend to be simple and easy to make. There are very few crock pot recipes with more than one step. Just whip through the prep work (or outsource it), chuck everything into the pot, set it on low, and drag yourself off to that job you can't wait to retire from.

You can forget about it for the entire day, and when you come home, dinner is done and waiting for you. Note that this is a rare instance where you may bend my rule to stay near the kitchen.

If you’re looking for a good quality crockpot, I’d suggest the same brand that we have: Rival. If you click on the product link at the bottom of this post it will take you to one such crockpot on Amazon. Note that the word “crockpot” is actually a brand name owned by Rival, and products made by other manufacturers will usually be called “slow cookers.”

I wouldn’t bother with any of the annoying, fancy ones with zillions of settings. Just get one with a low, medium and high setting and keep it simple.

A couple of minor cautions about using crockpots: They take forever to heat up, so you can’t really lift up the lid and peer in at the food without costing yourself extra cooking time on the back end. Don't give into the temptation of looking in on the food while it simmers!

Also reheating food in the crockpot is a bit problematic. The crock itself is a brittle ceramic that under no circumstances can you heat on any direct heat source, like a stove. I learned this lesson the hard way and shattered one once… please don’t let me hear that you copied my mistake. You can’t really reheat it by turning on the crockpot itself because that can take an hour. And the high-walled ceramic dish doesn't work well in a microwave. So, you have to reheat your food the old fashioned way--by spooning it onto a plate and microwaving it.

There are literally TONS of recipes that are specifically designed for crockpot cooking, and I'll have a post coming up shortly with suggested sites to visit for recipe ideas.

Also when you buy your crockpot, be sure to look over the recipe book that comes along with it. We were surprised at how many good recipes there were in there. And finally, I've listed below one of our house favorites, chili, which can be made as spicy or as mild as your palate allows. It's a definite heavy rotation candidate!

Crock Pot Chili:
(Borrowed and modified without permission from our friend Karen)

Add to crockpot:
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 8-ounce can tomato paste
2 14.5-ounce can kidney beans or pink beans
1 lb ground beef, browned and drained of fat
1 onion, chopped coarsely
1 green pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup water
3 Tablespoons mild chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne or chipotle pepper (can also add Tabasco sauce to taste)

Stir ingredients, cover crock pot and cook 10 hours on low or 5 hours on high. Can serve over white rice.

Serves 6.


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

Nobody wants to take a whole bunch of time out of their busy day to cook something that ends up tasting crappy. And it's pretty frustrating even to make a dish that comes out great--if it takes twice as long to make it as you expected and you're sitting down to dinner with your family at 10:00PM.

So how can you tell, in advance, if a recipe will be any good? Will it be interesting and original? Will it ever make it into your heavy rotation?

Or, will it take too long or be too much of a pain in the ass to make? Or worse, will it end up tasting weird?

You can get surprisingly accurate answers to these questions just by learning to read a recipe with a critically trained eye. So today, as a teaching tool, I want to show you a new recipe that we tried for the first time the other night. I'm going to share with you why I chose the recipe, how I decided that it was likely to taste good, and other assumptions I made about the dish, including the prep work involved and how scalable the dish might be.

Basically, I’m going to walk you through how I went about thinking through the recipe in advance and why I decided it was worth making. Hopefully when you finish this post, you’ll also be able to judge a recipe BEFORE you make it. But first, here is the new recipe itself, borrowed without permission from The New Moosewood Cookbook. I submit it to you here with some modifications. Please read it through and keep it handy as you read the rest of this post:
White Bean and Black Olive Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2-3 onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 zucchini, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
black pepper to taste
4 cups water
3 oz tomato paste
1/4 cup dry red wine (don't forget: never use "cooking wine")
2 8 ounce cans white beans
1 cup black olives (canned okay)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Chopped parsley for toppings.

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot. Add onion, celery, carrot and seasonings. Saute 8-10 minutes over medium heat. Add zucchini, green pepper and garlic, saute 5 minutes more.

Add rest of ingredients to pot, bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes. Serve topped with parsley.
Essentially I want to know if the grief involved in making this dish will outweigh the pleasures involved in eating it. So, what I’m going to do is consider this recipe with the following five key questions in mind. By walking through this exercise with me, you’ll see a practical example of how I think about a recipe before I make it:

1) Does it sound good?
Not if you hate olives. And I mean that in a serious way. You need to scan down the list of ingredients and first make sure there aren’t any ingredients that you hate in there. I know this sounds like a “duh”-type comment, because most dishes, quite expectedly, taste like the ingredients in them.

But my point here is that you can use this rule to instantly eliminate a dish from consideration and move on to another recipe. Hate olives? Okay, nix this one and turn the page. Next!

Yes, you will find some recipes that combine ingredients in such an original way that they don’t taste like their component parts. Believe me, however, a vegetable soup just won’t fall into that category. (Forgive a quick tangent: at some point I’ll share a great Pasta Puttanesca recipe with you that even anchovy-haters will love. My wife can’t sit in the same room with an anchovy but she still loves it.)

Now, here’s the next step in deciding if a dish sounds good: see if there are ingredients in the recipe that are combined in an original way. What grabbed me about this recipe was that it was a soup that contained olives. I love olives, but I have NEVER added them into a soup before. It seemed pretty neat and original. And thus, the recipe “sounded good” to me. Why pick a new recipe if there’s nothing interesting about it?

2) Does it contain any bizarre or impossible-to-find ingredients?
This is usually the second question I ask myself as I run down the list of ingredients. Again, it’s a quick litmus test to help you make an even quicker decision. If the recipe calls for saffron or something (I barely even know what saffron is, much less do I know where the heck I’d find it in my grocery store), it’s a quick deal-killer. Next!

With this recipe, this is an easy question to answer: No. All of the ingredients will be easy to find at any grocery store.

3) How much prep work am I gonna have to do? Will this be a pain in the ass and take forever?
Ah-hah. I thought we were sailing along with flying colors, but we’ve stumbled a bit here. There is a fair amount of chopping and slicing of veggies required here, a common and predictable liability of vegetarian recipes. What I’ll do next, then, is try and estimate the time it will take to make the recipe. My thought was that the prep work in this dish above would take me about 20-25 minutes, which isn’t too bad for a vegetarian soup dish. Adding in the other steps, this dish could be made in under an hour from top to bottom, and you can do something else while it’s simmering for the last 15-20 minutes (but please, stay near the kitchen!).

Many recipes do this thinking for you by listing (hopefully accurate) prep times and/or cook times along with the recipe itself. For me, if I think the prep time alone will be much more than half an hour, I know I’ll get antsy. (Next!) Figure out what your prep time tolerance is and use that as a decision factor.

Aside from a bit of extra slicing and dicing, this recipe is fairly low on the pain in the ass scale. There aren’t a lot of discrete steps in the recipe and frankly it’s not all that complicated. Yes, you’ll be washing and cutting up veggies, but then you just spend a few minutes sauteing them, and after that it’s all about chucking everything into a pot and forgetting about it until the timer goes off. So once the prep work is done, 90% of the total work is done too.

4) Can the dish be doubled easily?
At first glance you could make a case that this recipe partially fails this test because of the amount of prep work. But I disagree. There are ways to process vegetables to save time here. Does it really take twice as long to cut four stalks of celery vs. two? You have to buy a huge multi-stalk celery thing at the grocery store anyway, what’s so hard about stacking up four stalks into a pile and cutting them all at once? Line up the two zucchinis next to each other and cut ‘em up simultaneously. These are simple workflow suggestions so that you’ll be more likely to capture the great benefit of doubling a recipe: 2x the food for only 1.2x the work.

5) Will this dish be cheap to make?
How important this answer is depends obviously on how important frugality is for you. But I typically draw the line if a recipe contains any rip-off expensive ingredients (once again, saffron might be one obvious example. Next!). I have a feeling I’ll always think a little bit about this issue--even if I were a lottery winner or something--because at some crossover price it becomes cheaper to order take-out instead of cooking. Luckily, this dish is cheap enough to qualify for laughably cheap, so there’s no issue whatsoever here.

So there you have it, five easy questions to ask to help you decide if a recipe is worth cooking. The White Bean and Black Olive Soup recipe was a pretty clear winner here, as it passed three of the five questions with flying colors (#1, #2 and #5), and it got qualified but passing answers on the other two (#3 and #4). That’s good enough for me. There’s no hard and fast rule to apply here as far as how many no answers you’ll tolerate before saying “Next!” or which specific answers are recipe deal-breakers. You will decide for yourself which are most important and which, if any, are triggers for YOU to say “Next!”

If you read each recipe from now on with a critical eye and do your best to answer these five questions, I guarantee you’ll save yourself from a lot of bad recipes, and you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re in for when you choose a new recipe to cook.


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Most Popular Posts of Casual Kitchen

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, or 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!

Cooking With Love: Farfalle with Mushrooms and Gorgonzola Cheese

This recipe is simple, quick and consists of easy-to-find ingredients, yet it's still original and just a little bit unusual. The gorgonzola (or blue) cheese gives the dish a great taste sensation your family and guests will really enjoy. Be prepared to give out extra copies of the recipe.

Also, there's a bonus cooking lesson baked into today's post--see below.
Farfalle with Mushrooms and Gorgonzola Cheese

1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 lb fresh mushrooms, quartered
4 plum tomatoes, chopped coarsely
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese or blue cheese. (Best to buy a ~4-5 ounce block of cheese and break it up or slice it up yourself.)

1) Heat olive oil in a non-stick skillet. Add garlic, saute 1 minute at medium high heat. Add mushrooms, saute another 4-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, oregano and basil. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 5-7 minutes and then let stand until pasta is ready.

2) Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. Drain but save back 1/2 half cup of leftover cooking water. Add to sauce in skillet. Toss pasta, sauce and crumbled cheese in a large pot. Serve hot.

Two recipe notes:
1) This recipe is a textbook illustration of the importance of reading the recipe twice. Note that the recipe process steps are (arguably) out of order. In fact, the very first thing you'll want to do is start heating the pot of water for the pasta. Then you start the prep work--and the water should be boiling by the time the prep work is finished. Then, since the farfalle should take about 12 or so minutes to cook, you can start cooking the pasta as you saute the other ingredients. Done this way, the pasta and all the other ingredients should be ready at exactly the same time.

The thing is, you'd never know this is if you just started in on the recipe without having read it through first. If you simply executed this recipe's process steps one by one--without advanced knowledge of the steps to come--this recipe would take twice as long to make. It would still come out totaly fine, but you'd waste unnecessary time. Always read the recipe twice.

2) One final note: years ago, this dish taught me exactly what it means to cook with love. One night, I made this recipe while I was calm, focused and in an unusually good mood.

I did every step with extra care, and forgive me for bragging, but it came out absolutely kickass. And when my wife Laura sat down to dinner and started eating, she pounded the table (yes, she actually pounded the table with her fist) and said, “I can tell you made this with love.”

You could technically argue that I didn’t do anything different at all--I cooked this recipe the same way as always, at least in terms of the recipe's discrete steps. But what I did do differently, before I started cooking, was spend a few minutes mentally focusing on how great this meal was going to come out. This ultimately turned into rule #3 of my Seven Rules To Ensure Mistake-Free Cooking post.

Don't ever underestimate the importance of your state of mind when you cook!

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!

Seven Rules To Ensure Mistake-Free Cooking

We’ve all been there. You’re all ready to cook a great dinner for company, or even grind your way through a basic meal for the family, and something goes wrong. You got distracted and weren’t really concentrating, and your main dish comes out burned. Or it doesn’t taste right because you forgot some ingredient and didn’t realize it until too late.

I don’t want this kind of thing to happen to my readers--ever. So please help yourself to my seven rules to ensure mistake-free cooking:

1) Read the recipe twice
This simple rule has saved me from a thousand screwups, it makes you focus your mind on the task at hand (see #3 below), and it helps you avoid distractions.

Cooking is a process of steps. When you take step one in a recipe, you also should have in your mind a good sense of ALL of the future steps in that recipe. This rule also forces you to think about the timing of each of the steps (as well as the steps involved in any other things you might be cooking alongside this dish), so you can make everything come out at the same time.

Moreover, plenty of recipes aren’t written all that logically. Sometimes they contain steps listed out of order. Sometimes, early on, they fail to mention certain steps that will be implicit later in the recipe (like needing to boil water for pasta that needs to be added to the dish later). That’s a particular favorite recipe pet peeve of mine. Some recipes are written inscrutably, and therefore will need some degree of “deciphering’’ before you can plunge into them.

If you read the recipe over twice and therefore absorb all the steps and procedures of a recipe before getting started, you’ll be focused, undistracted, and you’ll eliminate any potential problems with a recipe before it’s too late.

2) Are you fully prepared?
Do you have everything in your kitchen that you need to make the recipes you have planned? My secret is this: while I’m reading each recipe--for the second time of course!--I pull each ingredient and cooking tool out of the cupboard as I go. That way I can do a quick inventory and be doubly sure everything is available and within easy reach.

This is a simple rule much like #1, but I guarantee if you make a point of following it you will save yourself years of stress and heartache down the road. There is nothing worse than being two-thirds of the way through a recipe and discovering you are out of some critical ingredient. This can be catastrophic if you’re in the middle of a recipe that you can’t break away from without ruining it. Are you working on a bread or cake and you find that you’re out of baking powder—so the batter just sits there getting soggy while you’re racing to the store? Are you trying to roll a pie crust on a hot day and you’ve found that your rolling pin is broken? Believe me, there are few worse miseries in cooking.

Make sure everything you need is right there before you get started. It just takes an extra 30 seconds to make a quick inventory check, and the time will be well spent.

3) Are you in the right frame of mind?
Are you of a mind to obligatorily slap this dinner on the table?

If you are, then you really should change your crappy attitude. And you most definitely shouldn’t try out a complex new recipe for the first time.

This suggestion is a sort of metaphysical corollary to #2. Just as you need to be physically prepared to cook, with all the right ingredients and tools, you should be mentally prepared to cook too. You should be excited to cook and happy to create new experiences for yourself in the kitchen. If this is a big meal for company, or a particularly complex dish, I’d even counsel you to spend a few minutes with your eyes closed, visualizing how you will enjoy the process of cooking your dinner and how delicious it will be when you’ve finished it. Here’s a link to a book on the broader subject of creative visualization that I’ve personally found extremely useful: Creative Visualization

At the very least don’t be grudging about having to cook dinner, especially if you intend to try a new recipe or a new cuisine in your kitchen. What I want to teach you with this blog is that cooking is fun, it’s exploratory, it’s interesting, and it’s creative. And for me, cooking is a way of showing my wife I really like her. :) Believe me, your food will taste a heck of a lot better if you have a positive attitude going into the kitchen.

4) Don’t put excess pressure on yourself
This is especially true when you cook something for the very first time. Don’t set unreasonably high expectations in your mind about how the new dish will come out flawlessly, perfectly and how you and your tastebuds will revel in your finest hour in the kitchen. Don’t throw in experimental recipe modifications just yet. And don’t force things and try to multitask. That can come later.

Instead, try to enjoy the process of learning and getting your mind around a new recipe. Read it twice and go slow. That’s why I talk about the concept of iteration in this post. Rome wasn’t built in a day; you shouldn’t be trying to multitask your way through a new recipe on the first try. And most importantly, don’t make substitutes or take liberties with a recipe until you have utter confidence in how to make the dish. That confidence will come later after you’ve made it a few times. We’ll talk about how to approach recipe modifications in a later post.

5) Stay near the kitchen
Terrible things will happen when you wander too far from the kitchen while you’re cooking. Things boil over on the stove, and you’re not a couple of quick steps away to turn off the burner. You are out of earshot of the timer so you over-boil the pasta until it's “Indiana-style”* (Does anybody know what expression to use when you want to describe the polar opposite of “al dente”? :) If you do, please tell me!). You burn the cookies, or leave something in the oven too long, or you let something stick to the bottom of the pan when you should have been there stirring it. These are tragedies that should never happen. Stay near the kitchen and stay involved in what you are doing there.

6) NEVER try a recipe for the first time on company
This is probably one of my top laws in my kitchen, and I can’t emphasize this rule enough. Don’t be a fool. The risk-reward here is terrible. If everything comes out great, okay fine, wonderful. You’ve made a great dinner for company but it was more stressful than normal because you were on uncertain ground making something you’ve never made before. But the downside here is catastrophic. What if dinner comes out FUBAR? What will you feed your guests? Take-out chinese? Just like in investing, you never want to give yourself unlimited downside risk in exchange for a small upside gain.

However, I do encourage you to try new recipes regularly. You’ll stretch yourself, broaden your skills and your cooking repertoire, and you’ll fend off cooking burnout. But just don’t experiment on company! Use your immediate family as guinea pigs first.

7) Make 99% of everything BEFORE the guests arrive
Many of us imagine that kitchen ideal from the photographs in House and Garden: you are hosting a dinner party (of stunningly beautiful guests, of course) where everybody is mingling in the kitchen, glasses of cabernet in hand. People are helping out in the kitchen, wearing their various yuppie sweater sets, and of course everybody’s having a great time while you “whip up” dinner.

This is not reality. If there’s ever a recipe for screw-ups in the kitchen, this is it. While we all look longingly at those phony pictures in the magazine, what REALLY happens is everybody gets talking, all the mingling in the kitchen just means too many people are in your way, and you get tense and start snapping at your guests or at your spouse. Then you get distracted and miss something, burn something or leave out something—and then of course dinner is irrevocably screwed up.

If you just can’t control your House and Garden emulatory urges and you MUST make cooking dinner into a group thing where everybody pitches in, then I have this advice for you. First, find beautiful friends. Then please, please get all the hard parts of dinner done on your own first before company arrives. Then you can let people help with the easier things with low “catastrophe potential.” Have them do things like cutting up veggies for salad, setting out crackers and cheese, setting the table, pouring the wine, etc.


I may not be able to guarantee complete cooking perfection for you for the rest of your long and healthy life. But if you follow these rules conscientiously, I’m confident that from now on you’ll hardly ever make mistakes in your kitchen.

Good luck!

Related Posts:
Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs: The Economics of Cooking, Part 1
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
Six Secrets to Save You from Cooking Burnout
How to Team Up in the Kitchen

* NOTE: the original version of this post contained a reference to a different midwestern state, which offended some of my readers from that state. I apologize and deeply regret any offense. Further, I am now well aware that there are people in Ohio who actually do NOT overcook their pasta. Now on to offending people in Indiana! :)

Red Lentils and Rice: Two Cooking Lessons From A Cheap and Easy Dish

Here's another recipe that works great as a side dish or as a full meal. I'd say the cost of this meal will be around $2.00 to $3.00 tops (which means it qualifies for laughably cheap) and it'll serve 3-4 people even if served as a main dish.

And, as a free bonus, I'm throwing in two "kitchen life lessons" along with this recipe--see below.
Red Lentils and Rice(modified without permission from the side of a bag of Goya red lentils)
1 lb red lentils

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tblsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon curry powder (prefer hot curry powder)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cups water and 1 bouillon cube (chicken, beef or veggie, it doesn't matter)
3-4 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Black pepper and/or cayenne pepper to taste


Heat oil, then saute onions and garlic in oil on medium high heat for ~5 minutes.
Add ginger, curry powder, cumin and saute another 2 minutes.
Add remaining ingredients and lentils.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for ~20 minutes.
Add a bit more water if lentil mixture seems like it's getting too dry.
Serve over white rice.

Serves 4.


There are two things I'd like to teach with this recipe:

1) Don't get rattled by upfront spice costs.
If you're starting up a kitchen and you're cooking some of your first few recipes, you may find your upfront spice costs to be disconcertingly expensive. If you DON'T find them disconcertingly expensive, then please send me some of your excess money.

Admittedly, spices are the worst ripoffs in cooking. You'll have to grin and bear it with the upfront costs and know that the "1/2 teaspoon ground cumin" you just used is still basically free, even if it cost you $4.99 to buy the full jar in the first place. You'll be using the rest of that jar of cumin in lots of other recipes, and don't worry, these spices will last for years.

2) Some of the best recipes come from the most unassuming places.
This is a critical lesson I want to convey: you can find really great recipes in the most humble places. I found the recipe above totally randomly. I was browsing around in the dried beans section of our grocery store (yep, the party NEVER stops over here...) and I picked up a bag of these weird looking orange colored lentils. I'd never really noticed or even seen a red lentil before. And on the side of the bag--again totally randomly--I saw this recipe.

It looked like it would taste good AND be easy to make, thus it would pass both litmus tests to get tried in my kitchen. What you have above is a slightly modified version of that recipe.

Sure, I've found great recipes in the usual places: in cookbooks, in magazines and on the Internet. But I've found some of our top favorite recipes in really nutty places too. I've already shared a house favorite recipe with you that I modified from the side of a Near East couscous box. I've also found great recipes on the side of a 28 ounce can of black beans, on the outside of a box of store-brand linguine, and even a real keeper of a recipe on a tag wrapped around a big bunch of collard greens (in tiny, tiny print no less!).

Now the side of a bag of lentils doesn't seem like such a weird place to snag a recipe after all, does it?

Later, in another post, I'll teach some of my tricks to figure out if a recipe sounds like it will taste good, and if it will be easy or difficult to make. But for now I want you to just keep your eyes open and look everywhere for possible new recipes to add to your heavy rotation. Scan the packaging of everything you buy and even the things you don't buy. Before you know it, you'll be trained to find great new recipes.


Related Posts:Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings
Just Say No to Overpriced Boxed Cereal
Quite Possibly the Easiest Lentil Soup Recipe You’ll Find Anywhere
Three Easy, Delicious and Inexpensive Homemade Salad Dressing Recipes
Invigorate Your Cooking with Fresh Herbs

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!