How to Make a Great Seafood Stock

I know it's a lot easier when a recipe calls for "stock" to chuck in a couple of bouillion cubes and some water. Or worse, to purchase overpriced, ready-made stock from the store.

At the risk of sounding like Slave Galley Kitchen rather than Casual Kitchen, I cannot allow you to take this particular shortcut anymore. It is borderline unethical. Your cuisine will suffer for it, and you'll be ingesting excess salt. And for what--a little expedience?

The only time I'll guiltily indulge in expedient behavior like this is if I'm really, severely pressed for time and I need to crank out a dinner pronto. And even then I can't bring myself to buy ready-made stock. Instead, what I'll do is use one cube of bouillion per two cups of water for a milder, less salty substitute.

But when you do have some time, try making your own stock. Enjoy how it makes your dishes richer and tastier and yet adds no sodium whatsoever. Moreover, it's so easy to make a huge batch and freeze it up in ready-made containers that you'll never want to go back to the salt-laden pre-made stuff.

Seafood Stock:

Put into a large stock pot:

2-3 onions, quartered, leave the papers/peelings on (yes, you read that right--leave 'em on)
Several cloves garlic, smashed or cut in half (again, leave the papers/peelings on)
2-3 whole celery sticks
Any vegetable trimmings or peelings from whatever recipe you are serving
All of the shrimp shells from the recipe you're using, or use a few shrimp cut into pieces, shells and all (can also substitute pieces of fish or other seafood, or even oyster sauce if you're desperate)

Fill stock pot with cold water, add more than enough water to cover the all the stock ingredients already in the pot.

Bring water to a boil on high heat, then turn heat to medium low, set lid slightly askew, and simmer for a minimum of four hours, but as much as eight hours if you have time.

After the stock has simmered, strain it into measured amounts and freeze for future use.

Note that even though this is a stock recipe specifically for seafood, it can easily serve as a fundamental base for any kind of stock.

For vegetable stock, just leave out the seafood (duh). For beef or chicken stock, just toss in some tailings, skin, fat or bones from the meat you're using from your recipe. You can also brown any beef or chicken bones and meat in a non-stick skillet before adding it into the pot. Browning them this way will give the stock an even richer taste.

A few final observations:

1) First of all, I'll never forget the first time I tried to make stock this way. I was thinking, "seriously, you just hack the onions and garlic into a few pieces and toss 'em in the pot? You mean you just leave the peelings on?"

It seemed so.... so irreverent. But that's exactly the way to do it. Leaving the peelings and papers on actually adds to the flavor, and it saves you from having to do any prep work (who said there's no such thing as a free lunch?). Thus putting everything together literally takes two minutes.

2) Note that I don't add any spices or seasonings to the stock. No black pepper, no salt (obviously) and no cayenne pepper. The point here isn't to make something spicy or heavily flavorful. The recipe you'll use the stock in will contain its own spices. The stock is supposed to be a vehicle, nothing more.

3) This is one of the few times when you get to bend the rule to stay near the kitchen. Also, fortunately, this is a dish that scales well. Use your biggest pot and make as much stock as you feel you have room for in your freezer.

4) When I said using ready-made stock or bouillion was borderline unethical, I was just exaggerating for effect. Indulge me--I need to say things like this once in a while in order to stand out in blogland! So, if you've used ready-made stock or bouillion in the past, or if you choose to do it at some point in the future, you are not a bad person. Well, not that bad a person. :)

Stock on!

Paul Prudhomme's Barbecued Shrimp Recipe: The Most Glorious Meal So Far This Year

Today I’ll share with you the recipe for Paul Prudhomme’s Barbecued Shrimp. This was unquestionably the most glorious meal I’ve made so far this year.

It passed the five easy questions test with flying colors. It was quite easy to make, with prep time of only about 30 minutes. Best of all, we had an utterly magnificent experience eating it.

A couple of brief introductory comments: The brand of beer I happened to use in the recipe has already brewed up (sorry) a bit of an amusing controversy. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my rule for new recipes to do it one time by the book, so I saw no reason to start imposing my own beer snobbery without first having some context on how the recipe would come out. If anybody wants to do a side-by-side control test of the recipe using different types of beer, go for it. Let me know the results.

Finally, there also seems to be minor controversy on whether this is technically “barbecue” or not. Heck, there are no coals, no broiling, and no cooking over an open pit. Perhaps we can get some barbecue purists to weigh in on this one, but my guess is they won’t consider something cooked in a pan as barbecue.

But man, those are just semantics to me. The recipe was so amazing that Chef Paul could call it anything he wants! I’ll cut him some slack.
Paul Prudhomme's Barbecued Shrimp
(Very slightly modified from Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen.*)

2 dozen medium-large raw shrimp with shells included (about 1 pound)

Seasoning mix:
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt (yes, we're bending
the salt rule here because it's Paul Prudhomme)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon rosemary leaves, crushed
1/8 teaspoon oregano

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, in all
1 to 2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup seafood stock or vegetable stock
1/4 cup beer at room temperature

1) Rinse the shrimp in cold water and drain well. Leave shells on.

2) In a small bowl, combine seasoning mix ingredients.

3) Combine one stick of the butter, the garlic, Worcestershire sauce and seasoning mix in a large skillet over high heat. When the butter is melted, add the shrimp.

4) Cook for 2 minutes, shaking the pan (do not stir), in a back and forth motion. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and the stock, cook and shake pan for 2 more minutes. Add the beer and cook and shake the pan 1 minute longer. Remove from heat.

5) Serve immediately on a platter with a mound of white rice or seasoned rice in the center and the shrimp and sauce surrounding it.
A few quick extra notes:

  • Along with the rice, this dish made exactly enough food for two hungry people with enough left over for a lunch for Laura.
  • If you want to double this recipe, the cookbook says you should do it in separate batches. Note therefore that this dish does not scale well.
  • Don't ignore the specific instructions to shake the pan back and forth rather than stir (just think James Bond here). When you're working with melting butter, especially in a dish with a high ratio of butter to other ingredients, stirring can cause the oils in the butter to separate out, and it will make the sauce seem oily.

A Wine Suggestion
I’ll admit up front that this isn’t really the kind of blog you should visit to find painstaking details on wine pairings (at least not until I quit my job and go to sommelier school…!), but this dish will go very well with a light semi-dry or semi-sweet white wine, which will balance the hot spicy flavors in the dish. A Riesling, for example, would be perfect. We knocked back most of a bottle of Seyval from the Hosmer Winery, which is in the Finger Lakes region of New York State (quite good and yet only $10 a bottle!).


Related Posts:
The Greatest Chocolate Mousse in the World
Paul Prudhomme RULES
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
Paul Prudhomme's Cajun Meatloaf: A Meatloaf Recipe that would Burn June Cleaver's Tongue Off

* Full Disclosure: if you purchase this book using any of the links provided, I get paid a miniscule affiliate fee.

A Can of Bud

Today we've got a special treat: a guest blog post from my wife Laura.


Can of Bud

by Laura L. Perrin

I got my in-laws bundled up and on the road home to Syracuse this morning. They stayed overnight this week and last, coming and going to Miami out of Newark airport for a week's vacation. Nice folks--I'm really lucky. They even put the futon away and folded all the blankets before I could stop them.

After they headed out I got on the road myself to do my usual Friday morning errands. At the grocery store I'm moving pretty fast down the list until I get to the last item: one can of Budweiser. Hmmm. Now, I remember watching Dan going through his cajun cookbook last night, presumably looking for something good to make for Saturday night. He's used the fried catfish and sole recipes, and made hush puppies, shrimp creole and shrimp ettoufee. Lots of steps and exotic spices--for some reason I think "fancy" when he pulls out Paul Prudhomme, but I guess I have to change my thoughts on that. He's using Bud this time. I even called him at work to see if just maybe he could use the Corona Light we have in the back of the fridge, but no he says, it has to be a basic American everyman beer.

Guess there are drawbacks to having a self-styled chef in the house.

Where DO you get just one can of Budweiser? I have visions of myself pulling a can off the end of a six-pack in some liquor store somewhere, taking it sheepishly up to the register and hoping they won't wonder where the other five cans went. Or worse, having to buy an ENTIRE six-pack just for the one lousy can for this recipe. Now I'm sorry to say THAT would definitely end up wasting away in the fridge.

So with the groceries in the trunk and on my way to the bank, I stop in at Turnpike Liquors hoping the nice man behind the counter can come up with some solution to my dilemma. Without much ado, he points to the chilled single cans of Budweiser in the refrigerated case right by the door. Roaders I guess? And he even agreed with me that some recipes just needed a Bud to make them perfect.

Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating

As I sit here stuffing my face with a diet of repeated spoonfuls of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream, I realize I have a problem.

Mindless eating.

Do you ever sit down in front of the TV, bag of chips in hand--and before you realize it, you've finished the entire bag? (There actually is an official medical term for this: dreaded empty bag syndrome.)

Or after you've finished dinner, do you find yourself watching TV and eating still more food, even though you're not really hungry? Do you eat snacks more out of boredom than out of hunger?

Have you ever gone out with a group of friends, and while talking excitedly and having a grand time, you stuff endless amounts of food in your mouth, swallow it half-chewed--and later hardly even recall what you ate?

These are all examples of mindless eating. Today, I'm going to provide you with a comprehensive list of tips and strategies to stop yourself from this hazardous habit.

This post is a bit longer than usual, but it's an important subject that is worth the extra time.

1) Don't eat out of the bag/box/carton
Readers intimately familiar with this blog know of my personal weakness for Cooler Ranch Doritos, so I'll use them as a personal example: Don't take the whole bag of Doritos to the couch with you. Instead, place a handful of Doritos into a SMALL BOWL and then close up the bag and put it away. Then eat out of the small bowl. If you head back for seconds, it will at least be a partially conscious decision.

This holds true for ice cream too. Put a scoop or two into a small bowl and eat that. Don't start in on the pint (or lord help you, the half gallon!) and then look down and see you've finished it all off.

2) Don't eat in front of the TV
There's a great image from The Simpsons where Homer is sitting down in front of the TV with the game on. He's got bags of chips and bowls of dip arranged all around him: on his lap, next to him, even arrayed above him and behind his head. He eats with both hands, like a crazed and pear-shaped windmill, chewing audibly of course (if I'm thinking of the right episode, one of his coronary arteries briefly shuts off during this scene--Simpsons experts, please correct me if I'm wrong here). And of course he can reach around himself for any chip or dip combination, all without moving off the couch at all!

Sure, this might seem like an extreme example (uh, not as extreme as you might think for me...). But when you're eating and paying attention to something else like the TV, it is simply too easy to look down, and--to your horror--find that the bag of chips you thought you just sat down with is totally empty!

Yes, you've just experienced a classic case of dreaded empty bag syndrome. You've consumed 1,000 calories of Doritos via rote autonomic motion of hand to mouth for the past hour and a half--without even noticing. Don't let this happen to you by being distracted by the television.

3) Don't keep junk food around the house
This one sounds obvious, but it's less obvious than you'd think. Laura and I aren't above making a desperate late night run to the grocery store for salty snacks, but three out of four times the notion of having to get into the car and drive to the grocery store is enough to kill the idea off. So instead we stay home and don't stuff Doritos into our gullets that night.

If you're going to have food around the house at all, first try not to mindlessly eat it. :) But beyond that, just don't tempt fate. Don't have a treasure trove of junk food and goodies lying all around your home quietly awaiting your next attack of mindlessness.

If it so happens that you DO slip into "mindless mode" (and we all do from time to time), try to have the targets of your mindless eating be things like fruit, vegetables, or something on the healthy side. Think about it: if you're going to mindlessly eat something, by definition you aren't going to be paying all that much attention to what it is. Ergo, have it be stuff that's not energy-dense, won't make you regretful, and won't make you feel awful afterwards.

Here's a special strategy for those times like the days after Halloween when you're bound to have goodies in the house: take your leftover candy to the office and give it to your coworkers. The best part of this strategy is that your coworkers will actually like you for it, AND it will help your career when they die off before you do.

4) Don't keep junk food around the office either
I work in a somewhat stressful work environment and I'm particularly susceptible to after-lunch chocolate cravings (once again, readers intimately familiar with this blog know of my near-pathological addiction to chocolate).

If you were to do a time and motion study of my afternoon work, this is probably what it would look like:

  • Type an email, stuff a handful of M&Ms in mouth.
  • Type ANOTHER email, stuff a couple Lindt truffles in mouth.
  • Read an income statement, repeat.
  • Watch one of my stocks go up, triumphantly stuff another Lindt truffle in mouth
  • Watch one of my stocks go down, dejectedly stuff a handful of M&Ms in mouth...

...and so on. After an afternoon of this, I'll feel loagy, queasy, cognitively foggy--and my teeth will hurt. Worst of all, I didn't even enjoy the chocolate all that much.

I will confess that my M&M eating isn't totally mindless, because I separate them out by color first and then eat each color one at a time. Still, it doesn't stop me from eating more than I should.

The easiest solution here is don't keep snacks in your drawer. If you have to keep snacks around, try and stick to fruit or veggies or at least unsalted nuts.

And if you work with evil colleagues who bring donuts, cookies or other mindlessly tempting goodies to the office (note that you yourself will get a special exemption from this rule on the first business day after Halloween), either avoid the kitchen area or get these alleged "colleagues" transferred to another division. :)

5) Brush your teeth!
I sincerely hope you do this already, at least twice a day.

What I'm talking about, of course, is not your normal brushing, but rather using brushing as a sneaky technique to put an end to the day's food intake.

Let's say it's 8:30, I've finished dinner an hour or two ago, and despite the fact that I'm not all that hungry, I'm looking around for a snack. If I instead go and brush my teeth, I won't eat again the rest of the night. Nobody wants to gnaw on salty Doritos with a minty clean mouth.

I also use this technique during those dangerous afternoon hours at work. Sure, I might indulge myself with one or two Lindt truffles at 2:30pm, but then I make sure to cut myself off and head to the men's room to brush my teeth. Result: I don't eat any more food until dinner time. Try this technique and see if it works for you. I've found it to be highly effective.

6) Trick yourself with size
This is an insight I'm borrowing from Brian Wansink, who is the author of the extremely useful book Mindless Eating. One of the key themes in his book is how our minds judge serving sizes by context, not by absolute measurements. Here's an example: send two groups of people to an all you can eat buffet. Give one group smallish plates and give the other group large-ish plates. Guess what? The group with larger plates will eat significantly more food! When we put our food on larger plate, our brains think we are getting a smaller portion. So we pile more food onto that plate (and eat it all of course) without even realizing it.

The same holds true in many other eating situations. If we eat ice cream scooped with a larger than normal scoop, we'll eat more ice cream. If we eat Doritos out of an enormous bag, we'll eat more Doritos.

I don't know whether to laugh or be horrified by the fact that in study after study people ate less food when they did nothing more than put it onto smaller dishes. Talk about mindless! But hey, if the technique works, why not take advantage of it? Use smaller dinner plates. Don't eat your Doritos out of the bag--eat them out of that small serving bowl instead.

7) Notice
Slow down. Chew your food. TASTE your food. Enjoy it. Take your time eating it. Don't talk and natter throughout dinner. Think about the tastes you're experiencing. What is good or not so good about it?

These suggestions are reminiscent of the ones I've urged you to use when you're in recipe modification mode. Make a habit to be more mindful whenever you eat, and to notice all the subtleties of what you're eating.

When you are out with friends at a restaurant, by all means enjoy yourself, but don't let yourself get so distracted that you don't pay attention to what you're doing with your food. Instead, when the food arrives, take a moment to look at it, study it and think about it. And then go right back to nattering with your friends.

In the reading I did in preparation for this post, I saw a couple of articles that suggested being the last person at the table to start eating. This sounds like a great idea because it enforces you to pause a bit and get into "noticing mode" before you eat.

Theoretically though, what happens if there are two or more "last starters" at the same table? Do you both starve to death? Flip a coin to see who has to start first? I'm kidding of course.

So, in order to not look like a weirdo staring off into space while all your friends start to eat, why not take a brief look around the table and take in each of your friends' dishes as well as your own? Ask them about their food as they try it. Get yourself into noticing mode and enjoy the whole process of eating, rather than just autonomically attacking your own dish with your knife and fork.

8) Stop eating before you feel full
We're all cavemen (and women) deep down inside. Our bodies were trained over millions of years to overeat and consume food wolvishly because this might be our last meal for a while. Who knows when the next woolly mammoth might stroll by our cave?

Of course in the modern world, food is practically everywhere around us. So we need to learn to NOT listen to our bodies in this one respect. Recognize that hunger (or better said, "fullness") is a lagging sensation for people. You don't actually feel full the moment you are full. Instead, you will feel full 10-20 minutes later. How remarkably unhelpful.

That's why if you actually eat until you're full, you feel awful 10-20 minutes later. For my part, I usually have to go and lie down and close my eyes for a few minutes so I don't explode like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's Meaning of Life.

So my advice to you is this: stop eating when you are 70-80% full. Be mindful that your feelings of hunger will mislead you into eating more than you should, and that your sensations of fullness will lag to the point of uselessness. Make an active choice not to listen to these sensations.

9) Leave some on the table
We're not in the Depression, and you don't live with your parents. You don't have to clean your plate any more.

When you're out having dinner in a restaurant, take some food home with you. When you're eating at home, use the small plate technique. And no matter what size plate you use, remember to eat until you're 70-80% full, and then save the rest back for leftovers later. This has the added benefit, of course, of saving you from having to cook an extra meal.

And when it comes to dessert, keep in mind that the second piece of pie will actually taste better tomorrow morning. You don't need to squeeze it in tonight!

10) Let down your guard once in a while.
I don't believe in pure ascetism. Every once in a while you have to let your hair down and misbehave. Pretend that the next woolly mammoth won't stroll by your cave for a while.

So, yes, Laura and I will do a snack run to the grocery store on occasion where we buy all sorts of ice cream and chips. You already know about my weaknesses for Cooler Ranch Doritos, Hint of Lime Tostitos and of course, dark chocolate.

I cannot stop these addictions, I can only hope to contain them. Consequently, I practice moderation in my overindulgence. I will let myself overeat once every few weeks. And I know that, once in a great while, it's okay to experience dreaded empty bag syndrome. Sometimes life is about just a bit of occasional gluttony. Just recognize it for what it is, and don't let it happen to you too often.

Be mindful! And feel free to share your thoughts, reactions and criticisms in the comments section below.

Related Posts:
How to Modify A Recipe
Why I'm a Part-Time Vegetarian
Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer
How to Live Forever in Ten Easy Steps

Related Topics:
Brian Wansink's book Mindless Eating -- Dr. Wansink's website. Contains a blog which is well worth a read.

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.

The Gimlet

Laura and I sure like to bend an elbow now and again, especially on Fridays after a week of work. Sweet liquor eases the pain. And I've been working very slowly through my Mr. Boston Official Bartender's and Party Guide for fun. So, every once and a while I'll share with you a post on a new drink that we're trying.

Our alcohol-tinged focus was on mojitos a week and a half ago.

This week, our drink of choice is the Gimlet. It's a little reminiscent of a gin and tonic, but more limey. Perfect for a summer day (or in light of the crappy cold weather we're having lately, perfect for dreaming of a summer day). Delicious!

What you will need:
Two martini glasses (or small cocktail glasses will do)
A shot glass
Limes and/or lime juice
Gin (this is the most important part)
Powdered sugar
A cocktail shaker (something like this or this would be fine. I would go with something with at least 16 ounces of capacity so you can easily mix two drinks up at once).
Measuring spoons (if you don't have a set of these you must be new to this blog!)

Here's how to make it:
(Makes one, so double everything for two people)
Pour 1 shot lime juice and 1 shot gin into a cocktail shaker.
Add 1 teaspoon powdered sugar (can add 1-1/2 teaspoons for a slightly sweeter drink) and stir with a spoon until sugar is mostly dissolved.
Add ice, close up the shaker (this is one of the more important steps to remember) and shake the heck out of it. Strain into a martini or cocktail glass.
I also add a little lime peel or a wedge of lime for garnish.


* Full Disclosure: if you purchase any of the items via the links provided, I receive an exceedingly small affiliate fee.

Related Posts:
Mojitos in Miami
An Ode to Tabasco Sauce

Cookbook Review: Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen

Today I’m going to shamelessly recommend to you one of the best cookbooks I own: Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen.*

I mean, look at this guy! You can just tell he loves food.

This cookbook has been a dream for me because I’ve always loved Cajun and Creole cuisines, but never really had the courage to try to make either in my own kitchen.

I never guessed what an exceptional teaching tool this book would turn out to be. It gave me the confidence to make my own vegetable and seafood stock (silly me--that turned out to be way easier than I expected). It clearly explains how to make roux with really useful color pictures (you’ll have to buy the book to see what I’m talking about), and it gave me an unbelievable meatloaf recipe that would literally burn June Cleaver’s tongue off.

And of course it contains the glorious chocolate mousse recipe I posted the other day.

I’ll caution you that the recipes in here aren’t all that easy. We’re not talking about 365 Ways to Cook Pasta here. Some of them are easy, but many are quite complex and time consuming. For example, the Shrimp Etouffe recipe in this cookbook involves multiple steps, a long list of ingredients--and a disturbingly large amount of butter. It may take you a few hours to make, but the finished product is well worth the effort.

Every one of our friends has literally laughed out loud when we’ve shown them this cookbook. It’s just that the picture of Paul on the cover says so much. Sure, it’s obvious that the guy loves to eat, but what’s so wonderful is the look of pure joy he has on his face while he’s surrounded by all those pies and sausages and meat!

How I came to own this cookbook is kind of amusing. My mother bought it when my parents and I went on a vacation to New Orleans back in 1989.

Now let’s just say that my parents’ palates are tuned for mild food. So when they innocently (and scrupulously) fixed a couple of recipes from Chef Paul’s book, they simply could NOT eat them because they were so spicy.

Thus, this cookbook pretty much disappeared into my parents’ basement bookshelf, where I happened to find it one day. When I asked my mother if I could borrow it, she told me I could keep it!

Try out this cookbook and let it expand your cooking horizons. And stock up on the Tabasco!

* Full Disclosure: if you purchase this book using any of the links provided, I get paid a miniscule affiliate fee. :)

The Greatest Chocolate Mousse in the World

Today I'll share the only chocolate mousse recipe I've found that truly deserves to be called great.

I know we’re approaching Valentine’s day. So rather than doing something utterly unoriginal and buying your sweetheart a box of chocolates, why don’t you whip up a delicious batch of chocolate mousse instead? Best of all, this chocolate mousse recipe is easy--and inexpensive too.

Chocolate Mousse
(courtesy of Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen* cookbook)
(makes 6 servings)

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
4 egg whites
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup powdered sugar

Melt the chocolate over low heat; use a candy thermometer and try and keep the temperature at about 110 degrees F.

Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form (remember the lesson--but please forget the off color humor--on stiff peaks!).

In a separate bowl, beat the cream until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and continue beating until soft peaks form; do not overbeat. Gently fold the cream mixture into the egg whites, then add the cooled chocolate (heat to 110 degrees if it has cooled below that temperature), and quickly fold it in until well blended. Spoon into a serving bowl, into individual wine glasses, or into individual ramekins. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.


Wow, what can I say? A simple, easy and inexpensive recipe with just four ingredients. And as a chocolate epicure, I can say confidently that I have never had a better chocolate mousse than this basic recipe.

Next time, I’ll talk about the cookbook that this came from* and why it’s one of the best cookbooks we’ve ever owned.

* Full Disclosure: if you purchase this book using any of the links provided, I get paid an extremely small affiliate fee. :)

Mojitos and Miami

Well, I'm heading to Miami for a little bit of R&R, so there won't be any posts for the next five days or so.

But let me leave you with a little taste of the town to hold you over until then:

2 shots light rum
Juice of 2 limes
2 teaspoons simple sugar syrup (or 2 teaspoons powdered sugar and 2-3 teaspoons of water)
Several fresh mint leaves
In a tall glass, crush and muddle the mint leaves and the sugar or syrup using a fork or spoon.Pour in the rum, add the lime juice, and stir well.
Add ice, then top off with a couple of splashes of club soda or seltzer water.
Add a mint sprig as garnish.

(PS: this website includes instructions on how to make your own simple syrup if you want to try it out. )

It's unfortunate, but the Mojito has become maybe a bit TOO trendy a drink in New York. In some bars, I just don’t feel quite beautiful enough to order one.

But in Miami--I don't know--it just seems like a more appropriate drink, in kind of a Hemingway sort of way.

See you next week!

How to Modify a Recipe Part 3: Granola Before and After

(If you haven't already done so, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Today we're going to cover Part 3 of my four-part series on How to Modify a Recipe. We've already covered some simple modification examples and my Six Rules. Today, I'm going to show you a "before and after" modification of my Granola recipe.

Just like the waffles modification, this isn't rocket science. And I'm not trying to impress you with how radically or aggressively I change change up the recipe. Rather, my goal is to show you the thought process behind the changes. After I show you the process here, you should have a useful blueprint that you can use to make deeper and more material modifications and improvements to your recipes too.

First though, let's start with the original recipe, copied directly from the Wall Street Journal:

Jovia's Homemade Granola
Yield: 5 cups
Active preparation time: 10 minutes
Baking time: 30 to 40 minutes

4 cups old-fashioned oats
1-1/2 cups whole raw almonds
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey, preferably acacia
1 vanilla bean, scraped, with seeds

Mix first six ingredients together.
Melt oil, honey and vanilla bean and seeds together.
Strain through a fine sieve. Pour over oat mixture and mix until completely saturated.

Place mix on sheet pan and bake in a 325-degree own for 30 to 40 minutes stirring every 10 minutes to ensure even baking. Granola is done when toasty and golden in color.

First of all, I've got to compliment the WSJ for accurate and useful data on prep time for a recipe. This won't be the last time I say that either. Some really good recipes have been showing up in the Weekend Journal over the past several months, and although they don't always pass the Five Easy Questions, they are always clearly written with straightforward instructions and helpful prep time data.

You'd be surprised how many recipes are poorly written, have steps given out of order, or are downright inscrutable and require a round of deciphering to put into use. We've talked about how you should always read the recipe twice, but I draw the line at decipherment.

But enough Mr. Nice Guy--the bottom line is this recipe needs a little surgery.

Let's start with the ingredients and my initial thoughts after looking them over.

When I got to "1 vanilla bean" I'll admit I kind of got stopped in my tracks. This is an obvious breach of the Five Easy Questions. Would they actually sell individually wrapped vanilla beans at my grocery store? Somehow I doubt it. And if I could find them, they'd probably come in a one-pound bag for $29.95, basically the cost of six boxes of ripoff cereal. All for one lousy single bean that I have to scrape and then strain.

Yes, those were my initial thoughts when I read the recipe. Don't worry, I've already stepped up my therapy sessions to twice a week.

So okay, clearly I'm not going to bother with the zen of the vanilla bean. And if you read my essay on How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions, you'd know that normally this would be where I'd yell out "Next!" and move on to another recipe.

But I still felt like this recipe had some serious potential. So I committed yet another violation of one of my cardinal rules (Do it One Time By the Book) and I didn't do it one time by the book. I altered this ingredient right off the bat.

Instead of finding an individually wrapped vanilla bean and then lovingly scraping it and running it through a fine sieve, how about something a ton simpler, like adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract instead? That should work.

There are other problems with the recipe. A cup and a half of raw whole almonds could put the budget for making this dish up where it stops being a worthwhile substitute for ripoff cereal. Substituting peanuts might work (unless you have a peanut allergy and peanuts send you into anaphylactic shock), but they are so strong tasting and smelling that they might overwhelm the granola. But what's wrong with walnuts? Or raisins or other dried fruit? Any of these could make for better low-cost alternatives.

Also, I was obviously planning on leaving out the salt, since by now we all know that using salt = cheating. Note that sea salt actually has a lower sodium content than plain old lowbrow salt. But that still doesn't mean you have to use it.

And I'm not all that worried about having "freshly ground cinnamon" or "freshly ground nutmeg." I just haven't gotten to the point where I'm going to grind my own spices, so the jars of "stale-ly ground" cinnamon and nutmeg that I already do own will have to do. :) When I start grinding my own spices, this blog will no longer deserve to be called Casual Kitchen. Maybe by then I'll change the name to Anal Kitchen.

My final ingredient change is to take "honey, preferably acacia" and uh, substitute plain old honey instead.

"Preferably acacia"... To me, when somebody writes up a recipe (or worse an entire cookbook) and puts super-specialized ingredients like that into it, they're making the recipe more about them than about the food (Look at me!!! I know what acacia honey is!!!). Granted, there are actually a zillion discrete kinds of honey, and that's amazing and everything, but we're talking about baking honey into granola here. Let's put things into perspective. If you're going to require a super-specific special ingredient in a recipe, there should be a real reason for it to be there. There's no need to show off.

It's at times like this that I have to break out my pen and just scribble out the pretentiousness.

There's not much more to it than that. The last step is just making a final rewrite of the recipe (which I usually do after I make it at least once or twice), to get the cooking times and other minor instructions down. Everybody's oven runs at a slightly different temperature, and as we've seen from some of the reader comments on the granola post, this granola has a tendency to burn a little bit. So in that case, perhaps I'd cut the oven temperature down by 25 degrees or subtract 5 minutes off the cooking time, or make a note in capital letters on the recipe to "make sure to stir every 10 minutes!" You get the picture. These are the types of final tweaks you'll put on a recipe after you've finished with the major changes like ingredient substitutions.

There you go! These are the types of questions and issues I focus on when I want to rejigger a recipe to better meet my needs. As you can see below, the modified version is faster, has fewer steps, contains easier-to-find ingredients, and it costs less. And last but not least, it's quite a bit less pretentious.

(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)
[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.

Cracked Eggs and False Advertising

A really quick one today about the ironies of life:

Ever since I posted How to Make a Perfectly Boiled Egg Every Time, I have screwed up boiling eggs. I'd had a months-long streak of uncracked, easily-peeled eggs with no problems. But of course, within minutes of publishing that post, I started on a downward spiral of failed egg boiling. I've been batting less than .500 for more than two weeks now--I wouldn't even qualify for the cooking minor leagues with that kind of cracking average.

Even my wife is considering suing me for false advertising!

Let's hope this phenomenon doesn't repeat itself when I launch my investing blog.... :)

How to Modify a Recipe Part 2: The Six Rules

(If you haven’t read it already, please see Part 1 of this series first.)

In Part 1 we started with a concrete and simple example by going over a few basic modifications to my waffles recipe.

Today, we will go from the specific to the general. Allow me to share with you my six rules for effective recipe modifications:

1) Do It One Time By the Book
I rarely find it helpful to start changing up a recipe before I’ve even made it for the first time. You can't really change something for the better until you know where you're starting from. Otherwise, if the recipe's perfect as is, you'll never know, will you?

Also, keep in mind that you'll get a lot of fundamentally useful information by making the recipe "by the book" first. What was hard or easy about the recipe? Were there any extraneous steps you might be able to remove? What ingredients were truly important or unimportant to the final product? Unless you're clairvoyant, you won't be able to answer these questions without following the recipe verbatim at least once.

Of course if you ARE clairvoyant, you already know what I'm going to say for the rest of this post, so you don't need to read any further.

2) Know Where You CAN'T Make Changes
Keep in mind that some recipes just don't tolerate modifications very well, and some recipe ingredients simply cannot be tampered with. You'll find this to be especially true with baked goods, batters, cakes and breads, where you’ve got to hold the relationship between liquid and dry ingredients relatively constant--and you most certainly can't mess around with the leavening agents (baking powder, yeast, baking soda, etc). You can really screw up the chemistry if you’re not careful with this.

Recall in Part 1, where I suggest adding oats to the waffles recipe? I also told you to add an additional 1/8 to 1/4 cup of milk along with the oats, although I never told you why. Well, here's why: this keeps the ratio of liquid to dry ingredients roughly constant.

Note that this is an inexact science, and in the waffles recipe the ratio of oats (1/3 of a cup) and milk (1/8 to 1/4 cup) is not one to one. This is the type of thing you'll get a feel for as you experiment with modifications on your own.

Notice how this ties in to my rule to make the recipe by the book first. You need to have a feel for what the basic batter looks like before you can experiment with it!

And don’t get too rattled here with all of these restrictions I’m throwing at you on baked goods. Baked goods just don't tolerate modifications all that well. Most other dishes, like soups, sauces or casseroles, allow for much more experimentation and flexibility.

3) Spend Some Focused Time Thinking: What Would Make This Better?
This is a mental approach I want you to take after you’ve made the recipe for the first time. When you and your family sit down to sample a new recipe, just take a little bit of extra time while you’re eating to think about the taste. What do you like and don’t like about it? What additional spices or seasonings could go well with it?

Again, let's return to the waffles recipe. When I thought about potential modifications, it seemed like cinnamon might go along well with the real maple syrup. Also oats seemed like they might be a neat addition to mix up the texture. Hmmm, then maybe cinnamon AND oats, who knows?

You get the picture. This is how I encourage you to think to let your mind embrace new ideas. Perhaps you can even get your family into the same mode too--this is one way to create some quality family time around the dinner table--and who knows, maybe one of your kids will grow up to be the next Wolfgang Puck!

Of course this assumes that everybody keeps an open and constructive mindset. Hearing your family say things like, “Dad, this recipe sucks!” is NOT particularly helpful...

4) Are There any Superfluous Ingredients?
Note that with our waffles recipe, there are no unnecessary ingredients at all. But in some dishes there will be items that you can easily leave out while sacrificing nothing in taste or quality. We'll see an example of this in Part 3 when we walk through "before" and "after" versions of my granola recipe.

Of course an even better example of this is a recipe with a gross ingredient that you hate and you're dying to leave out. For example, I can tolerate raisins in my granola, but I can’t stand soggy raisins in any baked goods. Nothing grosses me out more than biting into a cinnamon roll or a muffin and finding a smushy raisin in there. So, that’s a no-brainer for me: I’ll just leave ‘em out.

5) What Would be Over the Top?
It’s important to know what kinds of ingredients can screw up a dish irrevocably if you overuse them. Here’s an illustrative example. If you double the amount of onions in a vegetable soup, does that really change the fundamental taste or format of the recipe? Uh, no. Not at all.

But if you double the amount of salt, or if you double the amount of Tabasco (heaven help your wimpy-palated dinner guests if you do this…), that will fundamentally change the taste of the recipe--probably for the worse.

So, I want you to be mindful of what types of ingredients (like onions) are additive, and what types of ingredients (like salt, Tabasco, as well as most other spices) are multiplicative. The latter are the kinds of ingredients that can easily ruin your dish if you overdo it. You might be risking an entire meal by "overexperimenting."

If there’s an ingredient or a spice you think you’d like to add but are concerned about going “over the top,” just be sure to make a less aggressive modification on the first try. Jot a note to yourself on the recipe about the change you made and whether you think it could use still more. By iterating this way, you'll perfect the recipe without risking a ruined dinner.

6) Believe in Evolution!
Start thinking of your recipes as living things. They can grow and mature along with your palate. They can change and iterate with your whims. Rarely do recipes come out perfectly formed and optimized for your tastes the first time you make them.

Take notes. Keep records. Leave room on your recipe cards for writing down your experiments and how they worked out. Record what changes you made and use those prior changes as a platform for future changes.

Your notes will help you remember where you left off with the last time (hmmmm… did I already double the Tabasco last time when it came out too spicy or did I plan to double it THIS time???), and they'll prevent you from repeating mistakes you've already made (eg: “cook the granola for 30 minutes, not 40, and be sure to stir it this time or it will burn!!”).

Of course, at some point a recipe might reach maturity--it gets to a point where you're totally happy with it and don't feel the need to make more changes. And to drag out the evolution metaphor still further, sometimes recipes go through a sort of punctuated equilibrium, where they see saw several steps of radical change over a very short period of time, but then remain pretty stable thereafter. My Chicken Mole is one such dish.

Look for more on this subject of modifications as we tackle more complex examples! Be sure to check back later for Part 3 of this series.

Related Posts:
How to Modify a Recipe Part 1: Basics
Fake Maple Syrup
An Easy Granola Recipe
An Ode to Tabasco Sauce

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.

How to Modify a Recipe Part 1: Basics

Have you ever cooked a dish, and despite scrupulously following the recipe, decided later that the dish “needed something?” Do you have a favorite recipe that you really enjoy eating, but it has overly involved process steps that make it a pain in the ass to make? Or, was the recipe too expensive because it called for costly and potentially unneccesary ingredients?

Welcome to the world of recipe modification! No longer do you need to be a victim, mindlessly obeying the dictates of some know-it-all cookbook editor. Instead, this three-part series of posts on how to modify a recipe will teach you to call the shots in your own kitchen. My goal is threefold:

1) to help you learn to configure recipes to your needs and tastes,
2) to help you learn how to improve recipes so they taste even better or become easier to cook,
3) to help you develop improvisational and adaptive cooking skills to make cooking more fun and expressive.

Today, however, we’re going to start with the basics. And as in all educational things, it really helps to have concrete examples. Therefore, as a first step, I’ll share some rather simple examples of how I’ve modified my basic waffles recipe.

In Part 2, I’ll share with you my six rules for all recipe modifications. Then, in Part 3, I’ll share a more complex example where I’ll give you a before-and-after comparison of the pre-modification and the post-modification versions of my granola recipe so you can observe the entire modification thought process.

When we’re through this series, you’ll be an adaptive, free-wheeling cook, confidently bending recipes to your will and whims.

…but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet. :) We need to start at the start. So, if you haven’t already, please take a quick look back at the basic waffles* recipe. Next, take a look at these simple examples of modifications you can make to it:

1) Add 3/4 teaspoon of cinnamon to the dry ingredients.
2) Add 1/3 cup of oats to the dry ingredients (but add another 1/8 to 1/4 cup of milk to the liquid ingredients to compensate--we’ll talk about why in Part 2).
3) Instead of using 1 3/4 cups of sifted white flour, use 1 cup of white flour with 3/4 cup of wheat flour.
4) Add 1/2 cup chocolate bits to the batter (carefully stir in while you fold the egg whites into the liquid ingredients).
5) Add blueberries or other pieces of fruit to the batter (perhaps 1/2 a cup, give or take).

So far, this is nothing complicated, and perhaps you can already think of additional modifications beyond just this short list. If so, that’s great.

While you’re going through this process (and by this I mean before, during, and of course after you’ve sampled the recipe with your new modifications), I want you to be rolling these questions over in your mind:

1) Was this truly an improvement, or an un-improvement? (An "un-improvement" is Laura's term for when people make architecturally inappropriate changes to their homes)
2) What worked? What didn't work? Why didn’t it work?
3) What was the final form of the recipe and why was it better?

If you train yourself to think this way, you’ll instinctively begin to think of all recipes in terms of bending them to your will. Recipes won’t own you—you’ll own them. Before you know it, you’ll become a natural at improving, and improvising, on your cooking.

Keep in mind that this is only step one, and it’s a basic step at that. The goal here is to get your thinking pointed in the right direction. Check back soon for Part 2, where I’ll share my “six rules” for all recipe modifications!

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!