Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Six Great Kitchen Hacks for Busy Home Cooks

One of the projects that falls under my food writing umbrella is writing a blog called à la minute for The American Personal & Private Chef Association. I recently pulled together half a dozen of my favorite kitchen hacks that I've come across and used to share with the chefs--because these are folks who need to work as efficiently as possible and waste as little as they can. 

But I thought these should have a broader audience so I'm sharing them here in this space, too. A few  of these I got from the wonderful website, The Kitchn. Others come from friends. Have great kitchen hacks that work for you? Please share them below!


1. Preserved lemons: This Moroccan staple is brilliant added to pasta, salads, dressings, and proteins like scallops and poultry. And they're ridiculously easy to make. All you need is a large glass jar, about 7 or 8 Meyer lemons and sea salt. Slice the lemons down the long end almost half way, turn it a quarter and do it again. Stuff the inside with salt. Grab that end, turn the lemon upside down and repeat so both ends are stuffed with salt. Place the lemon in the impeccably clean jar and repeat with as many lemons as you can fit into the jar and still screw on the lid. A lot of juice will come out. That's fine. Keep the jar of lemons on the counter for a month, periodically turning it over and back to make sure the juice is covering the top. After a month, you can use the lemons in pasta dishes, in rice, salads, sauces, with fish or with Moroccan-style dishes. Keep the jar in the refrigerator and the lemons will last for months.



2. Freezing ginger: I don't know about you, but fresh ginger root can be frustrating. You buy a knob to use for a dish and then you still have leftover ginger that, despite your best intentions, doesn't get used and eventually shrivels up and gets tossed. Enough of that. The Kitchn has a great approach. I learned I could peel a hand of the root, grate it, measure it off in teaspoons, and freeze it. But I changed it up a bit and made it even easier. I didn't peel the root and instead of grating it, I pulled out my mini food processor, quickly sliced up the large hand, and ground it as fine as I could. Then I used a mini cookie scoop, which measures about a teaspoon, and before I knew it I had more than a dozen scoops of ginger on a parchment-lined pan. I put the pan in the freezer. Two hours or so later when the pieces were hard, I placed those now-frozen ground ginger rounds in a quart freezer bag so I can have what I need when I need it. And sans waste.



3. Dried dill: My mom has a Persian friend who has taught us all sorts of great recipes--and one fabulous trick. She uses a lot of dill so her way to always have what she needs on hand is to slowly dry bunches in the oven and then package it for storage. Wash and dry dill fronds. Cut off the thick stems and place the smaller fronds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place the sheet in a 225-degree oven. Periodically move the dill around to make sure the air is circulating around all the pieces. Depending on how much you are drying it can take from half an hour to hour until they're just stiff and crunchy. Remove from the oven and let cool. Then carefully crumble the leaves over a clean sheet of paper so they don't fly all over your counter. Pull the ends of the paper together so the dill settles into the middle and you can easily direct it into a container, where you can store it in the pantry, or into a freezer bag. This also works for other herbs, like mint and parsley.



4. Vacuum sealing with straws: Unless you have plenty of counter space for large vacuum sealers, this little hack will save you space and money. About $1.50 will buy you a package of straws that can serve a multitude of purposes, including vacuum sealing freezer bag contents. Air is the enemy of freezer storage and as talented as you may be in strategically manipulating bags to push the air out of them, using a straw is way simpler and more effective. Simply fill your freezer bag with what you're storing, insert the end of a straw and seal the top around it. Then suck in until the plastic tightly encircles the contents. Quickly pull out the straw and finish sealing. Your frozen product will have a much better chance of lasting longer and without freezer burn.



5. Homemade vanilla extract: For years I've bought large bottles of vanilla whenever I've gone down to Tijuana. It's inexpensive and very good. But recently my friend Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared gifted me with a beautiful bottle and a long, thick vanilla bean with instructions to fill the bottle--with the bean in it--with vodka, brandy, bourbon, or rum. Vodka, she says, gives the cleanest flavor, and that's what I've used. Then let it sit in a cool dark cabinet or pantry for six weeks. At that point, your extract is ready to use. And you can keep adding more alcohol to top off your bottle as you use it. Robin claims the single bean will give pure vanilla extract for 25 years. Mark your calendar.



6. Bacon by the slice: How often do you need just one or two slices of bacon to add to a dish (or make for yourself)? Here's a great way to access a single slice at a time that I learned from The Kitchn. Buy a package of bacon, separate and roll up each slice individually. Get out a small baking sheet and line it with parchment. Place each little roll on it and put it in the freezer. Once they're hard (I know; this is like the ginger--but, hey, it's a great and versatile  technique), remove and toss into a freezer bag. Grab that straw from hack 4 and vacuum seal the bag. Next time you want to add a little bacon to a vinaigrette, you're all set.






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