As the page turns on another calendar year, I find myself reflecting on all things good and bad. Since food is my passion, of course I am thinking today of ingredients. I always say, use the best ingredients you can find and afford and you will surely reap the benefits.
These are my thoughts and personal opinions:
There is nothing like the real thing!
Butter good. Margarine bad.
Remember margarine is one molecule short of plastic and has no flavor. Use unsalted butter for cooking as different brands may contain varied levels of salt. Unsalted gives you more control over the amount of salt in your dish.
Sea salt good. Iodized table salt bad.
Sea salt has a pure bright flavor as it is natural, contains minerals and is not highly processed. Iodized salt is highly processed. It is often bleached and refined with added preservatives, iodine and non-caking agents. After being robbed of all nutrients and flavor some manufacturers add sugar to enhance the taste. Do a side by side tasting and you will find the flavor of sea salt far superior.
Extra-Virgin olive oil good. Lite olive oil bad.
Extra-virgin implies the first press of the olives therefore producing the most flavor. As the olives continue to be pressed they are graded virgin, pure, etc., until you have lite. Lighter color but not necessarily lighter on calories. Definitely lighter on flavor which is why we use olive oil to begin with. The taste! Do not waste your money on anything less than extra-virgin. Less expensive for cooking and then a better quality for dressings and as a finishing oil. Look for cold-pressed as well, as some oils are extracted using heat and chemicals which alter their flavor.
Quality cheeses good. Cheese product bad.
There is so much time, money and energy put into advertising these days that if you are not careful you begin to believe your child deprived if she/he is not eating Kraft slices. That is not really cheese! Processed to within an inch of its life, its has a shelf life longer than any one of us could hope to live. Use a good quality cheddar (preferably from WI) for your grilled cheese or burger. Oh and don’t get me started on the “parmesan” in the green can. Really? Parmigiano-Reggiano is the gold standard, the undisputed “queen” of cheeses. It is spendy but the quality is superior and a little goes a long way. Stored wrapped in parchment or special cheese paper and then sealed in a plastic bag it lasts a very long time. Be sure to save the rind to flavor your next pot of soup or tomato sauce. I keep a bag of them in my freezer. Don’t forget to remove it before pureeing or serving it, just like bay leaf, there for flavor but not for eating.
Real sour cream good. Non-fat sour cream bad.
Real sour cream is simply, cultured cream. If you are buying a product that has any additional ingredients then it is not real. The bad non-fat label can be applied to almost all dairy products. Just look at the texture. The non-fat is often congealed and resembles gelatin and sorely lacks flavor, whereas the real stuff is creamy and soft and has a distinct tanginess. What about low fat, you ask? If you insist on something less than the real thing, low-fat is a better alternative to no-fat but my philosophy is use sparingly and go for the flavor. It is more satisfying and you tend to eat less.
Seasonal produce good. Off-season bad.
Say you live where I do and asparagus is in season in the Spring. It is bright, flavorful and at its peak. Eat it often as the seasonal window closes quickly. Now it is Winter and you have an asparagus sighting at the market. Wow! That looks good and you haven’t had any since May. Where does it come from? Most likely it comes from a far away land such as Peru, Ecuador or Mexico. Keep in mind it was picked, who knows when and shipped who knows how far. It is not fresh and therefore has minimal flavor. Do not be fooled! Resist the temptation and stick with your root vegetables that can be stored through the Winter. It is what our ancestors did and a common practice throughout the rest of the world.
What about canned or frozen? Well, it is said they are packaged when they are at their peak but the processing does alter the taste. In my opinion, frozen corn and peas are OK as are canned tomatoes and the beans we would ordinarily find dried like garbanzo and great northern but my taste-buds say never ever canned peas or carrots.
I could go on but I think you catch my drift. Fresh and seasonal is best and food that is as close to what God intended (that includes organic vs conventional) is always most healthy and flavorful. Do your homework, buy smart and as close to home as possible.
Want to be a better cook? Be mindful of your ingredients. I cannot tell you how many times students have come to me and said they loved the recipe I featured in class but when they made it, it was not nearly as good. Upon further query I discover they have substituted inferior ingredients resulting in an undesirable outcome. They may cost a bit more but you will waste less.
I will be back after the new year with more good recipes and tips. My mother always said to eat pork and sauerkraut on New Years for good fortune and prosperity in the new year. If that is to your liking, check out my recipe for Apple Cider Braised Pork Shoulder w/ Sauerkraut . Make your resolution this year to try new foods and recipes and keep spreading the love, one dish at a time. I am so grateful to all of my readers, please know how much you are appreciated. I send best wishes to you all for a healthy, happy 2014, from my heart to yours.