No need to buy charcoal lighter fluid (or “boy scout water” as they call it in my home state of Colorado) or self-starting charcoal briquets. Just put two crumpled sheets of newspaper in the bottom chamber of this metal chimney and add briquets (I buy the large bags at Trader Joe’s for $7 each) to the top. Light the newspaper with a match and go back into the kitchen to prepare food for grilling. In 20 minutes the briquets will be cherry red and ready to use. Once you use this you’ll wonder how you grilled without it. Take a look at the insanely happy Amazon reviews (4.9 star average with over 800 reviews.)
Organic and natural food tends to cost a lot, but I recently went to a class on using wild edibles. It turns out that some wild edibles were brought here to the USA by immigrants, but their use fell out of favor over time. They only became weeds by abandonment.
Wild edibles have an amazing amount of vitamins and minerals. For example, Lamb’s Quarter is higher in vitamins, minerals, and protein than spinach. Considering that Lambs Quarter could be transplanted to your backyard, and grown free of cost, it is hands down a better choice than spending money on “organic spinach.”
My favorite resource for finding out about these things is Foraging Texas. They have a smart phone version, photos, and explanations about the legalities of foraging.
The site’s editor, Dr. Mark Vorderbruggen, gives classes at the Houston Arboretum. I had my first experience with edible plants on one of his tours at a nature preserve. It was a bit strange to see a group of people following a man around who would reach down and pick up a weed, pop it in his mouth, and say, “Yes, that’s almost ready!” and see everyone else follow suit, as if it were a cooking class.
Foraging is not gardening, which works for me. It’s finding plants that like to grow in the wild and don’t need to be mollycoddled and tended constantly. I even found several edible plants in my own backyard, like spiderwort and pony’s hoof. You know that plant you just tried to kill with Roundup? It might have tasted great in a salad!
Scientific Name(s): Lamium amplexicaule and Lamium purpureum
What: leaves, stem, and flowers
How: raw, cooked, or tea
Where: sunny yards, urban areas
When: late fall, winter (in Houston), spring
Nutritional Value: vitamins, iron, antioxidants
Henbit is in the mint family. It likes yards and other open, sunny areas where it can grow dense mats. The whole plant is edible either raw or cooked. Tea made from dead nettle may induce sweating.
Anyone with small kids knows about snack catchers; new parents should check them out. These ingenious cups let little fingers in to grab cereal bits, crackers, or dried fruit, etc, but won’t let food out when the cup tips over. The flexible rubbery (BPA free) flaps serves as a one-way gate. Keeps the food clean, car seats and floors tidy, and hungry toddlers satisfied. There are now other competing brands using the same principle. They also come in larger sized containers.
I bought six of these two weeks ago just because the technology — a totally self-contained heating element that gives you a hot meal via steam heat in 10 minutes or less no matter where you are —- seemed so amazing.
I’m sitting here eating one of these meals right now, with no power since 14″ of snow descended on my podunk town overnight, and it is delicious.
Cheap at twice the price.
And the delight of preparing it: you simply open the included pouch of salt water, pour it on the heating element, place your sealed food container on top, put the whole shebang back into the insulated box, and wait and watch in wonder and delight as:
1. The box starts to puff up
2. Steam starts pouring out
3. Sounds — amazing sounds — emanate from the box
4. The smell of cooking food pervades the immediate vicinity
5. You open the box and peel back the plastic lid and darned if your chicken cacciatore isn’t all piping hot and smelling scrumdiddlyumptious — tastes great too!
This is a portable vaporizer that works, is simple to operate, easy to clean, and looks beautiful. Vaporizers heat leaf material such as tobacco or pot so that they release their active ingredients without burning them. It’s a cleaner, healthier alternative to burning something you intend to inhale. You use your lungs to draw air over a heating element that vaporizes the material. Pax’s biggest draw to me is its electric heating element. I find electric works better than the butane-powered vaporizers, such as the Iolite (their new Wispr is electric, but the original model is butane) because they are a lot smaller and more discreet. I found the Pax fairly easy to figure out and very easy to use. My only criticism is that it needs cleaning frequently. Stickier stuff like weed buds are harder to clean than tobacco. The Pax is very sensitive and prone to malfunction if not cleaned regularly. But is very easy to clean if you use white vinegar.
I have had my Pax for about two weeks now and it’s amazing. The Pax is a portable, battery operated (rechargeable Lithium-ion) vaporizer used for enjoying tobacco or any other loose leaf herb by vaporizing instead of smoking it. A vaporizer works by heating up the plant matter to between 370F and 410F to the vaporization temperature of the active chemicals in the plant without combusting it. The actives come off the plant material as vapor which can be inhaled, leaving behind the cellulose and less volatile chemicals. As a result you get the effect of smoking without the harmful by products such as carbon monoxide, tar and ash particulates that come from burning. It is actually hard to go back to smoking once you are used to using a vaporizer because the vapor is so clean compared to inhaling smoke. I would say that the vaporizer is the cool tool and the Pax is (in my opinion) the best vaporizer on the market.
[Note: The Ploom Pax was also found to be the best choice by the folks at Wirecutter.--OH]
I have used at least a half-dozen of these watersmokers for the past forty years. They hold up well, and the flavor options they provide are unique. I recommend this electric model from Brinkmann. Cooking times are often six or more hours, and can vary significantly when using charcoal, especially if the smoker is full or if it rains.
Once you have started it, it should not be opened except through the side to add hickory or fruitwood sticks. Opening the lid loses you a half hour of cooking time. A second standard charcoal BBQ grill is a great accent – water smoke until almost done then just finish off to taste on the BBQ.
Rust can be an issue because you are cooking with water, heat and smoke. Luckily, the most important parts are stainless steel, and for everything else Brinkmann makes replacements.
If you’ve got a few ugly pots laying around you can use them to cook a pot roast in the smoker, too. For that matter, Brinkmann includes a cookbook with all the recipes you’ll ever need.
[Note: Given that this is an entry level unit it is lacking in a few areas: first, is that it doesn't include a temperature gauge (which can be added on later), and the second is the inability to adjust heat output.-- OH]
The Cuisinart Mini-Prep 3-cup food processor is close to a perfect solution for space conscious chefs looking for a desktop processor. I am a diabetic with high blood pressure, so my diet is of major concern. I am constantly making everything from low-gluten breads to high-fiber snacks to salsas and so forth. I live in a mobile home, so space is an issue. After messing with blenders and bigger food processors, I went looking for something smaller for daily use.
It is inexpensive at about $40, simple to use, and works fine in either chop or grind mode. It doesn’t take up much counter space and has worked monotonously well for the six-months I’ve owned it. It gets daily use making salsas and other fruit and vegetable concoctions, and has been dead reliable. For size, convenience and price, it has been an ideal product for me.
There’s a new way of cooking. When food is simmered in a sealed pouch at low temperatures for long periods of time the food flavors are surprisingly enhanced. Meats in particular benefit from this type of preparation, called sous vide in French. I found fish and veggies made by this method to be amazingly tasty, with a unique texture and bursting with savories. Meats are stunningly moist without being overdone or underdone. This method is neither roasting, stewing, or searing. It’s a whole new method of cooking that brings a new set of flavors, textures, and treats.
But lower cooking temperatures require more exactitude, and the food pouches need to have their air removed to ensure even cooking, so the equipment to cook this way has been expensive and confined to fancy restaurants. Naturally, amateurs quickly figured out home versions, while appliance makers started selling cheaper residential gadgets.
But know-how was still in short supply. I found this cookbook the best one to start out with. Low temperature or sous vide cooking requires a whole new set of recipes. Cooking times are so different you need charts to determine duration and temperature, which this book provides. This guide explains the principles extremely well and they assume you’ll be using homemade or home grade equipment. Basically what you need is a water bath that can maintain its temperature to within a few degrees over several hours or more. Dedicated units have bubblers and thermostats to keep very even water temperatures. And an ordinary FoodSaver freezer vacuum unit will produce airless watertight pouches of food.
However there is an extremely easy and cheap way to try out sous vide cooking for the first time without buying any equipment at all. You are limited in what you can do, but you’ll get an idea of what the process can do. All you need is a cooler, a kitchen thermometer, and a vacuum packed hunk of food from the grocery store.
As as example, we took some frozen vacuum packed fish from Trader Joes. First you defrost it.
Then you fill up the cooler halfway or so with water heated on the stove to the appropriate low temperature (found in the book or online). In the case of fish it’s probably not much above the maximum temperature coming out of your water heater. Let the food steep in the water for the required time. (It can be up to hours for meat.) You may need to add some hot water if your thermometer shows the water cooling. Unwrap the finished fish and add sauce.
If you like the results you can build your own bath, or purchase a home unit, and use this book to guide your exploration.
The basic concept of sous vide cooking is that food should be cooked at the temperature it will be served at. For instance, if you are cooking a steak to medium rare, you want to serve it at 131°F.
With traditional cooking methods you would normally cook it on a hot grill or oven at around 400°F-500°F and pull it off at the right moment when the middle has reached 131°F. This results in a bulls eye effect of burnt meat on the outside turning to medium rare in the middle. This steak cooked sous vide would be cooked at 131°F for several hours. This will result in the entire piece of meat being a perfectly cooked medium rare. The steak would then usually be quickly seared at a high heat to add the flavorful, browned crust to it.
A great low-cost method of sealing your food is food-grade ziploc bags. They have a few drawbacks but work great for short cooked foods, especially if you are just getting started with sous vide cooking and do not want to spend any up-front money. In most cases sealing your foods with ziploc bags is also a lot easier than using a vacuum sealer.
Many home cooks prefer a standard home vacuum sealer like a FoodSaver. These vacuum sealers work by inserting the opening of the sous vide food pouch into a small depression in the machine. The sealer then sucks the air out of the pouch and seals it using a heating element. They are the most cost effective method of vacuum sealing your food.
The main advantage is price. If you already have a cooler and ziploc bags then it is basically free to try.
Another advantage is that the water coming out of many home faucets is around 131°F-139°F, meaning it is the perfect temperature to cook steak in. If your faucet is in that range it just means you rink up the tap water, fill the cooler, and throw int he steak. It can be very simple.
Some of the most impressive results of sous vide are created with tough cuts of beef. Sous vide allows you to do things that traditional methods are unable to accomplish, such as cooking short ribs medium-rare but still tenderizing them, or creating fall-apart medium-rare roasts.
This is accomplished because cooking tough cuts of beef with sous vide allows you to break down and tenderize the meat without cooking it above medium-rare and drying it out. Once temperatures in beef go above 140°F the meat begins to dry out and become more bland. However, they also start to tenderize more quickly above this temperature which is why tough roasts and braises are done for hour at high temperatures. Using sous vide, you can hold the meat below 140°F for a long enough time for the tenderizing process to run its course.
Most tough cuts of beef are cooked sous vide for between 1 and 2 days. However, for some more tender beef roasts shorter cooking times of 4 to 8 hours will be enough time to tenderize the meat fully.
If adding a sauce or marinade make sure your vacuum sealer does not suck it out, you can normally seal it before all the air is out to prevent this just fine. Also, we do not recommend using fresh garlic, onions, or ginnier, as they can begin to take on a bad flavor over the long cooking times.
Yogurt, bread, beer, kimchi, wine, cheese, miso, kraut, and vinegar are among the many foods produced with the aid of microorganisms. Those are living beasties of a type that we ordinarily try to remove from what we eat. This cookbook is full of fermentation recipes. It presents a unified theory of “live-culture foods,” a way of connecting their different methods in order to understand why fermentation is a Good Thing, and why there should be more of it.
Fermentation is fairly easy to do. It can self-correct many beginner’s errors. It is definitely a slow-food process, but at the same time, a low-effort process since the bugs do most of the work. The recipes here are starter ones, broad in scope, easy to do, just to get you going. The appendix contains a good roundup of sources for a large variety of live cultures. You can find deeper more complex recipes in specific books, but here in one slim volume is a great introduction to how to ferment. At least once, you should make your own yogurt, bread, beer, kimchi, wine, cheese, miso, kraut, and vinegar. Find what you do well and make more of it.
More importantly, ferment something new.
By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body.
I know of no food that is without some tradition of fermentation.
Hamid Dirar has identified eighty distinct fermentation processes in The Indigenous Fermented Food of the Sudan, a book describing an incredible array of ferments that result in consumption of every bit of animal flesh and bone.
I’ve been making my own yogurt for the past couple of years. Not only is it much tastier than store-bought yogurt, but it’s also much cheaper. At my local supermarket, an 8-ounce container of yogurt costs $1. That adds up to $16 per gallon. At the same supermarket, one gallon of low-fat organic milk costs $4.
Since I’m a believer in the power of probiotics (i.e. bacteria is good for your immune system), I usually eat three cups of home-made yogurt a day. That translates to a savings of $2.25 per day, or $67.50 per month — which means my $89 Waring Pro YM350 yogurt maker paid for itself in just a few months. Even if you don’t eat as much yogurt as I do, I recommend you try making it yourself. It’s so easy, and even fun.
1. Pour 4-6 cups of low fat milk into a microwave-proof glass bowl, and heat it until the milk begins to boil. (Boiling changes the milk’s composition so it will solidify when mixed with the starter culture.) If a skin forms on top of the milk, that’s a good sign you boiled it long enough.
2. Let the milk cool to the point where you can tolerate holding your hand against the bowl. Remove and discard the milk skin. Add one tablespoon of your previous batch of yogurt (or plain store-bought yogurt if you’re just starting out), and mix together with a whisk. Do NOT add more starter yogurt to the mix in an attempt to speed up the process. Paradoxically, it will only slow down the fermentation (I’ve read that too much starter crowds out the bacteria from doing its job).
3. Pour the yogurt into 8- or 16-ounce containers. Do NOT put on the lids yet. If you have an older-style oven with a pilot light, you can stick the glass jars in there and allow the warm oven to act as an incubator. Otherwise, use the yogurt maker or a seed-starter warming pad to ferment the milk into yogurt.
4. Wait 8-10 hours, then screw the lids onto the jars and place them in the refrigerator.
Tip: I like to mix my yogurt with nuts, blueberries, and honey from my beehive. My kids love yogurt, banana, and berry smoothies.