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John Noll's Cooking Tips

Tips are listed from newest to oldest!
FALL is the harvest season, so enjoy the bounty.  This is the time for roasting and baking vegetables.  Here’s a simple preparation:  Get a Butternut squash and peel it.  Cut in half and clean out the seeds.  Cut into 1” cubes (or buy already cut up).  In a large bowl add the cut squash, olive oil, salt & pepper.  That’s it!  Put on a foil-lined sheet pan (for easy clean up) and roast for 20—25 minutes in a 425-degree oven.  Stir after 15 minutes.  Bake until brown crusts form.  You will not believe how sweet a treat that is. 
Take an Acorn squash, cut in half and clean out the seeds.  Cut into 8-12 smaller pieces.  Salt & pepper and bake in 425-degree oven until golden brown.  Serve with a pad of butter on each.  Eat the whole thing!  Skin and all.  You won’t believe how tender it is and the “good stuff” is in the skin anyway. 
Get root vegetables – Yams, sweet potato, rutabaga, carrots, parsnip, etc.- cut up into bite-size pieces, toss with olive oil, salt & pepper and roast at 425.  Sound familiar?  It’s just that easy.  Mix, match or use just one veggie.  Roast at a high temp until golden brown and serve.  The secret: All the natural sugars in these veggies caramelize in the high heat producing an incredibly sweet, tasty, easy side dish.  
APPLES – This is prime apple season.  Enjoy the bounty.  Look for unblemished, unbruised apples to last longer.  For decades the Red Delicious was the world’s best-selling apple.  However, inbreeding the beautiful color took away the taste and they declined in popularity to be replaced by the Gala in 2018 as the #1 apple.  The Gala is a hybrid of two relative unknowns, the Golden Delicious and Kidd’s Orange Red to produce a sweet, fine textured & aromatic apple.  Watch out for the Honeycrisp, currently #5, but the fastest growing apple variety.  It has a sweet, firm and tart taste, best for eating raw.  Just ask SIR Jerry Luzar!  
FETA CHEESE – We tasted several varieties at our September cooking class. One stood out.  Two considerations:  type of milk used and domestic vs. imported.  Milk types are cow, goat and sheep.  Hands down winner was Sheep’s Milk. US consumers and manufacturers are keyed in on cow’s milk for making cheese.  While great for a majority of cheese types, not so for Feta.  France, Greece & Bulgaria are the best-known Feta producers, usually packed in brine.  Beware of imitators and imposters who use cow’s milk and dress it up with brine.  The BEST is Sheep’s milk feta from Europe.  My favorite is Bulgarian, which is a bit creamier than Greek.  Keep it easy:  Buy imported sheep’s milk feta.  Maybe a few cents more, but well worth it for the taste.
SALT – There are too many to choose from, so what should I use?  Let’s simplify.
1.    Table Salt throw out your Morton’s Iodized Salt.  It’s too fine, has additives and you cannot control how much you use.  Use a shaker and you have no idea how much your poured on your food.
2.    Kosher Salt – coarse, pure, controllable.  Use your fingers to pick up exactly how much you want and add it to your recipe/food.  You control how much/little you use.  What kind?  Brands are less important than a coarse grain Kosher variety.
3.    Flavored salts – there are too many to concentrate on, but here are a few thoughts . . .
-Smoky – one of my favorites.  It adds a sultry, smoky, grilled flavor to whatever you are cooking.  It also enhances grilling taste on the BBQ.
-My favorite is Borsari (two styles, regular and lemon).  Available on line and you cannot go wrong with veggies, meats and all around flavoring.
-Stay away from simple combinations like garlic salt, basil salt, etc.  you can do better yourself, much cheaper, and control the seasonings. 
-Other combinations – be creative, bold and adventuresome.  IF you like what you read, buy it
-Regional/Nationality seasonings – try Za’atar (Middle Eastern), Merken (Chilean), Five Spice (Chinese), Fajita (Mexican), Magic Seasonings (Creole), Pike Place Market (Seafood combinations)
4.    Use Early, use often and taste regularly.   Salt your red meat 2-4 hours before grilling; or cooking; chicken 1-2 hours; seafood 15+ minutes.  This will bring out the natural flavoring of the protein. 
Marinades vs. Basting Sauces vs. Grill Sauces
– It is definitely grilling season and what better way to showcase your talent and please friends.
Here are some hints:
Marinades should be used before grilling. Oil and vinegar based are the best for this. Dry rubs also. Avoid using sugar/sweet-based marinades or sauces because they will not stand up to the heat of grilling. They will burn before the meat is cooked, leaving you with underdone meat and a burnt-crust exterior.
Basting Sauces are meant to be used while grilling. Any non-oil marinate or sauce can be used this way. Oil-based sauces will flare up when drips hit the fire. Use with caution and put out the flames (water spray) or move the meat. Burnt meat exterior is not only unsightly, but can be unhealthy with too many carcinogens.
Grill Sauces or Serving Sauces – These should be applied only during the last few minutes of grilling, giving your finished product a nice caramelized finish. Then, serve additional sauce on the table to further enhance the meat. Also, Do Not Overcook. Use a meat thermometer to reach the desired internal temps. And let it rest (minimum 10 min.) before carving. Let the juices settle back into the meat.
For fish and seafood, use a lighter marinade  (think, not sweet nor tomato based). Lemon, oil and simple spices are terrific. Serve with lemon wedges. As a rule of thumb, cook fish a total of 10 minutes to the inch. If your fish piece is ½” thick, 2+ minutes per side is enough. Remember the seafood will continue to cook after you remove it. Better less than more.

Take advantage of the summer’s vegetable bounty.  Soooo easy

Saladscut chunks of cucumber, red & green peppers, red onion and fresh heirloom tomatoes (they cost more, but are well worth it!), mix with a vinaigrette.  Add chunks of feta and pitted kalamata olives, sprinkle dried oregano for a Greek salad.  Or, add Parmesan cheese, pitted Castelvetrano Olives [or your favorite green olive], & basil for an Italian salad.  Option:  Serve over spring greens.

Roasted VegetablesBuy a grilling basket (I have two, and have used both countless times over the past 25+ years).  Cut up veggies into chunks.  Add olive oil, salt & pepper, put into the hot grilling basket over the BBQ and grill until just charred, turning regularly, about 12-15 minutes.  For an added touch sprinkle balsamic vinegar on the finished veggies, add chopped fresh herbs and toss (any combo you like – parsley, oregano, thyme, chives, rosemary, tarragon – one, three or all).  What to cut up?  Anything.  Like zucchini, yellow squash, onion, peppers [any and all varieties}, potatoes in small chunks, asparagus, fennel, cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, carrots – you name it.  Whatever you like, want or have around. 

Kitchen Gadgets I think cooking and golf give us more gadgets to “simplify” our existence.  I disagree.  Not for golf, mind you, but in the kitchen.  Don’t be enamored with garlic presses, chopping devices, egg separators and the like.  (Ever see a chef use those things on TV?).  Stick with the basic knife for most tasks.  However, I have two I cannot be without:  A lemon squeezer and cherry pit separator.  Get a handled lemon squeezer than allows you to juice a half lemon (or lime) with no seeds in seconds.  There is a Cherry Pitter that allows you to take the seeds out of 8 cherries in one smash – seeds gone and cherry in tact!  There is also a single cherry option, buy why work eight times harder!  What a great way to add cherries to your spring fruit salad.   Also, speaking of cherries, try the Rainer-type (cream & pinkish color) vs. the classic Bing. (dark red).  More expensive but double the taste!    


Oil Spray CansThey are easy, good and useful.  First, they add negligible fat/calories in their use as long as you are not trigger-happy.  Use them to 1) spray a plastic storage container before storing any tomato-based sauces; keeps from staining the container; 2) spray measuring cups & spoons when using for sugary, syrupy ingredients [e.g., maple syrup]; ingredients come out with little residue; 3) lightly spray a non-stick skillet for grilled cheese, French Toast & eggs; no oil needed; 4) spray on oven-baked breads for a crispier crust; 5) spray on baking dishes before filling to keep baked-on sticking to a minimum; 6) spray on the cheese grater before grating cheese – no residue; 7) spray on your hands when making burger patties;  8) spray on plastic wrap before covering desserts.   


Seasoning your Cooking  - I learned two important things about flavor and seasoning while cooking from Chef Paul Prudhomme of New Orleans fame:  Layer your seasoning and taste often.  As you prepare a dish, season each layer of added ingredients.  Let’s say you sauté onions to start – salt & pepper them.  Then you add peppers and veggies – salt & pepper and season them.  Taste.  Be sure it is flavorful and the way you want it.  If not, adjust your seasonings.  Then, after adding the final ingredients, flavor them.  Just before serving, taste again and adjust seasonings.  I also learned elsewhere the two most basic ingredients restaurants use to enhance the flavor of sauces and dishes:  Salt and Butter.   Simple, but so effective.  Taste and adjust seasonings. 


Pasta – Dried vs. Fresh -  Most of the pasta we use is dried – comes in a box, cello package; takes 8-14 minutes to cook, is made with semolina flour & water, has a sturdy texture and strong gluten (that’s what holds it together – and it is neither good nor bad for you, unless you are gluten-intolerant [have celiac disease]).  An alternative is fresh pasta, which is found in the grocer’s refrigerated section – it is made with eggs and white flour, which gives it a smooth, tender, more delicate texture.  It also cooks in 2-3 minutes! Usually what we get in a restaurant because of its higher quality taste and feel.  Store dry pastas for months, even years; not so for fresh.  Be careful of the “Best by” or expiry date – it has uncooked egg in its makeup.  Dry pasta has a countless array of shapes; fewer choices for fresh.  Mostly interchangeable in recipes, except where there is vigorous stirring involved to release the starch (e.g. cacio e Pepe – Cheese & Pepper) or with large ingredients, like broccoli or sausage chunks – the fresh pasta tends to clump. 


Freezing Foodsfreezer burn and leaving food in the freezer too long are the two best ways to ruin your frozen foods.  How long you keep it in the freezer is up to you, but this will help keep burn-loss at a minimum:  1.  Keep as much air as possible from the food – transfer to airtight packaging.  2. Freeze as quickly as possible.  3. Remove from the original package – lay meats out flat, wrap and freeze separately, then store together.  4. Wrap the food tightly in aluminum foil, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap.  This will keep at much air away from the food as possible.  Plastic wrap alone is air permeable.  5. Individually wrap items if possible or use a vacuum sealer (FoodSaver process), then put the items in a separate plastic bag.  Identify and date so you know what’s in the bag and how long it has been there. 


Defrosting - freezing items separately will help you defrost quicker and use portion control.  Lay flat on a plate or pan and defrost in the refrigerator.  This may take time – think overnight.  More time for whole roasts, chickens, or larger bowls of leftovers.  In a rush?  Soak items in cold water (not hot), or on an aluminum pan, turning every half hour or so as they thaw.  Careful here:  letting the frozen item reach room temperature is an invitation to rapid bacteria growth. Refrigerate if it is almost thawed.  Do not use this technique for large items or roasts – the edges are at room temp before the center thawsConcerned about spoilage?  Use your nose.  It does not lie.  If it smells off or bad, toss.  If it still smells fresh-like, you are good. 


Parchment Paper.  Never heard of it? Rarely use? This is one useful kitchen baking and cooking companion.  This paper will not burn under 400°.  Use it on cookie sheets or to line pans when baking anything.  It won’t burn, will protect baked goods from sticking and clean up is a breeze – throw away the paper and wipe the pan clean.  Use it as a surface for assembling and pouring baking ingredients, steaming fish, covering microwave dishes.  Use it on the counter top when assembling ingredients to bake or cook (lightly moisten the surface before placing the paper to keep it from slipping or curling).  Caution:  Do not confuse with wax paper.  That will burn in the oven. 


Cook Books.  I received three for Christmas!  I noticed immediately they all “teach” instead of just give you recipes.  Salt, Fat, Acid & Heat spends about 50-60 pages on each of these cooking basics then shows in recipes how to incorporate.  You’ll never look at the four basics the same with this book.  How to Taste does just that – teaches you tasting, what affects different aspects of taste and tips on how to.  Then after explaining, it gives recipes incorporating what was just covered.  The Food Lab – Better Home Cooking Through Science takes you through all aspects of cooking:  Tips, Techniques, Pictures, Recipes.  This is a cooking compendium to be read, reread and referenced.  Just got it, so I am just perusing the 950 pages! 


Thanksgiving Turkey.  Improve on mom’s/grandma’s traditional recipe – brine the bird.  Amazingly it does not add a lot of salt; magically it keeps the breast meat moist and the thigh meat tender.  Just go on line to find a brine recipe.  Brine the bird for 12-24 hours (no longer; too much salt taste) and roast normally.  The juiciest turkey you will ever have.  Don’t stuff the bird; just add celery and onions to the cavity and roast.  It will cook better, easier and you won’t have to worry about thoroughly baking the stuffing while overcooking the bird.  Bake stuffing separately. 


Easy Gravy.  Don’t let this tasty, simple addition to a great meal get complicated or lumpy.  Collect the turkey juices after roasting and skim off the fat (use a fat-skimmer or skim with a spoon and paper towels), pour juices in a pan and bring to a boil.  Dissolve 1/3 cup of flour in 1-1½ cups warm chicken broth (put in a jar & shake well).  Pour all into the simmering juices at once.  Whisk constantly and bring to a boil.  You are done!  Tasty, easy gravy and you will be the envy of the party! 


Rice:  Many kinds.  What’s the difference?  Long & Short - Long rice tends to be lighter, fluffier while Short rice is stickier, more chewy.  Types – Basmati rice is a long grain rice, aromatic, light and a perfect side dish alone or as a base for additional ingredients.   Jasmine is a short grain, soft and sticky, great for sushi, many Chinese dishes and other sticky combinations.   Aborio is a short grain, high gluten, pasta-like, perfect for risotto.  Calrose and Texmati are US developed grains that have both characteristics in that they increase in length and width in cooking.  Versatile and widely useful.  Brown v. WhiteBrown is less processed with just the hull removed leaving a higher fiber-content rice, a bit chewier than white.   White is milled until the product is white, softer and fluffier than its less processed sister.   This is the most common, easier to chew, less fibrous, more appealing choice. 


Get rid of Garlic HandsTo remove the annoying garlic smell from your hands, rinse in cold water and rub them on your kitchen faucet. Rinse, repeat. (huh?  It Does Work!).  Rub your hands on anything stainless steel for the same result.  Works with onion, celery – any un-desirous smell on your hands.   Rinse, rub, rinse, rub, dry.  You will be amazed. 

Green, Red, Yellow, Orange Peppers – what’s the difference? Not much and a lot.  All start from the same green pepper, which is just an immature colored one.  [That explains why colors cost more than green.]  Depending on the species, all green peppers will develop into mature colored ones.  In terms of taste the peppers are ranked for sweetness, most to least:  Orange, Yellow, Red, Green. 
Corn on the CobHere are two very easy ways to fix corn on the cob:  For 2-4 ears, husk and rinse.  Roll each dripping wet ear in a paper towel.  Microwave for 4-5 minutes (more for more ears; less for fewer) and serve.  Perfect every time.  (Caution:  they are hot!).  For a crowd:  place all cleaned ears in a pot of water.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, remove from heat.  Leave in the hot water. You can serve anytime up to 15-18 minutes.  Perfect way to feed a crowd and not worry about timing – are they done?  Overcooked?  Perfect every time. 
Using OilsYou should have two, if not three oils in your pantry.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil is great for sautéing vegetables and low-heat cooking. It has a very low smoke point - 320° (once oil smokes, it is “burnt” and no good].  Have an upscale EVOO as a finishing oil for veggie, pasta dishes instead of butter.  For sautéed foods – chicken, burgers, searing meats – use Avocado, Grapeseed, Canola, Safflower.  All have smoke points above 400° and will hold up to high, searing temperatures. 

Corn on the CobHere are two very easy ways to fix corn on the cob:  For 2-4 ears, husk and rinse.  While dripping wet roll each ear in a paper towel.  Microwave for 4-5 minutes (more for more ears; less for fewer) and serve.  Perfect every time.  (Caution:  they are hot!).  For a crowd:  place all cleaned ears in a pot of water.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, remove from heat.  Leave in the hot water. You can serve anytime up to 15-18 minutes.  Perfect way to feed a crowd and not worry about timing – are they done?  Overcooked?  Perfect every time. 


Kitchen Shears – What a useful tool!  As Jim Quon point out, use them to cut tomatoes in the car.  Cut pizza, pita or quesadillas into wedges; focaccia into squares.  Prep produce by snipping cauliflower to size, trim artichoke leaves, carrot & radish tops, stems from leafy greens.  Great for slicing messy items like dried fruits or even raw bacon.  How about opening those pesky sealed bags.  Perfect! 


Too-hard-to-eat stone fruit from the store?   Place the fruit in a paper bag along with a banana for 2-3 days, or until soft.  The banana releases an ethylene gas that triggers ripening of the fruit.  

Keep cooked pasta from sticking together.   Once pasta is cooked al dente (Do Not Rinse, unless you are serving the pasta cold), add a few tablespoons of olive oil and stir to coat.  Or, add a ladle of the accompanying pasta sauce and coat.  Freshly cooked pasta is very “vulnerable” and seeks to continue absorbing liquid.  The olive oil or sauce helps stop that process.  Then, use as planned. 
Have a pan/dish with hard-to-remove residue?  Soak the pan with a teaspoon of Cascade and hot water for about 1-2 hours.  Then, clean up is a breeze.  Don’t do this with aluminum or it will oxidize and discolor. When baking a dessert with sugar be sure to coat the pan well with butter/oil.   This will prevent a laborious clean up of sticky, burned on residue
Never wash vegetables or fruit until you plan to use them.  Both have a built-in protection coating that keeps them fresh and is easily removed with a quick cold-water cleaning rinse just before using. 
Keep parsley, cilantro and asparagus for weeks in the fridge.   Once home, cut ½ to 1 inch off the stem bottom and put in a container of water; cover with the store’s plastic bag and keep in the fridge up to two weeks.
Never store tomatoes (or onions) in the fridge.  The cold actually changes the flavor, eventually makes them mealy and lessens the quality.