Tomato paste - I prefer to use a no-salt variety of tomato paste that comes in a can, rather than the tube paste. However, most recipes only call for one or two tablespoons. To store the leftover paste, I wrap individual tablespoonfuls in waxed paper, then place them all in a freezer bag and freeze until I need them. They defrost very quickly, making it easy to remove the paper.
Bananas - If you buy bananas more than several days ahead of use, they usually get too ripe. One solution I have found is to refrigerate the bananas when they are a little less ripe than you prefer. That slows down the ripening process. The peels might look awful because they darken quickly, but the banana is fine. If you prefer to eat a room temperature banana, take it out of the refrigerator about one hour before use. As for any bananas that become too ripe, freeze them for use in baking. They can be frozen in the peel. After defrosting, cut off a small piece of the blossom end. Squeeze the banana out through the hole and you have instant mashed bananas. Sue Lane adds these tips about bananas:"When I buy bananas, I pick and choose single bananas from various bunches. That way I get them in a variety of ripeness. And keep them away from the apples. Apples give off a gas that ripens them."
Fresh versus dry herbs: Whenever possible, I use fresh herbs because I love them and grow them in the summer. But they are not always available, and not always necessary. For example, long cooked foods actually pick up as much flavor from dried herbs. So, I usually only add fresh during the last stages of cooking to give a burst of freshness. Remember, when substituting dry herbs for fresh in a recipe, use about one-third of the amount indicated, because the flavor in the dried herbs is concentrated in the drying process (you can always taste later and add more before presentation). However, if your dried herbs have been on the shelf for a long time, you will probably need more because, although they do not spoil, they lose flavor with age. Also, rub those dried herbs between the palms of your hands before using to release more of the flavor.
Basil: If you grow your own basil, you can extend the season after the weather turns cold by cutting some stems and placing them in water on a partially sunny windowsill. They will grow roots and yield basil leaves for several months. The same can be done with hydroponically grown 'living' basil purchased at the store.
White sauce - If you love those recipes that use condensed cream soups, but would prefer not to have the sodium, preservatives or other 'mystery' ingredients, check out the Basic White Sauce recipe. You can omit the nutmeg and add other seasonings. You can substitute broth or wine for some of the milk. For a cream of mushroom soup substitution, add some finely chopped, sautéed mushrooms and mushroom or beef broth. Preparation will take a little more time, but is well worth it.
Preparing fresh clams or mussels: There are several things you should be aware of when preparing clams or mussels. I learned some of it the hard way. When you purchase them, they are, or should be, alive. You can keep them alive in the refrigerator for several days. Some packages will be dated. It is very important that they can breathe so do not place them in air-tight plastic bags. (I made that mistake.) Before using, make certain they are still alive. If the shell is opened slightly, tap on it and it should close at least partially. Give it a little time as some move very slowly. If it doesn't move at all, discard it. Many clams and mussels are now farm-raised and do not require purging to release sand. If desired, rinse them with cold water. Do not soak in water or they might die. (I made that mistake, too.) Those from natural environments might be sandy and the best way to get rid of that is by soaking them briefly in salted water. However, I just scrub the outside under running water and they are never sandy inside. An additional step required for mussels is removing the beard. Farm-raised mussels usually don't have a beard. After cooking, discard any clams or mussels that do not open.
Boneless chicken breasts: This tip comes from Beth Granger from Tallahassee, Florida. She writes, "When you buy the boneless, skinless chicken breasts give them back to the butcher and ask him to cube them, just like cubed steak. It saves time, both with cooking and pounding out the chicken. I have done this and it works out great!"
Caramelized onions: Onions can be caramelized very quickly over medium-high heat or slowly over a medium-low burner. Either way, add a little oil or butter to the pan, then the onions. Some cooks add a pinch of sugar, but I do not think it is necessary. Cook, stirring often, until well-browned, adding a little moisture or cover the pan if needed to keep from burning.
Garlic: I just could not cook without garlic. I love it. And it is so good for us. Here are a few things worth knowing. To peel garlic easily, you have several choices. One is to place a large chef's knife blade sideways on top of the clove and then whack as hard as you can. Not only does the peel release but you have partially crushed the clove. That is what I do most often. Another is to microwave the cloves for about 20 seconds or until the peel is loose. Another method is to use the rubber tube product that can be purchased almost anywhere and is very inexpensive. You can put several cloves of similar size in there at one time, roll with the palm of your hand, and the peels are off. A good-quality garlic crusher will remove the peel, but only works if you want your garlic crushed. Crushers are great for some recipes, but I remove the peel first since I usually crush more than one clove.
Homemade stock: Make your own meat broths from leftover bones or meat purchased on sale at the grocer. If you want a richer stock, place the meat, bones and vegetables, usually onions, carrots and celery, in a high heat oven and brown well before placing in a stock pot. Then add water, vegetables and seasoning as desired. Cook; strain meat and vegetables. The broth can be used that way or continue to cook until well reduced. Strain off fat. Place broth in containers and freeze. Small amounts for sauces can be frozen in ice cube trays. Remove from the trays and place in freezer bags for future use. If well condensed, a little goes a long way.
Toasting rice: To add a nutty flavor to rice, toast the grains before cooking. Place in a fry pan over low heat. Toast until golden brown, stirring often and being very careful not to burn. Use as usual in your favorite rice dishes. The same process works for other types of grains.
Easy dumplings: "In a hurry? Buy flour tortillas. Cut in desired size and shape, and add to boiling meat stock, a few at a time so they do not stick together. Delicious!" Submitted by: Ruth Maddox, firstname.lastname@example.org, Duncan, OK.
Easy onion-flavored croutons: This suggestion for making croutons to use with a Caesar salad was submitted by Jeanne Poff (email@example.com). "Cut onion bagels into crouton-sized squares, sprinkle with a bit of olive oil or olive oil spray and garlic powder, if you like. Bake at about 375° until toasted to your liking, about 15-20 minutes, stirring once or twice during baking cycle. These keep in an airtight container for several weeks."
Homemade whipped cream: Here is a tip for storing whipped cream when made several hours ahead of serving or when some is leftover. Place it in a strainer or round sifter that sets on top of a bowl. Cover the top with plastic wrap. As the cream weeps, the liquid will go through the strainer into the bowl and will not deflate the cream. Adding powdered sugar (about 3 tablespoons per 1 cup heavy cream) to the cream helps stabilize the final product. Unflavored gelatin can also be used by mixing together 1 tablespoon cold water and 1 teaspoon gelatin in a 1-cup glass measuring cup. Let stand for 2 minutes. Place measuring cup in boiling water. Cook and stir 1 minute or until gelatin is completely dissolved. Add gradually to 1 cup of heavy cream while beating.
Shrimp peels: When a recipe calls for shrimp to be peeled before cooking, save the shells. Boil in water for about 20 minutes. Strain and cool; place the broth in a freezer container and use the next time you make fish soup, chowder or sauce. The same can be done with leftover lobster shells or fish bones.
Mascarpone cheese: If you are making a recipe that calls for this Italian staple and you can't find it, here is the substitution - mix together 3/4 pound softened cream cheese, 6 tablespoons whipping cream and 1/4 cup sour cream. It works.
Potato and pasta salads: When making any potato or pasta salad, add the other ingredients while the potatoes or pasta are still warm. That way they will absorb the flavors. The exceptions are mayonnaise, sour cream or other dairy products that might melt or curdle. Add them after the potatoes or pasta have cooled slightly.
Homemade brown sugar: If you plan to make a recipe and suddenly discover that you are out of brown sugar, you can easily make your own, assuming you have regular granulated sugar and molasses in the pantry. For dark brown sugar, place 1 cup of granulated sugar in a processor and add 1/4 cup molasses. Pulse until the molasses is thoroughly mixed into the sugar, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. For light brown sugar, cut the amount of molasses to 2 tablespoons. Either recipe may be made in any amount. Extra will keep in an airtight container for up to one month.
Aloe plants: What does a plant have to do with safety? Well, face it, if you cook a lot you will get burned occasionally. Like when you take that hot pan out of the oven, place it on a burner to make a sauce and grab the handle with a bare hand, forgetting it's hot. Been there! Or when there are so many things in the oven and your arm touches a hot casserole when checking another. Done that! The aloe plant is a well-known healing agent for minor burns. It grows easily indoors with indirect sunlight and little care. I started with one small plant that is now in two large pots and needs additional separating. To use, first place the burned area under cold running water. Then break off an aloe leaf and rub the open end on the burn. Rub more on as needed whenever the area starts burning. Eventually, the burning feeling will go away. This is also good for sunburn and fire ant bites. By the way, when you do take that hot pan out of the oven, keep a hot pad on the handle so you won't forget that it is hot.
Electric mixers: Always make certain your mixer is unplugged when inserting or taking out the beaters. Kathy Yost sent a story about how she was putting the beaters in with one hand and accidentally hit the 'on' switch with her other hand. Her index finger got caught between the two beaters when they started rotating. Lucky for Kathy, she thought quickly and pulled the plug. Her finger was so stuck she had to take the mixer with her to the phone to call for help. She was told that it would take 6 to 12 months for the finger to heal completely.
Raw meats: We are all aware of the risks of eating any raw meats. In the past, when making a meat loaf or meat balls out of ground beef, I would take a little taste of the mixture to check for seasonings before cooking. I still want to taste, but now I take that tiny piece, place in on a small dish and microwave until hot. An easy and safe way to make sure the seasonings are correct.
Freezing bread cubes and crumbs: Take pieces of old bread, cut them into cubes for croutons or process into crumbs. Place in freezer bags and freeze until the next time you need them. This will save some preparation time.
Precooked bacon: When you have extra time, fry a pound of bacon. Drain, cool and place in single layers on waxed paper; place in bag and freeze. When ready to use, take the number of slices needed and heat in the microwave. And don't forget to refrigerate some of the grease from frying for those recipes that call for bacon or ham fat.
Planned leftovers: There are lots of foods that lend themselves to versatile leftover techniques. Make the original recipe one day in larger amounts than needed. The next day, create a whole new recipe from the leftovers. For some ideas, see the Recipes for Leftovers page.
Use your grill: Whether it be indoors or outdoors, grilling saves cooking time and energy, is healthier than frying or many other methods, and usually involves less clean up. Meats and vegetables take on a whole new dimension of flavor. While grilling other entrees, depending on your grill, casseroles and even desserts can be baked outside. For grilling recipes, go to Grilling Recipes.
Extra garlic: If you use garlic often like I do, it is helpful to peel and mince more than you need. Place the extra in a small jar and cover with olive oil. It will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days. Not only do you have fresh ready-to-use garlic, but the garlic-flavored oil in the jar can be used for cooking, basting or on garlic bread.
Precooked meals: For those of you who have little time during the week to cook, but extra time on the weekends, plan several menus that the entree can be cooked and frozen until needed. That way, all you will need to do is pop it in the oven and prepare the salad or side dish. And, if your family eats at different times, place the precooked meals in individual packs, like store-bought frozen dinners, label, freeze and everybody can take what they want when needed.
Weekend prep time tips: There are so many do-ahead activities that can be accomplished on a day when you have time. Let's say, for example, you are planning a menu that uses chopped vegetables. Most vegetables can be cleaned and chopped several days before use. Just be certain to place in good storage bags in your vegetable bin. If the recipe calls for cooked vegetables, parboil and freeze until needed. Want to make a soup - make it ahead and refrigerate. Most are better after the first cooking. Just use good judgment as to storage times of the item you are preparing.
Measuring pans: When measuring the size of pans, measure from the top, rim-to-rim. Sizes vary slightly. For example, a 10-inch pan might actually measure 9-3/4 inches or 10-1/4 inches.
Problems with coffee filters: Ruth Burbage (firstname.lastname@example.org) claims that "the easiest way to separate that stubborn stack of coffee filters is to turn it inside out. That will automatically separate the individual filters". I use coffee filters occasionally for various purposes and Ruth's idea works every time.