Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Fresh Herbs

Late summer is harvest time for fresh herbs. The smell of fresh herbs can be intoxicating. Home grown herbs have a more pungent flavor and are readily available when cooking ~ just step out the door and pick what you need. Most herbs grow well in Michigan. Potted plants make herbs available to us year round.

* Examples of annual herbs are parsley, basil, marjoram, dill.
* Examples of perennials herbs are chives, thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint, sage (Note from experience: some of these can overtake your garden so watch carefully).

Whether you are ambitiously starting your plants from seeds or buying a gorgeous mature plant in the produce section of your market, take a little time to see what conditions your herb prefers. Most enjoy full sun with regular watering but best to learn so your plant will stay with you for a while.
Fresh herbs are best used at the end of the cooking process. Heat will destroy their delicate flavor, so I like to sprinkle them on my plate instead of in the dish itself. When substituting fresh for dried the ratio is
3 parts fresh herbs : 1 part dried herbs
If you have an abundance of fresh herbs, you can either dry them or freeze them. In either case, make sure you start with clean, patted dry herbs. There are several ways to do both; I am just including one method:
DRYING HERBS: Place whole herb leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place oven on the lowest setting and place herbs in with the door ajar until they have dried. Crush or leave whole and place in an airtight container. Dried herbs are good to use for up to six months.
FREEZING HERBS: Chop herbs and place a specific amount (i.e. 1 tablespoon) in an empty ice cube compartment. Once the tray is filled, fill each compartment with boiling water. The water will blanch the herbs, helping them retain their flavor. Once the water has cooled, place tray in freezer. Once cubes frozen, remove and place in an airtight container, like a freezer bag. Frozen herbs will lose their vibrant color. Now you have premeasured quantities that you can drop in to soups and sauces at the end of the cooking. Just heat long enough to melt the water. If you are concerned about the extra water in your dish, you can melt on a paper towel before adding to your dish. Frozen herbs are good to use for up to four months.
Here are some good on-line herb resources:

Food Network's Guide to Herbs & Spices - Photos, general information, recipe links

Herb Recipes and Cooking Info - Articles and general information about herbs, herb substitutions, recipe links

FreshHerbs.com - Historical and general information, nutritional information, recipes, hints and tips

Herbs offer natural cures for some common ailments, learn more at:

Healing Properties of Herbs

Women Finess Healing Herbs

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Do you have a zest for fruit?

Nothing says summer to me quite like the fruity tang of citrus! How do we incorporate this lively flavor into our dishes? There are two methods: either juice the fruit or use its zest.

According to the The Food Lover's Companion, zest is "
the perfumy outermost skin layer of citrus fruit (usually oranges or lemons)...". It is used to season many types of dishes from savory to sweet. When zesting a fruit, it is important to only remove the vibrantly colored outer layer. Just below this layer is the white, soft layer called pith. Pith has a bitter taste so be careful to not remove it with the zest.

How do we remove the zest without removing the pith, you ask? Luckily several tools do the job quite well. I have included photos of the three most common kitchen gadgets used for completing this task.

With all three of these tools the key is not going too deep.
The lemon zester: This tool has tiny holes at the end of it to cut thread-like strips of zest. If a smaller sized zest is required, simply chop to desired size.
The microplane zester: This gives you a fine, grated zest. By using the smallest holes on a box grater, you can achieve similar results.
The vegetable peeler: Probably the most common kitchen tool of the three, the peeler will give you ribbon-like bands of zest which can be used whole, cut into strips or minced.

Now we have zest, what should we do with it?
  • You can add zest to any recipe that calls for lemon, lime or orange juice to add more flavor to the dish.
  • Sprinkle two types of zest with a mix of freshly chopped herbs on top of your favorite piece of fish. Cover and bake in a 400° F oven. A general rule is 10 minutes for every inch of thickness.
  • Make a crust to add to meat. Mix zest with salt, pepper, garlic and experiment with different herbs, nuts and seeds. Try orange-rosemary, lime-cumin, lemon-pine nut, orange-sesame seed or lemon-basil. Rub the mix over a chicken breast, steak or pork chop and pan sear until brown. Depending on the size of the meat you can finish in the pan or bake in a 350° F oven until done. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the meat is properly cooked.

Bon appétit!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Keeping Your Cool!

Although we are having a relatively cool Michigan summer, I thought you might enjoy some tips for keeping things cool when the kitchen heats up.

  • Match pot to burner size so extra heat isn't escaping into the air. Covering pots will help also (and bring water to a boil faster).
  • When finished using a burner, put a teakettle or pot of water on the burner to absorb the heat not dissipate the heat into the air.
  • Instead of turning on the oven, use your toaster oven to cook single or double servings of your favorite entrées.

Of course, recipes with no cooking involved seem the most practical solution. Some ideas: wrap sandwiches with deli meats and cheeses; summer salads with canned fish or meats, or precooked, purchased meats (like rotisserie chicken); or there is always take-out.

Grilling is an easy option with no indoor cooking. Try using a purchased marinade for your fishes and meats. I like the Mrs. Dash 10-Minute Marinade Line for sodium free alternatives (visit the site for a $2 off coupon). Whatever brand you prefer, be sure to read the Nutritional Information to find out exactly what you are getting in your marinade. You can also grill your sides. Some favorites of mine are making hobo packs on the grill. A hobo pack is a foil pouch that holds your vegetables, sometimes meats, herbs and spices. By adding a liquid such as white wine or a fat such as butter or olive oil, the veggies steam and roast for a great summertime side dish. Experiment with potatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, corn, asparagus and onions. Cooking time will depend on the vegetables you choose.

If you aren't in the mood for grilling, make a quick pesto and throw in cooked pasta. Pesto is great because it requires no cooking.

Another easy option is a cold soup like gazpacho or cucumber-melon soup.

What ever you decide - stay cool and bon appétit!

Monday, July 03, 2006

July is National Blueberry Month

Blueberries are a great source of fiber and vitamin C while being low is sodium and calories. In a recent study of 60 fruits and vegetables, blueberries were ranked with the highest antioxidant properties (ability to destroy free radicals). They are a great brain food, increasing memory and improving learning. They help promote urinary tract health as well as cranberries. And blueberries improve vision.

Blueberries are grown on bushes and native to North America, grown in the wooded and mountainous regions. There are about 30 different species of blueberries. They have only been commercially cultivated within the last hundred years. Now over 200 million pounds are cultivated annually.

When buying blueberries in the market, look for firm, plump berries. They should be dry (to prevent molding) and relatively free of stems and leaves. Old berries will start to look winkled and shriveled. Store them covered in the refrigerator for up to 10 days and only wash them just prior to use.

Michigan hosts at least four blueberries festivals. August 4 - 5, Imlay City hosts the Blueberry Festival. August 10 - 13, South Haven hosts the National Blueberry Festival. August 16 - 20, Montrose hosts the Montrose Blueberry Festival. August 18 - 20, Paradise hosts the Wild Blueberry Festival.

When thinking of blueberries in food, I am sure blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes and blueberry jam come to mind. But how about trying these:

Grilled Chicken with Tangy Blueberry Sauce

Warm Blueberry and Mango Compote served over a nice salmon or tuna filet

Or try substituting dried blueberries for either dried cranberries or dried cherries in your favorite recipe.

Let me know if you try the above recipes, I would be interested to hear what you think.


Welcome to the inaugural post of Chef Jen's blog. At this time, I'm not sure what I will be posting about. I will be giving tips and tricks for making good food easy. I am hoping to post some photos of the food I prepare. And I will be exploring the diversity of cream cheese. I am also going to looking for great food websites to share with you - so watch the links.

If you have any suggestions, topics you would like to see or specific questions you would like to have answered, please email me and I will do my best to get you answers.