Sugar, and Spice, and Everything Essential

Sugar, and spice, and everything essential. That’s no nursery rhyme – That’s what needs to be in every home pantry, if spontaneity and discovery are to happen in your kitchen. Fact is, without a decent assortment of staples – Sweeteners, flours, herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, and the like, it can be awfully hard to successfully create on the fly. At the same time, its easy, (and pricy!), to go overboard on this stuff. What’s the happy medium, and what are the must haves? Let’s dive in and see.

Here at our kitchen, we have, well, pretty much everything. We have to, in order to do what we do for y’all – researching, creating, and testing recipes requires a ridiculous amount and variety of resources. Thankfully, your kitchen needn’t be quite so whacky to be well equipped. That said, you may want more than you’ve got currently, so how to decide what’s necessary? Let’s use our place as a guide, and pare things down to manageable for the average home kitchen. That should allow a cook to do as much as reasonably possible from scratch, and also encourage spontaneity.

Spice & Herb Overflow - It happens...
Spice & Herb Overflow – It happens…

Before we dive in to specifics, a note on organization. Some manner thereof is, of course, absolutely necessary. How that takes shape is up to you. The most common sense approach is to consider what you use most, and have those closest at hand. As far as I’m concerned, the Season As You Go rule is non-negotiable, so the core stuff needs to be close at hand. We keep our go-to salts and peppers front and center, right on top of the stove. Oils, vinegars, and other common sauces shouldn’t be much farther away, ditto for herbs and spices. Flours, sugars, canned, boxed, and bagged stuff is pantry fodder, if you’re fortunate enough to have one.

The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.
The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.

In any case, make arrangements that make sense to you. Once you establish an order that works for you, keep it – In a professional kitchen, having things in the same place every time is a necessity, given the time constraints under which we cook. That rule really isn’t any different for us at home – Sometimes cooking is leisurely, but more often than not, it’s home at five and dinner needed around six, or some version thereof – So having everything where you expect to find it is imperative for efficiency and peace of mind. All that said, be open minded about change, if down the road your best laid plans don’t thrill you any more. Quarterly reviews of your resources and where you have them is a very good plan to follow. That gets you looking at expiration dates, freshness, amounts on hand, and what you haven’t used in forever on a regular basis – Include your fridge and freezer in that survey as well.

Why not start with those essentials, your go-to seasonings. As savvy cooks everywhere know, the core secret to great cooking is seasoning as you go. That means that the stuff you rely on for that process should be, as noted, closest at hand. This needn’t be complex. Salt and pepper really are all you need. Were one to pick a single version of each, what should they be? I’ll advocate for a sea salt, one with a moderate grain size – For this, you don’t want either really chunky stuff or super fine – Real sea salt contains a wealth of trace minerals that taste good and are good for you. There’s a bunch out there – I like the Bob’s Red Mill a lot, as well as the Celtic brand. For Pepper, you’re hard pressed to do better than a genuine Tellicherry berry, and that requires a little explanation.

Tellicherry Pepper - Size matters.
Tellicherry Pepper – Size matters.

Contrary to popular culinary myth, Tellicherry Pepper does not come from its namesake city in India. Tellicherry berries are defined by size, not location or heritage, per se. Pepper berries, Piper Nigrum, are harvested in February and March, then dried to become what we recognize as a pepper corn. In order to be called Tellicherry, pepper corns need to be 4.25 mm or larger, (and there’s actually a jumbo version, at 4.75mm and up). In any given crop, maybe 10% to 15% of the berries reach Tellicherry size, so it’s a bit rarer and a bit pricier, but well worth it – You’re getting the literal cream of the crop. As for other pepper, a look through our spice cabinet finds long, Tasmanian, grains of paradise, smoked, Szechuan, Lampung, Aleppo, white, green, and red, so yeah – You can go pretty ballistic on those. As far as I’m concerned, Tellicherry is all you really need.

Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z
Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z

There are many more options for salts these days, as well – and you may or may not want or need them. Some of the legendary ones, like Malden, Sal de Mer, Himalayan pink, Bolivian Sunrise, and the like are truly spectacular, but they’re expensive – Really better suited as finishing salts for a special touch. I counted fourteen salt varieties in our spice cabinet, including kosher, flaked, smoked, and a raft of those fancy varietals – Again, you really don’t need most of those. If I had to pick a must have selection, it’d be sea, kosher, and flaked – That’ll cover the vast majority of uses you’re likely to want to mess with – And if the others catch your fancy, I say try those too, but sparingly. Salt and pepper don’t have an endless shelf life, so buy in small quantities, and use them up before adding more.

Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.
Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.

Next up, oils, and here too one can be complex or simple. For eons, what you could get was corn oil and olive oil, and little else. With the rising popularity of home gastronomy, the variety of oils available to cooks has blossomed considerably. For basic cooking, you can now find a number of relatively heart healthy oils in almost any store – canola, peanut, safflower, and sunflower, for instance. As with fancy salts, there are a bunch more fairly exotic oils – walnut, grape seed, coconut, hazelnut, avocado, and infused olive oils. While the latter bunch are delicious indeed, they’re really more for finishing or making vinaigrette than for cooking – And they’re fabulously expensive to boot. What you need is genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for sure, and then a go to veg oil – Those will do the trick for 90% of your daily cooking chores. I’ll add one caveat, and that’s avocado oil. It’s become our go to, for several reasons – It’s got a light, buttery taste, it handles heat well, and is high in monounsaturated fatty acids.

For all thing flour, I’ll refer you to our Flour Power post from a while back – It’ll probably tell you more than you need to know.

Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.
Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.

Sweeteners are a bit more complex than refined white sugar, and should be – There are tastier, more potent options worth your shopping dollar. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have white sugar on hand – You should, and maybe even a couple variants – Regular white is a go to for many things, and the finer cut Baker’s sugar dissolves much faster, for baking or other cooking. Honey, real honey, local whenever possible, not only has greater sweetening power than sugar, it has the added benefit of subtle flavor notes that reflect the terroir your local bees worked to bring you their joy. Regulars here will know we’re also big on agave nectar. In addition to a lovely, light taste, like honey, agave has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, so here again, you can use less to obtain a commensurate level of sweetening power. Other sugars, brown, raw, and the like, carry a molasses flavor note white refined doesn’t, and some folks like that. If you bake, you’ll likely want some of those on hand. Molasses and corn syrup might also find favor with bakers. Alternative molasses, like Pomegranate, sorghum, carob and date, are popular for cooking Middle Eastern cuisine, and can add an exotic touch to many dishes and sauces.

Vinegar is a must as well, for everything from house made vinaigrettes to sauces and shrubs. Depending on what you like to do, you may need one or more variations on the theme. A few years back, I wrote a little primer on the basics – You can find that here. The one caveat I’ll underline is this – Infused vinegars are expensive, and they needn’t be. You can make great versions at home for next to nothing, and you should. Here are some ideas for that project.

There are a bunch of ready made sauces out there, so what do you really need? For my mind, a hot sauce or three is a necessity – A few drops of Tabasco, for instance, wakes flavor much as salt does, and adds a nice backbone note to soups and stews. Jalapeño based sauce has a milder, fruitier profile that goes great with everything from veggies to eggs. What else? Soy sauce is a must, (though beware, there are a slew of gourmet and ‘premium’ varieties that can get really pricy and aren’t really all that spectacular. There are now an abundance of dark and light varieties. Preference comes down to taste, so try a few until you find something you like, and then stick with it – The lighter version, by the way, differs mostly in color, the idea being not to turn things muddy when that’s not appealing. Fish sauce is another must have, and here you do need to be careful – There’s a lot of crap, even among the pricy stuff. Red Boat is the real deal – You can’t go wrong with a small bottle of that, and since this is added literally by the drop, a small bottle goes a long way. Obviously there are a bunch more sauces, and you may accumulate a few over time. Hopefully, you don’t get as crazy as we are, but then you never know…

Oils, vinegars, and sauces will break down in the presence of direct sunlight and heat, so store them in a cool, dark spot, in glass containers, and always read the label to see if something belongs in the fridge after opening.

Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.
Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.

And lastly, we come to herbs and spices. Here’s a place where, as you can see from our cabinet, a cook can go seriously off the deep end – That’s a blessing and a curse. Almost everything in a spice cabinet is sensitive to conditions and age – The volatile compounds that make herbs and spices do what they do mean that they can and will break down and degrade if stored improperly or kept too long. For dried herbs and spices, there are important caveats. First, sourcing – All herbs are not created equally – Provenance and proven quality matter. Although things are improving in terms of variety and quality, getting herbs and spices from the average grocery store isn’t what you want to do. A simple test illustrates why – A generic, store bought jar of oregano versus real stuff from a quality source like World Spice, or Penzeys, will prove the point. Open both and take a nice, long sniff. The sheer power and complexity of the good stuff quickly overwhelms the relatively insipid generic version. What you’re experiencing is ‘oregano’ against Mexican or Turkish oregano, with known sources of high quality – Game over. Everything you get from a good purveyor will perform like that. If you needed further motivation, what you get in the grocery is often more expensive than what the good providers charge. You’ll also have a choice as to how much of what you want to buy, and you can opt for whole or ground/mixed as well. Overall, it’s a no brainer if you’re serious about your cooking, (and if you’re here, you are.)

Onwards to storage – If your spices are in little jars in a spinny thingy on your counter top, and you got that stuff as a wedding gift and are still using it, you seriously need to repent, and soon. Sunlight, oxygen, and warmth are our friends, but for dried herbs and spices, not so much. Your stuff needs to be in a cabinet, out of direct light, away from extremes of temperature, and stored in small, airtight glass jars. That will safeguard your hard won goodies. Even so, age creeps up on us all, and spices are as susceptible as anything. This means that limiting how much and what you store is the best plan. We buy our staple, go to stuff, by the pound, but again, that’s because we do a lot of cooking to make this joint run – There are few, if any things in the spice world that the average home kitchen needs by the pound – An ounce of lemon thyme goes quite a long way, and you can have another in your mailbox in a matter of days. Buy quality, buy enough for maybe three months of use, and you’re good to go.

Of course, some herbs just beg to be used fresh, and if ever there’s an indoor gardening task you should undertake, a fresh herb window box is it. Check out our page on what we call the essentials, here. Between that and an annual herb and veggie garden, you can grow and then dry of freeze home grown stuff – There’s nothing finer, frankly.

This isn’t meant as a comprehensive kitchen analysis, but as a good starting point from which to learn and grow. Always be open to change, embrace what works and tastes good, and you’ll be hard pressed to go wrong. What we’ve outlined here should be sufficient to allow decent spur of the moment creativity on your part.

Calling All Vegans & Vegetarians!

Check out this absolutely delicious post on vegan/veggie sushi by my über talented Sister, Ann Lovejoy. I may be an avowed omnivore, but these dishes are genuinely mouth watering.

If you’ve not done so, subscribe to Annie’s blog while you’re reading her latest post.

Gathering Swing

Gathering Swing – It’s what happens once you get here and get into the rhythm of the place.

Music blooms anywhere, any time
Music blooms anywhere, any time

Swing on through. What you’ve come for will be here in spades, be it playing a bunch of hand made instruments, or working on or talking the technical and artistic aspects of building them.

Saturday Night on the Main Stage
Saturday Night on the Main Stage

If none of that is for you, there will be plenty of non-builders here to discuss art, history, philosophy, archeology, geology, and a dozen other things. And if that don’t float your boat, there’s more great food and beer and music than you can shake a stick at.

Yeah, but is it local?
Yeah, but is it local?

Whatever your bailiwick, you can immerse yourself in it, or do as I do, and drift in and out of things as you see fit. Of course, since I’m the Chef, I spend more time on food than anyone else, and that’s exactly how I like things.


Chef swing – A Chef working a thing like this has to do a lot of planning, but probably not as you might think it’ll go – we plan main courses, sides, and deserts, to some degree – But any given meal may need to feed 12 or 60, and everything in between.

Five minutes old...
Five minutes old…

On top of that, folks will bring stuff – some will tell you they’re bringing it, and some won’t, and their level of concern over how and when the dish gets used will vary as well. Blending all that, making enough food, and having ample contingency plans for leftovers is par for the course, and requires diplomacy, humor, and quick thinking.

Never leave home without 'em.
Never leave home without ’em.

Take the chickens that became the main dish for Saturday night. Somewhere around 20 folks who’d said they were coming didn’t, and all of a sudden, we’ve got a bunch of left overs – No problem… They found  their way into frittatas the next morning, or tarts for brunch after that, and finally into incredible chicken pot pies Sunday night, (if I do say so myself – and I do…)

Chimayo, Turkish, Garlic-Lime-Dill, Lemon & Sage
Chimayo, Turkish, Garlic-Lime-Dill, Lemon & Sage

Here’s some eye candy from the weekend – If anything floats your boat, drop me a line and I’ll give up the recipe for ya.

Dinner Time at the Gathering
Dinner Time at the Gathering

And we can’t forget the vegetarian crowd, either…

Caramelized Cauliflower
Caramelized Cauliflower
Lemon-Garlic-Dill Tofu
Lemon-Garlic-Dill Tofu
Heirloom Apple Plum Crisp
Heirloom Apple Plum Crisp
Prepping Smoked Guacamole
Prepping Smoked Guacamole
Brunch Tarts - Fruit, Mushroom, Bacon & Eggs
Brunch Tarts – Fruit, Mushroom, Bacon & Eggs
Chicken Pot Pie
Chicken Pot Pie

Apples 2015

Apples are easily among the most beloved, and most maligned fruit out there. They’re beloved because of all they were and could be, and maligned predominantly because of the crap that mass production, grocery store apples have become.

Malus domestica is a member of the Rose Family, grown worldwide, with more than 7,500 known cultivars. Apples come from Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, can be found to this very day – here in the U.S., you can find starts for that very tree if you wish.


Yet not so long ago, most grocery chains carried maybe five varieties, two of which were delicious, (Red and Golden, neither of which actually are delicious…), along with Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji. There are deep problems with all of these, and here’s why. These varieties, all of them that you find in the store, are bred not so much for flavor as they are for the ability to withstand storage, travel, and stocking – Those are not attributes we’re wanting in an apple, frankly. Nowadays, there are more varieties in most stores, but we still have the problem of freshness. 90% of the time, what you’re buying is last year’s crop, or maybe this year’s from New Zealand, that travelled thousands of miles to show up in Your Town, U.S.A. Neither of those options brings apples at anything close to peak freshness.
Apples grown in this country are a late summer, early fall crop. For large scale commercial purposes, apples are picked slightly green and then, since 2002, sprayed with 1-methylcyclopropene, a chemical meant to prolong use storage. They’re then waxed or shellacked, boxed, crated, and stored in an low temp/high CO2 environment to discourage ethylene production. There they stay for an average of nine to twelve months. They may, (and often are), also treated with fungicides while in storage.
It’s important to note that buying organic may not save you from all these ills. Much large scale organic farming has been bought out by mega-corporations, and they can and do still use the same 1-methylcyclopropene, wax, shellac, and extended storage techniques as non-organic fruit.

1-methylcyclopropene, trade name SmartFresh, is supposedly not toxic to humans or the environment, but there’s a distinct problem with those claims. According to an article published by the American Society of Horticultural Science, “1-MCP is being used on 16 horticultural products, but much commercially relevant research on its effects is proprietary. For example, research using 1-MCP to increase potential for shipping longer distances or increasing market share of various fruit is being undertaken around the world under confidentiality agreements.” Meanwhile, basically notes that most specific information regarding the potential effects of SmartFresh are “not available,” which is disappointingly in keeping with the ASHS’s findings.

Add to all that a Canadian study that shows that much of the good stuff in apples is seriously degraded after only 3 months of storage, and you’ve pretty much got the big picture view of why store bought apples suck. Fresh apples provide notable dietary fiber, simple, easily digestible sugars, and lots of polyphenols, a potent antioxidant. Yet stored for 9 to 12 months, pretty much all that antioxidant is gone.


But enough doom and gloom: All is not lost – in fact, there’s much light at the end of the tunnel; heirloom apples are making a broad come back, and some cool new varieties are coming available as well. From New England to the Pacific Northwest, and much in between, new-to-most-of-us varieties are finding their way to market. From Community Supported Agriculture, (CSAs), small scale farms, renewed interest by long time growers, and robust university level agricultural programs, variety is returning. Just yesterday, we got notice from our local CSA that one old variety, (Gravenstein, introduced to the U.S. in 1822), and two new varieties were available for as long as they last. A couple weeks ago, in northern Minnesota, I was introduced to the Oriole variety, developed by the University of Minnesota, (as was one of the varieties we were offered here, the Zestar). The Oriole was marvelous; tart, crisp, with just the right sugar balance – Perfect for munching or cooking.

Find and read Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character; you’ll find your spirit buoyed, and your interest piqued. Do some research for your neck of the woods – Google heirloom apples and your town, then go out and find them. Hit your farmer’s market or local CSAs. Once you’ve scored, preserve apples the way it’s been done for centuries – can some, dry some, freeze some, and enjoy it all.

Now, let’s cook with some – Here’s what I did with those Orioles in Minnesota, as well as a couple more favorites. Use whatever varieties you find that float your boat – Ask the producers which varieties making for good cooking, and go with those.

Urban’s Apple Crisp
10 Cups fresh Apples
1 Cup Bakers Sugar
1 Cup Quick Oats
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 Cup plus 1 Tablespoon Whole Grain White Flour
1/2 Cup local ESB Ale
1/2 Cup unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon real Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla
1/4 teaspoon Coriander
1/4 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Baking Soda
Pinch Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack square in the middle.
Rinse, core, seed and slice apples about 1/2″ thick, (I like the skins on, you can peel them if you wish)
Pile sliced apples into a 9″ x 13″ baking pan, glass preferred.
In a small mixing bowl, thoroughly combine bakers sugar, tablespoon of flour, cinnamon, coriander, and pinch of sea salt.
Hand sprinkle that blend over the apples, then pour the ale over all.
Melt butter.
In a larger mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, baking soda and powder, and melted butter. Blend thoroughly by hand, then pack that evenly on top of the apples.
Bake at 350° F for 40 to 45 minutes, until topping is nicely browned.
Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes prior to serving.


Belgian Waffles with Apple Compote, Bacon, and Cheddar

Heat oven to Warm, add plates for each person, the bacon, and the waffles.
Make the recipe for Belgian Waffles here – 2 to 4 per person, depending on iron size – set in warm oven to hold.
Fry 3-4 slices of fresh, local bacon for each person – set onto paper towels in warm oven.
Slice extra sharp, aged Cheddar very thin and set aside.

For the compote, (enough for 4 to 6)
6 fresh Apples
4 Tablespoons Butter
1 Tablespoon Grape Seed Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar or local Honey
1/4 teaspoon True Cinammon
1/4 teaspoon Vanilla paste or extract, (If using beans, scrape seeds from 1/2 bean).
1/8 teaspoon Allspice
Pinch Sea Salt

Rinse, core, seed and slice apples to about 1/2″ thickness
In a sauté pan over medium heat, add oil and butter, allow to melt and heat through.
Add sliced apples, agave or honey, and all spices, toss to combine thoroughly and coat with the oil and butter.
When the blend starts to simmer, reduce heat to medium low and sauté for about 15 minutes, until apples are very tender.
Remove from heat and allow to rest for 15 minutes prior to serving.
To serve, lightly butter waffle, add strips of bacon, then compote, then top with cheddar.

Then there’s the savory side…
Chutney is a favorite of mine since I was a kid, making it with my Mom each fall. The combination of fruit and savory elements is a big winner; apple chutney goes great with pork, chicken, wild rice, even soufflés, believe it or not. It’s easy to make and stores well; it’ll last 2 weeks refrigerated, and much long if you decide to water bath can it. Spicier, more piquant apple varieties make for better chutney than the overly sweet ones do.

Apple Chutney – About 6 Cups
10 to 12 fresh Apples
2 fresh large Navel Oranges
1 large Sweet Onion
1 Cup Live Cider Vinegar
1/2 Cup local Honey
1″ piece fresh Ginger Root
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground Turmeric
1 Cup Golden Raisins
6-8 Cherry Tomatoes

Rinse, core, and seed apples, then rough chop.
Rinse, peel, stem and dice onion.
Rinse, peel and mince ginger root.
Rinse and pat dry oranges; zest and juice both, set that aside.
In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, combine all ingredients thoroughly, then bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Reduce heat to medium low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 to 50 minutes, until the mix has thickened notably and most of the free liquid is absorbed.
Remove from heat, transfer to a non-reactive bowl and allow to cool thoroughly. Store in clean, glass canning jars, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.
And of course, I wouldn’t be me without including an apple salsa. Rather than a cooked or blended version, good apples lend themselves especially well to a pico de gallo style salsa. Again, pick a tart, spicy variety when you make this one.

Urban’s Apple Salsa
4-6 fresh Apples, (about 2 Cups volume)
2 fresh, firm Tomatoes
1/2 small, Sweet Onion
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1 fresh small Lime
6-8 stalks fresh Cilantro
Drizzle Agave Nectar
Sea Salt and fresh Ground Pepper to taste

Zest and juice the lime, set both aside
Rinse, core, and seed apples, then uniform dice.
Toss apples into a large mixing bowl, then add lime juice and zest, and toss to incorporate.
Peel and stem onion, then fine dice.
Rinse, core and seed tomatoes, then fine dice
Peel, seed, and devein jalapeños, then fine dice.
Chiffonade cilantro.
Add all veggies to the mixing bowl and toss to incorporate.
Add agave, pinch of salt and a couple twists of pepper; taste and adjust seasoning.
Allow salsa to rest in a non-reactive bowl for at least 30 minutes, refrigerated, prior to serving.


Ketchup & Fries

You may have heard it here first, and no, it's not a joke… Just got this from our friend Alice at Log House Plants. You can bet we'll be growing, reporting on, and creating recipes for these!


Vista, CA Dec. 12, 2014

Beyond the Dreams of Burbank: Ketchup ‘n’ Fries™ Finally a Reality for American Gardens

Luther Burbank, the “Wizard of Santa Rosa” astounded the gardening world in the early 1900's with the first known graft of a tomato stem onto potato roots. His comment that “… the results of this strange alliance were interesting to the last degree” was definitely an understatement. The practicality of such a vegetable union was way ahead of its time and horticulturists have striven to perfect this possibility for the last century.

Now, American grafting leaders, SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables, LLC (creators of the Mighty 'Mato brand) have brought Burbank's vision to reality with the release of Ketchup ‘n’ Fries™ by TomTato®. Specialty hand-grafted plants are being offered to American gardeners in the 2015 growing season for the first time! This recent effort has been in the works for over 15 years in Europe and was released into the British market as TomTato® in 2014. Plug Connection in San Diego County holds the exclusive production rights for starter plants that will be shipped to growers all over North America.

Harvest both tomatoes AND potatoes from this unique plant!

Incredible innovation in vegetable growing

All natural, non-GMO

Tomatoes for snacking, salads, sauces and ketchup

Potatoes can be baked, boiled, mashed, roasted and cut for chips and fries

Grow in the vegetable garden or in a patio container!

Look for Ketchup ‘n’ Fries™ at, and garden centers this Spring

Media Contacts

Name: John Bagnasco Name: Alice Doyle

Title: Marketing/Research Title: Marketing/Research

Phone: 760-468-2558 Phone: 541-942-2288

Email address: Email address:

Homemade Sesame Oil


We've been delving deeper into oils and fats, springing from a couple of questions Christy posed back a week or so. Her tongue in cheek caveat for asking was that she's “always looking at that little bottle of sesame oil and wondering…” She hits the nail on the head with this observation; sesame oil is one many of us have but use quite sparingly, and as such, it's prone to being well past its prime when we next reach for the bottle. Fortunately, you can make your own at home, and enjoy a fresher, more robust product completely free of additives as well.

Sesame oil is derives from sesame seeds; the nutritional value of the oil closely mirrors the seed form, containing important trace elements like calcium, copper, zinc, iron, and magnesium. Extracting your own oil is a bit labor intensive, but also a fun exercise in cooking chemistry. Here's how to do up a small batch without the need for a $150 manual oil press.

1/4 Cup fresh white Sesame Seeds

1 Cup fresh Sunflower Oil

In a preheated 350° F oven, dry roast fresh white sesame seeds on a clean, dry baking sheet. After about 10 minutes, give the seed a good stir, then continue roasting, watching carefully, for another 5 to 10 minutes. When the seeds have turned light golden brown and release a distinct nutty scent, remove them from the oven, and place them on a plate to cool.

Non-pressed, reasonably effective extraction of sesame oil is achieved with moderate heat and sunflower oil, at a ratio of .25:1 cups sesame to sunflower. In a heavy sauce pan over medium-low heat, combine the oil and seeds. Stir occasionally and allow to heat through for 10 minutes.

Remove the mix from heat and, while still warm, pour carefully into a blender. Process in short pulses until the seeds are evenly broken up into a slurry with the oil.

Transfer the slurry to a glass bowl, cover with a clean cloth or paper towel and allow to steep and cool for 2 hours.

Strain the oil blend through butter muslin into a clean bowl. You may require two straining passes to clarify the oil adequately if you use a cheesecloth of lesser density.

Store the extracted oil in an airtight glass container for up to 3 months.



Herbs R Fresh


If you like herbs like we like herbs, then you plow through more than the average American. There are also likely fresh favorites you keep around pretty much all the time. For us, that would include cilantro and parsley. Both have subtle, lovely flavor profiles that go great with many dishes.

That said, both can get long in the tooth quite quickly. They're highly perishable, and can be hard to keep fresh after even a couple of days in your fridge. Considering the handling such foods receive as a part of modern distribution and sales, it's no wonder, really. A little handling and preserving work can go a long way toward having these indispensable always at hand.

When you get delicate perishables home, inspect them first and foremost. Get them out of the plastic produce bags, and better yet, don't put them in those things in the first place and reduce your plastic throughput. Remove any off colored or bruised stuff and toss it in your compost.

Give your goods a gentle rinse in cold, running water. Shake them dry, gently but thoroughly; excess water is not a friend to successful storage.

Remove any rubber bands or twist ties; all they do is bruise the goods and promote rot.

Place the washed produce on a clean paper towel and let them air dry a bit. Wrap the goods in the paper towel and store them in your crisper drawer just like that. If you use what you buy steadily, and pay attention to FIFO, (First In, First Out), in your fridge, your cilantro, parsley, green onions, radishes, etc will stay fresher, longer.

Consider drying some of those staple fresh herbs. It's a given that fresh is better than dry, but house dried herbs from a good fresh source are far better than store bought or none. Those faves of ours will dry thoroughly in a dehydrator in less than 30 minutes. I've tested both cilantro and parsley and found that our home dried stuff retains reasonably potent flavor for up to a month when stored in glass, in a cool, dark, dry spice cabinet.

Finally, and especially as the winter months are upon us, plant a fresh herb window box. An 18″ x 6″ x 6″ box will allow you to grow a full raft of your faves, and reasonable tending will sustain them through the season. There's nothing cheerier in the dark months than fresh, bright herbs growing in your kitchen.



Anthony Bourdain hates your garlic press.

In his epic tell all, Kitchen Confidential, my favorite kitchen kermudgeon, Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about garlic.

“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Please treat your garlic with respect. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas; don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press. I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellower and sweeter if you roast it whole, still on the clove, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown. Nothing will permeate your food more irrevocably and irreparably than burnt or rancid garlic. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”

Ah Tony Bourdain, never at a loss for words…
Is he over the top?
Is he correct?
I’d say 90% yes, but let’s just break down his specific contentions to be sure, shall we?

First off, we have the implied divinity of garlic: Is he right?
In a word, yup.

Allium Sativum, of the Family Rosacea, (why it’s sometimes called ‘the stinking rose), is indeed magic, and its broad, utilitarian beauty is admirable. No other veggie has that ethereal combination of bite, heat, and sweet that garlic packs. What the author doesn’t note is that all garlic is not created equal. There are hundreds of cultivated garlic varieties worldwide, which is great if you’re a gardener or know a generous one. If you have a green thumb and your cultivation zone can handle it, by all means grow it. Just Google ‘Heirloom garlic starts’ and you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of options. Otherwise, hit up your local farmers market or CSA and load up when the magic is in season.

Great garlic is usually not available year round to the vast majority of us. As such, some plan for preservation is in order. Drying is your best bet; while there is a certain loss of flavor, it’s a given that great garlic dried will be better than OK garlic fresh, so it’s worth the effort. You should peel the cloves, and at the least, cut ’em in half, though you can chop or mince if you like; process in a dehydrator or warm oven until they’re light and dry to the feel.

Please know that garlic in oil is not a safe methodology; garlic is a low acid food, and you’re begging for botulism here. Making garlic oil in small batches and freezing it is A-OK. Puree your garlic, mix it with good olive oil, strain it through cheese cloth or a fine, double sieve. This is another perfect ice cube tray application – freeze it that way and pop a cube out for use.

You can and should pickle garlic, it’s delightful and has a complexity like no other. Finally, garlic salt or pepper are nice options as well. Kosher or sea salt both work fine, though the uniform grain of kosher probably works best; for garlic pepper, use whole black tellicherry berries. 1/4 cup of garlic for each cup of salt or pepper will do the trick. Preheat your oven to warm, or 180° F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel the garlic cloves, then add them straight away with the salt or pepper to a food processor. Process for about 30 seconds, until you’ve got a uniform texture. Spread the results into an even, thin layer on your baking sheet. Bake for about an hour, until the results are crisp and dry. You do not want them to brown, so keep an eye on things. Transfer the salt or pepper back to the processor using the parchment. Pulse a few times to break things up to an even consistency. Stored in airtight glass jars, your housemade lovelies are good to go for 3 or 4 months.

If the grocery is your only option, then what you’re likely to find will break down into three varieties; Softneck, Hardneck, and Elephant. 

Softneck Garlic is the most common variety you’ll find; this is the fat, white head of multiple cloves with several layers of papery, thin skin surrounding that you can score for roughly .50¢ a pop. It’s also the easiest variety to grow in a backyard garden. Softneck garlic has a fairly strong garlic bite and a sweet, pungent odor. Most garlic heads that have been braided together are softneck varieties. Common Softneck varieties include California Early, California Late and Creole.

Hardneck Garlic is a bit less common, but still can be found in grocery stores. Hardneck features lovely shades of purple through brown, with thin skins and larger and fewer cloves than the softneck stuff. These varieties are generally somewhat stronger in flavor and scent than the soft stuff, and they generally don’t store as well, so it’s prudent to use them quickly after you buy. Commonly found Hardneck varieties include German Extra Hearty and Roja.

Elephant Garlic is the third variant you’re likely to find. It features a big ol’ head of very large cloves that can approach shallots in size. Prized for its subtle, mild flavor and scent, elephant garlic is great for folks who don’t like their garlic too assertive.

Onward! Bourdain’s next claim is that garlic “can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly,” and that “misuse of garlic is a crime;” he is spot on here, though there are a couple of critical points left unstated.
First off, what the artist formerly known as Chef doesn’t say is this; more than how you prep it, the most important caveat for “correct” is how much garlic to use. Garlic is by nature potent, and this is why so many cooks over-season with it. Too much can bring out the negative aspects of its character every bit as much as improper cooking can. My simple rule is this: If the dish you’re making has garlic in the title, then you should use enough to bring it to the forefront of the flavor profile. When this is the case, do consider what form you’re going to use the garlic in. Let’s say you’re making garlic lamb or chicken; whole, peeled cloves added to a brine or marinade, or braised or roasted with the protein will deliver a lot of garlic flavor without blowing your socks off. Fewer cloves minced, diced, or crushed can be every bit as potent or more so than whole peeled cloves.
If garlic is not in a lead role, err to the side of caution and use less than you think you should. Let’s take chili for example – Garlic belongs here, but not as a dominant note. You’re after the subtle, sweet mouth feel a little garlic adds to a dish like this, so a moderate sized clove, one clove, will do for a whole pot of chili. That’s what I mean by subtle use; folks won’t even necessarily know garlic is there, but it will add that certain je ne sais quoi nonetheless. Consider adding peeled, whole cloves to soups, stews, and low and slow braised or roasted dishes; that’ll impart a nice, subtle background flavor, and some lucky diner gets to find a treat as well.

Next comes old garlic, and that is indeed a crime of epic proportion. Add to this, sub-par garlic. Since in large part we’re talking about gathering here, (AKA, shopping), then with whichever variety you’re hunting, do your due diligence. Choose firm, uniform heads with no soft spots, off colors, or smells. You should squeeze and scrutinize garlic as you would any other veggie you pay good money for.
Then there’s the storage thing. I’ll just tell ya straight up that garlic does not belong in the fridge, ’cause that will encourage sprouting, which leads pretty quickly to off flavors. Keep your garlic in a well ventilated, dry container, out of strong, direct sunlight. Garlic will last a month or two so stored, but as cheap as it is, you’re best served to buy a small head at a time and use it promptly.
When you’re ready to use the stuff, fresh garlic cloves should be firm and creamy white in color; if they’re yellowish, have brown spots, and/or are starting to sprout, toss it. That stuff will have a hot, bitter taste that is quite off-putting.

Burnt garlic comes next, and should we even have to say no to that? Actually, we do, because it happens far too often. Burnt garlic brings out the worst in this heavenly stuff, turning complex, sweet and pungent to bitter, sour, and overpowering. It will overwhelm everything else in a dish in a New York minute. Understanding how and why garlic burns is the key to avoiding this mess. Throwing garlic into a dish too soon often leads to burning: In a little oil in a saucepan over medium high heat, any form of processed garlic can and will burn within a minute or two at most; that’s why it should always be the last thing you add. Longer cooking under any kind of high heat will make garlic taste bitter, even if you don’t burn it. Smashing, pressing, mincing, dicing, and slicing garlic releases more flavor than cooking with whole cloves, but it also makes for a bunch more surface area that can potentially burn.
This ties into Anthony’s next assertion, castigating “garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press.”

For the former, he’s right on the money. The longer garlic sits after being cut, the more the essential oils and compounds that make it great begin to break down into other, much less desirable constituents. Ideally, it should be prepped 5 to 10 minutes prior to cooking with it; this little rest helps stabilizes the garlic, making it more resistant to heat.
As to the latter, I respectfully disagree. Pressed garlic is no more a crime than puréed, smashed, or minced.
Furthermore, there not only is a place for all these variants in cooking, they may actually be good for us.

Garlic contains a sulfoxide derivative of the amino acid cysteine, called Alliin, as well as a catalyzing enzyme, Alliinase. In a whole clove, these constituents remain separated within the cell structure. Slicing, chopping, mincing or pressing garlic ruptures the cells, releasing these elements to combine and form a new compound, Alliicin, the primary biologically active compound within garlic. Alliisin is garlic’s defense mechanism, released to ward of pests in the natural world. It is responsible for the pungent aroma, as well as the bite/heat/power of the stuff. Alliicin has known anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, and may aid in the reduction of atherosclerosis, decrease blood pressure, and provide anti-inflammatory properties as well.
In short, sorry Tony, but chopping, mashing and yes, even pressing garlic finely, produces more Alliisin, and coincidentally, provides the strongest garlic bang for the buck.
He goes on to vilify any form of processed garlic sold in a jar, and for the most part, he’s right. That stuff is far from fresh, and whatever methods are used to shelf stabilize it aren’t anything you should be hankering for.

Next, Bourdain encourages us all to enjoy roast garlic, and upon this there can be nothing negative said.
Roast garlic is indeed food of the gods, and here’s how you do it.

Preheat your oven to 400° F and place a rack dead in the middle.

Prep whole heads of garlic by removing the thicker outer papery layers.
Leave the skins on the individual cloves and carefully remove about the top 1/4″ of each, exposing the cloves.

Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil in each clove, then loosely cover them with aluminum foil.

Roast for about 30 minutes until the tops of each clove is golden brown and they’re soft to the touch.

Allow the cloves to cool until handleable. Use a small fork or knife to extract the soft garlic and spread it onto fresh, crusty bread. Welcome to Heaven.

If roasted garlic is heaven, confit garlic is Valhalla.

Peel a few heads of garlic down to whole cloves.

In a small sauce pan over medium low heat, heat extra virgin olive oil through, then add the garlic, making sure all the cloves are fully submerged. Heat slowly but thoroughly for about an hour, until the cloves are soft. Keep the heat low so that the garlic doesn’t brown. Serve spread onto fresh, crusty bread with a nice glass of red.

Lastly, Le Tony notes, “Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”
And on that final note, we disagree completely. 

As I mentioned before, great garlic dried is really good garlic, especially if you made it at home.


September is Hunger Action Month

It is indeed, and we can all play a part.

Hunger is pandemic throughout our world, and right here in the U.S. is no exception. In fact, your home town is likely no exception.

Granted, we should all do our part year round, but this is as good a time to start, share, or emphasize as any.

I don’t generally like being told what charity or effort needs my help, but in something as basic and pervasive as this, I think we can all make an exception. Here are some ideas for all of us.


1. Volunteer at a local food bank or shelter. None of these institutions is swimming in personnel, and all of them rely on volunteers too some degree.

2. Volunteers to deliver for Meals on Wheels. It’s a great program and a wonderful opportunity to help.

3. Donate from your garden. Fall is a significant harvest season. If you or someone you know has fresh produce to spare, donate to an area food bank. Fresh produce is almost always the hardest thing for them to find on a consistent basis, so next planting cycle, plant a row or two specifically to donate from.

4. Organize a neighborhood/area/school/town food drive. If your local haunt doesn’t have such services, I’d almost guarantee there’s a need; maybe you’re the one to make it happen. If they do have services, they’ll never say no to a well organized food drive.