Remembering Home Cooking Lessons on Father’s Day

By Alison Ashton

You always hear people saying they learned to cook from their mamas or grandmas. With Father’s Day coming up, I’m reminded that it was my dad who suggested I get acquainted with the kitchen with some home cooking lessons.

fathers-day“Don’t you think Alison should learn to cook something?” he asked my mom one day when I was 11.

“Why on Earth would she want to do that?” Mom asked. She was a reluctant cook herself, and the women’s movement was in full bloom at the time, so she figured if I wasn’t interested, why bother? After all, Dad wasn’t exactly nudging my brother toward the stove.

Until then, my culinary participation was limited to doing homework at the kitchen counter while Mom cooked dinner or, when she (rarely) made chocolate-chip cookies, licking the beaters. (Those were the days, before salmonella scares, when raw cookie dough was meant to be relished, not feared.)

Dad didn’t take the bait on Mom’s gender politics, so he and I embarked on a series of home cooking lessons. One of our first ventures was making brownies. We used a box mix, which is a big cheat of course, but they tasted good and offered guaranteed success. Before long, though, my tween passive-aggressive sulkiness and lack of enthusiasm took the wind out of Dad’s culinary determination and he tasked me instead with “character-building” chores, like scrubbing our redwood hot tub (above, with Dad soaking happily) with steel wool under a blazing summer sun (if only I’d stuck with learning how to cook a pot roast).

I continued to avoid the kitchen throughout my early adulthood, living on restaurant meals, takeout and convenience food. But after awhile, eating out became a chore in itself–deciding where to go, parking, the time. So I started following a recipe here and there with edible–even good–results. To my surprise, I discovered I enjoyed cooking; it was a relaxing way to end the day.

As I learned more, I worked my way into food editing and writing, where I enjoyed sharing my newfound knowledge with others. I even went to culinary school last year to fill in the lingering gaps. I learned plenty of fancy stuff—how to make crystal-clear consommé and a chicken galantine–but, truth be told, I was happiest mastering some basic skills that I likely would have picked up if I’d just stuck it out in the kitchen with Dad.

He didn’t live to witness this transformation, though I imagine he’d greet this news with a satisfied smirk and say, “Honey, if you weren’t so stubborn I would have shown you that for free.”

Well, Dad, better late than never.

Alison Ashton thumbnail

A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for NOURISH Evolution. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies

I’ve come a long way since making box-mix brownies as a kid with my dad. I’ve learned that it’s not that much more work to make them from scratch, and you can customize them to suit your taste. This recipe is inspired by Mexican chocolate, which is sweet, cinnamony, and nutty. The chile powder adds a touch of smoky heat, but you can omit it if you like.

mexchocbrowniesrecipes1/4 cup 1 percent low-fat milk
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder (optional)
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray.

Bring milk to a simmer (do not boil) in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, stirring until they melt and the mixture is smooth. (It will look like the yummiest hot chocolate ever.)

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and chile powder (if using). Combine granulated sugar, butter, vanilla, almond extract and eggs in a large bowl; beat with an electric mixer.

Beat in chocolate mixture. Add flour mixture and beat just until combined. Spread batter into prepared pan and bake 22 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool in pan on a wire rack. Sift powdered sugar over top of brownies and cut into 16 squares.

Serves 16

MacGyver Moves in the Kitchen

By Alison Ashton

Remember the TV show “MacGyver,” in which the hero adapted whatever was at hand to save the day like using a paperclip to diffuse a bomb? At NOURISH Evolution, we’re all about making full use of ingredients, and the same goes for equipment. Nothing brings out your culinary MacGyver like working in a professional kitchen, as Jennifer Schaertl, learned as a chef in four-star restaurants, where kitchens typically are cramped, and there never seems to be enough equipment to go around. Many strategies common to the restaurant kitchen can help space-strapped home cooks, too, and Shaertl shares her tips in her new book Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens (Health Communications).

macgyver-postShaertl puts a practical, cheerful spin on cooking in “CLKs” (crappy little kitchens), and her strategies can help even if your kitchen isn’t so tight. A well-organized CLK is a remarkably efficient and pleasurable place to cook–everything is close at hand, and you have less crap to clean up at the end.

The key is to pare down your equipment and choose items that can multitask. For example, Schaertl says you only need three knives: A good-quality 6- to 8-inch chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, and a paring knife. (Though Kurt contends–and I agree–a boning knife is nice, too, but it’s optional.) One of Shaertl’s favorite tools is an easy-to-store stacking 12-quart stockpot with a strainer and steamer basket, which you can use to make stock, cook-and-strain pasta, and steam vegetables. The pot’s steamer basket also can double as a colander.

In the CLK spirit, here are five specialty tools you can easily improvise with items you probably already have:

Microplane/mandolin. A four-sided box grater as a versatile tool that can stand in for both a microplane and a mandolin, says Schaertl. Use it to grate cheese or veggies for slaw, as well as finely grate lemon zest, garlic, ginger, and chocolate, or thinly slice mushrooms. The more often you use it, the more uses you’ll find for it.

Meat mallet. This is one of Shaertl’s space-wasting “CLK Saboteurs.” Instead, pound that veal cutlet for scallopini with the bottom of a heavy skillet or saucepan, and use a fork to tenderize meat.

Panini press. These things are terrible space hogs. If you love panini, make them on the stovetop in a grill pan or regular skillet and weigh down the sandwich with another heavy skillet, saucepan, or Dutch oven.

Sifter. “This thing is the epitome of the one-trick pony,” Shaertl writes. I agree, and use the $5 fine-mesh strainer I bought years ago at Walmart to sift flour, sift powdered sugar over baked goods, and strain sauces.

Double boiler. This is a gizmo in which one pan nests inside another; the larger pan holds simmering water to gently heat whatever is in the top pan. It’s just a fancy version of an old-school bain-marie (water bath) that you can create with any saucepan and heatproof bowl, as we do here with our Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd.

Now that I think of it, making better use of fewer tools instead of cluttering the kitchen with lots of random gadgets is the very spirit of sustainability. How do you make your kitchen equipment pull double, triple, or even quadruple duty? Let us know!

Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd

This lemon curd recipe requires no special equipment. Grate the lemon zest on the fine holes of a box grater, and use a saucepan and heatproof bowl to set up the bain-marie to gently cook the curd. Lemon curd is delicious spread on toast or scones, dolloped on pancakes or waffles, or even used in place of the cheesecake filling in Strawberry Cheesecake Tartlets. (Of course, hang onto the egg whites to make angel food cake or meringue cookies.)


Make a Move for Kids’ Nutrition

A week ago Friday, 500 chefs assembled at the White House (and hundreds more, including me, joined the ranks online) to kick off the Chefs Move to Schools program, part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to improve kids’ nutrition and eradicate childhood obesity within a generation. The plan is simple: chefs “adopt” a local school in hopes that they’ll be able to help transform the kids into healthier eaters. “Chefs are coming from the outside in and they’re bringing good food to the equation,” says Kim O’Donnel, chef and food writer extraordinaire.

chefs move to schoolsPart of that shift has to happen at a policy and administrative level. Right now, each child eligible for a free school lunch is allotted $2.68 per meal from the federal government. The buzz you’re hearing about school lunch reform (both the House and Senate have measures on the table) will wrangle an additional 6 cents and stricter nutritional standards (including on vending machines). That means there’s plenty of room for creative solutions, which is precisely why the first lady tapped this particular group. “Chefs are always making lemonade out of lemons,” says Kim.

The other side of the equation, though, is improving nutrition by getting kids to want to eat healthier–to imbue in them the pleasures of fresh food amidst this world of fast food and drive-thrus. Michelle Stern from What’s Cooking, a blog about cooking with kids for a better body, planet and community, said the first lady had several suggestions for the audience, from cooking demonstrations to planting a garden to working with teachers to introduce food into the curriculum.

But it’s not just chefs who can affect what kids want to eat—and do eat—in schools. You can too. Here are some ideas that bubbled up from my own experience and conversations with Kim and Michelle:

  • Get Kids Involved. “Once you get kids involved in one step, they immediately take ownership,” says Kim. “Even things like taking tortillas out of a package or learning to use a can opener … If they’re invested in the meal, they’re more likely to want to eat it.” You can do this for an entire class, your kids’ friends on a play date (see me and Noe on TV showing how to make food fun for kids here) or simply for your own kids. But it will make a difference.
  • Get Kids Growing. If you have a garden, invite kids in to explore. My husband planted our daughter a “candy tree” (really a cherry tomato plant) when she was less than a year old and the tradition stuck. This year, Noemi and I added a strawberry patch to the garden. It’s incredible to witness the sheer delight she gets from seeing snacks appear day after day. If you have kids and no garden, plant something—anything—in a pot or box or on a sunny sill just to give your kids that experience of watching something grow.
  • Share What You Know. You may well have more to offer your local schools than you think. Know how to bake bread? Fantastic … there’s a science project just begging to be mined. Are you from a country with a rich culinary heritage? Beautiful … a map, a story and a few dishes and you’ve got a social studies presentation. Do you have a computer? Print out or e-mail stories and recipes that you feel could be of help or inspiration to teachers or other parents … you can start right here on !

Was this move on Washington the end-all be-all shift to end childhood obesity? Not quite. “(The initiative) needs some tending and time to mature,” says Stern. O’Donnel agrees that this is a first step and adds, “there are small things we can do in an incremental fashion that are a lot better than not doing anything at all. Let’s not worry about how all of this is going to turn out three years from now. Let’s focus on what’s happening now.”

So this week I extend the challenge beyond chefs to parents and neighbors alike … let’s make a move.

Asian Pesto

I first developed this spicy pesto recipe out of desperation with an abundance of end-of-the-season Thai basil (it freezes wonderfully). Now it’s one of our summer staples … especially now that Noemi loves being in on the action. Get creative with this flavorful pesto recipe. Rub it on chicken and fish, mix it into rice noodles, stir-fry some tofu and spicy greens. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle–or don’t want to use yours–just whip it up in a food processor; drizzle in extra lime juice and a bit of water if you need liquid to process.

asian-pesto-recipe3 cloves garlic
3 dried Thai chiles
Sea salt, to taste
1/3 cup peanuts
1 tablespoon sugar
2 packed cups Asian basil leaves
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic and chiles to a paste with a tiny pinch of salt. Then add peanuts and sugar, and pound to incorporate. Handful by handful, add the basil and pulverize completely in between additions. Stir in fish sauce, peanut oil and lime juice.

Serves 8

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Why Frozen Seafood is Sometimes Fresher than “Fresh”

The word “fresh” has cache to it. Think of a tomato fresh off the vine or fresh-squeezed lemonade. But when it comes to describing seafood, the word doesn’t always mean better quality, and sometimes frozen seafood is the better choice.

Technically, “fresh” seafood has never seen temperatures below minus 1 degree Celsius, whereas “frozen” seafood has. But does that fact alone make fresh better? Geoff Shester, Ph.D., California Program Director for Oceana, says not necessarily so. “The way I think about it is would you rather eat “fresh” seafood that’s been sitting on a boat for seven days unfrozen, or a product that has been frozen in such a way to retain the moisture, flavor and texture indistinguishable from fresh seafood?”

Frozen at Sea

Most people understand that storing a fish below freezing inhibits cellular degradation. But storage is only part of the equation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the first step to keeping quality high is freezing … fast.

Fish are made largely of water. During the initial stage of freezing, a fish’s temperature drops to just below 0 degrees Celsius. But at that temperature, only a small amount of the water in the fish has actually crystallized into ice. While the rest of the conversion takes place, the temperature levels out between 0 and -1 degree Celsius during a period called “thermal arrest.”

This conversion of water to ice can take hours—or days—and the slower it occurs, the more quality drops. According to the FAO report, this has more to do with the biochemical denaturing of proteins than it does rupturing of cells from ice crystallization. Reducing temperature below -5 degrees Celsius as fast as possible, preferably within a couple of hours of catch, minimizes denaturation and preserves the integrity of the fish.

Consider the Big Picture

There’s something else to be said for frozen fish … they have a smaller carbon footprint (or fin print?) than fresh fish that have been flown in from afar. According to Bon Appetit Management Company, an advocate of fish frozen at sea, shipping fresh fish by air generates 10 times the greenhouse gas as transporting frozen seafood by container ship, and five times more than by truck.

Use Your Senses

So what does this all mean at the fish counter? That frozen seafood options—particularly items like shrimp and smaller fish filets—may actually be fresher than what’s labeled fresh. But without knowing what method was used to freeze the seafood, the best way to evaluate is to use your senses. Avoid anything—fresh or frozen—that:

  • Looks discolored or mushy
  • Feels mushy to the touch
  • Smells “fishy” or like ammonia
  • Tastes “off”

Personally, I take sustainability, quality and locale into consideration in choosing my fish—not whether it’s fresh or frozen. If I see a locally caught sustainable pick that looks delectable … fantastic, whether fresh or frozen. If I have a choice between “fresh” shrimp that are looking a bit peaked and frozen, sustainably raised ones, I’ll choose the frozen.

Fresh tomatoes are one thing, but don’t let “frozen” dissuade you from choosing high-quality seafood.

Are We Reaching The End of the Line For Seafood?

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

Pay attention, seafood lovers: According to The End of the Line, a searing documentary about the industrial fishing industry, if we don’t change current global fishing practices, our oceans will be depleted of edible fish by 2048.

You heard me. And I’m not talking about faraway oceans halfway around the world, but our collective oceans. All of the oceans.

So in honor of World Oceans Day on June 8, I urge you to plop yourself in a chair and watch The End of the Line, which vividly portrays some of the most beautiful marine life ever caught on film while delivering a potent message: We are all responsible for effecting change on this issue.

endoflineRupert Murray directed the film, which was adapted from British journalist Charles Clover’s book of the same name.  It’s narrated with controlled urgency by actor Ted Danson, who sits on the board of the conservation nonprofit Oceana and has long advocated for responsible fishing practices. The film is carefully rendered, and avoids scare tactics while underscoring the stark scientific realities about the sorry state of our seas.

Why should you care? Although you may enjoy salmon fillet, halibut steak, or shrimp skewers only occasionally, more than 1.2 billion people the world over consume fish as a staple of their diets.  If current trends continue, the world’s poorest people, who rely on fish for their food and livelihoods, are the most likely to suffer, at least at first. Widespread ecosystem ramifications will follow, such as jellyfish infestations and an overabundance of algae.

How did this happen? The issue of overfishing comes down to politics and economics. Governments grant fishing rights to multinational corporations who, in some cases, have abused their privileges by allowing fishermen to use destructive fishing methods, like bottom trawlers that scrape the ocean floor. At the same time, consumers in wealthy industrialized regions–the U.S., European Union, and Japan, among others–continue to demand top-flight, predatory species like tuna for their dinner plates, so catching these fish in enormous quantities can be incredibly lucrative. The film uses the bluefin as a jarring example of what can happen when a species is so prized for its culinary excellence: fleets will break international marine laws to deliver the fish to desirous diners, even though the bluefin is widely believed to be endangered. As long as there is a strong demand, the supply will be fished until it’s completely exhausted.

Ultimately, the film’s sobering message is tempered by a sense of hope and offers concrete action we can take to reverse current trends and stabilize fish stocks. Here are three things you can do:

  • Choose sustainable seafood (like our Super Seven Sustainable Seafood Picks).  Download a SeafoodWatch pocket guide or mobile phone app, and seek out fish certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.  Support responsible fishing practices, like those in Alaska.
  • Eat smaller fish. Add abundant and fast-growing lower-on-the-food-chain species like mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sardines to your seafood repertoire.
  • Ask questions. Demand to know where your fish was caught and using which methods. If you don’t like the answers, speak out.

Your first course of action, though, is the easiest: rent The End of the Line.