Monday, June 29, 2009

Fabulous 4th of July Desserts

Can you believe that the 4th of July is already almost here? I have been so busy, I haven't had time to plan. But luckily most of these desserts are so quick and easy to make, that I'll be able to bring a spectacular dish to the party (I won't tell anyone I didn't work hard at it). I hope you find some Independence Day desserts in the links below that your your friends and family will enjoy too!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Frugal Beef Tips -- Thrifty Thursdays

Beef. It's one of the most expensive grocery items you can buy, both in terms of dollars and environmental impact. So my tips is to buy the best beef you can buy (organic or grassfed), but what you need and use every bit of what you buy.

To buy the right amount, check out our chert that will let you know how many servings you can expect to get from various cuts of beef.

For the 2nd half of the equation, check out tips for how long you can keep beef.

Maximum Recommended Storage Times for Quality, According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association

(35°F to 40°F)
(0°F or colder)
FRESH BEEF Steaks, Roasts 3-4 days 6 - 12 months

Beef for Stew 2-3 days 6 - 12 months

Ground Beef 1-2 days 3-4 months
LEFTOVER COOKED BEEF All types 3-4 days 2-3 months


Make Your Own Aged Beef!
For those who want to go through the trouble (and the flavor is worth it), Judy over at Judy's Kitchen has a wonderful tutorial on how to age your own beef. Click here.

Thrifty Thursdays is a blog event created by my fried Amanda Formaro from Amanda's Cookin' blog. I've agreed to participate, so look for a frugal themed post here each Thursday. In addition to reading my posts, be sure to visit Amanda's blog for a round-up of all the thrifty home and cooking tips and recipes that came in this week from folks around the blogosphere.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Choosing a Charcoal and/or Propane Grill

With so many grilling options, choosing the right grill for your needs can be confusing. Is more expensive really better? Which features are most important, and where can you skimp? The following tips will help you decide.

Charcoal VS. Gas or Propane Grills

Charcoal grills use charcoal briquettes, wood or a combination of both. Charcoal cooking imparts a more intense smoked flavor than its gas grilled counterpart. Charcoal grills burn hotter, which is handy when searing steaks and other cuts of quickly grilled foods.

One of the biggest advantages of charcoal over gas, in my opinion, is that they are better for smoking. If you have a large kettle grill, there is no need for special smoking apparatus (unless you plan on smoking really large quantities of meat).

On the downside, cooking over charcoal requires more time than a gas grill which is ready to cook on about 10 minutes after lighting. A charcoal grill should be ready to cook in 15-30 minutes after lighting, depending on the size of the grill and the type of wood or number and type of briquettes. Charcoal grills also need more tending and attention during the cooking process, which if you are a true grilling fan, is part of the fun.

Gas grills come with built in igniters -- push-button, rotary or an electronic lighter -- so starting the fire is fast and easy. After about 10 minutes of preheating, you're ready to cook. A standard 20 pounds tank of liquid propane with the burners on high, should last about 9 hours. Cooking at average temperatures, you should get 25 to 30 meals per tank.

The flavor produced by charcoal grilling comes from the food juices dripping onto the hot charcoal. Gas grills use several materials accomplish this:

  • Lava rock heats quickly and disperses the heat to the interior of the grill. On the downside, lava is porous and allows grease to accumulate, lessening its efficiency and increasing fire flare-ups. In order to keep your lava rock gas grill working at its peak, turn the rocks over to expose a fresh surface frequently and replace them annually.
  • Pumice stone works just like lava rocks, but it collects less residue and therefore needs less maintenance and doesn't need to be replaced as often.
  • Ceramic briquettes are more pricey than lava rocks or pumice stone and but they last much longer. The briquettes are easy to maintain as food residue bakes off during the cooking process and no other cleaning is necessary.
  • Metal heat plates or bars built into the grill work much the same as ceramic briquettes -- dripping juices dissipate when they fall on the hot metal.

Help with Choosing a Grill
Once you have decided on a charcoal or gas grill, narrow your search further by asking yourself these questions:

What will you be cooking?
What you plan to cook effects the type of grill you need. A lot of people only use their grill for grilling a quick entree like steaks, burgers, chicken or fish. If that's you, then you probably don't need a very big grill. But if you want to cook ribs, brisket, roasts, turkeys or other large cut of meat, you will need a larger grill. While we're at it, why limit yourself to just entrees? We have grill recipes for an entire menu. Get a bigger grill and expand your grilling repertoire and your menu will never be limited by your grilling equipment.

How many people will you be serving?
If you regularly cook for large crowds, you need more cooking space. Better get a bigger grill. Always do a visual inspection to see if the cooking surface is big enough for your needs, as often the manufacturer's specifications on the box include side burners or warming racks in their measurements.

How often and when will you be grilling?
Charcoal grills can take 15 minutes or longer to get ready and they take more time and effort to light. If you use your grill often, you may want the convenience of a gas grill. If you only grill occasionally or when you have lots of time (like weekends and holidays), then the time and effort of a charcoal grill is well worth the effort.

What is your budget?
The prices of grills vary from under $50.00 (and under $10.00 in the case of simple, disposable type grills) to thousands of dollars. Buy the best grill you can afford for your budget. In general, charcoal grills cost less to buy, but gas grill cost less to operate (unless you have a large supply of free cooking wood).

Grill Grids
The cooking grid gives your food the telltale stripes associated with grilled foods. Grids can be made of different materials, each with its own merits and detriments:

  • Cast iron grids require curing in the same way that cast iron cookware does in order to prevent rust. This is really not difficult (see link below for instructions in our cast iron cookware tutorial). Once cured, the heavy cast iron grill grids wear well, cook well, and distribute heat more evenly than the other types of grids.
  • Stainless steel grids are rust-resistant, but food can stick to hem if they are not well greased.
  • Porcelain-coated cast iron grids are rust-resistant and are most desirable for heat retention and ease of cleaning.
More Essential Grilling Information

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Potato Skins -- Thrifty Thursdays

Today's Thrifty Thursdays post is reprinted with permission from the terrific book Teens Cook -- How to Cook the Food You Want to Eat by Megan and Jill Carle with Judi Carle. It makes a wonderful ways to use extra baked potatoes (you may even want to make extras while you're making tonight's dinner), as well as a thrifty snack or main course when paired with a salad.
Makes 12 Potato Skins

6 medium potatoes
6 slices thick-sliced bacon
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons chopped chives

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

Wash the potatoes and poke each one several times with a fork. Bake the potatoes for 45 minutes, or until they are fairly soft when squeezed. Remove the Potatoes from the oven and cool slightly.

Meanwhile, cut the bacon slices into 1/8 to 1/4 inch strips. Cook the bacon in a small sauté pan over medium heat for 15 minutes or until crisp. Transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain.

Preheat the broiler and adjust the oven rack to 4 to 5 inches away from the broiler. (if the rack is any closer, the Potato skins will get too dark before they get crispy.)

Cut each potato in half lengthwise and scoop out most of the potato with a large spoon. (The insides can be used to make Baked potato soup, see page 51 of the book). Brush the potato skins inside and out with the oil and place them upside down on a baking sheet. Place under the broiler for 5 minutes. Turn the potato skins over and broil for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the potato skins are crispy. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle some of the cheese and bacon bits into each Potato skin. Return the pan to the broiler for 2 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.

Combine the sour cream, milk, and chives in a small bowl. Place the bowl of sour cream in the center of a large plate and arrange the Potato skins around the bowl.

More about the Book
Teens Cook -- How to Cook the Food You Want to Eat by Megan and Jill Carle with Judi Carle

Even though this book was written by teens, for teens, it really deserves a wider audience. No doubt teens will love the cooking tips, full color photos, and recipes for favorite foods. But this book has recipes that everyone loves to eat, and especially if you are a beginner cook, the recipes contain detailed instructions that make it simple for anyone to get great results. In between the recipes you'll find lots of cooking tips, shortcut tricks, and information that will help cooks of all ages improve their techniques and speed in the kitchen.

The book was penned by sisters Megan and Jill Carle, who have both been cooking since they were three. What probably makes these teens even more knowledgeable than other cooks of their tender years is the fact that their mother Judi Carle (who helped with the book) is a chef and cookbook writer and editor who has worked on over 20 cookbooks, including the best selling Charlie Trotter series.

The result of this family collaboration is a useful book for anyone learning to cook and/or looking for tasty recipes that will please the entire family. It's also handy for anyone who lives alone as there is an entire chapter devoted to meals for one.

Chapters include: Breakfast; Snacks; Soups/Salad; Dinner for One; Family Meals; Desserts.

Click here for more information about Teens Cook or to order at a discount through

Thrifty Thursdays is a blog event created by my fried Amanda Formaro from Amanda's Cookin' blog. I've agreed to participate, so look for a frugal themed post here each Thursday. In addition to reading my posts, be sure to visit Amanda's blog for a round-up of all the thrifty home and cooking tips and recipes that came in this week from folks around the blogosphere.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Watermelon Season is Upon Us -- Celebrate!

Depending on where you live, it may already be watermelon season! I know that here in California, they're showing up in markets a lot, and the one I bought last week was actually good!

Think of your best and worst watermelon experiences. My watermelon memories go something like this:

The Good: Dark red, sweet juicy fruit served ice cold. Even as a kid, this treat was as delicious and desirable as candy.

The Bad: Pale pink, flavorless fruit, veined with stringy white pith and pebbled with dark seeds, sitting for too long on an anonymous "all you can hold down" buffet line in a casino town.

At its best, watermelon is worth going out of your way for. Especially since as "mature and responsible" adults, we should attempt to keep candy eating to a minimum. At its worst... well, what can you expect from an "all you can hold down buffet" anyway?

Tips for Choosing the Best Watermelon
There's an art to choosing the best watermelon that makes all the difference in the world. The National Watermelon Promotion Board offers these three easy tips for choosing a great watermelon.

  • Choose a firm, symmetrical fruit that is free of bruises, cuts and dents.
  • Before you buy, pick up your melon. The heavier it feels, the better -- a good watermelon is 92% water, which makes up most of its weight.
  • On the underside of the watermelon there should be a creamy yellow spot from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the sun.

Watermelon Seeds
Contrary to popular belief eating watermelon seeds does not cause a watermelon to grow in your stomach. Actually, in some cultures it is popular to bake the seeds and then eat them.

Over 1,200 varieties of watermelon are grown worldwide. Every part of a watermelon is edible, even the seeds and rinds.

To De-Seed a Watermelon:

  1. Cut watermelon in half, then in quarters.
  2. Cut through the flesh of the melon along the seed line with a pairing knife. Now, lift off the piece of the melon you just cut.
  3. Using a fork, scrape the seeds from the piece you just removed and the remaining flesh on the rind.
Watermelon Storage Tips

Store watermelon on the warm side Compared to most fruits, watermelons need a more "tropical" climate - a thermometer reading of 55° F is ideal. However, whole melons will keep for 7 to 10 days at room temperature.

Store melons too long, and they'll lose flavor and texture.

Lower temperatures cause chill injury After two days at 32° F, watermelons develop an off-flavor, become pitted and lose color.

Freezing causes rind to break down and produces a mealy, mushy texture.

Once a melon is cut, it should be wrapped and stored at 37° - 39° F.

Safety Tips
According to the FDA, you should wash all fruits and vegetables including all melons in clean, running water before eating them. This is true of all fruits and vegetables, rinds or not. You should also use clean knives and cutting surfaces. Additionally, persons preparing melons, fruits, vegetables or other foodstuffs should thoroughly was their hands with soap and water prior to preparing the food for eating.

Watermelon Carving 101
Learn how to turn an ordinary watermelon into an edible work of art. Yes, Virginia, you too can carve a watermelon! Click the link above for a variety of fun watermelon carving designs including the whale at the top of this post, a variety of pretty baskets and a watermelon baby carriage perfect for a shower centerpiece.

How to Cut a Watermelon for Serving
Easy photo instructions show you how to cut and serve watermelon in wedges or chunks.

Watermelon and Health - Why Your Body Needs Watermelon
Watermelon is one the world's best sources of lycopene (even better than tomatoes!). Find out what this important antioxidant can do for your body.

Fun With Watermelon
Click for lots of fun facts and watermelon trivia -- you'll never know when you'll be on a TV quiz show!

Need Garnishing Tools?
Click for's selection.

Favorite Watermelon Recipes

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Frugal Cooking with The Poor Chef -- Thrifty Thursdays

I recently posed some questions to Charles Mattocks, AKA The Poor Chef. Charles's new book Eat Cheap but Eat Well couldn't have better timing. With everyone tightening their belts and eating out less often, his creative, satisfying, yet inexpensive recipes provide much needed variety to those trying to eat healthy wholesome foods while staying on a strict budget.

Cheri Sicard: It’s said that necessity if the mother of invention, and I know necessity prompted you to write this book. Can you tell our readers how you came to be “The Poor Chef?”

Charles Mattocks: I think we all have a poor chef in us, but I moved from Los Angles to Florida a few years back and had the chance to raise my son as a single father. Now my son is a very picky eater and I found it a task to be able to feed him not only healthy but affordable meals. We were walking into a restaurant one day and he said "dad wouldn't it be cool to see real people cooking on TV."

I thought to myself that it would. I can recall my mom and my grandma how great cooks they were and I thought about making a TV show or segment that featured real people making meals, and so the poor chef was born, cause we all have a poor chef in us.

Cheri Sicard: What are your favorite frugal ingredients to cook with?

Charles Mattocks: Veggies, you can be so creative with veggies! I have been known to take veggies and use curry or other spices to make some great meals. I also love Spanish seasonings and Asian spices, Of course olive oil and at times feta cheese I love feta. I also use olives and onions a lot.

Cheri Sicard: What’s a common myth about frugal cooking that you want to dispel?

Charles Mattocks:
That people who cook frugally are poor. I think an educated shopper can be very frugal in a good way, they may use coupons and take more time in the grocery store but they save money. The way the world is now, I think all of us are trying to save a few dollars.

I have had single mothers that are successful business women that raise families share with me their secrets of cooking or shopping. With planning they bought fresher food because they used a budget, and that they got more for their dollar when taking time to really shop. So being frugal can be a great thing when it comes to eating healthy and saving money.

Cheri Sicard: What kitchen tools or appliances are most valuable for the budget conscious cook?

Charles Mattocks:
An oven! Baking, be it chicken or bread or any meat or side dish, is a great way to cook food for the week. You can bake a chicken and use that same chicken for about 3 to 4 meals. I love to bake or roast and would be at a big loss if I didn't have the oven.

Cheri Sicard: What are your most important tips for frugal cooks?

Charles Mattocks:
Don't be scared to try new foods. Many people stick to what they know, they don't go outside the box. Feel free to try some different seasonings or spices, or even different meats. I know people who have never tried lamb or Indian food, or who have never ate Thai food. Those meals come from simple origins and can be made using very simple ingredients, so try new things.

Cheri Sicard: How much money can cooks actually save using your recipes?

Charles Mattocks:
Not only can they save money they can save some pounds (LOL)! But seriously the book was created as me being a single father, so I had to find ways to make great meals that are cost effective. So I would say you can save a few hundred dollars a year easily.

Cheri Sicard: How can home cooks adopt your frugal cooking philosophy to their own favorite recipes?

Charles Mattocks:
Do it with love and you cant go wrong, have fun be creative and involve the children or the family, that's what its all about. Food is a great form of expression, it can be used to show love or to regress from emotion. I also encourage portion control, let the meat be the secondary item on the plate. Eat more fruits and veggies and let the meat, if that's what you like, be the side dish not the center of the meal.

Frugal Recipes from The Poor Chef Charles Mattocks
More on Eat Cheap but Eat Well
Click here for more information about Charles's book Eat Cheap but Eat Well.

Thrifty Thursdays is a blog event created by my fried Amanda Formaro from Amanda's Cookin' blog. I've agreed to participate, so look for a frugal themed post here each Thursday. In addition to reading my posts, be sure to visit Amanda's blog for a round-up of all the thrifty home and cooking tips and recipes that came in this week from folks around the blogosphere.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Easy Yet Spectacular Dessert - Strawberry Kiwi Pavlova

This classic dessert, which originated in Australia, was created and named for legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova. While it makes a spectacularly impressive dessert, it's really very easy to accomplish, especially if you have an electric hand mixer. The directions below are for one large Pavlova that can then be cut into 8-10 servings, but you could easily make 8 individual cream and fruit filled meringues instead.

While strawberries and kiwi are traditional fruit fillings for a Pavlova, don't limit yourself. Try peaches, blueberries, raspberries or any other fresh fruits that appeal to you.

6 egg whites at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, whipped
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

about 2 cups sliced strawberries and kiwi
2 cups whatever fresh fruit strikes your fancy

Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix together cornstarch, pinch of salt and pinch of cream of tartar, set aside.

Take enough waxed paper to make a double layer and wet it under the faucet, crinkling it a bit. Smooth the wet waxed paper onto a baking sheet. Set aside.

Beat the egg whites -- gradually adding sugar, vinegar and vanilla --until very stiff. Fold in cornstarch mixture. Pile the meringue onto the prepared baking sheet. Use a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon to smooth the pile into a rough circle, then hollow out the center slightly so the indentation makes a shallow "bowl" in the meringue -- see photos.

Place meringue bowl in oven, close the door quickly, turn off the heat and don't open the door for 1 1/2 hours.

Remove from oven and carefully peel off the waxed paper. If the meringue cracks a little, don't worry, you can make minor repairs with whipped cream later. You can prepare the meringue (or individual meringues) up to this point and store for a day or two in an airtight container before continuing.

Whip cream and confectioner's sugar together.

Immediately before serving fill the indentation with the sweetened whipped cream and pile the sliced fruit in the center of the cream. Bring out to the table and get ready for ooh's and ahh's!

More on Strawberries
Click here for the Strawberry feature, including tips for buying and storing strawberries and tons of terrific strawberry recipes!