Under the Lid

Food facts, cooking techniques, and more.

Black Pepper Enhances Flavor and Health

In the world of spices, black pepper is considered royalty. Often referred to as the “King of Spices” a pinch of black pepper is added to just about every savory dish.  Like salt, black pepper is a flavor enhancer, adding a depth of flavor and providing a multitude of health benefits.

Black pepper is the fruit of the black pepper plant from the Piperaceae family and is used as a spice and medicine. The chemical piperine, present in black pepper, causes the spiciness. It is native to India. Since ancient times, black pepper is one of the most widely-traded spices in the world. It is not a seasonal plant and is, therefore, available throughout the year. When dried, this plant-derived spice is referred to as a peppercorn. Because of its antibacterial properties, pepper is used to preserve food. Black pepper is also a very good anti-inflammatory agent.

Black pepper is a rich source of minerals like manganese, copper, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and vitamins like riboflavin, vitamin C, K, and B6. Black pepper has a high content of dietary fiber and has a moderate amount of protein and carbohydrates.

Black Pepper is a Healthy Ingredient

Black pepper stimulates the taste buds and stimulates the stomach to increase hydrochloric acid secretion. Hydrochloric acid is necessary for the digestion of proteins and other food components in the stomach. When the body’s production of hydrochloric acid is insufficient, food may sit in the stomach for an extended period of time, leading to heartburn or indigestion, or it may pass into the intestines, where it can be used as a food source for unfriendly gut bacteria, whose activities produce gas, irritation, and/or diarrhea or constipation. Pepper also helps prevent the formation of intestinal gas.

Black pepper improves weight loss by assisting with the breakdown of fat cells.

Black pepper provides relief from sinusitis and nasal congestion. It has an expectorant property that helps break up mucus and phlegm in the respiratory tract.

Because it is antibacterial, black pepper helps fight against infections and insect bites.

Black pepper helps keep your arteries clean by acting in a similar way to fiber and scraping excess cholesterol from the walls, helping reduce atherosclerosis, the condition highly responsible for heart attack and stroke.

Antioxidants in black pepper can prevent or repair the damage caused by free radicals and thus help prevent cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and liver problems. Free radicals are by-products of cellular metabolism that attack healthy cells and cause their DNA to mutate into cancerous cells. Antioxidants neutralize these harmful compounds and protect your system from many conditions and even symptoms of premature aging like wrinkles, age spots, macular degeneration, and memory loss.

Using Black Pepper

For cooking and for adding at the table, it’s better to buy whole peppercorns, not the powdered black pepper. Look for peppercorns that are compact, round, heavy, and wholesome. Peppercorns can be stored for months in a dry air-tight container at room temperature, in a dry and dark place. And you can keep the ground black pepper in the refrigerator for a longer shelf life.

For the best flavor, add pepper that you have freshly ground in a mill at the end of the cooking process. Since it loses its flavor and aroma if cooked for too long, adding it near the end will help to preserve its flavor.  Here are a few more  ideas:

  • Coat beef and pork with crushed peppercorns before cooking. For two of our favorite peppercorn recipes (and they actually go together), please read my blog posts: “Peppercorn Crusted Pork Loin Roast” and “Zesty Peppery Parmesan Aioli.”
  • As the pungent taste of black pepper is a natural complement to the deep, berry-like flavor of venison, use it to flavor this meat when preparing venison steaks or venison stews.
  • Keep a pepper mill on your dining table so that you can add its intense spark to all the food on your plate.
  • Olive oil, lemon juice, salt and cracked pepper make a simple, quick and delicious salad dressing.

Adding a pinch of black pepper to every meal helps to improve both taste and digestion. It also improves your overall health and well-being. So, use more black pepper in your cooking and at the picnic table!

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Principles of Pancake Perfection

Camping and pancakes just seem to go together. Sitting at the picnic table with a stack of fluffy round pillows, drizzled in maple syrup. If you serve them with a couple strips of bacon and a cup of coffee, it’s breakfast heaven.

Whenever our troop goes camping, there is always at least one patrol that serves pancakes for breakfast. And, while pancakes are relatively simple to make, there are a few tricks to attaining those light, fluffy pillows we all dream about. Come on, admit it. I know you dream about pancakes, too.

On my Outdoor Cooking Skill Progression Chart, I put pancakes a couple steps up for the following reasons: You have to measure your ingredients because, technically, you’re baking and there is some chemistry involved. It is hard not to over mix them. Skillet and griddle work is a little more challenging because you have to manage your heat better. And, then there is the whole flipping the pancake that takes a bit of skill and coordination, and practice.

So, let’s dive into the principles of pancakes and I’ll share best practices and common mistakes.

Pancake Ingredients

When prepping the pancakes, you want to divide the ingredients into two categories: dry and wet.

Dry ingredients include flour (AP, whole wheat, rice, almond, etc.), sugar (granulated or brown), baking powder (to make them light and fluffy), and salt (balances and enhances the flavors). Your dry ingredients can be prepped at home and loaded into a container or resealable bag. Just be sure you are making enough because you won’t be able to prep more in camp.

Wet ingredients include milk (buttermilk, milk or non-dairy milk), fat (butter or vegetable oil), eggs (for structure and adds to the light and fluffiness), and extract (vanilla, almond, etc.). Your wet ingredients can also be prepped at home and poured into a tightly sealed plastic bottle for the ride to camp in your cooler.

Prepping and Mixing

In two separate bowls mix together all your dry ingredients and all your wet ingredients. When you are ready to combine, make a little well in your dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Gently stir together just until combined. DO NOT OVERMIX. Resist the urge to stir out every single lump until it’s totally smooth. Trust me, a few lumps are okay.

If you over mix the batter you will end up with stacks of tough and chewy pancakes instead of the light and fluffy ones you were probably dreaming about. Tough and chewy pancakes are only good for one thing: Frisbee.

So, mix the batter just until the wet and dry ingredients are combined, and there are no more visible wisps of flour. The batter will be lumpy and, again, that’s okay.

Resting the Batter

I usually mix my pancake batter and then turn my stove, which allows my batter to rest while the griddle heats. Resting the batter anywhere from 5-15 minutes allows the glutens that were activated during mixing to rest and relax. Also, the starch molecules in the flour have a chance to fully absorb the liquid. This will give the batter a thicker consistency.

Managing Heat

It’s important to allow time for the griddle to get good and hot evenly. You want medium heat or about 375°F. Too low and your pancakes just won’t cook. Too high and they will be burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. We’re going for the Goldilocks heat: Just right. And, you may need to adjust along the way so don’t be afraid to do that.

A good way to test your griddle is to wet your fingers with water and flick it onto the surface of the griddle. The griddle is ready if the water droplets sizzle and dance before they eventually evaporate. Medium heat will give us pancakes that are golden-brown on the outside with slightly crispy edges, and soft but cooked through on the inside. Pancake perfection!

Greasing the Griddle

I can’t count how often my young chefs don’t do this and it always leads to disaster and pancake tragedy. Always pack extra vegetable oil when you plan to make pancakes.

When the griddle is up to temp, add a light coating of oil. We prefer vegetable oil, which tends to have a higher smoke point than butter and won’t add any flavor to the pancakes like olive oil.

After your oil has a moment to warm, you can begin adding batter to the griddle. Try to control your excitement. We’re not out of the woods just yet.

I prefer to use a ¼-cup measuring cup. It makes for a nice-sized pancake that is easy to flip. Depending on the size of your griddle, you could also get 6-8 pancakes per batch. This is important because once the pancakes start going down, the vultures will start circling.

If you have the griddle real estate and you are a more experienced pancake flipper, you could bump up to a ½-cup to 1-cup measuring cup for bigger pancakes. You can also use a smaller measuring scoop to make little silver dollar pancakes. Those are always fun.

Lightly coat the griddle with vegetable oil about every other batch of pancakes. Keep it light! Don’t let oil accumulate on your griddle or let your griddle run dry. If you see oil accumulating on the griddle, just use your spatula to redistribute it around the griddle. Remember to adjust the heat if you need to.

Flipping Pancakes

Pancakes should be flipped once, and only once, during cooking. And as long as you didn’t flip them too soon, you won’t need to flip them any more than that. Flipping pancakes too many times causes them to deflate, losing some of that wonderful fluffy texture.

As the pancake cooks, bubbles will start to form on the surface. Do not be tempted to pop them. I know, it’s fun, but when you pop the bubbles, you are releasing air from the neighboring chambers, essentially “flattening” the finished cake by vacating the air that was giving it some of its rise and fluff.

The pancake is ready to flip when the bubbles start to pop on their own and your edges are lightly browned and a little crispy, and the pancake is looking dry around the outer edges. If you’re still a little unsure, it’s okay to gently lift an edge and sneak a peek underneath. Generally, it will take about 2 minutes for the first side and 1-2 minutes for the second side. The most important thing is for the middle to be cooked.

Adding Extras

If you are adding extras like fruit to the pancakes, add after you pour the batter onto the griddle. Blueberries are a classic add on, but you could also add sliced bananas, chocolate chips, nuts, or whatever you like.

When you’re ready to serve the pancakes, you can serve with butter and maple syrup; however, you can also add flavored syrups, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, peanut butter, cream cheese, fruits, nuts, whipping cream, and sprinkles. Just to name a few.

Serving Warm

Serve your pancakes immediately or keep them warm by wrapping them in foil. If I’m making pancakes for a crowd and I want us to all eat together, I’ll warm up one of my large Dutch ovens to about 200°F and line it with foil. As I off load each batch, I add them to the Dutch oven to keep them warm.

It’s no fun to put stone-cold syrup on warm pancakes. If it’s a cold morning, you should warm your syrup. Your campers will love you for it.

Fan Favorites

Here are a few of our favorite pancake recipes (and we’re always adding more) because pancakes are something we dream about:

Buttermilk Pancakes

Snoqualmie Falls Oatmeal Pancakes

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

Cinnamon Roll Pancakes

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Nuts About Nuts

I love nuts! My whole family is nuts, including myself! I add nuts to cookies and brownies. I add them to my ice cream. I add nuts to my salads. They are a major component of my trail mix. If I’m hitting the vending machine, my candy bar choice always includes nuts. When I’m looking for a snack, I grab a handful to munch on. Nuts are loaded with protein and flavor and satisfy my crunching, munching cravings. What’s not to love?!

Here is a glossary of great nuts. It is in alphabetical order because I can’t choose a favorite.

Almonds have a mild, creamy, sweet flavor. They are low in calories, higher in protein and calcium than any other nut, and are rich monounsaturated fats.

Brazil Nuts have a creamy, sweet, oily flavor. One ounce contains 780% of the daily recommended intake of selenium, which helps metabolism. During harvest, five-pound pods filled with nuts fall from 200-foot-tall trees and the pods don’t break.

Cashews have a mild, sweet, buttery flavor. They are high in iron (almost 2mg per ounce), zinc, and copper. The shells are poisonous but the red and yellow bulbous stems are known for making cashew apple juice.

Hazelnuts have an earthy, sweet, mildly bitter (from the skins) flavor. They are especially low in saturated fat and a good source of vitamin E, protein, and fiber. They also have the highest source of folate (a B vitamin) among nuts. They are also known as filberts.

Macadamia Nuts have a buttery, creamy, rich flavor. They are high in healthful monounsaturated fats. Studies have proven them effective in reducing cholesterol.

Peanuts have a rich, earthy flavor. They are rich in protein and arginine, an amino acid that can help improve blood pressure and circulation. Peanuts, which are technically legumes, make up 67% of total U.S. nut consumption.

Pecans have a sweet, stringent flavor. They contain the most vitamins and mineral of any nut (more than 19, including vitamins A and E, B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium. The largest pecan processors shell 150,000 pounds daily.

Pine Nuts have a mild and creamy flavor. They are packed with protein, vitamin A, and phosphorus. They are actually a pinecone seed and a primary ingredient in pesto. A condition called “pine nut mouth” (possibly stemming from certain varieties) causes a lingering intense bitter taste.

Pistachios have a rich flavor and are very sweet. They are high in lutein and zeaxanthin, which are antioxidants that may protect against eye degeneration. They are also rich in potassium. The green color comes from chlorophyll and lutein.

Walnuts have a fruity, tart, astringent flavor. They are the only nut that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acid (one ounce contains 25g). Walnuts are the oldest tree food known to man and originated in Persia, dating back to 7,000 B.C.

Make Your Own Nut Butter

In a food processor, process 4 cups of your favorite roasted nut. Add 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon coconut oil, and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix until creamy, about 4-8 minutes, depending on the nut. Makes 16 (2 tablespoon) servings.

When we go camping, my food tote always includes a mixed bag of nuts. If someone gets the hangries, all they need to do is grab a handful to tide them over until the next meal. Nuts are solid camp snacks. We love them!

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Sugar is the Sweetness to Our Savory

It seems like sugar has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but when critics of “sugar” talk about its high or increased consumption or link it to obesity and other life-threatening diseases, they inaccurately and misleadingly lump natural sugar (from sugar cane and sugar beets) together with man-made sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and all the other caloric sweeteners manufactured from starch.

Sugar isn’t high-fructose corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup certainly isn’t sugar. The scientific name for sugar is sucrose, and it is a natural substance found in plants (primarily sugar beets and sugar cane). Sucrose, whether still in a plant or in our sugar bowl, is the same: equal parts fructose and glucose bound together at the molecular level.

By contrast, high-fructose “corn” syrup isn’t found in corn at all. Instead, advanced processes are required to manufacture glucose and fructose from corn starch, and they are then mixed in varying proportions, usually with high percentages of fructose.

Sugar (Sucrose) is Not Evil

Sugar is a healthy part of a diet. Carbohydrates, including sugar, are the preferred sources of the body’s fuel for brain power, muscle energy, and every natural process that goes on in every functioning cell.

Naturally present in fruits and vegetables, sugar is most highly concentrated in sugar beets and sugar cane. Sugar is simply separated from the beet or cane plant, and the result is 99.95% pure sucrose (sugar). The sucrose from sugar beets and sugar cane is not only identical to one another, but each is the same as the sucrose present in fruits and vegetables.

Beyond its contributions as a sweetener and flavor-enhancer, sugar:

  • Interacts with molecules of protein or starch during the baking and cooking process.
  • Acts as a tenderizer by absorbing water and inhibiting flour gluten development, as well as delaying starch gelatinization.
  • Incorporates air into shortening in the creaming process.
  • Caramelizes under heat, to provide cooked and baked foods with pleasing color and aroma.
  • Speeds the growth of yeast by providing nourishment.
  • Serves as a whipping aid to stabilize beaten egg foams.
  • Delays coagulation of egg proteins in custards.
  • Regulates the gelling of fruit jellies and preserves.
  • Helps to prevent spoilage of jellies and preserves.
  • Improves the appearance and tenderness of canned fruits.
  • Delays discoloration of the surface of frozen fresh fruits.
  • Enables a wide variety of candies through varying degrees of re-crystallization.
  • Controls the reformation of crystals through inversion (breakdown to fructose and glucose).
  • Enhances the smoothness and flavor of ice cream.

Sugar is Natural

Relying less on processed foods and cooking more fresh and from scratch using natural ingredients allows us more control over what we eat and how we fuel our bodies. Sugar deserves a place in our diets and in our pantries.

Here are a few different kinds of sweetners you can use:

Confectioners (Powdered) Sugar: The finest white sugar that you can get. It is about 3% cornstarch to help keep it from clumping. It is used for making icing or glazing baked goods.

Granulated Sugar: The white table sugar that everyone is accustomed to. It is the one most commonly used in recipes.

Coarse Sugar: White sugar that has a much larger crystal size. It is often used for decorating.

Turbinado Sugar: This is raw cane sugar with the surface molasses removed. It has a coarse texture and a blonde color.

Brown Sugar: The brown sugar that we purchase in the store is often granulated white sugar with molasses mixed back in, this can be done at home in your food processor by adding one tablespoon of molasses per cup.

Muscovado Sugar: A very dark, natural brown sugar that has a higher concentration of molasses left in. It has a stickier texture than most sugars. It is used in strongly flavored sweets such as gingerbread.

Honey & Maple Syrup: You can replace granulated sugar with maple syrup or honey in most recipes. Use ¾ cup maple syrup or honey for every 1 cup of granulated sugar. When baking with maple syrup or honey reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for every cup used and reduce the oven temperature by 25°F to avoid burning. Maple syrup and honey can be used interchangeably.

Everything in Moderation

So, there is a lot of good to be found in sugar, but just like with everything else, moderation is key. Do I need 3 tablespoons of sugar in my coffee or tea every morning? No. One or two teaspoons is just fine and is not going to hurt me, and might even make my brain and my body feel a little happier.

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Frittatas, Stratas, and Quiche, Oh My

Frittatas, stratas, and quiche are all egg dishes typically served for breakfast or brunch, although you could also serve them for dinner. They are very similar and often get confused with one another. They all include eggs and usually cheese. They may also include meat, seafood, and/or vegetables. They are all savory dishes; however, a strata could go sweet. They are great for feeding groups, large or small.


You could describe a frittata as a crustless quiche. You could also describe it as a baked omelet. Either way, it is easy to make at home and in camp. Because it has no crust, a frittata is naturally gluten free. If you leave out the cheese or substitute a non dairy cheese then it becomes dairy free. If you leave out meat, now it’s vegetarian. Frittatas are very versatile.

To make at home, you’ll need a cast iron skillet or an oven safe skillet. In camp, you’ll need a Dutch oven. Start by browning the meat and sautéing the vegetables. If you want your vegetables to be crisp, you could skip that step. Whisk together the eggs, cheese and any seasonings, and pour over the top of the meats and vegetables. And then you bake it. If you wanted, you could sprinkle a little more cheese on top during the last 5 minutes of baking. Serve warm. It makes a great breakfast any time of year. Here are a couple of our favorite frittatas.

Denver Frittata

Zucchini and Onion Frittata

Ham and Cheese and Broccoli Frittata


Literally meaning layers, a strata is a layered breakfast casserole made from a mixture of bread, eggs, milk, and cheese. A savory version may also include meat or vegetables. A sweet version may include fruit. The usual preparation requires the bread to be layered with the filling; however, depending on the recipe, you could also toss everything together like a salad before pouring the egg mixture over the top. The dish requires a rest of anywhere between one hour and overnight before it is baked. This allows the bread to soak up the egg mixture. A strata could also be described as a French toast casserole or a bread pudding. Stratas can be prepped the night before and then placed in the refrigerator to rest. In the morning, you just pull it out and pop it into the oven.

To make at home, you’ll need a casserole dish. In camp, you’ll need a Dutch oven or you could make it in a casserole dish and bake it in a box oven. Meats will need to be browned and vegetables could be sautéed to soften them. Bread will need to be cubed or torn into chunks. To increase the bread’s ability to absorb the egg mixture, some recipes recommend using stale or dried bread. Serve warm. Here are a couple of our favorite stratas.

Sausage Croissant Strata

Fruity French Toast Casserole

Blueberry French Toast Cobbler


Quiche has an open-faced pastry crust and a filling of eggs and milk or cream which, when baked, becomes a custard. It can be made with cheese, vegetables, meat and seafood. A quiche is a frittata in a pie crust. You wouldn’t think the pie crust would add much in the way of flavor, but it actually brings a lot to the party and really gives the dish its signature flavor. Quiche can be served hot or cold although I prefer mine served hot. In the late ‘70s, quiche became extremely popular and they were featured everywhere, including television and movies. By the early ‘80s, the fad seemed to fade; however, quiche has remained steady brunch and party food since.

At home, you’ll need a pie or tart pan. In camp, I would also use a pie or tart pan and bake it in a box oven. You can use a store-bought crust or make your own. Just like the others, meats would need to be browned first and vegetables could be sautéed to soften them. I haven’t actually made a quiche in camp yet, but I might have to now.

Again, these are all great dishes for serving to groups, large and small. They are simple to throw together and, for camping, a lot of prep work could be done ahead of time at home. You can serve them with potato dishes, breads, fruits, or just about anything.

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Apples of My Eye


This Saturday, March 11, is National Johnny Appleseed Day. John Chapman (1774-1845), often called Johnny Appleseed, became an American legend while still alive, due to his kind, generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance he attributed to apples. Sounds like a Scout.

Here in Washington state, the apple is our state fruit and Washington produces about 42% of the apples grown in the United States, and 60% of those are grown for fresh consumption.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is an old Welsh proverb that most of us are familiar with, but what makes this fruit so special?

Nutritional powerhouses, apples are extremely rich in important antioxidants, flavanoids, and dietary fiber. The phytonutrients and antioxidants in apples may help reduce the risk of developing cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

A collection of research studies suggest that apples can improve neurological health and prevent dementia. They can reduce the risk of stroke and diabetes, may lower levels of bad cholesterol, may help prevent breast cancer, and they support the good bacteria in our digestive systems.

Apples only come with one small warning: Apple seeds do contain cyanide, a powerful poison. Eating too many apple seeds can potentially be fatal. Apple seeds should not be consumed. I once read a mystery novel where the villain was slowly poisoning the heroine’s brother by feeding him apple seeds.

Apples are among the most commonly cultivated tree fruits. They come in many varieties and can be grown in many places around the world. There are three main use categories for apples: Dessert (sweet and best suited for eating fresh), Cooking (well-suited for baking in pies and cakes or cooking into sauces or butters), and Cider (small and tart, best suited for making cider). I’m not going to get into the Cider Category because that’s a little more complicated and is probably a whole blog post by itself.

So, let’s take a closer look at some dessert and cooking apples.


Fuji (Dessert) apples were developed in Japan, but its “parents” are American apples, the Red Delicious and the Ralls Janet. They have a sweet, mild flavor and a crunchy texture.


Gala (Dessert and Cooking) apples are frequently near the top of the most popular apples list. They were developed in New Zealand by crossing a Golden Delicious and a Kidd’s Orange Red. They are fragrant with a mild, sweet flavor and have a fine texture. In cooking, they are suitable for making sauces.


Golden Delicious (Dessert and Cooking) apples have thin skins and come from West Virginia. They have a mild, sweet flavor, and a smooth texture. In cooking, they are best for pies.


Granny Smith (Dessert and Cooking) were one of the first apple varieties to be found in markets internationally. They are originally from Australia. They are tart and have a firm texture. In cooking, they are best for baking.


Jonagold (Dessert) apples are large with a thin skin originally developed in New York. They are aromatic with a sweet-wine flavor. They are juicy and have a fluffily crisp texture.


McIntosh (Dessert and Cooking) are some of the most aromatic apples and come from Quebec. They have a sweet flavor and juicy texture. In cooking, they are best for sauces and butters.


Pink Lady (Dessert) is actually a brand name; the apple itself is a member of a variety called Cripps Pink apples from Western Australia. They have a sweet flavor and crunchy texture.


Red Delicious (Dessert) apples were America’s favorite apple for nearly 75 years and still ranks in the top 10. Originally developed in Iowa, they are mild, sweet and slightly bitter, and have a crunchy texture.

So, with all the varieties of apples out there, you ought to be able to find at least one that you like. My son and I take gala or Fuji apples in our lunches nearly every day. I find I feel better when I do that.

This Saturday, let’s all raise a glass of apple cider to Johnny Appleseed or celebrate with a slice of apple pie!

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The Mother of All Sauces


From my earliest days of cooking, I learned how to thicken a sauce and how to make a white sauce. Did I know that I was making a roux or slurry? Did I know that a white sauce was called a béchamel? No. These were just things I learned how to do cooking alongside my mother, grandmother, and my friends’ mothers. How appropriate that here we are talking about mother sauces.

In cooking, there are a handful of sauces that are considered the foundations for many dishes and other sauces.  These are called Mother Sauces. For example, the sauce you use to make macaroni and cheese starts with a roux that becomes a béchamel that turns into a mornay or cheddar sauce when you add Gruyère or Cheddar cheese.

But before we get into sauces, we need to start with thickeners. These are what give a sauce its body so that it coats and clings to food instead of running all over the plate. One way to thicken a sauce is by cooking down and reducing liquids like tomato sauce, which will naturally thicken as moisture evaporates, but most sauces need a little more help.  A roux or a slurry are two ways to thicken a sauce.

A roux is made by whisking one part flour into one part fat (usually butter) until it forms a smooth paste. These will cook briefly to cook out the floury, pasty flavor in the flour. Some dishes will call for cooking the roux until it turns a dark, rich brown, which will bring a nutty, toasty flavor to the sauce. When liquid is added to the roux and everything comes to a boil, the flour-fat mixture will thicken the liquid, making a velvety sauce.

A slurry is a combination of starch (usually cornstarch, flour, potato starch or arrowroot) and cold water, which is mixed together and added to a soup or sauce to thicken it. Why cold water? If the starch is added directly to hot liquid, the starch granules cannot disperse easily and clumps form.  When the slurry is added to the soup or sauce, the liquid must be brought up to a simmer to ensure the starch reaches its full thickening potential before more is added. Add a bit at a time until you reach the desired consistency. Cornstarch slurries are used a lot in Asian dishes.

Now, let’s move on to the mothers of all sauces. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Each type of cuisine has its foundations, but these are, for the most part, widely accepted as mother sauces and what every culinary student is expected to memorize.

Béchamel (bay-shah-mel)
Make a roux. Add milk gradually, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Some will argue that you must use white pepper to keep the sauce white, but I actually prefer the flavor of black pepper in my white sauce. A béchamel is a base for many sauces, including the mornay and cheddar sauces, which are used to make macaroni and cheese. I use a béchamel when I make scalloped potatoes.


Espagnole (ehs-pah-nyol)
Start with a browned mirepoix. Add a brown roux, tomato paste, beef or veal stock, and a bouquet garni, which is a tied bundle of herbs, usually thyme, bay leaf, and sage, but could also include others. This sauce is sometimes used as the foundation for boeuf bourguinon and demi-glace.


Hollandaise (hol-uhn-dayz)
Emulsify white wine, egg yolks, and butter in a double boiler. Add lemon juice, salt, and white pepper. This is a very delicate sauce because the emulsion can easily break. A rich hollandaise is usually used as a dipping sauce for asparagus or a finishing sauce for dishes like eggs Benedict.


Tomato (toe-mah-toe)
Start with a soffritto. Add tomatoes and tomato puree. Simmer for 45 minutes until the tomatoes have cooked down into a thick sauce (you could also thicken this with a roux). Add basil, salt, and pepper.


Velouté (veh-loo-tay )
This may or may not start with a white mirepoix. Make a pale or blonde roux. Add a veal, chicken, or fish stock. It is usually served over fish or poultry that has been delicately cooked, like poaching or steaming.


These sauces are full of flavor and enhance whatever they’re served with. While some are used more than others, they are all versatile and provide solid building blocks for many other sauces. After all, they are all Mother Sauces and we need to respect our mothers.

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The Root of All Cooking


The flavors of various cuisines have a lot to do with how they start. Called aromatics, they are combinations of vegetables and herbs (and sometimes even meats) that are heated in some fat at the beginning of a dish. The heated fat helps these ingredients release addictive aromas and impart deep flavors into the dish that’s being cooked. These culinary foundations help define what makes a French dish French or an Indian dish Indian. While some of these are more exact with specific proportions, others are more loosey goosey. However, none of these are carved in stone and will vary depending on the dish. Here are some of the most common sets.

Cajun Holy Trinity: Sauté 3 parts onion, 2 parts celery and 1 part green bell pepper in butter and olive oil. Supplement with garlic, parsley, shallots, and/or paprika.

Chinese: Sauté garlic, scallions, and ginger in cooking oil. Supplement chilies, shallots, chives, cilantro, Chinese five spice, and/or star anise.

French Mirepoix: Sauté two parts onion, one part each celery and carrot in butter. This can be supplemented with parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and/or herbs de Provence. A variation, called a white mirepoix, replace the carrots with parsnips.

German Suppengrün: Sauté one part each leeks, carrots and celery. Supplement with parsley, thyme, celery leaves, rutabaga, parsley root and onions.

Indian: Sauté onions, garlic, chilies, and ginger in ghee. Supplement with tomatoes, cardamom, cumin, curry, cloves, fenugreek, garam masala, and/or turmeric.

Italian Soffritto: Sauté onions, garlic, carrots, and celery in olive oil. Supplement with fennel, bay leaves, wine, parsley, sage, prosciutto, and/or pancetta.

Latin Sofrito: Sauté garlic, onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes in olive oil. Supplement with chilies, bay leaves, coriander, cumin, paprika, cilantro, bacon, chorizo, ham, wine, and/or vinegars.

Middle Eastern: Sauté garlic, onions, tomatoes, scallions, and raisins in cooking oil and clarified butter. Supplement with ginger, saffron, turmeric, and/or cinnamon.

Polish Włoszczyzna: Sauté leeks, carrots, celery root, and parsley root. Supplement with carrots, parsnips or parsley root, celeriac, and savoy or white cabbage leaves, and sometimes celery leaves and flat-leaf parsley.

Thai Curry Pastes: Sauté shallots, garlic, and chilies in cooking oil and coconut milk. Supplement with galangal, kaffir lime, and/or lemongrass.

These ingredients provide strong foundations and signature flavors for many of the world’s dishes. No matter what you’re making, it’s good to start with a solid base on which to build a great dish.

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Onions Are Our Friends


Last summer, in a post titled, “Baby Steps, Baby Bites,” I blogged about how I taught myself to like onions. As I’ve gotten to know my new friend the onion, I’ve learned that it is not a one-size fits all. There are many varieties of onion and each one brings something different to the party. Some are sharp and some are sweet. Some are best when cooked while others are best eaten raw. They all bring a ton of flavor and are loaded with health benefits. Here are a few reasons to eat more onions.

For centuries, onions have been used to reduce inflammation and heal infections.

Onions contain chromium, which assists in regulating blood sugar.

Raw onion lowers the production of bad cholesterol (LDL), keeping your heart healthy.

Onions have been studied extensively in relation to cancer. Their beneficial and preventative effects are likely due in part to their rich organic sulfur compounds. How these compounds inhibit cancer is unknown, but possible hypotheses include the inhibition of tumor growth and genetic mutation.

Onions are also a source of the strong antioxidant vitamin C that helps combat the formation of free radicals known to cause cancer. In addition, adequate intake of vitamin C is needed for the building and maintenance of collagen, which provides structure to skin and hair.

Folate, found in onions, may help with depression by preventing an excess of homocysteine from forming in the body, which can prevent blood and other nutrients from reaching the brain. Excess homocysteine interferes with the production of the feel-good hormones serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which regulate not only mood, but also sleep and appetite as well.

Now that we know some of the health benefits of onions, how do we choose the right one for the dish?




A shallot looks like a small, elongated onion with a copper, reddish, or gray skin. When peeled, shallots separate into cloves like garlic. Shallots have a more delicate garlic-like flavor. They are sweet with a little spiciness, and great for an egg dish, vinaigrette, or as a garnish.


Scallions aka Green Onions


Scallions and green onions are actually the same thing. They are either harvested very young from the regular bulb-forming onions we are familiar with, or they can come from other varieties that actually never form bulbs. Scallions are long, with a white stem end that does not bulge out. They have a mild bite that is not as intense as regular onions (the white parts contain the most intense flavor). They can be used raw or cooked, and while some cooks discard the darker green tops, the whole thing can be eaten, and is often used in Asian cooking.


Spring Onions


Spring onions look similar to scallions, but have small onion bulbs at the base. These onions come from the varieties that produce bulbs and are basically more mature versions of scallions. They are planted as seedlings in the late fall and then harvested the next spring, thus the word “spring” in the name. Spring onions are sweeter and mellower than regular onions, but the greens are more intense in flavor than scallions. The bulbs can be red or white, depending on the variety, and while they can be used in much the same way as regular bulb onions, they are great grilled or roasted whole.


White Onions


White Onions are the crunchiest. They have high water content, the sharpest flavor, and are mostly used in Mexican cooking. Use for salsas, chutneys and stir fries.


Red Onions


Red onions have a mild flavor and are best eaten raw. They are crisp and add color. Use for guacamole, salsa, pickling, salads, and on burgers and in sandwiches.


Sweet Onions


The most well known sweet onions are Vidalia and Walla Walla (pictured). They are sweet and mild yet still deliver great onion flavor. They have thick layers, which are best for frying. Use for onion rings, gratins, and roasting.


Yellow Onions


Yellow Onions are full-flavored and are the best all-around cooking onion. They are sharp and spicy, which mellows when cooked. They caramelize well because of their high sugar content. Use for meat roasts, braised meat dishes, sauces, soups, and stews.


Working with Onions

According to the National Onion Association, to reduce tearing when cutting onions, first chill the onions for 30 minutes. Then, cut off the top and peel the outer layers leaving the root end intact. (The root end has the highest concentration of sulphuric compounds that make your eyes tear.) You can also rub canola or olive oil on your knives before cutting onions to prevent your eyes from tearing.


How to Cut an Onion

Cut in half through the stem and root. Cut off the stem end, but leave the root intact. It holds the rings of the onion together.


When slicing, start at the stem end (that’s the end you cut off), cut across the rings, working toward the root end.


When dicing, make slices perpendicular to the board from root end to stem end, cutting from just before the root but not through. Keep the root intact.


Then make slices parallel to the board from stem end to root end, cutting to just before the root but not through. Keep the root intact.


Then slice across the rings.


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Cranberries are Crazy Good for You

cranberry-02-690pxI knew cranberries were good for you, but I didn’t realize they were such a super food. I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I grew up on a cranberry farm in Western Washington, which is where I learned to love these tart tiny fruits. I thought I knew everything about them, like how they are packed with vitamin C and are good for your kidneys and your urinary tract. But I realize now that I was only scratching the surface.

A glossy, scarlet red, very tart berry, the cranberry belongs to the same genus as the blueberry, Vaccinium, another well-known super food. (Both berries also belong to the food family called Ericaceae, also known as the heath or heather family.) Like blueberries, cranberries can still be found growing as wild shrubs in northern Europe, northern Asia, and North America. When cultivated, however, cranberries are grown on low trailing vines atop great sandy bogs. That’s how we grew them on the Washington coast.

While cranberries have long been valued for their ability to help prevent and treat urinary tract infections, recent studies suggest that they may also promote gastrointestinal and oral health, lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol, aid in recovery from stroke, and even help prevent cancer.

One way they do all this is their ability to fight germs. Bacteria doesn’t stand a chance against cranberries. Several studies show that cranberries can help ward off urinary tract infections (in some cases, even those caused by strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Cranberries also seem to thwart h. pylori (associated with stomach ulcers) and various gum-disease-causing germs.

Antioxidants in cranberries like oligomeric proanthocyanidins, peonidin, anthocyanidin flavonoids, quercetin and cyaniding help prevent cardiovascular diseases by fighting bad cholesterol plaque forming in the blood vessels and the heart.

Cranberries also contain high amounts of phenolic flavonoid phytochemicals known as proanthocyanidins that can protect us against cancer, neurological diseases and aging, inflammatory diseases, bacterial infections and diabetes.

Cranberries are crammed with vitamin C. One cup of cranberry juice can deliver up to 100% of the recommended daily dose of vitamin C. Just make sure to look for a label that says, “100% juice.”

There is evidence that the vitamin C found in cranberries, along with other antioxidants, can help hypertension. In one study, people who drank 2 glasses of low-sugar cranberry juice daily saw a significant drop in their blood pressure.

Cranberries are loaded with water-soluble fiber (the kind that keeps you feeling full). One cup (cooked or raw) contains about 5g fiber and 50 calories, while 1/2 cup of dried has 3.5g and 187 calories.

So, now that you know just how good for you they are, how do you consume more of them?

Juice ‘em. Drink straight or mix with other fruit juices or other beverages. Cranberry juice is also good spiked. Take advantage of cranberries’ high acid content (they have a pH range of 2.3 to 2.5) and use fresh juice from the berries in place of vinegar in salad dressings and marinades.

Try ‘em dried. Toss 1 to 2 tablespoons into oatmeal, salads, couscous, or quinoa. Look for dried berries that are free of preservatives, since they can degrade the berries’ antioxidants. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how they make an amazing addition to any trail mix or just mix dried cranberries with lightly roasted and salted nuts for a delicious snack.

Cook ‘em. Cranberry relish really perks up sandwiches. The berries also add a bright accent to baked goods, wild rice, and meat dishes, especially pork and turkey. We pair them with Swedish meatballs in place of their cousin, the lingonberry. And, cranberries pair amazingly with white chocolate! Just sayin’….

Eat ‘em fresh. During the fall harvest season, we used to pluck them straight off the vine and munch on them while we worked. To balance their extreme tartness, combine fresh cranberries with other fruits such as oranges, apples, pineapple or pears. If desired, add a little fruit juice, honey or maple syrup to chopped fresh cranberries.

For an easy-to-make salad that will immediately become a holiday favorite, place 2 cups fresh berries in your blender or food processor along with 1/2 cup of pineapple chunks, a quartered skinned orange, a sweet apple, and a handful or two of walnuts or pecans. Blend till well mixed but still chunky. Transfer to a large bowl.

A fruit with a short season, fresh cranberries are harvested between Labor Day and Halloween and appear in markets from October through December. Choose berries that have a bright red color, and that are plump and firm to the touch. Cranberries with a deeper red color contain more pigmented antioxidants. Be careful not to use any discolored, bruised or mushy cranberries as they can develop mold and they can transfer it to other berries. Rinse them well before using.

Fresh cranberries will keep for up to 2 months, or cooked for about a month. In both cases, seal tight and refrigerate. They also freeze really well. Once frozen, cranberries may be kept for several years. To freeze, spread fresh cranberries out on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer. In a couple of hours, the fully frozen berries will be ready to transfer to a freezer bag or a container. Don’t forget to date the bag or container before returning to the freezer.

Now that you know how crazy good for you cranberries can be, don’t just limit them to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Eat them all year long.

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