Cooking Tips

I’m not a professional chef. I claim no real expertise as a cook or chef other than the fact that I cook for my little family a lot and I like to eat good food. As a result, I spend a surprising amount of time cooking. There are lots of other places where people can get cooking tips from experts and professionals. This post is just me sharing a few things I have learned over the years that I wish I had known before I started cooking. The tips are shared in no particular order.

Don’t Waste Chicken Bones (applies to other meats as well – pork, beef, fish)

We don’t eat a lot of meat in our house, but occasionally (a few times a month) we’ll have chicken and on holidays we often have a turkey. Sometimes, I buy whole chickens either pre-cooked or smoke five or six chickens at a time then freeze the chicken to use for recipes. But what to do with the chicken bones and scraps? The obvious answer is to cook them and turn that into chicken stock. But that can also take hours and hours if you cook them on the stove (many stock recipes require boiling for 4 to 6 hours).

Enter: InstantPot. Whenever I have chicken bones and scraps, I throw them into one of my InstantPots with any veggies that are on the cusp of going bad (e.g., celery that is leftover from a recipe, a spare onion, some carrots, a few cloves of garlic, etc.). I then fill the InstantPot up with water to just below the max fill line for pressure cooking, close the lid, and set the pressure cooker to manually pressure cook everything for 2 hours. That’s half the time you would normally have to boil the chicken bones and scraps and it works just as well. (NOTE: How long you pressure cook everything is flexible – if you only have 1 1/2 hours, that works; if you want to go longer, you can as well.)

When it’s done, you can let it cool on its own or release the pressure. I then use a strainer/colander to extract all the big stuff and spoon the chicken stock into mason jars. If it’s just a couple of small jars, you can store those in the fridge and use the chicken stock in the next week or so in any recipe that calls for chicken or vegetable stock. If it’s more than a few jars, these can be canned in a pressurized canner: 20 minutes at 15 pounds of pressure. Those are good for at least a year.

Chicken stock from a store costs anywhere from $0.09 to $0.34 per ounce (about $3.00 per carton). Since you’ve already bought the chicken, why not save yourself the money (and get better chicken stock in the process) by making your own? Yes, it takes a little time, but it’s mostly just letting your InstantPot do the cooking. I’m guessing my total time investment when I do this is 15 minutes for a small batch up to 30 to 45 minutes for a big batch of chicken stock (which might yield 4 to 6 quart jars of chicken stock).

Zest Your Citrus

I have a number of recipes that call for zest from citrus – lemon, lime, or even grapefruit. Zest is a great ingredient to have around for sweet breads, cheesecakes, and even soups. And the bonus bit of information is that you can freeze zest and then use that frozen zest in those same recipes.

My recommendation, then, is to zest all of your citrus before you use it or eat it. Need the juice of a lemon or lime? Zest them first, then cut them up and squeeze the juice out. Going to have a grapefruit for breakfast? Zest it first, then enjoy.

I use small, cheap plastic bags (stored inside a freezer grade plastic bag) for my zest but you could also use a mason jar or tupperware to keep your zest in. And having a handy zester on hand that you can pull out whenever needed is ideal.

Grapefruit Spoons Are Awesome!

My wife and I really like grapefruit in the morning. We slice them in half, cut around the outside, then spoon out the endocarp (the part most people eat). For years, we used a regular spoon for this. Then I was introduced to serrated spoons. Wow! Game changer! They are so much easier to use for eating grapefruit.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a few grapefruit spoons if you like grapefruit in the morning. They are far more efficient when it comes to eating grapefruit than are regular spoons.

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remove mold and mildew stains

Despite our best efforts at keeping our shower clean, we managed to get a small buildup of mildew in our shower that, by the time we cleaned it, stained the caulking.  I looked around on the internet to see if I could find any recommended products for cleaning mildew stains and mostly just found things like bleach or vinegar with a lot of scrubbing.  I tried that and it didn’t work very well – you could still see some stains in the caulk and grout.

Since I had to go to Home Depot for something else anyway, I decided to check the cleaning supplies aisle while there for products.  That’s where I found Zep Mold & Mildew Stain Remover.  It is a commercial strength stain remover.  I’m always skeptical about products as I’ve bought plenty of other products over the years that make over-stated claims.  This product, however, was relatively under-stated – it came in a nondescript blue gallon bottle and didn’t over-hype it’s claims.  And it was relatively inexpensive.  I bought it, skeptical that it would do anything, but figured it couldn’t make things worse.

On the back of the bottle it says to spray it on the stained areas and only let it sit for 2 to 3 minutes before rinsing it off.  I thought to myself, “There is no way this will have any effect in 2 to 3 minutes.”  So, I sprayed it on, thickly, and left it for a good 8 to 10 minutes.  When I went back into the bathroom, I was stunned.  Our tile, grout, and caulking were all glistening white.  I couldn’t stay in there, though, because the fumes were so bad they started to burn my eyes.  I sprayed the shower down as quickly as I could with water then left.  I came back about 10 minutes later and sprayed the shower down again.  All of the stains were gone!

Now, this isn’t exactly a miracle product – it did eat away at some of the caulking, which we ultimately had to remove, but that just speaks to the power of the product.  This is some serious stuff!

If you have mildew stains or even just mildew build up and don’t really want to expend a lot of elbow grease trying to get rid of it, give Zep Mold & Mildew Stain Remover a try.  I’m not getting paid to say this (though if Zep wants to send a check my way, I wouldn’t refuse it), but I’m recommending it highly.  If I had found out about this stuff before I spent an hour scrubbing my shower, I could have saved myself an hour scrubbing the shower and ended up with the same result.  Just be aware that this stuff is caustic and works fast – use with caution!

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new recipe – spring vegetable risotto

I occasionally try new recipes, when I can find the time.  I have a pretty good repository of favorite recipes that I make regularly (you can see most of them here).  I’d say 90% of the new recipes I try don’t make it past the Debi test, meaning Debi doesn’t eat the leftovers and I know that I shouldn’t make it again.  So, when I tried this new recipe, I was skeptical, as I usually am.  But the leftovers were gone in 2 days.  Ergo, it’s a keeper:

Spring Vegetable Risotto

  • 1/2 pound sugar snap peas, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 4 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 3/4 cup white wine (or cooking wine)
  • 3 carrots, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 package firm tofu (optional for added protein)
  1. Cook peas in boiling water about 4 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain and rinse with cold water; set aside.
  2. Pour broth into a medium-size saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat; reduce heat to low and keep broth warm.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks, salt and pepper (and tofu, if using tofu) and cook for 6 minutes, stirring frequently, or until softened. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute.
  4. Add remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil in saucepan. Stir in rice and carrots and cook 1 minute. Add wine to saucepan and stir until almost evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in warm broth and cook for another 22-25 minutes.
  5. Add peas to saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes or until heated through.
  6. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan cheese, butter, and lemon juice (you can also put the Parmesan cheese on separately after dishing up servings).
  7. Note: You’re supposed to slowly add the broth, but it didn’t seem to make a difference when I didn’t.

Spring Vegetable Risotto @ Group Recipes

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how to open Google Reader links in a new tab without changing focus

If you’re a fan of Google Reader, like I am, that means it is now part of your life – something you’re not sure you could live without.  I use Google Reader pretty much every day to read the news and keep up with the blogs that I can (mostly family, some friends).  I love Google Reader.  It’s easy to use, feature-rich, and keeps track of what I have read and haven’t.  It even let’s me read my news on my cellphone (try it; it’s pretty slick).

So, while I shouldn’t complain about this awesome software, there is one thing it doesn’t do that I’ve wanted it to do for years: open links that I want to read in a new tab without changing the focus using a one-key shortcut.  See, Google Reader has lots of great shortcuts – though the only one I use all the time is ‘n’, which moves me to the next item.  When I’m reading through Google News items, I usually read all the short blurbs first, opening the ones that really interest me in new tabs to read at length later (using a right-click with my mouse and “open in new tab” options in Firefox).  Now, that’s really not that terrible, considering I’ve been doing it that way for years now.  But wouldn’t it be nice to simply hit one key and have the items you want to read at length pop up for you to read later?

Well, there is a way to do it, but it requires a few steps.  First, Google Reader doesn’t have the ability to do that, but a plugin for Firefox does: Tab Mix Plus.  So, here’s what you do:

1) Install Tab Mix Plus in Firefox.  Restart Firefox and you should have Tab Mix Plus installed.

2) Go to Tools -> Add-ons.  Click on “Extensions.”


3) Scroll down to “Tab Mix Plus” and click on “Options”.

4) A new window will pop up.  You only need to change one setting (though there are some fun goodies in there you can play with).  Click on “Events” then click on “Tab Focus.”  The only one you really need to unselect is “Links.”  Unselect it.  Then click “Apply.”


5) Once you’re done, go back to Google Reader, start reading, and when you want to open a story in a new tab in the background, hit ‘v’ and it should pop up in the background.

6) Voila!  You now have a one-key solution to breeze through your Google Reader News faster than ever.

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the holy grail of pitchers

Rubbermaid Mixer Pitcher, Blessed be the Holy Pitcher
Rubbermaid Mixer Pitcher, Blessed be the Holy Pitcher

A couple years ago I brought you the holy grail of lids (a lid for tin cans).  Now I bring you the holy grail of pitchers.  Right around the time we got married, Debi and I bought a pitcher that seemed well-suited for mixing orange juice, the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, Blessed be the Holy Pitcher.  Little did we realize then that what we had purchased was the world’s best pitcher.  Okay, that may seem a bit hyperbolic, but let me explain why I believe this is the world’s best pitcher.  First, you can obviously use it to mix juices without making a mess.  And, the mixer is built into the pitcher, so you don’t have to dirty a different kitchen tool.  Second, because the entire mixing/lid mechanism comes off the top, it makes cleaning the pitcher a cinch.  You can throw both pieces in the dishwasher and they both come out clean with virtually no effort on your part.  Third, they are sturdy (the one we bought when we got married is still running strong after nearly 9 years of very frequent use).  The sturdiness also means the lid doesn’t come off during pouring.  But, in addition to all of the amazing features of the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, blessings be upon it, the competition sucks.

Tupperware Heathen Pitcher, curses be upon it

Since we purchased our first Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, Blessed be the Holy Pitcher, we have bought several additional pitchers.  We figured the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, Blessed be the Holy Pitcher, was ideal for orange juice, which settles after awhile.  But we figured other pitchers would be better for big batches of lemonade or grape juice, also frequent juices one might find around our house.  Oh how wrong I was.  All of the other pitchers, curses be upon them, had so many flaws that I’m ashamed we put up with those other pitchers for years.  Take, for instance, the Tupperware Heathen Pitcher, curses be upon it.  While a classic and widely worshiped pitcher, the lid is prone to coming loose at inopportune times, releasing a flood of ice and juice when it goes.  This pitcher consistently lets its followers down.  We owned one of these for a while but decided the risk wasn’t worth it.  A pitcher that does not offer the existential rewards we expect in a pitcher is not worthy of our admiration.

Rubbermaid Screw-On Satanic Pitcher, curses be upon itRubbermaid Satanic Pitcher, curses be upon it

The pitcher that has been the bane of our existence for the last several years is the Rubbermaid Satanic Pitcher, curses be upon it.  The person who designed this worthless pitcher apparently never had to wash one of these out.  The opening is too small for an adult man’s hand to fit inside (though a small woman’s hand will fit).  It also doesn’t allow for easy dishwasher cleaning because of the opening.  Thus, what ends up happening is crap gets washed inside the pitcher during the wash cycle then lodges in the bottom corners.  And because you cannot reach inside to clean it out, you end up with a disgusting pitcher.  This pitcher made us unhappy, which is what always happens when you allow the influence of unholy pitchers, curses be upon them, in your home.

We have owned several additional pitchers, curses be upon them, all of which suffered from a combination of poor lids, poor cleaning ability, or poor pouring function.  They were all very flawed pitchers, curses be upon them.  Luckily our interaction with those evil pitchers was very short-lived.

We also have a really nice pitcher – crystal nonetheless – that we received for our wedding, nearly 9 years ago.  We now consider this a sacred version of the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, blessings be upon it, only for use when we are hosting worthy guests.  (Guess how many times we’ve used it?  Zero!  It’s not that our guests are necessarily unworthy, we just never remember it exists; we have not been good followers of the holy pitcher.)  Thus, we treat our sacred version of the one true pitcher in the store-it-in-a-cupboard-and-forget-about-it-forever fashion.  Only those worthy to see the sacred version of the one true pitcher will have that honor (if we remember it exists).

Thus, after years of interacting with pitchers, we finally decided that we are a mono-pitcherist home: We have thrown out all of the other pitchers (except, of course, the sacred version, which remains forgotten in the cupboard), removing their cursed presence from our home.  We now worship just the one pitcher, the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, blessings be upon it.  The One Pitcher, blessings be upon it, is actually okay with multiple manifestations of itself in the same home.  Thus, we have recently purchased two more manifestations of the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, blessings be upon it, from this online website (since I can’t find it in any local stores).

Since we are now a mono-pitcherist home, I have also become more fundamentalist and evangelical in my pitcher worship.  I think about pitchers in a black and white fashion – either you worship the one pitcher or worship the evil oppositional pitchers, which means I must (according to mono-pitcherism) make fun of you for dealing with the evil pitchers, curses be upon them.  I am encouraged by the One Pitcher, blessings be upon it, to hang around with evil pitcher worshippers, as doing so may allow me to convert them to the one, true pitcher-religion: the cult of the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, blessings be upon it.  As my first act of pitcher-evangelism, I am posting about my poured-again conversion to mono-pitcherism on this blog. But be warned, if I visit your home and you do not worship the Rubbermaid Mixing Pitcher, blessings be upon it, I may have to tell you about the advantages of mono-pitcherism and the One, True Pitcher, blessings be upon it, and mock your worship of inferior pitchers (and oh can I mock).  In the name of the One True Pitcher, blessings be upon it, amen.

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The UFC Diet

Roger HuertaMost people probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).  I wouldn’t say I’m an over-the-top fan; I have yet to go to a live event (and probably won’t).  But I do watch the events I can and even read news about the UFC online.  So, after a couple years of following the UFC, the repeated exposure to fighters who are often very cut kind of got to me.  It’s not that I was super fat or even obese, but I had been wanting to loose 10 pounds just to get down to the weight I’ve wanted to be at for years.  Inspired by guys like Roger Huerta (the fighter in the photo to the right), I finally decided to just do it:  This summer I dropped the 10 pounds I’ve been wanting to drop for a couple of years.

So, because I was inspired by UFC fighters, I’m calling this the UFC Diet.  How did I do it?  I followed the tried and true “diet” formula: caloric intake = food eaten – activity.  Rather than increase my activity (it’s actually probably gone down over the summer), I just started eating less.  Less food = fewer calories = lower weight.

This isn’t revolutionary of course.  No quick fix.  In fact, it’s hard to feel hungry sometimes.  But it’s the price you pay for getting to a good weight.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression.  I don’t have the 8-pack of George St. Pierre (in the picture to the left).  I also can’t say the UFC did anything specifically to encourage me to do this.  But seeing fighters who are physically fit not for the sake of looking good but because they need to be at a physical peak to fight at their best is inspiring.

(Postscript: Hopefully lawyers from the UFC won’t show up here and make me take this down over copyright infringement, etc..  I’m not claiming to represent the UFC or anything of that sort.  But, if lawyers from the UFC do show up, I’m not above discussing a book deal turning my idea/experience into a book.  Hint, hint.)

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Tampa in the News

I’ve found since I started teaching Sociology that being up-to-date on local news can be useful (though it is less useful at my new school where many of the students are from other cities). This leads me to read the local paper, which is often relatively quotidian – thefts, car accidents, political debates, etc. Occasionally, however, I hear about stuff in the national media happening in my local area. There are two big stories (from the last couple of days) that have made national news. First up, the Cuban under 21 men’s soccer team came to Tampa to play for an Olympic qualifier and 7 of the players and an assistant coach defected. This isn’t all that uncommon and there isn’t anything particularly special about Tampa in this case, but it is big news and a commentary on Cuba. The second story didn’t make national headlines in the major papers, but it was picked up by a tech website that has a particular beef with Scientology: Slashdot noted the recent denial by a local judge of an injunction against protests at Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater (which makes up part of the big three cities here: Tampa, St. Pete, and Clearwater). Again, this probably isn’t a “Clearwater/St. Pete/Tampa” news item so much as a Scientology news item, but I am always interested in things happening locally. (Also, there are supposed to be big protests this weekend at the headquarters… If I had time I’d go watch.)

On an interesting side note, how many of you, my faithful readers, have ever heard of the Dvorak keyboard? I’d heard about it quite a few times and had only ever heard that it was far more efficient and ergonomic than the traditional QWERTY keyboard. In my never-ending attempt to make typing easier on my hands (since I spend a large portion of my days in front of computers), I started practicing on a Dvorak keyboard (you can change your settings on your computer to get it working), only to get frustrated, think things through a bit, and begin to wonder how much of a difference Dvorak could really make. Turns out, not much, if at all. The Dvorak keyboard is often used to illustrate the idea that vested interests can overcome practicality and pragmatism when it comes to the adoption of inventions (in fact, Jared Diamond mentions Dvorak in this sense in Guns, Germs, and Steel). Having heard only that side of the argument dozens of times, I started repeating it (sorry to anyone who heard that from me; I was wrong and am now admitting it). But the frustration of trying to adopt the Dvorak keyboard eventually led me to search out criticisms and I ended up finding the one linked above in an economics journal (I know, it’s an economics journal…). Turns out, most of the “research” indicating Dvorak is (1) faster and (2) more ergonomic was done by… Guess who? August Dvorak, the person who developed it, patented it, and profited from it. Impartial studies indicate minor speed benefits (maybe 2% to 5%) and no difference in ergonomics. Additionally, the time required to retrain an accomplished typist (I type about 110 wpm on QWERTY) won’t ever be recouped in faster typing times – you’re better off spending more time training yourself on the QWERTY as you can actually get faster with additional training. So, if you’ve ever considered switching to Dvorak after already becoming proficient with QWERTY, don’t bother. If, however, you really think the 2%-5% speed advantage is worth it, I guess you could train your kids using Dvorak (though they’ll have a hell of time moving from keyboard to keyboard and changing settings on computers). One final note, I did buy a couple ergonomic keyboards (where the keys are split) and have noticed a substantial improvement in the pain I experience as a result of typing – the angles make a lot of sense and I highly recommend ergonomic keyboards.

Now playing: Dave Matthews Band – Some Devil
via FoxyTunes

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vegetarianism and the environment?

Here’s an interesting news item I rediscovered in the NYtimes today: raising animals for meat releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than does the entire travel industry combined. This is based on research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. I’m sure some of my regular readers will take issue with this, but it is kind of intriguing. Add to that the growing evidence that vegetarianism is a pretty healthy diet (possibly not the healthiest – a small amount of meat may actually be slightly healthier; see references below) and the connection to IQ (though not causal) and things are looking up for vegetarianism. Maybe this is just confirmation bias, as we all have a tendency to look for evidence to support the things we believe/want to believe. But some of this is also pretty good science. Anyway, here are the references:

  • Cho, Eunyoung, Wendy Y. Chen, David J. Hunter, Meir J. Stampfer, Graham A. Colditz, Susan E. Hankinson, et al. 2006. “Red Meat Intake and Risk of Breast Cancer Among Premenopausal Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine 166(20).
  • Gale, Catharine R, Ian J Deary, Ingrid Schoon, and G David Batty. 2007. “IQ in childhood and vegetarianism in adulthood: 1970 British cohort study.” BMJ 334(7587):245.
  • Spencer, E.A., P.N. Appleby, G.K. Davey, and T.J. Key. 2003. “Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.” International Journal for Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders 27(6):728-34.
  • Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, Cees de Haan, et al. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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