Category Archives: Tips


2014 New Year’s Resolutions

We’re in that time of year when resolutions abound. The funny thing is that nobody I’ve talked to personally admits to having any resolutions of their own, but nonetheless, resolutions are floating around out there, like a virus or a deep-seated anxiety. Maybe I was careless about breathing in too deeply as I chatted with my friend over tea? Or when I was washing my hands at the movie theater and eavesdropping on the gossiping and texting teens? Or when I made eye contact with the man behind me at the grocery store? But I caught the New Year’s Resolution bug: the first is to pick up writing again, and the second is to incorporate more whole grains and tofu into my cooking.

Of course, it’s really no bad thing, this aspiration for self improvement, but I know how hard it is to keep up the momentum and create a permanent “new normal.” A handful of general “rules” helps, and I wrote about them in my first posts from 2013. I am applying this process to my own resolutions.

In terms of starting to write again, as you may have noticed, I’ve been on a hiatus from blogging since September. The reasons don’t really matter, the important thing is that I want to start again. My goal is to write 4 times a week for 30 minutes a day. I need to change my habit of doing everything else before I write, so before I check email, or call my mom, or clean the kitchen, I will write. Keeping track of my progress on a spreadsheet will help me visualize my success or need for improvement. If I can meet my weekly writing goal for 6 weeks, then my reward will be a massage (thank you, DH)!


Whole grains and tofu aren’t new in my kitchen, but in 2014, I want to include them regularly in my weekly menus. My goal is to serve tofu and whole grains for dinner, not necessarily at the same time, once a week. At the very least, I want to have brown rice frozen in small(er) servings that I can use any time. I need to be more consistent about using recipe sources I already know about, and I also need to keep an eye out for fresh ideas. I’ll keep track of my progress in my dinner diary. And adding more delicious, healthful dishes to my repertoire is reward enough to keep me motivated (though I wouldn’t mind another massage, hint-hint). These are some resources that I’ve already found useful:

  • The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook by Julie Kaufmann and Beth Hensperger (Harvard Common Press). I have the 2002 edition, but there’s a revised 2012 edition. I skimmed the recipe titles of the first six sections of the table of contents, and except for three recipes that have been removed, the 2002 and 2012 editions look the same. I like the basic cooking instructions for many varieties of rice and grains in “The Perfect Pot of Rice” and “The Whole Grain Cooker.” The family loves Basmati Rice with Corn and Peas with brown basmati rice instead of white, and I want to try substituting brown rice in other recipes in “Simple Everyday Rices and Little Meals” and “The Family of Pilafs.”
  • Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains by King Arthur Flour (Countryman Press, 2006). For every day, the sections on quick breads, and biscuits, popovers, and dumplings have some known winners: Honey-Whole Wheat Biscuits and Peach-Oatmeal Bread are mouth-watering, and the Spelt Popovers are already a family favorite. When there’s more time, Dark & Soft Restaurant Dinner Rolls, Whole Wheat Pita, and Wheat Baguettes have been scrumptious. Can’t wait to try other recipes, especially those featuring other types of grains.
  • One of the obstacles to eating more tofu has been that I prefer dishes that are at least Asian-based — to me, tofutti and tofurky are just tofunky — and I have only a handful of recipes that we all enjoy. But Martha Rose Shulman, who writes the Recipes for Health column in the New York Times, has some promising possibilities that I’m looking forward to trying. Her Red-Rice or Farro With Miso-Roasted Squash, Leeks, Red Peppers and Tofu, for example, introduced me to red rice, with its appealing brown-red color and nutty flavor. The dish is a beautiful combination of colors, textures, and flavors, and the marinade is equally tasty on tofu and veggies. If her other tofu recipes are just as delish, I’ll have lots of great additions to my recipe box!

Where do you find delicious, easy, healthful recipes featuring whole grains or tofu? What resolutions do you have for 2014? I’ll share my progress as 2014 unfolds. Wish me luck!


Essential kitchen tools: my top 10 list

What are the 10 kitchen tools that you use all the time? The ones that, if you didn’t have them, would keep you out of the kitchen or keep you from cooking more than you do now? I’m talking about the stuff that isn’t built into a kitchen, like the fridge, stove, or sink. The answers might surprise you. For me, they aren’t the glamorous, stainless steel items with electric motors that outgun a Prius. If you’re someone who wants to cook more, this list highlights the fact that cooking doesn’t depend on having a lot of fancy equipment. And if you’re setting up a kitchen for the first time, this list will help you get a handle on your shopping list.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised at how ordinary most of the items are, like a vegetable peeler or kitchen towels. More durable items, like knives and pans, can last for decades, so it pays to do some research. I’ve had my tomato knife for about 22 years, and a piece of the handle just broke off the other day. The DH glued it back on; with some luck, it might last me another twenty years! So do get the very best that you can afford, but also keep in mind that price doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. For example, I wish I knew about cast iron pans when I was starting out; I might not have needed to replace my first set of pans if I’d started out with cast iron ones. I’ve included brand names where I could, as well as product links, mostly on Amazon. Note that if you buy these items from Amazon after clicking my links, I receive a small commission. (It doesn’t increase the Amazon price at all.) Cozy Foodies need to pay for our groceries!

I whittled the list down to my top 10, but then, I couldn’t resist adding a second (short) list of items that I use every day, but are arguably not essential, and may not even be considered “tools” per se. All those brawny machines would end up on a third list: the “nice to have, but not essential” list. There’s a long list of things that I would miss, and things I couldn’t make (muffins anyone?), but the essentials list really pares things down to the basic necessities for cooking.

Finally, I asked my kids to check my list, and the DS had a great suggestion: my brain! True enough, but I guess I was thinking about stuff that you need to buy (thanks, anyway).

What are the cooking tools that you absolutely can’t live without?

My top 10 list of essential kitchen tools

  1. 8-inch chef’s knife. I’ve had the same knife for so long, that the manufacturer’s information has rubbed off. It’s either a J.A. Henckels 8-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef’s Knife or a Wusthof 8-Inch Cook’s Knife.
  2. Tomato knife. Besides its most obvious use, I use it as a paring knife to make fruit salad every morning, and it also works well on bread. Mine looks a lot like this Zwilling J.A. Henckels 5-Inch Stainless-Steel Serrated Utility Knife.
  3. Cutting board. My favorite one is a 16” x 20” wooden one with no feet, so that I can use both sides. I like the large work surface and that wood is easier on my knife edge than other materials.
  4. Pans. If I could only have 2 pans, I would want them to heat evenly, release food well, and go in the oven as well as cook on the stove top. My 6-Quart Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Saucepot and my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Skillet would allow me to cook most every day dishes.
  5. Sharpening steel. Cooking is so much easier, fun, and safe with sharp knives!
  6. Measuring cups and spoons. I have several sets of each, and my favorite is this Cuisipro Stainless Steel Measuring Cup Set, with oval cups to reach into narrow-necked jars. I have an older model of this Endurance Measuring Spoon Set, which has rectangular spoon bowls to reach into narrow spice jars.
  7. OXO Good Grips Can Opener. Mine is so old I don’t remember exactly when I got it. The current models look different from mine. But I like the comfy fat handles and knob, and the built-in bottle opener.
  8. OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler. Peel vegetables and fruits, even slice cheese (not very well, but sometimes I’m too lazy to wash the slicer)! As with the can opener, I have an older model, but this one has a similar comfy fat handle.
  9. OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner. Dries lettuce and other leafy greens, serves as a prep bowl, and a serving bowl, and works as a cake dome (not pretty, but it gets the job done). I have an earlier model, and it works very well, but the pull-apart lid has always been difficult to operate (I don’t know if this feature has been modified since I got my spinner). The DH can’t do it at all and claims that these were purposely designed to thwart males. The kids love using the “brakes.”
  10. Kitchen towels. My favorites are woven 100% cotton, not terry cloth or waffle weave. Dry my hands, dishes, countertops, ingredients. Wipe up spills. Cover rising dough. Open jars. Handy oven mitts (not recommended—I have accidentally set them on fire!).

My short list of tools I use every day, but may not be essential

  1. GelPro floor mat. Oh, my aching back and knees! The floor mat allows me to stand for a lot longer than I otherwise would be able to. You can sometimes get good deals on these on Amazon, so check prices.
  2. Seventh Generation Natural Paper Towels. They’re made of 100% unbleached recycled paper, so I feel OK using them once and recycling them. Wipe up small spills. Dry meat after rinsing. Use them to cover things in the microwave.
  3. Wooden stirring spoons. Easier on your pans. I’ve got 4 of these, and more often than not, they are in the sink because I use them so much.
  4. Stainless steel prep bowls. I can drop them without worrying about breaking them. They stack up nicely, and don’t react to foods or retain odors. Prep ingredients ahead of time, and when it’s time to cook, have ingredients ready to go, just like on the cooking shows. I wish mine had lids.
  5. Apron. It’s a splash guard and a towel rack (I tuck a kitchen towel into the pocket).

I got the idea for this post when I made dinner to celebrate my wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. The DH and I have done our share of romantic dinners at dimly lit restaurants, but this year, we opted to stay home. We made the day special by being especially kind and thoughtful to each other, and by using “happyanniversary” as an adjective when we talked to each other, like, “Take out the happyanniversary trash!” Very romantic (LOL)!

At one point in the evening, I surveyed the mayhem in the kitchen. In one corner of the counter, the slow cooker crouched timidly, meekly cooking the pork shoulder in barbeque sauce. The postage-stamp scale I use as a kitchen scale stood foursquare next to the slow cooker, daring it to take up more space; I had used it to weigh out roughly equal-sized balls of dough for the buns. On the other side of the slow cooker was a cooling rack crowded with the buns and also cream puffs for dessert. The food processor hulked muscularly, preening over how quickly it slivered cabbage and carrots for slaw. The bread machine sulked glumly on the other end of the counter, it’s job making the bread dough completed. In a metal work bowl next to the sink, the pastry bag and tip relaxed in a bubble bath after forming the cream puffs. There were two trays, one lined with parchment paper and the other lined with a silicone baking mat, abandoned on the stove top. And from the other room, the ice cream maker whined loudly, lonely for company. I couldn’t help thinking: this is a ridiculous amount of machinery and equipment for making just one dinner!

But it was yummilicious: pulled-pork sandwiches with coleslaw, and cream puffs with lemon ice cream for dessert. “Oy! Huge happyanniversary mess! Thank you for doing the dishes, honey!” It’s definitely nice to have all these “helpers” when I need them, but, honestly, the kitchen tools I would miss the most are the ones that I use every day!


Six steps to more home-cooked meals (Part 3)

Who’s still excited about making more home-cooked meals?! I’ve shared a lot of tips and ideas for how I’ve managed to make home-cooking a priority for me and my family. In part 1 of the series, I wrote about setting realistic goals and specific things you may do to meet your goal. Then in part 2, I talked about getting support and tracking your progress. Here, I will talk about two more key ideas that will help you to succeed in your efforts to make more home-cooked meals: these two points are that we all slip sometimes and that it’s important to recognize our successes.

5. Recognize that a stumble is not failure

How many times have I forgotten to buy a key ingredient, despite my supposedly minutely-detailed shopping list? Forgot to look over a recipe that requires precooking and then “resting” for a few hours or overnight? The kids have a change of schedule that they “forgot” to tell me about. A deadline “sneaks up” (eh-hem) on me? The DD had a #!!?*@ bad day and really needs my support. I had a monumentally, super-sized suck-monster of a day and the thought of having to make dinner makes me want to bang my head repeatedly on the kitchen counter and sob.

It’s OK. Really. I have some “emergency” packaged ingredients ready to go in the pantry and the freezer for those times: spaghetti and tomato sauce or spaghetti with olive oil and Parmesan cheese, grilled cheese or chicken salad sandwiches, anyone? And the supermarket stocks delicious rotisserie chickens, fresh-baked baguettes, and a solid salad bar….. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “After all… Tomorrow is another day.”

The ironic thing is, of course, that my family thinks of these meals of last resort as treats, and they get excited for them, which helps to cheer me up, too! The important thing is: tomorrow, pick yourself up and try again.

6. Give yourself rewards

By all means, set a goal, like “I will make five home-made dinners a week for two months,” and when you reach that goal, go out for lunch as a treat, splurge on a dessert from the local bakery, buy that new vegetable peeler or pair of really cute socks (I like socks!) with the money you saved on your food bills. Then set a new, more challenging goal!

My family knows how important I think it is that they express gratitude for the meal they’re eating. They might comment on how much they like a particular dish, or at least show appreciation for the effort of preparing it (if the dish is “not their favorite”). I already mentioned this is part 2, enlist a buddy. And I get such the Psyched Foodie buzz when the DS comes home from swim practice, takes a huge whiff and exclaims, “Are we having stinky pork for dinner?! Awright!! I LOVE stinky pork!!” (Explanatory note: Stinky pork is what my kids called pork clay pot when they were younger. Redolent of fish sauce, shallots, garlic, ginger, and chili, pork clay pot fills the house with its mouth-watering fragrance as it braises.) It doesn’t get better than that.

For me, cooking has become a reward in itself. Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, cooking actually makes me feel better. When everything seems out of control around me, chopping onions (and enjoying a good cry… because of the onions), turning a recipe into a meal, or stirring together a big pot of soup reminds me that I am a competent person. When my family sits down to dinner, I might feel like the rest of my day was an excrementous chasm of waste, but in this one hour, I was able to make something good happen.

So. Eating healthy. Making something real. Sharing a meal with my family. Creating lasting memories and traditions. Saving money. Wow! Sign me up!

What rewards do you give yourself for reaching a goal?

holding hands

Six steps to more home-cooked meals (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, I listed the 6 steps to making successful resolutions and talked about the first two steps: setting realistic goals and identifying specific behaviors that you have to change or things you have to do to meet those goals. Since we are Cozy Foodies (or aspiring Cozy Foodies), this series is about how to make home-cooking more of a priority in your daily life. But now that you’ve gotten started, how do you stay on track?

Thomas Edison famously said, “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Staying motivated to make more home-cooked meals is 99% of the work! You can be pretty certain that your breathless excitement and shiny idealism will help you float through the first week or two. But after that, it can be hard to keep up the momentum as life’s demands and dramas wrestle for your attention. Or after investing a meal with your time, energy, and love only to have it scarfed down in between the end of Girls and the next TV show.  Here are two ideas to help you along those rocky roads. Hmm, ice cream…. Oh. What was I talking about? Motivation and staying on track. Right. Like I said, it’s not easy, so:

3. Enlist a buddy

Share your resolution with a friend who gives you permission to call her to kvetch, commiserate, or kick you off the couch! As a matter of fact, your buddy should call you regularly to gently check in on whether you are staying on track. Knowing that there is someone out there invested in your success, and that she is going to be calling you about it, can really help keep your resolution as a top priority. In return, cook her a home-cooked meal once in a while, or return the favor by supporting her in her quest, whatever that may be. I have a few friends who I know I can call on for a new idea, to remind me why I love cooking, or to give me permission to slack off for a night.

And I’ve enlisted my very best friend to help, literally! The D.H. is 100% on board with the idea of having home-cooked meals, even if sometimes he thinks I’m more of a Crazy Foodie than a Cozy Foodie. But in addition, he cleans up my messes! That is, he’s in charge of doing the dishes. And lastly, I ask the D.H., very sweetly please, to cook one dinner per week on a weekend night. Since he will just make steaks, Caesar salad, and rice if left to his own devices, I plan what we’ll have for dinner the night he’s cooking (be sure to see tip #1, setting realistic goals!), have the recipes ready to go, and all the ingredients on hand. He’s developed his own “specialties” over time, like homemade pasta with marinara sauce, pizza, tacos, and burgers.

My kids aren’t exactly “buddies,” but they have to help out, too: setting and clearing the table, stirring a pot, fetching an ingredient, and expressing their gratitude for the meal and the work of whoever cooked it  (this, by the way, is definitely not a little thing for me). When they have time, I grab them to wash dishes and do prep work. And I ask them for ideas for meals (though I ignore them when they say steak, pizza, and tacos) or feedback on a new dish. In short, they are at least “buddies” in training, and hopefully, aspiring Cozy Foodies themselves!

4. Track your progress

A story I read, “What’s Been for Dinner? She Could Look It Up,” by Susan Dominus in The New York Times  (July 12, 2010) made a huge impression on me. The story featured Jenny Rosenstrach, who had kept a dinner diary since 1998. She said:

Sometimes as a mother, you can spend a whole day running around dealing with these little things that are intangible, and you feel like you have nothing to show for it. Dinner is something tangible. So I focus on that.

This struck me as a bone-deep truth, whether as a mother or just another Jane Doe trying to make a positive contribution to society. I was inspired to start a dinner diary of my own and have kept it up ever since. I didn’t want my dinner diary to become a burden, so I just write down what I made or had, with an additional note if it’s a new dish and the main ingredient. I can look things up and jog my memory about what I’ve done in the past. It’s become one more tool that I turn to when I’m planning my menu for the week. And as the entries have multiplied over the years, I feel the accomplishment of what I’ve achieved. It’s a great feeling! So find a way to track your progress, whether it’s keeping a paper-and-pen diary, a blog, or putting stickers or check marks on a calendar; you, too, will feel that sense of success! By the way, since I first read that article, Jenny Rosenstrach started a popular blog and published a book based on her blog, Dinner A Love Story.

There’s another side to tracking your progress. Being able to easily keep track of recipes that work for you and your family is vital to low-fuss planning. My dinner diary is not the only way for me to recall what recipes I’ve used and loved. I also keep a file of tried-and-true recipes that I turn to every week when I’m making my menu plan. Full disclosure: my “file” is a… how should I put this?… it’s a work in progress. I’ve got indexes of recipes on four different spreadsheets, an online recipe box, and never mind all the recipes that I’ve tried from different websites and shelves of cookbooks! I could be more efficient if I spent my life organizing everything, but this hodge-podge system gets the job done. And to be honest, for me, getting all my recipes completely organized is like doing the laundry or making the beds: I know that I’m just going to have to do it all over again, so it never quite gets completely done.

And when life periodically goes into hyper-mega-nuclear-I-am-so-over-this-drive, I have a short list of family favorites to fall back on. These are dinners that I know everyone in my family loves, and more importantly, I can plan them and make them while juggling seventeen deadlines, falling over from a 1,000° fever, and still have enough mental space to sulk about how unfair life is.

Finally, despite all the resolving, planning, prioritizing, and best intentions that you’ve done using tips #1-4, life has a way of happening. That’s when you need tip #5, recognizing that a stumble is not a fall. That’s as important as tip #6, remembering to give yourself rewards along the way. I’ll talk more about these last two steps to making home-cooking a higher priority, in part 3 of this series.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your ideas for tracking your progress!

Six steps to more home-cooked meals (Part 1)

Resolutions are easy to make, but hard to keep, whether you make them at New Year’s or some other time of year! We Cozy Foodies want everyone to make a resolution to do more home cooking. Making more home-cooked meals is a great resolution to make because it affects so many other important parts of our lives. Home-cooked meals help us get healthier and lose weight, save money, and bring us closer to our families, friends, and loved ones. You’ll have a whiter, brighter smile! Be funnier, smarter, and make a million dollars! Sing like Aretha Franklin! …Er, you get the idea.

Here are six steps to help you keep a resolution to make more home-cooked meals. In this post, I’ll go into detail about the first two, setting a realistic goal and identifying specific behaviors that you have to change or things you have to do in order to meet those goals. In later posts, I’ll talk more about the other points. These six steps can be applied to any resolution you set, but I’ll talk about it from a Cozy Foodie point of view:

  1. Set a realistic goal
  2. Target specific behaviors to change
  3. Enlist a buddy
  4. Track your progress
  5. Recognize that a stumble is not a failure
  6. Give yourself rewards along the way

1. Set a realistic goal

I make almost every meal that my family eats. I’m really lucky that I get to do this, and, of course, I love cooking. I should say: I usually love cooking, that is, except when… Oh. I’m not talking about that right now, am I? Anyway, there are extenuating circumstances that make this work for me, but everyone can resolve to at least increase the number of home-cooked meals they eat in a week.

So, how to keep it real? It is unrealistic to make a resolution to go from making very few or no home-cooked meals to cooking every single one of your own meals! Also, you are more likely to succeed at keeping a resolution if you make one at a time. A realistic goal might be to make your own lunch twice a week, if right now, you always buy lunch. Or make three home-cooked dinners per week, if right now, you find yourself defaulting to take-out or frozen prepared meals more than you like. Keep reading to learn strategies to help you succeed.

My menu plan and shopping list for this week.

My menu plan and shopping list for this week.

2. Target specific behaviors to change

Now that you’ve set a realistic goal, the second step is to identify specific behaviors that you have to change or things you have to do in order to meet those goals. When it comes to getting home-cooked meals on the table more frequently, here are some of the things that work for me:

  • Make a meal plan for the week, or for the length of time in between your shopping trips. Also schedule a regular day and time to go grocery shopping.
  • Decide what will be in each meal you plan to have on every day that you will cook.
  • Try only one or two new dishes a week. Rely on your file of tried-and-true recipes for the other meals.
  • Check your calendar for potential “traffic jams.” On busy days, make something quick and easy or that you can prep ahead. For me, at least once a month, both kids participate in swim meets. Meets typically are two-day affairs. Swimmers are expected to show up at 7:30AM and finish at around 3:00PM. Meets that are held in venues 30 minutes away are considered close by; they can be 45 minutes to more than an hour away. And swimmers eat a lot! I have learned to plan and prep ahead so that I can pack healthy breakfasts, lunches, snacks, still have a home-cooked dinner, and stay sane.
  • Make a list of ingredients that you will need, including the amount of each ingredient. My friends roll their eyes, but my shopping list is organized according to the aisle where each ingredient is so that I go to each aisle only once.
  • Make only one meal a day that requires more preparation. I keep breakfasts and lunches, especially on the weekdays, pretty straight forward. For breakfast: toast or bagels, yogurt, fruit, tea or milk. For lunch: left overs from the night before, sandwiches, macaroni and cheese (from a box!), pasta with sauce.
  • Prep ahead! The night before or even a couple of days ahead of time, in the morning before going to work, or in any odd pockets of time that you have.
  • Review your recipes the night before. How many times have I had to change my plans because I didn’t marinate the meat overnight, or didn’t start the recipe early enough in the day? Let’s just say that if I had a dollar for every time….
  • Keep it fun! Pour yourself a glass of something nice and put on some good music while you cook.

I’m basically a lazy person. I need habits and routines to help me make 3 meals a day, for 4 people, 7 days a week. The fewer decisions I have to make when it actually comes time to cook, the more likely I am to do it, and the easier it is to overcome inertia and that seductive little voice in my head that still murmurs, “Hmmm… pizza delivery!”

Ultimately, being able to share home-cooked meals with my family and friends makes me feel great about myself: it grounds me in my life in a mindful and meaningful way, and more than pays me back for the time and energy that I invest in doing it! I hope that you will join me.

In my next posts, I will talk about strategies to keep you on track and motivated to make home-cooking a priority in your life.

What strategies help you get dinner ready with less stress and on time?