Friday, May 28, 2010

Review (and Giveaway!) of Mark Bittman's "Kitchen Express"

About a year ago, I made it a goal to stop relying so heavily on cookbooks and step-by-step recipes, and instead learn to cook a little more intuitively and creatively. It was a little scary at first, but I was surprised by how much I already knew about ingredients and cooking techniques. And it felt SO much nicer to cook without turning around every 2 minutes to look at a recipe, or to have my onions burn while I frantically opened every drawer in the kitchen looking for a tablespoon.

I think that for most of us who've been cooking for a few years or more, recipes have become a crutch - and while it's disconcerting when that crutch is first yanked away, you'll soon be surprised at how well you can do on your own.

The most important lesson for me in this whole process has been learning to actually taste my food as I cook it, instead of blindly following a recipe and then hoping it tastes good at the end. When you're constantly tasting your food and the ingredients you put into it, you'll notice how each ingredient changes the flavor or consistency of the dish, and you'll learn something new with every dish you prepare. (Just beware - the first time you taste fish sauce on its own...yikes!)

Ditching the recipes has helped me feel more confident in the kitchen, and it's also saved me a lot of money since I've become better at using what I already have instead of buying ingredients specifically for a recipe. I still use recipes once in a while - but now I look at them for ideas and inspiration instead of as an instruction guide. So when I discovered Mark Bittman's new book, Kitchen Express (404 Seasonal Recipes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less) which is sort of an anti-cookbook cookbook, I thought it was fantastic. Here's what I love about it:

1) It focuses on seasonal foods, and is divided into four sections: winter, spring, summer, and fall.

2) It doesn't include any specific measurements (ie: 1 tbsp of minced ginger). Instead, each recipe is about one paragraph long, written in sentence form, with simple instructions. If you've never cooked before, this probably wouldn't be your cup of tea, but for fairly seasoned cooks who have a concept of how much salt and garlic should be added to a dish, it's great.

3) There are lots of suggestions for foods, herbs, and seasonings that you can swap in or out depending on what you have available. I think this is perfect for beginning recipe-ditchers, because it shows you that you don't have to have every single ingredient to make a recipe. Obviously if you want to make balsamic glazed chicken and you don't have balsamic vinegar or chicken, that will be problematic. But if you're lacking that little bit of fresh parsley that is tossed in at the end, it's no biggie.

4) The dishes look really tasty, and are really simple - no long lists of ingredients or complex cooking techniques.

5) In the front and back of the book, there are lots of categories and menu suggestions that help you quickly find what you're looking for. An example category is "The Easiest of the Easiest," "Recipes that Barely Disturb the Kitchen," and "Finger Foods for All Occasions." Menu suggestions include "Weeknight Dinner Party" (do people really have those?) and "Kids' Night."

I highly recommend this cookbook for anyone who's interested in breaking away from their slavery to recipes. It's a good jumping off point and will help you feel more confident (and creative) in the kitchen. And it will also help take the guesswork out of which foods are seasonal at any given time.

PS - I'm not being paid by anyone to promote this book...I just bought it myself and thought it was really great.

I'm going to be giving away one copy of this cookbook to a lucky reader.


Post a comment below mentioning your favorite food blog. No, it doesn't have to be mine. :) I've been really interested in reading other people's food blogs, but I haven't had the time to browse around lately, so I'd love to get some suggestions.

Be sure to include your email address, or if you're uncomfortable posting your email address, include your first name, last initial, City & State (ie: Alicia M. Salt Lake City, UT) in the comment. I will be either emailing the winner or posting the winner's name (if no email is included)
Sunday, June 13th at 6:00 pm Pacific time.

Bonus entries:

A) If you
subscribe to my blog or become a follower on Google, you can leave an additional entry telling me you've done so.

B) If you
post a link to this giveaway on your own blog or website, you can leave an additional comment as well. Please include the link in the comment field.

On Sunday the 13th, I will go to and have a random number chosen to select the winner.

Good luck!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Yummy yam muffins (and I hate yams)

Last Saturday I got a 3-lb bag of organic yams in my bountiful basket. I really dislike yams. I don't care if they're made into french fries or covered in marshmallows, I just don't like the taste.

Yet I couldn't bring myself to throw away this big bag of perfectly good yams. So, unable to pawn them off on my friends, I vowed to find a way to use them.

I turned to my favorite pumpkin muffin recipe, figuring that yams could probably be substituted for the pumpkin without changing the flavor too much. Although I knew it could potentially be disastrous, I reasoned that even if the muffins were disgusting, I could learn from the experiment and use my blog to warn others away from making yam muffins.

What I didn't anticipate is that using yams instead of pumpkin would make the muffins 10 times more delicious. I'm not exaggerating when I say that these are probably the best muffins I've ever had.

I have to give Alton Brown a big dose of credit - the basic recipe behind the muffins is his, and it produces super, super moist muffins. Here's the original Alton Brown recipe (courtesy of along with my notes & yam adaptation:


• 2 cups all-purpose flour

• 2 teaspoons cinnamon

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 1 1/2 cups sugar

• 3/4 cup vegetable oil

• 3 large eggs

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 3 cups shredded fresh pumpkin (When I make pumpkin muffins, I substitute one can of pureed pumpkin for the fresh pumpkin. For the yam muffins, I used three cups of cooked, mashed yams....I just nuked the yams in the microwave, cut them in half, and scooped the cooked mushy part out).


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Sift the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together.

In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla. Combine both mixtures and fold in the pumpkin (or yams). Once the ingredients are all incorporated, pour into two muffin pans.

Bake at 325 degrees F., for 30 minutes.

P.S. - You can freeze these muffins and enjoy them all week (or month) long. I throw them in a freezer bag as soon as they cool to keep them as fresh as possible. To thaw them out just pop one in the microwave for about 15 seconds.

P.P.S - I am heading on vacation for the next week....I will be back in 10 days or so with a new post and an exciting giveaway!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Spicy (or not) soba noodles with shrimp & veggies

One thing I love about Asian cooking is that it brings out the best in veggies. I never eat broccoli with as much enthusiasm as I do when it's doused in black bean or kung pao sauce. I gobble up green and red peppers, snap peas, and bamboo shoots when they're coated in Thai curry. And I have never met a spinach dish I love more than an Indian saag.

I'm sure there are veggie purists who would turn up their noses at this proclamation - arguing that the sauces mask the true vegetable flavors and destroy the natural deliciousness of the vegetables themselves. But as someone who is still working up to loving veggies for veggies' sake, I am doing what I can to make them super-tasty so that I'll actually eat them instead of pushing them around my plate like a 5-year-old.

Last night I impressed myself with my take on Asian soba noodles. We've had Asian noodle dishes often (usually courtesy of P.F. Chang's or Pei Wei Asian Diner), but this was my first attempt at making them at home. And I can't believe it's taken me this long!

The dish I made was really simple, using almost exclusively pantry ingredients with the exception of some shrimp, green onion, veggies and, perhaps, ginger. Here's what I did:

1) Boil some soba noodles until soft, but al dente. Drain.

2) Chop up some green onion (I used mostly the green part), and some veggies of choice. Some thinly sliced or julienned carrots work best in my opinion, but you could also do broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, or whatever you prefer best in Asian dishes.

3) Create a sauce out of soy sauce, rice vinegar, freshly grated ginger, sesame oil, and hot chili oil. The hot chili oil was something I just picked up for fun at the grocery store the other day. Like all the other ingredients in the sauce (except the ginger), it can be found in the Asian food aisle of almost any grocery store. If you don't like spiciness, or you want to make a kid-friendly version, just leave out the chili oil.

To create the sauce, I started with a few splashes of each ingredient I mentioned, with some extra splashes of soy sauce. From that point, I just tasted it and fiddled with it until it had the right balance of spice/saltiness/acidity.

4) Cook shrimp (or other protein if you prefer), and veggies in frying pan with a little canola oil. Add sauce and let it absorb into the shrimp and veggies. Then add the cooked noodles and stir everything together until it's hot and evenly coated with sauce. Enjoy!

Now that I know how simple this is, I will be making versions of this dish at home much more often. It's just so much better than take-out in that I can control the amount of oil/sodium, make sure I'm using quality meats/seafood, and also add a lot more vegetables than a typical restaurant portion would include.