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Archive for August, 2011

TIP OF THE DAY: Use Only Freshly Ground Pepper

Pepper has been the world’s most popular spice for some 3,000 years. It has been treasured for its ability to add a kick to bland foods and, in pre-refrigeration days, to salvage food that turned rancid. (Salt, even more popular and essential than pepper, is not a spice. See the * footnote below).

Until the invention of the pepper mill† in 1842, peppercorns were freshly ground with a mortar and pestle.

Pepper begins to lose flavor as soon as it’s ground. Pepper gets its spicy heat from piperine, a chemical compound that’s found in both the outer fruit and in the seed (the peppercorn).

Once the pepper is ground, the piperine is exposed to the air and begins to evaporate. That’s why commercially ground pepper is a bland product.

And that’s why today’s tip is: Always use whole peppercorns, and grind the pepper as you need it. If you don’t have a pepper mill, get one. Here’s a good, basic pepper mill that’s battery operated, so you don’t have to twist it to grind the pepper.


Use only whole peppercorns, ground as
you need the pepper. Photo by Adam Kozlowski | IST.


*Spices are aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of a plant or tree. Herbs are the leafy parts of the plant. Some plants yield both a spice and an herb. For example, the coriander plant provides coriander seeds, a spice, as well as cilantro leaves, an herb. Why aren’t cilantro leaves called “coriander leaves?” Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, and we adopted the Spanish word for the herb.

†The pepper mill was invented by the Peugeot company in 1842. A family venture begun in a small village in eastern France around 1793, the company manufactured tools, coffee grinders and even bicycles. (A member of the family broke off to manufacture automobiles.)
Why Not To Buy Peppercorns In Bulk

Given the higher cost of whole peppercorns, why should you avoid buying them in bulk?

As pre-ground pepper quickly loses its piperine kick to evaporation, the piperine in whole peppercorns also evaporates over time.

Plus, most pepper is grown as a commodity, to be sold at a prefixed price per ton. Margins are slim and there’s no bonus paid for quality. The berries are picked as soon as they form on the vine, resulting in meager little peppercorns whose flavors have not had a chance to develop—like tomatoes that are picked from the vine before they ripen.

So, peppercorns sold in bulk to consumers are not likely to be the best in the first place. And after they’ve been sitting on your shelf for two years, they become as dried-out and bland as pre-ground pepper.

Introduce yourself to the world of fine peppercorns. Here’s everything you need to know about pepper. It’s hot stuff!


There is no relationship between black pepper, which originated in India, and chile peppers, which originated in South America. They are from completely different botanical families and their heat comes from two different chemical compounds.

Black pepper (and white pepper, which is black pepper with the outer skin removed), is the genus and species Piper nigrum from the family Piperaceae. As noted above, their heat comes from the chemical compound piperine. Chiles are from the genus Capsicum and the family Solanaceae. Their heat comes from the chemical compound capsaicin.

So why do we call chiles “peppers?”

You can thank Christopher Columbus for the confusion. When he first encountered chiles in the New World, he related the heat in the fruit to the heat in peppercorns, and combined the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word for them, chilli, into chilli pepper.

And yes, both chiles and peppercorns are the fruits of their respective plants.



COOKING VIDEO: Chilled Cucumber Soup Recipe


We love elegant, chilled cucumber soup.

It’s refreshing and low in calories—we use nonfat Greek yogurt instead of the whole milk yogurt and sour cream used in the video recipe. And it’s less costly to make than gazpacho.

Cucumber soup is customizable in texture, from chunky to smoothie-like (you can drink the latter from a glass or cup). While the video host uses an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender or food processor for a finer texture.

Cucumber soup is receptive to a broad variety of favorite seasonings. While garlic, dill and mint are traditional, you can change the recipe by adding basil, celery seed, curry powder, minced jalapeño, minced onion, shallot, tarragon, thyme and/or sage.

Serve the chilled soup in plastic cups for parties—either with a spoon or as a puréed, drinkable version.

We’ll be serving it as part of our Labor Day menu. Try it!




TIP OF THE DAY: How To Fill The Salt Shaker

Shake it up, baby. Salt and pepper
shakers and rack from Tablecraft.


Need to refill the salt shaker but can’t find the funnel?

Pouring directly from the box of salt can create a mess. Instead, use an envelope—preferably one of the smaller return envelopes that arrive in the mail.

1. Fill the envelope with the approximate amount of salt that you need. Seal the envelope.

2. Cut off one corner to create a funnel. If you need additional salt, just cut the top off the envelope and add more.

3. When the shaker is filled, place the “funnel” opening in the carton of salt to return any leftovers.

Why didn’t we mention filling the pepper shaker as well? You’ll find out in tomorrow’s Tip Of The Day.

Which Shaker Gets The Salt?

Traditionally, the multiple-hole shaker is for salt and the single-hole shaker is for pepper. The original reasoning is that people want more salt than pepper. But if you find that pepper flows better from the multiple-hole top, feel free to switch.


Life Before Salt Shakers

Before there were shakers, salt and pepper were served in small ceramic dishes (crystal dishes for the wealthy) called salt cellars. In the kitchen, a wood salt box* was used. Some have two compartments in order to hold both salt and pepper.

The word “cellar” doesn’t refer to the basement in this case. It evolved around 1434 from the Anglo-Norman word saler, based on the Old French salier (salt box) and the Latin salarium. Salarium is a great word. There’s more about it below, under Food Trivia.

Back to the salt cellars: People would simply take a pinch of salt from the dish. But shakers evolved as a more sanitary option.

The gentry used elegant crystal salt cellars (we still have our great-grandmother’s). Presumably, they all washed their hands before coming to the table and pinching the salt and pepper.


For most of the history of the world, salt was a scarce commodity and very costly. Few countries had discovered underground salt deposits, and only those with seacoasts could evaporate salt from seawater.

Yet, as it is today, salt was very important for culinary, medicinal and industrial purposes. People even used it as currency:

  • In Tibet, Marco Polo noted that tiny cakes of salt were pressed with images of the Grand Khan and used as coins (salt is still used as money among the nomads of Ethiopia’s Danakil Plains).
  • Greek slave traders often bartered salt for slaves, giving rise to the expression that a particular individual was “not worth his salt.”
  • In the early days of the Roman army, legionnaires were paid in salt. This “salt money” was known in Latin as a salarium—the origin of the word salary.
    A brief history of salt.

    One of our favorite books is Salt, A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. It’s a page-turner.

    *Lidded salt boxes are back in style, and are now made in split versions to hold both salt and pepper. In addition to the two-section wood salt box, here’s a handsome black marble salt box.



    TIP OF THE DAY: How To Roast Chiles

    Whether bell peppers or hot chiles, roasted fresh peppers are delicious and easy to make at home under the broiler or atop the grill.

    First the chiles are charred, then sweated to loosen the skin.

    If you’re roasting hot chiles, you’ll need protective latex gloves—the skin-tight ones that doctors wear. This prevents the capsaicin—the chemical compound that gives chiles their heat—from touching your hands. After you begin to handle the chiles, don’t touch your eyes or mouth or you’ll feel the burn.

    Part I: Char The Chiles

  • Wash the chiles and pat them dry.
  • Make a lengthwise slit in each chile and remove the seeds and ribs with a spoon (we use an espresso spoon). Leave the stems on.
  • To roast chiles on the grill: Place the chiles directly on the grill over high heat. When one side is blistered and blackened, flip the chiles. Char the other side, then remove.
  • To roast chiles in the oven broiler: Turn the broiler to high and place the chiles on a baking sheet, five inches from the broiler element. Once the skin chars, flip the chiles.

    Photo of roasted peppers by Mad Circles| IST.


    Part II: Remove The Skins

  • Place hot roasted chiles in a plastic or paper bag to sweat for 15 minutes. If you don’t have a bag, cover them with a damp kitchen towel. The steaming helps to loosen the skins.
  • With the gloves still on, slip the skins off the chiles.
    How To Serve Roasted Chiles

  • Drizzle olive oil and serve with salt and pepper.
  • Serve as a side with grilled meat, poultry and burgers.
  • Add to a grilled vegetable plate.
  • Stuff with cheese for chiles rellenos.
  • Add to tamales, enchiladas and other Mexican dishes.
  • Add to cornbread.
  • Make a “roasted” salsa.
    See the different types of chiles in our Chile Glossary.



    RECIPE: Cottage Cheese Pancakes

    Cottage cheese makes pancakes soufflé-like.
    Photo courtesy Friendship Dairies.


    Whether or not you’re a cottage cheese lover, give these cottage cheese pancakes a chance. They’re a favorite brunch food at THE NIBBLE.

    It may seem counter-intuitive, but when cottage cheese is used in pancake batter, it lends a soufflé-like fluffiness that is truly special. And you can sneak in the calcium-rich cottage cheese with no one the wiser.

    We enjoy cottage cheese pancakes for both breakfast and lunch. We’ll look for any excuse to make a batch.

    If you don’t like cooking from scratch, you can buy Heidi’s Cottage Cheese Pancake Mix, one of our favorites from a whopping 99 whole grain and multigrain mixes sampled (read the full article).

    Friendship is largely an East Coast brand. If it isn’t sold near you, substitute your favorite cottage cheese.




  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup Friendship 1% Lowfat Cottage Cheese
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Optional: Add chocolate chips or your favorite fruit, diced
  • If you’re watching your diet, use egg whites, nonfat cottage cheese and sugar substitute.


    1. Combine all ingredients in blender on low speed until blended.
    2. Mix in optional fruit or chocolate.
    3. Lightly coat hot griddle with cooking oil.
    4. Pour batter to desired size. Cook until golden; flip once. The pancakes take a bit longer to cook than conventional recipes because of the added heft of the cottage cheese.
    5. Serve immediately with syrup, jam, sour cream or creme fraiche. (Actually, we like them just as they are—no condiments necessary!)

    Friendship makes nine different varieties of cottage cheese—something for everyone. If you don’t like one variety, try another:

  • 4% California Style Cottage Cheese
  • 2% Lowfat Pot Style Cottage Cheese
  • 2% Lowfat Digestive Health Cottage Cheese
  • 1% Lowfat Cottage Cheese
  • 1% Lowfat Cottage Cheese With Pineapple
  • 1% Whipped Lowfat Cottage Cheese
  • 1% Lowfat No Salt Added Cottage Cheese
  • 0% Nonfat Cottage Cheese
  • 0% Nonfat Cottage Cheese With Pineapple
    Find more delicious cottage cheese recipes at

    You can also download a coupon to use on any Friendship product.



    PRODUCT: Dancing Deer Whole Grain Cookies & Brownies

    Here’s the best excuse for eating cookies and brownies: They’re 100% whole grain.

    With their Whole Grain Collection, Dancing Deer is the first national brand to offer a line of 100% whole grain (and all-natural) baked treats.

    The options include three cookies and three bars: Chocolate Chip Cookies, Cranberry Orange Cookies, Totally Nuts Cookies, Chocolate Chunk Brownies, Fruit + Nut Squares and Peanut Butter and Jelly Squares.

    You can’t taste the difference: Whole grain flour actually adds richness and flavor.

    Look for Dancing Deer in fine food stores nationwide, or online at

    If you want to bake your own, Kodiak Cakes has delicious, whole grain chocolate chip cookie and brownie mixes.


    An excuse to eat brownies: whole grains!
    Photo courtesy Dancing Deer.


    Check out the history of brownies.

    The different types of brownies?

    Our favorite brownie reviews and recipes.



    TIP OF THE DAY: Soften The Ice Cream

    Introduced last year, Peanut Brittle may
    be our favorite B&J’s flavor. But to get
    the most flavor, we soften it before
    digging in. Photo courtesy Ben & Jerry’s.


    Superpremium ice cream has less overrun* (air whipped in), so it freezes more solidly compared to less expensive ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s freezes its ice cream to 70° below zero, so there’s less chance of melting and refreezing after it leaves the production plant.

    When ice cream is frozen solid, it’s not just hard to scoop: A depth of flavor from the top-quality ingredients is also locked up.

    If your ice cream is the least bit hard to scoop, here are three different ways to make the job easier and the ice cream more flavorful.

  • Move the container from the freezer to the fridge for 20-30 minutes before serving.
  • Let the container sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.
  • Microwave it for 30 seconds at 30% power. If you microwave’s only option is “high,” soften a pint for 10 to 15 seconds, a quart for 15 to 25 seconds and a 1/2 gallon for 30 to 40 seconds.

    *Overrun refers to the volume of air whipped into the ice cream mix. Superpremium ice creams have lower overruns than less expensive brands. In general, the more overrun, the lower the cost of the ice cream. That’s because the product contains more air and less of the ingredients, which are costlier. By law, overrun does not have to be declared on the label, and we’ve never seen it stated.

    Tip #2: How To Avoid Surface Ice Crystals & Freezer Burn

    Ice Crystals. When you remove ice cream from the freezer for a period of time, moisture droplets will form on the surface. When you return the ice cream to the freezer, the moisture turns to ice. (This can also happen when the temperature of the freezer fluctuates, which can occur when the door is kept open for too long).

    To avoid ice crystals, keep the carton out of the freezer for as short a time as possible. Before returning it to the freezer, cover the surface with plastic wrap and tamp down the wrap so that air can’t turn the moisture into ice. Keep the surface of the ice cream as even as possible for optimal surface contact.

    Freezer Burn. Greyish-white freezer burn is a result of dehydration that occurs on the surface of frozen foods that are improperly wrapped. The food is safe to eat, but the quality has degraded. To prevent freezer burn, the package must be free of air and sealed airtight. For most foods, including meat and fish, use an airtight wrapping of plastic wrap and a second layer of protection with a freezer-strength food storage bag with all of the air squeezed out.

    Ice cream cartons are more of a challenge. You can wrap the carton itself in plastic wrap (make sure to reuse the wrap). You can also invest in plastic containers that hold the pint or quart, adding an extra layer of protection.

    What’s the difference between superpremium and other types of ice cream? Check out our Ice Cream Glossary.



    TIP OF THE DAY: Aged Rum On The Rocks

    Today is National Rum Day.

    Rum, a favorite drink in colonial times, has fallen out of favor. Sure, the rum-based Mojito is America’s favorite cocktail (rum, mint leaves, lime juice, club soda and simple syrup), according to Some people may order a Cuba Libré (rum, Coke and lime juice) or the Polynesian-inspired Mai-Tai (light rum, cream of almond, triple sec, sweet and sour mix and pineapple juice).

    But few people are enjoying rum straight up or on the rocks.

    That’s a shame, because an aged rum from a fine producer is a beautiful thing. If you don’t have a good aged (añejo) rum at home, meet a friend at your favorite watering hole to try one.

    When the workday ends, we’ll be enjoying a bottle of Ron Abuelo, brought to us from Panama by a friend (and available at fine spirits stores in the U.S.).


    Yo ho ho and a snifter of really fine rum.
    Photo courtesy Ron Abuelo.


    What Is Rum?

    Rum is a spirit distilled from freshly pressed sugar cane. To make an añejo (aged) rum, pressed sugar cane juice is fermented and distilled. It is then placed in small Bourbon barrels for aging (fine spirits are aged in Bourbon, sherry and other used oak barrels to pick up flavor nuances that remain in the wood).

    Rum has been made in the Caribbean since the 17th century. Sugar cane was brought to the Caribbean from Southeast Asia, where spirits made from cane juice appeared much earlier.

    Ron Abuelo (Grandfather’s Rum) was established in 1908 as the first sugar mill in the recently formed Republic of Panama. In 1936, founder Don José Varela decided to try the rum business.

    Today, the company produces four expressions of dark oak-aged rums: Añejo, 7 Años (aged 7 years, this standout has won numerous awards, including a Double Gold Medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition), 12 Años and the limited edition Ron Abuelo Centuria (if you have a bottle, please let us know so that we can plan a visit).

    At a suggested retail price of $22.99, the 7 Años won’t break the bank. Amber in color, it is smooth as silk on the palate, with a medium body. A sip yields caramel and vanilla notes from the wood, plus some fruitiness and perhaps a bit of toasted coconut. The finish yields spicy and nutty notes.

    Of course you can use aged rum for mixed drinks, but our favorite way to enjoy it is straight from a snifter.

    Yo ho ho and a bottle of [aged] rum!



    TOP PICK & TIP OF THE DAY: Set Up A Falafel Bar

    A nutritious, delicious plate of falafel,
    hummus and tabbouleh. Photo by J. Java
    | Fotolia.


    If you’ve never had falafel, you’re in for a treat. If you’re already a falafel fan, this article will give you more ideas on how to enjoy the crunchy vegan fritters.

    As with Indian and Japanese cuisines and other international foods, the presence of falafel has expanded in America. Fifty years ago, if your city had a significant Middle Eastern population, you might be able to find a casual fast food restaurant and get a falafel-in-pita sandwich or a combination plate of falafel, hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh.

    Today, Trader Joe’s sells ready-to-heat-and-eat falafel (and the pita to go with it), and Falafel Republic sells falafel in supermarkets nationwide.

    Even the traditional “falafel stand” has expanded to a falafel bar, offering a dozen or more self-serve accompaniments: pickled vegetables, salads, olives, sauces and more.

    Protein-rich, fiber-rich falafel with lots of veggies: What could be better tasting, better for you and fun!


    That’s why this week’s Top Pick is also our Tip Of The Day: Make falafel and set up your own falafel bar. In addition to a special family meal, it’s fun party fare.

    We’ve got four pages of information, recipes and serving suggestions.

  • Start with an overview of falafel, believed to have been invented by ancient Egyptian Christians as fare for meat-free religious holidays.
  • Check out the article index and decide where to dig in.


    TIP OF THE DAY: Uses For Newspaper In The Kitchen

    What do you do when you’re finished with the newspaper?

    Hopefully, you recycle it.

    But before it hits the recycling bin, consider these uses:

  • Keep the bottom of your vegetable drawer clean by lining it with newspaper. It will absorb liquid and odors. Change the paper weekly.
  • Use newspaper to ripen fruit. If your avocados, bananas, peaches or other fruits need ripening, conventional wisdom is to put them in a paper bag. The paper keeps in the ethylene gas—a ripening agent—the fruit gives off. If you don’t have a paper bag, wrap the fruit in newspaper, which does the same thing.

    After you read it, recycle it. Photo by
    Sanja Gjenero | SXC




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