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Cooking with kids – knife safety

   

Seven Tips for Knife Safety with Kids

Cooking with kids is such a fun and memorable experience. Safety is one of the top priorities in any kitchen and using a knife safely is essential. Kids can learn kitchen confidence and become a willing helper in the kitchen with these safe tips to get them chopping, slicing and dicing with ease. Feel free to print my info graphic for easy reference when cooking with kids!

Tip One – Keep it sharp

I can’t stress enough how much safer a sharp knife is. I know it can seem counterintuitive but a sharp knife does the job properly – accidents can happen when blunt knives need too much pressure to slice or chop through your ingredients. Small hands already grapple with a knife, adding pressure to their chop can create an unstable technique.

Tip Two – The right knife does the right job

Knives come in all shapes and sizes and each knife has a specific job and adds to the ease in which a task is completed. A small knife is easy for small hands to handle in the initial stages of learning how to cut. That being said ensure the small knife is used for small tasks – topping and tailing beans, cutting up soft meats like chicken, slicing herbs and cutting smaller sized potatoes. When your kid/s becomes more confident and able to complete harder cutting techniques a cooks knife is recommended for chopping, slicing and dicing. These larger knives are made to complete specific tasks – the front for precision slicing and the heel or back for rocking chopping and cutting hard vegetables.

Tip Three – Practice with plastic

To get your kid/s used to  chopping use a plastic or lettuce knife and practice with soft foods such as bananas, grapes and hard boiled eggs. Even play-dough or salt dough can work a treat to create knife confidence.

Tip Four – Secure the board

On some surfaces a chopping board can slip and slide creating an unstable surface and accidents to follow. To secure your board just dampen a dishcloth or paper towel placing it underneath the chopping board then checking for any wobble. 

Tip Five – Get a grip

Securely gripping the knife can make a difference in technique confidence – try and mirror the following pictures to get a grip and become confident

Tip Six – Use the claw

Wayward fingers are like targets for a slipping knife. Tucking fingers away prevents dangerous slips cutting into fleshy fingers. The claw can feel uncomfortable at first but it is the best way to control the item you are cutting and keep fingers cut free. To get little hands used to the claw, teach them to cut smaller items they can grip easily. I halve large onions for them to practice on, cut down large carrots into more manageable pieces and halve potatoes. They still get to practice but in a more manageable manner.

Tip Seven – Keep it cool

Watching anyone learn to cut with a sharp knife be they kid or adult can be stressful. Accidents do happen and cuts are distressing but hovering anxiously adds to the pressure to get it right. I always keep a watchful eye on the chopping but with enough distance they feel they are in charge of their skill. Speaking calmly and reminding them to hold their knife properly and use the claw will keep them on track and cuts out of the picture. In the learning stages the technique is more important than the outcome. So some of the onion is a little chunky or the dices a little wonky. These outcomes are arbitrary when cooking at home. Even as an apprentice my cutting technique needed constant revision and honing. I was taught to cut on items that were either going into a soup or stock or being blended so the final outcome was reliant on my technique. As my confidence grew and technique refined I was able to complete more precision cuts. For now, just keep it cool and allow your kid/s to hone their technique one chop at a time.

 

The road to becoming a chef – part two

    

Becoming an apprentice chef – the list of working conditions doesn’t exactly read like a career you would want to pursue – hot, busy, high pressure, antisocial long hours, standing all day, minimal pay. You must be crazy to go ahead on this path. My Dad certainly thought so – for him education was currency, himself having not had the chance to be educated beyond primary school in rural Italy.

I couldn’t be convinced otherwise though. I had completed some work experience both through school and on school holidays and something about being a chef just felt right. So post school, 2002 I started to look for my first place of employment.

I had a few misses from job trials, my confidence waning as I heard nothing from yet another employer. I did start to question if this career path was perhaps the best choice for me. The tables turned though in my new approach of sending out resumes to city restaurants and just seeing what happened. They didn’t have jobs advertised but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

(work experience)

So began the job offer that shaped who I am as a chef. I still remember my interview – I wasn’t sure if this chef game was for me just yet and I spoke of possibly giving it a year and then looking into study again if it didn’t work out. Here I am over fifteen years later and yes I have done further study but not in the pathway I had envisaged.

The head chef offered me a trial – Monday to Friday 9-5. He was also going to pay me. This was certainly a different trial to the others I had been on. I didn’t realise he was hedging his bets and not signing me up straight away but also giving me the chance to see if I liked it as well. After the first week I was offered an apprenticeship at Il Centro Restaurant and Bar – an Italian restaurant that sat 120 guests and served fine dining Italian cuisine.

At the time my head chef was a formidable French man. Equal parts passionate, talented and intimidating he introduced me to life in professional kitchens. I don’t remember too much of my very early days, I dare say I was too scared to do anything but focus on what I was told!

Stepping into this world was like a baptism of fire. Professional kitchens are hot, busy, exhausting and exhilarating. You are constantly pushed to deliver right now. Time is measured in seconds and minutes not hours and days. You need that eye fillet? Two minutes chef. Risotto? Yours in thirty seconds.

At the beginning I couldn’t imagine getting the hang of any of it let alone being as confident as the older apprentices and chefs. I was lucky though in that my Head Chef saw something in me. He nurtured my interest and guided me to the shortcuts to success. I say shortcuts in that my notebook became my best friend. Garnishes for the plates? Write it down. How many portions I need? Write it down. Running out of an item? Write it down. So all of a sudden it began to make sense. I could do this. I don’t know if it was protocol but I asked him for feedback. How did service go? What did I do wrong? What mistakes did I make? How could I make it better? I don’t know if he knew what to think but he took it in his stride and helped develop my training and skills guiding me – sometimes via a stern word (yelling) and sometimes just with patience and care.

(TAFE days)

I’m not going to lie, there were moments when I cried. There were moments when I wondered what on earth I was doing becoming a chef. Learning how to cook cuts of meat that customers are paying $35+ for is intimidating. We had three different steaks, three different types of fish and usually 2-3 other meats cook on the menu and they all had to be delivered at the same time for the docket at the right amount of cooking. I never thought I would succeed. Sometimes my chef would swap around what I had put down on his board and ask me to tell him again what was what to test me. You had to be confident in your food. You had to not hesitate in what you were capable of.

My skills though started to flourish. I learnt how to back myself and trust my instincts. There we times though I stumbled and put up items I knew weren’t the best but I was in a hurry, time was ticking and the tables were waiting. Those were the times when I was inevitably pulled up in spectacular fashion. It was nothing to have your meal thrown in the bin told to start again. If I wouldn’t pay for it or wouldn’t be impressed with it why was I putting in front of a customer?

Harsh though these lessons were they taught me so much about myself and what I was capable of. If I could handle this level of pressure everything from here would surely be just another moment in my life. This is not to say it didn’t take its toll. It was hard work; many times I wondered what the hell I was doing. But being a chef is a funny roll of the dice – you almost hate that you love how much you thrive in this environment.

Learning how to transform raw ingredients into beautiful dishes was my passion realised. Service in a busy city restaurant pumps your adrenalin. The docket machines sound indicates another set of dishes is required despite the full docket rack in front of you. Waiters come and collect dishes almost as fast as you can present them. Working in a large team meant communicating in direct, short sharp instructions. Yes Chef is out of your mouth more often than any other sentence during the day.

In kitchens you start your career peeling the potatoes and vegetables, washing lettuces and oysters, portioning pastas and packing away sauces. After three to four years you’re cooking the prime cuts of meat and fish, you’re finishing the sauces, you’re guiding others with your knowledge. You have graduated from the simplest skills to cooking some of the most delicious meals you have ever tried.

(Proud to be a Chef Competition Sydney)

Then there are the culinary competitions. My head chef was a part of the competition scene and took great pride in entering us into these and testing our skills against other establishments. Days off and mornings or afternoons before out shifts became dedicated to perfecting our dishes. Imagine cooking two courses, four plates of each, in an allocated time, by yourself, with the public able to walk past and look and comment. It is intimidating enough being in the kitchen you work in let alone on a public stage. Time and again though I entered competitions and improved my results. I zoned out those looking at me and focused on the dishes I was making. It taught me how to stay calm despite the pressures and how to believe in what I was doing.

The culmination of these experiences was realised in two large competitions. One was a national competition for a chance at a spot in the international competition Bocuse D’Or. The other was a three course, 12 portion competition completed in a pair with a waiter to serve and a table set and decorated. Both had high stakes as the other entrants were from well-established restaurants. Both had different skills at stake. For Bocuse we had to make two dishes – one fish and one meat. The fish required three traditional garnishes for a mirror platter as with the meat. The fish and meats were my Sous Chefs part I was the garnishes. I was fortunate enough to learn how to work with sea urchin and abalone, to be able to cut delicate shapes and learn how to progressively set a jelly. Hours and hours of time went into perfecting these dishes. It was intense, creative and amazing. We didn’t make it past the national level but we certainly did our best.

(Bocuse D’or practice)

The second competition marked the end of my apprenticeship. Newly qualified and only 20 I entered this last competition with another newly qualified chef and we created a delicious three course meal. Our upper hand was that we thought we had three hours to complete the courses so had been training on this time frame. On the competition day we discovered it was actually four. We could breathe. We made sure not to become complacent in this new time frame and used it to execute the dishes with more finesse and attention to detail. Our efforts paid off as we took the trophy and the prize money. What better way to herald the end of my training as an apprentice and transition to qualified chef than to hold that trophy with pride.

(Jimmy Sawyer Trophy Competition)

When I started as a chef I knew how to cook at home. I used to make family meals and it was nothing to bake and create. Becoming an apprentice took me back to the basics and building blocks of cooking. For four years I tested my knowledge, honing the basic cuts to neat perfection, learning how to balance and season dishes, becoming addicted to seeing the glossy shine of a well made sauce. My hands started to produce all manner of dishes and items as if they always knew what to do. Soon it became second nature to cut, whisk, fry and grill. I had done my time. I was truly a chef no longer an apprentice.

Following my nearly four years at Il Centro it was time for a break. I wanted to see the world and relax for a little bit. I was nearly 21 and had spent the last few years working, working and more working. So I packed my backpack and embarked on a Contiki tour which evolved into side countries and a month in Italy with my Dad. In this time I could reflect of all I had achieved, embrace international cuisines and enjoy the fruits of my labour. Life as a chef was just beginning.

The road to becoming a chef – part one

My career has had some really interesting and hard moments contributing to some amazing opportunities and learning experiences. The path to being a chef is one that is chosen for a variety of reasons – some have a history of cooking in their family, some just like the idea of the job and for some it is a lifelong passion that takes them to the stove.

My journey to the professional kitchen started at home. I didn’t always want to be a chef. To be honest my first love was art and I saw myself as an art teacher – the practical part of me considered this to be a safe bet – explore my interest whilst having a steady income – or so my childhood brain reasoned.

I always loved being in the kitchen though. It wasn’t uncommon for one of our household duties to be to peel potatoes, top and tail beans or just generally assist in the kitchen. I didn’t know it at the time but I was lucky in that my mother loved to cook. She experimented, she explored and she included me in these adventures. My father was also instrumental in my food fascination – an Italian farmer turned builder, his green thumb saw our large backyard vegetable garden turning out fresh crops of seasonal produce year after year. Both these things I just accepted as what our family did – I didn’t realise that not everyone’s house has a vegetable patch the size of most courtyards or that their mums actually like to cook meals for six hungry mouths.

I was also one of those kids who grumbled that their mum made their biscuits for their lunch box – why couldn’t we have the ones off the shelf like all the other kids? The horror I know. A defining moment for me in how simple food cooking with love can be an invitation is a strong memory from primary school – it was multicultural day and we could dress in national dress from other countries and were to bring a plate of food to share. We had a Polish costume (my mums heritage) on hand for just that occasion but the food part wasn’t prepared yet. My mum offered me a plate of freshly cooked pikelets with a smear of strawberry jam on top. I was mortified. Pikelets? Really? But soon I was to be shamed more at myself for my behavior as my classmates eagerly devoured the plate of treats and told me how good they were. Needless to say I ate my words along with the pikelets that day. That memory serves as a gentle reminder to me often of the power of simplicity and has shaped the foods I enjoying cooking and the meals I relish.

Having access to fresh seasonal vegetables and even visiting the produce markets at Rocklea as a child also shaped my interest in food. Dad planted all sorts of vegetables – from the much maligned (by me) broccoli and cauliflower to the crisp and sweet greens beans and my favourite, the deep red tomatoes. It wasn’t uncommon for him to return home from the local fruit shop and delicatessen with a tray of fresh peaches and paper wrapped parcels of salami and prosciutto.

 

(picking oranges with Dad)

Having so many varieties of foods growing in my backyard taught me about the seasons, the work and care that goes into producing such crops and the joy of eating fresh foods. As we we used to fight over mum’s salads, from the crunchy slightly pickled cucumbers to the finely shredded bitter radicchio dressed in olive oil and vinegar. We used to love biting into the leaves of cooked artichokes, fingers dripping with dressing as we scraped the leaves with our teeth before indulging in the soft choke in the middle. All of these sides were simple home cooked fair but they revealed the simple pleasure of sharing food together. I used to love peeling roasted chestnuts with my Dad that had been buried in the coals of the barbecue whilst we ate, their scored skins gently cracking open and the nut becoming golden and inviting. These moments were about food as an invitation to come together and share – share our meal, share our stories, share our love.

As I grew older I started to contribute more and more to the family meal times. I found myself enjoying the process and starting high school introduced me to Home Economics. Here is where I started to really relish the joy of following a recipe and turning out food items others wanted to taste before they had come out of the oven or off the stove. I was lucky to have teachers who were just as passionate as me and guiding my love of food and nurturing my budding talent, allowing me to extend myself and try new things.

By senior year Hospitality as a subject was calling. Here was my chance to really see what possibilities could await in a career in food. Each lesson was a chance to push myself and try new things. Work experience at the Sheraton Noosa opened my eyes to a whole new world. Again I was lucky as my teacher knew I was contemplating a career as a chef, so she allowed me to spend the four days in the kitchen, versus swapping into another area after two days, as was protocol at the time. I felt so at home. I knew that this was where I belonged.

(work experience at Sheraton Noosa)

Soon after I started cooking more interesting foods at home, our Sunday lunches turned into my chance to cook two to three course meals to test my talents. Recipe books were poured over as I sought inspiration for meals. I remember one of my first dishes was pumpkin soup. I was so proud as I created the cream swirl and sprinkled chopped up parsley on top. Another successful recipe was chicken tortellini but I was soon regretting embarking on such a labour intensive recipe. It seemed I was eager to try it all.

Of course with any learning curve there were also the flops. The big ones. My family still snigger occasionally and bring up what they refer to as the crème caramel surprise. The surprise was how awful it tasted. Imagine seven eager faces looking to my creation (my siblings had partners over at the time) and this awful slurping sound coming from the dish as I upended it – this was followed by a pale sad caramel gushing out before the undercooked custard flopped unceremoniously to the plate. Needless to say we didn’t all rush in with our spoons for a taste of that one.

These moments though taught me to keep trying. To investigate what went wrong and how to fix it. It taught me that attention to detail when cooking can mean the difference between success and failure. I hadn’t cooked the caramel enough before adding the custard mix contributing to the watery undercooked mess that day. Years later I could turn out over 50 individual crème caramels that had a beautiful dark caramel and that much sought after wobble on the plate. That one setback wasn’t going to inhibit me from trying again.

I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t choose to be a chef. It seems to be in my blood. My hands itch when I haven’t cooked for a few days, especially on holidays. My childhood adventures created a pathway for my adult realization of a dream. Stay tuned for my next exploration of becoming an apprentice and cooking in competitions in front of a crowd.

Easy ways to cook well, eat well and have fun doing it

Friends cooking together the veagetarian dinner in kitchen

An interesting revelation has come to come me lately. I always had this preconception that as a chef just because I know how to cook I must know how to eat. Let me explain my logic here – when you can cook and anything and enjoy cooking surely you must only eat the very best and cook the very best? Well, yes and no. Yes I do love cooking delicious and beautiful meals but do I always choose them? No. The usual excuses come into play here. Not enough time to cook when I get home from work, not bothered cooking once again or just plain sick of the sight of food and having to decide what to cook for dinner.

Meal plans, frozen meals, ready meals I hear you exclaim! I totally get the logic of this but there is also the friend that goes hand in hand with excuses – habit. It was never a habit of mine to make and freeze meals. It has never been a habit of mine to right a menu for the week. So what do you do when you are not eating well and don’t know where to start.

Learn what foods work for you and your body

  1. What is eating well and what does it mean to you?

Everyone has their definitions of eating well. For some it’s a calorie controlled meal plan, for others it’s a vegetarian diet, other’s it paleo. At the heart of eating well for me is choosing certain non-negotiable items:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season – buying seasonal and local means that not only are you getting the best version of your produce, you are also buying at the best value. Fruits and vegetables have seasons for a reason – this is when they grow best. When fruits are in season they are priced to match – there may be a glut from ideal weather so they are able to be sold off at a great price.
  • Quality meat, fish and poultry. If you choose to eat animal products ensure they are the best quality you can afford. To me respecting the animal source is paramount – free range or organic where possible and from reputable sources.
  • Full fat everything – now I know this seems in opposition to eating well but by eating full fat you aren’t compromising on flavour which can be compensated with added sugar or salt in low fat products. Fat satiates whereas sugar can trick your mind into thinking it hasn’t eaten as many calories as it has. Instead of having a small spoon of mayo you may find yourself using 3-4 to create the desired taste.
  • Make from scratch where you can – I am all for eating the foods you enjoy. Biscuits, cakes and muffins are all ok but I prefer that they be made from scratch. Packet mixes are usually just your dried ingredients plus stabilisers and emulsifiers added in. When you make your own foods you can adjust to taste and ensure the ingredients you love are in them. Baking muffins with oats and whole fruits makes for a sweet treat with added nutrients, cakes that can be made grain free without compromising flavour are possible. The same applies to dressings, sauces and marinades. Instead of just buying a sugar syrup with spices you can make robust and interesting combinations that suit your tastes.

Ok so now we have my rules for eating well. What is the next step?

schedule

  1. Create the habit and pay attention to your schedule.

There is no point planning a 7 day meal plan if you know you will be out or working for 3 of those days. Just the same as buying items that will go off quickly if you don’t use them with a plan. Plan for last minute catch-ups, outings or late shifts and what you can do with the food in your fridge if you don’t get to it straight away. Having your vegetables chopped ready for the week can mean that if you find yourself not home for dinner two nights in a row you can just blanch (steam/boil then cool in ice water) them for 2 minutes and then freeze to use when you can. The same applies to fruits. Having them diced up can make them more appealing to grab and if you find you’re just not getting to them pop them in the freezer for baking or smoothies.

 

frustrated cooking

  1. Explore your excuses and reluctance.

The reasons we don’t eat well, move our bodies or take care of ourselves can be varied and many. Family habits, projections and expectations can all create stories in our heads as to why we can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, it’s too hard. So how do we create new positive habits and let go of the stories? Start to question them – Are they yours? Have you been listening to other people’s stories? Are you repeating habits of family members? Are you projecting ideas onto yourself from what you think is required? All these stories and ideas can lock yourself into thinking nothing can change or will change. By exploring limiting beliefs you can choose new ways of being. Being in allowance of what works for you can be the first step in choosing different. Instead of judging the choices you have made to this point you can allow yourself to choose something new.

I am the first to admit that my clothes have gotten considerably tighter due to my excuses. I wasn’t willing to look at the changes in my lifestyle and the effects they would have. I went from working full time as a chef on my feet all day and doing outdoor activities 3-4 times a week to working part time and sporting a foot injury that dramatically reduced my activity levels. All of this can be compensated for but there needs to be no excuses and stories. If I had paid attention to my body, my eating plans and movement I would have identified the need to adjust my lifestyle. Notice I don’t say “go on a diet” or “exercise more”.

It is important to care for yourself without creating unrealistic goals and ideas that just serve to cement us in place versus allowing us to move forward. As the majority of my clothes got tighter I finally stopped, sat down and asked myself some questions. What has changed? What is different? Where am I not paying attention to my body and its care? This is where I came to realise I was eating energy dense foods in quantities I didn’t require. On days when you are moving around a lot and being very active more food may be required. Low key days at home may see you eating less. Or maybe neither of these apply to you but for me this reflection was key to getting my health and well being back on track.

Previous to my foot injury I was easily active. I enjoyed being outdoors and being active. The pain and frustration of my injury had my become all or nothing. Either I could be active or I wasn’t bothered. You can see how this isn’t conducive to good health and well being. So what could I have chosen?

  • Low impact movement: Yoga, pilates, boxing without the running components, using a small trampoline, swimming, bike riding, all these activities are low impact on my feet and could assist in keeping my body moving, vital and healthy
  • Planning meals: Having favourite recipes and meal ideas I know I enjoy and can create easily can take away the what to cook for dinner frustration
  • Proper rehabilitation of the muscles: This was the biggest issue. I refused to see a doctor or podiatrist for my foot pain for months. Not days or weeks, months. Even then I was reluctant to change my work shoes, do the rehabilitation of the muscles and seek other opinions and options. I didn’t want to admit that my body had changed and what may have been a minor issue I allowed to become a major one.
  • Checking in: Instead of just assuming that everything was too hard or too painful I could have checked in daily with what movements were comfortable for that day. Your body is ever changing and ever moving. Some days we are flexible and supple, some days we might be a little stiff and sore but it is changeable with some care and attention

So what did I choose? Only some of the above sometimes. As mentioned, the pain and frustration of my injury had me shutting down any awareness of the change required. I didn’t want to know what I could do I just wanted to mourn what I was no longer capable of. Sound familiar?

So what now?

time to change

  1. The time has come

For me now the time has come to start choosing different and enjoying my body, eating and movement once more. I starting seeing a different chiropractor, I went back to the podiatrist and said my orthotics weren’t working, I saw a physio to release the muscles and it worked. My feet are actually feeling better. I was also unsure that my hormones were in check so I went to a doctor. There is no shame in asking questions of health professionals. Sometimes they may have a key piece of information that you require. Of course no one knows your body like you do but if you don’t ask you can’t change anything.

It can take time to change habits as well. Some may disappear just by acknowledging them and some may take a little more processing but just being willing to choose is the first step.

I am excited at the new changes I know will be possible for me and my body and if you would like some further advice on eating well, cooking delicious foods or choosing supportive and fun movements and activities for your body please feel free to be in touch. I love to share my experience and offer ideas and support for you and your body. If you would like a more in-depth program I have fantastic packages available. Let me know what’s cooking in your kitchen and what has helped you create fabulous health and wellbeing J

What is creating Christmas Magic with Luisa and Jennie?

xmas collage

 

Christmas can be an interesting time of year. People are either stressed out shopping for the “perfect” gift or looking forward to spending time with family and friends over the break. Sometimes you may be like me for the last 14 years in the hospitality industry and you are dreading the onslaught of Christmas parties that bring long lunches, busy shifts and not a lot of holiday cheer.

So what if we could change this? What if we could create some Christmas magic that brings joy, happiness and sparkle back into your life? Regardless of your religious beliefs about this season, the universal desire to be with family, celebrate love and cheer and create a special time to come together and take a moment to appreciate all that we have has no boundaries. 

This year I am looking forward to Christmas as a time to stop, reflect and appreciate this year, my family, my partner, friends and my job. Christmas magic for me is also about taking the time to create gifts from the heart for those around us to show our love and appreciation for them. Simple gestures that reflect the recipients taste, likes and hobbies can go a long way to creating a gesture of love. 

When I was younger my mother always helped me create birthday cards for my classmates. At the time I found this horribly embarrassing and wondered why I couldn’t just buy birthday cards like everyone else but as time has passed and I have found the cards I made for my parents I can’t  help but smile at the memories and creativity that has gone into each one. 

Tapping into our creativity in a supportive and fun environment goes beyond that which we are making in front of us. This space can allow us to nurture our skills and the pleasures we take in forming beautiful foods, objects and decorations. In my busy weeks at work I lost sight of the pleasure of doing something different and creating something beautiful. I started to come back to the simple childhood pleasure of colouring in and this joy and fun has led me to creating a Christmas class with my friend Jennie. We would like to invite you to come play with us, taking time to nurture your creativity and explore what else you could make and have fun with. We come with many years’ experience playing with recipes, creating sewing or craft projects and delighting in homemade objects with a recipient in mind. 

What if you and your body are yearning for a space to come play with beautiful ribbons, sweet smelling spices and fun to play with salt dough? What if it didn’t matter what you created but just that you allowed yourself to create and just choose to have some fun with it? Interested? Yearning to join? For more info on the class click here for the nitty gritty and to book. We hope to have you join us for some Christmas magic soon.

 

When is it convenient to buy ready made?

microwave  

Ready made. Microwave meals. Convenient food. All becoming big no no’s in the culinary world. Why? I hear you ask. Depending on the quality of the product, made processed food items can contain more chemical numbers, salt and sugar than they do real ingredients. So when is it ok to buy ready made products and how do you know what to look for?

I won’t pretend that I haven’t never eaten instant noodles, cracked opened a jar of simmer sauce or marinade or cooked a frozen product. But I am learning to read labels and made different decisions. A little research can go a long way to allow you to know what you could make just as easily yourself and what is pretty much a mirrored product of handmade packaged up. 

One lament I often hear is time. I don’t have time to make food, I don’t have time to shop for ten million ingredients, I don’t have time to learn new recipes or how to do this from scratch. I get it. Life is busy, there are lots of commitments in your day, but some shortcuts can mean you’re paying a lot for very little convenience. 

So let’s start with the products you may find yourself reaching for but may actually contain very little bang for your buck:

marinade

Product

1. Marinades and simmer sauces – Have a read of the label. The ingredient listing has the product of the largest quantity listed first to the smallest last. So when you read a label that has water, sugar, flavourings you are possibly buying 50% water, 40% sugar, 10% flavours….crazy isn’t it? Now some products are much more closer to a product you would make yourself. That’s where reading brands makes the difference. I don’t have the time to read the labels in the shop I hear you exclaim. It takes on a quick scan once you know what you’re looking for. Below is a typical simmer sauce label which I will show you what to look for and how to create it for yourself: 

 

Vegetable content: 23%  – so the other 87% is the remaining ingredients, the second of which is sugar

Modified cornstarch : this is cornstarch that has been chemically treated to create a thickening agent. This does not mean it has been genetically modified but it becomes a more processed product if you are choosing to avoid this components

Now this is just an example to allow you to see what you are looking at when reading a label. Being able to decipher a label will mean you can make the best choices for you. If there are allergens, a dietary requirement or a lifestyle choice, reading labels means you will be best equipped to make the right choice for you.  

Homemade

Marinades can be easily made through the use of juices, soy sauce, oil, herbs, spices, chilli, garlic, honey, fish sauce etc. So how do you get it to be thick like the jars? Cornflour – just dissolve about a tablespoon of cornflour to a cup of water, simmer it to thicken, add your favourite seasonings, allow to cool and there is your own homemade marinade. You know what’s in it and can adjust the seasonings to you tastebuds. 

 

 

spices

Product

2. Spice blends 

This is another product where you may not realise exactly what you are eating. This is a morrocan spice blend. Notice that there is natural chicken flavourings in there. So if you are making a vegetarian or vegan dish this is a big no-no. The first ingredient is also salt which is the bulking carrier plus sugar is in there too. Again, choose wisely. You can easily make your own spice blend and have it be vegetarian/vegan friendly. There is rice flour which is gluten free but again, allergen alerts too. 

Homemade

Homemade spice blends are quite easy – yes you can use salt at the bulking ingredient but you control the proportion.

Here are some easy blends care of Wellness Mama.com

http://wellnessmama.com/4430/homemade-spice-blends/

She has everything from Taco mix, to Italian to homemade curry powder. Worth a look!  

 

microwave meal

Product

3. Microwave/Convenience  Meals

Now I don’t often say I am really for or against something but these are one of my pet hates. The amount of numbers, chemicals and what on earth is that is a bit mind boggling. The only real exceptions I have found are some quality organic ready made soups or organic meals as they cannot have the same chemical content. This next ingredient list of microwave spaghetti and meatballs. To me, this ingredients would be:

Beef mince, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, parsley,  breadcrumbs, tomato, spaghetti, egg 

As you can see on the label this is not the case. Palm oil is used which is a cheap, environmentally detrimental filler, rolled oats are in there instead of the traditional breadcrumbs and I’m not exactly sure what beef flavour is doing in there or what it actually is. A simple meal is turned into something far more complicated for shelf life and microwave ready content. But something has to give and that’s the integrity of the dish. So as you can see, it really pays to read a label and know what exactly you are eating and what it consists of. 

Home made

Meals like spaghetti and meatballs can be made easily at home and frozen for later use. Pasta only takes about ten minutes to cook so you can freeze a large batch of home made meatballs in sauce, defrost overnight in the fridge and reheat in a pan whilst the pasta cooks. Same applies to quiches, sausages in gravy and roasts. Add some sauce to stop the meat from frosting and it reheats quite well. This way you can spend just one or two nights getting meals for the next week ready and rotate through your freezer if you are pressed for time. A little organisation means you know what you are eating and you are not caught without a meal if dinner plans go awry. 

 

dip

Product

4. Dips and spreads 

Again this one can be an allergen alert and check for vegetarian/vegan friendly. Why is that? I hear you ask. Cream cheese is a common filler in a lot of cheaper dips. Even such unexpected varieties such as guacamole. You make think you are doing the right thing by your friends dietary needs but again, reading the label can ensure you don’t unwittingly serve cheese to a vegan. A faux paus by anyone’s standards I’m sure!

So what to look for? This is the ingredient list of a cheaper brand avocado dip:

Cream Cheese (61%) (Contains: Milk, Cream, Milk Solids, Salt, Vegetable Gum (410), Lactic Acid, Starter Culture), Avocado (15%), Potato Paste, Yoghurt [Contains: Milk, Milk Solids, Skimmed Milk, Cream, Starter Culture], Canola Oil, Reconstituted Lemon Juice, Spring Onion, Garlic Paste, Citrus Fiber, Thickener (1442), Colour (141, 160a)

Even a better brand still has the cream cheese filler:

Avocado (50%), Cream Cheese (Milk, Cream, Milk Solids Non-Fat, Microbial Rennet, Lactic Culture, Vegetable Gums (410, 412)), Corn (14%), Spring Onion, Capsicum (5%), Jalapeno Chilli, Canola Oil, Vinegar, Garlic, Salt, Sugar, Food Acids (270, 296, 300), Emulsifier (471), Soy Solids, Thickener (415), Colour (140).

Homemade Solution? Just smash you own avocadoes with some salt and pepper, lime juice and put into a food processor to whip if need be. If you need to thin it out, find your own cream cheese so you know how much you are using to extend it and if you need to make it vegan, find some vegan cheese to thicken. 

But there are exceptions such as this tzatziki dip which contains pretty much spot on the traditional tzatziki ingredients:

Yoghurt (Milk, Milk Solids Non Fat, Lactic Culture), Cucumber (16%), Vegetable Oil (Canola), Garlic, Soy Solids, Salt, Spices, Thickeners (415, 1412).

For clarification thic

kener 415 is xanthum gum which is derived from fermenting corn sugars so you may need to watch allergen alerts on this one as other starches can be used to create the xanthum gum and thickener 1412 is a starch derived from corn. In so far as close to the actual product goes this is not too bad except for the thickeners so if you are in a pinch it could be a good option. 

 

So when it ok to take a shortcut? In some instances there are products that pretty much match the home made product? Don’t believe me? Here are some of my ‘cheats’

puff pastry

1. Puff pastry – The labour required is pretty intense but this puff pastry is as close too if not better than the home made deal but shhh don’t tell anyone 😉

Pampas Butter Puff pastry (must be butter no the usual one): Wheat flour, unsalted butter (25%)(milk), water, salt, food acids (300,330) 

Food acid 300 is ascorbic acid or vitamin c which is used to treat flour and food acid 330 is citric acid and is natural preservative. So really, this product is pretty much the real deal. 

 

meringue

2. Meringue nests – again, this is more a time thing as meringues take time to cook at a low heat so if you need dessert in a pinch these are pretty good option 

Coles brand: Caster Sugar, Egg White, White Vinegar, Natural Flavour, Stabilisers (415, 412), Foaming Agent (1505)

Stabiliser 412 is guar gum, a natural gum from a plant seed, 415 is our friend xanthum gum and foaming agent 1505 is our friend citric acid too

 

soup

3. Ready made soups – as aforementioned organic varieties are pretty spot on 

Pitango Brand Lamb Soup: Lamb Stock (50%) (Water, Lamb, Carrot, Onion, Herbs & Spice), Vegetables (30%) (Carrot, Potato, Kumara, Onion, Garlic), Tomatoes, Lamb Meat (5%), Lima Beans, Red Wine (1%), Corn Starch, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Spices, Oregano, Rosemary (00.030%).

As you can see, no numbers, no chemicals, just soup of lamb and vegetables. Easy

 

jar vegetables

4. Some jarred vegetables – semi dried tomatoes, grilled capsicum/eggplant and marinated artichokes. These vegetables are all fairly wholesome if you choose the right brand and if making your own dips, pizza’s or sauces can be a step saver for a grander meal. 

Always Fresh eggplant: Grilled Eggplant (62%), Vegetable Oil, Salt, Garlic, Food Acid (330), Herbs, Vinegar.

As you can see if you need it in a hurry and don’t have the time to take this extra step it’s great in a pinch. Obviously grilling your own vegetables is a preferable choice but again, in a pinch not a bad option

 

At the end of the day it’s all about choosing what works for you. I am all for making life easier for yourself in the kitchen but it never hurts to be aware of where you can make it easy without adding a whole lot of chemicals and additives instead. Need some more hints and tips on how to create kitchen shortcuts or organise family meals in advance? Drop me a line at [email protected] and we can create some cooking classes or workshops to suit your needs. Happy cooking!

 

 

 

Undercover Chef Tip – Having your cake and cutting it too

Undercover chef tip - Cut the cake

 

Ever starting cutting up a beautiful birthday cake and found by the third slice it looks a little less than beautiful? So what to do? 

An easy solution is to warm up the knife in hot water to allow it to cut through the icing cleanly. 

So how do you warm up the knife easily? Just place some hot water in a measuring jug, dip the knife in for a few seconds, slice through with ease, wipe off the knife with paper towel, re-dip and continue to cut, repeating the dip and wipe with each slice. 

The result? Lovely clean slices that do justice to the cake. Woohoo. 

 

The knives are out – how to choose a kitchen knife that works for you

 a chef's hands with creaning fish | description: a chef's hands with creaning fish | location: Tokyo Japan | location: Tokyo Japan | description: a chef's hands with creaning fish | description: a chef's hands with creaning fish | location: Tokyo Japan | location: Tokyo Japan knife with food a knife and food

Besides what is is my favourite food to cook, what type of knife do I use is another question I am often asked. 

So how do you know what type of knife to invest in, what to look for and where to save your dollars? 

Let’s start with some basic points to consider:

1. What is the knife for and how often will you use it?

Knives whose job entails boning, filleting or cleaving may not be used very often unless they are a tool of the trade. Even as a chef I don’t often bone or fillet as the cuts we that come in in certain establishments sometimes don’t require too much further preparation. In other jobs though I might have to bone quails, fillet some fish and break down some chickens but for the most part the knife I use the most is my general chef knife.

So what is a chef knife exactly? It is usually a 20cm blade knife with a larger heel and fine point for chopping, dicing, slicing. It is almost an extension of a chef’s hand and is their best friend. 

For home cooks? This can be the weapon of choice when whipping up a fabulous meal. Having a comfortable, sharp, chef’s knife can make short work of hard task’s.

So for the knives you use most often it is worth the investment versus the little used knives that you can save your pennies on. 

knives

2. Is the handle comfortable to hold?

If you’re going to be holding the knife and chopping a storm the handle has to be comfortable. So how do you know? Grip it as if you were going to chop on a board and get a feel for it. Does it fit comfortably in your hand? What may fit well for someone else may not work for you. 

hand with knife

3. Is it the right weight for you?

I prefer somewhat lighter knives as after a long day chopping more weight can create unnecessary strain. But if a knife is too light it can make heavy duty chopping such as through root vegetables or meat a strain. Find the right balance and you’ll be chopping with ease in no time.

knife holding

4. What is the handle made of?

Quality knives either consist of one piece of steel from blade to handle or heavy duty plastic. The most important thing to consider with the handle is the ease of cleaning i.e one piece of steel or clean plastic handle as opposed to wood that can be porous and harbour germs. Quality knives also have secure joins between knife and handle that won’t crack or break which can cause injury if they break. 

knife handles

5. What is the blade made of?

Most modern knives are made of stainless steel with the better quality ones made of a higher grade composition. Some older knives may be made of carbon steel which is a great metal but is prone to rusting thus is often not found in many commercial knives as vigilance is required to prevent the rust. 

knife blade

6. What is the blade edge like?

A quality knife will have a blade edge from tip to hilt. Cheap knives will feature a thick edge that doesn’t extend to the hilt which can make it useless for chopping carrots and other harder vegetables. A fine edge will allow for precision cutting wheres a thick edge makes for clunky, difficult cutting. 

knife edge

 

7. Can you keep it sharp?

If you are going to invest in a quality knife make sure you can keep it sharp to prong its use. This is where you either need to also invest in a quality knife steel and stone or a quality sharpener. Cheap sharpeners will just shave too much of the blade off at too big an angle. A knife steel keeps an edge sharp whilst a stone hones the edge when it becomes too dull. Both are a great addition to your tool kit to keep your knives if top shape. 

knife steel

 

So taking this into consideration the short of it all is:

– Look for a comfortable knife that has a fine even blade, quality plastic or steel handle and is made of quality stainless steel. 

– Spend your money on the knives you use the most

– Invest in a knife steel and learn how to use it to keep your knives honed and sharp

 

 

 

 

 

Undercover Chef Tip – Saving the Herbs

Fresh herbs are great when you are making a salad or cooking and sprinkling them in. But what do you do with them when no further recipe ideas call for them later in the week? A great way to preserve herbs is to freeze them in olive oil or stock for later use. You can just pop a stock cube into a casserole, stew or curry and your herby burst of flavour will cook into the mix.

Defrost the olive oil frozen herbs for dressings or stir into pan when cooking onions and garlic for a recipe. Not only do you get to use up your herbs but you then have some stock and oil ready to go when you need it.

Sad wilted bunches of leftover herbs in the crisper be gone. You’re welcome.

Ask Luisa – have a cooking question? Just Ask!

Apologies for the bad ghost busters reference, it almost had to be done. The inspiration for this blog is thanks for a lovely friend asking about what to cook for dinner based on the ingredients she had. I realised that this is not uncommon for me as I have family often calling for a quick chef questions – i.e. How long should this take to cook? When would I know if this is ready? What cut of meat would suit this? And my favourite, It has turned a funny colour but smells ok, should I cook it?

I love these sorts of questions. It stimulates my cooking brain and allows me to delve into my knowledge to produce my version of what I would do in these circumstances. Just as I call my builder brother for advice on what to do when my shower screen comes off or a tap is leaking, so too do I give the cooking solutions.

So what was the prompt for the initial cooking question? Well J and I have been taking turns making dinner for each other each Monday and I had whipped up the fresh pasta with tomatoes and olives and other goodies as found in my cooking for a crowd blog. J wanted to replicate a similar dinner with a slight variation on ingredients that she either had on hand or had picked up from the supermarket.

My Advice?

1. Don’t bother with the bottled tomato sauce – if you have delicious fresh tomatoes on hand, don’t bother with bottled sauces – whilst they can seem like an easy and simple option they totally kill the freshness of the other ingredients

2. Forget the carrot – I only use carrot and celery when making bolognaise – i saute this off before adding the mince and allow it to cook out. If you’re not using mince, don’t bother with carrot – it won’t add anything

3. Grill the eggplant and zucchini – pan fried eggplant can be a bit, well blah. To me the smokiness of a bbq or even a grill caramelising it brings out the sweetness and subtlety of it. Same with the zucchini. Technically they are fruits so applying that sort of heat allows for a lovely golden caramel which creates gorgeous flavours. I would do the same when making a vegetable lasagna instead of just layering the raw vegetables.

4.  Use the oil from the semi dried tomatoes to coat the vegetables before grilling if you’d like some extra herby punch. I always keep those sorts of oils at they have infused with the tomato and generally have a herb mix in them so creates all sorts of delicious.

5. Saute the onion and add the tomato – by caramelising the onion and adding the tomato you get that brilliant sweetness and tartness together. Good balance means you don’t need to add sugar as some sauce recipes do. Allow the tomato to saute a little and bring out it’s own juices. Help it along a little with some water and you have a fresh yummy sauce.

6. To finish, add the grill vegetables to the tomato mix, stir in the olives and semi-dried tomatoes, top with torn up bocconcini and fresh basil if on hand. Buon appetito!

So who do you call when you don’t have a chef as your sister/friend/partner? Well, me. I am more than happy to answer any and all cooking queries be it simple or complex. If I don’t know the answer then I will try and find out for you. After all I have many chef friends on call too so if I can’t help, I’ll test their skills to see if they can.

So how can you enlist my help? Just ask: on my facebook page or email me at [email protected]

What sort of questions can I answer? Hopefully anything. If you have baked a cake that hasn’t quite worked let me know what ingredients you used, the pan size and oven temp and we can nut it out. Something too salty, sweet or spicy? Check the forum for reference material.

Not sure what to do for dinner with what you bought? Either check my recipes page for inspiration or upload a pic of the ingredients to the facebook page or email me, I’ll give you a recipe if you’ll let me share the yummy finished product. How easy right?

So what’s the catch? I hear you say. None at all. I love to share my foodie knowledge and stretch my chef brain. If you’d like me to come to you and hash out a variety of recipes or recreate some of your more epic disasters to see where you went wrong then we can arrange for a lesson at cost. But the simple questions and advice? Happy to help.

Love to enlist my help with some cooking lessons? Check out my services page to see if we can find a match to fit.

Happy cooking!