15 Tips from Judy's Kitchen

This is not your usual list of hints, but a few favorites I'd like to share from my kitchen:

1. Clean the Can
If your can opener ever drops the lid into the can, or you use the lid to drain off liquid from the contents, be careful. Before opening the can, wash the top with dish soap, rinse and dry. This way you won't contaminate the contents.

2. Unbleached Paper Goods
If you use coffee filters or parchment paper, buy the unbleached versions. Just a small step to avoid toxins in your food. My supermarket sells the regular parchment with tin foil and plastic bags, an the unbleached version is sold with the baking goods like chocolate morsels - can't figure that one!

3. Dried Citrus Peel
If you are fortunate to grow your own citrus fruit or you buy organic, save the peel. It dries quickly on a paper towel laid on the counter. Once dried, I put orange, lemon, or lime peel through the coffee grinder, store in a spice jar, and use them as easy flavor enhancers for baked goods, salad dressings, etc. Best to use peel that doesn't have a thick white layer, since that part tastes bitter.

4. Foolproof pasta al dente:
Boil plain water in a big pot, then add your pasta. Stir until it returns to a boil, then cover and remove from the heat. Let it sit for the minimum amount of cooking time on the pasta box instructions. Drain. This always cooks pasta perfectly for me, and it conserves energy too.

5. Remove Sticky Labels
I've tried cooking oil and smelly commercial goo-remover, but the best sticky residue remover I have found is Citra-Solv concentrated cleaner, used undiluted. Smells good too.

6. Sweetening with Stevia
You can buy stevia powder as a sweetener much more readily these days, even in the supermarkets. I've always found it so concentrated that the tiny amount needed is hard to distribute with other ingredients. Now I use a small bottle which previously held hot sauce (very well cleaned out), so it has the plastic top with a slit that lets a few drops out at a time. I fill it with water and mix just a tiny amount of the super-sweet stevia powder. This makes it easy to shake a few drops into a not-quite-sweet-enough smoothie, which is just the right amount. It's also possible to grow stevia as an herb and dry the leaves yourself. I planted one, then harvested and air-dried the leaves on a frame with a screen attached, until the leaves were brittle. Then I powdered them in my designated coffee-grinder… still green, but super-sweet. My stevia plant came back the second year (still looking for growth this third year, after a cold winter). It grows in the mountains of South America, so I hope it is cold hardy enough for Tennessee.

7. Jar Lids
I love having home-canned pickles, jellies, and tomatoes, but I hate those 2-part metal lids and rings. After the jar has been opened over and over and in the fridge for a while, they can start to get rusty and messy. So upon opening the jars, I replace the lids with one-piece white plastic lids (saving the screw bands for future canning). These Ball storage lids come in the regular and wide-mouth jar sizes and are sold in a box of 8, often with canning supplies. They seem fairly indestructible, and clean in the dish washer. The standard threading also fits commercial glass jars that are sold with stuff like peanut butter or mayo, so you can recycle the jars with lids which won't rust in longterm storage as the metal lids can.

8. Rice Soak
'Ever get rice stuck to the pot after cooking? Just fill with water and let it soak overnight. The rice will absorb the water and should come unstuck by morning.

9. Crisp Celery
After washing celery, stand it on end to drain. When dry, wrap the whole bunch in tinfoil. Store in refrigerator veggie drawer. Stays crunchy until you've used it all!

10. Vacuum "Canning"
Speaking of canning, if you have a FoodSaver vacuum machine, they make a hose accessory (standard with some deluxe models, I think) which will vacuum seal a canning jar. This isn't to use for doing pickles or other standard water-bath processed canned goods; it's for longterm storage of items like nuts, spices, grains, dehydrated foods, bread crumbs, baking mixes, freezer jams, freshly milled flour, etc. If you are sealing a powdery substance, you can just put it into a plastic bag and twist closed, and put that into the jar before sealing… this way the vacuum won't suck up the powder while sealing the jar. Contents of jars which have been vacuum sealed are impervious to moisture and air, so storage life is extending beyond just screwing a lid on the container. The product can be used and the lid sealed again and again. This attachment is sold in either the regular or wide mouth standard jar size.

11. See What You Are Cleaning
I'm not fond of cleaning, but I like to do the best job possible for the time I invest. For cleaning in my dimly lit lower cabinets (even for the front of the lower cabinet doors and drawers) I don a miner's headlamp. It's amazing how much better you can see into those dark corners. These are readily available, in various brightness levels, at the camping section of superstores. Bonus Tips: we keep one of these headlamps at the back door for emergency trips outdoors in the night (sick dog, etc) and they are very helpful during power outages.

12. Powdering Sugar
I buy refined sugar only to make food for my hummingbird feeders, and I don't keep 10x confectioner's sugar on hand. When the need arises to sprinkled superfine sugar on some baked goods, it's very easy to make my own - just put regular granulated sugar in a clean coffee grinder and whirl until powdered.

13. Emergency Eggs
Occasionally I'll pull out a recipe for baked goods which calls for an egg, and I find i have none. Knocking on a neighbor's door is not a real good option in my rural setting, so I keep "Ener-G Foods Egg Replacer" on hand. It's a white powder, and just 1-1/2 tsp mixes with 2 T of water to substitute for one raw egg. With that small amount, the 16 oz. box lasts a long long time. It's good to use if you avoid eggs for allergy, vegan or other dietary reasons, since it's a non-egg product. Contains potato starch, tapioca, and other ingredients. I even once used it for one of the 3 eggs in a quiche and couldn't tell the difference from using 3 real eggs.
     A second handy dehydrated egg product is Deb El "Just Whites," which is a can of just dried egg whites, no additives or preservatives… add water and stir. I hate to through away one of my fresh free range yokes when a recipe calls for just the whites, like brushing egg white on bread before baking, so this is a handy alternative. The label says it can substitute for fresh egg whites in any recipe, and even has a Meringue Cookie recipe printed on the side.

14. Blanching Almonds
If your recipe calls for blanched almonds, and all you have are whole raw almonds, it's easier than you might think to blanche your own. Put the almonds in a bowl and add boiling water to cover. Drain after 1 minute and rinse with cold water. The skins will slip off between your fingers.

15. The Best Cleansers
In the cleaning aisle of the supermarket, look for "Bon Ami" cleanser. It is my favorite for scrubbing corning casseroles, cleaning my stainless steel sinks, getting coffee and tea stains out of mugs, cleaning the stovetop. It's made in the USA, cheap (mine was 89 cents for 14 oz.), is non-abrasive, and has no perfume, chlorine or dyes added. Web site says the main ingredients are the mineral feldspar (a gentle abrasive powder) and limestone (an even softer abrasive). I also like "Bar Keepers Friend" for similar uses, and for the shower stall and glass doors.

I hope you find these ideas helpful!


Perfect Winter Harvest

Have you ever heard of Jerusalem Artichokes? Perhaps you've seen them as "sunchokes," sold in the supermarket produce section? I'm a big fan of these edible plants, whose roots are harvested in winter months and can be used, raw or cooked, in a variety of recipes.

The Jerusalem Artichokes are not artichokes and do not come from Jerusalem - various theories exist for how they were named. They the swollen roots, called tubers, of "Helianthus tuberoses," a perennial flowering plant of the sunflower/aster family, which often grow in the wild. They look a lot like ginger roots. During the warm months, these tubers supply the nutrients for the growth of tall stiff leafy stalks, 7 feet or taller, which are topped with a profusion of 3" yellow daisy-type flowers in the fall. As the flowers fade and the stalks and leaves die back, the plant's energies go back into the roots, and the tubers begin to grow again.

Jerusalem Artichoke tubers are dug from November thru early March here in Tennessee, just harvesting as many as you want for immediate use, and leaving the rest in the ground for subsequent harvests. I'll be honest - these are not for those of you who hate to get your hands dirty… literally and figuratively. If you've ever dug and cleaned fresh potatoes, you know there is some work involved. Even though they can be used like potatoes, I wouldn't attempt to prepare a big casserole of Jerusalem Artichokes for a crowd... too much work. But as an addition to other foods, they are perfect.

To prepare for eating, the harvested Jerusalem Artichoke roots are washed and scrubbed to remove the dirt, like other root crops. The skin is golden, and the inside is white. The thin skin can be peeled with a vegetable peeler, but it sort of scrubs off while cleaning. I prefer to hose the tubers off after digging, soak briefly in a bowl of water to loosen the remaining dirt, then scrub with a vegetable brush (the kind like a fingernail scrubbing brush).

The tubers can be:
Freshly dug tubers, not yet washed.
  • Eaten raw - with a texture and crunch similar to water chestnuts; added to salads and dips
  • Cooked - prepared in many ways as you would use potatoes (baked, boiled, stewed, fried, etc.)
  • Sliced - for quick stir-fry type cooking
  • Dehydrated
  • Dried and ground into flour
  • Pickled
Loose soil hosed off.
Scrubbed, ready to cut up and add to a beef stew.
They have a slight sweetness, particularly if harvested late in their season, but otherwise don't have a strong flavor. When using them raw, air will darken them just as with apple slices, so cut when ready to use, or cut and dip them in water with a small amount lemon juice, vinegar, or some other acid added. If you are storing the tubers, it is best to wash them, then place in them a zip bag in the refrigerator; the moisture helps keep them fresh. Use within a week. They cannot be stored like potatoes or they will dry up and shrivel.

I have used raw Jerusalem Artichokes chopped and stirred into chicken salad for a slight crunch, the same as celery would add. I also slice them thin to mix in a garden salad. Chopped pieces make a good addition to onion dip too. When cooking the tubers, added acid can strengthen the texture, so cut when ready to add to the cooked recipe rather than cutting early and soaking in lemon juice, as when used raw. I have cooked them in a beef stew, cutting into 1" pieces, and adding to a crock pot with onions, carrots, mushrooms, beef and herbs. After hours of cooking, they deliciously absorb the stew flavors. I've also sliced Jerusalem Artichokes and sauteed with onions and kale, as a yummy side dish, and I've used them to make a pureed cheese soup, much like you'd use potatoes. Experiment!

Even if they weren't so good, the fact that Jerusalem Artichokes can be harvested continuously all winter, when so little else is growing in the garden, makes them a valuable food source. In an emergency, when you can't get to the store for produce, they are readily available for your immediate harvesting.

After harvesting, the Jerusalem Artichoke's storage carbohydrate is inulin, which is converted to fructose in the digestive tract, as compared with the storage carbohydrate of potatoes - starch, which is converted to glucose in the gut. Thus Jerusalem Artichokes are a better tolerated choice for diabetics.

My location in Zone 7 is about as far south as Jerusalem Artichokes grow, needing about 125 frost-free days. They are not particularly happy in our slow-draining Tennessee clay soil, so augment the planting bed to improve drainage. I found my three-year old planting bed had spread toward a rock-filled drainage ditch beside the bed, where the drainage was better. Planting in spring is best, and they like slightly alkaline soil and sunshine. Plant pieces of tubers at least 2 ounces, 4-5 inches deep, about 12 inches apart. Chose a location where very tall plants will look nice, and plant them where they can thrive and spread, year after year. Even if you try to dig all the roots, you will have a hard time eliminating this vigorous crop. Mine sometimes get too tall by midsummer and wind will blow the stalks over, so I cut them down a few feet, sacrificing some of the flowering in later months.
Digging tubers in late winter, to share with others for planting.
Dig the tubers beginning in fall, after the plant has died back, and after the first frost. Insert a tined garden fork into the soil under the dried stem, loosening the soil. You'll see the golden tubers scattered amongst the dirt, all at about the same depth. Pieces will vary from knobby to round, 1-1/2" to 4", and will not have any roots attached to them, so just pull them out of the dirt. In late winter, you'll know it's time to stop harvesting when you see one end of each tuber has started growing a shoot, preparing for the new season's growth.