Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
With "The Basics at Home" series we offer pages of simple recipes within a theme. Also included is food for thought about how to use the basics as a jumping off point to create your own versions and links to other applicable recipes within the aPinchOf website.
On this page: Nutty Granola; Creamy Spinach and Bacon Pasta; Spiced Coffee; Nuts about Nuts; Breadcrumb 101
part of "The Basics at Home" Series
You probably haven't given much thought to breadcrumbs. These culinary enhancements are an incidental item you may or may not have on hand. If they come up as an ingredient in a recipe, are you likely to pick up a cardboard can of breadcrumbs from the supermarket?
Let's reconsider. Those canned crumbs have been produced from unknown bread and have been perched on that shelf for an unknown length of time. We can do better than that.
The basic breadcrumb begins with not so fresh bread and a food processor. You don't want to use completely stale bread but a soft, doughy loaf won't work at all. Tear the bread into largish cubes then process into uniform sized crumbs. This is considered fresh breadcrumbs. They are good for topping fish or casseroles as well as an ingredient in meatballs and meatloaf. You will often come across recipes that call for them.
It's always a good idea to make more than you need because fresh breadcrumbs keep so well in the freezer. Place them in a freezer bag, try to squeeze out as much air as possible and then store that in a second bag.
Nearly any sort of bread will work for crumbs. I like to use the hearty wheat breads complete with nuts and seeds for garnishing vegetable dishes. Other times white bread or sourdough is more appropriate. Just be sure to label your freezer bags accordingly so you will remember what you used.
Sometimes a recipe will call for dry breadcrumbs and even fine, dry breadcrumbs. These start with your fresh crumbs spread out on a baking sheet. Dry them in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Watch carefully and stir two or three times to keep them from burning. They are ready when just barely browned. Allow them to cool before using. These are coarse dry breadcrumbs.
For fine dry breadcrumbs, place the cooled coarse crumbs into a sieve. Rub them gently against the screen allowing the finer crumbs to fall onto a sheet of waxed paper. Now you have coarse dry breadcrumbs left in the sieve while those on the paper are considered fine.
If you would like to make seasoned breadcrumbs or find a recipe that calls for them, simply mix in dried herbs or herb blends like Italian seasonings or lemon-pepper. Seasoned salts, such as onion or garlic, would also be a creative addition.
Completely dried crumbs, seasoned or not, will keep well on the pantry shelf for some time but, remember, we are doing all of this to avoid old, stale crumbs so do use them up quickly.
More information: All About Seasoned Salts. Monster Meatballs call for fresh breadcrumbs. Coming soon, more ways to use your breadcrumbs.
Nuts About Nuts
That's me. I'm crazy for those crunchy kernels of healthy goodness. My passion includes but surpasses peanuts and pecans. I sprinkle pepitas on my salads and add walnuts to my stir-frys. I like almonds in my cereal and adore hazelnut biscotti.
You might consider joining my nut brigade because they are, indeed, a food that is packed with vitamins and minerals plus the good fats that we are encouraged to eat for heart health and cancer prevention.
All this is true unless a person has any sort of nut allergy. Be sure to consider for whom you are cooking when you incorporate nuts into a recipe. If you are cooking for a crowd or an unfamiliar group of people it is always a good idea to avoid using them. Or, at the very least, make it clear that the dish contains nuts by also using them as a garnish.
Nuts, and seeds too, keep well on the pantry shelf for short periods but if you want to buy in bulk and store them longer, double bag and park them in the freezer. They will thaw quickly once removed.
Toasting nuts and seeds brings out even more flavor. You can accomplish this with the oven or the stovetop. A single layer of nuts on a baking sheet will take about ten minutes to toast in a 375 degree oven. In a dry skillet over medium high heat, nuts will toast much faster so watch them closely and keep them moving. Think of toasting nuts before making pesto or hummus or anytime you are adding them to baked goods.
The nuts will toast automatically when you use them as a topping on baked goods. That's what we do with the almonds on poppy seed muffins and the different spices in the seed roll recipes within this site. Nuts as a topping make brownies more attractive and tasty.
Although most often associated with baked goods in the kitchen, nuts are a great addition to so many savory dishes. I love pecans in recipes like the fenugreek stuffing. Nuts, especially almonds, mixed with breadcrumbs make a wonderful combination for broiled or baked fish or as a coating for breaded chicken. Aside from the pumpkin seeds (pepitas) that I mentioned above, every sort of nut is a welcome addition to salad.
So many recipes for sweets will be enhanced with the addition of nuts, especially cookies. Pine nuts are often pressed into the tops of amaretti similar to the anise-almond cookies. I like to add nuts to cobbler toppings or even mix ground nuts into pie crusts. Nothing covers up an imperfect frosting job like chopped nuts pressed into the sides of a cake.
I could go on and on but I'm sure, by now, you have come up with plenty of your own ideas for going nuts with nuts.
To investigate the health benefits of individual varieties of nuts go to NutsOnline.
Don't let hot weather keep you from indulging in your daily ration of coffee. Just go iced. And don't let that melting ice weaken your perfect brew. Use coffee cubes.
Coffee ice cubes are a simple matter of filling your ice cube trays with fresh coffee after it has cooled. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to a freezer bag and they will be ready for the next time you want a cool treat.
For a spicy, icy treat, consider brewing up the recipe below for freezing. The subtle seasonings are refreshing and a definite improvement on those sticky sweet syrups so common as coffee flavorings lately.
You could play with other natural coffee flavorings from your spice shelf, as well. Crush an allspice berry or two into your ground coffee or how about a half a cinnamon stick? What a great way to recycle that used vanilla bean.
One word of warning: after brewing spiced coffee in your coffee maker, the next pot of plain coffee will likely carry a faint flavor reminder of the last. If you find this undesirable you may wish to run one cycle with water only.
This combination has a rather mild spicy flavor when I make it in my ten-cup coffee maker. It is a good jumping off point for experimenting to suit your own tastes. You could make it stronger by increasing the amount of spices or by brewing a smaller amount of coffee.
Ground coffee and water as required for your machine
1 cardamom pod
1/4 teaspoon dried orange peel
hefty pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
Prepare coffee and water as you would normally for brewing but crack the cardamom pod and sprinkle the seeds over the ground coffee; drop in the pod as well. Add the orange peel and nutmeg to the ground coffee. Brew as usual.
More refreshing treats: Sesame Seed Ice Cream; Sparkling Mocktail; Tea Time
Whole Wheat Pasta
There is a new game in town when it comes to pasta and it's called whole wheat. Don't make that face. Today's versions of whole grain pastas actually taste good. They offer a nutty flavor and cook up to a tender-firm texture that is pleasing to the palate. At least the one I'm going to recommend does. Not all pastas are created equal.
After trying several brands with mixed results, mostly unpleasant, I found Ronzoni's Healthy Harvest. Their whole wheat blend pasta keeps the traditional semolina that white pasta is made from but they add whole wheat flour and wheat fiber. It's a good mix that provides six grams of fiber per two-ounce serving compared to the two grams in regular type.
The recipe below is by no means health food but it is tasty as can be. I like to think the whole wheat pasta, walnuts and vegetables balance out the heavy cream and bacon. Creamy Spinach and Bacon Pasta is a satisfying dish doesn't highlight any particular herb, however, the freshly ground black pepper does add dimension. Once you have finished the prep work, it goes together quickly in a single skillet.
The addition of seafood would not be out of place in this recipe. Consider some minced clams tossed in with the tomatoes or a few cooked shrimp perched artfully atop each serving.
One last note, unless you cook fresh spinach frequently, you will think two bunches is way too much for four people. I promise this is correct and just right.
Creamy Spinach and Bacon Pasta
2 cups heavy cream
12 ounces whole wheat pasta
1 cup walnut pieces
10 strips of bacon, sliced into thin strips
2 bunches spinach, cleaned and chopped
4 roma tomatoes, cored and diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Adjust the heat to maintain a strong simmer and reduce by half. Keep an eye on this process to keep the cream from boiling over.
Meanwhile, set a pot of salted water over high heat for cooking the pasta. Cook the pasta according to package directions while preparing the sauce.
Toast the walnuts in a wide dry skillet over medium-high heat, shaking frequently until fragrant and lightly browned. Transfer to a small plate to cool and then chop coarsely.
Return the skillet to medium-high heat and cook the bacon until crisp. Pour off all but 2 Tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat and add the spinach to the skillet with the bacon. Stir it around, moving the top to the bottom often. When there is room in the skillet, stir in the tomatoes and add salt to taste. Continue stirring until the spinach is completely wilted and the tomatoes have "melted." Pour the reduced cream over the vegetables and season with pepper.
Drain the cooked pasta and transfer to a warmed serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the pasta; toss to coat. Next, add all but 1 Tablespoon of the chopped walnuts, toss some more and then add the cheese and give it a final toss. Sprinkle with the remaining walnuts and serve right away.
Makes four servings.
Find out more about cleaning spinach on the Basic Veggie How-To Page. Other ideas for topping your whole wheat pasta: Basic Tomato Sauce; Spicy Pasta for One.
Skip the cereal aisle
Homemade granola is no great feat. It is simply a matter of measuring, mixing and careful baking. The results are tasty, the shelf-life is long.
Granola is one of those basic foods that you end up reaching for all the time. My favorite afternoon snack is a heaping handful of granola mixed into a cup of yogurt. It is satisfying, healthy and the only cleanup is washing a spoon. Equally satisfying, especially on chilly mornings, is a bowl of hot granola that takes only a minute to prepare by pouring on some milk and turning on the microwave.
"Health up" your pancakes by sprinkling a bit of granola over the batter once you have dropped the cakes onto the griddle. Give your bowl of ice cream (or better, frozen yogurt) a crunchy topping with granola or just use it to top fresh fruit. Try mixing a half a cup or so into your next batch of muffins or cupcakes. And one more idea, use granola as a filling for your next baked apple.
The recipe below calls for apple juice concentrate. If that is not something you normally use for drinking just take what you need, re-seal the can and keep it in the freezer for the next time you make granola. Seek out unsweetened coconut, if possible, but the sweetened kind will work in a pinch. The difference in flavor between the two is remarkable. Unsweetened coconut has a nutty fresh taste that is masked by the sugared coating that most of us are used to.
2 1/2 cups oatmeal, not instant
3/4 cup chopped mixed nuts
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup frozen apple juice concentrate
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup canola oil
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the oatmeal, nuts, wheat germ, coconut and seeds in a large bowl.
Stir the apple juice concentrate, honey and oil together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla. Pour this liquid over the oat mixture in the bowl and mix well.
Spread the granola mixture evenly on a large baking sheet with a rim. Bake for about 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes with a wide spatula, until the granola takes on a deep caramel color. The toasting time will vary by the size of the pan used and granola can burn quickly. Each time you stir, listen for signs that it is becoming crisp--as it begins to make more sound on the baking sheet, it is getting closer. It will crisp up further as it cools.
Makes about 3 1/2 cups. Store in an airtight container. Granola can be frozen for up to three months.
Other recipes for homemade pantry basics: Thousand Island Dressing; Beer-Thyme Mustard; Poppy Seed Yogurt Sauce; Caraway Quick Bread. Read more about honey and other recipes that use honey: What's the Buzz About Bees?
More pages in the Basics at Home series: