Holiday cooking vacation!

A good friend recently asked me some awesome cooking questions he wanted to learn during his holiday staycation:

  1. Is there any tool I should absolutely buy for my home kitchen?

  2. Any particular skills I should focus on as a basis for learning more later?

  3. Do you recommended list of things I should try to make? 

  4. Any books/websites you recommend for cooking tricks, tips, and recipes?

I worked up so much gusto in my e-mail response that I thought it was blog worthy!  I'm always happy to impart food knowledge to those who want to learn, so feel free to send an e-mail my way to rosalynsdarling (at) gmail (dot) com.

With that, here was my response to his questions... If you have time off this Christmas holiday and are looking for ways to buff up your kitchen and cooking skills...


Essential Tools for the Kitchen

 I'm not one for crazy specialized kitchen gadgets - they're a waste of space and money. Unless you're doing something really specific a ton of times, you really don't need things like garlic presses. The most essential tools needed to make any great dish can be bought at Sur La Table. Why from Sur La Table? Sur La Table guarantees all their merchandise so if anything goes wrong or if you don't like it at any time, they will refund or replace your stuff (like REI or Nordstrom). 

  • A good chef knife and paring knife - These are the most important tools you should have in your arsenal. A good, sharp chef and paring knife is something that will last for years and will make your life easier and safer. For a home cook, I recommend getting a Wüsthof 8" chef knife and paring knife. All Wüsthof knives are made with German steel, unlike other German brands, so the blade will be easy to sharpen, get very sharp and stay sharp. No need for the fancy Shun, steel carbon, layered stuff - very high maintenance and very expensive.

  • A nice set of tongs and a fish spatula - Tongs are a great universal tool for grabbing, flipping, stirring, etc. - for things that are not too delicate. When you're dealing with more delicate things, like eggs and fish, go for the fish spatula (not just for fish!). For tongs, you want ones with a good length so you don't burn your hands off when trying to flip stuff over high heat. I useEdlund 12" stainless steel tongs. For a fish spatula, go for flexible and thin.
  • A grippy cutting board - Slippery cutting boards can make cutting things difficult and dangerous. You can put a damp cloth towel under a regular cutting board, but for ease, I recommend getting a cutting board with rubber grips. Don't skimp on size - get the large one.
  • Good stainless steel pots and pans - I don't believe in non-stick because the coating never lasts for more than a year (maybe 2) and it doesn't brown things as well (less flavor in your food). The Sur La Table set is awesome in terms of performance and price - they rival All Clad at a fraction of the cost. I wish somebody told me this before I dropped $1,300 on my All Clads...

Skills to Learn / Things to Make

Seeing that you only have a couple weeks for cooking adventures, I recommend focusing on the two things below. By exploring these topics, you are helping to build your foundation as a home cook and opening yourself to new flavors and techniques.

1. Learn to make dishes that can be re-purposed into different dishes for future meals and snacks. 

A lot of newer cooks trying to make the most elaborate whatever dish that requires a lot of novel ingredients, but then they have no idea what to make with those acquired ingredients outside of the recipe they're using. I always say that simple can be so tasty, creative, and easy. For example, you can roast a chicken. In the same pan that's roasting the chicken, add some diced potatoes, rosemary, carrots, celery, onion, beets, bell peppers, garlic - any hearty veggies are good. It's simple to do and requires one baking dish. Then you take the leftovers from that chicken and veggies to make a salad, soup, sandwich, stir-fry. etc. Exciting different eats made from one dish.

Say hello to my roasted chicken kitchen sink vegetable soup. It was warm and hearty - perfect for cold days!

Say hello to my roasted chicken kitchen sink vegetable soup. It was warm and hearty - perfect for cold days!

Other dishes where you can get creative:

  • Whole roasted fish -  If you don't like fish bones, go you can sub the whole fish for some big slabs of filleted fish. When baking the fish, add some tomatoes, dill, lemon, onion, and fennel to the baking dish to make the dish more complex and filling. Any leftover fish would make a nice topping for a garden salad.
  • Stir-fries are super versatile and can incorporate basically whatever veggies, meats, and noodles/rice you currently have. I tend to make stir-fries when I have random veggies and meats that need to be used up. Then I turn the stir-fry into nice noodle soups by adding some chicken broth and Asian noodles. I also turn them into wraps for lunch or omelets for breakfast. If you want a snack or appetizer, you can put spoon some leftover cold stir-fry on crackers/bread, sprinkle a little grater cheese on each cracker/bread slice, then bake in the oven at 375 degrees until the cheese is gooey.
    • You roast a chicken with veggies, then use that same chicken and veggies, add more sauces (soy, oyster, sriracha, etc.) to make a stir-fry! Then use the stir-fry to make a lunch sandwich or tacos! ZOMG

2. Find ways to add layers of flavor into your cooking.

 I think one of the main differences between a professional chef and a home cook is that chefs know where to add lots of layers of flavor to a dish. You can give a home cook and chef the same exact ingredients, and the chef will know how to manipulate, brown, deglaze, and season in a way that would usually out-flavor what the home cook makes. People are always shocked at how little ingredients I use to yield such robust flavor. There are lots of ways to layer in flavor:

  • Salt is your friend! Salting your food properly can make a world of difference on the taste of your food. A lot of people are astounded by how much salt chefs use, yet the flavor that is created is not salty at all. Salt actually brings out the flavor of your ingredients. Kosher salt is my main staple.  
    • A good experiment to try is to taste soups or veggies at different salt levels. I did this in culinary school where I took chicken stock with no salt and gradually added more salt to each spoonful of stock to learn about the right salt level vs. too salty. 
    • Salt also affects food differently depending on when you use it. For instance, if you salt a steak before you cook it, it will render the meat more tender, juicy, and overall flavorful. If you hit it with a little salt after cooking, the meat will be more bright in flavor. Just make sure that if you salt at different stages, you keep in mind the total salt you've used to make sure you don't inadvertently over-salt.
    • Also, truffle salt. Enough said.
  • Brown your meats in a not non-stick pan. 
    • When you brown meats in a stainless steel or cast iron pan, you get some really tasty brown bits that stick to pan from cooking. These brown bits are a staple to making tasty sauces that you can use later in your dish. 
    • After browning the meat, remove the meat from the pan, and pour a little wine, water, or stock/broth in the pan to let the brown bits desolve (aka deglaze). Voila! You have a little sauce you can use with your dish to add another layer of flavor. You can add more herbs and spices to this sauce if you want.
  • Cooking veggies at different temperatures yields very different flavors. Take the onion, for instance...
    • Low heat will yield a sweeter, more mild flavored onion that works really well in soups and sauces. Just simmer onion on low heat for 30 minutes with a little oil until they turn translucent and very soft.
    • High heat will caramelize your onoin for a more pronounced flavor. This works well for dishes where you want more assertive flavors (red meats, stir-fries, roasts, burgers. etc). High heat and some oil will do the trick - cook until they're evenly browned.
    • This principle works on a ton of different veggies, especially garlic, and even fruit! Experiment and get creative.
  • Try new spices and herbs that aren't usually in your pantry. Some few great ones that I think you'd love are below. I recommend going to a spice store and exploring.
    • Smoked paprika - It's a different take from what most people use, which is sweet paprika. The smoked aspect makes any dish more robust and "meatier". I like to add it to my veggies when I roast them or to a vegetable-based sauce.
    • Marjoram - This herb is a more mild version or Oregano, which is found a lot in Italian food. Some people say that oregano is too much of a kick in the face, and to that I say try marjoram.
    • Ground sumac berries - This berry is used a lot in middle eastern cooking (like spinach puffs), and I love the tang that it brings to a dish. When I cook spinach or mushrooms, I always add this! I think it would work well on chicken and fish too.
My spice rack brings all the chefs to the yard...

My spice rack brings all the chefs to the yard...


Useful Cooking Resources

I don't have a cookbook to recommend that covers general cooking, and I think that cookbooks do a better job when they cover one topic deeply (like the Tartine bread book or a awesome canning book Food in Jars). If there is a specific food topic you want to learn about, let me know, and I can recommend a book. However, here are some other sources that I think you'd find inspiring and useful:

  • Bon Appetit Magazine & Website - I love to look through Bon Apetit's pages for inspiration on dishes to make and they also have a "Test Kitchen" section that teaches cooking techniques and tips through videos and slideshows.
  • - This is a great source to find recipes that are approachable, unique, and delicious. The lady who runs this started as a small food blogger, and her recipes were such a hit that she went on to publish a cookbook! She is truly living the dream...
  • The Flavor Bible - Food is my religion, and this is my go-to book. This book does not have any recipes, specifically, but it will show you what ingredients taste best together. If you get to the point where you don't want/need specific recipes to make food, I highly recommend this book. It helps to improv dishes while still giving you a lot of creative freedom in the cooking process.


Ice Cream is Happiness Condensed

I've never seen an angry person eating ice cream - true story. Maybe it's because the delightful decadence of ice cream can turn any sour situation into a sweet one. I'll admit I'm having a bit of a tough morning where all the little things are not going so great. I need a treat to placate the inner frustrated me, and so I turn to my kitchen/sanctuary.

I love making ice cream. Love is an understatement. The flavor combinations that can be created are endless, and nothing says, "I love you" to that special someone (or yourself) than a bowl of homemade scoops. The crème anglaise recipe below is a great, classic base from which you can start your flavor experimenting, and it's quite easy to make.

Using the recipe below, I created flavor variations of Blueberry Chamomile Swirl and Salted Caramel Cinnamon Ice Cream.

Using the recipe below, I created flavor variations of Blueberry Chamomile Swirl and Salted Caramel Cinnamon Ice Cream.

Vanilla Crème Anglaise


  • 12 egg yolks 
  • 1 cup of honey
  • 4 cups of milk (cow or goat milk - both work well)
  • 1 Tbs. vanilla extract

Culinary Dance Steps:

1. Before starting anything, set up a stainless-steel bowl in a larger bowl of ice water. You'll need this ice bath to cool down your creme mixture right after cooking (step 7).

2. Put the milk in a medium saucepan and slowly heat on a medium-low flame under the milk is just before simmering.

3. While the milk is heating, in a medium bowl, whisk the honey and egg yolks together well.

4. Right before the milk is about to simmer (before bubbling), remove the milk from the stove, and SLOWLY pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, one cup at a time. If you pour the milk too fast, you'll end up cooking the egg yolks (Ew sweet scrambled eggs).

5. Once all the milk is mixed into the egg yolks, add the vanilla extract. Return the entire mixture back into the medium sauce pan. Slowly heat the sauce on medium-low heat, while constantly whisking. Constant whisking keeps the egg milk mixture from curdling.

6. Once the egg milk mixture reaches a temperature of 185 degrees F, remove the mixture from the stove. You can also tell that the egg milk mixture is done cooking by dipping a spoon in the mix and running a finger along the back of the spoon. If a distinct path is made on the spoon from your finger, it's done (see below for picture). Do not let the mixture get hotter than 190 degrees, or it will curdle.


7. Quickly pour the cooked egg milk mixture into the stainless steel bowl that's in the ice water bath (from step 1). Let the mixture cool, stirring occasionally.

8. When the mixture is cool, pour the creme into an ice cream maker. Let the ice cream maker do its magic, and feel free to add any fun toppings or sauces in towards the end of the ice cream mixing. When the ice cream maker is finished, add the frozen ice cream into containers. Let the ice cream chill in the freezer for at least 4 hours to let it solidify.

Note: You can make the crème anglaise 1-2 days ahead of time (steps 1-7) before making it into ice cream (Step 8)

Sealing Summer in Jars

The last gasp of summer farmers' market vegetables are hanging on to the few warm days we have left, and the fall harvest is in full force. I cringe to think of what the Chicago winter will bring us soon, and I've been feverishly canning all the fruits and vegetables to preserve the dog days of summer. 

Left going clockwise:  Roasted five-chile salsa, Blueberry Chamomile Lemon Compote, Honey-sweetened spiced peach butter with bourbon.  Recipes for these goodies coming soon!

Left going clockwise: Roasted five-chile salsa, Blueberry Chamomile Lemon Compote, Honey-sweetened spiced peach butter with bourbon.

Recipes for these goodies coming soon!

The initial idea of canning, while it seemed a romantic throwback to preserving the farm harvest, was quite intimidating. There was the great unknown of what is involved in the canning process, and thoughts of killing my family and friends with botulism over improperly canned jams and jellies ran through my mind. I had a close friend that confidently reassured me that canning is simple, approachable, and very safe as long as you know a few ground rules:


When canning at home, it's easiest to stick to canning foods that have a higher acidity (pH level of 4.6 or lower) because acid is a natural sterilizer, keeping enzymes, mold, bacteria and yeast from spoiling your food. 

Here's a spiffy chart from the book   "Tart and Sweet"   that shows acidity levels of some common fruits and veggies...

Here's a spiffy chart from the book "Tart and Sweet" that shows acidity levels of some common fruits and veggies...

High-acid canning can be performed using a boiling water bath, which we'll cover later in this post.


Canning isn't rocket science, and you really don't need all the techie canning gadgets to get started. Here's a list of the six basic essentials for boiling water bath canning:

  • A large pot for boiling the empty jars, preheating the lids, and processing the filled jars. The pot needs to be deep enough to full submerge the empty and filled jars under water.
  • Clean kitchen towels to place on the bottom of the large pot so that jars do not directly touch the bottom of the pot when boiling and to wipe the rims of unsealed jars.
  • Canning jars that are specifically made for canning - like Ball, Kerr, or Mason. Do not use old mayo, pickle, or sauce jars! Canning jars consist of three pieces: the glass jar, the metal disc lid, and the metal screw band. The glass jar and the metal screw band can be reused, but the disc lids are a one-time use because the rubber sealant on the edges will only properly seal once.
  • magnetic wand that helps to retrieve the hot metal lids when they're preheated and submerged in the hot water.
  • A jar lifter or really sturdy tongs to lift and lower jars into the boiling water bath.
  • ladle to pour food into the jars. Having a funnel to help neatly pour food in jars is nice, but not absolutely necessary.


It's always fun to get creative and tweak canning foods to add your own flair, but there are some things that you should never deviate from a recipe.

Things can you can tweak:

  • Adding more or less sugar will not hurt the safety of the food. Sugar is added for flavor and setting the shape of the food. For jams and fruit spreads, if you don't add enough sugar, the result may sometimes come out runny. This can be fixed by increasing the cooking time or adding more pectin.
  • You can add more or less salt based on your taste preferences. The only major exception to this rule is when you're making fermented pickles - were the salt is actually used to preserve the food.
  • You can substitute one pepper for another type of pepper when making salsa. Just make sure that you don't increase the total amount of peppers used.
  • Depending on what flavor you want, you can substitute bottle lime or lemon juice for vinegar. Fresh juice can differ in acidity from bottled juice, so keep to bottled if the recipe calls for bottled juice.
  • Play with herbs and spices all you want! They don't affect the pH level.
  • Substituting one kind of vinegar for another is okay as long as they have an acidity level of 5%. You can check this on the bottle labels.
  • Honey can be used in place of sugar, but the conversion is not cup-for-cup. Honey is much more dense and is sweeter than sugar.

Never tweak the following:

  • Increasing the amount of vegetables in a recipe can dangerously lower the pH level in a recipe.
  • Never decrease the level of acid in a recipe - lime juice, lemon juice, or vinegar.
  • Do not substitute vinegar for bottled lemon or lime juice. Lemon and lime juice can be less acidic than vinegar.
  • Increasing the amount of water in a recipe can dilute the acidity to unsafe levels.
  • The amount of salt in fermented pickles is very important and should not be decreased. Too little salt in pickling brine can cause spoilage.
  • Adding meats, dairy, or fats alters the pH level of the food and will result in spoilage.


If for some reason a jar doesn't seal while processing in the boiling water bath, it's okay! You can still enjoy unsealed jars as long as you store them in the refrigerator. Just don't store those unsealed jars at room temperature with the other sealed jars.


With those canning fundamental rules in mind, let the canning bonanza begin! (Once you start, it can get really addictive. You have been warned.) Canning high-acid foods requires a process called boiling water bath, which consists of 10 easy steps:

1. Place a kitchen towel on the bottom inside your large pot, and fill your large pot with water. Place your glass jars on top of the towel, and bring the pot to a boil. Make sure the glass jars are submerged in water so they properly sterilize. You can keep the water and jars boiling until you are ready to fill the jars with food.


2. Depending on what canning recipe you use, you'll need to cook your food for a certain amount of time before it's ready to fill the jars. The recipe should let you know how long. Food should be hot when going into the jars.

3. About ten minutes before you're ready to fill your jars with the hot food, turn off the stove and add the disc lids and screw bands into the water pot, making sure they are all submerged in the water.

4. When you're ready to fill the jars with food, carefully remove the hot jars from the pot. Use a ladle (and a funnel if you want) to fill the hot food into the empty jars.

5. When all the jars are filled, carefully wipe the rims of the jars to make sure there is no food where the jar and disc lid will touch. Food left on the rim may result in the jar not sealing properly.

6. Remove the disc lids from the hot water pot and place them on top of each jar. Then, remove the screw bands from the water both and firmly screw each band to secure the lid to the jar.

7. Place all the screwed jars back into the hot water pot, making sure the jars are complete submerged in water. Bring your pot back to a rolling boil.


8. Once the pot is boiling, let your screwed jars cook in the water for the amount of time your recipes specifies. This is called processing the jars.

9. Once the jars are cooked, carefully remove each jar from the pot with your jar lifter/tongs and place the cooked jars on a clean towel to cool. Cooling can take up to 12 hours. While the jars are cooling, you should hear the lids making a ping! sound, which means the jars have properly formed an air-tight seal.

10. All cooled jars should have their seals tested. A properly sealed jar will have the following:

  • The lid should not have any give (i.e. pop up) when you press down on the center of the lid with your finger. 
  • At eye level, the lid should look concave (curved down slightly).
  • Removing the screw band from the jar and very gently trying to pry the lid off the jar with your fingers will not work. 

Like mentioned before, if the jar did not seal properly (based on the three characteristics above), you can still eat it. Just stick the unsealed jars in the fridge and eat within the next few weeks.

There are TONS OF RECIPES out there for canning, and I plan to post some of my own soon. In the meantime, here are some great sites and books to get your canning mojo started:

Baked Breakfast

I’ve been exploring the idea of making healthy breakfasts ahead of time by making a big batch of [insert breakfast food here] and reheating it throughout the week. Sometimes cold cereal just doesn’t cut it. Who doesn’t like a warm breakfast in the morning?

Although muffins and breakfast cakes may come to mind when thinking of baked breakfast, I’m thinking instead of breakfast casseroles. I know that “casserole” can be such a dirty word when you consider all the awful “Betty Homemaker” recipes. I usually envision a dolled-up housewife with zero cooking skills that tries to make something special out of all the fancy kitchen equipment she never uses…and voila, a casserole is the result.I think the worst casserole I’ve heard of to-date is a Cheesy Ham and Banana Casserole. Paula Deen, have you actually tasted your own creation?? Because I have a sneaking suspicion that you didn’t based on reviews. But I digress…

Usually a baked breakfast casserole will have egg, potato, veggies, and meat (either ham, sausage, or cooked bacon). Athough this combination in baked form is quite tasty, I am not fond of reheating cooked egg. Instead I have discovered that baked oatmeal that is not only very delicious, but filling and healthy. Oats, milk, fruit - simple to make, good for storing, yummy for eating. Adapting a recipe from the book Super Natural Every Day:

Baked Berry and Peach Oatmeal


  • 2 cups of Quaker Old-Fashioned rolled oats (not instant or quick oats)
  • 1 cup of almond slivers
  • 1/3 cup of sugar
  • 1 tsp of baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp of cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp of nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp of ground ginger
  • 2 tsp of fresh lemon zest
  • 2 1/2 cups of milk (vanilla soy milk can be used too)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbs. of unsalted butter, melted + extra for greasing pan
  • 2 tsp of pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large ripe peaches, peeled and sliced into wedges
  • 2 cups of fresh mixed berries
  • Maple syrup (optional)

Culinary Dance Steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Generously grease a 9” baking dish with butter.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together the oats, half the almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. (You can also mix this ahead of time in a ziploc bag and store.)
  4. In another large bowl, mix together the egg and melted butter. Then add milk, lemon zest, and vanilla extract.
  5. Line the greased baking dish with sliced peaches.
  6. Spoon 2/3rds of the fresh berries evenly over the peaches.
  7. Pour all of the dry oat mixture on top of berries. Make sure the dry oats and spices are thoroughly mixed before pouring, or else you’ll end up with uneven flavor.
  8. SLOWLY pour milk mixture over the oats, and firmly tap the bottom of baking dish against the counter to loosen air bubbles and let the milk fill in all the space between the oats.
  9. Gently pat the wet oat mix on top with a spatula to make sure all the oats are somewhat submerged in the milk. The oats shouldn’t be swimming in milk.
  10. Spread the remaining berries and almonds over the top.
  11. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the mixture has set and the top is a nice golden brown.
  12. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
  13. Drizzle with a little maple syrup before eating.

Top of the morning to you too! (^_^)

Chop chop, little onion!

As I was slicing up some plump, juicy tomatoes for my omelet this morning, I had to revel in the beauty of my chef’s knife. The study grip of the handle… the weight of it and how it made perfect incisions into my fruit with no resistance and no tearing…ah, this is beauty in motion.

A thought on a good chef’s knives (Insert whooping and hurrahs here out of love and admiration). This is the one tool in my kitchen’s arsenal I just cannot, I repeat, CANNOT live without. When I begin my culinary dance in the kitchen, my chef’s knife is an extension of my right arm. It is a jack of all trades - finely mincing garlic and herbs, slicing into a tender cut of beef, dislodging joints on chicken, shaving thin chocolate ribbons for a cake, dicing and slicing fresh fruit for one of my infamous pies. If I cook someplace other than my kitchen, I will take my chef’s knife with me to ensure flawless prep execution. Crappy pots and pans, electric cooktops, plastic disposable spoons, maybe a microwave as a the only heating element - I can handle. Bad knife? I’m finished. Sharp, carbon steel that is ready to do my bidding - that’s hot.

After reading this, if you’re now thinking, “OMG, chef knife, where have you been all my life?”, it’s okay. It’s never too late to add one of these beauties to your beloved kitchen. Let me help you with what to look for…

Taking one step back, the breakdown of how much you spend on tools in your kitchen ranks like this:

  2. Pots and pans
  3. Everything else

So when you shop for your knives, there should be no penny-pinching. Don’t do it - not worth the $30 saved! Trust me. :) I recommend that your chef’s knife should fall under these criteria:

  • The blade should be made of carbon steel to ensure retention of a sharp edge. A DULL BLADE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN A SHARP ONE. Many people think otherwise. I strongly disagree. Dull blades cause a need for additional downward pressure that may cause your knife to slip and cut your finger/hand (yowza!).
  • The length of the blade should be 8” long and 1 1/4” in width. Too long for you? (Insert that’s what she said…) Okay, go shorter, but no shorter than 6 inches. The reasoning being is that you need the length to make sure that as you’re slicing, the tip of the knife will be able to stay touching the cutting board.
  • Your knife should have a full tang. I’m not talking about the orange drink though. A full tang means that your knife (blade and handle) is one piece of steel. All good quality knives will have a full tang, so make sure you ask the salesperson if you’re unsure.
  • Your knife should be balanced. The weight distribution of the blade and handle should be equal. If you were to hold the knife with only one finger where the blade and handle meet, if will stay balanced there.

As for brands, every cook has their tried and true, trusted brand or two. Mine are Wüsthof and Global. I like to use my Wüsthof  for more heavy duty chopping of squashes, melons, etc. - German blades are more durable against basically anything that needs a little more oompf. For speed and precision, I like to use my Global knife because it has a very nice thin blade and is an overall lighter knife than Wüsthof. If you want to play around with a few brands to figure out which knife you jive with the best, I recommend going to a Sur La Table or Williams Sonoma store. They'll let you test drive any knife!

Once you get your awesome bo-bawesome knife, you’ll want to take it for a spin. Here’s a great video on basic knife technique for the home cook. I think this Tom fella and I see eye to eye on this subject matter.

Happy chopping, slicing, and dicing!