Cooking Arithmetic: an entry from Julia

I have something in common with all of you: reading Ben’s food blog always makes my mouth water. The fact that I’ve usually eaten what he is describing for dinner the night before makes it no less appetizing. But even more than making us drool, I like how Ben makes me think about my own cooking style. I’ve been saving up a few ideas over the last couple of weeks, and I thought I would share some of my best stuff with all of you. I’d love to hear your best tips too so feel free to leave comments because you never know what Ben is going to feature and your name could end up in print!

Basic Recipe + What’s in the Fridge = Easy Meal. Memorizing a few recipes for basic dishes is one of my all time best secrets. I’m not talking complicated stuff – just the basics. For example, I made the mini quiches that Ben mentioned yesterday for Becca’s party tonight. Here is what you need to memorize to make (mini) quiche(s): half a dozen eggs and a cup and a half of milk in a greased baking dish at 375 degrees for just under 20 minutes. That’s it. The rest comes from what ever you have lying around in your pantry or fridge. As long as you have some veggies (e.g. spinach, artichokes, broccoli, and tomatoes) and something salty like cheese, olives or bacon, you’ve got yourself a brilliant party food. Another way to spice up quiches is with a cracker crumb crust. Crush a box of the crackers of your choice in a food processor and add melted butter until it sticks together. The combinations here are endless. Other recipes like this include cookies (I like to add things like nuts, candy and even a few tablespoons of Nutella to my basic chocolate chip cookies) and bread (think olives, sundried tomatoes, and fresh herbs, especially rosemary). You would be surprised how much flavor a robust recipe –even a baking recipe -- can take.

Food ÷ into Pieces = More Bang for Your Calorie Buck. The Japanese know this principle well. Instead of 4 little logs of sushi on a huge plate, you get 32 pieces on 4 little plates! Anytime you divide food into bite sized pieces, it tricks you into thinking you are eating more, and so you end up eating less. I use this idea a lot when I am being health conscious, making smaller balls of cookie dough so I can eat 3 cookies instead of 2, making sandwiches on smaller slices of bread so I can go back for seconds, and using a few freshly made croutons on top of a salad as a carb instead of a big pile of rice or pasta. Shhh…don’t tell Ben, okay?

Food – Taste = Garbage. I once had a statistics teacher who would say “garbage in, garbage out” of crappy data in statistics. The same thing applies to food. It always confused me when my Mom would buy expensive Ghirardelli chocolate chips instead of the Tollhouse ones for a dollar less. Now I get it, though. High quality ingredients make high quality dishes and it is surprising how much of a difference it really makes. I was lucky enough to meet a really nice man yesterday at a farmer’s market in Ballston, one of my favorite Arlington neighborhoods. After picking up some of their incredible-looking tomatoes, I asked him what else was fresh, and he let me try the most incredible yellow plums I have ever had. Needless to say I went home with some of those too and will savor every bite. It is so worth it to ask someone what is fresh, even in the produce section, because believe me they know. If you are lucky enough to have a farmer’s market in your area, you should also keep your eye out for a stand that sells fresh herb plants. I was surprised to learn that even in this pricey neighborhood, a full-grown rosemary plant was only three dollars and fifty cents. Quite a concept: for around the price of one small pack of rosemary at your local grocery store you can have fresher and more plentiful rosemary at your fingertips for years to come. And rosemary needs water less than once a week! Now that’s amazing math.

Carbs + Oven at 400 degrees = Magic. It is surprising how much a good crunch can add to a meal, and even more surprising how easy it is to make that crunch (or magic, as I like to call it) happen. Basically anything carby can be crisped (although fruit is pushing it), and all you need to do to crisp it is spray on a little olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper and lay it out on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Some of my favorite examples of such wizardry include small hunks of sourdough bread (add a little pressed garlic to the mix and you make a boring salad great with fresh garlic croutons), quartered corn tortillas (the healthiest chips you’ll ever find), and Ben’s famous crispy wanton wrappers for soup toppers, so magical that even Harry Potter couldn’t beat them.

Here’s to many more mouth watering autofoodie posts to come! And maybe a few more entries from me every so often.

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