Last-minute Thanksgiving survival guide

The countdown is on. We’re just days away from Thanksgiving 2012.

By now you have hopefully bought and are thawing your turkey — in the refrigerator, remember — and are finalizing the last small details of your Thanksgiving feast.

Things can move pretty fast this time of year, and I’m not just talking about the onward rush of the holidays. Now more than ever is the time to be take a deep breath and enjoy the moments rather than stress about them. This advice is also relevant in the kitchen.

As the holiday cooking move into high gear, it’s good to slow down and remember to enjoy the process. If you can think of what you are doing as an expression of love instead of a load of work, it will make the day that much more enjoyable.

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Easy recipe: You can rock these Ranchero Beans

I probably don’t need to tell you that beans are magnificent. Yes, you probably already know that they’re packed with stuff like protein, fiber and other nutrients that will do your body good, all while being very low in fat and simple sugars. They are also extremely inexpensive. Even in canned form, at about a buck a pound, it’s hard to find a food that packs this much nutritional density for the price.

Beans are also very adaptable. And that’s a good thing, because let’s face it: When eaten alone, popular beans such as pintos aren’t exactly multifaceted in their flavor. But throw in other ingredients and some seasoning to the party, and the beans that anchor a dish can be eaten and enjoyed in a whole new light.

I recently stumbled upon one such dish – ranchero beans – in the deli section of a Ralphs of all places, and was surprised at how well the humble pinto livened up with a larger culinary cast. I promptly decided to re-create this recipe myself, adding even more impact with additional ingredients.

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Recipe: Hearty Tomato Basil Soup

As autumn sets in and the temperatures outside fall accordingly, nothing warms the body and soul quite like a sturdy bowl of soup. Among the easiest, least expensive and most nutritious to make is tomato soup. Served as an appetizer or a dinner with bread or sandwiches, it is a perennial favorite that can be tailored to a variety of tastes.

If your idea of making soup is opening a can and turning on a microwave, I have good news for you: Making it the homemade way involves not a whole lot more work, yet tastes worlds better. And because you control the ingredients that go into your soup, there’s no guessing as to how much sodium or other less-than-good-for-you things lurk in that bowl.

My version of this soup uses canned tomatoes in diced and crushed form. Not only are these main ingredients inexpensive, they’re always “in season” and ready when you are. Because this tomato soup relies on the real thing and plenty of other veggies, it’s thick and hearty. This recipe calls for chicken broth, but for a vegetarian version, vegetable broth can be used instead. The soup can be served chunky or blended for an even texture. If you have an immersion blender, now is the time to use it. The pureeing can also be done in small portions in a regular blender.

Lastly, I like to introduce both dry and fresh basil leaves for added essence. If you want some kick, add crushed peppers or even a dash of horseradish to the mix. Here’s how to make tomato soup.

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Easy Recipe: Frozen Yogurt Breakfast Bars

We’ve all been told a million times how breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the one that literally fuels our body as we set off to tackle traffic, work, school or whatever else the morning throws at us. But in our rush to get out the door, it’s all too easy to skip what seems like a culinary inconvenience.

And here’s where this week’s recipe arrives to save the day. Cereal and yogurt are simple go-to’s when we’re running short on time and motivation, but they can get old fast. Enter the Frozen Yogurt Breakfast Bar. This was a staple in my wife’s family when she was growing up. With five kids to dress, feed and get out the door, any shortcuts were welcome and they swore by this one. If my wife’s memory serves, it was obtained decades ago from the side of a Grape-Nuts box.

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Recipe: Tzatziki is just so easy

Tzatziki is so hard to say but so delicious to taste. If you’ve ever been to a Greek restaurant or had a gyro, there’s a good chance that you’ve sample this creamy, tart white sauce that has a bit of crunch thanks to pieces of cucumber. Tzatziki sauce can now be found in markets, but it’s a cinch to make at home. If you have a bowl a grater and a whisk, you can make tzatziki sauce. Pronunciation, by the way? Try: “zaht-zee-kee.”

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Make the mortar and pestle work for you

In this age of induction ranges and sous vide cooking apparatuses, there remains a kitchen tool whose simplicity belies its utility. Meet the mortar and pestle.

This bowl and elongated stick that’s rounded at the end — the mortar and the pestle, respectively — have been around since man had to make his own fire before making a meal. Yet thousands of years later, cooks the world over still use this simple duo.

These culinary tools are made from a variety of materials, from stainless steel to glass and porcelain to the volcanic rock popular in Mexican versions that are called molcajete. Mortars and pestles can be found under $15, and are available at discount stores and of course kitchen stores and online shops. During a recent trip to Cost Plus, I was impressed with the variety of these tools that they offered.

So what, exactly, is a mortar and pestle used for? So glad you asked.

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Take the sizzle out of summer with homemade smoothies

It’s hot. You don’t want to cook. The kids and/or you want something sweet in your mouth, pronto, and the temptation to pull into a convenience store, grab the biggest reservoir you can find and fill it with semi-frozen sugar water churned from a machine is running at a 99.9 percent chance.

Hang on.

It’s times like these where a little planning can save you and the family from catastrophe, not to mention the crazed state of mind resulting from sugar rush. You can easily make a better-tasting and better-for-you summer treat in less time than it takes to run to the corner quickie mart.

Homemade smoothies require only a blender, juice, fruit and your imagination. There are, of course, many juice shops eager to sell you their version, but more often than not those drinks are overpriced and over-iced. You can make your own for much less money, and you’ll know exactly what went into the thing.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s literally throwing ingredients into a blender and turning it on. If there’s one tricky part, it’s getting the right consistency and enough “frozen-ness” instead of liquid.

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Recipe: Bruschetta is like summer in your mouth

Bruschetta is one of those dishes that sounds complicated but in reality is a cinch to make. The name is technically used for crisped bread rubbed with garlic, but most of us know bruschetta as a savory, herb-licious tomato topping that sits above crostini. And there’s another, similar term, as crostini is simply bread that has been crisped in an oven or under a broiler.

If you have the grill going, there’s no reason not to create your crostinis over the fire or coals. When making them indoors, I prefer to brown the bread under a broiler in the oven. If you’re watching your carb intake or can’t do gluten, you can substitute the bread entirely for a piece sturdy lettuce such as romaine, making what I dub bruschetta boats.

Bruschetta is a perfect appetizer any time of year, but really shines in summer when tomatoes are cheap, plentiful and – most important – in season. I prefer Roma tomatoes because their thick flesh and relative lack of seeds, which are to be scooped out anyway for this recipe.

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Make this: buffalo blue cheese dressing on a wedge

We all know that restaurant food usually costs far more than what you would pay to make the same thing yourself, and most of the time we’re OK with that. When it comes to things like good steak or seafood, it can make sense to have a professional chef perfectly cook an item of food whose base cost would still be relatively expensive even if you were to buy it at the store. This is especially true with ingredients like USDA Prime-graded steak or sushi-grade fish, which are often reserved for the food-service industry and thus are more difficult to attain.

Salad, on the other hand, is just the opposite. The menu item that vexes me most is the iceberg wedge. Basically it’s a wedge of iceberg lettuce slathered in blue cheese dressing and often garnished with small tomatoes and maybe some onions. It’s delicious and a fine complement to a hot summer day. But for the $10 or so restaurants can charge for this starter, it’s a rip off.

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Recipe: Shishito peppers and soy-honey sauce

A few weeks ago I introduced you to the glory that is the stuffed bell pepper. This week it’s on to something a little more adventurous, yet even easier and quicker to cook: The shishito pepper. What’s the adventurous part of this dish? Acquiring of the main ingredient.

Shishito peppers look something like ET’s finger, long, green and wrinkled. True, they may not appear that special, but they taste amazing. Shishitos are not usually spicy. They are a sweet pepper, but occasionally you’ll hit one with a bit more kick.

If you’ve never heard of a shishito pepper, that’s probably an indicator of where you shop. You aren’t likely to find shishitos at your mainstream market. And here’s where the adventurous part of this recipe comes in. To buy these Asian peppers, you’ll need to go to – surprise! – an Asian store.

My go-to place for these is H Mart, but I’ve also seen them at 99 Ranch. You’ll find shishito peppers in the produce section, either in bulk or wrapped in plastic in small cartons. Sometimes they are labeled “sweet peppers.” And they’re inexpensive. On a recent trip to an H mart, they were about $1.30 a pound, and trust me, a pound will go far.

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