Easy recipe: Stuffed bell peppers

Know what’s better than eating delicious food served on a beautiful dish? Eating delicious food and the equally delicious dish it’s served in. If you’ve ever had soup in a bread bowl, you’ve already enjoyed this experience. But summer is around the corner, and soup is going out of favor. Thus we turn our attention to something in season, a versatile something that’s not only great on its own, but one that can act as a delicious bowl: the bell pepper.

Bell peppers are available year-round, but they can be pricey in the milder months. Now that summer is nearly here, so are the deals on bell peppers, including the usually more expensive orange and red varieties. I recently scored half a dozen for just a few bucks at Sprouts Farmers Market. Though peppers are great cut up and grilled or roasted, “Why not use them whole and stuff them?” I thought.

When I was young, my mom made stuffed bell peppers regularly because they come together quickly, can be bolstered with a variety of leftovers such as rice and vegetables, and even freeze well for future lunches and dinners. They also stretch your dollar. If you can find peppers cheap, the only other main ingredient required is ground meat. Beef was the staple when I was young, but I now prefer leaner turkey or chicken. Seafood lovers can go a more exotic route with crab or shrimp, and vegetarians can get stuffed by using whole beans or tofu as foundation for the filling.

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How to pan-steam like a pro

You probably already know that steaming is a great way to cook vegetables because it helps them retain nutrients and adds no fat. It’s also fast and super easy.

If steaming has one transgression, though, it’s that it doesn’t add flavor.  When you’re depending on steam from boiling water to cook food held aloft in a basket, the flavor is ultimately dependent on the item being cooked. Begin with a rather plain veggie like cauliflower, for example, and you’ll end with up with a vegetable that is indeed softer and easier to chew, but whose flavor isn’t greatly enhanced.

Luckily, there’s a special method of steaming that is just as easy as the traditional one, yet offers much more flexibility when it comes to resulting flavor and what ends up on the plate. It’s even got a cool name that will make you sound like a kitchen rock star: pan steaming.

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How to make homemade hash browns

Shredded hash browns can be confidence killers in the kitchen. In restaurants they look and taste so darn good, we often think: “How hard can they be to make? Just shred potatoes and throw them in a pan, right?” And then we end up with mushy spuds that are overly browned on the outside but gray on the inside. To our chagrin, they’re anything but the crispy, delicious patties we get when dining out.

Some of us seek solace by making the easier, chunky style hash browns with diced potatoes, telling ourselves they’re just as good. Others never even try again.

Well, friends, buy a bag of Russets, ‘cause we’re about to change that.

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What is a potato ricer?

Here is a kitchen device whose name may belie its purpose. A potato ricer doesn’t really have anything to do with rice, but at least the “potato” in its name is correct.

A potato ricer consists mainly of a cylinder with holes in the bottom and two handles. They are made out of plastic, metal or both, and can be found online, at a well-stocked general merchandise store, or at stores like Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma that specialize in kitchen goodies. Potato ricers are most often used when making mashed potatoes. The way it works is super simple: Put cooked potatoes in the cylinder and squeeze. By forcing the potatoes through the small holes, you get a nice, creamy consistency that can be the basis for dynamite homemade mashed potatoes. In this respect, a potato ricer is like the world’s largest garlic press, as it works in the same manner.

But potato ricers can do more than just process spuds for mashed applications. If you happen to make shredded hash browns with any frequency, a potato is an invaluable tool to have.

For this application, you put raw, shredded potatoes into the canister and press to extract the liquid, which is the enemy to crispy, perfectly browned hash browns. When doing this, the object isn’t to push the potatoes through the holes, as with mashed, but rather wringing out as much liquid as possible.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, don’t attempt to put a raw potato in one of these things and try to make it come out the other side. You’ll probably end up with a bent or busted ricer. Yes, I know from experience.

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Recipe: Easy Egg Salad

If you made a bounty of colorful eggs for Easter and are still trying to eat your way through them, you’ve probably come to this realization by now: Eating plain, hard-boiled eggs gets boring rather quickly.

Solutions abound for ways to use hard-boiled eggs, from crumbling them over salads to making the party favorite of deviled eggs.

One of my favorite things to do with hard-boiled eggs is to transform them into egg salad, a delicious spread that can be used in sandwiches, wraps or served atop lettuce. Aside from being a snap to make, it is easily customizable.

Want some kick? Add a touch of cayenne powder. For a savory, earthy take, experiment with dried herbs like oregano or thyme. Once used, topping choices abound, from tomato and avocado to sprouts or even bacon bits. And you thought eggs and bacon were just for breakfast.

For this quick and easy version, I spruce up my chunky egg salad with cucumbers for crunch, paprika for color and taste, and a squeeze of lemon juice for extra tang. I add green onions for added visual appeal, but red or white onions can be substituted if that’s what you have on hand.

Oh, and if you’ve never hard-boiled an egg before, don’t worry: Your secret is safe with me. I’ll show you how to do that, too, and you’ll never have to buy those plastic Easter eggs again.

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How to make tortillas terrific

I’m an unabashed lover of Mexican food, and in my house, burritos, tacos and quesadillas are among my favorite things to make when I’m short on time and meal ideas. I know I’m not alone. Aside from the sheer variety of stuff you can wrap inside a tortilla – from the ubiquitous beans and cheese to grilled shrimp in a cilantro-lime dressing – these Mexican-food staples are popular far beyond our border because they are inexpensive and a cinch to make.

But while many of us focus on the innards of our tacos, burritos and quesadillas, too often the tortilla itself – that all-important culinary housing – is an afterthought. If you’re prone to wrapping your favored ingredients in a flour or corn tortilla that’s simply been microwaved or not even heated at all, know that there is one more step you can take that works miracles in moments. It all begins with the wrapping.

For the best flavor, texture and pliability, tortillas need to be heated properly before being used and eaten. And that really isn’t in a microwave, which can make them rubbery. If you skip heating altogether, tortillas tend to be stiff and fall apart in your hands. And no one wants a lapful of burrito filling.

For the solution, look to your stove, which can heat tortillas one of two ways: in a pan or directly over a flame.

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How to roast vegetables

When it comes to roasting, meaty dishes usually steal the show. Almost all of us have enjoyed a hot-out-of-the-oven Thanksgiving turkey, juicy prime rib or flavorful and flaky salmon fillet.

But roasting needn’t be relegated to meat, poultry and fish. The same properties of roasting that impart so much flavor to those protein-rich dishes work wonders for vegetables, too.

The easiest way to roast is in an oven, which uses hot air as the main vehicle to cook food. (You could also call this “baking,” though that term is often used in reference to breads, pastries and meat without bones. For our purpose here, either word is safe, but “roasting” sounds more appetizing, no?) Roasting yields vegetables that are firm yet not hard, browned and visually interesting, and that taste so much more potent than when steamed or simmered.

When you roast, you actually concentrate flavors inward, vs. leeching them out. For example, when you simmer meat or vegetables in water, many of the flavors and nutrients go into that water. That’s great if you’re making broth or stock, but it’s wasted if you don’t use the liquid.

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Super easy Super Bowl recipe ideas

The big day is tomorrow, when millions will gather around televisions to cheer their team, boo the opposition and watch ridiculously fun commercials. Oh, and eat.

Super Bowl Sunday is as much about indulging in food as it is indulging in some serious TV time. While chips, dips, guacamole and wings usually rule the day, here are some other easy, last-minute ideas to get your party started.

Eat up and enjoy!

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Easy recipe: Scrumptious split pea soup

Bean-based soups are amazing for their nutritional value and the sheer comfort they provide, not to mention that they cost so little to make. The problem with making most legume soups from scratch is the amount of time it takes to soak the beans – usually overnight – and then cook them, which can take hours more. If you don’t do it properly, instead of a soft bean, you’ll risk biting into something as hard as a rock.

Split pea soup doesn’t have these issues. Like lentils, the beauty of split peas is that they cook quickly – about 45 minutes – and require no soaking beforehand. Yet they pack plenty of fiber and protein, and about zero fat. Add the soup’s earthy taste and warm-your-belly satisfaction, and split pea is a winner. It’s also very cost-effective and can be tailored to a variety of tastes. You can buy a 1-pound bag of dried split peas in just about any grocery store for around $2 or less. The soup can be made vegetarian style or, for even more flavor, can include crisp, rendered bacon bits or a traditional ham hock.

While water can be used as the base liquid, I prefer broth or stock since it adds flavor. You can use chicken, vegetable, even turkey or beef broth, or a combination thereof.

[SEE HOW TO MAKE STOCK]

I like to mix low-sodium chicken broth and vegetable broth for mine. Furthermore, I bolster my split pea with potatoes, carrots and onions and garlic. The result is a big pot of soup that can feed an army.

If making homemade soup has daunted you all these years, start with split pea, and start right here.

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5 foods to try in 2012

It’s the new year, that time when we make resolutions, ponder life’s big questions and wonder how that last year flew by so quickly. Oftentimes the first of these involves diets, and with them, vows to eat better.

Before you roll your eyes, don’t worry: This isn’t necessarily an article about nutrition or how to shed calories. Rather, it’s suggestions on five foods to try that may be new to you – all of which do happen to boost flavor in a relatively healthful way.

These foods are not usually eaten alone, and that’s the beauty of them: They can make a dish that’s tried and true better, and can be used in lieu of ingredients that are higher in fat and/or calories. They can introduce flavors you may not be familiar with, and are all ripe for experimentation.

Here are the five foods that top my recommended list of ones to try in the new year. I hope those that are new to you will find their way into your kitchen in 2012.

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