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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mama Masha's Kitchen - the devil is in the details

We don’t all have personal chefs to cater for us on a daily basis. We can’t always go to that place everyone raves about and get the freshest, most delicious hand-made pasta ever. We don’t all get champagne lunches delivered to our front door. That said, even a limited food budget needs to have some room for things that give your home cooking a more luxurious feel, those little somethings that make you close your eyes and go “mmmmm” when you take a bite. So, let’s talk about that – the things you shouldn’t skimp on. Before we go any further, let’s agree on one thing: your mind must be open to the notion that you and your family deserve to have fun interesting and healthful meals. Which means you may need to skip a couple of McDonald’s trips or go in favor of no ice cream for a week to leave room in your grocery budget for some quality additions to your pantry.

Dressings and marinades

I have no idea why large food manufacturers insist on pumping their salad dressings and marinades so full of sugar and preservatives. I suppose because it’s cheaper. Anyway… Research places like Scottish Gourmet, Bittersweet Herb Farm and Cooking Enthusiast and get your dressings or a good organic store, if you have one in the area and get them there. Yes, it will be more expensive. However, having a couple of bottles of truly good balsamic balsamic vinegar or Italian is much more worth it than having a shelf-full of stuff you have tasted once and cringed, but feel forced to finish because you have already bought it and it was inexpensive.

If you like to have a variety, then discipline yourself and accumulate a range of flavors over a few grocery shopping cycles. Trust me – you won’t regret it. Also remember, that dressings and vinegars work just fine as marinades for your meat and fish. So, you can stock up on a few nice balsamic vinegars and use them to add some interest to your meat course.

Remember: when it comes to meat, planning is key. I usually buy larger packages of meat (pork chops, steak, chicken breasts), split them into portions and store them in the freezer in sealable bags. I pull it out of the freezer first thing in the morning and set it out on the kitchen counter (you may want to take precautions if you own tall dogs who like snatching things off the counters). As soon as the meat is soft to the touch, the marinade goes into the bag with the meat, and the bag goes into the fridge to keep the meat just cold enough – we don’t want to forget it and go bad. By the time you are ready to cook, it will have absorbed a lot of that delicious flavor, and the marinade/meat drippings will make an excellent reduction to finish off your dish.

Condiments

Sometimes, your basic ketchup (whichever way you want to spell it) and mustard will do. However, we know that very respectable hot dogs and sausage, for example, can be had for a very reasonable price (Hillshire Farms and Hebrew National brands come to mind), in which case it just doesn’t feel right to smother them in blah condiments and miss out on all the flavor and spices.

You want your condiments to compliment the flavors in the meat – not obscure them. We are very fortunate here in North Carolina because there are many organic farmers and small food manufacturers that sell local brands of condiments nobody else had ever heard of. They are not necessarily more expensive – they are just harder to find. For example, one of the best barbecue sauces I’ve ever tasted is Schaefer B’s Burger Blaster. My husband and I stumbled onto it at a local pottery and kitchen wares store, of all places, where they held a food tasting for the brand. The dish in question was turkey meatballs cooked in the Burger Blaster sauce and they were absolutely to die for. We grabbed a bottle on the spot and never regretted it. If you live in an area with lots of small independent shops that collaborate with each other, schedule a day and go exploring. You may arrive just in time for a coffee tasting at a book store, or a cheese tasting at a small art gallery, or a cracker-and-dip spread at a jewelry place.

And don’t be fearful, if your grocery store is holding a trial – you don’t have to buy the stuff if you don’t like it, but you might chance upon a real condimentary treasure to add to your pantry.

Seasonings

No, no, no, I am not talking about anything particularly exotic here, like coriander and edible Lebanese cedar gum. Let’s start with the basics – salt, pepper, and sugar. Unless you have specific medical reasons not to have salt and sugar, having moderate amounts of either in your diet is fine and healthy. In fact, opting for sugar-in-the-raw instead of the low-calorie sugar substitutes is better for you in the long term. There is also such a thing as honey sugar, which is essentially granulated honey with all the same health benefits. Concentrated agave and stevia nectars provide the same amount of sweetness in tiny amounts and are very light on calories, if that is your concern.

If you are worried about sodium, its potential harmful effect on your heart health is being once again questioned by the medical community. But, if you’d rather wait for them to find out for certain, you can switch to potassium salts (sea salt). You get away from sodium and you don’t have to eat bland food. The best of both worlds! Regardless of which group of salts you use, explore some interesting exotic ones out there. Each salt has a different flavor and brings out a different dimension in a dish, when working with other ingredients. Just remember not to be too heavy-handed – you can always add more. If you are looking for a good salty place to start – everyone knows that this Kitchen Diva is addicted to Scottish Gourmet’s whiskey salt. Yumm!

Herbs… You know what I am going to tell you about herbs. The best way to have them is to grow your own. But – do not growl at me my European friends and my American friends living in high-housing-cost areas – I can totally relate to the space constraint. If at all possible, find a spot on your window sill or kitchen counter to grow two herbs: rosemary and one other thing (basil and parsley are both pretty versatile). The advantage is that you’ll never have to guess, how they were grown and whether there were any scary chemicals involved. At the same time, do some homework on local growers and organic grocery stores and buy your herbs in small quantities – many of them do lose their flavor if kept around too long, even if the container is sealed.

To take it to a whole new level, research what heirloom varieties of herbs and vegetables are available in your country. One of the best sources for this information in the United States is the National Public Radio show The Splendid Table hosted by the fabulous Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and its web site www.splendidtable.org. Lynne is constantly in touch with the organizations and initiatives working on tracking, recording and exchanging heirloom varieties of everything from herbs to fruit trees. You can also Google “heirloom herbs” for your country and see what you can pull up. Wouldn’t it be fun to own a variety of oregano that may have been grown by your great-great-great-grandmother?

Meats, cheeses and other animals

By all means, stick to basic lunch meats and cheeses, especially if you have to make sandwiches for kids and spouses to take with them to school or work every day. But once a month, pick up one top-of-the line block of cheese and one interesting meat like prosciutto, really good salami, smoked salmon or maple-smoked ham or whatever else strikes your fancy. Get some good crackers or crusty bread to go with it all, and arrange a luxurious little spread for the next dinner.

Not quite in the same category, but similar in spirit, is trying interesting canned goods like smoked oysters, baby clams, spicy octopus and snails in garlic oil. I have tried all these things over the last three months and enjoyed the hell out of them served over some very basic pasta or rice with sautéed onion. While to some it may seem outrageous paying $4 - $5 for a tiny flat can of something, after some fairly brief prep and combined with very basic ingredients, you get a meal with a $25/plate restaurant feel. And don’t you dare eat in front of the TV! Set a pretty table, light some candles – and you are there.

I am sure you are already catching on to the basic principle: making your normal basic grocery shopping staples work better for you in tandem with smaller quantities of high-impact top-notch ingredients. You can use the same strategy with tea, coffee, chocolate and wine. The wine lovers among you know that in the wine world price and quality are not necessarily directly proportional. There are some awesome inexpensive wines out there and some bank breakers that are really not worth it. The only two ways I know of to figure out which ones are which, are trying them (wine tastings rock!) or word-of-mouth: advice from friends and family, wine magazines and blogs, etc. The good news is that if you don’t like a particular wine, you can always keep it for cooking.

The attitude and good appetite

As I mentioned at the beginning, I want you to adopt a healthy attitude toward including higher-quality foods on your grocery list. Yes, there are people in the world who live in hunger and poverty. Do you honestly think you are going to help them by denying yourself a block of really good mozzarella? Seriously? Actually, a lot of high-end and organic grocery stores focus on stocking their inventory either with local products – so you would be supporting local growers and farmers – or with products from all around the world, produced in sustainable, environmentally-friendly ways. All you need to do is a little bit of homework.

Good attitude – not feeling guilty about your next delicious meal – is vastly supplemented by good appetite. Schedule some time before dinner to run around with your kids or to go for a nice, sappy, hand-holding walk with your significant other. It’s good exercise and a good way to clear your head and focus on giving your family dinner time your undivided attention. As well it should be.

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