One of the best aspects of my job is hanging out with people. Invariably, folks congregate in the kitchen when I’m working. And invariably, they start asking questions. Here, the 10 most frequently asked, and the answers I’ve learned the hard way. (Plus, a fantastic lasagna recipe you can make from all those bits and pieces lying around your fridge …)

1. “How do you keep your broccoli (or snap peas or asparagus) from turning brown?”

Ice water. As soon as you’ve blanched anything — green, yellow or orange — plunge it in a bowl of ice water. The brilliant color will set and remain through any additional cooking you do. (Hard lesson: I didn’t ice down the petite peas I used in what was an otherwise show-stopping paella salad. Halfway through dinner, they became little gray lumps amid bright red peppers, green olives and saffron-tinted rice. We tossed hundreds of little gray peas into the garbage disposal.)

2. “Why are my pork chops dry?”

You’re overcooking them. I remember my mom baking the dickens out of pork when I was a kid. Pork had worms, she said (trichinosis), and you had to be sure to cook those worms out.

Eeeeewwww. Makes you wonder why we ever ate pork. Thankfully, trichinosis in pork is exceedingly rare nowadays. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 20 cases was reported annually between 2008 and 2010, mainly thanks to legislation that prohibits feeding raw-meat garbage to hogs. Trichinosis cases that occur today are most often associated with eating raw or under-cooked game.

I follow a pretty basic formula with my pork chops: I sear them in a cast-iron skillet, then tuck said skillet into a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes. The chops emerge bronzed, juicy and fully cooked. (Hard lesson: I once cooked pork chops for an hour and served them to my in-laws. The only way we could swallow them was to chase a bite of pork with massive gulps of liquid. Dinner devolved into a bacchanal …)

3. “How come my gravy’s lumpy?”

You’re probably adding flour or cornstarch straight to the dish. Dissolve one of those thickeners in some water before you whisk it into your liquid. (A handy technique called a “slurry.”) You’ll get a gorgeously glossy gravy in no time with nary a lump in sight. (Hard lesson: My mom asked me to make gravy for Thanksgiving before I knew about this little trick. I’d just started cooking seriously and was full of grand ideas. I thought I could mask the lumps by adding more and more pepper to the mix. My batch ended up in the sink; my mom took over gravy-making duties for big family dinners.)

4. “Do you have to salt the eggplant?”

I know it’s supposedly an old wives’ tale that salting eggplant removes any bitterness from the vegetable. But wives’ tale, shmive’s tale. I’ve never had a bitter eggplant after salting. Simply slice your eggplant and lay it on a flat surface. Sprinkle liberally with kosher or regular table salt and let it sit for 30 minutes. Rinse it, pat it dry, and continue with your recipe. (Hard lesson: I made a roasted vegetable salad once and didn’t salt the eggplant. It was so bitter it ruined the entire dish.)

5. “How do you peel all those tomatoes?”

With a knife and boiling water. Cut an X in the bottom of your tomatoes, then plunge them into boiling water for 10 to 20 seconds. As soon as you see the skin start to crinkle around the X, take the tomatoes out of their boil and put them into ice water. The skins will slip right off. (Hard lesson: I didn’t believe this would take next to no time and decided to skip the peeling step when making a gingered-tomato jam. The jam was filled with tiny, tough and wrinkled tomato skins that stuck to the serving spoon … and my teeth.)

6. “How do you make those tiny fillo cups?”

I don’t! You can find Athens Mini Fillo Shells in your grocery store’s freezer section. Use them to hold your favorite appetizers. (Hard lesson: Averted, thanks to my friend T. She serves a fabulous curried shrimp in the frilly little shells. The first time I had it, I marveled at her artistry and asked how long it had taken her to create those precious fillo cups. She rolled her eyes and told me fillo is for pros.)

7. “Why does my garlic burn?”

You’re adding it too soon. Most recipes tell you to add minced garlic at the same time you add chopped onion to a pan. Those are recipes for disaster. The garlic takes about 30 seconds to a minute to soften; the onion can take a full 10 minutes. Unless you’re sauteing in a lot of olive oil, your garlic will brown and turn bitter way before your onion is done. Better to saute your big vegetables first, then add the garlic and any other minced ingredients about a minute before you add liquid. (Hard lesson: I decided to add garlic and lemon peel to the broccoli florets I was roasting in a new client’s oven. Ten minutes in, a horrible burning smell permeated her kitchen. The garlic had turned black and ruined the dish.)

8. “Can I use vegetable broth in place of chicken broth?”

No offense to Swanson’s, but I detest vegetable broth. The flavor tends toward tinny, with grassy, menthol overtones.  I find that it masks my other ingredients. If I’m subbing for chicken broth, I almost always opt for water, particularly if I’m making a delicately flavored soup. And if a recipe calls specifically for vegetable broth, I usually turn to Pacific Organic Vegetable Broth. (Hard lesson: I subbed veggie for chicken broth in a lovely, chilled Greek lemon soup. The broth masked all semblance of lemon flavor. I really didn’t know how to answer when my clients asked, “What is this?”)

9. “I don’t have a lot of wine on hand. Can I use cooking wine instead?”

Please don’t. The commercial products labeled “cooking wine” tend to be sodium bombs. Recipes that call for wine are harnessing that drink’s acidity and deep flavor. If you don’t like to cook with alcohol, add the juice of one or two lemons instead. (Hard lesson: A friend of mine made a lovely Italian custard for dessert. It called for Madeira. She used Madeira “cooking wine.” Dessert was inedible.)

10. “How do you decide what to make for dinner?”

Most nights, by accident. While I take great pains planning clients’ meals, my own family isn’t so lucky. Dinner usually begins with a trip through the pantry or the fridge.

Here’s a recent dinner we ate — a hearty lasagna made with nothing more than some leftover veggies and a few pantry staples. It was a delicious meal … no hard lessons in sight!

Kitchen Sink Lasagna

  • 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 cup sliced button mushrooms
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced & divided
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon each dried basil & oregano
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup dry red wine
  • 1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1 10-ounce package frozen spinach or chard, thawed, drained and chopped
  • 1/2 eggplant, thinly sliced vertically
  • 6 no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 1 8-ounce package shredded mozzarella cheese

Salt the eggplant, and set it aside.

Pour hot water over the dried porcini mushrooms, and set them aside.

lasagna1Make the sauce: Film a large saute pan with olive oil. Saute the onion, salt and pepper in the pan until the onion is translucent. Add the sliced button mushrooms, and saute until they soften and release their liquid.

Add 3 cloves of the minced garlic, the tomato paste and the herbs, and stir for 30 seconds. Add the porcini mushrooms along with their soaking liquid, the crushed tomatoes and the red wine. Stir well, and bring everything to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer while preparing the rest of the dish.

lasagna2Make the filling: Combine the ricotta, 1 clove of the minced garlic, the egg and the spinach or chard. Stir well, and add 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and liberal amounts of ground pepper to the mix.

Assemble the lasagna: Rinse the salt from the eggplant, and pat it dry.

Ladle 1/2-1 cup of the sauce into the bottom of a greased 13x9x2-inch lasagna3casserole dish. Place 3 lasagna noodles on top. Spoon 1/3 of the ricotta mixture on top of the noodles. Ladle on 1/2-1 cup sauce, and sprinkle with 1/4-1/3 cup of the shredded mozzarella cheese.

Top the mozzarella cheese with your eggplant slices. Spoon 1/3 of the ricotta mixture on top of the eggplant. Ladle on 1/2-1 cup sauce, and sprinkle with 1/4-1/3 cup of the mozzarella.

Place the remaining 3 lasagna noodles on the casserole. Spoon on the remaining ricotta mixture. Pour the remaining sauce over everything, and top the dish with the remaining mozzarella cheese. Cover the dish tightly with foil.

Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover the pan, and stick a fork in the dish to make sure your noodles and eggplant are tender. Bake, uncovered, for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let the pan sit for 10 minutes before slicing into squares.

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