Catalyst Cooks

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Technique of the Week (be the Superhero of your Kitchen)- Knife Skills II January 27, 2012

Now that you are getting comfortable with your knife, let’s practice!

Get your potatoes out…

First- an easy multiple choice question.  Is it easier to cut something laying flat on a flat surface, or something rolling around?

Yes, that’s right.  It’s easier to cut something with a flat surface.  So if you’ve been trying to cut carrots, onions, or potatoes without first cutting a flat surface, you’re not doing yourself any favors!

Once you’ve got your flat surface (and yes, please, cut your carrot in half before you go any further, and please do cut your onion in half from stem to root before you try to dice it)- lay your potato flat on the cutting board.

And make sure that pesky index finger isn’t on top of the blade of your chef’s knife for pete’s sake!

Now, we’re going to go to more perfection land.  For those of you who don’t believe in that yet- and I was one of those- here are some reasons why chefs practice these cuts on bags and bags of potatoes (and onions) while they are in culinary school.  – and why you won’t see diced potatoes on a plate very often, because the Chefs got Sick of ’em.

1.  Food that is consistent and uniform is inviting to the eye.  Yes, beauty is one reason to practice knife cuts.

but if you are more practical like me, food beauty may not be compelling enough to practice these cuts.  So there are two better reasons to practice this….

2.  Practice = speed.  As you practice these knife cuts, your skills will get better and faster.  So will your prep to table time!

3.  Uniformity= consistent cooking results.  Where same size= same doneness, different size = different doneness.

If you believe that, please continue cutting your potato.  First, cut your potato into a 1″ square ended- rectangle.

(If it were 3/4″ square you’d be on your way to a Large Dice- but we’re not stopping here.)

Next, cut your 1″ square into 4 x 1/4″ ‘wafers’.

Next, cut the wafers into 1/4″ square-ended hand cut fries – otherwise known as Battonet

(bet you didn’t appreciate those hand cut fries before!)

As the last part of your practice, you can cut your Battonet into “Small Dice”- 1/4″ square pieces of potato, ready for your skillet.

My dice in the picture is not perfect… I diced the ends I had cut off to make my squares.  So this would not pass the Culinary Institute test.  But it’s great practice and I personally don’t demand perfection from myself.  My goal is to improve my speed and accuracy over time.

What to do with these potatoes?

Well, you can boil them and turn them into mashed potatoes…. or use them for a breakfast potato dish… or put them in soup… or deep fry them for mini-tots.  Practice more and you’ll get to try potatoes in fun new ways!


Cook yourself a fantastic Chinese New Year Dinner January 23, 2012

Happy Year of the Dragon- 2012!

I love to cook Chinese New Year Dinner… where an even number of courses are good luck.  This past weekend, Bartender Steve and his Heidi were the lucky winners of this year’s 6 course Chinese New Year dinner.  Take a look at the video to learn how to make your own version for this week’s celebration!


Technique of the Week (be the Superhero of your Kitchen) – Knife Skills January 18, 2012

This is a new feature of the blog, “Technique of the Week”.  It’s meant to be a little something that can change your life in your kitchen, big time.  The not-so-secret secrets that I’ve found very, very helpful in my cooking.

If you like to cook from scratch, Knife Skills and some practice have the potential to save you oodles of time.  Learning how to hold a Chef’s knife (above left) and how to use it are the best things I’ve learned in the past year.  If you watch cooking shows, it’s the first thing they teach new recruits and the first thing they test in competitive cooking.

Get a Grip 

The smallest- and hardest and most impactful- adjustment is to start holding your chef’s knife correctly, and making the commitment to practicing until it feels comfortable.

   If you do what I used to do, you put your index finger on top of the blade.

It was tricky to unlearn that, but if you have a good chef’s knife, there is a place to rest your finger and thumb (see the photo at right) – and firmly grip the blade.

Once you’ve got the right grip, you will have better control over your knife cuts.

My favorite easy practice is to cut celery- it lays flat on the cutting board so I can practice my rocking motion without having to raise my hand too high or worry about bits rolling off my cutting board.

Use a rocking motion and, to the extent you can, leave the tip of the knife resting on the board at all times.  Your hand should be moving steadily, firmly, and easily.

It’s best if your knife is sharp.  You can tell if it’s sharp by cutting a piece of newspaper in the air.  If the blade easily slices through the paper, the knife is sharp.  If it doesn’t, it’s dull, and you should sharpen it.

You’ll know you’re successfully holding a knife if you get a great callous like this:

Practice Practice Practice…  you’ll get faster and more accurate, and your meal prep will go so much faster than it does today.

Happy Knife Holding… your first Technique of the Week!




Achieve the Perfect Soup! December 12, 2011

As soon as the first snowflakes fall and the temperature begins to drop, I am in the mood for some good comfort food- and the king of them all at my house is SOUP.  Here’s what you can do with all of that awesome turkey stock you have leftover from Thanksgiving (and only if it’s been in your freezer!)

The basic steps of making a great soup usually lead to a great result.  This is not a recipe but rather a set of 5 techniques that will give you creative license to make your own version of soup.  Put on your apron and get your creative juices flowing!

1.  AROMATICS.  Heat up some oil or fat in a Dutch oven (soup pot) over medium to medium high heat.  When it’s hot, add diced Onion, Carrot, Celery, Fennel, Leeks, Bell peppers (or any combination thereof).  Garlic is also an aromatic but is added last in the process (see step 2).

2.  CARAMELIZE  Allow the aromatics to soften and release their juices.  Onions and celery will become transluscent.  Add garlic after this has happened, as it only needs to be in the pan for up to 1 minute to release its oils, otherwise it may burn (which tastes bad!)  If you are adding raw meat to your soup (such as ground beef), you also want that to caramelize.  The key to great caramelization is to ALLOW THE VEGGIES AND MEAT TO SIT ON THE HEAT WITHOUT BEING STIRRED.  Put your spoon down and do something else for a few minutes while the veggies and/or meat get a nice brown crust.  Gray meat doesn’t taste good, but brown meat tastes GREAT!

3.  DEGLAZE.  Choose a liquid to add to your soup.  I usually use wine at this step, enough to cover the bottom of your pot and barely cover your veggies/meat.  Turn the heat up to high, add your liquid, and use a wooden spoon to release the nice brown bits on the bottom of your pan from the caramelization step.  This is called Deglazing and it adds immesurable flavor to your soup, and all in the matter of about one minute.  Reduce the heat to simmer and allow the liquid to reduce by about half.

4.  MAIN FLAVOR/SUPPORTING CAST.  Now your soup is ready for some flavor.  If it’s roasted squash, add that with some additional liquid (such as chicken or vegetable stock, or even water).  If it’s tomato, which are already quite liquid-y, add them and then see if you need to add more liquid (as long as it’s not milk or cream, as dairy will go in last).  If you’re doing a poultry/bean soup, add your cooked and cubed meat and softened beans at this step and some stock.   There should be enough liquid so that when you bring your pot to high heat, there is something to boil.  Once it’s at boiling, reduce to simmer (watch for the steam coming off the top of your soup).  This is also where you can adjust the texture of the soup by using a stick blender to create a “creamier soup” (by blending part of the soup and adding it back to the main pot or blending the entire thing).  Get your tasting spoons ready!

5.  SPICE.  This is bringing the soup to a finish.  Taste your creation and see what it needs  I always have salt, pepper, and an acid ready (white wine vinegar for a light colored soup and red wine vinegar for a darker colored soup, or lemon or lime juice).   I taste and add other herbs or spices a bit at a time as I go.  With practice you will begin to learn what flavor combinations taste great to you.  If you’re nervous, take a bit of your soup into a separate bowl and add a bit of spice and see how you like it before you commit to adding to the big pot.  Or you may smell the spice and then the soup to see if the smells go together.  I often taste and adjust, taste and adjust many times before I consider the soup finished.  This is really where you have the opportunity to hit a home run!


Now you’ve got the five steps… go forth and conquer and make a great soup!!!  (what flavor combinations sound good to you?)


Thanksgiving Tips and Tricks November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving is here!  Thanksgiving is here!

It’s my 10th anniversary hosting Thanksgiving… after ten years, I’ve learned a lot about cooking and hosting.  But even better, with a bit of age and more lessons under my belt, I’ve become even more thankful for the special people in my life, the fun times we’ve had, and all of those things big and small that brought me to this spot right here.  Thnaks to you for being a part of the Catalyst Cooks Story!!!


1.  Hosting?  When you invite your guests, be ready with an answer when they ask what they can bring or how they can help.  My favorite response?  “Bring Wine!”

2.  Going to someone else’s house?  Ask what you can bring.  or, see above… “Bring Wine!”

3.  Cooking (at your place or to bring?)  Choose some great recipes.  Here are some of my favorites:




Side Dish

4.  Make a list.  Lists are helpful for everyone, but especially hosts, and at my house the big list is:  what’s happening in my oven, when, and at what temperature?

5.  Know what you’re thankful for (refer to making a list, #4).  If you’re brave, share it at the Thanksgiving table.

6.  If some part of your preparations don’t go as planned- have the phone number of a kitchen hero at the ready.  Or, know when to cut your losses and move on.   (the best stories arise from situations that have gone awry!)

7.  A beautifully set table can erase any kitchen calamities.  And the table can be set ahead… so get out your best wares and make it fancy!

8.  My personal favorite, if you are hosting, make room at your table for Thanksgiving orphans.  Invite a friend who doesn’t have other plans.

9.  SAVOR and ENJOY your dinner!

10.  Last but certainly not least, if you are not hosting, DO THE DISHES.  Even if your host says no, butt your head right in there and get crackin’.  🙂


(do you have any favorite tips or tricks?  How are you celebrating Thanksgiving?  Leave a comment below, love to hear them!)


I have a Meat to Grind: Meat Grinding and Meat Grinders October 17, 2011

Let me introduce you to one of my many favorite kitchen appliances… my meat grinder.

The backstory:  I won a gift certificate for doing a good job at work in 2005, and coincidentally on the same day made Swedish Meatballs with my favorite meatball combination: half ground beef and half ground pork.

Wouldn’t  you know that it was not the first time (nor the last) that I ended up with a  too-small-to-choke-on-but-too-large-to-ignore piece of who knows what in my meatball.  Thus the happy marriage of disgust and anger (about the ground meat from my favorite grocery store once again including non-meat mystery ingredient with bad texture) and a windfall (of $100 to spend at my favorite online store).  All roads led to the decision to grind my own meat, from then on!

(Not to mention some of the information that has since come to light about the prevalence of E Coli in large processing plants; the unsavory meat trimmings and by-products that are sometimes added to ground meat to increase its bulk; the chemical preservatives that are added to ground meat to preserve their color and appearance in stores.)

I did a bit of research online- much easier then than it is now, because there wasn’t as much information out there to choose from- and landed on the beauty pictured above, a Villa Ware 320 watt Power Grinder.  The attributes I like about it:

Parts disassemble for easy cleaning

Forward and Reverse direction (in case meat gets stuck)

3 grinding plates (for coarse, medium, or fine grind)

And, the piece that was missing in my Cooks of Crocus Hill Class yesterday, the Cutter blade (shaped like an X)-

which cuts the meat right near the grinding plate so it doesn’t get stuck.

I also like the fact that the grinding tube, plates, and cutter are stainless steel so that I can chill them in the fridge before using them.


Some secrets I’ve learned since I purchased my grinder:

*Start with a nice cut of meat.  I like to use a boneless roast (for example: pork butt or shoulder, beef chuck or round) that has very little connective tissue or “silverskin” (aptly named since it has a distinctive, silver-like sheen).  Good cuts will be nice and uniform, and I try to preserve the fat for my ground meat but certainly not any cartilage or silverskin that will plug the grinder or ruin the texture of my ground meat.

*Cut the meat into pieces no larger than 1″ cubed.  I’ve found that grinding pork is a bit more challenging than grinding beef, so if you are a new grinder, start with beef and move to pork once you’ve gotten some practice.

*Chill the meat before grinding- it does better if it’s really cold.  I have even put my cubed meat in the freezer for 10 minutees before grinding, which is easier for the grinder to handle.

*For beginners, you may choose to go with the largest/coarsest grind first, and then grind to the medium size.  The grinder has an easier time processing smaller pieces.

*Grind into a smaller bowl nestled into a larger bowl filled with a bit of ice and water.  I use glass or stainless steel bowls that can fit right under my grinder.  This keeps the meat nice and cold.

*Grind your meat when you will use it.  I don’t like to grind my meat to freeze it; part of the beauty of grinding my own is that it is very fresh.  However, if you are going to freeze some, make sure you keep the meat very cold; and put it in small ziploc baggies (expressed of air to minimize freezer burn) and flatten them before freezing.  Do not pile many of your baggies together, to ensure that your newly ground meat quickly freezes.

If I am making sausage, I typically add my seasoning (less than you think you’ll need, as you can’t take it out afterward!) on my cubed meat before I grind it, so the flavors really equally distribute.  I shape it into patties, thus eliminating the need to purchase casings and deal with that part of the process.  However, sausage links are easier to store so if you aren’t planning to use your sausage right away, you should consider casing your sausage (which is also a bit more technically difficult).

There are lots of great, inexpensive, well-rated meat grinders out there… are you tempted to start a grinding practice at your house?

(By the way, thanks to the Cooks of Crocus Hill class attendees from yesterday for the inspiration!  Now you get to see a GOOD grinder!)

Need recipes?  Watch for some fun sausage, meatball, and other fun recipes – coming soon!







And What to Do with that Homemade Pasta? (a Quick Recipe) September 9, 2011

If you’ve experimented with the Homemade Pasta Recipe I posted yesterday, you probably want a quick sauce to go with it.

I got up this morning and prepared my lunch for this afternoon:

I took some bacon out of my freezer and ran it under cool water.  While it quickly defrosted, I put a cooling rack inside my jelly roll pan and placed my bacon on the top, leaving a bit of space between the strips.  I threw that in the oven and set the oven to 400 degrees.  (If the oven is cold when the bacon goes in, the bacon maintains its flat shape better.)  This cooks for about 20-25 minutes or until crispy.

I put my pasta pot on the stove to boil.

Then I prepared a quick sauce, by mixing the following (for 4 servings of pasta, about 1/2#):

  • 1/2 Cup half and half (or whole milk, or cream)
  • 1/4 Cup fresh basil, chopped (or chiffonade) – stepped outside into my ‘sunken garden’ to get this guy! **
  • 2 T softened butter (I use unsalted, and soften it by letting it sit out of the fridge- you can also soften in the microwave)
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 Cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

After the pasta was cooked (I like mine ‘al dente’ or with a bit of texture), I tossed the drained noodles with the mixture above until the cheese and butter were melted (not too much, or it will make the pasta mushy).

I put a squirt of lemon juice over the top and dressed it with the cooked bacon, which I used my kitchen scissors to snip over the top.  Finally, I used a bit of basil for garnish.


** A word about the sunken garden:

Last fall, Neighbor Dave and I got rid of our hot tub.  This is a long story for a different day (including the generosity of mom/Pam’s neighbors, marriage lessons in how to navigate the dismantling of a deck, and how to turn a bad thing into a good one).  End result: I now have a sunken garden on a very nice concrete slab right in the middle of my deck!

This garden has been fruitful, despite the cruddy spring and short summer.  Cherry tomatoes, basil, arugula, sage, thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, and tarragon abound.  Makes for some great summer salads and herb additions to my favorite dishes… all by just going outside to the sunken garden!


Not the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer… April 27, 2011

But we can fix that!!!

I’ve been taking some time away from the blog, in order to make my knife a little sharper- literally and figuratively.

I’m “getting a taste” of life in the kitchen.  I knew how to put together a mean dinner party before… but now I’m learning how to do it the way the chefs do it. 

The biggest area for improvement, which my awesome boss Mary has taught me me is: KNIFE SKILLS.

I had no idea after all of these years I’ve been cooking~

that it was possible to learn a simple skill to make cooking easier, faster, and more precise which yields better results.

“This is something we should be teaching our kids as soon as they learn how to hold a knife!!!”

(how did I go 40 years without knowing?)

I’ve learned that the Santoku is no longer my favorite knife.

My knife style was less controlled then, and the Santoku was so great for that.

But now my style is more controlled, and I have fallen in love with my first chef’s knife, a gift from my mom long ago.

It wasn’t sharp when I started at Cooks of Crocus Hill. 

(do you know how to test this yourself?  – put your knife blade on your thumbnail without applying pressure.  If the blade slides on your nail, it isn’t sharp.  If it is, it will stay in one place.  My chef’s knife easily slid down my nail, all the way!)

Mary has also taught me how to sharpen my knives using a sharpening stone and some water.

So if any of my cooking friends out there want a sharp knife in their drawer- I’m looking for some practice!


Thanksgiving Week is Here! November 19, 2010

Number one Question on the minds of Thanksgiving hosts and hostesses everywhere:

How do I make sure I serve a moist Thanksgiving Turkey?

Here are Jen the Catalyst’s Top Tips for a great Turkey on Thanksgiving!

  1. Begin the Great Brining Thaw on Sunday.

Why brine?   Brining allows the Turkey to absorb more water before cooking it. 

I use a light brine of about 1/4 cup Kosher salt to 1 gallon water, and add fun things like garlic, onion, peppercorns, bay leaf, and fresh herbs. 

By definition, a brine is really just saltwater, and anything else is extra.

I brine (and thaw) my bird on the sunporch or outside (I like to make sure the bird is at around 35 degrees) from Sunday to Thursday morning.

2.  Put Butter Under the Turkey Skin.

Yes, I put fancy stuff on the top of this one like lemons and garlic.

But the important part is what you can’t see… the butter and fresh thyme that I personally put between the skin and the meat.

Butter makes everything better.  Don’t hesitate to use a lot (like half a stick).  I use unsalted. 

3.  Use a Thermometer.

Don’t serve raw meat… it’s just not safe!

Insert a reliable thermometer into the middle of the breast, make sure you’re not touching bone (wiggle the tip around and make sure it’s not next to bone). 

If your bird is stuffed, you can put the thermometer in the stuffing.  In order to be safe, the temperature must reach 165 degrees in the breast and stuffing before eating.

If you rest your bird, and you should (I do for 30-40 minutes while I heat up the side dishes)- the turkey will continue to cook and the internal temperature will continue to rise, 5-10 degrees.  As a result, you can pull the turkey from the oven when the breast meat reaches 160 degrees.

Bottom line: if a turkey doesn’t roast long enough, it won’t be safe to eat.  If a turkey roasts too long, it will dry out.  Be smart and use a thermometer to get a safe, moist turkey.

Good luck everybody!  May your Turkey day be great! 

I’m thankful to have you peeking into my crazy Catalyst life!


Snow Day Pumpkin Bundt Cake November 14, 2010

Yesterday, it snowed.  and snowed.  and snowed!

I wanted to be in the kitchen… not the car.  I wanted to bake… not shop.  So I raided my pantry.

I had pumpkin, but no milk.  Flour, but no whipping cream.

I found a recipe at (Oxmoor House, June ’07) that was easily adaptable for what I had, and I wanted to share it with you, because it is SO GOOD!!!

Warning: food porn to follow…

Warning: this recipe is not healthy.  Not by a mile!


  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (or softened)
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 cups brown sugar (I used a mix of dark and light, since that is what I had)
  • 5 large eggs
  • 2 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin
  • 1/4 cup vanilla flavored rum (or any rum)
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Place butter in large bowl.  Beat with an electric mixer for 2 mins until creamy.  Gradually add white and brown sugar, beating at medium speed for 5-7 mins.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating at low speed just until yellow yolk disappears.

In a smaller bowl, stir together pumpkin and rum in a bowl.  Mix well.

Combine flour and remaining dry ingredients in a medium bowl.  Add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of pumpkin mixture interchangeably to the butter mixture, beating on low to incorporate.  (end with flour).

Pour into a well greased (I used butter and made sure to get in all the nooks and crannies) and floured Bundt pan.  Bake at 325 degrees for exactly 1 hour and 28 minutes. 

While the cake is baking, mix the topping:

  • 3/4 cup walnut pieces, toasted
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (either dark or add a bit of molasses)
  • 3 Tablsespoons all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Mix the above together with your fingers until it clumps into a streusel.  Just try to leave it aside until the cake is ready for it!

When the Bundt pan comes out of the oven, place it on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Invert the Bundt pan on a pretty plate cake stand.  Immediately press the streusel topping onto the top of the cake, where some of it will melt and drip down the side.  Allow the cake to cool completely before cutting.

I didn’t.

And it looked beautiful anyway, just like this:


and a perfect alternative to pumpkin pie if you are looking for a good, decadent, homemade dessert for your Thanksgiving!


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