How to Roast Peppers

Roasting peppers is an incredibly quick and easy process that can come in handy when you don’t have a jar of roasted peppers handy or when you’re looking for something to do with some peppers you have laying around in your fridge. Roasting peppers enables you to remove the skin of the pepper and it softens the flesh of the pepper, all while creating a deep, warm flavor. Here’s a quick step-by-step on how to roast peppers:

1. Move a rack in your oven to the highest part of the oven, closest to the broiler, then turn the broiler on.

2. Wash peppers (any sort of pepper is fine; the peppers in my pictures are bell peppers), cut off the tops/stem end, and remove the “pulp/membrane” and seeds from the inside.

3. Cut the peppers in half and lay them out, cut side down, on an ungreased baking sheet, then gently press down on the halves to lightly flatten them.

4. Place the baking sheet in the oven under the broiler and cook for 5-10 minutes until the skin has blistered and turned black/brown (don’t overcook though). Rotate as needed to ensure even roasting.

5. Remove the peppers from the oven and immediately wrap them in foil, then set them aside for at least 15 minutes, or up to an hour—this helps soften the peppers.

6. Unwrap the peppers and gently peel off the skins. The skins should easily slide off and should be discarded once removed.

Peeled pepper is on the left and the skin is on the right

7. Use the roasted peppers for sauces, soups, or as part of a meal. They can be stored in an airtight container in the freezer or fridge.

I used this technique this afternoon to roast a half of a green and orange pepper in order to make a quick sauce for pasta and it worked out so well. While the peppers were resting in the foil, I had time to unload the dishwasher and gather the ingredients for the roasted pepper sauce, and even though I only let them rest for about 15 minutes, they were perfectly softened and they blended well into the sauce I made. Try this technique at home and use your roasted peppers for sauces, soups, as an appetizer (sliced and served on crostini or blended into a dip perhaps?), or slice them up and toss them into a pasta dish or add them to pizza. Roasting peppers is so easy and the peppers can be used in so many ways!


Salt Your Pasta Water

Dinner was casual tonight, i.e. my dad’s out of town in State College, PA for the evening and my mom and I agreed to each do our own thing for dinner. My go-to easy dinner is pasta with a little butter, olive oil, garlic, and cheese, and tonight wasn’t an exception (though I added a side salad to get some healthy greens in my body). Cooking pasta is pretty basic—boil water, add pasta and cook, drain, and serve—but many people forget one key thing: salting the pasta water.

Now, any of you who cook pasta often will likely have heard or seen in recipes that you should salt your pasta water and some of you may be wondering why…is it for flavor? Does it help the water boil faster? Does it keep pasta from sticking? Pasta, particularly dried and out-of-a-box pasta, has very little flavor, and it takes a sauce or some sort of light seasoning to kick it up a notch. Adding salt to water adds flavor to the pasta. That rumor that salt raises the temperature and makes the water “boil better” or boil at a “higher heat” is false. In fact, the salt in the water only raises the temperature by about 1*F or maybe 2*F, which is insignificant. As for salt helping to keep it from sticking, it doesn’t. Olive oil can be added to the water to help prevent sticking, but I don’t recommend doing this, because the oil prevents sauces from sticking well to pasta after it’s been drained—you should stir pasta when it’s first put in the boiling water to help evenly distribute starches from the pasta and keep the pasta from sticking.

Now, there are varying ideas about how much salt should be used in pasta water. Some people claim the water should be salted enough so that it tastes like the sea (that’s really salty, but you’ll be draining all of the water anyway, so not that much is actually absorbed by the pasta), while others say to add just a pinch of salt. I add a small handful (see picture) when I’m cooking a portion for myself or two people, and a larger handful with larger batches of pasta. From what I’ve read and seen, a tablespoon or two of salt per 4 or 5 quarts of water seems to be the general consensus on the salt-to-water ratio. You don’t need to use any special kind of salt—your average table salt (we have a big container of Morton’s brand that we use) works just fine, and it’s a lot less expensive than using nice sea salt or a fancy salt grinder (though any salt will work). Add the salt to the water right as it’s coming to a boil and add the pasta shortly after that, that way, the pasta can absorb a bit of it before the salt dissolves completely in the water.

Small amount of salt for a single serving of pasta (should have taken my claddagh ring off…got salt underneath it :P)

Salt in the bottom of the pot (I added it before boiling so you could see it)

So, next time you make pasta, try adding some salt to the water right before you toss in your pasta and see if it gives the pasta a little more flavor.

Flavoring and Infusing Oils

Flavored and infused oils can be used to dress up a simple salad, add a splash of flavor to chicken or fish, or add a little kick to a dish of pasta, and they’re quite easy to make and store. Ingredients like fresh herbs, garlic, and lemon zest are popular flavoring choices and lightly flavored oils absorb these flavors very well. There are two main methods for flavoring oils: hot oil infusion and cold oil infusion. Hot oil infusion (the method I prefer) involves heating the oil, adding the flavoring ingredient to the hot oil, and allowing it to steep until the desired flavor is reached. Cold oil infusion takes longer, as the oil and flavoring ingredient mixture must rest for a few weeks for full flavor to be reached.

Oils to use for flavoring and infusing
You want to use a lightly flavored oil when making infused oils because any strong flavor already present in the oil will likely overpower the flavoring ingredient that you want to add. I highly recommend using light or extra-light olive oil (extra virgin olive oil is already flavorful in and of itself, so it doesn’t absorb and highlight other flavors as well). These lighter olive oils have a delicate flavor, smooth texture, and they work well on pretty much any food.

Flavoring ingredients

  • Fresh herbs (basil, rosemary, or a mix of various herbs are popular choices)
  • Fresh garlic
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Fresh or dried peppers
  • Lemon, lime, or orange zest
  • Ginger
  • Lavendar

These are just a few of the more popular flavoring ingredients, and I recommend trying one of these first because they’re the easiest to work with. Fresh herbs should be chopped up or crushed/bruised first to make it easier to extract their flavors, and any larger ingredient, like garlic cloves or sun-dried tomatoes, should be finely chopped to help them release their flavors. You can always strain the olive oil once it’s finished and add in whole herb leaves or whole chunks of an ingredient if you want to “make it pretty” (flavored oils are great housewarming gifts, by the way), or simply leave the chopped/bruised ingredients in it. Certain ingredients will actually color the oil—fresh basil makes the oil slightly green, sun-dried tomatoes make the oil slightly red—which is perfectly normal, and actually quite nice looking.

Oil-to-Flavoring Ingredient Ratio
There isn’t really a precise measurement for oil or flavorings—making flavored oils is all about getting the exact flavor that you want. You need a good handful of any flavoring ingredient to achieve any sort of flavor, but it’s up to you to decide how much. For the basil oil pictured in this post, I used one whole package (approx. 2 oz.) fresh basil, cut chiffonade (long, thin strips), in 1 cup of oil, and it created a strong, clean basil flavor that was just right. Measuring the oil is all a matter of how much you want to end up with, but you need to create a balance between the oil and the flavoring. You need to have more oil than flavoring, and I recommend pouring out the amount of oil you want to end up with, and add flavoring as you see fit. You can always add more later to increase the flavor.

Basil Oil (1, approx. 2 oz. package basil, cut chiffonade, and approx. 1 cup light olive oil)
Hot Infusion Method

In a small-to-medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches approx. 185*F. Do not turn the heat up too high or let the oil heat up for a long time, because it can burn, which absolutely destroys the flavor. Once the oil is heated through, add your flavoring ingredient, lower the heat, and let the mixture steep for a few minutes (when I tossed the basil in, it sizzled up immediately and sounded like it was frying, but the activity gradually decreased as the mixture cooled—all of this is normal). Turn off the heat and let the mixture continue to steep until the oil has reached room temperature. Pour the oil into a container with a tight-fitting lid, seal it, and let it chill in the refrigerator overnight. Once cooled and rested overnight, taste the oil to see if the desired flavor has been reached. If it’s too strong, add a little more oil. If the flavor isn’t strong enough, gently rewarm the oil and add more flavoring. The flavors can take a few days to develop (in fact, the flavor will get stronger over the first few days), but this method is the quickest and easiest way to create a delicious flavored oil (my oil was already tasting great the day I made it).

Cold Infusion Method
In a container with a tight-fitting lid, add the flavoring ingredient, then pour the desired amount of oil over top, seal the container, and keep it in the fridge. Let the mixture steep for at least 2 weeks, then strain out the flavoring ingredient. If desired, add fresh pieces of the flavoring ingredient to the oil for a nicer presentation.
*Important note: Flavored oils are a potentially hazardous food, meaning that, if not properly stored or used within a certain amount of time, they have the potential to go rancid and possibly make you sick. Flavored and infused oils should be stored in the fridge (the oil will solidify to a degree when cold, so be sure to set them out and let them rise to room temperature before using). They should be used within 10-14 days of being made. Do not keep them in a metal container, because it can affect their flavor. If you’re unsure about how an ingredient with react when it’s infused in oil, look it up before using it as a flavoring.

How to Peel Garlic

I want to share an essential technique that every cook should know: how to peel garlic. Growing up, when my mom made dinner that called for garlic, she either reached for the dried minced garlic in the spice cabinet—crunchy, hard, and musty—or the tangy-smelling wet garlic in a jar in the fridge. Buying fresh garlic wasn’t even on her radar, and when I first started cooking, I didn’t bother with it either. If a recipe called for a clove of garlic, I knew how to get the equivalent out of the dry or wet garlic we had and I made do. Fortunately, I realized the error of my ways and started using fresh garlic as my involvement with cooking continued. I completely believe that every cook should keep at least one head of garlic in their kitchen or pantry at all times—it’s an essential ingredient in many Italian and Asian dishes and it can add a pop of flavor to many meals. Garlic is inexpensive, it’s easy to store (I have a little “garlic keeper” dish, but sometimes I just toss the heads in with the onions or the potatoes we keep in a bin in the pantry), and it’s really easy to use.

First things first: The whole bulb of garlic, which usually includes 6-10 cloves, is called a head or bulb of garlic. The pieces that make up this head are the cloves, and they can be small and skinny or fat and wide, and they are covered with an inedible peel/skin.
There are a variety of ways to peel garlic, but the technique I’m sharing is a classic. If you really like kitchen “gadgets” and the like, there are these little rubbery garlic peeler sheets, like this one, that you can buy to peel garlic—you put the clove inside the rubber and roll it back and forth and the rubber helps peel off the skin. They work pretty well, but I kind of think they’re a bit silly. For the method I’m sharing, all you need is a cutting board and a wide knife (a chef’s knife is best). 
Step 1: Remove the number of cloves you need from the head of garlic and place them on the cutting board. You’re only going to peel one at a time (it’s easier that way), but I’ve got two cloves out because I needed them for dinner tonight.
The little porcelain garlic-lookalike dish is what I keep my garlic in at home

Step 2: Place the flat side of your knife on top of the garlic clove (it doesn’t really matter if you do it on the flat or the round side of the clove—I do it both ways). Be very careful that you don’t let your hand slip and cut yourself! Press the knife down hard and rock it back and forth once or twice on the clove or slam the palm of your hand down onto the flat of the knife and push it down into the clove. You should be able to hear the skin of the clove crinkling as it opens up.

Additional note: After I posted this, my friend Tory commented that she likes to use the bottom of a can or glass to crush the clove, because placing your hand near the knife’s edge is a little intimidating (I agree!)—really, you just need a hard, flat surface to push against the clove to get the skin to break. 

Step 3: Pull the peel from the clove. It’s not always going to come off in one clean piece, but you should be able to peel it off easily. The clove may remain whole, if you didn’t push into it too hard, or it many be a little crushed, but it’s fine either way and it’s ready to be minced, chopped, crushed, or sliced.

The one drawback to this method is that you can crush the cloves a bit (which doesn’t matter if you’re chopping up the cloves anyway), so if you have a recipe that calls for whole cloves and you want them to be absolutely perfect, here’s a tip: Break apart the garlic head/bulb by firmly pressing down on the tip with the palm of your hand, or carefully dig in and pluck out however many cloves you need. Soak the cloves in room temperature water for a few minutes until the skins can be easily peeled off (they might feel a little slimy, but that’s totally normal.).
I hope this post helps you out and encourages you to use fresh garlic (the flavor can’t be beat!). Please feel free to comment if you have any questions or you just want to tell me if this post was helpful or not.

Listen to Your Gut

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my cooking adventures is to trust my gut. The more I cook and the more I experiment in the kitchen, the more I learn and the more comfortable I get with ingredients and equipment. I’m learning what flavors work well together and what flavors don’t blend well. I’m learning that recipes aren’t always perfect and most can use a little tweaking. I’m learning what ingredients can be used as substitutes for other ingredients and when substitutions just won’t work. I think anyone who really works at cooking can learn the basics and be able to put a meal on the table (Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America has helped two TV seasons worth of terrible cooks—people who can’t even boil water—learn to cook delicious meals). However, I think it takes a real passion for food, a love of learning, and trust in oneself (and one’s taste buds) to be a really good cook. If you can take criticism well and pick yourself back up after you make a crappy meal, then that’s all the better.

It’s exciting to feel confident in my growing cooking skills and my knowledge of food, but it’s definitely an ongoing process and there are certainly bumps in the road along the way. Tonight was one of those bumps in the road: by ignoring my gut instinct about the recipe I was following, the resulting dish really didn’t work. I’d found a fantastic-looking recipe for fettuccine with zucchini ribbons and walnuts and I was excited to try it out. It’s a sauce-less dish, but for flavor, a paste-like mixture of anchovies, fresh garlic, and crushed red pepper is added to the dish. Now, I’m in a bit of an awkward position when it comes to following recipes because most serve 4 people or 6-8 people, but I’m only cooking for 3. This means I can’t simply halve a recipe, because there wouldn’t be enough for my family, but I don’t want to make a full recipe (especially one that serves 6-8) because that’s just more temptation to eat bigger servings (and when you’re trying to lose weight and eat healthy, that’s no good) and we don’t need leftovers cluttering the fridge. So, I have to go with my gut and decide how much of each ingredient I’ll need. Unfortunately tonight, I didn’t listen to my gut when it told me “the two anchovies called for in this recipe seems like a bit much because they have such a strong flavor,” and I used the call-for amount. The result was a pasta dish with a fairly overpowering anchovy flavor and some light-hearted criticism from my parents. While eating, I thought over how I could change the dish to make it better and I’m confident that, if I made it again, I’d trust my gut and it would work out well.

Looks lovely, but the anchovies in this dish were far too overpowering and it almost ruined the meal

So, now I know what to try next time, but the recipe is tucked away inside my recipe binder for now, because there are countless more recipes in books, on TV and the Internet, and in my head waiting for me to try them out. I just have to be sure to listen to my gut when I make them. Lesson learned.