How to Prepare Bacon in the Oven

I used to hate cooking bacon. I needed a really large pan or griddle, it made a huge mess of splattered and leftover grease to clean up, and there were only so many pieces you could cook at a time if you had a group to feed.

Enter oven-baked sheet pan bacon. You need to be doing this unless you have some kind of industrial flat-top in your home kitchen or don’t have an oven at all. Cooking bacon in the oven is much more efficient and requires less cleanup.

Set your oven to 400 degrees (F). It’s fine if it doesn’t preheat all the way before you put the bacon in, similar to letting bacon or sausage start in a cool pan.

Take your sheet pan and line it with aluminum foil, then a layer of parchment paper. If you don’t have the latter, it’s okay to go without but I think the parchment makes the bacon a little crispier. Note that a sheet pan has sides in order to catch the grease (do not use an open cookie sheet). The foil doesn’t have to completely cover the pan but should also form a little tray inside to catch the grease. You can skip the foil entirely but will have more cleanup.

Lay your desired number of bacon strips out flat on your pan until full. You can fill multiple trays as needed depending how much bacon you need and the number of pans you own. You can use any metal pan with sides you have (jelly roll, sheet pan, a rectangular cake pan even).

Put the bacon in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. Depending on the brand and thickness of bacon, this typically takes 15-25 minutes to cook. Remove the bacon from the oven when done to your liking, then move the bacon to another plate to drain the excess grease.

Let the pan cool (the grease may solidify), then dispose of the foil and parchment by removing the edges and rolling it up. Your cleanup is done, and you’ve made plenty of bacon!

Our favorite bacon brand is Nueske’s, which you can find in a couple grocery stores or butcher shops locally (for those of you in ATL, I’ve found it at Buford Highway Farmer’s Market and New York Butcher Shoppe). The taste is really excellent and the bacon is much leaner with less shrinkage versus other brands. You can otherwise order it online from their website. I typically order a lot of items and freeze some if ordering since the shipping is on the pricey side to cover the 2-day shipping with refrigeration packs. If I need to grab bacon at my local Publix, I typically pick up the Wright brand bacon.

How to Cook Rice

In my adult life, I receive an unusual amount of compliments on my rice from other people. Glad to see my daily childhood chore has paid off! If you weren’t so lucky to have 10+ years of practicing this daily (and getting it thoroughly inspected and approved by your mother), read on to learn a few tips and tricks for getting the fluffy, perfect rice you desire.

Wash Your Rice

I think this is the single most important differentatior for getting great rice versus just good rice. I wash mine once, but some people and specific recipes will call for a double wash. Washing rice really refers to rinsing it. This removes some of the excess starch on the outside of the rice grains, allowing it to cook more evenly and preventing the starch from forming a gummy paste in your pot that makes the rice mushy.

To wash your rice, measure out the amount you need and place it in your rice cooker insert or cooking pot. Run cold water over it until your rice is covered, 1-2 inches above is fine and this doesn’t need to be exact. Swirl the whole pot around with your hand about 5-8 times. Carefully pour off the starchy, cloudy water. You don’t need perfection here either, since you’ll just be adding more water anyway to cook the rice.

Add the Right Amount of Water

I won’t lie here, adding water to rice without measuring may be my superhuman power that comes from decades of doing this by eye. For a standard size rice cooker (7-9 inches in diameter), my mom’s rule is your water should be a “knuckle” above the rice. Of course, my knuckles are an entirely different size than my mom’s, so this really averages out to about a 1-inch depth of water above the rice.

When in doubt, reference the back of the rice bag. Most of them use a 1.25 or 1.5:1 ratio of water to rice, depending on the type. Use a measuring cup or scoop to get the recommended proportions. Remember that it is easier to add more water and cook it longer than to undo watery or mushy rice.

Add some buffer time to the end of your rice cooking time (typically 25-35 minutes). This will let you extend the cook time if needed, but I also like to let it sit with the power or heat off for a few minutes to get cool enough to eat and redistribute the excess steam or condensation in the cooking pot. Kind of like resting your meats before you slice them. If you use a pot on the stove instead of a rice cooker, the resting steam will also help naturally release the rice from the sides of the pot.

Learn About Other Tyupes of Rice

The most common type of rice is long grain rice. The longer grains hold less moisture than other varieties and that “dryer” consistency makes it really versatile for multiple cuisines. This is the rice you will most often receive from an Asian restaurant. The problem with this is that it also dries out the fastest. As in, is terrible left over.

I typically buy medium grain or Calrose rice. The shorter grains absorb more moisture, so it is a bit stickier or chewier in texture than long grain, which I love (think more like sushi rice). I prefer the texture, but the rice will also retain that moisture longer when kept leftover. You can reheat medium grain rice (plain or with a little water sprinkled on) and it will keep for a few days. You can find this in most grocery stores, though it may be in the Asian section rather than the rice and pasta section (Kroger does offer store brand medium grain rice, Publix does not). In my opinion, leftover long grain rice can really only be repurposed into fried rice.

Final Note: Rice Cookers

If you eat rice regularly and can afford the expense and storage, consider investing in a rice cooker. Pretty much every household I know of that eats rice reguarly (daily in some cases) has one. There is a lot less risk of burning or drying out your rice. I’ve made rice on the stovetop less than 5 times my entire life and did not enjoy watching it boil, then simmer, then try to fluff it off the pot. Rice cookers are much easier to use and you can use a lot of the newer versions for other purposes such as steaming, or the functionality may be part of something very multi-purpose like an InstaPot. I’ve had this Aroma brand rice cooker for several years. We got it through a rewards program redemption but I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well it works. and it works pretty well. The Zojirushi rice cookers are also highly rated at a slightly higher price point.

Influenced: My Review of Home Chef

I am a big sucker for ads and have already made a list of 50+ things I saw online and was swayed to buy or try based on the advertisement, Instagram account, Buzzfeed article, etc. I’ll eventually share out my best of best but since I’ve been on a cooking kick, I wanted to share my review of Home Chef.

Home Chef is a meal kit delivery service, and you’ve likely seen this promoted if you follow any sort of other popular lifestyle or fashion bloggers. With this service, you receive the raw ingredients to cook a meal yourself. I am not a Home Chef partner, and in no way receive any benefits or profits by sharing this review. I signed up for an account with a promo code for something like $90 off my first four orders ($15 off per week) last fall around mid-October.

Home Chef meals start at $8.99 per serving and can go up or down depending on how many portions you order and any customizations such as type of protein. Their website currently indicates you need to order $49.95 as a weekly minimum (when I tried the service, you could go lower but had to pay for shipping under a certain threshold). I tried Home Chef over about 6 weeks, placing 3 weekly orders with each order comprising 3 different meals for 2 people (week 3 below had 1 meal cancelled due to stock items, which they notified me of promptly).

Things I actually ordered

The Good

The Food Itself: Everything we tried tasted good, and was not overly difficult to prepare. The portion sizes are plenty filling for adults. The proteins are satisfying for adult eaters (I was initially worried if it would really feed Geoff adequately), but you will not have any leftovers. They all come vacuum sealed and are stay very moist once prepared If you’ve struggled to use all of an ingredient, these will come pre-portioned with just the amount you need (e.g., one green onion, one packet of sauce, 1/2 cup of rice) to help avoid food waste or paying for more than you need. The only items you are expected to have at home are really salt, pepper, and cooking spray or oil.

Menu Variety: Home Chef offers 20+ options on their menu per week. As a “picky gourmet,” I could pretty easily select meals that sounded tasty. There is a good variety of different cuisines without anything being too crazy. Home Chef makes it easy to sort and filter based on factors like dietary preferences or difficulty level. You can change the protein for nearly every meal, but there may be a cost difference for major upgrades (e.g., chicken to steak or seafood). Home Chef has also several add-on items like bread, salad, and dessert.

Online Menu: The online menu has great pictures, and you can preview the instructions and ingredients for each meal. You can view at least 4 weeks’ worth of menus in advance, which is super helpful to plan ahead as well as potentially plan any skip deliveries.

Flexible Scheduling and Convenience: Home Chef offers very flexible scheduling. It’s as easy as advertised to skip weeks or customize your order without any hidden costs or penalties. You can select your delivery day for each order. All of this is easily accessible via the website or mobile app, and you can customize email reminders as well. You also know you’ll have everything you need (or the advance notification to make a meal sub), versus the occasional miss or replacement from normal grocery delivery.

Some of the meals I made

The Bad

Cost: Home Chef (and most meal kit services) is cheaper than eating out or ordering takeout, but for most people probably costs significantly more than doing it all yourself. If you are spending a lot eating out, just getting into cooking more, or want variety for every meal it is a fair option to try. It is more flexible to try versus other services and they run great intro deal for new customers. You will save money on certain items if you find yourself buying a lot of herbs, condiments, or spices for the first time or one-time use (for me, it’s things like an entire container of goat cheese). At the cost per serving of Home Chef, I can probably get twice as much or more food doing the prep myself and I personally love leftovers. I found the price of Home Chef pretty fair with the promo code, but a little expensive once that ended. My local grocery stores also offer their own meal kits or prepared meats that are more affordable, and I live two blocks away from a Publix.

Level of Effort: Most of the meals I ordered were not particularly complex, but a lot of them still took 30-45 minutes to prepare or require a multiple pans. As someone who is pretty familiar with the kitchen, I honestly thought some of these would be a little simpler or easier. Granted, you can select easier meals and their oven-ready meals are super simple (dump everything in a pan and bake). There were more steps involved than I had anticipated for some of the more average meals, and at the same thing, some things I would have liked to learn (e.g., demiglace steak sauce) came already prepared in a packet. If you are newer to cooking, it is a good learning experience but it might take longer to prepare depending how much prep there is for the vegetables or starches in your meal.

Plastic: By nature of being a mail-order meal kit, almost every ingredient comes individually wrapped or packaged. This is convenient to skip measuring and shopping, but feels very wasteful in the amount of trash and recylcable materials you have for one meal. Think of a salad kit in a bag or the way airplane meals are wrapped. The shipments also arrive in a well insulated box with gel ice packs that you also have to dispose of.

Overall Verdict

The food quality and convenience of Home Chef is great. It’s a good introduction to cooking and trying new meals you may not have prepared before. Two big takeaways for me were the appropriate amount of ingredients you really need for two people, and that you should definitely bake chicken breasts with some sort of cream-based sauce and a crunchy chip crumbles on top.

However, the cost can start to add up if you have prior experience budgeting and doing your own cooking. I honestly am not even the best grocery budgeter, and I think there are a lof of more cost effective alternatives, such as your grocery stores’ meal kit offerings as well as a good blog or cookbook on easy meals. I personally would rather get a better value out of my own cooking and use the savings on a really nice meal either at home or at a restaurant.

So, while I enjoyed my trial of Home Chef for a few weeks, once my promo ended I cancelled my account and haven’t reactivated it. If you want to give it your own try, be sure to search for a good promo code first and use it upon sign-up during account creation! You can also see the cost update live as you pick and choose different meals for each order to compare directly to what you spend now.

How to Peel a Mango

In all honesty, credit for this mango peeling hack goes to one of my favorite petite fashion bloggers, Jean Wang of Extra Petite. It’s too good not to share! I’ve been avoiding prepping my own fresh mango for years (basically if my mom isn’t there to do it for me). They don’t pair well with my trusty vegetable peeler and can be tricky to prep with just a paring knife. I’ve included step by step instructions and photos below, and you can also check out my video tutorial here (part 2 changes angles to match your perspective).

In the meantime I have primarly been getting mango frozen from Trader Joe’s. The bag is typically around $3.49, which is less expensive than fresh mango near me ($1+ each so about $1 per cup), but I could never get through a bulk pack from somewhere like Costco. The frozen mango is also ripe and fully prepped, versus waiting on a fresh mango to ripen or during an off season. I’ve found the TJs to be sweeter than other grocery store bags. You can throw these into smoothies, or let them defrost overnight in the fridge. I also like to let them defrost just a little bit (30 min) at room temp or zap in the microwave for 10 seconds so they are still a little bit of a slushy as a frozen treat. Anyhow, back to cutting a fresh mango.

Picking Fresh, Ripe Mango

Most stores offer two broad types of mango: conventional and honey (ataulfo) mango. I’ll be walking through this tutorial with a conventional mango. I think the honey mangos tend to be more consistently sweet and less fibrous in texture, but they are usually more expensive and slightly smaller than conventional mangos. Honey mangos are always golden yellow on the outside.

For conventional mangos, I am partial to choosing the ones that have some red or yellow coloring on the skin. Not every variety of mango is necessarily better in these colors, but there are a lot of plants in general that ripen as they change from green to yellow to red (e.g., bell peppers, tomatoes). You’ll want to find a mango that has a little softness when you check it but is not overly squishy. This is similar to picking a peach or avocado. You should be able to feel softer flesh at the surface but it shouldn’t leave any damage when you lightly squeeze the mango.

Similar to my advice on watermelons, if all the mangos are solid green and hard as rocks, leave those alone and do not buy them. Pick a different fruit or go find some frozen or jarred mangos. If there’s any doubt about the readiness of your mango(s), put it in a paper bag on the counter when you get home, fold over the top of the bag, and let it continue to ripen for 1-2 days. There is no saving a sour, unripe mango. Perhaps if you hide it in a smoothie or a puree with a ton of added sugar, but one taste and you will understand. While there are certainly uses for green mango, green papaya, green tomatoes, green bananas, etc., those are used in a completely different manner than their ripe counterparts.

Preparation

You will need your mango, a cutting board, a paring knife, a cup, and the container of your choice to store your cut mango. The cup needs to be wide enough to almost fit the mango inside it, because you will be using almost the full width of the mango. I prefer this 12-ounce plastic cup because I’m clumsy so I always prefer plastic, and it has a lower center of gravity than a taller glass. Your average pint glass would also work well.

Slice and Peel the Mango!

Wash and dry your mango. Your mango will have a little bit of a teardrop or pear shape, formed around the pit in the center. Hold your mango upright on your cutting board (wider side on bottom, stem on top) so that the narrower side of the mango is facing you. The wider, tear-shape side should be perpendicular to your body.

The pit will take up about the middle inch of the mango in width, so line up your knife about half an inch from the center and begin to slice off the side of your mango. You will want the knife to reach most of the way into the mango to keep your cut cleanest. If you’ve cut too close to the pit, you’ll feel the resistance and adjust your knife out a bit. Rotate your mango and take this cut all the way around until the slice separates. If you’ve made a bit of a mangled mess, trim the flaps of mango off and sample your mango or set the little pieces aside to eat later.

Set everything down and grab your slice of mango and the cup. Use either your fingernail or tip of your knife to dig into the bottom of the slice a bit to separate the end of the mango peel from the yellow-orange flesh. I do this on the wider/bottom side so I am not working with a top-heavy slice.

Hold your piece of mango atop the edge of the cup, with the peel facing out and the mango flesh lined up over the inside of the cup. This is the best way to catch juice drippings and the actual piece of mango without dropping it.

Slowly push the piece of mango down so the cup begins to cut between the mango peel and flesh. I use both hands for this, and I push pretty firmly on the skin side to ensure I’m getting the most mango off. Carefully work that all the way down until the peel is completely separated. Check out your peel – if you’ve left too much mango on it, snack on that and push harder next time. I use my knife to retrieve the mango from the cup since it’s slippery, then cut it in a cross hatch to get small chunks of fruit. Transfer the mango to your storage container, using a spatula of some sort if you find that helpful. Repeat on the other side of the mango.

Slice and Peel the Skinny Sides!

Now you should be left with a center “slice” of the mango. Turn the mango 90 degrees from how you last cut it so you are facing the wide, exposed part. Cut into the top center, then go down one direction to slice off the skinny sides of the mango. You will be able to cut about one inch off. When you feel the knife hit harder or more fibrous sections, you’ve reached the edge of the pit. Follow the pit, then stop at the bottom and repeat on the other side or rotate the mango and take the cut all the way around.

Trim off the dark parts where the stem or center of the mango was. Use your fingernail or knife to peel back the edge of the skin on these pieces, and line it up again on the cup (peel side out). Since this piece is narrower, I grip the peel with one hand between my thumb and pointer finger, and push the mango down with the other hand. Once the peel is separated, dice up the mango flesh and repeat until you are done! Two mangos will yield about two cups of mango. I keep the prepared mango in the fridge to snack on for a few days.

If your mango pit has a lot of flesh left on, you can cut that off and add it to your container. I like to just snack on the remaining bits of mango before tossing the pit.

After you get through the process once, this is so quick and easy! I’ve been peeling and prepping mangos for the last few weeks in a row after avoiding this for many years.

Easy Ginger Hacks

I’m on a roll with kitchen hacks right now, and it wouldn’t feel right to share my garlic tricks without also giving some love to ginger.

Ginger, or ginger root (since this is the root part of the plant), is commonly used for food and some medicinal purposes. You can buy ginger in powdered form, which has great uses for seasoning savory dishes as well as desserts. I’m specifically going to talk about fresh ginger, which has a much stronger and pungent flavor. It packs a big kick in stir-fry dishes as well as directly garnishing or accompanying foods like dumplings (especially xiao long bao).

Buying Ginger

At the grocery store, you’ll find ginger in the produce section. Usually I find it on a refrigerated shelf near something like green onions, herbs, or peppers, though occasionally they might be off on their own near the garlic and onions. It might be a small bin but your average chain store should carry it.

Most grocery stores sell ginger by weight rather than per piece, and I’ve never needed more than 1-3 tablespoons in a single recipe. Don’t buy an entire piece straight off the shelf that is the size of your hand. Pick out a piece that doesn’t look dried out and is not super skinny. Find a chunk or branch that is 1-2 inches in diameter, then snap off a piece about 3 inches long. Let it snap naturally where it branches if it’s a little larger than I just described. Aim for about the size of a fun size Halloween Snickers or half a sausage/hot dog link to get 1-2 tablespoons of ginger.

Storing Ginger

Fresh ginger will dry out after a couple days, whether at room temp or in the refrigerator, so buy it within a day or two of when you plan to use it. If you’ve got too much or like to keep fresh ginger on hand, you can peel chunks of fresh ginger and then store it in a glass container submerged in a clear liquor like vodka or gin. I have just a couple pieces in a small container right now, but you could do a whole jar.

Keep this in the fridge for future use. The ginger will lose a little color but the flavor and texture will last. I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen this go bad, so you can keep it for at least several months. I would recommend a fresh piece when using as a direct garnish, but haven’t noticed a loss in quality when you’re cooking with the preserved ginger. You can also use the ginger-infused alcohol later for cocktails if you’d like.

Peeling Ginger

Peel ginger using a spoon. Just your average spoon, either a teaspoon or tablespoon that you can manuever around the piece of ginger (ideally not a serving or cooking spoon as they are a little large to handle). Turn the spoon so it is facing down against the garlic, then drag it across your ginger (either toward or away from you) in a similar motion as a regularvegetable peeler. The edge of the spoon is sharp enough to remove the skin, and is easier to control over the curves and knots than a vegetable peeler or knife. I find the spoon method a lot easier to control and less wasteful for getting around the edges and knobs of the ginger.

I completely forgot to get ginger at the grocery store to demo this live, so here’s a ginger peeling video how-to of this on YouTube from That Clean Life. Enjoy!

Easy Garlic Hacks

Garlic and ginger are my superstar fresh ingredients. I almost always add extra fresh garlic or fresh ginger to a dish (50-100% more…). Unless these are in the actual name of the dish such as”40 garlic clove chicken” or “ginger pork,” I personally prefer more, especially for marinades, pastas, and dumplings! For anyone newer to cooking, try recipes as written first before making modifications to your specific tastes and preferences.

Here are my top hacks for prepping garlic!

Peeling Garlic

You can buy pre-peeled garlic cloves or garlic paste, but I think fresh tastes better. Plus you can store garlic bulbs at room temperature for quite awhile versus using up fridge space. I keep a couple onions and garlic bulbs in a wire basket in my pantry.

You will need a cutting board and a chef’s knife. If you’ve never used fresh garlic, first tear into the papery outer layers (just grab the stem, twist, and tear) to remove the outer layers and separate the individual cloves you need. Then trim the bottom hard end off each clove, straight through the peel. If your knife doesn’t go all the way through the peel, hold your knife in place on the cutting board and lift the clove up to separate them. It’s okay if some the peel comes off in this step.

If your cutting board moves at all, set it on a damp towel to keep it in place. Then, lay your knife blade as flat as you can over one clove while keeping the blade against the cutting board. The garlic should be around center or toward the larger end of the knife.

Hold the top of the knife handle with your non-dominant hand to keep it steady. Do not grip it – no fingers should be between the knife and cutting board. Line the palm of your opposite hand up over the garlic and the dull side of the knife. Give this a good push with the palm of your hand to crack open the garlic clove. You can give it a pretty healthy smash but don’t pulverize it unless you want crushed garlic paste. I don’t draw my hand back to build up momentum, but get most of the force from the weight of the knife and leaning some of my body weight into my palm.

Set your knife aside. Grab the garlic by the tail-like top piece of peel, give it a small wiggle, and pull. The peel should easily separate from the rest of the clove (if not, whack it again). Your garlic is ready to chop or use!

If you really hate mincing garlic, crush the cloves through a garlic press instead (and for a whole ton you can run them through a food processor or blender).

Garlic Fingers

This tip comes from my mom. To get the garlic smell off your hands, you don’t need one of those fancy metal “garlic soap bars.” You can rub your fingers on anything convenient made of stainless steel and then wash them with soap. I like to use the kitchen sink itself when possible, or you can use a utensil, cooking spoon, or pan – whatever you have out already is great. Make sure to get the skin right at and under your fingernails as well.

And that’s it! Next up I’ll share a few tips on fresh ginger.

Easy Cooking Tips: Flavoring

Moving on from seasoning, here are my starter tips for other ingredients that add flavor to your food (things that aren’t spices).

I’m going to borrow some categorization from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In all honesty, I haven’t done a deep dive into the actual cookbook, but t’s a great simple way to remember your flavor elements. As in, maybe you have your seasoning blend down but something isn’t quite right with your dish.

Salt. Okay, so this is still a seasoning but it’s the most important one and worth mentioning a second time. Salt and taste your food as you cook! Use a light hand to start, because it’s easy to add more but near impossible to take away salt. Feel free to salt to your taste as you learn what you like. I personally salt almost everything with a light hand except for potatoes.

It’s important to layer your salt as you cook and to season different components of your dish. It takes time to meld the flavors and your food will taste the best this way. It’s kind of like origami, where careful steps along the way pay off in a better overall result at the end. This means season your raw meat. If you have a sauté of onions or a sauce base, season that too, separately from the meat. Taste it once combined and salt again if needed. Skipping those separate steps and adding salt only at the end won’t be the same.

There are other ingredients to incorporate salt into food besides just salt, such as soy sauce, feta cheese, salted butter, or prepared ingredients like canned foods or chicken broth. Recipes will usually account for salty ingredients, but keep that in mind if you’re experimenting on your own.

Fat. Honestly for a lot of foods you can get away with just salt and fat to taste pretty good. Salt and butter are a big reason why restaurant food tastes so much better. Try adding a little butter (a tablespoon) to savory dishes – to finish a sauce, or over something like rice or vegetables. You can incorporate fat into your food via ingredients (mayo, butter), cooking method, or components (cream sauce) (see infographic here from NPR).

I’m going to focus on cooking with the right kind of fat. Olive oil is a pretty good all purpose ingredient, but canola and avocado oil have higher smoke points. This means they take longer to burn. So if you are deep frying or even just browning something that needs a nice sear, you will want to use one of those over olive oil or your pan may start smoking before you have the result you want. If your food will easily absorb the fat flavor when cooking, such as eggs or shrimp, consider using a mix of oil and butter or just butter. For a buttery option at higher heat (e.g., hash browns), you can use clarified butter or ghee, which have the milk solids removed and have a higher smoke point than regular butter.

Acid. This is the secret flavor ingredient that sometimes is hard to even place exists in a dish. A dash of lemon juice or red wine vinegar is a great way to add final pizazz and depth to a savory dish. If you’ve never tried this, I would start with something like squeezing lemon juice over something that is generally “garlic and herb” flavored like chicken or risotto. A splash of red wine vinegar or wine is great to enrich the flavor of pan sauces. In a saute pan, this also doubles as a trick to deglaze or unstick any meat bits (fond) off the pan, which adds even more flavor to your meal and makes cleanup easier.

Heat. I won’t get too in depth here, but your cooking method also imparts flavor to your food. For example, roasting, grilling, smoking, or browning instead of boiling (think of oven roasted potatoes or grilled veggies instead of the boiled version of each). This too can happen in layers – are you sauteing, caramelizing, or toasting any individual ingredients before they go in the pan? A key flavor component of many braised dishes like short rib or a pot roast comes from searing (browning) the meat first before letting it simmer slowly.

Combining it all together. The risotto in the featured image at the top of the page is a great example of layering all these components together for maximum effect. Most risottos start with sauteing your aromatics (which I’ll cover later) like shallots and garlic, then adding the raw rice to let it brown or toast in the pan. The risotto gains flavor and salt through absorbing broth and other cooking liquids (e.g., I separately saute shrimp or mushrooms and pour that liquid into the pot). The risotto gets finished with salt and pepper, butter, a little parmesan or marscapone cheese, a squeeze of lemon juice, and red pepper flakes. Bon appetit!

Easy Cooking Tips: Seasoning

The simplest dinner plan in my household is protein + pasta or rice + vegetable. We cook quite a bit, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when people compliment these straightforward meals versus more elaborate ones.

A key item to making delicious food is learning to season your food. This is really tough when you first get into cooking! I have a ton of spices, but you can buy premixed seasoning blends that will do a lot of the guesswork for you. I prefer premixed seasoning blends over preseasoned or marinated meat as those tend to be too salty for my taste or have extra preservatives in them that can affect the taste.

If you have absolutely no spices in your kitchen, start with salt, black pepper, and garlic powder as your basics. Fresh ground black pepper will have a stronger flavor. I’ve now acquired multiple versions of each, and find that Kosher salt is the most user friendly for prepping proteins. Kosher salt comes in larger, wider flakes similar in size to sesame seeds or raw sugar. The texture makes it less dense in saltiness versus table salt and easier to slowly layer in salt in your food. It’s also perceived as having a better, purer flavor versus table salt since it doesn’t contain iodine or other anti-caking ingredients. Note: you can definitely use normal salt just fine! If you use a recipe that calls for Kosher salt you will need to cut down the amount of table salt you substitute in.

My next personal staples are paprika, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, and dried basil. Added with the salt, pepper, and garlic powder these make a pretty good all purpose savory seasoning. I sprinkle these over raw seafood and meat prior to cooking. You can leave out any part you don’t like – I don’t usually put the basil on potatoes, and only do one of the hot peppers most of the time. Use a light hand on the salt and peppers, but you can pretty liberally apply the rest.

There are also lots of premixed spice or seasoning blends you can buy or mix up on your own following a recipe. If you don’t use individual spices often, the blends will ultimately save you a little money since it can be a pretty big upfront investment to purchase several. The seasoning on this air fryer rotisserie chicken recipe is pretty simple and is SO good. There are also salt free mixes that let you add salt to taste. This can be great for dietary needs and I also find without salt, it is pretty hard to overseason with these. Sprinkle them liberally over your uncooked proteins and then whatever sticks on to your food naturally will taste great.

There are endless options you can get at grocery stores, specialty food stores, or online. Here are a few of my favorite seasoning blends that we order or buy special:

Penzeys Mural of Flavor – salt free, all purpose savory herb spice blend. We got this in a sampler pack gift and used it all really quickly and bought more. It’s super good for dinner food but I’ve also put it on eggs and potatoes. If you don’t have a Penzeys store nearby, you can order online but there is a minimum to get to free shipping.

Penzeys Sandwich Sprinkle – salted, similar to a cheese herb garlic salt. I like to add this one to pasta with butter, or over veggies like broccoli to oven roast.

Kosmos Q rubs and wing dust – we put these on meat that goes in the smoker, so pork and chicken. We’ve tried a few but have used up the Dirty Bird blend, which is why there’s not a real photo.

Williams Sonoma Lemon Potlach – salted, specifically the lemon version (there is a regular potlactch). WS makes a bunch of these and we’ve gotten a few as gifts that have been fun to try out. They are all pretty good but this one stands out as our favorite and has been amazing on salmon.

That wraps up my starter tips for getting into cooking and seasoning your food. Once you get a sense of what tastes good together, feel free to play around with spices, or reference recipes and Google to see what kind of mix and match works well!

How to Cut a Watermelon

Now that you’ve selected a watermelon, how do you break it down? I like to fully cut it up into chunks and keep it in the fridge so it’s ready to eat. You’ll need two 14-cup containers or similar volume containers for a typical size seedless watermelon, and just one or slightly smaller for a miniature watermelon. You will also need a sharp chef’s knife, cutting board, and some paper towels or spare dish towel. It takes me about 20-30 minutes to break down an average size watermelon, 10-15 for a mini. If you have never cut a watermelon before, I recommend reading through to the end before starting.

SHORT INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Wash and dry your watermelon.
  2. Cut it in half. Cut the halves into quarters, then the quarters into eighths.
  3. Put each eighth flat side down and cut slices about 1.5-2 inches wide.
  4. Trim the rind off each slice.
  5. Cut the rindless watermelon in a cross-hatch to get it into chunks.
  6. Place in container to eat or chill in the fridge.

DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS

1. Prepare Your Watermelon. Store your uncut watermelon somewhere safe and cool on your counter or floor. Safe means it cannot roll away, be tripped over, or reached by children and pets.

Wash your watermelon when you are ready to cut it. I use a little dish soap and then dry it with a dish towel (paper towels work too). Keep the towel nearby to wipe juice off your hands or counter. Washing removes any gunk that may be on the rind, prevents you from pushing said exterior gunk into your watermelon with the knife, and provides a clean grip on the rind to start.

2. Prepare Your Workspace. Set up at your desired counter space. I work next to my sink, which is good for juice runoff and close to my trash can. If needed, move your trash can nearby or set out a large bowl or a plastic bag so you can directly toss rind pieces as you cut. Tuck one or two folded paper towels under the front end of your cutting board to catch juice runoff instead of accidentally leaning into it with your clothes.

3. The First Cut is the Deepest. Set your clean watermelon on top of your cutting board. Let it settle naturally. One side will balance, as it previously sat on the ground while growing. The watermelon stripes should run left to right (horizontal). At all times, aim to keep the watermelon with as flat a side possible against the cutting board, and a knife movement that is comfortable. You can always move your watermelon to gain control more easily than contorting your hand.

The goal is to cut your watermelon in half so it looks like two round bowls, or a left and right hemisphere. Insert your knife in the top middle of the watermelon. Push the knife blade about 50-75% into the center of the melon to get the best leverage on the knife.

Place your free hand at the outside end or top of the watermelon, whichever feels comfortable but out of the path of your knife. Guide the blade down in a few motions to make the halfway cut on the side facing you, then remove the knife. If the knife ever feels stuck, gently wiggle it as you slowly pull the knife outward.

Rotate your melon or cutting board 180 degrees to cut the other side. Do not try to reach all the way over the melon and cut away from you. The halves by no means need to be even or perfect. Trim off any loose slivers or uneven parts and take the opportunity to quality control the heart of your watermelon.

Halved watermelon

4. Quarter the Watermelon. Aka cut if in half again. Set half of your watermelon aside. If it’s warm in your workspace or you are outside, cover the spare half with some plastic wrap or a reusable cover. Take your “working” half of the watermelon and turn it over so the flat, pink side is down against your cutting board. Cut this piece in half using two cuts, just as you did previously (cut, rotate, cut).

At this point, I set one of the quarters aside and work with one quarter until it is completely broken down into chunks. Then I go back to the other quarter, then half. You will ultimately need eigths, so if you prefer a slightly different order you certainly can do that.

5. Eighth Pieces. Keeping your quarter pieces flat side down, cut those in half again so you have 1/8 (eighth) pieces of the watermelon.

Broken down into eighths – two (2) eighths are on the cutting board.

6. Slice, Slice, Baby. Keep one eighth on your cutting board and set all other pieces aside for working room. Rotate it so you can slice from a flat end with your dominant hand. About 1.5-2 inches from the flat open edge, cut a slice off the wedge from top to bottom. I typically get 3-4 slices off this section of the watermelon before you hit the awkward end piece.

If you plan to eat your watermelon in rind-on slices, adjust your slice width and size accordingly. This is great for grubby beach fingers, but otherwise the rind is a waste of space on your plate or in your fridge so we’ll keep going.

7. Remove the Rind. Turn the watermelon slice so the rind is against the cutting board. Hold the top, pointy part of the slice with your non-dominant hand. Line your knife up at the edge about 1/4 inch above the end of where the rind meets the pink part. Slowly carve the rind off the watermelon flesh.

Note that sometimes the rind is on an angle, and you can tilt the slice a bit to keep your knife pretty level. Err on the side of leaving too much rind, since you can always trim that off. Toss the rind into your trash (can, bowl, compost, etc).

Now, I know, you’re thinking – Hayley, this is not the flat side of the watermelon laying down! At this point, I find this to be the most secure way to hold it to cut off the rind while keeping your spare hand several inches away from and out of the path of your knife. If you were to put any of the flat sides down, you are likely going to be carving the rind off very closely to your fingers, or toward your fingers and body, or both.

8. Chop it Up! Now that you’ve freed the watermelon flesh from the rind, lay it down flat like a piece of paper. Slice it like a grid with vertical and then horizontal cuts. The curved edge may yield one piece less than the sections next to it. If you find your watermelon chunks too large or small, adjust your cuts on the next piece until you are happy. Transfer the pieces into your ready container.

9. The End Piece. Repeat steps 7-8 with each slice. Eventually you will get to the end piece, which has the most rind and looks a bit like a pyramid. Lay this piece on your cutting board with the rind against the board and pointed end up. Grip the top of the pyramid with your non-dominant hand fingers, and trim the rind off one side. When you get to the end, remove the knife, rotate the end piece, and continue on the second and third edges.

This is the end piece.
Cut like this around all three sides.

Once you’ve carved all the way along the bottom, insert your knife into your cut mark at the center of any side and push the knife down like a lever. If the watermelon does not come off the rind, go over your cut marks again and ensure your knife blade is reaching the middle of the piece.

Cut the end piece into chunks. You may realize you could have cut another slice prior, or left more for the end piece.

10. Keep Going, that was only 1/8 of your watermelon. Get your remaining pieces into eigths (steps 4-5), then repeat slicing and dicing (steps 6-9) until complete. Enjoy your watermelon fresh, or cover and place in the fridge to chill.

MORE TIPS

Cutting your own watermelon is cheaper than buying pre-cut from the store, but you do need more time and fridge space. You can also usually find a watermelon section or wedge near the prepared fruit that is portioned and priced somewhere in between a whole watermelon and pre-cut watermelon.

If you have a needy household member who is watching you and eating watermelon faster than you can cut it, hand them a full triangular slice to keep them busy while you work.

There are certainly other ways to break down a watermelon – I find this easiest and quickest way to cut it up while dealing with the least round sections that may roll or slip away.

Be sure to wipe down any juice-covered surfaces with water or cleaning spray, or it will be sticky later.

You can freeze excess watermelon though it is best fresh. I have not actually tried to eat thawed frozen watermelon, but have used it in blended drinks like smoothies or frose.

How to Pick a Watermelon

Have you ever wondered how to pick a good watermelon? Did you even know there’s an easy way to spot a good one?

Some people like to thump on the watermelon. I have no idea what they are listening for. Maybe something with the density. Others pick them up, thinking a heavy watermelon will be full of juice. Honestly, I think every watermelon is heavy and picking them up out of those big bins or a stacked pile of round objects is not easy.

There are several good options I can spot from this view already. Don’t throw your back out digging into the bin.

My mom has never picked a bad watermelon. The trick is to look for a nice sized buttery yellow patch on the watermelon. Nowadays, this may look more yellow than you are used to seeing with conventional butter. You want the rich yellow color of organic butter or grass-fed butter. The coloring on the fruit comes from the way the watermelons sit and ripen while on the vine. Don’t worry about scratches or minor surface-level blemishes. Due to the thick rinds, there aren’t many flaws of note for the watermelons that make it to the store.

Look for the yellow color on the left.
Both of these have the butter yellow coloring, but the top watermelon is better due to the larger yellow area.

You can easily roll the watermelons over to look at the coloring if they are in those large cardboard bins. The yellow spot will also exist on the mini watermelons. The area is usually smaller on the minis, but look out for the color. Typically you will have the most options for watermelons in the summer, though you can usually find a good one at all times of the year. If they are all green, leave those melons alone and get a different fruit.

The winner!

And that’s it! Once you’ve scoped out the watermelon of your desired size with a butter yellow patch you’re good to go. Take it home and store it in a cool, safe spot on a counter or floor until you are ready to cut it.

Next up this week: how to cut your watermelon.