Archive for the ‘Product Profile’ Category

Product Profile: Easy Brownies and Sweet Sprinkles

August 22, 2011

I love trying new products, especially when it comes to new foods!  On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s, it was so nice to see so many new products on the shelves.  One that caught my eye was the  “Ready to Bake Brownies“, which is basically pre-mixed brownie batter that you just pour into a pan and bake.  I’m a huge fan of their Truffle Brownie Mix (which I think is the closest to homemade that you’ll get without it actually being from scratch), so I figured this was worth a try.  Not that it is particularly difficult to mix up a batch of brownies, but particularly since I was just in a beach rental house for two weeks, I was thinking how convenient this would be to bring along to a place where you may not have eggs or vegetable oil readily available (this winter, think ski house apres-ski brownies!)

The verdict?  Well, the brownies couldn’t have been easier.  Just pour into a greased 8×8 pan and bake for 20-22 minutes.  As for taste, well, I don’t like them as much as I like the TJ’s Truffle Brownies, but they weren’t bad at all, especially considering they took all of 30 seconds to prepare for the oven.  I found them a little more cake-like than I prefer (I’m a chewy brownie fan), but based on how quickly my daughter’s group of girlfriends gobbled them up, they passed the taste-test.

The other new item I picked up was the “Sugar, Chocolate and Coffee Bean Grinder“.  I had to look at it for a minute or two to even figure out what it was, but I liked the name!  Basically, it’s a little pepper grinder filled with, no surprise, sugar, chocolate and coffee beans.  The label suggests grinding it over “cupcakes, coffee, tea, buttered toast, or ice cream…”.  Since I’d just picked up the brownie mix, I thought, “or brownies!”.   I spread some white vanilla frosting on a few of the brownies and ground away, and not only did it make a pretty topping, but gave the brownies a tiny bit of crunch and extra sweetness I loved.  I think it would also be great ground over a cappuccino or latte as an alternative to cinnamon.  Okay, it’s a bit of an indulgence item, but what the heck.  Live a little.

Testing these items certainly didn’t fit in with my post-vacation diet plan, but hey, it was ‘for work’!  Enjoy!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Product Profile: Herb Keeper

May 9, 2011

Most home-chefs love cooking with fresh herbs.  They add fantastic flavor, color and freshness to any dish.  The only problem is that there is almost always some left over, and those left over herbs tend to end up in the garbage after rotting in your fridge for a week. 

This exact issue led me to develop a Connecticut cooking class teaching students how to select, store, chop, and use fresh herbs in a variety of recipes.  Although I tend to store many of my fresh herbs in ziplock bags, I decided this was the perfect time to test out an “herb keeper” I received as a hostess gift.  I’m not much of a gadget-girl, but I have to say I’m very impressed with this product.   There are a few different brands on the market available at a variety of stores (including Target, Amazon and Sur La Table), but mine is from Cuisipro and was purchased at Crate & Barrel.  It is approximately the size of a 2 liter soda bottle and has a removable top.  You simply fill to the indicator line with water, insert your herbs (stems down) into the canister, close the top, and place in your refrigerator.  It creates the perfect environment for your leafy herbs to stay fresh and green for weeks (provided you change the water every few days).  This bunch of mint lasted over three weeks (pictured)!

You could create a homemade version of this by using a drinking glass filled about an inch high with water and a plastic bag.  Simply place the herbs, stems down, into the water and loosely place the bag over the leaves.   However, this herb keeper is a great product, creates no waste, and truly does it’s job.  

Now, what to make with all these left over fresh mint leaves?  My Cape Cod Mojitos!  It’s almost summer, after all!

The Oven Blame-Game

February 21, 2011

“Why are the cookies taking sooooooooooo long???” asked my daughters, practically in unison.  I’d told them they’d be ready in 8-10 minutes, but here it was 16 minutes later and still they were not done.   Of course I immediately blamed the oven.   “The oven temperature must be off,” I explained, as I envisioned the $75 service call to have it re-calibrated.

Before I made that expensive phone call, I went out and  bought a simple oven thermometer, which can be purchased at any hardware store, kitchen store, or discount store (I got mine at Target).  Target had two styles available, one for around $4 and another for $10 (I sprung for the ‘deluxe’ $10 model).  If you want to part with about $50, you can get an ‘oven-probe’ style thermometer where a probe gets affixed to the inside wall of your oven, and a wire connects it to the display which sits on your countertop.  This way you don’t have to open the oven door to see the temperature. 

That's the convection fan you see on the oven's back wall...

After placing the thermometer smack in the center of the oven, I tested it at 250 degrees, 350 degrees, and 450 degrees.  The thermometer indicated that the oven was in fact heating to the temperature at which it was set.  Next, I tried the same test using the convection feature.  “Convection” ovens are those that have a fan built-in, which circulates the air around the oven, presumably so food cooks more evenly.  Usually, if you opt to use the convection feature on your oven, you should decrease the temperature by 25 degrees to accommodate for the difference (in fact, my oven automatically re-sets the temperature to reflect a 25 degree decrease when I select “convection” on the keypad).   However, that being said, except for when I’m baking (baking is a science, don’t mess with it!), I almost always manually increase the temperature because I WANT to speed the cooking time.  My tests for the convection feature also revealed that my oven was correctly calibrated.

So, then what was up with my cookies???  Well, remember I said “don’t mess with baking”?  I had, in fact, messed with my cookies.  I happen to prefer using canola oil in place of butter in my chocolate chip cookies.  I think the flavor and texture are much better with the oil.   However, when you change even one thing in a recipe, there are other things that sometimes need to be changed, including the cooking time.   Or, it could just be the recipe was not sufficiently tested in a non-commercial oven.  Or, it could be that the pans I use are different from the pans used during testing (lighter colored pans brown cookies more slowly).  Or, it could be that by trying to bake two sheets of cookies at once that the air wasn’t properly flowing, therefore slowing down the cooking time.  The message here?  There is a lot of trial-and-error that goes on in the kitchen, no matter what your level of experience.  But now that I know that the temperature in my oven is as it should be, I’ll stop blaming the oven!

For some chocolate chip cookie recipes I like, check out my other blog, The Secret Ingredient Online.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes.

Up next time, selecting and using meat thermometers!

Urban Legend Debunked: Frozen Ginger DOES Exist!

October 25, 2010

I’d heard the rumors.  People I know claimed they’d seen it.  I’d even read about it online.  But until I saw the mini-ice cube trays filled with minced frozen ginger, my faith was weak.  Well, hallelujah!  Today was the day I became a believer!

I’ve long been a HUGE fan of the minced frozen garlic (one little square equals one clove), but never really took a liking to the other ‘ice-cube herbs’ sold under the Dorot brand name.  The basil, cilantro and parsley just weren’t as useful as my beloved garlic.  However, once I heard that Dorot also made frozen ginger, I knew that would quickly become a kitchen favorite.  Fresh ginger is wonderful but doesn’t keep very well.  For years I’ve been peeling the root and freezing it whole in ziplock bags, then just grating it frozen into whatever I was making.  It’s a perfectly serviceable way to use ginger that would otherwise get moldy in the fridge, but the ease and convenience of those little ice cubes just plain makes me happy. 

The only downside of this ginger?  Trying to find it!  No stores in my town carry it (why, I have no idea—they all carry Dorot’s other varieties).  I’d heard that a store a few towns over* had it, but it took me three separate trips of finger-numbing digging through the freezer case before they actually had it in stock.  Of course I loaded up!  And if you like fresh ginger flavor in your dishes, I would suggest you do the same thing!   Not sure what to do with the ginger cubes?  Here’s a great way to try them out.  This stir fry sauce goes with just about anything…veggies, shrimp, chicken, or pork stir fry dishes.  Just be sure to add it toward the end of the cooking time so it doesn’t end up burning on the bottom of your pan.

Ginger Stir Fry Sauce

Makes about 1/2 cup.

1 cube frozen ginger, thawed (1 cube equals 1 teaspoon fresh garlic)

1 cube frozen garlic, thawed

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons soy sauce (low-sodium is preferable)

1 tablespoon sesame oil (you can substitute vegetable or canola oil if you don’t have sesame oil)

Whisk all ingredients together in a mixing cup and add to any stir fry dish toward the end of the cooking time. 

* Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk, CT is a fabulous ‘destination’ grocery store and carries all varieties of Dorot frozen ‘cubes’.  Plus, they have enough free samples scattered around the store to make a small meal, entertainment for the kids including live animals, and free ice cream if you spend over $100 in groceries (which is easy to do)!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Pot & Pan Primer

September 20, 2010

I’m often asked about pots and pans at my Connecticut cooking classes.  What brands do I recommend?  Which types are most useful?  Do I prefer stainless steel, non-stick, enameled cast iron, or something else?  I definitely have a lot of opinions on cookware, but they are not what you think. 

Despite the fact that I cook for a living, I do not own the super-luxurious All-Clad set from Williams-Sonoma.  In fact, I don’t own a set of anything from anywhere.  Back when I was getting married and was able to register for kitchen wares, I could not find a set that had all the pots and pans I wanted;  the various sizes and types I wanted made from various materials.  I wanted stainless steel for most of the pieces, but I wanted non-stick skillets for eggs.  I wanted the big expensive enamelled cast iron stew pot, but didn’t think I needed a pasta pot that was overly pricey.  I also wanted a few specialty items like a grill pan and a paella pan.  It doesn’t take long to discover that this “set” does not exist. 

Of course I didn’t get all the pans for which I registered, and then had to pick and choose which ones I really needed when it was time for me to dig into my own wallet for these items.  Over the past dozen years, I’ve collected various pieces from various places.  Some I could do without, and some others would be better in triplicate.  I’ve tried many different brands, and I’m happy to say that my absolute hands-down favorite pan is also one of my least expensive ones.  Here are my favorites that I couldn’t do without:

3 skillets (8 inch, 10 inch, 12 inch), non-stick–I often make an egg for myself, and the little pan is perfect for a single serving.  The 10 inch is great for an omelette or making grilled cheese, and the 12 inch is my go-to fritatta pan or pan when I’m serving breakfast to a crowd.  If I had to give up one it would be the 10 inch, which I find I use the least of the three, but am still glad I have it.  Instead of traditional non-stick teflon enamelled pans, I’ve chosen Green Pans, which are made from a non-flaking non-stick material that can go in the dishwasher (and I found online at, but are now also available at Target).

2 saucepans (2 quart and 3 quart), stainless steel–good for reheating, sauces, and smaller jobs.  Look for pans with a heavy bottom with an aluminum core.

2 chef’s pans (4 quarts), stainless steel–these wide, sloped sided pans with short handles are my hands-down favorites.  I use them for everything from risotto, to stews, to stir-fries.  The perfect “everyday” pan.  I just purchased a fabulous new chef’s pan from Tramontina (see note below), which I highly recommend, although I wish it was about one inch deeper.  If you have trouble finding this shape/size (which Tramontina calls a ‘casserole pan’), a 5 quart stainless steel Dutch oven will work just as well.

1 pasta pot (12 quarts), stainless steel–nothing fancy…just a regular, heavy bottomed pasta pot.  I am not a fan of the pasta insert, although other people seem to love them. 

1 stew pot/Dutch oven (5-6 quarts), enamelled cast iron–this very heavy pot is great for longer-cooking recipes like stews, soups, chilis, or for braising.  I also love this because it works on the stove top and in the oven, and looks nice on the table to boot.  I have a Le Creuset, which is certainly pricey, but will last a lifetime.

By the way, one of my favorite shows, the PBS series “America’s Test Kitchen“, recently reviewed pots and pans.  Although that expensive All-Clad set from Williams-Sonoma was their most highly rated set (at around $800 a pop), the set that ran a very close second is amazingly from Wal-Mart.  The Tramontina 8-Piece 18/10 Stainless Steel TriPly-Clad Cookware Set is under $150 and wowed the testers at the Test Kitchen (they also have a small selection of open-stock pans).  So, if you’re in the market for pots and pans, it’s worth checking out.  I love mine!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

New Product Profile: Frozen Diced Shallots

May 24, 2010

So a few weeks back I showed you how to chop a fresh shallot.  Useful, I hope.  But this new product I discovered today might be even MORE useful!  While browsing the aisles of Fresh Market (I recently blogged about their yummy carrot chips), something in the freezer case caught my eye.  Now, I’ve long touted the fabulous frozen minced garlic I use in just about everything.   I’d  also recently heard food-rumors that there is a similar frozen minced ginger on the market (I’ve yet to see it with my own eyes).  But frozen diced shallot sightings?   Nary a word!   I feel like I discovered gold!

The 3.5 oz box runs about $2.99 and is to be kept frozen.  It has a hinged pop-top making pouring out your desired amount easy.  Just like the garlic, you can add the frozen shallots to whatever you are cooking. or you can defrost them to be used in uncooked things like a vinaigrette.  What I LOVE about these is the shelf-life.  They stay frozen, so will not spoil, mold, or grow funky green shoots like their fresh counterparts.  You can keep them on hand all the time, instead of running to the market when a particular recipe calls for shallots.  AND, if you only need a very small amount (which is often the case), no problem.  You don’t have to use a portion of a fresh shallot then have the other part rot somewhere in the back of your fridge.  Just pour out a teaspoon’s worth, snap the top back in place, and pop back into the freezer. 

You could certainly dice your own shallots and freeze them—- which is one way to prolong their life.  However, to me, half of the reason you buy this is to avoid the chopping!  Plus, everyone loves  a cool little flip top dispenser!!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

New Discovery: Carrot Chips & Crispy Green Beans

March 15, 2010

As I wandered the aisles of our brand new Fresh Market store (a North Carolina-based grocery chain), I stumbled upon sea of bulk containers filled with dried fruits and veggies, snack mixes and nuts.  My eye immediately landed on these bright orange chips, which are made from gargantuan carrot slices.   I was also drawn to the crispy green beans, which I had recently seen on the shelves at Trader Joe’s too.   I made myself a half pound bag of each (they aren’t cheap—at around $9-12 per pound!) and headed home to taste test.

They were both really delicious and crispy.  The carrots were cut more thickly than a potato chip, but were sweet rather than salty.  My kids split their opinions on this one and we got one thumbs up, one thumbs down.  The green beans were light and airy, with a salty flavor I loved.  Keep in mind these are not processed veggies sticks, which are mainly potato.  These are actual carrots and actual green beans, fried to perfection (the green beans are supposedly “vacuum fried” but I have no idea what that means).  Okay, so they aren’t exactly health food, but somehow I felt less guilty eating them since they actually looked like vegetables.   But just how many of these could I eat without truly feeling guilty?

I checked the nutritional info on the Fresh Market website and found that the carrots and green beans both came in at about 130 calories and between 4-6 grams of fat per serving (about one ounce).  However, an ounce isn’t much and I’m sure I ate four times that amount, which makes for a pretty calorie-heavy snack!  When compared to potato chips (I’m partial to Cape Cod potato chips), the carrots and green beans are really only slightly (dare I say?) healthier.  For the same sized serving, the potato chips were 150 calories and 8 grams of fat.  AND, if you opt for the Cape Cod 40% reduced fat variety (which I often do), the fat and calories are identical. 

So, if you are looking for a yummy snack, these veggies are great, but do not fool yourself into thinking they are a healthy alternative to potato chips.  But I will say they are MUCH prettier and would make a great splash at a party (check out the bright purple sweet potato chips too!).  I know I’ll have them at my next one!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Self-Sufficient Kids in the Kitchen

December 4, 2009

The kitchen can be a wonderful place for kids, but could also present some danger.  When my little sous-chefs are helping me in the kitchen, we talk a lot about safety, and they know that the knife drawer is completely off limits unless they are being supervised (they are five and seven years old).  However, as they become more independent, they have begun to ask about trying to do more things for themselves.  They’ve been getting their own drinks for ages, and they always know that anything in the bottom fridge fruit drawer is theirs for the taking.  However, lately they have been jonesing  to make their own breakfasts, and who am I to squelch such enthusiasm?  While I am eager for them to take this to task, I did have some safety concerns.  Enter kid-friendly kitchen gadgets.

The first gadget I bought was a bagel slicer, or bagel “guillotine” as it was called on the box.  Yes, mom and dad, you were right.  They are great (they have been trying to buy us one for years and I kept saying “why do I need to have a bulky gadget to cut a bagel when I had a knife?”).  Since bagels are the breakfast of choice around my house, we do a lot of bagel cutting.  By using this kid-friendly gadget, the kids can slice their own bagels without fear.  Then, with the help of a step stool, they can even toast them safely, with the use of my next gadget….wooden toaster tongs.  These are another great invention.  They allow you to reach into the toaster and pull out your bagel (or waffle, or toast, or whatever) without the risk of burning those mini-digits.  My kids LOVE using both of these kitchen tools, and are so proud of themselves for making their own breakfast (now if I could just get them to wipe the counters down afterward, I’d be in business!).

The other kid-friendly gadget I’ve come to love is the apple corer/slicer.  I realize every one of these tools are breaking my cardinal rule:  no single use gadgets!!  However, if they help my kids to do more on their own (which translates into less for me to do), I’m all for it!  My kids are big fruit eaters, and apples are one of their favorites.  However, while one kid loves eating them whole, the other prefers them cut.  This apple slicer is the perfect solution.  Center it right over the top of the apple, press with all your might, and voila!  Perfect apple slices.  There were three different apple slicers from which to choose at my local kitchen supply store:  an OXO for $10, a high-end one that adjusted for different sized slices ($20), and a basic one made from recycled materials that had nice big, kid-friendly handles and was a fun bright green color for $6.  We opted to “go green” and have been happy with our choice.

Even if you are not a gadget geek, try these items and get your kids involved in the kitchen.  They make GREAT stocking stuffers for your little helper!


Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Grilled Chicken with Relish

June 16, 2009

twolia-128x128Before I chat about chicken, I am proud to announce that TODAY marks the official launch of TWOLIA.COM, for which I write this blog!  Twolia (pronoucned “too-lia”  is a website “where talent and creativity flourish”.  In addition to the many blogs (my “Season to Taste” being among them), the site features female musicians, filmmakers & producers, (for which there are the Twolia Awards where YOU can vote on the best films/videos), plus  business owners selling things from art, jewelry, handmade crafts, beauty products, and much, much more!  There is also a monthly talent contest  which anyone can enter!  Please be sure to take a few minutes to explore the site….I think you’ll be amazed by what you find! 

And now—back to the food!

chx-school-002On a recent night at one of my Connecticut cooking classes, a student brought me a jar of something that looked like salsa.  It was labeled “Authentic Australian Tomato Relish”.  Using a  family recipe, my student and her husband, an Aussie, began a company (“Three Punks”, named for their three kids) to bring the relish to the American market. 

This traditional topping is slightly sweet and has a chutney-like consistency.  It is used with grilled meats and fish in her husband’s native Australia, but could be also used with veggies or as a topping for hamburgers.  I’m already through my second jar of it, and have found it to be extremely versatile.  I’ve brushed it on grilled, butterflied chicken, chicken pieces, and pork tenderloin.  It is always a big hit, with adults and kids alike.  The sweetness is intensified when grilled, and creates a wonderful caramelized glaze for whatever you’re cooking.

Three Punks isn’t available everywhere just yet, but a fantastic substitute is a sweet  tomato and fruit based salsa, like peach or pineapple (widely available in grocery stores and specialty markets).  I happen to like Newman’s Own Peach Salsa (nothing like plugging all my Connecticut-based companies today!), but use whatever brand you enjoy most.  Just be sure to brush it on only in the last 10 minutes or so of grilling so it doesn’t burn, but has enough time to properly caramelize.

Grilled Chicken with Relish

Serves 4

4 bone-in, skin on chicken parts (breasts or thighs)

1/2 – 3/4 cup tomato relish or tomato-fruit salsa

salt and pepper

olive oil

Preheat grill to medium high.

Lightly brush chicken with a small amount of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place the chicken on the grill, skin side down and cook for approximately 10 minutes, or until chicken is cooked about half-way through and the skin is nicely browned.  Cooking times will vary depending on the size of your chicken parts!

Flip the chicken and brush the relish on the skin side (which is now up).

Continue cooking for another 7 minutes, brush both sides of chicken, and grill again until chicken is no longer pink and juices run clear (another 2-3 minutes, approximately).


Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Product Profile: Complete Body Cleanse

March 13, 2009

cleanse-001I was recently listening to the radio when a commercial caught my attention.  It was describing how from 5-12 pounds of waste can get “stuck” in our system, on the walls of our intestines, colon, and more, and how it is a good idea to occasionally flush it out.  It advertised some sort of regimen that would rid you of all this excess waste, which would translate to significant weight loss.  While the “get thin quick” aspect of this ad didn’t have me convinced, I did find myself continuing to think about the concept of  all that waste “stuck” in my system.

When a friend announced that she was starting a week-long “body detox” program, I started thinking more about the idea.  As I strolled the aisles of Trader Joe’s that week, I noticed a blue box among the vitamin and herbal supplements.  It read “Complete Body Cleanse” .  It seemed simple enough— take three different dietary supplements for fourteen days and your body will be gently detoxified.  The box states that it “supports detoxification for the entire body including the intestines, liver, gall bladder, and digestive systems.”  After speaking to one of the associates, I decided for $12.99 it was worth a shot.  While my main goal wasn’t weight-loss, a few pounds shed would be a nice bonus.

cleanse-005The three supplements include an herbal  Digestive Formula, which promotes “bowel cleansing”.  The Liver Formula rids your body of toxins, and the Fiber Formula is designed to absorb the toxins and safely carry them out of your body.  Safety is mentioned several times, as is the fact that this is a “gentle” cleanse (which is why it takes two whole weeks).

Well, gentle it was.  The first five days…nada.  By day six, I think the supplements finally began to kick in, but not in a major way.  As impatient as I was the first several days, I believe this slow readjustment of your system is a much safer way to detox.  When I initially mentioned this system to my husband, he wanted me to be the guinnea pig first, since I work from home.  He didn’t want to be in a meeting and have to make a mad dash to the office bathroom if things were moving too quickly.  I can honestly say that this would never be an issue, so you don’t need to take a vacation to detox! 

I ran into my friend who planned to do a much more intense detox through her chiropractor’s office (one in which you couldn’t eat!), and she admitted that after 12 hours she had to quit.  She was sick as a dog and couldn’t move, so quickly abandoned the idea.  To me, this could be a very dangerous thing, and I certainly don’t think any detox program should leave you incapacitated.  We’re talking about the detoxification of bodily waste, not heroin!

At the end of fourteen days, I do feel as if I’ve cleaned out the pipes a bit.  That being said, I think I normally get plenty of fiber in my diet from lots of fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains.   For a person who wasn’t used to fiber, the results would likely be far more signifcant.  Is it worth trying?  Yes.  It is simple enough, and all you need to do is remember to take the supplements.  No additional dietary restrictions are required.  Would I recommend it?  Again, yes.  Do I feel like I rid my body of 5-12 pounds of waste and toxins?  Not necessarily, but every little bit helps.  And for the record, I didn’t lose any actual weight on the scale… so if your goal is weight loss, don’t expect it to put you back in that bikini. 

The Complete Body Cleanse can be found at Trader Joe’s in the vitamin/supplement aisle.