Barbara Kafka

Cooking Hints and Tips

With every cookbook written I continue to learn even more about food, cooking and equipment use. This page is dedicated to sharing what works and what doesn't work. I've added a new section on gluten- and dairy-free cooking with tips acquired from developing my latest book, The Intolerant Gourmet. Do try this at home.
Many useful charts and reference information can also be found in the pages of my books. In particular,
Vegetable Love features an A-to-Z Cook's Guide to all manners of vegetable preparation, substitutions, cooking times, yields and equivalents.


Featured Tip:

Soba Gome
These are the small hulled Japanese buckwheat groats. After playing around, I found that mixing a given quantity
say 1 cupof the groats with twice the quantitysay 2 cupsof water or other light liquid such as stock and letting them soak and swell for a half to a whole hour and then cooking gives the best result. This keeps the groats from getting mushy. The amount of liquid needed for the actual cooking will depend on what is being cooked with them. See my blog for a preparation made with scallops.

Coconut Milk
A good substitute in sauces that is lactose-free is to use canned coconut milk
the normal kind, not the extra heavy. 


Featured Tip:

Acorn Squash
I have always found it tedious to scrape the fibrous and seedy interiors out of acorn squash before cooking them. I have the answer. Use a melon baller or even better a squash corer such as is used for zucchini. This will encourage the traditional squash puree or soup. The microwave time is seven minutes.

A delightful soup, thinner and lighter than my usual ones, can be made by pureeing the squash meat and three garlic cloves in a food processor. The secret is to puree very thoroughly and for a longish time. Add a half teaspoon of Carribean curry powder and a cup of rich chicken broth. Process more. Add salt to taste. This can be made ahead and reheated. Will serve four amply and isn't too rich to go before a turkey dinner.

Rice with Anise Seeds
It always amazes me that there are always new things to learn about food and cooking and new things to try. Once done, some of them seem so self-evident I don't know why I didn't try them before. The other day as I was taking some converted rice (Uncle Ben's to not be prissy) out of
the cabinet I had to move another plastic storage container that happened to be labeled "anise seed" and actually had a nice cache of them inside. It was a light bulb moment. I was making the rice to go with fish and when I boiled the water for the rice, I slugged in some good olive oil, salt and
for one cup of ricea tablespoon and a half of the seeds. I let them simmer gently for about ten minutes until I was ready to up the temperature and stir in the rice. Once it came back to the boil, I turned down the heat and cooked covered until it was all steamed and the liquid was absorbed. The anise was a nice touch and perfumed the rice and added a little crunch. I will do it again; but it won't be a surprise.

Young, I thought that large juicy capers would be the best. Over time, I learned that the small elegant ones that the French call non pareils were of better texture and taste. It took me yet more years to figure out that buying them packed in brine in small glass bottles was not the ideal
solution. Today, I vastly prefer them
Spanish or Italianpacked in salt like the ones that I get from For use in most cooked dishes or prepared ones such as a tartar steak, they need to be thoroughly rinsed or even soaked for about twenty minutes in lukewarm water.

live and learnI cam up with an excellent use for them as they come. I made myself some pasta and sauced it with chopped garlic gently cooked in olive oil, some tomato sauce base that I had put up at the end of the summer (page 460 of Vegetable Love, or feel free to substitute Pomi crushed tomatoes), a substantial pinch of powdered Turkish thyme, a small tip of a dried hot pepper and ground black pepper. Instead of salt or the caloric cheese, I threw a handful of dried capers into the mix. They were wonderful. Try it.

Slow cookers and browning

Those of you who visit my blog will know that I have started a somewhat timid foray into the world of slow cookers. In my usual compulsive way, I now have three different kinds. The makers give no hard data on temperatures so it is pretty much experiment. The one cooking tip that I can currently give is avoiding the constantly repeated instruction in cookbooks and manufacturers' guides to brown ingredients first. This simply messes up a second pot, makes the process for the cook slower and is not needed for flavor. I don't think that we are so over-conditioned that we have to look at browned food.

Microwaving bacon and tortillas
High wattage oven: 3 slices of bacon next to each other on triple layer of paper towel take 2 minutes to 2 minutes 15 seconds depending on crispness desired.
High wattage oven: a single white corn tortilla takes 20 seconds to come back to life and soften.

Boiled Garlic

I loved the smooth mildness of cooked garlic. When the salted water comes to a boil and the pasta is tossed in, also toss in any number of unpeeled garlic cloves. When the pasta is cooked
about 6 to 9 minutesdrain. Holding the papery tip of a garlic peel in one hand, use a  wooden spoon to press downward to the root end of the clove which will pop it out. Repeat with remaing cloves. Serve garlic with the pasta. If the pasta being used cooks more quickly, throw in the cloves and let boil for about 2 minutes before adding pasta. If the pastasuch as zititakes longer to cook, wait until about 7 minutes of cooking time are left and add the garlic.

Peeling Eggs

It never occurred to me that I still had something left to learn about peeling boiled eggs. However, the other day when I was running some oeufs mollets—boiled eggs with firm whites and gooey yolks—under cold water to make them tolerable to peel, I dropped one onto the bottom of the pan. The shell splintered so rather than taking it out of the water and rolling it around to break up and loosen the shell, I did it in the water. To my surprise, the fragile egg became much easier to peel. The water got under the shell and seemingly liberated it and the thin membrane underneath. After that I had an absolute orgy of egg boiling and peeling—hard-boiled as well—and the dog has enjoyed the results as I have in egg salad.

Seeding Cucumber 
After peeling, cut cucumbers in half lengthwise. With the tip of a sharp knife, make a vee-shaped cut around the seeds towards the center. Scoop out the seeds either with the knife or a spoon. It’s easy and quick.


For those as suspicious as I, I should point out that I don't accept free things and sadly pay for everything.

Featured Tip:
Vegetable Peeler
After years of exhorting people to go out and buy new vegetables—inexpensive—when theirs got dull, I have a better solution. There are now swivel action vegetable peelers with ceramic blades. They are light, efficient, easy to clean and stay sharp. By all means buy one and enjoy. Nor rust either.

Scraping Pulp With a Silver Spoon
I used to think that it was an affectation when I read that some vegetables should be scraped with a silver spoon. I now realize that these spoons have thinner, sharper edges than stainless steel spoons and are much more efficient as in making the Acorn Squash Pulp as below in Vegetable Tip.

Stir Fry Utensils
Look for extra-long wooden spoons and use two for stir frying. They are less likely to scratch the carefully patinated surface of your wok than conventional Asian metal tools. Keep those wonderful extra-long cooking chopsticks for dropping and retrieving food from hot oil or stirring largish pieces of beef or other meat that need to be turned. Chinese cooking chopsticks will generally be bamboo. The Japanese ones will have wooden tops but longish needle-shaped ends for doing the job
particularly good for deep-fat frying of any kind. Incidentally, bamboo chopsticks are a good way to tell when oil is hot enough for frying. Stick the end of a clean one into the oil. If little bubbles form around it, it is ready. The bubbles are from water retained in the bamboo.

Safeguard Stirring Spoons
keep a chopstick or knife rest near the burners on your stove. This will prevent burnt wood or melted plastic from stirrers left in the pot. It also means less mess.

Zyliss julienne peeler and tongs 
Every once in a while a manufacturer comes up with a new tool or a variant on an old one that is a real blessing. Zyliss has come up with two winners.

*One*: A real "why-didn't-I-think-of-it?" is a small hand tool that looks like an ergonomic (the plastic handle) potato peeler. The difference is that it has a second blade
sort of toothedon the backside of the peeler looking blade. The peeler looking blade now functions as a slicer and the second blade neatly cuts the slice into strips, julienne. Easy, much cheaper than a mandoline, and efficient. I tried carrots and celery with equal success. This takes little space and
merits a place in the kitchen.

*Two: *They have a seriously improved tongs for foods such as asparagus. Good looking, they are made of stainless steel with rubbery feeling ends to grip the vegetables without crushing or marking them as well as grips on the handle to avoid burns. There is a lock in the same material to keep them from opening and getting entangled in a drawer or wherever they are stored. The plastic comes in black or a sort of rust color. I have bought three of these. One is for New York, one for the country and the third is for a cooking friend who saw them and coveted.


Featured Tip:

Gluten-Free Pasta
My favorite gluten-free pasta is Pasta Schar. Originally German, it is made in Italy in many shapes. You can order it online.

Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is as various as the many countries of Asia that ferment it and use it for dipping and cooking. Try to match your soy sauce to the recipe that you are preparing: Chinese to Chinese, etc. However, if you want to stick to one, look for tamari soy that is wheat free. It is closer to the original taste of soy sauce and less salty. It will also be a boon to any gluten-sensitive friends that you have.


Featured Tip:

Butternut Squash (Cucurbita maxima)
A very large butternut squash
about four poundsshould be quartered lengthwise and the seeds scraped out. Put in one or two layers of a steamer. Bring to a boil and steam for thirty-five minutes or until a skewer or the point of knife slips in. If need be, add more water during steaming. Scraped from the shell, this will make six cups of vegetable. Pureed, it will make five cups. Use for pie filling, soup or as a vegetable.

Acorn Squash (Cucurbita maxima)
I feel like a fool for having covered these halves with plastic wrap in my book, Microwave Gourmet, and in my home for many years. Only today did it occur to me that squash come already wrapped as long as they are placed cut-side down in a glass baking dish. The apparent discrepancy in cooking times and pulp yield has to do with the larger cavity and number of seeeds in the heavier squash. Evidently, a 1-pound squash is a better value.

1 2-pound squash halved across the middle, seeds and fibers scraped out
High-wattage microwave: In a glass baking dish cut-side down, cook 13 minutes. Remove from oven. Gives 1 2/3 cup pulp scraped from skin as soon as cool enough to handle. It is easiest to scrape out the pulp by scraping along the rib indentations (see equipment tip)

1 1-pound squash, prepared as above and microwaved for 7 minutes (no
reduction from lower wattage). Gives 1 cup+ pulp.

Alliums (Onions, Garlic, etc.)
Coping with Allium Tears: Many of us look as if tragedy has struck whenever it is time to cut an onion. It is not distaste but out tear ducts. Especially as we now know how healthful the alliumsonions, etc.are and as they have always been essential for both fine and peasanty cooking, I would like to give a little help with the problem which always hit me when the eye make-up was already on for a party and the leakage was black.

Put the onions or other alliums that will be needed in the refrigerator for at least an hour
preferably longerbefore cutting. chilling reduces the apparent energy of the problem makers without in the long run--they warm up--changing the flavor.

Historically, these vegetables were not refrigerated as they keep well for many months. However, if space is available, refrigeration will also prevent them from sprouting.

Asparagus, White (Asapragus officinalis)
American white asparagus are cream-colored specimens with light purple shading possible towards the tip, a particularly fibrous texture, and stalks that need complete peeling before cooking. Provide knives and forks. European white—the basis of festivals and special menus in the spring—have no lavender tips. They too are tougher than green asparagus and after peeling and cooking must be eaten with a knife and fork. They are expensive but I would gladly give up the rest of the meal for them. They are particularly good with hollandaise (see recipe of the week) or black truffles.

Giant (King, Trumpet) Mushroom
I’m not a mycologist or even a mushroom expert; but I thought that I had come across most of the popular and available edible, magic and poisonous mushrooms. Imagine then my surprise when walking around the small Saturday Farmers’ Market near my house (Garrison) in Cold Spring, New York, when I came across a large—about an inch and a half across and six inches long—white mushroom with a vestigial slightly concave pale tan cap and barely evident gills that I had never seen before. When I asked what it was, I was told it was “a giant oyster mushroom.” Sort of; but it took a little hunting down to pin it down.

It is a Pleurotus, the over arching name of the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) that grows in frilly colonies on dying trees. It turns out that it is Pleurotus eryngii, native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and I suspect Japan as there is a Japanese name for it: domo domo santos.

The seller told me that they sliced it across and grilled it brushed with a sort of Asian barbecue sauce. I took it home, sliced it across on the diagonal, sautéed it over low heat in a little olive oil along with chopped shallot and tarragon. Then three eggs whisked up turned it into a frittata that was enough for one hungry man and two of me. It was very mild in taste and slightly rubbery. The sources say that it has the texture of abalone. The omelet was a success, but required a knife as well as a fork.

I suspect that we will see a lot more of it around as it has now been cultivated. I’m going to try braising it with some broth or some cream if I find it again.

More Vegetable Tips