Creativity in a Vacuum

Imagine you’re wheeling a grocery cart loaded with fresh, carefully selected, and thoughtfully purchased foods through a parking lot, out to your car. You’re a conscious consumer, opting for organics whenever possible, looking for Fair Trade and Equal Exchange certifications, reading nutrition labels from beginning to end. You load the trunk, gently tucking four bags into the mesh cargo net so they won’t tumble in transit, pull down the sunshade to keep everything cool, and gently click the latch closed. You begin to drive away, when out of the corner of your eye, you see the cart, still holding one more bag, full of food. Inexplicably, you continue on your way home, leaving it to rot in the midday sun.

It’s a dramatization of reality, but a reality we must face nonetheless. Americans waste as much as 20% of the food they purchase, despite the best intentions. Whether it’s an overzealous purchase of prime produce or grand cooking plans that never come to fruition, the old, wilted, moldy, and shriveled results are every bit as inedible. If you’re buying in bulk or merely buying with an eye towards long-term storage, you might as well flush 1/5th of your paycheck down the toilet if you don’t invest in a vacuum sealer.

By removing the excess oxygen surrounding your food, you’re slowing the natural decaying process causing bacterial growth, which keeps everything from fruits to nuts fresh up to five times longer than when simply refrigerated or frozen. Heat-sealed bags are much more secure and durable than any zip top baggies or plastic cling film, which makes it a smarter choice for meal prep and travel snacks, too. Ever since the FoodSaver FM2000 came into my life, it’s saved me from more than just the mundane insult of food waste. Earning a spot on the counter as an essential culinary assistant in its own right, I’ve taken great delight in making quick pickles thanks to the accommodating canisters and containers, dabbled a bit with sous vide, and slashed marinating times in half.

This is not my first time at the vacuum sealing rodeo. Bought on a whim, my earliest model was far from inspiring. Loud as a jet plane, prone to jamming, rough on crushable foods, and notoriously prone to sealing failure, it was quickly ferreted away into the basement, where’s it’s been collecting dust ever since. FoodSaver suffers from none of these common shortcomings; it’s the #1 best-selling vacuum sealing brand for good reason, with the confidence to offer a 5-year limited warranty across the board. Operation really is child’s play, and since they’re all ETL safety certified, you really could let your kids take the reins without worry.

Easy enough to plug and play without even reading the instructions through, I do have a few quick tips for best vacuum sealing practices:

  1. Freeze liquids, marinades, or wet items in advance. Sauces and soups are still great candidates for vacuum-sealed preservation, but only if frozen solid before sealing. Otherwise, the liquid will get sucked right into the machine, which will make a huge mess and could damage the appliance.
  2. Double-bag powdery items, like flour or sugar. Place in a standard zip-top bag first, poking a tiny hole in it to get the air out without releasing all the loose particles, before tucking them into the FoodSaver bag.
  3. Leave some breathing space, especially towards the top of the bag. Avoid the temptation to stuff as much possible into every bag. If you don’t, you may not be able to get a solid seal. However, if you don’t get a good seal first time, you can try making a second seal a bit further up.

The bags are BPA-free, freezer safe, microwaveable, recyclable, washable, and even reusable! Yes, you can keep on dealing and sealing again and again with the very same bags. Simply wipe off any food or residue near the seal area if resealing partially used food, and make sure they’re clean and dry if starting anew.

Using the FoodSaver FM2000, there truly is nothing to lose.

This post was made possible thanks to support from FoodSaver. Some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. I recommend them because I personally find the products helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links.

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Snacks on a Plane

Fasten your seat belts and try to get comfortable; it’s going to be a long flight. You’ve downloaded hours of music and movies well in advance, kept your smartphone within easy reach, and even remembered the disinfectant wipes for those grimy in-seat remote controls. Long-haul flights are never fun, but you’ve prepped and packed well, done the research and steeled yourself for any length of idle time. Certainly, you’ve considered the food options, perhaps even locking in your ticket or choosing a seat. Vegan meals are more widely available than ever, providing essential sustenance when there’s no land in sight for half a day or more, but they still leave quite a bit to be desired.

Snacks are absolutely essential at this critical moment. Countless lists extol the virtues of sturdy grain salads, granola bars, and freeze-dried fruits, but what is it that we need to avoid? As I prepare to embark on an intimidating 14-hour flight, I considered the options for truly terrible choices to bring as in-flight foods.

BAD snack ideas that should remain grounded are as follows:

  • Yogurt, applesauce, and pudding over 3.4 ounces, which is the greatest amount of any “liquid” you can bring on board. That amounts to less than 1/2 cup, so why bother?
  • Dips and spread of all sorts, including but not limited to hummus, peanut butter, salsa, ketchup, and cream cheese. Packed separately, they can be considered a liquid, but you might be able to get around this restriction by bundling them into some kind of sandwich assemblage.
  • Peanuts in general, because you never know when you might be sharing space with an allergic passenger.
  • Whole fruits and vegetables. There are some exceptions to this (like bananas and apples) but many countries have restrictions on fresh produce. For your best bets, always cut and prepare them in advance, stashing them in ziplock bags for later. Smaller, peeled, or pitted, they’re usually easier to munch on without utensils, too.
  • Saucy dishes or overfilled containers, which could get very messy in case of turbulence.
  • Tofu/chickpea egg salad or fishless tuna salad in any format, because such strong odors are unlikely to be appreciated by anyone within a 10-foot radius… Which may very well be the whole plane.
  • Chips or crackers packed in zip lock bag. Factory-sealed is fine, rigid Tupperware will work, but I promise that any other attempts at conveyance will end in a sad handful of crushed crumbs.
  • Raw cauliflower, broccoli, or cabbage for most people. I mean, you know your body, but this kind of roughage just… Don’t sit well with most people. I’ll just leave it at that.
  • Excessive onions or garlic. Pretend you’re on a date with the other 100+ passengers on the flight; that dragon breath will not win you any new friends.
  • Caffeinated drink mixes, despite the fact that fun flavors might make it easier to drink more water. You don’t need extra energy to sit on your butt all day; the excess is likely to make you more agitated and anxious.

What’s on your no-fly list? Did you have to learn the hard way, or suffer from the poor decisions of your fellow flyers? Hopefully no one has to travel on an empty stomach after carefully weighing the choices!

Jet Set Pets

Long before emotional support peacocks or squirrels started making headlines, everyday folks have been taking their pets with them on sky-high adventures without causing a scene. As we approach the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, the height of travel season, the issue of how to reunite the whole family is top of mind. Dog mamas and daddies understand that inviting their four-legged baby is a given, and for those with a considerable distance to go, that means negotiating the barrage of challenges that’s included with airfare.

Before you start dreaming about walking in a winter wonderland with fido and well before you book your tickets, check the rules of your chosen carrier. Every airline has different regulations, and while the general guidelines for having a trained, well-behaved pup won’t vary, some require specific forms or documentation submitted far in advance of your flight. If you can’t play by the rules, you will be denied boarding, and that would really put a damper on plans.

Generally speaking, your pup must be small enough to fit in a carry-on approved bag that fits beneath the seat in front of you to fly on board. Thus, a proper carrier is a must. Have a soft sided model with a rigid base so it will be supportive while in use, but easily pressed down to fit into awkward spaces. More windows are better because no one liked to feel trapped in a tiny space all by themselves. When your dog can see you, they’re more likely to remain calm because they know they’re not alone. Take the fear of the unknown out of the equation by doing a few “dress rehearsals,” covering shorter distances, before the big event. Bring them around town in the carrier to get then accustomed to process, and leave it out and accessible when you’re home. Periodically toss treats into it to associate it with positive experiences. My little Luka was initially terrified of becoming airborne in this crazy contraption, but has come to regard his carrier as an enclosed safe haven, and at home, second bed!

Speaking of calm, even the most even tempered animal (humans included) have been known to lose their cool in these stressful situations. Try clothing your little guy in a thunder shirt, which is a very snug garment that simulates the feeling of a constant hug. It’s surprisingly effective and great to have on hand for other unwelcome stimulation, like fireworks or trick-or-treaters at the door.

Treat well and treat often. Any journey should be a vacation, sprinkled with little luxuries along the way. Bring plenty of bonuses for yourself and your dog, doling them out slowly, as needed. CBD-infused dog biscuits like Treatibles have been an absolute GODSEND; I wouldn’t dream of taking Luka anywhere without them. One before leaving the house, one before takeoff, and he’s as chill as can be. Options are still limited in this burgeoning category, which makes Treatibles even more noteworthy for their two entirely vegan flavors. They come in small and large sizes for easy dosing, but there’s no psychoactive component (no THC) so it’s impossible to overdose. For a calming supplement you can both enjoy, I’ve frequently packed pure CBD oil (3.4 ounces or less, don’t forget!) that’s specifically labeled as safe for dogs, cats, and humans alike.

Don’t feed them a full meal before departing to reduce the need for potty breaks, or potential accidents. Instead, bring it with you and dole out a few morsels at a time to keep them satiated, not stuffed. Same goes for water. Proper hydration is essential, but possibly problematic depending on the length of your flight. Bring a collapsible bowl, filling it with a few good slurps every few hours. If your pup is not reliably housebroken, consider subjecting them to the indignity of doggie diapers for this limited time. Promise them that the photos will never make it out on social media if they’re inconsolably embarrassed.

To manage both bathroom needs and excess energy, take them on as long a walk as possible before departing. A tired pup will just want to hunker down and rest, which makes it infinitely more easy to deal with inactive time in transit.

Keep a variety of toys to keep them entertained. Just like human children, they need something to do during those hours up in the air. Give them just one at a time, rotating them out if they start to get bored or fussy, switching between hard chews and soft plushies. For the love of your fellow traveler though, please refrain from packing anything with an audible squeaker!

As soon as you land, your priority is not camping out in a prime spot at baggage claim or securing your Uber. Head straight to the nearest pet relief area available. Know where to go by scoping out airport maps in advance to prevent any frantic scrambles through a maze of disoriented passengers just barely verticality upon arrival.

There’s no one fool-proof approach to bringing puppies on an airplane. Just like people, some simply can’t tolerate the stress, so know their (and your) limits if it’s simply infeasible. Always have a plan B, with a loving, trustworthy dog sitter on speed dial in the worst case situation, but don’t shoot down the idea before giving it a try. Despite the sensational horror stories circulating online, it’s really not so hard to have a proper family reunion, no matter the distance. You might even find it’s a better experience for every on board; nothing brightens a trying day like the bright, loving face of man’s best friend at your side.

Can You Hack It?

The following text is an excerpt from my latest cookbook, Real Food, Really Fast. Get more speedy tips and tricks, along with over 100 delicious, lightning-fast recipes inside! Better yet, if you’re in the SoCal area this weekend, catch me at the California Vegetarian Food Festival on Saturday, September 29th, where I’ll be demonstrating my infamous Garlic Bread Soup. Come early to snag a seat, and come hungry for generous samples!

The single most important ingredient in any recipe can’t be measured in tablespoons or cups, nor can it be bought, borrowed, or stolen. That extra piece of the puzzle that most cookbooks fail to address is you, the intrepid cook, boldly venturing forth to explore new culinary territory. Anyone can read a recipe and it doesn’t take a classically trained chef to chop an onion, but there are certain steps that can be taken to speed through prep work in record time. To better prepare your vegetables, you must prepare yourself. Move with intention and a sense of urgency; know your next step before you get there to keep dancing through the routine with grace. That also means reading through each recipe from start to finish so there are no surprises halfway through the hustle.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a new cook, the following suggestions should help tune up your techniques to get food on the table faster than ever before.

  • Citrus: Always zest lemons, oranges, and limes first, before slicing or juicing. While they’re still whole you’ll have more surface area to work with, and a better base to hold so you’re less likely to grate your fingers at the same time. Then, to extract the most juice as possible, microwave for 10–15 seconds to gently warm, and roll them firmly against the counter to break down some of the cell walls before cutting in half and squeezing.
  • Garlic: Separate the cloves and give each one a sharp whack with the side of your knife to instantly loosen the skins. You should be able to pick the peel right off. Once cleaned, you can continue smashing and mashing them with the side of the knife, rather than the blade, to yield a quick, coarse paste that can be used instead of a fine mince.
  • Ginger: Don’t bother breaking out the peeler to remove the tough outer skin. Use a paring knife to shave away the exterior if needed, but better yet, buy very young, fresh ginger that doesn’t need to be peeled in the first place. In Japanese markets, this is referred to as “myoga.”
  • Cauliflower or Broccoli: Pare away the leaves and trim down the excess stem. Place the head in a large, clean plastic bag, and twist it closed. Bang the whole thing down on the counter repeatedly, stem-side first, to easily break it down into bite-sized florets.
  • Cherry Tomatoes: Instead of chasing around each tasty red marble and slicing them in half one by one, slash straight through a whole batch in one fell swoop. Place a generous handful between two plates and gently press down to keep them all stable and still. Use an exceptionally sharp knife to cut horizontally through the center to cleanly halve tomatoes.
  • Corn: Once cooked, shuck corn quickly by slicing off the bottom of the husk and simply pushing the ear out, leaving the messy silk behind.
  • Cherries (and Olives!): Don’t bother with a unitasking cherry pitter if you’re unlikely to use it more than once or twice a year. Place each cherry on top of an empty glass soda or beer bottle, and use a chopstick to poke out the pit, pushing it straight down into the bottle.
  • Non-Dairy Milk: Whip up an instant dairy-free beverage by simply combining 2 tablespoons of your favorite nut butter (almond and cashew are my favorite options, but sunflower, peanut, and pecan are also excellent alternatives) with 1 cup of water in your blender. Blend until smooth and use as is for savory cooking or baking, or add up to a tablespoon of sugar, agave, or maple syrup to sweeten it for drinking.

Why cut and chop with conventional techniques when you can hack your way to faster food prep? Some specific foods hold secret shortcuts that will leave traditional methods in the dust.

Flavor Your Life

It’s one of the most common cooking staples across the globe, found in even the most sparsely populated pantries and in the hands of extraordinarily reluctant cooks. Olive oil’s ubiquity is owed in large part to its accessibility, as a vast number of brands have become available in recent years. Such a vast range of options should immediately suggest that not all oils are created equal, yet few shoppers pause to think about the origin of those original fruits before popping a sleek new bottle into their carts. For such a beloved, indispensable ingredient, there sure is still an overwhelming amount of misinformation out there.

Inspired by the Flavor Your Life campaign, supported by the European Union, Unaprol, and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, the goal of debunking common misconceptions resonated with me in a powerful way. Moms Meet provided a bottle of Zucchi Extra Virgin Olive Oil to demonstrate the difference, but I’ve long been a devotee of quality European olive oils even without that delicious perk.

Let’s not beat around the olive tree, and get down to business. It’s time to talk about the top olive oil myths that need to be put to rest, once and for all:

You can’t fry with it.

Contrary to the single most frequently perpetuated false fact, olive oil has a 400-degree smoke point and can hold up beautifully (and tastefully) to the task of deep frying. Raising the heat beyond that temperature will only result in burnt food no matter the carrier, so keep a thermometer clipped to the pot, tend it carefully, and your taste buds will be rewarded.

Only extra-virgin will work in dressings.

Though there is a drop of truth in that statement, extra-virgin is merely a title bestowed to the very top grade of oil, cold pressed; extracted without heat or chemicals. That isn’t to say that other grades are of any lower quality. If anything, their flavor has a lower impact, which might actually be a welcome quality if your vinaigrette has bold seasonings that would otherwise obliterate the delicate nuances of a top grade oil. On the reverse side of the spectrum, this more neutral palate could be a benefit for baked goods where you don’t want such a savory note to shine though.

Kept in a dark, cool place, it should keep pretty much indefinitely.

Those volatile oils would beg to differ! Like any other fresh food, it should be refrigerated, and for no more than 6 – 8 months, ideally. It does go rancid at room temperature, although most people are so accustomed to using sub-par varieties, they may not realize the truly superlative, ephemeral nature of the genuine article.

Terroir is only for wine.

Extra-virgin is top shelf quality, but bottles bearing that designation manifest that grade through a wide spectrum of flavors. The greatest contributors to taste are the types of olive trees (cultivar), the region (which affects climate and soil) and time of harvest. Early in the harvest season, under-ripe fruits produce oils that are greener, more bitter and pungent. By contrast, olives harvested towards the end of season are over-ripe, resulting in a more mild, sweet, and buttery character. Other variables can yield oils that skew more nutty, peppery, grassy, floral, and beyond.

Considering the incredibly varied range of options being produced in all corners of the European continent, this is just the tip of the iceberg. A full education on this essential ingredient can be gleaned with just a dash of culinary curiosity, and a pinch of knowledge from the Flavor Your Life campaign. Eating better starts with cooking better, and there’s no substitute for quality components.

Illuminating Secrets to Mouth-Watering Photography

Contrary to popular belief, the key factor in achieving enticing images of food is not the camera you use and how many megapixels it has, but how you choose to light the scene.  For many professional photographers, this means buying numerous pricey studio lights, not to mention the never ending list of accessories, tools, and toys needed to properly manipulate the quality of that light. As more hobbyists have discovered a passion for food photography and food blogs became ubiquitous, however, this industry standard is rapidly changing. Preferring a softer, more “realistic” look as you might find the food in your own home, natural light is frequently the best choice for creating the most appealing shots, and one that I typically go with as well, despite easy access strobe lights. Knowing a few tips and tricks, put to use with plenty of practice, can enable anyone to capture luscious food photos worth drooling over.

The list of essential equipment is very short: A serviceable digital camera or camera phone, a dish you’d like to capture, and light are the only absolutely essential ingredients. For best effect, it’s highly recommended that you save your photo sessions for bright, sunny days, and aim to start shooting any time from late morning until sunset, for the best intensity of light to work with. Taking photos at different times of the day will yield varying results and some interesting, more atmospheric or moody effects, due to the higher or lower positions of the sun, so don’t be afraid to try different hours to see which you like best.

Though you’re always looking to use bright sunlight, avoid placing the dish in direct sunlight, as this will cast harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to properly expose. Make sure that all indoor tungsten lights are turned off so that subject doesn’t cast two shadows, giving the scene a clearly staged, unnatural look. Additionally, be aware of any ambient lighting inside that might cast confusing colors or shadows over the set. Tungsten bulbs, the most common type found in household lamps, can give off a slightly yellow-tinted light, as they range from 2500 – 3500 degrees Kelvin, so they’re never a good choice when photographing food.

It’s generally a good idea to arrange your food with the window light shining in behind it, to act as a back light. This tends to be most flattering, as it gently showers soft shadows evenly over the front, from the angle which you’ll be capturing it. The sunlight can also work nicely at either side, but if the light is too bright, it will give the food an overly-dramatic feeling, much like split lighting for portrait photography. As a rule, I never place the food so that sunlight hits it from the front, for the same reason that I would suggest never using the flash built into your camera: It flattens out the subject, giving a “deer in headlights” appearance. Font-flash is as unflattering on inanimate objects as it is on people!

If you find that the shadows are too dark, there’s still no need to bring out a secondary source of light; carefully placed mirrors can be just as effective, not to mention the fact that they’re far more budget-friendly.  By adjusting the mirrors so that they bounce the sunlight back into the darkest areas of the subject, you’ll be able to keep the same natural, soft lighting all over, but bring out more detail in the textures that would otherwise become lost due to low light. In a pinch, you can fashion a close facsimile with aluminum foil covering a piece of cardboard, folded and propped up at your desired angle. The same technique can be used with white poster board, or even gold fabric reflectors, to lend a warmer hue to  the image.

On the other hand, should you find that your window light is too “hot,” meaning that it’s blowing out the detail in the highlights, you can very easily diffuse it with everyday household items. Taping a large sheet of white parchment paper over the entire window will soften the light very effectively, as long as you ensure that there are no gaps where the light can escape and create a dappled look on your subject.  If there’s just one small area of your food that’s too bright, you can use the opposite tack as you would with mirrors; Use a black card, or piece of cardboard covered in black construction paper, angled to block the offending highlights. These cards can be cut to any size needed, so they’re very versatile.

With experience, the proper lighting setup will become second nature. With just a bit of creativity and a willingness to experiment, you’ll be able to create food photos that look every bit as delicious as the pros. Once you learn to master the light already at your disposal, the only thing you’ll need is a sumptuous dish to feature, and you’ll be well on your way!