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From The Caterer’s Kitchen: Understanding Food Terminology


I’ve been wanting to get back to this series for a couple of weeks now, but kept putting off this particular post. Why? I suppose it is because the topic is immense — there is just so much to know when it comes to food terminology. There are so many terms to learn and techniques to master, especially if you are new to the world of food. I thought I might never be able to stop writing.

Because the vast possibilities in the topic, it’s just too much to tackle all at once — it has to be broken up over several days to really do it justice. So I am offering a very small part today, and will revisit the topic of cooking terminology with more tips next time.

While there is so much techniques to learn, in my opinion, how to chop is the most fundamental piece. Even if you never turn on your stove or oven, you can still make hundreds of dishes just by combining various chopped items. The cutting techniques I use most often are the chiffonade, dicing, and mincing.


I’ve shown you a chiffonade before, but wanted to demonstrate it here because it is such a useful technique. Any leafy greens or herbs can be sliced in this way. You simply stack them leaves like so:

stacked leaves

Then roll them up:

rolled leaves

and slice into little ribbons.

Slicing leaves

Use wider slices for salad greens or side dishes, narrower ones for coleslaw or stir fries, and skinny ones for herbs or garnishes. If your leaves are especially large, cut them in half along the stem line after you’ve done your chiffonade.


Dicing is beautiful. It’s equally simple, too – just slice your produce vertically, and then horizontally:

dice cuke

Et voila — you are done. Dicing, obviously, has a multitude of uses: salsa, salads, garnishes, or anywhere you want your food to look good. Dice food into smaller or larger pieces, depending on the use — small pieces in something like bruschetta, or larger dice for use in soups. Diced food cooks faster, and also looks nicer than a rough chop. If the appearance of your dish is important, it is worth doing a good dice.


Mincing is like a much smaller, finer dice, but with a little less care taken. Usually, this is for ingredients that you want to use to flavor the dish overall, but that you don’t want to be the star of the dish or taste in quantity. Think of using slivers of garlic or onion in Chinese food, where they are primary ingredients, versus the subtlety of minced garlic or onion in a soup or casserole.


Minces are cut in the same way as dices, just smaller. As a reminder, here’s a photo of dice and mince together:

dice and mince

Mincing is also good for potent leafy herbs — if I’m making a salad with fresh parsley or oregano, but don’t want them to be the most evident flavors in it, mincing them works really well to make them more subtle accents rather than having them take over the dish.

So there you have it:  my top three cutting techniques. Because they are fundamental, knowing these will get you pretty far in the kitchen. But as I said, this is such a huge topic that it will require several more posts to even scratch the surface. Drop a line in the comments if there is something in particular that you want me to tackle first.

Top 10 Paleo Foods (Part II)

Viva le weekend! I’m glad it is here. I’ve got big plans to be very productive: a clothes purge with the hubs, playing with the sous vide and testing some cookbook recipes for reviews. And of course, the usual feeding/clothing/cleaning/general wrangling of the children that ensues every weekend. We will see how much gets done, but I am hopeful that we will make some progress.

In the meanwhile, I’m excited to share the second part of my top 10 paleo kitchen staples with y’all. (If you missed the first post, it is here.)

(Once again, note: these posts will have a lot of affiliate links; it is sometimes hard to find these things in your local stores. Affiliate links just mean I receive a small commission at no cost to you. Someday, these commissions may help to pay my blog hosting fees.)

6. Fish sauce

My husband, who studies Latin and ancient Rome for fun, loves to share interesting factoids about his obsession hobby. One of these delightful nuggets of information was that in ancient Rome, a condiment called garum was extremely popular. Red Boat Fish Sauce is essentially the modern version of garum, and adds a deep boost of flavor to your food. I use it in stir fries, of course, but also in non-Asian dishes that are better with a bit of depth, like eggs poached in tomato sauce or chili. It does not add a fishy taste — just oomph.

This brand is especially awesome because it has only two ingredients: fish and salt. Many other fish sauces contain sugar or gums.

7. Coconut aminos

This is the paleo answer to soy sauce, since soy is a no-go on a paleo diet. It is not quite as salty as soy sauce, so you might want to add sea salt to your dish as well, but coconut aminos are good for many of the same uses: Thai-inspired curries, stir fries, and other dishes that need a boost of umami.

8. Kombucha

The first time I tried kombucha (fermented tea), I could not figure out who in the world would drink it — I thought it tasted like a glass of sweetened vinegar.
Yet somehow, I went back for more, and now I am a huge fan. I can’t imagine not drinking it most days. That same tangy quality is why I appreciate it now. It’s great for those times when you want something to drink, but are not interested in water or regular tea. Both teenagers dig it, and even the little ones enjoy a sip or two as well. I like that they’re getting a little boost of probiotics.

I don’t cook with kombucha, though I have used it as the liquid in a smoothie.
If you are sensitive to alcohol, note that some brands of kombucha retain more alcohol than others. Try several to find what you like.

9. Red palm oil

Red palm oil is another great fat for cooking. It is carrot-colored and, indeed, it has a slight carroty flavor; it is full of beta-carotene. If you are making a dish where coconut oil would be too sweet, red palm is an excellent substitute (my little girl hates when I scramble her eggs in coconut oil, but gobbles them up when I use red palm oil). In addition to good taste, red palm oil is good for your heart, kidneys, and may even fight breast cancer.

Two notes: first, make sure you find ethically sourced oil; rainforests and animal habitats are endangered if it is not. The packaging should tell you where the oil comes from. Secondly, red palm oil can stain your dishes if not washed promptly. You can use this quality to good effect when cooking a paler ground meat like turkey or chicken, which can look unappetizing; red palm oil adds a bit of color.

10. Tapioca flour 

One of the things people miss about regular baking is the slightly stretchy chewiness of bread. Tapioca flour gives paleo breads some of that quality. It’s not an exact match, but it does help simulate that familiar texture. It’s also good in its own right: Brazilian cheese bread — pao de quejo — would not be the same without it (the kitchn has a good recipe here).

So that’s my top 10 list of particularly paleo foods that I have come to know and love since beginning to eat this way. What about you all? Drop a line in the comments if there’s anything you’d add to the list.


Top 10 Paleo Foods (Part I)

Whenever I am discussing paleo with someone, I always emphasize that it’s not that different. Sure, there are some things that are left out of a paleo diet, but by and large, everyone wants to feed themselves and their families the healthiest food they can afford, right? Paleo people are no different.

However, there are a few things you’ll find in the paleo kitchen that are a little unusual in most American kitchens. So along with my lists of essential kitchen tools (part one’s here and part two is here), I wanted to talk a little bit about my favorite paleo foods, and why and how I use them.
(Note: These posts will have a lot of affiliate links; it is sometimes hard to find these things in your local stores. Affiliate links just mean I receive a small commission at no cost to you. Someday, these commissions may help to pay my blog hosting fees.)

1. Coconut oil

Coconut oil is so good for you: several studies show that it helps reduce abdominal fat in both men and women, it can improve your brain function, and can help heal wounds, among other things. However, all of that feels like a bonus to me — I just love the taste (and have been known to eat the occasional spoonful; I may be weird, though). I use it on my skin, on my hair — it is great for thick, dry hair —  and in my cooking.
In the kitchen, I use it for just about everything: in smoothies, mug muffins, almond flour crackers, paleo fudge, sauteing veggies — it’s my first choice cooking fat.

Depending on whether the oil you get is refined, it will have more or less coconut flavor. Our family generally enjoys the taste, especially when we are eating something Asian-inspired or a dessert, but paleo newbies may prefer the refined oil.

2. Almond flour

Almond flour is awesome. It adds an (obviously) nutty flavor that is a good stand-in for the flavor of wheat. In many ways, it can sub for wheat flour: I have used it as a substitute for bread crumbs, I’ve made crackers and biscuits with it, I’ve thickened the occasional pot of soup with it, too.  I’ve also used it to make a substitute for ricotta that I liked far more than the real thing. I try not to over-do it with the baked goods, because it is pretty dense, calorie-wise, but when I do try paleo baking, this is the first thing I reach for.

3. Gelatin

Gelatin is another one of the paleo foodstuffs that is really good for you: it is believed to help your gut heal, your nails, hair and skin grow, and improve your sleep. It also makes delicious desserts like panna cotta or gelatin gummy snacks. If you aren’t always able to make bone broth, gelatin is a great source of the same amino acids that make bone broth so healthy for you.

I use two types of Great Lakes Gelatin in my kitchen: the one in the green can is great for adding to smoothies, soups or teas. It is tasteless and dissolves really well. The gelatin in the red can is for thickening/gelling; be careful not to confuse the two.

4. Canned coconut milk

Canned coconut milk is a great substitute for the creamy mouthfeel and subtle sweetness of dairy. It is so thick and rich, it is more like whipping cream than milk. In fact, you can make a great substitute for whipped cream with it. I also use coconut milk in soups, smoothies, baked goods, custards (I usually dilute it for these uses), and of course when making Thai or Indian-style curries. Now that winter is coming, I am looking forward to attempting a paleo “White Russian” with coconut milk instead of cream.
Look for a brand that is just coconut extract and water — many brands have guar gum added to them — especially if you have a sensitive stomach.

5. Ghee

If you’ve ever made clarified butter, ghee should be pretty familiar. It is similar in preparation: butter is cooked to separate out the milk solids, and then it is cooked a bit more, which gives it a delicious, toasted flavor. Some traditional Indian cooks add spices to the ghee as well, which just adds a depth of flavor that is extraordinary.

Despite the fact that I’m lactose intolerant, I have not had any problem with ghee: getting rid of those milk solids eliminates the lactose. Your mileage may vary of course, but it is worth a try.
I use ghee anywhere I would use butter: I use it to grease muffin tins, to coat roasted veggies, on pancakes, on steaks … the possibilities are infinite. Because it is rather more expensive than butter, l usually save it to use where the flavor will really shine.

So there you have it. While Part II of this list is coming soon, drop a line in the comments if you have additions. I’d love to know what your favorite paleo foods are!

From the Caterer’s Kitchen: How to Read a Recipe

For those just tuning in, From the Caterer’s Kitchen is an occasional series of kitchen tips, tricks and advice from my mother, a professional caterer for over 30 years. Interested? Start here.

How to read a recipe seems like a slightly unnecessary topic. If you’ve figured out how to read blogs, or get onto social media, of course you can read something as simple as a recipe, right? (Seriously: Instagram makes me feel ancient and not so bright. And Twitter? Sweet Lord, I have no clue.)
But take a moment to consider the job of the recipe. It has to get the idea of a particular combination of ingredients from the mind of the writer onto the plate of the reader — who may not be anywhere near that writer. It’s worth taking a moment to figure out how to set yourself up for success.

1) Read the recipe ALL THE WAY TO THE END. Several times.

I know what you’re thinking: Duh. Of course I’m reading the recipe. How else do I know I want to make it? Bear with me. Consider: it’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and you’ve got a hankering for jerk chicken. (This isn’t just me, yes? I thought not.)
You find a recipe that sounds good to you, and has a not-too-long list of ingredients. You check the spice drawer and the fridge, and you figure, “hey, I’ve got all of that — it’s go time.” So you put on your favorite cooking music, find an apron and get to work. But next thing you know, you are elbow-deep in a pile of chicken parts, allspice, nutmeg and scallions when you come across the phrase “marinate overnight.”
Screech goes the needle off of that record (oh, man, I am dating myself. Does anyone even know what a record player is anymore?). Next thing you know, you’re either cooking chicken without nearly as much flavor as you wanted or you’re sticking this batch in the fridge with one hand and ordering takeout with the other. Sigh.

So yes: Read the whole thing. Then read it again.

2) Figure out what all of the abbreviations and terms mean.
Because: chiffonade. What the heck *is* that? (I explain here.) Not to mention that there are just about as many ways to abbreviate as there are teenagers at the mall. I have chosen not to use abbreviations on this blog, but obviously, I am not the boss of the rest of the world. So make sure you know the definitions of any abbreviations or cooking terms in the recipe before you start to make it. Most good cookbooks, I find, have either an introductory section where all of terms are defined, or an appendix which gives abbreviations used, definitions and, if an international cookbook, conversions from US measurements to grams, kilos, etc.

3) Learn to taste recipes before you make them.
This probably sounds like some sort of weird Matrix-y mental gymnastic exercise, but it is my favorite tip on this list. Why? Because in order to do it, you need to eat. A lot. You’ve got to do it three times a day anyway, right? So why not learn something along the way?

There are two steps: first, pay attention when you eat. Don’t just gulp down every morsel on the plate and reach for seconds before you have time to digest. Chew your food slowly, which gives you enough time to notice what flavors pop out at you. Do you notice the flavor of individual spices, or do they all meld together in an intricate combination? Which one tastes best to you? What would you do differently if you were to cook it again?

Step two involves experimenting. Test out different flavoring combinations to see what appeals to your palate. Start with some familiar mixtures — cumin, coriander, garlic and oregano are distinctive markers of Mexican-American cuisine, while turmeric, coriander, ginger and cardamom are found in many Indian recipes — but don’t be afraid to branch out and try combinations that just sound good to you. You may end up with a few disasters — tarragon, for example, is so distinctive that it often does not play well with other flavors — but the lessons you will learn are invaluable.
If you want help getting started, On Cooking* has a fabulous chapter on herbs, spices, condiments and more. (The third edition is the one I own; the current edition* would be a worthwhile splurge.)

Well, these are our best tips on recipe reading. Anything we left out? Is there something you would add?

* = Affiliate links.

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