Real cooking with Nicole Elizabeth at The Fresh Kitchen

I know I’ve talked about The Fresh Kitchen before, but I wanted to share again. My friend Nicole has really helped me grow as a home cook. I strongly believe in not only her cooking talents but her ability to help others, specifically moms like me. She really has taken the intimidation out of cooking for me. At one point in my life, I would never have cooked dishes that sound scary to me, like ratatouille or polenta. Turns out, a lot of things are easier to cook than I thought. And if they aren’t, Nicole talks me through them. If you have a cooking question, you can always ask on The Fresh Kitchen Facebook page!

Recently Nicole asked me and some other friends to come over for a dinner she’d prepared. I thought I’d share with you some photos of what she made. Some of the recipes are hers; others are inspired by Chef Yotam Ottolenghi, and Nicole has added her own take on the dish. If you’d like to know more about Nicole as well as view some of her recipes, check out her website

Homemade pita and hummus
Salad made with baby spinach, pickled red onions, pickled medjool dates, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, and toasted pita croutons made with butter, olive oil, sumac, Aleppo chile flakes, and kosher salt
Israeli couscous cooked in some of the chicken/apricot/tamarind braising liquid
Chicken thighs braised in apricots and tamarind
Roasted peaches over lemon pound cake with ginger ice cream and browned butter shortbread crumbs
What do you think? Which dish would you like to try?

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Make your own breadcrumbs- It’s healthier!

Breadcrumbs or panko are a staple in my kitchen. I should point out that the two aren’t exactly the same. Panko is a Japanese style of bread crumbs, made from crustless bread. But I use both panko and regular breadcrumbs for the same purposes, so I’m going to talk about them interchangeably in this post.

How do I use them in my kitchen? Well, tiny breadcrumbs are great as a binding agent for veggie burgers, quinoa burgers, sweet potato burgers, meatballs, and so on. They also work well as a breading for fish or chicken. In the past, I just kept a shelf-stable container in my pantry and would reach for it as needed.

This last October, I participated in an Unprocessed Food Challenge. Since I already eat mostly unprocessed* foods, I initially didn’t believe it would be much of a challenge for me. I went about my daily cooking, without giving the challenge much thought (I know; I was being cocky).

But then one day, I was cooking dinner and decided to peek out of curiosity at the back label on my Progresso Plain Bread Crumbs before using. I figured it couldn’t be that bad…it’s just breadcrumbs…but I had better check just in case, since I was participating in the challenge.

I was shocked!

In my mind, breadcrumbs shouldn’t have over 30 ingredients (many of which I can’t pronounce), including high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup and honey and molasses and sugar. I get that preservatives are used for shelf-life. I understand that we need to have foods that are shelf-stable for a number of serious reasons (like natural disasters). I also realize that some of the “chemical-sounding” words in the ingredient list are actually (synthetic) vitamins that have been added back into the flour to enrich it. But really? That’s the best they could do for breadcrumb ingredients?

Before buying a container of food that logically should contain minimal ingredients, check the back. In most circumstances, fewer ingredients is better, so how many are there? What are they?

Another option is to make your own breadcrumbs. If you have bread that’s going stale, use your food processor to grind the bread up into breadcrumbs (and homemade bread is the best choice in this case, otherwise you run the risk of your breadcrumbs still being full of junk). Just tear up your bread into chunks, toss into the food processor, and pulse for about a minute, until they all have a fine consistency.

These homemade bread crumbs can be frozen in a sealed container. Just reach right in and dig out what you need, when you need it. Making your own breadcrumbs is also a great way to use up stale bread and save some money!

My bread crumb experience was a wakeup call to me, that I hadn’t been eating as well as I’d thought. I do occasionally use a can of soup, gravy mix packet, pre-made pie crust, etc., in my cooking, but when I do so, I know that I’m using processed foods. The shock was realizing that unhealthy foods could be hiding in my kitchen. What do I reach for, thinking it’s a healthy choice for my family, when it’s really not?

This year I challenge you to read those labels more often. Don’t assume something must be healthy. Check and know for sure!

Have you ever been surprised after reading ingredient labels? What foods do you try to make from scratch rather than buy prepackaged and processed?

*When I’m talking about “processed” foods being unhealthy, I don’t include foods like nuts, milk, oats, olive oil, cheese, etc. All of these foods are processed to some extent, but are still healthy, at least in moderate quantities. When I say “processed” foods, I’m generally talking about your prepackaged meals like Hamburger Helper, sugary cereals, hot dogs, pre-formed burgers, french fries, etc. These foods are heavily processed, and the ingredient lists are usually a little scary.

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