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A FRESH Point of View: Holiday Spices

There are three spices that, to me, are the true flavors of the holidays.  These are cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.  While these spices are all important when they stand alone in a recipe, the combination of the three is even better.

Cloves are indigenous to Indonesia but also come from Malaysia, India and Madagascar.  They are the unopened pink flower buds of the evergreen clove tree.  Cloves are often used in Asian, African and Middle Eastern cooking to add flavor to meats, curries and meat marinades. Whole cloves are great for flavoring syrups or stews, but the most common use is in ground form and used in holiday baking.  It must be used sparingly because of its intense flavor that easily overpowers other spices.

Nutmeg comes from the nutmeg tree which grows in tropical climates.  It has a peppery flavor that is rarely used on its own in baking.  You can purchase ground nutmeg, but the best flavor results from grating the whole nut yourself.  When purchased whole and kept in an airtight container, it will keep almost indefinitely.  It is most commonly used in rich fruit cakes and desserts, but it can also be a good addition to stews.

Cinnamon is indigenous to Sri Lanka and is made from rolled, pressed and dried tree bark.  It has a warm and sweet flavor in both whole and ground form.  You can use whole cinnamon sticks to infuse ciders, but ground cinnamon is what you need for holiday baking.  It combines great with apples, bananas, chocolate and coffee.  It is also a staple in Middle Eastern or Moroccan recipes, such as tagine.

Make sure that your spices are fresh and of the best quality you can find.  It will make a huge difference when you pull them out of the pantry to use them.  If you are unsure about how long you have had a particular jar or tin of any spice, take a quick inventory and do some cleaning.  Most people say that spices have a maximum shelf life of 2 years, assuming they are stored away from heat, humidity and light.





A FRESH Point of View: Heavy Metal

My mother had a cast-iron skillet that she used religiously.  I think her appreciation for this skillet came from the fact that it was virtually non-destructible and could be used for most anything from searing to simmering to deep frying.

I now own this skillet and I can honestly say that it is the most practical item in my kitchen.  Lifting it is a chore, especially for my wife, but it is a small price to pay for the perfect food that comes out of it every time!

The really cool thing about cast-iron is the “seasoning.”  When oil seeps into the surface of the iron over time, it creates a non-stick surface.  Not so long ago, we decided to bring in a line of cast-iron to our FRESH housewares department.  It is made by Lodge, the largest maker of cast-iron cookware in the United States.

Joseph Lodge opened his first foundry in 1896 and his legacy lives on through his great grandsons who now run the company.  They continue to expand plant capacity to keep up with the strong demand for their products.

Lodge actually pre-seasons its cookware at the factory.  They bake vegetable oil into the iron at a high temperature versus using a chemical nonstick coating.  This process enables use of your cookware for 100 years or more because you are able to maintain and repair the seasoning as needed.

To maintain the seasoning, you simply need to wash out your cookware with hot water and a sponge.  Dishwashers, strong detergents and metal scouring pads are not recommended, as they remove seasoning.

Always be sure to dry the cookware completely so that it does not rust, then apply a light coating of oil to restore the sheen.  Do not put so much that it creates stickiness on the surface.

Some other basics to follow, per Lodge, are:
• Gas flames should not extend up the sides of cookware.
• Match pan size to burner size.
• Don’t use in the microwave.
• When deep frying, fill cookware only to 1/3 of capacity.

If you are looking for a unique yet perfect gift this year, take my advice and buy some Lodge cast-iron.





A FRESH Point of View: The Earth’s Only Edible Rock

Have you ever been shopping on aisle six and wondered what the difference is between a box of Morton’s salt and a jar of Himalayan Pink Salt? Or been browsing our bulk foods and noticed some interesting salts like fleur de sel, Hawaiian red sea salt or Yakima Applewood Smoked Salt?  We have quite a number of salt varieties here at FRESH and many guests are often trying to determine the best choice for their cooking, baking or even just for serving on their table.

Salt is one of the five tastes that are detectable by people (along with sweet, sour, bitter and savory).  Not only does it enhance the flavor of food but it also can be added to a dish for its texture as well as its ability to bring out aromas.  There are two main types of salt – rock salt and sea salt.  Rock salt is mined from the earth and sea salt is harvested from ocean waters.

The easiest way to think of salts is to break them down into three categories: table salt, regular sea salts and kosher salts, and finishing salts. I suggest that our guests try to keep all three around: table salt for baking, kosher/sea salt for cooking, and finishing salt for serving.

The most common type is what is known as table salt which is often iodized and is used for baking because of its fine crystals which dissolve quickly.  For cooking, sea salt is superior. There are many price levels and flavors of sea salt available but for everyday cooking, a basic sea salt will work just fine.  Like sea salt, kosher salt is preferred by chefs for cooking because it has no additives and tends to leave a more salty flavor in the food. The flakes of kosher salt are a bit lighter than sea salt, so kosher salt is often preferred for seasoning sautés, brining meats, and salting water. Kosher salt is also particularly useful in preserving, because its large crystals draw moisture out of meats and other foods more effectively than other salts.

Finishing salts are the upper echelon of sea salts and should be used only on finished food, not while cooking. Fleur de sel is an artisan, hand-harvested sea salt, with smallish crystals, often pale gray. It has a subtle flavor and is especially delicious sprinkled on dishes right before serving or to add an edge to sweet goods like caramel.





A FRESH Point of View: Primer on Asian Ingredients

At FRESH, we pride ourselves on offering a large selection of Asian ingredients in our Grocery Department.  And often I get questions on them – how to use certain sauces, what pairs well with particular types of noodles, etc.

Although this category is vast and I could write a book on all of our great Asian condiments, sauces, vinegars and oils, I pulled out a few of our most popular to write about today.  If you have questions, always feel free to ask one of our grocery Freshies or Freshologists for help!

Coconut Milk
An extraction made by seeping freshly grated coconut in boiling water or milk and used in Southeast Asian desserts, curries and shellfish recipes.

Fish Sauce
Fermented fish and salt is used to make this unique sauce. It is often used as a marinade for fish and meat, as well as a condiment.  It is a staple in Thai cooking.

Hoisin Sauce
This is a sweet and garlicky bean sauce that’s often used as a dipping sauce.  Traditionally, hoisin sauce is made using toasted mashed soy beans.

Green Curry Paste
Aromatic herbs such as lemon grass, Thai ginger and fresh green chilis are blended with fragrant spices. Use as a stir-fry seasoning, a soup base, or with coconut milk to create a delicious Thai curry.

Oyster Sauce
Containing extract from oysters, soya sauce, sugar and salt. This sauce is used in various Thai dishes, such as fried vegetables.

Panko
These buttery bread crumbs are used in Japanese cooking to coat foods for frying.

Red Curry Paste
A mash of red chilis, coriander roots and leaves, shrimp paste, lemon grass, garlic, shallots and Thai ginger.  Use in everything from stews, curries and soups to dressings, marinades and condiments.

Rice Wine Vinegar
This white to golden vinegar with a light clean taste adds a mild acidity to foods.

Soba Noodles
Made with buckwheat flour, this earthy Japanese noodle is traditionally served cold.

Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is made from soybeans that have been fermented and salted.  It is possibly the most common Asian ingredient in the United States.

Sriracha
Another of the most popular, sriracha is a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt.  It is named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in Central Thailand.

Tamari
This is the wheat-free version of soy sauce.

Toasted Sesame Oil
Made from toasted sesame seeds, this thick, rich oil is golden to dark brown in color and marvelously aromatic. Unlike lighter, almost flavorless sesame oils, which can be used in cooking, the toasted variety is used as a seasoning only.

Tofu
An ancient Chinese and Japanese product, tofu is made from curdled soy bean milk. Tofu is a nutritional powerhouse, protein-rich, and also low in fat and cholesterol.

Wasabi
The name for Japanese horseradish, wasabi comes either in powdered form or as a paste and is commonly associated with sushi.





A FRESH Point of View: Choosing the Right Cutting Board

Cutting boards are one of the most important tools in the kitchen.  However, with the numerous options available today, shopping for one can be a challenge.  Knowing the basics of the materials, shapes, and care requirements can help make the purchase easier.  Below are some details that I hope will help you pick out the perfect cutting board for your kitchen.

There are three general materials categories – glass, plastic and wood.

Glass boards are attractive to leave on display as they are patterned to suit almost any decor. They are very durable, resistant to heat, and are the most sanitary and easy to clean. However, glass boards are the hardest on knife edges.

Plastic boards are generally considered the safest as they are the easiest to clean and sanitize.  Plastic is dishwasher safe, providing a huge convenience factor.  However, plastic shows knife marks more easily and there is a greater likelihood of the board harboring bacteria in deep cuts.

Wooden boards are easier on knives but are generally harder to clean and are not dishwasher friendly. They can suffer cuts and cracks which can also harbor bacteria.  Wooden boards were traditionally made of maple hardwoods. Today, however, other woods and patterns are used, and bamboo, which is actually a grass, has become very popular due to its hardness and resistance to bacteria.

At FRESH, we offer three main lines of cutting boards:

Epicurean®

Their cutting surfaces are made from organic fibers which are layered together and pressed with a food-safe resin to form a durable sheet.  They are durable, dishwater safe, and made in the USA. Epicurean® gourmet cutting boards have a slightly thicker profile and heavier weight. They feature a juice groove on one side to keep things tidy and a flat food prep surface on the other.  Their non-slip cutting boards are perfect for smooth, damp food preparation areas. Non-slip silicone corners elevate these boards off of the countertop and hold them in place to prevent them from sliding around.  Lightweight Epicurean® kitchen cutting boards are designed for everyday use and effortless handling. Their thin profile and built-in utility hole make them easy to store in a rack or display on the wall.

Bambu

This company designs and creates home and lifestyle products made from renewable resources. Renewable materials are defined as substances derived from trees, plants or ecosystems which have the ability to regenerate themselves.

Bamboo is a highly renewable material. It is one of the earth’s fastest growing plants. Bamboo needs no replanting, grows without fertilizers or pesticides and is harvested from controlled stands with an astounding growth cycle of three to five years.

Totally Bamboo

Tom Sullivan & Joanne Chen of Totally Bamboo developed the world’s first bamboo cutting board after noting that this material was significantly harder and more durable than maple.

Regardless of the type of material, cutting boards should be washed in hot soapy water immediately after use, and occasionally sanitized by adding chlorine to the water.  Avoid slicing foods with the same board and knife that was used earlier for raw food preparation. Change boards and knives to prevent contaminating other foods.  Finally, always cut raw meats, fish and poultry on a board that is very easy to sanitize.





A FRESH Point of View: Drew’s Dressings

Chef Drew Starkweather founded Drew’s in 1995.  As head chef at the prestigious Deerfield Inn in Historic Deerfield Massachusetts, people began to discover his all-natural salad dressings and marinades.  After numerous requests, he began to bottle and sell them.

Chef Drew’s philosophy from the beginning was to offer products using quality natural ingredients. His company motto is “Chef Created, Nature Inspired”.  Drew’s ranks among the top three shelf stable salad dressing brands in the natural products industry and is still one of the fastest growing brands in the country.

You will find many of his all natural dressings on our shelves at FRESH now.  Come and try one or all of them!   Here are a few highlights:

Rosemary Balsamic Salad Dressing
Chef Drew begins with a base of extra virgin olive oil, red wine and balsamic vinegars for a robust vinaigrette bursting with fresh rosemary flavor.

Thai Sesame Lime Salad Dressing
Celebrating the diversity of a great land and its people. A medley of citrus and sesame fused with the distinctive Thai flavors of lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, coconut, and tamarind.

Romano Caesar Salad Dressing
Fit for an emperor! This creamy and flavorful favorite has every bit of the traditional flavor of Caesar, but without the eggs and anchovies.

Roasted Garlic & Peppercorn Salad Dressing
The mellow flavor of slow roasted garlic is blended into a creamy peppercorn base to create a distinctive flavor. This lush dressing is dairy-free.

Buttermilk Ranch Salad Dressing
Everyone’s favorite!  Sweet cream buttermilk and fresh tasting herbs and spices are used to create this classic dressing.  It’s perfect for dipping fresh vegetables too!

Smoked Tomato Salad Dressing
Plum tomatoes with tart red wine and balsamic vinegars merge with a deep, smoky flavor. Garlic and basil highlight the sweetness of this Mediterranean mélange.

Lemon Goddess Salad Dressing
Light and playful, this dressing combines creamy tahini with a splash of lemon. Soy sauce, garlic and chives provide a savory counterpoint.

Shiitake Ginger Salad Dressing
This rich and earthy fusion of shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce is highlighted with bright hints of ginger and garlic, and rounded out with toasted sesame and cilantro.





A FRESH Point of View: Zilks – Artisan Food Honesty

At FRESH, we take pride in offering the products of many small, locally owned companies that have a true passion for food.  Zilks, our newest Hummus and Salsa brand, is the epitome of this passion.

The note on the “about” tab of their website says the following:

“We traded Wall Street and high finance insanity for Zilker Park and artisan food honesty.  Now that’s getting ahead!  We hope you enjoy our foods as much as we appreciate making them.”

Long-time friends Jeff Tusa and John Anderson set out to find more meaningful work and found it in a small hummus brand based in Austin, Texas named Out to Lunch.  They changed the name to Zilks, an abbreviation for Zilker Park which represents a place where anyone can gather for a good time and like hummus, you can gorge on it and you still feel good when you’re done.

If you are not familiar with hummus, it is a nutritious dip made from chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil.  A popular staple in the Mediterranean, it is amazing served with pita chips or as a sandwich or burger spread as an alternative to mayonnaise.

Zilks offers  13 kinds of hummus, including 4 varieties made from different types of pesto.  At FRESH, we offer 8 of the flavors:

  1. Original: Traditional flavor
  2. Black Bean Hummus with Lime: The gateway from bean dip to hummus
  3. Balsamic Roasted Garlic and Red Onion: Flavors of the Mediterranean
  4. Hatch Green Chile:  Sweet heat from the famous New Mexico chile
  5. Roasted Red Pepper: A mild pepper flavor without the burn
  6. Chipotle Sundried Tomato: Complex and earthy
  7. Spinach and Artichoke: Sounds healthy, huh?
  8. Jalapeño and Cilantro: Featuring salsa’s best ingredients

We also have their all natural medium salsa that is alive with fresh veggies.  It has no preservatives and definitely tastes like homemade.

Pick up a few tubs of your favorite flavors and let us know what you think!





FRESH and Festive: Cookout Condiments

July is designated as National Hot Dog Month by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.  In the spirit of celebrating this American favorite, I decided “to think inside the bun” and give some of my best product recommendations on amazing hot dog condiments.  When it comes to condiments, you can be certain that there is no shortage of choices on the aisles at FRESH.

Let’s break it down by top dog categories:

MUSTARD

Stadium Mustard – A relatively new one on the FRESH scene is Stadium Mustard.  Fans call it “the best mustard in the world”.  Served and enjoyed at Cleveland Stadium for decades, this mustard now also has the honor of being requested on three space shuttle missions. They use only the finest of spices and mustard seed available on earth.  You will not find sugar, preservatives, fat, cholesterol or filler in any bottle.

Koops – In 1897, Peter Koops left a successful shipping business in the Netherlands to find fortune and adventure in America.  He began simply with a hand-cranked mustard mill.  Using only the freshest ingredients and good taste he developed great tasting mustards.  They offer many varieties from Dijon to their unique Arizona Heat and all use only 100% natural ingredients.

Nathans’ Spicy Brown – Nathan’s began as a nickel hot dog stand in Coney Island in 1916. The original Nathan’s still exists on the same site and every July 4th they host a Hot Dog Eating Contest where contestants try to consume the most hot dogs (and buns) in a twelve-minute time period. Their proprietary New York Deli Style mustard has been a popular condiment for years.  Now Nathan’s is offering “The NEW Coney Island Spicy Brown”.

KETCHUP

Burkhardt Curry Ketchup – Interestingly, curry ketchup was created by an American while he was living in Berlin. Imported from Germany, this ketchup has a great curry flavor and is delicious on bratwurst.

Dulcet Ketchup – Dulcet’s brand slogan is “Epicurean Epiphanies for Everyday”.  You will appreciate this when you try one of their exotic ketchups.  They offer Mild Indian Curry, Peppery Moroccan (a hint of saffron, cumin and turmeric combined with garlic and ginger) and Sweet Orange Chile (made with Guajillo chiles and oranges).

MAYO

Dukes – A southern favorite, Duke’s has been made in Greenville, South Carolina for nearly a century.  Its formula includes more egg yolks than other brands of mayonnaise and has no added sugar.  That combination gives the mayonnaise a tanginess that Duke’s fans have come to love.  This is definitely a Freshie favorite item and a must try!

Baconnaise™ – Two guys had a dream to make everything taste like bacon, from salt to their newest addition, Baconnaise™, available in Regular and Lite.  It has a smooth and smoky taste and contrary to what common sense would tell you, has less calories and fat than regular mayonnaise.

RELISH

Wickles Relish – “Deliciously wicked”, their secret 70-year old family recipe differentiates Wickles products from all others. They use a unique blend of dill, garlic, and sweetness with just enough spice to make their pickles and relish an interesting addition to your hot dog.  They also offer a hoagie and sub relish as well.

Albertos – Made in Texas, Alberto’s makes mustards, salsas and relishes.  They have jalapeno relishes from mild to hot, corn and even zucchini relish.





A FRESH Point of View: All About Vinegars

Vinegar has come a long way in American cooking. Your mother or grandmother probably just kept plain white vinegar and red wine vinegar in her pantry, but today’s cooks have many kinds to choose from – from complex, fruity aged balsamic vinegar to light, rice wine vinegar essential to Asian cuisines.

Vinegar is a great way to add flavor – but few calories and no fat – to your food. But the vinegar aisle can be overwhelming at FRESH – we have more than 20 kinds of balsamic vinegar alone! Here’s what to pick when:

Balsamic: This is the richest, most flavorful, most nuanced kind of vinegar, with a balance of sweet and sour notes, and prized in Italy for centuries. Balsamic is made from grape pressings, then aged, so it usually has an underlying sweetness, even if it’s quite strong and sour.  Use it in your vinaigrettes; mix with olive oil for a dip for crusty bread; drizzle a bit over goat cheese and strawberries, or over tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella;  or over risotto, pasta, or meat.

The longer a balsamic vinegar is aged, the thicker and more complex it will taste – and the more expensive it will be. A way to get that thicker texture from a less costly balsamic is to create a balsamic reduction, by simmering any balsamic with a bit of sugar. (You can also purchase pre-made balsamic reductions; I like Rachael Ray’s version.) Balsamic reductions are especially good drizzled over hearty vegetables like winter squash, or over grilled meat or fish.

Finally, to gild the lily, balsamic vinegars are sometimes flavored. Texas Olive Ranch, for instance, makes one called Figilicious, infused with figs. Racconto has one that is infused with roasted garlic.

Red wine: Tangy and sour, without the underlying sweetness of balsamic, red wine vinegar is commonly used in vinaigrettes or in sauces; it’s a staple in French cooking. You can use it in many of the same ways you’d use balsamic – deglazing a pan to make a sauce, for instance. Use it a splash to brighten up a dish and add a touch of acid, much as you’d use lemon juice.

White wine: Usually just a little bit sweeter and milder than red wine vinegar, but used in much the same way. Do not confuse white wine vinegar with distilled white vinegar, which is much harsher and is really more suitable for use as a household cleanser.

Rice: Mild, sweet and not very aggressive, rice vinegar is essential in Japanese cuisine; it’s what gives sushi rice its distinctive flavor. But it’s also commonly used in other Asian cuisines. In Thai cooking, it is used to dress dishes like Thai beef salad or green papaya salad. In Vietnamese cuisine, it is often mixed with a little salty fish sauce, sugar and herbs to create a light dressing for noodles or a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

Apple cider: One of the milder vinegars. Mixed with a bit of olive oil, this makes a good every-day salad dressing, especially when you don’t want the stronger flavor of a balsamic-based  or red-wine-vinegar dressing.

Malt vinegar: Made from malted barley, malt vinegar is dark in color and has a strong flavor that will remind you of malt or possibly a combination of citrusy and beer. It’s the traditional accompaniment for fish and chips in the United Kingdom; try it next time you fry up a batch of fish!





Well and Good: Alternative Pizzas

Pizza has become such an all-American favorite that it’s hard to imagine living without it. But for people who can’t eat wheat or dairy, because of illnesses or allergies, pizza is one of those foods on the no-fly zone.

But we have been expanding our selection of gluten-free and dairy-free pizzas. So if you, or a family member, have been avoiding this treat, here are some options to make it pizza night again. All are available in our frozen section:

Conte’s: Known for its gluten-free pastas, Conte’s also makes some delicious ready-to-bake pizzas, with a tender gluten-free crust made with rice flour. We like the margherita pizza _tomatoes, creamy mozzarella, roasted garlic and a dash of olive oil – because the whole family enjoys it. For more sophisticated tastes, there is a mushroom Florentine variety, with spinach and roasted garlic. (Note: these pizzas do contain real cheese, so may not be an option for the lactose intolerant or vegans.)

Amy’s: Is there anything Amy’s doesn’t do well? They have introduced a “cheese-only” version of their popular spinach vegan pizza – understanding that kids love pizza but aren’t always big fans of the green veggie. This one is gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan, with a nicely textured rice-flour crust, flavorful tomato sauce and a topping of soy-based “cheese.”  They produce our favorite gluten-free crust of the lot – nicely textured, with a bit of a whole-grain taste.

Tofurkey: If you like the Tofurkey brand of meat alternatives, you will love the fact that they’ve introduced vegan pizzas. Available varieties include pepperoni and “Italian sausage” with fire-roasted veggies – both with a really delicious vegan “cheese” that  actually melts. These do contain gluten, in the whole-wheat crust.

Nature’s Hilights Brown Rice Crust: Make your own gluten-free with this ready-to-bake crust – made with brown rice but no yeast, wheat or gluten. It bakes up crisp and light, with a mild flavor that will let your toppings stand out.





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