How not to give your friends food poisoning: nine easy tips! Part 3: Well the sour cream is already sour, so…. The rules of dairy

We cleaned out the fridge this weekend at casa de Starter Kitchen, and WOW. Four twenty-somethings sharing a fridge means no one is responsible for that five-month-old package of cream cheese, or the yellow milk, or the mysterious cheese in a Tupperware container that may not have been blue cheese to begin with, but is now. Apparently, dairy products simply flock to our fridge when they reach retirement age, like our own little sour cream Florida.


My father always claimed that the sell-by-dates were just friendly suggestions – as long as they were purchased by that date, they were good for another month, or until his taste-test revealed that even he of the iron stomach and dead taste buds couldn’t stifle the reflex to spit out the offending food. So when does dairy food turn? How can you tell? And what the heck is that smell anyway?


Milk and cream: The time it takes for milk to spoil depends largely on its fat content. Skim milk is much higher in lactose, which turns to lactic acid as the product ages, and lactic acid promotes spoiling. The general rule for skim milk is no more than five days after the expiration date. It might still be safe to drink – but it might not. One percent milk buys you an extra day, 2% can stretch you to day seven, and whole milk and creams, if they have been kept in closed containers in the fridge, should be dumped after day eight.


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Olive Oil


Maggie Nemser, over at Yahoo!’s new Shine Foods, wrote an interesting post yesterday about expensive olive oils.

The verdict: they’re pretty much unnecessary.

For everyday cooking, you’re better off using the cheap grocery-store brand extra virgin olive oil (Note: I part ways with Maggie here – I don’t recommend using canola for anything other than deep frying. Olive oil has a lower smoking point, but you’ll rarely cook at temperatures where that is a problem in the average consumer kitchen).

That said, the expensive, cold-pressed olive oil is sort of like a good bottle of wine. There are even expert olive oil tasters, and you can go on olive oil tasting tripsin Napa Valley. A truly excellent bottle of olive oil has rich, distinct characteristics that are best appreciated in a simple meal: a good bottle of wine, a small loaf of freshly baked bread, and a sliver of baked brie…mmmmmmmmmmm

(Side note: if you have thyroid problems you may want to stay away from canola oil since some brands contain glucosinolates that can act as a goitrogen))

Single in the Kitchen: Mexican Soup


Single? Congratulations! You don’t have to worry about anyone else’s weird picky food habits, or distaste for spinach, or need for every meal to consist of meat and potatoes. Just meat and potatoes.

There are several cookbooks out there with recipes for cooking for one, but they tend to be a little, well, less than helpful (Here! Here is a can of beans! Did you know you can make a whole meal from a can of beans? Have you been on a date lately? No. Hmm. Well, here’s a recipe that will cost you $40 a meal to make. Have you signed up for an online dating service? They’re great! No? What’s wrong with you? Eat your beans.).

Not here! The Starter Kitchen celebrates the joys of cooking for yourself, and shows you how to do it in ways that make sense. All Single in the Kitchen recipes meet the following four requirements:

  1. Under thirty minutes to cook. You mean you don’t want to spend three hours roasting a turkey for one? Yeah, me neither.
  2. Economical. Cooking for yourself shouldn’t cost you a small fortune. Most foods you’ll get at the grocery store aren’t packaged for one, and nature didn’t always design produce in single-serving pieces. Recipes must include tips and tricks for making good use of your food dollar.
  3. Designed for one.  Recipes must either freeze well (so you can divide it into servings and save the rest for another night) or be easy to prepare for one.
  4. Delicious!

Mexican Soup Recipe

This recipe looks just as good as it tastes. A gorgeous soup with bright red tomatoes, vibrant green herbs, yellow peppers, and a spicy kick, this is a filling, low-calorie dinner that freezes beautifully and packs an amazing nutritional wallop. Plus, it costs under $15 for four full meals. Not bad!


  • Large pot/dutch oven
  • Ladle
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Glad-ware containers

Already in your starter kitchen:

  • Canned chicken broth (or veggie broth)
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil

Shopping List:

  • 1 can black beans
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes with jalapenos (you can use regular tomatoes if you don’t like spice)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • Cilantro
  • Shredded cheddar cheese


  1. Slice onions and garlic (instructions are here).
  2. Chop bell peppers, removing seeds and white flesh.
  3. Chop cilantro finely.
  4. Heat two tablespoons olive oil in your pot for one minute. Add onions and garlic. 
  5. Add both cans of tomatoes and one one cup chicken broth and let boil for three minutes.
  6. Rinse black beans in a strainer under cold water until the liquid runs clear.
  7. Add beans, peppers, and cilantro to the pot. Let boil for five more minutes.
  8. Ladle into four servings – three for the freezer and one for now!
  9. Sprinkle with shredded cheese and enjoy.


This recipe is full of superfoods.

  • Canned tomatoes – Contain beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E, and carotenoid lycopene – in fact, canned tomatoes contain more lycopene than raw tomatoes.
  • Garlic – Decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, contains vitamin C, B6, Manganese, and Selenium, acts as an Anti-Inflammatory, Antibacterial and Antiviral, reduces the risk of common cancers, and promotes weight control.
  • Cilantro – a great source of  good source of iron, magnesium, manganese, and phytonutrients.
  • Black beans – contain cholesterol-lowering fiber plus molybdenum, which is helpful for people with sulfite sensitivities.

How not to give your friends food poisoning: Part Two: Should that be green? Molds, mildews, and fungus


(This is Part Two in a nine-part series on How Not To Give Your Friends (or Yourself) Food Poisoning and can also be found at Shine Foods)

In 1984, Barry Marshall grew a little H. pylori in his fridge, ate it, and went down in history for discovering that the source of stomach ulcers was bacterial.

I do not recommend this.

You can grow all kinds of interesting things in your fridge and food cabinets. Some foods, including the stinkier cheeses of the world, get flavor from mold cultures. Others, such as bread, should really not be green. 

That thin snowy layer on top of that old cup of coffee? The thin green film on your bread? The gray fur on that old, forgotten Indian food? Mold. Molds are microscopic fungi that live on the surfaces of plant and animal matter. They travel by releasing spores that are pretty much everywhere, and are usually harmless. However, some molds release toxins that can cause serious food poisoning and respiratory problems, and it is impossible to tell the innocuous from the dangerous by sight.

No matter what your dad or gross brothers were willing to eat out of the fridge, you should not just scrape off the mold and eat the parts that “look okay.” The mold that you see on the surface is actually just the spores from the mold. When mold colonizes a food, it sends long, thin roots that you can’t see deep down into its host. So even if the pretty colors have been scraped away, you could still be eating potentially poisonous toxins. 

There are a few exceptions:

  • Many cheeses, including Roquefort, blue, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Brie, and Camembert are created by intentionally introducing molds that are safe to eat.
  • Hard cheeses with surface mold can still be eaten if you cut off at least one inch below the growth. Mold roots generally cannot grow deeper than 1 inch below the spores on hard cheeses.

Molds and mildew may also form in damp areas of your kitchen – the bottom of your fridge, under the sink, and in the crisper. In extreme cases, touching and inhaling these growths can cause allergies, headaches, nausea, asthma, fatigue. Because molds release spores into the air that may settle on other foods even once you’ve cleaned out the offending items, you want to do your best to prevent those little fuzzy gardens from growing in the first place.

  • Clean the inside of the refrigerator every few months with 1 tbsp. of baking soda dissolved in a quart of water.
  • Scrub off any visible mold (usually black gunk) with bleach or vinegar (I recommend using the vinegar recipe found here, since many chemical mold killers contain chlorine bleach, which, when mixed with water, can form hydrochloric acid, which is fatal if swallowed and can cause chemical burns).
  • Keep sponges and dishrags clean – if they smell musty, you’re just spreading the mold around.
  • Keep foods in the fridge covered with plastic wrap or tinfoil.

If you have mold:

  • Wrap food items in a plastic bag and throw away immediately. I know there is a temptation to keep it around and see what happens, but, no.
  • DO NOT SNIFF THE  MOLDY FOOD. Why do people do this? Mold spores can cause serious respiratory problems, so sniffing the food is not a good idea. If you can see the mold, it’s bad, no matter what it smells like. You’re going to sniff it anyway, aren’t you? Fine. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

How not to give your friends food poisoning: Part 1: Maybe the beans just needed some air… Botulism is bad – what to check for when using canned goods

So you’re running a little low on cash. Alright, maybe you aren’t, but I sure am, and canned goods are a cheap, usually healthy option to get me the through the week. But how do you know what is safe to to eat? Will that dent on the side kill you? Or just save you a few pennies?

The concern with dented cans is Botulism. Botulism is a spore-forming bacteria that forms in oxygen-free environments with low acidity and releases toxins that cause causes blurred vision, dilated pupils, droopy eyelids, sore mouth and throat, muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, and major muscle weakeness and paralysis. Sympotms usually develop within 12-36 hours after consuming contaminated food. Thanks to improvements in canning processes, botulism poisoning is rare, but it can be life-threatening.

What should you look for?

  • Cans with small dents along the side are generally still safe; however, deep dents, especially near the seams of the can, should always be avoided.
  • Always stay away from cans that are leaking or bulging – these are clear signs that the seals have been broken and botulism contamination is likely.
  • If a can explodes when you open it, throw it out immediately and carefully clean up the mess with soap and water.

If you suspect botulism poisoning, go to your local emergency room immediately.

When it comes to swollen or broken cans the rule is always when in doubt, throw it out.

Bonus Tip: Not going to use the whole can? Store opened canned goods in a sealed plastic container. According to the Food Standards Agency, “when a can has been opened and the food is open to the air, the tin may transfer more quickly to the can’s contents.”

Your Momma Don’t Cook (But You Can Learn): Peeling Garlic

My mother was a successful, professional woman and a great role-model for her daughters. But while she was out bringing in the bacon, she wasn’t spending much time teaching me how to cook the bacon. Welcome to the feature where we learn how to do the things in the kitchen we know we should know, but never quite learned.

Almost every meal I cook now starts with chopping onions and garlic.  The health benefits of garlic include:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased cholesterol
  • Reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Contains vitamin C, B6, Manganese, and Selenium
  • Acts as an Anti-Inflammatory, Antibacterial and Antiviral 
  • Reduces the risk of common cancers
  • Promotes weight control

Now, you can certainly buy pre-peeled, pre-chopped garlic at most grocery stores these days, but studies have shown that fresh, just crushed and peeled garlic is more flavorful and provides significantly more health benefits than packaged garlic.

To prepare garlic:

  1. Separate cloves from the bulb by pulling the off the outer layer of paper and then pulling off individual cloves.
  2. Lay cloves on a clean cutting board.
  3. Place a wide knife on top of the clove with the blade facing away from you and bring the heel of your palm down on the flat side of the knife. This “crushing” or bruising releases the beneficial compounds in the garlic and separates the papery layer from the clove, making peeling easy.
  4. Peel off the outer layer and slice off the brown, woody stem if one remains and discolorations. Your cloves are now ready to crush, dice, or slice.
  5. Let garlic sit for 10 minutes before cooking or eating – this releases garlic’s beneficial compounds.

Note: If the garlic clove has started to sprout and has a green stem in the middle, you will want to remove this shoot – they are difficult to digest and can become bitter when cooked.

Have a basic cooking question? Ask The Starter Kitchen by e-mail or in the comments section.

Using The Starter Kitchen to stock your first kitchen – Food

Building a well-stocked food cabinet takes time and money. What do you need? How do you know what to buy?

All Starter Kitchen recipes include an Already in Your Starter Kitchen section. These are foods and spices you’ll want to keep on hand. Don’t have them? Don’t worry. Keep cooking with Starter Kitchen recipes, adding the Already in Your Starter Kitchen items to your shopping list, and you’ll slowly but surely build up an impressive cupboard.

Is Mom visiting and taking you to the grocery store to stock up? Click on the Starter Kitchen Basics tab at the top of the page for a quick and easy shopping/check list.

 Have a question about stocking your kitchen? Ask The Starter Kitchen by e-mail or in the comments section!

Using The Starter Kitchen to stock your first kitchen – Tools

My first kitchen had lots of paper plates, plastic silverware, paper towels, and a working microwave. Now I have so many kitchen toys and tools we’re running out of cabinet space for food. And yet I’m still lusting over this.

What do you need? How do you know what to buy?

All Starter Kitchen recipes include a Tools section. If you don’t have any of the tools called for in a recipe, pick them up when you do your grocery shopping (most grocery stores sell kitchen tools in the baking aisle). Keep cooking with Starter Kitchen recipes, and you’ll quickly build a respectable, well-stocked kitchen.

Heading to Target to stock up? Click on the Tools tab at the top of the page for a quick and easy shopping/check list.

 Have a question about stocking your kitchen? Ask The Starter Kitchen by e-mail or in the comments section.

Freezes Beautifully – Penne a la Vodka (with or without the vodka)

Welcome to our new feature, at the Starter Kitchen roommate’s request: Freezes Beautifully!

I’m a busy woman. I work full time, commute two hours every day, write this blog, freelance part-time, and go to the gym most evenings. Cooking a healthy meal at the end of those weekdays? Not going to happen.

Making the transition from cooking for my family in high school, to cooking for myself and my ex-SO, to cooking for just myself has been…interesting. Recipes aren’t designed for one, and neither are packaged foods.

The solution is FREEZING. Every week I pick two or three recipes, cook up the parts that will freeze well, separate into servings in small Glad-ware containers, and stick them in the freezer. Giving yourself a few options means you won’t get bored, and keeping the freezer stocked means you won’t have to ruin a healthy day by ordering greasy take-out when you come home starving and exhausted.

What freezes well? Most veggies, cheeses, and cooked meats make great freezer foods. Exceptions: lettuce, cucumber, celery and cabbage.

Some foods don’t fare as well when frozen and thawed and become soft, mealy, or mushy, such as pasta, white rice, and potatoes.

The Recipe:

Penne a la Vodka was always a “special occasion” dish in my house when I was growing up, but when I started making it myself I discovered that it was simple to make and the recipe was easy to slim down (my aunt’s version had over two times the fat of the one below). The recipe can also be doubled (or even tripled) if you have a big enough pot. The sauce will freeze perfectly or will stay good in the fridge for up to a week. Cook and store your pasta separately, and only cook what you’ll be eating in one meal.


  • Large pot or skillet (you will want the larger pot if you are doubling or tripling the recipe)
  • Ladle
  • Sharp knife
  • Can opener
  • Cutting board

Already in Your Starter Kitchen:

  • Onions
  • Olive oil
  • Penne (whole wheat or white)
  • Grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
  • Crushed red pepper 
  • Garlic (optional) 
  • Vodka (optional)

Shopping List:

  • Two cans diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup low fat cream (you can substitute fat-free half & half or regular cream)
  • Frozen peas
  • Basil (optional)


  1. Coarsely dice one large onion. Don’t worry about getting uniform dice; the onions turn sweet while cooking, so chunks are fine.
  2. Peel two cloves of garlic and cut into thin slices. Feel free to omit garlic or, if you’re a garlic lover like me, add in a few extra cloves. (optional)
  3. Finely chop basil. (optional)
  4. Pre-heat your pot or skillet for one minute, then add one tablespoon olive oil.
  5. Add onions and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring, until onion is soft, but not burnt.
  6. Add two cans diced tomatoes and heat until boiling.
  7. Add 1/2 cup vodka and heat until boiling. (optional)
  8. You’ll want to start boiling your water for pasta now. Cook pasta according to the packaging instructions.
  9. Add 1 cup frozen peas, basil, 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, and 3/4 cup cream.
  10. Let the sauce come back to a simmer (light boil) and cook for ten minutes, stirring occasionally.
  11. Serve your sauce over pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

What’s a serving?  The slimmed-down version of this sauce (low-fat cream and no vodka) is mostly veggies, so I split this recipe into two servings. When I make this on the weekend for freezing, I usually double the recipe and divide it into four Glad-ware containers. It’s a lot of sauce, but not too many calories or too much fat. Served over whole-wheat pasta, this is a great healthy comfort-food option.

Have a question about this recipe or freezing foods? Ask the Starter Kitchen by e-mail or in the comments section.

What Not to Eat: Ramen Noodles.

What not to eat – the weekly feature wherein we check out what’s in some of your favorite junk foods. Read at your own risk! 

Alright, I know we all have joyful cup-of-soup memories. When I was a young kitcheneer, my friends and I used to come home from high school, cook up a few flavors of Ramen Noodles, and be happy as – well, as happy as teenagers can actually be.

But what exactly is in those dried bricks of noodles and mysterious foil flavor packets?

The Noodles: Just empty carbs? Actually, no. Many brands of Ramen Noodles are deep fried before being dried and packaged. The oils used in the frying process are usually the of cheap trans-fat variety, and we all know by now that trans fats are linked with high cholesterol, cancer, and heart disease. Recent reports have also indicated that trans fats may also change how your cells process insulin and therefore can increase the incidence of diabetes.

The Flavor Packet. This is a problem. The salty broth-mix in Top Ramen contains the following:

MSG (monosodium glutamate). The doctors are out on MSG – it caused a big scare in the 90s, but few studies have shown any conclusive evidence that MSG will cause long-term health issues. That said, MSG may trigger an allergic reaction in 1 to 2 percent of the population that includes migraines, flushing, and muscle pain.

Sodium. One Cup of Soup can contain up to 830 milligrams of sodium, which is almost 40% of your reccomended daily value. Even if you don’t have blood-pressure problems, that kind of salt intake will leave you bloated and sluggish for a day or two.

Fat. Each serving contains 11 grams of fat – almost 20% of your RDV if  you are on a 2000 calorie a day diet. That’s a lot of fat for flavored powder and noodles.