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.

Go Ask M!

Ask MThe weekly feature in which we answer questions from The Starter Kitchen’s roommate.

Question: How do I know if this is bad? (holds out a plastic container of tiny, wrinkled cherry tomatoes) I don’t want to kill anyone.

Short Answer: Wrinkly tomatoes (especially the smaller grape and cherry tomatoes) aren’t necessarily bad. Don’t buy them like that from your grocer, but if they’ve spent a few days in the fridge, they’re probably still okay. Check by slicing the tomatoes open. Ripe tomatoes have a red or clear juice surrounding the seeds. If that juice has turned green or blackish, toss them in the trash.

The Long Answer: Stay tuned all next week for our new nine-part series: How not to give your friends food poisoning: nine easy tips!

1. Maybe the beans just needed some air… Botulism is bad – what to check for when using canned goods

2. Should that be green? Molds, mildews, and fungus

3. Well the sour cream is already sour, so…. The rules of dairy

4. That pretty snowflake pattern – frostbite and meat products

5. Pasta is hard, so it doesn’t go bad, right?

6. The fridge: it’s all good…except when it’s not

7. It’s Alive! Veggie slime: can it kill me?

8. Sell by dates: suggestion or ominous warning from beyond the grave?

9. Pesticides and worms and cow pies, oh my! When to wash

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

Like, totally hemp, man…

Hemp Seed Products One of my favorite bloggers, Megan McArdle, of, wrote an amazing post today about the crazy-diet book that could: Skinny Bitch.

She has this to say:

Imagine distilling all the self-righteous moralism of a yuppie eco-tourist who voted for Nader, twice, and only eats hemp. Now add all the hectoring nannyism of the nutritionists who write those “Liver and lima beans: your forgotten friends” pamphlets from the US Department of Agriculture. Toss in generous lashings of the exhibitionist ignorance of self-styled health food experts–the ones who promise that if you can just find the right combination of vitamin supplements, you will live forever, and also, marry Brad Pitt. Then find the three meanest girls from your local high school and extract multiple doses of the unprovoked venom they direct towards the fattest girl in the class. Combine all these ingredients in a large bowl, making sure that you haven’t accidentally included any shreds of a soul.

Yes, I’ve read this book, and yes, some of it is interesting and some of it is crazy, and the girls who wrote it have no credentials other than being really, really, skinny.

But! Onto McArdle’s first sentence the the amazing paragraph above – those yuppies eating hemp!

You should eat it too.

People consume protein powders for a few reasons: to gain weight (people who are too skinny), to put on muscle (athletes and gym rats), and people who need more protein in their diets (me, you, and almost everyone you know).

The problem with protein powders is that most of them are made from soy (which contains estrogen-like chemicals that are a problem for some people) or whey (which doesn’t work out well for people who stay away from dairy). Neither are even close to being whole foods and are produced using many, many chemicals, including Hexane, some forms of which are used in gasoline and shoe polish.

And then there is hemp. Ground hemp seed is not only a whole food, it provides 11g protein, 14g fiber, Omega 3, Omega 6, Omega 9, GLA, Vitamin E, Iron, chlorphyll, and NO net carbs after you subtract the protein.

Hemp powder can still be a little hard to find, but most Whole Foods stores seem to carry at least one brand.

How do you work hemp powder into your diet?

Hemp powder has a nutty, very natural flavor, but can be a little grainy. I’ve found the best way to eat Hemp powder is in a fruit smoothie or mixed in with a tomato-based soup.

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