Budget Meal Week Continues!

Erin walked you through a great $5 lunch earlier this week, and I’m going to continue our budget week with two meals you can make for under $10 each. The first is a simple shredded chicken quesadilla, and the second is a salmon dinner with mashed potatoes and asparagus.


This is one of my favorite easy, cheap meals. All you’ll need is a frozen chicken breast or two, some tomato sauce, garlic, and a few spices like salt, pepper, hot sauce, powdered onion, and chili powder.

First, put your chicken breasts in a pot. You can use fresh, but if you’re like me and often eat on a budget, you can get a whole bag of frozen breasts for about $5. Open a 4 oz can of tomato sauce (usually about $0.50), and pour it over them. Then add water or some of the stock Erin showed you how to make until it covers the chicken breast. Add your spices, and cook on low heat for an hour or two, until the chicken comes apart in shreds with a fork. Keep cooking until the sauce and spices reduce. Heat up a tortilla (you can buy a pack of them for under $3, usually) and melt a little shredded cheese on it ($2). Voila! Instant tasty meal!


This recipe takes a little longer, but if you’re up for a fancy meal on a budget, it’s the way to go!

Erin showed you a few weeks ago how to make mashed potatoes, and while I highly recommend any of these, my go-to mashed potato recipe is a regular potato-salt-pepper-cream-butter one with caramelized onions added to it. That’s what I’ve made above! Potatoes cost around $2 for this recipe, and onion, cream, and butter another $2.

I buy a lot of frozen salmon, and that’s what I used here. Since I added a hollandaise sauce, I just popped on in the oven and let it cook for 20 minutes without seasoning. A bag of salmon filets runs you about $8 for 3 or 4, so the cost for the salmon here is $2.

I heated asparagus with a little olive oil in a tinfoil tent in the oven, too. That’ll cost about $2 as well.

To make the finishing touches on the meal, I made a quick hollandaise sauce. For that, I put 2 egg yolks, a dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon of lemon juice in a blender for a minute, then poured it into a pan with two tablespoons of butter, whisking continuously. That is another $2.

There you have it! Two quick, homemade meals for under $10.

Lunch Under $5 – Beans & Rice

As someone who spent nine years in college, I learned frugality alongside learning to cook as an adult. At first that was cooking noodles and dumping a can of sauce on top of it. Or making a packet of ramen with some frozen veggies thrown in. But as I learned more about simple techniques and spice profiles, the more I wanted to experiment with recipes that weren’t on the back of Hamburger Helper boxes.

The dish that truly got me through grad school was beans and rice. I know this sounds simple, because, well, it is. But like fried rice, this dish is a great way to get through many of the odds and ends in your fridge and can be changed to fit whatever type of bean you have lying about either in can or dried form.

I’m going to walk you through the making of one particular dish–a Mexican-spiced black beans and rice–but note that there are endless variations that can fit with what’s in your fridge and pantry.

What You’ll Need

The basic to any beans and rice, are, well, beans and rice. You can make this dish with any beans–black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lima beans, pigeon peas, white beans, etc etc. Just think about the flavor profiles that ago along with those beans both in terms of fresh ingredients and dried herbs and spices. If you’re unsure, Google the providence of the beans and where they are eaten most.

For example, in the Mexican-spiced beans, I used cumin, cilantro, green onion, jalapeño, and garlic. (I could have also added Mexican oregano as well, though I’m currently out of it.) Here’s a terrific guide from cooksmarts.com about the general spice choices for several cuisines. The more you cook, the more intuitive and expansive these will become.

For most versions, you will also want onion (of some variety–don’t have to be picky), garlic (same), and some sort of pepper.

The Beans

If you’re cooking your beans from dry, you’ll want to soak them in cool water overnight. In the morning, drain them and give them a rinse. (If they smell a little funky, you may have accidentally started fermenting them. It’s totally fine! Rinse and keep going.)

Fun trick: You can freeze your beans at this stage so you can skip this process next time around! So if you have freezer space and are, like me, bad at remembering to soak beans the night before, freeze some extra to have for next time; you can skip to the next step from frozen.

Then you’ll want to cook them at a low boil in some veggie stock for about half an hour until tender. I tossed in a bay leaf and a chunk of green garlic stem (tis the season) as well.

Dried beans cooking with bay leaf and green garlic.

After they are tender to the tooth, drain, rinse, and remove the bay leaf.

Alternatively, you can also just use a can of beans. Just make sure to rinse them beforehand.

The Veg

I would say that you’ll always want onions and garlic. However, if you have neither, powdered is fine. Chop these fine along with any other vegetables you want to include. You can really add anything that’s in the fridge–squash or zucchini, leeks, sweet peppers, hot peppers, corn, cabbage, whatever, you want to get rid of. Just make sure that the bean content is at least 50% of the final mix.

For mine I had some green onion tops, a tomato, half of a garlic scape, a jalapeño, half a lime, and cilantro.

These items (also with the use of black beans) leaned towards Mexican, so I also added ground cumin. However, if I’d used chickpeas I may have gone more Middle Eastern and therefore added some za’atar, sumac, or ground coriander. The only thing I wouldn’t include are whole spices (cloves, cardamom pods, etc) with the beans. They’re hard to fish out at the end, though you can spice your rice with them!

Dice your vegetables up and add them to a warm pan over medium heat with the oil or fat of your choosing. Add your dried spices, salt, and pepper.

Saute until soft then add in the beans and cook for an additional five minutes or so. At this point, you’ll want to taste to adjust whatever seasoning you’ve added and add your acid, usually a splash of lemon or lime juice. (I added a teaspoon of homemade hot sauce at this point too.)

The Rice

You can use whatever rice you’d like for this. Be sure to rinse your rice before you use it for better results.

Typically I just use a long-grain rice cooked in water with a dash of salt and a bay leaf. However, you can also add Goya seasoning powder to the rice to make it tastier. Or some MSG (a fave as you know) or toasted whole spices. Play around here too, but also make sure to consider spice profiles.

The Toppings

Black beans and rice with Honduran cream and cilantro.

Now you top your cooked rice with your bean mixture. Then you can add all sorts of tasty toppings. Here are some that I recommend:

  • Sour cream
  • Shredded cheese
  • Fresh diced tomato (if you didn’t cook some in)
  • Crema
  • Diced avocado
  • Labneh
  • Shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • Chopped herbs like cilantro, basil, oregano, etc
  • Cheese sauce

Try out different things. Use what you have. Learn what you like.

A can of beans and half a cup of uncooked rice will feed two opulently for way less than $5. (Depending on what you use, maybe even less than $1.)

Let us know your favorite combos in the comments and eat cheap this week.

Snacking Part Two: Eat Your Feelings

I don’t know about you, but this week has been a whole bunch of “Fuck it.” This means I’ve been using the deep-fryer. Like a lot. While Alex may be making their own ricotta and doing wholesome things with vegetable dips, I’m here making garbage plates, fried tacos, and a heaping plate of homemade nachos, because it’s a pandemic and food can be a comfort. (Hey! That’s our tagline!)

Today I’m here to tell you how to make two dishes that are both delicious and in no way healthy.

I don’t know about you, but there’s something magical about a jar or can of cheese. That gelatinous, slightly spicy cheese product that is somehow shelf-stable for years due to the wonders of modern chemistry. Or a box of mac and cheese with the cheese packet of gooey, weirdly orange sauce. Both are go-to depression foods for me, but in these times, going to the grocery store is difficult, and let’s be honest, you ate all your garbage food last week.

So let’s talk about making your own cheese sauce and then drowning your sorrows in it.

The Sauce

All you need to make a cheese sauce.

To make a cheese sauce, the first thing you have to do is make a bechemel. This is one of the five French mother sauces and the base for a lot of cream sauces as well. For this you will need butter, flour, milk, and cheese(s).

First you add one part butter to one part flour. (This means if you add one tablespoon of butter, you also add one tablespoon of flour.) The amount that you use will determine the amount of sauce you need. For four servings, I would use 1/2 cup butter (or one stick) and 1/2 cup flour.

This is the consistency you want your roux (flour/butter mixture) to be when you add your milk.

Melt your butter on medium heat. Once melted (but not browned), whisk in your flour a little at a time until fully incorporated. Then slowly add your milk 1/2 cup at a time. Continue to whisk and bring the mixture to a low boil. Keep adding milk until you have a consistency a little wetter than you would normally want for a cream sauce. (Remember, there’s cheese to be added!)

TADA! Bechemel!

At this point you’ll want to also salt to taste. Milk in particular really needs salt to bring out any subtly of flavor. (I went ahead and add some hot pepper flakes to mine as well!)

Now that your bechemel is complete, you can go on a long road of choose-your-own adventures with your sauce.

Mac and Cheese

Once you’re happy with your bechemel, it’s time to add the cheese! Honestly, at this point, go wild! The classic would be a sharp cheddar, but you could just as easily go with a smoked gouda or a funky blue. Add in some cream cheese if you need to stretch another cheese a bit or want added creaminess. Finish with grated Parmesan for more umami. (Or just add MSG like I do.)

Adding some grated cheddar since that’s what I had around.

You’ll also want to spice it to your liking. My award-winning combo includes dried mustard, smoked paprika, cayenne, hot sauce, garlic powder and chopped green onions. (You can also add fresh vegetables, though I recommend sauteeing them in the butter when making the bechemel.)

Erin winning the 2012 Mac and Cheese contest at Green’s Tavern.

Keep tasting your sauce as you’re cooking. If it tastes flat, add a bit of acid to help cut through the cream. Hot sauce will do this, but so will a splash of apple cider vinegar or a little bit of lemon juice. Not too much. Just enough to help balance it.

When it’s to your liking, add to cooked pasta of your choosing. Play around with your pastas. You may find you like some more than you originally thought. (My mother used to make mac and cheese with spaghetti noodles!)

Farfalle mac and cheese with fried garlic.

Some people bake their mac and cheese at this point, but unless it’s overly runny, I usually just pop it on a plate and call it a day.


If you’re looking for a little more crunch and spice with your cheese, we also have you covered. Once your bechemel is done, you’ll want to consider which cheese route you want to go. I usually go for a Pepper Jack, but a sharp cheddar would work just as well. Whatever is around that fits the profile.

If the cheese itself isn’t spicy, add a little crushed red pepper, cayenne, or hot sauce. (Or a lot of all three if you’re me.) Cumin would also be an excellent addition here. Again, tasted until you’re happy with the final product.

Nachos with homemade tortilla chips, cilantro, green onion, and tomatoes.

Then drizzle your cheese over some (ideally homemade) tortilla chips and top with any or all of the following:

  • Beans (refried or otherwise)
  • Lettuce
  • Sliced black olives
  • Avocado
  • Cilantro
  • More hot sauce
  • Sour cream
  • Diced tomatoes
  • Pickled jalapeños
  • Cactus

The list goes on and on. You can also just eat it directly out of the pan like my friends and I did when I would drunkenly make this for everyone at the end of the night in grad school.

Now go forth and eat your feelings!

Snacking Part One: How to Make it Healthy

I have been doing a not-small amount of snacking since the apocalypse started. I think we all have! If given a chance, I will eat chips and dip for every meal. That’s not so great for your waistline, or your health, so I’ve come up with a snack tray that is full of whole, marginally healthy ingredients to snack on. It’s a dip plate with hummus, kalamata olive dip, salmon dip, and a pretty green avocado-arugula-asparagus dip. If I’m going to be dipping foods all the time, I want to get some healthy and whole meals in there, and this dip combo does just that. Plus, you’ll be the star of your next potluck if you bring it, post end-times.

I won’t reinvent the wheel with hummus here. It’s a basic recipe that requires canned chick peas, a little of their reserved water (which is also a great ingredient you can use for vegan baking called aquafava!), tahini, salt and pepper, and lemon juice. This is Erin’s favorite hummus recipe, and it’s a good one!

The other dips here were my own creations. The first step is to go back to our pizza recipe page and make yourself some homemade ricotta. Yes, you can use storebought, but one of my golden rules of cooking is that if you can make it at home, and you have the time, you should. It’s always better. ALWAYS! You’ll get a lot of mileage out of this recipe once you master it, so get to it!



  • 1/2 a cup of kalamata olives (you can use canned, but you really want the flavor to pop, so I highly suggest kalamata, even in a jar)
  • 1/2 cup homemade ricotta
  • 2 roasted garlic cloves
  • 1/2 tsp Sriracha or 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes


  • 1/2 cup homemade ricotta
  • 1 small, baked salmon filet (you can leave the skin on. I use frozen and it comes out just fine)
  • 1TB fresh lemon juice
  • salt and pepper


  • 1 avocado, ripe
  • 4 TB Olive Oil
  • 2 cloves roasted garlic
  • 4 pieces of asparagus, steamed
  • the juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • a dash of salt and pepper
  • 2 TB parmasan cheese
  • a small handful of arugula


The process here is simple. Combine all ingredients in a blender. I don’t have a great one, I use a two-cup smoothie blender, and it still works out fine.

That’s it! You can use crackers or bread, or make some crackers yourself by using our focaccia recipe, slicing it thin, spraying the tray and the bread down with some olive oil, sprinkling it with salt and pepper, and throwing it in the oven at 350 for about 4-5 minutes. Or dip slices of cucumber, which go great with all these flavors! And you’ve got a healthy snack to munch on!

Brunch: The Sweet and the Savory

This week, Erin told you about a great, unsung savory brunch or breakfast food, fried rice. As the resident pastry person, I’m going to bring you another aspect of how to make a great brunch, involving Creme Anglaise, meringue, and eggs. Here are the directions for my absolute favorite brunch combo, Creme Anglaise French Toast and a savory souffle.


Creme Anglaise French Toast? you may be asking. Isn’t that hard? It sounds fancy. Is it fancy?

Well, no it’s not hard, and yes, it is so fancy that you will want to make it all the time to impress your friends. Creme Anglaise is a classic pastry cream that’s used in desserts and ice creams, and basically it’s the equivalent of dipping your bread in ice cream base and frying it. You don’t even need syrup, it’s that good on its own. I would drink Creme Anglaise out of a glass if it didn’t have so much cream and egg it would harden my arteries in a minute. But as a treat, it’s a great, great breakfast.


  • hearty bread, preferably brioche for its richness and sweetness
  • 750 grams milk (about 3.2 cups)
  • 500 grams heavy cream (about 2.1 cups)
  • a vanilla bean (or a splash of vanilla extract if you don’t have it)
  • 300 grams (1.25 cups) of yolks
  • 250 grams (1 cup) of sugar

This will yield enough for about 6 or 7 pieces of french toast. if you have any leftover, drizzle it on your ice cream!


Put your milk, your cream, and your vanilla into a large pot and bring it to a scald. (A scald is just before the milk boils, when steam rises off of it and it is hot.)

Just before it gets there, whisk together your yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Don’t do this too early! Wait until the milk is just about at a scald.

Take a ladle and pour some of the hot cream into the egg/sugar mixture, whisking while you do so. It takes both hands and a bit of concentration, but this is an important step, proofing the eggs. This will make the eggs resilient to the hot temps the milk will rise to, and prevent them from curdling and scrambling.

When you’ve got that step down, pour the proofed eggs into the milk (which is still heating). Stir constantly on low heat with a high-heat silicone spatula. It will take a few minutes, but eventually your mixture will thicken enough to coat the back of your spatula like this:

That’s how you’ll know it’s done. Pour immediately into a bowl and put in your refrigerator for about 15 minutes to stop the cooking process.

Take it out, strain it through a thin mesh sieve, and you’ve got Creme Anglaise. Taste that stuff. It’s heaven, right? And SO simple.

Next, take some slices of brioche and dip them in the cooled Creme Anglaise. Remove excess, as it will just come off in the pan.

Take a pat of butter and heat it in a skillet. Fry your French toast as you normally would. This will come out a bit softer, but you still want the fried brown crust as much as you can get it.


Souffles get a bad rap. They’re supposed to be finicky and difficult, when really basic pastry skills make them pretty simple. I’m going to give you two variations here, a mushroom-asparagus one and a crab one if you’re feeling very fancy. If you serve the Creme Anglaise French toast with this, you will have a problem: people will want you to make them brunch ALL THE TIME. This recipe will make about 4 1/2 cup servings.


  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter (as with all pastry, it’s best to use unsalted and add salt yourself)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup whole milk or cream
  • 2 eggs separated into yolk and white
  • 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup of sauteed mushrooms and asparagus
  • 1/2 cup ramekins


  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter (as with all pastry, it’s best to use unsalted and add salt yourself)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup whole milk or cream
  • 2 eggs separated into yolk and white
  • 1/4 cup of cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup of canned or fresh crab meat
  • 1/2 cup ramekins


The process is the same for either, though the ingredients are slightly different.

Take your butter and melt it in a pan. Add the flour to make a roux. When the roux is slightly browned (about 2 minutes), add your milk and cream and stir until thick. Then add your scrambled yolks and spices, stirring constantly to avoid curdling. Last, add your cheese (cheddar or cream cheese) to this mixture. You should have a thick, smooth, cheesy mixture at this point. Lastly add your mushrooms and asparagus or your crab to it.

While you let this mixture cool to room temp, you’ll take your ramekins and butter them and put the Parm around them evenly.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Then, take your egg whites and whip them to stiff peaks. (You will know they are there when you can lift your whisk and they make a solid, not-droopy point at the end of it.)

Gently fold half of the egg whites into the cheese mixture. Then fold the other half. Take the combined souffle base and put it into your ramekins. Put them in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the souffles are fluffy and browned on top. Eat immediately, as they fall quickly.

This is my favorite brunch combo ever. You can add literally any cheese or extra fillings to the souffle, depending on your taste. Bacon! Goat cheese! Leeks! Whatever you like! Have fun, and now that you know how easy this is, you’re your friend circle’s brunch go-to. Don’t forget the mimosas!

Fried Rice: Breakfast of Champions

I’ve found over the years that Americans have an incredibly limited palate for breakfast foods. They tend to be sweet, heavy, and carb-forward. While there is nothing wrong with those things (I’m not here to yuck your yum!), I spent a lot of the earlier parts of my life skipping The Most Important Meal of the Day™ because none of those things interested me.

In the past decade, I’ve started researching more about what folks eat for breakfast around the world, and the idea of what could be considered a “breakfast food item” exploded for me. Soup for breakfast? Oh yeah! Congee? A staple! Kimchi? You better believe it!

In regards to what makes something a breakfast food, my basic belief is that if a meal has an egg in it, it can be served for breakfast. (I’ve discussed my love of pesto and rice with a fried egg before.) So about a year ago, fried rice started becoming a breakfast staple in my home. Not only is it delicious, it’s a great way to use up the leftovers and tiny bits of items you have hanging around in your fridge.

The Ingredients

The main things that you will need are:

  • Rice
  • Egg
  • Green onions
  • Oil

For the rice, it MUST BE AT LEAST A DAY OLD. This I cannot overstate this. In order for the rice grains to properly separate for fried rice, the rice must have begun to dry out a little in the refrigerator. Two-day old rice is ideal.

The egg will help to bind the rice as well as give the dish a more savory, unctuous flavor.

Green onions can be replaced with chives, green garlic, or garlic scapes. Don’t try to use white or red onions for this part of the process.

For the oil, I prefer vegetable oil, however, many folks will sub in sesame oil at this point in the process. Because this is a high-temperature dish, I tend to be wary of this because sesame oil has a lower smoke point.

You can also add any other items to this as well. (The above picture includes baby bok choy, Thai chiles, cilantro, green garlic stem, king oyster mushroom, and leftover fried tofu.)

The Process

The process for this comes from this video, which utterly changed how I made fried rice. Gao’s process for when and what to season are fundamental for the most flavorful dish.

You’ll start by prepping your ingredients because this dish moves very quickly once it’s started. You’ll want to:

  • Whisk your egg(s)
  • Chop any vegetables
  • Get out your chilled rice
  • Have a plate ready to move cooked egg on to
  • Heat your wok (or pan) to High-Medium

Once you’re done with your mise en place, add oil to your wok. Heat until it is just about to start smoking then add your egg and a pinch of salt. Heat until it’s about 2/3 of the cooked. You can move it around a little, but the egg should be partially runny uncooked. This uncooked part will help the rice stick together.

Remove the egg onto the plate. Add more oil to the wok.

Here you will add your scallions and whatever other items you’re planning on including. To this, you’ll want to add your salt. Since your rice is likely unsalted, this is the moment where you’re going to make the flavor in your dish pop. Add just a little more than you think you need depending on how many servings you are making.

I also add a sprinkle of MSG at this point too, because MSG is my secret ingredient in everything.

Saute all of the items until warmed through. Then add the rice, and break apart so that all of the rice is back into individual grains. (Note the picture above is when I’ve just first added the rice.

Now add the egg back to your dish so that it finishes cooking through. Keep working it with a spatula to keep the rice grains from sticking together too much.

When warmed through, remove the fried rice from the heat.

The Toppings

There are so many things that you can top your fried rice with, it’s hard to know where to begin. You’ll want to think about flavor and texture and, obviously, what you have in the house. But here are a few suggestions:


  • Green onion tops
  • Cilantro
  • Thai basil


  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil (or similarly perilla oil or hot sesame oil)
  • Fish sauce
  • Chile crisp
  • Vinegar (esp. white cane vinegar)


  • Fried shallots
  • Fried garlic
  • Roasted seaweed
  • Fried SPAM

Add as much or as little as you like for your palate. Try out new combos. Use it as an excuse to break out of your breakfast comfort zone and embrace the umami.

Now that you know more about the process, cozy up tonight to Season 1, Episode 7 of David Chang’s Ugly Delicious on Netflix. This is one of the best episodes of food television out there, debunking a lot racist myths that go along with Chinese food in America. (Bonus: They go to one of my favorite Knoxville restaurants, Asia Kitchen!)

Also check out some excellent fried rice recipes from Maangchi, Peachy Adarne, and Ming Tsai!

Building Your Kitchen Part 2

Earlier in the week, Erin told you about her essential kitchen tools. As someone who works primarily in pastry, mine are a little different. Pastry is precise and finnicky, and it requires a set of tools that make that precision easier.

First, any good pastry cook will tell you how essential a Kitchenaide mixer is. They also cost several hundred dollars, so I don’t own one of those! I use a hand mixer, which is not the wonder that a Kitchenaide is, but it does work!

Also, like any good chef, a pastry cook needs a set of knives and a sharpening block. I would happily show you a picture of what I use, but all my knives are in my bag at my currently closed kitchen! That said, I’ve found the most useful kit for me includes a 6″ cook’s kinfe, a paring knife with a snap-on case that I can carry in my chef’s coat, a bigger butcher-type knife that I rarely use, and a bread knife with a serrated edge. I get my knives from Wusthof. The one I use the most is the 6″ pictured below, because, let’s face it, you don’t need a butcher’s knife to cut apples. It runs about $120 and is worth every penny. I use this knife more than I can tell you for pastry.

My second most-used tool in the kitchen is a high-heat silicone rubber spatula. If you have not bought one (or a dozen!) of these for your kitchen, you don’t know what you’re missing. It is great for pastry because it’s perfect for folding batters and meringues and mousse, but if you cook ANYTHING that’s saucy, you just don’t know how much you’re leaving behind in the pan until you use one of these to scrape it. Below is me looking slightly maniacal with my spautla, in my favorite Cleveland pride shirt from Snakes + Acey’s Print Shop.

Next up, you’ve got a tool that every pastry cook needs. For savory cooking, measuring is often done by site and taste — a dash of this, a splash of that. Not so in pastry cooking! That’s why having an electronic scale that measures in different units (grams, ounces, pounds, etc) is essential!

Just as essential as the scale for pastry cooking is a good, high-heat thermometer. Why? Because for pastry, there are temps that you have to get things to precisely. Sure, with enough experience you can make a creme anglaise right from sight, or know exactly when your sugar has reduced and heated enough to make a perfect Italian meringue just by the look of the bubbles, or even know when your sugar gets to a soft-ball stage for caramel and candy making. But it takes practice to get there, and you’re going to have to measure your temps again and again for precision. And being off by as much as a few degrees for pastry work can ruin your whole dessert.

A good pastry cutter has been another essential for me. It makes making anything that requires cold butter so much easier than messing around with forks or using your hands. That includes pie crusts, biscuits, scones, and more!

Ring molds are another tool I’ve used again and again. They’re great for cutting biscuits, cutting fancy desserts (think a sheet of mousse cut into circles and served with ice cream!), or molding savory things like tartate or even quinoa into a more pleasing presentation.

I never knew how much I needed a silicone baking mat until my best friend bought me one for Christmas a few years ago. If you don’t have a ton of counter space, like me, or if your work space is hard-to-clean, a baking mat makes life so much simpler. It’s easy to clean, easy to roll out dough on on, AND it’s got measurements right there on it for pie crusts and anything you might need to cut into specific measurments. A life-saver!

Lastly, I’ll recommend something I’m just beginning to get into using myself. A few years ago, when I moved to Ohio, I made the delightful mistake of telling my then-8-year-old niece I’d make her any cupcake design she wanted for her school birthday party. We’ve had so much fun designing off-the-wall cupcakes for her over the last few years, and because of it, I’m getting into cake decorating. Pastry tips with reusable bags have been essential to this! Below are one of the cupcake sets we made with them, zombies and bloody brains!

That’s it. And I’m going to leave you with a picture of me working in the kitchen, looking like Al Pacino in Frankie and Johnny. I used to wear chef coats and hats back when I was in Michelin starred restaurants in New York, but heck, I’m in Cleveland now!

Building Your Kitchen

I get asked a lot what kitchen tools I can’t live without. This is hard, because I love a kitchen gadget. To the point where there isn’t much I don’t have. Sous vide? Check! Himalayan salt block? Check! Yakatori grill? I think I have two?

But when you’re starting out, there are definitely things that I think every home cook should buy and buy well.

One Good Knife – $$$

Don’t skimp on this. Save the money. You’re going to spend at least $60. Maybe twice as much. But you only need one. No need for knife blocks or sets or whatever. Just get one good santoku or chef’s knife, and you’re good to go.

Because I have small hands, I tend towards the Shun knives. Their handles run a little smaller than the German brands, and I like the weight and balance.

My partner prefers Wüsthoff, which have a little bit of a thicker blade and heavier weight. Honestly, this is all preference, and if you can, try some out before you buy. Many stores will let you hold the knives or ask a friend to use theirs whenever we see friends again.

Food Processor – $$$

It’s a rare week for me to not use my food processor 2-3 times. Whether I’m making hummus or pesto or blending ingredients for a soup, a good food processor is a must.

This is a place where I think a lot of people try to skimp and get a small chopper or an off-brand lower-powered variation. You really need something that can handle raw beets or almonds, etc.

An 8-cup processor is fine. (If you have to do something in two batches, so be it.) Look to spend about $100 on this. I recommend the Cuisinart, which was a workhorse in my kitchen for 14 years before we upgraded this summer.

One Good Skillet – $$$

When I travel and stay at Air BnBs, I always travel with a knife and a skillet. (Because I’m a food nerd. I know.) For me, there is nothing that beats enamel cast iron. Yes the pan weighs a ton, but every study has shown that in terms of ease of use, consistency of cook, and quality of sear, a Staub or Le Creuset pan is going to be your best bet. (Lodge does a decent one as well, but they are more likely to have their enamel chip over time.)

This is not a cheap purchase, so watch for sales and try to be open to different colors. You can occasionally find one right at or around $100 if you’re keeping your eyes peeled. Remember, this is a one-time purchase. There is nothing that will damage this bad boy. (Mine has been to Poland and back!)

Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls – $$

Whether you’re making a salad or a cake, you are going to want some nice stainless steel mixing bowls. Like the skillet, these are a thing that you will have to buy once and then never again. Get a few in each size, making sure they are the same brand so they stack nicely. I’m fond of the Vollrath heavy duty bowls, which my partner surprised me with earlier this spring. They’re attractive and affordable.

So many bowls. So much mixing.

Garlic Press – $$

This is always a controversial pick. Sure you can chop your own garlic, but if you’re like me and quadrupling the amount of garlic you put in every recipe, that can get tedious. Plus I prefer pressed garlic in salad dressings, which I make almost every day.

Like I’ve mentioned before, it doesn’t hurt to buy a slightly more expensive version because it’ll work better and last way longer. For example, I’ve had a Zyliss garlic press for the past 15 years, and it’s the only one I’ve needed.

Cutting Board – $

The one exception I make to buying the fancier version is cutting boards. The most expensive they are, the stupider they become with design features that make no sense real sense in the kitchen. However, don’t buy any that are less than .3″ thick. You need some mass, weight, and grip to keep it from moving on the counter.

My standard is the thick, hard plastic cutting board you can pick up at Walmart. (In fact, this is my work horse.) The reason that I lean towards plastic over wood is two-fold: 1.) it can go in the dishwasher and 2.) you can cut meat on it. (Because of the porous nature of wooden cutting boards, juices from raw meats can stay in the wood grain, which can spread disease.)

Wooden Spoons – $

Plastic cooking implements are tools of the devil. Whenever possible, use wooden spoons, which won’t damage your cookware like metal will and won’t melt when accidentally left on a stove (like I have more times than I can count). There are places where you can spend $$$ on wooden spoons, but truly any will do. Buy a 3-pack, and call it a day.

Resist the urge to buy the super cheap versions from Walmart or elsewhere. You’ll end up replacing it three times, and it will ultimately cost most.

Juicer – $

Whether you’re making cocktails or juicing limes for a pozole, you’re going to want a simple, hand-held juicer. These you can pick up in the grocery store, often right by the citrus. Don’t get a reamer. Don’t spend $200 on a Vitamix unless you’re eating all your meals from a cup. Just a simple citrus squeezer.

You know I love all things Oxo, so I would recommend making the investment for this one, though I’ve bought plenty of $5 versions that have lasted for years.

What are the kitchen tools you can’t live without?

Do The Mashed Part Two: Pinch Some Pierogi

Sweet Potato/Ricotta Pierogi with Sweetened Beurre Blanc

Hope your apocalypse is going as well as possible, still, and that these recipes are helping comfort you in some small way! This week, we’re building off of Erin’s recipe for the ultimate comfort food, mashed potatoes, to give you an Eastern European classic that’s just as delightful and comforting. Pierogi!

When I was a young, half-Polish, half-Italian kid growing up in Northern Appalachia, the gold standard for pierogi was the cheddar/potato variety that little old ladies made in the Catholic church basements and froze all year until the annual church bazaar, when they absolutely drowned them in butter to everyone’s great delight. This take is a little different than that, with a heightened flavor profile, but not less butter, I promise. This recipe is a sweet potato/homemade ricotta stuffed periogi with a sweetened beurre blanc to top it off. This is a 4 part recipe, or 3 part if you decide you’d rather one of Erin’s many beautiful incarnations of mashed potatoes in it! But below is the way I made it, and I ate every last bite and wished there was more.


This step is simple, just a few ingredients. I recommend you do it first so you can let the dough rest a little while in your refrigerator, covered, while you do the other steps. You’ll need:

2 eggs

1/2 tsp salt

1/3 cups of water

2 Tbsp of full fat sour cream

2.5 cups of AP flour

Whisk the first four ingredients together, then gradually work in the cups of flour. Because of the sour cream and eggs, you’ll have a smooth, high-fat, elastic dough. This will make it soft and give it a great mouth-feel when you’ve got the finished product.


You’ll find our homemade ricotta recipe here! Before you get intimidated by making your own cheese, I want to remind you that it’s SO SO SO SIMPLE, just a few steps for a fresh homemade ricotta, and once you see how easy and tasty it is, you’ll never go back to store-bought! If there is one thing I hope to impress on folks learning to cooks it’s that homemade, down to the smallest ingredient, is always better!


You can very easily use one of Erin’s mashed recipes here! But for my recipe, I took the following and mashed them together:

1/2 cup of homemade ricotta

1 large sweet potato, roasted until the skin peels easily and the meat is soft

2 Tbsp parmesan cheese

a dash of salt and pepper


First, you will take you relaxed dough from the refrigerator, and roll it out out as thin as you can without compromising its ability to hold in the filling. Then, you’ll take either a set of ring molds if you’re fancy, or a decent sized coffee cup or water glass and a knife, and cut circles 3 to 4 inches in diameter out of your dough.

Next, you’ll take a tablespoon, and put enough filling in the middle that you can pinch the ends shut, likeso:

Lastly, you’re going to drop them into boiling water until they float and are heated through.


There are a lot of great ways to go about making sauce for peirogi (one, as I mentioned, is just drowning the suckers in butter! and onions!). But for this recipe, I decided to try beurre blanc. Beurre blanc is a french sauce that’s butter and white wine and delightfulness, and it’s traditionally used on fish, so it can lean towards the acidic, while deliciously creamy. I swear to god, I am going to admit something shameful – I am a New American style pastry cook for the most part, and I’d never heard of this sauce until I watched Julie and Julia and was won over by Julia Child’s love of it. So I decided I was not going to try to reinvent the wheel with it, but use this recipe from the wonderful site Epicurious. However, I added two tablespoons of honey to it to give it a slightly sweeter flavor profile, and combined with the ricotta and sweet potatoes, that came out an utter delight. I want to encourage you to use your common sense with cooking — too sweet? Add some acid like lemon or vinegar. Too acidic? Try honey or sugar. Too bland? Salt or soy sauce. Because your taste buds are experts at what you like. Always feel free to improvise!

That’s it! Enjoy! My Polish grandma may be horrified by this Polish/French fusion, but I think you’ll love it!

Do the Mashed Potato

Mashed potatoes are not only the perfect comfort food but an excellent building block for numerous dishes–shepherd’s pie, pierogies, colcannon, etc. They are deeply mutable to deal with the items you have in your house, and you can fry any leftovers up for mashed potatoes fritters the next day. Versatile. Cheap. Possibility for experimentation? It’s my brand!

The Potato

Obviously all things start with the potato. You do not have to get fancy here. A cheap bag of Russets from Aldi will be fine. But truly this recipe can be done the same way with Yukon Golds, new potatoes, farmer’s market Kennebecs, even sweet potatoes. And why stop with the potato? There are plenty of other root vegetables that can be given the same treatment–turnips, rutabaga, kohlrabi, celeriac, so on and so on.

You can also mix and match. I personally like to toss in a potato or two when I’m mashing other root vegetables just to mellow the flavor a bit, but this is an opportunity for you to experiment.

To Peel or Not to Peel

Sometimes with peeling choice, you are given no option. If you’re working with sweet potatoes or root vegetables that aren’t potatoes, you’ll want to peel since the skin can be tough and chewy. Or, if you’re like me this week, your potatoes are starting to get a wee bit wrinkly. Off goes the skin! (A quick reminder to not put your peelings into the garbage disposal! It can gum it up with added starch.)

However, if you’re using a thinner-skinned potatoes, the skin adds a nice textural difference that people really like. At this point, the choice to peel is entirely up to you.

After you’ve made your decision, chop your products into similarly-sized pieces, so they will cook evenly.

Chef Tip: If you’re using a potato and a harder root vegetable, chop the latter a bit smaller so they’ll cook at the same rate.

Russet potatoes, Hakurei turnips from the farmers’ market, half and half, unfiltered Italian olive oil, and tools of the mashing trade.

The Boil

When you’re boiling your potatoes, make sure to add salt (and maybe some bay leaf?) to your water. A generous sprinkle will do; it’s doesn’t need to “taste of the sea” the same way that pasta water should.

If want to be extra fancy, make your boiling liquid half water and half milk.

When the biggest piece is fork tender (i.e. it flakes apart when pierced with a fork), drain the potatoes.

The Mash

Riced potatoes before adding liquid.

There are a lot of methods here that can potentially be used for a mashed potato. The most common is a traditional kitchen masher. (I recommend the Oxo Good Grips potato masher.) This is the best all-purpose tool and will work with any type of mash you want to make.

However, I fell in love with my multi-purpose ricer that my partner got for me a few years back. It presses the potatoes through different-sized grates to make a smoother mash overall. (It also makes spaetzle!) The downside of this, though, is that you cannot use the ricer on harder root vegetables unless you boil them to near death. Also, you MUST peel your potatoes if you’re going to use this method, so no rustic, skin-on mashed taters here.

The Mix

If you’re mashing your potatoes, you can start this process during the mash, but with a ricer, you’ll want to rice all of the potatoes first before adding anything.

At this point, there are many ways to go to flavor a mashed potato. Your potatoes (unless you boiled them with milk) are vegan, so you’ve got a blank canvas to work with depending on your tastes, your family’s food restrictions, of what’s in your refrigerator at the moment.

Riced potatoes and Hakurei turnips with butter and half and half.

You’ll need:

  • Liquid
    • Milk is the most common, though certainly you can use cream or half and half. I tend towards the latter.
    • Non-dairy milk can also be used. I recommend whatever you have that is the least sweet. Soy milk is a good option here.
    • Stock can be used alongside either type of milk to add a little meaty (or mushroomy) richness
    • Alternatively, if you are lacking all of the above, you can boil your potatoes longer and use a bit more of your fat of choice.
  • Fat
    • Butter is obviously the most beloved iteration. There’s nothing better than a pile of mashed potatoes with a melting pat on the top.
    • OR IS THERE? I personally prefer olive oil to butter in my mashed potatoes. Using a GOOD (this is the key) extra virgin olive oil brings out a complexity to the potatoes and the peppery notes of the oil.
    • Or mix and match! Often I’ll use butter with the potatoes and top with olive oil at the end.
  • Spice
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • Roasted garlic is delicious in a mashed potato. Chopped garlic is also fine, but note that raw garlic is going to be a lot spicier than the former.
    • Herbs of your choosing, ideally fresh and chopped. Everyone loves a potato and chive.
    • You can also mix in greens here to add beautiful color to your mashed potatoes as well as textual and flavor differences. If you’re using a heartier green, make sure to blanch it first.

Add your fat and spice and then slowly add your liquid. Keep mashing as you go. Differences in the types of potato/root vegetable mixture, cook time, mash type, and peeling will change how much liquid you need. No need to follow a recipe. Keep adding slowly. Then mash or stir again, and taste. When the flavor and the consistency is as desired, it’s time to eat!

Top with additional fat of choice and any chopped fresh herbs you like. Eat when it’s piping hot and the fat of choice is wafting up towards your now-very-hungry face.

To gravy or not to gravy is another question for another day.