Cooking Basics

Whether you’re a novice beginning your exploration into the culinary world or a well-seasoned cook, you’ll find many useful cooking tips in this section.

What’s the difference between pastured, grass fed meats and grain fed? How do you prepare an artichoke? Our chef in residence, Andrew Cohen, shares his wealth of knowledge from his years as a professional chef and restaurant owner and teaches “cooking basics” in a way that even a beginner cook will understand.

I Yam What I Yam

Have you ever wondered about what the difference is between sweet potatoes and yams? Sweet potatoes are also called ‘yams’ — however these tuberous root vegetables are actually from two very different plants. Sweet potatoes are related to morning glories and true yams are related to palms and grasses. When you buy a ‘yam’ at the supermarket, you are really buying a sweet potato. True yams are imported, starchy and dry in texture, and not grown in the U.S. And guess what — sweet potatoes are not related to potatoes! Confusing — yes. But the term ‘yam’ has stuck for sweet potatoes sold in the U.S. and it is used interchangeably.

North Carolina is the largest U.S. producer of yams followed closely by California. Sweet potato varieties are classified as either ‘firm’ or ‘soft.’ Firm sweet potatoes are golden skinned with a pale interior and remain firm and slightly waxy when cooked. It is the ‘soft’ orange-fleshed varieties with purple or coppery skins that are often labeled as yams in the United States.

Also, keep this in mind — if you are making a Caribbean or Indian dish and the recipe calls for yams, be sure to visit an ethnic market for that ingredient. (Here’s a photo of what true yams look like.) Substituting American ‘yams’ or sweet potatoes may not work. A true yam has a rough, scaly, brown exterior and a creamy color flesh. Its flesh is also much firmer, even after cooking. You might be able to get away with using the firm, golden skinned sweet potato — but most likely the fluffy soft texture of the orange-fleshed sweet potato we call a ‘yam’ in the U.S. will not work.

Although generallly available year round, peak season for sweet potatoes is from October through December.

Not only delicious, one sweet potato packs twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, with loads of vitamin C, calcium, fiber, along with a healthy dose of vitamins B and B6, and only 141 nutrient-dense calories.

Store sweet potatoes in a cool dry place for up to four weeks.

RECIPES: Sweet Potato Soup with Maple CroutonsSweet Potato Pecan Pie,  Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Curry, Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges with Yogurt Lime Dip,  Curried Sweet Potato Latkes





How to Prep Artichokes


  • While big artichokes are great to eat and easy to prepare, don’t overlook the tiny ones that can be used in so many ways. The smaller the better! (They are easier to trim, too.)
  • When selecting artichokes, they should be compact without any of the bracts (leaves) spreading widely. The leaves at the center should be tight against one another.
  • Bracts should be plump, never withered or shriveled.
  • Check the stem of the artichoke. It should be full and firm, without any sponginess to it. The cut should look fresh and clean.
  • Carefully, and I do mean carefully, squeeze the artichoke in your hand. It should squeak. This is a sign of freshness. No squeak? Not so fresh.
  • Artichokes discolor rapidly upon cutting. To prevent oxidation, rub the cut with lemon juice, or submerge the artichokes in acidulated water. Your knife will discolor as well, especially if it is carbon steel. Wash the knife right away (use Comet and a cork to scrub carbon steel blades) after finishing with the artichokes. If you use the knife unwashed on other things the bitter flavor of the raw artichoke will transfer to whatever you are cutting.
  • Raw artichokes will leave a bitterness on your hands that easily transfers, and can remain on your hands a long time. Wash your hands well with plenty of soap and water after handling artichokes.
  • Stems are frequently edible. Peel the stem with a knife and then cut off a little piece of it to taste. If it is not bitter it will taste just like the heart, of which it is an extension.
  • Artichokes require trimming, and lots of it. Do not skimp or you can wind up with bitter, tough, poorly-cooked artichokes. Not only that, if you miss the thorns on the bract tips, it hurts!
  • NEVER skimp on scraping out the choke. Check to make sure you removed all of it. They are really unpleasant and the effects of eating some can last days. I say this from experience, which is why you will never catch me eating fried artichokes at roadside stands.
  • Speaking of trimming, this is one of the few times I recommend a cheap serrated knife. Use it for trimming the bottom two-thirds off the large artichokes. Kitchen shears work also. If you use a kitchen knife, use one that has a thick firm blade that is sharp, and that you will soon be getting sharpened again. A short sharp paring knife is good for the rest of the work.
  • Artichokes contain cynarin. This compound is bitter, and has the unique characteristic of making the foods you eat after the artichoke taste sweet. This tends to mess with the taste of the wine that accompanies dinner. Many people say avoid wine altogether, but the consensus is to drink a high acid wine such as a Chenin Blanc or brut sparkler with artichokes.
  • When boiling artichokes, if the meal will have wine with it, I use wine in the liquid to bridge the wine-artichoke gap. I also cover the artichokes with a cloth to keep them in the liquid, or use a smaller pot lid to keep them submerged.
  • If after trimming big artichokes for stuffing or hearts, you have lots of meaty leaves left, steam them until just done and then cool them. You can eat them as is or scrape them with a spoon to get the meat off to use as a ravioli stuffing or mix into cream for a pasta sauce.

RECIPES: Oyster and Artichoke Soup, Braised Baby Artichokes Tuscan Style, Baby Artichoke Olive Salad, Artichoke Sourdough Bisque, Easy Baked Artichokes



Cooking Basics for Dried Beans

Dried beans are part of every well-stocked pantry. Here are some basic cooking tips:

  • If you buy fresh dried beans (beans under two years old), no soaking is needed prior to cooking.
  • Soaking beans overnight will speed up the cooking time. No need to change the water — the soaking water now contains vitamins and flavor — don’t throw it out.
  • One cup of dried beans makes about three cups of cooked beans. 1 lb. of beans yields 6 cups of beans.
  • Do not add salt to the beans until after they are cooked to prevent the skins from splitting.
  • Store dry beans in a cool place in a glass jar with a lid or other airtight container. They will be good for about two years. Older beans are still edible, but the quality and nutritional value decline.

How to Cook Pasture Raised Meats

Grilled BBQ T-Bone Steak

When it comes to cooking pastured or grass-fed meats, remember that these meats are leaner than the usual grocery store grain-fed meats, so you need to cook them a little differently.

For grilling steaks, keep the degree of doneness to medium at the most, although I recommend medium-rare. Use a lower heat and check it sooner than you think you should until you get used to cooking pastured meats.

Dry Aged Meat
With dry aged meat, not only is it lean, it also has a lower moisture content, so low heat is a must that the meat does not dry out. If you are grilling, use a lower direct flame to mark the steaks and get a bit of char on the outside, then move the meat off the fire to the side of the grill and finish with indirect heat.

If cooking on the stovetop, sear the meat in the pan, and then once you have turned the meat and seared both sides, move the meat to the oven to finish at a temperature around 325°F.

For braises, cook the meat gently. Sear the meat for flavor, then add the liquid. Bring to a boil, skimming off impurities that form on the surface. Lower the heat to a bare simmer, or better yet, place in the oven and finish cooking there at a low heat, about 300°F. For roasting these meats, use a gentler heat, and marinating can be a good idea.

While learning how to cook pastured meat, keep the seasoning fairly simple until you are more familiar with the characteristics of this meat as it cooks, and to also to get a better grasp of the meat flavor. Grass fed meat has little more chew to it, and the flavor, which can be hard to describe, really is “beefier.” The lamb I have had has a fine lamb flavor without the tallow-like funk you find in older, fattier lamb.

Goat tends to have a higher bone to meat ratio it seems, so be prepared. That said, the flavor is wonderful – sort of like lamb, without the gamey quality you can get as a result of the fat, and with a deeper flavor. Be sure not to overcook the goat or it will be quite tough. Remember – you can always throw it back on the heat, but once it is overcooked, nothing will help! Keep in mind that only certain goats give this mellow flavored meat, so be careful where you shop if you are not getting your goat at the farmers markets. Old Creek Ranch carries excellent goat rib chops.

Grass-Fed Meats Superior to Commercially Produced Meat in Every Way
When looking at statistics, it is apparent that meat from grass-fed animals is nutritionally superior to meat from grain-fed animals. In some instances, the differences are astounding:

  • Grass-fed beef is lower in fat and calories, overall. Switching to grass-fed beef can help lose weight.
  • A six-ounce serving of pastured beef has 100 calories less than grain fed beef.
  • Contains significantly higher levels of vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega 3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are the “good fats” that are essential to good health that the body can not manufacture. Omega-3s are necessary for good cardio health, heart rhythm, and blood pressure, fight depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. They also aid in recovery from surgery.
  • CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids), a family of nutrients that have been shown to be anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant. CLAs also are supposed to decrease risk for heart attack and decrease inflammation as well, and there are studies that suggest CLAs have other positive health benefits too.
  • On the whole, grass-fed ruminants (such as beef and sheep) have 300 to 500% more CLAs than grain fed animals. By the way, synthetic CLA supplements don’t have the same efficacy that those consumed naturally do.
  • Did you know cattle use 70% of the antibiotics used in the USA? Antibiotics are necessary for cattle in feedlots to protect them from diseases they get resulting from eating grains, poor manure management, and from being stressed out from living in feedlots. Antibiotics are rarely, if ever, used with grass-fed animals.
  • The benefits of pastured animals in the diet also apply to eggs and milk products. Cheeses and eggs from these animals contain many of the benefits mentioned above, and are lower in cholesterol and saturated fats.

How to Roast Peppers


What you will need:

Peppers (however many you are roasting)
Some olive or grapeseed oil
A heat source such as a grill, broiler, open burner, or propane torch
A large heat resistant bowl (one large enough to contain your peppers), or a sturdy paper sack
A lid for the above bowl or plastic wrap to cover

  • Rub peppers with a little oil — use just enough to give them a sheen. This helps with even blistering of the skin.
  • Subject the peppers to your heat source. You can just throw them on the grill, or use a long fork to hold them over a burner. I use long tongs for this, or when I use my propane torch on them. Put them under the broiler in a walled non-reactive metal pan.
  • The peppers will begin to blacken and blister, and even make popping noises. These sounds are normal, don’t fret. As the peppers blister and color be sure to turn them to prevent burning.
  • Turn them until they are cooked and blistered all over, and place in a bowl and cover them. If you are using a paper sack, check it periodically for wet spots and leaks, especially if doing a large volume. Covering the peppers after searing them allows them to steam. This loosens the skins making them easier to peel.
  • When they are cool enough to handle, pull a pepper from the bowl and peel. If spicy, you might want to use gloves. Use your fingers and a sharp paring knife. Pull away what you can with fingers and then use the knife tip to flick or cut away the rest. If needed, just pare away skin with the edge of the blade.
  • Sometimes the skin is resistant to easy peeling. In this case, cut around the stem and slit down the side of the pepper. Save the juices. Open up the pepper; use the knife to scrape out the seeds and the ribs. Flip the pepper and then use the knife to scrape away the remaining skin.

At this point, the peppers are ready to use. Stored in a plastic tub in the refrigerator they should keep well for 4 days or so.

A light blistering will leave the flesh of the pepper more solid, longer roasting will cook them. How long to cook the peppers will depend on how you plan to use the peppers.

Basic Crêpes

The process of cooking pancakes on a hot skillet

Don’t be intimidated about making crêpes — they are as easy as making pancakes! Be sure to watch the Joy of Baking crêpe video first. Crêpes can be filled with sweet or savory fillings — the possibilities are almost endless.


1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar*
2 large eggs (room temperature)
1 1/4 cup milk (room temperature)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract*
2 tablespoons melted butter, cooled to room temperature


Place all the ingredients in your blender or food processor and process for about 15-30 seconds or until batter is smooth.

Pour batter through a strainer to remove any lumps. (The batter should have the consistency of light cream.) Cover and let sit at room temperature about 15-30 minutes. Or place in the refrigerator to chill for one hour, or up to two days. After chilling the batter, if it’s become too thick, thin it out with a little milk or water.

Heat a 9-inch non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan over medium heat until a few sprinkles of water dropped on the pan sizzle. Adjust the temperature as needed. Lightly butter the pan. Lift the pan from the heat and, using a small ladle, pour about 3-4 tablespoons of the batter into the center of the hot pan. Tilt and swirl the pan so the batter forms an even layer (does not have to be a perfect circle). Cook just until the edges of the crêpe begin to curl and the top looks almost dry, about 1-2 minutes. (The bottom of the crêpe will have a golden brown lacy pattern.) Flip the crêpe and continue to cook for about 15-30 seconds or until you have brown spots over the surface. Remove from heat and place on a plate or wire rack.

* If you’re making savory crêpes, omit the sugar and vanilla extract. Instead, add some chopped herbs, if desired.  

SOURCE: Joy of Baking

How to Cook Asparagus

When selecting asparagus, check the bottom of the bunch to see that the cuts are fresh and wet looking, not dried out and shriveling. The tops should look fresh and not decayed or falling apart, and of course, the stalks themselves should look full and smooth.

You will hear some folks say they think the thicker spears are older and less tender, or prone to be tough, but after a conversation with Fred Minazzoli (who brings asparagus, among other things, to market) I found out the truth. For the first three years, all the spears from an asparagus plant will be thin. After that, the same plant may produce both thick and thin spears. After a lot of taste trials, I can say that the thicker ones tend to be more succulent, and can be cooked in many ways. The thinner spears tend to want a moist cooking method to keep them tender.

Basic Steaming Method
When preparing asparagus, simply snap the stalk and it will break where the skin turns tender. When the spears are thick, peel them by laying them flat on a board and using a sharp swivel peeler to remove the tougher skin. Cut off the bottom part where it is tough.

For cooking pencil thin to “normal” size (~3/8 inch) spears, snap them and lay them in a 10 inch sauté pan. Add enough cold water to come just below the top of the spears, and put a tight fitting lid on the pan. Put the pan over high heat and bring the water to a boil. Once the water is at a full boil, pour out the water, re-cover the pan, and allow the asparagus to steam for three minutes. The asparagus are perfect at this point for serving hot.

If you are going to use them in a cold preparation, submerge the spears in an ice bath after 2 1/2 minutes of cooking. If you are going to add the asparagus to another dish such as risotto or pasta, blanch the asparagus briefly, about 1 1/2 minutes, then cool or use immediately in the dish. It’s best to cut the asparagus to the size required for the dish before cooking, as it is much easier to cut raw asparagus. If the asparagus is cooked and soft, you risk mashing the spears.

Basic Roast Method
The fat spears are my favorite and are delicious roasted. Peel the bottom of the spears, and then you can decide to leave them whole or cut them on the bias into 2-inch pieces. Either way, drizzle spears or pieces with a high-quality olive oil to coat them entirely with the oil.

Then, place the asparagus on a heavy sheet pan and spread the asparagus out so there is room between the pieces. If they are too close, they will steam and just get sort of mushy, rather than roast. Sprinkle with some salt and fresh pepper and roast in a preheated 400°F oven for about 15 minutes, or until the asparagus are tender and starting to crisp and caramelize on the outside edges.

A Few More Ideas
I also like to add orange juice to oil and allow the asparagus some time to marinate before roasting. Another favorite trick of mine is to oil the asparagus, then drizzle them with a shot of white truffle oil. Then, as the asparagus come out of the oven, I add a few more drops of the truffle oil while still really hot, and the smell that comes up is amazing.

RECIPES:  Asparagus, Spinach and Green Garlic Strata, Creamy Asparagus Soup, Asparagus and Crab Hollandaise, and Sauté of Thick Asparagus and Oyster Mushrooms

Basic Braise for Beef, Lamb, Goat or Pork


Old Creek Ranch offers 100% grass-fed, pastured raised beef, goat, lamb, and pork meat free of antibiotic or hormones. Meat from grass-fed animals is a rich source of heart-healthy omega-3. In addition, this meat also contains higher levels of beta-carotenes, vitamin E, as well as conjugated linoleic acids or CLA, known as a cancer-fighting fat. Lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories, grass-fed meat has a rich, natural flavor. Because these meats are much leaner than conventionally raised meat, they require a slower method of cooking called braising. Grass fed meats should be cooked carefully, with lower heat and less cooking time.


Meat for braising: bone-in, shank, leg, shoulder, short ribs
4-5 garlic cloves, minced (use more or less, your preference)
1 large onion, cut in half, sliced
1 1/2 cups liquid: beer, stock, or part wine and stock
Salt, pepper and other seasoning – experiment a little!
Assorted vegetables, as desired


Place all ingredients in crock pot or dutch oven with tight fitting lid. Cook meat at 250°F for 4-5 hours. If desired, add carrots, celery (or vegetables of choice) about 1 1/2 hours before serving. Serve over rice, mashed potatoes or polenta.

SOURCE: Recipe courtesy of Old Creek Ranch.

How to Tenderize Abalone

Abalone is a large mollusk that is as delicious as it is tough. If you’re not buying pre-tenderized abalone, you’ll have to do the “tenderizing” yourself.

  1. Start by trimming away the dark, curly edges, which tend to stay tough. Then, slice it into thin 1/4 inch slices.
  2. Place a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper on your cutting board, then place the abalone pieces on it, and top with another piece of plastic wrap or parchment.
  3. Using a wooden mallet or the back of a heavy spoon, gently pound the strips to flatten them slightly. Be careful not to pound too hard — you don’t want to shred or tear the meat. The abalone is now ready to eat or cook.

If you enjoy abalone raw, serve the chilled abalone with a spritz of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, or a bit of soy sauce with a dab of wasabi.