Archive for the ‘Cooking Tips’ category

How to Thicken Soup, Sauces, Gravy and so forth

December 6th, 2013

In the interest of not re-inventing the wheel, I’d like to point out that there are many marvelous websites with directions on how to thicken. The Wikihow sites  are quite instructive (you could learn to cook by following their step by step illustrations) and the comments afterward add even more tips. Do take a look:

 And there are more: how to thicken stew, spaghetti  sauce, etc. And remember this: what is thickened can be thinned. In other words, if your recipe ends up thicker than you wish, add water, milk, cream, or broth to thin it.


Adding Flavor with Marinades

July 17th, 2013


marinade for fishAlmost any fish, fowl, or meat can develop inherent complexity and enriched flavor if you marinade before you cook. This concept works extremely well for us, because we can create flavor without consequence. We marinate until the fish or chicken is softened and the flavor is absorbed, then scrap or wash off the spices. We can go further and cook the fish or chicken  in a Mirepoix or Softrito, adding additional flavor, and then removing the cooked mirepoix from the fish or chicken before serving.

Making  a marinate is as simple as using  an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice, wine or yogurt, and  then flavoring that  with oil and spices.  It’s the acidic ingredient that softens the food and allows it to absorb the flavors.

Maricel Presilla in Gran Cocina Latina: the  food of  Latin American (2012) says that being Cuban she marinates any fish, fowl, or meat the minute she brings them home. For Latin cooks this is the adobo, the first layer. Presilla uses the same one for everything, meat, pork, chicken, fish, turkey, even a whole pig!

Adobo, Maricel Presilla

Crush a blend of seasonings, mostly allspice & garlic (I add fresh or dried herbs such as thyme and basil], in a mortar with a pestle and add the juice of bitter orange for moisture and tang and acidity. When I make her adobo,  I don’t have bitter oranges readily available so I use a regular Florida orange with a good helping of its grated rind and fresh or dried green herbs.  Rub this into whatever you plan to serve.  Put it into a covered nonreactive bowl, or into a plastic sealable bag,  and put into the refrigerator.marinade for fish in plastic bad

Marinating fish will add flavor, but it should be brief. More than 30 minutes of an acidic marinate and the acid will denature the protein and the fish will become mushy. So 30 minutes is enough already! Ah well, unless we talking about a dense fish such as tuna or swordfish, then you can marinate up to 8 hours. Two hours in the refrigerator for chicken is usually enough. 

You’ll marinate and then remove the fish or chicken from the liquid and scrape off any clinging pieces, even rinse briefly under a shower of water. Just to be sure particles don’t adhere. Then sauté, bake, or poach. The flavors will persist!

Here’s a website on marinating:

After the marinade (I usually don’t use the marinade in the cooking process unless it’s boiled first) I cook the chicken or the fish in olive oil with a combination of onions and garlic, first simmered gently in olive oil until softened and then adding other aromatic vegetables such as diced celery and carrots, followed by liquids such as white or red wine or tomatoes  with a bouquet garni added.  This is a mixture I use for everything, soups, stews, etc. We’re going to cook in the mixture and then strain it so that we don’t leave any bits behind to fall into the airway or hide away in the crevices of the throat.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about my combination which is the French mirepoix:  “Similar combinations of vegetables are known as sofrito in Spanish, refogado (braised onions, garlic and tomato) in Portuguese, soffritto (onions, garlic and celery) in Italian, Suppengrün (soup greens) in German and soepgroente in the Netherlands (usually purchased in bundles and consisting of a leek, a carrot and piece of celeriac), holy trinity (onions, celery and bell peppers) in Cajun and Creole cooking, and włoszczyzna in Polish, and typically consists of carrots, parsnips, parsley root, celery root, leeks, cabbage leaves, and sometimes celery and flat-leaf parsley.”

My go-to combination  is the following:

Mirepoix or Softrito

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced onion

1 cup diced celery

½ cup diced carrot

2 cloves of garlic

1 bouquet garni (1/2 bay leaf, 2 sprigs of parsley, ½ teaspoon dried thyme tied in a piece of washed cheese cloth)

Heat the olive oil in a medium sized frying pan. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the onions. Simmer until the onions are translucent (5 minutes); add the celery, carrot, garlic and bouquet garni. Continue simmering for 10 more minutes/

As I said, I use this combination for almost everything I cook: soups, stews, chicken, fish, marinades, so I often double or triple the recipe and then freeze the cooked mirepoix by the tablespoon in an ice cube tray.  When I need them, I pop one or two out of the ice cube tray and simmer it slowly in a tablespoon of olive oil and voila! I have a quick start to a meal.

Firm White Fish*

2 servings

Defrost two fish fillets according to package directions (in a bowl of cold water)

Marinate them 30 minutes in the marinade described above

Remove from marinate and rinse gently under cold water; pat dry

Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to medium size frying pan

Add Mirepoix above, simmering if frozen until melted and heated through

Add fish. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes on one side (simmer means that you can barely see little bubbles plopping up.)

Turn fish; simmer again on other side 2 to 4 minutes

Remove fish; scrap any clinging herbs from fish

If herbs cling, rinse briefly with hot water


*I used frozen Hake from Costco

hake in frying pan





Musings on Starch, Potatoes & Potato Recipes

July 11th, 2013


mashed potatoes

Potatoes contain a lot of starch and for that reason they are extremely useful for thickening soups and other dishes. But it is important to pay attention to what kind of potato you choose for recipes because each type of potato has a different ratio of starch to moisture and each will behave differently  when exposed to water and heat.

According to Cook’s Illustrated: the Science of Good Cooking, 2012, the starch content in potatoes can range from 16% to 22%. Less starch, and you get a firm, waxy potato, like the Red Bliss or French Fingerling. More starch such as in a Russet produces a crumbly, mealy texture. In the middle is Yukon Gold. Read more:

Russet potatoes are the best choice for mashing and for thickening. Add a grated Russet  potato to any soup and you have added a natural thickener. Add a lot of potatoes and you can end up with an even thicker soap as in Vichyssoise (from earlier posts) or my father’s old fashioned potato soup. At the other end of the starch spectrum are Red Bliss. I boiled those and then removed their skins in a recent blog post. Fork-mashed with a bit of butter they were an easy and safe addition to a good meal.

Russets are better able to absorb liquid and they produce a fluffier potato when mashed. And mashed potatoes are true comfort foods. Most food cultures in countries where potatoes are grown have treasured comfort food recipes which can be adapted for individuals with swallowing disorders.

Here are some tips about cooking potatoes

  • Start potatoes in cold water: it makes for speedier cooking time and better potato texture.
  • Potatoes are best boiled in their skins because when they are are boiled whole and unpeeled, they absorb less water and can then absorb more cream and butter. Their potato flavor is much stronger, too, not washed out.
  • Use a ricer or a food mill, both of which yield a much smoother mash than a potato masher.
  • Stirring or using the food processor will manipulate texture for dishes that are meant to have a more sticky, tacky texture.
  • Potatoes done in the food processor will be thick and gluey.

In conclusion: The method of handling your potatoes will affect the texture of your final dish. Pay careful attention to how much–or how little–you process them.

Classic Mashed Potatoes

Serves 4

2 pounds russet potatoes, cooked with the skins on

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup half-and-half, warmed

salt and pepper

  1. Place potatoes in large saucepan and add cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until potatoes are just tender (paring knife can be slipped in and out of potatoes with little resistance) 20 to 30 minutes. Drain
  2. Set ricer or food mill over now empty saucepan. Using potholder (to hold potatoes) and paring knife, peel skins from potatoes. Working in batches, cut peeled potatoes into large chunks and press or mill into saucepan.
  3. Stir in butter until incorporated. Gently whisk in half-and-half, add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and season with pepper to taste. Serve

Add a cup of grated mild cheddar cheese and you have another taste

You could also cook potatoes in stock as in the following recipe

Potatoes in Chicken Stock with Mint and Butter

2 pounds russet potatoes

1 1/2 quarts chicken stock (I use Better than Bouillon)

2 fresh or dried bay leaves

1 bunch of fresh mint leaves

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  1. Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel. Halve them lengthwise. Place them in a two quart pan or  casserole. Cover with the stock, the bay leaves, the bunch of mint, and the salt. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat and cook, covered, until cooked through when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Discard the bay leaves and mint.
  2. When the potatoes have cooled, either peel them or push them through a food mill which will take off the skins.
  3. Add butter and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon.
  4. Serve immediately.

My mother’s scalloped potatoes

2 1/2 pounds Russet potatoes

2 tablespoons of lightly salted butter plus 1/2 stick

1 peeled clove of garlic

4 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup finely minced onions

1/2 stick of lightly salted cold butter

salt and pepper

1 cup whole milk, heated to warm, but not boiled

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Generously butter a 2 1/2 quart casserole with 2 tablespoons of butter
  3. Rub the buttered casserole with the clove of garlic, then discard the garlic
  4. Peel the potatoes and slice into 1/16 inch slices (use a knife or a slicer or mandoline or the slicing disk on your food processor)
  5. Cut the butter into 1 tablespoon sections, using the paper wrapper as a guide, then cut each piece in four.
  6. Begin layering the potatoes in the casserole, sprinkling each layer with the minced onions, a teaspoon or so of the flour, salt and pepper, and dot with the small pieces of butter. Try for a least 3 layers.
  7. Pour the warmed milk over the layers of potatoes. Make sure the milk comes about 3/4 of the way up the side of the casserole.
  8. Put into the heated oven and bake 35 to 45 minutes
  9. Serve hot

You could add a cup of shredded cheddar cheese between the layers; don’t use Mozzarella as it’s likely to be stringy once heated and you want to avoid stringiness. In the picture on the left below, cheese has been sprinkled on the top of the casserole. Don’t do that as the browned topping may not form the cohesive bolus you want. Of course, you could always remove the top after baking so that you still get the flavor of having the cheese and the cheese will be in the body of the dish.

scalloped potatoes with cheese scalloped potatoes

Adding Seasoning

July 9th, 2013


pureed hospital food

hospital dinner tray

What is blander than the pureed food fed to hospital patients and in Perpetua to individuals with swallowing disorders? Pale, anemic foods that taste exactly like they look?  Totally blah! So…adding seasoning to food enhances the pleasure of eating. Bland food is not food that stimulates the appetite or brings pleasure to eating. One solution is adding seasoning:  fresh or dried herbs and spices, zesty marinades.  But the problem we face here is that spices or herbs may remain as small particles once the food is cooked and ready to be served, and it’s the potential for particles to fall into the airway that we worry about.

One solution is to strain the cooked food through a double strainer   tablecraft-84-8-fine-double-mesh-strainer[this is an 8 inch double fine strainer available from Amazon or from


Such a strainer can take out all left over particles, and that’s a good solution; and it also helps to blend the food and make it more cohesive.  But there are other means to the goal of having well-seasoned food.


One such means  is the French bouquet garni, a combination of parsley, thyme and bay leaf tied into a piece of washed cheesecloth. The herbs thus do not disperse themselves  [nor leave particles behind for potential aspiration hazard] and can be readily removed.  Garlic, chilis, or other herbs can be treated in a similar manner. HT_Bouquet-Garni-Step-01_s4x3_lg

                                                                           Ingredients in a bouquet garni


ingredients for bouquet garni bouquet garni in cheese cloth

The classic bouquet garni is pictured above. My talents in terms of cutting cheesecloth are limited: it always seems sort of hacked off, but we’re not after winning beauty contests here. I use fresh or dried herbs in most foods I cook and aim for variety: oregano, basil, tarragon, in addition to the ones in the classic bouquet garni.

Another way of dealing with the issue is to infuse herbs or spices into an oil, heat them thoroughly until their aroma is released, then strain them, so that the oil carries the flavor.  It’s called  insaporire in Italian. Rachel of the blog “Rachel Eats”, describes the the process where garlic is infused into oil  : allowing “the garlic to impart its savory and perfume into the oil—then like a good guest, neither dominating or outstaying his welcome—taking leave.” [Rachel Eats, June 23, 2013]. It works well with other herbs, too. Make an infusion, for example, of rosemary and thyme, or of parsley & tarragon. Heat these in half a cup of olive oil until the herbs begin to fill the room with aroma; remove from heat, strain through cheesecloth or a double strainer, bottle and use the oil for simmering fish, vegetables, poultry. Here’s a helpful website:

You can do cold infusions, too. Same idea, really, but you let them sit in a bottle after you’ve added the hot oil for a couple of weeks.

Here’s one of my infusions that I’ll use to poach fish tonight:

infusing rosemary & thyme


It’s just rosemary & thyme in a good olive oil. How good, the olive oil? Pretty good. Not my very best, but the one I use for cooking

Foods that may fall in the airway or break apart

June 25th, 2013

 Dry muffins

Pound cake

Plain rice


Pound cake

Any soup with loose floating contents

Corn, mixed vegetables

Chili con carne

Minestrone and vegetable soup


Fruit cocktail

Items containing celery

nuts, or raisins



crackers, etc.

Bacon, sausage, ot dogs

Cheeses that crumble easily

Hard boiled or hard fried eggs


The swallow will usually be heightened if the bolus is:






very sweet




Why thicken?

June 25th, 2013

mashed potatoesIf the food is thicker, it passes the mouth (the oral cavity) and holds together into a “cohesive bolus”. That is, it doesn’t break apart so that individual pieces can travel hither and dither down the throat into the airway and then into the lungs. Folks, this can be dangerous! Because food products that lie in the airway introduce bad bugs that can cause pneumonia.

So here’s one of the most important principles that the recipes in this blog will incorporate: there should be nothing eaten that has bits or particles that can break away from the mass of the bolus and drop into the airway. To meet that goal, the food will need to be thoroughly blended or strained. That is, the texture of the food is modified. Although, of course, there are many wonderful foods that are already thick enough and this blog has some yummy recipes for things like smoothies and ice cream and polenta and mashed potatoes, thick soup,and macaroni and cheese, and so forth. macaroni & cheese

So its no food that breaks apart: no popcorn for sure.No food that has two or more textures, vegetable soup, for example, that has a broth and pieces of vegetables. Does that mean no vegetable soup! No, no. It means that the batch of vegetable soup is run through a food processor, a blender, or attacked with an immersion blender until all the particles are gone, and there’s a smooth mass of soup. Now, that soup may still not be thick enough, so we’ll add perhaps a grated potato, or corn starch or potato starch that will be mixed into the soup to thicken it until there’s a thicker consistency that holds together when swallowed.

Soups are great and there’ll be a lot of soup recipes on this blog. We’ll try to make the soup as healthy as possible, with extra protein and other “good for you” ingredients. It can be hot soup, or cold soup. But it will be delicious. thick soup

But..what if you can’t cook? Don’t know the first thing about it. Well, you’ll just have to learn to do a few things, but it is possible to find plenty of nutritious foods in the supermarket  or the local deli all ready to eat or if not completely ready, merely needing a few adjustments.

Individuals without dysphagia have a protective cough. Food passing into the airway will cause a coughing fit. Think of what happens with popcorn when you’re at a movie and gobbling up those delicious kernels. All of a sudden, there’s an onset of a terrific cough. You feel something stuck–you can point to the outside of your neck and locate the place where it feels like something’s stuck. You cough and you cough and out pops whatever it was that triggered the cough in the first place, usually in the case of popcorn, its a little bit of skin from the kernel–a tiny bit–but it’s enough to cause a coughing fit and it’s enough for someone who has a problem to potentially have even a bigger problem

Thickened foods are safer, as a rule, for people with dysphagia. So the recipes on this blog specify ways to thicken. Naturally. That is, without commercial thickeners, products that are sold specifically to thicken foods or products that are themselves already thickened by these thickener.

These products are disliked by almost everyone who has had to use them on a regular basis. And whatever the manufacturers of such thickeners claim, the artificial thickeners make the food taste different, usually with an aftertaste that is unpleasant. The foods taste funny and they have a different mouth feel. In my classes that I teach on dysphagia, students who try the commercial thickeners find them barely tolerable and numerous research studies confirm this.

What I hope to show here is that there is a wide variety of delicious foods that can be prepared with “ordinary” kitchen products that are safe to swallow for most people with dysphagia. And, as an extra bonus, these are often foods that are called comfort foods and are loved by one and all. Of course, comfort food varies by culture and this blog hopes to include recipes from a variety of cultures.

But..what if you can’t cook? Don’t know the first thing about it? Well, it is possible to find plenty of nutritious foods in the supermarket  or the local deli all ready to eat, or if not completely ready, only needing a few additions to make it good and safe to swallow.


Skip to toolbar