Squeezing a lemon: Microwave the whole lemon for 15 to 20 seconds. That helps release the juices.
Tomato paste - I prefer to use a no-salt variety of tomato paste that comes in a can, rather than the tube paste. However, most recipes only call for one or two tablespoons. To store the leftover paste, I wrap individual tablespoonfuls in waxed paper, then place them all in a freezer bag and freeze until I need them. They defrost very quickly, making it easy to remove the paper.
Fresh versus dry herbs: Whenever possible, I use fresh herbs because I love them and grow them in the summer. But they are not always available, and not always necessary. For example, long cooked foods actually pick up as much flavor from dried herbs. So, I usually only add fresh during the last stages of cooking to give a burst of freshness. Remember, when substituting dry herbs for fresh in a recipe, use about one-third of the amount indicated, because the flavor in the dried herbs is concentrated in the drying process (you can always taste later and add more before presentation). However, if your dried herbs have been on the shelf for a long time, you will probably need more because, although they do not spoil, they lose flavor with age. Also, rub those dried herbs between the palms of your hands before using to release more of the flavor.
Garlic: I just could not cook without garlic. I love it. And it is so good for us. Here are a few things worth knowing. To peel garlic easily, you have several choices. One is to place a large chef's knife blade sideways on top of the clove and then whack as hard as you can. Not only does the peel release but you have partially crushed the clove. That is what I do most often. Another is to microwave the cloves for about 20 seconds or until the peel is loose. Another method is to use the rubber tube product that can be purchased almost anywhere and is very inexpensive. You can put several cloves of similar size in there at one time, roll with the palm of your hand, and the peels are off. A good-quality garlic crusher will remove the peel, but only works if you want your garlic crushed. Crushers are great for some recipes, but I remove the peel first since I usually crush more than one clove. After working with garlic, rub your hands vigorously on your stainless steel sink for 30 seconds before washing them. It will remove the odor.
Shrimp peels: When a recipe calls for shrimp to be peeled before cooking, save the shells. Boil in water for about 20 minutes. Strain and cool; place the broth in a freezer container and use the next time you make fish soup, chowder or sauce. The same can be done with leftover lobster shells or fish bones.
Mascarpone cheese: If you are making a recipe that calls for this Italian staple and you can't find it, here is the substitution - mix together 3/4 pound softened cream cheese, 6 tablespoons whipping cream and 1/4 cup sour cream. It works.
Homemade stock: Make your own meat broths from leftover bones or meat purchased on sale at the grocer. If you want a richer stock, place the meat, bones and vegetables, usually onions, carrots and celery, in a high heat oven and brown well before placing in a stock pot. Then add water, vegetables and seasoning as desired. Cook; strain meat and vegetables. The broth can be used that way or continue to cook until well reduced. Strain off fat. Place broth in containers and freeze. Small amounts for sauces can be frozen in ice cube trays. Remove from the trays and place in freezer bags for future use. If well condensed, a little goes a long way.
Freeze shelled nuts to preserve their natural oils, which can turn rancid at room temperature. Stow each type of nut separately in an airtight container marked with the date. After a year, it’s time to toss them.
Toast nuts to give them more flavor. (Don’t be tempted to skip this step in a recipe—the little time it takes has a delicious payoff.) Simply spread on a rimmed baking sheet and cook in a 350° F oven, tossing occasionally, until they’re fragrant and their interiors are golden (break a nut in half to check), 5 to 10 minutes.
A board that slides around the counter while you’re chopping is an accident waiting to happen. Keep yours anchored with a cut-to-fit piece of rug pad or shelf liner. (The added cushioning also helps stabilize a slightly warped board.) Wash in the top rack of the dishwasher as necessary.
To get nice, crispy caramelization on roasted vegetables, simulate the intense heat of an industrial oven: Bring your oven up as hot as it goes, then put an empty roasting or sheet pan inside for 10 to 15 minutes. Toss the vegetables — try carrots or Brussels sprouts — with olive oil, salt and pepper, and put them on the hot pan. This method will give you the high heat you need to caramelize the sugars in the vegetables quickly.
If you're cooking cauliflower, add a bit of milk to the water with salt to keep the cauliflower bright white
Use a gentle touch when shaping ground beef patties. Overhandling will result in a firm, compact texture after cooking. Don't press or flatten with spatula during cooking.
Always store uncooked asparagus in the refrigerator, upright in a container of water (about 1" - 2"). For tender asparagus, gently bend a spear until it breaks. The natural breaking point should separate the tender spear from the tough end. Dispose of the end pieces and steam to perfection!
If you need only 1/2 an onion, save the root half. It will last longer.
Most casseroles can be made up to 24 hours in advance and refrigerated. Be sure and add 15 or 20 minutes to the cooking time to compensate.