Chef Training Program: The Last Supper, Sicilian-Style

NGI CTP #255 Last Supper

Put a fork in us. We’re done!

Last weekend our group, Natural Gourmet Institute’s 255th Chef Training Program class graduated. It was bittersweet. We expected the program to transform us as cooks. But I think we were all surprised by the harmonic group dynamic which developed. Like a variety of spices, we started as 16 cooks with nearly no common thread other than our passion for health and cooking. But, very early into our year in the kitchen, we melded into a masala — a harmonic team, as much family as classmates. As such, the numbers 2-5-5 will forever be dear to our hearts.  Continue reading

The Ultimate Bargain 3-Course Organic Brunch

Chickpea Crepe with Mango Sauce

New Yorkers love their brunch, or ‘Boozy Brunch’ as they are often promoted. This is no doubt fueled by their tendency towards late nights, the ‘my phone is my kitchen’ mindset and a restaurant-dense landscape. So, after living here almost nine years, I was surprised to find that I was in the dark about THE best brunch deal in the city -hands down! Case closed. Where is this brunch nirvana? Read on to find out. Continue reading

10 Tips for Cooking Grains

10 Tips for Cooking Grains

Does this picture look grainy? I couldn’t resist….

In case you missed it, The Natural Gourmet Institute was the site of Grain-Fest 2015 (also known as the chef training program grain practicum). We steamed, boiled, pressure-cooked, toasted, pan-fried and baked everything from bulgur, couscous, Kasha, millet, polenta, varieties of rice, soba noodles and of course, wait for it…quinoa.

We cooked up some old and new favorites. Which dishes were the biggest losers and which were pleasant surprises? What did we learn? Check out the tips below!


Losers – Pan-Fried Millet Croquettes. These cute little round guys are millet croquettes. The ones in the front were baked and they were delicious. But, the ones hiding behind them off to the right were pan-fried, as in about a half-inch of oil. Pan-frying is a required skill in any chef training program. But, it’s not a technique I would use at home. Ditto for Alena, my partner that day. We were both a bit timid about all that oil. Alena’s burned and mine were soggy, full of oil. Fail. But, I will try the baked version at home.


Winner – Polenta. Polenta was a big hit, both the fried and baked versions. No surprise here. After all, who doesn’t love polenta especially when cut into cute heart shapes?

Biggest Surprise – the Kasha Potato Loaf (shown below). Most vegetarian loaf recipes I’ve contemplated seem a tad on the heavy and rich side, made mostly of nuts and cheese. This one had neither and despite its subtle flavor profile, was a satisfying keeper

Grain Practicum

10 Tips for Cooking Grains

  1. Prep Tip – To Wash or Not?
    Whole grains, such as millet, quinoa and brown rice should be washed in water before cooking. Multiple washes may be needed, until the water runs clear. Processed grains, such as bulgur or couscous do not require rinsing.
  2. Prep Tip – Roasting. Roasting grains before cooking will give them a nutty flavor and aroma. You can roast grains in a pan with or without oil.
  3. Cooking Tip –  Salt the Cooking Water Properly.
    For every cup of uncooked grains, add 1/4 teaspoon sea salt per 1 cup of grain. The cooked grains will end up lightly seasoned. More salt can be added, as desired, toward the end of cooking.
    For cooking pasta, add 1 tablespoon sea salt per quart (4 cups) of boiling water. The cooking water should ‘taste like the sea’.
  4. Cooking Tip –  For Fluffy Grains: Hot Grain, Hot Water.
    The temperature of the water will affect the texture of the cooked grain. Fluffy grains result from toasting grains first in a pan as well as the shortest cooking time. So, for fluffy grains, add hot toasted grains to boiling water. Also, go lighter on the water. Use 1 3/4 liquid per cup of grain.
  5. Cooking Tip –  For Moist, Sticky Grains: Cold Grain, Cold Water.  Moist, sticky grains result from a longer cooking time. So, sticky grains, add cold grains to cold water, then bring the liquid to a boil and cook as usual. This method is ideal for porridge or for dishes where you want the grains to mesh with the other ingredients, such as a garden burger. Also, go heavier on the water. Use 2 or 2 1/4 cup liquid per cup of grain.Note the different results below from my highly scientific experiment conducted at the Whole Foods Explorer test kitchen.Cold or Hot water?
  6. Cooking Tip – Don’t Lose Steam!
    Is it ready? Take a VERY quick peek to see if all the water has been absorbed. Take the lid off and use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan to see if any water remains. Then, replace the lid within 30 seconds. If you see water in the bottom of the pan, let it cook for another 5 minutes, then test again.

    Cooking hearty grains, such as long-grain brown rice or bulgur require one extra cooking stage. When no water remains and the grains are done cooking, remove them from the heat and let them rest covered 5 minutes. Do NOT open the lid during this time, which will cause the steam to turn into water.

  7. Digestion Tip – Soak Grains Before Cooking.
    Soak grains at least 7 hours in warm, acidulated (some lemon juice works fine) and salted water to neutralize the phytic acid which exists in the outer bran layer of all whole grains. Phytic acid can block absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.
  8. Digestion Tip -Cook Grains in a LOT of Water.
    Rather than use the recommended water to grain ratio for a given grain, simply cook the grains like pasta. Boil them in ample water and cook for the recommended amount of time. When the grains have reached the desired texture, simply drain off the water as you would do when cooking pasta.
  9. Economic and Storage Tip – Buy Grains in Bulk
    Buying in bulk saves money. Whole grains will last up to 6 month if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
  10. Time Saving Tip – Cook in bulk!
    Cook for multiple meals at a time. Cooked whole grains stored in an airtight container will last up to 5 days in the refrigerator and at least 3 months in the freezer.

Trivia: Quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat are not actually grains at all. They are considered ‘pseudograins’ in that they resemble grains from an eater’s perspective. But, they belong to a different botanical family.

Curious about the health benefits of whole grains? Read my prior post, ‘Grains: Friend or Foe?


Quinoa Breakfast Bars
Vegan Quinoa Breakfast Bars
Black Bean & Quinoa Salad
Why Oats Are An All-Star Grain
5 Ways to Upgrade Your Oatmeal


Wood, Rebecca.The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York:  Penguin Group, 2010.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004.

What is your favorite grain tip? Please share below!


Culinary School: Beans, Beans, Beans!


We’re all about beans right now! The legume family has over 15,000 species including beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts. Rich in fiber and protein and low on the glycemic index, beans are excellent for blood sugar and weight management and are a budget-friendly protein source. Further, their somewhat neutral flavor makes them a versatile kitchen staple. So, while beans are a key player in my kitchen, I was excited to expand my bean know-how.

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Culinary School: Month 1

NGI Month #1

One month down, quite a few to go -which is a good thing! Aside from the necessity of a day job, there are several advantages to going to culinary school part-time rather than full-time. The most obvious advantage is having time between classes to practice knife skills and cooking techniques. But, I think the advantage we appreciate most is the opportunity to learn and cook through all four seasons.

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Me in My Birthday Suit

This is a PG-rated post. I swear.

This month, I started waking up at 7AM every Saturday. I need to allow an hour to get to the Flatiron area of Manhattan, normally a 30 minutes trip. But, Saturdays and the MTA subway don’t always play nice together. Nine hours later I return home, tired and often sweaty. But, even on a recent Saturday, my birthday, I had no complaints. In fact, I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’m fulfilling a dream, one dormant for decades. I’ve started culinary school.

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