Category Cooking & Serving Shortcuts

A perfect table setting

  • Mini bouquets

When your garden is in bloom, cut small bouquets and arrange them in empty jam jars or glass water bottles. If you have a long table, line them up in the centre for a table decoration that’s colourful and cheery.

  • Colour coordinates your vases

Add another dimension to floral arrangements with a dash of colour. A few drops of food colouring in the water of a clear glass vase can add extra interest to an arrangement.

  • Can it

Many products these days come in beautifully decorated cans and containers. Once you’ve consumed the contents, use the cans to create a centrepiece. Set small, leafy green plants of different heights in three cans and arrange the colourful planters in the centre of the table.

  • The sit-down test

Before guests arrive, make sure that your centrepiece isn’t so tall that it will block their line of vision: place your centrepiece in the middle of the table, pull out a chair and take a seat. If the tallest flowers or other decorative items are taller than face height, shorten them so that guests will be able to make eye contact.

  • You’ve been framed!

Use small picture frames (matched or unmatched) as place card holders. If you have lovely handwriting, write each guest’s name on a piece of good-quality paper cut to fit the frame or simply choose an attractive computer font and print out your guests’ names. Slide each ‘card’ into its frame.

  • Mix and (mis)match?

When good friends are coming over for a dinner party, make things more interesting and unexpected by varying the place settings — a brightly coloured plate here, a rose-patterned fine china plate there. The result is not only eclectic, but also a great conversation starter.

  • Use the family silver

Gone are the days when silver was taken out only on special occasions; use it for everyday casual dinner parties as a reminder of life’s small luxuries. Don’t worry if it’s tarnished … it will lend the table a bit of retro character!

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Ready to serve

  • No time to dust?

Let low mood lighting help out: make a beeline for all the candles you can find and place them (carefully and not near curtains) around the living room and dining room — votive candles on windowsills, candelabras on the mantelpiece, pillar and jar candles here and there. If the lights in both rooms have dimmers, set the lights to low and bask in the complexion-enhancing, dirt-hiding glow.

  • No-stick serviettes

Keep serviettes from sticking to the bottom of your drinking glasses by pressing the bottom of each glass in a plateful of salt, then shaking off the excess. However scant the coating, the salt should break the bond and keep serviette and glass separated.

  • Chill wine in a hurry

Here’s a foolproof way to chill champagne and other white wines quickly. Place the bottle in an ice bucket or other tall plastic container and add just enough ice cubes to make a 5-cm layer on the bottom. Sprinkle the ice with a few tablespoons of salt and continue to layer ice and salt up to the neck of the bottle. Now add cold water until it reaches the top of the ice. After only 15 minutes (about half the time it would take in a freezer), you will be able to uncork the bottle and pour properly chilled bubbly for your guests.

  • Wine bottle cork won’t budge?

Run hot water over a towel and wrap the towel around the neck of a stubborn wine bottle. This easy treatment will help the glass neck of the bottle expand just enough to make the cork easier to pull out.

  • A stylish salad

Dress up simple salads by lining wide shallow glasses with lettuce leaves and adding a scoop of chicken, tuna or egg salad. Pierce an olive with a toothpick and set at an angle, to garnish.

  • Dine alfresco

Don’t stay inside on a balmy evening. Cover a patio table with a cloth, bring chairs outside, light some candles and create a movable feast.

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Breathe life into leftovers

  • Surplus grilled tuna or salmon

If you have leftover salmon or tuna from a dinner party, use it as the basis for a tasty salad. In a large bowl, combine 350g cooked tuna or salmon, a 420-g can cannellini beans, 3 thinly sliced spring onions, 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, 1 crushed garlic clove and 1/4 cup (60ml) Italian dressing. Toss thoroughly and enjoy!

  • A long life for extra veg

Save all leftover vegetables for up to a week. Dice them; lightly sauté the mixture in olive oil with savoury seasonings such as oregano, basil and black pepper. Add some leftover rice or other grains. Use as filling for a quiche or to fortify a mince-based dish.

  • Get a head start on gravy

Did you know that you can whirl almost any kind of leftover soup that has no bones, in a blender or food processor to make a quick sauce or gravy for vegetables or meat?

  • Liven up salsa

Add leftover corn kernels to a jar of spicy salsa or pickle. Stirring in corn will not only make it look more colourful but will also tone down an accompaniment that is too hot for your taste.

  • Oat-based muffins

Don’t throw out unused porridge left in the pan when breakfast is finished. Instead, add it to batter when making muffins. Add the baking powder, eggs and other ingredients as the recipe directs and you may find you like the result.

  • Overripe fruit = great smoothies

Don’t relegate overripe fruit to the compost or bin. Freeze it and use the frozen bananas, strawberries and peaches to make a delicious smoothie with yogurt or your liquid of choice. These smoothies may even taste better, thanks to the concentrated sugars in overripe fruit.

  • Leftover wine makes great salad dressings

Don’t pour leftover red or white wine down the sink. Put it in an airtight jar and store it in the fridge. When it’s time to make vinaigrette, you can combine the wine in equal quantities with vinegar for a dressing with extra punch.

  • Freeze leftover wine

If a little bit of pinot grigio or chardonnay remains in the bottle at the end of a party or meal, don’t let it go to waste. Pour it into an ice-cube tray and the next time you’re making a sauce, casserole, soup or risotto that calls for a splash of white or red wine, you’ll have it to hand. The cube will melt very quickly, so no defrosting is required.

  • Use red wine to tenderize meat

If you have some leftover red wine, put it to work as a meat tenderizer and marinade. Simply put the meat in a self-sealing bag or lidded container and pour the leftover wine over it. Whether grilled or fried, the meat on the plate will have a juicy, tender texture.

  • Remember the croquette

If you have lots of chicken, ham or turkey left over, there’s no need to let it go to waste; make your own tasty croquettes. Mince the leftover meat or poultry very finely to make around 450g, add a tablespoon or two of prepared white sauce and a beaten egg, shape into tightly packed, small logs and refrigerate for an hour. Remove the croquettes from the fridge, roll them in fine breadcrumbs, heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a nonstick frying pan, and then lightly fry until golden brown. Perhaps the best bit comes last; if you don’t finish these leftovers, they will freeze perfectly for up to six months.

  • Leftovers from a stew?

Turn it into a homemade ragu that’s so good your family will think a professional is in the kitchen. Chop up the leftover meat into small pieces, return it to its sauce, add 2 cups (500ml) red wine and two cans of crushed tomatoes. Blend well, bring to a simmer, cover and continue to cook for 30 minutes.

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Storing bread and cakes

  • Biscuits on tissue

Keep crisp biscuits crisp by crumpling plain tissue paper (the kind used as gift-wrap) and placing it in the bottom of the biscuit jar. It will help to absorb any moisture that may seep in.

  • The birthday cake’s in the bag

If you want to bake a sponge cake for a special occasion down the road — like your daughter’s 21st birthday or your parents’ golden wedding anniversary party — you can actually bake it several months ahead of time and freeze it. The trick is to triple-wrap the layers. Here’s how:

1. After taking three layer-cake tins out of the oven, let the layers cool completely.

2. Wrap each layer separately in plastic wrap and then in aluminium foil, making each package as airtight as possible.

3. Place all three layers into a large freezer bag and seal it, squeezing out the air as you do.

When the day of the party arrives, defrost the layers before removing the plastic wrap. Then assemble the cake and ice it, secure in the knowledge that your creation will taste as fresh as if it were baked yesterday.

  • Instant cake dome

If you don’t have a fancy cake plate with a glass dome, you can keep your cake fresh and the icing intact by covering it with a large bowl turned upside down.

  • Well-bread cake

Once you cut into a scrumptious three-layer cake, the exposed part of what’s left goes stale quickly. Here’s a way to keep it moist for longer. Place a slice of bread over the cut surface of the cake and hold it in place with a couple of toothpicks. As the bread dries out, the cake will stay moist and taste better for longer.

  • A trick for keeping pies fresh

Perhaps you’ve eaten two slices of a luscious peach pie and start to wrap the remainder with plastic wrap. Stop. If you cover the pie first with an upside down paper plate or aluminium foil pie plate and then wrap it in plastic, you’ll give the pie a little more breathing room and it will stay fresh for a week or more.

  • Storing a meringue-topped pie

When storing the remains of a meringue pie in the fridge, how do you cover it without ruining the meringue? Rub a large piece of plastic wrap with a little butter, making sure that it is greased completely. Fit it over the pie plate, butter side down. The next time you want a slice of pie, the wrap will peel off without sticking.

  • A crisp bread freshener

To keep sliced bread fresh for longer, just place a small, fresh stalk of celery in the bag with the bread. Celery has high water content but stays dry on the outside, so what better moisturizer could you use?

  • An apple every two days

The moisture from an apple will keep soft biscuits or cookies soft. Just place the biscuits in an airtight tin and put an apple slice (skin side down) on top before closing it. Replace the apple slice every two days to keep the treats inside at their very best.

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Keeping fresh food fresh

  • A surplus of spuds?

If you have peeled too many potatoes for a potato salad or casserole, don’t get rid of the uncooked extras. Put them in a bowl, cover with cold water and add a few drops of vinegar. Now they will keep in the fridge for three to four days.

  • Bag your lettuce

Lettuce will keep longer if transferred from a plastic bag to a larger paper bag before storing it in the fridge. Lettuce likes a little air, but you don’t need to remove limp and discoloured outer leaves; they may not be edible, but these leaves help to keep the inner leaves crisp.

  • A gentle touch in the crisper

Line the crisper drawer of your fridge with paper towels, which will absorb the excess moisture that stops the vegetables inside from staying fresh. Replace the towels as they become damp. Another way to dehumidify the drawer is to tuck two or three brand-new kitchen sponges among the vegetables, squeezing out moisture as needed.

  • Toast freshens lettuce

You can keep lettuce crisp in the fridge for longer if you store it in a sealed plastic bag with a slice of almost-burned toast. The ultra-dry toast will absorb some of the excess moisture that would otherwise cause the lettuce to wilt. As long as you replace the toast when it becomes soggy, the lettuce should stay crisp for up to two weeks.

  • Keep greens fork fresh

Keep kale, spinach and other greens fresh for longer by storing them in the fridge along with a stainless-steel fork or knife. Just open the storage bag, slip in the utensil and reclose.

  • Special care for celery

It’s crucial for celery to be crisp, so when it starts to go soft try this: put limp stalks in a bowl of cold water with a few slices of raw potato. After an hour or so in this starchy bath, the stalks may be restored to their crunchy best. To stop celery from going brown, soak it for 30 minutes in 1 litre cold water mixed with 1 teaspoon lemon juice before storing — a trick that will also crisp celery just before it’s served.

  • Get the most out of a lemon

When a recipe calls for just a few drops of lemon juice, simply puncture the rind with a toothpick and gently squeeze out the small amount of juice you need. Then cover the hole with a piece of tape and store the lemon in the fridge for later use.

  • Oiled eggs

Prolong the life of fresh eggs by dipping a paper towel into vegetable oil and rubbing the shells before storing in the fridge. The oil will keep the eggs fresh for an extra three to four weeks.

  • Vinegar and cheese

To keep cheese fresh, wrap it in a piece of soft clean cloth dampened with vinegar. It should come as no surprise that washed cheesecloth is ideal for the purpose.

  • Store potatoes with ginger

Unused potatoes will last longer if you add a piece of fresh ginger root to the bin that you store them in. It’s said that one root vegetable helps to keep another root vegetable fresh — and a potato tuber is a kind of root.

  • Longer-lasting milk

If you buy more milk than you can use before the use-by date, extend its life with a couple of pinches of bicarbonate of soda. Bicarbonate of soda reduces the acidity of milk and will slow down the rate at which it goes off. But don’t add too much or you’ll notice the taste of the bicarb in your milk.

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Awesome advice

  • Stop the drip

Wrap a towelling sweatband, headband or bandana around a bottle of olive oil to prevent drips. When the wrap becomes too oily, just throw it in the washing machine.

  • An aid to elbow grease

If you struggle to twist the lid off a new jar of jam or marmalade, turn the jar upside down and give it a tap with the heel of your hand; you should hear a popping sound, signalling the release of air. Now turn the jar over and you may be able to twist off the lid with ease.

  • Separate packaged bacon

Before opening a packet of bacon, curl the packet up with your hands a few times, turning it over each time. When you open it, you should find it easier to peel away the individual slices.

  • Keep wooden tools in good shape

Sprinkle wooden salad bowls and chopping boards with salt and then rub them with a lemon to freshen them. The salt-and-lemon treatment will help your salad bowl to impart freshness, not smells, to the ingredients. And when you chop, slice and dice, your knife won’t lift any dried wood bits from the board.

  • ‘Micropeel’ garlic

Here’s a tip to make working with garlic ultra-easy. Microwave garlic cloves for 15 seconds and the skins will slip straight off, allowing you to slice, crush and chop without delay. Another hint: as you chop garlic, the juices released make tiny pieces stick to your knife. Sprinkling a little salt on both the chopping board and the garlic will go a long way towards solving a small problem that can be surprisingly annoying when you’re trying to get the job done.

  • Super lid opener

Too-tight lids on jars can make you feel like a weakling if they just won’t budge. A simple way to get them open is to pull on a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves. With your grip secured, the lid will twist off with minimal effort.

  • Don’t forget the ice-cube tray!

Whether you’re preparing baby food, storing leftover sauces or making perfect-sized portions of no-cook fudge, a flexible plastic ice-cube tray is your invaluable multitasker. It’s a versatile kitchen aid you don’t want to forget.

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I’ll be your substitute

  • No lemon?

If a recipe calls for lemon juice, a lime is the best bet as a substitute. If not, you can use the same amount of white wine.

  • Cut the salt — not the taste

A chef’s trick for reducing the amount of salt in a recipe is to replace it with half as much lemon juice. If a recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of salt, substitute 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice and there’s no need to use the salt.

  • Vanilla imitators

If you run out of vanilla just as a recipe for batter calls for it, you can substitute an equal amount of maple syrup or a sweet liqueur such as Bailey’s Irish Cream.

  • Powder for powder

Cake recipes often call for baking powder, but if you’ve run out, try this: for each teaspoon called for, substitute a mix of 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda. The mixture won’t store well, so make it fresh in case you ever need it again.

  • Instead of breadcrumbs

If you’re making meatballs or hamburgers, but are running short of breadcrumbs, substitute porridge oats, crushed unsweetened cereal such as cornflakes, and crumbled crackers or instant mashed potato flakes instead.

  • A surprising non-stick solution

You’ve chopped the vegetables, got the meat ready and you’re about to fire up the barbecue when you find you’re out of oil. Rub the grill with half a potato and your food won’t stick.

  • Sour cream stand-in

Make an easy substitute for sour cream by blending 225g cottage cheese, 40ml buttermilk and 1 tablespoon lemon juice until smooth. The lemon juice will sour its creamy partners.

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Who’d have thought it?

  • Hair dryer as salad drier

If you have rinsed and spun your salad, but the leaves are still wet, set your hair dryer on a cool setting and wave it gently over the leaves.

  • A teaspoon as a ginger peeler

When you find it impossible to peel ginger without losing some of the flesh, try this. If you’re right-handed, hold the ginger in your left hand and, using a teaspoon, firmly scrape the edge of the spoon along the knob with your right. The papery skin will peel straight off.

  • Dental floss as slicer

Held taut, fine floss can slice layer cakes, soft breads, soft cheeses, butter and plenty of other soft foods more effectively than a sharp knife.

  • Plastic drink bottle as a funnel

Cut off the top third of the bottle and turn it upside down. Now you can easily funnel left-over sauces, gravies, kidney beans or even grease into containers for storage or disposal.

  • A handsaw as a rib separator

A sharp (clean) handsaw works wonders when you’re serving a juicy rack of ribs. Slip the blade between the bones, give it one or two saws and the ribs will separate cleanly and perfectly.

  • A coffee filter as a gravy strainer

Beef and poultry drippings from a roast make the most delicious, flavour some base for gravy, but are often packed with grease. Save the flavour and lose the fat by straining the cooking juices through a paper coffee filter.

  • Scissors as herb chopper

Use clean household scissors to snip fresh herbs and spring onions into salads or mixing bowls. Scissors are also perfect for cutting steam vents in the crust of a pie before it goes in the oven.

  • Flowerpots as kitchen tool caddy

Store serving spoons, whisks, tongs and other kitchen tools in flowerpots on the benchtop. To make the pots more decorative, you could paint each one in a different pastel or bright colour.

  • Wood rasp as lemon zester

A clean, fine metal rasp from a toolbox works perfectly as a zester for lemons, limes, oranges and other citrus fruit. Its tiny raised nubs scrape the fruit’s skin to create perfect zest.

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Super-easy food improvements

  • Marinate in plastic bags

Eliminate washing up bowls, spoons and even pots by marinating meat and poultry in large self-sealing plastic bags. Open the bag and pour in the liquids and seasonings — soy sauce, tomato sauce, ground ginger, black pepper, crushed garlic, herbs and so on. Zip the bag shut and shake it to blend. Now add the meat, zip the bag and shake. Refrigerate 6-8 hours or overnight. Occasionally take the bag out of the fridge and shake it to redistribute the marinade.

  • Butter stops the dribbles

Dab a bit of butter onto the spout of your milk jug and you will put an end to the drips and dribbles.

  • Oil your measuring cup

Sticky liquids like honey and syrup are difficult to measure and pour and a little always remain behind. Oiling the measuring cup will make it harder for viscous liquids to stick and will give you a more accurate serving.

  • Keep salt on popcorn

If you want salt to stick to popcorn, give it something to cling to by lightly coating just-popped corn with a vegetable-based cooking spray. Avoid olive oil cooking spray because the flavour can overwhelm the taste of popcorn.

  • Add tang to sauce with ginger ale

A little ginger ale will perk up tomato sauces, but be careful not to overdo it. About 80ml ginger ale added to a medium-sized saucepan of tomato and garlic sauce or a tomato juice-based beef stew will help to enhance the flavour.

  • Brighten the taste of juice

For fresher tasting orange juice, add the juice of 1 lemon to every 4 litres. By the glass, squeeze in the juice of a quarter of a lemon, and then place the peel on the rim for a bit of visual flair.

  • Add flavour to plain chips

It’s so easy to make your own garlic-flavoured potato chips. Just place a peeled garlic clove in a bag of plain chips, fasten the bag shut with a clamp or clothes peg and let it sit for 6-8 hours, shaking the bag occasionally to even out the flavour. Then open the bag, discard the garlic clove and crunch away.

  • Dress up a syrup dressing

Adding chopped strawberries and a little lemon zest to the syrup you top pancakes with will make it a lot more interesting. Combine 120ml golden syrup, 100g strawberries and 1/2 tea-spoon grated orange peel in a microwaveable bowl and heat on High for 30-60 seconds. Top pancakes, waffles or French toast with the syrup and then tuck into what is now a much tastier and healthier dish. (Strawberries are packed with vitamin C and manganese.)

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The sweetest things

  • Easy creaming

This important step in many a cake recipe —creaming the butter and sugar — can be a tedious and lengthy task. If the butter is cold, you can speed up the creaming process by warming the sugar a little on the stovetop. Or soften the butter by warming it briefly in the microwave oven on a very low setting.

  • One-egg replacement

If you are baking a cake that calls for one more egg than you have available, you can substitute 1 teaspoon cornflour.

  • Or go fruity

Replace one egg in a cake or sweet bread recipe with one small mashed banana or 120ml pureed apple. For lovely moist chocolate cake, try substituting mashed prunes.

  • Spaghetti cake tester

If you don’t have a wire cake tester, use an uncooked strand of spaghetti instead. Gently push the spaghetti into the centre of the cake and pull it out. If your spaghetti comes out clean, the cake is done.

  • Improvised cake decorator

Use a washed plastic mustard or tomato sauce squirt bottle as a cake decorating tool. Fill it with icing, then simply pipe scallops, flowers and other designs onto cakes with ease. Or use it to make squiggles of pesto or cream on top of soups or chocolate on desserts.

  • Pie bubbling over?

If a pie starts bubbling over as it is baking, cover the spills with salt. You’ll prevent the spill from burning and avoid the terrible scorched smell. Best of all, the treated overflow will bake into a dry, light crust that you can wipe off easily when the oven has cooled.

  • Make piecrust flakier

Flaky piecrusts are the talented baker’s hallmark. You can improve the flakiness by replacing 1 tablespoon iced water in a crust recipe with 1 tablespoon chilled lemon juice or white vinegar.

  • Fruit piecrusts too soggy?

To keep the juice in fruit from seeping into the crust of a baking pie, crumble up something to absorb it. A layer of plain, crisp flatbread will absorb the juice and introduce a savoury note to the pie, while biscotti or amaretti cookies will keep it tasting sweet.

  • Slice meringue with ease

Your knife will glide through a meringue-topped pie if you butter it on both sides before slicing. It’s a 10-second solution, if that.

  • Thrifty chocolates

If you’re a chocoholic, have extra freezer space and love saving money, buy chocolate Easter bunnies and Santas after the holidays when prices are low. Store them in the freezer and shave off chocolate curls to use in cooking. Or melt to create new chocolate shapes. Or, if you prefer, just thaw a Santa or bunny and gobble it up whenever you need a chocolate fix.

  • Have coffee over ice

To make a coffee granita, pour cooled, freshly brewed black coffee into several small containers such as clean yogurt pots, to freeze. When frozen, remove the pots and then put the frozen coffee into a food processor. Process on Low until crystals form. Spoon the crystals into the cups and freeze again for about half an hour before serving.

Or add milk and sugar to your coffee before freezing. Good toppings for granita include whipped cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

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