3 Mistakes to Avoid in the Kitchen: Cooking 101

Sometimes we need more than just a good idea to make something awesome in the kitchen. Simple skills like grilling, sautéing, braising, and roasting can go a long way if you know what you’re doing. But if you don’t, or you rely on techniques you perceive to be “healthier” or “easier” (read STEAMING!), you run the risk of eating a bland dinner, ruining a bunch of food, or worst of all, turning yourself (or your children) off of healthy ingredients like vegetables, herbs, and spices.

Execution is everything.

This simple list provides you not only with mistakes to avoid but also with alternatives to try that will help you create a delicious meal that you and your family can enjoy with minimal effort. It’s a list designed to pull you out of a cooking rut and encourage new innovations in your home kitchen.
3 Mistakes to Avoid in the Kitchen

3 Mistakes to Avoid in the Kitchen

Today, we’re getting down to a few basic mistakes novice cooks make in the kitchen. Avoid these things and follow my guidelines of what to do instead, and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the food you cook, saving a few extra bucks, and eating more nutritious meals. 

MISTAKE #1. Boiling or steaming the life out of your veggies

mistakes to avoid in the kitchen

image sourced through Creative Commons by Björn Appel

When I work with people around eating well and incorporating more vegetables into their diets, I’m always surprised to hear how many people boil and steam their vegetables to death. Nutrients in these vital foods can be both water-soluble and heat-sensitive, and when you do this, you sometimes throw the best part of the vegetable out with the water. Boiling and steaming is also not that tasty, which disincentivizes a person new to veggies from eating them.
What to do instead:
A new habit has to be enjoyable for people to stick with it. Roasting vegetables is the way to go for maximum nutrient retention and maximum flavor.

MISTAKE #2. Under-salting/salting too late when braising meat

mistakes to avoid in the kitchen

image sourced through Creative Commons by FiveRings

Braising might seem like a complicated task for a novice cook, but I can assure you that it’s actually pretty hard to mess up. You can throw just about anything into the braising liquid (wine, water, broth, orange juice, milk, beer, brandy … ), add some veggies, and you’re off to a great start. Braising makes a cheap* cut of meat tender, flavorful, and delicious. 

*cheap is referring to the cut, of the meat, not the way the animal was raised — I’m not advocating for industrial, factory-farmed “cheap” meat. Cheap cuts are the ones that don’t turn into tender, juicy steaks — think shanks, shoulders, necks, and thighs. The cheap cuts are the parts of the body the animal actually uses to roam around and live life — muscles that become thick, strong, and sinewy. A good braise can transform them into something tender and awesome. Get the idea?
The one catch is salt. Under-salting creates a disappointing finished product that you spent a lot of time making. Salting too late in the process can draw out the liquid and create a dry piece of meat, even though it’s cooked in liquid.
What to do instead:
When you plan to braise a large cut of meat, it’s important to salt it adequately at least 24 hours in advance (if not 48 to 72) and keep it in the refrigerator as the salt sinks in. Coat a thin layer across all surfaces of the meat, and don’t be shy about it. If you don’t have 24 hours, just skip the salt while cooking, and salt to taste on your plate as needed. Feel free to add dry or fresh chopped herbs and spices to this as well, but don’t skimp on the salt. You want more than you might think. 

MISTAKE #3. Adding in fresh herbs too soon

mistakes to avoid in the kitchen

Flickr image sourced through Creative Commons by Follow

Because my focus is on health and wellness, I tend to emphasize the importance of maximizing phytonutrients in the diet. Micronutrients can make or break a healthy lifestyle, sometimes even more than macronutrients, due to their healing and protective properties in the body. Some hardy herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage can be added from start to finish throughout the cooking process for various layers of flavor in a dish. More delicate but nutrient-dense herbs like cilantro, parsley, oregano, or tarragon (just to name a few) don’t really do much for a dish if we put them in too early. Adding herbs like these to the fire more than about 30 minutes from the dish’s completion sacrifices both flavor and many of the healthy properties found in them.

What to do instead:
I always recommend adding in delicate fresh herbs about 20 minutes before you turn off the heat and then adding even more to the finished dish to maximize nutrient-density and flavor.Doing it this way might also encourage you to use more fresh herbs per dish. I know some people buy a pack of cilantro, use three sprigs, and the rest rots in the fridge. Avoiding waste is an added bonus to this tip.

Go Forth and Conquer!

I started with this short, simple list to share with you today, but there’s a good chance you’ll see another post just like this of simple kitchen tips to help improve your home cooking experience. I chose these three things to share with you today, because they involve cooking techniques like roasting and braising that I really want you to try at home with confidence.

For me personally, as I began learning more complex tasks in the kitchen, I realized the things that scared me were really just scary because they were new and unknown. I was afraid of the oven for a good long time, because I couldn’t see what was going on in there, and I was sure I’d burn everything. Now my oven is my best culinary friend. I prefer most vegetables prepared in the oven to those prepared in a pan, and the same goes for most meats. It’s all about trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone. You might be surprised at the results! As far as the mistakes I mentioned here go, it’s not just a matter of flavor, but a matter of nutrition as well. These tips will bring more nutrients to your body as well as more flavor to your pleasure centers! Go forth and conquer armed with new knowledge of your powers in the kitchen!

Sicola-Style Roasted Tomato Puttanesca Recipe

I don’t mean to mislead you into thinking this is a “Sicola family recipe” — it’s not. In fact, it’s my take on a recipe a friend shared with Loren over Facebook a few weeks back. I loved the idea of roasting tomatoes in the oven instead of making a stove top sauce like I usually do, so I took the nuts and bolts of that recipe and tweaked it to fit my fancy. I’ve never been great at following recipes to a T anyway; in the end, it always becomes my own concoction. This roasted tomato sauce is no exception.

What makes it Sicola-Style?

1) It’s easy; 2) it’s basically measuring-cup-free; 3) it’s flexible (if you don’t like something in it, just trade it for something that suits you!); 4) it’s nutrient-dense (anchovies=omega 3, tomato peels= extra lycopene); 5) it’s chalk-full of rich, sweet flavor — just like this blog — and last but not least, 6) you don’t have to peel the tomatoes! Sweet relief + extra phytonutrients! What could go wrong? I’m starting the tradition right now, and for years to come generations of Sicolas will make this sauce and sing its praises! I know you will too when you try it at home. Tonight we enjoyed it with zucchini noodles, Sicilian sausage, and fresh basil. A healthy twist on my pasta-loving Sicilian family roots! 

roasted tomato sauce puttanesca

What Kind of Tomatoes to Use?

I used giant red heirlooms and cherry tomatoes from my backyard tomato jungle, but I’ve seen similar recipes using Romas or San Marzanos. At the end of the day, if you start with a good tomato, your sauce will be good. Don’t use gross pink flavorless conventional beefsteaks and you won’t get gross watery flavorless sauce. It’s that simple. In my book, you start with good organic ingredients and you’ll get good results. Don’t skimp on quality and your taste buds and body will thank you. If you need help picking your tomatoes, here are a few tips:

  • The deeper the red color (both inside and out), the better. If you’re having doubts, get a produce employee to cut one open for you before you buy. 
  • You want only a little give when you gently squeeze the fruit, but some give is important. If a tomato is too firm, it’s probably not quite ripe, which means it was super green when it was picked and probably tastes like nothing (another reason to ask to peek inside one!)
  • You want a tomato you like — try a few varieties if you’re not sure what you like best. Certainly the flavor will change and be enhanced as you cook and add seasonings, but if you don’t like the raw materials, you’re less likely to like the finished product.
  • If you can get your tomatoes from a local farmers’ market, you’re almost guaranteeing that they were sun-ripened and recently picked, which means rich, deep flavor. Opt for the farmers’ market if you can!

Kitchen Hack: Tomatoes lose their flavor and nutritional value rapidly when refrigerated. Buy your tomatoes the same week you plan to use them and store them on your counter, not in the fridge. You’ll get more flavor and more lycopene, an antioxidant important for eye health and prevalent in tomatoes. In fact, the lycopene increases when you cook and is more bioavailable when fat is added, so this sauce does the trick — cooked in olive oil to guarantee a healthy dose of lycopene in every serving!

Let’s Get Started!


Your Shopping list*:

  • 3 lbs fresh organic tomatoes
  • Organic olive oil
  • 1 can black olives, coarsely chopped (a Sicola family favorite!)
  • 1 small jar capers
  • 1 small jar anchovies fillets in olive oil
  • fresh oregano (or your favorite fresh herbs — other options are rosemary, marjoram, thyme, or some combo)
  • cracked red pepper
  • REAL salt

*I’m giving you a shopping list instead of an ingredients list because you will not use the whole can of olives or jars of capers and sardines. My leftover olives are long gone (in my belly) but the capers and sardines will store in the fridge for a very long time.


  • 2 large cookie sheets
  • Blender
  • Jars for freezing/storing (leave about 1.5 inches at the top of each jar you plan to freeze to avoid sadness and broken glass disaster in your freezer)


  1. Preheat the oven to 400 while you prep your cookie sheets and ‘maters
  2. Coat the cookie sheets with a thin layer of olive oil
  3. Cut the tomatoes in half if small, into quarters if large, and line the cookie sheets
  4. Generously drizzle olive oil and sprinkle salt over tomatoes
  5. Roast at 400F for about 25 minutes, then reduce the heat to 225F and cook for another hour
  6. Remove from the oven and evenly distribute about 1/2 the can of olives, a couple spoonfuls of capers, and about 10 chopped anchovies over the two sheets of tomatoes
  7. Add about 5 sprigs of fresh oregano — simply strip the leaves from the stems, no need to chop
  8. Sprinkle cracked red pepper to your desired spice level (start small, you can always add more at the end!)
  9. Replace sheets in the oven and cook another hour or so
  10. Remove from the oven and add all contents to blender
  11. Add about 5 more sprigs of oregano
  12. Pulse lightly for a thick, chunky sauce or puree for a smoother texture
  13. Store in jars in the refrigerator for up to one week. Freeze what you don’t eat to save for a rainy day!


10 Easy Hacks to Eat More Phytonutrients

What’s a Phytonutrient?

Phytonutrients are the beneficial components in plants that help fight off disease and prevent the damaged caused by free radicals and toxins in our environment. They protect the plants themselves from potentially harmful factors such as UV light, pests, fungus, and parasites. The protective quality of phytonutrients extends to us when we eat these plants, which translates into the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, and other inflammatory diseases.

When plants are exposed to a threat, they fight back by producing these wonderful chemicals. It follows logically and has been scientifically studied and proven that the use of pesticides and herbicides allows plants to “let their guards down” and stop producing as much and as many of these beneficial substances. Conventional produce contains far fewer phytonutrients than organic produce.

Antioxidants are phytonutrients.

Carotenoids are phytonutrients.

Flavonoids are phytonutrients.

Today I’m going to share some easy, useful, and simple-to-implement shopping and cooking hacks to help you increase your intake of phytonutrients.

Bragging Rights

Before I do that though, I’d like to establish my authority on this matter by briefly bragging about my own recent antioxidant score using a biophotonic antioxidant scanner! (that number says 71,000; sorry, not a great picture) I pack as many meals a day as possible with fresh veggies, especially those from my gardens at home. I think those freshly picked veggies make a big difference, but that’s not the only way to get a reading this high.


I did my test with the Oakland Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine Clinic.

This test measures carotenoids on your skin, which is a good data point for the general level of antioxidants in your body. A high level of antioxidants translates into a high ability for the body to neutralize free radicals, fight disease, and protect the body from external toxins. Factors such as what you eat, the type of toxic load you’re exposed to, and the level of emotional and physical stress you’re under affect this reading. (Dr. Oz made this scanner famous when he brought it onto his show and tested the audience and himself.)






Maximizing Your Phytonutrient Intake

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Jo Robinson’s new book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health (affiliate link), it’s high time you check it out. There are so many awesome little tidbits in this wonderful book explaining how our food isn’t quite what it used to be, and what we can do about it. It outlines the origins of domesticated plants and makes the argument that the “5 a day” recommendation of typical fruits and veggies simply won’t cut it anymore. Instead, you need to know which fruits and veggies to eat to really max out that phytonutrient count and reach optimal health.

There’s no way that I could “give away” the plethora of valuable information that you’ll find between the pages of this book, but I took it upon myself to extract some of my favorite goodies — tips and hacks you can put to use today to start upping your phytonutrient count and improving your health.

phytonutrient food swap

6 Shopping Hacks to Increase Your Phytonutrients:

  1. Choose granny smith. It has the highest phytonutrient content and the best sugar-to-fiber ratio. Great for the heart and the whole body too. The golden delicious apple has the fewest phytonutrients of any of the other varieties, and has so much sugar that it can increase your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
  2. Replace salt with herbs and spices. Herbs and spices are as nutritious as the wild foods of our ancestors, packed full of a wide range of phytonutrients. They are a great substitute for extra salt and can provide wonderful, rich flavor to any dish.
  3. Opt for red lettuce and other leafy greens. Red lettuce is the king of lettuces, according to Robinson, as that red color indicates a very high antioxidant content. Additionally, the internal leaves of the head lettuce never see the sunlight, so they don’t generate phytonutrients to protect themselves from the UV rays. Leafy lettuces that flare out and are exposed to the sun have a greater supply of nutrition.
  4. Go green. Green onions have 100x more phytonutrients than bulb onions that grow underground. The green part is the richest portion, so chop it up and use it all!
  5. Berries over bananas. Like the golden delicious apple, the farmed banana is much higher in sugar than in phytonutrients and fiber. Berries have a better sugar-to-fiber ratio, and their deep color indicate a high level of phytonutrients. If you can find wild berries, you’ll get even more bang for your buck! Some grocery stores sell frozen wild blueberries, and if you live in the Bay Area, you’re about to start seeing wild blackberries all over the place. Eat up! Robinson recommends that we shoot for eating 1/2 a cup of berries a day.
  6. Opt for yams. White potatoes are very starchy without a lot of fiber to mitigate the glycemic load. The orange color of the yam indicates a high carotenoid count, and you’ll find more fiber there too.

4 Kitchen Hacks to Increase Your Phytonutrients:

  1. Don’t boil your veggies — you end up throwing out the nutrition with the water. All other types of cooking are superior to boiling most vegetables (artichokes are the exception, but even then steaming is better than boiling). Stir frying is a great way to go, because you don’t lose the water soluble nutrients the way you would if you boiled or steamed.
  2. Tear your greens a day in advance. The leaves are still alive in your fridge (in fact, asparagus can grow another inch or two in the grocery store or in your fridge), and if you tear them, it sends a signal for them to repair themselves. That means the torn plants are creating more antioxidants to protect what’s been torn.
  3. Let your chopped garlic sit for 10 minutes before you heat it. This is my favorite kitchen hack. We’ve all heard that garlic is great for cardiovascular health and cancer prevention, right? Well the chemical responsible for that protection in us is called allicin. As with the torn lettuce, the allicin count increases exponentially if you chop the garlic and let it sit. If you expose your chopped garlic to heat immediately, the allicin content is next to nothing. That 10 minutes makes all the difference.
  4. Thaw frozen berries in the microwave to prevent the loss of antioxidants that would take place in a counter- or fridge-thaw. This is the one and only time I recommend choosing the microwave to a more old-school method of heating or defrosting. For some reason, the quick thaw preserves the nutrition far better than a slow melt.

These hacks are so easy, I challenge you to try them out TONIGHT as you cook your dinner. Chop the garlic first and leave it out for 10 minutes before tossing it into the flames. Tear your salad greens tonight for tomorrow’s meals. Throw a few berries, fresh herbs, and chopped green onions in that salad too! Let me know how it goes!

FTC DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive monetary compensation for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. I only link to products that I USE and LOVE. All opinions are my own.


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