Category Archives: Cooking

Autumn: Time to Make Mulled Cider

by Danielle Charles

From The Teacup Chronicles

Basket of ApplesWhen the leaves begin to turn and the air turns chill, when the fields are full of pumpkins and browning cornstalks, then it is time for cider. It should be the official drink of autumn, if you ask me. When I see it arrive on the shelves at the store, then I know, beyond any conceivable doubt, that summer days are now behind me.

Last night we had our first frost warning, and the air turned brisk with the hint of winter on its breath. The wood-stove was lit for the first time, and to celebrate we put a pan of cider filled with spice on top to bubble away and fill the house with its comforting sweetness and warmth. I must say, the scent of wood smoke, the feel of a warm blazing fire, and the scent of apple marrying with cloves and cinnamon is one of the real pleasures of life. It almost (and I say almost) makes one excited about the cold.

Picture of some Spices for mulled cidarWhile plain ol’ cider is wonderful, mulled cider is a thing perfectly suited in all ways for a chilly day. To hold the warm mug in your hands, inhale steam laced with notes of apple and orange peel, taste sweetness and feel the spice in your belly – is warming in a deeply comforting way. We make it often on those brisk autumn evenings, sipping it huddled next the stove and listening the crackling of wood and wind howling down the chimney.  It is a yearly tradition, a ritual.

Aside from the usual warming spices, I like to throw in a handful of some rooty goodness as well: a little astragalus and Siberian ginseng, two roots that bolster the immune system and help the body adapt to the stress of seasonal changes. Both taste slightly sweet and mostly bland, so they lend little in flavor, but lots in goodness. Paired with all those blood moving, digestive fire kindling and antioxidant packed spices, mulled cider is not only delicious but a health-tonic as well!

A variety of spices can go into mulled cider, and it’s really up to personal preference (or for me, fishing around the spice cabinet and seeing what calls) what you will put in.  While the ingredients vary from night to night in our house, they most often include the following: a few thin slices of fresh ginger;  the zest of an orange; a few cinnamon sticks; a few cloves and star-anise pods; a bit of mace; a few juniper and allspice berries; a vanilla pod and a handful of astragalus and Siberian ginsing roots.  I’ve also been known to throw in some hawthorn berries, a few cardamom pods or even a bay leaf when the mood takes me.

The mulled Cider brothAll the ingredients are put into a pan with a half-gallon of cider, and left to simmer on very low heat (or perched atop the wood-stove) for a good 20-30 minutes with a cover on.  Once it’s mulled to your liking, strain it into mugs and top off with a bit of rum if it’s an extra cold night.

Cheers to the beginning of autumn!


Danielle Charles is a clinical herbalist living in central Vermont, USA.



Zenergo is a free activities-focused social manager for active adults networking through their real-life interests. On Zenergo you can create activities, groups and events around Cooking and the Culinary Arts, and other food and drink topics such as baking, barbeque, vegetarian cuisine, and chocolate, as well as wine and beer appreciation, fine distilled spirits and mixology, beer brewing and winemaking. Please visit the site at to learn how more about how Zenergo can Activate Your Life.


How to Plan Your Labor-Day BBQ

By Mac McCarthy, Zenergo

Throwing a BBQ this holiday weekend? It’s the end of summer, a perfect time to celebrate, reminisce, spend time with friends while the weather is still great.

If you invite more than a handful of people, a bit of planning and organizing can be a big help in guaranteeing your BBQ will turn out great. Let me recommend a social manager site like as a good way to organize: You can send invites, and you and your guests post pictures after the BBQ for all to enjoy.

Here are a few tips to ensure a great, well-run event:

* Send invites right away! The RSVPs will tell you how much food and drink you’ll need to get. Even if you plan to handle RSVPs personally or by phone, at least you’ll get on their calendars.

* Decide on the menu, and let your guests know. It can be simple and straightforward — “Meat, all kinds, on the barbie! And drinks!” Or you can get fancy, interesting, inventive – maybe have a theme — “Goodbye Summer, We’ll Miss You!”

* Let guests know what they can bring or contribute. Many people enjoy it more if they can help out in some way.

* Where? Your back yard? The local park? (Does the local park make you sign up for a space, or is it first-come first-serve, in which case send the kids over early to hold a good spot.)

* Hours? All day and well into the evening? Lunch only? Mid-afternoon to early evening? Let people know what to expect.

* Gather your gear: BBQ, instruments, tables, chairs enough for everyone, condiments, utensils, plates and glasses, beverages for all (remember the kids). Have reserves because you’ll run out of *something,* you can be sure!

* Plan the area layout: Where goes the BBQ? Closer to the house/kitchen to make it easy to carry food and utensils out and dirty dishes back; but not too close so you don’t fill the house with smoke (or flames!). Where to put the Tables? Make sure at last some tables and chairs are in the shade, please! Put the kids farther away from the grill and the food table, for safety’s sake. Think about the flow — people come here to pick up plates, there to get the cooked food, here for condiments, there for appetizers, and over there for tables and chairs, and where are the drinks?

* Prep the area: Does the grass need mowing? The yard need cleanup? (That’s what kids are made for!) Do your guests need signs posted pointing to the party location?

* Things to Do: Games for the kids, lawn games, party games. What about the adults? Do they like an active party, with lots of things to do? Or do they prefer to sit around, drink, eat, chat, and enjoy the peace and quiet?

* Practice: The day of BBQ isn’t the time to start learning how your brand-new rocket-science cooking system works – or how to BBQ if you’ve never done it before! If you need practice — then practice! Throw a small BBQ event for yourself and your family first, work the kinks out….!

* Weather: Will it be an issue? If so, have a Plan B. If it’s hot and sunny, is there enough shade?, consider a pop-up shade tent or canopy.

* Decorations, or no? Lots of ways to go here: Bright table cloths, balloons, hanging decorations from the trees, stapling them to the house — even wearing decorative hats, and aprons with funny sayings.

* Music? A CD player can add nice background ambience, as long as it’s not too loud — nor too experimental!

* Leftovers! Remember to have containers you guests can take home….!

* Here’s an example of a BBQ event created on Zenergo. You can put as many details as you like, including a map of the location if needed. It’s free, it’s easy, give it a try!

6 Good Ways To Get Better At Cooking

By Mac McCarthy,

Keywords: Practice cooking, recipe night, progressive dinner, progressive lunch, potluck, cooking class, find cooking friends.

One of the great things about cooking is that there’s always something new to learn, master, enjoy. There are styles of cooking and cuisines from many cultures; you can get into vegetarian cooking, or decide you just want to improve the quality of what you eat without splurging on restaurants; you can decide to master a particular food and enter contests and festivals. There’s food-and-wine pairing (a whole topic in itself) and BBQ (another whole topic in itself) and baking (ditto).

You might be just out of college and ready to get into cooking for yourself now that the cafeteria is no longer available. You may have decided that more skillful cooking will improve your family’s health and save money. You may simply enjoy the process of mastering recipes and delighting friends and family with your discoveries.

This short guide gives you a few tips on starting your journey getting into cooking. Enjoy!


To get started, you need a little bit of time, a customer to eat your experiments, and probably a regular schedule so you can make progress.

You also need to practice – practice the same recipe several times until you’re satisfied with it. Then practice a few more times with changes and twists and tweaks, see what happens.

You also need to decide what exactly you’re trying to accomplish:

  • Become a decent all-around cook, for yourself or for your family
  • Learn cuisines and styles you love most
  • Explore new cooking techniques, recipes, cuisines.
  • Compete — show off, or enter contests, or stick it to some insufferable twit–I mean, your mother-in-law, your always-superior sister, your boss, that smug woman at church.
  • Be able to bring something good to your weekly lunch, monthly event, or progressive lunch, something you’re proud of. Not to compete, but to be able to hold your head up, and get a compliment once in a while.
  • Broaden your taste horizons with styles, movements, and cuisines you don’t know yet.
  • Improve your family’s healthy eating.
  • Become known in your circle as the gourmet cook.
  • Save money.
  • You just enjoy cooking, and the more you learn, the more you enjoy it.


Practice, practice, practice!

Like every artistic endeavor, becoming a good cook means practice — lots and lots of hopefully delicious practice! It helps if you have some sort of regular activity the schedule your cooking around. And victims — that is to say, people who will more-or-less willingly eat what you are learning to cook. If your spouse and/or your children tend to resist your innovations, you may need to tackle the problem another way.

In that case, you might set up one or more of these regular cooking opportunities:

Recipe night — Declare one night of each week (or month, if you’re really busy or the family is really resistant) as Recipe Night: This is the night when you will try some new recipe, new cuisine, or new technique, and practice on your family, your roommates, or your cooking group.

Progressive Lunch/Dinner — This is a classic: With your likeminded friends, set up a schedule by which you will hold a lunch or dinner every certain period (say, weekly), with the host rotating each week. The host can prepare the entire repast, or, more commonly, it’s a potluck, perhaps on a theme, that lets each member practice on the group.

Test recipes at parties...

Parties are perfect for testing new recipes on unsuspecting friends.

Potluck Events — We have a monthly wine event that is like a cocktail party but with wine instead of cocktails. It’s a potluck, with each person bringing some food to share. This lets you concentrate on one special dish to show off. We have been known to bring the same dish several months in a row, until we’ve gotten it down the way we like it — and then try variations on the theme. Since the type of wine being served each month changes, we sometimes have to change up with different dishes, so our “repeat” dishes are spread out over the year.

Roommates — One of our children, who had never expressed interest in the cooking tutorials my wife pressed on her during her high-school years, changed her tune when she moved into an apartment with three other women, and they decided to rotate the dinner chores each week. Our daughter found herself having to learn how to cook a chicken dinner for four, so we got frantic calls from a city far away. Eventually her confidence grew, and she branched out to roasts and other dishes. Her competitiveness drove her to want to do a good job, far more powerfully than any nagging from her parents!

Classes — You can take every kind of cooking class you can imagine, for every kind of meal and every kind of cuisine. It’s especially good for learning tricky stuff — a cuisine you don’t know well enough to know what you’re doing, a dish that requires special handling, or a type of food that the cookbook just doesn’t seem to explain right for you. My wife took a class in preparing Chinese Broccoli Beef, a dish that from the cookbook tasted sort-of OK but not really like you get in a Chinese restaurant. The teacher showed the class a secret ingredient that made all the difference — and now her Broccoli Beef dish is exactly like that from the best Chinese restaurants. You can fit cooking classes into your schedule, with multiday courses, or one-evening one-dish classes, or all-day Saturday crash courses.

“Mom” — If you don’t have Mom to teach you new dishes or improved cooking techniques, there may be someone in your circle or in your neighborhood who’s known for superb cooking. It’s possible you could persuade this wonderful cook to take you in hand and teach you her or his secrets and techniques — kind of a Cooking Mom!

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Using Zenergo to Get Together with Cooking Friends, and organize your cooking Groups and Events.

Our site, Zenergo, is especially good as a one-stop shop for your cooking interests.

You can set up your cooking group (or start one) to learn, practice, and enjoy cooking–a progressive lunch group, for example, or a winetasting group for which you can prepare wine-pairing foods. The Group serves as a base from which you create and manage specific regular events. Zenergo lets you maintain a group membership list so you can easily message everyone, store recipe documents, post pictures, share a calendar.

Set up your cooking Events, such as progressive lunches, gourmet-cooking events, regular dinners, parties, or events that involve or require food. The events can be tied to a related group, or freestanding; recurring or one-time-only. With Zenergo, the Event has its own calendar, attendees, privacy levels, and photo albums to share.

When you join Zenergo (it’s free and pretty straightforward, and we follow all the member-privacy guidelines), you can type the word “cooking” into the text box where it says “What Do You Like To Do?” Choices of Activities will show up, including “Cooking/Culinary Arts,” and “Vegetarian and Vegan Cuisine.” (There’s also “Dieting and Weight Loss,” but this probably isn’t the time for that!)  Here’s an example of the Cooking Activity profile page for me. See all the choices?

By the way, there’s also a BBQ activity — type the word “BBQ” into the text box to find that one. BBQ’s a whole world of its own, isn’t it? And a Baking activity, with its own list of specialties.



  • If you’re learning a brand-new recipe, it’s a good idea to follow the recipe exactly the first few times you make it. Don’t leave out ingredients (“I don’t like that one/I don’t have any of that handy”), don’t change amounts (“That’s too much sugar!”), don’t experiment — yet. First you want to see how it turns out as written. Once you’ve mastered that recipe, you can start fiddling with the ingredients and timing to make that recipe your own.
  • Practice practice practice — Like any art, cooking is a skill set that rewards familiarity with your materials, and that only comes with practice. Don’t be surprised — or disappointed — when a recipe doesn’t turn out the way you expected. (Don’t even be disappointed when you have to throw out a failed experiment!) Pull yourself together and try again — you’ll get the hang of that recipe next time, or the time after that. (It helps to have someone around who is willing to eat whatever you come up with.)
  • Gear doesn’t matter as much as you think it does! Don’t put off getting into cooking until you’ve got “the right” pots, pans, knives, electrical gadgets, and stove. Start with what you have — good equipment makes things easier, but it’s not critical. As you master the art of cooking, you can selectively upgrade your tools — you’ll actually know what matters. Don’t run the risk of becoming a Shopping Cook – someone who buys cookbooks by the linear yard, has DVDs lined up at the computer, is waiting for the Viking Stove to be installed, has a pot and pan set worth more than their car — and still can’t figure out when the boiling water is ready! (Every area has this problem: The skier with the great equipment who can’t get down the hill without hitting a tree; the painter with pricey easel and a custom artist’s studio who hasn’t finished a single painting yet. Don’t be that person!) You can start with cooking using only limited gear. (Good ingredients are more important.)
  • Handling picky eaters. Your kids won’t eat anything they haven’t seen before, that doesn’t have an action figure, or that’s green. Or maybe that’s your spouse! The ideal would be to raise kids who don’t pick at their food, but that may be asking the impossible. Don’t fret, don’t fight, don’t get discouraged. Ease into introducing novel cooking items at the dinner table, find some cooking friends (on Zenergo) with whom you can share your culinary passions, and be patient: Kids grow up, and one fine day they’ll actually ask you how to make that “fabulous” item they remember so fondly (your memory of that item may vary).

Add your comments below — if you can help others get excited about cooking, please let us know!