Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thai Celery Salad and the Importance of Fish Sauce

I've been making this Thai Celery Salad, courtesy of the good folks at Bon Appetit, for a few months now. It, as they say, is Super Good. There are just a handful of ingredients and they some together for a delightfully clean and crunchy side salad.

It's one of several menu items that contain fish sauce, a condiment I now always have on hand. In my early days experimenting with fish sauce I bought the small glass bottles produced by Thai Kitchen. Now that I use it more frequently (fish sauce also goes into my Cauliflower Curry and Pad Thai) I've graduated to larger bottles sourced in the Thai market on Broadway or in the well-stocked isles of Treasure Island. Lately I've been using Tiparos which comes in a plastic bottle, but I prefer big glass bottles, tho lately they're hard to source.

I'm going to lose some of you here with this fact: Fish sauce is anchovy. And yes, I'm a huge fan of the anchovy, but I really don't think that drives my fondness for the sauce. It's an integral flavor in Thai cooking, and one almost singlehandedly makes whatever you're preparing taste like Thai food. What I'm saying is this, if you like Thai food and are interesting in adding some Thai recipes to your repertoire - don't let being an Anchovy Hater hold you back. Here's that recipe:

6-8 stalks celery, trimmed, washed and sliced on a diagonal 3 green onions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 cup cilantro, chopped
3 T canola oil
2 T lime juice, freshly squeezed
1 T fish sauce
Fresh ground pepper 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, chopped

Chop celery, green onion and cilantro and add to a small mixing bowl. Add fish sauce, lime juice, canola oil and a few turns of pepper and mix to combine. Let sit about 15 minutes to marinate. Transfer to a serving bowl. Top with chopped peanuts and serve.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

CDC Advisory: Don't _______ that Chicken!

Mad Libs! Does anyone play it in the winter? Mad Libs reminds me of summer road trips and lying around in the cool basement being bored enough to play Mad Libs by myself. Anyway, two verbs apply to the title of this post. Try to pick them among this list:

- mollycoddle
- beget
- encourage
- kiss
- endorse
- defeat
- befriend
- wash
- catfish
- underestimate
- reach out to
- connect with

Guess yet?

The correct answers are KISS and WASH. There's been some reporting on the former in the past few months. Turns out the rise of backyard chicken coops is causing an increase in Salmonella infections. Because people who keep chickens become endeared to them, and kiss them. Even those who shy away from physical expressions of love with their pets are at risk: just having them around in your living space puts you at risk. A healthy chicken can still get you very sick - essentially, they've got germs all over their feathers, feet and beaks. Letting the chicken cross the threshold invites disaster.

As for washing, we're now talking about a bird you're ready to eat. It doesn't matter if it's a whole chicken, or a skinless boneless breast, or a pile of chicken wings and drummettes: don't wash them before cooking. Doing so merely spreads the germs you washed off the bird all over your sink, splattering counters and utensils. I've written about this before around Thanksgiving because I brine the turkey with kosher salt and it needs to be rinsed and the whole thing makes me twitchy about poisoning our guests (not twitchy enough to stop brining, tho).

Brush up on your food safety here at the USDA site. And don't Snapchat that chicken!

Referenced above:
Backyard Chickens Linked to Salmonella Outbreaks, CDC Says 

Risk of Human Salmonella Infections from Live Baby Poultry 
Why Washing Raw Chicken Could Be Hazardous To Your Health

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Can Your Sweet Tooth be Retrained?

There were two big sugar events this week. First, a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough was produced. Our practice concerning cookies is ordered around the empirical truth that cookies are only good when fresh baked (further chronicled here). We make dough and roll it into logs. One log goes in the freezer and the other stays in the fridge. Individual cookies are baked off for treats on an as needed basis. That this practice also precludes overindulgence is not lost on the nutrition hawk in me.

The second event was that we took delivery on a 10-pound bag of glucose (a/k/a dextrose powder). Quick chemistry on glucose: glucose and its chubby cousin, fructose, are monosaccharides. Put together they form sucrose, yes, a disaccharide. Sucrose is what's in your sugar bowl. That batch of cookies called for 3/4 cup of white granulated sugar and another 3/4 cup of light brown sugar (1). Whether your sugar bowl contains sugar-in-the-raw, or those fancy La Perruche sugar cubes I like so much, or white granulated table sugar you assumed originated from sugar cane but is actually from beets, it's all sucrose. It's all the same chemistry.

Once ingested, enzymes break sucrose back down into fructose and glucose. Your body needs glucose, it is a source of energy needed by cells (2). Your body does not need dietary fructose - it heads straight to the liver where the excess (most of it) is turned into fat. (3) This is old news, tho it would have been helpful information for my college girlfriends and I to have understood in the mid-90s TCBY craze.

[Did we not learn anything from TCBY? Frozen yogurt is back and it's bigger than before - and now it's there's candy and you can fill your own massive bowl.]

Glucose is either used immediately for energy or stored in muscle cells or the liver (4). Unlike fructose, insulin is secreted in response to elevated concentrations of glucose. (5) If that sounds like there's a difference between what glucose and fructose do in your body, you're right: researchers at the University of California Davis reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that high fructose consumption puts individuals at greater risk of developing heart disease and diabetes than ingesting a similar amount of glucose. (6)

Consumers and food producers limit sugar intake by using less, or by using natural or artificial sugar substitutes. It's important to note that your body doesn't differentiate between natural sugars. It doesn't matter if it's Lucky Charms or Fruit Juice Sweetened Corn Flakes. There's no difference between the sugars in a juicy grapefruit, the honey in your tea, the tomatoes in your marinara, or the cabernet in your glass - your body metabolizes it all the same way. What does matter is the amount, and - in my understanding - the glucose/fructose ratio. That ratio is the cause of the rage against high fructose corn syrup, and the science behind debunking the myth of agave which can contain 97% fructose (manufacturing processes differ and so do fructose levels). As for artificial sweeteners - which are neither carbohydrates nor nutritive - aside from the unknown unintended consequences, my main concern is that they hype our collective sweet tooth (7). Diet sodas have very specific amount of sweetener, and if that's the amount you're used to, your sweet tooth won't be satiated with less.

What we need to do is retrain our sweet tooth and get back to more reasonable sugar consumption levels. We can start doing this by drinking more water and less juice and soda. Reduce sugar every time you cook or bake (if a recipe calls for a cup, just use 2/3 - you won't ruin anything, trust me). Finally, look at nutrition labels carefully and try, with every choice, to consume less.

This morning I added a small teaspoon of glucose to my coffee. No cloying aftertaste, it just tasted like I cut back on my sugar. On the tongue glucose tastes just like table sugar - just a watered-down version - which is exactly what it should taste like, being half sugar. The texture is similar to superfine sugar.

I will report back on my baking-with-glucose experiments. In the meanwhile, should you want to try it, glucose (sold as dextrose powder) can be sourced on Amazon.

(1) Brown sugar being simply refined white sugar to which molasses (a byproduct of the refining process) has been added back in.
(2) Glucose -

(3) How Bad is Fructose? - American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
(4) What is the Difference Between Sucrose, Glucose & Fructose? - SF Gate
(5) and (6) All Sugars Aren't the Same: Glucose Is Better, Study Says - TIME
(7) Added Sugars - Harvard Medical School

More interesting reading on measuring sugar density:  What is Brix? from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Not Quite Winging It

I was a terrible waitress. It's due to the same reasons why I'd have made a terrible line cook: I don't work well under pressure. I like to show up early and methodically work through my list. Pastry always suited me well in that regard. Cooks in the sweet kitchen show up early and work until the line cooks gradually take over all your counter space, usually around 3pm. Jockeying for work space is an everyday battle in professional kitchens. It's common occurrence to step away from your station for a moment and return to find your neighbor has casually installed half his mise en place right up against your cutting board (cutting boards being the mark of territory on the line, and respecting a 3-inch easement around your neighbor's cutting board is just common courtesy).

I'm thinking about waitressing because earlier I called up my memory of how the cooks at Rockwell's used to make Buffalo sauce for wings. Rockwell's was a strip mall, casual dining place in the same vein as Chotchkie's, a/k/a the place where Jennifer Anniston worked in Office Space. Rockwell's produced mainstream American junk meals (wings, hamburgers, fries, salad with creamy dressing, pasta with creamy sauce, that kind of stuff). I worked there the summer after I graduated college, and thank goodness, since I am going to make chicken wings this weekend, and I want them to be as awesome as the ones they made there.

I had Buffalo wings for the first time - thankfully! - in Buffalo, NY, the city from which they originated. I was there in high school with a few friends and a teacher for a student government conference or something. All I remember from that weekend was the thrill of flying somewhere with friends, and the dive bar where Mr. Jones took us for wings. Oh, and we played Name that Tune in the rental car, and the freshman kicked everyone's butt. I remember that too.

My estimation of what makes wings so perfectly delicious is that 1) they are fried, and 2) they are subsequently slathered in butter. I didn't want to deep fry them for two reasons: 1) hello, totally unhealthy and 2) I don't have the right pan. That left broiling as the only option. This is what you do to prep the wings:

Step 1: Preheat broiler
Step 2: Cut the wings into three parts, discarding the wing tips
Step 3: Toss the wings with 1-2 tablespoons canola oil and transfer to a baking sheet
Step 4: Broil 6 min on each side, turning them midway
Step 5: Mix together The Sauce
Step 6: Toss the broiled wings in the sauce. Serve with celery and blue cheese dressing

To come up with the recipe for The Sauce, I jogged my memory of what the cooks did at Rockwell's. One of the guys showed me how he made the giant pot of sauce. It involved many, many bottles of Tabasco and Frank's Red Hot, and pounds of butter. To reproduce the recipe, I determined the ratio of the two hot sauces by the bottle size: the bottle of Tabasco is 5 ounces and the bottle of Franks's is 12 ounces. The restaurant was using industrial sized bottles, but the Frank's bottles were definitely bigger. I settled on a 2:1 ratio of Frank's to Tabasco and really like the flavor.  Here's that recipe:

Pinch Buffalo Wing Sauce
Print recipe only here

Generously sauces one dozen whole wings (24 pieces once the wings are cut)

12 whole chicken wings (you will cut them)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt **reduce the salt to a pinch if using salted butter**
2 tablespoons Tabasco
1/4 cup Frank's Red Hot

Add all the ingredients to a small pot and swirl over a low to medium heat just until the butter is melted. Toss with the broiled wings once cooked through, or on top of anything you want.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

On Life, Lemons, and Limoncello

What should one expect when expecting a lemon? Do I need to find a citrus doula and book a lake view suite at Prentice?

I've had a lemon tree for four or five years, and my first fruit is highly anticipated. The tree has produced lots of flowers over the years but the little fruits were weak, jumping from the branch like lemmings when touched by even the gentlest breeze. The problem, I think, was due to general plant weakness from scale. Repotting, pruning, thorough descaling, and regular washing got rid of the scale enabled the tree to gain strength. Most people call this sort of activity gardening. I called it getting all up in a tree's business. Whatever you call it, it worked. Over the summer, its newfound confidence and strength enabled my tree to hold onto one of its fruits.  The lemon is nearly full term now, ripening from a deep green to light green, and taking its sweet time. It's going to be hard to cut into it. The tree has at least twenty flowers on it right now but I'm not expecting a bumper crop, or even a second lemon.

The saying goes, when life hands you lemons, vodka, and 151-proof grain alcohol, you make Limoncello. In possession of all three this past fall, I sought a recipe and embarked on a 16-week curing and bottling experiment. I'm told by my father that it was successful endeavor. I couldn't tell you myself because I cannot stand limoncello - too much alcohol in one place. My dad and step-mom were the inspiration and principal beneficiaries for this project. They both love limoncello and since their birthdays are in the fall and winter, they were both on my heart throughout the project.

Want to make it yourself? Here's the recipe I followed. And here's some pictures from the adventure:

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There is a Way to Make Kettle Corn Without Burning the Sugar

I don't want to spoil any surprises, so I can't reveal much about what's coming out of the Pinch kitchen this holiday season. I haven't made too many cookies yet - just a batch of apricot Rugelach. I've had a hankering for those Coconut Macaroons and suspect those will get turned out soon. The younger bakers are trying to master Tara's 3D Christmas Tree Cookies and the French classic, Buche du Noel. We made a gorgeous buche several years ago - meringue mushrooms and all - and I don't seem to have captured a photo.

What I can tell you is that we've revamped the kettle corn recipe to make it completely fool proof and way tastier. Making kettle corn is tricky because recipes generally advise you to pop the corn in sugar and sugar likes to burn at high temps. It's difficult to keep the temp high enough to pop all the kernels and low enough to keep the sugar from caramelizing. Several years ago, while standing in line at Garrett's Popcorn, I watched as the popcorn monkey tossed plain popcorn with caramel and tucked the idea away. A few weeks ago I tried out different methods of adding the sugar to already popped corn to come up with the best result. Here it is:

New and Improved Kettle Corn
Print recipe only here

Serves 1 to 4, depending on degree of self-discipline

1/2 cup popcorn kernels
3 T canola oil
1/4 cup sugar
2 T water
1 t salt (or salt to taste)

Set out a serving bowl and oven mitts. Measure sugar and water into a small saucepan. Warm over medium high heat, swirling until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Turn off heat and reserve.

Set a large stainless steel pot - one you have a cover for - over a medium high flame and add the canola oil. After a minute, add the popcorn kernels and cover. Once the popcorn is popping vigorously, lower heat slightly and stay close. As soon as the popcorn has finished popping, lift the cover and quickly pour the sugar syrup over the popcorn. Working quickly, replace the cover and pick up the entire pot, and shake to distribute the syrup, taking care to keep the cover in place. You could also try to stir the sugar syrup in, but I find this method tends to break up the popcorn.

Pour the coated corn into your serving bowl and add salt. Serve and enjoy!

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why Your Pie Crust Shrunk

Thanksgiving is nigh and pie making questions have begun trickling in. I've posted before on pie crusts, focusing on the baking. Most pie crusts are baked twice. The first time, with no filling, is called Blind Baking. There's no special word for the second time. I always blind bake, even if the recipe doesn't direct it, because the crust is flakier and drier. Especially for a pumpkin pie. I just follow the recipe on the back of the Libby's can, substituting half and half for whatever nasty canned dairy product (evaporated milk, prolly) it is they call for instead.

But when your pie crust doesn't come out right, baking is just one thing that went wrong. The questions I get are always related to shrinking, though not many bakers realize it  They just know that they spent a lot of time getting the pie crust to look just right, only to bake it and have its shape morph like a drunk's face.

A few easy steps will prevent this from happening. They're all pretty much equally important. Here they are:

1. Don't overmix the dough. When you mix it (adding the butter and ice water), stop immediately when it begins to come together in the bowl. Chunks of butter chunks should be visible in your rolled pie dough. That mottled appearance promises a flaky crust.

2. Don't overhandle the dough. Heat, generated by your hands, room temperature, and by kneading and handling the dough, is the enemy of many pastry doughs.

3. Use the exact right amount of flour while rolling. This sounds like an impossible order, but don't despair - it takes practice in knowing how much flour to add, and it all depends on the natural humidity in your flour - which can vary greatly - so there's no way for me to tell you how much you will need. The general idea is that too much stickiness will cause you to stretch and pull your dough too much, overworking it, and activating the gluten. On the other hand, too much will dry out the crust and make it tougher and less flaky. Add flour sparingly while rolling, and roll gently. And don't forget to rotate your crust while rolling, flipping it over to ensure it's not sticking to the counter.

4. Once you have a nice big round of pie dough rolled out, let it sit on the counter for 5-10 min before you transfer it to the pie tin. This step allows the gluten to relax before you force it into the pie tin.

5. Lower the dough into the pie tin and firmly press the dough into corners and side edges of pie tin. You don't want to press so firmly that you leave big dents, but enough to encourage the dough to stay put. I like fluted tart shells for this reason - you just press the dough into the fluted sides and it stays put.

6. Chill, baby, chill! You MUSTMUSTMUST chill the lined pie shell for at least an hour before baking. !MUST! Chilling helps for a few reasons: it resolidifies the butter, ensuring a flaky crust, and it allows the gluten to relax. If I run out of room in the fridge, I just use the freezer. No real difference there.

7. The Weight. If you follow 1-6 but not #7 your crust will probably still shrink a little. Why? Heat from the oven will naturally relax the gluten even more. There are two ways to combat this: one by using pie weights, the other with just tin foil. For the pie weight method you will need some parchment paper and something to fill it with - I use rice, dry beans, and have heard of people using pennies, or the ceramic pie weights they sell in specialty shops. Just make sure that your parchment will be able to lift whatever you fill it with (you don't want to end up with dry rice or pennies in your pie crust if the parchment breaks during removal). Bake for about 20-25 minutes at 350, then remove the pie weights, prick the bottom all over with a form, and bake the crust for another 10 minutes. It's done when you see a smidgen of color, and no raw looking parts.

My preferred method these days is referenced here and involves simply spraying the shiny side of a large piece of tin foil with baking spray and pressing it very firmly to the pie crust and wrapping it up and over the sides of the pie tin. Bake for 20-25 minutes and you should be good to go. This method cuts baking time down a bit since there's less interference between the crust and the heat.

There it is. It's likely not going to be my final words on the subject, but maybe a few more pies will be camera ready this Thanksgiving. Good luck!

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