Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sugar Free Blueberry Sauce

Blueberry Sauce on Waffles
Fruit Sauce = Compote
I like to have Blueberry compote on my frozen waffles, mainly because it makes me feel virtuous since the sauce counts as a serving of fruit. 

There is no sugar added in this recipe, it's easy to make, relatively cheap, and doesn't taste like fake food.

A twelve ounce bag of berries makes about 5-6 servings of sauce. This recipe works great with cheap berries that are too sour for smoothies.

1 (12 oz) bag Frozen Blueberries
1 cup Orange Juice
2-3 tablespoons Cornstarch
Optional: 2 packs Splenda, 2 tbsp sugar-free jam, OR 2 tbsp frozen juice concentrate
Optional: ½ tsp Lemon extract or lemon zest

Put the blueberries and most of the orange juice in a medium saucepan or microwave-safe bowl. Reserve about 2 tbsp of the orange juice in the measuring cup. Cook blueberries and orange juice on medium (or microwave full power) about 7-10 minutes until they are fully thawed and start to pop or break down.

Add 2-3 tbsp cornstarch to the reserved orange juice in the measuring cup, stir to make a slurry. DO NOT add dry cornstarch directly to the cooking pot. Add the slurry to the cooking berries and boil for 1 more minute until the milky color disappears and the liquid tightens up into a gel - then remove from heat.

It usually needs sweetening, but it depends on how sweet the berries were originally. Most of the time I use two packs of Splenda and it still tastes like real food.

If you want to get fancy you can add ½ teaspoon of lemon extract or a pinch of lemon zest if you have one around. Truthfully I usually throw a tiny pinch of salt in there too, but if you aren't crazy about salt you might not miss it.

You can add a pinch of baking soda to shift the color of the sauce from red-ish to blue-ish because the naturally pigments are pH sensitive. This will also make the sauce less tart so it might need less sweetening.

Great on frozen waffles, pancakes, pound cake, or angel food cake. Divine with a a little Whip cream or Cool Whip.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

9 Really Different Ways to Use Turkey Leftovers

Thai Peanut Noodle
Q: How can I use leftover Turkey ?

A: Use leftover turkey in place of rotisserie chicken or cooked diced chicken breast:

1. Turkey Soup
2. Turkey Pot Pie
3. Cafe Salad

4. Boursin Pasta Primavera
5. Mole' Turkey Tacos
6. Muffletta Wraps

7. Turkey and Smoked Andoullie Jambalaya
8. Chicken Curry in a Hurry
9. Thai Peanut Noodles with Turkey

Store that Bird
Pull the meat from the bird, then shred or chop into bite sized chunks. Portion the meat into zip lock bags in family sized portions. It's best to freeze meat you won't use in the next couple days. You can save the bones for soup. If you won't be making soup by the next day, also wrap them tightly and freeze.

To protect the meat from freezer burn you have to remove as much air as possible. My trick is to add a small amount of chicken broth. The broth displaces the air around the individual pieces and lets you push the air bubbles out of the top. I tend to use a gallon sized Ziploc and push the meat towards the bottom. Then I can fold the empty top half of the bag under to make the bag more brick-shaped so that it's easier to store.

To thaw I put the bundle in a second bag, in case the bag with the meat has gotten damaged during storage. Then I thaw it out in bowl filled with very hot tap water. As the meat thaws you may be able to sort of break it up (while still in the bag) to speed up the process. Drain the broth off if you need the meat for wraps or salad, but if you are making a saucy dish I probably wouldn't bother.

Since this post is about leftovers, the directions below assume the meat has been frozen with broth and may need to be drained. If you are making one of these dishes the next day, just ignore that part.

More mileage from your cooking!

1. Thrown Together Soup:
Dice Carrot, Onion, and Celery. Saute in a little oil or butter until the onion becomes translucent. Add the turkey meat, enough broth to cover + 3 cups. Add ½ cup of white rice (uncooked) and 1 tsp Italian herb blend, plus salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Simmer gently until the rice is cooked and the veggies are tender.

2. Crazy Simple Pot Pie:
Cook a steamer bag of mixed veggies, combine with turkey meat and leftover gravy. If you don't have any left over gravy you can use packet gravy in a pinch, or make a sauce with 1 cup of (room temp) broth combined with 1 tbsp corn starch. Simmer the broth until thickened and use in place of gravy. Pour into 9x9 square dish and top with puffed pastry. Bake as directed for puff pastry (on the box) or until the filling is bubbling hot and the top is golden brown.

3. Cafe Salad:
Drain the meat, and shake off extra liquid. Toss meat with dark baby greens, dried cranberries, walnuts, feta cheese, and a diced pear (optional). Dress with a balsamic vinaigrette.

4. Boursin Pasta Primavera:
Boil water and cook penne pasta as directed on package. Drain broth from turkey meat. Dice one yellow bell pepper, and halve a pint of cherry tomatoes. Microwave a steamer pack of asparagus or other appealing green veggie. In a 5 qrt pot or dutch oven saute the yellow bell pepper, add turkey meat to heat through. One minute before the pasta is done, add the cherry tomatoes to the meat and veggies. Drain the pasta and add to the mixture. Immediately add one package of Boursin Herb and Garlic Cheese or other soft herbed cheese like Alloutte, toss to coat.

5. Mole Turkey Tacos (Adapted from Weight Watchers)
Saute a diced onion in a little oil. Add 1 tbsp chili powder, 1 tbsp cocoa powder, 1 tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp oregano, and ½ tsp cinnamon. Cook spices with onion 1 minute. Add 1 can diced tomato and a drained can of pinto beans. Drain Turkey and add to sauce. Simmer 15-20 minutes until heated through and somewhat thickened, add salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce is too liquid-y, use a cornstarch slurry to thicken it. A cornstarch slurry is 1 tbsp cornstarch combined with 1 tbsp room temp water, stirred until smooth and added to a sauce, then the sauce must be boiled for 1 minute to get rid of the raw flour taste. Serve the meat in taco shells with lettuce, shredded cheese, and salsa.

6. Turkey Muffletta Wraps:
Drain Turkey, shake off excess liquid. Drain 1 jar of roasted red pepper strips (packed in water NOT vinegar). Mince about 15 kalamata olives, or use a couple tablespoons of chopped black olives. Crumble one package of goat cheese. Combine meat, peppers, olives, and cheese. Toss with enough Italian dressing to coat and allow flavors to mingle 20-60 minutes if possible. Traditionally mufflettas filling goes inside day-old baguette which is wrapped in foil and baked, but I make mine more like Chimichangas. Heat skillet to medium high and add enough cooking oil to cover the bottom with ¼ to ½ layer of oil. Place a modest scoop of filling on large tortilla and fold into a flat-ish burrito. Pan-fry seam side down for a couple minutes until golden. Flip and repeat. Drain on paper towels, then hold in a warm oven if nessesary.

7. Turkey and Smoked Andouille Jambalaya:
Dice 1 large onion, 2 green bell peppers, and 2 stalks of celery. Saute with oil in a 5 qrt pot or dutch oven until the liquid has evaporated and the veggies begin to caramelize and turn brown. Add 4 cloves of minced garlic. Add one can of diced tomatoes (or hot diced tomatoes), smoked (cooked) sausage, turkey meat, 1 ½ cups of white rice (uncooked), and 3 cups of chicken broth. Cook until rice is tender and serve.

8. Chicken Curry in a Hurry:
My recipe is here. To substitute with theleftover meat, simply make the sauce and heat the drained turkey in the sauce - skipping the section where you saute the raw chicken meat.

9. Thai Peanut Noodles:
Slice 1 bunch of green onions, keeping the white and green separate. In a small saucepan gently saute the white part in a little oil. Bring a pot of water to a rapid boil (wait to add the noodles). Remove from the heat. Add ½ cup peanut butter, 1/3 cup chicken broth, 2 tbsp low sodium soy sauce, 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 1 ½ tbsp dark sesame oil, 1 tbsp brown sugar, and two shakes of Cayenne (less than a pinch). Return the saucepan to a burner set to medium and add the turkey to warm through. 

Use ASIAN wheat noodles, they look like spaghetti but cook in 2 minutes. In a pinch ramen noodles would work, just throw out the flavor packets. Add the noodles to the boiling water, and cook according to directions. The authentic ones look quite powdery in the package - that's a hint that after being drained they must be rinsed or they will turn your sauce gluey. Serve with julienned red bell pepper, (seeded) thinly sliced cucumber, and/or chopped cilantro. 

Done & Done, eat it up Yum!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How to Read a Cake Recipe

Cupcakes for my Lil' Guy
My very first post was about Cake Ratios and it's still my most popular post...

Here I share how I "spot  check” a recipe to see if it's sensible before I start...

I've focused on a recipe that is the first one I learned to make from scratch when I learned how to bake about 20 years ago. 

Recently, I made it for my son's birthday and realized it's a perfect example because of the short list of ingredients and volumes that are easy to convert to weights.

Betty Crocker's Starlight Yellow Cake
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups milk
3 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs

Step 1: Convert Cups to Ounces
Baking can seem tricky because it depends specific reactions for success... so reading one can feel like a Test question: “Eight ingredients are riding on a bus... which ingredients get window seats?”

Wait... What? Don't panic. Like Standardized test questions, there IS a trick... baking reactions are really dependent on weights - not volumes.

So the first step is to convert those amounts into weights. Change the fractions into a decimal format (½ cup = 0.5 cup etc.). Then multiply by the ounces below to get numbers that are easy to compare. Only convert ingredients that are measured in cups, plus eggs. I Don't worry about converting amounts for teaspoon sized ingredients: salt, baking soda, baking powder, or flavor extracts.

Conversion Factors
All Purpose Flour is ~ 4 oz per cup
White Granulated Sugar is ~ 7 oz per cup
Butter is 4 oz per stick (½ cup)
Large Eggs are ~ 1.75 ounces each
Milk is 8 oz ~ per cup

Math for Starlight Yellow Cake
2.25 cups of FLOUR x 4 oz per cup = 9 oz flour
1.5 cups of SUGAR x 7 oz per cup = 10.5 oz sugar
½ cup BUTTER (1 stick) = 4 oz
3 large EGGS x 1.75 oz each = 5.25 oz egg
1.25 cups MILK x 8 oz per cup = 10 oz milk

Step 2: Compare Weights
Butter Cakes work when four factors are in a certain balance. If you get more than 20% outside these parameters the result may not turn out as cake. Too far out of ratio and you are making a different thing all together (birthday tortilla anyone?)

Does a recipe make a birthday cake? 

Q1: Is there slightly more SUGAR than FLOUR?
Q2: Is there slightly more EGG than FAT?
Q3: Is there slightly more LIQUID than SUGAR?
Q4: Is there enough LEAVENING for the FLOUR?

Starlight Yellow Cake Recipe (in ounces)
9 oz FLOUR
10.5 oz SUGAR
5.25 oz EGG
10 oz MILK
1 tsp. SALT

Note: Typical LEAVENING is 1 teaspoon BAKING POWDER per cup of flour - OR ¼ teaspoon BAKING SODA per cup of flour. Some recipes may include both.

Also note that the LIQUID includes the volume of eggs plus milk, and/or water COMBINED. If a recipe lists one or more tablespoons of liquid flavorings (coffee, liquor, etc), they should be included in the liquid weights too.

FOUR BIG ANSWERS for Starlight Yellow Cake
A1: YES, there is more Sugar (10.5 oz) than Flour (9 oz)
A2: YES, there is more Egg (5.25 oz) than Butter (4 oz)
A3: YES, there is more Liquid (10 oz + 5.25 oz) than Sugar (10.5 oz)
A4: YES, there is enough Leavening for the Flour (3.5 tsp vs. 2 cups)

Step 3: Flavor
The question “Chocolate or Vanilla?” might be your first thought when planning a menu - but it shouldn't be the deciding factor in picking WHICH recipe to follow. Make sure you actually have a butter cake recipe first!

Even a great brownie, muffin, torte, or soufflé will be disappointing if you wanted cake!

After the Four Big Cake Questions, think about flavor - is there enough included? A typical cake recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of flavor extract. This Starlight Yellow Cake could easily be made into a lemon cake just by changing the extract. 

Without extract, the main flavor would be egg yoke (think egg bagel etc). Modern recipes may limit the salt to improve the nutritional stats of their food on paper, it usually doesn't do the flavor any favors. Trust me, when you get a cake from the bakery, it has salt in it.

Substitutions = Fall from Grace?
Substitutions are hazardous in baking more than cooking because tweaking one ingredient can easily cause a cascade of changes that hurt the recipe. For example:

Butter is about 80% fat, if margarine with 60% fat is used instead, the effective fat ratio drops by about 20 percent, so 4 oz would act more like 3 oz. Since fat is critical for physical leavening and it limits gluten formation, the end result would be lower and tougher than ideal. If you also used less margarine than the recipe calls for the cake falls into the danger zone. Don't forget the the fat in margarine is replaced with water, so the batter may be soggy and look under-baked when all the other structural changes should really be complete.

A working recipe can also be pulled out of whack accidentally by flavor ingredients. For example: Cocoa powder is dry and powerfully bitter. To balance the bitterness additional sugar is needed to make a chocolate cake taste equally sweet as a vanilla cake. The powder will also soak up some of the liquid without adding to structure the way flour does. You could add more eggs... but the batter will still be a bit drier and might need to be spread into the pan...

... and just like that, you've stumbled into brownie territory!

Back to the Starlight Yellow Cake... (In theory) this recipe could be tweaked with up to 4.75 more ounces of sugar before it fell out of ratio. Basically this is a wiggle room of about ½ cup of sugar. (Math! 15.25 ounces of liquid [egg + milk], minus 10.5 ounces of sugar = 4.75 ounces.)

The end result is that SUGAR balance is the limiting factor in how chocolate-ly the Starlight Yellow Cake could get before hitting trouble. I.e. It might work to add 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and add ¼ cup of extra sugar to balance it out... (there is enough liquid to cover it). But if you wanted to use 1 cup of cocoa powder, then add 2 cups extra sugar, other changes would be needed.

Each change has it's own consequence. Adding extra leavening could make the batter bitter or soapy. Extra sugar could be used to reduce gluten formation but puts the cake at risk for over-browning, plus it may require additional liquid... and so on... 

Now you can see why there are thousands of recipes for cake... Hopefully this post makes it easier to spot good basic ones!

More Reading

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jade's "Any Bean" Dish

Kidney Beans
A friend of mine asked me what I would do with a pound of mixed (dried) beans... 
About cooking beans:
They can taste hollow without a source of umami so I tend to use bacon or saltpork... But it's possible that high quality stock and diced vegetables could be enough to substitute for the pork.

Here's what sounds good to me...

1 lb dried beans
2 - 4 tablespoons of butter or bacon grease
3 slices of bacon or 1 ounce of saltpork, diced
2-3 ribs celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced or shredded
1 large White or Yellow Onion, finely diced
4 + cloves garlic, minced
1 cup Mushrooms finely chopped
1 Gallon of Chicken or Ham Stock (four 32 oz Cartons)
½ teaspoon dried Thyme
Dash Ground Cayenne Pepper (under 1/16 teaspoon)
Salt & Pepper to taste

Pick through beans, soak overnight, then drain.

Prepare the vegetables. The combination celery, carrot, and onion is called a Mira Poix (meera - pwah) “the miracle three”. They are here for flavor, not texture so it's okay if they disintegrate as they cook. Therefore, the dice should be fairly small ~ 1/4” cubes, so that the liquid can pick up a lot of flavor from the vegetables.

If using bacon/ salt pork: Put 5 quart stock (or larger) pot on medium, add meat and allow to cook until nearly crispy. If the bacon grease is fully coating the bottom of the pan you may add 2 tablespoons of butter, if the pan is not evenly coated with bacon grease, add 4 tablespoons of butter.

Melt butter and allow to foam 1-2 minutes to boil off water. Once the water has evaporated the butter is more vulnerable to burning, so keep an eye on it.

Add onion, celery, and carrot and saute until softened and onion becomes translucent, Do not brown. Add garlic and mushrooms and cook 1-2 more minutes until softened but not browned.

Add Stock, thyme and cayenne to vegetables and simmer 10 minutes. Stock is used because it has less salt than broth, here the food should be salted at the end of cooking so that evaporation does not concentrate the salt and make the dish too salty. If your pot is dangerously full, just dipper out 1 - 2 cups of liquid and reserve until towards the end of cooking.

Add the (soaked) beans and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook with minimal stirring until beans are softened. Lentils could be done in 20 minutes, harder beans could take up to an hour. You may need to add a small amount of water to prevent the beans from scorching. Once it seems like "something you want to eat", it's done. Add Salt & pepper to taste.

If you do not use any bacon or butter the beans may be missing a mouthwatering flavor and taste flat or hollow. If you want to round out the flavor I would try ½ tsp of sugar (not to make it sweet just to counteract the other flavors), and/ or a pinch more cayenne.

Do NOT add any type of acid to the liquid BEFORE the beans are cooked!

Sources of acids include tomatoes, lemon/lime juice, or vinegar. If they are added before the beans are cooked it can prevent them from softening. This mistake CAN be counteracted with a small amount of baking soda (1/8 teaspoon at a time) until the liquid is no longer tangy, but too much baking soda can make the liquid bitter - so it's better not to go there at all.

Image courtesy of

Friday, October 5, 2012

Party Sized Artichoke Dip

This sauce starts off as an Alfredo Sauce... Then artichoke, garlic, and cream cheese are added. 

The Cream cheese makes the sauce more dip-able.

4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1 cup butter (2 sticks) - don't skimp
1 cup HEAVY Cream [not a lighter cream]
1 can (12-15 oz) Artichoke Hearts, quartered
1 2/3 cups Shredded Parmesan Cheese (1 bag)
1 Block (8 oz) Cream cheese, or *Reduced Fat Cream Cheese
Abundant Black Pepper
Salt to taste (Cautiously)

Preheat the empty 9x9 baking dish in a 350 °F oven for about 15 minutes, or until hot.Meanwhile, heat saucepan to medium-low and sautĂ© garlic until softened. Do not brown garlic or it becomes bitter. Remove it from the pan and set aside. Drain artichokes. If desired, rinse artichokes to remove extra salt from the brine. Towel dry and chop into ½ inch pieces.

Wipe out the pan with a paper towel, return the pan to the heat and melt the butter. The butter will begin to bubble, this is the water evaporating. Allow to bubble for 1 - 2 minutes then watch carefully so it does not burn. I wouldn't restart if it just browns, but the flavor will be different.

Add cream and warm to barely simmering. Reserve a handful of Parmesan - then add the rest of the cheese to the butter/ cream mixture. The goal is to very gently heat the cheese in barely hot (enough) cream. If the heat is too high the bottom will scorch. 

If it's your first time making an Alfredo sauce, there is no harm is starting low and bringing it up very slowly - it's better to be safe-than-sorry because...

... there is no way to rescue $15 worth of burnt butter, cream, and cheese.

Stir intermittently until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Add the cream cheese and continue heating on low just until the cream cheese has melted. Add black pepper, sauteed garlic, and the chopped artichokes

*It MIGHT be possible to substitute lower fat cream cheese after the Alfredo is made, if you remove it from the heat and allow the residual heat to melt the cream cheese. (If you try this, let me know how it works for you.)

Taste, THEN add salt - both the canned artichokes and the cream cheese have varying levels of salt. Even if you LOVE salt, it's easy to overdo here unless you wait until this point to season. Remember to take the saltiness of the dippers into account, i.e. 

Taste the sauce with a chip, not just a spoon.

Pour in a 9x9 square baking dish (ideally pre-warmed in a 350 ). Top with a scant handful of Parmesan and broil until just barely browned. If the covering of cheese is too heavy, the Parmesan melts into a top crust that makes it tricky to spoon nicely (purely cosmetic).  

Serve with Tortilla chips, baby carrots or celery sticks, and toasted Garlic Bread rounds.This dip does not reheat well, but it should “go” pretty well so you won't have much left! Serves 8 hungry guests if no other appetizers are served. Closer to 12-16 servings if each guest only has 2-3 spoons.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Busy Weekend Chocolate Cheesecake

Baker's Chocolate Bliss Cheesecake
I was crazy busy this weekend... 

So I went grocery shopping with a "best guess" of a list

It gave me a little thrill to entertain "without a net"...

The gamble paid off, the store had a box of chocolate with a recipe on it and it was good enough that I would definitely make this cheesecake again:

This recipe is like dark chocolate truffle, it's perfect if you like intense but less sweet desserts. If you like something sweeter you might want to throw some caramel sauce on top. Raspberry or Coffee Syrup could work too.

I used a pre-made 9" cookie crumb crust (look in the canned fruit section). You could also make your own crust for a 9” spring-form pan with 18 Oreo cookies and 2 tbsp butter... but like I said, I was crazy busy.

Next time I would also let it rest longer. The original recipe said 4 hours, I made it first thing in the morning, and served it 12 hours later. It was pretty good and I was proud to serve it, but it was SO much better the second day that next time I would plan to make it a whole day ahead. The chocolate, dairy, and sweet flavors seemed to “marry” better after it had some time to sit.

I'm curious to know what happens in there while it's resting, so maybe I'll do some reading and get back to you. In my universe baked goods “should” be best the day they are made, but this really was about 30% better the day after... sneaky food is sneaky.

Chocolate Bliss Cheesecake 
(Adaption from Baker's Brand)

1 ready-made Oreo Crumb Crust in a 9” pie plate
3 tablespoons butter
6 ounces (squares) of Semi Sweet Baking Chocolate (red box)
3 (8 oz) packages of Cream Cheese
¾ cup of sugar
2 teaspoons of Vanilla extract
3 Eggs
Pinch Salt
Whipped Cream for Garnish (2 c. heavy cream + 2 tbsp sugar + 1 tsp vanilla)

Oven to 325 °F
Sometimes temperature differences can make a batter curdle, so I decided not to take any chances and brought everything up to room temp. I warmed both the eggs and the cream cheese (still wrapped) in a bowl of very hot tap water for about 10 minutes.

Melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave about 30 seconds, then stir and heat for additional 10 seconds (at a time) if needed. Don't burn the chocolate - if you notice a bubbly, dry/crispy look on the edges it's gone, start over. Allow to cool until it's comfortable to handle.

Beat the cream cheese until smooth and then add the sugar and mix to incorporate. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition. Add the melted chocolate, vanilla, and salt - blend until uniform color.

Put the prepared crust on another pan to catch any spills, then pour batter into the prepared crust. Bake for 55 minutes. Cheesecakes may still look wiggly in the middle AND be fully cooked. Do not overcook. My cake did puff up a couple inches above the pan, but didn't spill over the edges.

Allow to cool until room temp before covering. If I had to put it in the fridge I would try letting it cool 20 minutes on a rack, then put it the fridge on the top shelf with tinfoil tented over the top but not crimped down around the edges. If the steam condenses on the lid and drips back down it leaves a little lighter patch... it's mostly cosmetic though, if you plan to cover the whole cake with whipped cream to serve it might not be a big deal.

My cake did have some surface cracks, basically in a ring shape about 1” from the edge. It was probably because it puffed during cooking, and it didn't distract from the look.. The cake did settle back down to a perfect height: It wasn't mounded high, but it was high enough over the edge of the pan that it didn't look skimpy when sliced.

This 9” cake should be sliced into 12 or 16 pieces. I LOVE dessert, so I originally cut it into 8 slices... but that was just too much, even thought we only had appetizers (not a full meal). For left overs I cut the remaining pieces in half and that was the perfect amount.

If you are making whipped cream, chill everything well before starting (bowl, beaters, and cream). The fat in the cream must stay cold so it can hold air and turn into a foam. Also It's better to under beat the cream than the other way. If you over beat the cream it basically begins separating into butter and buttermilk. Soft, flowing whip cream is a totally legit topping. Julia Child said so, apparently it's very French.

Bake once, serve all weekend!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When to use Non-stick vs. Standard Pans

Me on Vacation
Q: When do I use non-stick vs. regular pans?

A: Non-stick for eggs, and regular for browning

Browning is a combination of caramelization, plus the maillard (mail-yard) reaction.

The maillard reaction requires heat, protein, and sugar. Heat transfer is the critical difference between non-stick and regular pans.

Fluffy Pans
Non-stick pans are slightly less efficient at transferring heat from the stove into the food. At the microscopic level it's like food is resting on the bristles of a brush. Basically there is an insulating layer of air between the food and the pan. As the food cooks, steam joins the party. This moisture acts as a heat sink (water “steals” some of the heat) and there is less heat available for the maillard reaction, so less browning. The oil used in regular pans displaces the air & steam combination preventing this problem.

Fluffy pans = Less Browning

Nonstick When?
Use for things that don't need browning, very dry foods (nuts/ Spices), or pan-frying (food nearly floating in oil). Non-stick works great for eggs because they don't need browning and it's easier to clean up. Non-stick also works fine to toast spices or nuts because they are naturally dry, so the steam is pretty low. They're fine for pan-frying too, because the oil fills the gaps between food and the pan.

Better Browning
To make perfectly seared and juicy meat start with room-temp meat and dry the surface. Heat a pan THEN add the cooking oil. Drop the meat in the pan, and don't move it until it's browned and releases.

Cold & Damp
Chilled meat drops the temperature of the pan too much, so I put refrigerated meats in a Zip-lock bag and submerge in a sink of very hot tap water for 10 minutes. Pat the meat dry with paper towels because damp surfaces make steam, which steals energy from the maillard reaction.

Hot & Slick
Heat the pan before adding the oil because it makes it easier for the oil it to “spackle” over microscopic surface imperfection that can catch the meat. The oil needs a moment to reach temperature before adding the meat. It will change thickness (viscosity) so that the oil will ripple when you tilt and swirl the pan. This is called shimmer.

Can't Touch This
Sticking happens when you move, stir, or flip the meat before it's ready. Protein contracts as it cooks, basically making the meat grip the pan. If you try to move it too soon, you basically rip the raw meat away from happy part. The meat will release easily on it's own if you give it a couple minutes to cook. I think it's because the meat tightens enough to pull itself back away from the pan... kinda magic if you give it a minute to work.

Thanks Readers - Keep the Questions coming!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pilaf vs. Risotto: What's the Difference?

Bowl o' Pilaf
Need a Partner for dinner?
Pick your type:

Fluffy = Pilaf
Saucy = Risotto

At my house it's basically chicken flavored rice. I serve mine with Grilled Chicken and a Greek salad. Some places in the world add nuts or fruits. If you buy the boxed mix it also has rice-shaped pasta called orzo...
Surprise: Pasta bits ARE NOT what defines Pilaf!

The defining feature of pilaf is that the grains of rice are first sauteed in butter, then broth is added and the rice is allowed to cook without stirring. 

The goal is to avoid developing the exterior starch into glue, so LONG GRAIN rice is a good choice for Pilaf because it has slightly less surface area (per weight) than short grain rice. In terms of surface area - long grain rice is more like a cylinder, compared to short grain rice is more like a sphere.

Pilaf starts with butter melting in a skillet, some recipes call for minced onion as well. Then dry (uncooked) rice is added to the butter, which gives the rice a clear look. The grains are cooked until they return to a milky white color. They do not need to be browned, because this step is mostly about controlling final texture, not flavor...

... This step locks down the starch on the surface of the grains which prevents the rice from getting sticky.

Next broth, the pot is covered, and the rice is allowed to cook undisturbed until the liquid has been absorbed. Some recipes call for a rice cooker, or even baking in the oven. I make mine on the stove-top, but as long as the temperature is even and the moisture can't escape the other cooking methods would work fine too.

I don't always include the orzo, but otherwise this one from is pretty similar to what I do.

If you have left over pilaf it makes a decent cold salad.Add crumbled feta, cooked peas, peeled/seeded cucumber, and seeded/chopped tomatoes, plus enough Italian Vinaigrette to make the whole thing moist. Serve it like a deli salad - try a scoop with a pita sandwich.

Sooo... what's Risotto Then?

Italian Style Risotto is made from similar ingredients that are just handled differently. Here the starch on the outside of the rice is purposely moved from the rice into the liquid, this makes a gravy type sauce around the grains.

This is the place to use SHORT grain rice like Aborio. The shorter grains have a higher surface area, so more starch is available for thickening the sauce. If you have ever made gravy from a packet (powder) it is the same principle, so don't be intimidated.

Typically minced onion is cooked in butter until it is translucent then rice is added and broth is added in portions with constant stirring. Just like gravy, it must be stirred constantly to prevent lumps (just like gravy).

The other pitfall is overcooking. Mushy rice will disappear into the sauce and lose it's character. Typically about 4 ounces of stock is added, then the rice is stirred until the liquid is absorbed. This gradual addition keeps the temperature from dropping when the liquid is added. This extra care ensures all the grains of rice cook at the same rate, helping to prevent overcooking.

When the rice is nearly done it is usually removed from the heat for a couple minutes to finish cooking with residual heat. Then butter and cheese are added to drop the temperature and to create a more complex and rich flavor. In seafood Risotto they usually skip the cheese.

Italian style Risotto will flow into other foods on the plate, so think about serving it in a shallow bowl if you want a more pulled-together look. This recipe from looks pretty decent, but I haven't made this exact one.

Fluffy vs. Saucy - I hope that clears things up!

Monday, September 10, 2012

“What Does (Herb) Taste Like?”

Herbs on Cutting Board
Short flavor profiles for fifteen common Herbs

There's actually a lot of overlap with the flavor of some herbs because they are in the same plant family and share some naturally occurring chemicals.

For example: the Mint family includes basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, and thyme. 

So when someone says “It has an herb flavor...” I think of this group.

Hopefully this list will help you build a “mental toolbox” and make it easier to cook without a recipe (intuitive cooking). It's easier for me to recall a flavor when I match it with a familiar food, so that's what I did here.

This list has the Herb, a familiar food, then the flavor

Basil - Caprese Salad: Pepper & Clove
Bay - Beef Stew: Eucalyptus & Woodsy
Chervil - French Food: Parsley & Anise

Cilantro - Salsa: Fresh & Tangy
Dill - Dip & Seafood: Parsley & Anise
Lemon Grass - Thai Food: Citronella & Lemon

Marjoram - Mediterranean Food: Sweet Oregano
Mint - Gum & Candy: Sharp & Cooling
Oregano - Pizza Sauce: Warm & Bitter

Parsley - Stroganoff: Astringent & Peppery
Rosemary - Grilled Beef: Pine & Lemon
Sage - Turkey Stuffing: Pine & Earth

Savory - Bean Soup: Sage & Peppery
Tarragon - Bearnaise Sauce: Anise & Mint
Thyme - Meatloaf: Earthy & Clove

If you found this helpful give me a shout - I'll make one about ground spices too!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Taste Panelist Screening Test

Three Types of Rice
I've recently been screened as a food panelist. I didn't know what to expect. The test had a couple parts:

Clear liquids, cotton in vials, bits of food, strips of paper, and geometry section (no kidding)

The testing was in a corporate office type building. I signed in at reception, then waited in a conference room. They must have tested us in shifts, because my group was about 8 people. They gave us an quick orientation in the conference room, then took us back to the food lab.

Taste Lab:
The lab was shaped like a hallway with a counter along one side separated into personal cubicles. A tray was waiting for each person at their station. It had stacks of numbered plastic cups with lids (like dressing cups for take-out).

The cups had liquid, food, or paper. There was also a basket with about 20 sized vials stuffed with cotton. Plus a bottle of water, a packet of papers, and a (curiously) empty coffee cup with lid. They gave us another short orientation that cleared up the mystery of the empty cup...

Hint: Anytime they provide a “spit cup” - you will probably need it.

Clear Liquids:
The first portion of the test was about the clear liquids, they looked like plain water. The instructions were to put the entire portion in your mouth, and identify weather it was sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or plain water then write our answer in the packet. 

Honestly it was slightly disconcerting to put a slug of liquid in your mouth when you don't know what to expect. It made me realized how much expectation is related to enjoyment. For example: liquid is a soda bottle is always sweet or sweet & sour. How freaked out would you be if it was Chicken broth?! 

So yeah, being a taster looks like it involves some bravery.

Other Candidates:
Since the screening was for a paid position, a few candidates were definitely in a competitive mode - even though there were several openings. I could hear other testers prying open their cups and swishing away madly... The girl next to me was clearly trying to get a “head start” over me, but I reminding myself it's a test, not a race. I carefully checked the numbers on the cups versus the numbers on the paper, and methodically went through the clear liquids. The packet gave a suggested time limit - so I stuck with that.

I didn't hear anyone else using the spit cup, so I thought I would try to swallow all the solutions too. Since it seemed awkward to be the only one spitting... Usually I think of myself as fairly independent, but social convention sure does kick in when I'm in unfamiliar situations.

Nope! I totally had to use the spit cup, my brain argued with swallowing the bitter one...

Afterwards I realized I was probably the only super taster in the room - the other candidates probably didn't NEED the cup. Next time, I'm not going to hesitate - if there is a spit cup provided, it's got my name on it. I'm not going to worry about offending "speedy girl" in the next cube over.

The next section was the glass vials stuffed with cotton. The directions were to open a vial, and identify the smell and write it down, or at least a description. At this point I could hear the other candidates sighing and starting to lose their confidence which made me nervous. 

There were several scents that were similar: two mints, two citrus, two spice, etc. I realized how much I depend on packaging to give us a hint... I know I usually prefer the “green mint” vs. “blue mint” gum... but without the box it's MUCH harder to identify!

I did struggle with one scent, it smelled like “fruit flavored candy canes”. After thinking about it, I realized it wasn't tutti-frutti... it was artificial banana! I haven't had any banana flavored candy in years, so it was hard to pick out because it's SO different from a fresh real banana. One I realized it, though it became so clear I couldn't believe I didn't recognize it right away! I didn't need to worry though, I nailed this category. 

I got every scent right, even the tricky ones!

Descriptive Chewing
The next section of the test was descriptive. We had to eat a small bite of a food and write a description of the taste, texture, and sensation from chewing. This is probably the area where I lose points. I'm sure I left out some qualities. But that's exactly what the training is for!

Next was comparing two similar foods for texture. For example, which one is easier to chew. I've been reading this is one area food scientists must test with real people, because there is no machine that can tell the food scientists what the food “feels like” to a human. So they have to screen qualitative ability too. It was strangely specific to focus so hard on just how a food feels to chew or swallow without any consideration for taste. 

It's kind of funny to think that “crunchy vs. crispy” is someone's job.

Bitter Paper:
Close to the end was the slips of paper, this was a simple yes or no test. “Is this number bitter? yes or no.” One of them was somewhat bitter, but the last one was terrible! It was like a penny soaked in nail polish remover. It lingered and lingered... the bitterness lasted at least 5 minutes. I finally opened one of the cups from a previous test and ate another bite of the food to get the taste out of my mouth. It was bad enough I left a little note about how it lingered. I guess the job is not just nice flavors!

Math Test:
The very last portion was an even more strange paper test. It looked like a geometry test, and my stomach sank. I wished I had brushed up on some math... then I became incredulous:

A MATH test for food tasting?! 

It turns out it was a perception test so they can account for scale of perception. Basically you look at a shaded shape and mark on a line what proportion you think is shaded.The test judges the ability compare intensity. Basically this part of the test was to gauge if my brain can reasonably compare how “loud” one taste is compared to another. Very Clever.

Wrap Up:
Afterward I knocked on a window on back wall of the cubicle and an unseen person took my papers. Then there was a short personal interview. It seemed mostly aimed at determining reliability. Based on the questions, I'm guessing some odd balls are attracted to “getting paid to eat” so they have to screen for that too. Now I'm excited to have the training coming up too!

The best part was finding out I'm a Super Taster!