Thursday, May 29, 2008

Frozen Pea Soup

If you like to use frozen peas for easy meals, here is a great recipe to try.

Pour some frozen peas into a soup pot, and add water to just below the top of the peas. Add a bit of salt (not too much, as this is a slightly sweet soup), bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. When the peas are soft (not mushy), remove from heat.

If you have an immersion blender, puree the soup; otherwise use a regular blender or food processor. Now add some dried mint leaves and a bit of cream, and you have a wonderful sweet pea soup that takes just minutes to make.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fun With Herbs

Herbs have such potent flavors that they can be used to enhance food with very little preparation required. I want to go over three of my favorite methods of using herbs without any cooking at all (at least not the herb portion of the food).

The first method is pesto, which is nothing more than a paste made from a few simple ingredients. The classic Genovese pesto is fresh basil, olive oil, a clove or two of raw garlic, parmesan cheese and pine nuts. Ground up in a mortar and pestle or a food processor, pesto can be added to cooked pasta, stuffed into ravioli, or used as a spread on pizza. The amount of flavor in pesto means you don't need to add very much to make a big impact. Also, almost all of these ingredients can be substituted with other ingredients.

I have used spinach, parsley, arugula, coriander, mint and watercress either in combination or in place of the basil, and all have been very nice. Also, the pine nuts can be pretty expensive, so you can use chopped walnuts in place of them, or pistachios or any soft nut with a neutral flavor. Peanuts could be used, but I would be picky about which herbs to use with them because of their distinct taste. Lastly, any good quality oil can be used, including grapeseed oil.

The second herb application I like to use is something called Chimichurri in Argentina. It is basically the same as pesto, but without the parmesan or nuts. By grinding or blending various herbs with garlic and oil, and perhaps a small amount of chilis, you can make a wonderful sauce that can be added to practically any savory dish, from rice and potatoes to steaks and fish. I keep this around in place of ketchup, and once you taste this I think you might do the same. The classic herbs to use are half parsley and half coriander, but any nice fresh green herbs will do. For pork dishes, basil works best, while mint goes very well with lamb dishes. No matter what it will be tough to make one that tastes bad!

The last of my three herb preparations is herb butter. I let the butter soften at room temperature, and then I chop some herbs up. Sometimes I will also add chopped garlic, or a bit of lemon zest for some extra zip. I then blend these into butter, roll up the butter in some wax paper to make a two-inch thich roll of butter. I then toss this into the freezer to chill. When I need a little extra fresh flavor on some steak or on fish or in rice, I cut off a slice or two as needed. Again, you can pick flavors to match your food; I like to use dill if I know I will be cooking salmon (which is pretty often!).

I would love to see comments about how you use herbs; I think they are a great addition to any meal, not only for their flavor but for the nutrients as well.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Crème fraîche

Crème fraîche is a dairy product that is similar to sour cream, but it is not as thick or tangy. If you prefer something a little milder, then crème fraîche is the way to go. However, it is not readily available in some some places. I usually get a blank stare from the guy in the dairy department when I ask if they have it, as he normally has no clue what it is.

Fortunately you can make it at home using two simple ingredients that the dairy guy will know about: heavy cream, and buttermilk. Heavy cream is about 35% butter fat, and is also known as whipping cream. Regular cream for coffee will not do the trick.. Buttermilk, by contrast, is quite low in fat (it is the liquid left over when butter is churned, so the fat has been mostly removed.)

All you need to do is add a small amount of buttermilk to a cup or so of heavy cream, and allow it to stand at room temperature (covered) to allow the cultures in the buttermilk to work on it. The longer it sits at this temperature, the thicker it will become.

Crème fraîche is great on anything that would normally call for sour cream, but would benefit from a milder taste. I particularly like it on potato pancakes, in my butternut squash soup recipe, or even with some chopped herbs as a dip.

It can also be whipped, and is better for cooking at higher temperatures because of the higher fat content. And it's so easy to make!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Even More Flavor Infusion

In my last post I spoke about infusing flavors into beef by using stock to carry the flavors of other ingredients deep into the meat, thereby making it more tasty. I had also mentioned that stock works as a flavor carrier because of the collagen, and that it is better for pot roast than win because alcohol evaporates so quickly in heat.

But that does not mean that alcohol cannot be used in this way -- we simply have to make sure not to heat it up. But rather than using the alcohol to deliver the flavor to another ingredient, we will use it as the final destination. So if you are below drinking age, please avert your eyes....or at least promise not to do any of this until you are legal.

Start with a bottle of good (or at least decent) vodka. Vodka by itself has no flavor (unless "burn" counts as a flavor), but by soaking tasty things in it we can make a flavored vodka. And by adding sugar we are basically making a liqueur.

This liqueur is known as quarante-quatre, which is French for 44. Take an orange and make 44 holes in it with a paring knife. Into each slit insert a coffee bean. Place the orange into a mason jar, and add 44 sugar cubes. (Are you starting to get an idea about where the name comes from?)

Pour the vodka into the mason jar and put the top on. Shake, Now comes the fun part: waiting! How long? You guessed it: 44 days. Every day make sure to shake the jar so the flavors get mixed and the sugar gets dissolved. You don't need to completely agitate it; you don't want to damage the orange, since it will expose too much pith, and that can make it bitter.

After the 44 days are done, filter the vodka into a bottle. You'll need one a little larger than the original, since the orange will have given up some juice. (Be sure to squeeze out the orange too; unless you decide to eat the orange for a little afternoon buzz. Or morning buzz --whatever works!)

For more flavored vodka ideas, visit this forum thread I found on it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Infusion of Flavor

I love using liquids to cook things, for two reasons: first, it tenderizes tough foods, most notably lower-grade cuts of meat. Second, if you use the right liquid it can add a ton of flavor to what you are cooking.

One of my favorite such dishes is a good pot roast. A pot roast is usually beef, but sometimes pork, and is generally from a tougher part of the animal. This means it came from a group of muscles that are used a lot in walking or grazing, which means the upper joints and the neck area. By contrast, the middle of the back, the ribs and the inside section of the ribs known as the "tenderloin", hardly get used at all, so do not get developed to the point of toughness that the shoulder and hip area do.

However, these developed areas, although tougher, can be a lot more flavorful. We just need a way to tenderize the meat, and hot liquid is the perfect method.

So what constitutes the perfect liquid to use? First, it must be tasty itself, otherwise there is no point in using it. Second, it must be capable of dissolving flavor molecules since that is how the flavor is spread throughout the meat. Third, it must match the taste of the meat, otherwise the flavors will clash and that is just no fun at all.

For beef, there are two perfect liquids: beef stock and red wine. Beef stock works, because it is tasty, and it naturally will match the beef flavor itself, but the collagen in the beef stock will also dissolve flavor molecules. Red wine is also tasty (as long as you like wine, that is), and it pairs well with beef, and the alcohol is also a good flavor carrier. However, alcohol evaporates quickly in the heat, so this benefit is limited. Usually I go for beef stock, and add a little red wine for flavor.

So what else can you add to the pot roast? Anything that adds a good aromatic flavor is welcome: onions, carrots, bay leaves, celery, pepper corns, garlic cloves, parsnips, turnips, coriander seeds, chili flakes have all made their way into my pot roasts. With the hot liquid, the roast just soaks up those flavors while the meat is tenderizing.

Just make sure to keep the meat at a simmer, and not a boil, as it is actually possible to over cook even a tough cut if the temperature is too high. But if you keep it low, then the meat just gets better and better. If your roast has a bone, all the better: it will add flavor (that's where beef stock comes from!) and once the meat starts falling off the bone you will know it is ready!

And if you need something to use up the extra beef later on, try my Beef Barley Soup Recipe -- it's an easy, hearty meal that never fails to please!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Carmelized Onions, and Meat Enhancer

In my previous post I spoke about carmelization as it applies to condensed milk. In this post I want to talk about a different method of carmelization, and a really cool way to apply it.

Onions are my favorite vegetable, and I like them in every way possible: fried, raw, boiled, sweated, sauteed, and most especially carmelized. Carmelizing requires a lot of patience, because you are using the usual process of sauteing but at a lower temperature for a longer time.

Carmelization is actually a chemical process that simple sugar (sucrose) undergoes at a fairly narrow range of temperatures. Below this temperature, nothing happens to the sugar. Above, and it burns. So the goal is to keep the food that contains the sugar at this temperature range for long enough for the carmelization to happen.

When sugar carmelizes, it splits into two molecules: fructose and glucose. This adds no extra calories: in fact, this happens inside the body once sucrose is ingested anyway. The main benefit to splitting the molecules outside the body is that fructose is twice as sweet as glucose, so you are increasing the sweet taste without increasing the total sugar intake.

However, this is only part of carmelization, as there are a number of other molecular changes that take place that I won't go into. Suffice it to say that the flavor simply becomes more complex. So you get both a sweeter and richer taste.

With onions, you want to start in a shallow pan with thinly sliced onions and a bit of water and salt in addition to the butter or oil. The water will begin to steam, and this will quickly warm the onions and encourage them to release their moisture. This is important, because we cannot reach carmelization temperature until the water inside the onions is mostly gone. This is because evaporation cools them, keeping them below the 350 degree mark that we want.

When the onions have reduced, you can sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. For some reason this encourages the carmelization process, but I am not sure why. Just keep an eye on the onions to make sure they do not burn, and reduce the temperature as the onions become darker. The color you want to get to is a dark golden color, or even darker if you have the patience.

Carmelized onions are good in so many dishes: French Onion soup, mashed potatoes, or as toppings for hot dogs or hamburgers. But a nice little trick I learned from watching Heston Blumenthal is to include some Star Anise with the onions when you carmelize them. The way he explained it is that there is an additional chemical reaction that happens that creates flavor compounds that enhance the flavor of whatever meat you are cooking with. He uses this in his Bolognese sauce, but it will work equally well with stews, and a topping for roasts or whatever you can imagine.

Basically, it works like MSG, but without the side effects!

Dulce de Leche

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am a big fan of dairy products. One of the easiest treats to make that I know about is called Dulce de Leche, or "Sweet of Milk" in Spanish, although is normally translated as "Milk Candy".

There are ways to make this from scratch, but the easiest is to take a can or two of condensed milk, remove the label, and sit it unopened in a sauce pan just barely covered in slowly simmering water. Leave it there for about two hours or so, replacing any water that evaporates. The longer you leave the cans, the more the milk inside will carmelize, creating a sweet, thick sauce similar to butterscotch.

This is one of my favorite toppings for ice cream or cakes, and it takes just one simple ingredient! Just remember to let the cans coll down before opening!