After the peppermill question, one of the most frequent queries I get in my e-mail is, “Where can I find the beautiful aprons you wear on Sara’s Secrets.” With the holidays only a week away, those e-mails are coming in so I thought I would make it easy for those of you who would like to know. All of my fitted aprons and chefs jackets are made by Crooked Brook. Over a decade ago, designer Pam Geren recognized that women in professional kitchens just didn’t look their best in jackets and aprons designed to fit men. She combined her pattern-making skills and her passion for quality materials to produce professional kitchen wear for women that really fits and looks attractive. Don’t worry guys, there is a full line for you too. All garments are made to order (in the U.S.) from 100% American pima cotton. Call 315-733-1992 or go to Crooked Brook for more information.
Fred recently e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask , “How do you cook artichokes?” I have been asked that so frequently that I included my favorite way in Sara Moulton Cooks at Home. I always steam whole artichokes rather than boil them. They lose some flavor and get watery when you boil them. Place a steamer basket in a large soup pot with a lid. Add 1 inch of water to the pot. Cut the stems off the artichokes so they sit evenly and set the stems aside. Pull off and discard any small discolored bottom leaves. If you wish, you can trim off the tips of the leaves but it isn’t really necessary as the thorns become soft when cooked. You can spread the leaves and scrape out the fuzzy purple “choke” before cooking or cool the artichokes slightly after cooking and do it then. Place the artichokes pointed side up in the steamer and steam over low heat until the leaves pull off easily, 40 to 45 minutes. About 15 minutes before you think the artichokes are tender, peel the reserved stems and add them to the steamer. Serve all with melted butter. Because artichokes are so sweet and so much fun to eat, kids are likely to give them a try and forget they are a vegetable.
Asparagus comes in all different thicknesses, from pencil-thin to nearly an inch. The bottom woody inch or two of any asparagus should be discarded. Whether or not you peel the stalks depends upon their thickness. The larger the asparagus, the tougher the peel, and the more likely they are to need peeling. I usually peel the stalks if the asparagus is 1/2-inch in diameter or larger. Large asparagus stalks tend to be much thicker at the bottom than at the top, so peeling makes them more uniform and they will cook more evenly. To keep the stalk from snapping during peeling, place it on a flat surface and run a vegetable peeler from just below the tip all the way to the bottom.
Becky wrote to the Kitchen Shrink that her brother can send her cases of avocados from Texas but she needs a way to preserve them. She wondered if she could freeze them or freeze her homemade guacamole, and if so, how?
According to the California Avocado Commission, avocados can be frozen if they are pureed first. They suggest that you ripen the fruit until it is just soft enough to yield to gentle pressure, remove the peel and pit, and puree the flesh with 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice for every avocado. Package the puree in firm freezer containers and use it within 4 to 5 months. It is best to add the other ingredients for your guacamole to the thawed puree just before serving it.
Debbie e-mailed me that she can’t have butter or much sugar but would like to make healthier baked goods and would like some ideas. That is a tough one because butter and sugar bring the flavor to most desserts. However, there are a few ways to go that will be helpful. Angel food, chiffon, and sponge cakes are much lower in fat than butter cakes and if you search for low-sugar versions of them, you can have a sweet baked dessert with little sugar and less fat. Desserts that are high in fruit have lots of flavor with little butter and sugar. Look for baked goods that use applesauce or dried plum puree in place of part of the fat. Lightly spritz phyllo pastry with cooking spray and layer it for a low fat pie crust. Bake it and fill with fresh fruit tossed with a little 100% fruit spread. Or use phyllo crust to top a fruit filling for a cobbler. Portion control is another way to go. Divide cake batter into mini cupcake pans instead of the usual size; once baked, top them with a drop of honey and a fresh berry instead of frosting. When a cookie recipes says it makes 24, divide the dough into 36 or 48 and enjoy minis.
Sharon e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that her cookies always get dark on the bottom before the top begins to brown. She wondered what she can do to get them to bake evenly.
There are several things that affect the way cookies brown. The best way to get them to brown evenly is to bake them on light-colored baking sheets in the center of an uncrowded oven. Dark baking sheets hold the heat and brown the bottoms of cookies faster than do shiny aluminum or stainless-steel baking sheets. Insulated baking sheets practically insure that cookie bottoms will not get too dark. In the oven, heat is reflected from all sides onto whatever you are baking. The center of the oven is the best place for cookies to get even heat. If it appears that the tops aren’t browning well, move the baking sheet to the top shelf and the cookies will receive more reflected heat from the top of the oven. If the bottoms need more browning or the cookies are very thick, move the sheet to the bottom shelf. It is important to allow room around all the baking sheets so that the heat can circulate properly. If you are using a convection oven, it will circulate the heat more efficiently and bake your cookies faster. Never line the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil. While it makes cleaning easier, it reflects a lot of heat onto the bottom of your baking sheet and causes uneven browning.
Marla e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she had accidentally put her bananas in the refrigerator in a bag of groceries and now the skins are black. She wondered if they are still good to use.
Bananas are still just fine to use if they have been refrigerated and the skins have turned color. Bananas are picked green and ripen at room temperature. Refrigerating them not only causes the skin to darken, it slows down or stops ripening. So, it is best to keep them out of the fridge until they are fully ripened. At that point refrigerating them will help keep them from becoming over ripe.
I recently got an e-mail from Virginia saying, “All my roasts come out tough; any help would be appreciated.” This is a great question and there isn’t a simple solution. I am not sure whether she is referring to pot roasts or more tender cuts such as rib roasts that are cooked in an open pan in the oven but my first response would be that the secret is shopping not cooking. You have to hunt for meat that is generously marbled with fat. This is easier when you are selecting a roast such as a standing rib roast or a whole tenderloin that you are going to cook in the oven in an open pan with dry heat. The trick in that case is to cook the roast to the proper internal temperature and to let it stand 5 to 10 minutes before carving it. It is a lot harder to find a pot roast to braise or cook in a pressure cooker; they are all very lean these days. They look beautiful in the market, but dry out when cooked with moist heat. I used to always choose a tri-tip (silver-tip is its New York name) but they are very hard to find any more. Lately I have switched to short ribs; they are not a pot roast but they have enough fat to be tender and juicy after braising. Larding is a technique that used to be done to help a dry pot roast remain tender and juicy. Strips of fat would be inserted through the roast with a long needle, usually by the butcher before the roast was sold. This is still worth doing but it isn’t easy to find someone who will do it for you.
Sharon e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to find out how to make homemade biscuit mix. You will find a number of recipes on line for a homemade substitute for commercial biscuit mix but you can actually just use your favorite biscuit recipe, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and pulse in the butter or shortening until it forms crumbs. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container and store it in the refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to use it. You can use a measured amount of it as you would biscuit mix in a recipe or just stir in milk to make biscuits. Commercial biscuit mix contains preservatives so that it can be stored at room temperature but your homemade biscuit mix that includes butter or vegetable shortening really needs to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Cream Biscuits, my favorite biscuit recipe, calls for heavy cream to provide both the shortening and liquid so you can stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a tight container and store it at room temperature then stir in heavy cream when you want to make biscuits.
Sharon e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she wanted to cook black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day but wasn’t sure how to prepare them so that her family would like them. Serving black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to bring good luck and prosperity has been a tradition in the South-East since the Civil War and there are lots of ways to serve them.
Black-eyed peas are available dried, canned, frozen, and occasionally in the produce section rehydrated so they will cook quickly. If you have dried black-eyed peas, see my cooking instructions below. If you have frozen, or rehydrated, cook them following package directions. And, if you have canned ones, just drain and rinse them. Once you have cooked beans, they can be combined with rice and ham or sausage for a traditional Hoppin’ John, combined iwth cooked greens and ham, tossed with dressing for a salad or “Texas Caviar,” pureed and seasoned for a dip, or (my favorite) made into cakes and served with a delicious sauce. Check out my recipe for Black-Eyed Pea Cakes with Salsa Mayonnaise.
If you have dried black-eyed peas, here’s how to cook them:
A viewer recently e-mailed me to say that when she added fresh blueberries to her favorite muffin batter the finished muffins had an unappetizing greenish haze around the blueberries. She wondered what caused it and if there is a way to prevent that from happening.
When you bake with fresh or frozen blueberries, the color is affected by the level of acidity in the batter. If the batter has a bit too much baking soda, the blueberries turn green around the edges. You can balance the acidity by using a recipe that calls for buttermilk or another acid, such as orange juice or lemon juice.
Another problem that I get an occasional question about is, How can I keep the blueberries from all ending up on the bottom of my muffins?” One solution is to use a thicker batter. Or, don’t mix the blueberries into the batter at all. Fill the muffin cups two-thirds full with batter, then dot the tops with several blueberries. They will distribute themselves as the muffins bake.
Sandy e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she hated to throw away the stems from fresh broccoli and wondered what she could use them for.
Broccoli stems are just as delicious as the tops and can be used in either raw or cooked dishes. You should trim off the bottom 3/4- to 1-inches of the stem and peel the rest. Then it can be thinly sliced or cut into matchsticks and cooked with the tops or used in a stir-fry. It can also be coarsely shredded and tossed with salad dressing for a slaw or quickly sauteed in olive oil with a little garlic for a side dish.
Toni e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she was planning a brunch for a friend’s wedding shower and needed an easy main dish that would satisfy both vegetarians and meat lovers.
One of my favorite dishes to serve for a company brunch is a strata because it can be assembled the night before and refrigerated until about an hour before you need to serve it. Then it minds itself in the oven while you put the finishing touches on the décor. Breakfast Strata is a good choice because you can vary the vegetables depending upon the preferences of your guests. It is a hearty vegetarian entrée as is and you can serve meat or fish on the side or divide the recipe into two casseroles and add meat or fish to one for variety.
Too many people have memories of Brussels sprouts that have been boiled until they are gray. There are a number of ways to cook Brussels sprouts with delicious results as long as you cook them until they are crisp-tender and still bright green. I wasn’t a fan of Brussels sprouts until Sue Fenniger and Mary Sue Milliken made Quick Sautéed Shredded Brussels Sprouts on one of my shows. You’ll find that recipe on page 243 of my first book, Sara Moulton Cooks at Home. They shred the sprouts and stir-fry them but you can trim and halve them then sauté, stir-fry, or deep fry them quickly for equally good results. You can also toss trimmed halved or whole Brussels sprouts in olive oil or butter and kosher salt and roast them until they just begin to feel tender. Small Brussels sprouts can be trimmed, shredded, and served raw with an oil and vinegar dressing.
My favorite trick to solve this problem is to create an indentation in the center when I shape the burgers and to make them a bit bigger than the bun so that when they do what comes naturally, they turn out the size and shape I want.
Gloria recently e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask if she could freeze leftover buttermilk, thaw and use some, and refreeze the remainder. While buttermilk producers suggest that you not freeze buttermilk for best flavor and texture, when wasting it is the only other option, I suggest that you go ahead and freeze it for use in baked products. It will separate when thawed but can be reconstituted by whisking or a quick whiz in a blender. However, do not thaw it, use some, and refreeze it as the additional time at medium temperature allows for greater bacterial growth. If you freeze one- or two-tablespoons in individual ice cube trays then store in the freezer in a zippered plastic bag or even freeze 1/4-cup amounts in small containers you can thaw just what you need for a recipe and none will be wasted.
Rachel e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask, “What is in buttermilk?” She said she had purchased some for a recipe and was surprised to find that, despite its name, buttermilk is low in fat.
These days, most buttermilk is pasteurized low-fat milk to which lactic acid bacteria have been added to ferment it and make it sour and thick. This “cultured” product has nothing to do with butter. The puzzling name comes from the fact that buttermilk was originally a by-product of butter making. When butter used to be produced at home, full-cream milk was allowed to stand at room temperature until the cream came to the top. Depending on the weather, this also caused it to sour. The cream was then churned until it separated and particles of butter rose to the top. The mixture was strained to collect the butter and the low-fat liquid that was left was the buttermilk. It was slightly sour and had a few small flecks of butter in it but wasn’t as thick as today’s cultured buttermilk. If you have a recipe such as my pea soup that calls for buttermilk but you don’t have any on hand, you can substitute plain yogurt. If it is a baking recipe, you can also stir together 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice plus enough milk to make one cup and let it stand for about 5 minutes before using it or use a cup of regular milk in the recipe and add 1 3/4 teaspoons of cream of tartar to the dry ingredients.
I am pleased to address an email I received from Joanne Cambell:
“I have a lemon bread recipe which was given to me from a family friend. Every time I make the recipe it sinks in the middle. Do you have any suggestions as to what I might be doing wrong?”
Well, I consulted with my answer lady, mentor and cookbook author, Jean Anderson (who has a section in one of her cookbooks, The New Doubleday Cookbook, on just such thorny issues). Her first guess is that there is too much sugar in the recipe. Other possible causes include too much shortening, too little baking powder or just underbaking. Try cutting down on the sugar and see what happens.
Your turn. Send me your peskiest culinary problem and I’ll do what I can to help you solve it.
Scott recently e-mailed me to ask what causes cake layers to have a line about 3/4- to 1-inch from the sides of the pan. He said, “I bake square cakes and rectangular cakes. For some reason the finished product has a square inside the square. “ I passed his e-mail along to Joanne Lamb Hayes, who helped with the dessert section of my cookbook, and she explained that when cake layers bake, heat penetrates them from the top, bottom, and sides and makes them rise and become firm. Heat sets the outer 3/4- to 1-inch of batter well before the center and it stops rising. As the center continues to rise until it too gets hot enough to set, it leaves a line in the surface of the cake at the point where the edge stopped rising. This is more pronounced in square or rectangular cakes because the corners are exposed to heat from two sides and set even faster than the edge of a round layer. There are two easy solutions. You can buy insulated pans or special fabric strips to moisten and fasten around the outside of your pans to keep the edge of the cake from heating quickly.
Norma recently e-mailed the KitchenShrink to ask, “Is there an easy fool-proof way to make caramel?” I had been asked this question so often over the years that I included my favorite way to make caramel in Sara Moulton Cooks at Home. You can find it on page 54 and an in depth explanation of why I think it is the best method on page 55. Here are the instructions: “Place the sugar in a heavy skillet or saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring gently, until the sugar starts to melt. Stop stirring and continue cooking, swirling the skillet or pan often, until the sugar cooks to a dark golden caramel.” Use immediately as directed in the recipe or pour onto an oiled baking sheet to cool as it will continue to darken if left in the hot pan.
I just got an e-mail from Ron asking me what celery root is and how to prepare it. I love to use celery root, either cooked or raw and have used it in all my books. Here is what I said about it in my latest book, Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners. ”Celery root, or celeriac, is the product of a special variety of celery that is cultivated just for the root. Although the gnarled, brown ball covered with fine root hairs wouldn’t win any prizes for beauty, its flavor intensity gives it star power. A small root can deliver big celery flavor to soups, sauces, and salads. In the market, select celery root that is small, clean, and firm. Large roots tend to be porous in the center. Peel and slice, chop, or shred the root just before use and toss it with some lemon juice, if you are serving it raw.”
I recently got a question from Frank who wanted to make fried mozzarella cubes that are light, smooth, and stretchy “like eating a toasted marshmallow” rather than heavy and chewy. I told him that the secret is in the mozzarella and he may have to try several kinds before he finds the one that melts to meet his description. There is a big difference between the texture and cooking properties of fresh mozzarella and processed mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella is hand molded into balls, stored in brine or whey until it is used, and should be served very soon after it is made. It is a special treat that is best enjoyed in salads and sandwiches, cold or at room temperature, where its delicate flavor shines. Factory-made processed mozzarella is lower in moisture, has a longer shelf life, and is easily sliced, cubed, or grated. It is most often used in cooked dishes because it really does melt better than fresh mozzarella. Although I have had fried mozzarella made with fresh mozzarella “bocconcini,” most recipes call for processed mozzarella sticks or cubes and I think that would be a god place to start.
Blondell recently e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask, “Which cheeses can be melted and poured?” While most people know that processed cheeses melt smoothly and easily into sauces, selecting a natural cheese that behaves as well isn’t always easy. Many hard grating cheeses don’t melt well and those known for their stringiness and chewy texture tend to maintain that texture when warmed, but the list of those that do melt well into sauces gives pretty much choice at the cheese counter. If you follow the tips below, you can count on a smooth sauce when you use Asiago, Cheddar, colby, fontina, Gouda, Gruyère, Havarti, Monterey Jack, or Muenster. Blue cheeses and soft cheeses such as Brie and Camembert also melt well if you remove the rind. When melting cheese, the following tips will help insure a smooth sauce. Bring the cheese to room temperature before using, grate or finely chop the cheese, thicken the sauce before adding the cheese, and heat only until the cheese has melted. Overheating can make the cheese harden and release fat creating a lumpy sauce.
Pam recently e-mailed the Kitchenshrink to ask, “When I make a cheese sauce starting with a roux of flour and butter then adding milk and cheese it sometimes gets a gritty texture. What causes this?” I thought perhaps it was caused by overheating but wasn’t sure so I asked my friend Jean Anderson for some help. Here’s what she said:
“I think some kinds of cheese just do this but it could be that overheating the cheese has denatured the protein. Some cheeses are improperly aged and in addition, contain emulsifiers or coagulants that break down when heated causing a gritty texture. I would urge cooks to use top-quality cheeses, PURE CHEESES and NOT “CHEESE FOODS” that glut supermarkets. READ THE LABELS and if the list of additives is long, avoid that particular cheese. Well aged, unadulterated top-quality Cheddars melt smoothly if NOT overheated. I also like the Italian Fontina and Parmigiano Reggiano. Something else: Grate the cheese yourself instead of using pre-grated — in my experience, these rarely melt smoothly. Rule of Thumb: Add cheese only after a sauce has thickened, use lowest heat, stir constantly, and remove from the heat the instant the cheese melts – but if the sauce is bubbling before you add the cheese, pull the pan off the heat altogether, add the cheese, and stir until smooth. Overheating cheese will curdle and/or “string” it every time. Easy does it!” For more kitchen wisdom, visit Jean’s website, http://www.jeanandersoncooks.com/.
I recently got an e-mail from David who said “I am making chicken soup for my picky eaters, and . . . . the soup has little chicken flavor and no yellow color. . . . how can I get more chicken flavor and a pleasing yellow color in my chicken soup?
My biggest advice regarding flavor would be to strain out all the solids at the end and reduce the broth by about one-third. Take a look at my homemade chicken stock recipe for guidelines. While the soup is reducing, you can bone the chicken and return the pieces to the broth along with whatever vegetables you want to have in the final soup. To give the flavor a head start, you can sauté the vegetables in the stock pot in a mixture of olive oil and butter before adding the chicken and water. You can also roast the vegetables in a medium oven for about 30 minutes before starting the soup. Be sure to deglaze the roasting pan with water and add it to the soup. As for the color, stop worrying about it. Precooking the vegetables and having some carrots in the mix will help the color a bit, but it really isn’t important.
One of the most frequent requests e-mailed to the Kitchen Shrink is, “Where can I find your method for poaching chicken breasts so they will be moist?” I have been asked for that technique so often that I put it right up front in the “Head Starts” chapter of Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinnerswhere it will be easy to find. The dilemma with cooking chicken breasts is that it is essential to fully cook them to destroy salmonella in case it is present and there is a fine line between fully-cooked moist and over-cooked dry chicken. Here’s how to make my “Can’t Overcook ‘Em Chicken Breasts.”
Bring 3 cups Homemade Chicken Stock to a boil over high heat in a saucepan just large enough to hold 1 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves in one layer; add the chicken breasts, making sure they are covered by the stock. Simmer them gently, uncovered, for 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover it, and let it stand for 10 minutes. Remove 1 chicken breast to a plate and cut into the center to make sure the breast is cooked through. If it is, remove the remaining breasts to the plate. If it is not, return it to the saucepan, cover the pan, and simmer it for 2 minutes more, then remove the chicken to a clean plate and set it aside to cool. Cool and refrigerate the stock for another use.
I recently got an e-mail from Ruth saying, “Years ago I saw one of your TV shows and you were talking about a trick to get rid of that hard little “nub” on the end of a chicken tenderloin; well my mothering duties called and I never heard about it again. Maybe you could clue me in.” Here is the trick: You take that tough little tendon out of the chicken tenderloin by laying the tenderloin on the counter, tendon side down. You then grab the end of the tendon with a towel and slide your knife under it at a 20 degree angle. Now, this is the interesting part – you do not move the knife, you simply pull the tendon toward you. As long as you have a sharp knife and the right angle, the tendon should separate out easily from the tenderloin. Incidentally, this is the same way you skin a fish.
I recently got an e-mail from Alice who asked, “When I asked my favorite bakery about the delicious chocolate frosting on their cakes, they said it is ganache? What is ganache and how can I make it at home?
Ganache is a mixture of sweetened chocolate (either dark or milk) and heavy cream. The proportions can vary slightly but I like to use 1 tablespoon cream to 1 ounce of chocolate. It takes about 8 ounces chocolate and 1/2 cup cream to fill and frost a cake. Gently heat the cream until bubbles appear around the edges. Finely chop the chocolate and whisk it into the hot cream until it is smooth. Cool slightly until it reaches spreading consistency and it is ready to use.
One of the most frequent questions that come in to the Kitchen Shrink is, “How can I melt chocolate without the risk of it scorching or suddenly getting firm.” Chocolate is very sensitive to heat and it is best to melt it slowly. I like to melt it in the top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over water that has come to a boil and then been removed from the heat. Be patient and when it looks as if much of it has melted, remove it from the hot water and whisk it until it is all melted and smooth. You can also set a heat-proof glass measuring cup into the pan of hot water and add the chocolate to the cup. Be careful not to let any of the water splash into the cup because, while you can melt chocolate with a liquid as long as you have at least a tablespoon of liquid per ounce of chocolate, small amounts of a liquid will cause chocolate to “seize” and become hard and lumpy. If you do have that happen, you might be able to save the chocolate by quickly stirring in 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil per ounce of chocolate. You can also melt chocolate in a microwave, but be sure to use 50% power and microwave for short intervals at a time. Whisk, and if you don’t have a turntable in your microwave, turn the dish frequently.
It is best to purchase clams just before cooking them so there should be little storage to worry about. Clams are purchased alive and must be kept alive. If you do purchase them several hours in advance, they should be kept cool and moist on ice or in the refrigerator. Don’t wrap them in anything airtight; they need oxygen to survive. Just before cooking, scrub them with a stiff brush under cool running water and trim off beards if they have them. If any are open, tap the shell. If they don’t close tightly, discard them. If any don’t open when cooked, discard them. All of the above goes for mussels as well.
A few weeks ago Blondell asked the Kitchen Shrink how to open a fresh coconut and, with the spring holidays just around the corner, this seems like the perfect time to share my favorite method for this tricky procedure.
I have tried lots of different ways of cracking a coconut but the one published in Gourmet always seems to be the easiest. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Thoroughly rinse and dry the coconut. With a metal skewer, ice pick, or clean screwdriver, poke a hole in the softest eye of the coconut. If possible, poke a hole in another eye of the coconut because that will make the coconut water drain more efficiently. Invert the coconut over a glass measuring cup and let it drain. Taste the coconut water; if there is any off flavor, the coconut is not good and should be discarded. Place the coconut in a rimmed baking pan and bake 15 minutes. The shell will probably crack in the oven. If not, crack it with a hammer and separate the pieces. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then pry the coconut away from the shell and peel off the brown skin with a vegetable peeler. Shred the coconut pieces with a microplane or a grater. You can also use a food processor but you are likely to get some little chunks among the shreds. Use the coconut in any recipe calling for unsweetened coconut or pack it in a freezer container and freeze for up to 3 months.
Several weeks ago Susan e-mailed me to ask how to get a cookbook published. This is a question that I get frequently and here is how I answered her. “I don’t know what to tell you. Publishing cookbooks the traditional way is a dying template. If you are the hottest thing on TV, a publishing house will be interested in you and back you up, if you are not, they don’t care. I just got my last book published the traditional way. I don’t think that will happen again. You should explore publishing the book yourself and selling it on line. Or perhaps you should start blogging to get your name out there, include recipes, and then follow up with the cookbook.” I promised her that I would update and post the following piece I wrote a while back about publishing a family cookbook as that information might be of help.
Create Your Own Family Cookbook
The recipes your family loves are an important part of your heritage and a very special gift to preserve and pass along to future generations. These days it’s easier than ever. Recipes and photos can be collected via the internet and publishing software for your home computer makes it possible to design and print the finished book or to send it electronically to a local copy shop or a community cookbook publisher for finishing. Here’s how:
1. Make a plan: Before you start there are several important things to decide.How do you want the book to look? Do you want the recipes to be hand written or printed? Do you want the book to be in full color, partial color or black and white? Do you want a loose-leaf book, spiral-bound book, tape- or velo-bound book or a booklet? Keep your answers to these questions in mind when researching your production options.
2. Collect the contents: It’s time to ask family members to test and send you their favorite family recipes along with any stories or traditions that make the recipes special. Ask for photographs and title suggestions as well. Those who have a home computer can scan the photos and scan or type the recipes to make your job easier. If all recipes will be printed, send contributors a sample recipe for style. Remind them that it is important to use standard measuring cups and spoons when testing the recipes and to include details such as the sizes of baking pans and the volume of casseroles. Be sure to set a deadline and send postcard or e-mail reminders a week or so before recipes are due.
3. Organize the book: Now that you have collected the recipes, stories and photos for your cookbook, you can decide on the Table of Contents. Do you want to arrange the recipes by generations (e.g. 1850- 1900, 1900-1950, 1950-2000), by family members (Great-Grandma’s recipes, Grandma’s recipes, Aunt Sue’s recipes), by food categories (e.g. Appetizers, Vegetables, Meats), or something else? Where do you want the photographs and family stories to go? How do you want the recipes organized within chapters? Choices include: alphabetically by title, seasonally, or something else. Do you want an index? Do you want to include blank pages so additional recipes may be added by hand?
4. Produce your cookbook: If you have made arrangements with a copy shop or community cookbook publisher to produce the book using hand-written recipes and original photographs, organize the materials and any introductory material you are providing following the publisher’s directions. Be sure to make a copy of everything for your own records. If the book is being done electronically, organize the materials in a file. Check all recipes to see that they are in a consistent style and that all essential information has been included. Recipe style guides that are available from bookstores and on-line book dealers are helpful with this. Deliver the materials on a disc, CD, or by e-mail as prearranged with the producer.
5. Enjoy: Share your unique cookbook with other family members, giving it as gifts to special friends, passing it along to your children and grandchildren and knowing that this important part of your heritage has been preserved. Once your cookbooks arrive, you might want to consider putting it on line or creating a web site that includes several recipes and sales information.
On Line Information:
Liisa recently e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask “are all cookie doughs freezer friendly?” What a good question. It is so convenient to have already prepared cookie dough in the freezer so you can have freshly baked cookies on the table at a moment’s notice. All butter cookie doughs freeze well. That includes drop cookies, rolled cookies, pressed cookies, and refrigerator (icebox) cookies. Meringue or sponge cookie doughs or batters made with beaten egg whites don’t freeze at all. Coconut kiss and Florentine batters don’t freeze well and bar cookies that are made with a thin batter aren’t very successful either. Brownie batter can be frozen but it is best to freeze it in the pan in which it will be baked and pop it into the oven still frozen. For best results use your frozen cookie doughs within 2 months.
Pam recently e-mailed the Kitchenshrink with several questions. With the help of my friend Jean Anderson, I answered one last week and Jean and I will take on the second this week, “Why do cookies deflate when you take them from the oven. Especially chocolate chip?” My thought was that Pam might be using the new Crisco that certainly produces different results than the original. Here’s Jean’s answer: “The shortening is key. The new Crisco may have caused the cookies to fall but so might substituting margarine for butter or using one of the new soft spreads in place of good old-fashioned stick butter — my choice for all cakes and cookies these days. It’s also possible that the cookies contain too much sugar — the culprit in fallen cakes. I’d suggest that the reader retry the recipe using stick butter and 2 to 3 tablespoons less sugar (depends, of course, on the quantity of sugar called for — I’m assuming that this is a fairly classic chocolate chip cookie recipe). These adjustments should solve the problem.” For more kitchen wisdom, visit Jean’s website, www.jeanandersoncooks.com.
I recently got an e-mail from Coley asking about cooking salmon on cedar planks and adding, “I’ve researched it enough to know there is more than one type of cedar and that means different flavor to the food. Also, there was enough information available I’m confused. Could you point me in the right direction?” There IS a lot of information available on line as well as a lot of products for sale. Roasting or grilling on a wooden plank keeps foods moist, avoids having to turn the food (which is especially a problem when grilling fish), adds a smoky flavor, and provides an interesting serving plate or platter liner when placed on a larger heat-proof plate. Cooking fish on cedar is the best known combination but any meat, poultry, seafood, or vegetable that you would roast or grill can be roasted or grilled on cedar, alder, maple, hickory, pecan, oak, cherry, or apple wood planks. Cooking planks are available in a variety of sizes small enough for individual servings or large enough for a family meal. Cedar is also available in thin sheets that, once soaked in water, are flexible enough to be wrapped around foods. How do you decide? Each of the woods provides a slightly different flavor in addition to smokiness and the best way to make that decision is to start with the most easily available and gradually try others to see what you like best. Do select organic or all-natural cooking planks from sustainable American forests and buy them from a source that you trust. One of my favorite sources is Elizabeth Karmel’s Grill Friends collection which includes a variety of sizes and styles. They are available on line here and here. Do not buy wood from a lumber yard and cut it yourself as wood that is intended for home construction has often been treated with chemicals to make it fire or insect resistant. Planks must be soaked before being used and fruit juices, alcoholic beverages, herb-infused water may be substituted for plain water for added flavor. If you want to use the planks more than once, follow the cleaning instructions on the package. They need to be thoroughly cleaned without using soap as that could affect the flavor of the food the next time you use them. A much better idea is to break used planks into pieces and add them to the fire when grilling or smoking.
I recently got an e-mail from Terry asking why I often recommend cast iron skillets. She said she finds hers hard to take care of. I am such a fan of cast iron that I devoted a whole page in Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Mealsto it. Here’s an abbreviated version of what I said:
“There is a reason that the cast-iron skillet, a favorite pan going all the way back to colonial times, is still popular. Even though it takes time to heat up, once hot, it retains the heat evenly for quite a while. Moreover, if you take good care of it and keep it well seasoned, it will behave like a nonstick pan. The more you use it the more nonstick it will become. Cast iron also happens to be extremely affordable, especially compared to all the new designer pans out there. When you first bring it home from the store, you must season it. Seasoning instructions will come with it or you can find them on page 101 of Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals. Once it has been seasoned, never wash the skillet in the dishwasher, never use soap on it again (just scrub it with a brush and water), and always dry it immediately and apply a thin coat of vegetable oil. If it gets rusty (which it won’t if you take good care of it), repeat the seasoning procedure.”
I received an e-mail from Frances asking, “What is your all-time favorite dessert? How do you make it?” Well, I don’t really have a favorite dessert, but I am rather fond of the Butterscotch Pudding Cake served with coffee ice cream found on page 341 of Sara Moulton’s Family Dinners. You will also find it in the Dessert category of the Recipe collection on my web site. Here is a link.
Dolores e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that many of the meatless main dishes she likes to make for Lent include eggplant and wondered if there was some way to make sure the eggplant won’t be bitter.
Eggplants become bitter if they are very mature and full of seeds when harvested or when they have been stored too long either in the supermarket or your own refrigerator. To increase your chance of getting an eggplant that isn’t bitter, select medium to small eggplants that are very firm and have smooth shiny skin. Avoid those that look wrinkled, dent when you press them, or feel light for their size. And, use them shortly after purchase. While salting eggplant slices or cubes and allowing them to drain can reduce their tendency to absorb oil when they are being cooked, it doesn’t really help to get rid of the bitterness.
Marilee e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she always buys jumbo eggs and wondered if it is all right to use them when a recipe calls for large eggs.
Most recipes call for large eggs because that is the size that is purchased most often in American supermarkets. If you are making an egg dish such as an omelet, fried or scrambled eggs, or hard cooked eggs, using larger or smaller eggs will not usually be a problem but if the eggs are going into a baked product it will interfere with the balance of the recipe and the results may be too soft or too firm and dry. For example, if a cake recipe calls for 3 large eggs, you would need 2 jumbo or 4 small. Go to the American Egg Board’s Eggcyclopedia for a chart that will help you substitute different size eggs in recipes. You’ll find a lot of other interesting information about eggs there as well.
Each year just after the spring holidays the Kitchen Shrink gets e-mails asking about storing hard-cooked eggs. According to the American Egg Board’s Eggcyclopedia, hard-cooked eggs should be cooled and refrigerated as soon as they have been cooked. Store them in their shells and use them within one week.
I recently got an e-mail from Sandy asking if there is an easy way to peel an egg. She said, “I lose most of the egg when I do it.” Well, actually it has more to do with selecting the egg than peeling it. Very fresh eggs never peel well when hard cooked. As an egg ages, air comes through the shell and creates a layer separating the membrane that surrounds the egg from the shell. If you select an egg that is a week or so old, that air space makes it easier to peel the egg. Peeling it under running water helps as well.
This time of year I get a lot of e-mails asking me about the special technique for hard cooking eggs that I learned from Julia Child. When I was writing my latest cookbook, Sara’s Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners, I made the process even easier and here it is:
Sara’s Hard-cooked Eggs
This is my streamlined version of Julia Child’s fool-proof method of hard-cooking eggs. In a nutshell, Julia figured out that the way to hard boil an egg is to stop short of actually boiling it. Boil it and all you’ll do is guarantee that the thing ends up damn near as hard and rubbery as a hockey puck. Instead, you start the eggs in cold water, bring them almost to a boil, pull them off the heat, and then cover and set them aside while they finish cooking. Finally, you plunge them into ice water and let them cool completely before peeling, a little trick that eliminates the nasty green line that would otherwise appear between the whites and the yolk. Do it this way and you’ll turn out perfect hard-cooked eggs every time.
Large eggs, at room temperature
Place the desired number of eggs in a saucepan large enough for them to fit in a single layer and add enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, cover it, and set it aside for 13 minutes.
Transfer the eggs to a bowl of half ice and half water. Cool them completely; then refrigerate or use as directed in a recipe.
In addition to their nutritional value, eggs can provide structure, leavening, richness, color, and flavor to baked products. The height and texture of baked goods is determined by the balance between eggs and flour which provide strength, and sugar and fat which add tenderness. Because eggs become firm when heated they set the structure of cakes, cookies, and other baked items. The same property makes it possible for them to thicken sauces, pies, and casseroles. Beaten egg whites can be gently incorporated into a batter or soft dough to make it rise; while egg yolks can add richness, color, and flavor. In addition, lightly beaten eggs, either whole or separated can be brushed on the surface of breads, cookies, and biscuits to give them a pretty shine. To learn more go to incredibleegg.org.
Egg quality changes gradually during storage with the white getting thinner as they age. Eggs stored at room temperature age four times as fast as eggs stored in the refrigerator. Although most refrigerators come with a special egg tray in the door, that is not the best place to store eggs. The door is the warmest place in the fridge and should be reserved for foods that are high in sugar, acid, or salt such as jams, jellies, pickles, olives, mustard, ketchup, and hot sauce. The best way to store eggs is to leave them in the carton they come in and place it in the back of the refrigerator as soon as you get home from the store.
William e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that he had noticed fresh figs in his local supermarket and wanted to know how to select and store them. Look for figs that are plump, have a little give when gently pressed, and have a fresh aroma. Avoid any that smell fermented as they are overripe. If you purchase some that are still a bit firm, you can ripen them in your kitchen at room temperature. Once ripened, arrange them in a single layer in a paper-towel lined baking pan to prevent bruising and store them in the refrigerator; they should be good for up to 3 days. Or, you can freeze them in a single layer then transfer them to zippered bags and store them in the freezer for up to 6 months. For more information and recipes, go to Fresh Figs.
Susan from San Francisco e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask, “Can you recommend fish that are safe to eat and not in danger of being over-fished? I’ve heard that some of my favorites are endangered, but we get conflicting reports.”
Information on seafood does seem to change frequently so I want to remind you that my favorite place to find current updates on seafood safety and sustainability is always the Seafood Watch section at the Monterey Aquarium web site. Just visit www.mbayaq.org and you can select your favorites from the long list of seafood to see if you should be purchasing them and ordering them in restaurants.
Sharon e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask,” What is the difference between bread flour and all-purpose flour?” The difference is the percentage of protein (gluten) to starch in the flour and that is determined by the type of wheat the flour is made from. Bread flour is made from high-gluten hard wheat, pastry flour is made from high starch soft wheat, and all-purpose flour is made from a combination of the two. High-gluten bread flour provides the strength for bread dough to stretch and rise into a high loaf. High-starch pastry flour produces the tenderness and fine-grained texture of a perfect cake. All-purpose flour can do either, just not to the same degree, it won’t make as high a loaf of bread or as fine-grained a cake, but it is perfect for cookies, pancakes, muffins, quick breads, thickening sauces, or breading foods to be fried, and is an essential staple in any kitchen.
I recently got an e-mail from Scott who wrote, “I saw a TV show saying that the expiration date on mayonnaise is not real. . . Is this true? Also are the expiration dates on canned goods like tuna, soup, or tomato products really valid . . .?
I promised to look into it and the most reliable information I found is from the USDA. They say that the sell-by date is there to help the “purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date. After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe for a period of time if handled properly.” Go to the USDA web site for more information and charts giving a time limit on the period of time different foods may be safe beyond the sell-by date.
I was surprised to find out that federal regulations only apply to baby formula and food. According to the USDA, “federal regulations require a “use-by” date on the product label of infant formula and the varieties of baby food under FDA inspection.”
Other dates are not controlled by federal regulations but are determined by the manufacturer. A “sell-by” date tells the store how long to offer the product for sale. A “best if used by” date is based on best flavor as determined by the manufacturer, not a safety date. A “use-by” date is the last date recommended by the manufacturer for use at peak quality.
The safe-use time for products varies. Many things go into the quality and safety of a stored product. Storage temperature is very important; storing in a cool, dry place prolongs product quality. Once opened, the way a product is handled is important. It is essential that you use a clean utensil when you dip into a product. A spoon that has been used for tuna and is then used in mayonnaise reduces the safe life of the mayo to that of an opened can of tuna.
I recently got an e-mail from Alberta saying, “Years ago there was a warning about using too much of a red food dye (#4 if I remember correctly). I never made red velvet cake for my family because of this warning. Since red velvet cake has made a comeback, I would like to know if makers of the cake mixes are using something deemed safer?”
The history of Red Velvet Cake is filled with myths as it goes in and out of fashion. It is thought that it originally got its name from the reddish hue of the cake’s interior caused by the interaction of cocoa, baking soda, and an acid such as buttermilk. Then early in the 20th century a flavorings company decided to add a bottle of their red food coloring to the mix. Its current popularity is the latest mystery in its story. Why has a generation who embraced natural, organic, healthy eating suddenly decided to add a bottle of food coloring to their children’s birthday cakes?
Although they have been looking into the relationship between food additives and hyperactivity, FDA currently permits some food colors including Red numbers 3 and 40, Citrus Red number 2, and cochineal extract or carmine which is considered to be from natural sources. You can go to FDA for more information. I am certain that the makers of cake mixes are using an FDA approved color, but if you are making a homemade cake, you have the option of making any red velvet cake recipe without the food coloring and it will be a delicious, traditional, cocoa cake just not bright red.
Whenever there is a power outage, I get e-mails asking ” what foods can I save and what do I have to discard when my refrigerator has been off for hours?” I thought this would be a good time to remind you that the USDA web site has guidelines to help you decide which foods in your refrigerator and freezer are safe to keep if your power has been off. If you have questions that aren’t answered there, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-674-6854 (1-888-MPHotline) between 10 am and 4 pm EST weekdays or contact Ask Karen, the Food Safety and Inspection Service virtual representative at any time.
It is a good idea to print the information before you need it and store it with the candles and extra batteries. If the food in your refrigerator has been held above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for over 2 hours much of it will need to be discarded. Some of the things that may be kept if the temperature has been above 40 degrees for several hours longer are hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, and Romano, fresh and dried fruit, jelly, relish, barbecue and soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, and olives. The USDA recommends discarding opened Worcestershire sauce, fish and oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and salad dressings with the exception of oil and vinegar dressing.
All through the year I get many questions about safely entertaining. While cooking ahead and buffet serving is a traditional way of serving large groups, it is essential that food safety guidelines are followed. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (888-674-6854) is available from 10 to 4 on weekdays to answer your questions and offers on-line help 24/7. Other US Government sites have helpful information as well; go to foodsafety.gov.
I recently got an e-mail from Dean asking why some recipes for cooked Caramel Frosting (the kind without confectioners’ sugar, also called Caramel Fudge Frosting) call for baking soda and some don’t and wondering, “What is the reason for using baking soda and what is the difference in the outcome of both ways of making the icing?”
Although I know that you can add cream of tartar or white corn syrup to prevent crystallization in the finished frosting and when making peanut brittle you add baking soda to give the clear sugar syrup the characteristic porous texture, I also know from baking that if there isn’t enough acid in a mixture to neutralize the soda, it will leave a bitter, soapy taste. I couldn’t think of any positive reason for adding baking soda to Caramel Frosting so I asked my friend and mentor, Jean Anderson (author of From A Southern Oven) what she knew about baking soda in caramel frosting. She said, “I see no need for it. You’re just adding more sodium. If a little cream of tartar has been added to the caramel syrup to prevent crystallization, this tiny bit of added acid may be why some recipes call for soda – “to temper it.”. . . I personally wouldn’t add soda.”
Freshly picked apricots are the first “stone” fruit of summer. Shortly after they appear on the market, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and then plums arrive. Prompted by the warmth of the early summer sun each ripens in its own time. Fruits have different ripening agendas, some stop ripening when they are picked, some ripen in color, softness, and juiciness but not sweetness, and the avocado alone doesn’t start ripening until after it has been picked. Most “stone” fruit will get softer, more colorful, and juicier but not sweeter after harvesting as long as they haven’t been picked too green.
Selecting is the first important step toward a great early summer fruit experience. Select fruit that is firm but not baseball hard and has no sign of green. Check the stem end for green as that area gets the least sun and is the last to ripen. These days everyone knows that fruit release ethylene gas as they ripen. However, the initial release of ethylene is timed by a gene and if the fruit has been picked too early, that process will never happen. On the other end of the ripening cycle avoid fruit that is brownish, wrinkled, has flattened spots, or is bruised.
“Stone” fruit is best kept unwashed until you are ready to use it. Cherries should go in the fridge immediately after purchase. Apricots, nectarines, peaches, and plums can be kept at room temperature until they are ready to use. Check them frequently and use or refrigerate (for use within 24 to 36 hours) when they are aromatic and give slightly when gently pressed.
If you would like to speed up the ripening process, do catch some of the ethylene the fruit produces. Remove any stems and put the fruit in a paper bag or wrap in a linen towel and set in a warm place in the kitchen. (Don’t use plastic as that traps moisture and can cause spoilage.) For faster ripening, add an apple or banana, or, if you are going to peel them for use anyway, cut a 1-inch slit in the skin to encourage greater ethylene production.
Frank e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that he likes to use lots of garlic but hates to pick the white papery skin off. He wondered if there is an easy way to do this.
I usually arrange the cloves, with a flat side down, on my work surface and whack them with the flat side of a heavy knife. The skin pops right off. If you feel uncomfortable with that, press on them with something flat such as a wide spatula or the bottom of a can. There are also some clever devices on the market such as a flexible tube that removes the skin. You can take a look at them in your favorite kitchen shop or online at Williams Sonoma.
I recently got an e-mail from Jane asking how to store fresh ginger and remembered that I had a collection of suggestions in Sara Moulton Cooks at Home. Here’s what I said, “Whenever I have Asian chefs on my show, they tell me they use ginger in so many recipes they just leave it in a basket in a cool, dark place in the kitchen, much like garlic. I never go through it that fast, so I put it in the vegetable drawer in a loose plastic bag. Some people freeze it, but I think that dissipates its flavor. Some people store it peeled in sherry, which makes for awfully tasty alcohol and slightly compromised ginger. Nina Simond, an author of Asian cookbooks, suggested planting it in a pot of sandy soil, letting it take root, and then just cutting off pieces as you need them.”
Gluten is the name for the protein in grains. All grains contain protein that is theoretically gluten but people with celiac disease and most other gluten allergies only react to the form of gluten found in wheat (including spelt, kamut, triticale and all varieties of wheat), barley, and rye.
While it’s not really correct to refer to other grains as “gluten-free,” they are free from the form of gluten found in varieties of wheat, barley, rye, and their derivatives and are safe for people with celiac disease and most gluten intolerances.
Products that may be used in a “gluten-free” diet include amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, chickpea (garbanzo) flour, corn, flax, millet, potato starch or flour, quinoa, rice (rice bran and flour), sago, sorghum, soy, tapioca, and teff. While oats do not contain the form of gluten that can not be used by people who are sensitive to the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye, it is often processed on the same equipment as is wheat so it is important to look for oatmeal that is labeled gluten-free.
Grains and grain products that should not be included in a “gluten-free” diet because they contain the form of gluten not safe for people with celiac and most gluten intolerances or have a high chance of cross contamination in their production include barley, barley malt or extract, bran, bulgur, couscous, durum, farina, faro, kamut, malt, matzo flour or meal, orzo, panko, rye, seitan, semolina, spelt, triticale. udon, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, or wheat starch. It is always important to read product labels. Some products such as soy sauce and other seasonings and sauces contain wheat.
Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet and a gluten-free diet has no health-related benefit for people who do not have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
I have gotten several e-mails from viewers who would like to find a grater attached to a storage container similar to the one we used on the show. The one I used on the show is the Better Zester from the Edgeware v-etched line of graters. For more information, go to Better Zester. If you search on line, you will find a number of choices of graters with containers in different shapes and sizes. The KitchenAid Cup Grater pictured here is easily available wherever housewares are sold as well as on-line. It includes both fine and coarse stainless steel blades, and is completely dishwasher safe. You can find more information or order one at KitchenAid.
Each year around the holidays I get lots of questions about making gravy.
There are many ways to make smooth gravy, but the easy one that I learned from my grandmother is to reach for the instantized flour (Wondra.) It can be whisked into either hot or cold broth and dissolves easily making a smooth gravy. It also makes a good coating for fried foods. I have no personal interest in the company but the flour has been in my family’s kitchens for three generations. And, no matter how you make your gravy, if lumps appear, just pour the gravy through a large strainer and no one will know.
Each year as the weather in the northern states gets chilly, I get requests for green tomato recipes. As I learned a few years ago when the first frost threatens gardeners harvest all the tomatoes even though some are green. Some traditional ways to use up all those green tomatoes are jam, mincemeat, salsa, and of course, fried green tomatoes. Although they are delicious all by themselves, I like to use them in salads and sandwiches. You can find my recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes and Ranch Dressing with Yellow Cherry Tomatoes Salad from Sara Moulton Cooks at Home and my recipe for Fried Green Tomato Sandwich with Goat Cheese from Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals right here.
This week I got an e-mail from Rich saying, “My brother inherited Grandpa and Grandma’s house. He cooks, but they had no spices in the house. What are the basics he should have in his kitchen for simple, but exciting meals? I would greatly appreciate your comments!”
I have often heard to look at your 10 favorite recipes and keep the ingredients necessary to make them in your pantry all the time and that may be a very good way to start your personal spice and herb collection. These days there are dozens of spice mixtures available as well as collections of the necessary flavors for regional and international cuisines but the lists that follow suggest a few basic herbs and spices as well as two classic spice blends to get you started. If you want to add spice or herb mixtures to your collection be sure to look for ones that are salt free.
For Cooking: I’d start with Black peppercorns (or ground pepper), Cayenne, Cumin (ground), Oregano leaves, Paprika (sweet), Rosemary leaves, and Thyme leaves as well as salt-free versions of the spice blends, Chili powder and Curry powder. As soon as possible, I’d add Bay leaves (Turkish), Marjoram leaves, Mustard (dry), Paprika (smoked and hot), Red pepper flakes, and Tarragon.
For Baking: I’d start with Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger, Nutmeg, and Vanilla, and as soon as you can add Allspice and Cloves.
Callie e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask, “I am growing my own herbs this Spring and want to use them in all my recipes! However, most recipes call for dried herbs. Is the measurement of dried herbs the same for fresh herbs or should I uses less since the herb is fresh and more pronounced than the dried version? Actually it is just the opposite. Herbs are reduced in size when dehydrated so you need less dried than fresh. In Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners, I note that “1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs equals 1 teaspoon dried herbs” and suggest that since chopping reduces the volume of fresh herbs, it is important to always chop them before measuring when the ingredient list calls for chopped.
Put leafy herbs, such as basil, parsley, dill, and cilantro in a glass or glass measuring cup with water in the bottom (like cut flowers), cover with a plastic bag loosely over the top, and store in the fridge. They will keep for a week if set up this way. Woody herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, should be wrapped in paper towels, then a plastic bag, and kept in the crisper.
I recently got an e-mail from Nancy asking, “Why are my cookies always flat?” It turns out that she lives in Calgary and the increased altitude is affecting her baking. Fortunately there is lots of help these days. A recent book by renowned baker, Susan G. Purdy, is devoted to high-altitude baking. You can learn more at highaltitudebaking.com. There is also a wealth of information at kingarthurflour.com and swcoloradohome.com.
As fall approaches it is definitely time to take a new look at kale. Kale has become one of the latest cruciferous vegetables to rebrand as a versatile ingredient in almost any recipe you can think of. Also known as borecole, this cousin of cabbage, collards, and Brussels sprouts has always been known as a healthy green vegetable, high in vitamins (A, C, and K), minerals (copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus) and low in calories. While these days it is available year round, it thrives in cooler weather.
In the past, the recipes for cooking kale were pretty similar—cut it in wide crosswise strips and simmer it with a ham bone for an hour or so. These days, chefs hunt for young kale, remove the center rib and cook it briefly with a variety of seasonings until it wilts, then serve it as a bed for meats, a side dish, or a pasta sauce. Even easier, they remove the center vein, massage it in cool water until the color deepens, and serve it as a salad—all delicious ways to enjoy the flavor of this healthy vegetable.
When shopping for kale, any variety is a good choice—look for firm, brightly colored leaves with healthy stems. For salad it is good to select smaller leaves, as they will be more tender and milder in flavor. When you get home, store it un-rinsed, in a zippered bag, in the refrigerator, and use it within several days.
There are several good choices for cooking kale on my web site. Take a look at Spanish-style White Bean Kale and Chorizo Soup, Salt-baked Pesce per due with Braised Greens, and Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Chorizo and Greens.
Both baking powder and baking soda are leavening agents; they release carbon dioxide to make baked products rise. Baking soda is bicarbonate of soda. It is an alkali and must be mixed with an acid in order to produce carbon dioxide. It is used in recipes that include an acidic ingredient such as citrus juice, buttermilk, yogurt, molasses, or chocolate but the proportion of baking soda to acid must be correct or a soapy flavor will be produced. It is important to use tested recipes to prevent that problem.
Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda and an acid such as cream of tartar in the correct proportion along with cornstarch to keep the two from mixing before they are put into a baked product. It is used in baked goods that don’t include an acidic ingredient.
Betty e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she had some limes that were especially firm and wondered if there was a “secret” to getting the most juice from them.
Now there is a question that I get so frequently that I put a sidebar in Sara Moulton Cooks at Home with some tips that will help. Both lemons and limes vary in juiciness and in firmness and you want to get all the juice you can when you squeeze them. I have found that any of the following three methods help a lot. Before you cut the lime in half to squeeze it:
Marilyn e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she has a recipe that calls for Grade B Maple Syrup and wonders if she can substitute Grade A Maple Syrup as her supermarkets don’t have Grade B. Most maple recipes these days do call for Grade B Maple Syrup because this (usually late-season) syrup delivers a lot more Maple Flavor than the lighter Grade A Syrup and is really worth hunting for. This explains what causes that difference. Maple Syrup regulations vary by states in the U.S. and are also different in Canada where a lot of our maple syrup comes from. In some production areas it is labeled Dark rather than Grade B and in some it can only be sold at the farm where it is produced, but in all markets the best way to identify Grade B syrup is by its deep color. If it isn’t available in your area, you can purchase it by mail at White Meadows Farms, Vermont Country Store, and Coombs Family Farms.
I am always interested in new ideas in kitchen equipment and was especially happy when I tried Oxo’s Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Cup. Instead of balancing a measuring spoon filled to the brim with oil or vanilla or another liquid ingredient as you move it to the skillet or mixing bowl you can look straight down into these little cups, measure what you need with room at the top to spare, and easily move it to where it’s needed. They also come in 1, 2, and 4-cup sizes. For more information, go to Oxo.
I recently got an e-mail from Linda asking how long to cook a turkey meatloaf. As I took a look at several of my meatloaf recipes, I was reminded that there are slight differences in the final safe temperature depending upon the meat used, and big differences in the cooking time depending upon the oven temperature and the size and shape of the loaf. The most important indicator for safely cooking meats is the internal temperature so it is essential that you use an oven-safe meat thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf throughout cooking or periodically check the temperature of the center of the loaf using an instant-read thermometer. If the meat is not thick enough for the thermometer to read accurately when inserted from the top, insert it horizontally from a side. How do you know what temperature to aim for? Here is a USDA chart that makes finding the minimum safe internal temperature for different meats easy.
Steve e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask if there was a trick for thinly slicing raw meats for stir fry.
As I mention in my recipe for Japanese Beef Fondue, the best way to thinly slice meat without a fancy slicing machine is to partially freeze the meat so it is firm enough to keep its shape but not to resist the knife. In the recipe I suggest about 30 minutes but that depends on the initial temperature of the meat and the thickness of the cut. It is best to test it for firmness after 30 minutes and return it to the freezer if it needs more chilling.
Tom e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that he likes to make homemade sausage but each time he does so they turn out differently. He wondered how he could prevent that from happening. I love to add a variety of seasonings to my burgers as well as to meat mixtures for my homemade sausage. To check the seasonings in any raw ground meat mixtures, I just sauté a small patty of the mixture until it is cooked through and taste it. That way, corrections can be made before the flavor combination is set in cooked burgers or sausages.
While that’s not so easy in the winter when melons come from far away as it is now that they are coming from closer to home and have the opportunity to spend a little more time on the vine. But, no matter the season there are some clues to look for. You should look for a firm (not spongy), plump melon with no spots or flat areas and a clean scar on the stem end. When melons are ripe, they separate naturally from the stem, so it shouldn’t look as if it was cut or twisted off the vine. Although Persian and Crenshaw melons may show some green on the skin, cantaloupes should be tan or yellow and honeydews should be cream-colored not green. If you sniff the blossom end it should be aromatic. If you can’t smell anything, then it probably isn’t ripe and won’t develop much sweetness or flavor as it matures.
If it is a dry day and you have headed all the warnings about meringue making (no yolk in the whites, no salt in the mixture, impeccably clean bowl and beater, the correct ratio of sugar to whites, and sugar added very gradually checking before each addition to see that the mixture is not gritty) it is possible that you are over-beating the whites which can break the structure of the foam but it is more likely that you are not allowing the crust to dry out long enough.
Hard meringue should have 1/4 cup sugar per egg white and should be beaten just until it is glossy and forms tall peaks that do not curl at the top. The crust is really put into the oven to dry out rather than to bake. The process starts with 1 to 1 1/2 hours in a 225°F oven. When you think the crust is thoroughly dried, insert an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part to make sure it has reached 160°F then turn off the oven and allow the crust to continue to dry out in the oven for several hours or overnight. You can find more information on meringue and meringue pie shells on the American Egg Board’s web site.
While it is not necessary to remove the gills from portobello mushrooms before you use them, I feel that there are some good reasons to take the time to do it. The dark gills share their color with everything they touch and will discolor (turn black) any stuffings, sauces, and salad dressings that accompany the mushrooms in the recipe. Also, the gills sometimes hide a little sand from the substrate on which the mushrooms were grown; scooping them out prevents any grittiness in the finished dish.
Jerry e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that he couldn’t find the Kalamata olives called for in a recipe he wanted to try and wondered if you can substitute canned California ripe olives for Kalamata olives in a recipe?
Canned California ripe olives and oil-cured European ripe olives are really very different products. The California olives are lye-cured and will look good in a salad, casserole, sauce, or pasta dish, but are very mild in flavor and won’t deliver the excitement you are looking for. European-style olives are salt or brine cured and then packed in olive oil that is often flavored with herbs. If you really need to substitute, green olives that have been packed in brine are a better choice.
Now that summer picnic season is in full swing, I have had several requests for information on safely packing and carrying foods. Whether you are driving miles to a park or the beach or going next door for supper on the deck, the heat is on and you need to keep perishables cool. Here are some food safety tips for a perfect outdoor occasion. For more information on summer food safety call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-MPHotline (674-6854), or go to their web site.
Get Ready: Plan your menu around foods that are not highly perishable. Clean several coolers and put a supply of cold packs or ice in the freezer. Prepare all foods several hours in advance so they can be thoroughly chilled before packing. Be sure to include bottled water and wet cloths or disposable wipes for cleaning hands and surfaces. Pack a thermometer, if you are grilling meat or poultry.
Get Set: Pack all perishable foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into a cooler with ice or freezer packs just before leaving. If you are carrying meat to grill, do not partially cook it in advance. Be sure to keep it in a separate container from the ready-to-eat foods. It is also a good idea to keep drinks in a separate cooler so that the one with the food in it isn’t opened frequently.
Go: Put the coolers in the air-conditioned interior of the car not in the trunk and try to limit the number of times they are opened. When you arrive, find the coolest possible spot for the coolers and cover them with a light-colored blanket to reflect the heat. Don’t unpack the food until everyone is ready to eat. Always wash any plates, utensils, and cutting boards that have been in contact with raw meat or poultry before using them again for cooked food. Don’t save leftovers. Food that has been sitting out for 2 hours or more is not safe; if the temperature is above 90°F reduce that to 1 hour.
I frequently get e-mails asking which items are essential when stocking your pantry. Here is my list. I am loosely defining the pantry as things you should keep on hand–not only in your cupboard (the literal pantry), but also in the fridge, the freezer, the dry vegetable bin and the bread drawer and I have broken it down that way. However, there are many things that start in your cupboard and end up in your fridge (such as ketchup, mustard, peanut butter, etc). I have put them in the cupboard because that is where they start. This is a basic list of the kind of items that really help me to get dinner on the table during the week. Of course you should adjust it to your preferences.
Oils and Vinegars:
Extra-virgin olive oil
Assorted vinegars – at least balsamic, white wine and cider. I would add red wine, rice wine and sherry vinegar
Marinated artichoke hearts
Roasted red peppers
Italian pickled vegetables (olive salad, peperoncini, giardiniera)
Kalamata or other black Mediterranean olives
Pimento stuffed olives
Sun dried tomatoes
Asssorted beans – kidney, white, chickpeas, black (I like the Progresso or Goya brand)
Canned whole and chopped tomatoes (I like the Muir Glen brand)
Canned Chicken, Vegetable and Beef Broth (I like College Inn but many cookbook authors also like Swanson)
Tuna (packed in oil for more flavor or water for less calories)
Chipotles in adobo sauce
Chopped green chiles
Toasted sesame oil
Canned unsweetened coconut milk
Rice wine (available at liquor stores and Chinese grocery stores)
Dried wasabi powder
Grains, Pastas and Dried Goods
Assorted pasta – spaghetti, macaroni, linguine, orzo and other varieties of your choice
Long grain rice
Dried porcini or other dried mushrooms
Unbleached all purpose flour
Maple syrup (grade b)
Cream of tartar
Pure vanilla extract
Assorted chocolate (unsweetened, bittersweet, semisweet, chips)
Powdered egg whites (the brand I get is just whites)
Whole and ground cinnamon
Savory Herbs and Spices
Turkish bay leaves
Ground cumin and cumin seed
Ground and whole coriander
Assorted paprikas, sweet, hot, smoked
Hot red pepper flakes
Table salt (for baking)
Dried bread crumbs
Panko bread crumbs
Dry white wine
Dry Marsala or Madeira
Bin or Basket
Russet (baking) potatoes
Boiling potatoes (red or white)
Pita with pockets
Lemons, limes, oranges
Chiles (jalapeno or Serrano
Flour and corn tortillas
Corn, peas, lima beans, spinach, edamame
Vanilla ice cream
Mary e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she would like to try Parmigiano-Reggiano but found the cheese department of her market confusing and wasn’t sure how she could tell she was getting the right cheese.
There are several hard cheeses on the market that are similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano in color but their flavor is very different. To make sure you are getting what you want, always look for the rind on the cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano has its name (as well as the identification number of the dairy and production month and year) stenciled in bands of pin dots all around each wheel. Select a piece with Parmigiano-Reggiano on the rind and you have the real thing.
When I am freshly grinding pepper during a demo I often get questions about the different types of peppercorns and their origins. Real peppercorns are the berries that grow in grapelike clusters on the Piper nigrum plant, a climbing vine native to India and Indonesia. They are processed differently to produce green, black, and white peppercorns. Green peppercorns are the under ripe berries preserved by freeze-drying, drying, or curing in vinegar or brine. Black peppercorns are harvested when the berry is almost ripe then dried until shriveled and dark. White peppercorns are ripe berries with the skin removed and the interior dried. Szechuan peppercorns and pink peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. Numbingly spicy Szechuan peppercorns are the dried husks of the berries of the prickly ash tree, while slightly sweet and perfumed pink peppercorns are the berries of the Baies rose. You can find more information on page 175 of Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals.
I have recently gotten more e-mails asking, “Who made your peppermills and where can I get one?” My peppermills were made for me by an octogenarian woodworker named Pinky Martin. When Oprah invited me to come on her show to give one of the peppermills to a viewer, Pinky got so many orders that he closed his waiting list. He is still working on that list but has promised to let me know when he is ready to accept orders again so I can post his e-mail address on this web site.
There are a number of ways to roast peppers; all are easy. I used roasted red peppers a number of times in Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals and included these instructions on page 30 of the book to help readers make them. If you have a gas stove, turn on one burner to a low flame for every four peppers you want to roast. Arrange the peppers directly on the grate over the flame and turn them often using tongs until they are blackened on all sides. If you have an electric stove, place a rack 4 inches from your broiler’s heat source and preheat the broiler to high. Place the peppers on the rack and char them as directed above. Either method will take 10 to 15 minutes. Then transfer the peppers to a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until they are cool enough to touch. Working over a bowl to catch the juice, quarter each pepper, discard the stem and seeds; pull off and discard the skin and use the peppers as directed in your recipe. Don’t rinse the peeled peppers as that removes some of the flavor. The juices you have caught in the bowl are a delicious addition to soups and sauces.
Helen asked the Kitchen Shrink how she can keep a single pie crust from shrinking when it is baked without a filling.
The first step in preventing pastry shrinkage is to make your pastry with very cold fat, very little water, and a gentle touch. You will find a lot more about this in the Kitchen Shrink archive. Be careful not to stretch the pastry when you press it into the pan and build the pastry edge so that it extends above the top of the pan. Pierce the pastry well and chill it before baking. If you wish, you can line the pastry with aluminum foil and fill it with pie weights, a pie chain, or dried beans for the first half of the baking time given in the recipe.
Betty recently e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask, “Do pine nuts really come from pine trees?” Yes, pine nuts (pignoli, piñon) are found inside the scales on pine tree cones. They vary in size and only the seeds of several pine varieties are large enough to process for the market. They are produced around the Mediterranean, in Asia, and the American Southwest and are associated with the cuisines of these areas. Once the cones have ripened, they are harvested and stored in a warm place until the scales on the cones open and the seeds can be shaken out. Each seed has a shell that must be removed to release the nut inside.
When you are shopping for ribs, there are a variety of choices in the meat section of your supermarket. Here are some clues to the differences.
Spareribs: The lean, lower portion of the rib bones held together by a piece of cartilage and bone. Usually sold in whole or half racks, they are the most familiar and usually the least expensive choice. Do have your butcher cut between each rib or every two ribs so they will be easy to separate for serving.
St. Louis-style Ribs: Spareribs that have had the cartilage and bone removed so they can be easily cut into pieces for serving.
Country-style Ribs: Made from the meatier blade end of the pork loin, these ribs may not even have a bone and are better eaten with a fork than with your fingers.
Baby Back Ribs: Smaller, meatier, and easier to handle than spareribs, this restaurant cut is what’s left of the pork loin after a boneless roast has been removed.
This week I got an e-mail from Dawn asking how to choose the best potato variety for a recipe. Because I have often gotten this question, I included a special note on potato varieties in my first two books. For many recipes, the kind of potato you use makes a very big difference.
There are two important categories of potatoes, baking and boiling. Baking potatoes, or russets, become soft and fluffy when cooked and are good for any recipe in which you want a lot of starch such as shredded potato pancakes, mashed potatoes, or gnocchi. Boiling or waxy potatoes remain firm when cooked. Choose them for stew and potato salad. Round red potatoes and long white potatoes are boiling potatoes. There are also all-purpose potatoes that share some of the characteristics of both baking and boiling potatoes and can be used in any recipe. Yukon Gold potatoes are an example of all-purpose potatoes. You’ll find more information in Sara Moulton Cooks at Home (page 254) and Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals (page 109.)
Heather recently asked the Kitchen Shrink if it is safe to eat potatoes that were green in places.
If potatoes are exposed to light for a period of time, the toxic alkaloid, solanine, develops just under the skin causing the area to turn green. Not only would this area taste bitter, but it would be dangerous if consumed. However, if all the green areas are removed, the rest of the potato is just fine to cook and eat.
Elizabeth from Cambridge e-mailed to ask, “The potatoes I keep loosely in a plastic bag in a cupboard go rotten with regularity. Dear Kitchen Shrink, should I refrigerate them? Put them in a bowl? Change my purveyer?”
Potatoes keep best when placed in a well-ventilated container and stored in a dry location, away from sunlight, and at temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees F. That isn’t too easy to find in most homes today but if you place them in a paper bag, cardboard box, or bowl (not in a plastic bag) and keep them in the coolest part of the kitchen or a dry part of your basement, it should help their longevity. If you are shopping for a small family, buy only enough potatoes for a week at a time. Refrigerator temperature is a bit too cool for potatoes and tends to increase their sweetness making them brown very quickly when fried. You can find more information at potatopro.com.
Each year at this time I get e-mails from viewers asking how to prepare toasted pumpkin seeds. Toasting pumpkin seeds is easy, lots of fun, and a good activity to do with children after you carve your jack-o-lanterns. Just place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Separate the seeds from the stringy membrane you have removed from the center of the pumpkin and rinse them until they don’t feel slippery. Dry them with paper towels, toss them with some vegetable oil and kosher salt, and spread them out in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake them for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are golden and crisp. In addition to crunching them for a snack, I like to use them as a garnish on my pumpkin soup and on salads.
Pumpkins can be peeled, cubed, and boiled or steamed, but because they are very hard to cut when they are raw and very easy to handle once they are cooked, my favorite way to cook pumpkin is to roast the whole thing until it is tender. Just rinse it and place it in a large baking or roasting pan, carefully pierce it with a knife making sure to go all the way into the interior cavity, and roast the pumpkin in a 350ºF oven until you can pierce it easily with a fork, 45 minutes to an hour or so (it will vary with the size and variety of pumpkin.) A small pumpkin, halved or quartered, can also be cooked, one piece at a time, in a microwave.
Once it has cooked, set the pumpkin aside until it is cool enough to handle then cut it in half, remove and save the seeds to make toasted pumpkin seeds, and discard the fibers. Scoop the pulp into a food processor and process until smooth. If the puree is thick, go ahead and use it as you would canned pumpkin. If it is watery, scoop it into a colander lined with opened coffee filters, cover it, and place the whole thing in a baking pan. Set it in the refrigerator and allow it to drain until it is thick. While any pumpkin can be cooked and used as puree, the pale cheese pumpkins or small sugar pumpkins have denser, sweeter flesh and make better pies. The large bright orange ones used for carving tend to be more fibrous and watery but pureeing in a food processor and draining makes them good for use in baking as well.
This week I got an e-mail from Cindy saying she had seen ramps in her local farmers’ market and she wondered what they were and how they are used.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum), aka “wild leeks,” belong to the onion family. Their flavor is somewhere between that of onions and very fresh garlic but with greater intensity. Ramps appear in the springtime in fields and light forests from the East Coast to the mid-West and as far south as Georgia. You will know they are there by their aroma on the breeze. When ready to harvest, ramps should have two or three broad, bright-green, leaves that are about six inches long and are attached to a small white bulb by purple stems. To use ramps, rinse them, trim off the root ends, and use them, whole or cut them into 2- to 3-inch pieces, as you would onions, leeks, or scallions. They are good braised, steamed, or stir-fried; make good custards, soufflés, and soups; and can be added to any meat or fish dish.
Hunting for the recipes from my TV show, Sara’s Weeknight Meals? I still get lots of e-mails asking for the recipes from my show and wanted to let you know that they are all right on this site 24/7. Just select “Shows” in the menu under the title at the top of the home page, that will take you to the “Shows” page. Click on “visit Sara’s Weeknight Meals” then select the Episode you want from either the box on the right or the list that includes descriptions of the show. The Recipes will appear along with Cooking Tips and information about the Tools and Ingredients used on the show.
You can also get there by going to the box entitled “Sara’s New Show/ Sara’s Weeknight Meals” on the right side of the home page, click on “view Sara’s Weeknight Meals” at the bottom of the box, this will take you to the “Shows” page where you will click on “visit Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and then select the Episode you want from the page that appears.
I recently received a post on Facebook saying that I don’t wash my hands enough when handling raw protein foods. I answered that hand washing is a problem when shooting a show because even if the sink is working (not just a set), you run into the problem of touching the handle of the faucet with contaminated hands and noted that for my Second Series we solved the problem by placing a bowl of hot soapy water in the sink. I received a post from Dale with a link to many hands free devices that can really solve the problem both on my set and at home. To see some of the choices, search for hands free or touch free soap dispenser and hands free or touch free faucet adaptor. For information on the importance of hand washing in the kitchen go to Centers for Disease Control.
The Kitchen Shrink has gotten several requests for a good homemade salad dressing recently, so it seems like a good time to remind you of my favorite vinaigrette. My refrigerator is never without it. It is good on any basic savory salad and can be varied by changing the oil and vinegar you use. You can also vary it by adding a little fruit juice when fruit is included in the salad, or some soy sauce and sesame oil for an Asian-style dressing, or your favorite hot sauce for a South-western dressing; or whisk in a little mayonnaise or sour cream to use it on potato salad or coleslaw. Here’s the recipe:
Combine 1/4 cup white wine, red wine, or sherry vinegar, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in a 1-cup glass measuring cup and whisk with a fork until the salt is dissolved. Slowly add 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a stream, whisking. Cover and refrigerate; set out at room temperature for a few minutes before using .
Michael e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink with this question. He said that he wanted to make clear dessert sauces and had heard that cornstarch or arrowroot was the answer but he had never used either.
Cornstarch and arrowroot are similar ingredients to work with. Both have almost twice the thickening power of flour. Cornstarch, which is inexpensive and a staple in most home pantries, produces a clear, shiny sauce while arrowroot, a more expensive ingredient found in the spice section of the supermarket, produces an even clearer sauce. To thicken a sauce with either cornstarch or arrowroot, whisk the starch into a cool or room temperature liquid and then into the sauce. Don’t allow the sauce to cook too long after thickening or the starch will lose some thickening power.
I recently got an e-mail from Cecilia who wondered why Jasper White was using Spanish chorizo in his Portuguese Cataplana (you can find his recipe at Cataplana) and thought perhaps he was using the Portuguese sausage linguica. I immediately forwarded her question to my friend and cookbook author, Jean Anderson whose book, The Food of Portugal, won a Tastemaker Best Foreign Cookbook Award and is still going strong after more than 20 years. Jean has taken so many trips to Portugal and written so much about it for food and travel magazines in this country that the government of Portugal made her an honorary citizen.
Here is her answer:
Chouriço (pronounced shure – REET -zo): This is probably Portugal’s most popular sausage. It’s even made by Old-Country methods in some of America’s Portuguese communities. A dry sausage similar to the more popular Spanish chorizo (which may be substituted for it in recipes), chouriço is very garlicky, red-brown with paprika, and sold in links about 10 inches long and 1 1/2 inches in diameter. In the fado houses of Lisbon (fado is Portugal’s soul music) grilled chouriços are so much a staple they are know as “fado sausages.” They are brought to the table on little alcohol-fueled terracotta braziers shaped like pigs. The alcohol used to fuel those little chouriço braziers is usually the Portuguese aguardente (fire water, sometimes medronho made from the fruit of the strawberry tree). It’s poured over the sausage on the brazier at the table, the waiter flames it, then you wait till the flames die before digging in. These sausages fairly spurt juice, they are crusty-black after being flamed, and they are soooooo delicious!
Linguiça (cedilla under the C; prounced lin-GUEE -zah): This dry sausage is not, as has been written, made of tongue. It consists of coarsely chopped pork shoulder (both the lean and the fat), plenty of garlic and paprika. Its shape, rather like a long and slender lingua (tongue) explains the name. You can find it in the many Portuguese communities in the US on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These two sausages can be used interchangeably in recipes though chouriço is chunkier and juicier.
Mary Lou e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink that she was confused by the choice of mussels in her market. She wondered if wild or cultivated mussels are the best choice.
Most of the mussels we find in restaurants, fish stores and supermarkets are blue mussels from North Atlantic waters. They probably came from Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or Maine. You can tell right away whether they are wild or cultivated. Wild mussels have larger rougher looking shells, often with beards (a hairy string from the side of the shell) and barnacles attached. Cultivated mussels have small smooth dark shells and negligible beards, if any at all. The wild mussels are stronger in flavor, almost gamey. They also contain more grit than the cultivated. I prefer the more delicate taste and tender texture of the cultivated.
I have just received several e-mails asking for information on purchasing the Spice Tins that appeared on my show and just wanted to let you know that you can find answers to many of your questions about the show right here 24/7. Information on equipment, all Kitchen Shrink features, recipes from my books and shows, and all of my blogs may be found by using the Search Box that appears in the upper left of the home page. Here’s a direct link to the Spice Tins but do give the Search Box a try whenever you have questions.
Terri e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink to ask for help in cooking shrimp. She said that no matter how she cooks them, her shrimp seem tough.
Whether you deep fry, sauté, stir-fry, steam or boil shrimp, they cook to tender, juicy perfection very, very quickly and then overcook. Shrimp should be cooked just until they turn color and then removed before they are cooked through. The stored heat will complete cooking them. If shrimp are going to be a part of a mixed dish, it is best to cook them first and remove them from the heat. Then stir them into the finished dish just before serving.
Several weeks ago I got an e-mail from Pamela asking for a source for the traditional Indian small spice tins nestled into a larger metal box that I had used on a show. These tins are based on the traditional Indian masala dabba and vary somewhat but the idea is to assemble in one box an assortment of the spices that provide the signature flavor of a cuisine. The one pictured is stainless steel and can be purchased on line from Williams Sonoma. To find other sources, search for masala dabba.
Recently the Kitchenshrink has gotten several questions about fennel pollen, an intensely aromatic flavor enhancer that has shown up on restaurant menus in the past several years. What is it? How do you use it? Where can I get some? Here’s the scope.
Fennel pollen is a golden dust brushed from wild fennel plants as they begin to bloom. It is usually harvested in Italy or California where the plant will grow abundantly. Described by food writers as “pixie dust” or a spice worthy of being sprinkled on angel wings, a pinch of it will bring an intense hit of fennel (or anise) to soups, sauces, meats, fish, or roasted vegetables. It is especially good for adding personality to carbs such as rice, potatoes, or pasta. You can find it in gourmet markets nationwide or on line at The Spice House, Zingerman’s, or the Pollen Ranch.
Terri recently e-mailed me to ask “What is Simple Syrup and how do you use it?” My favorite recipe for lemonade immediately came to mind (You’ll find it in Sara Moulton Cooks at Home.) and here is my answer.
Simple syrup is an old-fashioned secret for sweetening things such as lemonade, iced tea, and other beverages or even your breakfast cereal. It may also be brushed over pastries to give them a shine or drizzled over fresh fruit for a quick dessert. It eliminates the bother of stirring beverages or fresh fruit to dissolve added sugar and is the secret ingredient in many of the hot new mixed drinks. You won’t find it in the market but it is so easy to make, you will want to keep some in your fridge all the time. Just combine 1 cup sugar with 1/2 cup cold water in a small saucepan. Cook it over medium-low heat, stirring gently, just until the sugar dissolves. Cool it completely, then you can store it in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
I just received an e-mail asking me about using tapioca starch to thicken soups and desserts. Tapioca, manioc, or cassava starch is a fine white powder produced from the cassava root, which is grown in Central and South America, Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and temperate climates around the world. While sweet cassava roots can be used as you would a sweet potato, tapioca products are usually produced from bitter cassava through a process of fermentation and draining or washing and pressing, then drying. The starch looks and is used much like cornstarch but, as a thickener, produces a much clearer and slightly more fragile sauce. Tapioca flour, instant tapioca, granulated, and pearl tapioca are also made from the cassava root by modifying the last steps in production. Instant tapioca and tapioca starch are the best choices for thickening. To substitute for wheat flour in a sauce or pie recipe use 1 tablespoon instant tapioca or 1 1/2 teaspoons tapioca starch for each tablespoon wheat flour in the original recipe. Tapioca starch has received much attention recently as a gluten-free replacement for wheat flour in baked goods and an ingredient in the Brazilian bread, Pão de Queijo. To make shopping more confusing, when hunting for tapioca, manioc, or cassava starch in natural foods or markets specializing in South and Central American products, you are likely to find more tapioca, manioc, or cassava flour than starch. Depending on the producer this can be a more coarsely ground product or the pure starch. Be sure to read the package for clues. If you purchase the more coarsely ground flour, you may need to increase the amount you use for thickening.
I just got an e-mail from Gloria entitled “Tomatoes Everywhere.” She explained that she was overwhelmed by the abundance of tomatoes her garden had produced and wondered if she could freeze some. I have had that problem myself (check out “Too Many Tomatoes”) and have been asked practically the same question in the past (see “What is the best way to store tomatoes?”). I suggest making a good pasta sauce and freezing it for quick meals later on but you could also just make the equivalent of canned tomatoes so you can use it in any recipe that calls for canned tomatoes. To do that, blanch and peel the tomatoes, cut them into 1-inch chunks and simmer them until they are tender and have released their juice. Cool the tomatoes to room temperature, add salt and pepper to taste, pack them in pint freezer containers and freeze. The equivalent of a 14 to 14 1/2 ounce can is 1 3/4 cups so if you pack that measured amount you can substitute them directly for a can of tomatoes in a recipe for sauce or soup. They would work well in my recipes for Southern Manhattan Corn Chowder or Annie’s Favorite Pasta.
Freshly picked tomatoes should be stored in a single layer, stem-side up, in a fairly cool location (about 55 degrees F) but not in the refrigerator. Divide them according to ripeness and use, freeze, or can the ripest within a day or so. Under-ripe tomatoes will ripen nicely in your kitchen as long as they haven’t been refrigerated or chilled in the garden. A fruit ripening bowl does a good job but a simple brown paper bag will work as well. Include an apple or pear to release the ethylene gas that promotes ripening, check the tomatoes daily, and remove and use them when they are ready to eat. Even those that are completely green will ripen but are also delicious fried green and used as a side dish or on a salad or sandwich. See Sara Moulton Cooks at Home, page 52 and Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals, page 87 .
I just had a chance to try the Edgeware V-etched Better Zester and I will definitely make a place for it in my small kitchen. This nifty tool takes all the frustration out of zesting citrus fruit. It slides smoothly across the skin removing only the outer layer and making long, even strips of zest that are automatically collected in a special container. For more information go to Better Zester.
Last week Randy asked me this about tripe, “I see this all of the time in the grocery store and I have to be honest, while it sort of scares me, it also fascinates me. Is there a way to cook this so that is actually tastes good? Is it healthy? It certainly is cheap.”
Tripe seems to be making a comeback in the culinary world. You can cook it to make delicious and very inexpensive dishes but it takes a bit of time. I immediately thought of my friend Jean Anderson and asked her for some information to help me answer his question. Jean has written about tripe in several of her cookbooks and told me that tripe is the lining of the stomach of ruminants such as sheep, goats, and beef cattle. Many people use the lining of the first three sections of the stomach but Jean recommends the lining of the second section, known as honeycomb tripe as well as pocket tripe from the lower end of the second section. She says that tripe is available pickled, canned, and fresh. Even the fresh tripe needs a lot of additional cooking. Purchase 1/4 to 1/2 pound of tripe per person to be served. When using fresh tripe, remove and discard all fat, rinse it thoroughly in cold water, and cut it into manageable pieces; although it has already been partially cooked, you will need to simmer it, covered, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours until it is tender before using it as directed in a recipe. You will find many delicious ways to serve tripe in Jean Anderson’s Foods of Portugal and The New Doubleday Cookbook. As for nutrition, it’s not a big hitter. A quarter pound of raw tripe contains 17 grams of protein, 4 1/2 grams of fat (2 1/3 grams of which are saturated), not carbohydrate or fiber, 306 milligrams of potassium, 52 milligrams of sodium and some trace minerals.
Mary Elizabeth e-mailed the Kitchen Shrink saying that she always had a hard time finding good meatless meals to cook during Lent and would love to have some suggestions.
Although I enjoy cooking and serving vegetable main dishes all year long, I get most of my requests for vegetarian entrees during Lent. I like to think of those 40 days as an opportunity to let all the delicious flavors of vegetables shine in the center of the plate and hope you will continue to include those recipes in your weekly menus year round. You’ll find a whole chapter of meatless recipes in both Sara Moulton Cooks at Home and Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals, here is a short list to get you started:
I recently got an e-mail from Joan saying, “Our family loves your gingerbread recipe. In fact, my daughter is getting married and I will be making your recipe as their cake. There will be 150 people. Any tips for making this quantity?”
When I make this recipe for a crowd, I use the prescribed 13- by 9- by 2-inch pans and cut it in rectangles, but it could easily be made in any shape tiered wedding cake pans or, for really easy serving, as cupcakes. Ten times the recipe should serve 150 people but I would suggest having enough ingredients in-house to make a bit more just in case you need it. If you are using wedding-cake pans, the information that comes with the pans should tell you about how many cups of batter you need for each layer. Each tier will be made of two 2-inch high layers frosted together. My recipe should make about 10 cups batter. Here is a link to a chart that will give you an idea of the amount of batter needed to make 2-inch high layers of different sizes and shapes.
This is a pretty large recipe so it would be best to do a single recipe at a time. However, you can prep some of the ingredients ahead to save time. It is perfectly fine to mix the ground spices with the flour rather than adding them to the molasses mixture, so a day or so before baking, you could prepare 10 plastic bags each containing 3 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour , 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves , and 1/4 teaspoon table salt. The night before baking you can prepare 10 bags each containing 2 cups sugar and 2 tablespoons freshly grated orange zest thoroughly mixed together. The ginger can be peeled, sliced and pulsed in a food processor to chop just before you start baking. When you start baking you only have to measure butter, eggs, molasses, soda, vinegar, and milk, the rest is ready.
Last week I received an e-mail from the mother of a bride asking for help planning the menu for her daughter’s wedding reception. She wanted the meal to be one that everyone would enjoy but needed it to stay within a moderate budget. My suggestion is to create a theme that will be special to the occasion; serve dishes that are meaningful to the couple. Chances are they will be foods everyone likes and will not be very expensive. Serve the bride’s favorite food, the groom’s favorite food, what they ate on their first date, what they ate on the occasion of his proposal, the first thing they cooked together, and have little signs to explain it all. Or, each family could contribute recipes that have been in the family for generations; great-grandmother’s or great-grandfather’s, grandmother’s or grandfather’s, mother’s or father’s, aunts’ or uncles’ signature recipes. These too will probably be affordable and guests could find a little booklet containing the recipes at their places. People rarely remember what they were served at a wedding reception. These menus they will remember because they are truly a part of the occasion.
Won ton skins, also called won ton wraps or wrappers, are ready-to-use thin squares of a flour-based dough designed to be filled with a meat, seafood, or vegetable filling and shaped into won tons. However, they are so similar to fresh pasta that they can be a great shortcut when making any dish, such as lasagna or ravioli, that is traditionally made with sheets of fresh pasta. You can find fresh wonton skins near the tofu in the refrigerated section of Asian and natural foods stores or in the freezer in supermarkets.
I recently got an e-mail from Kitty asking, “What is the best way to clean wood cutting boards?” While there are lots of other choices in cutting boards these days, wooden boards are still very popular. According to the USDA, wooden boards are porous and should be cleaned after each use. If they are solid hardwood, they can go into the dishwasher. Wooden laminate boards can’t go into the dishwasher and should be scrubbed in hot soapy water after use. Once the board has been thoroughly washed and rinsed, you can sanitize it with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water. If your board becomes worn and has deep grooves, it is time for a new one. For more information, go to USDA.
I recently got an e-mail from Carol saying, “I’ve made cinnamon rolls for more years then I can remember,but lately they seem to shrink after I take them out of the oven. By shrinking I mean they get wide spaces between the layers. I’m wondering if maybe I’m letting them raise too long after I shape them. Any tips?”
It is perfectly normal for yeast breads to shrink a bit after they come out of the oven. Steam from the liquid in the recipe causes part of the increase in volume the bread experiences in the oven. When the bread cools, the steam disappears, and depending upon the stability of the dough, the bread will shrink some.
Many things affect the stability of yeast dough but if you experience unexpected results from a recipe you have made before and you haven’t changed the flour or yeast or increased the butter or sugar in the dough, technique is most likely responsible. Over kneading and over raising during either the dough preparation and first raising stage or the shaping and second raising stage of the process can cause the dough to shrink after baking. Over kneading will over develop the gluten in the flour making a tough structure that will pull the dough together once the steam is gone from the loaf. Knead only until the dough is smooth, shiny, and pliable. Over raising will make the bread’s framework too fragile and it will collapse as it cools. Raise only until an indentation pressed into the dough holds its shape.
Also, that delicious layer of butter that you spread on the dough before it is rolled up insures that the layers won’t stick together and support each other making them free to shrink. You might try your recipe without the butter and sprinkle the dough with sugar or brown sugar and cinnamon before rolling it into a log.