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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Both baking powder and baking soda are leavening agents; they release carbon dioxide to make baked products rise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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 .
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.