Cilantro

Cilantro

Saturday, January 18, 2014

HOME-MADE PASTA?



An old woman with a wooden bowl wide as a kettle drum, equally large sieve and a number of smaller equipment arrived to our house every fall to prepare a variety of pasta for the year. She stayed a full day in the basement and by the end of the day a dozen different kinds of pasta were drying on many sheets spread out throughout our house. The next day they were all ready for storage. Today few would consider preparing pasta such as orzo, egg noodles or lasagna by hand. Not only it’s hard work but it takes serious experience.

Even if you own a pasta machine, homemade pasta turns out acceptable only if you use it regularly and learn the technique. Pasta dough has a way of refusing to obey you to be coaxed into pasta shapes. I watched an experienced chef preparing pasta for the menu scheduled for that day, and it took him hours. First he prepared the dough and hand kneaded it thoroughly. After a period of resting to let the gluten relax, he passed the dough through his pasta machine several times, using a large opening. Then he folded a third of the long ends of the rectangular dough over and one more time over the last third. Now he had three thirds folded into one.

He reduced the pasta machine opening and passed the dough through several more times. He repeated this process again and again, eventually having the thinnest opening in the machine producing a pasta thin as corn tortillas. But this is not the pasta yet. He let this sheet covered with a moist towel to dry for a few hours then using a chef knife, cut it into long thin strands of pasta, now ready to cook. How long the drying process is where years of experience come in. 

Pasta dough is simple: flour and water, no salt. Fresh or dehydrated yolks or whole eggs for egg pasta.

This is not for every home cook. It’s long, tedious and the results are questionable (I know from experience).

You can also buy the perishable fresh pasta at the market. Is it better than inexpensive dry pasta? In my experience, it is not.

In my kitchen it’s the dry pasta that reigns, and I always have some dozen varieties in the pantry. For a good pasta, should you buy the more costly Italian imports? In Italy they cannot grow the hard winter durum wheat essential for good pasta. Instead they import the best durum wheat from the winter crop in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and adjacent Canadian provinces. After packaging in Italy and shipping, you find the expensive Italian pasta on the store shelves. Any good brand of domestic pasta, made from the same wheat, is your best choice.

Read the label to make sure the pasta was made from durum wheat—that’s all you need for good pasta. Two more names you are likely to come across reading the ingredient lists on pasta packages: semolina flour and farina flour. The best pasta are made from semolina flour which is the inside part of the durum wheat grain, milled slightly coarse, slightly gritty, resembling a fine cornmeal. Farina flour is a similar slightly gritty flour but milled from hard wheat (bread flour), not durum wheat. Good-quality shaped short pasta (like macaroni or alphabet soup pasta) is made from semolina. In long pasta products they may mix semolina and farina flours and you’ll still get a good product.

Unless you use your pasta machine often and gain experience, stick with good domestic pasta for a good pasta dish. Don’t overcook and don’t undercook: just to perfect el dente.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Simple Potato Curry

I used to live in Sri Lanka for two years and, naturally, I got totally enamored with their curries. There are many different styles of curries varying from region to region throughout Asia, and varying with the locally available ingredients. In the hotter climates it's coconut milk and hot spices are the norm but in the cooler north, the spices are milder and coconut is no longer available at the markets.Ceylon curries are almost like South Indian curries (the two areas are separated by a short distance), liquidy, spicy and with the inevitable coconut milk.

Cooking a real, authentic curry is a time-consuming kitchen chore. In fact, no one in Sri Lanka serves just one curry dish; rather several curries and often a sambol or chutney surround the steamed rice along with some fried bready accompaniment such.

Yet we can make a simple curry as a side dish that won't tax your kitchen chores. This potato curry goes with just about any main dish, whether curried or not. And you can assemble the ingredients and cook them within half hour.

Simple Potato Curry

Use only fresh spices. I always use whole seeds that I freshly grind for the best flavor.

1 tsp curry powder
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 medium (5 oz) yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 fresh hot chili (jalapeno), thinly sliced
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 tsp ground hot chili
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp dill seeds
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt

Over brisk heat roast curry powder for a few seconds in a medium pot, then quickly add potatoes, onion and jalapeno slices, coconut milk and the remaining spices and salt. Turn heat to low simmer, cover pot and cook for 20 minutes. Adjust liquid if necessary.

Serves four.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bake Fruitcakes in the Spring

Why would anyone talk about fruitcakes in the winter? Those you received during the recent holiday season have already been re-gifted or are being employed as a doorstop, both of which are the standard use for such gifts. Yes, fruitcakes have a bad rep, but not mine. Recipients claim that it takes great willpower to restrict their eating pleasure to one slice at a time.

Most fruitcake bakers start thinking about making fruitcakes for gifts around October, even later. Yet fruitcakes, like good wines and ripe cheeses, need to mature for many months with occasional brandy spritzing for moisture and flavor. I begin preparing fruitcakes in early spring to be ready by the end of the year. After baking I wrap each loaf separately in clean, soft, brandy-soaked cloths then seal in foil or plastic wrap. I mark my calendar to open the packages every second month and give each another light sprinkling of liquor.

By December they look and smell heavenly. Should they be used for re-gifting, the lucky recipient will be blessed. Doorstops? Very unlikely.

Traditional recipes call for candied fruits that are hard to find until just before the holidays. They are expensive and not particularly good. This tradition dates back to times when other kinds of dried fruits were not readily available. Today we have a huge selection of good-tasting dehydrated fruits; your fruitcake will be better using them instead of candied fruits. 

Use only top-quality, fresh nuts.

And remember, fruitcakes are no more difficult to bake than banana bread—and who can’t bake a banana bread?

Heavenly Fruitcakes

Fruit mixture

2½ cups (12 oz) dried fruit mix (or glacéd fruits)
1¾ cups (8 oz) combination of dark raisin and currants
1 cup (4 oz) dates, chopped
1¼ cups (4 oz) pecan halves
grated zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup brandy

Batter

¼ cup cornmeal
1½ cup flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
dash of grated nutmeg
1 stick (4 oz) butter, softened
¾ cup (4 oz) brown sugar
3 Tbsp molasses
2 large eggs
brandy for soaking

Combine fruit mix, raisins, currants, dates and lemon zest with brandy, mix well and let stand covered overnight.

Combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Cream butter and brown sugar with a mixer until fluffy, about five minutes. Add molasses, then eggs one at a time while continuing to mix, then add dry ingredients. Stir in fruit mixture, including soaking brandy.

Prepare a standard loaf pan by lining with foil or parchment paper for easy removal. Lightly coat lining with cooking spray. Spoon batter into the loaf pan and spread evenly. Set pan in a container of boiling water that comes 2 inches up on sides of loaf pan.

Bake in preheated 300F oven for about 70 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Remove from water bath and cool on a wire rack, then unmold from the pan peeling off foil or parchment.

Wrap loaf in brandy-soaked cotton toweling (using about ⅓ cup brandy). Store for at least six month, adding more brandy every other month to keep cotton moist.

This recipe makes one loaf and it’s easy to multiply it to bake several loaves at a time. Or you can bake many mini loaves like the one you see in the photo.

Monday, August 19, 2013

LET'S HAVE A GOOD STEAK!



Not counting vegetarians, I haven’t met many people who don’t love a good steak. Because of this love affair, many steak-sized not too tender meats in the supermarket meat section are labeled “steaks,” such as beef chuck steak, chuck tender steak, round steak and chuck eye steak. Even some pork chops are deliberately mislabeled as “steak.”

I love a good steak like any meat lover yet I gave up on cooking it. Why? I cannot match the flavor and tenderness of the meat served in a good steak-house. My steaks are not fork-tender and just mediocre in flavor.

For a good steak the grade of the meat is of prime importance. The USDA started grading beef in 1927 and ever since every piece of beef is graded according to their system.

The highest grade steak, Prime, is well marbled throughout. The next grade is Choice with less marbling and that’s the highest grade you find in most supermarkets. Select grade has even less marbling and the lowest, Standard is a meat red all the way through without the marbling fat. Only the edges contain fat, not enough to lubricate the meat. A tough piece of meat. Note that some supermarkets use their own grading system though Prime and Choice are standard for all.

So for a good home-grilled steak, go for Prime. But you won’t find this grade in just any meat counter. Prime grade is expensive and often reserved by high-end butchers, exclusive clubs and restaurants for customers and clients who have generous expense accounts or far-reaching credit cards.

Yet we all had affordable steaks in steak-houses. How do they do it? By meticulous tenderizing lower-grade Choice meat. They do this by either chemical tenderizers (and these are all blends of natural products such as papaya, fig and pineapple) or by passing the meat through mechanical tenderizers which are like medieval torture instruments with many sharp needles that break up the tough meat fibers.

But grade is not the only thing you need to consider. A good steak needs to be aged too. Raw, unaged beef has a metallic taste and is rather tough, chewy; aging improves both flavor and tenderness. It chemically alters flavor and softens tough connective tissues. During the aging process the meat shrinks and loses some 12 to 15 percent moisture. The process adds to the price as the meat must rest in a temperature-humidity controlled room for about 15 days, for real high quality meat up to six weeks. Plus you pay for the shrinkage too.

Most shoppers are very conscious of the price of the meat package, and meat processors need to consider how much extra they can charge for the aging before they lose buyers.

When I want a good steak, I choose a steak house.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

BBQ: CHARCOAL OR GAS?



Dedicated barbeque cooks mostly believe in hot charcoal, not gas-heated grills. They claim the flavor of the grilled food is better. Unless you have both and taste test grilled foods prepared on both, it’s impossible to know for certain.

I grill my foods on charcoal and have done it so
for many decades. Yet if you like grilling and your cooking time is limited, there is nothing like turning on the propane heat which heats up in minutes. My charcoal, backed by many years of experience, heats up to very hot in about twenty minutes. I never use charcoal lighting fluid or instant charcoal that had been soaked in some chemical for quick fire. Nor the traditional chimney starter. And I don’t use the true charcoal made from wood that I found unpredictable. Plain, inexpensive briquettes work fine for me.

Since I live in a forested area, I use two pine cones or dry twigs to start the fire, both readily available. After removing the grill rack that holds the charcoal (I use two double-hooked wire made from two coat hangers), I light the cone or twig fire and when burning fiercely, I reposition the grill rack using my wire hooks, piling the briquettes over the fire. Having alively fire under them, they catch quickly and in no time they glow red.

Grilling outdoors is fun and eating the grilled food comes as a second enjoyment. Plus cleanup work is minimal (I never bother cleaning my grill unless charred food accumulation gets too thick—with the intense heat it remains perfectly safe).

Whether I grill meat, poultry or fish, I often add a few other foods to grill: thick rounds of eggplants, thick slabs of summer squash, thick slices of partially cooked unpeeled potatoes to name a few, all generously oiled to promote browning and prevent sticking. On a hot fire sausage, one-serving pieces of marinated meat or boneless poultry takes no more than three or four minutes per side. Fish less, two to two-and-half minutes. Vegetables take about the same, three to five minutes each side.

I haven’t found that using two-stage fire (one side hotter than the other) has any benefit—it’s just another unnecessary step.

In the winter I continue grilling, though less frequently, in my wood stove, setting a small home-made wire stand inside and above the glowing hardwood ashes.

Friday, July 19, 2013

SLOW FOOD—IS IT THE ANSWER TO FAST FOOD?



The international movement promoting “slow food” is a backlash against the fast and unstoppable tumor-like worldwide growth of fast foods.

Is fast food bad? If so, why do millions grab it daily throughout the globe, rejecting their traditional food heritage? No one will argue that fast food is not particularly good food yet fast food is exactly what its creators intended it to be—fast, cheap and quick. Some of the foods served at these fast food establishments are not even bad—give a choice to almost any youngster and the answer is invariably yes, mostly thanks to high oil and salt contents, both having addictive propensities.

Very few fast food items you could prepare home easily and most would not come up to those served in fast-food joints. Think about pizza, french fries, deep-fried chicken, burrito or donut. Without the high temperature of a pizza oven, your pizza (even having the best ingredients) is not as good as in a good pizza parlor. Deep-frying at home is messy, smelly and quite a chore plus plenty of wasted oil. You cannot maintain the critical high oil temperature without a gallon of oil and the accurate thermostat of a commercial deep-fryer. Try home-made donuts and you will see what I mean. Besides, to prepare raised donuts will take you hours from flour to finished donuts.

SLOW FOOD?

What is slow food? It’s a movement born in Italy in 1986 when McDonald attempted yet another outlet smack on Rome’s famed Piazza de Spagna. The group was unsuccessful to fight the Golden Arches but Slow Food movement continued on and gained followers particularly in Europe. North Americans started to organize too, but with modest success.

The Slow Food movement is international with many local chapters called convivia. Their purpose is not to cook food slowly but to counter fast foods favoring small local, traditional restaurants, buying at farmers’ markets, visiting local small food processors, wineries, artisan food producers, even helping pick produce, pruning vines in vineyards and generally promoting age-old culinary traditions that least harm the environment.

Their proposal to revive two- and three-hour lunches was not a joke. This all sounds good. But supporting such a notion, when will you have time to take the car for a tune-up, call the plumber to unplug the drain, drop one of the kids off at soccer game while you pick up the second from ballet, spend hours on weekly shopping, the laundry, the bills, the vet and the scores of other chores on the To Do list. Plus put in a decent week’s work.

It appears that the slow food philosophy is perfect for the gastronomic elitists with plenty of time and money to spare. It’s a movement a tiny slice of modern society is able to afford yet it doesn’t mean the rest of us ought to live on fast food. There is a middle ground somewhere.

SLOW FOOD AT HOME

Now more and more of us realize that while living on fast food we miss out on one of the greatest pleasures in life—good food, good eating in good company. There is only one way to enjoy the social pleasure of a family, a friend or a partner sharing a meal with you at least once a day—the slow food way at home—cooking a meal using quality ingredient while taking time to prepare food you are proud to serve. But two- to three-hour meals? Let the rich snobs and retired have them.

If you enjoy cooking, your task is easier. If you would rather eat than cook, it is more difficult. Whatever your preference, highly organized, efficient kitchen setup, kitchen work and basic cooking knowledge are all important keys.

Efficiency and organization may come naturally to you or you may have to work on them but basic cooking knowledge must be learned. If you don’t have it, spend some time to learn it from books followed with practice in the kitchen. Your best bet is simple cookbooks that are not all recipes but which explain the whys and hows of food and cooking while giving you simple and good recipes with ingredients readily available at most markets. Your goal is to prepare a good, complete “slow food” meal spending not much more than one hour in the kitchen.

Invest in good kitchen equipment: pots and pans, knives, cutting boards, all essential gadgets and small appliances. Keep all in good working order, particularly your knives that should be scalpel sharp at all times. Learn the few commonly used techniques: chopping onion and garlic, cutting up vegetables and meat, browning, sautéing, grilling. Be certain never, ever to run out of supplies.

Have a basic, well-organized repertoire of recipes. Three to five tried out and good recipes from each major food group is a good start. This includes three or four from each type of meat you like to serve, vegetables, starchy side dishes, soups, salads, desserts and breakfast foods. Once you have collected a minimum quota, you have a collection of some 25 to 30 recipes to which you can fall back on any time. From here you can further build your repertoire with new recipes whenever you have leisure time to cook.

Slow food cooking also means avoiding shortcuts, avoiding prepared ingredients. Generally, the faster the cooking, the weaker the result. Take coffee makers. The manufacturers had no choice; coffee makers have to be almost instant with minimal waiting for the hot brew.  But speed costs flavor. To extract the most from your coffee beans, the water must be at certain temperature (few degrees below boiling) and must slowly filter through the coffee grounds. Speed up the process and the water leaves some of the flavor ingredients behind in the wet coffee grounds.

Or take meat. Virtually in any meat dish recipe the first step is browning. Shortcut recipes leave this step out, saving you time and a lot of cleanup work. But myriad of flavor components in meat only develop through the high heat of browning.

Slow food our way is for you and me because that is the only way to get full enjoyment out of food and eating. Share delicious slow food meals daily with someone in your home.

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