Friday, April 27, 2012

Old Mother Hubbard

Thanks to my mother for sending me an email of Old Mother Hubbard cooking hints. It came at just the right time, too, because I had been thinking about putting together a list of helpful hints like this. Though some of them I already knew, I haven't tested them all, so I can't vouch that they all work. 
Here they are:
To keep blocks of cheese fresher longer, wrap them in aluminium foil instead of plastic wrap. It will help prevent mold.
Extend the shelf-life of cottage cheese by storing it upside down in its container.
When you get home from the store, separate bananas from the main stem. They will not ripen as quickly. And to avoid having strings on a banana when you peel it, take the peel off from the bottom — the primates do it that way.
If you love the taste of garlic, push it through a garlic press before adding to the rest of your ingredients. If you like a milder taste, chop or slice it. Pressing garlic makes the taste of garlic much stronger because there is more surface area of the garlic exposed. Also, be sure to add garlic towards the end of cooking when sautéing so you don't burn it and turn it bitter.
Soak diced or sliced raw onions in ice water for 15 minutes to make them less pungent — ideal when adding to salads or sandwiches and you don't want an overwhelming onion bite. 
To make rich and creamy scrambled eggs or omelettes, beat in a couple of spoonfuls of sour cream, softened cream cheese or heavy cream.
To reheat pizza without creating a soggy mess in the microwave, heat it in a non-stick skillet on top of the stove over medium-low heat until warm. You may need to put the lid on the skillet to melt the cheese.
If a bell pepper has three bumps on the bottom it is sweeter and better for eating raw. If it has four bumps on the bottom, it is likely firmer and better for cooking.
For super-simple devilled eggs, put cooked egg yolks and additional ingredients in a zip-top bag and seal. Mash until well combined. Slice one of the tips off of the bottom of the bag and squeeze mixture into the cooked egg white shells. Clean up is easy — just throw the bag away.
To reheat refrigerated bread products, like loafs, biscuits, pancakes or muffins, and keep them soft, reheat in the microwave with a cup of water. The water will keep the them moist and help them reheat faster.
To avoid teary eyes when cutting onions, cut them under cold running water or briefly place them in the freezer before cutting.

To keep bacon from curling while cooking, lay it flat on a cookie sheet. Edges may touch but not overlap. Bake in the oven at 200°C for crispy bacon about 30 minutes for softer bacon about 20 minutes. No splatter mess on the stove top.

Fresh lemon juice will remove onion scent from hands.

Add raw rice to the salt shaker to keep the salt free flowing.

Separate stuck-together glasses by filling the inside glass with cold water and setting both in hot water.

Clean corningware by filling it with water and dropping in two denture cleaning tablets. Let stand for 30 - 45 minutes.

Always spray your grill with non-stick cooking spray before grilling to avoid sticking.

In a large shaker, combine 6 parts of salt and 1 part pepper for quick and easy seasoning.

Unbaked cookie dough can be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours or frozen in an airtight container for up to 9 months.

Dip cookie cutters in flour or powdered sugar and shake off excess before cutting. For chocolate dough, dip cutters in baking cocoa.

Instead of folding nuts into brownie batter, sprinkle on top of batter before baking. This keeps the nuts crunchy instead of soggy.

To test if spaghetti is done, throw one piece at the wall or ceiling. If it sticks then it is done.

When frying meat, sprinkle paprika on meat to make them golden brown.

Scaling a fish is easier if vinegar is rubbed on the scales first.

A few drops of lemon juice added to simmering rice will keep the grains separated.

Pumpkin and other custard-style pies are done when they jiggle slightly in the middle. Fruit pies are done when the pastry is golden, juices bubble and fruit is tender.

Achieve professionally decorated cakes with a silky, molten look by blow-drying the frosting with a hair dryer until the frosting melts slightly.

When baking bread, a small dish of water in the oven will help keep the crust from getting too hard or brown.

To keep hot oil from splattering, sprinkle a little salt or flour in the pan before frying.

To prevent pasta from boiling over, place a wooden spoon or fork across the top of the pot while the pasta is boiling.

Boil all vegetables that grow above ground without a cover.

A little vinegar or lemon juice added to potatoes before draining will make them extra white when mashed.

To absorb the pungent odour of foods like fish or cabbage, place a small bowl filled with white vinegar on the stove while cooking.

If food from a bubbling casserole spills over on the stovetop or oven floor, sprinkle salt on the drips to absorb the burned smell while the dish is still cooking (that will also make it easier to clean up the mess later).
There you have it. If you try any of them, please let me know if they worked for you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Sandwich

Bread has been eaten with meat or vegetables since Neolithic times. The ancient Jewish sage Hillel the Elder is said to have placed meat from the Paschal lamb and bitter herbs between two pieces of matzah (flat, unleavened bread) during Passover. During the Middle Ages, thick slabs of coarse and usually stale bread, called "trenchers", were used as plates. After a meal, the food-soaked trencher was fed to a dog or to beggars, or eaten by the diner. Trenchers were the precursors of open-face sandwiches.

The first written usage of the English word appeared in Edward Gibbon's journal, in longhand, referring to "bits of cold meat" as a 'Sandwich'. It was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although he wasn’t really the inventor of the food. It is said that he ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, and because Montagu also happened to be the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, others began to order "the same as Sandwich!" It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue playing cards, particularly cribbage, while eating without getting his cards greasy from eating the meat with his bare hands.

Whatever its history, we love sandwiches. We pack our kids off to school with them, we pack them for ourselves to take to work or school, we take them along on picnics or hikes or wherever else we need something easy to eat.

Though commonly filled with meat and cheese, the sandwich is versatile and can be filled with all sorts of things: peanut butter and jelly, meatballs, grilled cheese, chicken salad, egg salad, or tuna salad, just to mention a few. In recent years, the panini has become quite popular, and rightly so. Grilling the bread makes for a tasty sandwich.

But those filled with vegetables are not only tasty but healthy to boot. In fact, this sandwich is perhaps my all-time favorite.  Pan-Bagnat is a specialty of the region of Nice, France and while it’s typically composed around the classic Salad Nicoise (raw vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies or tuna, and olive oil) this omits the fish and focuses on the veggies.

I hadn’t had the sandwich in a while, so I made it again recently as “research” for this post. I still loved it, and hope you will, too.

Pan Bagnat

French rolls, cut in half (I use sourdough because it's yeast-free)
A jar of marinated artichokes, drained and sliced
Sliced olives (California or Kalamata)
Sliced mushrooms (optional)
Red bell pepper, either raw and sliced into rings, or roasted and cut in half
Red onion, sliced into rings
Hard-boiled eggs, sliced
Sliced tomato
Basil leaves
Dressing: red wine vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper. Make plenty. 

Spread a generous amount of dressing (by the tablespoon) on each half of the bread. Start building the sandwich by laying everything on, one at a time. Close, wrap in plastic wrap  and let sit for a little while for the dressing to soak in. 

Julia Child said that it isn’t a good sandwich unless the olive oil runs down your arms. In fact, in the local Provencal dialect, pan bagnat means “wet bread”. So the intent is for the sandwich to be moist. Almost a bread salad. So don’t be shy with the dressing. The more, the merrier.

Bon Appetit!

P.S.  This is a funny story I found on the internet about sandwiches: “In the United States, a court in Boston ruled that a "sandwich" includes at least two slices of bread and "under this definition and as dictated by common sense (italics mine), this court finds that the term "sandwich" is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans." The issue stemmed from the question of whether a restaurant that sold burritos could move into a shopping centre where another restaurant had a no-compete clause in its lease prohibiting other "sandwich" shops.” You’ve got to be kidding. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Flavor Profile: Vinegar

In my younger years, before I knew that I could strip my tooth enamel off by doing this, I used to cut up lemons and bite right into them, sucking all that lemony juice right off the peel, like an orange. While my dentist is grateful I don’t do that any more, I so love adding something acidic to some of my dishes to brighten them up.

Citrus juices are just one of these acids, vinegar is another. And thankfully there are a lot of different kinds of vinegar available to us: white, malt, wine, sherry, apple cider, fruit, balsamic, rice, and flavored, just to name a few.

And each one is delicious in its own unique way. I particularly love this one vinegar made in Germany that I can only get at a German food market. Some of my relatives in the old country use it. It has a soft, low-acid herbal flavor that works so well in salad dressings. I especially like using it to make a salad dressing on greens that also include fresh herbs like dill or chives.  Choosing which vinegar to use is as simple as using the one that most closely resembles an ingredient in the dish so that it complements instead of antagonizes the dish.

Vinegar enhances whatever it is added to. Many recipes will suggest adding a sprinkling of vinegar at the end of the cooking period, before it is served, such as when sautéing swiss chard or spinach. Just a little, though. Enough to brighten the flavor of the main ingredient but not so much that it is noticeable.

There are many uses for vinegar: culinary, medicinal, and for cleaning.  Culinary uses include pickling, making vinaigrettes and other salad dressings. It can be found in many condiments like mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, and is a key ingredient in chutneys and marinades, where it breaks down the fibers of the protein. Ceviche is the use of citrus juice like lemon or lime, on raw fish which “cooks” the meat.

Other than its culinary uses, did you know that vinegar also has medicinal uses? It is soothing for sunburn (it has a cooling effect), may reduce serum cholesterol and blood pressure, helps diabetics control their blood glucose levels by reducing the glycemic index of  carbohydrates, can be helpful in reducing the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, and is antimicrobial (effective against infection).

Vinegar has also been used for centuries to help with cleaning projects around the house. Many of us know that it dissolves mineral deposits from glass, and can be used inside dishwashers and coffee makers (diluted) to do the same. It can also be used to polish bronze and brass and clean stainless steel surfaces.

It has recently been discovered that it is effective as a weed killer (it had better be some strong vinegar). But best of all, it’s environmentally-friendly, non-toxic and safe to use around children and pets.

Ok, so enough of the trivia and back to its culinary uses. I use white vinegar for my household cleaning projects. Malt vinegar is great with fish and chips. Wine vinegar is universal and comes in white wine or red wine styles and both are great as salad dressings but the cheaper ones are harsh tasting. Sherry vinegar is slightly less acidic than wine vinegar and is a nice addition to Mediterranean and Spanish dishes. I especially like adding it to a sauté of red bell peppers and onions that are served with sausages. (I make this dish often. It is really incredible).

Apple cider vinegar is particular healthful and is also great in salad dressings or sauces, as the apple flavor is nice with many meats, especially pork. Fruit vinegars are good on salads especially where the same fruit is featured (e.g., raspberry vinegar on a salad that contains berries).

Balsamic vinegar is my favorite and I love it in a dressing for a green salad or veggie salad, but also as an addition to when I roast things like potatoes and onions. As the foods roast, the balsamic vinegar becomes “sticky” and makes everything extra tasty.

Rice wine vinegars are used a lot in Asian cooking and are also very low in acid. I especially love this vinegar in a cucumber salad I make in the summer*. 

And then there are the herbal vinegars. I mentioned one that I like earlier, but I also adore fig balsamic vinegar, a sort of hybrid between fruit and balsamic. It’s delicious when used along with a quality extra virgin olive oil as a dip for crusty fresh bread. 

Herb vinegars can easily be made at home by starting with a basic vinegar and adding fresh tarragon or thyme sprigs, a few black peppercorns, even chilis and whole garlic cloves, and then letting them sit together in a glass bottle for a week to infuse. They are so much more economical this way. And if you get pretty bottles, some raffia or other decorative ribbon and a cute label, they make lovely gifts.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes using some of the ideas above.

Cucumber Salad
Thinly slice English cucumbers into rounds with a mandolin. Add a pinch of quality sea salt and a little pinch of white pepper, a few splashes of rice wine vinegar and a little salad oil. Mix thoroughly and serve right away. Keeps for a day or two but best eaten fresh on a hot day. Great on a picnic because it travels well.

Salad Dressing
Apple cider vinegar, preferably organic such as Bragg's
1 tsp. honey
a few squirts of Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids
Minced garlic
Minced onion or shallot
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A few grinds of fresh black pepper
A pinch of salt (optional)

Place all items together in a food processor and pulse until the onion and garlic emulsify the dressing. Keeps well in the fridge for several weeks.

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