Friday, January 31, 2014

Flavor Profile: Hot Sauces

Apparently I have entered a stage in life where food just can't have too much punch. I crave salt, pepper, lots of herbs, spice. When bland food is booooring I find a way to take it up a notch.

Sometimes just a little kick can take a dish from ordinary to extraordinary. And sometimes that little something is hot sauce.

Hot sauce refers to any spicy sauce condiment made primarily from chili peppers. Tabasco sauce is the earliest recognizable brand in the U.S. hot sauce industry. It appeared on the scene in 1868 and became synonymous with the term "hot sauce".

But there are endless recipes for hot sauce. Many are made by using chili peppers as the base and can be as simple as adding salt and vinegar, while other sauces use some type of fruit or vegetable as the base and add the chili peppers to make them hot. Manufacturers use a variety of different processes including aging in containers, pureeing and cooking the ingredients to achieve a desired flavor and "kick".

By the way, it's the capsaicinoids that are the chemicals responsible for the "hot" taste of chili peppers. They are fat soluble, therefore water will be of no assistance when countering the burn. The most effective way to relieve the burning sensation is with dairy products, such as milk and yogurt. A protein called casein occurs in dairy products which binds to the capsaicin, effectively making it less available to "burn" the mouth, and the milk fat helps keep it in suspension. Rice is also useful for ameliorating the impact, especially when it is included with a mouthful of the hot food. These foods are typically included in the cuisine of cultures that specialize in the use of chilis.

So now you have no excuse for not trying hot sauces - you at least know how to extinguish the flames! But which ones to try?

It's overwhelming, the choice, really. Surely you've seen the stores that sell oodles of them, each one having a funnier (and scarier) name than the next. Why not take a chance and try "Nuclear Hell", "Spontaneous Combustion", or my favorite, "Butt Twister"? 

There are literally thousands of brands of hot sauce on the market and from nearly every continent (Mexico, the U.S., West Indies, Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific Islands and New Zealand). 

Today I'm going to focus on a few that I particularly enjoy, in order of spiciness. I realize that mentioning how I perceive spiciness will likely be of no help to you, because spice is really relative. Everyone perceives what's spicy differently. But nevertheless, I've gotta start somewhere.

Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce (U.S.)

Personally, I like this version better than the red variety that's so ubiquitous. The green one is great in homemade guacamole. Just a few drops in a bowl of mashed avocado, chopped tomato, chopped cilantro, diced onion and lime juice will add a nice citrusy note to dip your tortilla chips into. I don't think this is really spicy at all. Green peppers are usually not as hot as red anyway.

Cholula (Mexico)

This is a delicious hot sauce which adds a bit of spice. When I'm in the mood for a little kick on a burrito, I'll add a few drops of this to each bite (yes, each bite). I don't think this is that spicy either but rather adds a little vinegary note, which I think is great on refried beans. It comes in a few different varieties, as you can see from the photo. I've tried the regular and chipotle variety, the latter of which is very tasty.

Iguana Deuces Chipotle Pepper Sauce (Costa Rica)

Even better than the Cholula Chipotle sauce is this one, in my opinion. I recently had it at Café Rio, a favorite restaurant of mine.

Chipotle chilis are smoked and that adds great flavor to Mexican dishes such as beans, burritos, tacos, whatever, with just a little more kick than the Cholula. I love chipotles.

Iguana makes a ton of hot sauces which you can buy by the case load, should you wish.

Sriracha (Thailand and the U.S.)

Sriracha is a type of hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. It is named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in the Chonburi Province of Eastern Thailand, where it is frequently used as a dipping sauce, particularly for seafood.

In Vietnamese cuisine, it appears as a condiment for pho, fried noodles, a topping for spring rolls, and in sauces. It is ubiquitous in Vietnamese pho restaurants and sits on every table along with the Hoisin sauce. Sriracha is also eaten on soup, eggs, and burgers.

Sriracha enjoys an almost cult-like following among its fans. And this stuff is spicy!

So, live a little and try a new hot sauce. It needn't take the wallpaper off the walls. You can experiment with different kinds to see which one you like best. If you like 'em milder so you can still taste your food, there are many that won't peel paint. If you like to burn your esophagus, there are certainly enough of the "Butt Twisters" out there for you to try. The thing is, be bold. Try something new.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Stew

I was recently looking for some inspiration for some black beans I bought and was scanning one of my favorite recipe websites when I found it. As I looked down the list of ingredients, I got a good feeling about it. There were components of it that I found intriguing because I wouldn’t normally have combined them in the same dish, and so for that reason alone I had to try it.

Beans are good for several reasons: they have a bunch of fiber (and we know most of us don’t get enough of that), they are a great source of non-meat protein, and they are inexpensive, especially if you buy them dry and cook them yourself.  While a can of beans is inexpensive on its own, dry beans are usually half the cost, especially if you get them from the bulk bins at your grocery store (try Sprouts, Henry's or Whole Foods for those).
Black beans are especially great because they are really high in fiber and are visually interesting. Eating a variety of beans can also be fun - they come in all sorts of colors: red, pink, white, black, green – and when combined with other ingredients, make for a colorful assortment of things on the plate. But unfortunately, beans can be boring. Which is why I am always looking for interesting ways to flavor them. Thank goodness I came across this.

Here’s the recipe. It's packed with flavor.
Black Bean and Sweet Potato Stew with Chilies and Grilled Polenta

·         2 tablespoons olive oil
     2 cups finely chopped onions
·         2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
·         2 teaspoons chili powder
·         1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
·         1 1/2 pounds red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams; about 2 medium), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
·         2 cups orange juice
·         2 tablespoons minced garlic
·         (2) 15- to 16-ounce cans black beans, rinsed, drained (or soak dry beans overnight, then cook 1 hour)
·         2 poblano chilies, seeded, chopped*
·         1 red bell pepper, chopped

Grilled Polenta Triangles
·         Sour cream (optional)
·         Avocado slices (optional)
·         Orange wedges (optional)

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and saute until tender, about 10 minutes. Add ginger, chili powder and cumin and stir 2 minutes. Add sweet potatoes, orange juice and garlic and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until sweet potatoes are almost tender, about 10 minutes.
Stir beans, poblano chilies and bell pepper into sweet potato mixture. Cover and simmer until chilies are tender, about 15 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 6 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over low heat before continuing, stirring occasionally.)
Top with sour cream, avocado and orange, if desired. Serve with Polenta Triangles that have been grilled until browned. They are best when they have a little crust on the outside.

*If you can't find poblano peppers, you can do what I did. I used the following instead: ½ pasilla pepper, 2 medium sized jalapeno peppers, and 1 Anaheim chili.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Food Safety

If you have ever suffered from food poisoning (as I have), you may perhaps have a greater appreciation for the fact that had the cooking staff handled our food properly, the violent physical reactions that resulted might have been avoided. I'm sure we'd all agree that food safety is important, but oftentimes that which we expect in restaurants isn't necessarily adhered to at home.

In food safety courses that professional kitchen staff are required to take, the most important concept they'll learn is that hot food should be kept hot (140 degrees F.) and cold food should be kept cold (40 degrees F.).  For those of us cooking at home, it is equally important to keep in mind. But sometimes this is not entirely feasible, such as during a party where food is left out for a few hours. This is ok, as long as most everything is either thrown out or refrigerated, if appropriate, after 2 hours.

Keep these pointers in mind when cooking at home:

Wash hands
Washing hands often throughout the cooking process is a good idea. Using a fresh kitchen towel every day is also smart.

The way in which we thaw meat is important. Oftentimes I hear of people thawing theirs on the counter. Though this makes sense from a time perspective, it is not what's recommended. Thawing in the refrigerator will take longer but it's the safest way to do it. You'll just need to think ahead a little more. 

Cooking meats to the proper temperature is also very important to ensure that they are not only cooked all the way through but that you've killed any bacteria that might be on the meat. See the links below for guides on how high different types of meats should be cooked. Any good oven thermometer will tell you as well. Though I've seen on cooking shows sometimes that raw meat should be washed, I've also read that that practice can sometimes spread bacteria faster. I need to research this more. One source told me that meats should be immersed for 15-20 minutes in a diluted bleach solution to kill any bacteria. Though I cannot imagine putting bleach anywhere near my food to be a good idea, I do see how it could be a good bacteria preventer.

Eggs are incredibly unsanitary. After handling raw eggs, wash hands before touching anything else in the kitchen, especially food. Throw your shells in your compost pile.

I'm always amazed at how many people don't adequately wash their fruits and vegetables. Though you can't get rid of pesticides entirely by washing them, you can get rid of some. And if nothing else, think of all the people that have touched that produce before you have: the grower, the picker, the buyer, the supermarket employee, the cashier who handles money (and that's all I can think of, there may even be more). Even organic produce needs to be washed. In fact, even more so than conventional produce. Organics sometimes have levels of naturally occurring bacteria on them that are killed off by the pesticides on conventional produce. Sometimes people can get sick from unwashed organic produce. There are several fruit and veggie washes you can buy. They are usually low-sud soaps that you want to immerse your produce in and then rinse well.

Cutting boards
Any cutting surfaces that are used to prepare raw meat should be cleaned in one of two ways: either with hot soapy water (ideally in the dishwasher where it gets really hot), or with a diluted bleach solution that can be sprayed on the cutting board. I use two separate boards: one (plastic) for meats that I can stick in the dishwasher, and the other (bamboo) for fruits and vegetables that gets washed by hand.

It probably goes without saying that knives used for raw meat should not be then used for vegetables. Use separate knives and wash them all well in hot, soapy water. While it would be great to stick knives in the dishwasher, where it can get nice and hot in there, you don't want to subject your knives to that kind of torture, especially if you spent good money on your knives.

Allow cooked foods to cool briefly after dinner and then put them away in containers and refrigerate. Do not leave food out overnight.

Sampling food
Ok, we've all done it: taken a spoon to try something and sticking it back in the pot. But yikes, not very hygienic! Better to take a new spoon for each sample and toss the used one into the dishwasher. In fact, I'll never forget this idiotic boss I once had when I worked in Catering. He came to my buffet to check it out before the guests arrived and stuck his knuckle in the soup to try it. I nearly fell over! If he had "double-dipped", I likely would have sent the soup back.

To avoid food poisoning from bacteria on foods,  using common sense and a few ideas from the following sites can be a big step towards practicing good food safety procedures.

For some good online resources, check out the following:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Healthy Snacking

It's a new year, and since most of us have new year's resolutions that involve eating healthier, our snacking could use some improvement, too.

I have found that both veggies and beans make great bases for all kinds of "dippables" like multi-grain crackers and chips, but more importantly vegetables like baby carrots, celery and cukes, that long for something to be dipped into.

Here are a couple of dips I really like. The first is a vegetable dip made with butternut squash. Since it's still "wintry" out (well, everywhere but So.Cal.) this one's ideal for this time of year. I am also always interested in using beans in tasty ways and the second recipe is really delish. Both are good ways to get more veggies and beans into your diet.

Butternut Squash Dip with Creme Fraiche

1 butternut squash (1.5-2 lbs), cut in half lengthwise and seeded
1 very small yellow onion, cut in half lengthwise, stem and root ends trimmed
2 large cloves garlic, skins left on
2 Tbsp. pure olive oil
2 Tbsp. creme fraiche
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
freshly ground white pepper

Preheat oven to 350F. Brush flesh of squash, the onion, and the garlic generously with the olive oil and arrange the squash and onion cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Tuck a garlic clove in each cavity of the squash. Roast until very tender when pierced with a fork, about 50 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle, about 20 minutes.

Use a spoon to scrape out the flesh of the squash and put it in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Discard the skins. Squeeze the garlic pulp from the cloves and add to the workbowl along with the onion. Puree until smooth. Add the creme fraiche, salt, nutmeg, cayenne, and a few grinds of the pepper. Process to combine and then taste and adjust the seasonings. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately.

Great with parmesan breadsticks, crostini, pita chips and baby carrots.

Warm Bean Dip

4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 cans (15 oz. each) white beans, such as navy, cannellini, drained and rinsed, warmed in a saucepan
5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2-3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
chopped fresh thyme or basil leaves

Saute the garlic briefly in a little olive oil. Add the beans to the sauteed garlic to warm them up. Put the olive oil and beans in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, then add the remaining olive oil, 2 Tbsp. of the lemon juice, the salt, and a few grinds of pepper and herbs. Process until pureed and smooth, tasting and adding more lemon juice, salt and pepper if desired. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately. Best warm. Garnish with an herb sprig.

Great with anything, especially grilled or raw veggies, pita chips, and bagel chips.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Soup really is good food

Ok, so are you bursting at the seams from all that holiday food? If you are like most people at this point, you are probably about to explode, so it's time to eat lightly again. And there's nothing better than soup for that.

Soup is soothing, satisfying, and nutritious. Yes, soup really is good food - except that the jingle is from a popular soup company I'm not a fan of. I think these canned things lack the flavor and freshness that make soups so enjoyable. Plus the sodium content is way too high. I'd rather have more control over the sodium I add to a dish. I think better tasting creations can be made at home from scratch. (I'll save the canned soups for my Earthquake Preparedness Kit, thank you very much.)

Composer Ludwig von Beethoven once said that "only the pure of heart can make good soup." I'm sure he meant well, but soup is really simple to make. So, if you are not pure of heart, or if you're new to cooking, soup is a great way to begin your culinary journey. In fact, it's one of the first things I began with and it gave me the confidence to move on from there. It's also very forgiving. If you make small changes to the ingredients you are not going to make any huge mistakes and you'll likely still end up with a great soup.

There are basically 2 types of soup: broth-based and cream-based. Those with cream are richer, naturally, and are good, but I like the simpler, cleaner flavors of broth-based soups. They are more versatile, because you can puree the soup, either all of it, or just 1/2, and leave it as such, or if you want, you can add some creme fraiche or a dollop of sour cream to the top for a little creaminess. But I like them best because they are healthier without all that fat. And during the holidays, we could use a little less fat.

The soup recipe I wanted to share with you was dictated to me by my mother many years ago. She has been making this soup for as long as I can remember. It's simply called Potato Soup in German, but it contains a variety of vegetables, not just potatoes, and I love it. Hearty, satisfying, and completely vegetarian, it makes for a great meal on a cold evening, like tonight. Serve with a mixed green salad and some warm, crusty bread, or alongside some sausages. Or you can cut the sausages into slices and put them in the soup at the end just to warm them up.

Kartoffelsuppe (Potato Soup)

Saute onions and garlic in a soup pot along with a little oil. Add raw, peeled, sliced potatoes, 2 chopped carrots and 2 stalks of celery, some leek, chopped (not too much of the green part), 1 Tbsp. tomato paste, and enough vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables. Cook 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are tender, then puree the whole thing in batches in a blender. Pour the pureed soup back in the pot and gently reheat. Add a pinch of ground marjoram, and salt and pepper to taste.

As you can see, the recipe is written in paragraph form, instead of an itemized list with exact quantities. This is how she dictated it to me, in a conversational style, which showed me at a young age that good cooks don't need exact quantities of things. With a lifetime of experience cooking for a family, they just get a feel for how much of each ingredient is needed. This comes only with time spent in the kitchen.

If you feel better making this with some quantities provided, I'd do the following:

1 large onion, or 2-3 smaller ones
2-3 garlic cloves, depending on size
4 medium rose potatoes
1 large leek
the other items have quantities listed.

Happy Soup Making! I hope you enjoy it. Please let me know if you make it and what you think. I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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