Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Beauty Before Taste? Not at My Table

You can’t eat pictures, although I do remember seeing a movie called “King of the Hill,” where a boy is so hungry that he cuts pictures of food from magazines, puts them on a plate and then gobbles them up.

What I’m talking about is real food on my table.  I’m happy to admire a beautifully roasted chicken, but given the choice of how it looks versus how it tastes, I’ll take taste any day.  I came to this point of view when boxed cake mixes started using chocolate “flavoring” instead of real chocolate.  They looked great but tasted like cardboard.

Food stylists, whose job it is to make food perfect for the camera, don’t focus on taste because usually no one eats it.  One stylist trick to make food glisten is to spray on WD-40.  Another is using white glue instead of milk when photographing a bowl of cereal because real milk will make the cereal soggy.  As for that gorgeous roast chicken, it may not even be cooked because cooking causes the skin to shrink—not a good look in a picture.

This appearance-versus-taste issue popped up recently when we were eating with a friend.  For dinner she served homemade Roast Chicken, but there was no formal presentation of the fully cooked bird.  Instead, she simply cut it up and served it in a bowl with a few sides.  It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was absolutely delicious.  That’s the way to my heart.

Here’s a roast chicken recipe that does not look pretty but tastes awfully good. 
Indian-Style Whole Roast Chicken - serves 4 
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon mango powder (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or more if you like very spicy food
1 4-pound chicken 
Combine the lemon juice, oil, garlic, coriander, cumin, ginger, mango powder (if using), salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper in a small bowl. 
Remove the giblets from the chicken and rinse the cavity.  Remove and discard the skin--or simply loosen it and work underneath the skin, as described below.  
Put the chicken in a deep casserole dish.  With a sharp knife cut a dozen or more deep slits in the chicken meat and spoon the spice mixture over and into the meat.  Cover the casserole. 
Heat the oven to 425 degrees and roast the chicken for 1 ¼ hour.  Check to make sure the juices coming out of the cavity are clear.  If they’re not, roast another 10 minutes.  
Transfer the chicken to a rimmed cutting board or platter, cover with foil and let rest while preparing the sauce. 
Pour the liquid remaining in the casserole dish into an empty glass jar.  The fat from the roasted bird will rise to the top.  Spoon off and discard as much of this fat as possible.  Pour the remaining liquid into a gravy boat or small bowl.  
Cut the chicken into pieces and serve along with the gravy. 
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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Question for Mom

(L-R) Yams, White Potatoes, Red Potatoes, Russet Potatoes
With 4th of July coming up, can you tell me what’s the best kind of potato to use for potato salad? – Jim K.

Any potato will work.  But if you like your cut-up potatoes to hold their shape, choose red, white or Yukon Gold potatoes.  New potatoes, which average 1 inch in diameter, are also a good choice, if you can find them. Russets tend to fall apart in potato salad. 

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 56

When buying eggs, open the carton and gently move each egg to make sure it’s not cracked, broken or stuck to the carton.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Era-Themed Dinners

1950s-Style Shrimp Cocktails
The most fun I’ve had in the kitchen recently came as a result of menu boredom.  “Not the same old dishes yet again,” I thought to myself as the family sat down for our regular Sunday dinner.

“We need something new, something exciting,” I said.  “How about a meal may parents ate in the 1950s?”  The Fifties weren’t noted for fine dining experiences.  For most Americans it was a meat and potatoes era, and salad meant a chunk of iceberg lettuce covered in Russian dressing. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 60

Make sure freshly baked cookies are at room temperature before storing them in a closed container.  Otherwise, they will get too soft.  

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 55

Oven-Roasted Tilapia Kebabs
To feed more people with a set amount of meat or fish, turn it into kebabs. Add to the skewers such vegetables as whole mushrooms, onion chunks, zucchini slices, bell pepper pieces or 1-inch slices of uncooked corn on the cob. Dab with oil and then grill, oven-roast or pan-fry.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Question for Mom

Do red, orange and yellow bell peppers taste any different? - Mary B.

When you eat them raw, red bell peppers are the sweetest.  But if you cook them, there is not much difference in taste, especially if they’re seasoned. In case you’re wondering, red bell peppers have the most vitamin C.  I avoid using green bell peppers because I find them hard to digest.

Brightly colored cooked bell peppers in their own juice remind me of sunny summer vacation days in France. 
Tri-Colored Grilled Bell Peppers – serves 4-6 as an appetizer or side dish 
1 large red bell pepper 
1 large yellow bell pepper 
1 large orange bell pepper  
Black pepper 
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional) 
1 2-ounce can anchovies (optional) 
Wash the peppers and cut them in half through the stem end.  Cut out and discard the stems and seeds. 
If using the stove’s broiling unit: place the oven rack at least 4 inches below the gas flames or electric coils.  Line a cookie sheet with foil or use a silicone baking sheet on top of the cookie sheet.  Place the pepper halves, skin side up, on the foil or the silicone sheet.  Fold the edges of the foil so that any juices will stay within it.  
If using an outdoor grill: lay the pepper halves on the grill so that the skin side faces the heat. 
Turn the heat to high and broil the peppers for 4-5 minutes (depending on size), or until the skins have begun to blacken.  Then use tongs to shift the pepper halves around so that the yet-to-blacken areas will be closer to the heat source.  Broil or grill for another 4-5 minutes, or until the skin is mostly blackened.  

Remove from the heat and quickly transfer the peppers to a bowl.  Cover the bowl with a lid, foil or plastic wrap, which will trap the steam and allow the peppers to finish cooking. 
When the peppers are cool enough to handle, pull off and discard the skins, keeping as much juice as possible in the bowl.  Cut or tear each of the pepper halves into 4 or 5 strips and return them to the bowl.  If there is very little juice, add some olive oil.  Season with salt and black pepper, cover and set aside until needed. 
If you like anchovies, add some to the bowl and mix gently before serving.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Writing Notes in Cookbooks

Homemade Blueberry Jam
When I was a kid, books were sacred.  You were not to write in them, tear out pages or harm them in any way.  So the first time I wrote a note to myself in the margin of a cookbook, I felt guilty.  But I felt I had a good reason.  I had made this particular recipe before but had forgotten that I didn’t like it.  So when I absentmindedly made it again and still didn’t like it, I vowed to remind myself so as to not make it a third time.

Soon enough I was writing notes on almost all the cookbook recipes I used.  I would tell myself that I left out a certain ingredient or I added a few new ingredients or I found a shortcut.  Over the years this habit has proved very useful.

Making blueberry jam is a perfect example.  It’s a favorite in my house but is often hard to find and expensive to buy.  Why not make it?  I scoured my cookbooks and found a lot of competing advice.  One recipe called for 6 cups of sugar for 3 pounds of berries.  Another said to forget the sugar.  I experimented for a year, making more than a dozen batches, some with frozen blueberries and some with fresh.  Finally I came up with the perfect recipe, which happens to be light on sugar.

Even better, I don’t have to boil the filled jars in a huge pot (like my grandmother did).  I make only a few pints of jam at a time and store them in the refrigerator.

I have committed this recipe to memory, but just in case I get distracted I wrote extensive notes in the margin of the cookbook recipe I started with.  Luckily there was a lot of white space on the page.

Blueberry Jam Ingredients

The Early Stage of Cooking the Jam
The Spoon Test

The Jam Has Jelled

The Jam Is Ready to Eat
Homemade Blueberry Jam – makes just over 2 pints 
3 pounds fresh or frozen blueberries 
1 cup sugar 
1 tablespoon pectin (see NOTE) 
1 lime or lemon, cut in half 
Put a teaspoon in the freezer.  It’s for determining whether the jam is ready to jell. 
If using fresh blueberries, rinse them and remove any stems.  Put the berries in a large pot.  If using frozen blueberries, add them directly to the pot or defrost them without rinsing.  Frozen berries will take some minutes longer to jell.  
Crush some of the berries against the side of the pot with a large spoon, or use a potato masher to mash about a third of them.  Add the sugar and pectin and stir.  Squeeze some of the lime or lemon juice over the berries and toss both halves into the blueberry mixture.  Begin heating the pot over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a rolling boil.  Turn down the heat to medium-high and stir every few minutes.  
After 15 minutes take the spoon out of the freezer and dribble a few drops of the blueberry mixture onto the spoon.  If it flows quickly down the spoon, the jam is not ready to jell.  If it moves very slowly, it’s time to turn off the heat.  Most likely it will take at least 30 minutes of cooking and possibly longer to be at the jelling stage.  Continue testing every 5 minutes until the jam moves slowly down the spoon.  Turn off the heat. 
When the jam has cooled, remove and discard what’s left of the lime or lemon.  Transfer the jam to jars, cover with the lids and refrigerate.  This jam needs to be eaten within a few weeks. 
 NOTE: Pectin is a substance found in fruit, and it helps the fruit jell during cooking.  Blueberries are low in pectin, so you need to add some.  Pectin is available in boxes in powder form and in pouches in liquid form, usually sold near the Jello section. Lemons and limes are full of pectin, which is why I add one to help the jam jell.
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 59

When baking a cake, don’t start testing for doneness until you begin to smell it.  Then peek at it through the oven door’s glass window to see if it’s begun to pull away from the edges of the pan.  If it has, open the door and gently poke the cake in the middle with a cake tester, skewer, toothpick or, in a pinch, a sharp knife.  If it’s done, the implement will come out clean.  If it has liquid or crumbs sticking to it, continue baking, testing every 5 minutes or so.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Mom Money-Saving Tip 54

To cut down on grocery bills, I still clip coupons.  But I’m finding fewer and fewer to clip, so now I search for them online.  It’s easy.  Go to www.google.com and type in Food Coupons or Coupons, and then name the product you’re looking for.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Misreading Directions

Not following directions on a map can take you to places you never thought you’d go.  Maybe you didn’t want to be there – or maybe you discovered a beautiful waterfall.  It’s the same with recipes.

I have two friends who misread recipe directions and had absolute disasters. 

One baked an Easter ham for his college co-op residents and somehow interpreted the directions “Place cloves into the ham about 1 inch apart before baking” to read “Cover ham with cloves before baking.”  He used about 500 cloves on a 14-pound ham.  The residents ate out that night.

The other decided to make spaghetti for the first time.  The directions read something like, “Fill a pot with water, bring it to a boil, add the noodles and cook for 10 minutes.”  He filled a frying pan with water, turned the heat to high, dumped a pound of noodles into the pan, set the timer and left the room.  The smell of burned noodles eventually drew him back into the kitchen, where he threw away the frying pan.

Then there’s this happy accident I read about in the 1962 edition of Joy of Cooking.  It may not be true but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.  One evening King Louis XIV’s chef prepared his usual feast, but the King was inspecting his troops and was late to the table.  When he finally arrived, the fried potatoes were cold.  In a panic, the chef re-fried them, and they were a huge success.  Thus the French fry was born. 

Mistakes can sometimes have a good result.  Here’s one I made many years ago when I used an angel food cake pan to bake a regular cake.  Angel food cake pans have a big hole in the middle, which helps the cake cook more evenly.  I’m not sure what the directions actually said, but I thought they said, “When the cake is done, cool it by putting the pan upside down on top of a 2-liter bottle of soda.”  So that’s what I did. 

Imagine my horror when I returned to the kitchen and saw big chunks of cake lying on the counter.  Guests would be arriving within the hour, and my beautiful cake was ruined.  So I improvised.  I put some cake chunks in tall glasses, spooned some ice cream on top and added some Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, which in those days was a fridge staple.  Everyone loved my “Sundaes.”  To replicate them, you don’t have to ruin a cake.  Just cut a few slices and break them into large pieces and follow the directions below. 
Chocolate Cake Sundae – serves 4 
4 medium-size sundae glasses, drinking glasses or bowls 
4 medium slices of chocolate cake (see recipe below) 
Vanilla ice cream (or flavor of your choice) 
Chocolate syrup 
Set out the glasses or bowls. 
Break or cut each cake slice into 3 or 4 pieces.  Push a piece into the bottom of each glass, top with a spoon of ice cream and repeat until all the cake is in place.  Add a final dollop of ice cream and squeeze or spoon on some chocolate syrup.  Serve immediately. 
Chocolate Cake – serves 12-16 
The easiest way to make this chocolate cake is in an 8” x 12” or 9” x 13” baking pan. 
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate 
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature 
1 cup sugar 
1 cup brown sugar 
2 large eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
1 1/4 cups water  
2 cups all-purpose flour + 1 teaspoon for dusting pan 
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1/2 teaspoon salt  
Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 
In a small, heavy pot melt the chocolate over very low heat, stirring continuously.  When most of the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and stir until all the chocolate is melted.  Set aside. 
Put the butter and two sugars in the appliance bowl of a food processor and process briefly until smooth.  Add the eggs and vanilla and process again.  Add the cooled chocolate mixture and pulse for about 10 seconds, or until well blended.  Add the water, flour, baking soda and salt and pulse just until blended. 
Lightly rub the bottom and sides of an 8” x 12” or 9” x 13” baking pan.  Add the 1 teaspoon flour and swirl it around, coating the buttered surfaces.  Pour the batter into the pan and shake the pan from side to side to make sure the batter spreads to all the corners. 
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and a cake tester or knife inserted into the center comes out clean.  Remove the pan from the oven and let cool in the pan.  When cool, cut slices for the sundae.  
Freeze or refrigerate the rest of the cake and serve with ice cream and/or chocolate sauce. 
          For more chocolate recipes, get “Chocolate on the Brain” 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mom Cooking Tip 58

Make plain white rice more exotic by stir-frying a chopped onion or some scallions and a few sliced mushrooms or bell pepper pieces in 1 tablespoon oil. Then add the mixture to hot cooked rice, stir well and serve.

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Friday, June 3, 2016

Coolest Kitchen Gadget Ever

I went all the way to Paris to find this 5-bladed kitchen scissors, not realizing I could have bought it online.  But Paris is a lot more enticing than the computer in my office.  I always stop by E. Dehillerin, a French kitchen equipment store with hundreds of knives, whisks, cookware and copper pots filling its first floor and basement.  I’m never disappointed.  

I didn’t know I needed these exotic scissors to cut parsley, basil and cilantro, but now I can’t live without them.  There is even a cleaning device built into the plastic case so you don’t slice open your fingers trying to remove leftover bits of greenery.

E. Dehillerin Knife Display
E. Dehillerin Dish Display
E. Dehillerin Whisk Display

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I Can Make That Too: Crab Salad Appetizer in Mom’s Kitchen vs. the Restaurant Version

Crab Salad from Chez Fernand
I’m always looking for the easiest possible dish to put on the table.  It helps if the dish also looks appetizing and even better if it offers a hint of sophistication.  Ultimately, though, it has to taste good.  Beautiful pictures of beautiful food are delightful, but if the actual food is simply fodder--or worse--what’s the point?

I was surprised to find this Crab Salad Appetizer on the menu at a small restaurant called Chez Fernand on Paris’ Left Bank.  It was simple, attractively presented and, best of all, delicious.

I vowed to make it myself and came up with this very easy recipe.

Crab Salad from Mom's Kitchen
Crab Salad Appetizer – serves 2 – or 1 as a main dish with a lot more mixed salad greens 
4 ounces fresh crab meat or 6-ounce can crab meat (fully drained) 
1 stick celery, thinly sliced 
1 scallion, white and green parts thinly sliced 
2 teaspoons mayonnaise 
1 teaspoon mustard 
1 teaspoon lemon juice 
Black pepper 
Several handfuls mixed salad greens 
Vinaigrette salad dressing 
Gently combine the crab meat, celery, scallion, mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice in a medium-size bowl.  Season with salt and pepper. 
Divide the crab mixture in half and place on two salad plates.  Cover with a handful of mixed salad greens and top the greens with salad dressing.  Serve immediately. 
To make this into a light meal, add some slices of French bread.
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