Monday, August 21, 2017

Balsamic Vinegar: What Is It and How Do I Cook With It?

Balsamic vinegar became popular in the U.S. about 40 years ago.  It is a dark, strongly flavored vinegar made in Italy and aged for as little as three years and as much as 25 years before being bottled.  No wonder some bottles can sell for at least $1,000. 

A few drops of this liquid added to a dish at the end of cooking can make a big difference in flavor. Do read the label.  If you're paying a lot of money for a bottle, it should include the word “Modena,” which is a town in Italy, or the words “the Emilio region.”

Cheaper versions are also available and can add flavor to salad dressings, sauces, meat and even strawberries.

When you pour balsamic vinegar, it looks like thick soy sauce. You may have had it in restaurants mixed with olive oil and used as a dipping sauce for bread.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Why a Recipe Doesn’t Always Come Out the Same and Does It Matter?

Wholegrain Bread
Some dishes in my repertoire are decades old.  I make them at least monthly—Spaghetti with Clam Sauce, Asian Turkey Burgers and Blueberry Jam are good examples.  At least one—Wholegrain Bread—I make weekly.

And yet, even though the recipes are burned into my brain, they often turn out slightly differently.  The biggest botch, involving Spaghetti with Clam Sauce, came about when Bart once made it and forgot to add the clams.  But he was able to sprinkle the chopped clams on top, so all ended well.

Leaving out an ingredient can vastly alter a dish, or it can make no difference at all.  I once forgot the salt when making Wholegrain Bread, and it was practically inedible.  But when I left the salt out of Chocolate Chip Cake, nobody noticed.

If you normally use 1 tablespoon fresh ginger in a recipe but substitute 1 tablespoon ground ginger, your final product will be extremely ginger-y.  Better to substitute 1 teaspoon ground spice for 1 tablespoon fresh spice.

If you can’t figure out why that old standard tastes different, consider these possibilities:

* Maybe you’re using a different brand of canned goods or pasta.

* Maybe you bought your meat or fish from a different grocery store.

* Maybe it was frozen instead of fresh or vice versa. 

* Maybe the weather was overly humid, and ingredients like flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt absorbed some moisture.  That extra liquid can affect the consistency and flavor.

* Maybe you used a different recipe.

There are lots of maybe’s.  But the biggest ‘maybe’ could be maybe it doesn’t matter.  And if it does, maybe you’ll remember not to do it next time.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Question for Mom

Will a candy thermometer also work as a meat thermometer?  -- Ginger B.

No.  A candy thermometer can clip to the side of a pot or a deep-fat fryer and measure the temperature of hot oil or melted sugar used in making candy such as fudge.  A candy thermometer may go as high as 400 degrees. A meat thermometer, which registers the internal temperature of roasting meat, generally goes only as high as 180 degrees.  Some candy thermometers have a spike at one end, making you think maybe they would work on meat, but they aren’t meant to determine whether the chicken is fully cooked.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Use at Least 1 Exotic Ingredient in Every Recipe

Thai Chicken Pizza
Here’s an idea to make dinnertime a little jazzier.  Add at least one exotic ingredient to whatever you’re cooking.  It could be a new spice you want to try or an unusual vegetable.  Maybe substitute peanut oil for canola oil. That will definitely change the favor of the dish.

If you don’t like the end result, add another exotic ingredient to counteract the first one.  Or add water or broth and turn the dish into a soup.  Throw in a handful of noodles or possibly a drained can of corn or beans.

Maybe this approach is how chocolate became a key ingredient in Mole.  Most people would never think of adding unsweetened chocolate to a main dish, but Chicken Mole has become a classic in many sophisticated Mexican restaurants.

In the 1950s fresh garlic was probably considered exotic in a lot of households.  Peanut butter was for sandwiches or cookies, not part of a pizza topping--as in California Pizza Kitchen’s Thai Chicken Pizza.  That dish also calls for hoisin sauce, a condiment common in Thai cooking but most unusual in an American recipe.  It's most welcome in Thai Chicken Pizza.  Hold the chicken if you want a vegetarian version.

Thai Chicken Pizza – inspired by California Pizza Kitchen – serves 3-4  

Spicy Peanut Sauce:

1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons ginger
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

Combine all these ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until fully mixed.  Set aside.


1 tablespoon olive oil
10 ounces boneless chicken, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Begin heating olive oil in a medium pan.  Add chicken and stir-fry for about 5-6 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and there is no sign of pink when you cut 1 piece in half.  Coat the chicken with 1/4 cup Peanut Sauce.  Set aside in fridge until needed.

Pizza Topping:

1 1/2 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese
4 scallions, green and white parts thinly sliced
1/4 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Pizza dough for 2 12-inch pizzas 
1/2 cup cornmeal

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Sprinkle a pizza paddle with cornmeal, and stretch out 1 pizza round and lay it on the cornmeal.  Spread the pizza with half the remaining peanut sauce.  Cover with 3/4 cup Mozzarella, half the chicken and half the carrots.

Unbaked Thai Chicken Pizza
Slide the pizza off the paddle onto the pizza stone and bake for about 8 minutes, or until the pizza crust is firm and has begun to brown on the edges.  Remove from the oven, sprinkle on half the cilantro and serve.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 87

Don’t want to pay a lot for unsweetened baking chocolate?  Use unsweetened cocoa instead, which is much cheaper. Three tablespoons unsweetened cocoa plus 1 tablespoon butter equal 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate.  

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Question for Mom

How can I prevent a skin forming on top of my chocolate pudding? – Karen G. 

Very easily.  Once you have made the pudding and transferred it to a large bowl or individual cups, lay plastic wrap over the entire surface of the pudding and smooth it out so there are no  bubbles.  Refrigerate until needed.  Just before serving, remove the plastic. 

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 86

If your cherry tomatoes taste sour, don’t throw them out.  Sauté them in a few tablespoons honey for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Serve as a side dish or bake them, as I did, as part of a tomato pie.

Cherry Tomato Pie – serves 6 as a side dish

1 pre-baked pie crust
2 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 -3 cups cherry tomatoes, washed and dried but left whole
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 8-ounce brick cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Begin preheating the oven to 400 degrees (375 degrees if using a glass pie pan).

Put the honey in a medium frying pan and begin heating over medium heat.  Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously until some of them begin to shrivel.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Spread the mustard onto the bottom of the pie crust and then cover with thin slices of cream cheese.  Sprinkle with salt and black pepper.  Transfer the partly cooked tomatoes and any juices on top of the cream cheese so that the cream cheese is totally covered.   Bake for about 20 minutes, or until some of the tomatoes begin to collapse. 

Serve immediately or let cool and serve at room temperature.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Ants May Have Saved Me

Never do I look forward to an ant attack in the kitchen, but this summer I found an upside: no death by botulism. 

By the time I noticed the first ant on the counter, the invasion was well underway.  The dishwasher seemed to be their new home, but soon enough I realized they had discovered my pantry—actually a tall, 5-shelved closet filled with boxes of dry pasta, sugar, lentils, spices and all kinds of bottled and canned goods.  “Thank goodness for cans,” I thought.  Ants may be persistent, but they can’t eat metal.

To impede the ants, I decided to clean out the pantry.  That’s when I discovered some very old cans of food.  They were years past their “use by” date.

How did that happen? 

I realized it was because we were eating healthier.  Now I made Russian Vegetable Soup with fresh beets, not canned beets.  We preferred fresh green beans over the pre-cooked version.  The large can of clams was just too large, so I kept saving it for the right occasion, which never came.  As for the can of sweetened condensed milk—I have no idea why I bought it 10 years ago. 

I checked the USDA site for information about botulism poisoning from old cans and discovered that my fears were mostly unfounded.  I probably could have eaten their contents without adverse effects because they weren’t bulging or leaking.  But I didn’t want to eat them.  I would rather use my pantry space for food I actually look forward to eating. 

                              For easy recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Question for Mom

My food often tastes bland even though I added the spices called for in the recipes.  What am I doing wrong? –Eddie G.

The most likely culprit is the age of your spices.  If they've been hanging around in your kitchen for more than a year, they may have lost their punch.  Try doubling the amount the recipe calls for.  If that doesn’t work, buy replacements.

On the other hand, the recipe you’re using may have been written by someone who doesn’t like spicy food.  That’s why the recipe calls for just a tiny amount of spice.  Try doubling or even tripling the amount of spice—although do be cautious if it’s cayenne pepper.  Or you can add more spice to a small portion and taste-test it.

Unless you use a lot of a particular spice, don’t buy the large economy size jar because it will lose its taste before you use it up.

As a last resort: find recipes spiced to your liking and use that cook’s recipes.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

How Far Can You Stray From a Classic Recipe?

I’ve been aware of Gado Gado, an Indonesian salad, for years.  I’ve admired pictures of it and even considered making it at one point.  But I never did because 1) it looked like too much work, and 2) it didn’t appear filling enough to be a main course.

Sunset Magazine’s July issue carried a recipe for this salad, and I finally decided to try it.  ‘Too much work’ and ‘not filling enough’ still seemed valid concerns, so I decided to add a few of my own touches and subtract one of theirs--the bean sprouts, because there were enough cold vegetables already on the platter. 

To make this salad more substantial, I added a bowl of cooked rice, 3 cups of shredded chicken, a bowl of sliced mangoes and a large garlic bread.  And because I was feeding 10 people, I increased the number of hard-boiled eggs.  I also doubled the amount of peanut sauce.  I confess I reduced the spiciness because of some tender young palates.

Maybe I ruined the dish for die-hard Gado Gado fans, but my family liked it.  There was something for everyone, even the pickiest of vegetarians.

This brings me back to my original question: does changing a classic recipe matter?  Yes, in some cases it does, although Gado Gado may not be one of them.

Julia Child’s Coq au Vin (Chicken in Wine Sauce) and Beef Bourguignon (Beef in Red Wine) recipes are two classic dishes I try to follow exactly.  I’ve experimented with shortcuts and substitute ingredients, and the dishes have suffered.  My compromise is not making them very often.  But when I do make them, I follow the recipes exactly.  I never regret it, even if I’m exhausted afterwards.

Pick a few favorite classic recipes and follow them exactly.  Then experiment with everything else. 
Gado Gado – serves 10 – adapted from Sunset Magazine, July 2017 issue 
1 package (14 ounces) extra-firm tofu
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 tablespoon canola or peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon salt 
10 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half
3 cups cooked shredded chicken
3 cups thinly shredded cabbage
2 cups fresh green beans, cooked and cut in half
2 Persian cucumbers or 1/2 English cucumber, thinly sliced
1 bunch radishes, cleaned and quartered
2 cups cooked rice 
5 honey mangoes, peeled and sliced 
1 loaf French bread, heated 
Peanut Sauce 
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup lime or lemon juice
1/2 cup hot water + more if needed
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon minced garlic 
Cut the tofu into 1-inch square pieces and let sit on several layers of paper towels for 15 minutes.  Pat dry and transfer to a medium bowl.  Sprinkle with cornstarch, curry powder and salt and stir gently. 
Add the oil to a large frying pan and begin heating over medium-high heat.  Gently place the tofu squares into the hot oil and cook for about 10 minutes, or until it has browned on all sides.  Transfer the squares to one corner of a large platter. 
Arrange the hard-boiled eggs, chicken, cabbage, green beans, cucumber and radishes to other areas of the platter. 
Transfer the rice, sliced mangoes and slices of garlic bread to bowls. 
Make the peanut sauce: Combine the peanut butter, lime or lemon juice, hot water, soy sauce, brown sugar and garlic in a container large enough to stir thoroughly without spilling.  If the sauce seems too thick, add more hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time.  Transfer some to a serving dish, set on the platter and refill as needed. 
Place the platter and bowls on the table with serving tongs and spoons and let people help themselves.
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