Creating Recipes

You know how it is: you’re in the kitchen trying to come up with something for dinner so you just start tossing things together. Or, maybe, you’re doing a little improv on an otherwise basic recipe. Either way, dinner turns out very yummy and you’re left wondering: now, how did I do that?

Of course, in my case, I’m working on the cookbook so I have to be able to tell others the recipe. But whether you’re situation finds you wanting to write down a family recipe that’s made by memory or follow your own ad libbing, the following tips will help you get to the same destination: a recipe that can be made more than once with the same results! It all comes down to two main parts: Measurements and Records.

Measurements

A pinch of this, a dash of that, but is it your pinch or my pinch? A finger and a thumb or a full-fisted affair? While some vagaries of cooking (the inevitable ’til it’s done’ comes to mind) really are variable due to a number of conditions, if we just pause long enough to measure each thing before adding it to the pot it makes the written account so much easier to follow.

How to do it? First, keep a couple sets of measuring cups and spoons out as you create. One set of each for wet and dry ingredients and a flour sack towel or the like for wiping spoons out from one spice to the next. If you have them out, you’re more likely to use them. Then scoop or pour everything into one of these tools, first, rather than directly into your cooking vessel of choice.

For bigger items (meats, large quantities of flour, etc.) having a digital scale on the counter is a real time saver. Choose one that does both grams as well as pounds and ounces then just keep a stack of wax paper on hand to put between the food and the scale and you’re in business. You can also weigh as you go if you’ve got a tare-function on your scale (place an empty bowl or dish on the scale and then press the required button–it’ll zero-out the weight so that all you’re measuring is the contents and not the vessel); just note the weight change after each addition and you’ll be able to replicate your results even when the original was done completely by eye.

Records

Measuring is one thing, but unless you have some way to retrieve that information, it’s not going to do you much good. As a friend used to say: the weakest ink is better than the faintest memory. The obvious solution is to keep pen and paper at hand and stop between each step to write everything down.

As simple as this is, it can also wreck that creative flow you get into while playing culinary scientist on the way to a new discovery. Instead, recruit a friend or family member into taking dictation. This is a great position for kids who want to help in the kitchen but may not be quite ready to man (or woman) the range on their own. Finally, if you fly solo at the stove, try a digital voice recorder to take notes hands-free that you can transcribe after the dishes are washed. This is also good for catching any kitchen epiphanies you might have along the way.

So, go forth, create and then replicate your success again and again. Or, if it’s not so much in the success department, at least you’ll know exactly what you did and you can figure out where you went astray.

Foodie Resolutions

It’s that time of year, folks, when we look back at the year that was (and wonder where it went so quickly!) and contemplate the year ahead (and what we’re going to do differently). As much as I dislike the word “resolutions”–it sounds so official and ominous and unyielding–it is what most people call their intentions (my preferred word, leaves some necessary wiggle room) that they set. Do you have any that are food-related?

No, no, no, I don’t mean the usual big-d-Diet ones. I mean little-d-diet ones, the everyday practices that we have, the getting out of ruts or starting new habits. Whether we live to eat or eat to live, food is a necessary part of our daily lives so it makes perfect sense that there might be some food-related intentions to be made for the start of the next decade.

If you want to eat healthier in the new year, instead of declaring an all-out war on carbs or fats, why not try a more subtle shift like these:

  • I intend to eat more vegetables. If you’re more of a meat and potatoes type, try mashed cauliflower instead of the usual spuds, bake sticks of turnips or rutabagas drizzled with olive oil instead of fries, or even creamed spinach on the side of your grilled or broiled steak or chicken.
  • I intend to watch my portion sizes. Pick up a deck of playing cards and place it next to your plate at home–that’s the size your portion of meat should be. Does it look very small on your usual plates, making you feel deprived? Buy smaller plates! It’s true, we eat with our eyes just as much as our mouths, and seeing a full plate of practically any size will increase your satisfaction with a meal.

Perhaps you already eat healthily but your usual meals have gotten a bit predictable. Maybe you want to try new things but don’t know where to start. All it takes is an idea:

  • I intend to try a new recipe every week. Too drastic a shift in our eating habits can be upsetting on several fronts. Immersion works well for languages, but I think a more gradual introduction to new ingredients, cuisines or cooking techniques is a kinder way to expand ones horizons; knowing that the familiar is waiting around the corner allows us to experiment more easily.
  • I intend to buy a new spice and learn how to use it. One of the most fascinating things in food, I think, is how different the same basic ingredients taste when a new spice or seasoning is employed. I recently picked up Ian Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible and am amazed at how thorough a reference it is, including helpful tips about which spices easily combine, what quantities to use with what sort of foods and what each is best suited for.

Or, maybe, it’s the food budget that needs an overhaul:

  • I intend to eat out less. While I’m all for supporting local restaurants whenever possible, let’s face it: eating out costs more than cooking at home and, when you are out more nights than in, your food budget can be way out of proportion. This means fast food and take-out, too. Not only will you be doing your wallet a favor, but your waistline may show the difference as well. And when you do go out, pay attention to those portions and bring half of it (or more!) home for future meals.
  • I intend to make shopping lists each time I go to the grocery store. There’s just something about having a list in-hand (yes, you have to bring it with you, not leave it on the counter) that curbs the impulse to toss stuff willy-nilly into the cart. It may mean a bit of pre-planning about your menu for the week, but I’m always astonished at how much I spend when I go shopping sans-list compared to with one, not to mention what I invariably forget and have to go back for during the week!
  • I intend to shop locally. While not always the case, many times a farmer’s market can yield better prices on fresh produce simply because the farms are down the road and require less transportation costs instead of several states (or countries!) away. Similar deals can be found with local meat markets that do their own butchering and therefore fewer middle-man costs. Even if the prices are the same, you may feel better for supporting the local economy in a more direct way than shopping for everything at the larger chains or big-box stores.

Whatever you intend for 2010, keep in mind that it should be to add something to your life. By keeping a positive spin on things and concentrating on meeting small milestones on a frequent basis you’ll have a higher sucess rate and be able to look back on the coming year with a smile.

Kitchen Tips

Every now and then you find a good way to do things or luck upon a new trick in the kitchen. These aren’t exactly new to me, but they might be new to you.

  • Something too spicy or strong-flavored? Try adding some dairy to temper the over-bearing quality. Mayo is a good foil for a meatball or barbecue sandwich that comes on a bit too strong, cheese can temper a too-spicy soup and milk, cream or butter will dent some other harsh flavors you could encounter in a meal.
  • When you’ve salted all you’re willing to salt but the dish still needs a little something, try adding a splash of lemon or lime juice instead of salt or similar flavorings. The citric acid wakes up other flavors without added sodium.
  • If you have a recipe that calls for buttermilk and you’re fresh out, add up to a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of regular milk and let it sit for about 5 minutes for a quick substitution.
  • Another recipe swap: using applesauce in place of oil can make most quick-breads and cake mixes moister without sacrificing flavor–plus it cuts down the fat and those little snack-cup sizes are perfect for your average boxed mix.
  • To make cutting a bell pepper into even strips or julienne easier, lay the pepper on it’s side and cut around the top edge, going through the skin but not the middle. Twist off this top and most of the seeds come with it. Slice off the bottom end, turn the pepper upright (it should be like an open tube, now), cut through one side and open the pepper out flat. Use a paring knife to remove any extra ribs that may be attached and then slice the pepper into perfectly even strips perfect for salads or stir fries.
  • When your knife is dull and you can’t sharpen it right away, cutting through the flesh of a fruit or vegetable is easier than cutting through the skin–turn them “inside out” when possible and you’ll have an easier time of things until you can get to a whetstone or professional sharpener.
  • Wrapping baking potatoes in foil before their baked or even right after, especially if they are moist when wrapped, “steams” the potatoes and gives them an unappealing, waxy texture instead of the fluffy one you expect. It’s best to allow an hour for them to bake, au natural and not pierced, in the oven but if you are in a time-crunch, microwaving them inside an oven mitt (all natural fibers, please, and no metal!) will more closely approximate the longer baking.
  • Always make sure meat is perfectly dry before placing into a pan for browning. Moisture impedes caramelization and you won’t get the results you’re after.
  • Always add vanilla to your pancake batter–even if using a mix, a splash of vanilla will improve the overall flavor of the flapjacks.
  • When doubling a recipe, don’t automatically double the salt or other spices called for. Start with a single quantity and build up.
  • Ground white pepper is easier to digest than black thanks to the outer layer of the peppercorn having been removed. It’s also hotter–there’s no “chaff” to blunt the flavor so use less if you’re substituting!

And one from Todd: To make a quickie grilled cheese sandwich, place a slice of cheese between two loaves of bread and place in the toaster oven (or regular over). No oil or butter and no dirty pan to clean up.

The Oil Can

Pausing in my back-log of restaurant experiences and pseudo-reviews, I want to talk about a neat little thing I picked up for the kitchen not too long ago: an oil can.

No, not the poppa-poppa-sounding one they used to keep the Tin Man from freezing up, a cute little can to store and pour my olive oil when cooking. Vessels like this are not uncommon and I’ve seen a lot of ceramic or porcelain models painted prettily, but this one (found at my local Marshall’s for all of $2.99, this oil can from StainlessLUX is very similar) is stainless steel with a cute little handle, easy flip-up lid for refilling and long spout to pouring easy and mess-free (for the most part).

Like most households these days, we use olive oil (extra virgin, of course) almost every day when making dinner. Sure, pouring it straight from the bottle into the saute pan or stock pot is fine, but what about when you drizzle oil over steamed vegetables? Do you just let it glop on out of the bottle or do you put your fingers over the opening, trying to stem the flow a bit? Or do you try to hold the cap half-on, half -off to keep your fingers from getting oily (which never really works the way you want)? That’s when an oil can or cruet has a definite appeal.

From a practical side, it’s often cheaper to buy olive oil in larger bottles. But those bottles, even if they are molded to afford a slightly better grip, are still unwieldy when full and awkward when nearing empty. And I don’t know about you but I’m usually grabbing or stirring something while I drizzle, so having to maneuver the bottle with both hands isn’t ideal.

Aside from all that, it’s just plain fun to use! The night I brought it home was like Christmas morning playing with the new toy, swirling and swooping the oil can around. It’s almost balletic and you feel a little dainty, a little more elegant, a little more special for using a simple oil can instead of a bottle. Find one and try it and tell me if you don’t agree.

The Chef’s Knife

It’s tough to cook much without a good knife, that’s just the way things are. And, in a lot of ways, it’s true: you get what you pay for. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get more than you expected.

When I was in School, along with uniforms and books, part of our fees went towards a rather spiffy knife kit. Included in this kit, obviously, was a very serious chef’s knife. And in this case, very serious translates to pretty big and heavy. Now, it’s true that women are making serious inroads into the professional kitchen arena but many things continue to default to male. Take chef’s jackets, for one: they look great on a man, second only to a double-breasted suit, probably, but on most women they need serious tailoring to be anything close to flattering. Chef’s knives, by and large, are made for men’s hands and I have tiny, girly hands, so using that knife for 2 years, straight, meant plenty of blisters.

Now, sure, I could have gone out and bought a smaller knife, we even had a specialty cookware store in town that carried some real beauties. But, as much as I wanted to stand out to my instructors (and I did, make no mistake) that wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. Call it stubborn, but I stuck it out with that massive knife and I still use it on big jobs at home because it is such a workhorse, even if it still hurts my hand.

Of course, part of that is because of how we were taught to hold the knife. While most people, myself included, would just hold it by the handle, that’s actually NOT the best way to work a blade. Think about it: a knife like this is 2/3 blade and 1/3 handle. Even though the manufacturer does an excellent job of balancing the two parts, it’s still uneven and if you hold the knife by the handle alone you don’t have as much control as when you place your thumb and first joint of your index finger on either sides of the blade and grasp the handle with the remaining 3 fingers. Try it for yourself, with this grip the knife becomes an extension of your arm and weilds greater force.

The idea that bigger, and more expensive, isn’t always better came to a head last year while I was browsing the kitchen-ware section of IKEA. On their wall of tools I saw a cute little utility knife that had the shape of a classic chef’s in a much smaller package. It was all of $7 so I thought I’d give it a try. To my unending surprise, this little mini-chef (as I like to call it) is lightweight, sturdy, comfortable for my little hands and keeps an excellent cutting surface. It’s been my workhorse for a year now and I only wish the nearest IKEA weren’t 4.5 hours away or I’d surely have given more of their knives a test.

About the only downside is the length of the blade when dealing with large veggies, like squash or leeks and the like. The longer blade allows for a good reach and a rocking motion to really power through some produce at top speed. But since this only matters, for me, when I’m prepping a ton of mise en place for a party or holiday dinner, it’s not too big a deal (and it’s not like I got rid of my big knives).

A few more tips from Knife Skills 101

  • A falling knife has no handle.
  • More accidents happen with dull blades than sharp ones.
  • Knife Skills Practical Exam: if you cut yourself, you fail.

Grill Mastery

Ah, yes, weather permitting (and even sometimes not), thousands (millions?) of grills across the country will be fired up to char something with family and friends.

My first tip for the grilling-minded is for barbecue chicken and it comes from Mom. She takes leg quarters and marinates them in Italian dressing (straight from the bottle into a large baggie and if you can let it sit overnight in the fridge, even better), to start, and then pre-cooks them a bit in the microwave. Now, don’t shriek, it’s actually an excellent idea since it’s SO tough to get the chicken to cook evenly on the grill without one part getting over cooked or it taking forty forevers. So you par-cook the legs in the microwave and THEN put them on the grill to finish cooking and get that lovely caramelized finish and a good brush with the barbecue sauce of choice.

Did you know that chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees? Now you do. Get out those meat thermometers and make sure the fleshiest bit is up to temperature before serving yourself or your guests. Pork should also always be cooked fully (no pink!) to reduce the risk of trichinosis. Beef and lamb can be cooked anywhere from 140 (rare) to 170 (well done) without too much worry (though why you’d want well-done lamb is beyond me!).

Most recipes suggest throwing out the marinade once it’s been used but you can actually use it for a sauce IF you bring it to a boil and keep it boiling for several minutes (5 is a good number) to “cook” any of the raw meat juices that are in there.

Finally, a true tale of grilling no matter what. It was my high school graduation party and the house was pretty full of guests. The plan had been to grill but the weather was atrocious: rainy and grey. But, the show must go on so Mom changed into her swimsuit and shorts and went outside with an umbrella to tend the grill as needed. Of course, if you’ve got the grill lid in one hand and tongs in the other, how are you going to hold the umbrella? In your cleavage, of course.

So don’t let a little water dampen your party this Memorial Day weekend.

25 Things, 10

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The really unfortunate thing is that 2008 was totally devoid of parties thanks to one thing or another. The first half of 2009 is suffering the same fate, unfortunately, but plans are already underway for a June bash that I’ve wanted to throw for 4 years! I expect at least 2, if not 3, parties before the year is out. Maybe more, it all depends on my schedule.