Archives for Cooking Skills, Methods, & Styles

Pre-Thanksgiving link round up

We’re a little overwhelmed by all the Thanksgiving cooking talk. Instead of rehashing our version of how to create the Thanksgiving meal, we’ve decided to share with you some of our favorite links for the big day — and a number of non-Thanksgiving links, to help you keep your sanity. Happy turkey day!

  • Cook’s Illustrated has put together a Survival Guide to get you through making a gigantic Thanksgiving meal.
  • This Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Biscuit recipe from Smitten Kitchen made our mouth water just looking at the images.
  • Using a slow cooker for some of your side dishes can be a great and simple way to save time (and energy) in the kitchen. Check out The New York Times’ guide to “Which sides can be adapted for a slow cooker.” This is nice even for non-Thanksgiving meals.
  • I haven’t tried it, but Michael Ruhlman’s Roasted Braised Turkey recipe looks amazing.
  • Now on with some non-Thanksgiving links: The internet sure knows how to eat! Some tasty recipes end up as trendy sensations when they gain popularity through word of mouth (and stomach). Saveur magazine takes a look at eight great recipes that rocked the internet, including the swoon-worthy butter and onion tomato sauce.
  • As the weather cools down my taste buds remember crisp Octoberfest evenings where I’ve happily munched fatty bratwursts and drippy saurkraut, then washed it all down with some delicious Spaten beer. Why not relive Octoberfest 2011 with this simply wonderful mustard-glazed red cabbage with apple from Serious Eats?
  • Does your kitchen have a corner cabinet that never seems to work well for storage? Why not try this useful organizing idea for your pots and pans to transform that poorly used space into something wonderful?

Five wonderful reasons to own this set of mixing bowls

These lidded mixing bowls by Pyrex really take the cake (literally) when it comes to kitchen multitaskers. I love them so much because:

  • These nifty bowls are microwave safe. I find this especially useful when a recipe calls for melted butter. Measure out your butter into the bowl, nuke that sucker, than add in the rest of your ingredients per the rest of the directions. So easy.
  • Unlike traditional mixing bowls, this set comes with lids. I find it incredibly handy whenever I whip up cookie dough which needs refrigeration before being scooped. There’s no need to fuss around with using plastic wrap to cover a traditional mixing bowl.
  • The biggest bowl in the set can be flipped upside down and used as cake storage. Just lay out the lid, place your cake on top, then cover with the bowl.
  • You can use these lidded bowls to peel an entire head of garlic in ten seconds. I tried it. It works! As a bonus, the clear Pyrex glass lets you watch as the magic happens.
  • The largest bowl is also perfect when used for no-knead bread. Just mix up your ingredients, cover, then wait roughly sixteen hours for the perfect dough to form. Bake up that sucker into some wonderfully chewy bread with the crispiest crust to ever come out of your kitchen.

Chopping an onion with ease

One of my favorite Youtube channels of all time is the smile-inducing Cooking with Dog. While there are hundreds of cooking shows out there, this is probably the only one hosted by a fluffy gray poodle named Francis. He narrates while his friend cooks traditional Japanese food. It’s a silly idea, but I just love to watch as they expertly create some truly awe inspiring dishes.

Sometimes they throw in clever little techniques, too. They use a neat trick to chop an onion (at what is close to a coarse brunoise cut, which is 1/8″ x 1/8″ x 1/8″) in the latest episode about a Japanese variation of Stuffed Peppers & Mushrooms.

Chopping those unwieldy veggies has always been a frustrating pursuit for me. The vertical cuts are a piece of cake, but horizontally slicing into the onion never goes well. My slices come out uneven and the knife always seems to pull out chunks which make it tougher to keep everything uniform in size.

Here’s how they do it on Cooking with Dog:

Step 1.

Quarter the onion, making sure to keep the root end intact.

Step 2.


Make evenly spaced vertical cuts in the quartered onion.

Step 3.


Flip the the quartered onion forty-five degrees so the other cut side if flat against the cutting board and make more evenly spaced cuts.

Step 4.


Finish by cutting across the initial cuts, producing a nice uniform mince.

TA-DA! I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to try this technique. It is so much easier than trying to do it with only cutting the onion in half. Thanks, Francis!

Link roundup for October 11, 2011


red heaven

Fresh pasta walkthrough

If you’re anything like me, your youth involved eating pasta that started its life packaged in a box, living on a grocery store shelf until it was purchased by your family. My mom created wonderful things out of that dry pasta, like her Tuna Frittata or famous spaghetti and meat balls. I get a warm cozy feeling when imagining a pantry lined with boxes and boxes of pasta-based meal potential.

You are also like me if you tried fresh pasta for the first time in your twenties. My post-college years became a time for food exploration when I lived in Chicago. I gladly handed over roughly half my monthly earnings to the many restaurants that city has to offer. Chicago is a young foodie’s dream come true with all the diversity of flavors represented in such a tiny place. It would have been a crime to live there and not explore. Seems like it was only a matter of time before my wandering pallet experienced a bowl of freshly made pasta.

I recall eating it for the first time and thinking the texture was a lot like German spaetzle, yet it was much thinner and had a subtly different mouth feel thanks to the tomato sauce. It was delicate and chewy at the same time. It was different, and I was in love.

Despite this intense attraction, until recently fresh pasta has been something which only shows up in my home via the chilled plastic packages sold in grocery stores. The texture of that stuff is different than the fresh pasta from a restaurant. Less chewy. Yet making it from scratch seemed like a process which took too long. Was my desire for that unique texture enough reason to pass up the convenience of opening a box and having a meal in ten minutes?

Yes and no. Making fresh pasta takes time, but if you can find some joy in each step of the process it seems less like work and more like a project. Projects that end with a bowl of deliciousness are what I call fun.

I do not own a pasta rolling machine, so the steps listed below use only the bare essentials of what you need.

Step 1

Begin by scrubbing down your counter top until it’s nice and clean. Dry thoroughly.

Using your hands, create a mound using two cups of unbleached all-purpose flour. Poke down the center to form a well for the eggs. Add a half teaspoon of salt.

Step 2

Crack three eggs into the center of the well.

Step 3

Using a fork, gently scramble the eggs. Begin incorporating flour from the sides of the well, making sure not to allow the eggs to escape through any cracks in the wall.

Step 4

Continue moving the eggs around with the fork and incorporating flour until it starts looking dry. Scoop more flour into the eggs with your fingers. You should be able to start moving the dough around with your hands.

It should look something like this.

Step 5

Form into a ball and scrape down the counter to get rid of excess flour and dough crumbs. Knead the dough for about five minutes, adding flour as needed to keep it from sticking.

I like to put all the scrapings into a colander which I can shake over the dough to add flour.

Step 6

Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate for thirty minutes.

Step 7

Remove the dough from the fridge and let rest for ten minutes.

Step 8

Flour your counter top and begin rolling out the dough. It helps to start from the center and roll towards the edges. Be generous with the flour as you go to prevent the dough from sticking. Aim to roll out the dough to a sixteenth of an inch in thickness.

It should probably be even bigger than my example, since my batch ended up a bit thick.

Step 9

Visually divide your dough in half, then roll up each side of the dough towards the center line.

It should look something like this.

Step 10

Cut the dough using a long sharp chef’s knife, applying just enough pressure to go through without scratching your counter top. Make your cuts as wide as you like. I aimed for the width of pappardelle noodles.

Step 11

Insert your knife under the cut pasta and lift up…

VOILA! The pasta un-rolls itself.

Step 12

Dust with additional flour to prevent sticking. You can use the pasta right away, cooking it in plenty of salted boiling water for five minutes, or it can be frozen for up to three months. The noodles are best used immediately, but can be stored in your fridge for a few days before the texture starts to degrade.

Fresh pasta works best with sauces of light to medium body, so I thought to pair it with some of the simply magical butter and onion pasta sauce I’ve cooked in the past. The rich chewy egg based pasta combined with the buttery tomato sauce creates something truly wonderful.

When did you first try fresh pasta? Do you have fresh pasta making success stories? I’d love to hear some.

A well-seasoned wok

It ended up taking me seven rounds of seasoning, a total of 21 hours, to get my new wok the way I wanted it. I’ll admit, it is gorgeous and will likely never have to be re-seasoned. However, I still think 21 hours is a ridiculous amount of time to spend on the project. (See “The NOT simple way to season cast iron” for more details about this adventure.)

Before I show you the after photograph, let me start by showing you my inspiration. The following is an image from the phenomenal book The Breath of a Wok by award-winning cookbook author Grace Young. The image was taken by photographer Alan Richardson and is of Chef Danny Chan’s wok that he uses at home. Author Young admits that his wok is the “most extraordinary wok I have ever seen” and that its color is “a delicate teak tone reminiscent of the color often found in Chinese silk scroll paintings.”

My wok isn’t exactly teak colored, but it isn’t black. It’s somewhere between a rich golden wheat and the color of a glass of Bordeaux. It’s beautiful, and will hopefully serve me well over the next few decades.

Now, for comparison, this is where I began on Monday:

And, this is my wok now:

This photograph doesn’t do it justice. You can’t see the nuance of golden colors in it (the gold dots are a reflection of my kitchen lighting), you can’t feel its smooth texture, and you certainly can’t see the time I put into it. I am incredibly excited to cook with it this evening, but most importantly I’m thrilled the inane seasoning process is behind me.

The first five meals that I make in it will be stir-fry dishes with high oil contents. I may even fry up some bacon in it. I know from my experience with cast iron skillets that the iron continues to be very thirsty when you first use it, so I want to make sure I’m making foods in it that quench this thirst. I’ll wait to make rice in it for a month or two.

To clean a wok (or any iron cookware), I put water in it to soak while my family is eating dinner. After dinner, I’ll immediately wash it with a mild detergent and a soft sponge. Similar to what I do with my cast iron skillets, I’ll dry it with a towel and then pop it into a warm oven (roughly 200ºF) for 10 minutes. If I didn’t use my oven while making dinner, I’ll quickly heat up the wok over a stove burner on low for the same amount of time. I’ll take it out of the oven or off the burner, wait until it’s cool enough to touch (usually about the same amount of time it takes me to load up the dishwasher) and then I’ll wipe a very thin layer of olive oil or avocado oil into the inside of the wok with a paper towel. You don’t want it to be greasy, you just want a bit of protection for the iron while it’s in the cupboard.

The NOT simple way to season cast iron

Over the weekend, I decided that this week’s SimpliFried posts would be all about stir-fry. I love making stir-fry — it’s so incredibly simple and quick — and I knew it would be a great series. That is, it was going to be a great series, until Monday morning rolled around …

On Monday, I went to the cabinet where I keep our wok and pulled out this:

What you’re seeing here is a brand new, flat bottom, iron wok from The Wok Shop in San Francisco. You can see that it is silver in color, and a little shiny. Woks shouldn’t be silver and shiny. Woks should be black and matte.

Right before we moved into our new house in March, I tossed our old, nasty, inexpensive Teflon-coated wok and ordered this beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The only problem is that I forgot I had ordered the non-pre-seasoned version. To get it to its beautiful black and matte state, I would need to season it myself. (I have vague recollections of this decision, but can’t remember why I wanted the non-pre-seasoned version.)

Seasoning is not a difficult or long process, especially if you’re okay with using animal lard. In just a few hours you can have a nicely seasoned wok ready for your stir-fry. However, there is a slight chance my son might be allergic to animal proteins (because being allergic to peanuts isn’t enough of a burden), so I didn’t want to pick up some lard from my butcher for this project. I know enough about science to realize seasoning a pan in animal lard wouldn’t be much of an allergic risk to my son, but I still felt weird about it. If I could avoid using animal lard, I would.

In the February 2011 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, there was a sidebar to an article about cast iron cookware that discussed using food-grade flaxseed oil on cast iron pans. Cook’s Illustrated raved about the method and provided a link to an online article for how to reproduce the results of this method at home.

I dropped $20 on some filtered, organic, food-grade flaxseed oil at my local Whole Foods grocery store (you can find it with the vitamins in the small refrigerated section), and headed home to pull up the directions and start seasoning my pan. The article “A Science Based Technique for Seasoning Cast Iron” is thorough, and I most certainly did not read it well enough to realize that the process takes more than 18 hours to complete. EIGHTEEN HOURS.

It’s not difficult: You slather the pan in oil, wipe it down with a cloth diaper or paper towels, bake it for an hour in a 500ºF oven, turn off the oven and let it cool down inside the oven for two hours, and then repeat the process. The reason it takes so long is because the whole process has to be repeated at least six times. It’s noon on Wednesday and I have only made it through the process four times so far (12 of the 18 hours).

This was the wok going into the oven for the first time:

I found that putting a garbage bag under the pan during the oiling process helps to keep the mess at bay. I’ve also learned that cotton diapers, although much more environmentally friendly to use, leave little flecks of cotton on the surface of the wok, which creates little spots on the cure (they’ll all be gone by the sixth seasoning — they’re almost gone after the fourth — but it’s still weird to have a speckled pan). I have discovered, too, that although this process is extremely simple, it’s mind-numbingly tedious.

If you buy a new cast iron wok, get one that is pre-seasoned.

I don’t know how someone who doesn’t work from home could even season a pan in this manner. It would take more than a week to do it — one seasoning a night — assuming you had no where to go after work. Sure, I may end up with the world’s most glorious seasoning, which I expect I will, but this most certainly feels like overkill.

I’d show you an “after” picture, but I still have at least six more hours of seasoning to go …

How-to brown butter and a recipe for crispy sage brown butter cream sauce

While on a trip to New York City a couple years ago, I ended up taking refuge in a lovely Italian restaurant during an unexpected downpour. Once I realized the rain was going to be more than a few minutes long, I asked for a table and was delighted by my chance meeting with the restaurant.

My meal included a pasta dish that was topped with a crispy sage and brown butter cream sauce. At the time, I thought the “brown butter” aspect of the sauce was some kind of special butter, because the taste was magical. It wasn’t until I got home and did a Google search for “brown butter” that I learned it wasn’t a special kind of butter at all. It was simply butter that had been browned.

I was intrigued.

Browning butter gives it a nutty flavor, it erases the tang some butters have, and makes it delicious. All you need to do is melt butter in a skillet over medium heat and wait for it to turn a light brown. That’s it. Nothing else. You have successfully browned butter.

If you want to crisp up some fresh sage in the brown butter, remove the butter from the burner when it is brown and throw in some sage. The sage will fry in the butter and turn crispy. Again, that is all you have to do. It is really, really, really simple.

To make it into a cream sauce, whisk in some cream. If you want to get fancy, you can add a splash of lemon juice or dry white wine, but it’s not necessary. The sauce isn’t healthful, but it is really yummy and won’t give you a heart attack if you have it a few times a year.

Fancy butter

I love butter. I don’t eat it as often as I once did, but when I do eat butter, I want the experience to be glorious. I want it to make my taste buds sing. I want to be able to brag about it to my friends (although I wouldn’t, because that would be a little weird).

Buying butter from your local market is simple. And, since simple is a big theme on this blog, I’d be negligent if I didn’t acknowledge how easy it is to just buy butter.

However, making butter at home takes mere minutes and tastes incredibly better than the mass produced stuff. If you have 10 minutes and some heavy cream on hand, I strongly recommend whipping it up yourself. You’ll also get some amazing buttermilk out of the process, so it’s like you’re getting two great things for the price of one.

Fancy Butter, Basic Recipe

  • 1 pint organic heavy cream (the best you can buy, cream as the only ingredient, and NOT ultra-pasteurized)
  • Plastic wrap
  • An 8-oz. Ball jar and lid
  • Cheesecloth (natural, ultra fine)

Pour the cream into the bowl of your stand mixer and attach the whisk arm. Cover the bowl (as best you can) with plastic wrap or a lid specifically made for your mixer to keep the buttermilk from splashing out of the bowl. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can also use a food processor with a chopping blade. You can also close it up in a 16 oz. jar and shake it for a long time, and it will do the same thing, but with a lot more effort on your part.)

On medium-high speed, mix the cream until it separates into curd and buttermilk. You’ll know this has happened because you’ll hear the buttermilk sloshing around in the bowl and splashing up on the plastic wrap. You’ll also notice the curd will have a yellow hue to it.

Not done:

Done:

Drape a square of natural, ultra fine cheesecloth over a large glass bowl and then pour the buttermilk and butter into the bowl.

Wrap up the butter in the cheese cloth, and gently squeeze out the buttermilk liquid with your clean hands. At this point, if you’re keeping the buttermilk, pour it into a separate container (preferably glass) and then give the bowl a quick rinse. After rinsing the bowl, rinse the butter in the cheesecloth under the water, too. Over the bowl, squeeze out the excess water again. Be careful not to squeeze so hard that the butter squeezes through the cheesecloth. Repeat this butter rinsing and gentle squeezing process until the water is almost clear squeezing out of the butter (usually three or four times).

Pour all the remaining liquid out of the bowl, unwrap the butter from the cheesecloth, and let the butter rest in the bowl. Using the back of a spoon, firmly pack the butter into the 8-oz. Ball jar, careful to smoosh out all air pockets. Then, put a little water on top of the butter before screwing on the jar lid. This water will help the butter to keep from absorbing smells and help to preserve the butter. Just pour it off before you use the butter, and add a little to the top each time you put the butter back into the refrigerator for storage. My grandmother used to do this with margarine, and it works wonders with butter, too.

Your homemade butter should keep for up to two weeks, but I sincerely doubt you can go that long without eating all of it. It’s incredibly yummy.

Over the remainder of this week, I’ll show you how to make herb butters, clarified butter, brown butter, and throw in some recipes for how to use these amazing fats. Today’s recipe is just the beginning.

Grilling basics: Using cedar-planks

Fish is delicate and absorbs flavors easily from a grill. As a result, it tastes best when grilled over hardwood charcoal and infused with additional glazes or spices. Since many glazes make a fish fillet sticky, and therefore very difficult to remove from a grill grate, we recommend using cedar planks under the meat. Not only does the cedar add a wonderful flavor to the meat, but it also keeps the fillet in one piece when it’s ready to eat.

If you’ve never used cedar planks for grilling before, this is the basic information you’ll need:

Start by getting a food-grade quality cedar plank (if you’re making your own, you need to buy untreated cedar). You can find them online, at your butcher counter (ours give them away free if you ask for them), in kitchen supply stores (though, usually more expensive than anywhere else), and even at some hardware and home improvement stores.

The next step is to soak the cedar planks for at least two hours before grilling. This keeps the planks from burning up while you grill with them.

You can see, we soak ours in a shallow cake pan and we weigh them down with a cup of water.

When you’re ready to use them, pull them out of the water and set the fish fillet directly onto the wet board. The fish should be skin-side down on the wood.

Put the planks directly onto your hot grill, and cover with your grill lid while cooking.

When your fish has reached its desired temperature, remove the whole plank-fish unit from the heat and serve. The fish skin will usually stick to the plank, which makes the eating process even easier.

This particular salmon fillet was coated in a honey-bourbon glaze. To recreate it, mix 3 Tbl of honey with 1/2 cup of your favorite bourbon. Using a pastry brush, spread the glaze over the salmon immediately before putting the salmon on the cedar plank. The garnish is a slice of apple also glazed with the honey-bourbon mixture. This preparation is incredibly simple, and very tasty.

Grilling basics: Using a chimney starter and making coffee-crusted flank steak

When we grill during the week, we use a tiny Weber grill (specifically, it’s a Smokey Joe 10020, which we affectionately refer to as just plain Joe). I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we use Joe because he heats up quickly, evenly distributes heat, and doesn’t require a lot of charcoal. Within half an hour of lighting him, we usually have lunch or dinner on the table.

We use a chimney starter and hardwood charcoal when we grill. (We use either the Trader Joe’s or the Whole Food’s charcoal brands). With the chimney starter there is no need for lighter fluid and no need to arrange the coals in a certain pattern. If you’re unfamiliar with the incredibly simple process, you fill the starter with charcoal:

Put a few pieces of newspaper in the bottom of the starter:

Light the paper on fire:

Wait 20 minutes, and then pour the hot coals into your grill very carefully:

This specific grill was heated up to cook coffee marinated and crusted flank steak:

(You’ll have to trust me that the finished product tastes and looks much better than this raw meat. Sadly, I ate the entire meal before I realized I hadn’t taken any photographs of it. Yum.)

We got these cuts of meat already marinated and crusted from our butcher, but it’s easy to do at home. Simply get two individual servings of flank steak and marinate them overnight in the refrigerator in a zip-top bag full of coffee. The coffee should be a roast you enjoy drinking, because you can taste it after you’ve grilled it. Also, the coffee should be room temperature or colder when you put the meat in it. You don’t want the liquid to cook the meat.

Right before you’re ready to put the meat on the grill, strain off the liquid, salt the meat, and dredge it through your favorite coffee grounds. (The whole coffee beans you see in the picture above are just for decoration, only use grounds.) Rub the coffee into the meat a little, similar to how you would a spice rub. Grill the meat to a nice medium-rare, remove from heat, cover with a bowl like a dome, and wait five minutes (letting the meat rest) before serving.

Coffee-crusted flank steak is perfect with fried eggs and hash browns, as a “breakfast for dinner.” The coffee makes the steak sweet, almost as if you had added a lot of sugar to a cup of coffee. It’s really good, though, and gives you a little bit of a caffeine kick. If you don’t want that caffeine rush, use decaf coffee instead.

Be brave! Make a fancy cake

For my son’s first birthday last year, I made this:

If you aren’t familiar with the children’s television show Dinosaur Train on PBS, this is what the cake is supposed to resemble:

I started by baking a standard chocolate cake in a set of Wilton Choo-Choo Train cake pans a day before my son’s birthday. I poured the batter into one side of the cake pan, put the second pan on top, tied the two pans together with cooking twine, and baked the cake a little longer than the recipe recommended (roughly 7 to 10 minutes more). Once finished, I took the pans out of the oven and let everything cool.

The next day, I took the cake out of the pans, carefully set it on a cardboard cake circle and turntable, and decorated it with icing using a star tip. I bought the icing at my local grocery store, and my star tip attached directly to the tube.

I had never decorated a cake before that day, so it took me three hours to get all of the icing onto the cake. It wasn’t difficult, but I did have to continually reference the image I’d printed of the train from the internet. I had considered making miniature Buddy and Tiny characters out of fondant icing (the way they do on all the fancy cake shows), but since it took me so long to ice the cake, I just put some dinosaur figures on the turntable and called it done.

Honestly, I was incredibly surprised by how simple the cake was to make. Sure, it took some time, but it wasn’t hard like I thought it might be. And, when I did mess up, I just wiped off the mistake with the tip of a butter knife and redid the area. If you’ve wanted to make a fancy birthday cake but were nervous to try, I suggest going for it. Worst case scenario, you’ll get a funny story out of the experience and rush to your local bakery to buy a replacement. Best case scenario, you’ll get an amazing cake.

Learning new things in the kitchen

I’d like to start off by saying I haven’t always been aware of the importance of learning new things. Some days I feel perfectly content to stay home, watch the same familiar television shows I’ve always loved, and eat food I’ve eaten a thousand times before. Nothing new. Just comfortable.

Learning something means getting out of that zone of comfort. Recently I had the opportunity to try something way outside my range of current knowledge when my wife signed us up for a reasonably priced cake decorating class through Michael’s Art Supplies. We dove in, rolling out fondant pansies on the first day, and by the next class a miniature garden of sugary flowers bloomed on our table as we learned to use the royal icing. It was so much fun!

These experiences punctuate my desire to keep learning new things. I feel like the mantra of “never stop learning” is how people become successful, and that when newly formed neural connections sizzle into existence it feels really great. You’ve probably experienced it in many times, but it may be easy to forget how beneficial it is for us when the clutter of life gets in the way.

I’ve set a goal to actively learn new cooking techniques and preparation methods for the next three months. I’ll be taking another cake related class in July, and I plan on looking through the cooking section of my newspaper for more classes or conventions. I also plan on writing about my experiences here.

Here are some ideas that I’ve had to continue my culinary education:

  • look up more classes offered through community programs or restaurants
  • attend a wine tasting
  • visit local beer breweries
  • visit a locally produced food supplier and ask a lot of questions (I have my eye on the Arizona Cheese Company Milk ‘n More Store)

I encourage you all to try something similar to broaden our horizons and keep our mental knifes sharpened.

If I can learn how to make a primrose like the one pictured above, then so can you.

Why you sauté some rice and pasta, but not all

A college roommate of mine regularly sautéed dry angel hair pasta in butter for a few minutes before tossing the pasta into boiling water. At the time, I remember thinking my roommate was weird.

A little more than a decade later, as I was sautéing dry arborio rice to make risotto, it dawned on me that I was doing essentially the same thing as my former roommate, but with rice. So then, I decided the person who wrote the risotto recipe was also weird.

Then yesterday, out of the blue, I got a ridiculous craving for Rice-A-Roni when I spotted a box of it at the grocery store. I wasn’t raised in a Rice-A-Roni home, so I’m not even sure how I knew what it tasted like. But, I decided to give into my spontaneous craving, and buy a box. When I brought it home, I noticed that the first step in making Rice-A-Roni is to sauté the dry rice and vermicelli pasta in butter. It was at this point where I started to think my roommate, the risotto recipe creator, and Golden Grains manufacturing might not be the weird ones and that instead I might be for not sautéing rice and pasta before eating it.

After perusing a handful of food science textbooks, I’ve realized my final assumption was correct — I’m the weird one, at least as far as narrow gauge pastas (like vermicelli and angel hair) and medium grain rices are concerned. It turns out, sautéing dried grains before immersing them in boiling water has two important benefits:

  1. The grains absorb flavors from the fat used for the sauté (like a nutty flavor from butter or a fruity flavor from olive oil), and
  2. When you’re sautéing, you’re also toasting the grain. You give the grain a crust-like exterior. This crust-like exterior keeps the rice from becoming too mushy (mush works great for rice pudding, but isn’t very good for a paella or risotto), makes it harder to overcook (something that is very easy to do with medium-grain rice), and keeps the grain separated, but still a little sticky (you want to feel like you’re eating rice, but don’t want individual grains to fall off your fork). It gives medium-grain rice and narrow gauge pastas some tooth.

Now that I understand the why, I’m realizing I can improve a number of pilaf recipes I’ve been flubbing lately. Sautéing a nice golden color on the rice first will eliminate the mushy results I’ve been getting.

Overcoming your fears in the kitchen

Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed as saying, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” This quote could be inspiring in many aspects of living, but I found it to be especially encouraging when I was learning to cook.

One of the reasons I was hesitant to cook at home was I didn’t feel like I could make restaurant-quality food (which, I couldn’t at that point). Why would I eat at home when I could eat something better at a restaurant? It wasn’t until I quit my job to go to graduate school that I had to pinch pennies and stop eating out most every night. To keep from getting incredibly bored eating poor to mediocre dinners, I embraced Eleanor’s words and began trying to do the things I didn’t think I could do.

How did I do it?

  1. Become comfortable with failure. If you have a misguided notion that you’re going to get every recipe and every cooking skill right the first time you attempt it, your pride is going to take a hit. (Mine did. This was a lesson learned the hard way.) Cooking isn’t difficult, but many skills require practice.
  2. Identify your favorite meals you’ve had in restaurants. Recreating these meals at home is a good place to begin your journey. With just a couple tries, you’ll probably discover you can make better versions of these meals.
  3. Hang out with the recipes. Does the idea of making a souffle terrify you? Carry the recipe around with you for a week. Study it. Read it so many times you can recite it from memory. When you know what to expect, the process is less frightening.
  4. Research. Whether you get your hands on a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques or watch videos on YouTube, it’s always a good idea to see how someone else tackles a similar method. Even if your style is a little different, seeing another person do what you want to do reduces a lot of fears.
  5. Have a backup plan. Keep a loaf of bread and sandwich meat in the refrigerator for those nights when what you attempt is grossly inedible. You’ll feel a lot less pressure when you know you and your family won’t go hungry.

Let go of your fears and learn to clarify butter, trim a rack of lamb, emulsify a Hollandaise sauce, bake a loaf of bread, cut the spine out of a whole chicken, butcher a tenderloin into fillets, bread and fry tofu, or whatever it is you are currently afraid to do. You can do it, you should do it, even if you think you cannot.

Questions for cooks: Grilling for apartment dwellers

Reader L submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

With summer approaching, more and more recipes are for grilled foods. These sound delicious, but I live in an apartment and the logistics of grilling are challenging, to say the least. There is a concrete pad about 20 yards away from my back door and that is where I set up my small charcoal grill (I tried a gas grill but was constantly afraid I’d blow myself up!). So, all the ingredients, utensils, etc. have to be carried there and then I have to keep watch to ensure that no small children or pets get into the danger zone around the grill. My question is, first, do you have any tips for simplifying the task given the restrictions that I have? Second, is a grill pan or a broiler in the oven equally usable for a grilled recipe? If not, can some recipes be adapted to use this equipment, and how would I know which recipes they are? Do grill pans always smoke? Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

I’m likely about to upset some folks, but I don’t believe cooking food on gas grills is grilling. In my opinion, it’s simply broiling food outdoors. There isn’t anything you can do with a gas grill outdoors that you can’t do with your broiler on your oven. I believe the purpose of grilling foods is to cook them outdoors, over an open flame, and infuse the foods with flavors from burning wood (which you can get from logs on a campfire or hardwood charcoal in a grill). So, I think the little grill you have on your patio is perfect for grilling.

Although I don’t face the same space restraints you do, I typically grill on a small Smokey Joe during the week if I’m just making dinner for my family. What is nice about these small grills is you don’t have to use much charcoal, they heat up quickly, they’re small enough not to have inconsistent heating issues, and the charcoal goes out faster after you finish. Larger grills are perfect for entertaining, but can be a waste of time and resources for your regular, daily grilling needs.

I have a metal box with a flap I use to store and transport all of my grilling supplies. It includes a bag of hardwood charcoal (I love the Trader Joe’s brand), a chimney starter, long matches, ash pans (I usually just get disposable, aluminum turkey roasters for cheap from the grocery store), grilling tongs and spatula, an oven mitt, a water spray bottle, meat thermometers, and a tool for scrubbing/brushing off the grill grate. It’s not the most portable solution, I’m certain, but it is nice to have a single place where all of these supplies safely live when not in use. (And, obviously, don’t ever put ashes into the storage box. When cool enough after grilling, I collect all of the ashes into the disposable roasting pan, completely submerge the ashes in water, let the wet ashes in the ash pan sit on my patio for a day or two, and then dispose of the entire soggy mess.) I think a portable grill kit like this could work well for you, so you’re at least reducing the number of trips indoors and out when grilling.

If the weather is nasty or if you just don’t feel like firing up the grill one night, you can always achieve a similar effect with your stove or oven. A grilling pan works reasonably well (technically you’ll be frying your food), and you can get ones that cover one or two burners on your stove top. If you buy cast iron, you can also use these pans on your outdoor grill, in your oven, and directly on a campfire. A broiling pan (one likely came with your oven) is great to use for grilling (technically broiling) foods in the oven. Simply adjust the top rack in your oven to be the same distance away from the flames that you would choose for your grill rack to be away from the charcoal (I prefer the second or third height from the top — the top height is too close to the flames in my oven). When broiling, be careful to monitor the meat and keep a box of baking soda nearby in case you have any grease flare ups. Small fires are rare, but you want to be prepared in case they happen.

Good luck to you with your summer’s grilling adventures! Thank you, L, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Also, check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Cooking a whole, delicious chicken

Cooking an entire chicken, especially if you haven’t done it before, can be daunting. Even the buying process can be frightening. Once you’ve done it a few times, though, it stops being traumatic and becomes incredibly simple (and extremely cost effective).

Buying

If you’re going to have a dinner party and really wish to impress your guests, I recommend following Harold McGee’s advice and “choose dry-processed or kosher poultry, preferably not shrink-wrapped. Their skin is noticeably thinner and crisps faster because it hasn’t been plumped with water.” If you have been told by a doctor to cut back on sodium, these types of birds are also what you should buy. A chicken from a farm that was killed that day and not processed at all is also a wonderful way to go.

Dry-processed chicken you might get from an organic or kosher market is typically more expensive than other wet-processed chicken because it takes about three days longer to get ready for sale. When I’m making a chicken for the family on a weeknight, I usually just buy a free-range chicken from my grocery store that was fed a vegetarian diet and is antibiotic and hormone free. Mostly, I get these chickens because it assuages my guilt, but part of me feels like they do taste better than caged chicken. Get what you want and what meets your budget.

Preparing

I always start the preparation process by putting on a pair of disposable gloves. I highly recommend this step especially if you are not accustom to handling raw meat. With gloves on, you are usually more confident in your movements because there is less of an “ick” factor.

Next, I run the bird under water. This washes off extra salt and liquid (and sometimes stray feathers) that are on the skin of the bird. After rinsing, I pat the bird dry with paper towels and immediately dispose of the paper towels.

I prefer to remove the spine of the bird when I prepare a chicken so it can lay flat to cook for a more consistent heat. When you prepare a chicken this way, it is called a spatchcock. If you are unfamiliar with this preparation, I highly recommend watching this video.

I use a pair of poultry shears instead of a knife when cutting out the spine of the chicken. It makes getting through bones and joints easier for me, and I don’t ever worry about pieces of chicken flying up toward my face the way it sometimes works when I use a knife. After using them, I immediately put the shears into the dishwasher (that my husband has opened for me with his non-chicken cutting hands).

Cooking

Warning: If you’re looking for a healthy chicken recipe, this recipe is not it. This recipe is blissfully delicious.

  • 1 whole frying chicken
  • 1 Tbl canola oil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 shot cognac or dry red wine
  • 1 Tbl salted butter
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbl dried tarragon (or fresh, if you have it)
  • 1 tsp crushed rosemary
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

In a large frying pan, heat 1 Tbl canola oil over medium-high heat (do not allow oil to reach smoke point). Place spatchcock back-side down in heated oil for 4 to 5 minutes. Flip spatchcock over and heat for another 4 to 5 minutes until skin is brown.

Move bird to a French or Dutch oven and briefly set aside.

Pour fat out of frying pan (wipe up any fat that has dripped onto side or bottom of frying pan) and return the pan to the stove top over medium heat. Pour in a shot of cognac and deglaze the pan. Add butter, black pepper, tarragon, rosemary, and thyme. Saute the spices briefly as butter melts, and then pour in the cream. Heat the pan mixture for a minute or two until warm throughout, and then pour over the bird in the French or Dutch oven.

Roast in oven for 45 minutes, uncovered. When finished, the bird’s legs and wings should be very floppy when you poke them with a pair of tongs. Serve immediately. You may wish to lightly salt and pepper the chicken and sauce to finish on the plate.

This recipe works well with sauteed mushrooms and roasted vegetables. Based on the size of your bird, it can serve anywhere between 2 and 4 people. It might also be the best tasting chicken you’ve ever had.

Questions for cooks: Skin-on or skin-less chicken?

Reader Rhonda submitted the following to Questions for cooks about chicken:

Do I remove the skin prior to cooking or after? I know you get better flavor (I am told) cooking with the bone but the skin contributes fat as well as flavor. I want the best flavor but want to limit animal fats as well. As a new cook who is cooking my own food for better health I need to know when something is critical for flavor or authenticity — I want it to taste like it was meant to taste and when it can be eliminated. I don’t need to be stringent with fats, just be aware of my choices, cutting back on animal fats where it doesn’t matter so I can use it where it does.

For a more authentic and succulent chicken flavor, you would leave the skin on during cooking.

When you cook a chicken with the skin on it, always start with a high heat so the fat can “fry” the skin (this works with both roasting and frying). You’ll know the fat is working to fry the skin when the skin turns a golden brown. Once you have a nice browned skin and the fat is no longer in a solid form between the skin and the meat, you should turn the heat down and slowly roast the bird at a lower temperature (the lower temperature helps keep the meat from getting unbearably dry).

Initially cooking the meat at a high temperature keeps most of the animal fat in the skin, which you can then choose to eat or not. If you cook the meat at a lower temperature from the very beginning, the fat won’t fry the skin but rather liquefy and soak into the meat. Some of the fat will do this even at high temperatures, but considerably less so.

For a less authentic flavor, but a less-fat option, you can remove the skin before cooking. However, chicken cooked without skin is prone to getting rubbery and very dry, so you’re more limited in your cooking methods.

I like to use skinned chicken in soups because boiling (or poaching) the meat with liquid keeps it tender. Also, any fat that made it into the soup can be skimmed off the surface when the soup cools. Grilling is also good because the hardwood charcoal infuses a smokiness into the meat. Adding breading and/or sauces can also help to spice up the flavors of skinless chicken.

Buying ground chicken is an alternative, too. With the addition of spices (and a splash or two of hot sauce), you can form patties and make a nice chicken burger.

The one method I don’t recommend for you is making a confit. In this method, you literally pack the chicken in fat before cooking. It tastes incredibly yummy, but it isn’t going to help you on your fat-reduction quest.

If I were you, I’d switch up the routine and keep things in moderation. Some times, I’d keep the skin on and then choose not to eat the skin at the meal. (Actually, I’d probably sneak a couple bites of the skin, but mostly I would pick it off.) Then, other times, I would cook the chicken without the skin.

Next week, I’ll have a post explaining how I cook a whole chicken. This might also be of some help to you.

Thank you, Rhonda, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Please check the comments for even more chicken-related cooking suggestions from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!

Like many teenagers, I worked in an ice cream shop a couple nights a week while I was in high school. The job taught me a great deal about the working world and an insane amount about ice cream.

At the first signs of spring, it can be easy to run to your grocery store and pick out a tub of mass produced ice cream from a freezer. What you get from the grocery store usually isn’t bad — but it’s also not very good. Even the premium brands can be gummy or watery or flaky (and really amazing ice cream shouldn’t be any of these things).

Stopping at your local ice cream shop is also a hit-or-miss endeavor. National chains have ice cream on par with the mediocre stuff you can get from the grocery store, and small mom and pop places might be serving up the exact stuff you buy by the tub. What they sell is cold, and that is often all you can say about it. Freshly made, small batch ice cream is difficult to find at an ice cream shop, and when you do find it you usually have to pay twice the price for it compared to other places.

Making ice cream at home is typically less expensive and far superior in quality and flavor than anything you can buy from a shop or in your grocery store. It’s also super easy to make up a batch if you have an automatic ice cream maker ($40) or an ice cream attachment ($65) for your stand mixer. If you have an ice cream maker that requires you to pack it in salt or crank it by hand, it’s time for an upgrade. Another benefit of making ice cream at home is that you tend to eat less of it in one sitting than you do the other stuff. I think this is because you want to make the ice cream last longer, and also because it is richer and fills you up faster.

In addition to having an ice cream maker that is simple to use, I also recommend having a few other items to help you through the ice cream making process:

  1. David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop ($12). His recipes are a wonderful place to start and become comfortable with making ice cream at home.
  2. A bookmark in your web browser to David’s ice cream recipes online.
  3. An air-tight ice cream storage container (with a lid) for your freezer. The last thing you want is for your amazing ice cream to get freezer burn.
  4. Quality cream. I buy the freshest cream I can from a local dairy when I make ice cream. If you don’t have a dairy close to you, get the best stuff you can from your grocery store. Talk to the person who stocks the shelves in the dairy department to get you the freshest of the fresh from the back coolers.

This week I’ll reveal a couple of my favorite ice cream recipes to get everyone geared up for summer. A few practice rounds now will make you ready for the ice cream rush in the coming months.

Reducing stress associated with restricted diets

Special diets can add an extra level of stress to meal planning and preparation. As the mother of a child with a deathly peanut allergy, I’ve certainly experienced some frustrations as I’ve navigated the peanut-free world.

Even if someone in your home doesn’t have a food allergy, you might invite a guest into your home who does. Or, you may have a roommate or child who is a vegetarian or you may invite a vegan to dinner. No matter the reason for the restriction, it can be frustrating when the diagnosis is new or you’re not accustom to making a meal without a specific ingredient.

The following are tips that can help you to relieve some of the stress associated with preparing a special diet or meal:

  • Ask questions about the diet restriction to learn as much as you can. Whether you’re asking a doctor or the person with the food restriction, it’s best to be as prepared as possible before setting a/the menu. You don’t want to accidentally make your guest or family member or roommate sick, or offend him.
  • Ask for cookbook recommendations or sites with recipes that work with the special diet. Doctors often have handouts prepared for restrictive diets and people with the special diet will know where to turn. Asking for recommendations can save you a lot of time and worry.
  • Unless the diet is somehow not recommended for others, have everyone eat the special diet. If one member of your household can’t eat gluten, have a gluten-free home. If someone can’t eat tree nuts, have a tree nut-free home. The same goes for reduced sodium diets. My husband and I have stopped eating peanuts and foods produced in plants where peanuts are present, and neither of us have faced any consequences. If you’re just cooking a meal for a guest with a limitation, make the entire meal safe or respectful for all your guests.
  • Have empathy. It’s very likely the person with the diet restriction doesn’t wish she had the diet restriction. She probably wishes she could eat chocolate or pine nuts or whatever food she can’t have. Think about how frustrating every meal must be for this person.
  • Imagine you’re on Iron Chef and instead of an ingredient you have to include, you’re given an ingredient you can’t include. Thinking of the meal like a challenge can keep things light and feel less like a burden.
  • If the diet restriction is for you or someone who lives in your home, know that the first three months of following the new diet will be the most difficult. After three months have passed, the restricted diet will be an old habit and you’ll barely experience any stress because of it.

I have a good friend who follows strict Orthodox Kosher laws, and when it’s our turn to host her family we have found it easiest to go out to eat at observant restaurants instead of trying to produce a meal in our kitchen (we only have one set of plates, one stove, etc.). It works well because the burden isn’t always on her to cook for us if we want to get together for dinner, and it’s simple for us to eat at a Kosher restaurant. It’s stress-free for everyone involved.

Do you live with someone who has a restricted diet? What do you do to reduce the stress of meal planning and preparation? Share your advice in the comments.