All posts for the month October, 2007

Use of salt is one of the major paradoxes in cooking.  On one hand, any doctor worth their salt will tell you to limit your salt intake or all sorts of medical badness will surely arise: heart disease, high blood pressure, and waking up in the morning with a really dry mouth.  On the other hand, do you want to know why a seasoned chef’s food tastes so good?  They know how to use salt.

Salt is an important component in any dish for a number of reasons.  The first is simple osmosis.  Adding salt to meat or vegetables extracts liquids from them, causing them to saute faster and bringing out their flavors.  Also, remember that your tongue has one set of taste buds dedicated solely to tasting sodium cholride so adding salt to a dish causes those taste buds to fire and makes the food taste better.

Tips for using salt:

1.  Before cooking with meat, coat with a light dusting of salt and pepper and let the meat sit.  This will begin the process of extracting the juices and will help promote the formation of a crust when the meat cooks.

2.  Anytime vegetables are added to a dish, add at least a small pinch of salt.  If you are sauteing a large batch of vegetables or adding watery vegetables, use extra salt.

3.  Salt and dessert?  Absolutely.  All baked goods contain at least a little salt as do many ice creams and fruit dishes.  Why?  Because those dishes need to tickle the salt taste buds just like savory dishes. 

4.  Do not oversalt.  Part of cooking is figuring out the optimal level of salt to use in a dish and it is much easier to add salt at the end than take it out once it has been cooked.

5.  Remember that other ingredients in a dish may have their own salt content.  Things like onion salt, garlic salt, and soy sauce are obvious examples, but many commercial broths and butter (thanks Sue!) have their own salt content.  When using thost ingredients in a dish, remember to take their salt into account.  In fact, when I cook with soy sauce, I rarely add any extra salt to the dish because the soy sauce tends to have plenty.

6.  Taste the dish before you eat it!  Espeically if you take #5 to heart and do not oversalt while you cook, you want to be sure that you have not underseasoned before you serve the dish.

Bottom line: do not be afraid to use a little salt in your food (unless you are on a doctor’s mandated low sodium diet.)  If you take nothing else to heart, at least use a little salt when cooking vegetables.  It will make them taste a lot better.

Oh and yes, the puns in this article were purely intentional.

No don’t run away.  Please!

This post was inspired by my friend Brian who, with the air of a man heading to the executioner, told me that he was going to his parent’s to eat meatloaf.  There is perhaps no other main dish so maligned in all of culinary history as the meatloaf (fruitcake takes the um…cake as the most hated dish in history.)  But it does not have to be that way.  You like hamburgers, right?

Meatloaf, if done properly, is just the greatest hamburger you’ve ever had.  Baked, not fried.

  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 pinch of red pepper flake 
  • 4 cloves of minced garlic
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 stalks of celery, sliced
  • 1 half of a red bell pepper, diced into quarter inch pieces
  • 4 slices of white bread
  • 1/4 cup of milk
  • 1 pound ground chuck
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground veal (if you don’t eat veal, use dark turkey meat)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of ketchup 
  1. Heat a skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the olive oil and coat the bottom of the skillet.  Add the red pepper flake and the minced garlic.  Saute for 30 seconds.
  2. Add the onions, celery, red pepper, a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until the onions become translucent.  This will take perhaps 10 minutes.
  3. Take the skillet off the heat and let the veggies cool completely.
  4. Tear the bread into small pieces or chop with a knife.  Put into a large mixing bowl and pour milk over the bread.  If the bread can absorb more milk, add more in 1/4 cup increments.
  5. Add all three types of meat, the vegetables, the breadcrumbs, and both eggs to the bowl and mix.  Hands work best here, so you may want to buy some latex gloves.
  6. Once mixed, let sit for about for five minutes on the counter.  This lets the bread crumbs absorb all the other flavors.
  7. Here’s the fun part.  Most people would drop the meatloaf into a pan and cross their fingers.  Not you! (I think Alton or Emeril taught me this.)  Take a tablespoon of meatloaf and make a patty out of it.  Put the patty into a skillet and fry it like a hamburger.
  8. Taste the patty.  If the mixture needs more seasoning, add it now.  Repeat steps 7 and 8 until you are satisfied with your meatloaf.
  9. Preheat the oven to 350.
  10. Put the mixture into a loafpan and spread a liberal coating of ketchup over the top.  (Even with the quality ingredients in the loaf, the best part of meatloaf is still the ketchup.)  Bake for 20 minutes and then start checking for doneness every 5 minutes.
  11. Enjoy meatloaf well done!

Keep in mind, this is not health food.  This is a timeless classic dish that is in dire need of a shot in the arm.  And don’t forget the ketchup.  As a tinkerer, I have tried to create other tomato based sauces to put on top the meatloaf and everytime I go back to good ol’ ketchup.

I read a post on Sue’s blog the other day as she was making pithy observations about Ingrid Hoffman, a new Food Network show host.  At one point, she makes an entertaining and educational (yes…edutaining) digression into the use of salted vs. unsalted butter.  Her feeling is that one should never use salted butter except when buttering toast as unsalted butter allows the cook to control the amount of sodium in the dish.

That got me thinking back to a time when I proudly handed a tasting fork to my wife so she could taste the Asian noodles I had just made with salted soy sauce.  Her reaction: making the pucker face and proclaiming “Too Salty!”

Fast forward to this evening.  I am at Whole Foods picking up some food for an Asian chicken recipe I am developing and it hits me.  I need unsalted soy sauce for the same reason I need unsalted butter.  If I use unsalted sauce, I get to control the level of saline.

And it was a good thing I did, too.  I ended up reducing the soy sauce down by about two-thirds and even with the reduced sodium version, the dish was plenty salty for me.  And Tina had seconds.

I had a moment tonight when I felt like I was in Kitchen Stadium competing in Battle: Really Need to Go to the Grocery Store and Stock Up.  In my mind, the Chairman said did his karate chop over a steel lid (or in my case the fridge) and revealed the secret ingredients: a few onions, potatoes, ears of corn, and apples, a screaming baby more hard to please than Jeffrey Steingarten and Anthony Bourdain put together and a wife in a bad mood who walked over to the slowly growing pile of mirepoix and said “Whatever you make needs to have chocolate.”  (Not sure how those two fit under the lid.  Good thing there was no octopus.)

It was not just the challenge of throwing together something nutritious and tasty to a two year old that made me feel like there was a chairman with an open mind and an empty stomach waiting to taste my dish.  It was when I had a skillet going, a stock pot of wine bubbling, and an oven full of roasted vegetables that I knew I had been watching Iron Chef, the show renowned the world across for giving birth to some funky dishes, way too much.  In the oven, I had roasted veggies that I was going to turn into stew using a classic gravy recipe, a hash made from finely chopped apples, potatoes, and corn.  These are not exactly normal dishes, but not that odd.  No, the thing that made me stop and think Iron Chef: I was poaching potatoes in a chocolate wine sauce.

When my wife made her remark about chocolate and walked out of the kitchen, inspiration (and mischief) hit me in the foot (strangely it was about the time I dropped my peeler.)  I uncorked a bottle of sweet red I bought in Herman, MO, threw in 1/4 cup of Hershey’s chocolate powder (no hate mail please), a cup of white sugar, and a large potato I had turned into small slices with a peeler.  I boiled the potatoes until they were done and the wine had boiled down to the point it was runny syrup.  (Is there a culinary term for that?)

I admit, it was the need to make my wife happy and get revenge on her at the same time that produced this dish, but it gave me a shot of confidence.  I felt my food was worthy to join the ranks of Salmon Roe Ice cream and natto beans cooked in soda or Casey’s sriracha ice cream from Top Chef. 

However, my wife, one of the two final judges of the meal, had the last laugh when she pronounced the dish “not chocolately enough” despite a remarkable balance between the red wine and the chocolate. 

Which is okay.  All I needed was a little smoke and melodramatic music, maybe a little commentary, and I would have felt like I was competing for the people’s acclaim and fame forever.

As part of the overabundance of fruit from a week ago, I decided to poach some of the apples and peaches I had left from Waverly.  I found that poaching was very similar to the process I used to make pickles where I produced a flavorful liquid, put the fruit into the liquid, and made a fantastic dish.

Poached Apples and Pears

  • 1 Bottle of Red Wine (I used the Steamboat Red from Les BourgeoisPick something you want to drink.)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon (this was a late addition that my two year old son dumped into the wine, but it did make it taste better…)
  • 2 peaches halved
  • 4 apples cut into eighths
  1. Combine wine and stir until the sugar is dissolved in a sauce pan
  2. Add the cinnamon stick and bring to a boil
  3. Give two year old son a spoon and turn head just long enough to have him throw the ground cinnamon into the pan
  4. Step #3 can be omitted and the ground cinnamon added at Step 1 or not at all
  5. Once the wine is at a boil, lower the heat to low
  6. Put the peaches and apples into the wine and cook until soft.  This took about 5 minutes for the peaches and 25 minutes for the apples.  Remove from the wine when each is done.
  7. Continue to boil the wine until it is almost syrup.  Remove from the heat.  The wine will continue to thicken as it cools.

Serve the fruit with ice cream and drizzle with the wine reduction.

I am in the process of watching the inaugural episode of The Next Iron Chef and I am not entirely sure what I think.  It is not that I am not enjoying the show, but I just do not have a good feeling for what the show is trying to accomplish.

Part of me wonders, what the chefs on this show want from being on it.  Is it really the pinnacle of chefdom to be on Iron Chef?  If so, where’s Thomas Keller?  Where’s Jacques Pepin?  Where’s Todd English?  Other the Alton Brown, are any James Beard Award winners on the show?  Also, every chef in the contest was, I believe, either an Iron Chef America competitor or a Food Network host which means that they are invested in being TV chefs, not necessarily chefs.  Not that this is a huge issue, I would gladly dine in Michael Symon or Aaron Sanchez restaurant any day, but again I ask what is the motivation?  Is being on The Next Iron Chef good enough exposure to increase their stature or is being an Iron Chef worth it?  I am not sure, but my guess would have been no until I saw Michael Ruhlman was a judge.

The second thing that strikes me about the show is that unlike most Food Network programs, this one is not geared towards the home cook.  I realize there is a lot of pageantry in Iron Chef, so this should not be too surprising, but it stands in sharp contrast to programs like the The Next Food Network Star.  Still, coming off Top Chef, I felt comfortable with dishes that take longer to list the ingredients than they take to eat.  

I’ll keep watching and hope that I get more into it, but I think ultimately, this show may be a miss.

Last weekend, we took a trip to a few of the apple orchards outside Kansas City.  A late freeze decimated the local apple crop, but I did purhcase a nice ten pound bag of Fujis outside of Waverly.

After a week, I can say definitively, the problem with buying a ten pound bag of apples is that you have ten pounds of apples.  While there is no more divine way to consume a good, locally grown apple than to open mouth and insert fruit…ten pounds is a lot of apples.  Still, as is often the case, this overabundance has made me creative.

Apple Pickles

  • 2 cups of apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1/4 cup of vanilla sugar (optional)
  • 3 sticks of cinnamon
  • 10 apples (the ones I had were small to medium), sliced into eighths.
  1. Mix apple cider vinegar, water, sugar and vanilla sugar.  Stir to dissolve
  2. Heat the mix to point where it is just starting to boil over a medium flame. 
  3. Once bubbles  form, turn the heat down and add the apples.
  4. When the apples have softened, but are still firm, take the mixture off the flame.

The pickles can be enjoyed right now or put into a clean mason jar with some of the pickling liquid.  Their flavor will continue to develope as long as they are in the liquid.

Keep in mind that the apple cider vinegar brings the most flavor to this dish, not the apples themselves.  Do not use the generic Wal-Mart brand if you can help it!  A decent to good bottle of apple cider vinegar is not terribly expensive (I found some for $4 I like) and will improve the dish immensely.

Warning: In this post, I talk about who won the Top Chef finale. 

Another season of Top Chef has come and gone.  This was my favorite season right up until the finale.  It occurred to me that Season 3 was a lot like Season 1.  Both were loaded with talented chefs who did not exactly sparkle on camera.  I would rather watch Sam, Marcel, Ilan, or Elia, but I would rather eat a dish prepared by Casey, Brian, Hung, or Dale. 

To make matters worse, the finale was a hodge-podge of interesting ideas gone awry.  First, the live audience was largely window dressing and it was obvious Padma was uncomfortable.  Second, having three contestants did not work for me.  I think in terms of building a story line, having three square off was more interesting than having any two compete, but I did not like that the judges picked a winner for each course without taking into account the chef’s overall tasting menu. 

Third, the celebrity chef as sous chef motif fell flat.  Watching famous chefs chop garlic is not why I watch Top Chef.  I wanted to see the collaboration and synthesis that happens when two chefs work together.  Instead, I got random musings from Hung and Rocco Dispirito about how Hung had a plan and Dispirito was superfluous.  Last, the addition of the fourth course and previous contestants from this season was unnecessary and forced. 

Still, antics and story devices do not matter.  What matters is what went on the plate.

Overly complicated dishes seemed to rule the day.  There was not a plate sent out that had less than six flavors on it.  The finalists confused complexity with skill and got so wrapped up in showing off their skills, they almost forgot the basics. 

This is what happened to Casey.  The desire to produce something complex made her so nervous, she did not taste her dishes, she made some questionable choices, and allowed Howie to take too much control. 

Blind devotion to complexity is the only way I can explain how Dale married curry with lobster.  Why would one ever pair subtle, sweet lobster with a powerful spice blend?  That dish was bad enough to cost him the title of Top Chef. 

Then there were Hung’s dishes which were overly complex, though visually stunning.  Every plate (with the exception of his cake) was composed off a dizzying amount of ingredients and lacked basic seasoning. How many times did the chefs say “This needs acid”? 

In the end, the judges chose Hung, who may have been the best technical chef in all three seasons.  Also, for perhaps the first time all season, he added a little passion to his cooking.  Towards the end, I was pulling for Dale because I thought every dish but the lobster were fantastic, but when they said Hung won the prize, I was happy for him.   

Congratulations Hung!

During the Top Chef Season Three Finale (Part One) , Chef Eric Ripert made a comment I found jaw dropping.  Brian Malarky had prepared a braised elk dish that he served with a a number of garnishes including the choice of either gorgonzola or rochefort (forgive me if those are wrong, I am going off memory.)  During Judge’s Table, Ripert was aghast that Brian would allow his guests to choose the type of cheese they wanted on their dish.

He stated that Brian was less than a chef because he did not make all the decisions for his guests.

Comments like that make me wonder if I am missing something about the chef’s mind.   My feeling is that gorgonzola and the soft rochefort he chose were fairly similiar in flavor and contrast; one was milder, the other stronger.  It is not like he offered a choice between gorgonzola or cheese whiz.  (Had cheese whiz entered the equation, Brian would have dropped the culinary ball for a number of reasons.)  I just do not feel that Brian was shirking his duty as a chef, rather I think he realized that some people do not like the taste of gorgonzola.

I would love to pick Chef Ripert’s brain about why he felt allowing guests to choose was such a crime.  Strangely, enough, on the same day the episode aired, I was reading Thomas Ruhlman’s Reach of a Chef.  In the book, he tells of an instructor who would not eat the first meal his wife (then his girlfriend) prepared because the chicken had not been trussed.   Both examples illustrate two chefs’ dedication to food that I do not particularly find admirable.

I respect when someone loves food and loves their profession and pours every ounce of themselves into it, but the chicken was untrussed, not uncooked.  Brian gave his guests a choice.  I find these to be culinary nonissues next to serving undercooked meat or poor knife skills.

What do you think?  Is Ripert too harsh or am I not understanding the essense of a chef?