Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pizza Pans

The next time you see a good deal on pizza pans; the un-fancy non-perforated kind, I urge you to invest in at least four.  Although six would be better, just in case, and they are very easy to find space for in the kitchen.  Here's a list of good reasons why.

  • You will always have a lid for almost every size of pot and pan
  • One pizza pan inverted over another pizza pan and covered with a warm towel is a good way to keep tortillas and other flat breads warm at the table
  • Cover a pizza pan with a pretty cloth napkin for an inviting tray of appetizers
  • Tape the corners of the cloth napkin beneath the pizza pan to make chargers for a prettier table setting
  • Serve you messier children (and guests) on a pizza pan, there is a wider playing field and raised edges to contain the strays
  • If you ever have need of a 12" circular stencil, need I say pizza pan?
  • Make pizza on them!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Sixth Sense

Did any of you catch last season's MasterChef?  Last season a blind lady won the whole thing and how impressed was I?  Incredibly impressed, because cooking without all of your senses at your disposal is generally a recipe for disaster.

But Christine found ways to compensate for her blindness, mostly by going slow and using her fingers to 'see' the food.  That kind of dedication to any craft is admirable, but since I'm a cook, I know that what Christine does is nothing short of heroic.  Kitchens are well known to be death traps for the unwary and a competent chef has to use all five senses all the time just to keep from getting hurt.

But there are more than five senses, there's that other one, the oogly-googly one they make movies about and such.  That sixth sense is no mystical creation and requires no psychic ability, it is born from experience and can be your most valuable ally in the kitchen.  I call it my inner chef and I trust my inner chef implicitly; even if there is still 15 minutes left on the timer, if my inner chef screams NOW!, I jump.

I did not set out to create an inner chef, she just appeared after years of toiling and I did not trust her right off the bat.  But I am here today to say that you can create your own inner chef, your sixth sense, without spending your every waking moment thinking about food.  As usual, all it takes is a decision.

Brains are marvelous things, they are like computers and if you tell them exactly what you want, they will do it for you.  Inform your brain that you expect a little more from it in the kitchen, that it is to warn you of impending disasters and keep track of time.  That fantastical little computer between your ears tracks EVERYTHING in your area, it notes the smells and the very important sounds (cooks often dismiss the sense of hearing, but it is equally as vital as all the rest); it will keep you organized and even occasionally deliver up wickedly clever ideas.

The most important thing you can do to strengthen your inner chef is to trust it; I know that trust doesn't always come easily to cooks and that newer cooks don't think they've got the skills to create one.  But the more you trust your inner chef, the harder it will work for you.

Honing your skills in the kitchen is a never-ending process for most chefs, we are never satisfied and there is always a better way.  Cultivating your sixth sense is just another kitchen skill and, like all skills, it gets easier with time.  Do not fear your own brain, it is generally wiser than your conscious mind and it is always on your side.  Embrace you inner oogly-googly chef; go forth and cook.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Plant Food

I'm going to go out on a limb here and venture to say that 90% of the residents of the San Joaquin Valley are farmers of something, including me.  With an advantageous climate and generously long growing season, most folks at least have some herbs growing in a sunny window and tomatoes of all kinds flourish in backyard gardens up and down the valley.

Clyde and I give over more backyard space to the vegetable garden every year and every year I endeavor to grow a humongous pumpkin for Halloween.  I haven't grown my bean bag chair size specimen yet, but someday.  There are no water restrictions yet in our area, but they are coming and I grew up in the 70's when a prolonged drought hit the valley, so water conservation is always a concern for me.

Over the last 10 years I have slowly begun to see my kitchen and my garden as two complementary things rather than two separate things.  It is a more holistic approach that stems from my desire to conserve resources and funds, Clyde and I are well known to make it ourselves rather than go out and buy.  So I have come to realize that it is not a one way road from garden to kitchen, but a rather well trafficked two way street.

Composting is the first and best use for kitchen scraps of all kinds, from coffee grounds to decaying salad greens, if it's not a protein, toss it in.  Composting is almost vital here in the Sacramento area to condition the red clay hardpan into well-drained soft, black dirt which requires less irrigation.  Egg shells, paper products, used cooking oil and so many other things go into my compost piles that most people just throw away.

But there is a lot of water in your kitchen to be reclaimed as well, more than just water though, in a way it is plant food that is just being drained away.  How many steaming pots of pasta do you make a year?  How often do you rinse the rice?  Do you just empty bottles of flat soda or sour wine down the drain?

All of those can be used to feed and water your indoor and outdoor plants too.  All those wonderful free starches that have come loose from the rice and grains are just another form of nutrition, as are sugars of all kinds. I do recommend diluting very sugary things with water before feeding them to your plants, too much sugar is bad for any creature and attracts unwanted pests.  Salty liquids are the exception to this, do not water your plants with salty liquids although it is fine to put those liquids into the compost pile.  Also make sure that the reclaimed water is at least room temperature so you don't inadvertently boil any tender roots.

Just about any cooking liquid can be reclaimed for your garden, from the lobster boil to poaching wine to simple syrup.  I like to think that my flowers are brighter and my veggies tastier because they benefit from a well rounded diet

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Spicy Talk

I was making some oatmeal cookies today and remembered a story that an old friend Donna told me.  Another old friend, the gone and missed Amanda who knew that Donna did not like oatmeal cookies physically shoved one of my oatmeal cookies into Donna's mouth and ordered her to chew.  Donna realized that day that it wasn't oatmeal cookies she disliked, it was those traditional, dry versions that she had no use for.

My oatmeal cookies are just another version of traditional chocolate chip cookies, I don't like those thin ones with unpleasant textures myself.  Another thing that Donna liked was that I used more than just cinnamon to flavor the dough.  Cinnamon is great and very much called for in an oatmeal cookie, but there should be some other spicy notes in there too for a more rounded flavor.

Before the recipe, I would like to share a bit about how spices work and why this recipe adds the spice in a different place than most others.  Always remember that spices are dried, therefore all the moisture has been removed from them leaving an abundance of volatile oils behind.  Those oils are the flavor in the spice and open up much more readily in the company of fats.

This is why I put the spices into the creaming portion of the recipe, so that the spices meld with the fat from the butter and cream cheese for a well developed flavor.  You can still make the following recipe if you wish to only use butter, but I prefer the texture and taste of the cream cheese.

Oatmeal Cookies

  • 1/2 cup butter, SOFT
  • 1/2 cup cream cheese, SOFT
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • dash of freshly grated nutmeg if available
Place all ingredients in a bowl and cream together thoroughly (creaming is using the sharp sugar crystals to cut the butterfats) until the batter is a uniform light brown color with no little chunks of unincorporated fat.  In a separate bowl combine:
  • 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Add the flour mixture to the batter in 2 - 3 additions, keeping the mixer at a lower speed (you have just added flour to liquid, all mixing from here will result in the flour creating long gluten strands that will make a cookie tough) just until the dough has come together.  Now add:
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 1/2 cups of your choice of drops, raisins, chips, nuts
Mix just until the additions are fully incorporated; cover bowl with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

To bake, drop the dough onto ungreased cookie sheets with a spoon (!) and bake at 375 degrees for 8 - 12 minutes, or until done.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Running Hot and Cold

Water is perhaps the most vital and least discussed tool in any kitchen.  We here in the States don't often appreciate the fact that clean water comes flowing into our homes and businesses with ease and abundance, which is not true of many communities in the world.  Try to be grateful every time you turn on the tap that you did not have to travel to the community well to get it, you did not have to carry your family's entire daily supply home on your back and you did not have to boil it first in order to have a drink.

Tastes a tiny bit sweeter now, eh?

Water in all it's forms can be used in the creation of many culinary delights, but I am here today to talk about the water inside your ingredients.  Just about every creature on this Earth is made up mostly of water, including the food we eat, and the water inside the food reacts the same to outside forces as the free water outside.

So what does the bound water have to do anything?  Plenty, if you own and use a freezer or a microwave.  Anyone who has ever put a block of cheese in the freezer can attest to that, once they have thawed it out and then tried to grate it only to end up with a pile of cheese crumbles.  That was the water talking to you.

When water freezes, the molecules form crystals inside the food, the slower the freeze (such as home freezers), the larger the crystal.  The crystals attract the other molecules of water and rearrange themselves, still inside the food, and carve out tiny holes.  Once the food is thawed out, that water just flows out leaving the food somewhat beaten in the process.  Unless you own a flash freezer unit, this is unavoidable at home, but understanding what goes on can inform how you prepare things for the freezer.

Cheese can be frozen, but it doesn't work very well for creamy or soft cheeses.  Semi soft cheese like cheddar should be grated first and tossed with a bit of cornstarch while hard cheeses like Parmesan need very little prep.  Those soft cheeses are too wet, all that water will ruin the texture of the cheese once thawed; semi soft has less water and hard has very little.  Meats have a lot of bound water, so wrap them individually in plastic wrap and freeze in a single layer on a sheet pan before putting them all into a freezer bag together.

Now we're going to the other side of the thermometer to hot and how to understand microwave ovens.  The firstest, bestest thing to know about microwaves is that they move water molecules, microwaves excite water molecules specifically.  In science, movement equals heat, so microwave ovens heat food by heating the water inside the food.

If you have ever nuked a piece of bread and gotten a leathery postcard when the timer beeped, it's because what small bit of moisture that was left in the bread was all evaporated away in the microwave.  I routinely splash drops of water onto whatever I am putting into the microwave, from sandwiches to burritos to left over rice.  It gives the microwaves plenty of fuel without taking too much away from my food, but bread will still always toughen up quickly when nuked.

My last thought on this topic is about the bound water in vegetables that are destined for preparations like sauteeing.  Let's use sauteed onions as a for instance; you slice them up nice and thin, toss them in a preheated pan with some butter and olive oil only to see them steam up and stew instead of turning that gorgeous golden brown.  Once again, that's the water talking to you.

Removing some of that bound water will stop your food from steaming in the pan, just lay your cut veggies out on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt.  Salt pulls moisture from tissue, sugar will do the same, and these drier veggies will be much more suitable for frying.

Being familiar with how everything works in your kitchen makes you a better all around cook.  All the recipes and shiny cookware in the world are useless in the hands of a chef who doesn't understand that her most important tool is between her ears.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Creamy, Cheesy Goodness

Mac and Cheese Wednesday was always a busy one at the cafe and the one sure-fire menu item that will still bring my daughter home for dinner.  The key to a satisfying rendition of macaroni and cheese is all in the sauce, so let's make one.

It all starts as the humblest of the mother sauces, the bechamel or white sauce.  A plain bechamel starts with a roux made of equal parts flour and butter cooked together briefly, then one adds milk and a bit of spice and a white sauce is born.  A creamy cheese sauce is not that much harder if one is prepared, and I always endorse good preparation for any cooking venture.

I feel that I must say here that this blog is not often going to offer traditional recipe formats simply because you can find that information anywhere online.  The reason my attempts at putting cookbooks together have all failed is because there is just no way to say everything I want to say about each recipe and all its potential variations in a traditional format.  So I just gave up and started spewing prose about food instead.

Getting prepped:  I generally make 2 cups of sauce at a time, 1 cup for that night's meal and another to pack into a tub for my daughter to take home.  But the recipe is easily halved and easily doubled, so just mind your math when making this for yourself.  We'll just do 1 cup of sauce, but remember that is the measurement before we add the cheese, so you will end up with 1 1/2 cups of cheese sauce.

Get out the saucepan, put in 1 tablespoon of butter.  In a small ramekin, put 1 tablespoon flour, 1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard, 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon chile powder, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper.  This is what I like the best, but it is well worth it to experiment with your favorite spices and combinations.

Next attend to your milk and this is a flexible area.  Regular, whole milk is the standard and I like that just fine, but you can also use reduced fat milks or goat's milk.  I do like the overall texture of the finished sauce if I've used un-reconstituted evaporated (not condensed) milk and there is even merit in coconut milk.  Once again, I say to experiment my little minions.

Is it cheating to doctor up the milk?  I don't think so, it's enhancing and making something good even better, so of course, I'm in.  Stir in some bouillon or soup base into that milk, you can also try tomato or carrot juice mixed in for both color and flavor, be imaginative and then be sure to report on your findings.  Just make sure that you have an even cup of liquid that is neither too hot or cold.

The last part of our prep is the cheese, just one kind of cheese is boring and gives a one dimensional sauce.  Any kind of cheese can be put into this sauce and I generally will try for a balance of textures and flavors.  Cheddar cheese is the standard and lends itself very well to mixing, but anything in the Jack family will also do.  Soft cheeses like goat and cream offer velvety texture and a gentle tang to sauces while hard cheese like Parmesan will give a hearty depth.  Figure in 1/2 cup of grated cheese(s) for each cup of sauce needed, more if you really like cheese.

Ok, we are ready to cook.  Make sure your macaroni is already cooked and drained before you start making your sauce.  I get my sauce prep together while the mac is cooking.  Turn the heat under your saucepan on to medium low and melt the butter; as soon as it is melted, dump in the ramekin of flour and spice mixture.  Stir it all well to thoroughly combine, just a few seconds, then add the milk/milk mixture.

Continue cooking, stirring often to prevent scorching the bottom of the pan, until the sauce begins to bubble gently.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring still, for two minutes or so.  The sauce will start to thicken as it cooks and continue to thicken when you take it off the heat.

Turn off the heat and add the grated cheese, stirring until all the cheese is melted and well combined.  At this point, you can pour it over your cooked macaroni and call it dinner or you can put it all in casserole pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.  If baking, top the casserole with a bit more cheese and cover with foil while baking.