Monday, June 28, 2010

How to dice an onion video

I can always tell who is wearing contacts in the Knife Skills class -- the people who don't cry even though we are cutting 18 onions.  There are 9 of us (8 students plus an instructor) and we each get one onion to slice and one to dice.  If you do the math, that's a lot of tears.  I really wish I had some good solution to the crying problem.  Sharp knife helps a lot, so is good technique.  If you learn to do it correctly, you can eventually do it quickly.  But when there are 18 onions involved, it's tough unless you are wearing contacts, or swimming goggles, or have at some point in your life worked in a restaurant (a daily dose of 25Lb of onions builds immunity in just a few weeks).

Here is what always bothered me about this part of the class.  By the time it's students turn to dice the onions, some of them are so teary and disoriented that it's hard for them to see the board, let alone remember all the steps of this somewhat complicated technique.

But thanks to YouTube, Flip Camera, and Janet's help, I now have a video of how to dice an onion.  If you were too teary to remember all the steps from class, you can always watch this as a reminder.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

BlueStar update (after 10 months of ownership)

Yesterday night, Jason and I sat on the floor of our kitchen for about an hour, trying to remove my Bluestar oven door.  We fell in love while being partners in Computer and Electrical Engineering lab, so in some way this felt just like the good old times...  but the challenging labs we faced at CMU for undergrad, and even more challenging labs Jason faced at MIT for grad school were nothing compared to dealing with a Bluestar oven.

The door was completely stuck and the only way to remove it was to open it.  The hard part was doing it gently enough so as not to damage the hinge housing or break the door's glass.  We started looking for something -- anything we could unscrew.  Finally, we figured out how to remove the front panel of the door (there were screws on the bottom that you can access if you remove the panel under the door).  Ta-da.  Here is what we found inside.

Left side of the door that was opening fine.

Right side of the door that got stuck.

We tried to gently pull on the door again.  The lining on the right was bending, but the hinge wasn't yielding at all.  Finally, we tried spraying the hinge with Pam, which eventually made it yield and the door was finally opened.  It wanted to spring back shut immediately, unless we held it down, giving us a feeling that the right spring was not just looking bad, it failed.

How old was this door?  4 months.

Luckily, we didn't let the repair company throw away the old door (that one was 6 months old when we had it replaced).  Its hinges wouldn't un-clinch until we sprayed the heck out of them with Pam.  Finally, we got them to open and after 20 minutes of yanking, pulling, oiling, and cursing, we put the old door on.  I say a prayer every time I open it.  With any luck it will survive the chicken/duck class this Thursday.

Meanwhile, I've been getting pretty good at using my grill as the oven.  With a few ring molds used as risers, and a rack, it actually works.  Sure you have to babysit it a lot and turn the burners on and off every 10 minutes to maintain temperature, but at least I know that if the food went in, I'll be able to get it out.  Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about my oven.

When this is all over, I'll write a book called "How to bake on your grill," inspired by Weber's reliability and Bluestar's lack thereof.

Here is my e-mail exchange with Prizer-Painter (manufacture of the Bluestar).

June 11: I tell them that my oven door is sticking.
June 14: they tell me that they won't rest until they solve my door problem, but no specifics on when they'll actually fix it.
June 19: I tell them that the door is completely stuck.  I am without the oven or broiler and need help removing the stuck door.
June 22: They tell me that they'll check the status of my new door.

Not sure whether to laugh or cry.


July 1, 2010: new door arrives

July 7, 2010: new door is installed by Vesco, old door shipped back to Prizer-Painter (that's the earliest they could make it due to the holiday).

Mar, 2011: yet another new door.

Sept, 2011: yet another new door.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Life is just a bowl of cherries, but stuck door oven is the pits

Spotting sour cherries in New England is like spotting a unicorn. They are so rare, I buy them every time I see them. My knee jerk reaction to these sparkling little beauties is cherry pie or tart. But then I remembered my oven door...

It's stuck. Completely stuck. No one in my family can open it. Wasn't it replaced just 4 months ago? Yes -- it's the new door. This one failed even faster than the old one. I let the manufacturer know that the door was sticking again on Jun 11. They replied on June 15 saying that they will send me a new one (as always there are no definite dates). Last one took a month and a half to be replaced. On June 17, my door got completely stuck. I let them know and am waiting to hear from them.

But back to the cherries. No oven door was going to stop me from enjoying them and instead of a pie, I made vareniki (Ukrainian version of pierogi). Sammy, my almost 3 year old daughter, was overjoyed. Not only did she get to play with dough and count the cherries, but she got her two favorite foods (pasta and berries) all in one package.

I won't post the detailed recipe here because I doubt many people will make them. They are labor intensive and require excellent pasta making skills. In case you are proficient with the pasta technique, I'll give you a quick explanation on how they are made.

You make a pasta dough using all-purpose flour (9 oz), 2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (1 tsp table), 1 large egg, and 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp water. Let it rest at least 1.5 hours, roll out to thickness of "5" on a pasta machine, cut into circles about 3 inches in diameter and fill each circle with pitted cherries (2-3) and sugar (about 1/4 tsp). I suggest you pit your cherries right before shaping so that they don't release too much juice. Seal the edges together and shape the rest of vareniki. Boil them in salted water as soon as you are done shaping or they'll leak. I usually start the water when I start shaping. Toss them gently with butter. Then sprinkle with sugar, top with sour cream (or thick Greek full fat yogurt). Toss gently and let them cool about 5 minutes. They also work with blueberries (the more sour the better), and apricots.

Is this a dessert? Kind of. They are not as sweet as most desserts, but not savory either. We usually serve a very light savory meal before fruit vareniki to leave plenty of room for them.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Smoky Eggplant

When Ana Sortun opened Sofra 5 minutes from our previous home, it seemed like the whole Cambridge-side-of-the-river world fell immediately in love with it. The lines were out the door. Everyone raved about the meze, the flat breads, the cookies, and the drinks. The lack of seating and somewhat shocking prices weren't going to stop anyone in this remote part of Cambridge from feeling like we were finally becoming a dining destination. Everyone except for me, that is. The problem was that my opinion of Sofra was so far from everyone else's, I found it safer to keep my mouth shut. Jason, Sammy, and I went there a few weeks after they opened and I thought it was completely mediocre and overpriced. The ideas seemed good, but execution was sloppy. When paying $15-20 per person for lunch, I am not very forgiving of sloppiness.

Whether I liked it or not, I ended up being dragged to Sofra once in a while by various friends and about 2 months before we were going to move far far away from this over-hyped place, I fell in love with it. I don't know how it happened. It must have been Maura Kilpatrick's seductive cakes that did it. She is the pastry chef of Sofra and Oleana and a very talented baker. Eventually, I gave the savory food another chance and what do you know -- it was good. They must have been in the middle of an opening craze when I tried them for the first time and eventually ironed out the kinks.

One of my favorite meze at Sofra is a smoky eggplant and I thought it would be fun to recreate at home. I knew how to roast an eggplant on a grill to give it that smoky flavor, but wasn't sure what Ana Sortun used to bind it. I was guessing there might be some mayo, but maybe something else too. So I googled for "Ana Sortun smoky eggplant recipe." Although I didn't find a recipe, I found her explanation of how she came up with that dish. She crossed a Greek version that involves garlicky mayo with a Turkish version known as Sultan's Delight. A bit more googling got me the answer of what Sultan's Delight was -- charred eggplant mixed with bechamel type sauce (milk thickened with flour/butter roux). Ana seasons her dish with the smokey urfa pepper. That's something I could't get my hands on in my neck of the woods, but I'll pick some up on my next trip to Cambridge. I ended up using some Allepo (a sweet and very mild pepper) since that's what I had in my pantry. When making bechamel, I infused the milk with garlic scapes since they are out in all the farmer's markets right now and taste so much better than store bought garlic, but the rest of the year, I'd just add a mashed garlic clove to the eggplant after mashing it with bechamel. The dish came out incredibly well and very close to Sofra's version.

Smoky Eggland Spread (inspired by Ana Sortun)

2 large eggplants
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp flour
1 cup boiling milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste
1/4 cup mayo
Salt and pepper to taste (if you can find urfa pepper, use that)

  1. Preheat the grill to low. If using a gas grill, wrap some wood chips in aluminum foil, prick the top of that pocket a few times to allow smoke to escape and place this bundle on the grill. Prick the eggplants all over with a tooth pick so that they don't explode on the grill (do not trim the stem yet).
  2. Place eggplants on the grill next to the wood chip bundle, and cook for 25-30 minutes rotating every 7 minutes or so until the eggplants feel completely tender when poked with a toothpick all the way to the center.
  3. Remove eggplant to a plate and cool until you can touch them comfortably.  Gently peel the eggplants with your hands and discard the stem. Add lemon juice, season with salt, and mash roughly with a fork.
  4. Warm up milk to almost a boil.  I do it in the microwave keeping a close eye on the milk.  
  5. Set a 2 quart saucepan with slopped sides over medium-low heat.  Add butter.  When melted, add flour and whisk constantly for 3 minutes.  Towards the end of the 3 minutes, bring milk to a complete boil, but watch it carefully so that it doesn't boil over.  Remove the pan from heat, and add boiling milk all at once, and immediately whisk vigorously.  Return the pan to medium heat and bring to a simmer whisking to remove lumps.  Cook for 1 more minute, whisking.  
  6. Stir in nutmeg, eggplant, garlic, salt, and pepper to taste.  Puree lightly using an immersion blender or food processor.  Refrigerate until cool, then stir in mayo.  Can be served immediately, or chilled up to 3 days.
  7. Serve on crackers, flat breads, or as a side dish.  Goes well with mint and toasted pine nuts.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Papa burger, pregnant Mama burger, and Baby burger -- all pink and juicy

I haven't had a burger in 6 months.  Not because I am on a diet or turned vegetarian.  It's because I am pregnant.  Many of you might find this strange coming from a woman who drinks wine (in very small quantities), eats raw fish, unpasteurized cheese, and medium-rare steak while being pregnant, so let me explain.

There are 3 schools of thought when it comes to food safety:

The good doobie philosophy -- cook everything according to FDA recommendations.  Why take any risks when it comes to food?
The chef and foodie philosophy -- I am willing to eat anything raw: eggs, fish, beef -- bring it on!
The stats philosophy -- I realize that there is a small risk associated with eating certain dishes.  I want to know what it is so that I can make a decision.

Until 4 years ago, I was in the chef and foodie camp, but then we decided to have kids.  As you can imagine, not even pregnancy could turn me into a good doobie.  But it sent me on a wild goose chase to learn about the risk of food-borne illness from various foods.  In other words, I joined the stats camp.  My rule of thumb was this: if the risk is significantly lower than the risk I take when driving, I can eat it.  Turns out that driving is a lot more dangerous that mercury in fish, raw eggs, unpasteurized cheese, and raw fish combined.  Each one of these things is a story on its own.  The fish related topics I have covered in depth on my blog.  But today I'd like to concentrate on beef, since it's burgers we are talking about.

How is a medium-rare steak different from a medium-rare burger in terms of safety?  Whatever bacteria might make you sick is found on the outside of the meat muscle (assuming the meat is not completely spoiled and decomposed fairly deeply, but that would be easy to smell).  When you are eating a medium-rare steak, its outside gets to very high temperature very quickly (most skillets and grills are at about 500F, and bacteria die at 160F almost instantly).  So even if the inside is raw, the bacteria is dead and you can happily dig into that mooing steak without any worry.  When the meat is ground, some of the outside that might be contaminated with bacteria could end up inside and won't hit the temperature high enough to kill bacteria unless you cook your burgers to the scary internal temperature of 160F.  That's what FDA recommends you do.  But eating a well-done burger is a worse punishment to me than not eating a burger at all.

Another little problem with beef is that it can have a very unpleasant little bacteria, known as E. Coli.  That can make you way more sick than the bacteria responsible for just decomposing the dead animal.  For little children and fetuses it can even be fatal.  Driving can be fatal too, but I know what that risk is, and besides, it's unavoidable.  What is the risk of E. Coli from eating undercooked ground beef is very hard to tell.  Unlike car accident statistics, many cases go unreported, but USDA estimates around 58,784 food-borne illness cases from E. Coli 0157 per year resulting in 61 deaths.  Compare that to 40,000 people killed in car accidents per year.  My guess is that you are more likely to be severely injured or killed driving to the store to pick up the meat, than by eating a medium-rare burger, but that's just a guess.  There are lots of unknowns here.  Surely, we drive much more often than we eat burgers, and most burgers are sadly, but safely well-done.  So how dangerous is it to eat a medium-rare burger?  I still don't know.

But what about organic and local cows?  If you know where your food comes from, isn't it safe?  I wish I could tell E. Coli to only breed in intestines of factory farmed animals, but it won't listen.  It can be found in any cow's intestines.  The real question is how carefully was the cow butchered to make sure none of digestive tract comes in contact with its meat.  Even when you go to the most upscale butcher, it's hard to tell where their meat has been.  No butchers that I know of in Boston ever butcher a whole cow.  They get their meat in primal cuts.  There is this idea that if you grind the meat yourself, you don't have to worry.  That's not completely true.  If you blanch it in boiling water for 30 seconds to kill all outside bacteria and then grind it, you really don't have to worry, but if you are grinding it as is, who knows what's on its outside.

Yet, all the nice restaurants these days offer medium-rare burgers, and if many customers got bloody diarrhea from them, it wouldn't be the best form of advertisement.  So I posed this question to Kenji Alt, the food writer and food science geek.  How do chefs decide what they can and can't serve raw?  He told me that chefs just don't worry about it.  If you work with the best ingredients you can find, and avoid cross-contamination (the number one source of food-borne illness), the odds of making someone sick are very small.  But then he found out that I was pregnant, and said that being pregnant changes everything -- for 9 months you can live without almost any food.  That's true, but what do you do when your 3 year old wants a bite of your burger?  How long should I be subjecting my children to well-done burgers?  Until they are in elementary school or until they are old enough to drive?

That's when a little trick occurred to me, known as sous-vide.  To understand how sous-vide makes a medium-rare burger safe, you need to know something FDA doesn't tell you about the "safe" temperature.  They assume you have attention span of a 2 year old and care about food as much as I care about sports -- basically not much.  The danger zone where bacteria grow and prosper is not 40 to 140, but 40 to 130.  It doesn't rhyme, but not everything in nature does.  Starting at 131, bacteria can be killed.  The question is how long does it take?  At 160F they are killed instantly.  That's why FDA tells you to cook your ground beef to 160F.  But bacteria will be killed just as successfully if held at 150F for 10 minutes, 140F for 30 minutes, or 131F for 1 hour.  The problem is most conventional cooking methods don't let you keep food at a precise low temperature like that.  But sous-vide does.

Isn't sous-vide that complicated method that fancy restaurants use?  Yes, but it's not very complicated.  Here is my post on how it works.  Don't you need a $500 immersion circulator and a $100 vacuum sealing machine? If you are planning to cook short-ribs that take 3 days, yes, you need all that equipment.  If you are going to cook something that takes 2 hours or less (fish fillets, chicken breasts, steak, burgers, eggs), all you need is a huge beer cooler, a thermometer, some zip lock bags, and ability to pay attention.  I found that zip lock bags actually work better on burgers than a vacuum sealer because vacuum sealer tends to give them a funny squashed shape.

For my first experiment, I thought I'll cook them to 140F.  Kenji's beer cooler trick worked like a charm.  I found that most of the heat was coming out of the top of my cooler (it's the only poorly insulated side), so I put a folded bath towel on it.  In 90 minutes, I only lost 3 degrees, but that was easily remedied with the addition of a little boiling water.  In 2 hours, I proclaimed my burgers done and completely safe.  I figured it would take them at most 1 hour to get to 140F and another 30 minutes for all bacteria to die.  I added an extra 30 minutes to account for a slight drop in temperature, potential inaccuracy of my thermometer, and general guilty conscience of a pregnant woman who is about to eat a medium-rare burger and serve it to her 3 year old.  2 hours after the burgers went into my hot cooler, I removed them from the zip lock, dried off on paper towels, seasoned with salt and pepper, and seared in an extremely hot cast iron skillet with a couple teaspoons of canola oil.  The result?  Yum -- extremely tender and juicy.  On the scale of 1 to 10, I'd give these burgers a 9.

Here are a couple of things that I'd like to improve next time.
  1. I know this sounds weird, but they were a bit too soft and tender.  I hear that mixing salt into the ground beef and letting it sit for about an hour can make burgers tougher, so some people swear by seasoning only the outside.  I seasoned only the outside and only after the burgers came out of the water bath and got dried off, but I wonder if for sous-vide burgers mixing the salt into the meat before shaping is just the thing.
  2. 140F was good, but I bet 135F would be even better.  Next time I'll try that.
  3. I was worried about overcooking the burgers by popping them under the broiler to melt the cheese, so I ended up putting the cheese on the buns to melt it.  I thought it would be the same thing, but it wasn't.  There is some magic to the cheese dripping down the patty.  I think I'll risk it next time.  If I put the cheese on the patties as soon as I flip them, just 30 seconds under the broiler should do the trick.  I should probably get them out of cast iron pan for the broiling part to avoid continuing to cook them from the bottom.
  4. I turned the toppings into bottomings for convenience sake.  In other words, I prepped the bottoms of the buns with lettuce, red onions, tomatoes, and avocado and the tops of the buns with melted cheese.  This way I had all the buns ready when the burgers were done.  But this resulted in some lost juices.  The burger juices dripped off the lettuce leaves and onto our plates, instead of being soaked up by the bottom bun.  That's just not right.  Part of what makes a burger a burger is that the bread gets up close and personal with the meat.
  5. I used 85% lean beef from John Dewar's.  I am not even sure if it was 85% based on how it looked.  To my surprise even this upscale butcher couldn't grind me the cuts of my choice to make it fattier?  They claimed that they can only grind chuck because they don't want to contaminate their grinder.  Apparently their chuck is washed with a "citrus solution" to kill E. Coli since it's intended for grinding, but other cuts aren't washed.  I tried to get more info about this "citrus solution," but couldn't get anything out of them.  I got their ground chuck anyway thinking that sous-vide would keep a lot more juices than a regular cooking method.  That turned out not to be true (at least at 140F).  A lot of juice and fat leaked out of the burgers during the water bath time.  So next time, I am going to Roche Brothers and getting myself 80% ground beef.  It will have a bright red sticker that will say "Cook to 160F."  But now that I have my beer cooler, E. Coli can't scare me.
P.S.  Please note that this method is not for everyone.  If you are not comfortable with cooking techniques that require a lot of attention and precision, please don't try this.  There are many factors involved here: accuracy of your thermometer, size and insulation of your cooler, how many burgers you are cooking, etc.  If you've never cooked anything with sous-vide method, you should first try it on something like a steak to get a feel for how it works.  Please don't send me e-mails saying that at some point, you lost track of time and the temperature in the cooler dropped to 125F and then ask me if that burger is safe to eat.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cooking fish in advance and fast weekday dinners

Just got an excellent question from Kelly, one of my students.
I have a follow-up question from yesterday's fish class. I often cook on the weekend and freeze meals for use during the week. Are there any considerations to keep in mind when freezing/storing cooked fish?
Just don't do it! There is no way to freeze cooked fish, rewarm it, and have it taste decent. But here is what you can do. Cook extra fish on a weekend, and turn leftovers into fish burgers/cakes, salads, escabeche, appetizers, pâtés, fajitas, sandwiches, etc. Once cooked, fish will last in your fridge for up to 4 days, so that's dinners for most of the week.

I sometimes eat fish leftovers cold (depending on the dish). But never ever put fish to warm up in the microwave. You'll stink up your whole house.

Also keep in mind that most fish fillets cook in 5-10 minutes, so warming them up from a frozen state isn't any faster than cooking them. What I would do is cut fish into portions over the weekend and make something simple when you get home, like salmon teriyaki or trout in almonds (you might want to chop the nuts over the weekend). If you froze your pre-portioned fish, put it in the fridge the night before you plan to cook it to defrost. Just remember to only freeze fatty fish (salmon, arctic char, trout, bluefish, sable, etc.) and try not to keep it frozen for more than a month.

Another way to speed things up is to make all your herb butters, nuts, sauces, etc. over the weekend. The tomato sauce for swordfish can be used on most fish (except for maybe the salmon family) and a basic herb butter can go with absolutely anything. Then all you have to do before serving is dry the fish, sprinkle with salt and pepper and sear in a skillet (pop in the oven to finish for really thick fillets). You can garnish with herb butters, tomato sauce, different pestos, etc (but all those can be made over the weekend and don't need freezing).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Measuring spoons: the good, the bad, and the ugly

I get a huge number of questions about cooking equipment in my classes and for a good reason. What pan you use to make a sauce, and what knife you use to slice your onions makes a difference. Students had asked about everything before: knives, boards, skillets, dutch ovens, food processors, meat thermometer, and zesters. One thing no one had ever asked me about was measuring spoons. To tell you the truth, I've never wondered about them either. How exactly can they be good or bad? All they have to do is measure, and surely they are standard. At least that's what I thought until a few weeks ago.

I needed another set of measuring spoons for the Rustic Italian Baking class to avoid having students waiting for equipment during the practice part of the class. I asked Jason to pick up a set at Target for me. This is the teaspoon from the set he got.

This is the teaspoon from the set I normally use.

When I tried to use the new 1 tsp measure on salt (Diamond Crystal Kosher) using the standard scoop-and-level-off-with-a-straight-edge method, the amount seemed too small to me, so out of curiosity, I pulled out a scale and weighed 1 tsp of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt that I got with my old spoon (round in shape) and the new spoon (flat in shape).

Round shape spoon: 1 tsp DCK salt weighed 2.81 g
Flat shape spoon: 1 tsp DCK salt weighed 1.57g

In other words, one spoon was giving me almost twice as much salt as the other. Shocked by this difference, I was guessing it was due to the coarse nature of my salt. So I decided to try some other substances using 1 tsp measure from 3 sets. Here are my findings.

Table Salt (measured by scooping and leveling with a straight edge)

Teaspoon #1: 5.93g
Teaspoon #2: 6.28g
Teaspoon #3: 3.34g
Official weight: 6g

Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (measured by scooping and leveling with a straight edge)

Teaspoon #1: 2.81g
Teaspoon #2: 2.88g
Teaspoon #3: 1.57g
Official weight: 2.8g

Water (measured by scooping to fill the spoon to the brim)

Teaspoon #1: 5.68g
Teaspoon #2: 5.07g
Teaspoon #3: 4.39g
Official weight: 5g

For measuring liquid ingredients, the flat spoon was at least in the ballpark. But with the dry ingredients, it wasn't even close to the official weight for either the small grained or large grained salt.

So what's the big deal? Will a little more or less minced parsley hurt your dish? Of course, not. And if you are measuring parsley with measuring spoons, you need to relax and just start throwing it in. But what if your cake asks for 1 tsp of baking powder or your bread asks for 1 tsp salt and what you are putting in is half of what the recipe intended without even suspecting it? That's huge, my friends! Unless you are the kind of baker who is happy just because the house smells good, you'll be very disappointed with the results.

What can you do about it?

Get measuring spoons that are deep and round in shape, avoid anything flat or interesting looking. The next piece of advice is only applicable to serious bakers and/or geeky engineering types. Buy a scale that can measure small amounts. Mine is a cheapy little tea scale. So it only costs about $15 (that's not even double what any decent set of measuring spoons costs).

Very few recipes will give you the weight of salt, yeast, and other small ingredients, but you can look this info up in any good bread baking book (The Bread Bible by Rose Beranbaum is my favorite -- she even gives weight for small ingredients in each recipe). For a few years, I thought that all her recipes were under-salted. I knew she was using fine sea salt, and I was using Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. I accounted for it by doubling the amount of salt (that's what Cook's Illustrated tells you to do to go between table and DCK), but it turns out to be an even bigger difference than that. 1 tsp of DCK is 2.8 grams. 1 tsp of table salt is 6 grams, and 1 tsp of Rose's salt is 6.6 grams. So, for every teaspoon that the recipe called for, I was a gram short even after doubling the volume amount. Is that a noticeable difference? Oh yes! It's about 30% less salt and 30% less flavor than intended. I adjusted this amount eventually, but must have made at least 10 recipes where the first attempt came out awfully bland.

I made myself a little table of ingredients commonly measured in teaspoons using Rose's book.

1 tsp instant yeast = 3.2 grams
1 tsp baking powder = 4.9 grams
1 tsp baking soda = 5 grams
1 tsp cream of tartar = 3.1 grams

Her salt measurement in the back of the book puzzles me. She doesn't specify the type of salt and says that 1 tsp salt = 5.7 grams. That's not the conversion she uses in her recipes though. So here is my salt conversion:

1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt = 2.8 grams
1 tsp Table salt = 6 grams
1 tsp Rose's salt = 6.6 grams (I include this for myself because I use her book so much :)

Note that Morton's Kosher salt is a whole other animal and is not comparable in weight to DCK.

Salt is a painful topic. Considering that we are a country scared to death of salt, I am amazed that we need so many different types. Life would be so much easier if we could just decide on what the word "salt" means in a recipe. The food writers just threw up their hands in the last 10-20 years and now call for "Salt to taste" or "generous pinch of salt." In baking recipes, that doesn't work and they still call for a particular volume amount without always specifying the salt type, or saying something wishy-washy like "finely ground sea salt." But 5 grams of one salt are just as salty as 5 grams of another salt, and that's good to know.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How to Slice an Onion (Video)

From the award winning director and producer of "My Dirty Skillet," Helen Rennie and Janet Bucceri, comes this new documentary on slicing onions.

Let me address the issues not addressed in this video:

Where do you get a good chef's knife and how do you keep it sharp?
Here is my favorite knife. Yes, it's under $30. A good knife doesn't have to be expensive.
Here is how to keep it sharp.

Can you go over the claw grip?
Ah, the claw grip -- most home cooks have heard of it, yet very few home cooks do it correctly. Since you need to know how to do it no matter what you slice or dice (carrot, celery, onion, red pepper, bok choy, etc), I thought it deserves it's own little video. I'll work on it as soon as I can.

Friday, June 4, 2010

How to Wash a Stainless Steel Skillet

Ken Burns might have "Jazz," "The War," and "The National Parks," but I have "My Dirty Skillet" -- the hottest new documentary taking the world of cinematography by storm.

You know how I always tell you about the joys of stainless steel cookware in class and you always tell me about the pain and suffering of scrubbing these pans for half an hour? Janet Bucceri (my lovely assistant) and I try to persuade you guys that a stainless steel skillet can take less than a minute to clean if you know a few tricks, but you often have a skeptical look on your face.

Our dynamic duo has teamed up to bring you this unabridged video that is intended to make a stainless steel convert out of you. I wrote the script, and played the lead role in this exciting drama. Janet provided her cinematography talent to bring out the natural beauty of this narrative.

I am sure NPR will be calling any moment now for an interview, but I thought you guys deserve the first question and answer session.

Q: What did you cook in the pan before filming?
A: Skirt steak. It was the movie crew's lunch.

Q: Did you go easy on dirtying that pan since you knew you'll have to scrub it on camera?
A: Are you kidding me? I did everything I don't normally do: overheat the oil, leave empty spots in the pan to create as much splatter as possible, and leave the dirty pan to sit for at least an hour before starting to clean it. The fan could barely keep up.

Q: Are you planning a sequel?
A: Most likely. We do it Star Wars style. What you saw is episode 2: how to clean an extremely dirty pan, and we are thinking episode 1 might be in order: how do you prevent your pan from getting so burnt up in the first place, avoid fire alarms, and keep those brown bits yummy instead of bitter. We'll have to come up with a slightly shorter title.

Q: Do you have any questions for your viewers?
A: Yes! When do you guys watch this stuff? In my office day job days, I used to keep up with the world of food media at work. You are sitting there bored in your cube... what better thing to do than browse epicurious or catch up on your favorite food blogs. But when you are playing a video, doesn't the rest of your office know that you are goofing off? They probably are too, but at least they are doing it quietly. So, what's your strategy? Do you wear head phones? Or do you watch this stuff at home?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beer cooler sous-vide

When students ask what famous food people I like, my answer inevitable disappoints them.

Alton Brown -- sorry guys, he is all fluff. Sure, he talks about science (most of which is regurgitation of Harold McGee). The problem is his recipes produce mediocre results. That's because cooking is more like engineering. It's a complex system with many variables and requires a lot of testing to optimize results.

Anthony Bourdain -- just because you can curse well, doesn't mean you can cook well. Actually, he probably can cook quite well, just doesn't bother to test his recipes.

Giada De Laurentiis -- with a cleavage like that, even a box of pasta can look interesting.

Jamie Oliver -- take a wild guess.

I don't mean to insult all these people. They might be all wonderful cooks, but whatever food TV executives make them do is not my thing. I don't know them personally and I've never tasted their food. I have either had a misfortune of watching them on TV (usually on the plane or in someone else's house) or trying some of their recipes. Both experiences were less than pleasant.

As you can see, I pick my culinary heros very very carefully. In fact, I can count them on one hand: Julia Child, Judy Rodgers, Rose Beranbaum, and Kenji Alt. I can trace almost every cooking and baking epiphany to one of those four. What they all have in common is empowering us, home cooks, to succeed. Their goal is not to entertain us, or to wow us with their skills, or to inspire us to finally cook something instead of ordering take out. If they accomplish these goals, it's only as side effects. I did pick up a lot of practical skills by working in a professional kitchen, but it is those four that made my home cooking taste better than most restaurant meals.

I am writing this post to tell you about yet another cool thing Kenji has come up with: how to bring sous-vide to home kitchens without breaking the bank. The same thing I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. But Kenji has a way of doing exactly what I want to do; only easier, cheaper and better.

If you'd like to find out what sous-vide method is all about, you can check my previous post on the topic. Here is how Kenji solves the challenging parts:

Getting air out of zip lock bags -- slowly submerge the bag with food into water. It will push most of the air out and then you can zip it.

Maintaining temperature for about 2 hours -- use a beer cooler! It's just as good at keeping foods hot as it is at keeping them cold. Pour your water a few degrees higher than your desired doneness temperature to allow for the temperature drop when the food goes in. This only works well for large coolers. A small cooler will drop the temperature a lot faster. But even a huge cooler is still very affordable. I would set up a little water test before doing it with food. But once you know your cooler's behavior, you don't have to fuss.

You are still limited to only "quick" cooking sous-vide items like fish, eggs, and tender cuts of meat and poultry. But now you don't have to regulate the temperature of the pot every 10 minutes or try to submerge a bag that wants to float.

Thank you to my two readers who brought these tips to my attention: Ern and David G. Sometimes I fall behind on food reading and it's so helpful when you guys let me know about the good stuff. And thank you to Kenji for yet another great idea!

Some of you were asking for specific recipes to try. I am still working on writing mine up, but here are some from Kenji that were posted at Serious Eats site: