Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cooking in Bad Vacation Rental Kitchens

What vacation rental landlords mean by a well-equipped kitchen is one with a garbage disposal, a dishwasher, a coffee maker, and a toaster -- all useless junk as far as cooking is concerned. I stopped looking through their kitchen cupboards with hope that the next door will hold something useful.  Before I open any of them, I know what I am up against: dull knives, thin cookie sheets, and not a single stainless steel skillet in sight.  Yet sometimes, restaurants pose even more difficulties than a lousy kitchen, especially when eating out with 2 little kids who have numerous allergies. That’s when it’s time for plan B -- creative use of a bad kitchen.

What to bring from home:

Chef’s knife -- get a knife guard or use the box your knife was sold in. It takes up less space than most women’s make up and is the most useful took in the kitchen. If you are flying, check it in.

Salt -- Don’t all vacation rentals have salt? Yes, but it is unlikely to be the salt that you want. I always carry half a cup of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt in a zip lock bag in my purse -- comes in handy when eating in incompetent restaurants as well.

Where to shop and what to buy:

Farmers' markets -- the benefits are obvious, so I’ll focus on limitations. In our pre-children days, we’d structure a vacation day around hitting a certain farmers' market. If that’s your life, I envy you. Any kid will appreciate extra time on the beach or in the park much more than knowing where their carrots come from. If at all convenient, we shop at the farmer’s markets, but we no longer go out of our way.

Trader Joe’s -- If there is a Trader Joe’s in the area, that’s our vacation one stop shopping. Here is what’s usually on our list: olive oil, butter, eggs, milk, yogurt, granola, dry fruit, steel cut oats, wine, onions, garlic, lemons/limes, grains.

Whole Foods -- serves the same purpose at Trader Joe’s. Pros: good meat, fish, and poultry. Cons: also known as Whole Paycheck.

Costco -- sounds like the last place for vacation food shopping. But keep in mind that not everything in Costco is sold in huge packages. If you pick up a roasted chicken, you’ll have lots of meal options with no hassle. We shred it up and add to salads, sandwiches, soups, tacos, etc. Once we saw a particularly good looking tuna steak, sliced it up and served it raw. If you doubt your ability to judge fish, I suggest you sear it for a minute or two on each side. Even the worst teflon pan can handle this task. A large salmon fillet also comes in handy. You can roast the whole thing and use it cold for many dishes in place of roast chicken.

What to cook for breakfast:

Breakfast is the easiest meal to pull off well in a bad kitchen. Our favorite vacation breakfast is steal cut oatmeal -- the decadent kind, made with whole milk and finished with lots of butter. Sometimes we make it savory with a runny egg on top, and sometimes sweet with dry fruit and maple syrup. Eggs are another thing where teflon pans are an accet rather than a liability. Soft boiled, scrambled, sunny-side up are all easy and delicious.

What to cook for meals on the go:

When we are on vacation, many of our meals happen in airports, on the beach, on a hike, etc. That’s where bean and grain salads come in handy. In the end of the this post, I’ll give you a recipe for the quinoa salad I made on our recent vacation, but there is no need to stick with the recipe once you know the basic principle. These salads can include some or all of the following: 
  • quinoa, wild rice, barley, farro, bulgur, or any grain you desire
  • canned beans (365 brand from Whole Foods is good)
  • roasted veggies (no matter how bad your cookie sheets are, roast veggies are almost impossible to ruin)
  • dry fruit (cherries, raisins, apricots)
  • nuts (I don’t include them because of an allergy, but you could)
  • protein (roast chicken or fish)
  • fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, parsley, chives, basil) 
  • olive oil, lemon or lime juice, salt

What to cook for eat-in meals:

Roasted veggies on top of mixed greens
Lentils -- cook in 18 minutes and can be done in the worst pots
Burgers -- do extremely well in teflon pans
Chicken nuggets and fish sticks -- I don't mean the type you buy in the freezer section.  I mean from scratch.  They are easy and work great in teflon pans.
Fish fillets -- teflon is an accett, not a liability with fish

Now that I organized my thoughts on cooking in a bad kitchen, I no longer dread it and hope you won’t either. Want to share your vacation cooking tips?

Quinoa Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Green Beans, and Roast Chicken

Buy pre-washed quinoa for ease of use. The odds of you having a fine mesh sieve necessary to wash it on vacation are slim.

Serves 4

1 cup quinoa (the one in the picture is red, but any color works)
1 ¾ cup water
1 large sweet potato, cut into 1 inch dice
½ red onion, cut crosswise into ½ inch half rings
1 Lb green beans, trimmed, cut into 1.5 inch lengths
¼ cup dry cherries
½ roast chicken, skin and bones removed, meat shredded
¼ cup fresh minced cilantro (or mint, parsley, basil, chives)
1 Tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice, plus more as needed
Olive oil
salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F with a rack on the lowest setting. 
  2. Put quinoa in a medium saucepan, add water and ½ tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or ¼ tsp table). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, clover, and cook for 20 minutes for white quinoa, 25 minutes for red and black. Take off heat and leave covered for 30 minutes. Uncover and let cool till lukewarm. 
  3. Toss sweet potato with salt and oil (it should be generously coated, but not sitting in a pool of oil) and arrange around the outside of a rimmed baking sheet (about 17 x 11 inches) in a single layer. Gently coat onions with oil without separating the half rings and arrange in the middle of the cookie sheet (the middle is cooler and onions cook faster than sweet potatoes). Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook on the bottom rack of the oven until brown on the bottom, 15-20 minutes. Flip to the other side and cook another 5-10 minutes or until sweet potatoes are tender and onions are golden brown. If you feel that the bottom is turning too dark, move the baking sheet to the middle of the oven.  Cool to lukewarm.
  4. Put green beans in a skillet, add 2 Tbsp water, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until most of the water evaporates. Uncover, evaporate remaining water, add about 1 Tbsp olive oil and cook without stirring until the bottom green beans brown. Stir and cook again without disturbing until more green beans brown. When about half of green beans has some color, take off heat. Sprinkle with salt and a squeeze of lemon.  Mix well.  Cool to lukewarm.
  5. In a large bowl, combine quinoa, sweet potatoes, onions, green beans, chicken, cilantro (save until the day of serving if making far in advance), and lemon juice. Mix well and taste. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice. Add more oil if the salad feels dry. Serve or refrigerate. Can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Food Science Class Lab 1: Testing oven temp

The on-line food science class has begun.  Just to clarify: I am taking this class, not teaching it.  Our first lab was to use sugar to test the temperature of our ovens.  Sugar melts at 366F.  So we were instructed to put 1/2 Tbsp of sugar in the oven at 350F, wait 15 minutes to see what happens, and raise the temp by 10 degrees until it melts.  To make things more interesting, I did this experiment in 10 spots (5 spots in the middle of the oven and the same 5 spots in the bottom of the oven).

Here is my sugar at 350F.

Here it is at 325F.

Some of the brown underneath the sugar that didn't melt is leftover sugar from 350F experiment. I tried to scrub it off the foil the best I could, but some of it was stuck and I didn't want to waste a ton more foil. But the bottom left corner is indeed melted even when my knob says 325F.

What was interesting to me was the difference in temperatures from front to back, and middle to bottom of the oven.  Bottom back was the hottest and front middle was the coolest.  My oven is roughly 25-40 degrees off if you average all the spots.  I can't measure it more accurately since my knob only goes in 25 degree increments.  

Since I am a teacher, I couldn't help analyzing the educational value of this exercise.  It does raise awareness about the imprecise nature of most cooking equipment.  It also makes you think out of the box, and helps you realize that a thermometer is not the only way to measure temperature.  But I think the lab fails to demonstrate to students what science is all about.  High school and even most undergraduate science courses taught us that science is mostly made out of formulas.  There are constants, like the melting temperature of sugar and there are variables, like your oven knob.  You plug in the numbers and out comes an answer.  But your ability to plug numbers into formulas is not what makes a good scientist or cook. 

The easiest way to explain a scientific mindset is to show you two types of cooking questions that I get from students.  For privacy purposes, I have changed the names of students and the ingredients in question.

E-mail from John:
My steak is always tough when I grill it.  Can you help me.

E-mail from Jane:
I can't get consistent results with hard boiled eggs.  I start with large eggs out of the fridge.  When I add them to water, I return it to 200F as quickly as possible and then set the timer for 9 minutes (I maintain 200F with a thermometer).  Sometimes, they come out just right -- solid white, solid yolk, no green ring.  Yet, sometimes my yolk is not completely solid.  Can you help me.

I tried to ask John for more information.  What cut of meat did he use?  How thick was the steak?  What was the internal temperature of the steak when it came off the grill?  How long did the steak rest and what was the temperature after resting?  Unfortunately, he couldn't give me any answers and without them, it was hard to pinpoint the problem.

Jane on the other hand gave me a lot of info.  She paid attention to the temperature, the time, the size of the eggs, and the final result.  This made it very easy to help her.  "Large" eggs vary in size tremendously.  There is a minimum size for the egg to be sold as "large," but no maximum size.  I suggested that Jane weigh her eggs to figure out their real size and adjust the timing accordingly.  We added an extra minute of cooking for eggs that were closer to "extra large" size, and the problem was solved.

Jane is thinking like a scientist.  She understands what the variables are and makes careful note of them: time, temperature, egg size.  She is keeping all the variables the same, thus expecting the same result.  Because she observes a different result, she suspects that there is another variable she is not taking into account and is trying to find it.  It turned out it was not another variable, but a wrong assumption.  Jane, of course, knew that the size of the eggs would matter.  But she assumed that all "large" eggs were the same size.  I made that mistake for years.  Being clear about what your assumptions are, what's outside of your control and might result in an error is crucial for good experiment design.  

Drawing good conclusion from data is also important.  After our lab in the food science class where we measured the temperature of our oven, one of the students was so dismayed that he was off by 45 degrees that he thought he needed a new oven.  That's like saying that you need a new carton of "large" eggs because some are larger and some are smaller.  If you know your oven runs hot, it's easy to always set it cooler than the recipe specifies.  What would interest me more is learning the location of the hot spots and cold spots in my oven so that I could use them to my advantage.  It would also be interesting to know if the 45 degree deviation is the same at higher temperatures and lower temperatures.  So, let's not run out to get a new oven just yet, but let's keep asking questions.  

Here is an idea for how this exercise could be changed to help teach science more than formulas.  

Come up with some hypothesis about how your oven works.  Maybe you suspect that the right side is hotter than the left.  Maybe you don't think one on/off cycle is sufficient to preheat it to desired temperature.  Maybe the oven seems to run hot or cold.  Hypothesis is a guess based on preliminary observation.  Set up an experiment to test your hypothesis.  Record your data, assumptions, and possible errors.