Archive for Dinner

How to pan-steam like a pro

You probably already know that steaming is a great way to cook vegetables because it helps them retain nutrients and adds no fat. It’s also fast and super easy.

If steaming has one transgression, though, it’s that it doesn’t add flavor.  When you’re depending on steam from boiling water to cook food held aloft in a basket, the flavor is ultimately dependent on the item being cooked. Begin with a rather plain veggie like cauliflower, for example, and you’ll end with up with a vegetable that is indeed softer and easier to chew, but whose flavor isn’t greatly enhanced.

Luckily, there’s a special method of steaming that is just as easy as the traditional one, yet offers much more flexibility when it comes to resulting flavor and what ends up on the plate. It’s even got a cool name that will make you sound like a kitchen rock star: pan steaming.

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How to make tortillas terrific

I’m an unabashed lover of Mexican food, and in my house, burritos, tacos and quesadillas are among my favorite things to make when I’m short on time and meal ideas. I know I’m not alone. Aside from the sheer variety of stuff you can wrap inside a tortilla – from the ubiquitous beans and cheese to grilled shrimp in a cilantro-lime dressing – these Mexican-food staples are popular far beyond our border because they are inexpensive and a cinch to make.

But while many of us focus on the innards of our tacos, burritos and quesadillas, too often the tortilla itself – that all-important culinary housing – is an afterthought. If you’re prone to wrapping your favored ingredients in a flour or corn tortilla that’s simply been microwaved or not even heated at all, know that there is one more step you can take that works miracles in moments. It all begins with the wrapping.

For the best flavor, texture and pliability, tortillas need to be heated properly before being used and eaten. And that really isn’t in a microwave, which can make them rubbery. If you skip heating altogether, tortillas tend to be stiff and fall apart in your hands. And no one wants a lapful of burrito filling.

For the solution, look to your stove, which can heat tortillas one of two ways: in a pan or directly over a flame.

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How to roast vegetables

When it comes to roasting, meaty dishes usually steal the show. Almost all of us have enjoyed a hot-out-of-the-oven Thanksgiving turkey, juicy prime rib or flavorful and flaky salmon fillet.

But roasting needn’t be relegated to meat, poultry and fish. The same properties of roasting that impart so much flavor to those protein-rich dishes work wonders for vegetables, too.

The easiest way to roast is in an oven, which uses hot air as the main vehicle to cook food. (You could also call this “baking,” though that term is often used in reference to breads, pastries and meat without bones. For our purpose here, either word is safe, but “roasting” sounds more appetizing, no?) Roasting yields vegetables that are firm yet not hard, browned and visually interesting, and that taste so much more potent than when steamed or simmered.

When you roast, you actually concentrate flavors inward, vs. leeching them out. For example, when you simmer meat or vegetables in water, many of the flavors and nutrients go into that water. That’s great if you’re making broth or stock, but it’s wasted if you don’t use the liquid.

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Easy recipe: Scrumptious split pea soup

Bean-based soups are amazing for their nutritional value and the sheer comfort they provide, not to mention that they cost so little to make. The problem with making most legume soups from scratch is the amount of time it takes to soak the beans – usually overnight – and then cook them, which can take hours more. If you don’t do it properly, instead of a soft bean, you’ll risk biting into something as hard as a rock.

Split pea soup doesn’t have these issues. Like lentils, the beauty of split peas is that they cook quickly – about 45 minutes – and require no soaking beforehand. Yet they pack plenty of fiber and protein, and about zero fat. Add the soup’s earthy taste and warm-your-belly satisfaction, and split pea is a winner. It’s also very cost-effective and can be tailored to a variety of tastes. You can buy a 1-pound bag of dried split peas in just about any grocery store for around $2 or less. The soup can be made vegetarian style or, for even more flavor, can include crisp, rendered bacon bits or a traditional ham hock.

While water can be used as the base liquid, I prefer broth or stock since it adds flavor. You can use chicken, vegetable, even turkey or beef broth, or a combination thereof.

[SEE HOW TO MAKE STOCK]

I like to mix low-sodium chicken broth and vegetable broth for mine. Furthermore, I bolster my split pea with potatoes, carrots and onions and garlic. The result is a big pot of soup that can feed an army.

If making homemade soup has daunted you all these years, start with split pea, and start right here.

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Recipe: Homemade cheese biscuits

It’s true: Some foods have a near-global appeal. No matter where you’re from or what your food preferences are, they speak the universal language of delicious.

Oftentimes these culinary all-stars are rather simple, and shine not just because they taste good, but because they have other inherently likable characteristics as well, such as an agreeable texture and ease of handling. One such food that immediately comes to my mind is the biscuit.

These simple, puffy clouds of carbohydrate goodness have a seemingly magical quality about them. Through the centuries they have been found everywhere from the sacks of traveling peasants to gilded baskets atop linen tablecloths.

They can be savory or sweet, and only get better when teamed with condiments such as butter, honey or gravy. Biscuits are also special in that they can be had for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack; eaten as a side; or, when cut in half, used for a sandwich.

When I told a colleague that I’d be making some, he asked if I use Bisquick. My eyes immediately shot daggers.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a last-minute survival guide

Here it is upon us once again and all too soon: Thanksgiving.

You know what that means? Well of course it signals several helpings of turkey and a tryptophan-induced coma in front of the television soon after.  It also means that those other holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and  Chrismukkah — are just a blink away.

As things in the kitchen move into high gear, it’s good to slow down and remember to enjoy the process. If you can think of what you are doing as an expression of love instead of a load of work, it will make the day that much more enjoyable.

It’s also a good time to remind about basic kitchen safety of the fowl variety. Undercooked turkey, as we all know, does not make for good eats or safe eats. Here are some tips and facts to remember if you are cooking the bird yourself in the oven:

  • Be sure it’s thawed, but don’t do it at room temperature. Ideally, a frozen bird should have several days in the fridge to thaw, about a day for every four pounds. If you’re in a pinch, you can thaw the bird quicker by covering it in cold water, unopened in its wrapper. If you do it this way, be sure to change the water frequently, every half hour or so.
  • Before cooking the turkey, clear the cavity of the various parts we call giblets. Rinse the whole bird with cool water inside and out, pat dry, then proceed with seasoning, similar to roasting a whole chicken.
  • 325 degrees is the recommended oven cooking temperature from the experts at Butterball. A 10-18 pound bird will take from 3 to 4 1/2 hours. One as big as 24 pounds will take more than 5 hours. The general rule of thumb is about 12 minutes per pound for an unstuffed bird. Cook it breast side up.
  • The bird is done when it hits 180 degrees, as measured with a thermometer in the thigh. (Note: The USDA will let you get by at 165, but it’s better to be safe than sorry if you’re new at this.) And be sure to let it rest at least 15 minutes before you go carvin’ to let the juices recirculate.
  • For beginning cooks, I don’t recommend stuffing the bird, since this can increase your chances of picking up salmonella. The reason is, by the time the stuffing reaches the proper temperature — 165 degrees — the rest of the turkey can dry out. Make the stuffing on the stove and save yourself the headache and the risk.
  • Remember to thoroughly clean and sanitize absolutely anything that has come into contact with raw turkey before it touches anything else. That includes cutting boards, knives and your hands.
  • Toward the end of cooking, if the wings and skin are browning too much before the turkey is done, cover them loosely with foil.
  • If you want to brine your turkey, see my guide to brining.
  • If you need help cooking your turkey the day of, call the Butterball Talk Line, that famous line of yearly communication in which turkey experts will talk you through any Thanksgiving dinner anguish. The number is 1-800-BUTTERBALL, or 1-800-288-8372.
  • More helpful info can be found at butterball.com or here at fosterfarms.com.

If you’re not making the main event, remember there are plenty of other sides you can put together quickly and easily. The host will love you for it, too. Here are links to some on this site, with step-by-step photos on how to make them:

Remember to relish the day and don’t stress about the food. In the end, the most important thing at the table are the friends and family gathered.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Brining brings out the best in a bird

Confession: Much of my high school senior year was spent at the beach. During class hours. Yes, while I should have been absorbing formal education, I and a group of friends were instead absorbing sun, sand and most of all the ocean. We never skipped the whole day – just some selected classes we decided we’d rather not attend, or perhaps we were just dealing with teen angst the best way we knew how.

Our thinking was that nature’s saline solution that we knew as the Pacific could cure all life’s ills. And magically, somehow that saltwater did indeed make us feel better every time we took a dip.

Turns out, at least from a culinary standpoint, we were on to something. Saltwater really is magical stuff. While each component alone has too many uses to mention in the kitchen – water is used for everything from steaming to making stocks, and salt for everything from preserving to insulating – when used in tandem, they work a magic all their own.

Water mixed with salt is known as a brine, and it’s a classic way of making food flavorful even before the cooking process begins. Brining becomes especially popular this time of year because of Thanksgiving, when the process is used for turkeys.

If you’ve ever had a turkey that’s been brined, you probably already know the results: a bird that is moist and exceptionally flavorful, traits that brines help create. All done ever so simply by submerging food for hours in water and salt (you can experiment with other seasonings, too, from brown sugar to peppercorns).

Yet I sense your hesitation. “What if I get this whole brining thing wrong on the big day? Domino’s may not be able to rescue me if somehow I end up with a waterlogged turkey.”

No worries. Here’s what we’re going to do: practice. And not on a turkey, but something smaller and more manageable: a chicken.

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Everything’s better with cheddar

Here it is, the finale of this three-part I Want To Cook miniseries. Three weeks ago we used fat and flour to make a roux, traditionally used to thicken soups, stews and the kind of sauce we made last week, a béchamel. Now we’ll use those foundations to build our latest and last creation: a dynamite cheddar cheese sauce.

With this sauce, the options are limitless. Yes, it’s the magic spread that will get kids and adults alike to eat broccoli. Bring some chips to the party and you have an instant dip. Or you can use it to make the greatest mac and cheese of your life.

The real beauty about this whole endeavor, though, is that you can tailor it to your liking. Not a fan of cheddar? Use Parmesan or another Italian-style cheese to make a mock Alfredo that would be at home over pasta.

Love the idea of fondue but not big on wine? This can be your ticket to dipping bliss. Or perhaps you like it spicy. If that’s the case, throw in some jalapenos and a pinch of cayenne powder: That will wake up those nachos.

With béchamel as a foundation, all this is possible. The sauce is needed for the cheese to incorporate, because, as I unfortunately learned at a very young age, you can’t just throw a bunch of cheese in a pot, turn on the heat and expect it to melt. I think we’re still trying to get the burn remnants off that pan.

For now we’ll make a quick cheddar sauce from our béchamel. I use 4 cups of grated mild cheddar, but again, let your taste and senses be the guide. Use more for a stronger sauce, less for a milder one. This sauce is best used immediately. If you have to reheat, do it gently in a pot or in a microwave, stirring often.

Here’s how to make it happen, including the last two weeks’ instructions for roux and béchamel.

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Roux is the root of great recipes

Learning to cook is kind of like learning to read in that, once you have the foundations down, you can create just about anything.

If you’ll go with this analogy, you can think of roux as a single word. In communications, a word by itself may not do much, but combined with others, it can help make a literary masterpiece.

Roux (say, “roo”) by itself isn’t much, but it lays a foundation for much greater things. Roux is just flour and fat cooked together. The flour is usually white wheat flour such as the all-purpose kind you use for making pancakes and other staples, and the fat can be just about anything: butter, vegetable oil, bacon grease or drippings from other meat.

Roux is not meant to be eaten by itself. Rather, it is used to thicken recipes such as soups, stews and gravies. In culinary school, roux is among the first things you make, and from there you learn to use it in dishes that may require some time to make, but are among some of the most flavorful on the planet, among them the kind of mac ‘n cheese you see above.

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5 steps to perfect pasta

In the culinary universe, pasta should be as easy to make as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But if you’ve ever ended up with noodles that are flaccid and flavorless, something has gone awry. Many of us have been there. In fact, when I’m giving personal cooking lessons, I’m continually amazed at how many people bemoan the fact that their pasta never tastes quite right.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And after reading this, you’ll be equipped to make perfect pasta every time. Yes, the two main steps for turning dry, Italian-style pasta into a meal are boiling water and submerging the noodles. But for the perfect pasta, the devil is in the details. And so is the flavor, texture and even how well those oodles of noodles will hold their sauce.

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