Archive for the ‘Food Advice’ Category

Except when intentionally put there such as salted caramel desserts, finishing salts on soups, snacks such as chips and pretzels, or other uses deemed necessary by the chef, I want everyone to know that

Salt is not meant to be a flavor! Put down the shaker and walk away slowly!

Let me explain. When I was growing up, my kitchen table played host to a napkin holder with a salt and pepper shaker. My guess is your home might also have this or at least you grew up in a similar environment. Whenever dinner came around – and sometimes breakfast – the salt and pepper shakers were passed around to each person who would apply the “correct” amount of salt to their food. This was normal to me as my parents did it who grew up in homes where that was normal. The cycle has probably continued on for generations. But none of it was ever correct. In fact, the salt shaker need not have ever been anywhere near the table.

Among a host of other roles, salt is a flavor enhancer. When used properly in the kitchen, a small amount can boost the flavor of the ingredients inside the dish. You should never actually be able to taste the salt, but the flavors that explode in your mouth would otherwise be pretty dull without it. When added to the cooking process, the chemical makeup of the sodium attaches itself to the molecules in the food. When eaten, these molecules stimulate the salt receptors of your tongue which sends a pleasant good taste signal to your brain. When simply added on top, salt never has an opportunity to attach itself and change the chemical composition of the food your cooking, it just masks the flavor.

If you find yourself constantly adding salt to your food because it tastes pretty bland without it, that just means that you didn’t use enough salt when cooking it. Sure, you can use too much and completely ruin your meal, but you will actually add more salt to your food by shaking it on top than if you added it to your food to begin with. This is one of the hardest things to learn when cooking, but learning how to properly season your food before and during the cooking process is one of the more effective methods of reducing your salt intake and improving your health.

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How do you know what to order when you go to a restaurant?

One group of people might tell you that you should ask the server for their recommendations. This can sometimes yield wonderful results as most wait staff sample every dish on the menu. They also have served these dishes countless times to people and know what other diners have favored. However, this can also yield some pretty tragic results. Sometimes, wait staff are told to push certain menu items because the meat is about to turn or the seafood is starting to smell a little fishy. That seafood “special” on Sunday exists because the fish was delivered on Friday and dolling it up as a special and/or covered with sauce is a good way to fool diners into ordering it. Your server may also have a side bet with the other staff as to who can sell the most of a certain item.*

Some of the other methods I’ve heard from other people include ordering what they “know” they’ll like, looking around the room at other diner’s plates, reading reviews online, trusting food critics, or if it’s a first date, ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. While these can yield positive results, there is a simpler philosophy that may make it much easier.

Never – ever – order chicken at a steakhouse. Never order meat at a seafood place, don’t order salad when there are crates of towelettes (wet naps) in the back, and by no means should you order sushi at a French restaurant.

Every restaurant will do one cuisine really well. Nine times out of ten, if you stick with this cuisine, you’ll probably choose something really good. If you order pasta at a pub or diet food at a diner, you may be gravely disappointed with your meal and condemn the restaurant forever. This even applies to restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King. Sure, they have grilled chicken sandwiches and apple slices, but nothing can beat their burgers and fries.

There is one exception to my rule and it shouldn’t need to be stated, but one I feel that I must cover. If the restaurant your eating at has a giant menu encompassing multiple types of cuisine, perhaps from around the world (hint: the menu will have laminated pages and may be bound), you’re on your own. I can only recommend the water. The rest is dealers choice.

*Note: Making wagers on customer orders is a widely held practice in the restaurant business. It’s one of the ways we keep ourselves sane.

CC:00

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Food Advice
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I always wondered who first started saying, “Cool,” “That’s Whack,” or added “-izzle” to the end of random words before these phrases were used by every member of a particular generation. I’m sure some realm of academia has documented who is responsible for making these things popular, but I think it is much more impressive to be the first regardless if you get the credit. Sadly, it’s likely that these creators probably went mad trying to convince everyone that they were saying something way before everyone else, but that’s besides the point.

As fate would have it, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the person who first started using the acronym CC:00 to indicate when it was time to take a break from work and enjoy a tasty treat with friends and family. What started first as an inside joke and a ploy to get people to visit her at her office (with cupcakes in hand) has quickly yielded a local following. Here is its entry from Urban Dictionary:

The way I see it, if the English can take a break in the afternoon for tea, then Americans can take a break anytime the mood strikes for a cupcake. So the next time your having a sugar craving, post this on your favorite social networking site and encourage your friends and family to join you for Cupcake Hour. How can this not be a good idea?

My favorite neighborhood gem in New York was this little sushi place on W Houston St, Ushiwakamaru (Warning: not for the sushi beginner). It’s plainly decorated, and there is no attempt to create any kind of typical restaurant atmosphere, but the food is incredibly delicate and you can’t beat the service.

While eating a late dinner, the sushi chef told me that he spent an entire year learning how to sharpen his knives and slice vegetables. Only when he was able to cut a cucumber into a 10 foot tall paper thin sheet was he able to begin touching the fish. This isn’t bad considering he spent a year and a half before this making rice. This kind of disciplined training is common among sushi masters and something I revere. If you’ve never been to a sushi restaurant, I can tell you that the best seat in the house is not the one you have to tip to Maitre’D for, but it’s sitting right at the bar so you can watch the chefs at work.

With this is mind, today begins Sushi Week! Each day will feature a new roll or appetizer that I have come to know and love. However, I would never leave you stranded on Culinary Island, so in hopes of getting you started, below are two important but basic sushi techniques that you will need to know: making rice and rolling a maki roll.

Making Rice

Rolling a Maki Roll (You can tell this chef has been doing this forever).

Now that you’ve got a better idea of the basics, check out my easy to follow guides for a California Roll, Spicy Salmon Roll, an adaptation to a Spider Roll, and a beautiful Avocado Ball appetizer with grilled shrimp and tuna..

Maple syrup is serious business in New England. In the fourth grade, my class took a trip to a working Sugar House in Northern New Hampshire. They brought us through each stage of the process, teaching us about how to tap trees, how to boil it forever until it becomes something else, and then how to process it in copper pots and then do more stuff to it…well I don’t exactly remember everything. But, what I do remember was at the end of the trip, we were treated to pancakes topped with freshly made Grade A, light amber, nectar of gods maple syrup. I couldn’t help but act like Oliver Twist and say, “Please sir, I want some more.” At the Sugar House, these requests were never denied.

Like many households, I was brought up with Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth. Their happy faces always meant that pancakes were coming and I couldn’t have been happier. But what was actually contained in those bottles and why didn’t they taste anything like I had on my field trip? I would not investigate this question for more than 15 years.

Here is a picture of the ingredients section from the back of an Aunt Jemima original maple syrup bottle.

What I’m wondering is: what part of this comes from a maple tree? Here’s a breakdown of what all these ingredients are:

Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup: these are sweeteners made from maize (that’s right, I said maize) and are one of the most commonly used ingredients in all American processed foods.

Water: If you don’t know, you’re probably a zombie.

Cellulose Gum: “cellulose derivative with carboxymethyl groups (-CH2-COOH) bound to some of the hydroxyl groups of the glucopyranose monomers that make up the cellulose backbone.” That doesn’t sound like it comes from nature, but it does. This is a vegetable based stabilizer so the ingredients don’t all fall apart and let you in on the secret that this isn’t maple syrup.

Caramel Color: because a mixture of corn syrup and water would not be the same color as maple syrup, they add food dye to make us believe. Oh the horror!

Salt: my nickname in middle school (that I couldn’t shake until well after high school. Chemically, you know this as NaCl. For this, salt is used as a flavor enhancer.

Sodium Benzoate and Sorbic Acid: at least here they tell you they are preservatives so the bottles can sit on supermarket shelves for years before expiring.

Artificial and Natural Flavors: the secret blend of aromas to fool us into thinking this is maple syrup. Clever.

Sodium Hexametaphosphate: this is actually used in lots of foods, but most commonly it is used as a protein stabilizer or emulsifier.

Yes, pure maple syrup is much more expensive. But I can also tell you that a little goes a long way and your $13 jug of pure maple syrup can last just as long as the bottles of corn syrup and caramel coloring. For the money, my pancakes are topped with pure maple all the way. This stuff above, I used for marinades.

So readers, how do you prefer your pancakes?

I was recently faced with a choice. Pay $21 per pound for shucked crab meat or pay $6 per pound for a live crab. I decided that this would make for an excellent opportunity to determine if it’s better to buy the entire animal or let someone else do the work.

This is a dungeness crab purchased at my local fish market. I didn’t have the heart to do the deed myself, so I asked them to steam the crab for me.

This crab weighed in at around 1.25 pounds for a total cost of $7.79. After removing the shell from the crab and extracting the meat, I was left with about 2/5 pound of actual meat. And yes, before you think of it, I did remember to zero out the scale first. After some rough calculations, this amounts to $19.38 per pound. That’s nearly what it would have cost me to buy the meat alone!

Of course, there are advantages to buying fresh seafood. You can prepare it yourself, the presentation is 10X better, you know the meat hasn’t been sitting around for long periods of time. But, for me, the amount of time saved by not having to shell the crab and remove the meat is well worth sacrificing these benefits. I say the next time you’re in the mood for shellfish, consider going to your local fish market and buy the meat alone.

Note: my one exception comes in the form of soft shell crabs. If you ever come across these lovelies, do not hesitate to buy a few for your family. They are delicious breaded, fried, and eaten whole.

Today is the last day of Memorial Day weekend. Growing up, this was about the time that every kid in school began to get summer fever (a constant itching that forces you to dream about being anywhere but the classroom) as those final days of school approached. As an educator, I can tell you that summer fever is not isolated to students alone. I think they put something in the water or the cardboard pizza they serve for lunch. 

For culinary enthusiasts, though, Memorial Day usually means that local Farmers Markets will be starting, bringing fresh products directly from the farm to the table. Here are my top five reasons why you should head to a Farmers Market near you.

5. They’re fun. This sounds odd, but going to a Farmers Market is just as entertaining as a county fair, a day at the park, or an art exhibit. There are crowds of people from all walks of life, the sun shines on your shoulders, and you can spend an hour or two filtering through the various tents, talking with the farmers about their products and picking up some tremendous deals. What I enjoy most, though, is the selection is ever changing and different farms will show up on different weekends. Need more convincing of the fun? It’s more enjoyable than a trip to a florescent lit supermarket crowded with sweaty, BO riddled people.

4. You’ll find things that you can’t in a grocery store. Farmers are resourceful people and often sell artisan style goods such as honey, flowers, teas, and bread that are superior in quality and can only be found out of their farms. Best of all, farmers grow things that grocery stores don’t keep in their produce section because the mass market can’t / won’t support it. I bought callaloo (a Caribbean green) last season on a recommendation from the farmer, and it blew my mind. As a side note, don’t be afraid of purple vegetables; purple carrots and potatoes taste the same, but have additional nutrional value.

3. Supporting farmers is better for the environment. You know that produce that’s in your crisper right now? It was probably shipped from more than 100 or maybe even 1000 miles away just to get to your table. That means more fuel burned to get it from there to where you are. Buy local and save the environment one CO2 molecule at a time.

2. Farmers and their families get the money directly. Farmers market wipe out the middleman and let you purchase directly from the source. That means more money for the farmer and less money for the corporations who give six figure bonuses to their executives for putting small farms out of business. From a humanitarian stand point, the extra couple of cents a pound you spend on buying fresh, organic local produce at the Farmers Market is worth every penny.

1. The food just tastes better when its fresh. Most anything you purchase from a Farmers Market was picked, baked, or made within a matter of days. The sooner food comes out of the ground or the oven and onto your plate, the better it tastes. And occasionally, a real life, honest to goodness fisherman will be at the market. Ignore the price per pound and treat yourself. Seafood will never taste as good!

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If you don’t know where to find a Farmers Market near you, head to Local Harvest or Culinate (the farmers market finder is on the right side of the main page, halfway down). Local Harvest has proven incredibly valuable in locating fresh produce and products even in the winter months. For some Farmers Markets, they provide a list of when certain produce and goods will be available and on which days.

Culinate is updated a little more frequently and provides a comprehensive list of Farmers Markets on a handy Google Map display and will give you driving directions in a few short clicks. I find this one a little more user friendly, but why use only one site, when two are twice as good.