Archive for February, 2007

Why I Asked About Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Long-term readers may already realize that I broke my ankle before Thanksgiving, and broke it pretty bad at that. It took two surgeries, two stainless steel plates, and nineteen pins to piece me back together. I’m still not walking smoothly without a cane. It’s not a situation that lends itself to cooking full-time. I will no longer be working in a commercial kitchen, and thus will no longer be surrounded by food all day. In short, I will have to start carrying my lunch to work.


Sustaining Sustainable Agriculture

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

If you’ve never heard of ATTRA, you’re not alone (I hadn’t heard of it until today)—but you’re probably also not a farmer seeking to grow food via environmentally sustainable means. ATTRA is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Center and, as this post from Gristmill explains, is both an indespensible resource for small-scale farmers and on the Congressional budget chopping block. Even if this is the first you’ve heard of the program, the prospect of its loss is something about which you should be concerned.

The value of ATTRA as a resource became apparent to me very quickly upon visiting the site. Each link that I clicked on provided me with a wealth of information about topics that I’ve wondered about even at one of the smallest scales of farming imaginable: the fifteen square foot patch of soil in which I try to grow vegetables in my backyard. Particularly helpful (because it’s a topic that I struggle with and eventually throw my hands in the air in exasparation and surrender over) was the essay on sustainable weed management, which explains the root cause of weeds:

When a piece of land is left fallow, it is soon covered over by annual weeds. If the field is left undisturbed for a second year, briars and brush start to grow. As the fallow period continues, the weed community shifts increasingly toward perennial vegetation. By the fifth year, the field will host large numbers of young trees in a forest region, or perennial grasses in a prairie region. This natural progression of different plant and animal species over time is a cycle known as succession. This weed invasion, in all its stages, can be viewed as nature’s means of restoring stability by protecting bare soils and increasing biodiversity.

The article then goes on to explain in great detail how interspersing a variety of crops will help naturally control weeds’ ability to propogate. Many of the tips are geared toward farmers (not backyard gardeners), but some of the information provided could help even the most lackadaisical gardener (such as the potential benefits of including sunflowers among your other crops). And that’s just the information in one article! The breadth and depth of information available from ATTRA is astounding.

ATTRA would require $2.5 million to continue its work. To put this in context, the USDA’s R & D budget as a whole is $2.4 billion (one thousand times the amount that would go into researching sustainable means of production). It would be a shame if a program that provides this extent of quality information about a topic that’s essential to our long-term agricultural success were to be axed from the budget when the investment required to sustain it is so comparably small.

If you agree, contact your senator and ask them to sign onto Congressman Boozman (R-AR)’s letter asking USDA to restore full 2007 funding to the ATTRA sustainable agriculture information service.

Peanut Butter &…

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

I don’t have time or energy to make myself gourmet lunches every day. Sometimes, I eat peanut butter sandwiches. Though they’re about the simplest creation around, they’re also quite yummy—especially if you use natural peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts, salt).

Everybody eats peanut butter & jelly, honey, or banana, but limiting your scope of pb & sandwiches to that (albeit classic) trio seems a rather dim horizon for such a versatile ingredient. Other fairly obvious sandwiches I’ll occasionally snack on are pb & marshmallow (often in the fluff variety… one of my few exceptions to a distaste for processed foods) and pb & nutella, which is especially good on toast.

Less obvious (but still quite tasty) are pb & dill pickle and pb & bacon, both of which my wife refuses to sample even though I tell her every time I eat one how good it is. Still, I have a suspicion that even with these two non-canonical inclusions in my peanut butter sandwich repertoire, I’m still only at the tip of the iceberg. Please let me know what your favorite non-traditional peanut butter sandwiches are—I’d really like to expand my menu of quick & easy lunchtime possibilities!

Light Butter

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Is anyone familiar with Corman’s light butter? Corman is a company in Belgium. They also sell products in France and Denmark under the names Carlsbourgh and Balade. For a short time, I was able to purchase their light butter in the U.S. It had fabulous butter flavor (because it is REAL butter, but they somehow magically removed a lot of that fat). Sadly, Corman’s light butter disappered from my grocery shelf never to be seen again.

I’m not actually familiar with the product, and having never tasted it, I’m unable to recommend for or against the product. Your description of magically transformed butter piqued my interest, though, so I decided to see what I could find out.

The Corman’s web site was of little help in solving the mystery. Though the site does promote the light butter, it provides very little information about what spells and hocus pocus they use to reduce the fat content. The only mention I was able to find is that “the fractionation technique allows Corman to adjust the softness of a butter naturally by separating the liquid triglycerides (oleins) from the crystallized triglycerides (stearins).”

What’s the fractionation technique? Even after emailing Corman for more information, I’m still not sure. I’ve reproduced their email below, complete with information of where the product can be found and under what labels. If there’s a chemist out there who can explain more clearly what their process entails, I would definitely appreciate your input.


Teach a Friend to Cook…

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Some of my friends want me to hold a cooking class to teach them how to cook.  Do you have any recommendations on what dishes I should teach them?  How should I format the class and what kind of prep-work I should do before they get there?


My friends will cook for me as soon as I teach them how


What you should teach them depends on two main factors: what you know how to cook well and what your friends already know.

There’s no way you’ll be an effective teacher if you’re trying to show people how to cook something that you’re not already completely comfortable doing yourself.  So, choose a couple of dishes that you have made many times and go with them.  Break them down into the component techniques that add up to the dish and explain different ways those same techniques can be used.  That way, your students will leave not only knowing how to make the specific dishes that you teach, but also knowing that their newly gained knowledge can be applied to other culinary creations.  For instance, if you’re making French Onion Soup, you’ll be caramelizing onions; deglazing; and simmering—techniques that are applicable to most stews and sauces.  If you’re making waffles, all of the steps are applicable toward making a souffle….

When you’re choosing your dishes, the other thing you should keep in mind is their general level of cooking experience—the less experience they have, the simpler you should keep things.  Don’t try to make puff pastry from scratch with people who have never made a pie crust.

As far as the level of prep you should have going into the class, make sure that your students help with (or at least see) every step that goes toward making the dish: from cutting the vegetables on through. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have flour, baking powder, etc. measured out beforehand (if necessary); everyone should know how to measure quantities of dry goods already.  There’s probably not a need to do much beyond that unless you’re making something that takes an extremely long time to cook (like a stew that would have to braise for three hours).  In that case, you should still have your students help with each step toward getting it ready; but you should have one of whatever it is completely done that can be taken out of the oven when you put the student-made one in: that way they’ll be able to taste the results without waiting around for the long haul.

Having a Hard Time with Your Recipe

Monday, February 19th, 2007

I tried to make your King Cake and I may have rolled my dough too thin. It fell apart when I tried to move it. I just sort of scooped it up and plopped it on the baking sheet and hoped the filling would hold everything together. It doesn’t look too bad but we’ll see what happens when I try to take it off the sheet.

Hopefully it will taste better than it looks.

That may be something that a bench scraper would help you with. Use its wide blade to scoop the first part of the dough off the counter. That way, you don’t have to tug at the dough, thus you’ll be less apt to lose its form. I’m sure it will be fine, though—the braided top is really just a way to make it look good; it’s not necessary to the success of the recipe.

In fact, for an easier and still attractive presentation, you could spread the filling over most of the dough (not just the middle 1/3) and roll it up into a long tube. Then, bake it the same way as you would if you braided the top.

You probably could have used that advice before you started the process; mea culpa.

PS—Update to the recipe!  I way-overestimated how long I rolled out my dough (like, by a foot!).  I should have written to roll the dough out to 2 1/2–3 feet in length!!  I have changed the recipe accordingly.

King Cake

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

I realize I’ve been slacking on adding new content to the page for the past week or so. There are several reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I’ve been getting ready for our annual Mardi Gras bash, which we held last night. It might perhaps more accurately be called a Samedi Gras bash, because we always hold it the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, but that would probably just confuse people.

We usually have a good spread of food for the party and last night was no exception. Homemade sourdough bread with homemade hummus, lamb and veggie jambalayas, and, of course, the treat of the season, King Cake.


Cake Barely Edges Pie’s Popularity

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

The reason I asked the cake vs. pie question was to test a theory espoused by my high school Latin tacher, Mr. Denis. I remember several occasions when he opined that in general, women are more likely to prefer cake and men are more likely to prefer pie, in a generic sense of each dessert, with no specifics as to what type of either.

According to the seventeen respondents to my survey, he was right, but just barely. Among respondents known to be men, pie edged out cake 3-2. Among respondents known to be women, cake enjoyed a slight edge of 5-4. According to those whose gender was made clear by neither their email address or their web page, cake was favored 2-1.

Pie’s Total: 8
Cake’s Total: 9

I like both, but will usually choose pie.

Key to that decision, though, is knowing that Aunt Millie makes both well. While I really enjoy homemade pie, I’m not a huge fan of most store-bought pies. Thus, if I knew Aunt Millie were the type of person to buy her desserts from the grocery store, I would probably choose cake.

More Flavour Crisps from Walkers

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

It’s sleeting in Pittsburgh after a long day of snow. I haven’t left the house all day. Seems like a great time to pull out a couple of the bags of potato crisps my sister brought back from London for me—Oven Roasted Chicken with Lemon & Thyme and Vintage Cheddar & Red Onion Chutney.

chicken lemon thyme crisps

I tasted the Chicken ones first, and I was surprised by how well delineated the flavor was: everything appeared on my tongue—first the chicken, then the lemon, and sure enough right there after, a touch of thyme. It’s really quite remarkable what they can do with chemicals these days; the whole of the sensation comes from “Chicken with Lemon & Thyme Flavour.”

cheddar onion crisps

The Vintage Cheddar & Red Onion Chutney crisps are not quite so well delineated in their flavor profile. The flavors were tough to distinguish and somewhat less concordant than those of the chicken and thyme crisps.

Check out all of Walker’s creatively flavoured crisps whenever you’re in the UK. In addition to the kinds I tried, you might also find Slow Roasted Lamb with Moroccan Spices, Gently Infused Lime & Thai Spices, or Thai Sweet Chili. I just wish I knew somewhere that sold them in the states.

Kitchen Technique: Caramelizing Onions

Monday, February 12th, 2007

Caramelizing onions is something I do almost every day in the kitchen. Whether I’m making soup, stew, or stir fry, there’s a good chance that onions are in it and they’re caramelized. The technique is something I’ve touched upon at least a few times in various recipes for Corduroy Orange, but because it’s something that’s of such widespread use, I think it’s worth devoting one post entirely to it.

Caramelized onions are cooked to golden brown. The process involves toasting the onions’ natural sugars, and it brings out a sweetness that isn’t noticeable in a raw onion. Done correctly, they add a beautiful flavor base to almost any dish.