Archive for April, 2007

Hot Pan

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

Hey–
How do I know when my pan is hot enough to saute stuff in?

–Gary

Gary–

There are a couple of ways to check. Generally, you want it to be hot enough that water balls up and rolls around the pan, but not so hot that it’s smoking.

If you don’t feel like splashing water into the bottom of the pan, you can look at the fat that you add to the pan to cook things in. You want the fat to slide around the bottom of the pan easily and coat the whole thing, plus you should see some ripples in it when you tilt the pan and it flows.

If all else fails, add one piece of whatever you’re cooking to the pan. It should sizzle at a moderate volume. If it’s not sizzling, wait a little longer. If it sizzles too loudly, add everything to the pan, but remove it from the heat until it quiets down a little.

Whatever you do, don’t splash water into a pan that already has fat in it: that will lead to hot fat splattering in your face!

Have a question about food or cooking? Email me, and I’ll try to respond in a future post.

The FDA Knew About Problems

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

But Didn’t Act Due to Budget Constraints

According to published reports, the FDA knew for “years” about the problems at the peanut butter plant in Georgia and about the farms in California that produced tainted spinach, but didn’t do anything to stop the situations, instead relying on the industry to self-police.

I’m not quite sure what’s more frustrating: that the FDA seems to make so many of its decisions based on the desires of industry lobbyists, or that the FDA would still rely on the industry to self-correct even with evidence of ongoing problems. If there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear to me, it’s that in most cases, most industries place profits at a higher priority than public safety issues. That’s the whole reason behind having a government agency to regulate the industries. What’s the point of having the agency if all it does is sit back and say, “OK, guys, looks like you’ve got everything under control; just keep doing what you’re doing…”?

I’d say give ‘em some teeth, but with their schematics being what they currently are, they’d probably use the teeth to make things tougher on the small, local farmer who’s trying to distribute regionally. Instead, I think it’d be a better idea to dramatically reorganize to place emphasis on encouraging regional distribution whilst deemphasizing national mono-cropped conglomofarming.

Put the burden on the largest farms to prove that their practices aren’t disturbing the environment and/or putting consumers at risk. Reward smaller farmers who plant a variety of crops and rotate them properly.

We’ve spent too long looking at the system and saying, “It’s broken, but we can’t fix it.” Heck, that’s what the FDA did with the spinach and the peanut butter. Unless we make changes soon, the worst is yet to come because our food is being produced in unnatural ways that, over time, lead to compounded safety concerns. I fear we’re on the crest of seeing the results of decades’ worth of compounding.

Other people see it, too. Why else would “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” make it on the cover of Time Magazine? It’s because there’s a groundswell of people saying the exact same thing I do: doped-up livestock shitting directly into the rivers and acres of corn / soy / tomatoes in soil stripped of its natural nutrients, propped up by even more chemical enhancers does not add up to a desireable situation.

It’s time for the government to recognize that the industry isn’t looking out for the people, it’s looking out for itself; to recognize that a populace raised on corn and chemicals is not a healthy one; and to overhaul the system for the benefit of everyone who eats, in favor of more sustainably raised food from smaller farms, distributed across a smaller swath of the land.

I Guess Somebody Must Buy It

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Otherwise it wouldn’t be on the shelf…

Imitation honey.  I’m not making this up. Imitation. Honey. What a perversion of something so simple: the rawest of sugars mocked by a blend of malitol syrup and acesulfame-K . I’ve been trying to figure out what niche purpose this product serves, and I really hope it’s not an outgrowth of the low-carb craze.

My only other hypothesis is that some people with diabetes prefer it.  I’m admittedly not an expert on the disease nor the nutritional constraints that it imposes on people, but I had been under the impression that 1) individuals with diabetes may safely consume moderate amounts of honey and 2) imitation sugars are not significantly safer than natural sugars for persons with this disease.

If anyone can shed some light on this product for me and what market niche it fills, I would be greatly appreciative.  As it stands now, I’m just boggled.

Roasting Your Own Coffee

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

I’ve heard about people roasting their own coffee beans, but only recently did I discover how easy it actually is to do. You wind up with the freshest cup of coffee possible, and the beans cost a heck of a lot less than they would otherwise.

Go to your local coffee roasterie and ask for your favorite kind of bean, green. Store the beans in the freezer until you’re ready to roast them. Then, fill the chamber of your hot air popcorn popper about three-quarters full and turn it on. It’s okay if they smoke a little and you can expect that some stray pieces of the bean’s outer covering will float through the air. But, really, you don’t have to do anything except keep an eye on them, especially as they start to get darker. When they reach your desired level of darkness, pour them out onto a pan to let them cool in a single layer.

The darker you roast the beans, the more carbon they develop (that’s the source of the dark color). A french-roasted bean is basically burnt. It gained its popularity during the reign of King Louis XIV, who was a rather odd man. Among his other obsessions was a fixation on his bowel movements. He reportedly had a specially-built dining chair with a hole in the center so that he wouldn’t miss an opportunity just because he was in the process of eating. He enjoyed the darkly roasted coffee because the excessive quantity of carbon exacerbates coffee’s laxative effect.1

1Allen, Stewart Lee. The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee.

I highly recommend the above volume. It’s a quick, fun read that gives you a new perspective on the ubiquitous beverage and its place in world history.

Poached Egg Problem

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

Corduroy—
Is it possible to get salmonella poisoning from poached eggs?

Yes, similarly to how it’s possible to get salmonella from sunny-side-up eggs. The runny yolk is sign that the proteins in the egg have not all coagulated, and therefore a sign that bacteria present in the egg may have survived. If the white is still runny, the egg has reached a lower temperature, and the possibility of food bore illness is therefore greater.

Most food pathologist type people will therefore urge you to eat your eggs “fully cooked”—with not even a hint of liquidity to the yolk. Unless my egg is boiled or going on a sandwich, though, I can’t play that game: the rubbery texture of an overdone egg is downright undesirable.

This is why the freshness of your eggs is of paramount importance. The fresher the egg, the more probable that its bacterial levels are not harmful. Most eggs purchased from a grocery store are probably about four weeks old by the time you get them. If you’ve held onto them for another couple of weeks, it’s probably time to hard boil them and get some fresher eggs for your less-cooked purposes.

Or, search out farms in your area and see if you can get eggs straight from the farm. Chances are they’ll cost somewhere in the range of $2-$3 per dozen, but the somewhat higher price tag is justified in terms of freshness, better treatment of the animals (visit the farm if you can and see how the chickens live, otherwise, ask questions), and flavor. Indeed, the difference between farm and factory eggs is quickly seen, even before it is tasted.

The Difference Between Knives and Blades

Monday, April 16th, 2007

I am trying to decide whether or not to purchase a food processor. I don’t have any knife skills as of yet, but I am trying to learn. Do you honestly believe that anything I would do in a food processor I could do with knives given that I learn the proper knife skills????

Actually, no. I hope my post on my preference for knives over food processors in most situations isn’t too misleading. Really, I just meant to express a strong preference for using knives to take care of the everyday jobs they’re designed for.

Knives work great for mincing and chopping. You can get onions, garlic, mushrooms, etc. to the sizes you want with a greater degree of accuracy with knives than a processor. When it comes to making bread crumbs or hummus without a food processor, though, you’re S.O.L. Pesto is easier with a processor, but can be done satisfactorily with a very large mortar and pestle, but a mortar and pestle of that size don’t often make an appearance in a kitchen that isn’t already well-stocked with tools (like a food processor).

As a interim step, what I might recommend is the deluxe version of the immersion blender from Kitchen-Aid. In addition to a hand blender, it comes with a whisk attachment and a mini-food processor attachment that does quite well for small quantities of things. It cleans up easily, stores in a drawer, and has multiple uses.

If, after using that for a while, you feel like a larger food processor is something that’s lacking in your life, you might then make the educated decision to get one. Truth be told, though, a food processor will spend more time taking up space on your counter than doing actual work. When it comes time to use it, though, it does come in handy.

Hard Boiling Eggs

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

This is one area where you don’t want much room for things to move around in your pan. The more closely the eggs are packed together, the less likely they’ll be to break as they cook.

Put the eggs into a pot just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Because the large end of the egg will float once the eggs are submersed (because that’s where the pocket of air is), you’ll actually want a pot that is just a tad bit too small to fit them all without water in it. When I put these fifteen eggs in the pan, originally there were twelve on the bottom and three more on top.

Cover the eggs with cold water. Add some salt or some vinegar to the water to help any whites that do escape from cracked shells to set more quickly.

Put over a high flame and bring the water to a boil. At this point there are several schools of thought about how to handle the eggs.

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How Not To Cook Pasta

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

As you can see, there are two types of noodles in this pot: elbows and farfalle. While these two shapes take similar cooking times, no two shapes cook at exactly the same duration, thus you should cook different noodles in separate pots of water.

Additionally, you’ll note how little space there is in the pot. The noodles aren’t really even immersed in water anymore, after having soaked up much of the excess during the cooking process. Noodles should be cooked in a large pot with copious amounts of water. The general guideline is a gallon of salted water per pound of pasta. Otherwise, the noodles don’t have any room to move, you don’t have any room to stir them, the water surrounding them gets saturated with starch, and they wind up getting stuck together.

As for the allegation that the bubbles are indicative of residual detergent in the pot, I’m not so sure about that. My interpretation of the bubbles is that they result from over-starched water as a byproduct of an overly stuffed pot, especially since no similar bubbles were observed when the water was boiling on its lonesome.

Pop Quiz: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

How many mistakes can you find? Why is each malpractice detrimental?

North Carolina Ham

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Really, the main challenge to preparing this little-known delicacy is figuring out where to procure one. I’m reluctant to give away my family’s secret for fear of draining the supply, but I have met a local farmer who cures his own hogs, and if I’m able to work with him to create a source in Pennsylvania that I’m happy with, I’ll divulge the identity of my mom’s Southern supplier (with her permission of course).

In the meantime, if you do stumble across a source of salt-cured, no water injected, North Carolina-style ham, get yourself one, boy! Them is good eatin’.

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