Monday, September 17, 2018

Do You Own the right kind of Wok?


Wok cooking is obviously very popular for Asian dishes, but it can also be used for a wide variety of recipes. One may wonder what makes a wok different from an ordinary pan, and how do I choose the
best one?

Just like standard pots and pans, there are just as many different woks on the market to choose from. The recognizable shape of the wok is known worldwide, and this unique shape serves an important purpose. The inner cooking surface, mainly up the sides, should not be smooth. Having rough and/or a slightly uneven surface helps to hold cooked food while the sauce is finished, or other ingredients are being cooked, in the center of the pan. Classic original woks are made out of carbon steel and hammered out by hand, and the residual indentations serve as the perfect surface to assist in doing this.

The round bottoms of the wok also aid in deep frying because it takes less oil to create a deep environment than a regular pot or pan. If you have an electric stove, you may choose to purchase a flat-bottomed wok, but even better would be to purchase a metal wok ring that sits over your electric burner and cradles a round bottom.

Unless you’re always cooking for just one or two people, you will get more value out of a larger wok than a smaller one, so buy one slightly larger than you may first think. A larger wok will help to keep the food contained more easily and can be used for both small dinners as well as large. The other
thing to consider, before making your purchase however, would be to ensure that you have ample storage for your new wok. Overhead pot racks are especially handy for this predicament.

I don’t find that non-stick or electric woks are the best option. Non stick coatings are almost always smooth, there are health concerns about emitting gases from non-stick coatings over high heat, and they don’t last as long as they should. Electric woks, I find, don’t heat up enough. For traditional high heat wok cooking, one needs to be aware that many pots and pans on the market will also warp over high heat. Make sure you read the manufacturers use recommendations before purchasing to be certain. This being said, one should take care to never submerse any hot pan into water for the same reason.

Although it may be difficult to find one that is hammered out by hand, I do recommend buying a carbon steel wok and seasoning it to create a natural non-stick surface over time. They may not be as pretty to look at, but usually are of the least expensive options. They heat up very well, and will last you a lifetime if taken care of properly. Always hand wash only (no scouring pads as they will remove the seasoned surface) and dry thoroughly to prevent rusting. The downside of a thin carbon steel wok is that they also lose their heat very quickly as well. If you insist on buying a non-stick wok, there are cast aluminum options that are non-stick and designed to resist warping.

Accessories that you may consider purchasing for your wok would be a lid, curved bottom utensils, bamboo steamers, hand held wire strainer, and a bamboo scrubber for cleaning. To season your new carbon steel wok, wash with soap and a scrub brush, dry thoroughly, and place the wok over high heat. When it is very hot and the steel has changed colour, turn the heat to medium-low, add a tablespoon of oil, and use a compacted paper towel held with tongs to coat the entire cooking surface with the oil. Let it sit on the medium low heat for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Allow the wok to cool and repeat as many as three times. This “seasoning” process is only meant for carbon steel woks, not stainless steel or other types of woks.

Until next time... Happy Wokking!

Monday, September 10, 2018

What is "Comfort Food" anyway???


We have all heard of the term “comfort food”... we in fact have all craved it, smelled the aromas from it in anticipation, and of course eaten it. What is “comfort food” though, exactly? Is it only big bowls
of stew-ish type foods on a cold winter day that one eats while wearing pants with a stretchy waistband? Does it exist in climates where it is warm year round?

Comfort food can be, and is, whatever you want it to be by what it means to you. That’s the beauty of it; if by eating it, it gives you a level of comfort, be it physical or emotional, then it can be considered comfort food.

The physical contentment from eating comfort foods would be the warmth felt by the temperature of the dish, or the spiciness of it, and/or even the mouth feel of the richness about it. However pairing these physical sensations with the psychological satisfaction from eating something considered to be a comfort food, is where I think the true definition lies within people and where the pleasure really comes from.

Comfort food can be a dish that stirs up sentimental feelings for example. Maybe a certain aroma and corresponding flavour is linked to a memory of a place once visited, a special time or celebration in one’s life, or of a beloved person. For example, when I smell turkey and stuffing cooking my mind always takes me back in times to when I was a boy and would come in the house from playing outside on a crisp autumn Thanksgiving day. The warm aromas of sage and turkey blanketing every nook and cranny of our old house revealed to me my Mom’s selfless efforts that morning. Smell is a huge part of the enjoyment of eating and tasting, and it has been scientifically proven that our sense of smell is directly linked to memory. This is also the reason we are turned off by some foods or dishes, because the aromas and related tastes are linked to times of unhappiness or ill feelings.

Recipes of a nostalgic nature may also contribute to be classified as comfort foods. Foods from a certain time period or specific culture that trigger emotions may be enough to sanction it into this classification. For instance, on the 17th of March when our table is filled with classic Irish dishes, it not only feels more fitting, but also fulfilling... or comforting. This is just one example of many celebrations that could include, but not limited to, Asian delights on Chinese New Year, incredible Indian food on Dwali, or haggis on Robbie Burns Day... yes, there are people that consider even haggis to be comfort food. For those of you not in the Scottish culinary loop, haggis can be defined as a savoury pudding containing a sheep’s organs (heart, liver, and lungs for example) and combined with onion, oatmeal, and spices traditionally encased in the sheep’s stomach and simmered for hours. I am actually quite fond of it myself on occasion as long as it is served warm; once it gets cold I find the texture loses its appeal.

The feel good sensation of comfort food can also be obtained by simply just loving the taste of something, maybe by that of your favorite type of food or favorite recipe; which literally could translate into almost anything for any one individual. Basically foods that make you feel good because you are consuming something you love to eat. The act of doing so would bring on positive emotions and help to suppress negative feelings, and that alone could be enough to be considered comfort food. Now if this was a blog entry on dietary pros and cons and examining how food addictions can alter lifestyles in a negative way, we would then discuss moderation, balanced diets, and portion control. However, for the sake of the love of the culinary arts we will end it here on a positive note instead.

            So, in conclusion, comfort food can be, and is, anything you want it to be, as long as it makes you happy for one reason or another... even if it is just temporary. So, until next time... Happy, or should I say Comfortable, Cooking!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

You Packed THAT in your Kid's School Lunch???!!!



Here we are once again at the start of another school year. Packing kids lunches is a chore for many, and sometimes one can lose sight of nutritional value due to heavily marketed convenience foods. School-time snacks and lunches are not exactly the best avenue to practice “gourmet cuisine”, but I do get asked on occasion for some healthy ideas. Therefore, this blog entry will be my salute to parents who are willing to say “no” to pre-packaged, high-preservative foods for their children.

Nuts are a very nutritious option, as long as allergy restrictions aren’t a concern. Nuts are a good source of protein and a great source of unsaturated fat (the good kind of fat). Unsaturated fats have been proven to help reduce levels of LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) without lowering HDL-cholesterol (the good one). Unsaturated fats are best described as the ones that are liquid at room temperature, while saturated fats are solid. Additionally, there are a large variety of nuts to choose from for discriminating tastes: almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc. and some are even available with different flavourings to make them more appealing – just keep your eye on the sodium content and other ingredients.

Fresh fruit is an obvious choice, but make sure it is something that they enjoy to increase the probability of consumption! One thing you can do to make fruit more tempting is do some of the prep ahead of time. For example, a cut and/or peeled orange is much easier to eat than a whole orange. Our trick for apples is to use an apple corer to first remove the core, then slice the apple into segments - afterwards reassemble the whole apple (core & all) and keep it together with an elastic band to help keep the flesh from going brown. This will make sure they eat more of the apple and less flesh will be wasted because they can simply throw the core portion out at school. Make it interesting – don’t always send the same fruit. Every once in a while, pack some berries, seasonal fruit, or something more exotic like kiwi or star fruit.

The ease of eating dried fruit makes it an attractive option as well. There are so many naturally dried fruit options that do not contain additional sugar, that it is easy to make their lunch interesting for them. There are dried plums, apples, apricots, pineapple, mango, and banana to name a few, and they are healthier substitutions for pre-packaged, sugar-added fruit rolls. Keep in mind, even with the natural sweetness of these dried fruits, the natural sugar content is higher per measure because they are dried, or in other words: concentrated.

Carbohydrate type snack options could be granola bars or popcorn. When purchasing granola bars, read the ingredients to monitor the amount of preservatives and refined sugar they have. Do not choose chocolate covered ones as they defeat the purpose of making a healthy choice to begin with. Also the harder granola bars are usually healthier than the softer ones. Popcorn, as long as it not drenched in butter, is a great option and a good source of fiber. It is obviously okay (and recommended) that our children consume fat in their diets as it is all part of brain development. Fat intakes should be monitored but not eliminated.

Whole-wheat crackers are another healthy option. Again this may require reading a few labels, but a perfect opportunity to replace amounts of white flour in their diets with whole wheat. For those of you who have time, there are even cracker recipes that you can prepare together with your children at home. The appeal of whole-wheat crackers will be much greater with the pride that comes along with making them. Throw in some slices of cheese as part of their dairy intake, along with some lean meat slices or tuna salad for their own homemade “snack-packs”.

If keeping perishables cool in your child’s lunch box is a concern, and you're afraid you won't get ice packs back if you send them - An easy and inexpensive solution is to freeze juice boxes. A frozen juice-box in their lunch will keep things cool for the morning and will make a great chilled drink by noon. The addition of a thermal lunch bag works great too. However, again I must bring to your attention to the amount of sugars there are in juices (even pure fruit juice) and this also should be monitored.

I am not a dietitian, and these suggestions are merely that. I feel that it is our job as parents to keep educated to ensure the best possible healthy pathway for our children. Contacting a dietitian, for proper moderations for your children’s balanced diets of all the food groups, is recommended.

Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Corn on the Cob - and a Recipe for Tequila Lime Chilli Butter!

A much loved side dish with summer meals is good old fashioned corn on the cob. Farm fresh corn during the summer is very abundant and popular in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia where I live, but I know that there are many other areas also rich in this agricultural gold. No matter where one resides in North America, it always seems to be available fresh during the summer.

Whole corn on the cob should either be eaten on the day of purchase or stored in the refrigerator, as the natural sugars convert to starch faster in the presence of warm temperatures. Corn can be a very healthy part of a balanced diet as its dietary profile includes vitamin B1, folate, dietary fiber, vitamin C, phosphorus, and manganese. Everything however should be consumed in moderation, including the amount of butter and salt that is applied to the finished product. Fresh cracked pepper is one of my favourite toppings (along with the butter and salt) and is a great way to add tons of flavour. Let your creativity run wild in the kitchen and discover what else you can top your corn on the cob with. The internet and local libraries are full of great recipe ideas.

If grilling your corn on the cob instead of boiling it, try it over lump charcoal – the taste difference is amazing. I simply pull off the husks and place the cobs directly on the grill, while rotating them
occasionally until mostly all the kernels are slightly charred.

The uses for fresh corn on the cob do not stop with just cooking whole. By standing the corn on end, carefully take a sharp knife and run it down the cob to remove the kernels. This will allow you to enjoy the fresh taste of corn in any recipe that calls for kernels of corn. One tip to catch the kernels efficiently is to use an angel food cake pan. With the cake pan sitting securely on a damp towel on the counter, stand the point of the cob of corn on the inner tube of the pan coming up the center. This will help to keep the cob steady and the falling removed kernels will collect in the cake pan.

We also eat fresh corn kernels in the raw form. It is so delicious on salads - try it. There have also been times when we have just eaten the raw corn right off the cob, plain and uncooked - with good, fresh, local corn, it's amazing.

One of the oddest conversations I have ever had about cooking corn on the cob was with an attendee of the Chilliwack Fair years ago. It went like this, without a word of a lie:
Man: "How long do you boil corn on the cob for?"
Chef Dez: "How long are you boiling it for now?"
Man: "Um, about 30 minutes."
Chef Dez: "What!? 30 minutes? I recommend 1 to 3 minutes at the very most. Why would you boil it that long?"
Man: "Well, it's pretty thick."
Chef Dez: "Yeah, but you're not going to eat the cob!"
I can't imagine what the corn would be like after 30 minutes of boiling. There must have been nothing left of the kernels. This conversation would surprise me in any situation, but to have it with a resident of Chilliwack (corn country), it was beyond bizarre.

Anyway, try this compound butter recipe for something different the next time you have cooked corn on the cob. It is one our favorites. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Tequila Lime Chilli Butter

1 cup salted butter, room temperature
2 tbsp chilli powder
2 tbsp tequila
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp finely chopped lime zest

1. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer.
2. Mix at medium speed, gradually increasing to high speed until fully combined, stopping halfway to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
3. Store at room temperature for a few days, or longer in the refrigerator. Spread on hot cooked corn and season with salt and pepper if desired.

Makes approximately 1 cup of compound butter

Monday, August 27, 2018

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone in the Kitchen - Here's Why

I guess it goes without saying that I love to cook. For me, a perfect Sunday afternoon would be in the kitchen, with music playing, and having fun with ingredients. However, I do realize this passion is not shared by all.

Whether you love cooking or not, it is a part of your life that will likely never go away so you may as well embrace it to some degree. Food is life, so I want to give you some ideas to make it fun by approaching it in a different manner. What I am going to suggest may scare you at first but bear with me.

Too often we rely on pre-made foods that we would never dream of attempting to make from scratch and I want you to drum up the courage to challenge yourself by making something that falls in this category. Now, the items that I am talking about in this range will be vastly different depending on the individual. For example, a number people always make pancakes from scratch but just as many probably use a store-bought mix. I know a number of people that make fresh pasta from scratch, but most have never attempted it.

What I want you to do is to step out of your comfort zone, whatever that may be, and make something in the kitchen that you have never done before. I suggest this as part of a healing or growing process to bring you to the next level. Why you may ask? It is all about making life exciting and trying new things. Chances are you have a kitchen in your home and a necessary desire to eat food to stay alive, so let’s take it to the next level just for fun. This is important to remember. I don’t want you to go into this with the mindset of it being a task. This is not something to stress about; there is no test at the end. It is merely an adventure into the unknown just for enjoyment only.

With the internet on our side, and the thousands of food recipes, videos, blogs, etc. to help us out, there is virtually an answer at our fingertips on how to make almost anything. Maybe it’s perogies you have always wanted to master? Or how about the potato pasta dumplings called gnocchi? Maybe you have always wanted to try to make corned beef from scratch? Or what about beef jerky? The list of ideas is literally endless based upon your desire and level of cooking you are at already.

If this still intimidates you then search out local cooking classes in your community. I offer a number of cooking classes throughout the year on a regular basis with a myriad of menu options to choose
from. Live interaction is always the best way of learning because you can ask questions and sometimes even get involved in the cooking process through hands-on classes. Plus this makes for a fun evening out. Consider it instead of going out to a restaurant for dinner - it's probably about the same price and as a bonus you will walk away with knowledge, some new recipes, and confidence. If you are still feeling uncomfortable with the idea of doing this, then maybe get a friend or relative to come to a cooking class with you. My current cooking classes are listed here: www.chefdez.com/cookingclasses

Or another idea would be to invite a bunch of people over for an afternoon of chatting and cooking in your home. If you approach it as an opportunity to have a good time with loved ones, it will be easier to accomplish without having the main focus on the task at hand. At the end you can divide the finished product, and everyone gets to take home a meal and a memory. Who knows, it may even become a regular tradition among all of you.

If everything was easy in life, nobody would be unique; we would all be good at everything. Not only that, but we would never be challenged. Trials and tribulations in anything helps us to appreciate the good in things we already know and have, while offering us an opportunity to work towards something new and embrace the feeling of accomplishment. This can be done in any aspect of life, not just cooking… but as I always say “food IS life”. 

Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Why Would You Not Use Fresh Ginger?


A few weeks ago I went to the supermarket to pick up some fresh ginger root for a cooking class I was teaching. I only needed a couple of tablespoons, so I broke off a small knob and proceeded to the cashier. She rang up my purchase and it came to a mere seventeen cents. Usually I purchase ginger in much larger quantities, and along with my regular groceries, so I have never really thought about how little it actually costs. Immediately I wondered why anyone would not use fresh ginger.

The fibrous root of the ginger plant is what we know as ginger is available in the produce section of
our local grocery store. This large knobby light skinned root is available is various sizes and shapes. When choosing ginger, make sure that it is firm, smooth, and free of blemishes and/or mold. Most people always have powdered ginger in their selection of dried spices and herbs, but fresh will provide a purer flavour. The only application I find powdered ginger preferable in is creating a dry spice mix to use as a meat or seafood rub.

Due to the pungency or “hotness” of fresh ginger, many people are selective about eating it and opt to use powdered forms for less intensity, or use no ginger at all. It is to these people however, that I suggest using fresh but in small quantities. One will notice that recipes will offer a fresher, more aromatic, ambience about them. A classic example of this is gingerbread. Many people, still to this day, will make gingerbread with powdered ginger. Using freshly grated ginger however, will bring your recipe to new heights by offering an abundance of character to the flavour of the cookies or cake form of this classic holiday treat. Just practice “moderation” if the thought of the pungent taste in your recipe scares you.

Although the skin is edible, the easiest way to peel ginger is to simply scrape off the skin with the edge of a teaspoon, and then cut off the exposed root for further cutting as an ingredient. It is fibrous so it is almost always recommended to be chopped or grated, but it can be added in larger pieces to stir-fries or other dishes if desired, as the cooking process will help to diminish its toughness. It can be stored in the whole form in the refrigerator for two to three weeks or kept frozen for many months.

Fresh is always the best but it is possible to freeze fresh ginger for use later. We always freeze fresh ginger to ensure we have it on hand when we need it. The texture is not as good upon thawing but the flavour seems to be mostly intact and much better than ever using powdered ginger. We store it in the freezer in two forms: whole in one bag and cut into small chunks in another bag. When we need grated ginger, we take a whole piece out, grate what we need from it in the frozen state (skin and all), and put it back in the freezer. When we want small pieces of ginger (instead of grated), we take out a small chunk and cut it as desired.

Ginger is used in many applications. Not only can it be purchased fresh and in powdered form, but also preserved, candied, pickled, and crystallized. It is also believed to have many medicinal properties and used to reduce fever, suppress appetite, stimulate digestion, and be effective for combating colds, coughs and motion sickness.

To make fresh ginger tea, boil 1 cup of water for few minutes with approximately one teaspoon (or more) of freshly chopped ginger and sweeten if desired. If you dislike the ginger particles floating in your tea, then place the chopped ginger in a metal tea ball or an empty disposable tea bag.

Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Food Sticking to a Stainless-Steel Pan


In our arsenals of cookware, I believe that most people have at least one (or more) “non-stick” pans that they rely on for certain tasks. From non-stick coatings, to ceramic and titanium pans, and even well-seasoned cast iron pans – they are out there. But what about the good old, tried and true, stainless steel pan? Many complain that food sticks to it too much and thus tends to be cast aside.

A stainless-steel pan must be of good quality. As with most cookware, you get what you pay for. You need a pan of high-grade stainless steel and a base that provides even heating and good heat retention. Talk to the professionals at your local kitchen supply store as they are a wealth of information and will be able to steer you in the right direction.

The first step is to make sure that your pan is evenly heated before you put anything in the pan. The most common mistake is that food is added at the same time (or shortly thereafter) the pan meets the stove. The pan needs to be hot first, even before you add any oil. Once the pan is hot, add a small amount of high-heat oil (like grape seed, coconut, rice bran, etc. – there are many to choose from) and then the food. The food may still stick at first, but only for a short time. Once the ingredients have been seared briefly they should start to move around the pan freely with little effort.

Let’s examine this procedure further in the example of cooking a steak, or a piece of meat or seafood A stainless steel pan is the best choice in this example because it allows some of the browning of the meat to stay in the pan to help flavour the perfect accompanying pan sauce. The preliminary steps as mentioned above are the same: you must make sure the empty pan is hot first before you add anything. How hot will depend on many factors like the thickness of the meat and the doneness you are trying to achieve. I find the best way to test temperature in an empty pan is to sprinkle a bit of water. If the water sits in the pan and does nothing, it is not hot. If the water bubbles, spurts, and evaporates fairly quickly, it is getting hotter. When the water beads and rolls around the pan like little marbles before evaporating, then it is hot. A word of warning – this water test is to be done in a dry pan only with no oil. Do not attempt to add any oil, or fatty ingredients, while the water still exists in the pan otherwise it could spurt and burn you or cause a grease fire in your pan.

Once you know the pan is hot, and the water from testing it has evaporated, add a small amount of high-heat oil, and then the meat immediately after. If you think the pan is too hot, then after the meat has been added turn down the heat and/or temporarily remove the pan from the heat. The most important thing now is to not disturb the meat. It will be stuck at first, but trying to pry the meat from the pan at this point will just inhibit the crust from being formed. Once the meat has seared, and browned thoroughly, it will release itself easily from the pan when you attempt to flip it over. Cooking the other side without disruption at first is also crucial.

The one thing you will notice in the pan, unlike non-stick pans, is that there are browned bits from the meat left on the surface of the pan. This is called fond, and you want this to help flavour your pan sauce. Once the meat has been cooked to your desired doneness, remove it and set it aside to rest. Reduce the heat in the pan and some liquid to deglaze the pan. Deglazing is the process of lifting those browned bits off the pan and into the liquid with the help of some subtle scraping action with a utensil. Add your remaining sauce ingredients and cook until desired consistency has been reached. Serve with the awaiting meat and enjoy.

There are countless pan sauce recipes and variations online for you to try. My best piece of advice to you however, is practice. With repeated attempts you will get to understand how to recognize the heat exchange and how it affects the pan and ultimately the food. If you want to become good at anything… do it more – and cooking is no different. 

Until next time... Happy Cooking!