Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Herbs - Fresh or Dried?

            Many consumers, without herb gardens of their own, will choose to purchase dried herbs more frequently than fresh due to cost and convenience. Dried herbs are suitable for certain recipe applications, however there are just as many recipes that would benefit from fresh. Consequently, other than listening to your wallet, how should one discriminate choosing between them?

            Although fresh herbs seem to offer the most flavour, they are not a necessity for all recipes. Dried herbs need time and moisture to release their flavours, and therefore are adequate in dishes that require a certain amount of cooking time to allow for this re-hydration. Examples of these recipes
would be ones such as pasta sauce, chili, soups, or other stewed dishes. Fresh herbs can be used in these applications, but are better suited being added at the end of the cooking process, as they can lose their potency if cooked for too long. Fresh herbs benefit from the fresh essential oils being released and heightens the eating experience, and thus fresh delicate herbs should be added in the last 30 seconds of cooking time or less. Obviously fresh herbs that are more hearty, like rosemary for example, can withstand (and also need) a longer cooking process.

            Many people also use dried herbs in marinades and compound butters. Compound butters are combinations of herbs, seasonings, and flavourings combined with butter to create finishing touches to certain dishes. Garlic butter, for example, is probably the most recognizable compound butter.

            A large misconception with dried herbs, however, is that they last forever. They don’t. There are steps one can take to inhibit their deterioration like storing them in a cool dark place, but eventually they will lose their pungency.

Typically, I would suggest replacing dried herbs every year or so if stored properly. I have found that the bulk foods sections at the grocery stores are the best option for doing this economically. Get in the habit of only purchasing slightly more than what you need for a recipe. This will keep your home inventory low and your recipes tasting better. The other thing you can do to keep your dry herbs more up to date, is to cook more often and eat out less - this will ultimately save you more money too.

Since the moisture (water content) has been removed from dried herbs, they are more potent (per measure) than fresh herbs. This is an important consideration when changing a recipe to accommodate the herbs you have on hand. The only herb, that this rule is not applicable to, is tarragon – it is more potent (per measure) in its fresh form. Keep in mind however, that dry herbs do not have the essential oils being released, and thus may taste different than fresh - even though dried has more concentrated flavour per measure than fresh.

Given the choice to be stranded on a dessert island with either herb form, I would obviously pick fresh for its versatility, nutrients, and fresh flavour. However, it is important to understand that dried herbs, when used and stored correctly, can play a vital role in our kitchens.

Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Friday, July 13, 2018

You're Cooking Eggs Wrong... most likely.

            One of the many reasons I write a food column is to inspire you to get into the kitchen; to embrace the opportunity to unleash gastronomic adventures in your home. One other reason of great importance is to hopefully make things easier for you through different tricks, tips, and time saving ideas… but not this time. This time I am going to take one of the easiest things you do so quickly and make you do it longer with more finesse. This is a staple dish for almost any breakfast that you think
you have mastered ever since you started cooking, and now I am going to reteach you everything you thought you knew about this dish. Yes, in our homes it’s time to revolutionize the art of making scrambled eggs.

            Wait. Hold on here. Scrambled eggs? Isn’t this as simple as mixing some eggs in a bowl, pouring into a hot pan, and moving them around until they’re done? Not quite. Yes, the mixing is still the same; and moving them around in the pan is kind of the same, but the cooking temperature needs to change… thus the time it takes to make them will be longer. However, the results are worth it.

The main rule I have learned about egg cookery is to always avoid high heat and do not overcook. High heat and overcooking will make eggs rubbery, discoloured and affect their flavour. Eggs are mostly made up of delicate proteins, and like all proteins they coagulate when cooked. Coagulation is the process of the protein strands connecting with each other, becoming firmer, shrinking, and releasing moisture. Exposing any proteins to extreme heat will toughen them and make them dry; especially eggs.

            The excessive heat could also cause discolouration. Have you ever cooked a hard-boiled egg and the egg yolk had a green ring around it? This is caused by the sulphur in the egg whites reacting with the iron in the yolk and forming iron sulfide. This reaction causes not only that familiar green colour, but also a strong odor and flavour. Now in the case of the hard-boiled egg, this only shows up at the area where the egg white meet with the yolk, but with scrambled eggs the two are combined into a homogenous mixture and the results could be unappealing if not cooked properly. This is where low heat plays such an important role.

            I always scramble my eggs with a bit of added moisture: about 1 tablespoon of water, milk, or cream for every 2 Large sized eggs – do this in a bowl with some salt and pepper until the eggs are thoroughly combined. Heat a pan over medium heat and melt a small pat of butter in the pan. When the butter starts to foam, add the egg mixture and reduce the heat to low. Occasionally stir gently while cooking over the low heat as the eggs coagulate: basically, you are lifting portions of the coagulated eggs up so that uncooked parts can run underneath. Try not to stir too much as this will cause the eggs to be broken up into very small particles. When the eggs are set, but still soft and moist, remove from the heat and serve immediately. The results will be fluffy, succulent, and nothing like the hard, rubbery, bits of eggs you get when doing this over high heat.

            If you are a stickler for exact temperatures, it is important to note that egg whites and egg yolks each coagulate at different temperatures. This is what allows you to cook an egg (soft boiled or fried, for example) with firm whites and a soft yolk. Egg whites typically coagulate between 140 to 149 degrees Fahrenheit, while egg yolks will coagulate between 144 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Combined eggs (as in scrambled eggs) will thus produce a coagulation point of approximately 155 degrees Fahrenheit.

            It is also important to mention that the term “scrambled eggs” comes from the process of mixing the eggs together in advance of cooking, not from overworking them in the pan.

Until next time… Happy Cooking!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Trust the Butcher that is Always There for You

            Whenever I make meatballs or burger patties, an ingredient that I always use is ground chuck. Ground chuck is NOT the ground beef you can easily find at any grocery store - it can only be found at butcher shops. It has a higher fat content and a much beefier flavour; a secret ingredient among Chefs you could say.
            I live in Mission, BC and usually I go to Lepp Farm Market in Abbotsford because they are only 10km away from my house. Recently however, I needed ground chuck and I was in a bit of a hurry so I decided to go to a local butcher shop instead. The first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of empty spots in the refrigerated display case, and thus not a lot of selection. A woman walked out from the back and greeted me.
            I couldn't see any ground chuck in the display case, so I asked "do you have any ground chuck?"
            She looked puzzled. "Ground chuck? What is that?" she replied.
            I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say. "Every butcher shop has ground chuck" I answered with the first thing that came to mind.
            She quickly apologized and informed me that she was a new employee there. She then proceeded to get someone else to help me. Another woman appeared from the back only to advise me that they don't have ground chuck. Considering the lack of selection of meats on display, I wasn't surprised, but still disappointed. I left the store muttering to myself "how can a butcher store not have ground chuck?" This has never happened to me before.
            I got in my vehicle and drove the 10km to Lepp Farm Market. As I walked into their store I was immediately greeted with a warm welcome from an employee and the aromas from their on-site
kitchen embraced my senses like a welcoming friend. I proceeded to the butcher display case and not only were they fully stocked with ground chuck, but also every kind of meat and seafood that I could ever imagine getting locally. I smiled and quickly came to the realization that I should have just trusted my instincts and came here in the first place. I was quickly greeted again and my order of ground chuck was fulfilled immediately.
            I think that as consumers, we don't fully realize what it takes to run a successful business, especially one that deals in perishables. There is so much training and ongoing fine tuning of inventory levels to make sure that needs of the consumers are met and at the same time making sure that little is wasted. When you walk into a store and they are fully stocked with whatever you need, there's a level of comfort and value within that. The ease of getting what you want with great selection and feeling welcome is the perfect shopping experience in my mind.
            The one thing I learned from this, more than anything else, is to trust these types of businesses that go the extra mile for the consumer, even if it means traveling 10km to get there. The pleasant experience of shopping at Lepp Farm Market was well worth my time.
            In closing, please support your local butcher (or any other local business) that goes out of their way for you for an amazing shopping experience. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sauces for Topping Your Pasta

            In previous writings, I have suggested on several occasions that one should try their hand at making fresh pasta instead of always relying on purchasing it dry from a bag or box. Congratulations to you if you took my advice and tried your hand at this wonderful culinary skill. For those of you that did, and for those of you that never will, I want to give you some ideas for sauces to compliment your pasta, be it from fresh or dry.

            The most common is the classic tomato sauce. Although Chefs will consider it sacrilege to any pasta, a number of people still buy canned or jarred premade tomato sauces to don their pasta. Some will at least get creative by adding extra ingredients like onions or garlic, but nothing can take the place of good rustic homemade batch of tomato sauce. This does not have to be the style that simmers for hours on end either. Many great homemade pasta sauces can start out with a little help from canned diced tomatoes and some tomato paste and be done in record time. Reduce it down even further at the end (by simmering some of the water content out) and replenish with some whipping cream and you now have a rosé sauce for those special occasions when calorie counting is not on your priority list.

            Any ground meat (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, etc) cooked up at the beginning of the process will magically transform this rustic tomato or rosé sauce into a hearty meat sauce. Sausage meat can also be utilized in the same manner by removing it from the casings and cooking the same as ground meat. Italian sausage (mild or hot, depending on your tastes) is wonderful for this.

            A béchamel (white sauce) is a very simple sauce. Don’t let the fancy French culinary name scare you – it’s just milk thickened with flour and butter. A little seasoning (salt, pepper, and a pinch of ground nutmeg) and you have an incredible sauce that can be a blank canvas for your favorite cheeses to be melted in or tossed with bits of grilled chicken. Add garlic and parmesan and you will basically have alfredo sauce.

            Oils infused with flavors and seasonings can be the base of a tasty light pasta coating. Heating olive oil over medium to low heat and letting ingredients like crushed garlic, chillies, herbs, etc.
infuse their way into transforming a ordinary oil into a savoury enhancement. These types of sauces are perfect for less filling side dishes or during hot weather when a heavily thickened sauce is not desired.

            A batch of seasoned simmered vegetables can also be transformed into a smooth sauce bursting with flavors with the help of a blender, food processor, or hand immersion blender. We actually do one with ground lamb where it is simmered with a number of vegetables and herbs with some red wine. A few good pulses in a blender, at the end of the cook time, alter it into an amazing pasta sauce.

            One of the quickest pasta sauces you will ever make is a browned-butter sauce. It is exactly what the name states it to be – butter that has been browned. Take a hot pan and place a handful of cold butter cubes into it. Stir, or lift the pan and swirl the melting butter, until the butter foam has just started to brown and then toss with your favorite pasta. Your favorite fresh delicate herb (basil, oregano, sage, etc) can also be added at the time of the cold butter for an incredible infusion of herbal essential oils. Although we have all been taught never to add butter to a hot pan for fear that it will burn, the trick is to stop the cooking process of the “browning” butter before it hits the “burning” stage. Use salted butter to be more complimentary in taste and less seasoning you will have to do afterwards.

            These are merely suggestions as it would be literally impossible to cover every single type of pasta sauce idea here. What I want this column to be is an invitation for you to blow some dust off your cookbook collection or search recipes from the internet. Pasta is probably my favorite thing to eat, but I realize with most people that eating is not the problem; it’s the cooking part that feels like a chore sometimes. Find a way to make it fun. When I was younger, one thing I always insisted on when cooking pasta was to listen to Pavarotti while doing so. I still do on occasion, but now it is not only Pavarotti, but also Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban and others... and always with a glass of wine. Until next time, Happy Cooking…

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Start with a Blank Canvas

            When was the last time you unleashed your culinary talents? I don't mean cooking from your favourite cookbook; I am talking about making something in the kitchen completely from the ideas in your head and following your taste buds along the way. If your first inclination when reading this makes you cringe with stress, I am here to help.

            Let's face it, we all have kitchens and we need food to stay alive, so why not try to bring your cooking ability to new heights every now and then? These are life skills that will influence your dinner table for years to come. Honing these skills will not only bring some excitement to your regular meal planning, but also increase your confidence in the kitchen.

            The easiest way to approach this, is by beginning with meal ideas that use a blank canvas as a starting point. Being a Chef, people always ask me what my favourite things to cook are, and I usually answer with "pizza and pasta". These bases are perfect lackluster starting points that can be influenced in so many ways with unlimited ingredient and idea combinations.

            The first thing is to keep it simple. If it is beyond your desire, capabilities, or timeframe, I am not expecting you to make the pizza or pasta dough from scratch. Simple pre-made pizza crusts and dried pasta is a good enough start. In a pinch I have even created individual pizzas from pita or naan breads. Again, this is not about producing the canvas, it is about your creativity on the canvas. Making the canvas is something that you can pursue later down the road if desired.

            The next step is to investigate what you have in your refrigerator and pantry and start choosing some base ingredients to work with. Maybe something you have an abundance of, or something you have forgotten about. Have a look in your freezer too while you're at it. You'll be amazed at what you find to work with.

            Although it would be very traditional, with either pizza or pasta, to start with a base tomato sauce and add your selected ingredients to it, I want you to try something different and out of the
ordinary. For example, I have made pizzas with a sauce that consisted of cream cheese, dates, raw garlic and salt; and just last night I made a lamb rigatoni that used no tomatoes at all. If your mind draws a blank, then it is fine to peruse the internet for some ideas to get you started but try not to follow recipes specifically. This is about improving your personal culinary imagination. A wise man once told me "how can you cut any wood, if you don't sharpen the saw every now and then?"

            Trial and error is the best way to learn. Yes, I did say "error". You are going to make some mistakes along the way. The important aspect of this is to be okay with making these blunders. This is all about personal growth in the kitchen. These errors will hopefully help you figure what works, and what doesn't... which in turn will assist you with future escapades in the kitchen.

            If you are still at a loss as to where to begin, then go ahead and find a recipe that represents something completely different than what you would normally cook, and make it. What I want you to do then is make notes on the recipe on how you would recreate it to make it your own. What ingredients could you add, take out, or replace? What do you think will work? Again, there will still be a learning curve to this, but it is a starting point nonetheless. Most importantly: make notes. It may seem tedious to do, but you will want to recreate dishes that work, and try not to make the same mistakes with the ones that don't. We keep a book of blank pages in our kitchen, called our kitchen journal, that we fill with ideas and culinary pathways we have tried. Have fun with it. Everything is perspective.

            The added benefit is that every time you choose to cook at home, instead of eating out, you open the door to: saving money, eating healthier, and family team building. Until next time... Happy Cooking.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Breakfast Ideas

            On many occasions I have mentioned great ways to transform your dinner making experience into a special event, like pouring a glass of wine and putting on some great music, but what about breakfast? Isn’t this the most important meal of the day? Yes, to most health professionals it is, so this column is dedicated to making that pinnacle feast into something extraordinary.

            I understand that a vast percentage of the population have “day jobs” and that making a spectacular breakfast on a your weekday is far from being at the top of your priority list. These ideas are more geared towards your days off or if you work evenings.

            This is the perfect circumstance to forget about the bowl of cold cereal or toast and jam, and blow the dust off some old cookbooks to try something new. One of my wife’s favorite breakfast pastimes is making and perfecting different pancake recipes from around the world. It seems that every walk of life has their own version of what we know as the traditional North American pancake.
Making it a tradition to do a different pancake recipe every Saturday or Sunday morning is a fantastic journey around the culinary world. Our 9-year old daughter recently made her first German pancake for our weekend family breakfast - it was delicious!

            French toast is another common “special” breakfast that many people enjoy, but we prepare it differently on many instances. Instead of the traditional method of dipping bread in batter and frying in a pan, we often will make a large casserole dish of French toast the night before, letting the egg mixture soak in, and then baking it the next morning. Not only is it an extraordinary display at the breakfast table, it also allows us to have more free time in the morning to sip our special coffees and enjoy each other’s company.

            Actually there are many recipes that you can get mostly prepared the night before, like muffins or biscuits for example. Measure and combine all of the dry ingredients and then all you have to do is incorporate the wet ingredients in the morning.

            Incorporating fresh baked breads or unique types of bread will also enhance an ordinary breakfast. One way to make this easy is to prep the loaf the evening before, cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight. The bread might rise slightly in the fridge, but you will need to remove it from the fridge an hour or two before baking. Remove the plastic wrap, let it rise in a warm place until it doubles its original size and bake as usual. On many occasions we will serve fresh baked bread simply topped with butter and honey.

            If all of this seems like “work” however, there is one very quick way to help transform your regular breakfast of cold cereal: top with a handful of fresh in-season berries or some slices of banana. This will take very little time, offer more flavor, nutrition, and make a better presentation. There is a reason why all the photos of cereal on the cereal boxes are like this: better presentation equals more of a chance of you buying it.

            Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Onions: Preventing the Tears

            One of the most frequent question I get asked is “how do I prevent crying when cutting onions?” No one enjoys this eye burning sensation followed by what seems to be an emotional breakdown. The watery eyes are caused by a chemical gas that is released from the onion as it is
damaged by cutting. This chemical gas then reacts with the natural tears in our eyes and turns into a mild form of sulfuric acid which our eyes then water more to flush away the irritant.

            In my many years of cooking I have heard numerous ways to help prevent this reaction… some more effective than others and it is my pleasure to share these findings with you.

            I have heard that burning a candle near the cutting board will help because the flame will burn off these releasing gases. However, through my trial and errors all I have found is the tender glow from the candle just makes you look more romantic while you are crying.

            I have also heard stories that holding a spoon between your teeth, or a slice of bread hanging out of your mouth will eliminate any tears from shedding. The theory was presented to me that the metal of the spoon offers a chemical reaction with the gas to disperse it, while the bread would simply soak up the gases before reaching one’s eyes. We brought up these theories during a cooking class one evening and there was a man claiming to be a scientist in the crowd. He explained that it isn’t what you are holding between your teeth that matters, just the fact that you are biting onto something… or anything! When holding something between your teeth, your breathing pattern changes and you tend to inhale/exhale through your mouth more and thus the gases have a harder time reaching your eyes. I have tried this on many occasions with a wide variety of objects hanging out of my mouth (yes, my wife still thinks I’m handsome) and it does work for the most part, but not 100 percent.

            There is a rumor that if one cuts their onion in a certain fashion, or uses a very sharp knife, that the number of fumes being released from the onion will be limited. In my opinion, this is malarkey. I have cut so many onions, in so many ways in my career (and always using a sharp knife) and have never experienced less eye irritation from doing so.

            Knowing that you will be working with an onion for dinner, one of the best bets is to toss it in the refrigerator that morning or at least an hour or two beforehand. Hot and warm air/gas rises, where cold air/gas doesn’t. This will keep fumes much lower to the cutting surface and less out of your eyes.

            Cutting onions near your overhead fan of your stovetop is also an option if it is powerful enough to suck the fumes in that direction and away from your eyes. Using a summer fan on a stand, positioned to blow in the opposite direction of where you are standing at the cutting board is also ideal. Even better would be to have a mini sized fan that sits on the counter, or clamps onto a cupboard, for these tearful chopping moments.

            Lastly, I want to tell you about the method that I use more often than the others: Onion
Goggles. Yes, goggles specifically made to keep these harmful onion vapors away from your eyes that can be purchased from any specialty food or kitchenware stores or online. They have a foam backing and they sit on your face just like glasses without pressure on your eye sockets or face from other so-called solutions such as swimming goggles or ski masks. I have cut many an onion with this great invention and since they come in an array of colors too, not only will your eyes and cheeks stay dry, but you will also look stylish. The only problem with these is that if you where glasses full-time, these will not accommodate your spectacles at the same time.
            Discover one of these methods that works for you and until next time... Happy (and tearless) Cooking!