Tuesday, July 24, 2018

My Top 10 "Secret" Ingredients

We all have them: our secret ingredients that transform recipes into one-of-a-kind creations that are to die for. This is what keeps food exciting at the dinner table and makes it unique to us. Although these
top 10 of mine officially won’t be a “secret” anymore, I am happy to share them with you.

Blueberry Jam – Beef or other red meats such as lamb or various game meats will always benefit from a little something bold & sweet. Blueberry jam is my “go to” ingredient for burger patties, chilli, stew, etc. It will not only compliment in flavour, but also the sweetness will help counteract any acidity in the recipe. Blackberry jam is good too, but the seeds aren’t pleasant.

Peanut Butter – Although with the increasing number of peanut allergies in our society, peanut butter should never be secretive. However, it is wonderful for using as a base for any peanut dressings, dips (like for chicken satay for example), or stir-fry sauces. A dollop of peanut butter in a pot of chilli is great too.

Sambal Oelek – Every Chef knows about the “sambal”. This is a liquid/paste crushed chilli pepper product that can be purchased in small jars from the imported foods aisle of almost any major grocery store. Dried chillis always need time for rehydration, so this product is a perfect replacement as it is instant heat. I add a little (about 1/2 teaspoon or so) to spaghetti sauces, soups, and stews… not to make them spicy; just extra dimension of flavour. If you want your food spicy, then add more.

Soy Sauce – If a dish requires extra seasoning, try adding soy sauce instead of salt. It will not only season your finished dish, but also provide extra flavour and colour.

Canned Anchovies – We all know this ingredient from Caesar dressings, but this is another salty ingredient that will do wonders for seasoning and bringing out flavours in many of your recipes. Add a couple of small filets to the beginning of the cooking process so that they break down into more of a paste. They will add such a different dimension of flavour that it will keep your dinner guests guessing.

Wine, Beer, Juice, or Broth – Water has no flavour or colour. When a recipe calls for a small amount of water to be added, I always replace with a different liquid that will be appropriate in flavour & colour to the dish I am making.

Whipping Cream – Not “whipped” cream, but “whipping” cream from a carton. This high fat content cream (usually 33% to 35% milk fat) is great to have on hand to add a little richness. Plus because it is so high in milk fat, it will not split when reducing down in a sauce, even if the sauce is acidic.

Butter – Obviously for health reasons both cream and butter should be used in moderation, but a small pat of butter to finish a sauce is wonderfully delicious. Simply pull your finished sauce off the heat and just before serving, stir in a small amount until melted. Melting a pat of butter over a grilled steak is also great. Oh, and for the record, I always use salted butter.

Fennel Seed – Not from the same plant as the fennel bulb we see in the produce department, these do have a similar taste of black licorice. Fennel seed is a traditional ingredient in Italian sausage, but I always throw in a couple teaspoons of these seeds to my tomato pasta sauces.

Charcoal – Although not an ingredient like the others listed here, cooking with this natural fuel of carbonized wood adds such a depth of flavour to everything from burgers to desserts. We even cook sauces, soups, stews over charcoal as well as many baked goods, and of course traditional barbecue. I am not talking manufactured square-shaped “briquettes” here; I am talking about lump charcoal: chunks of wood that have been heated with very little to no oxygen, so they naturally carbonize. According to archeological expeditions, we as humans have been cooking with this fuel for thousands of years, so this is the oldest known form of fuel to humankind.

Until next time... Happy Cooking!

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!