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Sorry for the lack of posting– the missus and I recently returned from the Land of Tuscan Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, and are getting all of our domestic ducks in a row. We’ll have a nifty update soon, featuring some of our culinary adventures in the lovely Italia.
Keep checking back!
March 6, 2009 in May Contain Meat Products, Meta, Recipes, Veg | Tags: basic cooking, chicken, fish, how to cook, ingredients, meat, pasta, recipe, salmon, spices, tips, turkey, vegetables | by J | 4 comments
In the interest of expanding on some of the basic philosophies of this site, we thought we’d jot down a few “rules of thumb” that we always have in the back of our heads while cooking. These aren’t recipes per se, but having these concepts rattling around in the back of your head too will allow you to make your food delicious by eliminating the need for recipes. I mean, recipes are nice, but there are a few tools that will allow you to basically come home and toss together something tasty without having to crack open that damnable Rachel Ray cookbook your moms got for you last Christmas.
So here is this list, which you can memorize, or post on your fridge, or completely ignore!
1. Pasta. Cooking pasta is perhaps the best thing to know how to do if you’re going to be eating at home. If, however, you are going to make pasta with any kind of regularity, you absolutely need some kind of large-sized pot. Why are you still cooking pasta in that beat-up old saucepan you’ve had since college? You know the one I’m talking about: it was too small to cook a box of mac and cheese without the water all boiling over and sizzling on that nasty old hotplate and getting your room all smelling like smoke.
Seriously, when you cook pasta, you need a crazy lot of water! You should have a nice big stockpot so you can add about 10 cups of water per 1/2 pound of noodles. It’s okay to go a little plus or minus, but seriously. Use lots of water. Something else to do is to add about a tablespoon of salt to the water, which will draw out the flavor of the pasta. And, adding olive oil to the water not only tastes good, it also helps keep the noodles from sticking together or boiling over. Unless you are making pasta iced-cream or some other ridiculous thing, you should add salt and olive oil to the water every time you make pasta.
Another thing I see happen a lot that is not conducive to a pleasant pasta experience is when the pasta is placed in the water before the heat even gets turned on. Yikes! Your water should be at a nice, mid-level roil before you even think about adding a collection of sticks of hardened flour to it! If you add your pasta before the water boils, here is what will happen: the pasta will get all gummy, and you’ll end up with one of those nasty ’spaghetti logs’ that’s made up of about twenty noodles all stuck together, all dry in the middle ’cause the sauce can’t get to it.
Also, when you make pasta, you should do your pasta the honor of staying close by the pot. The water shouldn’t be at an insane boil; it should be boiling, but not so much that the water gets foamy and starts pouring over the side of the pot. If you refuse to occasionally stir your pasta while it’s cooking, it will get angry with you and stick together all nasty-like. We’ve also just discovered a nifty way to keep your pasta (or anything) from boiling over: lay a spoon or spatula or similarly lengthy object across the top of the pot and you’re . Why does this work? We suspect it has something to do with magical gnomes.
Finally, we all know the old story about tossing spaghetti against the wall to find out if it’s done, which is like a no longer funny ridiculous cliche. It’s better to grab out a piece with a utensil of some kind, stick it under some cold water, and eat it. Although ‘al dente’ pasta holds a sauce really nice, you might like it cooked a bit longer. The thinner the pasta, the less cooking time it takes, and vice-versa. Delicate angel hair needs but the briefest exposure to liquid to get nice and tender and delicious. Thick whole wheat lasagna noodles can take a good twenty minutes to boil down.
2. Sauces: If you can add one thing to another thing, you can make a homemade marinara sauce in about as much time as it takes to go to the store for a jar of Newman’s Own. Slice up some onion and some garlic, and fry them up in some olive oil with about a tablespoon of basil until they smell like your Italian childhood. Add a can of diced tomatoes (including the liquid) and a chopped green pepper. Add tomato paste for a thicker sauce, and water or broth for a thinner. Toss in a teaspoon of salt and some oregano, and let it cook down for about ten minutes. That’s all you need to do!
If you really want to go all out like an old Italian lady with thick ankles, though, all you need is time. Sundays work really well. The ingredients are the same as above, but everything should be fresh instead of canned. Start cooking the sauce about four hours before you’re ready for dinner, and let it cook down on low heat. While it’s cooking you can play with it! Add some sugar, some other savory spices, and as many vegetables as will fit in the pot. If you’re a meat eater, add some delicious short ribs, some ground beef, or some Italian sausage– no real prep needed, just be sure they’re covered by the sauce and cooked all the way through when you serve the meal! If you’re a vegetarian, use veggie crumbles or TVP. Trader Joe’s makes some delicious fake meatballs that you can add ten to fifteen minutes before you’re about to serve. Or, soak some seitan chunks in apple cider vinegar and toss them into the pot an hour into the cooking process– they’ll be rib-like and yummy.
A white sauce is just as simple, and way quicker. Simmer some milk or cream on low heat (do not use high heat because burnt cream is nasty!). Add a quarter of a cup of butter. Whisk the butter into the cream. Now, gradually add sprinkles of flour and about a teaspoon of salt, whisking the whole time. This is really all there is to it! You can add some basil, some pepper, some oregano, or leave as is. The possibilities are endless!
3. Eggs: Why are you still using those nasty factory produced eggs? Not only are they tragically evil for the chickens, they taste disgusting when compared to organic, farm raised, free range eggs (as mentioned in this post about the Hamster). Organic eggs have become more and more affordable and available lately– they usually run about a dollar more per dozen. If you can’t afford an extra dollar for nicer eggs, you have no business cooking eggs. Eggs cook best when kept at room temperature, but cooking refrigerated eggs is not the end of the world. Crack your egg on a flat surface, not on the rim of the bowl.
There are two ways to cook an egg: wet and dry. Your hard- and soft-boiled eggs and your poached eggs are cooked wet. For the perfect hard-boiled egg, put your eggs in a pot and then cover them with water. Bring them to a boil. Cover the pot and take it off of the heat. Let it sit for fifteen minutes. That’s all you need to do!
Soft-boiled eggs are generally consumed by straw-hat wearing aristocrats from the Gay Nineties in baby blue egg-cups who have an egg before riding around on one of those old bikes with a huge wheel in front. To soft boil an egg, repeat the above procedure but instead of letting the eggs sit for fifteen minutes, eat them immediately.
Poaching requires mad skills or special equipment, so we’ll ignore that for now.
Dry cooked eggs are your scrambled eggs, your fried eggs, your over-hard or -easy eggs, your omelets, your frittata. Always remember that the best way to ruin eggs is to add too many seasonings. If you buy organic eggs, you will not need to cover the flavor of styrofoam and death with lots of spices. The nicest egg is seasoned with just a little bit of salt and perhaps some pepper. That is all.
If you’re cooking bacon or sausage (or eggplant bacon) along with eggs, cook the bacon or sausage first, drain the grease from the pan leaving enough to coat the bottom, and then cook the eggs in the same pan. This is how eggs are cooked in West Virginia truck stops, and why they are so delicious.
Eggs can be scrambled with anything. Toss in some cooked ham, some shredded gruyere, some hot dogs. Add a pinch of salt and some pepper, some garlic salt, a small amount of milk. Cook your mixture on medium or so and mix it as it cooks, and you’re scrambling your eggs! Cook your mixture on medium-high (or higher) in a well-oiled pan and you are making a frittata! Add cheese/meat/spinach to half of your frittata and fold it in half and you are making an omelet! (To truly make an omelet you need written permission and a golden medal from the Sorbonne, but a folded frittata is good enough to fool your palate and your brunch guests.)
If you are frying eggs or cooking frittatas, be sure the pan is well-oiled and hot hot hot. The eggs will cook quickly, so don’t toss an egg in a pan and then walk away like a crazy person.
4. Spices & Condiments. When you cook, add spices very gradually. If you cup your hand as though you are swimming in a swimming pool, the middle of your palm will be close enough to a teaspoon that you can fill it with a spice instead of an actual teaspoon.
Here are some things you need to know:
Salt and pepper– Too much salt is ridiculous, but small amounts of salt go a long way. Pepper is overused in this country. Your rice does not need pepper.
Basil– The best basil is slightly sweet. Too much basil is the bane of some of the nastiest marinara sauces ever served at food court pizzarias where they heat up pasta by dipping it in tepid water.
Garlic– Fresh is good, but powder is nice to have around for quick meals.
Lemon pepper– is delicious and inexpensive.
Olive Oil– Is good when added to pretty much anything. You would be surprised at how nice a cheesecake can be when drizzled with olive oil.
Paprika– The Balkans in a can. Try it on french fries for deliciousness.
Soy sauce– Do not add soy sauce to things that are not cooked. What I mean to say is, soy sauce should be used while you are cooking, as an ingredient, not as a condiment, unless what you are eating contains something uncooked (i.e. sushi).
Tamarind– The ultimate savory secret ingredient. Add tamarind syrup to barbecue sauces, glazed and even marinara sauce for extra deliciousness.
Horseradish/Wasabi– Horseradish is more than something served at Wisconsin polka parties. Wasabi is more than something used to challenge friends to pain at Japanese restaraunts. Try adding these items to devilled eggs, and bloody marys. Mix them into marinades, and rub fish with them.
Mortar and Pestle– If you regularly cook with spices, this is good to have, though a coffee grinder is an excellent substitute.
Mustard seed– Add this to sizzling oil, and it will pop like popping corn! Then add veggies and you have deliciousness.
Anise– Anise and fennel are licorice. They are also good in desserts if you like licorice.
Boullion Cubes– Always have some on hand. Beef, chicken and veggie. OXO if you can find it. When you are steaming veggies, toss a cube of boullion into the water for an extra burst of flavor. Toss them into pasta water, too!
5. Vegetables. If you are like me and E, you are constantly amazed at how interesting vegetables are. There is a ‘flavor ladder’ for vegetables, which looks like this:
From Most Flavorful and Delicious to Least Flavorful and Delicious:
Fresh, Organic, Plucked From A Garden And Immediately Eaten
Fresh, Unorganic, Plucked From A Garden And Immediately Eaten
Fresh, Organic, Purchased At A Store
Fresh, Unorganic, Purchased At A Store
Scraped From The Bottom Of The Crisper And Covered In Brownish-Purple Slime
Normally, the difference in taste between organic and unorganic is subtle enough to forget about, but if you’re going to be serving them raw, tomatoes and green peppers and mixed greens should always be as fresh and organic as possible. When served alone as a side-dish, canned vegetables are fine if tasteless. However, when adding vegetables as ingredients, if you do not have fresh veggies on hand, use frozen instead of canned.
Some canned vegetables can be very nice! Beans in particular don’t seem too terrified by being canned. Green bean salad from cans is tasty. Fava beans, when canned, are yummy. Kidney beans, however, should almost never be used for anything unless mushed, as they are covered in an indigestible skin and taste something like a handful of red dirt scraped from the top of a mesa in Arizona. Unless purchased unsalted, canned beans should always be drained and then rinsed in cold water to wash off the extra sodium.
Overcooking vegetables is a good way to experience disgusting mush.
Toss some root vegetables in olive oil and some salt. Grab a handful of fresh rosemary stalks. Use the rosemary branches as skewers for the root veggies, and put them on the grill or in the oven!
When cooking asparagus, bend the stalk until it snaps. The pointy end will be entirely edible, and the blunt end can be discarded.
You can be really creative with vegetables. I once made a dessert pie with sweet peas and it was delicious!
6. Meats. Finally, here are a few things you should know about meats. I saved this for last since I know some of our readers are vegetarians, so if you are upset by the consumption of meat, you can stop reading here!
Poultry: Chicken and turkey are what you’ll need to know about unless you plan on cooking duck or goose. Duck and goose contain so much oil and fat that they literally fry as they bake, which makes them so tasty but not something that you’ll use as a staple.
Chicken can be cooked either whole or in parts. Cooking a whole chicken means roasting it, in the oven or on a grill. Rub your chicken with garlic and salt, and toss some fresh rosemary inside the cavity. Shove some cloves of garlic all up underneath the skin in a few places. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees, and when it is at 450 degrees, put in the chicken and turn the heat down to 350. Keep your bird wet, people! Nobody likes a dry bird. Toss a boullion cube or two into a half-cup of water and a half-cup of dry white wine, and that’s a good starter baste until the bird starts to ooze juices. You can get one of those baster thingies that has a little needle at the end, and use it as a flavor syringe! If you don’t have a pop-out timer, stick a fork between the leg joint and the breast. When the juice is as clear as the water from a glacier-fed stream, your bird is done! Figure on 2-3 hours.
To cook a turkey, do the exact same thing, but cover it in a cheesecloth soaked in butter, and lay a nice slab of aluminum foil over the top. Give it about fifteen minutes per pound.
“Turkey Burgers” should have been outlawed a long time ago. Have some dignity, people.
Chicken cooked in parts is easy! Cut up some carrots and potatoes, some onions and some garlic. Add them to a saucepan with a cup of water, some salt and pepper, and bring them to a boil. Add chicken pieces: legs, thights, what have you. Cover, lower the heat, and simmer– salt and pepper as needed! Or, dip your chicken in some egg, and then in a mixture of breadcrumbs, flour, and crushed corn flakes! Or, cornmeal. Then drop it in hot oil and let it fry for a good solid ten to fifteen minutes. If you are grilling chicken, marinate it in olive oil and lemon juice. The acid in the lemon juice will magically begin the cooking process, which will help you avoid creating a poisoned meal.
Never, ever, ever grill chicken that has not been marinated in something acidic. Do you want to bite into a leg and find that the center is wobbly and raw? Do you want to create Salmonella blooms in the digestive tracts of your guests? I Did Not Think So.
Pork and Beef could have another blog post as long as this one, so here are a few items that are not thorough enough but should sate you for now.
– Do not add salt to pork until after it has been cooked. The salt will dry the pork in an unfortunate way, and dry pork is not fun.
– Beef cuts with a bit of fat involved, on the other hand, generally benefit from a quarter tablespoon of salt and cracked pepper mixed together and rubbed on both sides.
– Be careful when you’re cooking beef that you get an appropriate cut for what you intend to cook. Your local meat person at the grocery store will let you know which cuts can be cooked in the blink of an eye and which require the gentle touch that only a few hours of cooking can provide. Generally speaking, the more fat that is present, the less time it needs to cook, but that is a dangerous generalization that I’m only making because I trust you to DO THE RIGHT THING.
– Sausage is also good baked instead of fried! However, anything tastes good when wrapped in ground sausage and deep fried.
– Ground beef is like Vodka. If you buy quality stuff, you can use it by itself; the flavor should be just right. If it’s not so good, it’s best mixed with something else. If you’re making burgers or meatloaf or meatballs, toss in some ground lamb or chorizo. Never get the leanest stuff, which doesn’t hold together very well and dries out– yuck! Look for the stuff that’s 15%-18% and you’ll be in like Errol Flynn.
Fishies. This one’s easy: delicate white fish should be poached, steamed or breaded.
Poaching a fish is delightful! Take some thin white fish such as sole, with which this works beautifully, and place it in a pan with a bit of lemon zest, some dill and some salt (no liquid!). Next to this pan, boil about a cup and a half of broth (boullion cubes!) some peppercorns, and a bay leaf. When the water is boiling, POUR IT OVER THE FISH! The boiling liquid will immediately cook the fish to perfection. Remove the fish and serve with rice. If you are a “Fish Hipster” you could also try this with tilapia, though we find tilapia kind of odious and trendy.
You can also cook white fish by baking it. Dip it in raw egg, then breadcrumbs. Put it in the oven at about 250 until it is done.
If you’re going to deep-fry fish, use a thick white fish such as cod or halibut or catfish. Roll your fish in milk, then cornmeal, and you’re set! Toss it in some sizzling hot olive oil!
If you’re cooking white fish on the stove, marinate the fish in milk for fifteen minutes beforehand. You will be glad you did.
The best of the oily, non-white fish is salmon. SALMON IS THE KING OF FISH, THE SIRLOIN OF FISH AND SHOULD BE TREATED WITH DUE RESPECT! Frozen or farmed salmon are unimpressive; fresh stuff is worth the extra cost. All you need to cook salmon is a bit of salt, a bit of pepper, some olive oil, and perhaps some dill and a sprinkle of capers. Bake it at 300/325 or grill it over indirect heat until the fat runs out the top. The skin should be crispy and edible if you grill it, and tender and edible if baked. Seriously– salmon skin is the bacon of the sea and should always be eaten. Anything more than this is an insult to the Benevolent Grace of the Wonderful God who granted us this Delicious Fish (that’s King Neptune).
Some people do not like salmon. This is because at one time, likely in the nineteen fifties when olive oil was only available in pharmacies (seriously!), someone (likely the Devil hisself) told someone else that salmon should be blended together and pressed into cakes and fried in vegetable oil and served to schoolchildren. Invariably, if someone mentions that they do not like salmon for this reason but are then fed Proper Salmon, they change their minds.
Canned salmon is only good when mixed with lots of cream cheese and some walnuts, and then it is extra good.
Needless to say, when considering any of the above, try your dangdest to go local, organic, free-range, grain-fed. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes!
My friends, this little guide is by no means comprehensive, but the information contained herein should allow the interested to begin experimenting in good faith. And really, that’s the key to learning how to cook: experimentation! Food is very amenable to being messed with, and if you play around and come up with something terrible, just don’t make it again.
If you have any additional tips, or some questions, drop them into the comments!
One balmy fall evening, J, a lifelong omnivore who will gladly try anything at least once, met E, a dedicted vegetarian. Far from being incompatible, the two of them began dating, and E knew it was love when J made her a vegetarian version of his famous spaghetti pie. Since then, the challenges and compromises of being a “biculinary” couple have been a celebrated part of their relationship.
J loves meat. Any meat from any animal is worth at least a taste or two, the fattier the better. However, as an adventurous omnivore, he also loves vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
E never lets meat cross her palate (though she’s sometimes tempted by fried seafood). Nonetheless, as a tolerant member of the vegetarian culture, she has no problem with J’s carnivorous proclivities.
Together, they began creating recipes that would please the both of them, often coming up with creative vegetarian substitutes for meat dishes, or multiple versions of dishes which could include meat or be meat free. They began touring local Seattle restaurants in search of vegetarian entrees that would please the palate of the avid carnivore, and non-vegetarian restaurants that could accomodate E’s needs as well as J’s.
Their situation is by no means unique, especially in a day and age where vegetarianism is on an increase but bacon is experiencing a renaissance. There is also a renewed focus on ethical eating and issues of sustainability; more meat eaters are becoming aware of the unsound practices of factory farming, which the veggie set has known about for years. So, they decided to share their experiences with the world, and The Edibility Exam is how they’ve chosen to do it.
The Edibility Exam will present reviews of vegetarian restaurants and non-veggie establishments which ask the following questions:
– Vegetarian Restaurants: Would this place please a meat eater?
– Non-vegetarian Restaurants: How well does this place accomodate a vegetarian?
We will also feature recipes for the biculinary, local foodie news, and more. We hope you’ll check us often!