Chasing Flavor

July 7 006
Any minute now my postman is going to arrive with my new Stovetop Smoker. I’ve been getting ready for it’s arrival; I have been brining a half chicken since yesterday, I have some St. Louis Ribs that have been dry rubbed, and some corn all ready to smoke. Both my daughter and I love the flavor of smoked food, and though I dream of one day buying a Big Green Egg, this seems s bit more practical. I am planning on smoking everything from meat to fish, cheese to vegetables. So now I sit here waiting… Look for my debut results tomorrow!

Anyone who loves food is a flavor chaser. I may not love super spicy food, but I love food loaded with spice. In culinary school we were taught that three things flavor food; salt, sugar and fat, and though that is true, herbs and spices really bring a lot to the table (so to speak). When I cook I like to plan what my dish will taste like, what will go well with it, and what can I do to bring out the most flavor. A critical part of that is how you treat your ingredients, from how and when you add them to your dish to how you combine different flavor types.

Most spices are fat (not water) soluble, which means if you want the most from your spices, as well as your aromatics such as carrots, garlic, onion, peppers, you should sauté them in some fat before adding them to your main ingredient. Dried herbs can go right into the water, sauce, or whatever, and they can stand up to cooking time, in fact they need it to rehydrate, while fresh herbs really need to go in at the last minute, and I generally don’t add them until the food is off the heat. Vinegar and citrus really brighten flavor, and are a great addition to heavy and starchy legumes, like a lentil or bean dish, I love to use the fresh juice of an orange in any black bean soup. If you are looking to add depth of flavor- umami, soy, tamari, or Worcestershire can do this, I am also a fan of powdered mushroom to add some meaty flavor to vegetarian dishes.

You might think, reading this that my spice rack is jammed, but it’s not. I have my go-to flavorings, and don’t like to keep dried herbs and spices too long, as they get a flat taste that won’t cook out, so I try not to keep too much on hand. I always have smoked paprika, garam masala, saffron, a few spice blends I like and a few dried herbs. I like flavored salts, and I have a bunch of vinegars, flavored oils, and some spirits for cooking; brandy, sherry, mirin, and sake. I even have hot sauce and crushed red pepper. If a recipe calls for a small amount of something I don’t have I am willing to substitute or omit it- I am not a particularly strict recipe follower, and often I use a recipe more as a guide than a map.

There are so many ways to build flavor, and building is the way I like to look at it. As you prepare your food, you layer technique and ingredients together to enhance your main ingredient. Before you even start cooking you might marinate, or brine or use a dry rub. Then you grill, smoke,brown or sear; add aromatics like carrots, onion, celery, garlic, peppers (hot or sweet) or ginger, and spices. Your next layer may be some flavored liquid such as tomatoes or tomato sauce or paste, wine, soy sauce, or stock. Then you start adding herbs, and salt and pepper to finish. Obviously you don’t need to go through all these steps, if you have a great steak all you need to do is season with salt and pepper, throw it on a hot grill, and don’t overcook it. What is important to remember is that just because garlic and strawberries are your two favorite flavors doesn’t mean they work well together!

Well, my parcels have arrived, and I’m ready to get started smoking! Tomorrow’s post will likely be a mix of triumph and tragedy, so stay tuned!!
July 7 004

Posted in big green egg, cameron's stovetop smoker, eating well, flavor, Food, smoking, stovetop smoker, summer | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eating; the Movie

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In 1990 Henry Jaglom made a movie called Eating: A Very Serious Comedy About Women and Food. I saw the movie when it was released twenty three years ago, and as a result of writing this blog it’s been on my mind lately, so I just watched it again Sunday. Though there is much about it that is dated, and there isn’t much of a story line, the best parts of the movie are the short interviews with individual women talking about their relationships with food, and the part that food plays in their lives. Watching this I was reminded that so many people-especially women; beautiful, confident, thin, accomplished women, struggle with food, and eating; it’s not just me, and it’s not just people who struggle with weight, or people with eating disorders.

The movie centers around a birthday party being thrown by one woman for herself and two friends, she is turning forty, and one friend is turning thirty the other fifty. One of the scenes that really struck a chord with me was when birthday cake is being served; a plate of cake goes around the circle of women (there must be at least twenty five) from one hand to another, arrives back at the start and is passed through again, no one will eat it.

How often do we let the cake pass by? Literally or metaphorically, there will always be cake, and there will always be choices, and if you really want that cake why don’t you have some? There is a young woman in the film (she is the daughter of the woman turning fifty) who can’t seem to stop eating cake, but she hides to eat it; on the stairs, in the bathroom; only once does she eat in front of someone, and by then she’s had several pieces… Does cake have to be an all or nothing proposition? What does our desire for food, a desire beyond need, say about us? Does appetite define character?

Though many of the women in the movie describe themselves as fat not one of them is. Why do women think of themselves as fat when they clearly aren’t, and what does it mean to call yourself fat regardless of whether or not you are? Does fat define character? If you are overweight is that a signal to the world that your character is weak? I think for some people it is, and like so many things we all rush to judgment on, all I can offer is ‘it’s a lot more complicated than that’. A long time ago I saw a TV interview with Rosie O’Donnell, she was talking about a conversation she’d had with her agent about getting more movie roles; the agent said Rosie should think about losing some weight- to which Rosie replied ‘Wow, what a great idea, I can’t believe I never thought of that’ which I’m sure caused every woman watching that interview to laugh almost as hard as I did. It’s all most of us ever think about, no matter how hard we try not to, and most of us don’t try all that hard.

What I want to do through this blog, and through talking to women is to change the subject. How about if we stop talking about how fat we are, and eat a piece of birthday cake. The ceiling will not cave in, and you will not gain an instant 25 pounds even if you swear you will. The less we talk and obsess about it, the less we engage in shaming ourselves and calling ourselves names, the more time and energy we’ll have to truly enjoy our lives, our families and friends, and I bet we’ll all smile a lot more too. Think how much time you’d have to think about your next vacation, plan a party, or taking over the world, if you weren’t obsessing about how many calories you consumed at lunch, and if you really should skip dinner. I dare you to try it for one day- take twenty four hours, and free yourself from your diet, you have so much more to gain, than you do to lose!

Posted in diets, eating right, eating well, Food, making peace with food | Tagged , , , , , ,

Save Hundreds of Dollars and the Planet!

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I love water! Iced Tea, and water are my two favorite beverages. When I was growing up, we never had milk with meals, we drank water, only my brother drank milk, the rest if us didn’t really like it. We had a soda man who came every other week to deliver bottles of soda, in all kinds of flavors and a big blue seltzer bottle for my dad. I didn’t really like soda either; I didn’t like the bubbles, and it was so sweet, so I drank water. We kept a bottle of it in the fridge, and refilled it as needed, from the tap.

Water is a great way to hydrate your body. It goes with everything, it can cool you or warm you, you can flavor it and enhance it to suit your taste, and it’s readily available almost anywhere. Most people in the U.S. have access to good quality, safe drinking water, and though some places have better tasting water, chances are you are accustomed to your local water, and it tastes just fine to you. Companies like Coca Cola and Nestle want you to think the water they sell you is better than what comes from your kitchen sink, but it’s probably not true. It’s great that more people are choosing water than soda but why shell out money for what is free (or close to it) and easily available.

In 1989 inspired by the success of Perrier, companies started selling bottled water, and we started buying it, and buying and buying… But you don’t have to! How difficult do you think it would be for you to stop buying water? What would happen to you? Would you suffer from dehydration and feel a never-ending thirst? I am here to tell you, you can do it, and if I can, I’m going to try to convince you to free yourself from the bottle, and it won’t take twelve steps! A few years ago I started thinking about how much money I was spending on water, as well as how much trash I was generating by buying two to three bottles of water daily. I decided I would stop buying water in 2008, and with very few exceptions have kept that resolution. I would estimate that in the past five years I’ve saved about $3500, and kept countless of plastic bottles out of circulation.

My water of choice was Glaceau Smart Water. It tastes really good, is electrolyte enhanced, and of course I loved drinking water that claimed to be smart- smart is very important, and maybe drinking it would make me smarter too. I don’t know if it’s still there, but there used to be a message behind the logo which you could read when you turned the bottle around, I don’t recall exactly what it said, but I do recall this phrase “So, you think your (sic) pretty smart…” and I realized that I was smarter than my water as well as its bottlers, not because someone had made an error (we all make mistakes, I’m sure that my blogs, however many times I proof read them, are filled with them) but because many people would have looked this copy over before it went to print, and because the message remained unchanged for quite a while. Clearly all those electrolytes weren’t making them any smarter, more alert, or attentive to details…

I feel much smarter now. I drink water that I filter. I use it to make my iced tea, or coffee, or just to drink. If I am travelling I carry reusable bottles, and more and more places are installing spigots on water fountains for refilling these bottles. It’s true, you can be very conscientious about recycling all your plastic (though some statistics claim 82% of plastic bottles go into landfill trash), but those bottles need to be transported to you, and recycling uses a significant amount of energy as well… Here is a story (though a few years old) talking about the cost of bottled water.

I realize that this piece isn’t really about food. I’m happy you’re still reading this, and haven’t hit delete yet, thanks. But I think this is important, and I hope thinking about it will have some influence on you. I hope you will reconsider the next time you go to pay for a bottle of water, and I hope you’ll give your tap water a try! I promise, tomorrow I will write about food.

July 7 011

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Breakfast for Dinner

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When we were kids every once in a while we would have breakfast for dinner. It was upside down, it was a break from the norm, it was exciting, and it was fun! My daughter loves breakfast for dinner, as do most kids I know. Even I feel like a kid again when I make myself an omelet, or something breakfast-y at night. In my younger days-when I could still stay up until 2 a.m. we loved going to the diner for a big, messy, greasy pre-dawn breakfast, now, sadly, I think that combination might be more than I could manage, but breakfast in the middle of the night is as at least as much fun as it is at 6:00 p.m.

A few years ago I went to Seattle for four days to interview for a job. Because it was a short trip, and I was travelling alone, I did my best to stay on Eastern time, going to bed early and waking early as well. On my last morning, the day of my interview, I awoke around 3:00, I was nervous, and had to get ready for the interview as well as pack to leave. Of course all of this took much less time than I expected, so there I was all dressed up and ready for breakfast at 4:00 a.m. local time. I Yelped, and found a bar in walking distance from my hotel that served food all night and set off. When I called my friend Nicole for some last minute advice and to chat, and told her where I was she was quite surprised to hear I was alone at a bar at 4:00, this scenario being quite out of character for me. It was a great breakfast, chicken fried steak, eggs and probably some kind of potatoes and coffee, and though I don’t think it was related to my meal, I didn’t get the job…

When I think of breakfast for dinner, I want more than a scrambled egg and a slice of toast, I want pancakes, or waffles, I want corn fritters with syrup and sausage or bacon. I can’t recall the last time we had breakfast for dinner, but shaking things up can bring out some creativity and challenge our notions of what a specific meal should be. Lately I have been having a more dinner-y lunch, and a salad for dinner. I haven’t done any metrics, but the results seem interesting. I think I eat less for my dinner/lunch at midday, and my salad dinner is certainly less than my usual dinners, and about the same as my lunch salad. I go to bed feeling lighter, and not feeling hungry. I can’t say I did this with any plan or purpose, though it may be a factor of my effort to consume more fruits and veggies (I have yet to hit ten, but am managing a solid 7-8 per day). In any case, for now it feels right, and lately I’m going with that for all kinds of things.

Even the most creative and adventurous cooks can fall into a mealtime rut. Our bodies, working on an internal timer seem to say “lunchtime” at a certain time, maybe 12:30, or 1:00 depending on our habits, and before we even check to see if we feel hungry, we eat, and then we do it again at 6:30 or 7:00. Of course for many of us these time as prescribed by our jobs, spouses, children, etc, but it is probably worth at least taking notice.

Time isn’t the only rut we’re subject to though. Do you eat the same breakfast or lunch every day? Do you even notice what you are eating? Do you enjoy it? You probably have more variety at dinner, but do you have 5-6 standard meals you kind of rotate through? Many people do, I do, and why do we so often rely on restaurants to provide variety? If you’ve got some great home cooking ideas please share them here, as I will as I start to expand my rotation of regular meals.

Posted in eating right, eating well, Food, making peace with food, summer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Independence Day Pie

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It seems like the two times of year Americans love to eat, make and talk about pie (well maybe that last is just me) are Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. In the Fall we want seasonal pies like apple, sweet potato, pumpkin and pecan. But it’s summer now, so a pie-makers fancy naturally turns to stone fruit. Pie is one of my favorite desserts; I will choose pie over most other options, including chocolate. Sadly, it has become almost impossible to get a really good pie, unless you make it yourself, and it is a very easy thing to do- easy as pie!

The first step in making a really good pie is the crust. Many people leave the crust behind when they eat pie, but I think it is the main attraction! It isn’t difficult to make a good crust. My mom made great pies- especially lemon meringue- and they were always beautiful to look at. She taught us to make crust when we were kids, and we used Crisco- you may scoff, but shortening and lard make the most tender crust. That being said I use butter; I like the way it tastes, and feels. Have you ever eaten a pastry or croissant from a random bakery and felt that scummy feeling in your mouth? That is because the Sweetex (commercial shortening product) they used doesn’t melt in your mouth (at 98 degrees f) the way butter does. When making crust remember the less you handle it the better, the glutens that will develop will make the dough more elastic, but less tender and flaky. Pie crust dough freezes well, I used to make several crusts, wrap them in plastic, fold them in quarters and stack them in my freezer!

I am not a fan of using cornstarch or flour to thicken fruit pies. I use instant tapioca which yields a juicier pie, that holds together well enough to cut, but doesn’t have a gummy feel, or floury taste. Fresh fruit is best, frozen is fine too, but please do not use canned fruit or canned pie filling! It is not hard to make pie filling, unless you are pitting your own cherries, which is pretty time consuming, though a great task for children who want to help. Mixing fruits together is a good way to deal with those peaches and plums starting to get too soft, and if you don’t have enough for a pie, toss them into the freezer until you do. There are tons of recipes for pies, but all you need is enough fruit to fill your shell, about one cup of sugar, 2-3 TBL of instant tapioca, and whatever seasonings you like.

Seasoning a pie may sound like an odd idea, but spices and aromatics can bring out the most flavor from your fruit. Most people use cinnamon and nutmeg for any pie, but keep in mind some other options: ginger; fresh or ground; lemon peel or juice, vanilla, or bourbon, balsamic vinegar, or pepper, toasted nuts, candied fruits or citron, star anise, or five spice powder. I haven’t tried it, but I think a strawberry tart with pepper and balsamic vinegar sounds pretty good!

You can top a pie with all kinds of things, from a top crust, a lattice crust, cut out shapes of dough scattered on top, a variety of crumb toppings, streusel topping, and meringue. You can use nuts, or caramel, whipped cream or cheese, the list is endless. If you use any type of pastry, for a beautiful appearance brush pastry with milk and dust with sugar- sanding sugar, or any large grain sugar is best, but this will make the top glisten.

Today I am going to a party and bringing two pies; a Blueberry-Lemon pie that I have made countless times, and something new I am trying a Peach and Candied Ginger pie, I hope it turns out as well as I imagine, I will let you know.

If you have some great pie plans or ideas please let me know about them!

Posted in eating well, Food, pie, summer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Anyone Might Do After All This Rain

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So yesterday was Tuesday, and another rainy day here in Philly. It has rained so much, my coleus have doubled in size, but my verbena is simply drowning, and I’m not sure it’s going to make it. It’s raining so much I can’t even get going on the long list of things I should be doing. It’s raining so much I am making some questionable food choices.

When I went shopping the past weekend I bought a big pack of chicken thighs that I brined in a buttermilk-garlic brine based on Deb Perlman’s delicious recipe for Buttermilk Roast Chicken from Smitten Kitchen. I did make that recipe (minus the sugar) and ate those thighs for dinner Saturday, but I had four left sitting in the brine, that I really needed to cook, so I decided to make fried chicken thighs. I know I’ve already written a lot about fried chicken, and have had limited success with it, but today’s was quite good! I’m sure a few days of brining helped.

So, as I said, it’s been raining a lot, and I had the oil hot, and was already frying, and I had some of the batter/flour left from making the chicken, and a nice fat Vidalia onion…no doubt you can see where this is going. I have no idea the last time I made onion rings at home, though I do love them, and I thought why not, and they, not the chicken were the real stars today!

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Even though I really love them, it is hard to find a good onion ring. I like them thin enough so when I bite into it the onion yields, rather than pulling out the whole ring from the breading. I like a delicate breading- really just a light flour, and I guess not too many people like them this way, because when you order them in restaurants you generally get big fat rings like the ones they serve at Bobby’s Burger Palace. One time I was in Pittsfield MA, and had lunch at a diner that didn’t have much to recommend it except the lovely onion rings they served. I liked them so much I went back just for the rings- a big plate of super-thin crispy rings. The rings I made today were as good, or better!

Because I am lucky enough to have a good exhaust fan, my house doesn’t smell too bad after my fry-fest, and I did not eat all the chicken, I saved some for tomorrow. I thoroughly enjoyed every bite of my meal, including a salad, and in fact, the sun is starting to come out, I can see blue sky and big, puffy white clouds! I’m sure that the change is weather is a direct result of my cooking, but there is no need to thank me, the pleasure has been all mine!

Posted in Food, summer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perfect Marriage

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Though I have yet to solve the code to finding the right partner, I have found many perfect marriages- of flavor. One of the things I enjoy most about cooking is putting complementary favors together so that each enhances the other. Flavor and spice combinations can be like a flag; tomato sauces taste Italian when they have basil and oregano, but add a bit of cinnamon and thyme and you’ve crossed the Adriatic to Greece. You’ve probably heard of the holy trinity of celery, peppers and onion that is the basis for New Orleans cooking, and if you want food to taste Chinese you need a different trinity of ginger, garlic and scallion, finished with toasted sesame oil. These are examples of regional flavor, which I will surely return to, but today we’re talking about flavors that belong together because like in any perfect marriage they are better together than they are alone.

Summer is time for blueberry pie, and nothing does more for a blueberry than lemon! My absolute favorite pie is a blueberry-lemon crumb pie. It was a staple at The Hungry Moon (the diner I used to own) and I made it all summer long. I prefer wild blueberries, they are tiny, with an intense flavor. If you can’t get them fresh, frozen are fine. I think frozen wild blueberries are even better than fresh cultivated ones. My mom used to serve lemon-ricotta pancakes at her bed and breakfast, and when I suggested she serve them with blueberry syrup instead of the maple she had been using, her guests raved!

Another summer pair perfect for pies, pancakes, chutney, or a salsa is peach and ginger. The soft sweetness of the peach is perfect for the warm spiciness of ginger, and whether you like fresh grated, ground, or candied ginger these flavors just belong together. How about a peach and ginger salsa to go on your grilled chicken or fish? Or a warm peach and candied ginger pie with some vanilla ice cream? If you can get over-ripe peaches these are the best to cook with- they are usually marked down, and will cook up just fine. If you’re grilling, try grilling your peaches before using them.

As far as I am concerned cucumbers need dill. Just thinking about cucumber cools me down, and the grassy fresh dill is not too overpowering for the delicate flavor of the cucumber. I always remove the seeds from the cucumbers whatever I am using them for- even salads- because that is where a lot of the water comes from. Here are two tricks I’ve learned for cucumber prep- cut a small piece off each end of the cucumber and rub it around on the cucumber until there is a bubbly foam, then wipe that foam away- I have heard from multiple sources that this removes any bitterness from the cucumber, and then to seed it, slice in half lengthwise, and use a teaspoon or melon baller to scoop out the seeds.

Finding these perfect pairs often happens unexpectedly, or even accidentally. Sometimes when I am cooking I will hunt through my fridge and cabinets searching for a particular kind of flavor, and something will jump out at me. I like to think about a flavor- kind of mentally roll it around on my tongue and think about matching it with something else, and then blend them together in my head. There are many more of these perfect pairs, and plenty of time to explore them as we move through the seasons. I’d love to hear about your favorites, so please send them in!

Posted in chutney, eating well, Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments