Howto: Buy a Knife

A good knife is the most important tool in a cook’s arsenal.  Other than proper use of salt and heat, nothing is more essential than the cook’s ability to break food down.   If food is not trimmed of excess fat, it becomes a stringy mess; if it is not cut down to regular sized pieces, some of it will be burnt and some of it raw; and if it is not cut well, it will not look nearly so nice.

For home cooks who are serious about preparing gourmet food, buying a set of knives is an important purchasing decision that should not be taken lightly.  This one tool can make a world of difference, but buying a nice chef’s knife can easily cost over one hundred dollars.  However, keeping the following advice will ensure it will be money well spent.

When knife shopping, there are three things to remember.  First, most home cooks only need three knives: a chef’s knife or a santoku knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife.  Cooks should do most of the cutting work with the chef’s knife, peeling and precision cutting with the paring knife, and cutting foods like bread and tomatoes which have hard outsides and very soft insides with the serrated knife.   There are other types of knives that can be purchased (boning knives, cleavers, etc.); however, they are certainly not mandatory and can be purchased at a later time.  

Secondly, a good chef’s knife has a lifetime warranty against most types of damage.  The manufacturer will replace for any reason short of deliberate acts of destruction on the blade.  This makes spending a great deal of money on a single knife more palatable as the cook will only need to shop for her knife once.

Lastly, be prepared to spend time purchasing the knife.  Knives come from different companies in different shapes, sizes, handles, and weights which make the knife feel differently.  There is no such thing as a better or worse knife, merely knives that fit the cook’s individual hand better.  While looking for a knife that “feels right” may be unscientific, it is the proper way to find the best knife.  To go about finding that perfect fit, the cook should go to a store with many knives for sale and ask to hold each one.  Any good kitchen store will be more than happy to take knives from their display case and let the cook feel the weight of blade and check its balance.  Many stores will also have a cutting board that the cook can use to test her cutting motion.

If the knife does not feel too heavy or too light and if it does not slip, then the knife is a good candidate for purchase.  However, the cook should test several more knives to find the proper one.  Only once the cook is sure, should the knife be purchased.

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Stir Fry Seitan

Part of my challenge with vegetarianism, especially as I head towards more strict vegetarianism, is getting protein.  For the human body to function, even at rest, the USDA recommends 50g of protein per day.  For those who do not eat meat,  ingesting that much protein can be tough, especially when many vegetarian sources of protein (notably beans) do not contain complete proteins and must be paired with other foods to get all the required amino acids.

The go-to protein food for many vegetarians is tofu.  Which is great, but the problem is that the way I like it (firm or extra firm tofu put into stir fries or fajitas) takes about 2 hours to do right.  When the boy is hungry, that’s way too much time.

Enter Seitan (pronounced, unfortunately, as say-tun or as everyone’s favorite bringer of evil, Satan.)

Seitan has allowed me to keep my vegetarianism once already and may be what lets me stay vegetarian a second time.  The first time occurred maybe two months after I decided to stop eating meat.  I had taken my son to a restaurant for dinner and sat down next to a man enjoying a slab of ribs.  The smell of the sauce from those ribs nearly threw me into an absolute frenzy to the point I wanted to reach across the aisle and take the ribs.  On pain of death if necessary.

After complaining to my wife that I could not do the vegetarian thing anymore, she reminded me of an article in Vegetarian Times where they did vegetarian pulled pork with seitan.  One trip to Whole Foods later, I had a package of seitan which I cooked in some barbecue sauce and voila! vegetarianism saved.  Crisis averted.

Anyway, I am finding myself in a situation where I need more protein.  Suddenly things I would not normally eat, namely kidney beans and cheese sandwiches, taste like gourmet food fit for royalty.  My wife again reminded me that seitan, made from wheat gluten, is very high in protein and that I should consider fixing it and eating it more often.

Last night gave me the chance to try out her suggest.  We invited a vegan friend over dinner.  My wife said she was going to fix stir fry, but when our son needed her attention, I ended up fixing dinner.  This is what we had:

  • 1 Package Seitan, cut into 1/2 inch squares
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons low sodium tamari
  • 2 tablespoons of soy ginger sauce (may substitute with 2 more tablespoons of tamari and 1 teaspoon of ginger)
  • 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon of ginger powder
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil 
  • 2 medium or 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 pinches of kosher salt
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4in. coins
  • 1 leek, sliced into 1/4 in coins
  • 1/2 cup of broccoli florets
  • 1 broccoli stem cut into 1/4 in. coins
  • 3 portabellas cut into 1/2 in. wide strips
  • 2 ears of corn, kernels removed
  1. Boil the seitan over medium low heat in the 1/4 cup of tamari, soy ginger sauce, ginger, and garlic powder for 10 minutes or until it is soft all the way through.
  2. Bring the heat to medium high, add the olive oil, and sauté the seitan for three minutes to give it a little structure.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions.  Add 1 pinch of kosher salt.  Cook until the onions are soft.
  4. Add the green pepper, carrots, leeks, broccoli florets, broccoli stem. and another pinch of salt.  Cook until carrots reach desired softness.  This step is pretty much up to each individual cook.  I like my carrots to have a bite to them, so I cook them for maybe 10 minutes.   Some may want them to cook longer.
  5. Add the portabellas and the final pinch of salt.  Cook until the mushrooms have released their liquid about 5 minutes.
  6. Add the corn and cook for about a minute.
  7. Add the last two tablespoons of tamari and cook for another minute.

Serve over rice and enjoy! 

Oh, and on a side note, I can’t wait to tell my family that liking seitan keeps me vegetarian.  Especially when I pronounce it properly.

Cheap Entertaining or a Reasonable Facsimile Thereof

This idea has really started to resonate with me.  After a Christmas party that carried a nearly $20/head charge, the Super Bowl, and my birthday coming up, entertaining has just been on my mind.  I try to stay away from entertaining as a topic here because there are many excellent blogs that cover it.  However, I did want to make this post.

 

So from personal experience I can say that parties are expensive.  Buying food, wine, beer, and cocktails can cost hundreds of dollars before party favors or plastic china (you know, the good stuff).  These tips will help control the costs and make the party fun.

1. Do Not Be Afraid to Have a Liquor Potluck 

Unless the cook has a reputation as a wine collector or beer expert, she should not be afraid to ask others to bring the booze.  This eases the financial burden on the cook and scratches off at least one store from her errand list.  More importantly, it lets others take a role in the party.  Guests that enjoy wine or have a favorite beer or mix a great cocktail are more than happy to share their passion.  Also, having others share their liquor will broaden everyone’s alcohol horizons.

2.  Make the Expensive Items

While it okay to buy from the store, sometimes this is not always the best strategy.  If a home cook can prepare a dish more cheaply than it can be purchased (barbecued items are a good example) the cook should strongly consider making it rather than buying it.

3.  Leave Healthy at the Store

A party is a time to eat junk food, fried foods, and desserts; all of those things that most people eschew during the normal work week.  This means that the party host does not need to worry about buying the best organic produce, reduced fat cheeses, or leaner cuts of meat.  All of these things cost money though their absence will scarcely be missed by partygoers.

4.  Buy in Bulk

In larger cities, most cooks know someone who has a wholesale club membership or have one themselves.  Because the cook is preparing food for a large number of people, this is the ideal to use those memberships.  If such a store is not available, the cook should still try to buy things is as large of cans as possible to lower the per unit cost.  Lastly, depending on the store, the cook may be able to negotiate a lower price on a larger order.

5.  It is Okay to Limit the Wow

While it is generally good to have one or two signature dishes at a party, not everything needs to be made with filet, lobster, and shrimp.  Sometimes the best dishes are the cheapest.

Keeping the Resolution: Saute Without Oil

This is a little trick I have used many times when trying to remove fats and oils from cooking healthy.  Instead of sauteing in oil, many types of food can be sauted in broth or stock or soy sauce.  The liquid, especially if it is contains a little bit of fat, will prevent the food from burning and will act as a medium of transfer.

To do this:

  1. Heat the skillet and add enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan 1/8 to 1/4 inch high.  That should be less than a quarter of a cup.
  2. Add the food and cook as normal.   

Now, the texture of the finished product will be different.  The broth or stock is not going to crisp up the food being sauted like an oil would, but it is going to be much lower in fat and, for many dishes, the cooking liquid will add flavor.

Other Tips About Oil

Whenever possible, cook with heart healthy oils like olive oil.  Olive oil contains a good amount of fat, but doctors have shown how the fats from olive oils can be good for the body when taken in small doses.  So no matter which oil is used,  keep the amount of oil to a bare minimum.

When eating out, ask the chefs to limit the amount of oil they use or eliminate it entirely.  One of my personal vices is Chinese food, but it is heavy and fatty, even the non-deep fried items.  I have taken to asking the chef to make the dishes without oil.  They tend to look a little puzzeled at first, but then prepare a dish that tastes almost exactly like the heavy, oily dish.

Howto: Fix a Whole Dungeness Crab

Over the weekend, I went to my local Whole Foods looking for new recipe ideas.  As I was passing by the seafood department, I noticed that whole dungeness crabs were on sale for $9/lb.  I had just watched an episode of Guy’s Big Bite on Food Network where host Guy Fieri had stir fried whole dungeness crabs.  It had me hungry.  I bought one of the monsters.

The funny thing about the dungeness crab…it sort of made me believe in aliens.  It’s an odd mushroom shaped critter with spindly little legs and two mean looking claws.  Not very earthly at all.

I still decided to eat it.  Here’s what I did to prepare it for cooking: 

Note: the crab I bought was preboiled.  If it had not of been, I would have dunked the little guy into a pot of boiling water for 12-20 minutes.  The one I had was almost two pounds, so I definitely would have gone over the 12 minute mark 

Step 1: Remove the top shell of the crab.  This is the large cranial shell on top of the crab which protects its body. 

  1. To do this, put the palm of your hand on top of the crab so that your fingers point away from the crab’s front.  You should be able to wrap your fingers around the back edge of the shell.
  2. Pull up on with your fingers so that your hand makes a 90 degree angle to your arm.  As you do this, the crab’s shell should pop off and fall away without too much effort.
  3. If the crab shell is still attached at the front, it can easily be pulled off using either hand.
  4. Save the shell and turn it into stock!

Step 2: Cleaning the crab.  If you did not think it looked like an alien before, surveying the innards of a crab should make you feel like you are in a science fiction movie.  You have three tasks: removing any cartilage, removing the gills, and determing what to do with the crab butter.

  1. Cartilage is long pieces of white, tough material.  There should be at least two resting on the gills, which are triangular greenish-yellow areas near the crab’s face.
  2. Using a knife, cut the cartilage and gills away from the body of the crab.  Use a finger to poke around.  Any other tough, stringy pieces of material will be extra cartilage.  Remove it.
  3. Now comes the fun part.  See that yellow lumpy stuff in the middle of the crab?  You have uncovered the little guy’s digestive tract.  That was his last meal.  In polite circles, this is called crab butter (because crab digestive innards has a distasteful ring) and for some, it  is delicacy.  I tend to avoid eating digestive tract materials whenever possible.  I used a spoon and the butcher’s paper that Whole Foods used to wrap my crab to get as much of it out as I could.
  4. Check for more cartilage and remove if found.

As a side note, there’s nothing poisonous or harmful about cartilage, it is just impossible to chew and might be a choking hazard for children.

Now for the Fun Part.

  1. Take a rolling pin and crack the shell on the legs and claws.  Work out some stress.  Make some noise.  Let the kids help.
  2. Now, optionally you can cut the crab into halves or quarters depending on your recipe and preference.  I cut mine into halves before cooking.

Next time I’ll talk sauces.  Anyone have a favorite Dungeness crab recipe?

Happy World Vegan Day!

That’s right, it’s back again for another crazy year.  It’s World Vegan Day.

I know many of you, my readers, are not vegans, which is just fine.  Neither am I.  However, there is nothing wrong with trying vegan recipes every now and then (like my soyrizo taquitos for instance…)

I was vegan once for about three days, but I was just not ready for it.  The diet felt restrictive, but that was before I started to learn how much is out there fore the vegan to eat.  Make no mistakes about it: there is no such thing as a bad vegan cook because eating out vegan is so hard, they must prepare their own meals.

I will admit, some of it takes some getting used to.  Some of the meat replacements appear to only fool those who have not eaten meat in a long while (I’m looking at you tofu dogs), but vegan cuisine made from good local ingredients and well prepared tofu is every bit as gourmet as a $500/plate meal.

So, if you’re stuck in a rut or looking to challenge yourself, try vegan for a meal.  Your tastebuds and your body will thank you.

Howto: Simmer

Well now I’ve stepped in it.  I’ve decided to tackle the topic of how to simmer food.  This is one of those topics that illicits great debate on exactly what the proper way to simmer is, what temperature to use, and how best to deliver heat to the simmering liquid.  Before we get into the particulars, a definition is in order.  Dictionary.com defines simmering as “to cook or cook in a liquid at or just below the boiling point.”  Simmering is also sometimes called stewing, poaching, scalding, braising, and (erroneously) boiling.

In other words, food is placed in a (flavorful) liquid and cooked at a temperature anywhere between 175 to 200 degrees, depending on which cookbook you read.  Ideally, one should shoot for 180 degrees because it is hot enough to cook the food, but cooks the food slower than a 200 degree liquid.  No matter what temperature you choose, it must be less than a full boil (212 degrees) or else you are no longer simmering, you are boiling and that is a different cooking methodology all together.  Also, no matter the temperature, the liquid should have bubbles forming on the bottom of the pan that pop before they reach the surface (unless you are simmering something like oatmeal which just will not bubble.)

What will happen is as the cooking liquid reaches about 105 degrees, the liquids inside the food start to cook out of the food into the cooking liquid and at a 160 degrees the collagen in the food starts to breakdown allowing the food to reclaim juices it lost and some of the liquid.  Which is all well and good except that beef and fish are cooked when they reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees, pork at 155, and chicken is cooked at 165.

So as a cook, you want to get the liquid to a temperature above 160 degrees and keep it there, but the food itself should be pulled out of the liquid when its internal temperature is around 140 degrees.  That means you get to watch a thermometer to make sure the food does not get over done.  Remember the part about simmering at 180 degrees?  That comes into play here.  If the liquid is at 180, the internal temperature of the meat will rise slower than 200 degrees allowing you the cook the freedom to not stand over the pot.

So with all that thrown at you, here is how to simmer:

  1. Make a flavorful liquid.  Just like boiling, you want to cook the food in something that has some taste to it.  There are a number of options: poaching in wine, broth/stock, or brine.
  2. Bring the liquid just barely to boil in a sauce pan over medium heat.
  3. If you are simmering cold food, add it now.  If not, wait until step 5.
  4. Turn the heat down so the liquid just stops boiling.
  5. If you are simmering warm food, add it now.
  6. Watch the simmering pot until the food is thoroughly cooked.  If the liquid starts to boil, lower the heat slightly, and pull the pot off the burner until the boiling dies down.

Any questions?  Feel free to send them my way.

Thanks to Ochef for giving me the temperatures at which the liquids and collagens breakdown.