Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kitchen basics: staple it

One recurring theme in the blog is a reference to staples, those sorts of things you could, or should have lying around at any given time. It sounds like a good idea, but there may be a lack of specifics as to what might, or should be a kitchen staple, so this post will be an introduction to what constitutes a basic supply pantry, in my experience and opinion.
So, not those.

Bear in mind that the original idea for this blog is to share what I've learned through some, at times bitter experiences. I may have a well-stocked pantry now, and loads of kitchen toys, but I have spent much of my learning time both broke and proud, starving but refusing to go to food banks. I have also acquired some of my pantry supplies through less-than-ethically-allowed means; when you're the one receiving and portioning the deliveries in a restaurant where you slave away at minimum wage, you learn what can go under the radar and keep you fed. No pride, but no shame either.

I've also fed myself on ten-to twenty dollars a week, and I have spent quite a few periods dinning on dry bread and tea; you tend to develop a more open palate in that state, which comes in useful later. So all this revelation is to say, I know all too well what hardship is, friend, I've been there often. I pulled through, and so can you.

So, staple; what do I mean by that, exactly. Essentially, these are things that are sufficiently basic to be necessary, and flexible enough that several different variations can be brought out of basic things. Given that there are several areas that need to be dealt with, I'll separate this theme into different posting, along the following lines: dry goods, proteins, vegetables, flavors, and condiments. The last two may seem to be close enough to be pretty much the same, but when you'll get to the post, you'll see why two individual sections are available.

One thing I will also introduce in those postings is what I call upgrades: things that you can pick up when you are confident both in your budget and your skills. Sometimes those upgrades have more to do with some specific uses, but some are just more expensive, even if they are quite worth it. One lesson that comes in handy is when you make natural quality over quantity; but in the meantime, it may be bigger is better!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Intermezzo: No-knead bread recipe

Bread is the staff of life, and fresh bread can really make your morning. For that matter, having a good loaf around can really round up your meal, as it skips the starch cooking process. A good bowl of soup, or a basic stew, a couple of slices of good bread, and you're good to go.

Here's an easy, no-muss no-fuss way of making bread at home, with a minimum of effort and supplies. Try it and see the difference for yourself.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Greasing the gears

The trend has been ongoing now for quite a while that fat is bad, that we are inundated with the stuff in just about everything we eat and that we should cut down on it as its making us morbidly obese.

Now I'm not going to start a long debate on the merits and dangers of fat, you can do that on your own time; all I'm going to say is that you need it. Plain and simple, the Mediterranean diet is all well and nice, and those folks may well have the lowest rate of heart disease on the planet, but lest be honest, we don't live there, we don't have that climate and we don't have access to the same food supplies. Since most of us live in a more northern climate, a certain amount of heartier foods is required to allow us to get through several months of ice and snow.

I will deal with fat by dividing into two categories, based on their origins: animal and vegetable. Some cross-breeding is possible and in some cases inevitable, but if there is one staple you should have in your pantry, its a good supply of some form of cooking fat.

Animal fats

The one most likely to be known and to be on hand would be good old butter. It has the distinct advantage of being easily available and to also provide its own flavor. It can be handled in a variety of ways to become even more interesting and does wonderful things to mushrooms and mashed potatoes; however, it is a bit on the expensive side, with the price of dairy going up, and has a low smoking point, so it has its limitations for cooking.

Ghee is the Indian version of clarified butter. Butter contains a portion of water, which is what causes the low smoking point; when it is clarified, it is heated to the point where water separates from the milk solids, leaving ghee. One of the great advantages of ghee is that it is designed for cooking, so it doesn't burn easily. It also doesn't require refrigeration, so that you can keep it in the pantry with no fear of going to waste, a great advantage to those with small fridges. It is somewhat harder to find, tho not impossible, and runs the same price range as regular butter.

You could also use a variety of rendered animal fats, like lard, suet or duck fat. Lard is the easiest to find, usually sold in block or tubs in the pastry supplies section of grocery stores. While lark is the rendered fat of pork, suet is the rendered fat of beef. It is far less common, most commonly used to fry foods, often french fries. Other rendered animals fats, like poultry as duck or goose fat is not so much rare as it is expensive; the secret of Belgian french fries is that they are cooked in goose fat. A more available poultry fat comes from chicken, as schmatlz, a staple of Jewish cooking.

Of course, without buying rendered fat you could just use chunks of cured meat fat, most likely pork as a flavor additive. Most bean dishes are greatly enhanced by the presence of cubes of back bacon or pork belly; when you trim your meat, dont throw the scraps away. Most of it is fat that can be rendered and reused, so just keep a zip bag or tub in the freezer to gather all that deliciousness for later use.

Vegetable fats

There are two forms of vegetables fats: oil and some sort of shortening.

The most important oil a cook can have is olive oil. I dont know what varieties are available in your area, but around here, its mostly extra virgin, cold pressed. None of that just-basic-plain-old olive oil. Now, what does that really mean anyways, extra virgin and cold pressed? It indicates the methods used to extract the oil from the fruits: cold pressed means that they use a slow weight method, preventing the fast machines that would heat and render the oil bitter. Extra virgin means that this is the first press; yes, many places will press the fruits a few times to get as much of the oil out.

All this doesn't mean that you have an especially good product, or that all oils are the same, far from it. Depending on the country and region of origin, you can get either really strong or light flavors, texture and colors. What you want to do is start with one of those large cans of basic extra virgin for your cooking, and a small bottle of the nice stuff for salad dressing and that little touch at the end that give that extra kick of flavor. ou'll have to try a few to find the one that works, and then stick to it.

Peanut oil is a very useful kind to have around if you want to fry things, especially if you plan of doing a more Asian type of menu. Its smoking point is pretty high; in fact nut oils are the highest in the smoking rating, so they are the most forgiving if you lose track of the pans and you dont feel like meeting your local firemen on a regular basis. It is more expensive than general vegetable oil, but it does a better job, in my opinion.

Other types of vegetable oils exist, like corn, sunflower or canola. They are all described as being fantastic, but I have yet to be convinced, since that a lot of that comes from the agro-lobby that really needs the subsiddies to buy their yatch. Canola is possibly the least offensive of the lot, and I've only had bad experiences with the others. Use at your own judgment.

Of course, there is just vegetable oil. It is a blend of different sources, most usually soy and corn, tho cotton seed is also common. It has the advantage of being cheap, easily available and comes in large bottles. Its not the worst choice for when you need a neutral oil, like when you need to fry some scalopini in a pan; it would be problematic for those allergic to peanuts, and expensive to use olive oil (besides the joys of cooking in a greasy cloud). It also comes in handy in certain baking preparation, like muffins and cupcakes. Not a bad all-purpose deal there for the cash- and space-strapped.

Ghee also comes in vegetable form, if for whatever reason you cant or wont use the dairy version. My main issue with that version is that there is not details of the composition of the oil blend, and contain additives, like extra vitamins. Not a bad idea overall, and its still a handy vegan option if you want to fry certain things.

There are other oils that, because of costs, availability or flavor are more appropriately used as seasoning agents, like sesame or truffle oil. There are other varieties, but for now, I'll stick with the overview of the basic fats and will come back to the flavor agents at a later date.

I have avoided margarine and shortening until now, for a very simple reason: if you need a degree in chemistry to understand the content of the food product, then its not food. I have heard and read from proponents who all claim that the critics don't know what they're talking about, and that all those things are all perfectly safe to eat. But since that all those proponents are scientists with degrees, I think that I'll stand by my opinion and stick with the people that make food for a living, and not frankenstein hot dogs.

In coming posts I'll go into details on the different uses of those fats, and will be suggesting alternatives for the ethically minded, if applicable. In the meantime, add a reasonable amount of fat to your diet, it'll help everything else go down a lot easier.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kitchen basics: I am Iron Man

On the first kitchen basics about cookware I steered you to get basic stainless steel equipment, with no added frills, like Teflon or other non-stick coating. The basic premise behind that is that by staying in a simple, more purist more you make sure to avoid a variety of messes, like melting plastic handles, scratched Teflon in your food, or simply inferior products requiring special care for an inflated price for it's value.

Stainless is fun, but it has its own limitations.

Enter the granddaddy of cookware, cast iron.

For a variety of reasons, many people shy away from these bad boys. For one thing, they're old fashioned, reminding people of pioneers and grandma's laborious kitchen. For others, its the weight of these bastards, not exactly the best kind of equipment for gangly folks to stir fry. And then there's other technical aspects, like proper use and care to avoid the rust buildup.

The thing is, cast iron cookware is some of the best thing that you can lay your hands on, especially is you are a meat-eater or enjoy the benefits of slow food. The best steaks are seared on a cast iron griddle, braising in them is a joy, and I wouldn't use any other vessel to whip up a righteous chili (except maybe a clay pot, but I'll stick with tradition for now.)

Are they heavy? Yes, but if you understand their purpose, you will learn to see this as an advantage rather than as a liability. If its a problem to lift, its also less liable to be tipped over, spilling burning food all over the place. That grandma used it for years is only a testament to their durability, as they can last long enough to be passed down for a few generations. Their design also provide excellent heat distribution, maximizing energy use and saving you money and effort in the end. A slow-cooked chili left to cool down in the turned -off oven will still be warm overnight, so that the meal is ready to be eaten even after you return from your night shift, or from shoveling off the snow out of the driveway.

Iron vessels come in two variety:

plain iron
enamel coated
I'll profess a fetishist love for both of these products, but especially the enamel-coated variety, in particular the ones produced by Le Creuset. I'll agree that they are expensive, which seems to run counter to the point of the blog, but I've never said that I buy them brand new; I scrounge second hand shops and church sales and Goodwill shops and get them for a fraction of the price, mostly because when the older folks who owned and used them get transferred to retirement homes (or reach their expiry date) their stuff gets dumped at resellers, as the caretakers neither care or know what treasures they are, so with a sharp eye, you can get your hands on those goodies for a few dollars.

If you go for the plain iron kind (second hand or new) the first thing you want to do (besides cleaning them) is to season them. To do that the vessel has to be completely dry and free or rust. then you rub a generous coating of cooking oil all over the inside and pour table salt at the bottom, enough to cover it to a good thickness. Stick it in a hot oven (350-400f is good) for an hour. Take out, scrape the salt off, rub more oil, salt and cook another hour. Take off the salt, wipe clean with some paper towels and let cool.

This is the Cajun seasoning method, providing your vessel with a base signature flavor. This flavor will build over time, so its important to treat you vessel carefully: clean as soon as possible, using only a scrubber (or steel wool) and hot water. Towel or heat dry and rub a thin layer of cooking oil on the inner surface. Avoid using soap (except in extreme cases, like after the first purchase) as this will kill the flavor. After a few years of regular use and care, it will develop a non-stick patina that will rival Teflon, with the added advantage of lasting a hundred years longer and not requiring special tools to handle.

The enamel kind require no special care, except avoiding the use of steel wool if the inner surface is enameled. Not all of them are, so pay attention to the vessel's construction.

As far as the necessary basics, there are two things you want to get: a pan and a crock pot. A 10-12 inch cast iron pan with high sides is an absolute essential if you love properly seared meat. A Dutch oven does wonders for stews, ragouts and roasting of birds and meat roasts, the closed circuit acting like a mini oven. The enamel coated types can serve the same purpose, and can even replace the stainless steel pots; myself I have mostly a selection of the enamel coated pans for pretty much any searing and cooking, keeping the stainless steel pots for pasta, rice and steaming foods. The enamel coating has certain non-stick and heat distribution properties, with none of the carry-over flavor of the plain cast iron vessels.

Cast iron vessels represent a valuable investment for the creative, but cash-strapped cook, as they are versatile, long-lasting and require little special care or tools. They can go range-to-oven without any worries, and they stay hot for prolonged periods of time. Pioneers used Dutch ovens to cook entire meals, using the lid as a grilling surface or for baking bread while a stew or soup was simmering below.

I am an Iron Man and I approve this message.

Thrifter's tip: Le Creuset is not the only brand that makes enamel coated vessels, its just the best. When out shopping for good deals look for the colorful coatings and inspect them to see if they are solidly made, with no cracks in the coating. If the bottom is flaking avoid, as there could be all sorts of unwanted passengers hiding in those nooks. Many are quite affordable even brand new, but if you intend to use in the oven, try to get all-metal vessels, avoiding those with wooden handles or unknown material lid handles, just for convenience's sake. It'll prevent you from having to deal with the fire department or the emergency room if those materials dont stand up to the heat.